The Gall To Ask

I was the first of my high school friends to discover REM.  I think I was the only one to really be interested in REM, in fact, but I was definitely the first.  I thought that was really special, particularly when I saw something on MTV which said REM was a favorite among college students.  “See,” I thought, “I listen to music at a college level.”

Toward the end of my high school career, REM released a song called “Man On The Moon”.

This song would continue to get radio time throughout my college career.  It always disturbed me, particularly during my college years.  I think some of that disturbance is that I felt this song was different from the REM songs I had loved before.  But I know some of it is due to the line “Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask”.

That line is obviously a reference to Charles Darwin of On The Origin of Species fame, and the “asking” there is obviously Darwin’s willness to question the generally-accepted idea of divine creation.  This willingness is called “gall”, which amounts to brave or courageous or any number of idealistic things.

And I don’t suppose that really a problem.  I don’t want to be a knee-jerk theist, hating everything which is not on my side or my team.  I do wonder, though, why one person’s willingness to question generally-accepted ideas is called gall and viewed idealistically while another person’s willing to question generally-accepted ideas is regarded as stupidity or wickedness.

Let me give you an example of the latter which I recently found in Lee Strobel’s The Case For Miracles:

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Strobel records the “theater” Hitchens performed, theater based on Hitchens’ apparent belief that no one could question science (or, more accurately, the materialistic worldview).  I found something similar in the movie Prometheus (which I went to see at the very first showing the Thursday night of its release):

The scientist (whose name I have forgotten but who doesn’t act all that scientific later in  the film when he taunts the obviously dangerous alien creature he encounters) clearly doesn’t think much about people discounting three centuries of Darwinism.  He apparently didn’t have a problem with Darwin and all his followers discounting millennia of creationism.

I suppose something on a much smaller scale happened when I went with my daughter’s kindergarten class on a field trip to the nearby Lawrence Hall of Science.  As we stood in the parking lot of the hall, one of the other father’s, a Russian expatriate, gestured at the building and said to me in broken English, “I thought you no like this.”

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The fact of the matter is that I don’t have any problem with science.  i don’t gravitate toward it much; it was never my favorite subject in high school and it still doesn’t do much for me today; I’d rather engage in philosophy or literature.  But I’m not the least bit -unscientific.  I don’t even see science as a threat to my faith.  What I have a problem with is the generally-accepted idea that science can explain everything and/or science is the only thing which can explain and make sense of reality.  And I believe I should be able to challenge that generally-accepted idea without being called a “science denier” or any other silly and untrue name.  I believe I should be able to challenge that generally-accepted idea without theatrics or the sarcastic thumbs up or the “wooo” or any other lowly way people try to avoid thoughtful debate  I believe challenging that generally-accepted idea is gall, the same gall Darwin was praised for.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Or, what’s gall for one is gall for other.  You can’t praise Darwin for questioning what was generally-accepted and then blast others for doing the same.  Rather, you have to allow the questions (all of them) to take you where they do.

The Next Step

Some guy walked passed me at the department store one day.  He had on a T-shirt which was making some statement about evolution.  The shirt said something about “the ascent of man” and profiles of ancient hominids becoming full-fledged homosapiens.

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Now it is possible that this shirt was more comedic than serious.  I couldn’t see either end of the ascent as the man was wearing a jacket which obscured them both.  There was also the name of some school under the profiles.  It could be that either the last or the first profile was something ridiculous (a professor from said school or something; I don’t know) which would have turned the whole thing into a joke.

Serious or not, though, I reacted to it.  As soon as I saw this shirt, I imagined things I could say to this man to debunk evolution.  I started thinking of how I could fight this man, in other worlds, fight him and his evolutionary presuppositions and all he has built on them.

But as soon as I realized I was doing that, I additionally realized I shouldn’t be doing that.  I realized that wasn’t the way of Jesus, whom I call my Lord and on whom I base my behavior.  I realized that Jesus didn’t fight with people, didn’t attack and throw down their worldviews, as much as He moved people into the next step in their walk with God.

The idea of “moving people” like this comes to me via something called “The Engel Scale”.  I don’t know who Engel was, but I learned of this scale during some disciple-making training a couple years ago.  The scale shows that people are not just “all God” or “no God” but are instead at differing levels of closeness to or distance from God.  The scale further shows that success in disciple-making is not necessarily a matter of -10 to +10 but could instead be a matter of moving someone from -7 to -6 or +1 to +2.

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This sounds correct to me.  It also seems a lot like what I see Jesus doing in the Gospels.  If you look at His encounters with tax collectors and religious leaders, with Nicodemus and the woman at the well and the rich young ruler, what you see is not Jesus so much engaging in large scale worldview battles as much as figuring out where they were and helping them to move one step closer to where they needed to be.

That being the case, Jesus probably wouldn’t have argued evolution with the guy I passed in the department store.  Jesus probably would have sidestepped evolution to find out where the guy really was and what the guy really needed to move closer to God.  And then He would have given it to him.  Jesus, in other words, would have been far more like a scalpel whereas I (and so many like me) are too much like an ax.

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I certainly would like to be more like Jesus in this area, would like to do more of what He did or do things more like He did.  I’m not sure how to do that.  But I believe it is the right and better thing to do.  I believe trying to move people to the next right step, giving them what they need despite themselves rather than beating them in an intellectual contest, is far more right and better than what I typically do.

Convincing The World That What You’re Working On Matters

I’ve been seeing this commercial a lot lately:

Now I think Windows 10 is fine, and I think this young lady’s desire to benefit others with cancer research is great.  I still have to comment, though, about her second-to-last statement.  She says,  “Half of science is about convincing the world that what you’re working on matters.”  And that got my attention because the fact is that this is impossible.  It is impossible to convince the world that what you’re working on matters.  It is impossible to convince the world that anything else matters, either.  It is impossible to convince the world that anything matters because the truth is that nothing matters.

Nothing matters in a materialisitic worldview, that is, the worldview which asserts that matter (which is different from matters) is all there is, that there is no spiritual/non-material/non-physical element to existence.  In this worldview, the universe and all humankind are nothing other than materials of various kinds which will eventually cease to exist.

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It is a popular worldview in our time.  I think it is, anyway.  Certain applications or ramifications of it are certainly popular.  It kind of acts as a default worldview; we all seem to be interacting on something similar to this in the public sphere.  If it is true, though, it dashes that young lady’s hopes of doing something that matters.  If it is true, it dashes everyone’s hopes of doing something that matters.  If it is true, nothing matters because everything will cease to exist and everything we’ve done (good, bad, or indifferent) will be null and void.

This is the truth that drove Leo Tolstoy to despair.  While searching for “meaning”, that is, something which mattered, he asked this question.

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His implied answer, of course, is, “No.”  It is “no” in a materialistic worldview, anyway.  If materialism is true, then, as Tolstoy so rightly saw, there is nothing which mattered, nothing which death would not stop from mattering.

This is likely what MacBeth was thinking about as well when he made this statement:

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More than anything, though, it is what Solomon discovered.  After spending a good deal of time trying to determine what was good in life (that is, what mattered), he came to this conclusion:

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All is vanity (empty, worthless, meaningless, matterless), Solomon says.  All is vanity, that is, apart from God (a spiritual worldview).

Now you may not accept Solomon to be the inspired and thus infallible teacher I take him to be.  You may not even accept that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes.  But you can’t deny that Ecclesiastes contains wisdom.  You can’t deny that whoever wrote the book was wise and that the book itself was considered wise enough (or containing enough wisdom) to be preserved.  You can’t deny that whoever wrote the book had more time and resources to devote to this question than most of us do (as he details in the first two chapters).  You can’t deny that his well-researched conclusion has some validity.

And it does.  I’d love that young lady to become a doctor and cure cancer.  I’d love her to do something that matters (not just convince the world of it but actually do it).  That’s not going to happen in a materialistic world or a materialistic worldview, though.  The only way to do something that matters is to get a different worldview, a spiritual one.

 

Reasons

Ok, just one more response to a comment on a Timothy Keller tweet.  I found this one while I was looking into the others and, much though I hated to do it, knew I had to write about it.

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The commenter here is suggesting that God could have created a world without evil and thus without suffering.  He further suggests that God didn’t do this because of “reasons”.  By this, he is suggesting that that God either didn’t have reasons to create the world the way He did or (more likely) no reason for God’s creating the world the way it is has been given.  I suspect it is the latter, but I don’t know for sure.  In either case, the assertion is that neither God nor His followers have/have given reasons for the evil/suffering that currently exists.  Not only so, but that assertion is made in a sarcastic and disrespectful manner (the “because whatever” formula usually implies some intellectual deficiency in creators of whatever is being critiqued).

And it is, of course, not the first time I’ve encountered this suggestion.  I have heard this before.  Perhaps the most notable time was when I came this book in a Barnes & Noble (i think that was 2009):

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I literally rubbernecked when I saw this book on an endcap display at the store.  I was walking past it, saw it out of the corner of my eye, and was one step beyond it when I realized what I had read and had to jerk myself backward for a second look.  The Bible, Ehrman suggests, fails to answer the question of why we suffer, a question he considers “the most important”.

I’ve seen this in other places as well.  Time Bandits did it almost as flippantly as the above commenter did:

I was surprised to hear the Supreme Being in the Dawn of the Croods show my daughter has been binging lately give this same answer to this same question in the episode “Themy Might Be Sky Giants”.

So I’ve seen this suggestion before, sometimes seriously, other times as flippantly as the commenter here.  And there are quite a few elements of this suggestion that I have trouble with.  Some of them are ones I’ve already covered (this is fairly close to the self-defeating “I don’t believe in God because I don’t like Him” argument; it also doesn’t offer any solution or end to the problem it is critiquing, as it seems to think it does).  A new element, though, is veracity.  What the commenter is suggesting here and what Ehrman is directly stating in the subtitle of his book and what both Time Bandits and Dawn of the Croods are having fun with is just not true or accurate.  The suggestion that no reason has been given for the evil/suffering that currently exists is patently false.  The fact of the matter is several good (that is, complete and comprehensive) reasons for the evil/suffering that currently exists have been given.

We have to go no further than the third chapter of the first book of the Bible to find the first reason.  Genesis 3 tells us in no uncertain terms that evil and suffering exist because of us, because of our actions.  God gave us a paradise, a place without evil and suffering.  He created the world the commenter wanted created.  And we messed up.  To me, this is a sufficient reason for the existence of evil.  It is well-known, too.  It even has its own Wikipedia page.  That being the case, I just can’t understand how people miss it.

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Free will is obviously another.  I’m not sure there is a biblical reference for this one, but it seems quite logical to me.  Having freewill creatures (the only creatures worth entering into relationship with) brings the risk of evil.  Even Bruce Almighty understood this.  I don’t know why so many people today don’t.

(I could only find this in another language, but Bruce is asking how to make somebody love you when they have free will, and God, if I remember correctly, says that is the big question).

Third, and I think perhaps the greatest, is the fact that there are reasons we can’t understand.  The book of Job (a very early book; some think the earliest of all the biblical books) teaches this.  Job spends the bulk of the book wishing God would tell him why he is suffering.  When God finally appears to Job, He does not do that (even though it would have been so easy to do; He could have just said, “Me and the devil had a bet, Job.  Good news: you won!”).  Instead, He just tells Job about all the wonderful things He has made.  I believe His point there is that if Job couldn’t understand physical things like snow and donkeys and ostriches, he wasn’t going to understand a complex spiritual thing like evil and suffering.  The real interesting thing about that encounter is that Job accepted it.  He believed God gave him all the answer He needed (and if he believed that, who are we to contradict him?).

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So the suggestion that there are no reasons for evil/suffering is a false suggestion.  It is not true.  What we really have here is a refusal to accept the reasons for evil/suffering.  That is what I suspect is really going on here.  I don’t know for sure; I can’t read minds and so don’t know why the commenter or Ehrman or any others make this accusation.  But it seems to be a possibility.  If there are reasons and you know there are reason and you still say there are no reasons, then the problem isn’t in the reasons.  The problem is in you.  The problem is you don’t want to accept the reasons.  And if that’s the case, well, fine.  You are free to reject these reasons if you so choose.  Just be sure to be honest about that.  Don’t depict this as something it isn’t (i.e., there are no reasons).  Depict it as what it is (i.e., you just don’t like the reasons).

Real Freedom?

Just one more from Tim Keller’s comment section, and then I’m going to stick to my guns and stop looking at those ugly things.  This is one I found today:

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Keller is saying there that the freedom God intended us to have can only be held through the observing of certain restrictions (including, of course, moral ones), restrictions which are not abnormal but absolutely normal, fitting our very beings.  That is a standard Christian understanding of “restrictions” (or “commands” or “teachings” or whatever else you want to call them).  I believe it is an understanding of reality.  I believe it is an inescapable truth, and that life becomes happier or easier or better or more glorious when we live in harmony with that truth, aligning ourselves with those restrictions.

The person who commented, though, (and whose identity I have obscured) apparently believes the opposite.  He believes in “throwing off” those restrictions rather than aligning with them.  He believes in ignoring or denying or violating our design rather than accepting it.  He believes this will give him real freedom, and he expresses that with the indignant disdain that has become unfortunately too common in such discussions.

It is not a new idea.  I heard this idea from atheist Christopher Hitchens several years ago.  He stated it during a debate with apologeticist William Lane Craig.

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The statement to notice there is close to the end.  Hitchens refers to “the poisonous role played by fellow primates of mine who think they can tell me what to do in the name of God.”  You can find that statement somewhere in the debate below:

So Keller’s commentator says real freedom is throwing off the restrictions of religious leaders, implying that such restrictions are wrong (if freedom is right, anything which restricts it must be wrong/evil/unjust, right?), and Hitchens says that “fellow primates” telling each other what to do is the name of God is poisonous.  And there is a lot of indignation in those assertions.  There isn’t a lot of logic, though.  Here’s a couple logical problems I see with these complaints about restrictions/being told what to do.

People tell other people what to do all the time.  My self-proclaimed secular society tells me what to do all the time.  They tell me not to be racist, not to be sexist, and not to be a dozen other similar things.  They will punish me harshly if I do those things.  What they don’t tell me is why I can’t do those things or by what authority they are telling me not to do those things.  They tell me they are wrong (even as they tell me there is no such thing as wrong), but they don’t tell me why they are wrong or why they are the ones to tell me they are wrong.  Does Hitchens regard this as equally poisonous?  Is this one of the restrictions Keller’s commentator would like to throw off?  I doubt it.  They more than likely accept those restrictions (even as they proclaim a wrong-less worldview).  Why, then, do they get so bent out of shape about these other restrictions?  Why do they act like religious leaders are the only ones who proclaim such restrictions?  If you’re going to live in the presence of other people, you are going to be told to do or not to do hundreds of things from the moral to the civic.  Getting upset at that is not wise.  Getting upset at only half of that is even less wise.

Other leaders promote the same restrictions religious leaders do.  Religious leaders often promote sexual restrictions.  In our sexual society, that is probably what generates the most resistance.  They are not the only ones to promote such restrictions, though.  I saw a news story on TV last year about a high school counselor who forces her female students to be abstinent.  She does so not because she thinks sex is wrong but because she knows pregnancies and STDs will keep these young women from completing college.  Is she wrong in having those restrictions?  Is it right for her to point out the physical consequences of sexual activity but wrong for religious leaders to point out the (very real) spiritual consequences of sexual activity?

Religious leaders don’t force anyone to do anything or stop anybody from doing anything.  I certainly don’t.  I haven’t been given that authority.  I wouldn’t take that authority if it were offered to me.  Such authority would offend my faith, in fact; my faith is based on reasonably persuading people to come to God of their own free will, to respond to them with their hearts.  That can’t be forced or coerced, and I don’t try to do that.  What I do try to do is tell people what the right choices are and (like the high school counselor above) what the consequences of wrong choices will be.  I tell them that and then allow them to make their own choices.  Without fail, those who have chosen what I (and God) have said is right turn out much happier than those who chose the other way

Let me give you a short story here: a guy came into my office years ago to ask me for permission to commit adultery.  Yep.  He had the chance to commit adultery and wanted my okay on it.  He was not getting the intimacy from his wife which he needed, he found another woman in an open marriage who would give him that intimacy (at least for awhile), and he wanted me to tell him it was okay.  I couldn’t tell him that.  It was hard not to; it was very hard to tell a guy starved for intimacy that he couldn’t go get some.  However, I also told him that not only was adultery wrong, but it had consequences.  I told him any intimacy he found with the other woman would be short-lived.  I told him I doubted she was really in an open marriage; I suggested that her husband had just found a way to talk her into allowing him to have sex with other women and would be angry if she had sex with other men.  I told him he would have a secret to keep, and doing so would be unpleasant.  I gave him lots of good reasons not to commit adultery.  But I didn’t stop him from doing it.  He went and did it.  Then he came back a month later and told me I was “right” (which is not my goal; I’m not trying to be right; I’m trying to help people live what God calls “fruitful lives”).  He said that the husband was angry and threatened him.  He said he wished he had never done it.

I don’t make other people’s choices for them; I can’t and wouldn’t.  Nor do any other religious leaders I know (and I know a lot).  I simply tell people what I think is the right choice.  Hitchens is doing the very same thing.  So is Keller’s commentator.  I don’t see why it is wrong for me to do so when it is (apparently) right for them to do so.

Hitchens and Keller’s commentator are telling me what to do.  Hitchens’ big problem is people telling him “what do do” (he uses that phrase a couple times in the debate).  That’s apparently the commentator’s problem as well.  And yet they are doing the same thing.  They are telling me what to do even as they say I should not tell them what to do.  Telling people what not to do is telling them what to do.  Should I, then, through off their restrictions on me?  It seems like a big paradox or audio feedback loop, but it is true.  One man’s liberator is another man’s dictator.  I’m sure Hitchens would be surprised to be called a dictator, and I’m sure he was not trying to be one.  But he does seem like one to me.

What religion tells us to do is by and large accepted as correct.  That might sound strange, particularly with the problems the non-believing sector has with the believing sectors teaching on sex.  Nonetheless, it is true on the larger scale.  The primary teaching of my faith is love.  Love God is the first commandment, and loving others is the second.  Everything beyond that, including the sexual restrictions, is about how to love God and others in specific situations.  And that is something most people (probably even Hitchens and the Keller commentator) agree with.

Again, a little story helps here:  I was in the gym locker room with a fellow pastor a couple years ago.  We were talking about the faith, not realizing that anyone else was in there with us.  All the sudden, a guy came around the corner and started yelling at us, telling us that we don’t need things like the Bible and Hell.  “Why can’t we just do unto others?” he asked me.  Because I am gracious, I didn’t embarrass him by telling him that “do unto others” comes from the Bible he just said we don’t need.  Whether or not I told him that, though, the point remains that most people agree with love and kindness and compassion.  And those are the things my faith teaches.  Those are the things the restrictions are meant to produce.

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The end of the matter, then, is that I’m not poisoning anybody, nor are the many other religious leaders I know.  I’m not restricting anybody, either; Keller used that word because it fit that context, but I’m sure he would agree that what he is calling restrictions are really not restrictions at all.  No, I am freeing as many as I can.  I have found from my own experience that nothing is as freeing as the way of Christ, as way that (like all ways) has boundaries but which leads to a much better place in a much better manner than any other way I know.  People can get indignant about that; they have (as we see here) and they always will.  But their indignation doesn’t make any sense.  What they are pursuing, whether they know it or not, is not real freedom.  A life without boundaries is not a life of freedom; it is, as Peter says, a life of mastering, of being mastered, of being a slave.  No, it is the life of boundaries that is free.  It is the restriction-giving God who gives real freedom.

Listening For Agreement

Tim Keller is one of the contemporary pastors/writers I really respect.  I don’t think I elevate him to any lofty position he shouldn’t have (I strongly believe that only Christ should be elevated and everyone else ought to be kept on the ground), I do appreciate and look to the wisdom he shares.  I think he has a lot of it.

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And that, in turn, cause me a great deal of surprise when I saw how many people were fighting with him on Twitter.  Keller posts a lot on Twitter.  I don’t know if the things he posts are quotes from his writings or new ideas.  I don’t know if there is a unifying theme he is trying to achieve with his tweets or if he is just tossing out random notions.  But I know that almost every time I have checked, someone is disagreeing with him about something.   I try not to read comments; I learned pretty quickly that the comment section of any article, post, or tweet is likely to be a cesspool that will bring unhappiness into my life.  But I can’t help myself sometimes.  There are many times when I want to see how others are responding to Keller’s words, and there are just as many times when I see that they are responding badly, that they are disagreeing with what he said, fighting with what he said, even castigating him for what he said.

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Again, I don’t elevate Keller.  He is a man, and as Galatians 2 shows us, even good men make mistakes and/or fall into errors.  He is not infallible (I doubt he would claim he is) and he not above disagreement.  So it is not the disagreement that bothers me so much.  It is the fact that so many Christians (not the atheists, whom we would expect to cross swords with him, but the Christians, the disciples, the genuine followers of Christ) disagree with him.  And it is not just that the Christians disagree with him but that they disagree with him (and fight with him, and castigate him, etc.) in an illegitimate way.  It is often the case that they disagree not with what he says but with their own concocted bizarre twisting of what he meant, with some far-flung application of his words which was never what he intended to communicate.

What these Christians are not doing is what I call “listening for agreement”, by which I mean listening for what you agree with/is good not for what you disagree with/is bad.  I’m not sure where I got that phrase “listening for agreement”, but I’m fairly confident I got the idea from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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I may have read this book in my latter years of Bible college, or I may have read it when a teacher at the high school close to my first church gave it to me.  In either case, I read it.  In it, I learned that one of the seven habits is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

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This, I believe, is what the Christians who are fighting with Keller (or any similar Christian teacher in any similar situation) are not doing.  They are not trying to understand what Keller is saying and how he expects it to be applied.  They are allowing themselves to misunderstand or, worse, concocting some possible misunderstanding.  That is ineffective, a Covey suggests.  That is counterproductive.  That is a missing of truths and a ruining of fellowship and a muddying of the waters and a dozen other undesirable things.

And it is also unbiblical.  I can imagine many of the same people who will fight with what Keller says on any given subject will fight me here, and a particular avenue for such a fight is to point out that Covey is not God and The 7 Habits is not Scripture.  True enough.  Seek first to understand is not a biblical phrase, nor is listening for agreement.  But here are a few that are biblical:

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There are several others as well.  The Bible repeatedly tells us to listen and to not argue.  When we refuse to do that even in the cyber realm, when we ignore (unintentionally or otherwise) the good thing a fellow believer is trying to share and twist it into a bad thing and then argue ad nauseum about it, we are doing exactly what the Bible tells us not to do.

I’m not trying to defend Tim Keller, my friends.  I don’t think he really needs my help on this one or any other.  I’m not trying to defend any Christian teacher.  I’m trying to defend Christian unity and effectiveness.  I’m trying to find the way for God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done.  I know that way does not involve psuedo or ego conflicts (which is what a lot of these online arguments are; they are not genuine or “simple” conflicts; they are misunderstandings at best and personality or jealousy at worst).

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Even Jesus couldn’t stop people from distorting His words and His applications into something He never intended.  No contemporary Christian teacher is going to be able to stop people from doing so, either.  The only thing which can stop this is the people themselves.  And we Christian people should be willing and able to do just that.  We should be able to be quick to listen and slow to anger (or maybe “righteous indignation”).  We should seek first to understand (even giving the benefit of the doubt when it is necessary to interpretation).  We should listen for agreement, not for disagreement.

From Why To What

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching…”  So says Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16.  And this has certainly proved itself to be true in my life.  I have been taught (as well as rebuked, corrected, and trained, as Paul says in the rest of the verse) by all Scripture.  I have even been taught, etc. by Scripture I didn’t think was possible of teaching anyone anything, Scripture which on the surface seems to have little to teach.

A recent case in point is Genesis 42:36-37:

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This passage came up in my daily reading a few days ago.  It is part of the Joseph narrative of Genesis, the story of how Joseph, who has become the second most powerful ruler in Egypt, is testing his brothers to see how they have changed after selling him into slavery years ago.  In this part, the brothers report to Jacob after their first trip to Egypt to get grain.  They tell Jacob that Simeon has been imprisoned and will not be released unless they return with Benjamin.  In reply to this, Jacob says, “Everything is against me!”

At first glance, it doesn’t look like there is much in this passage for the follower of Christ.  That’s what I thought at first.  I even remembered discussing it in Bible college; I remembered my Old Testament professor saying that Reuben’s response to Jacob here is “boneheaded” (I believe that is the word he used).  That gave me a little laugh.  It didn’t give me much direction.

But then something happened.  I read over those words a second (something I often do as I read the Scripture for devotion), and that phrase “Everything is against me” caught my attention.  That is how I believe hearing from God works: I believe we hear from God when something in Scripture catches our attention (or maybe when the Holy Spirit who is in us and who is operating as we read Scripture brings something to our attention).  And this phrase caught my attention as I read that day.  It caught my attention as I read because I realize I often say the same thing.  I often look at the obstacles that are in my path and conclude that everything is against me.  I often get frustrated when difficulties come my way and I ask, “Why is this happening to me?”  (That, by the way, is how I would paraphrase Jacob’s words here: “Why is this happening to me?”)

That is obvious not a mature response to difficulties.  I think we all see that in Jacob here.  I think we are supposed to see it in Jacob here.  I think we are supposed to understand that while this reaction was somewhat understandable (as indeed a lot of unfair and unhappy stuff had happened to him), it was not at all mature or noble or helpful.  It was whining, in other words.

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What is less easy to see is how often we whine in that same way.  Immaturity in others, after all, is always far more visible than immaturity in ourselves.  Immaturity in ourselves is always far more understandable in ourselves than in others (we give ourselves a pass on such whining more readily and easily than we give such a pass to others).

As I read this text that morning, though, I could see it me.  I could see that I am often so immature and unhelpful, that I often whine.  And I could also see what to do about that.  I could see that God was calling me not to simply stop whining; I suppose that was part of what God was calling me to, but it was not the totality (stop is rarely the totality of what God tells us about anything).  I could also see that God was not calling me to try to escape the situations which result in whining; that’s not possible; many of these situations are out of my control and thus inescapable.

Rather, I could see that God was calling me to change my question.  He was calling me to turn from asking why to asking what.  He was calling me to move from asking, “Why is this happening to me?” to “What is Kingdom in this situation?”

I take that phrase Kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  Kingdom was His primary message, being the subject of what I call His “inaugural message”, the sermon He preached when He began His public ministry (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15).  It was also in a prominent place in His “model” or “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13).

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I sometimes call this “the goal of God”.  I think that is what it is.  I think God’s ultimate goal and thus Jesus’ ultimate goal is the Kingdom coming, God’s will being done as perfectly on earth as it is in the heavenly realms.  Every other goal God has (making disciples of all nations, transforming us into the likeness of His son) is a subset or expression of that one, great, overriding goal.

And since that is His goal, it should be my goal as well.  That being the case, “Why is this happening to me?” is always the wrong question.  A much better question is, “What is Kingdom here?  What does the Kingdom want to result from this my encounter with this obstacle?  How can God’s will be done in this difficulty?”  There is a positive answer to that question/those questions.  Every obstacle and difficulty, every setback and attack and insult and hardship, is a Kingdom opportunity, a chance for God’s will to not only be done but be done through me.  And thus that is the question to ask.  That is the avenue to take.

And I’m not very good at taking it.  I’ll be honest about that.  I’d love to see myself as Joseph (who it seems had some immaturity in the early part of his story but who was fully living into the Kingdom by this point), but I know I’m far more like Jacob.  It is not easy to switch questions like this.  It isn’t for me, anyway.  I will keep that switch in mind, though, or I’ll try to.  It is what will indeed bring the Kingdom, so it is what I will try to do.  I’ll try to go from “Why?” to “What?”