Why Do We Suffer?

polycarpIn the prior blog, we presented the logical problem of evil — how can evil and suffering exist if God is perfectly loving and all-powerful?  Upon closer examination, there is no contradiction here.  It simply means that God allows man free will, and God allows Satan some degree of freedom to tempt and to act.  In other cases, God causes what seems evil to us in order to accomplish some greater good.  In short, God may — in fact, God must — have a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering.In some cases, suffering works to glorify God.  We know from Romans 8:28 that all things (not just good things) work together for the glory of those who know the Lord, and are called according to His purpose.  There are also times when what man intends to be an evil act can be redeemed by God for good, such as when Joseph was sold by His brothers to slave traders and then to Pharaoh (Genesis 50:20).  Of course, the ultimate example is Jesus Christ Himself — tremendous evil was done to him, and it was the greatest act of goodness (love) in all of history.  In my case, I know that my cancer will glorify God.  I may never see it, and I may die not knowing exactly how my cancer brought Him glory, but I know that it will because Scripture assures me so.

So given that evil and suffering exist, and we are promised that we are going to suffer (1 Tim 3:12, elsewhere), why does God allow it?  We know that he must have a morally sufficient reason, and that it will eventually glorify Him.  But Scripture is even more explicit.

  1.  Suffering is necessary for conforming to Christlikeness.  We are all in the process of sanctification, the process of conforming to Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18).  But we also know that Christ suffered tremendously, and therefore to be like Christ we must suffer as well.  Fortunately, that’s not all…
  2. Suffering brings us closer to God.  As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death, but this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”  Yes, there are times God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to reliance on Him.  I believe this is the case in my own life.  In fact, I have received “the sentence of death” four times, with four separate cancer diagnoses, each one supposedly “terminal.”  And, like Paul, I think it happened to force me to rely on God rather than myself.  C.S. Lewis agrees, calling pain “God’s megaphone,” and explaining in both “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed” how pain and suffering (his own, and his wife’s) initially drove him away from the faith, and then back to it in even stronger faith.
  3. Finally, suffering not only conforms us to Christlikeness and brings us closer to God, it can be a tremendous evangelistic tool.  It reaches unbelievers.  We see this throughout Scripture — Jesus didn’t heal blindness, He healed the blind man.  He didn’t eradicate leprosy, He healed the leper.  Why?  Because in both cases, and in many others, those who were healed then went back to their families, towns, and villages to tell them what Christ had done.  Even the way Christians handle suffering — not just Christ and Paul, look at the history of the Christian martyrs from Polycarp forward — has been used to change the hardened hearts of unbelievers from the earliest centuries.

So, did God give me cancer?  I’ve struggled with this one for almost two decades.  I think He did.  His goal in causing or allowing my cancer was to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly and only on Him.  It has worked for me!  Paraphrasing John Piper, cancer doesn’t win if I die — that’s going to happen anyway.  Cancer wins if it succeeds in turning me away from Christ.

 

Advertisements

The Problem of Evil

evil-emoticon_318-40171Well, the clear-thinking Christian is back!  After almost a year off, I'm back to blogging with a great deal to share.  In short form, I'm now retired…after 24 years of Active Duty in the Air Force, I'm moving on to other things, one of which I hope to be blogging more regularly.

Shortly after my announced retirement from the Air Force, I was invited to White Sulphur Springs — a Christian retreat center in Pennsylvania — to give eight talks in six days on this extremely difficult topic.  I have an interesting perspective here, since I can speak to the topic both as a theologian, and a brain cancer survivor who has known more suffering than most.  For those who attended that retreat, this blog is for you — essentially the written form of the first lesson or two I taught during the plenary sessions.

So if there is a God, at least the Christian concept of Him, why do we suffer?  Why is there so much evil in the world?  This is classically known as "The Problem of Evil," and an attempt to answer it is formally called a "theodicy."  If God is loving as we claim, then He would want to prevent all evil and suffering.  If God is omnipotent as we claim, then He would be able to prevent all evil and suffering.  Yet, it exists in abundance — so which is it?  Does it exist and He allowed it, so he is not loving?  Or does it exist and He couldn't prevent it, so He is not powerful?  This is traditionally presented in this form as the "logical" problem of evil, often offered by atheists or critics of Christianity as a potential inconsistency or even a contradiction in the Christian concept of God.

But is there a contradiction or inconsistency here?  As Christians, we cannot deny either His sovereignty and omnipotence or His goodness.  Scripture is clear with regard to both.

  1.  God is loving.  We know from Scripture that our God is a loving God.  We can read in 1 John 4:8 that "God is love," and we can read in 1 Corinthians 13 how He defines love.  That means we can take the description of love in Corinthians and actually apply those as attributes of God.  This means God is patient, kind, does not delight in evil, always protects us, hopes, and perseveres.  His love never fails.  Of course, the greatest expression of His love is found in John 3:16 and Romans 5:8, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us — and greater love has no man than this.  Why did He do that?  Because He loves us.  Ephesians 3:18 tells us that even the saints of God struggle to comprehend the width, length, height, and depth of the love of God.  There can be no question that God loves us beyond comprehension.
  2. God is powerful.  This is hardly in dispute, but Scripture is equally clear here.  This is evident from the very first chapter of Genesis — as the One who has created the universe — all space, matter, and time — He is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, and immensely powerful.  Job tells us in Chapter 42 that "…you can do all things [this is omnipotence], no purpose of yours can be thwarted."   Who can thwart God's plans?  No one.  He is too powerful.
  3. Evil exists.  This is likely the least disputable of the three points normally offered in the "problem of evil" critique of Christianity.  Worthy of its own blog, evil is generally categorized into two "camps" — moral evil (man's inhumanity to man), and natural evil (natural disaster, disease, etc).  In his book The Many Faces of Evil, John Feinberg documents the true extent of man's inhumanity.  Dr. Clay Jones, my professor on this topic at Biola University, also wrote an article several years ago on human evil.  The facts are chilling.  In the 20th Century alone, communism has killed between 20 and 26 million, most in horrible fashion — such as the forced starvation of 6 million Ukrainians.  Under Mao, it is another 30 million, and Mao at one point bragged that he had buried alive 46,000 scholars who disagreed with him.  Read the Rape of Nanking – and we haven't even mentioned the Holocaust yet, with its 17,000,000 dead.  This only scratches the surface — the human capacity for evil is unimaginable.  Natural evil is often more inexplicable, from the Asian tsunami in December 2004 to the Haitian earthquake a few months later, even cancer…if God is good and powerful, how are these things possible?

This is the "Problem of Evil," classically presented.  The world is full of evil, both moral (human) evil and natural evil.  As a five-time cancer survivor, I have seen it and felt it first-hand.  In the next blog, we will work to present a basic theodicy — that is, a basic explanation of how the three facts presented above are not contradictory.  God is good.  God is powerful.  Evil exists.  This is not a contradiction.

Four Quick Tips on Conversing with Muslims

ChristianityIslam    Many times, when fellow Christians hear of my apologetic and evangelistic focus on Muslims, they are simply aghast. “I wouldn’t even know how to talk to a Muslim!” they say. “Weren’t you scared?” ask others. “How did you know what to say?” Well, I don’t always know. But I’ve talked to Muslims in Egypt and Turkey, and I’ve had lengthy conversations – some spanning years – with Muslims from Oman, England, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and I’ve never been scared, and I can hopefully shed some light on how to approach these difficult conversations.

  1. Approach them prayerfully.

If prayers for Muslims are not a part of your regular prayer life, they should be. As I pointed out in a previous blog, these wonderful people are beautiful creations of God, and God has already told us that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and come to a knowledge of God. We are also clearly instructed by Jesus Himself to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us – this may apply to Muslims, or atheists, or almost any other unbeliever. How many of you have made ISIS a topic of regular prayer (for their salvation, not their destruction)? You are clearly commanded to in Matthew 5:44. The first step to any successful engagement with Muslims is to make them a regular part of your prayer life, and this may include your own attitude as well, so that your heart is “in the right place” to converse with Muslims.

  1. Approach them respectfully.

Muslims, and unfortunately many others in our society, are quite used to being disrespected and “talked down to” by Christians, especially those who are trying to evangelize. Muslims are not just backwater Mongols who led the Ottoman Empire to conquer a third of Europe in the 16th Century – they are prominent members of American society today, from doctors and lawyers to educators, business owners, even Nobel prizewinners in physics (Abdu Salam) and molecular biology/chemistry (Aziz Sancar). This is actually a good rule of thumb for all engagements in life, as you never know when you may be talking to a Muslim (or a Nobel prizewinner). I have a friend who is a devout Muslim, but rides a Harley and looks the part! Not all Arabs or middle-easterners are Muslims, and not all Muslims are middle-eastern or Arab, so approach each conversation with great respect for the person and the religion. You don’t have to agree with it, but my all means don’t disrespect it.   If you do, your conversation will be over before it starts.

  1. Approach them fearlessly.

This may come as a “shocker” to some. Let me say it again, very clearly – I am not afraid of Muslims, and you shouldn’t be either. When I left for Cairo to continue my Middle Eastern focus for my last Master’s Degree, many of my Christian friends strongly cautioned me not to talk to any Muslims (probably not possible in Cairo), and certainly not to advertise or talk about Christianity. Others assumed that every Muslim in the world is just wandering around looking for Christians to behead. This is ridiculous and ignorant. Though the numbers vary depending on which study you read, militant/jihadist Muslims constitute between 5 – 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are largely concentrated in certain areas overseas (Syria, eastern Sinai, parts of Saudi Arabia). In other words, there is about a 95% chance that any Muslim you encounter wants the exact same things that you want – to go to work, perform well, feed their family, and essentially live their life in peace. There is absolutely no reason to fear them, and no reason to be afraid of talking to them about nearly any topic. Others believe that all Muslims live by the mantra “convert or die,” which is more misinformation and ignorance. This is a good segue into our last point…

  1. Approach them deliberately.

What do I mean by “deliberately?” I mean that in order to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with Muslims, especially on the topic of religion, you must learn about them, study them, and truly work to understand them. By doing so, you are respecting them (point #2), you will quell many of your fears about them (point #3), and you will not make key errors that could derail the conversation. If you believe that all Muslims want to convert you or kill you, or that all Arabs are Muslim, or that all Muslims hate Christians, these false impressions will dramatically affect how you approach any conversation with Muslims. You must be deliberate – intentional – about how you approach them, and about with whom you converse. If your friend is a devout Muslim and you start the conversation with whether or not Muhammed is a real prophet, your conversation won’t get far. If your friend is a Sunni and you start trying to convince him that the twelfth or “hidden” Imam isn’t really coming back, you’ve just exposed your ignorance (this belief in a “hidden” Imam is exclusive to a subsect of Shi’a). Educate yourself about the basics of Islam – two great resources are “Understanding Islam” by Thomas Lippman or “Islam: A Primer” by John Sabini. When a Muslim you’re conversing with realizes – and it won’t take long – that you’ve made the effort to understand their religion and just want to talk, you’ll be amazed at the doors that will open.

Conversations with Muslims don’t have to be tense or standoffish, nor will they inevitably devolve into violence or disagreement. If you prepare for these conversations prayerfully, respectfully, fearlessly, and deliberately, you’ll find most Muslims to be kind, engaging, respectful in return, and willing to answer nearly any question you ask. And if you’re still not sure where to start or still have questions, just comment on the blog – I hope these past few blogs have helped your understanding, and I’ll answer any other questions that come up in my final blog next week.

Islam: Three Key Points for Christians

Islam1Happy New Year! In my last blog, I promised several follow-on blogs with regard to Islam, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long. Among other things, 2016 marks my 20th year as a Christian and my 11th year studying Islam. That experience has made me the frequent target of many questions, and uncomfortably frequent hostility (and not from Muslims).  As Muslim presence in America grows, and as events like those in Paris and San Bernadino dominate the headlines, it is more important than ever for Christians to understand Islam and work to reach this critical mission field.  In this series of blogs, I hope to bring readers to a better understanding of Islam, equipping them to engage in well-reasoned and informed conversation with both Muslims and fellow Christians.  To start, let’s look at three key points that may drive subsequent discussions:

  1. Islam is not monolithic. Broad generalizations, especially hasty or inaccurate ones, are unhelpful (even harmful) in understanding Islam. My Facebook feed is filled with memes and posts from friends around the world, many of them making this error. “Islam is not a religion of peace.” “Islam is evil.” “Islam is ________ .”   Fill in the blank however you like, I can assure you the sentence will be a gross mischaracterization, perhaps an outright falsehood. Like Christianity, Islam is not monolithic, and much like Christianity, Islam is plagued by sectarian strife and disagreement. Most Christians are familiar with at least the Shi’a and the Sunni, the two largest sects within Islam. The Shi’a and Sunni have been in conflict since the 7th century, and today their differences encompass a wide range of both political and religious beliefs. The Sunni comprise more than 85% of all Muslims, and are separated into four Islamic “schools of thought” or jurisprudence (the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i). The Shi’a, a small minority within Islam, share many of the same practices and beliefs as the Sunni, but also differ in key areas of authority, practice, succession, and worship. Beyond these two primary sects, Islam also encompasses the Sufi, Wahhabi, Druze, Alawi, Abadi, Ahmadi, and a number of other “denominations.”

There are peaceful Muslims, and there are violent Christians. There are large subsets of Islam that are horribly violent, and there are large subsets of Islam that practice almost total pacifism. When discussing Islam, or when talking to Muslims, Christians should never make the mistake of thinking all Muslims believe the same things, act the same way, or feel the same way about those who disagree.

  1. Every Muslim is a precious child of God in dire need of salvation. Yes, this includes every member of ISIS, and every ruthless killer who has beheaded, burned, crushed, and tortured Christians (and many fellow Muslims). I am frequently shocked by the responses I receive from other Christians when confronted with this challenging topic – unbelievably, these response have ranged from “a good Muslim is a dead Muslim” to “kill them all.” No doubt these responses are highly emotional and reactionary, but I can’t help but think that they also couldn’t be more unbiblical. 1 Timothy 2 tells us that God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” – all men, including Muslims, lost souls that God wants. In Acts 19, Paul pleads with the idolaters worshiping false gods in Lystra, saying “…turn from these [false gods] to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.” Paul is beaten and stoned, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. In verse 20, we read that Paul got up and went back into the city, then continued to preach. Think about that for a minute. Beaten, stoned, and left for dead, he thinks, “But there are still unsaved people in the city…” Similarly, we all know well that Jesus prayed for the savage guards who flogged Him and crucified Him. And our response to Muslims, engaged in comparative acts in today’s age, is “kill them all”? No, as Christians one of the most important things we can realize, which should guide every thought and action with regard to Muslims, is that each and every one – from Hilmi, the rug dealer I befriended in Istanbul to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS – is a precious child of God, in desperate need of the saving grace of Christ and our help to guide them to it. The Gospel Coalition recently wrote a blog about this approach, encouraging us to treat Muslims with dignity and respect, to find common ground with them, and to look for opportunities to show love and compassion to them. I couldn’t agree more.
  1. Understanding is key. Many Christians I encounter would rather hate Muslims than understand them. Others prefer parroting (repeating what they’ve heard someone else say) or emoting (saying what they feel rather than what they think), instead of doing the difficult work of understanding how Muslims think and what they believe. I’ve spent more than a decade trying to understand Islam, and I’m just scratching the surface – so please don’t think you can read a blog, see a meme on Facebook, or watch a special on Discovery, and understand Islam.

Three areas are really essential to a thorough understanding of Islam – history, culture, and (by combining those two) context. Muslim theology has adapted to cultural change from the start, and even adapted as Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century. If you don’t know why Mohammed moved the early Muslims to Medina, or the history of the rise of the Ottoman empire, it will be very difficult to accurately understand Islam. Similarly, Islam for Muslims is more than just a religion – like the early Jews under the theocracy, Islam defines not just their religious beliefs but also their legal, political, and economic systems. If you only look at Islam as a religious worldview, you’ll miss an enormous and critical part of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam simply cannot be understood in isolation from its historical and cultural context.

In future blogs, we’ll look at how to engage Muslims in conversation, some key differences between the Muslim and Christian concepts of God, and perhaps even tackle some of the bigger issues like violence and jihad. Let me know what you’d like to hear about, any and all questions welcome!

Welcome to The Clear-Thinking Christian!

I’ve been a practicing Christian for 30 years, and I’ve been teaching Christian theology, apologetics, and counter-cult ministry for 23 of those 30 years.  In that time, I’ve developed a growing concern that relatively few Christians think carefully about what they believe and why they believe it, and even fewer are prepared to present a basic description of what they believe or a basic defense of why they believe it.  For a 60-year-old deacon, this is perhaps a weakness — but for a graduating high school senior headed to a secular university, this is potentially devastating.  Regardless, every Christian would be well-served (and obedient) by being able to describe what they believe, articulate basically why they believe it, and — most importantly — constantly think clearly about their beliefs.

This blog is my feeble, humble attempt to help.  I’ll present a number of thoughts, studies, book reviews, cultural commentary, and other concepts — feel free to chime in, challenge me, voice your support, or ask a question.  Thanks!