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Going Beyond What is Written

Saturday, March 25, 2023

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Ecclesiastes 12:11-12

In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher teaches us about “life under the sun.” All of its pursuits are “vanity” (1:2), dead ends that disappoint and don’t deliver. Before the conclusion of his investigation of the meaning of life, which is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13-14), he tells us why we ought to listen to its message.

First, the pithy sayings in the book have the power to spur us into action “like goads.” His wisdom lends us valuable perspective and saves us from wasting our lives on vain endeavors. “Like nails firmly fixed,” these sayings are both dependable and memorable. We can rely on them, indeed build our lives upon them (see Mt. 7:24-27), because of their source: “they are given by one Shepherd,” the guiding God of Israel (Gen. 49:24; Psa. 23:1; 80:1).

Second, the Preacher takes on a paternal tone to warn us against “anything beyond these” wise sayings. Instead of following his instruction, we may be tempted to continue our research. This is vanity and folly because he has already given us a comprehensive account of “life under the sun.” He has left nothing out. There are no other avenues to pursue or doors to open. Still, there are some who, in their discontent, go beyond God’s word to their own hurt (1 Cor. 4:6; Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19).

Research can quickly turn into an addiction, especially in our postmodern world where we fall in love with questions, even embracing gray areas. To some people, a concrete answer would spoil everything. There will always be mystery in this broken world, but we can fall into the trap of trying to prove what cannot be proven: “[God] has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecc. 3:11; See also 3:14, 22; 7:14). While God has revealed what we need to know (2 Tim. 3:16-17), he has left some “secret things” (Deut. 29:29) out of our reach, perhaps to impress upon us our contingent, dependent and finite nature.

There will always be books trying to explain the key to life’s secrets and while these may attract us with their novelty, in light of the Preacher’s words of wisdom, they are a never-ending “weariness.”

It has become acceptable, even virtuous to be searching for truth. But to claim to have actually found truth is deemed arrogant. C. S. Lewis captures this attitude in a conversation between the White Spirit and a lifelong seeker in The Great Divorce:

I can promise you… no scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”

“Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not?”

“Listen!” said the White Spirit. “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”

“Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

Paul warns Timothy of those in Ephesus who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim. 3:7) Let us be content with what God has revealed, build our lives upon the truth we learn and never go beyond what is written.

Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Do not add to his words,
lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.

(Proverbs 30:5-6)

From Goodness to God

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;

sing to his name, for it is pleasant!

Psalm 135:3

Do we really need religion to be good? Can’t a person be moral without appealing to an ancient book to tell them right from wrong? These questions are often asked of Christians who argue that we receive our ethics from God in Scripture, his revealed will. The short answer to these questions is, yes, of course unbelievers can and often do act in accordance with true moral principles to some extent. The apostle Paul says as much in Romans 2:14-15:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

But there is an even deeper question that needs answering. Where does this sense of morality originate? Why do humans even have a moral awareness, a “conscience”, in the first place? To be sure, we all have some capacity for goodness and though we are not as bad as we could be, we are certainly not as good as we ought to be. But where does this ought come from? Why should we be good in the first place? The words ought and should speak of moral obligation. But unto whom are we obligated?

A solid case for the existence of God can be made from morality. First, there is such a thing as objective morality. Across cultures, time and space, there are universal principals of right and wrong that include honoring elders, honesty, justice, mercy, care of children and so on. This is what Paul means when he says “the work of the law is written on their hearts.” Thus, throughout the Old Testament, God, through the prophets, held pagan nations accountable to this universal moral law. Even though these nations did not have the Law of Moses which stipulated right and wrong behavior, they knew enough of morality to incur guilt before a good and just God.

Therefore, morality is not relative to one’s culture or individually subjective but is generally universal. Things like rape, theft, torture and the like are always wrong irrespective of the time or culture in which we live. When a person suffers injustice, they cry out against it because they intuitively know the moral law has been broken. If morality is not relative, then we are faced with an objective moral order of some kind. How can we best explain it?

The moral argument is abductive, meaning the evidence leads to the best possible explanation. How do we sufficiently account for the existence of objective moral values?

  1. If a personal God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist — Buddhism, Hinduism and other pantheistic religions teach that God is not a personal, moral agent but a universal, amoral Reality (transcending distinctions between good and evil). Therefore, pantheism cannot support objective moral values because it overtly denies them or it vainly attempts to affirm and deny them simultaneously. Naturalism is out because there is no evolutionary mechanism that can adequately explain the development of moral awareness. And atheism is out because it provides no foundation upon which to build objective moral standards.
  2. Objective moral values exist — As we have argued above.
  3. Therefore, a personal, moral God exists — We are left with the theistic worldviews of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Which one is best? Only Christianity, which is Judaism fulfilled, teaches that humans were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28). Thus the human conscience is one of the unique ways in which we reflect our personal and moral God. Furthermore, only Christ can provide violators of God's moral law with hope to stand before him justified.

From Everlasting to Everlasting

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Psalm 90:1-2

Where did God come from? Atheists often ask this question of Christians who argue that God created the universe out of nothing (Gen. 1:1; Jn. 1:1-3; Heb. 11:1-3). If everything that exists requires a causal explanation outside of itself, then how do we explain the existence of God? Bertrand Russell, in his essay Why I Am Not a Christian, wrote, “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot by any validity in the argument.” So who created the Creator? Though this question is meant to silence and utterly refute God as an explanation for the universe, it is actually a classic straw man fallacy.

The cosmological argument (arguing for the existence of God as the cause of the cosmos) does not claim that everything that exists must have a cause. Rather, it claims that the universe—due to its contingency, its need for an explanation and finitude—requires a cause beyond itself, a non-contingent, self-existent, uncaused first cause. This non-contingent being who explains the existence of the contingent universe is the God of Scripture, who depends on nothing outside of himself and upon whom everything else depends.

This is not an ad hoc explanation given by Christians to dodge the the question. Rather, this is what the Scriptures themselves teach.

Jesus said that “the Father has life in himself” (Jn. 5:26). If life itself originates with God then he depends on nothing outside of himself to exist, making him a non-contingent entity. He exists in a category of one metaphysically: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.” (Psa. 86:8; see also Ex. 15:11; Mic. 7:18) Paul, in arguing for the existence of a Creator who exists apart from and above creation, said that he is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:25)

God is not finite, temporal or contingent. He is “from everlasting to everlasting.” Before the creation of the universe and the existence of time as we know it, God existed (Jn. 17:5). He says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega… who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8) Unlike the creation, the Creator has no beginning and no end and requires no explanation outside of himself. Therefore, we cannot apply the same principles we use to explain the origin of the universe (a finite, temporal and contingent entity) to God (an infinite, eternal and non-contingent entity).

The argument for the origin of the cosmos is deductive, meaning if the premises are true, then the conclusion is unavoidable:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause — Things don’t come into being from nothing: ex nihilo, nihilo fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”). Notice that this is a subset of things that exist in which God, because he has no beginning, does not belong.
  2. The universe began to exist — In addition to insurmountable philosophical problems with an eternal universe, there is solid scientific evidence that the universe had a beginning and will end; its expansion, abundance of helium, residual radiation and the second law of thermodynamics point to a finite cosmos.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause — There must be a first event in time which requires a sufficient explanation.
  4. The cause of the universe is God — There must be an uncaused first cause, a being who is “from everlasting to everlasting” who brought forth the universe.

Emptiness and Longing

Saturday, March 04, 2023

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1

Augustine once wrote to God in The Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” East of Eden and under the sun, we all feel a painful longing for the transcendent, on the one hand, and a frustrating sense of inadequacy of earthly things to satisfy that longing, on the other.

David felt this longing and rightly turned to the only one who could satisfy him (Psa. 63). When we feel this same sense of emptiness and longing do we know where to turn? We discern our inward wretchedness and conclude rightly that we cannot cure it. We know we each have an appointment with death that we cannot escape. The question is, what do we do in the face of such sober realities?

Far too often, in order to get through the day and avoid despair, we divert ourselves from thinking too seriously about such matters. What is behind our constant need to be entertained and stimulated by technology and hobbies every spare moment of the day? Why can’t we sit in silence and rest alone with our thoughts? This propensity to constantly check our phones and be entertained is more than silly and frivolous. These are attempts to escape despair, boredom and anxiety through diversion, further highlighting our profound need for something this world cannot offer.

This idea, which Blaise Pascal and C. S. Lewis explored extensively, has been summarized by a “God-shaped vacuum.” We were created to live lives of freedom, peace, joy and satisfaction all under our Creator’s loving authority and in his perfect presence. But in our broken world in which we are out of sync with the One who made us, there are only traces of this joy left. These vestiges of earthly goodness cannot fulfill us. The presence of legitimate human desires, such as hunger and thirst, indicate that satisfaction for those desires exists. But, to paraphrase Lewis, if we find within us a desire that this world cannot satisfy—a spiritual thirst—then we must look beyond this world for satisfaction.

The writer of Ecclesiastes observes that “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecc. 3:11) We long for this “eternity.”

Though God is transcendent, “he is actually not far from each one of us.” He has placed us within his creation to “seek after him and perhaps feel [our] way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:27) He provides evidence of his goodness in the gifts he gives every day: “he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:17) These gifts were meant to be enjoyed but also to act as signs pointing to their divine source. The thing about earthly appetites is that once one is satisfied another will come to take its place: “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.” (Ecc. 6:7)

This inability of earthly things to fully satisfy us points us toward heaven. However, this feeling of inner emptiness is no post-dated check only to be cashed at some point in the distant future in heaven. God came down from heaven to earth so that we could begin to experience eternal life and spiritual renewal here and now: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn. 5:24) Jesus came to both purify and satisfy our desires. He fills our emptiness “with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19; see 2 Tim. 2:20-21) and satisfies our deepest longings with his steadfast love (Psa. 16:11; 81:16; 90:14; 145:15).

The God of the Flood

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord… Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.…  Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark…”

Genesis 6:5-9, 11-14a

Noah lived in a world of chaos and corruption, a world in which humanity had fallen far from the God in whose image and likeness they were created. Imagine trying to live faithfully, raise children and protect a family in such a world. In response to this human wickedness,  the heart of God was “grieved.” The verb here can carry different senses depending on the context: (1) to be injured (Psa. 56:5; Ecc. 10:9; 1 Chr. 4:10); (2) to experience emotional pain; to be depressed or worried (2 Sam. 19:2; Isa. 54:6; Neh. 8:10-11); to be embarrassed or offended to the point of anger; to be insulted (Gen. 34:7; 45:5; 1 Sam. 20:3, 34; 1 Kgs. 1:6; etc.). There may be several aspects to God’s grief but human sin did not merely wound God emotionally; it prompted him to strike out in purifying judgment against the source of his grief (v.7). This terrifying story of divine judgment also teaches us comforting truths about God’s character and the human condition.

God is just, therefore salvation is needed — God is patient but his justice cannot allow evil to continue unchecked. In the New Testament, the flood is used as a type of the final judgment to come (Mt. 26:36-41; 2 Pet. 2:5). While it is certainly good news that evil will not get the last word, our situation before such perfect justice is imperiled. No one can stand before God justified on his own (Rom. 3:21-26). Therefore, God’s justice highlights our need for salvation.

God is gracious, therefore salvation is provided — How did Noah find “favor in the eyes of the Lord”? The passage speaks of Noah’s righteous character in verse 9. In contrast to the evil world, Noah was “blameless” and “walked with God.” The point is not that he was sinless and, thus, deserved salvation but that he lived in such a way as to be in fellowship with God. Noah lived “by faith” (Heb. 11:7). This squares with the larger biblical picture of salvation coming “by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9). As God pronounced long ago, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Heb. 2:4; cf. Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38; Jn. 3:36). God is gracious and provided salvation in Christ to all (Titus 2:11), but he determined that his gift of salvation can only be accessed by faith (Rom. 1:16).

God is powerful, therefore salvation is effective — The flood also demonstrates God’s might. The world he created through water is now unmade through water. God’s power in judgment is equal to his power in salvation. In fact, God’s salvation often comes through judgment, not apart from it. Noah’s safety in the ark points to our salvation in Christ—the true Ark. Our salvation is effective because of the security of the Ark that is Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 3:20-22). That is, Christ and his achievements are the foundation for our confidence in being saved from God’s just judgment, a judgment which will come not through water but fire (2 Pet. 3:8-13). Therefore, like Noah, we must be sure we are “in the Ark” and warn others of the coming judgment, beckoning them to Christ with loving urgency (2 Pet. 2:5). God is just, gracious and powerful.

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