Concerning Signs and Wonders

In my life I have vacillated between rejecting the need for signs in an effort to ‘walk by faith’ and asking God for signs in times of difficulty, fear, and frustration. It’s easy to run too far in either direction and thus ignore the entirety of scripture in favor of only seeing a part. In Matthew 12:38-42 we find a rather famous passage in which Christ rebukes the Jews for asking for signs and wonders. However, many times we fail to ask a very simple question: why? As I drill into my philosophy students, many of the most important questions that we can ask in life are ‘why’ based questions. “Why am I here?” “Why should I believe?” “Why do I want to be happy?” “Why am I unsatisfied?” etc. Many of us focus on asking ‘what’ based questions, but we ignore the ‘why’ based questions on which they rely. In this passage we must ask the question, “Why did Jesus rebuke the people?” The simply answer is, “Because they asked for signs and wonders”, but this answer isn’t entirely correct. Consider Isaiah 7, in which God tells King Ahaz to request a sign from him, and Ahaz refuses. Consider Gideon, who (admittedly out of fear) requests signs from God and is not rebuked. Consider the multitude of signs that God provides throughout the scriptures, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the parting of the Red Sea, water from the stone, the signs of the prophets, the miracles of Christ, all the way down to the miraculous signs done through the apostles. To say that God is ‘against signs and wonders’ ignores almost the entirety of scripture for the sake of a theological perspective that relies on a single verse. So, why does Christ rebuke the people?

A more fundamental question might be why does God give signs in the first place? The answer to this question is three-fold: 1) God gives signs to show his character (i.e. the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of water from a stone, the execution of Ananias and Sapphira), 2) God gives signs to encourage faithful response (i.e. the signs given to Gideon, the healing of the Lame man by Peter, etc), and 3) God gives signs to guide his people on the proper path (i.e. the pillar of fire and smoke, the signs of the prophets, etc). The miracles of God serve his purposes first and foremost. Through them he displays his glory, love, mercy, and justice, and by them he leads his people where he wants them to go.

Miraculous signs do not exist from the pleasure of man, and that is what the Jews were asking for in Matthew 12. These Jews did not want to believe in Christ, they didn’t intend to follow him, they were not seeking a greater understanding of God, and they did not desire to be shown a true path. Instead, they wanted to see something cool, which is often the by-word of our own culture. There is a vast difference between seeking a sign so as to more thoroughly understand God, and seeking a sign that titillates the mind. There is also a difference between seeking a sign because you doubt the power and authority of God (not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a sign of weakened faith), and seeking a sign because you do not trust yourself to correctly discern the will of God.

A great example here is Hand. You might remember that I mentioned her in some posts a while back (I’m not going to go find them and link them, you can find them yourself). Hand was a young woman that I was attracted to, but that I had doubts about. I asked God for guidance, but I know myself. I have, several times, tricked myself into believing that God has led me to pursue whom I wanted to pursue, regardless of God’s desire. So, I asked God for a sign, a very specific sign, not because I doubted him, but because I doubted myself and my own ability to clearly listen to him in this particular situation.

This brings up another issue with signs. A sign is always specific. It is very easy to pull Homer Simpson’s trick and pray, “God, if you want me to eat this donut then do absolutely nothing.” While I have no doubt that God could easily smite a person with lightning, I also believe that God is willing to allow us to wallow in our own stupidity and self-will. God generally doesn’t divinely stop us from making stupid decisions (though sometimes he might protect us in those decisions). If you want a sign from God, make it specific, and make it antithetical to your self-will. Going back to my example with Hand, I knew what wanted. So, I asked God for a specific sign showing me to pursue my desire. I did not ask him for a non-specific sign showing me not to pursue my desire. The latter would be easy to ignore while the former is very difficult to ignore.

That being said, signs and wonders aren’t the core of our faith, and they shouldn’t be the core of our faith. They are a part of the Christian faith, but they are a small part at best, useful for specific circumstances. If your faith relies on signs and wonders, then take some time to actually get to know God, instead of looking for miracles.

The Hard Road

Church tonight was good. It had me thinking about a lot of different things. I think I might get two or three blog posts out of the thoughts that were running through my head tonight (if I can remember them that is). However, as I sat in church today I thought back to some of the lessons that I’ve learned in my life, a number of them learned through this very church, and many more learned in other ways. My entire life I’ve had to learn things the hard way. I’m a stubborn bastard an awful lot of the time, and it makes everything take that much longer. Sometimes I wonder why God made me this way. Honestly, thinking back, if there was any one thing that I could change about myself, it would be this need to learn things the hard way.

I’d like to say that I learn my lessons better, or that they stick with me longer, but honestly I’m really not sure this is true. There are a few lessons that I’ll never forget (generally the hardest ones), but many that I’ve had to learn multiple times. All in all, I’ve had a lot of lessons that I probably shouldn’t have needed, and this habit of always learning things the hard way has resulted in a lot of pain in my life. Not to say that this pain hasn’t lead to good things, personal growth, etc. However, if there was anything that I could change about myself, it would be this. I would love to be able to learn my lessons the easy way, without the incredible pain that goes with doing everything the hard way. I would thoroughly enjoy being less stubborn, less prideful, and more teachable. It’s something that I’ve been working on for years, and often failing at, and I’m still trying to be less stubborn and more teachable.

Honestly, I’m not really sure that I have much more to say in this post. I started it with every intention of writing something deep and meaningful about learning things the hard way, and how pride causes a lot of pain, which is entirely true. However, there isn’t a whole lot more that needs to be said than that. I’ve made some giant mistakes, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from them, and I always say that I wouldn’t change anything about my life. I understand that God made me the way he did for a reason, and I know that he’s working his will in me. I know that this is something that he is using to make me a better person… still, sometimes I wish he didn’t have to. I wish he had made me… perfect. Actually reading this I realize how ridiculous it sounds. We are all fallen people, all in need of a savior, and all in need of a lot of work towards sanctification. Nonetheless, sometimes I’d like all of this to be a lot easier, and I feel like if God had made me a little bit different it might have been.

Bovary Moments Part 2

So, a few days ago I mentioned a novel that I’ve been listening to as a book on tape (full disclosure here) called Madame Bovary. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed the book. To be completely honest, it’s pretty much infuriating! The entire novel revolves around an incredibly selfish woman and the pain that she causes to everyone around her. Emma, Madam Bovary, is an adulteress and wastrel who spends her husband’s money on her lovers until there is no money left to spend, and then continues spending until her family is ruined, at which point she commits suicide. She is convinced of her own worth, flaky, flighty, and constantly plays the victim while the real victim of the novel, her husband Charles, blissfully goes about his days in apparent ignorance. I haven’t quite finished the novel yet, so I don’t know if it will be revealed that Charles was simply a trusting victim or if he knew of his wife’s indiscretions and chose to love her anyway. I want to identify with Charles. He’s a good man, an honest man, and a hard worker. I want to see Charles in myself, and to see Emma in the people around me. The truth is often the other way around.

I’ve been doing fairly well with my struggles lately. I’m generally satisfied with my life, though T’Amber shot me down when I finally asked her out yesterday. I’m planning to ask a couple more times. In this, I’m going to go by the sayings ‘Third Times the Charm’ and ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’. She was very nice about shooting me down, and I don’t figure a couple more polite invitations are likely to hurt anything. I’ve been doing fairly well in my internet struggles as well. I’ve wrestled with the desire to look at pornography, but I haven’t fallen much lately, and I’m very happy about that. I did just break down and pay for a year-long membership to eHarmony… it was a good sale price… still, I have a feeling I’m going to regret that. Nonetheless, I’ve been doing well (Happify has helped with that some, I suggest checking it out). Nonetheless, no matter how well I do, I am not Charles.

I am all too often fickle. I like T’Amber and I plan to try again, but then there’s also a very pretty young lady who just started taking Karate at the school at which I help teach Aikido. I have a feeling that one of my other students might try to set us up, and I am in no way opposed to this. Then I still have to ask Sally to lunch, although I’ve recently found out that she’s not available in the first place, which made me indescribably happy.

More than that, I’m not only fickle, I’m downright selfish. I want to be loved, often (I was going to write sometimes here… but that wouldn’t really be honest) more than I want to love others. I want to be desired as much as Madame Bovary does, and I want to play the victim. I always like to have someone to blame when something goes wrong. I know that I should take responsibility for my actions, but all to often I don’t. In short, I am just as selfish a man as Bovary is a woman. The thing is, I think this is true of all of us. We all want… we all desire… we all need… often we don’t even know what we want/desire/need. We are listless, indecisive, and ultimately we don’t have the time or the energy to care about anyone else. It’s not a good thing. In fact, this is exactly what God is trying to fix through the process of sanctification.

However, as I’ve said many times, sanctification is a process. I don’t get there overnight. In fact, I won’t get there until I’m dead. Until then I keep trying to be better, and often I keep failing, and God keeps forgiving.

I’ve also been reading The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (Lawrence of the Resurrection if you want to look him up) lately, and there is a huge difference between the life to which Brother Lawrence exhorts us, and the life that Gustave Flaubert displays. Lawrence exhorts us to a life of consistent worship, a life filled with the presence, the wonder, the beauty, and the satisfaction of God. Flaubert displays a life without any of those things. A life in constant quest for beauty, wonder, and love. A life in which satisfaction is an undreamable dream (I know I stole that, but I can’t remember where).

I am struck by just how much Emma had, and still her life was empty, compared with how little Lawrence  had (he was a lay brother and kitchen worker in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, a man of absolutely no importance). None the less Lawrence espouses a complete satisfaction with life that Bovary never considers a possibility. I have written before that I am currently searching for eudaimonia. The thing is, eudaimonia does not lie in financial security, in things (duh), in the respect and admiration of those around me, in knowledge or wisdom, or in the bosom of a beautiful woman. Eudaimonia is something that I can only reach by the daily practice of walking in God’s presence. Something that I’m still fairly poor at. Nonetheless, on with the process I march.

Then The Demons Left

I had the privilege of attending a deliverance (i.e. exorcism) tonight. It was an interesting experience, and I use the word interesting intentionally. If I’m honest, the only thing I can say with absolute confidence is that the experience was real. The woman who was delivered was visibly changed by the end of the night. That being said, I’m not convinced that the experience was entirely spiritual. As I’ve said, I’ve been involved with the occult, I’ve been exorcised (or at least the attempt was made) shortly after my salvation, and I’m fairly familiar with the demonic. In my experience demons aren’t stupid. According to my reading of scripture, demons aren’t stupid. In fact, I have no rational reason to believe that demons are stupid, but some of the things that were said tonight were remarkably stupid.

Some of this I can put on the simple fact of pride. If a demon is compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak, and whether for pride and for some other reason it does not wish to speak the truth, the only possible response might sound stupid. For instance, if the only answers are yes and no, and the demon doesn’t want to say yes, then no is left, and no might sound stupid. However, this only explains a portion of what happened tonight. Also, if everything rebuked tonight was a demonic spirit, then the young woman who was delivered must have had upwards of a hundred demons in her. The only scriptural precedent I have for this is Legion, and his case in scripture appears to be rare. That being said, scripture tells us remarkably little about the demonic, and so any exorcism ministry must be, in large part, extra-biblical. This was openly admitted by the exorcists tonight. In fact the claim they made was that much of what they did was extra-biblical, but none of it was unbiblical. This is a claim I have to agree with. Nothing I saw was heretical, none of it was sinful, none of it was theologically problematic. It was simply outside the scope of what scripture teaches.

The result of what I saw was absolutely real. I said this above, and I want to reiterate it. However, it was also therapy (again, this was a point made by the exorcist), and I think that which was rebuked had a mix of spiritual, psychological, and emotional elements. I have no doubt that some of the things rebuked were demonic in origin. However, I am not convinced that all of the things rebuked were demonic in origin. I think some of them may have been sin issues, emotional traumas, or psychological mechanisms that arose from those traumas. That being said, I also see no problem with rebuking these things. One thing I noticed is that the exorcists, at a few points, bordered on word/faith (i.e. name it claim it) doctrines without actually crossing over into them. I found this intriguing because, if they had crossed that line, then I could point to something distinctly unbiblical, but they didn’t. And there is truth in the claim that words have power. Not the reality altering divine power that word/faith doctrine gives them, but they do have power.

So, I’m definitely glad that I went, and I’m probably going to join them again. For now I have no actual verdict on what I saw tonight, except that it appeared effective (I want to say ‘was effective’ but to really make that claim I’d need to see sustainable change in the woman delivered, and… well, this all happened a few hours ago).

Fear and Loathing in… Lynchburg

I’ve been fighting with God for the past 24 hours. At least… I think I’ve been fighting with God for the past 24 hours. I’ve either been fighting with God or I’ve been fighting with myself, and I’m honestly not entirely sure which. I think it’s the former, but I’m not sure. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a bad habit of dating emotionally traumatized 19 year olds and putting myself up as the perfect rebound guy to date and then gut. I’m trying very hard to break this habit.

There is a woman at my church… I’m honestly not sure how old she is… I’m guessing early twenties… I think she’s almost out of college. Honestly, as I write this I’m rehearsing just how stupid this is and why I should just ignore it. Anyway, last night this woman was on my heart and on my mind, and there was a nudging to ‘ask her to lunch’. I barely know her…. …Anyway, I’m very happy that she wasn’t in church today. If she had been I think I might have just yelled something and walked out.

As I said, I’m honestly not sure if this is actually God, and I’m trying to convince myself that it’s me, or if it’s just me being an idiot and trying to convince myself that its God so that I’ll be an idiot. …I kind of hope that it’s the latter because then I can just ignore the entire thing… you have no idea how much I don’t want to ask her to lunch. Okay, by now you probably have some idea.

If this is from God (and that is a big ‘if’ because I really don’t want it to be), then I don’t know what he’s thinking. Honestly, I could sit here and list all of the reasons why this is a stupid idea, but I’ve been having that argument all day, and I really don’t want to rehash it. When it comes down to brass tacks (yes, I said brass tacks), I’m scared. Really, pissing my pants, weeping into my communion glass scared. I’m scared that it is God telling me to do this. I’m scared that I’m going to be rejected. I’m scared that I’m going get hurt, and that’s what it comes down to.

I don’t want to get hurt.

I’ve been hurt a lot. I’ve been hurt by women. I’ve been hurt by parents. I’ve been hurt by friends. I’ve been hurt by God. I’ve done an awful lot to hurt myself. I’m terrified that I’m going to get hurt, and I don’t want to get hurt. Honestly I don’t even want to consider asking this woman to lunch because the only possible responses are ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and I don’t want to hear either one.

But whenever you argue with God, you lose. I was reminded tonight that getting hurt isn’t a bad thing. At least not when God’s the one doing the hurting. Being broken is unpleasant, and if you want to be broken then you’re insane, but being broken is also good. There is a Japanese art form called Kintsukuroi that I learned about tonight that exemplifies this. Kintsukuroi is the art of repairing broken pottery using gold or silver lacquer, and the result of well done Kintsukuroi is quite incredibly beautiful.

It strikes me that God is a Kintsukuroi artist of the highest caliber. The thing is that God doesn’t repair broken pottery. He repairs broken people, and while being broken sucks, and being fixed is painful, the result is amazing. So, much as I’m scared of being hurt, I have to come back to the fact that if this is God’s will (still a big ‘if’) then it is good. If God wants to hurt me so that he can heal me, then I know that he will make me better for it, and that is good… …and I suppose that there is always a chance that God actually doesn’t intend to hurt me. That he is actually taking this somewhere… joyful.

This doesn’t make me any less scared (actually it might scare me even more), but it does make me more determined to find out if this is God’s will or if it is my idiocy, and it makes me more willing to follow God, no matter where he leads.

Sanctimonious Christians?

For anyone who doesn’t know, the term Sanctimonious refers to someone who pretends moral superiority even though they don’t actually practice it. It’s a very negative version of what should be a positive word: Sanctity. Sanctity refers to something that is holy or sacred, and it can be used as a verb to refer to the act of making something holy or sacred (e.g. to sanctify). Honestly, I usually tell my students to skip the dictionary definitions in their papers, but here I want to interact directly with these words. Sanctity and Sanctimonious both rely on the notion of holiness, of which our culture (i.e. Christian Culture and Secular Culture) doesn’t really have a strong understanding.

In the Old Testament for something to be holy it meant that the thing was set aside for use in temple worship. It couldn’t be used for anything else. For instance, if a priest wore his priestly robes outside of the Temple the robes had to be burned and new robes had to be made. If one of the sacred implements (say a ladel) was used for something other than temple worship, it had to be melted down and remade. The same was true with priests: before the priests could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, they had to offer their own sacrifices. They had to sanctify themselves. Holiness is not simply the idea of being set apart, or being separated from secular culture (which is often what we make it), but the idea of being entirely set aside for one singular purpose: the glorification of God. If I am to call myself holy (which I certainly don’t), then my every action, word, thought, desire, intention, etc must be focused on that one purpose, and only on that one purpose. This is the example of Christ… who ate with ‘tax collectors and prostitutes’, and chastised the faithful for their hypocrisy.

I bring this up because not too long ago I was called a ‘Sanctimonious Christian’ and used as an example of ‘Sanctimonious Christians’ everywhere. I am not going to argue that there are no Christians who are sanctimonious. However, I’m fairly confident that anyone who knows me, or who actually reads the things I write can quickly tell that I am not claiming any kind of holiness. I claim a desire for holiness… a desire at which I fail repeatedly. I claim to be forgiven, and I claim to be getting better… or at least that it is my goal to always be better from one day to the next. I claim to be in the lifelong process of being sanctified, and I often claim to not be nearly as far down that road as I’d like to be. In other words: I claim to be struggling. I claim to be failing. And I claim to be growing. I certainly don’t claim to be ‘there’.

However, the person who called me sanctimonious wasn’t really using the term correctly. He was not arguing that I was claiming to be something that I am not, but that I was purporting a moral law that was no longer relevant to the world. Here’s the thing though… there is no moral law that is no longer relevant to the world. He may not agree with the moral law that I see as absolute, but his disagreement does not make that moral law irrelevant. In the same way my disagreement with aspects of Sharia Law does not make Sharia Law irrelevant. Nor does a Muslim’s disagreement with the Bacchanalia make the Bacchanalia irrelevant. In fact, the only moral laws that are truly irrelevant to the modern world are the one’s that no-one practices anymore… for instance, the Code of Hammurabi is fairly irrelevant to modern ethical theory. Not completely irrelevant because we must still learn from the past and understand where our beliefs and ideas came from. However, it is fairly irrelevant.

We tend to like to dismiss things with which we disagree, and this is always a mistake. Simple dismissal does nothing to actually develop my own understanding of the world. It does nothing to challenge my own beliefs, or force me to grow in knowledge or in thought. Instead, it is easy, insulting, and ultimately foolish. Heh… it sounds very American doesn’t it :P.

They Say That to Love Another Person…

So, I finally got around to watching the new Les Miserables tonight and I have to say that it is nothing short of amazing. However, my favorite line, at the death of Jean Valjean, is ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’. Not only is this a wonderful line, but I honestly think its true. I was going to write about Javert’s suicide and the loss of belief tonight, and I think that’ll make it in as well, but the love of Jean Valjean is just as important.

I’m not superman. I’ve had to learn that the hard way. I want to rescue people from themselves, to help people, to make them better, and ultimately… I can’t. I can’t make people change, and I can’t make them better, and every time I try I wind up trying to impose my will onto them. I understand both characters in this story very well. I understand both love and hate pretty well, and that is what Javert and Jean Valjean embody.

I’ve written some about my past before, and I think I’ve mentioned that I used to hate… everything. For a long time all I knew how to do was hate. I hated people, God, myself, the world… all the people I should have loved I hated. I’d never known love, never understood it, and never felt it, and it took a long time for me to come to terms with feeling anything other than hate. Feelings are frightening things.

However, as much as I used to hate, now I can’t seem to stop myself from loving. My friend that I mentioned the other day, the one with all the problems, I love her. I love my roommate that stole money from me. I thought about knifing him for a while, but the anger passed pretty quickly, and the love remains. I love my students, and my family, and my friends. I love the people at my favorite coffee shop. I just love people, even when I don’t particularly want to.

And I completely agree that to love someone is to see the face of God. Trusting God means trusting people, and loving God means loving people. There’s no getting away from that. The  apostle said as much in 1st John. If you hate your brother then you hate God, and if you love God then you love your brother. It’s taken be a long time for me to actually begin to understand that, and I really think that I am just beginning to understand it.

It’s hard to lose the thing that defines you. I’ve been through this a few times. Javert lost his conviction that people  cannot change. “Once a thief, always a thief” was the mantra that filled his heart, and when Jean Valjean proved him wrong it killed him in more ways than one. I lost my hate a long time ago. God made me let it go, and then my suspicion, my anger, now my pain. These are the things that defined me, that shaped my life. ‘Everyone lies’, ‘People are evil’, ‘She’ll hurt you’, ‘Everyone leaves’, ‘No one cares’, ‘There’s no point in trying’, ‘I’ve always been alone’… these were the mantras that filled my heart, just like Javert’s. They aren’t entirely untrue, but they also aren’t entirely true. Certainly they aren’t principles to build a life around.

Love is a much better principle to build a life around. The thing is, love doesn’t reject most of those principles. It simply doesn’t care. People are evil… love them anyway. Everyone does lie… love them anyway. She might hurt you… love her anyway. They might leave… love them anyway. Love the people who don’t care, the people who walk away, the people who fight (God knows I did). Why? Because that’s all of us. That’s me as much as any of them, so why should’t I love them?

Right now, I can’t think of a reason.