Lacking Certainty

I like to be sure about things. In most ways I’m not a control freak (though I absolutely used to be), but in this way I still very much am. I like to be certain of the outcome before I do something major… like ask out a friend. The flowers I sent the other day met, according to my inside source, with a mixed reaction. They were viewed as sweet, but also a little odd and possibly kind of creepy. This isn’t the reaction that I expected, and to make matters worse I had a wonderful conversation with the young lady in question that very evening (though flowers were never mentioned). This conversation made me want to pursue her even more, but at the moment the only thing that I’m even remotely confident of is that she is completely oblivious to my interest.

This does not jive (yes, I just used the word jive) well with my need for certainty. I want to know how things are going to turn out, not guess. Of course, this desire isn’t limited to my romantic endeavors. I want to know many things. This has been a consistent struggle between myself and God. When he asks me to do something my first question is always ‘why?’ I have to know, and I fight him on it like mad until I do know. I’m sure some of you remember the occasion a couple of months ago when God asked me to invite a young woman to lunch. I fought with him about that for days simply because I didn’t understand why. The question ‘why’ is often my obsession. I always want to know why, and it is excruciating for me to be kept in the dark.

Of course, this obsession is often antithetical to actually trusting God in things. The absolute need to know ‘why’ contravenes the willingness to actually trust his wisdom. It is, needless to say (or at least I hope you could come to this conclusion on your own), quite frustrating. God has taken a lot of time to teach me how to trust, and still I am often very bad at it. Instead of simply trusting him and following, I obsess over the why questions and tear them apart. I will play out scenes in my head a thousand different ways trying to understand the whys and predict the outcomes. I’m usually wrong.

I think that I am slowly learning how to obsess less over things. Still, this morning (when I found out about this woman’s reaction to my gift) was particularly bad. I wound up pushing a friend (my source) for information (that she didn’t have in the first place) much harder than the situation warranted, precisely because I wanted to know. I have argued in a number of places that it is fundamentally impossible to know anything about the world that we live in. Knowledge=creative authority, and man does not have creative authority over the world. We interact with the world through our perceptions, and form beliefs based on those perceptions. Then we develop those beliefs into certainties, and act on them (not necessarily in that order). However, at no point in this process do we actually know anything about the world.

Nonetheless, even though I believe that it is fundamentally impossible, I want to know! This has caused me plenty of trouble in the past, and I have no doubt that it will continue to cause me trouble in the future. Nonetheless… while I can work on this issue, as I do often, I can’t simply wave it away until and unless God decides to intervene on my behalf. So, instead I focus on doing my best to be the best person that I can be, and to love others (this woman included) as best I can. I focus on glorifying God as much as I am able, and be his forgiveness, and the forgiveness of others for my failures (as I must do of my friend tomorrow).

I also do my best to do the best. Which means that I am going to stop agonizing over certainty and just ask this woman out. I’m going to try to keep it simple. I’m not going to make a great confession of love or anything. I’m just going to ask her on a date and see what she says. Hopefully it won’t blow up in my face.

Suffering, Hardship, and Certainty

Sometimes the bible sucks. Not the whole thing, mind you, just parts of it. There are parts of it that really, thoroughly suck… at least, from a selfish American perspective. 1 Peter 2 is one of these passages that calls us to things that we just don’t want to do. Peter starts off the chapter well enough by reminding his reader’s that they’re not actually alone (remember that the book was written to Christians spread throughout Asia-Minor and currently undergoing persecution). However, then he gets into issues of obedience, specifically obedience in the face of suffering.

As Christians we are going to suffer. Paul makes that perfectly clear in 2 Timothy 3 when he tells Timothy that those who follow Christ will suffer. Of course, for many this has led to the question: since I’m not suffering right now, does this mean that I’m not really following Christ? Of course not, but… maybe. The fact that Christians will suffer does not mean that all Christians will suffer at all times in all places. Christians are not promised constant suffering, nor are we promised universally equal suffering. We are simply promised suffering. If you consider yourself a Christian and you have never suffered for your faith, then the above may be a valid question. However, the fact that you haven’t suffered yet doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer in the future. To assume a constant or universally past quality in this would be a mistake.  That being said, Christians will suffer persecution. This persecution may come at the hands of people who disagree with us, people in authority over us, or people who hate us and are powerful enough to make the authorities look the other way (certainly this is far from a complete list), but it will come.

Not every Christians suffering will be equal. One Christian my be bullied in school, another may lose a promising career, another may be beaten, and another may have he hands and feet amputated. However, any suffering for the sake of the cross is a reflection in our lives of the suffering of Christ, and thus a thing of honor in which we should rejoice. This is a part of Peter’s message in 1 Peter 2. Of course, he also reminds us that there is a difference between suffering in general and suffering for the cross. If you are imprisoned for murder, you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering because you killed someone. If you were lazy in school and thus have lackluster opportunities, then you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering for you laziness. However, when we do suffer for the cross, it is a wonderful thing… this doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant thing.

I am always amazed by the (generally very young) Christians I see running around singing and praying and talking about how they want to be broken. I am often tempted to add to their prayer’s something like ‘God, please make so and so’s girlfriend dump him and kill his grandmother…’. Anyone who honestly, truly wants to be broken is insane. I have been broken, multiple times. Consider the meaning of the word here: to be broken, at it’s most basic, means that a thing no longer works correctly. When I am broken, I stop working. Being broken… hurts… to an unendurable degree. No one in their right mind finds this desirable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary. There is a huge difference between wanting to be broken, and being willing to be broken. If I truly trust God, then I must be willing to allow him to break me, because I know that being broken is the path to being better, and I want to be better.

Now that I’ve finished my rabbit trails, 1 Peter 2 calls us to submit to those who would persecute us. This is antithetical to the American mindset. An American, even most American Christians, is convinced that his/her rights and freedoms are paramount. However, 1 Peter 2 calls him to cast aside his rights, even in the face of unjust actions on the part of those in authority over him. American’s value independence and freedom to the point of making selfishness a virtue. However, the scriptures claim that we should think of ourselves as less than others, give of ourselves by putting others first, and allow ourselves to be treated unjustly and thus rejoice in sharing the sufferings of Christ. This is a hard shift to make.

A few years ago, I was fired from my job for unjust reasons (I think I’ve shared the story before). The company that fired me only gave me half of my last paycheck. They had deleted the rest of my hours. It took about a month… maybe a month and a half… to get everything worked out, and at first the company didn’t appear to be willing to handle the situation at all. For a few weeks I didn’t think I would ever be seeing that money, money that I sorely needed. I had a number of friends tell me that I should sue the company, and I wanted to. I had my schedule, and I had kept track of the hours that I worked (the company was notorious for losing hours). Moreover, I had a desire for vindication. However, I prayed about the issue repeatedly, and repeatedly God told me that I was not only not to sue them, I wasn’t even to mention the possibility. No suggestions or threats to create leverage or put an emphasis on getting things worked out. Even after mentioning this to my friends who suggested that I sue the company, they continued to push me to sue… I should mention that all of these friends were Christians. They cared about me, and they wanted me to take the ‘wise and reasonable’ course of action. However, in doing so they encouraged me to flout God’s specific will. They put human reasoning and my rights above the glorification of God, and I honestly lost a lot of respect for several people because of that experience.

God is trustworthy. Whether we are in times of plenty, times of hardship, or times of persecution, he is faithful to care for us, and he has not forgotten us. He has been, is, and always will be faithful to work everything to his glory and our good. This is something that we are all to prone to forget, and we shouldn’t be.

Reasonable Religion

Several authors have done a wonderful job of defending the rationality of the Christian faith (Alvin Plantinga, N.T. Wright, Francis Schaffer, and C.S. Lewis [even though I’m not really a fan of the last] all come to mind). They have thoroughly defended the historicity of scriptural texts and the rational foundations of theistic belief in general and of Christian belief specifically. However, there is a huge difference between warranted, rational Christianity (i.e. Christian belief that is philosophically and historical defensible) and reasonable Christianity (i.e. Christianity that fits into our ‘normal’ conception of life).

I cannot count how many times someone has told me to ‘be reasonable’ about my faith. By ‘reasonable’ they meant ‘I know that you feel like God is telling you something, but you shouldn’t do it’. People told me this in college when I sold my computer to pay for a missions trip. They told me this when I changed majors, when I decided not to pursue a pastoral position, even though I had a degree in Christian Leadership. They told me this when I quit a job at Walmart to substitute teach, and when I was convinced that God was pushing me towards a 17 year old girl (I decided that I wouldn’t actually pursue a relationship until after she turned 18, but she shot me down regardless… I’ll have to write that story sometime). Each of these decisions has led me into some difficult times, but in each of them following God and allowing him to guide my life has led to significant spiritual growth and has helped me to better understand God. It is easy for us to doubt, to convince ourselves that our reasonable decisions are a better guide to life than God’s will. However, I’ve also made some reasonable decisions, even when God was telling me not to (that’s what led me to Walmart in the first place), and they have never turned out well.

While our faith is absolutely rational and defensible, it is rarely reasonable from a human perspective. If you are ever convinced that God’s will is always going to be the reasonable thing try reading Genesis, or Exodus, Ezekiel, Hoshea, personally, I think my favorite example of the unreasonableness of the Christian faith is the crucifixion. Throughout scripture God asks those who are willing to follow him to do entirely unreasonable things. To sacrifice their own happiness and well-being for his glory. To sacrifice themselves for the good of others, and to trust God in impossible situations. Remember when God told Abraham to get up and leave everything he’d ever known? No idea where he was going, or what he was going to do, just leave. Or when God commanded him to kill his only son, the son of the covenant he’d made with God? Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is an excellent discussion of this.

Ultimately, the greatest argument for a reasonable religion is the pursuit of comfort. The American dream tells us to pursue our own comfort, our own ends, to take care of ourselves first, and that true strength comes from taking what we want. However, scripture tells us something completely different. Scripture tells us to put God first, and then others. To pursue God’s glory rather than our comfort. To leave off our own ends and pursue the ends of the kingdom. Lastly, scripture tells us that God doesn’t value the strength to take what we want, but the weakness to put others first, even when this means allowing them to take advantage of us.

The reasonable, Americanized church often rejects these concepts. It tells us to be hard and forceful, to defend our rights rather than live up to our responsibilities. It tells us to ignore God and do the culturally acceptable thing. To focus on this world instead of the next. All to often we develop the wrong priorities and the church encourages us in this development. So, one of the most fundamentally difficult aspects of Christian living in America is to avoid the trap of easy, reasonable religion that surrounds us, and instead to pursue ‘the upward calling’ of the faith.

Faith and Violence

As a culture we have developed the concept that violence, in any and every form, is evil. Yet we entertain ourselves with endless violence throughout every form of media, which we decry even as we consume it. We support seemingly endless wars, we encourage violence against criminals even as we chastise our children that ‘hitting is wrong’. We deprive our children of any legitimate means of expressing their frustration and anger, and then we wonder why school shootings are on the rise. In truth, as a nation, we have no clear concept of when violence should be used and when it should be avoided. We have no consistent philosophy of violence in relation to our daily lives. We might be able to espouse the tenets of Just War theory, but we can’t explain if or how America follows those tenets,or why they are justifiable in the first place. We certainly can’t explain the tenets of Just War theory in relation to Christ’s command to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the sermon on the mount. As individuals and as a nation we must answer the question: when and why is violence appropriate?

There are a number of seemingly pacifistic commands in scripture. Four of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9, 43-48; Matthew 6:39; Matthew 7:12) and another warning against violence appears in Matthew 26:52. However, only Matthew 7:12 truly supports a concept of Christian pacifism, and it only to the degree that every presentation of the Golden Rule supports pacifism, which is to say that it can be taken that way, but is better understood as a general standard of behavior. After all, if we all went around treating one another exactly as we individually want to be treated, we would doubtless cause many people to be aggrieved. No two people want to be treated in quite the same way. That being said, these verses do give us strong and real warnings against violence. Christ tells us that peacemakers will be blessed (though historically force can and does bring peace: consider the Pax Romana or the peace brought by the military might of the Han dynasty), and he tells us to turn the other cheek (i.e. violence is not a tool for vengeance). He also tells us that those who wield violence will die violently, which is all to often true, and he commands us to love our enemies.

However, the scriptures also have an inordinate (at least with a concept of pacifism) amount of violence in them. God commands the Hebrew people into many violent conflicts, and multiple times commands the people to commit genocide. He raises up violent oppressors to punish the people in the form of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and he himself does violence, both to the Jews (as a punishment) and to their enemies (as a boon). In the New Testament we see Christ drive the money-changers out of the temple violently. It is also interesting that in Luke, before his capture at the Garden Christ commands the disciples to procure the very swords that he later chastises Peter for using. In Matthew 10 and Luke 12 Christ promises to bring violence and division rather than peace, and in the book of Revelation we see God bring immense amounts of violence to the Earth, culminating in Revelation 19 in which Christ slays all those who oppose him. We also see, both in the Mosaic law and in Romans 13, the acceptance of violence in the pursuit of justice.

So, as faithful Christians, how can we practically approach the philosophy of violence? First, we must accept that violence does solve problems. As Jean V. Dubios says in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when confronted with the claim that violence never solves anything: “Tell that to the people of Carthage.” It is true that violence has probably solved more disagreements throughout history than any other method. However, this does not mean that it is the best method of solving problems.

Second, we must understand the places in which violence is appropriate. For instance, violence is appropriate between friends. A good-natured fight can be a lot of fun and a good way to get exercise. As long as both people are involved for the same reasons and no grudges are formed, then violence between friends is appropriate, natural, and healthy. Violence can even be a good way to solve problems between friends, as long as all parties are recognized as equals in the end. Violence is also appropriate in the pursuit of justice, for the protection of oneself or others, and in the defense of national interests. Formalized violence (i.e. refereed matches) can also be both a good form of entertainment and a practical means of solving a dispute between two parties.

Third, we must understand the places in which violence is not appropriate. For instance, while violence is appropriate in the pursuit of justice, it is not appropriate in the pursuit of vengeance. Violence should not be used to satisfy the emotional need for retribution. While violence can be a good means of resolving disputes between friends or opposed parties, it should not be used to oppress. A good fight between friends leads to agreement and mutual trust. When violence between friends results in oppression and resentment, then it is not healthy in itself, and it does not lead to healthy ends. Violence should never be uncontrolled. Whether it is controlled intentionally by those using violence, or controlled by a referee, violence that is controlled can be an excellent emotional outlet. However, when violence is uncontrolled, while it may be an emotional outlet, it generally doesn’t end well.

Lastly, we must understand that violence is never a replacement for faith. When one has a choice between faith and violence, faith must always win. God is our guide, our lord, and our judge, and when he commands us either to commit or abstain from violence we must obey. The capacity for violence demands responsibility, because if a violent person is not responsible in their use of violence, the result is almost never desirable.

Why? Just Why?

Even though I’ve avowed a desire to not pursue a relationship at the moment, I still find that a couple of women stand out to me. The girl that God has been pushing me to ask to lunch is not one of them. This is still no end of frustrating, but I’ve finally stopped fighting with him about it. I’m still hoping that lunch will be just that, lunch. Nothing more and nothing less than a good meal together and some spiritual conversation. That’s all I want from her, and I hope that’s all that God has planned. I’ve asked four people to be praying about this for me, and one of them actually knows her. He promised to pray, but also gave me the advice that I’ve been wanting to hear: she’s immature and selfish, it’s probably not a good idea to try to date her.

I thanked him rather profusely for that, and considered one of the women who is standing out to me at the moment. I would call her Smiley. It would fit, but I know someone by that name already… it doesn’t fit very well. So, let’s call her T’Amber. It’s… an unusual name. Anyway, T’Amber is mid-twenties, beautiful, very kind, and she seems both intelligent and quite invested in her spirituality. I rather like T’Amber, and am fairly positive that she’s available (I have a friend who lives with a guy who recently broke-up with her).

So, I find myself asking God: Why would you push me to ask Sally to lunch and not T’Amber? Seriously, what’s up with that? Then I remember the year that I spent working at Walmart. Right after I got out of seminary I was unemployed for several months. Paying rent, electric, car insurance, food, etc with no actual income will sap your resources fairly quickly, and so after a few months I was more than a little desperate to find a job. I can remember watching my bank account dwindle from several thousand dollars to a few hundred, and begging God to give me a job, any job.

Finally, within two days actually, I had two job offers. One was from a Chinese restaurant here in town working 14-16 hours a week for about $6.60/hour. The other offer was from Walmart, working 30-32 hours a week for about $8/hour. The choice seemed obvious to me, and yet I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God wanted me to accept the restaurant offer. It made no sense, it didn’t pay enough, it got in the way of my life. It was a stupid idea, and so I didn’t do it.

The following year was one of the most miserable years of my life. Walmart paid the bills (well, most of them), but it was a horrible place to work, and what was worse: I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wanted to quit from the moment I walked in the door on my first day of work, but God told me not to. Much like the Israelites after they refused to invade the promised land, I had made my choice, and God was going to teach me a lesson. And he did. It was long, painful, incredibly frustrating, and undeniably effective. When God tells you what to do, you do it.

I have to relate this to a student who’s currently in one of my classes. She and I haven’t been on the same wavelength through the entire class. She doesn’t turn in quality work, and often the work she does turn in has little to do with the assignment. She asks me for help and advice, but when I give it her response is either: ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘That’s stupid, I won’t do that’. Needless to say, the comparisons are both obvious to me, and less than flattering.

So, when it comes down to it… I’m going to ask Sally to get lunch with me. Like I said at the beginning, I really hope that lunch is just lunch. I hope that God has no further plans for this, and I hope that he opens a door to ask out T’Amber soon. That’s what I’d prefer or, better yet… that he would take women and relationships off my mind completely and make me a monk. It’s what makes more sense to me, but then… I’m an idiot.

Making the Cross Too Important

The cross, or rather Christ’s death upon the cross, is the only hope of mankind. It is the only means to salvation, the only propitiation of sin, and that completion that was intended and expected in the Mosaic law. This is all true. However, when I make my faith entirely about the cross, what I inevitably wind up saying is that my faith is about me, and this is the problem.

I need the cross. It is my hope and my salvation. God does not need it, because God does not need me. He’s perfectly fine on his own and there is nothing that I can do for him which he cannot do for himself. The cross has an important, irrevocable place in the Christian faith, but it should not be the center of that faith, because we should not be the center of that faith.

We often say that ‘If only one man on earth had ever sinned, Christ would have come to save him’, and I don’t actually disagree with this claim in anyway. God loves us and he wants us, this is made clear by the fact that the father would sacrifice the son so that men might be saved. However, when I hear this I often respond with this question: ‘If saving man hadn’t glorified the Godhead, would Christ have come to die?’

The answer to this is obviously no, because we aren’t the center of the Christian faith. Christ died for our sins because it glorified the Godhead. Our salvation is the primary means by which God is glorified (though certainly not the only means), and thus our salvation is important, but any attempt to make the means into the purpose is a mistake.

We serve a God that is beyond our understanding. A being of infinite knowledge, majesty, power, and presence, and in glorifying him our purpose is served. We should be obsessed with Christ, because he is both God and King. He is our savior and our hope. We should be obsessed with the cross because it was the means by which our salvation came, and that is important.

However, in these obsessions we must never forget that our highest obsession, our highest purpose, is to glorify the Lord of Hosts, and only in doing is our purpose served.