POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Hope. The final frontier

I'll never forget the season of life from early 1998 until September 27th 2001. My wife and I had married quite young and had hoped to start a family.

Our first pregnancy came with the expected joy, rapid family announcements and the fresh hopes of new parenthood. These hopes came quickly crashing down when we lost the first child to miscarriage. Over the course of the next several years we lost four more successively. It became an act of courage for my wife to hope to get pregnant and then hope the child would make it to term. It felt like a bad movie where the same script kept playing over and over.

In that season we thought about many things. My wife and I both wrestled with God’s relation to pain and suffering. Her questions were related to God's care for her and mine were more intellectual, considering if God was real. We also wrestled with the concept of Christian hope and the Lord really met with us in and through this time. God gave us quite a different perspective than we had in our youthful idealism.

The real struggle was with the continual disappointment with our circumstances. We were able to conceive quite readily only to have our hopes come crashing down. As a husband, it really hit me when my wife said, "I've been pregnant or dealing with the aftermath of miscarriage constantly, nonstop for three years and we have no children." Hearing that was heartbreaking. My bride had gone through every miscarriage physically, emotionally and spiritually and she began to really wonder if she wanted to try again. You see, there is a hope that disappoints. Trying again meant facing the unknown once again with a past that grew with disappointment.

One of the passages of scripture that really ministered to us came in the form of rhetorical question from the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 8.

24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. - Romans 8:24-25

Who hopes for what he sees? Who hopes for what they already have? Nobody. Hope is a future facing reality whereby we long for something we do not yet have. As such, hope in this life can be a very disappointing thing.

  • We had hoped for children. Have our family, nice, quick and easy. Disappointment.
  • We hope that things will go better at our jobs but sometimes they don't. Disappointment.
  • We hope to accomplish something in a sport and we get injured. Disappointment.  
  • We hope that our relationships will be full of joy and glory. Sometimes they are just made of the stuff of the earth. Disappointment.
  • Many times we think it is a promise from God to make us healthy, wealthy and wise. Not the case. Disappointment.

It takes courage to have hope in our world. Our expectations vary, are adjusted by reality and sometimes come crashing down. The whole book of Ecclesiastes is about deconstructing and unwinding our earthly hopes. This wonderful book wrecks us for putting our hope in the wrong things. You think wisdom and learning will make life perfect? Wrong. Wealth and achievement? Wrong again. Having pleasure? Nope. Placing our ultimate joy and future on the shaky foundations of this world is a fools errand here under the sun. Vanity, emptiness, a mere chasing after the wind.

Yet the gospel offers such a different foundation for hope in this life. As a human being we hope for something different in our current story. We grow numb and disappointed. But as a Christian, we have hope in God’s promise that all things will turn out to be far more than OK. This sort of hope is such a scarce commodity among the human race.

Hope is described in the New Testament as a hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5:5). Gospel hope is transcendent because it is based on the promise of eternal life with God. This promise issues forth from one who never lies. (Titus 1:2,3)

Our hope is always future facing so with every earthbound disappointment we renew hope in the promises we have in Christ. His Spirit is in us as a deposit guaranteeing our possession of a glorious future (Ephesians 1:11-14). He has an inheritance for us that will never spoil, fade or perish, kept in heaven for us (1 Peter 1:3-9). The Spirit has poured his love into our hearts so that we have a renewed hope and renewed vision even amidst the darkest of days. This is why our hope in God's promises in Christ are called "a firm anchor of the soul" by the writer of the book of Hebrews.

Hope indeed is the final frontier for human beings. This life filled with sin and death can batter the small hopes of the masses into despair. Yet for those who trust in the promises of Christ, who believe in the resurrection of the dead, who believe in the life to come and his glorious Kingdom have a different story. They will live from hope to hope through every trial and difficulty. Today’s disappointments will one day fully and finally fade into the eternal promises of our God.

This Easter you may perhaps say to one another "He is risen!" And when you reply, "He is risen indeed," remember that you have a hope that will not disappoint and not simply a religious slogan to echo. Your future resurrection with Christ guarantees that you will stand some day in glory with hope fulfilled by sight. Even when you face the final blows of death your hope will transcend that moment where many think all is lost.

If we have placed our hope only in this life we are to be more pitied than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:19). Yet Christ is risen from the dead and he leads us into and over the final frontiers of hope into the Kingdom of Heaven. Bank on it. 

Gospel Centered - A Metaphor from Physics

There is a basic equation in Newtonian Physics that describes the force of gravity acting between two masses.  It looks like this. Hopefully this will give flashbacks to science classes of days long ago. If you have never seen such a thing...well, you're welcome.

The G is known as the gravitational constant. It is what it is because of the way the universe is.  God made it this way, it is observable and makes our equation work.  One thing to notice about the law of gravitation is that it is what we call an inverse square law.  The masses “m1 and m2” are on the top and the distance between them “r” is squared on the bottom. This means that “the further” away the two masses are from one another the weaker the force. If you want to stay strong in gravity, put things close together. Additionally, the masses on the top influence the equation by their size. The more massive, the stronger the pull on the other object. This is why our earth goes around the Sun by the way.  The massive Sun exerts a strong gravitational pull upon our tiny planet so we “orbit it.” Kepler had more to say about how this works, but for our purposes this level of detail will suffice.

There is a parallel here for centering our lives on God and the gospel.  The thing that is largest in your universe is what influences you the most.  The strongest gravitational pull that the human soul knows is worship.  We are drawn to what is most massive in our souls.  We worship that which is the biggest deal to us, we are drawn in by our affections.  For the follower of Jesus we must worship and make God himself most massive in our universe.  Furthermore, we need to stay close to him day by day. Stay close to the most glorious, mighty and massive one and we will be strong in our walk with him.  Drift away or place some idolatrous false worship at the center of our souls and we court disaster. 

So what things are BIG in your life? Be honest. What do you fear to lose the most? What do you find your security in? What would you fight to hold on to?  These will be the things you are tempted to make into idols—things you worship.  List them. Pray that GOD would be bigger in your life than these.

Keep God the center in your life by the gospel!  But how do we keep close? God has graciously given us means of grace: Scripture, prayer, corporate worship the sacraments, work and witness to aid us in keeping close in following after Jesus.  By these spiritual practices we grow. 

Yet perhaps most the most important truth is that Christ pulls us all the way in. He is so massive in glory and importance that we are pulled fully into Him. We become one with Jesus by the Spirit, unified with Him, and this bond in the gospel is the strongest tie that binds.  We belong to Christ and our lives are spent learning, growing and living this out.

Flavors of Theology

Note: Graphic by Dr. Gregg Allison, Historical Theology, 32.

As the church lives out the mission of Jesus there is necessary theological work that must be done so that we rightly understand his character, his purposes and his will. The following is a brief sketch of ways of doing theology keeping biblical revelation at the center. All are necessary for building up God’s people and sending them in the mission of Jesus in our time.

Exegetical Theology is responsible interpretation and understanding of biblical texts.  Without exegesis you will miss the trees because they are in the forest. Key theme: understand the meaning.

Biblical Theology traces the major thematic teaching of scripture throughout the entire Bible and/or specified subsets or corpus.  Without biblical theology you will miss the forest from the trees. Key theme: see the big picture and story.

Systematic Theology is the formulating of doctrine based on the teaching of the entire Bible on a particular topic/subject appropriately interacting with the cultural setting of the church.  Without systematic theology you cannot teach about the trees or the forest. Key theme: teaching clearly.

Historical Theology is the study of the interpretation of Scripture and the formulation of doctrine by the church of the past.  Without historical theology you may think that you are the first person walking in a forest and looking at trees. Key theme: humbly listen to others.

Practical Theology is the living out of biblical doctrine together as God’s people in the midst of his mission in space and time.  Without practical theology you will not know the purpose for the forest or the trees. Key theme: all theology is practical and missional.

What might God say to the IRON MAN?

Confession: I loved comic books growing up. Not simply an awareness of them but collecting them, bagging them, boarding them, knowing their value in various conditions, reading various strength levels and super powers in Marvel Universe almanacs etc. Not sure how that happened but I still have a box of them in my attic. I think I enjoyed them because they develop interesting characters; characters you follow and watch develop over many issues and many years. In light of this I have been a full supporter of the comicbookization of Hollywood.  Seeing the Marvel Universe come to the big screens has been more than a little fun for me.  Not sure if my old favorites Powerman and Iron Fist are ever going to make it to the 3D screen, but who knows.

I say all of this to comment briefly on a scene from Marvel’s new movie The Avengers.  Now, before you judge this film, you should see it.  Sometimes a movie everyone likes is good and everyone likes it because it is good. That is for my film snob friends reading.  I saw the Avengers twice in its opening weekend. Why? For the children of course. I had to see it with my wife on Friday (my day off) to grasp why it had its PG-13 rating to decide whether my daughters could see the film.  After we determined the girls could go, Sunday night we hit the show on a Daddy date.  Tommy would be freaked out and afraid of the Hulk so he is not seeing it any time soon.

One scene that got quite a bit of traction in the trailer and is important to two of the main characters flows as follows.  For Avengers newbies, Tony Stark is Iron Man and Steve Rogers is Captain America.  Stark is a spooky smart guy who has invented some killer high tech weaponry and has a history of womanizing. Rogers is a super soldier from the early 20th century who got frozen in ice. His values are old school. Here is the short dialogue:

  • Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?
  • Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
  • Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you

So after thinking for a moment about this intense exchange between super heroes, I paused and asked what God might have to say to the IRON MAN:

  • Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 ESV
  • And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15 ESV
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 ESV
  • “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Is there something deeper that Captain America is getting at? Is there something bigger, more important going on in life that our “external suit”, our abilities, what we have and do? Jesus asked the following questions and I think asking them today would be good for you:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?

One of the great story-lines in the Avengers film is what takes place in the relationship between Cap and Iron Man…this dialogue isn’t the end of it so I recommend the movie to watch the rest of that story unfold.

The Joy of Suspense

What will Jesus do next? I find myself asking this as I read through the gospel of Mark in the New Testament. A great exercise for me has been to listen to Mark read aloud. The sense of movement and anticipation is quite a joyful experience. In the same way our lives are similar. We should always be asking the question: Jesus, what are you going to do next!?

I personally love a good story or film at the movies. Yet I do think we can neglect the significance of the story of our own lives. We watch a movie with suspense and expectation but we do not seem to watch “Tuesday” in the same way. Reading the story of Jesus makes me realize that he is present with me every day in significant events and in the normal routines of eating and sleeping. He also calls us to follow him in his work on the earth now.

This calling, when obeyed, leads to some joyful suspense as well as opportunities to let faith conquer our fear. My hope is that Mark would encourage us to swing our bat each day and joyfully watch as Jesus works in our lives and world. Standing on the sidelines, sitting the bench, standing with the bat on our shoulder as the pitch goes by, not trying at all to follow is lame Christianity as religion. I pray that in the joyful suspense of believing and following we might find life in his name (John 1:12). Sometimes there is a cross and pain in the trail before us, sometimes there is resurrection glory, yet on either path our hope is in Jesus. With this hope as a firm anchor to the soul (Hebrews 6:19) and our joy is seeing him lead us and surprise us day after day.

GK Chesterton once wrote that the modern mechanistic view of life and the universe drains it of its wonder. Real joy comes from knowing that life has a captain and we find delight as he fills each day with unexpected realities.

After the wave...

This morning just about all the roads in Middlesex County NJ are empty. This is rare occurrence caused by the recent rampage of hurricane Irene. The storm lost most of it’s southern Caribbean muscle, but still brought heavy flooding to parts of our state. This morning the worship gatherings of Jacob’s Well were cancelled due to the realities associated with the storm. We were to finish a series simply entitled “New School - A New Testament Overview”. Today was to be that enigmatic little book known as the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

Last summer, when we began an Old Testament introduction, I introduced the metaphor of a wave coming through all of human history. At the very beginning of time, after the fall of man and the curse of God upon the world, the promises of redemption and hope began to flow. The covenant promises of God build throughout history and culminate at a specific locus in space-time, the person of Jesus himself. At this point, all the energy of a wave at sea, culminates in a glorious picture of the glory of God.  At the cresting of a massive wave stuff begins to happen.  There is blessing and joy - like surfing - and power and chaos unleashed - like a hurricane.

Today, I was to complete the image of the wave by looking at what happens after the furious storm passes by.  As a kid growing up in Virginia Beach, VA I know what happens after a big tropical storm clears out. There is a glorious and glowing calm, sometimes the groans and pains of destruction and and exhales of relief.  Revelation is a book where the cresting wave and the powerful judgments of the storm are on display.  Both the chaos of sin, the blessing of God and power of his holy and right judgment is fully felt in all its joy and fury. Yet, what happens after the wave fully passes through?  What is left after all the churning of the water, the height and power of the wave and all the glory which is felt and seen? After every wave is a serene calm; after every storm there is a profound and tangible peace.  As the words of Charlie Richardson’s song, there is a peace, so rightly recall:

Thereʼs a peace to settle your soul,
There is a peace that is calling you home

It is no small thing that one of the images in the vision the apostle is given in the Revelation is that of a glassy sea. The dangers and perils and fear associated with the sea have been calmed. That which used to hold doom and calamity is now a beautiful accessory around the throne of God; the foundation for the throne room of heaven is peace.

After the wave of redemption flows through history, unfolding in the covenants and cresting in the person of Jesus, his work of gospel grace and holy judgment have fully brought redemption to all things.  What is our response?

 “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Revelation 4:1-11

As the Kingdom of Heaven is still a far country we still have much work to do in this age as we await the full peace in the age to come. Watch, Work, Pray my friends…for the glory of God, the good of our cities as we extend hope through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The who shapes the what...short reflection on being and doing

The following diagram was shared during our NT Overview series to describe the importance of the culture of a community and how it lives out its mission. It simply seeks to show the interrelated nature of a community’s culture (and individual character) and its actual flowing out in its mission. 

Our identity as believers and as Christ’s church is foundational. He is our definition and we live our lives in him through the gospel. Who we are has been changed by the gospel both individually and collectively (see Ephesians 1-2) and it is from our union with Jesus that we live out our missional calling together. We are a gospel centered people following Jesus on his mission in the world.

Our actions as believers and as Christ’s church are then transformational in that we are shaped by our daily practices. Whereas our identity is in Christ through the gospel, our choices, decisions and actions need to be shaped by the gospel as well. As we live this out, following Jesus, God’s Spirit bears fruit in us (see all of Galatians 5). This is both active—we work at it. What we do, what we do together, really matters. It is also passive, in that God is doing work in us, on us and through us (see Philippians 2:12, 13). If we do not live out our mission, choose to sow sin in our lives, go AWOL from Jesus’ purposes, it will effect us. We will look less like Jesus, more like the world and be unfruitful and ineffective in gospel work (see 2 Peter 1:3-11) To be a part of a gospel centered, missional community means we shape and share a culture based upon our calling in the world. When we do so our life together takes on a different reality and this in turn has a profound effect on our lives.

In Summary the WHO we are together should determine the WHAT we live together. Then the WHAT we live together continues to shape and transform the WHO we are. We should never deceive ourselves to think that the crew we flow with in life does not matter. In fact, it is indispensible to life and mission. And this, as you can see if you step back and look at the graphic above, creates a smile…at least this what my daughter saw here.

Theology and Mission - Circumcision with Titus and Timothy

Theology and Mission…Both Matter

During the first few decades of the Christian movement there arose a controversy as to how the Old Covenant laws should relate to New Covenant faith. As the  gospel of Jesus was proclaimed in the world, both Jews and non Jews began to place their faith and trust in him as their Savior.  As God created a new community of the faithful out of groups of people that had been separated in the past, many questions come to the forefront. Since Jesus was the promised  Messiah of Israel fulfilling the Old Covenant promises did the new Christians need to become Jewish first and then become “real Christians?” What of the Old Testament commands regarding circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant promise? What of the dietary laws designed to set God’s people apart as distinct from the nations? These questions had to be answered. 

Paul was very clear in his letter to the Galatians that to go back to the law when salvation has been accomplished by Jesus on the cross would to be a foolish thing to do.  He spoke against the necessity for circumcision in the strongest, most forceful of terms. Paul quite literally went off on the Galatians concerning this subject. Paul’s theology was clear; circumcision is not what saves you or makes you a part of the new covenant community. What makes a sinful person, justified by God? Paul’s answer throughout his writings is that faith in Christ alone as a gift of God’s grace is what rescues and declares sinners forgiven by a holy and just God. As such, Paul refused to have Titus, a gentile, circumcised because it would have betrayed the gospel (Galatians 2:1-6). When the church convened some meetings in Jerusalem they were unified and clear about this point (See Acts 15). Gentiles were not required to keep the practice of circumcision and other aspects of the ceremonial law. Yet in the very next chapter in the book of Acts we see Paul take Timothy, whose Mom was Jewish but whose Dad was a Gentile, and circumcise him. “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” So what gives? Why did Paul vigorously oppose Titus’ circumcision but not Timothy’s? In Titus’ case something theological was at stake, the very message as to what saves people! In Timothy’s case Paul’s concern was of a different sort. He was concerned with their mission among certain people.

In the context Timothy and Paul were to minister some may have considered Timothy, half Jewish, half Gentile, as someone who would not be speaking for God because he was obviously not following in his traditions as a Jewish man. So rather than hindering the hearing of the gospel, Paul circumcised Timothy so it would not be an issue of distraction from their message.  After all, Paul wrote to the Galatians “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Gal 5:6. The point being is that the heart aligned to Jesus in faith is what matters, not the external reality of circumcision. So Paul circumcising Timothy didn’t hurt anything (well maybe it hurt something) as Timothy was not counting on this and the law to save him. Yet Timothy being uncircumcised apparently would have hindered their mission and the reception of their message so why not just do it for the sake of the gospel? This echoes Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 

Paul would not give an inch in compromising the gospel and clearly shows us this in penning the strong warnings of Galatians. He also would not let things hinder a hearing of the gospel among people when those things were secondary issues of lesser importance. He proclaimed the good news in truth but with cultural wisdom and shrewdness. May we have both the courage to defend the truth and to proclaim it without hindrance to others in our own day.

An Overview of the Gospel Literature

Introduction

To come to know Jesus in spirit and in truth we must arrive to him instructed by the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  We must have a knowledge of him as he really is while the Spirit of God persuades us fully that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. To know Jesus we must see him in the gospels and experience the living Jesus spiritually present with us by the Holy Spirit. Both truth and spiritual experience unite when we meet Jesus in the gospels.1 In Jesus, God became flesh and lived among the peoples of the earth displaying to us his nature and his glory. Jesus is the majestic one and the written and proclaimed Word of God brings his majesty to us.

In the gospels of the New Testament we have compiled eyewitness accounts from people who walked with Jesus, talked with him, were taught by him, lived with him and were commissioned as his ambassadors and apostles to the world.2 The canonical gospels were all first century documents compiled as the mission of God moved out geographically3 and as the apostles neared the end of their lives. They wanted to be certain to pass on the life, teaching and mission of Jesus to the broader Christian community and movement4 who would continue to carry out his work in history.  These gospels, inspired by God, would grow in their importance as false teachers began to arise and circulate strange and esoteric opinions about Jesus which were not a part of the apostolic teachings. Many of their writings posed as “gospels” purporting to give secret knowledge and teachings about Jesus. Such writings were rejected by early leaders of the faith such as Iraneus of Lyon who were directly connected to the apostolic tradition.5 These works were never considered part of the Bible and have never been part of the Bible.6 They were false teachings rejected firmly by pastors who loved their people.  The four gospels of the New Testament are the agreed upon standards for the life of Jesus accepted by all Christians everywhere. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers all look to these works as the divine and inspired revelation of Jesus Christ.  Now let us turn our attention to what makes a gospel writing, a gospel and focus for a moment on the literary genre. 

History, Biography, Theology?

When we come to the gospels we arrive at some very unique writings composed of many types of literature.  These writings are composed of genealogies, narrative story telling, historical facts, proverbs of wisdom, teaching parables, commands, even some apocalyptic sections. Many questions can rightly be asked about these books. Are these books of history, mere biography or simply theological books aiming to teach us truths about God? For instance, there are certainly historical realities about the gospels in that they are set in real time and real places speaking about real people.  They do not speak about another mythical world in a galaxy far far away. So in that way the gospels are historical but they are not mere compilations of historical facts and figures.  They desire to teach us more than this. Furthermore, it should be noted that the gospels may well be properly classified in the genre of ancient biography.7 When we hear the word “biography” we may think of a show on A&E or a book telling the whole life story of a certain person.  We know the gospels do not do this as they only contain parts of the Jesus story; parts that serve the purpose and theological aims of the particular gospel in question.  This may lead us to see the gospels as books of theological facts but this seems far less personal that what we find when actually reading them. Scottish New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham gives a wonderful classification for the gospels in describing them as testimony:

Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning.  Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way.  It is where history and theology meet.8 

Therefore, we shall see the gospels as eyewitness testimony pointing to a real person, in real history, revealing to us real truth about God, ourselves and Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ.  As the gospels are where the historical Jesus and his theological teachings meet the following will serve as a brief survey of each of the gospels. In these summaries we will focus on what each contributes to our view of Jesus and a small bit of its unique theological contribution to the church. It is my hope that you might enjoy a of lifetime of studying these writings, meeting Jesus in them and growing spiritually through their nourishment as the Word of God.

The Gospel of Matthew

The first book of the New Testament is a gospel written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.  Matthew was a tax collector which means he was a Jewish man who worked for the imperial power that was Rome. You might say that he was from the block and had sold out to the man. He was a servant of empire whom God called and made a servant of the humble, sacrificial servant King. Matthew, is a distinctively Jewish work demonstrating that Jesus was not simply a new teacher on the scene, but rather the promised one of the Old Testament arriving in the fullness of time. We see this in several ways in Matthew’s gospel.

First, Matthew begins with a long genealogy which seeks to show that Jesus is the Son of David, the son of Abraham.  This not simply an exercise in creating someone’s family tree and this statement is not something as simple as: this is Rick’s family tree, the son of Harry, the son Tom…blah, blah blah. These two figures from the Old Testament are massive in their importance. David is the one who in the Old School was promised that an eternal King would sit on his throne in 2 Samuel 7.  Abraham is known as the father of faith, who in the book of Genesis God chooses to use to so that through his offspring the whole world would be blessed. His descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. So here is what Matthew’s genealogy says to us. This is the king of God’s covenant with us! This is the promised one who will be the savior of and blessing to the whole world.

Second, there are so many promises of the Old Testament which are fulfilled in Jesus on display in Matthew.  His virgin birth (Matt 1:22-23, Isaiah 7:14), his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3-6, Micah 5:2), his flight to Egypt from Herod (Matt 2:3-6, Hosea 11:1), Herod’s murder of kids under two (Matt 2:14-15, Jeremiah 31:15), his healing ministry (Matt 8:16-17, Isaiah 53:4), his use of parables in teaching (Matt 13:13, 14, Isaiah 6:9, 10), his riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal (Isaiah 62:11, Zech 9:9) and his betrayal by Judas for pocket change (Matt 27:6-10 and Jeremiah 18:2-6, 19:1-2, 4, 6, 11, 32:6-15 and Zech 11:13).9 These all point to Jesus being the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. 

Third, there is this fascinating section in Matthew 12 where Jesus quite literally is identified as “greater than the temple of God” and “Lord of the Sabbath.” The temple was the place of worship where the presence of God dwelled and the Sabbath was a divine command to rest and worship. Jesus is identified as the locus of worship and the one who is in charge of the very commands of God. He was not simply bringing a religious rule keeping to the world, but rather he himself was a fulfillment of all the ways of worship and the laws of God in the Old Testament.

Finally, Matthew’s gospel closes with one of the clearest declarations for God’s people who receive a mission from the great King. We are to go into all the world and make disciples (learners, followers of Jesus) of all nations/peoples (Matthew 28:18-20). The promised Christ of the Old Testament has come and he is our covenant King.  All Christians throughout history have this wonderful privilege to teach others to follow him until his eternal Kingdom comes.   This is some of what Matthew has to say to us.

The Gospel of Mark

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four gospels and contains just sixteen chapters. It is a gospel of action with Jesus’ bursting on the scene quickly and then at a high pace moving forward towards what has become known as Passion week.  This is the week of Jesus’s life where he will be tried, executed and subsequently rise from the dead. Church tradition has held from the earliest days that Mark recorded the accounts of the apostle Peter writing down his eyewitness testimony. Both Peter and Mark appear to be in Rome together and historically I find no good reason to doubt this tradition. When you come to Mark you get the sense that Jesus is a man with a mission; he has a job to do and he is getting after it. There are action words everywhere with the most prominent being the Greek term “euthus” which means right away or immediately. The writing of the gospel jumps from scene to scene with fast and furious frame changes showing us who Jesus is and what he came to do. Written in the imperial capital of Rome it does not contain as many direct Old Testament quotations as Matthew and Mark seeks to explain things well for readers who may not be as familiar with the Jewish traditions we find more quickly in Matthew. The promise/fulfillment themes does remain however particularly seeing Jesus as the suffering servant from the prophet Isaiah.

The gospel of Mark also focuses on the announcement and demonstration of the Kingdom of God.  In chapter 1 we read: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15). The Scriptures speak of the Kingdom of God as his actual rule and reign the comes along with his sovereign king Jesus. In Mark’s gospel we see the statement “the kingdom of God is at hand” being demonstrated in the life of Jesus through his miracles. Sometimes people can look at Jesus as a miracle worker just doing tricks to impress people. The gospels do not put on display a Criss Angel Mind Freak special.  Jesus’ miracles are demonstrations that a new paradigm of life has arrived with him. The old era of sin, death and evil oppression in the world has been broken and a new way of life has arrived. This is partially realized today and will be fully brought to pass in the final Kingdom of Heaven at the end of time.  However where Jesus is at work today we see the realities and a foretaste of this coming Kingdom.

As mentioned earlier Mark’s gospel, though brief, spends the bulk of its time in the passion week of Jesus where we see him fulfill his role as sacrificial substitute and suffering servant. This is summarized well in the wonderful verse in Mark chapter 10: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

The Gospel of Luke

Luke is an interesting figure in the New Testament and we see him both in the book of Acts and in the letters written by a man named Paul, a primary leader in the early Christian movement. For instance, we read the following of Luke. He is called by Paul “the beloved physician” in Colossians 4:14, “my fellow worker” in the work of spreading the gospel in Philemon 1:24 and he is the only one remaining with Paul as Paul awaits execution in Rome in 2 Timothy 4:11. As a physician he would have been well educated, well read and maybe a bore a parties…just kidding about that last part. Luke was a faithful, sharp, friend of Paul who was intricately involved in gospel mission and concerned to preach and teach the gospel well. 

Luke wrote a two part work in the New Testament which scholars often call “Luke/Acts” in that Luke is episode one and Acts is episode two of his work. We might call Luke, Gospel Episode One – The Spirit Empowered Savior and Acts Gospel Episode Two – The Spirit Empowered Church on Mission.  There will be no Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith however for evil and its empires will simply be beat down by Jesus, the true and greater Jedi knight.  Ok, forgive me, I could not resist.

Luke’s gospel is an historically detailed work and he tells us that he went to great lengths to compile the Jesus story in a deliberate fashion. He worked hard to collect data from eyewitnesses and to write an orderly account so that we might have certainty about what we have been taught (see his introduction in Luke 1:1-4).

His gospel also contains a genealogy but his concern is to not simply trace Jesus to David and Abraham…but to go all the way back to Adam. His point is that Jesus was the savior for all people, gentiles included, not only Jewish followers. Perhaps Luke had also heard Paul’s teaching that the first man Adam failed in following God whereas Jesus, the second Adam, would fully bring salvation to the world (see Romans 5). Luke presents Jesus as a person full of the Holy Spirit who would walk with God, fulfill his mission and lead us in practically living it out. The Holy Spirit is fully active in Luke/Acts causing New Testament Scholar Darrell Bock to make the following observation:

Luke is a profoundly practical Gospel. His message is not only to be embraced; it is to be reflected in how we relate to others. Luke is also known as the writer who tells us much about the Holy Spirit but this emphasis is less dominant in Luke than in Acts. Nonetheless, Jesus’ ministry not only fits within God’s plan, it is empowered by God’s enabling Spirit [as we will see in Acts]. The church’s ministry has a similar dynamic.10

The Gospel of John

The final gospel, written by the apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, was most likely put down while John was in the ancient city of Ephesus as an elder of the church there. It is different in nature than that of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and focuses on some important aspects of Jesus identity. John is a highly “theological gospel” demonstrating the full reality of Jesus and his work. John, never the one to hide his purposes, tells us exactly why he wrote down what he did:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.11

These words “Christ” and “Son of God” are the subject of John’s writing. His prologue states in unequivocal terms that Jesus was the preexisting son of God, in union with the Father, who became flesh in space, time and history (John 1:1-5, 14).  The signs and miracles of Jesus in John’s gospel show that the locus of divine activity is in his Christ (or Messiah) and this Jesus gives new life, eternal life, to all who believe and trust in him. (John 5:24, John 17:3). 

In John the dual natures of Jesus, fully human, fully divine, are clearly seen. His identity and works get displayed through the seven self identifying statements known as the “The I ams.” Jesus claims to be  the bread of life (John 6), the light of the world (John 8), the gate we enter and the good shepherd (John 10), the resurrection and the life (John 11), unique way to the Father, the truth and the life (John 14) and triumphantly claims to be the I AM, the very God of the Old Testament (Exodus 3, John 8). 

John’s gospel calls us to BELIEVE over and over but not simply a positive feeling or belief in believing.  No, John calls us to believe in the incarnate God Jesus Christ. The unique savior of the world who forgives sins, raises us to new life and promises us an eternal Kingdom without sin, death, disease, tears. In that day death will be smashed and done away with.

This is the Jesus of the Bible. This is the Jesus of the gospels. This is Jesus of living, resurrected power and ultimate reality. We echo the ancient call today: BELIEVE! and find LIFE in his name.

Notes

1. John Calvin, Insitutes of the Christian Religion, says this well “Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit” (Book I, viii, 13).

2. A compelling case for the gospels being comprised of eyewitness testimony is found in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses-The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

3. David Alan Black, following the work of William Farmer and Bernard Orchard gives an interesting hypothesis that the gospels were written during the periods of missional unfolding during the apostolic era. Matthew in the Jerusalem period, Luke in the gentile mission of Paul, Mark in Rome and John adding his theological gospel towards the end of the apostolic age. See David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2001) 13-33.

4. See Richard Bauckham, Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 9-48.

5. See Iraneus, Against Heresies—available many places online.  Iraeneus is said to have heard the gospel from a man named Polycarp who was a disciple of some guy named John the apostle.  The point is Iraneus, in refuting false teachings, was in the position to know.

6. Some scholars today such as Bart Ehrman of UNC Chapel Hill and Elaine Pagels of Princeton present these other books as “Lost Scriptures” from “Lost Christianities” rather than “rejected books” and “rejected” Christianities. This is historical revisionism at its worst. For a treatment of these issues see Darrell L. Bock The Mission Gospels—Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).

7. See genre analysis in Richard A. Burridge “About People, by People, for People: Gospel Genre and Audiences” in Bauckham, Gospel for All Christians , 113-145.

8. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 5,6.

10. Portions of this list adapted from Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)

10. Darrell L. Bock, Luke—NIV Life Application Commentary, 24.

11.  John 20:30-31

 

Freakin Out - Worry, Fear, Anxiety and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Worry, Fear, Anxiety and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

By Reid S. Monaghan

Introduction

In every epoch of history, human beings have struggled to find peace of mind amidst the chaos of life under the sun. Ever aware of the fragility of life and circumstances we can be gripped with worry, fear and crippling anxiety. The soul becomes caged to its own dark meditations and a strange bondage can overwhelm us. Our modern age is certainly rife with concerns of its own: rapid change, global terrorism, and economic uncertainty along with the lingering realities of disease, injustice, death and broken relationships press in on the modern psyche. This spring Jacobs Well will travel together in the words of God which speak to the deepest needs and fears of our lives. God wants to walk us from fear to faith, kindly teaching us what it means to trust Jesus our sovereign King. He is our Lord and will walk with us through the varied labyrinths of this world.

In this brief essay we will endeavor to do a few simple things. First, we will discuss the human experiences of fear, worry and anxiety and define some basic terms. Second, we will discuss the scope and suppositions which are underneath our study together. Third, we will speak of several issues which relate to our fear and anxiety and how these issues are connected to our relationship with God. Finally, we will give a brief outline of the subjects we will address biblically and theologically during the course of this series.

We are Freaked Out

To say that concern, worry, fear and anxiousness are “universal” would be self-evident to some and perhaps insulting to others. Though the degree to which we are gripped by such realities varies by individual and personality, they are indeed universal in scope. Not one of us can expect to sing hakuna matata for the rest of our days1. This world has many problems and troubles and these intersect with our story more often than some would like to admit. Current studies show that just over 18% of the adult population in our country meets criteria for suffering from various anxiety disorders.2 These are beyond the everyday stress, worry and fear experienced which is considered “normal.” Furthermore, when one looks at a list of modern psychopathologies the most prevalent category has to do with our fears.3 General anxiety also appears to be twice as common among the ladies as among men, likely because they have to deal with men.4 Just kidding, but the research is clear that though both freak out a bit, the ladies experience it a bit more. Finally, our own state of New Jersey is number five in the nation in “neuroticism” as we are in the “stress belt” of the northeastern United States.5 Things move fast here and you are expected to keep up or get out of the way. This does not give our own immediate context a peaceful easy feeling.

Furthermore, in our culture we might assume that money and financial security might alleviate one’s anxieties. However, a recent study conducted by researchers at Boston College is showing precisely the opposite. In a survey of 500 people who had an average net worth of 78 million dollars the research is showing that the super-rich are in no way immune to the specters of loneliness and anxiety. Many shared deep insecurity about, above all things, money.6

In every culture and place human beings “freak out” and are gripped with fear and anxiety. There are reasons for this that we will examine shortly. For now we must declare ourselves part of the world in which fear and anxiety will arrive at our doors. What we do with these thoughts and feelings we will examine during the course of our study. Before moving to look at the biblical backdrop for our world being a fear/anxiety producing place, I want to say a few things about the scope of our discussion and some assumptions we will have in looking at these issues.

Assumptions and definitions

I want to say clearly up front that our discussions of fear, anxiety, worry and the various relationships to God are not meant to be clinical in nature. We will be discussing these issues in a theological and pastoral context. There are cases of severe anxiety which call for clinical attention and I am thankful we have a good network of support for such circumstances at Jacob’s Well. However, with that said, it is my strongest conviction that our struggles in this area are indeed holistic and theological in nature. As such, the counsel and understanding of Scripture should not be neglected even in more severe situations. The worldview and teaching of the Scriptures should remain in the forefront of our minds as we wrestle with fear, anxiety and worry in varying degrees.

Basic Assumptions about Human Persons

Any discussion of things which affect both mind and body must proceed from a robust anthropology. Before we can address human persons, we must have an understanding of what a human person is. This is by no means taken for granted today in our culture. Some would say humans are only animals ruled by DNA working out its mechanistic replications due to environmental constraints.7 Furthermore, there is a view of humans which tends to boil down all behaviors into desires for sex and survival as if these are the only aspects of life which matter. Others would see the mind as merely a product of the electrochemical machinations of our brains.8 Of course I use the terms only and merely above as I find no disagreement with humans being partially animal in nature and certainly there is a correlation between the function of the mind and the human brain.9 Yet we resist a pure reduction of man into matter which would eliminate a functioning person residing in unity with his physical body. 

The view we are assuming here is a biblical anthropology whereby we consist of a psychosomatic unity. In this view, humans are not seen in either of two extremes. We are not reduced to being bodies alone nor are we seen as disembodied spirits trapped in a body. Soul and body unified as a human person is the view we will follow in our discussions. There is much more to be discussed here so for the interested reader I refer you to several sources on biblical anthropology.10 In light of this view we not only see a reciprocal nature between body and soul; we expect it. The state of the body affects the soul and the condition of the soul affects the body. As such what we believe, trust, assume and place our hope in has a holistic effect on us as human beings.

Basic Definitions

As we begin a discussion of “freakin out” I did want to provide some very cautious definitions. I am using the label “freakin out” to encompass several conditions of the soul, namely, worry, fear and anxiety. I do not intend philosophical precision in using these terms only to broadly describe our human experience. Dr. Ed Welch gives the following helpful example:

To deeply understand fear we must also look at ourselves and the way we interpret our situations. Those scary objects can reveal what we cherish. They point out our insatiable quest for control, our sense of aloneness. Even the vocabulary of fear indicates that the problem can be deeper than a real, objective danger. While “fear” refers to the experience when a car races toward us and we just barely escape, “anxiety” or worry is the lingering sense after the car has passed, that life is fragile and we are always vulnerable. The terrain is fear and anxiety. You are familiar with it, and you are not alone.11

We will follow this basic understanding that fear is concern of harm coming and worry/anxiety is a projection of such into the unknown. As human beings our fears and anxiety are byproducts of and reactions to the world. What we believe about and our response to circumstances in our world therefore matter greatly. Furthermore, as human beings who are made in the image of God, our fears and anxieties are directly related to our belief in the truth about God, ourselves and our circumstances. The goal we have is not to eliminate all fears but rather to see God transform how we experience life in a fearful world. Faith rises and trusts in God and can indeed overcome negative fear and anxiety. Yet before we look at the path ahead, we want to see biblicaly why this world is such a strangely fearful place? To these issues we now turn.

Fragmented and Fearful

If you look at the grand narrative of the Bible we see right at the beginning why the world is at once a good and hostile place. The earliest chapters of Scripture tell us that the entire world is the creation of God who made all things good (See Genesis 1-2). Human beings, made male and female in the image and likeness of God, are said to be created very good. The early creation is described as a primordial paradise, a place perfectly suited for human beings and their fellowship with the creator. The first pair of humans, by their own desires, disobeys God and the world is placed under a curse and severe consequences (See Genesis 3). There are many dramatic results from this human rebellion which make this world a hostile and fearful place. Though human beings were made to be in intimate communion with their creator, they are now separated from him, under a dominion of darkness, fighting with one another and destined to die. Welcome to the party on planet earth; welcome to a good world pervasively stained with sin. The following is a just a brief description of the unfolding cosmic struggle of which we are a part.

Drama with God

The result of our fall and sin is that we desire our own ways rather than following our creator. The essence of the disobedience of the first humans is that we are separated from the God we were made to worship and know in intimacy. As such we feel a sense of isolation in the universe while surrounded by the masses of humanity. Furthermore, we feel guilt and shame for our own sin and we find no remedy. Finally, as humanity suppresses the knowledge of God we are given over to our own paths which results in destruction (Proverbs 16:25, Matthew 7:7). As we invent ways in our rebellion to make ourselves happy and safe apart from God the alienation deepens and we find no peace for our souls. Read Romans 1 for a great description of all of this.

Drama in Nature

The world which was originally a hospitable Eden has been darkened by struggle, pain and death. As a result, we feel quite at home on the earth but also find deadly peril in nature all about us. The rains which feed us also sweep us away. The seas that make our environment hospitable to life rise up and consume us. Unseen organisms which balance the ecosystem also cause sickness and disease. Our own use and abuse of the natural world threatens us with environmental disaster. The Bible describes creation as good but in bondage to decay awaiting liberation (Romans 8:18-25) and as such is a beautiful design and a fallen catastrophe. Our place in nature can cause us great joy and fill us with great fears and worry. We also feel responsible for creation and the environment in a way that turtles do not. This too freaks us out and currently causes us to fight with each other. This of course is another problem we face. Can’t we just all get along?

Drama with Each Other

Another reality under the sun is the constant enmity between human beings. In the very beginnings of the Bible we see one brother murder another (Genesis 4:1-10) and we have found ourselves at war ever since. People have fought with one another for all of human history over land, tribe, honor, race or ideology (both religious and non-religious). Modern humanity is somewhat of a puzzle to me. We think ourselves enlightened and wise and grown past our barbarous past while sitting comfortably just on the other side of the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. On a micro level each day we politic at work and fight one another in our homes. On a macro level we drop bombs on the masses and shell cities with artillery. This too can cause great fear and anxiety in the soul.

Drama with Demonic Powers

In addition to our struggle with nature and one another, spiritual powers of darkness war against our souls. (Ephesians 6:10-20) Demonic and deceitful influence can bring false accusation and oppression upon people (John 8:44, 1 Peter 5:6-11). If you have ever looked into the face of pure evil the fear that it can bring does not depart with any sort of ease. The denial of God and the war against God by Satan and demons is often ignored but never absent from the world.12

Drama with Death

Finally, the great enemy of death itself looms large on the horizons for every human being with physical and psychological suffering along the way. Death is a peculiar thing. It is at once one of the most common and “normal” things about life but feels to be an alien invasion to it. The loss of loved ones, the death of a child, the finality of someone passing from this life and the regret of years lived without meaning haunt the human soul. Modern humans live with little discussion and answer to death. Some resigned to think that it is the silent snuffing out of life while others simply never prepare for its coming. The book of Hebrews teaches us that it is appointed for us to die and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). This too brings pause to the thoughtful soul.

It is in this world: a world of death, fighting, disaster, disease and rebellion against God that we find ourselves. It is in this world Jesus taught us plainly “You will have trouble.” (John 16:33) In this world, there is no way to avoid concerns, cares, worry and anxiety. It is in this world where we must face up to our fears.

Before we describe the journey ahead in this series I want to be clear that worry, fear and anxiety are not categorically “bad” things. Fear can be useful as it can keep us from true dangers. Concern for the future can cause us to pray and plan well in light of God’s leading. We clearly see this in the Scriptures. In the book of Nehemiah, the disastrous state of Jerusalem caused a man deep concern and led him to faith and action (See Nehemiah 1-2). In the New Testament, Paul lists two times in one of his letters to the Corinthians that his spirit was anxious and concerned for a friend as well as the new churches (See 2 Corinthians 2:12, 13 11:28). Furthermore, Jesus, who was fully human and lived without sinning (Hebrews 4:14-16), was so psychologically burdened the night before he was crucified that he was physically devastated (See Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22)13. These are simply a few examples to show that fear and anxiety in and of themselves are part of the human experience and not in themselves sinful. In fact, an unmoved apathy towards the concerns of our lives, other people and the fallen world is profoundly at odds with the demands of love.

Key questions for us are as follows:

  • How will we handle fearful and anxious thoughts and emotions when they come?
  • Will we go to God or run from God in our fears?
  • Will worry cause us to seek other gods to save us or will we turn to the God who is mighty to save?
  • In the anxiety of the day and our worries about tomorrow, will we take our seats in a den of idols or truly place our faith in Jesus, the living God?
  • Will fear and worry cause us to pursue selfish paths of self-protection or will we be free to love and serve others?

I hope these questions help us to see one thing clearly. How we respond to God in our fear and anxiety will make a huge difference to our daily experience and our usefulness in the mission of God.

Our Study Together

Over the course of the next few months we will wrestle together with many issues related to our fears and anxiety. The following will serve as vignettes or abstracts for the ground, God willing, we will take together.

Where We Stand or Fall

There are several doctrines of Scripture which are crucial for us to understand in order to find peace of mind and rest for the soul under the sun. In this message we will discuss four foundational truths which settle the heart in the hands of the Father. The sovereignty of God, the love of God, the presence of God’s Spirit with us and in us and an eternal perspective for our longings for safety and security will be examined. These foundational truths will set the table for the practical teaching of the Scriptures to come.

Worried about Tomorrow

In this message we will examine the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 6 about worrying about the future. We fear the future for many reasons. We wonder if we will be safe, if/when will we be harmed, and the quality of our health and the stability of finances. We also have a profound desire to “make it happen” and control everything which can cause deep worry about days ahead. We also worry about the future of our families and whether we can keep everyone fed and a roof over our heads. We care deeply, so we worry. In this message we will look at trusting in our Father to face the future which always remains an unknown to us as we rise each day.

Anxious about Today

In our second message on worry/anxiety we will look more closely at how we face each day and its challenges “with God.” As we head out to our various duties many can have anxiety about not measuring up, not getting it done, being hurt by others and not being in control. Each day we are tempted to pray “my kingdom come, my will be done, on earth as I try to make it my heaven.” When we fear this won’t happen, we freak out. So we will focus in this message on prayer and fellowship with Jesus throughout each day to deal with the soul’s burdens as they arrive in real time.

Facing Fear

One of the most repeated imperatives (commands) in the Bible is “Do not be afraid.”14 Interestingly we are also called quite clearly to “fear God and keep his commandments.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14) In this message we will look at how the fear of the Lord begins a life of wisdom and how in fearing God we learn to not be afraid.

Disappointment with Idols

As human beings we are made to trust and worship. God created us this way yet we so often trust and worship everything but God. When we trust other things and they let us down, we get stressed out, worried, freaked out and even despair. A sure sign our worship is being misplaced is when we freak out over things which are not eternal. One thing is sure in the affairs of human beings: when our gods fail us, our world comes crashing down. A key question for us is this: when our idols fail us, where will we turn?

Trust and Confidence in God

A great image we find in the Scriptures that God himself is a sturdy, strong, secure place. Difficult circumstances are certain to come and the burdens of life will become heavy upon us. Learning to run to God as a present help in times of trouble, a strong tower and mighty fortress is an important rhythm we must grasp in our grappling with fear and anxiety. The safest place is found in one person; the one who is stronger than every enemy we will ever face.

The Arms of Community     

We like to tell ourselves that we can go it alone and take the world on our own terms. This posturing is not only foolish but does not help us towards peace of heart and mind. God has gifted us with his community to receive practical comfort from others in times of need. We learn to have compassion and empathize with others and when to have courage and exhort our brothers and sisters forward out of namby pamby land. Life has many burdens that we must learn to carry together. Sometimes we need a hand, sometimes we need to quit whining and lend a hand. God willing, we will seek this balance together.  

Conclusion

In all honesty my own personality and constitution teeters between being a visionary focused planner and being a concerned and anxious worrier who freaks out over the smallest of things. I am very much in process with all the matters of which we will speak together during this series at Jacob’s Well. It is both humbling and exciting to take this journey with you so that we might see worry, fear and anxiety properly related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is the one who calls us forward with the words “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Long ago a group of Jesus’s followers heard these words and then forgot them as they watched their master executed on a Roman cross. They then remembered these words after they saw him rise triumphantly over the grave. From that age forward many of his people have been bold as lions and peaceful as doves in the face of many a trial and atrocity. They knew the one that held the keys to death and hell loved them and would bring them safely home. They believed deeply the words of their Lord “in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Of these men and women…the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11). May we be numbered among them in our day!

Pastor Reid S. Monaghan

Bibliography

Allers, Roger. “The Lion King.” Walt Disney Company, 1994.

Beauregard, Mario, and Denyse O’Leary. The Spiritual Brain : A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. 1st ed. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Cooper, John W. Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting : Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989.

Dawkins, Richard. “God’s Utility Function.” Scientific American 273, no. 5 (1995): 85.

Kessler, Ronald C., Wai tat Chiu, Olga Demler, and Ellen E. Walters. “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12-Month Dsm-Iv Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survery Replication.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 62, no. June 2005 (2005): 617-627.

Koukl, Greg. “All Brian, No Mind.” http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5474 [accessed April 29, 2011].

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. New York,: The Macmillan company, 1944.

Monaghan, Reid S. “The Implications of Nancey Murphy’s Non Reductive Physicalism on Confessional Christian Theology “  (2009). http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/non_reductive_physicalism.pdf.

Murphy, Nancey. Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? Current Issues in Theology, Edited by Iain Torrance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Simon, Stephanie. “The United States of Mind ” Wall Street Journal  (2008). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122211987961064719.html [accessed April 28th, 2011].

Smart, John. “The Identity Theory of Mind.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (2007). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-identity/ [accessed April 29, 2011].

Tyrer, Peter, and David Baldwin. “Generalised Anxiety Disorder.” The Lancet 268 (2006): 2156-2166.

Welch, Edward T. Running Scared - Fear, Worry and the Rest of God. Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2007.

Wood, Graeme. “The Fortunate Ones.” The Atlantic 2011.

EndNotes

[1] This of course is a reference to the Swahili phrase made popular by Disney’s 1994 animated hit The Lion King. The phrase means “no worries.” Roger Allers, “The Lion King,”  (Walt Disney Company, 1994).

[2] Ronald C. Kessler and others, “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12-Month Dsm-Iv Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survery Replication,” Arch Gen Psychiatry 62, no. June 2005 (2005).

[3] Edward T. Welch, Running Scared - Fear, Worry and the Rest of God (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2007), 22.

[4] Peter Tyrer and David Baldwin, “Generalised Anxiety Disorder,” The Lancet 268, no. (2006).

[5] Stephanie Simon, “The United States of Mind ” Wall Street Journal (2008). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122211987961064719.html (accessed April 28th, 2011).

[6] Graeme Wood, “The Fortunate Ones,” The Atlantic 2011.

[7] The modern reductionist view is well represented by the works of Richard Dawkins who wrote “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273, no. 5 (1995).

[8] See John Smart, “The Identity Theory of Mind,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-identity/ (accessed April 29, 2011).For a version of this by a Christian author see Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? , ed. Iain Torrance, Current Issues in Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[9] For a simple and popular level discussion of this see Greg Koukl, “All Brian, No Mind.” http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5474 (accessed April 29, 2011).

[10] See Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain : A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, 1st ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2007); John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting : Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989); Reid S. Monaghan, “The Implications of Nancey Murphy’s Non Reductive Physicalism on Confessional Christian Theology ” (2009). http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/non_reductive_physicalism.pdf.

[11] Welch, 25.

[12] For a balanced and creative look at demonic activity see C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York,: The Macmillan company, 1944). There is also an excellent audio version of this work I would highly recommend.

[13] Some read the description in the gospel as demonstrating Jesus had stress induced Hematidrosis, a very rare condition where a person’s sweat glands secrete blood. Others find the sweating of blood to be metaphorical. Either way, the intense emotional anguish affected Jesus physically and was in no way sinful. It was a human reaction to facing certain and painful circumstances. The important thing we see in this narrative is that Jesus goes “to God” in prayer during his hour of greatest anxiety.

[14] Welch, 59-61.

On Human Anthropology

I have written a couple of times over the course my long journey in graduate school dealing with the subject of human anthropology. I have had particular interest in the are of mind-brain identity and various flavors of dualistic anthropology.

For those interested in these subjects the following are posted for that tremendous horde…

  • Are Human Beings Constituted of one, two or three substances? Link to pdf
  • The Implications of Nancey Murphy’s Non Reductive Physicalism on Confessional Christian Theology - Link to pdf

Dragons

In the old world dragons were mythical beasts of menace to be fought off and slain. In today's imagination we see them as misunderstood and train them and make them our friends.

We moderns do the same with sin. We are then puzzled that dragons still bite, breath fire and eat our children. Our solution, logically, is to give better care to the dragons. Nice dragon...you stay right there...ok?

Jesus...Fully God, Fully Human

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a short letter with a singular focus.  He wants us to see that Jesus is enough for God’s people.  In the middle of Chapter 1 he goes to some length to explain to us who Jesus really is in all his glory.  In looking at what some have deemed the “Christ Hymn”1 of Colossians, we quite literally come to one of the mountaintop vistas in the entire Bible.  As Jesus is the central focus of the Bible (Luke 24:27) such clear and airy Christology2 found Colossians 1:15-20 is indeed one of the high points of the Bible.  This passage has been central to the church’s understanding of Jesus and has been part of a robust theological discussion over the years.

The Identity of Jesus in Early Church History

The identity of Jesus was of extreme importance to Christians in every era of history but was especially central to his earliest followers.  Jesus himself walked on the earth, lived his life with a community of people, preached, taught, was crucified and raised from death.  Jesus is truly a complex person. In the New Testament he is at once a very human, human being. At the same time he claimed to be God striding upon the soils of planet earth.  After his life, Jesus’s apostles and their associates wrote down his story, his teachings and eyewitness accounts3 of his death and resurrection in what we call the “Gospels” of the New Testament. There are four of these—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.4 In addition to these gospels there are various sections of the other New Testament writings which speak to the identity of Jesus. 

Early Controversies 

There was some debate among the early Christians as to whether Jesus was “more human” (ala Arianism—he was not fully God) or “more God.” (ala Docetism—a view that said he just appeared human). Some wanted to focus more on his humanity, others on his divinity and some wanted to keep the divine and human separated. There is good reason for this debate.  The Bible is vehemently and without equivocation monotheistic.  There is only one God (see Deuteronomy 6:4; 2 Samuel 7:22; Isaiah 44:6-8, 45:5; Romans 3:30; Ephesians 4:4-6; James 2:19) and yet Jesus claims to be God and prays to God as his Father.  Something wonderful and different is up here! 

Historically, the truth of Jesus is found in the New Testament teaching.  Clarity on all this matters took some time, but a strong unity was forged in the early creeds and councils of the church.  The major controversy was between followers of Arias (who taught that Jesus was a created being and not eternal God) and those following the New Testament in holding God/Humanity of Jesus together in one person. This position’s leader was an Egyptian named Athanasius.  These two positions were debated at the Council of Nicea in AD 325.  This council was to resolve this debate about the nature of Jesus Christ and was not in any way a council that “gave the church the Bible” or any other of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code speculation.5

Theological Consensus

The council of Nicea resulted in a big thumbs down on Arias’ doctrines declaring them to be heresy.  The council also affirmed the biblical teaching with an early formation of the Nicene Creed.  This document was the statement around which Christians unified in relationship to the unique identity of the God of the Bible as a Triune being existing eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The following is just a snippet that may sound familiar to those who grew up in liturgical church traditions.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

The Nicene creed simply articulated the teaching of the Bible that Jesus was indeed God. More doctrinal precision was provided by the Chalcedonian definition in AD 451 which clarified the biblical teaching that Jesus was fully human and full God in one person.  He was not sort of human and really God or sort of God and kinda human.  The definition reads as follow.

Therefore, following the holy fathers [early church leaders/pastors], we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us. 6

Though we might need a dictionary along with us to read the above, it is indeed an awesome statement.  The teachings of these creeds about Jesus are simply articulations of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and have played a unifying role in church history.7 In fact, all Christians from every tradition—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical8 are in agreement on the truths of these creeds. Why? They come from the Bible which bears witness to this unique person. In fact, Jesus is revealed in the Scripture as the most unique person who ever lived. The following will be but a simple survey of some of the biblical teaching.

The Biblical Teaching

Jesus is not normal. Never was, never will be.  In fact, he is the most startling, unique, mysterious, glorious, compelling, magnetic, loving and true person who ever lived.  The Scriptures reveal to us both truths that Jesus was God and man.  The following will be a listing of some of the biblical teaching. 

He is man

In the Old Testament we are taught that the coming Messiah/Christ would be a human being (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6,7). Jesus fulfills this in every way. First, he was born into and grew up in a human family (Luke 1-2).  Second, he exhibits the full range of human emotions in the gospels. He was tired, hungry, thirsty and in his humanity he had limited knowledge (John 4:6-7 and 19:28, Mark 13:32).  Third, Philippians 2:6-8 clearly teaches that Jesus, though was in very nature God,  humbled himself and became human.  Fourth, He was tempted just as we are yet did not sin. (Matthew 4, Hebrews 4:15) Some erroneously teach that to be human means to be sinful.  Yet we see Jesus fully human without sin.  Finally, all the gospels record that Jesus bled and died on the cross.  It is simple for us to understand Jesus was an historical human being, yet some question whether this man was truly God incarnate.  The amount of biblical testimony to this second claim is actually massive in detail.  On we go to that happy trail.

He is God

Here we will provide a sketch of the testimony of Scripture as to the deity of Jesus along five major lines. For those who desire more I refer you to a couple of clear recent works that cover the issues in some detail.10

#1 He is clearly called God and divine names are attributed to Jesus

First, Jesus is called theos the Greek word for God in many places in the New Testament (John 1:1, John 20:28, Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, Titus 2:13, 1 John 5:20, 2 Peter 1:1). Second, he is called the Son of God in the gospels.  This is sometimes a misunderstood concept where many think this distinguishes Jesus from being God.  Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes the following observation that sheds light on how this title was understood.  Kreeft writes: Son of a dog, is a dog, son of an ape an ape, son of God, is God — Jews were Monotheistic, only one God—Son of God is the divine title of Jesus and everyone at his time understood this title to mean just that.Third, Jesus is called the Son of Man some 84 times in the gospels and is his most used title for himself. This title represents the perfection of humanity in the person of Jesus in contrast to the sinful nature of humanity in Adam.11 It is also a direct reference to the divine figure in Daniel 7 of the Old Testament.  Jesus used this to describe both his first and second coming. About his first coming he said, the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for people (Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28). As to his second coming, in direct reference to Daniel 7, he tells the high priest at his trial that the Son of Man will come again on the clouds of heaven.  At this he is accused of blasphemy because he had claimed to be God. See dialogue in Matthew 62-65. Finally, Jesus is called LORD, kurios, which is used for Yahweh in Greek translations of the Old Testament (Philippians 2:11, 1 Corinthians 2:8). 

# 2 Certain attributes of God are used to describe Jesus

There are certain characteristics about God that theologians calls his divine attributes. Some of these are directly predicated to Jesus as well.  Jesus is said to be unchanging (Hebrews 1:12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27, Hebrews 13:8) and all powerful (Philippians 3:20,21, Revelation 1:8) and eternal (Isaiah 9:6,7; Micah 5:2). 

# 3 Jesus does the works of God

Jesus is said to be the creator and providential sustainer of all  (Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-3). Furthermore, he is said to give eternal life and forgives sins that are against God (John 10:28, John 17:2, 1 John 2:25, Mark 2:5-12, Colossians 1:14, 3:13). Jesus’ miracles also confirm his power over nature, disease and death itself.

#4 He is worshipped as God by monotheistic people

The Scriptures are clear that the worship of anyone or anything is idolatry and the deepest of sins. Deuteronomy 6:13-15 teaches us that God’s people shall worship/fear only the Lord their God. Additionally, The Ten Commandments call us to worship only the God of the Bible and to reject idols and the worship of images (Exodus 20). Furthermore, the angels, various men and Jesus himself all understand that worship is exclusively for God (Angels in Revelation 19 and 22, Peter in Acts 10, Paul in Acts 14 and Jesus himself quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 to Satan during his own temptations in Matthew 4). So we find something amazing happening in the New Testament. Jesus is worshipped and he accepts worship without any hesitation at all (Matthew 2:11, John 9:35-39, Matthew 21:9-16, Luke 19.37-40 and Matthew 28:9,10, 17).  Even more amazing is that God the Father actually commands angels to worship Jesus (Hebrews 1:6) and Jesus will be clearly worshipped in Heaven (Revelation 5). 

#5 He directly claimed to be God

His own testimony is that he is the pre-existing great I AM of Exodus 3 (John 8:58), he is one in essence with the Father (John 10:30), he existed with the Father before the world began (John 17:5) and he claims to be the divine Christ (Matthew 26:63,64). His enemies wanted him killed for blasphemy because he, a mere man, was clearly claiming to be God.  

The Unique Glory of Jesus

The wonder of Jesus Christ isn’t that he was a great moral teacher. He was.  The wonder of Jesus Christ is not that he was kind, loving and compassionate to the poor. He was. The glory is found in that God became poor and one of us. He desires to walk with us, teach us and lead us. The glory is that Jesus is worthy of worship because as the unique Son of God he gave his life for us. Some might make him too exalted and far away—less human. Some might seek to bring him down from heaven and make him just a slob like one of us.11 Dear friends, the path he gives us is much better.  He shares our humanity and lives with us by his Spirit as the divine, glorified and risen Savior. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—he shall reign forever and we shall worship him.  He is worthy of all that we are.

Notes

1. See discussion in Douglas Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) See introductory section on Colossians 1:15.

2. Christology is the theological discipline dedicated to the study of the person (who he is) and work (what he has done) of Jesus the Christ.

3. See Richard Baukham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

4. Matthew and John were among the twelve apostles.  Mark wrote down the apostle Peter’s account (see my introduction to Mark here http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/nt_web_jw.pdf) and Luke was the traveling companion and missionary secretary of St. Paul.  Luke’s gospel, by its own prologue, was Luke’s job to pull together the Jesus story with some precision.

5. A simple, helpful book on all that schmack Darryl Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).

6. Both the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition can readily be found online. Use the Bing or the Google and you’ll find these.  Or just go here—http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html

7. For a thorough treatment on creeds and there use in the Christian tradition, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo-Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Good buy for the library.

8. For the continued Evangelical consensus on these issues see JI Packer and Thomas Oden, One Faith—The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004) 71-75.

9. Geisler and Hoffman, Why I am a Christian, Part 5, Chapter 13—Peter Kreeft Why I believe Jesus is the Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001) 222-234. 

10. Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998) and Robert Bowman, J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2007)

11. Ben Witherington III, “The Christology of Jesus Revisited” in Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, JP Moreland, To Everyone an Answer – The Case for the Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2004) 155

12. Lyrics by Eric Bazilian , One of Us, performed by Joan Osborne, 1995.

 

Determinisms

Is the future an open ended book or is history in some way predetermined? Is there such a thing as destiny? Such questions have been on the minds of women and men since the beginning of recorded history. One thing is certain: we seem to want life to have some meaning, purpose and direction to it.  In this essay, I want us to think a little about the idea of determinism.  To do so I will first define the word and then look closely at a specific species of it.  I will then discuss the problems with the future being under determined and certain views of free will.  In closing, I will look at various theological views associated with God’s sovereignty and knowledge of the future and how this affects our own choices in space and time.  So, am I determined to write this today or shall I put down the pen? Well, either way, I trudge forward.

Determinism—Its Only Natural

Philosophically, determinism can be defined as follows: Determinism is the view that holds that events in the future are determined ahead of time by an intelligence, other events in the past and/or the current state of affairs. It might but a surprise to some, but the materialistic worldview of atheism is highly deterministic. In fact, the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy has just such a definition for determinism: 

“[Causal Determinism is defined as] The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.1

Unlike my definition, here we have no room for an intelligence guiding life and history. In this view, determinism means that the universe and all that transpires in it is predetermined by the causal chain of the interaction of matter based upon the laws of nature.

In the spring of 2002 I was in campus ministry taking a course in medieval philosophy which surveyed thinkers and their works from a period of time spanning from Augustine to just prior to Descartes.  The professor asked a rather simple question of the class: “Who does not believe in free will?” Several students, who were philosophy majors of an atheistic orientation, raisee their hands.  Why? They believe in determinism because they hold that everything is just matter/energy and therefore the result  of natural forces. In this view, there are simply no supernatural entities such as human souls, God, angels or demons who make real choices. The universe starts going at some time in the distant past and then based upon some initial conditions all things simply unfold over time.  In my mind, this harsh determinism, is true if a naturalistic/materialistic philosophy is true. In this view of the world, the universe is a closed system of cause and effect without any outside influence. This, of course, includes all your choices based upon the droning forward of the chemical processes of your brain. I find this one of the horrible weaknesses of such philosophy. It simply does not account for our experience as human beings.

As such, it has always amazed me that atheists write books trying to get people to “change their minds” about their beliefs when in fact they believe our brains are already predetermined and any free choice is an illusion. Your beliefs are simply the results of matter interacting; it is physics all the way down. In fact, in this view, there really isn’t any “you” that could change “your mind.” Christian thinker GK Chesterton saw this clearly when he wrote of this kind of determinism.  In his typical wit, he reflects as follows:

The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.2

This sort of categorization of the naturalistic worldview (a view which is anti-theistic) is not at all uncharitable.  For example, the “Center for Naturalism” quite openly affirms this view of life under the sun. Forgive the longish quotation but I want you to see this thinking in its own terms.

Naturalism as a guiding philosophy can help create a better world by illuminating more precisely the conditions under which individuals and societies flourish, and by providing a tangible, real basis for connection and community. It holds that doctrines and policies which assume the existence of a freely willing agent, and which therefore ignore the actual causes of behavior, are unfounded and counter-productive. To the extent to which we suppose persons act out of their uncaused free will, to that extent will we be blind to those factors which produce criminality and other social pathologies, or, on the positive side, the factors which make for well-adjusted, productive individuals and societies. By holding that human behavior arises entirely within a causal context, naturalism also affects fundamental attitudes about ourselves and others. Naturalism undercuts retributive, punitive, and fawning attitudes based on the belief that human agents are first causes, as well other responses amplified by the supposition of free will, such as excessive pride, shame, and guilt. Since individuals are not, on a naturalistic understanding, the ultimate originators of their faults and virtues, they are not deserving, in the traditional metaphysical sense, of praise and blame. Although we will continue to feel gratitude and regret for the good and bad consequences of actions, understanding the full causal picture behind behavior shifts the focus of our emotional, reactive responses from the individual to the wider context. This change in attitudes lends support for social policies based on a fully causal view of human behavior. 3

If this seems to you a bit unnerving it ought to. Think for a moment about what is being said here. Apparently a certain group of people thinks they can and should set “social policies” to control the “environments” of other people. Why? To control the behavior of others who cannot make real choices but only respond to environments. Wow.  Yet before we throw to the wind every form of determinism let’s look at the other extreme.

On the other end of the spectrum is the view that nothing in the future is determined and nothing is supposed to happen based upon current reality. This is problematic as well as certain things today surely seem influenced and even caused by events which happened before.  Our choices are never purely “out of the blue” as they are always shaped by many things.  Our upbringing, prior choices, the choices of others, education, things that happened to us, and most importantly our character influence how we act today and in some sense shape tomorrow. Furthermore, if God is God and knows the future, is it not in some way “going to happen”?  It seems that we can also take a view of “free will” that is indeed “too free” as there is some reason for actions taken in the world even when you consider individual intelligences acting. Is there a middle ground?  The Christian view has always held that there indeed is another way.

Throughout history orthodox Christians who follow the teachings of the Bible have agreed on a few principle things here. First, God indeed knows the future and there are some things that WILL happen because God wants them to. (Isaiah 46:8-11, Ephesians 1:11) Second, human beings are responsible to God for their choices and their decisions do matter in shaping our future (Deuteronomy 30;19,20 ) Where there has been divergence it has been related to how much one of these principles holds sway over the other in our theology. One focuses heavily on God’s sovereignty and meticulous providence while the other focuses heavily on our choices and responsibility.  The first view can be viewed as a sort of theological determinism4 and the latter a theological libertinism. What we must not do is think that God is not involved in all the transpires during life under the sun. Nor should we think, as in materialistic determinism, that we have no choices that are real.  What I want to put forth is a view that highly esteems God’s rule and purposes in all of life while at the same time calling us to live wisely in dependence upon our sovereign God. 

God is God and We are Human

Several passages of Scripture teach that God is in control of quite literally everything. Here is a survey of a few ways in which Scripture teaches us that God is in control.

Furthermore, Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that there is a time and purpose for every season under heaven both good and bad.  This is never meant to lead us to some sort of fatalism that we have no choices in life and we are just puppets on a string.  What we must acknowledge is that we do not control destiny. God does.  What we must see is that we are human and finite and God is infinite and knows all things.  When we see this, knowing God is in control helps us respond to his actions in history with trust and hope.  If you forgive me, I want to spend the rest of my space here with you working to persuade you that God’s sovereignty is a great thing for us to know and then willfully live in light of.

God’s Sovereignty in Bad Times

The questions pour out when thinking of the complex realities of good and evil in our world. Philosophers have discussed these issues for ages. Believers and unbelievers see the very same circumstances often in very different lights. One man suffers immensely and meets God right there, while another curses God for the pain that he experiences and sees all around him.  The Scriptures record many reasons God has for allowing suffering in our world. For our purposes here I will just refer you to my recent essay about suffering for reflection upon this.5

God’s Sovereignty in Good Times

God’s nature and character are directly reflected in all that is true, good and beautiful in our world. We call such kind providences “blessings” as we see God’s kindness and favor in so much of life.  The creation itself speaks to us (Psalm 19) and we see in our own design the goodness of God’s laws and purposes.6

God is God in All Things

If you are like me, you tend to see quickly the hand of God in the good times yet struggle to see his hand in the terrible sufferings of life. Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that God has a purpose for every time and season under heaven and the he quite literally makes “all things beautiful in its time.”  It is never that all things are good, but the overarching plan of God for all of history is breathtakingly so. The thing that frustrates us as human beings is that we have but a finite view of things.  We cannot see all that will be tomorrow let alone see across the horizons of eternity like our God. Without a godlike view of the world we must trust the one who is indeed working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (See Romans 8:26-37).

Conclusion

In closing, we are not the victims of blind time+matter+chance as in the view of atheism.  Yet neither are we the ultimate captains of our ships as some would want us to believe. The truth is much deeper.  God is captain of his world and is working all things towards his purposes. He is weaving his story through history and we only see but a small part that we play. We follow him in the fog and trust his good hand in times of pain and trial. Similarly we rejoice with God in times of immense happiness and blessing. In the end, we might sleep better at night knowing life is on his shoulders. We are free to weep deeply in our pain knowing God cares and will some day wipe away the tears.  We can rejoice triumphantly in hope that even death is not the end and an eternal glory is coming. There is nothing more frustrating and impossible that to pretend to know all things.  There is nothing more vexing than to claim to see every reason behind each ray of sunlight and the many shadows of this age.  There is nothing more comforting than to know and trust the one who does.  He is our Father, he is our Lord, he is our King…and he is with us each step of the way.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  1 Peter 5:6, 7 ESV

Walking together,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

1. Causal Determinism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ accessed September 30th, 2010. Emphasis in original.

2. GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: NY, Image books, 1959) 20. Originally published: New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908. Emphasis Added.

3. Center for Naturalism Internet Site, http://www.naturalism.org/center_for_naturalism.htm accessed September 30, 2010. Emphasis Added.

4. By Theological determinism I simply mean that history is  in some mysterious way “determined by God” - It is a determinism that has God choosing and acting and humans responding and acting as well.  It is not the closed system universe of naturalistic/materialistic determinism as it has intelligent agents involved and not simply blind matter. It is also not “fatalism” as God is working out his good plan and we take part in the working it out.

5. Reid S. Monaghan, Thoughts on Suffering, http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2010/7/24/thoughts-on-suffering.html.

6. See J. Budzizewski’s What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, for a treatment of  God’s designs in us and our world.