When You Have Doubts (Part 2)

In my last post, I explained how—like most Christians—there are times I have doubts about God. I wonder why tragedies happen and why certain things are in the Bible and why God isn’t more responsive at times to my prayers for healing for people in the midst of tremendous suffering.

However, in the midst of my confusion and doubts, I find myself returning again and again to some core reasons why I still believe God is alive and is who the Bible says He is. In the last post, I discussed how the wonder of creation–especially the complexity of the human body and even the most basic living cell– point me to a belief in a Divine Creator. While some may look at our bodies and conclude, “How awesome the process of evolution is”, I look at these things and feel my heart stirred toward gratitude and praise to God.

But it is not only the complexity of creation that helps root my faith. A second reason for my belief in God is that the story of humanity as presented in Scripture squares with reality as we know it. I know of no other world view that can so deftly diagnose what we see happening all around us.

The story begins with creation—Adam and Eve created in the image of God, enjoying the perfection of the Garden of Eden, enjoying an authentic, completely vulnerable relationship with each other, and enjoying the task given them to tend creation. In this wonderful beginning, we see the dignity of each and every human being—(ie why killing is wrong). We see why humans long to do something of significance to make the world a better place. And we see why we long for relationships in which we don’t have to hide but can be real with each other. Why is it each and every human being feels these things at some deep level?

Are we just the product of chance mutations, or is there a deeper meaning in our existence? The creation account in Genesis answers this question for me in a way that squares with the reality I observe. People long for value, for meaning, for purpose, for intimacy—and Genesis shows us why that is. We are created in God’s image.

A second part of the story occurs in Genesis 3. Even though the initial creation account was all good, something went very wrong. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, the curse of sin was unleashed on our planet. Evil came to reside in us as humans. This explains how as humans, we are capable of writing beautiful poetry and achieving amazing medical advancements, and yet we are also capable of the most horrendous acts of violence and petty acts of self-centeredness.

Genesis 3 explains why addictions are rampant in our society today. Addictions make no rational sense, when you think about it. Why would someone gamble their entire savings away, or continue to pop pills knowing it will rob them of their family, their livelihood, their joy? Addiction is a vivid picture of how sin works. Sin is not about a simple choice between good and evil. It is a power that resides within us and influences most everything we do.

An honest look at the state of humanity reveals that something is very broken. Something is very wrong. The Bible offers an explanation as to why that is—an explanation that makes sense. Greek mythology can offer an explanation, but none of us are buying it. It is too implausible. But the Biblical account is, in my mind, extremely plausible. It explains both the goodness of humanity and how we can do such evil things. It explains why we long for freedom, and why we freely choose an addiction that destroys us.

Why do I believe in God? Because the Story He offers fits with the reality I see all around me and that I experience within.

Under Construction—I’m Still Here!

Hey Everyone

Thanks for checking out my blog. As you can see, we are redoing some things on this site so for the next few weeks, it will look fairly stark and simple. I’m very excited about continuing to post here and will be soon continuing the blog theme I wrote about last time–Why I Believe in God.

Thanks for your patience!

Grace,

–Alan

When You Have Doubts (Part 1)

I have a bit of a confession to make. Even as a pastor, I at times have doubts about God. When prayers for healing go unanswered, when tragedies occur, when famines continue, when I’m wrestling with some passage of Scripture that seems to contradict what I know about God…in those moments, I at times wonder about God’s existence. Is He really there?

Whenever this happens, I instinctively go back to a few realities that, in my mind, point unmistakably to the fact that God does exist. It’s sort of like when the power goes out at home and we are thrust into complete darkness. Our instinctive response in the dark is to reach for things we know are there—the couch, the wall, a chair. These things help us get our bearings in the darkness. Spiritually speaking, there are a few of those realities that, even in the darkness, remind me of God’s presence.

In this blog post, I’d like to share the first of a few of these realities that consistently point me to God’s existence. This initial one may seem silly or trivial to some, but it is very real to me. My faith in God is often reinforced when I look at the wonder of God’s creation, especially found in the complexity of our physical bodies.

Our skin, with its 2 million pores that help regulate the body temperature through perspiring. Not only that it keeps out certain substances but also allows others in through this highly complex process of absorption.

Our circulation system, 60,000 miles of blood vessels, where blood delivers necessary nutrients to every cell, and it gets those ingredients from the air we breathe (enter the respiratory system) and the food we eat (our digestive system). I just read an article that described how our nose works as a humidifier to so that the 2500 gallons of air we take in each day doesn’t dry out our lungs. Not only that, the turbinates in our nasal passage help slow down the airflow, giving more time for the air to warm to body temperature.

Or what about how our blood clots, or how our bodies fight infection. I remember visiting with a friend of mine who is an optometrist. She said that in Med school she had 3 semesters of classes focused only on the anatomy of the eye. Three semesters! She described for me how amazing our eyes are in terms of the complexity and function. The rods, the cones, the blood vessels, the nerves the tissues, the retina—which has 10 layers.

Each eye has a million optic nerves that travel to the brain. And get this, 60% of those nerves from each eye cross over to the other side. Why is that significant? Because if you have a stroke or a head injury, you wouldn’t completely lose sight one eye. Only 40% because the other nerves go to the other side. And these are just a few examples. Pick any aspect of the human body and you see a marvel of complexity.

It is impossible for me to see this level of complexity without attributing it to an intelligent designer. It’s not just one system we are talking about. It is multiple, highly complex systems all working together. When we see this level of complexity in any other item (a car for instance with its air conditioning, stereo system, engine, windshield wiper fluid,  or a computer with the hard drive, and the keyboard and the monitor) we instinctively know this was designed by someone very intelligent.

I have studied the theory of evolution, and while agreeing that at a micro level evolution within a species happens, the theory does not seem plausible to me at a macro level–when looking at the complexity of our bodies and how various systems are interacting with each other. We all know that in a complex system like that, you can’t simply change one variable without impacting multiple systems.

How could something as complex as an eye evolve over time—especially when multiple complex systems have to be in place from the beginning? In the theory of evolution, survival of the fittest requires that the organism receive some benefit from a mutation in order for that particular characteristic to be passed along. But what benefit is 10% of an eye if it isn’t able to see? What benefit is a 40% of a blood clotting system if 100% is needed for it to work?

[And this doesn’t even begin to discuss how we became male and female—how did a male and female evolve at the same time, yet with each having a particular anatomy that allows for intercourse and procreation?]

I realize there are some very smart people that are convinced we evolved over millions of years and who look with intellectual disdain at my conclusions. I get that. But at some point, a theory needs to make sense at a practical level. For me, the idea of God creating us as complex beings is far more believable and plausible. It fits the reality I see all around me.

So when I have doubts about God’s existence, it helps me to meditate on how incredibly complex the human body is and how plausible it is to believe that we are created, “fearfully and wonderfully made”, as the psalmist described it.

The Government Shutdown: A Forgotten Response

It seems that everyone is frustrated about the recent government shutdown. We the people wonder why our leaders can’t seem to work together. And our leaders seem to be focused on blaming the other side for the mess. As I write this, there is not even a glimmer of hope on the horizon that an agreement can be reached.

So how are Christ followers to respond to this? Some of us prefer to ignore the discussion entirely, choosing a silent cynicism. Others choose to read the political editorials and watch the various pundits on television, which only increase our blood pressure.  We feel a growing anger.

But there is another response—one that I’m guessing most of us who are Christ followers have not embraced. Paul writes of this response in I Timothy 2:1 “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases our God and Savior.”

This is no trivial or flippant thing. Paul is urging us to do this—to earnestly pray for our leaders, interceding on their behalf, praying for God to intervene. He tells us that this is good and is pleasing to God, and also that it results in blessing to us in terms of our being able to live peacefully and to live godly lives in our country.

So why don’t we do this? Here are a few hunches: One, I’m not sure we believe that prayer would make any difference on something of such a grand scale. This is a faith issue, isn’t it? Do we really believe that the God who spoke creation into being, the God who sent Jesus to reconcile the world to Himself and to each other, the God who calmed the sea…. is able to do this? If we did believe prayer would make a dfference, we would do it.

A second hunch I have regarding why we often don’t apply Paul’s command is this: We are often so caught up in the polarizing dialog of politics and are not wanting the other side to “win”. We don’t want THEIR agenda furthered—but Paul doesn’t give us any out on this one. He urges us to pray for our leaders….not just the ones we like. I find it interesting that when George Bush was President I regularly received emails urging Christians to pray for him. I have yet to receive any email urging the same for President Obama. Again God doesn’t command us to have selective praying for our leaders, depending on their political party, etc.

 So how might we pray for our leaders in the midst of this shutdown? Here are a few ideas:

             1. Pray for wisdom—that God would give wisdom to them to find ways to move forward.

            2. Pray for humility—that they would have the humility to stop blaming each other and instead to explore ways to compromise. Pray that they might have the humility to initiate these dialogs rather than waiting for the other side.

            3. Pray for reconciliation and dialog to occur—that they would choose face to face dialog rather than throwing stones at each other via speeches.

 So how about we spend some time praying about these things this next week and see what happens?

Is the Colorado Flooding a Sign of God’s Judgment?

I saw recently that certain end times prophecy “experts” have been proclaiming that the recent floods in Colorado are demonstrations of God’s judgment against areas of our state for its recent legislation regarding various social issues. My initial reaction to this was extreme frustration at those who pontificate by selectively choosing which sins God is angry about—sexual immorality deserves floods but I guess idolatry, greed, materialism, self righteousness don’t necessitate a response.

But in my frustration, I remembered a passage of Scripture where Jesus deals with this very issue. In Luke 13, Jesus is told about a tragedy that had occurred to some Galileans. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Of those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:1-5

This response is so fascinating on multiple levels. For one thing, Jesus strongly denounces the idea that  tragedies are a specific judgment of God upon people for specific sins. It is not helpful or accurate to say that a tower falling on people or a car accident or a tornado or flood, etc is a specific judgment of God dispensed because of someone’s sin. Jesus is urging us to avoid the self-righteous pontificating that often happens in response to tragedy—assuming a bad thing happened because of some sin in that person’s life.

However, Jesus doesn’t stop there (even though we probably wish He would have.)  He then says “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  Interesting.  Jesus is saying that the tragedies that happen—while not being a specific sign of judgment for a specific sin—are a reminder to us that all of us are deserving of God’s judgment, and that we all must repent and turn to Him in order to experience salvation. Jesus doesn’t let anyone off the hook. He doesn’t allow anyone the freedom to assign God’s judgment to particular tragedies AND He doesn’t allow anyone to assume they are not deserving of God’s judgment.

Rather than spending our time trying to assign specific sins to various tragedies that occur, we would all do well to see each tragedy—wherever it occurs—as a vivid reminder that this life is not all there is. There is a judgment coming for all. Our sinful rebellion against a holy God demands judgment. The good news is, this judgment can be removed when we place our trust in Jesus, who suffered God’s judgment for us on the cross. He, God’s innocent Son, took our place by dying on the cross and in doing so offers us eternal life.

In the midst of all the tragedies that occur in our world and in our neighborhoods, let’s not miss Jesus’ ultimate message to all of us: “Turn to Me and find life.”

Steve Jobs’ God Dilemma

I just started  reading the biography of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaakson. Early in the book, Isaacson describes something that happened to Steve Jobs at church of all places, something that became a spiritually defining moment in Jobs’ life.

He was 13 years old and had just seen a magazine cover showing two starving children in Biafra. He brought the magazine to the Lutheran church his family was attending and asked the pastor, “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor said, “Yes, God knows everything.” Then Jobs showed the pastor the magazine cover and asked, “Does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?” In response, the pastor said, “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” Jobs decided that day he wanted nothing to do with a God like that and never went back to church.

I can certainly understand that response. It is a question that believers and non-believers have wrestled with for centuries—with all the suffering in the world, why doesn’t God do more to alleviate it? If He has the power to do so, why doesn’t He utilize that power? I wrestle with this question anytime I see the effects of a tragedy—9/11, a tsunami, wars. If God could have done something to stop that, why didn’t He?

In response to that question, Jobs chose to forever shut the door on faith in God. But that “solution” is not without its own difficulties. A world in which God doesn’t exist is no less easy to swallow. Without the existence of God, there is no moral standard, no right or wrong, no justice or injustice. In a God-less world, who’s to say that child abuse, or racism, or chemical warfare is wrong? Without the existence of God, there would be no universally compelling reason to feel compassion for two starving children in Biafra.

Which brings us to Steve Jobs’ God dilemma. We can choose to reject God on the basis of what we perceive as God’s inactivity, but to do so leaves us with an alternative philosophy that provides no moral reason at all to care that children are starving in Africa.

So is there an alternative? I believe there is. We can embrace a God who suffers. The Bible encourages us to view all suffering through the lens of the cross. We don’t have a God who is far removed from our pain. Instead, we have a God who chose to suffer on our behalf. Jesus suffered on the cross. We often view the cross as little more than a nice piece of jewelry. But the cross was an instrument of extreme torture. God knows what it feels like to experience excruciating agony, horrible injustice, abuse, rejection, and racism.

This doesn’t answer the question of why God allows tragedy to happen, but it certainly gives us reason to have faith in God’s love, even when He doesn’t respond the way I would want Him to. I remember taking my son Josh to the emergency room when he was 3 years old. He had split his head open and needed stitches. I’ll never forget having to hold him down while the doctor placed stitches in his forehead.

In his 3 year old mind, I’m sure Josh was wondering why his daddy was allowing this mean doctor to inflict this horrible pain. He may have concluded in that moment that I wasn’t loving or that I wasn’t strong enough to do anything to stop this. He would have been wrong on both counts. I did love him and I could have asked the doctor to stop, but I chose not to for a larger purpose—one that I understood perfectly well, but Joshua couldn’t have comprehended in his 3 year old brain. So I held him as he screamed, my heart breaking along with his, knowing there was a purpose beyond the pain.

To reject God based on our perception of His unresponsiveness to tragedy is to assume that we can truly comprehend all that He is doing. But what if we are like my son Joshua, limited in our understanding? All I was asking was for Joshua to trust me. That’s all God asks of us as well.

Does God Just Listen?

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I was listening to an audio book recently. The book was actually about “listening”—why listening is so important in all of life and how we can improve our listening. The topic is of interest to me because I feel like listening is something I could really grow in.

At one point, the author was talking about how often when we listen effectively, people who may have come to us with a “problem” end up solving the problem themselves, simply because our listening enables them to process better. And then she said something like this: “It’s sort of like prayer. Most people don’t experience God doing anything in response to our prayers, but when we do pray, it often helps us feel better. We are able to process more effectively.”

Now I realize she wasn’t intending to make a theological statement, but she did—one that I found particularly disturbing. Is prayer simply a means of processing our own stuff—in other words, does it not matter whether or not God is paying attention on the other side?

How radically differently prayer is portrayed in Scripture. Jesus tells us “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogue and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus is challenging those who “use” prayer in a way in which God is not necessary—whether He is there or not doesn’t matter. They get their own reward. But He points out that they are missing something huge, something that is at the heart of authentic prayer: an intimate relationship with God. In that day, it would have been scandalous for Jesus to refer to God as “Father”. No rabbi would have done that. It would have been perceived as being irreverent.

But Jesus wanted us to know the essence of prayer—being alone with your Heavenly Father. This Heavenly Father is not a spiritual statue, who is there for the purpose of allowing us to process things more deeply. Rather He is a God who desires to be intimately involved in our heart and life. He hears us when we pray. He responds to our prayers. And He speaks to us. What an incredible relational experience He invites us into—and it begins by us simply getting alone with him, closing the door and praying to our Father who is unseen.

Sending a Son

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Yesterday was one of the hardest days of my life. If anyone has told you it gets easier to send your children off to college, don’t believe them. Raylene and I have now sent two of our children to college, and I assure you, this was no easier than the first time.

So yesterday morning, we loaded our car with our son Joel’s stuff, and we took him to CSU, where he is starting his first semester. Before we left our home, we took a moment and prayed for him. With tears freely flowing, we thanked God for blessing us with Joel’s life and we entrusted Joel’s future into God’s capable hands. But oh how hard it was to let him go.

Raylene and Joel took one car, I drove another. On the way, I cried, I grieved and I prayed a lot. In the midst of all that, I felt like the Lord gave me two truths to lean on throughout this experience. The first was this: The love I feel for my children pales in comparison to God’s love for me. I suddenly had a “that can’t be possible” moment. God, do you really love me with that kind of love? Wow. It is hard to believe but it is absolutely true.

And the reason we know it’s true is because of the second truth He reminded me of: God knows what it feels like to send a son away. We read in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the time had fully come, God sent His son…to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” He sent His Son.

It would have been much more comfortable and safe to have Jesus stay with the Father, especially since they both knew the pain and agony that this trek to earth would involve. But both realized it was necessary. Love made it necessary.

I’m still sad and still grieving. But I’m also thankful that we have a Father who loves us more than we can imagine.

Are You Taking Up Space?

I am currently reading a fascinating book on the theme of leadership. It’s called “Making Room For Leadership: Power, Space and Influence.” In the book, MaryKate Morse introduces a dimension of leadership that I had never thought about. The basic idea is this: In any gathering of a group of people, there is a limited amount of leadership “space” or “power” available in the room. She writes, “Interactions in physical space define who is seen and heard and valued, and who is not.” When a leader finds him/herself in that context, he/she has a very specific choice. Will we take up space or will we leverage our space to build up and value others?

How do we “take up space”? A few of the ways include always being the first to jump in with a response, dominating a discussion, not really listening to others. She refers to these kinds of leaders as “sponges”. They think they are servant leaders but are often “so absorbed in their own agendas and needs, unaware of how their presence impacts the group….Sponges soak up the influence capacity in the room.”

This concept of “space” has made me very much aware of how I experience certain leaders and how I am being experienced by others. Here’s my general assessment—we are often more focused on taking up space than we are in leveraging it to build up someone else. I have noticed that in a one on one conversation many leaders (including myself)  are subconsciously committed to being heard—telling their own opinion or story—and are rarely genuinely interested in the other person’s story—especially if that other person is someone we perceive as not having as much “influence” or value as we do.

She gives a great example from Luke 13 of how Jesus leveraged His influence to a person who was marginalized in that culture. A woman (one strike against her in that culture), who had an 18 year disease that many would blame on her own “sinfulness” (another strike against her), who couldn’t even stand up straight, thus being filled with shame and rejection (third strike). While the religious leaders wanted to use her as nothing more than a theological discussion point, Jesus stops and makes “space” for her, calling her over to Him. He then heals her, to the absolute dismay of the Pharisees. While they used their influence to further add to her shame and distance, Jesus leverage His influence to reach out and build her up –physically as well as emotionally. What an awesome demonstration of servant leadership.

So here’s the challenge: In your interactions today, ask yourself this question—Am I taking up space in this relational context, or am I leveraging my influence to pour value into someone else?

 

 

Marriage Insight

Raylene and I attended the Alpha Marriage Course last night. (You can find out more about the ministry of Alpha at www.alpha.org). Our church is offering the course for free to any law enforcement officers or firefighters in our community. (If you know of any that might be interested, have them contact Monica at the church).

It was a great evening with lots of helpful insights about marriage. In addition, there were very specific opportunities given for each marriage couple to talk with each other about questions prompted by the teaching. It prompted some great discussion between Raylene and I, as we reflected on things we had not thought about for a long time.

One of the quotes that stood out to me during the evening was one offered by a husband. He said “For the first fifteen years of our marriage, I focused on my wife’s faults and my needs. For the past fifteen years of our marriage, I have focused on my own faults and my wife’s needs. What a difference that has made in the health of our marriage.”

Wow. That is absolutely true. It is so easy in our marriages to focus on what our spouse is not and how they are not meeting our needs. But when we get our eyes off ourselves and begin to look at our God-given job description (to love our spouse), suddenly our perspective changes. We are able to see more clearly how our own self-centeredness negatively impacts our marriage and we can begin to more effectively connect with and affirm our spouse.

Now when we initially hear this, we may reject the idea for fear that our spouse will demand more and more of us. The irony of course is that, as we more effectively love our spouse, our spouse often responds positively, focusing more effectively and willingly on meeting our needs. Everyone is a whole lot happier.

So how might it impact our marriages today if we stopped focusing on our spouse’s faults and our needs, and instead chose to focus on our faults and their needs?