Is There a Difference Between “Soul” and “Spirit”?

Every human being has a physical body, yet clearly who we are is not only defined by our bodies. As our bodies age or are damaged, there is something fundamental to who we are which is distinct from our bodies. The Bible tells us that in addition to our physical bodies, as human beings we possess an immaterial spirit and soul.

What can be confusing, however, is what exactly a person’s spirit is, and what their soul is, and how these two relate to each other.

Two Views: Trichotomy and Dichotomy

The Trichitomous view holds that the soul and the spirit are two distinct things, whereas the Dichotomous view holds that soul and spirit are two words which describe two distinct aspects of the same thing, namely the immaterial part of a human being.

Those who hold a Trichotomous view often claim that this three-part human nature is one of the ways in which we have been created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just as God is a greater trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, He has created us in his image as a lesser trinity of body, soul, and spirit, says the thrichotomist. This assertion is usually followed by an explanation of what the difference is between soul and spirit. A common explanation is that the soul refers to the mind, encompassing both cognitive and personality-related aspects, whereas the spirit is the part of a person which connects with God. This, it is commonly said by trichotomists, is what distinguishes human beings from animals, who are not created in God’s image; though they have bodies and cognitive abilities (including emotions and personalities), they do not have a spirit, which makes them capable of relationship with God.

There are several passages in the Bible which suggest that there is a separation between the soul and the spirit (Romans 8:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12). However, there are also several Bible verses which use the terms soul and spirit interchangeably (Matthew 10:28; Luke 1:46–47; 1 Corinthians 5:3, 7:34).

Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” This would suggest that there is a dividing point between the soul and the spirit, but that they are so closely connected that the division of them is something which only God is capable of carrying out.

Advocates of the trichotomist position include James M. Boice, whereas J.I. Packer and John Calvin are some examples of those who hold a dichotomist view.

J.I. Packer’s argument for the dichotomous view

In his book “Concise Theology”, Packer explains the dichotomist view in this way:

Each human being in the world consists of a material body animated by an immaterial personal self. Scripture calls this self a “soul” or a “spirit.” “Soul emphasizes the distinctness of a person’s conscious selfhood; “spirit” carries the nuances of the self’s derivation from God, dependence on Him, and distinction from the body.
Biblical usage leads us to say that we have and are both souls and spirits, but it is a mistake to say that soul and spirit are two different things. (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, pp. 74)

Packer goes on to explain that the trichotomous view tends to define soul as “an organ of this-worldly awareness,” whereas spirit is a distinct organ of communication with God.

This distinction, Packer argues, can lead to an unhealthy pitting of spirituality against intellectualism, in which intellectual engagement with God is considered “soulish”, i.e. unspiritual, while “spiritual perception” which is unrelated to the study of the Bible or rational thought. Furthermore, he adds that the trichotomous understanding of humanity may lead to a low view of the value of the material world, including our bodies, which would be inappropriate since we are embodied souls, and the hope of the gospel is not that we will escape this physical world, but that we will be resurrected to new and everlasting life in physical bodies.

My response to Packer’s view

I agree with Packer that it is wrong to devalue the physical world. As i have written about recently, this life matters! (See: Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life)

However, I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to avoid teaching the scandalous truth about God’s amazing grace because they are afraid that some people might use it as a license to sin.

I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do.

Instead, we ought to develop our theological positions based on Scripture first, considering authorial intent as well as how these things were understood by the early Christians, subsequently applying reason (this is called “theological method”).

It seems dishonest, based on Scripture, to not acknowledge a distinction between soul and spirit. However, I am in agreement with Packer that we must not ever believe or teach that an intellectual pursuit of God is unspiritual, or that seeking God’s will in Scripture is less spiritual than seeking it through “spiritual perception”. Yet, the way the words are used in the Bible leads me to believe that soul and spirit are separate, yet intimately connected aspects of human personhood, the latter of which sets us apart from the animal world.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you lean more towards the trichotomous or dichotomous view, and why?

Check out this discussion that Mike Payne, worship pastor at White Fields Church and I recently had on this subject for our church’s YouTube channel:

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Why is Rape Wrong?

rainforest during foggy day

Primates & Sexual Assault

Did you know that female primates are regularly sexually assaulted by male primates? Harassment, intimidation and forced copulation are regular practices of male primates towards female primates. [1]  Having studied the behavior of primates, scientists have concluded that “the sexual harassment of females is hard-wired into primates.” [2]

From a purely evolutionary perspective (if one holds that view), these practices can be seen to have evolutionary advantages, namely the propagation of the genes of the strongest and most aggressive males, rather than the weaker, more passive males.

The Limits of a Purely Scientific Worldview

In her book, Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin points out that whereas science can describe the way things are, and the reasons why people do things, it does not speak to the way things ought to be, e.g. ethics and morality.

Science can tell us how things are. It can explain why, for instance, a man might have the drive to commit a sexual assault as an effective means of propagating his genes. But it cannot tell us why he would be wrong to succumb to that drive.

We can conduct sociological calculations to see what behaviors turn out better for the group and decide that sexual assault yields a net negative in the overall happiness of the tribe. But to call rape wrong, we need a narrative about human identity that goes beyond what science or sociology can tell us.

She points out that if we as human beings are nothing more than what can be described by science, and our story is nothing more than the evolutionary story, then we have no grounds for insisting on human equality, protection of the weak, equal treatment of women, or any of the other ethical beliefs we hold dear. [3]

In other words, we need something more than science and sociology to answer the questions of who we are and why we are here. If these questions arise merely because of feelings which are ultimately just figments of our imagination, and there is in fact no greater meaning to our lives or purpose for our existence, then we cannot justifiably claim that anything, including rape, is really wrong – nor that our feelings, such as love, have any real meaning at all.

But as McLaughlin points out,

Christians ground human uniqueness on the biblical claim that we are made in the image of God. Just as God calls creation into being, so he calls humans to serve as his representatives on earth, in special relationship with their Creator and with each other, and charged with moral responsibility. To maintain their beliefs about goodness, fairness, justice, and so forth, a secular humanist too must hold that humans are moral beings, distinct from other primates.

Created in the Image of God

Currently at White Fields, we are in the midst of a series called, I Could Never Believe in a God Who… (click here for a link to our podcast)

The first message in this series was one about the question of whether Christianity encourages the suppression of women and minorities, in which we looked at the issue of what it means to be created in the image of God, and what this means for a biblical understanding of human personhood, equality, and gender roles. (Click here to listen to that message)

This coming Sunday we will we looking at why the Bible matters, and why “crowd-sourcing” our ethics – i.e. the idea popular today that we don’t need an outside source such as an ancient book to tell us how to live our lives – is a flawed theory, doomed to failure – as can be seen by looking at modern history.

So…Again: Why is Rape Wrong?

To answer the question in the title of this post, rape is wrong because it is an assault against a human being who is endowed with dignity by nature of being created in the image of God, and is also an affront to the God who created us in His image and gave us His moral code by which to live. The way to be happy and successful, both as individuals and as a society, is by submitting to this fundamental design of our creation.

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: Hospitality & the Gospel

person handing keys

Home as a Hospital & Incubator

As a member of the lesbian community in Syracuse, New York, Rosaria Butterfield learned what it meant to use her home as a hospital and an incubator, which reflected her values to others. Members of the lesbian community in Syracuse made sure that everyone in their community had keys to each others houses; they looked out for one another and cared for each other. They viewed their homes as oases in a harsh world, and yet they sought to win over their neighbors by being the best neighbors on the block.

These lessons—learned far outside the walls of the church—are instructive for Christians, she says.

It was through the hospitality of a Christian couple in her neighborhood, that Rosaria changed her mind about Christianity. At the time, she was a celebrated professor at Syracuse University. Raised in an atheist home, Rosaria had always assumed Christians to be hateful, judgmental people, who considered people like her enemies. In fact, her interest in spending time with Christians came as a result of her intent to write a book about how Christianity fuels toxic masculinity. As a result, she sought out a Christian couple in her neighborhood, but her interactions with them surprised her and challenged her preconceived notions about Christians, so much so that she began to consider what they had to say about Jesus and the Bible. Ultimately, she embraced the gospel and forsook her lesbian lifestyle. She is now married to a pastor and they have adopted several children. They seek to use their home as a hospital and an incubator for the goal of making disciples of Jesus.

Ground Zero of the Christian Life

In her book, The Gospel Comes with a House KeyRosaria Butterfield describes what she calls “radically ordinary hospitality”, which she argues is “ground zero of the Christian life.”

Rosaria makes a convincing argument for this, pointing to passages like Matthew 25:35–36, in which Jesus talks about hospitality as the litmus test for real faith on judgment day. She also points out Mark 10:28–31, in which Jesus talks about how those who receive the gospel may very well lose a lot in the process of conversion, in order to gain the promises of God’s Kingdom, but that along with eternal life they can also expect to receive a new community. Inclusion in this new community, characterized by radical ordinary hospitality, is what Rosaria equates with receiving a “house key” when one receives the gospel.

Because Christian conversion always comes in exchange for the life you once loved, not in addition to it, people have much to lose in coming to Christ—and some people have more to lose than others.

A Resource for Evangelism

Hospitality, Rosaria explains, is an often under-utilized resource for evangelism as well. Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality, she says, see their homes not as theirs at all but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom.

The purpose of radically ordinary hospitality is to take the hand of a stranger and put it in the hand of the Savior, to bridge hostile worlds, and to add to the family of God.

She goes on to tell stories of how she and her husband intentionally live below their means, so they will be available and able to use their means to help others on a whim, as needs arise.

God promises to put the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6), and he intends to use your house as living proof.

A Sign to the World

Rosaria describes “radically ordinary hospitality” as: “using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God. It brings glory to God, serves others, and lives out the gospel in word and deed.”

Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like.

Love and/or Approval?

She points out how important it is to reflect Jesus in our relationships. Jesus wasn’t embarrassed to relate to people who were different than him. He understood the difference between love and approval.

She mentions that Christians often ask her, “How can I love my neighbor without misleading them into thinking I approve of what they do?” She advises that we first remember that no one approves of everything that others do. Parents, for example, love their children even at times when they hate the things their children are doing.

Rosaria responds to a question people sometimes ask: “If my neighbors who identify as _________ are in sin, then why are they the nicest people on the block?” To this she responds: “If our Christian worldview cannot account for that, it can survive only in the echo chamber of imaginary theology.” To answer this question, we must understand a few very basic theological principles: 1) all people are recipients of “common grace” to varying degrees, and 2) our problem as human beings is not a lack of “niceness” but a debt of sin before a just and holy God. To put it in simple terms: “Nice people” need Jesus just as much as “not nice people”, because only through Jesus can anyone be redeemed.

Conclusion

Rosaria encourages Christians to be courageously loving rather than fearfully cautious. I was challenged, encouraged, and inspired by The Gospel Comes with a House Key, and I recommend you check it out.

Is Life Really Worth the Pain and the Risk?

photography of person walking on road

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

My question is the following: What is the benefit of God’s human project?

If all of history since creation to the final day of judgement is in fact a great tragedy in the sense that there are souls which will ultimately be lost despite the absolute best intentions of God. Based on Revelation, the number of God’s children is only a fraction of the lost ones. Therefore what could represent such value for God which is worth this risk? I can’t name or imagine anything worth the sacrifice of eternal human souls. So why were his plans not “cancelled” after the first sin?

Personally, this is important to me because my wife and I are thinking about having children, and I can see no reason why I should take part in exposing another human to the possibility of damnation, even if the chances are minimal. I simply do not want to risk such a thing, regardless of the odds. And to be honest, even without the eternal perspective I would not force existence on Earth to anyone.

I can see however that this reasoning inevitably leads to the conclusion that God is evil and human existence should end as soon as possible in order to avoid further damage, and it is contradicting to the picture we see from other parts of the Bible (however, maybe this problem is somehow connected to issues such as the genocide of other nations like philistines or amalekites).

Are you aware of something which could provide some insight about this problem?

This is obviously not a merely theoretical question for you, and I appreciate the thought you’ve put into it.

Here are some thoughts:

This Life Matters

We must not diminish the goodness of this life. Sometimes Christians, in their focus on eternal destiny (which is appropriate and right), can forget the fact that when God created the world, he looked at it and said, “It is good,” and he looked at the human life that he had created and declared that it was “very good.” Although sin has led to cracks and fissures in the fabric of that good creation, it has not lost all of its original goodness, nor have we as humans ceased to bear the “image of God.”

What this means is that the joys of this life are indeed joys. The Psalmist says, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13)

In other words, this life matters and we experience goodness, beauty and truth in this life, despite the fallenness of this world. Life, the Bible describes, is but a mist, but it is a good mist, and a gift from God.

The difference is this: for the person who does not have eternal life, the joys of this life (which are legitimate joys) are the best they will ever experience, whereas for the person who has the hope of eternal life, the sorrows of this life are the worst they will ever experience.

“The Tears of God are the Meaning of History”

You asked the question: Why didn’t God just end it all after the first sin?

That’s a great question which gives us some deep insight into the character of God. I actually have taught on this subject several times. My favorite passage to go to in this, is Genesis 6:5-6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

That word “grieved,” as describing God’s feeling, is only found in one other place in the Bible: in Isaiah, where it is used to describe the pain that a woman feels when her husband abandons her. Isaiah 54:6, “like a wife, married young, only to be deserted, and your spirit was filled with pain.” This word describes bitter anguish, deep, unfulfilled longing, and profound frustration.

In other words, God not only created us, but he is emotionally invested to the point where he experiences joy and sorrow based on how we are doing. What that means is that the brokenness of the world causes God pain. When people are lost forever, it causes God pain, grief and sorrow.

The question is, like you asked: Why didn’t God just end the whole thing after Adam and Eve sinned, and save himself (not to mention: us) all the pain and heartache, some of which will last for eternity?

This question has been answered with this phrase: “The tears of God are the meaning of history.” (coined by Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book, Lament for a Sonin which he writes about his grief over the death of his son, and considers why God allows pain and suffering in the world)

In other words, God decided to weep, rather than to save himself from the grief. He decided to allow himself to suffer the pain of sorrow and grief, continually. WHY? Because, as you alluded to: there was something which he believed made it worth continuing…

(For more on this, check out a sermon I preached on this topic called: “The Sigh to End All Sighs“)

Which leads us to our next point…

The Treasure Hidden in a Field

One of my favorite parables that Jesus spoke was Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

This parable involves three elements: a treasure, a field, and a man. The questions are: what is the treasure, what is the field, and who is the man?

Some interpret it this way: The treasure is the kingdom of God and its benefits, and we are the man who must sell everything in order to take hold of the treasure.

I don’t believe that’s the correct interpretation, for a few reasons. One is that in the parable prior to this one, Jesus also uses an example featuring a field, and explicitly states, “The field is the world.” (Matthew 13:38)

The correct interpretation (and the one which fits best with the biblical narrative and the gospel message) is that the field is the world, the man is Jesus, and the treasure? The treasure is us! We are the treasure, which Jesus saw in the field (the world), and sold everything he had (his life), in order to take hold of us.

This changes the thrust of the parable to be from what we need to do to take hold of the kingdom of God to being about what Jesus has done in order to take hold of us.

The other thing it tells us, though, is that God views us as “treasure” – meaning that to him, we have great value, a value so great that he was willing to give everything to take hold of us.

Similarly, Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy that was set before him, that Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame.

In other words, the prospect of saving some was so precious to God, that he considered it worth the pain.

(Here is a sermon I taught on this parable: “Lost and Found“)

The Ultimate Judgment is When God Gives You What You Insist On

In Romans 1:18-33, God’s judgment is described in interesting terms: as God essentially giving people what they insist on. The phrase “God gave them up” – i.e. stopped resisting them and let them have what they wanted, is repeated three times: 1:24, 1:26, 1:28.

CS Lewis and others have posited that when God judges someone, even eternally, he is essentially just giving them what they have insisted on. Having insisted that they do not want a relationship with God, God does not force them to spend eternity in relationship with him. Having stated that they want autonomy from God, God has given them what they desired.

There are indeed examples in the Bible of times when God seems to have intervened against the will of the individual, in order to “open their eyes” (such as Saul in Acts 9), which leads to a change of heart and attitude and a different approach to God. However, these acts are acts of grace, and grace – by definition – is not owed to, or deserved by anyone. In other words, God is under no obligation to show grace or mercy in order to be fair, right or just. Justice is giving someone what they deserve. Mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, and Grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve. The only one of these which we deserve, is justice. If God gives us what we have earned, then it is only fair.

Beyond fairness, however, God offers grace and mercy freely to all who will receive it. May we be those who receive it gladly and eagerly!

Is It Worth Bringing a Life Into This World?

I respect the fact that you are thinking about the well-being of this child as you make this decision. Many people only think of children in regard to themselves, so that is commendable. I wish more people would think of the child first when planning their family.

Personally, I think that it is worth the risk to bring a child into this world, and I believe that God thinks it is worth the risk as well.

Thanks for your question, and may God bless you!

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Benefits of Studying Church History

adult blur books close up

In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones discusses the following benefits of studying church history:

Church History Guards Us Against Error

Most of the theological discussions that people have today, as well as most heresies that exist today, were already discussed, debated and settled within the first 500 years of Christian history. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are basically neo-arians, and their view of Jesus is the same one which led to the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed. The modern heresies of today are really just rebranding and recycling older ideas which the church has already spent a lot of time addressing.

For more on Arius and Arianism, check out: Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God? 

Lloyd-Jones says this:

The way to safeguard yourself…is to learn something about heresies—how they arose in the past generally through very good and conscientious men. History shows how subtle it all is, and how many a man lacking balance, or by failing to maintain the proportion of faith, and the interrelationship of the various parts of the whole message, has been pressed by the devil to put too much emphasis on one particular aspect, and eventually pressed so far as to be in a position in which he is really contradicting the Truth and has become a heretic. So Church history is invaluable… It is not the preserve of the academics. I would say that Church history is one of the most essential studies for the [believer] were it merely to show him this terrible danger of slipping into heresy, or into error, without realising that anything has happened to him.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 128-129).

Church History is a Source of Encouragement

Some people think about studying church history as being kind of like a visit to a sausage factory: the finished product might be great, but the way it was made wasn’t pretty. On the contrary, I would say that church history should cause us to be filled with wonder and amazement that in spite of human folly, errors, and mistakes, God has providentially guided and protected His Bride, because He loves her and is devoted to her.

Lloyd-Jones says this:

I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.

Take the time we are living in. What discouraging days they are, so discouraging that even a man with an open Bible which he believes, and with the Spirit in him, may at times be discouraged and cast down almost to the depths of despair. There is no better tonic in such a condition than to familiarise yourselves with previous eras in the history of the Church which have been similar, and how God has dealt with them.

The French novelist Anatole France used to say, whenever he felt tired and jaded with a tendency to be depressed and downcast, ‘I never go into the country for a change of air and a holiday, I always go instead into the eighteenth century.’ I have often said exactly the same thing, but not in the same sense in which he meant it, of course. When I get discouraged and over-tired and weary I also invariably go to the eighteenth century. I have never found George Whitefield to fail me. Go to the eighteenth century! In other words read the stories of the great tides and movements of the Spirit experienced in that century. It is the most exhilarating experience, the finest tonic you will ever know.

For a preacher it is absolutely invaluable; there is nothing to compare with it. The more he learns in this way about the history of the Church the better preacher he will be. At the same time let him, of course, during this training become familiar with the stories of the great men of the past, the great saints and preachers. It will not only act as a wonderful tonic to him in times of depression, it will keep him humble when tempted to pride and a spirit of elation.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (p. 129).

Where to Begin?

There are a lot of really great books on church history. If you know a good one, please feel free to post it in the comments section.

I think a great place to start, with a book that is accessible, substantial, and enjoyable to read, is From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker.

Also check out this great free online lecture series on church history from David Guzik at Enduring Word.

Another great resource is Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath, which doesn’t sound like a church history book by the title, but approaches theology by looking at it through the development of Christian beliefs over the course of history.

We also offer a class at White Fields on church history. Check out our School of Ministry page, and if you’re interested in the class, shoot us an email at the address listed on that page, and we’ll keep you posted on when we will be hosting that class again.

Resources for Families: Responding to Reader Questions

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received a few questions about resources for families:

Question 1: In a recent Calvary Live you mentioned a ‘kids’ Bible you read to your kids. Can you tell me the name and publisher of that Bible?

The name of that Children’s Bible is The Jesus Storybook Bibleand it is published by Zonderkidz, which is the children’s branch of Zondervan.

I love this Bible because, to put it in semi-technical terms, it uses a Christo-centric hermeneutic and a Biblical theological approach to teaching kids the stories of the Bible, which is so important. Almost every children’s Bible I have come across presents a moralistic message to children, rather than one which helps them to see Christ in all of Scripture, and that all of the Bible points to Him and is fulfilled in Him.

On a similar note, I have found that many Children’s Ministry curricula are moralistic in nature, and can err on the side of telling Bible stories, but not explaining how those stories point to Jesus or fit into the narrative of the Bible which culminates in Jesus’ saving actions on our behalf. However, there are some good ones out there; at White Fields we use The Gospel Project, and we love how well it points our kids to the gospel every week and helps them learn to read the Bible through a christological lens.

This children’s Bible is a breath of fresh air, and I have often found myself choking up as I read it to my children, because the message of the gospel and the brilliance of God’s love and grace comes through so clearly.

Personally, I think every adult should read this too. It is a wonderful introduction to Christ-centered hermeneutics and biblical theology, which everyone, not just children would benefit from.

Question 2: I am the leader of a small group in my church. We want to study parenting but are having a difficult time finding materials. I was hoping you might be able to suggest some?

My recommendation would be Family Life’s Art of Parenting course.

I haven’t used this material yet myself, but we are considering hosting a class at our church based on it, and I trust the publisher. They have both group materials and a self-service online course.

Thanks for your questions! Keep them coming, and I hope these resources help.

 

 

My Recent Poll: Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far

chart close up data desk

A few weeks ago, I posted an anonymous poll here on the site, in which I asked the question: How would you, or others you know, finish this sentence: “I could never believe in a God who ________”?  (click here for that post)

If you haven’t filled out that poll yet, you can access it here.

I got a good number of answers, but the bigger the sample size, the better for this sort of thing, so I would love it if you would go over and fill out the poll and send it to others who wouldn’t mind giving their voice.

This poll was done in preparation for a sermon series we will do at White Fields starting April 28, the week after Easter.

Here’s what the poll results have shown so far:

Theodicy is the biggest issue for those who took our poll

The top two responses were: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Sends people to Hell
  • Allows bad things to happen to good people

There were several write in answers which were related to these two, such as: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Can heal, but doesn’t heal all
  • Allows good people to die, but lets awful people live
  • Allowed the Sandy Hook massacre
  • Allows miscarriages
  • Chooses some and not others

These issues all fall under the category of Theodicy, which essentially means “the defence of God’s goodness”

The Trilemma of Theodicy

Very famous in this regard is what is called the trilemma of theodicy. A trilemma is like a dilemma, only instead of two issues (di) that are at odds with each other, in a trilemma there are three (tri).

The trilemma of theodicy states that there are three things the Bible states are true about God, which cannot all be true at the same time:

  1. God is loving
  2. God is all-powerful
  3. Evil exists

The argument goes that since evil exists, either: God must not really be loving, or God must not really be all-powerful. Either God is incapable of stopping evil, even though he’d like to – in which case he is not all-powerful, or God is capable of stopping evil, but chooses not to, in which case he must not be truly loving.

The logical flaw in the trilemma

The big flaw in this thinking is that it takes into account only two of God’s attributes: his love and his power.

But does God have only two attributes? Certainly not! God has a myriad of attributes, including that he is: all-knowing, providential, eternal, etc. Simply adding another attribute of God to the equation changes it fundamentally, and removes the “lemma” out of the tri-lemma!

For example, if we say that God is not only loving and all-powerful, but also all-knowing and/or providential, it changes things completely. It means that it is possible for God to allow bad things and use them for good purposes, and even for our ultimate benefit. The fact that God is eternal reminds us that comfort in this life is not the pinnacle of existence, therefore it is also possible for an eternal God to allow temporal hardship in order to work an eternal good purpose. The Bible says this explicitly in 2 Corinthians 4:17 – For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

An Unloving God Who Creates Unloving Followers?

Following closely behind in popularity were: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Doesn’t affirm some people’s sexuality
  • Creates hateful and hypocritical followers

Surprising Lesser-Issues

To my surprise, the questions which seem to not be major issues in people’s minds are were:

  • The reliability of the Bible
  • Proof of the existence of God

I wonder if this is the result of much effort put into these areas by Christian apologists, including CS Lewis with Mere Christianity and Timothy Keller with The Reason for God, or if, on the other hand, Christians are putting a lot of effort into questions which people don’t currently perceive to be pressing questions which cause them to be skeptical of Christianity. Either way, these issues are certainly fundamental to Christian faith and belief, and speaking into them can hardly be said to be in vain.

Other lesser-issues, which I expected would receive more responses were:

  • Apparent genocides in the Old Testament
  • Suppression and subjugation of women and minorities

I wonder if the reason for this is because there are very well-known evidences that Christianity and the Bible have done more to encourage the uplifting of women and minorities around the world, evidenced by the fact that wherever Christianity has gone in the world, women and minorities have been empowered and there has been movement towards equal rights, equal pay, etc. Surely there is room for improvement in these areas, but the point is that the Bible provides the theology which empowers women and promotes equality for people of all races. How it is implemented is a human issue.

More to Come

I will write more on some of these issues in the weeks to come, and will address them in the upcoming sermon series.

If you haven’t filled out the poll yet, I’d love it if you would: click here to access it.

Why Gossip is Like Pornography

man wearing white shirt holding out hand in front of woman in white lace top

I listened to a great podcast the other day featuring Scott Sauls of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, about his new book, Irresistible Faith.

One thing he said really stuck out to me: that gossip is a form of pornography, because when you gossip you are essentially “undressing” a person, exposing things about them which are intimate, vulnerable and private — in order to get a cheap thrill out of them, and to gratify yourself by feasting upon them in your mind.

Scott went on to say, that when we gossip, we are objectifying a person — turning them into a thing in order to gratify yourself at their expense, without making a commitment to them.

I think Scott is right. But that brings up a few other questions which people often ask when it comes to gossip:

What Constitutes Gossip?

Since many of our personal experiences involve other people, it would be really hard to say anything without talking about somebody else. How do we differentiate between healthy forms of mentioning or talking about other people, and unhealthy forms, which constitute gossip? What exactly is gossip?

One dictionary defines it as: “Unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.”

The word “unconstrained” is key.

Another definition is: “The sharing of sensational facts about other people.”

The word “sensational” is key here, because it shows a motivation: the key is to titillate, to impress, to entertain. The problem is, it is done at someone else’s expense.

Hurting Rather than Helping

Looking at Bible verses which talk about gossip (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:20, 1 Timothy 5:13), gossip clearly is linked to slander, thus it comes from a negative spirit bent on hurting rather than helping.

None of Your Business

Gossip is excessive interest in someone else’s affairs, for the purpose of entertainment. Paul calls it being a “busybody” (1 Timothy 5:13), i.e. someone who is involved in something which is none of their business.

Why is Gossip Wrong?

Besides the self-gratifying nature of it, what is so bad about gossip?

1. Gossip is Divisive

A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

2. Gossip is Poisonous

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)

Many times I have observed people’s minds being poisoned in regard to how they think about another person because of gossip.

3. We Will Have to Answer to God for How We Use Our Words

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” – Jesus (Matthew 12:36)

Some Guidelines for Talking About Others

1. Use Words that Build Up, Rather than Tear Down

One of the reasons people tear others down with their words is because they feel that by making other people look bad, it makes them look good in comparison. In fact the opposite is true: when we speak poorly of someone, it makes us look bad, even if we are too foolish to realize it.

‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.’ (Ephesians 4:29)

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

2. Let Your Speech be Motivated by Love for the Other Person

People often talk about their children, but they almost never gossip about their children. Why? Because people love their children, and love protects rather than exploits someone’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

‘The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of sense. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. ‘ (Proverbs 10:20-21)

Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’ and the Need for Hope

Image result for being mortal atul

I recently finished Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It was given to me by a friend from church who recommended I read it, and I’m glad I did.

The Author and his beliefs

Atul Gawande is an American medical doctor, the son of two doctors who immigrated to the U.S. from India. He was raised nominally Hindu, but by his own admission he is functionally secular and non-religious, and the focus of his book is not at all on giving hope beyond this life, only on dealing with the death from a clinical perspective.

However, I would argue that whatever you believe about the future invariably affects the way you interpret the meaning and purpose of life, as well as how you cope with mortality, and this does come through in some of his conclusions.

Content and Highlights

The book begins with a description of physical changes that happen as people age, beginning at age 35.

Dying Well

Next, Atul Gawande gives a brief history of nursing homes. I found this part very interesting. About 50% of Americans die in nursing homes. Some might say this is very sad, which in some ways it is – however, understanding the way that most people died in the past makes you see that this is actually a great improvement over 100 years ago, when many people died in state-funded “poor houses” which even at their best had awful conditions.

He then goes on to describe the development of “assisted living” facilities, and how many have now deviated from their original purpose and design. He also tells stories of people who have sought to improve these facilities through innovation, such as bringing living things, e.g. plants, animals and children into these homes to improve residents’ quality of life.

While the author does say that the older model of a multi-generational home in which elderly people are cared for at home until they die has some benefits, he also shows its limits and downsides, using his own grandfather as an example.

Palliative Care

Atul also describes the benefits of palliative care for elderly people, which is focused on improving a person’s quality of life rather than on invasive treatments which may reduce a dying person’s quality of life even though they have little to no chance of curing them or significantly prolonging their life.

Even though palliative care has been shown to help improve and often prolong a person’s life, one of the sad things Gawande points out is that many insurance providers have stopped paying for palliative care, but they continue paying for invasive treatments, even if they are unnecessary or unhelpful to patients. This perpetuates a cycle of doing everything possible for patients, even if those treatments are not likely to lengthen their life and will probably make their quality of life worse.

The Big Point

Atul Gawande’s main point is summed up in this statement:

“Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.”

He argues that as people live longer and more die of old age, we should be focused on helping people stay in control of their lives as long as possible, achieve their goals, and die with dignity.

A Reason for Living

It is impossible to talk about dying without some sort of existential discussion about what gives life meaning and purpose.

At one point, Atul Gawande references the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce, who said that “simply existing – merely being housed and fed and safe and alive – seems empty and meaningless to us.” He goes on to explain that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves, and it is in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth sacrificing for, that gives our lives meaning.

Royce said that this reason for living was the opposite of individualism. An individualist puts self-interest first, seeing his or her own pain, pleasure and existence as their greatest concern. For the individualist, self-sacrifice makes no sense, but since their own self is the highest cause for which they live, their life has no meaning other than to make themselves happy. Ironically, it is for this reason that happiness and satisfaction will always elude them. For the individualist death is meaningless and ultimately terrifying.

It is for this reason, Gawande explains, that we all need something beyond ourselves and outside of ourselves to live for, and this is why elderly people who have pets, for example, tend to live longer lives.

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning, is that he has identified a real need, and yet he basically says in the end that since he doesn’t believe there is anything beyond this life, therefore it is better to give someone the illusion that their life has meaning and purpose and value beyond themselves, even though no such thing really exists.

He does mention that people want their lives to make a difference after they are gone, but what he fails to answer is: to what end?  Why should anyone care about what happens after they are gone, if life is actually meaningless, and after this light burns out there is only darkness? From this same logic, a totally selfish existentialism could also be argued for – such as that of the Epicureans: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” – in other words #YOLO – since we only live once, who cares what destruction we leave in our wake for others to deal with?! It’ll be their problem, not ours!

The solution which only the gospel gives

In this search for meaning and purpose, I would argue that it is only the gospel message of Jesus Christ which gives a satisfactory answer to humankind’s search for meaning and hope beyond this life.

It is only the gospel which gives us real hope beyond this life, and a real mission in this life which has more than just illusionary results. In the gospel we have hope for life beyond this one, and the effects of our mission are eternal in nature.

As CS Lewis put it at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia:

“For us, this is the end of all the stories…but for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” – CS Lewis, The Last Battle

In order to truly “die well”, what we need is not just dignity, but HOPE. And this is found only and ultimately in the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Should you read it?

I would recommend Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It was full of important thoughts about the process of dying in Western society today. However, I recommend reading the book with an eye to its one glaring shortcoming: it fails to address the need for and the source of HOPE both for this life and the one to come.

Trust Your Instruments

two pilot inside aircraft

This winter our church has been partnering with Agape Family Services, a Longmont-based non-profit which helps people who have been homeless to transition to independence. Agape provides shelter, food, help with overcoming addiction and assistance in finding jobs and a place to live during their 6 month program.

White Fields partners with Agape by teaching a Tuesday morning Bible study for those in the program. It has been great seeing Agape’s work, the effectiveness of the program, and how the people are progressing. One man, for example, who comes to Bible study every week and reads his Bible avidly has, with Agape’s help, gotten sober, found a job, married his girlfriend and is working on finding a place to live when he graduates from the program in the spring. It has been great to witness his progress over the past few months, and to see his completion and countenance improve each week.

This past Tuesday, a man from White Fields named Brad led the Bible study. Brad used to fly corporate jets for a living, and he used an example from that world to illustrate what it means to live and walk by faith:

When Trusting Your Feelings Will Kill You

Brad said that pilots often experience “spacial disorientation”, which means that even if the plane is flying perfectly level, they will feel like they are tilted to one side, and that the plane isn’t going straight, when it actually is.

The danger with this is that if the plane is actually tilted, it will pick up momentum and spiral out of control. So this feeling of “spacial disorientation” triggers panic in your mind and body which tells you that you need to straighten out the plane or else you’re going to spiral out of control – except, if the pilot follows that feeling and “corrects” the plane, they will actually be tilting the plane which can result in entering into a “death spiral” from which they can’t pull out.

The pilot needs to know that what their body and mind are telling them might be incorrect, and rather than relying on those feelings, what they need to do is trust their instruments.

On the instrument panel, a pilot has multiple gyros (in case one fails), which tell them whether they are level. It is an act of faith to trust your instruments rather than your feelings, but if you don’t, you (and your passengers) will experience disaster and tragedy.

Slow Down and Think

I recently finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinkingin which he talks about rapid cognition and intuition. In the book, he discusses this same issue: that generally our minds are very powerful and our rapid cognition is trustworthy, but sometimes it’s not, and we must slow down in order to make the right decision.

He used the example of police brutality in the cases of Rodney King and other incidents, and how rather than being caused primarily by racism, they are caused by officers being in a heightened state of arousal (high heart rate) as a result of a chase, which causes their minds to shut off, and they begin acting without thinking. As a result of research, police departments have gone to great lengths to slow down procedures in order to create more “white space” for officers to be able to think before acting, knowing that sometimes their instincts will lead them to do things in an instant which they wouldn’t have done had they had time to think.

Landing the Plane

Similarly, as Christians, we know that our hearts can be deceitful (Jeremiah 17:19). Proverbs 14:12 tells us that ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.’

So rather than “following our hearts” or doing what feels good in the moment, it is important to think before we act, and trust our instruments, i.e. what God’s Word says is true, not just what we might feel in the moment.

This applies to how we think about ourselves, how we assess our situations and circumstances, and how we react to others.

In our recent study of Habakkuk, we saw that Habakkuk was a man who was struggling to understand why God was allowing certain things to happen, and why God had chosen a course of action which, to Habakkuk, seemed wrong and unfair. God’s response was to remind Habakkuk to “trust the instruments” in those instances when things seemed to be spiraling out of control; he was to remember who God is (e.g. sovereign, good, just), and then look at his circumstances through that lens, trusting that God was working out a plan, even if Habakkuk couldn’t see the whole thing just yet.

You can listen to that study of Habakkuk here: Habakkuk: The Righteous Shall Live by Faith

May we be those who trust the instruments God has given us, lest we end up off-course or in a death spiral – so we reach our final destination.