Compelling Stories & the True Myth

opened bible on wooden surfaca

Have you ever noticed that many of the stories that you love, all have the same core elements?

This is a reality which played a major role in CS Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity, as he discussed it with his friend JRR Tolkien. I told that story in this post, called Addison’s Walk.

Lewis later articulated this concept in Mere Christianity, in which he described how the gospel story of Jesus Christ is the “true myth,” and the fundamental myth, which is written on the human heart, and to which all other myths point.

Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth

It isn’t only Christians who have observed this phenomenon. Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature who researched comparative mythology, wrote a book titled, The Hero with a Thousand Facesin which he showed how there is a common structure in the mythological stories told in all human cultures of an archetypal hero. This structure has come to be known as the “monomyth.”

This podcast episode gives a very engaging description of the monomyth theory and how  Hollywood has now begun to use it as a formula for writing stories that people want to watch: Imaginary Worlds, The Hero’s Journey: Endgame

I first heard about The Hero with a Thousand Faces while recording a podcast episode for the Expositors Collective Podcast at a training weekend in Bradenton, Florida last December. That episode was released this past week, and you can listen to it here: Expositors Collective, Episode 45: Telling a Compelling Story.

The discussion in that episode is based on a talk I gave at that event on the topic of homiletics (the art of preaching), about how to use narrative format in order to craft compelling expository sermons.

Why Do People Like to Read These Kinds of Stories?

Interestingly, when Joseph Campbell was asked why he thought it was stories contain these common elements, which are all present in the biblical narrative, his response was that the reason people write in this way, is because it is what other people like to read. However, in that response he fails to answer the question and get to the root of the issue, which is: Why do people like to read these kinds of stories?

As Christians, we would agree with Tolkien and Lewis, that the reason for this is because we are created by God, and this story is the true story of the world, which we intuitively know because God has placed it in our minds and put it in our hearts.

This same theme was identified by Don Richardson, a missionary to Papua New Guinea who discovered that there are common virtues and mythologies held in all cultures in the world, and that these shared stories create a basis by which the gospel can be shared cross-culturally, even to people who have never been exposed to the gospel before. He documents and explains this in his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts.

Popular Examples

In our interview, Mike mentions a clip from the Simpsons in which Homer says something profound about the Bible: “Everybody in this book is a sinner… except for THIS GUY!” Here’s the clip:

I recently found out that at the end of the series, J K Rowling revealed that Christianity inspired Harry Potter. In an interview, she stated how she always thought that the influence of the biblical narrative was so obvious that every reader should have noticed it, and that the Bible verses on Harry’s parents’ gravestones “sum up and epitomize the entire story.”

What does all this mean for us?

It means that when you read a story that compels you, when you watch a movie that makes you cry, when you read a news story about heroism that touches your heart, there is a very profound reason for that: that story resonates with and reflects the true story of the world, the gospel story of Jesus Christ – the true story of the ultimate problem, the ultimate peril, the ultimate act of sacrificial love, the ultimate story of good overcoming evil, and the ultimate hero.

If you follow the ladder all the way to the top, it will lead you to Jesus. As you enjoy these stories, don’t fail to recognize that what you truly long for in your heart of hearts is nothing less than Jesus himself and the redemption that is found in him!

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!

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.

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.

Feed the Goose & Use Your Calendar

white eggs in brown nest

One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a man who found a goose who laid golden eggs. Every morning, he went and found another golden egg that the goose had laid, until one day he became greedy, and decided to cut the goose open so he could get more golden eggs. Of course, by doing so, not only did he not get any extra golden eggs, but he also ceased getting the daily eggs he had previously received, since the goose was now dead.

You can read the parable here or listen to this 1 minute audio version:

The point of the fable, Aesop said, is that greed often overreaches itself. However, like with most parables, there are several applicable truths packed into this very short story.

Many of the best things are acquired indirectly

The golden eggs in the story represent a desired outcome: something you want. For you, that might mean spiritual growth in your relationship with God, it might mean increased knowledge of the Bible or theology. It might mean deep and meaningful friendships, developing a skill, or increasing your success in your work. It might be making an impact on the world around you.

But what this fable illustrates for us, is that whatever the “golden egg” is for you, it is usually acquired indirectly. When the man in the story pursued the golden eggs directly, seeking to bypass the goose, he ended up with nothing, and killed the thing which gave him that which he wanted.

CS Lewis writes about how friendship works in a similar way. Friendship, he points out, must be about something else other than the friendship itself. The basis of a friendship is that both people are committed to and passionate about something beyond their friendship. “This is why,” Lewis says, “those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any.” “Those who have nothing can share nothing,” he points out, and concludes: “those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” (The Four Loves, ch. 4)

The same is true of spiritual growth. To quote from John Piper: “Doctrine is the fuel for worship.” The way to grow, the way towards deeper worship, is indirect: it is through getting to know more about who God is and what He has done and will do, which fuels growth and worship.

If you’ve ever met someone who is purposefully seeking to “climb the ladder” or make a name for themselves in an organization or community, it often backfires, because it is seen as off-putting and self-serving. On the other hand, those who make a practice of genuinely and faithfully serving others will not remain anonymous for very long.

If you want to keep getting “golden eggs”, then make sure you feed the “goose”

The goose in the fable is the thing which you must “feed” in order to get the desired results.

If your goal is spiritual growth, then to “feed the goose” means to do those things which will result in spiritual growth, e.g. reading the Bible, prayer, attending worship services, joining a community group.

At White Fields, something our leadership has done is develop a plan that guides us in doing the qualitative activities which we believe will lead to our desired outcome (our vision): to build and foster a passionate, engaged and spiritually healthy Christian community to influence and bless Longmont and beyond. The way we go about doing this (our mission) is by making disciples of Jesus Christ through teaching the Word of God, engaging in the mission of God, and raising up leaders. In order to accomplish that mission, we have tried to determine what things we should be doing, which will lead to those outcomes.

The same is true on a personal level: a few years ago, after a doctor visit in which I was told I was pre-diabetic, I decided I wanted to get in better shape. Since running seemed to give the best return on investment, I decided to do that. Rather than setting weight-loss goals, I’ve set running goals, knowing that if I run a certain amount, whether I lose weight or not, I will be in better shape.

Make sure that the “golden eggs” you’re after are godly and aligned with God’s heart and will for your life, and then determine what the “goose” is that will produce that outcome, and feed that goose.

Check out: Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity

Moving beyond good intentions and wishful thinking

I have found that using my calendar is the best way to make sure I’m feeding the “goose”.

Reading through the Bible in a year is a great goal, as is family devotional time and committed church attendance. However, if you don’t use your calendar to block out times for those things, they won’t often move beyond the realm of good intentions. I have found that by putting things in my calendar, I am able to prioritize things according to my values, rather than being a slave to the “tyranny of the urgent.”

May God lead you, as you seek Him, to determine the right “golden eggs” to pursue, the right way to “feed the goose” and the ability to be intentional in doing so.

Treasure in Unexpected Places

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Did you know that a few years ago, the British artist Banksy set up a stall at the edge of New York’s Central Park, and offered some of his most famous and sought-after works of art up for ridiculously low prices?

Some of Banksy’s most famous pieces, the monkey with a sign, the guy throwing flowers, the rat with a smirk, they were all there – but people walked by and completely ignored them.

Pieces which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were on sale for $60 a piece, and yet, over the course of the day, only three people bought prints from the old man watching over the stall, which was only labeled “Spray Art.”

One lady bought two pieces, but only after haggling for a 50% discount. One young woman bought a large canvas at full price, and one lucky man from Chicago bought four of them for his new house, because he just wanted “something for the walls,” and he thought these would suffice.

All in all, Banksy sold $225,000 of art for just $420. The entire stall was holding over $1 million worth of art, but no one recognized the incredible value of what they were walking right past.

Here’s an article about it, and below is a video which was taken of the stunt as it happened.

Or maybe you’ve heard about the world famous violinist, Joshua Bell, who, two days after selling out a theater in Boston where the average seat price was over $100, entered a Washington D.C. metro station and played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million. In 45 minutes, he made $32 in tips, and of the thousands of people who walked by, only six stopped to listen.

Here’s an article and a video of that.

“From now on therefore…”

How many times do we do the same thing? We overlook the treasure that is right before us, because it is in a place we didn’t expect to find it.

We overlook it in the people about whom we are predisposed to think a certain way. We overlook it in nature and in all kinds of other places.

The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:16: “From no on therefore, we will regard no one according to the flesh.”

He is making a determination, that he will not look at people the same way anymore. Why not? Because in the prior verses, he talked about how Jesus has died to redeem us. Not everyone will receive that gift of redemption; Paul mentions that when he talks about how, in light of what God has done, we now seek to compel and persuade others to look to Jesus and receive God’s grace freely offered to them, as if God as making his appeal through us: we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

CS Lewis put it this way:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
(CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Beyond just the fact that no human you ever encounter is a mere moral, Paul tells us something even more astounding: that for those of us who have received this gift of redemption and new life in Christ, God has placed the light of his glory within us – as if someone put a great treasure in a simple clay pot… or if Banksy set up a stall in Central Park, or if the greatest violinist in the world were playing in a subway station…

Will you determine to see the beauty and the majesty that God has placed around you? Will you determine to see people differently than you have – as those who bear the image of God, and for those who have been redeemed: those in whom the glory of God dwells?

I know that I need to do this myself: to slow down and consider the treasure and the beauty of what (and who) is around me. I bet I’m not the only one 🙂

David Silverman, American Atheists and the Attempt to be Good Without God

Last week American Atheists issued a statement that they had fired their firebrand president of many years, David Silverman, as a result of moral failure.

In an interview, a spokesperson for American Atheists stated that Silverman was dismissed because of an issue regarding promotion of a recent book, as well as for a conflict of interest issue where he promoted a girlfriend to a high level position. It then came out that there were accusations of sexual misconduct with two other women who had come out to the media. Right before that story broke, American Atheists’ board quickly met to dismiss David Silverman.

The thing which is most intriguing about the statement from American Atheists is the closing sentence:

We have zero tolerance for the type of behavior alleged in these accounts. We will continue to demand the highest standards and accountability from our leaders, staff, and volunteers.

This brings up several very important issues:

If morality has no basis, then it is only opinion.

In the above statement, they mention demanding “the highest standards”. What are those standards, and how do they determine them?

The idea that people can be good without God is a major tenant of modern popular humanism and atheism. Many atheists would suggest that their ability to be good without God shows that they have more inner fortitude than “religious” folks, because they don’t need to have a threat of punishment over them in order to coerce them into good behavior.

Christians who understand the gospel are actually willing to agree with this in one sense. Belief in God does not automatically mean that a person will be morally superior to those who do not believe in God. It should not surprise Christians to find atheists or people who follow other religions who are honest, hard-working, kind people. After all, people do not become Christians by their moral effort but by their trust in God’s gracious work on their behalf.

The question is: is morality an innate thing, which people intuitively know, or is it a social construct?

Most prominent atheist thinkers argue that it is a social construct. As I have written about before – see “Why Ethics Depends on Origin” – prominent atheist writers say that ethics are not based in reality, they are social constructs which help our society to function better.

But what about when they don’t?

For example, eugenics (the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics) might actually help our society function better. If we were to abort all babies who were seen to have disabilities, if we were to forcibly end the lives of those who are a drain on society, then wouldn’t that be a benefit to society? That’s what the Nazis and others in the 19th and 20th Centuries suggested… And yet people push back against that and say it is wrong. Why? If morals are not actually based in reality but only exist to help society, then why not take that thought to its logical conclusion?

The reason is because:

Nobody believes that morality is only a matter of opinion.

The idea that morality is a social construct brings up other big questions, such as: what if my morality is different than your morality?

For example, David Silverman has denied any wrongdoing in regard to the above mentioned allegations. Essentially, he is saying that he thinks the things he did were just fine. In other words, the idea that he did something wrong is just the company’s opinion.

It could be argued that male-initiated, non-consensual sex is practiced regularly in some cultures of the world. So, they can’t really say that what he did was wrong, only that they didn’t like it.

The problem is: nobody actually believes that. We all believe that rape, murder and the like are wrong. Even with people, like David Silverman, who claim that nothing is wrong with what he did, others look at it and say: That’s wrong – and it’s not just our opinion, it’s just flat out wrong.

Mark Clark puts it this way:

We do believe in right and wrong. We believe hurting a child is wrong. We believe raping and pillaging the environment is wrong. We believe all races should be equal. That there is such a thing called justice that tells us mercy is better than hate. That loyalty is a virtue, and that there is evil in the world. All of these convictions give meaning to our lives, but if there is no absolute right and wrong, all of them go away; they are but a mirage. Meaningless. Weightless. Worth abandoning with every other construct of modernity.

Case Study: The Sexual Revolution vs. the Vietnam War

Take the 1960’s and 1970’s for example: On the one hand, there was a “sexual revolution” in which people were saying “No one can tell me what to do with my body, don’t try to impose your moral standards on me.” And yet, those same people protested the Vietnam War by saying that it was unjust and immoral because of the use of bombs and napalm.

They didn’t want anyone to impose a moral standard (regarding sex) on them, but they didn’t think twice about trying to assert their moral standard (regarding war and napalm) on others. They said on the one hand that morality is subjective, and in the next breath they said that there is a morality which everyone should accept as normative.

Case Study: Arguments

CS Lewis begins Mere Christianity by talking about the topic of: arguments.

“That’s my seat, I was there first”—“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”—“Why should you shove in first?”—“Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—“Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior, which he expects the other man to know about. . . . It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.

So, then – if morality is not merely a social construct, but is actually something we intuitively or innately know, then:

Morality points us to the existence of God.

The idea that there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong points us to the fact that there is a design. If there is a design, there must be a designer.

If there is a moral rule or standard, then there must be something or someone which determines this standard.

The Bible explains this point in this way:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires . . . they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14–15).

The fact that we are repelled by things such as sexual misconduct, lying and cheating, and that we advocate for equal treatment of all people regardless of their race, economic level, gender or physical ability – all those things things point to something beyond what is simply natural. They are proof of the fact that the heart of God is stitched into our very being.

Is Christianity Just Another Form of Self-Seeking?

I received this question from a reader recently:
What would you say to someone who claims that “all people watch out for themselves first, even Christians come to their faith in order to selfishly serve themselves and to secure a positive afterlife.”?
I would respond to this claim by pointing out that the Christian ethic is acutely opposed to selfishness. This is exemplified by our God who self-sacrificially gave himself for us; forfeiting glory in exchange for shame, dishonor, discomfort, and death in order to save us. We are then encouraged throughout the New Testament to follow that example in how we relate to others: to lay down our lives for the sake of God’s mission, which is to rescue people out of darkness and death. Christians are encouraged to not seek our own good first, but to sacrifice for the good of others.
A great scripture on this is Philippians 2:3-8:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
When it comes to salvation, it is too simplistic to claim that Christianity is only about obtaining a “get out of hell free card.” Jesus said in John 17:3 that the essence of eternal life is knowing God; this means that for Christians, salvation is more than just being saved in the afterlife, it is being saved in the here and now, essentially giving up your life here on Earth for God’s plans and purposes, and this life of salvation continues on beyond death – which is what humans were originally created for to begin with, but which was ruined by sin (and the curse of sin, which is death).
This person would not be wrong in saying that many people turn to Christianity for purely selfish reasons. This is nothing new. A lot of people look to God as useful to them, but when you understand the Gospel, that changes: you begin to no longer see God as useful, you begin to see Him as beautiful, and that becomes your motivation in worshiping and serving him.
Do you see God primarily as useful or as beautiful?
Just because some people “do it wrong” doesn’t mean that the flaw is with Christianity. In fact, Jesus himself criticized such people harshly – particularly the Pharisees, who sought to use religion for selfish gain rather than giving up their lives to serve God and serve others. Jesus said that anyone who tries to hold onto their life will lose it, but only the person who gives up their life for the sake of the gospel will find it. The gospel he is referring to is the mission of God to rescue people – thus what he’s describing is a life of sacrificial love and service to others, which helps work out God’s plan for their life (that they would know God and be rescued from sin and death both now and for eternity).
One last thing: this person seems to be making a common assumption: that selflessness is the highest virtue. Consider this quote from CS Lewis on this topic:
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.
– CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory 
For more on this, check out this article from the CS Lewis foundation, which goes into more depth on the topic of ethics and virtues.

What Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey, John Coltrane and CS Lewis Have in Common

I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary about Andy Kaufman through the eyes of Jim Carrey, which shows behind the scenes footage filmed during the filming of Man on the Moon. As Carrey says in the documentary: the behind the scenes stuff is the actual movie, because the entire time they were filming the movie, he insisted to stay completely in character, even to the point of having tearful and heartfelt conversations with Andy Kaufman’s relatives, who truly acted and felt as if they were talking to Andy himself.

But I thought the best part of the documentary was whenever Jim Carrey would talk to the camera. He seemed very vulnerable, honest and melancholy. He talked about how his whole life he was playing a part: that “Jim Carrey” was a persona he created, and now he’s done trying to be that person, and he’s ready to just be himself. That is what he learned by “being” Andy Kaufman – because Andy Kaufman was a unique individual. He wasn’t a comedian – he rejected that label, pointing out that he never actually told a single joke. Instead, he considered himself…well: himself. He would just do whatever he wanted and thought would entertain people, whether that was singing a song or wrestling a woman, or staging a fight. He was completely out of the box, and totally comfortable in his own skin. Realizing this while playing this role, Carrey says, changed his life.

About half-way through the documentary, Jim Carrey says:

At some point when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are, or you’re going to have to kill who you really are, and fall into your grave grasping onto a character who you never were.

This reminds me of a quote from CS Lewis in Mere Christianity:

You will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.

Jazz musician John Coltrane wrote about a similar experience he had in his life. He had spent his life, like many people, believing that if he could get really good and become successful, people would love and appreciate him and then he would have a sense of value, worth and meaning in his life. But in the notes of his album “A Love Supreme” he wrote about a change that had taken place in his life:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music…to inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD. This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues.

John Coltrane had stopped making music out of a desire to be praised and accepted. Now he did it for the sake of music, for the benefit of the listener, and to unto God. And in doing so, he experienced freedom.

There is a wonderful freedom in self-forgetfulness, the act of taking our eyes off of ourselves. But if we stop there, we haven’t gone far enough. We need to take the final step, as John Coltrane did, of not only taking our eyes off of ourselves, but fixing our eyes on Jesus and what He has done for us. If you do, then His beauty, love, power and strength will be what motivates you in a labor of love and response.

Thoughts on Friendship

women s black long sleeve shirt

This weekend I will be officiating two weddings for young couples from White Fields. For pre-marital counseling, one of the resources I use is Timothy and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of GodOne of the great takeaways from this book is that the foundation for marriage is “spiritual friendship.” On the topic of friendship, the book quotes several other authors.

Here are some highlights:

Our need for friends is not weakness, it’s part of our design

Since God is triune in nature (one God in three distinct persons), creating us in His own image (“Let us create man in our image.” – Genesis 1:26), is by nature designing us for relationships. It is for this reason, that when God saw Adam alone in the garden without a companion,  God declared that “it is not good that man should be alone, therefore I will create a companion suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

What this is implying is that “our intense relational capacity, created and given to us by God, was not fulfilled completely by our ‘vertical’ relationship with him. God designed us to need ‘horizontal’ relationships with other human beings. That is why even in paradise, loneliness was a terrible thing.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 120)

The sifting hand and the breath of kindness

Two characteristics of real friendship are 1) constancy and 2) transparency.

One writer described friendship in this way:

the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away. (Craik, A Life for a Life, 169)

Oh, that there were more of this!

Seeing the same truth

C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, writes about friendship and says that friendship happens when two people discover that they “see the same truth.”

Friendship, he points out, cannot be merely about itself. It, by nature, must be about something else, something that both people are committed to and passionate about besides one another.

“This is why,” Lewis says, “those pathetic people who simple ‘want friends’ can never make any.” Because there is nothing they want more than friends, but ironically, you cannot have friends unless you love something or see some truth that you are passionate about. “Those who have nothing can share nothing,” he points out, and concludes: “those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” (The Four Loves, ch. 4)

This is why the basis for Christian marriage is actually friendship: it is two people standing side by side, together with their eyes fixed on Jesus, and moving towards him. Anything less is an insufficient foundation.

Spiritual friendship, Keller concludes, is the greatest journey of all, because the horizon is so high and far, yet so sure – it is nothing less than “the day of Jesus Christ.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 127)