Hemingway and Unfulfilled Longing

‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ – with Ernest Hemingway:

A Farewell to Arms
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die. Alone. In the rain.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die doing something heroic…even if it was completely meaningless and accomplished nothing.

The Sun Also Rises
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: Because he was in love with someone who would never love him back; a fate worse than death.

I recently read each of these books as part of my decision to read more non-fiction literature. Tim Keller at one point suggested that pastors, who generally read a lot of non-fiction, ought to also read quality fiction in order to stimulate their creativity and imagination. Some of my favorites have been Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck.

And then there’s Hemingway…

The Charm of Hemingway

With Hemingway, you don’t get happy endings in which everything wraps up perfectly and people live happily ever after.

With Hemingway, you get a good story, but most of all, you get a lot of introspection and existential questions, which never get resolved.

Perhaps that’s the charm and appeal of Hemingway: he didn’t try to sugarcoat things. He presents life in all of its facets: joy and pain, longing and disappointment. He’s not afraid to leave a dilemma unresolved, or to have a character’s longing go unfulfilled.

Writing About Himself

As I read his stories, I can’t help but feel that Hemingway is writing about himself – and above all, about his inner struggle to find meaning in life apart from God.

He longs to be heroic and adventurous, and indeed he was – both in the stories and in real life. Yet in the end, even he himself questions what the meaning of life is – and he is never able to sufficiently answer the question, not even in a way that satisfies himself.

It’s no surprise that the main characters in Hemingway’s stories are all Americans living abroad – like Hemingway was. But more importantly, they are all atheists – like Hemingway himself. And not just atheists, but conflicted atheists, who realize the problems inherent to atheism…

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s character faces the tragic loss of his wife and child, and in a moment of desperation he forfeits his atheism and prays to God! I can’t help but believe that this is Ernest himself admitting that deep down inside, when faced with the reality of life, death and eternity, he knew there was a God – even if he didn’t like to admit it and didn’t want to acknowledge Him.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s character is fighting on the losing side of a war, in which the deaths of all those around him won’t change a single thing except to cause pain and loss. He tries to convince himself that all that matters is living heroically and all that matters is living for something bigger than yourself… except that too is completely meaningless. So life is a struggle, it is pain and strife – intermixed with some pleasure – followed by death.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s thesis is that the point of life is to have fun and enjoy yourself – #YOLO, before #YOLO was a thing. The only problem is: what if you fail to attain that which you want, and therefore you do not succeed at enjoying yourself in life? What then is the point of living?

It is as if Hemingway, in each of his books, is desperately trying to convince himself that there is meaning in life apart from God – and constantly failing to do so.

At least he was honest.

And yet his life ended in self-inflicted tragedy, as if it was one of his own stories.

What Hemingway Missed: The Reality to Which All the Longings Point

What Hemingway failed to realize – and tragically so, considering that he asked all the right questions and seemingly came so close – was that all of the disappointment of the unfulfilled longings of this life points to a reality which is outside of this world.

This is the hope of the Christian gospel: that the unfulfilled longings we have now will actually be fulfilled one day. That the reason we are unsatisfied with life in this world is because we were made for perfection, and deep down we instinctually know the way that things ought to be – even though it’s not how they are right now. We long for a world in which there is love without parting. We long for a world of adventure and nobility, where love is reciprocated, a world of righteousness where injustice is no more and where life does not end.

And the promise of the Bible is that such a world is what we were made for; it has been lost, but it will exist again – and by the grace of God we will get to be part of it because of what Jesus did for us.

The knowledge of that gives actual meaning to our present struggles and direction and purpose to our lives here and now – something truly bigger than ourselves, which will result in the fulfillment of our presently unfulfilled longings.

What is Dual-Covenant Theology and What Does it Mean that “All Israel will be saved”?

Romans 11:26 makes an interesting statement, which has led to much confusion and debate:

“And in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26a)

Context

As we’ve been studying through Romans at White Fields on Sunday mornings, we have come to chapters 9-11, which deal with questions concerning Israel, such as: Has God forsaken Israel? Since the Old Testament contains many promises to the nation of Israel, are those promises no longer valid? How do we make sense of the fact that many Jews have  rejected Jesus as Messiah – and that most Christians are not ethnically Jewish?

In answering these questions, Paul is quick to assert that, No, God’s word has not failed in regard to Israel (Romans 9:6), nor has God forsaken Israel (Romans 11:1).

Paul explains Jewish unbelief in two important ways:

  1. The remnant argument: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” (Romans 9:4), & “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved'” (Romans 9:27).
    Additionally, it is understood that many who are not ethnically Jewish will be added to the “chosen people of God” – As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26)
  2. The responsibility argument: “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21)

Dual-Covenant Theology?

In an attempt to explain this idea that “all Israel will be saved”, some have adopted a dual-covenant theology, which basically says that the Jews are going to be saved under the old covenant (law), but Gentiles are saved under the new covenant (Jesus, grace).

The problem with dual-covenant theology is that it goes against everything Paul has been teaching in Romans, and what the rest of the Bible teaches: that Jesus is the only way of salvation for all people, both for Jews and Gentiles (i.e. everyone in the world).

John Stott writes this:

There is no hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ. It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism. So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God’s covenant with Abraham was an ‘everlasting covenant’, they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus. This proposal is usually called a ‘two-covenant theology’.

Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it,47 namely that there are two different salvation ‘tracks’—the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God’s covenant with them. Professor Dunn is surely right to reject this as ‘a false and quite unnecessary antithesis’.

Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jewish and Gentile believers both belong. Jewish people ‘will be grafted in’ again ‘if they do not persist in unbelief’. So faith in Jesus is essential for them. Whether or not Dr Tom Wright is correct in the notion of ‘a large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’, his emphasis on present evangelism (‘now’, three times in verses 30 and 31) is healthy: ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith.’

The two-covenant theology also has the disastrous effect of perpetuating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles which Jesus Christ has abolished. ‘The irony of this’, writes Tom Wright, ‘is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.’ ‘It would be quite intolerable to imagine a church at any period which was simply a Gentile phenomenon’ or ‘consisted only of Jews’.

Stott, John. The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (pp. 304-305). InterVarsity Press.

If not dual-covenant theology, then how will “all Israel” be saved?

Since Paul has made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” i.e. not every ethnically Jewish person is part of Israel, i.e. the remnant of God’s chosen people who will be saved – and that additionally, many non-ethnically Jewish people will be grafted into the “olive tree” (Israel) as “wild branches”, from which many “natural branches” have been cut off (Romans 11:17-24), it is in this way that we understand that “all Israel” (the remnant of believing Israel) will be saved, along with the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25) who will be “grafted in”.

Here’s a short video discussion we had about this topic this week:

Adoption, the Gospel and Michael Ketterer

As we’ve been studying through the book of Romans at White Fields, one of the topics we recently looked at was how the Bible says that adoption is a one of the most profound Earthly pictures that we have of what God has done for us in the gospel.

Adoption is a picture of the gospel

We who were not children of God – destitute, orphans – God reached out to us, and not only did he pardon us and forgive us, not only does he give us his Spirit to help us in our weakness, but he has reached out to us and adopted us. At great cost to himself, doing something for us that we could never have done for ourselves, he has given us a new identity, paid our debts, given us a new belonging, a new future, a new family and a great inheritance.

For more on this topic, check out the sermon: Adopted by God from Romans 8:12-17.

Adoption is close to my heart for personal reasons

Adoption is something close to my heart. In 2008 we began foster parenting an 8th grader from the church I pastored at the time, and in 2011 we adopted him.

When you adopt a child, you are making the decision to love someone and care for someone, not because you have to, but because you choose to. While all adoption is beautiful, I am particularly moved by people who adopt not because they cannot have biological children, but because they understand adoption as a ministry and a way that they can live out the gospel – a way that they can live out what God has done for them in Christ, and bless someone else in a way which will absolutely change their life.

Michael and Ivey Ketterer

It’s been a while since I’ve watched America’s Got Talent, but I recently heard about Michael Ketterer, who appeared on the show and performed so well that he was fast-tracked from the audition process straight to the live show round of the competition.

Michael Ketterer is a musician who is part of United Pursuit, a Los Angeles based collective of Christian artists and musicians. He describes himself as a part-time worship leader, part-time nurse, and full-time dad.

Michael and his wife Ivey have 6 children, 5 of whom were adopted through foster care, and one of whom suffers from cerebral palsy – the neurological disorder which we were initially told that our daughter would have (Read: I Believe in Miracles; Here’s Why).

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The Ketterer Family

Michael and Ivey share their story of foster parenting and adoption in this video. With the exception of the part where he talks about demons (3:20), (we aren’t to resist evil on the basis of who we are, our own name and authority, but only in the name of Jesus and on the basis of his authority – see Jude 1:9) this is a great and moving testimony of love and being moved by the love of God to love others. I encourage you to watch the whole clip:

Here is the video of Michael’s first appearance on AGT:

Also check out Michael’s album, The Wild Inside, which he recorded with United Pursuit here:

You can help White Fields in our efforts to make a difference in the lives of children and care-takers in the foster system here in Colorado. Click on these links to learn more about our two annual outreaches to foster families on the Front Range:

Project Greatest Gift – A Longmont Initiative to Help Children in Foster Care

Project Back to School

Finally, maybe there are some of you whom God would lead to get involved with foster parenting or adoption through the foster system. Here is a link with information about foster parenting and adoption in Colorado: Co4Kids.org For those of you outside of Colorado, information can be easily found for every local area with a quick internet search.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For…. you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:14-15)

Is the Book of Esther Fictional? Does it Really Belong in the Bible?

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Did you know that the Book of Esther never mentions God?

Did you know that whereas almost every Old Testament book is quoted in the New Testament, the Book of Esther is not?

Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of every Old Testament book except the Book of Esther? (for more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians)

The Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl in Persia who becomes a queen and uses her position to save the Jewish people from an attempted genocide. This story is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday which is not prescribed in the Law of Moses.

These facts, along with the lack of corresponding historical records which corroborate the events talked about in the book have led many people to question not only whether Esther is historical, but whether it belongs in the Bible at all.

Martin Luther, for example, criticized the Book of Esther, accusing it of being too aggressively nationalistic and containing no gospel content.

It isn’t only Christians who are divided over the Book of Esther; Jewish congregations are also divided over whether Esther is a true story or a fable, and whether it belongs in the canon of Scripture (e.g. the Orthodox Union considers it historical and canonical, whereas the Assembly of True Israel considers it neither historical nor canonical).

Let’s consider the relevant questions:

Is Esther Historical?

The Book of Esther focuses on a ten year period (483-473 B.C.) in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes.

The book contains several historical, chronological and cultural details, which would lead us to believe that it is intended to be read as actual history, rather than as a parable. As in the case of Jonah (see: Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?), specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son).

In Esther 1:1 we read an accurate description of the extent of Xerxes’ empire, in 1:2 we read about the location of the seat of the Persian government, and in 1:3-4, we read that in the third year of his reign, Xerxes gave a banquet for all his officials and servants, including the army of Persia and Media. The reason this is important is that it coincides with the accounts of the historian Herodotus which tell us that Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece took place from 480 to 479 B.C., which means that this great gathering mentioned in Esther 1:3-4, which verse 4 says lasted 180 days, is likely describing the preparation for that military invasion of Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes began his return to Persia after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis at the end of 480 B.C. The dismissal of Queen Vashti, described in Esther chapter 1, would correspond to this timeline, having happened just before Xerxes departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther would have happened just after his return. Herodotus claims that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis,” which corresponds with what the Book of Esther describes and the time when Esther would have become queen.

Despite the clear historical setting, no outside sources exist which tell us about Esther becoming queen or about the killing of 75,000 Persians. However, it seems that the author’s intent is to relay historical events, and while corroborating sources do not exist, the same is also true of other historical accounts, including those of Herodotus.

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence which would lead us to believe that Esther is not a historical account, and where historical accounts from this period do exist, they line up with the historical, cultural and geographical details that Esther gives.

Why is Esther in the Bible if it doesn’t mention God?

Esther was recognized as scripture by the Jews before the time of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses “until Artaxerxes,” whom Josephus identifies as the “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther (Against Apion 1.40-41 & Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore, Josephus understood Esther to be the last book to be written in the Jewish canon.

In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, but was widely accepted by Christians as canonical long before that because of its inclusion in the Jewish Old Testament canon.

Although God is not named in the book, God is not absent from the story. Like in the story of Joseph, Esther is a story which highlights the providence, or the “invisible hand of God” at work in the world, ordering and ordaining events to happen according to His divine plan.

Many scholars believe that the absence of the word “God” from Esther was not a mistake, but was an intentional literary device, aimed at focusing attention on the importance of human initiative and divine providence. The sheer number of “coincidences” in the Book of Esther beg the reader to take notice of the invisible hand of God at work to bring about salvation and justice.

Does Esther contain any gospel content?

Contrary to Martin Luther’s claim that Esther does not contain any gospel content, the story actually contains very many foreshadowings of the salvation which Jesus will bring. Consider, for example the basic elements of the story:

There is an enemy of the people who wants to kill and destroy them. God raises up a savior at just the right time, who uniquely has access to the throne of the great king, who alone can save the people from this impending doom. This savior, at risk to herself, enters into the throne-room of the king and intercedes on behalf of her people, thus securing their salvation. The evil-doers, who throughout the story seemed to act unencumbered, receive the pronouncement of judgment from the king.

Furthermore, we see how the evil Haman desired to be treated as royalty even though he was not. In this we have a contrast with the one who was indeed royalty, but set aside his privileges in order to become a servant so that He might save us (see Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 20:28).

Finally, we see in Esther an example of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

Conclusion

Because of the scarcity of historical accounts and the lack of thoroughness of those which exist, it would be unwise for us to assume that this story is not historical just because we have not yet found other accounts which corroborate certain aspects of this story. The fact that some parts of the story do have corroborating historical evidence and accounts should give us confidence that Esther is a historical story about actual events – which ultimately are part of the picture and foreshadowing of the Great Savior who has now come: Jesus Christ, who entered into the throne room of God to make intercession for us, that through Him we might be saved from the great enemies of our souls.

The Hijacked Mind (and How to Be Free)

I don’t usually feel much sympathy for cockroaches, but I recently found out about a strange parasite that attacks beetles, grasshoppers and cockroaches.

250px-spinochordodes_in_meconema

Spinochordodes tellinii (S.T.) is a parasitic worm. Once it enters its host, it lives quietly and peacefully inside of them as it develops and grows. Once the S.T. has grown into maturity, it hijacks the mind of its host and causes them to commit suicide by compelling them to find water and cast themselves into it and drown.

The S.T., which by this point has grown to be larger than the host when stretched out, emerges, leaving their host dead in the water, and swims away to find a mate and reproduce.

You can read more about it here: Parasites Brainwash Grasshoppers into Death Dive

The way this parasite functions is similar to the way that sin works in our lives.

We have been studying the Epistle to the Romans on Sunday Mornings at White Fields. (Click here to see those messages) This Sunday we will be looking at Romans chapter 6, which tells us that sin is not something we can merely dabble in, but that our sins actually enslave us.

The only way to be free, we are told, is paradoxically by becoming “slaves of God.”

The paradox of freedom is that freedom from God enslaves us, but serving God frees us.

This is why, when God told Pharaoh through Moses to let his people go, he didn’t merely say, “Let my people go,” (as Charlton Heston incorrectly portrayed), the message was always actually, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” (For more on this, check out: The Setting for Salvation, a study of Exodus chapter 1)

In other words: freedom from the slavery they were in was not found in just coming out of slavery and then doing whatever they wanted. Why? Because it only would have been a matter of time before they would have been captured and enslaved by someone else. The only way for them to experience true freedom was for them to serve a new master who could, and would, truly liberate them and cause them to thrive.

As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

In Romans 6, we are told that we will either be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. The thing about sin is that it acts a lot like the Spinochordodes tellinii: it seems innocuous at first, but as it grows and matures, it will enslave you and ultimately destroy you.
The good news is: there is one who is greater than the greatest parasite: Jesus Christ, who took our sin and conquered the great enemy, so that we might be free. He sets us free from the great hijacker of our minds, hearts and souls.

Jesus told his disciples: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:13-15)

And yet, the followers of Jesus would refer to themselves as “bondservants of Jesus.” A bondservant was a slave by choice; it was a slave who had been granted their freedom, and yet chose to serve their master, because of their love for their master and desire to remain with them. (See: Free to Be a Slave)

To be a Christian is to be set free from bondage to sin, and to become a bondservant of God, because of Jesus.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Who’s Holding Whom?

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I have a two-year old daughter whom I love with my whole heart. At this age, she is learning and growing so fast, especially in her speech.

Lately, every day she looks up at me and says, “Can I hold you?”

That’s her way of asking me to pick her up. Last night I was holding her, and she asked me, “Can I hold mommy?”

When we pick her up, she holds on tight. I’m not sure if she’s just mixing up her words, and really means to say, “Can you hold me?”, or if she really thinks of it as her holding us when we pick her up. Certainly she is holding on, but at the end of the day, our grip on her is much stronger than her grip on us.

I can’t help but think of this in regard to a believer’s relationship with God.

We are told by the writer of Hebrews that we are to “hold fast” to the gospel (Hebrews 3:14, 4:14, 10:23). We should love Him, seek Him, and cling to Him.

But here’s the good news: if and when you fail to do so, if and when you feel weak, confused and exhausted to the point where you are struggling to hold onto Him – He will still be holding on to you.

My daughter thinks she is holding onto me. But the truth is: I’m holding onto her much more firmly than she’s holding onto me, and I’m much stronger than she is.

2 Timothy 2:13, most likely quoting from an early Christian creed or song, says: if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.

At the church where I served my first few years in Hungary, the pastor would read this passage at the end of every service:

Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,
To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

Find security in knowing this today: If you are His child, then as much as you might be clinging to Him (and you should be), He is clinging to you much more tightly, and He is infinitely stronger!

The Vietnam War’s “Napalm Girl” Found Redemption and the Power to Forgive in Jesus

 

napalm-girl

It’s one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War; a nine year-old Vietnamese girl running through the streets after her village was accidentally hit with a napalm attack by South Vietnamese troops, who incorrectly thought they were bombing a Viet Cong rebel hideout.

Napalm is a jelly-like substance that is highly flammable, and so the girl’s clothes were on fire, and she ripped them off as she ran down the street in pain and terror.

That photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The girl’s name is Kim Phuc.

But what happened after that photo was taken is actually much more interesting. Kim was able to emigrate to Canada. Although she had grown up following the local religion of her parents and ancestors, Kim became a Christian. She found redemption and the power to forgive in Jesus.

Take a minute to listen to her incredible story of how she became a Christian and how God has and is using her to spread the gospel:

For e-mail subscribers, click here to listen.

Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out

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There is an interesting phenomenon in Western society; in the words of one comedian: “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

We live in the most wealthy, technologically advanced society that has ever existed in the history of the world, and at the same time there are incredibly high rates of depression and mental illness which lead to suicide and acts of violence.

One key question many people are asking is: Why?  What is the cause of the increase in depression and mental illness in developed countries? 

The late Dutch psychiatrist J. H. van den Berg wrote and researched on the topic of psychopathology and he wrote a highly regarded book on the subject titled, A Different Existence: Principles of Phenomenological Psychopathology.

In this book, van den Berg uses a case study to analyze several common conceptions about psychiatric illness, and in the end he draws his conclusion from his research: that psychopathy is related to the experience of loneliness. Among his thesis statements, he declares:

“Loneliness is the nucleus of psychiatry.”

“If loneliness did not exist, we could reasonably assume that psychiatric illnesses would not occur either.” [105]

This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that it is generally recognized that Western society is experiencing loneliness at higher levels than ever before.

See: “A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It”

Our Society is Lonelier Than Ever Before

A survey taken by Harris Poll in 2016 showed that almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Americans experience loneliness.1

Our time has been called “the age of loneliness.” Although we are more connected than ever before via the internet, the internet itself is exacerbating the problem.

In January of this year, the United Kingdom appointed its first “Minister for Loneliness”, who is tasked with helping to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life.”

Loneliness is Literally Killing Us

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a 75-year study of men, concluded that loneliness is toxic. Loneliness is contagious, and the more isolated people are, the less happy they are, and brain function declines as well as physical health. 2

Medical studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general, has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” 3

How Do We Break Out of this Toxic Cycle?

One really important factor is that we must recognize that Western society has been sold a bill of goods related to individualism and the “autonomous self”. American culture, in many ways, is permeated by a culture of fear and an obsession with privacy. We have been told since the Enlightenment that this is the ultimate path to happiness, but the above data shows just how much it has left us in tatters.

The gospel shows us another way:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

When a person embraces the gospel, they become part of the people of God. Sinclair Ferguson put it this way:

 “We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

The Apostle Paul makes this point as well:    

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God  (Ephesians 2:19)

In other words: part of God’s work of salvation through Jesus includes saving people out of individualism, calling them into redeemed community which has a mission and a purpose bigger than any individual member. Clearly this presents a powerful antidote to the modern pathological phenomenon of loneliness and isolation. The gospel is a holistic remedy which addresses the greatest needs of the entire person: soul, mind and body. It is truly good news.

Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet about His Miracles and Identity?

I received this question from a reader:
There are a number of times in the gospels that Jesus performs a miracle and then tells the person healed and those who witnessed to not tell anyone…. I wonder: why?
The obvious answer from a human perspective is because he feared the Jews and those who wanted to shut him down. But since He is God, why would he not just be glad for the good news to spread far and wide? Being fearful of sinful men strikes me as not really his nature…
Thanks for this question, this is one that many people wonder about. Here are a few things to consider which help us understand why he did this on occasion:

Sometimes Jesus told people not to tell others about his miracles and identity, but other times he told them to tell everyone.

There are three main instances in which Jesus instructed people not to tell others who he was or what he had done:
  1. After confirming to his disciples that he was indeed the Messiah, Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone. (Matthew 16:20; Mark 8:29-30; Luke 9:20-21)
  2. Jesus healed a leper and told him not to tell anyone that it was he who had done this. The man, however, did not comply with this request. (Mark 1:40-44; Matthew 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-15)
  3. Jesus told demons not to speak about him and tell others who he was. (Mark 1:34, 3:11-12)

Conversely, there are occasions where Jesus tells people to go out and tell everyone what he did for them:

  1. Mark 5:18-20 (also found in Luke: 8:38-39): As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.
  2. Matthew 28:18-20 (also Mark 16:15-16): And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

What was the reasoning behind these different approaches, and why would Jesus ever tell people not to tell others what he did or who he was?

Here are two reasons:

A Matter of Publicity

One problem with people spreading the word about Jesus healing them was that it resulted in large crowds following him around. This was the case with the leper who did not comply with Jesus’ request that he keep quiet about it. That man went out and “began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news,” and the result was: “so Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.” (Mark 1:45)

If everyone was crowding around him trying to touch him and clamoring to be healed, it would be harder for him to preach – and preaching, not healing, was his primary objective (see Luke 4:42-43).

When it came to demons, Jesus understandably didn’t want demons to be proclaiming who he was, lest people associate him with demons, or they misrepresent him.

Furthermore, the Jews had many misconceptions of who the Messiah was going to be. Some didn’t believe there would be a Messiah; others thought there would be two Messiahs (a king descended from David and a Levite priest); still others were waiting for a warrior-king to overthrow the Romans. In many cases, Jesus wanted to introduce himself to people first, before telling them that he was the Messiah, so he could teach them things without the baggage of their expectations influencing the way they heard the things he said to them.

A Matter of Timing

Jesus had a very keen sense of timing.  According to prophecy, he had to die in Jerusalem at the Passover. (For more on that, check out: Easter Math: How Does It Add Up?)

There are several passages which show Jesus’ sense of timing and his caution to not come out too early.

  • John 2:4: Jesus tells his mother that the time to begin his ministry had not yet come.
  • John 7:6: when his brothers challenged him to go to the festival, Jesus tells them that “the right time for me has not yet come.”
  • Luke 9:51: it says that the time was approaching for him to be taken to heaven, and at that time, he turned his face resolutely toward Jerusalem.

In John 6:15 we read that some people, hearing that Jesus was the Messiah, wanted to come and make him their king, by force!

However, once the timing was right, Jesus revealed himself as king on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21), and encouraged his followers to tell everyone. For Jesus, this was a matter of publicity and timing.

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.