Is Life Really Worth the Pain and the Risk?

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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!

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Augustine & Disordered Loves

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At age 19, Augustine Aurelius – later to be known as Augustine of Hippo – read a dialogue by the Roman philosopher Cicero in which Cicero stated that every person sets out to be happy, but the majority are thoroughly wretched. Truly, no one dreams as a child of one day growing up to be miserable, and yet many people’s lives are characterized by conflict, frustration and unfulfilled longings.

Augustine set out to discover why it is that most people are so discontent in life. His conclusion was that for most of us, our lives are “out of order”; we have disordered loves.

Augustine was convinced that what defines a person more than anything is what they love. He said that when we ask if someone is a “good” person, what we are asking is not what they believe or what they hope for, but rather what they love. He stated that what we consider human virtues, e.g. courage, honesty, etc. are essentially forms of love. Courage is loving your neighbor’s well-being more than your own safety. Honesty is loving someone enough to tell them the truth even if it may put you at a disadvantage. [1]

Sin, Augustine said, is ultimately a lack of love, either for God or for your neighbor. He famously stated that “The essence of sin is disordered love.”

Disordered loves means that we often love less-important things more, and more-important things less than we ought to, and this wrong prioritization leads to unhappiness and disorder in our lives.

This is essentially what James says in his epistle:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:1-3)

James is saying that what makes people miserable is not their circumstances, but that they are chasing after the wrong things, for the wrong reasons. The things they love are out of order.

Many times we view people as a means to an end, using them rather than loving them. Oftentimes we seek God primarily because we find him useful, rather than seeking him because we find him beautiful. We relate to him as useful to us, to help us achieve our selfish goals, rather than seeking his agenda for our lives.

The problem, James tells us, is actually even bigger than we might have thought… because not only does this kind of disordered love lead to misery, it actually pits us at odds with God.

Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

Thankfully, James doesn’t just show us the problem, he also points us to the solution. If we proudly seek our own agenda, we will find ourselves in opposition with God. However, if we humble ourselves before God, we will receive grace.

James goes on to tell us that if you humble yourself before the Lord, he will exalt you. (James 4:10)

The way out of misery and into joy begins with humbling ourselves before God and submitting our lives – and our loves – to him.

How Can You “Count it All Joy” When Hardships Come Your Way?

In the month of December, we did a month-long series at White Fields on the topic of joy, and how Christianity gives a unique perspective on joy because it finds the source of joy in a unique place.

This past week, Mike and I sat down to discuss Christian joy and what it means when the Bible tells us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials”, and what this means especially at the outset of the new year.

Here is a link to the Joy to the World series, where you can listen to those messages, and here is the video of our discussion:

(if you watch closely, I get a phone call in the 6th minute of the video!)

What Science and the Bible Say About What Leads to Happiness

I recently stumbled upon the work of behavioral scientist Winfred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, which made the New York Times Bestseller list a few years back. I found the basic premise of the book quite interesting in that through her research Gallagher has validated something which the New Testament has been teaching for almost 2000 years.

For Gallagher, it was an unexpected event in her personal life which set her on this journey: she was diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced form of cancer. Going into her treatment, she had expected it to be a miserable time, but instead found it to be a surprisingly pleasant period of her life. Although physically uncomfortable, she enjoyed many things during this time, including going on walks, and her personal favorite: an evening martini. This led her to later pursue investigating the role that attention plays in a person’s happiness.

After 5 years of studying this topic, she came away with what she called “a grand theory of the mind:”

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

The biggest factor which leads to happiness, in other words, is what you choose to focus your attention on.

Author Cal Newport, in reference to this says:

This concept upends the way that most people tend to think about their subjective experience of this life. We tend to focus on our circumstances: assuming that what happens to us, or fails to happen, determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes: whether you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding.¹

In other words: our perception of the world and of ourselves is shaped less by our circumstances, and more by what we choose to focus on and pay attention to.

For readers of the Bible, this only serves to confirm what we already know and believe. This is the reason why the Bible says things like:

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

This is the reason why Paul the Apostle could write a letter from jail about being full of joy in Jesus; because he took his own advice to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

This is the reason why to those suffering pressure and persecution as a result of their Christian faith, Paul’s advice was to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

As Winfred Gallagher rightly discerned: two people can be facing the same exact circumstances, but what they focus on will determine how they feel about it and deal with it. This has been a trademark of Christianity from its inception. However, as Christians, our focus is not on shallow pleasures and momentary distractions, but we draw from the deep well of hope that is found in Jesus Christ alone! For this reason:

we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Whatever you are going through today, may you fix your eyes on Jesus, and may the hope you find in Him define your reality, giving you joy in the face of anything life brings your way.

Done with School, and a Few Other Things

I love finishing projects that I start. The only thing is, I also really like starting projects. So I sometimes find myself with several long term projects – but over the past few weeks I've been able to finish up a few of them.

For the past several months I was very busy finishing my dissertation for my theology degree. I started at this university when my first child was the same age as my current youngest child: 5 months old. Now, in completing my dissertation, I am done – at least for now… I would like to continue.

The title of my dissertation: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Implications of Epistemology and Culture for Christian Thinking, Practice and Mission

Another thing I've been working on for a while that I was able to complete: During the 10 years that I lived in Hungary I spent a lot of time getting different kinds and levels of residence permits and visas. By the time I left I had permanent residence and a work permit, which I gave up when I moved to the US. No big deal, because I have no plan to move back. But about 2 years ago a friend in Hungary told me that I should look into becoming a Hungarian citizen and that I might meet the requirements for citizenship. I looked into it, and I did – so, a year ago I applied for Hungarian citizenship, and I just found out 2 weeks ago I received it. Last week I traveled to Los Angeles for my naturalization ceremony at the office of the Hungarian Consulate.

Receiving my Hungarian citizenship from Kálmán László, consulate general of Hungary.

I'm not really sure how it will benefit me, but it is meaningful nonetheless. My wife and kids are Hungarian citizens, and I does encourage me to spend more time making sure the kids learn Hungarian and have that identity.

Another long term project we've been working on is getting out of the debt we incurred from the adoption we did. It's been an exercise in budgeting, downsizing and penny pinching, inspired by a Dave Ramsey class, and at the end of June we will have that project complete as well.

I've also finished a few books recently:

The men's group at our church has been going through Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, following a study guide and video series by Eric Metaxas. A lot of the videos refer to Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy, so I picked it up and started reading it. In it, Lewis tells the story of how he became an atheist and then the process by which he turned from atheism to deism and finally to Christianity. “Joy”, spelled with a capital J, is the thing which all people are looking for and get glimpses of throughout their lives in various ways, but which can only be found in and through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Sounds interesting, right? I have to say, Surprised by Joy left me surprised with boredom. I had a really hard time getting through the book, and felt that a lot of the material was indulgent details which had nothing at all to do with the story he was telling. That part though, the story of his journey from a nominal Christian upbringing, to atheism, to deism and finally to Christianity, was truly captivating. The last chapter was particularly good. It's worth reading if you are a CS Lewis fan.

The other book I finished recently was John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent. I heard somewhere that it is good to read fiction because it fuels creativity and imagination in a way that other media does not. I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly theology books and biographies, and so I want to make sure that I read some good fiction from time to time as well and I have it in mind to read classic novels and literature.

The Winter of Our Discontent was interesting, particularly in how it dealt with moral and ethical issues, as well as issues of contentment, and pressures in society which create dissatisfaction. The novel describes how people often cross their own moral and ethical lines to get what they think they want, and when they get it, they are still discontent and often more miserable that they were before. I think it's a great commentary on society and on the fallen human condition.

Ironically, The Winter of Our Discontent and Surprised by Joy have their core theme in common. The only difference is that whereas Steinbeck didn't answer the question of what it is that human beings are ultimately looking for: the true quest beneath all our quests, Lewis did. And although Lewis' writing style is harder to read, Surprised by Joy actually answers the question posed by The Winter of Our Discontent.

 

I'm enjoying this season.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

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The Declaration of Independence contains this famous phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness is what all people are ultimately seeking.  Including you. Including me. You want to be happy. So do I.

If you really think about it, everything we do is, in one way or another, a pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is what motivates people to get married – or not to get married, to have children or not to have children, to choose certain careers or paths in life and not others. It is the reason people abuse substances – and even, as strange as it may sound at first, to commit suicide.

Philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal said:

All people seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they always tend towards this end. The cause of some going to war and of others avoiding it is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object (happiness). This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Suicide is the (very misguided!) belief, that one can escape unhappiness here in this life and hopefully find happiness wherever they end up. Still, even this terrible and tragic act is part of the pursuit of happiness.
Sometimes Christians have made a false distinction between happiness and joy. Here is what Joni Eareckson Tada has to say about that:
We are often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. ‘Happiness,’ it is said, ‘is an emotion which depends on what happens to you (a false etymology).’ Joy, by contrast is supposed to be enduring, stemming from deep within our soul, and which is not affected by circumstances surrounding us. I don’t think God had any such hairsplitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words such as “delight” “Gladness” “blessing” – There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these. Happiness is not relegated to fleshly minded sinners nor joy to heaven-bound saints.

If you ask the average person what they want more than anything else, they will reply:  “I want to be HAPPY!”   “It’s not the only thing I want — but it is at the core of the other things I want.”

If you ask people: “What do you really want for your kids?”  They will say: “I want them to be polite, respectful, successful, responsible” — but why?  Because what they really want is for them to be happy.  The reason they want all those other things for them, is because they believe those things will result in their greater happiness in the long run.
C.H. Spurgeon said this:
My dear brothers, if anyone in the world ought to be happy, we are those people. How boundless our privileges, how brilliant our hopes.
As Christians, in and through Jesus Christ, we have the keys to the happiness we desire and the joy we were made for.
Starting this Sunday at White Fields Church, I will be teaching a series titled: The Pursuit of Happiness, in which we will be studying Paul’s letter to the Philippians with a view of how Paul had the keys to happiness and an indomitable joy even in the midst of dark circumstances.
The graphic art above was done by CryBabyDesign. Check them out for all your graphic design needs.

Advent Meditations: 10 – Christmas Joy

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And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. – Luke 2:10-11

What is the joy of this season?    Is it Tradition?  Family?  Giving and receiving?

The thing about each of these, is that the joy of these things is something very temporal and easily lost.

If the joy of Christmas is family, then what about those who have no family?  Does this season hold no joy for them?

If the joy of Christmas is tradition, then what is there for those who have suffered loss of loved ones – or even of financial resources?  For them, Christmas will be pure pain.
If the joy of Christmas is tied to traditions: decorating a house, eating certain foods, doing certain things – then if those things are no longer possible, because you had to give up the house, or because a family member passed away, or any other reason, then Christmas will not be a time of joy, but of pain and heartache.

If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then once again, what about those who have nothing to give and/or no one to receive from?  If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then Christmas brings loneliness and shame rather than joy.

These things are what are commonly held by many people to be the joys of Christmas, but let me tell you: these should not be – they cannot be – the wellspring of joy that Christmas brings, because it is only a matter of time, before all of these things run dry…and make Christmas a time of pain and bitter longing rather than life-giving joy.

What is the true joy of Christmas?  It is this: A Savior is born to you, who is Christ the Lord.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most moving is Matthew 1:21:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins – Matthew 1:21

This is the joy of Christmas: that though you were lost, God pursued you and found you!   That though you were without hope, God came near to you to give you hope that extends beyond the grave!  That though you were destined for darkness and death, God broke into time and space to bring you light and life!

That is a joy that doesn’t disappear when financial resources dry up!  That is a joy that doesn’t grow dimmer as loved ones pass away – but rather grows all the more vibrant and beautiful!

May this be the joy of Christmas for you!

And may we not teach our children, whether in word or in deed, to find the joy of Christmas primarily in tradition or in giving or receiving, or even in family – but in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Advent Meditations: 5 – The Model for Missions

As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – John 17:18

“Christmas is a model for missions and missions are a reflection of Christmas.” – John Piper

The meaning of Christmas is the mission of God: a God who loves and cares so much, that He left Heaven to come and reach out to us with love and truth.

Christmas is a model for missions: God was so moved by love and the conviction that there is something better for us which we desperately need, that He left what was comfortable to Him and at great expense to Himself, came to us, to speak to us in our language, on our level. That is the model of Christian mission both locally and cross-culturally.

Christian mission is a reflection of Christmas: by going out in mission we are imitating our Father and our Lord. We are doing for others what He did for us, albeit obviously not on the same scale.

The purpose of Christmas is joy. God gave us His comfort, that we might have JOY. What a gift!  What a sacrifice, and what love it is that motivates such a sacrifice for the sake of others – others who do not always (or perhaps often) reciprocate that love.

these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. – John 17:13

Not only is the purpose of Christmas joy, but the purpose of Christian mission is joy!   Joy for those who come to know the love of God BUT ALSO: joy for those who participate in the mission.

We were made for mission, and we will only know true joy when we get on board with the one ultimate mission: the only mission which has significance beyond this life and even this world: the mission of God to bring salvation to the world. It is in this mission that we can be truly fulfilled and that is a fountain of joy.