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!

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Is Good Friday Actually “Good”?

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This is the day on which we celebrate the death of an innocent man – and not just any man: the greatest man who ever lived. It is the day when we remember that the Light of the World was overcome by darkness; that the Savior of the World was murdered by those He came to save.

Why in the world would we call this day “Good Friday”?

John Stott put it this way:

“The essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God; we put ourselves where only God deserves to be … that’s the essence of sin. But the essence of salvation is that God substitutes himself for us; God puts himself where we deserve to be … that’s the essence of salvation.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In this verse we see what it is that makes Good Friday so incredibly “good”. It is something we call “imputation”, and it has two sides: On the cross, God imputed your flawed record to Jesus, so that He could impute Jesus’ perfect record to you. On the cross, God treated Jesus as if he had lived your life, so he could treat you as if you had lived his life.

Jesus’ act of substitution, God’s act of imputation – lead to our reconciliation with God.

And the way to receive this gift of God’s grace, the Bible tells us, is to “receive him, who believe in his name.” (John 1:12) This kind of belief isn’t merely to believe that it happened, but to believe it personally, in the sense of trusting in it, relying on it, and clinging to it.

If you do that, then today will indeed by a Good Friday for you!

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 is the Scope of Salvation?

One of the things I’m intrigued by in the Bible is the meaning of salvation. I have noticed in myself and others a tendency to settle for a narrower understanding of the scope of the salvation that is promised to us in Jesus than the fullness of what is found in the scriptures.

Of course this is not to distract from or undermine the central concern for our relationship with God and our need to be put right with him (justification). But when you see the scope of salvation in the Bible, beyond saving us from damnation, it is exciting!

For example, in chapter 19 of the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus, having spent years ripping people off, turns to Jesus and repents of his greed and sin, and also shows signs of true repentance when he gives back the money he ripped off to the people he took it from, even though it may have happened years prior – and Jesus declares: “salvation has come to this house today” (Luke 19:9). Salvation for Zacchaeus was salvation for his soul, AND deliverance from bondage to vain things AND salvation unto a new course in life as a disciple of Jesus – which inherently means taking an active role in God’s mission to bring salvation to the world.

The very name Jesus means “Savior”!  Here are some quotes on the meaning and scope of the salvation that’s found in Jesus:

Salvation itself, the salvation Christ gives to his people, is freedom from sin in all its ugly manifestations, and liberation into a new life of service, until finally we attain ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God. (J. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World)

 

In the Old Testament the word ‘salvation’ speaks of ‘shalom’, or complete wholeness of being, in every dimension of life. (A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah)

 

The three tenses of salvation – past, present and future – are united into an organic whole; they may be distinguished but must not be separated. The salvation that the gospel proclaims is not limited to man’s reconciliation to God. It involves the remaking of man in all the dimensions of his existence. It has to do with the recovery of the whole man according to God’s original purpose for his creation. (R. Padilla, Mission Between the Times)

 

The full gospel brought by Jesus Christ is both salvation from sin and salvation into the capacity to be fully human and truly free. (D. Webster)

Exciting? I think so.