Wednesday, July 1, 2009

God's Glory and the Heart of Sin

A week ago I was asked to prepare a devotion for the pre-ministerial internship program's weekly meeting. After thinking for a while about what I'd like to convey in the short amount of time they gave me, I decided it would be a good idea to start with what I believe to be one of the most foundational principles underlying all of Christianity. This theme, the idea of God's sovereignty being displayed in all of creation and, thus, all creation being designed to glorify Him, is one that I feel many of us take for granted and brush aside as a basic, "duh!" concept. But really, when you start to think about it, understanding that God and all of His creation is primarily about bringing glory to Himself, Christianity starts to break free from legalism and become the intimate and solely grace-based relationship with Christ that we all seek.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Scripture is constantly affirming God’s glory displayed throughout creation. Psalm 19 says “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” John Piper, in his book Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, says it particularly well:

“The created universe is all about glory. The deepest longing of the human heart and the deepest meaning of heaven and earth are summed up in this: the glory of God. The universe is made to show it, and we were made to see it and savor it.”

I got to thinking about these statements the other day and started to consider what happens when we don’t do this. What is the result of our failing to recognize the sovereignty and absolute greatness of God? After thinking about this question for a while I found a passage in Romans that shed some light on an answer.

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man…” Romans 1:21-23

Paul clearly shows us that we fail to glorify God when we instead turn to idols. This act of turning away from God is sin. For the longest time I understood sins as those things we did that broke the Ten Commandments and went against the scriptures. I was so bound up in rules that I failed to recognize the root of my sinfulness. The sin in my life wasn’t merely pride or lying or lust; it was my own turning away from God to make an idol of my own desires.

But my sinfulness doesn’t stop there. I found that even my good works: volunteering in local missions, reading the Bible, even singing worship songs in church, are done out of a desire to feel better about myself and get closer to God for my own sake. I approach God wanting to get something from Him and not, as the confession states, to glorify and enjoy Him. Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God:

“Self-salvation through good works may produce a great deal of moral behavior in your life, but inside you are miserable. You are always comparing yourself to other people, and you are never sure you are being good enough. You cannot therefore, deal with your hideousness and self-absorption through the moral law, by trying to be a good person through an act of the will. You need a complete transformation of the very motives of your heart.”

Fortunately for us all, Christ’s work on the cross and His resurrection brings about this complete transformation that Keller mentions. In John 17:24 Jesus says:

“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me.”

It is in Christ that we can really see and understand the glory of God. His sacrifice, His becoming the lowest of the low, shows us the “it’s not about our being made much of by God, but about God mercifully enabling me to enjoy making much of Him forever.” Realizing God’s glory enables us to do great acts of love in ministry as a means to bring others to know Him and not to make us feel good or to “get right with God”. We are free from the bondage of our sin, both our betrayal of the law and our slavery to it, to experience the joy we were made for: the joy that we find when we grasp the fullness of God’s majesty displayed in the grace of Christ.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

An Answered Prayer

I don't have much time to write now, but I wanted to share with you all how God has been working in my life over the past few days. I spent this past weekend traveling to West Virginia with my family to visit my grandfather. There, I was blessed with the chance to reminisce "the good old days" of my childhood and share fond memories with familiar old friends. I was also fortunate to hear an excellent message about how Christ calls us not only to lift up our prayers to Him in times of worry, but also to abandon those worries and fears. It appears that it is necessary to perform both acts in order to be fully blessed by the peace of Christ. If we are still clinging to the worrisome things of this earth, then there will always be a wall built up between ourselves and Christ. It follows then that, if we are separated from Christ, we are choosing not to accept that which he freely gave to us when he conquered evil and the grave. However, if we truly believe in the sacrifice Christ made and allow Him to lead us in both the good and bad times, we shouldn't be able to help not worrying! "Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe." So when we put our trust in Christ, we abandon everything else that can keep us from him.

Today I returned from West Virginia with this message fresh in my mind and met a stack of mail addressed from the Wake Forest Office of Financial Aid. To my surprise, I opened the letter and found that there had been an error in the last offer that had been sent to my home. If you keep up with my blog, you will have read in the past that I asked for prayers regarding financial aid. MY PRAYERS HAVE BEEN ANSWERED!!! I received a considerable increase in aid and a decrease in loans which will save me from being horribly in debt later. I count this as proof that when we turn our worries over to God, as I did after writing my last post, that He will supply! Thanks to everyone for your prayers and words of support. They are greatly appreciated. And also please continue to offer up prayers for my grandfather. If anyone else needs any prayers, never hesitate to ask, for the power of God is tremendous when His people trust in Him.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sin or Synergy

A funny thing happened today. My preacher gave a really good sermon. This is a rare occurrence since, being a Methodist pastor, he tends to tone things down in order to keep people happy and safe inside their comfort zones. But today, however, he decided otherwise and, in doing so, provided me with some very stimulating thoughts. Before I go further, I'll share the scripture upon which his sermon was based...

"At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except by the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, fr I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Matthew 11:25-30

Needless to say, I've read this scripture many times and heard a great number of well-educated servants of God preach on these words, but today they took on a very real and refreshingly new meaning.

The point he made that I wish to convey to you can best be summed up in the following metaphor (keep in mind, I'm not sure about the accuracy of my numbers, but these are the ones he gave me):

Alone, one strong horse can pull roughly 2 tons. Another horse pulling along with the second horse can add an additional two tons. However, if the two horses doing the pulling are harnessed together, combining the forces of their pulling, the team is able to manage somewhere around 18 tons. This is a classic example of synergy, the idea that two or more entities can accomplish a greater task when working in cooperation than when functioning separately to achieve the same goal.

I am a horse. I can pull a fair amount of weight in the form of stress, fears, struggles, guilt and, of course, sin. While I can handle this burden up to a point, there comes a time when I realize that the weight I'm pulling around behind me is too heavy. It's at that point that I realize I need somebody else to help me pull, so I turn to Christ. Things get easier, yes, but it seems like even with Christ pulling along with me that the weight of my sin remains too strong.

Why is this? I've been asking myself that question during hard times all my life (or at least for that part which I was able to comprehend God's existence and my own salvation). Today, I think I caught a glimpse of the answer! Salvation isn't just about admitting our weakness and our need for Christ's help in pulling the weight. The acceptance of grace is also the acceptance of total submission to Christ's yoke.

So frequently, Christians take on Christ's yoke thinking that things are going to get easier -- that problems are going to disappear and the burden will shrink down. That's not necessarily true. In fact, often the opposite happens, because Satan likes to turn up the heat when we take steps in the right direction. Since accepting Christ and making an effort to turn from sinful habits, it's been that much more difficult because of an overwhelming increase in temptation. What has to happen is for us to realize that taking on the yoke of Christ doesn't imply that we will be able to leave behind our struggles, but rather that we will be harnessed to a much stronger, more capable horse. Thinking back to our metaphor, if two equally powerful horses can go from 4 tons to 18 simply by being harnessed together, then how much greater of a burden will we be able to handle when we team up with a horse that has pulled the weight of the world?

Perhaps what Christ was really trying to say was not "Take up my yoke and your burdens will grow lighter." If I had to guess, I'd say it's really more like "Take up my yoke and I will join you to become infinitely stronger than your burdens." Looking at things from this perspective, it's a lot easier for me to understand how life can seem so overwhelming when I'm separated from Christ. Living in sin, the state in which our human nature (not only our actions) make us unworthy of God's presence in our lives, is the equivalent to taking the yoke that binds us to Christ and casting it off. In doing so, we are left to pull a tremendous burden alone. The superior alternative, living in synergy, enables us to truly "do all things through Christ who strengthens me."


P.S. -- I would really appreciate your thoughts and prayers for myself and for my family. In the past few weeks my grandfather has had a bout of sickness that put him in the hospital. He's home now and doing much better, thank God. However, his moods continue to change due to his dementia and his physical abilities have been sporadic due to his Parkinson's. This is taxing on my whole family, especially my parents. Additionally, I continue to receive less than hopeful updates from the financial aid office at Wake Forest, and it appears that I will be carrying a considerably larger amount of debt for the coming year. I hate to complain about such trivial things as money in times like my college years when I feel so blessed, but I know that prayer is powerful and that God moves in amazing ways when His believers join together in faith. I look forward to seeing you all again in August. You guys mean the world to me and I lift up each and every one of you as my brothers and sisters in Christ. Agape again!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Silly Dawkins!

A few weeks ago, I opened the cover of a thick and rather ominous looking book. This book was The God Delusion by none other than everybody's favorite atheist, Richard Dawkins. For many of my readers it will be no surprise that I'm writing on this topic as it is one that's provided great amounts of stimulating conversation around the lounges of Johnson and the lobby of the Grand Theater. I'm not a big fan of the man's principles, but I had decided that it was high time I read up on the atheists' arsenal of practical reasons why God ought not exist. Around a week later I was left wondering if maybe I had picked the wrong book! I'll admit that I didn't actually finish the book or even make it further than the first three or four chapters, largely due to my inability to suffer any further through his plethora of misinformed claims about Christianity and his inability to abstain from snide and often completely bogus jests.

Having given up on this valiant effort, I decided to instead delve into The Language of God, a (so far) astounding book by Francis S. Collins. Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, was raised agnostic, later nearly became an atheist, yet through the guidance of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and a Methodist Minister instead found that God quite truly exists. The Language of God is primarily an attempt at finding some common ground between science and theology on the topics of evolution and the creation of the universe.

I wish not to respond to Collins' work because I haven't yet finished the book. I'm writing instead to comment on one particular section of a chapter on atheism in which he (in my opinion) tears Dawkins' argument to intellectual shreds. I will begin by sharing this quote from Collins:

"Dawkins is a master of setting up a straw man, and then dismantling it with great relish. In face, it is hard to escape the conclusion that such repeated mischaracterizations of faith portray a vitriolic personal agenda rather than a reliance on the rational arguments that Dawkins so cherishes in the scientific realm."

One point that I quickly noticed in reading merely the first few chapters of The God Delusion is that Dawkins assumes that because evolution can account for biological complexity and the origin of man, then there is no need for a God. He has, in making this assumption, failed to offer any reason why God could not have used evolution as a means to bring about the earth He desired. Ultimately, the first pillar of his argument crumbles in light of simple logic, only holding up against "Young Earth Creationism," the school of thought which believes the 6 days of creation to be 24 hours in length.

Dawkins sets up yet another "straw man" argument when he claims that religion is irrational (which he does VERY often). Again he jumps to conclusions and assumes that Christianity is really as basic and outlandish as Hollywood paints it to be (There Will Be Blood or Saved!, anybody?). I'd like to think that you'd agree with me when I say that Dawkins has a pretty watered down representation of the faith to go by. Collins likens it to a schoolboy characterized by Mark Twain who said "Faith is believing in what you know ain't so." On the contrary, the case for belief in God is quite strong. I won't go into detail, but Collins offers the arguments from the universality of both Moral Law and the desire to find God as evidence that has suited scholars from C.S. Lewis to St. Augustine (you can find the details behind both in Mere Christianity).

Collins offers one last objection to Dawkins' brash statements. Dawkins spends a considerable amount of time arguing from religious harms. He states that religion, because of the great amount of evil committed in its name, conveys that religion in itself is a negative and damaging force and ought to be abandoned. However, it seems that religious harms are merely a poor reflection of Christians rather than Christianity. One doesn't doubt the practicality of building houses for shelter simply because houses occasionally collapse or catch fire. Why would one doubt the good of religion on the basis of its imperfect followers?

Ultimately, I think we can agree that Dawkins has little to say against religion that is actually grounded in fact. Instead he relies on hazy misrepresentations of a faith that Collins and I believe can exist in harmony with Darwin's famous and widely accepted theory. I can say no more than that Dawkin's claims go beyond his own evidence. Collins calls upon Christian evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould to summarize his chapter, stating in reference to the large number of fellow Christians in his field:

"Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or the science of Darwinism is compatible with conventional religious beliefs -- and equally compatible with atheism."

Richard Dawkins, please open your mouth and kindly insert your foot therein

Monday, June 16, 2008

We live in a pretty messed up world... or do we?

So there I sat, in front of the television watching Rosanne Barr rant about the current way things are in a dreadful display of stand-up comedy. Generally, I would have just shrugged off all the anti-Bush propaganda and tried to smile in spite of myself. However, some of the things she said really hit home with me...

"Half of the world is starving to death while the other half is trying to lose weight."

"We lock up the poor to keep them off illegal drugs while we pump the rich full of every prescription drug you can thing of."

The ironic (and at least partly true) statements kept on coming until she concluded, in reference to a one-liner about anti-depressants, by saying:

"I don't understand why people are so keen on taking drugs to keep themselves from being depressed. Have you looked at the world we live in? Maybe things are so "messed" (I'm censoring right now) up nowadays that we're supposed to be depressed!"

Throughout the following week I was unable to keep from thinking about this. Could Rosanne Barr, the loud mouthed self-proclaimed "queen of all trailer trash", have taken such a startling view on life and been correct in doing so? I worked the entire week at the hospital, covering for a sick coworker. Every day, I witnessed the struggles of countless patients from all walks of life. In addition to this, I watched the news every morning (something I haven't done while trapped in the "Wake bubble") and was blown away by the consistent reports of earthquakes, forest fires, floods, shootings and many other catastrophes. The more I took in, the more I started to think Rosanne may have been right. Things do look pretty bleak... in Dublin, in Pulaski County, in Virginia, in the United States, and most definitely in the world.

This troubled me. It couldn't be that things were as bad as the news media made them out to be. I recalled my mother telling me over and over again "You know, nobody publishes the good news. It's the bad that people will pay for." Maybe this was more accurate, maybe not. That's aside from the point I'm trying to make. Even if things are as terrible as television would have us to believe, the words of Martin Luther's famous 1500's hymn still ring true today:

"A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing."

and, from the lesser known third stanza (not verse... Justin):

"And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us."

THIS IS IT!!! (remember that all caps and bold marks importance) We have nothing to fear no matter what the world can muster up to try and shake us. God still remains in spite of fire and flood and even death. What's more is that, in my opinion, these tragedies heighten our awareness of that voice inside that cries out in need of a God. God allows such tragic events to occur, not as punishment for disobedience, but as a means to reveal his greatness and his capacity to deliver us mortals from our current state and elevate us to a higher existence. Through disasters, followers of Christ are called to recognize that God is still in control of the universe and, because He is still in control, greater and more powerful than we can comprehend. Through trying times, we realize the greatness of our Creator, who is able to produce tremendous good and still inspire us to worship Him in spite of what seems to be overwhelming evil.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Some quotes...

I'm not writing this particular post in the sense that it will not contain any of my original thoughts. All that comprises this post comes from a book called Patches of Godlight, the journal of a fictional pastor. The journal is made up of quotes from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Wordsworth, Martin Luther King Jr., John Wesley, and many other famous authors, theologians, etc. I may come back to some of these quotes in some later writings, but for now I want to let them stand as what they are. I won't add any interpretations or relate them to any personal anecdotes. They will serve only to convey the meanings intended by their authors and the God who ordered their thoughts. I hope you find them insightful and enjoyable. There will probably be more to come...

We -- or at least I -- shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have "tasted and seen." Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are "patches of godlight" in the woods of experience. -C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

"The Bible without the Holy Spirit is a sundial by moonlight." -Dwight L. Moody

"I have been tortured with longing to believe... and the yearning grows stronger the more cogent the intellectual difficulties stand in the way." -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Let the Stable Still Astonish
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: "Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
Be born here, in this place"?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
And says, "Yes,
Let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born here --
In this place."
--Leslie Leyland Fields
"Were there no God, we would be in this glorious world with grateful hearts, and no one to thank." -Christina Rossetti
"It is not a question of our equipment but of our poverty, not of what we bring with us, but of what God puts into us." -Oswald Chambers

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Lessons in Humility

So grades were posted on the Wake Forest website a week or two ago. This has generally been something I've been okay with. I've never really had a reason to worry about a grade in any particular class because I've been blessed with a mind that, so far, has been able to handle most classes I've taken and dedication that's enabled me to continue when my intelligence fails. However, I feel that this sense of security I had built up during high school and the first semester at Wake produced some ill effects. The biggest of these is undoubtedly the misleading feeling that I could not and would not fail. I'm sure if you talk to me you might not be aware that I have this problem. Heck, I wasn't aware of it 90% of the time! But, nevertheless, my feelings of "invincibility" (maybe I shouldn't use that severe of a term, but I think you get what I mean) have been shattered and I thank God for it!!!

This past semester I've struggled with my hardest class yet, organic chemistry. I realized throughout my experiences in this class that God was constantly challenging me to rise above my old expectations perform on the level I thought capable of and reach the goal which I believed He had set for me of excelling in the class. I was faced with a fair amount of disappointment, however, as I consistently failed in living up to my own expectations for my success in the class and, so I thought, God's expectations for my future in medicine. It seemed like every time I tried, I failed. Not only this, but I was surprised to find that every time I tried harder, the work got that much more demanding and I failed even more. Bummer, right?

ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! It was not until I had finished the final exam and waited two and a half long weeks for my grades to arrive (I didn't fail, but I did considerably worse than I had thought) that I was struck with a glorious revelation about what had really been happening in my life throughout the second semester. God was breaking me down; chipping away at the secure, confident shell that I'd built up as a means to show me that, no matter what, I'm an imperfect human being in every sense. God was taking a part of my life that I'd felt very sure of my ability to succeed in and making it difficult just to break me into a state of submission. In that moment of revelation I realized that it really is when we are in our weakest and most vulnerable states that we are most receptive to God's grace. I knew then and there that I couldn't make it without Him... whether the task at hand was spiritual, physical, or even intellectual. God was showing me that my gifts were only because of Him and that I ought to be prayerfully seeking His guidance in using them.

Wholly broken,