When faith causes doubts

Some struggle because they doubt; I sometimes struggle because I believe.

I believe in a God whose love is so great that He is love. I also believe in a God who is all-powerful. But sometimes my belief causes me to struggle.

When I see sad and desperate situations, compassion compels me to help and to pray. If I am completely honest, this is where faith can become a little confusing.

When I can’t do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering (especially of those whom I love), my faith is unwavering in the fact that God can do something to help. But when I pray and nothing changes to alleviate their suffering, or they become worse, I struggle to understand why God doesn’t seem to answer the cries of my heart for those in need.

I am not completely sure what role faith and prayer play in the painful and perplexing drama of human suffering.

An old tension

I realize that I am not the first to be conflicted between faith and suffering. I resonate with the psalmist,

“How long, O Lord ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2).

“I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble. Come near and rescue me…” (Psalm 69:3, 16-18).

Like the psalmist, I have also struggled with an apparent uneven distribution of pain and suffering. This is the age-old question of why righteous people suffer and the wicked are healthy and prosperous (see: Psalm 73). But I maintain strong reservations about anyone being righteous enough to lay claim to a good life from God.

Needed perspective

I believe in the verdict “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). I also believe that, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death is such a horrible word and an even more horrible fact. But it is a just verdict pronounced over sinners like me. I am slowly experiencing it every day of my life.

I believe that there is a dark and sad back-story to our suffering and a glorious end-story for those whom God loves. Yet pain in this life is often hard to reconcile with God’s love and power.

The agonizing question we face is why God chooses to allow pain and suffering when I am praying so much for its relief. Why doesn’t He answer my agonizing prayers for those who suffer? I cannot endure superficial answers to this real-life question.

Skeptics offer answers ranging from atheism to deism. But for honest people, these alternatives only lead to deeper levels of despair. They also force a degree of thoughtless dishonesty which I cannot permit. If I must choose between “no God” or “a God who means well but either cannot or will not do much to help” I am left with even more perplexing questions on more levels than human suffering. In addition, these conclusions profoundly compromise basic intellectual integrity.

Other questions 

Let’s not ignore other questions equally worthy of reflection. Why does God choose to love and to forgive rebellious creatures? The back-story of human sin explains the source of human suffering better than any other explanation (and there are not many others). So why would I think we deserve to have it better?

Why do I feel that God should intervene? And what would intervention look like on a world scale?

If want God’s love and power to converge to rescue us from our misery, isn’t this exactly what happened when God entered our world of suffering in the person of Christ and suffered for us ? (see: II Corinthians 5:17-21).

Finally, why does God even provide such a glorious end-story for forgiven sinners?

Cultural conditioning

On a cultural level, I admit that I have become accustom to (and even impatient for) solutions to pain and suffering. Advancements in science and medicine have strengthened my expectations. Is it possible that I am conditioned to hold unrealistic expectation for health and gregariousness? Do I have a place for sadness and suffering in normal life?

These are not theoretical questions for me. They have been real for most of my life. When my father came down with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis in his mid-thirties, I learned what it was like to carry a prayerful burden for a suffering loved one. It profoundly shaped my life and, gratefully, did not lead to bitterness. I learned so much about God’s sustaining grace and His redeeming power to bring good out of pain and suffering.

I continued to learn when I entered pastoral ministry and chose to care about many others. Some key scriptures that carry me to better places include: II Corinthians 1:3-11; 4:16-18;12:1-10; James 1:2-9; Psalm 62:8; Proverbs 3:5-6.

I will continue to pray and trust that suffering has a purpose even when I cannot see it. I will pray with one eye on the back-story and a hope-filled focus on the end-story (see: Colossians 3:1-4).

When God’s loved ones enter the place He has prepared for them, ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (see: Revelation 21:1-6; John 14:1-3). I find myself longing more and more for this day; for this place.

Reflect on these words:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10).

Steve Cornell

We Serve No Sovereign Here

The story is told of an Englishman who came to this country in the decade of the sixties, and upon arrival spent his first week in Philadelphia becoming acquainted with historic landmarks, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. In order to familiarize himself with American culture, he visited several antique stores that specialized in colonial and revolutionary memorabilia.

In one such shop he saw several posters and signboards that contained the slogans of the revolution, such as No Taxation Without Representation, and Don’t Tread on Me. One signboard attracted his attention more than the rest. In bold letters the sign proclaimed: WE SERVE NO SOVEREIGN HERE. As he mused on this sign, he wondered how people steeped in such an anti-monarchical culture could come to grips with the notion of the kingdom of God and the sovereignty that belongs to the Lord (source: R. C. Sproul, Following Christ).

David B. Hart summarized where we stand now at the end of modernity.

“… each of us who is true to the times stands facing not God, or the gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss, over which presides the empty, inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and decisions are their own moral index.”

“This is not to say that – sentimental barbarians that we are – we do not still invite moral and religious constraints upon our actions; none but the most demonic, demented, or adolescent among us genuinely desires to live in a world purged of visible boundaries and hospitable shelters.”

“Thus this man may elect not to buy a particular vehicle because he considers himself an environmentalist; or this woman may choose not to have an abortion midway through her second trimester, because the fetus, at that point in its gestation, seems to her too fully formed, and she–personally – would feel wrong about terminating ‘it.’ But this merely illustrates my point: we take as given the individual’s right not merely to obey or defy the moral law, but to choose which moral standards to adopt, which values to uphold, which fashion of piety to wear and with what accessories.”

“Even our ethics are achievements of will. And the same is true of those custom-fitted spiritualities – ‘New Age,’ occult, pantheist, ‘Wiccan,’ or what have you – by which many of us now divert ourselves from the quotidien dreariness of our lives.”

“These gods of the boutique can come from anywhere – native North American religion, the Indian subcontinent, some Pre-Raphaelite grove shrouded in Celtic twilight, cunning purveyors of otherwise worthless quartz, pages drawn at random from Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, or that redoubtable old Aryan, Joseph Campbell – but where such gods inevitably come to rest are not so much divine hierarchies as ornamental étagères, where their principal office is to provide symbolic representations of the dreamier sides of their votaries’ personalities.”

“The triviality of this sort of devotion, its want of dogma or discipline, its tendency to find its divinities not in glades and grottoes but in gift shops make it obvious that this is no reversion to pre-Christian polytheism. It is, rather, a thoroughly modern religion, whose burlesque gods command neither reverence, nor dread, nor love, nor belief; they are no more than the masks worn by that same spontaneity of will that is the one unrivalled demiurge who rules this age and alone bids its spirits come and go” (First Things, David B. Hart, 2000).

R. C. Sproul noted that, “The concept of lordship invested in one individual is repugnant to the American tradition, yet this is the boldness of the claim of the New Testament for Jesus, that absolute sovereign authority and imperial power are vested in Christ” (Following Christ).

Without such sovereign authority, we are never truly free. Jesus said it this way, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Our well-being is at risk on every side if we choose a kind of freedom that refuses to serve the only true sovereign of the universe. 

But this Sovereign One, unlike all would-be Sovereigns, 

“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges, he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

Before leaving this world, the Sovereign One said, 

“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Living in freedom under sovereign Lordship,

Steve Cornell

Is religion the primary source of violence?

In Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror,” author Os Guinness noted that,

“It is a widely held and largely unquestioned belief in educated circles today that religion is the main cause of repression and violence in our world and an essentially divisive and explosive force in public life that we would be wise to exclude from the public square altogether. For example, one New York Times reporter argued after September 11 that our main problem is not terrorism but ‘religious totalitarianism’ and that the danger of religious totalitarianism was represented not just by Islam but by Judaism and the Christian faith as well—in fact, by all faiths that have ‘absolute’ or ‘exclusive’ claims.”

Contrary to this contemporary myth, Guinness carefully details the fact that,

“The worst modern atrocities were perpetrated by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of secularist beliefs.”

Those who believe that more wars have been waged and more people killed in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history are factually off. And Guinness is rightly concerned that the lazy repetition of this myth, “seriously distorts public debate and endangers democratic freedom.”

Contrary to widespread opinion, he notes that, “September 11 was a break with the worst twentieth-century massacres because the atrocity was done in the name of Allah” (Emphasis mine).

This is not to deny the horrific massacres in the name of religion. Yet the fact remains,

“More people were killed by secularist regimes in the twentieth century than in all the religious persecutions in Western history, and perhaps in all history. More than one hundred million human beings were killed by secularist regimes and ideologies in the last century” (Guinness).

The examples are staggering, the Ottoman massacre of more than a million Armenians, the slaughtered of nearly two million people by Cambodia’s communist leader Pol Pot, the murder of an estimated thirty million Russians by Stalin and Mao ZeDong’s unimaginable destruction of sixty-five million Chinese. Add to this Hitler and the extermination of millions of Jews. Guinness rightly notes,

“Hitler and the Nazis are something of a special case. Hitler was implacably hostile to the Christian faith, but not an advocate of atheism. Almost to a person, as the history of Nazism and the record of the Nuremberg trials attest, the Nazi leaders were ex-Christians and ex-Catholics. Those, including Hitler, who had Christian backgrounds vehemently rejected them. Hitler said, “Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity.”

The point must not be missed. The dictators behind the most horrific carnage of human history were not motivated by religion. These atrocities were inflicted by secular regimes for secular reasons. “The full story of the evils of Stalin and Mao is yet to be unearthed and told with anything like the completeness accorded to Hitler and the Nazis, but the secularist commitments are clear beyond dispute” (Guinness).

Don’t allow others to deceive you about the facts. 

“Secularist philosophies such as atheism are just as ‘totalitarian’ as the three ‘religions of the Book.’ What secularists believe is so total, or all-encompassing, that it excludes what the religious believer believes. The most notable recent example of this was Communism. Guinness correctly identifies Communism as, “…the most dangerous delusion in history so far.” The era of Communism has been accurately described as “an atheistic millennialism.”

The persistent inclination to blame religion is rooted in “…an unexamined Enlightenment prejudice that simultaneously reduces faith to its functions and recognizes only the worst contributions of faith, not the best—such as the rise of the universities, the development of modern science, the abolition of slavery, and the promotion of human rights” (Guinness).

“In his magisterial moral history of the twentieth century, Humanity, Jonathan Glover points out that even those who do not believe in a religious moral law should be troubled by its fading. ‘It’s striking how many protest against and acts of resistance to atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment.’”

“Contrary to what is commonly argued,” Guinness concludes, “our problem in the public square is not ‘religious totalitarianism,’ and the solution is not a ‘multilingual relativism’ that bans all absolute and exclusive claims. In a day of exploding diversity, the real question is: how do we live with our deepest differences when many of those differences are absolute, including those of secularism?”

Steve Cornell

An Indisputable fact of history

 

All those who take history seriously acknowledge the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ. 

It’s an indisputable fact of history that there existed in the first century a man identified as Jesus of Nazareth. We possess detailed accounts of his birth, life, contemporaries, and death.

We know when Jesus lived– 5/6 BC through 30/32 BC., and where he was born — the town of Bethlehem. We know where he spent most of his life— Nazareth of Galilee. We know about many historical figures of the same period of human history.

We know more details surrounding the death of Jesus Christ than any other person in the ancient world. We also know many details about the events leading up to his death—his betrayal, arrest, religious and civil trial. We know what was said to Jesus by the leaders of Israel and Rome; what was said by the crowd and by those who were crucified with him. We also know what Jesus said to these people as well as what he said to his followers. We even know the name of an obscure person who carried his cross, and the names of those who assisted in his burial. These are historical details that matter to historians, 

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most famous death in history. Scholars debate its significance but they cannot honestly deny that it happened. 

Of course, there is a turning point in the history of Jesus and, (although found in the same historical documents), not everyone believes the rest of the story about Jesus Christ.

These documents present a clear picture of Jesus as one who existed prior to his birth and one who rose from the grave (John 8:58). The story in the New Testament consistently presents Christ as one who does not fit the normal categories for human beings. He is fully human but not merely human (Philippians 2:5-11). 

 But can we trust the historical account. Unfortunately some people choose not to trust the historical record despite its authenticity. They do this not because the texts cannot stand under normal scrutiny applied to historical witness but because of their strong bias against anything that involves the supernatural or miraculous.

But an exceptionally reasonable case can be made for the historical reliability of the New Testament. In fact, when the rules that guide standard criticism of historical witness are applied to the New Testament, a solid case can be made for its trustworthiness. 

When evaluating the integrity of documents, historians look for internal and external evidence. This would include the following seven considerations:

  1. Eyewitness perspective – Does the author claim to be an eyewitness or that he uses eyewitness sources?
  2. Self-damaging material - Are the heroes of the account only presented in a positive light? When the gospels recorded a woman as the first witness of the resurrection, they risked rejection of the account. In the culture of that time, a woman’s testimony was not considered credible. Why would they risk a potentially damaging detail like this if the account was an intentional fabrication?
  3. Specific and irrelevant material – Authentic documents, unlike fabricated ones, tend to include details that are not necessary to the main story. Falsified accounts tend to generalize.
  4. Reasonable consistency and differences – Are the four gospel accounts consistent on the major points? Minor differences are expected in authentic accounts. If the four gospels were later products of the early church, a greater effort would have been made to iron out all differences.
  5. Features of mythology – C.S. Lewis once said, “…as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend, and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of things” (God in the Dock).
  6. Confirmation - Do contemporary documents or archeological finds substantiate or falsify the material?
  7. Character and motivation - Is there anything about the character or motivation of the author that would indicate that he fabricated the material? Would the author’s gain something from their story?

“The idea of a crucified god really did not make sense in the first century. It’s not a message you make up if you’re going to start a religion in the first century A.D.” (Ben Witherington).

Important questions:

If the New Testament gospels were written (centuries after the events recorded in them) as biased history by the early church, why would they portray the earliest leaders of Christianity as defectors? Why would they present the Apostle Peter as one who denied Jesus? Why wouldn’t they picture the apostles as eagerly expecting the resurrection? The main human characters are portrayed as fearful cowards hiding from the authorities. Surely this is not a self-serving account of history. And why would they use a woman as the first witness of the resurrection? Didn’t they realize that a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in the court of law? 

Consistent application of the rules for testing valid history yields a firm case for the reliability of the New Testament documents. The good news is that we have reliable evidence for belief in the resurrection of Jesus. This means we have a strong basis for expecting that those who turn to Jesus for salvation will also be raised from the dead. Jesus said, “I was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I hold the keys that unlock the prison of death and the grave” (Revelation 1:18). Those who trust in him have reliable evidence for believing that they too will be freed from the power of death. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).

Do you understand why C. S. Lewis wrote: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important”?

For further reflection:
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 “The biblical presentation of Jesus refuses to remain nicely confined to any of our containers. One picture after another of Jesus in this long line of nontraditional portraits fails before one question dear to the hearts of all faithful Christians: ‘What about the Cross?’… Why would anyone crucify the reasonable Jesus of the Enlightenment?  Why would anyone crucify the dreamy poet of Romanticism? Why would anyone crucify the Law-abiding, mild-mannered rabbi of revisionist Jewish scholarship? Why would anyone crucify the witty, enigmatic, and marginal figure of the Jesus Seminar?” A Jewish scholar says, ‘Theologians produced the figure they could admire most at the least cost.’ But the Cross stands amidst each such easy path, each attempt to avoid the heart of the matter and the cost of discipleship. The Cross remains a stumbling block for all who encounter this Jesus. He is perhaps not the person we want, but he is surely the person we still – desperately – need” (Allen)

“Jesus of Nazareth remains the most important individual who has ever lived. Nobody else has had comparable influence over so many nations for so long. Nobody else has so affected art and literature, music and drama. Nobody else can remotely match his record in the liberation, the healing and the education of mankind. Nobody else has attracted such a multitude not only of followers but of worshippers. Our claim, then, is not just that Jesus was one of the great spiritual leaders of the world. It would be hopelessly incongruous to refer to him as ‘Jesus the Great,’ comparable to Alexander the Great, Charles the Great, or Napoleon the Great. Jesus is not ‘the Great,’ he is the only. He has no peers, no rivals and no successors” (John Stott, The Contemporary Christian). 

Steve Cornell

See Where is Jesus now and what is He doing?

Dispel the myth about the First Amendment

 

Our Sunday News recently asked me to be a voice to balance the weekly columns of the assistant editor. He generates the most reader response for the paper but writes from more of a left-side, liberal perspective (labels I am a little uncomfortable with).

I’ve written a monthly faith-focused column for many years and recently learned that I generate the second most letters to the editor.

After an increasing number of readers expressed a desire for a more conservative voice to balance the offerings of the assistant editor, the paper contacted me and asked if I would be willing to write twice a month and address political subjects. But they told me that I should feel free to include the faith perspective wherever I wished. Politics and religion?

After accepting the invitation, they moved my columns to the front of the perspective section under the title, “The Right Side” (a title I am not completely comfortable with). Yet my new assignment is not as easy as it might sound. 

The first quite obvious challenge is the fact that religion and politics are two of the most publicly controversial subjects one could address.  Secondly, I am a local pastor and I don’t want people to think that they must hold my political positions to be part of our Church.

Thirdly, although the First Amendment was primarily about protecting religion from government control (i. e. to keep government out of religion), I don’t see it as my responsibility to conform government to my faith.

Over the years, I’ve consistently tried to addressed political issues without using Bible verses as my basis. This is not to say that my faith does not (or should not) inform my worldview and my moral opinions. But I don’t always need explicit references to faith when defending my views.

On a more positive side, my new role could help dispel the widespread myth about the first amendment being written to separate Church and State.

Although the amendment forbids congress from imposing a national religion, it does not require a kind of separation aimed at removing God from all of public life and discourse. Those who demand removal of God and religious reference from public life actually violate the part of the amendment protecting freedom of speech and the press. The founders were interested in protecting freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

If you don’t think that the public has been badly misled on the purpose of the First Amendment, try stating a moral opinion in a public setting. You’ll likely hear someone ask, “What about separation of Church and State?” “Isn’t that what the First Amendment is all about?” 

The other deeply misleading factor is the notion that one can have politics without moral opinion. You simply cannot engage in lawmaking without moral considerations. In his farewell speech, our first president said, “Of all the dispostitions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…”

Abraham Lincoln said, “In this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.” 

If this is true, is it surprising to find those who are hostile against God and religion trying to force both out of public conversation and policy making. Strangely, these same people are unwilling to admit that they are voicing their moral and religious opinions when rejecting others.

Any time (in political discussion) we say one action is right and another wrong, or demand a certain value as a human right, we are using our moral code to influence policy and lawmaking. Let’s stop pretending that it’s only “those Christians” who bring their beliefs with them to the political process. And please correct those who fall for a politicized abuse of the First Amendment .

Hadley Arkes rightly observed that, “There is no way of purging from human beings an understanding of right and wrong, of purging from common life a discourse about right and wrong. Once we think we are in the presence of real wrongs, we think (for example) that it’s wrong for people to torture their infants, our next response is not, ‘Ah, therefore, let’s give them tax incentives to induce them to stop.’ No, we respond with a law that forbids them.”

“Once you understand that this is the nature of the enterprise of ruling and governing, it becomes a matter of whether you will address the questions of right and wrong or whether you simply try to divert the questions and talk about something else.” 

It’s relatively easy to find moral and religious opinion behind most of what is written about policy and law. The moment someone says, “I think it’s wrong….,” he has introduced a moral opinion. When a policy or law forms either based on or in support of that opinion, morality and politics have joined and the people are bound by the outcome. To argue that his opinion does not come from religion is to beg the primary question, “Says whom?”

Let’s not fool ourselves! If a man demands public conformity to his views, he makes himself Lord and uses religious coercion in the political process. The issue is not so much about religion as about seeking public consensus on the good that we the people choose in our policies and laws.

Where does the conversation go from here? 

Steve Cornell

 

Religion won’t help you

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Although Christianity is classified among the religions of the world, I am quite sure Jesus would not want any association with religion.
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Religion is based in human efforts to appease a god. Christianity is about God drawing people into His undeserved grace. It is God making a way for humans to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with Him.
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We seek God only because He first pursued us.
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“We love Him because He first loved us” (I Jn. 4:19). If we try to reverse this and make our desire for God prerequisite to God’s love for us, we’ve left Christianity and embraced religion.The gospel says, “… God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
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An amazing act of divine mercy occurred when Jesus Christ died on the cross!This is repeatedly described in the New Testament in ways no human mind would devise.

“For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them …. For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:1921).

“For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26).

Those who turn to God based on what He has done for us through Jesus Christ are forgiven their sins and reconciled to their Creator. Through faith in Christ, we go from being on bad terms with God to being on good terms. But this only comes through Jesus, our Redeemer, Mediator and Advocate with God (see: Galatians 3:13I Timothy 2:3-6I John 2:1-2).

Messy projects of transformation

We can begin to experience restoration to the image of God because of what God has done for us in Christ. When we put faith in Christ as our Savior, God begins His work of transforming us to His image. This transformation reaches completion at the resurrection when God will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). 

Transformation in this life will be a messy project. It will be a mixture of victories and failures; good days and bad days. We will always have to confess that even “when I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21).

Although new believers commonly look for changes in their circumstances, God is far more concerned about changing character than circumstances. The changes God makes are thorough — affecting every part of our being—our thoughts, attitudes, values and actions.

Under the gracious and compelling influences of God’s Spirit, spiritual transformation impacts our intellect (as we use our minds to explore God’s truth); our wills (as we increasingly yield to God’s authority), and our emotions (as we cultivate godly affections and repudiate evil desires.

“For the Christian, the path of connectedness to God involves the development of a Christlike mind, will, affections (or emotions), character, relationships and actions. When any of these capacities is undernourished, our spiritual growth will be stunted” (Bruce Demarest, Satisfy Your Soul).

God transforms our character at a deep level and sometimes these changes are painful (Hebrews 12:1-11). But even in our struggles, we must remain confident of God’s unfailing love. God’s love is the only thing that remains unchanged in the difficulties of this life (Romans 8:18,35-39II Corinthians 4:16-18).

Steve Cornell

The grand reversal of every religion

As a hush came over the crowd, Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount. They awaited his words with great expectation and intrigue. Yet who would have expected his first words to be a pronouncement of blessing on the poor in spirit? Blessed? The poor in spirit? How can this be?

Through out his ministry, Jesus challenged one cultural assumption after another. Blessing is unexpected for the poor in spirit because they are the broken, crushed and contrite. But they are blessed because they know that they have nothing to commend them to God and no claim on God beyond His mercy. It shall always be the case that God resists the proud and lavishes grace upon the humble (see: Luke 18:9-14).

Jesus led his audience immediately to the grace of God. It was like saying that heaven is reserved for those who know they don’t qualify. The blessed, those who have God’s favor resting on them, are those who know how much they don’t deserve God’s favor. Paradoxical to the human mind! The grand reversal of every religion!

Wait! If being blessed and poor in spirit seems out-of-place, the paradox became more startling when Jesus pronounced a blessing on mourners. Blessed are the sorrowful? Blessed are the grieving? How could this be?

Jesus reverses cultural assumptions

We naturally resist the teaching of Jesus. We would say, “Blessed is the person who has no sorrow or sadness.” What kind of mourning or sorrow could someone experience that would make him blessed? Since there are many kinds of sorrow, Jesus could not mean that all who mourn are blessed. We know that not all who mourn will be comforted. How are we to understand this? What kind of mourning would be blessed by God?

Is it possible that this second beatitude (blessed are those who mourn) is the emotional counterpart to the first (blessed are the poor in spirit). “It is one thing to be spiritually poor and to acknowledge it; it is quite another to grieve and mourn over it” (John R. W. Stott, Sermon on the Mount, p.41).

The eight beatitudes seem to unfold in a progressive experience common to the true disciples of Jesus. The one who begins with poverty of spirit will mourn about his sin. Those who are blessed of God are those who cry out with the apostle Paul, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death” (Rom. 7:24). 

Not all who mourn

When Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted,” He does not speak of mourning for all kinds  of misery. It was mourning associated with the recognition of one’s poverty of spirit.

“Blessed is the man who is moved to bitter sorrow at the realization of his own sin. The way to God is the way of the broken heart” (William Barclay).

“To mourn is something that follows of necessity from being ‘poor in spirit’. It is quite inevitable. As I confront God and His holiness, and contemplate the life that I am meant to live, I see myself, my utter helplessness and hopelessness. I discover my quality of spirit and immediately that makes me mourn. I must mourn about the fact that I am like that (Martyn Llyod-Jones, Sermon on the Mount, P.58).

Just as conviction leads to conversion, genuine confession will always involve contrition (sorrow and remorse over sin). The apostle Paul wrote of, “godly sorrow that produces repentance leading to (or “indicating the reality of”) salvation (2 Corin. 7:10). Yet he also wrote of, “the sorrow of the world which produces death.”

Some people give a show of sorrow about sin but they’re really sorry for the consequences their sin caused for them. They display the sorrow of Cain, Esau and King Saul–the sorrow of the world. They are sorry they I got caught and had to suffer. When this kind of person gives a display of confession, they will mostly verbalize it in relation to themselves — to their hurt, and their pain, not in relation to God and others.

“The sorrow of the world, indeed is not something distinct from sin; on the contrary, it partakes of the very essence of sin. It is not sorrow because of the heinousness of sin as rebellion against God, but sorrow because of the painful and unwelcome consequences of sin. Self is its central point; and self is also the central point of sin. Thus the sorrow of the world manifests itself in self-pity rather than in contrition and turning to God for mercy” (Philip Hughes, N.IC.N.T. 2 Cor. Pp 272-273).

The psalmist declared, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him… (Ps. 32:1-2).

He speaks, and listening to his voice New life the dead receive, the mournful, broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe” (Charles Wesely).

We continue to mourn
 
We must not expect that mourning over sin will all end at salvation. I am deeply concerned that we do not misrepresent the Christian life as one of unending joy and bliss. There is emotional variety to life with God in this fallen world. 

In this life, the initial awareness of sin and sorrow at the time of salvation will always be with us. Often it intensifies as we grow closer to God. There is an ever-deepening awareness of the pervasive evil of sin against the holiness of God. The very indwelling presence of God’s Spirit at salvation brings comfort and joy, but (as with Romans 8), it is precisely because we have the deposit of the spirit that we groan with longing for completion of our redemption.

“Already, through the indwelling presence of God’s spirit, we have been transferred into the new age of blessing and salvation; but the fact that the spirit is only the first fruit makes us daily conscious that we have not yet severed all ties to the old era of sin and death. There is a healthy balance necessary in the Christian life, in which our joy at the many blessings we already possess should be set beside our frustration at our failures and our intense yearning for that day when we will fail no more when we shall be like Him” (Douglas Moo, W.E.C. Romans, p. 557).

“Some Christians seem to imagine that, especially if they are filled with the spirit, they must wear a perpetual grin on their faces and be continuously boisterous and bubbly… The truth is that there are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them” (John Stott).

Christian Realism:

“There can also be a mourning stimulated by broader considerations. Sometimes the sin of the world, the lack of integrity, the injustice, the cruelty, the cheapness, the selfishness, all pile onto the consciousness of a sensitive man and make him weep. The Christian is to be the truest realist. He reasons that death is there, and must be faced. God is there, and will be known by all a savior or judge. Sin is there, and it is unspeakably ugly and block in the light of God’s purity. Eternity is there, and every living human being is rushing toward it. God’s revelation is there, and the alternatives it presents will come to pass; life or death, pardon or condemnation, heaven or hell. These are realities which will not go away. The man who lives in the light of them, and rightly assesses himself and his world in the light of them, cannot but mourn. He mourns for the sins and blasphemies of his nation. He mourns for the erosion of the very concept of truth. He mourns over the greed, the cynicism, the lack of integrity. He mourns that there are so few mourners” (D.A. Carson, Sermon on the Mount p. 19).

Joy is a distinguishing characteristic of the godly, yet it often coexists with tears and sorrow.

The Psalmist said: “My eyes shed streams of tears because men do not keep thy law” (Ps. 119:136). God’s faithful people are described as those who: “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:4). The godly scribe Ezra identified with the sins of the people in confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God.

Jeremiah (the weeping prophet) said: “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night. For the slain of the daughter of my people! O that I had in the desert a wayfarers lodging place; that I might leave my people, and go from them! For all of them are adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men. And they bend their tongue like their bow; lies and not truth prevail in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, declares the Lord.”

The apostle Paul wrote about many “of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).

The emotion of the eternal God was recorded in Genesis 6:5-6, “the Lord saw that the wickedness or man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and he was grieved in his heart.”

Although the gospels never record the laughter of Jesus, they do record his anguish and tears. ( Mt. 26:34-38; Jn. 10:35; Heb. 5:7-9). The prophet Isaiah identified the coming messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, who would bear our grief and carry our sorrows.

“I cannot help feeling that the final explanation of the state of the church today is a defective sense of sin and a defective doctrine of sin. Coupled with that, of course, is a failure to understand the true nature of Christian joy. There is the double failure. There is not the real, deep conviction of sin as was once the case; and on the other hand there is this superficial conception of joy and happiness which is very different indeed from that which we find in the New Testament. Thus the defective doctrine of sin and the shallow idea of joy, working together, of necessity produce a superficial kind of person and a very inadequate kind of Christian life” (Sermon on the Mount). (cf. 1 Cor. 5:2- “should you not have rather mourned?”).

They shall be comforted:

The blessedness of those who mourn is directly related to the promise that, “they shall be comforted.” There is clearly a present and future aspect to this comfort. Just as the Christian life begins with poverty of spirit and an emotional response of godly sorrow over sin, so it breaks out into the joy of forgiveness, the joy of God’s salvation.

There is a day coming, as Jesus said, when those who are “blessed of My Father,” will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). On that day, the poor in spirit will enter into the joy of their Master.

Assignment:

Keep two exclamatory affirmations near to your hearts each day:

    1. Romans 7:24 – “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (my imprisonment to sin)?
    2.  Romans 7:25 – “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
 Steve Cornell

A window into God’s heart

An important distinction concerning God’s will must be applied to the way we understand how God relates to the evil actions of humans (or even to His own acts of judgment).

Along with God’s sovereign and revealed will, one must honor God’s dispositional will. This probes deeply into God’s character–particularly His innermost intention.

II Peter 3:9 reminds us that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Obviously this refers to something other than the sovereign will or predetermined plan of God simply because some will perish. What this tells us is that God is not inwardly disposed to or delighted by people perishing –even though in His judgment He will cause some to perish.

R.C. Sproul explained it this way,

“All things being equal, God does desire that no one perishes, but all things are not equal. Sin is real. Sin violates God’s holiness and righteousness. God also is not willing that sin go unpunished. He desires as well that His holiness be vindicated. When the preceptive will is violated, things are no longer equal. Now God requires punishment while not particularly enjoying the personal application of it” (Following Christ, pp. 217-18).

 A classic O.T. statement on this is found in Ezekiel 33:11: “`As I live,’ declares the Lord, `I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live’ ” (c.f. Lam. 3:33a). 

God makes moving pleas for human repentance.

Ezekiel 18:30-32 gives us a window into the heart of God: ” `Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. `Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God, `Therefore, repent and live.’ “

We see this same emphasis in I Timothy 2:3-4:

“This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

D.A. Carson observed the following:

“Despite everything it (Scripture) says about the limitless reaches of God’s sovereignty, the Bible insists again and again on God’s unblemished goodness. `The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and kind in all His deeds’ (Ps. 145:17). `His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He’ (Deut. 32:4).”

In struggling to understand this aspect of God’s will, one might argue, “If God is sovereign and He desires that all be saved and none perish, why doesn’t God decree what he desires?” Certainly an absolutely sovereign God could have decreed a world without the possibility of sin.

Yet several things must be recalled: First, when God originally created the earth and man, He declared all He provided to be “very good.” Secondly, the apostle Paul wrote, “For by one man sin entered the world and death by sin…” (Rom. 5:12). Thirdly, and most importantly, God has decreed a world without the possibility of sin– the new heavens and new earth. “Nothing impure will ever enter it” (Rev. 21:27; cf. Rev. 21:3-5; II Pet. 3:13).

Only those who (in this world) have confessed with their mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believed in their heart that God raised Him from the dead will enter this perfect world. This reveals the extent of God’s respect for human responsibility (cf. Josh. 24:14-15).

And Scripture is equally quick to warn humans not to take lightly the kindness of God. Consider the words of Romans 2:4-6:

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds.”

It’s better (in view of this dimension of God’s will) to acknowledge that God is willing to judge evil but holds back his wrath so that more people might come to salvation.

Look closely at Romans 9:22-23:

“What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.”

If God operated the world on a principle of immediate judgment, who would be saved by His grace? None! No, not one!

Are you respectful of God’s dispositional will— His unblemished goodness? Respecting the multi-dimensional nature of God’s will, helps one avoid misunderstandings and misrepresentations of God.

We certainly don’t want to be like Job’s three friends to whom God twice said, “I am angry with you… for you have not spoken accurately about me” (Job 42:7-8).

Steve Cornell

A closer look at tolerance

I look forward to D. A. Carson’s new book, The Intolerance of Tolerance. I’ve written often on this subject and Carson has helped to shape some of my thinking. I see it at the heart of a kind of strategy to transform society. In a piece from Touchstone, Ken Myers picked up on this when he wrote about the tyranny of tolerance. Myers offered reflection on A. J. Conyers’s book on the modern preoccupation with tolerance, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit. 

Conyers suggested that,

“The modern version of toleration is all about power—the power of individuals to be free from interference and the power of governments to guarantee individual autonomy by stripping all other sources of authority. Tolerance (as a modern doctrine) has little to do with the survival of minority groups and everything to do with the centralizing of power. Tolerance is not so much a virtue as a strategy. What happens to a society when the strategy of tolerance has been practiced for so long that no truths are any longer self-evident?” 

In January of 2011, I wrote a piece titled: Whatever Happened to Tolerance. I suggested that in the American melting pot of ethnic, religious and ideological diversity, a strange version of intolerant tolerance has been enlisted as the gate keeping virtue for pluralistic civility. But this version of tolerance has clearly failed to deliver. It’s well past the time for us to recognize that a form of intolerance disguised as tolerance has been forced on America. I am certain Carson’s book will help.

How much more irrational can it be than to demand zero-tolerance toward intolerance with no exceptions being tolerated?

In a free society, people want to know who gets to set the morals that everyone must tolerate. Who defines what we must accept as lawful and good? 

The popular version of tolerance has left many feeling that they’re under some form of societal coercion — forcing them to affirm a politically approved set of morals and values. And, when people feel this way, they perceive it as a threat to liberty.

The true virtue of tolerance

We need to understand that tolerance is a virtue that can only function in the context of actual disagreements. The virtue of tolerance is unnecessary to those who surrender or minimize their differences. 

Truly tolerant people treat respectfully those with whom they strongly disagree. Forced agreement only threatens true tolerance. It will do no good to pretend that disagreements do not exist.

Robust and respectful conversations needed

When we feel a need to demand tolerance, it should alert us to a greater need to teach virtues that promote true tolerance. Virtues like respect, honor and neighbor love facilitate true tolerance whereas forced tolerance threatens these qualities.

A shared commitment to honor and respect one another necessitates robust and respectful conversations about our common good. The tyranny of tolerance forecloses on those conversations.

Ironically, the tolerance being pushed today requires people to keep their differences to themselves. Instead of diversity, it fosters a monolithic culture where people feel pressured to conceal multi-cultural distinctions. How sad to end up with diversity we can’t talk about lest we offend those who disagree.

Tyrannical versions of tolerance lead to duplicity as people increasingly subscribe to one set of beliefs publicly and another privately. Is it surprising that this breeds resentment and sometimes violence? If you force a man against his will, he’s of the same persuasion still, and he is likely to get mad.

Obviously, in a civil society, laws must be enforced and not everyone will agree on those laws. But, in a free society, trouble is ahead when laws are made that unilaterally overturn the collective will of the people. We must improve at respectful and open dialogue over our differences. We must do a better job at teaching and modeling the virtues of respect; honor and neighbor love. These qualities support true tolerance.

Steve Cornell
Senior pastor
Millersville Bible Church
Millersville, PA. 17551

See: Culture of honor vs. Culture of law

Blaming Religion for violence

The Twin Towers

Old myths die slowly.

Such is the case with the notion that religion is the primary cause of violence and oppression. Atheistic like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are well-known for promoting this myth.

After 9/11, a British reporter echoed the myth stating that, “The real axis of evil is Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” In A Devil’s Chaplin, Dawkins wrote,

“Only the willfully blind fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities of the world today.”

The old myth gained momentum on September 11 when Islamic extremists inflicted terror in the name of Allah. But is religion to blame for the worst atrocities of history? The fact is that anti-religious tyranny has been the most frightening source of evil in the world.

In Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror,” Os Guinness noted that,

“It is a widely held and largely unquestioned belief in educated circles today that religion is the main cause of repression and violence in our world and an essentially divisive and explosive force in public life that we would be wise to exclude from the public square altogether. For example, one New York Times reporter argued after September 11 that our main problem is not terrorism but ‘religious totalitarianism’ and that the danger of religious totalitarianism was represented not just by Islam but by Judaism and the Christian faith as well—in fact, by all faiths that have ‘absolute’ or ‘exclusive’ claims.”

This is simply wrong. Guinness demonstrates that, “The worst modern atrocities were perpetrated by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of secularist beliefs.”

Those who believe that more wars have been waged and more people killed in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history are factually wrong. And Guinness is rightly concerned that the lazy repetition of this myth, “seriously distorts public debate and endangers democratic freedom.”

Contrary to widespread opinion, he notes that, “September 11 was a break with the worst twentieth-century massacres because the atrocity was done in the name of Allah” (Emphasis mine).

This is not to deny the horrific massacres in the name of religion. Yet the fact remains,

“More people were killed by secularist regimes in the twentieth century than in all the religious persecutions in Western history, and perhaps in all history. More than one hundred million human beings were killed by secularist regimes and ideologies in the last century” (Guinness).

The examples are staggering, the Ottoman massacre of more than a million Armenians, the slaughtered of nearly two million people by Cambodia’s communist leader Pol Pot, the murder of an estimated thirty million Russians by Stalin and Mao ZeDong’s unimaginable destruction of sixty-five million Chinese. Add to this Hitler and the extermination of millions of Jews. Guinness rightly notes,

“Hitler and the Nazis are something of a special case. Hitler was implacably hostile to the Christian faith, but not an advocate of atheism. Almost to a person, as the history of Nazism and the record of the Nuremberg trials attest, the Nazi leaders were ex-Christians and ex-Catholics. Those, including Hitler, who had Christian backgrounds vehemently rejected them. Hitler said, “Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity.”

The point must not be missed. The dictators behind the most horrific carnage of human history were not motivated by religion. These atrocities were inflicted by secular regimes for secular reasons. “The full story of the evils of Stalin and Mao is yet to be unearthed and told with anything like the completeness accorded to Hitler and the Nazis, but the secularist commitments are clear beyond dispute” (Guinness).

Don’t be misguided, 

“Secularist philosophies such as atheism are just as ‘totalitarian’ as the three ‘religions of the Book.’ What secularists believe is so total, or all-encompassing, that it excludes what the religious believer believes.” The most notable recent example of this was Communism. Guinness correctly identifies Communism as, “…the most dangerous delusion in history so far.” The era of Communism has been accurately described as “an atheistic millennialism.”

The persistent inclination to blame religion is rooted in

“…an unexamined Enlightenment prejudice that simultaneously reduces faith to its functions and recognizes only the worst contributions of faith, not the best—such as the rise of the universities, the development of modern science, the abolition of slavery, and the promotion of human rights” (Guinness).

“In his magisterial moral history of the twentieth century, Humanity, Jonathan Glover points out that even those who do not believe in a religious moral law should be troubled by its fading. ‘It’s striking how many protest against and acts of resistance to atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment.’”

“Contrary to what is commonly argued,” Guinness concludes, “our problem in the public square is not ‘religious totalitarianism,’ and the solution is not a ‘multilingual relativism’ that bans all absolute and exclusive claims. In a day of exploding diversity, the real question is: how do we live with our deepest differences when many of those differences are absolute, including those of secularism?”

Steven W. Cornell

See also: The Most Violent Century of Human History