Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thoughts on sovereignty and suffering

The following is a post for a class called Missional Theology on reconciling the existence of a good and sovereign God with the presence of evil in the world. Most of what is written are thoughts continued from David Bently Hart's The Doors of the Sea, a great book on the the question "where was God during the tsunamis?"


Sometimes discussing the attributes of God, like many theological discussions, can seem like an academic exercise void of anything meaningful to the realities of life around the world. This dichotomy is especially apparent when the topic of reconciling the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient God with presence of suffering and evil is at hand.

In his book, The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart presents more than a mere list of God’s abstracted attributes listed in systematic form. It gets down to a level where theology, and the words we use to describe God, matter. To Hart, God is not simply the sum of his attributes, as if he can be formularized thus making the tragedy of evil more logical; He is both sovereign and good, free and providential. Also true of his handling of the subject is that evil and suffering are handled with care as he goes to great lengths to put himself in the mindset of a character like Ivan Karamozov to truly understand the problem of evil.

What we’re left with from Hart are no easy answers. God still exists and is infinitely good. Yet the world suffers from atrocities daily. The question is: Can we come to a balance of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom without turning creation into an equation where, as Hart puts it, there are no remainders?

The picture that we see from the New Testament is one where evil certainly exists in profound ways, but its presence in no way deters God from his purposes in the world. The God of the Bible is completely sovereign in that evil or the free will of mankind are no stumbling blocks to him. This reality immediately rules out a true theodicy because, as John's Revelation shows, the presence of evil is extinguished with a mere word from Christ. At the same time, I fully agree with Hart that we cannot saddle God with the burden of needing evil to accomplish his will, because God is in need of nothing. He is the source of all things and while he has demonstrated time and time again the ability to turn evil on its head and produce victory from it (there is no greater example than the cross), evil itself is an enemy to be undone, not a means to an end. God is not limited because of man's rebellion against him. More than that, if God were in need of evil to affect his will then in some ways we may be conceding to the possibility that God is in some way not good, which is an impossible to argue from scripture.

The story of the Bible presents evil as running entirely counter to God's purposes, with no inherent value but ultimately no real power. That is not to say that evil does not effect the world, obviously it does in profound ways. From the New Testament we are told that the world in which we live has been given over for a time to the forces of evil. This evil manifests itself through nature and human action alike. Sometimes we (humanity) play a sort of game with our treatment of suffering by ascribing man-made atrocities to our own sin nature while blaming God for "natural" disasters as if he was the culprit behind them. After all what man was it that opened the doors to the sea during the tsunami killing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children?

Again Hart's understanding is quite helpful. If God created man, in full freedom, to have dominion over Earth and stand as creation's representative before God, then the decision to rebel against God would require that creation suffer the same penalty of corruption and death as that representative. Creation then, as with humanity, both reflect and distort the image of its creator. We see, as Hart puts it, two realities at once. One of extreme beauty and majesty that trumpet the glory of God and one of extreme injustice and death that reflect the how far creation has fallen.

Fortunately for us this is not the end of the story. Scripture reveals that while we may be overcome with the unjust events throughout the world, creation itself is in the birth pangs of the Kingdom of God coming to its consummation. The incarnation was God's ultimate intervention into the narrative of death and destruction. By overcoming
evil with good and death with life, Jesus began a pattern that defines the shape of what His Kingdom will someday look like. A pattern that is carried out in a provisional way through his body, the church until the day of his return.

Until that day it is important to remember not to overlook God's sovereignty because of the presence of suffering. The danger is that if, in our need to justify its presence, we give evil more power than its due and reduce God to less than He is presented in scripture, the sovereign over all creation. On the other hand, by overemphasizing God's sovereignty to those in the midst of suffering, we can unwittingly make God out to be a cruel master who planned from the beginning of time a contingency where the drowning of thousands of Children was necessary to bring about his plan. Jesus however, as the exact representation of God the Father, weeps for the destruction of Jerusalem and mourns with Lazerus' family even as he knows that victory is soon at hand.

As Pastor Randy aptly puts it, "God is never the cause of evil, but is always the first on the scene when it occurs."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to work

I love the fall. Mostly because in the mid-atlantic area you can do things outside without breaking into a full sweat within the first few minutes.

One of the things I love doing when it's cooler outside is to ride my bike to work. It usually takes me about 20 minutes either way and I've noticed something when I ride:

You notice things at 10 miles per hour that you miss at 40. House colors, Trees, Church marquees, people mowing lawns and walking their dogs. Sure you may have a fleeting thought about those things driving by in a car but they're just that, fleeting. Riding a bike allows you the time to actually think about those things and let you're mind wander to how each has been shaped by God.

Particularly with the church I pass along the way I wonder what happens inside those walls on a weekly basis. The first few times I passed by I remember being unimpressed by the witty remarks on the marquee and wrote off the church as irrelevant. Lately when I pass by it, God has shown me how foolish I am in disregarding his church in all its various forms. This tiny building represents part of God's story and in that fact alone, should be celebrated and appreciated as a movement of the Spirit to the world. So, lately, I've found myself praying for that Church and its pastors, that they would boldly and creatively follow God into unexpected places.

A simple thing like taking 20 minutes to get to work rather than 5 can open your eyes to things you missed before. More on this later...

Friday, April 11, 2008

timeless and timely

An interesting article from Al Hsu appeared in Christianity Today talking about the multifaceted nature of the Gospel. He looks at the history of the ways the Gospel has been conveyed to demonstrate how various people hear and respond to the One Call in different ways.

Although I fear that his conclusions could cause some to say that any presentation of the gospel qualifies (there is still such a thing as a false gospel), I did appreciate some of his points. Namely how he points out that even Jesus used a variety of metaphors to convey THE good news, that in him the Kingdom of God has been made available to all mankind.

In that sense, the gospel is both timeless, in that it testifies about the God who never changes, and timely, in that it finds people in multiple ways (he juxtaposes the differences in Jesus' message to the woman at the well and the rich young ruler).

He does a better job explaining than I would, so I'll leave it at that.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Consumerism in Community - part 2

Well, I seem to have struck a nerve with my last post and it has caused me to reflect on and attempt to clarify some of the topics brought up in my previous post. The inherent danger in extracting a couple paragraphs from a 15 page paper is that it is very easy (as I've observed) to be misunderstood.

The purpose for the post needs further clarification.

1. It is part of a larger paper on how a missional perspective critiques, challenges, and in many ways encourages the Purpose-Driven church model of ministry (of which I am a part).

2. The section posted did NOT in any way deal with issues of salvation, sin, regeneration, sanctification, or the message of the cross, (Those themes are dealt with elsewhere in the paper) but to identify how a consumeristic nature has become part of church culture that in many ways resembles the American dream more than New Testament kingdom principles.

3. The section then seeks to identify how a postmodern culture (which is becoming more and more dominant in our society) is coming to the question of faith with vastly different questions, assumptions, and aspirations than previous generations. This is not to say that their views are any less corrupted by sinfulness and rebellion from God (for that permeates everything mankind is and does). What I was attempting to make a case for was that the church, as a people representing God's kingdom to mankind, must find themes that are important to the culture to which they have been sent, and to demonstrate God's ability to move through those themes.

This is exactly what Paul did on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Paul, arriving in a culture not his own, found common ground on which to speak about and introduce the true God revealed through Jesus Christ. He spoke in used language and symbols that the Athenians could understand and respond to (i.e. the Unknown god). For a postmodern culture, the unknown god to which they worship are causes (social, economic, or otherwise) that they can invest themselves in. I was in no way saying that these causes take precedence over the cause of Christ (i.e. God's mission), but that a church which seeks to speak the language of a postmodern culture must consider service a part of the language that God will use to redeem a postmodern society. Therefore a church which proclaims the gospel, but never has care to demonstrate the kind of love for one another taught in the Bible, will seem shallow and inauthentic to a people who want to know how what you believe impacts your life today.

This is not to say that "saving souls" is not important (it feels strange to even make that statement). In fact, I have spent my ministry career in that very endeavor. I believe that evangelism is both the responsibility and privilege of anyone who follows Christ. Part of the way we undertake evangelism however is by being a contrast community that demonstrates the kind of love and reconciliation that repentence and regeneration in Christ stimulates. Jesus prays for this very thing for his followers in John 17:21 "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." Our oneness as a community of people called around the death and resurrection of our savior is what puts the world on notice that Jesus is the Son of God and that we belong to him. That is why community formation is so vital to our witness, especially to a culture desperate for genuine community. Community is not what saves people, even within the church it is broken and sinful. At the same time, God's people gathered in oneness around the cross is the incarnation of God's activity that shows people the way to that cross. This is the kind of contrast community that was the hallmark of the early church in Acts 2:42-47.

Thanks for your challenging comments. I hope to continue the dialogue with gentleness and respect.

"Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Titus 3:1-3

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Consumerism in community

Thought I would share an excerpt from a paper I recently wrote for class. This section deals with community formation within seeker-sensitive churches.

Does a missional perspective have anything to offer in terms of the way communities are formed?


One of the key criticisms leveled against seeker-sensitive churches is that they foster an environment where consumerism takes precedence over community. Many of these churches are upfront about their goal of reaching a consumeristic society by marketing the church in ways that are attractive to a capitalistic impulse. The mentality is that because consumerism is the modus operand of American culture, the church needs to tailor its ministry towards that predisposition in order to be relevant to its needs. Consumerism, as the thinking goes, is a given within church life because either the church markets itself toward the believer or the unchurched. This approach ultimately leads the church towards being a dispenser of religious goods and the gospel as its commodity to be sold in the public forum. The problem with this line of thinking is that it fails to examine whether or not consumerism, by its very nature, is antithetical to the gospel. If it is, then the church, as part of its faithfulness to the gospel and witness to the world, should be seeking out ways to subvert consumerism as an intrinsic value of our culture, not reinforce it.

This may be the reason why many seeker churches find themselves in a situation where they see the very real need of the congregation to be in authentic, transformational relationships, yet have difficulty fostering such relationships. Sunday morning remains the focal point of congregational life, outreach, service, and energy whereby the service is designed to identify the needs of seekers and attempt to convince them that the gospel is the commodity to address those felt needs. Carlson, the pastor of a seeker-sensitive church, explains the irony this way: “Christian leaders have to admit this is the system we have put together. We can’t build churches that advertise ‘tons of ministries to meet your needs,’ then be surprised when people expect us to continually meet their needs.” The community of the church as seen in the New Testament is vastly distinct from the American propensity towards commoditization that is so prevalent in our culture.

In light of the postmodern shift and the permeation of technology into daily life, the need for genuine connection is greater than ever. In particular, people have become disillusioned with the distance Americans have placed between one another and are actively looking for expressions of community that not only meet their needs, but address greater problems in the world. This may be a significant factor in why so many are rushing to such causes as racial equality, environmental conservation, famine and AIDS relief. It is no longer an option for the church to remain inactive on such issues for the sake of winning souls. For in our changing context, it will be incredibly difficult to win souls without inviting people to take part in a cause larger than themselves. We may in fact find along the way that dealing with issues such as these is not a distraction from the gospel, but part of what it means to live as a community which bears witness to the coming kingdom of God.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Is our gospel too small?

I had planned to write about this topic at some point, but I just read an article by Tim Keel of Jacob's Well that frames this question much better than I ever could. I highly recommend it and hope that it will stir conversation about what how we may have unwittingly reduced the scope of the gospel.

The questions an article like this raises can be both provocative and challenging. My hope is that it will get us thinking about God, and God's mission, in much broader terms than we typically understand it.

Please feel free to post comments here regarding the article. I'd like to know what you think (either good or bad).