Toward not despising the day of small things*

I was on the mock trials team in college, but I was not very good at it. Well, I actually was pretty good when I was playing the role of a witness, but when I competed as a lawyer, I just couldn’t seem to get it right. This was a bit demoralizing for someone who, at the time, thought he wanted to go to law school. It was also odd, because I had done well in high school debate. I could not figure out why mock trials lawyering did not “click” for me, but in hindsight I think I know. Unlike debate, mock trials is a team event. There are three “lawyers” and three “witnesses” on each team, and you are judged as a group. It is literally impossible for one person to win it or lose it, and everyone has to do their part. When I was playing a witness it was easier to just focus on my piece and let the lawyers manage the big picture, but when I was a lawyer my debate instincts and competitiveness kicked in and I was always looking for the one killer argument or perfect point that would win the case for us all–and therefore I wasn’t a very good lawyer, because I was trying so hard to do our job that I wasn’t focused on my job.

Is there anything that the people who made Just Do It one of the most successful advertising slogans in history hate more than outcomes that are in someone else’s hands? It’s part of what makes marriage and parenting so hard; the fact that you are making something with someone else, like two pianists sharing one instrument. We cannot stand the feeling of responsibility without control.

I think a lot of Christians are feeling that way about our culture. We know all the Bible verses about evangelizing the nations, about being ambassadors for God in a lost world, and we realize they are talking to us. Meanwhile, we see our country falling away from any sort of Christian identity and enthusiastically and publicly embracing every flavor of sin, and we think, hey, the church needs to do something about that; I need to do something about that. But what can you do about a problem made up of hundreds of millions of people, most of whom have already heard the gospel and consciously rejected it?

Read moreToward not despising the day of small things*

Zeno of Elea and understanding ultimate reality

Zeno of Elea was one of history’s first recorded philosophers, living about four hundred and fifty years before Christ. Zeno is remembered for creating paradoxes, such as his famous argument that it’s impossible to ever arrive at a destination. The difficulty, Zeno explained in what is called the “dichotomy paradox,” is that before one arrives at the destination, one must travel half the distance there. Yet, as soon as one arrives at that halfway mark, there’s a new halfway distance which must be traveled before you can get to the destination. And so on. Since any distance, even the very shortest, can be halved, there’s always a half-distance to travel before one can arrive at the destination. With an infinite number of halfway points to reach before the destination, it does seem as if logic demands the conclusion that you can never get there.

One suspects that Zeno may not have been popular in high school, but my point in bringing him up is not to complain about dead Italian philosophers, but to illustrate an unfortunate tendency that most of us have when thinking about theological uncertainties. As an example, consider the question of how God can justly punish us for our sins (thus implying we are guilty for them) despite the fact that human nature is fallen and therefore we cannot help sinning.

Read moreZeno of Elea and understanding ultimate reality

So you’re talking to your gay friend

One of the things I love about teaching is the opportunity for unexpected conversations. Earlier this week, my apologetics class ended up taking a lengthy detour to discuss biblical teachings about homosexuality. Such classroom digressions are hardly unusual, but this one stuck with me afterward because the conversation vividly illustrated a tension and a struggle which I’ve felt myself when I get the opportunity to witness to a homosexual. My students believe the Bible. They recognize the reality of sin and the need for a savior. And they really, really don’t want to have to tell the nice gay guy with the friendly smile that he’s not allowed to pursue true love. I don’t want to either.

It really doesn’t matter whether you are born gay or choose to be gay, or a little of both. The fact is, right now, I’m talking to someone who is gay. And maybe he’s in love with another fellow, and feeling all the butterflies I remember from when I first looked at my wife and hoped I’d never have to stop. Or maybe he’s just hoping, waiting to find the right one. I remember that feeling too, and how the anticipation was almost fun at times, and terribly hard at others; but always the encouragement that maybe today would be the day I’d meet her. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to want another man, but I know very well what it’s like to want Someone–and that’s exactly who I’m telling my gay friend is off limits, forever.

Read moreSo you’re talking to your gay friend

The logic of faith

God uses faith “to shake us out of our logical thinking,” declared the pastor at a local church I visited a few weeks ago. I recently heard another pastor explain that we can only grow in our faith if we stop listening to our reason: either we listen to our reason or we listen to God.

I think any Christian can relate to the basic idea being expressed here. Faith often demands of us things that do not “make sense” in the colloquial sense of the phrase. Military strategists may disagree about the best tactics for an outnumbered insurgency with limited weaponry battling an overwhelming occupying force, but as a general rule they would agree that dismissing 98.7 percent of your manpower is not a brilliant first step; so of course that’s exactly what God told Gideon to do. Building a floating castle in a land without rain makes little sense, and marching in circles tooting horns is an unconventional approach for capturing your region’s most powerful city. But that’s exactly what God commanded.

So it is certainly accurate to say that faith rarely “makes sense” in human terms. But if we go beyond this point to conclude that faith is illogical or somehow opposed to reason, we end up in an error with potentially serious consequences.

Because, indeed, faith is at its core entirely logical. The logic of faith is deductive, and begins with a simple premise: God is faithful. When Abraham sacrificed Isaac, it was an entirely logical thing to do. He knew God. God had promised, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called,” so “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead” and prepared to sacrifice his son. The whole thing reads rather like a syllogism: If God allows Isaac to be destroyed, He will have broken His word. God cannot break His word. So God will not allow Isaac to be destroyed, all suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding. If, instead, Abraham had merely woken up one morning and decided it would please God if he set out to kill his son, that would have been decidedly illogical. And that would not have been faith.

Why did Gideon dismiss all but 300 men? Why did Noah build the arc? Why did Joshua march around Jericho? Because God told them to do so, and they knew that God is faithful. Had any of them acted without the assurance of God’s command and of His faithfulness, that would not have been logical. And that would not have been faith.

Yet logic is not the heart of faith. If it was, then a purely rational, emotionless artificial intelligence of the sort sometimes imagined by science fiction would be an exemplar of faith, when in fact such a creature could never actually know faith. It is interesting that faith is never mentioned in connection with angels, beings to which the Church has long attributed pure reason. It would seem that faith is irrelevant to a creature which sees things as they truly are, for whom no contrary passion or momentary appearance can shake the knowledge and assurance of the I Am. For faith is born out of a limited perspective; it grows out of the words “all suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The writer of Hebrews refers to “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We may take it as a given that these “things” do in fact exist; otherwise we would be defining madness rather than faith. We may even take it as a given that those of whom faith is expected have good reason to believe in the existence of these things. But knowing, for the queer mixture of dust and spirit which is a human being, is not always enough.

Numbers 14 records God’s appearance to the Israelites at the height of their panic over the strength of the country they had been commanded to subdue. They were literally about to stone Joshua and Caleb for urging the people to trust in God and carry on, when “the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel,” declaring himself ready to dispossess and destroy them. (It it worth noting that theophanies are rarely comfortable. This one perhaps even less so than most.) God’s complaint against the Israelites was simple: “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?” (emphasis added). These were the same people who had just witnessed a series of ten plagues that would resound through Middle Eastern history for centuries (I Samuel 4:8), who had just watched a sea open up before them and then return to consume the world’s mightiest military in their wake, and they were completely unmanned by a walled city full of unusually tall people.

A similar charge underscores Jesus’ question in Matthew 8 when he asks his panic-stricken disciples, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” as he calms the stormy sea. These were men who had ample reason to trust in Him. Without even leaving Matthew 8, we see Jesus cleanse a leper, heal a Roman centurion’s paralyzed servant, and restore Peter’s mother-in-law’s health. And then he gets into a boat, the wind blows, and his disciples straightway forget all this and are terrified by a sea full of unusually tall waves.

We might laugh at the obviousness of the error, were it not for an uncomfortable awareness of how easily our own attention is drawn away from “things not seen” by unusually tall things of one sort or another. We, like Abraham, Gideon, Noah, Joshua, the Israelites, and the disciples, have every reason to believe that God is “able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” But all we can see is the fact that things aren’t working out, or it’s taking too long (Father Time is remarkably tall sometimes), or the task is too big for us or will hurt too much. And we forget what we know, that God is faithful. Faith is nothing if not logical, but faith is far more than logic. True faith is found in holding fast to things unseen, clinging to what is real even when the truth feels far less substantial than the tall and dancing shadows that surround us.