How Does God Use Deeply Flawed Servants?

One of my favorite books in the Bible is Habakkuk. In it, the prophet (Habakkuk) is trying to figure out when is God going to take care of all the evil that is happening in the Kingdom of Judah. God responds to the effect that, ‘Don’t worry. I am sending in the Babylonians and they are going to destroy everything.’

Habakkuk is, not surprisingly, not happy about this. He was a Jew as were the people of Judah. He wanted repentance and revival. He did not want them to be destroyed. And… he certainly did not think it was fair and righteous that God would use a people who were (seemingly) worse than the Jews..

God’s response is a bit… poetic… roundabout. However, the argument seems to be something like, “Don’t worry. I will use whoever or whatever I want as my tool of discipline. The Babylonians may be useful in the moment, but I will replace and judge them when the time is right.

But is this a general principle? What about people who are God’s servants by intention rather than merely by sovereign circumstances. What if a minister— pastor, missionary, and such— was deeply flawed. Will God use them? I have heard ministers, such as televangelists, who seemed to be horrible horrible people supported by the argument that their success and at least some of the fruit of their labor proves God’s favor.

An example that comes to mind is someone I will call Bernard. That is most definitely NOT his name. Also, he died decades ago so I am definitely not talking about you, the reader.

Bernard was a minister and a missionary. I won’t give too many details on his ministry. His primary role is in training no Christian servants. Bernard and his family were sent as missionaries by their denomination to Asia. His wife worked with local women, while Bernard established a training program for Christian ministers. He did this for 4 years. After that, however, he and his family had to leave. Bernard had been acting out sexually causing deep problems where he was serving.

Going back to the United States he found a position that would not be described as missionary work, but still essentially doing the same thing. He served there for awhile, but the same problems sprang up and he and his family had to move again. Bernard did continue to do ministry work, but in (relative) obscurity for a few more years.

This sounds like failure to me… but it is a bit more complicated than that. Bernard became known as the founder of the training program in the mission field because his first trainee (I will call him “Ben”) took the mantle of the ministry and ran with it successfully for decades. Now, this program is successfully being implemented where Bernard served in the field, as well as many other sites in Asia. Ben is commonly seen as the “Father” of this ministry, even though Bernard is still seen as the initiator.

In the United States, the place he worked was with a young colleague/trainee who went on to be a major leader and innovator in this minister training movement.

I chose to be very vague here. I have a friend who likes to tell stories where he changes the name but keeps enough details that those who are in the know… well, they know. I don’t like to do that. I am focus on principle here, not personality.

In principle, God used Bernard to jumpstart the work in Asia, and continue the work in America. You might say that God used him to plant the seeds. Others, however, cultivated and harvested the fruit.

I think God uses who God uses. God uses the best and the brightest. God uses the humblest and the most servant-minded. But sometimes God uses the most flawed. God used Balaam in the Old Testament and God used Judas Iscariot in the New. The former appeared to have a divine prophetic gift, the latter was a miracle worker. God used them when he needed them, and then set them aside for others who were motivated by love for God rather than adulation, money and other things.

I still think this topic needs more consideration… but I think this is a good start in my reflection. For now.

Are There Times When “Supporting Satan” is a Good Thing?

Okay, hear me out on this one— don’t jump to conclusions.

Here in Chesapeake, VA (temporarily here for a few months) there has been a bit of a stir as a group called the “After School Satan Club” (ASSC) has put in an application for after school activities utilizing public school properties. Obviously, many Christians (and non-Christians) are up in arms about this. Curiously, one Christian organization has been very supportive of their efforts.

This is “Child Evangelism Fellowship” (CEF). This is a group that my wife and I have worked with on the periphery for a number of years. It is Evangelical and tending more to the conservative side of Christian faith and values. At first it may seem like this is a very strange response for them.

However, as one reads more about it, it is clear why CEF is supportive.

First of all, the ASSC is a movement that only seeks to put in after school programs where there are pre-existing religious programs. According to the ASSC website, “The After School Satan Club does not believe in introducing religion into public schools and will only open a club if other religious groups are operating on campus.”

And then as one looks just a wee bit deeper one finds that the ASSC does not believe in Satan, does not worship Satan, and does not have temples despite the logo (see below):

Years ago I had a friend (or at least a friendly acquaintance) who described himself as a Satanist. However, he was an atheist and did not believe in the existence of Satan either. There are religious Satanists apparently, but it seems as if my friend was a Hedonist who wanted to appear “edgy.”

In the case of ASSC, I do think the “edgy” aspect is important. As a local volunteer for ASSC said, “We are non-theistic. I understand the apprehension behind the satanic name, but he is just an imaginary figure that we look to because he is the eternal rebel that fought for justice and humanity.”

Putting their statements together, it is pretty clear that ASSC is essentially a group that opposes religious groups having access to public schools and so has chosen a symbol that they don’t believe — and not using it for its symbolic power to them, but for (reactive) power it has to their opponents.

Many of you may remember the “SATANIC PANIC” of the late 1970s and early 1980s when there were fanciful stories of satanic cults doing horrible things right under our noses. Think of the movie Hot Fuzz (or consider the wildly unlikely QAnon stories that have been circulating this decade).

Christians reacted quite predictably with… panic, anger, and opposition. Understandable. However, being predictable has its problems. Christians in the US like to fall back on a certain unspoken “dominionism.” We want Bible Clubs in the public schools but feel like these should be permitted while keeping out other religious groups. For years, I have had friends who were desperately trying to return (formal, public) prayer in government schools. I really was not one of them. For close to a year I lived in a city that was over 2/3 Mormon. I was quite aware that any formal public prayer brought into the schools would be a prayer very much of a different nature to what I would consider a prayer. And maybe that is okay. I don’t think, however, that was what my friends were envisioning. One cannot pick and choose how “equal before the law” is applied.

In Baguio City, I recall American missionaries and local pastors downright gleeful in opposing the building of a mosque in our city. Of course, that opposition really is out of touch with the religious freedom that the Philippines seeks. It is also out of touch with the consternation felt by the same Christians when churches are not being allowed in some other parts of the world. The opposition to a mosque being built in Baguio was essentially in support of what was illegal so (not surprisingly) the delay on the construction of the Grand Mosque and subsequent additions of little mosques in the city was slight. Frankly, if you as a Christian want to support the free exercise of your own faith, one of the best ways to accomplish this is support the free exercise of other faiths as well.

CEF with its “Good News Club” is aware of this. They know that Equal Access means, well… equal access. To respond predictably (opposing the so-called “satanic” group) means to give schools the justification to say that the only way to provide equal access to all religious groups is to deny access to all religious groups. In this, the ACCS would win since they have already said that they don’t want to enter schools that have no religious groups since they themselves don’t want religion in the schools.

There are times when it is good NOT to be predictable. When one is not so predictable, it is harder to be manipulated. If you freak out when people do things with the intention of getting you to freak out, they have won on some level.

And sometimes, the win is even bigger. Years ago there was the push for gay marriage in the US… not simply as a term, but to make it indiscernible from heterosexual marriage before the law. Many Christian groups opposed this. However, predictably, Christian groups were not willing to give up the legal privileges associated with marriage (even though in the Bible, marriage is more of an activity before God and family, not the government). Also not surprising, because of this disconnect, those groups that were in favor of gay marriage were able to get it approved through the courts under equal protection under the law. IF gay marriage is really something to be strongly opposed (and I have no interest in that topic at all one way or the other) then the way to do that was not to (a) live under a system of equal protection and rights before the law, with (b) a desire to keep things unequal.

Christians need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. I have heard many commentators struggle with this one. I am not sure I understand it myself. However, I THINK Jesus meant exactly what it sounds like He says. We need to be holy before God but not foolish in regards of how we deal with the world around us.

CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) did a story on this case. They, commendably, did not devolve into hysterics. This is a low bar to achieve but it is something. I do think CEF did better.

Recommended article on this:


I have been reading the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He came up with this awkward acronym (he freely admits this awkwardness). It stands for:

What You See Is All There Is

Kahneman speaks of two Systems of Thinking— System 1 and System 2. System 1 is intuitive and unconscious (Fast). System 2 is thought-laden and conscious (Slow). Both processes are lazy (or efficient if you prefer). Both like to operate heuristically, utilizing mental short-cuts or thumb rules— especially System 1.

One of those mental short-cuts is WYSIATI. Often this is a bad short-cut. An example of this is in magic tricks. I remember watching a show on TV where a magician with assistants put up a screen in the middle of a big field. The narrator talks for a bit and then when the screen was removed there was a tank (as in very large military vehicle). It did seem quite amazing until they showed things from a different angle. From a camera angle from higher up where the screen was not blocking the view, we see that as soon the screen is in place, at the very far end of the long field an object begins to move. It is the tank. It slowly lumbers across the field until it is quite close to the screen. Then the screen is removed and there it is. Once one sees how it is done, one is struck by, “Why in the world did I find this amazing?” The answer is that, unless we make a conscious effort otherwise, we make the mental short-cut, WYSIATI. Before the screen is in place we see a vacant field. When the screen is in place, the camera doesn’t change its position, and the sound is muted except for the voice-over from the narrator. The mind just assumes things are as they were— what we saw is all there is.

As Christians we are sometimes quick to complain about scientists who seem to follow this perspective Many embrace a form of Empiricism or Naturalism that at its worst boils down to WYSIATI.

But we can fall into the same trap. Perhaps in Evangelical circles this can be especially true. It does seem like in Evangelical theology we don’t like to honor the idea of Mystery. Far too often rather than accepting there is much out there that we know nothing about, we try to make up answers based on our own ignorance. It is like a Jehovah’s Witness lady who was a friend of a friend many years ago. She claimed to understand fully everything in the Bible. It is a great way to preserve one’s beliefs and biases. I know everything— there is nothing more to learn. Sometimes the catchphrase used by some, “Sufficiency of Scripture” is a mental shortcut for assuming that there is nothing more out there.

This is rather strange. After all, we often look with great fondness, even with applause, those scientists and great thinkers in history who saw exploration of the created world as a way of studying God (if the universe is a creation of God, it is then a revelation of God).

This greatly contrasts with Charles Hodge, 19th century theologian, who (if his own words accurately describe himself) decided that early Reformed theologians got it all right, and so his job was to pass along that body of knowledge to the next generation without any corrections or improvements. In essence, he was to be an indoctrinater rather than an educator– or a theologian.

This is a mental short-cut of the same form. Whatever they found is all there is. No mystery, no exploration, no uncertainty.

I think we can do better. Kahneman notes that we can consciously avoid WYSIATI. The key point is that it is conscious— with intent. Centuries ago, may thought that the universe was small and simple. Lights shining through holes in the dark sky and a few roving lights above a flat or curved land. But eventually we were able to see further out, and further in, to discover that the world of God’s making is vastly greater and more magnificent than we could ever have imagined. But as incomprehensible is this universe we are in and the One who created it, it is no less incomprehensible than those Christians who seek to make the Universe small—- closing their minds off to the possibility that there is more than their eyes behold.

Missionaries and Nationalism. Part Two

Continuing thoughts on the 1970s era book by J. Herbert Kane (1910-1988), “Understanding Christian Missions.” Written in the time of the many independence movements around the world as well as the height of the Cold War, it has much more to say on the relationship between missionaries and nationalism than more recent works. For Part Two, I am looking at what Kane said regarding the fact that national churches in colonies (I assume he is speaking of Evangelical churches… some other churches definitionally embraced Liberation Theology and independence) have often been little involved in independence movements. He gives a number of reasons.

A. Mission churches were the products of missionaries, who were typically Westerners. Mission churches were essentially a product of colonization.

B. Mission churches were founded by missionaries, and missionaries commonly have little interest in politics. I can relate to this. I have little interest in politics and so if people I supervise are highly political (and a few have been) they are that way in spite of me rather than because of me. I recall Billy Graham saying that if one wants social change in a country… then focus on evangelism. Social change will happen naturally as more are saved. I don’t know if he truly believed that or was being self-serving… but that is simply not how it is. If missionaries and churches focus on evangelism and ignore social injustice, they will create new Christians and churches with little interest in social injustice or political change. The fruit you get depends on the seeds you plant.

C. In many countries, Christians were a small, and sometimes persecuted group. Many believe (often correctly) that independence movements are not likely to benefit Christians. Often the opposite could be expected.

D. Many nationalistic movements were linked to non-Christian groups… and sometimes anti-Christian groups. I am from the United States and among Evangelicals if one wants to crush a social justice initiative, all one has to do is suggest that those seeking justice are Communists. Of course, the result of this sort of fearmongering is that Evangelical Christians are identified as rejecting social justice, and Communists supporting the same. Of course, if a nation becomes independent, it is no benefit for the Christian churches to be seen as collaborators with the colonial powers.

E. In many mission churches, the majority of the people are poor and illiterate or semi-literate. This sounds a bit insulting. At the same time, in many places this could be true. Generally, changing which rich and powerful people are in charge has more of an effect on rich and powerful people. The destitute and working poor, often are little affected by such changes.

F. Perhaps most importantly, many mission churches, and even more missionaries were beholding churches, mission agencies and individual supporters from the colonizing countries. These supporters were often very much not in support of independence movements. And even if there were those who did support independence, it had to have been scary to risk loss of financial and other forms of tangible support

Although many of the exact situations have changed, the basic issue remain. We would do well to learn from the ambiguous lessons and examples of the past.

Missionaries and Nationalism. Part One

I have been reading a bit of a book by J. Herbert Kane (1910-1988), “Understanding Christian Missions.” Originally published in the 1970s, the book is woefully out-of-date. And yet, it is that quality that makes it valuable in some ways. For example, it has a very interesting chapter on political involvement. A major part of that is on the issues of colonialism and nationalism. Nowadays, we may talk about semi-autonomous regions, national territories, or spheres of hegemony— but we rarely think in terms of colonial powers and colonies. However, in the 1970s, this was very much a still current issue. At that time, the colonial powers were rapidly disintegrating as national independence movements were moving towards final victory. It was also the time of the Cold War, so much of this process is also seen occurring linked to the geopolitical chess match between the NATO alliance and the Warsaw Pact countries.

Much of the discussion is out of date because many of the questions have shifted… and yet the broader questions remain. Today, many look on with disdain at missionaries in history as being supporters of colonization, and also waging a war of cultural imperialism. As vigorously as some have argued these points, others have challenged these views. Some have portrayed missionaries as empowering nationalistic movements.

Kane does a good job of avoiding the extremes here (the extremes are almost always being wrong, as most people over the age of 22 typically learn). He notes several things (drawing from pages 252-255, of the 4th edition, 1986) that relate to missionaries who served in colonies.

#1. During the colonial age, imperialism was a way of international life. Perhaps I would say, it was the worldview. It was the world they were born into, and thus the system that makes sense. It is hard to picture a new reality, and so many missionaries supported colonialism simply because it is what everyone they were brought up with supported. Relatedly, even if they thought some colonialism is bad, it is likely that their brand of it (their own nations colonies) is better than other brands.

#2. Those missionaries who had concerns about colonialism often saw it as the ‘lesser of two evils.’ They saw suffering of various groups and believed that through colonialism, some of those evils could be addressed. Some believe that colonies brought CHRISTIANITY, COMMERCE, and CIVILIZATION. These were commonly seen as all inherently good. Even countries that eschewed colonialism could fall for that logic. The United States, a country that supposedly supported freedom from imperialists (at least from those lands that were not affected by the American belief of ‘Manifest Destiny’) still did embrace colonialism in certain places— specifically those lands they gained from the Spanish American War. While the US did not use the term “colony,” in practice that is what they were. However, the acquisition of these lands was couched in non-economic terms. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ argued that it was American responsibility to ‘help’ the Filipino by ruling over them— and President William McKinley also described the take-over in terms of benevolence. Frankly, I tend to see the “Lesser Evil” principle as an ethical weak position. I prefer the “Greater Good” principle, while acknowledging that good can be hard to find… especially in the political arena.

#3. Many accepted colonialism as part of the “Sovereignty of God.” Sadly, this is truly horrible theology. Kane himself did seem to find it hard to imagine that previous generation missionaries truly believed this. It is essentially states, “’What is’ is what is meant to be.” That seems to be way out of line from the Bible, where prophets and apostles pretty consistently state, “’What is’ needs to change.” Often God’s sovereignty becomes little more than a call for laissez-faire politics— for maintaining the ‘status quo.’ Yet, if a missionary felt called to stand against the status quo and seek to cause change, it certainly seems reasonable that he or she could claim to be acting according to the Sovereignty of God as well— especially if they succeed.

#4. Missionaries were commonly among the first to identify evils in the colonial system in which they resided. While missionaries sometimes flourished within the colonial system (at least when the colonial power was supportive of what they were doing and where they were doing it), they commonly stood against the many evils and exploitative practices carried out by colonialists. This is difficult. If one is asked to serve God within an evil and despicable system, should one focus on especially egregious abuses while ignoring the overall bad system, or attack the system itself?

#5. Missionaries have always (or at least mostly) saw themselves as ambassadors of Christ, not of the colonial government. I don’t think this viewpoint answers the question of what response is appropriate. Still, clearly, the charge that missionaries were pawns of the colonizers had more basis when their relationship with colonial powers were too chummy and when they embraced a sort of “Christendom” with church and state getting mixed up too much. As one who likes to minimize my relationship with all governments (a very healthy attitude I am prone to believe), I can see how focusing on one’s role as an ambassador of Christ may mean not dealing with problems that come from a tyrannical and/or corrupt government.

#6. Missionaries have stayed at their posts. With the transition to independent governments in countries that had been under colonial rule… missionaries have typically stayed to work, while other people from the colonial powers have generally left. That does, in some way, point out that their connection and commitment was to the people not the colonizers.

#7. Few missionaries have mourned the passing of the colonial era. Serving in the Philippines, I am thrilled that this nation achieved its full freedom in 1946. Would it have been better if they had gotten their full freedom in 1898? Perhaps, but that is something that cannot be changed. I have actually met a few Filipinos who wish that their country was never separated from the United States, but I can’t share that. I doubt things would have been better.

Part Two we will explore a similar but slightly different issue from Kane’s b

Is it a Declining Church or a Refining Church?

Consider the figure above. Let’s consider it to describe the growth of Christianity in the what could be described as Roman lands in the first few centuries AD. Don’t assume the image is at all accurate. Now imagine that the BLUE line describes the percentage of the population who SELF-IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS CHRISTIANS. Now imagine that the RED line describes the percentage of the population that are TRUE FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST. While I am fully aware that we are not God and so we cannot know who is a true follower of Christ, I think most people in most any religious culture (including non-Christian cultures) can understand the idea that there is a difference between those who affiliate themselves with a religion and those who take their faith seriously.

In the first centuries, there was presumably little difference between the red and blue lines since there was little motivation to align oneself with a politically and economically dis-empowered religion that was, at least sporadically, persecuted. As such, one may assume that perceived growth of the church was quite important from the standpoint of Kingdom expansion.

However, as the fourth century progressed, Christianity gained favor with Roman emperors, such that things switched. It was now advantageous socially and politically to align oneself with Christianity. Money and status flowed into churches, church structures, and hierarchical structures. Some of that increase in percentage of Christians could, presumably, be true followers of Christ. It would, however, seem reasonable to assume that a fair bit of that growth was from those people who changed affiliation due to this shift in power. Certainly the monastic movement and the change of standards regarding who could be baptized at that time suggests that there were many in the church then who were concerned with this change.

Now, one could move forward to a time of Stagnation. That is, the percentage of self-identified Christians tops off and may even begin to decline. One could see this as the church is failing. However, another POSSIBLE interpretation is that the social status of Christianity in the society has lessened, and so some drift away. In this figure, the percentage of true followers of Christ is still increasing.

If one was so inclined one might surmise that the area under the red line (colored pinkish) is the power of God acting in that society. If that is the case, than what would the blue-ish area be? It would be the social power that the church has above and beyond the work of God.

Now you could complain about this sketch and its interpretation… and I think that many complaints would be quite fair.

BUT… there is a principle here that is worth considering. When the church is in decline in percentage of those in affiliation… or when the church is losing social influence in a society… IS THAT A BAD THING?

Maybe it is bad… or maybe not. What may look like a declining of a church can be refining. On the other hand what could be seen as a refining could be a true decline. I am from the US where many Evangelicals are bemoaning losing political influence in the country (and those that hope that ‘stacking the deck’ in the Supreme Court might in some way reverse what seems inevitable. But is the loss of political influence a bad thing? Power can be addicting… and the wrong type of power in the church can reap very bad fruit. Removing the enticement of power and status can lead to a refining of the faithful or a separating of the faithful from the unfaithful (but interacting with the faithful).

Reading the Church History of Eusebius of Antioch, he was simply thrilled that Emperor Constantine had given favored status and social power to Christians. While that wasn’t necessarily bad in some ways… the Church did begin to fall in love with that sort of societal power. In fact, when people complain about religion today, often it is the fascination with and quest for political or societal power by religious groups and leaders that is at or near the top of the list.

I am not attempting to promote a theology of decline. I just would hope that the Church can embrace a role as faithful servants of God and blessers of our (non-Christian) neighbors, rather than hoarders of political and social status and power.



Easter. It’s Okay… Really.

I wrote a post a few years ago called, “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” You can read it by CLICKING HERE.

I am writing this during Holy Week (Maundy Thursday to be exact). Easter is just three days away. The points of my previous post also applies to this holiday. The former post had several points:

  • It is Okay to Christianize a “Pagan” Holiday (Issue of Contextualization). I deal with this in more detail with regards to Christmas. In actuality, Christmas does not actually appear to have sprung up from a pagan holiday, but has been affected by pagan festivities over the centuries. Good contextualization comes from making a connection of the divine with the cultural. In some ways Easter is even less ‘pagan’ than Christmas. Unlike Christmas where the birthday of Jesus is highly speculative, we know fairly precisely when Jesus was crucified and when He rose (especially if utilizing a lunar calendar). Additionally, Easter is connected to the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the other hand, some practices, such as Easter eggs and Easter bunnies have connection to pre-Christian practices (apparently). And regardless of pagan roots, the eggs and bunnies are tied to the cycle of life as both relate to productivity and fertility— issues of special importance in Springtime, especially in Norther temperate climates. A few days ago, I was sent an article that connected Easter to all sorts of pagan practices. Some sure sounded quite… fanciful. some were based on more solid data. However, I am not focusing on the details here because I don’t have problems with “redeeming a holiday.” No day of the year is off-limits to Christian celebration.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate a “Civil” Holiday (Issue of Separation). Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Pentecost Sunday, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and such are Christian religious holidays. The same can be said of Christmas, Easter, and Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). The difference of these last three is that each of these share their day with a civil holiday of the same name, at least in some parts of the world. Christmas has a civil Christmas that is rather disconnected from its religious anchor. The same can be said of Easter and Mardi Gras. Some are very bothered by this, but there is something quite wonderful in that Christians and non-Christian can join together and celebrate the same day together. Of course, both Mardi Gras and Christmas have civil elements of excess that is quite problematic. It is rather nice that, generally speaking, civil Easter does not have this as much. Yes, candy companies have tried to make Easter a springtime equivalent to Halloween to market various products, but the excess has never been as ridiculous as with the other two. As such, I think it is quite nice that Christian and non-Christian alike can join together on Easter.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate Easter when we do (Issue of Historicity). I know the Eastern and Western churches have separated on when to celebrate Easter. Some wanted to separate Easter from Passover (a rather stupid idea I think). That being said, the key point is that it is meant to be a memorial to the event of Christ’s resurrection. Eusebius of Caesarea spoke in the early part of the 4th century on this matter of Easter. He notes that at that time, there were two “ancient traditions.” (Those today that see Easter as rejected by the early church are certainly guilty of over-simplifying the issue.) In the time of Eusebius, one group saw celebration of Jesus’s resurrection once a week on the Lord’s Day as sufficient. The other believed it good to have a once a year festival (presumably in addition to the Lord’s Day, not a replacement for it. You can read on this HERE. One group does not appear to be better than the other.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate (Issue of Asceticism). I don’t have anything to add from the one on Christmas. However, we should learn to get comfortable with addressing the issue of celebration. I have written on that somewhat: A Theology of Celebration. It is in two parts— PART ONE, and PART TWO.
  • It is Okay not to Listen to me (Issue of Conformity). I recently left an online discussion where one of the participants took great offense that many of the others did not agree with him. He appeared to believe that the rest of us were disagreeing with the Bible. In truth, what we were disagreeing with was his interpretation of the Bible and with the theological construct that he developed, in part, from the Bible. I won’t do that. You can take what I say to heart or not.

I will add one more:

  • It is Okay to Change the Name (Issue of Labeling). Some are concerned by the name Easter because of its non-Christian roots. They prefer the term “Resurrection Sunday.” That is perfectly fine. It certainly reminds us, as Christians, “the reason for the season.” However, I would recommend NOT trying to push this on everyone. As noted before, Easter has the benefit of being a celebration (in many countries) that bridges faiths. As a Christian with Christians, I celebrate Resurrection Sunday, but as a Christian with a more diverse crowd, I can joyously celebrate Easter— that strange holiday that brings together the religious and the mundane.

What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)?— Part 2

Continued from Part One

As noted before, Conservative Christians tend not to want to say “I don’t know” when it comes to Biblical or Theological questions. Some of that may be cultural. Having taught in a rather conservative seminary, I have certainly met my fair share of students who don’t like “wishy-washy” answers to questions. This is especially common with students who have received their training primarily from TV or Radio preachers (or from local pastors trained by those same individuals) who treat their own opinions as canon. There is something pretty shameful in this.

Perhaps no greater rejection of Mystery is found in Theology than Theodicy. This area seeks to explain or “justify” the existence of evil and suffering in a world created and maintained by an omnipotent and benevolent God. People REALLY don’t like to answer “I don’t know” to questions of Theodicy. I recall a class that I was leading where Psalm 44 was being reviewed. This is a wonderful lament with a lot of ambiguity. Bad things are happening without any simple answer as to why. One of my students, a pastor, did not like this at all… and went through a whole lot of mental gymnastics to show how that Psalm was consistent with his own view of suffering. (Fine… that is each person’s right.) Theodicy is not a strength of mine, but being an administrator of a counseling center certainly has led me to dwell on some of these issues more than some. After all, when someone asks, “Why is this happening to me?” after (or during) a crisis, it begs a theological answer. Although not always. Often it is rhetorical, saying, “I am in pain, please listen to me and be with me.” Still, when an answer is actually requested, what are some of the answers you have heard to this sort of question?

  • It is God’s will. (Do we know this? Doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer, and a number of statements of Jesus, suggest that many things happen that are NOT God’s will?)
  • It is for your good. (Again… do we know this? Certainly many things have indeed ‘come together for good,’ but does this mean that God intentionally did something harmful? And what about situations where redeeming the past is not really feasible?)
  • It is for your punishment. (This works for those who believe like Job’s friends that God only gives enjoyable things to those he favors, and only miserable things to those he does not. However, since Job’s friends were wrong, and much of history seems to bring doubt to this as well, it seems best to question this.

The Bible gives many different answers:

#1. Bad things happen to bad people (and good things happen to good people). Those who like this simple principle are attracted to places like Deuteronomy 24-25, and Proverbs.

#2. Bad things happen to good people. 1 Peter and much of the Gospels makes it clear that suffering is an expected result of faithfulness to Christ.

#3. Bad things and Good things happen to good (faithful) people. Read Hebrews 11.

#4. Bad things and Good things happen to both good and bad people. Read Ecclesiastes.

#5. We cannot know why Bad things or Good things happen to good people. Read Job or Psalm 44. Note that even though the book of Job gives a limited answer to us why bad things happened to Job, that information was not shared to him or others.

#6. We really shouldn’t speculate too much on why Bad things happen to people, especially as to whether they are bad or good. Read Christ’s guidance in Luke 13:1-4.

I am sure there are more answers given, and more nuanced variations of these, but just looking these over should make one reticent in giving universal answers to evil and suffering. Nevertheless, there are still attempts to come up with universal answers. One of my supervisees was leading a class where he was teaching different models for Theodicy. He listed four. They are Christian views and so do not include other answers like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I forget the titles, but the following are the descriptions:

Model One. Suffering exists because God chose to give us Free Will, and that freedom of choice has resulted in a lot of bad things happening. This does not really address Natural Disasters very well, in my opinion. I guess this is more of a Reformed theologian favorite.

Model Two. Suffering exists to give us opportunities to grow. This was promoted by John Hick.

Model Three. Suffering exists in a condition of mutuality with God. God suffers with us in our pain. This is promoted by Jurgen Moltmann, along with, I believe, some Liberation Theologians.

Model Four. I believe this is called the Anti-theodicy view, and rejects coming up with a justification for evil and suffering. Rather, one should focus more on what is practical— What should I do with regards to the the existence of suffering and evil?

I tend to gravitate to the fourth one. The others appear to me to be too narrow. However, I really don’t like the name. “Anti-theodicy” to me suggests a turning off of the mind to the searching and reflecting on this issue. That may not be the intent.

I prefer the term “Mystery.” I like the term because I believe it points to two truths.

First, the ancient meaning of mystery refers to what is hidden. The reason/justification for the existence of evil and suffering has not been fully revealed. It may not be that we lack the faith to accept the truth. It may not be that we have not studied hard enough. It may simply be that God has not fully revealed it… only giving us tiny bits and clues.

Second, in the more modern understanding of mystery, it is something that drives a quest for truth. Just because we may not have been informed fully on this topic does not mean we throw up our arms and say that it is hidden and so a waste of time to even think about. Logical Positivists would state that questions that could not be answered in terms of definitions or empirical tests were meaningless. This is a rather lazy way to avoid most of the most interesting questions out there. To simply say that the reason for evil and suffering is hidden to us by God and so it is a waste of time to consider the question is, I feel, rather like the Logical Positivists.

Instead of that, we can recognize that God may have kept this hidden from us. However, that truth should not invalidate the question. We can grow greatly in questions that cannot be completely answered; but we should be very cautious of anyone who has claimed to answer it fully.

I believe there are a lot of mysteries in the Bible. We don’t really know what Heaven is like— is it a natural paradise? Is it a bejeweled city of gold? It is a giant room with a throne in the center? Is it a place of leisurely perfection, unceasing adoration, or of meaningful service? Each of these can be argued true based on very limited clues we are given. What is Hell actually like? Outside of being a place you or I (or anyone for that matter) would want to be (or perhaps cease to be), we only have hints. What are the actual boundaries of God’s grace? Do we absolutely know who is beyond God’s grace?

Mysteries are not necessarily to be answered… but they are to be explored. When we are given an ambiguous answer, we are in effect, being told “This is the whole truth. Stop looking.”

Happy exploring.

What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)? —Part 1

I do enjoy a good mystery novel. I enjoy True Crime podcasts as well. Of these, I particularly like solved crimes. I think solved satisfies my yearning for justice, something that unsolved crimes lack. However, there probably is also a bit of a side to me that just wants to know what is— as Paul Harvey would say— “The REST of the Story.”

This happens in Christian Theology as well. I have heard so many give very dogmatic answers to very good questions that appear to lack a clear unambiguous answer. I have sat in many Bible Studies where the leader (usually it is the leader) struggles to crush a great question with a dogmatic answer. It seems like this is especially true in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. Perhaps it is true of other branches of Christianity as well. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has the Magisterium, and many denominations have creeds and catechisms that exist, in part at least, to avoid giving the answer, “Well, I really don’t know.”

I think in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity (a land I am more familiar with) the issue is probably tied to Sola Scriptura and “Sufficiency of Scripture.” While Sola Scriptura is historically different from “Sufficiency of Scripture,” in some denominations they have melded together. Quoting from that famous theologian, Wikipedia (in the article, ‘Sola Scriptura’), “Some evangelical and Baptist denominations state the doctrine of sola scriptura more strongly: Scripture is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian Doctrine.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith says something similar,

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

I don’t really care for the Westminster Confession. The term “deduced from Scripture” appears to me to be a bit cavalier— encouraging people to find clear dogma where there is none. becomes bad when people read into it meanings that were not necessarily intended. Also the broadness of the first part of the sentence is concerning— ‘whole counsel,’ ‘all things necessary’ for glory, salvation, faith and life. The term ‘Life’ is pretty broad. Does the Bible give whole counsel in how to fill out a tax return. No doubt the Bible gives ethical principles and Christians regarding honesty, finances, and relationship to government— but is that the same as ‘whole counsel.’ I am sure the crafters of the confession has a more narrow understanding of the word ‘Life,’ but the term certainly lends itself to abuse. Words can inform, but also confuse. Much like the “T” in TULIP (Total Depravity of Man) does not really mean that everyone is always living in complete depravity (understanding ‘depravity’ in the normal laymen’s use of the term), Sola Scriptura does not really mean “Only Scripture,”— the approximate direct translation of the term. That is part of the reason I prefer “Prima Scriptura” (since I feel it is simply more intellectually honest— no one has EVER theologized or lived out their Christian life through Sola Scriptura).

Why am I talking about this when I am supposed to be talking about Mystery? Because, some people when they hear Sola Scriptura (Only Scripture or Scripture Alone) what they interpret it as is, “The Bible has the answer to every question that I have— I only have to dig deep enough.” This has led to many novel things such as using numerology to figure out secret messages in the Bible to determine the time of the return of Christ. Many have found such secret messages while somehow not seeing the clear statements that Jesus did not know the time, and that we are to be ‘always ready.’ Of course, looking for secret messages goes back to the impulse of the Gnostics of the first few centuries of Christianity: so it is most definitely not a new thing.

I recall a Bible School extension facilitator that refused to use textbooks or other reference books for any of the classes at the center based on the argument that the only book a pastor needs is the Bible. And yet there are many things that a pastor is expected to know and do that are not in the Bible— such as “How to write a sermon,” “How to develop a music ministry,” and “What should be included in a church covenant.” Even the basic question of “What does a Pastor do?” is only answered in a very general way in the Bible. In Pastoral Counseling, there was the Biblical Counseling movement that interpreted Sola Scriptura as “Everything one needs to know about counseling in behavior and in counseling content is in the Bible.” Often this has led to some pretty heavy cherry-picking of Bible verses to try to work around the fact that the Bible is silent on many things.

But we are still not talking about Mystery. Up to this point, I am only talking about the fact that many people think that all answers are in the Bible, when there is no such claim in the Bible. However, you can see how this disconnect can lead to an avoidance of Theological mystery. After all, if a theological question comes up where the answer appears to be “I don’t know,” some would say that simply means one must DIG DEEPER (in Scripture). Sadly, digging deeper often means coming up with theological constructs that are grounded on one’s own preferences and held together with a loose collection of proof-texts. So, to take a question that is important to some people, “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?”, the Bible is stunningly silent. Some don’t leave it at “I don’t know”— a perfectly valid answer— but start suggesting drawing on Genesis one with humans having the breath of life to suggest that dogs have no souls… and therefore cannot be in heaven. Others give a pretty strong affirmative answer to the question based on how wonderful and perfect Heaven is, based on numerous Bible passages, and how could such a place be perfect if one’s favorite pet wasn’t there as well for eternity? The intellectually honest answer is “I Don’t Know and my lack of a definitive answer is NOT because I have not dug deep enough, but because God has (quite intentionally I presume) chosen not to give a definitive answer, but rather to leave it for speculation and mystery.”

Of course, to say that there is not clear answer should not be a call to stop thinking. I believe God has left us a lot of mysteries for our benefit. The benefit is, largely, in our opportunity to explore and to contemplate. Not having a final answer actually adds to the joy, rather than detracting from it.

I will explore this further in PART TWO— with Theodicy as the primary are of consideration.

Spiritual Abuse Collection

Years ago I created several slide presentations on Spiritual Abuse. I am not an expert, but I have a great interest in the topic, and modest experience in it. So, I did some minor updates and have them below.

Part 1. Spiritual Abuse— Characterisits and Methods.

Part 2. Spiritual Abuse— Abusive Leaders.

Part 3. Spiritual Abuse— Religious Addiction.

Part 4. Spiritual Abuse— Structures.

Part 5. Spiritual Abuse— Where Is It From.

Part 6. Spiritual Abuse— Treatment.