Saturday, June 18, 2011

To Bless or To Be Blessed?

"The only way to be blessed is to be a blessing and to be a blessing we must leave our comfort." - Tim Keller

Today I started my new volunteering gig at Sunshine Ministries in downtown St. Louis. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but simply prayed yesterday for grace, love and wisdom for the men I encountered.

The spiritual battle started even before I got out of bed. A big thunderstorm hit around 6 AM which cut my night of sleep short. As I laid there hoping to fall back asleep in a dark room with the rain falling outside, the temptation to simply stay in bed was strong. It had been a tough week where things hadn't gone the way I had hoped. Part of me really wanted to simply shut off the alarm and hibernate for the day.

But I also know spiritual warfare when I see it...especially this morning. I knew God couldn't use me to serve others for Him when I was lying in bed. I also knew that I had told many people I was volunteering this morning and I want to live a life of accountability and integrity. But most of all, I have learned, and continue to learn, that life is best lived when it is ultimately lived out of love for God and for others. To be self-centered is to miss God's purpose for my life.

So I got out of bed and made it on time. There wasn't a lot to it. About a dozen guys from the community come every 3rd Saturday for a time of Biblical teaching, as well as food and clothing. My job was to help check in the guys and give them their name tag and then help them with their shopping. They were all friendly and appreciative. It really didn't even feel like I was serving all that much. It was certainly a more relaxed job than the Hope Ministries' volunteering I do with my family in Des Moines every Christmas. So, of course, Satan's word for me as I was driving home, was that being there didn't make much of a difference because there wasn't that much for me to do. So predictable.

We are starting a book in my men's care group entitled "It's Your Call: What Are You Doing Here?" by Gary Barkalow. One of the most persistent questions I have heard from Christians surrounds the lack of clarity they feel from God on what they are supposed to do with their lives. Some don't even want to really know because then they will feel forced to abandon their plans and follow God. To better understand God's purpose for our lives would mean to live each day with greater meaning and intent. That would certainly entail an even greater focus on God and others at the expense of ourselves.

But the truth is that there is no greater blessing than to know that the Creator of the universe has chosen you and I to help advance the Kingdom of God. We may not know exactly how to do that all the time. However, you can always start by blessing others for the glory of God. Take a step in faith and leave your comfort zone behind. The blessing you receive will not be found in wealth or health. It will be found in knowing that your will is aligned with God's will and that you are catching a glimpse of why God created you in the first place. There is no greater blessing than that.

"Trying to be happy without a sense of God's presence is like trying to have a bright day without the sun." - A.W. Tozer

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Faith as Understanding

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

Tim Keller preached a sermon on 2/1/11 called "Noah and the Reasons of Faith: Faith as Understanding." I listened to it 3 times on my recent trip to Des Moines and back. I felt there were a lot of great points made that would be especially helpful in talking with a skeptic or non-believer. Since there is no transcript, I have decided to go through it again and jot down the highlights here.

Faith has 3 elements: It begins with understanding which leads to conviction and completes itself in commitment. Unless all three are present, it isn't Christian faith.

Faith begins with thinking and reasoning. Thinking is the foundation of faith.

"By faith we understand (i.e. think) that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." - Hebrews 11:3

"And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." - Hebrews 11:6

This is not the popular conception. People think Christians would rather accept what they are told and rely on tradition. Faith, in the popular mindset, is pitted against thinking. The Bible teaches that not only is faith compatible with thinking but faith consists of, requires and stimulates the most profound thinking, reasoning and rationality. You can't be a Christian without using your brain to its utmost. In fact, the reason there isn't much faith today is because there isn't much thinking today.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) says there are 3 great questions that all people must wrestle with and come up with a working answer for:

How can I know what is real?
What ought I to do that is right, i.e. what is right and wrong?
What can I hope/live for?

But many of us have been taught from childhood that these are the questions for philosophers. We have been told that what really matters is our standard of living, career, appearance and our psychological needs. So, we come to the conclusion that those three questions aren't really important. That isn't doubt on the basis of thinking. That is doubt due to the absence of thinking.

Hebrews 11:6 says that you can't come to God unless you believe He is real. You must reach that conclusion. For example, say you have heard of a beautiful island in the ocean that you would really like to visit. Do you just go there? Of course not. You research it. You look at maps. You talk to people who have been there. After gathering all of this information, you are assured that the island exists, you know where it is at and you know the best route to get there. Any other approach is irresponsible. Yet, people often come to church in the midst of a great need or crisis and when asked whether or not they think Christianity is true, they often say, "Well, it is true for me. I can't speak for other people. I just know it fits me. I know that it's connecting right where I am." Keller says to them you can't skip over verse 6. You must not just think it is true for you. You must think it is true period.

When Paul says, "We walk by faith not by sight," he doesn't contrast faith with reason. Keller uses the example of going into the doctor's office for a minor outpatient procedure. Beforehand, he has talked with the doctor and with others who have had a similar condition. He has researched it online and come to the conclusion that all will be well based on reason and thinking. But when he gets to the office and sees the knives and smells the smell and notices the straps on the bed, he begins to experience doubt. Why? Sight leads to reactions and feelings that have no grounding in reason. How does he get his faith back again? He renews his thinking and remembers the doctor's words and the evidence he has seen. Doubt comes when rational thinking is suspended. Things that are absolutely true don't always FEEL true.

Jesus in Matthew 6 tells people how to overcome anxiety and worry. He says, "Consider the lilies of the field..." He's not saying "Just believe!" He is saying, "Consider, think, deduce."

Hebrews 11:3 is saying that Christians look at the physical world and say that what is seen is not self-explanatory. It takes a lot of thinking to reach that conclusion. By faith we start off saying, "If there is a God then the universe makes sense. What I see is explainable. But if there is no God and all I see is matter it doesn't make sense." Christians have looked at the universe and decided that if all we can see empirically (using all five senses) is all that exists then it doesn't make sense.

Philosophers of science say that when a scientist observes a phenomenon, he/she must ask, "What causes this? What governs this? The way to find out is you posit a premise, you pose a theory. Then you try out the theory. Scientists determine which theory is right/true by finding the one with the greatest explanatory power. It's the only one that makes sense. It's the only one that explains what I see. So, a Christian believes in faith because every other way of explaining the universe has far more problems, contradictions and incoherence. A Christian doesn't say there are no intellectual problems with their belief. A Christian says that every belief system is vastly inferior.

There are two faith premises: There is no God and therefore the universe is self explanatory and ultimate. There is nothing but the physical. The other premise says God created it. So, a Christian can ask the person holding the first view the following question..."OK, so if there is no God, if the world is an accident and therefore all my thoughts and all my feelings and everything about me is just the chance collocation of molecules, if everything I think and everything I feel is really just explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? You are arguing with me but on the basis of your view, weeds grow because they are weeds and minds just do whatever minds do. You are acting as if we are free to think about different kinds of ideas and listen to different arguments and then choose the best one. On the basis of your view, that's impossible. Your mind is just a bunch of atoms vibrating around. You will do whatever you have been programmed to do. There is no freedom. When you use language and logic, when you assume the world is orderly, when you assume that there is a uniformity of nature (i.e. that if the fire burns you once it will burn you again), there is no basis for these assumptions in your view."

Modern philosophers know that if there is no God and this visible universe is all we have got, there is no reason to trust reason. There is no logical basis for logic if there is nothing besides what we see. Why should I trust my mind if it is just the product of evolution? The Christian would say, "Ah, you do trust your thinking and you do trust reason though you have no basis for it. You have no explanatory power to explain why reason works and that we know it works."

Furthermore, the Christian can say to the skeptic, "You have no ability to talk about moral obligation at all. You have no way to appeal to people and you have no basis on which to work for freedom and justice in the world." The Christian can say, "But we know some things are always wrong. We know genocide is wrong. But, if this world is all there is, than all moral feelings are the product of atoms and molecules. In the end, everything is an accident. The fact that you feel these things is purely an accident because the universe is an accident."

After 200 years, the brightest thinkers are realizing that if the universe is all there is, there is no basis for reason or moral obligation. But we do know that our thoughts work and we do know some things are wrong. So, someone says, "I don't know if there is a God," but they go home and kiss their wife and kids as if love was real. But on the basis of their view, there is no such thing. Love is really just chemical reactions. If everything you experience is based on natural law and physics then your feelings, plans, trusts, choices and achievements are not really real.

If your premise leads you to a conclusion that is obviously wrong then you have to go back and look at your premise. To argue that there is no God is to implicitly agree that language, logic and your mind work, which means you are inherently admitting that there is a God.

Many people say you can live a full life without God or Christianity. But a life full of what? It isn't integrity because you will not be able to take what you believe and apply it to what you do. You believe one thing but you act in another way. You have to because the theory that the universe is ultimate has no explanatory power. You know your mind works. You know some things are true. You know some things are wrong. You know that love is real. But you can't account for it. But Christians don't have this contradiction. They don't have to assume the very thing they are trying to deny in order to deny it.

To disbelieve takes a lot of faith and it is faith not based on thinking.

So why does thinking lead to faith? The God who invented the universe is not impersonal. He is a person. He rewards those who diligently seek Him. This is someone who wants you to come into His presence, who wants a relationship with you. Thinking will lead you to understand that love is real because there is a personal God who loves you. Right and wrong exists because there is a God behind everything who cares about how we live. So, thinking about these things ultimately leads to faith and faith leads to a desire to want to please a God who has created you for a purpose within His creation. You'll want to find Him and have a relationship with Him.

Finally, your thinking will inevitably lead you to Jesus Christ. Martin Luther's thinking led him to belief in God and wanting to obey and please God but he quickly came to the conclusion that he couldn't on his own. He couldn't even obey the Golden Rule, which almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike holds to be instinctively true. So, Luther is thinking, "How in the world can I please this God?" The Bible tells us there is only one way. A voice came down from heaven when Jesus was baptized and said, "This is my son in whom I am well pleased." Well pleased. Jesus is the only person in the history of mankind to live a perfect life and to be found pleasing to God on his own. Romans 8 tells us that when we accept Christ as our Savior and the Holy Spirit comes down on us, we too become pleasing in God's sight.

That is worth thinking about.