Monday, December 23, 2013

Daybreak: Examining the Problem of Pain / CS Lewis on Grief / The Tree of Life

Genesis 32:24-29 (ESV) And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

C.S. Lewis spent much of his time and pen writing on the struggle to comprehend faith.  This is what I have been wrestling with lately.  I've been wrestling with the real massive questions of faith, the ones that can make or break the journey.  I wouldn't be honest or useful to anyone if I didn't admit my struggles and discuss them.  That is the entire purpose of this.  So I shall.

Wrestling with the problem of pain and suffering in the world is difficult.  There is awful evil at work in the world, and coming to grips with that is essential to my faith in the one true God.  I'm faced with several problems in the journey.  The first and most difficult and possibly and likely the very end of such a struggle is developing a keen grip on my limitations of comprehension as a person.  

C.S. Lewis put it so well in "A Grief Observed" which I just so happen to be reading right now, when he said, "Five senses, an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of pre-conceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them-- never become even conscious of them all.  How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?"

It just so happens that Father God is giving me a great deal of input on this subject, as I often find myself praying to him about it.  Why then am I so surprised and amazed when he answers?  I guess that's part of the journey through these questions, which might lead me to the conclusion that it is good to ask such questions, but it's just as likely that it is not good to ask such questions, but God is willing to meet me halfway.  

Is there a conclusive answer that my rat trap haphazardly selective brain might be able to get on board with?  And if so, for how long?  How long until those memories fade off and I ask the question again later under different circumstances?  

It's become clear through the process of asking the questions, a very important step is being humble and/or being humbled by Him.   That's not a bad thing.  It's at those moments when I'm humbled that I realize that my primary points of contention were flawed, in which I was actually using flawed logic as a basis for my argument, which in it's barest form was emotionally biased.  And that emotion was pride, primarily, and anger, confusion, as well as resentment.  Then humbled, I discover that after all I had been asking the wrong question anyway.

It's just so hard, because it seems so heartless sometimes.  It's so heartless at times, the evil and cruelty in the world that it jumps even beyond my ability to consciously handle.  And I'm just overwhelmed with utter sadness, pity, followed by anger.  Just such a story came in front of me recently, reading of a 14 year old young girl who being pregnant hid the pregnancy from her parents, gave birth in the bathroom with nothing but a pair of scissors, then killed the new born child and hid the body in a shoebox in her closet.  The anger and sadness and pity I feel is unquenchable.  Looking upon pictures of starving children on the continent of Africa brings to my consciousness similarly awful feelings.  

And so many would ask, where is God in these situations?  How can God allow such evil?

But what is the real question here?  The question seems to me at it's core: "Is God really morally perfect and utterly just?"  

The answers from the church don't exactly help the situation.  I've been told that even one sin against a Holy God condemns me to eternal torment in hell-fire, unless I am in Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because God is perfect.  This is extremely difficult to fathom, because the logic doesn't line up.  The punishment ought to at least fit the crime, do the various sins committed in a human life to death; without Christ; then add up to match the punishment of eternal torment?  If yes, then God is just.  If not, then God is not just.  Correct?  

It's usually at this point that I get the speech about the sovereignty of God, and that God made me and he can do anything he wants with me.  Well, now you're violating the idea of a just God.  You're equivocating because you don't know the answer to my question.  

It reminds me of my dad actually.  Every morning before school and work we would all eat together and have cereal.  Everyone, me, my sister, my mom and him were only allowed 2 spoon fulls of sugar over our cereal.  But one morning I heard someone in the kitchen very early, and I snuck forward and saw my dad eating cereal, pouring loads of sugar onto his flakes.  I came to him and said, "Dad you can't do that you're only allowed 2!"  And he looked at me quickly and angrily replying, "I pay the bills around here, I'm in charge, so I'm allowed to have as much as I want."

C.S. Lewis said that when he was struggling with the death of his wife from cancer, it wasn't so much that he was struggling with "Does God exist or not?" but more that he was struggling with the fear that God was a mean spirited monster.

About midway through "A Grief Observed" C.S. Lewis wrestles with the goodness of God, toying with the idea in his trains of thought that God could just as well be the "Cosmic Sadist" or "Eternal Vivisector."  I love how C.S. Lewis worded it.  It's interesting how in early chapters he used that phrase to mock and minimize a God he was angry with, but later in the book he owns up to the fact that he had been mocking God because he found it satisfying to his own anger and resentment.  This tells that C.S. Lewis was of a towering intellect, in that he was willing to double-check his assumptions and analyze his snap reactions.  If only ardent atheists and humanists like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins might analyze their mock-filled, mean spirited arguments they might see how shallow and empty they seem to a believer like myself.  They might then realize their mockery is a form of protection against walking down the path of faith, as well as a form of satisfaction at mocking a God whom they know exist internally but refuse to follow, at the same time mocking the followers of said God out of a combination of fear, anger, and most probably, suppressed jealousy.  A chip on the shoulder is visible from miles away, and the anger and resentment felt by these three men shines through in the many debates I've viewed.  Continuing on...

Is God bound by the 10 commandments?  If so, is he guilty of murder when he has the power to prevent a murder, like the 14 year old who murdered her newborn child, but allows it to happen?  Maybe we're wondering if God is criminally negligent?

As I said, God has been beside me the entire time as I ponder these questions.  I received an email from a Bible study I attended once up town, and it just so happened that the Bible study coming up on Friday was on the problem of pain.  "Just so happens" is not a proper way to account for such a line up of events, but thats a different topic entirely.

I went and the discussion was powerful.  I was so glad to see Highland Church in uptown Wausau getting into deeper topics and rational defense of the faith.  There were several guiding topics and quotations from a book by Tim Keller called "The Reason for God."  The topics sounded so much like C.S. Lewis I almost wanted to claim infringement by Keller, but I decided against it, instead focusing on the topic.  I found one very important point nestled in Keller's book, which was that when addressing the problem of pain, suffering, and evil most are working from a faulty premise.  It's a premise very much connected to American life and liberty.  Specifically I'm referring to the pursuit of happiness.  We as citizens of the USA feel we not only have the privilege but the inherent God given right to the pursuit of happiness.  This may be the source of the faulty premise which is that I deserve to be happy and if I'm not happy then something is wrong with the world and with God.  Keller suggests there is something wrong with that worldview.

I completely agree, and this is where humility enters the equation.  Can I get on board with the idea that this world is broken, and it is not designed to contain a constant state of happiness?  The evidence is obvious on that one.  Do you know anyone that has been consistently happy their whole life?  I can't name any.  

Here's an even harder one to swallow given the individualistic nature of western society: Can I accept that the entire creation was perverted many thousands of years ago, and that the sin nature caused by the very first two humans is not only received by the two perpetrators but by every human being born into the world, all the way down the ages, to you and I today?  In western culture we believe a person is accountable for their actions, but we don't believe an entire group is responsible for the actions of a few members of the group.

So then the question becomes, is God just to allow the sin nature to pass on to every subsequent human being in the creation?  

And still there are other questions, such as the very common hypothetical situation, "if someone is born into a tribe somewhere in the jungle, and never encounters a Bible and never even knows about Jesus Christ, but dies without Jesus, how can it be just that the individual would then burn in hell?" 

Still more questions open up from these.  What is actual and true justice?

How far does a Christian worldview move me in the right direction?

How much trust/faith can I offer God that he knows and I don't necessarily have to know?

Can I accept that my take on morality is incomplete and inferior compared to an all-knowing being?

One of the most important questions to ask is: What approach does God take on his interaction with the creation?

But perhaps a very powerful question is how much responsibility does God have to a creation that has turned against him?  One might assume that God made us, so he is responsible for taking care of us and making us happy.  Almost like when we were kids and our parents took care of us.  We had one parent who was the authority, the Father, with a low booming voice and a larger physique.  He was the sovereignty, the justice giver, and the primary authority.  But we also had the mother.  She was the care-giver, the loving one, the one that made you feel so special and cared for.  Her eyes glowed with love and when we made mistakes she brimmed with forgiveness.  I think when we look at the father and mother roles of the family in relation to children, we get a glimpse into the nature of God.  Because in the old testament more often we see the God of justice, the God of punishing those who turn against him.  In the new testament we see more often the loving God, the God of mercy and forgiveness.  The conclusion must be, if the Bible be true; God is both completely loving and completely just.  

Back to the question of God's responsibility for his children... well our parents were considered responsible for us until about the age of 18, maybe 21, and then we are responsible entirely for our actions.  When the prodigal son left his father to drink, blow all his money, and sleep with hookers did the father chase him around in the world demanding he come back, or even drag him back?  Absolutely not.  If we think about it, such an effort would have been hopeless, the son would have simply left again, ran away, and continued what he was doing.  Instead the father simply stayed home, but when the prodigal son returned begging forgiveness, the father welcomed him back with loving arms, and forgave him, and also threw a banquet in his honor.  It seems in this story we can see how God interacts with his children.  And if God is to offer us utter and complete free will as grown up humans in the world, he is not at all responsible for protecting us from ourselves, only a foolish parent would do so, because it would only invite weakness and poor character.  

Does that mean that some will venture out in stupefied rebellion and never return home alive?  

Yes it does.  


Because even though we live in a country and a culture where everyone wants to play the victim of something, we do have free will, choices, and we are in fact accountable for our actions.  And when we see injustice, we want justice.  


Because there is a moral law, a conscience within us.  If there is a moral law in us, there is a moral law giver, God almighty.

It's important that we understand what exactly Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden at the beginning of time, if we want to understand the fall of mankind and the Christian worldview.

Genesis 2:15 (ESV) The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat[d] of it you shall surely die.”

God was not necessarily saying that they would spiritually die, which is what some baptists teach.  God is not saying that it was some sort of poisonous fruit that they would instantly physically die either.  He was saying death would enter the human race, which was at that time immortal.  Remember at that time man was free to eat of any tree in the garden aside from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:9 (ESV) And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So at that time man could eat from the tree of life.  Eternal life was ours.  It didn't last though.  Satan, originally known as Lucifer, which means "light-bearer" was an angel in the service of God, who took the form of a serpent and deceived the humans in the garden.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You[a] shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,[b] she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

Why did Satan, in the form of a serpent, choose to turn against God?  If God is all knowing why did he allow for the temptation to occur at all?  These are important questions, but not necessary in understanding our current topic.  As a short answer one could say that Satan had free will like any other being, angel or human, and perhaps God simply allowed the situation to play out, to see if Adam and Eve would choose to remain loyal to him.
Contemplating the rich words of Genesis leaves me with many bumps on the head, as I find myself reaching the limits of what I can understand as the person I am.  One thing is clear, Adam and Eve wanted to be like God.  They wanted wisdom.  And by doing so they learned knowledge of good and evil, and God was not pleased.  I wonder at so many questions, like, what other trees were in the garden?  The tree of peace?  The tree of love?  The tree of joy?  Where exactly is the line between metaphor and actual physical history?  

It has always seemed like the Bible in it's stories function in teaching in multiple ways.  First there is the most literal way to interpret it, and then there are more figurative ways to see the text, both come out as clearly as day.  Could it be that God communicates not in one or the other, but in both forms simultaneously?  

In Genesis chapter 3 God confronts Adam and Eve, pronounces judgments on the serpent, adam, eve, and mankind itself.  But at the end of Genesis chapter 3 it says, "Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—”  We are given a clue to the future here.  The judgments pronounced on man are done, man will die, but man can once again take of the tree of life, eat, and live forever.  In the New Testament this comes about.  Jesus Christ dies for the sins and evils of man kind, and from that moment to this very day, we can simply reach out and take it.  All we have to do is believe on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we live forever.  We admit our failings and receive forgiveness of our sins. 

The Bible continues from there, with the establishing of the church in the ancient Roman empire by Paul, and the early apostles.  Jesus Christ told them to bring the gospel to all nations, and today the Bible has been translated at least partially into over 2,000 languages.  Specifically, for your edification,
United Bible Societies reported that translations of at least part of the Bible have been made into more than 2,530 languages, including complete Old or New Testaments in 1,715 languages, including 55 sign languages, and the complete text of the Bible (Protestant canon) in 475 languages, as of December 2011.  It is estimated that about 6 billion complete Bibles have been printed to this day, the most of any book ever (source).  That process began with twelve men being told to "go" to all nations, the orders given by the son of God, Christ Jesus.  The account of the early church is given book by book, with letters written to the early church forming in the Roman empire.  The Bible ends with the book of Revelation, and in this book we find the completion of the journey of man kind:

 Revelation 22:1-2 (ESV) says, "Then the angel[a] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life[b] with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month."

That's just amazing and awe inspiring to me.  In the New Testament, Jesus Christ provides life giving water to his people.  And in Revelation 22, the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, we see the completion of Genesis, and the prediction in Genesis 3:22 of man eating from the tree of life again.  The life giving water is shown as a river in Revelation here, coming from the throne of God, where God himself sits, of the Lamb, who is Jesus Christ, through this incredible city called New Jerusalem, on the New Earth.  The living water given by God, through Jesus Christ, flows to the tree of life itself, our path as humans back to the eternal life our ancestors lost at the beginning of time.  Jesus Christ provides the way to the tree of life, the new city, where we will eat of the tree of life, and live with God forever.  

That's really something.  It all comes together perfectly.  

There is great wisdom and knowledge required just to comprehend at all, even some of this.  God's ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.  We can't even properly conceive of God, and we end up sending our prayers out to broken idols, which the actual God is so loving and willing to intercept and receive as the actual God, not my idea of God, but the actual real God that is outside my understanding.  

According to C.S. Lewis, "My idea of God is not a divine idea.  It has to be shattered time after time.  He shatters it Himself.  He is the great iconoclast.  Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?"

Given how overwhelming these ideas are, I might be tempted to cop out and call God "mysterious."  I will not say that and leave it there.  Because there is a certain amount of evidence for God.  There is a certain amount of evidence for creation.  Most of this evidence is minimized, while evolution is taught as fact and the Bible is mocked by some outspoken scientists.  There is incredible evidence for God in science, history, culture, and personal experience.  But so often, we end up in a situation where we show evidence for the existence of God, and any intellectual can squeak out of it with any number of arguments.  

How many of us, if God personally appeared to us and spoke to us, given time, and thought, would not eventually start to wonder, was that really God?  Maybe I had food poisoning.  Perhaps it was a short manic episode.  Oh you know dehydration and processed food can really do a number on the human body.  Sometimes people can experience very real feeling dreams.  Do you see what I mean?  Eventually I've talked myself out of it.  Maybe that's why God doesn't just appear, because we'd write it off eventually anyway.  

You tell an advocate for the big bang theory that such events happening randomly is not just mathematically impossible, but ridiculously so, they try to find ways to adjust the theory for that problem, like adding more time, billions of years, maybe a few more billion, instead of addressing the issue of the possibility of a designer.  So theres just no way to come up with enough evidence.  People will always try to find ways around even the clearest evidence.  By the requirements for establishing accepted history, for text books, for libraries, there is more than enough evidence to say that Jesus Christ was a real person who actually lived.  It's historically proven, yet atheists will even debate that point, claiming vast conspiracies.  There's just never enough evidence.

So let's set the issue of evidence aside for a bit.  Perhaps we can know what is true, enough to believe it.  Anything can be proved with evidence.  Any university can fly in a professor from somewhere to argue even the most ridiculous philosophical or intellectual positions.  But if we're fair about the evidence for God, for the historical Christ, for the Bible's ability to predict the future, for the empirical evidence, and for our personal experience-based evidence, we reach a point where we can have enough evidence, not to say 100% that God is real, the Bible is real, and it's all fact, but enough to say that faith is justified in this case.  

It can be worth the risk.  I can be willing to make that leap, given the implications.  Perhaps the possibility of such a personal relationship with God almighty, the possibility of such a journey to eternal life, from the river to the tree of life is worth taking, considering the possibility of hell, but more so considering the possibility of heaven.  Fear and hell is a factor, sure, but the primary motivator is as always, love.  It's connection to our origins and it's the realization of truth.

So then, if we can take some things on faith and accept the humility of not being able to understand certain things, we can grow in trust.  But also, if we apply the Christian worldview to our questions, can we see how many are answered by the Bible, the actual history of humanity, the empirical evidence of the evil of our world, and the life and resurrection of Christ?

The Bible says that I am part of a corrupted creation, which is the Earth, the universe itself.  It says that I'm a sinner, and that I've sinned against God.  It says that humanity is the cause of the evil of the world, and so is Satan, the serpent of Genesis, who garnered authority over humanity with his deception in the garden.  It says that I'm a sinner, and that I need a savior.  It says a savior was provided, Jesus Christ, and that if I believe in him I'll be born again and justified before God, and then I'll live forever.

Well, let's look at that.  The Earth does seem very corrupt.  It's corrupt in that even in nature there is little balance, there are seasons where everything dies, then grows again, then dies, autumn, winter, spring, summer, over and over.  The Earth is very corrupt in that 10% of the human population hoards all the resources and food while entire continents starve to death.  The governments of Earth are hopelessly corrupt, and constantly at war with one another.  Seems right so far.  Even if you look at the universe and what scientists know about it, scientists know it's expanding, flying apart as it were.  Perhaps that's a clue as well.  

The Bible says I'm a sinner.  If I'm going to be honest with myself, absolutely yes.  I've lied many times, I've stolen toys, taken money from my moms purse.  I've done drugs, I've used women, cheated people out of money and so on and so forth.  So I'm a sinner, fine. 

How about humanity itself?  Well, humanity does seem to cause a lot of evil on the planet, greedy corporations, corrupt governments, selfishness in people I see everyday.  But at the same time, it does seem like something downright insidious takes place on Earth, somethings even humans would be incapable of.. like world wars, and exterminating people in death camps, like there is some evil spirit misleading humanity into unimaginable horrors... Almost like an evil spirit.  Like Satan?  It seems reasonable to me.  And it does seem like Satan has authority over this world, as it says in the New Testament.  That well explains why God won't intervene when a 14 year old gives birth, murders the infant and hides the body.  Satan has authority here.  God allows his people free will to choose.  Maybe I should take some responsibility for my actions, for my lack of compassion, for my utter selfishness, and man up a bit. 

Maybe, I can even take a bit of responsibility for the evils of humanity itself, instead of blaming God every time something awful happens.  Because by the Christian worldview, I live in a dark evil broken universe that will be destroyed and remade.  It doesn't sound like a place where I deserve and have a right to be happy.  But I will be happy in eternal life.  

So I am a sinner, my species is full of them.  But why do I need a savior?  Well, it does seem like every time I try to clean up my life on my own, it doesn't work out.  I slip back into sin, or I end up in some new sin.  It seems the same for people around me. But when I called out to Jesus Christ, it changed everything.  That's called experiential evidence.  I was desperate enough.  I had enough evidence to call our to my savior, not knowing, but believing in sad desperation.  And now I see that work being done in me on a daily basis.  

The problem of pain, suffering, and evil is a difficult one to explain.  I could write a book on it, and still questions would remain.  But maybe God wants me to trust him in certain areas, and to seek answers in other areas.  Perhaps the problem of pain is a direct response to the original sin I'm born with on my spirit, that drives me to sin and do evil.  Maybe I'm so prideful as a human, wanting to show God I don't need him, that I can do it myself, that I can make a paradise without him, maybe those desires, all of which I held and fought for earlier in my life needed suffering and pain, in high doses... to be crushed.  And they were crushed, so my ego was gone, and I could see the truth: I had been arrogantly lying to myself for idiotic reasons.  So seeing the pile of rubble that my hypothetical godless paradise had become, I called out to Jesus Christ.  I admitted my sins, that I couldn't live without him, and now I journey the river of the water of life, to one day eat of the tree of life.  

C.S. Lewis said in "A Grief Observed" that "Sometimes it is hard not to say, 'God forgive God.'  Sometimes it is hard to say so much.  But if our faith is true, He didn't.  He crucified Him."  Lewis asks the primary question later, what reason do we have to believe God is actually good?  He asks, "What have we to set against it(the evidence to the contrary)?"  He continues, "We set Christ against it."  Just before that fateful moment, when darkness fell on the land, Christ had died, just before that moment, Jesus Christ called out to the Father saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  He received the justice of God, he received the condemnation owed to me, for my druggy binges and sarcastic mockeries against the Bible and God himself.  Indeed at those moments in the book, Chapter two, Lewis had been mocking God and the cross of Jesus Christ as a practical joke played by Father God against his unknowing son.  Later he repents of those words and wonders if reality is not some sort of extreme Calvinism where we are also so horribly depraved our idea moral good is actually akin to moral bad. Then at the end of Chapter two, C.S. Lewis makes a statement that I believe defines the entire book.  He turns his powerful lens of discernment from the work of God, to his own motives and intentions, and that is usually where we can find answers to many of our questions, by looking at our own motives for asking the question.  Lewis asks and concludes: "Aren't all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won't accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?"

I'll leave you with that, my wonderful Christian brothers and sisters, as well as the beautiful seekers who often meander these corridors.  Consider these things I say, and pray for the answers you seek, that you may one day receive the justification and peaceful joy found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ the Messiah.  Our celebration of his birth is in two short days, so let me also wish you a very merry Christmas.  I am most certain I will see many of you one day in the city of God.  That is our great hope and expectation.  Together at the foot of the tree of life, we'll eat of the fruit and sit down under the tree in the light of His presence and sing praises to our Father of lights.  One day, we will be there together.  Until then, may the powerful love of Christ Jesus be with you.