Saturday, December 29, 2012

Four things children's ministry has taught me

For about eight months now I've been blessed (and challenged) with the opportunity to care for and teach two truly wonderful classes of preschoolers in Sunday School at my church. If this comes as a surprise to those of you who know me to be a generally quiet, serious, hyper-analytical INTJ type, know that I continue to be surprised by my love for children's ministry every week. Even though I am just about the only teacher with no formal education whatsoever in working with kids, even though I often feel like I have no idea what I'm doing, I always look forward to spending another Sunday morning with them.

This all reminds me of what Jesus had to say (that was recorded) about children in Mark 10:13-16:
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
 To simply read this passage and conclude something like, "Look how loving Jesus is, He welcomed and blessed the little children when his disciples were turning them away!" is insufficient. Jesus makes some really challenging (here italicized) statements. To such [those like little children] the kingdom of God belongs. And, in fact, only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child will attain it. Jesus seems to be saying that there is something about children that is worth taking note of and even imitating that is necessary for our life in Christ.

And here the idea of how the words of the Bible underdetermine its meaning comes into play. Jesus says that we have to be like children in our faith, but doesn't specify exactly how. What are we to make of His words, then? Of course He didn't mean we should be extremely selfish, throw tantrums whenever we don't get what we want, or be as simple as children in our thinking even in adulthood. We are told to have a childlike, not childish, faith. From my very limited ministry at Hope, here are some non-encompassing things I think kids "get" about life that adults tend to forget.

Kids know what they want.

This one sounds like a bit of a no-brainer. What I'm getting at is the common idea of kids being "innocent"--but of course, this isn't entirely true, as any parent (or maybe older sibling) can attest. What I mean is that kids (at least, the younger kids I work with) don't seem to have developed the complex web of hidden issues, conflicting desires, constraining obligations, or long-hidden afflictions that adults are so frequently burdened under. Everything is on (or near) the surface. If one of my students is having a bad day, they don't bury it or put on any masks; it shows in their faces, their actions, their reluctance to play with others. If he or she is happy and excited to be there, that is easy to tell as well. Kids are transparent with themselves and others in a way that adults are not, and I think that's just fantastic.

Kids know their limits. (And aren't afraid to ask for help)

This is probably especially true of younger kids, for whom there are still many things they can't do for themselves. What continues to make an impression on me is the candor they always have when asking for help.  For example, at ages 3 and 4, my students are still in various stages of learning to write their names. If they can write their name on whatever craft we're doing that day, they give it their best shot (and I always act impressed, because I always am). If they can't, they ask a teacher to do it--no shame or reluctance felt, or needed.

Our present culture places high values on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, to the point where asking for help becomes unthinkable. People (myself included) can spend years trying to deal with their problems without telling another soul, thinking they can "handle it". Knowing when to ask for help is an extremely valuable skill to have, and kids are real pros at it.

Kids know how to trust.

This is partly hearsay and partly what I've seen from kids getting dropped off and picked up, but I believe 3 to 4 is right around the age when children see their dads as supermen who are all the coolest dads ever, can do no wrong, and serve as great sources of security. (And if something happens to break this trust--like an abusive or absent father--the effects can last a lifetime) Of course, they grow out of this as they realize that dads, like the rest of us, are only human, that they aren't perfect or all-powerful or (in many cases) the coolest people ever. The transition from seeing your dad as this almost mythical figure to seeing him as a peer is one that I'm still navigating, to a degree.

But part of the good news of Christianity is that we have another Father, one who really is perfect, all-powerful, and completely worthy of the trust we placed in our human fathers as children. This is easy to forget because His parenting style is more extreme than anything we get in human relationships: sometimes far harder and more difficult than anything we experienced with our human father, sometimes softer and more loving than anything we ever dreamed. Donald Miller describes the challenge of this in his book Father Fiction:
Another thing I noticed in Jesus's [the Lord's] prayer is that he submitted to God: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven," Jesus says. And I don't think Jesus was saying God was a control freak, trying to make himself feel powerful. He could do that by smashing atoms together if he wanted; rather, in asking us to submit it seemed to me Jesus was saying, Look, you are going to want to do things your way, but your way isn't the best for you. Trust me, I know what you need. Jesus said this outright in his lead-in to the prayer: he said our Father in heaven knows what we need before we even ask him.
God our Father in Heaven isn't always the father we want, but always the one we need if we are willing to submit our wants and trust Him. I think this trust, when lived out, will look surprisingly like a child's total trust in their dad.

Kids know how to accept grace.

Getting back to what I said about kids knowing their limits: our culture of self-sufficiency and responsibility also makes it very difficult to accept grace; that is, favor that we didn't earn and can't claim responsibility for in any way. Of course, it being the Christmas season, you might think that everyone just loves gifts, but even behind Christmas there can be a lot of obligation, of trying to "prove" to people that you love them by spending money on them. Our sense of guilt when we get a great gift from someone we didn't buy anything for or, on the flip side, the entitlement of convincing ourselves that we "deserved" that gift somehow and were right to receive it, both go to show the real difficulty we have in accepting true grace.

You get the pattern; I think dealing with grace is something we tend to forget how to do as we get older. Of course kids are susceptible to entitlement (becoming "spoiled"), but I don't think that's where they start off. Kids are used to being provided for simply because they can't provide for themselves. Now that I'm an adult I always feel a bit awkward when I go out to eat with my parents and they pick up the bill, but when I was younger this was just business as usual. When we realize that there are things we can never provide or earn for ourselves--like justification of our lives before God--the correct response is childlike faith, not shame at not being able to earn them or attempting to justify our receiving them. No matter how mature, rich, or powerful we become in life, we are always going to be like needy children before Almighty God.

One last thing I've been learning that doesn't fit into the "Kids know _____" rubric is the difficulty of trusting God with the spiritual development of others. When I look back at my own life, I see how no one person, not even my parents, could have steered me onto the path God has led me down to knowing Him. While this does take some of the pressure off teaching Sunday school, it's also humbling to know how little a difference I can make on my own, and believing that God can make something real and powerful out of my meager contributions to these kids' lives has helped build my own trust in Him.

At this point I'm a bit pessimistic about asking for comments and discussions on my posts, but of course my picture of "receiving the kingdom of God like a child" is far from complete. So I simply leave you with the question; what does "childlike faith" mean to you?

Friday, December 28, 2012


As of today, I have officially been accepted to the Center for Graduate Studies at Northwestern College to pursue a MATS (Master of Arts in Theological Studies) with an emphasis in biblical studies! Starting next summer, God willing, I will be taking classes in spiritual formation, biblical hermeneutics, and studying the scriptures in the original Greek and Hebrew! Needless to say, I am unbelievably excited about this opportunity and see it as an answer to a lot of prayer and heretofore unfulfilled desire for depth in my theology. (As opposed to the breadth in my Old Testament survey class that focused on the "30,000 foot view") To explain more of my reasons for applying to this program, here is one of the essays I wrote while applying, minus the paragraph about why I chose Northwestern in particular.

The idea of pursuing a graduate degree in theology came to me very suddenly one day at work, and I knew it was worth following up on because I felt even more excited about it than I had been about getting my current job at Seagate. I had previously only considered graduate school in a similar field to my undergraduate degree (computer science), but as I thought about a master's degree in theology it made even more sense than these options. I simply feel called to pursue it in a way that I have never felt called before.

In addition, I am learning that I have a passion for deeply studying scripture and growing in understanding of the things of God. Attending a secular university, I pursued this interest largely through my blog, where I practiced my writing skills by investigating various topics of theology and scripture. More recently I have been taking a survey course on the Old Testament at my church, which, while satisfying, only highlighted my need to understand and apply God's word more deeply. I can think of no more thorough way to do this than a graduate degree. There is plenty of free Christian training and instruction out there, but I don't just want to be taught the Bible, I want to be able to study it myself and teach it to benefit others.

Less clear than my calling to pursue this degree is what I would do with it. I currently have no specific plans to use it in my career, but I do have some dreams for how I want to use the gifts God has entrusted to me to serve the church. I want to help people who struggle with doubt as I do and have. I want to make more of a difference in my small group and in the Sunday school class I teach. Most of all, I want to learn and demonstrate how to use the Bible to draw together the body of Christ rather than divide it, as the Bible is unfortunately used to do. Wherever God takes my life from here, I know that having the solid foundation provided by these studies will be good and beneficial. Since I have no specific career aspirations using a MATS, the process of studying the Bible and theology more deeply is more important to me than the destination.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christocentric Hermeneutic/The Fulfillment of Scripture

A few weeks ago a friend shared this video about how the whole Bible is "basically about" Jesus, and it got me thinking. The narration appears to be excerpts from a Tim Keller sermon with the ultimate conclusion that the Bible isn't about you and your problems, but about Jesus and how He is the culmination of God's written history.

While I affirm the focus of the video on shifting the focus of religion from self to Jesus, it also strikes a nerve I have been thinking about lately. Keller, for all the amazing work he's done in spreading and living the gospel in New York, makes a serious false dichotomy when he asks, "Is the Bible basically about you...or about Jesus?", as if he's already eliminated all the other possibilities. In fact, if I didn't know it was Tim Keller saying everything in the Old Testament is about Jesus, I would question whether the speaker had actually read the whole Old Testament. Having just finished doing exactly that while taking an Old Testament survey course, I'm about as qualified to comment on this matter as I'll ever be.

Perhaps Keller is using a very different definition of "about" than I am, but from what I have read I would say that Jesus is not the subject of most of the Old Testament. Yes, it's true that it serves to build up an expectation of Jesus' coming and show the need for Him, but saying it is basically about Him is like saying that The Hobbit is basically about the fate of the One Ring of power. I worry that by thinking of everything in the Old Testament as "types and shadows" of Christ, by fitting them all into the same mold, we risk missing out on the uniqueness of these people and stories, and what else they may say about God rather than just reaffirming the gospel. It is because of this danger, along with some of the logical/semantic leaps and twists it has to go through to fit some stories to Christ, that I dislike the study of typology.

Christ and the cross alone make for a confining lens through which to view the entirety of Scripture (and it's a sign of the culture I'm coming from that I feel like a heretic just for saying that). But really, the Person of the Trinity who is by far the most active and visible in the Old Testament is, of course, God the Father, not Jesus. By trying to make everything about Jesus, we ignore or rush past this lesson to connect everything to the gospel. If I had continued thinking of the Mosaic Law as simply a "shadow of the reality" of Christ, I might never have been brought to the fuller understanding of the nature of the Law and sin I now have or learned any of the applications that came with this. The two probably aren't incompatible, but my previous way of thinking led to a lot of chronological snobbery, "Those poor, poor Israelites only got the shadow instead of the infinitely better reality we now enjoy", which later got turned on its head

But of course Christ, though largely not seen in the Old Testament, does play an important role backstage which I'm not going to deny. While looking into this, I had a related question: "What does it really mean for scripture to be fulfilled?" Jesus is, of course, said to fulfill dozens of verses from the Old Testament, which is one of the main reasons people say the whole Old Testament is about Jesus. My old view on this was simply that Jesus fulfilling scripture meant that someone made a prediction or prophecy of Him at some point in the past that came true in His life. The big problem with this view of fulfillment is, as Matt Chandler says, the Bible.

For example, in the gospels Jesus is said to "fulfill" parts of the Old Testament that are originally about someone else (Hosea 11:1, fulfilled in Matthew 2:15), parts that are not prophetic in nature at all (Psalm 22:18, fulfilled in John 19:24), or even obscure clauses in the Law (Numbers 9:12, fulfilled in John 19:36). None of these examples fit into a prediction-coming true model of "fulfillment" at all. How can Jesus fulfill verses that weren't predictions about Him at all?

I did a word study on "πληροω" (pleroo), the Greek word that translates to "fulfill". Besides its meaning of fulfilling scripture, it is also used to mean being filled with qualities like joy (Acts 2:28), wisdom (Luke 2:40), or sin (Matthew 23:32); completeness (e.g. the common phrase "So that your joy may be complete); or even the passage of time. A related word is also used in Paul's somewhat mysterious utterance in Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions" Overall it has a strong sense of fullness/filling, completion, or abundance. Yet even if it can mean filling or completion, it doesn't seem to carry the implication that the thing being filled was somehow empty or incomplete before, as Christ's afflictions were certainly not incomplete in their power or scope.

What they yet lacked was imitation or reflection in the lives of we who are being made into "little Christs". In light of this, I am coming to view fulfillment in a scriptural context as more of a realization or affirmation of the truth, power, and authority of scripture by living it, or "making it real". Not that Psalm 22:18 was any less real or true before Jesus fulfilled it, and God wouldn't be a liar if He hadn't, but I think He did it to show that God still reigned in power even during the crucifixion, and because, in a sense, Jesus was the very Word that He was fulfilling (John 1:1).

There is also a big opportunity here. The fact that Jesus "fulfilled" verses that weren't specifically about Him means, I think, that there is no reason why we can't also imitate Him by doing likewise. It's a new way to think about "living biblically", as if we're somehow bringing its words to life in our lives. Of course, the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary to keep us from simply picking and choosing scripture or twisting it to suit our own desires, which is worse than simply ignoring it. (For example, fulfilling Proverbs 20:30 on anyone I disagree with) For example, in Acts 1:15-26, Peter and the other apostles pick a new apostle to replace Judas by lot because of a need to fulfill two seemingly arbitrary, even mistranslated verses in two of David's imprecatory psalms. I would hope there was some kind of urging by the Holy Spirit behind this, or it would set a precedent for doing pretty much whatever we want with the Bible.

So, back to Keller's fundamental question: "What is the Bible basically about?" In too many words, I would say: "The character, nature, acts, and glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the context of human affairs and the created world". The persons of the Trinity get varying amounts of screen time, but of course all three are of equal importance. And the context is also important: of course the Bible isn't about us, but it is almost entirely written about the lives and affairs of people, always in light of who God is. God's presence in this context ranges from immediate and direct (Exodus or the gospels) to invisible, unmentioned, and indirect (Esther). We do get a few hints about God outside the context of ourselves, like Isaiah and John's glimpses of heaven, but they are indistinct and few.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Interpreting the Second Amendment

Following up my post from two days ago on gun ownership and violence, this article is an interesting look at the drafting and interpretive history of the second amendment. It reminds me of the kind of analysis I try to do on the Bible--which is cool, but also a little troubling that a legal document would be examined in the same way and treated with the same reverence.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Yet Another Response to Mass Shootings

In the wake of yesterday's horrific mass shooting in a Connecticut school, there has been no shortage of  well-intentioned expressions of sorrow, sympathy, faith, and outrage. This post is not exactly one of those. There have been plenty of calls for increased gun control and availability of health for people with mental health disorders. This post is not exactly one of those, either. But another thing of which there is never a shortage after a mass shooting is data on gun violence, which this post will be making use of.

As these tragedies seem to keep happening with increasing frequency, it's understandable to call for something--anything--to be done to prevent another. Strong calls for increased gun control are made and debated. Somewhat less frequently do people ask, "Why does this keep happening?", and fewer still do they seriously seek an answer. Answers are what I will be attempting, in my capacity, to move towards.

As this data on gun violence from 2007 [1] shows, the U.S. is far and away the number-one country in the world by gun ownership per capita, with almost one civilian-owned gun for every single person. In fact, with just 5% of the world's population, the U.S. has 35-50% of its civilian-owned guns.

If you are among those calling for increased gun control in light of the Sandy Hook shootings, you may point out statistics like these as evidence that American gun control laws need to be tighter to prevent future shootings. Underlying these arguments, I think, is an assumption that if we can just keep guns in the hands of the "right people" (those who aren't going to go on rampages) and out of the hands of the "wrong people" (those who could), the problem will go away or be massively assuaged. To which I would respond with three reminders:
  1. It's impossible to fully, reliably identify the "right people" in advance. Shooters like Adam Lanza had no criminal record and it's safe to say that no one could have predicted with any certainty what they would do.
  2. Let me repeat the above statistic: the U.S. has 35-50% of the world's civilian-owned guns, an estimated 270 million. Even if we start tightly regulating firearm sales now, these weapons are still out there and potentially available to those who would use them for harm.
  3. On top of this, there is every evidence that guns will soon be 3-D printable. Recently a 3-D printed gun was able to fire six shots before breaking, and the technology will only improve with time. If and when reliable firearms become 3-D printable, keeping them out of just about anyone's hands will be nearly impossible. Update: Another good article on this.
Not, of course, that I don't think increased gun control legislation would help prevent future shootings. Point 9 of this list of facts [2] shows that negative correlations have been found between different gun control laws and firearm deaths. However, to make a need for increased gun control your only response to mass shootings--to rely on it to solve the problem--is to treat it as a kind of "silver bullet"; more laws and the killings will cease. For the above reasons, I am not convinced that this is the case.

These calls also conceal an almost chilling indifference for the shooters themselves--as if it's fine to have an unknown number of people mentally willing and able to carry out mass shootings in the country, as long as they are prevented from actually doing so (with guns). Of course, there have also been calls to make help for people with mental problems (which have been a factor in quite a few of the shootings in past years--see this map [3]) more available, which is a step in the right direction. But it also carries another danger--of simply writing shooters off as "mentally ill" and their actions as "senseless", impenetrable to further analysis or explanation. The implication is that people like mass shooters have always been with us, and mass shootings are simply a result of making firearms available to them and not doing more to treat them psychiatrically.

I see another version of this in many well-intentioned Christian responses to mass shootings (deliberately no examples here), which would be almost as appropriate as responses to natural disasters. The attitude seems to be one of faithful trust in Christ in the midst of this unavoidable situation--if there is any attempt to explain shootings, it generally comes down to "America needs Jesus"--which while, of course, true, is true of virtually any other problem we face and not specific or particularly effective at changing anything. We as Christians are not simply standing apart from the rest of the world and trying to bring people with us--we are called to be God's hands and feet restoring shalom and acting in the world for good.

But enough running my mouth--back to the data for something else interesting I saw. I tried looking at the above data [1] in another way, combining the homicides-by-firearm and gun ownership statistics to find the number of gun homicides per 1,000 firearms--in other words, asking, "No matter how many firearms America or other countries have, how deadly are they? How much are they actually used?"

For its leading rate of gun ownership, America was only 64th in this statistic, with just 0.033 firearm homicides per 1,000 firearms--behind countries like Ireland, Belgium, and (surprising to me) Singapore. The following countries had a score of greater than 1, i.e. at least 30 times that of the United States, while at the same time ranking relatively low in gun ownership.
  1. Trinidad and Tobago (17.069)
  2. Honduras (11.037)
  3. Ecuador (9.792)
  4. El Salvador (6.879)
  5. Jamaica (4.864)
  6. Colombia (4.592)
  7. Sierra Leone (3.800)
  8. Venezuela (3.642)
  9. Dominican Republic (3.196)
  10. Bahamas (2.900)
  11. Guatemala (2.657)
  12. Brazil (2.263)
  13. Bangladesh (2.240)
  14. Belize (2.182)
  15. Philippines (1.900)
  16. South Africa (1.341)
  17. Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.114)
  18. Kazakhstan (1.031)
Meanwhile Norway, the country with the lowest rate aside from countries with no homicides or no data (admittedly, this data is from before the massacre at Oslo and Utøya), was about 1/20th the U.S. rate with 0.0016. In terms of simple gun homicides per capita, the U.S. also ranks just 28th.

What this means is that there are substantial (four orders of magnitude) differences in the deadliness of civilian firearms between countries. A given firearm is more than ten thousand times as likely to kill someone in Trinidad and Tobago as in Norway, at least in 2007.

The U.S., however, is by far in the lead for mass shootings, with nearly as many school killings from 2000 to 2010 as 36 other sampled countries put together [4], and 11 of the 20 worst mass shootings in the past 50 years [2, point 3]. And even though the vast majority of people killed by firearms in the U.S. did not die in mass shootings, the almost mythical level of publicity these shootings--these unnecessary deaths over all others--get makes them one of the main driving forces for the American gun control debate.

It is about these facts that I sincerely ask, "Why?" With all the data available on the internet, anyone can try to point out this problem as I have done, but actually understanding why Adam Lanza did what he did, much less why America is such a world leader in mass shootings, is not a task to be undertaken lightly. But I think it is one that we cannot continue to sidestep.

Finally, I highly recommend this article explaining the difficulties in debating data on gun control, why consensus on this issue is to hard to come by (point 12 of [2] indicates that mass shootings don't significantly change peoples' views on gun control, they just fire up the debate anew), and the importance of sincere dialogue.

Update: This is the kind of analysis I think we need.

Friday, December 14, 2012

"You keep saying that word..."

Somewhat in a similar vein to my comment on "Christianese", last Sunday I was treated to a video, "Shoot Christians Say", which will likely either make you laugh for its entire duration or make no sense whatsoever. It's a brilliant bit of fun-poking at the evangelical Christian subculture which I arguably still have one foot (or a few toes) in. Sadly, it seems to have been removed, but luckily I typed most of the idomatic words and phrases and, as anyone in my situation would do, categorized them into three groups:

1. Often-vague allusions to Biblical language:
  • "Fruit"
  • "Blessed"
  • "In the world, not of it"
  • "Brings/teaches the word"
  • "Guard her heart"
  • "Testimony"
  • "Saved"
  • "Released"
  • "Fellowship"
  • "Accountable"
  • "Believer"
2. Ambiguous words behind which much of significance can be hidden:
  • "Backsliding"
  • "Struggling/Wrestling"
  • "Pursue"
  • "God thing"
  • "Purpose-driven"
  • "Passion"
  • "Witness"
  • "Intentional"
  • "Secular"
  • "Words guy"
  • "Relevant"
  • "Brought the word"
  • "Watered down"
3. Christian "memes" that aren't necessarily ambiguous, but are highly idiosyncratic and may have a different meaning within a Christian context than without:
  • "Bless his heart"
  • "Slippery slope"
  • "How's your heart?"
  • "Safe for the family"
  • "Unspokens"
  • "Echo"
  • "Small"/"D-"/"cell"/"community"/"access"/"accountability"/"Acts 27 group" (note: Acts 27 is the chapter in which Paul is shipwrecked on Malta)
  • "Seeker"
  • "Non-denom"
  • "Bounce your eyes"
This all got me thinking: what does it mean when you say a word or phrase has been used so much that it has  "lost all meaning"? Perhaps we've said this of so many things that the expression has...well, you know. Obviously these terms don't simply have no meaning like nonsensical gibberish. People use them in real conversation, more often than not to get a point across. Here is my theory.

I see two extremes when thinking about language. On one hand, you can see a perfect, one-to-one mapping between words (in your language) and underlying meaning. This view holds that when used properly, language is clear and unmistakable, to the point where you can think of meaning as being inherent to the words, On the other, you can think that words have no real meaning and language is whatever you make of it. Having set up that dichotomy, I, of course, think the answer is somewhere in between. Words are imperfect tools for accessing the world of real meaning, and the linkage between them can be complex and subject to change over time. Words come into and out of fashion or shift to take on unexpected new meanings.

In the case of "Christianese" words like in the video, I think there are two trends at work. One, terms like "in the world, not of it" or "relevant", due to their relative trendiness, are being used extensively so that their meaning becomes broader and broader until, on their own, they only give a fuzzy, "feel-good" sense of the speaker's original meaning. So the powerful, radical, razor-sharp intent of Christ when saying He and His disciples were not of this world (John 17:16) is replaced by a vague, blunted sense of detachment or "being different" that can mean different things to just about everyone: spending 15 minutes every morning in devotions and prayer,  spending an hour a week starting spiritual conversations with people in the street, listening to "Christian" music instead of "secular" music...the list goes on. In another sense, the term, while it may be continually repeated verbatim and straight from scripture, becomes detached from its original meaning and replaced with whatever it means to the speaker at that moment or what they want it to mean.

And two, terms like "seeker" and "servant", while they may be better-defined in Christian circles, have taken on meanings that may be completely unrelated to their common usage in the English language at large. (A comment on the post by my pastor linked at the beginning of this post has a story about this clash of meanings for "servant") This is an extension of and contributing force to the tendency of American evangelicalism to form "parallel institutions" that resemble those of the world, only separate and "Christian". To authentically connect as Christians to the world at large, it's essential to speak the language of those you are trying to reach (a fact that was powerfully, miraculously, and literally demonstrated at Pentecost).

I worry that Christianity in America is doing increasingly poorly at this. On the one hand, many people still connect Christianity with arcane, KJV-esque "thee and thou" language or dense theological terms like "propitiation" or "supralapsarianism". On the other, as the video showed, there is a whole new set of counter-jargon associated with "hip" Christianity which I even see to a limited degree at my church, which strongly desires to reach young people who may encounter barriers to faith at other churches but can end up being just as confusing.

I've pretty much given up on making this old blog a hub for dynamic conversation, but I recommend checking out and possibly contributing to the discussion on my pastor Cor's blog above.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Providence, Part VIII: Application to the Five Points

This is part 8 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
The providence series continues! A bit of restructuring: I have decided to axe post 10--not, of course, because there are no difficulties with my position, but because I think I covered the important ones when discussing the problems with Calvinism and Arminianism (some of which my view shares) or in my other posts that arose from my struggles with doubt in the past months. Anyway, after all of that study of God's providence and sovereignty over us, I am now ready to summarize my current view on soteriology, which I overhastily rushed into in my previous attempts.

Total Depravity

Like Calvinism and Arminianism's versions of the doctrine of total depravity, mine is distinct largely because of the concept of free will on which it is based. Like the honest Calvinist, I would say that total depravity is not so much the bondage of the will as it is about the bondage of our natures. This is why I think free will is largely a red herring in discussions of total depravity; it's just not what "total depravity" or the parts of scripture backing it up refer to. We shouldn't expect it to be so philosophical. I am free to do what I consider to be good, to try to be good, even to try to know God, but my own efforts do nothing to change the fact that I am a sinful person and I am by nature separated from God. I've experienced the seeming paradox of wanting to love God more, but being unable to make myself. This is the essence of total depravity: we are by nature alienated from God and unable to make any move in our selves toward Him; I'm willing to believe we can't even truly desire to do so without His hand on our hearts.

Calvinists, however, often go a bit too far (with, I believe, the best of intentions) in defining total depravity, particularly in the metaphor of "deadness". An example of this kind of thinking: is found from a sermon preached by Mark Driscoll on predestination:
That being said, God’s heart is love. God’s invitation is Jesus. Our rejection is our own responsibility. And the reason why we reject and refuse Jesus Christ is because we are wicked. We do evil continually. We are slaves to sin. We do not seek God. We do not do good. We do not fear God. Our thinking is hostile to God. We are unable to understand the greatness of Jesus. We are children of wrath who are spiritually dead. Dead, dead, dead! Physically alive, spiritually dead.
Now at this point, some will ask, “What about free will? Can’t we choose God?” My answer is simply, “Dead people don’t make any decision..."
 And later:
Lazarus didn't call out, “Jesus, help me. I’m dead.” He didn’t pursue Jesus. He didn’t cry out to Jesus. He didn’t stick a hand out of the grave, begging for Jesus. He was dead, as Ephesians and Colossians say that we are spiritually dead. And what did Jesus do? Jesus came to him, as Jesus comes to us. And Jesus called for him, as Jesus calls for us. And Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth.” And Lazarus, through a miracle of Jesus, was given life from death. And exactly as Lazarus was brought forth from physical death, so the children of God are brought forth from spiritual death.
Notice the progression of logic here: he starts from the sinful nature: "We are wicked." From there he moves to the language of Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 of spiritual deadness. After making a clear distinction between our physical nature (alive) and spiritual nature (dead), he then draws some parallels between spiritual deadness and physical deadness that I don't think are warranted--starting with a total lack of agency. And then the story of Lazarus, which I don't think was ever intended to be a metaphor for total depravity.

Like all metaphors, the metaphor of spiritual deadness needs to be handled carefully and not abused or taken beyond its meaning in the text. If spiritual deadness meant a total lack of spiritual agency in the same way physical deadness means a total lack of physical agency, then we would be just as unable to decide evil as good. We would be unable to accept or reject God; we would simply have no spiritual dimension and would be completely materialistic beings, totally ignorant and apathetic of God. But this is not the case. In fact, everyone, from the fundamentalist to the atheist, is, in some sense, a worshipper of something; people all undeniably have spiritual agency. Therefore I conclude that such a close parallel between spiritual and physical deadness is unjustified. With the Calvinist misconception of total depravity as this kind of spiritual deadness, it's easy to see how salvation can be viewed as entirely God's doing with humans as passive beneficiaries of the process.

So, if we do have some kind of spiritual agency, what does it mean that we are dead in our sins without Christ? I think it means that this agency, by which we are able to enslave ourselves to the myriad pleasures of the world, is powerless to bring our hearts any closer to a perfect God. We are cut off from, unable to reach the true Life. We may like the idea of God, outwardly identify as Christians, and try to seek Him in some sense, but unless God makes a move and comes to us (and we respond with faith) we will never find Him or come the slightest bit closer to freeing ourselves from sin. By way of a preview, I am contemplating doing a post or series of posts on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, and I think the phrasing of the first one, "poor in spirit", is apt here--we are, in a sense, morally and spiritually bankrupt, with no reserves of our own to draw on, totally dependent on God to be good.

The Condition of Election?

To be brief, my position on conditional/unconditional election is more of a lack thereof. I think both the Calvinist and Arminian views go beyond what can be known for sure from the text and should be treated as sanctified speculation on the same subject, not as established doctrine (and certainly not as a basis for division).

Both conditional and unconditional election are, at heart, attempts to get into the mind of God--to answer the question, "Why does God elect those whom He does?". Without a direct word from God on the matter, such attempts are ultimately doomed (Romans 11:33-34). Do we try to make such simple rules to explain others of God's decisions? In fact both views try to constrain God--conditional election makes our foreseen faith the sole determining factor in our election, and unconditional election rules out anything about us from God's decision. Is God not free to show mercy to whomever He pleases for whatever reason He knows is best? Yes--God is not obligated by anyone or anything outside Himself, but only by His own word and promises to us.

In the language of Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible, precisely why God elects those whom He does is "underdetermined" by the Bible, at least in the level of detail Calvinists and Arminians seek. The only condition given for election is "foreknowledge" (Romans 8:29), which is vague enough to be interpreted either way--either God foreknowing those who are eternally His, or God foreknowing the elect as those who will have faith in Him, or something else entirely. In his book in Arminian theology, even Forlines admits that conditional election cannot be directly read out of scripture, but is inferred by the fact that salvation is conditional.

I don't think that the Bible has a conclusive answer to the question at hand, as is commonly expected of it. The Bible doesn't have all the answers we want, but the answers we need--the good news of God and His kingdom come to earth. The direct lines of causation drawn from election to faith and salvation, or vice versa, are both simplifications--they could be true, but are certainly not beyond reasonable doubt. As I argued in post 6.5, God's pursuit of and love for us are unconditional, and His hardening, wrath, and rejection are conditional--but how these are related to His eternal "plan" and our election are far from crystal clear.

Unlimited Atonement

I mostly agree with Arminius on the third point. You could say that Christ died "for" everyone, but "especially for" the elect, those who would believe. The gospel is only truly the gospel ("good news") if it comes with a real chance to be saved which can be accepted or rejected, which is hard to reconcile with the idea of definite atonement. Also, I would direct suspicion to the meaning of "for" in this point, which can have all sorts of different connotations and is the source of most of the confusion--the question is not merely one of quantity; there are alternatives beyond Christ simply dying "for" everyone or "for" only some, which the turn-of-phrase "Christ's death was sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect" is getting at.

Resistible Grace and Our Spiritual Agency

I think that Acts 7:51 is sufficient evidence that God's work through the Holy Spirit can be resisted. You may say, "Acts 7:51 is not talking about the irresistible work of God in actually bestowing salvation on sinners, but some other work", which I would say that in the Calvinistic view the whole process of salvation (of which turning from rejecting prophets and the Son of God is part) is supposed to be irresistible. If one part is resistible, it all is.

The elect are simply those who (by their choice and God's determination, not causation overriding their desires) do not resist the Spirit. Similarly, the reprobate are not so against their will, but because of it (Romans 9:32). God gives the real offer of salvation by faith to everyone; the elect are all those who accept it. But I don't think the Calvinist and Arminian views on this point have to be terribly different. God influencing someone and fully foreknowing what their response will be is essentially different to, though functionally identical to, Him causing their response.

To put it another way, consider again our aforementioned "spiritual agency". If, by the Calvinist view, we have none, no ability to accept or reject God, it's easy to see how grace can be irresistible. But, of course, we do have spiritual agency, and though it cannot get us any nearer to God, it can (sadly) move us away from Him. We are able to slow or undo God's work of salvation in us, but not hasten or effect it but only let Him do so.

Perseverence: A Present Promise Based on a Future Reality

Hebrews 3:14 tells us how to know we belong to God: "We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." Unpacking that: "We have come..." (past and present tense) "to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end..." (present and future tense) "the confidence we had at first." In other words, our faith is only real if it lasts.

This (and Philippians 1:6) seems like convincing evidence for the Calvinist point of perseverance of the saints on top of all the verses cited for it, but I think the message can go both ways. If we are truly in Christ, part of God's elect, then He will preserve our faith like He promised, but at the same time the perseverance of our faith is how we know we are elect. Once again, our status as elect (determined by God) is not the cause or source of our salvation; we are not saved "because" we are elect, but because we have faith.

Similar to the process of sanctification (with which it is inextricably bound), our assurance of salvation is conditional both on our faith and on God's preservation. This makes faith seem like a work we do to remain saved, except that faith is specifically contrasted with works, and the work of Christ in us makes it entirely possible to remain in faith whereas salvation by works is always impossible. Once we are in Christ, I would say that rejecting Him is more of a work than remaining is. Either way, it makes little practical difference: if anyone is in Christ, he has eternal life; if not, then he does not. Anything beyond that is semantics.

Again, my point here is to allow you to disregard all my thinking in previous posts and simply let you go back to thinking in terms of five points with a new perspective. The question of how God predestines and saves people is much deeper than that and without a firm, Biblical foundation for the philosophy underlying the debate your position will likely be whatever interpretation of the relevant passages sounds the best to you. The question of predestination has never been as simple as two sets of five points; don't think you have to choose either.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Working Definition of "Christianese"

It seems that I haven't posted anything in almost three weeks, so here is a comment I made on a blog post written by my pastor Cor on "Christianese" sayings in which I give my definition.
I was thinking and journaling about this a few days ago. I define “Christianese” as a) Words or phrases that are used and thrown around in Christian culture as if they had very precise, technical, literal meanings, but whose meanings are actually broad, ill-defined, and vary from person to person. This fuzziness is often comfortable because it’s easy to hide behind. e.g. “Walk with God”, “pursue”, “call”, “doing life together”, “struggles”, “broken”, and, of course, “religion”. It’s unfortunate because some of these words represent important Biblical concepts that I worry we’re losing focus on. 
Or b) Words or phrases that are used in Christian culture to mean something only tangentially related (or not related at all) to their literal meaning, often by way of an allusion to a Bible verse. e.g. “Unequally yoked”, “born again”, “stumbling block”, “sprinkled”, and (sorry [Pastor] Steve) “garden glimpse”. 
Or like Tim said, c) Subtle ways to establish your “right-ness” over other Christians that are stolen from upright Christian discourse, like “biblical” or “Bible-believing”. 
Any of these things can make “Christianese” virtually impenetrable to non-Christians (and even to Christians). Although Cor, I would distinguish between Christianese (which I would say tends to be contemporary and endemic to Christian culture) and theological jargon like “omniscient”, which has been around a lot longer and is better-defined and understood outside Christianity.
The other comments on Cor's post are also worth checking out for other good examples and fun at contemporary Christian culture's expense.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Bible Made Impossible (Also, possible free book)

I just finished a book that struck me in a way very similar to James Hunter's To Change the World, Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. It is a piercing critique of the biblicist view on scripture (related to Biblical literalism, fundamentalism, and conservative evangelical theology) that is fairly prevalent in American evangelicalism. For those who have studied Grudem's Systematic Theology, this book is a fairly strong counterpoint to its initial chapters on scripture.

I was going to try to summarize and critique the book similar to what I did for To Change the World (but hopefully much shorter), but luckily I found another blog post that does a better job of it than I would have anyway. The summary of Smith's argument is pretty good and complete, supported with myriad quotations, and I would agree with most of the points the author raises at the end. Huzzah for laziness!

Anyway, though I don't fully agree with this book I so strongly believe it has a message that the church needs to hear (I wasn't aware of what biblicism is or how pervasive it is in the American church or my own faith) that I am looking into ways to buy a bunch of copies to give away to people. If this subject matter interests you (and I strongly believe it will), contact me or reply to this post if you are interested in a copy. (Please don't share this with your thousands of internet acquaintances)

Submission to the Governing Authorities

In light of the recent election, I had plenty of political things to say, but I decided not to say them for lack of sure footing. What I will say is my thoughts on a passage being thrown around a lot of late, Romans 13:1-7. How I usually compose posts is by writing a combination of notes and outlines, which I then expand into a full post. My notes are fairly clear this time, though, so for something a bit different I thought I'd leave them in this form and let you unpack them. (I promise I'm not just being lazy) If this crashes and burns I can easily turn it into a full post

Pre-context: Exhortations on how to live in right relationship with God (12:1-3), the church/using our gifts (4-8), and with individuals in general (9-16), and with our enemies (16-21)

Post-context: The supremacy of love (8-10) and call to live not for this world but for the next (11-14)

13:1-7 is about living in right relationship with the "governing authorities"

1-2: The governing authorities of this world reflect God's total authority and so, reflecting our submission to God, we should also submit to them or they will bring a reflection of His judgment on you

3-4: Confusing part--the authorities convey approval on those who do good and God's punishment ("the sword") on those who do evil

5: For these two reasons (rulers reflecting God's authority and bringing His wrath), be subject to them

6-7: Give to the authorities what is theirs, just as you give to God what is His (echo of Matthew 22:21)

The trouble: Paul says "rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad", yet he had been repeatedly punished and persecuted for preaching the gospel, which is morally good conduct

I see three possibilities for resolving this:
  1. Paul had some different definition of "governing authorities" in mind than political rulers
  2. He was referring to the fact that Christians have nothing to fear from anything in this world (end of ch. 8) while evildoers with no fear of God have nothing higher than the authorities to fear
  3. He had a different meaning of "good conduct" in mind
  1. Unlikely--who else could he mean? Church government? But church elders certainly don't bear the sword (the end of 12--we are to leave it to God's justice) Interpreting it as government just makes by far the most sense
  2. This seems to undermine his own argument--he is saying that to avoid having to fear governing authorities we should watch our conduct, not simply remember that God is supreme above them, which on its own would seem to imply that there is no need to submit to human authority because we have nothing to fear from it
  3. "Good conduct" could mean something like "good citizenship"--distinct from moral good. This seems like the most likely possibility.
The Greek work for "good" here (ἀγαθός) is also used to mean worldly possessions in Luke 12:16-21 and superficially pleasant or beneficial in Luke 16:25--doesn't have to mean moral good

Paul's command to "do what is good [citizenship]" is not universal--it is in response to desire to not be afraid of the authorities (leaving room for disobedience if civil law contradicts God's commands)
This also shows that civil authorities can reflect God's authority and wrath, even without His justice--they are separate things

Interesting question: Would Paul say the American Revolution was justified?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Providence, Part VII: My Position

This is part 7 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Disclaimer: All of the views expressed in this post are absolutely my own and not those of my church, my small group, or any other religious entity I am or have been involved with.
It's hard to believe I've now been wrestling with questions about God's providence for over two months. In the course of answering these questions I've read thousands of pages, written tens of thousands of words, and seen my faith tested like it hasn't ever been before. This post, and the four after it, are the first fruits of all of these efforts. I've been excited about this for a long time. Let's go.

I would prefer to keep my arguments strictly centered on scripture, but since thinkers over the ages have brought in philosophical constructs like modern thinking about free will or determinism into the debated on predestination, I will do my best to engage them on this front with what I think.


Calvinism holds that God determines and effects everything that happens. Arminianism would say that God knows everything that will happen, but is not the author of the actions of beings He has given free will to; He decides to permit them to act freely and knows what action they will take. So in Calvinism, God "foreordains"; in Arminianism, God "foreknows". In response to this, I am going to base my position on what may be the dumbest statement ever made on this blog:

"What happens, happens."

Here is what I mean. There is exactly one course of events that actually makes up the history of the universe. When we look back at the past, there is only one version of it. To us the past is determined, set in stone; it will always be the way that it was and is. In a minute whatever you are doing right now will be similarly determined to you by virtue of being in the past.

To God, who as I said last time has equally perfect knowledge of every moment in time, all of eternity is therefore determined. In fact, though, I would say that the future is determined even if you don't acknowledge the existence of any supreme being. Whatever is going to happen, which looks determined in hindsight, was always going to happen that way. I don't know and probably never will know exactly what time I'm going to fall asleep tonight (hopefully not too late), but that doesn't change the fact that it is a definite time, and it always would be that same definite time. Just because we can't know the future doesn't mean it isn't just as determined as the past. Whatever is going to happen is definitely going to happen.

In light of this, the more liberal Arminian view that actions performed by agents possessing "free will" are somehow undetermined or unknowable until they happen (as seen in open theism and Molinism) seems untenable. It assumes that the only way to view reality is from our temporal perspective in which we have no certain knowledge of events that haven't happened yet. From an eternal perspective to which nothing "hasn't happened yet", (as I think God has), only determinism makes sense--but determinism that doesn't obliterate free will, but encompasses it.

Free Will

In discussions on free will, it is critically important that all parties involved define what they mean by the term so they don't waste their time each arguing different things, like Erasmus and Luther. My definition of free will is as intentional in what it does not state as in what it does. I would define the "freedom" of the will as this: it is the quality of human actions and intentions that their only true "cause" is the will, the decision-making part of the mind, and nothing can be said to "cause" the will to decide anything. (Though many factors may influence it) It is for this reason that people can be said to be truly morally responsible for their actions: because their actions are caused exclusively by their own willing and decisions. If our actions (or the will that caused their actions) were caused by something exterior to ourselves, then that exterior cause would be responsible for them, not the performer of the action.

This view of free will is compatibilist in that I hold it alongside the deterministic view of the universe as described above: our "free" actions are determined to happen; we were always going to freely act in a definite way, known from eternity to God. God's knowing and, in a sense, determining our actions does not make them any less free. (More on that in a bit) However, it is not, I think, compatibilist in the same sense that Calvinism's view of free will is. Calvinism holds that people are always "free" to do what they desire most and God is able, by the irresistible process of regeneration, to make us desire Him instead of sin. In other words, our actions are caused by our desires and our desires are caused by God, so God is able to cause people, like all other created things, to act exactly in accordance to His will. This conclusion is strongly opposed to my view. To Calvinism, "free will" means the absence of coercion or "violence" on the will; to me, it means the absence of causation of any kind. Except for its compatibilism, this view of free will is really much closer to that of Arminianism.

Another definition of free will with which I would also disagree is the idea that it means the absence of some kind of constraints. I think this kind of free will is used more as a straw man than as an actual belief people have. I have heard my pastor argue against free will by pointing out that, unlike God, there are limitations to our agency; we can't create something from nothing, grow wings and fly, do any of the things in Job 38-41, &c. No one actually claims that free will necessarily means this. Similarly it doesn't mean freedom from moral constraints or the ability to be good without God, as Pelagius claimed, as Luther railed against in On the Bondage of the Will, and as Calvinists often try to pin on Arminians. Debates trying to precisely define the nature of "free will" seem to go on endlessly and, I think, tend to lead discussion away from the real issues having to do with God. For this reason I will not elaborate on my position on free will any more than I have.

With the philosophy out of the way, I'll begin putting together the three categories of statements from the last post.

Determination and Causation: The Two-Part Working of an Eternal God

A proper understanding of who God is is essential before we can begin to understand who we are. As I said in post 5, proponents of Calvinism and Arminianism both tend to confuse and conflate God's decrees with His actions. Or, more specifically, they tend to overly connect election and salvation so one causes the other. There is an underlying assumption that God's decrees are made temporally, like His actions. But if God is truly eternal, unchanging, and all-knowing, then how can His plan change? The Bible, in fact, asserts that God does not change His mind. (Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29) God's will, or the sum of His decrees and plans for creation, is as eternal as God Himself. How this manifests in my theology of providence is that I draw a sharp distinction between God's eternally foreknowing and predestining of all things (hereafter referred to as "Determination") and those things actually happening in time (hereafter referred to as "Causation") with His direct or indirect involvement. These two levels of the unfolding of history are often confused and it would be good to clearly define each.


God is clearly said to foreknow all things, and to have a plan for all things. However, as we have seen, He does not cause or do all things, because that would make Him a sinner. Determination is my name for God's planning or "foreordaining" or all things. Like God, His determination (or "plan" as it is commonly said) is absolute, eternal, unchanging, and perfect; it is unknowable to everyone except God in advance except inasmuch as He chooses to reveal it to us. Determination is strictly monergistic; by His very nature as the only eternal, omnipotent, omniscient being, God is the only one who is able to work or think on this level.

It is important to keep in mind that God's determining something is not the same as His "causing", "doing", or even "desiring" it; as we have seen, God determines that many things will occur contrary to His manifest desire. (More on this in the section on His goodness) So what is it? As I argued above, there is exactly one determinate sequence of events that makes up how the world has been and will be. God's determination is, very simply, the reason that things happen the way they do and not in some other, equally plausible way.

It is the deciding of what will happen, separate from the factors that actually cause things to happen. It is not found anywhere in the complex network of causes and effects that makes up history; it is the origin of the entire network and the power that orders and focuses it towards the end of God's glory. Saying that something God has determined may not happen is like saying what will happen might not happen; it is a self-contradictory statement. Doing something contrary to God's "plan" isn't morally impermissible, it's logically impossible--this doesn't mean we shouldn't still try to live according to God's revealed desire. (Note that my terms God's "plan" and "desire" correspond to the Calvinist terms God's "hidden will" and "revealed will") Our total inability to know what will happen does not lessen its determinedness in any way.

Applying this to soteriology, the terms "election" and "reprobation" should be taken to refer to the parts of God's determination relating to who will and will not be saved. Election is not the cause of our faith or salvation, and is only indirectly the reason it happens. This does not mean our salvation isn't willed (or brought about) by God, only that it's unwise to draw as direct a link between election and salvation as Calvinism and Arminianism do.


The actual working out of God's plan I call causation. It is temporal, dynamic, and not just two-handed but many-handed; God, humans, angels, and other created beings all contribute to it. It encompasses peoples' idea of "reality"; it is what actually happens, not what will happen. When we think of correlation, causation, chains of temporally ordered events, agency, and responsibility, all of these concepts fall in the scope of causation.

God is, of course, still the primary actor and mover, doing everything that He predetermined to do as the main part (but not all of) His plan, which also includes the free actions of other beings. To repeat, God does not "do" everything that happens, even though it is all part of His determined plan. You could say that God's plan "depends" on our free actions happening as they do, except as stated above the nature of determination means they couldn't occur otherwise. (Where I break from the incompatibilist Arminian view)

Now, why it is important to think in terms of both determination and causation: explanations of the reasons for events can only work within the causation level. That is, you can't say something happened "because God predestined it". While that is true, it is not helpful because it is not the reason we are concerned with. This is a mistake I see a lot of well-meaning Calvinists make (or at least joke about); Calvin writes about God's sovereign will as the "primary cause" of all things, which is certainly false. Determining something is not at all equivalent to causing it to happen. The only thing caused by God's determining it is the working and acting of God Himself, in the same way that we cause our own actions when we decide to perform them. The difference is that God, being omniscient and eternal, has predetermined all of His actions from eternity past and doesn't decide anything "on the fly".

I have tried to avoid analogies as much as possible in my arguments thus far because I think they tend to introduce unwanted meanings and cloud the real meaning of the discussion, but here I have one that I actually consider the appropriate. God's relationship as the determiner and main actor and mover in His creation is surprisingly analogous to the relationship between an author and the characters in the author's books, except in this case the author also writes himself into the story as the main character and hero.

When you're discussing a good story, you never try to explain why someone in the story does something by simply saying "Because the author wrote it that way". This is technically true, but a truth unhelpful and unlooked-for. It isn't the answer to the question of "Why?" that we really want or need. This was especially easy for me to see as I was reading The Lord of the Rings. Why did Frodo have to destroy the Ring? Not "because Tolkien said so", but "because it was the keystone of Sauron's power" and "he inherited the ring from Bilbo" and many other wonderful reasons you have to read the story to understand. In the story of creation, God is both the author and the main character; created beings, whose actions are authored but not caused by God, act as supporting characters. I hope you begin to grasp the distinction.

The Goodness of God

With the spontaneous inclusion of my previous post/Old Testament class paper to this series, I won't need to write nearly as much here. Refer back to it for my current, balanced view on how God is always pursuing us for salvation, especially in the person of Christ, but is not afraid to harden and punish those who reject Him while continuing to offer them chances to repent. Make no mistake: God knows exactly which of those He hardens will return to Him and which will be lost. But His election is not the cause of their damnation, their freely chosen hardness is. The Calvinist view of cause/effect is critically different from the Arminian one of God influencing us while knowing the exact result makes all the difference for us because it means that God does not cause anyone to sin, but functionally they are the same to God.

Now is the time for a more thorough study of what pleases God. From the fifth post, here is a list of things God is said to "take pleasure" in:
  • His son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22)
  • Sanctifying us through "grace-driven effort" (Philippians 2:13)
  • Giving good gifts to His children (Luke 12:32)
  • Those who love and fear Him (Psalm 147:11)
  • Uprightness (1 Chronicles 29:17)
  • The wicked coming to repentance (Ezekiel 33:11)
  • The salvation of everyone (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9)
  • Predestinating the elect (Ephesians 1:5)
And things God takes no pleasure in:
  • The death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) or of anyone (18:32)
  • False/empty religion (Malachi 1:10, Hebrews 10:6,8)
  • Faithlessness (Hebrews 10:38)
The Greek word for what Calvinists refer to as God's "good pleasure" is ευδοκια (verb form ευδοκεο), which can mean will, desire, preference, or delight. These words are used a total of 32 times in the New Testament, which is few enough that I can go through them all:
  • God is well pleased in His Son, as revealed at Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22), transfiguration (Matthew 17:5, 2 Peter 1:17), and through the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 12:18)
  • Matthew 11:26, Luke 10:21: God takes pleasure in revealing Himself to those who seek Him earnestly like children, not those who are wise in their own eyes.
  • Luke 2:14: God's good pleasure/will toward men was manifested in the birth of Jesus.
  • Luke 12:32: God's takes pleasure in bestowing the Kingdom of God on us.
  • Romans 15:26-27: The churches in Macedonia and Achaia (Greece) were pleased to financially support the poor among the church in Jerusalem.
  • Romans 10:1: Paul earnestly wants Israel to be saved.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:21: It pleases God to reveal Himself through things that are foolish to the world instead of wise.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:5: God was not pleased with the Israelites who turned from Him during the Exodus.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:8: Paul and Timothy would prefer to be at home with the Lord rather than in their bodies.
  • 2 Corinthians 12:10: For Christ's sake, Paul delights in weaknesses, hardships, persecution, and difficulty.
  • Galatians 1:15-16: God was pleased to use Paul to preach Christ to the gentiles.
  • Galatians 1:19: "All the fullness" of God was pleased to dwell in Christ.
  • Ephesians 1:5: God takes pleasure in redeeming His predestined elect. (Or maybe He takes pleasure in predestining us)
  • Ephesians 1:9: God takes pleasure in revealing to the church His will.
  • Philippians 1:15: Some preach Christ out of good will, others out of bad will.
  • Philippians 2:13: God takes pleasure in working with and through us to achieve our sanctification.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:8: Paul, Silas, and Timothy were delighted to share with the Thessalonians not only the gospel, but their lives as well.
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:1: Paul and Silas thought it best to remain in Athens and send Timothy to the Thessalonians.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:11: God takes pleasure in the ultimate sanctification of His saints. (Or Paul is praying that God would fulfill every good purpose of the Thessalonians regarding sanctification)
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:12: All who do not believe the truth but take pleasure in wickedness will be condemned.
  • Hebrews 10:6,8: God takes no pleasure in burnt offerings and sin offerings. (Although they were required by the law)
  • Hebrews 10:38: God takes no pleasure in those who "shrink back" from faith.
Agreeing with John Piper, I think that God's ultimate purpose in all that He does is, in some way or another, His glory. But as I briefly mentioned in post 5, I don't think God's pleasure and His glory are always equivalent.

Example 1: God is certainly glorified in the working of His power, justice, and righteousness in the just condemnation of sinners, but as we read in Ezekiel 33:11, He takes no pleasure in doing this. From 1 Timothy 2:4 we read that He desires that everyone be saved (that He would not have to condemn anyone), but again, He has clearly not ordered things this way, according to His desire. But His glory is not in any way diminished by this.

Example 2: The crucifixion. Of course God took no pleasure or delight in crushing His innocent Son, in whom He was well pleased, and Jesus took no pleasure in the agony of the cross. But the crucifixion was still the climax of history as we know it, the ultimate display of God's love, mercy, power, glory--pretty much everything. It is because of the cross that we are who we are, and though God takes delight in bringing us into glory by the work of the cross, He took no delight in the work itself.

Another interesting one I noticed during that word study was the sacrificial system. God takes no pleasure in the Israelites' offerings, even though He commanded them to be offered. I can think of no clearer evidence that God does not always act to the pursuit of His own "good pleasure" than this. We see that though God is glorified in all that He does, He does not take "good pleasure" in all that He does or all that happens, except inasmuch as it brings Him glory.

This is my answer to the Calvinist doctrine that God sovereignly works all things, even the election of some to salvation and others to perdition, according to "His good pleasure". God's pleasure is not achieved in everything; His glory is. The distinction between God having two wills, and His having one will and one desire, is subtle but important. The fact that God does not take pleasure in everything is a reflection of the fact that the world we live in is fallen; presumably His pleasure and glory will be indistinguishable after He restores all things.

One should not assume from any of this, of course, that we can make God frustrated or sad or ruin His day by doing things that displease Him. Talking about God in terms of human thoughts and emotions is always going to be inaccurate. When the Old Testament talks about God "remembering" people and things, it of course does not mean that He had forgotten, but that He has deliberately begun actively working towards the welfare of whatever He remembers. In the same way God taking or not taking pleasure in things is an approximation in human language of a reality unimaginably grander.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not address the main appearance of ευδοκια brought up by Calvinists, Ephesians 1:5. With a bit of context, it reads:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will--to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
The ESV says "according to the purpose of his will" rather than "in accordance with his pleasure and will". But either way, it seems like a misreading to say the predestination was done according to God's pleasure. It says that He predestined us in love and will adopt us as sons according to His pleasure. This isn't to say that no connection between God's good pleasure and predestination can be drawn, only that if one is drawn (and certainly a connection between reprobation and God's pleasure), it can't rely on this verse for support.

Human Nature

As I have said, I think Calvinism and Arminianism both, to an extent, fall into the trap of only considering or discussing the will when treating on human nature. The discussion boils down to whether people are capable of choosing God/good themselves, and how much divine assistance they need to do this. similarly, in Erasmus' On the Freedom of the Will he defines "free choice", which he says we have, as "a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them." Very intentional. From my understanding of scripture and personal experience, I disagree with this focus. While we are certainly morally responsible for the choices we make, there is much more to how God has wired us than just the will.

God's "common" grace for the world is already such that we are not as evil as we could possibly be, but even those who do not know God are capable of deeds that a Christian would consider "good" or "commendable". But though we can do good on our own, we can only become good inwardly through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. There can be many motivations for a morally good action, but only one (love for God) is acceptable in His sight. It is in this sense that Isaiah is able to say that our righteous acts are like "filthy rags" before God (64:6), because God does not look at our actions on the surface as we do, but at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) This is also the sense in which Luther says that our wills are not free but are always enslaved to either sin or the Spirit.

So though by the power of free choice we are able to choose to do what is good, even "put our faith" in  God, none of these decisions amount to anything from an eternal perspective unless God changes us on a deeper level. My friends in Cru always need to remember: the true evidence of saving faith is not a single decision, even one made for the right reasons, to put our faith in Christ but a whole life of faithfulness and fruit-bearing. The former can be done ourselves (with only common grace); the latter is impossible without God. It is for this reason that the Calvinist pillorying of Arminians for making faith a boast-worthy act of self-salvation baffles me. If you really understand faith, you see that there is absolutely no way to boast in it (Romans 3:27).

So you could say that while our wills are free, our identities are not. It may be noble and praiseworthy for a lost, rebellious sinner to decide to give of his time or treasure for the needy, but in the end he is still a lost, rebellious sinner. Our nature and agency go much deeper than our conscious will. While we are able to do good, we are unable on our own to love God or to make ourselves love Him. Only a relationship with God can transform us into something truly acceptable to Him. We only have control over one instant of our lives at a time, but God sees them as wholes and (quite mysteriously) weaves our individual, freely chosen actions, attitudes, and thoughts into His plan for our lives.

So, this is the theological-philosophical framework underlying my response to the soteriology debate. It is between Calvinism and Arminianism in many ways, though the conclusions it leads to will fall closer to Arminianism as you will see next time.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Providence, Part VI.5: The God Who Seeks Us

The following is also a paper for the Old Testament class I am taking at my church. But I realized my conclusion is also appropriate for my series on God's providence (the reasons for whose suspensions are discussed in the paper) and that it covers some verses I was going to discuss in post 10, so I'm working it in.

One of the biggest Biblical themes throughout the Old and New Testaments is God's steadfast, actively seeking, unconditional love, or "loving kindness" for fallen people like us. We see it in His raising up of the patriarchs and Israelites to make them into His chosen people, His repeatedly calling them to Himself with judges and prophets when they go astray, and most of all in His sending Jesus to us to save us from our sins. But at the same time, we see numerous instances in the Bible of a flip side to this compassion, when God seems to pass people over or even actively reject them in a way that seems utterly incompatible with His loving nature and leads many people to form different views of God for the Old and New Testaments. The reconciliation of these two sides of God's relating to us is the goal of this paper. The difficulty can be seen in the case studies of the lives of two kings: the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and Ahab of Israel.

The Bible's treatment of the Pharaoh of the Exodus (whose identity is not certain) is largely negative, as an oppressor of God's people and an obstacle to His plan to free His people and bring them to the land of Canaan by raising up Moses to be His voice to Pharaoh. But even as Moses performs many miracles and afflicts the people of Egypt with plagues, Pharaoh steadfastly refuses to free the Israelites. The reason repeatedly given for this is that his heart was hardened.

What did it mean that Pharaoh's heart was hardened? Most immediately, whenever it is used in the Exodus narrative it refers to his refusing to have mercy on the Israelites or to acquiesce to God's command to let His people go. Elsewhere in scripture, being "hardened" also means refusing to have pity on one's neighbor (Deuteronomy 15:7), ignoring God's voice (Psalm 95:7-8), the opposite of turning to God (2 Chronicles 36:13), resisting God (Job 9:4), and refusing to understand the gospel (Mark 8:17). Psalm 95:8 also uses the behavior of the Israelites at Meribah ("quarreling") and Massah ("testing"), where they ungratefully demanded water from God, as an example of hardness. So having a hardened heart seems to mean the opposite of living by faith: not seeing God as He truly is, not trusting in His promises, and resisting His purposes.

The next question, then, is who hardened Pharaoh's heart? Sometimes Pharaoh himself does it (8:15, 8:32, 9:34). Other times God is said to harden his heart (4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8). Other times the passive voice is used and it's not clear who did the hardening. (7:13-14, 7:22, 8:19, 9:7, 9:35). This is a common point of confusion for people reading the story of the Exodus. What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? Does this mean He caused Pharaoh to continue resisting when he would otherwise have given in? Did Pharaoh really have a choice to disobey God? And if God is the same now as He was then, does He similarly control our choices today--even if this means driving us away from Him to get glory for Himself in our deserved destruction?

A related, even more troubling story is that of the death of King Ahab in 1 Kings 22. Ahab the king of Israel has decided to go to war with Syria. He invites King Jehoshaphat of Judah to join him, who first wants to inquire for the word of the Lord. Ahab's four hundred crony-prophets all tell him that God is on his side, but Jehoshaphat, suspicious, asks for a "prophet of the Lord". Ahab reluctantly summons Micaiah, another prophet who always prophesies against him. After pretending to agree with the other prophets, he then prophesies that the king of Israel will be killed in the battle and his subjects will be like sheep without a shepherd. He then explains the four hundred false prophets by a vision from heaven in which God sends a lying spirit into their mouths to deceive Ahab into going to his death.

This raises two big questions. First, Micaiah promises to speak only what the Lord says to him, but when he comes to Ahab, the first thing he says is the same lie the other prophets have been telling him. And, of course, he later explains that God Himself sent the lying spirit to the mouths of the other prophets. Does this mean that God lied to Ahab, in spite of all the other verses asserting God never lies (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2, Proverbs 30:5, etc.)? (The technicality that the spirit, not God, did the actual lying doesn't seem sufficient)

Taken out of context, these examples depict a darker picture of God than we commonly imagine. He seems highly vengeful and vindictive, to the point of overriding peoples' decisions and lying to them in order to glorify Himself in His predecided wrath on them. It also seems arbitrary--why has God decided not to be good to these individuals and instead lie to Ahab and forcibly harden Pharaoh's heart? The possibility of words "from God" being lies also casts doubt in the very trustworthiness of scripture: how do we know He hasn't also decided to display His wrath on us and give us a false testament of Himself?

Answering these questions by asserting God's right to be merciful on whomever He pleases (Exodus 33:19) and to harden whomever He pleases (Romans 9:18) is unhelpful for me. These arguments reinforce the conception of God as arbitrary--why has He apparently decided a priori to reject people? And, even worse, why does He seem to violate His nature as revealed in His mercy in order to do it? It takes away our security as believers; what if God arbitrarily decides to reject me as He would be right, just, and even glorified in doing so? If God predetermines to reject some people, where is His loving kindness for them?

But, praise be to God, He has also given us in the New Testament and especially in the person of Jesus the way to fit these and other examples into our knowledge of who He is. 2 Thessalonians 2:11 seems to be part of the same quandary as 1 Kings 22: "Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false." But this time there is a clue: the first word "therefore". The reason for God sending this delusion is in the previous verse: "because they refused to love the truth and so be saved."

So God's sending people this delusion is not a priori, it is because they have already rejected the truth He offers. We can infer from Ahab's surrounding himself with four hundred false prophets that he had also rejected the truth. Effectively, if God doesn't give us the truth, it's because we have told Him not to. And even then, God doesn't deprive Ahab of the truth--He tells the complete story to him, and Ahab of course disregards it as God knew he would.

Another illuminating passage is Romans 1, one of the most complete descriptions of human depravity anywhere in the Bible. The order of events is important here: God's attributes have been visible in the world ever since its creation (v20). Sinners had some knowledge of God, but rejected Him (v21), so God gave them over to their impurity (v24), dishonorable passions (v26), and a debased mind (v28). This "giving over" sounds very much like the "hardening" previously discussed.

So we see that God doesn't preemptively harden people to ensure they never get a chance to know Him. The order in Romans is that God reveals Himself to sinners, they reject Him, and only then does He harden them. This hardening takes the form of His reinforcing or amplifying their preexisting disobedience not necessarily to keep them from ever being saved (though that can and does happen) but to condemn their sin and highlight their need for a savior, like the purpose of the law. (Romans 3:20) Also, it's important to remember than sin is essentially a rebellion of the heart, forsaking proper worship of God for idols (Jeremiah 2:13), so God does not reject people for one incidental misstep as it sometimes seems, but for deliberately rejecting Him in their hearts on some level.

So these NT verses, taken alone, seem to provide sufficient explanation for what God was doing in Exodus and 1 Kings and how it fits with His revealed nature as a God who loves and pursues us for salvation, but is also just and sternly punishing of sin. But the Bible was not meant to simply be explained, but to be celebrated and reveled in as God's word. To gain that kind of perspective, we look next to Christ.

One of the things about Jesus that most confused people and may have contributed to His death was His upending of the social order of the time. The wealthy rulers and "righteous" teachers of the law were frequently the targets of His harshest words, while He sought out and ate with the outcast and downtrodden in society. Though Jesus was overall the nicest person ever, He scorned people like the Pharisees who had some idea of what He was really about but rejected Him. But His rejecting them was not final; we do see Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea joining Jesus, and ultimately His using "Pharisee of Pharisees" Paul to spread the gospel all over the world.

Another example is His use of parables. In Mark 4:10-12 He explains that He speaks in parables rather than plainly so that, fulfilling the words of Isaiah, the unrighteous, those who have rejected Him, will not understand and will take some other meaning from the parable. To His followers "on the inside" (the apostles) he speaks plainly, but to outsiders He speaks in veiled parables. Only those who have open hearts to God will really understand the gospel that Jesus presents.

In John 6:65 Jesus says: "'This [the spiritual nature of Jesus' words] is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the father.'" This does not mean that God indiscriminately selects some to come to Him and bars others, but that no one can make any progress towards Jesus while remaining in the flesh or rejecting His help as Lord and Savior. This comes after a sermon in which Jesus takes the "I am the bread of life" analogy to gruesome lengths to drive away people who were following Him with the wrong expectations. Of course Jesus is inviting people to follow Him, but He will make sure you are following for the right reasons. He doesn't just want fans or "like"s, but men and women who are totally given and open to Him, who just want Him and not just the blessings He has to offer.

So again with Jesus, we see God inviting people to follow and know Him, welcoming those who love Him and rejecting those who reject Him, though never without a continuing invitation to return. The only people He said would certainly not be forgiven were those who speak against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32)--meaning those who fully realize what Jesus is doing in His ministry and call it evil instead of good, indicating a final, settled rejection of God in the flesh. For everyone else, everyone who has any desire to know Jesus, there is hope and an invitation to life in the Son. The initiative God takes is clear in Revelation 3:20: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." God is not just inviting us to come to Him; like a friend in our need He takes the initiative and comes to us, wherever we are, to let us meet with Him.

Or consider our view of God's justice. It is a truth universally acknowledged among reformed Christians that God would cease to be just if He were ultimately the slightest bit unjust to one person. Should we not have the same universal expectation for His mercy? God would not have given the call to believe to everyone (Acts 17:30) and desire them to answer (1 Timothy 2:4) if He did not mercifully give them the opportunity and ability (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25) to do so by repentance--the metaphorical knock on the door.

So, the Christian adage "God acts (or rather, has acted) and we respond" is certainly true. God extends the offer to the gospel to everyone and calls us to respond by belief. (John 3:16,18) We can respond to this offer by opening our hearts and believing, or by hardening them as described. The Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert." (Hebrews 3:7-8) Responding to God's initiation by belief is not a work that saves us by our own strength; it is the substitute for works that God has graciously decreed to count as righteousness. (Romans 4:3)

But then, when we respond to God, He also responds in kind to us. The gospel tie-in of God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart seems to be that by the Spirit He takes and amplifies our response into something beyond what we ever could have imagined. If we respond to Him with the smallest inkling of belief and trust, by the Spirit God fans it into a great blaze of faith to our own amazement. In this way God accomplishes the great works of salvation and sanctification in those who could never do it in themselves, though never without our own conscious involvement. (Philippians 2:12-13) And correspondingly, God intensifies the sin and unrighteousness of those who reject Him (as we see in Romans 1). Either way, God's response is inextricably tied in with our willful response, yet the result is beyond what we could accomplish alone. Grace or wrath, God will give us whichever one we ask Him for in our hearts.

It may be difficult to see how God can be good or really desire the salvation of everyone if He drives those who reject Him away, even if it is just. It might seem as if He is letting childish pettiness get in the way of His desire to bring men to salvation. But remember that sin is not just deeds--it is rejecting and rebelling against a perfectly holy God. When we are in a state of sin, we are unable to properly receive His grace; we are apt to think we have earned His blessings or let them content us rather than looking beyond them to God Himself. I think there are times when God's wrath and discipline are really what we need most, even if they drive us farther from God for a little while. And notice that God's grace and mercy are unconditional (not prompted by anything in us); only His wrath is conditional (on our unrepentance).

2 Chronicles 15:2 is a good summary: "The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you." But this truth cannot be fully understood and celebrated solely from the Old Testament. The human face Jesus puts on this doctrine helps us to understand it and even rejoice in God's boundless grace. Jesus Himself is the embodiment of God's grace, His loving kindness, His continual pursuit of His lost children even as they reject and kill Him. He is living proof of how far God will go--to death--for us, purely out of love. And this love, this crazy desire to be reconciled to us, remains even if we push each other away for a time.

The first application of God showing me this was simply joy in the assurance that He is good, all the time. I first came across 1 Kings 22 ten months ago and struggled with it on and off, unable to intellectually deny that God was a liar. This persistent doubt ate away at my life and joy in Christ and trust in the Bible like a spiritual cancer that seemed to have no cure. After seriously contemplating the possibility that God is not really good, I can appreciate His goodness more fully and am less inclined to take it for granted.

Trying to understand this chapter really drove home the point of this paper for me. I first came across 1 Kings 22 ten months ago and struggled with it intermittently ever since. Although I "knew" I couldn't trust God, I continued to wait for Him to make sense of this for me anyway. In a deeper sense, I somehow knew there had to be an answer even if I couldn't see it. This powerful experience of anxiously expecting and hoping for something, then seeing it come to pass (like in Hebrews 11:1) transformed my understanding of faith and showed me what it means to wait for the Lord.

In my doubt I also came to a better understanding of what it means to harden one's heart against God. There was always a decision before me to be totally done with God, which I always refused to make. I suppose the fact that I had to actively decide to reject God meant that I never really left Him. But it showed me that faith and doubt/hardening are not just states of feeling, but decisions we make, consciously or unconsciously, to throw in our lot with God or to turn away.

I used to misunderstand all the talk thrown around about "seeking God" to mean that I had to take the initiative in my relationship with God and that I had to do more, try harder to improve it and bring about God's promises, which I often took as instructions. My understanding of living a "Christian" life "by the Spirit" simply meant asking for His help in trying to carry out what He had instructed, and my problems stemmed from my failure to do something well enough. (Note that this was not legalism because my ultimate goal was not making myself righteous in God's sight, but simply living comfortably and at peace) I didn't realize that all along it was God who was seeking me.

And even when I did hear God's promises as promises, I had a tendency to apply them too shallowly as "quick fixes". For example, if I were doubting that God would always provide for my needs, I would tell myself some scripture that affirmed this and then stop thinking about it, but continue doubting in my heart. This superficial understanding of God with myself as the initiator frustrated me--why wasn't my relationship with God working?--and made it harder for me to deeply trust Him. This changed when I really understood that God was the initiator in the relationship, not me. I don't have to make everything happen myself; I can put my hope in God to act and expect Him to come through.

Blog-only postscript: The aforementioned crisis of faith brought about by my struggles with 1 Kings 22, among many other doubts about God and the Bible, is why my series on providence has been so delayed. But as of this post, it is back on track!