Ukraine: Injustice and the Apparent Absence of God

Ukraine: Injustice and the Apparent Absence of God

Versión Español

I must say, the attack by Russia on Ukraine has hit home a little harder than other wars around the world. Doubtless some of it is due to Ukrainian influence in my life (our area of Alberta had a significant presence of Ukrainian settlers). Probably it has a lot to do with the closer historical ties that Canada has had with Europe and events there (participating in both World Wars, being allied with the US during the Cold War). It makes me feel kind of sheltered and callous that I haven’t been as impacted by other wars over the years, but I also think it’s somewhat natural to be more impacted by events that seem more closely related to you.

Probably one of the biggest reasons for the shock that many of us feel is just the sheer injustice of the situation. While Putin doubtless had his reasons (NATO sucking up former Soviet Republics and therefore Russia feeling threatened), the rationale seems incredibly weak and nonsensical. I have never seen any indication that NATO was making any effort to threaten Russian militarily, and it could be argued that Russia is better off with stable European countries – peace seems to help everyone prosper. But more specifically, I don’t think most of us can figure out what, exactly, Ukraine did to deserve to be attacked by Russia. This feels like a naked power grab by Putin.

With that in mind, my mind and heart turn to the countless citizens of Ukraine suffering due to this conflict – hundreds of thousands, now even millions, fleeing the country due to the warfare; people unable to flee forced to hide or fight; the complete lack of access to food and necessary resources; the apparent targeting of civilians by Russian forces (and, even if it’s not clear how “targeted” they are, the clear death of many civilians due to the conflict). The entire situation seems unnecessary and completely unjust, and my heart cries out both for resolution and with a desire to see God “solve” the situation – to rise up and protect the weak and helpless, a theme we see often in the Bible.

As my heart cries out, it is easy to ask, “Where is God in all of this?” This is the type of event that causes many people to doubt that God even exists. As many have voiced in the past, if there really is a loving God, how could He allow something like this to happen? How can He stand by while a dictator runs amok, an army invades, and thousands of people – many of them completely innocent – die? We face this internal conflict – on one hand crying out for God to intervene, on the other, giving up completely on Him and even denying His existence. And this type of internal conflict isn’t just limited to this war. It arises through many different challenges we all face in life, both big and small. Sickness, accidents, tragedies, death, corruption, injustice, destruction… At times, both personally and socially, we feel surrounded by evil and injustice, and it makes us long for God’s salvation – or despair that He cares not or exists not.

So how do we deal with the incredible unfairness of life and still believe in a loving God?

One of the most enlightening exercises for me in this regard is to ask myself, how would God stop this from happening? If we think about the war, God could have:

  • caused all the Russian military weaponry to malfunction
  • miraculously prevented them from entering the country (“What do you mean, ‘All the vehicles are out of gas’?”)
  • destroyed the Russian army before they attacked (a la Isaiah 37)

If we push things back a bit further in time, God could have:

  • prevented Putin from even contemplating this idea
  • had Putin “removed from office” somehow (coup, assassination, struck dead, etc.)
  • given different advice through his advisors

Or, if we want to go a different direction, God could defend the Ukrainians by:

  • providing angels to guide them to safety (like Peter in Acts 12)
  • providing “protective shielding” to keep them safe (Daniel 3, anyone?)
  • bringing the dead back to life (Jesus’ ministry, Paul a few times)

There are probably lots of other ways that God could correct these injustices if we thought hard enough, but my realization is this: To end injustice, God would have to miraculously or directly intervene, either completely overriding the will of one or more individuals or preventing the anticipated result of someone’s actions, thereby making their choices completely irrelevant. And this is only speaking about the Ukraine situation. If we start addressing all of the personal injustices that we face, God would have to micromanage every aspect of humanity’s interactions. Basically, we would be nothing more than God’s playthings. By preventing every injustice, God ends up controlling everything. We can have free choice or we can have perfect justice, but we can’t have both.

But what about…?

This raises the question, though… What about the fact that God has intervened in human history, as I have referenced above a few times. As Christians, we would argue that God does answer prayer and does still perform miracles. At times, sickness is healed, injustice is rectified, and miracles happen. How can we believe that God does work at times, but still say that He doesn’t work at other times?

I see four factors that impact our understanding of God’s work in the world.

First, we need to understand God’s relationship to the world as a whole. It seems that God set this world up as our world, and gave us the responsibility of governing and developing it (Gen. 1:26-30). I think we could make an argument that we were to have this authority with God’s assistance (God bringing Adam the animals to name, for example), but Adam and Eve rejected that shared authority for their own path. The result is that humanity is governing the world without the guidance of God, and making all of the unwise choices that accompany even our best intentions. The biggest result is that God stepped back. I would argue that for the most part, he does not directly intervene in human history. Even if we consider all the stories in the Bible and all the reports that we sometimes hear of miracles, the vast, vast majority of life is governed by us making our own decisions and God allowing it.

The second factor is God’s overarching plan. When we read the Bible, it appears that humanity will not exist forever, but that eventually, our existence will end. There’s a lot of debate about what that will look like, but that seems to be the story. And throughout the Bible, we seem to see God developing a plan to save as many as possible – first Abraham, then the nation of Israel, then Jesus… He seems to be working in history so that when things conclude, as many as possible will enter into life instead of death. And in so doing, it seems that He directly intervenes at times to keep things on track and to further his plan. It’s not outright control, but it is “shaping” it to avoid the worst consequences and open as many doors as possible to as many people as possible (just as we shape our kids’ experiences to guide them in good paths – sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly).

The third factor is similar, but on a more personal level. God desires that each individual come to know Him and that they be transformed into His likeness and become the person He created them to be. At times, there is divine intervention in human lives for individual purposes – answering specific prayers at key moments, sending dreams and visions, healing people, doing miracles. But the opposite is also true – often God refrains from doing these things for the same reason: To help someone in their personal growth, their understanding of Him, and to place their trust in Him. Most of the time, God seems to trust that the guidance He’s given us (revelation in nature, our conscience, specific revelation through the Bible and history) should be sufficient for us to question life and seek Him out.

The final factor is perhaps the key to all of this. God is a person, not a “force” or principle. That means that there is no clear way to identify God’s reasons for allowing injustice on one occasion, and intervening directly in another. There’s no “secret formula” that will get God to answer our prayers or save us. It’s not that God is capricious, randomly tossing out miracles or favouring some people over others. It just means that He’s got a far broader perspective than we do and we will often never fully understand them. We look at a situation and say, “If God only intervened here, then I would praise Him, and people would love Him, and everything would be better!!” But God knows better. I mean, look at Jesus – he did non-stop wonderful works and his reward was not commendations and a joyful praising of God, but rejection, betrayal, and crucifixion. So when we think that we or others would praise God if only He would intervene, then we are deceiving ourselves about the true nature of humanity. God knows best when to intervene and when not to. And mostly, He seems to choose not to, in accordance with the desires of Adam and Eve – and, to be honest, ourselves.

A Different Gift

God has chosen to interact with humanity in a completely different way than we expect. Rather than overwhelming us and controlling everything, or responding to our every whim (basically we control Him), He has chosen to work with and alongside us, to the extent and limit that we allow. This shows up in two ways:

  1. In Jesus, God lived this imperfect, unjust existence with us. He experienced the worst that humanity has to offer, including an extremely painful, unjust death. Whether it’s in the middle of a war zone, then, or in our own daily struggles and injustices, we experience not a God who miraculously solves all of our problems, but a God who is with us, who sees everything we experience and gets it. It is the gift of companionship and understanding. And when we add to that his victory over death, it is the gift of hope and perseverance in the middle of our trials. Life will win, and justice will be served. There are times when this doesn’t feel like enough, and we think He should do more. But there are countless testimonies from many people of the deep comfort that has come from knowing that God understands, is with us, and will handle all of the injustice in the proper time. The people of Ukraine are not abandoned. God is there with them, and He will bring both justice and peace in the proper time.
  2. Just as God gave us this world as ours, to develop and govern, so He calls us to be His hands and voice in the world. He does not control us or intervene in most situations, but He offers to walk with us as we tackle the injustice of this world. This is most evident in the Church (although imperfectly), where God grants His people His Holy Spirit to do His work and follow His leading. But it is also seen outside of the Church, where people respond to the general revelation God has given and to being created in His image, and do the good works that He desires – whether they know or acknowledge God or not. God’s response to injustice is not to solve the problem miraculously, but to call us to respond appropriately. He created us for this purpose, and is more than happy to walk with us as we do our job.

At the end of the day, as much as I struggle at times with the question of “Where is God” and the desire to see Him intervene, I come repeatedly to the conclusion that God is, indeed, present in every situation. And while He might not intervene miraculously very often, there’s nothing wrong with asking Him to do so! And in the meantime, He is with us – each of us, whether we acknowledge Him or not – and is gently lobbing the question back to us: “This is your world, My gift to you. Where are you in the midst of this? How are you helping? I am with you, too, so let’s see what we can do.”

May God guide us as we respond to the injustice of this war and the world around us.

A Letter to My Conservative Friends and Family: A Few Concerns

A Letter to My Conservative Friends and Family: A Few Concerns

Hay una nota en español por abajo.

To my conservative Friends and Family,

So I grew up in a conservative household, both politically and theologically, in a conservative part of Canada. It was good – I have no significant complaints. And while I would say that I’m probably not as conservative as I once was, I definitely still lean that direction. In fact, when I’m back in Canada (and not living in Mexico), I still live in very conservative country and feel fairly at home there. I bring this up because when it comes to addressing all of you, I feel like I do so from the position of an insider – one who is conservative by heritage and still by association.

With that in mind, to all my conservative friends and family, I have to say that I have some pretty big concerns about what I regularly see and experience as I interact with many in this ideological camp. My concerns fall into two main categories:

  1. The crippling mistrust of the liberal media, science and government; and,
  2. The deep fear that I see many conservatives living in

If I had to guess, I would suspect that most of my family and friends would not be thrilled about this characterization. They may agree that they mistrust the media (with good reason, they argue), but that word “crippling” feels pretty strong. And I suspect most would disagree with the characterization of themselves as fearful – even strongly proclaiming that they don’t fear anything man can throw at them, and that it is the left who lives in fear! But that’s not what I see and hear, so allow me to explain.

Crippling mistrust

There is no doubt that there is ample reason to distrust the liberal media, science and governments. Those of us who grew up conservative have for years felt that popular media (movies, music, TV) was leading a stampede against “traditional” (Christian) values through the promotion of sexual liberty of all sorts, the pursuit of pleasure, the belittling of the family and the devaluing of traditional morals in general. The primary news networks all skew left (or did, for a long time), and the presentation of stories in the mainline media very much promotes certain agendas. Because most of our scientific information comes through the media, it is commonly spun to favour certain narratives. Of course scientific corporations, regardless of the media, make their own problems, as there are countless stories of corruption, unethical practices to make profit, skipping or skirting regulations, etc. There’s a reason many people don’t trust “Big Pharma”. And with the Liberal/NDP party (Canada) and the Democrats (USA) pushing many of the same “progressive” values and ideas as the mainstream media (the two seem to work in tandem), it is no wonder that conservatives mistrust the governments as well.

But there is a reason that I have used the particular phrase “crippling mistrust”. You see, although there are many reasons to be skeptical of the liberal media and government, as well as science, many seem to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. The good and the relevant is thrown out along with the things that are incorrect or misleading. It is as if many conservatives have taken the Biblical doctrine of the sinfulness of man, looked at the liberal media/government/scientific community, and applied that label entirely to them, stating that “You are the sinful part of humanity, and everything you do and say is evil and corrupt”. What I hear from many conservatives is the idea that “all evil resides there (the liberals)”, and thus anything and everything stated by any liberal source is of no value. We have taken healthy mistrust and skepticism and turned it into a crippling mistrust.

The reality (and hear me out on this!) is that there is a lot in the liberal ideology that is good and important. There is an empathy there that often feels absent in conservative policy (although not necessarily in individuals). There is a deep concern for injustice and a desire to see change in society to address these issues. And make no mistake – there are no lack of issues. There are legitimate climate and environmental concerns. Racism does exist. There are deep economic problems within capitalism that need to be addressed. For all our concern about “big government”, there is a need for regulation and guidance – it’s true that governments are a bureaucratic mess and seek too much control, but leaving businesses and society to their own devices is just as prone to abuse and problems. In short, while skepticism is valuable and pushback on liberal ideas/government/media is important, we need liberals. They view the world differently and bring a perspective that we as conservatives need. We have forgotten the Biblical doctrine that these, too, are made in God’s image, and reflect Him in many ways – whether they acknowledge Him or not!

Hand in hand with this crippling mistrust of all things liberal is a dangerous faith in all things conservative. And yes, it is dangerous. Conservatives, the same as liberals, are both made in the image of God and corrupted by sin. Both conservative governments and conservative media (including the science promoted by conservative and independent sites) are guilty of just as much sin as liberal sources. There is the same ignoring of inconvenient facts, the same tendency to slant things ideologically, the same fear-mongering, the same dismissiveness and arrogance, the same proclivity to greed and corruption. Just because a government, scientist or media source lines up with our ideology doesn’t mean that we turn off our skepticism and blindly accept everything that they have to say, or excuse or ignore their failings. The world needs the conservative voice as much as it needs the liberal voice – but it needs an honest conservative voice, not a blindly ideological one. And to my friends and family, I would say that we have failed far too often to be discerning and skeptical of our own motives, ideas and representatives.

Deep Fear

I spoke of a deep fear that I can see in the conservative camp and it is this – the fear that our society is “falling apart”, and that we are the only ones who can save it, as well as a fear of believing or trusting anything that the liberal camp says. For a people who often claim to trust in God, it’s amazing how often the conversation isn’t about God and trusting in him, but rather about our rights and freedoms, about the destruction of our society, about the need to “get back” to the golden days – except that it wasn’t anywhere near as “golden” as we make it out to be. Not for us, and certainly not for everyone. 

It is natural to feel fear, especially when we feel like things are chaotic and not going the way we want them to or in the direction we think is best. But society won’t be “saved” by choosing one group of corrupt people over another group of corrupt people. Societies, countries, and empires all ebb and flow. Some last a long time, some a little. Most have their moments of glory and their strengths, but all end up corrupted and failing, whether sooner or later. Not only is it bound to happen, it will happen through conservatives as well as through liberals. So as Christians (as most of my friends and family are), we participate in our society and strive to be salt and light in whatever way we can, but we certainly don’t put our faith or all our energy into one political party, or one ideology. We live in what some refer to as the “radical middle” – acknowledging both good and bad from both sides, and trusting that whether society thrives or falls apart, whether we have complete rights and freedoms or none, that there is One overseeing all, who will be with us through all. Our antidote to fear is not the policies of conservative groups or rejection of liberal groups, but rather trust in and obedience to Jesus.

Covid, for example

The last two years of Covid have really served to highlight, I believe, the crippling mistrust and the fear of which I speak. Here’s what I have seen over the past two years:

The general Liberal response to Covid – “Covid is coming for us, it will do untold damage to our world, hospitals will be overrun, the government must intervene in every way possible, vaccines will save us or at least vastly protect us, we must completely eradicate Covid, we all need to pull together to protect ourselves and others, we need to trust the scientific consensus.”

The general conservative response to Covid – “It’s not really that bad, it’s just a bad flu, the death rates and infection rates are overstated, governments need to stay out of it and let people deal with it as they see fit, don’t infringe on our rights and freedoms, mandates are evil, vaccines are at best somewhat helpful but are untested and dangerous, people are living in fear of the virus but we don’t fear it, and we need to believe those who oppose the scientific consensus (the little guys bucking the consensus).”

Obviously there are a range of ideas within each group, but that’s what I have personally heard from many people as well as read constantly in the news (liberal and conservative).

Now here’s what I have personally observed:

  • I have known a large number of people who have been sick, with quite a number sick for an extended period of time, including time in the hospital (or time when they maybe should have been in the hospital)
  • most have recovered and most cases were mild
  • I personally know two people who have died from Covid (i.e. they were not sick and in no danger of death until they developed Covid, then they passed away due to Covid)
  • All accounts seem to indicate that in a variety of places, the medical system (even with restrictions, vaccines, etc.) was very overwhelmed, with all sorts of non-essential medical cancellations and worrisomely full ICUs. This includes at least one wave in my home provinces of Saskatchewan (where I was born and raised) and Alberta (where I have raised my family). Speaking to a few nurses in these situations gave me a perspective that it was not just “media overreaction”.
  • I have only seen or heard personally of two significant reactions to the vaccine (in comparison to the two deaths, various hospitalizations and significant illnesses due to Covid). One was a lady in the pharmacy who showed up with blood clots shortly after she got the vaccine (I overheard the conversation with the pharmacist, who seemed unconcerned as she helped), and one who had physical reactions for about a week that were significant and unpleasant, but far from life-threatening. Obviously I believe there are more out there, but as my own experience shows, they pale in comparison to the number of people affected by Covid.
  • Since the vaccine has been rolled out, I have only heard of severe cases of Covid among my contacts who have not had the vaccine. Others who have been vaccinated have had Covid (including in my own family), but I don’t know a single person with the vaccine who has had any severe sickness, while I know a variety who have refused to be vaccinated who have been severely sick. (Fortunately, none have died, but I have known at least one who was hospitalized and others who perhaps should have been.)

In short, my own observations and lived experience lines up much more closely with the liberal view and response than the conservative response. That’s not to say that liberal sources and reactions have been all correct. We could discuss for hours cases of overreaction, poor rollout of support services, ignoring data or putting conflicting/nonsensical restrictions in place, mask and vaccine mandates, etc. But despite various points of disagreement, my observation remains – the liberal perspective captures reality better than that conservative perspective, which heightens my belief that the conservative mistrust of all things liberal has led to reporting and decisions that seem to be based more on a reaction against liberals rather than an actual analysis of the situation. Mistrust has crippled our response. Rather than agreeing with some of the basic trends and concerns and working to correct over-the-top or inaccurate responses, conservatives seem to have been focused on rejecting everything liberals say or try to do, to our own detriment. Our faith has been misplaced.

This speaks to the issue of fear, as well. The fear of believing anything that liberals say has hampered our ability to assess things accurately. Instead of assessing each issue and conceding where “they” might be right (or disagreeing when wrong), we have reacted against everything, pushing a counter-narrative that opposes virtually everything, even when it flies in the face of observable evidence. 

I also believe that this fear can be seen in our response to the vaccine. Why is it, when people are sick all around us and there is a very discernible and clear danger of sickness and even death (although significantly lower the younger and healthier one is), that many conservatives claim that they “are not afraid of the virus – it’s just a minor sickness” and downplay all the dangers, but when it comes to the vaccine, which has extremely low and rarely dangerous side-effects (yes, they exist, but are much more rare than the complications caused by Covid) and quite clearly observable benefits, conservatives suddenly become fearful of what it “might do” someday, and that it hasn’t been fully tested, and that there are reactions that the news isn’t reporting. Why do we as conservatives downplay the clearly documented reality and danger of the virus, but fear the vaccine so much? It seems like both these reactions have little to do with the actual facts and evidence, and a whole lot to do with the fact that it is the liberal media and government who are promoting these narratives. Fear has led us to reject the real danger (the virus) and to fear the much-lesser danger (the vaccine). Does this really make any sense? For me, it was a very simple analysis – the danger of getting significantly sick personally was way higher with Covid than it was with the vaccine. And the benefit to society was way better with the vaccine as well. For me, it was a very simple numbers game, and I am very confused why so many are so fearful of the vaccine. My only solution is what I mentioned – fear of trusting anything liberal.

Conclusion

My point here is not to push you to get the vaccine (obviously, I think the benefits far outweigh the potential negatives), nor is my point even anything to do with Covid specifically. That is nothing more than a handy example of my main points:

  • a blanket mistrust of all things liberal actually cripples us, both personally and societally. While I may disagree with many liberal ideas, they are people created in God’s image who have significant ideas that we need to hear and consider.
  • related to that, conservatives are just as corrupted by sin as liberals – it just shows up in different issues. We need to be just as skeptical of conservative bias, ideas and reporting as we do of liberal bias, ideas and reporting.
  • while we might claim we don’t fear, there is a ton of fear in the conservative camp. Fear of all things liberal, fear of the collapse of our society, fear of change, fear of the vaccine…

The questions that I have for my conservative friends and family are quite simply this: Are you willing to acknowledge that you have been crippled by mistrust, and to step back from crippling skepticism to healthy skepticism (and even recognition of the good in liberal views)? And are you willing to confront the fear that exists so deeply within your (our) beliefs?

As a fellow conservative, let’s change our perspective.

With deep love, but also deep concern,

Chris

Por los que leen en español – este artículo tiene más que ver con la situación política en Canadá y los Estados Unidos. No sé si es una reflexión de la situación en países Iberoamericanos, por eso no lo va a traducir. Un resumen rápido: Crecí en una familia y región con una perspectiva muy conservador, y que los que pertenecen a este grupo (conservadores) han rechazado casi cualquier perspectiva “liberal”. El punto de este post es argumentar que no es saludable rechazar por completo los liberales (ya que ellos también son creados en la imagen de Dios) y confiar completamente en fuentes conservadores (ya que ellos también son pecadores que cometen muchos errores). Hablé de las diferentes perspectivas de Covid para mostrar que la perspectiva de los liberales alinea mejor con la realidad vivida que lo que están diciendo muchas fuentes conservadores, que a menudo argumentan que Covid no es un problema tan grave y que la vacuna, de hecho, es peor que Covid. El punto no es empujarlos a vacunarse (aunque creo que sería algo bueno), sino mostrar que el rechazo de cualquier perspectiva liberal no es saludable, y de hecho nos causa a rechazar ideas y perspectivas de valor junto con las cosas que es bueno rechazar. Por fin, argumenté que aunque muchos conservadores confiesan confiar en Dios, muchos de ellos viven en temor – temor de los liberales, temor de la vacuna, temor de la posibilidad de que la sociedad vaya a colapsar, etc. Los que supuestamente confían en el Señor no lo muestran por sus temores.

How to Cope with a Covid Christmas

How to Cope with a Covid Christmas

A los que leen este post en español: Perdón por no tener una versión en español. Este post surge de una situación particular en Canadá (en algunas partes), donde nos han puesto restricciones debido a un aumento de casos de Covid y no podemos tener reuniones de familias para celebrar la navidad. A lo mejor puedo traducirlo dentro de la semana, pero quise publicar este post por mis amigos en Canadá que están tratando de manejar esta nueva situación y la tristeza que muchos están experimentando por no poder ver a su familia durante las vacaciones.

So, Christmas just got cancelled. How are you doing? Many are struggling with a variety of emotions as the government of Alberta (and various others) have brought in regulations that essentially ban all social gatherings during Christmas, leaving families to celebrate with only their own nuclear family or (in the case of singles) one or two others. This is a hard blow, and seems to rip all of the joy out of Christmas for many, which is totally understandable. So I (Chris) would like to share a little bit from our story, and the stuff that we have learned about celebrating Christmas when everything you look forward to is gone. You see, what many people don’t realize is that this is actually a common experience for those of us who are missionaries. So if we can, we’d like to help.

For us (okay, let’s be honest, for me), the Christmas of 2014 (pictured above) was really tough. We had just left Canada in August, and were preparing for our first Christmas overseas. I love Christmas, and pretty much everything about it – the lights, the Christmas baking, the dark and cold (the only time of the year I’m okay with it!), the Christmas specials (some more than others), and especially the time with family and friends. I’m not “crazy Christmas guy”, but I definitely like it. Now here we are in Costa Rica. The days are all the same length all year long. There were Christmas lights up, but without the snow and cold, it felt…fake, almost. It’s not, of course (they love Christmas), but it felt wrong. My wife did some baking, but it was hard to find some of the ingredients. We wanted turkey, but they were hard to find and prohibitively expensive. We ended up with two roast chickens, just to make sure we had leftovers. We listened to music, but like the lights, it felt out of place. We had no TV, and really bad internet, so Christmas movies and TV specials were almost not a reality. The entire environment for Christmas was wrong.

But most spectacularly (and most relevant to our present reality), we had no family or friends to share it with. We had some friends at our language school, but most of them had family or friends visiting, so we ended up celebrating Christmas all by ourselves. And for me, it was incredibly difficult. There are still good memories – the boys loved the toys that we got them, and when we took them to the park in the morning, it was like a ghost town, which was really bizarre and amusing. In Costa Rica, they celebrate in a huge way on Christmas Eve, and we had a two story house that looked towards a major centre, so we got a spectacular, hour long fireworks display (I think the kids slept through that one because we didn’t realize it was coming. They caught the New Year’s show, which was even more spectacular – including people lighting lanterns and releasing them into the sky. Which looks cool until the lantern crashes on the cables outside your house and you get to watch the neighbours scramble to get it unstuck and the fire put out before it burns your house down. But I digress…) So there were good and fun memories. But everything was tinged with sadness and disappointment.

I wish I could say that I handled that Christmas well, but I didn’t. I was sad. For the sake of my kids (and my wife), I tried not to mope around all day, but it was tough. All I could think about was what it should be, what I was missing, who wasn’t there, and how…lonely… it all felt. Since that time, we’ve had much better Christmases. At times, we have had family and friends around, but part of it is just learning how to cope with Christmas being different. 

As we approach this Christmas, with some of those same elements in play (particularly the inability to gather with family), I want to offer some ideas that will perhaps help you (and continue to help me) cope with Christmas in an appropriate way, rather than getting swallowed by sadness or anger.

  1. Acknowledge the sadness. It’s not good or healthy to pretend. If you’re sad (or angry!), be honest about it. I’m not advocating that we hide it or pretend. It’s likely that, like me, this emotion will colour many of your experiences this Christmas. So let’s at least acknowledge the elephant in the room. The goal is not to deny or completely get rid of these feelings, but to be honest enough about them that we can look past them rather than getting stuck in them.
  2. It’s all about perspective. A key to coping with that sadness or anger is to do the deliberate work of gaining a proper perspective. For some reason we like to wallow in self-pity or indignation. It somehow seems to be human nature, but it’s not healthy. I offer the following ideas to help us get a good (or better) perspective:
    1. Thankfulness – In the midst of our difficulties, we still have so much to be thankful for, which we often lose sight of. Compared to previous generations, we live in the comfort and even luxury of Kings and Queens, or even gods and goddesses! And yet, we are so used to it that we don’t even notice how good we have it. Even when we are separated from family, the vast majority of us still have technology that allows us to connect, even better than in 2014 when we were at least able to do a (patchy) video call from Costa Rica with our families. Take some time to lift your eyes up and look not just at everything that is missing, but everything that you have. Living overseas, I have learned to be thankful for what I do have when we are so far from familiar traditions and family, rather than focusing only on what I don’t have.
    2. New traditions – Living overseas, we have had to adapt and develop new Christmas traditions. Some have involved new foods – which we absolutely love. Some have involved new habits – we often take a small family trip of some sort over Christmas. Sometimes it involves accepting that all the Christmas stuff (lights and music) are still nice, even if the setting (warm and sunny!) is not right. Sometimes it just requires that we accept that Christmas is going to look a lot smaller and simpler than it does when we do it in Canada. And so we have been able to make it fun and special despite the restrictions.
      So how can we do that this year? The day I heard about Alberta’s restrictions, I sent my brothers a message that simply said, “Christmas in March?” Perhaps we can plan a get together at a different time (totally out of season) that will replace Christmas. I’ve already been thinking about games like jackboxtv, which allows you to play games with people over the internet. Maybe I can still get game time with my brothers and family after all! Maybe we can arrange a special activity with the kids (kind of like an Easter egg hunt, but tailored to Christmas). I don’t know. The challenge is to say, how can we make this special and meaningful, not just sad and angry.
    3. Serve – I’m not even sure what to say about this one, except that perhaps there are some people out there who need help even more than you do. Maybe, rather than focusing on our loss, we can turn our focus to others who have greater needs. People who have been laid off. People overseas who have no capacity for Christmas (groups like Compassion Canada or World Vision often allow you to purchase gifts for people overseas). Maybe part of our sadness comes from thinking only about ourselves, and that can be turned to thinking about others.
  3. Bring God into it. This almost seems like I shouldn’t need to say it, since the entire origin of Christmas is the birth of Jesus (let’s not get into technical arguments about the date and where different traditions came from, etc. Not the point.) The point is that Christmas has changed to primarily be a focus about family (love it), love (totally agree), and giving gifts (love the concept, despite concerns about the extreme commercialism and materialism that sometimes dominates). None of those things by themselves are bad. But Christmas was and should be primarily about celebrating the birth of Jesus, and let’s be honest, he gets pushed completely to the background. So maybe we can recapture some of that. How? Just some ideas:
    1. Most of us have a nativity scene somewhere. Maybe we make it more central. Or actually talk about it. Take seven days and talk or think about about the different people and what they would have been experiencing and what it meant – Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men, the innkeeper and even the angels.
    2. Set up a music playlist that only has songs about Jesus and his birth, and reflect on what it means. Use that playlist regularly and in some dedicated moments to turn your attention to Jesus, rather than to just the other factors.
    3. Reflect on why Jesus came. In Luke 2:11, the angels refer to him as the Saviour. In Matt. 1:21, Gabriel makes it quite clear to Joseph that Jesus has come to save people from their sins. It’s about sins and salvation, not merely family, love and gifts. Those are all related, but not central.
      Perhaps this will help: What will make heaven and the afterlife different than earth? There could be many answers, but I think the biggest one is the lack of sin. Think about it – if we die, and continue to be as self-focused and sinful as we are now, heaven will be exactly the same as earth: Miserable!! (I don’t know – maybe you’re better than me, but I would certainly make it less than heavenly in my present condition.) If you’ve ever seen the Pixar movie Coco (about the Day of the Dead in Mexico), I think that its view of the afterlife is one of the most interesting aspects of the movie. And what do we find? In spite of the movie’s attempt to focus on family and love, the view of the afterlife is depressing. People are exactly the same as they are before death – there is loneliness, despair, jealousy, pride, betrayal and so on. This is not what God offers us, and the only way that is possible is if our sin is dealt with. So Jesus came, both to forgive our sin (because we all know doing wrong should be punished in some way), and also to give us his Holy Spirit to allow us to live without sin, a process that begins slowly now, but will be fulfilled at our death. So Christmas is about our forgiveness, life and restoration, not about so much of what we’ve made it (as good as those things may be).
    4. Read the Christmas stories (Matthew 1-2, and Luke 1-2). Multiple times. Or watch some movies about it, although it’s good to have a solid basis in the story as written so that we can identify both creative license and potentially outright errors. (But not with an eye to complain about the movie, just to keep us centred on what the Bible actually says and doesn’t say.)
    5. Share Jesus with others. Invite others, both in and outside of your family, to read the Christmas stories with you, or watch the movies with you, or think about the songs with you. And have some real conversations about what it actually means.

So, there you have it. From one who has felt the blistering sting of a lonely Christmas that wasn’t at all what it should be, a few ideas to help us refocus and make Christmas good. I’ll be honest – I’m sad that I won’t see my family the way I was hoping to. I’m sad that the Christmas feast won’t be shared. But I’m also kind of excited, because I know, both from experience and from anticipation, that it can still be good. And that’s what I really want. A good, special Christmas that not only will I remember, but that will be meaningful for the coming year and perhaps far into the future.

God bless, and Merry Christmas.

Life, Death, Heaven and Hell

Life, Death, Heaven and Hell

Versión Español

This is the seventh part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts by following these links: Simple FaithGodThe Bible,  Sin and Death, and Jesus, and Livin’ la vida… Christian.

Note: The picture above is me with our third son when he was born (more than a decade ago).

The final section in our simple faith series relates to what happens to us after we die. This is an incredibly complex topic, in no small part because we have no way to actually study the afterlife or to have any sort of objective certainty about what is coming next. Our ideas are based entirely on what is revealed in the Bible and the interpretations people put on that information. It is also the most difficult topic because of our emotional reaction against hell. In fact, these things have made this post incredibly difficult to write – this is probably my fifth or sixth version.

The simple concept that I want to explain is the following: We have hope of eternal life instead of death. This might seem like an odd way to address this topic. After all, I don’t mention heaven or hell or the concepts of sin and punishment or rewards. I do that for a simple reason – as much as we might speculate about heaven and hell, I think the Bible primarily offers a stark contrast between life and death, with heaven and hell sort of being the symbols of each (I say symbols without necessarily meaning that they don’t really exist). So what can we say about what happens after we die?

At one level, it’s very simple. In its simplest form, we could just say that the wicked will be punished and the good will be rewarded. The wicked will face eternal death and/or destruction while the righteous will receive life. It’s really just that simple. And yet, it’s hard to just leave it there – I feel the need to walk through how we got to that point. So here we go.

  1. God is the Giver of life. He created us and gave us life, and He is the one who sustains it in every moment. This theme runs through all of Scripture.
  2. Sin is basically the destruction of good and life that God created. So as we sin, we bring destruction and death into the world and our own life. Left to our own devices, even if we struggle to overcome sin, it will still eventually destroy us.
  3. Jesus came into the world to do multiple things: First, he accepted the punishment that sin deserves; second, he destroyed death through his perfect life and his resurrection; third, he made it possible for us to be connected to God through the Holy Spirit. This allows us to be connected to the giver of life, and will eventually be what allows us to be changed after our death. By accepting Jesus, we are basically saying that we hate the sin and evil in this world and in ourselves, and we want to be saved and changed. After our death, this change will be completed – whatever that looks like!
  4. Even in the New Testament and even in Paul’s works (Paul, who stridently declares salvation through faith), we are constantly told that God looks at our heart and that we will be judged for our works. This does not, I believe, negate Jesus at all. If anything, it is just a simple way of expressing the situation that takes into account the fact that many people will never hear about Jesus, or may be taught incorrect things about him, etc. We will be judged based on what we know (God’s power seen through nature, our understanding of morality, etc.) and whether we have responded to that in faith (believing and living according to what we have understood) or denying that and living our own way. But it’s still only Jesus who paid for our sins and Jesus who restores our relationship with God and saves us. And we still only are saved by faith – even if that faith is very incomplete.
    Note: I need to emphasize that although it seems likely to me that some will be saved even without knowing Jesus, it also seems incredibly dangerous to know about Jesus and not accept him. If he is God’s chosen path for salvation and we reject him, we are essentially saying that we do not need his help to obtain eternal life, or that we are good enough to save our selves. It is a way of rejecting God and saying that we would rather follow our own way. It is a highly inadvisable path to follow.
  5. In the end, God is the one who judges us. This is not a cruel tyrant making random decisions. It is a Father and King who is revealing what is really in our hearts responding in grace and love to those who desire and seek what is right, and anger and wrath to those who reject Him and His ways, choosing to seek only their own power, control, benefit, and desires. I hope it’s pretty obvious why people like that wouldn’t be welcome in heave. They would quickly turn heaven back into a world just as bad as the one we presently have. It is also important to note that many who seek only their own way can appear to be pretty good people, but what lies underneath is not so nice. In the same way, some can appear pretty ugly, perhaps for their upbringing, poor teaching, or bad life circumstances, but they honestly desire what is good. This is why we leave those judgments up to God.
  6. Heaven is spoken of as the place of life: all good, no sin, the presence of God, and the tree of life, among many other images. It is what we were created for. For those willing to acknowledge God as both their King and Father, it will be glorious. But many will never be willing to make that confession. Again, heaven would be hell for them, and they would make it awful for everyone else.
  7. Hell is consistently described in terms of darkness, gnashing of teeth, weeping, and destruction. It is hard to know how much of that is to be taken literally (as has been most common throughout church history) and how much is to be taken figuratively. Some Bible verses emphasize the concept of eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 19:20, 20:10-15), while others emphasize the concept of permanent destruction (Matthew 10:28, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Perhaps it’s even a combination of both – punishment that eventually leads to destruction as sin slowly destroy our soul. There’s a lot of debate about the exact nature of hell. The main point, though, is that those who are “in hell” are not the poor innocent people begging for mercy, but those who have already set their hearts against God. They will not be begging to get into heaven – or if they are, it would only be so that they could do whatever they want and turn it into their own kingdom, not so that they could actually work with God in making something beautiful.

I think that about sums it up. At then end of all of that, we still come back to the simple concept – that the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. Those who seek God and life will find it. Those who seek their own way and follow the ways of death will also find that. And while God seems willing to judge people on what they know, He earnestly desires that all would know about Jesus – the one who conquered death so that we may have life, the one who took the punishment for our sins, the one who offers us a relationship with God. He is our Saviour, and the one who makes eternal life possible. Through him we have hope for eternal life instead of death.

Livin’ La Vida…Christian

Livin’ La Vida…Christian

Versión Español

This is the sixth part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts by following these links: SimpleFaithGodThe Bible,  Sin and Death, and Jesus.

“I’m a Christian”. The statement sounds so simple, yet it can have many layers of meaning behind it which cause confusion. The speaker might simply mean that they have been raised in a Christian culture, and are not buddhist or muslim. Or they might (likely will) have a specific “brand” of Christianity behind the statement – Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, etc. There are a million of them. There are also those who would use it for its explanatory power – to say why they do or do not participate in a certain activity or event. All in all, it can be a confusing term.

So how do we cut through all of the complexity to get to the heart of Christianity and what it means to be a Christian? If we look at the historical concept, it originally meant, quite simply, to be a follower of Jesus. This captures much of the idea intended by the term, but I have chosen the following phrase to try to capture it: We live in relationship with Jesus. What does it mean, though?

I would say that there are two underlying concepts that help us to understand this, and  then a few practices that can help us live it out. But at the end, I want to add a personal testimony of what this really looks like.

The first underlying concept is this: Since Jesus rose from the dead and went to heaven to be with God, he is alive to guide us and interact with us. We will get to the practical details of this shortly, but when we try to make Christianity all about just rules and regulations instead of relationship, we begin to lose the interactive aspect that is at the heart of Christianity. Christianity, we believe, is about a relationship.

The second concept is that we have been united to God (and Jesus) through the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that each person who enters into a covenant with God receives the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, alternately called the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ, is who allows us  to connect with Jesus and interact with him. 

So what does this look like on a practical level? I would argue that there are a few simple practices that have been foundational to Christians throughout the entirety of history. The forms of these might look different in many different traditions, but someone wanting to live in relationship with Christ will return to these simple practices over and over. They are so simple that they can almost seem boring or too easy, but the ability they have to impact one’s life are so significant that they should never be looked down on. They are:

  1. Read the Bible – Christians have always held that God can speak to us, and that the primary method of Him doing so is through the Bible. We believe that the Holy Spirit guided the authors of Scripture to record what we need to know God and to live out our faith. We also believe that the same Holy Spirit can speak to us through the words. While the Holy Spirit may speak to us in many different ways (“nudges”, the words of others, life’s circumstances, dreams, visions, and even an audible voice at times), the Bible was given to us as the steady guidebook that allows us to evaluate all of these other methods of hearing the Holy Spirit. And I have found the more that someone accepts the Bible as God’s Word and takes it seriously (when it says to forgive your neighbour, you forgive them!), the more their lives reflect Jesus.
  2. Pray – Prayer is a method given to us to both listen to and speak to God. If we believe in a relationship, then interaction is important. Obviously God knows everything about our lives, but as we pray we both pursue that relationship with God and take deliberate time and energy to listen to Him. Again, there are many different forms to do this, but the heart of it is interacting with God.
  3. Gathering – Christians have always met together to praise God and grow in their faith. There are two principal ways that Christians meet. The first is in a large group, almost always on Sundays, to praise God together, learn and visit. The style of these larger gatherings can vary wildly, but the purpose is more or less the same. The second way that Christians gather is in smaller groups, often during the week. This format works very well to “personalize” the teachings of Jesus, applying them to to the particular situation of the individual. It’s an excellent way to hear the voice of Gd through the counsel of others, as well as to encourage one another, challenge one another to growth, and seek the will of God together.
  4. Obedience – Of course, the ultimate purpose of all of these practices is to live the way that God wants us to live – both in a general sense and also in specific instances where he wants us to do particular things to bless and help others. We read the Bible, pray, and gather together so that we can learn to live as the people of God and to be His representatives here on earth. This ought to touch every aspect of our life – work, leisure, family, friends, hobbies, etc. We seek to honour God by obeying Him.

But let’s be honest – this all sounds very boring in some ways. You go to church, pray, and read the Bible. Where’s the adventure? The adventure comes when we really begin to implement the “obedience” part. For us, that has meant leaving our comfortable life in Canada and heading off to Costa Rica, and then Mexico, to serve in churches there. The picture at the top is our family on vacation in a small mining town in Mexico. The entire process of obeying God has been an adventure, to say the least! 

Of course, most people won’t leave their home to serve God in another country. But we are still called to be obedient to God. This means we don’t just pray, read the Bible and go to church – it means we act. It means we step out of our comfort zone and love people as Jesus called us to. It means we go to work, but also that we pray for the people at work, and show them love. It means we fill our spare time not just with our own hobbies and interests, but with some activities that will be a blessing to others. It means volunteering at the Food Bank, visiting sick neighbours, praying with people going through difficult circumstances, making immigrants feel welcome, contributing financially not just to the church, but to other organizations that need help. It also means choosing discipline and service over freedom and rights in our own life. It means sacrificing to follow God – whether that’s building a strong marriage rather than running around in multiple relationships, investing more time and energy into your kids’ lives, working less hours so you can invest in other activities, or undergoing significant counselling and changes to become the person God wants you to become. That’s why I focused on living in relationship with Jesus. It’s more than just going to church and praying and reading the Bible. It’s living a life in response to what Jesus says. And therein lies the adventure.

So there you have it. While it is very challenging to live as a Christian, at its heart, it’s very simple. We live in relationship with Christ, listening to his voice and trying to obey what he is saying and follow where he is leading. We are Christians – followers of Christ living in relationship with him.

Jesus

Jesus

Versión Español

This is the fifth part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts by following these links: Simple FaithGodThe Bible, and Sin and Death.

Note: I chose the picture above because it both shows the traditional view of Jesus and a model of what Jesus may actually have looked like based on the standard features of Jewish people of that time. I struggle sometimes with the “perfect” (and very caucasian) images of Jesus that we sometimes have. This is not at all the focus of my post, but I find it interesting. For a brief description of what Jesus may have looked like, wore, etc., check out this short BBC article.

In this part of our simple faith series, we enter into the heart of Christianity – the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The views on Jesus are many and varied. Christians claim that he is the divine Son of God. Others believe he was just a historical person, but who exactly he was is all over the map – a spiritual mystic? A wisdom teacher? A miracle worker? A simple prophet or teacher who was misunderstood by his followers, who later “upgraded” him to the Son of God? The ideas are legion. There are even a few (very few) who would argue that he never existed.

With all of these different views, understanding Jesus can feel incredibly complex. There have been countless volumes about him and an indescribable amount of ink spilled to try to explain him. But it can also be quite simple to understand Jesus. I have stated it as such: God became human in the person of Jesus to pay the price for our sin and to restore our relationship with God. Let’s break that down briefly.

Have you ever looked at an animal, like a dog, and wished you could understand and communicate with it? That would be awesome. By far the easiest way to do it would be to become that animal. By doing so, you would be able to communicate and understand it, and it, you. While this isn’t a perfect analogy, this is basically what Christianity says happened. God became human. Jesus was fully human – he was born, grew, ate, slept, walked around, and eventually died like every other human. 

But at the same time, he was God, demonstrated by the what he did and said. This is seen in a variety of ways – one thinks automatically of the healings he performed, driving out demons, and control over nature. But aside from those, we also see Jesus doing other very God-like things – forgiving sins, accepting worship, claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, speaking as though his words were more definitive and authoritative than the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), calling God his Father (instead of “our father” as the Jews apparently did), and so on. Plus his statements in the gospel of John that are even more definitive – I am the way, the truth and the life…, I am the resurrection and the life…, I am the bread of life…, I and the Father are one…, before Abraham was, I am [the Jewish name for God]….

Then there’s the whole rising from the dead thing. This is the linchpin of Christianity – the moment when Jesus showed that he was more than just a simple prophet or wisdom teacher. Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that it takes faith to believe that he actually rose from the dead, but it is definitely the simplest explanation for the rise of Christianity. All other explanations require ignoring or rewriting the gospels (to make Jesus not divine), and the complicated creation of other theories to explain the rise of Christianity. And while someone rising from the dead is definitely hard to believe, it is no harder to believe than God existing in the first place or becoming human. It’s at least consistent.

But it’s not just his existence and nature that are important. We looked last time at the fact that our sins have consequences. While we mostly discussed the external and internal destructive consequences of sin, it is also worth noting that our sins will often (always, if life was actually fair) bring some form of punishment. A child who lies and is caught will be punished by their parent. An employee caught stealing will be punished in some form (probably fired!), and someone who breaks the law will go to prison. While initially that punishment is designed to be corrective in nature, eventually, if the problem is not fixed, the punishment becomes permanent – whether that is permanent loss of relationship or employment, lifelong imprisonment or even (in some places) execution. I am not arguing for or against any particular form of punishment, I am simply acknowledging what we all know: wrong behaviour has consequences – punishment. One cannot simply allow a person to continue without correction. And if they refuse to change, eventually either removal from your presence or from society as a whole becomes necessary. Christianity argues that our sins deserve punishment, which is entirely consistent with our sense of justice. We would expect no different from our earthly parents or leaders, so why would we expect different of God? But it also says that Jesus, deserving no punishment himself, took that punishment for all of us.

In some ways this sounds hard to grasp, but we are very familiar with the concept if we think of movies. Who hasn’t seen a movie where one person sacrifices themselves for the benefit of others? At the same time, we are familiar with the concept of one person taking the punishment for another. While the general rule is that each person should pay for their own sins, we recognize that, especially when the punishment is too great, both the punisher and the sense of justice can be satisfied by another offering themselves to take the punishment or pay the fine.

This is what we find in the story of Jesus. Out of love, he offered to take our punishment. And God poured out His wrath and our punishment on him. In doing so, justice was served. But in taking that punishment on Himself in Jesus, God was both the punisher and the punished. We have seen and understand the love of God, and also the wrath of God toward sin. 

(As a side note, but an important one, wrath is appropriate. Just think of how we react as parents when one of our children disobeys, especially if they hurt another one of our kids. Sin destroys us, others, and relationships, and we are correct as parents to be angry about it and to punish appropriately. So, too, God expressed His displeasure toward sin and poured out His wrath on Jesus, as well as promised wrath at the final judgment in the future. We hate the idea of wrath when we look at God, but we are very quick to experience (and justify!) wrath when others offend us, and to demand justice. I think we are pretty hypocritical to expect otherwise from God.)

So because justice has been served, we are able to enter into a new relationship with God. God has always wanted to live in relationship with us, but our own sin has got in the way – it has stood as a barrier of guilt from our perspective, and as a barrier of justice from God’s perspective. Jesus took away both of those barriers. Justice has been served, and we can enter freely into God’s presence knowing that someone has paid for our sin.

That may have got complicated again, so let’s move it back to simple. God. Became human in Jesus. Jesus restored our relationship with God by getting rid of the barriers of justice and guilt, rising from the dead to show that he has power even over death. So now we can live in the proper relationship with God without fear of punishment, but rather with hope for eternal life. In my last post I ended by pointing out that I need help with this sin problem. In this post, we see that God provided that help.

And that is the simple story of hope that we hold onto in the midst of a complex and sinful world.

Sin and Death

Sin and Death

Versión Español

This is the fourth part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts herehere, and here.

As we continue our journey of the simple truths of Christianity, we come to the second concept: We disobeyed God (sinned) and all sorts of problems arose – in particular death.

To say that there is debate about every aspect of this concept would be accurate. There is the debate about whether God exists and whether there is actually someone to whom we are accountable. Then there is endless debate about the nature of humanity – are we a mix of both good and bad (like the famous yin and yang symbol)? Or re we good at heart, or evil? There is an outright denial by some that sin even exists, and even when people acknowledge that humans often do what is wrong, it is often quickly downplayed or blamed on other causes, such as society, our childhood, hurts inflicted by others, etc. And of course, there is debate about whether death is something natural – a simple biological reality to be embraced – or an enemy to be fought against with everything in us.

Christianity addresses each of these topics in depth, with complex discussions about God, the nature of humanity, morals and ethics, and the nature of death in our world. But the concept as I laid it out above is quite simple: We sinned, the world is broken, and death is the result. A few words about each of these will suffice for the purpose of this project.

If we accept as our starting point that God exists, then it is the most natural thing in the world that He would have guidelines and expectations for us. Every parent in the world has expectations of how their children will behave. Every boss of a company has expectations of his employees. Every person in charge of something has guidelines for those under them. If God created us, then of course there are guidelines for what is right and wrong.

And despite all the debate about what is right and wrong, I dare say most people are actually pretty closely aligned in identifying the things that will cause hurt and damage. While we can argue about things on a theoretical level, we can usually identify them pretty quickly if we experience them. Someone steals from us? That’s wrong. Someone mistreats us? Wrong. Cheats on us? Wrong. Is arrogant and looks down on us? Wrong. Is greedy? Wrong. In fact, if we were to look at classic Christian descriptions of right and wrong, such as the 10 commandments, the 7 deadly sins, lists in Paul’s letters (such as Galatians 5:19-21), or other comments in the Bible, we will discover that most people will look at them and recognize how those sins are hurtful, especially if we put ourselves in the position of the offended party. (This is the best viewpoint, I believe, because we are more likely to justify our own actions if we consider doing these things, but we recognize their destructive and hurtful nature if we consider someone committing them against us).

As well, we all know that breaking the rules leads to negative consequences, especially in relation to other people. The child who lies will, sooner or later, discover the destruction of trust and relationships that that causes. And if they refuse to change their ways, that destruction will grow. In fact, if they continue to disobey, they will discover (or reveal) not just external consequences such as broken relationships, but internal consequences such as a character that is misshapen and unworthy of trust. So it is with all sin – it causes not just external damage, but internal damage. This is why the world is broken – we are all sinful people who constantly hurt ourselves and others. Sometimes unintentionally, but at other times quite deliberately.

Which leads us to our final point, death. Sin is destructive, and its end point is death (both physically and especially spiritually, which is what physical death seems to warn us about). This is what we find in the book of James 1:14-15: “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” In the Christian view, death is not part of God’s creation – it is something foreign, the result of the destructive power of sin. Life is what God created us for, and death is the enemy.

I think most people agree that we were created for life, even if they express it differently. Nearly every person has some idea of what they think will come after death, whether reincarnation, going to a better place, becoming one with everything, etc. We all agree that we want to live or continue in some way, shape or form. Even those who truly deny life after death, such as certain atheists, will often express discomfort with the idea of ceasing to exist. Death is “normal”, but not natural or welcome.

And so we see that each concept is both simple and logical. If God exists, He has guidelines. We are generally aware of those guidelines, and if we break them, there are both external and internal consequences of a destructive nature. Because we all disobey these guidelines, the world is broken. We are broken – and not just broken, deliberately rebellious at times. And since sin is destructive, it inevitably leads to death – both physical death and spiritual death.

It is certainly true that this particular concept is not exactly comforting, but it is simple and makes perfect sense. And it fits in with our own experience – sin exists and it is destructive.

But I think it’s also important to make it personal: 
I generally know what is right and wrong
I choose to do what is wrong far too often (I’m broken and/or rebellious)
I know that it has a negative, destructive effect on my life, and
I know that death approaches, and that this sin is a problem – both because of how it destroys me, and also because of the potential of standing before God, the One who set the guidelines that I so often ignore.

And I think it leads to one other conclusion:

I need some help to get rid of this sin in my life.

Once again, keeping it simple can bring a lot of clarity – even if what it reveals is less than exciting.

The Bible

The Bible

Versión Español

This is the third part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts here and here.

Before we get any further into this series, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the Bible, considering that the Bible is the foundation of the Christian story. Since it’s so important, this will probably be the longest post of this series.

The Bible has been the “victim” of endless attacks over the past two centuries. It has been labelled as myth, derided as historically inaccurate, viewed as just another spiritual book, or seen as nothing more than a product of its times. To say that the issue is complex would be both accurate and severely understating the issue. So, without going into detail, what can I say about the Bible?

  1. It’s historically pretty solid. I say “pretty solid” because there are a lot of questions, and those questions get a lot of attention – the creation story, the flood, the exodus from Egypt, the birth of Jesus. Those things are understandable. But despite that, a few details are worth noting:
    a) There is a ton of evidence to support the history of the Bible. Archaeology has benefited tremendously from what the Bible says. There is tons of support for the historical figures and places named, events, etc. The questions exist, but they pale compared to what is supported.
    b) Many of the questions deal with ancient history. Understandably, the further back you go, the more questions arise. And there is lots that is disputed – but there is very little or nothing (despite claims otherwise) that shows that it is wrong. But boy, are there a lot of questions, both historically and literarily (were some stories history, or just allegory to make a point, or some other literary form?)
    c) It’s constantly proving skeptics wrong. Time and time again, when doing historical research, you will find the comment, “historians didn’t believe that such and such a person, [or place, or title, or people group] actually existed as the Bible claims, but recent discoveries show that they did.” It actually makes it harder to believe skeptics when they say something doesn’t exist or didn’t happen. I prefer to wait for more evidence and analysis. Archaeology is actually still a fairly young science, and the art of interpretation can be, at times, somewhat subjective.
  2. Most skeptics (and most people) begin with an anti-supernatural bias. This is totally understandable, but the Bible is a pretty supernatural book. The result is that much is “written off” for the sole reason that it is supernatural – especially in the life of Jesus. I don’t find that to be a good place to start an honest and open investigation, even if I can understand why people have that bias.
  3. The Bible requires faith. There is no way to prove all (or even any) of the God parts. The historical parts being reliable can give us some confidence, but ultimately, it requires faith. Those of us who are Christians would argue that it is reasonable faith, not just because of the historical reliability, but because of other factors like the overwhelming evidence of spirituality and morality in human beings, the cohesiveness of the story it tells, and the explanations it gives to life. But at the end of the day, it’s still a matter of faith.
  4. The Character of God, as revealed, is good. God gets a lot of flack for some of his “judgmental” actions, but there are three factors that stand out as part of his character:
    1. His love – From the creation of a good world for humanity, to His patience with our sinfulness, to His faithfulness despite humanity’s unfaithfulness, to the full forgiveness and offer of life that He gives us through Jesus, God’s love shines through.
    2. His justice – God hates sin. When He gets angry, it is due to the sinfulness of people and the destruction that sin brings. And He doesn’t just ignore it – He actually does something about it. We see this in many stories of God bringing about justice, and many words saying that He will one day bring about perfect justice. I must also note that we have no problems clamouring for justice when people offend and hurt us or others, so it’s a bit unfair to get angry at God when He actually punishes people for their misdeeds, or threatens them if they don’t obey. 
    3. His fairness – At times, God’s justice makes Him appear “evil” according to some, but when we combine His justice with His constant warnings, extreme patience (decades or centuries of waiting and warning), pleadings to repent, and relenting from judgment very quickly when someone actually does so, we see a different picture. There is justice, but only when there seems to be no other option and no repentance from those He is trying to get to obey. As well, the Bible constantly talks about how God sees and judges our heart, as well as our actions (which usually flow from our heart), so there is every evidence that He will judge fairly and appropriately.
  5. Jesus. The central story of Christianity is Jesus. There is a lot to back up both his life and also his death. There are a lot of reasons to believe in his resurrection as well, but that would be a whole complicated post. There are arguments against the resurrection, but I find they include a lot of speculation and the assumption that the Bible is wrong (instead of showing that it’s wrong). The simplest explanation for the rise of Christianity, the radical change in Jewish theology to Christian theology, and the willingness of the first disciples to give up everything for this new faith is that Jesus actually rose from the dead, which radically changed them and their approach to life. 
  6. It is different from other religious books. Again, this would take a long time to get into, but for me, there are two key points. The first is the strength of its history and cohesion through two millennia or more of stories. The second is the person of Jesus and his claims. Again, this does not prove anything, but I do believe that the message and the worldview it presents are distinct from all other holy books (while acknowledging that there are similarities at times, especially when it comes to ethical teaching).
  7. Its ethical teaching is pretty solid. Of course there are ideas that people disagree with, and some that are hard to understand, but for the most part, when I read the list of things that we are to do and not do, it’s pretty clear to see why, and following its teachings sure leads to the avoidance of a lot of heartache and trouble.

There is much more that could be said, but I want to keep this as simple as possible, so I’ll wrap it up there.

So, are there questions surrounding the Bible? Of course. There are tons of questions from all angles. But at the end of the day, it gives me a story for humanity that makes sense, and allows me to find my place in it. It shows me a God that I can both love and yet also respect and even fear (appropriate fear of One much greater than myself) – Someone who is worthy of worship, especially as He is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s simple, really. Despite the questions that remain, I believe the Bible is a trustworthy guide to know God and to live a godly (and good) life.

God and Us

God and Us

Versión Español

God made us in His image for relationship with Him.

As I mentioned in my last post, there are two ways to fish. One way is complicated – all the gear, lots of practice, special trips, study of both the art of fishing and the habits of the fish, and usually the inversion of copious amounts of time and money. The other way is simple – grab a pole, grab some line and a hook, and go stand at the river. Both methods are good and valuable, but they each look and feel different.

Christianity in our society is often overwhelmed with the complicated approach. Explain, explain, explain. Answer the criticisms, show the proof, argue the details. We live in the information society, so we need to prove everything. This can lead to many fantastic conversations and provide some very fulfilling answers. But it can also rob us of the joy of the simple story of our faith.

So how do we get this simplicity back with Christianity?

I think the answer is just as simple: We focus on the big ideas of our faith, and let go of the incessant need to explain every detail. Again, I’m not suggesting that those details don’t matter or aren’t interesting, just that they can rob us of the simple truths that can bring both joy and peace. Today I want to focus on two big ideas that can get bogged down in details.

The first is this: That God exists.

Our society has made this idea seem foolish, when it’s really quite logical. Complexity by its very nature indicates the presence of an intelligence behind it, so to see a complex world implies a significant intelligence. Morals are intrinsically relational, so it isn’t illogical to think that they indicate a person – God – behind them. Human children look like their parents, so it isn’t ridiculous to think that humanity resembles Someone greater than us. Nothing can create itself, so when confronted with a universe that had a beginning, it makes sense to think something – or more accurately, Someone (since “things” also don’t have intelligent creative power) – began it. Humanity seems to have an intrinsic inclination towards worship, and if not to worship, at least to look for meaning beyond ourselves, all of which points to a source and fulfillment beyond ourselves.

Of course, none of these arguments are “proof”, but that’s not my point here. My point is simply that the existence of God makes sense. It is more our society that has declared it illogical than the actual facts themselves. There is no compelling reason why we shouldn’t believe in God.

But the implications are also significant and simple. Someone is in control. Someone is in charge. Like a child is able rest easy because they know that their parents are present and in charge, so can we “rest easy” because we know that there is a God who is overseeing all of the goings on of humanity and this world, even while giving us freedom to make our own choices. When everything seems out of control, when we have no idea what’s going on, when tragedy hits or when life is going well, we can rest in the simple knowledge that there is One who knows and oversees all. This is peace.

The second big detail is this: that we were created in His image and have intrinsic value.

Humanity is complicated and messy. But we are valuable and special as well. Scripture paints us as made in His image – like God. In some ways, this has been captured in our western society, where we proclaim (but don’t always live) the value of all people, regardless of age, race, nationality, economic status, and yes, even sexuality. Unfortunately, this message of the value of humanity is contradicted by the teaching that humans are nothing special, just advanced primates, and that there is no actual cosmic significance to our lives. What is affirmed in one breath is taken away in the next.

By contrast, Christianity teaches that we are valuable because we reflect God Himself. We are not just extra smart animals. It also teaches that our lives have significance, and that we are created both for purpose (to work and govern this world) and, ultimately, for relationship (eternally with others and with God). From the unborn to the elderly, from the sick to the healthy, from the rich to the poor, and every variation in between, humans are intrinsically valuable. And the heart of the gospel is the story of Jesus – that God Himself actually came as a human to identify with us, to experience our world as one of us, and to resolve the death situation that faces us all (this is a topic for a future post). When reading the Bible, it’s pretty clear that God wants to have a relationship with us – that’s why He created us in the first place.

And so we affirm two simple ideas, both of which can bring tremendous peace and joy:

God exists and is in control.

You are special and loved – created in His image to have a relationship with Him.

Let those simple truths sink in.

Simple Faith

Simple Faith

Versión Español

There is a place and a time for complexity, but sometimes it just gets in the way.

Let’s say you want to take up fishing, for example. There are essentially two ways to go about it. The first is to grab a sturdy, but flexible stick, tie a string or some sort of line to it, and attach a simple hook to the line (and maybe a worm or something, too). Then head out to the river or lake nearby and throw it in the water and see what happens. 

The second is to do your homework and prepare. What kind of fish do you want to catch? Where is the best place and time to catch it? What is the best equipment to buy? And then, of course, you need to buy all the equipment – the best rod (or a variety of rods), different lures, different bait, the right kind of line for the size of fish, leaders, nets, hooks and so on. Plus all the ancillary equipment – fishing clothes, perhaps a boat plus a truck to haul it, life jackets, buckets for storing the fish, etc. Time is carved out to go on the trip (or multiple trips), and a good time is had by all.

Now there is no doubt that the second method makes the first look absolutely primitive and, dare I say, simplistic. And no doubt the second method will bring tremendous joy to those who pursue it that way, as well as increased success (at least in the long run). Complexity is not bad.

But sometimes, complexity gets in the way. Instead of bringing joy, it can bring frustration. The money isn’t there to buy the proper equipment. There isn’t enough time to go on the perfect fishing trip. Or everything is planned just right, but the weather foils it. Or it’s just too much work for the reward. The joy of fishing can get lost in the complexity of the endeavour.

This came home to me last summer when we went to visit some relatives at their lot on a lake. We showed up to find some of our boys’ cousins fishing off the dock. And in a flash, our boys were out there with them. Nothing but a rod, a line, and a hook. They stood on that dock and fished for hours over the next few days – sometimes catching, sometimes not, but always having fun. We could have found a boat and taken them to the middle of the lake. Or bought some expensive lures, or their own fishing rods, or a ton of other things. But for them, that would have been nothing more than a distraction. They just wanted a rod, a line, and a hook, and they were perfectly happy.

I think this can apply very often to our spiritual life, especially in our current culture and environment. We live in a complex era – the information age. We have way more knowledge than we could ever hope to use at our fingertips. And that knowledge creates in us a certain expectation – that we will always be able to know everything perfectly, explain everything, answer everything. Mystery or ignorance is frowned upon.

And so we approach Christianity with high expectations. We demand answers to everything. We expect to explain every detail. Gaps in information are incredibly suspect. We demand that our Christianity – as everything – be complex, with a solution for every problem. 

Of course, Christianity is very open to complexity. Let it never be said that Christians shy away from tough conversations or problems (well, obviously some do, but Christianity as a whole does not). There are incredibly complex, enjoyable and beautiful discussions about every aspect of Christianity. Complexity is not bad.

But sometimes (often, I feel), that complexity gets in the way of the beauty of the simple story of Christianity. I have recently been aware of this in my own life, and have seen it to be true in the lives of many others. In a quest for complex, comprehensive answers to every question imaginable, it becomes very easy to lose sight of the simple core of Christianity. And Christians suffer for it.

The central message of Christianity is not difficult:

  • God made us in His image, for relationship with Him
  • We disobeyed (sinned) and all sorts of problems arose – in particular death
  • God became human in the person of Jesus to pay the price for our sin and to restore our relationship with God
  • We live in relationship with Jesus
  • We have hope of eternal life instead of punishment and separation

I’ll admit, in a scientific age, that simple message can sound not just simplistic, but antiquated. Questions arise, demanding complex answers, screaming for attention and resolution. I have them all the time. In fact, more often than not as I contemplate God and speak with others who struggle, these questions dominate and drive the conversation about faith.

And yet, my mind wanders back to my own experience growing up and to the lives and examples of my parents and grandparents. There were questions back then, no doubt, but they were not in the driver’s seat. The simple story was – God made us, God loves us, God wants to forgive us and have a relationship with us, and to show us how to live and offer us eternal life. And that simple story brought tremendous life and joy.

So I want to take my next posts not to answer all the questions or debate the complex issues, but to remember the simple story and reflect on how much joy it can bring. Because complexity isn’t bad, but sometimes it just gets in the way.

So let’s grab a pole, a line and a hook. Let’s go fishing.