Three dangers of trying too hard to explain world events

end-of-suffering

Whenever some sort of major event happens in the world—such as the devastation caused by an earthquake in Nepal or the destruction and social upheaval caused by rioting in Baltimore—Christians always want to offer an explanation. To say something to help people interpret these events, or offer something helpful as we seek to live life in the days that follow.

There’s a great deal of good that can come from articles of this nature, but—and I say this as someone who has written several of these in the past—but there are also great dangers from such things. Here are three:

1. We may appear to lack compassion. This is the easiest trap to fall into, particularly for theology nerds. But first, let me state the necessary positive: I believe it is absolutely essential to help people think biblically about what we see going on in the world and the trials we face. To help others develop even the most rudimentary theology of suffering. Honestly, had I not been compelled to do so in the months leading up to the miscarriage of our second child and my wife’s two subsequent brushes with death, I don’t know how I would have gotten out of bed each morning (and even then there were days when it was extraordinarily difficult).

But here’s the thing about a theology of suffering: even a basic understanding of how God uses trial and suffering leads to compassion for those who are suffering. It leads us to offer encouragement—not because these things caught God unawares, but because they are an opportunity for his people to demonstrate his love to those who most need it. In a counterintuitive way, trial and suffering can lead to increased trust and confidence in the Lord. And that’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

So that’s the positive. Here’s the danger: Although helping the suffering see their circumstances through the lens of God’s plan of redemption is a good thing, we must be careful to not to be so busy in our theologizing that we fail to communicate with compassion. When we look at the Baltimore riots, for example, we should readily acknowledge all the factors that lead to this situation, in so far as we are able. The actions of the rioters may be wrong, but the circumstances that made people feel as though this was their only option are equally so. Similarly, we should weep with and for the thousands upon thousands who’ve lost their lives and livelihoods because of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Helping people see what God is doing—in our admittedly extremely limited understanding—should never be mistaken for some sort of mere intellectual exercise. And if that’s what it sounds like, we’re doing it wrong.

2. We risk being presumptuous. In the same way that we can be perceived as lacking compassion, we also risk being presumptuous in our understanding of what God is really doing. We should be extremely reticent to say this or that event was God’s judgment on any particular people group or nation, especially when this might be true only in the broadest sense—that is, the events we see taking place are the outworking of the curse, rather than a specific act of  divinely directed wrath.

Likewise, although we know that God does indeed ordain all things and works all things together for good according to his purposes, we don’t know how he does that. So we should be absolutely willing to say, “I don’t understand these events, but I know that God has a purpose in them.” And we should readily admit that one of the chief things these events should do is awaken a longing in us for the end of suffering, an end that will only come in the new heavens and the new earth, when Christ returns to make all things new and wipe away every tear from every eye. That we can say with confidence.

3. We risk impugning the motives of fellow believers. This is the final danger, and it is one that I often see Christians doing. A Christian minister recently tweeted that, rather than seeing people return to their false gods, his desire was for people in Nepal to come to know Christ, inspiring ire from both Christians and non-Christians alike. To be fair, his tweet could have been better phrased, but, substantially, the heart behind it and what appears in Suraj Kasula’s post at Desiring God is the same:

Most of the people hit by this tragedy in Nepal are Hindu. They blame their gods whenever disaster hits, and they will do the same again. The Hindu gods are untouched by suffering. By contrast, Jesus draws near and sympathizes with those who weep, because he knows human suffering and human tears. And as difficult as it is to imagine right now, the suffering Jesus Christ endured on the cross to pay for God’s wrath on behalf of sinners exceeds the sorrow of the whole nation of Nepal right now.

Both want people to come to know Christ out of this tragedy. And isn’t this what we all want, really? It doesn’t diminish the realities of the trials people are facing, nor does it reduce the imperative to help those in their distress. Instead, it is a recognition of twin components of human life—our spiritual and physical needs. We should always help those in distress, but we should also be careful to consider the state of their souls. And likewise, we should be careful to avoid calling a fellow believer heartless and cruel when he or she does exactly that.

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Kindle deals for Christian readers

A couple of new Kindle deals for you today:

Two years of no lies

I didn’t realize how often I lied until I stopped lying completely.

It wasn’t an intentional decision. Two summers ago I did my first ten-day silent meditation retreat, and we were required to sign five vows to join the program, including a vow of honesty. I didn’t know this until I arrived. But when you’re about to begin ten days in silence, signing your name on a vow not to lie does not feel like a bold step. At the end of the retreat, however, we were told the vows, which also include no killing and no stealing, now apply to the rest of our lives.

We Are Gomer

Brandon Smith:

Throughout the Book of Hosea, we see both the loving-kindness and frustration of God with his people. Like Gomer, they refuse his repeated attempts at reconciliation and continue to ignore his love. But we must remember that God did not leave Israel to continually wallow in her own desires. At least not entirely and not forever.

God, Science and the Big Questions

Be sure to register for the livestream of this webcast if you can’t attend personally. Looks to be excellent.

Shut up and Shut Out: Pursuing Wisdom by Saying Less

Kyle Worley:

To know when to speak with wisdom and when to stay silent in wisdom, we must draw near in silence to the One who is wisdom.Everyone has something to say. Now, more than ever before, they have the tools to say it to the world. ISIS beheads another innocent aid worker? TV channels will cover the pictures in “Breaking News” graphics. Post a Facebook comment about the heartbreaking death of an aunt suffering from disease? People you haven’t talked to in years will Like your post. In a day of live-tweeted tragedies and executions broadcast online, I fear that we have lost the sense that there are times when the wisest thing to do is refrain from commenting. Sometimes, there is nothing to say. I fear that we have forgotten that silence can be the loudest and wisest word spoken.

Your next Bible might be a hologram

I sure hope not. But this is interesting stuff from Stephen Smith.

Ethan Hawke, C.S. Lewis and What It Means to be Human

Aaron Earls:

In a somewhat surprisingly insightful interview (though with corse language) on the Nerdist podcast, host Chris Hardwick spoke with actor Ethan Hawke about his role in the critically acclaimed Boyhood, the time travel flick Predestination, and, oddly enough, Hawke’s philosophical musings on life.

The conversation turned to the self-destruction of numerous individuals in Hollywood with both Hardwick and Hawke discussing the dual pull humans face. “You vacillate a lot,” Hawke said. Then, mimicking the internal dialogue of so many, he continued, “I hate myself. I’m a genius, I was wrong to hate myself.”

So how do we manage to swim in between those two whirlpools? How do we find the balance between hating oneself and over-inflating oneself?

When Your Church is In Trouble: Tell the Truth, Face the Future

Good stuff here from Trevin Wax.

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Coming (Back) to America: My One Fear

Thabiti Anyabwile:

When asked the question, I’d usually pause. Not because I didn’t have an answer, but because some fears feel too real when you give them words. So I’d pause. Then I’d say two things: “Truthfully, the Lord has kept us from any fears that we can discern about planting the church or living in Southeast. If I have a fear it would be one thing: bringing my son Titus to the United States. He’s so tender and innocent and the States can be very hard on Black boys.”

That’s my one fear. This country destroying my boy. Ferguson is my fear. I could be the black dad approaching a white sheet stained with his son’s blood. I could be the husband holding his wife, rocking in anguish, terrorized by the ‘what happeneds’ and the ‘how could theys,’ unable to console his wife, his wife who works so hard to make her son a “momma’s boy” with too many hugs, bedtime stories, presents for nothing, and an overflowing delight in everything he does. How do you comfort a woman who feels like a part of her soul was ripped out her chest?

“You can’t always be nice”

Ray Ortlund:

Mature Christian leaders know the difference between petty issues that deserve zero passion, and burning issues worth dying for, and the various gradations in between.  But mature Christians leaders are willing to say hard things out loud in public, willing to face the past rather than sweep it under the rug, willing to create an awkward moment because something more important than saving face and remaining comfortable is on the line.  God is so real to men and women like this, that they will do whatever his Word clearly requires, no matter what.

On Ferguson and white privilege

Matt Chandler:

The challenge with white privilege is that most white people cannot see it. We assume that the experiences and opportunities afforded to us are the same afforded to others. Sadly, this simply isn’t true. Privileged people can fall into the trap of universalizing experiences and laying them across other people’s experiences as an interpretive lens. For instance, a privileged person may not understand why anyone would mistrust a public servant simply because they have never had a viable reason to mistrust a public servant. The list goes on.

The Taste of Strawberries: Tolkien’s Imagination of the Good

Jeremy Bilbro:

What I find fascinating is the means Tolkien uses to address this problem of imagining goodness. Rather than portraying an exceptionally good character, he instead portrays rather ordinary characters who are drawn by exceptionally beautiful visions of goodness or shalom. We long for the rich life experienced by the hobbits in the Shire, the elves in Rivendell, the dwarves in Moria and their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, and the men in Rohan and Gondor. These places are not perfect, but their vibrant communities offer rich visions of shalom, of beautiful, harmonious ways of life.

Wisdom Is A “Who” More Than A “What”

Jeff Medders:

The Proverbs fill in the blanks for us on Jesus’s life that the Gospels didn’t set out to give us. We don’t have to wonder, “What would Jesus do?” The Proverbs tell us. They show us what he did. They show us what he didn’t do. The Proverbs give us insight into how Jesus faced the everyday matters of life, therefore discipling us into our everyday lives.

The wise life is to have the proverbial righteousness of Christ play out to every edge of life.

Knowledge vs understanding

Martyn Lloyd-Jones

There is nothing new about not believing in God; it is the oldest thing in the world to deny Him. This is what I find so pathetic, that people think it is clever not to believe in God, that it is modern, that it is something new, that it is something wonderful! But here is a man, King David, writing all this a thousand years before Christ—nearly three thousand years ago—and there were people saying then, “There is no God”—just what clever people are saying today, those who try to argue that they are saying it in terms of some latest esoteric knowledge that they have been given and that other people still do not have. But is it not clear that this has nothing at all to do with knowledge as such?

No; it is a question of understanding, and that is a very different thing. Men and women may have a lot of book knowledge, but that does not mean they have understanding or that they have wisdom. They can be aware of many facts, but they may be fools in their own personal lives. Have we not known such people? I have known men in some of the learned professions; I would take their opinion without a moment’s hesitation because of their knowledge and because of their learning. But sometimes I have known some of those men to be utter fools in their own personal lives. I mean by that, they behaved like lunatics, as if they had not a brain at all. They have behaved in exactly the same way as a man who never had their educational advantages and who had none of their great knowledge. They drank too much even as a less educated man did; they were guilty of adultery even as he was.

There is all the difference in the world between knowledge—an awareness of facts—and wisdom and real understanding. Though people may have great brains and may know a number of things, they may still be governed by their lusts and passions and desires, and that is why they are fools.… They are men and women who listen to their hearts, their desires; they are governed by what they want to do rather than by true understanding.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Seeking the Face of God: Nine Reflections on the Psalms, 14–15

The danger of embracing ignorance

word-balloons

Today’s a big day in Ontario, the province where I live: Election Day. June 12th is the day when Ontarians have the opportunity to make their voices heard and… vote for the member of provincial parliament in their riding who will represent them in the legislative assembly and the leader of the party with the most seats becomes Premier. Yes, it is as convoluted as it sounds.

While no one’s entirely certain who will come out on top this time around, there’s one thing that’s almost a sure bet: there’s a good chance this year we’ll see a record low voter turnout. Just like last time. After all, even the best of the parties we have to choose from is pretty unsavory, and it’s unpleasant to have to choose the best of the worst at the ballot box, y’know?

But I’m not sure that’s the reason most people decide not to vote. Actually, I’m concerned far too many choose to remain ignorant about things that really matter. (And like it or not, politics really does matter.)

But this kind of embrace of ignorance goes by another name: foolishness.

Years ago, during another election season, my wife asked one of her coworkers—one who was extremely well educated—if he was going to be voting that evening. His response? “Nah, it doesn’t really matter. They’re all bad anyway.” Incidentally, he also once argued with me that nothing really existed, including himself.

Foolishness.

Slightly beyond politics, there’s the ongoing myth of overpopulation, one which continues to hold sway in popular culture, even as we see nations sink into economic disaster due to under-population.

“I can’t believe you have three children—don’t you know we have a population problem?”

“Actually, the entire population of the world could fit in Texas with about 1000 sq. ft. between each person.”

Foolishness.

And then there’s the recent rise of the “trigger warning”—the idea that you might need to label blogs, articles, and, shockingly, classic books because they have content that might be offensive to modern sensibilities.

“I had no idea this book had this word in it! How can they put it on the curriculum?!?”

“It’s Huckleberry Finn.”

Foolishness.

There’s a kind of ignorance that comes with a lack of knowledge. When we simply don’t know something, that doesn’t make us fools. It just makes us ignorant. It’s a situation we can change and should want to gladly. But when we embrace ignorance, when we latch on to nonsensical ideas and perpetuate them, when we fail to engage with literature and the arts, when we neglect rights and privileges because politicians are “bad…” I can’t help but wonder how much the words of Ecclesiastes apply to us:

“Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool” (Ecclesiastes 10:3).

 

Don’t Study Theology

How often do we study theology for the sake of studying theology?

Carl Trueman’s provocatively titled article, Minority Report: The Importance of Not Studying Theology, addresses that very issue. Trueman writes,

The greatest temptation of a theology student is to assume that what they are studying is the most important thing in the world. Now, I need to be uncharacteristically nuanced at this point: there is a sense, a very deep and true sense, in which theology is the most important thing in the world. It is, after all, reflection upon what God has chosen to reveal to his creatures; and it thus involves the very meaning of existence. In this sense, there is nothing more important than doing theology.

But this is not the whole story. One of the great problems with the study of theology is how quickly it can become the study of theology, rather than the study of theology, that becomes the point. We are all no doubt familiar with the secular mindset which repudiates any notion of certainty in thought; and one of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that intellectual inquiry is rather like trying to get a date with the attractive girl across the road with whom you have secretly fallen in love: the thrill comes more from the chase and the sense of anticipation than it does from actually finding the answer or eliciting agreement to go to the movies.

This is a great temptation for me. I’m a very “booky” person. I genuinely enjoy studying complicated ideas. I like reading a lot (as is obvious from much of the content of this blog).

But I’ve found that I have to constantly be asking myself two questions:

  1. Does what I’m reading help me grow in my knowledge of and love for Christ?
  2. Am I actually growing wiser because I’m applying what I’m reading or am I merely accumulating information?

Reading Trueman’s article reminded me just how important it is for me to be constantly asking these questions. [Read more…]

A Question of Choice

This question was posed in Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something, and, because it’s been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks now, I thought I’d ask you:

Imagine if someone came to you tonight and said, “I’ll pay off all your bills, I’ll pay off your mortgage. I’ll load up your Roth IRA. I’ll give you money for vacations. I’ll give you 20,000 square feet to live in, and any care you like, or I can make you wise.” What would you say to that person?

Leave your thoughts in the comments thread.