Why Does God Allow Tragedy and Suffering?

The question above is one of the most frequently asked questions in the world, I think. Unbelievers ask it of believers, and believers ask it of other believers and of God Himself. It is not an easy question to answer, but there are some relevant biblical passages that I think help to understand.

I am indebted to John MacArthur, John Piper, Lee Strobel and others in developing my own understanding of how to handle this question.

The tragedy and suffering to which I am referring can fall into various categories, I think. Natural disasters and acts of human depravity are the ones we most often think of, and the ones of which this question is most often asked, I think, but the same question can be asked when bad things happen to good people or when wicked people seek to prosper (when good things happen to bad people, in other words). While my answer is aimed primarily at the first two, the principles are applicable to the second two.

Acts of human depravity prompt strong emotions. The resulting emotions are so strong, in fact, that in extreme instances people can remember exact details of where they were when they first heard of the tragedy. Those who were alive during the attack on Pearl Harbor never forgot that news. I can remember my mother telling me of her recollection of getting the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I, like many others, remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first learned of the events of 9/11. It is normal to try to make sense of these senseless acts of violence, and it can be difficult, at best, to try to reconcile these events with a belief that God is a loving and all-powerful God.

Before looking at Scripture in an effort to understand why such horrible acts of human depravity can occur if God is indeed a God of love, two background principles are important. First, Jesus Himself promised, in John 16:33, that we will have tribulations as long as we are on this earth. Second, in I Corinthians 13:12, Paul explains that right now, in our finite human minds, we can see only dimly–we know only in part. Like looking through a fog or gazing into a dirty mirror, we cannot get a high resolution image of why things occur. God has that perspective, and perhaps in eternity–if we still want to know–God will grant us that perspective, but we will never be able to grasp sharp, specific answers to any one natural disaster or act of depravity. As frustrating as that may be for me or for you, that’s simply “the way it is.” I do not know why God allowed Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans, or why God did not stop a young man from chaining doors shut to maximize the loss of life on the campus of Virginia Tech. Furthermore, I would approach with skepticism any person who claims to have a specific explanation for such tragedies. The reality is, we cannot fully know the mind of God in such instances.

But there is plenty that we can know, and I turn now to that.

First, God did not create evil and suffering. In Genesis 1:31 God said, after six days of creation, that the world He created was good. Accordingly, there was no evil or suffering at the end of creation; had there been, God could not have said everything was good. In I Corinthians 14:33 it says that God is not a God of confusion. Regardless of whatever else may occur in the aftermath of natural disasters or acts of mass violence, confusion always results. The panic, the screaming, the smoke and dust, the complete chaos… God does not, and cannot, author such things. I John 1:5 says that in God there is no darkness at all. Habakkuk 1:13 says that “God is of purer eyes than to approve evil or behold evil. He cannot look on wickedness.” And I John 2:16 says, “All that is in the world, all evil categorically, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life is not of the Father.”

However, God had to give human beings a free will in order to give humans the ability to love. Love, whatever else it is or however else it may be defined, is a choice, and without the ability and freedom to make a choice, humans could not love–one another, or God; for if love is a choice, “forced” or “programmed” love is not love at all.

So how did evil enter the world? First, recall that Lucifer was cast out of heaven for wanting to be like God. Isaiah 14:12-14 describes Lucifer’s arrogance and resulting fall. Notice the repeated “I” statements in that passage. Lucifer wanted to be like God. In Luke 10:18 Jesus describes seeing Lucifer fall from heaven like lightening from the sky. Interestingly, Satan, in the guise of a serpent, then tempted Eve the same way in Genesis 3, telling her that if she ate of the fruit, she would be like God.

Sin, then, entered the world through Adam and Eve, and has been inherited by every human being thereafter. See Romans 5:12. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart is desperately wicked. James 1:14 says that each person is drawn away by his own lust–meaning we each have our own unique sin nature and proclivities.

John MacArthur, in his sermon “The Origin of Evil,” says: “Listen to this, to disobey God was to initiate evil. Evil is not the presence of something, evil is the absence of righteousness. You can’t create evil because evil doesn’t exist as a created entity. It doesn’t exist as a created reality. Evil is a negative. Evil is the absence of perfection. It’s the absence of holiness. It’s the absence of goodness. It’s the absence of righteousness. Evil became a reality only when creatures chose to disobey. Evil came into existence initially then in the fall of angels and then next, in the fall of Adam and Eve.”

So, God did not create evil, but He did create the possibility for evil to exist by giving human beings a free will, the ability to choose, and make their own decisions. God could have chosen to make us robots, but He didn’t.

Second, God is omnipotent, and He could stop or prevent evil if He wanted to do so. This is perhaps the hardest part to wrap our minds around and come to grips with, because we, in our limited understanding, cannot fathom having the ability to prevent evil and not doing so. In Genesis 18:14a we see the rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for God?” The answer, of course, is no. In Mark 10:27 we see Jesus Himself say, “All things are possible with God.” In Job, we see that God limits the power and reach of Satan (see Job 1:12 and 2:6). So no evil takes place that God does not allow to occur, and no evil takes place that God could not stop. Remember, however, that preventing or eliminating evil would necessitate the removal or, at the very least, the partial suspension of free will.

Third, though evil (including pain, suffering, tribulation, persecution, etc.) is not good, and is not from God, God can and does work through evil to accomplish His purposes. In Romans 8:28 we have the verse that is probably too cavalierly used in attempting to comfort and encourage those who are going through difficulties, but that does not change the veracity of the verse: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (NASB, emphasis added). That little three-letter word “all” is really a huge word, because it means that there is nothing that God cannot and does not work through for the good of those who love Him. God is never surprised, and is never left thinking, “Now how am I going to make anything good out of this?” In His omniscience, He knows full well exactly what will happen and when, and how He will work through it.

In Isaiah 46:9-10 we see that God’s purposes will be accomplished–so evil cannot thwart or derail the plans of God. In Genesis 50:20 we see an excellent example. If anyone had lived a life that would prompt questioning God’s goodness and love it was Joseph. He was sold by his own brothers into slavery, then, after working his way to the top of Potiphar’s household was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, and when he translated dreams for two of Pharaoh’s servants he asked them not to forget him, but they did, for several years. Yet, looking back on all that, Joseph was able to tell his brothers that what they had intended for evil God had used for good. In Philippians 1:12 there is a great New Testament example. Paul had suffered tremendously for the cause of Christ, from beatings to stonings to shipwrecks to imprisonment, and yet he wrote that what had happened had really served to further the gospel. We may not be able to understand why, but for whatever reason, God allows deeds that He hates, and He works through them to accomplish His purposes and to bring glory o Himself.

After all, the greatest example of evil ever perpetrated by man would be the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus was perfect–He had never sinned, never done a single thing worthy of punishment, and yet He was executed on a Roman cross. God could have prevented that evil; Jesus Himself could have refused to allow Himself to be executed. Yet, through that horrible act of human depravity, God worked to accomplish His plan to pay for the sins of humanity and to make possible the forgiveness of sins and the free gift of salvation.

Fourth, it is important that we keep in mind that we can question God–so long as we remember our place, and do so with reverence and respect. Many questions are put to God in the Psalms. Job questioned God. Habakkuk questioned God, too. After asking God whether He was aware of what was going on–and receiving God’s response that He knew exactly what was going on, and was going to address it–Habakkuk was incredulous. God’s solution seemed worse than the problem! By the end of the book though (see Habakkuk 3:16) Habakkuk is well aware of His place. He remembers that God is God, and he is not.

The web site gotquestions.org says, “It is entirely different to wonder why God allowed a certain event than it is to directly question God’s goodness. Having doubts is different from questioning God’s sovereignty and attacking His character. In short, an honest question is not a sin, but a bitter, untrusting, or rebellious heart is. God is not intimidated by questions. God invites us to enjoy close fellowship with Him. When we “question God” it should be from a humble spirit and open mind. We can question God, but we should not expect an answer unless we are genuinely interested in His answer. God knows our hearts, and knows whether we are genuinely seeking Him to enlighten us. Our heart attitude is what determines whether it is right or wrong to question God.”

In other words, there is a world of difference in questioning God out of a desire to understand and questioning God as an accusation. One is a humble acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and an expression of a desire to know what we can learn, how we can help and how we can grow. The other is based on the position that we know better than God, and is the equivalent of yelling at God, “How dare you!”

Fifth, we must remember–and be encouraged by the fact–that God will eventually conquer evil once and for all. Satan has already been defeated, but God has thus far allowed the battles to rage on even though the war has been won. But Revelation 20 makes it absolutely clear that one day that will change; God will say “enough,” and Satan will be thrown forever into the lake of fire.

Finally, we must bear in mind that our suffering in this life is temporary, and it pales in comparison to what God has in store for us as believers in eternity. See Romans 8:18 and I Corinthians 2:9.

No one wants suffering or trials or tribulations or the seeming triumph of evil in this world. And there is nothing wrong with feeling grief, sadness and even anger over man’s inhumanity to man. There is nothing wrong with humbly questioning God. But the truth is, as long as we exist on this earth there will be evil. God, for reasons only He may understand, allows it, and works through it to accomplish His purposes.

So, what’s the bottom line? Evil exists in the world because God loved us enough to allow for the potential for evil to exist. I realize that does not seem to make sense. And please note that I did not say that evil is an expression of God’s love. It absolutely is not, and God hates evil. But God’s love for humans is stronger than His hatred of evil, and therefore He created a world in which we each have the freedom to make our own decisions–even when those decisions are to commit evil.

When we are faced with evil, we must decide how we will respond. We can turn from God, or we can turn to God. But the good news is found at the end of that verse we started with; John 16:33 does promise that we will have tribulation, but Jesus then says, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

See You At the Pole

This morning I gathered with students, faculty and staff around the flagpole in front of Sunshine Bible Academy to pray for our school, our nation, and students in schools around the country. Other than the fact that we were standing around the flagpole, this was not unusual at SBA. We have the opportunity to pray together every day. Gathering around the flagpole this morning, though, was a good reminder of that privilege, one that is not enjoyed by all students in all schools in the United States or around the world.

Since 1990 the fourth Wednesday in September has been designated for “See You At the Pole,” an opportunity for students and others to gather to read Scripture, pray and sing. The event has grown exponentially in the U.S.–millions of students will have gathered at their schools today–and has spread to other countries, as well.

As I stood in the brisk morning air around that flagpole, I was reminded that (1) we have tremendous freedoms in this country that are too often taken for granted, (2) I serve at a school where I have the opportunity to pray with my students and in my classes every day, and (3) there are thousands of students, parents and others gathering around flag poles all across the country today to pray for our country, our leaders, our schools and our students.

It is important that we not take our freedoms for granted, and that we stand up and defend them when necessary. Despite the fact that SYATP gatherings are protected by free speech and assembly, and have been protected by judicial rulings when challenged, there will always be people who ridicule those who participate, who try to create obstacles for such events, and who will even challenge whether or not such events are legal. When such challenges occur we must not back down from exercising and protecting our freedoms.

So, with millions of others, today I humble ask God to protect our nation, to give wisdom and guidance to our elected officials, to keep the men and women serving in our armed forces safe. I ask Him to give Christians in this country the courage to stand up and make their voices heard when necessary, to educate themselves about the political process and candidates for office, and to vote for men and women who will have discernment and will seek to honor the Lord in the decisions that they make. I pray that God’s will will be done in the elections in November. And I thank God for allowing me to live in a country that does give me the freedom to worship God without fear of extreme persecution or imprisonment.

Songs About the Cross

My wife likes to joke that I have a jukebox in my head, because there is often some song stuck in my mind, and any number of things can bring a song to my mind at just about any time. This morning I woke up with the lyrics from “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” running through my head. Specifically, the line, “It was my sin that held him there,” kept repeating. This song was written by Stuart Townend, in my opinion one of the best contemporary hymn writers, and has been recorded by many recording artists. It is a powerful song, one that I enjoy singing and that always makes me stop and consider the cost of my salvation and the immeasurable gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

As I was singing this song to myself this morning, though, I began to think about the fact that the line I mentioned above is not really accurate. It really was not my sin that held him there. That would imply, after all, that sin was powerful enough to keep Christ on the cross–that sin was more powerful than the Son of God–and that simply is not true. Interestingly, as I looked up the lyrics online this morning I found two separate versions of that particular line. Some have it as I learned it, and was singing it this morning. Others, however, have that line as, “It was my sin that left him there.” Unfortunately, Stuart Townend does not have the lyrics for his songs on his own web site, so I could not “go to the source,” as it were to see how he wrote it.

Please note that, whichever way Mr. Townend wrote it, I am not criticizing the song. It is full of powerful and thought-provoking truth, and I am thankful for the song. I also recognize that song writers use some artistic license to craft the lyrics of their songs. I am simply trying to make two points, both of which struck me this morning: (1) I often sing songs without stopping to consider the accuracy of the words, and (2) the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was an incredible sacrifice, but one that was made willingly.

Because I am well acquainted with the story of the death of Jesus Christ, I have sung the lyrics to Townend’s song numerous times (the variation that says “held him there”) without ever even recognizing what I was really saying–because my sin did not hold Jesus on the cross. Since I do have so many songs in my mental jukebox, though, this immediately got me thinking about the lyrics to other songs about the cross. There are many, many such songs, and it took no time at all for several to come to mind.

One such song, that is not nearly as well known as Townend’s, is “Love Did,” by southern gospel singer/songwriter Mark Bishop. This song’s chorus ends with the line, “Nails didn’t keep Him on the cross, Love did.” This is, of course, exactly right. No nail has ever been created that could have held Jesus Christ on the cross had He decided He was unwilling to die there. Not only did He have the power to come down from that cross Himself but, as another great song about the cross says, “He could have called ten thousands angels, to destroy the world and set Him free.”

A number of years ago our church was re-doing the church directory. As part of each member’s profile, the new directory listed favorite hymns. Until I was asked to fill out the questionnaire for that directory I am not sure I had ever stopped to consider my favorite hymn. If I remember correctly, though, it did not take me long to decide on “Jesus Paid It All.” This classic hymn, written the year the Civil War ended, reminds me that the incredible debt that I owed because of my sin was paid in full by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, when He willingly died upon Calvary’s cross. As the chorus says, “Jesus paid it all/All to Him I owe.” I never could have paid that debt myself, no matter how hard I may have tried or what I may have done.

There are so many songs about the cross, and so many of them contain powerful lyrics that cause the singer (or listener) to really stop and consider that incredible sacrifice Jesus paid to purchase redemption for our sins. It is such a powerful event, that has such fantastic ramifications, that there are other songs that refer to “the wonderful cross” and “the wondrous cross.” The cross was designed as an excruciating and humiliating method of carrying out the death penalty. How could that be wonderful? Why would we sing songs about that? Because Christ’s voluntary death on the cross “paid it all.”

Off Limits

I think just about anyone who reads the Bible regularly or over an extended period of time has had a moment like I had last night…one of those moments when I read something I know I have read numerous times before, but I see something or catch something that somehow never registered or connected in that way before.

I was reading about Joseph, the one with the fancy coat and the brothers who hated him. This is a familiar story, even to many who are not regular readers of Scripture. But as I was reading about the events that resulted in Joseph being thrown into an Egyptian prison a similarity to the circumstances surrounding the very first sin caught my attention.

In Joseph’s case, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, he becomes the head of Potiphar’s house, second only to Potiphar himself in overseeing and administering the various elements of the household. Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to Joseph, and she tries repeatedly to seduce Joseph. Joseph resisted these efforts, and in so doing he said to Potiphar’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8-9, ESV).

Now, read these verses from Genesis 3: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die'” (Genesis 3:16-17, ESV).

The similarity I had never before noticed was that Adam and Eve and Joseph were placed in settings in which they had complete, unrestricted access to absolutely everything and anything with one exception. For Adam and Eve they literally lived in paradise. There was no need for them to do any work, they were given an incredibly beautiful place to live, and they had free access to the fruit of every tree but one. Similarly, Joseph had complete control and access to every aspect of Potiphar’s estate, save only his wife.

In both instances, Satan used the one thing that was off limits as a source of temptation. I do not think that this was the only possible source of temptation, either; Adam and Eve could have sinned in ways other than eating of that tree, and Joseph could have been tempted to sin against Potiphar (and God) in other ways than having an affair with Potiphar’s wife. The reality is, we tend to always be attracted to whatever it is that is off limits. Maybe we get bored with what we already have, maybe we just want to know what the forbidden is like, maybe we just have a rebellious streak and don’t like to be told no; whatever the reasons, we have a tendency to forget all that we have, and focus instead on what we don’t have or, in these instances, have been told we cannot have.

There were two different reactions in these situations, too. Eve, after having God’s commands questioned by the serpent, saw that the tree was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” So she ate its fruit, and gave some to Adam. The thing is, I feel confident that only the third of those reasons really motivated Eve. After all, I am sure that the other trees and their fruit were a delight to the eyes, and we know they were good for fruit, so it was really only the ability to become wise “like God” (the serpent said) that enticed her. Joseph, on the other hand, resisted. I suspect that Potiphar’s wife was physically attractive, and the Bible makes it clear that she was making herself available to Joseph. Like the fruit in the garden was to Adam and Eve, Potiphar’s wife was available to Joseph. In both instances there had been instruction against “partaking,” but there was nothing preventing Adam and Eve or Joseph from doing so. Just like with me, and with you, the only check against yielding to temptation was a submission to God and a commitment to doing what was right in the face of overwhelming temptation.

Notice in Joseph’s response to the advances of Potiphar’s wife he said he would be sinning against God. This, no doubt, is what gave Joseph the conviction necessary to resist her. When we are tempted, may we remember that, as with these Old Testament scenarios, we have so much that is not off limits, there is no need to go after that that is, and may we also remember that when we do cross those boundaries and go after that which we have been told we cannot have, we are in fact sinning against God.

“Beauty is an opinion”

Actress Hayden Panettiere has revealed recently that she struggled mightily in her later teen years with body dysmorphia. According to an interview in the most recent issue of Women’s Health, Panettiere says the struggle stemmed from a picture of her published in a magazine when she was only 16. The photo showed her from behind, a the magazine printed the word “cellulite” over the photo. Panetierre’s reaction? “I was mortified,” she said. Of course she was; who would not be, to see a photo of themselves published for all the world to see, with such a demeaning and critical comment made about her body?

Panettiere was, at the time of publication in question, the star actress on the hit television show Heroes. Panettiere is all of 5 foot 1, and never have I seen any photo of her in which anyone with an appropriate and realistic understanding of a healthy body would consider her overweight. No human body is perfect; even those who are in top physical condition have flaws and imperfections and, yes, even a bit of fat.

The International Business Times quotes the Mayo Clinic as providing this definition of the disorder: “Body dysmorphic disorder is a type of chronic mental illness in which you can’t stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance. Treatment of body dysmorphic disorder may include medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.”
The article goes on to cite the Christian Post as reporting that between one and two percent of the U.S. population is affected by this disorder.

As I have seen numerous outlets reporting on the revelation that Panettiere has suffered from body dysmorphia, however, I was reminded of some research I have done myself. When I was the administrator of a children’s home, I conducted workshops for educators on teenage behaviors. Probably the most popular one was entitled “Troubling Teenage Trends,” and one of the areas that I discussed in that workshop was body image.

Some of the data that I shared in that session included these stats:

* The average American comes in contact with more than 3,000 advertisements per day
* Corporations spend $250 billion per year on advertising
* The super-tall, super-thin idealized female body consistently portrayed in advertising exists in less than 2% of the U.S. population.

Now, those figures came from a 2004 article; I imagine the reality is even more startling now.

Another troubling revelation, this from a 2006 article:

* Mediafamily.org conducted a study of Saturday morning toy commercials which found that 50% of ads aimed at girls spoke about physical attractiveness, while none of the ads aimed at boys referred to appearance.
* The number one wish for girls ages 11-17 is to be thinner.

The result? As of 2004, approximately 80% of 4th grade girls claimed to be dieting!

The influence of the media is rarely used to promote a healthy body image, and the prevalence of web sites that allow users to submit photos of themselves to be “rated” certainly does not help.

Another serious side effect of such unhealthy self-perception is the large number of girls and women who suffer from eating disorders, often brought on by a desire to obtain the perfect body. My research from 2006 indicates that there were, at that time, more than 500 web sites that dealt frankly and, in most cases, approvingly with anorexia and other eating disorders. According to a professional presentation I attended in 2007, eating disorders have the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. This is not something that parents, educators or anyone else can take lightly!

From the Christian perspective, it is important that we remind young girls, teenagers and even women, that we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made” according to Psalm 139:14. It is not trite to be reminded that God Himself put each of us together exactly the way He wants us to be. And while there is nothing wrong or sinful about physical beauty, that is not the standard or goal toward which girls should strive. Proverbs 31:30 says, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”

Some people like to make fun of Mr. Rogers for regularly telling children through his television show, “Each of you are special just the way you are. You are special just because you are you.” But there is tremendous truth in that message. No person is more special than any other because of physical attributes or beauty. Each person is special, and worthy of love, because each person was made in the image of God and is loved by God.

One of the ways in which Panettiere says she has overcome the challenges of body dysmorphia is this: ” I [remind] myself that beauty is an opinion, not a fact, and it has always made me feel better. … People can tell when you’re happy with being you and when you’re not. It’s only cheesy because it’s true.” This is part of a healthy body image, as well.

Please note that I am not suggesting that being healthy is a bad thing; it is not. The Bible is just as clear that self-discipline is important, including in the area of appetite. Children should be taught to eat healthy and in moderate amounts. We do have an obesity problem in the U.S., and it should be taken seriously–but not by pressuring girls to be stick thin without the least bit of fat or “cellulite.”

So, may each of us who is in a position to do so take seriously our opportunity to shape the self-image of young women, and actively counter the predominant message of the media and contemporary culture that screams at our daughters and sisters that their value, their worth and their merit comes in fitting a ridiculous mold of an unhealthy and unrealistic body type. As opportunity arises and the relationship makes it appropriate to do so, remind the girls and young women in your sphere of influence that they are beautiful.

Lessons We Can Learn

I strive to avoid being overtly political in this blog, but that is not for lack of political opinions or positions. Rather, it is the result of my desire that this space be used for thought-provoking dialogue and not become another political blog that will only be read by people who agree with me.

That said, I have a few comments relating to the handling of the attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East, and then some thoughts on what lessons can be taken from these events and applied to the Christian life.

First, I have to join with Mitt Romney, Charles Krauthammer, Mike Huckabee and others and say that I find the statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt to be spineless and inappropriate. While I have not seen the movie, or the trailer for the movie, in question, there is no excuse for the United States, in any way, shape or form to apologize for the freedoms upon which our nation is built. According to the New York Times, the embassy issued the statement before the attack on the embassies in Egypt and Libya occurred. Be that as it may, the statement, which begins with, “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”–sounds like the result of a politically correct sensitivity seminar. Does the United States really need to apologize that the actions of an individual–actions that are protected by free speech–hurt peoples’ feelings? If the U.S. government is going to assume the role of apologizing every time free speech results in someone’s feelings getting hurt, I have news for you: the government will do nothing else, as this will become a more-than-full-time job in and of itself. There are plenty of people who make comments on a regular basis that I find offensive (yes, Bill Maher, Howard Stern and Roseanne Barr, I am talking to you). I find many of their comments offensive to my sense of decency and politeness, to my Christian beliefs, and to my conservative political tendencies. Yet, never have I received an apology from the government (at any level) for the idiotic statements they make with such regularity, nor do I ever expect to. Why? Because one of the great things about the United States is the freedom that we have to speak our minds without fear of reprisal. I am exercising free speech right now by expressing my dissatisfaction with the actions of the U.S. government. I do not want the government telling me what I can and cannot say, but that means I must also accept that that freedom necessarily allows others to say things that I may find offensive. What should I do about it? Turn it off, ignore it, or, when I feel the need, respond to it, but I would not suggest that the three individuals mentioned above should lose the right to say what they think and I certainly would not expect the government to apology to Christians around the world when those individuals “hurt the religious feelings” of Christians.

(Just to be equitable, by the way, I find plenty of things that Rush Limbaugh, et. al, Ann Coulter and Pat Robertson say to be offensive, too).

The embassy statement ends with, “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Here’s the thing: religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy, yes, but no more and no less a cornerstone than freedom of speech–even when that speech “hurt[s] the religious beliefs of others.”

I do not agree with some of the attacks that I have seen directed at President Obama’s statement made Wednesday morning. I do not see in that statement an apology for America. At the same time, Mr. President, you do not have the liberty to say that the statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt does not reflect the U.S. government’s position, because it does, whether you want it to or not. Every U.S. embassy is the U.S. government to the people in those countries, for all intents and purposes, and whether authorized or not, any statement those embassies may issue becomes–even if only temporarily–the position of the U.S. government. What I do find disturbing is that President Obama’s statement does not unequivocally state that the U.S. will punish those who attacked our embassies. A U.S. embassy is sovereign U.S. soil, and an attack on one of our embassies should be treated no differently than an attack on Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center. Do I want another war? No. But these attacks must not be allowed to pass quietly into yesterday’s news.

So, what lessons are there in this for Christians? First of all, just another clear example of the difference between Christianity and other religions–most strikingly, Islam. Christians do not respond with violence when their faith is mocked, ridiculed or even threatened. Historically, Christians respond in civil disobedience, and they suffer whatever consequences come their way as a result of doing so. Most Muslims are unapologetic about their desire to destroy Christianity…yet Christians do not respond with violence.

Second, we see, through the attack on the U.S., a reminder that what Christians believe and stand for is an offense to some people. Even though no one has suggested that the film that supposedly launched these attacks on U.S. embassies is a product of the U.S. government, the government represents America, and the actions of Americans are reflected on the government. Similarly, Christians will sometimes suffer persecution simply because of what they believe, whether they have taken any offensive actions toward another or not. And, as with the situation described here, Christians must always remember that the actions of anyone claiming the name of Christ will reflect on all others claiming the name of Christ–all the more reason for Christians to demonstrate Christ’s love in all interactions with others.

$16 Trillion

Earlier this week the national debt of the United States passed the $16 trillion mark. According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, that translates to more than $51,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. That means my family of four is on the hook for more than $200k.

I am not going to engage in a political argument regarding which party, which president, and which whatever-else is most at fault for this figure. Instead, I am going to try to put the number in an understandable context, offer a biblical perspective on it, and then suggest why this debt is a serious problem for our nation.

By way of context, I was reminded of an illustration of the size of the national debt I found particularly startling back in 1995…based on the national debt of $4.6 trillion in 1994. This illustration comes from Common Cents, a book written by Tim Penny, a congressman from Minnesota who retired after the 1994 elections following six terms in the House of Representatives, and Major Garret, who was then a correspondent for the Washington Times and is now a correspondent for The National Journal (and was, between those two jobs, a senior White House correspondent for FOX News).

“Look at your wristwatch or a clock on the wall. Study the second hand. Watch it for exactly one minute. Imagine counting out one dollar for each second. By my reckoning, it takes about one second to say the words one dollar. Well, it would take 11.5 days to count $1 million. It would take 31.7 years to count $1 billion. The deficit in 1994 was $234 billion. It would take you 7,417 years to count that much money. The federal debt in 1994 will exceed $4.6 trillion. It would take you 145,820 years to count that much money.”

Scary, isn’t it? And that was when the debt was just more than a quarter of what it is now! According to official figures, the deficit last year was $1.3 trillion. How sad it is that we could long for the days when the federal government “only” spent $234 billion a year more than it took in!

How about some biblical perspective… Romans 13:8 says to “owe no one anything.” As ideal as that would be, I believe there are times, at the personal and national levels, when some debt is justified. Psalm 37:21 says “the wicked borrows but does not pay back….” That is a bit more on target, since to this point our government seems to just keep borrowing…never paying back or decreasing the debt. Proverbs 22:7 says that “the borrower is servant to the lender.” This is relevant, too, since a considerable portion of the U.S. national debt is held by other nations (most notably China).

So, why is this such a serious problem?

First, it is a moral problem. To continue to spend money that we do not have simply serves to kick the proverbial can of responsibility further down the road, leaving it to the generations to pay off. No responsible parent would want to leave a crushing debt to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the U.S. should not do that, either.

Second, it is an economic problem. As we, nationally, continue to spend more money that we have, we serve only to exacerbate the problem. The debt of $1.3 trillion in FY 2011 was more than five times the debt in 1994, when Penny and Garret wrote their book. According to an article published by CNS News last September, that means that the deficit in 2011 was $22 billion more than the entire federal government spent in 1970, even with inflation-adjusted dollars. In FY 2011, interest payments on the national debt were $230 billion!

Third, it is a national security problem. When we are unable to exercise fiscal restraint, we jeopardize the security of our nation. We do this by (1) increasing dependence on loans from foreign governments, some of which are not always friendly to the U.S. and/or may use the loans as leverage in trade negotiations, etc; and (2) seriously limiting our available discretionary spending even if a budget were to be balanced.

So, it doesn’t matter what party you support, because the national debt is not a purely political issue. It is a serious moral, economic and national security issue that requires citizens to stand up and demand that our elected officials make the difficult decisions to reign in our spending and balance our budget.

As a City on a Hill

One of the great privileges that I have is teaching dual enrollment U.S. History and U.S. government to some of the juniors and seniors at Sunshine Bible Academy. This privilege is two-fold. On the one hand, it is just plain fun for me. I love American history–especially early American history–and I love studying and teaching about U.S. government. On the other hand, I have the opportunity to teach these subjects in a Christian school, meaning that I have the opportunity to explicitly teach the Christian elements of American history that are not always explored in sufficient detail in the sterile, politically-correct classrooms of most public schools.

Today was one of those days when I was reminded particularly of the latter. As I taught my U.S. History students about the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony I was able to go much further than just a passing mention of the motivations of John Winthrop and company when they founded the colony, and much further than a glossing over when discussing the establishment of Harvard College (now Harvard University), the first institution of higher learning in America, and much further in explaining the Ole’ Deluder Satan Act beyond simply stating that it created the first public school system in America. Why do these things matter? For one, because they allow for a complete and accurate understanding of history, which also means that, two, the realities of the Christian influence in America’s founding can be presented.

I am not going to suggest that John Winthrop or the Massachusetts Bay Colony were perfect. Their complete lack of toleration of those that did not agree completely with their understanding of the Bible is not something I would like to see repeated today, for example, but they got a lot of things right, too.

For example, in 1630, while still aboard the Arbella en route to the New World, Winthrop wrote “A Model of Christian Charity,” and then delivered it orally to those aboard the ship. A few snippets of that address make it into many history books–specifically, his statement that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be “as a city upon a hill.” That’s an important part of the address, but unless the full context of the thesis is understood, it lacks the power behind it. Throughout his address Winthrop expounded on the responsibilities of Christians toward each other and toward their neighbors. We went so far as to point out that there were no rules for dealing with enemies, since “all are to be considered as friends in the state of innocence, but the Gospel commands love to an enemy. Proof: If thine enemy hunger, feed him; ‘Love your enemies… Do good to them that hate you’ (Matt. 5:44).” Winthrop was preparing his fellow passengers for the challenges and responsibilities of creating a brand new society in a completely unknown environment–something we will likely have the opportunity to do–and his instruction bears remembering.

His address is filled with Scripture references, and reminders that each person has a part to play, and is an integral part of the whole. Winthrop was quite serious about the weight of that responsibility. Toward the end of the address, he said, “…if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant. Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.”

And what exactly was the context when Winthrop said the colony would be like a city on a hill? Here is what he said immediately thereafter: “The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” An excellent reminder for anyone who claims the name of Christ, and the responsibilities that come along with representing Him, and a good reminder for America as a nation.

And by the way, why was Harvard founded? To make sure that when the founding generation had passed away, that the next generation was prepared, equipped with a knowledge of the Lord and ready to carry on. And what about the Ole’ Deluder Satan Act–why did the Massachusetts Bay Colony require each town with 50 families to hire a teacher to teach children to read and write, and each town with 100 families to build a grammar school? To make sure that every person could read, and thereby be able to read the Bible for him- or herself, and thus defeat Satan and his attempt “to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.” If only our public schools today had such a focus….

Rightly Dividing

Anyone who grew up participating in AWANA, as I did, has memorized 2 Timothy 2:15, which reads, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV). I originally learned it in the King James Version, which says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” And while I don’t mind losing the “shews” and “needeths” of the KJV, there are still some verses that I prefer in that translation, and I think this would be one of them. While “rightly handling” makes a lot of sense, I think “rightly dividing” paints a clearer image of what the verse is about.

It reminds me of another verse many of us have memorized, Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (ESV). God’s Word is like a scalpel, able to make precision cuts, separating what to the naked eye or finite mind may seem inseparable.

Both of these verses serve to remind us of the extreme care with which we should handle God’s Word. Just as a surgeon wields his scalpel carefully, so too must we be wise and discerning in our use of God’s Word, because careless use and application of the Scripture can do damage.

Interestingly, I was attending a Bible conference some months ago in which the speaker’s stated aim was this idea–the careful and proper handling of the Bible. Yet, during the course of the conference the speaker himself was handling it with less precision than I thought prudent. Example: he, several times, made reference to David raping Bathsheba. I had never heard that before, so I turned to that passage in my Bible and read it again. I failed to see in that passage (2 Samuel 11) any indication that David had forced himself upon Bathsheba. There were plenty of other things that were wrong in that story–perhaps all of them on David’s part–and the story is powerful enough without adding to it something that is not there. So, when it came to Q and A time, I decided to ask the question.

I worded it like this: “You have mentioned several times the importance of using the Bible accurately and of not reading into it things that are not there.” (Speaker is nodding his head, no doubt pleased that I have been paying attention). “Yet, you have also referenced two or three times David raping Bathsheba. I have never heard that before, and I don’t see it in the passage, so I was wondering if you could tell me why you have used that term.”

He proceeded to tell me (and the entire audience, since this was an open forum Q and A) that he used that term intentionally and after careful forethought. He acknowledged that the Bible does not say that David raped Bathsheba, but that it is a reasonable conclusion to make from the text. After all, David sent a soldier to bring her to him, the speaker said, and if that is not force then what is? And the Bible does not say that David did not rape her, he said.

Hmmmm. I have several problems with this reasoning. The first one is relatively minor, by way of comparison. That would be that my Bible (an ESV) says David sent “messengers,” not soldiers. I see the same word choice in the ASV, AMP, CEV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV and NKJV, so I think replacing “messengers” with “soldiers” is careless and inaccurate. Depending on the translation it says that the messengers “took her” or “brought her” or that “she came to him,” so I think it would be a stretch even to say that Bathsheba was taken to David by force.

Second, none of the translations referenced above say that David forced himself on Bathsheba. Most of them say something along the lines of “he slept with her” or “he lay with her.” And I think it is careless to suggest that the Bible would not have clearly stated that David raped Bathsheba if that was, in fact, what he had done. After all, just a few chapters later, in 2 Samuel 13, the Bible makes it clear that Amnon raped Tamar, so it cannot even be suggested that the Bible was attempting to be discreet or to avoid unnecessarily graphic details in the account of David and Bathsheba. In fact, I raised this point with the speaker at the conference, and he said that he stood by his assertion, and gave several, in my opinion, absurd reasons for not stating rape in chapter 11 but doing so in chapter 13.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, is the incredible danger of arguing that something happened simply because there is no clear evidence that it did not. Arguing from a lack of evidence is a dangerous place to be, and no one would want to be on the receiving end of such an argument. To say that David raped Bathsheba is plausible because Scripture does not say that he didn’t makes no sense. If that kind of logic would hold water, imagine how far that could go… It would be fairly easy to overcome in the present, since anyone accused with such reasoning could then issue the apparently-required denial, but when dealing with historical accounts of individuals who are no longer living, there would almost no end to the ways in which history could be manipulated. This reminds me of a line given by a witness in an old episode of Perry Mason; when asked if anyone could confirm that she was home alone at the time of the murder, she quipped, “If I had known I was going to need an alibi, I would have arranged to have company.” After all, people are “home alone” all the time, and think nothing of it. The fact that someone claims to have been home alone during a murder cannot be used as proof that he or she actually committed the murder unless there is additional evidence that he or she did so. In other words, there must be evidence of the crime in order to convict; an absence of contradictory evidence is not sufficient.

Let’s keep the example of David and Bathsheba in mind. The Bible is God’s inspired Word, and while it has been translated and it is available in a multitude of versions, that is no excuse for asserting that it claims something that it does not. Most importantly, the fact that the Bible may not say something did not happen is no evidence for claiming that it did. There are some things God decided we do not need to know, and He gave us everything that we do need to know. We need to study carefully, and apply accurately, but there is no excuse for carelessly swinging our scalpels.