Friday, September 26, 2008

A Bend In the Path – Promises and Patience.

I started writing a graphic novel two months ago. It’s about Jewish people in the old west. The idea for the story came to me when I played a concert in Grand Rapids last summer. This girl was hanging around as I waited for my turn on stage. I had a Star of David that I’d picked up in Jerusalem and I was fidgeting with it in my right hand. She caught a glimpse of it and asked, “Are you a sheriff?” I tried not to make fun of her, but it got me thinking, “I wonder if there was a Jewish sheriff in some dusty gold-rush town…”

The story has gone through some changes from that initial thought and I’ve already had a lot of fun the past few weeks. At one point in the story, as the Jews sail on a ship headed to California, a Russian listens to a Jewish boy talk about his faith. The boy narrates the story, “As I told him of King David hiding in caves while King Saul sought to kill him, he stopped me. ‘I have heard these stories. The priest at the Orthodox Church told them to me. What I don’t understand is God’s power to give things He promises to people. He told your people that they would have the Promised Land, and yet they did not have it for centuries. He told David that he was king while Saul still sat on the throne. Then David had to run for his life, hiding in caves until Saul died. Could not God promise something and then simply give it?’”

After I wrote this question, I realized that I didn’t have an answer for the boy to give the Russian. Then I realized that I didn’t know the answer for that question in my own life. Why couldn’t God simply give the things He promised?

God has made a lot of promises for my life. He’s made a lot of promises to a lot of people. He makes so many promises to the world in scripture that I don’t feel like scanning to find them all. When I read the promises in the Bible or hear Him make promises to me in prayer, I very often feel a longing to see them fulfilled. Sometimes, I let those feelings of longing and hope (I’m looking forward to these gifts, Lord) turn into despair (Are you ever going to come through on those promises?).

For the sake of brevity, I’ll only talk about one of these promises. God has promised me a wife someday and I felt like He told me one night, “Pay attention to (her). I want you to pursue (her).” Now, I’m aware that He didn’t say, “You’re going to date her and marry her.” I’m only trying to make the point that I have a promise and feel like God has showed me a possible fulfillment of that promise. As I prayed about this, seeking confirmation and asking for wisdom, an elaborate picture came to mind.

God and I walked along a path together. An arch formed in the path and a field lay between us and the other side of the bend. God pointed at a figure on the path across the field and said, “See that person? I’m bringing you two together. That’s what I want to give you.”

In my excitement, I figure the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so I dart into the field. Unfortunately, I don’t see that the field is full of quicksand and bear traps and debt collectors and all sorts of other stuff I’d want to avoid. By the time I get to the other side, I’ve lost a shoe in the quicksand, a foot in a bear trap, and changed my phone number. That’s trouble enough. Even if I make it to the other side, I can’t be sure that I’ll know what or whom God pointed out because I perceived something different at a distance. It might not look at all like what I thought close up. Because I’d made assumptions based on vain imaginations, I might be confused or frustrated with what I find. I’m not sure how I’d deal with the disappointment. And what if I did find the right person that God pointed out? Would they be ready? What if I grabbed that person’s hand saying, “Alright, let’s get back to God,” and I drag them through the field I barely survived?

The best thing for me to do is stay by God’s side and follow Him around the bend. Staying on the path may take longer, but I’ll keep out of unnecessary trouble. That’s not to say I won’t suffer hardships. I will, but the things He and I encounter together will prepare me for what’s ahead and I’ll mature in the process. When we finally come to the point that God showed me earlier, I’d see the promise for what it really is in the time and context that He intended. If things worked out the way I expected, I would have spent so much time in preparation with God that He would remain my primary focus. The gift wouldn’t become more important than the Giver. If things didn’t work out the way I expected, I wouldn’t feel disappointed. God and His promises would still be good. I’d be grateful for what He has given me.

So why would God show me what was ahead? If it's all going to happen anyway, isn't it kind of a tease to make me wait for it? Or is it more like incentive to keep me going?

When I was in summer camp, I ran a race around Piatt Lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I don’t exactly think I’m an excellent athlete, so I knew I was in for an agonizing afternoon. Every now and again, I’d catch a glimpse of a landmark ahead and think, “Just make it there. You’ll be okay, just make it to the bridge.”

The writer of Hebrews spoke of a race and the promise of a prize. Hebrews 12:1-3 says, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

When Jesus ran His race here on earth, his prize was bringing salvation to mankind. To get there, He had to endure abandonment and crucifixion among other things. He’s our example, the hero of our own marathon. Our goal is eternity with Him, but we have work to do, a race to run, a relationship to build with Him. Despair creeps in when I focus on the “landmarks” so much that my journey seems more like a waiting game. It’s easier for those feelings of longing to produce hope when I’m focused on how the race itself builds my relationship with God. Looking at it that way, I don’t mind taking the long way around.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If God Were Really Good At Playing Cards – A look at omniscience and free will

(I have since retracted some of my points here and here. I decided to leave this post in the Press so people might see how I have changed from thought to thought.)

I live within two miles of two Universities and school is back in session. It’s probably safe to say about half of the people in my church building on Sunday go to college. In the past few weeks, I’ve met so many new students that I warn them immediately “I might forget your name.” Sometimes that doesn’t offend them and we’ll get to talk. During these conversations, at least five people have brought up the subject of God’s will and how that works with free will. I’m not kidding. The conversations all had their own, unique subjects that funneled into stuff like Predestination. One began as a discussion on Descartes and why I hate his work. Here’s one way someone asked me a question on God’s will:

Me: So what do you want out of life? (I really ask this question, usually during uncomfortable pauses. If we ever meet and you run out of small talk, watch out.)

Them: I want to know what God’s will is for my life. Should I be doing this or should I pay more attention to that? I’m having a hard time telling if it’s God directing me or if it’s just what I want.

Me: It sounds like you want to know how to discern the voice of God and know when He’s telling you something as opposed to you telling it to yourself.

Them: Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Then after I tried to make myself look cool by telling them about my book, the person asked what I thought of Reformed Theology. I thought this was pretty funny, having moved from West Michigan, where the Reformed Church of America set up its headquarters, to Nashville, where Southern Baptists and the Church of Christ reign supreme. Then again, I don’t know what they think about Reformed Theology, either. There are too many denominations, huh? Moving on.

Me: I like some parts, but not other parts.

Them: What do you think about predestination?

Me: Ooh. Uh. Well, I seem to remember a verse that says God does not wish that any should be lost. So it sounds like it’s God’s will that all should be saved. But of course, not everyone will choose to follow God. Then the question is, if God is all-knowing, doesn’t He know if people will accept or deny Him?

Then I used a metaphor that has become very dear to me. I’m aware that some Christians will give themselves headaches when I compare God to a gambler, but stay with me. Imagine that God is a really good poker player. He could stack the deck if He wanted to, but then anything won would be meaningless because He set Himself up to win. So He has to set that ability aside in order to have true victory. At the same time, He can count cards. So based on what you throw out, He has a pretty good idea of what you’ll do next.

God’s omniscience is a part of His character, but then let me ask you an uncomfortable question: Was Jesus, God, omniscient while here on earth?

In Matthew 4, Jesus begins a forty-day fast after His baptism. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” But if Jesus, God, were omniscient, why would He need the Spirit to lead Him anywhere? Wouldn’t He know where to go already? Or consider what Jesus said in John 8:28, “I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.”

Here’s how I see it. God the son had to willingly put His Omniscience to the side in order to become fully man. That way he could learn and live and make choices between right and wrong. He could be filled with the Holy Spirit (another theological knot I won’t try to untie for you right now) and operate as an example to His disciples of how to live by the Spirit.

I used this example to show that God is omniscient, but for the sake of truly winning our love, He is able to set his omniscience to the side in the area of our choices. This gives space for free will to exist. I think he did this so He could give us opportunity to choose Him. If He knew absolutely from the beginning that a person would not choose Him, two things would make me believe that God was cruel. First, God would have created a person to be damned. That goes against the scripture I referenced earlier, 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Second, He’d offer salvation to people He knew were incapable of accepting it. That’s just, you know, a tease. And my new friend who got me started on this conversation said, “Exactly. Otherwise, what would be the point of praying for people? What would be the point of Evangelism?”

Now that I’ve come to the end of this post, I realize that I didn’t have an agenda when I started it. I can say for certain that I don’t want readers to think less of God’s power, but more. I don’t want to diminish the truth that God never changes, but emphasize the fact that God is not stiff and rigid. God is loving and will find a way to allow us to love Him. He wants you to seek His will, but He’s also able to work our own decisions to our good and to His glory. And He will be glorified. But that’s a different card game. God stacked the deck on that one. He will be glorified no matter what we do.