Does God Change His Mind? (Part 2)

(For the first post in this series, click here.)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

In this series of posts I am contemplating the question of whether God changes his mind. In the previous post I listed several passages that claim that he does, and several that just as firmly claim that he doesn’t. Some of these even occur in the very same chapter of the Bible, such as:

Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).

And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:35, KJV).

While our English translations usually use two different words in these passages (“change His mind” and “repented”), in Hebrew the word is the same in each case – נָחַם (nāḥam). So, one passage says God changes his mind/repents, and in the same chapter, another passage says the opposite. What are we to make of this?

Whenever you encounter a puzzle like this, the best thing to do is to begin with what is clearly and unequivocally taught in Scripture and then work from there. So that’s how we will begin to tackle this question. What truths can we set down as clear guideposts on our journey toward an answer?

Creator of Space and Time

The place to begin is the beginning. The most fundamental fact in Scripture is stated in its very first verse – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God is the creator of the universe, and as such he exists prior to and outside of the world of time and space. And what this means is that God is not confined by time and space like we are. In this sense, God’s relationship to creation is sort of like Shakespeare’s relationship to one of his plays. Shakespeare is not merely one character in the play, confined to a scene or the flow of the plot. As the creator of the play, Shakespeare transcends the limits of the play. And as the creator of the universe, God transcends the limits of time and space.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

We’ve all experienced the frustration of needing to be two places at once, or having limited time on our hands. We are space-bound and time-bound creatures. But since God exists far above time and space, he is present to all points of time and space-

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28a)

This means that God’s “here” and God’s “now” are radically different from ours. My “here” is sitting in my office in our home in Plant City. My “now” is 12:00pm Eastern Daylight Savings time, March 14, 2018. God’s “here” and “now” are not like this. Let me illustrate. Here is a Google Map that shows my approximate location –

My location in space can be pinpointed. What about God’s “location,” though? Imagine making that red marker bigger and bigger, encompassing the entire state, the entire country, the entire planet, the entire solar system, the entire galaxy…you get the point. Since he is unbound by space, God is present everywhere. Imagine that one of the characters in Macbeth could talk to Shakespeare. The conversation might go something like this:

Shakespeare: Well, hello, Macduff! I’m Bill Shakespeare!

Macduff: (Looking around) Who’s talking? Shakespeare? Where are you?

Shakespeare: I’m right here!

Macduff: Where? I don’t see you!

Shakespeare: I’m right here!

Macduff: I’m scared! I’m going to hide from you in Macbeth’s castle! (begins running)

Shakespeare: Umm, that’s not going to make any difference.

Macduff: What do you mean? (running faster)

Shakespeare: I’m there as well.

Macduff: What?!? (frozen in place) I don’t understand!

Shakespeare: Well, you probably can’t fully get what I am saying, but I ‘m not just another character in the play like you are. I am the playwright, and so I am present to all scenes in the tragedy.

Macduff: Wait – tragedy? What do you mean by that?

Shakespeare: Well, it’s not going to be a tragedy for you.

Shakespeare is “present” to all the scenes in his plays because he exists outside of his plays. Similarly, God is present to all points of the world because he exists outside of the world. God is omnipresent. Or, to put it another way, God’s “here” is everywhere.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

The same is true with God’s relationship to time. My existence is time-bound. (It is now 12:09 pm). In other words, my “now” is defined by a specific slice of time just like my “here” is defined by a specific slice of space. I exist on an ever- changing mark called “the present,” with the past behind me and the future ahead of me. So, my “now” looks like this –

But what about God’s “now”? Just like we expanded the red dot on the map to encompass all points in space for God’s “here,” we would have to do the same for God’s “now” – it would include all points of time, past/present/future. God is present to all points of space, and he is also present to all points of time.

God is omniscient. He knows everything – including the future – because what is future to us is part of God’s “now.” God’s eternal “now” includes our past and our future, which is why God can reveal what is going to happen before it occurs.

Remember this and stand firm,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
    and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:8-10)

Because God is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, he unrestricted by time and knows what will take place in our world of time and space before it happens.

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
    Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
    Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.” (Isaiah 44:6-7)

Now let’s take these observations and direct them toward the question of God’s changing his mind.

God Is Not a Man That He Should Repent

Why do we change our minds? Right now I am working on my NCAA tourney predictions. I’ve looked at my bracket several times, and I still can’t make up my mind about a few games (like Kentucky vs Arizona in the second round!). The reason I keep changing my mind is because I am limited by time and space and have no idea what will happen in the second round out in Boise (or if UK will even make it to the second round). If I could see the future before it happened, I would be the greatest NCAA prognosticator ever. I certainly wouldn’t change my mind about my picks. I could make predictions flawlessly, since my “now” would include the future as well as the present. If I was omnipresent and omniscient, there would simply be no reason for me to change my mind.

By the same token, since God is omnipresent and omniscient, he doesn’t literally “change his mind.” I don’t know what will happen in Boise, Idaho on Saturday afternoon because I am limited by space and time. But what is true of my “here” and “now” is not true of God’s “here” and “now.” Boise, Idaho is just as present to God as Plant City, Florida is. And Saturday afternoon is just as present to God as Wednesday afternoon is. And since God’s “here” and “now” are radically different from humanity’s, he doesn’t change his mind.

Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind. (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).

But if that is the case, what are we to make of the passages that say that he does? And if God doesn’t change his mind, why do we even bother to pray to him? Does anything that we do make a difference to God?

Those are great questions, and Lord willing we will take those up in the next post.

(Many thanks to my friend Dr. Eleonore Stump for the “red dot” illustration! Check out her explanation here).



Does God Change His Mind? (Part 1)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

This quarter I have been teaching a class on the nature of God. One of the questions we tackled this quarter is whether God changes his mind. Over the next few posts I want to share some thoughts on this question. And it is a really interesting question! It involves all sorts of intriguing puzzles, such as God’s relationship to time, the relationship of divine foreknowledge to human freedom, and the purpose and power of prayer.

To set the stage for the future posts, here are some relevant biblical texts.

First, some passages in the Bible seem to say that God does not change his mind, or change – period. Some examples (and various translations):

Numbers 23:19

  • ESV God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it
  • NASB95 God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
  • KJV God is not a man, that he should lie; Neither the son of man, that he should repent: Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

1 Samuel 15:29

  • ESV And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.
  • NASB95 Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.
  • KJV And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
  • NKJV And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.

Malachi 3:6

  • ESV For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.
  • NASB95 For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
  • NKJV For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.

James 1:17

  • ESV Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
  • NASB95 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
  • NIV Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

On the other hand, there are passages that seem to say that God does change his mind, such as:

Genesis 6:6

  • ESV And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
  • NASB95 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
  • KJV And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

Exodus 32:14

  • ESV And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
  • NASB95 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
  • KJV And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
1 Samuel 15:11
  • ESV “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the LORD all night.
  • KJV It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.
1 Samuel 15:35
  • ESV And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
  • KJV And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.

So, what do we make of these different perspectives (some of which, in the case of the passages in 1 Samuel 15, occur within just a few verses of one another!)? In the next post, I will take the first steps in offering my thoughts about this conundrum by looking more closely at the nature of God.

Our Emerging Two Party System – Authoritarians VS Totalitarians

Last week offered two news stories that reveal the political future of America.

Story 1: a middle school teacher here in Florida was revealed to be a white nationalist. As first reported by the Huffington Post, a Crystal River teacher named Dayanna Volitich hosted a podcast and Twitter account (under an alias) in which she routinely voiced the typical positions of the Alt-Right, targeting blacks, Jews, and Muslims. Once her secret identity was revealed, Ms. Volitich claimed that her opinions were merely a form of satire. That seems unlikely, given her previous comments, and really – it is beside the point. There are many people for whom such opinions are deadly serious.

Story 2: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was forced to resign from the charitable foundation of the Country Music Association because of the policy positions he espoused regarding issues like same-sex marriage. Various LGBTQ activists expressed indignation that someone like Huckabee would serve on the board of this foundation that focuses on music education in schools, despite his proven track record in education reform as a governor (which one of the critics conceded). Even though he was clearly qualified to serve on such a board, his traditional Christian views regarding matters like same-sex marriage disqualified him from service in the eyes of some activists. And it is clear that for growing numbers of people on the Hard Left, no one who holds similar views (evangelical Protestants, confessing Catholics, orthodox Jews, mainstream Muslims) should have a voice in public life. In their mind, the moral tradition of the monotheistic religions is simple “hatred.”

This is where we are headed as a nation. On the Alt-Right we have authoritarians who are fixated on tribal loyalty and racial superiority. And on the Hard Left we have totalitarians who are determined to coerce everyone to accept their radical redefinitions of marriage, gender, and personhood. Both extremes reflect the worst kinds of bigotry that have plagued America (racial and religious). The only difference is that the Alt-Right proudly embraces its bigotry, while the Hard Left is self-righteously blind to its bigotry. And since neither extreme acknowledges any sort of transcendent truth, what drives both is the pursuit of and exercise of raw power. That explains the growing phenomenon of Neo-Nazi violence by the Alt Right, and violent campus protests by the Hard Left.

Ideally, fair-minded people on both sides of the political aisle would call out and confront the radicalism that is emerging from their end of the ideological spectrum. There are indeed many conservative commentators who have denounced the Alt-Right (such as Ben Shapiro, David French, Rod Dreher). There are far fewer liberal commentators who have challenged the Hard Left (Jonathan Haidt being the rare exception). This is because (as Pew data shows) the Left has lurched far more to its extreme than has the Right. But we don’t need polling to confirm this. In the mid 90’s, the Defense of Marriage Act passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support and was signed into law by a Democrat president who also declared that the “era of big government is over” and that abortion should be “rare.” That seems like ancient history. Today’s liberals aren’t calling out the Hard Left because they increasingly are the Hard Left. The net result is that both extremes are feeding each other.

And for those of us who are committed to following Christ, this increasingly polarized political environment is going to place us in the crosshairs of both extremes. The Alt-Right has made it clear that it detests the Christian commitment to brotherly love that knows no racial, ethnic, or national boundaries. And the Hard Left equally despises the Christian commitment to the Lordship of Christ rather than personal autonomy in matters of sexual ethics.

This is nothing new, though. Christianity is just as counter-cultural in the 21st century as it was in the first century when tribalism and relativism were also dominant. And as we declare and display the gospel with Jesus’ mix of conviction and compassion, we can call people to an identity that rises above race and tribe, and that transcends lust and gratification. Is this going to be easy? No. It requires tough-minded love. But tough-minded love is what the cross Jesus bore and we have chosen to bear is all about.





Valentine’s Day in the Style of Aquinas

Article 1. Whether Kristi should be Shane’s Valentine?

Objection 1. It seems that Shane is not good looking enough to be Kristi’s Valentine.

Objection 2. Further, Shane is not good enough for Kristi.

Objection 3. Further, it does not seem possible that Shane could change to be good enough for Kristi.

On the contrary, It is written, “I will be your Valentine” (Hallmark card).

I answer that, It is absolutely true that Kristi should be Shane’s Valentine; and this can be shown in three ways.

First, because Kristi is filled with compassion, and as we have previously shown, compassion for another person’s misery drives us to do what we can to help him, which in Kristi’s case is to be Shane’s Valentine.

Secondly, because Kristi is a virtuous woman, and the highest of virtues is charity, and such a case is Shane.

Thirdly, because as stated above, Love belongs to the appetitive power, and Shane has a powerful appetite; therefore, Kristi’s love belongs to Shane.

Reply to Objection 1. As the Philosopher says, bodily sight is the beginning of sensual love, but Kristi’s eyesight is impaired, and so Shane’s appearance is not an obstacle to her affections.

Reply to Objection 2. Goodness is convertible with truth, and Shane is truthful enough for Kristi; therefore Shane is good enough for Kristi.

Reply to Objection 3. Change is nothing more than the actualization of a potential. Now since that which moves must be moved by another, Kristi can move Shane and reduce his potencies to act. As Augustine has said, Kristi really knows how to “actualize a potential.”

Violent Mobs of Victims

The Preaching of Saint Paul at Ephesus, Eustache Le Sueur, 1649

Not long ago this British TV interview of Canadian professor Jordan Peterson  went viral on YouTube. If you don’t know what I am talking about, click on this link – it takes less than 30 minutes to watch. I will warn you, though – it is the sort of video that you feel compelled to watch over and over (as of this morning it has over six million views).

For those of you unfamiliar with Peterson (as I was until I watched this video), his early work focused on how ideologies like Marxism and Naziism engulf entire societies. He recognized that at the heart of each system was a fixation on group identity, class in the case of Marxism and race in the case of Naziism. And so Peterson is a defiant opponent of modern versions of this sort of thinking at play in the identity politics of the far left and the far right.

Back to the aforementioned interview. It is a classic example of what happens when someone who is serious about discussing the truth tries to have a conversation with someone who is only serious about scoring points. Over and over again the interviewer distorted what Peterson actually said in order to caricature him as a voice of patriarchal oppression, transphobia, and all of the other humbugs of the radical left. The interviewer’s ideologically induced sloth prevented her from doing any meaningful background prep into Peterson’s career (such as his many years of work counseling women to further their careers), or critically evaluating what he said in real time (preferring to hilariously misinterpret him with a “so what you’re saying is…”). No, the interviewer had a cartoon villain in her sights, and some hastily cribbed quotes to (attempt to) exploit, and a game to win. It was like watching a modern theater version of Socrates versus the Sophists (without the hemlock!).

The interview itself is not what I want to focus on. It went just like you would expect a confrontation between a lazy ideologue and a formidable thinker would go. What interests me is how Peterson and the interviewer responded to the debate after the interview. In this video, Peterson explained (at the 27:24 mark) that while it was obvious that he “won” the showdown, it was not a healthy victory, because the exchange reflected the highly polarized nature of “discourse” in the west rather than a genuine conversation between truth-seekers. By contrast, the interviewer (as a true sophist) relished the game that they had just played.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my bout.”

That is, until the TV station decided to change the narrative from the anticipated “feminist heroine slays alt-right dragon” to “damsel in distress.” By January 20, the news was reporting that the station had consulted with the police over various threats made on social media against the interviewer. Based on subsequent analysis, it is not at all clear that substantive death threats were made against the interviewer, and some have suggested that far more threats were directed toward Peterson. The fact that any abuse was directed toward either participant is outrageous.

Whatever the true extent of those threats on social media may have been, there’s no question that Peterson has been the target of ugly mobs, as this link illustrates. Because he challenges certain cherished orthodoxies in radical academia, Peterson has gotten the treatment we’ve seen in so many places in America – the use of physical force to shut down debate. Yet I am sure that the mobs that interrupt his speaking events consider themselves “victims.” These are peculiar victims – over and over again we’ve seen them deny people – victimize people – of the rights of free assembly and free speech. These violent mobs of victims do not care to engage the ideas in question – that requires far too much work. It is much easier to choose the path of raw aggression and blast air horns or scream obscenities while someone is trying to talk.

When the apostle Paul came to Ephesus he confronted the pagan ideology of a city famous for its glorious temple to Artemis. So powerful was his message that many Ephesians turned from their idols to follow the Lord Jesus. The result:

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater.  (Acts 19:23-31)

God is the most fundamental issue of all. Does God exist, and what is God like? You can gather from Demetrius’s tirade what Paul’s basic argument was: if men have to make the gods, they aren’t really gods. Pagans in other places (like Athens) we willing to engage Paul’s arguments – even if they ultimately rejected them (see Acts 17:16-33). But not these Ephesians. After all, Paul’s words had victimized them! Too much power was at stake, and when power rather than truth is your highest value, reasoning gives way to riots.

Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:32-34).

It isn’t difficult to imagine how ugly this situation could have become, except for the intervention of the city magistrate:

And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. (Acts 19:35-41)

Because this anonymous town clerk had respect for the rule of law and the standards of civil society, horrific violence was averted.

I am deeply concerned that the ranks of such fair-minded people are shrinking moment by moment in our culture. We are increasingly polarized, especially as the extremes on the political spectrum play the victimization game of racial resentment (whether attacking “white privilege” or promoting “white identity”). It is cynical, and it is lethal – as all power struggles are.

And it is a game that (as history testifies) Christians have been all too eager to play as well. We must not compromise the gospel and malign the name of Jesus by responding to hate with more hatred, or violence with more violence. As Jesus told Peter in the garden, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Instead, we must respond to threats with courage, to power with truth, to resentment with redemption, and to hate with love. Such courage, truth, redemption, and love will endure long after the mobs are gone and the shrines of pagan ideology (whether ancient or modern) are in ruins.




Marry Someone to Suffer With

(Yesterday I spoke in the chapel service of my alma mater, Florida College. Here is my talk. You can also watch the complete service online at this link).


I will be reading from 1 Corinthians 7:25-28-

Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.

You sophomores are studying 1 Corinthians this semester, so you’ll discuss various interpretations of what Paul means by the “present distress.” I don’t really know for sure, but his primary point is clear. This crisis will exacerbate the “worldly troubles” all couples face – so much so that Paul, who in other places says marriage is a blessing from God to be received with thanksgiving, in this context says it is better to remain single.

We may not live in what Paul described as “the present distress,” but we do have worldly troubles – and those pressures exert tremendous stress on married couples. Paul wanted the eyes of the Corinthians to be wide open as they faced these hurdles as husband and wife. And what he says here raises a crucial consideration for those of you who are single as you think about the sort of person you’d like to marry. You need to find someone you want to suffer with.

I don’t mean someone who causes you to suffer – although I can assure you that in marriage you often will hurt each other. But what I’m talking about today is committing your life to the person you want by your side more than anyone else when adversity strikes. And it will.

Just a few months after my wife and I married, we noticed a horrible odor coming from our basement – it was an old house, so really more of a cellar. We thought an animal had gotten inside and died. When we went down to investigate, we discovered that the problem was much worse. The sewage drain from our house had ruptured, and our basement was flooded with raw sewage. We had to work for hours to get this horrible mess cleaned up.

Kristi and I have talked about this many times, it was at that very moment – as we both stood in a bunch of poo – that we knew we had married the right person (wouldn’t that make a romantic Valentine’s Day card!). But seriously, it was hard to imagine how we could have to face anything worse together, but my wife didn’t flinch. It confirmed that she was the person I wanted to face the trials of life with.

A few months later, two weeks before our first anniversary, it did get worse – Kristi lost her job. Then, two days before our first anniversary, we found out it could get much worse. Kristi was diagnosed with advanced cancer. But as I have witnessed her courage, her determination, her faith in God, as she has encountered these worldly troubles, I know this is someone I want by my side as I face my own.

And you will face yours. So as you get serious about someone, ask yourself, is this the person I want to suffer with? You can’t predict with certainty how your guy or girl will respond to adversity, but here’s what you can look for. When the class gets tough, do they double down to see it through, or do they drop it? When they get a bad review from the boss at their job, do they take personal responsibility to correct their mistakes, or do they just quit? Are they patient with you when you are at your worst, or do they withdraw and avoid you? When you are alone with each other, do they show the strength of commitment to purity and honor, or do they let the impulse of the moment override their convictions?

Traditional marriage vows say “in sickness and in health, in prosperity and adversity.” These are not mindless platitudes. They are descriptions of what life is really like. And when you say “I do,” you are vowing, THIS is the person I want to face suffering with, and I am pledging to see it through to the end. When you’ve got a person like that by your side, you are indescribably blessed.   

The Insidious Sin of Racism

In view of Martin Luther King Jr Day, I want to talk about the insidious sin of racism. By racism, I am referring to prejudice or hatred directed against a person on the basis of his race. By sin, I am referring to the affront against God that such hatred of human beings made in his image perpetrates. And by insidious, I am referring to how subtle and deceptive the sin of racism is.

Of course, there is a sense in which all sin is insidious. It is very easy to rationalize away convictions, to invent excuses for doing what we know is against the will of God. Even more pernicious is the tendency toward self-righteousness, the eager impulse to condemn others while ignoring our own glaring sins. The sin of racism is particularly prone to this sort of superficial sanctimony.

For instance, racism is not just a white problem. To be sure, it is indeed the case that many white people have hated or discriminated against others merely because their skin color was different. And since caucasians are the broad majority of people who have lived in the United States, it would be accurate to say that – in terms of sheer volume – many more white people have been guilty of racism than other races. Further, since white people have historically dominated the political and financial institutions of our nation, it is also true to say that whites have been far more guilty of manipulating the levers of power to impose racist policies.

But this is a different matter altogether from saying that racism itself is just a white problem. Human depravity is colorblind, and it is possible for anyone of any race to hate someone else for any number of superficial reasons, including skin color. A few years ago when I lived in Nashville, I was walking through the parking lot of the local Walmart to to head inside the store when I was met by three young black ladies on their way out of the store. I could tell that one of them was ticked off about something. As we passed each other, she looked directly at me, and then shouted out loud, “I hate white people!” I almost instinctively responded, “Hey, what did I ever do to you?!?” But I didn’t do anything – it was a pretty disorienting experience! I really regret now that I didn’t stop and try to share the gospel with her and her friends. My guess is that something happened in the store that made her angry, and that the person who made her angry was white. It may even be the case that someone treated her poorly simply because she was black. I don’t really know. All I do know is that – at least for that moment – she was gripped with hatred. Make no mistake – many more African-Americans have stories like this (and much worse) than I ever will. The point is that the sin of racism is not limited to race.

Indeed, as a white person, the form of racism that perplexes me the most is the racism that occurs among people of color that is directed toward people of color. There are “light-skinned” people of color who discriminate against “dark-skinned” people of color, for instance. This phenomenon – call shadism – most likely has its roots in the practice of chattel slavery, in which lighter-skinned African slaves were given the “house slave” tasks and those who were darker were made “field slaves.” It’s also the case that some people of color look down on others for not being “black enough.” This is so foreign to my experience as a white person, I would love to hear more from those of you who have experienced this particularly insidious form of racism.

But the point is that racism is a bigger issue than just a sin of white people. Let me stress – this is in no way an effort to mitigate or minimize the awful sin of racism among whites. If anything, the point I am making is that racism is a much bigger problem than we all like to admit.

Racism is not just a white problem, nor is it just a southern problem. It is inarguable that the American south has been the location of some of the worst instances of racism. The South’s history of slavery, segregation, and suppression of civil rights is well documented. But my contention is that because the South’s record is on such clear display, it is easy to reduce racism to a regional issue and to ignore just how systemic a sin it actually is. Let me illustrate what I mean.

Last year I read an op-ed in a southern newspaper about the contemporary use of symbols associated with the Confederacy, like the battle flag. Apparently a school in east Tennessee used the flag in connection with their cheers as “Rebels”.

The president of the student council – a white girl – was scheduled to testify in support of the flag, but first, we would hear from the president of the senior class – a black boy. As the young man described what it felt like to attend a school where he was surrounded by a flag flown by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder, the students in the audience were visibly moved.

I don’t question that young man’s sincerity in the least. But here is the problem – if the disqualifying criteria for a symbol is whether it was used “by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder,” then the flag of the United States would be disqualified as well. At the time of the War Between the States, slavery still existed in many states that remained in the Union and were represented by that flag, including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. This remained the case throughout the entire war, since the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the states that seceded and specifically exempted the states (and portions of states) that remained in the Union. As Jim Webb has written:

The consequence of this reality was that in virtually every major battle of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers who did not own slaves were fighting against a proportion of Union Army soldiers who had not been asked to give up theirs. (Born Fighting, p. 223).

It was not until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment after the war that slavery was abolished in all states. So just like the Confederate flag, the Union flag was flown “by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder.” But it is all too easy to treat the issue as a purely regional matter and ignore this simple fact of history.

Moving from the narrow issue of slavery to the broader issue of racism, the notion that we are dealing with a southern problem is truly absurd. Anyone with a working knowledge of the prevailing racial attitudes among people in the North during the war understands that theories of racial superiority were commonplace. Outright hostility was often directed against African-Americans, such as when the federal government attempted to enforce the draft in 1863. Riots broke out in New York, during which African Americans were target and murdered (the movie Gangs of New York is roughly based on this event).

The simple fact is that it is impossible to find a region of American that is innocent of the sin of racism.  Chicago politics has a notorious history of race-baiting tactics (a fascinating book on Chicago political history is Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps).  Indiana was the KKK’s biggest stronghold in the 1920s. Boston has the reputation of America’s most racist sports town (full disclosure: I say this as a fan of the Lakers during the 1980s who despised the Celtics!). Detroit was the scene of violent riots in the aftermath of racially-motivated police brutality in the 60s (portrayed recently in the movie Detroit). Similar riots happened in Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992. Portland has a long history of entrenched racism despite its reputation as a progressive city.

From the South to the Northeast to the Midwest to the West to the Northwest, the sin of racism has proven itself to be ubiquitous. And yet, I can’t help but notice that it is often the South that is singled out. I’ve heard people say things like, “We shouldn’t sing songs about the ‘good ole days’ in the South since so many black people were treated unjustly in the old South.” It is undeniable that African-Americans were treated horribly in the South. But show me any region of the country where black people have always been treated wonderfully. It doesn’t exist. And since that is the case, when the South gets singled out, it is hard for me not to conclude that racial prejudice has simply been traded in for regional prejudice. And that is why racism is so insidious.

And things are bound to get worse. As we become a more secular nation, we are losing the sense of the transcendent, and without that there is nothing to hold us together. Dr. King could storm the will of the American conscience because of the widely shared conviction that we are all God’s children. As that common ground erodes beneath our feet, all that will be left are the “jangling discords” of identity politics. The far Left and the far Right are each in their own way in the grip of this fixation on racial identity. And the partisans of both extremes share one central conviction – it is impossible for those of different races to understand each other, to empathize with one another, and thus to care for each other.

My only hope is the gospel. This is not a wishful fantasy. It is a hope rooted in the power of Christ to bring people together into a new identity, a new family, a new citizenship, a new race. A race in which the only color that counts is the red blood of his atoning death. And I’ve seen the reconciling power of the gospel firsthand – I’ve known former militant black nationalists and KKK klansmen who now worship together in the embrace of God’s grace. That is amazing! That is the gospel. Do Christians always get it right? Of course not – remember, racism is truly insidious. But through the gospel we have the one certain answer to all sin, and by it we can work toward this day:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

MLK and the Role of Religion in Public Life

Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Many TV and radio programs traditionally mark the occasion by replaying King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Here are links to read and watch it if you’ve never done so.

It is interesting to think about King’s speech in light of the growing secularism of America. I have many friends who are atheists and agnostics, and they are quick to argue that religion should have no place in public life in America. In their mind, religious beliefs should not be permitted to influence what the law says – separation of church and state forbids this. The late atheist provocateur, Christopher Hitchens, summed up this secularist creed in a debate against Tony Blair:

Relatively simply, the United States has uniquely a constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter, or to sponsor a church, or to adopt any form of faith itself.

Hitches was arguing for the exclusion of all religious beliefs from any public policy question.

Contrast this attitude with King’s speech. When Martin Luther King Jr argued for civil rights for black Americans, he did so on explicitly (though not exclusively) religious grounds.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

King was not arguing for the federal government to officially recognize a “state church.” He was not claiming that the Congress codify specific religious practices like adult baptism or congregational church polity. Those actions would indeed violate what the First Amendment is about.

But he was arguing that government policy should reflect the view of human rights that flows from belief in God as Father and all humans as his children. Separation of church and state is one thing, but separation of faith from the state is a different matter entirely. Those who purport that religious faith should have no bearing on public policy are Constitutionally naive and historically illiterate.

King’s rousing conclusion to his speech sounds just like something a Baptist minister (which he was) might say:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

It is undeniable that religious faith played an enormous role in the civil rights movement. By the way, it is also inarguable that religion played a role in the effort to oppose civil rights – religious faith in and of itself is not a good or bad thing. My point here is that I’ve never seen any secularist impugn the religious motives of those who advocated for civil rights, like MLK.

And the fact is that when you get right down to it, what really bothers most secularists is not whether religion plays a role in government, but which religion it will be. Last year during Senate confirmation hearings, two different senators, Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein, explicitly attacked nominees to federal positions because they were professed believers from conservative faiths. This is a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which expressly forbids a religious test for public office. That doesn’t matter to dogmatic secularists like Sanders and Feinstein.

Yet at the same time as these senators undermined nominees to public service because their religious beliefs may have an impact on their work, the Boston Globe wrote a glowing piece about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s faith.

But religious leaders who have known her since her first run for public office say her Christian faith is a constant, if quiet, presence in her life, that it is deep and authentic, and informs her work as a senator.

If you read the article, you will find that Warren is deeply convicted by Jesus’ teaching about taking care of the poor and needy, and that it motivates her commitment to social justice. I am sure Sanders and Feinstein (and my secularist friends) have no problem with THAT religious belief informing public policy. It’s only the religious beliefs that they dislike (like the sanctity of unborn life and traditional marriage) that should be barred from public life.

Human rights don’t just magically appear. They flow from the belief in something transcendent, something that lies beyond the natural order of race and ethnicity. Societies that deny this transcendence (the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Maoist China), have horrific human rights records precisely for this reason. I don’t think my secularist friends on the Left  understand the implications of their effort to scrub faith from public life.

And what is most alarming to me is the growing secularism of the Right. The alt-right movement is an example of what happens when so-called “conservatism” is cut loose from its moorings in the tradition of faith. And once the secularists on the Left and the Right realize how much they truly have in common in their abhorrence of faith-informed civic life, night will truly descend on our society.

People of good cheer, dedicated to civil society, have a lot of work to do to keep the dream alive to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Three Popular Misconceptions of God

On Sunday we began a new class at my congregation on the most important subject any person could study – God. Toward the end of class we discussed three very popular misconceptions of who God is. Here they are:

The Absent Landlord

Some of you may live in an apartment or a rental house that does not have a very responsive owner. He owns the property, but rarely checks on its condition, and if you reach out to ask for maintenance, he responds rarely – if at all. That’s the way many people look at God. They believe he created the universe, but having made the world, God basically takes a hands-off approach. There’s actually a technical term for this belief – deism, which was widely accepted in the 18th century.

On such a view, after the initial work of creation, God doesn’t really do very much. He certainly doesn’t respond to prayers. And according to this deistic outlook, we should only ascribe to divine intervention that which cannot be explained by science and the “laws of nature.” In this view, God is merely the “God of the gaps,” the gaps in our current scientific knowledge of the world.

But as that knowledge expands, the “gaps” get smaller, and so does the deistic picture of God. That’s why from a historical point of view deism was merely a milepost to atheism. It is a very short set of steps from “God is the landlord” to “God is the absent landlord” to “God is absent.”

The problem with this view of God is that it completely misses the point of what it means to say that God is the creator. According to Scripture, God is not simply the initiator of creation; he is also its sustainer. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Every moment of the continued existence of the universe is radically dependent on God. “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And what we call on our end the “laws of nature” are just descriptions of this ongoing work of God.

The deistic view of God gets God wrong from the very beginning. If you’ve ever made a wrong turn at the start of a long trip, you know that such a mistake leads you far from your destination. And deism’s wrong-headed concept of God as creator steers its adherents far from the true knowledge of God. And this fundamentally inadequate view of God is the basis of an even more insidious misconception…

The Doting Grandfather

I was raised by my mom and her parents. My granddad – “Pop” – was my buddy. One time when I was a child, I did something wrong, and Mom sent me to bed without supper (a form of punishment she obviously chose very rarely!). Not long after I was sent to the bedroom, I heard the door open and looked up to see Pop sneaking in with a plate of food!

This is how a lot of people conceive of God. He is like a grandpa who dotes on his grandchildren. The last thing he would ever do is discipline us for any mistakes we make. In his eyes, we can do no wrong!

This view of God is widespread. In  Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, two social scientists surveyed the religious beliefs of American teens. The authors coined a term to encapsulate what they found to be the predominant religious outlook – Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Deism because it assumes that God isn’t really interested in how we live. Moralistic because it holds that people should try to be nice to each other. And therapeutic because it affirms that what God wants us for us to feel good about ourselves.

You may have never heard the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but I bet you have heard someone say – in an effort to justify something they want to do that is flatly contradicted by Scripture – “but God wants me to be happy!” THAT is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The problem with this dogma is not that it declares that God wants us to be happy. The problem is how it defines happiness. Scripture promises us “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) – but that joy is found through self-denying devotion to God, not through self-indulgent disregard for God.

This sort of joy is only possible if we have a a view of God that is compelling. But there is third inadequate view of God that undermines this gripping vision.

The Cosmic Superhero

Have you ever heard someone refer to God as “the man upstairs”? I have. And while this phrase is usually spoken out of recognition of the need for God’s help, it suggests a view of God that is far too much like us. This sort of anthropomorphic picture of God, in which he is depicted as a bigger/stronger/smarter version of human beings, turns God into a super-hero character like Thor or Spider-Man. Now, I happen to love Spider-Man. But there’s nothing about him that inspires me to life-long self-denial in order to be with him forever!

The God described in the Bible is not merely a powerful human being, or even an amazing angel. No, God is the ultimate ground of all created reality,  “who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). His ways and thoughts are infinitely greater than ours, “as the heavens are higher than the earth” (Isaiah 55:9). God is beyond all comparison.

To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:25-28)

God is not Superman. Superman came from somewhere and can be contained by kryptonite. God did not come to be – he IS, and nothing can contain him. He is incomparable!

In his classic book The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer wrote:

“I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.” (p. 2)

I believe Tozer was exactly right. The most urgent need of modern Christianity is a recovery of the true knowledge of God.

Who Caused Job’s Suffering?

Job’s Despair, by William Blake

This week we wrapped up a study of the Book of Job where I preach. Toward the end of the book there is a passage that presents a bracing view of God’s role in Job’s suffering:


Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. (Job 42:11)

“All the evil that the LORD had brought upon him.”

Wait – I thought Job’s suffering was caused by the nebulous figure described in the opening chapters as The Accuser. Why does this text claim that it was the LORD who caused Job’s disasters?

This is not the only time in the book that responsibility for Job’s adversity is ascribed to God. In the second chapter, after Job’s initial set of catastrophic losses, the LORD asks The Accuser:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” (Job 2:3)

Here, God says that he is the one who destroyed Job.

What are we to make of this language? After all, the straightforward reading of the text indicates that the immediate and direct cause of Job’s suffering was The Accuser. Notice the interplay that takes place in these exchanges between God and the evil one:

“But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (1:11-12)

And again-

“But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” (Job 2:5-6)

In each case, The Accuser challenges God to stretch his hand against Job, and the LORD replies by telling The Accuser that Job is in his hand – within certain parameters.

This interaction between God and The Accuser gives us a glimpse into the interplay between two profound truths in Scripture: the sovereignty of God and the freedom of creatures. On the one hand, God permits The Accuser to do harm to Job, even as he sets out clear boundaries that constrain what The Accuser can do. On the other hand, The Accuser has the freedom to do harm to Job, within the limits carefully defined by God.

So, who is responsible for Job’s suffering – God or The Accuser? The answer is…both, but in different senses. The Accuser is immediately and directly responsible for Job’s catastrophes, but God is ultimately and finally responsible since The Accuser could only do what he did by God’s permission.

This is true not only of The Accuser’s actions, but of all evil choices made by creatures. The Bible teaches that all of us live, move, and have our being in God (Acts 17:28). Every moment of every creature’s existence is dependent on God. But obviously, what we as his creatures actually do with this gift of existence is not always in keeping with God’s expressed preferences. Just as God permitted The Accuser to do evil, God also permits us to do evil as well.

Really, then, the questions raised about God, The Accuser, and Job are merely reflective of the deeper questions that believers have pondered since time immemorial – why did God make the sovereign decision to grant human beings (and angels) freedom,  even when we could do evil things with that freedom? Why does God permit us to rebel against him and do harm to others?

So far as I’m aware, Scripture never systematically answers this question in the way that we’d probably like, but I do think there are some basic points we can set forth that help us grapple with the question.

First, the decision to grant creatures the gift of freedom was God’s sovereign choice. No one made him do this. God freely chose to create human beings and angels with free will.

Second, the freedom that God has given to creatures is not absolute. God remains sovereign, and in that sovereignty maintains control over his creatures. Just as The Accuser could do only so much to Job and no more, all of God’s creatures remain “on the leash” of his permissive will.

Third, since we know that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that the greatest commands are to love God and man (Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34-40), we can surmise that an important reason – maybe the reason – God gave his creatures free will is so that they can love him and others. It is difficult to imagine any meaningful definition of “love” that does not involve freedom of the will, after all.

Fourth, because God is sovereign, even though he permits his creatures to make evil choices, he also has the power to make good things happen in the face of that evil. Job is one of the paramount examples of this in all of Scripture. Through Job’s suffering God brought Job to a clearer vision of God (and discredited the baseless slander of The Accuser in the process).

Fifth, since God is sovereign, he has the power to bring all evil and all suffering to an end. We get a glimpse of this at the end of the Book of Job, when the LORD restores Job’s health, prosperity, and family. We get an even grander vision of this at the end of the Bible, with its promise of a new creation.

God is willing to “take responsibility” for Job’s suffering, and for ours, for all of these reasons. It is not always easy to work out the dynamic give and take of divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom. But God doesn’t expect us to do that, anyway. What he does call us to do is to trust him, to look forward to the day he makes all things new, and to care for each other in the meantime.

In other words, God calls us to faith, hope, and love.