Doubting As I Grow Old
Doubt is always an issue for Christians. Recently I struggled with the question of the existence of God. I even listened to two atheists on YouTube and then, reading Psalm 119, I found my answer. These are my thoughts about suffering, morality, Biblical error, homosexuality, blind faith, Hell and, ultimately, accepting growing old. It’s my personal journey; published in the hope that it will help some to understand a few points about Christianity.
Psalm 119 describes a state of human affairs as being like a “wineskin in the smoke”. Obviously, this is an idiom and it’s doubtful we will ever know exactly what it means. The context suggests something dried up, useless. I had read the Psalm many times before I actually noticed the phrase. When I did see it my imagination was piqued. It’s an image that has stayed with me.
The phrase is found in the “Kaph” section of Psalm 119, verses 81-88. The Psalmist’s use of the idiom adds to the image from the previous verses. He longs for salvation and only has hope in God’s Word. He has been looking for God’s promise to the end that his eyes fail. “When will you comfort me?” he cries. Then he declares that, though he is like a wineskin in the smoke he trusts God. He still finds hope in God’s Word.
Searching the Internet I found an informative comment on the idea. Click this link to find it. (You may need to scroll through the comments to find Hale’s comment.)
The comments from Justin Hale were very interesting. Basically, old wineskins were renewed by hanging them in a tent with hot coals and pouring water and spices on the coals. This rejuvenated the old wineskin. Once the wineskin was rejuvenated it could be filled with stable, fully fermented wine. In his comments he suggests that these old wineskins were valuable. So, perhaps, I’m like one of those old, rejuvenated wineskins? Don’t put new wine in me, I’ll burst. Put the old, well aged wine in me. 🙂
The image of a wineskin in the smoke could easily describe Job. For, like the Psalmist, Job never abandons his faith. Job does question God, who replies, in effect, ‘How dare you! Where were you when I created the world?’ (Well, Elihu in chapter 32 & following…but almost the whole book questions God.) If you read it carefully you’ll see that God is not angry, He’s somewhat amused. God asks who is using ‘words without knowledge’ and then says, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” (Job, chapter 38, NIV) And, yes, I enjoy the way God phrases it, “Words without knowledge”. We all (All Y’All plus me) do that much more than we think. We think and say things without knowing what we’re talking about. I pray that I don’t engage in that, especially as I write this. 《Now I hear God saying that, of course, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. He says that I get the words right when I listen to Him.》
It also makes me smile when I read God saying, “Brace yourself like a man. ” because that reminds me of how God expects each of us to act. He created us. He expects, even demands, that we act as mature, honorable, stalwart men and women. He expects our very best at all times. That is ‘best’ as He defines the word. For us that’s tough. Few of us are able to do that. We will discuss this idea soon.
I’ve been struggling with some medical issues and sometimes wonder why God has not healed me. I have reminded myself of others who God did not heal, including my bishop’s wife. She suffered for many years, but God never healed her. Instead, God used her as a catalyst, her prayers for healing others were most often answered affirmatively.
One image of a ‘wineskin in the smoke’ rings true with me. The image of a wineskin hanging in a tent with the smoke of the cooking fire blowing around it, drying it out, making it brittle. That image is how I sometimes feel. I’m getting old. Arthritis and other medical issues influence my daily routine. Twenty years ago I could do almost as I pleased. Now I have to take my aged body into account. I can’t take my dog out in the forest for a hike. It’s difficult to even go shopping. Walking around a mall or even a WalMart is very tiring.
So I struggled with doubt. Does God really exist? Are my prayers futile? I knew what devout Christians would say. I wondered what atheists would say. So I looked at a few YouTube videos from two men who were Christians but are now atheists.
One was Dr. Bart Ehrman (UNC Theology Professor) who explained why he’s now an “agnostic atheist” in an episode of “Misquoting Jesus”, his YouTube vlog. You can find it here. I also watched the vlog of a young man who sometimes sounds like he struggles with his atheistic beliefs: The Genetically Modified Skeptic. His vlog on why he is an atheist can be found here.
My consideration of these videos reminded me of the picture of a wineskin in the smoke. So, as you think about a wineskin, empty and hanging by the fire, either it’s getting stiff and brittle in the smoke, or it’s getting rejuvenated.
First, I must assure you that this is not an effort to bash anyone. God demands that we love (and show love) to everyone. Everyone includes friends, acquaintances and enemies: like-minded people and those we think misinformed. I do pray that God will help me live up to that standard. So, second, I confess that I am a sinner. I try to obey my Lord, Jesus, but I am far from perfect. Third, I’m not a theologian. I’ve been a Christian for many, many years; however I did at one time not truly believe.
When I was much younger, I really wasn’t interested in God. That, I think, might be a good definition of “atheist”. I won’t say I didn’t believe, but that I was so uninterested in God that I most likely did not really believe. I never thought about God or religion. I just didn’t care. How’s that for being “agnostic and atheist”? Eventually God called me and I became a Christian. That’s a story for another time. As I watched these videos for the second and third time I wondered why these atheists cared so much that they had to try to convince others that they are thinking properly. It was only when I began to understand that God does exist that I started thinking about spiritual and theological things. It could be, I suppose, that Christian friends and relatives find it hard to accept that they are no longer believers. But if there really is no God then why bother?
The atheists I listened to made some interesting points. I thought about what they said. I compared it with what I already knew. The result is this essay. I won’t repeat their arguments because I might have misunderstood them. I will respond to them because it was my pondering what they said that helped me understand what and why I truly believe.
The following is my meditation on what they said. It has been rewritten and edited to, hopefully, make it easier to understand. I am not so foolish as to think that anything I write will change your beliefs. I do hope what is written here will help both non-believers and believers understand Christianity better. At the very end of this post is a place for comments. Please let me know if you find what I’ve written is helpful; or if you find errors.
Let’s start with suffering. One of the arguments given against the existence of God is suffering. My suffering is rather insignificant compared to those who experience natural disasters like famine and earthquakes; or are victims of the prejudice of other, more powerful, humans. Still, the pain of arthritis and some other medical issues are with me constantly. It’s very hard to ignore. Pain makes me think about ‘me’ much more than I would like.
As I listened to the explanation of why God does not exist because of the suffering in the world I began to realize that I could not accept what was presented as correct. Yes, at a glance it does seem that God should prevent suffering. But once you consider the alternative, it’s easy to understand why there is suffering.
The Bible does address the question of suffering. The book of Job, for example. In it we see that Satan causes suffering but only with the permission of God. So an atheist can claim that God could have prevented Job’s suffering but not only did God permit it, Job’s suffering was for God’s own Glory. The atheist would ask, “…what sort of god would let anyone suffer so that god would gain glory?” and it does seem a valid question. However, the glory God receives is the result of Job remaining faithful. Also, God did not inflict suffering in order to obtain glory. Instead, He responded to Satan’s claim that Job was faithful only because God had been good to Job. God received glory from Job’s faithfulness, not from his suffering.
Like the Psalmist, Job remained faithful. God rewarded him for that. We also must consider that Christians see God differently from the way other religions view their gods. For Christians, the deity that permitted Job’s suffering is the very same deity who actually died on the cross, bearing all of our sins, that we might be saved. And this answer begs the question, “Does God also suffer?” and then we wonder how an all powerful deity can suffer. But that’s the heart of Christianity. It’s also difficult. So, let’s postpone it for now. We need to examine some other points concerning suffering.
Let’s examine the claim that God should prevent all suffering. For that to happen on this planet God must remove our free will. That’s because we have the ability to do as we please; therefore we please ourselves to the detriment of others. That’s the result of The Fall as recorded in Genesis chapters 2 and 3: Adam & Eve & the snake & the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. And yes, it sounds mythological; it is mythological in that myth presents fundamental understanding of the world through a story. But it is also much more true than mere history. The story as recorded in Genesis 2 & 3 (not in some children’s version) reveals truth about humans and our sinful nature. We are doomed to suffering at the will of other humans. We want God to remove the causes of suffering. Much of the world’s suffering is caused, directly, by other humans. Most of the rest is caused indirectly by other humans. Developers build in flood plains, for example. Famine is frequently the result of human greed. We ignore agricultural best practices in order to make a quick dollar. For the same reason our sneakers and electronics are made by underpaid workers in “third world” countries. How many people died in the great fires of large cities over the centuries because no one wanted to build cities properly? History is full of the records of the tortures of Nebuchadnezzar, Genghis Khan, the Romans, Attila the Hun, the Inquisition, witch trials, Jim Crow, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc. And then there’s the suffering caused by gossip and prejudice. That may cause more suffering than any political purge. I must ask, have you ever talked about another person behind their back? Have you ever told a story, true or not, with a bit of malice? Are your fancy sneakers made by underpaid workers? Sure, God can remove all that causes suffering. Will you still be here if He does?
Concerning tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, lightning, floods and famines: true, these events can cause suffering; the reality is that humans have been dealing with these natural disturbances for millennia. I grew up on the Carolina coast. I lived through a number of hurricanes as a child. Eventually I realized that hurricanes were not evil, our human reaction to them could be evil. Humans should show respect to the powerful forces of nature, be that force what we call ‘gravity’ or a ‘storm’. Even so, these forces can cause suffering. The Christian viewpoint is that this suffering is the result of The Fall. Satan became the Prince of This World because of Adam’s failure. We need to examine the Adam and Eve story to understand this.
I won’t argue about the existence of Adam and Eve and the Snake. What I do argue is that their story rings true as compared to Pandora’s Box. Evil was not accidentally released into the world. In Pandora’s story Zeus put evil in a box and gave it to a woman, who, being curious, released it. That story misinforms us about the true nature of evil and sin. Sin is the result of a human decision to try to be like God. Hope is not a pathetic little creature struggling to get out of the box, but true Hope is a gift from God. I can’t believe in a god who would endow us with curiosity and then forbid us to open a box. The God I believe in did something much different. He gave us free will. C. S. Lewis, in Perelandra, suggests that God had something much better planned for us. Had we (through Adan & Eve) obeyed Him, we would have been given the understanding of good and evil; but in a positive way. Our relationship with God would give us that knowledge without the knowledge corrupting us. God had said that eating that fruit would bring death and it did. We are separated from God. That is, we are spiritually dead. Therefore we are afraid of Him.
It could be asked why God put that tree in the garden. It seems very much like the Pandora’s Box story. The difference is that in Pandora’s story there was one possible outcome: eventually she would open the box. For Adam there were two possibilities. Adam had all the evidence he needed. He picked the wrong fruit. That story is re-enacted in each of us. Everyone picks the wrong fruit. Everyone sins. But we don’t have to. We’ll discuss morality next.
We can ask what would have happened had Adam obeyed God and refused to eat the fruit. It seems to me that he would have gained the knowledge of good and evil. Evil would be contained. Adam would be “king” and through him Eve would have been redeemed. I can’t prove this, it is what I deduce as the most likely outcome. I think St. Paul says some things which may be interpreted as implying this. However, I think many Christian theologians would say that God always knew Adam would fail and so He planned to be born, at the proper time, to be the second Adam. Regardless, the point is that Adam had two options. He was free to make his choice. Pandora had one option and no real choice.
The Jewish/Christian deity is not like Zeus. Angry with Prometheus, Zeus takes his revenge through the box filled with evil. Pandora was intended by Zeus to open the box. The God described in the Bible loves His creation. Adam was intended by God to rescue Eve. Adam failed miserably. He never talked to the serpent/dragon creature. He could have refused to eat the fruit. Zeus is depicted as rather childish. Zeus is seeking revenge on Prometheus. He does this by hurting something Prometheus loves. This so-called ‘god’ cares very little for humans. The hope he provides is small and weak. The true God curses the serpent but does not curse Adam. He does proclaim that the ground is cursed; but offers the prophesy that one of their descendants will succeed where the two of them failed. That’s a most encouraging hope.
So, how is the world after Adam ate the apple different from the world of the atheist? It seems to me that the atheist lives in an uncaring, capricious world. How is that different? Again, I turn to Genesis chapters 1, 2 & 3. God creates a world which is “good” but humans disobey and turn the world into what we experience today. Whole books have been written about this. For me, my answer is that God gives us Hope in the person of His Son. And while that is ‘no answer’ for the atheist or pagan, it is the only explanation that makes sense to me. Why would the Psalmist say that he still has faith in God’s statutes, in God’s word? He has Hope. He may feel like an old dried out wineskin, but an old wineskin hanging in the moist smoke gets rejuvenated. The world, for unbelievers, offers only technology, and maybe sympathy; for Christians there is Hope. Humans messed up the world. God provides a cure. And so I find that suffering is not God’s will. It is the result of human will. God suffered and died that we can find salvation in Him. The proof of this is His Resurrection.
Okay, most suffering is directly caused through the actions of humans. That’s the direct result of Adam & Eve. St. Paul, in Romans 8, talks about all of creation suffering under the “bondage of corruption” (NKJV) that is the result of human sin. Genesis 3:17 reports that the ground is cursed because of that sin. But this curse is “for your sake” implying that it is a mercy. That’s strange to us. How can this curse be for us? It makes our living more difficult. Hard work is not suffering. We feel satisfied when, through our work, we accomplish something.
Suffering occurs when we mistreat the earth and/or the people in it. When we exploit the resources of the earth without any care about how our exploitation affects the future then any suffering that exploitation causes is our fault. As pointed out earlier, a small amount of suffering is the result of “natural causes” like tornadoes and earthquakes. One explanation is that these events are the result of natural processes that Sin has altered: we do not live in Eden, but in a world that suffers under Sin. Another explanation is that Adam, as a result of his Sin, forfeited his position as “king” of this world. Satan, as usurper, assumed the position as a “prince”. His manipulation of God’s creation results in tornadoes and in viruses and other “natural” causes of suffering. That makes what he does the result of the original sin and therefore those causes of suffering are also, indirectly, caused by human choice.
Mistreating the earth and those who work for us is prohibited by the Bible. That brings us to the next topic.
Morality may be most difficult in the most trivial acts. I write this during Advent. That’s when, around the world, every culture influenced by “The West” frantically searches for Christmas presents. I heard an interesting complaint: someone went to a Starbucks to buy gift cards. They used the drive up window. When the purchaser went to put names on the gift card packaging they discovered one card said “Happy Birthday” and another had the picture of a menorah on it. Maybe the clerk in the drive up window was having a rough time, but even so, this trivial story illustrates a moral point. God has given us one commandment with two parts: Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:34-40 & Luke 10:25-28) He rephrased the commandment to: Do unto others as you would have done to you. (Matthew 7:12) It is not enough to merely give another a legally fair exchange, we should care enough to make sure we are showing them love.
In “The Sermon On The Mount” (Matthew 5-7) Jesus tells us that we should be perfect in all of our actions: that is, for example, in dealing with others we go first. We do unto others, that is, we show love to others first. That is not politically correct. It is not an innate sensibility. From the moment we are born we seek our personal needs. We come first, parents and siblings later. Ever hear a child look at another child playing with a toy say, “That’s yours. Have fun with it.”?
Ever hear someone say something that could be offensive? The politically correct response is to shame through the media. Make sure everyone knows what this human monster said. The Biblical response? Take the offending speaker aside and privately explain the situation; not in an angry, accusatory manner, but gently, just as you would want to be treated.
Many atheists claim to be very moral, having to use their internal “moral compass” because they don’t use one designed by religion. Yet they have much difficulty in explaining how this moral compass is created. C. S. Lewis does explain succinctly where morality originates. Mere Christianity begins with that explanation. I recommend you read it; he does a most excellent job. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s very difficult; much easier to denounce than to offer mercy. Even better: define morality to suit your own purposes. Then you can bewail the suffering in the world without having to actually do anything about it.
Not that most atheists are that devious. Many do work to rid the world of poverty and injustice. Some Christians never lift a finger. You can’t make generalities about groups of people like that. I do know some pagans who have defined their morality so that they can do as they please. I also know some who claim to be Christian, but who emphasize rules rather than love, to the detriment of other humans.
The idealist who fights to make life better for the poor is far closer to loving his neighbor than the prince in his ‘ivory palace’ or the middle class suburbanite with an immaculate lawn and house. But those who, like the “Good Samaritan”, offer care to those they meet are actually doing the will of God.
The problem with working to rid the world of poverty and injustice is that the true cause must be identified and removed. That “true cause” is the source of much argument. Some say it’s the conservative policies; others say it’s the liberal policies. The Christian viewpoint is that it is Original Sin. Atheists tell us to follow our moral compass.
I’m not sure that there is such a thing. Some of us seem to have a conscience, we seem to know right from wrong. But is that a “moral compass”? Or is is merely the desire to avoid others thinking I’m bad? Do I–or you–avoid theft, adultery, murder, speeding, cheating on taxes because these things are inherently wrong or because of what our family and friends would think? Or merely because we are afraid of getting caught? Do our actions conform to political correctness? Or is there some higher standard? Consider that adultery brought with it a death penalty at one time. Now it’s not even a crime, just a motive for divorce. When I was a child, driving a car while drunk was an explanation or excuse for a motor vehicle accident. Now it’s a criminal offense. Why the change? Was our collective moral compass in error and now it’s correct? So where is this moral compass? What is morality if the standard changes? Some claim abortion is murder; others claim it is merely a medical procedure. How do you know absolutely that your opinion is moral and correct? What standard do you use? Again, I ask, is the moral compass our conscience? Many have lied, stolen, cheated, murdered, all in the belief that what they were doing was right. If they had a moral compass then it was not pointing “true”.
Part of the confusion comes from the Adam and Eve story. They ate the fruit and gained knowledge of good and evil. Well, yes, but it was an imperfect, negative knowledge. They “knew good and evil” and so understood that they were naked. But why? Fifteen minutes earlier there was no problem with being naked. What changed? Their relationship with God. Their relationship with each other. Their self-perception. And so it is with each of us. We view good and evil differently. We’re confused by goodness and attracted to evil. We know intellectually that greed is wrong. Yet we desire money and material things. But we don’t want to be seen desiring money. We want to appear generous.
Is that a “moral compass”? I don’t think so. Atheists need to claim something like a moral compass to explain morality in non-religious terms. Yes, we know good and evil, but we desire evil. It’s the social system, our culture, that forces us to give the appearance of doing good. We still cheat, lie, steal; we tell ourselves it’s okay because (insert rationalization). The problem with relying on a conscience or a moral compass is that we know good and evil because we (through Adam) ate the fruit of that tree and in so doing gained that knowledge; however it was tainted knowledge. We acquired the knowledge of good and evil through cheating.
The Christian makes no such claim. Each of us has free will and can do as we please. The charge to the Christian (actually to each of us) is to please God. And God has made it perfectly clear: to please Him we must love our neighbors: not just the people we like, not just the people who think as we do, but everyone we meet is, at that moment, our neighbor. This takes a lot of inner strength. Therefore, we rely on the Holy Spirit to assist us.
What I see on the highway is that very few, if any, respect the law enough to obey the posted speed limit. Everyone has, I’m sure, a reason or excuse for speeding. I guess they think they have that right. And yes, it may seem trivial. But it is the law, albeit human law.
Morality is not about what seems right to you or to me.
Example #1 Mark 2:26
As I listened to one atheist explain why he could not believe the Bible I was astounded at his reason. He picked a very minor apparent discrepancy and used that to prove the Bible was in error. What I was expecting to hear from him was a truly reasonable argument. But, I guess, the arguments over the past millennia have made most arguments against the Bible moot. So, we get nitpicking. Here is my reaction to the “error” in the Bible that the earnest atheist proffered. (This is rather long; I found that much needed to be said about this subject. For many years I did not really understand the Bible. It’s only recently that I have learned how to read and understand. Part of that is due to reading it many times, paying attention to what is written. As you read the following, you’ll see that.)
Mark 2:26 tells us that Abiathar was the High Priest when David ate the showbread (the consecrated bread or Bread of the Presence) when he was running away from King Saul (1st Samuel 21). Jesus, when he said this, was making a point about rules, the Law and the Sabbath. Jesus was demonstrating how the Pharisees were misinterpreting the fourth commandment. Now, if you want to nitpick, it was not Abiathar who was High Priest when David took the bread, but his father, Ahimelech. This is a provable error. Or is it?
When you read something in the Bible that seems at odds with something else, then you need to ask, “What’s this all about?” then do the research to discover what the situation actually is. The fact that Jesus used the name Abiathar instead of Ahimelech is most interesting. In 1st Samuel it only says “priest” for both men. Jesus knew his audience. The Pharisees knew the Scripture. In fact, they memorized all or almost all of it. I’m sure they knew exactly what Jesus was doing by invoking the name Abiathar. So did the disciples and most of the others listening. They, too, had read and memorized many parts of the scriptures. Our problem in the 21st Century is that we don’t really understand the fine point that was being made here. What we do know is that sometimes the son of the High Priest was called the High Priest. Note John 18:22 that the officers first took Jesus to Annas whom they call the “high priest”. Later Jesus is taken to Caiaphas “the high priest”. These men are father-in-law and son-in-law. Annas was called “high priest” much the same as former U. S. presidents are called “president”.
As to why Jesus referred to the showbread incident as during the time of Abiathar instead of his father, I do not know. It could be that using the term ‘high priest’ to apply to Abiathar implied something we don’t get. So we delve deeper into scripture. It seems that Abiathar did become high priest during the reign of King David. But 1st Kings 2:27 tells us that Solomon removed Abiathar to fulfill what God had said about the house of Eli. (See 1st Samuel 2:27-34). Then it gets complicated. At the end of King David’s life Solomon’s half-brother, Adonijah, had set himself up as king before David, his father, had died. Abiathar, who was High Priest, had joined Adonijah’s cause. After much intrigue David proclaimed Solomon as his heir and Adonijah was executed.
Was Jesus reminding the Pharisees that God can remove them as He had removed the House of Eli? Or was it that Abiathar backed the wrong son to be king after David? Or both? We don’t know. Besides, that’s not the point I want to make. What is important is that Jesus was teaching his disciples and the Pharisees about the Sabbath. The Pharisees were complaining that Jesus was not following their rules. Jesus, instead, was interpreting the Sabbath with love. Now, to toss that out because we don’t understand why he said “Abiathar” is nitpicking, which is exactly what the Pharisees were doing about the Sabbath. If you want to nitpick you’ll never find anything you can believe. You’ll always be searching and you’ll never find anything resembling Truth. We’ll come back to this. It’s important. But we need some more information first.
Example #2 Cleansing of the Temple
I’ve heard devout Christians claim that, because Matthew, Mark and Luke record the event known as the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ at the end of Jesus’ ministry, during what we now call Holy Week and because John records this event at the beginning of his ministry, some three years (at least) earlier, then Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. So far as I am concerned, this is, I think, an attempt to reconcile the Gospels. But they don’t need reconciling. If you look carefully at John’s Gospel, you’ll see that the only other place this could be recorded is in Chapter 12. But where would you put it? It makes no sense to interrupt the story John is telling just to conform to the three other Gospels. All four Gospels build their Good News one story at a time. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus enter Jerusalem once. That’s to emphasize the Palm Sunday procession. They also can’t tell this important story except after Jesus enters Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark and Luke give Jesus much teaching time in Jerusalem. Perhaps not all of that teaching was done during that one trip? But they are telling their story. John, telling his Gospel from a much different viewpoint, emphasizes the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John has Jesus enter Jerusalem several times. The first time is when the temple is cleansed. There’s no error in this. All four Gospels tell us that the first time Jesus entered Jerusalem he cleansed the temple. The Gospels are not modern chronological biographies. They are written to teach us just who Jesus is.
Example #3 The Book of Ruth
I hope this will help you understand one other thing about the Bible. Consider why this book is included in the Bible. Many preachers have preached at length about how Elimelech took his family to Moab and why that was wrong and how we should trust the Lord and not wander into pagan lands. Well, that’s nice. But it fails to explain why the book is necessary. There’s really one reason: the lineage of King David and thus the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth. Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David. And she was from Moab. The whole point is that King David is not a pureblood Hebrew. In Harry Potter terms, he’s a “mudblood”. King Saul would have been a pureblood; but David was a “man after God’s own heart.” The Bible is not about a scientific, factual history. It’s about the relationship between God and humans. The stories related in the Bible are for our spiritual edification. So, was it “wrong” for Elimelech to go to Moab? Well, God used this decision for good by providing the fugitive David with a place to send his parents when King Saul wanted to kill him and all his family. Then God used the decision to illustrate that ancestry is not important, but the condition of one’s heart is most important. And God used this decision to illustrate that He is God of all, not just Israel.
Even our greatest theologians sometimes get confused about Holy Scripture. Martin Luther, for example, thought some of the Canon books (the consensual agreement of what constitutes Holy Scripture) were worthwhile and others were useless. He is famous for disliking the book (or letter) of James, the brother of Jesus. And that’s easy to understand. Luther was ‘gung-ho’ on ‘faith alone’ while James was concerned with how one’s faith is demonstrated. Thus the “discussion” through the centuries about “faith versus works”. That Christians take sides in this “discussion” shows that we are human; but also that we don’t really understand Holy Scripture. Both Luther and James are correct. But this is not the place to explain that. My point here is that when we see what seems to be a contradiction we should be very careful; in fact, very very careful. There’s a reason God put that in the Bible. It may not be something you will ever understand, but as Martin Luther said, we are saved by faith alone. Which is a useless thought when you have no faith.
Many pick apart various religious writings, pointing to that which they perceive as “error”. When they do this they destroy their hope. It’s easy to pick apart The Buddha & Lao Tzu & the Bhagavad Gita & the Koran & The Bible & etc. Thus one becomes an atheist; re-creating the world to one’s own desires, a world without God’s mercy: a world that is indifferent, uncaring. One may have friends, but they’re human. All one can really depend upon is the self. And one day you realize that you can’t even rely on yourself.
As I pondered all that we’ve covered I realized that I wasn’t anywhere near ‘losing my faith’ but that I was just frustrated that I wasn’t getting my way. I want to be healed. I don’t want to suffer, even just a little. I want to live today with the body I had when I was half my age. I want a miracle, a magic cure. That’s the wineskin: old age is the smoke. At least, that’s the way I see it. My desire to be young, to be free of arthritis, to … well …
Like the Psalmist, I still find hope in God’s word. I never want to return to the life I had when I was an indifferent agnostic: to not know God and to not care, either. My morality then? Of course I’m more ‘moral’ than I was then. That’s partly due to the wisdom of old age. The hedonistic life can seem to be loads of fun; but it’s really immoral. I know that through many years of living and observing. I’ve lived long enough to know that God was and is correct. You will have to study the Bible and pray about what you read; eventually God will make it clear. In our world of instant gratification you may find this takes time. It is, however, time well spent.
We have examined suffering and it appears that suffering originates from human activity. There are some things that are unclear and we will be examining those issues shortly. We’ve also looked at morality and it also appears that issue is a bit hazy. The idea of a ‘moral compass’ built inside each of us is not likely. Any sort of human method to determine right and wrong is flawed. We lost true understanding of right and wrong in the Garden of Eden.
As for those atheist videos? As I watch them I come to more reasons for not believing in God. These, probably, make Christians more uncomfortable than those listed above. And there, in the smoke of an uncomfortable confusion, was that wineskin. Yet, as I pondered all of it, I came to an understanding of God that was quite reassuring.
There’s an old joke: the Christian says, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in, either.” As I listen to the atheists’ videos I realize that the God they describe is not the God I worship. One argument against God is homosexuality. This topic appears to be a flawed tenent to many. This bothered me. I wondered if, somehow, the Church was wrong. After much prayer I felt the Lord telling me much of the following–it’s my words but His thoughts as I understood Him.
First, God did not design homosexuals and then condemn them. For that matter, God did not design liars, thieves, adulterers or murderers or coveting and then demand we stop sinning. The Bible tells us that Adam and Eve gave their sovereignty to Satan. It is Satan that corrupts the entire world. Of course, if you don’t believe in God then you don’t believe in Satan. Therefore, this is incomprehensible. It should be the end of the argument: God did not create homosexuals so that they could be condemned. But the atheist will argue that He permitted this. We’re back to the arguments about free will, creation, why God permits evil, et cetera. These circular arguments get nowhere. The real argument is about fornication and adultery. If the pagan/atheist can score points arguing about homosexuality then those same arguments can be applied to heterosexual fornication. We want to justify ourselves. We search for loopholes in God’s Law.
My experience over many, many years is that the Bible is right about divorce and all forms of fornication. When a marriage is dissolved there are many who get hurt. The partners, the children, the parents, the siblings, the friends. Even in a “friendly” divorce there is pain. “Affairs” or “one night stands” do not offer the joy that hedonism claims. When sexual partners leave each other or cheat on one another, the heartbreak can be emotionally and psychologically devastating. So it would seem that God is not in control. And that’s correct. He’s not in control: you are. God permits that. He lets you make bad decisions. If He didn’t then you would not make any decisions. Why, I ask, do you blame God for your bad decisions? God does provide for us. He does not remove the consequences of our decisions but He does provide His forgiveness.
Even so, each of us must deal with our proclivities. We are gossips, liars, fornicators, cheats, thieves, even murderers. Homosexuality is merely a variety of fornication. But it is the most difficult form. That’s because it mixes same sex love with sexual attraction. Best friends love each other; not sexually but as brothers or sisters. Homosexuality confuses this. Thus the homosexual believes that God has played a mean trick on him/her. So how does a Christian deal with homosexuality? Is the Bible wrong? Did God make a mistake in calling it a sin? The homosexual, because he/she is homosexual, does suffer. “How is it that God made me like this?” Or “How do I obey God and be true to myself?” These questions are a symptom of the suffering a LGBT person endures. And yet the gossip, the liar, the cheat, the thief, the abusing spouse, the abusing parent, in fact all sinners, each of us will ask God why we are created with our desire for Sin. Each of us suffers with our desires/lusts/fantasy thoughts. Thus we frequently claim that we are “only human”–as if that is an excuse. And so we now see that suffering is the only question.
How do we deal with suffering? We can’t escape it. Tylenol, aspirin, alcohol, THC, morphine: drugs can make it easier, but the pain is still there, masked by the drug. Time does not heal all wounds. Pain from a “broken heart” may lessen, but it never disappears. A broken leg may heal, but it is never the same. The Christian viewpoint is that pain and suffering are the result, the consequence, of Sin. The world we live in is corrupted through Original Sin.
All sins are equal to God: He is perfect and cannot permit that which is less than perfect. One ‘little white lie’ is just as corrupted as murder. God cannot accept any sin. Reading Genesis chapters 2 & 3 helps. Understanding begins there. As you read the Old Testament you will see an incomplete picture of God. The Hebrew/Jewish people were unable to understand their God.
Real understanding comes when you comprehend the Gospels. After reading the first three, pay close attention to the Gospel of John. John goes to great effort to help his readers understand what Jesus did when He died on the Cross. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, lays it out point by point. The atheists know what’s written: they seem to ignore it. When they ask “What sort of God would permit suffering?” I wonder if they really understand the suffering God underwent when He died on the Cross? When they complain about the state the world is in I wonder if they understand that it is our ancestors who caused the problems we have today: God gave them and us free will. He then provided instructions on how to employ it to our best advantage. They, and now we, decided to ignore Him.
Adam’s sin was the ultimate sin: Adam wanted to be in control. He wanted to ‘be like God’. That desire blinded him to the fact that he was being told by this serpent creature that God had created a fruit that would give Adam the power to ‘be like God’. Adam was believing in magic! So he gave away his birthright to Satan. In return, he got the consequences of sin; which he then passed on to all of his children. The fruit was not magic. It did not provide the knowledge of good and evil. Instead, it was the act of disobedience that provided that knowledge.
That’s why it is not the Pandora’s Box story. Yes, this does sound a little like Pandora’s Box. The actions of someone eons ago released Evil into the world. But in the midst of the Genesis myth is Truth. Pandora opened the box because she was curious; Zeus had made her curious so she would open the box. Adam and Eve were given free will so they would have a choice. The problem the atheists are trying to explain is why a loving deity would permit the world to be as corrupt as it is. Their answer is that there is no deity. That, however, really is a ‘cop-out’. The real question is why humans would ignore God. The answer is that, like Adam and Eve, we want to be God. We think our free will is our license to do as we please. The Truth: our free will is our license to freely love God and our neighbors.
Christianity is first, last, always about our relationship with both God and with each other. It is not about God rewarding us for being good. It is not about scoring points in order to get into heaven. It is not about being a good Christian so God will heal my arthritis.
I’m not sure there are any religions that promote love the way Christianity does. Unfortunately, the Church has not done it very well. It has tried, but The Church is composed of sinners (humans). The Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-37 tells the story of the “Good Samaritan”. Verse 34 is relatively easy to do. Verse 35? That’s tough. Love, the sort of love that Jesus asks us to show to others, requires something that most of us are not willing to give up. In the parable the priest and the Levite avoided the injured man because of their understanding of the law. They were not willing to give up their rules in order to show compassion. I do not know why. But should I blame the God they claim to worship for their actions? What I know is that God sees the gossip telling a “little white lie” just as evil as theft and murder. For God it is all the same. When you hear, “It’s God’s honest truth!” you know the next thing you hear will be a lie. It may contain something true, but we all know that the intention is not to tell what God would call truth. Why is that? The speaker acknowledges that there is a deity. The speaker is acknowledging that the deity desires truth: honest truth instead of dishonest truth. The commandment is that when we offer witness to something, our witness is not false. It’s dishonest to tell just a bit of truth to obscure the real truth. We are to provide a humble, compassionate witness. That’s the difficulty. Sometimes we are so blind to our own sins that we cannot offer a “humble, compassionate witness”.
Homosexuality is a problem for Christians. The “gay lifestyle” of multiple sexual partners is not a problem for Christians. That’s merely fornication. The profligate heterosexual does the same thing. This lifestyle results in heartbreak and, frequently, an inability to love and trust anyone. It’s the homosexual couples who live together, remaining faithful and true to each other, that worries many Christians.
To Christians who denounce homosexuality I can hear God saying, “Take the log out of your eye so that you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” It’s a problem because we let our prejudice interfere with our compassion. I know of people who, through much prayer, seem to no longer have a same-sex attraction. I sure hope so. But I also know that it’s like addiction. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict. Same for sexual orientation. Or so I guess. (Not that sexual orientation is an addiction. But that sexual sin is deeply embedded in our humanity. The promiscuous heterosexual has, I’m sure, much the same difficulty as the homosexual with their proclivity. In some ways it’s like gambling: you’re always seeking a win, a new partner or experience that tops the last experience.) That doesn’t mean prayer can’t help. But it does mean that we who are not addicts to those things may well be addicts to other things. We need to be compassionate to everyone. We need humble hearts. Maybe you can always do that under your own power. I confess that I need spiritual assistance. There is one more point about homosexuality & suffering; we have a couple of other points to consider and then we can discuss this last point.
Believers, be they Christian or some other faith, are sometimes charged with “blind faith” or believing even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The current politically correct ideas about homosexuality are a good example of that. Christians believe that, in God’s eyes, sin is sin and there’s no difference between lying, adultery, theft and murder. That’s difficult to comprehend. But it is a Biblical tenent and Christians are to accept it. We also believe that Jesus (and Peter–see Matthew 14:22-36) walked on water. Some of us believe that the Biblical time-line as we read the Bible depicts the Earth to be about 6000 years old. All of us believe that God is the original cause of creation. We believe that Adam and Eve were the first human beings. We believe the miracles that are recorded in the Bible and in the miracles that we have seen or that other Christians have reported.
Do we understand all of this? No. We do not understand how faith healing works. We don’t understand how the walls of Jericho fell. Nor do we understand the Ten Plagues of Moses that resulted in the crossing of the Red Sea. We believe: we don’t understand.
God said that He is beyond our understanding. His ways are not our ways. So we can say that all this is just a trick of religion. When we don’t understand why a religion prescribes certain activity and prohibits other activity it is just a trick of the leaders to stay in control. If we don’t understand then something is wrong. That’s the way it is, isn’t it? If you don’t understand then you should not believe.
All of that to say that I’m not going to toss out God because I don’t understand everything. That’s not a cop-out. It’s sanity. For example, I have a vague understanding of Dr. Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity. I sort of understand that when I travel time slows down. Really? Actually I don’t understand that at all. So I guess I’ll toss out Dr. Einstein because I don’t understand the theories? God, the Creator of the Universe, is much more intelligent than Dr. Einstein. How do I propose to understand Him? Why toss out God when I don’t understand?
In the late 1800’s there were all sorts of “medicine men” selling a form of laudanum as a cure-all. For some it seemed to work. Today we have herbal medicine making similar claims. Why? Because Science does not know every answer. Sometimes, when my arthritis acts up, I wonder if some of those herbs might help. It does seem that “medical marijuana” is the current “cure-all”; but there’s this stuff in Mexico–or Japan–or Spain that “really does work”. Medical authorities laughed at “germ theory” until their patients died while patients of men like Dr. Lister and Dr. Pasteur lived.
Science is about theory. That does not mean it’s right or wrong. A theory is a best guess based on current evidence. It’s a model of what reality may be. We don’t know for certain the age of the earth, the sun or the universe. Astronomy and physics constantly get updated as to the latest theories, based on new discoveries. For example, the generally accepted theory at one time was that the Earth was the center of the universe. This was based on observation. Copernicus postulated a different theory that, with some modifications, is the generally accepted theory today. As I write this I’ve learned that there are several theories about the celestial object we call the Moon. It may not be a true “moon” but it might be a planet and it and the Earth orbit each other as well as orbiting the Sun. The authorities got upset with Copernicus and Galileo, but their theories changed only our understanding, not our daily routine. We still refer to ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’.
Evolution is another example of “blind faith”. There’s evidence for the various Theories of Evolution, there’s also evidence for the Creationist Theories. And, yes, there’s more than one theory on each side. However, there is no undeniable proof for either side. That’s not unusual. The Theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics do not work together (although someone very recently proposed a new theory that may unite the two). Yet very few scientists would claim one and belittle the other. This discrepancy between the Quantum Theories and the Theories of Relativity is something that Science has not been able to explain. In other words, it is not understood. Again, do we toss out these theories because we don’t understand everything? They are the ‘best guess’ or ‘best model’ we have.
Creation and Evolution theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are theories that combine elements of both sides. Creationists often begin their theories with the Bible, starting with the first chapter of Genesis. Then they make the philosophical mistake of trying to fit a spiritual account into a scientific account. That’s like trying to explain love or anger by fitting emotions into biological processes without considering the social situation. However, when the social situation is included in the biological processes then understanding can occur. Anger is a biological process. But it makes little sense until the social environment is included.
The Biblical account in Genesis is about how God created Order out of Chaos. But it’s not a scientific account, it’s a spiritual account: the idols of the ancient peoples, such as the Sun and Moon and certain animals, these were created by God. He created things in a specific order, removing chaos. How was this creation accomplished? By the spoken word of God. How does that work? I don’t know. And neither do the creationists or the scientists. What we do know is that a scientific theory can help explain the process. But the ultimate cause? The original motive force? Physics cannot explain that any more than Biology can explain why certain words are offensive and produce anger. The offense and the anger can be explained, but by a different philosophical system.
There are reasons for believing God even when I don’t understand. My personal experience is one thing that informs me to accept that which I don’t understand. That includes God. I have experienced a miraculous healing. My doctor was surprised and amazed. But why did God heal that injury and not heal my arthritis? I can speculate; but I do not understand why.
I have had a personal revelation, a sort of vision, of Jesus. He explained something I did not understand. God has spoken to me multiple times. But there are many times when I really need to hear God but He is silent. Were the times I heard God merely tricks of my mind? Was the healing of my shoulder some fluke?
All this I must take on faith. Either I believe or I don’t. As I grew older I began to understand some of God’s wisdom because I observed how it works. Divorce hurts. Prejudice hurts. The Gospels are full of arguing between the Pharisees and Jesus over the Old Testament rules. By the Jewish standards of the time Jesus was a bastard. Christians blatantly ignore the facts surrounding the birth of the Messiah even though they are plainly stated in the Gospels. We’re even told that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was going to divorce her until God told him to keep her as his wife. Some have offered that the reason there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the “inn” or “house” was because Joseph’s relatives knew about the situation: she was pregnant before she should have been. Jesus was persecuted by both the Jews and the Romans. The Gospels make this quite clear. So God knows, firsthand, about persecution and suffering. That Western Civilization, via the Church, persecuted those born outside marriage is proof that everyone has difficulty understanding God. As to why God chose these specific circumstances for His Messiah we have a small idea today; when it happened no one understood. But some accepted without understanding.
The problem is that some refuse to accept the scientific data that seems to refute the Bible and, with what is apparently blind, unquestioning faith, accept Biblically based ideas. Those with scientific training find this offensive. So some Christians claim the planet is only 6000 years old. Science provides evidence that the planet is much older. So either the Bible is wrong or Science is wrong.
However, they are not mutually exclusive. Science explains observed evidence, such as the relationship of the Earth and the Sun, according to the best interpretation of what we see. The Bible is concerned with explaining something we cannot directly see. It is a Spiritual document; it describes God. Adam and Eve may have lived 6000 years ago; but that’s not what the Bible is trying to explain. From a Biblical perspective it matters not if it was 6000 or 60,000 years ago. What is important is the relationship of God and humans. Like I said earlier, you can’t explain anger with biology only. The social situation must also be considered. Both atheists and Christians get this confused.
So neither Christians nor atheists want to discuss this because they can’t comprehend it. I know I did not understand it when I was a hedonist. Each group insists on imposing their agenda on the Bible and the religious experience. Frequently, the way Science is compared to Religion results in a sort of double standard. The religious tenets are made to face the scientific method while the scientific tenets are viewed as correct a priori. And some Christians do the reverse, treating Science to a more rigorous standard, holding the scientific account to a religious standard. Neither is acceptable. Our agendas are dictated by our prejudices.
The ancient worldview that the earth was the center of the universe made some sense. But the experience of wandering stars made that theory tenuous. Copernicus and the telescope gave us a better theory. Our personal experience of the planets wandering across the sky helps us understand the science. That same personal experience helps a child understand that fire burns. My personal experience is that peanuts are delicious and nutritious. My friend is allergic, she would, from her personal experience, disagree. Speaking from personal experience is one of the best ways to illustrate an idea. If I tell you I saw angels (or a U.F.O.) you may not believe me, but you can’t argue that I did not see anything.
However, God gave us the ability to reason. “I think, therefore I am” is proof of that. When we are presented with opinion and hypothesis God expects us to use our brains, not our agendas.
It’s this lack of understanding that causes many to criticize Biblical ideas. For example: Heaven and Hell. Dante (The Divine Comedy) did not help when he described Hell. In fact, he seems to have made things worse. I much prefer C. S. Lewis’ ideas about Hell. His description of Napoleon in Hell (See The Great Divorce) has stuck with me as much more likely than Dante. Yes, the Church propagated the myth of Hell as a way to keep people moral. But consider the environment of the times: Rome had fallen. There really was no government. Petty warlords, idealized in fiction as King Arthur, were the only government; except for the Church. So the Church tried to keep some sort of civilized stability as best as it could. Threatening thieves and murderers with Hell might prevent some suffering. I’m not about to excuse the Church for propagating the myth. But the reality is plain: Jesus did use the trash dump outside Jerusalem as an example of what the afterlife might be for those who defy God. He also told us that he was “going to prepare a place for us” which we assume to be Heaven. Jesus also said that God would “separate the sheep from the goats” and (Matthew 25:46 NIV) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” But that’s not quite the Dante version of Hell. It is, however, a terrifying thought. If I’m a sinner, already condemned, then it’s convenient to say there is no God and thus no Hell. Maybe that’s true and I can do as I want and not have to worry about it?
It was Blaise Pascal who said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”
Admittedly, this is not a direct Biblical principle. Still, many in the modern world have adopted this quote. I see it as parallel to Genesis 4:13-16 (NIV)
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Cain is banished from the presence of the Lord and he claims that this banishment is more than he can bear. That sounds much like the idea of Hell. Not a place where demons torture the souls of the wicked dead, but a place that is outside of the presence of God. Some cultures have the concept of “outlaw” in which the person deemed an “outlaw” is placed outside the protection of the law. That means that if someone attacks and hurts or kills the outlaw, then the law of the land does not apply. The “outlaw” is “outside the law”. Any person who hurts or kills the outlaw will not be judged by the law of the land. That sounds, in some ways, like what God did to Cain, except that no one was allowed to kill Cain. It may be (I do not know!) that this is what Hell will be. Many Christians believe that Hell is not a judgment imposed on evil souls but instead the evil souls have judged that they prefer to be severed from the presence of God. The “Last Judgment” is, therefore, the confirming judgment of a confession by the soul on trial.
But that is not why I try to be moral. In fact, I mostly do not try to be moral or to obey the law. What I try to do is obey my Lord. It is His Love that propelled Him to die on the cross for me. He did that for me; but also for you. When he died on the cross Jesus saved me from myself. He has enabled me to live though his life while at the same time Jesus lives through my life. Or, that’s what we are attempting to effect. It’s not easy: I’m stubborn. I confess that I need help. I look to my Savior to help me. Sometimes I want Him to help me do what I want. It can be difficult to forgive my neighbor and restore to him that which is his: his honor, his dignity, his rights.
Tying Up Loose Ends
Suffering is not something God inflicts on us. Instead it is the result of human free will. We suffer because humans are sinful. We inflict suffering on each other. As a result of our disobeying God we make life even harder for many. Instead of being witnesses to God’s love, we shun sinners. Or we provide soup kitchens to feed them, but we don’t work to change things so the poor can escape poverty. Prejudice has very deep roots.
There are lots of ministries to help the poor, but who is ministering to the rich? You may find it hard to accept, but they suffer, too. I remember reports about Howard Hughes hiding in his hotel suite, afraid of death. Charles Dickens described his character, Ebenezer Scrooge, as a miserable man until the ghosts taught him to love. But God wants us, Christians, to teach the Scrooges to love.
It’s not just the very rich, the middle class also suffers. They work hard, struggling for more money. Yearning to be truly rich and socially acceptable they become workaholics, struggling up social ladders. Unfortunately, they suffer from the consequences of sin, too.
The pagan media tells us that we can build utopia with political correctness. But when we examine it, we see that political correctness depends on shaming, on fear, to keep people in line. So we do our best to say things that are not ‘racist’ but we don’t understand what prejudice really is. And all the while Christians are promoting love. They know that having love in your heart prevents racism. It also promotes business practices and government policies that would help the poor and protect the environment. This would greatly reduce suffering in the world.
Homosexuals tell us that they were homosexual when they were born. That, therefore, is some sort of proof that Christians and/or the Bible are wrong. However, as pointed out earlier, from God’s viewpoint it is just another variation of sin. It’s the same for gossips, liars, those who covet, fornicators & adulterers, thieves and murderers. Each and every one can say they were born with their proclivity or sin. It is called Original Sin. St. Paul illustrates this as the “natural man” (1st. Corinthians 2–KJV) or “the flesh”. He says that, on the cross, it was this “natural man” who was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-20) In chapter 7 of Romans he laments the natural man, the flesh. It matters not if you are a gossip, a thief, or any other brand of sinner: you were born through Original Sin. So, of course, you were “born that way”. Even so, God wants you to repent. And when you repent your sinful self will be crucified with Jesus on the Cross. You may have been born a liar or a cheat or a profligate; if you permit the Holy Spirit to enter your heart then the process of cleansing begins. In other words, of course you were born ‘that way’. We all were. Each of us is a sinner. Your homosexuality is nothing special. It’s not just murder, thieving and idolatry that are perversions of humanity, anything that reflects the corruption of Sin falls short of God’s design. However, there is “Good News”. Jesus died to save you, not condemn you!
As for that homosexual couple who have lived together faithfully for years I have no answer, except that God really does love them. The challenge facing them is no different than the challenge all other humans face: trusting God with your whole life. I am certain of His mercy. Trust Him and He will provide mercy. The same is true for everyone who is envious or jealous or a thief or any type of sinner. It can seem like “blind faith” to trust God. And, well, yes, sometimes it is. But the reality is that you really can trust Him. And when you do you will find JOY!
I am writing this shortly after Pope Francis made some comments about homosexuality. In my research online to find his message I found a very good example of how non-believers misunderstand Christians.
The first thing I noticed was that the secular (pagan) media report was different from the report in the Roman Catholic media. That’s because the Pope was speaking to his flock, not to the world. But the pagan world heard his message and, using their assumptions, misunderstood him. Even some Christians misunderstood him. Vatican News 18 December 2023 reported in detailed summary the essence of the Pope’s message. Here’s the last paragraph of that report:
In conclusion, the fourth chapter (paragraphs 42-45) recalls that “even when a person’s relationship with God is clouded by sin, he can always ask for a blessing, stretching out his hand to God” and desiring a blessing “can be the possible good in some situations” (par. 43).
As I understand it, the Pope said that a priest can bless unrepentant sinners, so long as there is no confusion as to sacramental blessing or confusion about the nature of the blessing. If a sinner is seeking spiritual assistance the priest should not turn the sinner away. The priest can bless the sinner, but not the sinful nature of their lives. That’s my understanding,
Therefore, it seems to me, that a priest can bless an alcoholic or drug addict. He can bless a woman involved in adultery. Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel records such a blessing. Jesus told the woman that he did not condemn her, but she should quit sinning. As I understand it, a blessing is a special form of intercessory prayer. The person giving the blessing is asking God for favor or protection, usually the request is for a form of healing. Healing can be medical, spiritual or emotional. According to the Vatican News report, the Pope carefully defined what and how a priest may bless someone who is involved in a sinful lifestyle. As I understand it, the purpose of this blessing is to assist the sinner(s) in, ultimately, repentance. So a priest could pray for a homosexual couple concerning a new job, for example. The priest would not be blessing their lifestyle, but their humanity. See this editorial for the source of my understanding. There is also this editorial “A shepherd’s heart that never closes the door“. I want to clarify that I wrote these thoughts about homosexuality before I read about Pope Francis’ comments.
I don’t see his clarification of blessing sinners who ask for blessing as a new Christian teaching. I have had many people who were not “true, orthodox believers” ask me for prayer. I’ve been a part of prison ministry where we prayed for inmates who most definitely were not baptized believers. They wanted us to pray for them. Some of them were, I’m pretty sure, involved in ‘gay sex’ in some fashion. All were convicted felons. Who is going to say that we were wrong to pray for them? In other words, should Christians stop praying for sinners because the pagan press misunderstands it? The secular media has and will continue to misunderstand Christianity. That didn’t stop Peter, John, Paul, Timothy and many others from making disciples.
True Christians do not condemn anyone. Jesus, in all the Bible, never condemned the sinners he healed. He frequently said, in effect, “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more.” He did, however, say in effect, “Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees who inflict harsh rules on everyone else.”
Again, I must point out that your sin is not special. Compared to other sins it is no big deal. However, in God’s eyes it is a big deal–a very big deal. Your sin is, to God, just as horrendous as one little white lie: it will keep you separated from God.
Living the Christian Life can be difficult. If you find it difficult, there is a solution: pray about it. I have, many times, told God exactly what I thought of many situations, people and even Him. Want to make God laugh? Tell Him something is impossible. St. Paul told us to “rejoice always” and so we should. There’s JOY in the knowledge that Jesus rose from the dead. There’s JOY in the knowledge that He loves you. There’s JOY in giving; JOY in helping others; JOY in trusting Him to provide; JOY in His healing; JOY in His creation of life and JOY when He comes to take us home to Him.
As I said, this really is not an attempt to refute everything the atheists said. Instead, it’s my meditation on what they said. As I pondered their words I realized that they really didn’t put much effort into their arguments. Instead of arguing that the Bible has errors or that God treats homosexuals poorly I thought they would show that God is not necessary. Instead, I find that their arguments led me to the conclusion that God really is necessary.
One of the most important things I learned in college was that anything can be proved in any subject depending on the assumptions made before the argument begins. These assumptions color one’s thinking. Once the desired result is found then all other research stops. So when I redefine what constitutes a “planet” then I can reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet”. That’s because I redefine my assumptions and so divide “planets” into two classes. In economics, based on my assumptions, I can prove both that a tax decrease will bankrupt the country or that it will be a great boon to the economy. Ultimately, Pluto still orbits the Sun, regardless of your definitions. Ultimately, the effect of a tax decrease depends on the motives of the politicians. Their assumptions depend on which way the wind is blowing. And they can always prove they are right–according to their assumptions.
If your assumption is that religion and science are mutually exclusive it would be very difficult to believe in a God that created both. However, the motive cause of creation did create both. Again, I repeat that humans created Science to explain what they observe; they created religion to explain things they can’t observe. We can observe physical, biological healing. We observe spiritual, miraculous healing. True, we cannot see is the process, only the result. In biology we can see the healing process; not so with miracles.
The atheists I watched on YouTube claim that they believed until they encountered theological arguments that made them doubt. When you listen to them carefully you can find the point that they stopped believing: it was when they decided they no longer wanted to believe. That point was based on their assumptions. For me, it wasn’t that I did not believe that there were no errors in the Bible. It was that I assume that when I read something I don’t understand, I pray for God to reveal His purpose in having that placed in the Bible. Martin Luther was correct in his claim that it is “faith alone” that enables Jesus to save you. The problem is just where you have placed your faith. If you have doubt in God, perhaps your faith is not in the one, true God? What are your assumptions? My faith has provided the experience that God exists. I have a relationship with Him. That experience has changed my assumptions about just who God actually is.
And so we return to that wineskin in the smoke. In one case it is drying out, shriveling, wrinkling, getting brittle and soon to crumble. In the other case it is hanging in the restoration tent, the warm, moist smoke restoring the leather, returning it to a useful state.
I can’t prove to you that God exists. But I can suggest that if everyone did as the Bible prescribes the world would be a much better place.