The Twenty-Third Psalm

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1-3 God, my shepherd!
    I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
    you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
    Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
    when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
    makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

©2006 Eugene Peterson (from The Message)

I am certain many of you are familiar with Psalm 23. It is one of the most read and most quoted Bible passages. It is perhaps the best-loved psalm. It has delighted the child, rejoiced the faithful, emboldened the dying, and comforted the grieving. It has been read at countless funerals, most likely due to its reference to the Valley of Death. Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not by way of escape; its contentment is not complacency: there is readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack. And who can’t relate to that? The climax of this passage reveals a love which does not lead to material gain, but to a relationship with the LORD Himself.

This psalm is built on the metaphor of the shepherd, a common figure in Israel. Indispensable to the flock, he is its constant companion, its guide and source of provision, its physician, and its defender. Although the term “shepherd” was commonly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East, God is not often called Shepherd (see Genesis 48:15; 49:24). Psalm 23:1a is therefore especially striking in its claim: The LORD is my Shepherd. David has claimed an intimate relationship (He is my shepherd).

Shepherd and His Flock

The rest of 23:1 seems to flow naturally from the assertion that the LORD is our shepherd. God is, after all, the possessor of all things, and Himself has all things. Everything belongs to God. And with such a provider, we cannot lack materially. Whether feeding on fresh and tender grass (v. 2), drinking at quiet waters (v. 2), or feasting at the table of his host (v. 5), every material need is abundantly met. Matthew 6:26 says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?” Of course, Psalm 23 also speaks of God’s ability to provide just what is needed. Sheep, who cannot drink from rushing waters, need to be led to those which are still. Perfect provision will continue, since it is given for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). God’s giving is consistent with His character; since this does not change, neither will His habits of provision for His flock.

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With God as his shepherd, David can rest. He restores my soul (Psalm 23:3a) does not refer to God’s restoration of wayward sheep but to how He imparts new life to the sheep. It can rest in the shepherd’s protection, comforted by the rod (v. 4), a weapon used for defense of the flock. Restoration is also found at quiet waters (v. 2), literally translated as “waters of restfulness.” Although the metaphor changes from the pasture to God’s table, the emphasis on rest continues. There is no further need to fear enemies, for as God’s guest (v. 5), David’s protection is the concern of the LORD, his host. The foes, unable to harass, must look on as David feasts at God’s table.

Now, instead of being pursued by enemies, David is pursued by goodness and love (Psalm 23:6). Goodness is the steady and faithful kindness which is unending and undeserved. Follow is too mild; these things chase David. What is more, he has nothing else to fear, since surely could be rendered “only.” David knows the rest which comes from joy. His head is anointed with perfumed oils (v. 5b), an action that symbolizes festivity, honor, health, and blessing. His cup overflows, symbolizing a life “overblessed” in every way by God.

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With God as his shepherd, David knows he will always be led in the “right paths,” as paths of righteousness (Psalm 23:3) should be translated. He need not find his own paths but only follow the staff of the Shepherd, taking direction from its gentle guidance (v. 4). The Shepherd may lead into the valley of the shadow of death, but this too is one of His right paths. In 23:1-3, David speaks about God; when he moves into this dark valley, he speaks to God (v. 4). When he needed God the most, God was there.

Of all that comes from having God as his Shepherd, David is most delighted with God’s presence. It seems that is what he lives for! The center of the psalm (23:4) resounds with this affirmation without which none of the good gifts would be possible. Without the shepherd, there is only a harassed and helpless flock (see Matthew 9:36). Without the host, there is no banquet. Of all the places where the psalmist might choose to be, he longs to stay in God’s presence all his days. From the first verse of this psalm to the last, the focus has been on God. The search which has occupied humanity—for provision, rest, guidance, and fellowship with the divine—ends in God.

New NIDA Research Reveals the Power of Social Reinforcement

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director
NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE
October 15, 2018

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When it is available and can be delivered appropriately and effectively, medication is a crucial part of treating addiction—but by itself, a pill or an injection may not be sufficient. Social support has long been known to be an important factor in a variety of recovery programs and treatment approaches. Now, for the first time, an animal study conducted by members of NIDA’s Intramural Research Program and a scientist in Italy illustrates just how potent social reinforcement can be, even in animals that are already “addicted” to drugs as reinforcing as heroin and methamphetamine. 

The new study led by NIDA’s Dr. Marco Venniro required rats to choose between social interaction with another rat or access to heroin or methamphetamine. The animals consistently chose social interaction when given the choice, and this was true when they were first given access to the drug or when they were experienced drug takers.

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To assess the level of addiction in their rats, the experimenters used a sophisticated set of behavioral paradigms that attempt to model the kinds of choices made by humans who are addicted to drugs. They include assessing how hard a rat will work for access to the drug and whether responding persists despite punishment (i.e., brief electric shocks). Individual differences emerge in these paradigms; but regardless, the social reinforcer always won out over the drug. Even when the rats were housed with other rats and thus lived in a social environment, they consistently chose further social contact over the option to self-administer the drug.

The experimenters manipulated the social reward by introducing delay and an aversive stimulus in some conditions. Addicted rats were only likely to choose the drug over social interaction (i.e., relapse) when access to other rats was sufficiently delayed or punished. It is a striking set of findings. Even though previous research had established that isolation led animals to self-administer drugs and that social housing was protective against drug use, no studies had given animals the ability to choose one or the other—conditions had always been controlled by the experimenter. (Some studies had used palatable food as a choice alternative, but not social contact.)

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Another surprise concerned the phenomenon known as incubation of drug craving. Rats that regularly self-administer a drug display an increase in drug seeking following a period of abstinence (usually forced), similar to what many human drugs users experience following withdrawal—and often what prompts relapse. However, rats that became voluntarily abstinent by repeatedly choosing social interaction did not demonstrate this incubation effect.

The authors of this study point out that our social needs as humans are far more complex than the social needs of rats. In addition to social interactions and companionship (more immediate forms of social gratification), we also need more distal social expectations like the promise of meaningful participation in our community or society. But the findings of the study provide valuable insight into how recovery programs centered on mutual aid, as well as treatment approaches that emphasize social reinforcement, might help individuals overcome drug problems.

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For example, one of the best-supported behavioral treatments is the community reinforcement approach (CRA), which centers on building a new social support system and increasing the value of other, non-drug rewards in the individual’s life. Other approaches like cognitive behavior therapy also seek to increase the salience of less immediate social rewards when patients are faced with the immediate temptations of drug use. Even recovery groups for people with drug or alcohol addictions based on 12-step or similar models depend in large part on building a new social structure in which the person can function. The new study’s authors argue that their findings lend weight to the argument that these kinds of behavioral approaches that incorporate complex social influences should be more widely studied and utilized.

Justification versus Sanctification

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Justification and sanctification are not the same thing. The basic dictionary definition of justification is “the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.” The theological definition is “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.” Sanctification is an ongoing process. It comes from the Greek word hagiazo, which means to be separate or set apart. As we’ll see later, sanctification is not the same as salvation. We’ll also see that justification is a transaction and sanctification is a transformation.

Justification is a Transaction

In Christian doctrine, justification is God’s act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin, and imputing His righteousness through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:22-24 says, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV).

Eugene Peterson provides the following translation of Romans 3:21-24: “But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ” (MSG) [Emphasis added].

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We are justified, declared righteous, at the moment of our salvation. Justification does not make us righteous, but rather pronounces us righteous. Our righteousness comes from placing our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice covers our sin, allowing God to see us as perfect and unblemished. Certainly, it should be obvious that this is something we simply cannot accomplish on our own. Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Romans, says, “St. Augustine writes in the ninth chapter of his book Concerning the Spirit and the Letter: ‘He does not speak of the righteousness of God, by which God is righteous, but of that with which He clothes a person when He justifies the ungodly.’ Again in the eleventh chapter he comments: ‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested; that is, God imparts it to the believer by the Spirit of grace without the work of the Law, or without the help of the Law. Through the Law God opens man’s eyes so that he sees his helplessness and by faith takes refuge to His mercy and so is healed.'”

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Romans 5:18-19 sums up this concept quite nicely. “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the one man the many were made righteous” (NIV). It is because of justification that the peace of God can rule in our lives. It is because of justification that believers can have full assurance of their salvation. It is the fact of justification that enables God to begin the process of sanctification—the process by which God makes us in reality what we already are positionally. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2, NIV).

Sanctification is a Transformation

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The very moment we are saved in Christ we are also immediately sanctified and begin the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. As God’s children, we are set apart from that moment to carry out His divine purposes. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). Peterson’s translation says, “It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process” (MSG).

Sanctification is different than salvation. It is important to differentiate between the two concepts. Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. His blood washes away our sins and frees us from eternal suffering and damnation. Believers are save because of what Christ has already done. We can do absolutely nothing to earn salvation. Sanctification occurs as a result of salvation. But sanctification does not stop there. Instead, it is a progressive process that continues in a believer’s life. This is because even as Christians we still have the capacity to sin. We find ourselves in a spiritual battle the moment we confess Christ as Messiah and decide to follow Him. Paul describes this inner battle in Galatians 5:17: “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not [able] to do whatever you want” (NIV).

Paul notes in Romans 15:16 that through the grace of God he became a minister of the Gospel to the Gentiles so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s ministry was not merely to win converts to Christ; he intended to see people become sanctified. He says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done…” (v. 18). Obedience leads to sanctification. Romans 6:17 says, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (NIV).

Sanctification is the Key to Spiritual Growth

Sanctification is both a matter of position and progression. Indeed, we’re told to work toward perfection—that is, maturity in Christ. We’re to move from milk to solid food. We are sanctified because Jesus Christ has saved us and yet sanctification continues to work within to transform us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification is the responsibility of every believer in Christ. When we choose to pursue sanctification in our life, positive growth occurs. It is important to remember this is a process, and cannot be rushed. Like a newborn baby that gradually matures unto adulthood, so is the work of sanctification in the life of a new Christian. The work of sanctification will ultimately be completed in every believer’s life when Christ returns.

Paul writes, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

 

Are Science and Christianity at Odds?

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This question has been the fuel for countless discussions, arguments, and debates for centuries. I spend several hours a week viewing YouTube documentaries on apologetics, postmodernism, Israeli-Palestinian relations, Islam, creationism, evolution, and atheism. Having undertaken a systematic study of worldviews, I’m reminded that nearly no one simply creates his or her own worldview. We inherit a great deal of our worldview from our parents, primary caregivers, school, and church. I must always keep my own worldview in mind—including biases, prejudices, presuppositions, and misconceptions. This is critical. Not only do we interpret information according to our worldview, it is our worldview that filters what we see or what we deem relevant.

“The conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science” (Sam Harris).

ORIGINS OF A CONFLICT

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Science is at war with religion. This conflict can be traced back to the Dark Ages during which the church quite vigorously forced its dogma and control on church members. Anyone who questioned church authority was summarily punished. Some of science’s forefathers—Galileo, Copernicus, and Bruno—were persecuted. What we miss, however, if we hold this “abridged” history of science versus religion are the numerous examples of Christianity and science getting along just fine, answering the many questions we have about us, our planet, and our universe.

If we refuse to have at least an open mind about a different paradigm or worldview, we’ll never have the opportunity to think for ourselves. Education is extremely important, but just how important is public education? Public schools teach that science and education are incompatible. Period. This wild and unverified conclusion is reckless. Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) said, “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.” Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, wrote, “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise… It subverts science and saps the intellect.”

Many believe science and Christianity are at odds, but the opposite is actually true. There is no underlying conflict between Christianity (currently the world’s largest religion at 2.4 billion believers) and science. Naturally, this does not mean that religious antagonism to science does not exist. Believers often take on science with a vengeance. But science history shows that such claims of antagonism are often exaggerated or unsubstantiated. Let’s remember that science (as a sustained and organized movement) emerged in Christian Europe. During the sixteenth century, people from every culture studied the natural world, and yet modern science appeared first in Europe among a civilization primarily shaped by the Judeo-Christian worldview. To be blunt, Christianity provided the philosophical foundation and spiritual motivation for doing science. The Christian worldview—with its insistence on the orderliness of the universe, its emphasis on human reason, and its teaching that God is glorified as we seek to understand His creation—laid the foundation for the modern scientific revolution.

MOST SCIENTIFIC PIONEERS BELIEVED IN GOD

Most scientific pioneers were theists, including prominent figures such as Copernicus, Newton, Pascal, Kepler, Pasteur, and Planck. Many of these individuals intently pursued science because of their belief in the Christian God. Francis Bacon believed the natural world was full of mysteries that God means for us to explore. This is often referred to as God’s general revelation. Kepler wrote, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” Newton believed his scientific discoveries offered convincing evidence for the existence and creativity of God. He said, “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”

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This argument is lost on atheists like Christopher Hitchens, who discounts the religious convictions of these scientific giants. He said belief in God was the only option for a scientist at that time in history. But this puts Hitchens in a pickle. If religious believers get no credit for their positive contributions to society (e.g., shaping modern science) simply because “everyone was religious,” then why should their mistakes be used to discredit them? This is truly a double-standard. To make the case that religion “poisons everything,” Hitchens has to ignore much evidence to the contrary. Dawkins accepts that some early scientific pioneers may have been Christians, but he believes Christian scientists today are a rarity. He said, “Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find throughout the twentieth century.”

NATURALISM VERSUS THEISM

Naturalism is a scientifically oriented worldview that completely denies the existence of God and the soul. Rather, it holds that everything arises from natural properties and causes; supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted. The term seems to have no precise meaning today. Different philosophers over the centuries have proffered myriad definitions. But naturalists have always attempted to align philosophy more closely with science. Adherents to this philosophy assert that natural laws are, well, natural—that they govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe all on their own without input from a Creator or Intelligent Designer.

Theism holds that there is a personal creator and sustainer of the universe who is omnipotent, omniscient, essentially good, omnipresent, and eternal. Christianity believes that the Creator has revealed Himself to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ, a member of the trinity of God, who was resurrected from the dead in confirmation of His deity. Christians believe in the supernatural world, including the One True God, spirit, angels, and miracles. Here’s the deal! Naturalism and theism are at odds with each other, not science and Christianity. Naturalism is intrinsically atheistic because it sees nothing outside of the natural or physical world.

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Have you found yourself asking, Why does the natural world make any sense to begin with? Albert Einstein once remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Einstein understood a basic truth about science—it relies upon certain philosophical assumptions about the natural world. These assumptions include the existence of an external world that is orderly and rational, and the trustworthiness  of our minds to grasp that world. Science cannot proceed apart from these assumptions, even though they cannot be independently proven. Oxford professor John C. Lennox makes a provocative statement: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly.” Without this deep conviction science would not be possible.

In order to further expound on the complexity of explaining the universe, take a look at the following excerpt from Stephen Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time?

When most people believed in an essentially static and unchanging universe, the question of whether or not it had a beginning was really one of metaphysics or theology. One could account for what was observed equally well on the theory that the universe had existed forever or on the theory that it was set in motion at some finite time in such a manner as to look as though it had existed forever. But in 1929, Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving rapidly away from us. In other words, the universe is expanding. This means that at earlier times objects would have been closer together. In fact, it seemed that there was a time, about ten or twenty thousand million years ago, when they were all at exactly the same place and when, therefore, the density of the universe was infinite. This discovery finally brought the question of the beginning of the universe into the realm of science.

According to British physicist, broadcaster, and educator Paul Davies, the intelligibility of the universe points toward a rational foundation. He says science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Every single level! Atheists claim that the laws of nature exist without any basis in reason and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, Davies said he found this position hard to accept. He said, “There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted.”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

This brings us full-circle. It’s not Christianity that is at odds with science—it’s naturalism. Problem is, people like Richard Dawkins believe there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism. However, the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and a belief in God. It’s not simply that the order of the universe fits better with God in it. There is a much deeper link. An ordered, rational, logical universe is what we would expect from a God who created us in His image. Forming true beliefs about the world is one way we reflect the image imprinted in us by God.

Science depends on the assumption that the world is orderly and that our minds can access this reality. Even the most secular scientists presume that nature operates in a law-like fashion. This conviction  is best explained by the pioneers of the scientific revolution, who believed the cosmos is orderly because it was designed by the rational Creator of the universe who desires for us, as beings made in His image, to understand, enjoy, and explore His creation.

 

 

Is Faith Irrational?

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The truth about God is too important not to be seriously investigated and honestly and fairly discussed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for friendly conversations about religion to escalate into shouting matches—and this helps no one. Belief and unbelief are two sides to the same coin. The debate over faith and spirituality is here to stay. However, it does no good to vilify the other side. If any real ground is to be reached, we need to change the tone of this conversation.

WHY ALL THIS HOSTILITY AGAINST RELIGION?

It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of books on atheism and apologetics becoming New York Times best-sellers would have been hard to imagine. So what happened? Why are people reading books bashing God and ridiculing the faithful, or proffering a defense of the Gospel? Of course, that’s a rather complex question.

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First, we live in a much different world following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The events of that horrific day, when 2,996 people were murdered and more than 6,000 were injured, are burned into our collective memory. We all had front-row seats to religious fanaticism run amok. Until that day, such zealotry had always been going on “somewhere else” in the world. It is impossible to overstate how drastically the events of 9/11 changed our world.

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In the days that followed, the cultural conversation turned to the role and value of religion in the public square and throughout the globe. Such conversations are certainly legitimate and appropriate and, if conducted properly, can be quite healthy. But events like 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, or the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016, helped create the cultural context in which the hyper-aggressive claims of today’s militant atheists could actually be entertained by a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

Second, there is a growing undercurrent of unbelief in America. A Newsweek cover story written by John Meacham, published on April 16, 2009, titles “The End of Christian America,” reported that “the number of Americans who claim no religious belief or affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.” Why is this? While sociologists have more than enough polling data to analyze, I think Timothy Keller offers a plausible explanation in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Three generations ago, most people inherited rather than chose their religious faith. The great majority of people belonged to one of the historic mainline Protestant churches or the Roman Catholic Church. Today, however, the now-dubbed “old-line” Protestant churches of cultural, inherited faith are aging and losing members rapidly. People are opting instead for a non-religious life, for non-institutional personally constructed spirituality, or for orthodox, high-commitment religious groups that expect members to have a conversion experience. Therefore the population is paradoxically growing both more religious and less religious at once.

This post 9/11 rejection of God and religion has its roots in pluralism and secularization. It seems a growing number of people—on both sides of the God question—are no longer content to “play church.” It is likely many see “religion” as a training ground for extremism, dogma, elitism, and narrow-mindedness. Either what people believe is true and they are going to attempt to live out their faith in all areas of their life, or it’s false and people shouldn’t waste their time going through the motions of their childhood faith if belief makes no difference whatever.

So these two factors have generated a cultural conversation about faith and God in the 21st century. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for those who attempt to share the Gospel. In addition, the events of 9/11 and after also created room in culture for militant atheists whose advocates tell anyone who’ll listen that if we get rid of religion, we can free ourselves from what they call childish nonsense. Atheism, of course, is not new. It’s been with us for quite a long time. The media fueled atheism, starting perhaps with the April 8, 1966 cover story of Time magazine, “Is God Dead?” Friedrich Nietzsche infamously said Gott ist tot God is dead) in his 1882 collection titled “The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding.”

What is new, however, is the biting and powerful rhetoric, as well as the cultural visibility, of these so-called militant atheist, the likes of which include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Nye. Naturally, their visibility has increased secondary to the explosion of the Internet, blogs, and 24/7 media coverage of every imaginable topic. The more controversial and polarizing, the better. Hoping that something hits the mark, these militant atheists tend to throw everything at people. They appeal primarily to the emotions, lacking any evidence regarding the non-existence of God. Granted, it’s impossible to prove a negative. But these individuals skillfully dodge the concept of proof and instead use sarcasm and innuendo to rattle their theist counterparts and paint religion—especially Christianity—as delusional.

SO, IS FAITH IRRATIONAL?

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A distinct feature of the rhetoric being espoused by the militant atheists today is their belief that religion is blind, irrational, and, well, just plain stupid. This is evident in the title of Richard Dawkins’ seminal work: The God Delusion. His intent is clear—those who believe in God are fools who have been brainwashed by their parents and ancestors into believing something absurd. Dawkins thinks religious people are deluded. I find myself asking, What could possibly cause Dawkins and others like him to be so adamantly against religion? Why resort to attacking fellow citizens simply because they believe in God? A major reason is because Dawkins has decided religious belief is not based in evidence. He said, “In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence.”  In other words, he believes religious faith is blind but in other disciplines—especially science—we demand physical proof for what we believe. Dawkins concludes that religion is a “nonsensical enterprise” that “poisons everything.”

Dawkins’ definition of a “delusion” is “a persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence.” Now wait just a minute! Isn’t it nearly impossible to prove a negative? What is this strong contradictory evidence? Daniel Dennett—an American philosopher, writer, cognitive scientist, atheist, and secularist—claims that Christians are addicted to their blind faith. According to militant atheist Sam Harris, “Faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence.” Harris said, “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”

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Dawkins often cites the story of doubting Thomas as proof that Christianity requires blind faith. When the other disciples reported that they had seen the risen Christ, Thomas refused to believe until he could see the nail marks and put his hands where the nails had been and into Jesus’ side where He had been speared. A week later, Jesus showed up and gave Thomas the evidence he demanded. Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, NIV). True to form, Dawkins says this Scripture passage proves that Christianity opposes reason. He adds, “Thomas demanded [physical] evidence… the other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are help up to us as worthy of imitation.”

BIBLICAL FAITH

The fact that some Christians may have so-called “blind faith” is not the same as Christianity itself valuing blind faith and irrationality. Frankly, the Bible does not tell us to irrationally believe something in the face of reliable physical evidence to the contrary. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). Eugene Peterson, in his translation of Hebrews 11:1, writes, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see” (MSG) [Emphasis added]. To me, this wonderfully written paraphrase shows that Christianity does not require blind faith in face of scientific evidence to the contrary. Hebrews 11 (the “faith” chapter) explains trust in God.

Faith Hebrews 11

Many individuals—believers, non-believers, and agnostics alike—have a gross misunderstanding of what constitutes faith. Faith is not merely a manner by which we “fill in the gaps” in the absence of, or in the face of, real, tangible, evidence. Carl Sagan, for example, once said, “Faith is believing in something in the absence of evidence.” This is a rather narrow definition. Let’s take a closer look at the word substance. It comes from the Greek word hupostasis, meaning “a placing or setting under, a substructure or foundation.” This word can also be translated as “confidence.” The Greek word for evidence, elengchos, means “that by which a thing is proved or tested; conviction.”

Biblical faith comes from careful observation and the weighing of all available evidence. Faith, therefore, is dynamic rather than static. The militant atheists like to lump all religions together and dismiss them with sweeping generalizations. But Christianity is unique in valuing the role of the mind which includes the proper use of reasoning and argumentation. In fact 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…” (NIV). The King James Bible uses this same terminology: the substance of things hoped for. Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. God said to Israel, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18, NKJV).

EVERYONE HAS FAITH!

When people hear the word faith, they typically think of religion. No doubt religious people have faith in God. Christians have faith in the Word and many unseen things such as heaven, angels, and the spirit. The point that’s often passed over is that Christians are not the only ones who have faith—everyone does. Everyone has faith in something, including Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. If you don’t have faith, you wouldn’t eat, leave your house, get in an airplane, or go to the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper in an elevator car.

The philosophical revolution over the past few decades has lead to the strengthening of the traditional arguments for God’s existence with new insights and evidence. In their writings, militant atheists hardly interact with these arguments, and, until recently, they have refused to engage leading Christian thinkers in public. As part of my class on World Views at Colorado Christian University, I watched a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and the late Christopher Hitchens. I was shocked by Hitchens’ vilification of Christianity and the vitriolic and mean-spirited comments he threw at D’Souza in an attempt to throw his opponent off his game.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Faulty views of Christianity and its followers are not countered solely by good arguments, but also through relationships. The apostle Paul spoke of imparting not only the truth of the Gospel, but also his very own life. We typically refer to this as our “witness.” Perhaps Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens simply haven’t gotten to know thoughtful and intelligent Christians who value the role of evidence and reason. In other words, believers who grasp the importance of 1 Peter 3:15.

If the human condition limits our ability to know what is true, how do we determine what to believe? It’s been said that we have no criterion for truth—only the means to recognize error. In other words, our knowledge is finite but our ignorance is infinite. Philosophy has long recognized this fact and uses dialectics to assist in our quest to understand what is true. This process involves repeated and thorough criticism of our assumptions. After all, our Christian worldview is more inherited than undertaken by us. Of course, most atheists are fond of stating that faith is defined as believing without evidence. This is actually a faith that mirrors Hebrews 11:1. Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of law-like order in nature and throughout the universe that is at least comprehensible to Christians.

 

Ephesians: Grace in Everyday Life

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The book of Ephesians allows us to take a closer look at the grace God extended to us by raising us to new life in Christ. God wants us to live our lives out of a rich experience of His grace on a daily basis. Interestingly, we forget that as believers we still need God’s mercy and grace just as much as we did before we knew Jesus as Lord and Savior. When we forget the grace of God, we can fall into two distinct errors. We can become filled with spiritual pride, or we can live with a complete sense of failure as we get a glimpse of what the human heart is really like. In fact, we read in Scripture that the heart is the seat of indwelling sin—the heart is the spiritual part of us where our emotions and desires reside. Nothing can ensnare us more than our natural instincts running wild.

DO YOU HAVE A HEART FOR GOD?

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The Bible mentions the heart almost 1,000 times. It is important to note that God also has a “heart.” Of course, we’re not speaking of the physical, beating, four-chamber organ that pumps blood throughout our corporeal bodies. God has emotions and desires, and it is His wish that we develop our heart—our emotions and our focus—after His heart. Acts 13:22 tells us David was a man “after God’s own heart.” This is not an easy undertaking. The human heart, in its natural condition, is evil, treacherous, and deceitful. I was able to take an uncomfortable but critical look at my own heart during a class at Colorado Christian University on Worldviews. My Christian “walk” did not match my Christian “talk” for nearly my entire life. I had a pastor tell me once, “I don’t think you have a heart for God.” It was like getting punched in the stomach!

“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis. 6:5, NIV).

Whether we know or understand our own heart or not, God does. Psalm 44:21 tells us, “Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart” (NASB). Jesus “knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Based on His intimate knowledge of the heart, God has the capacity to judge man righteously. Jeremiah 17:10 says, “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (NIV). Jesus pointed out the fallen condition of our hearts in Mark 7:21-22: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly” (NIV). All these come from within us and make us unclean.

Evil Within

In other words, we all have a heart problem. Since sin is lodged within our very hearts, and is in no way peripheral to our experience, it is indeed capable of exerting enormous influence over our heart. Naturally, this has an impact—good or bad—over our behavior and, ultimately, our character. Of greatest consequence is the fact that the human heart is both deceitful and unsearchable. No one understands the importance of knowing the heart more than an alcoholic working his or her way through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step Four strongly recommends making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This exercise is intended to bring the alcoholic to the real problem—character flaws.

THE REDEEMED HEART

It is important that we understand such indwelling deceitfulness requires constant watchfulness. The apostle Peter tells us, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV). Accordingly, it is important that in our struggle to guard our hearts we commit all things to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, Paul said, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. They have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretense that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (NIV).

I Am Redeemed

The redeemed soul, by the grace of God and His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:13), must press on toward perfection. Does this mean we must get everything right and never make a mistake? No. That would be impossible. In Christian doctrine, perfection means maturity. Our role in this process is to cooperate with God. Allow our thoughts to be taken captive to obeying the commands and example of Jesus. It is through obedience that we can put to death the deeds of the body (Philippians 2:12-13). Furthermore, we need to do this daily for as long as we possess our physical bodies.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

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We must never think that our work of contending against sin—in crucifying, mortifying and subduing it—is at an end. Again, we are not literally to become perfect and without sin. We’ve all sinned and fall short of ever hoping to earn God’s glory. We are not save by good works. Frankly, we’re not capable of consistently practicing only good works. We are, however, saved onto good works. We are to avoid the practice of sin, which amounts to knowingly, willingly, repeatedly sinning without repenting. Remember, the word repent means to “turn away from.” It involves “doing a 180!” Again, I do not possess the innate capacity to do this. I can be absolutely adamant about not gossiping or judging, but five minutes later I’m doing it again.

True victory will come to those who die having fought the good fight day after day.

 

A Light in Darkness: A Christian Response to Moral Relativism

Which Way America

AMERICA IS IN A DARK season. The news is chock full of stories about murders, mass shootings, racial unrest, sexual immorality, genocide, terrorist threats, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. This is the backdrop against which biblical principles are being challenged and pushed aside in a modern culture of pluralism and so-called open-mindedness. Atheists today have taken on a militant posture. No longer content with merely not believing in God as a personal choice, they have taken to calling Christians delusional, stupid, crazy, elitist, bigoted, gullible, narrow-minded. Richard Dawkins—author of The God Delusion—says, “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” Christopher Hitchens said parents “forcing” their Christian faith on their children is nothing short of child abuse. He compares belief in an all-powerful deity to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Karl Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

Gallup on American Opinions on Moral Acceptability

News stories on the networks and in newspapers show a growing moral and social crisis in America today. Our nation has been taking a position against God in landmark cases for the last five decades: teacher-led prayer was forbidden in public schools (1962); Roe v. Wade sanctioned abortion on demand all throughout America (1973); display of the Ten Commandments was forbidden on publicly-owned property (2005); Obergefell v. Hodges sanctioned same-sex marriage (2015), and today the debate over gender identity issues are in full swing. Ask Americans about their personal views on moral issues, and they are more likely than ever to hold a liberal position. Ask them specifically about morality in America, and you will see they are becoming more pessimistic with each passing year. A recent Gallup poll found a widening embrace for numerous moral issues, including record-high acceptance for gay relationships, divorce, pornography, polygamy, and physician-assisted suicide.

CHRISTIAN MORALITY

Christian morality used to be something people were afraid to violate. In May 2017, Gallup and LifeWay Research released polls indicating 4 out of 5 Americans are worried about the moral state of our country. One poll shows 77 percent believe the country’s values are getting worse—the highest level since Gallup started tracking this topic in 2002. Historically, social conservatives, including evangelicals and other people of faith, have been the most negative about American morality; raising concerns about the liberal shift on issues involving family, sexuality, and sanctity of life. Democrats and Republicans look at the issue of morality differently—liberals and moderates are concerned over declining moral values, but, their focus is on the growing lack of respect or tolerance for others. They are also worried about the lack of proper parenting, which many believe to be at the root of this moral downturn.

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

Some believers, me included, feel the reason morality is failing is because far too many laws regulating moral behavior have been repealed. A great deal of Christian pastors, apologists, evangelists, and writers have taken heed to the falling numbers, but decades of pitting “Christian worldview” against “moral relativism” has caused the forming of habits that are rather hard to break. For example, many Christians assume the reason for rampant immorality in our culture is due to people rejecting the idea of absolute right and wrong. Many believers think discussions over morals are likely to end with, “Well, you have your truth, and I have mine. Let’s just agree to disagree.” I believe disputes over morality in America are stronger today than they’ve ever been. But if we view these disputes through the lens of “moral relativism,” our understanding of today’s culture will suffer—our Christian witness will be severely blunted.

DO BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES SHAPE YOUR VALUES?

The apostle Paul says, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV). Certainly, this is not an easy task. Moreover, it is not necessarily helpful to “preach” down to those we disagree with given the heavy-handed presence of moral relativism in America. How can we apply a Christian worldview to social and political issues? In addition, how can we communicate biblical morality effectively in a secular society?

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First, it is important that we interpret Scripture correctly. Too often, Christians have expressed their sociological preferences on issues like homosexuality and abortion without proper biblical exegesis. The result is often a priori conclusions built upon the foundation of improper proof-texting. We should take a lesson from the apostle Paul’s direction that the first priority of Christians is to preach the Gospel. He refused to allow individual distinctions to hamper his effectiveness. In fact, he said, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22, NIV). As believers, we must stand firm for biblical truth; however, we must recognize the spiritual needs of those with whom we vehemently disagree regarding lifestyle or moral convictions.

Second, Christians should carefully develop biblical principles which can be applied to contemporary social and medical issues. Too often Christians jump immediately from Scripture to political and social programs. Unfortunately, they sometimes neglect the important intermediate step of applying biblical principles germaine to a particular social or cultural situation. Foundational biblical precepts that undergird the law of God in the Old Testament are essentially values or social norms steeped in Jewish law and tradition. The Torah contains 613 commandments or precepts, which include “positive” and “negative” commands. Christians in the 21st century are not obligated to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses. This is the central message of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Colossians. In fact, Colossians 2:14-15 tells us that on the cross, Jesus took away the requirements of law-keeping. Of course, there are laws in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that Christians are bound to, but this is not because they are in the Mosaic Law. Rather, as Christians we are bound to obey the command and example of Jesus. We are to tread gently, motivated by love, not hatred.

Love should characterize Christians, especially when the days are dark and filled with hate.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We must look to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to determine the “rules” of Christianity. I am not saying that the laws of the Old Testament are meaningless. Not at all. Examples of what the Hebrews did and how God responded—blessings versus curses—are great lessons for us today. Paul writes, “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did… These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us…” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11, NIV).

For the Christian, the current social crises are indeed troubling. But Jesus called us “the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13). In these dark days we need to respond as salt (i.e., godly preservative in a rapidly declining culture) and light (i.e., evangelists who shine brightly in a dark society). We need to cultivate a biblical perspective on the current social crises. And we need to respond as God’s people, with God’s perspective, regarding the events of these days.

Will we let our light shine in the midst of this dark season of uncertainty? Will we keep our focus and trust on Him as our sovereign King? Will we point others to Him as we allow our light to shine for Him? Or will we live in a manner that serves to detract others from Christ? We cannot forget that it is our joy and privilege to shine as lights in the darkness.

Using Science to Address the Opioid Crisis in America

FROM THE BLOG OF NORA VOLKOW, MD
September 19, 2018

NIDA Banner Science of Abuse and Addiction

The public health emergency regarding opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose affects millions of Americans and requires innovative scientific solutions. Today, during National Prescription Opioid and Heroin Awareness Week, we are sharing news of an important step towards these solutions through the HEALing Communities Study—an integrated approach to test an array of interventions for opioid misuse and addiction in communities hard hit by the opioid crisis.

Six months ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, a bold multi-agency effort to catalyze scientific discoveries to stem the opioid crisis. HEAL will support research across NIH, using $500,000 of fiscal year 2018 funds, to improve prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder and enhance pain management.

Opioid Epidemic Pic of Vidodin

Through HEAL, NIH will harness the power of science to bring new hope for people, families, and communities affected by this devastating crisis. The current menu of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions has not been fully implemented nationwide. An unacceptably low fraction – about one fifth — of people with opioid use disorder receive any treatment at all. Of those who do enter treatment, only about a third receive any medications—which are universally acknowledged to be the standard of care—as part of their treatment. However, even when medications are used as a component of treatment, the duration is typically shorter than clinically indicated, contributing to unacceptably high relapse rates within the first 6 months. 

To take on this challenge, as part of the broader HEAL initiative, NIH has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to launch the HEALing Communities Study. This study will evaluate the impact of implementing an integrated set of evidence based practices for prevention and treatment of opioid use disorders in select communities with high rates of opioid overdose mortality, with a focus on significantly reducing opioid overdose fatalities by 40%. Targeted areas for intervention include decreasing the incidence of opioid use disorder, increasing the number of individuals receiving medications for opioid use disorder treatment, increasing treatment retention beyond 6 months, receiving recovery support services, and expanding the distribution of naloxone.

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Toward this goal, today NIDA issued funding opportunities for cooperative agreements for components of the HEALing Communities Study: a data coordinating center and up to three research sites to measure the impact of integrating evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions for opioid misuse, opioid use disorder, opioid-related overdose events and fatalities across multiple settings, including primary care, behavioral health, and justice. We also encourage evidence-based interventions for prevention and treatment that involve community resources such as police departments, faith-based organizations, and schools, with a focus on rural communities and strong partnerships with state and local governments.

The evidence we generate though the HEALing Communities Study, the most ambitious implementation study in the addiction field to date, will help communities nationwide address the opioid crisis at the local level.  By testing interventions where they are needed the most, in close partnership with SAMHSA and other Federal partners, we will show how researchers, providers, and communities can come together and finally bring an end to this devastating public health crisis.

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/Treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

Keeping Your “Eye” on the Story

Tess Callahan, author of the novel April & Oliver, says you can’t learn to paint by looking at a Picasso any more than you can learn the cello by listening to Yo-Yo Ma, yet writers are expected to know their craft by virtue of having read books. Reading is of course crucial—just as looking is for the painter and listening for the cellist—but what artists, musicians and even athletes know about training for their field is often lost on writers.

EMULATION

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Painters often learn their craft by copying master works. Try recreating a Cézanne or a Matisse and you’ll see how humbling it is. This method teaches the apprentice artist things about composition and brushstroke that he or she could never have internalized otherwise. Once the painter does this with 20 or 30 artists, she starts to get some serious tools in her toolbox. So it can be with writing. For example, take a signature line from Ernest Hemingway or Amy Tan and, while keeping the sentence structure intact, take out all of the nouns and verbs and replace them with your own. Do this with the writers you most admire, as well as those to which you have the greatest aversion. You might learn more from styles you hate.

Do not place these emulated lines directly into your own writing project. That would be like taking a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, changing the color of her hair, and calling it your own. Rather, the plan is to practice emulating lines so that the many different styles can work their way into your brain. After all, no art form exists in a vacuum. The masters often hung out together, sipping coffee in the same cafés, sharing ideas and pushing each other forward. Dancers learn from dancers. Jazz musicians learn from jazz musicians. In fact, new music genres develop from musicians comparing notes. Oh my, a pun!

In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose helps readers pull aside the curtain to observe what the writer-magician is doing, to isolate how each one manages gesture, dialog and character development, and to learn from others’ strengths and weaknesses. As readers, the most important thing to notice is typically what we fail to notice—that is, how the writer keeps us immersed in what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we fall into that blissful dream as readers—when we actually forget we’re reading a story—it appears seamless on the part of the writer.

FREQUENT SMALL SKETCHES

Stick Figure

Figure-drawing classes often start with timed gesture drawings of initial poses lasting as short as five seconds before the model moves. Gradually, the time increases to 10, 15 and 30 seconds. By the time you get to a minute, it feels as if you have all day to capture the pose on your sketch pad. The idea is to keep you free, dexterous and more focused on process than end product. Process is paramount at this stage of an artist’s life. The more process he or she engages in, the more they’re able to hone their craft. Such short bursts also keep you from taking yourself too seriously—otherwise, you’d quickly become frustrated. I suffer this malady! I must remind myself to focus on the art of writing rather than the art itself.

Thankfully, you don’t have to take a creative writing class to use this technique. Simply take a moment here and there throughout the day, waiting for the train or at your favorite restaurant, jot down gestures, expressions or snippets of dialog. Given that these experiences are transitory in nature, the exercises will create their own time constraints. Whether or not these little vignettes make it into your story or novel, they will aid in deepening your awareness of the myriad expressions and experiences we go through each day.

One of my favorite “how to” books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg refers to writers’ journals as “compost piles” where ideas can sink down into the subconscious, heat up, and combust at any time. Most artists don’t start on a big canvas without doing countless thumbnail sketches that help sharpen their skills and drive their vision. My father was extremely creative. He did numerous paintings in various media, including oils, watercolor, pastels, and acrylic. He also build furniture, shelving, and wooden toys. I remember him making several sketches and reworking the idea before committing it to canvas or cutting his first piece of wood in the shop. Writers can benefit from this practice as well.

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In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron teaches use of daily free-form writing in a journal. She suggests this exercise be done the moment you wake up, and refers to this as morning pages. Cameron says, “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it” (p. 9). The morning pages are three hand-written pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing without any concern for punctuation, spelling, grammar, or concern for mistakes. She believes it is better to use a pen and paper for this undertaking than using your laptop. Something about the tactile experience of words-to-paper.

UNDER-PAINTINGS

Traditional landscape and portrait artists often begin with a monotone under-painting using sepia or cool tones. Essentially a base layer, this has two benefits: First, it allows the artist to play with the composition rapidly in broad strokes before committing to a particular layout. Second, it forces him or her to put aside the issue of color and see the image in terms of dark and light planes. The artist “frames out the house” before putting up the walls. Once the artist begins applying color, he or she does so with a solid understanding of the image’s layers and dimensions.

Callahan says, “What I’m suggesting here is not outlining, which comes from the rational brain and works for some writers, but rather quick, loose first drafts that spring from the subconscious like dreams and proceed image by image.” Consider what it means to write a novel that has morphed from a 20-page short story. In order to flush out the complete tale in this fashion, you must be able to work the entire canvas at once, relating people and places and plots and subplots across great distances. For me, this is quite a daunting task. I’m sure that’s why I’ve so far limited my writing to short stories, flash fiction and prose. After all, to get stuck in one corner of the canvas risks losing the proverbial thread that connects it to the entirety of the story. And this needs to be done page after page, for hundreds of pages.

Brushes and Pallet

Just as painters must keep the brush moving, relating one color to another, writers must work threads back and forth so that their patterns of imagery relate and work together across the scope of many pages. Writers, keep looking at your recurring images and notice how they change each time they surface. They should never be redundant; instead, they must always move the story forward. A writer cannot achieve resonance on a minor note without constantly working the whole piece at once. Again, from my perspective, arg! I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s gonna take some practice!”

To write this way, quick and without restraint, means giving ourselves permission to create crap. We cannot, nor should we, predict what will come out of our first draft. Then again, the first draft is always written for the audience of one—you, the writer. Stephen King says, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In fact, in On Writing, King describes how he pens his first drafts with the door closed, no one watching over his shoulder, his internal editor shut away. Not until the second draft does he open the door to allow in criticism. Fluid first drafts, like under-paintings, hold open a space for the real story to emerge.

When we write, our minds have a million thoughts running through them. How do I want to organize this chapter? What are my main points? Am I being consistent with my characters? Not surprisingly, the best way to focus is to allow plenty of time—ideally two or three hours with absolutely no interruptions or distractions. Find the time, whenever that might occur in your day, and cherish it. Defend it with all your might. When we write, we delve into another world. Interference tends to quell immersion in this nether world. This practice must become routine—it needs to be established in a pattern. It is through this routine that you will be able to write more consistently.

So…

References

Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Perigee.

Gardner, J. (1983). The Art of Fiction. New York, NY: Random House.

King, S. (2000). On Writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Prose, Francine. (2006). Reading Like a Writer. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

The Great Deceiver

Satan thinks he has everything figured out, and he plans to deceive the whole world through his unholy minions.

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Unfortunately, the world is littered with con artists and so-called snake oil salesmen who make it their life’s work to masquerade as something they are not. Today, that scourge often shows its ugly face through Internet scammers, identity thieves, and door-to-door fraudsters. None can equal the greatest con artist of all time—Satan, whom Jesus calls “a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). Satan’s biggest con is yet to come and will be unleashed on unsuspecting humanity in the person of the Antichrist.

HIS RECEPTION

After God raptures His church, not a single believer will exist anywhere on Earth. All true followers of Christ will have been transported to heaven to be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), making the entire planet fertile territory for the father of lies—at least for a while—some are able to see the truth and trust Christ as their Savior. Satan’s vehicle for achieving world domination will be the Antichrist—the “man of sin” and “son of perdition”—descriptions that characterize his embodiment of damnation, eternal punishment, and utter destruction (2 Thessalonians 2:3).  The Antichrist’s first deception will be to broker a peace treaty or initiative: “And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and after half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (Daniel 9:27, RSV).Peace Middle East.jpg

He will seem like a great leader, someone who can help solve all the woes plaguing the post-Rapture world, and people will receive him with open arms. However, he could not care less about peace or humanity. He will be evil, ruthless, and utterly self-centered; and his ultimate objectives will be to rule the world and be worshiped by God. Unfortunately, he will fool billions by using “power, signs, and lying wonders.” He will operate “according to the working of Satan” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). To make matters worse, God will send people a “strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (v. 11).

Ever willing to believe a lie, however, the masses will flock to him and see him as a savior. He will con everyone. “All the world marveled and followed the beast [Antichrist]. So they worshiped the dragon [Satan] who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast” (Revelation 13:3-4). The scope and authority of the Antichrist’s reign will cover “every tribe, tongue, and nation,” including Israel (v. 7).

HIS DECEPTION

Interestingly, the Jewish people will be the most vulnerable to the Antichrist’s promises because, throughout their history, they have wanted little more than to live in peace—and peace is exactly what the Antichrist will offer them. To encourage them to trust him, he may use the outcome of the battle of Gog and Magog. The prophet Ezekiel foretold of a future attack from Gog on the land of Magog that probably will take place early in the post-Rapture era. Gog and its allies “will go up against a land of unwalled villages… to a peaceful people, who dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates… against a people gathered from the nations… who dwell in the midst of the land” (Ezekiel 38:11-12). God says Israel will be “gathered” from the nations and subsequently settling in the land which God have to His servant Jacob” (Ezekiel 28:25).

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Gog will attack while the nation enjoys something it has longed for: safety, without the necessity of walls, bars, or gates. In other words, Israel will have let down its defenses. God will stem the invasion, but it seems the Antichrist will claim the credit. He will appear to bring peace and seduce the Jewish people into placing their confidence in him. However, then he will demand they worship him as God. He will oppose and exalt himself “above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

HIS PSEUDO RESURRECTION

Satan will also deceive the Gentile nations. His pseudo-messiah (in the person of the Antichrist) will somehow suffer a mortal wound, but will astonishingly be healed and resurrected from the dead. Revelation 13:3 says, “I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast” (NASB). In his obsession to be like God, Satan will construct a fake unholy “trinity.” He will play the part of the father, with the Antichrist as the son, and the False Prophet as the spirit.

Whose Deadly Wound Was Healed

Just prior to the return of Jesus Christ, the greatest political leader in the history of mankind will emerge from Europe. After taking over that region by political cunning and deceit, he will launch a military campaign that will result in his acquiring “authority over every tribe and people and nation” (Revelation 13:7). His empire will be the most extensive in all of history, encompassing the entire world, and his rule will be the most demonic the world has ever experienced. He will begin his rise to power as a dynamic, insightful, visionary leader who will astonish the world with the cleverness of his solutions to world problems. In this regard, he will seem to be the “savior” of the world. As he amasses power, however, his true nature will be revealed. He will set his sights on the elimination of Christianity and Judaism. It is actually for this reason he is identified in Scripture as the Antichrist, for he will stand against (anti) God and Jesus Christ.

HIS CAREER MOVE

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The rapture of Christian believers—a global event—will launch the career of the Antichrist. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul provides a detailed narrative regarding the events surrounding the rise of the Antichrist. The Antichrist cannot rise to power until the one who holds back unfettered lawlessness is “taken out of the way” (v. 7). The rapture of the church is the seminal event that will catapult the Antichrist to power. This is facilitated by worldwide chaos and pain. Of course, the Antichrist will appear to have all the answers to all the world’s problems. He is expected to take over the European Union and rule from Rome.

The Antichrist will rule for seven years—a period the Hebrew Scriptures call “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” and the New Testament calls the Tribulation (Jeremiah 30:7; Matthew 24). At the midpoint, Satan is cast to Earth “as a profane thing” (Ezekiel 28:16), and conditions on Earth deteriorate rapidly. It appears Satan will enter the body of the mortally-wounded Antichrist and indwell him, deluding a vast majority of surviving humanity into thinking their world ruler actually miraculously came back to life—an attempt to emulate Jesus’ resurrection. The seven-year period of the Great Tribulation will begin when the Antichrist negotiates a treaty that will bring true peace to the Middle East, enabling the Jews to rebuild their temple.

Temple at Jerusalem

Interestingly, one of the myths about the Antichrist that has developed in modern times is that the world will be so enamored with him that all nations will surrender their sovereignty to him. This is not biblical. Rather, Scripture indicates that the world will resist his despotic rule. Of course, this is the catalyst for the Third World War (see Revelation 6). Global conflagration will result in the initial death of one-fourth of all humanityapproximately 1.5 billion people in today’s terms. According to Revelation 8 and 9, as the Great Tribulation reaches mid-point, the war will escalate into a nuclear holocaust, resulting in the deaths of an additional one-third of those still alive—this is another 1.5 billion people. This should be considered a bitter-sweet victory because in the process one-third of the Earth will be destroyed and half of its remaining population will be killed. Seemingly as an attempt to restore law and order, the Antichrist will institute a one-world economy and a single global religion.

THE ANTICHRIST: SATAN INCARNATE

When the Antichrist becomes Satan incarnate, he will become a megalomanic; a tyrant obsessed with himself and the Jewish people. Satan has an insane, all-consuming hatred for the Jews. He hates them because they gave the world the Holy Scriptures and sent the Messiah to Earth through the House of David. Satan knows that salvation comes to all mankind through the Jewish nation. Therefore, he wants to destroy the Jews in order to stop this from happening. What Satan fails to realize, however, is that salvation has already been accomplished. This is precisely what Christ meant when, in His last minute of life, He sighed and said, “It is finished.” Some biblical scholars believe the Antichrist will become obsessed with Israel to the point that he neglects his global empire, leading to revolt within his ranks.

It is Finished Red Banner

In the prophecy given by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, the first thing he warned believers about was a counterfeit Christianity (Matthew 24:4-5). The word Antichrist is mentioned four times in John’s epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3). John clearly explains what he meant by the term—meaning “against Christ” or “enemy of Christ.” End-time prophesies show that religious people—including professing Christians deceived into accepting a counterfeit Christianity—will oppose many of the teachings of Christ.

YET ANOTHER BEAST

This con will continue as Satan installs and controls yet another beast (Revelation 13:11), the False Prophet, who will exercise great power and authority, trying to force everyone to worship the Antichrist (whose mortal wound was healed). Through Satan’s power, he will perform miracles and direct people to construct an image of their ruler (v. 14), which he will somehow animate, “that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (v. 15).

666

Then the False Prophet is directed by Satan to seal “both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name… his number is 666” (vv. 16-18). Today, people speculate the mark could involve smart-chip technology. The number seven is almost always associated with God, and the number six is traditionally associated with man. Three sixes indicate the unholy “trinity” of Satan.

THE MAN OF LAWLESSNESS

Paul indicates the “man of lawlessness” (Lucifer, the devil) will put on a big show with counterfeit miracles, and wonders. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 Paul describes this man as the Antichrist who will come on the global scene at the beginning of the Day of the Lord—events that take place at the end of history (Isaiah 7:8-25). The Bible often refers to this as that day during which God personally intervenes in history, directly or indirectly. Some biblical scholars believe this is referencing a period of time (or special day) when Christ will reign throughout the world prior to when He cleanses heaven and Earth for the eternal state of all mankind. Some believe this refers to divine judgment that will take place toward the end of the age. In any event, the ultimate or final fulfillment of the prophesies concerning the Day of the Lord will come at the end of history when God, with wondrous power, will punish the wicked and fulfill all His promises.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Satan will employ all manner of trickery in hopes of realizing his greatest ambition: to be God. Lucifer has always wanted the glory that belongs solely to the Most High, and he wants to possess and rule God’s Kingdom. In reference to Lucifer, Isaiah 14:12-14 says, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of dawn! You have been cast down to earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself the Most High'” (NIV) [Emphasis added].

But he will not, hallelujah! He will be brought down “to the lowest depths of the Pit” and eventually be cast into the Lake of Fire forever (Isaiah 14:15; Revelation 20:10). And so will end the story of Satan and his evil quest to rule the world through the Antichrist and become higher than God Almighty. Satan is the great tempter. His aim is to get us to stumble and sin over and over. After all, misery loves company. Luke tells us Satan was behind Peter’s three denials. Even in this instance, however, God set the boundaries. He said to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon [Peter], that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32, NIV). Jesus essentially told Satan, “You will not destroy Peter. You will only make him stumble tonight. I find this to be extremely encouraging!

The blinding light of Satan gives way to God’s light. When we renounce the designs of the devil and trust the power and wisdom and sovereignty of God through Christ, we fulfill God’s purpose in letting Satan live (rather than destroy him at the moment of his rebellion). We glorify in the ultimate authority of Christ Jesus over all aspects of creation.

There is still time to choose where you will be. How horrible it would be to trade our eternal glorified bodies and our boundless fellowship and communion with God for the passing pleasure of sin here on Earth! Why not choose to be a part of the Bride now? Choose to be one of those who accepts God’s judgment and direction in their lives.

Saying the sinner’s prayer is simply a way of declaring to God that you are relying on Jesus Christ as your Savior. There are no “magical” words that result in salvation. It is only faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection that can save us. If you understand that you are a sinner and in need of salvation through Jesus Christ, here is a sinner’s prayer you can pray to God: “God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I deserve the consequences of my sin. However, I am trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that His death and resurrection provided for my forgiveness. I trust in Jesus and Jesus alone as my personal Lord and Savior.

Thank you Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen!”