Writing is an Act of Courage

I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage. It’s almost a matter of physical courage. The second you have a brilliant idea, you make a point to remember it. Those of us who write know that never works. Ideas are fleeting. So we rush around looking for a pen and pad. Maybe we’re in the car, so we try to pull over and grab our notebook from the glove box. If you’re lucky enough to get in front of a note pad or laptop almost always what was brilliant before is somehow not so brilliant as you go to write. It’s as if you had a certain piece of music playing in your head that simply will not translate onto paper. And so you fail. You never really get that perfect work of art out of your brain.

What we cannot do as artists is consider the entire process a complete failure. First, do not call this phenomenon writer’s block, which means “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” Although writer’s block happens to every writer, it is not the end of your creative life. It can be simply a matter of timing. Some ideas need to percolate longer than others. It’s just not time to write yet. It can be a matter of fear. Truly, writers are often fearful of rejection, and for a myriad of reasons. It’s not just a matter of  fearing you’ll never get published. Writing is a very personal undertaking. Even when we don’t realize it, we’re bearing our soul. We all have “back story,” and we’re all prone to leaking information about our lives, our loved ones, our deep, dark secrets. Being genuine is risky. I’ve heard it said most writers don’t have a writing problem; they have a telling problem.

So what is writer’s block?

Jerry Jenkins lists the four main causes of writer’s block in this order:

  1. FEAR. What if I fail? Solution? Keep publishing. Don’t stop. Embrace the fear, because it is legitmate. Humble yourself. Writing is hard work. It’s a lonely profession. Fear can be a great motivator.
  2. PROCRASTINATION. This is a big problem for me, as it is for most writers. Procrastination is inevitable, so find ways to fight through it. Jenkins embraces procrastination as an asset. As long as you develop a writing habit, those times you’re away from your writing desk your subconscious is working through the story.
  3. PERFECTIONISM. Many writers struggle with perfectionism. Stephen King suggests you never show your first draft to anyone. A writer friend of mine refuses to discuss a project during the first draft, saying it spoils the process. Your first draft is for an audience of one: you. Many writers, including Jenkins, insist you need to write your first draft and edit later.
  4. DISTRACTIONS. Without fail, every time you sit down to write, even if it’s your “scheduled” time to write, something intrudes on your concentration. It can be a person, a pet, a phone call, social media. So ask yourself how important your writing dream is to you and take a stand. Select a specific writing time. Turn off all other media. This is not the time to use social media or do research. This is your freestyle writing time. Period.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work”—Stephen King.

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Regarding Christian Theology and Psychology in Treating Mental Illness

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.           —Frederick Buechner

GOD CALLS PEOPLE. It might not be the calling of Abraham to leave the land of Ur and go forth into wilderness he knew nothing about, or the calling of Moses, confronted with the command of the burning bush, or the calling of Isaiah who encountered the glory of God, or the calling of the apostle Paul to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles—but an awareness of “call” is both mysterious and powerful. And it is always a demonstration of love and an initiative from God.

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Certainly, it is helpful to understand that God calls the Christian in three distinct ways:

  • First, there is the call on your heart to be a Christian. The God  of creation invites us to respond to His love in numerous ways. This call comes through His Son Jesus, who invites us to be His disciples. This tends to open the door for our service to others in His name. Everything about us is understood in light of this primary call on our life. Every aspect of our lives flows out and finds meaning in light of the fact that we are a called people. The entire body of Christ is made up of the called.
  • Second, for each individual there is a specific call—a defining purpose or mission, a raison d’être. Every individual is called of God to respond through service in the world. Each person has a unique calling in this second sense. We cannot begin to understand this second calling except in the light of the first. In other words, when we fulfill our specific vocation, we are living out the full implications of what it means to follow Jesus.
  • Third, there is the call that we face each day in response to the multiple demands on our lives—our immediate duties and responsibilities: the call to be present to our children when they are in a high school musical, or to help our local church when they host a baseball camp featuring retired greats from professional baseball. Or to take a homeless veteran to Denny’s for a hot lunch and talk to him about the Gospel and options for getting him off the street. These activities represent the immediate tasks placed in front of us by God—our tasks for the day, if you will.

We are all called to work. We want that work to be meaningful, joyful, and significant. We want to know that the work we do is good; that in word and deed we are doing something that is fundamentally positive and worthwhile. Each person brings beauty, creativity, and significance to the table. We all add to the community. It does, indeed, take a village, but we speak here of a village of believers—the Body of Christ. And yet we must never lose sight of the inherent value and potential of the individual person who is loved, called, and empowered by God to do good work.

Older notions of vocation and career development assumed that people wrestled with matters of vocation as early as young adulthood. It has been commonly assumed that vocational counseling was provided in high school for those seeking to pick a career. But in a more accurate understanding of vocation, we learn that vocational questions follow us throughout the course of our lives—and that perhaps vocational counseling needs to be presented to us at each transition throughout our lives. The questions remain the same: Who am I? Who has God called me to be? What should I do next? Of course, our answers to these questions can change at different stages of our lives. We naturally think differently during adolescence than early adulthood; likewise during early-to-mid adulthood, and mid adulthood into our senior years.

ORIGINS OF PSYCHOLOGY

Clearly, psychology did not emerge directly as science. This presents a rather challenging problem: Where to start? Ancient civilizations surely studied one another to determine who was reliable and trustworthy, and evidence suggests they attempted to record and interpret dreams, mental illness, and emotions. Was this an early form of psychology? Or did psychology start with the first systematic explanations of human cognitive experience, which can be traced back to the early Greeks? Plato and Aristotle, for example, established elaborate theories that attempted to account for memory, perception, and learning. Maybe this was the starting point?

Early adherents understood it was difficult to consider psychology a hard science in the traditional sense given that experimenters cannot “observe” the workings of the mind or “measure” emotions. Many initially considered psychology to be a specialized branch of philosophy—a sentiment still held by some. They based their conclusion on several factors. First, they had a difficult time accepting subjective reports as evidence. Second, can unconscious inference be considered a coherent—logical and consistent—concept? Rene Descartes gave us the concept of dualism—the position that mind and body are in some categorical way separate from each other and that mental properties are in some respects non-physical in nature. Certainly, this concept plays at least a part in the idea of nature versus nurture.

Physiology and brain research led to applying scientific methodologies to the study of human thought and behavior. Wilhelm Wundt began applying experimental methods. Edward B. Titchener founded psychology’s first major school of thought, which he applied to studying human consciousness. William James outlined his theories in his classic textbook The Principles of Psychology. He focused on how we interact with one another in our everyday lives, using methods such as direct observation, feedback, impression management, and body language  to study the human mind and behavior.

Prior to the psychology of Sigmund Freud, early psychology stressed conscious human experience. Freud changed the face of psychology by proposing a theory of personality based upon the unconscious mind. Although Freud’s theory had a huge impact on psychology, social science, art, education, and business, skepticism eventually set in. Admittedly, it has many followers to this day. Psychology changed dramatically, however, with the advent of behaviorism, which rejected abject reliance on the conscious and unconscious mind. In a nutshell, behaviorism looked at classic conditioning and reward versus punishment.

 PSYCHOLOGY VERSUS THEOLOGY

Many are surprised to hear that Christian Theology and psychology are compatible. In his book God’s Psychiatry, Charles L. Allen notes that the word psychiatry comes from two Greek words: psyche and iatreia. The word psyche really means “the person,” and is translated as “breath,” “soul,” “mind,” “reason,” and the like. The word iatreia means “treatment,” “healing,” “restoration,” and so on. If we put the two words together, we get the term “the healing of the mind,” or, perhaps more specific to Allen’s intention, “the restoring of the soul.” This can mean medical treatment per se, or it can refer to ministering to the soul. Allen wrote, “…the very essence of religion is to adjust the mind and soul of man, and we have long ago learned this…”

Psychology and theology are both concerned with philosophical anthropology. It draws its name from the root psyche, a Greek word whose use can encompass the physical, the psychological, and the immaterial aspects of humanity. In both clinical and experimental expressions, the nature and functioning of human beings in the central concern of psychology. Theology is concerned with the nature of God and with God’s relationship to the world. Psychology may be able  to describe human beings as they are, but only Christian theology can describe them as they were intended to be—questions of ultimate concern, such as how did we come to be, what is our purpose, what is our destiny?

“The biopsychsocial model is both a philosophy of clinical care and a  practical clinical guide. Philosophically, it is a way of understanding how suffering, disease, and illness are affected by multiple levels of organization, from the societal to the molecular. At the practical level, it is a way of understanding the patient’s subjective experience as an essential contributor to accurate diagnosis, health outcomes, and humane care.” —Borrell-Carrio, Suchman, and Epstein

Sarah Rainer, PsyD (2014), said in an article for Christianity Today, “Pastors largely feel unequipped to address mental illness, and mental illness is still taboo in many ways.” Rainer further notes that in recent years psychologists have begun recognizing that our spirituality impacts our lives, but have yet to buy into the idea that it is imperative for life. Of course, not all secular psychology is wrong. We cannot just throw the baby out with the bath water. Indeed, there are many helpful and positive aspects of psychology to consider when diagnosing and treating a patient. This is precisely why there is a need for integrating psychology and Christian theology.

Entwistle (2015) notes that although psychology has much to teach us about human behavior, it cannot provide the larger context that gives meaning and direction for life itself. Pope Benedict XVI said, “Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.” It is theological reflection that often sets the stage for poor self image that leads to malaise and self-doubt. Consider the many levels at which we exist: social, psychological, physical, systemic, economic, spiritual, sexual. It is through these many lenses that we ask ourselves Who am I? Does my life really matter? How can I change my circumstances when I feel stuck? What is the meaning of life? Where is God in all this mess?

ON INTEGRATING CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said,”We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Unless you’re an atheist, you probably believe the world we live in is not the only plane of existence. Accepting that reality is only temporal is paramount to understanding spirituality and how it relates to mental health. 2 Timothy 3:7 says man is “always learning but never able to come to a [full] knowledge of the truth” (NIV). Countless books have been written by psychologists over the years that attempt to describe our personalities, the boundaries within which we must operate, our dysfunctional development, interpersonal relationships and their inherent problems, how our children should be raised, and so on. This has caused an intellectual/spiritual crisis, causing believers—indeed our very clergy—to often treat human beings in a manner that differs from how we were instructed by Jesus through Scripture. To me, this is where integration of Christian theology and psychology may prove helpful.

Naturally, Christians have always been intrigued by God’s creation. We’re well-aware that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (see Isaiah 55:9). We cannot begin to understand the intricacies of creation—from as far outward as we can see to as far inward as we can see—let alone the subtleties of brain chemistry and mood, or the machinations of memory and learning. And don’t get me started on quantum physics and black holes or old age versus young age earth.

What does fascinate me is how Christian interest in psychology has exploded over the past fifty years. Countless books have been written by Christians that describe how our brains have developed, what constitutes our fight or flight response, how we fall in love, why we become addicted to drugs or food or shopping, or why some of us isolate while others love to stand in front of a congregation and preach or sing. Most publications on psychology are secular in orientation, which makes for fascinating dinner conversation to say the least. Naturally, there are as many disagreements about psychology as there are schools of thought. Fundamentalism still speaks more often than not about “psychoheresey.” One of the reasons my first wife divorced me was my interest in psychology. Granted, at the time I began studying philosophy and psychology I was in the midst of an identity crisis as a believer. Today, I see the need for a healthy integration of the two schools of thought, and am pursuing a master’s degree in support of a faith-based counseling career.

“CHRISTIAN” PSYCHOLOGY?

The field of psychology has been retooling itself over the years. Initially, it was concerned solely with what makes people mentally ill. Today, much focus is on what makes people mentally healthy, positive, joyful, happy to be alive. Studies show that those who believe in life after death, for example, are happier than those who do not. Sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at Austin says, “Religion provides a unifying narrative that may be difficult to come by elsewhere in society.”

Christian psychologist Paul Vitz says the work of Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the catalyst for what he terms positive psychology by emphasizing mental health instead of mental illness. Seligman said, “What is needed to balance our understanding of the person is recognition of positive human characteristics that can both heal our pathologies and help to prevent psychological problems in one’s future life.” And what are these positive human characteristics? Virtues such as wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. These core virtues are quite similar to the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

I admit we need to stay alert as Christians to so-called “self-help”  or “self-potential” psychologies that often seem faddish and change with the wind. Any “psychology” that suggests we can only be happy, healthy, or spiritual when we forget the past and “live in the moment” must be avoided. The truth is “self-help” is an oxymoron because the individual who uses such an approach always arrives at a solution to his or her problem either with the help of a therapist or by following the formula of the self-help book.

Christians understand that for 2000 years there has been a relationship between an individual’s mental outlook , his or her belief about God, Christ, salvation, and how he or she fits in the whole scheme of things. I think Christian psychology has ample incentive to focus on core virtues and what it means to be a human being with a substantive center of soul, spirit, heart, mind, and consciousness—rather than on self-improvement—because of Christianity’s foundation on Scriptural principles. It is God who forgives our sins, heals our sinful human nature, and replaces our guilty conscience with the fruit of the Spirit—it is nothing that we do in our own strength. 

References

Entwistle, D. (2015). Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd Edition. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Rainer, S. (September 25, 2014). “The Integration of Christianity and Psychology: A Guest Post by Sarah Rainer.” Christianity Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/september/concerning-psychology-and-christianity-guest-post-by-sarah-.html

Seligman, M. Ph.D. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Why We Know New Testament Writers Told the Truth

“Why would the apostles lie? If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got… was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!” —PETER KREEFT

I came to know Christ at a critical time in my life. I was just thirteen years old, in dire straits, always at odds with my father. You could say I had a difficult time with obedience, controlling my base impulses, telling the truth, and keeping my hands off other people’s property. The more my father tried to correct and redirect me, the more I rebelled. We were a church-going family. I thought the message from the pulpit made sense. I basically fell in love with Jesus. I responded to an alter call, accepting Him as Lord and Savior. I was baptized shortly after.

Unfortunately, my walk with Jesus was rather short. My family had a falling out with the church, and I strayed. By age eighteen I was smoking weed, drinking, and committing petty crimes. Before I could grasp what was happening to me, I got caught up in some serious felonies. I served three years in a state prison, followed by seven years on state parole. I had only been out of high school a year and a half before my whole world fell apart. Even after jail time, I continued to struggle with active addiction for over forty years before renewing my relationship with Jesus Christ. It was only through the power in the Name of Jesus that I was able to turn away from that life and break the chain of active addiction.

I have  completed my undergraduate degree in psychology at Colorado Christian University. In addition to classes in my major, I also took courses on worldviews, integration of Christian theology and psychology, Christian doctrine, church history, Pauline literature, and ethics. I developed a passion for apologetics and Christian doctrine. Many of my recent blog posts have focused on this topic. Although I remain focused on  my ministry counseling teens and young adults struggling with mental illness and addiction, I will always have a particular affection for Christian apologetics.

SOME RATHER POWERFUL EVIDENCE

We have seen very powerful evidence that the documents comprising the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses and their contemporaries within 15 to 40 years of the death of Jesus. Moreover, secular documents and archaeological evidence has established that the New Testament is based on historical fact. Yet many skeptics ask how we know the authors didn’t exaggerate or embellish what they say they saw?

Lee Strobel, in his seminal book The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, recounts his interview with Craig Blomberg, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the biographies of Jesus—which we know as the four gospels. Blomberg’s books include Jesus and the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, and How Wide the Divide? and a commentary on the gospel of Matthew. Blomberg told Strobel that Matthew (also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve disciples) was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke, known as Paul’s “beloved physician,” wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Blomberg said there are “no known competitors for these three gospels.”

According to Papias, a Christian writer from A.D. 125, early testimony is unanimous that John the apostle—the son of Zebedee—wrote the gospel of John. Blomberg also informed Strobel that Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, confirmed the authorship of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. He said Irenaeus wrote the following words,

Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.

THE CONSISTENCY TEST

Skeptics of the gospels like to point out that they are hopelessly contradictory with each other. They say, “Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various gospel accounts? And if so, then how can we trust them?” Strobel said Blomberg acknowledges these inconsistencies, ranging from very minor variations in wording to the most famous apparent contradictions. He said, “My own conviction is, once you allow for the elements I’ve talked about earlier—of paraphrase, of abridgment, of explanatory additions, of selection, of omission—the gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it’s fair to judge them.” Interestingly, Strobel admits if the gospels mirrored each other word-for-word, it would seem to hint at collusion, which would give us pause. Blomberg agreed.

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It’s important to note that each Gospel writer had a particular intention and focus. They set out to accentuate a unique aspect of the ministry of Jesus. Through their individual gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—they focused on particular elements of Christ’s ministry and message that they felt illuminated their narrative. Despite their varied focus, the gospels exhibit a remarkable and important cohesiveness. They all bear witness to Jesus and his ministry, but approach the story from an individual perspective. These four viewpoints take nothing away from our understanding of Jesus. Rather, they give us a richer, deeper, clearer look into the mystery of Christ.

There were a number of languages spoken during the 1st century when Christ walked the roads of the Holy Land spreading the Good News and calling on men to follow Him. You were likely to hear Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, which was thought to be the primary language spoken by most Jews throughout Palestine during this era. So when we consider the fact that the gospels were written in Greek, the fact that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic becomes quite significant. Most of his words had to be translated into Greek—making every quote an interpretation. Languages don’t necessarily have equivalent words or phrases to support transliteration. Each gospel writer had to interpret Jesus’ words and sayings in order to find equivalents in an entirely different language. In other words, translation is interpretation.

This is the basis for scholarly claims that we have the authentic voice (ipsissima vox) of Jesus but not necessarily his exact words. We can trust the essential meaning of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels even though we never know precisely how He said what He said. The writers of the four gospels, as interpreters of Christ’s message, meant that their translation—paraphrase, if you will—would focus on the theology of the Gospel. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), but Matthew records him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Now it could be Jesus said both of these things at different times, but it’s likely that Matthew felt it was extremely important to clearly communicate the spiritual significance of Jesus’ words.

RELIABILITY OF NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

It is paramount that we consider the historical reliability of the New Testament separate from its inspirational properties. Such reliability should be judged by the same criteria used to evaluate all historical documents. Because the Christian faith is intimately connected to very specific historical events, those who are determined to prove or disprove Christianity outside the realm of faith find the historical soundness of its documents is an appropriate starting point.

Stetzer (2012) writes in an article for Christianity Today titled “A Closer Look: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” that “…we have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts representing all, or part, of the N[ew] T[estament]. By examining these manuscripts, over 99 percent of the original text can be constructed beyond reasonable doubt.” Stetzer also remarks that the authors of the gospels and the Acts were in an excellent position to report reliable information. It is also important to note that these five books were written in the first century, within sixty or seventy years of Jesus’ death—most likely A.D. 30. The amount of time separating the historical events and the composition of the five books is very short as compared to most ancient historical and biographical accounts, where many centuries could intervene between events and the books that narrated them.

Other tests for historicity have been used to test the accuracy of the New Testament. For example, a document written as a personal letter has a high probability of reliability; it is also likely accurate if it is intended for small audiences, written in unpolished style, or contains trivia and lists of details. The absence of such features does not necessarily mean the document is unreliable; however, their presence makes the prima facie acceptance of the document stronger. Much of the New Testament, especially the apostolic letters and some of the sources behind the Gospels, is made up of personal letters originally intended for individuals and small groups. In addition, much of the New Testament is in unpolished style, containing examples of inconsequential detail in the Gospels. These considerations show when general tests for historicity are applied to the New Testament documents, they pass them quite well.

ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

Strobel interviewed John McRay, author of Archaeology and the New Testament. McRay consulted on the National Geographic Network TV special Mysteries of the Bible. McRay studied at Hebrew University, Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He has been a professor of New Testament archaeology  at Wheaton for more than fifteen years. McRay told Strobel, “Archaeology has made some important contributions, but it certainly can’t prove whether the New Testament is the Word of God. If we dig in Israel and find ancient sites that are consistent with where the Bible said we’d find them, that shows that it’s history and geography are accurate. However, it doesn’t confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archeological discoveries.”

It’s Strobel’s contention that if an ancient historian’s incidental details check out to be accurate time after time, this increases our confidence in other material that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked. Strobel asked McRay, “Does archaeology affirm or undermine the New Testament when it checks out the details in those accounts?” McRay quickly responded: “Oh, there’s no question that the credibility of the New Testament is enhanced, just as the credibility of any ancient document is enhanced when you excavate and find that the author was accurate in talking about a particular place or event.” As an example, McRay recounted his own digs in Caesarea on the coast of Israel, where he and others excavated the harbor of Herod the Great.

There is an obvious allure to archaeology. It’s a discipline I’d considered as I neared the end of high school. I can see no better useful tool for uncovering and proving aspects of ancient civilizations, their origins, and their religions. Ancient tombs, cryptic inscriptions etched in stone or scribbled onto papyrus, pieces of broken pottery, old coins—these are clues for persistent scholars and investigators. Perhaps on of the most tantalizing clues of the biblical past are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947 in an obscure cave west of the Dead Sea, Bedouin shepherds discovered some scrolls carefully placed in ten tall jars. They did not know what they had come upon, but they sold the scrolls to a nearby dealer. This was the opening chapter to an astonishing archeological find; eventually some 800 different manuscripts would be found in eleven caves near the valley called Wadi Qumran. In all, some 60,000 fragments, portions, or complete scrolls of these 800 manuscripts were retrieved, covering many subjects.

Many of the documents contained biblical texts. Either fragments or complete copies were found of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. They had been placed in these caves around the middle of the first century A.D., and the amazing fact is that they had lain there undisturbed for 1900 years! But why are these Dead Sea Scrolls so important for us? The reason is that before this discovery the earliest manuscripts of biblical texts dated from the ninth century after Christ. They were copies of earlier copies which were long lost. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew, with some fragments written in the ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet thought to have fallen out of use in the fifth century B.C. But others are in Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews—including, most likely, Jesus—between the sixth century B.C. and the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In addition, several texts feature translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which some Jews used instead of or in addition to Hebrew at the time of the scrolls’ creation.

It has been said that it would be foolish to hold on to the illusion that the gospels are merely fictional stories like the legends of Hercules and Asclepius. The theologies in the New Testament are grounded on interpretation of real historical events, especially the crucifixion of Jesus, as a particular time and place. Beyond the manuscript evidence, archaeological evidence helps to authenticate the gospel narratives. Frankly, if the New Testament gospels were nothing more than fictions and fables about a man who never lived, one must wonder how it is they possess so much verisimilitude and why they talk so much about people we know lived and about so many things we know happened. After all, the gospels say Jesus was condemned to the cross by a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. Not only is this man mentioned by historical sources outside the New Testament but there is an inscribed stone on which his name appears. Indeed, it appears archaeologists have found the name of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus, inscribed on a bone box. It seems these people were real.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Both Christian and secular scholars from a large cross section of theological schools have concluded that the evidence uncovered over the centuries provides an adequate basis to affirm with confidence that Jesus truly existed. It seems every single author who mentions Jesus—pagans, Christians, or Jewish—was fully convinced that He at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, His non-existence is never one of them… Jesus certainly existed. And most historical scholars (Christian or not) find the attempt to explain away all apparent references to Jesus in Roman writings, much less New Testament espistles, to be an unconvincing tour de force that lapses into special pleading.

From the historical evidence, we can reject the critics charge that the gospels are mere legends about the life of Jesus Christ. There is an abundance of internal and external evidence that support an early date of the gospel writings. There are numerous archaeological and historical records corroborating the events of Jesus’ life. Finally, the manuscript evidence assures us that we have a copy accurate to the originals. Having established the historical and archaeological soundness of the gospels, we are now free to examine the theology of the Gospel.

Mental Illness and the Christian

Most of us know someone who is in counseling, on medication, or who has even taken or attempted to take his or her own life as a result of mental illness. Among the many topics high on the list that trouble Christians today, mental health would most likely be at or near the top. Ed Stetzer wrote an article for Psychology Today (2018) in which he asks, “Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?” girl gazing at sunset

It seems whenever the topic of mental illness or suicide comes up at church or among our Christian friends, we automatically wonder, Why? Aren’t we saved from these types of issues? Aren’t we healed and set free? Yet this is a conversation the church truly needs to have. Thankfully, my church does not shy away from topics like mental illness and addiction. Admittedly, suicide and addiction may be two of the most complex and demanding topics of all. Joyce Meyer and Max Lucado have written several good books on the issue of mental health. Meyer (1995) began with her seminal Battlefield of the Mind. Lucado (2017) recently published Anxious for Nothing.

Meyer notes that daily emotional ups and downs are one of the major struggles we have in life. Instead of riding the emotional roller coaster, it should be our goal to become stable, solid, steadfast, and determined. If we let our emotions rule over us, we’ll never be the person we were meant to be. Of course, we can never be completely free of our emotions, but we must learn to manage and control them rather than let them control us. Let’s be honest: Life is no fun when we’re ruled by our emotions.

It’s important to realize that emotions lie to us. They paint an inaccurate picture, typically convincing us that all is lost based on one bad day. Without any effort on our part, our brain takes in and evaluates information throughout the day. Our emotions are regulated automatically in the limbic system. The center of emotional processing and mediation of resulting behavior—defensive versus aggressive—is the amygdala. The limbic system is also responsible for memory. The amygdala has been the focus of study for decades. It’s been stated that emotional memory (how we respond to pleasant, unpleasant, fearful, and painful situations) occurs long before we develop language skills. I believe the formative years of 0 to 5 are critical relative to formation of our personality and to how we handle situations in the future that remind us of painful experiences from our past. This is, perhaps, the very basis for emotional baggage.

Anxious for Nothing

Lucado (2017) describes anxiety in a manner worth repeating here:

“It’s a low-grade fear. An edginess, a dread. A cold wind that won’t stop howling. It’s not so much a storm as the certainty that one is coming. Always… coming. Sunny days are just an interlude. You can’t relax. Can’t let your guard down. All peace is temporary, short-term. It’s not the sight of a grizzly but the suspicion of one or two or ten. Behind every tree. Beyond every turn. Inevitable. It’s just a matter of time until the grizzly leaps out of the shadows, bares its fangs, and gobbles you up, along with your family, your friends, your bank account, your pets, and your country.”

Lucado calls anxiety “a meteor shower of what-ifs.”

The word anxious defines itself. It comes from the Latin words angere (to choke) and anxius (worried, distressed). The earliest sense of anxious is from the 17th century, meaning “troubled” or “worried.” Lucado notes that fear screams, Get out! Anxiety ponders, What if? Fear results in the response of fight or flight, as it should. Fear is the pulse that pounds in your ears when you’re being followed by a hooded figure late at night just after you withdraw $300 from the ATM. Anxiety, on the other hand, creates a general sense of doom and gloom that you can’t quite figure out. Anxiety robs us of our sense of safety and security. It steals our energy. Our well-being.

Meyer (1995) says anxiety and worry are both attacks on the mind intended to distract us from serving the Lord. These are primary tools used by Satan to press our faith down so deep that it cannot rise to the occasion and aid us in our times of trouble. She says worry is definitely an attack from the devil upon the mind. She adds, “It is absolutely impossible to worry and live in peace at the same time.” She believes some people have such a problem with worry that they might be addicted to it. I’ve heard it said that a person will continue doing something as long as they get some type of benefit from it. So what might a person get from worrying?

To determine if you’re addicted to worrying, take the following quiz:

  • Do I worry about many things every day?
  • Is it difficult to stop watching anxiety-provoking news on TV or the Internet, though I try?
  • Do I experience separation anxiety when I can’t access my smartphone or computer?
  • Do I make problems larger, not smaller?
  • Do I worry about things that no one around me worries about?
  • When one anxiety is solved, do I immediately focus on another?

If you answered “yes” to all six questions, worry plays a very large, addictive role in your life. Four to five “yes” answers indicate a large role. Two to three “yes” answers indicate a moderate role. One “yes” indicates a low level. Zero “yes” answers suggest that you’re more warrior than worrier!

Meyer believes life is intended to be of such high quality that we enjoy it immensely. I’m not implying that bad things never happen to good people; that’s a topic for another day. Jesus was clear, however, in John 10:10 when he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV). Eugene Peterson calls it “…more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (MSG). Worry is one of the many ways Satan steals the good life. Paul echoed this sentiment in Phillipians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (NIV).

God Heals

We can love God with our whole heart, follow His commands, even put Him first, yet still be struggling with anxiety or depression. We can find ourselves face-to-face with the grim reaper, a gun or a bottle of pills in hand, no longer wanting to be alive. Wondering, How did I get here? For me, it started with marijuana and beer. Once addiction took hold, I lost sight of God, His love and grace, and all hope. My uncle, in recovery now for decades, told me several times, “You’ve lost all hope. You can’t even see the horizon anymore.”

Theologians and philosophers call man a tripartite being. That is, we’re made up of a body, soul, and spirit. It’s in our spirit that we find meaning and purpose in life. It’s in our soul—that is, in our mind—that we suffer mental illness. Anxiety and depression begin there, but spread throughout the body and quickly affect the spirit. In fact, mental illness causes us to doubt God’s grace and healing power. It cuts us off from the sunlight of the Spirit. This is critical because it’s through the Spirit that we learn discernment and intuition. It is through the Spirit that we’re able to love one another. There’s an interchange involved: our spiritual health impacts our mental and physical health, and our mental and physical health impacts our spiritual health.

We are impacted—either good or bad—by how we handle the stress that life brings. If chronic stress is left unchecked, over a period of time it will take a toll. A strong faith can help us cope with the stress that we experience and enable the impact of that stress to be less significant. Without a strong personal faith, we’re left to our own devices. Often we attempt to cope with stress through addiction, sexual promiscuity, shopping, gambling, and other methods of escape. Such behavior can further exacerbate the effect of stress on our physical health. A strong personal faith can be a resource that helps manage stress before it manages us.

Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (NIV) (Italics added). Jesus had compassion and healed those besieged by mental illness, many of whom had been despised, rejected, persecuted, and feared by their community. Interestingly, the history of psychiatric treatment has its roots in the Christian church. The Quakers in Philadelphia opened the first inpatient psychiatric facility in 1752. John Wesley and the founders of The United Methodist Church practiced a faith grounded in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ, with a focus on healing the whole person: physical, spiritual, emotional and mental. 

All aspects of health—physical, mental, and spiritual—were of equal concern to Jesus whose healing touch reached out to mend broken bodies, minds, and spirits. His intention was to restore well-being and renew communion with God and neighbor. Interventions are needed to heal mental illness. If you or someone you know or love are struggling with mental illness, especially as a believer, do not hesitate to pray with them and to suggest meeting with a minister. Also, there are many faith-based counseling services available today. It is God’s intention that you are fully restored. Christ is the Great Physician. Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it abundantly. That includes being of sound mind, free of anxiety and depression.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

References

Lucado, M. (2017). Anxious for Nothing. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.

Meyer, J. (1995). Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind. New York, NY: Time Warner Books.

Loneliness and God

IT WAS THE SIXTH DAY. God had just finished creating all the living creatures that move along the ground. As He had at each stage of creation, God paused and evaluated His work. Genesis 1:25b says, “And God saw that it was good.” Only one more task remained. “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NIV). Here was God’s only creation that would not live its earthly life in total ignorance of its Creator. Rather, made in God’s image, Adam would fulfill a role no other creature could—he would walk in fellowship with God as the object of His love.

After placing Adam in the garden, God realized there was still something missing. “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him'” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). God recognized Adam’s need for human companionship—a need He built into Adam. More than just a fellow inhabitant of Eden, Eve would be the object of Adam’s love and would love him in return. She and Adam would share the wonders of creation and the responsibilities of stewardship. When God created Eve, Adam’s intimate relationship with God was actually enhanced by communion and companionship with someone like himself.

By design, we are social animals. God wanted it this way. Society is not something merely “added on” to our overall existence; rather, it stems from an important dimension intrinsic to human nature itself. In fact, we can only grow and attain our calling in union with others. We are called to exist for each other, but this is more than “co-existing.” It involves serving and loving one another. Jesus provided the ultimate example. He said, “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26b, 27, 28, NIV).

Struggling With Loneliness

If you are struggling with loneliness, you are not alone. Everyone experiences seasons of isolation for one reason or another. Usually, we are able to overcome our loneliness by meeting new friends, expanding our social circle, or making changes that help us re-engage with society. But a multitude of personal and other factors can sometimes short circuit our ability to connect with others. For example, it can be rather uncomfortable sometimes to meet new people. Relocating to a new area can cause a tremendous sense of homesickness.

Loneliness does not develop overnight. It can, in fact, be the result of a lifetime of influences that impact our personality. Happiness depends on intimate bonds. We need to be able to trust, confide, feel like we belong. Loneliness, as you might expect, comes in a variety of types. There is “new situation” loneliness, “I’m different” loneliness, “I have no sweetheart” loneliness, “I don’t have a pet” loneliness, “no time for me” loneliness,” “untrustworthy friends” loneliness, and “quiet-presence” loneliness.” Identifying the source of our loneliness goes a long way to figuring out how to address it. Introvert versus extrovert, sensing versus intuitive, thinking versus feeling, perceiving versus judging—each orientation presents its own unique approach to (or causes of) loneliness.

Jesus and Loneliness

Have you ever thought of Jesus as being lonely? Certainly his moments in Gethsemane and on Calvary were uniquely and terribly lonely, but what about the rest of his life? In some sense, he may have been the loneliest human in history. Loneliness is what we feel when we’re isolated from others. Loneliness often has less to do with the physical presence or absence of others, and more to do with feeling disconnected or alienated from them. It is possible to feel lonely in a room full of people.

Being misunderstood by others can cause us to feel lonely, as can being despised or rejected. This is precisely how Isaiah prophetically described Jesus in Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hid their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (NIV). Given who Jesus was, this experience would have begun decades before his public ministry even started. Jesus is able to sympathize with our loneliness far more than we might have previously thought (see Hebrews 4:15).

Being without sin, Jesus had to live among those who were full of sin: his parents, siblings, other relatives, neighbors, countrymen, foreigners, disciples, not to mention the sinful spiritual entities he encountered on a nearly daily basis. No one on earth could identify totally with Him. No one could put an arm around Him as he sat in tears and say, “I know exactly what you’re going through.”

What is Loneliness? How Can We Deal With It?

Loneliness is a complex and generally unpleasant emotional response to isolation. It stems from unmet social needs. Interestingly, the isolation can be self-imposed. This often occurs when we feel we cannot relate to others. Loneliness can have a negative impact on our emotional and physical health. The existentialist is quick to point out that when it comes down to it, we’re all alone at the end of the day.

Loneliness has an inner dimension. It is a thirst of the spirit, and the roots of loneliness are within each of us. But when we are in Christ, we have Him as our Lord and companion. As a follower of Jesus, we are part of God’s Kingdom and have a role to play. When we’re sad and lonely, or feel so alone, we need to remember that we are called to connect people with God. Intentionally living into our calling will help us overcome chronic loneliness. Being part of the Body of Christ means that each of us is connected to God and with fellow believers.

Concluding Remarks

At its root, loneliness is a spiritual issue. We don’t need to get more friends. We don’t need to write poetry or learn to paint. We need help with what makes us feel incomplete. We need a Savior. An Advocate. We need Jesus. Our emotional cry should not merely be, “I do bad things because I’m lonely, so someone come keep me company and make me feel better.” We need to understand we’re lonely because we’re sinners in a dark and fallen world and in need of God’s help. Sometimes what we call loneliness is actually what Scripture refers to as longing for unhindered intimacy with God. We start thinking other people can provide what only God can provide.

Everyone experiences loneliness in life. No one is exempt. We were created for togetherness, which is why, even before the Fall, God declared that man being alone was not good (see Genesis 2:18). Loneliness is an indicator that something is missing; something that is found only in Jesus Christ. He completes what’s missing, that thing we identify as “loneliness,” beginning from the moment we are joined to Him in faith and brought to completion in glory. In other words, the primary reason we are lonely is that we aren’t home yet. God created us for communion with Him, and therefore loneliness will be fully eradicated only when we get to heaven. That’s why everyone—young or old, single or married—experiences loneliness. Relief comes only as we acknowledge our loneliness and turn to God and his Word for the help and understanding we need.

In Scripture, we discover that God is present in our loneliness. He is there in times of grief and in times of discouragement. He is there when others forsake us, and when our hopes are disappointed. He never leaves us, not even when our loneliness springs from our sin and bad choices. Ultimately, those who belong to God through Christ Jesus are never really alone, and because that’s true, loneliness does not have to characterize us. Isn’t that a relief?

Scientific Findings and Achievements in Drug Abuse Research for 2018

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Director
National Institute on Drug Abuse
January 7, 2019

Dr. Volkow noted, “As we enter 2019, it is a good time to take stock of what NIDA accomplished over the past year. As always when I look back at the research being done by NIDA grantees and partners, I am amazed at the wealth of knowledge being created from our investments. Here I want to highlight just a few of the many outstanding developments in basic science, new therapeutics, and epidemiology and prevention research from the year that just ended.”

Basic Science Advances

Recent years have seen major advances in the understanding of receptor functioning. In March 2018, a team of researchers at NIDA’s Intramural Research Program (IRP) reported in Nature Communications on an advance in understanding G protein-coupled receptors (GCPRs), a large family of receptors that play an important role in the brain’s response to drugs. These receptors often assemble into larger complexes, but it has been unknown whether those complexes are merely the product of random collision between signaling molecules as they move across the membrane or whether they pre-form into complexes that serve specific functions.

The IRP team found that two common GCPRs in the reward pathway, adenosine A2A and dopamine D2 receptors (along with their G proteins and target enzyme), assemble into preformed macromolecular complexes that act as computation devices processing incoming information and enabling the cell to change its function based on that information. This knowledge could facilitate the development of more precise medication targets.

In June 2018, a team of NIDA-funded researchers at the University of California–San Francisco, along with colleagues in Belgium and Canada, reported in Neuron magazine that they had developed a genetically-encoded biosensor that can detect activation of opioid receptors and map the differences in activation within living cells produced by different opioids. The fact that opioids bind to receptors on structures within the cell—and not just on the cell membrane—was itself a novel finding, but the team also discovered striking differences in how endogenous versus synthetic opioids interact with these structures.

While endogenous peptides activated receptors on membrane-bound compartments within the cell called endosomes, synthetic opioid drugs activated receptor sites on a separate structure called the Golgi apparatus (which acts as a hub for routing proteins to various destinations in the cell). These very different patterns of activation within the cell may lead to greater understanding of why non-peptide opioid drugs produce tolerance as well as the behavioral distortions seen with opioid misuse and addiction whereas the body’s endogenous opioid peptides do not.

The same month, a team led by neuroscientists at UCLA studying narcolepsy reported research in Science Translational Medicine based on their discovery that postmortem brains from individuals who had been addicted to heroin show greatly increased numbers of neurons producing the neuropeptide hypocretin. Hypocretin helps regulate wakefulness and appetite, and a diminished number of cells in the brain producing it is associated with narcolepsy. The researchers went on to conduct a study administering morphine to mice, which as observed in the postmortem study produced increased numbers of hypocretin neurons. The results suggest that increases in these cells and in brain hypocretin could underlie the complaints of sleep problems in patients with an opioid use disorder (OUD). Since insomnia is a factor that contributes to drug taking in OUD and other addictions, strategies to counteract hypocretin signaling might have therapeutic benefits.

Prevention and Treatment

Last year, NIDA-funded research resulted in new therapeutics and apps for opioid use disorder. In May, the FDA approved lofexidine, the first medication approved to treat physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal. In December, the FDA cleared the first mobile health app intended to help retain patients with OUD in treatment, called reSET-O. It uses interactive lessons to deliver a community reinforcement approach therapy and enables users to report cravings and triggers to their health care provider between office visits, along with whether or not they have used Suboxone. NIDA funded the clinical trial that led to this app’s approval. A version called reSET was approved in 2017 to help with behavioral treatment of several non-opioid substance use disorders.

NIDA-funded research in epidemiology and prevention also added greatly to the knowledge of new drug trends in 2018. Last month’s striking findings on monitoringthefuture.org alerted us to escalating use of vaping devices among adolescents. Although most adolescents in 2017 claimed they used vaping devices only to vape flavors, this year most reported they used them to vape nicotine. Alarmingly, there was also an increase in vaping of cannabis.

Several other studies published in 2018 increased our understanding of factors that may lead youth to experiment with vaping. For example, a longitudinal cohort study by researchers at Yale and reported in Addictive Behavior found that exposure to ads for e-cigarettes on social media sites like Facebook significantly increased the likelihood of subsequent e-cigarette use among middle and high school students in Connecticut. In another study published in Preventive Medicine, the researchers also found that higher socioeconomic status was associated with greater exposure to e-cigarette advertising (which in turn was associated with increased likelihood of use)—important data that can help with targeting prevention efforts. Other work by UCSF researchers and published in Pediatrics found that e-cigarette use in adolescents was positively associated with being a smoker of conventional cigarettes, lending further support to the view that these devices are not diverting youth from smoking cigarettes but may be having the opposite effect in some users.

Looking To The Future

This year the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study successfully completed recruitment of 11,874 participants, ages 9-10, who will be followed for 10 years, through young adulthood. The study, which is being conducted at 21 research sites around the country, is using neuroimaging to assess each individual’s brain development while also tracking cognitive, behavioral, social, and environmental factors (including exposure to social media) that may affect brain development and other health outcomes. The first release of anonymized data was made available so that both ABCD and non-ABCD researchers can take advantage of this rich source of information to help answer novel questions and pursue their own research interests.  Last year alone, the data resulted in more than 20 publications.

 

General and Special Revelation

Christian theology asserts, based on Scripture and the confirming acts of God, that divine revelation is the first, last, and only source for the theological. Without this firm base, theological discussion seems random and pointless. We have knowledge of God because of His initiative and activity. We see what He has done; we see that it is good. God is the author and initiator of revelation and we are the recipients. He discloses what would otherwise be unknown. He uncovers what would otherwise be hidden. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of His law” (NIV).

General Revelation

God draws the veil back for us in two ways. First, there is what has been called general revelation. This refers to God revealing Himself in nature, history, and in man as made in His image. The association of God’s revelation with nature, by which people have an intuitive knowledge of God’s existence, is long-standing. It’s been said that when people deny God, as with the atheist, it is actually a forced effort against an inner yearning to find truth and meaning about our origin and meaning. Paul expressed this to the Athenians, expecting them to agree with him based on the proclamations of their philosophers and poets. He said, “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring'” (Acts 17:28, NIV). It is universal in scope. In other words, no one can claim ignorance relative to God’s general revelation.

Because of the natural knowledge of God (scholars like Thomas Aquinas termed it natural theology to distinguish from that which was revealed by God directly through Scripture), which confronts humanity on every side through that which is created, Paul can say that people are “very religious” (see Acts 17:22). It is not a case of identifying God and nature, but rather recognizing that the natural knowledge of God is deeply ingrained in humanity’s own nature and in the natural realm. Psalm 19:1-2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies declare the works of his hands” (NIV). The Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible notes a four-fold confirmation of God’s existence:

  • The heavens declare God’s glory. The Hebrew word saphar means to recount, to mark as a tally, number out, inscribe as a writer (Psalm 19:1; 75:1; Job 12:8)
  • The firmament shows His handiwork. The Hebrew word nagad means to front, stand boldly out, manifest, certify (Psalm 19:1; 111:6; Micah 6:8)
  • The days utter speech. The Hebrew word here is naba, which means to gush forth, belch out, pour out, utter abundantly (Psalm 19:2; 78:2; 145:7)
  • The nights show knowledge. The Hebrew word for show is chavah, meaning to declare or indicate (Psalm 19:2; Job 15:17; 32:6, 10, 17; 36:2)

If the heavens number out the glory of God and inscribe the infinite works of the Creator; if the firmament manifests His handiwork and certifies His existence; if days constantly pour forth teaching; and if nights declare the very knowledge of God, then God’s existence is everywhere confirmed. Paul notes in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (NIV). Paul is clear: General revelation provides everyone with evidence that God is real.

Natural knowledge of God does have its limitations. Because it confronts mankind with the fact of God’s existence on a cerebral level, the individual engages in point-counterpoint discussion—from his or her own worldview. Moreover, general revelation does not provide information regarding the Gospel. Information about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus can only be found in the Bible. Accordingly, where general revelation deals with the existence of God and generic morality, special revelation, the Bible, and the person of Christ, give specifics regarding sin, salvation, heaven, hell, the nature of God, the Trinity, the incarnation, death, the Fall, redemption, and other spiritual matters.

Special Revelation

Nature is not the sixty-seventh book of the Bible, but a signpost pointing to the existence and character of God. The book of nature should be studied and understood in the light of the book of Scripture, not the other way round. To know God from His revelation in nature, however, still leaves Him and His gracious purposes completely unknown. This is true because the things of the Spirit are foreign to the mind of mankind. In Isaiah 55:8-9, God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (NIV).

God desires to share His ways with us. We would certainly know nothing of His heart or His plans for our redemption had He not revealed it through Scripture. Before the Fall, communion between God and man was direct and uninterrupted. With the earliest patriarchs and prophets—Noah, Abraham, Isaiah, Elijah, and others—God’s revelation came by means of words articulated directly in a supernatural way. At other times, He spoke through angels (as when they appeared before Abraham, see Genesis 18:1-15), in the burning bush (see Exodus 3:1-22), in the cloud (see Exodus 34:5-7), or the fire and cloud over Mount Sinai for Moses and the people of Israel (see Exodus 19:18-21). God made His mind and heart known through Moses. God also used dreams and visions.

In addition to speaking to His prophets and apostles, God also inspired them to record His thoughts, words, promises, and covenants to be retained for all time. The Bible is a sacred collection of writings through which God has revealed His thoughts and intentions toward humanity. The prophets and apostles were prompted to recount key historical events. Revelation and inspiration are necessary counterparts to God’s disclosure of His character and will. R.C. Sproul, author, theologian, and ordained minister, said this of general and special revelation:

I believe firmly that all of truth is God’s truth, and I believe that God has not only given revelation in sacred Scripture, but also, the sacred Scripture itself tells us that God reveals Himself in nature—which we call natural revelation. And, I once asked a seminary class of mine that was a conservative group, I said, “How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” And they all raised their hand. And I said, “And how many of you believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible, and nobody raised their hand. It’s the same God who’s giving the revelation.

The ultimate form of special revelation is Jesus Christ. God became a human being (see John 1:1, 14). Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (NIV).

Concluding Remarks

General revelation is important because it represents effective communication regarding the existence of God, His moral character, and all that He has created. However, general revelation itself does not reveal the Gospel. Special revelation provides specific communication involving God’s will and His plan for redemption. The most compelling element of special revelation is the incarnation of God in the flesh as Jesus Christ. The scribes who penned the Scriptures received special revelation in physical manifestations, dreams, angels, and through witnessing the events they recorded. Those who wrote the Bible were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In Christ we meet the fullness of the revelation of the Father, and it is only through Scripture that we meet Christ.

 

God, Science or Both?

WHEN YOU PONDER THE vastness of the universe, the wonder of the natural world, or the mysteries of the human mind, what do you think? Some of us see nothing but a material world, machinations of which we believe are best explained by the logical reasoning of science. One of the world’s most famous and endearing scientists, Stephen Hawking, did not believe in God or heaven. Hawking invoked the name of God in his seminal book A Brief History of Time, writing that if astrophysics could find a “theory of everything”—in other words, a comprehensive explanation for how the universe works—they would glimpse “the mind of God.”

However, in later interviews and writings, such as 2010’s The Grand Design, which Hawking co-wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking clarified that he wasn’t referring to a creator in the traditional sense. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist, he wrote, adding, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” In other words, Hawking was perfectly at ease with believing something came from nothing.

In Hawking’ s Brief Answers to the Big Questions, his last book before his death March 14, 2018, he said, “People have always wanted answers to the big questions. Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? What is the meaning and design behind it all? Is there anyone out there?” (p. 3). He states the big question in cosmology: Did the universe have a beginning? He notes that many scientists were instinctively opposed to the idea, because they felt that a point of creation would be “…a place where science [breaks] down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God to determine how the universe would start off” (pp. 12-13). He clearly states in Brief Answers, “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” He added, “If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: What role is there for God?”

To Hawking and many like-minded scientists, the combined laws of gravity, relativity, quantum physics, and thermodynamics could explain everything that ever happened or ever will happen in our known universe. He said, “If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.” Hawking’s number-one “big question” is definitely a big one: Is there a God? Trying to prove God does not exist is basically impossible. How does one prove a negative?

CHRISTIANITY AND REASON: THE THEOLOGICAL ROOTS OF SCIENCE

Christianity helped form the heart of Western civilization, shaping ideas and institutions that have persisted for two millennia. Yet there seems to be an inherent antagonism between science and theology. In fact, militant atheists are prone to portray an ongoing war between the two. The conflict, Sam Harris writes, is “zero sum.” Zero-sum basically means if one party gains an advantage, another party must suffer an equivalent loss. In economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the loss or gain of the utility of the other party.

It is worth noting that science as an organized, sustained enterprise arose in human history in Europe, during the period of civilization called Christendom. Pope Benedict XVI argues that reason is a central distinguishing feature of Christianity. An unbiased look at the history of science shows that modern science is an invention of Medieval Christianity, and that the greatest breakthroughs in scientific reason have largely been the work of Christians.

Sam Harris said, “If God created the universe, what created God?” His sentiments are echoed by several atheist writers: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg. They argue the problem of infinite regress—a sequence of reasoning or justification which can never come to an end. Certainly, they say, there has to be a chain of causation, but they ask, “Why does it have to stop with God?” Dawkins makes the further point that only a complex God could have created such a complex universe; but he said we don’t have the luxury of accounting for one form of unexplained complexity (the universe) by pointing to an even greater form of unexplained complexity (God). Consequently, Dawkins concludes that “the theist answer has utterly failed” and he sees ” no alternative [but to] to dismiss it.”

CHRISTIANITY AND THE INVENTION OF INVENTION

Nicolaus Copernicus wrote, “So vast, without question, is the divine handiwork of the Almighty Creator.” Lists of the great ideas of modern science typically contain a major omission. On such lists we are sure to find Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, Kepler’s laws, Newton’s laws, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, yet the greatest idea of modern science is almost never included. It is such a big idea that it makes possible all the other ideas. Interestingly, the greatest idea of modern science is based not on reason but on faith. Consider the scientific method for proving a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis is the building block of scientific method. Many describe it as an “educated guess,” based on knowledge and observation.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that scientific method could neither prove nor disprove any religious belief. Instead, religion requires a leap of faith. He said, “You either believe or you don’t believe. But you’re never reasoned into or out of any religious tenets.” Faith, however, is not a highly acclaimed word in the scientific community. Physicist Richard Feynmand wrote in The Meaning of It All, “I do not believe that the scientist can have that same certainty of faith that very deeply religious people have.” Astronomer and Carl Sagan protege Neil deGrasse Tyson complains that “the claims of religions rely on faith” and boasts that “the claims of science rely on experimental verification.” But where is the scientific verification that something came from nothing? Physicist Eugene Wigner has said that the mathematical order of nature “is something bordering on the mysterious and there is no rational explanation for it.” Feynmand confesses, “Why nature is mathematical is a mystery. The fact that there are rules at all is a kind of miracle.”

There is no logical necessity for a universe that obeys rules, let alone one that abides by the rules of mathematics. Yet the universe seems to be ordered. It does seem to follow rules. Without this irrational faith that the universe simply “knows” to follow a certain order, modern science is impossible. Dinesh D’Souza asks, “Where did Western man get this faith in a unified, ordered, and accessible universe? How did we go from chaos to cosmos? My answer, in a word, is Christianity.” Men such as Thales, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras posited a universe that operates through discoverable rules of cause-and-effect. Prior to this, much was based on mythical cosmologies chock full of ideas of an “enchanted universe.”

CHRISTIANITY AND SCIENCE

Churches began to build schools in Europe during the tail-end of the Medieval period, starting first with elementary and secondary grade levels. Eventually, they began to establish universities in Bologna and Paris. Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the early thirteenth century, followed by universities in Rome, Naples, Salamanca, Seville, Prague, Vienna, Cologne, and Heidelberg. These institutions were affiliated with the church, but they were independently governed and operated. The curriculum was a mix of secular and theological, leaving plenty of room for the study and advancement of new scientific knowledge. Interestingly, many of America’s earliest colleges and universities—Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Northwestern, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown—began as Christian institutions.

Francis Bacon—a devoutly religious man who did expository writing on the Book of Psalms and on prayer—used the inductive method to record experiments. He is considered by many to be the founder of scientific method—the “inventor of invention” if you will. It was under the supervision of the church that the first medical research institutions and the first observatories were built and supported. From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, a period of several centuries, the church did more for Western science than any other institution. Agnostics and atheists are prone to believing science was founded in the seventeenth century in revolt against religious dogma. In reality, science was founded between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by great leaders in their fields who were theists.

Here is a partial list of leading scientists who were Christian:

  • Nicolas Copernicus—Mathematician
  • Johannes Kepler—Astronomer
  • Galileo Galilei—Astronomer
  • Tycho Brahe—Astronomer
  • Rene Descartes—Philosopher, Mathematician, Scientist
  • Robert Boyle—Philosopher, Chemist, Physicist
  • Isaac Newton—Mathematician
  • Gottfried Leibniz—Mathematician, Philosopher
  • Pierre Gassendi—Priest, Philosopher, Mathematician, Astronomer
  • Blaise Pascal—Mathematician
  • Marin Mersenne—Mathematician
  • George Cuvier—Naturalist, Zoologist
  • William Harvey—Physician
  • John Dalton—Chemist
  • Michael Faraday—Scientist in electromagnetism and electrochemistry
  • William Herschel—Astronomer
  • James Prescott Joule—Physicist
  • Charles Lyell—Geologist
  • Antoine Lavoiseir—Chemist
  • Joseph Priestly—Theologian, Philosopher, Chemist, Educator
  • William Thompson, 1st Baron Kelvin—Mathematician
  • Georg Ohm—Physicist
  • Andre-Marie Ampere—Physicist
  • Nicolas Steno—Scientist in anatomy and geology
  • Louis Pasteur—Chemist, Inventor
  • James Clerk Maxwell—Mathematical Physics
  • Max Planck—Theoretical Physicist
  • Gregor Mendel—Geneticist

A UNIVERSE WITH A BEGINNING

Do latest findings in modern science support or undermine the Christian claim that there is a God? Carl Sagan once said, “…the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” Interestingly, in a stunning confirmation of Genesis, modern science has discovered that the universe was created in a primordial explosion of energy and light. Not only did the universe have a beginning in space and time, but the origin of the universe was also a beginning for space and time. Space and time did not exist prior to the universe. If you accept that everything that has a beginning has a cause, then the material universe had a non-material or spiritual cause. Atheists are unwilling to accept that the creation of the universe was, in fact, a miracle.

Ravi Zacharias, in his book The End of Reason, says “nothing cannot produce something.” He adds, “Not only is there something; the laws of science actually break down right at the beginning.” The very starting point for an atheistic universe is based on something that cannot explain its own existence. The scientific laws by which atheists want to account for the beginning of the universe did not even exist as a category at the beginning of the universe because according to those very laws matter cannot simply “pop into existence” on its own. Atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell said that the universe is “just there.” Obviously, that is not a scientific explanation. In fact, according to science, nothing that exists (or that is) can explain its own existence.

I don’t mean to pick on atheist theories, but read the following thoughts from Stephen Jay Gould

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available (so thank your lucky stars in a literal sense); because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a “higher” answer—but none exists… We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves—from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

Ken Ham made a very interesting statement during his February 4, 2014 debate with Bill Nye on the merits of creationism versus evolution:

Non-Christian scientists are really borrowing from the Christian worldview anyway to carry out their experimental observational science… When they’re doing observational science using the scientific method they have to assume the laws of logic, they have to assume the laws of nature, they have to assume the uniformity of nature.

Mr. Ham made the point that creationists and evolutionists really have the same evidence when discussing the topic of origins. We have the same Grand Canyon, the same fossils, the same dinosaurs, the same humans, the same radioactivity, the same stars and planets, and so on. So the issue is not about evidence, but is rather an argument about how the evidence is interpreted in relation to the past. Frankly, its about one’s worldview. Accordingly, this becomes a worldview/religious debate. It is our worldview, based on our starting point (God’s Word or man’s theories), that drives the interpretation of evidence. This is especially relevant when the discussion is about the origin of the universe.

Sire (2015) said a worldview is not just a set of basic concepts, but a fundamental orientation of the heart. Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) clarify this even further, stating, “A worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world, and is the basis of our decisions and actions.” (p. 8) Assumptions and biases affect data interpretation. What we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see. Successful homicide detectives never approach a crime scene with a preconceived notion of what happened.

IS THERE AN END IN SIGHT?

Stephen Hawking gave a lecture in 1996 called “The Beginning of Time.” He discussed whether time itself had a beginning, and whether it will have and end. I assume this means Hawking did not accept the biblical concept of eternity. He said, “All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning, about 15 billion years ago.” Regarding whether the universe will end, he said “…even if the universe does come to an end, it won’t be for at least twenty billion years.” For me, coming to a conclusion such as this requires a great deal of faith and a pinch or two of conjecture.

Many astrophysicists and theoretical physicists seem to hold the scientific opinion that we live in a closed universe, which means there is sufficient matter in the universe to halt the expansion driven by the Big Bang and cause eventual re-collapse. In other words, the Big Bang caused the universe to burst into existence, and it has been gradually expanding; however, gravity will supposedly pull everything back in, leading to another Big Bang. I read a post on howstuffworks.com that explains a closed universe this way:

Tie one end of a bungee cord to your leg, the other end to the rail of a bridge and then jump off. You’ll accelerate downward rapidly until you begin to stretch the cord. As tension increases, the cord gradually slows your descent. Eventually, you’ll come to a complete stop, but just for a second as the cord, stretched to its limit, yanks you back toward the bridge. Astronomers think a closed universe will behave in much the same way. Its expansion will slow down until it reaches a maximum size. Then it will recoil, collapsing back on itself. As it does, the universe will become denser and hotter until it ends in an infinitely hot, infinitely dense singularity.

An open universe, on the contrary, means the universe will continue to expand indefinitely. Those holding to this theory believe galaxies will run out of the raw materials necessary for making new stars. Stars that already exist will burn out. Galaxies will become coffins filled with dust and dead stars. At that point, the universe will become dark, cold and, unfortunately, lifeless. Creation.com discusses whether the Bible supports the theory that our universe is expanding. We have been told, since Hubble’s discovery in the late 1920s, that the universe is expanding. Hubble found proportionality between the red-shift in the light coming from relatively nearby galaxies and their distance from Earth.

Hubble initially interpreted his red-shifts as a Doppler effect, due to the motion of the galaxies as they rushed away from our location in the universe. Later, Hubble became disillusioned with the recession interpretation: “… it seems likely that red-shifts may not be due to an expanding Universe, and much of the speculation on the structure of the universe may require re-examination.” He said that what became known as the Hubble Law could also be due to “some hitherto unknown principle of nature,” but not due to expansion of space.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

Psalm 104 presents a description of the biblical account of how the universe was formed. Verse 2 says, “The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent” (NIV). Verse 5 says, “He set the earth on its foundation; it can never be moved.” We must remember that God did not provide the Scriptures as a “science” book. Rather, it is a love letter to His creation. Science certainly attempts to explain the how and God explains the why of creation. Regardless, the Bible does not attempt to make strict scientific pronouncements. You won’t find a verse that says, “Thus says the LORD: The universe is expanding at X rate.” God says in Genesis 1:6-7, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse, and it was so. God called the expanse heaven” (NASB).

The prophets of the Old Testament knew that God had stretched out the heavens—a description that bears an uncanny similarity to the theory of an expanding (or open) universe. According to science, what was often considered a metaphorical, poetic expression turns out to be more literal than ever thought. An expanding universe does not negate the biblical account of creation. The great majority of scientists would say that matter is not eternal—that matter did not exist prior to the Big Bang. In fact, the prevailing theory is that nothing at all existed prior to the Big Bang, including time and space. At the moment of the Big Bang—the moment of creation—time began. Space began. Matter began.

McDowell and McDowell (2017), in Evidence That Demands a Verdict, describes what they call “concordist interpretations,” which are driven by what some believe are remarkable agreements between Scripture and modern science. Astronomer Robert Jastrow has said such instances of concordance are significant: “Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation… That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact” (Durbin, SCBTF, 15, 18).

Zoologist Andrew Parker was so struck with the consistency between the sequence of creation events in Genesis 1 and the modern scientific understanding of these events that he wrote The Genesis Enigma, in which he describes this consistency and concludes as follows:

Here, then, is the Genesis Enigma: The opening page of Genesis is scientifically accurate but was written long before the science was known.  How did the writer of this page come to write this creation account? I must admit, rather nervously as a scientist averse to entertaining such an idea, that the evidence that the writer of the opening page of the Bible was divinely inspired is strong. I have never before encountered such powerful, impartial evidence to suggest that the Bible is the product of divine inspiration.

Perhaps you will find the following excerpt from the Afterword of Nathaniel T. Jeanson’s Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species, rather powerful:

In the beginning, around 6,000 years ago, God created “kinds” of creatures—the original min. Representing creatures somewhere between the rank of subgenus and order, these min contained millions of heterozygous sites in their genomes. As they reproduced, shifts from heterozygosity to homozygosity led to diverse offspring. Less than 1,700 years after the creation of these min, their population sizes were dramatically reduced. At least for the land-dwelling, air-breathing min, their population sizes were reduced to no more than 14 individuals. In some cases, their populations declined to just 2. However, because this population bottleneck was so short, the heterozygosity of the Ark passengers would have been minimally effected. For sexually reproducing min, a male and female could have possessed a combined four copies of nuclear DNA. These copies could have been very different, preserving a massive amount of speciation potential.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Whenever I bring up science and faith, my secular friends either go mute or they try to start an argument. Not the “forensic point-counterpoint kind,” but the “You’ve got to be crazy! What is wrong with you?” kind. They say, “With the advent of modern science, how can you still believe that whole “creationism and the Earth is only 6,000 years old” garbage. They’ve decided miracles cannot happen. They’re convinced that the creation story of Christianity is nothing but an “enchanted” fairy tale. But scientists cannot escape the question of God. Nature is well-ordered and follows the laws of gravity, relativity, quantum physics, and thermodynamics. Nature bears the marks of a designer. Finally, science is only one source of truth.

Science cannot exist without the assumptions of a stable creation, with meaning, purpose, or the laws of nature to govern it. Without the assumptions brought about by Christianity, modern science would have no footing whatsoever. If nature were inherently self-serving and motivated merely by survival rather than to the giving of life, the stability of natural laws would be unknowable. Nature itself would be a moving deception. We would not have the ability to even perceive such a reality if it existed.

 

References

Hawking, S. (1988). A Brief History of Time. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Hawking, S. (2018). Brief Answers to the Big Questions. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

McDowell, J. and McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth For a Skeptical World. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008). Making sense of your world: A biblical worldview, second edition. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

Sire, J. (2015). Naming the elephant: Worldview as a concept, second edition. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

Zacharias, R. (2008). The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.

The Power of “And” in God’s Promises of Blessings and Curses

When we make a promise we essentially give an assurance that we will engage in or refrain from a specific form of activity. These commitments are typically made between individuals, and can include quite a range of activities. Simple promises can be written or oral, and may be temporary or lifelong. Such gestures are often sealed by a gesture, such as a simple handshake or a solemn oath. Complicated situations often require a witness and legal ratification. However, a covenant should be distinguished from a contract because it is a personal relationship into which people voluntarily enter. 

Promises may also be between groups of people. Where important bodies are involved, such as government entities, such promises generally assume the form of treaties. Among honest individuals a promise includes an expectation that the promisor is both willing and able to fulfill the commitment to the promise, with the undertaking being accepted on the basis of good faith. Where groups of people are involved, litigation is often resorted to in order to resolve the damage occasioned by the failure of the promisor to fulfill the stated obligations. In the case of broken international treaties, appeal may be made to an international judicial body for some type of redress. In some instances, military action might even be undertaken by the aggrieved party.

Scripture records agreements between individuals in the second millennium BC in Mesopotamia. A classic example is noted in Genesis 31:43-55 regarding Laban and Jacob when Jacob was seeking his independence. A covenant was established between them in which the two men agreed not to act aggressively toward one another. Each man swore an oath by his god, and erected a stone marker to commemorate the occasion. On his deathbed, Jacob promised his twelve sons that the future would hold certain prospects for them, and according to contemporary custom this statutory declaration to each of them gave the pronouncements legal force (see Genesis 49:1-33).

“AND” IS NOT JUST A CONJUNCTION

So let’s take a few minutes to discuss conjunction. My 9th grade English teacher told me a conjunction is a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause. We all know the usual suspects: and, but, if. Fine, but why “conjunction?” Actually, these clauses are called conjuncts of the conjoining construction. Okay, right. We can take it a step further, noting coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, and correlative conjunctions.

…and who could forget this?

God has made it clear that “and” is not merely a conjunction. He is not interested in grammar. Rather, He is intent on setting the operating principles for His many promises and covenants.

A promise meant to bring great blessing to humanity was made by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. God said, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (NIV). Abraham, although childless, was to become the progenitor of a great nation. God repeated this promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. By faith, Abraham believed God’s utterances. God brought His promise even closer to fulfillment by stating that Sarah would have a son (see Genesis 18:10). Thereafter, Abraham rested his confidence in God’s divinity, and lived to see the Lord’s assurances implemented in what Paul, millennia later, was to call the “covenants of the promise” (Ephesians 2:12; Galatians 3:6-17).

The word covenant is of Latin origin (con venire). It means “coming together,” and involves two or more parties who agree to an arrangement—promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. In Christian theology, it is similar to the word bond. The generally-accepted idea of a bond between two parties in a covenant implies that the arrangement is not unilateral. There are of course pronounced similarities between biblical and secular covenants. God is the originator of the concept of covenant. He used covenant relationships in His creation activity and handiwork. Covenant is an integral part of the patchwork of human life; it is God-implanted.

The basic elements of a covenant are embedded in the Genesis account. God, in His revelation of creation, presented Himself as the Creator. The historical record of what He has done was outlined in Scripture. He created His image-bearers by means of which He placed and kept man and woman in a close relationship with Himself and had them mirror and represent Him within the created universe. God clearly provided man with various stipulations or mandates. This makes perfect sense; as image-bearers, man is to maintain an intimate and obedient fellowship with God. The Sabbath was to enhance this. Humanity was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth; this was to be done by establishing families; a man was to leave his parents and cleave to his wife (see Genesis 2:24). Becoming one flesh, they would bear offspring.

As families increased, communities were formed. This was the social mandate aspect of God’s covenant. The cultural mandate essentially involved man and woman cultivating (“subduing,” NIV) and ruling over God’s creation. When God saw all He had done, He confirmed it so, but not by expressing an oath or performing a ratifying ceremony. Rather, He declared all to be very good (see Genesis 1:31). He confirmed this by ceasing all aspects of creation and establishing the seventh day as a day of rest, sanctity, and blessing (see Genesis 2:1-3).

WHAT ABOUT THE TWO-WAY STREET?

God did more than just “create” and sit down. He spoke of assured blessings. He blessed Adam and Eve, giving them the authority to serve as His covenant agents. He provided for their sustenance (see Genesis 1:28-30). He also spoke of the possibility for disobedience if they ate of the fruit of the Tree Knowledge of Good and Evil (see Genesis 2:17). God clearly focused on the idea of blessing (life) and curse (death). God’s covenants were all-inclusive stipulations. Basically, He said, “Here’s what you can have if you obey my covenant.” God clearly wanted it understood that His covenants are two-way streets. We cannot pick and choose which aspects we’re going to obey.

His covenants were never terminated. Paul said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, NIV). I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this verse: “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself” (MSG). Jesus was quite clear: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, NIV). Frankly, God’s covenants are similar to a lateral contract. When you buy a house or vehicle, you enter into a contract that is essentially a two-way street. You get to keep driving the car or living in the house until all agreed-upon payments (terms) have been met. Title of ownership then transfers to you. You reap the benefits of upholding your end of the agreement. Miss a lot of payments (default on the covenant) and the benefits of ownership will not pass to you.

A PRIME EXAMPLE

Jesus told us in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others of their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (NIV). I’m aware that this doctrine causes many to doubt, stumble, question God. The going argument is this: But I thought all my sins were forgiven when I accepted Christ, and that He removed my sins from me as far as the East is from the West. It’s clear that the death of Jesus Christ was ransom enough to cover a multitude of sins. By God’s grace we are saved. Yet we remain in a fleshly body and are, therefore, prone to carnality. We’re likely to stumble, but hopefully we do not intentionally disobey God. To do so is a slap in the face of Jesus.

Believers are rather enthusiastic about grace. We’re quite excited about having been forgiven through God’s grace, extended to us through Christ. So why do many of us have a difficult time extending this same grace to those who have sinned against us? Bevere (2004), in his book The Bait of Satan, notes that there are two types of people: Those who have been offended, and those who think they have been offended. Forgiveness goes much deeper than merely receiving it for ourselves and going about living our lives. We’re commanded to forgive others. This should be part of our testimony. We’re to shower others with forgiveness even as we have been forgiven. Peter was concerned about how many times we should extend forgiveness: “At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, ‘Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven'” (Matthew 18:21-22, MSG).

The true meaning of forgiveness is cancelling a debt. C.S. Lewis (1984) said, “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it all in its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.” Forgiveness means releasing resentment. Frankly, suppressed resentment will never go away. It lies in wait, like a subtext, tainting our relationships and convincing us we’re right. It blinds us to seeing whatever part we might have played in a conflict. It’s like a smoldering fire inside a house. It can break out anywhere at any time.

Forgiveness means choosing love. When we choose to not forgive, we construct walls to safeguard our hearts and prevent future wounds. Remember the adage, Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me? Nearly all of us take that axiom to heart. This rationale causes us to become selective, denying entry to all we fear will hurt us. Unfortunately, these so-called walls of protection become a veritable prison. Our focus becomes, well, rather self-centered. Our focus is inward and introspective. It’s all about what the other person did to us. Our energy is consumed with making sure no one else hurts us. Bevere (2004) said, “If we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love. Unconditional love gives others the right to hurt us” (p. 16). Of course, that sounds rather counter-intuitive doesn’t it?

 Love does not seek its own, but hurt people become more and more self-seeking and self-contained. They do this in the interest of self-preservation. The offended Christian is one who takes in life but, because of fear, cannot share life. As a result, even the life that does come in becomes stagnant within the walls we build to avoid getting hurt. Bevere (2004) adds, “When we filter everything through past hurts, rejections, and experiences, we find it impossible to believe God” (p. 17). Let’s remember this: A minister or a Christian is what he lives, not what he says. If we are offended and in unforgiveness and refuse to repent of this sin, we have not come to the knowledge of the truth. We are deceived, and we confuse others with our hypocritical lifestyle.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

God clearly focused on the idea of blessings and curses. He was quite specific that His covenants are all-inclusive stipulations. He told us what we can have if we obey His covenant. He wants us to understand that His covenants are two-way streets. We cannot pick and choose which aspects we’re going to obey and still expect to be blessed. One of the best examples of this is His position on forgiveness. Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NIV). He forgave the Jewish mob who demanded His crucifixion. He forgave the Roman soldiers who beat Him and nailed Him to the cross. He even forgave Judas Iscariot. He made no threats. Instead, he entrusted Himself to Him judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23).

We have to come to the place where we trust God and not our flesh—our emotions. We need to understand the quid pro quo of God’s covenants. Of His promised blessings. We must become willing to forgive, even as we have been forgiven. Only then can we walk in the freedom and the joy of God’s blessings.

References

Bevere, J. (2004), The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.

Lewis, C.S. (1984). The Business of Heaven. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Press.

Peterson, E. (2006). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing.

Following Christ in an Anti-Christian Age

Unfortunately, contemporary American culture is increasingly anti-Christian. How should Christians respond to a rapidly changing American culture? Do we resign ourselves to pessimism, convinced that many of the moral foundations upon which our society once stood have collapsed and are now irrevocable? Or do we reassure ourselves with optimism, confident that we can still win the culture war if we’ll just unite together spiritually, personally, politically, and philosophically? Most likely neither pessimism nor optimism is the answer. Instead, realism is.

An Example

The Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor 570 U.S. (2013) (Docket No. 12-307)[5-4] challenges Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA): “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

The majority opinion of the Court held, “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. The Constitution’s guarantee of equality must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group. In determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus or purpose, [d]iscriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration. DOMA cannot survive under these principles.” The Supreme Court accused Christians who believe the “narrow” teaching of the Bible relative to marriage as bigoted.

Persecution is Worldwide

Of course, such anti-Christian sentiments are obviously not limited to America. Across the world, followers of Christ live in settings that are hostile to Christianity (many of them far more hostile than the United States). After all, Christianity was born into a culture of vehement opposition over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, and faced tremendous persecution throughout Judea and at the hands of the Romans. The total number of Christians martyred in the early church is unknown. It has been calculated that between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution.

Sadly, the plight of Christians is worse today. According to Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today (January 11, 2017), for the third year in a row, the modern persecution of Christians worldwide has hit an all time high. Interestingly, the primary cause—Islamic extremism—is being eclipsed by a brand of ethnic nationalism. Principally, this is a form of nationalism wherein the nation is defined in terms of a shared heritage, which usually includes a shared language, a common religious faith, and a common ethnic ancestry. Weber notes in his article the 2017 World Watch List released by Open Doors. In 25 years of “chronicling and ranking” the political and societal restrictions on religious freedom experienced by Christians worldwide, Open Doors researchers identified 2016 as the “worst year yet.”

How should followers of Christ today live in an America or any other culture that is intentionally and increasingly anti-Christian? It seems that every professing Christian in any such culture has two clear options: retreat or risk persecution. Sure, we can retreat. But we’d be denying Christ. Peter chose this option (Mark 14:66-72). Certainly, most Christians won’t reject Christ outright and not all at once. Instead, our retreat can be slow and subtle. I see this happening in America today through “progressive” faith, “inclusive” belief, “open” minds, and “ecumenical” churches. This involves trading God’s truth for the changing opinions of the world. The signs of such retreat are already apparent here in America.

Christians might not retreat from Christ; however, they may very well retreat from society. In the face of increasing anti-Christian sentiment and social pressure, many Christians who hold a steadfast belief in the Bible may choose to hide in the comfortable confines of privatized faith. We might stand up and speak with strong conviction—but many do so in the privacy of our homes or at church. We remain silent at work or in our university classes or other public settings. When the conversation at the coffee shop switches to the topic of gender dysphoria or same-sex marriage, or the language becomes rather course, Christians often sheepishly, almost apologetically, stumble  through a vague notion of what the Bible teaches, or probably more likely, might say nothing at all.

Worse, when our boss asks what we believe and we realize that our job may be in jeopardy based on how we answer, we might find ourselves masking, or at least minimizing, our faith. On a smaller scale, I recently started a new job in retail. I completed an “availability” form indicating I was not able to work after 5:00 pm on Wednesday or before 1:00 pm on Sunday in order to attend church services. The store general manager insisted that I change my availability to all hours on those days and initial the changes in order to get hired. I gave in.

The Gospel and Culture

Clearly, the Gospel is the lifeblood of Christianity, and it provides the very foundation for countering culture. When we truly believe the Gospel, it goes from mere head knowledge to something that lives in our heart. We begin to realize the Gospel not only compels Christians to confront social issues in the culture around us; the Gospel actually creates confrontation with the culture around and within us. Of course, it is increasingly common for biblical views on social issues to be labeled insulting. Today it’s considered insulting and “backward” to an ever-expanding number of people to say a woman who is emotionally and sexually attracted to another woman should not express love for her in marriage. It doesn’t take long for a Christian to be backed into a theological corner, not wanting to be offensive yet wondering how to respond.

Culture now impacts the church. Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister, published an online article on CNN.com titled “Why You Don’t Need God.” You can read the article in its entirely by clicking here. Bell is a writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a year-long journey to explore the limits of theism and the growing landscape of atheism in America. Bell writes, “I had been a Seventh-day Adventist pastor for 19 years. I resigned from my pastoral position the year before, but now I stepped away from my faith altogether. It was gut-wrenching, but I couldn’t see any other way to find peace and clarity. I encountered major theological differences with my denomination and evangelical Christianity in general, including the way it marginalizes women and LGBT people.”

For many, the Gospel’s offense starts with the very first words of the Bible. “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). Genesis was written in Hebrew and provided the people a foundation for their faith. Certainly, Genesis was not meant to be an exhaustive blow-by-blow account of how God created the heavens and the earth. Frankly, such an account would have caused the Bible to be far too large a tome.

For many, the initial antagonism of the Gospel is that there is a God—a supreme being by, through, and for whom all things began. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28, RSV). Paul clearly stated that natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, “…for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Consider the confrontation created by the reality of God in each of our lives. Because God is our Creator, we belong to him. The one who created us owns us. Honestly, does that not send a jolt through most of us? A tendency of rebellion? Nobody owns me! So we are not the masters of our own fate; the captains of our own souls.

Our Natural Reaction to God

God placed man in the midst of the Garden of Eden and granted him authority over all as keeper of the garden, charging him with naming the animals. The garden was established by God especially for man, planted in a full-grown state. God had just one command. He said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16b, 17).

Zodhiates and Baker (1997) notes that there may be purposes for the existence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that are not clearly explained in Scripture. They do believe, however, that it functioned as a test of obedience. Adam and Eve had to choose whether to obey God or break His commandment. When they actually ate the forbidden fruit, the consequences of their actions became self-evident. They found themselves in a different relationship to God because of sin. Actually, access to such knowledge was to be based solely upon a proper relationship with God. The real questions which faced Adam and Eve are the same ones that face us today: Which path should be chosen? What kind of relationship do we want with God?

The serpent was crafty to say the least. He said to Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'” Eve said God allowed consuming anything in the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She said God warned them, “…or you will surely die.” The serpent said, “You will not surely die… for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-6, NIV). I find the serpent’s ruse to be fascinating given he—as Lucifer—was cast down from heaven because of pride originating from his desire to be God instead of a servant of God. Although he was the highest of all the angels, he wanted more. He literally wanted to rule the universe.

Why do we run from God? John 3:20 says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (NIV). The reason most people run from God is because of their love for the flesh; their tendency to live in sin. This is unfortunately not the only reason: Many run from God because of bitterness. This is often due to a tragic event, such as the loss of a loved one. We tend to place God on trial when adversity strikes. The worse the troubles, the deeper our bitterness. But it is sin that is to blame. Nothing is as God planned. From the time of the Fall, all has fallen askew of what God intended.

Nothing New Under the Sun

When we understand this first sin, we realize that the moral relativism of the twenty-first century is nothing new. Whenever we attempt to usurp (or eliminate) God, we lose objectivity for determining what is good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral. Today’s militant atheists are noted for claiming  that morality is merely a biological adaptation in the same manner as hands and feet, teeth and hair. Dawkins (1995) writes, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, not any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, And we dance to its music.”

Of course, the doctrine of the Fall offers an explanation of the imperfection of this world and God Himself, its perfect Creator. This concept does not sit well with many philosophies. Nor does it win any merit with atheists. Launder and Rowlands (2001) are rather vitriolic in their comments in Original Sin: “The term comes from Christianity’s belief that Adam, the first human created by their god, ate an apple from the tree of knowledge, and forever after, all humans have been born guilty of the crime that Adam committed. Original sin refers not just to this particular belief, but to all beliefs that man is born evil.” They argue that this belief is based “on the fallacious view that value is intrinsic.” But we’re not talking about a work of art where the value—the beauty, if you will—is in the beholder. To state that morality or ethics is based solely on interpretation is to suborn moral relativism.

Why is This So?

The Gospel answers that although God created us in His image, we have rebelled against Him in our independence. Though it looks different in each of our lives, we all are just like the man and woman in the Garden. We think, Even if God says not to do something, I’m going to do it anyway. In essence, we’re saying, “God’s not Lord over me, and God doesn’t know best for me. No! I define what’s right and wrong, good and evil.” In other words, morality is relative. This shifts our morality from the objective truth God has given us in His Word to the subjective notions we create in our minds. Even when we don’t realize the implications of our ideas, we inescapably come to one conclusion: whatever seems right to me or feels right to me is what’s right. This amounts to one thing: It’s all about me!

This is why the Bible diagnoses the human condition simply by saying, “All have turned aside, together they have all gone wrong; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12, RSV). Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners” (MSG). Some will argue that Christians are placing “ancestral guilt” on each successive generation. It’s not about being held accountable for what others did before us. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (NIV) [Italics mine].

We turn from worshiping God to to worshiping self. We probably would never put it that way. Most people don’t  publicly profess, “I worship myself. I am my own god.” The dictionary does contain hundreds of words that start with self: self-esteem, self-confidence, self-advertisement, self-gratification, self-glorification, self-motivation, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-indulgence, self-righteousness, and the like. Are these concepts bad in their own right? No. That’s not the point. I can tell you this, however: I struggled with active addiction for over forty years. Nothing I did—no self effort of any kind—set me free. When I left rehab, I thought, Oh, now I understand. I got this! Trust me, whenever an addict says, “I got this,” he or she is in denial. No human power can relieve an alcoholic or addict of their addiction. For me, there was only one true higher power, Jesus Christ, who broke the chains of addiction over my life. And even that took me letting go of self and letting God set me free.

Twenty-First Century Ambassadors

Representing the truth of the Gospel in the new millennium requires three basic skills. First, we need to grasp the basics of the message of Jesus Christ. We must fully grasp the central message of God’s kingdom and understand how to respond to the obstacles we’re bound to encounter. This is not simply a matter of memorizing Scripture to through at the “unbelievers.” Second, we need the kind of wisdom that makes our testimony clear, bold, and persuasive. In other words, the tools of a diplomat rather than the weapons of a warrior. Tactics rather than brute force.

Finally, our character can make or break our mission. My pastor once said, “The number one attraction to Christianity is other Christians; unfortunately, the number one detractor to Christianity is other Christians.” Knowledge and wisdom are packaged in a person. If we do not embody the virtues and grace of Christ, we will simply undermine our testimony. We’ll taint the message of the Gospel. It would be better that we kept silent than bring shame or doubt or controversy to the very thing that has the power to deliver us from a life of sin and death.

References

Dawkins, R. (1995). River Out of Eden. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Zodhiates, S., and Baker, W. (1997). Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.