Category Archives: Philosophy

Go To Heaven and Suffer for All Eternity

For the past week or so, the word “suffering” has been on my mind.  If ever a paradox existed in the Christian worldview, “suffering” is its name.

Suffering is something that Jesus seems equally set on removing from some and promising for others.  It’s something that we’re called to address and correct, and something that we’re called to embrace.  It’s something that is an integral part of the life of a Christ-follower, and something we’re promised ultimate escape from.  How are we, as Christians, supposed to make sense of this?

While Scripture provides a number of paradoxical ideas concerning suffering, perhaps the most troubling conflict for me involves questions of suffering’s place in the Kingdom of God.  I am of the theological persuasion that the Kingdom of God is not only to be found in the life after this one (i.e. “Heaven”) but is also present in what God is doing here and now. And our role as followers of Christ is to prepare ourselves and the earth for the eternal reign of Christ. Essentially, we’re called to bring Heaven to earth as best we can.

In light of this, many of the things we are called to do as heralds of the Kingdom make perfect sense. We are called to make peace, which is something that we would hope to see for eternity in Christ’s kingdom. We are called to live a life of love which is something else we would hope to see exist eternally in the Kingdom. We are called to rejoice and worship which we would expect to see play huge roles in the Kingdom. And then, among the list of things that we would expect to be present in an eternal utopia, we find the peculiar call to suffer. It is relatively simple for us to see the purpose that suffering has on this side of the grave (Romans 5:3-4 makes the benefits of earthly suffering explicit ).  But what role does suffering play in the eternal Kingdom? More precisely, why are we being trained to suffer if we are promised ultimate and eternal escape from it?

These questions have weighed heavily on me recently as I have reflected on the call to suffer. I only barely understand what that means and how it ought to affect the direction my life takes. I have quite a ways to go in terms of comprehending the role and purpose of suffering. But, if you will indulge me, I have a theory concerning the role suffering plays in the eternal destiny of Christ-followers.

Let me reiterate that this is a theory. It is not something that I can explicitly back up with Scripture, and I’m not sure that it’s even something that fits well with God’s nature. I recognize the possibility probability that I am wrong, and I am open to correction and dialogue. But so far this is the best way I can figure to reconcile our call to suffer with the promise of the eternal Kingdom. So consider this an exercise in theoretical theology. Here goes…

Consider the following statement: “To be in the presence of God is to suffer.” Is that statement true? I have no idea. But what if it was? What if God is so excruciatingly holy and righteous and good that we could not stand to be in His presence without encountering unfathomable suffering? Consider God’s comment to Moses that no one can see Him and live (Exodus 22:30). This is the same God who reigns in the Kingdom. If to merely experience Him by sight is to face certain death, then what would it be like to exist fully in His presence? I imagine it to be unimaginable.

Could we someday find ourselves on the shores of eternity anticipating an island getaway only to be faced with a raging volcano? And could we learn to be content with this situation? Could we discover that the volcano is ever more beautiful and worthy of our eternity than any beach-front paradise could have promised to be? To enter into the full presence of God will be a beautiful thing, but I suspect it will be a difficult transition. The rusty and raw cog of humanity grinding up against a grand and glorious gear of God. I suspect that there will be friction. And how much more there would be, were the whole beautiful machine not lubricated with the blood of Christ!

Lest you think that I have neglected the role of the Spotless Lamb in all of this, Christ plays two large and indispensable roles in this theoretical framework. First, it is by His righteousness alone that we are even welcomed into the presence of God. Without His work, we would find ourselves hopelessly unwelcome in this eternal Kingdom. Second, Christ serves as our guide and our advocate as we experience the suffering that is necessitated by the collision of a holy God with a most unholy people. Without His taking our hand and leading us into the presence of God, we would find it unbearable and ultimately un-beautiful. But by His leadership we find a way to understand this suffering for what it truly is: an incredible intersection between God and ourselves. Until, perhaps, the day arrives when we become so overwhelmed by the presence of God that we learn to experience the suffering in a new way – in a way that draws us closer to God. And just as a deep tissue massage hurts in the beginning only to become enjoyable in the end, we may find that, by Christ’s guidance, we begin to appreciate what we would have first described as suffering. The sensation has not changed, but our perception of it has; in the same way that we are called to reimagine suffering on earth and see it as the refining tool that it is, we may come to reimagine the suffering that we experience in God’s presence. We may come to appreciate it. We may come to enjoy it. We may wish to spend eternity in it.

So, if Heaven is suffering, what then is Hell? Eternal bliss? In a way. But a bliss that people are not willing to embrace. In C.S. Lewis’s wonderful parable The Great Divorce, Lewis gives us a picture of Heaven as a place where the grass is too real for some people to walk on; it cuts their feet like razor blades because they are unprepared to engage the reality of Heaven. It is common to hear people say that Hell is the absence of God. But what if it was the opposite? What if Hell was the full presence of God without the welcoming embrace of Christ and without His guidance and advocacy? What if Hell is to attempt to experience the full suffering that God’s presence brings about, but to attempt to do so without the help and hope of Christ? Surely, this would be hellish. I imagine we might describe God’s presence here as “wrath.”

Parenthetically, I recognize that 2 Thessalonians 1:9 defines eternal punishment as exile from God’s presence, but I also take into account verses like Romans 2:8 (among others) that define punishment as the presence of God’s wrath. How is it that God can manifest His wrath without being present? I do not say this to disregard the verse in 2 Thessalonians, rather I say it to suggest that we not formulate an entire theology based on one description among many.

So then, what role does suffering play in preparing us for an eternal Kingdom? Perhaps it serves to ready us for our encounter with the divine. An encounter so real that it causes us to experience unparalleled suffering as we are overcome by its unparalleled beauty. An experience so unfamiliar and uncomfortable that can only be endured by the power of Christ, and to attempt to do so without Him would be…hellish.

-Tim-

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I Shall Not Want Want

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.

Behind John 3:16, this is likely the second most memorized verse in the Bible.  If not, it’s at least one of the most popular.  Just go to Google and type in “Psalm” and see which Psalm is suggested to you first.  (Spoiler: it’s this one.)

But if you would indulge me, I’d like you to consider how two words, appropriately affixed to this verse, can alter the way that we think about “wanting.”  Consider how your perspective changes when you read the verse like this:

If the LORD is my shepherd,
Then I shall not want.

If, in our mind’s eye, we allow this verse to become a conditional statement, it may challenge us to consider the relationship between our connection to God, and our desire for…desire.

Let me explain how this came about for me.

Last night I was laying on my couch, watching the news out of the corner of my eye, aimlessly fiddling with my cell phone, sitting next to my wife, and I slowly realized that I wanted something.  Food?  No, I had just eaten recently.  Water?  No, I wasn’t thirsty.  Did I have to go to the bathroom?  No, I just went.  Did I need to say something to my wife?  No, we had already debriefed our days with one another and were now winding down for the evening.  So what was it?  What did I want?  I looked at the TV, I looked at my phone, I looked at my wife, and it occurred to me that I was waiting for each of them to tell me what I wanted.  That’s what I wanted; something new to want.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  Consider the annual announcement of the newest iPhone.  (By the way, I don’t own a single Apple product, something that has on occasion called into question my eligibility to youth pastorship. But I digress.)  Every year bloggers, news sources, and technophiles speculate and prophecy about the upgrades and updates that will come along with the next “revolutionary” device.  For those of you not paying attention, the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S are…pretty much the same thing.

(Primary difference? The letter “S”.)

 

Nevertheless, every year the press line up to get a glimpse of the latest piece of hardware.  But why?  There’s usually a considerable delay between the announcement and the actual release, so it’s not as if anyone is going to walk out of there with a new iPhone in hand.  It seems as if people aren’t  lining up to get what they want as much as they’re lining up to be told what to want.  The desire is no longer the desire for something, but a desire for desire itself.  Perhaps the best business model in the world is not to create a great product, but to create a great desire.  (On a side note, I find it highly bizarre that the late Steve Jobs was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, which teaches that the desire for material things leads to suffering.  Ok, I’m done ripping on Apple now, I promise.)

It’s Pavlovian in a sense.  We like to hear the bell because we know that it means food is on the way.  But unlike dogs, we soon find ourselves more enamored with the sound of the bell than with the food itself.

But lest you think I’m unfairly critical of Apple fans, I readily and shamefully admit to my own ever insatiable maw of want.  So I as I’m laying on my couch analyzing the desire for desire I sense inside, I begin to question my standing before the LORD.  Is He my shepherd?  If He is, then why do I so often find myself wanting something new to want?  Why do I make it a part of my daily ritual to check certain blogs and websites that try to sell me the idea that I need something?  Why do I watch the Superbowl on mute only to turn the volume up when the commercials come on?  Why does my heart race during the “Coming Attractions” before a film?  Why do I wander aimlessly around Best Buy looking for something that I didn’t even know existed so that I can hope to own it?  Am I addicted to desire?

Lest my rejection of desire sound too spiritually “Eastern,” I want to pause to recognize the importance that desire plays in the Christian faith.  Understanding God’s desire for us is paramount to any type of Christ-centered spirituality.  And our desire for Him is central to a theology of worship.  Human desire for relationship is a key component to Christian community.  Other examples could be given as well, but these shall suffice to show that desire is not wholly evil.

But western culture at large is hardly in danger of eschewing desire to the point of calling these truths into question.  Quite the opposite.  We are in love with our desire.  We celebrate it at every turn.  We allow it to dictate our identity.  So what is the call to the Christ-follower in a culture oversaturated with manufactured need?

The call, as I see it stated in Psalm 23, is to allow our desire for desire to set off a warning signal that we may be wandering just beyond our Shepherd’s immediate reach.  He is making us lay in green pastures and leading us beside quiet waters (which, in keeping with the shepherd/sheep motif leads invariably to a full belly!)  If we are near Him, what else is there for us to want?

If the LORD is our shepherd, then I suspect that we will find ourselves wanting less.  And as we walk with our Shepherd, we will find our needs largely met (always spiritually, and often materially) and we will certainly find that we have a decreasing desire to desire desire or want want.

So let us frequently fast from our desires long enough to discern what desires lead us in the way of our Shepherd and which lead us to more meaningless wanting.  And may we find that desire has a role in our spirituality; but it is not as central a role as our culture might have us believe.

-Tim-

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I Logically Cannot Find God

I cringe every time I hear some well-meaning apologist attempt to “prove” that God exists.  It is my firm conviction, as a Bible-believing Evangelical that, no, in fact, they cannot prove that God exists.  If they could, there would be a planet full of logically minded theists, whereas in reality we see a rapidly growing contingent of atheists and agnostics, many of whom cite logical reasons for not believing.  So what is going on?  Does logic lead us away from God?

Maybe. Probably.

At very least, logic, when viewed as the exclusive claim-holder on Truth, will lead us away from a Chistocentric worldview.  I’d argue that logic (at least post-Enlightenment logic) will at best serve to inform us about God’s creation, and at worst will lead us away from Him. But it will never prove Him.

These are very hard words for me to write, as I have been described by many of my friends (and myself) as a logically-minded individual.  And I want very badly to hang on to the idea that if only I could acquire more empirical information, I would be left with no choice to worship the Lord! But it’s time for me to give up the ghost on my logical search for God.

As a teenager, I was terrified of discovering some damning evidence that would finally close the coffin on my faith in God.  (This was the beginning of my struggle with anxiety, mentioned in my first post.) As a result, I spent many hours pouring over well-meaning books that claimed to be able to logically bolster my faith in God or even prove God’s existence.  At that formative state in my life, these books did provide a service in that they gave me new perspective, albeit perspective that I would later largely come to disagree with.  But they most certainly did not prove that God exists.  And I’ve come to accept that I’m unlikely to find such proof.

So why am I not an atheist or an agnostic?  Why do I still believe that Christ is who Scripture claims He was?  For me, it seems to boil down to language.

When I visit a foreign country, I’m always reminded of how difficult it is to communicate with someone whose language you don’t share.  Something as simple as asking for an extra napkin can become a frustrating and humiliating game of charades. My mom once told me a story about a time when she was in Taiwan and a co-worker attempted to thank someone in Taiwanese, but instead he made a comment about “a little boy’s peepee.” Common language is pretty essential, especially when attempting to convey important ideas.

So what language do all humans share? Well, definitely not spoken language, as there are about 6,500 languages actively spoken today. And definitely not written language, as there are about 6,000 of those floating around. What about drawings or pictograms? These vary wildly based on culture, time, location, and origin. This would be a very poor method of universally conveying information.

Even some of the brightest minds of the previous century had a difficult time coming up with a method of communicating information in a universal manner. Take, for example, the Voyager Golden Record. Intended for an alien culture, the record is designed to convey simple information about life and culture on Earth. But considering we have no way of knowing the preferred method of communication of its intended recipients, the fact that it contains images, words, and sounds, is almost laughable. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for space exploration, and if there is life out there, better we send something rather than nothing. But considering that we have no way of knowing if alien life forms have any means of processing visual or audio input, we can scarcely hope that they will be able to make heads or tails of our attempt to communicate.

Ok, back to Earth now. So what is the only common language that humanity shares? None, really. At least not any spoken, written, artistic, or cultural language. Humans, divided as we are by time, space, and culture, maintain no universality. With one important exception: we are all human. Humanity is the common language of humans. We might not “get” someone else’s spoken/written language or culture, but we understand what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, our only shared characteristic.

So what of God’s language then? Why, if God were out there somewhere, would He not have sent definitive and logically demonstrable proof that He is in fact God, thereby putting all speculation finally to rest? Why is God, at least as far as logic has shown, not discoverable? Perhaps we’re speaking the wrong language.

We must be humble enough to remember that logic (especially as it manifests itself in the scientific method) is not a universal language. It does not transcend culture and time. It has not been employed throughout history. It is not the preferable method for conveying information to all cultures. This is not in any way an attack on logic or the scientific method, both of which stand to do far more good than harm. It is simply a recognition of the fact that neither have been universally employed throughout human history.

Perhaps God chose not to reveal Himself through logic because it would not have been the most universally understood language through which He could have spoken. It is, possibly, arrogance on the part of the modernist Western mentality to believe that God is in any way obligated to be logically discoverable. Logic is wonderful and we are better off with it, but it’s simply not a language to which most of human history would be tuned. Perhaps God chose a more universal method. A method which reaches to all humanity without bias to education, location, time, gender, ability, etc. The method of humanity itself.

This, in part, is why I continue to believe that Christ is the incarnation of God; because above and beyond any other language God could have chosen to speak, He chose to speak the only language common to all humans.

Humanity.

I cannot conceive that such a perfectly orchestrated and beautifully consistent method of communication between the Divine and the human could have been concocted by the latter of the two. I believe it is too far-fetched.

And there’s the subjectivity; the reason that this blog post can’t be used to “prove” God’s existence. “I believe.” I cannot prove it, and I won’t attempt to. But neither can I reject it.

Christ the man is the language that God chose to speak. A beautifully human and perfectly intelligible way to speak. Finely tuned to be discernible to any human who has an ear to hear. The language of the Divine. The language of the human. God as a man.

And to think; I used to wonder why Scripture called Jesus, “The Word.”

-Tim-

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