ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: October 2007

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Extreme Heat

Of all life's difficult experiences, none would compare to experiencing God and discovering that he is as bad as you had been told or had feared. Hardship and sorrow is for a season, but living with your Creator is forever. Even suicide is no escape to the "giver of life" if you believe that He created you immortal and does not respect your free will choice of mortality. In the Eagles' words, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!"

Imagine living through an experience that leads you to conclude that God:
  • is not faithful and forgiving (1 John 1:9),
  • does delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11),
  • does not keep His covenant of love to a thousand generations (Deut 7:9), and
  • is pleased by acts of child sacrifice
    (Jer 7:30,31; Jer 32:35; Lev 18:21; Lev 20:2-5).

Of all life's crucibles, such an experience defines extreme heat. Is it possible that God would place His chosen, covenant people in such circumstances so as to bring us face to face with our misconceptions of His character?

Now, consider the anguish of soul that Abraham experiences when he perceives that God is quite happy destroying the evil people of Sodom and Gomorrah, without regard to the righteous people living there -- the so-called "collateral damage" of warfare. Abraham politely and respectfully reminds God that He is the upholder of truth and justice, and surely He has a responsibility to do right (Gen 18:25). In this experience, Abraham is led by God through an experience where he confronts his misconception of God; that God might not be good and just. But a chapter later, Abraham has seen the depravity of Sodom directed at Lot's household, has seen the deliverance of his nephew's household, and is overlooking the smoking remains of Sodom and Gomorrah, settled in his understanding of God's goodness.

Again, consider the anguish of soul that Abraham experiences when both he and his son perceive that God is pleased by acts of child sacrifice. Now, Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham reasoned that his son would pass through this experience of death to life again, but that is not fundamentally different to the pagan belief that the child would "pass through the fire to Molech". Either God likes this sort of thing or he doesn't, and this crucible experience brings Abraham face to face with his incorrect conception of God as a being who likes this sort of sacrifice. By the end of the chapter an Angel has verbally stayed his hand and a voice from heaven has re-established God's covenant with Abraham.

Moses describes this experience as a test of Abraham's character, rather than a test of his understanding of God's character. However, an observation leads us to consider other explanations for this experience. That is, God knows the end from the beginning, so we know that God didn't put Abraham through this experience so that He, God, could learn something about Abraham. Perhaps it was so that Abraham could learn something about God?
© Alister L Hunt PhD

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Seeing the Goldsmith's Face

The Power of Our Pain
The idea that God needs our pain to make us pure is more than a bit sadistic. Christianity is here dangerously close to the bloodthirsty god Huitzilopochtli that demanded human sacrifices in exchange for victory and prosperity for the Aztec people.A bloodthirsty god-image stands behind all "this is for your own good" theology (the writings of Alice Miller and Eugen Drewermann have opened my eyes to this twisted theology). Such theology is similar to a kind of thinking that is actually characteristic of abused children.Abused children tend to internalize their abuse by blaming themselves and excusing the abuser. Sadly, a lot of theology has this same effect in a spiritual sense by teaching that pain is the punishment for our sins and the means by which God purifies us from evil. Such an idea is really no better than the twisted logic of the abused child that says, "Daddy beats me because I am bad."Although I am more than a bit suspicious of the idea that suffering makes us pure I also see some therapeutic value in it. In a positive sense suffering actually motivates the quest to understand life. If I can make some sense out of what I am going through then the pain becomes more bearable.Maybe the belief that suffering can purify us is a way that we attempt to regain power in a situation that terrifies us because it reveals our powerlessness. If I can't control the situation then at least I can maintain my psychological mastery by figuring out what is happening and possibly even why it is happening.On a theological level I see an even deeper link between pain and purity in the Exodus story of the liberation of Israel from imperial oppression in Egypt. Exodus 2.23-25 says that "The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them."In this text we see the power of voiced pain to get God's attention. It is not the shout of the victor but the cry of the victim that elicits a response from Yahweh. Scripture gives a loud voice to human misery because our pain attracts God's presence to our lives. I don't think that God needs suffering to make us pure but our pain is like a magnet to the divine power. Ironically, that which most exposes our weakness is the very thing that attracts God to us!
© Paul Fisher

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Birdcage

As we bumped across 3,000 miles of Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada over recent weeks, our family listened to the 'Your Story Hour' dramatization of the Advent Movement's beginnings. New Zealanders don't generally have much time for history, largely because we don't have much to speak of. Our idea of history is what we had for breakfast. It’s all about the future. But these audio CDs were fascinating. I had read much of the so-called 'Great Disappointment(s)' of 1843 and 1844 without internalizing what it really meant to have experienced the 'Great Disappointment'.

Imagine experiencing an intense sense of God's revelation of undiscovered Biblical truth, simultaneously with many others around the world. Clear. Simultaneous. Compelling. Imagine how much more devastating the 'Great Disappointment' was to the Advent believers in that it followed what unmistakably appeared to be God's leading.

I had not really taken the time to consider the depths of despair that the early Advent believers would have experienced. They had truly sacrificed everything. Twice. They dealt with unbelievable ridicule. Twice. Just hearing of the oppressive darkness and deep depression that the Advent believers experienced is hard to bear, so imagine what experiencing it would have been like. As the actors decide to not plant crops or to sell the farm, I want to shout back through time, "No, don't be rash. You'll regret it. I know how this story ends."

God knew how the story would end. He knew the early Advent stories before the foundation of the Earth. Assuming that God was leading men and women who loved Him to ignore His clear statements recorded in Matt 24 and Mark 13 that "... of that day and hour knoweth no man", why would God do that? Why would God provide so much evidence of His leading of a movement that resulted in seemingly insurmountable disappointment, adversity and suffering? Why would God choose to establish a movement based on clearly incorrect Biblical interpretation? Surely if He wished to see His champions of truth flourish in the market for ideas he would not have saddled them with such ridicule for apparently no reason. Why didn't he kick off the Advent movement through revelation of Biblical understandings that led to spectacularly fulfilled prophecy? Why didn't God reveal the future to His followers and thus lead them to widespread fame and influence, like Twain's Hank Morgan achieved in King Arthur's Court?

Why would God speak in Revelation 10 of a Divine revelation that would turn its recipient's stomach sour? Why would Daniel use words like "deeply troubled", "exhausted", "ill" and "appalled" to describe his experience after Divine revelation?

Could it be that God chose to establish the Advent movement, of which we are a part in some way or another, by leading people into experiences that he knew would include disappointment, adversity and suffering? If God led them through such intense darkness so that they would learn to sing, what is that song? And how was it perfected in disappointment and derision?

This gives us something to ponder as we consider examples where God led his people into circumstances in which they experienced disappointment, hopelessness and apparently insurmountable adversity. I look forward to insights borne of our shared experience of God's leading in our lives.
© Alister L Hunt PhD

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Crucibles That Come

This introduction to this study (pg 5) noted that: "Our lessons are not a theodicy, the justification of God in the face of evil."

Rather, their intended objective is "...to help us work through the inevitable suffering we all face here in a world where sin is as easy as breathing."

Yet, it is all but impossible to seriously study the role of pain, suffering and loss in the Christian life for many weeks without tripping over issues that challenge our concept of God's character.

One such challenge occurs in the study guide (pg 15).
"Many of us are surprised about suffering because we often have an oversimplified view of the Christian life. We know there are two sides—God, who is good; and Satan, who is bad. But often we then automatically put everything that feels good in the box with God and everything that feels bad in the box with Satan. But life is not so simple."

I like simple. I am a Christian at least partially because I recoil from the Eastern perceptions of a complex god, neither fully good, nor entirely bad. I can't pursue a relationship with God if I believe him to be just like me - neither fully good, nor entirely bad - but with the power of life and death.

We have a great study here, which makes it clear that some of the Christian life's 'other experiences' are at the very least allowed by God, or not removed by Him. Do you believe, as you read this email, that you have been given a thorn in the flesh? (2 Cor 12:7) What is your thorn in the flesh? Where did it come from, who caused it, and who "gave" it?

I will never forget visiting a doctoral colleague in the hospital, covered in burns that would take a lifetime of surgery, corsets, pain and disfigurement ... and muttering something ill-advised about "God sending us trials to refine us". This strong, resolute Christian man, who was willing to face death to save his child from the flames of their burning home, burst into uncontrollable sobs, and continued crying until I shuffled my way out of his hospital room. I wanted to cry with him, wracked with the pain of my own insensitivity; wracked with the pain of my inability to articulate God's role in suffering in a vaguely plausible, rational, comforting way.

My bedside sensitivity has improved somewhat over the years with greater glimpses of God's goodness and a greater understanding of my limited comprehension of what is truly transpiring in the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan. But I have a lot yet to learn, not only from this week's study and discussion, but from the lessons to come. Perhaps we can all learn together and from each other?
© Alister L Hunt PhD

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Shepherd's Crucible

Thanks for the invitation to comment on the first lesson of this quarter’s Sabbath School lessons. I always read your comments and follow the discussions of your group with great interest!

As I see it Psalm 23 is one of those Bible texts that suffers from overexposure! It has been quoted so frequently and memorized so routinely that it is difficult to even hear what it has to say because we are overly familiar with it. The old saying might apply here that “familiarity breeds contempt.” But let me take a stab at it from what I hope might be a fresh point of view.

The fact that Yahweh is referred to as a “shepherd” is very interesting. I see this as a counter-cultural statement of Israel’s faith. In the surrounding cultures deities were often depicted as kings and warriors (an example of the inferior status of shepherds in imperialistic cultures like Egypt can be found in Exodus 46.34). And even in the Hebrew Scripture we find the same imperial images applied to God.

To call the God of Israel a shepherd was a profound and subversive act of the religious imagination. It represented a new way of conceiving of Israel’s relationship to God. I think it would be similar to the effect on our spiritual lives of beginning to refer to God as “our mother in heaven.” It would create an entirely different sense of our relationship to God and would alter the way that we experienced God in our lives.

In a modern context the image of shepherd is probably not so helpful for us because we have no real living connection with shepherds. But I think it is an example of how the Scripture communicates to people within the context of their own culture. Israel was after all, in its origins, simply a humble nomadic people. Maybe in our context we might say that the Lord is our “Dog Whisperer” (for those that don’t watch as much TV as I do that is a reference to a popular dog trainer show).

I also find the progression within the text quite fascinating. We move from “green pastures” and “quiet waters” (vs. 2) to the “valley of the shadow of death” (vs. 3) to a “table” in the presence of enemies” (vs. 5) to the “house of the Lord” (vs. 6). The dark part of life is sandwiched between two highly desirable parts. This reminds me of the words of Jesus in Revelation 1.18, “I am the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” Death is surrounded by affirmations of life with the emphasis on unending life. Often in the crucible of life’s miseries it is only memory and hope that can sustain our spirits!

Psalm 23 ultimately leads us from a comfortable place through pain and fear to the presence of God. Honestly, I wish it could be different and that the text would lead directly from the “green valleys” and “quiet waters” to the “house of the Lord.” But as Freud taught wishing does not make it so.

Let me encourage you to share your “valley” experiences with each other. I know it can be difficult to be vulnerable and real with each other but it is well worth it. My own valley right now is financial insecurity. I’m in the mortgage industry that has taken a real hit recently and as an independent contractor the work is hard to find. I’ve seen much greener pastures and I really long for the house of the Lord where there will always be plenty for everyone!

May God’s grace and peace rest on each of you!
© Paul Fisher