3. Psalm 119-Confessions of a Struggling Soul-Part 3Related Media
6. We Don't Disregard Our Roles (1 Peter 3:1-12)Related Media
1 Peter: Suffering Precedes Glory (part six)
Peter wrote this letter to Christians who were mistreated by unbelievers simply because they were followers of Christ. Peter reminded them that love should define their relationships within the Christian community. But surrendering our wills should define our relationships with people outside of the Christian community. Suffering includes submitting our will to those who mistreat us. Peter summarizes our role this way: do good, suffer unjustly, and endure mistreatment. Not a popular message. Sometimes it may feel like God is the only one on our side. Is that enough for you? "For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer."
God, Evolution, and Morality, Part IIRelated Media
Part II (Click Here for Part I)
In 1982, I lived in Thailand for seven months supervising a feeding program in a Cambodian refugee camp named Sakaeo. My charge: 18,250 Khmer refugees who had escaped the holocaust perpetrated on Kampuchea by the Khmer Rouge after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.
The first-person accounts told to me of the slaughter that took place were mind-numbing. Even children relayed stories of unthinkable brutality. By 1979, nearly two million Cambodians had perished, almost half of the population. It was the greatest act of genocide ever inflicted by a people on its own population.
It’s virtually impossible for any thoughtful human being to countenance such barbarism—such innocent suffering, such inhumanity to man—without recoiling from the wickedness, the depravity, the unmitigated evil that took place there.
Surprisingly, though, atrocities like the Cambodian carnage provide an unusual opportunity for the theist and a striking liability for the atheist.
The Brighter Side of Evil
The problem of evil is a daunting one for Christians, to be sure, yet ironically it places us on very solid footing to make the case for theism. The very same problem, though, puts atheism on the ropes. To make this point during debates, I ask two questions of my audience after I describe, in gruesome detail, the events of the Khmer crisis.
First, what is their assessment of the behaviors I just recounted? It’s a rhetorical question. To a person, they judge the savagery profoundly evil. Second—and this is the important question—what are they describing when they call these acts evil? Do they mean to be describing the actions themselves—the cruelty, the torment, the injustice—or merely their own feelings or beliefs about the actions?
If the actions themselves are evil—if the wrongness is somehow in the behaviors regardless of what people think or feel (remember, the Khmer Rouge had no moral qualms about what they did)—then the evil is objective. If the wrongness is only in the mind of the subject—the person or group making the assessment—then the evil is merely subjective and relativistic. In that case, the atrocities were only wrong for those who object, but would be right for those who approve. The behaviors themselves would be morally neutral; Pol Pot would be off the hook.
Here’s the take-away: The problem of evil is only a problem if morality is objective, not subjective. Relativistic morality is not sufficient grounds for the complaint about human suffering. Only objective morality will do. As it turns out, though, objective morality supports theism and undermines atheism.
The theist must rise to the challenge of evil, to be sure. But for her, the problem turns out to be an ally. It fits her worldview like a glove. First, genuine wickedness depends on the existence of good in the same way shadows depend on the existence of light. One cannot have the first without the second. The theist accounts for that good by grounding it in the character of God. Second, the biblical view of reality doesn’t merely explain atrocities like the Cambodian massacre; it actually predicts them. It is precisely what you’d expect if the biblical take is true.
The very same problem of evil, though, undermines atheism. The atheist must also take his turn offering his own explanation for evil, but he faces a complication the theist does not encounter. How can anything be ultimately evil or good in a materialistic universe bereft of a transcendent standard that makes sense of the terms in the first place?
When an atheist bemoans real evil—not the relativistic “evil” that evolution fooled us into believing or the actions violating a social contract that serves our cultural purposes for the moment—he must explain how objective evil could exist in the first place to make room for his protest. He must account for the objective, transcendent moral standard that has to be in position before moral judgments of any kind can be made. His complaint would be unintelligible without it.
So, the atheist who challenges Christianity by asking how God can exist in a world with evil faces a bigger challenge than the theist. The atheist must account for the problem of evil and the problem of good. The difficulty is, there is nothing in his worldview that allows him to ground—to make sense of—vice or virtue in the objective sense. There is nothing in atheism proper that allows him to say anything meaningful about morality other than that our current moral convictions reflect either our evolutionary adaptations or the fashion of the moment—which is to say nothing meaningful about morality.
No, the atheist has not gotten rid of the problem of evil by rejecting God. He has compounded the problem.
At this point, there are only two ways out for the atheist who is determined to cling to his conviction. First, he can try to deny objective evil, dismissing it as illusion or useful fiction. This would be a difficult pill to swallow, though, since his certainty that evil was real (and not a fabrication) launched his protest to begin with. Simply put, the atheist knows too much to go down this road with ease.
Second, he can cast about for an alternate explanation for our universal experience of morality. The current main contender is Darwinian evolution.
In the last issue of Solid Ground,1 I showed why that route is a dead end. I argued that since the moral argument for God is based on the existence of objective morality, only a successful naturalistic accounting of the same—objective morality—would be sufficient to undermine it. However, evolution is not capable—even in principle—of delivering to us anything but relativistic morality.
If Darwinism is only capable of explaining our feelings of morality—if the definition of good and bad is simply subjective and “up to us” in some sense (biologically or culturally)—then objective evil is reduced to a fiction after all and the complaint against God based on the existence of evil vanishes into the relativistic mist with it.
If, on the other hand, our indignation against evil is well-founded, then one’s objection against God is at least intelligible. Atheism then becomes the casualty, however. One cannot have it both ways.
Good without God?
Some atheists are not convinced, however. It’s clear to them they can be good without any belief in God at all. Just ask them. “I’m as good as any other religious person, pretty much,” Michael Shermer has pointed out, “and I don’t believe in God.” The defense rests.
In the same vein, New Atheist Christopher Hitchens consistently fired off this famous salvo during debates: “Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever.”2
Of course, this is not really the issue, is it? Careful theists do not claim that belief in God is necessary to do good, but that God is necessary for any act to be good in the first place, that without Him morality has no ultimate objective foundation at all. The question is not whether believers and non-believers can perform the same behaviors—of course they can—but whether any behavior can be objectively good in a materialistic world bereft of God.
For a simple rejoinder to Hitchens’s challenge, point out that an atheist can mimic many things Christians count as good—he can feed the poor, love his neighbor, even sacrifice his life for others—but he can never do the summum bonum, the highest good. He can never love God with his whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. He cannot worship the One from whom all goodness comes, and who therefore is worthy of our deepest devotion and unerring fidelity.
Of course, atheists would likely dismiss the point with a sniff and a sneer, but they mustn’t miss the deeper implication. At bare minimum, the response demonstrates that regardless of who is right on the God question, the entire moral project is altered significantly when He is added to the equation. Simply put, the atheist and the theist do not share the same morality.
The difficulty goes deeper, though, and Hitchens and those like him have missed the larger concern entirely. It’s what philosophers call “the grounding problem.”
Goodness and Grounding
Long before scientists hammered out the details of gravity, ordinary folk could still predict how objects moved under its influence. They knew that something caused (for example) fruit to fall, and they could calculate how it worked, to some degree. But they didn’t know why things behaved that way in the world.
The “why it works” issue is called the “grounding” question. What is it that accounts for things being the particular—and sometimes peculiar—ways they are? It applies in science. It also applies in morality.
Moral facts are odd kinds of facts. They are not merely descriptions—how things happen to be. They entail prescriptions, imperatives—how things ought to be. They have incumbency, a certain obligation to them. What explains these unusual features? What is their foundation? What “ground” do they rest upon? What—or who—actually obliges us and why should we obey?
It’s true that any sane, reasonable person can know the difference between right and wrong. But why there is a right and wrong to begin with is a different kind of question. Why do objective moral obligations exist? Why do they seem to apply uniquely to humans? And why do we go astray so often and so consistently? 3
If one’s worldview is going to be comprehensive, it’s got to account for the things that really matter in the world. Objective morality is one of them. Atheists may know the right thing to do—and even do it consistently. That alone, though, does not bring them any closer to answering the grounding question.
An illustration might be helpful at this point.
Readers and Writers
Imagine I handed you a copy of Vanity Fair (a periodical Hitchens frequently published in) and asked you to read it. Could you? Sure. So could I. Reading requires only that we possess a certain set of skills mastered well enough to allow us to comprehend the meanings of the words on the page.
Notice that, strictly speaking, for this simple act of reading no additional beliefs about authors or publications or editors or typesetters or newsstands or delivery boys are necessary. You don’t need to believe in writers, etc., in order to be able to read, but you would never have a text to read unless there were writers in the first place. That’s because the existence of authors is logically prior to the skill of reading.
What’s required for someone to read, then, is very different from what is required for things like magazine articles to exist in the first place. Being able to read and having something to read are two completely different things. If you didn’t believe in authors, you could still read books. If, however, your belief were true and authors did not exist, then books would not exist, either. Books, then, turn out to be evidence for authors.
That’s why readers who deny authors sound silly. Sure, they can say they don’t need to believe in authors to be good readers, and they’d be right. They can challenge you to show them one article you can read as a believer (in writers) that they can’t read as unbelievers, and you’d be hard-pressed. Yet neither retort will rescue them from their foolishness. Articles are, by nature, the kinds of things that require authors.
Objective morality is the same way. The issue is not whether we can follow an objective moral code or not, or even know what its obligations are, but rather what accounts for something like a transcendent moral code to begin with. Denying God because you think you could be a fine chap without Him is like denying authors because you fancy yourself a first-rate reader and lover of literature, nonetheless. Morality is evidence for God in the same way that books and articles are evidence for authors.
One more detail: Morality entails obligation, and obligations—like contracts—are held between persons. If there is no one to whom we are obliged, then there is no obligation. Only a person can make a demand or issue a command, and only the right kind of person—one with proper standing and appropriate authority—can do so with legitimacy. The presence of a water-stained rock outcropping by the side of the road with the image “Keep Right” weathered into its face signals no obligation for motorists, nor does a ten year old waving a “Buy Lemonade” sign.
The only adequate grounds for transcendent moral law, then, is a transcendent person who has proper authority over the universe He commands.
Consequently, when atheists claim, for example, “We can be moral without God’s threats,” they’re simply missing the point. When they ask me, “If there were no God, would you still be good?,” it’s like asking if I’d still be faithful to my wife if I weren’t married. Clearly, the question is meaningless.4
Science as Morality
In The Moral Landscape,5 New Atheist and best-selling author, Sam Harris, 6 promises a way out of this predicament. Harris thinks the choice between Darwin and the Divine is a false dichotomy. There’s a third option.
Harris is not a relativist. He understands that moral obligations are real and require objective criteria. Yet the grounding need not come from God. Science can do the job:
Questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood….Morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.7
The tools to accomplish this, Harris says, are found in neuroscience and psychology.
The argument…rests upon a very simple premise: human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it. A more detailed understanding of these truths will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical.8
Harris’s approach is straightforward. First, human morality is (obviously, to Harris) about human flourishing. Second, the means to accomplish that end are scientifically quantifiable (science can measure things that relieve suffering, increase satisfaction, etc.). Science, then, can provide objective standards for human morality.
Harris’s approach has advantages. For one, he aims to escape the relativism trap his colleagues have fallen into by appealing to empirical criteria. Second, he acknowledges the role of human flourishing in the ethical equation. I lack space for a thorough critique here (others have already given that9), but I do want to briefly point out two serious drawbacks with Harris’s project.
Harris stumbles first when he identifies the flourishing of conscious creatures, especially humans, with the good. Two problems here.
One, Harris has either simply equated the two by definition, creating an unhelpful tautology, or human well-being is already good in itself (it isn’t identical with the good, but it is an example of something that’s intrinsically good).
If the first, Harris has made no progress. Tautologies are mere repetitions telling us how words are used, not how the world is.10 They are conventions and therefore arbitrary. Why define human flourishing as “good” rather than, say, fern flourishing?
If the second, Harris is still dead in the water. If human flourishing is intrinsically good to begin with, then he has simply assumed at the outset what his project is meant to explain—objective morality. He has not grounded the good, but has smuggled it into the front end of his enterprise. One can always ask, “What, then, makes human flourishing good in the first place?”11
Here’s the second problem. The concept of flourishing is ambiguous. What, or who, defines human well-being? It’s easy to imagine a culture “flourishing” (according to some definition) in the midst of all sorts of things others consider evil.
Some want to live fast, die young, and leave good-looking corpses. Others seek a life of service rather than self-pleasuring. Some champion human rights, others ethnic cleansing. By what standard does Harris arbitrate between these options without presuming at the front end that humans were designed for particular moral ends to begin with—assuming, once again, the morality he’s obliged to explain?
Bait and Switch
Second, Harris’s approach is not ethical, strictly speaking, but consequentialist. It merely provides, through science, the most effective way to get the desired results (consequences). Whether those results are morally good or not is an entirely different matter.
This problem is easy to miss, since there are two entirely different ways for a thing to be “good,” and Harris bounces back and forth between them without warning.12 Behaviors that are morally virtuous are called “good.” However, the word “good” can also signal an effective way to accomplish a goal, irrespective of its moral content.
To make this distinction strikingly obvious, consider this: The Nazis stumbled upon the scientifically “good” way—the best, most efficient way—to kill Jews: zyklon B. Any liquidation of innocent people, though, is morally wrong, and the “better” you get at doing it, the more evil the act becomes.13
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this problem for Harris. Morality is not just an end, but a certain kind of end. Science is clearly capable of determining the most effective means to accomplish certain goals. However, just because science can provide objective criteria does not mean science can give grounds for objective morality. That must be established separately, and this Harris has not done.
In The Moral Landscape, Harris’s “objective standards” are nothing more than pragmatic criteria for accomplishing Harris’s vision of the good. His use of words like “good” or “right” simply identify the most effective means to an end, nothing more. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. Nothing Harris has said changes that. His “moral objectivism” is just utilitarianism, in this case, a sophisticated form of relativism.
Clearly, the kind of robust morality necessary to both parry the moral argument and to ground the atheist’s complaint about evil is impossible on a materialist take on reality.
What moral provision is there in atheism itself—not in the individual views held by atheists, but central to atheism—that precludes genocide or that endorses, for its own sake, specific acts of genuine virtue? What are the moral dictates generated by atheism per se that guide us here? Where are the great acts of humanitarianism or self-sacrifice done in the name of materialism? What authentic virtues follow from a physicalistic view of the world?
No, atheism does not—and cannot—provide these things. It does not have the resources. Theism alone gives the only reasonable foundation for morality.
This was Part II of a II part series on God, Evolution, and Morality. For Part I, Click Here.
1“God, Evolution, and Morality: Part I,” Solid Ground (May 2014), available at str.org. [http://www.str.org/publications/god-evolution-and-morality-part-1#.U2vxKlx5qp0]
2 For a lucid response to Hitchens’s challenge, see Amy Hall, “Hitchens’s Challenge Solved,” at str.org. [http://www.str.org/blog/hitchens-s-challenge-solved#.U2vm21x5qp0]
3 Note the distinction here between the epistemic issue—how we know moral truth —and the ontological issue—how we account for morality’s existence.
4 Frankly, if God did not exist, my actions would be different in lots of things. What those differences would not be, though, is immoral.
5 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape—How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).
6 See Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2004), and Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006).
7 Harris, The Moral Landscape, 1, 7.
8 Ibid., 2-3.
9 See, for example, William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape,” reasonablefaith.org [http://www.reasonablefaith.org/navigating-sam-harris-the-moral-landscape#sdfootnote1anc] or Tom Gilson’s “Unreason at the Head of Project Reason,” in Gilson and Weitnauer, True Reason (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013). [http://www.amazon.com/True-Reason-Christian-Responses-Challenge-ebook/dp/B007J71S62]
10 “Bachelors are unmarried males” is an example. The statement tells you about definitions, but nothing about the world. If neither bachelors nor males existed, the statement would still be true, but trivially so.
11 For those concerned that this challenge puts the theist at risk also, see my treatment of Euthyphro’s Dilemma in “Who Says God Is Good?” at str.org. [https://www.str.org/Media/Default/Publications/DigitalSG_0312_New-1.pdf]
12 Resulting, in Harris’s case, in the fallacy of equivocation.
13 That Harris does not consider genocide to be consistent with human flourishing is beside my point. I’m simply showing here that the word “good” can be used in two entirely different ways—a detail critical to my critique of Harris.
7. We Don't Suffer without Purpose (1 Peter 3:13-22)Related Media
1 Peter: Suffering Precedes Glory (part seven)
Our suffering is not meaningless. There is purpose to our suffering. We prefer to know specifically why, but sometimes it is nice at least to know that there is a "why." Obviously, if we suffer due to our own sin we're only getting the consequences we've earned. But good deeds can lead to mistreatment by those who are threatened by Christ and His followers. And when we suffer unjustly, doors for the Gospel open up. Our hope despite pain gets the world's attention. And most importantly, God is pleased when Christians suffer well for Jesus. Like Jesus who was exalted after suffering unjustly, so His followers will be rewarded for being mistreated in His name.
Lesson 61: Overcoming Faith (John 11:17-27)Related Media
June 29, 2014
How do you deal with grief? If you haven’t had to deal with it yet, you will, because, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die.” So how will you deal with it? How should you deal with it?
In her famous 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five common stages of grief. While not everyone goes through all five stages in order or in equal intensity, often grieving people encounter one or more of the stages when they face a significant loss: (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; and, (5) acceptance. Although these stages have been challenged and misapplied, most of us can identify with some of them if we have lost a loved one. But what’s missing, as we should expect from a secular source, is an eternal, God-centered perspective: How should believers in Christ deal with grief?
Some Christians think that since we’re to be filled with joy and praise, we shouldn’t grieve much, if at all. On my 36th birthday, I conducted a funeral for a 39-year-old man who had died of cancer, leaving a wife and two children. Two and a half years later, I conducted the wife’s funeral after she also died of cancer. But at his funeral, I was consoling the weeping wife when their former pastor from another community where they had lived came bouncing up with a big smile on his face and exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!” He was implying that this grieving widow should stop crying and start praising God! I wanted to punch him! But many Christians think that if you have really strong faith, you won’t grieve much, if at all. Put on your happy face and praise God!
On the other extreme, some believers grieve just as unbelievers do, who have no hope. They just can’t come to terms with their loss. Paul wrote to some relatively new believers (1 Thess. 4:13), “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” He went on to tell them about the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead in Christ when He comes. His point was that while believers do grieve, their hope in Christ’s coming and the promise of the resurrection should make our grief different than the world’s grief.
Our text relates the interview between Jesus and Martha after her brother Lazarus died. In her characteristic, take-charge manner (see Luke 10:38-42), when Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went out to meet him, while her sister Mary stayed in the house. The sisters and their deceased brother must have been a prominent family, since many of the Jews had come to console them over their loss. As Martha and Jesus talk, Jesus makes a tremendous statement about being the resurrection and the life. Then He pointedly asks Martha (11:26), “Do you believe this?”
James Boice points out (The Gospel of John [Zondervan], 1-vol. ed., p. 736) that Jesus did not ask her, “Do you feel better now, Martha? Have you found these thoughts comforting? Do you feel your old optimism returning?” Then Boice observes, “According to Jesus it was not how she felt that was important, but what she believed.” Jesus wanted this grieving woman to come to a higher level of faith in who He is. He knew that faith in Him is a major component for us in dealing with our grief and with other major trials.
I’m calling this “overcoming faith,” because it enables us to overcome grief and loss. After the apostle Paul mentioned tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword (Rom. 8:35), he added (8:37), “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” Implicit in that overwhelming victory is overcoming faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
God wants us to face life’s overwhelming trials with overcoming faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are seven qualities of overcoming faith here that will help us work through life’s overwhelming trials and losses so that we grieve, but not as unbelievers who have no hope:
1. Overcoming faith takes overwhelming trials to the Lord.
The setting for this miracle (11:17-20) presents us with an overwhelming situation: Lazarus was dead and had been in the tomb four days. His body was beginning to decompose, as Martha pointed out to the Lord when He ordered that the stone be removed (11:39). There were no human solutions for this situation. The sisters had been on track when they had sent word to the Lord that Lazarus was sick. But when He delayed coming for two days, Lazarus had died. So now things were beyond all human hope.
We all know that God is the author and giver of life and that He alone has the power to raise the dead physically. But we also know that both in the Bible and in human history, resurrections from the dead are rare. There are a few in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:17-37; 13:21). The Gospels record that Jesus raised three people from the dead: The widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17); Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-56); and Lazarus. Notably, He did not raise John the Baptist when he was martyred at a fairly young age. The Lord didn’t raise James, the brother of John, when Herod executed him. Peter raised Dorcas and Paul raised Eutychus (Acts 9:35-41; 20:9-12). So we can’t know why God raised a few and not others, even though He has the power to raise anyone He pleases.
But the rare examples that we have are pictures of what God does spiritually every time He saves a sinner. Paul says that all of us by nature were dead in our trespasses and sins, but that God graciously made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:1-5). The salvation of a sinner is no less a miracle than the raising of a dead body. It requires the same power that God used when He raised Christ from the dead (Eph. 1:19-20). And if God can do that, then He can come to our aid and work according to His sovereign purpose when we are in overwhelming situations. So, we should follow the example of these friends of Jesus by taking our need to Him.
2. Overcoming faith trusts that God is in control of all our circumstances.
Martha and Mary both said the same thing to Jesus (11:21, 32), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Commentators differ over whether the sisters were complaining or expressing strong faith by their comments. They obviously had faith in Jesus’ ability to heal their brother, if only He had been there.
But mixed with that faith is some unbelief. Surely Martha and Mary had heard how Jesus had healed the royal official’s son from a distance (4:46-54). Jesus didn’t have to be physically present to heal Lazarus before he died. So the sisters’ comments reflect a failure to recognize that God was in control of where Jesus was when Lazarus got sick and how quickly or slowly Jesus responded when He got the news.
But most of us have thought just as Martha and Mary thought in this trial: If only things had been different! We replay in our minds: “If only I had not done what I did, the accident would not have happened!” “If only the timing had been different, the tragedy would not have happened!” But it’s really a contradiction to say, “Lord, if only things had been different.” If He’s the Lord, then He is in control of all our circumstances. Surely, He wasn’t asleep or distracted when our tragedy happened!
The Bible repeatedly affirms that God is in control of all things, including tragedies (Job 42:2; Ps. 103:19; 115:3; Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:11). Psalm 135:6 declares, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” It goes on to talk about mist and lightning and wind all over the earth and then moves on to the plagues of Egypt and the conquering of the Canaanites. In other words, from relatively minor processes of nature to major, nation-changing events, God is in control.
I trust that most of you believe that, but there are some who claim to be evangelicals, but they deny that God is sovereign over evil or tragedies that happen. Their view is called “open theism.” (At least one Flagstaff church holds this view.) John Sanders, an open theist, has written (The God who Risks: A Theology of Providence [IVP], p. 262; cited by John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway Books], p. 24):
God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil…. When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences.
In my estimation, that view not only denies what the Bible repeatedly affirms, namely, the absolute sovereignty of God. Also, it robs believers of the comfort of knowing that God is in control of all our circumstances, even when we can’t make sense out of them. As we’ve seen, Jesus was in control of Lazarus’ death. He deliberately remained two days longer where He was, resulting in Lazarus’ death, so that this miracle would display God’s and His own glory and so that His followers would grow in their faith (11:4, 15). So even though we often don’t understand the reason for our trials, we can know that the Lord wants us to trust Him and to gain a bigger view of His glory.
3. Overcoming faith does not limit God.
Martha’s opening comments to Jesus are a bit mixed up, although true to life when someone is grieving (11:21-22), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” In verse 21, she limits the Lord’s ability to heal by His physical presence and with regard to time (He could have done something, if only He had been there four days sooner); but in the next verse she affirms His ability to ask God for anything and receive it.
At first glance, verse 22 seems to indicate that Martha believed that even now Jesus could ask and God would raise Lazarus from the tomb. But 11:23-24 & 39 indicate that she was not thinking of that. Those verses may reflect the fluctuating emotions of a woman bouncing between grief and hope (William Hendriksen, John [Baker Academic], p. 148). Or verse 22 is probably a more general affirmation that in spite of her brother’s death, Martha has not lost her faith in Jesus and His intimacy with the Father (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 412).
It’s often hard to know how to pray in a trial because we don’t know God’s sovereign will. It may be His will to heal miraculously or it may be His will to be glorified as we trust Him during and after our loss. But we can and should pray (in line with Eph. 3:20), “Lord, I know that You are able to do far more abundantly beyond all that I can ask or think. If it’s Your will, I ask for healing [or, whatever the need]. But in any case, I ask that You will be glorified in this difficult situation.”
So, overcoming faith takes overwhelming situations to the Lord, realizing that He is in control. Also, it does not limit God.
4. Overcoming faith trusts in the promises of God regarding eternity.
After the Lord tells Martha that her brother will rise again (11:23), she replies (11:24), “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Although she missed the drift of Jesus’ promise to raise Lazarus that very day, Martha did express her faith in God’s promises regarding eternity. There are several Old Testament promises regarding the future resurrection of the dead (Ps. 16:9-11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24, 26; Job 19:25-27; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). And the New Testament even more clearly affirms that the dead will be raised (1 Cor. 15). Jesus taught (John 5:28-29), “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”
The Bible is clear that all wrongs will not be made right in this life, but they will be made right in eternity. Herod could execute the godly John the Baptist and go on living in luxury for a few years. But Herod died and faced judgment, whereas John went to be with the Lord. Years ago, I read about a godly family that was heavily involved in the cause of world missions. One evening, their adult daughter went to a Southern California mall to buy a gift for a friend’s upcoming wedding. She was abducted by two thugs who raped and murdered her. The only way to get through that kind of tragedy is to trust in God’s promises regarding eternity.
5. Overcoming faith personally applies God’s truth in the present.
As we’ve seen, Martha should be commended for believing God’s promises regarding eternity. But Jesus meant for her to apply that promise to the present situation. He wanted her to believe that He could and would raise Lazarus that very day.
General faith for the future is easier than specific faith for the present trial. It’s easier to believe that someday God will work all our trials together for good than it is to believe that He is presently working this trial for good. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 30:494-495) tells about a poor older French couple who had framed on their wall a note worth 1,000 francs. A traveler saw it and asked about it. They said that they had taken in a dying French soldier and he had given them that little picture when he was dying as a memorial of him. But they didn’t realize that it was worth a small fortune if they would take it to the bank. Spurgeon applies it by exclaiming, “Oh that we had grace to turn God’s bullion of gospel into current coin, and use them as our present spending money.”
6. Overcoming faith centers in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said (11:4) that this miracle would result in “the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” Jesus revealed His glory both by showing His power in calling Lazarus from the tomb and also by His words to Martha (11:25-26): “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” This is the fifth of Jesus’ “I am” statements in John. It is clearly a claim to deity; no one other than God in human flesh could say what Jesus says here. He does not merely say that He can impart resurrection and life, which would be amazing enough. He says that He is the resurrection and the life. Those qualities are part and parcel of His being.
In claiming “I am the resurrection,” Jesus was referring to what He said in 5:28-29, that one day He will speak and all the dead from all times will arise, some to eternal life and others to judgment. Jesus further explains this when He adds (11:25), “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” “Live” has the sense of, “come to life” and refers to “the final resurrection of believers at the last day” (Carson, p. 413).
Jesus’ words, “I am … the life” are further explained by the clause, “everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” Jesus does not mean that believers will never die physically, since He just referred to believers dying. Rather, He means that those who believe in Him will never die spiritually. They receive eternal life from Jesus. In 5:21, Jesus said, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” This eternal life begins the instant we believe in Jesus and is not interrupted by physical death. Rather, death ushers us into the presence of the Lord, where we will await the resurrection of our bodies when Christ returns.
Martha already had believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (as she goes on to affirm in 11:27). But Jesus challenges her in her time of grief to believe specifically in Him as the resurrection and life (11:26): “Do you believe this?” In other words, “Do you believe these specific truths about Me?” Faith that overcomes life’s trials must have specific doctrinal content about the person and work of Jesus Christ. It’s not enough to have a vague, general faith in Christ. You need to know Him as He is revealed in all of God’s Word. That kind of faith will sustain you in a time of trial.
Overcoming faith takes overwhelming trials to the Lord. It realizes that God is in control of all your circumstances, including the present trial. It does not limit God. It trusts in His promises regarding eternity, but also it applies those promises to the present trial. It centers in the person of Jesus Christ. Finally,
7. Overcoming faith believes what it knows and grows from there.
Martha affirms her faith in Christ (11:27): “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” This is a tremendous confession of faith, on a par with Peter’s great confession (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Martha realized that Jesus was the promised Messiah. “He who comes into the world” clarifies or re-emphasizes His messianic role.
We can’t know for sure how much theological truth Martha, Peter, John the Baptist (John 1:34), and Nathaniel (1:49) knew when they confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. At the very least, they were connecting it to God’s promise to David, that God would be a Father to his sons and that they would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7). But as John’s Gospel shows, “Son of God” depicts “a unique relation of oneness and intimacy between Jesus and his Father” (Carson, p. 162) that is ontological, not merely messianic. Martha was believing what John wants his readers to believe, that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” so that we might have life in His name (20:31).
But while Martha’s confession was solid and deep, she probably didn’t yet understand fully that Jesus was eternal God in human flesh. Her reply does not seem to relate directly to what Jesus affirms in 11:25-26. In her grief, she probably couldn’t immediately sort out what Jesus was claiming about being the resurrection and the life. But she affirmed what she did believe and from there she probably later did grow to understand what Jesus had told her. She knew what she believed, confirmed that, and grew from there.
In a time of overwhelming trials, come back to what you know for sure: Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, He is the eternal Word in human flesh who died for your sins, and He was raised from the dead. Camp on those truths and you can overcome your present difficulties.
Alan Redpath wrote (Victorious Christian Living [Revell], p. 166):
There is nothing – no circumstance, no trouble, no testing – that can ever touch me until, first of all it has gone past God and past Christ, right through to me. If it has come that far, it has come with a great purpose which I may not understand at the moment. But as I refuse to become panicky – as I lift up my eyes to Him – and as I accept it as coming from the throne of God for some great purpose of blessing to my heart, no sorrow will ever disturb me, no trial will ever disarm me, no circumstance will cause me to fret – for I shall rest in the joy of what my Lord is. That is the rest of victory.
That is overcoming faith! The Lord wants each of us to look through our grief and tears to Him as the resurrection and the life and answer His question: “Do you believe this?”
- How can we know if our grief is within biblical bounds versus grieving as those who have no hope? Does Redpath’s quote (“no sorrow will ever disturb me”) go too far?
- Why is it important to affirm God’s loving sovereignty over all our trials? What is lost if we deny this?
- Should we always pray for divine healing? How can we know if God’s purpose is for His power to be perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)?
- Some Christian counselors say that to tell a hurting person to trust God is “worthless medicine.” Is it? Cite biblical support.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
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Editor's Note: The last 8 minutes were caught off in the video version due to a technical difficulty during recording. To finish the message it is recommended that you switch over to the audio version at that point-- which is complete. We apologize for this inconvenience.