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Sermon Preparation Process: Steven Cole

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Regarding sermon prep, I had Haddon Robinson at DTS, and his course is basically contained in his book, “Biblical Preaching.” I don’t follow his method to a “T,” but I do generally follow it, with many shortcuts that are necessary for ministry survival. I begin just with the old observation, interpretation, application process that we learned in Bible study methods. I try to jot down any issues that need to be resolved, to figure out why the Lord included this passage in this context, etc. I try to determine what the subject of the passage is, and what it is saying about the subject (Robinson explains this process). If I can, I take an initial stab at a main idea.

Then I start reading commentaries. I start with the more technical ones first, trying to figure out interpretive issues, textual problems, history and background, grammatical matters, etc. After reading a half dozen or so, I generally know what the various problems are and what the major views are. I save the more devotional writers for last (Morgan, Spurgeon, Maclaren, Boice, etc.). With them, I’m looking to see how they applied this text to their congregations. All through this process, I’m throwing thoughts onto the computer screen in pretty much random order.

Eventually, I try to nail down the main idea in succinct form. For example, I just finished this Sunday’s sermon on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-11), and I’m taking it in the direction of when unity is wrong. My main idea (I’m going here from memory) is something like, Unity is wrong when it compromises the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Then my major points develop that theme. So I come up with an outline. Then I go back and move all of my notes around to fit under each point or subpoint. Some of my observations are interesting, but don’t fit, so I leave them out unless I determine that they really need to be said. Once I get my outline with my observations arranged, I print out those notes (usually one to two pages). I use these printed notes to work out my manuscript.

I type the whole thing out, as you know from looking at our web page. I find the discipline of manuscripting it forces me to be concise and precise. I usually have far more than I have time for, so I go back and chop out stuff that may be interesting, but isn’t crucial to the point. I’m always aiming at application–how should this affect people’s lives? I usually try to come up with an introduction that grabs attention, creates a need so that people want to listen, and introduces the body of the sermon. I also have an extensive illustration file (3×5 cards, a la Robinson). I began it long before computer days, so it’s all on cards, not on a computer data base. If I were starting now, I might figure out a way to scan them onto a computer. I’m always reading looking for illustrations and quotes (Reader’s Digest, books I read, etc.). I cross reference them, too, so that I can track them down.

Anyway, once I’ve typed out the manuscript and edited it to the right length (3500 words for a 35-40 minute sermon), I take the printed copy (face up, half sheet size, so I don’t have to be flipping pages in the pulpit), highlight and underline key words and quotes, and go over it several times, especially Saturday night, so that I know it well enough not to be tied to my notes. I do take the manuscript into the pulpit, but I never read it, unless it’s to give a quote verbatim. I glance at it and see the highlighted words and remember where I wanted to go, but I try to maintain eye contact with the congregation as I speak. I haven’t mentioned it either, but the whole process is shot through with prayer, both in preparation and prayer for delivery and the results.

I don’t feel very gifted at the process, like Spurgeon was. He was incredible! I have to work hard at it and it usually doesn’t flow easily. But that keeps me dependent on the Lord.

Related Topics: Administrative and Organization, Bible Study Methods, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Pastors, Speaking, Teaching the Bible

The Best Show In Town?

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(Published in Pastoral Renewal, December, 1985)

Say, Mary, how about if we go over to First Church this Sunday morning? I see in the paper that they’re having that famous Christian speak.”

“Well, honey, I don’t know. I noticed that Second Church is having that recently converted rock star, and I think the kids would enjoy that. And we can catch the sacred concert and prophecy film over at Third Church in the evening.”

Let’s face it: we live in a spectator society. From football to the movie theater to the ubiquitous American altar known as television, we are programmed to sit passively while the performer croons, “Let me entertain you.”

Quite often the church unwittingly caters to this mentality. We assume that we are called to compete for spectators. So we attempt to put on a better show. We advertise in the papers, we put our current attraction on our marquees, and pray for a packed house.

After all, if our goal is to cram as many people into the building as possible, then we had better have the most entertaining show in town. (God help us on Super Bowl Sunday!) The church with the most people wins.

To plan, staff, and implement such successful programs requires a team of ingenious leaders. We rack our brains and comb through ministry magazines to garner the latest ideas. If we want to succeed (which, being translated, means have a large audience) we know we’ve got to keep those hits a comin’! The bottom line is growth. The staff had better perform. Annual reports are just around the corner!

I’d like to suggest a radical alternative to the approach which views the church as an entertaining program: The church is the household of God (1 Tim 3:15; 1 Peter 4:17). We are God’s family.

Everybody knows that. But I’ve been to enough churches and talked to enough of my pastor colleagues to know that very few churches operate primarily on that premise. But make no mistake about it: the two approaches have very different implications for church leaders.

Families gather for fundamentally different reasons than audiences do. Families don’t come together primarily to be entertained. They enjoy sharing life in an atmosphere where every person—young or old, successful or not-so-successful—belongs by virtue of birth or adoption or marriage into the family.

Family leaders don’t feel pressured by family members to come up with creative programs for every gathering. The members don’t threaten to join another family if the entertainment doesn’t meet their expectations. Indeed, the only expectation for families is to be together, to share life openly, and to love and be loved.

To be sure, family gatherings require some organization and leadership. Someone has to plan the menu, buy the food, prepare it, and clean up after the meal. But that is a far cry from producing a program. If all the members do their part, the planning and work can serve to deepen relationships in the context of life.

The Main Attraction

As the family of God, the church should gather primarily unto a Person, not a program. Christ is our main attraction. He has promised us his presence as we gather in his name. And we gather with persons, the other members of the family, to enjoy and edify one another.

Many Christians today assume that by attending the program at a local church they have fulfilled the command not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). But in the context, that command entails stimulating one another to love and good deeds and encouraging one another. An audience doesn’t have much chance of obeying that command; a family does.

So how, as pastoral leaders, do we turn the corner? First, the change must start with the leadership. If we encourage the entertainment approach to ministry, our people will fall in step. It’s the cultural mentality. So we must teach people that the church is primarily family, not attendance at a program. Since we’re talking about swimming against the cultural stream, it will be a constant struggle to re-educate.

As pastoral leaders we must provide structures where family-type gatherings of God’s people can occur. If our only official church gatherings consist of auditoriums filled with passive spectators watching the performers on stage, our talk about the church as family will fall on deaf ears. We need gatherings small enough for people to act like family. We need meetings structured for every-member-ministry and open sharing (as in 1 Cor. 14:26). How else can we stimulate and encourage one another?

Could we have lost something the early church enjoyed by our insistence that if we don’t gather at the church building, it isn’t officially “church”? The early church saw itself as God’s family, and they met primarily in homes. Most families do.

Gathering in homes isn’t binding on us today. But if the church is primarily family, not program, then it may be of more than antiquarian interest that the early church did gather in homes. In our church we provide such an opportunity on Sunday evenings. We have divided up the congregation into somewhat geographic groupings. We gather in homes to meet with the Lord and one another. There is freedom for singing, encouragement or exhortation from the scriptures, the sharing of personal experiences and concerns, and prayer. We climax the time around the Lord’s Table, followed by light refreshments.

Of course, not everyone will like meeting in homes. Many enjoy the comfortable anonymity and escape from responsibility afforded by attending the program in the auditorium. It can be threatening to open your life to other believers. It demands a lot of commitment to take the priesthood of believers seriously and make a personal contribution to a meeting. It’s much more fun to be entertained.

But we’ve never been commanded to put on the best show in town. We’re called “shepherds,” not “program directors.” We’ve never been told by God that success is a full auditorium.

Our task is to shepherd God’s flock, giving oversight to his household, the church. We must lead God’s people to experience the church primarily as family, gathered unto the living Christ. So what’s playing at your church this week?

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

Spending The Days Of Your Life

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Arizona Daily Sun, January 1, 1999

What if Uncle Sam issued a sum of money to each citizen at birth? You would know the average national allotment, but not how much you had been given. It could be average, above average, or below average. You don’t know. But what you’re issued is all you get. You can’t earn any more. When you run out, you’re out! And you don’t know when your allotment runs out until that moment! I’ll bet you would spend your money carefully!

But instead of dollars, think of days. If you live to be 70, you get about 25,550 (depending on leap years). You may get a few more, but you may get considerably less. You don’t know when your allotment will run out. But once you spend one, it’s gone and subtracted from your total. It can’t be retrieved. Viewing time like that makes each day a precious gift that needs to be spent wisely. You never know how many more you will be given.

Studies show that the average American spends over 11 percent of his time watching television! In 70 years, that’s almost eight years spent sitting in front of the tube! Even if you select only the best programs, I can’t imagine anyone at age 70 looking back on your life and saying fondly, “I’ve seen some great programs in those eight years! What precious memories!” Come on!

It was a New Year’s Day many years ago that made me swear off the tube. I got up and watched the Rose Parade, followed by the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and the Orange Bowl. By the time I went to bed, I had probably spent 12 hours in front of the tube! I felt sated, as if I had eaten junk food all day (maybe I did that, too!). I realized that I had completely wasted the first day of that new year. I can’t remember who played in any of those bowl games, let alone who won. I can’t recall a single exciting play. All I know is that I wasted a day of my life. But, maybe it wasn’t wasted, since it made me quit watching TV!

Over the years, I’ve never seen a single episode of Dallas (who cares who killed J. R.?), Cheers, Seinfeld, or NYPD Blue. Amazingly, I don’t even feel deprived! My kids grew up basically TV free. We do own a set—we just rarely watch it. But as the kids were growing up, we read out loud through most of the Bible. We read C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Heidi, and many other wonderful stories. My kids don’t feel like something vital was missing from their childhood because they missed the inane sitcoms.

The apostle Paul challenges us, “Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16-16). The Bible also affirms, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). None of us knows exactly when we will check out, but we can know for sure that we will stand before God and have to give an account of how we spent our lives. That’s why Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

I once read a fascinating account of a man who went into the Alaskan wilderness to photograph the beauty of the tundra. He made elaborate preparations. He had plenty of photo equipment, film, food, and emergency supplies. But he forgot one critical item: He didn’t make any arrangements for the bush pilot to come back and fly him out! He waited, but no one came to his rescue. In November, 1981, he died about 225 miles northeast of Fairbanks. He had made elaborate plans for his stay, but none for his departure. Pretty dumb, huh?

But, how about you? If your allotment of days runs out this year, are you prepared to meet the holy God? If not, I recommend that you shut off the tube and read the Bible. It tells you how to live in a manner pleasing to God. In the light of eternity, you really won’t care who won the Fiesta Bowl!

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Spiritual Life, Wisdom

The Amazing Iron Bedstead Discovery: A Tale About Evolution

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The other day my wife and I hiked up to Fremont Saddle, where we came across an old rusty iron bedstead. I said, “Isn’t that amazing? How many million years do you suppose it took for that iron to be worn down by the weather and glaciers until it looked like a bed?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Someone used to have a cabin up here.”

“How do you know that?” I asked. “You weren’t here to verify it. I think that it was formed by natural forces over millions of years.”

Just then I swatted a gnat on my arm. “Did you see what you just killed?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I swatted a gnat. What’s the big deal?”

“That tiny thing has a brain smaller than a computer chip, and yet it can fly, hunt for food, and reproduce. You surely don’t believe that such a complex little creature, far more sophisticated than any scientist could create, happened by sheer chance do you? Doesn’t the amazing design of a gnat, let alone all of creation with its intricate balance, argue for a designer?”

“Come on,” I protested. “Any scientist will tell you that gnats evolved by adapting from some lower species without any help from God. The idea of God isn’t scientific.”

“Really?” she countered. “I don’t see any reason that, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen. 1:1) isn’t scientific.”

I rolled my eyes. “Everyone knows that science involves observing what is, and you can’t observe God,” I confidently replied.

“So how did that gnat develop the ability to fly?” she retorted.

“It’s called natural selection and the survival of the fittest,” I explained. “Somehow during the millions of years in the past the genes mutated to develop wings and it was advantageous to the species for its survival, so the new adaptation prevailed.”

“Did someone observe this?” my wife asked with a touch of sarcasm. “Besides, it would seem that the ability to fly didn’t help that gnat to survive!” she jibed.

“No, of course no one observed it. It happened millions of years before humans evolved. But, the ability to fly is clearly a survival technique.”

“So why haven’t people evolved wings? Wouldn’t it help our survival to be able to fly?” she challenged.

I took up the offense: “I read an article about another insect, the periodical cicada, that only hatches every 17 years. A biologist at the University of Chicago believes that these bugs have developed a sophisticated strategy for survival. He says that 17 years is an unusual life span. If a predator had a life cycle of six years, it would not encounter the cicadas more than once in a century. Wouldn’t you have to admit that it’s amazing how species evolve such sophisticated strategies?”

“Wait a minute,” she countered. “Are you telling me that these bugs had a meeting where they sat around discussing what the best plan for survival was? One suggested two years, but another said, ‘No, that’s too common. Let’s go with some odd number like 17.’ So they voted on it and it passed. Even if they did figure it out, tell me, how would they go about implementing it?”

“Obviously it didn’t happen that way,” I said. “But animals just have a built-in survival mechanism and the ability to adapt for survival and the improvement of the species.”

“Now that’s a faith statement,” she charged. “Nobody has ever observed a species developing such ‘sophisticated’ strategies. No one can explain how a species could come up with such even if its survival depended on it. But so-called scientists claim that that’s what happened and we’re just supposed to swallow it. That takes far more faith than believing that something with such complex design comes from an omniscient Creator. In fact, evolutionists are just basing their whole system on circular reasoning.”

“How so?”

“They assume that science excludes a God who actually created the universe. Then they conclude, ‘Therefore, everything happened by random chance plus time, with no outside influence from a supreme being.’ They’re just concluding what they assumed in the first place. To be blunt,” she continued, “the only people who can believe in the fantastic idea of evolution are those who a priori reject the overwhelming evidence that this planet and all that is on it has incredible design behind it, implying an incredibly intelligent Designer.”

As we left that old piece of iron that looked like a bedstead, I just shook my head in disbelief. My poor wife just doesn’t understand science!

Related Topics: Apologetics, Cultural Issues, Evolution, Faith, Worldview

Tolerance: The Chief American Virtue

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Arizona Daily Sun, June 5, 1998

I once served on a jury for a drunk driving case in California. The defendant, a woman in her early twenties, was driving with a blood alcohol level measuring .20. At that time, the law stated that .10 and over was too drunk to drive. The judge gave us explicit instructions. We were to set aside our personal opinions about drinking. We were not to base our decision on whether we liked the young woman or not. We were to decide, “Did this woman violate the state law that prohibits driving when your blood alcohol level is .10 or higher?” Duh! It seemed like a cut and dry case. The woman was twice the legal limit!

I was shocked when we got in the jury room. One guy piped up, “I can drink that much and drive safely. I think she’s innocent.” Others nodded understandingly. As the discussion proceeded, I was horrified that no one was going by the standard of the law. Everyone was deciding what was right based on how they felt about drinking and about the young woman (most felt sorry for her). It took another juror and me almost three hours to convince everyone of what was obvious, that this woman was guilty of violating the law.

But even then we had one holdout. She said that she could never vote “guilty” because she believed in the principle, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Her maxim, “Judge not” (wrongly taken out of context from Matthew 7:1), is the current prevailing moral mood in our culture. Morality has become a matter of personal preference, much like your favorite flavor of ice cream. You may like strawberry, I prefer chocolate chip, but neither is right or wrong. It’s just our different preferences. You may like having promiscuous sex, I prefer monogamy, but, hey, to each his own! But for me to say that your sexual behavior is wrong—goodness, that’s being judgmental—Gasp! Our chief American virtue now is tolerance, defined as never passing moral judgment on anyone’s behavior.

This non-judgmentalism has gone to ridiculous extremes. A college philosophy professor recently said that ten to twenty percent of his students are reluctant to make moral judgments, even to say that the Holocaust was wrong! One student told him, “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?” (reported in Reader’s Digest, February, 1998, p. 75). If this kind of thinking continues, we won’t be able to convict mass murderers who were videotaped killing their victims, let alone drunk drivers!

Those who reduce morality to a matter of personal preference have not done away with moral absolutes. They have simply replaced the moral absolutes in the Bible (which used to govern our American moral and judicial systems) with their own. They have a hodgepodge of quirky moral standards that they use to judge those who do not conform. For them, judgmentalism is always a sin, tolerance always a virtue. It’s okay to kill unwanted babies or terminally ill patients, but it’s wrong to kill animals, even for food. It’s okay to have any form of sex you want with as many partners as you want, even if it promotes the spread of deadly disease, but it’s wrong to encourage school children toward abstinence until they commit to a monogamous marriage. The bottom line is, their politically correct views are absolutely right, but anyone who dares challenge those views as being wrong is intolerant and therefore absolutely wrong.

If morality is not a matter of personal preference, how then do we establish what is right and wrong? Let me leave you with one profound statement from the Bible that you must not shrug off: “[God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). If you can prove that Jesus is not risen from the dead, then you’re free to cast off His moral standards. But if He is risen, then He will someday judge you by His righteous standards if you do not turn from your sin and trust in Him. (See the Sermon on the Mount for an example of His righteous standards.) It behooves you to figure out before that day which it will be!

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Ethics, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Worldview

Why Are We So Unhappy When We Have So Much?

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(November 26, 1993, Arizona Daily Sun)

Almost weekly I deal with unhappy people. Some are unhappy in their marriages--their mates are “not fulfilling their needs.” Others are upset with their children, their parents, or their bosses. Many are unhappy with themselves because of failure or problems they can’t seem to overcome.

Why are we Americans so unhappy when we have so much? I don’t mean to belittle the difficult and genuine problems people face. Anyone involved in helping people knows that there are some real horror stories out there.

But as a nation, we enjoy more of the factors that ought to go toward making life happy than any other nation in history: longer average lifespans, good medical care, plenty of food, extra clothing, nice homes, cars, and all the gadgets of American life. So why so many unhappy people?

Jesus gave us a radical answer when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will find it” (Luke 9:23, 24). Jesus is saying that the one who seeks self-fulfillment will come up empty, but the one who practices self-denial for Jesus’ sake will find true happiness as a by-product.

This flies in the face of the modern “co-dependent, you-are-a-victim” approach that has flooded our society and, sadly, our churches. At the heart of this “self-help” movement is the theory that if you want to find happiness you’ll have to stop catering to the needs of others and start looking out for yourself and your rights. Judging from the volume of book sales, millions are buying into this dead-end pursuit for happiness.

So, how would a person follow Jesus’ radical prescription? At the heart of His words is an unpopular concept: Death to self! In Jesus’ day, taking up one’s cross didn’t mean enduring a little irritation. The man who took up his cross was about to be killed!

The first way we have to die to self is to come to the cross of Jesus Christ as the only way we can be reconciled to God. Our proud human nature likes to think that we can earn heaven by our own good deeds. But the Bible is clear that we must turn from our proud efforts to save ourselves and accept the fact that Christ died for sinners, not for good people. I must die to self by admitting my sin to God and trusting in the solution He provided, the death of His Son Jesus. When I abandon trust in my own goodness and cry out, “God, be merciful to me the sinner,” I am made right with God (see Luke 18:9-14).

Second, we need to understand that the Christian life not only begins with death to self, it continues the same way. Following Jesus means daily repudiating a self-centered life as we seek to love God and others (the two greatest commandments). I can’t help but think that we Americans would be much more happy if we stopped seeking self-fulfillment and started following Jesus’ radical prescription.

Someone once asked the famous psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, his advice for a person suffering from depression. Instead of saying, “Consult a psychiatrist,” he surprised his audience by answering, “Lock up your house, go across the railway tracks, find someone in need and do something to help that person.” That’s the wisest advice I’ve ever heard a psychiatrist give!

This Thanksgiving, first die to self by humbly, thankfully receiving the forgiveness and eternal life God offers you through the cross of Jesus. Then, begin to follow Jesus in a life of self-denying service for others. As you do this, you’ll delightfully find as a by-product the happiness you formerly sought through self-fulfillment.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Discipline, Spiritual Life

Winning The War Against Lust

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1996

I want to answer a very practical question for Christians living in this sex‑saturated society: How can we win the war against lust and the overt sexual sin which results from lust? We’re bombarded daily with sensuality. You can’t watch TV, read a news magazine or drive past billboards without being confronted with blatantly sexual pictures and messages. We all know that as Christians, we are to avoid sexual immorality. The tough question is, How? Being a man, I’m writing as a man to men, although what I say has much application to women as well.

For years I fought a losing battle against lust. It wouldn’t be profitable for me to go into detail describing my defeats. But so that you know that I’ve been there, I will say that ever since my early teens, I have been a connoisseur of fine women. Long before the movie, “10,” came out, I had a habit of automatically checking out a woman’s anatomy and scoring her various features. For a number of years, there were very few “Playmates of the Month” whom I had not scrutinized. I was a Christian, even a “committed” Christian and seminary student during some of that time, involved in serving the Lord. But I was defeated by lust.

I still lose an occasional skirmish. But by God’s grace, for many years now, I’ve been winning the war. I want to tell you how. Several things have helped me move from defeat to consistent victory.

Scared into holiness

I got scared straight. I knew I should be holy. Years ago I yielded my life to the Lord in accordance with Romans 12:1‑2. But that didn’t make much difference in my battle against lust. Finally I came to a point where the Lord backed me into the corner and asked pointedly, “Do you want to be a man of God or do you want to keep messing around with this sin?” Gulp! I had to make a choice to be holy.

Theoretically, that decision is easy. But in reality, it’s a fierce struggle, because, frankly, I enjoy looking at sexy women. Hormones start pumping when I feast my eyes on one of those gorgeous creatures. Besides, it’s a pastime I can indulge in secretly. It’s all in my head.

God used two things to show me where unchecked lust can lead, which scared me into dealing with my lust habit.

First, I was scared by the devastation wreaked in the life of a friend who was ruined by sexual sin. When I graduated from seminary, I checked out several ministry situations. One opportunity involved working as an associate with a man I’ll call Bob who is about eight years older than I. He had founded a thriving church in Southern California and needed help with the growing demands. I was attracted to working with him because he seemed to be a deeply spiritual man. He would often get away by himself for times of meditation and prayer. His family life seemed solid. He had been married for almost twenty years and had four children, the oldest in his teens. I thought I could learn a lot about ministry working with him.

I finally decided to accept another pastorate which allowed me to preach regularly. About a year later, I had not heard from Bob, in spite of a letter or two on my part. When I mentioned it to a mutual friend, he said, “Haven’t you heard? Bob left his wife and family and moved in with a woman from his church.” I was dumbfounded!

A few months later I was at a Francis Schaeffer conference. I rounded a corner in that crowd of over 2,000 and came face to face with Bob. His countenance reflected his agony. We went out for coffee and he recounted the whole mess to me. It had started when he and his wife went too far as teenagers. She got pregnant and they married under pressure. He had always harbored doubts in his mind as to whether she was God’s best for him. Satan used those thoughts as the crack to drive in his wedge—another woman who was “more attractive.”

About three years later I saw Bob at another conference in another part of the state. He was there to counsel with one of the speakers, a well‑known pastor. I’ll never forget the continuing look of devastation on his face. He looked haggard and much older. I hung the memory of his face in the gallery of my mind. I stop and gaze at it whenever I’m tempted to pursue the sin of lust.

A second thing the Lord used to scare me into getting serious about holiness was my responsibility as a father and pastor. Bill Gothard has a helpful diagram showing the “umbrella of protection” which God puts over people through proper channels of authority. He explains that if a father has “holes in his umbrella,” due to sin which hasn’t been dealt with, Satan can get through to those under the father’s charge.

One hot summer day years ago I was pushing our first daughter in her stroller at the shopping mall while my wife was in one of the stores. The women in the mall were dressed (or rather, un-dressed) in native Southern California summer attire. One particularly delectable number walked by, and I found my eyes, true to habit, checking her out. Then I glanced down at our sweet daughter, so innocent in her first year of life. As her father, I would defend her from any foe, human or animal. The Lord stabbed my heart with the thought, “Why are you allowing the worst foe, Satan, access to your daughter through this hole in your umbrella of protection?”

As I reflected on that incident, I broke out in a cold sweat as I realized that not only my family, but the people I pastored would be vulnerable to the enemy if I didn’t clean up my act. You may not be a pastor, but if you’re a Christian, both believers and those outside the faith would be damaged if you fell into sexual sin. The gospel of Christ would be slandered. Realizing how my toleration of lust opened myself and others to spiritual harm scared me. I had to stop messing around with lust!

Admit my sin and weakness

The next part of the battle strategy was to call my sin what it is: Sin! It’s not just a “problem.” It is disobedience to God. I had to put away all of the rationalizations which I had been using to excuse it: “I’m just a normal, red‑blooded American man. My thought‑life isn’t any worse than any other man’s. It’s not hurting anyone. Besides, I’m faithful to my wife.” No, I’m in disobedience to God when I entertain lustful thoughts.

Another rationalization I often used was to think that if I fed my lust a little bit, it would satisfy my appetite so that I wouldn’t need more. But that was like pouring gasoline on a fire. A little bit of lust for me is like one drink for an alcoholic. It just makes me crave more. I had to make a commitment to be a teetotaler.

I’ve had to learn that I never will become invulnerable against lust. I’ve discovered that when I indulge in a particular sin, it makes me more vulnerable to temptation in that sin for the rest of my life. For example, I’ve never taken drugs. You could set a grocery bag of cocaine on my desk, and I wouldn’t have any problem throwing it away. But I know some Christians for whom that would be an incredibly strong temptation, because they have yielded to that sin. Having yielded repeatedly to the sin of lust, I have to recognize that I will never become so strong that lust will just glance off me. Whenever I get to thinking that I’ve finally conquered lust once and for all, I’m in trouble. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

But being vulnerable to lust and yielding to it are not synonymous. I’ll never be free from the temptation, but I can be free from the sin. By constantly recognizing my weakness, I am driven to trust in the Lord, who is my strength. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Deal with my thought life

One of the convenient things about the sin of lust is that if you’re careful, nobody else knows that you do it. Just make sure you steal your wrongful glances when no one else is watching. Don’t look at the magazine rack in a store where people you know might happen by. With those precautions, you can enjoy your sin and nobody else suspects it.

But that’s like tolerating cracks in a dam. It’s all beneath the surface, where nobody sees it. But sooner or later, the dam will burst and cause a lot of damage. Whenever a man falls into immorality, you can know for sure that he has been tolerating the cracks of mental lust for some time before.

Someone has rightly said, “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Lust must be conquered at the thought level.

In the context of talking about mental lust, our Lord said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt. 5:29). Origen took this literally and castrated himself. That takes care of the sex drive, all right! But I’m not persuaded that that’s what Jesus meant! What He meant is, we need to get radical in dealing with sin! I’ve had to get radical by ruthlessly denying myself the luxury of lustful thoughts.

This means forsaking and confessing any lustful thoughts the moment they occur. Memorizing Scripture, such as 2 Corinthians 10:3‑5, which talks about “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,” has helped. That way I can direct my thoughts from the lust to the Lord. I’ve had to guard what I look at in magazines, even weekly news magazines. I try to avoid reading detailed accounts of sexual scandals—even Christian sexual scandals! It’s amazing how I can remember sensual pictures or stories years later, but I have trouble remembering a verse I memorized last week.

I sometimes tear pages out of Newsweek and throw them in the trash, because I can’t read the rest of the magazine without repeatedly looking at the lustful picture. I rarely watch TV or go to movies. I had to throw out a marriage manual because I couldn’t handle the explicit pictures. A few years ago when my office was at home, our teenaged neighbor girls, who were amply endowed by their Creator, were outside my study window in their bikinis washing their car. Between gazes out the window, I was struggling to put together a sermon. I finally got up and pulled the drapes, confessed my sin to the Lord, and was able to finish my sermon.

You may think that pulling drapes, tearing pages out of magazines, throwing away books, and avoiding TV and movies is a bit extreme. So is gouging out your eye. I have to deal radically with my thought life to win the war against lust.

Don’t just pray--obey!

Several years ago I heard about a pastor who had a terrible struggle against lust. He actually rewarded himself for finishing his sermon by going to a porno shop! Concerning his battle against lust, he made the statement, “I cannot tell you why a prayer that has been prayed for ten years is answered on the 1,000th request when God has met the first 999 with silence.”

Now wait a minute! If you think about it, this man is blaming God for his own sin: “I prayed for deliverance, but God didn’t answer. It’s His fault!” That offers no hope to the man struggling with lust: “Keep praying, friend. If you’re lucky, God will catch you before you go over the falls. But maybe not.” Some help that is!

But the Bible never says that the way to deal with lust is to pray about it. It commands me to flee (1 Cor. 6:18). It says that I should cleanse myself from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). It commands me to walk in the Spirit so that I won’t fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). Pray, yes! But don’t just pray: Obey!

God puts the active responsibility for obedience in sexual purity on me. Somehow we’ve gotten the mixed‑up idea that actively to deny lust in obedience to the Lord involves the flesh. So we pray for deliverance and go on disobeying as if we can’t help it until that magic moment happens. But Paul never says, “Let go and let God give you victory over lust.” He says, “Run!” He says that the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires (Titus 2:11‑12). I need to do it and can do it! Otherwise, God wouldn’t command me to do it.

Part of fleeing is guarding myself in advance. I used to play games with this. I would go into a store to look at the news magazines (so I told myself). After a few minutes of doing that, I would find myself thumbing through Playboy or Penthouse, which were always conveniently nearby. (“How could I help it, Lord?”) But now I avoid stores where I could be tempted to browse through sexually explicit magazines. The man in Proverbs 7 wouldn’t have wound up in bed with the loose woman if he hadn’t first gone near the corner where she lived (see Prov. 7:8).

Satisfy my wife

I’ve heard Christian speakers say that one way to guard against sexual sin is to be satisfied with your wife. It’s true that being sexually satisfied with her helps me not to be lured by lust for others. But I’m uncomfortable with the approach which puts the focus on my needs rather than on my responsibility.

My responsibility as a Christian husband is not to satisfy myself, but to satisfy my wife. I’ve found that my sexual satisfaction is the result of seeking to meet her needs on every level—spiritual, emotional, and physical. When I focus on that, she responds and my sexual needs are met.

A lot of men are sexually frustrated in their marriages because they approach sex to meet their own needs. Jesus’ words about seeking your life and losing it and losing your life to find it (Mark 8:35) apply to sex in marriage. If I approach my wife to satisfy my needs, neither of us feels fulfilled. But if I work at pleasing her, then I’m deeply satisfied. The best sexual times for me are when my wife is pleased.

I’ve had to tear down my sexual expectations which were built from Hollywood and Playboy and rebuild them from Scripture. The world promotes my needs above all else. It knows nothing of the self‑sacrifice which our Lord taught. Many Christians have unwittingly bought into this philosophy: “If my wife can’t meet my sexual needs, then I’ll have to meet them some other way. But my needs must be met.” But the Lord’s way is that I am to love my wife sacrificially as Christ loved the church. The blessed irony is that when I work at that, my needs are abundantly met. I can honestly say with gusto, “They have been!”

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “War is a terrible thing. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to get into it all the way.” That’s true in the war against lust. You won’t win by being halfway into it. But if you’ll get into the battle all the way—God’s way, using His strategy—you can win!

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Hamartiology (Sin), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Marriage, Men's Articles, Sanctification, Sexual Purity, Sexuality, Spiritual Life

Warning: Reading This Column Could Change Your Life!

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When I was 18, a friend asked me what I had been reading lately. I replied, “I don’t read anything that isn’t required to pass a course.” He looked me in the eye and shot back, “If you don’t read, you won’t grow spiritually!”

Wham! His words hit me right between the eyes. I asked him for a recommendation, got started and was hooked. In the 34 years since then, nothing has impacted my spiritual life more than the books I have read.

When the apostle Paul was languishing in prison, he wrote poignantly to Timothy, “When you come bring … the books, especially the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). The British preacher, Charles Spurgeon observed, “Even an apostle must read. He is inspired, yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for 30 years, yet he wants books! He has seen the Lord, yet he wants books! He has had a wider experience than most men, yet he wants books! … He has written the major part of the New Testament, yet he wants books!” I would add, “He is facing imminent execution, yet he wants books!”

Perhaps you would like to read more, but you wonder where to start. Start with the Bible, especially the New Testament. Read it regularly and repeatedly as the primary source for coming to know God and how He wants you to live. To read through the whole Bible in a year will take 20 to 30 minutes per day, depending on how fast you read. Reading the Bible should take precedence over all other reading.

Then, I recommend reading some of the great works from the past. C. S. Lewis told his readers that if they must read only the new or the old (remember, Lewis was “the new”!), he would advise them to read the old (God in the Dock, p. 201). Without a doubt, the greatest book that I have ever read, except the Bible, is John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Although it is over 1,600 pages, I have read it through twice, plus reading some sections numerous times. If reading the whole thing is too daunting, there is a modern English 125-page version titled Biblical Christianity to whet your appetite. Or, try The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life, which is a synopsis of a few chapters from the Institutes on self-denial. In the same vein of reading the classics, if you find it hard to wade through the Old English, there are a number of Puritan classics in modern English, condensed form.

The second area where I have found the most help is reading biographies of great Christians from the past. Don’t bother with the biographies of some modern Christian athlete or movie star. Read the lives of men like Calvin, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, George Muller, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Francis Schaeffer. Read missionary biographies of men like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, and Jim Elliot. I always come away with some helpful insights, some inspiring challenge, or a better understanding of myself through reading such books.

Here are a few more tips. First, improve your reading skills. Many people don’t read because they don’t read well. Get a book on how to read better and faster or take a course to improve your skills. It’s the old “sharpen your axe” principle.

Then, set some attainable goals. It’s better to read a few good books than to read many poor ones. I vary my reading between devotional, biographical, and theological. While I find some fiction enjoyable (I like the humor of P. G. Wodehouse and Tom Bodett), generally I haven’t found much spiritual help through fiction. Read with a purpose. If a book isn’t meeting the purpose, set it aside and start another. You don’t have time to waste reading a useless book. I mark my books and write comments in the margins or at the end so that I can come back to them later. I’m always asking others, “What are the best books you’ve ever read?”

One of my seminary professors said, “Two things will have the greatest impact on where you will be at spiritually ten years from now: The books you read and your friends. Choose them carefully!” Through reading, I have made friends with some of the greatest Christians of all time. It has changed my life. Summer is a good time to grab a good book and watch God change your life!

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Education, Christian Life, Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Library and Resources, Spiritual Life

Lesson 2: Understanding World Views

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If you’re sincerely seeking God, God will make His existence evident to you. ― William Lane Craig

Introduction

It used to be that most people in America believed there was a God and that the Bible was God’s word. They believed in heaven and hell, even the Apostles Creed or something to close it. Hurdles to the gospel were apathy, lack of personal response, or wrong views of how to get to heaven. Now all that has changed. Many people now don’t believe in God. They don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God. Now people don’t agree on issues of morality and sin and don’t accept the foundational tenets of Christianity. Now, if you try to present the gospel to someone, you’re more likely to have them say, “That’s just your opinion.” Or, “That may be true for you, but not for me.”2 When one is surprised that you believe in the resurrection of Easter or the virgin birth of Christmas it is likely because they are operating with a different world view than you are. The diversity of world views in America and elsewhere is something critical for Christians to understand if the church is to have some positive impact for Christ in our pluralistic world. How does Christianity fit into the larger contexts of other world views? Is there a God? How do we know? Why is there evil and suffering? These are some questions this lesson is going to try to survey.

Christianity/Theism in Worldview Contexts

To start with, it is helpful to try to understand how Christianity fits into a larger context of world views. These large categories of worldviews can be classified into the larger categories of Theism, Pantheism, Naturalism and Pluralism.

Theism is the belief that there is a personal God outside of time and space who created the universe out of nothing and is involved in events (supernaturally). He reveals himself to man through nature and through the Bible (Christians) or the Tanakh = Old Testament (Jews) or the Koran (Muslims). He sets the rules for mankind. And there will be eternal consequences for breaking the rules. Theism allows for the possibility of miracles since God can act in the world. If one denies that God created the universe or that he acts in human history with supernatural events, it is because they have a different world view.

Deism is a form of theism. God created everything, but is no longer involved in creation. Deism stresses God’s transcendence or distance from creation. To illustrate Deism, one can describe creation as a clock. God made the clock, wound it up and started it running according to its design, but in essence left it after that. 3

There are various forms of the world view termed Panthesim. At its core, Panthesim teaches that everything is god: humans, animals, and plants are god. The world is god and god is the world. God is neither personal nor conscious. God is not a “He” but an “It.”4 The universe is one. Everything material is an illusion. Knowledge is getting in touch with the cosmic consciousness. One of the favorite terms you’ll hear from pantheists is “enlightenment.” History is cyclical and men are reincarnated until they realize their own divinity. This world view is the basis for Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian Science, and New Age teaching.5

Naturalism (or Modernism) takes the basic position that there is no God (Atheism), or the position that God’s existence or nonexistence of God cannot be known or that God is unknowable (Agnostism). The emphasis of naturalism is that there is no supernatural. We live in a closed system in which God is not operating and the world and mankind just evolved. People are the product of their environment. Morality is decided by man. Reason and science are the basis of authority and pursued for the good of mankind. There is no purpose to history; it just happens. When you die, you cease to exist. For example, someone who denies the possibility or likelihood of miracles may be operating from a world view of Naturalism.

Pluralism (or Post-Modernism) is sort of a cafeteria style world view. People mix and match various aspects of the other world views as well as blend in new ideas. Generally, they reject the idea of objective truth and no one view may be considered right. People are suspicious and skeptical of authority. They are in search of identity, not from knowledge, but through relationship. They are on a quest for a meaningful community. They seek transcendence or spirituality, but not religion. They express the “knowing smirk” (= Yah right) at anyone who says they know the truth.6 One may encounter pluralism by hearing something like: there are many ways to God; there is no one truth; or even absolute truth itself does not exist.

Increasingly, we as Christians find ourselves in this melting pot of various world views. But let’s move to a basic starting question. Is there a God? And if so, how might we know?

Is there a God?

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion stated, “we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”7 Another outspoken atheist, Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great stated, “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”8

But is it true that there no evidence for God? Paul states in Romans: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-22). These verses say that God is known by all or at least certain aspects about God based on the evidence of the created universe, specifically, his eternal power and divine nature. How powerful must a Being be to be able to create something as large and magnificent as the universe? Think about it. The revelation that God has given in creation makes man responsible to God in honoring him as God and giving thanks. The story is told of Napoleon who while on one of his ships at night heard some of the sailors mocking the idea of God’s existence. As he pointed up to the stars he said, “Gentlemen, you must get rid of those first.”9

Yet why do people reject the existence of God? First one has to say that rejection of God is primarily a moral (sin) problem and intellectual arguments will not solve this. If someone does not want to be morally accountable to God, they will not accept even good arguments. The Bible presupposes a belief in God and much of the Bible is defining who the true God is. The very first sentence of the Bible assumes God. “In the beginning God created . . . .” (Gen 1:1). But do we just have to merely accept the existence of God by faith, or is our belief in God based on evidence too? It’s that old debate of presuppositional apologetics versus evidential apologetics again. God gave Moses signs to prove to Israel that God had sent him and to prove to Pharaoh that the God of Israel was the one true God (Exod 4:1-9). Thomas needed evidence for Jesus’ resurrection when he asked to see the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and spear pierced side (John 20:25).

One way to address the issue of God’s existence is to consider some of the basic traditional evidences for God. These represent apologetic arguments that should not be considered absolute proof of God or without counterargument. These evidences, especially when taken together, lead one to believe that the existence of God is more reasonable than the belief that God does not exist. These arguments can be termed and classified as: 1) the cosmological argument, 2) the teleological argument, and 3) the moral argument.

The Evidence for God: The Cosmological Argument

The basic cosmological argument is that everything that exists has a cause, and since the universe exists, it must have had a first cause. Another way to state it is to stress the inception of the universe. If the universe began to exist then the universe has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore the universe has a cause.10

Sometimes the counter argument is made that the universe was caused by “chance.” But there are two problems with this: 1) chance can’t cause something; chance is not a being; it is just a mathematical probability and 2) when one looks at the odds (what the chances are), it becomes evident that it is not a probability – it is an impossibility. The “Big Bang” presupposes matter/energy before the “Bang” happened but where did this matter come from? What or who caused this? To try to get around this, some say that the universe is eternal. Carl Sagan said, “The universe is all there is, and was and ever will be.” There are two logical problems with the view that the universe is eternal: 1) Scientists have discovered that the universe is expanding (or moving) and if you go back far enough, the expansion (or moving) had to have started sometime in the past. What started this motion? 2) The “Kalam” argument stresses that the universe had to begin to exist a finite time ago. You can’t get to “now” if you start from infinity because “now” never arrives. Only if you have a finite beginning can you arrive at “now.”11

Therefore, it is reasonable that that first cause must be something outside of time and space (since the universe came into being at some time in the past), immaterial (since the universe is made up of matter), powerful enough to “create” everything and a personal agent. For example consider dominos falling. Each domino falling is caused by the one before it, but you fall into an infinite regress unless you have someone pushing that first domino over. That first event is caused by an “agent,” some being who chose to start the process. What would be an adequate cause for the effect of the creation of the universe? Some Being like the God of the Bible would be that adequate cause.

Related to and part of the cosmological argument are the laws of thermodynamics. Simply, the first law of thermodynamics is also referred to as the conservation of energy. It is an established scientific fact. The law in essence states that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed in a closed natural system. Therefore, the existence of matter and energy must have come about by a supernatural event or force outside of the system.12 The second law of thermodynamics simple stated is that is energy is becoming less usable. It is also called the law of entropy. It also is an established scientific fact. Things are winding down, becoming more disorderly, the energy is continually being spread out in less and less usable forms. Since the universe contains highly concentrated energy sources (e.g., sun) it cannot be eternal but must have had a beginning.13 And this beginning must have had a cause.

The Evidence for God: The Teleological Argument

The basic teleological argument states that since the world is so complex and so ordered, it had to have been designed/created by some intelligent being. The design points to a designer, a car points to a manufacturer, a watch points to a watchmaker, an I-Phone points to Steve Jobs etc. The universe and everything in it is too complex, orderly, adaptive, apparently purposeful, and/or beautiful to have occurred randomly or accidentally. Therefore, it must have been created by an intelligent, wise, and/or purposeful being. God is that intelligent, wise, and/or purposeful being.14

The Evidence for God: The Moral Argument

The moral argument states that since everyone has conscience and a concept of right and wrong, this must reflect some higher conscience or higher moral absolute. If God does not exist, objectionable moral values do not exist. Objectionable moral values do exist. Therefore, God exists. Paul states, “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them” (Rom 2:14-15). Here the Bible says that man’s conscience bears the work of the law on it. C.S. Lewis points out that when someone quarrels, they are not just saying that something the other person did displeases only them. They are appealing to some standard of behavior that says what that other person did was wrong. Where does this sense of fairness come from?15 If survival of the fittest is the evolutionary law of nature why should not stronger nations commit genocide against weaker nations? Why would this be morally wrong?

These three apologetics evidences strongly suggest that belief in a powerful personal God has a reasonable basis to it. One might add that most people in history have been persuaded by the evidence seen in creation to believe in God in some fashion. While these are valid evidences for the existence of God, there are objections. The very existence of evil is sometimes presented as a major objection to the existence of God.

Why is there Evil and Suffering?

If God is good and God is all-powerful then how can there be evil in the world? It may be claimed that since there is evil, there must not be a God. Or if there is a God, he must not be good or he must not be all-powerful. This problem is also called theodicy and constitutes one of the major objections to God’s existence. But there is no logical fallacy in that statement of the problem of evil and the existence of a good God. All of the following statement can be true. God is good. God is all-powerful. God created the world. The world contains evil. Where is the contradiction? What they really mean is this: God is good. God is all-powerful. God created the world. The world shouldnt contain evil. However, the idea, that the world should not contain evil is just an assumption on their part. One could also respond that objective evil presupposes objective good. It has been said, “Shadows prove the existence of sunshine.” Some additional responses to theodicy can be summarized as follows:

1) Necessary for free-will to work. If it was impossible to disobey God, then we’d never have to choose to obey. We would be like robots. One could also supplement this: for true love to exist it must be reciprocal with a choice made by both parties freely. For those of you who are married, do you want to be married to someone who chooses to be married to you or to someone who was forced to (due to no choice of their own)?

2) Necessary for human spiritual growth. If there are no dangers, difficulties or disappointments in life, how can we gain character traits such as patience or endurance? C.S. Lewis rightly described that pain is God’s megaphone that rouses the ear of a deaf world. When are the times people have grown closest to God? Are they the good times or the hard times? Are they the times of feasting or the times of mourning? James stated: “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (Jas 1:2-4).

3) Necessary to promote the greater good and Gods glory. The chief purpose of life is to glorify and know God. It is not human happiness! God’s role is not to make life comfortable for us. However, if we recognize that the evil, which causes human suffering, is leading people to know God, then there is a greater good. There is a good example of this in John’s gospel when Lazarus, Jesus’ friend gets sick and dies. “When Jesus heard this, he said, ‘This sickness will not lead to death, but to God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’”
(John 11:4).

4) Temporal suffering compared to eternal glory. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Paul compares the suffering of this life with the eternal weight of glory. Compared to eternity with God the sufferings of this world are a “slight, momentary affliction.” This perspective is critical for Christians who are undergoing suffering.

5) It is too complicated for us to understand. Even if we can see some possible purpose in some evil/suffering, there are events which we can’t understand and we just have to recognize that we are finite creatures who can’t know God’s purpose in allowing those things.

Jesus summarized an important lesson when considering situations of evil and suffering. Luke 13 reads, “Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. He answered them, ‘Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered these things? No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well! Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!’” (Luke 13:1-5). First, notice that two different types of situations of evil and suffering are presented. The first one refers to moral evil in which Pilate governor of Judea had killed some Galileans. Why they were killed is not known. In the second case, a tower had fallen apparently accidently and killed 18 people. One might call this a natural evil or disaster. The Jewish people might have been asking the question from a theological perspective concerning why this happened. They came to the conclusion that it was because these people who died were sinners. But consider Jesus’ point. He basically says you are all sinners and unless you repent you will perish as well. In other words, do not focus so much on why these evil events occurred but focus on your own relationship with God to make sure it is right.

Summary Thoughts

Sin and evil are not things created by God. They are a deprivation of things created by God. Just like darkness is the absence of light and cold is the absence of heat, evil is really the absence of good. This was one of Augustine’s arguments.16 The Bible says: God created the world and it was good (Gen 1). However, man sinned and brought sin and suffering into the world (Gen 3). God is in the process of eradicating sin, suffering and Satan and all this will happen in his perfect timing (Rev 20-22). The apostle John writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist . . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist anymore – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist (Rev 21:1, 4).”

Discussion Questions

  1. How could one begin to share the gospel with someone who does not believe the Bible?
  2. How did Paul adjust his gospel presentation to the Athenians who did not accept the Jewish Scriptures (Acts 17)? Is there a lesson there for us today?
  3. What convinces you that God really exists?
  4. Does evolution contradict the Bible? Does it allow for a denial of the existence of God?
  5. How would you answer the question of why God allows natural disasters and moral evil in the world?
  6. Should American society have a theistic worldview in governmental matters, for example having “In God we trust” on US money?

1 This lesson is an abbreviated formation of a series entitled “Understanding World Views” (http://bible.org/series/understanding-world-views) Hampton Keathley IV, which was edited and modified by James F. Davis.

2 See Jim Keller, The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World. Audio message from desiringgod.org.

3 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 151-171.

4 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, 184-185, 193.

5 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, 151-171.

6 Graham Johnston, Preaching to a Post-Modern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 26.

7 Richard Dawkins, http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/117 (Date accessed Nov 5, 2012).

8 Christopher Hitchens, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/12042-that-which-can-be-asserted-without-evidence-can-be-dismissed (Accessed Nov 5, 2012).

9 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/newell/romans.ii.htm (Accessed Nov 7, 2012).

10 Norman Geisler, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 172.

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalam_cosmological_argument (Date accessed March 5, 2013).

12 See Jeff Miller, http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=9&article=2106 (Date accessed March 5, 2013).

13 See Jeff Miller, http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=9&article=2106 (Date accessed March 5, 2013).

14 Based largely on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument (Date accessed March 5, 2013).

15 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (The McMillian Company, New York, 1960), 17-18.

16 Augustine states, “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name evil.” Augustine, City of God, 11.9.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Basics for Christians, Cultural Issues, Engage, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Worldview

Why God Is Not Fair

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Doesn’t it make you mad when something is unfair—especially if you are on the receiving end? Recently I applied for a new health insurance policy. The company accepted me but charged me a higher rate because of my allergy problems.

The application never asked whether I smoked or how much (I’ve never smoked). They didn’t ask if I regularly down a six-pack and then get behind the wheel (I don’t drink at all). They never bothered to inquire whether I eat properly and exercise regularly (I do).

So some guy who smokes two packs a day, drives when drunk, eats junk food and never exercises could get the standard rate. But because I have hay fever, I have to pay more. I cried, “UNFAIR!”

We all want to be treated fairly. Most of us figure that if we do our best, God will deal with us fairly on judgment day. But Jesus taught that God does not operate according to our notion of what is fair.

In Matthew 20, Jesus told a story about a man who owned a vineyard. Early in the morning he hired some workers. He agreed to pay them the going rate for a day’s wage, so they started working. About nine o’clock, he found some more workers and told them he would pay them a fair wage, so they went to work. The same thing happened at noon and again at three in the afternoon. Finally, at five in the afternoon he found some more men standing idle, hired them and sent them into his vineyard.

At sundown, he called his foreman and ordered him to pay all the workers, beginning with those hired last. For their hour or so of work, they received the full day’s wage. So did everyone else, including the ones hired early in the morning. Everyone received a full day’s wage, no matter how long they had worked.

Those who had worked all day grumbled. They didn’t think it was fair that they got paid the same as those who had only worked an hour. They thought they should get more.

But the owner of the vineyard said, “What’s your gripe? You got the day’s wage we agreed on. If I want to give the same wage to someone who didn’t work as long as you, that’s my business.”

The main point is that God doesn’t operate on the merit system as we think he should. God deals with us according to His free grace. As Paul explains, “For it is by his grace you are saved [delivered from God’s judgment], through trusting him; it is not your own doing. It is God’s gift, not a reward for work done. There is nothing for anyone to boast of” (Ephesians 2:8, 9; New English Bible).

Just over a century ago, a man named Shamel was the leader of a guerilla group fighting against the Czarist regime in Russia. The unity of his group was threatened by a rash of stealing amongst the members, which included the soldiers’ families. So Shamel imposed a penalty of 100 lashes for anyone caught stealing.

Not long after that, Shamel’s own mother was caught stealing. He didn’t know what to do. He loved his mother and didn’t want her to suffer, but he also knew he had to uphold his law or anarchy and infighting would ruin his army. He shut himself in his tent for three days, agonizing over what to do.

Finally he made up his mind: For the sake of the law and the whole society, his mother must pay the penalty. But before three blows had fallen on her back, Shamel had his real and final solution. He removed his mother and he himself took her place. The full price had to be paid, but he bore the penalty she deserved. His law stood, but his love prevailed.

Even if you’re a pretty good person, one who has been at work in the vineyard since early morning, you’ve violated God’s holy law. You’ve got sin that must be paid for. Maybe the guy coming in at five in the afternoon has more sin than you. But if God is just, both men’s sin must be paid for. Either you pay (the merit system), or God pays (the grace system). God’s grace doesn’t seem fair to the self-righteous, but for those who recognize how undeserving they are, it is truly wonderful!

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Soteriology (Salvation), Terms & Definitions

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