Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Count your blessings

I’m going to a comment on a question (or series of questions) that a young man asked William Lane Craig:

I am a philosophy student and an ex-Christian. I lost my faith during my undergraduate education upon realizing that I had accepted my faith without reflection. Like many others my age, I abandoned my worldview and embarked upon a search for answers. The search quickly took on an intellectual character that eventually led me to the joys of philosophy (which, I am happy to say, I have chosen as my career path). And having had a taste of good philosophy and good apologetics, my doubts about Christianity have been intellectually satisfied.

i) This is such a predictable, stereotypical experience. Needless to say, it’s possible to read good philosophy and good apologetics before you go to college. Prepare yourself for the journey. Too many college-bound Christians are like hikers who go hiking without making any preparations. They don’t listen to the weather report before they leave. They don’t pack food and water, or extra clothing. They don’t bring a map and compass. Or a knife. Or a first-aid kit.

It’s also the duty of pastors and parents to prepare their young people. When something is so predictable, when it happens so often, we should learn from the experience of others. No reason to be caught off guard.

ii) Mind you, a crisis of faith isn’t necessarily due to lack of intellectual preparation. It may be part of the natural transition from childhood to adulthood. When we’re kids we can vicariously rely on the faith of our elders. But when we grow up we need to know some things for ourselves. It can’t be a second-hand faith.

iii) While it’s possible to underemphasize the intellectual aspect of faith, it’s also possible to overemphasize the intellectual aspect of faith. There are Christian teenagers who have a very meaningful relationship with God. As such, they may not suffer a crisis of faith if they go to college since their professors are a far less meaningful part of their lives than God. If God is already real to them, then the stock objections which they confront in college are less real to them than the reality of God’s overarching importance in their lives. So it’s equally important to feed one’s devotional life.

Yet despite my admission that God exists and that Christ was resurrected, I have absolutely no idea what it means to have a relationship with God; the concept is completely mysterious to me.

i) Well, in one important sense, everyone has a relationship with God whether they know it or not. So, in one respect, it’s a question of becoming mindful of a preexisting relationship.

Take two half-brothers. Say I didn’t know my half-brother even existed until we were both teenagers. Still, we already have something in common.

Or supposed I’m adopted. I never met my natural parents. Yet we’re related. And not just in terms of shared DNA. I also share some of their personality traits. There’s a psychological bond between us. I’m a part of them and they are part of me. Likewise, their story intersects with my story.

Or take an amnesiac. At the moment he doesn’t remember his family or friends. Yet he already has a relationship with them. Indeed, a very deep relationship. He simply needs to remember.

So, in one respect, it’s not a question of cultivating a new relationship, but cultivating an awareness of a preexisting relationship. A relationship we’ve been taking for granted.

Maybe I never knew, until now, that I was adopted. Now I’m conscious of a relationship which I had all along.

ii) Of course, to be related to God as my Creator is not to be related to God as my Redeemer. So there’s the question of how one enters into a saving relationship with God.

What does it mean to trust God?

i) Perhaps we need to take a step back. What does it mean to trust anything or anyone? What does it mean to trust a friend or parent? What does it mean to trust the laws of nature?

Suppose I drive 5 miles to work. I trust the distance to remain constant. If I drive 5 miles to work, and I return home by the same route, the mileage will be the same. I also assume that I’ll return home in the same year if left. If I return in the afternoon, it will be the same day of the same year as when I left that orning. We take for granted the basic stability of time and space.

But what if the world were like a dream? Like Alice in Wonderland? Like a science fiction story in which places appear and disappear at random. In which we keep moving back and forth in time?

ii) To trust God is, in the first instance, to appreciate our utter dependence on God for anything and everything.

iii) At the same time, there’s a circularity to the question. Only a true believer has reason to trust God. For whether or not we trust God turns on whether or not we think God means to do us good or ill. The devil can’t trust God because the devil is God’s sworn enemy. All he can expect from God is punishment.

And for what?

That’s the wrong question to ask. The correct question is not “for what should we trust God?” but “for what should we not trust God?”

Why talk to God?

i) Once again, we need to take a step back. Why talk to anyone? Sometimes we want something from them, but that’s not the only reason. Why do most folks not like to eat alone? Why do most folks not like to see a movie alone? Why is solitary confinement a form of punishment?

A shared pleasure is part of what makes a pleasure pleasant. The joy goes out of life if you have no one to share it with.

ii) In addition, God is the one person we can safely confide in about absolutely anything. In even the most trusting relationships, most of us keep a few secrets. Out of shame. Or fear of rejection. Or fear of betrayal.

So we keep certain things to ourselves. God is the only person with whom we can completely let our guard down.

What would one say?

i) For starters, you can thank God for all the good things that happen to you. You can thank God for all the bad things that didn’t happen to you. You can thank God for all the bad things that serve a greater good.

It’s a cliché to say we should count are blessings, but as a matter of fact, we ought to make a habit of counting our blessings. Counting our daily blessings on a daily basis. Of how God got us to this point.

Not only should we thank God for what he has done, but we should also thank God that when we go to bed at night we have a reason to get up in the morning. And that’s because God is waiting for us on the other side of sleep. We have that to look forward to. God is in our tomorrows as well as our yesterdays. By contrast, the godless lead hopeless lives.

ii) We should also speak to God because answered prayers shape the future. Prayer is a paradox. We pray because we are helpless. We pray because there are many important things which we are personally powerless to affect or effect. In one respect, prayer is a confession of impotence.

Yet because we’re asking God to do something, prayer taps into omnipotence. There is nothing more potentially powerful in the whole universe than the prayer of the powerless. For the might of prayer is the might of the Almighty God.

Not that God always does what we ask. Prayer is not a power trip. Prayer is not a genie in a bottle. But prayer can be an awesome force for good.

What would one hear?

i) You can’t expect to hear anything in return. But that’s not a reason to refrain from prayer.

Do you only say “thank-you” if you expect to hear a response? No. You should say “thank-you” whenever you have a reason to be thankful. Gratitude is reason enough.

Likewise, do you only ask for something if you expect to get what you ask for? No. In general, we ask people for things, not because we assume that we always get whatever we ask for, but because we won’t get it unless we ask for it.

ii) Suppose your mother or father suffered a stroke which deprives them of speech. Do you stop speaking to them? No. You sit by their bedside and talk to them and read to them. Even if they no longer speak to you, you continue to speak to them.

What about talking to a small child who’s too young to respond? What about talking to your pet dog? What about talking to a friend or family member who’s in a coma?

iii) Suppose a father has an estranged son. His son has ceased to be on speaking terms with his dad. Yet his dad writes the son a letter every week. His son never responds. His dad doesn’t know if his son is even reading the letters. Maybe it’s a waste of time. Maybe his son tosses every letter into the trashcan, unopened.

But the father continues to write a letter every week in the off chance that his son is reading each letter. And, unbeknownst to him, his letters are having an effect.

Perhaps the father dies. All his son has to remember him by is his letters. The letters he saved. But the son continues to read the letters of his late father. That’s his only remaining contact. And he’s a different person because of the letters.

Or suppose you have a falling out with your best friend. After a year has passed, you write him a letter. You don’t know that he will read your letter. You don’t know that you letter will effect a reconciliation. But you miss him, and so you do what you can–in the hope of making things right.

A large part of the Christian life consists in waiting. In learning how to wait. In cultivating patience.

And there are benefits to waiting. Instant gratification can cheapen the value of a thing. If something is worth having, then something is worth waiting for. Waiting intensifies longing, and longing intensifies fulfillment. If it’s worthwhile, then it’s worth the wait. And waiting makes it even more worthwhile.

iv) What what does it mean to "hear" God? To hear a voice?

What about answered prayer? That isn't something you can "hear," yet that's a way in which God "responds" to us. We can "hear" God in what he does as well as what he says.

What is expected of me and what should I expect of God?

The Bible teaches us what God requires of us, and what we can expect from him.

Is there a unique experience to such conversations or should one pray despite the feeling that no one is listening?

You should pray regardless.

However, the questioner can’t hear because he doesn’t know what to listen for. When animal trackers go into the forest, they can “hear” things a city slicker cannot. At one level, both the tracker and city slicker hear the same sounds. But what is meaningless to the city slicker is meaningful to tracker. The tracker knows the code. Knows what the different sounds stand for.

It’s also like reading a novel. As a rule, a novelist stands apart from his novel. Yet, by reading the novel, you get to know a lot about the novelist. In one sense, the novelist is absent from the novel. He’s not one of the characters. He’s not addressing you directly.

Yet, in another sense, the novelist is a more pervasive presence in the novel than any of the characters. The novelist speaks to the reader through the novel itself. He speaks through the voice of other characters. He speaks through the plot. He speaks through the landscape or the cityscape. The entire novel is a personal expression of the novelist.

It would be silly to say you can’t hear the novelist when every word of the novel was written by the novelist. It would be silly to say you can’t see the novelist when you’re seeing the action through the eyes of the novelist.

If we can’t see God in the world, that’s because we’re already seeing the world through God’s eyes. For the world we see is the world God “saw” in his mind’s eye when he planned the world. In that respect, God is allowing us to read his mind, for the world is a revelation of God’s will for the world.

In addition, God reveals to us how he is acting in the world through the leaves of Bible history. Yes, their lives aren’t our lives, yet their lives represent our lives. That’s a sample of God at work. A example of God lifting the veil of his own providence.

What's worse, however, is the feeling that I am motivated not by love but by expectation.

That’s a false dichotomy.

That is, I grew up in the Church and had it impressed upon me that a relationship just comes with the territory of belief.

That’s part of the problem.

I now believe, so I am expected to begin a relationship; I don't otherwise feel led to cultivate a relationship to God.

To some extent, Christian piety is an acquired taste. It’s like a friendship. In general, a friendship isn’t something instantaneous. Rather, the more time you spend with the right person, the more that deepens your affection. While feelings sometimes lead us to foster an experience, fostering an experience can also lead us to feel certain things. It can go either way.

The things the bible says about the matter seem mysterious or rely too heavily on a human relationship analogy (e.g. surely the Father-son analogy only goes so far given God's hiddenness and permission of suffering).

The father/son analogy wasn’t intended to explain God’s “hiddenness” or the problem of evil. That’s why the Bible uses a wide range of metaphors to illustrate God. It’s the combination of metaphors that fill out the picture.

And as for Christ's death, I must admit that I have difficulty feeling grateful for His sacrifice since many parts of the justification story are in tension with my intuitions on justice (e.g. substitutionary atonement).

Well, that’s circular. If you’re grateful for what your rescuer did, then you’re not inclined to be critical of what he did.

Say a lifeguard can only save one of two drowning swimmers. You’re happy to be alive, but you feel survivor’s guilt. Why did he have to die so that you could live? At one level it doesn’t seem fair.

Still, it would scarcely be appropriate to tell the lifeguard, “I find it hard to thank you for saving my life when the other swimmer drowned.”

Regardless of the other swimmer’s fate, you should be grateful to the lifeguard for saving your life. And he may have taken a personal risk in doing so. The rip currents endangered him as well.

Or perhaps the lifeguard was in a position to save both swimmers, yet unbeknownst to you, he had good reason to let the other swimmer drown. Maybe the other swimmer was a pedophile. Good riddance! But the lifeguard doesn’t owe you an explanation.


  1. Count your blessings


    One of my blessings that I count is Triablogue.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

  2. Great post, thanks Steve.

  3. When I got out of high school I had read a few books by Francis Schaeffer and had been given a cursory introduction to Solzhenitysn and some advice on the basics of exegesis and hermeneutics by an Assemblies of God youth pastor. The stuff I read wasn't heavy-duty but it was still easily within the grasp of an average high school student. Just having an AG youth pastor explain that there were more schools of thought on Revelation than dispensationalism was blessing enough in itself! I'm not always sure how that guy kept his job but for the kindness of the Lord. He also said that tongues were not even remotely necessary to know the Spirit was working in your life.

    When I went to the little school by the canal a certain NT prof, noticing I was one of his few beginning NT class students in that session who wasn't failing pop quizzes right and left, asked me how I had managed to be so grounded in biblical literature I told him. He raised his eyebrows high and said, "You have a VERY unusual Assemblies of God youth pastor. He did a good job." Whether that AG youth pastor would be pleased that I'm pretty much Presbyterian now I can't vouch for, but almost immediately at a private Christian college I discovered that both pastors and parents had failed to get many of their charges to have a faith that would survive the first year of college academics even at a "Christian" school.

  4. Steve and Wenatchee the Hatchet make a good point about the failure of so many parents and pastors. The work that somebody like Steve has to do in apologetics and other contexts (and the work William Lane Craig has to do as a philosopher, the work Dusman has to do in his evangelism, etc.) is made so much more difficult by the negligence of parents, pastors, and other people in society who have such significant positions of influence. It would be so much easier for a parent to teach a child about an apologetic issue or evangelize his child, yet that work is so often left to classmates, co-workers, other relatives, apologists, or other people who have a more distant relationship with the person. The small minority of the population that acts responsibly has to carry the burden of the negligence of the large majority. In a nation in which the large majority of people claim to be Christian, where are the parents of the person who wrote to William Lane Craig or the parents of the people Dusman evangelizes? They're probably watching American Idol or making plans with their friends to go see a movie or attend a basketball game. They make little time for the most important things in life.