Entries for December 2012

In our sadness over the murder of innocent children in Newtown, CT, at Christmastime it's not hard to draw parallels with Herod's slaughter of children in Bethlehem near the time of Christ's birth. As then, the tears flow, and the cries go up. We ask, "Why? Why do the innocent suffer? Where is God?"

Asaph asked this question in Psalm 73, but phrased it somewhat differently: "Why don't the wicked suffer?" When the innocent suffer and the wicked don't, the result is the same -- people are tempted to doubt God.

They say: “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence;
For I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning.

The wicked life of ease is as much a problem as the evil that befalls the undeserving. When God doesn't prevent evil or immediately punish it, some people conclude He doesn't exist, He knows nothing, or is weak. It's far from an academic exercise or idle speculation. If a satisfactory answer isn't found, some turn away from faith in God, or are hardened in unbelief (Hebrews 3:12-15).

Asaph recognized the danger. He was careful not to vent his tortured thoughts while they were still foremost in his mind, lest he betray God's people -- the generation among whom he walked. He wasn't like some teachers who raise provocative questions without making an effort to answer them. As the writer of Hebrews says, we have a responsibility to the congregation: "Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."

So what's Asaph's answer? Does God know what's in the heart of the wicked person before he acts? Does He see the future? Is He aware of who the victims will be and the void they'll leave behind? Should we continue believing in God and maintaining pure hearts when pain is the result?

The answer is yes, God does know and see all. Righteous living is worth it. In suffering, we experience the consequences of the Fall and recognize our need of a Deliverer. In His sovereignty, we're allowed by it to glimpse the brevity of this life and prepare for the next.

Asaph felt as wretched as anyone could "until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end." He came to terms with reality in the Temple where He was reminded of 1) God's holiness, 2) His desire to fellowship with men, 3) the problem of sin in the hearts of all men which separates us from God, and 4) the provision of sacrifices to atone for it. He saw that the wicked are on a slippery path, even though it appears they have it made. Their end is in sight; their destiny is destruction. (See also Matthew 7:13-14.)

As for the pure in heart, they seem to live precariously, but the truth is they'll be with God "afterward" (Ps. 73:24) -- even as are always with Him now (v. 23). He is holding their hands, guiding them. God is all their desire, their strength, and portion (vv. 25-26).

This is even true in times of doubt. In verses 21-23, Asaph admitted:

When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within,
Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand.

Evil exists. To avoid it, we'd have to go "out of this world," as Jesus noted. But good exists too -- with God. As Asaph says, "the nearness of God is my good," not all the stuff over which I'm envying the wicked. Sometimes we need a reminder that the only real good in life is the presence of God. Suffering is, therefore, useful in getting us to loosen our grip on other things that have taken His place.

One day Jesus was asked about some people who were killed by Pilate. Were they being punished for something they'd done, or was this just another outrage against goodness? Jesus chose to focus on something else. He warned, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." This could be the sobering lesson of Sandy Hook Elementary School, too.

God didn't let a bitter, brutish Asaph go, and He's not going to cast away the honest questioner of 2012 either. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Let us humbly bow before Him.

I pray the grieving families will experience the nearness of God in all its goodness and take refuge in Him (Ps. 73:28) during this impossibly difficult moment. His Father heart grieves with them. The Son He sent to once-for-all atone for sin is the One who assures they can someday be joyously reunited with their children.


Hospice for dogs?

Blogger Jonathan Dudley started something when he wrote "When Evangelicals Were Pro-Choice" (for CNN) and "How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception" (for the Huffington Post).

His contention is that "what conservative Christians now say is the Bible’s clear teaching on [abortion] was not a widespread interpretation until the late 20th century." For proof, he cites individuals and groups who agreed with the legalization of abortion in some, if not all, circumstances in the late 60s and early 70s.

Dudley explains the migration to the current pro-life view as evangelicals falling under the influence of powerful leaders of the "Religious Right," such as Jerry Falwell. Christians should, in his view, "consider the possibility that they aren’t submitting to the dictates of a timeless biblical truth, but instead, to the goals of a well-organized political initiative only a little more than 30 years old."

Why does it matter that what evangelical leaders say is "the biblical view on abortion" was not a widespread interpretation until about 30 years ago? For one thing, it's harder to argue the Bible clearly teaches something when the overwhelming majority of its past interpreters didn't read the Bible that way. For another, it illustrates that evangelical leaders are happy to defend creative reinterpretations of the Bible when it fits with a socially conservative worldview -- even while objecting to new interpretations of the Bible on, say, homosexuality, precisely because they are new. And for another, by looking at the history of how today's "biblical view on abortion" arose, one can begin to see the worldview that made it possible. In the process, it becomes apparent it is that unacknowledged worldview, and not the Bible, that evangelical opponents of abortion are actually defending.

Several Christian writers generated helpful responses: Mark Galli of Christianity Today (here and here), John Stonestreet of Breakpoint, and Albert Mohler. I'd like to add a few points to the discussion:

  • InterVarsity may have published (and then rescinded under pressure) a 1984 book that said abortion was legitimate in some instances, but it had already published Michael Gorman's Abortion and the Early Church in 1982. This book built the case that from its earliest days, the church opposed abortion.
  • Regular Baptists, from which Life Matters Worldwide sprang, were solidly pro-life from the beginning. In 1971, two years before the Roe v. Wade decision, the GARBC (which would call themselves "fundamentalists" rather than "evangelicals)" acknowledged that "the sanctity of human life is well documented in Scriptures" and resolved to "go on record as being thoroughly opposed to abortion on demand."
  • Diverse methods for interpreting Scripture -- in the past or today -- better explain why there's diversity in Christendom on abortion. Your stance on this issue has more to do with where you land on the errancy/inerrancy spectrum than anything else. Those who approach the Bible with a non-literal hermeneutic are the ones who come up with novel interpretations (concerning homosexuality, for instance), while we who take God's word literally have always maintained it's a sin. 
  • The same is true of abortion. Taking God's word at face value and employing grammatical-historical methods of interpretation, we are satisfied with statements about the personality of unborn humans as found in Genesis 16:11-12 and 25:22-24, Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Hosea 12:2-3, Luke 1:15 & 41, and Galatians 1:15-16. 
  • What hindered many Christians from early involvement in the pro-life movement was not lack of biblical support, but hesitancy to join the political fray. What increased the comfort-level with the pro-life movement for many evangelicals (and brought them into the political arena by the backdoor) were hands-on ministries such as pregnancy care centers that sprang up in the 1980s. PCCs gave them opportunities to prevent abortions by offering alternatives. They could serve families in their communities, reach out to women who'd already had abortions, and share the Gospel.  

Over time, our understanding has grown about just how pervasive the sanctity of human life ethic is in Scripture, and what we are called to do about it. More than a few proof-texts, it's a theme from Genesis to Revelation.

Every age has been confronted by challenges that require Christians to go to work "rightly dividing the word of truth." If, as Peter says, "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness," then we are equipped to handle questions that didn't necessarily arise in the 1st century -- or the 3rd, or the 13th.

No, the word "abortion" never appears in the Bible, but if you study topics such as violence or the murder of innocent people, you'll find those are the domain of wicked people. Furthermore, the treatment of widows and orphans as well as all poor people is also tied to the sanctity of human life. Thus, if you make a move to strike someone, or abandon a hungry person to her own devices, you're placing them at risk of death -- their blood would be on your hands.

Abortion is nothing if it is not violent; it is the ultimate injustice. The pregnant mother and her unborn child must not be abandoned. We are learning what to do when it comes to this issue.

Postscript 12/6/12: Here's a pertinent article by Phil Cooke that appeared on a Huffington Post blog -- How Christianity Lost Its Voice in Today's Media Driven World

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