Why Is God Good?

Someone once told me about an episode on TV (I think it was a “Twilight Zone” episode) in which aliens came to earth and addressed the United Nations.  They demanded that we change our ways and left.  The nations of the world got together, made peace, and rid the earth of most of the weapons.  Well, the aliens came back to earth to see what we earthlings had accomplished and were outraged—they had wanted us to become more warlike.

This episode raises a question in my mind—why is God good?  Why should or why would the ultimate authority of the universe be good?  Is good something that is greater than God and God had no choice?

Why should we be good?  Is it just that God is the most powerful force in the universe?  That would mean “might makes right”.  Are we willing to accept that premise?  If we do, then if God was evil, we also should be evil.

Most of us do not believe that “might makes right”.  If we do not, then being good just because God is good is not a valid reason for being good.  So why should we be good?  Is there something about being good that is inherent in itself that should make us want to do what is right?

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Dreams, Visions, and Goals

I have been reading Dave Ramsey’s book EntreLeadership.  In his chapter “Start with a Dream, End with a Goal” he emphasizes that we must have dreams and a vision of where we want to go.  However, there comes a time where we must put those dreams and visions into action.  Having dreams and visions accomplishes nothing other than to occupy our time.  It is only when we take action that we turn those dreams and visions into reality.

Do we think it is any different in our spiritual lives?  Do we think that the only thing God cares about is our belief system?  Is God totally unconcerned about turning our belief system into reality?  Does God care whether we actually implement our belief system or not?

If you have been following this blog, you will have noticed that we have pointed out several areas in our lives were our actions are considered to be just as important as our beliefs.  Do we think this is true in all areas of our lives except for our spiritual lives?

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Better Questions

The title of this blog is “A Christian Dialectic”.  A dialectic is the “discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation”.  It employs the Socratic technique of relentlessly asking questions to expose false beliefs and with the goal of discovering beliefs that are valid.  The purpose of this blog is to ask questions about our Christian faith in order to better understand it.

Some might think it is not necessary to ask questions because the Bible gives us all the answers we need.  However, that statement is demonstratively false.  First, it is obvious that we are finite.  Being finite means that while the Bible in infallible, our interpretation of it is not.  Second, all the different Christian religions and denominations that exist are evidence people interpret the Bible very differently.  Therefore, we must ask questions in order to determine the correct interpretation of the Bible.

I like the way John Mark Reynolds addresses the issue of asking questions about our faith:  “Knowing revealed truth leads to better questions, not to the end of questions.” [1]

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[1]   John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem, Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2009, p. 253.

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The Purpose of Life

Why do we exist?  What is the purpose of our lives?  Everyone one of us asks this question at some point in our lives.  Philosophers have proposed that the purpose of human existence is to be happy or to live the good life.  However, the question then becomes: What is happiness and what is the good life? [1]  Attempts to define happiness or the good life—hedonism, wealth, honor, wisdom, and virtue, to name a few—have not been satisfactory. [2]

As Christians, we evidently think that having the correct belief system is the most important aspect of our lives because that is how we are saved.  While knowing what is true is a critical part of our existence, is the ultimate goal of our lives to believe in certain ideas?  God made us finite.  He made it difficult for us to know what is true.  Why would he structure our existence in this fashion if knowing what is true is the ultimate purpose of our life?

Others propose that living a life according to God’s principles is the purpose of our lives.  Another way to name this purpose is virtue which is defined as “moral excellence, goodness, righteousness”.  While being virtuous is required by God, it is not the reason for our existence.  We do good or evil because through those actions we will obtain a particular result that we desire.  We do not do good or evil for their own sake.

As Christians, the reason for our existence is not to be happy; it is not to live the good life; it is not our belief system; it is not being virtuous.  These are just means to an end, not the end itself.  The purpose of our lives is to become like God.  As C. S. Lewis states:

What [God] cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality—the kind of creatures He intended us to be—creatures related to Himself in a certain way. [3]

And God can and will use everything else in our lives to accomplish that purpose.

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[1]   John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem, Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2009, p. 210.

[2]   Reynolds, pp. 204-218.

[3]   C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York:  The MacMillian Company, 1952), p. 113.

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Pattern of Behavior

How do we know who we actually are?  How do we know what our soul is like?  If salvation is the renovation of our soul, it would be a good idea to know what sort of renovation is necessary.  As a general rule, we do not start the renovation of a house or office without some idea of the nature of the work that is required so why would we start an even greater task without some knowledge of what our soul is like?

One way to know what our soul is like is to determine our pattern of behavior.  Our pattern of behavior is how we typically act or react given a particular situation.  For example, if someone treats us badly, do we retaliate and treat them badly?  Or do we, as the Tao Te Ching suggests, treat with goodness both those who are bad and good because the nature of our being is good? [1]

Jesus gives us an example from the material world of what our pattern of behavior is:

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:44-45) ESV

Knowing our pattern of behavior is critical because God says that is how he will judge us.  Ezekiel 33:13-16 states that if a righteous person turns to injustice, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered and he will be judged by the injustice that he does.  If a wicked person turns to what is just and right, none of his wicked deeds will be remembered and he will be judged by his just and righteous deeds.

Our actions are the result of who we are.  By looking at our pattern of behavior, we can see who we really are.  And should not that provide some motivation for change, to begin the renovation our soul?

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[1]   Jonathan Star, translator, Tao Te Ching (New York:  Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001), p. 62.

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Who We Are

“Sin is not primarily a matter of what we do but of who we are.” [1]  It is because of who we are that we sin.  We tell untruths because we are the type of person who does not have a problem deceiving others so we can gain an advantage or benefit.  We gossip because we are the type of person who does not have a problem destroying another person’s reputation if that will make us look better.

If the above is true, then attempting to deal with our sin (lying or gossip) is treating the symptom and not the actual problem.  What we must confront is the type of person that we really are.

Also, one would expect God, in his relationship with us, deals with the root cause of our problem (ourselves) rather than just our symptoms (our sins such as lying or gossiping).  God’s plan of salvation is not just a matter of belief.  Salvation is not just acting like we think Christians should act.  Salvation is a change of who we are.  Salvation is nothing less than the renovation of our soul.

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[1]  Janie B. Cheaney, “The heart of the matter”, World, June 1, 2013, p. 16.

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Charity

In this blog, we have consistently noted that we must read and follow what the entire Bible says about a subject and not just pick and choose verses that agree with our particular viewpoint.  We have emphasized this point in regards to salvation and God’s sovereignty/human free will.  It also applies to our beliefs in regards to charity.

The Christian religion has always taught that we should help those who are in need.  In Matthew 25:31-46, which describes the Day of Judgment,  Jesus said that feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the needy, and visiting the sick and those in prison are the necessary actions to gain admittance into heaven.  Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) teaches us we should provide help to anyone in need.

However, the Bible also tells us that if someone does not work, they should not eat and that we should earn our own living.  Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 states:

. . . If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.  For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.  Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

It seems that the Bible is giving us contradictory information.  This seemingly contradictory information gives some the opportunity to choose one side, to ignore the other teachings, and then to criticize those who espouse a different belief.  However, ignoring certain passages of the Bible that do not agree with our doctrinal beliefs is essentially telling God we know this particular subject better than he does.

So what should be our position on helping others?  The general principle is that we should help those in need but giving someone charity when they could earn it with their own effort is just as detrimental as not giving someone charity who truly needs it.

In this short space, I cannot resolve this issue nor do I think I should attempt to do so.  In fact, God does not resolve this issue for us.  It is apparent that he wants us to develop our discernment in this matter.  Two books that have provided assistance in developing my approach to charity are listed below.

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Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, Washington, DC:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1992.

Robert D. Lupton’s Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life, Ventura, CA:  Regal Books, 2007.

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Can We Be too Spiritual?

Jacob Needleman, in his excellent book Money and the Meaning of Life, raises the question posed by the above title.  Can we be so focused on the hereafter that it is to our detriment?  Can we lust after spiritual things?  Avarice, one of the capital sins or vices, often cloaks itself as a virtue. [1]  Being spiritual is definitely a virtue but can we be so consumed by the spiritual that we ignore other aspects of God’s plan for our lives?

The aim of life is a better understanding of our self and God.  The material world was built to nourish and provide for us in our efforts to do that.  If this is the case, then, as Needleman states:  “The part of ourselves that must act and live in the material world needs to be embraced with the same attention that seeks contact with higher forces and ideals.” [2]

However, as Evgeny Barabanov points out, this is not how the church interacts with the world.

These two aspects of the Christian attitude to the world, active participation in its transformation and renunciation of its temptations, turned out to be extremely difficult to reconcile.  Heavenward aspirations often went hand in hand with execration [a detesting, loathing] of the earth.  Too often the ideal of salvation was built on a foundation of inflexible renunciation of this world.  Thus salvation itself was understood as an escape from the material world into a world of pure spirituality.  This gave rise to contempt for the flesh, the belittling of man’s creative nature. . .  [3]

Instead of working for the transformation of both our spiritual and material worlds, the Church has focused solely on the spiritual.  The result is that we have no point of contact with a world that sees only the material.

If we want to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives, we must recognize our material needs and aspirations are not evil merely secondary. [4]  God placed us in the material world for a reason and it is to be utilized to the fullest extent possible to aid us in our journey back to God.

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[1]   Catholic Encyclopedia, www.newadvent.org

[2]   Jacob Needleman, Money and the Meaning of Life, New York:  Currency Doubleday, 1991, p. xi.

[3]   Evgeny Barabanov, “Schism Between the Church and World”, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ed., From Under the Rubble (New York:  Bantam Books, 1975), pp. 180-186.

[4]   Needleman, p. 58

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God’s Sovereignty

Fred Luter, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has stated the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and the free will of mankind is threatening to divide the denomination. [1]  Why cannot Christianity resolve an issue that dates back to at least the 16th century when Calvin and Arminius debated this issue?

The Bible is our ultimate authority on our beliefs.  Part of the reason for disagreements in matters of our beliefs is because we pick out certain passages to emphasize and ignore whatever disagrees with our theological bent.

So what does the Bible say about God’s sovereignty and the free will of humans?  There is no question the Bible teaches we have free will.  Erasmus states that there are over 600 verses in the Bible where God requires something of us.  If we have no free will, if God controls everything that occurs on this earth, why does he give us these requirements? [2]

There is also no question the Bible teaches God is sovereign and that he controls events on this earth (e.g. Genesis 45:4-8, I Samuel 2:6-7, Job 42:10, Lamentations 3:37, Matthew 6:25-34, Romans 9:17-21, Romans 12:3-8, Philippians 4:19).

The one fact in this debate that no one seems to acknowledge is the Bible teaches both God’s sovereignty and our free will.  If both are true, then we must reconcile these seemingly conflicting beliefs.  Is it really that difficult to do?

Look at our everyday lives.  Parents do not control every event in their children’s lives but if they are good parents, they exert control over their children.  Managers do not control all of what their subordinates do but if they are good managers they do have control of the organization.  Parents and managers do not need to control every aspect of their children’s or subordinates’ lives to accomplish their goals.  Neither does God.

Being all-powerful means God can still accomplish his purposes even if we act in a contrary manner. [3]  We humans are so limited we think God must control all of our actions in order to guarantee a particular outcome.  But God is bigger than our idea of him. I like William James’ analogy when he compares God and us humans with an expert and a novice chess player.  The moves of the novice chess player will be unpredictable to the expert chess player but because of his/her superior knowledge of the game, the expert chess player will win every time. [4]  In the same way, God has a superior knowledge of us and our tendencies which enables him to give us free will and still accomplish his ends.

If God had to deny us free will to accomplish his purposes, he would not be all-powerful.  It would mean he needs to stack the deck in his favor to win.  Is this God we read about in the Bible?

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[1]   Bill Sherman, “Baptists cope with differing theological approaches”, Tulsa World, May 4, 2013, A13.

[2]   Ernst F. Winter, ed., Discourse on Free Will (New York:  Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, Inc., 1961), p. 59.

[3]   Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 2000), pp. 68-69.

[4]   William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism”, The Will to Believe (New York:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1956), p. 181.

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Chasing after the Wind

C. S. Lewis’s book, Till We Have Faces, is very similar to another one of my favorite books, Ecclesiastes.  The reason I like both is they so eloquently describe the human condition.  To understand the world and our place in this world, it is critical that we understand ourselves.  As Lucian of Samosata says, “the only study of mankind is man”. [1]

One lesson both books teach us is that we most often pursue what is unimportant.  Orual states that we do and do and do but then asks:  Does all our doing really matter? [2]  We learn and learn and learn but does it really change anything?  We acquire and acquire and acquire but are we any happier?  If we honestly look at our lives, much of our lives are a “senseless repetitions of days and nights and seasons and years”. [2]

As Ecclesiastes says:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us.  There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. [3]

The author of Ecclesiastes discovered we humans consistently chase after things that do not matter.  We seek pleasure, wisdom, wealth, and honor but ultimately they are immaterial.  We are so good at ignoring what is important and emphasizing the irrelevant.

We pursue advancing our technology because it can and has helped to relieve so much suffering in our world but it has also brought so much pain.  Through our technology we can eliminate starvation in our world but through our technology we kill millions in our struggles for power.  Our technology is not the answer; it is just a tool.  What matters is the use to which we put our technology and that is determined by the type of person we are.

After the Preacher had heard and experienced all, his conclusion was that our main duty is to “Fear God and keep his commandments. . .” [4]  It is our moral choices that determine what type of person we are and will become.  And who we are will determine the world in which we live.

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[1]   H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Works of Lucian of Samosata, Vol. 1, Public Domain Books, Kindle edition, Location 375.

[2]   C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace & Company, 1956), p. 236.

[3]   Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 ESV

[4]   Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV

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