Do we really have free will?

It is a question that has divided Christians for a long time.  The Calvinists on one side claim that God picks and chooses whom ever He fancies and there is nothing we can do about it.  The Armenians on the other hand claim that whoever chooses God will be saved.  The Bible clearly suggests both.  Is this a contradiction?  Perhaps we just need to bring the question down to our level.

Imagine I am a human with the ability to create and transform creatures.  Imagine also that when I transform one creature into another it still holds many of the characteristics of the old creature.  Also imagine that my ultimate goal, is to create creatures like myself that I can love.

This is where the analogy gets ugly…

Now imagine that I have created a bunch of special rats that I want to make into humans.  (My son keeps a pet rat; believe it or not, they are quite loving.)  I have endowed these rats with self awareness and free-will.  Each rat is unique.  Some are strong and aggressive.  Some are weak and timid.  Even with these highly advanced rats, I observe a pecking order.  The stronger are the first to eat; they tend to abuse the smaller ones.  The weak tend to be abused by the rest.  I created these differences because I am more interested in their heart than their bodies.  Since my purpose is to love on these creatures, I am looking for those that would return my love.  Because they do not understand my purpose, I give them a simple rule, “Share your food so that all can eat.”  As I watch them interact, some of them begin sharing with the weaker rats.  Others continue in their abusive ways.  Still others, seem to  be enforcing the rule upon the rest of the rats without sharing themself.

After watching them for some time, none of them have evolved into humans.  They cannot.  They are just advanced rats.  However, I have noticed several that I want to share my gift with.  One by one I pick them up and breathe on them.  Immediately, they are transformed into humans like me.

Slowly they begin to realize what has happened to them.  They are so excited, but then they notice the remaining rats going about their routines.   Eventually, they inquire what will happen to the other rats.  I inform them, that they will eventually be destroyed.  I then ask each to return to the rat world to teach more creatures about love.  One by one, I recast them to look like rats, but really they are humans in rat bodies.  As they scurry off on their mission, they hold a secret that the other rats cannot fathom.  They will speak of it plainly, but the other rats cannot comprehend fully what they are saying.  Only I can truly reveal what it means to be like me.

In much the same way, God is about his work of shaping man into his image.  He is watching over the human population.  He is testing the hearts of men and revealing himself and transforming those he chooses.  There is no knowledge, action, words, or affiliation that can dictate our adoption.  Likewise, there is nothing than can withhold us from God’s gift if he chooses to bestow it.  Yet as he bestows his gift, he commands that those adopted ones, tell others of what is available.  So free will is a necessity for God to test our hearts, but our choice is never adequate.  Only God’s election can complete the process that he intends for us.

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Why is the divorce rate in and out of the church the same?

I have often heard this statistic quoted from pulpits and talk shows, but the truth is actually much more interesting than this fiction.  For specific details refer to this article and its references.  Here is a summary of what it says…

  • Active participants in faith are far less likely to divorce than secular couples.
  • Passive or marginal participants in faith are far more likely to divorce than secular couples.

This is not really surprising given that throughout the Bible, the greatest judgement falls consistently on those whose faith is only superficial.  By contrast, those who recognize their weakness are embraced by Jesus.

These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.1

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.2

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?… The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be…  As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!3

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.4

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How can sinful people tell me how to live my life?

Son,

Even God himself will not tell you how to live your life.  Instead, he places choices and consequences before us and leaves it up to men and women.  A good friend, an atheist, often says that morality is simply “long term thinking.”  He is correct; I just think longer term than he does.  Nevertheless, God often works through our brokenness.  He chooses the foolish, weak, base, and despised to show His strength so that no one can boast.

Consider your mother and I and the rules we have tried to teach you.  We have taught you to keep our mind and body pure.  We have held up prayer throughout each day and at times of crisis.  We have held up the Bible.  We have taught order.  We have taught responsibility and integrity and respect.  Yet, we are such bad examples of these.  We were unsuccessful at keeping our relationship pure before our marriage.  As a result, sex has been a continual struggle for us.  My prayer life often looks more like a checklist than a discussion, and I rarely make those quiet times that are needed to feel God’s presence.  At its best, my personal study has been patchy, only by the grace of God can I still bring to mind those things that I have read a once or twice.  Our house is far from an ordered and consistent.  I have not modeled respect in our relationship.  I have tried to hold onto my integrity, but God often reveals hidden motives or half truths in my speech.  I have often let things fall through the cracks or onto your mother.  So what can I say?  How can I hold up these rules?

Rather than hold up my moments of brilliance, I will hold up my moments of weakness and darkness.  It was in those moments of weakness that I finally humbled my heart.  It was when I was crushed that I was driven to my knees and finally felt God’s presence.  It was at the time of giving up on God, that He was able to teach me His word.  As the clutter overwhelmed me, I found peace within, and knew it was of God.  When those disrespectful words leave my lips, I find God rebuking me and know He is with me.  When I most feel above reproach, God reminds me where I came from and how quickly I can fall.  When the responsibilities seem too much, I find the God that limited himself to my existence and perservered through it all.

You see, I will continue to hold up those rules for your own good, but my strongest advice is to hold onto God.  In Him, expect to find strength to walk as He walked.  In your weakness, find His presence, His rebuke, and His shaping.  Rejoice in it all.  Rejoice when you find He has made you more than you thought you were.  Rejoice when you find that you must still lean on Him.  Know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.

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Why was it necessary for Jesus to die on a cross?

This question should haunt any believing Christian.  An all powerful God could solve the problem anyway he wanted.  Why choose a tortured death?  Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”  While this statement raises many more questions, it is important to note that even the son of God asked “Why?”

Some have simplified the answer down to a math problem.

  • God is righteous + Man sinned = A death is required

Personally, I do not find this equation helpful.  It makes God seem weak or, at best, the victim of his own foolish vow.  It reminds me of the ruler returning from victory who promised the first thing he saw to God.  When his daughter ran out to greet him, he was grief stricken but followed through with his vow.  Is this really the best explanation we can come up with?

Consider Malala Yousufzai.  She was the young girl of 14 who publicly spoke out for the education of women in Pakistan.  Two taliban men shot her at point blank range on a busy street.  The world was horrified, even the islamic world.  Street protests in Islamabad drew tens of thousands of demonstrators against their action.  Never had a protest in Pakistan been so successfully waged against those extreme islamic viewpoints.  What made this movement so compelling was because the actions were so hideous and performed against someone so innocent in full view of so many.

Jesus on the cross was just such a demonstration.  It was made even more profound by the perfect innocence of its victim and the brutality of the death.  The demonstration of perfect love brutalized by the hatred of the world lifted up for all to see makes it impossible to remain neutral.  The law alone could not show us how utterly attrocious sin was. However, Jesus’ gift and the actions of the mob both condemned sin and revealed righteousness.

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Should I be following a “religion?”

Religion, defined by Merriam-Webster, is “faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.”  All world religions specify a deity or reality which should impact the way a person acts.  I am going to suggest that, per these definitions, all people have a religion.  No one would argue this point for the Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, or Hindus.  I’d like to show that even atheists live their life by faithful devotion to a specific deity or reality.

I have had several faith discussions with a friend and co-worker who is an atheist.  Finally, I told him, “At some point, we have to discuss your faith statements.”

Confused by my statement, he replied,  “I don’t have any faith statements.”

When he would not recognize his own life assumptions, I tried to help him.  “You believe that all of life can be explained through natural processes.”

“Well, that is the way science works,” he responded.

“Yes, but you believe that science and natural processes can explain all of life.  How do you explain the actions of the Muslim attorney who is in jail for defending a Christian pastor and other Christian groups from persecution in Iran?  He is imprisoned for defending something he does not believe in.”  On the other hand, how do you explain the “killing fields” of Cambodia, where one quarter of the 8 million population were executed for having ties with the wrong racial, religious, or political groups.  Humans are capable of such unselfish gestures and such horrific atrocity.  No other species displays such extreme evil and such extreme good.  I continued, “If natural processes have brought us this far, why abandon them now?  Why not live according to the rules of survival?”

He quickly explained that unselfish acts are seen in many situations of nature.  He then turned to a strange explanation for the benefit of multiple partners among the elite, saying that it spread the stronger gene pool more broadly.

When I asked him if he lived this way.  He said “No.”

If you aren’t willing to live your life by it, then you really don’t believe it.  This statement is as true for the atheist as it is for the Christian.

Overhearing this exchange another friend chimed in.  “There are many things I can’t explain,” he said,  “but I don’t need to create the spaghetti monster to explain them.”  His faith was all too clear.

I recall another friend who described his transition from agnostic to atheist.  “One day, I realized that I had to make a decision.”  This was not a point of revelation, but a point of decision, a statement of faith.

Religion is the reality that we believe in strongly enough to shape our actions.  It can be a gluttonous pursuit of personal pleasure, or a sacrificial gift for others, or anything in between.  Richard Dawkins has made comments that good and evil do not exist; however, his life is devoted to battling for what he believes is truth.  If there is no good or evil, why is he so passionate about his message?  Either he is fighting for something he believes in very strongly and passionately, or he found an easy way to make money.  In either case, he is faithfully devoted to his ultimate reality.

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Is our God the same God as other religions?

Another great question… and one for which my answer will have me ostracized from many groups.  I say that up front to encourage you to do your own seeking rather than rely on me or anyone else for your understanding of God.  As I have said many times, finding God is the goal rather than finding out about God.

To answer this question, I must first start with another question.  “Are all Christians following the same God?”  Jesus answered this question conclusively.

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

If that doesn’t make Christians tremble in their boots, I don’t know what will.  Notice that these rejected ones had the correct name.  They even did mighty works in that name.  Yet, Jesus responds, “I never knew you.”  Chilling!  Having the right name is not enough.

So if we presume there is no other way to God other than Jesus, we are left with one question.  “What must be known about God to know God?”  Jesus promised that anyone who seeks God will find Him. Paul confirmed that everyone has God revealed to them.  What must be known about God is obvious to everyone.  All are without excuse.  None are automatically included.

Many preachers draw a distinct physical line that must be crossed for salvation – an act of admission, a prayer of invitation, a lifestyle of accommodation, or an experience of inspiration.  However, I find exceptions to all those simple rules.  David received the spirit without knowing the name of Jesus.  Saul received the spirit but had it taken away from him.  Nebuchadnezzar knew God without the law.  Jesus indicated that the Queen of Sheba and people of Ninevah will rise in the judgment with only the testimonies of Solomon and Jonah.  Cornelius received the spirit of God before baptism.  The Samaritans received the spirit long after baptism.  Judas clearly knew Jesus, but rejected him.

Instead I find all the simple answers can fall short of a sincere heart.  I also find that a sincere heart can be known by God in many ways.  I find David’s instructions to his son Solomon still adequate for today.

And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.

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Who is Jesus, really?

In my personal discussions with unbelievers, I find that there are far more people who reject a distorted view of Jesus than the real Jesus.  They have seen a Jesus presented that is not really Jesus, perhaps by unbelievers, but more often by those that claim Him.  When they reject a distorted Jesus, they are not really rejecting Jesus, but something far less, usually something that Jesus himself rejected.  Hence, the question of who is Jesus is pivotal.  Mahatma Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Jesus WAS God in human form. One miracle is all we need to make this claim, the resurrection.  If the resurrection is real, then all the other miracles, the virgin birth, and even the Old Testament claims become believable.  I have already written about how we can believe this was an authentic miracle.  Take time to read this blog if you struggle with this assertion.

Jesus is NOT another God.  God is one (not three).  Any view of God that creates another version of God is not sustainable, logically or biblically.  Just as Bohr’s model of the atom helps school children to understand the atom, the concept of trinity helps us understand God in different forms.  People struggle with a God who prays to himself, but it is no different than the hand that can only do what the brain tells it to do.

Jesus HAS ALWAYS BEEN God in human form.  Jesus was before all things.  Just as the Spirit of God was present at the creation, “moving over the surface of the waters,” so the incarnation of God was present in the garden of Eden.  Man and woman “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”  Abraham fed, washed, and bargained with God face to face.  Moses regularly met with God “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.”  He appeared to Job, Jacob, David and the prophets (Eze 1:26,  Isa 6:1).  After his death and resurrection, he appeared in the flesh to the apostles and others, as many as 500 at a time.  He appeared to Saul who became the apostle Paul.  He later appeared to John again.  He is the last thing.

Jesus was God in COMMON form.  He was born in the most ordinary place, to a poor family, in a nation ruled by another people (Luke 2).  He was homeless.  He was not particularly handsome or attractive.  He took on a common name, for no one has been given His heavenly name.  Jeshua is the Aramaic form of Jesus.  In the Old Testament priestly family line alone, we see three priests by that name.  We are also introduced to Bar-Jesus in the New Testament.  Perhaps he would have been named Mike or David or Joe if he came today.  He can be called by many other names, my lord, wonderful counselor, mighty god, eternal father, prince of peace. He suffered many things and was rejected by His generation.  He even submitted to torture and death on the cross.

Jesus IS God in common form.  Notice the change in tense.  He is the hungry beggar you pass every day.  He is the thirsty illegal alien who mows your yard.  He is the shy, lonely girl that no one accepts.  He is the naked elderly man walking down the hall at the nursing home.  He is the stroke victim that lives across the street.  He is the convict that will rot in jail. (Matt 25:31-46)

Jesus CAN BE God in anyone’s form.  To be made in the image of God is the ultimate purpose for all mankind.  The Spirit of God dwells in those who are God’s.

I find the following verse very instructional at how the ‘Son of God’ relates to the ‘sons of God’. Jesus was sent from God, but others can also be gods.

The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him.  Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?”

The Jews answered Him, “…for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.”

Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came…, do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me;  but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:31-38)

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