Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Perspectives on Trials

Trials are experiences that human beings are all to familiar with.  They are inescapable and are in every area of life.  Jesus ensured His people that this would be the case.  In John 16:23, He says, “In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (ESV)  Is there a purpose to all this hurt and pain?  How can a good God allow terrible things to happen to people who love Him?  What good could possibly be worth all of the hurt and pain?  These are questions that are often raised by people in the midst of trials.  Despite how much pain is involved, there is an amazing purpose behind trials; they purify and strengthen faith, resulting in something “more precious than gold.”  
James 1: 2-4 assures believes that there is a purpose behind the trials that they so often experience.  James says:
“Count it all joy my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (ESV)
Joy is defiantly not the default human reaction to trials.  Out of their sinful nature, people  naturally react to trials by becoming angry and bitter.  However, James implores people to count all of these trials as joy.  He does this not because he is crazy, but because he can see the end to which trials are the means: a believer who is “perfect and complete.”
Similarly 1 Peter 1: 6-7 gives believers the proper response to trials.  Peter says:
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire- may be found to result in praise and glory  and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (ESV)
Peter in not numb to the hurt and pain experienced by believers.  He knows that trials are grieving the people.  He doesn’t give the typical modern Sunday School copout answer by telling them to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine.  He does, however, give them the appropriate response: rejoice.  Rejoice because their faith is being tested and proved to be genuine.  Rejoice because this process will give them something more precious than gold: genuine faith.
C.S. Lewis also deals with the issue of trials in The Problem of Pain.  He explains it by saying that humanity has rebelled against its Creator and humanity needs to surrender.  People must be broken and lay down their arms.  He says, “The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender the self-will as long as all seems to be well with it.” (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 90)  People need trials to realize that the way that they do life is not working and that they need to surrender to God to set things right.  Lewis says, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain, it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 90)  Pain is how God gets through to humanity, it shatters that notions that all is well and that what people have is enough for them.  “The full acting out of the self’s surrender to God therefore demands pain: this action, to be perfect, must be done from the pure will to obey, in absence, or in the teeth of inclination.” (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 98)  This quote echos exactly what the passage from James is saying.  Through  trials, faith is being perfected and people are being made to be more like Christ.  Trials are people’s wake up call that they cannot do life on their own.  In this realization, believers should rejoice because without it they would never be able to lay down their arms and truly surrender to God.  (Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
The Screwtape Letters are also full of great perspective of trials.  The perspective in the letters is not as direct as in The Problem of Pain, but with a little time and consideration some amazing truths about trials can be found in the letters from Screwtape to Wormwood.  In Letter XII, Screwtape warns Wormwood not to move too quickly saying, “My only fear is lest in attempting to hurry the patient you awaken him to a sense of his real position.”  (Lewis, The Srewtape Letters)  Screwtape does not want the patient to realize that he is drifting away from God and that his present course of action is not working.  Believers should rejoice in trials because they accomplish exactly what Screwtape is afraid of.  As was said in the previous section, trials are God’s way of shouting to people.  They awaken people to their “real position” by doing away with the notion that all is well.  After they have been woken up to reality people must turn to God.  Even though personal sin does not necessarily lead to many trials (John 9:3), trials present and amazing opportunity for believers to recognize sin and repent of it.  In doing this they “spoil the whole game” according to Screwtape.  Believers must take the opportunity to refocus their attention on God during trials.  If they are reluctant to think about God and neglect their relationship with Him than Screwtape gets exactly what he wants.  Screwtape says, “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and into Nothing.”  Christians must take each trial as an opportunity to have their faith strengthened, like James and Peter say, not to allow themselves to become separated from God. (Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
There are also many great perspectives on trials in “We Have No Right to Happiness.”  Believers must not allow themselves to think that they have a “right to happiness” in the midst of their trials.  This attitude will certainly build up resentment toward the Christian and God: exactly what Screwtape is trying to do.  Lewis says, “A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.” (Lewis, “We Have No Right to Happiness”)  Believers might be inclined to think that this “right to happiness” is just a way for unbelievers to justify their sin.  It is true that this is the case, but the “right to happiness” has also infiltrated Christianity.  It has simply manifested itself in a more Christian way.  They health and wealth gospel is full of claims to a “right to happiness” for Christians.  Claims like the following are made all the time: “If you have enough faith you will experience victory in you finances, your relationships, and your health!”  These claims are certainly tied to a “right to happiness” mentality and are very dangerous because they leave believers with a totally false perception of trials.  Instead of the biblical view that trials are for strengthening faith, trials are seen as evidence that the Christian does not have enough faith.  Trials must be understood through the Scriptures, not through the preaching of people on TV who do not understand the Bible.  Believers are to rejoice when they encounter trials of may kinds, because they result in something more precious than gold. (Lewis, “We Have No Right to Happiness.”)
In Engaging God’s World, Plantinga also gives many good insights regarding trials.  Plantinga does not often talk about trials explicitly, but his chapter on the fall is very helpful in understanding why trials exist.  When Adam and Eve disobeyed God they  allowed sin to enter the world.  The fall has left all humans depraved; they are sinners by nature and by choice.  Due to this reality, humans live against what is good for them and against one another.  Evil is what is wrong and it has corrupted everything in the world.  “We have in the world not just sins, but sin; not just wrong acts, but also wrong tendencies, habits, practices, and patterns that break down the integrity of persons, families, and whole cultures.” (Plantinga, p. 54)  Without sin in the world there would be no trials.  Trials are a direct result of the fact that humans live in a sinful world.  As long as people are still sinners by nature and choice they will hurt each other and themselves.  This is a sad reality of the fall.  As a result of the fall, all people will die a physical death and there will be pain and suffering in the world.  Christ is the answer to the two fold problem of trials.  First, it is Christ who uses trials to strengthen the faith of believers and make them more like Himself.  Secondly, it is Christ who has paid the ransom for sin and will someday return and heal all of the sickness, hurt, and death that is so often part of the human experience. (Plantinga)
Trials are a complex issue for believers to understand.  They are a result of the fall and sin entering into the world yet Christians are to rejoice in them.  They cause people who love God to grieve and hurt yet Peter and James compel believers to consider it pure joy.  Like Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, pain serves as the wake up call for humanity that all is not well and what people have is not enough for them.  Christians must avoid allowing resentment and separation, the things Screwtape wants, to build up between them and God by constantly reevaluating and repenting. Believers must also not allow a “right to happiness” mentality to seep in and cause them to misunderstand the purpose of trials.  What is ultimately important is keeping the big picture in mind.  God is using trials to strengthen believer’s faith and make this faith into something more precious than gold.  Despite how great the trial and how much pain is involved, faith more precious than gold is worth it.  When this is properly understood it calls for a proper response.  This response, like James and Peter say, is rejoicing in the pain, hurt, and struggle.  The response is not to put on a happy face and pretend that everything is fine, in this people are denying their God-given emotions and lying to themselves and others.  The right thing to do is to cry, to grieve, to hurt, but to rejoice in the midst of this; because despite the pain, believers should trust and obey God when He says that the results are worth it. 

Works Cited

The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Print.

Lewis, C. S., and C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters: with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain,. New York: Macmillan, 1944. Print.

Lewis, C. S. "We Have No “Right to Happiness”…C.S. Lewis." Web. 25 Jan. 2011. <http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro/>.
Plantinga, Cornelius. Engaging God's World: a Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Print.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Problem of Pain

In this section of The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis beautifully explains the purposes behind the pain that we so often experience.  We are rebels against God and it is pain that God uses to convince us to lay down our arms.  We are so often satisfied without God that He chooses to use pain to make us realize that we actually need Him.  God must 'break our will' like nurses used to break the wills of disobedient children and He does this through our pain.  We will not even begin to surrender our self-will to God if we are doing well with it.  However terrible it sounds, this pain must be continuous for as Lewis says 'However often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall soon find it alive.'  We recognize pain easily because it it is 'unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.'  We can often ignore pleasure, but we cannot ignore pain.  Lewis says, "God whispers to us in our pleasure, he speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain, it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

I really liked this section because it made me think a lot about the purpose behind the pain that we so often experience.  I agree with Lewis that pain is what God uses to break our will and orient us back toward Himself.  Reflection back on my own life, some of the times of greatest pain, sorrow, and uncertainty were when my focus turned back to God.  If it were not for those times I would have missed out on so much in my relationship with God.  It is so easy, especially in our modern American society, to get so comfortable and independent that we think we have no need for God.  Like Lewis says, "We regard God as an airman regards a parachute; it's there for emergencies but he hopes he'll never have to use it."  I get stuck in this sinful frame of mind so often.  I think it is important to come back to the truth that God made us for Himself and we will never be satisfied without Him.  The attempt to do so is a sinful one indeed.  We need pain to break our wills and reorient us toward the truth.

The Bible also talks a lot about pain and trials.  James 1: 2-4 says,
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing."
Likewise 1 Peter 1: 6-7 say this,
"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
Both of these passages communicate the same thing that Lewis is talking about: there is a purpose and a meaning behind the pain that we experience.  We are not called to be hypocritical Christians who always put on a happy face and deny our emotions.  We will be grieved by trials and these trials will often be very painful.  What these passages urge us to do is keep the end in mind while we are suffering through the means.  Our faith is being tested and strengthened and in this we should rejoice.  Our will is being broken are our hearts are being reoriented toward God.  No matter how horrible the pain, there is hope.  It is worth it because the reward of 'tested genuineness' of our faith is 'more precious than gold.'

Friday, January 21, 2011

Engaging God's World Chapter 5

In this chapter, Plantinga talks about vocation in the kingdom of God.  He says that we are all commissioned to be good citizens in the kingdom of God.  He refers to someone who accepts this commission with enthusiasm as a 'prime citizen' of the the kingdom.  The things of God seem sweet to a prime citizen and they long for the kingdom to come.  This person wants God to make things right in the world and takes up a role in that process.  The first organization that God uses to bring about his kingdom is the Christian church.  God also uses other organizations and means to bring his kingdom such as governments who protect freedom and administer justice.

This chapter was a very interesting one for me to read.  It was defiantly a section where I was constantly wrestling with the text to try and see how exactly all of this lines up with God's Word and my beliefs.  I think that he is on the right track, but it is very hard for me to tell because these issues are not mentioned often and in very much detail in Scripture.

Plantinga then moved on to talk about vocation and education.  He talked about how secular education fails to give students a Christian philosophy of life and vocation.  It also doesn't give them a philosophy of good and evil from the perspective of creation, fall, and redemption.  It is very difficult for Christian students to get the full picture of education and its spiritual implications from a secular institution.  Christian education, on the other hand,  seeks continuity between faith and learning.  Plantinga says,  "In this way your Christian higher education may serve both as your present vocation and as your preparation for a life long vocation as a prime citizen of the kingdom."

I completely agree with what Plantinga says in this section.  A Christian philosophy of learning is vitally important for all Christians.  I feel that Christian students in a secular educational environment do not know what they are missing.  The fact that we are Christians should completely change the way we view education.  If we truly believe what we claim to, there is something going on around us that is of eternal importance and this reality should change the way we see every subject and discipline.  

Man or Rabbit?

In this selection C.S. Lewis addresses one question.  This question is "Can't you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?"  He says that this question is the wrong one to ask because what this person is really saying is:
"I don't care whether Christianity is true of no.  I am not interested in finding out whether the real universe is more like what the Christians say than what the Materialists say."
The questioner is not seeking the truth, but rather only concerned with living a good life.  This person chooses beliefs not because they are true but because they are helpful.  Lewis says that this mentality probably comes from foolish preachers who preach Christianity as a band-aid for the world's problems and not as the truth.

I can see the mentality that Lewis is addressing in the church today.  There is so much emphasis on the positive things that Christianity can do for people that many may come to think these positive things are the sole purpose of Christianity.  I feel that this mentality has been further perpetuated by the "health and wealth gospel" that is preached in many churches.  The faith is portrayed as some kind of exchange where a person has faith and in return God fixes all their problems.  This is a complete misunderstanding of the Bible, all one has to do is read the stories of the early church to see that they had either health nor wealth.  What they did have was the truth, regardless of how helpful it is in this earthly life.

Lewis then goes on to talk about men who evade the gospel.  They do not what to find out whether Christianity is true or not because they foresee that if it is it has some implications that are not desirable to them.  Lewis says that this is like a man who will not look at his bank account because he is afraid of what will be there.  He compels people to seek the truth when he says this:
"Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you.  Either that's true, or it isn't.  And if it isn't, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal 'sell' on record.  Isn't it obviously the job of every man (this is a man and not a rabbit) to find out which, and to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?"

Lewis is compelling people to seek for themselves whether this thing we call Christianity is true.  It does not matter if it has implications that some people might not like.  If it is indeed true and they ignored it because of these implications they will find themselves much worse off.  All of this goes back to many other Lewis writings.  He is passionate about people seeking knowledge and truth.  This passion is very clear in "Our English Syllabus" and "Learning in Wartime."  He concludes by saying that Christianity would do these questioners good because it will hammer into their head that 'morality' or 'good' cannot be done without God.  He says, "Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Inner Ring

In this address to at the University of London C.S. Lewis talks about the reality of social hierarchies or Inner Rings as he calls them.  Everyone comes across the Inner Rings all throughout their social lives.  He says, "You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it."  Each of these rings or cliques have their own slang, nicknames, and manners.  He adds this:
"It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside.  Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline."
Lewis says:
"There are no formal admissions or expulsions.  People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those really inside."
Lewis also talked about how the ring is referred to differently from the inside than from the outside.  From the inside it is called "You and Tony and me," but from the outside it is referred to as "So-and-so and his set" or "That gang."

This piece beings back a flood of high school memories.  I went to a small private school, so there were not very many Inner Rings to choose from.  This further increased the pressure to fit into one of them or to fit into the right one.  Looking back, I remember people, including myself, doing the dumbest things to try to get into a certain Inner Ring.  People engaged in lifestyles and activities that they would never actually choose to do if they were being themselves, but they did it for the sake of trying to get into a certain ring.  Most of the time this kind of desperate behavior didn't even work and it simply provided "great amusement for those really inside."  It is very true when Lewis says, "One of the most dominant elements [in men's lives] is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside."  This terror of being life is a huge insecurity that doesn't allow people to be who they really are.

Lewis then goes on to talk about what he thinks about Inner Rings.  He says:
"I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an Evil.  It is certainly unavoidable."  It is not Inner Rings themselves that are the problem according to Lewis.  He is more concerned with the the desire that draws us into Inner Rings.  He says that this desire is one of the chief drivers of human action.  If this desire is allowed to run loose it will lead a person to become a "scoundrel."  This desire can lead one to neglect and shake off real friendships in order to try to be on the right side of the invisible line.  Lewis says, "Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things."

The last quote was my favorite from the entire piece.  It is a quote that is extremely sad but extremely true.  The pressure to fit into a certain group can cause someone to do things to others that they would not have previously thought they were capable of.  I have had it several times in my life where I get to know someone on a one-on-one level and they seem like a great person.  Then I would be shocked to see that person treating others of myself very badly and be shocked.  I eventually noticed the pattern.  People are so insecure and long to be accepted so much that the entire way that they treat people is completely based on the group that they are hanging out with.  This reality is sad and needs to be addressed.  We should strive for consistency in how we treat everyone despite who is around.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Four Loves: Eros

In this chapter Lewis discusses the romantic between the sexes called Eros.  He explains that the evolutionist view of Eros claims that there is sexual attraction, Venus, first and then the man falls in love with the woman.  He says that he doubts that this is at all common.  He says:
"Very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-ocupation with the Beloved- a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality.  A man in this state really hasn't leisure to think of sex.  He is too busy thinking of a person.  The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself.  He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned.  If you ask him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, 'To go on thinking about her.'"

I like this quote because it is a true description of what it feels like to be attracted to someone.  I am not talking about attraction in the sexual sense.  What Lewis describes is what a guy feels when he meets a girl that is simply amazing "in her totality."  I love the phrase "in her totality" because it describes what a man should really be attracted to.  A man who is attracted to a woman in this way is attracted to everything about her; her personality, smile, laugh, beauty, humor, intellect, faith, and style.  A man who is attracted like this is constantly being swept off his feet because everything he learns about her amazes him.

Lewis then goes on to talk about how he feels that sex is often taken too seriously.  He adds that it is important of course to take sex seriously theologically and morally.  However, the practice has become much to serious.  He says, "Banish play and laughter from the bed of love and you man let in a false goddess."  He later says this about the spirit of Venus:
"She herself is a mocking, mischievous spirit, far more elf than deity, and makes game of us.  When all external circumstances are finest for her service she will leave one or both of the lovers totally indisposed for it."
Lewis goes on to say that this might raise frustration and self-pity in some lovers.
"But sensible lovers laugh.  It is all part of the game; a game of catch-as-catch-can, and the escapes and tumbles and head-on collisions are to be treated as a romp."

I honestly didn't know what to make of this section when I first read it and it is still not totally clear to me.  I had never really thought of this as much of a problem before, but that may just be because I have no personal experience in this area.  I knew that Lewis thought that this was important because he devoted several pages to it.  As a I reread it again I saw some consistencies with it an the later section that talks about worshiping Eros.  What I can draw from this section is this: sex was made to be enjoyed and not worshiped.  If there is too much seriousness then there is no enjoyment and it is not serving its original purpose.

Lewis then talks about how Eros has some similar qualities to a deity.  It invites a quasi-religion when it is idolized because it can often sound like a god.  Lewis says this:
"We must not give unconditional obedience to the voice of Eros when he speaks most like a god.  Neither must we ignore or attempt to deny the god-like quality."
I think that this applies very well to "We Have No Right to Happiness."  We must use things much more than Eros to make decisions. We have no right to do whatever we feel like as long as Eros tells us to do it.  Lewis says, "This act, like any other, is justified (or not) by far more prosaic and definable criteria; by the keeping or breaking of promises, by justice or injustice, by charity or selfishness."

Show and Tell

For my show and tell I focused on the idea of repentance in The Screwtape Letters.  It is the one thing that Screwtape tells Wormwood to avoid at all costs.  I read excepts from a sermon by Mark Driscoll entitled "Jesus and Repentance" and read Luke 13:1-5, part of the passage for the sermon.  Here is the link the the sermon: http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/luke/jesus-and-repentance