Value machine

The human brain is a value machine. It constantly ascribes value to things, experiences, people, events etc. It forms a value hierarchy and ranks everything it contacts. The question is whether that hierarchy is based on a pre-existent, innate template, or it simply evolves as the person matures. Perhaps both take place; some things are ascribed value de facto (‘basic’), while others depend on the conditions and knowledge of the person. Survival, for example, is a de facto value. Every living creature strives to maximise/extend its physical life. But in the course of life – certainly for humans – other values may supersede survival. People may gladly die for ideals, beliefs or even to save other people. A de facto value can be modified.

Happiness #1

Blaise Pascal was right. Everybody is looking for happiness. The entire of human history can be described in terms of people trying to achieve the state of affairs that they perceive as the happiest possible. Even those who kill themselves do so because they think that death will make them happier than life.

If we don’t understand this, then we can’t claim to know anything about the human condition.

Quote: Two kinds of intellect

There are then two kinds of intellect: the one able to penetrate acutely and deeply into the conclusions of given premises, and this is the precise intellect; the other able to comprehend a great number of premises without confusing them, and this is the mathematical intellect. The one has force and exactness, the other comprehension. Now the one quality can exist without the other; the intellect can be strong and narrow, and can also be comprehensive and weak.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Pocket ebook, articles, dehydration and atheism

Dry land, Geography of Israel

It gets like that sometimes

[From an email I sent]

A dear brother reminded me the other day that I haven’t sent one of these resource-emails around for a while.

And I thought, “uh-oh”.

Why? Because that meant that the ever-growing list of materials to share with you would have reached epic proportions. And it was indeed so. But, knowing that there are far more important things in a Christian’s life than clicking on links, I worked hard (well, just worked) to trim the fat.

First and foremost, “A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology” by I. Howard Marshall. I’ve been e-reading it during lunch breaks and have found it profoundly useful, as it covers more than just the basics of our faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3b).

I particularly enjoyed the simplicity with which the writer explains what we believe and, importantly, why (good to have a Bible at hand). I did have some minor quibbles on how he handles the “problem of evil”, but that’s nothing compared to the way he reviews the foundations of the Christian faith and the clarity with which he describes differing views (e.g. baptism, church government and eschatology).

Clear, brief, concise, insightful and helpful to everyone. Perhaps a great read for non-Christians too. And please notice how we circumnavigated terms like “systematic” and “theology” in this brief review. That’s an acquired skill.

Next, lots of articles.

“What is Covenant Theology?”, by Ligon Duncan. Pretty self-explanatory title of a good article with some great insights into the why and how.

Something that might bring a tear to your eyes: Our Father. Beautiful and convicting. And, believe it or not, it’s about apologetics.

MUST READ: “Spiritual dehydration”, by CJ Mahaney. I’m itching to write an article about this article, but we’ve talked about these things so often in these emails that I will just leave you to read it. In fact, I’d say that this link should be clicked above all other links.

A useful resource of biblical texts (originals and translations) coupled with accompanying notes: http://biblia.com. Who needs shelves anymore? We have the interwebs!

And finally, VERY finally, a couple of things on atheism. In fact, you can put these on hold and read that article on spiritual dehydration instead. Atheism can wait.

So first, a response to Richard Dawikins’ atheism from Gary Gutting, a philosopher professor from the University of Notre-Dame. It includes a good critique of the Prof’s vociferous arguments and, in my opinion, does a great job in exposing their – often embarassing – simplicity and strawmanity (look! I made a word!). The comments that follow below are usual fare.

Then, there’s this: An Amoral Manifesto. “What’s a link from Philosophy Now doing here, brother?”, I hear you ask. Well, you won’t see many in these emails (mostly because I don’t have a subscription), but have you ever heard an avowed atheist growl about the evil of religion or the immorality of religious people? It’s a strange spectacle because, you’d think, if I’m an atheist, I have to be a [WORD OF THE DAY] moral relativist. In other words, no God = no absolute morality = no real morality = no morality = no right or wrong. Yes? Yes. (By the way, this is why I think that the problem of evil cannot be logically used to disprove the existence of God. But that’s another fish).

Well, now we can finally read it from the atheist horse’s keyboard. In Philosophy Now, agnostic-cum-atheist Joel Marks declares that atheism=no morality. It’s good to see them finally admit it, that’s all.

Until next time, many blessings to all of you.

The solution of pain

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; - Job 42:5

The Book of Job can change your life. Seriously. In my limited knowledge of ancient texts, I don’t think there’s anything that resembles it. It is a poem describing the breathtaking story of a man whose trust in and love for the one true God is tested to an extent that we can barely conceive today.

Job goes from hero to zero in the span of a few days. First, one after the other, he loses the sources of his wealth in a rapid staccato (Job 1:13-17). Then, before the news settle in, he loses his children (Job 1:18-19). And finally, for all his enduring faithfulness to God, he is struck with “painful boils” (Job 2:7), a horrible, painful, lesionous skin disease that forces him to live away from home, at a heap of ashes outside the city – an ancient quarantine of lepers (Job 2:8).

You’d think that’d be enough. But no: in the midst of his misery, Job’s friends arrive from abroad to offer some comfort. Well, have you ever heard the term “Job’s comforter”? This is – obviously – where it comes from. These three guys are the human equivalent of salt on an open wound. Once they see their friend, they have the decency to keep their mouths shut for a week (Job 2:13), but once Job finally breaks down and curses the day he was born (Job 3), they decide that now’s a good time to kick him while he’s down – but in a spiritual, wise-man way.

In essence, the book of Job asks the questions that are on everyone’s lips at any time: Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there any purpose in suffering? Is trouble always the result of sin?

And the answers? Well, they’re not explicit. But the dialogue between Job and his (ultimately four) friends from chapters 3 to 37, is vicious to say the least. Job despairs, and his friends’ response is, essentially, that his trials are a punishment from God on his sin. Job spends most of the book defending his innocence by claiming that he has not sinned (as opposed to that he is without sin), that God knows his heart and that he trusts God’s wisdom and sovereignty over this despairing situation. But in the same time, Job recognises that living a godly life is not always rewarded on earth, while those living in sin might temporarily prosper (Job 24:1-25).

Let’s take a moment here. There’s a bizarre notion in the world today that Christians ought to abandon their faith because their loving God cannot be reconciled to the misery and evil that exists in the world. It’s even got an official name: “The problem of evil”. And even though it is a fairly valid problem in the philosophy of religion, it is also entirely nonsensical to think that the Bible shies away from the issue. Far from avoiding it, Scripture also offers the most realistic perspectives on it.

Now think about this: If the book of Job started, say, in chapter 3, it would have to end in 37:24. Why? Because there would be no resolution of the issue. Job would maintain his innocence and say, “Well, God must have His reasons”, while his “friends” would shake their heads at his stubborn intransigence to admit his sin and eventually go back home. Questions: 1 – Answers: 0. All we would have would be a lengthy poetic book whose bottom line would be “Bad things happen and you just gotta trust God.” How edifying – not to mention comforting.

But the Bible doesn’t do half-baked cry-yarns, even when our finite little minds cannot grasp a concept. When we say that the Bible is the word of God, we mean that with it and through it, God speaks to us – and, thus, we better listen. And in the book of Job, we need to realise that we’re not sitting inside the debate. We’re not huddling around the lepers’ ash-heap, listening to wise men of the ancient Near East argue about God’s character and wisdom. No – in the book of Job, we are given the perspective of God. We’re not searching with Job for the cause of his troubles. We’re not puzzled over whether or not he really is being punished for some unacknowledged sin or if it was simply his turn to enter the eye of the storm. We’re not left wondering about karma or about the chaotic nature of the Universe. No – we know what’s happening and – more importantly – why.

The book starts off with a heavenly council – something like a divine conference – and we get a “behind the scenes” glimpse of Job’s upcoming suffering: Satan himself asks God’s permission to hurt him. His purpose? To prove to God – omniscient God – that Job’s righteousness is shallow. “He only loves you because you bless him with wealth, family, health; let me take away the goodies, and he’ll rebel against you before you can say ‘boils’.”

Interesting here that God doesn’t dismiss Satan’s proposal, even though He knows the outcome, He is sovereign, He is God. Why does He need to put poor Job through the paces? Why does He require proof of Job’s faith? Answer: He doesn’t. Not only does God know the extent and the quality of Job’s faith, but He is also the author of that faith (cf. Rom. 12:3; Heb. 12:2). Also, notice that neither Job nor his friends ever find out the reason for the trial, even in the end, when everything is restored to Job in greater abundance (Job 42:12-16). So why then?

Because we can’t see things the way God does. Because, in the end, He is God and we are not. And Job, for all his despair, understands as much (cf. Job 36:26; 37:5).

And though it seems like an obvious point, we need that reminder. We need to remember that, on this side of eternity, we can only see things dimly (1 Cor. 13:12), and that sadly means that we just can’t have all the answers – not because they are deliberately withheld from us, but because we can’t.

Now, that can be a terrifying thought: If my life is in God’s hands to do as He pleases with it, if I can lose everything in the blink of an eye, then that turns life into the most frightening gamble ever. I can hope for nothing; I can only fear because, after all, who am I to withstand what God throws at me?

Well, here’s the thing: I would be right to think like that unless God let me know something about who He is and what He does. For example, if God revealed that He never breaks His promises (Josh. 23:14; 1 Kings 8:56; 2 Tim. 2:13 ; Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Mal 3:6; Rom 11:29; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18; James 1:17) and then promised that, even though I cannot understand the cause and purpose of everything that happens in my life, in the end all the orchestrations of my earthly sojourn would work together to my eternal benefit (Rom. 8:28; 2 Cor. 4:17), well, that would certainly remove the horror of a whimsical, unknowable god who played dice with my life.

And that is the point of Job’s story. It’s not to reveal to us the threads that connect all the pieces of our lives. It’s not to give us bite-sized answers to the problem of human suffering, even though the Scripture teaches that at least some suffering is judgment on sin (e.g. Acts 12:20-23). The point of Job’s story is to tell us that, yes, if we belong to God, we are not exempt from suffering (John 16:33; Acts 14:22) but in the same time we have no reason to despair and every reason to put our hope in our sovereign God. As Job famously put it: Though he slay me, I will hope in him (Job 13:15a).

I emphasised a point in the above paragraph, and I would be amiss to not say something about it. These principles, these promises, only apply to those who belong to God. They are not extended to everyone, because not everyone partakes of God’s promises to His children. That is why in the New Testament, these promises come with explicit qualifications – see for example how Paul speaks of God’s promises in Christ:

As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory – 2 Cor. 1:18-21

In other words, God does not promise that “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) for everyone, regardless of their stance before God. His promises of “good” are only to those who “love God” – and no-one can genuinely love God outside of Christ:

We love Him because He first loved us. – 1 John 4:19

And how did He first love us?

…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Rom. 5:8

So, back to Job before we close. As we said above, if we had only his perspective, the book could finish with chapter 37, because that is the inevitable impasse that human understanding reaches when faced with the problem of pain.

And that is exactly the point where God intervenes: when human reason has gone dry and is now running in circles. And as we saw above, He does not explain things to Job, but instead calls Job to a correct, more clear understanding of His own person. Notice this: God doesn’t start a philosophical discourse with Job. He doesn’t debate Job’s friends. He doesn’t offer a psychological, Job-centred analysis to boost Job’s self-esteem. No. Instead, He turns the tables on Job’s incessant and demanding questioning by interrogating him with questions that, frankly, none of us would want to have to answer. And the point of God’s questions? To demonstrate His sovereignty, omniscience and omnipotence, as well as Job’s lack thereof. In other words, God wants Job to understand that He is God, and that that is the key to having a true perspective on his suffering.

The result? Job repents of thinking that he could demand explanations from God as if they were equals. His friends repent of their lack of spiritual discernment and for making narrow-viewed proclamations on God’s character. And in all this, Job gives those words that we should all take to heart because they encompass the true fruit of suffering under the sovereign hand of a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God who works all things for the good for those who are His (Job 42:5):

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear” Job admits. No shortage of information on God, no shortage of theological discourse.

And then comes the ultimate purpose of his and everyone’s suffering:

…but now my eye sees you.