Tag Archives: Romans 1

The life and death problem, as explained by your trash

And why an angry God loves you more.

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end… but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature … and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears: would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?
–Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’

‘Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’
C.S. Lewis, The Narnia Tales

Last week I spent a day ar a recycling facility in New York City. As it turns out, we can learn a lot from our trash.

Did you know that after your trash is sorted, a ton of “Pure White” paper is worth $450, but that any tint of color or discolor drops the selling price to $350 per ton? It’s value drops from there until it is, well…garbage.

***

Christianity asserts that the God of Creation loves us more than we would ever dare hope. It’s a worldview that suggests we were created in God’s image to share in a perfect relationship with Him and to enjoy all the good things He created for us. It provides a plausible explanation of who we are and why we’re here, a rational basis to believe in eternityheavenTruthsignificance and hope, and a tangible prototype of service and love in the life and death of Jesus Christ. In many ways, it’s the answer to what I think we would hope was true if we didn’t know. That is, if God didn’t reveal Himself, we might have invented (this part of) Him.

It’s critical that we dwell on God’s love for us–understand it and bask in it–but it’s also possible to focus so much on God’s love that we end up with an incomplete picture of God Himself. We tend to pick Biblical ideas about God we like…and leave others out. A God who answers prayers, yes; but one who judges…not so much. We like the idea of a loving God but not a jealous one. We’d prefer to take the cuddlier version and leave out the one with teeth–forgetting His perfect Holiness, Justice and Wrath. We would never invent that God.

Ironically, when we strip away God’s Anger, we end up with a less loving god, not the more loving god we set out to create. And perhaps most importantly, we lose an understanding of what sets the Christian worldview apart from all others—the way it addresses sin in the world and in our lives…

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Idol Hope

The story is often told that John D. Rockefeller, an oil magnate and one of the richest men of his time, was once asked when he would be happy. He is said to have replied, “When I make one more dollar.”

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.   —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.  —Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

***

I have spent some time thinking about idols recently, mostly because I find the idea to be so challenging. An idol is something, anything, our hearts desire above God—something we put our hope in and believe will make us happy. I usually have no difficulty listing those things by the handful in my life. And yet, I believe idolatry is at the very core of a lack of peace and joy that often haunts me. Since we were created for a relationship with God in which He is central in our lives, displacement of Him from that place displaces everything else. We end up with broken relationships with one another, a distorted understanding of who we are and either an over- or under-appreciation of the good things God has put in the world for us. To be sure, I mean that loving even things as good as family and friends more than God—or the other way around, even loving our own virtue or sacrifice in not valuing the things of this world—will ultimately leave us broken and disappointed.

Said another way, we were created for a “vertical” relationship with God—created to enjoy all other good things, including our “horizontal” relationships with one another (and the world around us), in light (and proper understanding) of that relationship. But we often try to make the horizontal relationships central, and everything deteriorates from there. This is the very definition of sin in the Bible. Not “loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”

Anyway, all this contemplation about how very many things I am inclined to make central in my life over and above God made me realize two (perhaps?) more encouraging things about idolatry. One—we were made to worship. And two—though basically everything we worship disappoints us, they all point to the One who will not.

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The problem of good in the world (Part 2/3): good that consumes

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—Romans 1:25a

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies—Romans 8:22-24

I started this 3-part essay (here) with the contention that if the world and humankind were created by an intentional creator, it stands to reason that we can understand the nature of the creation by understanding the character of the creator.  Admittedly, I continue to presuppose that there is a knowable true Truth (discussed more here), impervious to time or location, and that this true Truth is a person—the Judeo/Christian God.

Part 1 discussed God’s nature as a Triune God who created mankind in His image, sculpted the universe to house a Garden (and more broadly, the Earth) to sustain us; and declared that both were ‘very good’.  From this we concluded that:

  1. We were designed for a relationship with God
  2. We were designed for relationships with one another
  3. The things in the world are good
  4. Culture is good

Or said another way, being created in God’s image suggests we were made first for a relationship with Him (point 1), then for relationships with one another (2) and that we also have a relationship to Creation itself (3 & 4).  We deduced from God’s nature and motives (a good God creating a universe for people He loves) that the essence of Creation reflects God’s goodness—that it’s a gift to us and therefore the things in this world are good.

But if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves, the world doesn’t always feel so good, does it?  And as I alluded to in the conclusion of Part 1 (concluding remarks have been edited), I think we’re left to ask: how can I hold my belief in the value and dignity life and still acknowledge humanity’s clearly failing (/failed?) history?   How can everything created be good (1 Timothy 4), but the whole of creation be groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8)?  And for what does it groan?

Throughout history, philosophers and religious thinkers have tried to answer these questions.  Gnosticism and Nihilism are two such attempts.

The main tenet of Gnosticism is that the human spirit is Good but that it is trapped inside a physical world of Evil—both the very body that holds it and the world in which that body resides—pushing us always to compromise our goodness.  It allows its adherents to maintain the belief in the goodness of humanity (at least in a spiritual sense) and blames evil on the physical world.  The challenge of life then is to be disciplined and master ourselves—to beat our bodies into submission of the sprit’s will (think Monty Python’s monks whacking themselves over the head as they sing in Gregorian chant).

Nihilism takes a different approach. It claims that there are no inherent values or truths in the world—that “…morality does not exist, and subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or to logically prefer one action over another…..(that) life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value” (Wikipedia) (ideas I refuted here and here).  Nihilism claims there is no such thing as good and evil, so there’s no riddle to answer.  Evil isn’t evil at all!—problem solved.  It’s a terrifying idea if you follow it through to its end.

I am sympathetic to the logic of Gnostics and Nihilists because I believe both philosophies are attempts at intellectual honesty in the face conflicting information and experiences.  Many who ascribe to these philosophies may not know the words Gnosticism or Nihilism but they seek to true up what they want to be true of human nature and what they see in the world.  In other words, we genuinely want to believe that human nature is good and that life has value, but we look around and see (and often experience) a world full of pain: hunger, broken relationships, man-to-man violence where we stand against each other, natural disasters where the world seems to stand against us—and even death.

Have you never looked in exasperation at how brutal a place this can be?  Have you never wondered how we are capable, at times, of being so cruel to one another?

So the logic of Gnosticism allows us to preserve the notion that the soul is good, while the logic of Nihilism allows an escape from the problem altogether.  But adherents to either must face their respective dire conclusions: the Gnostic stands against a hostile world with even his own body against him in the struggle for the spirit.  The Nihilist must stare into the abyss, recognizing the only findable absolute is that of meaninglessness—and is forced to conclude that not even the spirit within him can be deemed Good.

Both, I think fall short—they are neither true to our experience of the world nor of our instinctive sensibilities.  So how do we bridge the chasm?

I want to offer what may seem like a counter-intuitive answer: I think we’ve treasured too much the good things in the world, and in so doing have sacrificed the most sacrosanct component of ourselves—severing the relationship with God for which we were built.

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, in reflecting on the condition of humanity concluded that we were each made with a “God shaped hole” in our hearts.  Idolatry is the biblical term for trying to fill that whole with something other than God, anything other than God.   And we have a lot to choose from—God has given us so many great things to enjoy!   But nothing else will fill that hole.

And since we were built in a way that our relationships to one another and to the physical world were tied intrinsically to a proper relationship to God, all of our lives are thrown out of balance when that vertical relationship is broken.  Multiply that times 6.7 billion people and you have a world that doesn’t perfectly reflect God’s goodness.

This is not good news, but it’s consistent with what we know, isn’t it?  There is much beauty and friendship and sacrificial love in the world.  There are sunsets that move us, landscapes that silence us, mountains that awe us, oceans that mesmerize us—there’s Ireland!  We’ve all known laughter and the hand of friendship.  But we’ve also known tears and loneliness.  We’ve betrayed and been betrayed.  We’ve seen wars and destruction.  We’ve mourned the deaths of loved ones.

Our experiences don’t show us a world that is evil or souls that are always good; and our instincts don’t allow us to cop out with the claim that there’s no such thing as either.  We’re not good souls fighting our evil bodies, we’re one entity of body and soul just as God is!  We’re capable of tremendous good but also of terrible evil.

And the world is full of things for us to enjoy—mountains, beaches, oceans, sunsets, marriage, sex, family, wine, money—they’re all good things from God, not evil things designed to destroy us.  But they will destroy us (and we will also destroy them!) if we worship them instead of the one who made them for us.

The world was not made for death and decay (other thoughts on this here).  It groans to be restored.  And so must we.

part 1 here. part 3 here.