Great questions about God

My now 9 year old son asked some great questions last night in the car to my wife and I as we drove home from his “celebration” birthday dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in Oklahoma City. We had actually spent quite a bit of time together yesterday, going to a Boy Scout Troop sponsored event in the morning to help cub scouts design and cut out their Pinewood Derby cars. In addition to getting his car designed and cut out (with a very nice band saw and power sander, the likes of which we do NOT own or have access to) we purchased some paint and a small hand saw we were able to use to cut out the back part of his car and make some “fins.” We were able to apply two coats of paint, and have his car well on its way to being completed in advance of “the big race” which will happen at an upcoming pack meeting in the spring.

I am struck by how questions like these seem to follow more QUANTITY time that is spent together rather than QUALITY time. I agree with those who observe “quality time” only comes when you spend “quantity time” with someone else, whether that person is a child or a spouse. The idea of “quality time” is a myth, whose source I’m not sure of, that says you can squeeze in equally valuable amounts of time needed to raise children between an overwhelming array of diverse demands and commitments. That may happen infrequently but I don’t think it happens regularly. When you spend quantity time together, however, quality time seems to happen more often.

Here are some of the questions Alexander posed to Shelly and I last night, which I think reflect some remarkably deep thinking for a 9 year old:

  1. Why doesn’t God speak to us in our dreams like he did in the Bible?
  2. When Jesus comes back to earth, is he going to be born again in a stable like he was the first time?
  3. Is there going to be a “Bible 2” when Jesus comes back and chooses new disciples?
  4. Do angels have to get permission to come down to earth and do things? Can they see us from up in heaven?
  5. Is heaven like a second world? Is God on other planets in other worlds?
  6. What is the purpose of life: Why are we here? (This last one was actually my question I had posed to Alexander a few days back, that we discussed some more.)

No doubt these ARE tough questions, and in trying to answer them last night in the car as we drove home, I was glad Shelly was there to help me attempt some answers. As I’ve written and noted before I don’t think either of us have “all the answers” when it comes to Biblical truth, but I do think and believe that God has the answers and He continues to reveal His truths to us as we read His word and seek Him in prayer, fellowship, and study. So these are some of the answers we shared with Alexander (and his listening younger sisters) last night in paraphrased form.

Why doesn’t God speak to us in our dreams like he did in the Bible?
God DOES speak to us today through the Holy Spirit. God sent his Holy Spirit down to earth at Pentecost after Jesus had gone back to heaven to be with God, and the Holy Spirit speaks to us as we seek God and pray to Him for guidance and direction. Most of the Bible (all of the Old Testament and all of the NT before Pentecost in the book of Acts) was written about times before the Holy Spirit came down to earth. God spoke to his people, often his leaders, through dreams and visions. God still speaks to us and calls us to live out our individual and unique calling– our “mission” on the earth. God sometimes still speaks to us in our dreams, and this is his Holy Spirit speaking to use. [I DIDN’T SAY THIS AT THE TIME BUT AM ADDING IT NOW: WE HAVE TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD AND KNOW HIM TO BE ABLE TO RECOGNIZE HIS VOICE. WE HAVE TO BE ABLE TO DISCERN OUR OWN VOICE, ASKING FOR ITS OWN DESIRES, AS WELL AS OTHER VOICES WHICH TEMPT US OR CHALLENGE US TO ACT IN WAYS CONTRARY TO GOD’S WILL. GOD DOES SPEAK TO US, BUT WE HAVE TO WORK EACH DAY ON OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM TO KNOW HIM AND KNOW HIS VOICE.]

When Jesus comes back to earth, is he going to be born again in a stable like he was the first time?
The Revelation of John, which is the last book in the New Testament, tells that when Jesus comes back to earth He will come riding in the clouds and come to judge the nations. Jesus won’t be born again in a stable like He was the first time, when he comes back to the earth physically He’ll come back in power. This is one reason why it is so important for us to tell others about Jesus and about the Good News that he offers to every one of us. When Jesus comes back he will take those people who know Him and call Him their Savior up to heaven to live with Him forever. This is one of the most difficult things to remember and understand: God made us all to live forever. We are all spiritual beings living in our bodies right now, but our spirits will live forever. What we do in life is a preparation for eternity. We need to remember also that we don’t know the day and time when Jesus will return. Some people claim they know when Jesus will come back, but the Bible reminds us that no one knows. We should always be ready. As Christians, we can have confidence that no matter what happens– whether some tragedy strikes us and one of our family members is killed, or anything else bad happens– wars, or crazy times– we know that in everything God is in control. God will provide for us and take care of us no matter what happens.

Is there going to be a “Bible 2” when Jesus comes back and chooses new disciples?
I am not certain, but I don’t think so. Most Christian and Biblical scholars today believe that the era of Biblical revelation is over, when the books of the Bible were written and shared with God’s people, although God DOES continue to communicate and speak to his people through his Word, prayer, and his Holy Spirit. As we read the Bible, we see that Jesus rarely did things like miracles in the same way more than once. When Jesus healed blind people and gave them sight, he did it each time with a different method. The Bible says that Jesus will return to judge the nations, not to lead another life of teaching and ministry. It is our job now to tell others about Jesus and share his his love. [I DIDN’T SAY THIS BUT WILL ADD IT NOW BECAUSE I’M THINKING OF IT: JESUS CAME TO EARTH AND PAID FOR ALL OUR SINS BY DYING ON THE CROSS. JESUS DID THIS FOR US ALL ONE TIME, ONCE AND FOR ALL. IT IS DONE, AND IT IS FINISHED. JESUS WILL NOT RETURN TO LIVE A REPEAT OF HIS EARTHLY LIFE, BECAUSE HE HAS ALREADY DONE THAT– SHARED HIS TEACHINGS, AND GIVEN UP HIS LIFE, AND THAT PRICE FOR OUR SINS HAS BEEN PAID IN FULL.]

Do angels have to get permission to come down to earth and do things? Can they see us from up in heaven?
Again I will admit that I don’t know the answer to this for sure, but we do know that angels are real and are the messengers of God. I think that angels are the servants of God, and do what God tells and asks them to do. If we think about the angel Gabriel going to Mary to tell her that she was going to have a baby, and he was going to be the Savior of the world, we see that God told the angel to do that. The angel Gabriel didn’t decide on his own to go to Mary and tell her something. I think that one of the main things which differentiates us as humans from the angels is that we have “free will,” we can choose what we want to do: whether to do good or evil. Some people will say that we really don’t have free will because God knows everything and has already decided for us (God is omniscient.) I do believe God is omniscient and omnipotent, but I believe we still maintain free will amidst that reality, based on what I have read in the Bible and in my own spiritual walk of faith. Yes God knows my choices before I make them, but that does not change the fact that he lets me choose. So to answer the question, Yes: I think angels do have to get permission for everything they do here on earth. I think angels are God’s servants and messengers on earth, and they do what God commands. Perhaps angels can and do look down on us from heaven. I think that everything they do, however, is something that is within God’s will. Angels don’t have free will.

Is heaven like a second world? Is God on other planets in other worlds?
I think we have to remember that heaven is a place and a concept that we really can’t fully understand and grasp with our limited human minds. As humans we live in time, which moves one direction (forwards) and has a starting point and an ending point. God is not like this, and neither is heaven. We know from the Bible that God has always existed: He had no beginning and will have no end. God is infinite. Our minds can say “infinity” but we can’t really comprehend what it means. So I am not sure about a lot of things when it comes to heaven. We know that heaven exists, that God lives there, and that we will all go one day to live with God if we claim Jesus as our Savior. Maybe there are parallel universes in the world, like we’ve discussed in talking about physics and the universe. Yes, we believe God is the God of the entire universe, not just our world here on planet earth. I believe there are other worlds, and yes– God is the God of those worlds too. The universe is an enormously huge place, and we are barely able to comprehend and understand its enormous size. There is a lot we don’t know about the universe, but we do know that God is the creator and ruler of all of it.

What is the purpose of life: Why are we here?
When I asked this question to my son again last night (yes we did have a lot of lighthearted conversation at dinner, but this was one of the more serious moments) he responded as probably many people in our culture would and do today: “To be happy?” In responding to his ideas, I was reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” that is part of his speech and sermon series I purchased on iTunes about a year ago and am listening to again. In that letter, he reminds us that our purpose here in life is not to merely be happy and seek to satisfy our own desires and needs: Our purpose is to understand and do the will of God. God wants us to be happy, but there are times in our lives when we will not be happy. There are things which are worth struggling and even fighting for that will not bring us earthly happiness, but rather may bring us earthly suffering. Ultimately, we are called as God’s people to do God’s will on earth, and that is our purpose. We are here to worship and glorify God, and do His will.

That was a lot of heavy conversation for a late Friday night! I was amazed by the depth and thoughtfulness of Alexander’s questions about God, and was also thrilled to have him asking us (his parents) questions like these that he is working through. As we prayed together last night when he went to bed, I thanked God for Alexander’s inquiring mind and the questions he is seeking answers to. I prayed that God will continue to bless him in his life, and provide answers to these questions as He continues to reveal himself to Alexander.

Christians on the web

The movie short “What If God Had a MySpace” is a clever example of digital storytelling, but also raises some viable issues that are worth thinking about.

The scenes of the devil asking to be God’s friend, and having to be repeatedly denied, remind me of some of the friend requests I received on my own MySpace page before I wised up and changed my birth year to 1901. Based on my gender and age (when I was reporting my real birth year) I was getting friend requests that may not have been named “Satan” but were probably close in the thematic focus of their MySpace pages. 🙁

The scenes of people “asking for stuff” made me think about how many people view God, and how many people are missing a relationship with Him. Unfortunately I am too busy, quite often, and don’t spend the time with God that I need to and should be spending each day. Who do people think God is? That question seems to be raised by this video also.

The video also raises the issue of relevance to me– and exemplifies the need we have for more Christian voices on the web. What an amazingly exciting as well as shockingly horrible environment we live in today– in this flat world which can and does bring people together for common purposes, both good and evil.

iFilm (the site who owns the blog linked above) is quite an eye opener into the world of viral video. I first learned about iFilm a couple of summers ago, at the Digital Media Academy’s workshop on Digital Storytelling. Of course YouTube can be a bad place to explore as well– there is more there than any of us should go out and try to see and find. I have real mixed feelings about all of this. I guess in the online environment of the flat world, there are less “checks” and “boundaries” on individuals’ access to content of all types, good and bad. That is simultaneously exciting and horrifying. I wrote about some of this back in January 2005, in terms of the power of mere still images to powerfully affect the mind and the imagination.

Lots of thoughts raised here. We need more Christian voices on the web. Not because any of us have all “the answers” ourselves, but because we know where and to Whom we can and should turn for answers.

Inspiration from Irwin

I heard Irwin McManus speak at a Promisekeepers event several years ago, and when I started looking for Christian-focused podcasts I was thrilled to find his California church, Mosaic, regularly publishes Irwin’s sermons as well as other presentations on their podcast channel. Unlike some other inspirational Christian preachers who sell their sermons online, Irwin and Mosaic are giving their content away for free. The messages are Christ-focused and Biblically centered, and I really appreciate the scripture, thoughts, and insights they share as I continue on my own walk of faith. They are planning on offering archives of podcasts for sale eventually, but the latest ones are and evidently will continue to be available for free.

Irwin’s latest sermon, “Does God Care,” takes on one of the toughest questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is all knowing and all powerful, how could he let such seemingly senseless and evil things happen on earth?

I appreciate the fact that Irwin offers several perspectives on this answer, unlike Rabbi Kushner who wrote the book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” which I read several years ago and found very lacking theologically. Irwin points out that one of the most important things to realize is that GOD CARES, and he acts in our fallen world that yes– does have evil and sin in it– because He loves his people.

I think catastrophic life events often either drive people away from God or can serve to drive us right into the waiting arms of God. I don’t have all the answers, and Irwin admits he doesn’t either, but I appreciate his perspectives and hope more people will hear the Gospel message through the Mosaic podcast.

Images of God

This frontpage headline from USA Today caught my attention today: “View of God can predict values, politics.” According to the article:

A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs…Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

There were many findings from the survey, but the key one the article focused on was this:

Though 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force, they had four distinct views of God’s personality and engagement in human affairs.

The “four views of God” were named by the researchers as “Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or Distant.”

Was there a survey response for “Holy” and “Intercessor?” And what about the question: Who do you say Jesus is and was? That’s a key question. Apparently it wasn’t asked in this survey, however.

Why did researchers assume that people’s view of God could be neatly compartmentalized into a single category? After all, we are talking about GOD here, the LORD– and even a cursory reading of Biblical passages (Old and New Testament) reveals that God has many names. We did a short study last Spring in our Sunday School class in Lubbock on the names of God– I knew many of them, but I hadn’t realized that when most English translations of the Bible spell God’s name LORD or Lord in the OT, they are actually referring to a different Hebrew word for “God.”

God is authoritarian, from the standpoint that He is holy– literally “set apart” and without sin. That is why we can’t approach his throne or even be in his presence without our intercessor who has paid for our sins– and washes us clean in God’s eyes. God’s word and his Holy Word (the Bible) are just that: THE WORD. He is properly understood as THE AUTHORITY. There is no higher power greater than God, there is no authority equal to or above Him. He makes rules, and expects us to try and follow them. Thankfully, he also is forgiving and overflowing in grace– but he does judge and he will judge. Authorities do this. God is THE authority. (See Psalm 66 and Hebrews 10: 19-39)

God is benevolent, because he extends the offer of eternal salvation through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, by GRACE– not through our works. This is benevolence defined. Thank goodness God does not simply offer us “justice.” We are all sinners, every one– and anyone who says differently is deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive others. (Romans 3: 9-19) If God wasn’t benevolent, we would all be headed for the pit. Thank goodness he is benevolent! 🙂

God is critical, because He is just. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t forgive us when we ask for forgiveness with a contrite spirit in the name of his Son– but it does mean that he judges. That is God’s role. There is right and wrong, there is moral and immoral behavior. To the extent that God certainly makes value judgments– he is the ultimate judge of morality in fact– he can be said to be “critical.” That may not be a politically correct word– but I don’t think God is “into” political correctness. God is “into” things like love, forgiveness, and compassion. But He is also quite definite on morality. He is critical of immoral, sinful behavior. If he wasn’t this way, he wouldn’t be God. (See Colossians 3: 5-17 and Romans 2)

Lastly, at times I think God can be accurately understood as “distant.” God is holy, we are not. We strive to be holy, to be set apart for God and his purposes– but we cannot on our own will alone become truly holy. There is a bridge which separates us from God, and that bridge is sin. Without Jesus and his atoning sacrifice– which paid for our sins and the sins of all humanity once and for all (this is “justification”) we would have no hope of ever being in God’s presence. The need for atoning sacrifice– for atoning blood in fact, is the reason the OT Jews regularly offered sacrifices on holy altars. We don’t see these types of religious rituals today, so the idea likely seems quite foreign, but in the days of Jesus’ physical life on earth it was well understood.

So, I think God can be properly understood as multi-faceted– and definitionally defying our meager, limited attempts to define, name, and understand him fully. He is GOD, He is THE LORD– He has many names, and each name we have for him attempts to better define His essence, power, nature and spirit. Coming from a Reformed perspective, I understand God to be three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is not three gods, he does not have three personalities, He is the ONE GOD and His name is THE LORD. The trinitarian, triune nature of God is a divine mystery, but it is important to understand. God is multi-dimensional and is not bound by time and space in the same ways we are. I think we are, in our rational interactions, four dimensional beings perceiving height, width, depth and time. God’s perception transcends these four dimensions, because we know God is, was, and always will be. Infinite. Omniscient. Omnipotent. Who can comprehend this fully? Certainly not I.

To be fair, the survey researchers do point out in the article that these “views of God” are not “mutually-exclusive,” which means there is room for overlap in the perceptions of many:

The four visions of God outlined in the Baylor research aren’t mutually exclusive. And they don’t include 5.2% of Americans who say they are atheists. (Although 91.8% said they believe in God, some didn’t answer or weren’t sure.)

This finding from the survey is also significant:

Sociologist Paul Froese says the survey finds the stereotype that conservatives are religious and liberals are secular is “simply not true. Political liberals and conservative are both religious. They just have different religious views.” About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%. The Baylor survey, unlike others, asked people to write in the names and addresses of where they worship, and many who said “none” or “don’t know” when asked about their religious identity named a church they occasionally attend.

Often in political discussions today, some (perhaps many in the media) automatically assume that those professing faith as “Christians” must be conservative Republicans. Personally, I refuse to be defined in my political perspectives by a single label. I am proud (as well as humbled) to call myself a Christian. But that fact does not necessarily define all my political views. I am glad to read a survey that is recognizing this reality for many others. The media often (perhaps always) attempts to oversimplify the complex. In the case of people’s religious views, this certainly seems to be the case frequently. This finding actually seems to contradict the very title of this article, “View of God can predict values, politics.” Belief does not necessarily point to political viewpoint. (On some issues I think Christians should be together, but on many others I think it is natural and not a bad thing that we are a diverse bunch. That would actually be a good topic for a future post!)

Lastly, this finding shows the importance of discussing our faith and defining what we believe.

Rodney Stark, former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and part of the Baylor team, says: “We wanted to break from the past 30 years of narrow questions. ” ‘Do you believe in God?’ Everyone says yes. “If you ask ‘Are you a Protestant, Catholic or Jew?’ people don’t even know what denomination they are today or what the label means.”

If you say you believe in God, what does that mean to you? If you are not comfortable with a denominational label (and I think that is fine, because God and Jesus didn’t invent denominations after all– they are very much a human-creation) then how do you define what it is that you believe?

For me, my journey of faith continues. I do not have all the answers, but I am confident knowing where the answers can be found! I’m glad you’ve found this small space in the blogosphere where others are reflecting and sharing about their own Christian journeys of faith, and I hope you’ll always feel free and welcome to contribute your own ideas.

All voices are valid, all perspectives should be considered. Through dialog, listening, reflection and prayer, God does and will continue to lead each one of us closer to Him. 🙂

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