Category Archives: providence

God, Time, and 2 x 3 x 11

It’s my birthday, my 2 x 3 x 11 birthday! June 1 has always been a special day to me. It symbolizes the gifts of life, time, opportunity, and responsibility. Of all the days of the year, it’s the time when I reflect most on my life, what I owe, what I have accomplished, where I have failed, and what I should do with the time remaining. I remember that I owe more than I can repay, have accomplished less than I could have, and have failed more often than I wish to recall. And I still wonder what I should do with my life.

We don’t exist in time. Time is the way we exist. To ask, “What should I do with my time?” is the same as asking, “What should I do with my existence, with myself?” How can I know when I am wasting it? Should I continue to do what I have been doing or should I make a change? Is it best to act boldly or cautiously?

How can we enjoy peace while reflecting honestly on our lives? Such small successes! Such immense failures! A burdened present borders an uncertain future! Come to think of it, how can we achieve a perspective from which to assess our lives? We either exaggerate our strengths and minimize our weaknesses or inflate our failures and shrink our successes. And can I really know what I should do with my time until the moment arrives when I must act?

I find no comfort, no joy, and no hope other than in this thought: God gives me life, time, opportunity, and responsibility. God’s eternity spans and encompasses my time from beginning to end. God knows why he gave me time; for my life was his project long before it was mine. My project will unfold as a mixture of success and failure. I stumble into the future not knowing where I am going or what to do when I arrive. But God’s project will not fail. God works through our “failures” as efficiently as through our “successes,” and for God, our staggering steps make a straight line to glory.

So, on this 2 x 3 x 11 birthday, I will not allow the weight of past failures, or the pride of past successes, or the darkness of a future unknown keep me from thanking God for his gifts of life and time, or placing my life at his disposal, or looking ahead to glory. And I pray that this day will find you in the same frame of mind.

Can Sin Really Be That Bad?

In the previous post (“Why We Really Need a Savior”), I defined sin as a condition of the will in which we assert ourselves against our Creator. We prefer our own judgment about what is good and bad, possible and impossible, and wise and unwise to God’s judgment about these things. In sin, we reject our place in God’s creation and put ourselves in the place of the Creator. We try to reorder creation so that it centers on us and serves our private interests.

According to the Christian message, God acted in Jesus Christ to save us from sin. This message is called “the gospel” or the good news. But do we hear it as good news? Aren’t believers as well as nonbelievers tempted to ask, “What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?” Whatever its motivation,  this is a good question and deserves a good answer.

Sin Attempts the Impossible

The first step toward grasping the badness of sin is understanding that the sinful will and the act of sin attempt to do the impossible. God is the Creator, and we are God’s creatures. A creature cannot make itself the Creator by an act of will or imagination. God gave creation existence, order, purpose, and destiny. We cannot change it. By preferring  our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.

Likewise, our attempts to make creation fit our preferences and go according to our wishes cannot defeat God’s plan. God is the Lord, and God sustains the order he created. We too are creatures in God’s created order and we have no power that God does not give us. We can do nothing God does not permit. Attempting to defeat God’s will aims at the impossible.

Sin Destroys the Self and Implies Death

If you try to do the impossible, you will fail. And this failure is destructive. When we imagine taking God’s place as the Creator and Lord of creation, we entertain a false image of ourselves. And what is appealing about that image is a lie, an impossibility. We imagine attaining a greater abundance of pleasures, a feeling of power, dignity, security, and many other good things. In reality, however, we cut ourselves off from the Creator who is the source of everything good. God freely gives us life and power, the dignity of being in his image, and the security of his care. Since we are not the Creator, we cannot supply these things for ourselves. Apart from God we are nothing. Sin implies only death and destruction. If God cooperated with our sin, if he gave us what we say we want, he would stop giving us life and all good things. We would die. More than that, God would forget us, and we would never have been.

But God does not cooperate with our sin! He keeps giving us life and all that sustains it. And this gracious act has a double effect. God wills to save us from our foolish, absurd, and self-destructive wish. But God’s gracious preservation—for the sake of our future salvation—also sustains us in our self-contradictory condition. And this condition is painful in two ways. First, we experience division, self-alienation and frustration within ourselves. Our true nature and destiny keep coming into our consciousness reminding us that we are not what we should be. We cannot seem to remake ourselves to our liking, and this is a source of great unhappiness. We bounce back and forth between pride and shame, both of which are attempts to escape from what we are or what we think we are.

However, the greatest suffering we endure is felt hardly at all, except as a huge emptiness. Something very important is missing. Since we have cut ourselves off from God, we do not have fellowship with God. What an infinite loss! We give up the Source of all good, true, and beautiful things and leave home for the “far country” in search for something better. We lose confidence in our worth and our sense of place in the world fades. Since we possess a dim awareness that we are empty and powerless, we can never feel secure and in control.

In this case, as we can see clearly, sin is its own punishment. There is no need for God to add any suffering to the suffering we inflict on ourselves. Indeed, in view of his love for us manifested in Jesus, God protects us from receiving the full consequences of our own choices. And the merciful suffering we endure may awaken us to the truth and motivate us to turn toward home and begin to seek God.

Sinful Acts Cause the Sinner and the Whole World to Suffer

Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.

Suppose I wish to take your money or your car. Or perhaps I want to diminish your sense of self-worth by cursing you or lying about you. Of course, these acts are possible. Thefts, murders, lies, and all sorts of other sins occur in the world, and they have destructive effects. And they are forbidden according to God’s law. But they do not defeat God’s will and replace it with the sinner’s sinful will. The sinner intends to take God’s place as the sovereign over the course of the future. This cannot happen. God works out his sovereign will whatever creatures do; God can work through natural causes, through chance events, through free human actions, and even through sinful acts. God negates the sinful imagination that inspired the sin and defeats the sinful intention in the act. It comes to nothing. It fails utterly because it is impossible. But God uses the physical motion and results of the act for his own purposes. “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28).

Even though God uses sinful acts for his good purposes, they still cause great suffering. They cause suffering in those to whom they are directed. Murders cut short the lives of those they target and cause deep grief in those left behind. Out of the sinful condition of the will—which itself implies death and nothingness—come actual death and destruction, pain and suffering, loneliness and heartache, war and hatred. Just as the sinful act arises out of the sinner’s internal misery and death, it returns to plague the sinner once more. When sinners externalize the sin festering in their hearts, they are made that much more aware of their miserable condition and this awareness compounds their misery. The anger, condemnation, and scorn of others fall on them, making them even more aware of their unworthiness and ugliness. The human community seeks revenge. Hatred excites hatred. Violence provokes violence. And the isolation and selfishness expressed in sin finds itself rewarded with exile. Sin is its own punishment.

“What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?”

Answer: the nature of sin is absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.

And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news!

Why WE Can’t “Make a Difference”

We often hear human idealism expressed in phrases like these: “I want to make the world a better place,” “I want to change the world,” or “I want to make a difference.” As noble and lofty as these expressions sound, they do not rise to the level of a Christian understanding of life. Not that our labor to improve living conditions or to advance science or to save the planet or promote social justice is of no value at all. It can be. But not in the humanistic way it is usually understood.

I want my life and work to make lasting difference. I am passionate about it! But I have come to realize that no matter hard I try I cannot accomplish this goal apart from one condition over which I have no control. The little word “lasting” in the phrase “to make a lasting difference” is all important. Who cares about making a difference that does not last! Who gets excited about making a temporary difference? But it is not within my power to make “a lasting” difference.

And here is why: One day—only God knows when—I’m going to die. Hence, nothing I do that presupposes that I am alive can have lasting value. Fame, pleasure, money, and professional success matter only if you are alive to enjoy them. They have no relevance beyond that point. One day—God alone knows when—the last person on earth who knew me will die. Nothing I accomplish that presupposes someone will remember it has value beyond that date.

One day—God knows when—the last remaining copy of anything I’ve written and every mention of my name will be destroyed. No one alive will have heard of me. Hence nothing I do for the purpose of being remembered by a living human being has lasting value. One day, given the natural course of things—God alone knows when—the last human being in the whole universe will draw her or his last breath. Hence nothing I can do that presupposes the continuing existence of human family possesses everlasting significance.

One day—only God knows when—our home Earth will be engulfed by our expanding Sun as it turns into a red giant. All remaining plants, animals, and even bacteria will be roasted in temperatures of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees. One day—God alone knows when—all the stars will die, the universe will be the same temperature in every place, so that nothing can happen. What then will become of all I have done?

If there is no God or anything like God, if there is no eternal mental or spiritual reality and mindless matter is the only thing that lasts forever, then neither our lives nor those we love have any lasting significance. Beauty, meaning, love and every quality or experience that makes life enjoyable is just a passing phase of the material world. Human beings are freaks and flukes of nature. Our wretchedness and greatness, our suffering and joy reveal nothing about the meaning of reality. Our lives will pass and there is no one to remember them. The work we have done to save the planet, to advance medical science, and to promote social justice will be forever lost.

My hope that I can do some lasting good, the driving force of my life, rests solely in my belief that there is a God who lives eternally and knows, understands, and remembers who I am, what I have suffered, and what I have done. My hope is that God does not wish to live forever without me, without you. I believe that by helping others on their journey toward God and by faithfully doing what God has assigned me to do I can do something lasting, even everlasting, something well worth my time. My life simply does not make sense to me otherwise.

Hence our labor to improve living conditions, to patch roofs, to advance science, to share a cup of cold water, to save the planet or promote social justice can be of lasting value…if God assigns it to be done, if we do it in service to Christ, and if God remembers it. Otherwise it will make no difference in the end.

The Message of Divine Providence for an Age of Anxiety

Anxiety is the state of every soul who thinks the future rests in our hands and that the lasting meaning of our lives will be determined by the worth of our accomplishments. Hence paradoxically, despair is the beginning of hope. And disillusionment is the first step to overcoming anxiety. If we are to experience what Paul calls the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5) and the “peace that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), we must despair of every false hope and every illusory good. Not surprisingly, then, we find in the scriptures some statements that seem intent on driving us to despair. They evoke a kind of therapeutic despair. Working like a strong emetic, they provoke nausea to help us expel the poison of misplaced hope:

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”     says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!     Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors     at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go,     but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets,     and hurries back to where it rises (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5)

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied….32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,     for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:17-32).

To say that Arthur Schopenhauer had a nose for sniffing out false hopes would be an understatement! But he is no more pessimistic than the Preacher of Ecclesiastes when he makes the diagnosis below. He is simply describing what everyone sees if you clear your mind of optimistic theories:

“The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists. Time and that perishability of all things existing in time that time itself brings about is simply the form under which the will to live…reveals to itself the vanity of its striving. Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.

That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been. But everything that is in the next moment has been. Thus the most insignificant present has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing” (from Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence”).

When you are young the future stretches before you and disappears over the horizon. It does not present itself as a finite series of evanescent moments but as a timeless, motionless whole. And though we know each present moment passes into oblivion before we can taste it, we experience a sense of continuity and stability in our memory of the past and anticipation of the future. This sense of time’s wholeness is reinforced by the appearance that objects around us possess stability, since they endure from one evanescent moment to the next. Youth views the immediate future as a time of becoming and building and the more distant future as a time of being and enjoying the enduring fruits of our labors. But as you get older, you see supposedly “enduring” objects age and disintegrate. Your accomplishments seem less significant in hindsight. The future no longer stretches out infinitely; the horizon continues to recede but the end of your time line appears short of the horizon. The excitement of becoming and the illusion of stable being are replaced by prospect of disintegration and nonbeing. The fragility of the moment spreads itself over all moments making it apparent that the wholeness and motionlessness of time is illusory. Nothing endures. Everything dies. All is forgotten.

I know the temptation of false hopes and the paralyzing anxiety caused by attempting the make my life significant by my labor. Have I done enough? Am I really making a lasting difference in the lives of my students? Will anyone read my books or “like” my blog posts? Will my labor be in vain? Will anyone remember or care? Will it last? Sometimes, when I get in this mood of despair I remember what I have always known and wonder how I could have forgotten: the answers to these questions are completely irrelevant because they are not the right questions to be asking. The right question is this: will my faithful creator take my work and with it accomplish his will and produce something that lasts, not for a day or a hundred or a thousand years, but for eternity? Will my God remember me? The answer I hear resounding in my ears is a clear yes! When I despair completely of my strength and put my hope in God, in God alone, my joy returns. I regain energy for my work. I do not have to see it. I know it, I feel it: My work will not be in vain!

At the end of his great chapter on the resurrection, Paul expresses the hope beyond the despair of human possibilities:

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

The Lord really does built the house and raise the dead!

Creation: The Most Neglected And Underrated Teaching In Contemporary Christianity

I am very excited to announce the publication of my book The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in An Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 2015). I got my first copies Tuesday, September 15. I have more I want to say about the church, but in view of the arrival of the book, I want to focus on doctrines of creation and providence for the next few weeks.

Christianity affirms that the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ and experience in the power of the Holy Spirit, is the Creator of all things. The first words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to be careful to avoid idolatry. There are many “so-called gods and lords” out there in the culture, “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6:). And the first declaration of the Nicene Creed (381) affirms: “I believe in one God, Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Considering its foundational importance and its comprehensive scope, the Christian doctrine of Creation may be the most neglected and underrated teaching in contemporary Christianity—and the most hated by those outside. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of The Faithful Creator, I underline the importance I see in the doctrine of creation:

“Learning how a thing began tells you much about how it will end and the course of its journey. In our experience everything begins from nothing and returns to nothing. From dust to dust, sunrise to sunset, in the end everything returns to its beginning. And if our origin really is nothing, our end will be nothing as well and our story a meaningless tale. But the Bible’s story does not begin with nothing, and it does not end with nothing. It begins and ends with God. And because God is our beginning and end, our journey will not be meaningless, for God surrounds and enfolds our time in his eternity. God alone is our origin and our creature-relationship to God defines our essence, and this makes the study of divine creation supremely relevant to our existence” (p. 25).

Taking creation and the Creator seriously can transform the way you feel about the world around you and your own existence. And taking the faithfulness of the creator seriously by coming to embrace the doctrine of God’s all-embracing providential care, can begin to liberate us from the pervasive anxiety that robs us of the “peace that passes understanding.” These are the reasons I wrote this book.

You can look at the Table of Contents or browse sections or purchase the book at Amazon.com or other online sites:

http://www.amazon.com/Faithful-Creator-Affirming-Creation-Providence/dp/0830840826/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1442619010&sr=8-4&keywords=ron+highfield

Next Post to Follow Soon: “Why Contemporary Culture Hates the Christian Doctrine of Creation”