Looking at Gethsemane Anew: The Fall and Rise of Jesus

gethsemaneDon’t be put off. The title has nothing to do with any alleged failure on the part of Jesus–but everything to do with his triumph. In my previous post I ended saying I wanted to next explore how Jesus is a model for us— not just for our times of joy but also our times of great sorrow and distress.

For starters when we find ourselves dealing with great pain or great disappointment I think we need to give ourselves the allowance to be emotional and brutally honest with our feelings before God.

Truth be told we need to allow ourselves the freedom to say:

1) God—life is getting too hard for my will to accept.
2) God—I am overwhelmed by sorrow.
3) God—I feel like my soul is being crushed in death.”

Do you know that Jesus is on record in the Bible feeling exactly that way? We will see why in a minute.

Sometimes we can read the Bible and we feel constantly condemned! We feel we are always failing the tests of faith and trust. For example the Bible says in Isaiah 26:3, “God will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on him.”

And yet when we are in the midst of a great affliction, our heart feels far removed from peace and our mind is filled with anxiety and stress. And then to compound our misery we begin to think, “Oh no–I am failing the Christian life. If I really trusted God I would have perfect peace and inside of me and I would be like a tranquil lake of calm water. But instead I feel a raging storm inside of me and I feel like I am drowning in sorrow.”

The truth is Jesus was not always a man who looked like he was in perfect peace. We forget that Jesus gave himself the important allowance to be honest and raw with his emotions. In the garden of Gethsemane, Luke, records Jesus as “being in anguish… His sweat… like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk. 22:44).

Is sweating drops of blood and being in agony a sign of being “in perfect peace”?

The fact is Jesus lived his life as one of us. The Bible says in Phil. 2:6, “He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped” which really means Jesus did not consider the fact that he was 100% God on earth as something to be used for his own advantage when life as a human became too difficult. Jesus was determined to live as one of us. We don’t have God buttons to push when we go through difficulty and so Jesus didn’t push any either. He truly lived life as we do—and that is why he serves as a model for all of us.

Gethsemane means “olive press.” And it was in the garden of Gethsemane that the soul of Jesus was pressed and crushed until his very blood was being squeezed out of him. I want us to look at how Matthew describes the emotional distress Jesus experienced in the garden of Gethsemane because I think there are some things we can learn and digest for our own “gethsemane” moments in life.

36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and He told the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is swallowed up in sorrow —to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with Me.” 39 Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

40 Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. He asked Peter, “So, couldn’t you stay awake with Me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray, so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

42 Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.” 43 And He came again and found them sleeping, because they could not keep their eyes open.

44 After leaving them, He went away again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more.45 Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting?Look, the time is near. The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up; let’s go! See, My betrayer is near….

…Then they came up, took hold of Jesus, and arrested Him. 51 At that moment one of those with Jesus reached out his hand and drew his sword. He struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear.

52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword. 53 Or do you think that I cannot call on My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than 12 legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:36-46 HCSB).

We discover the humanness of Jesus in many ways here. Moreover we discover several essential truths we must import into our own journeys of pain:


The first thing I want to highlight is that even though Jesus prayed to his Father—it wasn’t enough. Three times he went to his disciples looking for their companionship, asking them to stay awake with him, pray with him and support him during his distress. As great as God is, he is invisible and sometimes we just want someone with skin on. Have you ever felt that way? We should not be ashamed of that.


In verse 37 we read, “He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed.” And in verse 38 we read, “And he told his disciples, ‘My soul is swallowed up in sorrow— to the point of death.’” The NLT (New Living Translation) translates the Greek as saying, “My soul is crushed in grief to the point of death.”

The point is Jesus felt like he was dying inside! He didn’t try to fake strength or hide his weakness. It says, “And he told his disciples…” He let them in. He got real. He allowed them to see it. We need to understand it is appropriate at times to share our honest, raw emotions with others and not try to pretend we are stronger than we are.


Verse 39 says, “He fell facedown and prayed.” No matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel, we really need to allow ourselves the theological permission to see Jesus as incredibly weak at this moment in time. Jesus_in_GethsemaneWhen he “fell facedown” this was not some sort of controlled, pious fall. Jesus literally collapsed in a heap on the ground. His legs buckled under him and he fell into the dirt like a dead man as the weight of the world crushed his soul.

In verse 41 Jesus says to his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” During great pain, hardship, disappointment or grief we feel as if all our strength and bravado has leaked out of our bodies.

Like a car broken down on the side of the road leaking oil, we can sometimes feel as if our lives are broken down–and all we are doing is leaking tears. We need to give ourselves permission for that. If Jesus allowed Himself to experience that—so also to do we.


I want to return again to verse 38 where it says, “the soul of Jesus was swallowed up in sorrow.” In other words, Jesus could not look to His soul for strength.

And in verse 42 we have already noted how Jesus “fell facedown” in the dirt–telling us Jesus could not look to the flesh for strength to get back up.

So what do you do when your soul has no strength and your body has no strength—but you know you must continue on?
In any difficult trial of life you either FAKE strength, FADE AWAY in strength or LET GOD BECOME your strength.

How does that happen?

We choose to live out of our spirit and not our flesh or our soul. Remember Jesus’s important words in verse 41: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Our spirit is where we find the refuge of God. It is where our vertical communion with God takes place. Our soul is the vehicle we use to emotionally communicate and mentally relate with the horizontal world around us. But our spirit is where we find the willingness to do what our emotions and body say we cannot do. During his greatest trial, Jesus chose to live out of his spirit.


How did Jesus live out of his spirit? How did he strengthen his spirit even though his soul, his emotions and his bodily strength was failing him? I believe the answer is resignation and surrender.

Three times Jesus prayed and said, “Not my will but your will be done.” Jesus resigned himself to God’s will three times. As long as we are trying to bargain and negotiate with God saying, “If you do this… then I will do this” then our spirit cannot be strengthened.

If we are honest with ourselves we will admit we do this all the time. We are always trying to bargain with God. We say, “Ok God, if you take this problem away, this pain away, this difficulty away… then I will serve you and obey you.”

No—it doesn’t work like that.

Jesus did not say,”If you… then I.” In other words, Jesus did not advance conditions to his father, saying, “If you do this…then I will do that.” He offered a yielded will, saying, “If it is possible do this… yet not my will but yours be done.” I do find it comforting that Jesus did not feign or pretend false confidence or emotional courage at the moment of his greatest trial. He was transparent and honest about how his human emotions were disconfirming rather than supportive in regards to choice before him. He unashamedly discloses his emotional state as being the antithesis of desire, essentially admitting to his Father, “This present moment is so distressing to my soul, I am left wondering if there is any other possible route we have overlooked that can achieve what needs to be achieved, such that this coming tribulation can be avoided.”

He candidly lays out all his cards on the table; he holds back nothing. But then he utters those famous words that sealed our redemption, “…yet not my will be done, but your will.”

For what its worth, I don’t think Jesus was distressed so much by the coming physical pain as much as he was distressed by the knowledge he was about to drain the cup of sin and drink it down to its dregs–every putrid, vile act of wickedness was about to be consumed into his very being. He “who knew no sin” was literally about “to become sin” and experience alienation from his Father (2 Cor. 5:21, Mt. 27:46). We cannot even imagine the horror involved in personified Holiness becoming hell.


Despite the grief and sorrow overwhelming his soul, Jesus would not let his emotions run the show and dictate his course of action. He acknowledged his emotions, yet knew emotions serve as poor custodians of truth. We often want emotional escorts before we launch out and do anything worth doing, but Jesus knew better.

Not to belabor the point, but true spirituality is not saying “If you…then I.” It is saying, “Yet not I, but you.” But neither is spirituality to live in pretense or denial. It can admit preference and desire–but it doesn’t end there. True spirituality is saying, “If possible I would prefer this way—yet not my emotions, not my will, not my hope, not my affections, not my plans be done— but your will alone be done.”


Three times Jesus went to His Father, got gut-level honest with his Father about his weakened, emotional state, but then each time he resigned himself, surrendered himself and re-committed himself to God’s will. Sometimes we need to take repeated steps into our earlier confessions before we are ready to live them out.


What was the result of Christ resigning his will three times? We see a hint in verse 46. After resigning his will 3 times to the Father it says he went to his disciples and said, “Get up! Let’s go!…”

What that tells me is that somewhere between Jesus falling facedown in agony before his Father and telling his disciples “Get up—Let’s go!” Jesus himself got up, dusted off his knees, picked up his bleeding heart and said to himself and to his Father, “Let’s do this!”

From that point on we see Jesus walking in a renewed strength that only comes through resignation and a surrendered posture before God.

We can see the change that comes over Jesus almost immediately in verse 53. After Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus rebukes Peter and say, “Do you not think that I cannot call on my father, and He will provide me at once with more than 12 legions of angels?”

We need to pause on that phrase, “Do you think I cannot call…” Let it not be missed. He could have, but did not. The surrender of Jesus was not due to helplessness or powerlessness; it was due to voluntarily letting go of that which he knew would have saved him. Jesus is saying, “Peter— if I wanted to I could call on 12 legions of angels. But Peter I don’t want to. Maybe an hour ago in the garden when you were sleeping I wanted to—but I have surrendered that; I have let that go. My will is now to submit to the will of my Father.”

From that point on we see a different picture of Christ– a Messiah living out of his spirit– determined and renewed in strength to face the storm and let it carry him all the way to the grave.

Of course the good news is, the story of Christ doesn’t end in a grave. We don’t sing songs to dead bones or pray to a corpse lying in the ground somewhere in Jerusalem. Resurrection comes to all those who pick up their cross.


Some of you reading this may feel like you are in your own Gethsemane–a place of utter darkness where you feel the tentacles of despair enveloping your emotions, pulling you down and swallowing up your soul in sorrow. Or you may feel you are on the cross, where you feel forsaken by God. Or you may feel you are in a grave, where there is no hope.

There are many stages to suffering, affliction and grief. You may feel like life has cut you deep and you are bleeding out and you don’t know how to clot it. Your spiritual platelets are low and you know you are in desperate need of a spiritual transfusion. It’s during those times that we need to do what Jesus did—surrender our emotions up to our Heavenly Father, surrender our soul over the Father, surrender our will over to the Father, and choose to live out of our spirit by trusting that resurrection Sunday, not the grave of grief, is the final end for all who put their hope in trust in the Lord.

The Bible calls that “perseverance” (Rom. 5:4) and “endurance”(Heb. 10:36) and “steadfastness” (Jam. 1:2-4) and like it or not we are all going to have to learn those lessons from time to time if we are going to mature through this life with our love and faith in God intact.


Amazingly we see a window into the mysterious union between the Father and the Son and Father’s love of His Son when Jesus declared to Peter that he could request at any time immediate deliverance and his Father would “provide me at once with more than 12 legions of angels” (vs. 53).

That tells me the Father never would have forced His Son to take on the sin of the world and suffer the bitter pill of death, had Jesus not freely chosen to surrender himself up to death. Even more it means the Father would have resigned his will and aborted the mission with legions of warring angels had Jesus asked him! That shouldn’t be missed. At anytime Jesus could have ended his torture with but a whisper to his Father. It cannot be stressed enough that Jesus models for us ultimate surrender because it was within his power to abort his suffering at anytime. We often feel helpless and hopeless when we go through adversity given that most painful circumstances are out of our control. If given the option most of us would reach for the ejection lever and opt out of our afflictions way before the “testing of our faith” has had a chance to “do its complete work so that [we] may be mature, lacking nothing” (James 1:3-4).

But not so with Jesus. His resignation was not due to circumstances beyond his control overwhelming him. Once again we aren’t witnessing a helpless, hapless, hopeless surrender. We are witnessing a surrender infused with grit and determination to see things to their bitter end–for our good. No doubt Jesus took courage in knowing his journey through affliction would be just that– a journey– not a destination. He trusted in his Father’s plan to exploit all the pain and evil he was about to endure for an eventual and enduring good that would eclipse the momentary suffering. It is no wonder that Peter would later write of his Lord and friend, “When he was suffering…he entrusted himself to the One who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:3).

Whatever adversity you are going through, give God the water of your present tears. Trust him to turn them into new wine when the time comes. Ask God to turn the deep pit you are in into a deep well you can draw from later. Surrender to the breaking down of your old wineskin as he tenderizes your soul and refashions you further into his image and likeness. Resign yourself to not needing to understand all things at this present time. Rest in God’s ability to usurp, overrule and exploit every intended evil against you, every heart-breaking disappointment and every tragic accident into your eventual and enduring good (Rom. 8:28).

If you do not know where to begin, simply say, “God I still love you.” Your Savior will never ask of you anything less or anything more.


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Clotting a Wound with Spiritual Platelets

BleedingHeartA few weeks ago one of the orphans at the Children’s Home I oversee, named Vantha, came down with a very severe case of dengue fever.

His case was so bad that the private clinics did not want to accept him because they saw early signs that he might not make it and they didn’t want to be held responsible. One of the signs that your case is severe is your platelet count drops quickly in the early stages of the sickness.

Platelets are important. When your body is wounded platelets clump together and form clots to stop the bleeding. When you do not have enough platelets in your blood your body cannot form clots and you can die.

After a blood test a healthy platelet range is a score between 200 – 450 (200,000 – 450,000). When your platelet count gets below 50 you are in the danger zone because you can begin to bleed internally. When your platelet count falls below 15 you need a donor to give you a platelet transfusion because your blood’s ability to clot is not possible and the risks are too great. Vantha’s count fell down to 11— but we didn’t know until 3 days after the blood test was taken (because the machine at the dirty, public “hospital” to separate the blood from plasma was broken and this information was kept from us because they knew they couldn’t do a transfusion. But that’s another story!) Despite the setbacks Vantha did pull through and he is now recovering well.

Now why I am telling you this story?

Because when you stop to think about it, our need for physical platelets and even a platelet transfusion has many spiritual applications.

Sometimes in life we get injured in some way and we begin to bleed. Maybe someone cut you deep with their words and now you are bleeding; or your your job has cut you open; or you have suffered a deep disappointment; or life itself is simply making you bleed right now. No matter what happened the reality is you are wounded and hurting.

And if your “spiritual platelets” are too low you will simply continue to bleed out because the blood can’t clot and therefore the wound can’t heal. Now the question is what would “spiritual platelets” be? What can spiritually clot the bleeding in our souls and hearts?

I think the answer could go multiple directions.

One thought is knowing our self-worth and value in the eyes of God—especially when this world tries to take it from us. When our self-worth takes a hit from this world and we feel our value bleeding out of us, we need to remember that we are highly prized by God.

Secondly I think when life wounds you in some way we need to remember the promises of God—such as his promise to redeem our sufferings and one day work them for our eventual good. Whether it is accidental tragedy or intended evil—both can become our eventual good as we place it in God’s hands. It doesn’t mean what happened was good. Neither does it mean God’s hand caused it or willed it. Rather it means God’s sovereignty has the last word in the lives of those who cling tenaciously to God’s promises rather than bitterness. As such the promises of God become our spiritual platelets. Our faith will take the promises of God and then add to them other promises– and slowly the bleeding will begin to clot.

Sometimes when the bleeding is so bad we just need to be humble enough to tell the Lord, “I can’t recover what I have lost. I need a platelet transfusion. I really need YOU to be for me what I cannot be for myself. For I don’t have it within me to clot this injury, to clot this stress, to clot this anxiety, to clot this disappointment, to clot this pain, to clot this betrayal, to clot this offense.”

I think God actually wants us to get to a place of honesty where we stop trying to find the answer to life’s problems within ourselves. In other words I think we are meant to recognize that the Christian life was designed by God in such a way that we cannot succeed without Him. 

The Bible says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3). That really means, “Blessed are those who are broken enough to know their need of God.”

Knowing our desperate need of God is the beginning stage for our own platelet transfusion.

There is a calm that can settle in our souls when we realize we are actually called to live in a state of dependency or a state of transfusion—in which God is pouring the life of Son into us to do for us and be for us what he knows we cannot do and cannot be for ourselves. For as Paul reminds us, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

The following are some of my personal “Platelet Promises” that I have taped to my ceiling. They are the last thing I see before going to bed and the first thing I see when I wake up. They are the bookends to my day and put my life in the context of God’s ability to work all things together for my good:

“The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with his love, He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph. 3:17).
“I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be courageous and let your heart be strong. Wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:13-14).
“God’s way is perfect; the word of the Lord is pure. He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him. For who is God besides the Lord? And who is a rock? Only our God—He clothes me with strength and makes my way perfect” (Psalm 18:30-32).
“Do not remember the past events, pay no attention to the former things. Look—I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it? Indeed, I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
“Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of weeping, they make it a source of spring water… they go from strength to strength, each appears before God” (Psalm 84:5-7).

Those are my “Platelet Promises.” What are yours? I encourage you to search the Scriptures and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you specific promises he wants you to absorb into the wounds and sorrow of your own soul. Write them out. Tape them on the ceiling above your bed. Start and end your day with them.

In the upcoming post I want to explore how Jesus is a model—not just for our times of joy but also our times of great sorrow.


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Adversity Lesson 3: How the end product of affliction can be a hope that does not dissappoint

Romans 5:2-5 says, “Through Him, we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

There is a great deal of deep truth packed into these verses, and the Lord has been helping me to unpack some of it:

(1) What is proven character? To have character be approved it must be measured by a fixed, perfect standard. Who or what is that standard? It is the character of Christ. Christ’s character is character proven at the highest level—perfect holiness. Therefore when Paul says affliction can result in proven character, he is repeating his common theme that God’s desire is for Christ to be formed within us. It is God’s intention that the afflictions He allows in His wisdom not be empty of purpose, but pregnant with purpose. One of those purposes is that the character of Jesus be produced within us.

(2) In Proverbs 13:12 it says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” In others words when our hopes end in disappointment we are left desolate, empty and heartbroken. But in Rom. 5:5 Paul says there exists a “hope that does not disappoint.” There is only one hope in the entire universe we can grab a hold of that will not leave us disappointed, disillusioned or heartbroken. It is the “hope of the glory of God” (v. 2). But what hope is that? What does that mean? How is that acquired? Does it simply mean a hope to go to heaven and escape all pain on this earth? Is it a hope we have to wait to experience, or is it a hope we can have now and live in now?

I believe the “hope of the glory of God” we are to have and which “cannot disappoint” is given more definition in Colossians 1:27. There Paul declares, “God wanted to make known…the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” In other words, the “hope of God’s glory…that does not disappoint” in Rom. 5:2,5 is nothing other than “Christ in you, the hope of glory” in Col. 1:27.

(3) But that only pushes back the question one step further: What does it mean to speak of “Christ in me?” Throughout the N.T. we find a common theme coursing its way through the Scriptures like a winding river. It is the theme of being conformed to the image of Christ and having Christ’s nature and character formed within us. That is why Paul in Romans 5:2-5 connects our “hope that does not disappoint” with “proven character.” Paul is essentially saying the end result of affliction that God allows is meant to produce and form within us the transformative character of Christ. And the character of Christ is indomitable, invincible and cannot be overcome by anything this world throws at us. In contrast other things we put our hope in can be taken away, such that we are left heartsick and in despair

But when Christ’s character becomes formed within us, we become more than conquerors, and many of the promises of God that use to seem so distant and unrealized, are now within our reach—such as having peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7), finding rest for our souls (Mt. 11:29) and souring high on wings as eagles (Is. 40:30). When the character of Christ becomes formed within us, we may suffer disappointment and sorrow in other areas of life, but we can never be left permanently disappointed or disabled emotionally.

(4) It is interesting to note how Paul connects our “hope that does not disappoint” with the reason why it does not disappoint. He states, “This hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (v. 5). In other words the Holy Spirit has been given to us an agent of divine love to pour into us none other than God—who is love (1 John 4:8). This is the essence of the gospel that makes it good news.

However to “pour into” signifies there is both a vessel and room within the vessel to pour into. It implies we are soft, new wineskin that has the capacity to expand to the measure God pours in. When our lives are cluttered and congested with the “gospel of self-fulfillment,” wherein we always run from “x” if “x” is hard and pursue “y” if “y” is easy and pleasant, then we cannot experience how God can both allow and redeem the afflictions of life to produce within us a hope that does not disappoint based on a love that cannot be overcome.

We need to work from this verse going backwards to see how God’s ultimate desire to pour His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit can become our personal experience with God. So if we “connect the dots” by starting with the last truth and trace the sequence back to the beginning we discover the following:

(A) Individuals who can testify of God’s love being poured into them through the agency of the Holy Spirit are those who have a hope that cannot leave them disappointed (v. 5).

(B) And those who can testify of that hope are those who have allowed this unique hope to be produced within them through their character be proven (v. 4).

(C) But proven character—the character of Christ— cannot be produced within unless it first be produced by endurance (v. 4).

(D) Yet endurance only comes by persevering through hardship and affliction (v. 3).

(E) Nevertheless in order for this entire process to progress forward we need our starting place to not be bitterness, anger or resentment, but an attitude of “rejoicing in our afflictions” (v. 3).

(F) However our attitude of rejoicing in affliction grows out of our rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God—which is submitting ourselves to Christ being formed within us—the hope of our glory.

(G) If we truly want it, the grace of God to persevere and rejoice is available to us because “we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (v. 2).

(H) And lastly all of this is made possible because “we have been declared righteous by faith” and “ have peace with God through our Lord Jesus” (vs. 1).

That last point is a critical point of origin for any journey we take in the Lord and with the Lord. We must know that our starting place with God is always peace and goodwill, not hostility and opposition. We don’t have to “win” God over to our side. He is already there—ready and willing to be our refuge in time of trouble. No matter what comes our way we can be assured that God is for us, not against us; He comes to us as friend not foe.

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Adversity Lesson 2: “They will pass through the valley of weeping and make it spring” (Ps. 84:6).

There are two authors and speakers that God has graciously used to bless me and teach me over the past weeks. One is Bob Sorge and the other is Francis Frangipane.

Early on when the pain and confusion was most intense I found a sermon titled “Falling Forward” preached by Francis Frangipane on YouTube. I probably listened to it four times. It deeply touched me and gave me a helpful and desperately needed context to weep before the Lord. It also exposed me to the beauty and promise of Psalm 84:5-7, a section of Scripture I never saw before–  but shall now carry within my heart till the day I die. I have typed out the most helpful parts and only slightly changed some of the grammar and word order.

“Falling Forward” a sermon preached by Francis Frangipane
(click here to hear)

“When things aren’t going your way and the Lord is working to break you, if you resist the breaking, you prolong the process. You prolong the process by just not allowing yourself to be broken. How do you know you’re not broken? You have to go through it again. And as we go through it, if we keep hardening our heart, it takes longer and longer. You see God is after the soft dimensions of our heart to be released.

In every difficulty there is the opportunity to allow it to soften us. If we go through difficult things and it actually hardens us, then we need to beware. Friends, this is not a minor issue—please listen to me. Many Christian go through difficult things and instead of passing through it and becoming broken and soft, they become hard and cynical. A huge percentage of American of Americans say they believe in God, but they aren’t in church. Why? Because they went through some difficult thing, and instead of softening their hearts, they hardened their hearts.

Jesus told a parable in Matthew 13 about the end of the age in which he spoke about the tares and the wheat. The thing about the tares and the wheat is they look the same. They have the same coloring and the same blade structure. In fact you can’t tell the difference between the tares and the wheat—except at harvest time. When the grain grows at harvest time the head of the wheat begins to bow from the weight. But the darnel, or tares, is still standing straight up and stiff. It is pointing straight up—it cannot bow. It can’t go through difficulty and “bow” on the other side.

Do you understand what I am saying? We are all going to go through something unpleasant, and how you go through it, what happens to you on the inside, is critical. You either allow it to break you, to relax you on the inside in the destiny God has, or you become hardened and embittered. It is God’s desire that you allow the breaking to do its work so that Christ can come out of you. You might ask, “How does Christ come out?” He comes out in many ways, such as forgiving the one that perhaps God used to break you.

The only way you can really prove that you are wheat is to not worry about the tares, but instead simply make sure you are growing as wheat. It is inescapable that sometime during your life you are going to grow side by side with someone who does not have a sense of love, does not have a sense of timing, does not have a sense of compassion and does not have a sense of what is truly going on inside of you. They may hurt you or offend you in some way, but you cannot say, “Well they are a tare!” I will tell you what the wheat does—the wheat prays for the darnel. The wheat prays for the tares. In contrast the darnel judges the wheat and other tares.

The truth is we have Christ. We don’t need to try and be holy, we are holy—if in fact Christ is in us. If we really want Christ to come out through us, then He comes out forgiving, He comes out praying, He comes out blessing those who curse us and He comes out going extra miles. He seeks to come out in the very context of our conflict so we can survive that conflict. And that’s how you know you are wheat in the process of life.

In the expanding of your destiny in God you will go through breakings, and how you relate to the breaking is critical. If you still have in your mind what so-and-so did to you 2, 6, 10 years ago, you are in jeopardy of becoming darnel—a tare. If you have not forgiven your way out of that “thing” then you need to examine whether you are moving as wheat or developing a tare-like nature. The darnel can look just like wheat. It can go to church, it can go through all the motions, but it does not have the character of the life of Christ at the center. You know it’s the life of Christ because in the breaking time Christ comes out. What you bleed when your cut determines what’s inside of you. And so we need the failure, we need the difficulty and we need the conflict so that Christ can emerge in that area.

Look again at Psalm 84:5 “How blessed is the man whose strength is in thee.” Note it does not say “whose strength is in himself.” We all have an innate strength within us, where we rely on our abilities to promote and make something happen. But in this passage the Psalmist is saying, “Blessed is the man whose strength is in God—whose strength is not centered in themselves.” In other words it is God who makes happen for them all the things that need to happen. God goes before them and prepares the way. God does what only God can do and we discover the strength of God is supplying what we can’t get within ourselves.

The Psalmist continues, “How blessed is the man whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are highways to Zion. Passing through the valley of Baca, they make it a spring…” (Ps. 84:5-6). You will see in your margins the word, “Baca” means “weeping.” So the Psalmist is saying, “Passing through the valley of weeping, they make it a spring.”

Everyone has a valley of weeping. Some of us have more than one—there are many valleys of weeping that we must pass through. But if your strength is in the Lord, not yourself, and you have gone through the breaking of your outer nature and now realize your strength is in God who loves you, then the tears from your weeping—which were as bitter as salt water— become something to drink. They become a spring, something that refreshes you! You see, the things you go through when God is breaking you can become the very things that refresh you later on in your spiritual journey.

The Psalmist says, “Blessed is the man”—happy is the man, indwelt by God is the man, to be envied is the man—“in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” You see it is Christ’s heart that is the highway to Zion. The person of Christ, the seed of inner life whom you received when you said, “I take you into my life” is the blueprint and pattern that will continue to unfold, grow and emerge throughout all of our lives.

It is “Christ in you” and therefore to give yourself always over to Jesus in every single conflict enables you to come out on the other side and “go from strength to strength…appearing before God in Zion” (v 7). That is what God is after when we go through these breakings. Failure becomes our friend, because the breaking produces an end to the old way of us—and the beginning of a new way in Him.

No one is super-natural, we are all only average. We are all going to make mistakes. We are all going to fail. But with God none of those things become limitations, because  we are told “God chooses the weak things.” The only thing we need to do is not remain stiff—not remain unbending. Allow Christ to emerge. “Passing through the valley of weeping, they make it a spring.” Brothers and sisters there is something to drink in your tears that you’re going to need later on in life. They will become something you will be able to fill your canteen with, and it will give you life and refreshing later on.

Lastly when the Psalmist says, “Everyone appears before God in Zion” he is not talking about landing up in heaven one day and appearing before God in Zion. He is saying, “Right now in your context, in the life you are now living, in the failure you just experienced, in losing your job, in going through whatever conflict you are currently going through, you can appear before God. God is looking—He is watching—and He knows the battle you are going through. And He has allowed that battle to give you the opportunity to be broken—but even greater—to give Christ the opportunity to emerge.” – Francis Frangipane in a sermon titled “Falling Forward.” 

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Adversity Lesson 1: God comes to change us not only console us

“Dear Matt, what I am about to tell you I say with a very heavy heart. I met someone else when I returned home last month, and he recently proposed to me. It was not planned–it took me by surprise. I know it might sound crazy, but I felt peace about it. I am now engaged to be married to him in three months time. Please know everything we shared together was genuine and from the heart. I am so sorry.”

I will probably never forget those words. They became seared into my heart as if they were put there by a branding iron.

It has now been a month and a half since the woman I thought for sure I was going to marry this year turned my world upside down and emptied my heart on the floor. Her news was a total, unexpected shock to my soul. I was left completely undone, devastated and shattered. Depression and nausea enveloped my soul in thick darkness as I saw my hopes and dreams of the future vanish before my eyes. Truly, as the proverb declares, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Pr. 13:12).

I have been through difficult breakups before and buried a best friend not too long ago, but the intensity of loss, the sting of rejection and the inexplicable, sudden reversal of her heart was of such a nature that it sent me into a tailspin of emotions and confusion to a degree never before experienced.

I was too broken, frail and tortured within to be angry or embittered at God. I ran into His arms for my very survival. Even now my day must start with the Lord as a source of strength, perspective, trust and surrender. It is not easy to surrender all, but I believe reaching that level of desperation and surrender incorporates two essential truths:

1) It is the only way through the shadowy valley of death, loss and disappointment.

2) It is the only means by which the valley can become a rich and fruitful experience as we deny ourselves and become more conformed to the image and character of Christ.

The beloved song we often sing in our churches does not say, “I surrender some.” Nor does it say, “I surrender most.” No, it says, “I surrender allall to you I give.” If the analogy can be followed I feel as if the past few weeks have upgraded my hunger for the Lord and my worship of the Lord from the obsolete “spiritual software” of an iPhone 1 to an iPhone 4 (not yet a 6–always room for improvement). As I have laid before the Lord my entire life, hopes, dreams and perceived “rights” to marriage, sex and intimate companionship, I feel as if there is an excavation of sorts occurring in the deepest chambers of my heart. I know I am being changed, I know that sin is being dredged out of me, and I know that Christ is being formed within me as I cling to Him through this crucible of disappointment and discipline.

That being said, there have been some days when all I can give to the Lord is my tears–and I have learned to be ok with that. As the Psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name (Ps. 103:1). Sometimes all we have within ourselves are tears–and so if nothing else we can learn to give God our tears as a sacrifice of praise.

I typically blog about theology, culture and apologetics, but I would like to take a short break from that and over the next 3 posts personally share some of the lessons the Lord has graciously deposited within me over the past one and a half months. I would like to begin with a poem I memorized years ago when I was going through an earlier, dark night of the soul.

I walked a mile with Laughter;
She chatted all the way;
But I was none the wise wiser,
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.” –Robert Hamilton

Lesson #1: God is zealous about changing us not just consoling us.

Since this season of brokenness has begun, one of the most pivotal encounters I have had with God’s word has been the story of how Jesus did not congratulate, console or even comfort Peter after he took 3 or 4 steps and then sank beneath the waves. Though He reached forth and saved Peter from drowning, Jesus also rebuked Peter for not having sufficient trust to walk on the water! This was revolutionary to me. I first became aware of this perspective on day three as I was crying out to God on my knees amidst a puddle of pain and perplexity. I picked up a book written by Francis Frangipane called The Shelter of the Most High and I began to read the following excerpt:

“It is one thing to trust Christ to calm the storm around us; it is another matter to leave our security and venture out with Him on the water! This very setting of raging wind and sea is the classroom that the Son of God seeks to perfect His disciples’ faith.

Let us affirm the Father’s highest purpose for us: Jesus did not come simply to console us but to perfect us! This is exactly where He will take us once we are willing… We should repent of carrying the image of a Savior who fails to confront our sin or challenge our unbelief, for such is a false image of God. If we are to genuinely know Him, we must accept this truth: Jesus is irrevocably committed to our complete transformation!

Of all the disciples, Peter alone responds to the occasion with vision and faith… Peter did not rest his weight on the water; he stood on Christ’s word: “Come!” Peter trusted that if Jesus told him to do the impossible—even to walk on the water— the powers to obey would be inherent within the command.

Moments later Peter’s faith faltered. He began to sink. But there is something extraordinary to be seen in Christ’s response—a view into Christ’s actual nature and His ultimate purpose. Jesus did not commend or congratulate Peter. He rebuked him! We would have expected praise and encouragement, but none came.

Was Jesus angry? No. The truth is, Jesus Christ is relentlessly given to our perfection. He knows that wherever we settle spiritually will be far short of His provision. He also knows that the more we are transformed into His image, the less vulnerable we are to the evils of this world. Thus He compels us toward difficulties, for they compel us toward God, and God compels us toward change. And it is the transformed heart that finds the shelter of the Most High.” [1]

Frangipane’s insight into Christ’s rebuke of Peter helped to snap me to attention early on before self-pity enveloped my soul. It was really a slap in the face and made me realize that self-pity and unbelief would be my greatest enemies to progressing forward as God intended. We often doubt our beliefs but sometimes we need to doubt our unbelief! As I put the book down I immediately felt captured by the conviction that God not only wanted to comfort and console me— but also change me into His image!

I knew God was giving me a desperately needed starting place— a point of reference to help me navigate my way out of the swirling pit of confusing emotions that would visit my soul in the weeks ahead. As I personally absorbed the rebuke the Lord gave to Peter, I sensed God setting me straight in my attitude as to what would be an acceptable form of grief in His eyes and what would not. The following message is what the Holy Spirit dropped into my heart like a weighted stone:

“Matt, this is how this is going to go down. Certain attitudes are unacceptable to Me if we are going to graduate you to a higher place of trust. I don’t want to just comfort you in your distress, or console you in your grief like I did your past heartbreaks. I don’t measure growth in years, height or age—I measure it trust and Christlikeness. I want you to grow in trust. I want you to reflect My image. I want you to fix your eyes on Me. I want change. I don’t want to just come to you as a Comforter, I also want to come to you as One walking on the water who commands you to do the same through keeping your eyes fixed upon Me and not doubting that I am greater than any storm.

I am zealous for you to become more conformed into My image. I am zealous for your faith and trust to graduate to a higher place. Therefore I will rebuke you if you fail this test and do not learn how to keep your eyes fixed upon Me in the midst of the raging sea and the strong wind blowing against you. I want you to walk on the water of distrust, fear, anxiety, rejection, sorrow, disappointment and grief by learning how to let your weight rest upon my command “Do not be afraid. It is I. Come to Me.”

Many years ago I declared to all wanted to follow me, ‘You will go through tribulation in this world, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ Your challenge is to not give in to despair, hopelessness, anger, accusation, or distrust. You must believe I am greater than your current confusion, distress and trouble. You must trust that my way is perfect and my word is pure and I alone know how to exploit every distress and manage every trial to redeem it for good—just walk towards Me and let the strong winds blow by. 

Surrender your hurt and pain. Cast your cares of worry and anxiety over your own life and that of Sarah upon Me. Learn of Me. Be yoked to Me through this and know I am not giving you the burden of protecting, providing, or caring for Sarah at this time, so you must surrender her to my faithful love and not take upon yourself that burden or suffer from that regret. I know what is best. I know how to achieve what is best. Trust Me.”

[1] Francis Frangipane, The Shelter of the Most High, Charisma House, 2008. p 62-63

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Responding to the Problem of Moral Evil

God and EvilWhen the atheist asks– “If God exists how can he allow evils like rape, theft and murder to exist?”– it is critical to take note of the fact that the atheist is working off the assumption that actions like rape, theft and murder are a violation of some particular moral obligation humans ought to have in regards to other humans.

However to speak in terms of “ought” and “obligation”, and not just preference and societal taboo, is to presume we live in a universe where an objective moral law is part of the fabric and furniture of that universe. Objective, moral values are delineations between moral right and right that exist independent from and regardless of majority, human opinion or agreement. If the whole world somehow became brainwashed that pedophilia was a morally acceptable pursuit of one’s sexual orientation, pedophilia would still be morally wrong on objective grounds.

But therein is the perennial problem for the atheist. For to assume there exists a moral landscape that transcends the subjective court of human opinion, is to assume the very existence of God, whose morally perfect nature is the only anchor point for any objective, moral law that transcends human opinion. Moreover to assume objective moral values do exist is to assume there is something intrinsically special and nonnegotiable about human beings, such that violations against human beings can be grounded in moral categories.

For only human beings possess a moral dimension to their existence. Such a moral dimension does not exist within the animal kingdom, which is why we don’t seek to condemn the lion killing the antelope in moral terms. We see it as nature taking its course in terms of predator and prey, not killer and victim. So when the cheetah kills the zebra—it doesn’t murder it. And when the hyena sneaks in and takes a leg—it doesn’t steal it. And when the hyena drives off the encroaching jackal, it is surviving— not being greedy. [1]

The world of animals is a world of moral neutrality in terms of moral values and moral obligation. But therein lies another emerging problem for the atheist who believes only in naturalistic evolution. For in atheistic naturalism humans are simply animals! We are nothing more than more than primates that have evolved on an insignificant speck of dust called earth in the vast, purposeless, meaningless cosmos that is doomed to extinction in the final heat death of entropy.

So where then does this moral dimension arise within alleged human animals? From whence flows these moral obligations, and why is this moral dimension absent in the rest of the animal kingdom? Why are humans special? Where does the intrinsic worth of humans come from within atheistic naturalism? Where is it grounded?

Most atheists will try and articulate a view that suggests that humans are special and have moral value over other animals because humans have a higher evolved sentience and cognitive function than other animals. In other words it just comes down to neural grey matter.

But if moral worth and value is only being anchored in higher sentience and intelligence, would this not mean that mentally handicapped persons such as children with Down syndrome have less moral value and worth than others, such as an Einstein or a Rembrandt? It is doubtful that even hardened atheists would want to concede such a point—so it seems that in the end naturalism fails to provide a reason why human beings possess intrinsic, moral worth.

Therefore when the atheist objects to the existence of God by raising the question of evil, our first response should be to ask the atheist whether or not we are talking about objective right and wrong. If we are talking about objective morality, then the odds are that the question self–destructs, because virtually no atheist affirms universal, objective moral values. If the atheist affirms objective morality then he or she must provide an ontological grounding that anchors those objective morals within a purposeless, naturalistic, non-moral universe.

Within a naturalistic paradigm why should the universe care about humans? One can’t derive morals from molecules. If the atheist admits objective right and wrong do not exist, then the atheist’s initial objection to God on the basis of evil’s existence becomes meaningless. At most the atheist is voicing his distaste of evil. He does not prefer it. He does not like it, but such objections to evil carry no more moral weight than if he were to say, “I don’t like spinach.” In an atheistic world, where objective moral values are absent, morality is reduced to societal preferences that have evolved to support social harmony among the human “herd.” As such to commit rape, theft and murder against one’s neighbor is to only flaunt the normative social taboos and codes of proper conduct and act unfashionably. Much more can be said of this, but I will leave that for another time.

In dealing with the question of moral evil it is always helpful to ask the atheist what he thinks the situation should be. Usually the answer is that if God exists and He is all-good and all-powerful then God should intervene before moral evil is ever committed. In other words, God should stop it; He should preempt it somehow before the decision to act in an evil manner is accomplished. But seriously, if we really examine what the atheist is saying he is asking God to strip away autonomy from His created order.

Despite his genius wit and penchant for great insight, the late and much loved (I include my own affection), Christopher Hitchens, was the hallmark of inconsistency on this point. Hitchens was famous for railing against God on the grounds that if God existed it would be like living under a transcendent, tyrannical dictator of the sky whose very existence undermined the sanctity of human freedom. On the other hand, he would argue that if God existed, he ought to intervene and stop occasions where moral evil is committed against innocent persons.

But you can’t have it both ways. Let’s examine how a conversation might go between a theist and an atheist, like Hitchens, over this matter:

Atheist: If your God is real than He should have stopped the Nazi Holocaust and all of WWII!

Theist: What about smaller, lesser evils like a serial killer?

Atheist: Yes, God should stop them too!

Theist: Ok, let’s take it down a notch. What about just a one-time killer?

Atheist: Yes…murder is murder. God should stop them as well!

Theist: What about stealing? Is stealing evil? Should God stop thieves?

Atheist: Well… stealing is evil so, yes, God should stop them too.

Theist: What about lying? Don’t lies contribute to much evil in this world? Should God stop liars?

Atheist: Um, lying is also bad for society, but I don’t necessarily think God has to stop every little, white lie. But certainly many lies have caused enormous human suffering, so yes, God should intervene against them too.

Theist: What about just the thought of lying? After all, all evil actions are preceded by evil thoughts. Therefore thoughts can be evil too can’t they? What about the thought of adultery, lust and greed? Greed has caused a great deal of injustice and oppressive evil in this world, right?

Atheist: Well…I don’t know. I’m not saying God should control everyone’s thoughts. I’m just saying God should stop evil that causes others to suffer.

Theist: But all evil actions originate with evil thoughts and evil desires. In the end what you’re really demanding God to do is coercively control the thought life of every person on the earth—including yours. You would no longer be a free agent. Is that what you really want?

I’m sure if an atheist were to be subjected to a dictatorial thought imprisonment in which his freedom of choice is stripped away he would cry out against such injustice and impingement on his freedom. Why?

Because whether one is an atheist or a theist, deep down inside, we all treasure our free-will and we can get quite violent when we feel it is being violated! We all covet the ability to make free choices and we exercise that freedom everyday—sometimes for good and unfortunately, sometimes for evil. The atheist doesn’t seem to be fully aware that his case against God’s “negligence” in stopping moral evil is constructed on an alternative scenario that would render us little more than God’s robotic pets.

Has the atheist really probed the reality of what he is saying God should do if God exists? Probably not. He is suggesting that if God is good, God should coercively intervene into his or her mind every time they are about to have an evil or immoral thought. But it wouldn’t stop there. God would then have to infuse some sort of overriding stimuli into their thought pattern that short-circuits the evil thought and replaces it with one of God’s thoughts, such that in the end, what was once an evil thought undergoes a coercive manipulation to bring about a good action, rather than the reverse. But seriously—what is the reality of such a world?

In such a world freedom becomes meaningless and it is all but eradicated! We become nothing more than automatons that respond to a limited range of programmed stimuli much like Japanese humanoids do today. Is such a world really to be desired? Would the atheist really be willing to trade in his autonomy of choice for a forced, coercive intervention from God? Almost certainly no—so why should anyone else?

You see the atheist is really saying, “Why doesn’t God stop this person or that person—but not me. I’m a good person so He can leave my freedom untouched. If God does exist, I demand that He strip away the free will of people in my neighborhood that can potentially harm me and my family. I want Him to make them into robotic zombies, but not me. I want divine restraints, controls and handcuffs snapped on the will of the “bad” people, but not on me!”

It is safe to assume the theist and the atheist alike would both resist coercive divine controls over their wills, because even the atheist can realize that if his freedom of thought, conscience, and choice is stripped away, he suffers the tremendous price of losing the very place from which flows the tender love and affection he shares with his wife and children. Would he be willing to give all that up to ensure that his children never suffer hurt or harm at the hands of others?

That is a heavy price to pay. In a way, we can say God was faced with the same choice on a much larger scale–a cosmic scale. He could have created all persons as His robotic pets or action figures, but in such a world how could God have genuine communion and fellowship with people? Despite the possibility of people introducing hate into His creation, God chose to have a world where tender love, adoration and devotion were possibilities of real choice—in much the same way that any loving father would be unwilling to surrender away the tender love he shares with his family just so the neighbor next door can’t abuse his own.

Once the value of freedom is realized, the typical response many skeptics throw out is: “Why didn’t God just create a world in which our wills are free, but they also always freely choose to do the right thing?”

The faulty logic of this is quite simple to observe. For how can God guarantee that our supposed “free” wills will always and perfectly choose the right thing— unless He coercively makes us choose the right thing. But that would be absurd. Not even God can make or force someone to freely do anything. Such a statement is logically contradictory. “To force” and to “freely do” are oxymoronic and cannot exist logically in the same affirmation. It’s like I want God to make a round square or create a married bachelor. “Married” and “bachelor” logically cancel each other out and so we are left with a nonsensical, contradictory, meaningless statement.

In creation God was not in pursuit of a nonsensical, contradictory, meaningless world. He was in pursuit of a purposeful world! He sought to infuse His creation with great purpose and meaning by creating a world of people whose natures were capable of love and hate, kindness and cruelty, courage and cowardice. In a sense we can say that moral evil is nothing less than the wrong use of the right thing—freedom.

The brilliant Christian philosopher and apologist Alvin Plantinga sums it up nicely: “Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”[2]

On this view then it is necessary that we understand that unlike the animal kingdom, God has endowed humanity with freedom of thought, conscience and choice from which arises our moral dimension. When we abuse this freedom wrongly, we have the unfortunate corollary of introducing into our lives and the lives of others calamity, disaster, suffering and pain.

Lastly, in examining issues such as this, it is important that we don’t overlook the Christian understanding of God’s creational intention, and why, from the very beginning, God chose to institute a source of testing through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After all, wouldn’t mankind have been better served if God had decided to leave out such a tree and such a choice from His created order? Or if God knew the consequences, why didn’t He—at minimum— stop Adam and Eve?

To answer these difficult questions it must be understood that the Christian worldview holds that God placed an enormous value upon free will when He freely chose to create mankind in His own image. This was the critical centerpiece of His whole creation. Men and woman became endowed with a personality of intelligence, creativity and freedom that no other earthly creature possesses. God placed such a high degree of import and significance on the freedom of his humanity, that if He had intervened with Adam and Eve’s choice, He would have completely killed off and aborted His own intention in creating humanity in the first place.

When we understand God’s heart and the original intention of His creative genius, we can better understand why God saw fit to place a source of testing in the Garden of Eden— and why He had to allow Satan’s tempting influence.

As one writer insightfully explains: “He did not want automatons and robots, but a family and friends. He wanted cooperation based on love, not fear or compulsion…God created man with a free will because you cannot really have fellowship with a computer… That is why He put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden. He did not do this to cause Adam and Eve to stumble, but to give them the opportunity to prove their obedience and love. There can be no true obedience if there is no opportunity to disobey. There had to be freedom to not worship God for the worship to mean anything.”[3]

So in concluding the moral category of evil, we can begin to see the absurdity of life that arises if God were to oblige the skeptic or atheist and make the committal of evil an impossible choice.

FURTHER Answers to the Problem of Moral Evil

The following is a selection of other possible answers I have gleaned or encountered that I believe are noteworthy in regards to the perennial tension between the existence of evil and a belief in God.

Question: How can God just stand there in heaven and watch a little girl be raped? If there is a God than he is obligated to stop such things from happening. If he doesn’t then either he doesn’t exist or he isn’t worthy of our worship because he doesn’t care enough to stop the evils of our world.

Answer #1 Because I believe there is a God, then it means little girls who are raped live in a universe where they have justice coming. If little girls are living in your (atheist) universe then there is no justice— ever! That’s the issue. Consider John Lennon’s song, “Imagine There’s No Heaven… no Hell below us, above us only sky.” It means the only thing above girls who suffer terrible evil is just empty, non-moral “sky.” That’s all you can offer. However in my world “justice” is real. It’s not just an empty social invention of human sentiment. My world says, “Hold on—justice is coming. Every tear will be wiped dry. Every wrong will be put right. Everything will be straightened out and reconciled in the end.”

But in your word there is only “sky.” As a Christian I’m in a position to condemn evil and say, “Patience, confidence, faith—it will be put right.” As an atheist, you’re saying it will never be put right because there is no objective, over-arching, moral dimension of justice in the universe that would require anything to be put right. However that cuts the nerve of saying there is anything wrong with it now. That’s the difference between your view and mine. Your atheist “sky” doesn’t care about evils like rape or Auschwitz, so the question is why do you care? (my adapted paraphrase of an answer given by Douglas Wilson in a debate against Christopher Hitchens) [4]

Answer #2 It is very natural to want God to intervene when people misuse their freedom and do horrendous things. I often find myself wanting God to do that, because if I were God I would intervene if I saw someone misusing their freedom to do horrendous things. But then I would have to ask myself, “Where do I draw the line?”

Let’s say we draw the line at saying God must intervene if someone is about to use their freedom to commit murder. I don’t want anyone to murder my sons, so I will draw the line there.

But when I think about it further, neither do I want anyone to harm my sons. So now we step the line back.

Now I want God to intervene whenever anyone is about to use their freedom in any way that will hurt my sons physically.

But upon further reflection I don’t want anyone to hurt my sons morally or personally or emotionally, so I’m going to draw the line there.

In fact I don’t want anyone to hurt my sons in any way—so I am going to draw the line there.

The problem is, at what point when God starts intervening to stop people’s free use of human free, does God stop intervening? The Bible tells us God weeps, God grieves at the outrages he sees among his children. So how does God feel when he sees horrible evil committed by his children against his children? He is first and foremost a father, therefore he grieves when they grieve, he cries when they cry, he hurts when they hurt. If he intervenes by removing freedom where does he stop?

That’s the issue that is troubling. The question of sovereignty and freedom has troubled Christians across all the generations of Christian theology. Orthodox Christianity answers the question in the following way. God, because he is sovereign and absolute, wants a relationship with us. But he knows that relationship of worship must depend upon our choosing worship or else it’s not worship, it’s not love—it’s not relationship. So God chooses to give us that freedom and chooses to honor that freedom. It’s God’s sovereign choice to give me freedom and to honor the freedom that he has given me. That makes him no less sovereign, and at that same time allows me the freedom, that he has chosen as my Creator to give to me.

It’s the same thing parents do with their children. When we give our children limited freedom, we give them autonomy so they can make the right choice and grow into the adulthood we wish for them, but all the while, what they are choosing is in the context of our sovereignty as parents. That is how sovereignty and freedom work together in such a way that God is sovereign and we are free. (my adapted paraphrase of answer given by Jim Denison in a debate with Christopher Hitchens) [5]

Answer #3 The following exchange would go something like this:

Atheist: “ I don’t believe in God because any God that would knowingly allow his creatures to be brought into this world where he knows they will suffer, pain, evil and death, would be an evil being unworthy of belief.”

Theist: “Do you consider yourself evil?”

Atheist: “I do not.”

Theist: “Do you have a child?”

Atheist: “Yes.”

Theist: “Did you choose to bring your child into this world?

Atheist: “Yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

Theist: “It means by your own logic you must be evil, because you chose to bring a child into this world knowing full well the possibility existed for your child to suffer, have pain and eventually die! You deny the existence of God because he allows evil, suffering and death but you refuse to apply the same judgment to yourself. However I can affirm that your decision to bring your child into this world, knowing he will experience pain, disappointment, sickness and eventually death doesn’t make you evil anymore than it makes God evil for creating a world of freedom and choice and allowing it to be populated by people who he knows have the capacity to choose love or hate, kindness or cruelty, life or death—not just for themselves but others.

In choosing to create a world of free creatures, God only creates the possibility—not the actuality— that evil may occur. It is only through our wills that we make moral evil an actual occurrence. But it is also through our wills that make virtues like love actual. God only could have removed the possibility of all moral evil occurring by removing the very nature of freedom that makes other goods like love and kindness equally possible. (I have to thank Steve McNelley for his helpful insight on the above exchange)


[1] I must credit William Lane Craig’s debates for the inspiration behind many of these remarks

[2] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 30.

[3] Rick Joyner, Morning Star Journal update, 2007.

[4] See: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/panel-debate-craig-hitchens-wilson-strobel-dennison

[5] See: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/panel-debate-craig-hitchens-wilson-strobel-dennison

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Response: What would you do if your son came out as gay?

The titled question above is an excellent question. It cuts right through all the rhetoric and gets very personal. It is also why many professing Christians squirm uncomfortably and do a piss-poor job of articulating a response worthy of the gospel. It should be the place where Christians are at their finest. The fact that so many are not tells us the Church has become too content to remain at a stone-throwing distance from this critical issue. Nothing less than love and truth are at stake. A small little disclaimer is in order: I am straight, unmarried and not a father. However this question has long appealed to me because I enjoy thought provoking questions that require us as Christians to go beyond our chatty, cliché talking points and get real. I have had conversations with parents on this question before, and I have gleaned some insights along the way. The following is my response if I were a married father being interviewed by a non-Christian who is genuinely concerned for children coming out as gay in a Christian home:

Question: What would you do as Christian parents if your son came out as gay?

Answer: We would tell him we love him, that we adore him, that we would give our life for him and that our love for him would never diminish no matter what path of life he took in life. We would assure him that our love for him would be a constant in his life that would never change. But at the same time we would tell him, as Christian parents, there is a wide range of beliefs, behaviors and paths in life that we cannot support, encourage or celebrate. Not because it goes against our sensibilities or preferences, but because they go against a higher authority we as Christian parents have chosen to submit our lives to.

We live in an age where to simply have a desire is a sufficient reason to justify and pursue the desire. But Christ says the exact opposite. He says we must deny ourselves, deny our desires, pick up our cross and follow him. Now we have to be careful here. Jesus never said or denied that certain desires and urges are real. He knows they are! What he says is that we must not seek to fulfill those desires, preferences or urges if he considers them ultimately destructive to human flourishing and one’s pursuit of God’s holiness.

But this also means any attitude or display of hatred and violence towards the gay community is also off limits for Christians– parents or otherwise. In summary as Christian parents we believe picking up one’s cross and denying ourselves includes everything from denying any urge to hate one’s child because they are gay to denying the urge to overlook or dismiss what the New Testament says about God-ordained sexual contact.

So while we would assure our son of our love, we would also explain to him that we cannot pretend to believe other than we do. We cannot become hypocrites of what we believe to be true simply because we love him— because do so would ultimately be unloving and a lie.

Now if you think that is strange, barbarian, or bigoted let me flip the question around to you. What if your son came home and said he was going to be an extreme right-wing, Bible-thumping, gay-hating, “Christian” televangelist. You might be able to convince yourself you still love your son, but would you offer him your support, encouragement and affirmation. Would you honestly be able to celebrate his life’s direction if it went against your core beliefs? Probably not— but it doesn’t mean you don’t love him.

Agreeing to love and disagreeing in love are not mutually exclusive. Moreover we should not confuse love or agreement with tolerance. Tolerance implies the thing to be tolerated is not something you love or affirm—otherwise you wouldn’t tolerate it, you would agree with it! Sadly the true understanding of tolerance is lost on this youthful, liberal generation where tolerance has become a synonym for agreement and affirmation, at least up until the liberal comes across a belief or attitude they don’t agree with! Then they don’t call for tolerance—they just call you bigoted and intolerant. The self-defeating irony is often lost on them.

*This is just a preliminary response. Specific matters such as what to do if your son wants to bring home their partner to your house would have to be prayerfully considered on a case-by-case basis according to one’s conscience before the Lord.

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