Is God Really Good?


Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; His love endures forever. Psalm 106:1

This has been a tough verse to swallow in the last ten days for my kids at school. There is no goodness in death itself, and it is hard to reconcile an untimely death and a sovereign and omnipotent God. “If God is good then why…” has echoed in their words and in their tears. And, to be honest, it has echoed in my own thoughts and tears as I have pulled together faith and love and steadiness; we must walk our talk, show our faith to those who desperately need to see what faith looks like when they can’t feel it. This means overcoming our feelings with truth.

Though our feelings come and go, his love for us does not… CS Lewis

I pulled out some old notes for a class I am teaching at school, and in the folder there was a small collection of notes dated October 6, 1999. The notes were in my Church History notes from 2006; seminary in Wake Forest is a lifetime away from college at UTC, so I have no doubt these notes were divinely “misplaced” so I would find them today.

I have no idea where I was or who was speaking (which is why I have since become obsessive about documenting notes. The historian in me believes this to be a requirement, and now I know why), but we were apparently discussing the characteristics of God. At this particular time we were discussing God’s goodness, and this one statement, written in my own hand, jumped off the page at me this morning:

“We would never willingly give up our son, but we praise God for the lives changed through his death.” This is a particularly jarring statement at this point in life, considering this anonymous statement echoes the cries of our hearts in the loss of a son, brother, teammate, classmate, friend and student last week.

We can’t understand God’s goodness because we’ve changed good to mean “something that pleases our senses.” But in reality, God and His characteristics are the only things that can define good.

In other words, God is the standard of good, not our desires. If God brings it, it is good, indeed it is best, regardless of our feelings toward the situation.

In the remainder of my notes from this event, there are many verses quoted, followed by one line observations I wrote then and have considered quite a bit today. I do not believe this will be the last day of my life that my heart will need to be reminded of the goodness of God. The italicized portions are the verses and quotes provided by the speaker, the bold statements are the questions and observations I jotted down in 1999.

The LORD is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The LORD is good to all, And His mercies are over all His works. All Your works shall give thanks to You, O LORD, And Your godly ones shall bless You. They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom And talk of Your power; To make known to the sons of men Your mighty acts And the glory of the majesty of Your kingdom. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And Your dominion endures throughout all generations. The LORD sustains all who fall And raises up all who are bowed down. Psalm 145:8-14

A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good ? No one is good except God alone.” Luke 18:18-19

If God is good, then what he really wants is what’s best for me, right? Can I trust you with my life?

Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. James 1:16-17

God wants what’s best for me, but not necessarily what’s easy for me.

Those who dive in a sea of affliction bring up a rear pearl. Charles Spurgeon

When we truly trust God, we will not have anxiety or worry.

Now my last observation about trust and worry is much more cut and dry in the mind of the 19 year old who wrote the words than it is in the mind of the 32 year who read the same words today. It’s not either/or; sometimes trust and anxiety occur in overwhelming doses of both/and. But I know that anxiety causes me to either lean more and more on him or more and more on my own devices to relieve the situation. And I also know that the more I cast my anxieties on him, they are lessened, while the more I carry my anxieties on myself, the more they seem to multiply. And sometimes “casting” is a continuous action throughout a day.

Is it your whole life? Do you have a relationship? Trust that God wants what’s good for your life.

THAT is the key. That question: do you trust God? Do you trust that He wants what’s best for you? Do you trust that HE is what’s best for you?

The words, spoken to the ears of an 19 year old in 1999, heard today by the heart of a 32 year old, were delivered by the Spirit at just the right time. May they speak to your heart at just the right time.

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Children’s Books, God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will


The last couple of years I have taken to reading youth fiction. It’s a great balance for the heavy reading I do for school, and I love revisiting books that I read as a child. They take on a whole new meaning as an adult. A truly gifted writer is able to weave together multiple, complex themes, and some of those themes are only visible after time and maturity grow us up a bit.

The Chronicles of Narnia are a prime example. I read them two summers ago for the first time since I was in the 5th grade, and they came alive to me in a completely different way than they did when I was eleven. It is a treat to be able to go back and glean deep theological truth found on such simple terms. To describe God in the words of a child is a literary skill I envy.

While on vacation a few weeks ago, I found a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time at a thrift store, and I purchased it. Her writing intrigued me as a child as well, and I looked forward to reading it through the lens of adulthood. I’m finishing it today, and I as I read the conversation below, it struck me as such as simple yet profound way of describing the concept of God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will working simultaneously in harmony with one another. Being fiercely independent, the concept of God being in complete control and me still having any choice in the matters of my life never really meshed, but this makes sense to me.

“In your language, you have a form of poetry called the sonnet.”

“Yes, yes…”

“It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?”

“Yes.”

“But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?”

“Yes… You mean your comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”

“Yes. You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet for yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”

I tend to think that either I’m in control or someone else is. But God is pleased to work with us, within our lives. He has given us the structure in which He desires us to work. God gives us a range of choices for our lives; “This is the will of God for your life…” But within that strict structure, we are free to create a masterpiece or a trainwreck of the sonnet he has asked us each to write.

Seems to me, in my simple human mind, that this may be a good way of describing how God works in our lives. God gives us choices in life, any of which He would be pleased with. He has given us boundaries in which to live, guidelines to follow, and reason, knowledge and logic with which to make decisions.

And considering we are told in Ephesians that we are God’s handiwork, His masterpiece, I don’t have a problem at all with the idea of my life being a sonnet. Or a Haiku. Or any other type of art in which the artist is required to express his or her genius within certain boundaries. In fact, I believe expressing yourself within a set of externally given guidelines is more beautiful and more challenging than just “freestyling” whatever comes to mind.

So I guess the only question is: what is your sonnet going to be about?

Idolizing the Ideal and Idealizing Idols


If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. CS Lewis

John Calvin stated in the Institutes that man’s heart is an idol factory. We spend our lives setting people, places, things, goals, jobs, whatever, on the pedestal of our hearts. We give them our time, our loyalty, our money and control of our actions and attitudes.

We then expect our idols to meet our needs. People should love us unconditionally, meet our every need and never fail us. Jobs should fulfill us and allow us to reach our financial goals. Homes should make us happy. Social circles should fill our every free moment. Food should comfort without creating unhealthy bodies. Because we have given these people or things our worship, we expect them to be worthy of our worship. We expect our gods to behave like God.

For a while that may occur. The person showers you with a rush of love and affection and attention. The job launches you into an adrenaline high and maybe even a new tax bracket. The friends are fun and make you feel like the life of the party. The smaller jeans make you feel confident. The extra helping of dinner or desert makes you feel comforted.

But then one day the person fails you. The job gets tough. The friends aren’t there in the hard time like they were in the good. The jeans get tight. The food doesn’t fill the hole in your heart. The idol doesn’t fulfill your expectation of meeting your need perfectly. So you work to get more of it. Surely more of a good thing is better, right? It doesn’t take long on the idol cycle to learn that no person, place or thing can stay on your pedestal without a lot of help from you. It takes a lot of excusing, overlooking and enabling to keep an idol in a place of worship. It takes a lot of work to keep an idol worthy of a position of worship.

Too bad we miss the fact that the God of the universe, the one our hearts were made to crave, does not need our help in the least to stay on that pedestal of worship. The Perfect One is worthy of our worship all on His own. We have no need of idealizing the Ideal.

When we place our focus of worship on the One True Object of worship, it frees us up to worship Him with reckless abandon. When we aren’t using our hands to tightly hold onto our idol, they are free to be raised in worship. When we aren’t using our mind to rationalize the pain and heartache caused by our idol, we are free to think well of Him and worship Him with our minds. When we aren’t spending our time chasing after relationships and things that are never fulfilling, we can spend our time drinking deeply from the well that never runs dry.

I find myself spending a lot of time and effort idealizing things I believe I am lacking. Keeping idols worthy of worship is exhausting. It’s unfair to place those expectations on those we place on our pedestals and unrealistic for any object. When I return my focus to what I have been given, I see that my true object of worship has supplied my every need in Christ Jesus. There is no need for multitasking when God alone is the object of our worship.

Worshiping God is easier because we do not have to work to idealize our object of worship. He is ideal in and of Himself, freeing us up to simply worship.

What idols are you exhausting yourself attempting to idealize? How can you free up your heart and mind to simply idolize the ideal instead of attempting to idealize your idols?

Of Joy and Desire, Part 3


Lewis’s point is that there are desires for many things in this world. In his apologetic works, he discusses at length man’s desire for food, for rest, for companionship, for beauty, for enlightenment. He says, however, that those desires do not function in and of themselves. Rather, they are used as proofs by God to ensure us that, just as we desire food and there is food to fulfill that desire, there is also a God with whom we long to unite that will, when we ask Him, come down and fellowship with us in a way that will meet our every longing for Him. “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food…. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Lewis, Mere Christianity). God created us with desires that can be fulfilled temporally in order to give us hope that those desires that cannot be fulfilled temporally will be fulfilled eternally. Our Creator desires for us to know that that we were not created with a desire that will not be fulfilled, and Lewis’s argument that since all temporal desires are fulfilled, then even those desires that we have not yet found fulfillment for will one day be fulfilled.

When looking to the Bible for confirmation of Lewis’s argument, one can look to Hebrews 11:13-16 where the writer speaks of those in the Old Testament who were highly esteemed for their faith in an unseen fulfillment of their desires:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one (emphasis mine).

Even upon their death, these great men and women of faith had not received the things promised to them. Their desires had not been fulfilled. And rightly so, Lewis would argue, for who would want to place their faith for eternity in a longing fulfilled in this life? He, for one, did not. “Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to ‘Spirit’ and from ‘Spirit’ to ‘God,’ had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 237). When it comes right down to it, all anyone in this world is looking for is something sure in which to place their trust. What could be more trustworthy than a God who has ensured that everyday we will experience small confirmations of His constant presence both here and in the hereafter?

Of Joy and Desire, Part 2


This is part two in a series on CS Lewis and his observations on desire and joy.

After spending years searching through literature, mythology, and relationships, Lewis came to a revolutionary conclusion that he states in his work Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” It was just after his conversion to Christianity that Lewis penned the following words that explain how he came to this conclusion: “It appeared to me… that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given… in our subjective and spacio-temporal experience.” Of all of Lewis’s writings on the subject of sehnsucht and the quest for the fulfillment of this unknown desire, it is actually his friend Owen Barfield who most simply explained Lewis’s conclusion to the matter: “true longing is never fulfilled by anything in the earthly life, but… it’s always a disguised longing for God.”

God, says Lewis, is the object of our longing. This belief goes along with the words of Augustine when he wrote, “O, Lord, you have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” The great works of secular literature are often ascribed their greatness because of the eloquent manner in which this longing is described and personified. Even these works confirm the fact that the objects most desired, if they are of this world, do not, when they are attained, fulfill those longings.

This longing for the things of God is addressed at length in the Scriptures that were written on behalf of a people that God knew would be seeking something greater than themselves. The writer of the Psalms wrote at length about his desire for God, saying, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (63:1). The writer of the Psalms also stated, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (42:1-2). Someone with a thirsting in his soul, his body longing for something as though in a “dry and weary land” sounds like the descriptions of the characters in much of modern writing. But this writer is not thirsting for drink, hungering for food, or lusting for companionship. He is desperately searching for a way to meet with the One he has discovered will fulfill those longings. He desires God. “Like Augustine, Lewis believes that if there is a God, in whose image we are made and in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:23), then it would stand to reason that we would have a longing and a built-in craving for a Joy beyond all earthly satisfactions” (quoted from Dave Brown, “Real Joy and True Myth,” Real Joy and True Myth [1997] <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/3505/LewisJoy.html>).

Testimonies like those from the Psalmist fill the Bible and confirm that Lewis’s thinking is a common thought among people. In fact, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul goes even a step further. He confirms not only that God will fulfill our longings; he also gives his personal conviction that the things of this world never will. “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8). All things that he once considered worthy of his time and attention, all the things man pursues daily in an attempt to fill that desire with temporal matter, Paul says here that once he met Christ, those things became to him like garbage.

“In great Lewis tradition, Alister McGrath describes the apologetic opportunity this (the realization that the things of this world are truly unfulfilling) presents us: ‘This feeling of dissatisfaction is one of the most important points of contact for the gospel proclamation. In the first place, that proclamation interprets this vague and unshaped feeling as longing for God. And second, it offers to fill it…” (Dave Brown). In the Scriptures, God essentially offers to fill that longing He placed within us with Himself.

The aforementioned argument begs the question, “What of those that do not believe in the existence of God?” How are they to explain this longing? Atheist Austin Cline has researched Lewis’s argument of desire at length, and he gives this rebuttal:
According to Lewis and other apologists, every desire is necessarily a desire for something, and every natural desire must have some object that will satisfy it. Since humans desire the joy and experience of God, therefore there must be a God that will satisfy our desires….It is true that every desire is a desire for something, but it does not automatically follow that every desire is a desire for something that actually exists…. [H]ow many people desire the ability to fly or the ability to read minds?

While this point should be considered and respected, one should also be quick to notice that one can very readily argue the fact that there is a tremendous difference between desiring the ability to read minds so that one may sneak into the mind of his or her nosy neighbor, and desiring an object that will cause us to feel complete as entities within the universe. If the point is looked at on the truly grand scale of finding one’s identity in the cosmos, the ability to read another’s mind is really inconsequential. This is a point that C.S. Lewis understood well. As a former atheist who journeyed through the progression of all false objects until they proved their falsity, he knew that the closer one got to finding the One to whom we are all drawn, the farther one moves from all other aspects of existence.

Of Joy and Desire, Part 1


But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire…
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”

So much in the lives of men—our literature, drama, dance, painting, photography, our solitary midnight musings—deals with this mystery which is ingrained so deeply into the hearts of every pilgrim on this planet. Noted author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis defined this part of the human experience as “the stab, the pain, the inconsolable longing…;” and he called it Joy. Books have been written, debates have raged; the Romantic Period of art and literature was essentially dedicated to the questions, “Why are we here and what are we seeking?” Debates have continued for centuries concerning the source of and the solution to the indefinable longing present in each person, but it was only when Lewis began his life’s work that a suitable definition (though still not a source) was discovered.

To be human… is to have a divinely ingrained hunger… for transcendent joy…. Lewis gave such experience the name sehnsucht, a German term rooted in sehnen (to long for, to yearn after), and sucht (homesickness, passion, rage). Sehnsucht thus means a passionate longing, a lifelong homesickness for another world. Sehnsucht is the experience of “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that his first memory of this type of longing occurred the day his brother Warren brought a toy garden into their nursery. This garden, “the first beauty I ever knew,” combined with the Castlereagh Hills he could see from his nursery window, “taught me longing—Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.” From this moment, he says, his life became a quest to recapture that fleeting moment of joy and beauty.

C.S. Lewis was not the only prolific writer to contemplate the source and meaning of desire. In the work “Writing the Long Desire: The Function of Sehnsucht in The Great Gatsby and Look Homeward, Angel,” D.G. Kehl gives numerous examples of authors focusing entire books around the desires of a specific character. Entire chapters of books are dedicated to the protagonist thinking aloud about “whence our lives come and where they go.” When trying to grasp a more concrete definition of this longing, “Carson McCullers writes, ‘It is no simple longing for the home town or the country of our birth…. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.” How is it possible to long for a place to which we have never been? If we have never had an experience, if we have never seen a place, how can one truly miss it? Many great works have been created pondering just those questions. “In ‘The Message in a Bottle,’ Walker Percy depicts every person as a castaway on an island, longing and searching for messages in bottles washed up by the waves. Something is wrong; something is missing, but he does not know what (emphasis mine).”

If so much time has gone into searching for the meaning of this longing, why has no one found the source? Are we truly made with an insatiable desire for an unknown entity? Is man destined to spend our time on this planet searching for something that we can never attain, something that may not even exist? “Lewis agued often that any human longing points to a genuine human need which in turn points to a corresponding, real object to fill that need.” There is no denial from Lewis that such a longing exists. As has been previously shown, Lewis first felt this desire himself as a young boy, but he goes on to further discuss this desire in the following manner: “It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?… Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.” Lewis had experienced desire, and when he realized the desire was a fleeting sensation, the longing to experience that desire again is what spurred him on to discover that beauty again in other objects.

A New Sexual Ethic? Part 4


This is part 4 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow.

Third, Heyward claims that Christianity is isolating and denies community. By setting rigid boundaries concerning sexual behavior and then consequently excluding those who refuse to live by those standards, Heyward states that Christianity is proving itself dated, close-minded, and supportive of “compulsive heterosexuality” (Heyward, 12). Historically, Heyward claims that women were isolated from the Christian community by being declared “as evil, ‘the devil’s gateway’” and then systematically used as scapegoats for the sexual sins of the men around them (Heyward, 14).

What is so interesting about Heyward’s quick dismissal of all things “christian” is that God’s moral law, especially his guidelines concerning sexual relations in general, create and then reinforce exactly the sort of relationality that Heyward claims she is attempting to achieve. Relationship, community, unity in diversity, profound oneness and even wholeness are recurring themes throughout Scripture. Heyward is attempting to achieve the end of spiritual wholeness through the means of sex. Scripture teaches that even the most holy sexual relationship is but a picture of the unity and wholeness experienced in being a member of the bride of Christ (Eph 6.22-33). The foundation of Christianity is found in the words of Christ Himself when He stated, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6).

Throughout the epistles of the New Testament, believers in churches across Europe and Asia Minor are exhorted to live as a unified, healthy body (1 Cor 12), as a well jointed building (Eph 2); they are told to lay aside petty differences (Phil 4) and to pray for one another and for their common goal (1 Thes 5). These instructions for community are plentiful, and they center on the common love of God and the common call of spreading His glory among the nations. There is one part of living in community that Heyward seems to miss—justice and love are not relative terms that can be interpreted to mean that believers should turn a blind eye to those things which Scripture condemns as going against the nature of God. Justice and love are characteristics of the nature of God, and God declares to His people, “For I the Lord do not change” (Mal 3.6). If God does not change, the characteristics of His nature are fixed and unchanging as well. Therefore, the principles of spurring one another on to love and good deeds (Heb 10) and of confronting one another when fellow believers are entrenched in sin (Mt 18; Gal 6; 1 Cor 5) apply to all things described in Scripture as moral laws which reflect the character of God. So long as desires are allowed to reign unchecked and people continue to seek fulfillment in things other than a relationship with God through Jesus, true spiritual wholeness will not be realized.

C.S. Lewis described this spiritual wholeness of Christ as Joy, and upon contemplating this matter of desire and pleasure made the following observation: “Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” Heyward and her intellectual companions have attempted to substitute pleasure for Joy by completely freeing human sexuality from all encumbrances of law and discipline, but they have yet to achieve the wholeness and fulfillment for which they so desperately search. The struggle to find wholeness through the creation instead of the Creator (Rom 1. 25) is a confirmation of Lewis’ belief that physical pleasure is an unsatisfactory attempt to fill the “God-shaped void” in the lives of people.

This God-shaped void brings Heyward to the natural end of seeking God in God’s created order—Heyward describes sex in divine terms, completing the move from a supposedly “christian” sexual ethic to a glorification and worship of sex that is essentially pagan sex worship. In her discussion of this new christian ethic of sex, Heyward draws upon the work of Freud, who described the eroticism of sex as the “life force.” Heyward also quotes Audre Lorde’s description of the erotic as “the source of our creativity, the wellspring of our joy, the energy of our poems, music, lovemaking, dancing, meditation, friendships, and meaningful work.” For the Christian believer, this description could very well be used to describe God. In the Psalms, it is the glory and worship of Yahweh that inspires David and the other psalmists to write and dance and meditate. The entire book of the Song of Songs describes the fruition of a sexual relationship between a husband and wife when that relationship is rightly focused upon God and upon one another. Paul tells the church in Corinth, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10.31).

The focus of the life of the believer is not self pleasure or self glorification. Rather, the believer is to focus on the glory and worship of God. To give creative or inspirational credit or worship to anything other than God Himself is to commit an act of idolatry. Heyward attempts to explain this usurpation of God by declaring, “Theologically, we are speaking of our power in right relation; from a christian perspective, the power of God” (Heyward, 15). She claims that the power of God is reached and realized through the act of sex, but God himself prohibits worshiping him through sex acts (Lev 18, 20).

These major themes—the role reversals of men and women, the search for false community, the replacement of God with an idol—work together to show that while Heyward claims that her work, heritage, and ideas are Christian, she is actually committing the very sin that she exposes in the Church; she is further removing herself from the authority of the Bible and establishing her own ethic based upon tradition and personal experience. Heyward has taken Wesley’s quadrilateral of interpretation and reversed it; instead of beginning with Scripture and clarifying it through tradition, philosophy, and personal experience, Heyward begins with personal experience and reinterprets or discounts philosophy, tradition, and Scripture. Those ideals and absolutes which go against personal experience and desire are laid aside and explained away as being culturally irrelevant. This is precisely the place that Heyward envisions: “A historical perspective on sexuality is important… because such a view enables us to envision and perhaps experience our own possibilities…. We are involved in shaping our own dreams.” By using sex as a means to channel the power of God, Heyward argues that personal, sexual realization enables humanity to make its own destiny—humanity becomes god.