Tag Archives: Theology

When life doesn’t follow the “plan”


One of the more significant causes of emotional/psychological suffering is the experience that life isn’t turning out as expected. While we all conjure up something different when we hear “normal”, we do have something that we assume is the normal expectation for how life should unfold. Most of us assume we will go to college, graduate on time, get married, have kids, start a career (or several over the course of our life), develop economic stability and growth, stay healthy, retire, find fulfillment, etc. Unexpected events will happen, we tell ourselves, but the general plan or trajectory should continue.

But then we hit more than a bump in the road. We don’t get married, can’t have kids, lose a job, divorce, get sick (or watch a loved one die before their time). When we suffer we are forced to come face to face with the fact that life does not have guarantees–except that there will be suffering and that suffering is not something we can get beyond, try as we might.

Christians are not immune from having expectation. In fact, we may have even more than those who don’t have the “hope of heaven.” We assume we will have peace and joy and that God will deliver us just as he delivered Daniel, David, Esther, etc. We recite Psalm 23 but gloss over the hard parts (death, enemies). Or, consider, for example, the pattern found in Psalm 107: Sin/Weakness leads to suffering…the people cry out in their trouble…the Lord hears and saves/blesses them with good things…  We like this pattern and expect to get the “happily ever after” that the pattern seems to promise.

Notice that as soon as God isn’t delivering us from our pain, we begin to look for the reasons. Maybe there is a new technique to prayer to try. Maybe there is a sin to confess. Maybe it is due to judgment on our country for its errant ways. We want to blame someone!

The truth is the “plan” isn’t as detailed as we would like it to be. Yes, there is a normal trajectory of life: growth…maturation…passing on to the next generation. But promises for obtaining specific outcomes are not given. We only assume they are assured until we discover one of our assumptions blown up by reality.

The same goes for our assumptions of the “rescue plan.” Either God does not deliver on his promises to care for his children OR his care looks markedly different from what we assumed it would be. And, it appears that God’s plan for rescue is global rather than individual. He did repeatedly rescue Israel during the time of the Judges…but some years and oppression went by each time and some of the chosen people did not survive.

Does this depress you? It can. Especially when we take note of more and more suffering and see less of the “normal” life we once expected. As we age we notice that death is everywhere–as if it wasn’t there so much when we were younger. If it doesn’t depress you, you may find yourself struggling with bitterness. How can God really exist or be good?

Or, you can consider John Calvin’s words (thanks John Freeman for showing them to me) and consider one blessing amidst the disrupted “plan.”

With whatever kind of tribulation we may be afflicted, we should always keep this end in view–to habituate ourselves to a contempt of the present life, that we may thereby be excited to meditation on that which is to come. For the Lord, knowing our strong natural inclination to a brutish love of the world, adopts a most excellent method to reclaim us and rouse us from our insensibility, that we may not be too tenaciously attached to that foolish affection…the whole soul, fascinated by carnal allurements, seeks it felicity on earth. To oppose this evil, the Lord, by continual lessons of misery, teaches His children the vanity of the present life.(as quoted in L. Boettner’s Immortality, p. 31)

If Calvin stopped there we might think he was a stoic–one who hated any pleasure. However, he is not. He says this “contempt” of this life should not lead to hate pleasure or “ingratitude” for good things.

So, consider for a moment what “plan” you expected and your reaction to not getting it. Or, better yet, what “plan” did you expect that you actually got but then found out that said plan didn’t deliver the goods you thought were to come with it?

How might your mood, your attitude, your perspective change if “the plan” was focused on meeting/seeing God each day? What would you stop striving for? What would you set aside as a waste of time? What would you notice that right now escapes your glance?

One final comment. I don’t think that this change in “plan” reduces the pain of suffering or stops our goal-directed activity in this life. We are designed to growth, develop, change, find pleasure, pursue economic stability for self and other. Further, suffering always hurts, no matter what good comes of it. Just because good comes from pain doesn’t mean pain is itself good. Our problem is that we sometimes often forget a deeper design of relationship with God.

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, suffering

Suffering and Divine Sovereignty?


What is similar and different counselors and beauty queens? Well, we both want to end human suffering and seek world peace BUT the counselor no longer talks as if it is possible in this life. We know that sitting in suffering is, in fact, an important act in this life.

So, for all you counselor types out there, I have a theology book for you. Currently, I am reading Suffering and the Goodness of God, edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Crossway, 2008).

Not all theology books are stuffy. Really. This one is very readable and helpful. Chapter one (Robert Yarbrough) lists 11 theses about suffering. I will not repeat them all here but each one is illustrated from Scripture and personal experience. Here is a taste:

1. Suffering is neither good nor completely explicable

2. Suffering in itself is no validation of religious truth

3. Accounting for suffering is forced upon us by our times

4. Suffering may be a stumbling block to Gospel reception

5. Suffering Creates teachable moments for Gospel reception (though this does not make suffering, in itself, good)

7. Suffering is the price of much fruitful ministry

10. Suffering unites us with other sinners we seek to serve

Lest you think this book takes a happy view of suffering, consider this quote:

It is certainly true that it is primarily God himself who in his redemptive activity has “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). But this new birth does not take place in a vacuum. Rather it unfolds amidst earthly life, which is manifestly to some extent a vale of tears.

We sometimes wish to talk about “new birth” and redemption as if our suffering does not continue in this life.

The rest of the book addresses OT and NT interactions with suffering, the problem of evil and oppression and two chapters written by theologians about their own personal suffering. A good read if you realize you cannot ignore suffering or go back to some prior period of naiveté.

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, Psychology, suffering

Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy?


In the world of Christian counseling past, thinkers (philosophers, theologians, model builders) pondered whether it would be good to consider humanity in two parts (body/soul) or three parts (body/soul/spirit or psyche). These days I can’t recall anyone even raising this as an issue that competent counselors should consider. This absences does beg the question(s): Is pondering the substances of humanity not particularly needed anymore? Is it that our academic predecessors already answered the question?

I’m not sure but I lean to the first reason–most people think this isn’t particularly relevant to their work counseling others. I tend to agree with caveats. When I sit with someone, I try to consider their whole being. We can’t possibly discuss their body without considering their mind. We can’t possibly talk about spiritual matters without using the body. I can just imagine this. “Now, let’s discuss your stomach pain, but we will not consider your thoughts or your spiritual well-being in this part of the conversation…[room goes silent]”

And yet many counselors continue to function like this in implicit ways. The counseling professional who feels incompetent to talk about faith matters (or that it somehow violates ethics) may choose to ignore spiritual matters (e.g., “I deal with only the psyche and I leave faith matters to the pastor). Well-intended, but in denial of the whole person in front of them. Then there are those counselors who see themselves as only dealing with faith or spiritual matters; matters of the will. These counselors may implicitly neglect, even reject, the role of the body in counseling concerns.

We counselors need to consider whether we tend to neglect a part of the person in front of us when we ignore body or spirit issues. Thus, it can be helpful to examine our practical theology of persons. Note I didn’t answer the question in the title. There are a good many who do a fine job debunking the trichotomy position. However, a practical monism likely works better in the session–that the whole person in front of me functions as a unity that cannot nor should not be divided into pieces.

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Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Psychology

Theological thoughts on intersex and gender


For those in the Philly area, you are invited to come to Biblical to hear a guest lecturer speak on the subject of intersex. Megan De Franza will be guest lecturing in an MDiv theology class, Tuesday, November 3rd, starting at 6 pm. She is a doctoral student at Marquette University and writing her dissertation on the topic of gender and how Christian theology might address “intersex” (formerly known as hermaphrodism). As many as 1:2200 births result in a form of intersex (anywhere from ambiguous external genitalia to more hidden gender anomalies).

Is there room for a third gender? Megan will explore Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 about marriage and eunuchs and consider if this relates to the subject.

No charge (but I’m sure someone would take a check if you felt so inclined).

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Filed under Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sexuality

Can your body make you sin, part 2


Yesterday I posted an introduction to this topic. Today, I want to give my answer to the first question:

Is it possible that my body (against or apart from my will) might cause me to sin?

  • What is gained and/or lost if we say yes? If we say no?

My answer: Yes.

I suppose you might like some defense of this position. Okay, here’s my best shot in five minutes:

1. Nothing is done by a person apart from their cells. We mediate all worship, desire, etc. through our cells. When we do good or evil, all of us are involved.

2. Sin is not merely an act, but a disposition. All of me is tainted and not functioning as it was originally intended, including my physical body (and don’t I feel the effects of being over 40!).  The dualist position is more in danger of treating sin as only what we consciously choose.

3. I don’t have to know that I broke the law (biblical or federal) to be guilty of violating the law. I didn’t know I was speeding but I still got a ticket. In the OT, lack of intention or knowledge violating the law did not protect against impurity or guilt (e.g., Lev. 4:22; 5:3).

4. If the body is broken and under sin’s curse it stands to reason that our bodies function in ways that are out of accord with our will. If they can move without our control (e.g., Parkinsonian tremors) can they not also move in such a way that violates God’s design for us. We have scientific evidence of this. Stimulate a certain part of the brain, and you will have rageful feelings. Stimulate another part and you may have sexual thoughts. Consider, as a commenter suggested yesterday, a person with Tourettes. There is some evidence of temporary volitional control (a surgeon is able to stop a tick during an operation) but other evidence that the ticks, and in some cases, curses burst out against the conscious effort of the person.

Saying yes to this question violates our Western sensibilities:

If we accept that our bodies can act against or without the will, what do we gain or lose? I think the primary concern by many would be that somehow we will either be held culpable for sins we didn’t want to commit or claim innocence for sins we didn’t willfully commit. And this gets to our thinking patterns here in the West. We want to be only held accountable for things we did do and not held accountable for things we either didn’t do or didn’t have any control over.

It strikes us as evil to be held accountable for that which we didn’t know was wrong. I once got a ticket for making a u-turn on a Chicago city street at 11 pm when no one (but the cop!) was around. There were no signs. I wasn’t familiar with Chicago rules, was lost in an unsavory neighborhood. And yet I still got the ticket. It didn’t seem right. But I did violate the law.

Our American judicial system isn’t the only system that holds us accountable for involuntary acts. Romans teaches us that because of Adam’s sin, all are sinners. I bear the culpability for his sin (and I make plenty of my own as well). I bear the impact of his choices in my entire being. Further we see OT prophets confessing the sins of the community as if they were their own.

So, in short, I think we can answer yes to the question about whether our bodies can make us sin. They can because we (body and soul) are tainted by the Fall. It doesn’t make us more or less out of sorts with God whether our sin is chosen or involuntary. Happily, God doesn’t just forgive willful sin, he forgives sin period and makes it possible to not sin by imputing his righteousness to us.

For those still thinking about culpability, I’ll give a little vignette tomorrow to chew on.

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sin, Uncategorized

Can your body make you sin?


I’ve had a small email exchange on this topic with a PhD student at another seminary and so I’m going to raise the topic here. Can your body make you sin? Obviously, I’m going to tackle this question from a Christian perspective that cares about sin and wants to think carefully about our ontology (what it means to be human).  

The major questions behind the question are (a) are we made up of 2 substances (body and soul), and (b) even if we are, does it matter when considering what causes people to do what they ought not? I am not going to even try to defend (a) but I do want us to think about (b).

Some background might help. (If you get bored with background, just scroll down to the questions below.)

1. In the Christian life sin matters. Sin is that which we do that violates God’s definition of holiness. Sin is that which fallen creatures do all the time. Thankfully, God provides a way of escape from the logical consequences of sin (grace via the cross). Despite (no, because of) this gift from God, Christians still care about eradicating sin even though it is not possible. It stands to reason, then, that it can help to discern the sources of sin in order to stop them.

2. The classic Christian view of human nature is that we are made of two substances: body and soul. We are not just our physical bodies but something intangible was imputed to us when God breathed life into Adam. Our soul allows us to worship God. The bible refers to our soul in various ways: will, heart, desires, etc. The soul is the driver of the will and therefore responsible for the moral direction of our actions. Early theologically oriented scientists (think Descartes) assumed the existence of the soul but looked to explain how the intangible soul connected to the tangible body. Now with the advances in neuroscience we have better explanatory power in describing the action of thoughts, feelings, and knowing. However, the will remains a mystery. While we can explain neural networks and what the brain does when desiring something, we cannot yet explain WHY we want or desire certain things. 

Some philosophers and theologians have attempted to deal with classic dualism by suggesting that we are only one substance. I am not capable of succinctly defending this position so I point you to Nancey Murphy and a review of her book here.  She does a masterful job defending non-reducible physicalism.

Okay, now if you think humans are made of body and soul you have these questions to consider.

  1. Is it possible that my body (against or apart from my will) might cause me to sin?
    • What is gained and/or lost if we say yes? If we say no?
  2. If it is possible, am I culpable for such sins? 
    • What is the consequences of saying yes to this question?

During this week I plan to give a feeble defense of a yes answer to both questions 1 and 2. We’ll see how this unfolds.

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Read any good books on evil?


Have a new writing assignment on the theology of evil in sexual abuse. I’m to think theologically about this particular kind of evil. So, I want to do some reading. Any books you might recommend that discuss evil (outside of the usual ones describing the damage done by sexual abuse)?

I’ll start with NT Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God” book, but other recommendations might be helpful as well.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sin

The God I Don’t Understand: Chapter 6


Been blogging through Christopher Wright’s book about things that are hard to understand about the Christian God. In earlier chapters he covered things that make him uncomfortable but now he gets to the third section about the cross–something that puzzles but delights him. He begins with this thought:

As I ponder the cross, three fundamental questions sum up our struggle to understand it: Why? What? and How? Why did God ever consider sending Jesus to die on the cross? Why was it necessary from our point of view? Why was he willing to do it, from his point of view? And then, What did God actually accomplish through the death of his Son? What was it all for? And finally, How did it work? How did one man’s bleeding body stretched on two pieces of wood for six hours of torture and death on a particular Friday one spring outside a city in a remote province of the Roman Empire change everything in the universe? (p.111)

In this chapter he takes up the why and the what questions.

Why?The simple answer is “Because God Loves us.” (p. 112). But he also admits that the answer is “totally inexplicable.” Wright doesn’t believe that we can really answer the question but is convinced we can deepen our understanding traipsing through the OT. Then Wright shows what is not the OT’s answer for why God loves Israel. It is not because they are special in any shape or form. In fact they may have been the unfortunate example of “all that is worst about humanity in general.” The only way to understand why God loves us, says Wright, is to accept that it is God’s character to love. And while that states the truth, “…it doesn’t explain it.”

What? Wright points to 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and the quick summary of what happened. He then reflects on the metaphors the Bible uses to describe what the cross does for human sinners. Metaphors used to describe the atonement cannot fully capture the “what” but neither are they lacking in reality. Wright then explores these metaphors:

1. Coming home (Eph. 2:11f)
2. Mercy (Eph. 2:3-7)
3. Redemption from slavery
4. Forgiveness
5. Reconciliation with God and other
6. Justification
7. Cleansing
8. New Life

Each of these reveal that God was doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. What is not a metaphor, says Wright, is the word “substitution.” That is, he says, is what he actually did. God accepts the penalty which belonged to us alone.

This chapter, as you may see, has less discussion of mystery and more discussion of the “what” and the “why.” Next chapter will take on some more of the mystery by exploring the “how” of the cross–how it could have such cosmic impact.

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