What is a Challenge for God?

I read a book a couple of years ago called God’s Debris. It was a free online book by Scott Adams. In it, the main character debates what God would want to do. He reasoned that an omnipotent God would be quite bored by almost everything, since there would be no challenge. Thus, the character concluded, the only real challenge to God would be to see if he could destroy himself. The character posits that God did and that’s what the Big Bang was: God blowing himself up. Everything in the universe is “God’s debris” and as part of the divine essence, we are all gradually coalescing back into his consciousness.

cosmic dewdrops

This is an unrelated image, but it looks cool. Source

Now, the book is just a thought experiment. The author (most likely) isn’t suggesting that this is really what happened, but it got me thinking: what is God’s motivation? As an omnipotent God, what would interest him? One answer is that God has created the universe so that his creation can give glory back to him. That, of course, isn’t a challenge. God created angels, too, to give him praise and worship him for eternity. So what is a challenge to God?

I don’t think God is interested in destroying himself, but it occurred to me that the real challenge for God is to create something that’s uncreatable. In fact, that is what he is doing right now, and Christians are uncreatable beings in the middle of the process.

It is paradoxical to say that you can create something instantaneously which requires a process. We, as humans can build a car, but we cannot build a tree. That is something that requires a specific, time-consuming process. In the same way, a woman can give birth to a baby (and even that is a process), but not a mature adult. That would be a paradox, since a mature adult is not a product of an act of creation; he or she is the result of a process over many years.

In the same way, God cannot simply create a being who has chosen Him of their own free will, who has grown to know Him and love Him over time. It is a long, sometimes painful process and we are in the midst of that process. To find the endpoint of that process, the uncreatable being, the Bible says that we will be perfected, to be like Christ. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, the ultimate conclusion of this process of being a Christian is to become “a little Christ”, though not on our own merits but only through him.

A Girl Named Grace

Girl Named Grace

I know a girl named Grace
She drops by just when I need her
I don’t deserve her but she doesn’t care
She brings me treats from far away
Favorite foods I’ve never known

I know a girl named Grace
She found me standing by the road
Lost and hopeless
She brought me home, coaxed me to health
And gave me hope again

I know a girl named Grace
Who joys in the sunshine and the rains
And my feeble attempts to give back
She drops by just when I need her
And God love her for it

Creation from Nothing

It may seem like a paradox to think that God created the universe from nothing, as Christians contend. After all, where did all the matter and energy we’re made up of come from? Where was it before? It’s hard to wrap our minds around.

The Bible says that we were made in God’s image and as such, we are also creators. In fact, we create things from nothing all the time. Let me give you two examples.

black_dragon_attack_2

Copyright el-grimlock

In the picture above, there is a dragon. If I asked what the picture is made of, the answer would be different colored pixels on your screen, although originally it might have been graphite and ink. However, while the picture is made of pixels, the dragon and other things in the picture are not. They are made of muscle, bone, metal, etc., maybe even things we could never find in our own world, like mithril. The picture is in our world, but the things in the picture are not (probably for the best). The artist has created a window to a world that had not existed before, using pen and paper, or pixels on the computer to create an actual, flying, fire-breathing dragon out of nothing, which exists in its own world.

Another way to create is through language. Read the next sentence:

“The girl sat at the edge of the well and looked down into the swirling darkness, resisting the tug of its grasping tendrils on her legs.”

With this one sentence, we have a window into a world that did not exist before I wrote it. The sentence is made of words, but the world is not. The girl is flesh and blood, the well is made of stone (most likely). Where was this flesh and stone and other matter that makes up her world before I wrote the sentence? It was created from nothing as I wrote.

This might seem like a cop-out. It’s not real, you might say and while I would contend that it’s all real for that girl sitting by the well, it is true that all of these worlds that we create exist only within our minds. The difference between these and God creating the universe is that he has the power to make it real and also to set us free from himself. When I write a story, characters make their own decisions and have their own thoughts, but they cannot do anything I don’t want them to do. They don’t know I exist, but I am like a puppet master making them think and do the things they do. They cannot do anything unless I have them do it.

However, I believe God has given us  free will to do what he wants us to or to do our own thing. He has also given us the capacity to create things of our own, small craftsmen working away under the loving eye of the Master Craftsman himself.

Finding God’s Perspective

This is the text of a sermon I gave at our church this past Sunday.

misty mountains2

The mountains near Jeonju, Korea. Copyright David Stewart

I came to Iowa for the first time about five years ago, when I had my job interview at the university here. Since then, my wife and I have lived in Iowa for almost five years and I’ve grown to love it here. There are a lot of great things about Iowa: friendly people, beautiful sunset, the ability to buy cheese curds practically everywhere. There are many wonderful things about Iowa but there is one thing it is missing that I cannot get used to, and that is mountains.

Before coming to Iowa, we lived in South Korea for nine years. As you may know, Korea is about 75% mountains and there is nowhere in the country you can go where you cannot see mountains. Jeonju, the city where we lived was bordered on two sides with mountains and there were two mountains higher than the others. Moaksan, the tallest one stood alone. That was the most famous one, the one that was a provincial park and that everyone knew about. The second tallest was called Goduksan. It was surrounded by lower peaks so that when you were down in the city, you couldn’t tell it was taller than the ones near it. Sometimes you couldn’t see it at all. However, if you went north of the city and climbed up into the mountains, looking across the city, there was no comparison. The two tallest mountains stood out clearly above the others. So what changed? Not the mountains or the city. The only thing that changed was me and my position. My perspective on them.

Unfortunately, as humans our perspective is necessarily limited by time and space, our senses and our powers of comprehension. We are like explorers in a jungle, seeing only what is right around us. Yet, even so, we know that this is not absolute truth. Only God can see things in perfect truth, as they truly are and the closer that we come to God’s perspective, the closer we come to seeing reality.

We’ll get there eventually, although not in this lifetime. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NIV).

There are two times when I think that having a godly perspective is particularly important and when it can be especially difficult to. These are when things are going great and when they are going terribly.

When things are going right                

It is an interesting coincidence that from earth, the sun and moon look to be about the same size, so that during an eclipse, the moon can actually perfectly block out the sun. The ancients probably thought that they were the same size, but we know now that the sun is actually much larger than the moon. How much larger? If the sun was the width of Iowa, 300 miles across from Dubuque to Sioux City, the moon would stretch from the Fayette post office down to the car wash, a little more than half a mile. So why do they look the same size? The moon is so much closer to us than the sun. Anything can block out the sun if it’s close enough to us: a tree, our hand, even a coin.

In the same way, anything can come between us and God if we hold it close enough to us. We usually think about sin keeping us from God, and that’s definitely true, but anything can come between us and God. There are many good things in our lives that are blessings: our jobs, families, friends, hobbies, sports, etc. All of these things are inherently good things, things God has given us. The problem is only where we place them in our lives.

I know I have the temptation sometimes to just want comfort. My dream is to have a job I love, in a nice house with kids and go on interesting vacations and eat good food. To have friends. To have a good life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this desire, and these are all good things, but we must remember that all this is temporary. The Earth is not our home; we’re just passing through.

Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV).

One of the central characters in the New Testament is Paul. He has one of the best resumes for someone in that time. Not only was he was a Jew, meaning he was a member of God’s chosen people, but he was born a Jew and was the child of Jews. He was also a Pharisee, one of the religious elite and on top of all that, he was a Roman citizen. This was huge in the time when Rome ruled all the lands around Israel and it gave Paul a lot of privileges that other Jews did not have.

Nevertheless, this is what Paul says of all this: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

Think about that. In comparison with what he found in Jesus, all the honors and accolades that he had received were like garbage. Those are strong words, like comparing a Nobel Prize to a 3rd grade participation ribbon in your least favorite sport. He didn’t say they were garbage, but in comparison, they might as well be. That is keeping things in God’s perspective.

When things are going wrong

One of the worst days possible was recorded in the Old Testament in Job 1. At the beginning of the chapter, Job has everything a person back then could want. He had huge herds of animals, which equated wealth, he had trading caravans to get more wealth, he had many children who got along and hung out together. But then at the end of the chapter, all that is wiped out. What’s more, a while later, he is stricken with boils, meaning even his health is taken away.

The book of Job is mostly a conversation between Job and his friends where they say he must have something bad to deserve this and Job insisting he doesn’t deserve it and demanding God tell him if he did anything to deserve this

God finally responds at the end of the book in an epic couple of chapters calling out Job. As an example, in Job 38:4-5, God says, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?”

What God is very bluntly saying is that there is no way that Job can understand everything that’s going on from his very limited perspective compared to the perspective of God, who set the whole universe in motion. He is the only one who sees the whole picture.

Job’s friends were arguing that if something that bad happened to Job, he must have done something very bad to deserve it. That is the idea of karma: you do good and good happens to you, and vice versa. This is sometimes the case, but the world does not always have such a neat cause and effect relationship. Instead, there is a fact that we all know but don’t always like to acknowledge: life is not fair.

Personally, I don’t think every bad thing that happens is part of God’s plan. God can use anything that happens, he is always with us and always loves us, and nothing can throw him for a loop. However, the world is a broken, chaotic, messy place, and I don’t believe he nurtures every cancer cell and guides every tornado on its path. Sometimes bad things just happen because of the world we live in. At least that’s what I believe.

We all know examples of terrible things that have happened to wonderful people who did not at all deserve what they got and it’s easy to be angry at God and question why these things happen. Not I, nor any other person can know why bad things happen to good people, but what I know is that there is more to existence than our mortal lives and in time, justice will be done.

Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (NIV).

Living in this life is like watching half an action movie. We watch up the point where the hero is captured, everyone hates him, and the villain is winning. We might be tempted to pound the table and shout, “It’s not fair! This is a terrible movie!” But God says, “Just wait. It isn’t over. Watch until the end.”

Just as it is hard to imagine the actual size of the sun compared to the moon, there is no way to comprehend God’s perspective of events compared to our own. All of human history is merely the first letter of the first word on the first page of the story God that sees (or more likely, one buried deep inside the book.) This life is important; it matters, but it’s not everything by a long shot.

In Conclusion

So how do we keep a right perspective, God’s perspective, on things? We should enjoy the good things in life and through God’s grace endure the bad things that happen. We can’t ignore them and shouldn’t, but they can’t be our focus.

There is a great hymn whose chorus goes:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

If we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will lead us deeper into his Truth, through both good and bad.

Culture and Christianity

Earth in hands

Source: TCA

Culture is like water to a fish: it is all around us but because it is so pervasive, it is often difficult to analyze. Culture is involved in every aspect of life, including religion. There are some religions that might be identified with one culture, but Christianity is a global religion, so it takes on a different flavor with every culture.

I have lived in three countries in my life: Canada, the United States, and South Korea. Canada is my home country and the one where I grew up, so I see the United States and Korea as my adopted countries. There are aspects of the cultures of each that I have seen in Christianity in those countries, aspects that the people there probably don’t even consider since it’s part of their culture. Some things I like, some things I don’t like. For each, it stems from some part of their culture that they consider important.

The United States: Patriotism

Not only are Americans quite patriotic, but American Christians closely link their patriotism with their faith. They’re not the only country to do this, but it is a very strong trend here. Do a Google search for “God and country” and you will find thousands of images of the Bible or a cross with an American flag. For American Christians, being a Christian is part of what it means to be a good American. They see America as a Christian country. There is an American flag in every church.

I think everyone should be patriotic towards their country, and I am very patriotic towards Canada. However, I have never felt a connection between my love of country and my love of God and in my experience, this is not a thing for Christians in other countries. I have always been uncomfortable with having a national flag in church. I understand where Americans are coming from, but here is my thinking:

As Christians, we belong to a group of people with ties that supersede national ties. Nations often go to war, making the people of those countries enemies, but Christians should never enemies of each other, even when they must act like it (for instance, the Christians on both sides in multiple European wars.) In my mind, the church is a place beyond nation and free of nationality, just as it is free of political systems and economic systems. There are Christians in other countries that do not like the United States, just as Americans might not like their country. But in the end, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

South Korea: Confucianism

Confucianism is a system of values and ethics, and not necessarily a religion. It is a way of promoting social harmony through strict hierarchy, so that everyone knows where they belong in a group. For example, in a family the father is at the top, then the mother and then the children. Titles are very important and honoring people who deserve respect.

In Korea, this system permeates every aspect of the culture from the grammar of the language on up. Christianity is very big widespread in Korea and the Confucianist aspects of the culture are present in the church as much as anywhere else in society.

On the positive side, the Korean church gets everyone involved. Even as a non-Korean, I was assigned to a small group in the church after only coming a short time. Each group was assigned tasks on a rotating basis, such as preparing lunch after church. Korean society is very communal and includes everyone.

On the negative side, from my perspective, the Korean church is very stratified with many different levels of deacons and pastors. The head pastor is like the father of the church and has much more power than a pastor in a Western church. Korean Christians generally can’t say no to the pastor and if he wants you, for example, to go to 5:00 am prayer meeting, then you have to. One stark example of this difference in culture was when I was in Korea and on a trip with a busload of people from the church. The bus had a karaoke system and the Korean deacon wanted people to sing. No one really wanted to, so he started choosing people. The Koreans he chose did it, reluctantly. The non-Koreans he asked simply refused. Korean Christians emphasize submitting to authority while Western Christians emphasize freedom in Christ.

In conclusion

Every culture has good and bad aspects of it although value judgments are subjective. After all, each of us can only evaluate culture through the lens of our own cultural upbringing. The points I bring up here might be handled very differently by someone from another culture and what I think is positive, they might think is negative and vice versa. What is important to remember when approaching cultural differences in Christianity is that while cultural differences cannot be avoided, they are not what is most important. It is very easy to concentrate on what is different since that is often what is most obvious, but the similarities are what are most important and what binds us all together in the end.

 

Waiting on the Lord

I don’t suppose anyone really likes waiting. It’s bad enough waiting for Christmas to come, or the end of the school year. It’s even worse when we don’t how long we will be waiting. I lost my job a few months ago and although I have kept busy with writing, looking for jobs, and other things, there is a feeling that life is on hold since unemployment in our society for someone my age is an unnatural state.

One problem is with our perspective. When we wait, it looks like nothing is happening, but that is not the case. Things are happening, being prepared behind the scenes, although they are invisible to us.

It’s a bit like when the computer lags and the small wheel starts spinning. It’s an aggravating situation, especially if it’s frequent, but the fact is that it’s not like nothing is happening. The computer is running and preparing to carry out the command that we put in. Sometimes we don’t need to wait long, or at all. Sometimes we do.

The one good thing about waiting is that we are forced to trust that God is working and every time that we wait and God comes through for us, it is an opportunity for our faith to increase, even if it’s not easy.

The other good thing about waiting is it can be a time out from other things. I once had surgery on my knee and was in the hospital for a week. I had nothing to do but wait to be released, but in that time, I had time to rest and read and do other things I wouldn’t have had time to do had I not been stuck there, waiting.

Paul says in Philippians 4:12b, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (NIV). In the same way, it is a great thing when we can be content whether waiting or charging full steam ahead.

Could God Create a Rock Too Heavy to Lift?

This is a paradox that I’ve heard my whole life. It’s supposed to show the flaw in the idea of an omnipotent being. After all, how could an all-powerful God create a situation where he wasn’t all-powerful, but on the other hand, how could he not?

I don’t believe there are any true paradoxes in the world, although there are many apparent ones. There is always some piece of information that is the key to solving the paradox. It might be a problem of language setting up a paradoxical situation, or it might be some information or perspective that we are not taking into account.

So, can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?

Simply put, no, he can’t.

“Ah ha!” yells the skeptic. “God can’t be omnipotent after all.”

The problem with this paradox is the starting assumption: specifically, is God part of the universe? Christians believe that God is not part of the physical universe but is outside of it, which means that, at least figuratively, he can hold the whole universe in his hands. A rock, or anything physical, is necessarily inside the universe and so cannot be greater than the entirety of the universe, something that God can contain anyway.

Let me put it another way that’s less abstract. I like to play Minecraft on my laptop. In the game, I build lots of things, including huge structures and buildings. However, it would be absurd to ask if I could build anything in Minecraft that I, the player, couldn’t lift. After all, Minecraft or any computer game is in a virtual world contained within a computer. I can lift my computer, so I can always lift anything in the game, even though the size of a Minecraft world is seven times larger than the surface of Earth.

Of course, someone could ask if God could create something outside our universe that he couldn’t lift, but there is no way to even comment on what things could be like outside our universe. Christians believe that outside (or adjacent to) the physical realm is the spiritual realm, but discussions of the (meta)physics of a spiritual boulder are a little too speculative, even for this blog.

 

Should We Do What the Bible Says?

I’ll admit, that’s a pretty clickbaity title, but bear with me. First of all, what is the point of the Bible? If you asked a Christian, they would probably say something like, “to learn about God and how to live a Christian life.” Probably other things too, it’s a big book.

And that’s the problem: the Bible is a very big, very complex book (66 of them, actually). There is history, Jewish law, poetry, prophesies, letters to people, and more. The Bible also has a lot of R-rated sections, more than even most Christians realize sometimes. One thing I have seen when people attack Christians and the Bible specifically is that they point to a particularly gruesome section and say, “Wow, this is your moral compass?” They also make the charge of hypocrisy since we have a holy book with all these terrible things in it that we don’t actually believe we should do. An example of this might be Judges 11, where the judge Jephthah makes an idiotic vow that if God helps him defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him when he gets home. What did he think was going to happen? Anyway, it turns out it’s his daughter. He’s trapped by his vow and so he sacrifices her, something neither he, nor God, nor anyone wanted him to do.

That’s a horrific story, but here is where it is important to divide the Bible into two areas: descriptive and prescriptive. Simply put, descriptive means “this happened” and prescriptive means “you should do this.” The majority of the Bible is description, and we know this intuitively. Otherwise, all Christians would build an ark, build a wall around Jerusalem, go on a missionary journey around Turkey and Greece, and so on.

The problem is deciding which parts are which. Here are some principles I think we can use:

  1. The characters in the Bible are flawed people

The Bible is pretty clear about what is good to do and what isn’t and yet it is also brutally honest about the people in it, even the people we might call heroes of the faith. There are only a few people in it that are covered universally positively and none of these (except Jesus, of course) takes up more than a few verses. Critics of the Bible might point to, say, Abraham (who pretended his wife was his sister because he was afraid for his life), and wonder how we could see him as any sort of an example of how to live. First of all, no one said anyone in the Bible except Jesus is perfect and no one said we should emulate everything they do. Also, that is precisely the point of Christianity, that God uses us despite our flaws and sins. We don’t have to be perfect to be used by God, just willing to trust him and be used by him.

  1. Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law

The Jewish law (usually considered the first five books of the Bible), which is the majority of the you-should-do-this portion of the Old Testament, is just that: it’s the Jewish law, and so it is not something that Christians have to follow.

“Wait, what about the Ten Commandments?” you’re probably saying, if you’re still reading after that last paragraph. Clearly, we need to follow those. Yes and no, in my opinion. We can’t just forget them, but in the Gospels Jesus  reveals the principles behind the commandments that we need to follow.

A lot of Christians probably routinely break the 4th commandment by doing some sort of work on Saturday (or Sunday), but the point behind the commandment is to rest and make time for God and for things besides work. On the other hand, some of the principles are much harder than the commandments: not only is adultery a sin, but also lustful thoughts; not only is murder bad, but also murderous hate for someone (Matthew 5:21-22, 27).

There is obviously value in the Old Testament, which is why it’s there, but it’s not a rule book for Christians to follow. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.

  1. You have to take verses in the context of the whole Bible

It is very easy to cherry pick verses of the Bible to make a case for one thing or another—so easy, in fact, that people have been doing it since the Bible was a thing, I’m sure. We must remember that the Bible was written to specific groups of people in specific cultures for specific purposes. There are universals in the Bible, but also a lot of things that are cultural for that time.

For example, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV). It seems pretty clear that Paul doesn’t approve of women teachers and pastors, but I think if you look at the New Testament as a whole, you can see that this is not a universal of the Christian faith, but a cultural point specific to that time and even then, possibly just Paul’s opinion.

At this point, critics could make the charge that we are just revising parts of the Bible that aren’t socially acceptable anymore, to which I would respond: yes, exactly. The central tenets of Christianity do not—and cannot—change: specifically “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 27, NIV). That is what we should do and that should never change. How we carry out a lot of the aspects of the religion we call Christianity do change with time and culture.

In conclusion, the Bible has a lot of purposes and Christians are not claiming that every verse is something that we should do. Clearly, we should each study the Bible to see what it really says. There is, of course, a lot of debate on what parts of the Bible Christians today should follow, but this is my take on things. What do you think?

Are You Good?

Are you good? What does that even mean, to be good?

Most people, if asked this question, would probably answer yes, or would say, “I try to be good” because nobody’s perfect, right?

First of all, let me say that “good” is such a broad term that there are many ways to define this, but we’ll use the accepted moral definition where, for example, helping an old lady across the street is good, while pushing her down and stealing her purse is not good. I think we can all agree on that.

Here are four possible definitions of what it might mean to be good.

1. Good is an action

This is the easiest way to measure goodness and least stringent definition. If I do a good deed, then I’m good.

The problem with this definition is that our minds easily find objections to it. After all, if a mass murderer gives a hundred bucks to the Red Cross, does that make him good, based solely on that one act? Not likely. Clearly, this approach is too binary and simplistic for the real world. We need more.

2. Good is an average

This is much more in keeping with the way most of us think. It is in keeping with the idea of karma. Good and evil are a balance and if over the course of our lives, we do more good than evil, then we’re (basically) a good person.

The problem with this view is that we need to define what time period we’re talking about. What if a person is a saint for 60 years and then becomes the worst devil the world has ever seen for 10 years? Can we really still say he is a good person as he commits the rape and murder of hundreds of innocent people, if the average of their life was spent doing good?

You might say, “He was a good person but he’s not now.” But that means you are taking a smaller time to average the good and bad deeds and if we reduce the time period enough, we are back to the first option. So let’s go deeper.

3. Good is a direction

Here is a way to reconcile the problem we had in #2. Perhaps goodness is a direction that we are facing: we are good when we try to be good and keep trying every day to get better. The man who was good in his youth has changed the direction of his life and now he is facing the wrong way: he is a bad man now. This is a more satisfying position because it’s the effort that matters, not just the results. Sure we fall sometimes, we do bad things, but nobody’s perfect.

The problem with this view is similar to the second one. How do we measure these shifts in direction? I, for instance, am a person who really tries to be good. I am nice to pretty much everyone, and I like to help people. But then I have a bad day where I am nasty and dismissive and selfish. I get petty and treat people unfairly. Am I no longer a good person on that day?

You may be tempted to give me a pass on that one. Everyone has bad days and after all, it’s the overall direction that matters. But now we’re back to the law of averages and if a single day of terrible deeds doesn’t matter, then how long does it take to stop being good? Is a week short enough or do you have to be terrible for a whole month? There is one more position that is quite uncomfortable and very depressing.

4. Good is a location

I don’t mean a physical location. I mean that either you are good or you’re not and once you do anything that is not good, then you are not good. This view is terrifying because as we all know, literally no one is perfect and that is what this view requires.

Let’s use a metaphor. “Goodness” is soup and “badness” is cyanide. If you are making soup, how much cyanide is acceptable? Hopefully, for the people who will eat it, none. Using this metaphor, we can see how different the other views are from this last one. #1 says that as long as there is some soup in the pot, never mind how much cyanide there is, it’s fine. #2 says that as long as there is more soup than cyanide, everything’s okay, and #3 says that as long as you keep trying to put soup and healthy things in the pot (even if some cyanide sneaks in), then it’s okay and no one can blame you, because nobody’s perfect. #4 says that if there is any cyanide in the soup at all, then you’re in deep trouble.

Unfortunately, this is the view the Bible holds. In Mark 10:18, someone refers to Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus replies, “”Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says blatantly, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

So what’s the point? If we’re supposed to do something that’s impossible, why try at all? Jesus might as well have told us to jump to the moon.

But that is exactly the point of Christianity. We can’t be good except through God. The cyanide of evil and sin are already in the soup that is our lives and we can’t strain it out, no matter how fine a strainer we use. Short of dumping the whole pot down the sink and destroying ourselves, we are stuck with poison soup.

But there’s hope. Right after Jesus says that no one is good, his disciples ask the obvious question “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). Jesus replies, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

This is the beauty and simplicity of the matter. Not only can we not make ourselves good, we don’t have to. If God pours his antidote into our poisoned soup, it doesn’t matter if there is a little poison or a lot: it takes it all out.

This flies in the face of concepts like karma. After all, if we do evil, we should suffer proportionately. A man who kills 10 people should receive 10 times more punishment than the man who kills one person. But God says that everyone’s soup is poisoned, no matter if by genocide or by one white lie.

In 1992, a man named Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and convicted of killing and eating 17 people, along with other gruesome acts. He was sentenced to 16 life sentences and his name quickly became a byword right next to Hitler for the evilest of people ever born. He was beaten to death in prison two years later but before he died, he apparently became a Christian.

Of course, that is between him and God but if he did become a Christian, then God’s antidote wiped away all the poison in his soup, and there was a lot of it. He died a good person, not because of anything he did, but because of God’s forgiveness. God made him good.

Does Prayer Work?

Apparently science has investigated and the results are in: studies have shown that surgery patients who receive prayer are no more likely to get better than ones who don’t. So there it is: prayer doesn’t work. Right?

I had to laugh as I listened to how the scientists set up this experiment and then as the atheist I was listening to gleefully shared the results. I realized that there is a fundamental misconception with many people about exactly what prayer is.

A lot of people wonder what the point of prayer really is if we only have a slim chance of getting what we ask for anyway. What’s the point of wasting time asking God for something when He’s either not going to give it to you anyway or He was going to give it to you whether you asked or not? Why pray at all?

Prayer is an area that I believe many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—get wrong. Christians get frustrated when their prayers aren’t answered and think God either doesn’t care or is testing them. Non-Christians pick it apart as a defective vending machine that doesn’t work most of the time, not unless you keep hitting it just right. However, there is an important thing to remember about prayer.

Prayer isn’t mechanistic.

The fact is, though, that prayer is not a vending machine and to think of it in such mechanistic terms is to totally miss the point. Prayer is not a magic spell where you say the right words in the right way and get the result you want. Prayer is about a relationship. Instead of a vending machine, here is a better metaphor to picture.

You are a four-year-old child and God is your parent. Can you imagine a scientific study done on the effectiveness of a four-year-old’s requests to their parent?

“Can I have a pony?” “No, dear.”

“Can I have a glass of water?” “Sure. Here you are.”

The study would undoubtedly conclude that most of the requests weren’t granted and most of the ones that were were things the parent would have given them anyway. So there you have it: it is pointless for a four-year-old to talk to their parents.

Absurd, I know, but it shows the point. The kid isn’t talking to their parent and asking them for things just as a means to an end (although that doesn’t mean they don’t really want whatever they’re asking for). They’re talking to them because that person is their mom or dad. Talking to them is what they do.

The relationship is key.

When we pray, it is because we have a relationship with God and this makes a huge difference. If a child asks her mom for a snack, the mom will probably give it to them (unless it’s right before dinner), but if another kid asks for one, the mom will probably say “Who are you?” The difference between this and prayer is that God is actively wanting to enter into a relationship will all people, whereas most parents don’t want to adopt random children off the street.

Why God doesn’t answer all prayers

So why doesn’t God answer my prayer? The honest answer is, God knows. It may be easy for an outsider to see why a parent might refuse a child’s request: for example, if they ask for a cookie two minutes before dinner, but even in that situation, we might not know what is going on in the parent’s mind.

There are times when it is something that wouldn’t be good for us. I know of a child who once insisted on riding home in the trunk of the car. Her parents obviously refused to let her, no matter how much the child cried and whined. There was no downside to this plan to the child, but the parents knew better.

There might be times when something better is coming. We have very limited imaginations sometimes in our prayers. When I was a new graduate from university, I was working in a hotel when the manger quit. I applied for the job even though I was 22 and had no managerial experience. I prayed to get that job, which included a much higher salary and a free apartment attached to the hotel.

I didn’t get the job. Instead, 8 months later, my wife and I got jobs at a school in Korea, which led to a whole range of new experiences and career opportunities. Not only was that better in the long run than running a hotel, but looking back I know that I would not have been happy as the manager. Even now, I don’t think I would enjoy managing a hotel and back then, I would have been overwhelmed with stress after a short time.

I realize that this doesn’t answer all questions and there are many situations which don’t make sense. Why was this person healed from cancer, but that one died? It is too easy to try to find rationalizations, to try to guess why, but I believe that is a mistake. The fact is that we don’t know and we cannot know, at least in this lifetime.

So, why pray? We pray because God is our heavenly parent who loves us and we want to talk to him and have a relationship. We should pour out our sorrows and worries, our triumphs and secret desires because he loves us and wants the best for us. He loves to lavish blessings on us even if they don’t always come in the ways that we want or are looking for. We pray to learn to know God and build that relationship that will last forever.

This is my perspective, at least. What do you think?