Monday, September 06, 2010

Can We Really Know God?

Note:  This is the second in a series of letters I'm sending to my adult/near adult children, minus (of course) the family business.  Thanks for the comments received on the last post... they really are welcome.  DC

September 6, 2010

Dear Kids,

It's Labor Day today, and I can't believe how fast the time is going!  We're back in the swing of Fall activity, with new schools for some of you and new challenges for all.  We are so proud of each one of you, and we're looking forward to what the year brings.   Mom and I are doing well, although it is more of an adjustment than I expected with all of you gone (or very nearly so). 

You're all entering into a new time of study, all at Christian schools with God's Word and truth central to your studies.  I can't tell you how happy that makes Mom and me, and how worthwhile an investment we think it is.  In my last email, I wrote to you about the fact that "God Is," meaning that He's important, and real.  He's our "problem" because He exists, and we all must deal with Him on His own terms.  But what difference does that make, really?  I want to remind you that God Is "Knowable" - we can know who He is - and that knowledge of Him will lead us to trust Him with our lives.

Think about it for a minute:  Can we really "know God"?  I read the CNN Belief Blog occasionally, and saw this exchange in comments under a post by my "favorite" author, Brian McLaren (who's got a graduate degree in uncertainty, it seems).  Someone named "Liutgard" said this:

"I've been flirting with agnosticism for many years- because I think that it is not possible to really 'know', and I found that the more someone insists that they 'know' God and his will, the less likely they are to actually behave like Jesus said they should.

But the past couple of months I've been attending an Episcopal church- it appeals to my sense of ritual and tradition, but also to by desire to see faith really in action. Food banks, homeless shelters, etc- Episcopalians don't run them so as to have an avenue to preach at people, but because it is a way to reach out to the community and obey the teachings of Christ. I still don't 'know', but they are happy to see me when I walk in the door, and I can worship or not as fits my comfort level. Certainly nothing like the Pentecostal churches I grew up in."

In reply, "David H." said:

"As a life-long Episcopalian, welcome! You seem to 'get it' about us. The Episcopal Church isn't about Orthodoxy (right belief or right thought), it's about Orthopraxy (right practice – i.e. how we do our liturgy). Remember, as the old joke goes, 'Wherever two or more Episcopalians are gathered in His name, there will be three or more opinions.'"

Are they right?  I'm finding that it is increasingly counter-cultural to claim that "you know" anything, especially in matters about God.  Even in the church, there seem to be multiple views on almost every important topic.  There are lots of reasons for this (and why it's a problem), and someday when you've got a free day to kill, you can read my copy of No Place For Truth by David Wells - it's a great place to start.   One reason for this reaction - this hostility - that our culture has towards "knowing" has to do with the confusion between opinion and fact.   To be more specific, I'm convinced that when people talk about "knowing" something in the spiritual realm, people hear them saying that they have a really strong opinion - and that rubs people the wrong way in a pluralistic society.  But knowing isn't just simply having an opinion (or even a strong one) on something - it's a confident assurance in belief based on the facts.  In other words, it isn't what I think; it's what I know is actually, really, objectively, true - and not just for me, but for you, too.

Let me ask you to think about this sometime this week:  Do you believe that you can "know" God like that?  No Sunday School answers to this question, guys.  Remember, most people (at least practically) don't.  Many will say that we can't even know if God really exists!  Others may accept God's existence, but they don't believe that we can know God... at least not in any way that is worth risking your life for!  Your Mom and I believe that you can - and you should.

Isn't it presumptuous to claim that our understanding of God is right? Said another way, we believe that while we can't know God fully, we can know Him truly. I'm not saying that we can know God fully or completely.  After all, how can finite people fully comprehend the infinite God?   We can know what He has revealed about Himself to us.  I want to point out that God reveals Himself in two specific ways - and I wanted to mention the first way this week.

God reveals Himself to everyone in Creation.  Theologians call this "general revelation" because its available generally to everyone.  All people can know of God's existence, character and God's moral law through observing creation itself.  After all, "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1).  God has provided evidence, all around us, of His existence, power and character!  The intricacy of creation, the scope of the universe, the miracle of life, the wonder of relationship, the tiny fingers of a baby - all of creation shouts to anyone who will listen that there is a God.  All of this can not exist by random chance!

Perhaps you saw the press coverage this last week of Stephen Hawking's soon to be released new book The Grand Design.  He argues that modern science eliminates even the need to see God's hand in the design of the universe:

"Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God. The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed "in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design."

That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." (emphasis added)

I'm certainly not going to pick a fight with Dr. Hawking - he'd run rings around me intellectually.  But even a Dad can understand that his argument is (at best) silly.  One wonders where he supposes that "the laws of gravity and quantum theory" came from!   Some people think it's arrogant to believe in the existence of God, but what would you say about someone who thinks they know so much that they can rule out God's existence?

In his letter to the Roman church, Paul says very specifically that

"...what can be know about God is plain to [all men] because God has shown it to them.  For His invisible attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse"  (Romans 1:19-20).(emphasis added)
And there's more about general revelation that's available to everyone as well.  For example, people's consciences tell them that there is a right and a wrong - even imperfectly.  We all have, at some level, a hunger for justice... to see wrongs righted and evil punished.  All of these things are gifts from God, and a reflection of His character.  They are part of what it means to be made "in the image of God."  So, through external and internal observation and evidence, we can know that there is a God, something of His amazing power and influence in our world and something of His requirements for us.  And these observations are true even though many people don't pay attention to them (we'll talk more about why when we get to the "Man Isn't" email).  For now, remember that we believe that everyone has the opportunity to know God - to know that "God Is" - at least to some degree if they want to do so. 

So that's enough for today.  I'll pass on some more about this in my next email.  Let me ask you this today:  Do you want to go beyond opinions about God, and to really know Him?  I'm sitting in the office at home alone this afternoon - with memories of you all everywhere.  I can almost hear your voices... I can almost still see you here.  That's because I love you, and my eyes are open to see the things that you've done and who you are.  They are everywhere I look.  So, look for God in your world that way this week... you'll see Him everywhere... if you'll just look for it.  And you can know it for sure.

Love always,


Saturday, July 31, 2010

The MOST Important Thing In Life

What Is The Most Important Thing In Life?
Note:  The following is the first in a series of letters I'm sending to my adult/near adult children.  I'm posting these - minus (of course) any really personal stuff - because what I'm seeking to communicate is important enough to stand scrutiny, clarification, and even correction.  So feel free to comment.  It's welcome, and helpful

I offer this with the hope that the discussion will help all of us to see what really matters... and to respond appropriately as a result. - DC


July 31, 2010
Hi Kids!

We've reached a new stage in life:  The stage where I have to write to you to communicate things we used to just talk about!  We haven't had all four of you in the same state for more than a couple of days for quite some time now.  I can't tell you how much I miss the daily interaction with all of you.  You're all growing up way too fast, and it seems like there's never enough time to talk about what's REALLY important.

And maybe this is a good way to continue our conversations.  After all, this process will spare you from those long pauses in my talking... you know  the ones that you've all complained so much about.  (By the way, that's a genetic trait passed down from generations, and it's coming at you faster than you realize!)

And you aren't children anymore, either.  Mom and I are very proud of each of you.  I also feel strongly enough about what I want to say to allow you to digest it at your own pace.

What's So Important?
Let me start this way:  I've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months thinking about this question:  What Is THE Most Important Thing In Life?  

This should be an easy question for "church kids" to answer, but I want to ask you to think about it with me.  I'll also tell you where I'm headed longer term, so we don't get lost along the way.  In summary, I believe that there are four essential things you need to get clearly settled in your mind.  These four truths will be an anchor for you, and will form the foundation for everything that matters in your life... really!  There are that:
  • God is...
  • Man is not...
  • Jesus did...
  • As a result, We must...
We'll unpack each of those statements one at a time (and thankfully, not all in this letter!).  While I've got more to say about this, think first about the average person's reaction to "God."  Most people seem really not to care about the subject in any meaningful way.  Even people who are religious, or who even claim to know and/or love God can spend the vast majority of their time ignoring Him!  But if God is, and ESPECIALLY if God is who He says He is, that doesn't seem to be such a great idea, does it?

What's the Right Answer?
Do you remember the old joke about the Baptist Sunday School teacher who, in a class "warm up" session, asked her 3rd grade class to identify a picture of a small mammal?  No one would answer and, after being put on the spot, one boy said this:
"Well, I know the answer is Jesus, but that thing sure looks like a squirrel!"
That boy "knew the right answer" - but "the answer" really didn't seem to match reality.  And while he misunderstood the question and thought he was supposed to give the "Sunday School" answer, the point remains that those of us who grew up with one way of looking at the world are often thrown for a loop when the real world challenges our assumptions.  And just like that Sunday School boy, you're old enough to realize now that the "Sunday School" answers don't always seem to fit in the real world.

You all understand by now that the "real world" of 21st century America sees EVERYTHING as more important than our "Sunday School" answers.  The pursuit of comfort and entertainment, personal fulfillment and pleasure are the basis for our entire popular social, political and economic system!  "Fun" is what people live for these days.

But our family answer to my question - the "Sunday School" answer - is that GOD IS the MOST important Thing In Life.  But we also know that this is a strange, unrealistic and (worst of all) impractical answer in our culture.

Let me suggest two thoughts about this, and ask you two more questions.  These may seem obvious to you, but they are radically different from the way people think today:

My first thought:  God is. By this I mean that the subject of God Himself is the most important thing in life.  There is no more important thing to think about, no higher subject, no more practical topic than God Himself.

Newsflash:  Most people don't think so!

Today is my parent's 56th wedding anniversary.  Every year that I remember when I was growing up, they went away to Door County, Wisconsin to celebrate their anniversary together.  And every year, Nana and Papa read together the book The Knowledge of The Holy, written by their pastor for years, A. W. Tozer at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Chicago.  In it, Tozer says this:
"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us...".
Tozer was right, and I know this in part because I saw that Nana and Papa showed that they believed God was important in the way they lived their lives!  Your Mom and I hope that we have communicated to you what we believe about God in the same way.

When something is important to you, you think about it.  You talk about it.  You pursue it.  You care about it.  Not just once a week or on holidays, or when life goes wrong and you need help.  If God Is, than God is IMPORTANT.

So here's Question 1:  When people look at you and your life, do they think that you think God is important?

My second thought (and it's closely related to the first)God IS.  That is to say, not only is the topic of God the most important thing in life, but God Actually Exists.

Newsflash:  Most people don't think so.

Some people don't believe in God in the first place.  They see people like us as curiosities, maybe throw-backs to a by-gone era.  I've had people tell me that "religion is a crutch" for psychologically needy people.  They think "God" is something we manufacture to protect ourselves from the ultimate meaninglessness of life.
Bonus thought:  By the way, when you run into someone accusing you of believing in God "for emotional reasons," consider R.C. Sproul's response.  In his book  Defending Your Faith: An Introduction Into Apologetics, Sproul points out that while of course he has an emotional draw towards believing in God, Atheists may also have an emotional need underlying their denial of God.  After all, if God exists (especially as described in the Bible), than people aren't autonomous after all - and they are to be held to God's standards of conduct, not to what THEY think is right!
Also, while other people aren't willing to deny the existence of God, they misunderstand who He really is.  They may be "deists" in their theology, seeing God as a supreme being who created the universe but who doesn't get involved in human affairs.  Like a clock-maker, he made the world ("wound it up") and now sits on the sidelines watching how things play out.  Others believe in a God that they've made up - maybe like an old, befuddled, rich Grandfather, who helps them out when they need him, but generally stays out of the way.  In any case, these are people who accept the possibility or even the existence of God, but that belief doesn't make any practical difference in their life.

If God does exist, that that is A BIG DEAL.  The existence of an all-powerful, omnipotent being casts more than a little shadow over the fun most people are pursuing!  Tozer also pointed to this:
"All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at the same time, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God:  That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about him..."
To put it simply, the existence of God is a problem.  Mankind's GREATEST problem... OUR greatest problem.  As Sigmund Freud once said, the worst thing imaginable would be to fall into the hands of "the superior power of fate," and ESPECIALLY if that "fate" is an all-powerful and holy God!

So here's Question 2:  When people look at you and your life, how real do they think that you believe God actually is... and how are you addressing "the problem of God" in your daily life?

That's what I wanted to say to you this time.  I'm hoping that I can prompt you somehow, in the midst of grad school, college or high school - in the midst of friends and fun, school and dreaming about the future - to consider that GOD IS.  And because He is, pursuing Him, knowing Him, loving Him... well, dealing with Him is The Most Important Thing In Life.  And not just because it's "the right answer," but because your are gripped by the reality that most people sadly miss.

You know I've been working on our family genealogy.  I've been able (through Papa's sister's work) to trace our family back 13 generations to a man named John Rogers from England.  He was born in 1500, and was notable first because he was responsible for printing the first English Bible translated from the original languages into English!  He was caught up in the Reformation controversy in England, and stood firmly, boldly and publicly for God - even in the midst of hostile religious and political times.

In 1555, he was sentenced to die for what he believed.  The story strikes me because he was my age when this happened!  You can read the whole story in Chapter XVI of  Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but on February 4, 1555, in the Smithfield area of London, England, this actually happened:
"When the time came that he should be brought out of Newgate Prison to Smithfield, the place of his execution, Mr. Woodroofe, one of the sheriffs, first came to John Rogers, and asked him if he would [recant].  Rogers answered, 'That which I have preached I will seal with my blood.'  Then Mr. Woodroofe said, 'Thou art an heretic.'  Rogers replied 'That will be known at the Day of Judgment.'  Mr. Woodroofe added, 'I will never pray for thee.'  Though Rogers responded, 'But I will pray for you.'"
Your Great-Grandfather (11 times removed) John Rogers awaited and met death - burned at the stake - cheerfully!  A little while before his burning, they offered again him a pardon if he would renounce his faith, but he utterly refused it.  The fire was lit and he washed his hands in the flames as though he did not feel them!  He became the first of hundreds to die at the hand of Queen "Bloody" Mary.  And why?  Because he believed that GOD IS.  He knew what was REALLY important... and he died for it.  More importantly, perhaps, he lived for it, too.

This is part of our family legacy... it's in our blood, so to speak.  So I'm praying that you see the reality of what really matters in life, that you feel it - "that the eyes of your heart would be enlighted in order that you may know..."  And this starts with seeing God as important, and real.  After all, "anyone who would please Him must first believe that He is..." (Hebrews 11:6).

Well, more next time.  I love you all very much.  No matter how near or far you are from home, we're thinking about you.  We pray for you daily, and will be excited to see what life has in store for each of you this year.

Love always,


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A New Look...

OK, finally.

I've been on a semi-enforced sabbatical from the old blog for quite a while now... and there have been some changes in the ol' Doulos neighborhood.

You'll note that there's a new blog name here... in light of the ongoing conversation here, we decided to retire the "No Pearls" name... we've also changed the URL of the blog to (but for a while, the old links will still work), and a word of explanation is likely in order.

I'd like us to see well.  That's why I'm writing.

At my semi-advanced age, I think a lot about seeing.  I wear reading glasses almost all the time, and am as blind as a bat without my contacts in.  At night, Mrs. Doulos laughs regularly at my repeated tendency to slam my foot into the bed in the dark.  To see well, I need light.

But I have to admit that's not enough.  My Ophthalmologist tells me my prescription is about 20-1 Gazillion... without glasses or contacts, I couldn't see the computer screen here!  To see well, I need correction.

But even that isn't enough.  Last year I preached monthly at Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago... one night, time was short, my preaching segment was abbreviated, and I was "on a mission" - I was animated, engaged, passionate and intent on staying within my allotted time.  I did (barely) and, after the service ended, my pastor (who was visiting that night) came up to me and said this:  "I can't believe you did that!"

I was very pleased with my self, thinking that he was complimenting me for my ability to finish a message on time - maybe even for the value of the content.  I discovered soon enough, though, that I misunderstood (and this ACTUALLY HAPPENED):  Pastor K was impressed that I had continued my message without being terribly distracted by - and I'm not exaggerating - the guy who had THROWN UP in the front row during my message!  I don't know if I'm proud or frightened by this fact, but the truth is... I didn't see it at all.

The lights were on and my contacts were in... but I needed more:  To see well, I needed to focus beyond my agenda.

And that's what I'm hoping to share here.

I've spent quite a bit of time in the book of Ephesians this last year... what a wonderful book!  I've been struck often, though, by Paul's prayer for his readers in Chapter 1, starting in verse 18:
"I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way."
That's my prayer here.  That my eyes - and those who read this - would be "enlightened" by God's truth.  We're all in the dark spiritually.  We all are born blind spiritually.  We all are unable to see what's going on around us because we're consumed with our own lives and agendas.

Paul saw those things in the lives of those he cared about in Ephesus.  And his prayer was that they would see.  That they would see what God had done - and who He is... that they would see who they really were - and what was really important.  And it's my prayer too - for me, and for you.

So, we'll start again.  I'll welcome your comments - especially in this next series.  I'll be posting a series of letters to my children about what really matters.  I'm posting it because - well, it really matters, and if I'm wrong, I'm counting on you to weigh in.

I'll explain more in the next post.  But for now, let's get started again!

 The Eyes Wide Open header is a picture of the caves in Gunung Mulu National Park in Borneo, Malaysia.