The Real Test


Are you smart enough to talk about God with a preschooler?

I happen to have many friends and acquaintances who are interested in apologetics (being able to explain the Christian faith). We are an interesting crew, ranging from folks with highly advanced Ph.D’s to schmoes like me, and we are keen on being able to put our faith into words. We want people to understand that belief in God and His Son, Jesus Christ, is not a blind leap into an uninformed, unintelligent abyss, but a reasonable belief grounded in reason and evidence.

This desire for understanding puts us in the path of people who don’t always agree with our view of the world. In fact, many apologists actually seek out those with the toughest questions, the most skeptical of the skeptics. They do this not as a fool’s errand, but as an act of worship and charity; worship, because they want to tell of their glorious God, and charity, because they want their skeptical friends to hear the truth of the Gospel. And it is exactly encounters like those that keeps my apologist friends forever reading, researching, writing, honing their understanding of God’s universe and will.

We seek, to the best of our ability, to make God known.

All of this is well and good, but if we’re not careful we can get into a rut. To put it plainly, we cheat. We tend to think that the deep questions of the faith come from mature minds, from people who are able to critically assess the universe in which they live. So we build our answers around that presumption, importing large words and sophisticated sounding terms that are meant to impart wisdom as well as create the impression that we know of which we speak. We arm ourselves for adults and feel like we have things mastered.

But have you ever tried apologetics with a not-quite-four year old?

Now THAT is a test. Perhaps the real test of whether or not you truly understand what you believe.

Because a four year old doesn’t have the intellectual or moral hang ups of an adult. They don’t have the baggage of past sins, the experience of past hurts, or any other number of objections that make faith in God difficult. A four year old is just the opposite: so gloriously free of preconceptions that their questions are truly a search for knowledge.

You don’t think about this when you’re doing apologetics with adults. You assume there’s a knowledge base of some sort, and you go from there. With kids, it’s a blank page. And it’s hard. You never realize just how silly you can sound until you try out a fancy apologetic argument on a preschooler.

It sounds about as stupid as trying to explain superheroes. In your mind it all makes sense, but you can see on the kid’s face that what you’re selling, they ain’t buying.

And when a kid doesn’t get a concept, when they truly don’t understand – but want to – they ask the question that every parent dreads hearing, but every apologist thinks they’re prepared for: why?

Why can’t we see God?

Why does God live in heaven?

Why did Jesus have to die?

Why is there sin?

Why did my grandmother get sick?

Why do some people get baptized?

Why do you pray?

Why do some prayers not get answered?

Not all of a preschoolers questions are whys, though. You get a lot of interesting whats as well: what will heaven look like? What does Jesus do all day? What if God has stinky feet? What happens if we don’t love God?

And don’t forget the wheres, whens and hows.

It is astounding how quickly the philosophy in your head falls apart in a four year old’s hands, how guilty you can be of not thinking deeply enough so a preschooler can understand.

When Jesus said it takes the faith of a child to come to God, I don’t think he meant simple-minded in the sense we think of. I think he meant it in the sense that a child seeks genuine answers with genuine awe. As adults, we just seek answers that will shut somebody up, end the argument, get us through the day. It’s a utilitarian belief rather than a sincere one. That’s a broad statement to make, but I don’t think it’s unfair.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because both of my children have been asking some profound questions, but especially my son. He wants so badly to understand things that he can turn a five minute car ride into an interrogatory hell. He asks a million questions, often repeating the same ones, not because he’s not listening, but precisely because he is. And it pushes me to constantly reframe my answers, to drill down, distill, cut away the fluff that adults will allow until I get to the meat that he’s craving.

I’lll stand on a stage and face an audience full of adults any day. And they’ll probably think I’m smarter than my son does.

So for all you apologists out there who think you have the answers down pat, may I issue you a helpful challenge, one meant to hone your own thinking and help make you sharper for the adults you face?

Sometime in the next month or so, volunteer to teach your church’s preschool class, or give the children’s church sermon.

You’ll be amazed at how much the kids can teach you.

A Quiet Citizen

EqualIt’s been a big week for expressing your opinion on the state of things in our country. With the Supreme Court hearing arguments on Prop 8 and DOMA, lots of people are making their sentiments known via Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. I know in my feeds, an awful lot of people have changed their profile pic to the red equal sign. While my social network isn’t a microcosm of society at large, it does show that things have changed in the past few years.

Of course, there are also those friends who’ve changed their profile pic to a red plus sign, or to a red man and woman. But despite the pictorial tit-for-tat, I’ve not come across any ugly exchanges. In fact, the attitude seems to be detente – each side has stated their case, and the court will decide.

I’m not here to rehash old arguments, nor am I really interested in the issue at all. I think it’s a significant moment in our national history – and I think it likely that the SCOTUS will decide against Prop 8 and DOMA in some shape or form – but personally it doesn’t get me riled up. It actually gives me a headache. Kind of like the Starbucks boycott some people are trying to get off the ground.

So why the post? Well, I’ve been teaching about morality the past couple of weeks. I expected it to be a big deal, a point of discussion for my students that created passionate exchanges and conversations that carried over for days. I pictured a classroom full of gravitas and insight.

Instead, I got a big fat face full of “Eh.”

First, a caveat – I teach this class at 7:30 in the morning, and sometimes it’s all I can do to show up and remain awake. I’m well aware that I’m essentially asking for the moon, but a man with dreams can set his sights high, can’t he? So, the lack of discussion doesn’t exactly surprise me.

What has caught me off guard is that the students I teach don’t labor under the same hindrances as me. Whereas I’m learning a crap ton about what God has to say about morality and its impact and influence on our lives (and how we approach others on matters of morality), my students have a “been there, heard that” look in their eyes that makes me feel like an antiquated dope.

They don’t wrestle with the issue of God’s sovereignty and His authority to determine morality on His terms. They don’t question God’s fairness. They don’t wrestle with legalism or delusions of moral superiority. They understand that their main moral objective is to live obediently, taking a stand with grace and forgiveness when such a stand is called for. They feel no pressure to try and solve the world’s problems; they truly believe that when it’s their turn they’ll do what they can, and trust God for the rest. They wish to be quiet citizens.

And I’m like: dang, dudes. Guess we’ll finish up a little earlier than I anticipated. Good job!

I’m generalizing, of course; there is some push back on certain issues, but for the most part, everyone seems to have the same attitude – that they’ll stand for the Lord when such a stand is necessary, not when someone panics and wants to start a movement. Curiously, they’ve not panicked over the past couple of days. I find that fascinating.

I just saw a Facebook post from Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, and while I know Dr. Mohler is decidedly pro-traditional marriage, his statement carries much wisdom – a wisdom I find reflected in my students. I leave it with you as a closing statement.

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The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

GustaveDore-TreeOfKnowledgeOfGoodAndEvilYeah, yeah, yeah…I know. I’m boring you with all my blogs lately. Too “deep.” Too “thinky.” Too “much hot air, like a leaky balloon.” I get it. But it’s how I’m wired, man. This morning, I can’t stop thinking about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In fact, everything that I’m ready or studying lately seems to be converging on the themes of God’s sovereignty, morality, and the struggle of man with good and evil. It’s so prevalent for me, I couldn’t even enjoy watching The Three Amigos last night without considering the transformation of the Amigos into heroes once they understood the existence of real evil in Santo Poco and their ability – their moral duty – to stand against it.

When you think like that about The Three Amigos, you know you’re in trouble.

I digress.

Back to the tree of knowledge of good and evil: like yesterday’s post, this one is going to be outside of the box, and I’m not sure I can dig all the way down in just a few thousand words (give or take). But it’s just taking up so much space in my brain, I feel like I need to get it out there and let it run around for a bit. If it gets Tasered by people smarter than me, so be it (it might turn out to be fun, like yesterday’s post).

I’ve grown up believing that the tree of knowledge of good and evil imparted moral wisdom to Adam and Eve. That, until they ate of the tree, they didn’t know that such a thing as “good” or “bad” existed. I’ve never questioned it, and have, in fact, preached it as sound on numerous occasions. I don’t dispute that such an interpretation is wrong at all. I’m merely posing something to think about that enhanced my understanding of this doctrine.

The Hebrew words “good” and “evil” used in Genesis 2:9 and 2:17 are the words טוב (towb) and רע (ra`). Here’s where it gets interesting: towb/good is primarily translated as pleasant, agreeable – it’s an adjective. Ra/evil is primarily translated as an adjective too – it means bad, disagreeable, malignant. The two words describe the knowledge gained by eating of the tree – the ability to know that things can either be agreeable/good or disagreeable/bad.

So far, so orthodox. That’s good, right?

But here’s the thing: Adam and Eve both already had moral knowledge before eating of the tree. They didn’t have to eat from the tree in order to learn that some things are bad and some are good; God had already given them that information in Genesis 2:15-17, when He commanded them not to eat of the tree.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

God gave a command and explained the penalty for transgressing that command. He issued a moral standard by which Adam (and Eve) should live. In hearing that command, Adam (and Eve) knew that there was such a thing as right and wrong. Morality was defined for them from the lips of God, and they understood its implications.

So the tree didn’t impart that to them. God did. Morality comes from God.

Then the serpent came along and questioned the paradigm. He suggested that God had kept them from moral knowledge by prohibiting them from eating of the tree. It’s subtle, but it’s significant: the serpent shifted the locus of morality from God to the tree. Instead of trusting God to tell you/show you what’s right and wrong, Eve, you should eat the fruit of the tree and let it open your eyes on those matters. And by eating of the tree, what it possesses becomes yours too.

Boom. In just a few words, the human condition was tainted. Instead of trusting God to reveal His goodness to us, we now opt to define it for ourselves. The problem is that the innate perfection and holiness required to determine good and evil is found only in God; without Him to guide us, we can no more choose right from wrong than a colorblind person can pick out their favorite shades on a color wheel. By seeking to possess something God had already given us in Himself, we destroyed ourselves and that knowledge.

And if you’ll give me a second to chase a really weird rabbit trail: If the tree was the container of moral knowledge, that takes away from God’s character, does it not? God is diminished because the tree and its fruit holds the essence of the moral law. But we reject that idea on it’s face – God Himself is the moral lawgiver, and morality finds its foundation within Him. So why did the tree have to exist at all? What was it’s point?

To bring God glory. To show us that we could never possess the ability to determine morality for ourselves. To teach us that we would ever have to be in relationship with God in order to know what truly is right and wrong, real and illusion, good and evil.

After typing this all out, it seems fairly basic. Obvious, even. And that just means that I’m chasing windmills here, exploring a trail someone else has blazed. But there’s so much about morality and goodness and evil that I’m just beginning to understand, it seemed significant that our knowledge of right and wrong was given to us long before Adam and Eve ate from that tree. It was a gift freely given by God – not a treasure withheld because we couldn’t handle it. That changes things for me in a way that I simply cannot articulate at this time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to spell it out.

So what say you? I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

The Lesson of Cain

ImageThis morning, I began a new segment with my Christian Learning Center class. We’re discussing the philosophical foundations and development of Biblical worldview this semester, so that means were looking extensively at how the Bible answers the four fundamental questions of life: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. This morning marked the beginning of our look at morality. So naturally I started in a really strange place: the story of Cain and Abel.

I read the story from Genesis 4 and then asked the students one simple question: Was God fair to Cain?

Immediately they connected my question with the punishment of Cain, and naturally they said that God was not only fair to Cain, but merciful. I kindly replied that Cain’s punishment wasn’t the action I questioned. I wanted to know if God were fair to Cain before that.

They questioned my question, so I asked them to do me a favor (you can do this too, if you want to play along at home and humor an idiot such as myself): I asked them to go back into Genesis 1-3 and find the place where God laid down the laws regarding sacrifice. Any verse would do. Just find the one where God tells Adam and Eve or Cain or Abel what He expected regarding offerings submitted to Him.

They went silent, searching their cellphones and the random hard copies on hand. One minute ticked by, then two; eventually, after five painful minutes, one of the students looked up and said, “This is a trick question. There’s nothing in here about what sacrifices God wanted.”

And I said, “Bingo. When you read the Scripture, it would appear that the gifts from both Cain and Abel are spontaneous gestures. Cain brings part of his stock and trade; Abel brings part of his. God is pleased with Abel’s, not so pleased with Cain’s. There’s no reason given why He felt that way, despite the fact that many Christians have been taught that Abel gave from a pure heart but Cain didn’t. That’s not in the text here**, so let’s put it aside and consider this story as it’s written, and let me ask you again: was God fair to Cain?”

**I’m patently aware that Hebrews 11:4 acknowledges that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s, but the writer of Hebrews still doesn’t tell us why that was so – it merely confirms it was. So I submit to you that the notion that Abel’s heart was more in tune with God is something that we read into the text to help create a context for what happens next. I think this is an instance where well-meaning Christians have invented a false “truth” to help ameliorate discomfort over the seeming arbitrariness of God in the passage.

There was a pause. Finally, one of my students said, “No, I don’t think He was. It’s not fair to not give a guy any standards and then tell him he doesn’t meet those standards.”

Other students agreed.

One did not. She still insisted that God had been plenty fair to Cain, and that Cain was a jerk at heart anyway because he got miffed and killed Abel. And murder confirms jerkiness, so Cain probably brought a jerky sacrifice and God merely pointed that out.

Again, I told asked her to put aside the aftermath of Cain’s sacrifice, and just consider the sacrifice itself. I asked her to set aside everything else she knew about the story and just consider, for a moment, if God were fair to Cain in rejecting his sacrifice.

She looked at me, and said brilliantly, “Yes. Because He’s God, and He determines what’s acceptable or not.”

And I pointed at her and said, “Exactly. This is the beginning point of morality for anyone who would profess to be a Christian: God alone determines what is and isn’t acceptable. What is and isn’t right or wrong.”

I wish I could say that this was a deep and profound thought that I’ve been harboring for a long time. I wish I could say that I stole it from someone like John Piper or Tim Keller or Al Mohler or any other wise and deep theologian. Instead, it was the result of me staying awake most of the night with this story on my mind, convinced that it was the place to begin our exploration on morality without really understanding why, other than the fact that this story has ALWAYS bothered me.

Maybe it’s because I’m an older brother myself, but I never could quite shake the idea that Cain got a raw deal. I’ve grown up being taught that he was a jerk, that he was an evil person at heart (as evidenced by his killing Abel), and it never seemed quite fair to me. In fact, it always struck me as retrofitting. I’m probably the only Cain sympathizer in the known universe, so I’ll accept any questions regarding my orthodoxy with the acknowledgement that I deserve such questions.

But walking through this passage this morning, with God leading me ahead of my students, helping us all to see that He alone is the Sovereign King who decides right and wrong on the basis of His perfect, unchanging nature and character…well, that was the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in a long time. It brought sense to a text I’ve wrestled with for years and it opened up my heart to fear and marvel at God once again.

I don’t think God was capricious in His choosing between Cain and Abel. I don’t doubt that any of the explanations we’ve offered in the millennia since this story was written contain truth about Cain, his heart and what God knew about each. To be perfectly honest, this story makes me think about Romans 9, an incredible passage that makes clear God makes vessels of dishonor to use as He sees fit.

I would daresay Cain was one of those vessels.

The students sat stunned at the idea. I won’t say anyone’s paradigm shifted (after all, it’s hard to shift anything at 7:30 in the morning) but there was certainly a look of comprehension on a great many faces. The story of Cain and Abel wasn’t about their righteousness or unrighteousness – it was about the Sovereign God and His established rule.

I’ll probably be castigated for my take on the passage, and I invite and welcome the discussion in the comments below. But even if my interpretation is unorthodox, I stand by the conclusion: that this story shows us, if nothing else, that the root of Biblical and Christian morality lies not within ourselves, or even our understanding of God’s Law. It is found in the essence of God Himself, in His character and authority and His power.

Can’t get more orthodox than that.