Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What does the Bible say about suffering?

It's interesting that the Bible acknowledges the fact that good people are just as likely to suffer and experience an early death as evildoers.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-2: "This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God's hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor. The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don't."

Maybe the Bible is one of the first documents to point out this fact. But on the plus side, good, righteous people are doing God's will in their lives, and they go to eternal life when they die. Whereas evildoers reject being with God forever.

If we trust the Bible we know that God is in control of our lives although it seems like chaotic randomness a lot of the time.

Psalm 32:8-9: "The LORD says, "I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control."

Psalm 68:19: "Praise the Lord; praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms."

I think the Bible's answer is that because we are currently separated from God (although Christians are technically not, we have not yet come into our inheritance) basically life must involve a lot of suffering (Gen 2:17; Rom 5:12-14). We don't know exactly how separation from God leads to our suffering, but it somehow does. The comforting thing is that genuine Christians do God's will in their lives and go to eternal life (which means no longer being separated from God, see Rev 21:3-4) after they die.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Getting the greatest commandment from the second greatest

Luke 10:26-7: Jesus replied, "What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?" The man answered, "'You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.' And, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

Almost no one would have a problem with the idea that you should 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' (the Golden Rule). The Bible's way of putting it is that you should love your neighbour as yourself. So the second commandment is pretty agreeable to almost everyone (although no one does it perfectly).

For a lot of people it's the greatest commandment that seems hard to understand. Why should God deserve a lot more love and devotion than a human being? Whereas for humans it's 'love like you love yourself' for God it's 'love with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind'.

I'd like to mention an argument for the Bible's view based on 'virtue ethics' (a school of thought in moral philosophy).

In Christian theology there's something different about the way God makes choices compared to everyone else. In Christian theology God not only does the right thing all the time, He also cannot be tempted to do something wrong. This situation cannot be recreated (for some reason) in God's creations.

James 1:13: "When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone"

Titus 1:2 "in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began"

Imagine you lived in a town where there was a person who had this quality. You could always get perfect advice from this person about what to do (from a moral point-of-view).

So there's some sense in the idea of referring our decisions to someone who cannot be tempted to think in an evil way. Whereas the moral advice we give to each other can always be harmed by selfish motives, God's wouldn't (assuming this situation is the case). So making it a rule to always check your decisions with an 'un-temptable' God has a certain logic, assuming you can actually know what this God is saying.

This 'setup' would help you follow the second greatest commandment, because it would protect you from making a moral mistake (for e.g. selfish reasons). It would act as a 'fail-safe' protection for people who can be tempted to do wrong. Doing this successfully would be a great way to honour the second greatest commandment.

And referring your decisions to an 'un-temptable' God sounds a lot like worshipping God if you did it all the time.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

If we have free will then why is it so hard for people to change? The 'settling' aspect to free will

People often point out, if we have free will, then why do we almost always stay the same? Introverts don't suddenly wake up and become extroverts, and evildoers tend not to become saints. As people get older and more mature there is some change, but it's hardly ever a 180 degree personality shift. Yet this should be possible if we have free will.

I think something that people often miss in free will is that it involves a really strong 'settling' ability. Part of free will is the ability not to be constantly 'up in the air' about what you're going to do, but to 'settle' your choices in a certain personality trait. So instead of 'umming' and 'ahhing' about whether to be nice, a nice person can choose to 'settle' their choices in niceness, and an evildoer can 'settle' their choices in evil, so they no longer think about changing. When we choose to 'settle' our choices and not constantly go over and rethink them, those choices become our personality that our friends easily identify (e.g. extrovert, quiet, etc.)

So free will is sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, gathering up snow. We mostly decide what personality to have when we're young, and then at some point we 'settle' into a groove and almost never change - although we theoretically can.

Perhaps free will is a little bit like a train. The front of the train is a person's values. Someone might value bravery, trust, shrewdness, being outgoing, polite, etc. There would be values corresponding to every personality and character trait. Your actions follow after your values like a boxcar after the front of the train (unless you have an unwanted personality trait, somehow). If your values change, then after a long period of time your actions change in response. It may take a while, though. That is how people change.

It should be pointed out that despite the 'settling' aspect to free will, no personality or character can be 'settled' outside of God's grace. If people are saved by grace alone, then personality and character traits (works) can't give anyone an advantage over others when it comes to accepting Jesus, or give anyone a disadvantage there, at any stage. So the only way someone could 'settle' their choices outside of God's grace is by rejecting it directly (Matt 12:31). You can't do such a thing any other way, because works (i.e. personality, character) do not earn (and thus do not block) salvation (Eph 2:8-9; Rom 11:6).

Also, God changes character, not personality. By definition, if something is personality and not character then it is neither good nor bad, but is simply the way someone chooses in a certain 'non-moral' area of their life. God is interested in changing our character, and will use all aspects of a person's personality to His glory in the body of Christ (1 Co 12:13-31).

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Four areas of grace

The concept of 'grace' in Christianity includes more than Jesus taking our sins on Himself. There are at least four areas in a Christian's life that involve grace.

1. Grace in salvation

Matt 26:39: He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, "My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine."

John 19:30: When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Rev 21:6: And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.

These verses are talking about the idea of salvation as a gift. If you look at the way Christianity talks about salvation analytically, then it seems to have the following structure:

1) People are unable to treat others in the way that they would ideally like to be treated. It is simply impossible for anyone to do this, and it stops us from entering into eternal life with God
2) God solves this problem on the cross by Himself; we don't contribute at all to the solution
3) If you want to go to heaven you can either trust in your own goodness to get you there, or trust in what God has done for you on the cross. If you trust in the latter, then you will go to heaven

The concept of grace is closely linked to the concept of a free gift that you do nothing to earn. Salvation in Christianity is like this.

2. Grace in accepting salvation

Eph 2:4: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved.

Rom 11:6: But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Let's say you have two friends, neither of whom are Christian, and one of them is arrogant and inconsiderate, and the other is as sweet as an angel. It would be very tempting only to talk about Jesus to the second person. That's because we tend to think that salvation is partly based on works. That is, if you're nice, trusting, considerate, don't think about things too much, and so on, you're more likely to become a Christian. One way of describing this attitude is that salvation is earned by having a good (or convenient) personality.

The passages above contradict such a view. They imply that God cares about everyone so much that He prevents a person's personality and character from getting in the way of their entering the Kingdom of God. God does this so effectively that no one receives an advantage from their personality and character over anyone else when it comes to accepting Christ. How does that work, you might ask? I don't know. But it's what scripture teaches.

3. Grace in producing works

Philippians 1:6: And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Heb 13:21: may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.

When Christians do things that please God it is because of God's gift of His Son, because God has changed them and worked through them. So they are like a gift in that God ultimately has the credit (glory) for them.

4. Grace in God doing all the protective work regarding the faith of any Christian

1 Cor 10:13: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

Sometimes Christians can think of themselves as superior to those who have left the faith because of problems they have coped with. But this is not a scriptural attitude. No Christian protects their own faith, if the Bible is accurate. God is always the one doing the protecting, whenever someone's faith is being protected. Since Christians do not protect their own faith (according to the Bible) no one can boast about this. Every Christian will encounter challenges to their faith (which is meant to ultimately help Christians if they bear up under it), and the only thing that will keep it is taking the 'way out' that is mentioned above.

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