Magic, Science and Prayer

Last Sunday my family and I watched The Hobbit, the latest movie from the writings of the great fantasy author JRR Tolkien, which also includes the Lord of the Rings series. It was a good show, bringing the audience through sadness, excitement, laughter, and the whole range of emotions. During my time of prayer and meditation this morning I considered some of the differences between science, prayer, and magic, as it is portrayed in The Hobbit and the Harry Potter series,

Magic

Magic, as it is popularly portrayed, is a means of using unseen powers, usually along with a bit of a physical material, a gesture and an incantation, to accomplish a specific end. In The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, the wizards Gandalf and Saruman mutter incantations at their enemies, and sometimes at each other. Dumbledore, Voldemort, and the other wizards do the same in Harry Potter.  In the popular fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, the spell Darkvision, allowing the caster to see in the dark, requires him or her to speak a certain phrase, perform a specific gesture, and use a pinch of dried carrot to cast the spell. These fantasy writers and game designers didn’t invent these procedures for casting spells out of whole cloth. Instead, they studied the history of mythology and magic and wrote their works combining and sampling practices from throughout the world.

Magic as seen in games, books and movies is exciting and powerful. It lets the caster do what few others can, defies the laws of nature, and brings with it great power, fame and wealth. In Harry Potter, only wizards can practice magic; non wizards, known as “Muggles”, are excluded. In a modern form of “noblesse oblige” (the obligation of nobility), the wizards are supposed to protect the muggles, who are not as powerful as they are.  Magic can be done for good and for evil, as its only moral filter is whatever moral filter the caster brings with him. Magic is inherently self-focused; the power of the magic may not reside in the user (as with “The Force” in Star Wars) but the power to use the magic does reside in the user, and she uses it for her own purposes. Though mistakes occur, the magician is portrayed as having essentially complete control over what the magic will do. The biggest problem with “magic” in the real world is that it doesn’t work, at least not to control physical phenomena. Priests in Egypt, druids in England, and shamans in North America tried for centuries to discover the words that controlled the Nile flooding, the materials that reliably calmed the seas, and the dances that brought rain, but they failed. Modern users of “magick” such as Wiccans or other pagans generally claim that it primarily affects oneself, not the outside world.

Science

Science, as it has been practiced for the past four centuries, does not provide merely the illusion of excitement and power; it is exciting and powerful. Science does not oppose the laws of nature but uses them to the advantage of the scientist and the society that supports him. Science does not focus on the words and gestures of the individual scientist but rather on using proper materials in proper proportions at proper times and in proper ways to achieve great effects. One of the greatest scientific advances in human history, gunpowder, is composed of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Mixed in proper amounts, each ground to a fine powder, and lighted in a controlled manner, gunpowder revolutionized warfare and destroyed social structures, such as feudalism in Europe, and empires, such as the Mamelukes in Egypt, throughout the world. Gunpowder is even present in the Lord of the Rings, though it is portrayed as magic rather than science.

Unlike magic, science is available to the many; not limited to the few. The practice of magic in most of history was limited to those born to it, but there are no inherent genetic, racial, social, or economic limitations to who can learn science and wield its power. Science can be used for good or for evil, and like magic its only moral filter is the moral filter that the user, and her society, applies. Mistakes occur in science, but the user has reliable control over its effects.  Science can be self focused, because though the power of science lies outside the scientist, the ability to use that power lies within him, and he uses it to advance his own agenda. Science works. Engineers in Egypt figured out how to control the Nile, scientists in England discovered how to avoid rough seas, and farmers in North America devised how to irrigate croplands.

Prayer

Prayer, defined popularly as asking God for something, has been practiced since the dawn of time. Some skeptics may consider prayer to be a form of magic, specifically divination, which is an attempt to gain insight into a question or situation with the aid of the supernatural. As such, they might suggest that everything mentioned in the paragraphs about magic applies to prayer as well.

A Christian would more likely define prayer as encountering God and experiencing His glory, whether or not the person praying asked for anything. Prayer involves consciously acknowledging the magnificence of the Creator, asking forgiveness of sins, intentional and unintentional, and asking God to make the petitioner less inclined to sin. Prayer frequently includes giving thanks for what the Lord has done for the person praying, and concludes with a set of new or repeat requests.  Any or all of these elements may occur in any given prayer. Common prayer practices, such as closing eyes, folding hands, standing up, kneeling, or whatever else, are merely cultural in the Christian tradition. There is no required gesture or body position in Christian prayer, nor is there a specified verbal (script or incantation) or material component. Prayer is not the same as spell casting. Prayer is available to anyone at anytime in any place and for any reason.

Prayer is different from magic and science in other ways. Christian prayer is not focused on the person praying; it is focused on the person of God. While it is tempting to use prayer as another way to advance one’s self interest, the Bible is clear that humans were created to know God, serve Him, love Him, glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Prayer has a moral filter independent of the one praying. First, the one praying places himself under the authority of God. God uses the Christian to accomplish His purposes rather than the Christian using God to accomplish his. Second, when the believer asks God for something, the Lord applies His moral filter to the request, and will not grant a request which is evil. The power of prayer lies in God, not in man, and the one praying does not have reliable control over its effects.

Some believe that prayer does not work. Others argue that prayer works, but since man has no reliable control over its effects, it is a waste of time. Why then should Christians pray?

  1. In the Bible, God commands His people to pray.
  2. God is truly glorified, our sins are really forgiven, and others are honestly blessed.
  3. By coming into the presence of God, the person praying becomes more like God. The power and peace of God dispel the weakness and frustration of man. The clarity of the mind of God overcomes the confusion in the mind of man, and the love in the heart of God melts the hatred in the heart of man.
  4. We are reminded of the glory of the Lord, the seriousness of our sin, the generosity of His gifts to us, and the power of God to meet our needs. His glory makes us humble, His forgiveness and provision make us grateful, and His power gives us comfort throughout the trials that we and others face.
  5. Prayer, like meditation, has positive physiologic benefits including lowering blood pressure and decreasing inflammatory chemicals in the body. This contributes to better health in the one praying.
  6. The Lord never intended prayer to be used as a sole intervention. Prayer for others must be accompanied by acts of service to them, done with selflessness and joy. It must also be accompanied by Bible study to learn the truths of God and His universe, which allows for wise interventions. Spiritual disciplines are maximally effective to change the life of a man, of others, and of the world when used in combination.
  7. God may change what He does in response to the prayers of man (Genesis 18:20-33, Isaiah 38:1-5).
  8. We are a good example to others.

How does Christian prayer actually work?

Since God provides the power in prayer, the man who wants to pray effectively must know God. This begins with Christian salvation (justification), but it includes knowing Him intimately through the Bible, through worship, through personal experience, through Christian service, and through other people. No one who neglects any of these areas can have consistent power in prayer.

Psalm 66:18 teaches that if man regards sin in his heart, the Lord will not hear him. Therefore God will not hear a prayer (except a prayer for salvation) from a person who has unconfessed sin. Prayers can also be hindered by poor interpersonal relations (Matthew 3:23, 1 Peter 3:7).  The man who wants effective prayers must not have unrepented sin and must have done all he can to be at peace with others (Romans 12:18).

God is at work in the world, and since prayer is focused on Him and not on man, the praying person must ask God what He is doing in the situation at hand. Then the person of prayer must ask God what He wants him or her to do about it. If the prayer does not fit in His plan, it will not be granted. Does this mean that we should ask God what we think He wants instead of what we actually desire? Absolutely not! More than the most loving Father, God wants us to be honest with Him (Philippians 4:6) and He wants to give us everything that we ask. He will only deny us that which will hurt us or hurt others. Our poor understanding, not His lack of grace, is the problem.  Even if God does not grant our petition, He will give us peace throughout it (Philippians 4:7)

As a wizard recites a spell with a specific purpose, and as a scientist uses materials for a specific result, so the prayer warrior asks God for a specific outcome.  The scientist seeks a measurable outcome and so should the saint. Once the man of prayer specifies his request, he expects to receive what he has asked, just as the skilled magician or scientist expects his craft to be effective. If someone asks about it, the person of prayer boldly tells others of his request and his expectation that God will honor it.

Sometimes we ask the Lord for something different than what we actually want or need, and are disappointed when He does not grant our petition. One young boy prayed that the rain would stop so he could go with his family to watch a baseball game. The rain did not stop, but the father managed to get dry seats under an overhang in the sparsely filled ballpark. God may not have answered the boy’s specific prayer, but did He not grant his real request? How often do we pray, not knowing what we really want or need, not receive our request, and feel disappointed? How often does God grant our desire, only to have us not notice because He didn’t answer as we expected?

The Lord provides a moral filter for prayer. If someone humiliates us at work and we ask God to break his legs, we should not be surprised if God does not grant our desire. He is not evil and will never aid or abet any evil desire. Man does evil, but the Lord is never a party.

Imagine a man kneeling in prayer. He is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and knows God intimately. He is faithful in prayer, Bible study, worship, service, and the other spiritual disciplines, and has good relationships with those around him. There is a challenging situation at work and he has searched the Scriptures to see what might help resolve it. During this prayer time the man has confessed his sins, and given God glory. As a result, He has quieted the anxieties and distractions of this man’s busy world. The prayer warrior has sincerely thanked God for His generous provision, and it is time to ask the Lord for help at work.

Our praying man will ask God what He is doing in the situation, for nothing happens, good or bad, that God does not use for the greater good and for His glory. Sometimes it takes a long time, and the Lord may refer him back to the Bible or to someone else for guidance. Eventually God will reveal the part of His plan that His saint needs to know and what he needs to do. In obedience the man on his knees will pray what the Lord commands, and when the prayer is done the man will obey

Like wisps of smoke from the smoldering fire the specific, God-inspired prayers of the righteous man will rise as a fragrance to the Lord. The prayers from other saints on the same issue will likewise rise to heaven. God will harmonize the prayers, helping the petitioners to ask for what they want in the right way, and transform the wisps of smoke into a raging fire of godly power.  Then prayers become effective, as the prayers of Elijah were in the days of Ahab (James 5:16-18).

Prayer works in other ways as well. Praying for someone often reveals ways that the one praying can help the one prayed for. While I prayed for a would-be missionary to get to the mission field, the Lord revealed to me some ways that he could raise money. I was able to help link someone else to a job. Just telling someone that you are praying for them can encourage them. Praying about an issue can bring mental clarity to that issue. Many times while praying for my patients I have had an insight that has led to a better diagnosis or treatment. The medical effects of prayer are well documented and positive.  A network of people praying for each other multiplies these good effects. Unlike science, which is focused on the physical world, prayer impacts the physical world primarily through the spiritual world. This is not to say that God does not impact the physical world directly as a result of prayer. He does. However, God primarily uses ordinary means to accomplish His extraordinary ends.

Conclusion

Magic may be exciting and powerful in books, games or movies but in reality the magic described there is fiction. Science is powerful but not moral, and sometimes does more harm than good. Prayer, communion with the One God, Creator and Lord of the Universe, is the most powerful thing of all. However it does not work like anything else because its object is not to serve us, but to serve Him. Christians must learn and live the power of prayer, because the troubles that we face in our individual lives and in the world are far too great to address with our poor powers alone. The dominion and glory of the Risen Lord alone provides our hope.

Advertisements

Be Thou My Vision – Having Our Sight on God

One of my favorite hymns is the Irish “Be thou my vision”, its words are attributed to Dallan Forgaill in the 6th century and its tune an Irish folk song, “Slane”.   The theme is that God alone should be the vision and goal of every Christian, just as He was for Paul in Philippians 3:7-14.

What does it mean to have God for our vision in our purpose for life?

The modern mantra of finding ones’ purpose for life seems to be “follow your inner star”, “find your dream” or “do your own thing.”  The idea is that within each person is something that will guide him or her to meaning and fulfillment in life if only he or she follows it.  Books, music, and movies parrot this idea relentlessly, and many people simply accept it as truth.  Under certain assumptions this could be logical:

  1. If God does not exist in any form and each individual is his ultimate personal life force, then is it up to man to find his/her own meaning and fulfillment in life.
  2. If God exists but He, really It, is only an impersonal “force”, “energy field”, or whatever, then each individual is an ultimate personal life force and is responsible to find his/her own meaning and fulfillment in life.
  3. If God exists as a person but has no interest in or purpose for the universe, then each person’s meaning and fulfillment would have to come from him/her self. This might be the case if God and the Universe were both independent and everlasting.

If, however, a personal God exists and He created the universe, it is hard to imagine that He would create the universe for no reason.  His purpose in creating the universe would then dictate the purpose of each element, including each person, in that universe.  Each individual would find his or her meaning and fulfillment in life by discovering what role they were to play in God’s universe and playing it to the best of their abilities.  If this is true, the mantra might be “follow Christ’s star (Matthew 2:2)”, “find God’s dream for you” or “do your part of His thing.”

The trouble with each person finding his or her own meaning is that life involves great suffering, and that eventually we all die.  In the long run the universe, commonly defined as the totality of existence, material existence, or at least life, will be destroyed.  There are two possibilities:

  1. Our universe has enough mass that its expansion will slow and stop. Then it will begin contracting into another singularity and Big Bang. All humanity will perish long before the universe’ fiery rebirth.
  2. If it does not have enough mass it will continue to expand as it is doing now. Unfortunately for us, though, the amount of matter/energy in the universe is finite, and that matter/energy will be diffused over a much greater area. Eventually there will not be enough to support life.

Either way the human race will end and all we have done will be for naught.

This means that whatever we accomplish on earth (or anywhere else in the physical universe) will ultimately perish. In the midst of his suffering, Job believed that life was ultimately meaningless (Job 7:1-16). If we are doomed to suffer and die as individuals, if the universe is likewise doomed, and if nothing exists outside the universe, can anything that we do have meaning?  Some people will say “yes”, that happiness, accomplishment, accumulation, or helping others provide ultimate meaning in life.  These have been tried before, and have failed:

  1. “Making myself happy.” One of the most common goals for people in life is to make themselves happy. This usually means seeking pleasure in any and every form. Solomon, one of the richest kings of Israel, tried this in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11. He failed, because happiness cannot be won as a goal in itself; it is a byproduct of serving in a cause that is greater than oneself; one which will endure past our own short lives.
  2. “Accomplishing great things.” The more ambitious among us may want to gain meaning by accomplishments, either “writing something worth reading or doing something worth writing about (Benjamin Franklin).” This idea places the power to determine who deserves remembering, who has done “great things,” in the hands of future writers. As appealing as it may seem, eventually the past is forgotten. Consider the charge of the Light Brigade as described by the famous British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson in a poem of the same name. How many of us have heard of it? How many know what war it describes? How many of us have heard of Lord Tennyson? How many of us care?  Finally, when the universe perishes, so will everyone who could potentially remember it, and everything for which the Light Brigade fought. Solomon tried the same, and reached the same conclusion (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 2:18-23).
  3. “Accumulating stuff.” This is a version of making oneself happy, with the understanding that possessions make some people happy. Unfortunately, the pursuit of money and possessions to achieve meaning and purpose is hollow, and has been for all of human history.
  4. “Helping others.” While helping others is commendable, those helped are as perishable as the helper. If there is nothing outside of this life, whatever aid any of us provide is limited and cannot fix the main problem, which is death. If some impersonal existence is all that lies beyond the grave, then individuality is as fleeting as bodily life and “helping others” on earth is equally temporary. Only if individual existence extends beyond the grave and outside the universe does helping others have everlasting meaning.

At root, even the quest for meaning and fulfillment in one’s own life is selfish, since it is focused ultimately on oneself. Therefore we are caught in a conundrum; we desperately need meaning in our lives, but to pursue meaning is ultimately a self-focused and innately destructive thing. What can we do?

There is only one way out. Mankind is not the center of this vast universe, but God is. Our best efforts at having meaningful lives end up in vanity, pain, and selfishness. The Bible teaches that God places His Spirit in those who trust Him, gradually turning their focus away from their temporal selves and to His eternal Self.  If He were a sinful man as we are, this would be vanity, more reminiscent of the gods of Olympus than the God of Calvary. But since He is God, turning our focus to Him is the most reasonable and logical thing to do. The Lord does not need our attention, our praise, our service, or even our love. He needs nothing from us, but we need to focus on Him.

To have meaning, purpose and fulfillment in life, as intended by the Holy One, the Creator Lord must be our vision.

What does it mean to have God be our vision in the arena of sin and guilt?

Many consider the concept of sin to be passé. If one defines sin as violating the moral rules of God, those who do not believe in God are quite logical in considering sin to be passé. Such people, often referred to as moral relativists, hold that thoughts and actions are not “good” or “bad” in an absolute sense but rather “useful” or “useless” depending upon the situation. Alternatively, “bad” or “good” may be defined by how something affects the greater society. Lying to cover up embezzlement may be “bad” but lying to avoid hurting feelings may be “good”.

However it is hard to find a person, regardless of culture, who believes that bad or good depends entirely on the situation. Most would agree that cruelty, especially to animals or children, is simply evil, regardless of the circumstances. Torture and murder are almost always considered wrong; even for moral relativists, though they are loathe to use the word “evil”.

It is easy to discuss morality and to believe that there is no absolute moral right or wrong in the abstract and universal, but much harder to do so in the particular and individual. A man’s view of morality between himself and someone else often differs from his view of morality between those he doesn’t know and doesn’t care about. The most vehement opponent of moral absolutes will burn with rage if someone steals his car or beats his child. The most hardened feminist critic of Biblical teachings on sexual morality will lash back in anger and despair if her lover has an affair against her. Righteous indignation is not unique to those who believe in righteousness; and sanctimony is not native to those who those wish to be sanctified.

Morality within the individual is more vexing still. Who of us has not felt sickening guilt for something we have done?  Which one of us meets our own expectations perfectly, or even consistently, in our dealings with others? Who among us has never had the queasy sensation that something we have thought or done is wrong, and done our best to suppress that feeling? As much as we wish to believe that right and wrong are social constructs and do not exist outside of our opinions, our very bodies and lives testify to the fallacy of this idea. Right and wrong has a very real existence whether we like it, and whether we agree with it, or not.

When faced with the reality of right and wrong, we must ask ourselves where this reality comes from. A secularist might say that morals evolved to promote the survival of the species, just as life forms evolved to promote the survival of the species. In light of the fact that the latest century was the bloodiest in human history and that judging from history, man’s conduct doesn’t seem any better now than in Egypt under Menes (3000 BC), or China in the Nanzhuangtou era (9000 BC). The Christian must answer that right is that which accurately reflects the character of God, and wrong is anything in opposition to Him. Since the character of God determines the moral rules we encounter in our lives, to do wrong is to sin. Therefore all sin, no matter the identity of the aggrieved party, is ultimately against God. King David took advantage of Bathsheba and then had her husband Uriah, one of his greatest and most loyal soldiers (2 Samuel 23:8-39), murdered. His sin against them was great, but was nothing by comparison to his sin against God in this episode (Psalm 51:4). The Western tradition of law acknowledges this fact in that civil offenses are against the individual but criminal ones are against the State, the giver of laws in each society.

God is not only the victim; He is also the Judge and King. If God is the ultimate judge in every sin, then only God can truly and completely forgive. We cannot forgive ourselves and escape punishment any more than a condemned murderer can forgive himself and walk free out of the courtroom. Neither can other people forgive us and free us from punishment. In court even the victim cannot pardon the offender; only the State can. Therefore, those who choose not to believe in God cannot find true forgiveness for their sins.

To have any real forgiveness of sin in life, the Lord who judges and forgives must be our vision.

What does it mean to have God be our vision as we consider science?

The Sumerian civilization was the earliest in history in Mesopotamia. Like other ancient peoples, the Sumerians saw life as a system of great cycles, from birth through fertility through death. Life was not “going anywhere” in the modern sense of the word. Rather it was simply following its circles ordained since time immemorial. The historian Thomas Cahill wrote in his national bestseller, The Gifts of the Jews, that “Development and evolution – words of such importance to us – would have meant little in the timeless culture of Sumer, where everything that was – their city, their fields, their herds – their plows – had always been (p19).” Innovation occurred; writing was probably invented in Sumer, but the idea of technology advancing like we think of it today was unknown.

In addition to being cyclical, the universe to ancient Sumerians lacked order in the modern scientific sense. In the manual of instruction on farming, farmers are told to scare the birds away from their crops, but also to pray to Ninkilim, the goddess of the field mice, so she will keep her small, sharp toothed subjects away from the grain (p 16).  The needs of Ninurta, the farmer god, and Ninkasi, the goddess of water and brewing, had to be considered. Farmers, and everyone else in Sumerian society, faced the dangers of nature but also the dangers of capricious gods. Having many gods, all of whom were like overgrown humans with their jealousies, rivalries and weaknesses, made the universe seem unpredictable.

People who don’t see existence as going anywhere and don’t believe that their environment is predictable don’t spend much time trying to discover where the world is going or find the order in it. The Sumerians didn’t. This is one reason that their society changed little over millennia. Other ancient societies were largely the same.

Against this background came the remarkable innovation that there was only one God and that this God was moving towards His purposes in the world. It took millennia to develop, but such thinking changed the way that man looked at his reality. No longer did he have to contend with the vagaries and rivalries of many gods, in addition to those of nature. He had only one God, and that One revealed Himself in an orderly creation and historical revelation.

The scientific method, in which one formulates a question, generates a hypothesis, predicts the result, tests the hypothesis and analyzes the results, requires belief in an orderly universe. Any of these steps would have seemed ridiculous to a Sumerian. From the beginning, modern science was built on the scientific method. Modern science, and the technology that goes with it, would not have developed without it. All order comes from God, and that the order in the universe is but a pale reflection of the order within the Lord. To understand the root of science, the foundational role of God in our understanding of the universe, the Lord Creator and Sustainer must be our vision.

What does it mean to have God be our vision as we face suffering and death?

We have seen how the specter of suffering and death influences and even determines what we do in every area of life. The greatest king in the Babylonian pantheon, Gilgamesh, was obsessed by his fear of the grave. Though we usually succeed in putting it out of our minds, so are we. Why shouldn’t we be, since death makes a mockery of every attempt to find meaning and fulfillment? Even more than birth, death is the supreme fact in human existence, because to never have existed on earth is far less terrifying to mortal man than to face the perceived and imminent possibility of ceasing to exist.

Against this ghastly reality, how can man face suffering and death? For most of our lives, we try to ignore it. In generations past death usually occurred at home and affected all age groups, often without warning. An accident or infection would snuff out the flame of the youngest and healthiest, and even the joy of childbirth held mortal peril. Death could not be ignored. In the developed world today, people die in hospitals rather than at home, and we convince ourselves that the specter of the grave can be held at bay.

Some, like the British atheist Christopher Hitchens, try to “stare death in the eye”, as though it were one more adversary to defeat. Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a similar opinion, boasting “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” Most flee, bargain, deny, and rage before they finally succumb. Even some who consider themselves religious seem to have no more hope of an afterlife than those who do not. Other responses are beyond the power of mortal man. If there is no life after death and if nothing exists outside the physical universe, terror and despair are the only reasonable responses. As Man Faces Death provides more examples.

Yet there are some, a remarkable few, who face suffering and death with a different spirit. The Old Testament saints met death with courage (Moses – Deuteronomy 34:1-6, Elisha – 2 Kings 13:14-21, David – 1 Kings 2:2, 10). Stephen was undaunted in the face of martyrdom (Acts 7:54-60). The Apostle Paul felt that “to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21-24).” The surviving disciples of Jesus, hiding in terror in locked rooms after His crucifixion, became fearless almost all died a martyr’s death after His resurrection. Why do so many cower and so few tower in the face of death?

Every religion deals with death, some by denying that it exists, others by positing reincarnation, others by suggesting a spiritual (non-physical) existence in a different place, and a few by suggesting some form of physical life after death.  Christianity deals with the pain of death by revealing that God became a man, Jesus Christ, and dwelt among us. He lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and then physically rose from the dead. Because Jesus rose from the dead, and because He promised that those who follow Him will too, Christians believe that they will physically rise from the dead like Christ did.

Like the Athenians (Acts 17:32), many scoff at the idea of a physical resurrection from the dead. Some contend that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a myth, just like those found in other religious traditions. For more information on the resurrection of Jesus, please see On the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christianity deals with death in a truly unique way, and makes the astounding claim that its followers will eventually escape the chains of death because its founder, Jesus Christ, did. No non-Christian religion, not Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, or any other makes this claim. If Jesus Christ is not physically alive today, Christianity is worthless (1 Corinthians 15). Those who truly believe in Christ, therefore, have certainty of salvation in the face of death.

To face suffering and death with the courage and hope of future resurrection, the Resurrected Lord must be our vision 

What does it mean to have God be our vision as we consider gratitude?

In 1994 I visited the Tower of London and waited in long lines to see the Crown Jewels. They were resplendent, but I felt a little let down. Compared to the magnificent sunrises I had seen in Western Washington, the late afternoon colors of the sun reflecting on the walls of the Grand Canyon, and the vibrant hues of the jungles of Belize, the most valuable jewels in the world, costing millions of dollars, were disappointing. They were less beautiful than that which cost nothing.  The Crown Jewels were also only available to the few who could see them, but the grandeur of nature is available to everyone, regardless of location, wealth, or any other factor.  I was exultant and thanked God, the One who provided both the gems and also the sun.

Have you ever admired a sunset, a flower, or a mountain range? Have you ever thrilled to a bird’s song, the smell of the sea breeze, or the tickle of a cool wind on an sweltering day? Have you been so overcome with their beauty that you felt the need to express your delight?

Humans seem to have a need for reciprocity; a need to respond when something happens to them. When a stranger says “hello”, a friend gives a compliment or an enemy makes a threat, we have a visceral urge to reply. Even when whatever happens to us is not caused by a person, we need to respond. We may gasp in response to a magnificent vista, we may wonder at the beauty of a flower, or we may quake in response to a haunting howl, but we always respond.

When a person does something for us, whether playing a catchy tune or offering a tasty treat, we usually respond with gratitude; we thank our benefactor. Natural beauty, such as the orange light from the setting sun reflecting off the rock walls of the Grand Canyon, also fills us with feelings of thankfulness. We can’t help it; gratitude for a benefit rendered just seems to be the natural human reaction.

Thanking a person for a benefit rendered is perfectly normal; in fact it is expected in most societies. But who do we thank for the blessings of nature or for impersonal events? Does a hiker on a hill in a thunderstorm thank the lightning for not hitting him? Rarely. Who do we thank for warm sunshine or a cold mountain spring on a hot day? Even the man who denies the existence of the Biblical God may thank his “lucky stars”, “fate” or some other outside force.  Often the force is personalized, such as when a man thanks “Lady Luck” for a gambling win or “Mother Nature” for the beauty of a flower.  For centuries soldiers have personalized the weapons that they hoped would save them in battle (Big Bertha, Enola Gay) and thanked them if they do.  Children evince an inveterate desire to name things, from the family car to their most beloved toys, and thank them for things done just as they would people. It seems that it is human nature to thank a personal force, not an impersonal force, for whatever good is received.

It is certainly appropriate to thank others for the good that they do for us, but is that enough?  Perhaps in addition to being grateful to a master cellist for a moving performance, we should also reserve some gratitude for his parents, his teachers, his family, and the others who made him into the musical professional we so enjoy. Maybe our thanks should extend to the society in which we all live, because the society plays a large role in what we each experience. At any rate, it is clear that for anything that happens, there is much to be thankful for.

Man is a derivative creature; his very existence depends on something outside of him, such as the natural world. Since man derives his existence from something else (conception and death demonstrate that he is not self-existent), gratitude directed towards any man, or group of men, must also be directed towards the One who gave that man his abilities and the others their ability to contribute. Given man’s innate tendency to thank a personal force, not an impersonal one, it is logical to thank God, the One who created nature, for His blessing.

To have genuine gratitude to the One who is the source of everything worthy of gratitude, the God who provides must be our vision.

Conclusion

Be Thou My Vision is a powerful and beautiful hymn and expresses an undeniable truth – that God, the only God, the one God, must be our vision. A life focused on Him is a life with purpose, a life with forgiveness of sin, a life of progress and order, a life with courage in the face of suffering, and a life of gratitude. Any other vision is a sad substitute. Would that every man would focus on God, and reap the abundant life, here and hereafter, that is the inevitable result.

Science and Christianity

Does real science, not “scientific philosophy,” contradict real Christianity? Since honestly, we know less about science, and about the Bible, than we think we do, humility and inquiry needed to find the answer. 

My sons enjoy playing a computer game called Civilization, in which players take the role of the ruler of a historical civilization such as China, Greece or Rome and try to win by conquering the world, sending a rocket into space, or building the most spectacular culture. There are many cultural advances that a civilization can get, but getting some cultural advances eliminates the ability to get some others. For example, the designers of the game decided that piety and rationalism were mutually exclusive; it is impossible for any civilization in the game to have both.

Continue reading “Science and Christianity”

Why God?

The question at hand is “Why God?” I was brought up in a Christian home and so I had a marvelous advantage over some who were not; God was just assumed in my home and none of the people around me thought otherwise. They had relatively minor differences about their understanding of His attributes but no one denied His existence or asked why He was important.

I have now had decades to consider the issue and decide for myself, as most people eventually get the chance to do. As a result, I believe in God more strongly than ever, for three reasons:

1. The evidence for God, both scientific and historical, is overwhelming.
2. I have experienced God in my own life.
3. I have seen the effects of the disbelief in the lives of others.

One important preface. God is infinite, all powerful, imminent, transcendent, and beyond the imagination of mortal man. All we know about Him we know because He has revealed Himself to us. His ultimate revelation was in the person of a man, Jesus Christ. Thus the unknowable God the Father becomes knowable in the person of God the Son, Jesus Christ through the work of the indwelling God the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. This is what I mean when I speak of God.

Along with Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and others, I am impressed by the evidence for God in the world.  First, most people throughout history have believed in the existence of some type of God. When billions of people of all races, sexes, cultures, areas and ages believe something, it is at least worth considering. Skeptics might retort that science has ruled out the possibility of God, or at least made Him unnecessary, so belief in God belongs to yesteryear. They fail to understand or to acknowledge that science, which is limited to studying the natural, cannot rule out the existence of the supernatural; the best it can do is have no opinion. They also fail to understand or to acknowledge that the fact that the universe exists at all, that something instead of nothing is present, and the fact that the universe is limited in extent and duration, suggests that God is necessary. The billions who believe in Him seem to need Him, and the fact that people need Him is not proof that He is not there. Therefore, God is neither ruled out nor made unnecessary by science. Neither is He ruled out nor made unnecessary by the arguments of Hume, Hawkins, Hitchens, or anyone else. If people do not believe, there must be some reason besides reason. For some at least, perhaps dismissing the views of billions of others about God is more snobbery than science.

Other lines of evidence for the existence of the God of the Bible abound. The complexity of and design evident in the universe begs for a designer. The archeology and manuscript evidence for the truth of the Bible is surfeit. The very existence and growth of the Christian Church after 2000 years, given the fact that most faiths decline after the death of their founder, is remarkable. The endurance of Christianity despite furious opposition from Diocletian to Voltaire to Stalin and beyond suggests that Someone greater than man is growing the Church. Ultimately, the greatest evidence for the existence of God is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the greatest of all supernatural works and only the a priori denial of that event can eliminate it as evidence for the existence of God.

Second, I have experienced the presence of God in my own life. I felt a surge of His courage during combat convoys in the streets of Baghdad and in fortified outposts on the banks of the Euphrates. I have seen Him enlighten my thoughts and guide my hands as I cared for patients. I have experienced Him speaking through me as I counseled a grieving mother and taught His word to His people. I have felt His peace while trying to land a light plane in a thunderstorm and His exhilaration while standing at Uhuru Peak at the summit of Kilimanjaro. I have seen Him work in answer to my prayers, and felt Him through His word, the Bible. He has wiped the tears of my heart away. I sensed His presence during my darkest nights, such as while standing at the grave of my father.

Third, I have seen the effects of the disbelief in God in the lives of others. Defending America in the Middle East was a great privilege but also a trial. The strain was too great for many, and in my experience those who best weathered the storms were those with a vibrant relationship of faith in God through the Lord Jesus Christ. The same goes for the patients I have encountered in my medical practice. Sickness, failure, loneliness, unemployment, aging, and death eventually overtake us all. The backdrop of our lives in childhood is our family and local environment and that in our young adulthood is the world. But as our years swiftly pass, with many dreams unrealized, many failures remembered, and many sins unforgiven, we must look outside of ourselves. We long for someone greater to right the wrongs that we have failed to right, give us the rewards that we feel were denied, forgive our sins, and lead us into a bright future, though our light on earth grows dim. Every man and woman faces this end, and in my experience, those with a sure knowledge of God and a passionate dedication to Jesus , God the Son, best weather these storms.

“Why man?” is a far better question than “Why God?” because God is the center of the universe, and the center of the existence of every man. All creation and all history sing out the glory of God. Each person is designed to love Him, enjoy Him, and acknowledge His worth. Like every man, I succeed sometimes and fail others as I walk this earthly highway towards this heavenly goal. My prayer is that I succeed more and fail less each day, and my brothers and sisters in the church and in all humanity do the same.