The Death of a Friend

It was a beautiful morning at the state campgrounds at Lake Anna, near Richmond Virginia. Several families from our church, and one family that had recently moved away to pursue new job opportunities, had come together for a Labor Day getaway. We were busily preparing breakfast, assembling fishing tackle, and drinking coffee by the crackling fire. As the only physician in the group I was in unfortunate demand. One girl from a different party had had a bike accident, a man splashed some chemlight fluid in his eyes, and a little boy hurt his arm. After my quasi-clinic Mary, a dear friend and breast cancer survivor, asked me about some back pain she had been having. I tried some spinal manipulation with little result. Chagrined by the lack of improvement but without the opportunity to investigate further, we moved on. Our group had prayed for these problems, and Mary had a medical appointment a few days later.

Mary died yesterday. Only a couple of weeks after our trip, her husband Eric sent word that the cancer was in her liver and spine. Mary, 42, fought hard. She seemed to respond well to the chemotherapy and still managed to move in to her new house, meet new people, and care for her husband and two children, ages 11 and 8. Friends from church prayed for their family and did everything we could, tangible and intangible, to help them. On Christmas Eve they stopped by our church enroute to visit with family in New Jersey. I last saw her, exhausted and frail, walking down the aisle to take communion at the service that night. Her condition deteriorated and she spent her twelve days of Christmas in hospitals. Her liver having been wholly devoured by cancer, Mary slipped away, surrounded by family, in the ICU at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A pall has fallen over our family and church. Questions about why such things happen are inevitable. “Why do people die?” “Why wouldn’t God save her?”, “Did our prayers do any good?”, “How will this affect her family’s faith?”, and “What more could we have done?” reverberate in our minds. They echo in the minds of all people who suffer such loss and live through such dark hours. When people ask these questions, they expect answers, or at least honesty.

Man was made for eternity. We would not even ask why people die if God had not made us personal beings and written eternity into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The fact that death doesn’t seem right to us proves that He did not create us to die. Something is awry in the universe and we feel it in our bones. That something is man. We have rebelled against our Creator and the universe as He has made it, and we continue our revolt. So we die.

I do not know why God did not defeat the cancer and prolong her life on this earth. Her mother had died of breast cancer when Mary was but a teen, and Mary had done everything to avoid the same outcome. I do not know how good will come out of my friend Eric losing his beloved wife and his children growing up without their mother. I do not know how the Church will become stronger despite the loss of this faithful Christian woman. I do know that God is great and God is good, and that He will somehow bring hope and healing out of doubt and despair. The Lord will bring good out of this tragedy – He promised (Romans 8:28).

Our prayers did do good. The Bible promises that every righteous word spoken and every good work done by the people of God, no matter how small they seem at the time, will endure. The Magi never knew the result of their mission to Bethlehem, and yet their work has endured through the ages. Every kind word, every meal, every well-timed visit, and every impassioned plea in the prayer closet shaped time and eternity on behalf of this beloved family, and to the glory of God.

Each thought, word, action and event shapes our faith, for better or for worse. How this will shape the faith of Eric and his children remains in the dim glass of the future. The same is true for all of us. We are not alone, however, because we who are truly indwelt by the Spirit of God know that He is continually shaping us into the image of Christ. Once the Spirit of the Living Lord has captured us, He will never let us go. Using friends, family, the Living Word, and the Church, God will continue to steer Eric and the children safely towards heaven (Philippians 1:3-6).

No doctor who has ever cared about a fallen patient has failed to ask what more he could have done. Except for a few moments on that cool September morning, Mary was not my patient. Rather she was a friend and sister in the Lord. Her friends, her family, her husband, her church, and everyone who cared has asked that question of themselves a hundred times in the past four months. We will all have ideas, and some regrets, but none of us will find the answer. The better question now is “what can we do for those who remain?” How can we care for those we meet now, and in eternity?

Mary is safely in the arms of God. This is not a vague hope but as an established fact. Only One has defeated death, and that One is Jesus Christ. He arose from the dead, the first among a mighty throng of Christians who will follow after Him (1 Corinthians 15:1-26). Mary stands today experiencing the rapturous glory of the Almighty God and receiving her well-deserved reward. Eric, his children, and all of us will follow. Her worries, her tribulations, and her pains have faded forever in the glory of God. Ours will as well.

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Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Epidemics, and other Misfortunes

Hurricane Sandy has just swept through the east coast of the US, killing at least 100, leaving six million without power and causing at least $3 billion dollars in damages. In March 2011, an earthquake (magnitude 9.3), tsunami and radiation accident in Japan killed 15,870 and caused $235 billion in damages. In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Leogane in Haiti, killing at least 316,000. Disease epidemics relentlessly cycle through populations. Such catastrophes occur constantly somewhere in the world, and terrible suffering and loss is an inevitable result.

While similar disasters have occurred since the dawn of time, mankind’s response to them has changed over the centuries.  Historians identify two basic approaches, the Metaphysical Approach and the Rational Approach.  In the “metaphysical approach”, disasters are caused by direct divine action. In the “rational approach”, disasters are caused by specific natural phenomena, such as microorganisms, wind patterns, seismic activity, environmental contamination and the like. These labels, invented in the past two centuries, illustrate the dismissive attitudes of moderns towards their forebears who, not having the same depth of science and technology that we enjoy today, favored the metaphysical approach.

The Assumed View in the Past

Modern commentators often assume that in most of human history disasters were attributed to the direct action of God (or gods) more so than natural phenomena. The Hebrews at Jericho thanked Jehovah for the collapse of the walls and the conquest of the city (Joshua 6), while present day observers would more likely credit an earthquake, especially since Jericho was located at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, a seismically active area.  Later they praised God for their victory over the heavily armored infantry and chariots of the Canaanites (Judges 4:15), even though the physical mechanism was a sudden thunderstorm and flash flood (Judges 5:19-22). Centuries later Sennacherib and his Assyrian army were defeated by the angel of the Lord (2 Kings 19:35) in an episode that looks suspiciously like pneumonic plague. Time and time again ancient writers give the gods credit for events that today we would attribute to purely natural processes.

Nonetheless, the ancients knew that natural causes played a role. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) wrote “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.[1]”  Many ancients noted that diseases tended to occur in low lying, highly humid areas near bodies of water.  Diseases also congregated in areas of great pollution.  Physicians from the past reasoned that since the air seemed different (often more fetid) in such areas, and since people in those areas shared the same air, the air must be the cause of their disease.  This is called the miasma (Greek – “pollution”) theory of disease.  It was prevalent throughout the Eurasian continent until the coming of the germ theory, made possible by improvements in biology, chemistry, physics, and in optics, such as Antoine van Leeuwenhoek’s (1632-1723) microscope.

This dual understanding of events is well illustrated in the eastern Mediterranean. Homer and the Bible often attribute events to divine action, although the Bible recognizes the contribution of natural events. Thucydides and Tacitus, for example, explain events with a natural focus – geography, economics, psychology, society, and technology – while attributing nothing to the work of the gods.[2] Thus the ancients, those that moderns often denounce as “primitive”, understood natural and supernatural aspects of happenings in the world.

The View in the Present

Today disasters and other natural phenomena people are seen primarily in “rationalistic” or natural terms, and people are mocked for suggesting that God may have had any part.  Earthquakes are caused by natural seismic activity, and epidemics are caused by complex strings of events that invite but also defy comprehensive analysis.  Hurricanes develop from changes in temperature and pressure over bodies of water, and we are told that it is foolish to search for the hand of the divine in them. When an American preacher suggested that the 2010 Haiti earthquake might be part of the judgment of God against the Haitians for the violent slave rebellion of 1791, he was derided without mercy.  Right or wrong, this would not have happened in a culture that understood natural disaster as primarily a metaphysical event, or a culture that acknowledged natural and supernatural causes to each circumstance.

This change in thought developed over the past three centuries, but a catalyst was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  On All Saints Day (1 November 1755), a very holy day in the Roman Catholic Church, a devastating earthquake, tsunami and fire struck Lisbon.  It killed an estimated 50,000 people in Portugal and the neighboring countries, and destroyed nearly every church and religious building in the city. The red-light district, however, was essentially unharmed.  Philosophers from Voltaire to Rousseau pondered this event and concluded that the disaster could not have been punishment for sin; the churches suffered the most and the “most sinful” were left unpunished.  Rather they explained this event as purely natural; no god played any role at all.  Even if someone insisted that God was involved, it could not have been the God of the Bible, because such a catastrophe in a faithful Catholic country seemed inconsistent with the idea that a benevolent and all-powerful God watched over His creation, and especially those who served Him. The new paradigm has stuck; now to say that God caused any natural event or is even involved in any event, at least in the West, is to invite ridicule and even persecution.

Problems with the Metaphysical Approach

The main difficulty with seeing disasters through purely metaphysical eyes is that it limits one’s ability to understand, respond to and prevent them.  Assuming that earthquakes are nothing more than the will of a god discourages trying to find ways to predict them and mitigate their damage.  Seeing only the anger of demons and deities in an epidemic prevents discovering the microorganisms that cause and the environmental and social conditions that define the epidemic.  Unless we know those, we cannot decrease the suffering and death that the epidemic causes.  Humans have made nearly miraculous strides in our understanding of disasters and other natural phenomena and our lives are much safer as a result.

Problems with the Rational Approach

The difficulties with seeing disasters through a singularly metaphysical paradigm are so obvious that we fail to notice the drawbacks of seeing disasters through a singularly rational paradigm. Indeed, while the ancients used both a metaphysical and a rational approach to understanding disasters and other events, modern man seems to be trying to disregard the metaphysical portion entirely.  We post-Enlightenment thinkers thus limit our ability to understand the world, or at least the world as understood by those who do not share our views.

This is a problem, because if there is a Creator God, He would certainly use His creation to accomplish His will. 21st century man certainly has the scientific and technological edge on 1st century man, but identifying a naturalistic cause for disasters does not automatically eliminate a metaphysical cause. For example, it is entirely possible that a tornado, while generated and sustained by physical elements and the laws of nature, still does the work of God. The Bible certainly teaches this. If man considers himself somehow more than the sum of his atomic particles, he must at least consider that the rest of the universe could be more than the sum of its atomic particles. If man has more than just a rational, mechanistic side, the universe probably does too.

One unintended consequence of viewing disasters in a purely natural and mechanistic means is that these disasters become meaningless.  The forces of nature seem random, or at least they are not looking out for us in the way that a compassionate God would.  Mother Nature has no interest in whether an individual human, or even the human race, lives or dies.  Random subatomic movement has no plan and no concern for its consequences.  Impersonal forces are not interested in punishing us, protecting us, developing us, or doing anything that people typically say that God is doing through hardship such as disasters.

We intuitively understand this, and yet we crave to find meaning in disasters and the inevitable suffering that they bring.  While a man in the mountains of Colorado may be scorned for saying that God allowed Hurricane Sandy to devastate New York City to accomplish His purposes, a man sitting atop his flooded house in South Queens will almost invariably seek meaning in his loss.  Perhaps he will attribute it to punishment for some specific sin or lifestyle, or perhaps he will simply affirm that God is making him stronger.

The Apostle Paul suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” which he believed was given by the Lord to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). After the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on 26 January 1986, killing all aboard, President Reagan did not speak of the technical reasons for the disaster.  Rather he focused on the metaphysical meaning of the astronauts’ work and their untimely demise, concluding that in a way they had not anticipated before the accident, they had “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.”  In reality, the heart of man has changed very little – he needs both rational and metaphysical explanations for whatever befalls him. When we are not touched by a tragedy, a rational explanation will do.  When we are, the rational explanation is useful, but what we really need is a metaphysical one.

Some may argue that while we still use both metaphysical and rational explanations for natural disasters and their consequent suffering, modern metaphysical arguments seek meaning from the individual, not from God. Each man must assign his own meaning to tragedies.  This attitude fits well with our tendency to deify man, but it quickly evaporates in the face of real suffering and death.  The harder we try to make ourselves, individually and collectively, the center of all things, the more we fail.

The End of the Matter

What, then, is the meaning of the suffering that inevitably accompanies disasters and many other natural phenomena?  In some cases, misfortune is the direct result of an individual’s sin.  Gehazi coveted the wealth of Naaman and contracted leprosy as a result (2 Kings 5:25-27). In other cases, one person’s sin causes suffering to other people.  David’s disobedience to God brought pestilence to his people (2 Samuel 24:15-17). The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah brought destruction upon themselves (Genesis 19:1-29). Most earlier commentators believed that natural disasters were the direct punishment of God on sinners.  The work Four Anonymous Sermons on the Plague from the Toledo Homiliary certainly suggests such.[3] However, during Jesus’ ministry He stated in no uncertain terms that you cannot necessarily draw a causal link between individual sin and natural disasters (Luke 13:1-5). In the Bible, Job was broken by the loss of his family, his wealth, and his health, and even when God restored him, Job never learned why he suffered. Usually it is impossible to know why God allows misfortune to affect people.

Why did God send (or at least allow) Hurricane Sandy, the Japanese tsunami and the Haitian earthquake to wreak such havoc?  The most Christian answer is that we do not know. Hurricane Sandy, the Japanese tsunami, and the Haitian earthquake were terrible tragedies; the suffering they caused cannot be fathomed.  However, neither can they be robbed of meaning with purely naturalistic explanations.  The Bible believing Christian has but one option; to understand that God works through natural processes that He has made to accomplish His perfect purposes.  We often do not know what the final purpose is, but we know that God has a purpose infinitely greater and more beautiful than our own.  His kingdom will benefit, and so will we.

[1]  Stathakopolous D, Crime and Punishment, Plaque in the Byzantine Empire, Little LK (ed), Plague and the End of Antiquity, Cambridge Press, 2007, p106

[2] Luttwak, E. The Missing Dimension, in Johnston D. Sampson C. (eds), Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1994, 8

[3] Stathakopolous D, Crime and Punishment, Plaque in the Byzantine Empire, Little LK (ed), Plague and the End of Antiquity, Cambridge Press, 2007, p160-170

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.

On the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ

No one on earth or even in mythology defeated Death, except Jesus. Life finally conquered death. Can you feel it?

Jesus physically rose from the dead. This statement, if true, is the most radical statement in human history. If there is one thing that seems certain about the human condition, even more so than taxes, it is death. This event separates Christianity from all other religions, and makes Christ unique among religious leaders. Islam does not make that claim for Mohammed, nor Judaism for Moses nor Buddhism for Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha. Yet the Bible makes that claim for Jesus Christ. Not only does it make the claim but stakes the truth or falsehood of Christianity, the religion founded by Jesus Christ, on that event (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4). If Jesus physically rose from the dead, Christianity is true. If not, it is false. The most widespread religion in the world is thus founded on the most preposterous claim in the world.

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