Why the Devil?
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Did you ever wonder why God allowed the devil to enter the Garden of Eden? Obviously, God knew what would happen, and He knew it would be bad, so why not keep that old snake out in the first place? Over at Jon Brisbin's blog he's writing about that excellent question, and inspiring me to write about it, too.
I believe the answer begins in Isaiah, where we read God created evil (ra in the Hebrew). This is Biblical confirmation of something syllogistic reasoning also dictates: God created everything. Evil is part of everything. Therefore God created evil. This is inescapable. So we know God did not allow evil (or the devil) to enter creation (or the garden), rather, God created evil as part of all creation all along. In some ways, this is even more confusing. It certainly means we have to adjust the question. So let's think of it like this:
Why did God create evil in the first place?
The answer begins with a definition of "evil". Evil in its purest form is not a thing; it is merely a possibility, an idea, or a choice, if you will. We can define evil is "any potential which is not morally neutral or good." In this sense, evil and God can coexist (as we see in Job) because holiness coexists with all ideas, including bad ones. Ideas, in and of themselves, are not sin. Sin, like love, is action, and it is the form of action that separates what is holy from what is not. So, since evil alone was not enough to inject the profane into a holy, or perfect creation, Satan required the addition of action. This means he needed free will as a catalyst. Maybe it would help to think about it this way:
Evil + freely choosing evil = sin.
Just as you don't have chocolate milk until both the milk and the chocolate are actually in the glass, so evil alone does not cause sin to corrupt the universe. Without human freewill, the universe would still be perfect, even though God created evil in it, because there would be nothing to convert the possibility of evil into an actual event, a thing that has been done.
Now, again, why would God allow evil, knowing human freewill would convert it into sin and corrupt all creation? The answer, I believe, begins with 1 John 4:8 & 16, where we read, "God is love."
Every exploration of God's motives must always begin with love.
We are told in John 3:16 that God "gave" Jesus to "the world" for the sake of love. So when we read in Col 1:16 that "all things were created by him and for him," we should understand this in terms of love. All things were created by the Source of all love, for the sake of love.
Love, then, must explain evil. And it does.
Consider how we love. Can love be taken from a person by brute force? Can it be purchased? Can it be imposed? Of course not. Love, by its nature, must be a free choice, or it is not love. It cannot be compelled, not even by God. (See Hab 1:13 and 2 Tim 2:13 for Biblical proof that there are things even God cannot do.) Bear in mind that the purest form of love (agape) is not an emotion, but rather a conscious choice to act. Love must be freely chosen. And what must we have before we can freely choose? At least two things we can choose between, of course. In this case, that means good, or evil.
So we need evil if we are to truly love God, because if only good existed we would have no real choice to make in the matter. We would not be lovers; we would be robots. Remembering our earlier equation for sin (evil + freely choosing evil = sin) consider this:
Good + freely choosing good = love.
One equation makes no sense without the other. The free choice of good exists only if the other equation also exists as a real possibility, only if we can also choose the possibility we call "evil," and thus convert it into sin instead of converting the possibility we call "good" into love. Now at last we return to our original question and find we have an answer:
God created evil (and Satan) for the sake of love.
Consider how this must frustrate the devil! Doesn't it make you smile to think of it? And while you're thinking, ponder the connections between our two equations and these famous words from James: "faith by itself...is dead." Christianity is about faith and belief for sure, just as morality is about the possibility of good or evil. But Christianity is also about taking action, about what God has done for us, and what we do in response.
So the next time you are face to face with evil, remember why it's there. Evil exists so you can "do love" to your neighbor and "do love" to your Heavenly Father, by freely choosing good instead. The devil exists to be denied. It is his only function. When I remember this, I find it easier to live with the horrors of this fallen world. I hope you also find it helpful.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:17 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Saints and Poets
Thursday, August 23, 2007
I'm swamped. And I'm sorry I did not post the next segment in our study of Matthew's gospel last week. I may not be able to do it this week, either. A deadline is fast approaching on Winter Haven, my next novel, and I've found it difficult to think of anything else. (You can read a teaser on the story and see the beautiful cover my publisher created here, and read a quote and see an illustration of the story here.) But I must make time to tell you about two wonderful things that crossed my path this week.
Incredible as it seems, almost from the moment she began her ministry to the poor in India, Teresa lost touch with Jesus emotionally, and she never felt His love again. Yet she persevered, she did agape love to her neighbors in most amazing, miraculous ways as we all know, and in her letters to her closest friends and confessors, over and over again she reaffirmed her love for Christ, even as she wrote with the same ink of her abiding sense that God had left her utterly alone. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” (Hebrews 11:1) but for Teresa, faith was also an unshakable belief in what she did not even feel. What a holy woman she truly was.
You may want to read this summary of a new book about her spiritual trials. It brought me to tears of awe at this sister’s monumental faith, which was far weaker, and thus far stronger, than we ever knew.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:15 AM
Matthew 2:1-8 TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Friday, August 10, 2007
The nativity story begins with this week’s portion. (Each week all religious Jews around the world study the same "portion", or parasha, of the Torah together. It is fitting that we use the same term to describe our weekly scripture, since as we have noted, Matthew is a Jew, writing to Jews about a Jew.)
In this portion we find a new cast of characters, including a major power broker in the Roman world, a pair of Jewish sects who represent both the last practitioners of traditional Mosaic Judaism and the birth of Judaism as it is practiced today, and some enigmatic men of faith who have no formal connection with the God of the Hebrews, yet seem somehow to understand these momentous events as few others do.
Consider the players in this portion of Matthew’s drama.
The “King Herod” mentioned here is Herod the Great, son of an ally of Julius Caesar, Herod Antipater. Technically, he was not a king, but a “tetrarch,” or “client-king” (governor) subject to Roman authority. Most scholars agree he died in 4 or 5 B.C., thus, while we do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, we do know our calendar is off by at least four years. Herod the Great was an Edomite, not a Jew. In an effort to ingratiate himself with his Jewish subjects, he restored and enlarged the second temple in Jerusalem. He also built most of Caesarea (mentioned seventeen times in Acts) and ensured the survival of the Olympic Games when they nearly died out from lack of funding, although they were essentially a pagan ritual at that time. His son, Antipas, is the Herod who had a role in Jesus’ crucifixion.
“The people’s chief priests” is probably a reference to the Sadducees, who controlled the second temple at that time. At a more appropriate moment, Matthew will remind his Jewish readership that this sect did not believe in physical resurrection. They died out after the Roman destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D., which made obedience to the sacrificial code of the Torah at the temple quite impossible.
The “teachers of the law” most likely means some of the prominent Pharisees or rabbis mentioned in Rabbinic Judaism’s Talmud, including Hillel and Shammai who were among the few to survive a bloody purge by Herod the Great in 6 BC. Their sect is the direct predecessor of Rabbinic Judaism, practiced today. Rabbinic tradition places Hillel’s death shortly after Jesus’ first visit to the Temple, so it is quite possible they met. If so, it might explain the strong parallels between some aspects of their teachings.
The “magi” (plural for “magus,” and root of the English word, “magic”) were a priestly caste originating in ancient Mede or Persia (modern Iran). They were probably adherents of the religion known as Zoroastrianism, founded by Zoroaster in about 1700 B.C., at least 300 years before the time of Moses. A form of the religion is still practiced in parts of India, Pakistan and Iran. It taught the existence of heaven, hell, a last judgment, Satan, demons, angels, prophecy, and a coming messiah called Saoshyant (meaning “savior,” or “one who will make existence brilliant”), who would lead the entire earth into a time of peace and tranquility. It may be this last belief that inspired the Magi to follow the star to Jerusalem. The word “magi” or “magus” is used only here by Matthew, and in the story of Bar-Jesus, a “Jewish sorcerer and false prophet”.
With Herod, the chief priests and teachers of the law, and the magi, Matthew places Jesus squarely in a particular moment. He means for us to understand that this is history he writes, not mere legend, and certainly not myth. All the major forces of the earth revolve around this infant boy. Matthew shows us Jesus entering creation in relationship to politics, culture, military might, and religion. While it is not possible here to examine all the implications of these players in the story, next week we will consider some of them, and find surprising reasons for God’s choice of this time, this place and these people.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:41 PM
Labels: Bible Studies
See, this is why we need Jesus.
I finished work yesterday and grabbed my keys to go run a few errands and when I stepped outside, I saw this. That's my driveway in the photograph. The only way in or out. And that is not my car. I don't know the owner of that car. After a few visits with the neighbors, it seems nobody around here knows the owner of that car. Someone just thought it would be okay to park there while they went down the hill to have a good time in town. (In the lovely little village where I live, the streets are solidly lined with parked cars every evening as people come to visit.)
Anyway, I had no choice. I called the cops. They came. They towed.
And then . . .
Last night about nine, the woman showed up. She had a conversation with The Lovely Sue.
"Hey! Did you tow my car?!?!?!"
"Yeah. Sorry about that. We had to get out."
"@^%*&! It's street parking here!"
"Not in front of my driveway."
"You B^%*&! I can't believe you towed my car! F%@# you!"
Clearly, from the things she said and how she said them, this woman knew exactly where she had parked, and why her car was towed.
So, this morning, I'm thinking about what it must be like to think life owes you a parking place, even if it means leaving total strangers stranded in their own house. What it must be like to do that to a person, then cuss them out because they don't sit still for it. I tried to get my head into a place where I could understand a person like that, and suddenly it hit me.
That car belongs to a Goddess. She is the center of the Universe.
Everything revolves around her, and we--you and I--are mere creatures to accommodate her every beck and call. I'm sure humility forbids her to admit this, even to herself, and yet of course her superpowers cannot be denied. She parks, therefore she is.
Poor thing. What will happen when she finally understands there really is a God, and He is not her, and He has certain expectations of her which will be met, one way or another? Will she bow, or will she break?
Please join me in praying for this young woman today. I don't know her, but I do know this:
She needs Jesus very much.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:59 AM
Advice from Gary Brown
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Change this blog from "What Athol Wrote" to "What Gary Wrote," at least for today, because today I post a few thoughts about life from my friend Gary Brown, the poet. (You can sample his work here, here and here.) The last year has been very hard for Gary, and knowing that, when his words arrived via email I thought . . . well, why not read it for yourself and post a comment to tell Gary what YOU think?
A Few Things To Keep In Mind
Be thankful. Rejoice frequently. Pray. Dance. Sing. Laugh often. Live creatively. Repeat.
Fall in love with forgiving others. Simply love them. All of them. Leave all that others think, say and do in God's hands (that's between God and them, whether they know it or not). They simply do not yet know the Truth and that's God's business. Pray for them, give any problems or issues to God immediately, leave them there and stay peacefully focused on your own mission. Keep the big vision handy and do not take this present life too seriously. Actively, tirelessly remember to intentionally give things to God to deal with and stop worrying about them. Stop. No, really... stop.
"Happiness" is based on fleeting circumstances and conditions while "joy" goes deep down to the bone of the soul and could not care less about your changing circumstances. Do not pursue happiness, rather let the gift of God's joy silently overtake you without you realizing it.
Do not think you might miss hearing God’s voice or will mistake what His will is for your life. He made you, therefore, He knows how to communicate with you better, faster and more effectively than anyone. In your heart-based pursuit of Him, He won't let you make a mistake that He cannot use to your benefit. He knows what you really need much more than you do... trust that. Relax, He will also not permit you to miss an opportunity or path He has for you. He can get your attention when He wants to.
Never be afraid or too embarrassed to let go of your current expectations... about anything, about everything. Stay available, pay attention and relax as you let Him run His show, through you. Regardless of how good or noble your ideas or plans may be, simply being good or altruistic or even their being helpful or beneficial to others does not make them the right thing for you to be doing at this specific time. Doing what is right is always better than doing what seems "good".
Remember that everything... the joyful and the sad, is simply a test of faith and faithfulness, the end of which can make us more fulfilled. So relax and rethink your "challenges and situations" as they come upon you. Forget the actual nature or degree of the circumstances that bring them on and rather, concentrate on your "reaction" to them. It's all about our response... not the issue or problem itself. God wants us to simply rely on Him more and not blindly run around reacting and trying to fix everything ourselves. Remember: The Problem Is Never The Problem. (It's a wonderful test for own benefit.)
Lastly, redefine what a lifestyle of patience might actually entail. Contemplate the ecstasy of being allowed to actually know God. Remember: Life accelerates the more you slow down... so "be still" and buckle up.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:38 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Christians Behaving Badly
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
As so often happens . . . different parts of life have merged to focus my attention on something in particular this morning. First I read an OpEd piece in Christianity Today by David Aikman, entitled "Attack Dogs of Christendom." I don't think they have it posted on their website yet, but here's a quote:
"Lashing out in public at fellow Christians is objectionable--especially when the Christian influence on contemporary culture today is so weakened. No attribute of civilized life seems more under attack that civility. If Christians blast each other from here to eternity...where on earth is the witness that brings grace and savor to our crumbling civilization? Where is the gentleness, modesty, and wisdom wth which we are supposed to shame those who mock and accuse the Body of Christ from the outside? Christians should set an example. By all means, criticize fellow Christians if necessary, but do so with grace."
Almost immediately after reading the above, a friend in a totally unrelated email exchange told me about a series of posters attacking the Emergent movement. You can see them here.
These posters are supposed to be funny I suppose, but it reeks of school yard bullying . . . just the kind of thing people who hate Christianity love to see us do.
I’m not concerned today with whether there’s a legitimate problem with the Emergent church. Today I want to know why so many Christians think being right gives us license to be harsh. And why are we hardest on each other? Imagine if a Christian decided to publish similar "funny" posters with Judaism as his target, or homosexuality, or something else he deems incorrect or sinful. Only anti-Semites and bigots would be laughing. So what kind of person laughs at these Emergent posters?
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father just as you are in me and I am in you… I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one and we are one… May they be brought in complete unity to let the world know that you sent me. - John 17:20-23
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. - 1 Corinthians 1:10
Is Christ divided? - 1 Corinthians 1:13
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. - Ephesians 4:3
Here's one final verse to keep in mind when we are certain we are right and someone else is all wrong about a doctrine:
If I . . . can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing. - 1 Corinthians 13:2
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:19 AM
Labels: Church and State
Matthew 1:17-25 SIGNS AND WONDERS
Friday, August 3, 2007
The virgin birth is foreshadowed in the prophecy Matthew quotes, but the Hebrew often translated here as “virgin,” almah, can also simply mean “young girl.” The NIV translation renders it that way in five out of seven places, and the King James in three places. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation never renders almah as “virgin” at all. Rabbinic Jews maintain that another word for virgin, b’tulah, is more specific and so would have been Isaiah’s choice if “virgin” was his intention. Many Jews consider this an argument against the virgin birth, and by extension, the divinity of Jesus. However there is evidence that almah also sometimes had the “virgin” meaning. For example, we find almah used of Rebekah, shortly after she has been specifically described as a b’tulah, or virgin. This implies the terms might be used synonymously. Also, in the Song of Solomon almah is used to distinguish certain women from others who have engaged in sex as wives or concubines.
But even if the rabbis are correct about the language in the prophecy (and I do not say they are), and in spite of the fact that we have this from the virgin’s very lips, we must not be distracted by a detail.
After all, virgin or not, it is God the Father, not Mary the mother, who has worked the miracle. Far be it from us to assume the marvel of Jesus’ birth depends on Mary’s virginity. All miracles depend on God alone, who requires nothing from creation, not even faith. Remember, “Sarah laughed,” which the Lord equated with a lack of faith, yet still He drew Isaac from her barren womb. He could do the same and more with Mary. To look at this another way, if a man parted the waters of a sea, who would quibble if it turned out he had swum in those waters previously?
It must also be remembered the New Testament does not claim Mary was a virgin because first century Jews expected a messiah by way of a virgin birth. On the contrary, the very fact that almah does not usually mean “virgin” means that particular part of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy would not be widely understood until the miracle predicted had occurred. In other words, it was only afterwards, in the full light of the unexpected fact, that people saw it as a prophecy fulfilled. So even if the prophesy were misconstrued by Matthew, the accomplished fact remains.
Here is a valuable lesson for life in a non-Christian world. Mary tells the angel she has never known a man, and we believe her, because the Bible gives no reason to suspect a lie. But this belief is not essential to our faith. True, it stems from an essential thing—the inerrancy of Scripture—but it is not that thing itself. No soul was ever lost because it lacked faith in the Virgin Mary. It is faith in Jesus Christ alone that saves, so when our faith is challenged, let us bypass lesser things (for a time) to focus unbeliever’s hearts and minds on Him.
Speaking of faith in Jesus, Isaiah sets us in pursuit of the most compelling reason for the miraculous conception. In one of his well known messianic prophesies, he says a “child is born,” (yeled yelad) and a “son is given” (ben nitan). It is a common Hebraic device—a form of ancient poetry—to restate ideas in different ways, but this hint (remez) goes much deeper than mere literary form. The word yelad (“born”) is the usual term for childbirth, found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, used about 700 times. On the other hand, the Hebrew word nitan (“given,” as in the name, “Nathan”) is used in reference to childbirth very seldom, and almost always in connection with God’s miraculous intervention. Indeed, nitan is a verb of choice when the Torah touches on the miraculous “giving” of Israel’s central promise. Consider: 1) Abram asks God to “give” an heir; 2) God promises to make Abraham the father of nations (literally: “father of many nations have I given you”); 3) God promises to “give” a son to the barren Sarah; 4) The barren Rachel is “given” sons Simeon and Dan; 5) God promises to make Jacob the father of many descendants (literally: “give you many people”).
Thus we see Isaiah links this messianic concept—a gift from God—with the central story of the Torah: God’s unfolding self revelation in a series of miracles revealed through His chosen people. Although all children are blessings from God, Isaiah has not prophesied about the usual kind of “gift” we associate with a newborn. He writes of a messiah who is “given,” who comes to us miraculously, much as did the first generations of God’s most treasured possession, a “nation of priests” derived from barren women.
But why connect the Messiah’s birth with these other gifts at all?
We find one answer in Isaiah’s earlier prophecy, the one quoted by Matthew, which says “the Lord Himself will give you a sign.” This sign arrives by virtue of the same word (nitan) which describes the "giving" of the son, who is elsewhere called “Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God.” Take careful note of this. The sign that is given is the given son, himself. A sign is usually a hint, a symbol, a signal, notification, or proof of something else, but in the Lord’s economy (“I who I am”), just as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus himself is proof of himself.
Lest we miss the hint, Jesus leads us closer in a classic d’rash, unveiling even his own self-symbolism as something which was itself previously symbolized. In possibly the most memorized verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, he directs us to the enigmatic story of the bronze serpent. But this is seldom noticed, because this famous verse is usually committed to memory in isolation from its context.
For millennia Jewish scholars have tried to understand this little story. Just four verses long, the incident seems to come from out of nowhere and is not mentioned again in Scripture until we reach the Gospels. As with Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin birth, we cannot clearly see the meaning of the tale until the thing foreshadowed has occurred. Jews easily connected the serpent high upon the pole to the ones that killed below, but guided here by Jesus’ own d’rash, finally we see the symbolism’s fullest meaning expressed in the purpose of his sacrifice. Less obvious still is the meaning of the pole on which the serpent hangs. Jesus leaves no doubt it signifies the cross of course, but consider this:
In the ancient Hebrew story, this pole is called a "neec." Every other place this Hebrew word is used we see this word “neec” as a warning sign, or as a sail, or a banner—the kinds of things one hangs upon a pole, never the pole itself. Always elsewhere the neec is the thing up front, the thing on which we focus, the center of attention, the featured item. Yet here in this one story, the neec steps back. Here the symbolic neec appears behind the symbol. With this strange fact we enter a level of scriptural meaning the rabbis still call sod today: a mysterious, divinely concealed message. Because Jesus has spoken of the neec in direct connection with the Father’s love for "the world," we know it must signify much more than just the divine justice of the cross, bathed in the all too human blood of mercy shed for you and me. It is as if the Sign of all Signs were lifting up a sign Himself, as if the Proof of everything had proved Himself by virtue of Himself. We lift our eyes to this serpent and this pole, and we see wheels within wheels, signs within signs, and, remembering that this is God Almighty’s work we watch, we find the endless layers just what one would expect if all of it is true.
With Matthew’s oblique references to prophesies fulfilled in ways no one had ever dreamed before, he gives us hints of who this child of Mary really is. Son of Man, so that he could die. Son of God so that he could rise. Born of woman and the Holy Spirit, Immanuel, God with us, a sign of mysteries unspeakable, who will remain a sign until the end of days.
Next week we move on to the Nativity story. In the meantime, you may wish to contemplate the similarities between Israel’s fabrication of the golden calf of Exodus 32:2-4 and the construction of the bronze serpent. Israel was punished in the first case, and saved in the second. What can be learned from this?
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:59 PM
Labels: Bible Studies