You won't be involved in mercy ministry too long before you come across this one particular term: "undeserving poor." A great deal of mercy ministry effort, at least in my experience, is often given not simply to help the poor, but in first making sure they deserve our help. Having participated in mercy ministry for some years now, I understand this position. When you have limited resources you want to ensure that you are using them where they will help the most and where they are needed. You also don't want to be known as a soft target - easy pickin'. And trust me, there are many who are out to take advantage of those willing to hand out resources.
Ethics has always fascinated me. While morality seems very clear to a large extent, it's easy to find conundrums and paradoxes when you look for them. I have no doubt in my mind that gray will always exist, but I also believe that we tend to do a bad job reflecting on morality. We often invoke mystery too easily, or we land on the side of whatever our moral preferences are in our given culture. I think we can often do better than either giving up or caving in to self-interest.
There are two things I particularly love about Reformed theology: its ability to drive one towards humility, and its emphasis on upholding the importance of doctrine. First, Reformed theology is perfectly equipped to drive one to humility through its doctrine - doctrine which demands introspection. The Reformed are well known for using the saying, "There but for the grace of God, go I." Due to the strong doctrine of total depravity, God's grace, and an understanding that our hearts are wicked and deceitful, Reformed believers have no grounds to be shocked when the most godly leader in the world falls, and no grounds to think that anyone is above any sin, even and especially oneself. There is a fear and trembling that Reformed doctrines should produce in our daily living, as well as a converse wonder and awe at the beautiful and extravagant grace of God. Reformed doctrines ought to drive us to humility..
Second, Reformed doctrines are equipped to drive us towards holding doctrine in high esteem. If humanity's problem is a looking to self and a forcing of God into the dark recesses of one's heart and mind, then the knowledge - the true and accurate knowledge of God and his son Jesus Christ, revealed in the Word, through the Spirit, ought to be core to our conversion and continued sanctification. Reformed faith should drive us to seek the knowledge of God in our theology, because right theology ought to cause us to become more and more conformed to the image of Jesus, who is the perfect image of God.
My life feels like a series of pendulum swings. As I learn more and as I attempt to empathize with views I don't initially hold, I find myself being flung between extremes of belief until time levels me out somewhere closer to the middle. One of these back-and-forths has been on the issue of "Pascal's Wager." For those unfamiliar with this idea, Pascal basically said that when one looks at the choice of becoming a Christian or not, they are wiser to choose Christianity even if it seems like it is less probable. So long as Christianity is potentially true, one should choose to believe in Christ. Why? Because if you do believe in Christ and turn out to be wrong, you've lost nothing. However, if you don't believe and it ends up being true, then you lose eternity. If Buddhism is true and I don't believe in it in this life, I'll eventually arrive at bliss. But if Christianity is true and I fail to believe, I'm damned forever.
I initially thought Pascal's wager was brilliant. It made perfect sense to me. You should obviously see that in the risk/reward analysis, it is way better to believe in Christianity. However, after some years, Pascal's Wager left me with a very bad taste in my mouth. As I thought about it more and as I listened to atheists speak more (rather than just listening to my Christian community), I recognized several problems I had with Pascal's Wager, at least as most Christians were using it.
1) It emphasized intellectual assent without consideration of Lordship theology and assent of actions.
2) It didn't narrow one's choice down to Christianity, as there are other religions which have eternal judgment as a possibility from which one would want to escape.
3) It emphasized potential risk while dismissing (or not accounting for) probability. For example, a large bird could drop a heavy stone on my head from hundreds of feet and kill me, yet I don't, and won't, walk around with a helmet knowing there is a huge consequence should the event occur. The probability of its occurrence is practically zero. Falling out of bed is another example, as it kills about 450 people in the U.S. each year and injures close to 2 million, yet most of us take minimal precautions.
If God is good, and if God created a world which he identified as good, then how did evil come to be? In our minds the moral universe is a closed system. If the input is perfect and there is no other force outside of the input, then the result should not be of a different character.
I recently wrestled with the question of how perfect moral agents (i.e. Adam and Eve) could sin. I have also taken a look at various theodicies as to why God may allow evil. But after a recent conversation with a friend, I realized that there is still a glaring aspect of the problem of evil which I haven't addressed. I may have thought through the moral motivations of Adam and Eve to sin or the motivations for God allowing evil, but how is evil philosophically possible in the first place? In this article I want to go beyond the exploration of the human and divine nature, and instead look at a proposed explanation for the metaphysical possibility of evil in a world whose source is morally perfect.
The following sample of resources are some of the pieces which I've read or created while thinking through the issue of politics. I attempted to use a broad selection of authors, from conservative Christians to the secular, so you can get different angles. Regardless of where you land, my hope is that you'll begin to see the world through the eyes of the gospel first, and politics second (or tenth).
[For an extended audio version of this article, check out the podcast episode]
Theodicies are a big deal. Whether you know the term "theodicy" or not, you probably know a theodicy or two if you're a Christian. It's pretty much required, as remaining a Christian without knowing a few theodicies would be intellectually difficult. Whether you yourself have struggled with doubt about God and his goodness, or whether someone you know has struggled with tragic loss and God's seeming silence, the problem of evil is an issue we must all face and attempt to answer. In fact, the problem of evil seems to me to be one of the biggest hindrances to the faith for many today. A theodicy, then, is just our attempt at providing a possible explanation for the evil we experience and see, as well as the seeming silence of God and his goodness through such evil.
Theodicies have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. It's hard not to dwell on the problem of evil when evil so apparently abounds in the violence, racism, and abuse we see throughout the world, and even more despairingly, in the church. And it's hard not to address the problem of evil daily when it seems to be on everyone else's mind, especially on the minds of those who aren't Christians. We live in a nation where so many claim to believe in God, his goodness, and the power of prayer despite mounting evidence that those things are impotent and ineffectual in the face of evil and tragedy. Thoughts and prayers are too often given without any indication of their effectual merit, as evidenced by the next tragedy which inevitably comes. Beyond the man-made tragedies which weigh on us all, there are also those tragedies which seem inexplicable. I was talking to a former Christian just the other day and he told me that he didn't want to deal with any other Christian apologetics if I couldn't answer the problem of natural evil. I can pin moral evil on free creatures, but how can I possibly explain how a good God could exist when creation is so clearly fashioned in such a way that requires pain and death (e.g. 2nd law of thermodynamics and entropy, plate tectonics and volcanoes, storms and winds/lightning/floods, bacteria and viruses, animals clearly created to prey on other animals, gravity and our fragile bodies, etc)?
There are quite a few people in my circles who aren’t too fond of all the demonstrations which have been going on. In their minds, all demonstrations related to racial issues are "riots," and all of the demonstrations are lead by leftist, Marxist, communist, anarchists. Many of the same criticisms conservatives once levied against the abolitionist or Civil Rights leaders of old are being reused against those claiming to fight racial injustice today. It’s certainly possible that the movement today is of a different character than it was the last several times movements arose in the face of racial upheaval. But it’s also possible that we conservatives who have always sought to conserve the status quo and our power have the same modus operandi today as we’ve always had. It's possible that we are denying injustice in order to preserve our position, just as we've always done. Time will tell, I suppose, as hindsight will eventually make current events more clear. But until then, I think it's important to have a good dose of honest and difficult self-reflection.
While I don’t know whether or not my conservative community is wrong in its majority assessment of the current events, I do want to speak into my community and highlight an inconsistency which I find rather bothersome. One of the most used arguments I see from Christians against the current social movement is that to join one's voice in the outcry is to jettison, forego, or downplay the gospel. To join the movement decrying injustice and calling for societal change is to embrace the social gospel. To join the movement is to declare that the gospel is not enough. What the world really needs is not social change or the social gospel. What the world really needs right now is the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is only the gospel which transforms hearts. The argument here is that the eternal is more important than the temporal, and that if you get your eternal priorities straight, a change of your heart and spiritual focus will change your actions. If you accept the gospel of Christ you will also change your actions. If we just get everyone saved, racism will diminish. It is the gospel which changes society, not social movements, so we ought to spend our time accordingly.
In all the turmoil, disagreement, and tension I see amongst Christians today, two words keep coming to my mind: obligation and preference. These two ideas are ultimately what most of our issues seem to boil down to. One group of Christians views some issue as a moral obligation, while the other group views the same issue as a moral preference. Should we take down the confederate flag in consideration of others, or should others respect our freedom to interpret and use symbols as we desire? Should we support an evil political party and/or candidate in order to accomplish a greater good, or are we able to abstain from the system? Should we tear down statues which represent great oppression to many, or should those opposed accept the good and ignore the evil in our monuments, realizing that all heroes are flawed? Should we wear masks out in public in an attempt to protect others from a virus, or should others recognize that the rescinding of freedoms for safety is a more dangerous ill? The issues are endless, but the crux of the problem is almost always the same. There is a discrepancy in how different groups think about moral obligations towards others versus personal freedoms we should be able to pursue and enjoy if we so choose.
This very dichotomy came up a few weeks ago when I had an interesting conversation about race with a few guys from church. I respect these guys very much, though we definitely disagree on various racial and political issues. As we got to talking about race, one of the men said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with white people going to a white church and black people going to a black church. We all have different preferences in music and worship style, so why would we try to force something that's going to create a church style which nobody will be happy with?" While I intuitively disagreed with the argument, I didn't at that time know how to push back. The individual viewed church diversity as a preference, whereas it seemed more akin to a moral obligation to me. After a few weeks of thought, the following is what I wish I would have been able to explore in our conversation.
Individualism is one of the great emphases of modern American culture. The value of expression, of individual value, and of individual responsibility is, in my opinion, of utmost importance and meaning. Emphasis on the individual is one of the major aspects which helps to build in Americans that characteristic tenacity, resolve, and ingenuity for which we are known. But for as worn out as the old adage is, one’s greatest strength tends to also be one’s greatest weakness.
*The views and ideas on this site are in no way affiliated with any organization, business, or individuals we are a part of or work with. They're also not theological certainties. They're simply thinking out loud, on issues and difficulties as I process things.