Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Belief That I Believe, or A Belief That I Can Live?

(This is a very long post, and I apologize in advance, but please bear wth me.)

I've been doing a lot of thinking, lately.  And I mean, a lot.  Thinking about family, about friends, and about life. 

I've been thinking about how I "do" life, how I live my life, and if the things I say I believe really made a difference in my life. 

As any casual reader of my blog knows, I am a Christian.  I firmly believe in God, that God, actually and truly at a real time in history, came to earth in Jesus to live a sinless life, to minister and to love, and died on the cross for the sins of the entire world, and for me personally.  I whole heartedly believe Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God, and is alive and active with God and the Holy Spirit, and will return some day to reign as King when God reconciles the world to Himself, returning it to the peace and perfection God intended. 

Now I didn't come to my belief all of a sudden, as in one pristine revelation.  As with any meaningful, personal belief, it evolved over time as I learned and understood more. When I was a new Christian, I didn't know or understand much more than "Jesus died for me so that I could have eternal life".  While a good start, that's not even close to the whole story of God's love for this world.

Through the years, while attending church, listening to various teachers and preachers, and reading the Bible and studying, my understanding and image of God and his plan has evolved and grown, subtly changing to adopt to new concepts and ideas as they were introduced. 

For instance, I once had a very difficult time reconciling the God of the Old Testament (all the killing and anger and judgement, or so it seemed to me) with the God of the New Testament (all love and forgiveness and joy and peace).  I saw no similarity between the two.  The Old Testament seemed detached and difficult, as if a relic from a earlier age to be discarded in the light of New Testament enlightenment. 

But through study and experience, I've come to see that God is completely consistent through the entire Bible.  God always strives for righteousness, for justice, and for reconciliation through His great love and grace toward His people, which culminated in the outrageous act of love displayed by Jesus on the cross.

It's this sort of intellectual and spiritual growth that has led me to question a few of my long held beliefs and assumptions about God, His nature, and how we interact with Him and He with us. I question them not because I question God, but I question my understanding of the Bible and the things I'd been taught and assumed to be correct.  There are some questions that have gnawed at my soul for years, basic things that I've been unable to reconcile in my mind.  Questions that keep returning to me, unanswered and unresolved. 

I began to realize the "things I believed" did not square well with "the things I did".  I'm not talking about battling sin in my life, or trying to be a better Christian.  I'm talking about how what I thought I knew about God and life, did not square with the things that actually motivated and informed the things I did in life.  In other words, I held some core intellectual beliefs about God, but I found those beliefs did not translate into how I actually lived in the world. 

I submit that a "belief" that one does not or cannot act on, is not, in effect, really believed much at all.

For instance: I've been taught and thought for years that God is omniscient, omnipresent, all powerful, and unchanging.  Everything that ever has been or is to be, is known by God.  In fact He's ordained all things that ever were or ever will be.  He knows my every action, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Nothing can change what was or is to be,  because God has already ordained all things that ever were or will be. 

This, I've come to understand, is pretty mainstream thinking about God.  It's what is taught in most evangelical churches as the ultimate expression of God's sovereignty over His creation.  I've learned this view of God is often referred to as Calvinism, after one of it's strongest western proponents in recent history, John Calvin.

Another concept is that God doesn't necessarily ordain all that is to come, but that He knows all that is to come.  Sort of a "different but same" understanding of God, and with a very similar outcome. The future is still unchangeable because God knows it as it will be.

But this concept of God began conflicting against my concept of "free will" . I've always been taught we have free will, the will to choose good or bad, or even accept Jesus as savior or not.  But if God has ordained all that is, if God has set in stone all that is to come and has ever happened, do I actually have free will? 

Clearly, if God has ordained all things and nothing can change what He has ordained, or at least that He knows all that will happen, the true answer must be no, I do not have free will. 

But I certainly live my life as if I do have free will. I get up each morning and live as if I can decide what to eat, what to wear, and whether or not to shower. I live as if I can decide to turn right or left while driving, and how fast to go.  I live as if I can make decisions all through my day, everyday, that appear to me to be my free choices.  I live as if I can choose to good or evil.  I live as if I can choose Jesus as my savior, or not.

Duet 30:19 says, ""Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live" (emphasis mine).

I'm willing to bet you live as if you have choices, too.  It's just what comes naturally to us.  It's the way we are.

But if God already ordains all things, He already knows and has picked and chosen, for instance, those who will believe in Him. We don't really have a free choice.  It's ordained.  It's done. I've heard this given as reason why believers should rejoice in the love God showed when choosing me/us as one of His elect.  I've heard this propounded in church by my friends, and even by myself at one point, as I tried to reconcile these concepts in my heart and mind. 

But this also means God ordained and chose those who would not be elected, and that God ordained and picked which of His created, loved people would be destined for destruction in hell. I've heard this extolled in church at times as well, as a concept affirming God's sovereignty over all things.  Yet this flies in the face of 2nd Peter 3:9, which states "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance".

How can God possibly  want everyone to come to repentance, if He already knows exactly who won't, because He Himself has ordained and ordered all things, including those who will be destroyed in hell? Is Peter lying about God?

I don't think either Peter or God is lying, so something else must be at work here.

Again - a belief that is held intellectually (God has ordained all things and the future is unchangeable), but that is lived out differently in reality,  (I can make choices and choices that I make seem to matter, which God seems to affirm in 2nd Peter),  is not a belief at all. 

It's an intellectual exercise.

So I began to question my understanding of God and how He relates to us and we to Him. 

If the future is unalterable, and God is immutable, what about my prayers? Do my prayers actually matter? Does prayer do anything at all? Does God actually care about my prayers, since He has all things already ordained? Can my prayers affect God in any way?

James say in chapter 5, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops" (v16-18).

Why would James say prayer is effective and powerful, to the point of possibly changing things as Elijah's prayers seem to have done, if this were not truly the case? Is it possible that God actually listens to the prayers of His people, and considers them as He listens?

Could this mean that all is not set in stone, that God can listen to us and our prayers can affect God and his decisions?

These questions began to be a burden on my soul.  One question along this vein as always gnawed at me, and it concerns Jesus himself. 

We know from scripture in Matthew 26 that while Jesus was approaching the day of his death,  he was very distraught and troubled, his soul "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" (v 38). He left his disciples to go and pray alone.  In his prayer, he cried to God, saying  "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (v 39).  After returning to find his disciples sleeping, he returned to his solitary place and prayed yet again, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (v 42).  Jesus prayed yet a third time the very same prayer (v 44) before he returned to his disciples and the impending betrayal.

My question has always been this: If God has ordained all things, and God never changes, and if Jesus is God incarnate, sharing not necessarily all of God's cosmic knowledge in his human form ("no one knows about that day or hour....not even the Son, but only the Father" Matt 24:26, Mark 13:32), but certainly the character and qualities of God that would imply Jesus knows God's character perfectly ("I and the Father are one." John 10:30), then why would Jesus ever pray "... if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me"?

It's seems incongruous and inconsistent that God the Son, in Jesus (knowing the plan and that all is ordained and nothing can be changed because God the Father as already ordained it), would pray to the God the Father, asking Him to please, if it's possible, change the plan.

Why would Jesus pray for the clearly impossible, for that which is outside of God's character? I don't think Jesus, being God incarnate, would ever be reduced to a prayer of desperation, asking for something which is impossible. That would show a lack of faith in God's perfect plan, in God's perfect ordination of all things. Jesus might well have prayed along the lines of, "Father, this burden is so great I think I may die of sorrow while bearing the burden. Strengthen me and help me to get through it, because I know it is inevitable and must come to pass for the good of Your people and the world."

But he didn't pray that way. 

He asked God, indeed he pleaded with God,  if possible, change the plan!

That has never made sense to me. The question, although small, has weighted my heart for years, because this goes directly to my understanding of who God is, and something just didn't fit. . 

The only logical, consistent reason I could come up is that Jesus, knowing God and His character perfectly,   thought that there might actually be a small possibility that God might listen, consider his prayer, and change the plan.  God didn't, and Jesus fulfilled God's desire to sacrifice himself for the good of the world, but that doesn't change the fact that Jesus asked if he could do something different

No one truly asks for something, truly seeking an answer, if they truly know the answer already.

Now that kinda shook things up for me.  And as I began reading the Bible with this new paradigm of possibility in mind, I began noticing passages where God seemed to either reconsider or change His mind. I began to wonder if I misunderstood the teachings I'd absorbed about God's character as being immutable, unchanging, and that all things throughout history and the future were ordained by God, unchangeable and unturnable.

Another example I've thought about for years was in Genesis 6.  I've always wondered about the passage where God says he was "grieved" at creating mankind. "The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth--men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air--for I am grieved that I have made them." (v 5-7). 

I've always wondered:  If God has ordained all that is, and nothing can happen without His knowing it will happen, and His express ordination and direction of what will happen, then logic follows that God would have known from the very start of creation that mankind would, at this point in history, be consumed with evil, exactly because God made it be that way.

So why, and how, could God be "grieved", and his heart "filled with pain", or have his heart "broken" as the NLT puts it, over something He planned and ordained, and absolutely knew was going to occur? If He planned it out, and made it all happen, how could He be upset with the circumstances? And if, as some have said, the text regarding God as being "grieved" and "filled with pain" is poetic and not meant to actually mean God made a mistake or expected something different, then exactly what is the text trying to tell us?

This passage made no real sense to me, so I chalked it up to one of the mysteries of the Bible, unsettling and unsatisfying. 

As I read more, and did more research, and tried to tackle other Bible passages that presented similar quandaries to me, I came across an article about something called "open-theism", which seemed to be questioning and looking for answers along the exact same lines that I'd been thinking.  This lead me to other articles by writers such as John Saunders, who wrote a book, "The God Who Risks".  In this book he tackles some of the exact issues and questions that have been bothering me for years! This lead me to another book, "The God of the Possible" by Gregory Boyd, which addressed in practical terms some of the questions I've had for years.  He even specifically addressed my quandary about Jesus' prayer in the garden, and Genesis 6, as well as dozens of other passages in the Bible that I've been having difficulty reconciling between what the passages say, and what I'd been taught.

"Open-theism" holds, in a nutshell, that God, by His own sovereign choice, has not settled all things about the future, and that although God does ordain some things, He has in fact as left some things, some possibilities, "open" to be determined by the actions of His created free-will agents (us). This would mean that the future is not completely determined, and God, in His sovereign right to do so, can adjust his plans based on the actions of his free-will creations.

In effect, God could be sad as in Genesis 6, because the people freely chose to do and be evil.  I can see how, in this light, God can actually grieve and mourn and be disappointed, as He's said to in so many places in the Bible.

Consider Isaiah 5: the Lord says to Israel, "My beloved had a vineyard on a rich and fertile hill. He plowed the land, cleared its stones, and planted it with the best vines. In the middle he built a watchtower and carved a wine press in the nearby rocks.Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes, but the grapes that grew were bitter. Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah, you judge between me and my vineyard. What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? When I expected sweet grapes, why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?" (emphasis mine).

The text reads as if God was expecting Israel to respond sweetly to all He had done, and yet Israel did not.  God asks Israel, why? It seems He was expecting a sweet response, not the sour, evil Israel that He found there, and God seems surprised. If God foreknew Israel would be this way at this point in history, how could God have "expected" anything different?
Nothing about God's "character" of love, grace, immutable perfection and wisdom, has changed in my mind. Indeed, Jesus' sacrifice takes on even more meaning to me, because he went to the cross willingly, making a positive choice to obey God, sacrifice himself, and fulfill God the Father's will.  Perhaps it's possible that Jesus really could have "called 10,000 angels to take him away" as an old hymn sings.  But he didn't.

This means my choice to wear white or black socks today, might really be my free-will choice. My choice to love and be kind, or say harsh or unkind words really might be my free-will choice, and if so, that choice matters! 

So I find myself thinking, my choice to pray takes on a whole new significance if, in fact, God wants to hear from me and actually considers my petitions when I pray.  I'm no longer praying to an immutable, unchanging God with a set future that can't be altered.  If that's the case, why bother prayer at all?  Instead, I'm praying to a dynamic, loving God who wants me to be a part of His future, and to help bring about His kingdom in a real, dynamic fashion.  He wants me to choose to love Him, not be made to love Him.

My prayers, then, matter to God!

Wow!  That speaks to me at a real heart level!

However, I also discovered that this idea of "open-theism" is controversial, and has caused some considerable stir in the philosophical circles of the evangelical churches, so much so that some have labeled it heresy.

So it is with some trepidation I explore and expand on this thinking.  I go back to my original thesis, that a belief one can't act upon or square with how you actually live is ineffectual and useless.  A belief that emboldens and enlivens one, and brings a new urgency to life, is worth exploring.

I don't offer this journal entry as an argument that you, reader, should follow a similar path in your journey, or that my thoughts are in any way "the right way to think".  I am convinced God reveals Himself, through His word, through creation, through each other and through revelation, in different ways to each person. 

We are all different, and what motivates one person does not motivate another.  God knows this, as He knows our hearts, and I believe He helps us to find Him in the best way that we can, so that God can use us in the best was that He can. 

I offer this only as something that is on my heart, that I want to write about and try to express how God is motivating me to action and service and a deeper, more meaningful walk with Him.  I offer this in love, acknowledging that, in all things, I want nothing to distract from the message and the Gospel of Christ, and His love for us.