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What If God Ruled the World?

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As a child in elementary school I already had a reputation among my peers as a Christian. Other kids called me a goody two shoes. Boys would try to get me to swear. One day a boy asked me if I believed God could do absolutely anything.”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Can he make a stone so big he can’t lift it?” he responded.

I was speechless. I saw in a flash that if I said he could then I would be admitting there was a stone God couldn’t lift, and if I said no, then I was admitting that he couldn’t make such a stone. Either way, I had to admit God was not omnipotent. I thought long and hard about this conundrum.

I finally decided that what I was being asked to admit was that God could not do what was logically impossible. There can’t exist both an unliftable stone and an omnipotent being who can lift any stone.

Christians tend to take God’s omnipotence for granted. Yet it raises a lot of questions. How can God stand by and allow horrors like the Holocaust or the Cambodian killing fields or the Rwandan genocide to occur unchecked? And if God allows such things because they fall under the free will of human actors, then how can he stand by and allow natural disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Maria, or the tsunami that claimed so many lives in southeast Asia or the earthquake in Haiti? Some Christians propose that such catastrophes are punishment for sin. Yet what kind of punishment sweeps away the innocent with the guilty and visits the worst disasters on the poor while sparing the rich?

There are only two possible conclusions. Either there is no God, or God is not omnipotent. Many of my friends on Facebook have opted for the former explanation. Some of them were raised in Christian homes, and their disappointment with God has fueled their disbelief. I have come to conclude that God is not omnipotent, at least not in the way we commonly think of omnipotence. In fact, I think that belief in God’s omnipotence is one of the most successful lies of the devil. There are things God cannot do, not because he lacks the power or will to do them, but because he lacks the authority. To act without the authority to act would call into question his goodness.

The New Testament is very clear about who the ruler of this present world is, and it is not God. It is the devil, Satan, the serpent who beguiled our original parents into giving up their authority over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field. It is the devil, along with those deceived by him, who are responsible for the evil in the world.

Jesus revealed God as a loving Father who cares for his children and wants them to love as he loves—without condition or favoritism. Jesus demonstrated that love by healing the sick, curing those who suffered from inner demons, and by eating and drinking with the outcasts of his society. He touched the untouchable, forgave the unforgivable, and esteemed the worthless. What he did is what God does, and it is in this context of putting forth extraordinary effort to find ways to be kind that we must understand that with God all things are possible. You can be kind to those who hate you. You can love those who say awful things about you. You can contribute your hard-earned income to help those unfortunate enough to have been born in poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. You can use your own influence, however small, to bring God’s rule into the world ruled by the devil. This means war. It is inevitable when kingdoms are in conflict.

There will be casualties. Don’t give up.

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Opportunity to Display God’s Work

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In chapter 9 of his gospel, John launches into the story of how Jesus healed a man blind from birth and the aftermath of that healing. Here is how the story begins:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John 9:1-2

Notice the assumption behind the disciples’ question: this man’s suffering is the result of sin—his own or his parents. In other words, this man is bad or was badly brought up. That’s why his life is messed up. This same assumption is still current in our society and in our churches. People are poor because they’re lazy. People are sick because they eat junk food. Some even say that natural disasters are the result of sin, often sexual sin. (You can find examples here, here, and here.) Jesus’ response sweeps away this kind of thinking.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him….”

John 9:3

Jesus first addresses the disciples’ false assumption. He says remarkably, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Now, of course, Jesus was not claiming that this man and his parents were paragons of virtue who lived sinless lives. Imagine, however, what it was like to be a man born blind in a society where misery is regarded as proof of God’s judgment for personal sin. Since the man was born blind, the judgment fell on him at the moment of his birth. This means that either it was a judgment on his parents for some terrible sin they had committed, or it was a judgment on the man himself for some prenatal sin. In fact, the disciples were not seeing a suffering man at all. They were seeing an opportunity to hear from the Teacher about an academic discussion current among the religious sages and scholars of the day: can you sin before you’re born? To the disciples, the man himself and his misery evoked no compassion. He was merely Exhibit A in an intellectual debate. To be fair, the disciples had no idea that the man could be helped in any substantive way, but their ignorance was in part due to their assumptions about the justness of the man’s condition. To help such a man might be to oppose God’s righteous judgment.

So when Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he liberated the man from the judgment of God. He also liberated God from the inexorable logic of cause and effect. Then he explained how his disciples were to regard suffering, “…but this happened that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

It’s tempting at this point to regard God as some kind of monster who afflicts people with blindness so he can later heal them and get praise and adulation for his “mercy.” This is not at all the God that Jesus revealed. Jesus consistently blamed suffering and evil in the world on the devil and his demons, and he credits God with doing good and overthrowing the schemes of the devil. According to Jesus, the devil lies, steals, kills, and destroys, but God tells the truth, gives to all who ask, raises the dead to life, and restores all things. So God can’t be blamed for the man’s blindness. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in the question of who or what caused the man’s blindness. He focuses instead on the opportunity the man’s blindness presents, an opportunity to respond to the situation with God’s work.

And what is it that God does when faced with blindness? He heals. Again and again in the gospels when Jesus confronts suffering and oppression, he responds with love and compassion. Nor is his compassion an empty feeling of good will or empathy. He acts on what he feels. He touches lepers even though doing so makes him technically unclean. He heals the sick even when doing so angers the religious authorities because he does it on the Sabbath. He feeds the crowds of people who came out to hear him even when doing so endangers him because the people are ready to force him to be king. Jesus risked ostracism and opposition from the authorities to meet the needs of people who needed his help. Sometimes, as in this instance, he even invited opposition in order to lay bare the hypocrisy of those in power.

For Jesus, therefore, and for all who want to follow him, suffering and oppression never represents an occasion for assigning blame or railing against the results of sin. Instead, they represent an opportunity to display God’s work—to heal the sick, to deliver the mentally ill from the destructive thoughts that torment them, to provide help to the poor, to feed those who are hungry, to give drink to those who are thirsty, to alleviate suffering and pain wherever it appears.

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The Bible and Me

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When I was three years old, my church awarded me with a bible for perfect attendance. It was a grown-up, King James Version, honest-to-God bible with only a couple pictures and with a place in the front to record births and marriages and deaths and with maps in the back. I was proud of it and carried it to church with me every Sunday. It said “Holy Bible” on the cover in gilt lettering, and the words of Jesus in the gospels were in red.

I couldn’t read.

I was no prodigy when it came to reading. My parents encouraged me, however, and I had a strong inner drive. I wanted to know things. I wanted to read folktales and encyclopedias and poems and newspapers and cereal boxes and recipes and catalogs and road signs and deodorant cans and essays and novels and magazines. I also wanted to read the bible. My parents bought me a collection of “I Can Read” books that went from The Cat in the Hat and Go, Dog, Go! to Cowboy Sam and The Whales Go By. They purchased a set of Collier encyclopedias, not just for me, of course, but for all of us children. I became an avid reader of books I could barely understand. When I was in third grade, I read Tarzan of the Apes. One of the characters, Professor Porter, kept exclaiming “Remarkable!” all the time. I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant. I knew what a mark was, and I decided that if something could be marked on, it must be markable. I also knew that “re-” signified repetition, so I concluded that “remarkable” referred to something that could be marked again and again. This bit of decoding work, as insightful and reasonable as it was, did not help. I asked my mom.

All these books came and went, but the bible was an absolute constant. We went to church every Sunday, and every Sunday there were stories from the bible, sermons based on the bible, people quoting the bible, and bible verses written on everything from the church bulletin to posters in the hallways. The bible must be a very important book. I tried my best to read it. I became as fluent in King James English as I was in American English. (I also consistently misspelled words that occurred frequently in King James English with the British spelling, words like “favor” and “Savior.” I spelled them with a superfluous “u.”) Over time, I found I could read and understand a good deal, although I had some peculiar misapprehensions. For example, I thought that when Jesus talked about “earthquakes in divers places” (Mark 13:8), it referred to underwater earthquakes.

Having been steeped in the King James Version bible for so long, I had much less difficulty than my peers in understanding Shakespeare. I was untroubled by the thees and thous and knew that “wherefore” meant “why” and not “where.” In high school I became a favorite with teachers because I evinced an interest in the philosophical ideas found in literature and history. Unlike most of my peers, I had a moral vocabulary, and I was articulate. When we read books like Lord of the Flies, besides being one of the few who actually read the book, I was also moved and engaged by it, so I contributed to class discussions not from any sense of duty or to get a good grade but because I was genuinely interested. Nothing warms a teacher’s heart more. My interest in moral philosophy stemmed directly from my nascent Christian faith and the time I spent reading and trying to understand the bible.

During my upper years in high school, more modern translations came into my purview. Some had been around for years, but the churches my family attended had regarded only the King James Version as authoritative. Two especially, however, the Amplified Bible and the New International Version, bore the imprimatur of evangelical scholars and began to be used in evangelical churches. The Amplified Bible helped me understand hard passages with in-text alternate renderings. What it lost in lyricism, it gained in a richness of meaning. The New International Version sought to render the text in present day vernacular English, incorporating years of scholarly research about ancient middle eastern cultures and people groups. Both translations deepened and broadened my understanding and appreciation of the bible. The Jesus Movement of the 1970s found even the NIV too staid and formal. Though many started with the Good News Translation, they quickly adopted the Living Bible Paraphrase when it came out. These sought to make the text as easy to understand and accessible as possible, a task at which they largely succeeded. The Living Bible has since been rewritten as a straight translation, bringing to bear the same kind of scholarly research that went into the NIV.

All of these translations and many more have gone into my reading, contemplation, and study of the bible over many years. Yet I am no bible scholar. I am just an ordinary man fascinated by a God whose limitless goodness and love I can barely grasp. I find traces of this God in the bible, but the genuine trust I have in him comes also from my experience of a relationship with him. The bedrock of this relationship is the knowledge that he loves me. Inconceivable as it seems, the God who dreamed up the universe with its myriad galaxies and unimaginably vast interstellar emptinesses takes a loving interest in me and how I live my life and behave toward others.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalm 8:4 KJV

This God, whose very nature is love, is central to my understanding of the world and life itself. Therefore, the claims of those who deny his existence are as ludicrous to me as would be the claims of hypothetical persons who would seek to deny the existence of my wife. It is true that I can point to my wife and say, “Look! She’s right there.” I cannot do that with God. In fact, that is something he has specifically prohibited. What I can do is something far more terrifying. I can point to myself and say, “Look! He’s right here.” For he lives in me. This terrifies me because it entails a responsibility to act in the world as his ambassador, bearing his message of peace and reconciliation to anyone who will listen. He requires me to love as he loves. His love drove him to incarnation and the cross. Where might it drive me? So I live before him in fear and trembling, not at his wrath, for the sacrifice of Jesus has already turned that away, but at the terrible weight of the glory of bearing his image in my own broken being. Yet this is a weight he himself helps me to bear. So I press on as well as I can, declaring God’s goodness to an angry and rebellious world. To anyone who listens he promises life, but though he grieves for those who refuse him, he lets them exercise their freedom to go their own way.

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