There are few things more common to the human experience than pain and suffering. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their universality, there are also few things that seem more incompatible with the human experience. This is why a period of suffering, and especially a prolonged one, causes us to ask God why–to question the purpose behind our pain.
C.S. Lewis, the famed atheist-turned-apologist, was himself intimately acquainted with suffering–essentially orphaned at the age of 9 when his mother died and his father shipped him off to a strict boarding school, physically and mentally wounded while serving in the trenches in World War I, and tragically widowed when he finally married following a long bachelorhood. Unsurprisingly, considering his experience, his literary works are filled with references to, meditations on, and explanations of the problem of pain. How do we reconcile an omnipotent, benevolent God with the existence of pain and suffering? What possible purpose can pain have?
What’s interesting is that while Lewis agrees that pain is undoubtedly evil, he insists that it is sometimes a necessary evil (God in the Dock, 224-25). He goes even further in The Great Divorce, an allegory about the afterlife, when George MacDonald, his guide through the purgatory-like state in which the story takes place, tells him “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” (The Great Divorce, 69). He doesn’t actually explain how one’s pain results in glory, beyond saying that “the good man’s past begins to change so that his … remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven (The Great Divorce, 69), but based on the rest of the Lewis canon, there are at least 5 ways that this “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17): Continue reading 5 Purposes of Pain in the Works of C.S. Lewis
“For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”
(C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics)
This is the first in a (hopefully regular) series on books that every Christian should try to read. I’m starting with this one because it is my favorite and by far the one that has had the greatest impact on my life. My goal is to highlight books that you won’t find on the bestsellers list in your local bookstore or the ‘new and popular’ page on Amazon, precisely because they are not new. But just because they are not new, doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Screwtape Letters, “the characteristic errors of one [generation] may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.”
Author: G.K. Chesterton
First Published: 1908
One-Sentence Synopsis: Chesterton presents an apologetic for orthodox Christianity (as found in the Apostles Creed) by recounting his own journey from agnosticism to faith.
Many Christians can probably point to a particular book, sermon, or experience as the moment (post-conversion) when their faith finally ‘clicked’ for them, when the world started to make sense. It’s like someone with impaired vision putting glasses on for the first time or a mostly deaf person being fitted with hearing aids. You might not even have known there was a deficiency, but in hindsight, you can’t even believe how you ever lived that way. From casual conversations I’ve had, it appears that most Evangelicals who had that experience reading a book point to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. For me, it was Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Continue reading Books Every Christian Should Read: Chesterton’s Orthodoxy
In his book, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, Francis Chan famously asked, “Are we in love with God or just His stuff?” In a society that glorifies the prosperity gospel through shows like this one, it’s probably a fair question to ask.
But it also isn’t a new question that’s relevant to our culture only. About 1500 years ago, another Christian leader, Caesarius, Bishop of Arles, asked the same thing of his congregants. In its volume on the gospel of Mark, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture quotes him as preaching the following: Continue reading Do You Love the Gift or the Giver?
I’m reading John Piper’s Good News of Great Joy: Daily Readings for Advent 2013 during my devotional time this month. If you’re not already reading something specific to focus on and celebrate the Incarnation (or even if you are), go download the book. It’s free. You can’t beat free. The readings so far have been deep, meaningful, and encouraging. Today’s entry on Luke 2:1-5 was especially good, emphasizing how God uses the big things of this world to bless the little people who are his. Here’s the key section (emphasis mine): Continue reading A Big God for Little People
J. I. Packer on the importance of cultivating the inward disciplines of the Christian faith and not focusing solely on outward performance (from his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God):
The journey of our lives is a double journey. There is an outward journey into external confrontations, discoveries, and relationships, and there is an inner journey into self-knowledge and the discovery of what for me as an individual constitutes self-expression, self-fulfillment, freedom, and contentment within. For the Christian, the outward journey takes the form of learning to relate positively and purposefully to the world and other people–that is, to all God’s creatures–for God the Creator’s sake, and the inward journey takes the form of gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God the Father and with Jesus the Son, through the mighty agency of the Holy Spirit.
Now in the hustling, bustling West today, life has become radically unbalanced, with education, business interests, the media, the knowledge explosion, and our go-getting community ethos all uniting to send folk off on the outward journey as fast as they can go and with that to distract them from ever bothering about its inward counterpart. In Western Christianity the story is the same, so that most of us without realizing it are nowadays unbalanced activists, conforming most unhappily in this respect to the world around us. Like the Pharisees, who were also great activists (see Matt. 23:15!), we are found to be harsh and legalistic, living busy, complacent lives of conforming to convention and caring much more, as it seems, for programs than for people. When we accuse businessmen of selling their souls to their firms and sacrificing their integrity on the altars of their organizations, it is the pot calling the kettle black. Perhaps there are no truths about the Spirit that Christian people urgently need to learn today than those that relate to the inner life of fellowship with God, that life which I call the inward journey. (You could also call it the upward journey–that adjective would fit equally well.)
The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places By Shayne Wheeler, Tyndale Momentum, 2013, 272 pp., $14.99 paperback.
It was a bad sign that I found myself echoing the Preacher’s lament that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) very early in Shayne Wheeler’s The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places, the latest book in the Hipster-Christian genre of publishing (where authors condemn “Holier Than Thou” Christianity only to replace it with “Cooler Than Thou” and “More Tolerant Than Thou” versions). I know absolutely nothing about Wheeler or his church so I have tried to constrain my critique to his book, without extrapolating it to his person or ministry, but I must admit that it is difficult to judge the latter without assuming that the former must logically be influenced by the views the book betrays. Continue reading Book Review: The Briarpatch Gospel
I Am Not But I Know I Am: Welcome to the Story of God By Louie Giglio, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books, 2012, 176 pp, $13.99 paperback / $9.99 ebook.
If you don’t know who Louie Giglio is, you haven’t been paying attention. Not only is he pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta and founder of the Passion Movement, but on January 8, it was announced that he would deliver the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration in recognition of his work to stop human trafficking. Two days later, he withdrew under intense criticism for preaching (nearly two decades ago) what the Bible says about homosexuality. I had mixed feelings about both his initial acceptance of the invitation and his subsequent withdrawal, but neither made me question his motivations or his love for the Lord. Similarly, I experienced mixed feelings while reading I Am Not But I Know I Am: Welcome to the Story of God, the paperback release of his 2005 title, but nothing that would make me question his passion for Jesus and his desire to make his name known.
The book’s quirky title is, of course, based on Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, where God revealed his name as I AM. From this, Giglio builds a thesis that, “God’s name is I have always been and always will be God, and my name is I have never been and never will be God. My name is I am not.” The rest of the book is concerned with how this idea should assuage our feelings of stress and meaningless. Giglio assures his readers that relegating each of us to the status of an I am not is not an insult, but a recognition of our proper place in God’s creation. This then frees us to be everything we are meant to be by relying on everything that he is: Continue reading Book Review: I Am Not But I Know I Am
Lying (Kindle Single) By Sam Harris, 2011, $2.99 Kindle Edition.
One would not typically think of Sam Harris agreeing with Christians about something. Harris, after all, is the author of books such as The End of Faith and has made a career of being antagonistic towards Christianity, the Bible, and faith in general. However, in Lying, a Kindle Single on the importance of honesty, Harris promotes an idea that is very biblical: that lies (even small, white ones) are always wrong.
This principle of total and complete honesty that Harris tries to live out was instilled in him by a college course he took at Stanford called “The Ethical Analyst,” after which he was convinced that “lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.” The rest of this short book is devoted to explaining exactly how lying causes those damages and explaining why being honest is always the better option. Continue reading Book Review: Lying
Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction By Bryan M. Litfin, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007, 301 pp, $24.99 paperback.
Bryan M. Litfin, professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, provides a concise and cursory glance at ten pillars of early Christianity in his book Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Writing from an evangelical perspective, Litfin targets his work specifically to an evangelical audience “because Catholics have been exposed to the fathers of the church. But evangelical Christians haven’t” (p. 11). This, he believes, is lamentable because “we are inextricably bound to the church fathers. They are our spiritual ancestors, for better or for worse” (p. 14). Too often the only exposure evangelicals have had to these leaders are quotes taken out of context to defend one theological point or another. These excerpts are wielded as weapons, rather than their work being allowed to stand as a whole, and in the process evangelicals have missed out on the rich heritage of the early church fathers.
Thus, rather than focusing on the theology of the fathers, Litfin aims to introduce readers “in a more personal way” to those who make up their “spiritual legacy and heritage in the faith” (p. 16). Litfin defines early church fathers as those who are “ancient, orthodox in doctrine, holy in life, and approved by other Christians” (p. 19). And in keeping with his evangelical perspective, while focusing on the lives and personalities of the church fathers, Litfin also hopes to dispel three prevalent misconceptions that evangelicals have regarding these early leaders: 1) that they were not biblical; 2) that they were Roman Catholics; and 3) that they represent the “fall” of Christianity from the purity of apostolic times (pp. 20-28). Continue reading Book Review: Getting to Know the Church Fathers