College students are usually excited to start work on their chosen major. They’ve gone through years of mandatory classes which they would not have chosen to take in order to be able to study the topics which they prefer. For some the chosen major and degree seems to promise an exciting education, honor from others, and a sense of accomplishment. But to entrench oneself in academia is not always as fulfilling as one might hope.
When Solomon was old and had lived a life more interesting than ours will ever be he set out to write his final words to posterity. As he turned over each seemingly enjoyable and worthwhile stone in life he showed the bleak landscape of the world scoured of meaning. Each thing we might pursue in the full confidence that we can take its value as a matter of course will show itself to be sadly meaningless on its own. As Solomon comes to the conclusion of writing his work which we call “Ecclesiastes” he shows that even in the act of writing on meaninglessness he finds meaninglessness, saying, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12b). When men grow old they seek an outlet for the knowledge they have stored up over a lifetime and yet even if they find one, as Solomon did, this does not give a real significance to a person. It is on this note that he concludes his book with a short and sweet admonition to obey the Lord.
There are professors who spend their entire careers learning and teaching things that serve no purpose beyond satisfying a curiosity. It is unfortunate that many students also feel that education will be worthwhile in and of itself. There is nothing outside of an obedient relationship with the Lord which can give us the significance and purpose we crave. Those pursuing an education in college will at some point be faced with the ultimate meaninglessness of the studies to which they are devoting themselves without any larger purpose.
Our college students who ask why they should be studying something are asking the right question and the question of why should lead to the answer of who when one is devoted centrally to the Lord, thus giving a proper reason and ranking to education.
In 1906 the British Navy developed a ship which became the catalyst of modern naval warfare. The HMS Dreadnought was the first battleship to carry all heavy cannon and was developed largely under the vision of Sir John Fisher. Sir John chose the motto of the ship – “Fear God and dread naught” – on the basis of the many places in scripture in which we are commanded to “fear not”. Both “naught” and “nought” are archaic words meaning “nothing”. With a ship as well-armed as this and a God as powerful as the God of the Bible, Sir John Fisher saw little around him which could lay claim to his fear.
When we ask ourselves what is at the heart of our fears we find different answers. There are fears of real harm, whether our own or that of the people we love. There is a fear that is more revulsion than true fear (think of finding a dead body which cannot harm you but still strikes fear in the form of recoil at the unnatural). There is also the fear of others and this will be found behind so many of our fears of, say, “failure.” We must ask, “What happens if I fail?” and “If I was the only one who knows I have failed would that be different than failing publicly?” Our fears are often really just forms of fearing men which comes from not fearing God.
Fisher understood how the fear of God and the command of God to fear not fit with one another. Proverbs 14:27 says “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death,” and Proverbs 29:25 says “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” Taken together we see that we trap ourselves in the fear of man when we do not fear God. There is therefore freedom in the fear of the Lord.
In 2 Corinthians 5:10-12 Paul writes: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.” He is secure in his identity in God and knows that he will answer to God and not men (compare his words in Galatians 1:10). Knowing his identity in and responsibility to the Lord, Paul is able to lead others. This is where grace produces bravery, love casts out all fear, and fearful obedience produces peace. Let us fear God and dread naught.
Armchair (or lawnchair) philosophers often claim that all religions are essentially the same. You may have heard the analogy of the men in the dark feeling different parts of the same elephant. One feels the ear, another the trunk, one a leg. Each would describe the whole elephant very differently while unwittingly touching one single animal. Many say that the various religions are like this: all aspects and outlets of one multi-faceted Truth.
I studied religion at university and had professors from a wide range of religious beliefs or no particular religious belief at all. If there is anyone who believes that religions are very different from one another it is professors of religion. They will be the first to point out the different worldview between major religious groups and the sects within those groups. They tend to shy away from encouraging the practice of comparing one religion to another but are very open to contrasting religions and to pointing out the variety within a religion at the level of, say, a particular village. I never heard one say anything like “All religions are essentially the same.”
Religions deal with the areas which we hold most dear: Truth, a person’s responsibilities before the divine or human realms, the afterlife, and good and evil, among others. If people from different faiths find they agree on something innocuous it is no indication of what they believe about these mountainous topics. The more one learns about the religions of the world the more he or she will see the vast differences even in the things that at first glance may look to be the same.
Allow me to take another direction with this line of thought. What would we think if found a unified system of belief on the great religious topics which originated across several continents, 1500 years, from 40 different authors with very different backgrounds writing a collection of 66 different works? At first glance we would have every reason to doubt; at second glance we would stand amazed and ready to read.
As humans we naturally seek the truth. Even those who believe that there is not truth sought for truth in that statement. We cannot help it; we must know.
The academic world has sought to remove all truth and meaning from life. Even those who cling to believing in objective truth usually believe in some disembodied cosmic Truth defined by nothing and established by no one. No wonder many find cause to believe that truth can change: nobody is monitoring it. This kind of truth is dark and impersonal, with no one to trust and no one to hold us accountable when we stray.
Humans have an inherent need for connection with others. We know that people cannot function in isolation: we need relationship. We may search for true statements but even success here never leads us to a personal relationship. One cannot have a relationship with impersonal Truth. One cannot have a solid relationship with anyone if there is no truth – for what would you discuss and how could you trust them?
We want to know the truth and we want to know the way. We cannot seem to breathe within a life characterized by uncertainty, it is no life at all. That is why Jesus’ statement that He is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6) may not be so offensive after all. I need a person to follow, to believe in, and to make my life new. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised By Joy: “I thought I was coming to a place; I did not know I was coming to a person.”
May those who pursue something in which to believe find the only one in whom we can have faith.
The gospel message is not weak but its messengers all too often are and it is a very difficult thing when apologetics must turn into apologizing.
In an incident that has become rather commonplace in the U.S. a public school has covered up a school prayer displayed in the school auditorium after a controversy brought about by an atheist group and particularly by student Jessica Ahlquist (see “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/us/rhode-island-city-enraged-over-school-prayer-lawsuit.html ) The prayer has been covered pending a decision. But the local – and many non-local – Christians have lashed out at Miss Ahlquist with an inexcusable vitriol. They have attacked her verbally and even threatened her safety to the point that the police now protect her at school.
What is always key to know about many atheists is that while they have rejected the belief in a soul they still have a soul and it can feel pain. Many tell stories of rejecting a belief in God after some very difficult event in their lives. Jessica Ahlquist became an atheist at the age of ten when her mother became rather ill. She said that the public prayer in her school made her feel marginalized as an atheist. However a Christian might feel about the legitimacy of an atheist’s response to life’s hurts is nowhere near as important as how the Christian’s life responds to the hurting atheist. When someone rejects their idea of God because of pain we have such a powerful opportunity to be used as the God of all comfort reveals His true self to the searcher. The hurting heart is where apologetics becomes personal and the gospel proves itself powerful.
But when self-styled Christians behave as if they didn’t believe in the God of the Bible either evangelism breaks down. When Christians become more concerned that they are “suffering” for their beliefs and respond by making someone suffer for theirs they have lost all ground in the conversation. 1 Peter 4:14-15 says “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” We should be happy when we are persecuted (and while we do not know the meaning of the word in the U.S. that is a topic for another time) and yet we become the persecutor. And why should Jesica Ahlquist want to give her life to the God these people claim to hold so dear? May the Lord undo their work so she can find the true God.
We do not need to be taught to think but we do need to learn to think well. To think critically is among the greatest mental abilities which God has given man but many people are unprepared to do so. Many Christians fear entering into dialogue with unbelievers who seem more intelligent or better educated than themselves and many are greatly uncomfortable with anyone questioning the teachings of the Bible.
It is imperative that we as Christians learn to think critically. When we are faced with statements we should ask some basic questions such as, “Is this true?”, “Is this the right question for them to be asking?”, “What are they assuming when they say this?”, and “Does this match up with or contradict other things this person has said?” Apologist Michael Ramsden said in an address that “Apologetics is not just about having answers to other people’s questions; it’s also about having questions to other people’s answers, or even having questions of the questions themselves.” We do not have to be the most educated or most intelligent people in the room in order to meet a well-versed unbeliever on their turf, we can instead ask questions of and make observations about the turf itself.
So what is critical thinking? Critical thinking is like putting weight on a structure to see of it collapses. If the structure is a house of cards then I certainly do not want to put my confidence in it. If it is a worthy structure then it should be able to handle my challenges. Critical thinking is different from criticism. Criticism assumes there must be something wrong and looks only for faults. Critical thinking looks for something that can stand up to challenges and is worthy of trust.
When someone makes a statement we should take a hard look at it in order to find out if it holds up. Does it contradict itself (e.g. “There is no truth”)? Is it the right question to ask? Is something being assumed? One of the best questions to ask is “Why?” If you ask “Why?” enough times you will end up in areas which people have never considered before although they are the foundational assumptions behind one’s belief system.
This is why many are so uncomfortable with anyone questioning the Bible. They are willing to assume the truth of the Bible without having ever really thought about why. They say it is true but don’t seem confident that if someone questions its truth it will be able to stand up. If we really believe in the veracity of the Bible we should have a reason ready in obedience to the command in 1 Peter 3:15. If our children or friends question the truth of the Bible we should never say, “Thou shalt not ask!” Are we so afraid that the Bible will not prove itself to be reliable?
Among those who forbid anyone to ever question whether or not the Bible can be trusted we find yet another need for critical thinking – the very thing which they forbid. We should ask them if they believe implicitly in the Word without any reason. We might also ask if they have ever failed in their trust of the Lord. Have they ever worried about their finances? Have they ever doubted God’s love? A real unquestioning belief in the Bible would mean that we would never have the slightest trouble peacefully believing all that it says. It is here that the humble soul learns the apologetic of a life trusting in Christ. I am confident that we have all flagged in our trust of God and the Bible says we should have reasons for why we know Him to be trustworthy. May He continue to help us to both think and believe and allow others to do the same.
I realized awhile back that when I ask people how their walk with the Lord is going they will almost invariably respond by mentioning that they are not reading their Bible and praying often enough. It is so predictable that I’ve found that I can prepare topical lessons on reading the Bible and praying and then openly ask a group how each member’s walk with the Lord is going. Since the answers rarely vary I do not prepare the wrong material. I once asked a dear young man in high school who answered this way if he knew where it said in the Bible that you need to have a time to read and pray every day. He said he thought it was in Psalms.
Did you know that the Bible does not tell us to “do our devotions”? Nothing like that is in there. It does not say that good Christians get up early and “spend time with the Lord.” This might seem a dangerous thing to say but what is truly dangerous is teaching people to read and pray once a day in order to be ok.
A corollary to the question of amount of “devotions” is the common question of intentions. People who are not satisfied with the amount of time spent reading the Bible and praying often ask if they should wait until they feel like reading and praying or if that would in some way be fake and not as pleasing to God or fruitful for them.
The question of intentions leads us back from actions into the underlying state of our soul and that is always more important than how we feel or what we do. It is the reason why we feel and act as we do and it is at this level that the Bible discusses reading and praying.
David writes in Psalm 119:97: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” David was a man who found himself often desperately in need of God’s wisdom and all day long he turned to the law which he knew well. He was also often up late at night and would meditate on the word and pray to God whether in love of His word or from pressing troubles (Ps. 6:6; 16:7; 17:3; 22:2; 32:4; 42:8; 63:6; 77:2,6). In his passion and trials David would turn to the Lord at any given time, night or day.
We see something very different in Daniel. Daniel was more disciplined and structured in his prayers than David. Daniel consistently prayed three times a day (Dan. 6:10).
So which one was doing their devotions incorrectly? Both sought out the Lord in a way that accorded with their personalities. The Lord does not command us anywhere to read a section of the Bible and pray once every morning so that we can feel like He’s not upset with our performance. The devotion part of “doing our devotions” is a life given over to the Lord and in desperate need of His presence. We cannot ever learn the Bible without living what it says and when we come to Him in His word in order to check an item off our to-do list we are failing to recognize our need for prayer and scripture.
You may have to commit to praying and reading until it becomes a desire. You may have to ask the Lord to reveal your need to you. You might experiment to find the time of day when you’re most able to focus yourself on the Lord. You might need to remind yourself that if you are getting to know God through His word and prayer you’re probably not doing it wrong. God will not love you more or less of you read and pray more or less so read and pray to find the God who loves and guides you anyway.