The Enigma of Evil

AR-AE960_LEGO_P_20140130112656It is the age old problem – “How can a good God allow evil?” It is answered normally in two ways – either he is loving but unable to do anything to stop it (making him a benevolent but impotent being), or he is able to do something, but is unwilling to act (making him a malevolent dictator). This conundrum is not easily solved…if God really is as loving as he claims to be, then surely he would do more to stop the evil we see everywhere. If he is really as powerful as he claims to be then he could stop so much suffering instantly. We put ourselves in his shoes and see things so differently – we imagine what we would do if we were him.

Imagine for a moment you are the CEO of a large company. There are things in your company that are not good – people fighting, people getting emotionally hurt, people leaving in frustration. The situation really hurts the CEO because he or she cares about people and about their company. So what does he do? Does he have the power to sort things out? Obviously, he’s the boss. But is getting stuck in the best course of action? If he does nothing people will question whether he really cares about the hurt and pain they are experiencing. But if he intervenes in every case his employees will treat him as the police enforcement or judge to arbitrate even the smallest disagreements. They may also resent the fact that he is always interfering in things that are not his responsibility. Surely this is not the wisest thing for him to do either?

So, he comes up with a compromise – he decides to constantly lead by example and be the kind of leader he is looking for; he teaches his most senior leaders what it takes to be a good leader; he makes an example of some of the more serious grievances and he coaches people in private about how they should act in a given situation. There are some things that were set by his predecessor and he cannot change them easily (think of long term rental agreements) that are causing institutional pain, but eventually he will deal with these too.

Through these methods he slowly sees the company change, people becoming more what they could be, less what they shouldn’t be. All the time he has patiently waited and instructed, but not dictated the behaviours he expects from his staff. This is a good analogy of how God deals with the problem of evil….

1) He experiences our pain - rather than being a distant God, untouched by evil, he comes to earth to face it head on and feel the full force of corruption, jealousy, betrayal, greed, hatred, contempt and murder. In the life of Jesus God shows us how we should overcome evil with good, and learn how to not retaliate when we are reviled. Jesus was heartbroken by the death that took away his friend Lazarus, he is not immune to the pain caused by evil in this world.

2) He gives examples of a better way – the lives of the apostles and prophets give us ample examples of how to live in the midst of suffering and evil without succumbing to it. In the life of Job we learn how to suffer patiently and accept trial from God as well as blessing; in the life of Joseph we learn that what our brothers meant for evil God uses for good.

3) He shows us how seriously he takes evil – in the punishment dealt out to the rebellious Israelites in the Old Testament we have a vivid picture of how seriously God takes evil. Interestingly, these are the passages that people today use to try and argue that God is not loving – and yet it is his loving judgement on evil that shows us that he really does care enough about evil to do something about it.

4) He allows us room to learn – he does not intervene to stop every mistake we make. We do things that hurt ourselves and each other, we act selfishly and destructively, and he allows us to do it. Why? Because he wants us to grow in godliness through making our own choices, rather than restraining our freedom to act independently. We might wish he would stop people doing bad things, but would that apply to us as well when we act selfishly or self-centered or are proud?

5) He gives us his Spirit to teach us – if we are willing we can learn how to change the only evil we can control, the evil within our own hearts. We look at the world outside as the problem, but this problem is really inside of us. It is in our hearts where the darkness lies, and as we allow him into our lives he extinguishes the darkness with his light.

6) He is active to restrain it now and will ultimately remove it – just like the CEO, there are some things that are more structural than social. Unfortunately evil is a fundamental part of a corrupt and fallen world. While we may wish he would act now against evil, we should not take his patience for complacency. One day he will purge the world of evil, but if we would not be part of the problem on that day, we must come and submit to his rule in our lives in today. However, it is a mistake to think that he is distant from his creation and just waiting for the end, he acts in multitude of unseen ways to restrain evil everyday in the lives of his creation.

Maybe being a CEO isn’t that easy after all!

Six impossible things before breakfast

4243505603_c52b2c9890“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Alice Through The Looking Glass)

Everything & Anything

So the White Queen implores Alice to learn how to believe the impossible: close your eyes and try really hard to ignore the obvious and disregard reality. This picture is a perfect description of how many secular humanists view Christians today – blindly wishing that what is obviously not real is real. Wishful believing in fanciful tales.

When Augustine wrote The City of God he lived among people who believed in almost everything and anything – they had plenty of practice in believing what we would think impossible. Augustine takes a pragmatic and rational approach – asking whether the gods can deliver on what they promise, and whether the lives of the followers match their beliefs. It is to Marcus Varro that Augustine turns in chapter 6 of City of God in order to refute the notion that the superstitious worship of these pagan gods had any eternal benefit. In his first five chapters he has already argued that the Roman gods cannot provide benefit in this life, but perhaps we should still acquiesce to them for future blessing in the life after death?

Marcus Varro was the Richard Dawkins of his day, an intellectual powerhouse, an articulate scholar and a renown academic. He is described by Terentianus Maurus as “that man of universal science”, a man who, like Hitchens, “wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all”.  Back in the first century BC Varro wrote a treatise on the Roman gods; rather than attack these gods, he sought to rescue them from the mire of cultural confusion. He was the ancient popular science author, whose books would have topped the best seller lists in Constantinople and Carthage.

Poets, Plays & Philosophers

It is important to remember that at this time people believed that the gods were intimately connected with every aspect of life. They interacted with the gods in three spheres of life, defined by Varro as the mythical, physical and civil. Augustine reframes these categories as the  fabulous (from fable), natural and civil.  The fabulous is the area of the poets and plays, the natural is the philosophers and the civil the general public. Indeed, Varro States that “the first type of theology is particularly suited to the theater; the second is particularly concerned with the world; the special relevance of the third is to the city”.

Throughout the chapter Augustine traces the degrading plays and sexually immoral temple ceremonies that were involved in worshiping these gods. He wonders if it really matters to the people whether these tales are true or not. The details of many of the acts cannot be repeated they are so explicit and crude, in frustration he cries out “if the tales are true, how degraded are the gods! If false, how degraded the worship!” Varro agrees, and states that we should not look to the fabulous or civil gods for help “because they are both equally disgraceful, absurd, shameful, false, far be it from religious men to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.”

Custom, Creed and Conviction

Augustine then quotes from Annæus Seneca, who observed about the Jews that “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” He says, in effect, at least the Jews knew why they did things, the general public didn’t really understand, they just followed custom.

Surely this is the heart of the matter – in a world without absolutes who decides what is rational and what is superstitious? We look back at these people all those years ago as superstitious and the atheists look at us today as superstitious. And in the middle are those thinkers who call us back to reason. Augustine is arguing from first principles – and like Alice he is seeking to expose the impossible inconsistencies in our belief and practice.

Back in those days the Jews and Christians were the “rational” ones – understanding what they believed and why, and following these beliefs. The majority of society were carried along on a wave of beliefs they inherited but never questioned. But we would never be so foolish…would we? Whether we believe in one God or none, or thousands, do we know why we believe what we do? Do we live in such a way that is consistent with our beliefs? The superstitious are those who unthinkingly follow the crowd and pour scorn on those who differ. May we be people of conviction who know why we believe what we believe, and may we follow through with our beliefs in a world that needs to see Christian’s with a reasonable faith.

Lessons in Spiritual Discipline from the Commonwealth Games

I have been doing the kids work at church over August and tied it in with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to use physical discipline to teach the kids about spiritual discipline. I wrote this to explain the journey we have been on for the rest of the church family and my daughter read it out:

“I would like to tell you about what we Mail Attachment have been doing in Sunday School, or as we call it BCB – Blairgowrie Church Bunch. Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the Commonwealth games and what it takes to succeed as an athlete. We started by thinking about Eric Liddell, the Christian sprinter who a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics. We watched a clip of Chariots of Fire where he speaks about the running the race of life with God.

We discussed what you need to do to be a good athlete – eat right, drink well, exercise, sleep and warm up. We then thought about what we need to do to be spiritually strong – listen to God, speak to him, go to church, help other people. We compared physical disciple to spiritual disciple and worked on The Tree of Discipline.

We thought that praying was like eating – because it is vital to keep us strong and healthy. We wrote prayers on wrapping paper and wrapped them round a chocolate bar. We thought about the verse, “His delight is in the law of The Lord, and on his law he mediates day and night, he shall be like a tree planted by springs of water.”

Then we all took a turn to be blindfolded and taste different drinks – we had to say which we liked the best and which we recognised. We thought that drinking was like bible reading because it refreshes us and satisfies our thirst for God. The verse we thought about was “taste and see that The Lord is good.”

We also thought about the importance of silence and solitude and compared it to the importance of sleep for athletes. We played sleeping lions and we so good we all came first. We thought about the verse in Luke 5.14 when Jesus “went out often to desolate place to pray”.

We thought about how adrenaline helps athletes get extra help to go faster for longer or run away. We compared it to the. Holy Spirit that makes the bible and prayer come alive. We thought about what happens when you add the Holy Spirit to a Christian and compared it to adding Mentos to Diet Coke. We sneaked outside to do our experiment and made the coke explode like a volcano! Our verse was Jesus’ conversation in John 4 when he says: “rivers of living water will flow from within them”.

Thank you for your attention and please ask us about what we have been learning. Thank you for praying for us, and for making us feel part of your family.”

Should Christians be anti-fracking?

Anti-Fracking-3701_7113391This was essentially the question I was asked by a researcher recently when I was asked to contribute to a debate on a Christian perspective on fracking. As you will know this is a very sensitive topic in the UK right now and I declined the invitation. However, as a Christian who works in the energy industry I thought it might be helpful to pass on to them some pointers for how I would frame a discussion on the environment, theology and energy policy…nice and simple then!

Below are some things that I think about in regards to parameters for making decisions about energy, environment and theology:

Firstly, there are three key facts that I would bear in mind for any discussion around energy policy at a national level. All large-scale energy production:

  • Impacts the environment negatively
  • Costs money
  • Creates employment and wealth

The balance between these three factors differs by fuel type (e.g. hydrocarbon, nuclear, wind, marine, hydro, solar etc) with complex relationships between each one and the other two. What one person sees as acceptable depends on their worldview, education, profession, beliefs etc. Making decisions at the government level is fraught with challenges as society will never completely agree on a particular course of action (unless it is in response to a disaster like the Fukushima nuclear reactor leak leading to increased demand for LNG in Japan).

Some guiding principles I would think about from a Christian perspective include:

  • Stewardship of the earth’s resources in sustainable way (based on the mandate to Adam (Gen 1.28), Noah (Gen 9.1-7), and the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29.5-15))
  • Balancing the needs of society for employment & wealth creation with preservation & protection of nature is a judgement call for individuals and society
  • Commitment to minimise the environmental impact by all reasonable means based on our accountability to a higher power, rather than compliance to minimum standards of local regulators
  • All underpinned by the sovereignty of God across all of life – personal and public, church and work, individual and society.
  • Seek to maximise the earth’s resources in a fair, sustainable, equitable way for the benefit of all of society, particularly the poor.

seattle-wa220Key questions to think about for the UK’s energy policy (as a non-self sufficient island):

  • Affordability – what financial cost are we prepared to pay for our energy as consumers?
  • Security – how much do we want the UK dependent on foreign nations for it’s energy needs?
  • Sustainability – what (especially environmental and societal) consequences are we prepared to tolerate to supply our energy needs?
  • Commerce – How do we generate wealth from the natural resources we have to the benefit of all of society?

I realise this framework does not give a direct answer to the question posed in the title – the issue is too complex to be neatly packaged into a theological soundbite. I believe mature Christians can come to different opinions on this topic and other energy related topics such as onshore wind farms. Hopefully thinking about the bigger picture before diving into individual opinions will help us to be more considerate, balanced and holistic in our discussions.

Are you a daffodil or a pea?

I asked the kids at Carnoustie Community Church yesterday how many of them live in the countryside? What are the crops you see growing in the field? Some said potatoes, others carrots and oil seed rape and many others. What was there about a month or so ago? Daffodils! Fields and fields of them are grown by us.

PeasThen I asked them to identify the plants I pulled out of my bag? What were these? Smell them. No, not weeds, they are actually pea plants. Are any of the adults growing peas in their garden? What do you need for the peas in the garden? Support branches or poles to keep them upright. But do you know how the farmers keep all the peas in the field up? One kid answered, “they have something to hold onto” – yes, that’s right – each other! The farmer sows them so close together that as they grow they support each other. These tendrils that reach out on every direction and wind around their fellow plants until they are totally interwoven with each other and help each other grow higher.

The peas remind me of Christians and the church. Some Christians want to be daffodils – always saying “look at me how pretty I am and how important I am”. Daffodils need no support from their fellow plants; God has not made us to be daffodils, but peas. God wants us to grow close to each other so we can mutually support each other – interwoven in each other’s lives. This is what the church is meant to look like – each plant helping those around it to grow.  It is hard to take one of those plants away without tearing the tendrils. As you grow as Christians it is important that you find other Christians to support you and for you to support. That is why church is so important, so that you are supported as you grow.

Jesus spoke about this in his prayer in John 17. 20-26. Jesus wants his people to be one as he and the Father are one. Jesus is saying that he is one of those pea plants, he wants to be so united with each of us that our lives are interwoven with him, just as they are with each other. Are we a church of peas, where love and mutual support fosters growth? Or are we a church of daffodils, each seeking our own interests? May God grant that we would see the beauty of peas and open our hearts to each other to love and encourage each other.

Hold on to hope

imageA poem for Easter written during our 40 hours of prayer as part of the 24/7 prayer initiative. I hope it encourages you to find hope this Easter.

Hold on to hope

In the darkness when all is lost
When guilt and shame reveal their cost
Hold on to hope

Unnumbered souls hang by a thread
Look inside all strength is dead
Hold on to hope

Feeling so weak, so small, so frail
Writing my sins, hammering the nail
Hold on to hope

Millions lost in the barren land
Desperate for love, but no helping hand
Hold on to hope

Despair creeps and crawls over the walls
Give up, it’s too hard the Devil calls
Hold on to hope

Not much to give, not long to live
One life to live, one life to give
Hold on to hope

Just a fickle love and a messed up life
Worn with age, like a blunt knife
Hold on to hope

Your love Lord is greater than mine
You sent, you gave, you wait to shine
Hold on to hope

One at a time you send out the call
So quiet, so unnoticed by us all
Hold on to hope

Thousands saved every day
But not so many in the UK
Hold on to hope

Do here what you do elsewhere
That all may see that you really care

Hold on to hope

One day all will see your glory
Just Help us now to tell your story
Hold on hope

Revive us Lord, we are so cold
Make your people strong and bold
Hold on to hope

Take all the glory, it’s all down to you
Revive our nation and, our love renew
Hold on to hope

This is our prayer for our generation
A million lights causing a conflagration

Hold on to hope

Be Quiet!

hidingA poem for our children for the pressure they face to conform and yield to social norms:

Be quiet, be quiet, don’t say a thing,
We are the wise, you are nothing
We are all fine, it’s you who are warped

Whatever you think, don’t say it out loud,
Be ashamed of yourself, so arrogant and proud
We are all fine, it’s you who are warped

Make your children be silent, teach them to be afraid
You’ve polluted their minds, their innocence betrayed
We are all fine it’s you who are warped

Speak up, be bold and you will see our hate
We will misrepresent you before you realise too late
We are all fine it’s you who are warped

We will twist what you said, grab you by the throat
Everyone will stare at the shameful scapegoat
We are all fine it’s you who are warped

You will be all alone, condemned by all
What good are your beliefs when you’re against the wall?
We are all fine it’s you who are warped

We are all dead now, alone in the dark
You are not here now, we miss you’re life spark
You are fine now, it’s we who are warped

“When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Luke 19.37-40