Being Able to Answer

Moses & Aaron Speak to the People - James Tissot c.1900
Moses & Aaron Speak to the People – James Tissot, c.1900

As I left the office this past Saturday, I thought about why I was there on a beautiful fall weekend instead of working on home repairs (or this blog). I’m actually giving a presentation on delegated steel connection design to an audience of my fellow structural engineers shortly, and this was critical prep time for that seminar. This upcoming presentation and the preparations for it got me thinking about how we as Christians make our presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ to a skeptical world. I see 4 parallels to consider:

  1. Preparation
    • I’d be a fool to think I could stand up in front of 40 or 50 other engineers and explain something to them without having spent any time preparing. Even having several years of connection design experience doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to effectively communicate that knowledge to others. It takes both knowledge of what to say, and practice in how to say it.
    • Likewise, as a Christian, it is prudent for me to do my homework before I need to explain to someone what it means to be a Christian. And just sitting in a church pew listening to preachers expound on God’s Word, even for decades, doesn’t necessarily translate to me being able to do that clearly when I’m asked. Knowledge and communication are two different things. Speaking and answering questions on the spot takes practice. Have you thought through what you would say if you were asked about what you believe and why you believe it? In my case, I was asked how I could call myself a Christian and an engineer at the same time. Weren’t those mutually exclusive? I hadn’t prepared for that, and it caught me off-guard. Don’t miss an opportunity to speak truth into someone’s life merely from lack of planning.
  2. Motivation
    • In my job, I’ve been focused on structural steel connection design for several years now, but knowing I’ll be presenting on that topic, and that there will be a Q&A time afterwards, is motivating me to confirm my typical assumptions to make sure I know what I’m talking about. I’m reviewing things I haven’t dealt with in a while to refresh my memory in case they come up in the Q&A. As I build the slides for my presentation, I’m digging down into those specifics to verify I’m not saying anything inaccurate, and to deepen my knowledge in those areas that might generate more questions. Anticipating tough questions changes your attitude toward preparation.
    • In the same way, writing this blog every week the last 2 years, knowing that I’m opening myself up to any and all questions and criticisms, has forced me to prepare accordingly. If it hadn’t been for this, I probably wouldn’t own half the books I own now – books on systematic theology, church history, doctrine, apologetics, logic, science books (from outside my field of engineering), and books from atheists and skeptics diametrically opposed to my views. I probably wouldn’t be trying to learn Greek and Latin either if it weren’t for engaging in apologetics. And now, when I go to church each week, it’s not something to check off the task list; it’s a trip back to my “base” to resupply with vital life-giving insights before heading back out on patrol for the week. Are you just looking to “coast” through life, or are you “on point”?
  3. Reward
    • In college, my Metallurgy III professor had us students rotate through teaching 3 days that semester. We were each assigned 3 different alloys and had to develop a lesson, slides, and handouts for our fellow classmates for each of our teaching days. He then graded us on how well we’d researched it and presented our findings, as well as our presentation. Standing up and lecturing on the weldability of titanium alloys was far tougher work than just being tasked with reading the textbook and working out some homework problems. As far as I can recall, that was the only class I ever had where the professor had the students teach most of the class, but it forced me to learn so much more that way. And as I’m being reminded in my current presentation research, that still holds true.
    • As a Christian, being “prepared to give an answer” [1 Peter 3:15] also has some great rewards. Each week of writing blog entries and doing research for future posts has gotten me reading and learning things I never would have otherwise. And even if nobody ever challenges me on some issue I invested a bunch of research in – even if nobody ever reads this blog! – wrestling with tough questions and the whole preparation process of digging deep into God’s word and into His magnificent revelation of Himself in the world around me  has been richly rewarding. Just like training for a marathon, some rewards simply aren’t achievable without serious investment and hard work. Are you a Christian missing out on those kinds of rewards in your life? While I wish I’d started earlier, it’s not too late! Jump in!
  4. Attitude
    • Presenting always requires an attitude of humility. None of us know it all, so there’s no point acting like we do. Even if I were generally more knowledgeable in my specialty than an audience, someone in the crowd may have direct experience with a peculiar issue I haven’t dealt with or studied yet. And of course, in spite of all the preparation, you can never anticipate every question. Rather than putting up a show of nonexistent knowledge, the better response is to simply say “I don’t know, but let me dig into that and get back with you.”
    • Likewise, whether presenting the gospel message to one seeking salvation, or “contending for the faith” [Jude 3] with an aggressive skeptic, we should share the “truth in love” [Eph 4:15], answering their questions with “gentleness and respect” [1 Peter 3:15]. Speaking the truth in love means telling someone the truth, even if it’s something they don’t want to hear, but in a way that demonstrates that you value them and care about them. The truth can be brutal at times, but we are to share it with gentleness. Respect means treating them with the same courtesy we would want. That entails not being condescending or lying to them and acting like we know stuff we don’t. It means actually looking for answers to their questions we don’t know and then following-up with them. Sometimes, my own presentation style is my biggest enemy. May our attitude never be a hindrance to someone recognizing the truth of the gospel.

Jesus commanded His disciples to go and make disciples [Matt 28:19-20]. Peter tells all Christians to be able to give an answer to those who ask the reason for the hope that we have [1 Pet 3:15]. Jude tells Christians – not “special forces” Christians, just Christians – to contend for the faith [Jude 3]. All of these involve being able to communicate God’s truth to a waiting world. You and I may never be preachers or traveling evangelists, but that doesn’t mean “spectator” is a job description in God’s kingdom. So like Timothy, let’s dig in, and be diligent to be workmen not needing to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15].

Counting the Cost

Martyrdom of St. Matthew - Caravaggio, 1600
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew – Caravaggio, 1600

When I signed up to enlist in the army years ago, I was already a junior in college, and therefore older than most new recruits. It wasn’t an impulsive decision. Before I signed the papers, I thought through whether I would be willing to give my life in service. I went in knowing what the worst case was, and that I was prepared for that.

As Christians, we are advised to “count the cost” of following Jesus. Have you? Some of us were born into a very “comfortably Christian” culture. At least paying lip service to Christ was expected. But Christians around the world are actually persecuted for following Christ. Professing Christ in places like North Korea, China, India, and almost any Muslim country, is recognized as a serious, life-changing decision that may cost one’s physical life. If persecution came to your area, would you be prepared for the worst case? Or is suffering not what you signed up for? Voddie Baucham offers this response: “As Americans, we’re freaks of nature. We cannot comprehend Christian history, because our experience as Americans is unlike the overwhelming majority of Christian history… and the overwhelming majority of Christians today.” [1] We need to recognize there is a cost if we’re following Jesus.

When I went off to Basic Training, there was a drill where they interrupted our training to say that the Secretary of Defense had been killed on an overseas visit, that the US had moved to DefCon1, and we were being immediately shipped off to war, because everyone in the Army, no matter what MOS they signed up for, is infantry if that’s what the nation needs. We were to be on lockdown until we shipped out, and we’d be getting a crash course on marksmanship for the next couple of days. With no access to any real news of the outside world, it was entirely possible, for all we knew. What was interesting about this drill was that it very quickly revealed who had joined only for the various benefits like enlistment bonuses or student loan repayment. These were the people crying. What was even more interesting were the couple of recruits thinking they could take off running across the field and escape from the middle of a large Army base on high alert and supposedly on lockdown. They had counted the cost of enlistment about as thoroughly as they had thought through the plan to openly go AWOL in front of nearly every drill sergeant on base. This was only a drill to impress upon us the seriousness of what we signed up for (and maybe highlight who you didn’t want to trust your life to in combat), but it was still a good reality check. Have you had a wake-up call like that? Maybe there wasn’t much cost to count when you first came to Christ, but something has made you aware of what may be required of you, like reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs [2], attending a Voice of the Martyrs conference [3], reading materials from Open Doors [4],  or listening to Francis Chan’s excellent and sobering sermon on suffering [5]. Congratulations. Now you know the truth, and as shocking as it may be, even this bit of brutal truth sets you free. For the soldier that goes into battle not having accepted the worst case is a slave to fear, panic, worry, even cowardice. However, the soldier that understands the potential costs and has accepted them is free to focus on the task at hand with unreserved commitment.

This is what God calls us to. This is the heart of being a disciple, and of making disciples as Jesus commanded [Matt 28:19-20]. “Disciple” comes from the Greek word μαθητής (mathétés). If that first part – “math” – is reminiscent of mathematics, there’s a reason. That Greek root for both can be defined as “the mental effort needed to think something through”[6]. Like learning math, being a disciple requires significant investment, and hard work, and study, and submission to learning  [2 Tim 2:15]. Are we called to repent of our sin, and accept God’s free gift of salvation? Absolutely! But that’s only the first step. If that’s all God wanted out of us, He could simply take us home the second we responded to Him. Instead, Jesus called us to be disciples, wholly committed [Luke 14:26-27], never looking back [Luke 9:61-62], pressing onward [Phil 3:13-14], come what may [Eph 6:13], willing to suffer or even die if need be [Phil 1:29, 2 Tim 3:12, 1 Pet 4:12-13, Rev 2:10].

If you come to Christianity thinking God only wants you to be happy and “blessed”, you ignore the overwhelming message of the Bible, and set yourself up with wrong expectations, wrong goals, and wrong motivations for your life. Rather, His plan is to sanctify you, to develop and mature you into all He has planned for you. But as with most development processes, that requires some stretching, some straining, some molding into the final, completed shape. So recognize that there is a real cost to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” [7] But also recognize that the cost, however high it may be for you, is worth it. The apostle Paul, of whom God said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake,” [Acts 9:15-16] is the same man who would later write, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” [Phil 3:7-8] For Paul, the cost was his life just a few years after writing that, but he’d long since counted the cost, and found it a small price to pay in light of eternity. So where are you at in the process? Unaware there even is a cost? Haggling with God over the cost? Or settled like Paul? I urge you, then, to count the cost, count the worth, and settle the question now, in your own mind, once and for all.


[1] Voddie Baucham, “Apologetics, Holiness, & Suffering”, 2016-01-20, speaking at Dallas Theological Seminary’s Spring 2016 Spiritual Life Conference. http://www.dts.edu/media/play/apologetics-holiness-and-suffering-baucham-voddie, accessed 2016-10-18.
[2] John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, may be read for free at: The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011), http://www.johnfoxe.org. Accessed: 2016-10-17.
[3] To find a Voice of the Martyrs conference near you, check VOM’s events page at https://secure.persecution.com/events/
[4] Open Doors is the ministry of Brother Andrew (aka God’s Smuggler). https://www.opendoors.org/
[5] Francis Chan, “Is Suffering Optional?”, preached at Cornerstone Church, Simi Valley, CA on 2009-02-22. http://media.cornerstonesimi.com/media.php?pageID=6
[6] http://biblehub.com/str/greek/3101.htm
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (NYC, Touchstone, 1995), p. 59.

The Down Low

The Good Samaritan - Vasily Surikov (1874)
The Good Samaritan – Vasily Surikov (1874)

In the Christian view, every person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic value.[Gen 1:27] This doctrine, sometimes referred to by the Latin term imago Dei, is serious enough that God gives it as the basis for capital punishment when someone murders another human.[Gen 9:6] That each person really does have such high value, as an essential characteristic of their humanity, is nice in theory, but how does that play out? Are the nobodies really as important as the bigwigs and high rollers? While God certainly can use both, it seems like He uses the low people and the “foolish things of the world” to accomplish His work more than the wise and powerful.[1 Cor 1:27-29, James 2:1-5] So, in treating the passed-over people with dignity and respect, we may be closer to working in God’s plans than we are when working with the great and mighty.

Consider that the first disciples called by Jesus were not religious teachers, law experts, or powerful princes. They were only simple fisherman, but notice how God used this fact, as people hearing Peter’s speech were amazed that these weren’t “learned men”.[Acts 4:13]  What they were was honest, humble men, able to report exactly what they saw and heard of the events of Jesus’ ministry on Earth.[Acts 4:19-20] And that’s exactly what was needed of those first disciples – honest eyewitnesses to tell the story. God later used the exact opposite of those rough and tumble fishermen when He selected Saul of Tarsus to be His ambassador. Saul was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in devotion to the Jewish Law, with a familial and educational pedigree to match. [Acts 22:3, 26:4-5, Phil 3:4-6] Yet his stature and accomplishments blinded him to seeing God’s witness, and ironically, he persecuted the people (Christians) that had found the fulfillment of the Jewish Law he so zealously followed. God had to bring him low before He could build Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Apostle. Once that happened, however, God used Paul’s understanding of the Jewish Law and prophecies to explain His plan of salvation via rich, deep theological treatises like Paul’s letter to the Romans, among others. Paul counted all his previous accomplishments as insignificant compared to the knowledge of Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] Each type of person God called had their purpose, but all needed humility before they could be used to full effect. In fact, God’s entire plan of salvation for the human race wasn’t brought about via the juggernaut of the Roman empire (although He used them to enable the quick spread of His truth when the time came). Nor was it accomplished by Alexander the Great, or any other “great” rulers. Instead, His plan revolved around a small nation, a small tribe, and a nondescript family from a small town, all to bring forth a Savior who would change everything! Indeed, in God’s economy, He chooses to exhibit His power and accomplish His goals specifically through our weakness [2 Cor 12:9], that it may be evident to whom the credit is due.

This inherent value of all people, no matter their position in life, has had significant implications for every Christian. How God values people is how we should value people. Consider the long history of Christians reaching out to those neglected and rejected by the rest of society. Christians started (as in, originated) charitable hospitals in the 4th century to minister to any of the sick at a time when only certain rich or privileged citizens could get medical care.[1] They started asylums to at least try to care for the insane.[2] Christians, as a whole, have consistently opposed infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion from the beginning, recognizing the worth of these most defenseless members of society, and working at great cost to themselves to protect them.[3] They started schools to teach people to read and write wherever they went. In fact, Neil Postman points out that 17th century New England had “quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.” Equally impressive was women’s literacy rates that far exceeded the best male literacy rates in England at the time. What caused this anomaly? Says Postman, “the religion of these Calvinist Puritans demanded that they be literate.” In addition, Postman also notes that almost all early New England towns passed laws requiring schools be established to teach reading, writing, and grammar, for the express purpose of combating the schemes of Satan.[4] The pilgrims believed that if God has graciously provided His plan in writing, it behooves us to be able to read and comprehend it. But when we read it comprehend it, we are confronted with challenges through the Bible to care for, defend, and help those who can’t take care of themselves. And I couldn’t even begin to list all the Christian charities dedicated to helping orphans, the poor, the starving, the sick, the illiterate, the refugees, the homeless, the handicapped, and on and on. But why? Are we simply “scorin’ points for the afterlife” as Weird Al Yankovich once sang?[5] On the contrary, “we love because He first loved us.”[1 John 4:19] We bless others because of how richly God has blessed us. And no, I’m not talking about that offensive, false, “prosperity gospel” that focuses on fleeting, fickle fortune.  If I lost everything in life, up to and including my life, God’s grace would still make me more blessed than all the riches of all the billionaires in the world. With that in mind, how can I not want to share whatever I do have with others, but especially the free – yet priceless! – good news of salvation through Jesus?

In the Bible, we see the gospel of Christ reaching out across all borders and divisions that typically separated people; gender, class, race, nationality, age, status, education – the invitation was open to all.[Gal 3:28, Col 3:9-11, Rom 10:11-13] In Christ, there are no castes, no untouchables, no one off-limits to reach out to. There is no minimum amount of wealth to “buy in” to heaven, no minimum (or maximum) IQ or educational knowledge to serve God, no minimum number of years invested or minimum number of good deeds required to be saved. He truly makes it so that whoever will can be saved, from the poorest beggar to the richest king, from the grade school dropout to the rocket scientist, from the sweetest child to the most hardened criminal. We all approach the cross of Christ on the same low footing. Without Christ, we are all equally guilty, and yet, all still intrinsically valuable and loved in God’s sight.


[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.155.
[2] ibid., p. 160.
[3] ibid., pp. 48-60.
[4] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (Penguin Books, 1986), pp.31-33.
[5] Weird Al Yankovich, “Amish Paradise”, 1996, the nevertheless cleverly funny parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

 

The Effectiveness of Prayer – Part 2

Saying Grace - by Norman Rockwell, 1951
Saying Grace – by Norman Rockwell, 1951

Last week, we looked at some background of what prayer is (and is not), and what possible reasons God might have for not answering prayers the way we think they should be answered. This week, I’d like to continue with the 2nd and 3rd potential objections of skeptics that I mentioned last week: competing prayers and coincidence.

One might question how God can answer prayers when millions of people are praying for often-competing goals. For instance, what does God do when both sides of a battle are praying for victory? The issue there isn’t who’s side is God on, but who is on God’s side. God’s not going to violate His holiness to answer anyone’s prayers. James told the early church that they asked and did not receive because of their wrong motives [James 4:3] Matthew Henry expands on that in his commentary, saying, “When men ask of God prosperity, they often ask with wrong aims and intentions. If we thus seek the things of this world, it is just in God to deny them.”[1] Selfish motives are often a cause of unanswered prayer. But what about sincerely offered and purely-motivated prayers that nevertheless require contradictory answers, like a couple praying for good weather for their wedding day while a local farmer prays for rain for his crops? This comes back to God’s omniscience and His sovereignty. He is the only one with perfect foreknowledge of how an answer to prayers would play out in the long run for each party asking for opposing results, and is therefore uniquely qualified to judge truly fairly between competing requests. Also, it is within His right as Creator to answer in the way He sees best, maybe a “yes” for one, maybe a “no”, maybe a “not yet.”

But what about people from different religions praying for opposing things? Does God answer Christians on Sundays, Muslims on Mondays, and so on? Does He pick the most sincere prayers from each religious group to answer? As politically incorrect as it is to say these days, this comes down to whether they are praying to the true God or not. All religions simply are not equal. As Jesus said, nobody comes to the Father but through Him.[John 14:6] In this case, there aren’t actually conflicting prayers, because the Christian’s prayers are directed to the true God, while the prayers of a follower of a false religion, however sincere they may be, are not.

A final objection to the legitimacy of prayer is that the skeptic might say that prayer doesn’t actually “work”, and that any appearances to the contrary are only coincidence. It is true that God often orchestrates natural events in such a way as to accomplish His will. And part of our growth as Christians is aligning our will with His. So our prayers that are aligned with His purposes are often fulfilled in ways that could be explained solely via natural events, however unlikely the chain of events may become. So, are we Christians being biased toward God and seeing divine intervention when there was none? That’s a fair question to ask. But we should distinguish between different types of causes first. For instance, we could say my sipping coffee was the result of hot water percolating through finely ground coffee into a cup. Or, we could say that it’s the result of my choice to fill the coffeemaker with water, put a filter in, fill it with coffee grounds, choose a cup, turn the machine on, and push the button. The coffee ingredients coming together in a certain way may describe the physical causes necessary for my invigorating caffeine intake, but just as critical is the agent (me) involved to start those physical events occurring, guide them, and sometimes intervene if they go off-course. To ignore the agent behind the physical causes is to not really answer how the final result came to be.

In fact, all of us instinctively recognize what Bill Dembki calls the “design inference”: when a result didn’t have to happen of necessity, and there appears to be a goal-oriented nature to the result that defies explanation by chance. We are justified then in supposing there to be an agent behind the events. Consider a more familiar example: a staple of American western movies is to have a scene where a cheating gambler is called out because the other players recognize his winning streak is not just the luck of the draw. Why does a fight break out over his “random” card selections? His supposedly randomly-dealt cards have had a suspiciously contrived appearance and a very non-random effect: repeatedly taking all of the other players’ money! It’s that aspect of recognizing events working toward a predefined goal, or an independent pattern, that often leads us (in hindsight) to recognize a design behind the events. In fact, an end goal and the ability to select between alternatives to achieve that goal are the two primary characteristics of any design. And design always requires a designer.

Many Christians have witnessed extraordinary chains of events in their lives that led them to accept that design inference, and look for the Designer behind the events, and devote their lives to Him.[2] Whether it was in the form of answered prayers, or divine guidance and protection before they ever even knew enough to ask, they look back and recognize God’s hand in their lives. And through it all, regardless of whether our prayers are answered the way we wanted, we can trust that God’s way is ultimately the best way.


[1] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on James 4, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/james/4.htm, accessed, 2016-10-04.
[2] Like Bob McNichols, founder of McNichols Metals. Read his story here.