On Suffering

“Job” by Jacob Jordaans, 1620

“Into each life some rain must fall.”  Those famous words come from the (somewhat) hopeful conclusion to the sad poem “The Rainy Day“,[1] penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after his wife’s death.  Some lives seem to have a lot more “rain” than others. How do we explain the obvious presence of much suffering in our world? What purpose is there in it? As an engineer, I tend to think about the purposes behind things a lot because that is one of the key features of design, and one is likely to get better results if you understand something’s purpose. Using a screwdriver as a hammer may somewhat work in an emergency, but it will be more frustrating and not produce as good of results because that’s not its purpose for which it was designed. But can there be purpose to our suffering? I think so. Will we always be able to determine that purpose? Sadly, no. We are finite creatures and see things but dimly now, yet there there will come a time of clarity [1Cor 13:12] when we see things from God’s perspective and recognize His supreme wisdom. In the meantime, let’s see what we can see.

The Christian view of suffering is unique among worldviews. Suffering is real and expected, both generally because of the fallen nature of the world, and specifically for Christians because we are to be different from the rest of the world, and that often doesn’t go over well [1Pet 4:4]. In fact, most of the books of the New Testament specifically tell us as Christians to expect trials, persecution, suffering, tribulations — just a generally rough road! But the Bible also consistently tells us that we are not traveling that hard road alone, that we have a source of strength and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit who is with us through all of it. The Bible also tells us that suffering can have purpose in the following ways:

  • Suffering can have good results. As Romans 8:28-29 tell us, all things, even suffering – are ultimately for the good for those who “love God and are called according to His purpose”. What is “good”? Verse 29 tells us – it’s to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus. We tend to think of the “good” in that verse in very earthly terms, but God has a much larger plan. That may involve a lot of suffering as in the case of Joseph [Gen 50:20], Job [Job 1:13-22], or Paul (Acts 9:15-16), but remember how Paul considered all his trials nothing more than “light and momentary troubles” compared to an “eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” [2Cor 4:17]
  • Suffering can be for our moral development. [Rom 5:3-5, 1Pet 4:12-19] “Some people gotta learn the hard way” could describe all of humanity at some point or another. I used to think I did pretty well at learning from other people’s mistakes, so I didn’t have to learn the hard way, but I’ve since learned that I just hadn’t been confronted with my own pet vices at that point. I was just as difficult of a learner as anyone else when it came to letting go of the things I wanted to hold on to. Also, some virtues like courage, patience, and perseverance really can’t be developed without some kind of trial. The suffering is the process that develops the virtue, and there is no shortcut to those virtues.
  • Suffering can make us better able to comfort others. [2Cor 1:4] As much as I would like to be able to offer some meaningful words of wisdom to someone going through a particular type of problem, it just doesn’t mean as much if I haven’t gone through that problem. Even if I voice genuinely encouraging and insightful truth that is exactly what somebody in a tough time needs to hear, my words may still be seen as well-meaning but unhelpful, or as simply empty platitudes, because I don’t have first-hand experience of what they’re going through. There is a comfort in shared experience that reaches wounds in the human heart that intellectual knowledge alone can’t get to. What I say as an outsider may be very true, but if I’ve gone through that same type of situation and survived, my way of communicating that truth will likely be a lot more discerning, and will carry a lot more significance coming from a survivor.
  • Suffering can be a wake-up call. C.S. Lewis famously said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [2] Sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that. When things are going well, we tend to feel very self-sufficient. We don’t think we need God. It’s often only when we hit rock-bottom that we finally are willing to admit that we need God.

We instinctively recoil at the idea of random or gratuitous pain and suffering. We hope for a design behind it, some reason to explain it. Hence that common question, “Why?” Only Christianity redeems suffering and points to a restorative purpose. Although we can see reasons for some suffering, there is still much that remains a mystery to us. But one thing I’ve learned (albeit imperfectly) is to trust God when I can’t see what He’s doing because of what I have seen Him do in the past. And I know that He can use whatever I’m going through to mold me into what I need to become in His plan rather than what I want to become in my plan. He can take the natural suffering resulting from storms and earthquakes, and the man-made suffering like when we reap the consequences of our own bad decisions or when we’re the innocent bystander affected by someone else’s bad decisions, and He can work that into His grand design that will simply astound us when we finally see the the completed work. In the end, even our suffering will lead us to worship God, and, as the Westminster Catechism says, that is the chief end (or purpose) of man.

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Rainy Day, 1842 (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=39).
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan ,1971) p.93.

The Utopia of Certainty

John Ratzenberger’s character Cliff Claven in the sit-com “Cheers” appearing on “Jeopardy”

Ever play a trivia game or watch a game show where you absolutely knew the answer? It’s like you were born to answer that question. That  felt pretty good, didn’t it? No hesitation, no second guessing, just an instant answer. Ever find yourself in one of those scenarios and get the answer wrong? Maybe you felt bewildered, wondering how you could possibly get that question wrong. Or maybe embarrassed that you got it wrong in front of all your friends. Experiences like that might lead one to a) desire complete certainty before committing to anything, or b) believe that if certainty is impossible then so is any degree of confidence. I’d like to suggest a middle way.

First off, what is certainty? The World Book Dictionary defined it as “freedom from doubt,” or “a sure fact.”[1] Wikipedia, that fount of unchanging knowledge, currently offers this definition: “perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt.”[2] If you notice, the definitions relating certainty to a lack of doubt are addressing our subjective views, and not the objective truth of a statement. We can have no doubts about something, but still be wrong. The definitions of “perfect knowledge that has total security from error” and  “a sure fact” relate to the objective truth of a statement. But do we actually need complete certainty in life?

In structural engineering, certainty is like Utopia – nonexistent. While we engineers are often thought to be overdesigning stuff, our paranoia comes down to certainty, or the lack thereof. Our environmental loads, like earthquakes and storms and floods are very uncertain, but even the man-made loads can be unpredictable.  Our material properties are uncertain, the quality of fabrication and construction are uncertain, the accuracy of our analytical models are uncertain — do you see a trend here? As an engineer, I have to live in a very uncertain world, and yet I still have a job to do. I have to be comfortable with a particular level of uncertainty, and finally ask myself, “Am I justified in considering this a safe structure that satisfies the project requirements?” If so, then it’s time to stop obsessing about it and move on to the next project. That obsession with being certain that I’ve covered every conceivable issue is an easy trap for me to fall into, but I’ve found that I can go over a design multiple times and still not see a particular problem. Meanwhile, a fresh set of eyes in the form of a peer review might see a particular oversight immediately. We each have different blind spots, so together we have more complete vision and achieve far more confidence in the adequacy of the design. The desire for absolute certainty leads to what we call “paralysis by analysis”; you can make every aspect of the project into an unending analysis and never actually finish the project. It’s good to try to foresee how things could go wrong, and plan to prevent that, but at some point, you have to stop looking at all the possible ways events could unfold, and look at what’s most reasonable.

I see a similar problem in talks with skeptics about the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. There is often a tendency to want absolute certainty rather than reasonable confidence before being willing to accept that God exists or that the Bible really is reliable. But as Pascal would say, “There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”[3] There will almost always be alternate possibilities that one can take shelter in to explain away God, because almost anything is possible. But we have to ask ourselves what’s more probable? In doing a failure investigation, I might be able to think of a  series of freak accidents, unguided by any human interaction, and happening with the worst possible timing, that explains a structural collapse — the “perfect storm”, so to speak. But if a  worker forgetting to bolt up a connection or making a bad weld also explains it, then it’s pretty clear what the more reasonable cause was.  Just like in engineering, we have to look at what’s the most reasonable explanation for something, and when it comes to this world of intelligent life residing in a finely-tuned universe, God is clearly the most reasonable explanation. Anything less is like expecting a record-setting skyscraper to appear without any engineers, architects, fabricators, erectors, or even building materials! We can also see the opposite response, of denying the possibility of any confidence in our knowledge. While there may be few things we can be absolutely certain of in this life, if you can be 99% sure of something, you’d be a fool to ignore that because of that last 1% of doubt.

Now, for the skeptic, my question is, what will you do with the evidence for God? Are you demanding a level of certainty that you would not expect of anything else in life? Both the demand for absolute certainty and the denial of any possible warrant for belief will only keep you from seeing the reasonable conclusion that’s right in front of you. Don’t hold out for Utopia when Heaven awaits.

[1] “Certainty”, World Book Dictionary, 1987 ed.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certainty, accessed 2017-08-22.
[3] Blaise Pascal,  Pascal’s Pensées (Ney York: Dutton & Co, 1858), p. 120,  Kindle ed.

Christian Continuing Education

The Book-Worm – Carl Spitzweg 1850

I just got back from a class that involved 24 hours of training over the course of 3 days. That’s a full schedule! That also included giving 2 presentations as a student, which makes for an exhausting schedule when you’re not much of a public speaker! 24 hours is  actually enough training to meet the requirements for my professional engineering licensure for a 2 year period in many of the states in which I’m licensed. But, none of this will count for any of my PE licenses. Why not? Because this concentrated training program wasn’t for my engineering profession. It was for my far more important profession as a Christian.

Allow me to highlight a few similarities I’ve noticed between the continuing education classes I’ve taken for my growth as an engineer and those taken for growth as a Christian. Some reason for taking these classes are:

  1. Pursuing continuing education instills a learning attitude. Formal training – whether seminars, webinars, correspondence classes, or traditional college classes – reminds us that learning is a lifetime process that we’ll incorporate into our daily lives. It develops a mindset of looking for learning opportunities, whether formal or informal. I could never learn everything there is to know about engineering – even my particular niche. But how much more vast are the depths of the knowledge of God! One thing that I find fascinating is that God can reveal Himself in such a way that a child can understand what he must do to be saved, yet one could devote a hundred lifetimes to studying the nature of God, and never exhaust that field of study.
  2. Continuing education expands our knowledge base. Last month I attended a 4 hour seminar on dynamic analysis of structures due to earthquakes, impact loads, and so forth. Some of those analysis methods were ones I’d heard about, but never used. One seminar doesn’t make me an expert by any stretch, but now I know what’s involved in those methods, and I have resources I can look back to if the need arises later to use those new methods. I’m more prepared for those possibilities now. Likewise, pursuing more training in things like theology, philosophy, science, and apologetics prepares us as Christians. It helps me to recognize the firm foundation I have in Christ, and be able to weather trials of life, “knowing whom I have believed in.” [2Tim 1:12] It also prepares me to answer questions and objections related to the truth of Christianity. It helps me to  “be ready in season and out” [2Tim 4:2] “to give an answer for the hope that I have” [1Pet3:15], that I may “know how to answer everyone.” [Col 4:6]
  3. Continuing education helps us stay current on new information/applications. While the basic forces of tension and compression and shear don’t change, our understanding of them and our ability to analyze them does.  In similar fashion, I was presenting last week on the ontological argument for the existence of God. I was using Alvin Plantinga’s reformulation of Anselm’s 900 year old line of reasoning. While God’s truth doesn’t change, our understanding of it with our finite minds can improve as we wrestle through certain tough applications or newly raised objections. Many times skeptics will mock one version of an argument, not realizing (or ignoring) that their objection has already been addressed by an improved version of that argument.

The resulting benefits of this commitment to ongoing training make us:

  1. Better informed. Just as shared technical knowledge makes for a more well-informed engineer, shared knowledge of doctrine and apologetics makes for a more well-informed Christian.
  2. Less prone to error. One common format for engineering ethics classes is the case study of past mistakes. The idea is to look at where an engineer went wrong, the results of that error, and how to avoid making the same error yourself. As Christians, we can also benefit from looking at past errors (like the heresy of modalism, for instance), understanding where the proponent (Sabellius in that case) went wrong, and examining our own views to verify we are not making similar errors. A good class in church history or systematic theology can go a long way toward countering unbiblical doctrine that sometimes creeps in. Apologetics, of course, also helps in that it focuses on why we believe what we believe.
  3. More involved. A commitment to learning and growing helps protect against apathy and laziness. When you’re constantly learning and seeking out new opportunities, it’s hard to not be involved. Remember how Paul told Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” [2Tim 2:2] That’s learning and then not just sitting on that knowledge, but passing it on to others who will pass it on. That’s getting involved instead of being content to hibernate your way through this Christian journey.

Now, after all that, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is a danger in “always learning and never doing.” One could draw a parallel to James’ description of that dead faith that has no signs of life made evident in good works: knowledge that never gets applied is equally dead. But, if we comprehend what we’re learning about God’s nature and His plan of redemption and of the Gospel, we will be motivated to apply what we’re learning every chance we get, for the “harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” [Matt 9:37] So, if you’re a Christian, where are you investing your time? Are you “growing in the knowledge of God” [Col 1:10] as Paul prayed the Colossians might be? Or are you stagnant? My prayer – for myself, and every reader – is that we never stop learning of that unfathomable knowledge of God, and applying that in our lives for the glory of God.

Apologetics Leads to True Worship

Apologetics and worship? Aren’t those mutually exclusive? Christian apologetics, the reasoned defense of the faith, is often seen as rather dry and clinical – a very cold, sterile niche of Christianity set aside for those kinda weird nerds or those that are a little more quarrelsome than they should be. Meanwhile, worship is of the heart, not the head, right? Well, this nerd begs to differ. Worship is certainly more than feelings. I would dare say that many mistake the beat of a good tune for the moving of the Spirit of God, but I digress….

In studying the ontological argument the past few weeks, I have read through quite a few references on it. Most address the validity of it, the objections to it, responses to those objections, and so on. But Doug Groothuis was the only one to remind the reader that this argument for the existence of God was originally part of a prayer. Says Groothuis: “Anselm’s version of the argument was offered as part of a prayer. He earnestly sought to offer an argument to God that would convince “the fool” of Psalm 14 that God must exist. So, the chapel and the study become the same room. The existence of the greatest possible being should compel our worship, since no greater being is possible and we are far lesser beings than this being.”[1]

But is this joining of the study and the chapel unique to this one argument? Hardly. It’s difficult  to really think of the axiological argument (the moral argument), without thinking of the perfect justice of God. And as praiseworthy as that attribute of God is, that also reminds us of how far we fall short of His standard and are rightly condemned by that perfect justice [Rom 3:10,23]. But then we are reminded of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, “once for all” [Heb 7:27], that we may be reconciled to God [2Cor 5:18-21], not because of our own works [Ti 3:5], blind as we were on our own, but only because of God’s grace [Eph 2:8-9]. And we can joyously sing with that former slave-trader John Newton:

“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”

The teleological argument (the design argument) has always made such perfect sense to me as an engineer who designs things. How could I not recognize the handiwork of the Master Designer in everything from the grand scale of the finely-tuned cosmos [Ps19:1-2] to the layered mysteries of genetics [Ps 139:14]?  Surely, I recognize the signature of Him whose work astounds me afresh the closer I study it! And then, recognizing the staggering heights of power and knowledge we speak of when we bandy about words like omnipotence and omniscience, what could be more fitting than that beautiful hymn “How Great Thou Art”? ”

“O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed;
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
how great thou art, how great thou art!”

The cosmological argument points us toward the necessity of a transcendent First Cause, existing beyond space and time [Col 1:17, 1Cor 2:7]. And when we work through the implications of this, words like “eternal” can’t be uttered quite so flippantly. And we join with that great hymn writer Isaac Watts in humbly approaching our Eternal God :

“Through every age, eternal God,
Thou art our rest, our safe abode;
High was thy throne ere heav’n was made,
Or earth thy humble footstool laid.

Long hadst thou reigned ere time began,
Or dust was fashioned to a man;
And long thy kingdom shall endure
When earth and time shall be no more.”

Of course, worship must be sincere, and cannot be manufactured, but worship flows out of a grateful heart convinced of who God is and what He’s done. A study of apologetics teaches us why we believe what we believe about God,  and the more we study God – His attributes, His past actions, His foretelling of future actions, His statements about Himself and what they mean – the more convinced we will be of His praiseworthiness. We tend to worship unsuitable things all too easily. It is so commonplace in our culture, that here in America, we’ve even named a common quest for fame “American Idol.” But a mind renewed and  informed by a steady diet of God’s truth can put the brakes on that idol factory of the heart, and redirect it toward the only worthy object of worship: God almighty. Yes, our minds must be involved in worship. Learning about God, if understood, necessarily leads to worship; it can do no other. So, as I get ready to leave in the morning for 3 very full days of classes and presentations from some great men of God, I encourage you to love the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength, and – yes – your mind. [Lk 10:27]

*  If you don’t see the humor in the intro graphic above, it may help to know the 2 men in the bottom of the photo are the Christian philosophers William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Read my original post on the ontological argument here, to find out why they might worship God as “maximally great”. 😉

[1] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011), p. 186-7.

Digging for Answers

I mentioned last week that I am one of those engineers that is always going back to the commentaries in the backs of most of our engineering design standards, seeking answers to why things are the way they are. It’s not just idle curiosity; learning that background has often been helpful later.  But even I was a bit taken aback when the brand-new copies of ASCE 7-16, the “Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria for Buildings & Other Structures” arrived in the mail from the publisher. I thought I’d accidentally ordered us twice as many copies as we needed in our office! Then I realized that the commentary had grown so much over the last couple of updates, that ASCE had split the commentary out into its own book, almost exactly equal in size to the actual provisions themselves (400 pages each). Maybe they had overly-curious nerds like me in mind this time around….

The fact of the matter is, though, that a lot of good background information is presented in the commentaries. It’s not really necessary to apply the code provisions, but it is extremely helpful in knowing why you’re required to do something, or prohibited from something else. It’s not just in engineering where it’s helpful to know the background, or context, of particular provisions. In the Christian journey, we have a “design standard” for our lives – the Bible – that tells us how to fulfill our purpose in life [1], as well as telling us the background story of why things are the way they are. As Blaise Pascal observed, the Bible explains the greatness, and wretchedness, of humanity like nothing else can. The Bible is the lid of the puzzle box that makes sense of all the jumbled-up puzzle pieces.

Of course, the Bible has obvious provisions like not stealing and murdering, but it also explains the foundation for those provisions in loving our Creator (our vertical relationship, Mk12:30, Deut 6:5) and our fellow humans (our horizontal relationship, Mk12:31, Lev 19:18). But then this love for others is grounded in our love for God because each of us is made in the image of God [Gen 1:27, 9:6]. And so, respecting and loving God means (among other things) loving what He created. Being image-bearers of God results in an intrinsic value to every human, regardless of social status, nationality, physical differences between us, or any other distinctions we make. Does the Bible come out and list the consequences of the “imago Dei” – the image of God –  in a nice tidy outline you can find skimming over the text? No, bu it also doesn’t mention the word “Trinity” either, yet these are both concepts readily assembled from a familiarity with the whole of Scripture. That’s why King David could talk about meditating on God’s law day and night and it being his delight [Ps 1:2, 63:6, 119:23-24]. You have to dig for some answers, but it’s the most exhilarating digging you’ll ever do.

But suppose you’ve read the Bible and were still confused. What then? If you’re reading this internet blog, then you likely have a world of information at your fingertips just like me. A lot of very wise people, far more spiritually mature than I, have written insightful Bible commentaries and systematic theology books, and preached amazing sermons over the centuries, a whole lot of these resources are available for free over the internet or from libraries. For most of us, there really is no excuse for not digging into the rich ore of God’s Word, and studying the works of those Scripture miners that have gone before us and already unearthed nuggets of golden truth. [2]

To the Christian, I would end by pleading: don’t be content with a shallow knowledge of God. You certainly don’t need a theology degree to be saved, but God is also clear in His Word that we should be growing and maturing in our faith [Heb 6:1-3, 1Pet 2:2-3, 2Pet 1:5-8, 1Tim 4:15-16]. That requires knowledge about what you actually believe, and whether your belief actually lines up with what God says is true. As a point of practical application, if someone challenged you to defend your beliefs, could you? Do you know what makes Christianity different from every other religion in the world? Is your belief just one of casual comfort, or is it grounded in the truth? We should always be prepared, “in season and out” to speak the truth to a desperate and dying world [2Tim 4:2]. But even if you never need to “provide an answer for the hope that you have” to others [1Pet 3:15], do you understand the incredible gift you have – “Christ in you, the hope of glory”? Do you value it above all else? If so, it’s hard to not want to dig deep and share what you learn.

To the skeptic, I would ask: is your skepticism truly based on an intellectual rejection of Christianity (despite some of the greatest scientists and philosophers of history being Christians), or is it more a willful rejection of God? Are you as skeptical of your own views as you are of Christianity, or are you really applying a double standard? Have you simply dismissed out of hand parts of the Bible that you didn’t like or that didn’t make sense to you? Or have you actually dug into the mountain of explanatory material that has been generated down through the centuries? As an engineer, when I run into code provisions that aren’t at all clear to me, they are often cleared up quite well after doing some research. Some cases require a lot more research, and hand-calcs, and talking though the issue with colleagues, before I’m convinced; but I can’t say I’m serious about pursuing truth in my engineering practice if I’m not willing to pursue it relentlessly. Likewise, you shouldn’t dismiss God lightly, for your eternal fate is a far more critical issue than anything I might ever design. So get digging, my friend! And if you have questions, contact me. I’ll do my best to answer them or point you to someone who can.

[1] Wondering what your purpose in life is? It’s no secret: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” http://shortercatechism.com/resources/wsc/wsc_001.html
[2] To get you started with some of those insightful Scripture miners,  might I suggest Charles Spurgeon, R.C. Sproul, & Ravi Zacharias?