When Challenges Are Opportunities

Study Time!

Studying for the Structural Engineering exam is forcing me to tab and highlight and underline and make margin notes and explore and systematize my steel manual (and most of my other reference books) like I never have before. Why? Because I’m about to be challenged on my knowledge of it like I never have before. But that challenge is a good thing, because it’s forcing me to take the time to study hard and become a better engineer. I may not need to have have every bit of knowledge memorized, but I do need to know where to find what I need and how to correctly apply it when I find it. In the process, I’m learning about seldom-used tables and provisions that are outside of my normal practice. Yet, even in the areas I’m more familiar with, working through practice problems without the aid of the computer programs we engineers have, for better or worse, become reliant on, is helpful. And I think there’s a parallel here for Christians as well, so let’s work through that today.

I remember getting challenged about my Christian beliefs by a colleague several years ago. “How can you call yourself an engineer and a Christian at the same time? Aren’t those mutually exclusive?” I knew that Christianity and science weren’t incompatible in the least, but I’d never prepared for a challenge like that, and it took me by surprise. That challenge exposed a lot of “comfortable Christianity” in my life. What do I mean? I mean that it hadn’t been challenging to be a Christian for most of my life. I hadn’t had to really “count the cost” as Jesus had advised [Lk 14:27-28], like so many Christians around the world have had to do over the centuries, and still do today in around 50 restricted nations. I grew up in the church, and all of my friends were Christians (or at least claimed to be). My first job out of high school was working in an engineering office where many of the employees didn’t just go to church, but went to the same church. I pursued my engineering degree at a Christian college, and came back to that same Christian-friendly workplace every time school was out. It simply was not uncomfortable to be Christian (or at least to play the part), so there was little motivation to really know what I believed and why. It wasn’t like my life depended on it; my family wasn’t going to disown me for choosing that path; my employer wasn’t going to fire me over it; my professors in college weren’t going to fail me or ridicule me over it. It was easy to just float along in the stream of a predominately Christian culture.

But that challenge several years ago woke me up from my slumber, and helped me understand the importance of being able to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[1Pet 3:15 NIV] So, for me, my Bible and a lot of my apologetics and theology books and commentaries look like my steel manual – highlights and underlines and margin notes everywhere. That’s how I learn, but regardless of how you process what you read, the main question is if your Bible is well-studied or just casually skimmed? Like the old Gatorade commercials asked, “Is it in you?” For a casual skimming won’t suffice when challenges come, whether that’s one’s own doubts, or sincere questioners, or cruel torturers. When the apostle Peter wrote to his readers that they should be able to give an answer – a reasoned defense – for their hope in Christ, he was writing to people for whom this wasn’t just an intellectual exercise; he reminds them in that same letter not to be surprised at the severe persecution they were experiencing.[1Pet 4:12-16] They needed to know that what they were getting tortured for was true, and be able to articulate why to those around them, maybe even to the very people persecuting them.

The subject matter in the Bible is simply too important to blow off, both for your own life, and the lives of those you may meet. This is why Paul encouraged Timothy to be diligent to show himself approved before God, rightly handling the word of truth. [2Tim 2:15] This is why King David would talk about meditating on the law of the Lord day and night [Ps 1:2, 63:6, 119:15,48,97,148]. So ask yourself, will I be prepared to answer those who ask before or after the opportunity has passed? And whether it’s a friendly question or a snarling challenge, it is always an opportunity to be an ambassador, so get started preparing. Familiarize yourself with the areas you’re weak in. If you like to hang out in the New Testament, study the Old Testament. If you’re a theology nerd, dig into some biblical history. Learn about the different genres, the historical settings, and the original recipients’ culture. Find a more mature Christian who can disciple you. Set aside time each week for uninterrupted study. And talk to the Author of the Book you’re studying: God. God gave us this amazing revelation of Himself in the form of the Bible, and He will honor the prayers of those sincerely seeking to understand His Word. There’s a thousand lifetimes worth of learning in there, so what are you waiting on? Dig in!

Reading License Plates

What a random group of letters & numbers….

Not all countries allow this, but here in America, we have the phenomenon of the “vanity plate” – the ability to pay a fee and get personalized license plates for your vehicle. Having a long commute to work each day, I get to see a lot of license plates, many of them personalized. What do personalized license plates have to do with apologetics? Let’s work through that today.

It’s always impressive how creatively people can convey a message with 7 characters. Some are quite amusing. Of course there’s sports cars with plates like “BAD BOY”, or “2FAST4U” and so on. There’s the pilot that gets the plate “LUV2FLY”, or the veterinarian that gets “PETDOC”. Others leave you scratching your head, thinking, “That must be an inside joke or something.” Some of the more creative tricks of personalized plates are the use of numbers that look like letters (i.e. 5 for S), or letters and numbers that look like other letters when viewed upside down or backwards (i.e. 3 for E, W for M, and so on). Those tactics can make it a little more challenging to figure out the significance of the plate. But then I have to ask myself when I see a personalized plate that I can’t decipher, what makes me think it means anything? I didn’t get the point of the characters they picked, but I assumed my comprehension was the issue, and not that there was no message to comprehend. Why is that? It’s because I know license plates in my state conform to a particular pattern of letters and numbers (3 numbers, a space, and 3 letters, sequentially assigned by the state), and when a particular plate doesn’t conform to that predefined pattern, that’s indicative of intent, or purpose, behind the arrangement. I don’t have to know the car owner’s intent in order to recognize that there was intent behind the characters picked, and that his personalized license plate is not the result of random assignment. Likewise, we don’t have to know God’s intent in creation to recognize the presence of purposeful choices that require an intelligent agent to make them. But while seeing a designed message in a customized license plate may seem intuitive, are we justified in applying that reasoning to things like nature? What about false positives – seeing design where there is none? Let’s look at how we eliminate chance and how we confirm design now.

An event conforming to an independent predefined pattern (like recognized words in English) is one way to eliminate randomness as a reasonable explanation for an event. Stephen Meyer, in his book, Signature in the Cell, uses the example of a gambler named Slick who keeps winning at the roulette wheel – 100 times in a row – by betting on Red 16.[1] Could his amazing winning streak simply be the result of chance? It’s possible, although to call it astronomical odds would be an understatement. But why would the casino, and any reasonable person, think this wasn’t simply chance, but either a cheating player or a mechanical malfunction? The consistently beneficial results make it less and less reasonable as the streak continues, and the pattern negates the chance hypothesis. While chance is eliminated, design isn’t confirmed yet; the pattern may match with physical necessity due to an unbalanced wheel that makes the ball always land in Red 16. Slick could just be just taking advantage of a pattern he noticed. Meyer then asks about a different case, where Slick bets on different numbers each time, but still wins 100 times in a row. The ball isn’t landing on Red 16 every time now, so physical necessity (like a defect in the roulette wheel) doesn’t seem to be the culprit. And yet we still instinctively reject that this is simply chance, and think Slick is cheating, or “designing” his winning streak. Why? Because the seemingly random pattern of results matches the independent pattern of Slick’s bets. These are “functionally significant” results that accomplish something – they advance the goal of him winning lots of money! And achieving a goal is the very heart of design. Both cases reject chance based on the events matching a pattern, but the second case reasonably infers intelligent design behind the pattern.

In that example, the predefined pattern (winning each spin of a roulette wheel) is framed positively. But the same applies as a negative association: when a result doesn’t conform to the known pattern that it should conform to, such as the “123 ABC” format of license plates in my state,  then we can know that something else is going on. Based on my knowledge that government-issued license plates conform to specific patterns of characters unless a person pays extra to make a non-random assignment, I can reasonably infer that a plate not conforming to those set patterns was intentional, at the least. The fact that someone paid extra for their non-random plate makes it unlikely that they then picked a combination of letters and numbers that had no meaning to them. Now, when I see things such as coded information in DNA, I can reasonably reject chance or physical necessity as an explanation. The arrangement of bases in a strand of DNA is highly contingent, yet arranged extremely specifically over a very long sequence to produce highly functional information. Now, if I’m justified in thinking 7 letters and numbers on a license plate have been deliberately arranged to convey a message, why would I not recognize the message conveyed by the information overload of over 3 billion bases carefully arranged like letters in words to store the massive amounts of information that make up our bodies? And where does that message point me? To the design hypothesis, which requires an intelligent agent beyond any human (or any physical entity, for that matter). It points me to God. Where do you look for the author of that message? Till next time, blessings on you.


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA & the Evidence for Intelligent Design, (NY: HarperOne, 2009), chapters 8 & 16.