Stumbling Over the Basics

As I wait another 2 months for the results from my engineering exam I took in October, I have time to reflect on the test and the last year of preparation for it, and see some applications to my Christian walk that may be of help for some of you out there, too. So let’s work through that today.

There were some pretty obscure scenarios that showed up in both practice problems and the real exam, and it’s good to know where to go to find the needed information to solve those problems. But some of the problem types I was working were just about guaranteed to be on the exam. While some problems caught me off-guard, others were practically required questions because they were basic concepts that the practicing structural engineer needs to understand, even if he works in a smaller niche of the overall profession (like steel connection design for me). In fact, for a long, timed test like this, the more typical design problems need to be almost instinctive so that you can make up time on them, knowing the more complex or more obscure problems will eat up that gain.

What does any of that have to do with Christianity? Well, there are areas of Christian doctrine that need to be almost reflexive for us. We should be so prepared beforehand that a response is immediate, as thorough as it needs to be, and – most importantly – true. Christianity is not something where you can just “wing it”, making it up as you go. But while knowing those core doctrines is important, it also needs to go beyond just intellectual assent. After all, as James pointed out, the demons can recognize many of those truths, but they shudder rather than rejoice in them [Jam 2:19]. That’s why Peter told his readers facing persecution to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” [1Pe 3:15]. Of course, this presupposes that you a) have a hope in you, and b) that it shows forth enough for people to want to know why. But then Peter says to be “ready to make a defense”, i.e. to be able to lay out solid reasons. Out of a holy heart submitted to Christ flow actions that demonstrate the redemptive work of God and cause people to ask questions. And out of a prepared mind flow the ready answers to those questions. Then head and heart come together to demonstrate the truth of Christianity in word and deed more powerfully than either alone.

That word “defense” is the Greek legal term ἀπολογία (apologia), from which we get apologetics. In fact, 3 of the other 7 uses of apologia are related to Paul having to defend himself, either before an official tribunal or an angry mob ready to kill him on the spot [Acts 22:1, 25:16, 2Tim 4:16]. Now, you wouldn’t approach a court case (or an angry mob) without preparing, would you? That would be about as foolish as me going into that engineering exam without studying and working practice problems. But have you, dear Christian, thought about the reason for your hope? What happens when you find yourself “on the spot”? Will you ready to give an answer, or will you stare dumbfounded at your questioner?

Going back to the exam, I didn’t have to know everything (as if I even could). Most questions required some amount of consultation with my reference books just because you’re not going to have those kinds of things memorized unless the question happens to be in your specialty that you maybe deal with everyday.  So you need to know where to go for the answers ahead of time. But then there’s some questions that just come out of left field, and you find yourself having to learn the material fresh (and quickly) before even being able to attempt an answer. As a Christian ambassador [2Co 5:20], I don’t have to be able to answer everything on the spot, but  I shouldn’t stumble on the basics. When the people cried out to Peter “What must we do to be saved?” [Ac 2:37], he didn’t say “Let me do some research and get back to you on that….” But many questions or objections will require some digging. Do you know where to go for answers? Do you know your way around the Bible? Have you invested in some good references and figured out how they’re organized so you know where to start tracking down an answer when the need arises? Although outside help many not have been allowed in my exam, that resource is open to you! When you get those questions out of left field, do you have knowledgeable pastors, mentors, or friends you can consult with? Don’t forget that Christians are all members of the body of Christ, each equipped to supply what is missing in another [Ro 12:4-6, 1Co 12]. Thankfully, you don’t have to try to do it all yourself (nor should you).

In hindsight, it wasn’t being unable to answer the obscure exam problems that bothered me the most; and it wasn’t the in-depth questions that I ran out of time on. Rather, it was the simple questions that I knew I should know, but still stumbled on. Don’t let that be the case when granted the opportunity to share the truth revealed to us… the hope that anchors us… the assurance and peace we are blessed with… the “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68]. Instead, be ready!

A Ductile Faith

Hardcore seismic testing by Sideplate to prove the ductility of their connections (video here)

Engineers like ductility. When designing buildings for earthquakes, we impose harsh penalties on nonductile systems while allowing far more leeway for very ductile systems. What on earth does ductility have to do faith? Let’s work through that today.

Ductility is the ability to continue absorbing energy after yielding without breaking. This is especially important in earthquakes where it may not be possible to keep the structure from yielding. The opposite of ductility is brittleness. You can have a very strong material that is also very brittle. In fact, materials typically do get more brittle with increasing strength, and it often takes special processing or expensive alloys to maximize both strength and ductility. Brittleness, on the other hand, is something we try to avoid because of the suddenness of a failure. A brittle object may hold up an exceptional load, but the failure, when it finally occurs is catastrophic and without warning. Ductile components, even if not as strong, are preferred because they can take a lot of overloading without failing. In fact, steel has become such a dominant building material precisely because of its excellent balance of strength and ductility (a property called toughness). For situations that require resisting extreme events like earthquakes or large impacts (i.e. tornado or tsunami debris, accidental collisions, terrorist attacks), ductility is a primary tool in the engineer’s toolbox. Ductile components deform before they break, providing ample warning before they fail. This also allows a lot of time to repair the structure before it collapses. In the extreme case, it allows people time to get out of the building or off the bridge before it collapses. And since protecting people is the primary duty of engineers, we like ductile behavior.

I’ve read some stories of atheist “deconversions”, and I see some similarities between a well-designed structure and a well-designed faith. You see, our faith (or trust in God) can also be ductile or brittle. Dan Barker writes of his leaving Christianity in his book “godless”, and his story strikes me as an example of a brittle faith. Under good conditions, he appeared (according to him) to be a super-Christian. But under long-term pressure, his trust in God proved to have very little “reserve capacity”. Perhaps equally shocking was his story of his mother. After disclosing his apostasy to her, his mother – who’d been a Sunday school teacher in their church for years – saw a dead bird in the garden being eaten by ants, and decided that God’s eye was not really on the sparrow, as she had sung in church, and decided also to walk away from God. That is a prime example of brittle faith if ever there was one. Her love for her son, combined with his rejection of God, caused such a strain on her relatively shallow trust in God, that witnessing an everyday event like a bird dying, resulted in a sudden, catastrophic failure.

We trust in so many things that let us down, yet God is the only truly reliable one in this universe. Is your trust in Him able to be stretched without snapping? Or is it simply a blind faith with no capacity to resist any pushback? Here at A Well-Designed Faith, I’d like to see every Christian build a strong faith that can also stretch under stress, much like Job. While he is known for his patience in enduring suffering, it’s important to remember that Job could do that because of his trust in God, that was both strong and still able to be stretched unimaginably without breaking. Thus, after everything dear in life was taken from him, Job could still say “Though He {God} slay me, I will hope in Him.” [Job 13:15] That’s trust that understands the greater good of God’s plan, and acts on that sure hope. And our hope, like Job’s, is “a hope both sure and steadfast”, as the author of Hebrews reminds us [Heb 6:19], and not merely the wishful thinking we so often associate with the word “hope”. It is this certainty that we can have in God that enabled people like the apostle Paul, and so many martyrs since then, to undergo terrible persecution without breaking.

There are materials out there far, far stronger than the structural steel grades we use in buildings, but we typically don’t use them because we want toughness, that beautiful combination of good strength and massive ductility that keeps a building standing through an earthquake when stronger, brittle materials have failed. When structural engineers see what’s called “hysteresis curves” for a particular type of ductile seismic system that tell us it has undergone many cycles of  bending and stretching and buckling without failing, that is like beautiful art for us.  We can see buildings still standing and lives saved in those funny-looking graphs. And when I hear someone say with Paul that they “know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” [2Tim 1:12], I can see Christians who will persevere and remain standing through the most severe trials. May yours be a “ductile faith”.