Comfort Zones God Makes Uncomfortable

Burgess Meredith as bookworm Henry Bemis with “time enough at last” for reading in the classic 1959 post-apocalyptic Twilight Zone episode.

I can truly appreciate all the jokes and memes circulating these days about introverts; given the option, I’d gladly sit on a desert island with a small mountain of books. But while I may be content with that, God doesn’t appear to be. And there’s a good chance He’s not content to leave you in your comfort zone either, so let’s work through that today.

In reading the Bible and church history, it is always interesting the people used by God. Consider a few examples:

  • Moses may have been raised in Pharaoh’s court, but he doesn’t seem to have ever been comfortable leading the Israelites. He asked “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” [Ex 3:11], and tried to get out of his call because of his apparent speech impediment [Ex 4:10-16]. And yet he did oppose Pharaoh, one of the most powerful men in the world at the time, and led an entire people group out of captivity.
  • Gideon was afraid, threshing wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites when God called him to lead the Israelites into battle against their oppressors [Jg 6:11]. The Lord called him valiant, but he responded by asking, “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.” [Jg 6:15] Even after God granted him signs to confirm His message, Gideon was still nervous about completing his first assignment in broad daylight [Jg 6:27].
  • Peter was a fisherman who was often sticking his foot in his mouth [Mt 16:22-23, 17:4-5], and yet was used by God to preach to the crowd at Pentecost where 3000 people were convicted by his message [Ac 2:14,37-41]. Later, in testifying before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council), the council members “observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” [Ac 4:13].
  • Paul may have been in his comfort zone discussing theology like in his letter to the Romans, but he was also a “Hebrew of the Hebrews”, zealous for the Mosaic Law, and a persecutor of Christians initially [Php 3:4-7]. Yet he was sent to the Gentiles of all people – the non-Jews – to witness to the power of Christ to bring people from all nations to God through Jesus Christ [Ro 11:13-14, 15:15-16, Eph 3:8]. And though he always longed to see his fellow Jews accept Jesus as Lord [Ro 9:2-5], he would spend most of his remaining life ministering primarily to non-Jews.
  • John Calvin just wanted to lead a quiet life of study in little Strasbourg, but he couldn’t escape the call to minister in Geneva, a much larger, worldly metropolis. He was a systematic theologian extraordinaire, but he was compelled to also pastor the flock at St. Peter’s church in Geneva, Switzerland. And in looking at the call of Christ to His followers to take up their cross and follow Him, Calvin considered Geneva his cross to bear and obediently went. As much as he would’ve like to, he couldn’t live in his books when there were brothers and sisters in Christ facing all the messy problems of daily life, who needed guidance and equipping. [1]

Why does God seem to take us far outside of our comfort zones a lot? I see two primary reasons.

  1. To establish Who gets the credit. Right before God thinned out Gideon’s army from 32,000 men to a scant 300, God told him, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’”[Jg 7:2] I’d be far more comfortable with 32,000 soldiers than 300, but I’d also be trusting in my own abilities rather than God. Paul reinforces this principle when he writes of how God uses our weakness to demonstrate His power and grace [1Co 1:26-30, 2Co 12:9-10]. Often we hear that the things we are good at, those things we gravitate towards and that tend to come easy to us, are an indication of our calling. And that’s understandable; God equips us for the tasks He gives us. But that doesn’t mean that the tasks He gives us will be achievable in our own strength. Indeed, if they always are, we may be confusing our goals for His. He is glorified most when the task is far beyond our natural talents, for when we are weak, He is strong.
  2. To develop our character. This is part of sanctification. It’s easy for many to sit in church on Sunday and just see it as an item to be checked off the list. The message goes in one ear and out the other, and once it’s checked off the list, there’s no additional exposure to God’s Word the rest of the week. But apathy like that should be uncomfortable for a Christian. On the other hand, it’s easy for nerds like me to soak up knowledge like a sponge and yet never do anything with it. I could sit happily taking notes and absorbing information at a conference for hours on end, but applying that knowledge is nerve-wracking. Yet what do you do with a soapy sponge? You wring it out. It shouldn’t surprise me then if God expects me to actually take action, and step away from the books, and share the truth in love with others (even if it means talking to real live people…). Others have a zeal for action and just want to jump in and save the world, but buckling down to study and develop a good, deep, stable foundation is what makes them uncomfortable. Yet God calls us to “accurately handle the word of truth” [2Ti 2:15]. God’s goal is not our comfort or short-term success, but rather our holiness and our conformance to the image of His Son in all areas of our lives [1Pe 1:15-16, Ro 8:29].

I started out this week with some examples of people who needed to step outside of their comfort zones to change their world and advance God’s kingdom, before looking at the massive benefits that go along with that – glorifying God and maturing as Christians. This week, ask God to show you some areas you’ve grown comfortable in that probably shouldn’t be so comfortable, and the courage to follow Him wherever He leads.

[1] “Heroes of the Faith: John Calvin”, by R.C. Sproul, 2006.

Is Christianity Just Wishful Thinking?

“Martyr in the Arena”, by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869

I was reading a book by an atheist author who claims to be a former minister yet seems to know very little about Christianity. While the book was heavy on sarcasm and light on reason, there was one point I’d like to address today. In one section, he proclaims that Christians merely “yearn for… an escape from death.” So what about that? Am I, as a Christian, just a victim of deluded, wishful thinking, only too eager to believe death isn’t really the end of me in spite of the cold, hard reality? Let’s work through that today.

Before the comment about Christians yearning for an escape from death, author David Madison proclaims, “There is no exit from death. Period. It is unbecoming to be so afraid of death, and it’s disgraceful that religions have specialized in marketing ways to get out of it.”[1] Let’s start by refreshing our former minister’s memory of some Scriptures that speak on this matter of death, and see if his charge against “religions” applies to Christianity.

  • The author of Hebrews writes that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” [Heb 9:27] The Christian is under no delusions of either escaping death or death being an escape. Instead, we face it head-on, knowing it is coming.
  • Jesus reminded His listeners, “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” [Lk 12:4-5] We are not to fear death, but rather the wrath of God that justly lies on all of us until we are reconciled to Him.
  • Jesus told His disciples that “an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.” [Jn 16:2] We are to not be surprised when death is a consequence of following Christ.
  • The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians of his earnest hope that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” [Phil 1:20-21] Paul was prepared to serve God whether that involved a long hard life or imminent death, and every Christian is to be similarly prepared.
  • John tells us of the martyrs he sees in his revelation who “did not love their life even when faced with death.” [Rev 12:11] In fact, almost every book in the New Testament mentions that Christians would experience persecution, with several explicitly stating that it could include death.

Indeed, Tertullian wasn’t exaggerating when he said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church [1]: Christians were massacred for much of the first couple of centuries after Christ, and have continued to be killed in Communist and Muslim countries in particular. And these are the very places and times when Christianity has grown the most. If Christians were afraid of death and seeking an escape from it, choosing a life that often led directly to death – and cruel, torturous deaths at that – sure seems a strange way to go about it!

Historically, Christians have not been afraid of death. And why would we? We know this life, that can end in the blink of an eye, is not our home, and so we can hold on loosely to it. Madison’s comment about fear of death makes absolutely no sense when compared to the vast, consistent testimony of Christians over the last 2 millennia sacrificing their lives as they counted physical death a small price to pay in service to their Lord. That fear of death is antithetical to Christian trust in our risen Savior can be confirmed with even a brief reading of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, or the testimonies of the many Christians who suffered and were brutally killed in atheist countries like the USSR, Red China, and the Eastern Block countries of Europe after WWII, or watching videos of ISIS beheading or crucifying Christians.

With all this acceptance of death, then, is Christianity some kind of death-obsessed cult like the “Heaven’s Gate” group that all committed suicide back in 1997? Hardly. As Paul pointed out, going home would be good, but there was also still good work to be done here. So we can live joyfully for the Lord while also looking forward to being with the Lord someday. But are we really only seeking immortality when we become Christians? It’s not a matter of wishing for immortality, but rather recognizing the fact of our immortality, as testified to by the God who has proven Himself trustworthy throughout history, and then choosing wisely how we will spend eternity. If we had nothing on which to base this idea of life after death, then Mr. Madison might have a point. But we have the testimony of God, as recorded in His Word, as well as the evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus, the “first fruits” of those who have died. [1Cor 15:20] Death may be a closed door where we can’t see and measure what’s on the other side, but that is no reason for skeptics to assume that it is just an impassable brick wall when we have the testimony of our Creator that it is a doorway each of us can and will pass through. Will you be ready when the door opens for you?

[1] Although it’s certainly not a book I can recommend (in fact, it’s probably the worst atheist book I’ve read so far), for completeness, it’s “Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith”, by David Madison (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p.145.
[2] Tertullian, Apologeticus pro Christianis, Chapter 50 (as commonly paraphrased).

Genetic Identity & Chimeras

Details of bony structures in 14-week-old fetus from an ultrasound equipment manufacturer.

If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know I am pro-life, both on religious grounds and on scientific grounds. In a recent discussion on Twitter, I made a point I have made before, that the fetus cannot be a part of the mother’s body (as many pro-abortion advocates say), partly because the fetus has different DNA from the mother. Later in the discussion, an objection was raised to this point that I hadn’t heard before, so let’s work through that today.

For those who may have been living under a rock the last 60+ years, DNA is the complex molecule Deoxyribonucleic Acid found in every living cell that stores the “blueprint” for that person. First discovered in 1869, it’s structure was finally determined in 1953, and the staggering informational content fully mapped in 2003. After that slow start, our knowledge about DNA and uses for that knowledge have increased dramatically over the years. Some of the most common uses of DNA testing include determining parentage, convicting guilty criminals (or exonerating those wrongly convicted), and identifying partial or unrecognizable remains. Essentially, these examples use DNA to verify the unique identity of individual persons. Now combine that with the well-established fact that by the time fertilization is complete (within 24 hours of the joining of sperm and oocyte), and while still only a single cell, a developing baby has DNA distinct from either parent. The obvious conclusion, biologically, is that this rapidly developing organism is not the same organism as the mother.

Now, the objection raised was that unique DNA doesn’t determine how many lives are present because of the existence of chimeras. What’s that, you ask? A chimera, outside of the mythological monster from which the name is drawn, is an organism with two (or more) distinct sets of DNA. Though not “new” in terms of existence, the first confirmation of a natural human chimera was in 1953 when a woman in England donated blood and it was found to contain two different blood types in one sample. As our knowledge of genetics has grown and DNA testing has become more commonplace, so too has observance of this phenomenon. for instance, a woman needed a kidney transplant in 1998, but when her 3 sons were tested as potential donors, 2 of them were determined, based on DNA, not to be her biological sons, even though she had given birth to them. Then in 2003, a woman in Washington filed for welfare benefits for her children and was denied, with accusations of welfare fraud pending, because her 2 children were determined not to be hers. A 3rd child was born while this was being investigated, so that birth and an immediate DNA test of both mother and child were witnessed by an officer of the state. Again, the DNA test showed different parentage for the child just born. What happened in each of these cases? Each of these 3 women had been twins. The Englishwoman in 1953 had a twin brother who had died shortly after birth. Cells had been shared between the two early in the pregnancy. The other 2 women were both the result of fused embryos, or a “vanishing twin”. Two oocytes had been fertilized by two sperm, resulting in twin zygotes. Early in the pregnancy, however, the two zygotes merged into one. Because they were separate zygotes, they each had different DNA. However, because this occurs very early in development, the zygote is still a collection of totipotent cells (meaning each cell at this stage can still become any cell in the human body, i.e. they have not differentiated into their separate lines of specialized cells for organ generation). When the twin zygotes (call them A & B) fused together, some of the cell from twin A went on to form various body parts like the skin cells inside the cheek where DNA samples are often taken. Cells from twin B went on to form other body parts such as the ovaries that would be responsible for producing children “not her own”. A third scenario, Fetal Microchimerism, or FMc, is much more common and is when cells from the blood of the fetus and/or mother get through the placental barrier to reside in the other person. Cells from their children have been found in the bodies of autopsied women many years after their pregnancies.

Based on these observed cases, we know that a person can have multiple DNA. But does the existence of chimeras refute the idea that the developing baby is a unique individual distinct from the mother? I don’t think so. After all, when a patient receives an organ transplant, the donated organ will have the donor’s DNA rather than that of the recipient; but nobody considers the donor and recipient to be part of the same body. Furthermore, even though the person may have 2 sets of DNA in their body, the transplanted organ is only one organ, and cannot become anything more. A zygote, on the other hand, is capable of developing into a mature human, and is, in fact, directing much of the pregnancy. The case of cells passing between twins in utero, as in the 1953 English case, is really no different than the case of organ donation between adults. The case of fused zygotes is more extreme in that all of the “donor” has been passed to the recipient, but the concept of a donor providing some portion of a recipient’s organs still applies. Because the transfer of genetic information occurs at such an early stage, it’s impossible to know which organs formed from donor and which from recipient without some kind of comprehensive test that is not practical at this point, but it’s important to remember that neither zygote had the same DNA as the mother, so the resulting chimera is still not part of the mother’s body no matter how you look at it. As far as fetal microchimerism, we are only talking about a few individual cells from a genetically unique human (i.e. the baby) passing through the barrier that normally separates the baby’s blood from the mother’s, and residing in the body of another genetically unique human (i.e. the mother). The fact that a few of the baby’s cells migrate into the mother’s body (and vice versa) no more make the baby part of her body than an organ donor’s cells inside a recipient’s body makes the donor part of the recipient.

Does the chimeric objection succeed? No. Even with individual persons not necessarily being limited to only one DNA in their body, the baby is at all stages of development a separate, self-contained organism temporarily residing in the mother for nourishment and protective environment, and not a “part” of her that just has different DNA. All cases of chimerism, both natural and artificially induced, come about from the involvement to one degree or another of a second, genetically distinct organism. The different DNA confirms this and actually bolsters our understanding of a baby as a genetically unique individual from conception.

Further reading: “The Human Chimera: Legal Problems Arising From Individuals with Multiple Types of DNA“, by Robert Russell Granzen, Seton Hall Law School, 2014, was a thorough and interesting read on the matter.

On Turning Arguments into Discussions

“Endless Debate”, by Norman Rockwell

I had an interesting discussion with several people on Twitter last week regarding the topic of abortion,  and came away with a few observations I’d like to share today.

  • The danger of echo chambers. This discussion took place on the Twitter feed of an abortionist who proudly performs late-term abortions. It became quickly apparent that the feed was basically an echo chamber for those who agreed with her to reinforce each other’s beliefs in the rightness of their cause. There is a time and place for mutual encouragement and support, but like a closed-off room grown stagnant, our minds atrophy when isolated from opposing views. For even exposure to mistaken views or outright malicious falsehoods can still benefit us by forcing us to think through what we believe, why we believe it, and, ultimately, if our reasons are adequately justified. As the apostle Paul said, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” [1Th 5:21]. Being in an echo chamber had led several of her followers to fall for some very bad arguments. On the other hand, as a Christian, I have access to the only transcendent source of truth – God – in the forms of His written word, the Bible, and the guidance of His Holy Spirit. What a blessing! And getting support and encouragement from fellow believers drawing from that deep well of truth is a great thing. But that can turn into an unhealthy echo chamber for a Christian when it a) ends up only encouraging in spite of error that really needs correcting, or b) leads to being disconnected from the world Jesus has commissioned us to be ambassadors to [2Cor 5:20]. As an example, an American who never learned about Chinese culture would likely not be an effective ambassador to China. He would need to both represent his own country well and understand his host country enough to communicate with them clearly. Similarly, we are called to be “in the world, but not of the world” [Jn 17:14-18]. The Christian must be different, but who will ever know Christ made a difference in our lives if we stay isolated in a little Christian bubble [Mt 5:14-16]? So we need to be willing to engage with opposing views, but always with gentleness and respect [1Pe 3:15], speaking the truth in love [Eph 4:15].
  • The difference between monologue and dialogue. There were some initial insults and somewhat immature replies to my bringing science to bear on the subject of abortion, and my addressing biologically incorrect arguments seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Eventually, however, someone came forward willing to engage in serious dialogue. He wanted sources for what I was saying so he could verify them himself, so I gladly gave him quotes & references from different embryology textbooks. A civil, thoughtful discussion ensued – on Twitter of all places! Now, I’ve learned many things over the years from presentations that were essentially monologues, such as seminars without Q&A, or recorded webinars, and so forth; but dialogue is critical in discussing controversial topics. A person will only learn from a monologue if they go in willing to listen, and open to absorbing new knowledge (like a seminar I’ve paid to attend). But in a hostile situation, the other person is already defensive at having their views challenged, and dialogue with the person, instead of a monologue directed at them, is really the only hope for changing their mind.
  • The persistence of presuppositions. What was intriguing about the discussion was the repeated assumption that my objections were religious in nature, even though I’d never mentioned anything related to religion (of any kind) in my comments. It took a while to finally convey the point that a response from a user with the name “Well-Designed Faith” didn’t mean that every statement I made would be a religious statement, and that while I could make a religious objection to abortion, I hadn’t, and they would still need to deal with the scientific objections I had made. So why did that reaction happen in the first place, and why did it continue? I can’t get into anyone else’s head to determine their thought process, but it appears that those commenters had some unjustified presuppositions that anything a Christian said was related to Christianity and could be safely ignored. That is nothing more than the genetic fallacy – that the origin (or genesis) of an idea can determine its truth. For instance, the idea that a man can’t speak about abortion only looks at the origin of a message rather than the content of the message, which stands or falls on its own merits, regardless of who says it. In fact, that line of faulty pro-abortion reasoning actually undercuts the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that was judged entirely by … men. Likewise, while I am a Christian, my objection that the unborn baby is biologically not a part of the mother’s body is well-grounded medically, and is an objection raised by both Christian and atheist pro-lifers (yes, there are atheist pro-lifers…). So, just because a Christian raises the objection, that doesn’t mean one can dismiss it just because one has a low opinion of Christians. Similarly, the Christian can’t dismiss arguments without weighing them, or just because of who made them.

Just a few observations this week about being good ambassadors, as I learn “on the job” to be a better one myself. So listen to what’s out there; it doesn’t help to answer the question nobody’s asking, and not deal with the issues shaping our world. Talk with people instead at them, and remember that they’re not just icons on screen, but real people, created in God’s image (even if they reject that truth). When it seems like you’re just talking past each other, step back and look for presuppositions (on both sides) that may be preventing you and them from understanding what the other is saying. And, as Greg Koukl, that master ambassador for Christ, would say, “Get out there, and give ’em Heaven!”