All posts by Jason

I am a Christian engineer with a desire to help people understand the rational basis of Christianity.

“Just Needs Some TLC”

“Great starter home for the motivated DIYer! Just needs a little TLC.” – Author’s personal photo.

You’ve seen the ads. You know when a realtor says a house needs a little “Tender Loving Care”, or that it’s a “good fit for the motivated Do-It-Yourselfer”, that it’s pretty bad. My wife’s comment is sometimes “That’s not a fixer-upper, that’s a tearer-downer!” Sometimes home sellers are a bit overly-optimistic.

There is a similar optimism when it comes to the condition of the human soul. People like to think that they are “pretty good”, all things considered. They may have made some mistakes over the years, but overall, the good outweighs the bad. If they even need religion at all, it’s just to give them some structure, some goals, maybe some accountability to finally break some bad habits. Just some minor repairs – you know, a little paint, maybe some new roof shingles, update the light fixtures, nothing serious – and we’ll be ready for whatever lies beyond the grave. But until we understand the extent of our need, we’ll never appreciate the value of the gift extended to us. That’s why learning of God’s amazing love is only half the story. If we think we’re pretty good already, or that God grades on a curve – we’ll be OK as long we’re better than so-and-so – then we might mistakenly think “Why wouldn’t God love me? I’m a pretty nice guy!”

Understand this, we are not a house in need of a little DIY – a little TLC, a little fixing-up. We are dead in our sins, completely helpless [Eph 2:1]. Like a house situated over a growing sinkhole, being devoured by termites, with a  Category 5 hurricane approaching, we are doomed. No amount of cosmetic enhancement is going to save that house, and in fact, the house’s appearance may only mask the real dangers. Being “more good than bad” won’t help. It’s like going to paint a room white and finding that some black paint has been spilt in the bucket of white paint. It’s many times more white than black, but it doesn’t matter; it’s tainted and isn’t getting used if you want pure white walls. And absolute, pure perfection is the only measure acceptable before God, our perfect judge who does not grade on a curve. Every human on Earth is in that condition and will die like that unless God draws them to Himself and awakens them to new life [Jn 6:44, Eph 2:4-5]. But it gets worse. Just like a judge would be unjust to let criminals go unpunished, there is a punishment awaiting every person who fails that standard of perfection. That punishment is eternal separation from God, from whom all good things derive [Jam 1:17]. People have sometimes been offended by the idea of God condemning people to “eternal conscious torment” in Hell, but what else could separation from God be? Christians do not carry on about the dangers of Hell to scare people into becoming Christians, but rather as loving friends concerned for the tragic end we see our unbelieving friends heading for. Could we call ourselves real friends if we didn’t try to warn others of impending disaster?

The prognosis seems very grim indeed. And yet, while God is perfectly just to not let any imperfect human into His presence, and to allow each and every person to suffer the torment that separation from Him would necessarily be, He does not desire that any should perish [Ezk 33:11]. But our best efforts are helpless to prevent the inevitable end that must result given an imperfect person standing before a perfect judge. That is the very, very bad news. But God, in a one-sided display of love and mercy, brought us very, very good news, in the form of a substitute who would take our place and bear the wrath of punishment rightly due each of us. But how? Wouldn’t any substitute be tainted like we are, doomed to score sub-perfect? Such is God’s love for us, that He sent His Son, the 2nd person of the Trinity, to be miraculously conceived and born in human flesh, truly God and truly man, to live a perfect life and offer Himself as the only possible acceptable sacrifice that could satisfy the perfect justice of God the Father, conquering death and proving the Father’s acceptance of His sacrifice by rising from the dead, allowing those who accept Him, who were once enemies of God,  to be reconciled to God, adopted, transformed, and given a sure hope of eternal life.

It seems to be good to be true (when we understand the natural state of our decrepitude and hopelessness) that God would step in to effect such a miraculous rescue. Sadly, not all will accept rescue. But that’s our only chance, for we aren’t just a simple “fixer-upper”.

New Page

New pages don’t show up in the feed of posts, so if you’re looking for this week’s post, it is a new page in the site menu called “Your Free Gift” (above and to the right, below the banner at the top of the page). Check it out and let me know what you think! Thanks 🙂

Quantity vs Quality

Man vs. Cosmos (Photo via Good Free Photos)

Is more always better? Well, we do like our “buy one, get one free” sales at the supermarket…. But what about when there’s a difference in quality? Can an increase in quantity or size make up for lower quality? If you went to a restaurant that offered you a tender, 8-ounce portion of a prime cut of steak perfectly cooked, and their competition across the street offered a tough, grisly, 48-ounce piece of shoe leather masquerading as a steak, half burnt and the other half still raw, for the same price, would it be much of a choice?* Short of a starvation scenario, most people would probably opt for the small, high-quality steak over the much larger nasty steak. But what if the difference is more significant? All the seawater in the ocean doesn’t take the place of 1 bottle of clean pure water for the man dying of thirst. Indeed, gulping down saltwater will only kill him faster. That small amount of pure water is worth more to him than all the quadrillions of gallons of saltwater in the world’s oceans.

Blaise Pascal highlighted this distinction between quantity and quality in his Pensées when he compared the seeming insignificance of man to the vastness of the universe. Skeptics often make the same comparison, but come to very different conclusions. Some have ridiculed Christians for thinking humans are special when we are less than a speck compared to the immensity of the uncaring universe. Some have thought us quite arrogant for considering humans to be special. But the immensity of the universe is really only a red herring that distracts us from the difference in quality. Consider Pascal’s insight:

“Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this…. Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.”[1]

He’s right. Humans may live fragile lives on a “pale blue dot” circling one of billions of stars in one galaxy among billions in the universe, and yet… all the fiery stars and desolate planets can’t be aware of their own existence, can’t appreciate the beauty they are part of, can’t compose a love sonnet, can’t even ask why that is the case. For all the overwhelming size of the universe, it cannot do what even a child can. Even among life on Earth, when we find similar behavior between ourselves and animals, humans still seem to be not just a little ahead of the animals compared, but miles ahead. Some people like to try to reduce humans to mere animals, but the gap between humans and the nearest animal in terms of consciousness, rationality, understanding, judgment, and intentionality, is really quite staggering. Why is that? The Bible provides the answer: humans, unlike animals, or anything else in our universe, were created in the image of God [Gen 1:27]. We can think and reason like God [Is 1:18]; we are relational like our triune God; we are creative, in imitation of our Creator; we love, because He first loved us [1Jo 4:19].

Although skeptics will often point to the infinitesimal size of our whole world compared to the cosmos, as a strike against humanity being “by design”, it is interesting to note how finely balanced our universe is – on a razor’s edge, as it were – and how science is finding more and more that our world wouldn’t even be able to exist and support complex life except in such a massive universe. It is also worth considering that an immense universe that dwarfs us and fills us with awe and wonder might just be a reasonable calling card of an eternal, transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing God. On that note, I leave you with the words of King David, who came to that very conclusion 3,000 years ago:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the sky displays his handiwork.
Day after day it speaks out;
  night after night it reveals his greatness.
Psalm 19:1-2, NET

 * For the vegetarians/vegans out there, substitute whatever would be a comparable delicacy for you 😉
[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées #347, 348, quoted in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées –Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1993), p. 55,57.

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”.

Reflections on the SE Exam

My practice exam… with my tickets for the real thing

A few days ago, I took the longest, toughest test of my life: 16 hours of structural engineering problems over 2 days. Reflecting on that, a few observations occur to me that I think are applicable to the Christian walk as well.

  • Know what you know. You can’t know everything about even one subject, and certainly not multiple subjects, but it sure is nice when you see a test question that you’ve already worked out many times in practice. You see it, and think, “I know this one!” and don’t even need to grab a reference book. That’s a great place to be in a major test because it’s almost like being rewarded  for your studies with bonus time to spend on the tough questions. Memorizing Scripture holds similar benefits. You may not be in a timed test like I was, but whether it’s a question from a friend, a challenge from a skeptic, or your own internal struggles, having the appropriate answer in mind right when you need it… is priceless.
  • Know where to find what you don’t know.  Just as it’s nice to see a problem you’re familiar with, it’s quite depressing to see that odd question out of the blue that you don’t even know where to search for a possible solution. I had just over 100# of reference books with me in the exam (yes, really), and several questions on bridge design seemed like they might be straightforward solutions… if I only knew where to look in the massive 4″ thick bridge manual. Don’t let that be the case for you with the Bible, which far surpasses in value anything you could possibly read in any reference books.
  • Exams are passed or failed in study rather than during the test. The actual test only proves the learning that did (or did not) take place beforehand. As much as I studied this year, it doesn’t appear to have been enough. We’ll see when I get my results back. But there are moral tests we face in life that are more important than any licensure test, and how you act when your integrity is on the line will largely depend on decisions made long before the temptation arises. What will you do when everything indicates you can “get away with it”? Let’s just take a couple of practical examples. The Bible tells us not to covet, and with good reason. You don’t have to watch too many documentaries on murder cases to start recognizing coveting as a common first step on a path that ended in murder. Granted, most people will never go that far, but it still doesn’t do them any favors. Don’t assume you’ll make the right decision if you spend all your time envious of someone else’s wealth, fame, or spouse, and then the opportunity presents itself to take what you’ve been obsessing about, at their expense. Likewise, the Bible warns us to “flee youthful lusts” [2Ti 2:22] and to think on what is honorable and right and pure [Phil 4:8]. Many a person has said they’d never cheat on their spouse, but then filled their mind with porn. At some point, the fantasy will seem more appealing than the real life commitment that real love requires. If the opportunity to live out a fantasy presents itself in one of those tough times, don’t assume you’ll suddenly be a beacon of virtue and moral fortitude if you’ve been acting out the exact opposite in your mind up to that point. The Bible sets guardrails in our lives for good reason, so if you want to pass the moral tests in life, commit to obeying God before you find yourself in the test.
  • God’s more interested in developing your character than getting you out of a jam. Did I pray for success on the exam? You bet I did. Would failing the exam impact my belief in God? Hardly. While “unanswered” prayers have caused some to stumble, I recognize that my imperfect requests may not line up with God’s perfect plan.  There’s nothing wrong with asking God for the things we want, but we have to understand He’s not some genie granting wishes. His purpose is to make us holy, not necessarily happy (although I would suggest you’ll find genuine happiness in holiness). Now, suppose God intervened and granted me photographic recall of everything I’d studied or even skimmed over during the last year, as well as supernatural comprehension of it all for a couple of days, so that I had passed with flying colors. But then, if I passed the exam without really being qualified, and I took on projects beyond my capacity, the results could be deadly for people living and working in the buildings I designed.  Or, what if I only became arrogant and condescending to those who hadn’t passed?  Not as deadly, perhaps, but it would still fall far short of His call to be a Christlike ambassador; and it would also fall far short of God’s better answers to prayer, which sometimes include things like “No,” “Wait,” and “Keep struggling through this.” I heard one of the other 2 guys taking the test with me tell someone the second morning that the first day was “humbling”, and he was spot-on. And that came from a more knowledgeable, experienced engineer than myself. Yet if we fail a test, but learn humility and compassion and perseverance in the process, then that is character development that can have greater impact on those around us than any professional development that might have been gained in passing it.

There’s a few lessons I walked away with. What about you? Have there been tough tests in your life that have helped you gain new perspective? Events that have helped you recognize God’s work in your life in ways you wouldn’t have before? Times God used to teach you valuable life lessons?

Low-hanging Fruit

Don’t be content with only the low-hanging fruit. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Anna Hunter

Why work to get an apple when there are ones within reach from the ground? I remember a management meeting years ago when we discussed “low-hanging fruit”. In that case it was simple adjustments that could be made to improve our efficiency. We wanted to find all the helpful changes that could be made with little to no expense before looking to spend a lot of money on some new piece of equipment. Sometimes, though, we are tempted to garner some quick success and stop there. In engineering, with the pressure of deadlines, we often prefer the simplified, summarized version of knowledge to more in-depth comprehension – even though this tends to work against the development of engineering judgement that is critical to our profession. We like the quick “cookbook” solution that just says “do steps A, B, and C in order to safely design a building”, rather than the more time-intensive study required to understand why those steps work and, just as importantly, in what cases they don’t work. Engineering judgement requires a sufficiently deep understanding of a subject to recognize, for instance, when  analysis methods are invalid, when data has been extrapolated beyond what the evidence can support, or when typical assumptions no longer apply. But that requires study.

My previous employer’s situation was a case of prioritizing appropriately in trying to harvest quick and easy benefits first, before investing heavily to harvest more. The second situation, however, is potentially dangerous when the remaining harvest – the deeper understanding – is never pursued. And that is what I want to focus on today. It’s easy to look at a bunch of picked-over low branches and say there’s nothing left to glean from that tree, and ignore the much larger harvest waiting out of reach. Too often, we have the same preference for the quick and easy when it comes to spiritual knowledge. We read a passage in the Bible, and not seeing any obvious, easily-reached truth, we are content to move on, leaving deeper truths untouched. Yet this is nothing new. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that he could only speak to them as “infants in Christ”, giving them “milk to drink, not solid food; for {they} were not yet able to receive it.” [1Cor 3:1-3] He reminded them at the end of that letter that while it was good to be childlike in their innocence, they should not be childish in their thinking, but rather mature [1Cor 14:20]. The author of Hebrews was even more direct with his readers: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” [Heb 5:12-14] Just like a child must grow up and go from drinking milk, to eating mashed-up food, to eating solid food, we must press on in our knowledge of God, stretching and always reaching higher. We may be called to be content in many areas of life, but a shallow, superficial knowledge of God is not one of them!

Maybe you’ve tried studying the Bible and gotten bogged down in difficult passages. You do alright reading through the Gospel of John, but struggle with something like Deuteronomy. Let me encourage you to continue picking those low-hanging fruits in John, but don’t give up on the harder-to-reach fruits. I think of it this way: there were subjects in school that I enjoyed, and others I didn’t, but enjoyment or ease of comprehension weren’t always indicative of the importance of the subject (and I would dare say that what God puts in writing is as important as it gets). For example, for me, high school geometry was a blast – obviously practical, very logical in its formation of axioms and proofs, and very concrete in its application of them. That was low-hanging fruit to me that has also benefited me throughout my entire engineering career. Calculus, on the other hand, was definitely not a favorite subject for me. More abstract than most of my other math classes, and only more so with each succeeding semester of it, that subject stretched me nearly to the breaking point. Now, my day-to-day use of math in structural engineering (aside from the huge amount of complex math my computer does for me) is primarily basic arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. But many of the nice quick formulas that only require basic algebra to solve, are derived using calculus. And as much as I struggled through my Calc classes, I’m glad I learned it, because it does undergird much of engineering, and allows me to solve problems that would be difficult, at best, any other way. In fact, as I’ve read research papers on new analysis methods, I’ve often wished I’d learned calculus better than I did. Similarly, as I read more of the New Testament, I grow to appreciate more of the Old Testament that Jesus and His disciples quoted from so much. Some fruit takes more work to get to, but settling for a minimal knowledge only hurts in the end.

Jesus calls us to be followers, not fans. The apostle John records one time when Jesus gave the crowds some harder truths to chew on in order to separate the fans from the followers: “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ … As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” [Jn 6:60,66] Don’t be content with a grade school understanding of God’s Word when He’s called us to commit to following Him unreservedly [Matt 16:24], and to share what we’ve learned with others [Matt 28:19-20]. But you can’t pass on what you haven’t learned yourself. So don’t be content with only a shallow knowledge of the Word of God – John 3:16 is great, but there is so much more to the Bible than just that! In fact, the Bible is one tree where every higher branch yields more fruit than the previous one, if only we’re willing to seek it out. If there’s one thing I can leave you with, it’s to never stop studying the Bible, for it truly is “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].

A Firm Foundation

Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake

Earlier this year, I attended an informational meeting in my area about an upcoming study of liquefaction susceptibility in my state. What’s that, you ask? Well, sandy soils, under certain conditions (mainly earthquakes), can suddenly liquefy, losing all bearing strength. This may go unnoticed when it happens in unpopulated areas, or it may be a puzzling phenomenon when a large “sand boil” suddenly appears in a farmer’s field, but it can be disastrous when it happens underneath a city full of densely populated buildings. After all, large buildings also tend to be heavy buildings, and we often have to rely on the bearing strength of the soil under the building to support it when there’s no good rock underneath. Now, the eastern part of my state has a fault zone capable of producing high-magnitude earthquakes, combined with a very thick “liquefaction-susceptible” layer, which is not a good combination. The 1964 earthquakes in Alaska and Japan are probably the most famous examples of liquefaction, and the picture above from the Niigata, Japan quake is probably the best example of the danger: no matter how well you design the building, and no matter how well you build it, if the support suddenly disappears, gravity will bring it down!

Inadequate foundations aren’t just an issue in structural design, though: people can run into the same problems in their own lives. Everything visible “above ground” can be picture perfect, but the foundation needed to survive a catastrophic event is lacking. We can have success in our jobs, be leaders in our communities or experts in our fields of study, have kids that are school valedictorians academically and all-stars athletically, and own homes that are the very picture of having “arrived”. We can achieve all our life goals and all those society thinks we should achieve – “living the dream” –  but what of our foundation? What happens when all our accomplishments are yanked out from under us like the support under those buildings in Japan? If we’re trusting in our own achievements, or our family name, or our connections to the right people, we will be in for a rude awakening. As it turns out, society can actually be quite fickle, and today’s adoring crowd can become tomorrow’s angry mob. And things like cancer and tornadoes don’t check the résumés of those they strike. Nearly anything you try to build your life on can prove to be an inadequate foundation. An accident can turn the athletic superstar into a quadriplegic and disfigure the most beautiful model; a market crash or a coup can bankrupt the wealthiest person; and the most brilliant scientist can find themselves at the mercy of a brain-ravaging disease like Alzheimer’s. What do you do when your nightmare becomes your reality? Will you topple when the solid ground under you suddenly turns to quicksand? Or does your life’s foundation extend to bedrock? Is there even any kind of “bedrock” we can build our lives on, that isn’t susceptible to failure?

Indeed, there is! And the answer is  as close as the Bible. Jesus tells us:

“Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.” [Lk 6:47-49]

Whether it’s storms or earthquake-induced liquefaction, being locked into an unmovable foundation is key. The apostle Paul wrote that “the firm foundation of God stands” [2Tim 2:19], and that this foundation is Jesus Christ [1Cor 3:11]. The author of Hebrews wrote that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” [Heb 13:8]. In this world of shifting sand, something firm and unchanging sounds pretty good, if you ask me. They say the only constant in life is change, but, thankfully, there is one constant that does not shift or give way, and that is Jesus Christ. He is the bedrock that can keep you standing through it all. So what’s your life built on: the Rock of Ages, or the shifting sands of effort and circumstance? Choose wisely, friend.

Skipping the Easy Questions

I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam for most of 2018, and have learned a few things in the process (OK, a lot of things…). One has been the need to be familiar with the subject matter. I know, that seems more than a little obvious, but let me explain. One of the subject areas covered in the exam will be bridge design. There are plenty of areas of building design that I need to study, but bridge design is one area I have absolutely zero experience with, and never had any intention of pursuing. Don’t get me wrong; I like seeing a well-designed, aesthetically-pleasing bridge as much as anyone, but I would’ve never in my life cracked open the 1,600+ page bridge manual if it weren’t necessary for this exam. So this has been one area I’ve tended to avoid in my exam preparations. Aside from the lack of experience with that whole subject, I’ll admit that there was a bit of intimidation at the 4″ thick binder. How could I ever hope to learn enough about all the intricacies of that code to apply it correctly? But then I realized something after taking a couple of practice exams: the bridge questions I was skipping to focus on areas I was more comfortable with were actually opportunities to make up time. As I reviewed the solution keys to the practice exams, I realized that many of the bridge questions were actually relatively straightforward questions… if I knew where to look. I was only shooting myself in the foot skipping them to work out longer steel design problems that weren’t worth any more points. Now what does that have to do with Christianity? Let’s work through that today.

Too often, Christians let the objections of skeptics go unanswered because it’s unfamiliar terrain for them. And yet, I would dare say, most objections are easier to answer than people assume. It’s understandable to hear that a prominent critic of Christianity, like Sam Harris, is a neuroscientist, and be intimidated by the fact that an obviously intelligent person like him doesn’t think Christianity is true. Similarly, one might shy away from confronting a famous Oxford biologist like Richard Dawkins. Yet, if you actually look at their objections, they often are the same type of objections anyone could make; their credentials don’t really add any weight to their objections. When Dawkins, for instance, asks “Who made God?“, you don’t have to debate genetics with him to answer that. You do have to understand what Christians mean by “God” since Dawkins doesn’t. But when he leaves his specialist’s niche to discuss basic questions of metaphysics and theology, he sets aside his specialist’s credentials and proves to be just as amateur a philosopher as anyone. This is just like if an expert witness testifies in court. Suppose the leading expert in the world on forensic entomology witnesses a hit & run accident and is called to testify in court; despite his world renown as an entomologist, his credentials are meaningless when it comes to this case. He’s just another witness who may or may not have useful testimony.

So what is the Christian to do when confronted by objections to the existence of God, or the historicity of the resurrection, or other common questions?

  1. Don’t panic. These are far from shocking new objections. They’ve been answered over and over again throughout the centuries; skeptics just don’t like the cold, hard truth.
  2. Be honest. If you don’t know how to answer, admit it. Nobody likes to feel like they’re being played, so don’t just make up something untrue or questionable to try to silence the objection. Acknowledge that it’s a question you hadn’t investigated sufficiently before, offer to get back to the person, do your homework, and then actually get back to them about it.
  3. Prepare ahead of time. How? Don’t be biblically illiterate. Sadly, there are atheists who know the Bible better than many who call themselves Christians. This simply should not be. God’s Word is supposed to be our “delight” [Ps 1:2, 119:47], and yet too often it languishes on the shelf, unopened, in Christian homes. Have you ever asked a grandmother about the grandkids she delights in? Or a rabid football fan about their favorite team? Those are some “subject matter experts” that delight in their area of expertise! Can we learn God’s Word better than a sports fan learns his team’s stats? I hope so. If that’s not the case for you, here’s some questions to consider. Are you reading the Bible daily? If so, are you thinking about what you read, or just checking it off your list? When you come across a passage you don’t understand, do you follow up with prayer, reading alternate translations, checking multiple commentaries, or talking to a more mature Christian? You don’t have to memorize the Bible (although if you can, by all means, go for it!). But understanding how it’s organized, the background of each book, the key points addressed in each book, and so on, can help immensely. Learning about church history is a valuable resource as well. The creeds and catechisms written over the centuries are especially compact summaries of the Christian faith, with great thought put into every word. There are lots of good (and typically free) resources available online, but you need to find good, theologically sound sources before you’re put on the spot.

You, Christian, may be the only “subject matter expert” on Christianity that an unbeliever ever consults. There are many who mistakenly assume that a preacher has ulterior motives for speaking to them about God, and won’t step foot in church or talk to him on a plane. You may very well find that you have better opportunities to introduce people to God than many preachers do. So don’t skip the easy questions, and don’t let answerable objections hinder your friends from recognizing the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Steel Day 2018

Leslie Robertson

I’m always thinking about potential topics for future posts, but sometimes I don’t have to go looking for topics – the topics find me. Such was the case when I was watching the preview release of the AISC documentary “Leaning Out”. This was one of those rare situations where I could get continuing education credit for my engineering licensure while watching something that would be of general interest to non-engineers as well. Produced by the American Institute of Steel Construction to commemorate their 10th annual “Steel Day”, this excellent documentary combined a review of the history of the design and construction of the World Trade Center in NYC with a biography of its lead structural engineer, Leslie E. Robertson. Perhaps you’re wondering what this has to do with defending Christianity. Well… let’s work through that today.

In the documentary, Robertson shares that he enlisted in the Navy at age 16 to serve in WWII, where he saw 3 buddies killed. After the war, he became a pacifist, and campaigned against war and the proliferation of nuclear arms. But then he mentions that, after seeing his buddies killed, he could never believe in a benevolent God. That was a bit unexpected in an engineering documentary, but traumatic experiences can leave lasting impacts on us, as that experience did for him. Seeing your friends die is awful, whether in war (where it has to be at least somewhat expected given the fact that each side is actively trying to kill the other), or in the many ways lives are lost every day in the civilian world. What grieves me, though, is the lasting blinding effect on this otherwise brilliant designer, and knowing there are dire, eternal consequences for him that need not be. Spending the next 70+ years since WWII rejecting God, and facing an eternity separated from his Creator should have never resulted from the loss of his friends, thus making a tragic event much worse. But what of his reasoning, that a benevolent God would not let his friends die?

I don’t know if he’s really thought through what God “not letting his friends die” would entail. Should God alter the thoughts of enemy soldiers so they never target them? Should He miraculously alter the trajectory of incoming shells, or make bullets bounce off his friends? Not to be irreverent about the death of his friends, but saying a good God wouldn’t let your friends die, and acknowledging what that would entail, are two different things. I’m sure, like most engineers, Robertson has had a critic or two say he should’ve done things differently on a project. In fact, he did take some unwarranted criticisms after September 11th from people looking for anyone to blame for the deaths of their loved ones in the collapse of the towers. Yet he would be completely justified in saying that those people didn’t understand the extreme detail and care he poured into that design.  Could they have done any better if they were in the same situation? I think not. Yet, sadly, that is exactly what he is doing to God when he says God shouldn’t have let things happen the way they did. I have a lot of respect for him as a brilliant engineer, but he’s keeping a double standard when he defends his own designs, but doesn’t allow that God might have His own reasons as well.

Robertson’s very ability to reject God like he has is proof that the presence of evil or suffering is not an adequate reason to reject God. Free will, the ability to choose between alternative options, is a gift from God. He could’ve easily made us like robots, repeating “I love you, Lord” when programmed to do so, and singing His praises when He hit our “Play” button. But forced love isn’t really love, is it? Instead, God gave us the option to truly love Him, which also means the potential to truly reject Him. And, sadly, free will brings other consequences as well. We can freely love our fellow humans, or freely do them harm, even killing them, just as Robertson’s friends were killed. Nevertheless, the fact that He’s given us this capacity to choose between good and evil, and the all-too-observable fact that we often choose evil, does nothing to negate either God’s power, goodness, or ultimate existence. Tragedies like what Leslie Robertson witnessed don’t cause me to doubt the goodness of God, but rather the goodness of man.

Robertson’s rejection of God mirrors the old reasoning of Epicurus, which assumed God’s benevolence is in opposition to His power. For instance, “If He’s omni-benevolent, He isn’t omnipotent, because He didn’t prevent situation X from happening; or if He’s omnipotent, He isn’t omni-benevolent, because He still didn’t prevent situation X from happening.” God not acting the way we want Him to act is seen as either a sign of powerlessness to change the situation, or apathy regarding it. But this is to ignore the fact that God is a free agent. He’s not a force of nature, like gravity, which must act a certain way under certain circumstances. Just because God has the power to do something doesn’t mean He has to, or even that He should. It is entirely possible that God has other priorities than we do, and, given our very finite minds and His omniscience, it’s rather likely that His priorities are sorted out better than ours. If this has been a sticking point for you like it has for Mr. Robertson, I urge you – plead with you – to not let this issue keep you from being reconciled with your loving Creator.