Tag Archives: Bible

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].

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!

No Time

Author’s photo of Big Ben while on a layover in London in 2013.

“Time marches on” – Metallica;
“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin… into the future” – Steve Miller Band;
“Get busy like a schoolboy making an ‘A’ cause time my brother is tickin’ away” – dc Talk;
“Time, why you punish me?” – Hootie & the Blowfish.

The subject of time is a favorite topic of songwriters and poets from all different genres and eras.  I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam later this year, so time has been on my mind a lot lately, too. As I work practice problems, taking far longer than the average time I’ll have on the exam, I’m reminded of how quickly time can pass when you’re busy. As I look at the calendar and realize I only have 7 months left to study, I find myself echoing Dr. Seuss when he observed (in his classic style), “My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” And when I get to the exam, time management will be critical. The temptation in an open-book exam is to waste precious time searching for answers. However, you can’t afford to be looking for answers in all the wrong places; you have to know where to go. Another trap is not having studied the right material and being unprepared for the questions asked on the exam. Suppose I’m more comfortable with steel and concrete design, and only study those areas to the exclusion of wood and masonry. I’ll be in trouble when I don’t know how to work half the problems on the exam. Fortunately, while the actual questions are a surprise, applicants are provided a breakdown of what areas of knowledge are required. So I know in advance that of the four design problems in the afternoon session, there will be one each dealing with concrete, masonry, steel, and wood. Knowing that,  and acting on it, I can (and should) be prepared going into the exam.

But as important as my upcoming exam is for me as an engineer, it is insignificant in comparison to the question of where I will spend eternity. Like the exam, I can waste all my time looking for answers in the wrong references. I can go worship Progress at the altar of secular humanism, or tread the Buddha’s Eightfold Path,  or read the Qur’an and the Hadith of Muhammad, or seek “enlightenment” from the  most respected guru, all to no avail. There is only one way to God, and all these other attempts are only dead ends. Trying to get to God by any of the merely human attempts, rather than the way that He opened up for us, is about as useful as trying to design a masonry shear wall from tables in the Steel Manual. It’s simply the wrong book, no matter how much one believes it has the right answer.

I can also simply ignore my lack of planning in certain areas of life, and appear some day before Jesus Christ, the judge of all, woefully unprepared, with no recourse, no appeals, no “retests”, – no second chances. Maybe you’re too busy chasing money, fame, power, knowledge, success – or even admirable goals like family, or “leading a good life”, or “leaving the world a better place” – to think about God. As Jesus famously said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” [Mk 8:36] Don’t blow this divine exam by ignoring the very things that are actually going to be on “the test”. What will we be tested on come Judgement Day? None of those things we like to use to define a “successful” life. Rather, it all comes down to this: Did you accept God’s free gift of salvation [Ro  6:23] on His terms or did you try to demand it be on your terms? If not His terms, you’ve been preparing for the wrong exam.

Maybe you’d rather not think about death and what might occur afterward, and instead just “focus on the here and now”.  Hey, I prefer using structural steel to masonry, but the fact that I’m not as comfortable designing a masonry shear wall is why I need to study that. Whether I like it or not won’t change the fact that there will be a masonry design problem on the exam. I’ll have only myself to blame if stick my head in the sand and choose not to think about what’s coming. Life is pretty short, when you think about it, even if we die of old age. What’s a hundred years or so in comparison to human history? Tragic accidents, disease, or the acts of murderers and drunk drivers and terrorists and the like can make it considerably shorter.  Unfortunately, you never know exactly when that end will come. Don’t waste the time you have been given looking for answers in all the wrong places or simply avoiding thinking about the questions. The Bible is the master reference book that has the critical answers to life’s big questions: How did all this begin? Who am I? Why am I here? How will all this end? Origin, identity, purpose, and destiny are 4 words that drive much of our search for meaning in life, and they are all answered by our Creator in His book. And if you can read my rambling little blog, but haven’t invested in reading God’s Word, then what are still doing here?! Go buy, borrow, check out, or download a Bible and get to studying!*


*I hesitate to advocate stealing a Bible, although I don’t know any Christian that wouldn’t gladly give their Bible to a potential Scripture thief hungry for “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].

Impatience & Arrogance

“Torah Scribe”, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876

“Patience is a virtue, and I want it now!” Or so goes a common joke. But seriously, it’s frustrating being patient, and especially learning patience, but have you ever considered how impatience is really driven by arrogance? When I’m impatient with someone, I essentially say that my desires are more important than theirs, that I take priority. And honestly, even if my desires actually are more critical than someone else’s in a particular situation, does getting impatient ever help the situation? Not that I’ve seen.

Yet, we tend, in our culture, to be very impatient with God when it comes to His revelation in Scripture. Too often, skeptics – and even Christians – dismiss parts of the Bible that aren’t immediately obvious to them. Christian theologians over the centuries have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, and the Jews studied the Torah for centuries before that; and yet we sometimes think that if it isn’t fully understandable in five minutes, it’s a waste of time. However, we don’t have the same opinion of things like learning music, or calculus, or art, or really anything else. Rather, we fully expect worthwhile subjects to take a long time to understand, and maybe a lifetime to master. So what does it say about us when we have so little patience for learning theology – the study of God? I suggest that it’s arrogance on our part based on how little we really value the Word of God. Of course, I don’t expect the skeptic to value it, but it is disappointing to see so many apathetic Christians willing to dismiss tough sayings in the Bible so casually. Then again, tough sayings are what Jesus used in John 6 to weed out the “fans” from the serious disciples [John 6:60, 66-67]. But woe to those He finds to be only fans.

Even if we do awake from our slumber and spend our lives in pursuing a deeper knowledge of God, will we figure out all those troublesome verses? Not necessarily, and I’m OK with that. Here’s why. Ever since Newton’s time, we have had a good, but very incomplete, understanding of two of the most basic things in the universe: gravity and light. Are they particles or waves? Scientists observed properties that fit both categories for both entities, and have had to just live with a paradox – a wave-particle duality.[1] For instance, regarding light, Albert Einstein stated: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” Recently, evidence was found that seems to have confirmed gravity is a wave [2], but several generations of scientists have had to live their entire lives not knowing the answer to that question. Newton could describe the effects of gravity on objects via his universal law of gravitation, but he couldn’t explain how those effects were actually accomplished. And neither could anyone else with certainty for the next 3 centuries. Even now, future evidence may be found that contradicts how we interpreted the “gravity wave” emanating from a distant black hole collision in 2016. And yet, those scientists, past and present, did not think there was no answer to paradoxical things like light and gravity, or that the answer wasn’t worth seeking. Rather, they sought it all the more diligently. Somehow, though, we have the audacity to think that a difficult biblical passage doesn’t warrant a little humility and extra effort on our part? It takes us centuries to figure out the details of some of the basic operations of the physical universe, and we expect the Creator of that universe to be simpler to figure out? I don’t see that as a reasonable assumption. On the contrary, it stands to reason that the One who created the universe is greater than His creation, and that an infinite being might be a little beyond the grasp of His finite creatures.

In closing, I would encourage you to work through the tough questions; study, research, wrestle with them, and seek the answers from the Author of both the easy and the difficult passages. But don’t ignore the obvious answers you do have in front of you because you haven’t found an agreeable answer to your particular question on a more obscure issue. Don’t focus, as too many do, on secondary issues as reasons to reject God, while conveniently ignoring the primary questions the Bible does answer clearly. Don’t reject the God who must necessarily exist simply because you can’t reconcile two seemingly contradictory passages in His message to us. For in the Bible, we have something that, taken as a whole, explains the human condition better than any other worldview, even if we don’t understand every part of it exhaustively. And that should temper our impatience and its underlying arrogance, and remind us of our finitude and the wisdom of humility.


[1] http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/inquiring/questions/graviton.html
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html

General vs Special Revelation

I was listening to an atheist present his case a while back, and one of his complaints was Christian apologists wanting to start from scratch, trying to prove the existence of generic theism ad nauseam, rather than the Christian Trinitarian God we supposedly believe in. Since his talk was about why he was an atheist, addressing his rejection of theism didn’t seem that unreasonable of a place to start.  But regardless of where we start, there are two fundamental questions to deal with: does God exist? and is the biblical presentation of Him true? The claims of Jesus and the Bible are foolish at best and deceitful at worst if God doesn’t even exist. But these two questions take us into aspects of how God reveals Himself to humanity. Let’s work through that today.

Revelation is simply the revealing of something, and God reveals Himself to us in two ways: general and special revelation. General revelation is also called natural revelation, or natural theology, because it is God’s disclosure about Himself and His relation to His creation, made manifest in physical nature, human nature, and history.[1]  This is the primary focus of apologetics, because we are often talking to people who reject the authority of the Bible. But, of course, God does not leave Himself without a witness, and astronomy, biology, genetics, geology, archeology, history, and philosophy are some of the disciplines that all reveal calling cards of God, consistently pointing us back to Him. Special revelation, on the other hand, is His direct revelation as recorded in the 66 books of the Bible, written by human authors inspired for His purpose, to specific people or groups of people, but also for people of all times and places.

I think of general revelation like the title sheet of a set of contract drawings for a building, while special revelation is the drawings themselves:

  • The title sheet of the drawings tells you who’s responsible for the design of the project: the various architects, engineers, and specialty consultants. Each designer is responsible for their portion, but the architect over the project will have his stamp on there. It’s not his biography, just his stamp certifying that the drawing set is ready to be used for construction. Similarly, we only get a stamp of divine authority in the wonders of nature. You have to go to the Bible for the rest of the story.
  • There will often be a scaled map of the project site showing where the building is in relation to different streets and how it will be oriented. Nowadays, there is often a nicely rendered 3D view of the project, with cars and people to show the scale of the project.  I can tell a lot about the project just from a good title sheet. Is this from a qualified design team known for good work? Is the project in Miami, Florida or Valdez, Alaska? I would expect pretty different types of buildings depending on the location. The first would need to be designed for hurricanes, while the second would need to account for massive snow loads and earthquakes. Just seeing the project location on the title sheet can tell me about some of the design issues dealt with on that project. The 3D view of the building model might tell me that this is a narrow, 50-story office tower in a one-city-block parcel in a crowded downtown environment, or that it’s a sprawling 1-story retail store with acres of parking all around. Natural revelation tells us where we’re situated and gives us an idea of the scope of this “project” we are part of. Going from the smallest cellular machines up to the grandeur of the universe, we realize our own smallness, and God’s awesome majesty to have created everything encompassed by such extremes (and God’s love that He would care about us on this “pale blue dot” of earth).
  • Most importantly, I can’t build off of that title sheet. Sure, I do know a lot about the project from it. I know where to build, roughly how big to build, some of the loads the building will have to be able to handle. But it’s pretty obvious that that isn’t enough. I don’t know any of the internal layout of the building, or how it’s braced against those various loads like hurricane winds, or the critically-important foundations that will support it. That general overview of the project isn’t enough to actually build it. For that, I need to open up the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pages of detailed drawings and other contract documents. In the same way, I can observe the world around me and learn that God exists, and even that He is a conscious being, is powerful, intelligent, immaterial, and eternal. But that’s not enough. Just like I need detailed plans to go with that general knowledge of a proposed building if I want to build anything that will last, I need the detailed message of the gospel if I want to spend eternity with my Creator.

When it comes to your eternal fate, don’t stop at the title page and try building your life on insufficient information, when the Master Designer has made available to you the detailed plans needed to build a life that will endure forever. And don’t ignore the drawings and title sheet altogether, and say there is no Designer as you try building a life on your own. Atheists are fond of saying religion is only a crutch for weak people, but really, it’s simply that making a mess of our lives is usually what it takes to force many of us to reach out to our life’s Designer and ask for help. Sad but true. As an engineer, I put my contact info on any of my structural drawings or reports so that people will reach out to m before they build something wrong and cause a disaster. Likewise, God has left His contact info. Don’t wait until your life comes crashing down before you call your life’s Designer to figure out how it was supposed to go together.


[1] “Revelation, General”, Norm Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).

 

Why We Don’t Clean Up the Bible

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Vasily Polenov, 1888

Ever had junk accumulate around your house until you finally got so sick of seeing it every day that you did some major purging? Sell it, give it away, throw it away -who cares, as long as the mess goes away? What about the Bible? Is there accumulated junk in the Bible? And if there were, shouldn’t it be eliminated?

Well, there actually are some cases of questionable material in the Bible. That may come as a shock for some Christians, while some skeptics might be saying, “Tell me something I don’t know.” But not so fast. While skeptics like Bart Ehrman make much of the textual variants between different manuscripts, like copying errors, and scribal additions and deletions, the vast majority of these variants are typos and spelling differences.  Also, the enormous quantity (and quality) of manuscripts from different times and places  allows us to trace the development of these differences and have a high degree of confidence in what the originals said. For more on the fascinating field of textual criticism, I’d encourage you to check out Dr. Daniel Wallace’s work.[1] But what about cases like the Pericope Adulterae, the story of the woman caught in adultery found in John 7:53-8:12? This is a favorite story of many Christians, but the evidence weighs heavily against it being an authentic part of John’s gospel.  If that’s the case, and we really are concerned about truth – especially in our Holy Scriptures – why does it remain in the Bible?

To answer that, let me provide a more contemporary example. Four of the states I’m licensed in fall under new design provisions for tsunamis that are being introduced for the first time in the US later this year. In the course of researching the new provisions, I came across an interesting article on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  website regarding their investigation and compilation of historical weather data [2].  While tsunamis and hurricanes can both generate large amounts of flooding, they have fundamentally different causes. Hurricanes are atmospheric events, while tsunamis are ground events (typically earthquake-induced, but also possible from landslides, like a 600′ high tsunami in Alaska in 2015 [3]). As it stands now, only the western coast of the US and Hawaii are considered in the new tsunami risk maps, due to two fault lines of the type that can cause tsunamis. But if a tsunami had been recorded on the east coast or gulf coast, then there would be obvious precedent for requiring us engineers to consider that risk in our designs in those areas as well. Well, there was a particular case in 1909 of a reported “tidal wave” sweeping over Grand Isle, Louisiana after a hurricane, killing hundreds. Was this tragic event tied to the hurricane, or was there an earthquake along an unmapped fault line in the gulf? Further investigation and computer simulation of the storm revealed the “tidal wave” to be part of the hurricane storm surge. While no less tragic for the families of those killed, establishing the true cause of past events like this helps us to design for them correctly and save lives in the future. Now, did NOAA delete this entry out of their Tsunami database? No, and here’s their reasoning:

So how does NOAA handle a spurious data record like this one? Do we delete the record? Oddly enough, we leave it in! We include notations that “debunk” the original tsunami designation, set the validity field to 0 (not a tsunami), and indicate that this event is of meteorological origin. If we removed the record entirely, it is likely that it would show up again in some future book or Web site, unopposed by the facts. Someone would email NOAA and say, “I found this great info about a tsunami in Louisiana in 1909. Why isn’t it listed it in your database?”

Can you see the application to biblical manuscripts? When copying manuscripts and confronted with questionable source material, scribes down through the centuries would typically err on the side of including the questionable material, just like NOAA did when they included the 1909 tidal wave in their database in 2002. But the scribes, like NOAA, would also add marginalia – margin notes and symbols – to denote concerns with the text of a passage. Now, if you’ve read almost any modern translation of the Bible, you’ve seen notes in the margin telling you things like, “Some early manuscripts do not contain this sentence”, or in the case of the adulterous woman passage, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:12.” You’ll find similar statements at John 5:3, Mark 16:9-20, and 1 John 5:7-8. The idea is that it’s better to include questionable data, duly noted as such, than to possibly eliminate divinely inspired teaching. Then, later, as more and more manuscripts are discovered and catalogued, if the passage is confirmed to be authentic, it hasn’t been lost due to overzealous “cleaning.” And if it’s confirmed as not genuine, then it is noted as such in each translation, so nobody has to be fooled by an appeal to some “shocking, scandalous, newly discovered Bible verses, hidden for centuries.” Like NOAA, we want to be able to oppose any future challenges with the facts.

Indeed, Bible translations are remarkable in their transparency, noting suspect passages, textual variants, and alternate translations quite openly rather than trying to hide them. But that’s because integrity to God’s Word is of utmost importance to the Christian, and most especially to the translator with the sacred duty of making God’s Word known to people in their own language. Despite the skeptic’s cynicism, we Christians understand that we are accountable before God for how we handle His Word [2 Tim 2:15].  And woe to the one who tries to corrupt it [Rev 22:18-19]. That’s one reason why we don’t translate from previous translations, as some uninformed skeptics like to think. Rather, we go back to the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), and retranslate them into the current vernacular of English, Spanish, German, and so on. And contrary to skeptics’ claims of Bible translation being like the “telephone game”, as we find more (and earlier) manuscripts, our translations become more authentic, not less. In fact, check out Daniel Wallace’s site [4] to see their extremely high-resolution (50 megapixel) photographs of many of the world’s surviving Greek manuscripts (350,000 images and counting). You simply can’t beat that kind of transparency: you can judge the translators’ interpretation of the source material for yourself. So stop blindly accepting the allegations of skeptics about the Bible and start reading all those margin notes yourself! Study up, take Dr. Wallace’s Credo House course on textual criticism like I did, learn some Greek or Hebrew, look at ancient manuscripts – dig deep!  If you do, you’ll find the Bible to be reliable in both its transmission and its content. But then the question remains: what are you gonna do with that discovery? Our Creator, who gave us the message that is the Bible, doesn’t want to be your hobby, and He tells us as much in there. There’s something to think on next time you open up a Bible.


[1] http://www.credocourses.com/product/textual-criticism/
[2] https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/tsunami_database/or_stormsurge.html
[3] https://www.adn.com/alaska-life/we-alaskans/2016/09/11/collapsing-alaska-mountains-southeast-alaska-landslides-and-tsunamis-on-the-rise/
[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Truth Revealed

“Still Life with Bible” – Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

One objection to arguments for the existence of God like the cosmolgical, teleological, or axiological arguments, is that these don’t necessarily show the existence of the Christian God (i.e. the Trinitarian God of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible). That’s true, they don’t. but these arguments do lead you to the necessary existence of a first cause, a supreme designer, and a moral lawgiver – roles all fulfilled by the Being described in the Bible as God. That is a huge step in the right direction. Once you’ve gotten over that big hurdle of admitting that God does (and must) exist, the journey to becoming a Christian can be as short or long as you make it. Sometimes we like to take the long way (just to satisfy ourselves, I suppose), but even if you investigate all the world religions first, a sincere pursuit of truth will lead you back to the God of the Bible.

Now, none of those arguments for God’s existence rely on the Bible. They are all separate lines of philosophical reasoning, pointing to the same conclusion, but they don’t use the most direct explanation of the origins of the universe, life, and morality – the testimony of the Bible. That’s because there are two different sides to God’s revealing of His truth: general revelation and special revelation. General revelation is what He reveals of Himself and His actions in the world around us. That’s why it’s also called “natural theology.” Special revelation is the record we have of God speaking directly to humankind through various chosen people throughout history, and most importantly, through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. These two approaches to revealed truth are like the difference between forensics and testimony. You might try to piece together who left some incredible surprise gift on your porch from the little bits of evidence you can scrape together. You may be able to narrow down the list of suspects from the large shoe size tracks leading up to the porch, or some other forensic clues. But if you received a letter in the mail the next day from your good friend explaining that it was from him and why he did it, wouldn’t that simplify things tremendously? The Bible is that letter explaining everything!

Or consider this example from my engineering job.  The American Institute of Steel Construction publishes a rather hefty little book every so often that’s commonly just known as “the steel manual”. It’s filled with all kinds of good information relating to steel design, and I reference it nearly every day for something or other. If I couldn’t remember the formula for deflection of a beam, for instance, would I have to have that book? No, I could do an experiment with a stick over 2 supports with different weights hanging in the middle, and eventually work out the relationship between loading and deflection of beams. But it would likely take me a while, and probably wouldn’t be very exact. Or I could look in Table 3-23 and quickly confirm that the deflection of a simply supported, uniformly-loaded beam is (5wL^4)/(384EI). Now, that’s an example of something that I can determine from actual experiment or from simply reading the book. However, there are other things that no amount of experiments will tell me. For example, in design, we use various safety factors to account for variability in real-life conditions, and to provide a somewhat consistent “cushion” in case of accidental (or deliberate) overloading. Can I ever determine that from any experiments? Not really. That’s because these are philosophical reasons. We generally prefer nice, slow, ductile yielding of building framing in the event of a failure rather than sudden, brittle, snapping without warning. The first warns the occupants of the building that something’s wrong, giving them time to evacuate; the latter can result in sudden collapse and many tragic deaths. Therefore, our design philosophy is to favor ductile limits over brittle ones.[1] But that philosophy, and the values of the safety factors we derive from that goal, can only be determined by going to the authoritative source, AISC’s book.

Similarly, there are some general things about Himself that God has revealed in nature, and that we can determine from rational thinking. But for the most part, you need to go to His book. I’ve heard friends say that they would believe if God did something like write “I made you. – God” across the sky, or arranged the stars to say something similar. Ironically, they say they would believe at a rather short, simplistic message, even though God has left a long, detailed message in the form of the Bible. I encourage you to use all the resources available to you; explore both God’s general revelation and special revelation. The world-famous atheist Antony Flew finally had to admit there was a God just from the general revelation of God in the clear design of DNA. Sadly though, it doesn’t appear that he was willing to take the next logical step before he died. Don’t complain of not having enough of a message from God when He has left you His own narrative. He has taken the stand, so to speak, and testified of Himself. Don’t dismiss Him without reading what He has to say.


[1] AISC Steel Construction Manual, 14th Ed (2010), Commentary on section J.4., p.16.1-413. Also, Commentary on section K2, p. 16.1-427.

Biblical Abortion?

Man w BiblePreviously, I detailed scientific reasons why abortion is, in fact, murder. In that post (here), I mentioned that these are reasons to support the Christian position on abortion. But what is the Christian position on abortion? In the past, I would’ve said it was a unanimous agreement that abortion is wrong. But in researching this, I found there are segments of Christianity that do support having the option to abort a baby under some conditions.[1] So it would seem that Christians aren’t unanimous on this question. For us, it always comes back to what the Bible says, and sure enough, Christians supporting abortion choice do try to justify their view with the Bible. Let’s dig into that today and see if there is a biblical case for abortion. Here are a few of those attempts to justify this practice.

  • One site I found actually stated that abortion is okay because that word isn’t mentioned in the Bible. True, it’s not; but murder is, and it’s clearly prohibited. Also, while the word “abortion” may not be mentioned, neither is the word “embezzlement”, yet it is clearly unacceptable by the prohibition on stealing. For that matter, the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible either, but that hasn’t stopped us from recognizing the concept there and formulating a word for it.
  • That same site also tried to say that abortion was an example of stewardship, and we are called to be good stewards of what God has given us. Now, this twisted logic is based on the mother being a “good steward” of her body and aborting her baby if it would cause her any negative effects like physical or emotional distress. If this version of “stewardship” seems a little self-centered, it is. Consider Merriam-Webster’s definition of stewardship: “The activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.”[2] The very idea of stewardship is that you are taking care of something that is not yours. Regarding the mother taking care of her body (at the expense of her baby’s), I would suggest that this is similar to the idea that “your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begins.” The baby is clearly not part of the mother’s body, as evidenced by different DNA, duplicate organs, and often different blood type and even gender. Therefore, I would say the mother’s right to be a “steward” of her body ends where such activity harms the baby. In fact, taking care of her body such that it prevents harm to the baby is generally recognized as a mother’s obligation. Hence, the warnings to not drink or smoke during pregnancy. In reality, motherhood is a beautiful example of stewardship, but abortion is actually to reject being a steward of what is consistently described as a gift from God.
  • Genesis 2:7 is cited as biblical support for abortion in that Adam, the first man, did not become a living soul until God breathed the breath of life into him. This is taken to mean that babies do not become living souls until they take their first breath. Aside from the fact that babies are going through the motions of breathing amniotic fluid in and out of their lungs for months before they are born (as early as 10 weeks [3]), it should be pretty clear that Adam and Eve were unique in all of humanity. Neither went through through the birth process, and both appear to have been formed as fully adult humans, so applying their case to babies is to go beyond any reasonable support of the text.
  • Numbers 3:39-43 is used to justify abortion because God commanded a census to be taken, counting all the Levites over a month old. This is taken as an insinuation that their lives didn’t count prior to 1 month. Not being counted for a census is not the same as not being counted as a human life. The first is a pragmatic consideration while the second is ontological. The census was concerned with counting a large number of people in a time of high infant mortality. The first month is a dangerous time for any baby, but especially in primitive Bedouin-type conditions. Babies that survived the first month were much more likely to survive to adulthood, thus warranting their being counted in a census.
  • Ecclesiastes 6:3-5 is taken as meaning that a miscarriage is better than an unhappy life. Please note first that a natural miscarriage is a far cry from an intentional dismemberment. But even if this verse were an endorsement of abortion for “quality of life” concerns, Ecclesiastes is King Solomon’s search for the true meaning of life by investigating all the dead-end roads. One could come away with a lot of strange ideas if you read parts of Ecclesiastes, even extended parts, without reading the whole thing. The first and final chapter are the bookends that give the context for that experiment in folly, as Solomon finally concludes that the rest of his search for meaning apart from God was just that – folly. Don’t take a man’s depressed ramblings about the futility of life as endorsement for killing those yet to be born. Moreover, we have no way of knowing what the future holds for any of us as far as “quality of life”, so who are we to decide for an unborn baby that their future won’t measure up? I will tell you right now, there are physically deformed and/or mentally handicapped people out there with more joy in their lives than many millionaires with the world at their fingertips. Frankly, it’s rather arrogant for us to think we can correctly guess whether a baby with serious issues would grow up to consider his or her life “worth it” or not. That depends on their perspective, not ours. Nick Vujicic w FamilyLet’s face it, a lot of people supporting abortion for “quality of life” concerns would probably have chosen to abort evangelist, motivational speaker, husband, father, and author, Nick Vujicic if they had known he would be born without arms or legs. So let’s not pretend we can “see the end from the beginning”; only God can do that.

There’s 5 attempts to justify abortion using the Bible. Hopefully, you’ve seen that these simply aren’t good reasons. Have you come across other justifications for abortion that you believe are legitimate? Share them in a comment and let’s work through them together. 🙂


[1] The United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Episcopal Church, to varying degrees. See 2013 Pew Report at http://www.pewforum.org/2013/01/16/religious-groups-official-positions-on-abortion/.
[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stewardship, accessed 2016/08/24.
[3] https://www.ehd.org/prenatal-summary.php#fb34

Permanence

churchAs an engineer, most of the states I’m licensed in require that I take continuing education courses to keep up with new technology, new laws and codes, new analysis methods, and so forth. A recent email advertised a webinar on “Design Considerations for Wood Frame Construction for Permanence.” I admit, I work primarily with steel, and live in a part of the US with high humidity and termites, so I tend to not associate the words “wood” and “permanence”. But the picture in the email caught my eye because it was something I’ve had the opportunity to see for myself: a Norwegian Stave Church. These are wooden church buildings built in Norway in the Middle Ages, with the oldest surviving one being almost 900 years old. That’s about as permanent as you can get with wood construction! They are beautiful buildings to walk through, and a real testament to the craftsmanship of those early builders.

That reminder of permanence made me think of a project I played a small part in recently, at the opposite end of the spectrum, where I did some steel connection design for a new multipurpose community center being built in a nearby city. What was surprising about that project was that this new building was being built over an old airport. In fact, the swimming pool was going to be practically in the middle of where the runway had been. Now, an airport is usually a big infrastructure investment for a city. Yet that airport was being demolished to build a community athletic center. Soon there will be no evidence left of this significant land use other than a few oddly aviation-related street names, and a listing in outdated maps that will get replaced shortly. Eventually, streets will be renamed and/or rerouted, and there will be no physical evidence left that there was ever an airport there. So it is with much of what we design and build. Even when we design for an indefinite service life, most of our finished projects will likely be demolished at some point because their location is more valuable for some future enterprise than the building we invested so much time in designing.

What will archaeologists 1000 years from now find to tell them about our culture? With our culture’s emphasis on updating, recycling, “planned obsolescence”, and designing for defined product lifecycles instead of indefinite use, would future people be able to ascertain any specific details of our civilization? Especially in our digital age, there is surprisingly little durable evidence of much of what we do. That’s something to keep in mind when approaching the Bible. We don’t have physical evidence for everything described in the Bible, but it’s actually pretty amazing that we have any evidence from so long ago.  And what we have found matches up well with what the Bible describes. Rather than look at the absence of confirming evidence as a strike against the Bible as so many have, look at how much is confirmed. As the archeologist Sir William Ramsey found when he went to Asia Minor in the late 1800’s to investigate the historicity of the biblical book of Acts, the evidence speaks for itself. In fact, he tells us that “I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without any prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now attempt to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, …. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[1] You see, Ramsey approached the case regarding the authorship of Acts from the then-currently espoused view that Acts was written by an anonymous Christian centuries after the events described, motivated more by pushing an agenda than telling the truth. But he was open to other possibilities and willing to follow the evidence wherever it led him. And it led him to the conviction that Luke was the author of Acts and was an eyewitness and was, in fact, a historian of impeccable quality. In the 100+ years since Ramsay investigated the claims of the Bible, even more corroborating evidence has been discovered to support the book of Acts and many other accounts in the Bible (read more here).

We live in a constantly changing world where permanence is a very relative term. “Here today, gone tomorrow”, as the saying goes. Knowing that, a lack of evidence for historical events shouldn’t surprise us. Many ancient events took place in oral cultures where little was written down. Even when they were recorded, those records have often been lost forever due to wars, political purges, floods, fires, earthquakes, and other destructive events. But when we have a record like the Bible that continues to be confirmed over and over again,  we have to set aside whatever skepticism we approached it with, and be willing to admit when we’ve gone beyond “reasonable” doubt. As Ramsay would say, “We must face the facts boldly.”[2] When we do, we find that they lead straight to God.


[1] William Ramsay,  St Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (Illustrated), Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 304-309.
[2] ibid., Location 390.