Tag Archives: trials

How Apologetics Builds a Tougher Faith

Question: would you rather find out the roof over your head was ready to collapse before it actually happened, or after? Afterward doesn’t really help, does it? Now, a question for the Christians out there: would you rather find out where your trust in God is weak before it gets put to the test, or afterward? Maybe for some of you, if you were honest, you might say, “I claim I trust that God is good, and that He is sovereign… but if I ever got cancer, or my child died, or something bad happened on a massive scale (like a tsunami), my trust in God would be destroyed.” Honesty is good; it’s hard to fix a problem if we ignore it or gloss over it. But would your sudden distrust in God, or even a change to disbelief in His very existence, change anything about Him? If He exists and is truly good, and omnipotent, and omniscient, and sovereign, would your changing belief about Him change anything about Him, or just about you? Just you, obviously. Someone can not believe I’m an engineer all they want, and it does nothing to my credentials or occupation. Likewise, God is independent of our changing views of Him. So the issue here isn’t really about God, but rather the frailty of our trust in Him. How do you toughen up a frail faith? Let’s work through that today.

I used to work as an engineer at a company that made steel roof joists – like what you see when you look up in any of the big box stores like Wal-Mart. One of the things we did was destructively test a sampling of our joists to make sure they behaved the way they were supposed to. The picture at the top of this post was one such test. You don’t want to design a roof for 30 pounds per square foot of snow load, and cut things so close that an extra inch of snow one year collapses the building. With that in mind, the Steel Joist Institute required us to have a factor of safety of 1.65: each joist needed to be able to handle an overload of 65% of its design capacity.  However, we didn’t want to be right at that minimum where everything had to go perfectly in production to meet it. Everyone involved in designing and building the joist are fallible, after all. So we liked to see tested joists not failing until loaded to twice what they were designed for. And those overload conditions did happen over the years. I remember a case where a roof drain got plugged on one building during a bad storm, and the roof collapsed under the weight of an unplanned rooftop swimming pool. Thankfully, it failed when nobody was in the building. As it turned out, that was several times what the roof was designed for, and even in failure, the joists performed amazingly well.

We began to look for ways to make our joists tougher – that is, able to handle more permanent deformation (i.e. overloading) without breaking. We found that highly-optimized open-web trusses tend to have common failure locations, like the 2nd web from each end that is noted in the picture. Under normal loading, that web has the highest compression load of any of the webs. Why does that matter? Have you ever stood on an empty soda can? If you stand on it carefully and evenly, you can put your full weight on the can without it flattening. But if you wiggle a little (adding some eccentricity to your compressive load), the can immediately crushes without any warning. That sudden buckling is what we wanted to avoid happening in our joists. Instead, we wanted the long, drawn-out failure mode of tensile yielding that gives lots of warning first (like how silly putty or the cheese on pizza stretches a long ways before it finally pulls apart). Getting back to our joists, since that second web will tend to fail first, strengthening that one member on each end can significantly increase the failure load, and the chance for people to evacuate an overloaded building. I personally got to repair a joist that had failed in testing at that web, and then watch the amazing performance as it was retested. Not only did it pass the test, it maxed out the test equipment! Such a small change for such dramatic results. That test convinced me of the value of thinking about how my designs react when taken outside their design envelope.

Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Christianity or apologetics? The Bible tells us that we are in a spiritual war, whether we realize it or not. Chances are good that at some point in the Christian journey, your trust in God will be severely challenged – overloaded, so to speak. How will you react? Are there weak links in your life that look solid until they’re actually put to the test? I’ve seen too many tragic cases of people claiming to be Christians and leaving the church after exposure to some event or some unforeseen objection “destroyed their faith”. Maybe they grew up insulated from any objections, or worse, were told that asking questions was bad. Their trust in God was just a house of cards waiting to collapse the minute someone brought up some of the objections of atheists like Richard Dawkins or Dan Barker (as answerable as those are). Or maybe they grew up thinking that Christian faith was some kind of charm against bad things happening to them (in spite of the overwhelming testimony of almost every book of the Bible, many of the early church fathers, and the long bloody history of martyrdom of Christians the world over up to the present day). That’s called being set up for failure. But apologetics helps us in the following ways:

  • It strengthens those weak links by forcing us to examine ourselves [2 Cor 13:5] and reinforce our areas of distrust with true biblical knowledge, supporting evidence, and sound reasoning rather than just gloss over them. For some, that self-examination may even make them aware that their faith is just a charade and that there is no actual relationship with Jesus as Lord supporting their “Christian” life. That’s an important oversight to correct!
  • In seeking to give an answer to those who ask for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15], apologetics forces us to look at our beliefs from an outside perspective, anticipate questions, and actively search for answers so that we might be prepared. Knowing why you believe what you believe will strengthen your trust in God even if nobody ever asks you about your beliefs.
  • Apologetics reminds us that we don’t have a “blind faith” but rather a very well-grounded faith in God. Even when we don’t know the answer to every question, we are reminded that we can trust God based on the positive answers we do have. That is the very opposite of the “blind faith” skeptics like to assume Christians rely on.

May you be ever-growing in the knowledge of the truth of God, knowing with certainty in whom you have believed, understanding more each day how trustworthy God is, never failing to persevere through the trials that must surely come. Grace to you 🙂

On Suffering

“Job” by Jacob Jordaans, 1620

“Into each life some rain must fall.”  Those famous words come from the (somewhat) hopeful conclusion to the sad poem “The Rainy Day“,[1] penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after his wife’s death.  Some lives seem to have a lot more “rain” than others. How do we explain the obvious presence of much suffering in our world? What purpose is there in it? As an engineer, I tend to think about the purposes behind things a lot because that is one of the key features of design, and one is likely to get better results if you understand something’s purpose. Using a screwdriver as a hammer may somewhat work in an emergency, but it will be more frustrating and not produce as good of results because that’s not its purpose for which it was designed. But can there be purpose to our suffering? I think so. Will we always be able to determine that purpose? Sadly, no. We are finite creatures and see things but dimly now, yet there there will come a time of clarity [1Cor 13:12] when we see things from God’s perspective and recognize His supreme wisdom. In the meantime, let’s see what we can see.

The Christian view of suffering is unique among worldviews. Suffering is real and expected, both generally because of the fallen nature of the world, and specifically for Christians because we are to be different from the rest of the world, and that often doesn’t go over well [1Pet 4:4]. In fact, most of the books of the New Testament specifically tell us as Christians to expect trials, persecution, suffering, tribulations — just a generally rough road! But the Bible also consistently tells us that we are not traveling that hard road alone, that we have a source of strength and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit who is with us through all of it. The Bible also tells us that suffering can have purpose in the following ways:

  • Suffering can have good results. As Romans 8:28-29 tell us, all things, even suffering – are ultimately for the good for those who “love God and are called according to His purpose”. What is “good”? Verse 29 tells us – it’s to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus. We tend to think of the “good” in that verse in very earthly terms, but God has a much larger plan. That may involve a lot of suffering as in the case of Joseph [Gen 50:20], Job [Job 1:13-22], or Paul (Acts 9:15-16), but remember how Paul considered all his trials nothing more than “light and momentary troubles” compared to an “eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” [2Cor 4:17]
  • Suffering can be for our moral development. [Rom 5:3-5, 1Pet 4:12-19] “Some people gotta learn the hard way” could describe all of humanity at some point or another. I used to think I did pretty well at learning from other people’s mistakes, so I didn’t have to learn the hard way, but I’ve since learned that I just hadn’t been confronted with my own pet vices at that point. I was just as difficult of a learner as anyone else when it came to letting go of the things I wanted to hold on to. Also, some virtues like courage, patience, and perseverance really can’t be developed without some kind of trial. The suffering is the process that develops the virtue, and there is no shortcut to those virtues.
  • Suffering can make us better able to comfort others. [2Cor 1:4] As much as I would like to be able to offer some meaningful words of wisdom to someone going through a particular type of problem, it just doesn’t mean as much if I haven’t gone through that problem. Even if I voice genuinely encouraging and insightful truth that is exactly what somebody in a tough time needs to hear, my words may still be seen as well-meaning but unhelpful, or as simply empty platitudes, because I don’t have first-hand experience of what they’re going through. There is a comfort in shared experience that reaches wounds in the human heart that intellectual knowledge alone can’t get to. What I say as an outsider may be very true, but if I’ve gone through that same type of situation and survived, my way of communicating that truth will likely be a lot more discerning, and will carry a lot more significance coming from a survivor.
  • Suffering can be a wake-up call. C.S. Lewis famously said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [2] Sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that. When things are going well, we tend to feel very self-sufficient. We don’t think we need God. It’s often only when we hit rock-bottom that we finally are willing to admit that we need God.

We instinctively recoil at the idea of random or gratuitous pain and suffering. We hope for a design behind it, some reason to explain it. Hence that common question, “Why?” Only Christianity redeems suffering and points to a restorative purpose. Although we can see reasons for some suffering, there is still much that remains a mystery to us. But one thing I’ve learned (albeit imperfectly) is to trust God when I can’t see what He’s doing because of what I have seen Him do in the past. And I know that He can use whatever I’m going through to mold me into what I need to become in His plan rather than what I want to become in my plan. He can take the natural suffering resulting from storms and earthquakes, and the man-made suffering like when we reap the consequences of our own bad decisions or when we’re the innocent bystander affected by someone else’s bad decisions, and He can work that into His grand design that will simply astound us when we finally see the the completed work. In the end, even our suffering will lead us to worship God, and, as the Westminster Catechism says, that is the chief end (or purpose) of man.


[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Rainy Day, 1842 (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=39).
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan ,1971) p.93.

The Problem of Earthquakes

1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey.  Photo Credit: USGS
1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey. Photo Credit: USGS

The problem of evil or suffering in the world has often been used by atheists to attack the idea of the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. Yet, much of the suffering in our world can be traced back to causes related to our free choices as humans. Even natural effects like birth defects in an area might be tied to hazardous waste deliberately covered up in the community, drug use by the mother during pregnancy, or to the use of lead-based paints in an older house, for example. In the first 2 cases we see the suffering was the result of malicious (or at least irresponsible) human activity, while the last one highlights our woefully finite knowledge of the future effects of our actions.

But the skeptic can turn to natural disasters and say that if God exists, these can surely be blamed on Him. We even tend to call them “acts of God” in our insurance policies. If He is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and desires the good of His creation, then surely He has either directly caused these horrible disasters, or known they were going to happen and refused to stop them. The skeptical reasoning then goes that either God is not good, or He is unable to stop these events (and therefore not worthy of being called “God”), or He simply doesn’t exist. It’s hard to see the misery and suffering in the wake of something like the Haitian earthquake of 2010 (magnitude 7.0 – 220,000 dead), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake – 230,000 dead), and not ask “Why?” But while I would agree with the skeptic that this is a legitimate question to ask, I propose an alternative response: that even as awful as things like earthquakes can be, they are actually a necessary part of human existence. Allow me to explain.

I’ve seen occasional comments about the role of plate tectonics (the process that results in earthquakes) in making earth suitable for life for a few years now (like in the 2004 book “Origins of Life” by Dr. Fazale Rana & Dr. Hugh Ross, both Christians), but the always thought-provoking blogger Wintery Knight recently shared 2 non-Christian sources that had come to similar conclusions. One was a 2013 Forbes.com interview with atheist paleontologist Peter Ward regarding his and agnostic astronomer Donald Brownlee’s view on the potential for life on planets outside our solar system. They had written on this in their book Rare Earth back in 2000. In the interview, Ward is asked about the common appeal to the sheer number of extra-solar planets as statistical evidence for life having formed elsewhere in the universe. He responds that “Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.” Tilman Spohn, director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, also views plate tectonics as likely being essential to the existence of complex life on any planet. In 2009, he pointed NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine readers to plate tectonics’ role in 1) the formation of granite, a necessary element in forming continents, 2) the replenishment of key elements essential for life chemistry as we know it, 3) the generation of the earth’s protective magnetic field through formation of convection currents in the molten core, and 4) the recycling of carbon to regulate temperature on the planet. On that last item, it’s worth mentioning, with all of the concern over the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and mankind’s “carbon footprint” over the last few years, that 80% of the natural capture of greenhouse gases is accomplished through plate tectonics as carbon is captured in freshly exposed silicates that are eroded and pushed under the tectonic plates to be recycled in the earth’s mantle. The other 20% is sequestered by plants and animals storing carbon in their bodies, dying, being buried, and eventually being turned into deposits of hydrocarbons (i.e. “fossil fuels”).[1]

Now what is interesting about these proposals is the significance plate tectonics is having in whether non-Christian scientists view a potential alien planet as even capable of supporting life. It seems that as we learn more about the role of tectonic activity in our own world, it becomes increasingly unlikely that simply being in a “habitable zone” of a distant star is enough. Thus, despite the odds put forward of “700 quintillion” exoplanets throughout the universe, and statistically, some other planet surely having evolved life of similar complexity to us, it simply can’t happen without the earthquakes we fear and despise. Instead of being an indication of a cruel, uncaring, or nonexistent god, we are beginning to see that these earthquakes that inflict so much suffering are actually a part of a very special (and so far, entirely unique) habitat that appears to be especially designed to allow our overall flourishing.  Rather than evolutionary chance causing life on earth and potentially other worlds, what we keep running into is very deliberate, precise, design of systems of complex interacting systems indicative of an omniscient and omnipotent Creator.

Lastly, as an engineer, I’d like to point out that the extreme loss of life in the 2 earthquakes cited above should be compared with that in some other significant quakes. Chile has endured earthquakes like few countries in the world, including the largest earthquake ever recorded. But they have also worked hard to develop seismic-resistant buildings. The magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake of May 22, 1960, the largest magnitude ever recorded, killed less than 6,000 people. Chile’s magnitude 8.8  quake in 2010  occurred only a month after the Haitian quake, and was roughly 500 times more powerful, yet less than 600 people died in Chile. Less than 20 people died in the magnitude 8.3 quake in 2015. In the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the 2nd largest ever recorded at magnitude 9.2, 139 people died. Even the devastating 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 killed less than one-tenth of the people that the 7.0 Haitian quake did. While earthquakes are serious business anywhere, their effects can be mitigated. It is good to remember that while these appear to actually be essential to the existence of life on Earth, they are also something we can design for. The experience of the Chileans, the Japanese, and Americans has shown that these major components of our planet’s lifecycle don’t have to be an obstacle to belief in God, for He has also given us the minds to work around these events, and the resources to implement those plans and prevent the suffering so often cited as “evidence” against God’s goodness. In fact, maybe the suffering caused by earthquakes is not so much evidence of God’s inadequacy, as it is our own, in our lack of cooperative development of disaster-resistant construction around the world.


[1] Hugh Ross & Fazale Rana, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2004), p. 215.

Getting Fitted for Heaven

Tailor´s_shop_-_Werkstatt_2As we draw near to Christmas, you can hear various “Christmas” songs on the radio and in stores and whatnot. Many of them would perhaps be better described as “winter holiday” songs, as they seem to be be completely unrelated to the story of Christ’s birth, which is, after all, the whole point of the holiday, but I digress.  One classic Christmas song that many are familiar with (or at least the first stanza), is “Away in a Manger”.  But tucked away in the 3rd stanza is this little gem:

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”
– Away in a Manger, 3rd Stanza

We sang this version of this classic Christmas carol from the late 1800’s at church a couple of years ago, and that last line just really struck me. “Fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” This life – the good times and the bad, the boundless joy and the heart-rending sorrow, the blessings and the trials – is a fitting process God uses to prepare us for our eternal life. And if you don’t know about that going on, this life can seem meaningless, chaotic, and tragic. One can see God’s blessings as simply good fortune/luck/serendipity, and the trials we are all subjected to ever since mankind’s initial rebellion against God as bad luck/cruel fate/karma. One can ask “Why me?” One can feel constantly blindsided by “life”. Or we can submit to the alterations of the Master Tailor, who takes our filthy rags[1] and clothes us with His righteousness[2,3,4]. He doesn’t alter the clothes to fit us (much as we might prefer in our pride), but instead alters us to fit the clothes. Like a child wearing his father’s 3-piece suit, His righteousness doesn’t fit us at all. But then He takes our deformities of pride, lust, anger, and selfishness, and straightens our crooked limbs and stretches us until we conform to His image[5]. Having been so fitted for heaven in this life, we really will feel “right at home” when we get there.


[1]  Isaiah 64:6 – “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
[2] Isaiah 61:10 – “…[H]e has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…”
[3] Matthew 22:11-13 – part of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast, where the king (God) invites his chosen people (Israel) to a wedding feast, but they refuse. He then sends out the invitation to all. Verse  11 picks up with “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend’, he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Our attempts at righteousness – our rags – can never earn us a seat at God’s banquet. Only Christ’s “new clothes” make us presentable to a holy, perfect God.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is called “imputed righteousness”, where our sin is imputed, or charged, to Christ’s account, and His righteousness is imputed to us, declaring us righteous (through Him and not of ourselves).
[5] Justification could be likened to this initial “fitting” where we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, while sanctification would correspond to that life-long gradual molding and conforming to God’s intent for us.

The Storms of Life

Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast
Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast

On November 15th, 1860, the lamp of the rebuilt lighthouse on Minots Ledge in Massachusetts was turned on for the first time. The notoriously rough seas of the area had shipwrecked dozens of ships and destroyed the first lighthouse erected on iron pilings cemented into the stone of the reef a few years earlier, and that after only a few months in operation. After that lighthouse on iron stilts was destroyed in the 1850s, it was replaced with the current one made out of 2,360 tons of granite. In fact, the first 40 feet of the lighthouse is solid granite made of interlocking stones chiseled precisely to interlock with each other and the jagged rock ledge it’s built on (check out the blueprint at the bottom of this post). Interestingly, this particular “jobsite” was only available to work on for about 2-3 hours a day at low tide in calm weather, took 5 years to construct because of this, and was the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the US. But 154 years later, and this solid rock still stands, it’s light still visible 15 miles out to sea, even though waves have occasionally gone completely over the top of the 97′ high lighthouse. While the lighthouse isn’t particularly beautiful on its own, the addition of especially horrendous and otherwise destructive waves makes it very photogenic and awe-inspiring. It is the storm that highlights the hidden character and strength of the lighthouse.

Sometimes, storms come into our lives that threaten to destroy us: disabling injuries, natural disasters, long-term illnesses. Maybe you’ve been through a car wreck with months or years of recovery (if at all). Maybe a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami has literally wiped away all signs of your “life” in a matter of seconds. Maybe you’ve battled cancer, where the doctor’s “good news” was surgery and/or months of chemotherapy or radiation, followed by tests and hopes of cure/remission, only to be set back by the cancer returning twice as aggressive. Or maybe  you’ve just received the crushing diagnosis of late-stage cancer and you only have weeks to live. Sometimes the storm in your life is the stress of caring for a loved one with a terminal disease, the heartbreak of seeing your children go down a dark path in life where you fear for their life, or the anxiety from losing one’s source of income (but none of the bills). It seems there are a thousand different ways to be beaten and battered by life’s storms, and so few ways to stay standing.  Similarly, there were many inadequate ways to build the lighthouse at Minots Ledge, but one way that has stood strong through the worst of storms.

Are there lessons here for us? I think so. First off, if our life is founded on the Rock of Christ and dovetailed into that Rock of Ages such that the storm surge increases the strength of our foundation rather than pulling it apart, then we can stand firm even when the storms of life submerge us, just like the Minots Ledge lighthouse. In fact, our steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds may very well be the “photograph” someone else needs to see in the depths of their life storm to encourage them and keep them from giving up. But the key is the foundation. An iron will is useless with feet of clay, but the whole spectrum of human effort is like subtle grades of clay compared to the bedrock that is Christ Jesus.
Second, the lighthouse doesn’t just sit on the solid rock, but is fitted to it like a jigsaw puzzle and pinned in place; it has become one with the rock ledge.  Likewise, knowing about God isn’t enough. That’s like just sitting on the surface of the rock waiting to be swept off by the first storm.
Third, the individual stones of the lighthouse dovetail together beautifully. This is exemplified when Jesus tells us “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Our beliefs are fragile when they’re compartmentalized. But when they interlock together in an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual fortress fitted into the unmoving rock of Christ, we are storm-proof in Him.

Minot's Ledge Drawing - courtesy of http://research.archives.gov