Tag Archives: Trust

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 🙂

Qualifications

Black Diamond - for experts only...
Black Diamond – for experts only…

There is a trend I’ve noticed in debates (especially online) where it is put forth that who you are disqualifies you from making any statement on a controversial issue. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as the genetic fallacy, that a statement’s origin can determine whether it’s true or false. And yet it persists in the public square. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve been personally challenged with: you can’t speak about human behavior unless you’re a psychologist; you can’t speak about science without being a scientist; you can’t speak about abortion unless you’re a woman; you can’t speak about legal issues unless you’re a lawyer, and on and on. Since this is often brought up, let’s look at this in more detail.

First off, does someone trained in a particular discipline and working in that area have an advantage over the typical layman in discussing that topic? Certainly, but this doesn’t preclude other people from forming reasonably valid opinions on the same topic. For instance, if you want to know whether your office building can support a heavier rooftop air conditioning unit, by all means, call an engineer like myself to investigate that for you. We’ll apply our knowledge, experience, and specialized analysis software to your situation to work out the safest, best solution to the problem. But if you’re in your office, and the roof is starting to visibly sag, the sheetrock on the walls is starting to buckle inward, and you can hear loud noises as bolts suddenly snap, please, don’t think you need to wait on an “expert” to tell you that you need to get out! That situation doesn’t require an expert to say “Run!” There is a difference between needing the fine-tuned conclusion that a subject matter expert can bring to a topic and needing to establish the broad, basic solution that can be deduced by anyone applying valid reasoning to the evidence at hand. In the roof collapse example, it doesn’t really matter to the occupants whether the roof beams are failing due to lateral-torsional buckling or by block shear at the column connection. They can look at the ceiling getting closer to their heads, and listen to the building, and reasonably come to the same basic conclusion as the engineer: this building is collapsing and we need to evacuate. Likewise, you don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize the guy trying to run people off the road has some serious anger issues he needs to deal with. And lawyers, despite their expertise, actually don’t decide the guilt or innocence of a person charged with murder. They can only explain the case; average citizens on the jury make the decision.   This idea that only experts on a topic can speak on any level about that subject leads to blind faith in those experts, and is really a forfeiture of our responsibility to dig deep and understand the issues we face. Please understand, this is a standard I hold myself to as well. If you hire me as an engineer, and I make some crazy-sounding recommendation that I can’t explain any basis for, don’t blindly trust me either – by all means, call me out on it.

Something else to consider is that amateur enthusiasts often develop extensive knowledge in those areas that attract them. For example, I don’t often have to deal with liquefaction as a design consideration, but someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake because it was built on susceptible soil may devote their life to learning everything they can about liquefaction mitigation. Even though they may not have the engineering credentials that I do, I might still do well to heed what they say about that topic. I’d want to verify how they arrived at their conclusion, but we should never discount someone’s statements simply because of the person making the statements. You see, ultimately, the objective nature of truth determines the validity of the message, not the qualifications of the messenger.

Often, when I get this kind of pushback, the person I’m debating ironically also doesn’t meet the qualifications they demand of me before I can speak on the topic. By their own standard, they shouldn’t be voicing their opinion either. But typically, this is just a tactic for attempting to shut down the conversation. For example, one time, an abortion supporter told me I couldn’t comment on anything about abortion because I wasn’t a woman. And yet, the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of abortion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case were all men. The difference? Only that they were agreeing with her position.

Are we free from the duty of making informed decisions? Can we just “leave that to the experts?” Can we ignore the claims of those who aren’t experts? Not as Christians, we can’t. The Bible tells us to “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[1] That may surprise some who assume the Bible demands a “blind faith” or a “leap in the dark”, but we actually aren’t allowed to check our minds at the door. We need to study the evidence, reason through the implications, and make the wisest, most discerning choices we can, in whatever the matter is at hand, even if we’re not experts.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

The Engineer’s Faith

Leonhard_Euler - portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.
Leonhard_Euler – portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.

Engineering and faith might not be two words you normally associate, but faith is nevertheless an integral part of our profession. What tends to obscure this relationship for many today is the rather antagonistic definition of faith promoted by atheists as “belief in spite of the evidence.” Certainly, that is the last characteristic you’d want in the engineer designing your new home/office/hospital/school/etc. But as I’ve written extensively on this site (here especially), that is not the biblical definition of faith. Biblical faith is rather a warranted trust, or looking at the Greek root for the word, a divine persuasion. Let’s look at a scenario that exemplifies the correlation between biblical faith and “engineering faith”.

Suppose I told a client that an existing column in a building being renovated would need to be reinforced or replaced, at significant cost, or else it would fail under the new loads the owner wanted to add. Now suppose the owner didn’t like this and wanted to argue about whether this was really necessary (yes, this does happen). He could ask whether I’d ever actually seen a column that big fail. Or, supposing that part of the issue was tied to increased seismic loads on the existing structure caused by this new addition, he might ask if I’d ever experienced an earthquake, because he had, and it wasn’t that bad… In both cases, I’d have to answer “no”. So what is my basis for saying he needs to perhaps double the cost of his renovation? My trusted engineering books. Here’s why:

  • I trust the authors. While I’ve never personally seen a large column fail, I don’t have to have personally seen it to know it can truly happen. Various people over the years have performed tests, witnessed the results, and applied reason and logic to sift through the noise and ascertain the essence of different phenomena. Then they distilled all of that down into some of the elegantly simple theories we still use today. They have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy with their meticulous attention to detail, their investigative diligence, and their relentless pursuit of the truth about how structures behave.
  • I trust their records. These early pioneers and those coming after them have written down very detailed accounts of these tests, their results, and their reasoning for how far their theories can be expected to be applicable to similar conditions. These have been preserved (or at least copies have been) for future generations of inquisitive engineers like myself. Names like Euler and Timoshenko still cast their shadows on much of our work long after they died.
  • I trust the transmittal of their works. Our engineering textbooks and reference books faithfully transmit these principles to my generation of engineers, even though we are far removed from the original authors, and may not have the resources to reproduce their findings. Their theories are also reproduced in a variety of books. If one publisher made an error in Euler’s column buckling formula, for instance, it could be readily verified by comparing it against other reference books on the same topic.

So then, even though I have never personally witnessed a W14x90 column fail in an earthquake, I can trust that my various books have reliably passed down to me the true results of research by trustworthy men indicating that would be the outcome in my example. The end result being that I can put some amount of faith – or trust – in what I’ve learned and apply it to the current project. Of course, men are still fallible, and their theories might be mistaken, but these basic principles are have stood the test of time sufficiently to persuade me to trust them.

Now, how does that relate to my Christian faith?

  • I can trust the biblical authors. God used a unique mix of people to write the Bible. Just looking at the New Testament, the first apostles were simple fishermen, who brought a simple, down-to-earth, eyewitness testimony to their records. Theirs was a record that said, “whether you believe me or not, I cannot tell otherwise, for this is what I saw, and heard, and felt – no more, no less.” Luke was a doctor who sought to record “a more orderly account” of the life of Christ. His account is an extremely detailed, first-rate history that has proven itself accurate over and over again. Paul was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish religious law, himself taught by one of the leading teachers of his day. He explained the deep richness of the simple gospel message, connecting it to the whole backstory of the Old Testament. But in each case, these men have shown themselves to be trustworthy instruments of the infallible God.
  • I can trust their findings. Luke’s geography and description of various cultures of the time are born out by archeology. When Paul describes the fallen nature of mankind, he describes the world I observe; the results of his examination match reality. But moreover, he holds up a mirror to my own heart. I need look no further than my own life to recognize the soundness of his words.
  • I can trust the transmission of their records to me. They wrote early after the events they described, these writings were copied carefully, and on a massive scale far exceeding any other historical manuscripts, such that the integrity of their writings are adequately preserved by comparison of the variances between dispersed copies.

We all place our faith (or trust) in people and things that may prove all too fallible: the pilot of the plane you’re about to board, the engineer who designed the school you send your kids to, the political leader that promised you the moon, or objects as simple as the new tires on your car that you trust to not have a blowout.  But there’s really only One who warrants our complete trust. Have you studied His textbook, the Bible?

The Telescope of Faith

Messier 96 galaxy viewed by Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy Nasa.gov.
Messier 96 galaxy viewed by Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy Nasa.gov.

The last couple of weeks have been about the evidential nature of faith and how it is the result of “divine persuasion”[1], of seeing the evidence God has provided us, and recognizing that the source of that evidence can be trusted. When I first started rock climbing in college, I quickly learned that how far I got off the grounded depended on how much I trusted my climbing equipment. I had to put my faith in my climbing shoes, rope, harness, and anchors. But once I saw they were trustworthy, it was “game on!” But faith is applicable in far more of life than just rock climbing. And in the current book I’m reading, J.C. Ryle looks at the life of Moses as an example of faith lived out.

In his classic 19th century book “Holiness“, Ryle makes this brief but insightful point about Moses’s faith in God: “Faith was a telescope to Moses.” In the context, Ryle was referring to how Moses’s trust in God helped him to see past all of the trials and pain to the Promised Land of Israel. But I think this analogy goes so much farther. Hebrews 11:1 gives the most direct definition of faith in the Bible when it says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[2] Ryle develops the first part of that definition with his idea of a telescope in that Moses’s faith gave him assurance of the hoped for result, but today I just want to highlight how the telescope of faith applies to the second half of that definition as well.

Living in Nevada for 10 years in an area away from the lights of towns was a nightly reminder of Psalm 19 when it says that “the heavens declare the glory of God.”[3] The stars and the Milky Way were so much more visible there compared to where I live now. But as beautiful as those starry nights in Nevada were, I was seeing only a fraction of a fraction  of the majesty of the cosmos that we see now through our large optical telescopes, our simply gigantic radio telescopes, or our space-based telescopes like Hubble that are unhindered by the atmosphere. Groups of pinpoints of light have now been revealed to be these awe-inspiring systems of billions of stars of all different sizes surrounded by enormous, beautiful gas clouds. In some cases, we see more structure and beauty looking at these systems in the portion of the spectrum we can’t see than we do in the normal range of visible light. Mapping the universe in ultraviolet, infra-red, microwave, and X-ray radiation has revealed things we never would’ve been able to prove existed by our normal unaided sight alone.

Yet… it wasn’t any of these telescopes that made those things reality. The various telescopes simply showed us the reality we couldn’t see. Just as we see the stars above and dimly recognize the grandness of the universe, the evidence we see points us to God and we place our faith in Him. But then a strange thing happens. As we trust Him, He opens up the shutter on the faith telescope, and we begin to see the full spectrum of life, so to speak. We thought we were seeing all the evidence for God, and it was sufficient to answer His call to follow Him, and yet it was only His calling card! Now, we find His signature everywhere we look, written in the nanoprinting of every cell; written in hidden mosaics of life now suddenly obvious to our faith-trained eyes; written so large across the horizon of the universe in galaxy-wide letters that we laugh that we missed them before.

Maybe you’ve heard, or maybe you’ve said, that faith is “blind”, that it is belief in spite of the evidence. And yet all of us place our faith in different things each day, whether it’s rock climbing equipment, or the aircraft (and its pilot) taking us on our next business trip, or the brakes on our car. And all of these can be untrustworthy instances of misplaced faith. Let me encourage you, friend, to put your trust – your faith – in the only One who won’t let you down. Don’t live your life with blinders on, only seeing a narrow spectrum of reality, when the Author of reality has so much more to show you.


[1] “Faith” comes from the Greek word πίστις (“pistis”), derived from the root word πείθω (“peitho”) meaning to be persuaded.
[2] Hebrews 11:1, NASB.
[3] Psalm 19:1, NASB.

Making It Personal

engineering-plansThere was an interesting article in the May 2015 issue of Civil Engineering magazine that got me thinking. Their ethics column dealt with the question of misuse of a professional engineer’s seal and made the following statement:

“Inherent in the message carried by a P.E. seal is the element of personal knowledge. With so much trust placed in an engineer’s assessment of professional documents, it is essential to know that the engineer is certifying the documents not on the basis of blind trust or an unsubstantiated belief in another’s work but because he or she has had sufficient personal involvement with the documents to know whether or not they meet the standards of the profession. Accordingly, the requirement of personal involvement looms large both in state licensing laws governing the use of an engineer’s seal and in the codes of conduct….”

Looking at this aspect of my life as a professional engineer and as a professing Christian, I see some parallels between the two.

  1. Personal knowledge is required in both cases. I shouldn’t stamp engineered designs that I didn’t personally design or thoroughly review. Likewise, I shouldn’t hold my Christian beliefs (or any, for that matter) just because they were my parents’ beliefs, or because they are generally socially acceptable where I live. I have to own them; I have to make them mine. But I don’t do that simply by accepting someone else’s beliefs unquestioned. They may be right, or they may be wrong; and ideas have consequences – some more serious than others. If I mistakenly trust a friend’s incorrect directions and take a wrong turn, the effects may be pretty minimal. But if the stakes are higher, like a life-or-death decision, it’s critical that I take full responsibility for that decision and choose wisely. If my eternal future is at stake, that’s not a decision I should (or even can) delegate to someone else. That’s on me, and “not to decide” is to decide.
  2. Blind trust or unsubstantiated belief may be accidentally correct, but that’s simply not sufficient for important decisions. A bad engineering design passed through supervisors and peer reviewers without adequate scrutiny can endanger thousands of people. A false belief, accepted blindly, can condemn countless people to an eternity apart from God. So it’s critical for each of us to examine ourselves, to understand both what we believe and why, and to verify that our beliefs are well-grounded, justified, coherent, and truthful. Our beliefs need to be warranted.
  3. Personal involvement – i.e. action – is required. If I’m stamping calculations or drawings done by someone else, it’s incumbent on me to personally act in a couple of ways. First, I need to take whatever action necessary to verify what I’ve received is correct before I stamp it. However, I also can’t fall victim to “paralysis by analysis”. I can either accept them as justified or reject them as insufficient, but I need to decide one way or the other. In examining my own beliefs, or prospective beliefs, I have to recognize that short of being omniscient, I won’t have every possible question answered to the nth degree when it comes to making a decision, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t make a reasonable, well-informed decision based on the evidence I do have. The absence of exhaustive data doesn’t mean I don’t have sufficient informative data to take action.

I want to avoid so-called “blind faith” in both my engineering and my Christian life. I want to “know whom I have believed” as the apostle Paul wrote[1]. In the words of Elton Trueblood, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” Rather than being blind, only Christian faith is sufficiently well-founded to allow trust without reservations to be warranted. God doesn’t ask us to put our trust in just anything. In fact, He doesn’t want us trusting our eternal life to anyone other than Him. This is why the apostle John tells his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[2] This is why Jesus pointed people to evidence of His authenticity, attested to by the miracles He’d done in the sight of those questioning Him.[3] This is why God always reminded the Israelites that He was the God who had led them out of Egypt, who had miraculously fed them in the wilderness, who had driven their enemies before them when they were ridiculously outnumbered by vastly superior forces.  These reminders were a constant call to put their trust in His proven power and love and faithfulness, in His repeated demonstrations that He is the only one worthy to be worshiped and obeyed. It’s a call He still issues to us today, to “taste and see that the Lord is good”[4], to “come and see”[5] for ourselves that He is our only hope, and to make Him our personal Savior.


[1] 2 Timothy 1:12, NASB.
[2] 1 John 4:1, NASB.
[3] John 10:22-39, Luke 7:18-23, NASB.
[4] Psalm 34:8, NASB.
[5] John 1:46, NASB.