Monthly Archives: June 2013

When Grace Hurts

There’s a Bimisayo that exists in my mind. You would love him: He’s smart, funny, generous and always passionate about life and about his faith. He isn’t perfect, and he’d tell you that but you’d have a hard time believing him.

I like to think I really am that guy, and in a way, I am. God has made some amazing changes in my life over the last few years. I really enjoy looking back and seeing how I’ve grown in wisdom and maturity, even just in the last few months. I’m in the process of raising support for my one year internship in Uganda starting this fall, a process which involves one-on-one meetings with people who’ve known me for different lengths of time. I’ve been encouraged by the responses of people as I’ve approached them for support: friends, family, and current and past church family have been generous with their words of encouragement and their finances. God’s grace has been so good in transforming my character.

One flaw of the human heart, though, is its inability to spot its own flaws. I genuinely have trouble seeing the blind spots in my character and I need God’s grace to reveal these to me. Though freeing and exciting, grace fully experienced will hurt sometimes.

Jeremiah 17:9 teaches, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” I’ve always been fascinated by this verse, and I decided to look into the context. In the preceding verses, God declares that cursed is the man who relies on his own strength while the man who trusts in God is blessed. This verse is immediately followed by a promise that God judges man and gives to each one what they deserve.

According to scripture, we are not able to see what is righteous in us from what is unrighteous, yet we will earn the consequences of our unrighteousness. In the Old Testament, He uses the prophets to call people back to Him. We see in Isaiah 6:9-10 one instance where the hearts of the people were dull so that the message of the prophet would actually serve to increase their blindness. Apart from God’s grace, the deceitfulness of our hearts would lead us to a similar place.

In the New Testament we are not only called to grow in Christ-like character, but we are also blessed to endure discipline from God to help us grow. Life is allowed to happen in such a way as to show us our weaknesses to help us grow.

During the school year, a friend shared an interesting thought with me. She shared that she would sometimes pray for God to take her through tough times to make her stronger, dreading the reality that God would answer her. In my braver moments I’ve imitated this prayer, not because I enjoy seeing myself as weak, but because I value the character I know will be built in me. I know myself. Unless I am made to feel the consequences of my failings, I won’t see them; unless I’m brought through situations beyond my ability to bear, I remain unmotivated to pursue growth.

Grace shows us our imperfections, reveals the warped aspects of our nature, and assures us that God’s love is passionately drawing us closer to the image of His Son. That last part is vital to remember when our weaknesses are exposed. God is not shocked by the blind spots in our character; He will not abandon us in disgust.

Remember the Bimisayo I introduced to you at the beginning of this post? Well, I recently learned that he’s often stubborn and lacks discipline in many areas of life and that leads him into trouble. He can be smart, but also difficult to teach. He has a lot of passion, but it sometimes fades because he isn’t diligent in guarding it. He can be funny, though he often takes jokes farther than he realizes.

I want to grieve over my weaknesses. A part of me really wants to shut down and focus on the negative, convinced that I’m not suitable to be used by God in any meaningful way. How can I be a light to the nations, if I can’t manage myself?

God’s grace, however, doesn’t stop at revealing my weakness. He reminds me that He’s not done with me. If He was, He would be content to leave me as I am, thinking I am more than I am and ultimately useful to no one. But His grace draws me to growth. Hebrews 12,12-13, following a promise of God’s discipline of His people, teaches: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” He disciplines us, not to break us, but to refine us.

I remember an essay in grade 12 English that I submitted for a rough draft. I was quite proud of my work and sure my teacher would see it the same way. In my mind, he would correct the few grammar errors I’d intentionally left for him (part of the mark for the final draft was based on improvement) and tell me I did a good job. The paper was returned full of red ink, much to my shock. But his brutal corrections allowed me to submit a much better final than I would have otherwise.

God’s grace doesn’t leave us broken. He exposes our weaknesses to remind us that He’s not done with us. He’s not finished with me. Someday I’m going to look back on myself today and rejoice that I was so marked up with red ink. The final draft of my life is not yet written, but I trust that it’ll be pretty awesome.

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The Ministry Value of My Science Degree

I (almost) have an honours bachelor’s degree in Life Science; I’m committing the rest of my life to serving in full time ministry. This confuses people. “So…why did you study science?” “Do you wish you did something different?” “Were the last four years a waste of time?”

I can see why people react this way. My area of primary focus was on experimental science in molecular biology and psychology. Not a lot of direct application to evangelism and discipleship. I will have a minor in Religious Studies when I finish my final two courses, which is a minor consolation. But I have to answer the question: Was my degree a waste of time? I’d like to share a few thoughts on why I’m glad I took the academic path I did. In fact, given what I know now about where God is calling me, I would make the same decision again if I had a chance.

First, my degree taught me critical thinking. I actually took a course called Critical Thinking in fourth year and learned very little in it, partially due to laziness/boredom, but also because I’d learned many of the principles informally in all my other courses. I had assignments for which I had to read a scientific article and present its core findings in three minutes. I had assignments where I had to critique papers published in fields I had very little experience in. I had a course with a monthly debate based on evidence from a variety of published papers. Over the course of four years, I had a lot of assignments that forced me to process, evaluate and respond to ideas.

Obviously, the faculty was preparing me to become a valuable contributor in the scientific community whatever career path I pursued, but many of the skills I learned translate very well into ministry. Processing, evaluating and responding to ideas are an important responsibility of anyone leading in ministry. Whether doctrines or methods, I find it a valuable skill to gauge the validity of any proposal. It helps me as I study theological debates and take a stance. It helps me in reading to discern truth from folly. It helps me evaluate even my writing. I’ve started working on a number of pieces and stopped after realizing my initial premises were actually kind of dumb.

My writing, actually, was also developed in my study of science. The New York Herald Tribune columnist William Zinsser writes, “The best way to learn to write is to write.” And in the last four years, I had many opportunities to write. Two features of good scientific writing are accuracy and conciseness. A good writer in science is able to communicate exactly what he finds without exaggeration. There is a world of difference between A leading to B and A causing B. Little inaccuracies lead to huge errors. A scientific writer must also be concise, otherwise he becomes extremely dull. Being unable to communicate neatly and precisely will kill the readability and, subsequently, the impact of your work. While I’m by no means perfectly accurate and concise, I’m a much more efficient writer than I was in first year. And you, my dear reader, are reaping the benefit.

My degree also helped build my faith. I’ve heard the sad tale of Christians losing their faith after exposure to an industry intent on explaining God away, but I found my faith strengthened by studying God’s creation. I got a glimpse into the wonder and complexity of nature. What I learned in my molecular biology classes built in my mind the case for intelligent design. I know that ID is often mocked by “real scientists”. Yet our cells are so intricate, our proteins so interdependent and tightly regulated, that to suggest they evolved independently and assembled over time seems absurd. Do I believe in evolution? I’m not sure. I think there’s a lot of evidence to support the theory. But I can’t subscribe to evolution by random mutation and natural selection alone. The odds are simply too far stacked against it. So in science, I got to see the hand of God, to appreciate His vastness and creativity, and to worship Him more deeply.

In these ways, and more, studying Life Science at McMaster has been very valuable in preparing me for ministry. There is, however, one more point I must bring up. See, God allowed me to spend time as a science student. If I believe God works all things together for the good of those whom He calls, then I must believe that my degree has been part of developing me into the person I am today. I cannot conceive that any education, no matter how unrelated, can possibly be without value. If God could use David’s years as a shepherd to prepare him for kingship, and Nehemiah’s experience in the King’s court to equip him to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, then I trust that He will take my degree and maximize it for His glory and the proclamation of His salvation.

Is Human Nature Evil? (Part 2)

Is Human Nature Totally Evil?

There’s a very obvious answer to this: NO!!! Humans are capable of amazing good. How many times has humanity come together in unity to stand against evil in our time; to stand for good? Sure, we can do some bad (even atrocious) things, but we probably do more good, don’t we? In fact, without a way to quantify this definitively, many of us would guess that humans do much more good than evil in general. This is why our news broadcasts of the Newtown shooting, Aurora shooting and Boston bombing try so hard to understand WHY a person would be driven to do such things. We readily accept that this is not the normal expression of human nature. On the surface, this is a ridiculous question.

But the Bible gives us a different picture of humanity. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). “What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?” (Job 15:14). “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 2:10-12).

The Bible is interesting because it claims to be the word of God, our creator, who confirms its message by bringing Jesus (who claimed to be God) back from the dead after predicting it multiple times. Jesus had nothing but good things to say about the words of the Bible. So, for anyone who is convinced of the divinity of Jesus, the remaining ideas of the Bible need to be seriously considered.

So, to look into this, I’d like to start by looking at one of the most evil men of our time. Many people will agree that, for his involvement in the Holocaust, Hitler is an evil man. In popular imagination, he’s the pinnacle of evil. His primary role in the Holocaust, however, was an inspirer, a manipulator of the evil that lies within man. He was able to create a system that suppressed the good within his compatriots and made them complicit in genocide. At various war trials after the war, many of those who directly contributed to the mass murder of millions claimed to be victims of their environment. In different circumstances, they would have been nice people. Covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, Hannah Arendt coined an expression “the banality of evil”. She observed that the man responsible for organizing transportation to death camps was surprisingly normal, not significantly unlike you and me.

We are legally and morally responsible for all our actions, yet we recognize that our circumstances play a large role in determining our character. Sociologists note that individuals born into particular socioeconomic strata are more prone to crime, mental illness, and high risk sexual behaviours. We know that a person is more than their environment, but is a product of their environment to a large degree. So, is evil caused or tempered by our environment?

I’ll answer that with a question: In general, how does human behaviour change when our inhibitions are removed? What sorts of acts are we more prone to when we get inebriated or when we know we won’t be held accountable for our actions? I don’t hear many stories of young men getting drunk in order to put together a candlelight dinner for a lover. And for every anonymous donation to a good cause, there are many accounts of crime and mischief performed under the cover of night. It would seem as though evil is more innate to our nature than good.

If this is the case, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the human existence is a struggle to pursue good against our natural propensity to evil. We find different degrees of success depending on our upbringing, relationships, position in society, and other external factors. But, those among us who have risen to amazing heights of self sacrifice and morality are examples, not of the best in human nature, but of remarkable victory over base humanity. So, good is not simply the opposite of evil, but the triumph over evil.

This is the picture the Bible paints of humanity. We have a sinful nature within each of us that keeps us from the total pursuit of the ultimate good, which is God. “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” (Isaiah 59:2). We can gain incredible victory over our sinful nature, but can never fully overcome it. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Isaiah 64:6). The New Testament refers to this sinful nature as the flesh. Our flesh loves sin and is enslaved to sin. We will war against it our whole lives if we are to attain any measure of goodness.

It’s in this context that the Bible introduces the idea of salvation. In choosing to surrender our lives in its entirety to the authority of Jesus, we are given a new nature that helps us fight against the flesh: the Spirit. “In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14). The Christian has help in the war against ourselves for good. And the Bible promises that a time will come when we will be given a glorified body, a new nature that will no longer lust after evil.

So is human nature absolutely evil? I would argue that it is, though it is tempered by a number of factors to bring about a measure of good. The fullest experience of good, however, is found in submission to God through belief in Jesus Christ.

Is Human Nature Evil? (Part 1)

This topic is exciting to write about on a number of levels. First, I love the challenge of putting together this type of piece. My reading list in the last few months has included Christian philosophers C.S Lewis and Ravi Zaccharias, as well as a few philosophical apologetic type blog posts and selected readings from Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, so I’m excited to contribute my voice to the defense of one of the claims the Bible makes about the world. On another level, I’m excited to write this piece because this question has implications for the necessity of the gospel. The Christian worldview claims that we need Jesus because we, being lost in our love for evil, would never find God on our own. This is in definite contrast to the prevailing mindset of our day that man is, in general, more good than evil. Extreme acts of evil like those that have shocked North America this year are seen as an aberration of twisted humanity, rather than a full surrender to man’s natural inclination to evil. I recognize that with my limited platform and knowledge, this can only be a drop in the bucket in the great cultural debate, but I’m excited to lend my voice to this.

The most logical place to begin would be to define the term. What is evil? The Merriam Webster’s dictionary lists one definition as an adjective for something morally reprehensible or arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct. The free dictionary defines evil as the quality of being morally bad or wrong; wickedness. For this article, I’m going to use the more intuitive definition of evil as the opposite of good. I like this definition because, with the absence of any formal philosophical training on my part, my primary line of evidence will be drawn from intuition, widely accepted cultural phenomena, and elementary logic. I’ll breakdown this question into two parts: Is there evil in human nature? And is human nature evil? So without further ado…

Is There is Evil in Human Nature?

If evil is the opposite of good, then understanding good is as good a place to start as any. What do we think of when asked to describe goodness? Who are the good people that come to mind in our culture? Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Junior, etc. Good people, in our intuitive definition, are people for do good things for others. We as westerners idealize good done for others, especially at the expense of the doer. More than anything, the trait of self sacrifice characterizes what we understand as good.

Good itself seems to be a graded quality. We understand that certain good is more “good” than others. Three factors seem to affect the relative goodness assessed to a person.

  • The greater the sacrifice made, the greater the good. For example, wealthy benefactor is donating millions of dollars towards a new building at my university. This act of generosity made the news. So did the efforts of the five year old son of a facebook friend of mine to raise $5000 for a Kenyan child’s heart surgery. The cost, not the price, defines the goodness.
  • The greater the recipient of sacrifice, the greater the good. Our most celebrated heroes did something for an entire group, class, or nation of people. While we admire the sister who donated vital organs to save her sibling’s life, she will never gain the distinction of the British parliamentarian who fought his entire life to liberate thousands of Africans from oppression.
  • The purer the motivation for the sacrifice, the greater the good. Sacrifice made in necessary and selfless response to a need or particular situation is more praiseworthy than sacrifice made to manipulate or force a response in a particular situation. Humanitarian responses to natural disasters are lauded unless it’s made known that aid comes with demands for political concessions. This is true even when the demanded concessions are good things. A humble sacrifice (one seeking primarily the good of another) is much greater than one made in pride or arrogance.

So, it would seem that the highest good we can attain is to sacrifice ourselves completely to the greatest entity in absolute humility. If we accept this as the highest object of good, we can come to the problem of evil. I defined evil earlier as the opposite of good. According to this definition, anything that is not good is evil, and anything that isn’t evil is good. The “graded-ness” of good then opens up the possibility of partial evil. The person that is not committed to the pursuit of good in its fullest, is committed to a degree of evil by default. Is my life lived in pursuit of total sacrifice for the good of others? Is there a greater cause/entity to which I can give myself to? Are my motives of sacrifice humble and selfless? To the degree that one’s pursuit of good is not perfect, he must accept the existence of evil in himself. If I can be more good, then I can be less evil.

So that leads us to the second part of the question…

Thoughts on Christian Maturity

I’ve been reading the book of Hebrews for the last few weeks, taking it very slowly. It’s a great book that works well with the gospels to bring insight into the ministry of Jesus. The author of Hebrews- thought by many to be Paul- focuses on the significance of Jesus’ life rather than the events of it. He uses his superb knowledge of the Old Testament to explain the superiority of the new covenant. There’s a lot to love about Hebrews, and a couple of verses piqued my interest as they relate to a question I’ve wrestled with since I committed to following Jesus in 2008. What is Christian maturity all about?

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” – Hebrews 5:12-14

There are some observations about maturity that can be drawn from these verses. The mature Christian has a well developed radar for good and evil. Like most things in life, his discernment has grown through practice. Undoubtedly, he’s made mistakes and, in that, learned to distinguish what is true from what is false. The context makes it clear that the primary arena in which this discernment is played out is theological. The mature Christian is contrasted with the child who is unskilled in the word of righteousness. He is able to handle the “solid food” of doctrine.

The author of Hebrews chides his readers for still needing milk, being unable to handle the solid food of doctrine. I believe the true point of the metaphor is not that the immature believer can only handle certain theological topics. Rather, the point seems to be, that the mature are able to feed themselves while the immature need to be fed. In my (limited) experience with children, being given solid food begins the process of becoming independent feeders. Anyone who’s watched children enjoy their first solid meals knows that they often make a big mess of it, but become increasingly adept at feeding themselves over time. In other words, their ability to handle solid food grows by constant practice.

Maturity is not so much about having good theology, as it is about having the ability to critically evaluate doctrines. The Jews in Berea (Acts 17:10-12) were noble and passionate about truth. They tested Paul’s teaching by studying their scriptures. They followed a process of evaluation before acceptance and they were commended for this.

Maturity in this sense requires:

In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul makes an interesting statement. The chapter opens up with his account of his initial ministry to the Corinthians at which time he came to them, not with plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstrations of the Spirit’s power so that their faith be grounded in God’s power, not in man’s wisdom. Then he tells them, “among the mature we do impart wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:6). In the context of this chapter, maturity can be understood as discernment. The wisdom that Paul imparted could not be understood by the rulers of this age, but only by those to whom God revealed it by His Spirit. The mature were those to whom God gave the ability to discern the truth in Paul’s message. “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” In one sense, maturity is a gift of God given through His Spirit (see also Matthew 13:12, Philippians 3:15). 1 Corinthians 12 lists discernment as one of the gifts of the Spirit to the church.

In another sense, we grow in maturity under the tutelage of God’s Word and faithful ministers. Paul teaches Timothy the value of scripture in building us to maturity in 2 Timothy 3:15-17. God’s Word is inspired and effective for bringing in us a completeness/competency for every good work. In scripture, we are grounded in the foundational truths of God’s character and our identity in Him. When we understand these things, we are able to evaluate lifestyle philosophies and potential implications for how we should live. For example, God’s Word doesn’t give us instructions for how to date, but there are principles I believe I can draw from God’s careful pursuit of His beloved that guide the courtship of my girlfriend. And because I’m not perfectly mature, I’m bound to make mistakes and do things that are unhelpful. But my challenge is to continually renew my mind through the Word so that I can grow in determining God’s will through practice.

We do have another avenue of help in this. According to Ephesians 4:11-14, God has given us certain individuals who possess what is commonly referred to as the four/five-fold ministry gifts (If you’re interested, here’s a four part series on a blog I read about these gifts: 1,2,3,4). These gifts are in the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” There are ministers within the church whose ministry exists for building the body to maturity. Paul expresses his responsibility for this task in Colossians 1, saying, “Him (Jesus) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.” I thank God for pastors and spiritual leaders who taught me to study God’s Word and modelled the fruit of diligent study every week from their pulpits. We are responsible to grow and handle the “solid food” of doctrine, and scripture chides those who continually need someone else to discern truth for them in every situation. Yet, we are not left on our own to attain this maturity. We are blessed with God’s Spirit, His Word, and leaders who are able to teach us.

What is a mature Christian? It is one who, because of constant practice, is able to distinguish good from evil, truth from error, and is not carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness and deceitful schemes.

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8