100 Answers in 100 Days

More questions answered on this blog:

Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On the logical fallacy: "God Doesn't Give Us What We Want, Therefore He Doesn't Exist."

Last year, the computer game "Disney Infinity" was released. After watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos about the game, he's come to me begging that I buy him a copy. But this happens to come at a time when he is being disciplined for some recent misbehaviour. As punishment, I've banned him from playing computer games at all so that he can learn about consequences, and also that he might learn that people and family are more important than computers. As you can imagine, part of the problem for him, and for many children (and some adults!) is that computer gaming is a very engaging activity, and children block themselves off from normal social interaction with the people around them. And so when he asked me for Disney Infinity, I told him "Do you really think I'm going to buy you a new game while you're currently banned from the games you have?" Nevertheless, you should have seen the tantrum that ensued!

My son begged me for the game. We also happened to be at the mall where the game could be purchased. After I visited the ATM, he took a peek at my bank balance, and so he knew that I could well afford the game. There was no reason, in his mind, that I shouldn't give him the game. I loved him unconditionally, took joy in making him happy, and I had the financial means... we were even at the mall! To him, it made no sense for me to deny him the game. I had the means and surely, if I loved him, I would have the desire, but... wait, this sounds familiar...

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" — 'the Epicurean paradox'.

This is said of God and evil. But something along these lines is what my son might say about his Dad and the Disney Infinity game.

"Is Dad willing to buy Disney Infinity, but not able? Then he is broke. Is he able, but not willing? Then he doesn't love me. Is he both able and willing? Then why don't I have Disney Infinity? ...".

My purpose here is to make the fallacy of the Epicurean paradox stand out. My son knows that I'm not broke. He also knows that I do love him. So then he simply asks this rhetorical question, "Then why don't I have Disney Infinity?" To me, Epicurus sounds just as childish. I don't buy my son Disney Infinity, though I'd like to, precisely because I love him. Because I love him, I'm taking a course of action to prevent him from becoming a spoilt child, and one of those self-entitled adults.

Does this parallel God? I'm not trying to say that God's purpose for evil is to prevent us from becoming spoilt and self-entitled, but rather I simply want to show the fallacy of the Epicurean argument. We can understand this human scenario where, despite being fully able to grant my son's wishes, there is a reason (possibly beyond my son's comprehension), which causes me to refrain even from the thing that I myself would rather do! So, too, God may have reason to refrain from what He would rather do, and that reason may even be beyond our comprehension; though still at our level, understandable in terms of analogies like this one.

But what really blows my mind is that atheists usually use this argument, in the category of "the Problem of Evil", to say that God doesn't even exist. That is surely non-sequitur. You might use this argument to suggest that God is evil, or that God is not all powerful, but how does it suggest that He doesn't exist? Forgive me if you're an atheist who doesn't argue this way, but I've spoken to enough atheists who do that I think it's worth mentioning. What the argument can potentially do is cause some dissonance in a theist's world view. What this means is that one can cause a theist to question his own world view by saying that the things you believe about God create a contradiction. When one identifies apparent contradictions is one's own world view they strive to resolve them. One possible way to resolve the dissonance is to reject that world view altogether and replace it with another; one that does not have any apparent contradictions. To a lesser degree, we can change one of our beliefs (eg that God is all-powerful or that He is all-loving) in order to remove the contradiction. But of course, there are other ways to resolve such conflicts. We can, for example, discover new information which explains how something which may have seemed unlikely or impossible is in fact perfectly sensible. Just as my son, when he is a parent some day, may hopefully look back and see that what I did made perfect sense, having a different view of the world and knowing more about the evils of materialism and such like. Sometimes things make sense from a different perspective, but we are unable to see that perspective; not just for lack of consideration, but we may be physically or mentally limited so that we cannot possibly discover what's missing to make sense of the way we perceive things. But sometimes the problem is framed in such a way that we perceive a contradiction that doesn't actually exist, which is kind of what's happening here with Epicurus.

As I read through the Bible, I notice time and time again that God corrects the reasoning of men. In Ezekiel 18, for example, God tells the people "You say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?" And God explains how, in actual fact, God's idea of justice is far more perfect than their own view, which sees God as unjust. And in the gospels, Jesus is continually showing that what the Jewish religious leaders did and taught, which were things that they saw as truly righteous and pious, were actually quite unrighteous; as epitomized in the way they objected to the healing of the sick on the Sabbath day. (How can you call it righteous to object to the healing of the sick!?) All this to say that it just goes to show that we can consider ourselves wiser than God, even when it should seem obvious that we are thoroughly misdirected.

The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Is God Silent?

I woke up one morning with a start. It was a Monday and my alarm hadn’t gone off! I grabbed for my phone so I could check the time… I was already half an hour late for work! I rushed through getting ready for work, raced to the car and headed off. As I was driving I thought to myself, “You know, you could have woken me, God! You could have sent birds to chirp at the window or caused some other loud noise. If my wife were awake, she would have shaken me, exclaiming ‘Get up! You’ll be late for work!’ How much more do you love me than her, but you just sat there and watched me sleeping! What kind of love is that!?” Of course, even as I was thinking it, I knew that I was only playing out a drama in my mind, and I that the ranting character in my head would soon figure out why God remains silent when, humanly speaking, a loving person would intervene in the situation.

The answer to that question did not come quickly. But I think that over time, as I have come to know God’s Word deeper, this behaviour of God's kind of makes sense. As I was reading Ezekiel recently, a certain phrase stood out for me…

Then he said to me, "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, 'The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.'" (Ezekiel 8:12)

And then again…

Then he said to me, "The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great. The land is full of blood, and the city full of injustice. For they say, 'The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see.' (Ezekiel 9:9)

What God wants to do with us, according to Scripture, is to reveal the true nature of our hearts. Outward appearances can be deceitful, even to our own selves. We need our outward appearance to be a reflection of our true selves. God aims to bring that true self within us to the surface, and this is one way in which He does it. A person may do good while others are watching, but when no one is watching they will do whatever they like. But a truly good person does good even when no one is watching. And so God feigns not to be watching. He is often "out of sight, out of mind", in order that He might reveal to us our true natures. He, of course, knows our true natures, but for our sake, so that we might see it, He brings that true nature of ours to the surface.

When Moses led the people through the wilderness, God tested them time after time. It is explained in Deuteronomy…

And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. (Deuteronomy 8:2)

If God had treated them lavishly it would have been easy for them to maintain an outward appearance of love and devotion, without truly discovering what they were really like. But when we’re not comfortable and things don’t magically turn out well for us, and when birds don’t gather outside our window to wake us when our alarms have failed - then we are more likely to let our true selves come out… the one that says “I don’t even need God! What has He done for me lately!?” And we freely demonstrate our contempt for other people, and our lust for certain others, and the pride we have in ourselves… We favour whom we wish and despise whom we wish, “because there is no God, as far as I can tell, who could care less anyway.” But there is a God, and leading you to think this way has been His intention, because now it is revealed to you what is truly in your heart. One who knows God does not think this way, but knows that even through the toughest of life’s trials, God has not forsaken them. In the wilderness, as Moses led the people, God showed them more miracles than He has ever done, at least until the time of Christ. Yet even then they felt abandoned by Him and, as a result, manifested their sinful hearts and turned to idols. Consider the words of the people at the foot Sinai, as God was meeting with Moses amid a cloud of thunder and lightning. Even in the presence of all this, we read of them…

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." (Exodus 32:1)

And of course, by asking for other gods, and in saying that Moses has deserted them, they most surely imply that the God of Moses has deserted them. We see this over and over throughout the wilderness wanderings, and in various places throughout Scripture, like when King Saul was told to wait for the prophet Samuel to make a sacrifice before going into battle, but Samuel delayed. This was to reveal what kind of a king Saul was, for just as Saul had made his own sacrifice in order to get on with things, Samuel emerged saying…

... "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you." (1 Samuel 13:13-14)

In other words, this was to show that Saul was not a man after God’s own heart, by contrast with David who was chosen in his stead. Samuel’s delay and, in a sense, God’s apparent lack of presence, revealed the true heart of Saul.

And surely this is not a difficult thing to grasp? How much greater is the love of one for another when it is not reciprocated? Like a man who cares for his wife who is in a coma, believing that one day she will awake. And how much more loved will she feel at that time, knowing that her husband has been by her side for so long despite the hardships, emotional and otherwise. And of course I’m not saying that God does not reciprocate our love… it’s not as though we have no experience of it now. But the true intimacy of God is undeniably withheld from us at this time. We cannot, at this time, embrace Him and speak with Him face to face. This is our great longing. We wait for it to be fulfilled, as God promises it will be. But presently, what kind of person are we? Are we one who waits patiently for that day, or one who simply believes that God is dead and we should just make the most of what we have left?

Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. (Psalms 25:3)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What Kind of Things Should We Pray For?

My children often say to me, “Dad, let’s pray together.” And I always say, “Alright… you start. What do you want to pray about?” I put that on them because this, to me, is the most important question. I hope that they will learn something by thinking about that question. And so the dialog with my children usually goes something like this… “I want to pray that I get to watch TV all day tomorrow!” And I say, “OK, but what do you think God’s answer to that would be? Don’t you think he might say something like, ‘It would be better for you to help your parents with some house work as well!’” And they get that look on their face like “Is God on my side or what!?” But then they say “Fine… I want to pray that my friends will come and play tomorrow!” And I say, “OK, but let’s think… maybe they’ve already made a commitment to do something else. Would it be right for God to cause them to break their commitment so that He can answer your prayer? You know it’s not good to break your word. You can pray that prayer, but just remember that there may be a good reason it won’t happen.” My son kind of nods his head. But it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of prayer we’re allowed to say!? He continues… “How about I pray that tomorrow I won’t lose my temper like I did earlier today?” And I say, “Now that is a fantastic prayer! Let’s pray that...”

It’s fairly obvious when you consider the prayers of a child that some prayers can be foolish. But of course, they don’t seem foolish to the child, perhaps until someone older and wiser points out the folly behind them. And I think, how do we know that we’re not just as foolish with our prayers, and just as blind to their folly? Indeed, we need someone “older and wiser” to guide us too. And for that we have God, who speaks to us and guides us through His Word.

I suppose that there are many good and true things we can say about prayer, and how we should pray. But the one that seems to have risen to prominence in my thinking is that we should always pray according to God’s will. That is to say that we first get to know God’s will, and then we pray in accordance, or in agreement with what we know to be His will. Notably the Bible says “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 John 5:14). To me, prayer begins with meditating on the character of God, and the Word of God in which His will, and His character, is revealed. As I did with my son, every prayer is first met with the question “What would God think of that prayer?” When we come to praying that we might not lose our temper, we know that this is something which is according to God’s will, because we know that to lose our temper is not the way we ought to behave. The Bible (and therefore God) tell us this, in James 1:19-20 for example. And we know that God’s will is for us to behave, in character, like His Son.

Jesus gave us a model for prayer, which we call “The Lord’s Prayer”. It begins with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done…” Besides the explicit phrase there of “your will be done”, everything in this prayer is an example of praying according to God’s will. Of course it is God’s will that His name be holy (Numbers 20:12 for example). And of course God desires for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done on Earth. Other examples of prayer are sometimes used as a model, such as the prayer of Jabez. It says “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” Perhaps at first glance this can sound like a prayer which we might object against saying “Well, you want your border increased, but surely that means taking from someone else’s border doesn’t it? And how would they feel about that?” But of course, this is prayed by an Israelite in the context, I believe, where he is praying according to the revealed will of God that Israel would occupy all of the land of Canaan. We wouldn’t normally presume to pray to God that we might dispossess our neighbours of their land, but in this case God had said that those neighbours were to be dispossessed as punishment for their sins (eg Deuteronomy 9:4). And then he prays that God would keep him from “harm”, which can also be translated “evil”, that it might not bring him pain. In other words, (as I might render it), to keep him from sin because sin will cause himself grief. And perhaps as Jesus would render it, (as He did in the Lord’s prayer), “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” It seems to me that every righteous prayer is an example of this principle, that we pray according to the will of God.

In closing, consider what David said in prayer when God revealed to him what His will should be for David…

For you, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. Therefore your servant has found courage to pray before you. (1 Chronicles 17:25)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Perplexity of God's Sovereignty

When Jesus stood before Pilate, and Pilate had the authority to save Jesus’ life or to condemn Him to an excruciating death, Jesus told him “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” How would that have sounded to Pilate? I think that Pilate probably took it to mean “You won’t harm me; God won’t let you.” But we know the end of the story already, and so we don’t read it that way. We read it more as “Pilate, it’s not up to you, it’s up to God…” And of course, we know that God chose to cause His Son great suffering in order that we could be saved from our sins in a just manner. But let’s consider a similar dialogue in the context of a story where we don’t know the ending from the beginning… Imagine a man standing in front of his boss at work, and his boss is saying “If you refuse to falsify this information, I will fire you!” And the employee replies, “You know, as a Christian I believe in always doing what’s right. Your threat means nothing to me because God is in control of all things.” Now surely the boss will take this to mean “You couldn’t fire me if you wanted to!” But I imagine that this story could more than likely end in the employee being fired. So when we meditate on the fact that God is in control of all things, it gives us comfort that no matter what happens, everything is going to be alright. But hopefully most of us are mature enough in our faith to realize that this means everything will be alright, even if we get fired from our job! (Or whatever other misfortune it may be.) Some people would look at the outcome and say that "God clearly didn't come through for you... maybe He doesn't exist!" But surely we can see that maybe from God's perspective the best move is for this guy to get a new job with an honest boss!

God is in control of all things, which means nothing happens that isn’t according to His will. And it is apparent that His will is to allow suffering, and to allow sin. I don’t think you can deny this. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t have preferences. When we are faced with several options in life, it’s not the case that only one of them is “God’s will” and all the others aren’t. It’s not the case that only one course of action is “righteous” and all the others are “evil”. Sometimes you can choose between two courses of action, both of which are good. Do you give some amount of money to charity or do you spend it on your wife? Every particular case is different. There may be some cases of this where God might approve of either course of action equally, whilst at other times He would say “to spend it on your wife is ok, but to give it to charity is better”, and then other times it may be that case that to spend it on one rather than the other is actually a sin! To give a real example, consider how the Pharisees thought themselves terribly righteous in donating to the temple, when Jesus said (and I paraphrase) “Actually, you’re robbing your parents of the support you should be giving them in their old age!” So even from God’s perspective, morality isn’t black and white without “better and best”, “worse and worst”. God can will there to be sin and suffering whilst still having a preference for there to be neither. In other words, God can will two different things (that there be sin and suffering, and that there be no sin or suffering), and have a preference for one over the other.

In the case of God, who cannot do any unrighteousness, both of these “wills” must be righteous, and maybe that’s where we will really struggle here. But I think that to allow sin and suffering in the world doesn’t make God unrighteous. For example, sometimes the pain we experience in suffering is necessary in order for God to be righteous! If we don’t somehow punish our children when they’ve done wrong, for example, we ourselves are actually unrighteous in failing to correct that behaviour. Or we've seen that it might be righteous of God for us to lose our job rather than be subjected to ongoing temptations or perhaps persecution in that workplace. God can also have a righteous reason to allow sin. One possibility is that sin demonstrates God to be true because we are never better off when we’re in sin. Whenever we are able to compare our lives with sin and without sin, we will always say that it’s better without, and thereby we prove that God is right in prescribing the conduct for our lives which He has prescribed. Unfortunately, many people aren’t prepared to take that leap of faith to discover what life might be like without sin. But those who have found Christ and have overcome sin can all testify that life is better without sin… (even when we lose our jobs because we refuse to sin.) When I personally find myself miserable or depressed for no apparent reason, I will often come to realize that I've been letting my behaviour slip in some way.

We know that God’s preference is for there to be no sin and no suffering because these are things He will ultimately do away with. They are devices He presently uses (wilfully) in order to demonstrate to us His power and His love. His power and love are demonstrated when we discover that through Him we overcome both of these things. Through Him we overcome suffering in that even while we suffer we have peace and faith and hope. And through Him we overcome sin as He empowers us to turn away from it. People who oppose the existence of God on the basis that a loving God would not allow sin and suffering I think fail to see how God’s love is expressed as a result of the existence of sin and suffering in the world. How would we know the extent of God’s love if He had not comforted us in our darkest hour? How would we know the extent of God’s love if He had not forgiven us despite the most wicked things we had done? And while I don’t expect that this closes the case on the problem of evil and the perplexity of God’s sovereignty, I find it is sufficient to at least be able to say and believe, without being intellectually dishonest with myself, that there can be an all powerful God who loves me and who also allows me to suffer and to sin.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Can a Fetus Feel Pain? Does It Make a Difference?

I read an article yesterday titled “Fetal pain is a lie: How phony science took over the abortion debate.” And as you can imagine, it explains somewhat that a fetus cannot feel pain. And as a pro-lifer I thought to myself, “Even if that’s true... so what?” Is it ok to kill a person if they can’t feel it? We can do that outside the womb! And we can do it to adults too. Is the fact that the fetus can feel pain really the issue?

Obviously, at some point between conception and birth, the child in utero begins to feel pain. All this article is actually saying is that a fetus begins to feel pain at 24 weeks rather than 20, as was previously believed. This means that any ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on the premise that a fetus can feel pain should at least be pushed back to 24 weeks. For every argument the article makes about how “detrimental” the false belief of a 20 week limit is, you gotta ask yourself... if we shift it to 24 weeks are we really in a totally different place now? It makes no real difference. But here’s what happens... pro-lifers want abortion banned altogether (pretty much), but such things rarely happen fully in an instant. So we work towards that little by little, and we’ll go for an excuse to ban it after 20 weeks; namely that the fetus can then feel pain, because that’s better than nothing. The problem now is that articles like this can make like “feeling pain” is the sole basis for sparing the life of a child in-utero. No; we spare the life of a fetus because it’s an innocent human life. We want to spare that unborn life essentially on the same basis that we spare the life of any person outside of the womb.

The article focuses on an example of a child which developed heart trouble in utero. This is a kind of framing of its own because even the article acknowledges that this is an extremely rare motivation for abortion. And really, it’s blurring the moral issue of abortion with other moral issues, similar to euthanasia. But if we turn to the other 99% of cases, let’s ask ourselves, why does fetal pain come into the picture? Why is it a factor in a mother’s decision to abort a child? As a pro-lifer, I’ve said that it shouldn’t matter whether the fetus feels pain or not - in either case it’s not ok to kill the child. But the author of the article seems annoyed by the fact that more and more women are concerned that the abortion will hurt the child. But there you have it... these mothers are showing the same concern for the child as one has for any human being. Is the author annoyed because they’ve lost ground in trying to dehumanize the child? In order to justify yourself in any murder, you generally have to dehumanize the victim... objectify them; see them as (in the case of a fetus), “just a lump of cells” or merely “a product of conception.” But when you start to think about their pain you’re basically saying “Well, if I’m going to kill this child, I want to at least do it as humanely as possible.”

If you read the article, it’s spun this way... that mothers considering abortion go through great emotional anguish over the decision, and that false science (a four week gap, remember), is unnecessarily adding to their distress. And it makes people like me out to be the bad guy, as though I have no compassion for what these women are going through. Now, I’m no medical professional, but surely if a woman was concerned about the fetus’ pain, anaesthetic can solve that problem? To me, it seems like the mother is really just looking for reasons not to abort. And so they should. I get that they’re emotionally distressed over the decision, but so you would expect from someone who is intending to take a helpless, innocent life! As much as we are told that the fetus is “not yet a person” or “cannot feel pain” or “is just a lump of cells”, (phrases so often argued by pro-abortionists), you cannot escape the truth. This phenomenon of emotional distress felt by mothers considering abortion is called guilt. But I’m not insensitive to it. You have to make a distinction. I knew a girl who felt no significant distress (or at least that she would show), and she’d had three abortions by the age of 18. She had probably been successful in dehumanizing the baby in her own mind so that it was “just a product of conception.” Others who do feel emotional stress may still be selfish in their decision... “It’s terribly sad, I know, but I just can’t abandon my career right now.” And then there’s those rare cases where the baby is probably not going to live for very long outside the womb anyway. Of course this is a cause for distress... just as making the decision to terminate life support for your husband lying in a coma would be a cause for distress. It’s a similar situation, your womb essentially being “life support” for the child. These are serious moral dilemmas involving human life... there ought to be emotional distress! But the fact that there’s emotional distress over the decision doesn’t provide an answer to what the right decision ought to be. Doing whatever it takes to alleviate the distress by dehumanizing the child is clearly not the answer. Feel distressed... you’re supposed to!

I can’t help thinking that it’s really science that has created this distress by giving women the option to abort in the first place! You really want the distress to go away? Then ban abortion altogether! Then the only distress that remains is over children that die naturally, just as it’s always been since Adam and Eve. God has given us this incredible privilege, and we’re very lucky to live in a time when we’re actually able to peer inside the womb and observe the development from an embryo to a baby! What expecting couple isn’t filled with excitement and joy to go and watch the ultrasound? It’s an amazing privilege. And as a Christian I watch in-utero footage, and I learn what we now know about the reproductive system, and I stand in awe at God’s workmanship! Glory to God! But we have taken this privilege and abused it. In times past, if a woman didn’t want her baby, she would have to wait until it was born and then, if she had managed to numb her conscience enough to do it, physically go and discard it in the woods or drown it. But now we’re quibbling over whether we can do much the same 20 weeks after conception, or can we extend that to 24!? It’s kind of nuts if you ask me.

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
1 Samuel 2:3-6

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Polygamy and the Bible

In the Bible, Jacob had four wives. King David had eight wives. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 mistresses. And these men were all exemplars of the faith. So one may be inclined to say that the Bible promotes, or at least does not prohibit, polygamy. And yet Christianity has always been identified as a religion which limits marriage to monogamy between one man and one woman. So how do I deal with this apparent conflict? The typical answer Christians give is that those men did something which was wrong, but that the Biblical narrative doesn’t overtly address their sin. And I think this answer is sufficient in probably most, but not all, cases. We are supposed to know, even from the story of Adam and Eve, that monogamy is God’s intent for marriage. It is very often the case in Biblical narrative that characters will sin, and we’re supposed to identify it as sin ourselves rather than being told explicitly somehow, “and what he did was a sin, by the way...” Contrary to many people’s idea of the Bible, the Bible does not aim to fully define what is right and wrong. God created us with a conscience which tells us right from wrong, and because that conscience has become corrupted by sin, we need guidance from the Bible which can align our consciences with the truth. Or to say it in other words, the Bible is not an exhaustive table of right and wrong - we already have a basic sense of right and wrong; but the Bible reminds us through many examples of what right and wrong is, because we’re inclined to stray from what we know to be right, and then to justify ourselves. The Bible doesn’t have to spell out every sin for us as though we would otherwise have no idea. When Cain killed Abel, he knew he’d done wrong, long before the Bible said “Thou shalt not kill.”

So when it comes to polygamy, we should know that it’s wrong, and we all do... this is precisely why we’re marvelling at the fact that Solomon had 700 wives! And the Bible does explicitly tell us in Deuteronomy...

And he [the king] shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away... (Deuteronomy 17:17)

And of Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 mistresses, it later said “And his wives turned away his heart.” (1 Kings 11:3). We’re supposed to make the connection here, if we hadn’t figured it out for ourselves already, that Solomon had done wrong. And while the Bible never explicitly condemns Jacob or King David for their polygamy, we’re supposed to read those stories knowing that they were doing wrong; and when you do, you pick up on how their sin affected their lives, and we see characters suffering over jealousies and related issues. We ought not to forget that for as many examples as there are of polygamy, monogamy is still the norm throughout every stage of Biblical history, such as with Moses, or with Abraham (despite the incident with Hagar which is explicitly acknowledged as error), or with Noah.

The Bible does explicitly tell us that the intent for marriage is to be between one man and one woman. It tells us this from the beginning in Genesis 2... “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24). And whenever the Bible speaks of marriage in a prescriptive sense it assumes one wife, such as in Malachi 2, and in New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 7 or Ephesians 5. In fact, the point these passages are making is to parallel marriage with our relationship to God, and what it’s saying about our relationship to God is that it is exclusive. The Church is “one body”, and “betrothed to one husband”.

Nevertheless, whereas many Christians, I think, try to explain all instances of polygamy in the Bible as “they were doing wrong”, I’d say we need to be aware of at least one situation where polygamy is allowed for. There is the case of levirate marriage in the Bible. This is a practice which is not unique to the Bible, but has been known in many cultures around the world. This is the case where, if a man dies and he has no children to carry on the family’s heritage, that man’s brother is obliged to marry his widow, and the widow is obliged to marry the brother. And it seems that this obligation exists even if that brother is already married, leading to a case where polygamy is not only permitted, but where there is an obligation to enter that arrangement. It doesn’t seem to be an enforced commandment, though, since the Bible speaks of the right for the brother to refuse, and the only consequence of this is that the brother should be ashamed of himself (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). But given the allowance for levirate marriage, when we come to read about a man named Elkanah in 1 Samuel who had two wives, perhaps we ought to be at least a little uncertain as to how we should judge him. It may be, though it doesn’t say, that he necessarily had two wives through a case of levirate marriage? We don’t know. And where the Law says “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved...” This passage goes on to speak about inheritance, and not favouring the firstborn of the loved wife. But to me it makes the most sense that this is said in the context of levirate marriage, where inheritance is the primary issue, and where a man is surely going to love one wife, and possibly not be terribly in love with the woman he was obliged to marry through the levirate custom!

So I think that in so many cases where the Bible speaks of men married to two women, levirate marriage is probably the unstated, implicit reason for it. And there's reason, from the Bible, to believe that levirate marriage was probably the only valid exception to a monogamous marriage. Look at the following passage where the religious experts come to Jesus, trying to catch Him out teaching something perverse... They say:

"Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, [listen to what they say here] whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife." (Luke 20:28-33)

"Surely the woman can't have more than one husband!" is the argument, and this argument is based on the Law of Moses! Jesus answers that nobody is married in the resurrection. But we see that even for the people under Moses, monogamy was the standard, with levirate marriage being probably the only valid exception.

Levirate marriage is still no excuse to justify polygamy today. It applied to Israel in particular because God had a purpose in keeping the separate tribes of Israel somewhat separate, and ensuring that inheritance was kept within each tribe. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, though there is probably a better answer out there, is that part of the reason we know Jesus Christ was the Saviour to come is because He fits the criteria according to the prophecies... that He would be from the tribe of Judah, and born in Bethlehem. So by the time of Christ there still had to be a tribe of Judah, and Bethlehem had to still be identified with the tribe of Judah.

Finally, I want to look at Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. Here he says, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28). The format of Jesus’ arguments in this part of the Sermon is like this... “If you think this or that is a significant sin, be aware that every sin starts in our thoughts, or intent.” How would we get to the stage of actually committing adultery, physically, if we prevented it getting further than thoughts becoming intent? As regards polygamy, surely the initial intent is adultery, and the only difference between adultery and polygamy might be that our (first) wife consents to the relationship with the “other woman”. But I would say that this is no less adultery, especially from God’s perspective. We know this because Jesus said in another place, “whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery.” My point here being that even if the wife is out of the picture, and is quite happy for their ex husband to have “moved on”, this is still adultery in God’s eyes. If having another wife is a sin after you’re divorced, how much more is it a sin while you’re still together!? Even if your wife consents, it only means that you’re both committing the same sin together.

You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. (Exodus 20:17)

Friday, March 29, 2013

It's a New Creation!

A few days ago our family expanded by one; my wife gave birth to a new baby boy! He's our third. And amidst the joy of having that new baby, it's hard to recall the hours and days leading up to his delivery. In fact, the joy of having this little child so far outweighs the visible discomfort of my pregnant wife, and the very audible pain she was in during labour, that it actually takes effort to try to bring it to mind. But I do recall, as my week-late wife was struggling to walk from one end of the house to the other, what I was thinking at the time...

I knew that at any time she could go into labour, and that I couldn't possibly imagine the pain of child birth. It's beyond me how women bear it. But women not only bear it, they often embrace it willingly! My wife, for one, absolutely refuses any significant pain relief. And so do many others who are, for example, offered an epidural or perhaps even a caesarean. And as I thought about it, I figured that as a parent we willingly make so many sacrifices for our children throughout their lives, and that maybe the pain of childbirth was, at least in some way, just the first of many. Consider the effect that a parent's sacrifice later on in life has on the relationship between parent and child. The child actually gets to see the reality of their parent's love for them. The words “I love you” hardly compare to the expression written in actions. And this has the same effect for the parent where we might even surprise ourselves in seeing just how much we love our children. Our actions speak to us also of just how precious our children really are to us. And I think that the pains of childbirth effect us in a similar way. One reason a woman might willingly choose to go through the full force of labour pain is to demonstrate in actions what she is willing to go through to bring her child into this world. And in a sense I'm jealous of women because of that... the bond between a mother and child is that much stronger right from the beginning. A father will have to wait a long time for the opportunity to make any kind of sacrifice for his child that even comes close in power. I'm not saying that parental love doesn't exist apart from sacrifice, but I do think it's strengthened and magnified through sacrifice.

Now, on the day that my son was born, and while my wife was in the early stages of labour, I sat in the delivery room by her side. And as I sat there I took out my phone, opened my Bible App and read. And this is what I happened to read...

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

What the Bible teaches throughout is that God made the world perfect, but through our sin the world became corrupt. Nevertheless, God will some day restore the world to perfection, including our bodies which age and fail. But this present time is likened to “the pains of childbirth”. It's like we're suffering through great pain in anticipation of that “New Creation”, which is also a term that the Bible uses. And as I read this with my former musings in the back of my mind, I realized that perhaps the effect of going through all the sufferings of this present world are to have that same effect that a woman's labour has in forging the bond between mother and child. Through our sufferings we truly begin to value that “New Creation”, and of course the bond between us and God is strengthened all the more! We too may surprise ourselves, seeing what we're prepared to go through out of love for God and out of steadfast faith in that New Creation to come.

Earlier I used the term “sacrifice” with regard to a woman's labour. And in a sense, it has always been a sacrifice, even before the days of c-sections and pain relief. A woman makes the choice to get pregnant in the first place knowing what lies ahead. But even in the moment, a woman's mental attitude toward her labour can make it a willing sacrifice or a begrudged act of necessity. Likewise, in this present world, Christ has told us to make the sacrifice of “taking up our cross daily”. This, too, can be a sacrifice purely because our attitude is right, and where our attitude is right it forges that bond of love between ourselves and God. Or the hardships of life can be lived begrudgingly, wherein no bond is forged; and perhaps only resentment towards God is left to grow? But Paul reassures us...

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Romans 8:18,35)