Tag Archives: belief

In a World Full of Questions, a Few Answers Matter Most

 

It is no proof of superior intelligence, but even as a young man I was theoretically sure that I would not always be a young man.

As I (rarely) contemplated middle or old age, though they seemed light years away, I figured that a major consolation of being old and crotchety, say, 45, would be that by then I would probably have found answers to a great many of life’s most vexing questions.

I’m an incredibly vibrant 60 years old now. Since I can’t imagine much worse than living to be 120, I’ll admit that 60 may, at the very least, bump the outer range of middle age.

The bad news (which is not really bad since it means I’m still seeking and inquisitive) is that I have more questions than ever. The good news is that the older I get, the more I realize how few of those questions really matter much. In fact, I’d say that life’s biggest questions could be numbered without getting much past the fingers of one hand. (I can probably do with five, if you would later let me add a related question or two beneath a couple of these.)

Does God exist?

What kind of God is he?

Has he revealed himself to mankind and how?

Is he absolutely good, absolutely powerful, and absolutely loving?

And, if the answer to that last one is yes, then why does God allow pain and suffering?

These are questions of belief. That does not at all mean they can’t be approached rationally; it does mean we will always, even when we’ve seriously and diligently sought their answers, still have to say, “I believe that . . .”

And, it seems to me, even after we’ve come to confident peace about the first four, and even the fifth, we will repeatedly face situations in our own lives and the lives of others that bring us back pretty regularly, and sometimes poignantly, to that last one.

Two words are “the answer.” Free will. Of this, I am sure.

And two more points here, one of which I know, and one of which I believe. 1) “Knowing” the philosophical answer to the “problem of pain,” does not take away pain. Agonizing pain is still agonizing. 2) With all of my heart, I believe that our deepest pain hurts our Father even more than it hurts us.

In The Cross of Christ, John R. W. Stott asks, “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

He writes, “I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, . . . detached from the agonies of the world.”

But he continues, “Each time after a while I have had to turn away . . . to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, . . . plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us.”

God suffers to one day end all suffering.

 

 

     You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

 

Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


“If Christ Has Not Been Raised . . .”

 

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Easter, like Christmas, is not just a day; it is a season.

A day is probably enough if you’re just talking about bunnies and eggs. But I like them, too—particularly the chocolate ones—and I hope your bunch enjoyed an Easter egg hunt. We had a good one! (Not, I trust, like the year one Easter egg hidden indoors behind our couch stayed hidden until well after Pentecost when its smell betrayed its presence.)

But if our spirits also rise higher, and Easter for us centers on the risen Lord, a full season of reflection is sweet and good and important. The Apostle Paul warns, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). But if Easter really happened, that changes everything. With all of my heart, I believe that Christ was indeed raised from the dead. But I admit . . .

Believing anything with complete sincerity proves precisely nothing except that you are seriously sincere. You may also be seriously mistaken. We all know folks who always believe each of their feelings extremely sincerely, even religiously. But their feelings, sadly untrustworthy, betray them and lead to wreck after wreck.

Notice also the necessary word here: “believe.” I believe that the Resurrection happened. Not just as a metaphor for new birth and hope and life; though it is that, it is much more. I don’t adopt a “belief” in the Resurrection that is largely symbolic and sentimental, a tip of the hat to ancient folks who just didn’t know any better, but now we do, and we’d still like the comfort of religion, shorn of much that is embarrassingly supernatural. No. I believe John looked into an empty tomb and that Jesus, after his real death later showed up genuinely alive.

But a belief, even bolstered by all sorts of good and real evidence, is still a belief. No one can prove 100% that it happened or that it didn’t. We consider the evidence and choose.

For me, that leads way back to this question: “Does God exist?” I’ve rarely been able to imagine having enough “faith” to believe that all we see around us is accidental. I know we moderns, “chronological snobs,” like to assume that, with the advent of science and technology, we’ve arrived, and that the incredible masses of folks before us were just so primitive and foolish that they worshiped rocks and statues rather than facing hard facts.

Well, idolatry was and is foolish. But I’m not convinced pagans were more foolish than modern humans who adopt a supercilious, supposedly tragic pose, claiming “courageously” to stare darkness in the face and to worship nothing at all—even as we worship ourselves as gods and bow to science as our religion.

If all we see around us is not a cosmic accident, we soon must get back to some idea of a Creator. Once we do, why should a God who can create a universe out of nothing be unable to reverse death and create new life? It’s a dead serious question.

I like the way Danish priest and martyr Kaj Munk framed this: “If [Christian faith and ministry] is, after all, a mistake, then it is a beautiful mistake. If Christianity should turn out, after all, to be true, then unbelief will have been a very ugly mistake.”

My faith is in a risen Lord.

 

      You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

  

Copyright 2016 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

 


“Do You Believe in Prayer?”

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I’m not sure I believe much in prayer.

Now, hold on! Taking that statement out of context might ensure I’m never tapped to be pastor of a mega-church. Good! A blessing for all concerned! And if it shakes up the “Expect a Miracle!” plastic piety crowd whose answers to pain and suffering are strings of pious platitudes, fine. I’ve had my fill of such.

As the umbrella title of this column/blog is “Focus on Faith,” I ask, “Who or what is the focus of our faith?” My answer is, “God.” In that very literal sense, the answer is not “prayer,” it is God.

But I’m not always so picky or prickly. If I’m asked, “Do you believe in prayer?” I usually just truthfully say, “Yes, I do,” without being a jerk and over-explaining. But what I mean is, “I believe in God, and in his Son, who taught us by word and example to pray deeply and often and expect to be heard, believing that it matters. Yes, I pray.”

But I do not believe in approaches to prayer that are more akin to rabbit’s foot magic and witch doctor superstition than the faith we see in the Bible. They are so unlike Jesus’ example and teaching about prayer, and seem to me thin, wispy, and, at heart, cruel, no matter how popular they are.

I can’t talk about faith for long without talking about prayer. And I can’t talk about prayer long without talking about the problem of pain and suffering. The answer to both centers on trust in God. But real answers and real trust are never easy, however strong our faith.

Even a little honesty about prayer is a breath of fresh air. C. S. Lewis, great defender of the faith and serious “pray-er,” in the midst of writing profoundly on the subject, admitted frustration, realizing that his whole day had a feeling of holiday about it once his morning prayers were dutifully done! Such candor comforts me far more than the stories—some mostly true—of great people of faith who regularly prayed for 25 hours a day, 26 on particularly busy days.

If you prefer moonshine and stardust to harder and more genuine faith, don’t read Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? But I love his biblical and faith-building view—especially what he writes about Jesus and prayer: Jesus prayed. We learn much about praying from the way he prayed, what he prayed for, what he didn’t pray for, and the way he dealt with his Father’s yes—and no.

Did Jesus believe in prayer? Yes! If you mean that he believed so completely in his Father that, whatever the answer, talking with his Father was more important to him than food or shelter or breath itself!

When I pray, I ask for the moon. Like Yancey, I believe that miracles happen, but, by their nature, rarely. I also remember Christ’s cross, Paul’s thorn, and . . . Sometimes the answer rocks me on my heels because it is so delightful. More often, it rocks me more profoundly and sends me beating on my Father’s chest before I collapse in his arms of love.

“Oh, respectfully, Lord, did I not make myself clear? I did not in the least want “power to get through this.” I wanted around this!

Sometimes I almost wish there were a formula, so if I got it right, I’d get the right answer. But that’s magic, not faith. I don’t need a better rabbit’s foot; I have what I need, a Father who loves me completely. To him, I’ll pray. With gratitude. Love. Hope. And sometimes anger and hot tears. And he’ll love me still.

 

      You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

Copyright 2015 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


Would a Miracle a Day Really Keep Doubt Away?

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When we’re talking about people and what they believe, is it not true to say . . .

*Most people believe what they want to believe.

*God wants us to use our minds, but facts may or may not have much to do with what some people believe.

*Seeing is not necessarily believing.

*Not having faith is not possible. Everyone believes in something. Many in our society are so desperate for a god that they bow to the most popular and pathetic god of all. Instead of worshiping other gods or God, they worship themselves.

Years ago, G. K. Chesterton made fun of skeptics who would “complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything.”

Not believing is not an option for anyone. We all put our faith in something or someone.

I admit that I used to make the common mistake of thinking that living by faith would be easier if God would just make his presence a little more obvious.

Maybe God could part the waters of a sea, go before us in a “pillar” of cloud or fire, shake a church sanctuary on cue at the end of a prayer, “wow” us in an obvious display of his glory! But how many miracles per month does it take to bolster “faith” lest it falter during a drought or even a dip in signs and wonders? Is “a miracle a day to keep doubt away” faith really much faith at all?

But, sunrises aside, if we could just see God’s power obviously and often at work in amazing ways that no one could miss, wouldn’t it be easier to fall down and worship in amazement and awe?

The short answer is, no, it wouldn’t.

The Israelites of old saw the plagues of God and walked out of Egypt through the miraculously parted Red Sea.

God visibly led them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Each day God fed them with his manna.

They trembled when Mount Sinai quaked with God’s very presence, but . . .

But Egypt is barely out of the rearview mirror and already they’re yawning at God, griping, and begging Aaron for a golden idol to worship.

Years later, in John 6 the crowd Jesus has recently fed shows up wanting more food. He tells them that God wants them to believe in the One sent by the Father, and they ask him to make belief easy.

“Show us a miraculous sign—something like what Moses did in the desert as he gave our ancestors manna to eat. Then we’ll believe!”

No, manna hadn’t really helped very much. Not then. And when the Bread of Life sent from heaven stands before the crowd, they want a greater, more eye-popping, sign.

So at times do we. But no sign is greater than Jesus himself. May we open our hearts to his Presence each day and believe.

 

  You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.come! It’s way short of miraculous, but it’s not that bad, either! 

 

 

Copyright 2015 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

 

 


“Lord, I Believe! Help My Unbelief!”

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Two little twin boys recently walked up to our house with their mom and little sister. They could hardly wait to show us their two buckets filled with several layers of . . . woolly worms! Woolly caterpillars. The kind that seem to be everywhere right now. Pretty cool little creepy crawlies, those worms! Pretty cool little guys, those great little twins!

Now catch this woolly transition: Woolly worms are one thing. Woolly thinking about faith, and particularly about faith and prayer, is another.

The “prayer of faith” is a biblical term. But both prayer and faith get twisted pretty often by flashy TV preachers and their bunch into something much more akin to magic and superstition than Christianity.

What I’m thinking of is the very common, very mistaken, notion that praying with the kind of “faith” that is the key to “powerful prayer” means working ourselves up into some highly emotional and extremely subjective state so that we can make a desperate request of God absolutely expecting him to answer with exactly what we want. We’re most likely to get exactly whatever the “it” we want is, this approach says, if we “amp up” our “faith” so as to bar the doors of our minds to any possibility of our not receiving “it.” If we don’t get “it,” then the purveyors of such “faith” tell us that we just didn’t “believe” hard enough, and we must work harder to banish all doubt.

Such an approach is unbiblical, mistaken, and often, arrogant and cruel. As C. S. Lewis once wisely wrote, this kind of thing “is not faith in the Christian sense; it is a feat of psychological gymnastics.”
For a picture of real faith, and for a real corrective to the other sort, Lewis points us to the Son praying to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” The perfect Son. The perfect Father. The perfect prayer. Perfect faith. And the answer was No.

And may I point you to another amazing picture of another poignant scene? Another father. Another son. Another prayer.

The son is terribly afflicted by an evil spirit. (The disciples have struck out on casting it out.) The father “prays,” asking Jesus, “If you can do anything,” (it’s the same Greek root word for Jesus’ request to the Father: “if it be possible”), “heal my son.”

Jesus replies, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible [the same word again] to him who believes.”

I love that father’s response: “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” And, despite faith-flaws and weakness, the answer to this father is Yes, and this son is healed.

We have a Lord who counts our honesty about our weakness—even our weak faith—as much more valuable than our ability to build in ourselves some emotional state that supposedly excludes all doubt.

Faith in God, even a little faith, much smaller even than the “mustard seed” sort Jesus also taught about, is still real faith. Perhaps faith in the quality of my ability to believe is also faith of a sort, but it’s the wrong sort. It’s faith focused in me, not faith focused on God.

 

     You’re invited to check out my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

 

Copyright 2014 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


Christians Should Not Be Surprised by Faith Struggles

 

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I want, I strive, to be a person of faith.

Given that I’m a Christian pastor, you’d sort of hope so, right? I don’t expect any “attaboys” from the stands.

I know you know that having real faith implies an on-going struggle—whoever you are, whatever your vocation. Pastors are not exempt.

I well remember talking to a ministerial mentor about some hard “faith questions” I was struggling with, when he replied, “Where do you think many of my sermons come from? My own questions and struggles, exactly like the one you’ve just laid out. Why would you think having faith means not having deep questions?”

He’s right. The One who affirmed that we should “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind” is not averse to our using our minds. We should apologize for not using them enough—as long as we don’t forget that, at the end of the inquiry, it’s childlike faith Christ values most.

Real faith is not unquestioning. By all means, use every tool available to hone your mind. Read. Study. Learn how to ask the right questions. But do so in the full realization that no bridge of logic will extend across the whole chasm. Eventually, everybody has to make a choice and take a leap of faith, even if it’s the negative faith that chooses to believe in unbelief. Choosing not to choose is its own poor choice. Instead of “minding the gap,” as the London Tube (subway) signs admonish, being careful when you cross the space between the platform and the subway car, choosing not to choose is trying to camp in the gap.

But even those who’ve made, I think, the best choice, agree that it’s not easy. C. S. Lewis, almost certainly the greatest defender and expositor of Christian belief in the past century, once said that no proposition of Christianity ever seemed less likely to be true to him than at the very moment he had just supposedly successfully “defended” it. That’s just the nature of the beast we call faith. Sometimes it purrs. Sometimes it growls.

Lewis also noted that believers should not be surprised if faith is at times difficult or fleeting. We are humans, after all, whose feelings are affected by everything from the weather to the state of our digestion. Refreshingly realistic, Lewis said that when he was an atheist, he had moments when he suspected that Christianity just might be true. Why should he be surprised to find that as a Christian, he had moments when he wondered if there was really anything to it? In such moments, it’s good to remember that, at a particular time, you’ve already, for good reasons, taken the leap, made the jump, sealed the promise, committed to the journey. Don’t navel-gaze too much in times when just hanging on to the precepts of faith seems difficult.

The good news is that those times pass. The bad news is that living out the faith is a lot harder than just holding to its central beliefs. The best news of all is that Christ understands our faith struggles and will buoy us up in the midst of them all.

 

    You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

Copyright 2014 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


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