Thursday, May 7, 2009
The Journey offers an introductory sample of Christian teaching. You don’t have to worry about getting lost in a description of Greek words or Christian history. This is down-to-earth teaching with personal examples and illustrations straight out of our culture. As you read, we hope that many of your doubts about Christianity will dissolve or at least become manageable. You will also begin to learn and to practice the basic skills of relating to God like communicating doubt, prayer, and reading the Bible. After experiencing The Journey, most participants are hungry to learn more. Mission accomplished.
The Journey was originally designed as a class hosted within a local church. The participants are in the same small groups for nine weeks. They eat together and laugh together. They discuss sports, kids, work, God, Church, doubts, questions, and fears. They learn from each other and learn together. They are accepted just as they are with no strings attached. For many, this is the first time in a long time that they have felt community like this, and they want more. That is exactly the point!
If you are an individual reader, you may want to find some friends to read along with you. You can meet together for dinner or coffee once a week and discuss each topic. If you don't have a group, feel free to post a comment with your thoughts or questions.
If you are interested in hosting The Journey in your church or group, I have lots of other resources which would be helpful for you. Simply post a comment with your email address, and I will email you directly about how to share things like our leaders' guide, discussion guides, videos, and promotional materials.
Whoever you are and however you got here, I hope that you will truly enter the journey of engaging with God. It could change your life!
I heard a story about a rancher, who had a huge ranch with thousands of head of cattle and a mansion of a house. This guy liked to through parties … big, raucous parties.
At some point during every party, he would gather everyone around his swimming pool and show them his shark. He had an 8-foot long shark that he kept in his pool as a pet. When he had the folks gathered around his huge pool, he would make a daring offer that if anyone would jump in the pool with the shark and swim from one side to the other, the rancher would give him his daughter’s hand in marriage or half his ranch.
At one particular party, the rancher had made his usual dare, and, after the initial surprise, the party started to go back to normal. Then, all of the sudden, the crowd heard the sound of someone splashing into the water and kicking like crazy.
Instantly, everyone rushed to the side of the pool to watch one man swim for his life. He was a pretty good swimmer, but you could see the shark fin rise in the water behind him. You could almost hear the Jaws music. The shark was gaining on him, and just as the man reached the other side and jumped out, you could hear the shark’s head hit the side of the pool.
The rancher came up to the man and said, “Well, I’ve got to hand it to you. I’ve made that offer for years, and no one has had the guts to do it. I’m a man of my word, though. What do you want my daughter or half my ranch?”
Out of breath, the soaking wet swimmer replied, “Neither. I want the name of the guy who pushed me in!”1
Some of you may be feeling like you got pushed into this. You may not be sure if you really want to be here. That’s OK. There aren’t any sharks in here. We aren’t going to eat you alive. As a matter of fact, we hope that this is a safe environment where you can discuss spiritual issues without fear of being criticized or condemned.
The Journey is an open and honest exploration of Christianity, including its faults and hard spots. We aren’t going to hide behind the church or doctrines or anything else. We believe the Christian faith makes sense, but we understand that there are significant barriers to faith. We affirm the doubting and searching process. It is healthy to investigate and not to believe something just because you’re told to believe it is true. We also believe that, when we look at what the Bible really says, the Christian faith gels with our experience and our natural sense of logic.
Therefore, we invite you to investigate with us. Let’s look closely at the Bible and God and Christianity and see if there is any truth in this. I invite you to embark on a spiritual journey with us to see if there is any truth in Christianity and if there really is a way that we may know God.
Play Clips from Wide Awake: (“Do you ever think about God?” – near the beginning, after running in the school, they stop to look up at a stain glassed window. “I’m going on a mission … to find God.” – they are sitting in the an unmoving car talking; the conversation starts out about girls; include that part. )
But, why? Why go on a mission to find God? Why should we engage in the spiritual Journey? Why should you give up two hours out of every Thursday for the next two months to talk about spiritual issues?
First of all, I think we would all agree that there is more to life than the material world. Music is more than notes on a page or sound waves vibrating through the air. Art is more than paint on a canvas. Poetry is more than letters in neat columns. People are more than flesh and bones.
There is a spiritual aspect to this world that is hard to deny. We live in environments that are not fully measurable by science or technology. We are spiritual beings in a spiritual world. It makes sense to get to know our world.
Second, we all have a deeper hunger. We all have a sense that there is something more. I love this part of The Matrix because it speaks to our deep curiosity.
You may not be able to put your finger on it, but you know there’s something out there. You have a nagging suspicion that there is deep truth and that you can find it.
A pastor from the Netherlands describes our situation well. “Humankind has been described by several scholars as ‘incurably religious.’ We are continually being drawn to something that is beyond ourselves, which is just another way of saying that God’s grace is at work in each of us and draws us ever closer to Him. It is only in God that we find our ultimate fulfillment.” He then quotes a prayer from Augustine, a Christian writer from the fourth century, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in You.”2 We have a God-shaped hole in our heart that can only be filled by God himself.
Third, Jesus satisfies our deepest longings. “Freud said, ‘People are hungry for love.’ Jung said, ‘People are hungry for security.’ Adler said, ‘People are hungry for significance.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35). In other words, ‘If you want your hunger satisfied, come to me.’”3
In an article in In Touch magazine about how Matthew Perry recovered from drug and alcohol addiction, Matthew Perry observes, “It all starts from a spiritual connection with something that’s bigger than you. … But if you don’t have happiness inside, and you don’t think of others first, you’ll be lonely and miserable in a big house.”4
The truth that Matthew Perry discovered is that nice things can’t satisfy our deepest hungers. Jesus said that he came to this earth to give us “life in all its fullness,” (John 10:10), and only he can give us what we long for deep within our beings.
There is one last reason to explore Christianity. God offers us a foundation that cannot be shaken by the struggles of this life. The foundation God offers is himself.
Nothing else in this world is certain. Boyfriends and girlfriends break up. Good workers get laid off. Spouses have affairs. Towers collapse. Stock markets crash. We are unwise to put our ultimate trust in anything or anyone in this world because if that thing or person goes, we are foundationless. It’s kind of like the Road Runner cartoons when somebody is running along and then realizes that there’s no ground underneath him anymore.
But listen to what King David said about God thousands of years ago, “I wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor come from God alone. He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me” (Psalm 62:5-7).
Being a Christian doesn’t make us immune to cancer or bullet proof, but entrusting our whole lives to God does something for us that no medicine or high tech vest can do. It gives us a foundation that is beyond material circumstances. It sets our roots in the Eternal. There is something very calming about knowing that whatever happens we are safe with God.
I had to loose the foundation I had built up for myself to learn this lesson. God taught me to put my trust in him alone. Since then, I have had a peace that whatever happens I will be OK because God is my foundation and refuge. If God is even half as good as the Bible says he is, this is something worth looking into.
Let’s stop for a minute and talk about doubts. We all have doubts, and doubts can be serious hurdles in our spiritual journey. They can even derail us at times.
There is a story in the Bible about a man named Jacob that is pertinent to a discussion about doubts. God had called Jacob to return to his homeland, but Jacob’s homeland was not safe for him the last time he was there, and Jacob is full of doubts. In the middle of the night, God comes to Jacob in the form of a man, and Jacob wrestles with him until dawn.
I have always wondered how a person could wrestle with God, but Jacob does. It seems to have been a real back and forth struggle. One time, God even cries out, “Let me go!” God could have killed him in an instant. Instead, he wrestled with him all night.
I think Jacob got the idea that this was God. It may have even been a battle of the wills. If so, here was the issue: Would Jacob trust God and step out into the unknown?
Eventually, God pops Jacob on the hip and gives him a limp. It’s like he’s reminding Jacob who is really in control. But then God gives Jacob a new name. From that time on, Jacob would be known as Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” Jacob was the father of the twelve men who became the twelve tribes, and the whole nation would bear his new name, Israel. The people of Israel lived up to their name. The Bible gives countless stories of how God’s people have wrestled with him through the night.
We follow in Jacob’s footsteps too. We have doubts. We wrestle with God. I think it’s time for some audience participation. What are some of the doubts that you or people you know have? What stops people from being Christian? What makes people question their faith?
[How can God let bad things happen to good people?
How do I know God is there if I can’t see him or touch him or hear him?
Why are there so many hypocritical Christians? (By the way, this was the number one question asked our survey of people who don’t go to church.)
Do you really expect me to believe someone walked on water?
What will I have to give up to be a Christian?
If the Bible was written by men, how can it really teach me about God?
Religion is a crutch, “the opiate of the masses.”]
I have had my fair share of doubts. I grew up going to church, but after a while I began to think that Christianity was not real at all. That probably had a lot to do with seeing some serious double lives in those around me.
I remember sitting in church and thinking this was all fake. I thought, “These people are just fooling themselves. They’re working themselves up into an emotional frenzy. There is nothing real here. God isn’t real, or, if he is, he doesn’t care about us.”
Then, later, after I was a Christian, I found out that my friend’s parents, who had been upstanding members of their church, were getting a divorce because the man was beating his wife. I had such a hard time dealing with that. I had spent time in their home, eaten their food, shaken their hands. I cried and cried and asked how God could let this happen, how he could give a person that much freedom.
You know I’m comforted because the Bible is full of doubting people. Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Gideon, Peter, John the Baptist, Paul – they all had their doubts.
But the most famous of all is Doubting Thomas. Jesus was crucified, and the disciples were crushed. But then Jesus came back to life and appeared to a few different disciples on different occasions. Once he walked into a room where most of the apostles were meeting. Everyone was there except Thomas.
When the others told Thomas about it, he didn’t believe them. He had gotten hopes up before, and the let down was too painful to go through that again. He didn’t know what those other guys saw, but he said, “Look I’m not going to believe he’s back until I see him with my own eyes and touch him with my own hands, and I’m not going to believe it is really Jesus until I put my fingers in the nail holes on his wrists and my hand on the spear wound on his side.”
Not too long after that, the apostles were all together, including Thomas. They locked the door because things had been really bad lately. In walked Jesus right through the locked door, and said [deep gravely voice] “Wazzup?” (That’s a loose translation.) Then, he locks eyes with Thomas. People start to clear out of the way, kind of like a showdown in an Old West saloon.5 You can almost hear somebody say, “Get him Jesus!”
Jesus doesn’t jump Thomas’s case or zap him with lightning. He does something even more shocking. Jesus walked over to Thomas and gently said, “Touch me. I know you need to. It’s really me. Now, have faith!”
God is the same with us. He says, “Touch me. Come get a closer look.” People have doubts. The amazing thing is that God seems to be OK with that. God isn’t afraid our doubts. He willingly wrestles back and forth with people over our doubts. I think he kind of likes it. In this course, you will have the chance to wrestle with God. This is your opportunity to take a closer look and see if God is for real.
Let’s go back and review the benefits for you. What do you get out of this? First of all, there are some pretty good guarantees. No matter what else happens, you’ll get more good food. You’ll get to meet some nice people, and you’ll get to have some stimulating discussions about important issues.
Beyond those guarantees, there are some amazing possibilities. Participating in this course could help you become a more spiritual person whether or not you buy into the Christian perspective. The Journey could help you find answers to some of the questions you’ve been asking for a long time. Discussing spiritual issues and wrestling with the meaning of life could help you learn how to have a more satisfying and joyful life.
Finally, if God really blesses this course, you will encounter the living God in a life changing way! In Jeremiah 29:13 God says, “If you look for me in earnest [if you search for me with all your heart], you will find me when you seek me.” That is a promise we hope will be fulfilled for you over the next two months. It may not happen for everyone, but if you stick with us and keep seeking God, you will surely make progress toward that goal.
I think a quote from the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” may be helpful here. The chapter is titled, “We Agnostics,” and it is written by people who were atheist or agnostic and definitely unreligious, who out of their desperation to escape alcoholism, decided to give spirituality a try. “We, who have traveled this dubious path, beg you to lay aside prejudice, even against organized religion. We have learned that whatever the frailties of various faiths may be, those faiths have given purpose and direction to millions.”
Then in reference to their former views the AA writers, have this to say, “Instead, we looked at the human defects of these people, and sometimes used their shortcomings as a basis of wholesale condemnation. We talked of intolerance, while we were intolerant ourselves. We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees. We never gave the spiritual side of life a fair hearing.”6
That is all we are asking of you. We know there are some ugly trees in the Christian forest. All we ask is that you give Christianity and Jesus a fair hearing. That is what the Journey is all about.
Now I want to let you hear from someone who has really wrestled with God. Travis, come on up. Travis went on a two year journey of wrestling with God. I want you to hear what he has to say.
Interview with Travis Marlow.
1. I know that you had a long process of thinking about spiritual issues. What was your life like when you started that process?
Frustrating. I was tired of thinking about money and how to make more, all the time. I was tired of not knowing how to act in my marriage. I was tired of being a jerk to everybody. I was tired of trying to change myself and it lasting two days because it was a surface change. That being my life, the thing that actually started my quest to understand more about different religions was the fact that I wanted to throw a monkey wrench in other people's faith. I didn't care what they believed, I just wanted to show them why it was flawed, so they could be as lost as me. An example would be my good friend Jason Zann who at the time was a Catholic, though not practicing. He had a lot of little bits of canned wisdom that he would throw at me, so I would read the Bible to disprove him.
2. What were some of your biggest questions?
Why doesn't God just show himself/herself/itself so that we can all quit arguing about it(then I realized that he did). There can't be a God, because we came from monkeys and the Bible contradicts that. If there is a God, what religion best represents what that God is or does that religion exist yet? I also believed that people believed in God for a pyschological crutch, because they can't deal with the reality that they are nothing more than food for the critters when they're 6 feet under.
3. How did you "wrestle with God?" What was the process like for you?
I don't completely understand Jesus and why he would sacrifice so much for me, when I've done nothing for it. I don't know how you create the world by speaking it into existence. I continue to wrestle with God, I continue to have doubts about things. I don't think that I'm not a Christian because I have doubts, in fact, I think the opposite is true. My faith becomes strengthened because of my doubts, you see, everytime that I overcome one of my doubts my faith is that much more battle-hardened.
4. Where are you now?
Sitting next to you, silly sally. I'm on a Journey. I've have decided to put my faith in and God and believe, even though I don't have all the questions answered and may never have them all answered, I believe that the evidence, currently available, points to Christianity as the only true way to have a relationship with God in the way that God intended. I've experienced that myself, though you could ask me a million questions that I couldn't answer, I would still believe that it's true, because I've experienced it to be true.
5. What advice do you have for people about wrestling with God?
Do your best to maintain an open mind while going through this Journey, because we reason God out of our lives without checking all the facts. Ask questions that you have, because it's important for them to be answered if possible. I have discovered of myself and others that sometimes we hide behind intellectual objections to Christianity when the real problem is we don't want to give up our selfish desires. Just like I can technically describe how to ride a bicycle, you will never truly learn unless you just do it. That same logic applies to the teachings of Jesus, remember Christianity isn't true because it works, it works because it's true.
The Journey is not a dry course about lecture and ideas. It is an adventure in swimming in the reality of life, running it through our fingers. It is looking at the Christian perspective curiously as a child watches an ants move about on the sidewalk, mulling it over with our words, wrestling with its problems. This is your chance!
Some people think of Christianity as a cabin where we can huddle together to hide from wind and darkness and dangers. I am not one of those people. If we want to hide from life, we could all go home and watch sitcoms and dramas, about other people, people who don’t even exist.
Christianity and The Journey are about looking questions of life squarely in the face, feeling the wind, taking the risks of discussion, and trying to figure out how to live life like it is supposed to be lived.7 This is not an invitation to huddle in the cabin. This is an invitation to explore the real world. This is your chance!
“The average life span is 25,550 days. That’s how long you’ll live if you’re typical.” Doesn’t it make sense to take 9 or 10 of those days to explore the deep questions of life and to consider whether or not there is any truth in Christianity?8 This is your chance!
Play “I Hope You Dance” by LeAnne Rymes.
When you think of engaging on a spiritual journey, what do you feel?
What are your core spiritual questions?
1 I got this joke and the application from the pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Overland Park, KS.
2 Edwin de Jong, (“Secularism: Is God Dead?” Holiness Today, October 2002), 27. Note: I edited the quote from Augustine to change the archaic English (from “Thee” to “You,” etc.).
3 Nicki Gumble, Questions of Life, (Colorado Springs: Cook, 1996), 28.
4 “What a Difference a Year Makes,” (In Touch, Jan. 13, 2003), 58.
5 This retelling is adapted from Bill Hybels and Mark Mittleberg, Becoming a Contagious Christian, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 165-166.
6 Alcoholics Anonymous, (New York, 1992), 50.
7 Eugene Peterson, forward in Church: Why Bother? by Philip Yancy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 7-8.
8 Adapted from, Warren, Rick, The Purpose Driven Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: 2002), 9.
Out of desperation, he cried out to God, “God! Help me, please! What am I supposed to do now?!”
Knowing that the man was only a few feet above a nice sized ledge, God responded, “Let go of the branch.”
The atheist cried out, “Is there anybody else up there?”1
The concept of talking with God seems pretty far out. “I have conversations with the Almighty. He talks to me.” Can’t you end up in a straight jacket for saying things like that?
It is pretty far out to propose that finite human beings of flesh and blood can talk with the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe. You can’t see him. You can’t touch him. Most people can’t hear him with their ears. Sometimes people even pray with out talking out loud. It’s like there’s some kind of Star Trek thing going on between them and God. I know the idea that we – you and I – can talk with God sounds a little crazy, but that is exactly what Christians believe.
Our topic for today is talking with God or, in more traditional language, prayer. The benefits of prayer have been widely proven in the field of medicine. Many contemporary songs talk about praying for a friend or bringing some request to God. I guess before we go too far we should work out a basic definition of prayer from the Christian perspective.
Prayer is conversation with God. Most of the characteristics of communication between two humans are the same for communication between us and God. Prayer is our talking with or listening to God.
One component of this definition is essential from the Christian perspective. Prayer is our conversation with God. Prayer is not thinking about somebody or wishing somebody well. Prayer is not sending vibes out into the air that mysteriously transmit across the atmosphere and impact someone’s life. Prayer is talking with God. God hears us, and God responds.
But there is one objection that we still need to answer. Do we even have a right to pray? Does God care? Why should someone that big give a rip about what people as small as us have to say?
When I first went to college, I was glad to be out on my own. I relished my freedom. I said goodbye to my Dad when he dropped me off at the beginning of the semester, and I didn’t even think about calling home. I was out until two or three or five in the morning, and I was having a great time.
A few weeks went by, and my mom called me. She left a message on my answering machine, and I ignored it. Who wants to talk to your mom when you’re in college?
She called again and left another message, “I’m just wondering if you’re still alive!” She sounded a little worried. I thought, “I should probably call her back, just to let her know I’m OK.” I didn’t.
A few more days went by. Then, my mom called at 5 a.m. We had one of those answering machines that will let you keep talking as long as you want. “Josh, I know you’re there. Pick up! JO-O-O-O-O-OSH. Pick up the phone. Josh, wake up and get the phone, sweetheart.” I thought that if I ignored her, she’d hang up.
Finally, my roommate said, “Josh, you’re mom’s calling for you. Get the phone!” That became the pattern until I learned to return her messages. She loved me so much that she was going to keep at it until she got to talk with me.
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.” God is not the cosmic watchmaker that the Deists imagine. God did not set the world in motion and then leave us to ourselves. He loves us. He cares about us. He wants to talk with us, and he’s going to keep at it until we talk back.
In Jeremiah 29:12-3 God says, “In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me in earnest, you will find me when you seek me.” Yes, we have the right to pray. Yes, God cares if we talk to him. In fact, he loves it.
I said earlier that prayer is conversation, but what does that mean? We converse with other people every day, but transferring that concept to prayer may be a little difficult. Let’s take a minute and unpack the word “conversation.”
One mode of conversation is when one person talks for a long time. When I was in college, Darci Miller and I occasionally went for long walks together talking about our guy or girl problems. Usually one of us had a burning issue and talked most of the time. Mostly, we just needed to get it off our chests. This is the way most of us pray. God is our listening ear, and he almost never interrupts, and truth be known, we don’t really want him to interrupt anyway. But that’s OK. God is glad to let us vent to him. You can be sure he’s not going to tell anyone else.
The most common form of conversation is dialogue. People interact back and forth. Both people talk, and both people listen. This is an option for prayer that most people don’t consider. God can and does talk to us if we’re willing to listen. I most often pray like this when I’m reading the Bible. Sometimes, though, to hear God we have to just sit and listen for a while.
Another way dialogue happens is spattered in the midst of an activity. When two people are engaged in an activity together, they may not talk the whole time. Something comes to mind, and one person asks a question. When the activity gets more involved, their attention is focused on the activity, but when there is a low spot there is time to reflect or to dream. We are driving, and we talk with God at stoplights. We get a short break at work and throw up a prayer about a difficult coworker or assignment. “God help me with …” Things quiet down for a minute, and suddenly we hear God asking us a question or leading us to do something or to pray for a particular person.
Conversation happens through different means of communication. We have already been talking about verbal and oral communication. Communication can also be written. Just after we got engaged, Sarah went to Korea for a semester. We wrote each other almost every day. We have stacks of letters from that time. Prayer can be written, too. I find it hard to maintain my focus when I pray. I’ll start out praying about my aunt who is sick, and before I know it I’m thinking about the Chiefs’ game. So, often I write down my prayers in my journal. This way, if I get sidetracked, at least I know where I left off.
Occasionally, conversation happens without even saying words. My family likes to play a card game called Canasta. It’s always the women against the men. In this game if you knew what cards your partner has, you would have a distinct advantage, so table talk is strictly forbidden. Sometimes, though, when my Mom was trying to decide what card to play, she looked at April, my sister, and they would start making faces at each other, giving each other signals. I always said, “Hey, stop that! No table talk.” April would say, “I didn’t say a word.” Then, I would say something like, “You’re not using words, but you’re still talking.”
Sometimes, our communication with God is on a whole different plane. God may give us a gentle nudge to do something or to talk with someone. Sometimes, we may get he clear feeling that God is close or that God is protecting us. Every once in a while, my roommate in college, Jay, would give God one of those looks of frustration. I think God knew what he meant.
Finally, conversation covers wide ranges of content and emotions. We talk to people when we’re happy, sad, angry, confused, and bored. We talk about business, sports, love, clothes, money, family, and the news. In the same way, we can talk with God when we’re experiencing any of the variety of emotions of life about anything that life includes or even the afterlife.
Now let’s look at some different types of prayer. Before we go any farther, I want to acknowledge that some of you may be having a difficult time with this talk so far. You may not believe in God, or you may not be sure he really listens. There is one type of prayer that is just right for you.
It is called the Doubter’s Prayer. It goes something like this, “God, I’m not sure you even exist or care about me, but if you do, I would like to get to know you. If you’re real, please show yourself to me.” This prayer is at the bottom of the handout with different kinds of prayer.
I read a story about a Japanese man named Tomo who prayed like this. One time he prayed, “If You are here, I’m looking for the way to truth.” Another time, in a Christian church, he prayed, “God, if you exist, please reveal the way I can know for sure who you are.” Tomo did eventually find God, and now he is a pastor. Tomo’s story will be in the Flashlight handouts tonight.
Look at the handout we gave you. (See next post.) It lists types of prayer from the Bible and famous prayers from the Bible. I’m not going to go over all of these, but I do want to highlight a few that may be particularly useful.
We are going to look at examples from the book of Psalms. The Psalms are like the journal of the people of God. Throughout history people made their prayers into songs or poems, and many of them have been collected for us in this one section of the Bible.
Let’s start off by looking at prayer for guidance. Many people say, “How can I know what God wants me to do?”
A great example of a prayer for guidance is Psalm 25. In verses 4 and 5, David prays, “Show me the path where I should walk, O LORD; point out the right road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my trust in you.”
In the spring of 2002, Sarah and I were having car trouble with both of our cars, and we could not afford to buy even one new car. We were afraid to buy a cheap used car because there were no guarantees it would be any better than the ones we already had, so we prayed that God would guide us, that he would show us the path where we should walk. I had to work at it, but I put my trust in God.
In fact, we started praying that God would work a miracle. Some of our friends had gotten free or almost free cars recently, so we started praying that God would do the same thing for us. In April we found out that the church was going to give us a car that someone had donated to the church. We named him “Levi.” This has been a real blessing. It gets better gas mileage than our old car. We’ve had it for a year now, and we haven’t had to do any repairs.
Next, let’s look at prayers of anger or lament. A prayer of lament is a prayer of sorrow expressing how bad one’s life or situation is and asking God for help. Often, these prayers have an attitude of anger, too.
A few movies have shown someone praying this kind of prayer. Let’s watch.
(Play clip from Forrest Gump with Lieutenant Dan shouting at God during the storm and clip from Patch Adams with Patch shouting at God at the cliff.)
Insert text here.
One Biblical example of this kind of prayer is Psalm 13.
“O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the light to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall” (vv 1-4).
Have you ever felt like that? “Oh God, how long will you forget me? … How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul … every day?” It’s OK to feel like that. David, the author of this song, felt like that. Sometimes, life is really hard. The best thing to do is to take that pain to God and tell him about it.
Let’s look also at the last two verses of this Psalm.
“But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD
because he has been good to me” (vv 5-6).
This is the way it often works. David doesn’t stay in his sorrow. When he presents his requests to God and talks about his pain, the pain is out of the way enough to see the light. He starts to remember who God is. He remembers that God has been good to him, and he realizes that he will make it through even this tough time.
That is the way prayer often goes. When we keep the pain to ourselves, it weighs us down. When we give it to God, we open the way for God to give us peace.
But it doesn’t always work that fast. Psalm 137 was written when the Israelites had been taken captive and shipped off to Babylon. The writer is a musician, and when one of his captors asks him to play a song it triggers the deep bitterness within him.
“Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
as we thought of Jerusalem…
But how can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land? …
O LORD, remember what the Edomites did
on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem.
‘Destroy it!’ they yelled.
‘Level it to the ground.’
O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!”
Obviously, he has not quite dealt with his pain yet. You might say he is still in the grieving process. Many different writers wrote the Psalms over hundreds of years. The people of Israel collected the ones that they thought would be beneficial to people throughout all time. They chose this one to be included. Why?
I think they chose it because they wanted people to know it is OK to bring your pain to God. You don’t have to feel like everything has to be resolved. Sometimes, our prayers will have a happy ending like Psalm 13. Other times, we will still feel like bashing some heads after we pray. That is OK.
Just don’t stop talking. Take a break if you need to, but keep coming back to God. Keep telling him about your pain. Scream, shout, cry, be sarcastic. Say it however you need to say it. Just don’t give God the silent treatment. He is listening, and he cares. He can give you healing like no one else can.
Now some of you may be wondering, “What if God doesn’t answer my prayers?” or why God didn’t answer a particular prayer you prayed a while back. If you feel like your prayers aren’t being answered, there are a few things to thing about.
1.Is there anything standing between you and God? Do you have any unconfessed sin in your life? Are you actively doing something that you know is wrong?
2.What is your motivation? Are you asking with the right motives?
3.God’s answer might be “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait, not yet.” I think the Rolling Stones have a song that says, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you might just get what you need.” Like a good parent, God often gives us what we need instead of what we want. The good news is that the more we get to know God the more likely we are to want what he wants us to have.
OK, we’ve talked about prayer for a long time now. The big question left is: “How can we learn to pray?” The real key to learning how to talk with God is: Start trying it! You can’t learn to ride a bicycle by listening to me talk about it. You have to get out there and push the pedals for yourself. You may feel awkward. You may not pray very long. You may even feel like your first few times didn’t go very well. That’s OK. I don’t know anyone who learned how to ride a bike on his first try.
I remember one of the first times I tried to pray by myself. I set what seemed like a small goal of praying for five minutes. Well, after I had prayed for my parents, my aunts and uncles, everyone else I could think of, the weather, and my day at school, I had prayed for about 30 seconds. I was pretty disappointed. It was kind of like talking to someone I don’t know very well, “It’s a nice day. … I’m glad it warmed up … Yeah, well nice talking with you.” That’s just part of the process. We just have to work through that stage.
You may be wondering why we’re talking about prayer this early in the Journey. We haven’t even talked about some of the more common objections to faith yet. Last week we talked about wrestling with God. You will get the most out of the next two months and your spiritual journey in general if you talk with God all along the way.
If you’re mad at him, tell him. If you have some serious doubts about the way he acts in the world, tell him. If you don’t believe in the Bible, tell him. If the church has treated you badly, tell him. Even if you don’t think he’s real, talk with him about that, too. He’ll get a kick out it. Seriously, bring your doubts and concerns to God. He can handle it. Just don’t give him the silent treatment. Keep talking.
Don’t stress over this whole prayer thing. We are just inviting you to try something that has been meaningful to millions of people for thousands of years. We hope it will be meaningful for you, too.
Journaling: Try praying in one of the ways on the list.
Thanks …………………..…Psalm 9
Praise ……………………... Psalm 92:4-5
Trust ……………………..... Psalm 18:1-2, Psalm 23
Confession ………………... Psalm 51 (especially vv. 1-2)
Anger or Sadness …………. Psalm 13, Psalm 22
Emergency ………………....Psalm 7:1-2
Guidance ………………….. Psalm 25:4-5
Prayer for others …………...Psalm 72
Listening …………………...Psalm 62:1-2, Ecclesiastes 5:1
Often when people pray, they spend almost all of their time asking God to meet their needs. Here is a pattern for a more balanced and healthy prayer life:
PTCMO (Please Take Care of My Otter)
Praise – telling God what you like about him
Thanks – thanking God for what he has done
Confession – apologizing for our wrongs and admitting our dependence upon God
Myself – requests for our own lives
Others – requests for others
God, I’m not sure you even exist or care about me, but if you do, I would like to get to know you. If you’re real, please show yourself to me.
Famous Prayers in the Bible
These are some prayers from the Bible that Christians down through the centuries have prayed anew for themselves or others. You also might benefit from praying them word for word or from rephrasing them into your own words.
The Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6:9-13
“Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
Forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
“The LORD is my shepherd;
I have everything I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
He leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk
through the dark valley of death,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You welcome me as a guest,
anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
And I will live in the house of the LORD forever.”
However, when he saw a documentary on the Holocaust in school, he became an atheist. He said to himself, “There is no such thing as God or the chosen people, or else this would not have happened.”
Yacov is not alone. Many people have lost faith in God because of the suffering they see in the world. How can a loving God allow so much suffering? This is a huge question.
Take a minute and write down on the card we gave you one instance of serious suffering. It can be something you went through, something that happened to someone you know, or something you just heard about. You can make it as personal or impersonal as you want.
How can a loving God allow so much suffering? This is one of the hardest questions for both Christians and non-Christians. I want to give a few disclaimers before we set into our discussion tonight.
1. The Bible does not give a complete answer to this question. The Bible is more focused on how to overcome suffering rather than focusing on why there is suffering in the first place.
2. There is no way that I can give a complete answer today. You and I both will probably leave here feeling at least a little unsatisfied with the answers we talk about today. Even though I can’t answer the question completely, I hope that I can at least make this issue more manageable for us.
When we face the problem of suffering in the world, it can be overwhelming. I get sick of hearing the news about all the bad stuff that is happening in our world. When I hear about all the starving people in Africa, I get frustrated because there doesn’t seem like much I can do. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, murders … they all pile up, causing us to wonder how a loving God could allow so much suffering.
Sometimes, the mountain of pain gets bigger and bigger, and we get smaller and smaller, until we can’t see anything else but the pain. One thing I hope to do today is to shrink that mountain. The problem is not as bad as it sometimes seems.
For the next 15 minutes or so, I’m going to talk about different kinds of suffering and their sources. When I get to the kind of suffering represented on your card, try to listen closely to see if my explanation adequately explains how God can still be a loving God even though that bad thing happened.
O.K., lets break this down into bite size pieces and look at different kinds of suffering.1 [As I come to each category, I will write it on the whiteboard.]
First, let’s look at self-inflicted suffering. Some examples of this are liver failure due to alcoholism, STD’s (most of the time), and failing a test due to not studying. This category covers the bad things that come upon us because of our own bad choices. It is obviously not fair to blame God for stuff that we brought on ourselves.
Next is suffering caused by the bad choices of others. This would include a long list of personal crimes or wrongs committed by one person against another. It also includes large scale suffering caused by wars or societal crimes like racial discrimination.
The third category of suffering is poverty related suffering. Things like starvation, lack of medical care, and other ills that go along with chronic poverty fall into this category. Often the victims of this kind of suffering didn’t do anything at all to bring this upon themselves. They were just born in the wrong place at the wrong time. There also aren’t any obvious culprits like there are personal crimes.
However, the hard truth is that almost all of the suffering in this category could be prevented if people would share. The United States alone has the capacity to feed the entire world. The resources are available to humankind to prevent almost all poverty, but we do not share with each other. The suffering in this category isn’t God’s fault; it’s ours.
The next category is seemingly random accidents. Some examples are no fault car wrecks, electrical shorts, and athletic accidents. The accidents are basically random, yet the accidents were a known risk. We know that electricity can cause fires, but we take that risk. We know that people can fall off horses, but we take that risk. This comes down to human choice in relation to human risk.
In almost all of the types of suffering we’ve talked about so far, the root issue is the freedom of choice. C.S. Lewis, a famous Christian writer, estimated that 80% of all suffering is due to human choice.
Why did God give such free reign? Why did he give us free will? God could have made us all robots, so that everyone always did what is right and no one ever got hurt.
To understand why God didn’t make us like that, it may be helpful to project ourselves into the future. Imagine that the technology arose to create human robots. The technology has already been imagined in the Stephen King book and movie Artificial Intelligence. Imagine that someone began to market the perfect spouse that looked and felt like a real human being. He or she would be exactly what we like and would do everything exactly the way we like it. The house is always clean; omelets in the morning; always wants to cuddle however long or short we want to; always looks and acts like the day you were married; no chance of unfaithfulness.
It sounds kind of tempting; doesn’t it? But why wouldn’t we really do that? What would be the cost of marrying a robot? [Get responses from the audience.]
The companionship would be hollow and fake. The other partner in the relationship would have no mind of its own. Because the robot can’t actually choose not to be with us, it hasn’t actually chosen to be with us either. With the loss of the capacity to choose, comes the loss of the capacity to love.
Most of us in our heart of hearts would still choose a real live person, even with all the risks and the work that entails. We want real love and genuine companionship, not something that can be created in a factory.
We are like that because God created us like himself. The Bible says he made us “in his image.” God wants real love and genuine companionship, too. That’s why he made us. That’s why he gave us free will, the ability to choose between right and wrong, the ability to choose to be with him or not.
He knew that involved a lot of risks for us, but the value of relationship out weighs all the risks on God’s scales. He isn’t selfish in this either. The value of relationship is a two way street. Freedom of choice is worth the risks for us, too. We reap the benefits of relationship with God and our fellow humans.
This says a lot about relationship. Human suffering is vast and weighs heavily on the scales, yet the value of relationship outweighs all of that risk and pain. Relationship with God and relationship with each other must be immensely important!
The last category is the hardest to explain. It is natural disasters and diseases, hurricanes, tornadoes, cancer, etc.
However, even some of this suffering is due to human choice. Some people choose to live in dangerous areas. Nobody has to live in Florida or California. We could make room for them. However, some people are forced to live in dangerous areas. Not many Haitians could afford to move to a safer place, yet they are in hurricanes’ paths almost every year.
Another factor is that we could be unknowingly causing our own diseases. Who knows how many of our diseases are due to technology or lack of hygienic development?
We didn’t know about asbestos or Phen Phen. Cell phones and power lines could be major carcinogens. Not long ago, I saw a news report that there is a chemical in deep fried foods that causes cancer in lab rats. Not only do French fries clog our arteries, they may give us cancer, too.
A more traditional theological answer to this kind of suffering is that sin disrupted the way the entire world functions. Not only did Adam and Eve’s sin have personal consequences, the entrance of sin into the world was so dramatic that it disrupted the atmosphere and the working of the earth itself. The idea is that there never would have been earthquakes and tornados if no one had ever sinned. I’m not sure I completely buy that, but it’s possible.
I am not completely satisfied. There are other questions and issues relating to this topic that we didn’t have time to get into, but hopefully we’ve made some progress in getting perspective on the size of the problem.
How big is the problem? If you feel that we haven’t dealt with the suffering on your card beyond a reasonable doubt, so that you can see how God can still be a loving God and allow that suffering, hold up your card.
Look around the room. How many of the cards are still in the air? There are fewer maybe even a lot fewer than there were at the beginning. The problem of suffering is real, but it is not as big as it sometimes seems.
What is God’s response to human suffering? What does God do or what has God done about all of this?
First of all, he teaches us how to minimize suffering. Following the teachings of the Bible will not shield us from all suffering, but it will minimize the suffering that we bring on others and ourselves.
He uses suffering. An honest look at the Bible reveals that God causes some suffering as a means of discipline. The Biblical authors use the analogy of a parent spanking a child to correct his behavior.
However, God can use all suffering. Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic after an accident had this to say about suffering. When we suffer, “we become like [Jesus] in that we die to the sins for which he died. Suffering provides a context in which to do that. In suffering we also die to worry. We die to fear. We die to grumbling about the inconvenience of the weight of our [burdens].”2 God can take whatever has happened to us and use that to make us stronger and/or more able to help others.
Most importantly, God enters with us into suffering. We see this most clearly in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus lived on earth just like we do. He walked, talked, cried, and slept. The Bible specifically says that sometimes Jesus got hungry, thirsty, stressed out, and tired. Human suffering punched him in the face when his cousin John, the Baptist, was beheaded for speaking out for what is right.3 After three years of public ministry, Jesus was crucified. The Romans nailed Jesus to a wooden cross through his hands and feet and hung him there until he died. Jesus, who is both God and man, knows human suffering because he experienced it as a human.
Joni Eareckson Tada explains it like this, “When we suffer, when we go through hardships or affliction, we may have questions about the goodness of God. But the thing that is so wonderful to me about God is that He does not sidestep suffering. The God of life conquered death by embracing it. Jesus destroyed the power of sin by letting it take Him to the cross. He doesn’t explain away our suffering with a bunch of words. He is the Word made flesh – bruised, bloody, beaten, gouged, spat-upon, scorned. My heart is wounded by my suffering, but it comforts me to know that Jesus was terribly wounded on the cross. I’m in a wheelchair. It means so much that God was wounded on my behalf.”4
It is important to remember that God answers “Who?” not “Why?” Rusty Wright follows along that same line of thought, “When I see God, items on my long list of questions for Him will include a painful and unwanted divorce, betrayal by trusted coworkers, and all sorts of disappointing human behavior and natural disasters. Yet in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection I have seen enough to trust Him when He says He ‘causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God’ (Rom. 8:28).”5
Well, we’ve looked at a lot today. But what is or ought to be our response to suffering? First of all, voice your complaints to God. We talked about this in our talk on prayer. God is not afraid of our anger. We need to let him have it. Things have gone wrong in this world, and it is good to talk to God about that.
Second, don’t turn away from God. When Billy Graham addressed grieving families after the Oklahoma bombing, he said some very profound words. “Times like this will do one of two things: they will either make us get hard and bitter and angry at God or they will make us tender and open and help us reach out in trust and faith. … I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your souls, but you will turn in faith and trust God even if we cannot understand. It is better to face something like this with God than without Him” (emphasis mine).6
Interview with Stasi Dishman
Next, I want to let you hear from someone who has gone through a lot of suffering yet has held on to her Christian faith. I met Stasi in college when a friend asked me to feed her. I started out as her helper and became her friend. She needs help with tasks that are routine to us, yet she graduated college and is pursuing a masters degree in psychology.
Stasi usually uses a word board to communicate. However, since that is pretty slow, I gave her the questions ahead of time, and she has asked Collin to read her typed answers.
Stasi, Tell us a little about the suffering you have experienced in life.
I was born with cerebral palsy which meant I had to have a lot of surgeries when I was a child. Plus having a disability comes with many social obstacles. I have had a struggle with clinical depression.
Have you ever blamed God or questioned him about the way your life has gone?
Yes, many times, and God can handle it.
How has God responded to your suffering?
He gave me what I needed when I needed it, not what I thought I needed but what I truly needed.
With everything that has happened to you, why do you still believe in God and follow Jesus Christ?
Because God is the only one who knows what true suffering is.
How do you answer the question, “How can a loving God allow so much suffering?”
To me it’s like the old saying of making lemonade out of lemons. God always makes lemonade out of suffering.
It comes down to a trust issue. The basic issue is: Will we trust God in the midst of suffering even though we don’t fully understand?
There is a step of faith. However, the step of faith is not a leap of Evil Kaneval proportions over the canyon of human suffering. Rather, it is more like a jump across a three-foot wide gap that we have seen others jump before us. To top it off, we are not jumping into nothingness. We are jumping into the strong arms of a loving God who has passed through the chasm of suffering when he died on the cross.
Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope,” that God is good and will ultimately take care of us, “as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
In the final analysis we are in a similar predicament to the disciples in John chapter 6. Jesus had just given some of the most difficult teaching of his life, and many of his followers abandoned him. Then, Jesus turned to Twelve Apostles and asked, “Are you going to leave me, too?” Peter responded wisely, “Lord, to whom would we go? You alone have the words that give eternal life” (John 6:66-8).
When we are faced with the irresolvable difficulties of life, and it seems that life and God are both unfair, our best choice is to bring that pain to God if for no other reason, than that He is the best place to go. Life doesn’t always make sense, but when we look at the available options, Christianity makes the most sense.
After telling about his latest trip to the American Holocaust Museum, one Jewish Christian explained that the Bible’s answer to the problem of suffering still feels incomplete, but that even in its incompleteness, it is still the best answer we’ve got.7
What was the hardest time in your life?
How has or is God responding to that suffering?
Show some yearbook pictures of leaders of The Journey and or the church.
It’s always fun to go back and look at old yearbooks. One of my favorite parts is seeing how the hairstyles have changed through the years, but really a yearbook is the preserving of significant events throughout the year. Yearbooks always show the homecoming king and queen. They talk about how the sports teams did. They describe the talent shows and other major campus events. If something really major happens, it usually makes the yearbook. By looking through a yearbook, a class can remember things about that year that they wouldn’t have otherwise remembered.
The Bible is kind of like that; it is the preservation of God’s significant acts throughout history.1 God’s people decided that they were going to forget some really important things if they didn’t start writing them down. So throughout the generations, they collected the stories of their lives, the stories of their interactions with God.
There is the story of creation, the story of the flood, the story about how God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his special people. There is the story of the Exodus and of how the people entered the Promised Land. There is the story of David, the greatest homecoming king of all time. There is the story of the bad times that come when Israel turns away from God. There are the hints that a new day is dawning and, then, the story of that new age with the coming of Jesus. Then, there are the stories of the life of Jesus and his followers and the stories of how Christianity broke out of Judaism to include all people, the stories of the first missionaries and the first churches, and a concluding story about the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
The Bible is kind of like a yearbook that spans thousands of years. We weren’t there when the events happened, but we can look back on the stories recorded for us and get an idea of what God is like because we see what he was like then.
Before we get to questions of whether the Bible is reliable, we need to ask, What’s in the Bible?2 First of all, the Bible is divided into two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Testaments means covenant, which is kind of like a contract, except that a covenant is deeper and more meaningful.
Jesus is the dividing line between the two testaments. The Old Testament is about God’s relations with his people before Jesus came to earth. When Jesus came, he opened the way for a whole new kind of relationship with God, thus the New Testament or new covenant or contract.
The Old Testament was primarily written in Hebrew, and the New Testament is almost all Greek. That means that nothing in the Bible was originally written in English. Therefore, the older English translations do not have special spiritual significance over the newer ones. Jesus did not speak in King James English. He spoke in Greek and Aramaic.
Since there is nothing theologically special about the King James Version or any other version, the most important thing is to find a translation of the Bible that makes sense to you. For me, the New Living Translation, which is what Christ Community Church uses, seems to put the Bible into understandable terms pretty well. There are a lot of Bibles in this version here today, and if you don’t have a Bible that is easy for you to read, feel free to take one of these with you.
The Bible has a variety of human contributors. It was written roughly between 1300 BC and 100 AD. It’s authors come from all walks of life. Moses grew up in a royal court. Amos was a farmer. Isaiah was an advisor to several kings. Matthew was an accountant. Peter was a fisherman. Luke was a doctor. No wonder everyone can relate to it. The Bible’s authors and the Bible’s main characters span the range of social classes and life situations.
The Bible is full of relevant topics. It is true that some parts of the Bible can be really boring, but the interesting parts far out weigh the boring parts. The Bible has lots of real life issues. There are stories about sibling rivalry, parenting disagreements, happy and unhappy marriages, unrequited love, business transactions, the impact of war on a nation, unexpected attacks, depression, courtship, financial planning. Do any of these sound familiar? The Bible has the amazing ability to span the centuries and speak to our present day situation.
The Bible also tells us the truth about ourselves. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires. It exposes us for what we really are.” When I read the Bible, I understand more about me. Through divine inspiration, the writers of the Bible have keen insight into what it means to be a human being. Time and time again, when we read the Bible, we will find our more of what is really going on inside us.
The Bible also reveals God’s plan for us. We have been reading Jeremiah 29:11, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the LORD. ‘They are plans for your good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” When we read the Bible, we start to get an idea of what that plan is. Most of the time the Bible won’t tell you exactly where to live or work, but sometimes God can use the Bible to give some pretty strong hints.
When I was a senior in college, I was looking for a job. One of my friends told me about Cedar House, a boys’ home for teenagers. Initially, I wasn’t very interested, but at that time I was reading a lot of passages in the Bible about God’s concern for the poor and the orphans. Everyday when I read, it was like God was saying to me, “Do the boys’ home. Do the boys’ home.” By the time I actually went on the interview, I felt like it was just a formality. God had sent me; they had to hire me. I worked at Cedar House for three years, and God has used that time there and my interaction with those guys in ways I couldn’t have dreamed when my friend first told me about the job.
The last thing I want to say about what’s in the Bible is that it has an essentially unified message. There are different voices and different methods of getting the point across, but there is one main message: God wants an intimate friendship with all people. That’s what the Bible is all about. God wants a close, loving friendship with every human being.
Remember that testament means covenant and that the Bible is made up of two testaments or covenants. Another context in which the word covenant is used is in marriage. The State of Louisiana even has a special kind of marriage called “Covenant Marriage” that carries with it special rules about what it takes to dissolve the marriage. The Bible, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, is essentially God’s marriage proposal to humanity. The Bible is God’s unconventional love letter saying to all the world: I want to be with you for the rest of my life, forever.
O.K. I’ve talked for a while about what’s in the Bible, but I know that most people have some pretty serious questions about the Bible. Now I want to give you a chance to express some of those. Break up into groups of two right where you are sitting, and tell each other what your biggest questions are regarding the Bible.
----- Wait about 2-3 minutes. --------
What were some of your questions?
----- Get responses from the participants.--------
The three biggest questions I came up with are: 1. Can we even believe in divine revelation, that the Bible is God’s Word? 2. How can the Bible be reliable if it has been copied so many times? 3. What about all of the supposed “errors” and “contradictions” in the Bible? I’m going to talk about these one by one.
Many people say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if God would talk to us? Wouldn’t it be nice if God would come down and give us a definitive statement?” Haven’t you felt like that at times? I know I have. Socrates, one of the wisest people who ever lived, said, “All the wisdom of this world is but a tiny raft upon which we must set sail when we leave this world. If only there was a firmer foundation on which to sail, perhaps some divine word.”3
Let’s consider the possibility of Divine revelation.4 Many people who believe in God struggle with the idea of divine revelation. What kind of God do they believe in? Is he mute? Is he not intelligent enough to employ basic communication skills?
The Bible demonstrates clearly that God is not mute. God has communicated with people through various means. God has spoken to people face to face, but he seems to prefer the indirect method. God has spoken to people through angels, dreams, prophets, a burning bush, and even a donkey.
The book of Hebrews begins like this, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. But now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.” God finally came to us himself, in human skin, in Jesus. Perhaps the communication problem is not on God’s side.
Let me ask you. If God created this vast universe, why couldn’t he speak? If God crafted DNA, which is infinitely more efficient than our fastest computers, wouldn’t he be able to tell us what he wants us to know? Doesn’t it just make sense that the God of the entire universe could find a reliable way to talk with his people?
We talked about the Bible’s human contributors earlier. We also believe that there is a Divine contribution all along the Bible’s path. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is inspired by God” or, more literally, “All scripture is God-breathed.” God breathed his Spirit into the various authors when they were writing their part of the Bible, guiding them and helping them. God breathed his Spirit into his people when they collected the various books and when they finalized the contents of the Bible.
And God is still breathing his Holy Spirit into us and into the words of the Bible when we read it today. He makes the words come alive and applies them to us in new and fresh ways.
Next question: how can the Bible be reliable if it has been copied so many times? How do we know that what we have now is really what was written way back then? That is a really good question. It is kind of mind boggling to think of a document being preserved for thousands of years without computers or copy machines. I have a hard time taking down a phone number correctly. However, there are two main types of evidence that help me to have faith in the integrity of the Bible.
First of all, there is the precision of Hebrew scribes. They were meticulous when it came to copying the scriptures. Have you heard the term “Anal-retentive”? It refers to someone who pays attention to every little, tiny detail. The Hebrew scribes were extremely anal.
When they copied a page, they counted the words on the page. Then, they checked that with their original. Then, they counted the letters on the page and checked that. Then, they counted from the front and the back to find the middle word and the middle letter on the page, and checked that with their original. If any of those were wrong, they threw that page out and started over. When they were done with the whole book, they counted the letters and words in the whole book. Then, they started from the front and the back and counted to the middle word and the middle letter. If anything was wrong, they threw out the whole book and started over.
Why would they go to all of that work and all of that trouble? They weren’t just anal-retentive. They had a profound respect for the word of God. To change even one letter could not be tolerated.
Archeology has proven that their attention to detail paid off. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, we got a copy of the book of Isaiah that was 1,000 years older that the oldest copy we had before. The copies matched up almost word for word. That gives me great confidence in the Hebrew scripture.
The second type of evidence we have for the integrity of the Bible is the sheer volume of Greek copies. Here is a comparison between the New Testament and other ancient Greek literary works.
- HERODOTUS - written: 488-428BC - earliest copy: 900AD - # of ancient copies: 8.
- THUCYDIDES - written: 460-400BC - earliest copy: 900AD - # of ancient copies: 8.
- TACITUS - written: 100AD - earliest copy: 1100AD - # of ancient copies: 20.
- CAESAR'S GALLIC WAR - written: 58-50BC - earliest copy: 900AD - # of ancient copies: 9-10.
- LIVY'S ROMAN HISTORY - written: 59BC-17AD - earliest copy: 900AD - # of ancient copies: 20.
- NEW TESTAMENT - written: 40-100AD - earliest copies: 130-350AD - # of ancient copies: 5,000 Greek, 10,000 Latin, 9,000 other languages.
Scholars don’t question whether what Tacitus wrote is actually what we have now. Twenty copies and a thousand year gap are good enough for them in that category.5 The people who copied the New Testament were not as meticulous as the people who copied the Old Testament, but we have thousands and thousands of copies of the texts to check their work, and except for some minor disagreements, they all match up. Furthermore, we have physical documents that date much closer to the actual time of writing than we do for any other literary work from that time period.
The precision of the Hebrew scribes and the sheer volume of Greek copies work together to give us a high degree of certainty that what we have in the Bible is what the original authors wrote.
But, what about all of the “errors” and “contradictions” in the Bible? It would take too long for me to discuss every single claim of an error or contradiction in the Bible. Instead, let me state a basic principle that usually solves the problem. Context is critical. We must understand the passage in the context in which it is written.
Here is a funny example of a verse out of context. My grandfather, who is a retired minister, loves to quote 2 Kings 19:35 from the King James Version, “and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.” When one reads the context around this little snippet, it is obvious the people who died are not the same people who woke up. The pronouns are just confusing.
In a similar way, most of the supposed errors and contradictions in the Bible simply dissolve when we understand the context in which they were written.
If you still have doubts about the integrity of the Bible, the best idea is to read it for yourself. See if it seems consistent to you. Don’t take someone else’s word for it. They might be biased. Check it out for yourself. Go straight to the source. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
The final question we need to address is “How Can We Understand the Bible?” The first answer to this question is basic. Spend time reading the Bible. Read a little every day. Read one story or section, and take your time with it.
This is not like cramming down a bologna sandwich and a bag of chips on a ten-minute lunch break. This is like enjoying a piece of turtle fudge cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory, one bite at a time, slowly savoring every component. The thick creamy cheesecake. The rich, gooey, crunchy turtle topping. Collecting the graham cracker crust crumbs scattered around the plate. It’s not a race. It’s a sensory experience.
If you’re reading a story about Jesus healing a woman, try to really get a feel for what was happening. You’ve got to ask questions of the text. How did she get his attention? What was going through her mind? How did her voice sound? What were the people around her thinking? What emotions did Jesus experience as he responded? What did his voice sound like? What expression was on his face? How did she feel when he healed her?
For some passages, you may need a little extra help understanding the context. A simple commentary (which is kind of like Cliff Notes for the Bible) or a study Bible can unlock meaning that has been confused by the passing of 2000 years.
We are giving everyone a copy of a simple book entitled, How to Study the Bible by Jack Kuhatschek. He explains a three-step process to understanding the Bible. First, we journey back in time to understand the setting of the passage we are reading. Second, we try to understand what the passage meant to its original audience. Third, we travel back to our time, recognizing the differences and similarities between the original setting and ours, and we try to understand what this passage means today in our context for us.6
Understanding the Bible is like reading a bike. You can’t learn how by watching someone else. You’ve got to do it for yourself. I recognize that working with a Bible may be new to some of us, so I’m going to take a few minutes to walk through how you can find a particular passage in the Bible.
First, if you don’t know what you’re looking for exactly, don’t give up. Many Bibles have a few tools to help you. Mine has a topical index at the front. It lists different issues that we might want to look up. Under “F” are “faith, family, fear” etc. Under each of those headings are several verses that talk about those issues.
Some Bibles also have what’s called a “concordance.” A concordance is helpful if you can remember some of the words of a particular verse, but don’t know where it is located. You can just look up the word, and it will tell you some verses that have that word in it.
Verses are usually listed like this, “John 13:1.” [Write that on the board or display it on PowerPoint.] That is kind of like the address for the verse. It tells you the book, which is kind of like a “unit” in a textbook, the chapter, and the verse.
Open to the Table of Contents, in the front. I love the Table of Contents. Some of the books of the Bible are really small, and I have a hard time finding them. The Table of Contents lists the books in order and alphabetically.
We’re going to look up John. John is probably the best place to start reading the Bible. It tells the story of Jesus life from the perspective of one of his closest friends. Find John in the Table of Contents and turn there now.
You’ll notice that chapters are marked with big numbers and verses with smaller superscript numbers. We’re going to look at Chapter 13, verse 1. Has everyone found that verse? O.K. That’s your journaling exercise. Read verses 1-13. Then, go through the four steps we talked about.
Let me give you a little bit of help with the traveling back in time part. Jesus lived in the first century A.D. There were no cars. Everyone walked almost everywhere they went. The streets were dirty and dusty, and everyone wore sandals. To top it off, the donkeys, horses, and oxen shared the same streets and “left their marks” everywhere they went. By the end of the day, everyone’s feet were pretty dirty. By tradition, the lowest slave in the household got the unlucky job of washing everyone’s feet before dinnertime. That ought to get the ball rolling enough for you.
Journaling: Practice hearing from the Bible. Read John 13:1-13. Then answer these questions.
1. Journey back in time. What is the cultural context of the passage?
2. What did it mean then? What did it mean to the writer and first readers?
3. Return to the present. What are the similarities and differences between
that time and ours? How does it apply to me? What might God want to say to me through this?
1 This entire yearbook metaphor comes from Jim Thomas, Coffeehouse Theology, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2000), 69-70.
2 Most of this section is from Thomas, 71-74.
3 Thomas, 79.
4 This section is from Thomas, 70-71.
5 Chart and information are from F.F. Bruce Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? quoted in Gumble, 25-26.
6 Kuhatschek, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1985), 6-30.