Saturday, July 21, 2012

"And I am convinced..."

Today's quote comes from 17th Century British essayist Joseph Addison:  
"As nothing is more laudable than an inquiry after truth, so nothing is more irrational than to pass away our whole lives without determining ourselves one way or other in those points which are of the last importance to us. There are indeed many things from which we may withhold our assent; but in cases by which we are to regulate our lives it is the greatest absurdity to be wavering and unsettled, without closing with that side which appears the most safe and the most probable. The first rule therefore which I shall lay down is this, that when by reading or discourse we find ourselves thoroughly convinced of the truth of any article, as of the reasonableness of our belief in it, we should never after suffer ourselves to call it into question. We may perhaps forget the arguments which occasioned our conviction, but we ought to remember the strength they had with us, and therefore still to retain the conviction which they once produced."

I will admit, it's a long quote, but I felt that I couldn't get across the full force of Addison's meaning without the whole paragraph. Thank you for bearing with me.

I thought it was fitting in light of the recent events in Colorado. In the face of tragedies such as the Aurora massacre or 9/11 it is easy for people to wonder at God's goondess, control, or even existence. At the same time, wondering does not mean that one does not believe God is good or in control. Even devout Christians doubt. The question is, what do we do with the doubt when it comes?

I first encountered the essay from which this quote is taken several years ago. I read it during a time when I was questioning my own faith, so it was a great comfort to me. Since then, I have often recalled the words and thought them very true and insightful. But, upon looking more closely at what Addison is actually saying, I've started to wonder. He says that once we have believed something and become convinced of it, we ought not call it into question. Is this an easy way out, a kind of complacency? Or is it the simple faith of a child?

I know that for the longest time I believed I was saved because of the prayer I prayed when I was nine. It was not the Person I was trusting in, but the fact that I had prayed a "sinner's prayer" at all. If I had followed Addison's advice and not troubled myself with doubts, I might never have realized that I needed to trust in the One who died for me, not my "ability" to pray to Him.

In a similar vein, what about the atheist who is convinced that there is no God? It would be fatally dangerous for him to never doubt his assumptions. So, I think that Addison's advice does not work across the board. It may bring peace of mind, but peace of mind matters very little when souls are at stake. He who is comfortable in his blindess is like someone who falls asleep in a train that is running off the tracks. The peace is only a facade.

On the other hand, this approach can be very helpful for the Christian. We ought not be caught off guard by every world event or clever argument. Strong faith isn't the absent of doubt, but trusting in God through the doubts. We must be like John Newton who in his old age said, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior." Or like Elizabeth Prentiss, who wrote in her novel Stepping Heavenward, "You cannot prove to yourself that you love God by examining your feelings toward Him. They are indefinite and they fluctuate. But just as far as you obey Him, just so far, depend upon it, you love Him."

And perhaps the best idea is to preach the gospel to ourselves, as John Piper would say, so that we may never forget the reason we are convinced of what we believe. Christ is the reason, not any fancy proofs or evidences. That is all we need. As Paul said so many years ago, "But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me" (2 Timothy 1:12).  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Could You Have Borne to Look?

What do you think of when you look at this picture? A beautiful piece of jewelry? Christianity? Jesus? Images of the cross are very popular, even in this post-Christian culture. Believers and unbelievers wear them, but when worn by a follower of Jesus Christ, they take on a special meaning. It is not just an adornment but a symbol of love and grace, of the price that we never could have paid. I think that cross-centered jewelry, such as this piece, is beautiful, an expression of the artist's skill and a representation of the most important moment in history. But, seeing this intracately woven gold pendant takes something away from what the cross really means. Consider this quote by Corrie ten Boom as she reflects on her time in a Nazi concentration camp:

He hung naked on the cross. I had not known--I had not thought... The paintings, the carved crucifixes showed at least a scrap of cloth. But this, I suddenly knew, was the respect and reverence of the artist. But oh--at the time itself, on that other Friday morning--there had been no reverence. No more than I saw in the faces around us now.

How often do we stop to consider what the cross really means, what it meant to Jesus who hung there for hours, what it meant to the disciples who watched the life ebb from the man that held all their hope? The cross was an instrument of torture, not unlike the concentration camp where Corrie ten Boom and her sister suffered. Death did not come in one fell swoop, but every day, every hour crawled a little closer. It was the same for Christ, first the abandonment, then the taunts, then the beating, and finally the cross itself. There was no relief.

We might be shocked or disgusted to find a religion that uses the guillotine or the electric chair as the symbol of their faith. Why are we offended? The guillotine is mercifully quick and the electric chair completely bloodless. Not so with the cross, but it has been shrouded in history and embellished by religion.

So I come to my title. If you had been there, could you have borne to look at what the Romans were doing? Could you have borne to watch them strip a man naked, nail Him to a rough plank of wood, and turn away while He suffocated. Furthermore, could you have stood to gaze at this swollen, bleeding man, all the while knowing that He was the Alpha and Omega, Creator of all the universe, and that He hung there because of the sins that you have committed. I know that I couldn't have borne it.

And even more, the horrific physical pain that Jesus suffered could only barely compare to the spiritual pain as He was separated from God and experienced the complete punishment for sins that were infinitely severe in a way that only an infinite Being could. The earth quaked as the Giver of Life staggered under the weight of sin and death. As His Son hung naked on the cross, God the Father rent His own garment, tearing the veil of the temple in two.

One line from the old spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord" reads, "Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." May we never forget with what we have been bought, and may we never cease to tremble--tremble with joy because even the horrors of the cross could not defeat the Son of God!