Can Christians Be Certain?

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

One of my favorite quotes comes from a book titled The Workshop Way of Learning, which was written in 1951. Dr. Earl C. Kelley writes about the challenges of education:

“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. Indeed, we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”

The quote raises some important questions for Christians: Can we be certain when it comes to our knowledge of God? Or is there room for doubt and confusion?

I prefer the word confidence over certitude when it comes to my faith in Christ. When I think of certainty, I think of mathematic certainty: Since the 1st grade, it has been impossible for me to conceive of 1+2 being anything else but 3, but Christian faith is not the same as mathematical certainty.

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The Disbelief of Thomas, by James Tissot 

Here’s why I struggle with using the word certainty:

We are made in the image of God, but that image has been shattered because of sin. Even though the Holy Spirit indwells us, we still struggle with sin and human limitations. Our minds are still prone to misinterpretations, misunderstandings and ignorance of Sacred Scripture. We still struggle with pride and prejudices, which can skew the way we approach the Bible and form our views of God. Christianity and the Bible has been used to marginalize women, justify slavery and conclude that the earth is flat. Which is why we must allow others to challenge our interpretations, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions.

I will not enjoy certainty in this side of eternity,  but I am confident in the claims of historical Christianity: God exists. Christ is God in the flesh. Christ’s death brings me salvation from my sin. Christ has plans for my life. Such confidence has led me to make life altering decisions.

Being completely confident in the truth of Christianity does not mean the absence questions, doubts, and confusion about God. I can have confidence in Christ, while  having a theology that needs correcting from time to time.

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Father Abraham and Sexual Exploitation

“He treated Abram well for her sake…” Genesis 12:16

The Old Testament is replete with sexual violence, which is not so different from The Game of Thrones or the news. Thankfully, organizations like the International Justice Mission are opening our eyes to the global reality of sex trafficking of women and children. There are numerous national and local organizations providing information and resources on sexual violence and exploitation of women and children.

The Old Testament writers didn’t skim over the reality of sexual violence.

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Pharaoh Returns Sarah to Abraham, Isaac Isaacsz

Consider Abraham, the second name mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-2). When he moves to Egypt to avoid a famine (Genesis 12:10-20), he orders Sarah to pretend she is his sister, so no one will kill him to take her.

As a result, “she was taken (Genesis 12:15)”- words that imply sexual activity – by Pharaoh into his harem. To thank Abraham for sharing his “sister,” Pharaoh rewarded him with livestock and servants. (A similar event takes place in Genesis 20.) God called Abraham to be a blessing, but in both cases the only person “blessed” was Abraham. Sarah is betrayed, while Abraham gets richer.

If we gloss over the details when telling these stories, we miss some of their importance.

We see ancient examples of a modern reality: People in power – including those who profess faith in God – can use their power to exploit the vulnerable. The Bible does not gloss over this painful reality.

The consequences of sexual exploitation are severe, but God’s grace is even greater. God works in and through all people: even those guilty of heinous sins, as the genealogy of Jesus shows.

For Christians, our identity comes from our unity with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7). We can trust that Jesus, in winning the victory over sin and death, gives us the victory over all the sins committed by us and against us.

I realize these words may ring hollow in the ears of victims of sexual violence. I cannot identity with that painful experience. However, I have experienced God’s grace that meets us where we are, heals us gradually and brings meaning to our pain.

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Why Can’t We Perfect? (Like Jesus Said.)

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48

Imagine how wonderful it would be if we all did this. I would never lose patience with my children. I would always listen deeply to my wife. I would never give into temptation and eat the forbidden fruit in the pantry at midnight. My sermons would always end on time, and all of my relationships would be healthy and wholesome.

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The Twilight Zone, “A Nice Place to Visit.”

This world reminds me of an episode of the Twilight Zone, where a criminal dies and wakes up in the afterlife. Everything is perfect: He has a nice house, a  beautiful girlfriend, an endless supply of money and unlimited success.  The criminal eventually becomes bored with having his whims instantly satisfied. He is tired of heaven and wants to see “the other place.” He is horrified to learn that this “paradise” actually is “the other place.”

As we know, perfection does not exist, and yet Jesus says it should. Would Jesus require us to do something that is impossible for us to achieve?

Theoretically, perfection is possible. 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that God gives us a way to escape every temptation and overcome sin. At the same time, sin is inevitable because of our weakness and because of the multitude of opportunities we have to sin.

None of us can claim perfection, but we shouldn’t live in perpetual guilt because of our imperfections. Forgiveness is available through Jesus Christ. However, we must acknowledge that on any given occasion, sin is never unavoidable.

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The Compassion of Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot Retiring from the Last Supper, Carl Bloch

During Holy Week we recall the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, and the men who played a part in having him executed: The religious aristocracy, Pontius Pilate and even one of Jesus’ closest followers.

The name of Judas Iscariot went down to the pages of history as the man who betrayed Jesus. Luke attributes this to Satan.  Matthew and Mark say it was because of greed.  John points to both, and also mentions theft as one of his sins (John 12:1-8).  I think if we could travel back in time to the first century and actually see Jesus and His disciples, we wouldn’t see Judas Iscariot as the sinister man we would suspect. In fact, he might even appear to be compassionate.

For example, when Mary began to wipe Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume Jesus was deeply touched, but it was Judas who pointed out that this costly perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12:1-8). Those listening may have thought, “That’s a good point.  You know, Judas is a good steward, and he has his priorities straight.”

John, of course, reminds us that people are not always as they appear.  As Jesus would say, people will eventually know us by the fruit we bear (Matthew 7:16, 12:33; Luke 6:43-44).

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Is Ash Wednesday Biblical?

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1

I just received a bag of ashes in the mail from Amazon. According to the labeling, it should be adequate to impose ashes on 1,000 people. I have my doubts the supply will go this far, but only time will tell. I’m also wondering about the lasting impact these ashes will have on those of us who are receiving them.

Is Ash Wednesday an empty ritual?

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By the Rivers of Babylon, Gebhard Fugel

On occasion I’ve debated with some evangelical friends regarding the legitimacy of the Ash Wednesday service. After all, Jesus warned against practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by others. Interestingly, this same warning happens to be the lectionary Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday. But since God accepted ashes as a sign of repentance in the Old Testament, I think it is an acceptable sign for us today. (Jonah 3:5-7; 1 Kings 21:27; Daniel 9:3)

Ashes can remind us of our mortality (Genesis 3:19) and the day when we will stand before God and be judged. To prepare for this day, we must die to ourselves and rise to new life in Christ (Luke 9:23; 1 Peter 2:24). Ashes are an invitation to set aside the next 40 days for prayer, fasting, self-denial and meditating on God’s Word. It is a time for being reconciled to God and each other.

Ash Wednesday ashes are a call for us to repent and believe the Gospel.

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Arguing Can Be Good For You!

“When Peter came to Antioch, I (Paul) had to oppose him to his face.” Galatians 2:11

Our recent election provided numerous opportunities for arguing. Many of these centered around the candidates themselves, while others took place at a philosophical level. Either way, arguing over politics can be a bitter experience, which is why many choose to avoid the subject.

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Peter and Paul, Icon of Antioch

The church can be a good place to argue. Christian couples will argue with one another. Ministry teams can argue amongst themselves. Personalities will clash. Peter and Paul argued (Galatians 2:11-13), Paul and Barnabas argued (Acts 15:36-41).

How can we argue in a way that honors Jesus?

On the TV series The Amazing Race, couples race against other couples to reach a certain destination. Sometimes couples lose ground, argue with each other and lose the race.

When we look at our Christian lives like a race (Hebrews 12:1), we realize that we are here to seek God’s kingdom. Arguing with each other can distract us from God’s mission, which is to make disciples. So when you argue at home, church or anywhere else, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I treating the other as a fellow heir of God’s grace, or as an opponent? (1 Peter 3:7)
  • Am I speaking with humility, or with pride? (Titus 3:2)
  • Am I building others up, or tearing them down? (Romans 14:19)
  • Is my goal to win the argument, or become more like Jesus? (Hebrews 12:1)

Arguments will arise in the healthiest of relationships, and they can be a source of growth. How we argue can be a powerful witness for Christ.

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God’s Dysfunctional Families

“While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” Genesis 4:8

It’s pretty easy to find biblical principles applying to marriage and family life. Ephesians 5-6 highlight sacrificial love, mutual submission, trust, respect and nurture as foundations of a healthy family. These virtues are taught throughout the Scriptures.

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Cain Smiting Abel, Sebastiano Ricci

It’s even easier to find stories of dysfunctional families. Consider these in Genesis:

  • Adam and Eve’s firstborn commits fratricide (Genesis 4:8).
  • Sarah’s gives her servant to Abraham to bear a surrogate child (Genesis 16). Sarah then abuses her in jealous anger, while Abraham remains passive.
  • Lot’s daughters seduce him into drunken incest (Genesis 19).
  • Isaac and Rebecca play favorites with their boys, creating a horrible sibling rivalry. (Genesis 25-27)
  • Laban smuggles Leah in as Jacob’s bride instead of Rachel. Jacob marries them both, causing a sibling rivalry where the sisters’ compete for children (Genesis 29-30).
  • Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine, the mother of some of his brothers (Genesis 35).
  • Ten of Jacob’s sons sell brother Joseph into slavery, and lie about it to their father for 22 years (Genesis 37).

This isn’t too surprising, considering humanity is alienated from God and one another (Genesis 3). Put a group of selfish sinners in a home, sharing possessions, having different personalities and an unequal distribution of power and you have a recipe for dysfunction.

There’s redemptive potential in dysfunctional families. God wants us to become aware of our sinfulness and our inability to save ourselves. God wants us to believe in the message his son preached, and love one another.

The family is a good place for all of these to happen.

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