Pascal’s Wager

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; 

fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

An important atheistic argument for why faith is not rational starts with the observation that the existence of God can neither be logically proven or disproven. Atheists focusing on this observation prefer the term, agnostic, which in Greek means “not knowing,” suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to make a faith decision. 

Priorities Reveal True Beliefs

Contrary to the definition of agnostic, the agnostic is not a neutral observer. Every human being has a set of priorities in which the first priority defines how the rest are interpreted. The number one priority is often to remain in control of one’s own life; alternatively, it is a spouse or other person or something like work. 

For the Christian, the number one priority should be God, as proscribed in the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3); if it is not one has committed an act of idolatry. Idolatry is dangerous because, if one uncritically has accepted a number one priority other than God, this idol will invariable break and produce an “existential crisis” that will result in anxiety, depression, even suicide. Why? Because a broken idol deprives one of identity and meaning—one’s god has been smashed. Loss of a spouse or work is hard; the additional loss of one’s god is devastating. This is why the term, existential crisis, is appropriate.

The professed agnostic is accordingly at risk of an unexpected, existential crisis that would normally not affect the Christian. The current epidemic of anxiety, depression, and suicide in Western society should accordingly be seen as a spiritual crisis requiring spiritual, not just psychiatric, intervention.

Personal Experience

As a young person, I experience an important challenge to my faith when the elders of the church dismissed my youth director in my junior year in high school. This youth director had encouraged me to take an active role in the youth group and to take my faith seriously. When she left the church, I bitterly resented her dismissal and became angry at God. My experience with the church had accordingly posed an important barrier to faith as a young adult.

Even in my absence from the church and bitterness at God, I felt his presence. As time passed (about three years), I realized that the bitterness was directed at the leadership of the church who had dismissed my youth director, not at God. Sorting out my own anger permitted me to accept God back into my life and I sought a new church. 

Pascal’s Wager

During the period of my anger with God, atheistic arguments never seemed real to me, even when I repeated them, because I knew God first hand and I knew that I had been blessed when I came to faith. Pascal’s Wager, which was directed at atheists, made perfect sense to me, even when I had turned my back on God.

Pascal used probability theory to argue that the agnostic argument is logically false in that faith is a fair bet (hence the term, Pascal’s wager)—if God exists and you believe, then you win heaven, but if God does not exist and you believe, then you loose nothing. In other words, faith in God has a positive reward even if the probability of God existing cannot be established—just so long as the probability is believed to be a non-zero, positive number.  Betting that God exists is therefore rational from a gambling perspective.

Going back to the agnostic’s assertion that the evidence for God is inconclusive, Pascal’s wager breaks the tie. The preponderance of evidence suggests that living as if God exists provides a net benefit. Ignoring that benefit accordingly reveals a bias against faith.

Pascal’s Wager

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Hebrew_Heart

 

Continue Reading

Monday Monologue: Idolatry, June 11, 2018 (Podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I share a Prayer for the Innocent and a reflection on Image Theology and Idolatry.

To listen, click on the link below.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions). #podcasting

Monday Monologues: Idolatry, June 11, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

Continue Reading

Remembering Kaffietijd

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.
(Exod 20:8)

Remembering Kaffietijd

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

More than a snack, coffee time (kaffietijd in Dutch) structured our lives and became an institution where my fondest memories of family life unfolded and I got a glimpse of heaven.

Introduction

On weekdays, at nine in morning, at three in the afternoon, and around eight in the evening, My grandmother, Gertrude Hiemstra, prepared coffee for the adults, cocoa for the kids, and goodies for everyone. The goodies included homemade lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, or strawberry short cake topped with ice cream. Choice, we always got a choice.

Whether knitting, feeding the calves, or pulling weeds in the garden, everyone paused, came in the house, got cleaned up, and talked. No one was excluded no one; everyone was invited; and conversation was required.

Sundays

On Sundays, coffee time got more involved. No one dared to skip Sunday school or leave town before lunch at grandma’s house. So we attended church at nine-fifteen, but took a break for snacks during Sunday school. After church, we normally changed from our Sunday best into more comfortable clothes before lunch. After changing one thing led to another and, being kids, by the time the adults called us for lunch, we might be hiding in the attic or chasing each other around the yard. Lunch escaped our attention, but the adults bribed us to come to lunch with reminders of coffee time.

These Sunday coffee times might be delayed until after the cuckoo clock chimed at four o’clock. A late coffee time almost always involved better snacks requiring fold up trays and breaking out the card tables, which might be used later for playing hearts or board games. On occasion, the piano might be played and ice cream churned by hand. When we complained about helping churn, the adults reminded us that “kids today are so spoiled by that store-bought ice cream.” 

Special Occasions

Sunday coffee time became more formal when we celebrated birthdays among my grandparents’ siblings. Because both grandma and grandpa had eight siblings and came from Dutch families who lived around Pella, Iowa,1 their siblings pooled birthday celebrations several times a year and would collectively make the twenty mile trip to Oskaloosa. When the “Pella crowd” visited, a leisurely three or four hour visit followed where no one hurried during the heavenly banquet and everyone naturally wore their Sunday best. Formalities took distinctive phases, which moved from greetings, to eating, to discussions and board games, and then to goodbyes.

Greeting Phase

The greeting phase involved meeting people as they came in. After the formal greetings, the women gathered in the kitchen to properly set out their signature dishes, such as my grandmother’s steaming hot, chicken and noodles. Meanwhile, the men sat in the living room talking about the latest news or the market prices for corn, soybeans, hogs, or cattle. The kids might run this way or that, but often we retreated to the basement to horse around without soiling our clothes.

Eating Phase

The eating phase always started with a blessing for the food. When my uncle, Pastor John, visited, we might be treated to a few introductions and announcements (or a scripture reading) followed by a pastoral prayer. Otherwise, my grandfather, Frank, simply gave thanks.

Having blessed the food, we grabbed a plate and the family crowd snaked in line around the kitchen helping ourselves to the sandwiches, casseroles, apple sauce, and potato salad. Grandma normally served a lime or strawberry punch—iced in a crystal bowl, ladled with a crystal dipper, and enjoyed in a crystal cup. Then, the adults assembled in the living room seated in front of a folding up tray with their plates and cups carefully balanced. Meanwhile, the kids sat around the kitchen table and ate together unsupervised. The women later served coffee with the dessert.

Discussion Phase

The end of dessert marked the beginning of pointed discussions. Great Uncle John, the local county commissioner, frequently chided me about the cushy government job that I might get after graduation. Of course, I had other ideas. At one point in my sophomore year, for example, I announced my intention to study comparative literature, instead of agricultural economics like my father. Silence followed.
After a couple of embarrassing seconds, Great Aunt Nelly inquired: “What is comparative literature?”

With a questioning tone like that, I figured out before my next visit what I really wanted to study.

Some discussions took a less serious path.

You have heard, of course, about that new government program that they cooked up in Washington? Really? Do tell. In the future, social security checks will be issued along with a prescription for birth control pills.

…ah-huh.

Goodbye Phase

While everyone took part in discussions, board games marked an informal end. Those less interested in playing hearts, domino’s, or board games headed for the door, as regular as Grandfather’s daily bowl of All Bran cereal soaked with chocolate milk. Goodbyes then proceeded until everyone had said goodbye to everyone else. Weather permitting; the goodbyes included walking the most distant travelers out to their cars.

As Years Went By

As the years went by, coffee time slowly died out.

My parents struggled to imitate coffee time when my grandparents visited, but practice makes perfect and neglect leaves one neglectful. Interruptions during attempts at coffee time made conversation difficult; activities likewise cut into the leisure time. On the farm, a Christmas might last for two weeks; in the city, Christmas became a meal and afternoon discussion. We aspired to being relaxed and hospitable, but strived ever more diligently to keep our jobs, pay our bills, and advance our careers in the face of ever-easier, downward mobility. As my grandparents aged, travel distances seemed longer, schedules got more involved, and visits became rare.

Coffee time lived on during visits to Iowa. When my grandfather turned ninety, he lost his driver’s license after having a fender-bender. So when I visited, Frank often requested that I drive him from Oskaloosa to Pella to visit his younger sister, Nelly, the family historian and a live wire. Nelly usually voiced what others only thought. A quick call and Nelly would invite the surviving Pella crowd over to her place for coffee. Thirty minutes later on our arrival, out came the folding trays, the home-made snacks, and the coffee.

Born in 1898, Frank journeyed through three centuries during his 102 years. With his passing, Oskaloosa dropped off my itinerary. Since then, travel has become infrequent and the memory of coffee time became elusive.

Hiemstra Picnic

Coffee time lives on in the Hiemstra family picnic the first Saturday of August each year in Pella’s West Market Park. Picnic tables shaded under the shelter are cool and I cherish seeing distant relatives. The coffee and the snacks remain the same, but the folding trays, the leisure time, and my grandparents no longer accompany us, but I look forward to the day they will.

More than a snack, coffee time (or Kaffietijd as the old folks used to say) built a palace in time2 that lives on in the memory of my youth.

 

Also see:  Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

Continue Reading

Between Sundays

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Honor your father and your mother,
that your days may be long in the land
that the LORD your God is giving you.
(Exod 20:12)

Between Sundays

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After I confessed my faith in Christ and joined the church in 1967, I participated more actively in church youth programs, sang in the youth choir, and pledged money to the church, as was expected of young Christian men. My first attempts at evangelism and living out my faith could be described as spotty at best.

I knew a fellow by the name of Jimmy, who might today be referred to as having special needs. Jimmy only had a few friends and, when he heard that I was learning to play piano, he expressed interest in learning to play and I volunteered to teach him one day after school. Thinking that Christians should be really nice to people, helping him learn piano seemed like the right thing to do.

When Jimmy came over after school, my mother welcomed him in but she awkwardly asked: “Is Jimmy one of your friends?” Jimmy and I went straight to the piano where I taught him a few notes and how to play a C major scale. We spent about half an hour before he left and went home. Thinking about my mother’s question, I never invited him back.

By contrast, my mother really liked David, who lived two doors down from us. David was tall and thin and quiet and always at home. His father was a popular local pastor, who was a ham radio operator, and his mother, who was as sweet as the snacks that she offered up. David and I traded baseball cards, marbles, and stamps, but he never seemed interested in playing games with the other kids in the neighborhood and expressed little interest in chess. So, I was “nice” to David, but we were not close.

It was never exactly clear what it meant to live out Christine values at home, other than “honor your father and mother” (Exod 20:12). Because I grew the oldest among my siblings and was already more comfortable with adults, this commandment came easy, but I associated this commandment with obeying my parents, not with their later care. Sometimes in the evening I sat with my father in his study as he worked and read or did my homework. Other times I helped him with yard work, like cutting the grass, or washing the car. I also helped the neighbors with gardening or shoveling their snow, which I continued to do even in high school. When I left for college, my father traded in the old push mower for a gasoline model.

Until I was about 8 years old, my sister, Diane, was my closest friend. Growing up, we moved around a bit because my father was in still in graduate school. Diane and I played hide and seek. Diane and I learned to eat ice cream from cones. Diane and I celebrated birthdays—I will never forget Diane’s expression on viewing a pink rabbit cake that my mother baked when she was about two. When we got older, we sometimes watched television or played board games together at home and attended youth events and choir together at church. Although we were never chatty, Diane was my first friend.

Diane preferred doing girl things, like playing with dolls, while I did boy things, like collecting coins, stamps, and bugs, and building forts in the woods. Diane played more typically with Karen, while John, being still a tot when I was young, played mostly with Karen. This pattern continued uninterrupted over many years.

 

Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2sqjfoR

Continue Reading

Challenges to Faith

One of the most seductive arguments against faith in God is the idea that faith is optional. This argument is usually offered by people who refuse to accept any ethical obligations. This argument is insidious because it is normally preceded by excuses for why God does not exist or the church is unattractive or just plain obstinance. What matters is not the excuse given but rather the motivation—laziness, self-centeredness, and the like. The Apostle Paul had little time for such people and simply advised the Thessalonian church: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10) However, since few people accept Paul’s admonition today without qualms, let us examine the arguments.

The first inference, that faith is optional, ignores the problem of idolatry and is simply counter-factual, from a scientific perspective. Let me turn issue to each issue in turn. Then, let me address the usual excuses.

If we treat faith as optional, we frequently fall into idolatry. The problem of idolatry today has less to do with worshiping statues of pagan gods than with misplaced priorities. We commit idolatry whenever we place anything other than God as the number one priority in our lives and it is a sin because it breaks the First Commandment given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3). The sin of idolatry is often taken lightly, but this a mistake because idolatry is life threatening.

To see the threat posed by idolatry, consider what happens when alternatives to God become our number one priority. Common today, for example, is to place work as the number one priority in our life. What happens then when we lose our job or our ability to work? Americans, particularly men, are prone to depression and suicide when a job is lost and cannot be replaced for whatever reason.[1] People who cannot work, like the mentally disabled, the young, the old, the uneducated, are treated badly. When we neglect our faith in God, we end up committing idolatry, which threatens our self-esteem and our relationship with people we should care for.

If we treat faith as optional, we also fail to understand how faith undergirds modern science. Knowledge based on the scientific method follows a distinct method for testing knowledge’s veracity. These steps are usually employed: a problem is defined, observations are taken, analysis is done, a decision rule is imposed, an action is taken, and responsibility is born (Johnson 1986, 15). The very first step in the scientific methods (problem definition) requires beginning with assumptions and a hypothesis. These assumptions are faith statements—no testing can be done without them. Faith is simply not optional.

The two most famous excuses for why many people believe that God does not exist were given by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud (1927). Marx (1843) commented that: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” By contrast, Freud (1961, 30) characterized religion as an illusion, a kind of wish fulfillment. While both Marx and Freud can be considered authority figures, the thrust of their argument is not due to a lengthy scientific analysis, but is presented more as simple slander, acceptable primarily as an excuse for decisions reached for other reasons. If we take faith as necessary part of a rational decision process, then simple slander does not warrant further investigation because burden of proof lies with those advancing a particular argument to make their case, which in this case was not done.

As Christians in a postmodern context, we have inherited a worldview which is quite capable of interpreting the world as we know it. In fact, Western civilization is built on premises advanced from the Christian worldview. The question for those who advance criticism of that worldview, normally by picking on some of its assumptions (or disputing its ethical requirements), is not how can we accept those assumptions. Rather, because those assumptions form a coherence and ethically defensible system, the question is whether alternative assumption can be used to construct a better system.

For the most part, proposed postmodern alternatives to the Christian worldview, such as deconstructionism, refuse to accept the responsibility for benefiting everyone, preferring to focus on criticism without advancing alternative, morally-defensible systems. Others talk about rights, but not responsibilities, for their client groups. Either position is morally reprehensible leaving many people hopeless and abandoned. Yet, powerful groups have advanced such changes primarily to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

These challenges to faith are repeated daily in the media, in our schools, and in society, yet they lack merit as an alternative to faith and cause significant harm to many people through their promotion of idolatry and other sins that isolate people from God, from themselves, and even from the science that has brought humanity numerous benefits.

References

Freud, Sigmund. 1961. The Future of an Illusion (Orig Pub 1927. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Marx, Karl. 1843. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie). Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. (Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people)

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] This observation is not hyperbole. The New York Times recently reported that suicide is now at a 30-year high point and the increase in suicide is greatest for men ages 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

Continue Reading

Kaffietijd

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. (Exod 20:8 ESV)

Kaffietijd

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

More than a snack, coffee time was once an institution where some of my fondest memories of family life took place.

On weekdays, at 9 a.m., at 3 p.m., and around 8 p.m., grandma prepared coffee for the adults, cocoa for the kids, and goodies for everyone. The goodies included homemade lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, or strawberry short cake topped with ice cream. Choice, we always got a choice.

Whether you were knitting, feeding the calves, or pulling weeds in the garden, everyone stopped what they were doing, came in the house, got cleaned up, and talked.  No one was excluded; everyone was invited; conversation was required.

Coffee time on Sundays was always more involved. No one dared to skip Sunday school in Grandma Gertrude’s house (or leave before lunch). So we were in church at 9:15 a.m. and Sunday school included a break for snacks. After church, we normally changed from our Sunday best into more comfortable clothes before lunch. One thing would lead to another. Being kids, by the time we were called, we were off hiding in the attic or chasing each other around the yard. Lunch would not be on our minds—the adults would bribe us to come to lunch with reminders of coffee time.

These Sunday coffee times might be delayed until after the cuckoo clock chimed at 4 p.m. A late coffee time almost always involved better snacks, fold up trays being brought out, and breaking out the card tables—who knows, we might even move on to board games. On occasion, the piano might be played and ice cream churned by hand—“kids today are so spoiled by that store-bought ice cream”, we were told.

A more formal coffee time on Sundays occurred when birthdays were celebrated. These get togethers were common because both grandpa and grandma came from Dutch families with eight siblings, all of whom lived in or around Pella, Iowa.[1] Oskaloosa, where my grandparents lived, was more of a family outpost, but remained within driving distance of the “Pella crowd”. Formalities took the form of a distinctive routine, which moved from greetings, to eating, to discussions and game boards, and then to goodbyes. This would involve a leisurely three or four hours—no one was in a hurry. And everyone kept on their Sunday best.

The greeting phase involved meeting people as they came in. After the formal greetings, the women gathered in the kitchen to properly set out the signature dishes, such as grandma’s steaming hot, chicken and noodles. Meanwhile, the men sat in the living room talking about the latest news or market prices for corn, soybeans, hogs, or cattle. The kids might run this way or that, but often we retreated to the basement to horse around without soiling our clothes, as might be suggested now and then.

Eating phase always started with a blessing for the food. If my uncle John were present, we might be treated to a few introductions and announcements (or a scripture reading) followed by a pastoral prayer. Otherwise, Grandpa Frank simply gave thanks.

Having blessed the food, we would grab a plate and snake around the kitchen helping themselves to the sandwiches, casseroles, apple sauce, and potato salad. A lime or strawberry punch was normally iced in a crystal bowl, ladled with a crystal dipper, and enjoyed in a crystal cup. Then, the adult assembled in the living room seated in front of a folding up tray with their plates and cups carefully balanced. Meanwhile the kids sat around the kitchen table and ate together unsupervised. Coffee was served later with the dessert.

The end of dessert marked the beginning of discussions. These could get pointed. My great uncle John, the local county commissioner, frequently chided me about the cushy government job that I would get after graduation. Of course, I had other ideas. At one point in my sophomore year, for example, I announced my intention to study comparative literature, instead of agricultural economics like my dad. The room went silent. After a couple of embarrassing seconds someone inquired: “What is comparative literature?” With questions like that, it did not take me long—before my next visit—to figure out what I really wanted to study.

Discussions were not always in earnest. “You have heard, of course, about that new government program that they cooked up in Washington? In the future, social security checks will be issued along with a prescription for birth control pills”…ah-huh.

Discussion was mandatory; board games were not. When discussion began to wind down, those not interested in playing hearts, dominos, or, some other such thing, headed for the door. It was as regular as grandpa’s daily bowl of All Bran cereal soaked with chocolate milk. Goodbyes then proceeded until everyone had said goodbye to everyone else. Weather permitting, the goodbyes included walking the most distant travelers out to their cars.

As the years went by, coffee time slowly died out.

My parents struggled to imitate coffee time when my grandparents would visit, but practice makes perfect and neglect leaves one neglectful. Interruptions during attempts at coffee time made conversation difficult; activities likewise cut into the leisure time. On the farm, a Christmas might last for two weeks; in the city, Christmas became a meal and afternoon discussion. We aspired to being relaxed and hospitable, but strived ever more diligently to keep our jobs, pay our bills, and advance our careers in the face of ever easier downward mobility. As my grandparents aged, travel distances seemed longer, schedules got more involved, and visits became rare.

Coffee time lived on during visits to Iowa. When my grandfather turned 90, he lost his driver’s license. So when I visited, Frank often requested that I drive him from Oskaloosa to Pella to visit his younger sister, Nelly, who was the family historian and a live wire—it was always Nelly who said what was on everyone else’s mind. A quick call and Nelly would invite some of the Pella crowd over to her place for coffee. Thirty minutes later on our arrival, out came the folding trays, the home-made snacks, and the coffee.

Born in 1898, Frank journeyed through three centuries during his 102 years. With his passing, Oskaloosa dropped off my itinerary. Since then, the chore of travel has become unbearable and the memory of coffee time much more elusive.

Coffee time lives on in the Hiemstra family picnic the first Saturday of August each year in Pella’s West Market Park. Picnic tables shaded under an open shelter are cool and inviting, as are the relatives that I still know and cherish. The coffee and the snacks are the same, but the folding trays, the leisure time together, and my grandparents are no longer with us.

More than a snack, coffee time (or Kaffietijd as the old folks would say) was a palace in time[2] that lives on in the memory of my youth.

Reference

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1951. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

 

[1] Pella was settled in 1847 by Dutch immigrants (http://www.CityOfPella.com).

[2] Cite from Heschel (1951, 12). Heschel (1951, 6) writes: “The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography.”

 

Continue Reading

Righteous Suffering

Life_in_Tension_web“Then the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.
I know their sufferings” (Exod 3:7 ESV).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For the Christian and for the Jew, the experience of God frequently arises in the context of righteous suffering.

Genesis begins the Bible with the creation account, but Genesis itself was written by Moses who encounters God as a refugee from his homeland and his people in the desert tending his father-in-law’s sheep (Exodus 3:1). As a man wanted for murder, Moses find himself in the presence of God consumed by grief over his sins and shamed by his inability to help his people. Here is a former prince of Egypt now tending sheep not even his own. Do you think Moses felt persecuted? Do you think that he suffered?

God gives Moses a new assignment. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exod 3:10 ESV)

Moses is not anxious. Quite the contrary. He is wanted for murder in Egypt. Going to Pharaoh entails substantial and obvious personal risk. However, God offers Moses a number of assurances. Most important among these are the words: “But I will be with you” (Exod 3:12 ESV). In the midst of our own suffering God promises to be with us.

In the Law of Moses, God promises to be with us in the midst of suffering. God’s presence is manifested two other tangible gifts: the giving of the divine name and the giving of the law. With respect to the NAME, we read:

“God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM. And he said, Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exod. 3:14-15 ESV)

The ancients believed that knowing the name of a god gave one power over that god. When God freely gave Moses his name, he was offering him what we might call the power of prayer. And God’s covenant name was significant: YHWH which in Hebrew means “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”. In common English, we might say: “I am the real deal”. The ancients were accustomed to gods made up by their leaders to serve their own political purposes [1]  A REAL GOD with REAL POWER was something entirely new.

With respect to the Law, the covenant of Moses begins with a reminder: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2 ESV). The laws that followed gave the people of Israel a clear picture of what God required of them. To our ears, this sounds like no big deal, but the problem faced by the ancients was not knowing who God was and what he requires. It is hard to pray to God if you do not know his name or know what he requires of you. Consequently, knowing God’s name and having his law may life an aweful lot easier and reduced anxiety levels dramatically.

In the prophets, suffering continues but something new appears. The Prophet Job is described as a righteous man:

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1 ESV)

Job is so righteous that God even brags about him to Satan:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8 ESV)

To which Satan asks to test him and God grants his request. Satan is given permission to take everything Job has away and to afflict horribly (Job 1-2).

What is interesting here is that the story of Job is thought to have been the oldest book of the Bible, written my Moses, and used to convince the Israelite people to follow him out of Egypt. What is new here is the first evidence of the need for a savior: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25 ESV) Even in his apparent righteousness, Job feels a need for salvation. Righteous suffering, whether by human taskmasters or Satanic oppression, pushes us to seek out and to rely on God rather than our own resources or on the law [2].

This theme of relying solely on God is repeated in the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When his friends refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol instead of the one true God, they are thrown into the fiery furnance. We read:

“And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? They answered and said to the king, True, O king. He answered and said, But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Dan 3:23-25 ESV)

Righteous suffering not only leads us to God, it becomes a testimony to others. This is the blessing.

The eighth beatitude is perhaps the most paradoxical: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV) How can we be blessed in suffering? The answer comes later in Matthew directly from the mouth of Jesus: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39 ESV)

This is the Christian paradox.

 

[1]  An example of this phenomena is found in the story of Jeroboam, ,the first king of Israel (Northern Kingdom) after rebelling against Rehoboam, the son of Solomon:

“And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah. So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.” (1 Kings 12:26-29 ESV)

[2] The Prophen Jeremiah writes: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34 ESV)

Continue Reading

Praise the Name

Art by Narsis Hiemstra
Art by Narsis Hiemstra

“Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matt 6:9)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to honor God’s name in keeping with the Third Commandment—do not take the Lord’s name in vain—because all the other commandments are leveraged on it (Exod 20:7).

Why keep the other commandments, if we dishonor God’s name?

The practical implications of honoring God arise because we are created in God’s image. Because we are created in the image of God, human life has intrinsic value—value in itself that does not change with life events. Because life has intrinsic value, we cannot accept discrimination, injustice, abuse, mistreatment of prisoners, weapons of mass destruction, euthanasia, abortion, designer babies, and a host of other detestable practices. Our human rights—a measure reflecting intrinsic value—exist because we are created in the image of a Holy God.

Our capitalist society focuses, not on intrinsic values, but on market values. Market values change with circumstances—they are volatile. Your value as a person implicitly depends on your productivity. If you are young, old, or unable to work, then you are a dependent—a burden on working people. The focus on market values inherently disrespects God’s image. When God is not honored; neither are we.

The strong influence of market values on our self-image explains, in part, is why depression rates tend to be highest among population groups—like the young adults and the senior citizens—who are unable to work. The rate of depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, addictions, and divorce appear to be correlated, in part, with changing job prospects.

When God’s name is dishonored, we also become more prone to idolatry (Rom 1:21-23). Why worship the God of the Bible, when my income and status in society depends more on my family legacy, education, and hard work? So I naturally run to all sorts of substitutes for God that work, like insurance, to manage the ups and downs of life. Alternatively, I can obsess about the security of my home, my spouse, and my children.

The implications of honoring the name of God come together in the debate over euthanasia—the right to die. If my self-image and my dignity in society are both increasingly subjected to the same market values, then I will surrender myself to assisted suicide precisely when I need support from my family. And, of course, they will agree because I have become a burden both financially and emotionally. Consequently, euthanasia is evil masquerading as compassion. We are created in the image of a holy God who declares that life is good and sacred (Gen 1:31).

Give glory to God. Honor the Name above all names. You are created in God’s image.

Continue Reading

Sabbath Rest as Cultural Firewall by Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Walter Brueggemann.  2014.  Sabbath as Resistance:  Saying NO to the Culture of Now.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the characteristics of the period since the demise of the Bretton Woods System in 1971 and reduction in barriers to international trade has been the increasing importance of the law of one price.  From economic trade theory, the law of one prices says that only one price for a commodity can exist in an open market economy, adjusting for shipping, storage, and policy interventions.

The law of one price hypothesizes that the price of a Big Mac should be the same worldwide.  The same is true for wages and salaries.  Because everyone competes with everyone else, no one relaxes (enjoys healthcare, summer vacations, a clean environment, a spouse at home with the kids, and so on) without losing competitive advantage.  The market is the formidable taskmaster.

Introduction

In his discussion of Sabbath rest in the Pentateuch, Walter Brueggemann offers a fairly sophisticated understanding of Moses’ response to the market’s devaluation of human life.  Under penalty of death (Numbers 15:32-35), nobody, no way, works on the Sabbath provided a cultural alternative (xiv) to Pharaoh’s relentless pursuit of wealth.   Bruggemann writes:  YHWH governs as an alternative to Pharoah, there the restfulness of YHWH effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh (xiii).  Sabbath rest appears in the creation accounts because God balances work and rest.  The Egyptian gods, by contrast, never rested (5).

Pharaoh Versus Moses

Today we would call Moses’ Sabbath rest prescription a government-sanctioned monopoly.  Brueggemann (3) observes that:  the God of Sinai…is never simply a “religious figure” but is always preoccupied with…socioeconomic practice and policy.  Because no one works on the Sabbath, no one can chisel—cheat and make more money by quietly disobeying the law.  Sabbath rest defines the ultimate human right—the right to live a humane life.  Because exhausted people only think about themselves—they neither love God nor their neighbor (contra Matthew 22:36-40), Sabbath rest is a cultural firewall against market intrusion into family, community, and religious life.  For this reason, Sabbath rest is the only creation mandate also found among the Ten Commandments and, as the fourth commandment, it is also the longest (27).  This means that the Bible treats it as an emphatic commandment!

In contrasting the YHWH economy with Pharaoh’s economy, Brueggemann provides an interesting insight into the Ten Commandments.  Those who keep the Sabbath need not:

  • Dishonor mother and father,
  • Kill,
  • Commit adultery,
  • Steal,
  • Bear false witness, or
  • Covet (31).

In other words, do detestable things for the sake of money.  The unending race to pursue wealth (or defend one’s lifestyle) normally pushes us individually and collectively to neglect or break these commandments—the law of one price has led us to chisel on each one of these commandments in recent years.

Organization

Brueggemann’s short book (89 pages) breaks into six chapters, including:

  1. Sabbath and the First Commandment;
  2. Resistance to Anxiety (Exodus 20:12-17);
  3. Resistance to Coercion (Deuteronomy 5:12-14);
  4. Resistance to Exclusivism (Isaiah 56:3-8);
  5. Resistance to Multitasking (Amos 8:4-8); and
  6. Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment (vii).

These chapters are preceded by a detailed preface which serves as a helpful introduction.

Assessment

While some might chide Brueggemann for offering a political analysis of the Pentateuch, it is more correct to say that wherever two or more are gathered together politics will be present!  By contrast, if the Pentateuch is spiritualized, it can easily be recast to suit one’s own prejudices.  For example, Brueggemann notes that the Pentateuch attends vigorously to the triad of vulnerability—widows, orphans, and immigrants (44).  How do we treat them today?  Today we might refer to them with labels—welfare queens, the unwanted unborn, and the undocumented—inviting scorn rather than assistance.  Judged by the Law of Moses, we fail.  Grace always allows us to be forgiven, but the Gospel in Jesus Christ fulfills the law—it does not repeal it!

Brueggemann’s book is probably the most important book on Sabbath rest since Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).  I hope that Christians will read and act on it.

Sabbath Rest as Cultural Firewall by Brueggemann

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

Continue Reading

1 Corinthians 6: Growing into Our Identity in Christ

The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).

Where is your identity?

A friend of mine was involved in special operations as a professional soldier and spent time in places like Vietnam.  Here was a man who had engaged in fierce combat operations.  When I first met him and heard him talk, I thought that he was delusional—he talked about things that I would never have done; never could do.  What was normal for him, most of us would look on in horror in the movie theater.  But he was a soldier doing what soldiers are expected to do.  Out his identity as a soldier, he was able to bear those burdens years after year.  For him, the hard part was transitioning back into the life of a civilian and leaving the burdens of military life behind.  Now, as a civilian he has a new identity.

Our identities define both who we are and how we are expected to behave.

The Corinthian church had an identity problem.  In Corinth before Paul arrived, the rich exploited the poor, in part, through legal proceedings (vv 1-8).  In Corinth before Paul arrived, hard partying routinely included drunkenness, orgies, and prostitution—male and female (vv 9-10).  And the Corinthians even had proverbs to support their wild behavior.  Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food (v 13) is a proverb thought to be used analogously to condone sexual promiscuity.  When Paul established a church in Corinth, these attributes of the Corinthian identity did not change like one would turn on a light switch.  The Corinthians needed help in growing into their new identities in Christ.

What about us?  Is our primary identity in Christ?  Or is it in our profession, our ethnicity, our gender, our nationality, our social class or some other activity?  If our primarily identity is something other than Christ, we practice idolatry and suffer an idolater’s fate—an existential crisis when our idols fail us.  The unemployed workaholic is not only out of a paycheck; the workaholic has lost their primary source of identity—an idol has been crushed.  This causes an existential crisis.  If we act out of an identity that has been crushed, then our lives appear meaningless without direction or value.  Is it any wonder that drug use, suicide, and mass shootings are so common today?  The problem is not psychiatric; it is spiritual—God will not take second place in our lives; God is a jealous god (Exodus 20:3-8).

Much like the commandments in Exodus 20, Paul’s vice list in verses 9-10 is used to establish Christian identity through contrast.  If you are a Christian, then by definition you avoid doing these things.  Paul readily admits that some of the Corinthians used to do these things (v 11).  All sins are forgivable (other than denying salvation); lifestyles of sin call into question one’s true identity.  Paul’s guidance is interesting:  All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything (v 12).  Do we let sin dominate us?  If we do, we have a problem with a sinful lifestyle.

In closing chapter 6, Paul makes three arguments against sexual immorality:

  1. Since we are united with Christ, sexual immorality unites Christ with a prostitute—unthinkable! (v 15);
  2. Sexual immorality is sin against one’s own body—in other words, stupid (v 18); and
  3. Our bodies are the temple of God purchased at a price—we are not our own (vv 19-20).

But, our identities are in Jesus Christ.  As Paul puts it:  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (v 11).

Where is your identity?

Continue Reading