The Goads

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?
It is hard for you to kick against the goads.
And I said, Who are you, Lord?’
And the Lord said, I am Jesus
whom you are persecuting.”
(Acts 26:14-15)

Friends in Christ sometimes ask how my marriage to a Muslim has informed my faith and call to ministry. When they know my wife, Maryam, they do not question why I fell in love with her. In fact, Maryam frequently reminds me that I won the lottery when I married her. But the faith and ministry question challenged me for many years and required greater self-knowledge and theological insight than I could muster at first.

For many years, I believed that I attended seminary in spite of my wife, but I came to understand that I attended seminary because of my wife.

When Maryam and I married in 1984, I asked her to attend church as a condition for our marriage, which she did faithfully until our kids grew up and attended college, confident that the Holy Spirit would work in her life to bring her to faith. When this did not happen, I became convicted of my own negligence in witness and began to explore my own faith more deeply hoping to become a better witness, not only to Maryam but also our children. As I witnessed to them, my faith blossomed and I found my call to ministry to others, even as Maryam remained a Muslim. Stubborn as I failed to recognize God’s call on my life, Maryam served as God’s goad—a prod to action—in my life to bring me to himself.

The Prophet Hosea also married an improbable wife and used her sin to highlight the idolatry of the Nation of Israel (Hos 1:2-3). While not mentioned in the text, I can picture Gomer as a stunningly beauty woman that God used to goad Hosea into realizing his prophet call and to draw attention to the nation’s idolatry.

Idolatry also figures prominently in the call of the Apostle Paul, whom the risen Christ accused of kicking against the goads, as cited above. In describing himself before he came to faith in Christ, Paul reported:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)

Paul’s idolatry took the form of being zealous for the law. When we zealously prosecute the law—beit Mosasic, Islamic, secular, or even physical law—rather than almighty God who created the law, we commit idolatry. Or when we work zealously and worship God sparingly, as I did, we commit idolatry and come under judgment.

Consequently, I believe that God placed Maryam in my life to goad me into a deeper faith and to realize my call to ministry.

Thanks be to God!

 

Other ways to engage with me online:

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

Read my April newsletter at: http://mailchi.mp/t2pneuma/monthly-postings-on-t2pneumanet.

Continue Reading

Why We Care About Epistemology

Our concern with epistemology is simple: faith is a lifesaver and, when faith is undermined, people suffer.

To see why faith is a lifesaver, let us return to our earlier discussion of the scientific method, when we consider the steps—problem definition, observations, analysis, decision, action, and responsibility bearing—the key step typically is the first one: problem definition. Glenn Johnson (1986), a friend and former professor, used to talk about how researchers would get stuck on a pre-step in problem definition—having a felt need—which does not mature into an actionable, problem definition. A good problem definition requires insight in the problem and creativity that is frequently absent.

Viktor Frankl offers an interesting problem definition in reflecting on faith and the meaning of life. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl shares both his concentration camp experiences during the Holocaust and his observations as a logotherapist (meaning therapist) on the meaning of life. He observes:

“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to copy with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning.” (Frankl 2008, 31)

He defines neurosis as an “excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession”[1] while an existential vacuum (lack of meaning in life) “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom” which afflicts 25 percent of European students and about 60 percent of American students, according to Frankl’s own statistics. He concludes that meaning comes not from looking inside one’s self, but from transcending one’s self (Frankl 2009, 110,131). In his book, he repeatedly associates this existential vacuum with despair and suicide, based on his experience both as a concentration camp survivor and a professional psychiatrist.

If our culture obsesses about individual freedoms, encourages individuals to look within themselves for meaning, and rejects faith out of hand,[2] then Frankl suggests that we should observe epidemic levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide, as we observe. Lucado (2009, 5) puts it most succinctly: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” Frankl and Lucado’s observations about the emotional state of a society are hard to quantify in a statistical sense, but the New York Times recently reported that suicide rates in the United States had reached a thirty-year high.[3]

How did we reach this point?

Part of this story is one of a stagnant economy where about half of all Americans have seen no increase in real income since about 1980. Families under economic pressure have increasingly both spouses working full time which implies both smaller families and fewer economic and emotional reserves, especially for those with only a college degree or less. When both spouses work, it is harder to set aside Sundays for family and church, reducing spiritual reserves. When a family crisis emerges for families already stretched to the limit, the absence of reserves—economic, emotional, and spiritual—can be stressful. Remove faith from this mix, the absence of reserves can be devastating.

Faith is more than a spiritual reserve, but it is certainly no less. If faith functions as a reserve, then its removal leaves the family more prone to stress. We accordingly care about maintaining the vitality of our faith at least as much as our economic and emotional vitality. If our faith informs our work ethic and our devotion to marriage, as indeed it does, then the vitality of our faith is actually more important than our economic and emotional vitality because it is more primal. Attacks then on our faith are the most basic threats to our life both here and now, and eternally. So we care about epistemology because our lives depend on maintaining our faith.

Reference

Frankl, Viktor E. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946). Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.

Lucado, Max. 2009. Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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] https://www.google.com/#q=neurosis&*.

[2] Guinness (2003, 145) describes prevailing attitude when he was a philosophy student during the 1960s as ABC—anything but Christian.

[3] Most surprising, the largest increase among men aged 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

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

Make No Images (Second Commandment)

Artwork by Narsis Hiemstra
Artwork by Narsis Hiemstra

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exod 20:4-6; Deut 5:8-10)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Did you ever wait until the second time your mother called (as if her intent were unclear) before responding? Why? Repetition implies emphasis. In Hebrew poetry we see a special kind of repetition where the first and second sentences say the same thing just in different words. A good example of a Hebrew doublet is found in Psalm 115, where we read:

“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.” (Ps 115:3-5)

The comparison is between God, who is alive (lives in heaven; does what he pleases), and idols, which are not alive (made of metal by humans; have silent mouths and useless eyes).

The problem of idol worship runs deep in the human psyche. An idol is anything that we treat as more important than God. And we have many such things—family members, friends, work, school, political leaders, pop stars, sports heroes, philosophies, bank accounts, insurance policies, health plans—the list is endless.

Louie Giglio (2003, 113), a Christian musician, says that if you want a list of the idols in your life, ask where you spend your money, your time, your energy, and your loyalty. Check out your priorities and you will find the idols that threaten your faith, your mental health, and, perhaps, your life.

The second commandment is not about God’s vanity. When we put our faith in idols, we set ourselves up for a hard fall. All idols eventually break and, when they do, we break with them. The outcome of our brokenness often results in depression, addiction, or suicide; collectively, it results in oppression, injustice, and war.

The obsession in our society with work and “having it all”, for example, leads us to abuse our own health and to undervalue anyone who does not work. Instead of valuing time with our family, we refuse to use our vacation leave and we return to work even before we have to. Instead of relaxing or exercising when we are off from work, we bring work home and make poor food choices. Instead of seeing our young people and senior citizens as created in the image of God, we see them as “dependents” who do not work. It is not surprising, therefore, that they develop self-image problems and depression, or worse.

Substitutes for the living God’s role in our life are cheap imitations.

REFERENCES

Giglio, Louie. 2003. The Air I Breathe. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Press.

Continue Reading

2 Corinthians 6: Accredited in Christ

Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross

We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry… (2 Corinthians 6:3 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having a bit of Irish in me, seminary introduced me for the first time to the story of Saint Patrick.  Up to that point, I associated Saint Patrick primarily with green beer.  In fact, Saint Patrick is credited by some with saving the Christian faith.  However, Saint Patrick did not start out as a saint.  Born into an aristocratic British family in the late fourth century AD, at the age of 16 he was kidnapped by Celtic pirates and sold into slavery.  For six years he worked herding cattle living as a slave in the Irish wilderness.  There he learned humility being forced to depend on God; learned to speak the Celtic language; and learned to love the Celtic people.  Patrick began to pray for the Irish to reconcile with God.  In response to a dream, he escaped his master and returned to England where he studied to become a priest.  He was later commissioned as bishop and returned to Ireland as an evangelist.  Patrick and his colleagues were so successful in starting churches in Ireland that they later turned their attention to the continent of Europe and began the process of revitalizing the church there [1].  Patrick’s walk with the Lord, like that of Joseph, began in adversity and a life of hardship [2].

The Apostle begins his discourse in chapter 6 with Biblical citation from the Prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the LORD: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ (Isaiah 49:8-9 ESV)

The phrase “time of favor” translates the Greek word, kairos (καιρός), which means decision time or time of crisis [3].  In order to bring the unsaved to the point of the day of salvation, Paul is willing to undergo all manners of hardships—great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger—and personal disciplines—by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love (vv 4-6) to accredit himself with the unsaved.

Why? Paul’s appeal is to the Christians of the Corinthian church.

Keeping Paul’s audience in mind, he then goes on to admonish these Christians to separate themselves from the idolaters who remain among them.  Paul is not asking them to separate themselves from all unbelievers (that would make evangelism rather difficult), but rather:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 ESV) [4]

Idolatry was a particular problem for the Corinth church because the religions of the day practiced temple prostitution and embraced syncretism—recognizing and practicing multiple religions.  This placed them in direct violation of the Second Commandment—do not practice idolatry (Exodus 20:4).  Paul asks:  What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people (v 16).  Idolatry and syncretism are important problems today, in part, because modern and postmodern religious movements masquerade as lifestyles, entertainment, political movements, and fads whose religious elements are subtle—they function as religions kind of like an SUV functions as a car even though its legal (or regulatory) treatment is different.

Paul is therefore placing his lifestyle of obedience and hardship in contrast with the lifestyle of opulence and sin practiced by his opponents in the Corinthian church.  Consequently, when I wear a Celtic cross, I am reminded not only of the Presbyterian Church but also the humility of Saint Patrick that helped bring it into being.

[1] George G. Hunter III. 2000. The Celtic Way of Evangelism:  How Christianity can Reach the West…Again. Nashville:  Abingdon Press.  Pages13-25.  Also see:  Philip Freeman.  2004.  Saint Patrict of Ireland:  A Biography.  New York:  Simon & Schuster (PhilipFreemanBooks.com).

[2] Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 39).

[3] καιρός (BDAG, 3857) a point of time or period of time, time, period, frequently with implication of being especially fit for something and without emphasis on precise chronology.

[4] David E. Garland. 1999.  The New American Commentary:  2 Corinthians.  Nashville:  B&H Publishing. Pages 330-340.

Continue Reading

1 Corinthians 10: Temptation

Toilette_072013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry (vv 13-14).

One test of the truth of the biblical record is that God cannot be bribed.  Most ancient religions offered a provision for bribing the deity—usually a sacrifice and often a human sacrifice.  Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac fits the ancient pattern—until God intervened and substituted a ram (Genesis 22).  Jesus’ death on the cross likewise reverses the ancient formula—God provided the sacrifice.  God cannot be bribed and does not play favorites.

In chapter 10, Paul reminds us that God also does not like to have his patience tested.  Returning to the question of idolatry among the “strong” Christians in Corinth, Paul reminds them that while they have received blessings from God, so did the Israelites wandering in the desert.  Just like the Corinthians had spiritual food and drink in communion, the Israelites had spiritual food and drink—manna and water out of a rock (vv 1-4).  Yet, when the “chosen” people tried God’s patience, they suffered God’s judgment (v 5).

The parallel between the Corinthian situation and that of Moses’ generation has 4 parts:  Idolatry (v 7), sexual immorality (v 8), testing God’s patience (v 9), and grumbling (v 10).  The idolatry in view is the Golden Calf incident which Paul cites verbatim (Exodus 32:6).  The sexual immorality was an incident with Moabite women (Numbers 25:1).  In response to the people’s questioning of God’s generosity, God sent poisonous snakes (Number 21:5-6).  Later, after the people grumbled and rebelled against Moses, God threatened to destroy them all.  However, Moses intervened on their behalf with God.  God relented from destroying the people but vowed that the entire generation would die in the desert—except for Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14).

If God punished his chosen people for these sins, then why do the Corinthians think that they will be exempt from God’s judgment in doing the same things?  Paul advises the Corinthians:  Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (v 31).  What about us?  We are to be good examples to those around us and not flaunt our freedom in Christ.

Continue Reading

1 Corinthians 8: Jedi Mind-Tricks

Art By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art By Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV).

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question:  who is my neighbor? (v 29)  The punchline in the story comes when Jesus asks the lawyer:  who was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? (v 36) Jesus flips the word, neighbor—so-to-speak—from being object to being subject.  Not—who is my neighbor?—but: how do I become a good neighbor?

In 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul takes Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick (flipping subject and object) and uses it to reframe the perspective on eating food dedicated to idols.

The early church was dogged with questions about food sacrificed to idols.  For example, in the Council of Jerusalem decision, the Council required four things of gentile believers:  abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29 ESV).  Likewise, in his prophecy pertaining to the city of Pergamum, the Apostle John writes:  But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:20 ESV).  We are accordingly a bit surprised to hear Paul state:  Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (v 8)[1].

The importance of this conversation about food can be easily dismissed as unimportant, but Paul returns to it over and over in his letters.  In his commentary, Richard Hays makes this point by listing 4 topics touched on by the food issue which even today remain hot-button issues:

  1. Boundaries between church and culture;
  2. Class divisions in the church;
  3. Love trumps knowledge; and
  4. The danger of destruction through idolatry[2].

What is Paul’s argument?  Paul basically says 4 things:

  1. Idols do not exist (vv 4-6);
  2. The dedication of food to non-existing idols is meaningless (v 8);
  3. Knowledge about this subject is helpful (vv 4-7); but
  4. Knowledge is less important than demonstrating love for fellow believers (vv 7-13).

Later, Paul combines his principles of Christian freedom and Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick:  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV).

Paul’s reiteration of Jesus’ reframing of focus in dealing with neighbors speaks to the heart of the food controversy.  If we abandon our rights as Christians in favor of our fellow believers or potential believers, then our priority is to be a good example—even when it hurts.  Perhaps, especially when it hurts.

[1] We might hear another echo of Jesus here:   The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27 ESV).  This is another Jedi mind-trick by Jesus because he again radically reframes the entire discussion by flipping subject and object.

[2] Richard B. Hays.  2011.  Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.  Pages 143-45.

Continue Reading