How do we know God is real? Part 2

images“There is too much evil in this world; therefore, there cannot be a God.” How would you respond to such a statement?  After delivering a lecture at the University of Nottingham in England, Ravi Zacharias was confronted with this very thing when a student shot up from his seat and angrily posed this challenge.  In his brilliant book, Can Man Live Without God, Zacharias shares his response.  Here’s an excerpt of the exchange in his own words:

imagesI asked him to remain standing and answer a few questions for me.  I said, “If there is such a thing as evil, aren’t you assuming there is such a thing as good?” He paused, reflected, and said, “I guess so.” “If there is such a thing as good,” I countered, “…you must affirm a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But when you admit to a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver. That, however, is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. For if there is no moral lawgiver, there is no moral law. If there is no moral law, there is no good. If there is no good, there is no evil. What then is your question?”

There was a conspicuous pause that was broken when he said rather sheepishly, “What, then, am I asking you?” There’s the rub, I might add.

In part 1 of this series, I argued that one way we know God is real is through His revelation of Himself to us through the created order.  A 2nd way we know God is real is through our conscience.  Ravi Zacharias’ exchange with the university student is a case in point.  This young atheist, in his concern about there being “too much evil” in the world is an example of how we all intuitively know there is right and wrong, good and evil.

Intellectually and logically speaking, atheism should lead away from objective moral absolutes and towards subjective moral relativism.  It makes more sense for an atheist to express a personal opinion or a distaste about a certain behavior than for him to condemn anything as universally and imagesobjectively evil.  Where does objective morality come from without a source outside of ourselves? On what objective basis can we condemn slavery, abuse, or murder?  How do you determine whether the slave trader or the abolitionist is morally superior if we are all simply the byproduct of blind evolutionary processes and we are simply a collection of cells that climbed out of the primordial soup eons ago? Where is the final court of arbitration when there are moral disagreements?  Surely everything in the end would come down to relativistic subjectivism.  What’s right for me may or may not be right for you.  As Ravi explained: If there is no moral lawgiver, there can be no moral law.

But here’s the rub.  No one really believes in moral relativism.  C.S. Lewis makes this point in his book, Mere Christianity.

imagesWhenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter; but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong–in other words, if there is no Law of Nature–what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else? It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.

On the one hand atheist scholar Richard Dawkins may claim there is no objective good and evil, but on the other hand he declares that religion leads to evil deeds.  How does that make any sense?  When a tragedy like the school shootings in Newtown, CT happen, you’ll see Christians and Muslims and Jews and Atheists coming out of the woodwork declaring this act to be morally evil and demanding justice.  I can understand a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew stating that such a thing is certainly evil, but it is interesting that the atheist feels compelled to agree with them.  It seems that for an atheist to be consistent with his atheism, the most he can say is “I personally find the school shootings distasteful.  Personally it’s wrong for me and I don’t like what the perpetrator did.”  Without a moral lawgiver, there is no moral law.

imagesYet when the atheist is moved to condemn school shootings, slavery, and child rape, we all know he’s not saying, “Well, for me personally, I don’t like child rape and would prefer it if rapists changed their preference.”  Heaven forbid!  What they are really saying is that such activity is universally and categorically wrong, no one should do it, and justice should be administered to those who commit such acts.  And they have an assumption that we all know this to be true and self-evident.  In other words, they are positing an objective moral law outside of ourselves and therefore they are unwittingly testifying to a moral lawgiver outside of ourselves.  They are, in essence, demonstrating what the Bible said long before Ravi Zacharias or Richard Dawkins were even born :

 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:14-15 ESV)

imagesPaul here is speaking of the fact that even though the Gentiles did not have the Scriptures like the Jews did, they still intuitively recognize there is right and wrong, good and evil.  And with a moral law, there is a moral lawgiver.  The Bible says this lawgiver is God, who has written his moral law on the hearts of every man.  But if things are so obvious, why are there atheists?

Let’s revisit what I said in part 1 in this series.  We learned, through the Apostle Paul in Romans 1, that the truth about God is evident through the external created order.  The problem, however, is that humans are united in a global conspiracy to suppress the truth about God.  We do not want to be held accountable to this God and so we reject Him.  This is why people either invent deities or they become naturalistic atheists.  Either way, things that are created become the center of their world instead of the Creator.

In Romans 2 Paul says that our conscience testifies to an objective moral law.  But just as sin warps our interpretation of and response to the created order, it also warps our conscience.  In fact, the Bible elsewhere speaks of our consciences being defiled and seared due to sin. (1 Tim 4:2 and Titus 1:15)  This is why humans can disagree on what is right and wrong.   This is why sometimes sinful man can call evil good and good evil. (Isa 5:20)  This is why the Pharisees looked right at Jesus, the most righteous Man that ever lived, and said He was of the Devil. (Matt 12:24)  But while flawed sinners can come to wrong moral conclusions, they nevertheless continuously demonstrate their belief in objective morality because they are made in the image of a lawgiver.

The university student that challenged Ravi Zacharias proved in his very attempt to disprove God that God is real.  His words betrayed the fact that there is indeed a God who is a moral lawgiver.  Even men who deny God and shake their fists at Him cannot completely hide the fact that they are made in the image of God and their very actions end up testifying that He is real.  When atheists demand justice, they are showing they are made in the image of a God of justice.  When an atheist feels compelled to help the poor and thinks we all should join him, he is showing he is made in the image of a God who has compassion on the needy.  When the atheist condemns racism and fights for the equal rights of blacks and women he shows that He is made in the image of a God who declares that all people are of significant value and created equal.  Those moral compulsions don’t come from a vacuumimages and are not the byproduct of random, blind, evolutionary forces.  They come from God Himself, who has written His law on our hearts, and even the atheist cannot totally get away from his conscience without denying a significant aspect of his own humanity.  We don’t call people who ignore and destroy their consciences “enlightened” or “highly evolved.”  We call them sociopaths.

So the next time you feel a tug in your conscience, recognize that it’s not just a function of a bunch of purposeless chemicals in your body moving around in a way that is dictated by blind evolutionary processes.  It is, rather, a reminder that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and not simply an amoeba or an antelope.  You are something much more precious and special than the animals.  You have God’s very own image stamped on you and you have a specific meaning and purpose in your life which revolves around your Creator.

While Scripture teaches that abundant evidence is everywhere for the existence of God, the Bible also tells us that we need something more than just the witness of creation and conscience to fully know Him.  In part 3 of this series I will discuss the most important way we can know God is real.  That is through the person of Jesus Christ.  Stay tuned.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Demer

Coming out of the closet: I struggle with idol worship (I’ll bet you do too)

What do you think of when you think of an idol?images  Some think of statues of stone.  Perhaps you think of metal and wooden figures that ignorant, primitive tribal people construct and bow down to.  When we think of idols and idol worshipers, we do not tend to think of ourselves as bowing down before false gods.  That’s what “those” people do.  “Idol worship?  You’re kidding right?  I may struggle with my temper sometimes, or perhaps I succumb to anxiety occasionally and I know that’s not good.  But whatever my sins and temptations are, at least idol worship isn’t one of them!”

Biblical counselor David Powlison believes idol worship is a bigger problem than many of us might realize.  In his article, “Idols of the heart and Vanity Fair”  he writes that “Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.  The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry.”

Have you ever stopped to consider why the Bible deals with this problem more than any other issue?  Perhaps we need to pay attention.images

This is what Brad Bigney argues in a book that just rocked my world.  In his book, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with hidden idols, Bigney puts his finger on idolatry as being at the core of our struggles with sin.  Bigney draws our attention to Scriptures all over the Bible that help to expose us as idol worshipers. Consider the following:

“Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. (Ezekiel 14:3 ESV)

Here we see that the root of idol worship is in our hearts.  A Scripture that really brings things into further focus is Col 3:5 which says,

Put to death therefore…covetousness, which is idolatry.

Now, what is coveting?  John Piper gives us a helpful definition.  Coveting is a desire for things (good or bad) that is stronger than it should be—a kind of desire that reflects a lack of satisfaction in God.  I would add to that by saying that your world begins to revolve around this desire more than it revolves around God.  The thing that you are coveting is something that is taking the place of God in the sense that you are banking on this thing for ultimate peace, joy, pleasure, satisfaction, meaning, security, etc.  In other words you are expecting from this thing what you should be expecting from God.  Instead of turning to God you are turning to this thing.    Now, with that background in mind, let me give you Brad Bigney’s definition of an idol.

An idol is anything or anyone that captures our hearts, minds, and affections more than God.

Ever struggle with this?  Welcome to the club.  You are surrounded by idol worshipers.  How are everyday sins grounded in idolatry?  Bigney explains,

imagesIdolatry is a big deal because it infiltrates and takes over the heart-the nerve center-determining the way we sin, when we sin, with whom we sin.  Think of a bicycle wheel. The hub is the heart where the idols are.  Each spoke is a specific sin, and you can trace each sin back to the hub-the heart.

In this war against sin, you must not be satisfied to simply stop sinning.  As you work with your kids, with yourself, and with your spouse, identifying your heart’s idols can help you understand why you become so irritable, why you raise your voice…Anger, irritability, and verbal outbursts are indicative of heart issues gone awry.  When you react to someone else, what is it that you are protecting?  What is it that you must have?  Husbands, doesn’t the Bible say that our wives should respect us?  Yes.  But if you go around with the old “respect me” chip on your shoulder, constantly telling yourself, “My wife must respect me,” you will inevitably be hypervigilant and hypersensitive; you will be perpetually angry, doggedly policing your wife’s behavior, because for you, respect is not just something that God commands your wife to do, but something that you think you must have  in order to be happy.

Warning: Do not read Gospel Treason unless you are serious about change in your life.  Once you read it, you’ll find it very difficult to worry about the speck in other people’s eyes as Bigney helps us see the massive 2×4 in our own eyes!  This happened with me just the other day as I realized that some of my recent ugly responses to people in my family were rooted in certain idols buried deep in my heart.  It wasn’t pleasant to face or admit, but it was oh so necessary.

Bigney explains that the conflicts we have with others can often be traced back to our own sinful desires.  The Bible puts it this way:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3 ESV)

imagesBigney explains how this might play out with a husband who is struggling here.

You think, I must be respected,” or “I must be…whatever,” and it causes war between you and anyone who gets in the way of that desire.  Then you cry out to God in prayer, and still don’t receive because you ask amiss: “God, change her.  God, you know I need respect.  God, you know how important that is.  Get her, God.  You go.”  But God won’t answer a prayer like that.  He’s more likely standing there with a two-by-four, wanting to smack you in the head and say, “Shut up and love her-stop worshiping yourself and thinking you are so important.”

It’s that kind of straight forward talk that makes this book so good and helpful to someone as thick-headed as myself.  Bigney shared many examples from his own life or other lives where idolatry paved the way to all kinds of sins and conflicts.  A number of these examples reminded me of similar issues and struggles I’ve had in my own past.  But because Bigney is a pastor, he has a way of being both straight forward and candid, while being loving and gentle at the same time.  I never felt beat up or preached at by some self-righteous snob.  Bigney comes across as very humble and as someone who is in this struggle as well.  In fact, the idols of his heart and his wife’s heart nearly destroyed their marriage.  Bigney writes,

As a pastor, I found that one of thimagese idols of my heart early in marriage was: “I must be well thought of by the church.”  In other words, never say no.  Always say, “Yes, I’ll be there.  I can do that.  I’m your man.”  But with my family-my wife and kids-I was always saying, “We can do what we’d planned later.  We have to change our plans.  I know we had a date night scheduled, but we’ll do it another time.  It will happen.”  But it never did.  It kept not happening because the demands and expectations of ministry continued to snowball as the church grew.  I meant well- I really did intend to have a date night and a family night.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with my wife and family, but there was an idol on the throne of my heart that I was completely unaware of.  And that idol of “I must be well thought of by the church” was driving me, though unconsciously, while I was convinced that what I was doing was right, and for the glory of God.  But I was deceived, and I was well on my way to destroying a wonderful marriage and home-not with alcohol or drug addition, not with pornography, not with golfing, fishing, or watching sports all the time.  Not at all-I was focused on the kingdom, baby.  So you can imagine the arguments ad nauseam, that we had with my saying to my wife, “Aren’t you committed to the church and what God is doing?”  But I was ignorant of my idols, and I didn’t realize the ugliness of my own heart. 

The insidious thing about idols is that they can appear as things that are so good.  Obviously pornography use and drug abuse and wall street greed are signals of idolatry.  But idolatry can also be found in the desire for a good marriage, healthy kids, a strong ministry, and thriving friendships.  None of those things are bad in and of themselves.  Those are wonderful things.  But as we reflect on Bigney’s helpful definition of an idol, and as we think about what the Bible tells us about covetousness (which is idolatry), these can be dangerous traps for our idolatrous hearts. Bigney shares an example.

God gave us marriage.  It is his gift, his design, his institution.  But if you put all your eggs in that basket, thinking, “Marriage will provide all my peace, all my hope, all my love, all my joy,” then you’ve doomed yourself to unending disappointment and heartache.  Marriage can’t bear such a burden.  It wasn’t designed to hold all that. 

imagesWe constantly battle the temptation to bank all of our hopes on something outside of God.  For several months I have been captivated by Jeremiah 2:13.  I have reflected on it for my own personal growth and have leaned on it often when counseling others, because it seems to be at the root of most of our personal problems and is a vivid illustration of idolatry in action.

…for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.(Jeremiah 2:13 ESV)

imagesThe essence of sin is seeking to quench our soul thirst in anything other than God.  Whether our ultimate hope for satisfaction is found in drugs or in marriage or in ministry, the Bible compares it to constructing broken, nasty, leaking cisterns and counting on them for life.  All the while shunning an exploding fountain of life-giving, thirst-quenching, soul-satisfying water that represents everything that God can be for us.

Paul in Romans 1:25 calls idolatry the exchanging of the truth for a lie.  And the big lie is that we need other things more than God.  And we believe the lie and therefore we completely orient our lives to serve that lie.

In Gospel Treason, Bigney gives us several questions that we can ask ourselves to help us identify our personal idols.  These are just a few of his suggestions:

1) Am I willing to sin to get this?  2) Am I willing to sin if I think I’m going to lose this?  3) Do I turn to this as a refuge and comfort instead of going to God?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Get the book for more penetrating questions that I think you’ll find very helpful.

In closing, it is important for me to point out that Bigney does not lose sight of the gospel in all of this.  He says “Don’t obsess over your heart while ignoring the savior” and he reminds us to preach the gospel to ourselves regularly.  This is important, because as we begin to uncover the idols in our hearts we can get very discouraged.  We may realize that we were worse off than we thought!  Such a realization is good and necessary, but discouragement and despair are unnecessary.  Where sin abounds grace all the more abounds!  The exposure of sin should lead us to celebrate the savior and should make us all the more amazed at what He did for us on the cross.  It is Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and our faith in Him that saves us, not our efforts to destroy idols.  Nevertheless, God loves us so much that He just doesn’t want to save us, but to change us!  He has delivered us from sin not so that we can wander aimlessly and be autonomous, but rather so that we can now experience a full and new life in Christ.  And the only way to do that is, through the power of Christ, to cast down your idols.

If you need help identifimagesying and destroying the idols that are messing up your life, your relationships, and preventing you from more fully enjoying God, I highly recommend that you read Gospel Treason.  I’ve always known that I have a long way to go in my personal spiritual growth.  I struggle with sin regularly.  But I’m not sure if I fully realized that I struggle with idolatry regularly.  I had some awareness of this, but it was fuzzier before I read the book.  Now I think I see things a little more clearly.   I am now starting to trace recurring sins to the idolatry that is underneath them.  That’s good.  Because it will help me to better kill those sins because I better understand what must be uprooted in my heart.  I hope you will join me in some serious idol smashing.  I’m sure it will be a lifelong process.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1   John 5:20-21 ESV)

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Demer

How do we know God is real? Part 1

imagesIn the past few months pastoring here at Petersburg Bible Church, I have received a number of outstanding questions from folks in our congregation.  Since a lot of these questions are things that may be on the minds of others, I will occasionally share these questions with you and my responses.  I don’t claim to have all the answers but I hope that as we wrestle with these things together, God will grant us insight and wisdom as we turn to Him and the Scriptures for help.

Well, we might as well go big with our first question.  How do we know God is real?

There are three ways we can know God is real.   And I’ll tackle the first in this post and look at the other two in future posts.  The three ways we know God is real is through Creation, Conscience, and Christ.

Let’s start with the evidence of God in Creation.  What do I mean by this?  Well, how about if I just quote the Psalmist who explains it with far more eloquence than I.

imagesThe heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4 ESV)

Nature itself testifies to the fact that God is real.  Scripture goes as far to say that not only does the world around us point to the existence of God, but that it’s actually pretty obvious that He’s real.  Paul, writing about people who deny God, says the following:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.(Romans 1:18-20 ESV)

Paul is saying that man intuitively knows God is real. There is ample evidence in nature that points to a Creator.  The Scripture says there are things about God that are made “plain” to us in “the things that have been made.”

imagesThrough the amazing wonder of the universe, our own planet, our own bodies, and more, God’s “eternal power” and “divine nature” can be “clearly perceived.”  When you consider the vastness of our universe, it tells us that God is powerful.  When you see the beauty of creation, it tells us that God is beautiful.  Creation tells us that God is artistic, that He is a God of order, and that He is bigger than we can imagine.  As you ponder the complexity of the human eye you can see what an incredible and detailed engineer the Creator is.  Consider the digital code that is embedded in the DNA molecule.  This code directs the construction of all the little machinery the cell needs to stay alive.  This speaks to the awesome, advanced intelligence of the One who made it all.  When we are in awe of the glories of creation, it tells us that God is glorious.

imagesIf the universe did not have a Creator, we are left with absurd and bizarre choices, such as the universe coming into existence by itself, or matter somehow magically rearranging itself on its own to make this complex universe that we see before us.   If something as simple as a ham sandwich requires an intelligence to put all the necessary components together the right way, then what are we to think of the intricate nano technology we find in cells complete with rotary engines, sliding clamps, and systems for processing information?  Isn’t the answer obvious?  Well, yes.  But it’s not that simple.

The question remains that if the presence of a Grand Designer is so obvious and so “clearly perceived” as Paul says, why do some people reject the notion that there is a God?  Paul tells us.  He writes in Romans 1:18-20 that humans are part of a sinful global conspiracy to “suppress the truth” by their unrighteousness.  Sinful man does not want to be held accountable to the God of the Bible, so they suppress the truth and live in a state of denial.

imagesIt is important to recognize that most people in the world believe in God.  In our own country, over 90% of Americans believe in God according to a 2011 Gallup Poll.  That does not mean over 90% of Americans are Christians.  But it does mean that most people in our country believe in the existence of  some sort of deity.  It is also important to know that according to Romans 1, when people suppress the truth of God, it doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism.  It rather tends to lead to idol worship and the beliefs in other gods that man has made in his own image.  (Today this often is manifested in the form of a distortion of the Biblical God.  Examples would include Islam’s Allah, the god of Mormonism, or some sort of generic, benevolent, American deity that never judges us, wants us to fulfill our dreams, and is there for us in a pinch.)

The reason why most people don’t become atheists and instead manufacture idols is that it is extremely difficult, even for sinful man, to get away from the notion that there is a god.  We know this deep inside.  We were made to worship something, and so if we reject the God of Scripture most will reflexively invent a god to fill that need we all have for God.  Finally, because man is suppressing the truth about God, it is obvious that this is not an intellectual problem, but rather a deeply spiritual problem.  This is why a theist can beat an atheist in a debate and the atheist remains unbelieving.  People don’t believe in God due to a lack of evidence, rather they disbelieve due to hard hearts.  If you know of an atheist, or someone who has exchanged the truth of God for a false god, you’ll do better praying for them as opposed to getting hung up on how many debate points you manage to score against them.  Yes, share the truth in love.  Yes, share the evidence for God.  By all means give them the facts with gentleness and respect.  But remember that in the end the only way a sinner ever comes to faith is through the power of God, not the power of our persuasion.  This is good news, because it means that even the most hardened person can be transformed when they are confronted by the awesome, life-changing power of God.

In part 2 of this series, we will look at perhaps an even more compelling evidence for the existence of God, and that is the evidence of our conscience.

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Demer