The Illusion of Happiness and the Kindness of Want

God put eternity into our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) so that we can, if we aren’t too distracted, sense that something more awaits us.

Photo cred to Deb Zeyher

To CS Lewis was posed the following proposition and question:

“Many people feel resentful or unhappy because they think they are the target of unjust fate. These feelings are stimulated by bereavement, illness, deranged working or domestic conditions, or the observation of suffering in others. What is the Christian view of this problem?”

Today, the same question has taken on a sharper edge aimed at Christianity and the character of God: If God is all good and all powerful, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Either God isn’t all good; or God isn’t all powerful; or God simply does not exist.

CS Lewis answered the question put to him as follows:

“The Christian view is that people are created to be in a certain relation to God. If we are in that relation to Him, the right relation to one another will follow inevitably. Christ said it was difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt, 19:23; Mk. 10:23; Luke 18:24), referring, no doubt, to riches in the ordinary sense. But, I think it really covers riches in everything – good fortune, health, popularity, and all the things one wants to have.

“All these things tend, just as money tends, to make you feel independent of God. Because if you have them, you feel happy already and contented in this life. You don’t want to turn away to anything more, and so you try to rest in a shadowy happiness, as if it could last forever.

“But God wants to give you a real and eternal happiness. Consequently, He may have to take all these riches away from you. If He doesn’t, you will go on relying on them. It sounds cruel, doesn’t it?

“But I am beginning to find out what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a cruel doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows work punishment, but I find in practice that, when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a punishment it becomes easier to bear.

“If you think of this world as something simply intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable. Think of it as a place of training and correction, and it’s not so bad.

“Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think of it as a hotel. The other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is what comforts and strengthens you in the end.

“The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world become pessimists; the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.”

I like to say that perspective changes everything. Because human beings are finite, our perspective is limited. Change it, and the world looks different from the new angle.

Lewis had a perspective of this world that allowed him to see it as beautiful, for what it is worth. Perhaps, he was colored by his experience as a late teenager fighting in World War I. He knew the worst the world had to offer.

When he became a believer in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he found the “silver lining”. He found hope and light in the darkness of the world.

Many people who live in the late 20th and 21st centuries have had a relatively good time of “this life” compared to people just a few generations before us (and even more dramatically compared to people of centuries past). Our perspective is colored by our relative prosperity. In the United States today, even those who live below the poverty line live higher and better than most of the people in the rest of the world (and in times past).

The comparative riches we have tend to make us feel independent of God. Indeed, the shift in the question of the problem of evil from focusing on individual unfairness to thinking it is proof that God does not exist is a product of our perspective.

We have enough that we are willing to accept that what we can gain in this life is all there is. We have embraced a shadowy happiness in lieu of true joy that God offers to those who seek Him.

Continue reading “The Illusion of Happiness and the Kindness of Want”

Risky Living: Jumping from the Ultimate Precipice

I have briefly explored the idea of good risks and bad risks in relation to the corona virus threat we have been facing over the last year. Using that as a springboard, I will explored the idea of tempting death, something, which we can’t avoid, regardless of how carefully we live. Now, I want to talk about the good risk of jumping from the ultimate precipice.

Some people gravitate toward risky behavior like a moth to the flame, and others impulsively withdraw into bubbles of protection for fear of sickness, injury and ultimately death. As one who gravitated naturally a little closer to the flames than the bubble, I lived a somewhat reckless youth. The precipice of physical danger, however, brought me to a more metaphysical precipice. The reckless attempt to find fulfillment in corporal, temporal things, led me far enough down that path to rule them out as the missing thing I really wanted.

As I read the Gospels for the first time in a college class, I recognized the truth in the statement that we should not lay up for ourselves treasures on earth. I could see that earthly treasures promised no lasting fulfillment. I had tested their capacity for fulfillment and found them wanting. I could see far enough down that road to know it contained a dead end.

Those experiences, eventually, led me to another precipice – a spiritual one. If God is real, I was on the outside looking in. I couldn’t see “in”. God stood behind a curtain to me, shrouded in mystery that I couldn’t penetrate.

I didn’t realize, then, that would find what I was seeking behind that curtain, but I was propositioned one day with the task of explaining God why He should let me in to His heaven…. That question brought me to the brink of that spiritual precipice.

His heaven… I realized in that moment that heaven (whatever heaven might be) was God’s place. He didn’t have to let me in. I was treading on His turf there, if indeed God existed, and He was under no compulsion to let me enter.

And why should He?

The answer that came from my mouth rang hollow in my heart. “I am trying to do better.” Better is a pretty relative term, but was my effort good enough? Was my effort even the best I could do? …. I knew it wasn’t.

If my best wasn’t enough, I was sunk, and I “knew” in my heart that it wasn’t enough. I knew in my heart I hadn’t even given my best.

When my questioner offered (finally) that heaven is a gift that God gives us, and we can’t earn it, I was dumbfounded.

My entire life was about earning something – earning attention, earning respect, earning grades, earning my own self-acceptance – and I was always falling short. I couldn’t even live up to my own expectations of myself. I wasn’t who I thought I should be!

My recklessness for seeking attention and acceptance and achievement turned to recklessness (for a time) in my abandonment to drinking, doing drugs and risky living. I saw that I was incapable of living up to my own dreams, so I abandoned those dreams for a time to the numbness of a narcotic stupor. Yet, I couldn’t escape the longing, and it only deepened the gap to realization of it.

I had turned back from the inevitable dead-end of a self-induced stupor to a purposeful seeking, but that which I sought I couldn’t exactly define. It wasn’t in me, but it seemed attainable. It was elusive, but I could almost taste it.

I stood at a new precipice that day, when I realized that a God who created the earth controlled whether I might enter His heaven. At the prospect that He offered it freely to me, if I would take it, I jumped.

(I have been to other precipices since that day for which the jump wasn’t as easy, maybe because I wasn’t as reckless, maybe because I took the jump more seriously, counting the cost more completely.)

I had jumped from other precipices, physical ones, in my life in attempts to find the right combination of thrill and daring that would make me feel better about myself, earn the respect or (at least) the attention of my peers and help me fit in to the world I wanted to live in and the person I thought I wanted to be. Those jumps had not brought me any closer to anything that was really satisfying, but that metaphysical jump I took when faced with the prospect of a God who “owned” heaven changed my life.

I accepted the offer. I “accepted” Jesus as my Lord and Savior (not knowing nearly well enough what that really meant). Fortunately, God took me at my word (little, though, that I knew what I was doing).

When I started this piece, I was reading The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith by Sy Garte. He was a third-generation atheist, born to Russian immigrants who are members of the Communist party. He studied science and became a scientist. Along the way, the science that he was learning led him to question the philosophical naturalism and materialism that he had assumed was reality all his life.


I will end be telling the story of the precipice to which Sy Garte came. The landscape of this precipice looked different than the one to which I came many years earlier, but the decision to jump was no less momentous.

Continue reading “Risky Living: Jumping from the Ultimate Precipice”

The Borderlines: A Place Called Earth

When we stand at the borderline and understand the limitations and futility of our lives, we have begun to see as God intended for us to see.

Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth
Where every son and daughter will know their worth
Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy
Oh how I long for heaven in a place called earth

Song writers have common themes and images that run through their work. Jon Forman is one of my favorite song writers because he resonates with a theme that has run through my thinking over the last decade: the transience of this life and the transcendence of the life to come.

In the song, A Place Called Earth, he focuses on the “borderlines” between the transience of our lives and the longing for transcendence. It’s an age-old theme. It’s a theme that has been the subject of some of the greatest writers in the history of world from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare.

The video embedded above was a recent live performance of this song off the new EP, Departures. Linked below is the studio recording of A Place Called Earth that was written by Jon Foreman with his brother, Tim, and Lauren Daigle. I encourage you to listen to it in all of its orchestral fullness.

The hope of the Christ follower is the longing for heaven, a place where everyone knows their worth through the eyes of Jesus who will greet us face to face. We have this hope, however, this treasure, in earthen vessels. (2 Corinthians 4:7) We long for heaven in a place called earth.

Oh, the wars we haven’t won
Oh, the songs we’ve left unsung
Oh, the dreams we haven’t seen
The borderlines

Jon Foreman’s plaintive voice captures the angst of these lines perfectly. We try to notch our belts with victories, but what of all the defeats? The songs we have left unsung? The great dreams we dared to dream that we haven’t seen?

All our victories are hollow trophies at the end of our days. Memories of them begin to fade from the moment of victory. Like the entropy to which our universe is subjected (Romans 8:20), those memories will fade into utter obscurity long after we have taken our last breaths.

We see this on the borderlines. On the borderlines, where we peer out over an endless expanse yawning out into a far distant future, and beyond it into an eternity we can’t even fathom, we realize our utter insignificance…. if we can see that far.

Continue reading “The Borderlines: A Place Called Earth”

What Was God Doing with Time and Eternity?

Why would God set up the universe so we would be cognizant of time?

The Christian understanding of God is that of “the” ultimate (maximal) Being, the architect and creator of everything (all that is seen and unseen as we say). God is the First and the Last. Reality does not exist outside or apart from God. Space/time (the universe we know) was created by God.

Christians also believe that God is transcendent (other) from the universe He created. When the writer of Hebrews says “the universe was formed at God’s command” and “what is seen is not made out of what is visible”, he is saying that God initiated the material universe from His immaterial, preexisting being by His command (will) out of nothing.

Nothing?

Yes, no material thing.

This is hard for us to grasp. It suggests that God is, in essence, immaterial – like unembodied mind or pure consciousness or something like that. It’s a mystery. We can’t go back prior to the beginning and “see” what reality or God was like, but we understand that the material universe had a beginning, which means that God is something other than material.

The beginning of the universe is confirmed by science. The universe began from the point of singularity that can be calculated to a point of mathematical precision. Before that point, which we can trace to the millisecond, we can go no further. This is a boundary beyond which our ability to fathom the material universe cannot go.

God, therefore, exists “outside” (transcendent from) the space/time continuum that we know as the universe. He is somehow different and distinct from it. As best as we can determine, He is timeless and immaterial

This concept of God differentiates Christianity from all the Eastern religions and from all forms of pantheism and paganism.

Though we may struggle to know “what God is like”, we can know something of God through the material reality He created in the same way we can know something of an artist from the art he creates. Knowing something about the artist from his works, though, isn’t the same as knowing the artist himself.

Still, we are not left completely in the dark. Paul says that God made Himself evident in the world He created. (Rom. 1:20) The fact that something exists instead of nothing is indicative of a creator God. We can know something of God by the very fact that He created a material world that is separate and “other” than Himself.

In a material world, we have to strain to find mutuality “others”. It doesn’t come naturally. We are very conscious of our separateness – from each other and our creator – so much so that we have some difficulty connecting with (emphasizing) others, and we are tempted to believe we have no creator.

Not being of the same “substance” as God (timeless and immaterial – what Paul calls “heavenly” or “spiritual”), we know the material world much more intimately than the realm in which God exists (not that He doesn’t also exist in this material realm – though He transcends it). Yet, being made in God’s “image” suggests that we also have some ability to connect with His immateriality in some sense.

I say these things in preface to my thoughts today, which come from the Old Testament: the book of Genesis, and the book of Ecclesiastes. My thoughts begin with the beginning:

“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years….'”

Genesis 1:7

This isn’t the actual beginning, but very close to it. It is the first thing God does after creating “the heavens and the earth” (which is the Hebrew expression that means the universe). His first act of creation after forming the material universe was to call into existence “lights in the expanse of the heavens”, and He did it for a purpose.

(Not that these separate aspects of creation were necessarily a linear progression in the sense of completely separate “acts” of God. We might read these passages that way, but it isn’t the only way to read them.)

What was the purpose for which God established lights in the expanse of the heavens? To separate day from night and for signs, seasons, days and years – to establish measurements of time.

Interesting…. God wouldn’t need those things to measure time. What is time to God? Why did He create ways to measure time?

It seems obvious that He created the ability to measure time for us. Why, though, should we even want to measure time?

Maybe a better question is: why would God want us to measure time?

We don’t really question our need to measure time. We just do it. We take time for granted, and our “need” to measure it

But why?


And why would God set up the universe that way so that we would be so cognizant of time? He obviously desired it and designed the very universe to make us cognizant of time, but why?

Continue reading “What Was God Doing with Time and Eternity?”

God’s Order for Living Beings, Human Beings and His Grand Design

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind….'”

I am starting a new Bible reading plan for the year, and so I am back to Genesis. Reading through the rich text of Genesis 1 again I am seeing some things I hadn’t really noticed before. Consider the following (with my emphasis added):

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them‘; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:11-12

“God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’

Genesis 1:21-22

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind‘; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”

Genesis 1:24-25

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….'”

I color-coded the various provisions that form the pattern that informs my thinking today. The provisions in each color correspond with the other provisions of the same color.

Now, let me see if I can put all my thoughts together in a coherent whole.

First of all, God ordered (in the sense of designed) all living beings to multiply after they own kind. We see this everywhere in nature: apple trees bear seeds that grow into new apple trees; asparagus plants bear seeds that grow into new asparagus plants; lions beget lions; polar bears beget polar bears; yellow polka dotted salamanders beget yellow polka dotted salamanders; bluefin tuna beget bluefin tuna; and purple finches beget purple finches.

This is the order of living things. Not only that, but we now know that something (call it evolution or something else) works powerfully within living beings to reproduce and even to adapt with changes over time.

Every living thing bears seed or otherwise reproduces more of its kind. Human beings included, but only humans are made in the image of God. (Hold that thought.)

God “blessed” the living things He created, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth. (Gen. 1:22) He also blessed man who He made in His own image, and gave similar orders: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….” (Gen. 1:28)

Note that God “ordered” (as in designed) the living things He created to reproduce after their kinds and to be fruitful and multiply, but God ordered (as in not only designed, but commanded) man to do the same. The difference is an important key to understanding what God is doing.

Unlike the other living creatures which are designed to reproduce and multiply after their kinds, humans have some agency in the matter. God designed them for the same purpose, but He also commanded them to do it because humans are created in the image of God who has agency – the ability to exercise will and to do (or not do) things.

Humans, of course, had no choice in their creation, but they do have choice in whether to “participate in God’s design” and how they would participate in God’s design. This choice was demonstrated in the one tree in the garden that was forbidden to them.

It was a real choice, and it had real consequences. It had to have real consequences or it wouldn’t have been a real choice. That choice was part of what it meant to be made in the image of God. Without the ability to choose, humans would have been just like the other living things God created. The ability to choose set humans apart.

As the story goes, humans ate the fruit of the one tree that was forbidden.

They exercised the choice God gave them. In eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humans opened up their world to all the ways they might choose to go against the order of creation.


Throughout Genesis 1, we read over and over again that what God did “was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). If what God designed was good, choosing to operate counter to that design would be evil (the opposite of good).

None of this is very revelatory so far, but I am getting there.

Genesis 1 reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says:

God gives [all living things] a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.

1 Corinthians 15:38-39

The order/design of life – of reality – is immutable. Life is ordered the way God created it, though humans have some choice (within limits) of whether to align with God’s design or to buck against it. Indeed, the story of the fall is the story of humans exercising that choice and of an adaptation that God built into His design to accomplish His ultimate plan.

Continue reading “God’s Order for Living Beings, Human Beings and His Grand Design”