Pained by Our Pleasures (Or: What Our Joys Reveal)

Joy isn’t quite as simple an emotion as we might first think. In fact, there’s what we could call “perverse joy,” a delight when someone else gets hurt. But then there’s also joy that is delight when something good happens to a loved one. And, of course, there’s joy as Scripture speaks about it. On this topic I appreciate Robert Roberts’ discussion in his very helpful book, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues:

…We not only take joy in the healthy birth of our child, but sometimes our hearts leap with a quick twinge of pleasure at the sight of a gory highway accident. We may enjoy hearing the latest dirt about our next-door neighbors. We relish the troubles of people we don’t like. We are vulnerable to a kind of joy that the Germans call ‘Schadenfreude,’ which is taking pleasure in somebody else’s misfortune. We experience this kind of joy when someone we envy suffers a setback….

But most of us are not so corrupt as to endorse these foul joys when we think about them. We may enjoy them in an unreflective moment, but we know, intuitively, that they are shameful and show shameful things about our character, and we don’t want to live shamefully. We know that a person’s joys reveal his heart by showing what he cares about. And so our souls are divided. We enjoy our wicked joys, but the more we reflect about them in a moral and spiritual mood, the more pain they cause us. We are pained by our pleasures. If the pleasure is bad, then the pain we feel about it is good – if our reason for feeling pain is that the pleasure is wicked. …And if the pain is good, we must pursue it.

Among us human beings, pain is unpopular to the same extent that pleasure is popular. We naturally avoid it. So we do not automatically welcome the kind of reflection I have just described. It takes seriousness of spiritual purpose and courage to engage in the kind of reflection about our joys that could lead, ever so gradually, to their transformation. But that is a goal of the Christian life: to become the kind of person who takes joy in what is genuinely good, and is pained by what is genuinely bad. And for this process to move forward, pain is required.

These paragraphs are super helpful to me; these are excellent points that I’ve read over a few times! I especially got stuck thinking about this sentence: “We know that a person’s joys reveal his heart by showing what he cares about.” Think about that, and take time today to reflect on your joy and what gives you joy. If there’s any perversity to it, bring it to God in repentance, and ask him to help you grow in godly joy, even if there’s pain involved!

The above quote is found in Spiritual Emotions, p. 118-119.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The ‘God-of-the-Gaps’ Caricature (Sickler)

God on the Brain: What Cognitive Science Does (and Does Not) Tell Us about Faith, Human Nature, and the Divine - Sickler, Brad - 9781433564437

Some opponents of Christianity accuse Christians of holding a “God-of-the-gaps” view of unexplainable natural phenomena. They attack this view as completely unscientific and they say it is yet another example of how Christians are stupid myth-believing people. But it’s not quite that simple! I like how Bradley Sickler discusses this in chapter two of God and the Brain. He shows that these accusations of Christians having a “God-of-the-gap” view of science is not exactly true:

[Richard] Dawkins… claims to find examples of this [God-of-the-gaps] reasoning especially prevalent among young-earth creationists and Intelligent Design advocates, both of whom he confusingly calls ‘creationists.’ They are his favorite targets for leveling his accusation of using god-of-the-gaps arguments. Dawkins says: ‘Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present day knowledge and understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. [But] gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.’ He also says ‘Gaps, by default in the mind of the creationist, are filled by God. Areas where there is a lack of data, or a lack of understanding, are automatically assumed to belong, by default, to God.’ It is as if, Dawkins says, we were to witness a magic trick that we could not explain or understand, and then – based on our own incredulity and mystification – we were to say: ‘It must be a miracle. There is no scientific explanation. It’s got to be supernatural.’

One interesting thing about this depiction, however, is that it does not seem borne out in the academic literature. Note that several times in the quotations above Dawkins claims that creationists assume by default God must be the cause for any event that cannot currently be explained scientifically. Even if we expand the target beyond creationists… and apply it to anyone who argues for God from lacunae [gaps] in science, we generally find reasoning that does not match up to the god-of-the-gaps caricature we are given. Sometimes people argue that there are features of the world unexplained by science but explainable in terms of God, but that is not the same as assuming by default that God, and only God, can assume those things.

Simply put, there are almost no credible cases of Christian experts who employ the gap argument the way it is presented here for ridicule. It is interesting to note that during Dawkins’ diatribe he refers only to fictional accounts or imaginary mash-ups of the argument, not actual arguments deployed by respected Christian scholars. His are distortions – amalgams of the worst features of bad arguments he has encountered, reimagined, and put into his own words to make his opponents look as unreasonable as possible.

Indeed, it is often the case that critics of Christianity use unreasonable or illogical arguments based on false assumptions or anti-Christian presuppositions to attack Christianity. For more helpful discussion of this topic, see God and the Brain by Bradley Sickler.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Reforming According To The Rule Of The Word (Bullinger)

Henry Bullinger’s mid-16th century Decades are a series of sermons on the main doctrines of Scripture. While they are not technically “systematic theology,” these sermons do cover most of the topics today’s systematic theology books cover. In the fourth decade Bullinger writes a dedication letter to Edward the Sixth, King of England. The topic of this brief letter was reforming the Christian church according to the word of God. Bullinger noted that in many church councils leading up to the Reformation God’s word had “neither due authority or dignity.” He mentioned to King Edward that the church must be reformed “according to the rule of the books of both Testaments, which we do rightly believe, being written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to be the very word of God.” A bit later in the letter Bullinger gave the biblical example of King Josiah’s story from 2 Kings 23:

The most holy king Josiah, most godly prince, may alone in this case teach you [King Edward] what to do and how to do, with the warrant and authority of God himself. He by the diligent reading of the holy book of God, and by the contemplation of things present, and the manner of worshipping God that then was used, did understand, that his ancestors did greatly and very far err from the plain and simple truth; for which cause he called together the princes and other estates of his kingdom, together with all the priests, to hold and celebrate a council with them.

In that council he stood not long disputing whether the examples of the elders ought rather to be followed, or God’s commandment simply received: whether he ought rather to believe the church, or the scripture: and whether all the judgment of religion ought to be referred to the high priest. For laying abroad the book of the law, he submitted both himself and all his unto the sacred scripture. Out of the book of the law both he himself did learn, and bid all his [people] to learn, what thing it is that pleases God, namely, that which was commanded and learned in the reading of the law of God. And presently he gave charge, that all men should do and execute that, not having any regard to the ancient custom, or to the church that was at that time: he made all subject to the word of God. Which deed of his is so commended, that, next after David, he is preferred before all the kings of Judah and Israel.

Now your royal majesty cannot follow any better or safer counsel than this, considering that it proceeds from God, and that it is most fit for the cause which is even now in hand. The disputation is of the reformation of religion, and the true faith of Christ. You know that that does spring from heaven, namely, that it is taught by the word of God, and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit….

This letter from Henry Bullinger to King Edward is a great example of what the Protestant Reformers were doing: reforming the church according to the teaching of God’s holy word. And of course, the church should always be reforming according to the word!

 Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Fourth Decade, ed. Thomas Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1851), 121.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Emotions, Depression, and Body/Soul (Borgman)

One major part of being human is having emotions and feelings. We all have emotions. From joy to anger to terror to elation, we experience a range of emotions each day. Although the words “emotion” or “emotions” aren’t found in biblical Hebrew or Greek, there are plenty of biblical words that convey emotion (e.g. despair, gloom, happy, hesitation, etc.).

It’s important to note that since we are “body and soul” creatures, emotions have to do with both. For example, biologically, when a person is super tired he might be more prone to anger than when he’s fully awake. Or when a person’s diet consists of way too much sugar and caffiene, it might lead to emotional highs and emotional crashes. At the same time, spiritually speaking, if a person refuses to admit sin and fault, it might cause him to be very grouchy. We also know from Scripture that refusal to submit to God can lead to emotional and mental unstability, as we see from the story of King Saul. Here are a few other examples by Brian Borgman of the “body and soul” relationship to emotions in the area of depression:

“The Bible distinguishes between the body and the soul (Matt. 10:28). It also affirms the interpenetration and interdependence between the body and the soul (e.g., Ps. 38:3). It should not surprise us that physical problems can lead to both depression and spiritual problems. Some physical sources of depression might include prolonged illness, childbirth, surgery, hormonal changes, changes in diet, and fatigue. Many other physical factors may also contribute to depression. The important point to remember as we proceed is that we are body-soul creatures.

There are also spiritual sources of depression. The most common spiritual source is the guilt caused by sin. …[In Psalm 32] the root cause of the psalmist’s depression is unconfessed sin. The results were physical depletion, guilt, and emotional heaviness.

…Depression can also occur because of the grief of losing a loved one, losing a job, or some major life change. Stress over children, marriage, and finances can also spin us out of control emotionally, landing us in depression. Behind much of this activity is the enemy of our souls, the Devil….

Borgman says more, of course, and even goes on to give help through depression with some good physical and spiritual advice. If you want to read more about depression and emotions in general from a biblical perspective, do check out Feelings and Faith by Brian Borgman. (The above quotes are found in chapter 12.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Saul, David, and Errors in 1 Samuel 16-17?

In the story of David’s rise in Israel there seems to be a discrepancy in 1 Samuel 16-17. In chapter 16 the narrative tells us about one of king Saul’s servants recommending David (Jesse’s son) to play music for the purpose of combating Saul’s evil/bad spirit/mood. However, after David defeats the Philistine Goliath, Saul asks Abner: “Who is this boy’s father?” (17:55). Saul then sends for David to hear David’s answer: “Jesse from Bethlehem is my father.” (17:58). The supposed contradiction is that Saul earlier heard that Jesse was David’s dad, but then later asks about the name of David’s dad.

Of course some critics talk about errors in Scripture, inconsistent variants in the manuscripts and editions, or they talk about different David “traditions” floating around. Many assume it’s just one of those discrepancies or errors in the Bible and that’s that.

However, as with other similar supposed errors in Scripture, there are good explanations. It’s not right or reasonable to ignore the good explanations when we come to parts of Scripture that seem to be wrong or contradictory. Various commentaries on 1 Samuel 17:55-58 give various helpful explanations of why Saul asked for the name of David’s dad. Below are a few:

This discrepancy depends on the insistence that 16:18–22 must mean nothing less than that Saul informed himself fully on everything to do with David’s father, and on a similar insistence that 17:55–58 must not mean anything more than that Saul was interested to know the name of David’s father. Neither insistence is necessary, nor, in the light of the narrative thought-flow, reasonable. Having been supplied by his servants with an acceptable harpist, it was natural for Saul to “request” (i.e. command) his father to let the young man stay at the royal house. It is not true to life to imagine that means that Saul sent the message directly himself—he would have left that to one of the officers who had found and suggested David. It is not even true to life to imagine that Saul thereafter necessarily remembered the name of David’s father, or cared twopence about him, let alone investigated his background, family and all about him. Similarly, it is not true to life to imagine that in 17:55–58 Saul is simply concerned to know the name of David’s father. Saul has just promised to give his daughter in marriage to the man who kills Goliath, and to make his father’s house free in Israel (17:25). Naturally, when Saul sees David actually going out to meet Goliath, and even more so when he sees him returning triumphant, Saul will be concerned to know not just the name of, but everything about, David’s father and the family which, if he keeps his promise, is now to be allied by marriage with the royal family. And we as readers must at this point be made aware that David is of the house of Jesse, for it is the house of Jesse that has at this moment eclipsed the house of Saul in military prowess, and is destined eventually to supplant it as the reigning house. (Barthélemy, Gooding, Lust, and Tov 1986:19–20)

 J. Robert Vannoy, Cornerstone Biblical Commentarya: 1-2 Samuel, vol. 4 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 172.

Here are Bergen’s comments in the New American Commentary:

[Rather than assuming these are contradictory accounts,] A more satisfying reading of the text here is one that sees one or more important plot functions for this flashback section. First, it was included to confirm the accuracy of reports David had heard about Saul’s offer to provide a tax exemption for the family of the Israelite who killed Goliath (v. 25). Saul asked David for his father’s name so that he could properly formulate an edict in behalf of Jesse’s family and perhaps also so that he could learn more about the family background of the one who had earned the right to become the king’s son-in-law.

In a different direction this passage may also function to demonstrate that the Lord’s Spirit was no longer with Saul. Being devoid of the divine Spirit, Saul also was intellectually incompetent. The image presented in vv. 55–58 of a king who cannot remember details related to one of his most beloved and trusted courtiers (cf. 16:21–22) contrasts strikingly with King David later, who, empowered by the Lord, was like an angel of God “to know everything that is in the land” (2 Sam 14:20).

 Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 199.

One more. Here’s Matthew Henry:

 Though he [David] had been at court formerly, yet, having been for some time absent (v. 15), Saul had forgotten him, being melancholy and mindless, and little thinking that his musician would have spirit enough to be his champion; and therefore, as if he had never seen him before, he asked whose son he was. Abner was a stranger to him, but brought him to Saul (v. 57), and he gave a modest account of himself, v. 58. And now he was introduced to the court with much greater advantages than before, in which he owned God’s hand performing all things for him

 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 415.

This is a longer discussion, to be sure. The point is that there are reasonable and biblical answers that help us from simply assuming the Bible is wrong. We don’t need to fall into the trap of saying “error” every time we find something in Scripture that doesn’t at first make sense. Finally, we’re just humans with imperfect and finite minds. Now we see in a mirror dimly and are content to trust God’s word as we read it, confessing that “the LORD’s words are absolutely reliable” (Ps. 12:6 NET).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015