Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis
SERIES: Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall – PART 3
Preached in Manhattan, New York on January 18, 2009
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
16 To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
We’re looking at what the Bible says about sin. The Bible is not a disconnected set of stories, each of which has a little moral about how to live life. Primarily, the Bible is a single story telling us what is wrong with the human race, what God is going to do about it, and how history is going to end, how it’s all going to turn out. It’s a single story. We’re looking at Genesis 3–4 to give us answers to what’s wrong with the human race, why the human race is so prone to selfishness, violence, wars, atrocity, and corruption all the time.
C.E.M. Joad was a British philosopher. He was an atheist. He was a member of The Brains Trust. He lived in the early twentieth century. He was an atheist but came back to faith later in life and, at the very end of life, wrote a book called The Recovery of Belief. In it he said this very fascinating thing: “It is because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the left were always being disillusioned by the behavior of both the people and the nations and politicians, and by the recurrent fact of war.”
Did you hear that? He says he thought most of the problems were the capitalists, not the common people, because he had rejected the doctrine of original sin. He bought into what Rousseau said, what Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, what almost all of the European intellectuals in the nineteenth century said. That is, that though human beings have their problems, the problems are not hardwired into us. They are lack of education. We can make the changes.
He realized near the end of his life that because he didn’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, he didn’t believe what the Bible said about the universality and the depth of sin in every human heart, he had basically based his whole life on a different view of human nature. He set in motion social policies that didn’t work. Basically, because he didn’t have the Bible’s understanding of human nature, he wasn’t able to navigate life as it was. Isn’t that something?
So let’s see what the Bible has to say about sin (last week, this week, and the next couple of weeks) as we look at Genesis 3–4. We learn four things here: the heart of sin, the breadth of sin, the depth of sin, and the end of sin.
1. The heart of sin
What is sin again? What is the definition of sin? The reason you may find out every week I give you a different definition is that, like the concept of God, the concept of sin is so profound you can’t stick it into one single nutshell definition. Last week we said, in terms of a vertical perspective, sin is putting yourself in the place of God. It’s taking upon yourself prerogatives and rights only God has. We talked about that last week.
Today I’d like to give you a more horizontal perspective. You see it right away. As soon as Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and now sin has come into their lives and we’re seeing the results of this, immediately we see what I’d like to show you here. When God says here in verse 11, “Did you eat of the tree I commanded you not to eat from?” the man says, “The woman did it.”
Just to show you, by the way, the man is not more sinful than the woman, when God turns to the woman and says, “What do you have to say for yourself?” she says, “The Serpent did it.” We’ll get back to that, the equality here. Here’s the point. When Adam says, “She made me do it; send her to hell; give me another wife,” basically … “You’re talking to the holy God of the universe. What do you have to say for yourself?” “Take her.”
Here we see the essence of sin in a horizontal perspective. Sin is a willingness to throw anybody else under the bus to justify yourself. Sin is justifying yourself at the expense of other people, to feel superior to other people. In order to have a self-image, I have to feel superior to other people. I have to expose other people. I have to exploit other people. Sin is saying, “Your life to enhance mine,” not “My life to enhance yours.” See that’s servanthood.
“Your life to enhance mine. I will suck you dry. I will drain you dry. I will disadvantage you so I can feel good about myself, so I can justify myself, so I can have the significance and security I want.” Philip Roth wrote a novel called The Human Stain. That’s his metaphor for evil. The novel is actually about a man who starts to do very well in life, and everybody feels they have to bring him down. They have to find something wrong with him. They have to ruin his career.
Philip Roth has one of his characters talk about what he calls “the human stain,” which is this proneness to evil in the heart, which is, in a sense, deeper than behavioral actions. It’s this need to pull people down, this need to justify yourself at the expense of other people, to feel better than other people. “I’m good because you’re bad. I’m competent because you’re incompetent.”
At one point one of his characters … She calls this the human stain in the heart, and she says something like, “It’s in everyone, indwelling, inherent, defining. The stain that precedes your acts of disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all talk of cleansing your heart is a joke. The fantasy of purity is appalling, for what is the quest to purify but more impurity? The stain is inescapable.”
What does she mean by that? She says, “If you actually try to purify yourself, that just brings more impurity.” Here’s why. The stain is self-righteousness. The stain is, “I justify myself by pulling you down, by making myself feel superior to you, better than you.” If that’s the case, then to try to purify yourself from the stain only makes you more stained, because you say, “Look, I’m pure,” and you’re not.
C.S. Lewis wrote a little satirical piece called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” Screwtape is a senior devil (this is a satirical, fictional piece, by the way) who basically is at a dinner for a college of junior devils who are getting ready to go out there and tempt the human race and make life horrible. So Screwtape suggests a particular method for making people’s lives miserable and making the world a horrible place.
What he suggests is there’s a particular feeling human beings have, and what you want to do is turn the gas up on that feeling. Whatever else you do, make sure you enhance this feeling, because this is the feeling that will really ruin their lives. Then Screwtape says, “The feeling I am talking about is that which prompts a person to say, ‘I’m as good as you.’ ” That’s the essence of sin. That’s the essence of how hell operates. That’s what made the Devil, the Devil. “I’m as good as you.” When Satan started saying that about God, it was all downhill for the universe.
He says, “Anyone who says, ‘I’m as good as you,’ does not believe it. No one says, ‘I’m as good as you,’ if you believe it. You wouldn’t say it if you did. The St. Bernard never says to the toy dog, ‘I’m as good as you.’ ‘I’m as good as you’ is a useful means for the destruction of whole societies, but it has a far deeper value as a state of mind, which necessarily, excluding humility, charity, contentment, and all of the pleasures of gratitude or admiration, turns a human being away from every road which might finally lead him to heaven.”
The impulse that makes you say, “I’m as good as you. I don’t like you getting ahead of me …” The impulse that says, “I’m better than you; that’s how I know I’m okay” is sin, and it’s really at the root of everything from murder to racism to all of our conflicts. This is another view into the heart of sin.
2. The breadth of sin
This is really important. I’ve already alluded to it. What the man does, so does the woman. The man and the woman are both equally ashamed, both equally filled with blame shifting and doing the same behavior, both equally banished. There’s no difference. One is not more sinful than the other. This is crucial.
The Christian doctrine of original sin is that we are hardwired for selfishness and cruelty. It’s not just a problem of we have bad examples or bad environments. We’re hardwired for it. Secondly, the Christian doctrine of original sin is that we’re all hardwired for it, all of us, across the cultures, across the races, across the classes, across the genders. Everybody. Let me show you how important that is.
Remember what Joad said? He said we were on the left, because we denied the doctrine of original sin, thought what’s really wrong with the world was located in the capitalists, in the elites, not in the common people. But life showed him that, no, sin is everywhere. He realized the mistake he made as a member of the left was, because he didn’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, he demonized a certain group of people, he demonized a certain set of folks, and saw that is where the problem is, but the doctrine of original sin is it’s in all of us equally.
On the other hand … I don’t want you to think I’m picking on people from the left. People from the left would say, “Oh, it’s the elites; it’s not the common people.” There are other ways to look at it. What about conservative people, or what about people who just simply are traditional and feel like what’s really wrong with the people is the hoi polloi, the unwashed masses, the common people?
There’s a very famous letter that has come down to us from the Duchess of Buckingham. The Countess of Huntingdon, who had become converted to evangelical religion under the preaching of George Whitefield in the eighteenth century in Britain, tried to evangelize her aristocratic colleagues. She would send sermons by George Whitefield to her friends. She would invite them to come to hear him preach. One of her aristocratic peers, the Duchess of Buckingham, after having been invited by the countess to come and hear George Whitefield, sent her an icy note declining. This is what she said:
“I thank Your Ladyship, but the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl upon the earth. It is highly offensive and insulting, so I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.”
She’s right. The doctrine of original sin levels people. The doctrine of original sin makes it impossible for people from the left to say, “It’s those elites up there, not us common people,” and it makes it impossible for the people from the right to say, “It’s you unwashed masses,” or “It’s you criminal element,” or something like that, “not us virtuous people who have good breeding.” She was right. Do you know why? The doctrine of original sin creates a radical democracy of sinners.
If you believe in original sin, nobody is better than anybody else. You cannot look down your nose at a criminal or a drug dealer and say, “There’s a sinner; not me,” because the doctrine of original sin says the same seeds of that kind of behavior are in your heart. Maybe it didn’t sprout because you weren’t in the very same environment as that person out there, but the fact of the matter is you’re no better. We’re all sinners. We all need grace.
The Duchess of Buckingham was right. She says, “This levels everybody, to say that I have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth.” That’s what the Bible teaches. It destroys self-righteousness. That’s the reason G.K. Chesterton says, “Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.”
What does he mean by “brotherhood”? What it means is it’s possible for a society that claims to be Christian to be racist, but if it is, it’s racist in spite of the doctrine of original sin, not because of it. It’s not grasping what the doctrine says. What the doctrine says is it’s a radical democracy. We’re all brothers and sisters in sin. We’re all under judgment. We all have no hope except for the grace of God.
That’s the reason why if you really grasp the doctrine of original sin, it creates a solidarity between you and every single person, even the most wretched people you see on the streets of New York City. When that comes into your heart, no longer do you say, “Oh, who are these people?” You are these people. I read about a discussion that happened here in New York City recently about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which still beggars the imagination. How could it have happened?
They were getting together and they were talking. “Well what does this mean?” One person had the audacity to say, “Look, let’s not call this sin. Let’s not say there was anything wrong. This is the way people are. People are going to do this. People are going to cheat; they’re going to lie. They’re going to do this. This is why we need government regulation. The only hope is government regulation.”
But government is people. Soylent Green is people, but government is people. Oh, that’s terrible. You guys don’t know what Soylent Green is? Unless you’re a real movie geek, you need to go and Google “Soylent Green,” and then you’ll know. It has nothing to do with the sermon at all, so just please don’t even think about it for the rest of the sermon, or you’re going to hurt yourself. Government is people. We are all the same. That is the breadth of sin.
3. The depth of sin
Here’s what we mean. Human beings are radically relational. That’s what we’re made for. Remember, we’ve seen this as we’ve gone through Genesis 1–2. We’re in the image of God. That means we’re built to reflect or to relate to God. We saw we are built to be lonely without other human beings. We’re relational beings. We live for relationships.
What we see in these verses right here is every single relationship being destroyed by sin. Another way to put it is sin is a malignant tumor eating away at our very ability to conduct any relationship. Sin destroys our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and even our relationship with nature and the world around us. Look carefully quickly.
First of all, we see in these verses it destroys our relationship with God. In verse 8 we’re told God comes walking into the garden in the cool of the day. When the Bible says David walked with Jonathan, or Abraham walked with Lot, or something like that, of course it means they literally walked, but it means more than that. The word walking in Hebrew was an idiom that meant friendship, relationship.
The fact that God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day meant he was coming in wanting friendship, seeking relationship, and we hid. Sin is running from God who wants a relationship with us. Why don’t we want a relationship with him? The answer is (we said already) sin now means our lives are about power, about getting power over other people, about saying, “I’ll have a relationship with you as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my needs, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my happiness and my fulfillment.”
It’s always, “Your life to enhance me.” You’re happy to have relationships as long as they enhance you, as long as they build you up, as long as they make you feel good. What we don’t like is servanthood. We like consumer relationships. “As long as the cost-benefit analysis is working well and I’m getting as much or more out of you as you’re getting out of me, fine.”
We don’t like covenant, where you are committed to someone to serve somebody whether or not you’re getting anything out of it or not. We hate that. Covenant goes against the grain of the heart, because sin is now all about keeping control and having power. There’s no way for a finite being to walk with an infinite being without losing control, so we won’t have it.
Yes, it’s true most people in the world say they believe in God and they pray, but most people in the world do not actually have in their minds the real God, because most people have a god they can pray to when they want to and doesn’t really demand loss of control of your life, doesn’t really demand that you change your life. Haven’t you seen that? Isn’t that true of a lot of us? In which case, we’re actually running from God and hiding from ourselves the fact we’re running from God by essentially believing in a god who isn’t holy, isn’t infinite, isn’t sovereign.
So first, our relationship with God has been destroyed. As a result, our relationship with ourselves is destroyed. How do we see that? When Adam says, “The reason I hid from you is I was ashamed because I was naked.” In the Bible, just like walking is an idiom for something bigger than just walking, so nakedness is an idiom for something bigger than just being ashamed of being naked.
Nakedness is a sense of guilt, that there’s something wrong with me, a sense of shame, that I need to prove myself, I need to cover, I need to keep people from seeing who I am because they’ll reject me. Nakedness is a psychological dislocation, a lack of ease with who you are. When our relationship with God is severed, our relationship with ourselves is severed. That is to say, we really don’t want to admit what’s wrong with us. We really don’t want to admit the worst about ourselves.
See the one thing we don’t want to believe is that we’re utterly dependent on God. We want to think we need God occasionally or maybe not at all, but in our heart of hearts we know we’re utterly dependent on God, and therefore, we are in denial about who we really are. That’s where the shame comes from, and that’s where the guilt comes from, and that’s where this lack of ease with being able to admit who we are comes from.
Thirdly, our relationship with each other is destroyed. We already saw some of that when the man starts to throw the wife under the bus just to save his neck. Even the making of fig leaves in verse 7 … As soon as sin came into their hearts, they covered up from each other. They sewed fig leaves to cover up their nakedness, but they were covering up their nakedness from whom at that point? God wasn’t even around. From each other.
We cannot bear to have other people really know who we are. We have to control what other people see about us, because we have to maintain power and control. Because our relationships are now power relationships, not love and service relationships, our relationships with each other are messed up. Individually we have superficial relationships, exploitative relationships, but corporately, races don’t get along with each other, the genders don’t get along with each other. Because our relationships with God are messed up and our relationships with ourselves are messed up, so our relationships in the world are messed up.
Lastly, the fourth thing that’s destroyed here is even our relationship with nature, the physical environment. Verse 17 says instead of just going out there and tilling the ground and up comes nothing but, I guess, flowers and food, now thorns and thistles will come up. The dust is no longer your friend. There is a lack of mesh with the physical environment. There is a clash with the physical environment. It’s no longer our friend. Now we age, now we get sick, now there are natural disasters, and now we die. We came from dust, but what’s going to happen at the end?
Erma Bombeck, who used to write humor columns many years ago, generally for women, in newspapers, at one point said something like, “You know, my life is dominated by dirt. At this end of the house there’s dirt. There’s dirt in the bathroom, dirt on the plates in the kitchen, dirt in the rug. So I work to get rid of the dirt, and by the time I get to the other end of the house, the first end of the house is dirty again. It never ends. And in the end, after all of these years of struggling against dirt, struggling against dirt, what do I get? Six feet of dirt.”
That’s almost exactly what God says in Genesis 3:17–20. In the end the dust wins. Every one of our relationships has been decimated by sin.
4. The end of sin
Now, what’s God going to do about it? You know, even though the Bible has all kinds of authors … Every one of the books has a different author, yet the Holy Spirit is the Author behind the author, and therefore the Bible is, in a sense, a single book with a single author, and he, the Holy Spirit, is an incredibly good storyteller. What we have here in the midst of this incredible disaster is the most enigmatic, intriguing foreshadowing. What is the foreshadowing of what God is going to do about it in the future? What are we going to see?
First, look at the mercy of God’s heart. He comes in, and he doesn’t smite them. He says, “Where are you? What have you done? Have you done what I asked you not to do?” What does God want with those questions? God could not be seeking truth and illumination for himself. He knows the answer. The only reason God would be asking questions is if he’s trying to give truth and illumination to them.
He’s treating them as adults. He’s not treating them as objects. He’s not treating them as animals, or even as children. He’s doing what people in AA call an intervention. He is trying to get them to tell him what they should know. “Admit what you’ve done. Say who you are. Own it. Take responsibility.” It’s fascinating. He’s counseling them. He’s seeking them in love, asking the questions instead of just telling them what they’ve done wrong. Isn’t that something?
Notice really carefully, by the way, whereas he asks questions to Adam and Eve, he doesn’t ask any questions to Satan. Do you know what that means? God loves the sinner but hates the sin. God holds out hope for evildoers, but he will not compromise with evil. It’s very interesting. So first of all, we see God makes a distinction between the evildoers and evil, and he seeks in love to change people’s hearts.
Secondly, we see the mercy of his hand. The second thing he does is he makes garments for them. Isn’t that something? See they had sewed fig leaves all over themselves. When God makes garments for them, they need garments psychologically for privacy, now physically they need garments because we have a hostile environment and they need better things than fig leaves, and he makes garments out of animal skins.
Many people over the years have noticed this seems to be God’s hint, a pointer toward the sacrificial system, toward the atoning sacrifices of the temple and tabernacle, and eventually, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus himself. Therefore, when God clothes Adam and Eve, do you know what he’s saying? He says, “Someday I’m going to have to give salvation, but my salvation is holistic. You need forgiveness. You also need shelter from the stormy blast.”
Therefore, human beings who seek to spread God’s salvation out in the world have to deal with all of the results of sin: physical, spiritual, psychological, and social. That’s the reason we don’t just go out into the world to help people get their sins forgiven and connect to God, but we also feed and clothe. Derek Kidner in his commentary on Genesis on this passage says, “The coats of skins are forerunners of the welfare, both spiritual and physical, which man’s sin makes necessary. Therefore, social action could not have had an earlier or more exalted inauguration.” Interesting.
So we see the holistic nature of God’s hand, and we see the mercy of God’s heart, but what is he going to do? He says in verse 15. This is the enigmatic foreshadowing. He looks at the Serpent and he says, “Because you have done this, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” There’s a lot to be said here, but here’s what we have to see.
Do you know what the picture is? Imagine a group of people, a family, and into the midst of them comes slithering as fast as it can (and you know how fast they can come) a snake, a venomous snake, a poisonous snake, coming right at them. One man goes after the snake, and he begins to stomp on it. Finally he crushes the head and saves the family, but only after, in the process, the snake bites him, the poison goes into him, and he dies. That’s the picture.
What God is saying is … This is amazing if you realize this snake is not just a snake but is Satan. It represents evil. God is saying one of the descendants of Adam and Eve, the seed of the woman, a human being, is going to destroy sin and death itself but get a fatal wound in the process. A human being is going to come, and he’s going to destroy sin and death, and in the process lose his life. I wonder who that could be.
You see, the first Adam should have done something like that, not just stood there and let the Serpent destroy his family. The first Adam should have jumped on the snake or stomped on the snake or whatever. But the second Adam will. It’s Jesus Christ. Keep this in mind. In Romans 4 Paul says, “In Christ your sins are covered.” In Romans 4 Paul says, “Blessed is the one whose sin is covered. Blessed is the one to whom God does not impute sin.”
Now we don’t like cover-up, do we? Cover-up, Watergate … that’s not good. No, cover-up when you’re just sweeping things under the rug is not good, but that’s not what’s happening here. What we’re being told is that Jesus Christ is going to deal with your sin. When he goes to the cross he’s going to deal with your sin so your sins can be covered, pardoned, forgiven. How? Look at the last verse.
When God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, there’s a sword there, and nobody can get back into the presence of God. Nobody can get back into the garden. Nobody can get back into paradise. Nobody can get to heaven unless you go under the sword. What does the sword represent? The wages of sin, the justice of God. The wages of sin is death. Nobody can get back into paradise unless they go under the sword.
The Bible says in Isaiah that when the Messiah comes, the suffering servant, he will be cut off from the land of the living. Jesus Christ went under the sword. He opened a new and living way back into the presence of God. He went first, and the sword slew him. He has covered our sins. Here’s what it means to be a Christian. It’s not to say, “I’m going to try real hard to live a good life.”
To be a Christian means to say, “Father, cover my sin because of what Jesus Christ has done. Objectively cover it by pardoning my sin, but subjectively deal with the sin in my heart. I don’t feel loved. I don’t live loved. I’m trying to prove myself. I’m trying to get control. Let the love of what Jesus Christ did for me so flood my heart by the Holy Spirit I can start to serve people.”
You know what? A lot of people in New York … If there’s one thing I’ve seen over the years, it’s how hard everybody is working. Everybody is working so hard to achieve, and a lot of people are really upset. “I didn’t get into that graduate school. It’s not the top tier. I’m not there. I didn’t make that much money. I didn’t achieve. I’m gaining weight. Nobody wants to go out with me.” You’re really upset because you’re looking for beauty, and you’re looking to achievement, and you’re looking to accreditation and credentials.
Do you know what these things are? They’re fig leaves. They’re ways you’re trying to deal with the nakedness. You’re trying to deal with the sense that, “There’s something wrong with me, and I don’t quite know what it is.” Let Jesus Christ clothe you with his love. Accept what he has done. Ask God to receive you because of what Jesus Christ has done, and ask the Holy Spirit to make real to your heart what he has done for you.
That will begin not only to cover your sin objectively so God accepts you and you can go to heaven because of what Jesus has done, but subjectively it’ll start to heal your heart of sin, the canker, the cancer, the thing that’s destroying all of your relationships because you’re so nervous and so ashamed and you’re trying to prove yourself and you’re so needy. When the love of God comes in there, it changes everything. Ask God to cover you with the righteousness of Christ now so that someday you can be utterly covered with the very glory of God. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we’re so grateful it’s possible for us to know this horrible spiritual cancer, sin, has already, actually, been dealt with and is eventually going to be dealt with completely and is going to be over. Until then, we ask that you would help us to receive your salvation, your grace, into our lives in such a way that we can begin to more and more die unto sin and live more and more unto righteousness and be conformed to the image of your Son, in whose name we pray, amen.
ABOUT THE PREACHER
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:
Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).
Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).
Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).
Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).
Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.
Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.
Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.
The Girl Nobody Wanted by Tim Keller (Genesis 29:15-35)
 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman [relative], should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”  Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.  Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”  Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”  So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”  So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast.  But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her.  (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.)  And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”  Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.  Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”  Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.  (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.)  So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.  When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.  And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”  She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon.  Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi.  And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing. Gen. 29:15-35
There is no book, I believe, less sentimental about marriage and the family then the Bible. It is utterly realistic about how hard it is not to be married; and it is utterly realistic about how hard it is to be married. Out in the world, especially in the culture outside the church, there are a lot of people who are cynical about marriage. They don’t trust marriage, so they avoid it altogether or give themselves an easy escape by living together. Then there are people inside the church who are very much the opposite. They think, “Marriage, family, white picket fences—that is what family values are all about. That’s how you find fulfillment. That is what human life is all about.”
The Bible shows us marriage and the family, with all of its joys and all of its difficulties, and points us to Jesus and says, “This is who you need, this is what you need, to have a fulfilled life.” What the Bible says is so nuanced, so different, so off the spectrum. One of the places you see this is in this fascinating story—the account of Jacob’s search for his one true love. I would like you to notice three things in the story:
First, this overpowering human drive to find one true love [Key Theme – a hope];
Secondly, the devastation and disillusionment that ordinarily accompanies the search for true love;
[Third], and finally, what we can do about this longing – what will fulfill it.
1) THE HUMAN DRIVE TO FIND ONE TRUE LOVE
At the beginning of the passage, Laban says to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsmen [relative] of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be” (v. 15). Before continuing, let me give you the back-story.
Two generations earlier, God had come to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, and said, “Abraham, look at the misery, the death, and the brokenness. I am going to do something about it. I am going to redeem this world, and I am going to do it through your family, through one of your descendents. And therefore, in every generation of your descendents, one child will bear the Messianic line. That child will walk before me and be the head of the clan and pass the true faith on to the next generation. Then there will be another child that bears the Messianic line [seed] and another, until one day, one of your descendents will be the Messiah himself, the King of kings.”
Abraham fathered Isaac, the first in the line Messianic forebears, and when Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, became pregnant with twins, God spoke to Rebekah through and said, “The elder will serve the younger.” That was God’s way of saying that the second twin born would be the chosen one, to carry on the Messianic hope. Esau is born first and then Jacob, but in spite of the prophecy, Isaac set his heart on the oldest son. He set his heart on Esau and favored him all through his life. As a result, he distorted his entire family. Esau grew up proud, spoiled, willful, and impulsive; Jacob grew up rejected and resentful and turned into a schemer; Rebekah favored her younger son and became alienated from her husband Isaac.
Finally, the time came for the aged Isaac to give the blessing to the head of the clan, which was to be Esau; but Jacob dressed up as Esau, went in, and got the blessing. When Esau found out about it, he became determined to kill Jacob, and Jacob had to flee into the wilderness. Now everything was ruined. Jacob’s life was ruined. Not only did he no longer have a family to be the head of; he no longer had a family or an inheritance at all, and he had to flee for his life. Jacob did not know whether Esau messed up or he messed up or Isaac or maybe even God, but now his life was in ruins and he would never fulfill his destiny. Just to survive, he was forced to flee to the other side of the Fertile Crescent.
Jacob escaped to his mother’s family, and they took him in as a kind of charity case. Laban, his uncle, allowed him to be a shepherd. Laban realized that Jacob had tremendous ability as a shepherd and a manager. He figured out that he could make a lot of money if Jacob were in charge of his flocks. That is how we get to this question: “How much can I pay you to be in charge of my flocks?”
Jacob’s answer [vv. 16-18] is basically one word: Rachel. He wanted Rachel as his bride, and was willing to work seven years for her. What do we know about Rachel? The text comes right out and says that Rachel was lovely in form and beautiful. The Hebrew word translated “form” is quite literal it means exactly what you think. It is talking about her figure. Rachel had a great figure. She had a beautiful face and was absolutely gorgeous. I want to give credit where credit is due and say that Robert Alter, the great Hebrew literature scholar at Berkeley, has helped me understand this text a lot. Alter says there are all sorts of signals in the text about how over-the-top, intensely lovesick and overwhelmed Jacob is with Rachel. There is the poignant but telling statement where the text says, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her (v.20).”
More interesting is the next verse: “Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” Of course that means he wants to have sex with her. Alter says that this statement is so blunt, so graphic, so sexual, so over-the-top and inappropriate and non-customary that, over the centuries, Jewish commentators have had to do all kinds of backpedaling to explain it. But he says it is not that hard to explain the meaning. He says that the narrator is showing us a man driven by and overwhelmed with emotional and sexual longing for one woman.
What is going on here? Jacob’s life was empty. He never had his father’s love. Now he didn’t even have his mother’s love, and he certainly had no sense of God’s love. He had lost everything—no family, no inheritance, no nothing. And then he saw Rachel, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, the most beautiful woman for miles around, and he said to himself, “If I had her, finally, something would be right in my lousy life. If I had her, life would have meaning. If I had her, it would fix things.” If he found his one true love, life would finally be okay.
All the longings of the human heart for significance, for security, and for meaning—he had no other object for them—they were all fixed on Rachel.
Jacob was somewhat unusual for his time. Cultural historians will tell you that in ancient times people didn’t generally marry for love (that is actually a relatively recent phenomenon). They married for status. Nevertheless, he is not rare today.
Ernest Becker was a secular man, an atheist, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1970’s for his book The Denial of Death. In the book, he talks about how secular people deal with the fact that they don’t believe in God. He says that one of the main ways secular culture has dealt with the God vacuum is through apocalyptic sex and romance. Our secular culture has loaded its desire for transcendence into romance and love. Talking about the modern secular person, he says:
He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things…He still had to merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning, in trust and gratitude…If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him, as [Otto] Rank saw, was the “romantic solution.” …The self-glorification that he needed in the innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life…
After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feelings of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. … That is exactly what Jacob did. And that is what people are doing all over the place. That is what our culture is begging us to do—to load all of the deepest needs of our hearts for significance, security, and transcendence into romance and love, into finding that one true love. That will fix my lousy life!
Let me tell you something you notice when you live in New York City. It is a tough town; everybody looks so cool and pulled together. But the amount of money people spend on their appearance shows they are desperate. They cannot imagine living without apocalyptic romance and love. The human longing for one true love has always been around, but in our culture now, it has been magnified to an astounding degree. But where does it lead?
2) The Disillusionment That Comes
Secondly, let’s look at the disillusionment and devastation that almost always accompanies a search for that one true love. We begin with Laban’s plot. Laban knew that Jacob offered to serve seven years for Rachel. He knew what that meant. At that time, when you wanted to marry someone, you paid the father a bride price, and it was somewhere around thirty to forty-five shekels. Robert Alter says that a month’s wages was equal to one and a half shekels, and therefore, you can see that Jacob, right out of the box is absolutely lovesick. He is a horrible bargainer; he is immediately offered three to four times the normal bride price. Laban knew he had him. He knew this man was vulnerable.
Commentators say there are indicators in the text that Laban immediately came up with a plan, realizing he could get even more out of this deal. Notice the conversation between Jacob and Laban. The text says, “Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” (v.18). Look at how Laban responds. He never says, “Yes”! He does not say, “Yes, seven years. It is a deal.” No! Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me” (v.19).
Jacob wants it to be a yes, so he hears a yes. But it is not a yes. Laban is just saying, “Yea, okay, if you want to marry Rachel, it is a good idea.”
Seven years pass; now Jacob says, “Give me my wife.” As customary, there is a great feast. In the middle of the feast, the bride is brought heavily veiled to the groom. She was given to him, and he took her into the tent. He was inebriated, as was also the custom; and in that dark tent, Jacob lay with her. The text tells us, “When morning came, there was Leah!” (v. 25). Jacob looked and discovered that he had married Leah, and had had sex with Leah, and he had consummated the marriage with Leah. Jacob, rightfully angry, goes to Laban and says, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me? (v. 25). Laban replies that it is customary for the older girl to be married before the younger girl.
I must say I have read this text for thirty years or more and I have never understood why Jacob basically says, “Oh, okay.” I have never figured it out. He is obviously angry and the situation is absolutely ridiculous. Why doesn’t Jacob kill him? Why doesn’t he throttle him? Again, Robert Alter is very helpful here. He suggests something that I think is rather profound.
First of all, what Laban literally says is: “It is not the custom here to put the younger before the older.”
Second, Alter points out that when Jacob said, “Why have you deceived me?” the word translated “deceived” is the same Hebrew word that was used in chapter 27 to describe what Jacob did to Isaac. [What goes around comes around; sowing…and reaping]
Alter says (this is surmise, but what surmise!) that it must have occurred to Jacob that Laban had only done to him what he had done to his father. In the dark, he thought he was touching Rachel, as his father in the dark of his blindness had thought he was touching Esau. Alter then quotes an ancient rabbinical commentator who imagines the conversation the next day between Jacob and Leah. Jacob says to Leah: “I called out ‘Rachel’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to me?” And Leah says to him, “Your father called out ‘Esau’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to him?” Fury dies on his lips. Cut to the quick. Suddenly the evil he has done has come to Jacob. And he sees what it is like to be manipulated and deceived, and meekly he picks up and works another seven years.
We leave Jacob in his devastation (I don’t have a better word for it), and then we see what it has done to Leah. Now, who is Leah? We are told that Leah is the older daughter, but the only detail we are given about her is that she has weak eyes. Nobody quite knows what “weak eyes” means; some commentators have assumed it means she has bad eyesight. But the text does not say that Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel could see a long way. Weakness probably means cross-eyed; it could mean something unsightly. But here is the point: Leah was particularly unattractive, and she had to live all of her life in the shadow of her sister who was absolutely stunning.
As a result, Laban knew no one was ever going to marry her or offer any money for her. He wondered how he was going to get rid of her, how was he going to unload her. And then he saw his chance, he saw an opening and he did it. And now the girl that Laban, her father, did not want has been given to a husband who doesn’t want her either. She is the girl nobody wants. Leah has a hollow in her heart every bit as the hollow in Jacob’s heart. Now she begins to do to Jacob what Jacob had done to Rachel and what Isaac had done to Esau. She set her heart on Jacob. You see the evil and the pathology in these families just ricocheting around again and again from generation to generation.
The last verses here are some of the most plaintive [sad] I have ever read in the Bible (most English translations tell you a little about what the words actually mean). [she uses Hebrew words that express her longing for Jacob] Leah gave birth to her first child, a boy and she named him Reuben. Reuben means, “to see” and she thought, “Now maybe my husband will see me; maybe I won’t be invisible anymore.” But she had a second son, and she named him Simeon, which has to do with hearing: “Now maybe my husband will finally listen to me.” But he didn’t. She had a third son and named him Levi, which means “to be attached,” and she said, “Maybe finally my husband’s heart will be attached to me.”
What was she doing? She was trying to get an identity through traditional family values. Having sons, especially in those days, was the best way to do that; but it was not working. She had set her heart, all of her hopes and dreams, on her husband. She thought, “If I have babies and if I have sons and my husband loves me, then finally something will be fixed in my lousy life.” Instead, she was just going down into hell. And the text says—it is sort of like the summary statement—Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. That meant she was condemned every single day. This is what I mean by hell—every single day she was condemned to see the man she most longed for in the arms of the one in whose shadow she had lived all her life. Every day was like another knife in the heart.
All we see here is devastation, right? No, that is actually not the way the text ends. But before we look at how the text ends, let me field two objections and draw two lessons.
The first objection has to do with all these ancient practices. Some people who read the text or listen to a sermon on it are thinking, Why are you telling me this story—men buying and selling women, primogeniture [pry-mo-gen-i-turr], sexual slavery—what is this about? I am offended by this kind of old primitive culture. I know they existed, but thank goodness we don’t live in a culture like that anymore. Why do we have to know about it?
First, it is important to see (and this comes from what Robert Alter says), if you read the book of Genesis, and you think it is condoning primogeniture [the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child], polygamy, and bride purchase—if you think it is condoning these things, you have not yet learned how to read. Because in absolutely every single place where you see polygamy or primogeniture, it always wreaks devastation. It never works out. All you ever see is the misery these patriarchal institutions cause in families. Alter says if you think the book of Genesis is promoting those things, you have no idea what is being said. He says these stories are subversive [seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution] to all those ancient patriarchal institutions. Just read!
You might also be thinking, Thank goodness we don’t live in a culture in which a woman’s value is based on her looks. Thank goodness we don’t live in a culture where a woman looks in a mirror and says, “Look at me I am a size 4, I can get a rich husband.” Hundreds of years ago, people used to do that but nobody does that anymore. Really?
I am sorry, I shouldn’t be sarcastic, but what in the world makes you think that we are in a less brutal culture? We are and we aren’t. Besides that, what the Bible says about the human heart is always true, it is always abiding. If anything, what we are saying is truer today than it was before.
The second objection people have has to do with the moral of the story. They ask, “Where are all the spiritual heroes in this text? Who am I supposed to be emulating? Who is the good guy? What is the moral of the story? I don’t see any! What is going on here?
The answer is: That is absolutely correct. You are starting to get it. You are starting to get the point of the Bible. What do I mean? The Bible doesn’t give us a god at the top of a moral ladder saying, “Look at the people who have found God through their great performance and their moral record. Be like them!” Of course not! Instead, over and over again, the Bible gives us absolutely weak people who don’t seek the grace they need and who don’t deserve the grace they get.
They don’t appreciate it after they get it, and continue to screw up and abuse it even after they have it. And yet, the grace keeps coming! The Bible is not about a god who gives us accounts or moral heroes. It is about grace, and that is what this story is about. So what do we learn from this story? Is there any moral? I wouldn’t put it that way, but here are two things I would want you to see?
First, we learn that through all of life there runs a ground note of cosmic disappointment. You are never going to lead a wise life, no matter who you are, unless you understand that. Here is Jacob, and he says, “If I can just get Rachel, everything will be okay.” And he goes to bed with someone whom he thinks is Rachel, and then, literally, the Hebrew says, “But in the morning, behold, it was Leah.” What does this show us? Listen, I love Leah; I really do. I have been thinking about this text for a long time, and I love her and I want to protect her, so I hope you don’t think I am being mean to her in what I am trying to say. But I want you to know that— when you get married, no matter how great you think that marriage is going to be; when you get a career, no matter how great you think your career is going to be; when you go off to seminary, no matter how much you think it is going to make you into a man or a woman of God—in the morning, it is always Leah!You think you are going to bed with Rachel, and it in the morning, it is always Leah. Nobody has ever said this better than C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The souse may be a good spouse, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.
You have got to understand that it is always Leah! Why? Because if you get married, if you have families, if you go into the ministry, and say that “finally this is going to fix my life” (you don’t really think you are doing it until you do it)—those things will never do what you think they will do. In the morning, it is always Leah.
If you get married, and in any way do as Jacob does and put that kind of weight on the person you are marrying, you are going to crush him or her. You are going to kill each other. You are going to think you have gone to bed with Rachel, but you get up and it is Leah. As time goes on, eventually you are going to know that this is the case; that everything disappoints, that there is a note of cosmic disappointment and disillusionment in everything, in all things into which we most put our hopes. When you finally find that out, there are four things you can do.
One, you can blame the things and drop them and go try new ones, better ones. That is the fool’s way.
The second thing you can do is blame yourself and beat yourself up and say, “I have been a failure. I see everybody else happy. I don’t know why I’m not happy. There is something wrong with me.” So you blame yourself and you become a self-hater.
Third, you can blame the world and get cynical and hard. You say, “Curses on the entire opposite sex” or whatever, in which case you dehumanize yourself.
Lastly, you can, as C. S. Lewis says at the end of his great chapter on hope, change the entire focus of your life. He concludes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world [something supernatural and eternal].
We see that both the liberal mindset and the conservative mindset are wrong when it comes to romance, sex, and love.
Neither serves us well. In fact, you can almost see it in Jacob and Leah. Jacob, with a liberal mindset, is after an apocalyptic hookup. He says, “Give me my wife! I want sex!” he actually says that. On the other hand, here is Leah, and what is she doing? She is the conservative. She is having babies. She is not out having a career. She is trying to find her identity in being a wife—“Now my husband will love me.”
Guess what? They are both wrong. They are not going anywhere. Their lives are a mess. That is the reason why Ernest Becker says so beautifully, “No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood… However much we idolize him [the love partner], he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is you “All’ then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you.” – Becker, Denial of Death, 166. As Becker said, what we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God is to be rid of our faults, to be justified to know our existence has not been in vain. We are after redemption. He then adds, “Needless to say, human partners can’t do this.” You might think that is pretty obvious; but we done believe it. We thought the Bible was a source of family values. Well, it is, in a sense, but how realistic it is! So what are we going to do? We are all creatures of our culture. We have this drive in us for one true love. What are we going to do with it? Here is the answer.
3) What We Can Do about This Longing
I want you to see what God does in Leah and for Leah. Leah is the first person to get it; she does begin to see what you are supposed to do.
Look first at what God does in her. As we have said, every time she has a child, she puts all of her hopes in her husband now loving her. And yet, one of the things scholars notice that is very curious is that even though she is clearly making a functional idol out of her husband and her family, she is calling on the Lord. She doesn’t talk about God in some general way or invoke the name of Elohim. She uses the name Yahweh. In verse 32, it says, “And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD [Yahweh] has looked upon my affliction.” How does she know about Yahweh?
Elohim was the generic word for God back then. All creatures at that time had some general idea of God or gods; they were gods at the top of a ladder, and you had to get up to the top through rituals or through transformations of consciousness or moral performance. Everyone understood God in that sense, but Yahweh was different. Yahweh was the God who came down the ladder, the one who entered into a personal covenantal relationship and intervened to save. Certainly they didn’t know all he was going to do, but Abraham and Isaac knew something about it, and Jacob would have known about it as well. It is interesting that Leah must have learned about Yahweh from Jacob. Even though she is still in the grip of her functional idolatry, somehow she is trying, she is calling out, she is reaching out to a God of grace. She has grasped the concept.
You might say that she has got a theology of sorts, as advanced as it was at the time, but she is having trouble connecting it. She is calling him the Lord, and yet she is treating him like a “god.” Do you follow me?
She is saying, “God can help me save myself through childbearing. God can help me save myself by getting my husband’s love. So she is using God, and yet she not call him God [Elohim]; she calls him Lord [Yahweh]. She is beginning to get it, and what is intriguing is that, at the very end, something happens. The first time she gives birth she says, ‘Now maybe my husband will see me. Now maybe my husband will love me.” And when she gives birth to her third son, she says, “Now maybe my husband will be attached to me.”
Finally, it says that she conceived for the fourth time, and when she gave birth to Judah, she said, “This time!” Isn’t that defiant? It is totally different; no mention of husband, no mention of child. There is some kind of breakthrough. She says, “This time I will praise the LORD.”
At that point, she has finally taken her heart’s deepest hopes off of the old way, off of her husband and her children, and she has put them in the Lord.
Here is what I believe is going on. Jacob and Laban had stolen Leah’s life, but when she stopped giving her heart to a good thing that she had turned into an ultimate thing and gave it to the Lord, she got her life back.
May I respectfully ask you: What good thing in your life are you treating as an ultimate thing?
What do you need to stop giving your heart to if you are going to get your life back?
There are a lot of things I am certain about, but I am absolutely certain that everybody in this room has got something.
Do you know what it is?
If you have no idea, you need to think about it. Something happened to Leah; God did something in her. There was a breakthrough. She began to understand what you are supposed to do with your desire for one true love. She turned her heart toward the only real beauty, the only real lover who can satisfy those cosmic needs.
But we shouldn’t just look at what God did in her. We have to also look for what God has done for her—because God has done something for her. I believe that she had some consciousness, although it might have been semi-consciousness or just intuition, that there was something special about this last child. It would probably be reading too much into the text to say she understood, but I believe she sensed that God had done something for her. And he had.
The writer of Genesis knows what God has done. This child is Judah, and who is Judah? The writer of Genesis tells us in chapter 49 that it is through Judah that Shiloh will come, and it is through Shiloh that the King will come. This is the line! This is the Messianic line! God has come to the girl that nobody wanted, the unloved, and made her the mother of Jesus—not beautiful Rachel, but the homely one, the unwanted one, the unloved one.
Why did God do that? Does he just like the underdog? He did it because of his person and because of his work.
First, because of his person. It says that when the Lord saw Leah was not loved, he loved her. God is saying, “I am the real bridegroom. I am the husband of the husbandless. I am the father of the fatherless.” What does that mean?
He is attracted to the people that the world is not attracted to. He loves the unwanted. He loves the unattractive. He loves the weak, the ones the world doesn’t want to be like. God says, “If nobody else is going to be the spouse of Leah, I will be her spouse.”
Guess what? It is not just those of you without spouses who need to see God as your ultimate spouse, but those of us with spouses have got to see God as our ultimate spouse as well. You have to demote the person you are married to out of first place in your heart to second place behind God or you will end up killing each other. You will put all of your freight, all the weight of all your hopes, on that person. And of course, they are human beings, they are sinners, just like you are. God says you must see him as what he is: the great bridegroom, the spouse for the spouseless. He is not just a king and we are the subjects; he is not just a shepherd and we are the sheep. He is a husband and we are his lovers. He loves us! He is ravished with us—even those of us whom no one else is ravished with; especially those of us whom no one else is ravished with. That is his person. But that is not all.
The second reason why he goes after Leah and not Rachel, why he makes the girl who nobody wanted into the mother of Jesus, the bearer of the Messianic line, the bearer of salvation to the world, is not just that he likes the underdog, but because that it the gospel.
When God came to earth in Jesus Christ, he was the son of Leah. Oh yes, he was! He became the man nobody wanted. He was born in a manger. He had no beauty that we should desire him. He came to his own and his own received him not. And at the end, nobody wanted him. Everybody abandoned him. Even his Father in heaven didn’t want him. Jesus cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why did he become Leah’s son? Why did he become the man nobody wanted? For you and for me! Here is the gospel: God did not save us in spite of the weakness that he experienced as a human being but through it. And you don’t actually get that salvation into your life through strength; it is only for those who admit they are weak. And if you cannot admit that you are a hopeless moral failure and a sinner and that you are absolutely lost and have no hope apart from the sheer grace of God, then you are not weak enough for Leah and her son and the great salvation that God has brought into the world.
God chose Leah because he is saying, “This is how salvation works. This is the upside-down way that my people will live, at least in relationship to the world, when they receive my salvation.”
Now the way up is down. The way to become rich is to give your money away. The way to become rich is to give your money away. The way to power is to serve God, when he came to earth, as the son of Leah. God made Leah, the girl nobody wanted into the mother of Jesus. Why?
Because he chooses the foolish things to shame the wise; he chooses the weak things to shame the strong; he chooses even the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no one will boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
In conclusion, let me give you a few practical applications.
First, if there is anyone with a Laban in their life right now, don’t be bitter and don’t beat them up. Don’t let them take advantage of you either if you can; but remember, God can use that person in your life to make you a better person in your life if you don’t become bitter.
Second, are you somebody who has been rejected, betrayed, maybe recently divorced, and you didn’t want to be? Are you a Leah? Remember, God knows what it is like to be rejected. He didn’t just love Leah, but he actually became Leah. He became the son of Leah. He came to his own and his own received him not.
He understands rejection, and if anything, he is, from what we can tell in the Scripture, attracted to people in your condition. It is his nature, so don’t worry. He knows and he cares.
Third, please don’t let marriage throw you. I have been saying this all along: in the morning, it will always be Leah. And if you understand that, it will make some of you less desperate in your marriage-seeking, and it will make some of you less angry at your spouse for his imperfections.
Last, you may believe you have messed up your life; that your life is on plan B. You should have done this or that, and now it is too late. Think about it:
Should Jacob have deceived Isaac and Esau? No.
Should Isaac have shown the favoritism that turned Jacob into a liar? No.
Everybody sinned. There are no excuses. They shouldn’t have done what they did. They blew up their lives. But if those things hadn’t happened, would Jacob have met the love of his life, Rachel?
Jesus Christ, who is a result of Jacob’s having to flee to the other side of the Fertile Crescent, isn’t plan B! You can’t mess up your life. You can’t mess up God’s plan for you. You will find that no matter how much you do to mess it up, all you are doing is fulfilling his destiny for you.
That does not mean what they did was okay. The devastation and the unhappiness and the misery that happens in your life because of your sins are your fault. You are responsible, you shouldn’t do them; and yet, God is going to work through you. Those two things are together. It is an antinomy, a paradox.
Remember, it is never too late for God to work in your life! Never! You can’t put yourself on plan B. Go to him. Start over now. Say it: “This time, no matter what else I have done, I will praise the Lord!”
*[Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart – Psalm 37:4]
The sermon manuscript by Dr. Timothy Keller above was adapted and excerpted in parts from the original sermon and from the printed manuscript that can be found in the excellent book of sermons edited by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson entitled: Heralds of the King: Christ-Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
About The Author/Preacher:
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal books including:
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. New York, Dutton, 2011.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2011.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.
[Adapted from Ronald H. Nash. Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in the World of Ideas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, pp. 34-45).
“The Christian Worldview”
The Christian worldview is theistic in the sense that it believes in the existence of one supremely powerful and personal God. Theism differs from polytheism in its affirmation that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4). It parts company with the various forms of pantheism by insisting that God is personal and must not be confused with the world that is his creation. Theism must also be distinguished from panentheism, the position that regards the world as an eternal being that God needs in much the same way a human soul needs a body. Theists also reject panentheistic attempts to limit God’s power and knowledge, which have the effect of making the God of panentheism a finite being (For a fuller discussion, see Ronald Nash, ed., Process Theology. Panentheism can be thought of as a position somewhere between theism’s belief in a personal, almighty, all-knowing God and the impersonal god of pantheism that is identical in some way with nature or the world order. While the god of panentheism is not identical with the world, this god and the world necessarily co-exist eternally Another basic feature of panentheism is the denial of the view that God can act as an efficient cause, a belief that precludes any belief in either creation or in such miracles as the Incarnation or the Resurrection).
Other important attributes of God, such as his holiness, justice, and love are described in Scripture. Historical Christian theism is also trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity reflects the Christian conviction that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct centers of consciousness sharing fully in the one divine nature and in the activities of the other persons of the Trinity. An important corollary of the doctrine is the Christian conviction that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man (It is important for Christians to realize that the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man does not involve them in a logical contradiction. Critics of Christianity like to deceive people into thinking that this Christian claim is similar to believing that something is a square circle. It is not). Christians use the word incarnation to express their belief that the birth of Jesus Christ marked the entrance of the eternal and divine Son of God into the human race.
The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Many early Christian thinkers found it important to draw out certain implications of the biblical view of God and stipulate that God created the world ex nihilo (from nothing), which is an important metaphysical tenet of the Christian worldview. This was necessary, they believed, to show the contrast between the Christian understanding of Creation and an account of the world’s origin found in Plato’s philosophy, a view held by a number of intellectuals in the early centuries of the Christian church (For more on this see Ron Nash. The Gospel and the Greeks). Plato had suggested that a godlike being, the Craftsman, had brought the world into being by fashioning an eternal or matter after the pattern of eternal ideas that existed independently of the Craftsman. Moreover, this creative activity took place in a space-time receptacle or box that also existed independently of the Craftsman. Such early Christian thinkers as Augustine wanted the world to know that the Christian God and the Christian view of Creation differed totally from this platonic picture. Plato’s god (if indeed that is an appropriate word for his Craftsman) was not the infinite, all-powerful, and sovereign God of the Christian Scriptures. Plato’s god was finite and limited. In the Christian account of Creation, nothing existed prior to Creation except God.
There was no time or space; there was no preexisting matter. Everything else that exists besides God depends totally upon God for its existence. If God did not exist, the world would not exist. The cosmos is not eternal, self-sufficient, or self-explanatory. It was freely created by God. The existence of the world, therefore, is not a brute fact; nor is the world a purposeless machine. The world exists as the result of a free decision to create by a God who is eternal, transcendent, spiritual (that is, nonmaterial), omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, loving, and personal. Because there is a God-ordained order to the creation, human beings can discover that order. It is this order that makes science possible; it is this order that scientists attempt to capture in their laws. The Christian worldview should be distinguished from any version of deism. This theory dared to suggest that although God created the world, he absents himself from the creation and allows it to run on its own. This view and several twentieth-century varieties seem to present the picture of a God (or god) who is incapable of acting causally within nature (This certainly appears to have been the view of such twentieth-century theologians as Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. While the term naturalism will be explained later, there is some justification for describing thinkers like Tillich and Bultmann as religious naturalists. They may have believed in God, but their God was effectively precluded from any providential or miraculous activity within the natural order). While no informed Christian will argue with the assured results of such sciences as physics, biology, and geology, the Christian worldview insists that divine activities such as miracles, revelation, and providence remain possible.
The study of epistemology can quickly involve one in fairly sticky problems. In fact, one should admit that on many epistemological issues (for example, the dispute between rationalists and empiricists – For the reader unfamiliar with these terms, an empiricist is a person who believes that all human knowledge can be traced back to bodily experience. A rationalist, on the other hand, believes that some human knowledge can originate in something other than sense experience) a wide variety of options seems to be consistent with other aspects of the Christian worldview. But there do seem to be limits to this tolerance. For example, the Christian worldview is clearly incompatible with universal skepticism, the self-defeating claim that no knowledge about anything is attainable. The fact that this kind of skepticism self-destructs becomes clear whenever one asks such a skeptic whether he knows that knowledge is unattainable.
It also seems obvious that a well-formed Christian worldview will exclude views suggesting that humans cannot attain knowledge about God. Christianity clearly proclaims that God has revealed information about himself (I defend this claim in Ron Nash. The Word of God and the Mind of Man). Nor will an informed Christian deny the importance of the senses in supplying information about the world. As St. Augustine observed, the Christian “believes also the evidence of the senses which the mind uses by aid of the body; for if one who trusts his senses is sometimes deceived, he is more wretchedly deceived who fancies he should never trust them” (Augustine. City of God, tran. Marcus Dods. New York: Modern Library, 1950, 19.18.). In his own theory of knowledge, Augustine was a rationalist in the sense that he gave priority to reason over sense experience. Augustine probably had a good theological reason for defending the general reliability of sense experience.
He undoubtedly realized that many claims made in the Bible depended upon eyewitness testimony. If the senses are completely unreliable, we cannot trust the reports of witnesses who say that they heard Jesus teach or saw him die or saw him alive three days after the Crucifixion. If the experiences of those who saw and heard a risen Christ were necessarily deceptive and unreliable, an important truth of the Christian faith is compromised. In recent Christian writings about the theory of knowledge, philosophers apparently operating on different tracks have found agreement on an important point. In the case of my own track (a kind of Christian rationalism that received its first formulation in the writings of St. Augustine), it is a mistake to accept an extreme form of empiricism that claims all human knowledge rises from sense experience. Older advocates of this empiricism used to illustrate their basic claim by arguing that the human mind at birth is like a tabula rasa, a blank tablet. At birth, the human mind is like a totally clean blackboard; absolutely nothing is written on it. In other words, human beings are born with no innate ideas or knowledge. As the human being grows and develops, the senses supply the mind with an ever-increasing stock of information. All human knowledge results, in this model, from what the mind does with ideas supplied through the senses—the basic building blocks of knowledge.
My alternative to this extreme kind of empiricism can be summarized in the claim that some human knowledge does not rise from sense experience (I consciously reject an extreme type of rationalism that claims no human knowledge rises from sense experience. Plato held this latter view. But as explained earlier, Augustine did not; nor do I). As many philosophers have noted, human knowledge of the sensible world is possible because human beings bring certain ideas, categories, and dispositions to their experience of the world. The impotence of empiricism is especially evident in the case of human knowledge of universal and necessary truth. Many things in the world could have been otherwise. The typewriter I am using at this moment happens to be brown, but it could have been red. Whether it is brown or not is a purely contingent feature of reality. Regardless of the color my typewriter happens to be, it could have been colored differently. But it is necessarily the case that my typewriter could not have been brown all over and red (or any other color) all over at the same time and in the same sense. The necessary truth that my typewriter is brown all over and not at the same time red all over cannot be a function of sense experience. Sense experience may be able to report what is fact at a particular time. But sense experience is incapable of grasping what must be the case at all times. The notions of necessity and universality can never be derived from our experience. Rather, they are notions (among others) that we bring to sense experience and use in making judgments about reality.
How do we account for the human possession of these categories of thought or innate ideas or dispositions that play such an indispensable role in human knowledge? According to a long and honored philosophical tradition that includes Augustine, Descartes, and Leibniz, human beings have these innate ideas, dispositions, and categories of thought by virtue of their creation by God. In fact, this may well be part of what is meant by the phrase the image of God (I have explored the roots of this theory in the writings of St. Augustine in my book The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1969). After all (Christians believe). God created the world. It is reasonable to assume that he created humans in such a way as to make them capable of attaining knowledge of his creation. To go even further, it is reasonable to believe that he endowed the human mind with the ability to attain knowledge of himself.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has noted an important similarity between the role that God-given categories and dispositions play in human knowledge and what Reformed thinkers like John Calvin said about belief in God:
Reformed Theologians such as Calvin…have held that God has implanted in us a tendency…to accept belief in God under certain conditions. Calvin speaks, in this connection, of a “sense of deity inscribed in the hearts of all.” Just as we have a natural tendency to form perceptual beliefs under certain conditions, so says Calvin, we have a natural tendency to form such beliefs as God is speaking to me and God has created all this or God disapproves of what. I’ve done under certainly widely realized conditions (Alvin Plantinga, “Self-Profile,” in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen (Boston: D. Reidel, 1985), 63, 64. Plantinga’s quote comes from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, chap. 3, 43–44).
Plantinga shows no reluctance to describe the idea of God as “innate,” that is, present in the mind from birth, not derived from experience. These are complex issues. But it is clear that the Christian worldview is no ally of skepticism. Human beings can know God’s creation; they are also capable of attaining knowledge about God. Nor should this surprise anyone. It is exactly what we should have expected.
The fact that all human beings carry the image of God (another of Christianity’s claims about human nature) explains why human beings are creatures capable of reasoning, love, and God-consciousness; it also explains why we are moral creatures. Of course, sin (yet another of Christianity’s important presuppositions about human beings) has distorted the image of God and explains why humans turn away from God and the moral law; why we sometimes go wrong with regard to our emotions, conduct, and thinking.
Because of the image of God, we should expect to find that the ethical recommendations of the Christian worldview reflect what all of us at the deepest levels of our moral being know to be true. As C. S. Lewis pointed out,
Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality… Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities; it is quacks and cranks who do that… The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see (C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity, 78).
When one examines the moralities of different cultures and religions, certain differences do stand out. But Lewis was more impressed by the basic, underlying similarities:
Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired (Ibid., 19).
According to the Christian worldview, God is the ground of the laws that govern the physical universe and that make possible the order of the cosmos. God is also the ground of the moral laws that ought to govern human behavior and that make possible order between humans and within humans (Each of the areas dealing with God, ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and humankind includes its share of important but different questions that cannot be pursued in this study. One such problem in ethics is the precise relationship between God and morality. For some technical discussions of the topic, see Philip L. Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, and Robert Merrihew Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness” in Religion and Morality, Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, Jr., eds. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1973).
Christian theism insists on the existence of universal moral laws. In other words, the laws must apply to all humans, regardless of when or where they have lived. They must also be objective in the sense that their truth is independent of human preference and desire.
Much confusion surrounding Christian ethics results from a failure to observe the important distinction between principles and rules. Let us define moral principles as more general moral prescriptions, general in the sense that they cover a large number of instances. Moral rules, on the other hand, will be regarded as more specific moral prescriptions that are, in fact, applications of principles to more concrete situations.
The difference between principles and rules has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage of moral principles is the fact that they are less subject to change. Because of the larger number of instances where they are applicable, they possess a greater degree of universality. One disadvantage of any moral principle is its vagueness. Because principles cover so many situations, it is often difficult to know exactly when a particular principle applies. Rules, however, have the advantage of being much more specific. Their problem is their changeableness. Because they are so closely tied to specific situations, changes in circumstances usually require changes in the appropriate rule. For example, St. Paul warned the Christian women of Corinth not to worship with their heads uncovered. Some Christians have mistakenly regarded Paul’s advice as a moral principle that should be observed by Christian women in every culture at all times. But a study of the conditions that prevailed in ancient Corinth reveals that the city’s prostitutes identified themselves to their prospective customers by keeping their heads uncovered. In the light of this, it seems likely that Paul’s advice was not a moral principle intended to apply to Christians of all generations but a rule that applied only to the specific situation of the Christian women of Corinth and to other women in similar situations (Even if my particular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 is challenged, my point can be made in terms of other New Testament passages. See, for example, Paul’s remarks in Romans 14 concerning Christians eating meat that had been offered to pagan gods).
The following chart may help clarify the points of the last paragraph:
Principles Universal Vague
Rules Specific Situational
I recognize that the distinction I am drawing here suffers from impreciseness. This is due in part to the fact that the difference between principles and rules is sometimes relative. That is, Scripture actually presents a hierarchy of moral prescriptions beginning at the most general level with the duty to love. This duty to love is then further broken down into the duties to love God and love people (Matt. 22:37–40), and then still further into the more specific duties of the Decalogue (Rom. 13:9–10). And, of course, the still more specific duties spelled out in the New Testament, such as the prohibition against the lustful look and hatred, are further specifications of the Ten Commandments (Matt. 5:21–30). The distinction between principles and rules suggests that whenever you have two scriptural injunctions, where a more specific command is derived from the more general, you can regard the more specific injunction as the rule and the other as the principle. It is possible to read 1 Corinthians 13 in this way. First, Paul proposes love as a moral duty binding on all. Then he proceeds to provide more specific rules about how a loving person will behave; for example, he will be kind and patient. Based on our distinction between principles and rules plus a careful study of the New Testament, we can draw several conclusions:
(1) The New Testament gave first-century Christians plenty of rules. But, of course, the rules cover situations that may no longer confront twentieth-century Christians, such as Paul’s injunction against eating meat offered to idols.
(2) The New Testament does not provide twentieth-century Christians with any large number of rules regarding our specific situations. The reason is obvious. The rules were given to cover first-century situations. A first-century book that attempted to give moral rules to cover specific twentieth-century situations would have become unintelligible or irrelevant to readers in the intervening nineteen hundred years. What moral help could the first-century Christians in Rome or Ephesus have derived from such a moral rule as “thou shalt not make a first strike with nuclear weapons” or “it is wrong to use cocaine”?
(3) At the same time, some of the New Testament rules apply to situations that have existed throughout time. Passages dealing with acts of hating, stealing, lying, and the like continue to be relevant because the acts are similar.
(4) But often what many people miss is the importance of searching out the moral principles behind the New Testament rules. These principles are equally binding on humans of all generations. A careful consideration of the Bible’s first-century rules enables us to infer the more general principles behind them, principles that apply to us today. It may be unimportant today whether Christian women keep their heads covered, but it is important that they avoid provocative dress and behavior. Though few Christians in our generation are bothered by pagan butchers who have offered their wares as a sacrifice to a false god, we can profit from the principle that we should do nothing that causes a spiritually weaker person to stumble (Another qualification may help some readers. I am not suggesting that Scripture presents us with a casuistic system of morality in which specific moral duties can always be deduced from more general moral statements. Casuistry always leads to a type of legalism that is condemned by Scripture. But I do think a recognition of a biblical hierarchy of rules and principles can help us determine our duty).
While a properly formed Christian worldview allows a great deal of leeway regarding the positions sincere Christians may take on many of the tough problems that rise in the formulation of an ethical theory, informed Christians will have to reject certain views. One such view is the position called situation ethics, which asserts that Christian ethics imposes no duty other than the duty to love. In determining what he should do, the situationist declares, the Christian should face the moral situation and ask himself what the loving thing to do is in this particular case. No rules or principles prescribe how love will act. Indeed, each loving individual is free to act in any way he thinks is consistent with love as he understands it. The point to situation ethics is, then, that Christian ethics provides no universal principles and no specific rules. Nothing is intrinsically good except love; nothing intrinsically bad except nonlove. One can never prescribe in advance what a Christian should or should not do. Depending on the situation, love may find it necessary to lie, to steal, even presumably to fornicate, to blaspheme, and to worship false gods. The only absolute is love.
A proper response to situation ethics will begin by pointing out that love is insufficient in itself to provide moral guidance for each and every moral action. Love requires the further specification of principles or rules that suggest the proper ways in which love should be manifested. Because human beings are fallen creatures whose judgments on moral matters may be affected by moral weakness, love needs guidance from divinely revealed moral truth. Fortunately, Christians believe, this content is provided in the moral principles revealed in Scripture.
In spite of all this, life often confronts us with ambiguous moral situations in which even the most sincere among us may agonize over what to do. At times we simply do not know enough about ourselves, the situation, or the moral principle that applies to be sure we are doing the right thing. As many of us also know, weakness of will can hinder moral decision making.
In the unambiguous situations of life, Scripture teaches, God judges us in terms of our obedience to his revealed moral law. But how does God judge us in the more ambiguous situations where the precise nature of our duty is unclear? God looks upon the heart, Scripture advises. We are judged if we break God’s commandments. This is certain. But in those cases where we may not know which commandment applies or where we may have incomplete knowledge of the situation, God’s judgment will take into account not merely the rightness of the consequences of our act (something that we ourselves are often unable to determine in ambiguous situations) but the goodness of our intentions.
William J. Abraham provides us with an introduction to the complex subject of what the Christian worldview teaches about human beings:
Human beings are made in the image of God, and their fate depends on their relationship with God. They are free to respond to or reject God and they will be judged in accordance with how they respond to him. This judgment begins now but finally takes place beyond death in a life to come. Christians furthermore offer a diagnosis of what is wrong with the world. Fundamentally, they say, our problems are spiritual: we need to be made anew by God. Human beings have misused their freedom; they are in a state of rebellion against God; they are sinners. These conclusions lead to a set of solutions to this ill. As one might expect, the fundamental solution is again spiritual…[I]n Jesus of Nazareth God has intervened to save and remake mankind. Each individual needs to respond to this and to become part of Christ’s body, the church, where they are to grow in grace and become more like Christ. This in turn generates a certain vision of the future. In the coming of Jesus, God has inaugurated his kingdom, but it will be consummated at some unspecified time in the future when Christ returns (Abraham, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985, 104-5).
What a paradox human beings are! The only bearers of the image of God on this planet are also capable of the most heinous acts. As Pascal put it, “What a freak, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a marvel! Judge of all things, and imbecile earthworm; possessor of the truth, and sink of uncertainty and error; glory and rubbish of the universe” (Blaise Pascal. Selections from The Thoughts, trans. Athur H. Beattie. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965, p. 68).
In another passage, Pascal wrote,
Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe need not arm itself to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even though the universe should crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him since he knows that he dies, and the advantage that the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of it (Ibid., 30).
The essential paradox here—the greatness and the misery of humankind—flows out of two important truths. God created humans as the apex of his creation; our chief end, in the words of the Westminster Catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But each human being is fallen, is in rebellion against the God who created him and loves him.
Christianity simply will not make sense to people who fail to understand and appreciate the Christian doctrine of sin. Every human being lives in a condition of sin and alienation from his or her Creator. Each has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard (Rom. 3:23). As John Stott counsels, sin “is not a convenient invention of parsons to keep them in their job; it is a fact of human experience” (John Stott. Basic Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, p. 61).
The sin that separates us from God and enslaves us is more than an unfortunate outward act of habit; it is a deep-seated inward corruption. In fact, the sins we commit are merely outward and visible manifestations of this inward and invisible malady, the symptoms of a moral disease…Because sin is an inward corruption of human nature we are in bondage. It is not so much certain acts or habits which enslave us, but rather the evil infection from which these spring (Ibid., 75-76).
In the writings of the nineteenth-century Christian writer Søren Kierkegaard, human alienation from God often rises to the surface in the form of moods like despair. As Kierkegaard described it in his technical way, two aspects of human existence (the finite/temporal and the infinite/eternal) compete for dominance in the life of every human being. Unless a person succeeds in getting these two dimensions into proper relation and manages somehow to unify them, he or she will never really be a self. Apart from God, each human being is a divided self.
Clearly, each of us is finite in many respects. We are limited and restricted by our bodies, our circumstances, our surroundings, our weakness of will. A constant and unavoidable reminder of the limitations of our existence is provided by death—the actual death of others and the realization of the inevitability of our own death. But there is also another side to our existence, a side that takes on dimensions of infinity or eternity. For one thing, our desires seem to transcend the finite limitations of our bodies. We always desire more than we have; we always want more than we can possibly achieve. No matter what we have accomplished or attained in the way of fame, fortune, pleasure, or happiness, we want more. In a very real sense, our appetites are never satisfied. This is not to ignore times when thoroughly satiated individuals pause, momentarily content with the most recent satisfaction of their desires. But the contentment soon disappears, and they are back on the trail, searching for more.
The frustration resulting from the human inability ultimately to satisfy all desires is just one manifestation of the tension between the finite and infinite poles of our being. Another example is the tendency of many to seek escape from reality through flights of fantasy. Rather than confront the truth about the closed frontiers of their existence, many people prefer to live in a world of dreams and illusions. In spite of their age, such people suffer from lifelong immaturity. They never really grow up.
Because most people never succeed in pulling the finite and infinite sides of their being together, they go through life suffering the spiritual and emotional consequences of being divided selves. Despair is one result of the failure to put the various parts of one’s life together. Despair is essentially enthusiasm that has gone astray, that has lost its bearings; it is a zeal for things that either disappear when they are most wanted or fail to deliver all that they seem to promise. If, in a person’s unconscious, he or she begins to feel that all the deepest yearnings of the soul will eventually end up unsatisfied, the onset of despair makes a kind of perverse sense. It is perfectly understandable how one’s unconscious, under these conditions, might react by repressing enthusiasm, thus producing the mood of despair.
The victim of moods like despair is frequently unaware of the problem. Kierkegaard clearly thought that despair is often unconscious. The individual senses dimly that something is wrong, without ever being able to put a finger on it. The great extent to which despair functions in human lives below the level of consciousness may be one more result of the refusal of many people to face the truth about themselves and their world. The truly unhappy person who mistakenly believes himself or herself happy tends to regard as an enemy everyone who threatens that illusion.
Moods like despair are also indications that the major source of human trouble lies within, not in external circumstances. Consider the contrast in the writings of St. Paul between sins, the overt acts, and sin, the depraved nature within. Human beings are not self-sufficient; we cannot cure ourselves. We can become selves, we can grow up and develop into complete human beings only through a proper relationship with God. The finite and infinite must be joined from without, by God himself. Despair is only one symptom of estrangement from God and consequently from the self. Divided selves can achieve the unity of selfhood only in a faith-relationship with God.
One final aspect of Kierkegaard’s analysis deserves attention. Moods like despair indicate that people are not wholly or ultimately made for this world. There is “something eternal” in us. We are to find the fulfillment of our passion for meaning and security, which is expressed in a distorted way by our typical immersion in these worldly projects, in a realm which is not subject to disappearance. A human being is not an absurdity, a futile passion, doomed either to repression or the most poignant unhappiness. He is, rather, a wayward child of God, whose restlessness and anxiety and despair can and should drive him into the arms of his Father. His despair is indeed a sickness, but it is curable when he finds his true home (Robert C. Roberts, “The Transparency of Faith,” The Reformed Journal. June, 1979, p. 11).
The eternal factor that God has implanted within leaves all of us ultimately frustrated, unhappy, and restless until we finally enter into his rest. As Augustine put it, God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Human beings are driven to seek an eternal peace, in which everything will finally be in its proper place, in which perfect order both in the world and in the soul will be attained. Despair may be one way God informs us that we are to look beyond ourselves for our ultimate peace. It is one of several moods and affective states that ought to remind alert people that we should know better than to think that our highest good can be found in this life. The Christian worldview recognizes the human need for forgiveness and redemption and stresses that the blessings of salvation are possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ’s redemptive work is the basis of human salvation. But human beings are required to repent of sins (be sorry for and turn from sins) and believe. Accepting Christ as one’s Lord and Savior brings about a new birth, a new heart, a new relationship with God, and a new power to live (See John 3:3-21; Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 8:10-12; and 1 John 3:1-2).
Christian conversion does not suddenly make the new Christian perfect. But the Christian has God’s nature and Spirit within and is called to live a particular kind of life in obedience to God’s will. Finally, the Christian worldview teaches that physical death is not the end of personal existence.
CHRISTIANITY’S “TOUCHSTONE PROPOSITION”
Even my short outline of the Christian worldview may seem involved to some readers. Is it possible to boil everything down to one proposition? In this connection, William Halverson makes an interesting observation:
At the center of every worldview is what might be called the “touchstone proposition” of that worldview, a proposition that is held to be the fundamental truth about reality and serves as a criterion to determine which other propositions may or may not count as candidates for belief. If a given proposition P is seen to be inconsistent with the touchstone proposition or one’s worldview, then so long as one holds that worldview, proposition P must be regarded as false (William H. Halverson, A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, 3d. ed. New York: Random House, 1976, p. 384).
There is value in seeing how Halverson’s suggestion applies to what has already been said about the Christian worldview. Does one touchstone proposition or control belief or ultimate presupposition that is the fundamental truth of this particular worldview also serve as the test that any belief must pass before it can be included as part of the worldview?
One proposition that may fill the bill is the following: “Human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of the God who has revealed himself in Scripture” (By Scripture I mean the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament deemed canonical by the Protestant Church).
The basic presupposition of the Christian worldview is the existence of God revealed in Scripture. This linkage between God and the Scripture is proper. It is true, naturally, that this particular touchstone proposition allows the Christian ready access to all that Scripture says about God, the world, and humankind. While that is certainly an advantage, it is hardly an unfair advantage. What would be both unwise and unfair would be any attempt to separate the Christian God from his self-disclosure.
As Carl F. H. Henry points out, God is not “a nameless spirit awaiting post-mortem examination in some theological morgue. He is a very particular and specific divinity, known from the beginning solely on the basis of his works and self-declaration as the one living God” (Carl F. H. Henry, God. Revelation and Authority, vol. 2: God Who Speaks and Shows. Waco: Word, 1976, p. 7).
Any final decision regarding the existence of the Christian God and the truth Christian worldview will necessarily involve decisions about issues related to the Christian Scriptures. Since details of that worldview flow from the Christian’s ultimate authority, the Bible, any negative reaction to one will likely produce a negative reaction to the other. Of course, to turn the coin over, a positive evaluation of one side of this equation should bear positively on the other. The Christian cannot pretend that his worldview was formulated in a revelational vacuum.
While all mature, thinking persons have a worldview, many of them are unaware of the fact. People often evidence great difficulty attaining consciousness of key elements of their worldview. Most of us know individuals who seldom think deeply enough to ask the right questions about God, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and humankind. As I have said, one of the important tasks for philosophers, theologians, and, indeed, for anyone interested in helping people in this important matter, is first to get people to realize that they do have a conceptual system. The second step is to help people get a clearer fix on the content of their worldview. What do they believe about the existence and nature of God, about humankind, morality, knowledge, and ultimate reality? The third step is to help people evaluate their worldview and either improve it (by removing inconsistencies and filling in gaps) or replace it with a better worldview. In the next chapter, I will examine recommendations regarding the best or most promising way to go about making a choice among competing worldviews.
The article above was adapted from Chapter 2 in Ronald H. Nash. Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in the World of Ideas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
About the Author: Ronald H. Nash (PhD, Syracuse University; 1936-2006) was professor of philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He also was a professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He previously served for 25 years as Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University. Nash was strongly influenced by such evangelical thinkers as Gordon H. Clark and Carl F.H. Henry. He influenced and mentored many young Christian philosophers and apologists during his life. He was a Fellow of the Christianity Today Institute, and a prolific author. He wrote hundreds of magazine and journal articles, as well as authoring or editing over thirty books, including:
Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in the World of Ideas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Student Library). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2003.
The Light of The Mind: Saint Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2003.
Great Divides: Understanding the Controversies That Come Between Christians. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993 (Republished by Academic Renewal Press, 2003).
Social Justice and the Christian Church. CCS Publishing, 2002.
When a Baby Dies. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
The Meaning of History. B&H Academic, 1998.
Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
Christian Faith and Historical Understanding. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
The Word of God and Mind of Man (Student Library). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1992.
Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate over Capitalism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.
The Concept of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
Stephen W. Brown on The Pain of Unanswered Prayer
When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.
Now, boys, remember one thing: Do not make long prayers; always remember that the Lord knows something.
—Joseph H. Choate
Good when He gives, supremely good, Nor less when He denies,
E’en crosses from His sovereign hand
Are blessings in disguise.
A FATHER OVERHEARD HIS SMALL daughter saying over and over, “Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo.” He asked her what she was doing, and she replied that she was praying. “What kind of prayer is that?” he asked. “I had a test in school today,” she replied, “and I was praying that God would make Tokyo the capital of France.”
The question before the house is this: why does God answer some prayers and not others? C. S. Lewis put the matter quite simply:
As regards the difficulty [of unanswered prayer], I’m not asking why our petitions are so often refused. Anyone can see in general that this must be so. In our ignorance we ask what is not good for us or for others, or not even intrinsically possible. Or again, to grant one man’s prayer involves refusing another’s. There is much here which is hard for our will to accept but nothing that is hard for our intellect to understand. The real problem is different; not why refusal is so frequent, but why the opposite result is so lavishly promised (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, p. 59).
We, of course, know why God doesn’t make Tokyo the capital of France. But what about prayers for a dying child, a faltering marriage, a divided church, or a straying daughter or son? Those kinds of prayers are reasonable and urgent. The granting of those requests would not seem to take anything from anyone else. A good and loving God would grant those kinds of requests. Why doesn’t he?
There are, of course, the quick and glib answers to those questions: God always knows what is best, and what is best might not be what we desire; God sees the whole picture and knows the beginning from the end, and he is working to bring forth good; we need to grow more than we need to have answers to our prayers; we aren’t exercising the right principles of prayer; God is chastening us for our good. I suspect that some of those answers may be true. I’m just not sure.
The Bible is strangely silent on why God doesn’t answer our prayers. It faces the fact that prayer isn’t answered. The Bible talks about sin and its negative effects on prayer. There are lots of recorded prayers in the Bible. But, mostly, the Bible doesn’t tell us why God doesn’t answer our prayers. What we can glean from the Bible on the subject is almost always indirect and not all that clear. The one book that brings up the questions is the book of Job, and it doesn’t give any answers.
So, don’t expect clear, easy, and simple answers in this chapter. I don’t know any. Believe me, if I did, I would give them to you.
In this world things don’t always make sense, consistency is hard to come by, and everything doesn’t fit into a nice theological box. I grow tired of those who seem to have God in their back pocket. God isn’t in anybody’s back pocket, and we must beware of those who pontificate. They either don’t know what they are talking about or they are fools. God’s response to Job who had been discussing with his friends his existential and theological dilemma was very much to the point: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me” (Job 38:2–3).
As I write this, our daughter Jennifer is visiting. She is the mother of three daughters (my grandchildren are better than yours), is married to a fine doctor, loves Christ with all her heart, and is the social organizer for the world. To this day, every time I look at her, I remember the first day of her life. She had a blood count that was climbing and a maudlin leg that wasn’t getting nourishment. There was a good chance that her leg might not grow.
When the doctor told me about the problems, I was devastated. I’m not a good person, but my socially redeeming value is that I love my family, and Jennifer, only a day old, was loved by both of her fathers—the One in heaven and the one on earth. I remember listening as the doctor told me about the possibility of taking Jennifer to Boston Children’s Hospital for a complete blood transfusion. He spoke of what was then a fairly high mortality rate for that kind of procedure. He told me he had called in a specialist who had examined her leg, and the specialist didn’t know what to say or what would help.
That night I was with some Christians who knew how to pray. I will never forget the simple prayer those dear Christians prayed: “Lord, we pray for Jennifer. In the name of Christ we ask that you would intervene and heal her. We will give you all the glory.”
The next morning Anna, my wife, who was still in the hospital, called very early. She didn’t say “hello” or “good morning.” She said, “Honey, did anybody pray last night?” I told her about those who had prayed. She said, “The doctor came in early this morning and said, ‘This is miraculous. The blood count is normal, and I’m no longer worried about the leg.’”
That was an amazing answer to prayer. You may have some alternate explanations, and you may talk about coincidence…but don’t talk to me. I don’t have ears to hear that kind of nonsense. God acted in a definite, supernatural, and loving way. That is my personal witness, and it is true. John the apostle gave his witness to Christ and it was hard to ignore: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled…we declare to you” (1 John 1:1, 3). My witness is sort of like that. I’ve been there. Not only in the case of our daughter, but on hundreds of occasions I have seen God answer prayer in dramatic ways. I’ve seen God act. I know the reality of answered prayer.
Now you may think that an answer like the healing of our daughter would still all the questions. Not even close! In fact, the whole, wonderful action of God has created more questions than you would believe. Why, for instance, if God acted in that kind of definite way, do I still sometimes have doubts about him and his love? How in the name of all that is holy have I managed to be unfaithful to him after he has treated me and my family with such kindness? Where in the world do I get off being anything but a faithful, obedient, and loving servant? There are some answers to those questions, and those answers are not very comforting. They have to do with my own sin and rebellion—my tendency to want to be autonomous. That is why Christ had to die for me.
There are, however, other questions that aren’t so easily answered, and those are the questions of this chapter. Over the years I have buried a great number of babies, have dried the tears of the parents, and have spoken the ancient words of comfort and solace. Why did my baby live and their baby die? They know God better, follow God more closely, and love God more deeply than I do. Why didn’t God save their baby instead of mine? What was it about the prayers for Jennifer of those believers that caused God to hear them and answer their prayers? What is it about the prayers of so many others who love Christ just as much that are not answered in that kind of dramatic way?
And then the questions form a wider circle: Why didn’t God answer the prayers of the Jews in the Holocaust? Was God deaf to the Christians who were killed in the massacre in Rwanda? Did the suffering people in Bosnia and Iraq pray? Why didn’t God answer? Then there are the questions that come from observing the people I love. Why can’t my friend get a job after all the prayers we have offered on his behalf? Why did that Christian marriage fail when the whole church was praying? Why did this one die? Why doesn’t that one quit drinking? After all, we prayed. We prayed hard.
I don’t know. I simply don’t know. But there are some things that I do know, and I want to share them with you in what follows. Again, no simple answers, just some thoughts from a man who has dealt with the unanswered prayers of many people and has a bunch of unanswered prayers of his own. For what it’s worth, I want to tell you why I’m still a Christian after examining a whole lot of data that would suggest that I’m a fool.
A Story of Answered Prayer – At the Very Heart
I’m a Lutheran pastor in New Jersey and prayer is at the very heart of all we do. We have seen the Lord do some remarkable things—like the incident I’m about to describe.
A member of our church named Ashley (who was fourteen at the time) suffered severe head trauma when she fell from the roof of a moving vehicle. She was rushed to a trauma unit in a local hospital, and her parents were told that her head injuries were extensive and that she might not survive.
The next few days were touch-and-go for Ashley. She was purposely kept in a comatose state. Her brain swelled from the injury, so a hole was drilled in her skull and a tube was inserted to release excess fluid. Doctors began to think that she could survive, but because of the brain trauma she had experienced, they believed she would be severely debilitated and would probably never walk or talk again.
Members of our congregation, including several of our prayer teams, prayed fervently for Ashley’s recovery. We also organized a prayer service for her and invited the whole community to attend, including students from our local high school.
On that chilly November evening, our church was filled to overflowing and anyone who wished was given an opportunity to voice their hopes and concerns in prayer. After a great outpouring of compassion for Ashley and her family, we concluded the service by singing “Awesome God.” As we did, we truly sensed His awesome presence among us. We did not know what the future would hold for Ashley, but we were certain of one thing—the Lord was truly present with her and her family. Many of us left worship with a sense of peace that was quite unlike anything that we had ever experienced before. Deep in our souls, we knew that no matter what happened next, somehow it was going to be okay.
Ashley made a recovery that even the doctors termed miraculous. She was able to talk perfectly just a few days later, and her ability to think clearly was intact. In a very short time, she had full use of her limbs and was walking without difficulty. She resumed her normal activities at school, home, and church, and even went skiing several times!
Ashley is now a student at Rutgers University.
We give great credit to Ashley for her determination and to the hospital staff for their expertise and skill; but most of all, we give the credit to our awesome God and the power of prayer. —Jack S.
WHEN GOD SAYS NO
Throughout this book I’ve related a number of incidents of answered prayer. The question isn’t why some prayers aren’t answered. The real question is why any prayers are answered at all. Art DeMoss, perhaps the most effective one-on-one evangelist I have ever known, would always respond to the query about how he was doing with these words: “Better than I deserve.”
The truth is that we are all doing better than we deserve. I grow tired of people who look down on those whose prayers are unanswered and assume the reason is because of the sin of those who prayed. The truth is that if God handed out positive responses to our prayers in proportion to the inherent evil in our hearts and actions, no prayers would ever be answered. If the doctrine of radical and pervasive human depravity is true—and I believe it is demonstrably true—then, by rights, every prayer you ever prayed would have fallen on the deaf ears of a holy and righteous God.
The story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector is instructive. You will remember that the Pharisee stood before God and was thankful for his personal goodness. He was especially thankful that he was not like the tax collector. There is nothing in the story Jesus told to suggest that the Pharisee was not as good as he said he was. I suspect he did all the things about which he bragged to God: He had not committed extortion, he was not unjust, he had never committed adultery, and he had certainly never taken money from poor people through taxes. He did fast often, and he gave a lot of money to good causes.
You will remember that the tax collector (the most vile of human beings, with the possible exception of a swine keeper, imaginable to a Jew) didn’t talk about his goodness. He didn’t have any about which to talk. Jesus said he stood “afar off” and dared not even look to heaven. His prayer was simple, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus made this amazing assessment of the prayer lives of the two men: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). Jesus makes at least three salient points in that story.
First, Jesus pointed out that external acts of goodness, even proper ones, are no reason for God to act positively on the prayers that are offered; those external acts of goodness often mask the sinful pride and arrogance of those who do them.
Second, Jesus showed us that God listens to bad people who know they are bad. And third, Jesus was showing us that there is no correlation between external acts of goodness and God’s positive response to our prayers.
The main point, however, is that God heard and answered the prayer of the bad man. If he didn’t, he would never hear my prayers, and he would never hear yours. The question is not why doesn’t God answer?—the question is why does he answer at all? When God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want him to, the proper response of a wise Christian is praise because he answers any of our prayers at all.
GETTING THE PICTURE CLEAR
Let me give you a principle: the nature of one’s actions can only be determined by the disposition of one’s motivations. In other words, it is not enough to know what a person does—it is also important to know why a person does what he or she does. For example, a man with a knife in his hand going after a strapped-down and helpless victim takes on a different meaning when that man is a surgeon performing a surgical procedure that will save a life.
It is desperately important that we know what God is like before we question what he does. If God is a monster, a cosmic child abuser, or a vindictive sadist, our unanswered prayers mean something quite different from the unanswered prayers by a God who is kind and loving. That is, by the way, the central issue. The Bible teaches that God isn’t just loving, but that he is love (see 1 John 4:8). The Bible doesn’t stop there either; it says that God is not only love but that he is sovereign too (see Rom. 11:34–36).
Rabbi Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good deals with the problem of pain and suffering (and indirectly with the problem of unanswered prayer) by saying that God is loving but not sovereign People (Rabbi Harold Kushner. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon, 1981). His book is an example of a compassionate and loving treatment of the subject by a man who has paid his dues and is struggling with the issue.
The problem is that if either one of those biblical revelations of God’s nature (that is, his love or his sovereignty) isn’t certain, prayer doesn’t matter. If God is just as upset, helpless, and powerless as we are, then we are in serious trouble. If nobody is in charge of this mess or if the One who is doesn’t care, we have a problem bigger than unanswered prayer.
Belief is a volitional act. When Job said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15), he made a volitional choice. It is the same one we all make in the face of prayers that are not answered. At that point, we can choose to look at the unanswered prayer and say, “There isn’t anything to it,” or we can look at the answered prayers we have experienced and the revelation of God’s love and sovereignty and say, “My Father, I don’t understand you, but I trust you.”
C. S. Lewis—by now you have discerned that C. S. Lewis is my hero, so if you know any dirt on him, just keep it to yourself—has written on this subject with great eloquence. Late in his life, he fell in love with and married an American woman. She died of cancer, and he was forced to go through a very difficult and painful time. During that time he wrote a small book titled A Grief Observed, which was first published under a pseudonym. Listen to what he says:
The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed—might grow tired of his vile sport—might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorable he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t (C.S. Lewis. A Grief Observed. New York: Seabury, 1961, pp. 35-36).
Either way, we’re in for it.
When you face the grim reality of unanswered prayer—or at least, prayer that seems unanswered—remember who God is and remember the principle: the nature of God’s actions can only be determined by the disposition of God’s motivations.
A number of years ago, I attended a Monday-evening worship service at a church in our community. They have seven full services and one of them is on a Monday evening. Because I often travel and speak on weekends, this church’s worship service on Monday is ideal for me.
On this particular occasion, I came to the church rather early. Only a few people were in the auditorium. I noticed a lady who was crying three or four rows in front of me. She looked so sad—disheveled and in great sorrow.
I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to intrude so I bowed my head and prayed for her.
Shortly, the auditorium began filling up, and the woman passed from my mind as we began to worship. During that early worship time, the congregation sang the wonderful praise song with the words, “God is good. He is good all the time.”
I remembered the lady for whom I had prayed and sort of leaned over to see if I could see her. I noticed she wasn’t singing the song. Her head was bowed, and she seemed so far from the lyrics of the song. But the second time the congregation sang the chorus, I noticed that her lips were moving. When we got to the third repetition of the chorus, I leaned over and looked at her, and very slowly she raised her hands in the air, looked up with tears streaming down her face, and sang loudly with the congregation: “God is good. He is good all the time!!”
Charles Spurgeon is often quoted as saying, “If you can’t trace God’s hand, trust his heart.” That is so good. The nature of God’s actions can only be determined by the disposition of God’s motivations.
A Story of Answered Prayer – A Day in the Park
I have been a Christian for a long time, but not a “practicing” Christian until about 2002.
I was in an abusive marriage for many years and had three beautiful daughters. After the divorce, the girls and I were put out on the street. With the help of my wonderful father, who loved me and the girls, we began to get our lives in order.
But then I began getting into stupid relationships going nowhere and doing all the wrong things. That’s when I encountered an angel in the local park who told me if I would just begin trusting God, he would do the rest.
I fell on my knees that very week and gave it all to God. I’m now married to a wonderful man I met in a restaurant, and my daughters are grown.
I wanted to tell you the story of a really lost little girl who has finally found her way through the grace of God. – Amy S.
HONESTY IN THE FEARS
Here’s an interesting question in our musings about why prayers seem to go unanswered: did God lie to us about life in general and prayer in particular? It is one thing to be upset with a person who makes a promise about doing something good and then fails to fulfill it and another thing to be upset with a person who has not made the promise in the first place. In the last chapter I gave you a number of biblical references to Jesus’ promises regarding prayer. It is very important to recognize that those promises do not constitute the entirety of what Jesus said about prayer or about the reality of pain and suffering.
Jesus also said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you” (Matt. 5:11).
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows. But watch out for yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues. You will be brought before rulers and kings for My sake, for a testimony to them” (Mark 13:8–9).
“They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 16:2).
“In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
Not only did Jesus say those things, he himself faced the pain of unanswered prayer when he asked the Father to remove the necessity of the Cross.
There are great dangers in believing or teaching that God will always do good things for you if you will only ask him, and if he doesn’t, it is because you didn’t have enough faith, exercise the proper principles of faith, or try hard enough. The truth is that the Bible never says anything even close to that.
I remember her tears.
She was a teacher in a community college and had invited me there to speak to her religion class on Paul’s theology. When I got there, I found out that God had a far more important agenda than Pauline theology. The previous night some well-meaning Christians had told her that her child with juvenile diabetes had already been healed. They had prayed, and they had faith. They told this mother/professor that if she would prove her faith by removing the regular insulin injections from her child, God would honor that by affirming the healing. Her tears mirrored her dilemma: if she stopped the insulin injections, her child could die. If she didn’t, her lack of faith would be the cause for her child’s continuing diabetes and eventual death.
I’m glad I was there. She needed someone who knew what the Bible really said on the subject. She needed someone to tell her that, while those Christians who told her that may have been well-meaning, they were ignorant. In my own experience that story could be repeated countless times. More times than I can remember, I have had to pick up the pieces of the believer who didn’t “exercise the right principles of faith” and who, because the problem got no better, was rejected by those who promulgated that kind of spurious teaching.
Listen to what the Bible says: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises” (Heb. 11:13). Now that is an honest statement of reality. Tell your friends who say the Bible is unrealistic to put that in their pipes and smoke it. The Bible faces the reality of prayers that don’t get answered, of needs that aren’t met, and pain that is not healed.
The much-quoted prayer of the unknown soldier is relevant:
I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was given weakness that I might obey.
I asked for health that I might do great things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I received nothing I asked for
But everything I hoped for;
My prayer was answered.
I am greatly blessed.
The next time your urgent prayers aren’t answered in the way you would like them to be answered, ask yourself three questions:
(1) has God loved me?
(2) has he demonstrated that love? and
(3) has he ever lied to me?
The proper answers to those questions won’t make the pain go away, but they will remind you that he is there, that he knows what he is doing, and that, even if you don’t understand, he does. It will remind you to never doubt in the dark what he has taught you in the light.
CATCHING GLIMPSES OF PROVIDENCE
Everything I have said so far in this chapter presupposes something that we ought not to presuppose—that the only answer to a prayer is yes. It’s been said so often that I hate to say it again, but I will: God always answers prayer, though not always in the way we would like. Sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, and sometimes he says wait.
We are an instant-gratification kind of people. What we want, we want right now—and sooner if at all possible. God is hardly in a hurry about anything. It has been said that God is very slow, but he is never late.
I can’t tell you the tears, the pain, the worry, and the fear that my father’s alcoholism engendered. Nevertheless, my father was the kindest man I have ever known, and he, more than any other, taught me unconditional love. I can understand why those who had horrible and abusive fathers wince when the heavenly Father is mentioned. But that has never been true for me. When Jesus referred to the Father and his goodness, I always thought of my earthly father and figured that if God was as kind, as gentle, and as unconditional in his love as my earthly father, I was going to be fine.
However, alcoholism is a horrible thing, and our family paid a high price for it. My mother, one of the most godly and earthy women I have ever known (she read Charles Spurgeon in the morning and the Bible in the evening; in between, she taught me how to cuss), prayed for my father for thirty years. My brother and I, when we were old enough to understand, joined our prayers to hers.
I can remember the time we thought our prayers had finally been answered. A colleague of my father, whom he respected and who was a recovering alcoholic himself, asked Dad to go with him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. For the first time in his life my father admitted he was helpless in dealing with his alcoholism and consented to do something about it. Do you know what happened? The night before the meeting the man who had invited my father was killed in an automobile accident.
You have no idea how many prayers were said or how often asking God to grant my father sobriety. I often saw my mother pleading with God for this one thing. But it never happened…until three months before my father’s death.
There isn’t room here to tell you the whole story, but in the short version, my father’s witness at the time of his death touched many people. He is in heaven now because a godly doctor said to him, “Mr. Brown, you have three months to live. First, we are going to have a prayer, and then I want to talk to you about something more important than what I just told you.” My father is sober now. And he’s safe because he’s “home.” He’s home because God’s timing was better than our family’s timing.
Am I suggesting that if God says no or wait to your prayers that eventually you will get that for which you pray? Of course not. The truth is that we may never know until we get to heaven why some of our prayers weren’t answered. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). That is the reality of having unanswered questions and unanswered prayers. However, sometimes God will allow you to look back and see his hand in the slow and certain answers to your prayers. When he does that, be glad.
A Story of Answered Prayer – Surprise Scholarship
I grew up in a family of moderate means. Some forty-four years ago, God overwhelmed me with his love on the cross, and I decided to head in the direction of seminary. My family helped with college but had no funds for me to go to seminary. So all through college I prayed fervently for the finances to make it through seminary. But by the time I was a senior in college, the money I had earned in high school and college and summer jobs was about gone.
That’s when my parents decided to move. I was upset and angry because I was going to be the first student from Alaska to attend one of our seminaries!
My folks moved and, through a miracle, were able to buy a house in an area where there was a waiting list of 100–150 homes to be built. Right away, they got a constructed house and ended up joining the closest church in our denomination.
And that congregation gave scholarships to students going into full-time church work. They paid for 90 percent of my seminary education—even for the last year after my folks had moved to another part of the country and had joined another congregation! – Glen Z.
WHEN WE GET HOME
Someone has said that there are two magnitudes that most of us forget: the shortness of time and the vastness of eternity. Those magnitudes are not without relevance when we consider the subject of unanswered prayer. It can be a cop-out if we make those magnitudes too glib and utter them too quickly. Those who say too quickly that they don’t fear death are often those who have never dealt with the certainty of their own death.
That being said, don’t forget about heaven.
There is a delightful story about a missionary who came to New York Harbor after a lifetime of work in missions. He was on the same ship with the man who was eventually to become the president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was, at that time, the police commissioner of New York and was quite popular.
When the ship came into harbor, there was a crowd waving banners and a brass band playing. The missionary wished the crowd had come to cheer him and that the band was playing for him. But of course he quickly discovered that they were there for Roosevelt. He watched as Roosevelt was lifted onto the shoulders of the adoring crowd, and to the sound of band music, the crowd made their way into the city.
The missionary walked down the gangplank of the ship to the dock. He was by himself. He was lonely,
hurt, and dispirited. He prayed, Lord, all these years I have served you in difficult places.
When Roosevelt comes home, he is greeted by a cheering crowd and a band. When I come home, there is no one to greet me, no band, no joy, no shouting.
Child, he heard a voice reply, you aren’t home yet!
I don’t want to minimize the pain of unanswered prayer. I have been there, and it hurts. I don’t want to give you clichés about heaven when you are having trouble dealing with the wounds of right now. But while the pain is doing its work and the wounds are beginning to heal, remember that you aren’t home yet. Remember the ancient words of the apostle:
I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people…. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:3–5)
ON NOT ORCHESTRATING HEAVEN
The purpose of prayer is prayer, not what you can get God to do for you. In other words, God’s desire, indeed, the reason you were created, is to be in a relationship with him. That relationship is the most important of your life. When the relationship becomes an exercise in seeing how we can manipulate God for our own purposes, the relationship is violated.
When I was a young Christian, I spent considerable time in prayer asking God for the salvation of my friends, for the protection of my family, for guidance in my life and ministry, for health, for resources to feed my family, for forgiveness, for my father’s sobriety, for the right husbands for our daughters, and on and on. It was after I had been walking with him for a long time that I heard him saying, Child, I know all of
that. I know all your needs. I won’t ever fail you.Now let’s spend some time together.
I have a dear friend who is quite wealthy. She has been a benefactress for countless universities and educational institutions. She has made a difference in numerous ministries with the benevolent use of her wealth.
We have been friends for over twenty-five years. One time I said to my friend: “I wish you were homeless, penniless, and without any kind of resource.” She was surprised at my words until I told her that one of the major problems of her life was in not being able to have a relationship with someone without wondering why that person wanted the relationship. “You never know,” I told her, “why someone is being nice to you, whether it’s because of who you are and the money you have. You have to always wonder what they’re after. If you had nothing, I could tell you I loved you, and you would believe me.”
God doesn’t have that problem. He knows why we come to him. Not only does he know, he understands. Don’t feel guilty because you have needs and the only resource you have is God. Bible teacher Ron Dunn said, “People are always saying, ‘Jesus is all I need.’ You will never know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you’ve got. When Jesus is all you’ve got, then you will know that Jesus is all you need.” Don’t feel guilty because the main reason you go to God is that you are afraid and have great needs. I suspect that he even created things that way so we would go to him.
If our pain were not so deep, our needs so great, and our resources so little, we might never go to him. If we never went to him, we would never find out how much he loves us and what a delightful thing this relationship really is.
About the Author: Dr. Steve Brown is one of the most sought after preachers and conference speakers in the country. Having had extensive radio experience before entering the ministry, he is now heard weekdays on the national radio program, Key Life, and one minute feature, “Think Spots”. Steve also hosts a weekly radio talk show, “Steve Brown, Etc.”. He served as the senior pastor of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church for 17 years before joining the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) faculty as Professor of Preaching. After teaching full time for almost two decades at RTS, Dr. Brown retired and is Emeritus Professor of Preaching but remains an Adjunct Professor of Preaching teaching occasional classes each year.
Dr. Brown is the author of many (16 and counting) books and also serves on the Board of the National Religious Broadcasters and Harvest USA (He earned his B.A. from High Point College; an S.T.B. from Boston University School of Theology; and an Litt.D. from King College). Steve is one of my favorite writers and speakers because he is authentic, a great story-teller, is a theologian in disguise, and really knows how to address the realities of how sinful humans can experience the amazing grace of God. The article above was adapted from Chapter 11 in his wonderful book on prayer: Approaching God: How to Pray. New York: Howard, 1996.
He Has Authored These Outstanding Books:
Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2012.
A Scandalous Freedom. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2009.
What Was I Thinking? Things I’ve learned Since I Knew It All. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2006.
Follow the Wind: Our Lord, the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.
Approaching God: How to Pray. New York: Howard, 1996.
Living Free: How to Live a Life of Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.
Born Free: How to Find Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy in an Authentic Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
How To Talk So People Will Listen. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
If Jesus Has Come: Thoughts on the Incarnation for Skeptics, Christians and Skeptical Christians by a Former Skeptic. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.
Jumping Hurdles, Hitting Glitches, Overcoming Setbacks. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992.
No More Mr. Nice Guy! Saying Goodbye to “Doormat” Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.
When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.
Welcome to the Family: A Handbook for Living the Christian Life. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1990.
When Your Rope Breaks: Christ-centered advice on how to go on living—when making it through another day is the hardest thing in the world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988.
Heirs with the Prince. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.
If God is in Charge: Thoughts On The Nature of God For Skeptics, Christians, and Skeptical Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker 1983.