Prayer, Suffering, and the Nature of God

So how’s your week? Oh yeah? Cool.

Mine included the two devastating, soul-crushing defeats of the Most Excellent Angels at the hands of the Boston Evil Sox of Boston. Which, of course, led me to contemplate the purpose of suffering, and prayer, and the nature of God. No, I don’t think I’m overreacting, why?

(WARNING: This post contains philosophy. Do not read while driving, or while operating heavy machinery. Some content may not be suitable for children or undergrads. The views of the author are not necessarily those of a rational person. Proceed with caution.)

Suffering poses a philosophical problem for those who believe God exists. If God is both omnipotent and loving, then why does suffering exist? Is he capable of alleviating suffering, but chooses not to, in which case how is he loving? Is he willing to alleviate suffering, but incapable, in which case how can we consider him omnipotent?

There is a classic solution to this problem. It argues that in God’s economy, it is the greatest good that counts, and therefore only as much suffering exists as is necessary to produce God’s best possible outcome, the most loving outcome for the most people. We’ll call those two concepts “necessary suffering” and “greatest good”. Like a doctor who causes pain in order to perform a life-saving surgery, some suffering is necessary in order to produce the greater good. A child may suffer with an abusive alcoholic father in order to produce a certain kind of character in that child, which will lead to great benefit for those influenced by the child when he grows up.

The greatest good requires the existence of free-will creatures, since so many of the great virtues (love, courage, integrity, justice, charity) are impossible apart from free-will. If we had been created as automatons, we would be incapable of any of those virtues.

There can be no world in which free-will exists, in which suffering does not also exist. God chose to decree a world with free-will, and allows only as much suffering as is absolutely required to produce the best possible outcome (either in overall human happiness, or flourishing, or if my undyed Evangelical roots are showing, numerical count of souls saved). So, God is constrained by these limitations, imposed by his own nature: the existence of free-willed creatures, the entailed existence of suffering, and the need to limit that suffering as much as is possible while producing the most loving outcome for the most people.

Each individual act of suffering can only be justified if it is necessary to produce the greatest good. If we hold that God is both loving and omnipotent, then we must hold that every actual instance of suffering is therefore “necessary suffering”.

We might rebut that some acts of suffering don’t seem connected to any redemptive good outcome, but we should acknowledge how limited our perspective on the matter is. We see a few things, for a few brief years, with limited understanding. God sees all things, and their eternal outcomes, with full understanding. On the basis of his character alone, we might yield him the benefit of the doubt and allow that all acts of suffering are necessary to produce some good that outweighs the bad.

Let’s lay out the classic resolution in nice tidy philosophy math!

  1. An omnipotent God can control all circumstances and outcomes for all given situations.
  2. A loving God would act to cause outcomes which produce the greatest possible good, and the least possible suffering.
  3. In a world where a loving and omnipotent God exists, every individual instance of suffering occurs only because it is necessary for producing, in the final balance, the greatest possible good.

If we accept this solution, the dilemma seems to resolve. I don’t think it does, though. I think it just shifts to the problem of prayer.

Does prayer influence God’s actions?

The knee-jerk response is “Yes, of course!” We are commanded to pray, and examples are held up to us of how to pray, those examples include petitions for actions general and specific, we are told that God moves in response to prayers, Jesus even gives us a handy parable that shows how important persistence is in having our prayers answered.

Let’s take a specific case of human suffering, a child with a painful and terminal cancer. Suppose that child is surrounded by loving people of faith, who pray fervently and earnestly for the child to be healed. I realize that in a reading audience of this size, there are undoubtedly people who have faced just such a case as this, and please, I mean no disrespect or insensitivity. I apologize for treating a freighted emotional circumstance as a math problem. Allow me though, if you will, to pose this case in a detached way in order to explore this dilemma.

There are 3 possible outcomes in this situation.

  1. God did not intend to heal the child, does not alter his intent based on the prayers, and the child dies.
  2. God did intend to heal the child, and intended so prior to any prayer, and actually does heal the child.
  3. God did not intend to heal the child, the prayers altered his intent, and so he heals the child.

The first two cases fit neatly into our previous perspective on necessary suffering. If the child does die, their suffering was necessary to bring about some greater ultimate good, even though we cannot possibly understand how or why. If the child is healed, then God was able to bring about the greater good without that particular instance of suffering.

It’s the third case that causes me to have mental hiccups. There are two states to God’s intent in the third case. Let’s call them (A) intends not to heal, which is the state prior to prayer, and (B) intends to heal, which is the state after prayer. In the classical resolution of the problem of suffering, only one of those two outcomes leads to the greatest possible good. If (A) leads to the greatest good, then (B) cannot. If, on the other hand, (B) leads to the greatest good, then (A) cannot.

This leaves us in a very difficult situation. If we allow that (B) does, in fact, lead to the greatest possible good, on the basis that it is the course God actually chooses to take, then we must also say that, prior to (B), in the case of (A), God intended to follow a course of action that included unnecessary suffering. We must choose between two equally distasteful horns:

The Unloving God

  1. A perfectly loving and omnipotent God only allows suffering that is necessary to produce the greatest good.
  2. If prayer alters God’s intentions, then there are some cases in which God’s intention prior to prayer includes greater immediate suffering, and intention after prayer includes less immediate suffering.
  3. Either God’s final intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s original intention does not, and includes unnecessary immediate suffering, or
  4. God’s original intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s final intention does not, and therefore produces less than best final outcomes, and unnecessary final suffering.
  5. A God who intends unnecessary suffering cannot be perfectly loving.

The Unhearing God

The alternative to the unloving God is to accept an unhearing God; we may strike point 2 from the argument above, and say that prayer does not alter God’s intent. Whatever he does, he always intended to do, and the earnest and persistent pleas of people of faith do not, in any way, alter God’s intentions.

I know there are some very smart, and very philosophically oriented people who hang out here, so if anyone can help me pick this lock, I would very much appreciate it. I don’t have a solution here, just the question. It seem like, in the end, we have three impossible choices: a God who is unloving, a God who is unhearing, or a God who is unable.

59 thoughts on “Prayer, Suffering, and the Nature of God

  1. Gretchen

    “3. Either God’s final intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s original intention does not, and includes unnecessary immediate suffering, or
    “4. God’s original intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s final intention does not, and therefore produces less than best final outcomes, and unnecessary final suffering.”

    Why? Why can’t it do both? God is omniscient. He knows the situation, the process and the outcome. Why can’t it be said that God’s initial intention will lead to the greatest good, and through prayer, his altered intention lessens the suffering present and still produces the greatest good. I know I’m the “pie in the sky” girl who wants “good” all the way around, but who doesn’t?

    There are so many examples of God allowing prayer to change his original path and still end up with His purpose coming to be. Abraham praying on behalf of Lot in Sodom, Elijah and the widow’s son, too many instances with David. I know there are many more situations in the bible where people pray for deliverance (of their own will and way) yet God says no, and we see the good in the final outcome, even with their suffering.

    Saying that prayer may or may not change things rattles my faith. I don’t pretend to have a magical power by praying, or some greater thought than God. However, I do believe that Jesus interprets our prayers and comes to God on our behalf. That he is loving, compassionate and hears those prayers, and yes even sometimes answers them in the way we had hoped. I find that very loving. I find God saying “no” and bringing about the greater good very loving as well, even when it hurts like hell and may not make sense in my lifetime.

  2. harmonicminer

    I may have mentioned this book to you before. If so, my apologies:

    God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God by Greg Boyd

    It deals with some of this very issue, with a somewhat different slant on the implications of true “free will” and what kind of universe that means God has made, and what God CAN know about the future in that universe, because of the way He chose to make it.

    I’ll say this: I was frozen in the paralyzed state of doubting the efficacy of prayer, based on lines of reasoning very similar to what you describe. I’m not there anymore. This book had something to do with it.

    I think the key is in understanding that “free will” is not just a characteristic of how God made US, but a characteristic in some other sense (call it chaos theory, if you like, or the butterfly effect) of the entire universe, and our very ability to HAVE free will depends on that essentially unpredictable character of the universe, because God made us as beings who are of this universe and live in it, for now.

    In some way, I think free will may be impossible in a universe where random bad things can’t happen that aren’t necessarily a part of anyone’s choice. How could beings of free will, whose thinking processes are partly determined by physics (not totally, but that’s a different subject), exist in a determined universe? If only random good could happen to me, what moral character could my free will HAVE, except to enjoy it all and smile a lot?

    The comet strikes now and then.

    In my case, it’s the damn birds…. twice in one week, even, about three years ago. They got me in Home Depot [who knew birds fly around in there], and then again a few days later as I was leaving the Warren Music building. (Sometimes it is an advantage not to have hair on top of your head.) I really, really doubt either event had anything to do with any bad choice made by any human, or any action of Satan, or sin, or The Fall, or anything but the fact that we live in that kind of universe, the kind necessary for beings with free will to exist.

    God listens. And according to scripture, in any kind of straightforward reading, He is affected by human action, including prayer, and does change His mind, can even be surprised at what we do, etc. Otherwise, the notion that He is “in relationship” with us would not be as meaningful. It’s popular to declare such passages anthropomorphic and deconstruct them out of clear meaning, due to philosophical presuppositions not found in scripture… and I’ve been guilty of that, too. I am repenting of that.

    But in some sense, I think Greg Boyd (and some others) are teaching me to read the Bible somewhat more literally than had been my habit.

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  4. aly hawkins

    I’ve been mulling this over since yesterday, wanting to respond but not quite knowing exactly what it was I wanted to say or how to say it. I knew there was something in there about how important it is to think well and deeply about the character of God, but coupled with a caution about thinking ourselves out of obedience. (Prayer doesn’t make sense, so I’m not going to do it!) Then I was tooling around the tubes and stumbled on this:

    Pondering the nature of God is essential, but it should be done with fear and trembling…. What can we say about God? What dare we say about God?

    God is love. God is a father, and a son, and a whispering ghost. God struck down nearly all of humanity in a killing flood. God nursed at the breast of a woman who freely chose to be grieved. God wept for the dead. God climbed unto a cross for his children. God is a consuming fire who will come again in power and glory and majesty.

    Who then can know God by mind alone? Who will stand before him on that day and declare: This is why you have done these things, Lord, for these reasons that I have explained in my books and sermons? Who claims to discern the entire essence of God? Who sees him more than in a mirror darkly?

    Intellectualize him at your peril.

    I have high regard for good thinking (even though I know I’m one of the knives that gets pushed to the back of the drawer for use only when all the sharp ones are dirty). But I’m also pretty sure that reason isn’t the answer to everything; in fact, thinky thoughts are particularly unhelpful when it comes to “figuring out” God. Not only that: Reason can be idolized just as easily as sex, wealth, notoriety, art, etc., etc., etc. — and when it keeps us from doing things (such as prayer) that help us know God in ways other than intellectually, it has indeed become an idol.

    You know all this shit. You’re one of the knives in the block on the counter. I’m just reminding you to use more than your brain to find some answers you can live with.

  5. harmonicminer

    Aly, you’re absolutely correct about “over-intellectualizing” if by that you mean doing frighteningly sophisticated logical operations on a small data set, convincing yourself that you know more than you actually do. A corollary to GIGO is NMINMO: “Not Much In, Not Much Out”.

    On the other hand, we have no choice but to think, evaluate, try to make sense of it, try to harmonize seemingly conflicting statements from scripture, etc.

    By the way, I’m a serrated knife with all the points rounded off, and difficult to re-sharpen. So I used to be good at tearing things up quickly (as opposed to slicing cleanly), and now my remaining utility is as a butter knife. Sigh.

    I don’t think anyone with any sense believes that “we can know God by mind alone”, but we have to use our minds to understand His revelations to us, and also to protect ourselves from false teachings with a patina of credibility.

    Mike, having thought a bit, I have a question. In your syllogisms you used the terms “good” and “love” as if we all have agreed on the meanings. Is it possible that those definitions are the root of the problem?

  6. harmonicminer

    I guess I mean this: please distinguish “love”, if you wish, from “maximum gentleness and ease-making”. You’ve used it, perhaps, in a way where that phrase would fit about equally well.

    And please distinguish “good”, if you wish, from “what makes human life easier, more pleasant, and less painful”. It’s also possible your use of the term “good” sometimes fits with “maximum possible spiritual benefit” or “maximum number of souls saved” or something of the sort, but that’s a good deal less clear to me, since some of your instances of “not good” are purely about life on earth, frequently physical consequences, etc. I suppose all of these share a focus on specific outcomes.

    Given those definitions, your syllogism is indeed compelling… but with other definitions, perhaps there are other perspectives.

  7. aly hawkins

    Phil – Yes, “we have no choice but to think, evaluate, try to make sense of it, try to harmonize seemingly conflicting statements from scripture, etc.” All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be surprised when we sometimes get to the end of our minds’ abilities to make sense of God. It might even be appropriate to feel relieved at those times.

    Michael – I agree with Phil that some definitions would be good (and by “good” I mean “helpful for communicating with maximal clarity and minimal misunderstanding”).

  8. harmonicminer

    Well, I’ll just say this, Aly. I’ve gotten lots more comfortable with what I never really expect to understand, and sometimes pleasantly surprised when I find myself feeling like I have learned something useful (that doesn’t happen often… I’m a slow learner).

    God’s ways are indeed sometimes inscrutable… and other times, they are just blindingly simple and clear. Or not.

  9. amuzikman

    Well, to all of you knives – sharp, dull, and in-between – remember this: it could be a lot worse.

    A marble

  10. Julie

    I guess I am a baby Christian when I read the question and then read the answers I was confused even more.

    My view is this. Sometimes God has a plan that we cannot see no matter how hard we try. I think that if people pray, maybe the whole reason the child was sick was to bring someone to a relationship with Him, regardless of the outcome of the sick child. The other option is perhaps God sees it rather simply, the child would have had an awful life and God saw fit to take the child rather than heal the child to bring her to His glorious place to live rather than suffer on earth. Remember even if God did not let the child die it does not mean that the child has a wonderful life with no more suffering.

    God listens to us, God tells us to pray, maybe it is a way of getting us closer to Him? I know that God always answers prayers, sometimes, yes, sometimes no, sometimes wait, but He always answers.

    If a child was sick and the people pray around her, regardless of the outcome God will still be there, to comfort, to rejoice, to help with mourning, or to move them through celebration. Sometimes it is not about the person they are praying for but rather the people who are brought to pray.

  11. june

    I’m a spoon. And, Aly and Mike are my superheros. (I’m sending you both tights for Christmas. And I never, ever want to personally view you, Mike, in them.) I like you too Phil.

  12. Eric

    I think the answer is really quite simple: God loves me more than you, hence the Red Sox won and the Angels lost. I’m just trying to figure what I did to tick him off last night… ;-)

    But seriously, I have struggled with this question off and on most of my life, usually whenever something happens to ME, or whenever I happen to think about it, or both. That isn’t meant to be flip. Whenever I stop to think about it, I come up with the same tangle (although you put it much more succintly). Most of the time I don’t think about unless it affects me personally.

    A week ago, my car was stolen from in front of my house (while I was home, no less). Undoubtedly this is God’s punishment for failing to support the Angels, but it really sucks and I did spend considerable intellectual energy wondering, “Why me?” “Why did God DO this to me?” “Why did God LET this happen to me?” Of course, I prayed that I’d recover my car intact.

    My car was found, but stripped of just enough parts and trashed just enough to be declared a total loss. Did God answer my prayer (I’m not even sure I’m asking rhetorically, just reporting)? All sorts of questions are churning up – Who would do this? Why did the thieves have to trash my car instead of just taking the parts they wanted? Why doesn’t God stop evil? Or more accurately, I suppose, why doesn’t God stop evil from affecting ME?

    On the other hand, I’ve experienced incredible kindness and grace. It was my car that was violated, not my daughter. Nothing irreplaceable was lost. My neighbor lent me her car to get my daughter to school. The family business I work for has lent me the shop van until I find another car. Someone at church offered to lend me transportation as well.

    Thanks for suggesting Greg Boyd’s book, Phil. It sounds like what I need to get some insight and some perspective.

    If the unthinkable happens and the Red Sox do win tonight, will I still be allowed to post here?


  13. michael lee Post author

    If the Boston Evil Sox of Boston manage to squeak out a victory (no doubt due to home-town umps and outright cheating) then this blog will immediately self destruct in a flaming pile mocking posts from Mr Chad.

  14. Mandy A.

    I don’t really know what I’m talking about (I’ve only taken Intro to Philosophy), but I’ve been thinking about this and decided to share my thoughts. (Please don’t bully the undergrad student for lack of clarity or understanding. I might cry.)

    If you’re definition of God in this question is “the supernatural being conceived as the perfect and omnipotent and omniscient originator and ruler of the universe,” then one of your final choices must be wrong. If God is unhearing, He is not omniscient. If He is unable, He is not omnipotent. If He is unloving, then God is not perfect. Therefore, either your definition of God is not the same as mine, or there is some error in the logic that caused you to arrive at these conclusions.

    I just don’t know exactly what that error is. This is the only thing I can think of: If you take a characteristic of God (i.e. He is unloving) and try to describe what He can (or must) and cannot do, then you are limiting Him, when really, He is limitless. I don’t really have a great answer for this problem, and it’s actually the first time I’ve ever considered it, but those are just a couple of thoughts I had when I read this.

  15. harmonicminer

    I understand the desire for a “limitless” God. Keep in mind that some ways of thinking, however, are really attempts to limit God’s choices in how He designed the creation, how He maintains it, what His relationship is to it, etc.

    Consider: it is impossible to have a totally loving God and a totally just one, if you define love as total unwillingness to do or tolerate harm, and justice as completely balanced consequences for choices.

    This is sometimes called “conflicting imperatives”.

    I still think the problem is one of definitions. That fact that God can’t make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it is not evidence that He is not omnipotent. While many of the examples we give are not so inherently silly, they frequently have the same flawed reasoning behind them.

    None of our superlatives (omnipotence, omniscience, all loving, omnipresence) can MEAN anything in the absence of God the Person… that is, it’s impossible to describe an omnipotent person who is not omniscient and omnipresent, etc. To have any of these traits may require a Being who has them ALL. What we can’t wrap our heads around is the total package…. I mean, you can SAY God is omnipotent, but what does that mean if you can state things that God can’t do… like die forever.

    Not to get all historical or anything, but the Bible doesn’t precisely say that God knows the entire future in exhaustive detail. It refers to specific things He prophesies…. and even then, it isn’t precisely clear if He is “predicting out of foreknowledge” or stating his “omnipotent intent” to bring them about by whatever means He deems necessary. This is not a knock on God’s omniscience. It may mean that God created the universe so that the precise future we will have cannot be known, even by Him. If you say He is unable to create such a universe, you’re saying He is not truly omnipotent. Again, conflicting imperatives…. Oddly, this (future not fully known) understanding of God requires a God who knows MORE than just the one future we’ll actually have. It requires a God who knows all possible futures, and knows He can work His will in each, and how He will do it in each case… which doesn’t have to be the same in each.

    So, oddly, the “God who doesn’t know the future exhaustively” knows MORE than the God who only needs to know ONE future, the one He has either pre-ordained or merely foreknows.

    Sorry about this if it seems like mumbo jumbo… It’s my clumsy attempt to recap one of the perspectives in the Greg Boyd book I mentioned earlier in this thread.

    It really is worth reading.

  16. Leonard

    Okay, so I skimmed the post and read the responses, thus creating a bias in my answer and forcing me to go back and read the actual post. As far as knives, forks, spoons and even a marble, I am more like a rake in a land of lawn vacuums. I still get the job done most of the time but not without a bunch of hard work.

    I am not much more than a pastor and believe these discussions have a great value as long as we do not fall in love with the sound of our own voices (read questions and thoughts) When the call comes in at 2:00am and it is the parents of a 6 month old boy who died in his crib, these answers do not help me love them. And when I stood with the family of the 19 year old who was run down by a car and we prayerfully pulled the plug, and then cried as life left his body, none of these questions or answers mattered. I can think of a thousand more instances where these questions do not really help.

    Please do not misunderstand, I think these questions and discussions hold great value and I am not trying to demean them, we must be able to ask questions that force our thinking to stretch.

    Very often when these questions are asked the people asking them (not you Michael) often end up feeling bigger and feeling as though God owes them an explanation. I believe God can stand the scrutiny but I am not sure we can handle our temptation to scrutinize God and find him wanting.

    In the end of the day, there will be much more about God I do not know and cannot know than I do know. Faith tells me to work of what I do know in order to trust him with what I do not know. I have a ton more but 24 season 6 is due back and I still have one episode to watch.

  17. michael lee Post author

    Leonard, I’m not at all suggesting that these answers belong in the pastoral handbook. They belong in fireside armchairs, or in the lecture hall, or at a web-based backyard BBQ. They don’t belong next to the hospital bed, or at the graveside, or in the counseling session.

    But this is also more than just idle musings. This is a serious stumbling block for me in my understanding of God, and I am incapable of surrendering reason at this point of inquiry. I find reason to be a deep expression of God’s breath within us, the purest reflection of his mind onto our own, so strongly knit into our nature that when He calls on us to “know” and to “believe”, he is striking the fundamental tone of our being, and every other human thought is the resonance of that fundamental, the rational being.

    God expects us to be rational. He gave us reason as our primary tool for investigating the world, to understand it, and by means of it to see him revealed in it. Every corner of creation obeys the laws of reason, by necessity, and it is so complete a tool of inquiry that, as Paul tells the Romans, God holds us accountable to know his laws of justice and love simply by application of reason to the data of the universe.

    God desires to be known by us. God fitted us with reason as our most trustworthy tool of knowledge. I must believe that God expects us to apply that tool in our search for him.

    I cannot accept that such a God, who crafted such a place, would expect those who are striving so earnestly to know him to lay aside the first, best tool he gave them at their moment of deepest inquiry.

    I share Phil’s concern with the “limitless God”, the God who at any time can do anything at all, who can chose any possible path without consequence. Removing all constraints from God’s freedom to act, including constraints based in his own nature, makes God again directly responsible for all suffering in the world.

    If I am able to rescue a drowning person, but stand by and do nothing, I am responsible for that person’s death. If God is likewise capable of freely meddling with action and consequences with no constraints, and yet stands by to allow suffering, he is responsible for that suffering.

    Such a God may exist, but if he does, he deserves no allegiance, and no loving praise.

    I do not believe in such a God. I do believe in a God who is perfectly loving, and all-powerful. As such, I believe that the only limitations on his actions are those imposed by his own nature – the limitations demanded by love, by justice, and by the pursuit of the best possible outcome for all his created beings.

    But I cannot reconcile that fundamental belief in the goodness of God with a God who is limitlessly free, in response to prayer, to alter any and every circumstance to eradicate suffering, in the overwhelming presence of so many circumstances where he does not.

  18. Leonard

    Michael, not trying to suggest these thoughts and conversations are not necessary. I also believe you know the place for these, if I intoned any different I apologize.

    I challenge that Reason is the primary tool given to us. I agree Paul told the Romans in Romans 1 that they were heal accountable for their poor use of reason, because reason often requires a bridge of faith in the places were our limits create a gap. You know this because you live this daily.

    Faith is the primary tool God gives us because it overpowers reason. But faith requires me to give up my control of the “gaps” my reason cannot bridge. Hebrews 11 states it is BY FAITH WE KNOW… This is huge. God defies reason and where God does defy reason it is not because he is inconsisten but because my reasoning is limited.

    I believe we are to use reason to discover God, the world around us and to know and reason our faith. I study and have studied my whole life, I believe in reason it is just the older I get and the more I know, the more I realize that God works on a different standard than I do. Kind of like his ways are not mine.

    This past week I had someone accuse me of a double standard in how I acted and how they acted. As I listened to their tale of a double standard, this thought came to me. It is not a double standard, it is two standards all together.

    It was not a double standard as if we were equal, it is to different standards because we are not equal. I have a different set of duties, responsibilities, accountability and much more. I don’t have to work off the same standard and to do so would be to limit my work. For my co-worker to hold me to the same standard as himself is a misunderstanding of his place in our church. He allowed the assumption of a double standard to erode trust and build mistrust. In essence his ability to reason what did not compute began to erode his faith.

    I am not saying this is you Michael, but is is true of many I know. If it is okay with you I would love to extend the dialog here.

    Your posts are so well written and filled with so much all at once. I would with your patience keep engaged in this since I too believe it is important.

  19. harmonicminer

    I would take a different view of the relationship of faith and reason.

    Faith does not exist “in spite of” reason. Faith is a reasonable response to evidence.

    Yes, there are people who reason poorly, and people who reason well from incorrect presuppositions. For such people to arrive at faith, it will have to be “in spite of” their poor use of reason and evidence. The answer for these people, however, is to work with them in the quality of their reason, and the quality and nature of the evidence and presuppositions they accept as the starting point for reason.

    God’s primary vehicle for revealing himself is the scripture, even acknowledging the role of inspiration and the Holy Spirit. The scripture is in words. Our job is to try to understand the words, as a step to knowing God. Sometimes the words appear to be contradictory on a surface analysis. At that point, reason is our primary way of working through the problem, and arriving at a conclusion that allows us to live fully.

    I would argue that it is faith that allows us to use our reason effectively. “Faith seeking understanding” is a very old idea. But it runs both ways. Reason, well employed, increases faith. And it takes faith to take the risk of where reason may lead.

    Faith and reason are not opposites, nor are they in conflict, correctly employed. They refine each other, and correct each other. They are inseparable twins.

    Regarding the pastoral implications of correct reasoning about this, I can only (again) recommend Greg Boyd’s book, already linked earlier in this thread. Boyd is a pastor. He believes that the “open view of the future” has been very useful in helping tragically bereaved people reconcile God’s love and providence with the experience of their lives. It removes the necessity to “blame God for what He could and should have prevented”, yet it does not deny the power and love of God in any sense. And, it is based on hope, of the Pauline sort, and the promise that, in spite of it all, God is STILL working the future to bring about good for those who love Him (and many who don’t, for that matter).

  20. michael lee Post author

    @ Leonard:

    If it is okay with you I would love to extend the dialog here … I would with your patience keep engaged in this since I too believe it is important.

    I’d like that very much.

    By the way, nothing you’ve said here reads as belittling or dismissive or insulting in any way – we have a policy here of granting every comment the charitable reading, whenever possible. It serve us well!

    Pull up a chair, grab a cold one, and stay a while.

  21. Christopher

    I want to put a disclaimer saying I have not read any other comments before posting mine so I hope that I am not interrupting anything or repeating anything. I have only read the original post.

    …Also my undergraduate level of understanding comes into play and I am still new to philosophy, be warned….

    Personally I refer back to the original 7 phases of Creation and I question that everything was Good up to when he created us. I feel that this view was written down and taken as a biased perception that God would not create suffering or Evil but contradicts the aspect of God being the Creator of Everything.

    In truth I feel that suffering and Evil are stages in which were necessary parts of development in order to create life in the beginning. Without Good there is no Evil without Evil there is no Good and in turn as a result he created Free-Will to give us (as well as any other organism out there with Free-Will) the choice. To put it more mathematically and realistically I see that when God was writing down or waving his hands to create the heavens and the earth and the universe he began to create equations for Free-Will and Suffering and Good and Virtue and Evil and Hatred that would go in turn with the balance of everything in order to create life. (I want to go more into this but honestly its a new concept that i’ve picked up from reading your post….more to come in the future from this)

    So what does this have to do with after billions of years of creation he still allows us to suffer?

    The very existence of Free-Will. You simply can not blame God for cancer, for poverty, for famine but in turn we the beings that were created in the image (or as I view it the reflection) of God that are to blame. With the ability of Free-Will we are Free to add to the great equation of life and fail to follow by the rules throughout time and instead fall into the seven deadly sins.

    Is God suppose to treat us like his innocent children for all of eternity? Being the only thing in existence that can cure things with a snap of a finger? And how will that truly play into the balance of everything?

    In truth as the human race continues to progress through time I feel that God will become more and more distant but not in a bad way, but rather in a fatherly way. I feel that it is this distance that has caused events to occur such as the Great Flood and the Crucifixion of the anointed one. We have yet to learn. We fail to remember that we are not alone in this universe but rather a small piece of this great puzzle. Astronomers are finding that small specks of black in our sky are filled with millions of galaxies farther and farther away. But what does this mean about suffering? Just as you’ve said and i’ve said, there can not be Good without the presence of evil and even though people try to say that those are points of views I have to say that those points of views can be seen very commonly throughout any being of Good or Evil. We are all here in this universe on whatever planet we are one to learn and in my opinion reach a point where we can be understood mentally and physically to be balanced entities to sit at the throne of God.

    This is where I believe the concept of Heaven and Hell truly come from, but that is another discussion completely.

    Don’t be too harsh on me this time but rather I look forward to reading remarks to what I have to say. I want to write more but I feel like it would take much of my time and its 1:46 in the morning with class in 6 hours so I better get to sleep. I hope to continue on with what i’ve already said because this is the points of discussion I find to be important. It will be when people can sit and discuss the aspects of realty and existence hand in hand with the cause and effect of instances that we will find truth in the world as well as balance both mentally and socially.

  22. harmonicminer

    “we have a policy here of granting every comment the charitable reading, whenever possible”

    Hah. What about the times somebody decides it ISN’T possible?


    [weeping quietly]

  23. harmonicminer

    Nope. Writing music is WAY too easy.

    So far I’ve built a large redwood bridge (to connect my driveway to my mother-in-law’s house across a wash) and a really huge bird play area. (Thinking of going into business making these.) I’m teaching my son chemistry and music, and researching guitars for him.

    Actually, I’m thinking of mounting a last minute run at the Presidency as a write-in candidate.

    My platform is simple: things will not get worse. Or, at least, not much.

  24. Christopher

    After reading a few comments, I would like to take time to comment first and foremost about the reasons and explanations to contemplate the reasoning of God.

    I feel that this is a better practice than debating how pretty we are, judging how much greater our art is vs your art or finding a higher price to put on our art in order to make the gap between rich and poor even larger. When we understand the rational reasoning for topics such as suffering via the influence of God we can gain more control over the chaotic nature that is existence.

    Another point I would like to bring up is the relationship between religion and the middle way that is Buddhism. I want to bring up this point because of the definition of karma. Buddhists believe that Karma follows you throughout your journeys of lives, so lets say a simple explanation for someone suffering from cancer is that in a previous life they may of gotten away with multiple murders that were caused for the only reason of their own desire and lust for power over other humans. A simple conclusion I know but an interesting concept relating back to the overall equation that could be the interrelationships of our existence.

  25. Leonard

    I am going to be kind of simple in this dialog as I do not possess the intellect you guys have or Greg Boyd.
    You get no argument here that faith and reason can and should co-exist. But let me be a bit of an antagonist for a bit. I just returned from India and where I was there are many extreme Muslim and Hindu people. These folks are extreme not on the basis of reason but on the basis of blindness, history and illiteracy. Many of them cannot read. Their brand of extremism comes from tradition and hype and fear, not reason and faith. Then, into a village comes a mobile medical clinic we built about 18 months ago. The village gets treatment for sickness, medicine, vaccinations for preventable disease and love and kindness and dignity.
    After a short while some in the village become Christians because in their own words; “even our own people will not love and care for us this way. But you, people we were told were our enemies, show us love.” In other words, these people experience something that defies reason and faith blooms. Then the respond in a way that defies their reason. Reason says, “hey, if you follow Christ, you will get beaten, suffer, be an outcast and die.” Faith says, “because of the kindness of God I have seen and the healing of God I have received, I will follow Him.” This is actually what takes place in John 9 and several other places in the Gospels.
    In nearly 30 years of ministry, I have rarely answered with information a question that made someone come to faith. I have seen literally thousands upon thousands of people come to Christ, but it is so rare that this approach brings faith. I know faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God, but that does not necessarily include or preclude reason. It sometimes involves the simple story of God’s love on the cross and the resurrection. Both of these key gospel pieces defy reason, at least my reason.
    Most people I am privileged to lead to Christ make a step of faith on the basis of something personal. Or let me rephrase, in the face of reasons inability to piece together everything. I know I am talking below the level of this discussion, but I think it necessary to understand that trust in God, faith as it were, is what leads to assurance in God in the face of what is unseen, unknown and unknowable.
    I came to Christ on the basis of something personal in my life. My dad abandoned us when we were young, leaving a hole inside me. It was not reason that drew me to Christ is was the promise I would have a father, a Heavenly Father. Every adult I lead to Christ has the same story.
    I met with a guy recently and told him; If I could answer every question you had about God right now, would you give your heart to him? His answer was no. When he finally did, it was because in spite of what he did not know, he needed to be forgiven. It was personal.
    Take another step. (I am sure you already have) Enter into the mix free will. My view of free will is not me having the ability to do whatever I want, rather it is me having the ability to choose my master. I am sure there are many holes in this, please be gentle. I have never been free to do anything and everything, I have only been free to pick a path. For example, I can say, I don’t want to work anymore, I am free. I can make this choice but my freedom as to where I live, what I eat, what I wear, how my family survives… all is impacted. I am not free to do this. I have responsibilities that limit my freedom. I have morals that limit my freedom; I have values that limit my freedom… I am not free. In the Garden of Eden, Mankind exercised free will and chose a different master than the one they walked in the cool of the evening with. They chose to “eat” and in doing so were left with the consequences of that choice and so are we. Choosing the wrong master has huge ramifications. Jesus spoke about truth and freedom, but a careful read points out that freedom in Jesus’ economy is submission and obedience to his words.
    Let me go a step further. Now I am in dangerous waters. God’s Sovereignty is in essence his ability to do whatever he wants with whatever he chooses. Hand me a pile of bricks and there is a huge number of things I can build, but all of those things will be limited by me and by the materials I work with. Hand God a pile of bricks and he can build a zebra if he wants to. He can build a car, a cat or something with bricks. He is not limited to building with bricks only that which can be built by bricks.
    Translate that to my life. God has taken the pain of my life (bricks as it were) and built with said bricks something not made of brick. He has taken hurt and anguish and made trust and wholeness. He has taken weakness and made strength. He has taken sickness and disease and made hope and health. His sovereignty means that whatever I hand him he can use. We say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, but god is not limited to this. When life hands us lemons and we pass those on to our heavenly father, he can make salsa if he wants. He can do what he wants with whatever he wants.
    Adam and eve handed God a brick of sin. He took it and from his own account, created redemption. Acts 4 gives us the pinnacle of this sovereignty. They took the only innocent human that ever lived and murdered him but God had a plan and that plan was to make from murder soup and redemption feast. That is why their prayer starts “Sovereign Lord.”
    Forgive me for my infusion of homey thinking. I do not mean to short circuit the dialog of a fireside armchair, it is just that I have lived so long in other places I rarely get to go to the fireside armchair. Thanks for the indulgence.
    Let me stop here except to say, we cannot ferret out certain attributes of God as individual traits. They are all him and inseparable from each other. He is or he isn’t. Could this be a part of what he meant when he said I AM? I also hope this is not the conversation killer kind of post. We have seen Chad do that before. (I would put a little smiley face here with a winking eye if I knew how)

  26. michael lee Post author

    Leonard, I think you might be working from a more limited definition of reason than I am. Reason is not the whole body of philosophy, working through the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God, or anything like that. Those things are all the fruit of reason. Reason is the tool, not the result.

    I’m defining reason as the basic set of knowledge tools that all people are born with:

    If this, then this
    If this, then not this

    The example you gave of conversions on the basis of loving acts, your final summary statement is an almost perfect statement of reason; “because of the kindness of God I have seen and the healing of God I have received, I will follow Him.”

    In that case, it is reason that allows the person to evaluate the value of the God revealed against the cost of the suffering to follow, and to chose belief.

  27. Leonard

    I can see what you say Michael. Would it then be fair to say that our reason is damaged by sin? and if so to hold a God, undamaged by sin accountable to reason damage by sin makes me question the reason not God. Just say warmer or colder and that will help me.

  28. Christopher

    I see sin as acts opposite of reason (Michael may see this differently) because if you take for example Greed. If the higher authorities in a certain area become fearful and hoard the food to themselves they cause famine in the lower (or poorer) part of the area, thus resulting in suffering and in turn the need for virtuous men/women to save that area (playing more as the hands of God answering prayers)

    Hopefully that is on the right track. Saying rather it is not damaged but a path opposite of reason that is the overall actions of evil in and of itself.

  29. michael lee Post author

    “Just say warmer or colder and that will help me.”

    Funny man, funny man.

    I think I would say that the structure of reason, the basic laws of reason, are part of the furniture of the universe, unimpeded by sin. Like the law of gravity, or thermodynamics, it just is, and human frailty doesn’t have any impact on their existence.

    Sin causes us to use reason in improper ways, or to give undue weight to some data, or to prefer certain outcomes over others. If I reason that I should hoard my excess food against the possibility of future famine, and do nothing to ease the immediate hunger of my neighbor, that’s not a failing of reason, that’s a failure to give charity its due value in the equation.

    I find this to be true of many, if not all, of the cases where the bible seems to relegate reason to the back seat. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, the wisdom of the world is failing, God’s truth is foolishness to those who do not believe – these are all indictments of a faulty data set. We value things that God does not, God values things that we do not, we are all too willing to use the tools of reason to accomplish unreasonable things, or things that would be unreasonable if we acted out of a godly perspective on the world and those in it.

    I think this uncorrupted aspect of reason can be seen in how we use it as a corrective to poor choices. If someone who is part of our worshiping body chooses to engage in repeated acts of sin, we appeal to their reason. “Think of what this is doing to your family”, or “Scripture clearly points out that this is contrary to God’s will”, or “Is this really worth the cost to break communion with God in this way?” These are appeals to reason, albeit appeals that rely on a set of values that seem foolish to unbelievers. Even when a person is in obvious sin, we assume that their faculty of reason is still intact.

  30. Eric

    Could it be that terminology is causing some confusion, Mike? You write that “the basic laws of reason are…unimpeded by sin,” but in the next paragraph, “Sin causes us to use reason in improper ways.” I understand the subtlety (I think), but it seems as though it would be fair to say at least that our reasonING (the way in which we apply the laws of reason) is certainly damaged by sin, or at least by our limited (and generally egocentric) viewpoint.

    All the “reasonable” arguments used to appeal to those of us in sin can’t counterbalance the faulty “reason” of, for example, addictive or compulsive behaviours.


  31. harmonicminer

    I might put it this way:

    The basic laws of reason are unimpeded by sin.

    Our ability to apply those laws correctly is impeded by our finiteness, first, and our sin, second.

    But consider: the very FIRST sin we have on record was a result of faulty reasoning. It cannot be correct to say that it was the RESULT of sin, because sin hadn’t appeared in humanity yet. Eve reasoned incorrectly, i.e., she was taken in by a faulty argument, and THEN she sinned. The record is quite clear.

    Now here is what I meant by faith and reason being correctives for each other. If Eve’s FAITH had been stronger (that God loved her, wanted the best for her, knew what that best was, and would lead her to it in due time, in His way, to her benefit), her faulty reasoning, abetted by the serpent, would have generated questions for her to ask God, but would not have resulted in sin. Or, if Eve’s REASON had been stronger, even though her outright faith in God was weak, she would have asked the obvious question of the serpent, “Exactly who are YOU, and why should I believe anything you say?” That would have been the beginnings of epistemology.

    There is a further point. One way to discern the faith a person has is by the choices they make. Eve seems to have had a failure of faith in God’s good will and providence for her. In addition, she seems to have had faith in the serpent, enough to act on the serpent’s advice and false information and reasoning. In other words, she had faith in the wrong person, or the wrong thing, as proved by her choice. The story is a perfect illustration of the fact that faith is insufficient without reason. One may have faith, great faith, in a great many false things.

    Both her reason and her faith failed. And she sinned. The same is true for Adam, who would have done well to ask a few skeptical questions of her, born out of REASONED desire to understand the situation clearly, but who also would have been rescued had his FAITH in God been stronger.

    Leonard, I have to point out that Hamas does many of the things in Gaza and the West Bank that you did in India. It provides food, clothing, medical care, even jobs and housing. And, I have to say, the reason that so many Palestinian people feel positively towards Hamas is because it seems to them that Hamas cares for them. It would be possible to take what you wrote about serving the Indian people, and substitute the Palestinian people, and take what you said about leading them to Christ, and substitute Allah and Islamic radicalism. It would be possible to take your comments about people choosing Christ, not out of reason, but out of faith in the source of the love they have received from Christians, and substitute people believing the revelation of Allah, not out of reason, but out of faith in the love and care they may feel from Hamas. And, it is surely clear that the faith they have is “unreasonably” self-sacrificial…. frequently explosively so.

    Reason is the only defense you have from someone who treats you with apparent love, but for false motives. (There are some political implications in this, as well, but that’s a topic for a different thread.)

    The church, all too often, has lionized faith to the detriment of reason, not understanding that the Biblical definition of faith was not the ability to believe twenty impossible things before breakfast, but the ability to live as if you believe things that are TRUE, and which, at a minimum, cannot be proved false by anyone. Even that minimalist standard requires reason. It is quite simply impossible to read the letters of Paul, in particular, and not grasp how critical reason is to the Christian. Paul uses reason to combat faith in false things constantly, as he does battle with Gnostics, Judaizers, pagans, and other false teachers. He doesn’t just say, “That’s wrong,” he says WHY, using the tools of reason working on correct information as starting points.

    He would be a difficult person with whom to debate, I think. And he is the model for all missionaries, is he not? Please understand, I’m not suggesting that debate was his primary evangelizing tool (though he certainly used it that way on occasion), but I am suggesting that he was a very thoroughly grounded person intellectually, able to show the falseness in some seemingly logical teaching, by using the tools of reason. It is no accident that God chose Paul as the original missionary to the Gentiles (with his intellectual background, education, and scholarly credentials), and we would do well to emulate ALL of his characteristics, including a strong integration of faith and reason.

  32. Leonard

    Phil, I actually think we agree on the reason/faith combo. I prepare to speak hundreds of times a year and reason is always a part of my preparation and presentation. I also agree that reason is a primary tool in the development of faith as well. I am not suggesting otherwise, or at least I am not trying to suggest otherwise.

    As a primary tool Paul would find a synagogue, go reason and see if any Jewish people wanted to discover the Messiah, he was often backed up by miraculous power. Both of which were empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring about faith. Which by the way is the big difference in Hammas and our work in India. The Holy Spirit and the Gospel.

    If reason is its own entity so to speak with a governing set of rules or law, can you tell me what those laws are? That would help me understand your OS here in this discussion.

    I think that even if reason remains untainted that we do not. We kind of get in the quagmire of greed. Greed is not only about stuff it is about knowledge, power, information, influence and I am sure you can think of more as well. Reasoning corrupted is a some of the most fertile soil for greed to plant its seeds. The human hearts capacity to be deceived and to deceive itself makes the corruption of the reasoner almost limitless and almost undetectable to the reasoner. Pride (loving the sound of our own voice and thoughts) tends to move us deeper into a quagmire (one of mt smart words) of self deception, corrupted reasoning and eventually landing us under the hand of a perfect God. This is my summary of Romans 1.

    I have a tendency to be a bit self preoccupied in my reasoning, so even if reason remains uncorrupted by sin, I do not nor do you. For reason to be effective in the area of THE Faith, the reasoner must be regenerated, submitted, and humble. Even then we have a million kinds of Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Nazarene, Church of Christ… you get the picture. Some of which are absolutely convinced of the reason used to create their faith structure and doctrine. And this is with the help of the Holy writ and God the Holy Spirit.

    Every few years someone comes along and says all the reasoning used before was wrong and now there is a better way to reason, a better starting point, a better set of questions… They say you misunderstood all along, and were off in your original interpretation… This is what could be classified as church history or just the emergent movement, or the reformation, or the great awakening, or the charismatic movement from Azusa Street in 1906 or …

    Boil that down and you have some pretty big questions and some pretty small answers.

    What if as a part of our corrupted reasoning we were asking questions we were not meant to ask? Kind of like the 7 year old who is supposed to be asleep but interrupts his parents intimate moment with the question… What are you two doing in there? Most parents are not going to answer the question with a detailed explanation of sex, but rather an immediate “GO TO BED” followed by a simple. Mommy and Daddy were praying… you get the point.

    One of the most devastating impacts of too much information on the hearts and minds of kids today is they ask questions they cannot answer nor could they handle the answer if they had it. We call this the loss of innocence. Much faith loses its innocence simply by its demand for answers.

    When I got the call that my 5 month old cousin had dies of sids and his parents needed me, I hopped a plane and spent 8 days with the family. When I walked up the driveway the parents ran to me and fell into my arms. We stood in the driveway for an hour and cried together in each others arms. We then sat down and cried for a few more hours, in silence, in pain but together.

    In the morning we sat down and began to work on the “next” thing to do. for 2 days we cried, moved to what was next, cried moved to what was next and then the question came. WHY? Why did this happen? Was it our sin, was it God’s fault, WHY? Why? why…

    My response was “I don’t know” then we cried, got angry, cursed (me too) cried, got depressed, and did what was next. In the final couple days there I sat with the parents, grand parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, all people of faith.

    I asked them; other than an explanation, what do you need from God right now. Comfort, confidence and hope were their answers. In that moment, the gap between understanding God and human pain and reasoning powers gone wrong was so big and trite “all things work together” quotes sounded like bullshit.

    I encouraged them that while “why” was a natural question to ask it was a thief. It was the one question that would steal from them what they needed from God. Why steals our confidence in God’s love, power and kindness. Why, demanding and answer, leaves us trapped in a place without hope. Why keeps us stuck in a place where comfort look in on us but never stays. Why is a thief. One reason is that even if it were answered, we would not think the answer worth it. If God told me why, I would not say, Okay God, that is fine, its worth the death of my baby, my dreams and the plans we made for his life. Thanks for answering me.

    I tell you this, not because you are missing some piece of information but because it illustrates how stinking damaged we are as reasoners. Even with the Rules of reason firmly entrenched I am damaged interpreter of the information my reasoning or others reasoning brings and I am a damaged investigator because my questions come with a damaged bias.

    Just thinking out loud here Warmer…? Colder…?

  33. michael lee Post author

    Leonard, I’ll jump in the middle just to address your question on what the rules of reason are. Wikipedia has a decently well-written reference page here. They are basically:

    The Law of Identity: a thing is itself [A = A]. Red is red.

    The Law of Non-Contradiction: a proposition and it’s contradiction cannot both be true at same time and in the same manner. [if A=B, then A ≠ not B] An apple can’t be both red, and not red, at the same time and with the same meaning for all the words.

    The Law of the Excluded Middle (sometimes a subset of the law of non-contradiction): A proposition is either true or false [if A=true, then A≠ not true] If it is false that all apples are red, then it is not true that all apple are red.

    There’s a case to be made for a fourth law, sometimes called the law of sufficient reason, or the law of causality. It was more popular a hundred years ago, before Einstein and quantum weirdness, but I think a good case can still be made for it.

  34. harmonicminer

    Thanks Mike. I’d like to exclude some of MY middle.

    It’s also worth pointing out that these foundational laws of reason also give rise to several extensions, both in terms of principles that get us someplace, and in terms of definitions of logical fallacies.

    And, even with laws of reason in place, we’re still stuck with having to discern the quality of our starting facts and presuppositions.

    Leonard, I don’t think there are ANY questions we shouldn’t ask. But there are times when asking particular questions can be more helpful, and times when asking the same questions can be less helpful.

    The time to be doing your careful thinking about the WHY of human suffering and loss is not right after your right arm has been accidentally cut off…. Or, as you point out, when your child just died. The time is much sooner than that, so that you are a least a bit better prepared for the suffering and loss we all face, sooner or later. No one has a corner on it.

    I continue to believe that certain theological perspectives are simply less “comforting” than others. And, in my opinion, the less comforting ones are frequently less supported by scripture. That’s why I keep recommending a certain book… read earlier in the thread for that.

    I certainly agree with the role of the Holy Spirit working in us to lead us to proper perspectives. But surely there is no chance that the Holy Spirit will lead you to believe that Moses was also Abraham, or that one could be a Gentile and Jew at the same time, or that some pagans are really Christians, or whatever. Yet, equally silly propositions have been put forth by people, frequently claiming the Holy Spirit as their origin.

    The Spirit works in me (I hope and believe), but I am unlikely to directly see it in someone else. All kinds of people claim the operation of the Spirit as their reason for doing and believing all kinds of things. My primary defense against such is less likely to be the Spirit whispering in my ear “Don’t trust THAT guy” than it is to be my reasoned evaluation of what is claimed, in the light of scripture and tradition. Paul tells us to test everything, and this is part of what he meant. And, Paul tells us what spirit-filled people are likely to be like, how they are likely to live and respond to life, etc. I don’t recall much direct scriptural support for the notion that the Spirit, in me, will tell me directly that something someone else is doing or saying also comes straight from the Spirit.

    If that were the norm, to be blunt, we would not need scripture, or at least only about 20 verses or so. The scripture is as large as it is partly to provide multiple attestation, and partly because it has so much guidance in it to keep us from error. That implies it’s pretty darn easy to fall into error. As Eve demonstrated, you can fall into error from either lack of faith in what has been clearly revealed to you, and also from lack of reason in asking questions that need to be asked.

    I pray, in faith, for clarity of reason. I pray, in faith, to see clearly what are the starting points from which to reason. I reason from the scripture as a way to keep from error, and to correct faulty reasoning I may have done about one part of scripture, when I discover an apparent contradiction in another part. (Note my presupposition: scripture, to be scripture, must not contradict itself in significant ways. When it appears to, we hold our conclusions in abeyance, waiting for a better idea, which hopefully is provided in the Spirit. What we DON’T do is dogmatically cling to a conclusion that seems to flow from one passage, but is not supported by another.)

    The pastoral use of reason is critical in preparing Christians with concepts and perspectives that will help them defend themselves in hard times. But unless it’s just a reminder of a concept or perspective that has already been built in the Christian, reason has very limited immediate application in alleviating suffering. I wouldn’t try to convince someone of God’s providence using the “open view of the future” or “open theology” when they’ve never heard it before. Or, at least, not until some considerable time had passed.

    But if someone has just suffered a terrible loss, and in a moment of anguish cries out, “Why did God let this happen?”, or worse, “Why did God DO this thing?”, and has been pastorally prepared with clear teaching and reason on the matter, scripturally based, at an earlier time, I think it’s just inevitably easier to provide comfort, after first “weeping with those who weep”. I certainly don’t recommend “reasoning” with someone who has just experienced a great loss…. all you can do, sometimes, is just be there, and let them say what they need to say, and be God’s arms around them.

    The central point, as scripture makes clear in the comments about rain falling on us all, just and unjust, is that the universe is NOT totally controlled by God in every particular, not because He can’t, but because of how He designed it in the first place to satisfy His reasons for creation. It boils down to this: the desire to feel no pain, and to experience no loss, is the desire to be dead, or the desire to be in heaven. It is just not the nature of life on Earth, even before sin. There is no scriptural reason to think Adam did not have pain nerves, and never stubbed his toe.

    But it’s better for this lesson to be taught before the pain or loss, and the reasoning from both scripture and science that supports it.

    We have strayed quite far from the specific topic of how prayer affects things, and particularly how prayer for the relief of pain interacts with God’s actions and the nature of creation itself. Yet, I think it’s all connected in this way: the Scripture tells us many times when God has “changed his mind” due to prayer and human pleading. And it says that God hears. More troubling are those scriptures that imply that all we have to do is ask in faith, and it will be ours. We feel unworthy when we pray, we hope in faith, and no apparent answer is forthcoming, nor apparent divine intervention in the problem about which we prayed.

    That fact has led to lots of bad reasoning about the apparent “faith status” of the people doing the praying.

  35. Leonard

    The central point of rain falling on the good and bad is not that God doesn’t control everything but that much of what he controls or has put in motion impacts people without partiality. Rain falling on some is a good thing, rain falling on some is a bad thing, but the rain falling is a part of what God put in motion.

    As for Adam never stubbing his toe and the loss of a child; two very different kinds of pain. Prior to the fall Adam did not know the pain sin brings about. Did he stub his toe, I don’t know nor is it relevant to reason or faith. Did he know the loss of a child, did he know the sting of a lie, did he know the poison of shame, did he know the impurity of desire turning to lust… NO.

    To want a life without pain is not what most people I see wanting and defies reason. To live a life where my pain is manageable is what people want. Most people want a life they can manage and be in control of, but this is impossible. Our problem as humans is we cannot manage our pain that well. So we resort to crazy things like drug abuse, people abuse, life abuse and much more. We take a drink just to take the edge off, we eat a sandwich just to enjoy something we like in the midst of struggle even though we are not hungry. We hoard when people around us are starving. Why? Because we are sinners and we must manage the pain sin brings into our lives.

    As for where prayer enters the mix. Certainly there area few times in Scripture where a prayer seemed to change the mind of God. How that works I don’t really know. But the times are few where this is recorded and in the face of a vast realm of scripture, drawing conclusions from a smaller piece is not usually a great idea.

    Here is what prayer seems to do in my opinion. Prayer changes me much more than God. John said we would be like him because we will see Him as he is. Something about entering into God’s presence changes me. It changes my prayer, changes my heart, changes my attitude, changes my perspective, changed my reasoning, changes my faith, changes my understanding and in changing all these things aligns me much more with God. In one very real sense prayer is something people do when life is unmanageable, as a tool to manage life. But this kind of “Life management prayer” has its greatest impact when people give management of their life over to God.

    Michael scenarios are all difficult because they go past our ability to reason. When your reason strengthens your faith it probably is on a healthy trajectory. When your reason weakens your faith it probably is not on a healthy trajectory. When your reason empowers your ego it is probably not on a healthy trajectory, when it brings a proper placement for you in this world and with God, it is probably on a healthy trajectory.

    Michael the reason this is such an important IMO discussion is that unhealthy rarely produces healthy. For us to help those who hurt, which I would hope is at least a huge part of asking these questions, we must develop some semblance of healthiness.

    I think too much reason or better said maybe unsatisfied reason will almost always lead to a few places.

    1) Pride. The puffing of the ego and straightening of the will is a direct result of unsatisfied reason. We can get a little big for our britches at times. We can get a bit cocky before God at times. Sort of the “if I were running the show God, things would be different” attitude.

    2) Superstition. People will often fill gaps in reason with superstition. If this worked this time it will work again and eventually superstition gains ground. It is how some people dance for rain because somehow that worked before and reason said it was what caused the god of rain to act. It is why base ball players eat the same meal every day game or wear the same socks or undies.

    3) Rebellion. Simple and true, rebellion is often the result of unsatisfied reason. Think Solomon for a moment. Everything under the sun, I will try it all, every part. Why? Reasoning gone bad.

    I don’t fully get the reason as a pure entity and people are the ones who get it wrong thing. I may not be smart enough to wrap my mind around that. I do get this however. If reasoning is pure and sin corrupts the reasoner or limits the reasoner then God is the only one uncorrupted and unlimited in his reasoning ability. The gap is ours not his, to close it will require relationship with him. To close it took an act beyond reason, the sacrifice of his son. I wouldn’t do it. Not because my love for my son is greater than his but because my love for you is smaller than his. If I have to choose between you and my son, you are going to die. God knew the way for his Son to die so I could live, then for his son to live again so I would never die. I can draw the map but the journey itself defies reason. Sorry to be a preacher but as Popeye said, I am what I am.

  36. michael lee Post author

    Leonard, I love this discussion. Thanks for your continued contributions.

    I’d counter that some of the things we consider great central tenets of the faith are actually bits of theology worked out over generations of believers grappling with apparent contradictions in God’s revelation, until the appropriate application of reason produced such a deeply satisfying answer that it became part of the canon of faith.

    On that list are things like the trinity and the fully-god-and-man understanding of the incarnation. All of these took generations to work through, hundreds of years, and at every point up until the resolution, the apparent contradiction of data seemed unreasonable.

    Look at the trinity, for example. Generations of believers looked at the biblical data and said, “It just doesn’t make sense to believe ‘God is One’ and also to say ‘God is the Father, and God is the Son, and God is the Holy Spirit’.” Many did still believe it, but they did so unreasonably. I can imagine many in the early church cautioning believers that “these things are just beyond our understanding, don’t question them, just accept them.”

    Yet it was the unsettled irrationality of the statements as they stood that led to the long project of building the theology of trinity. The purpose of that project wasn’t to probe the unfathomable mystery of God’s inner workings, that part of himself that God give us no access to. Rather it sought a rational framework harmonizing the data, the revelation of himself that God HAS provided us in scripture.

    The power of that doctrine is demonstrated in how many other areas of our understanding of God are reinforced and reformed with better understanding based on that doctrine. An understanding of the trinity that is rationally formulated gives us better understanding of everything from creation to atonement, from Jesus’ explication of the church’s on-going status of becoming his body to our understanding of the Kingdom of God. Think of how much poorer our conception of atonement would be if it did not include an understanding of the trinity.

    There are several areas of Christian thought that are now being “held in escrow”, if you will, until a reasonable resolution of apparently contradictory evidence is reached. Creation / Evolution / Intelligent Design is one such area. Biblical data and the data of the physical record seem to be in contradiction. For some, the only two possible resolutions are to abandon reason and cling to an interpretation of biblical data that take no account of any outside evidence, or to abandon faith wholesale and become brute naturalists.

    I think most of us here would agree that those are not the only options. Faith commits us to accept the truth of the biblical data. Being human, and therefore rational, commits us to accept the truth of the empirical data. Reason compels us to find resolution for the apparent contradiction, and I believe it has done so: a narrative interpretation of the Genesis account, along with a humble acknowledgment of the mathematical improbability (almost impossibility) of such high complexity arising within the parameters and time frame of the earth’s existence, apart from divine intent and guidance at key points.

    If we look to the church fathers at Nicea and Chalcedon, we find that some acted out of hubris, but many more acted out of a humble and earnest sense of obligation to a God who has given us both revelation of himself, and rational minds, and who expects us to employ both in our pursuit of Him and his will.

  37. harmonicminer

    Leonard, I too appreciate your part of this conversation. If more folk were like you in their general approaches to the faith, things in the church would be better than they are.

    I think we agree that much of what God “has put in motion impacts people without partiality”. In some ways, that’s the central point I’ve tried to make. I think it’s important to understand that this fact of our lives was an essential feature of a universe in which we could have something like free will. It isn’t that God doesn’t care, or can’t be reached, or is powerless, it’s that God understands something we don’t about the ontological requirements of a universe for intelligent beings with free will.

    I’d have to agree with you in this, “God is the only one uncorrupted and unlimited in his reasoning ability”, except that it isn’t clear to me that God actually reasons. Reason is a tool for extending knowledge, and God knows everything that CAN be known. Reason is more something like eyes, a tool for finite beings to use in surveying their world. When we cannot see everything it once, reason is our way of extending our immediate perceptions. Angels, being finite beings, may need and use reason… and if so, it appears that a failure to correctly apply reason would be a critical component in Lucifer’s original rebellion. After all, who tempted Lucifer? And whatever gave him the idea that he could be God, or like God? Powerful as he was, Lucifer was finite, and made a very (I hate to say this) human decision, enabled, at least in part, perhaps, by flawed reasoning.

    I think this points to will. The Bible isn’t terribly clear about the status of angels, but they are surely finite, created beings, with different limitations than humans. Lucifer’s rebellion was surely even more an act of will than a failure of faith (after all he KNEW God in a way we do not), and perhaps a failure of reason (correctly judging consequences) was a part of it. On the other hand, I think many people sin knowing full well the consequences, so it is not a failure of reason with them, either, but a sheer excess of selfish will.

    I’d have to say that your list of dangers in reason is equally applicable to faith, especially faith uncorrected by reason.

    Pride — well, you know. I know people who are very, very proud of just how much faith they have. In fact, they’re proud of their “ability” to have unreasonable faith. They have no protection, or little protection, from false teaching, because they do not possess the ability to distinguish what sounds good (or especially spiritual, even) from what IS based on a clear, reasoned understanding of scripture. Personally, I think pride flows from a lack of reasoned understanding of one’s place in the creation, and a lack of reasoned self-examination.

    This in particular gives them little defense against

    Superstition — Which in my reading of history is WAY more likely to appear in people of great faith and small reason than vice versa. Cult members often have incredible faith, self-sacrificial faith, great obedience flowing from that faith, etc. And back to pride, for a moment, the people who are most absolutely convinced of their personal rightness AND righteousness seem to be cult members. However much superstition you may want to lay at the door of reason, far more lies at the door of incorrectly informed and reasoned faith.

    As noted above,

    Rebellion does not appear to flow primarily from incorrect reasoning, with the first Rebel being a case in point, but rather an excess of pure, selfish will, a “damn the torpedoes” attitude, if you will. That excess of selfish will can manifest as faith in the wrong things, rationalistically justified, of course, as in cults, but not limited to cults.

    We may be talking in circles here. I think faith has a very critical role for any Christian, and I suspect you think that reason does. In fact, you’re using reason in making your points in this thread. You seem to fear the perversion of reason more than you fear the perversion of faith, however, while I fear both, and therefore I want to stress the corrective nature of their integration.

    I think the “meta-message” of the existence of scripture, the way it is written, the behavior of the apostles, the ways they characterized their faith, and the ways they dealt with the body of Christ in teaching and ministry, are all re-inforcement that both knowledge of scripture and reason are critical. And, as I said earlier, Paul’s general education was surely a part of his success, and has to be part of why God chose him, or how God prepared him after choosing him (assuming God had chosen him considerably before the Damascus Road experience), however you’d like to characterize it.

    There is an enormous body of literature on this general topic, generally called “faith/reason integration”, or “integration of faith and reason”, or “integration of faith and learning”. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend The Idea of a Christian College: Arthur F. Holmes.

    I am still interested in pursuing Mike’s original question about what seems to be unanswered prayer. I don’t think that prayer is “only” to affect the person doing the praying. That is simply not a scriptural limitation to place on it.

  38. PortcullisChain

    I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness reading you, harmonicminer and Leonard. Truthfully I am finding myself reading and re-reading each and every comment trying to comprehend WTH is being said and finding myself wanting. In that state of mind, I’m finding I’m completely unable to offer a smart ass comment.

  39. Leonard

    The scripture speaks of God as the Only Wise God or as God only wise. Wisdom in its purest sense is having a full understanding of the best outcome and a full understanding of how to make said outcome happen. In that sense, God not only knows the best outcome, he also knows the best way to make that outcome happen.
    Because we are free will beings, I would say that God’s omnipotence and omniscience and other character traits are limitlessly fluid. In simple terms, I have played an expert chess player one time before. His knowledge of the game coupled with my limited knowledge made everything I did in free will still have his outcome. He knew at every turn the best outcome and exactly what was needed next to make that happen. No matter what move I made he knew how to make an unchanging outcome happen. His intended outcome was victory and in just a few moves he was successful. On a much bigger scale, God is like this. The limitlessness and fluidity of God’s “Godness” (new word I know) combined with the finite and constricted nature of humanities humanness, render God very much a mystery to us.
    Can God be known? Absolutely. Not because of my vast knowledge but because of his revelation of himself and his insertion of reasoning abilities within me. I still don’t think I am convinced that reason is an external entity but rather a hard wire thing that God stamped in creation to foster relationship.
    Can God be known? Absolutely. But not apart from faith. What kind of faith? Childlike faith! The scripture reveals that God actually give us the faith needed to implement what is necessary to grow more faith. Jesus IMO praised the faith of a child because of a child’s willingness to believe and accept as true what was said on the basis of trust in the one speaking rather than the empirical evidence being presented. He praised a child’s faith because of its ability to live with incongruity and still choose trust. It is also why Jesus warned so strongly about harming the faith of a child… in essence he was saying; “If you mess with a child’s faith and in doing so harm a child, I’m gonna kick you’re a@#!”
    Phil, I 110% agree with you about much of the “faith” teaching happening today. It is nothing more than religious capitalism gone amuck. It has been used to abuse and harm far too many people God loves and empower far too many people God love but might like to spank. We are in agreement on this matter and we are also in agreement on reason… mostly.
    Prayer defiantly moves God, the bible is clear even though there is not a ton of places we gather this. Prayer lines us up with God, this is more commonly the tone of prayer in scripture. But what comes out of a discussion like this is what is the Best outcome God desires.
    CS Lewis in speaking of sex said we think not too highly of sex but to low. Is it possible, as you point out Phil, that humanities preoccupation with itself is what causes us to miss the greatest good or best outcome? What I mean is this. If I want a Big Mac and fries and that is my greatest good, then when someone offers me steak and lobster, I will have no acceptance of this. For someone whose only passion is fast food, gourmet meals have no appeal.
    Several years back I caught a virus and the Doctors said you most likely are going to die. If you don’t die you will end up crippled for the rest of your life. In one 7 month period of time I literally lost everything. Health, family, friends, employment and soon my home were all gone. It was visited by well meaning Christians who quoted to me Romans 8:28. It rolled off their tongues like an ointment intended to heal but was laced with acid. It just left me mad at God. One night while laying in my bed, alone, at the hospital unable to move, completely paralyzed and with every muscle in my body atrophied, the Holy Spirit brought to me Romans 8:28. I said shut up God were not talking. He gently spoke to me, Leonard your sickness is not your greatest problem, your potential death is not your greatest problem, your aloneness is not your greatest problem… Your greatest problem is what you want with your life is too small. You want health when I have something better I want to give you. At that moment, God brought to my memory Romans 8:29. Those whom he foreknew (knew about ahead of time) he also predestined (had a plan for) that they would be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn of many brethren.
    He lovingly said, Leonard, my greatest good is to give you me in such a way as to make you look like me. This is what I desire. There is nothing greater that I can give you than me. It is the greatest gift I can possibly give anyone. There is no image better than mine so there is no conforming more important that can happen than this. I can and will use this to shape you to my image if you will let me. I know this is awful but I know the best outcome is for you to be shaped to my image and this crappy situation is something I can use. Will you let me? In the quiet of my hospital room, I said yes.
    I did not die and I am not crippled, but I still lost everything. I still had to learn to walk and talk again, had to find a way to survive and heal emotionally as well as physically. I still was in the same sucky life situation. What was different? Me. What changed me? Prayer. The severe mercy of God replaced within me a desire to be well with a desire to be like him. That is how reason and faith work in me.
    I am not afraid of either reason or faith eclipsing the other, I am afraid of people aiming too low. To settle for good lives that don’t look like Jesus or to have hard lives wasted because they did not produce the desire to look like Jesus. That is what drives me as a pastor, friend, father, husband, leader and blogger. My favorite verse We have this treasure in Jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is not from us but form God. I can attest to you that every single sin in my life, every quitting moment in my life, every frustration in my life, every distraction in my life comes from this one place… I focus more on the Jar than the Treasure. I know this is long and I apologize but I am a preacher.

  40. harmonicminer

    Leonard, I am really loving this conversation. Thanks for your part in it.

    I’d agree that reason is itself a created thing in some sense, in the way that we use it and understand it, at least. I do think it is an aspect of all created “intelligent free will” beings, including angels. As I suggested, God has no use or need for reason, which, for we finite beings, is about extending knowledge from the known into the as yet unknown.

    I think it may be arguable that what we call “reason” is as integral to God as “personhood”. But that would not mean that God “uses” reason, or “needs” it, it would mean that Reason is an aspect of God’s Personhood, as are Love, Power, etc. It would make no more sense to say that God “needs” or “uses” Reason than it would make to say that he “needs” or “uses” Love. It is just ineluctably integrated into his Personhood, inseparably part of his very Self. That would explain why the imago dei includes the ability to reason, but always finitely, of course. To think otherwise would require us to deny reason as an essential aspect of humanness. Without reason, how could Eve have been expected to understand the very notion of actions with consequences? How could she have been responsible for her sin?

    Reason is not just a set of logical rules. Rather, the logical rules are an observation about reality made by beings who can reason.

    The air is getting thin up here, so I’m jumping out of the airplane now.

    I would observe that the whole of scripture must be considered when arriving at conclusions about important things. Yes, Jesus said we must become like little children in some sense. But the mere existence of scripture, enormous amounts of which are incomprehensible to any child, suggests that He didn’t mean that we should STAY like little children, believing what we are told, without considering the source, and context.

    Some Islamic children believe, in all innocent honesty, that they should grow up to murder the infidel, because they are told so by adults they trust. In this innocent belief-without-reason, they are behaving exactly as Jesus appears to command. Which is why, again, I think we have to look at all the parables that Jesus himself told, many of which are not really clear to a child (or many adults, for that matter). We have to look at the very earliest written expressions of the Christian faith, Paul’s early letters.

    Rom 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Rom 8:29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

    Your story of Christian awakening was thrilling, and very compelling. The Christians who came to you and quoted Rom 8:28 as if you should just magically feel better did not follow the simple injunction to “weep with those who weep”, a little farther on in Rom 12:15, surrounded by verses where Paul is telling us how to live together as brothers and sisters. I can see why you have a certain negative feeling about trying to use “reason” inappropriately, especially in dealing with great hardship.

    I’ve told my story elsewhere in this blog, if you’re curious. (Actually, that whole thread is pretty interesting… you may want to just scroll up to the top when you get there, and begin and the beginning.) As you’ll read, it’s very different from your story. You’ll even see that I do not have unlimited faith in the power of reason. :-)

    All I want to say further for now is that God gets to each of us in very different ways. I was broken in a very different way than you. That’s what makes Christian unity, when it happens, such an amazing thing.

  41. Leonard

    I actually did read your story and was very grateful for your sharing it.

    So here is a question. Does God have no need for reason or is his reason so complete that seem he has no need for it? God measures, judges, is swayed by prayer… how does he do that? Does he use reason or is it some infinite pool of knowledge he uses. Does hid judgment just happen or does he sequence things, weigh consequence for individuals. Did he use reason in forgiving and letting David him live but having Achan stoned and burned. Did he use reason in choosing David over his brothers. I am not trying to argue, I just think these are interesting questions.

    If reason is a tool for extending knowledge then you are correct, but what if reason is a tool for using knowledge as well. Is that something other than reason?

    Did God use reason to love Jacob and hate Esau? Did he use reason for choosing Mary to be the mother of the savior, did he use reason to enter into Palestine during the reign of Herod and Rome. What reason did he use to choose the 12, was his observation that Nathanael was a man without guile a reason he was chosen or just an observation about Nathanael?

    I guess you can say that I think God uses reason but does so perfectly. You might have another word for what I call reason, I do not so you can help me here please. Because God has all knowledge and is without sin, his reason is uncorrupted and pure. That would be my take at least for now.

    I might also say that reason in us is a part of the image of God stamped into our lives at creation. The fact that we are sinful, limited and well sometimes stupid too makes our reasoning less than adequate to navigate all of life.

    I do not believe Adam and Eve were created with limitless knowledge or limitless reason. They were not created infinite but they were given reason as a part of the package. That would be my assessment anyway.

  42. harmonicminer

    Leonard, you’re pushing me to think hard and be extra clear, for which I thank you immensely. Not that I can promise to be extra clear about this, but I’ll try.

    I think Reason is the nature of reality (the chief reality being the Godhead), the sum total of all the inter-relationships between all True things (which also includes the inter-relations of the inter-relations… not trying to be silly here, just trying to point out that Reason is not just a sum of first level relationships). Before creation, before angels, before humans, there was God in three Persons. I can’t tell you what that means, exactly. It is, in the lingo of logic, an inference from multiple data points that make no sense with any other interpretation, but it is so far outside any other human experience that we cannot generalize about it very effectively. It is what it is. Any other conclusion seems to involve denying a piece of scriptural information. Review the history of heresies for more on this.

    The point is this: if there is ANY meaning to the concept of a Trinity that pre-exists ALL created things, there was some part of it that was the Father, some part that was the Son, some part that was the Spirit.

    Back to the simple laws of logic Mike listed for us, whatever portion was the Father was not also the Son in the same exact way it was the Father. That is the law of non-contradiction, and if we cannot rely on it, we are well and truly lost, because we cannot trust any statement in scripture to mean anything at all. Similarly, the Spirit was not also the Father in the same exact way it was the Spirit. If we shade our meaning to such an extent that we cannot say this with some reasonable degree of certainty, then we have essentially given up on the traditional view of the Christian God. We no longer believe in one God in three Persons, we believe in one Person, and should say so.

    Mike’s ideas in comment 41 of this thread are on point here. I won’t quote just a small amount, because it’s probably worth rereading all of it.

    So it isn’t that God “reasons” in the sense of extending knowledge from the known to the unknown, like we do. But Reason is in the very nature of the Persons that Exist together. God’s own words: “I AM that I AM”. There is an equal sign with the same value on both sides of the equation in that statement. There cannot be language without reason. And so the mere existence of language involves reason, and those laws of reason. When a dog growls, it doesn’t mean the same thing as if the dog was silent; even there, the law of non-contradiction applies. A tree is not an ocean, and that is true without any observer putting it into language. (Yet, the limitations of language make it impossible for us to state all the inter-relationships between trees and oceans, even if we “knew” them all. A tree is not an ocean, yet they are, in important ways, parts of a greater whole.) Reason is in the very fabric of things. There is a “reason” for that.

    So I see “reason” on the human scale as a natural consequence of Reason relating to a finite creation including finite beings in the image of God.

    Some would say that I am elevating Reason as somehow prior to God, but would they say the same thing of Love? Is Love prior to God? God is Love. It makes no sense to ask if God is prior to Love, or Love is prior to God, if God IS Love. We would not say God “uses” Love, as if it were a tool outside of Himself. We would not say God “needs” Love in order to relate to the creation.

    Yet, we do use exactly these elocutions in speaking of humans and love. And, of course we use them in speaking of humans and reason.

    But what if God is Reason in the same sense that God is Love? It is only with Reason assumed that we can discuss Parts of God that are not just different words for the exact same thing. And the ground definition of Love has to do with the nature of the relationships between the Persons, and Reason is the very nature those relationships. So, Reason and Love are co-requisites for one another, and again inextricably intertwined in the Godhead.

    This is all prior to creation.

    I suppose one could argue that Reason and Love are in some sense the same thing. Consider: love is all about relationships, the acknowledgment of shared identity in some way, the recognition of that which is common between two persons, a very deep way of identifying with the other person. But, that is also the province of reason, which, in human terms, is what we use to describe relationships between things, and arrive at new wholenesses of understanding that combine separate perceptions and understandings. I believe it is correct to say that, in humans, love for another cannot exist without reason in regard to the nature of relationship with the other. And, we hope, reason in regard to that relationship will enable love for the other.

    Why would this be less true of Reason and Love in the Godhead?

    When Reason and Love are expressed into a finite creation with finite images of God in it, there are all sorts of adjustments and limitations that happen. Reason becomes reason, and Love becomes love, shadowed reflections of the completeness of the Godhead.

    This is why “the wisdom of men is foolishness to God” and vice versa. The wisdom of men is always limited, and, by definition, always leaves out something essential, because wholeness is simply impossible for finite minds. I cannot hold in mind at one time even all the inter-relationships between a rock and another rock. (This is part of where the post-modern critique of textual interpretation begins. And, unfortunately, it’s also where it ends.)

    One of the many meanings of “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10 doesn’t say the END of wisdom) is that proper reason involves always understanding the limits of our ability to state truth, and acknowledging that human reason comes from Reason, and so the greatest wisdom comes from seeking that Reason. But that does not preclude human reason, at its best the reflection of Reason.

    This means, among other things, that it is entirely possible to say something that is true, and yet be wrong in a significant sense, because the true statement lacks conditions and context, references to the wholeness of other understandings, etc.

    Robert Heinlein has his character Lazarus Long refer to the three ways of telling a lie successfully. Telling only a part of the truth, and allowing your listener to assume it is all the truth (without really saying so, which would be a direct lie) is his method number two, if memory serves. It’s very popular with politicians, and, sadly, also with theologians, philosophers and pastors, not to mention car salesmen, teachers and professors, physicians, plumbers, parents and children. Not to be too hard on these folks, because at bottom, it’s the human condition to not be able to tell the WHOLE truth about anything, which requires Reason, of which we are incapable, and which language cannot contain. The lie is in pretending that we have.

    More to come later, maybe, but I have to go scrub the bathroom floor in order to honor a promise I made earlier today. Already scrubbed the toilet.

  43. Leonard

    Phil, you had me at hello… Wow, I had to read that 1,425,432 times. Thanks for stretching me here as well. I look forward to the rest. Does that sit in your head all the time or are you cheating and looking it up as you go :)

    Michael Lee, thanks for providing me with a fireside armchair.

  44. harmonicminer

    Faith and Reason

    If we think of faith just as the ability to believe something, I think faith comes off as a lower class phenomenon than reason, which at least has some ability for inbuilt error correction, unlike faith, which, as mere belief, has no built-in process to rescue it from belief in the false.

    Hebrews 11:1

    “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

    I think too many people speak of faith as if only the second half of the verse were true.

    But inside that phrase “sure of what we hope for” is a world of reason. What do we hope for? Why do we hope for it? How do we know we should hope for it? What is our evidence that we should hope for it? What shall we say to those who hope for something else? Why is there any reason at all to hope for anything in particular?

    I think Hebrews 11:1 assumes the integration of “belief, reason and courage” to be equal to “faith”. But, unfortunately, in our benighted world, the word “faith” has been made equal to “belief”, very often by people hostile to the entire idea of faith OR belief.

    If we think of faith as some kind of combination of reason, belief and courage, that allows us to live more fully, I think we’re in a better place. I think this is the meaning we often put to “faith” without thinking about it. We speak of a person who is “faithful” in the sense of someone who lives a certain way (requiring reason and courage). A faithful servant is one who does a good job serving, not one who believes in the impossible. “Breaking faith” almost always refers to an action, not a mere change of belief. Would you term a person an “unfaithful spouse” who had lost the belief in the rightness of marital fidelity, but still lived that way?

    When Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” and related comments in various situations, I don’t recall a single one where the person involved was sitting quietly in a room, all alone, just believing very fervently. In each case, somebody ACTED out of faith, in faith (reason/belief/courage), and it appears to be that act (in faith) to which Jesus is responding.

    I hope, oh so much, that this is the meaning of faith, because I have a hard time with simple belief. But I can work my way through reason to some kind of belief, and ACT on it if my courage allows, and that’s the closest I can come to biblical faith. Purity of belief just ain’t in me. Help thou my unbelief, oh Lord.

    If you read up, you’ll see places where I have used the word “faith” as if it meant the same thing as “belief”, even though I doubt it does. (The devil made me do it.) It is such common usage that it’s hard to avoid. (Making excuses again.)

    Since it’s pretty easy to see that there are so many “beliefs” in the world, how do we choose between them? The answer, of course, is reason aided by the Holy Spirit. My perspective is that human reason is a reflection of Reason (read up for more on this), and so already partakes of some aspects of the Divine Nature, but I think the Holy Spirit is more active than that, actually subtly aiding people who seek truth to “reason” effectively, all other things being equal.

    That’s assumed in the commandment to spread the gospel: we human evangelists are spreading not faith but reasons for it, based on information about it, and relying on the Holy Spirit to continue the work in each individual who has been reached by a reasoned exposition of the gospel, to build faith that will change lives.

    I have never heard of someone coming out of a totally unchurched culture, who from inspiration of the Holy Spirit has become a Christian, in the absence of the Bible or any Christian witness (read, sharing of reason).

    So where does this leave us with Mike’s conundrum? When we pray, we do not always see results. Shoot, we mostly DON’T see results, though Christians often ascribe whatever happens to God’s working. Honestly, most of us do not see the dramatic results reported in scripture all that often. Or when we pray for God’s will to be done, and someone suffers, we can’t understand how a loving God allows it.

    We are often made to feel that if we just had enough FAITH, prayer would “work” better. But even assuming this is true (which I don’t), what part of FAITH is missing? The “reason” part? The “courage” part? The “belief” part?

    It’s very difficult to put together in a coherent view that deals effectively with a God who is willing, able, and paying attention.

    Perhaps God had to make the universe this way, to maximize our ability to act as free moral agents. Why did He make us? Why did He create “free moral agents” instead of worshiping automatons who never suffer, and so have lots of reasons to worship? Is a universe without suffering incompatible with free moral agency? And, most troubling of all, to me, far more so than any suffering in this earthly life: did He really make a universe where some of his created “images of God” would suffer “forever” (infinitely) for actions and attitudes that were always no more than finite, and could never be more than that? How, in any context, is THAT compatible with a view of a God Who is Love and Reason and Justice?

    Ya got me, buddy.

    But even if Hitler is tortured nonstop for 1000 years for each and every human life that was lost due to his actions, by my count he gets out of Hell in about 50 billion years. Now, that’s quite some time, I grant you. And if we reduce it to 100 years for each life, he’s on parole in only 5 billion years.

    But it isn’t forever. Truthfully, I wouldn’t mind if Hitler WAS there forever… but I have a problem with anger, and I’m working on it.

    In any case, there are, as the man says, questions that are above my pay grade, and many of these above are on the list. I’d love to hear any suggestions anyone has.

  45. Leonard

    Chad, I always need a hug. Thanks and someday when we stand in heaven together, Will you ask Phil to give me one? : )

    Phil we are actually pretty close in our thoughts. I would say Faith has both courage and reason intertwined. Many things are a combination working to create some kind of an action. For example, I believe that compassion is a blending of righteous anger/dissatisfaction with perfect love. The blending of these two things produces action. That is compassion.

    Faith, however seems to be what God recognizes in that it seems to activate Grace in our lives. We cannot be pleasing to God without it. There is no relationship apart from Faith. I believe this is true because when reason breaks down and courage is not active, faith bridges the gap and enhances the other two.

    As for God’s intention in all this creation and the creation of free will beings and such. My belief is that it all has something to do with his own glory. Since God is without a sinful piece, when he speaks of his own glory or acting on behalf of his own glory we must take a closer look.
    The two most prominent themes in scripture are God as Creator and God as Redeemer. These run the course of scripture. They point to the greatness of our God and the greatness of his love.

    Being a less than humble guy I have a tendency to think that the bible is about me, that God is about me and that life must make sense to me…
    The book of Revelation points to this fact; The worthiness of God to be praised, to act, to be worshipped, obeyed and just about everything else stems from these truths. He made it all and then when it got screwed up he set in motion a plan to redeem it all by becoming the redeemer himself.

    This does not diminish the love of God in my mind, it really has no negative impact on this for me but God did not make me because he loves me, he made me because creation shouts the Glory of God. God did not redeem me because he loves me but because redemption makes people praise his glory.

    Is God love? yes. Does he love me? yes, in ways I cannot even fathom. God’s love is greater than mind or tongue can tell. Yet another reason to give him glory. But a careful study of the motives of God show that God’s own glory is a big deal to God. This is why faith pleases God because faith steps into a realm that says, God I believe you are. You are God, you exist, you are real, you are! It also says I believe you are going to reward diligent seekers. I believe you are good. I believe you are the best ending to all things. Pain cannot dissuade me, fear cannot delude me, and persecution cannot thwart me. Pleasure cannot distract me…. You are all and you are good.

    Not void of reason is this conclusion reached but also not only because of reason is it reached. Sometimes with reason and sometimes in spite of reason. That is how I see faith.

    Faith is not some entity that makes God work like those kooky prosperity guys say. It is not some kind of force that causes God to meet me part way or gives me access to the magical ions of God’s healing flow like some nutbar people teach. Faith is what draws me into believing in such a way as to push reason forward and infuse actions and hearts with courage.

    I believe that faith is what allows me to still believe God loves when he says no to healing a child. It is what allows me to believe that God is good when a hurricane wipes out people, homes and structures. It is what allows me to hear the words cancer and not crumble. Faith is what convinces me that struggle here is not worthy to be compared to the GLORY that will be revealed in us on that Day.. Whose Glory? God’s!

    Faith is what keeps me from boxing God into a “if you don’t do it this way you might not be good, loving or attentive or powerful enough” box of reason. At one time a Jesus encountered a man whose son was tormented from childhood by spirits who tossed him into fire and tormented him. The man said to Jesus, “if you can…” Jesus response was “if you can; all things are possible to him who believes” The man’s response was classic. Lord I do believe… help my unbelief. BINGO that is my problem there in a nutshell. I do believe, help my unbelief.

    What would it be life if we prayed this everyday for 2 months. “Lord I am going to believe you today, but from time to time as we travel together, doubt is going to sneak up on me so can you help me with my unbelief.”

    It is my contention that belief and trust are natural and doubt and unbelief are unnatural parts of our lives. With the entrance of pain, death, limitations, pride, anger… comes the entrance of doubt. My children started with faith, but the failures of their father to be perfect combined with their own sin and junk make doubt run amuck. This is what I believe Adam and Eve possessed. Faith without doubt. Then came the tempter and BANG, faith was shot in the head, destroying our ability to trust God fully.

    Of course I could just be wrong.

    BTW I do not mean mental ascent when I say faith or belief. I would affirm reason and courage and action as a part of this.

  46. harmonicminer

    Thanks Leonard, to quote you: “It is my contention that belief and trust are natural and doubt and unbelief are unnatural parts of our lives. With the entrance of pain, death, limitations, pride, anger… comes the entrance of doubt. ….. This is what I believe Adam and Eve possessed. Faith without doubt. Then came the tempter and BANG, faith was shot in the head, destroying our ability to trust God fully.”

    This may seem like a silly chicken/egg question, but to me it is not.

    If Adam and Eve had faith without doubt (are you using “faith” here as synonymous with “belief”, or do you have in mind the wider definition discussed above?) how could they be tempted? How could the tempter destroy faith, either of the mere “belief” sort or the wider definition above?

    And in any case, how much “faith” did it take for Adam and Eve to know that the God who made them and walked and talked with them was aware of everything, and meant them well, and would not lie to them? How did the concept of a “lie” occur to them?

    I guess what I’m asking is this: you seem to present, above, the notion that no doubt existed until there was sin, if I’m reading you correctly. On the other hand, it would seem that doubt would have to exist in order for sin to follow, unless you postulate that Eve and Adam were simply suicidal… which they may have been, I suppose. Can we conceive of Eve and Adam as being certain of God’s power, knowledge and love, and still choosing to sin, after which would come doubt? Or must there have been some doubt in the first place? Or?

    This matters to me this way: some people seem to teach that it is a sin to doubt. Others come perilously close to teaching that being tempted is itself sin. And there are those who teach both, of course. I have some friends and family who have been taught such things, and it is quite the conversation to try to move them away from it, which I consider to be false teaching.

    So: doubt –> sin? Or, sin –> doubt? Or something else? Acknowledging that they are related in some ways, potentially, for us now-fallen folk, how could it have worked for the first couple? And what does that teach us about how we are “meant” to be?

    And, not to be provocative, but…. if you have God with you, talking with you, and so on, and you know that God IS God, how much faith do you need to “believe”?

  47. harmonicminer

    This thread started out with a question about prayer. Here is one priest’s answer.

    It has been a commonplace within Orthodox spiritual thought to believe that the continued existence and well-being of the world depends first on the goodness of God, but secondly on the prayers of but a few righteous souls (known only to God). It is the math of Sodom and Gomorrah (whom God would have spared for the sake of ten righteous souls).

    I do not believe it to be the case that those few righteous souls are aware of the value of their prayer. Such a burden is too much for the pride of man. But it also says that no one should undervalue the prayers they offer for the world.

    As the world shakes (yet again), Christians must be about prayer – not about “I told you so” or other comments that proceed from something less than mercy. Let God save souls. Let us pray. The first activity is never ascribed to man in the Scriptures. The second is a commandment from God.

  48. Leonard

    Phil, I am responding because I don’t want you to have killed another thread. : ) I actually think we agree a lot here on this stuff. I am thankful to you and Michael for stretching my thoughts in this matter as well. God bless you.


  49. harmonicminer


    This is brutal:

    Phil, I am responding because I don’t want you to have killed another thread.

    I haven’t killed a thread at Addison for at least six months or so. What ever happened to forgive and forget?


    and blessings to you too, my friend, and may we meet in person sometime.

  50. Miles Grimes

    Hey Mike,

    I feel that you are completely ignoring an antinomy here that, if employed, would make your arguments much more complicated and would force you to rework your equation-solution.

    Of course, you must ask yourself what you believe about the sovereignty of God. I am of the mindset that, just as incomprehensible as dual-nature is (100% God and 100% man in the personage of Jesus being completely compatible), so God’s sovereignty working in conjunction with human free will is also. God is completely sovereign, and we can completely decide whatever we wish to do. This means, that our free will is under God’s infinitely divine control.

    In my evangelically reformed mind, this makes sense, but causes problems and speed bumps for this train of logic. Would you care to speak to that? (‘scuse any errors… its’ 3 in the morning…)

    Thanks for posting! Good read.


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