John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Filtering by Category: Theology

The Questions That Keep Us Awake

There is no such thing as a life without questions. No. Such. Thing. It begins as a child asking why the sky is blue and why the cat scratched me when I was only trying to pet it. It continues through adolescence asking why this girl doesn't like me or why I can't stay out as late as I want. We sometimes operate with the assumption that the questions stop at a certain age. They do not. If anything, they get more pressing and -- sometimes -- more depressing.

We all have our tricks to keep the questions at bay, but inevitably they sneak up on you. When you least expect it you find yourself lying awake at night contemplating the mysteries of the universe:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is wrong with me and this world?
  • What is the solution for this mess?

These are the fundamental, existential questions that beg to be answered by all, but how do we answer them? Where do we even begin looking for answers?

Some say the Bible. I grew up in a faith tradition that maintained we would only speak where the Bible speaks and would remain silent where the Bible is silent. We didn't actually stick to that principle; you can't -- it's impossible -- but we tried with terribly frustrating results.

The reason this was so frustrating is because the Bible doesn't plainly answer those questions. The explanations found in the Bible are long and meandering and disjointed and scattered across the pages of a gigantic book with tiny print and onionskin pages. Unless you've been to seminary, it can be difficult to know which parts of the Bible address these questions.

I wish we would have been honest and humble enough to add that we would look to the Bible for answers and we would also study church history and tradition to see what wisdom we could glean from the people who came before us. We need not be afraid of philosophers and theologians and psychologists who have lived with these questions and come to some kind of understanding through prayer and study and deep reflection. Rather, we would be wise to learn from them and examine the Scriptures alongside of their conclusions.

My hope is to spend the next few months exploring these big questions. Last night I began a class with a group of college students and young adults where we opened this can of worms. I will endeavor to use this blog to further my exploration. And I'm honored to have you come along with me.

So, let me know if you think I've missed any of the big questions that keep you awake. And let me know if you're interested in taking this journey with me.

For You

Abraham took an amazing journey of faith because he trusted God to keep his promise. But there was more to it than that. As we've seen, Abraham's journey required him to cling tightly to God. In order to do this, he had to hold loosely to everything else. Today I want to think about another ingredient of Abraham's faith that allowed him to persevere. Abraham believed God was for him.

Sometimes we think that God is up in heaven saying, "If you obey, I'll bless you. If you disobey, I'll punish you. And I don't much care which you choose."

But God is not neutral about you. God is rooting for you. God wants you to get it right, and he cheers every time you do. God never blesses people through gritted teeth. He does not delight in tricking us or keeping us locked out of his promises. Blessing people always brings him tremendous joy.

God sets us up to win because he wants us to win.

Part of God's initial promise to Abraham was that all people on earth would be blessed through him. You're one of the people on earth, and so am I. That means we were on God's mind thousands of years ago, and he wanted to bless us back then. He made that promise -- at least in part -- because he wanted to bless you.

I don't know everyone who reads this blog. We passed that threshold several years ago. And -- odds are -- there are some of you readers who could tell me terrible stories of how life has dealt you a bad hand. Some of you are sick. Some of you are lonely. Some of you had awful upbringing. Some of you have suffered abuse or neglect. I know.

I also know that God has blessed you. In some way, however small it may seem, God has blessed you.

You can read. You have access to the internet. Someone loves you. Someone cares. You can see. You can feel. You can be part of a church. You can know that your eternal destiny is secure with God.

You have been blessed, and if you lose sight of the many ways in which you have been blessed you will not persevere on the journey to which God has called you. Count them up. Keep a running list. Remember those blessings, and remember this: Each of those blessings came from the hand of a heavenly Father who longs to give you more.

If you're going to persevere on this journey of faith like Abraham did, you must come to believe that God is for you.

God's Default Setting

Most ancient religions believed that the gods did not like humans. Humans were accidental or incidental or created to do the yucky stuff gods did not want to do. Mostly, the gods were angry at humans. The gods would just as soon kill a human as interact with one. That was their default setting. So, humans had to do certain things to keep the gods from being angry, to appease them, change their disposition and convince the gods to bless the humans.

The God of the Bible is different. He doesn't start out angry. He creates humans on purpose with purpose. Humans are not here to be slaves or lackeys, and we don't have to convince God to bless us. Blessing is God's default setting.

In Genesis 1:22, God blesses the birds and the fish. Later in verse 28, God blesses the humans immediately after creating them. They hadn't had time to do anything to earn that blessing. God gives it preemptively.

The humans rebel and sin spreads deeper and wider until the whole world is corrupt. God begins again with Noah, and again we read that he immediately blesses the humans after the flood -- before they have a chance to demonstrate their repentance (Genesis 9:1). God does not bless in response. God blesses proactively.

It's God's default setting towards humans. He wants to bless us all.

When God appears to Abram in Genesis 12, he says, "Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (vv1-3).

What's the one word that gets repeated over and over? Five times in three sentences we have some variation of bless.

This is what God does. God blesses. As far as we know, Abram hadn't done anything to earn this blessing. And the grammatical structure doesn't tie the blessing to Abram's obedience. There's no condition. The word "if" does not appear at the beginning of the pronouncement.

Abram is later held up as a paragon of faith (cf. Hebrews 11, Romans 4, Galatians 3). We're told to learn from him how we might also take this journey of faith God calls us to. Before we learn from or about Abram, though, we must learn this from and about God: God does not start out angry. God does not need you to appease him. God's not looking for a reason to kill you.

You don't have to convince God to be kind to you or talk him into being generous.

God has nothing but your best interests at heart. He likes to bless people. He wants to bless you.

That's his default setting.

 

Relentless God

Last Sunday in class we looked at The Fall (Genesis 3-11). I understand -- no one likes being told they are depraved, but if you doubt the biblical doctrine of total depravity, how else would you explain the mess our world is in? Violence, deceit and broken relationships litter the landscape of our lives. And all the media pundits can talk about is the goodness of humanity?

Hey, I think the Image of God is still in us, but it’s marred. Just like glass is pre-disposed to shatter, I was born pre-disposed to set aside the will of God whenever I feel it may hinder my agenda. I want to do the right thing, but I’m prepared to hurt others or allow hurt to come to them if it will help me get what I want. I'm fully prepared to do wrong when and if I believe it is in my best interests.

That's depravity, and that’s just the way we are.

This is one reason it is vital for us to keep reminding ourselves that humans aren’t the main characters of the story. God is the main character; we’re the damsel in distress.

So what stands out to me as I read the first 11 chapters of Genesis is this: God is relentless. He will not be swayed from his pursuit of us. Adam and Eve disobey God, and end up hiding from God in fear. Yet he comes to walk with them — in spite of what he knows has happened.

They cower and point fingers, but God himself takes initiative to clothe them properly — covering their shame so they can once more stand before him. They are banished from the Garden, but the next thing we read about is God graciously giving them a son. His plan to form a loving community is not foiled.

Cain grows up and kills his brother Abel, and once more God is forced to pronounce judgment against human wickedness. But God offers Cain protection. Cain’s son Lamech introduces polygamy and vengeance. And God starts over with one man: Noah. He spares Noah and the human race, beginning again with the same command to be fruitful and fill the earth with people who live in harmony with God and each other.

Then Noah gets drunk and passes out naked. His son comes in and...well...what happens next is hinted at because it is so depraved. Noah awakes and curses his own grandson (can you say “dysfunctional family”?). People continue to move farther and farther away from the divine community they were intended to share. But God never stops coming.

This is the truth about our Creator: he is immensely fond of these people he has created.

We are all fallen. We all hide from God. We live with fear and frustration — cut off from our Source. But we are not forgotten. This relentless God continues to take the initiative and invite us to take a walk with him.

If Sin is the Problem, What's the Solution?

In our class Sunday afternoon, we saw how sin entered the world, embedded itself in the hearts and minds of men and women and ruined God's wonderful plan to create a community of people who would share in his joy and beauty. At least that's what it looked like.

Sin is the problem that keeps us from experiencing the life God wants for us. The life we always wanted but never thought possible. The life the Old Testament prophets described in amazing picturesque language. The life characterized by the word “Shalom”. Life as it is supposed to be.

Sin prevents us from entering into the joy of God, the peace of God, the love and rest and fulfillment he has purchased for us at immeasurable cost. Sin disrupts and destroys and corrodes everything it touches. It is pervasive and persistent. It has touched everything about me: my heart, my mind, my body, my feelings, my thoughts, my actions. It has touched everything about our world: governments, businesses, families, churches. There is not one part of me or of this world that is untainted by the disruptive effects of sin.

Sin is bad — far worse than words can describe.

But sin is not the final word.

Evil rolls across the ages, but so does good. Good has its own momentum. Corruption never wholly succeeds. (Even blasphemers acknowledge God.) Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still. Creation and grace are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers.

To speak of sin by itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way. Moreover, to speak of sin by itself is to misunderstand its nature: sin is only a parasite, a vandal, a spoiler. Sinful life is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life. To concentrate on our rebellion, defection, and folly — to say to the world “I have some bad news and I have some bad news” — is to forget that the center of the Christian faith is not our sin but our Savior. To speak of sin without grace is to minimize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom. (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, pp. 198-99)

Sin is the problem; grace is the solution. Grace is not a way of resolving the problem provided we combine it with other things. Grace is the once-and-for-all, paid-in-full, settled-for-good resolution.

Grace is not a solution; grace is the solution.

And it’s freely available to each and every one of us.

Sin and Lance and Manti and Me

Yesterday in my class we talked about Genesis 3-11 -- which is really the story of sin as it enters the world, burrows itself into the hearts of people and begins to spread societally. It did not go unnoticed that this discussion took place against the backdrop of the whole Lance Armstrong confession and the strange Manti Te'o situation. Watching these events unfold and knowing I would be discussing the problem of sin, I’ve been struck by a few things.

First, I am so glad that there weren’t millions of people watching me at my darkest hour. I’ve fallen off my high horse more times than I can count, and, for some strange reason, I keep climbing back up on it. I’ve never taken performance-enhancing drugs (unless you count coffee), lied about it to everyone or threatened financial and physical ruin to people who accused me. Nor have I been part of a hoax involving a non-existent, dead girlfriend. Still, I’ve done plenty of other things that, in retrospect, appear equally corrupt and just plain stupid.

I know what it’s like to be caught in a lie. I know what it’s like to be embarrassed and humiliated by the depths of my own depravity. I know what it’s like to stare up from the bottom of a pit I dug with my own hands and wonder if I could ever get out — to long for the ability to fly backwards around the world, reverse time and undo what I did.

I just don’t know what it’s like to do that with the whole world watching.

I’ve also been struck by how much joy this has brought many people. Both these guys have officially been thrown under the bus by people — Christians and non-Christians. People are questioning the sincerity of Lance's confession and carefully analyzing his interview with Oprah for clues as to whether he is really sorry for what he did or just sorry he got caught (as if they are privy to what goes on in his heart). People are speculating on whether or not Manti was "in on it" the whole time (and mostly they are applying truckloads of armchair psychology — the kind they chafe against when applied to them).

The sad truth is two men are in shambles. Innocent people are in ruins. Families are in confusion. All this while a nation voyeuristically watches.

Mostly, what I’ve been struck with is something profoundly simple, something most of us tend to overlook in situations like this, something few of us want to admit but are forced to if we are to learn anything from any of this.

Sin is bad.

Sin is worse than we think it is.

Sin is the most awful and terrible of all things.

C.S. Lewis said that sin promises more and more while delivering less and less until it eventually promises everything and delivers nothing.

Sin corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts relationships. It corrupts the character of the one who sins, and it threatens to corrupt the character of the one who is sinned against. It’s terribly contagious.

Sin is squarely at the center of what happened in both the Lance Armstrong and the Manti Te'o debacles. And sin is what makes me want to pick their bones clean. It’s far easier to analyze their sin than it is to stare my own sin in the face and admit that there’s little wrong with either of them that’s not also wrong with John Alan Turner.

Sin is not a problem; sin is the problem

And it’s deeply imbedded in me.

The God of the Old Testament -- Part 2

Earlier this week I suggested that one very good reason to read and study the Old Testament is that we find therein a great and detailed survey of the Jewish worldview. Even if a person didn’t believe in the divine inspiration of the text, this certainly has significant historical importance as one of the earliest documentations of why a people lived the way they lived. Then I suggested that the entire Jewish worldview began with the concept that there was one God (YHWH) who alone created everything and should alone be worshiped.

But there’s more to this God of the Old Testament than his oneness. For example, this God created the heavens and the earth. That meant that the world had a beginning. It was an intentional creation. There was a plan, and the plan came from an intelligent being. Everything depends on God, and without his sustaining providence, things would cease to exist.

This benevolent Creator actually related to his creation. Material substance wasn’t “beneath” God. He enjoys his creation, calling it “good”. Through various episodes and stories, we see this Creator relating to people, demonstrating compassion, calling them to join him in a covenant of love and grace. He cares for and protects individuals and his people as a whole.

This God is also terrifyingly holy. His moral standards and demands are too high for fallen human beings. His holiness allows him to judge, and his judgments are universal — extending even to those who refuse to acknowledge him. His holiness and judgment, however, are never malevolent. His intent is to rid the world of evil and establish goodness on the earth.

Finally, this gracious and holy Creator is trustworthy. What he says can be trusted. He is utterly dependable, and what he promises will surely come to pass.

This is the beginning, the center and the circumference of the Jewish worldview as found in the Old Testament. And it is from this view of God that we are able to draw conclusions about their view of things like humanity, the cosmos, truth, meaning, morality, history, etc.

Now, I realize that most of the people reading this blog are at least somewhat familiar with this Jewish concept of God. But can we appreciate how radical it was. Try to imagine how the idea of a God who is holy and loving, compassionate and powerful, set apart from and yet involved in the lives of humans would have impacted the daily life of Jewish people.

What are the implications of this concept of God?

The God of the Old Testament

Yesterday I suggested that we could read the Old Testament to find out more than just ethics and morality. I suggested that as we read the Old Testament we could actually discover one of the most ancient worldviews in recorded history: the worldview of the Jewish people. Now, any worldview has to reckon with big questions and fundamental issues. The Jewish worldview begins, ends and has as both its center and circumference its concept of God. And their concept of God stood in stark contrast to other belief systems of the time in the most significant of ways.

The Jewish people believed that there is one God. There may be other supernatural beings — both good and evil — but there is only one God (YHWH), and this God alone is to be worshiped.

This is a huge shift from the commonly accepted wisdom that was around when the Old Testament began to be written. If we take a conservative approach (and — believe it or not — I’m considered theologically conservative by most measures) and say that Moses started writing Genesis during the 40-years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus, we can safely assume that the Jews coming out of Egypt may have bought into some of the Egyptian assumption that there was actually a pantheon of gods — several dozen of them — each with specialized abilities and powers — most with limitations and geographical boundaries.

So, they might have been a little surprised to find out that there’s really just one God who had no limits and was not bound to a specific location.

This, to me, is fascinating. Think through this with me. If the Old Testament is accurate, all human beings came from one man and one woman (Adam & Eve). Furthermore, all human beings could trace their lineage back to one man (Noah) and his family (Shem, Ham & Japheth). Even if these names and stories are viewed metaphorically, we can agree that the Old Testament claims all humans come from common stock if you go back far enough, right?

Now, that would mean that at some point in time, everyone believed in the same God, wouldn’t it? That theory is called “original monotheism” — and much has been written about it. The most compelling case is probably provided by Dr. Winfried Corduan. His version of the theory actually states, “[R]eligion began with God himself, who revealed himself to human beings. Consequently, all other religions are deviations from this original starting point” (A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads Between Christianity & World Religions, p. 17).

Okay, that’s the theory, and it makes a lot of sense to me. What I’m wondering is why do you suppose humanity moved from monotheism (the belief that there’s just one God) to polytheism (the belief that there are multiple gods) in the first place? And why do you think it was so important for Moses to establish the oneness of God?

Anselm's Rabbit

Yesterday I kicked off a new mid-sized environment at Stonecreek Church called The Great Stories: More Than a Bible Study. We had 30 folks there seated at round tables. They listened to me talk for about an hour, and then they discussed the material for another hour. We covered the first couple of chapters of Genesis, and, in the course of our conversation, I introduced them to a sentence written by a French monk from the Middle Ages named Anselm. I'd like to provide some more biographical information here and unpack his sentence a little.

Anselm (1033-1109) was born in Aosta, Piedmont — in modern-day Italy. He entered the Benedictine monastary of Bed, in Normandy, when he was 26. He went on to become the Prior and finally the Abbot there, before being named the Bishop of Canterbury (1093-1109). Though he remained Bishop until he died, he spent the majority of that time in exile because of his constant bickering with kings over the balance of power between church and state.

He was the first great theologian of the medieval period and founded a school of thought known as Scholasticism. The Church was gaining political power and momentum, but Anselm brought theology back to the foreground and restored it to its place of prominence by allowing philosophy to play a distinct role in theology. During the centuries after Roman rule had crumbled throughout Great Britain — The “Dark Ages” — monasteries became great centers of learning and culture.

Anselm was once asked by the monks in his monastery if he could prove the existence of God. He set out to provide a “proof” that would work by reason but which would line up with his Christian faith: “The rational mind alone of all creatures is able to mount an investigation of the supreme being.”

Eventually, he produced the Monologion in 1071. It was a huge book that basically asserted that since we can see degrees of goodness in the world, these forms of goodness must ultimately come from an Ultimate Form of Goodness — which we can call God. Sounds a little like Plato. Unfortunately, the book was so difficult to read that the monks asked him if he could sum it up — preferably in one sentence.

This stumped him for some time until one evening, during Mass, it came to him. A year after the publication of his enormously unreadable Monologion, Anselm produced the Proslogion (originally titled “Faith Seeking Understanding” -- an homage to the influence of Augustine). There he defines God as “that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought”.

Basically, the argument goes like this:

  • Whatever the greatest thing you can imagine is, we can call that “God”
  • It is greater to exist in reality than just in our imaginations
  • Therefore God must exist

It’s a frustrating argument, isn’t it? One critic said it’s like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat. You don’t exactly know how the rabbit got in there, but you’re pretty sure the magician had more to do with it than magic or the rabbit did.

So, what do you think? Did Anselm express the obvious? Or did he just define God into existence?

The Most Obvious Way

I could probably think up a big, long list of ways God guides people, but I should probably state the most obvious way first. God communicates his will for his people through his word contained in the Bible. Not really earth-shattering news, is it?

In the pages of Scripture you'll find some things that are crystal clear. Do not steal. Forgive one another. Speak the truth in love.

They are there in black and white (sometimes red and white), so you never have to wonder about them.

Dear God, should I do this thing? No! You have your answer already. You had your answer before you asked the question. God doesn't need to know about the circumstances. He's told you.

But, honestly, while there are precepts in the Bible, mostly what you'll find in the Bible are principles -- general guidelines that require discernment and maturity in order to really understand.

For example, we're told to be generous. Well, what is generosity? Is that just giving a certain percentage of my income to my local church? No, it's something much more than that. What it is exactly, I'm not sure. And it's not binary; it's more of a continuum.

The apostle Paul writes about how "the peace of God" can guard our hearts and our minds (Philippians 4:7). Allowing the peace of God to guard your heart and mind isn't like having a speed limit sign that says "55mph" -- it's more like a sign that says "Drive Carefully".

"Drive Carefully" might mean 55 or it might mean 40 -- depending on the conditions. Is it foggy? Is it clear? Is there traffic? "Drive Carefully" might mean going 10mph around an icy curve.

There is no sign large enough to list all the options you have when you're behind the wheel, so you must know the rules of the road, follow all the signs posted and use your skill combined with discernment.

I've said it before, though, and it bears repeating: the more clearly I know God's Word the less confusing I find God's Will.

Read the Bible. It's the most obvious way God uses to communicate what he wants for your life.

Prerequisites

Lots of people say they want to know God's will for their life. But, as we've seen, that can be a very difficult proposition. Sometimes you can only know God's will after the fact. And yet....

There is much we can know, if we know how to go about asking and seeking and discerning. In my experience, there are five prerequisites to discovering God's will for your life.

First, you must surrender to God. "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God" (Romans 8:14).

Second, you must be wise. "Be very careful, then, how you live -- not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is" (Ephesians 5:15-17).

Third, you must really want to do God's will. "Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own" (John 7:17).

Fourth, you must be willing to ask and wait. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8).

Finally, you must be okay with being uncomfortable. "And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace" (Acts 20:22-24).

Having all these in place is no guarantee that the will of God will become easy for you to figure out. But having none of these in place will certainly make it more difficult (if not downright impossible).

In Search of a Sign

I once read about a man who was searching for God's will. As he drove through Washington, D.C., he begged God to just give him a sign as to what he ought to do with his life. His car stalled in front of the Philippine Embassy, and he believe that was God telling him to become a missionary to the Philippines. I also heard about a woman who was debating whether she should take a trip to Israel and visit the Holy Land or not. As she was reading the brochure just before bed, she noticed the flight would be on a 747. She awoke the next morning and saw her digital clock: 7:47am. It was a sign!

Or was it?

This is what is known as "folk theology" (some call it "voodoo theology"). Superstitious. Baseless. We have to be careful here. I've seen a lot of people get into a lot of trouble with this kind of thinking.

I know there are a lot of things the Bible is clear about. Don't murder. Don't steal. Tell the truth.

But I also know there are a lot of other things the Bible is not clear about. What kind of job should I take? Where should I live? Whom should I marry? Should I have children, and, if so, how many?

When I was younger I was offered a number of scholarships from different universities. Which school should I have chosen? The Bible did not say.

It would be nice if God's hand would show up and point out the correct option every time we find ourselves at a crossroads. But it does not. So, what are we to do? How are we to know? Should I ask for a sign?

How Did They Know?

We've been talking about God and his will and how we can know what God wants, and we've acknowledged that it can be tricky. It can be downright impossible to know God's will sometimes. Sometimes you can only know it after it's happened. But what about the people in the Bible? They seemed to know God's will. How did they know?

In biblical times, God revealed his will in a number of ways, but mostly they seem to fit into one of three categories.

First, God used miraculous events to reveal his will. Take the burning bush, for example. Moses knew God's will because God revealed it to him through a burning bush. When the Red Sea parted, the Hebrew people didn't have to wonder what it means. They knew God wanted them to cross. The walls of Jericho came a'tumblin' down, and they knew to take the city. When you find yourself drowning in the sea and a giant fish swallows you whole, allowing you three days to think about what you've done, you know God is telling you to reconsider the direction of your life.

It doesn't take a lot of discernment to hear the will of God when miracles are taking place around you.

But let's talk about miracles for a moment. Some people seem to think miracles are common. I'm not so sure. If they happened all the time, would they still be miracles? Something about the very definition of the word seems to indicate their irregularity.

I don't think that parking spot that opened up at the mall was a miracle. I don't think that song that came on the radio at that precise time was a miracle.

It's not that I think God has stopped doing miracles; I just think they're extremely rare. And I don't think this is God's standard method of revealing his will.

Second, God spoke through visions and dreams. Abraham saw visions. Joseph dreamed dreams. God used the dreams of pagan kings and the interpretation provided by men like Joseph and Daniel. Peter had a dream that led him to visit a Gentile and share the gospel with him.

Visions and dreams can be powerful things. But they can also mean you shouldn't eat leftover pizza right after bed. I had a dream the other night that my teeth were falling out. I do not think God was trying to tell me something. I think I have a fear of dentists, and I should be more careful about getting regular check-ups.

Third, God spoke through direct revelation to his prophets, who, in turn, delivered the message to the people. Amos. Isaiah. Jeremiah. The great prophets of old delivered the Word of God to the people of God. These prophets weren't moved by their own power. Nor did they speak in their own name. They were considered the mouthpieces of God. And, if something they said turned out to be untrue, they were to be executed.

I don't see a lot of the folks who claim to speak prophetically today embracing that last part very often. Anyone remember the whole Y2K thing?

People claiming to be prophets now intrigue me. I think there is a sense in which preachers can claim to speak prophetically. Maybe they preach with passion and clarity. Perhaps they can discern the signs of the times and see how God is working through history and current events. I've been told that I function in the office of a prophet, because of how I interpret the significance of political and social trends.

But my kind of prophecy is categorically different from Ezekiel or Daniel. I've never heard the voice of God -- not audibly. I cannot claim that "The Word of the Lord" has come to me any differently from the way it comes to you -- certainly not through direct and original revelation.

No, the Word of God does not come to me or you or the guy on TV with the bad hair and crazy suit. Rather, the Word of God has come once and for all, and now we must come to it.

Clearing Up Confusion

There are elements of God's will that are mysterious. You will be confused. You'll think he wants you to follow him over here, and suddenly he'll dart over there. Following God is a frustrating and often confusing task. But there are times when I think we pretend to be more confused than we really are.

There are times when we are more confused than we need be.

There are things God wants you to do, and you know what most of them are -- at least you should.

Should I honor my parents? Yes.

Should I get a job to support my family? Yes.

Should I practice generosity and stewardship with the resources God has given me? Yes.

Should I pray? Yes.

Should I rejoice even when life is hard? Yes.

Should I meet regularly with other Christians? Yes.

Should I accept people without prejudice? Yes.

Should I tell a lie? No.

Should I steal from my boss? No.

Should I gossip about the lady with the bad reputation? No.

Should I forgive the jerk who told lies about me, stole from me and gossiped about me? Yes.

You know all of this. It's plainly set forth in the Bible. You don't have to wonder or pray about these things. This is the will of God for your life as a child of God, regardless of who you are or where you live. Nothing mysterious here!

My point here is this: The more you know the Word of God, the less confused you'll be about the Will of God.

Or, stated another way: The people who struggle the God's Will the least are usually the people who know God's Word the best.

Our Permissive God

I remember when I got into ministry right after college. Rich Mullins was a favorite songwriter of mine (and many of my friends), and we would often sing, "Our God is an awesome God" with our youth groups. It was a powerful anthem, and we reveled in the thought that our God is truly awesome in all his ways -- especially in his power. There is thunder in his footsteps and lightning in his fists.

But that's not all. God is awesome. God is powerful. But God is also permissive. By that I mean that there are things God permits, things God allows. Bad things. Evil things.

Take Job, for example. In the story of Job, Satan comes before God and complains that Job is using God. "Job loves you like a kid loves the ice cream man -- like a farmer loves his cows. It's all about the milk and the cheese he gets from you. If you stopped protecting him and let me touch him, he'll turn on you in a heartbeat."

So, God allows Satan to touch Job -- to heap misery on Job's head.

Note: God does not cause Job's pain and suffering, but God permits.

Why does God allow it? I do not know. It doesn't seem fair. But I'm not God, and I have to let God be God, trusting that this is just another part of his mysterious will that I may never understand.

In the New Testament, we read:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

Think about that. God's desire is for everyone to return to him. But we all know the sad truth is that some never will. God doesn't want anyone to perish, but some will.

If God doesn't want anyone to perish, why does he allow it? Why not save everyone? Because it's not part of his sovereign plan. God predetermined the plan of salvation, knowing that many would refuse it. The plan is set, fixed, immutable, unchanging. But some prefer darkness to light, so they willfully refuse to come to Jesus for their salvation.

And God permits them to do so.

So, going back to something I wrote earlier in this series, God gets what he wants, but (adding what we're talking about today) God does not only get what he wants -- sometimes God gets things he does not want. He does not want disobedience, but he gets it (far too often from me). He does not want divorce, but he allows it. He does not want division in the Body of Christ, but he tolerates it.

For now....

What God Cannot Do

As we're looking at God and his will, we have to make another really important observation -- and this one runs contrary to a lot of the "folk theology" that adorns the walls of houses and churches all around the world. It's true, and it's vital for us to remember. There are some things God cannot do.

I know. I know. There are verses in the Bible that say nothing is impossible for God. Those verses are hyperbole -- overstatements made to make a point. The truth of the matter is that there are actually some things God cannot do because they do not conform to his nature and character.

For example, God cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18). God cannot tempt someone to sin (James 1:13-15). God cannot contradict himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

Because God has chosen to community with human beings through the medium of language, I don't think God can arbitrarily change the meaning of words. So, I don't believe God can make a square circle.

Because God has chosen to discipline those whom he loves (and, because he often allows that discipline to take the form of natural consequences), God cannot reverse time and allow you to undo the mistakes of your past.

Because God has chosen to honor the image of himself in human beings, I do not believe he can coerce people into a loving relationship -- not with another human and not with himself. This is why the Bible portrays him standing at the door of our hearts and patiently knocking rather than kicking the door off its hinges.

If God did these things, he would cease to be God -- at least the God we read about in the Bible. It would require a fundamental change in his nature, and the Bible says that God does not change (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).

It's okay to admit that there are things God cannot do. The Bible admits it. God himself admits it.

There are things God will not do. There are things God cannot do. And yet, no one will ever be able to frustrate God's plan and will. No one will ever surprise God, and God will have his way. What he has determined to happen, will happen.

Everybody with me so far?

This Is God's Will For Your Life

Does God want you to marry this person or that one? Work here or there? Buy the house or rent? Stay where you are or hit the missionary field? We all struggle to know God's will for our lives. And there is much left as a mystery. There are many aspects of God's will that will be unknown until after they happen.

But I can tell you this for sure:

God's will for your life is that you become as much like Jesus as possible.

You might want to read that over again a few times. It's important. Write it down if you must. Post it somewhere so you can see it often.

The Apostle Paul said it this way:

And we know that in all things God words for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

This is God's will for you. This is what he's up to. This is what he's after. This is what he wants, and, as we saw yesterday, God gets what God wants.

There's an old story about a sculptor who was asked how he could carve an angel out of a block of marble. He said it was easy. He'd just chipped away everything that didn't look like an angel.

God is actively chipping away at everything that doesn't look like Jesus. Nothing you can do can keep him from that work. He is relentless, and he'll stop at nothing.

This is why one guy serves God by going to seminary and pastoring a church while another serves God by running a small business. One woman is called to get married and have children; another is called to remain single. One is not more spiritual than the other. One is not in closer alignment to the will of God than the other. Missionaries aren't necessarily holier than truck drivers.

You only get out of the will of God by not going where he is leading.

God's will for your life is that you will today take everything that happens to you and allow it to knock off some of the things in you that don't look like Jesus yet. That neighbor. That co-worker. That traffic. That doctor's appointment. That spouse. Those kids.

God will use everything in your world to make you more like Jesus tomorrow than you do today. This is God's will for your life.

God Gets What God Wants

God has a will. He has a specific outcome in mind. He knows what he wants, and he's going to get what he wants. He has a sovereign, determined, immutable plan, and it will all come about precisely as he desires. The problem I have with this is that I have a really hard time anticipating this aspect of God's will. I only seem to be able to discern it after it's happened.

I've said before that God is the most frustrating person I've ever met in my whole life. Just when I think I've got him figured out, he makes a quick left-hand turn from the right turn lane...without using his turn signal.

The MRI shows a tumor you didn't know about. Your wife tells you she's pregnant right after you send your oldest off to college. Your boss tells you the office is closing permanently, and, if you want to keep your job, you'll have to relocate to Buffalo. The stock market plunges.

And yet God remains seated on his throne. He is not taken by surprise at any of this. His mysterious plan is running its course right on schedule, exactly as he planned it. The world is not out of control. We're not spinning randomly through space. We're not at the mercy of blind fate or chance. It's not all random.

"I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things." (Isaiah 45:5-7)

I don't know why a tornado destroys one house and leaves the one next door alone. I don't know why wildfires tear through neighborhoods touching this one but not that one. I don't know why this couple can conceive children and that couple cannot.

I do know this: even through all the storms and calamities of life, God's plan is not frustrated or altered. If this is not true, then God is not God.

God is not pacing back and forth nervously wringing his hands wondering what will happen next. That's not the God we read about in the Bible. God is not caught off guard by any of it, and -- somehow or other -- it will all fit into his perfect plan.

That's hard to justify. So, maybe we should quit trying. I know the verse I quoted above is not one you want to include in a note to someone who is grieving the death of a loved one. But it might be one you can hang onto when you go through your own tragedy.

God is never surprised. His plan may not make sense right now. It might seem unfair or illogical. God may not seem very compassionate in the moment. But, in the end, God gets what God wants. And he promises that what he wants will be far better for you than anything you could imagine.

A Most Important Distinction

I've been asked by a church near my home to lead a new Bible study this fall. They want it to be a little more academically robust and intellectually challenging for seasoned Christians than your typical stuff. I'm sure I'll post more on the blog about the topics as we get closer, but all of this has got me thinking. Everyone does theology all the time -- whether they realize it or not. Everything from whether you put your kids in public, private or homeschool to how you vote to which charities you support reflects a theological perspective.

But few of us are adept at thinking theologically. There's so much for us to think about horizontally -- so many things on the plane of physical existence that require our attention. Dealing with realities you can touch, analyze, prove and explain eats up our bandwidth and keeps us from thinking vertically very often. We're much more familiar with the tactile.

We may be aware of God's offer to pull us out of the daily grind and open new vistas of thought and possibility. But that way demands focus and attention and faith. If we want to enter this better way, we'll have to train ourselves to think theologically.

Once upon a time there was a man named Jeremiah who was called by God to do some hard things. Jeremiah was afraid of his assignment because he thought he was too young, too inexperienced -- inadequate.

God told Jeremiah that he would be perfectly suited for the role. God told Jeremiah that he'd been called to this destiny, he'd been made for this. God knew Jeremiah before he was ever even conceived in his mother's womb. God had set him apart for this job even before he was born.

God promised to equip and protect Jeremiah, but he was honest with him. The job would be hard, and there would be danger and persecution.

This led Jeremiah to do some serious thinking -- theological thinking.

It sounded like there were some things God was going to cause. But it also sounded like there were some things that God would not cause but would allow. God's purpose would be fulfilled -- God would see to that -- but hard times would come first -- God would allow that.

The opposition Jeremiah would encounter (which God would permit) would not stop God's plan from coming about (which God had decreed).

This may be the most important distinction for us to make as we begin to think theologically:

There is a difference between God's causative (or decretive) will and God's permissive will.

In other words, just because something happened, that doesn't mean God wanted it to happen or caused it to happen.

Surely, that has some implications.

Life in the Ant Farm

When I was a kid, I had a friend who got an ant farm for Christmas one year. He brought it into school for show-and-tell, and it ended up staying in our classroom for a couple of months. I can remember thinking, "What in the world are you supposed to do with that?" It always made me itchy to look at it for too long. But I can say that the ant farm taught me a little something about God.

See, from my perspective, I could see everything those ants had done and everything they were going to do. You could discern what they'd been working on last night, and you could tell where they were headed. You could even know what obstacles they'd face if they didn't change their ways.

King David wrote several poems dealing with God's knowledge of us. In Psalm 139 we read,

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

Like I could with those ants, God knows things about me that I don't know. He can tell what I'm thinking. He knows what I'm up to even before I do. I still have the freedom to choose and to act on those choices. But God knows all about them long before I do.

I like to think I know my kids pretty well. I can tell what my eight-year-old is up to just from the look on her face. My just-turned-eleven-year-old is a fairly open book to me. My soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old is getting a little harder to read, but I've known her since before she was born. I've been watching and paying attention. I know most of her "tells".

But I'll never be familiar with all her ways. There will always be something that's hidden, something mysterious. This is the beauty and the tragedy of human relationships. My finite mind won't allow me to grasp everything there is to know about another human -- even after I've known them for 50 years.

But God is intimately acquainted with all my ways. He knows absolutely everything about me -- even the parts I'm unsure of.

The Psalm continues:

Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Why does one kid from a family go this way and another kid from the same family go that way? Why does one marriage grow stronger and another come apart at the seams? Why is one person called to serve in obscurity and another becomes famous?

I don't know. But God knows. And he assures me that everything is happening for my benefit -- even if I don't understand it now. That's life in the ant farm.