Does God “Spank” His Children?

In his book, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, D.A. Carson offers the classic Calvinist viewpoint on the subject. It is an excellent book, well worth the read. Carson’s skill is in his ability to exegete the Scriptures, albeit from his specific theological vantage point.

In the fifth chapter, he dives into the peculiar ways that the People of God suffer, the first being “discipline.” The text he looks at is Hebrews 12:4-13.

He writes,

“In reality, we never escape God’s sovereignty. Part of learning to live as faithful children of the sovereign God is therefore tied to trusting him when he can at best be only dimly discerned behind events and circumstances that the Bible itself is quick to label evil…it is important to see that at least some of God’s means of discipline, all designed for our good, can simultaneously be viewed as calamitous evil…
“…The author (of Hebrews) frankly acknowledges that ‘no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful’ (v. 11)…Like a boy who is getting a spanking for breaking his sister’s Alice-band in a fit of rage, so the discipline God metes out hurts, and causes us to wail. But if the boy’s Daddy is good, loving, and even-handed, the boy himself is made secure by the expression of love in discipline, and ultimately grows to appreciate his father’s wisdom; and so we too learn to trust our heavenly father and rely on his wisdom to take us through paths we never would have chosen for ourselves.”

At first blush, I think I would usually agree with such an interpretation of Hebrews 12. But I’m troubled by this: The “discipline” is never identified in the text. Nowhere does the author of Hebrews tell us that God will cause evil for our ultimate good. The “pain” of the discipline is not identified as anything that might be viewed as “calamitous evil” (as Carson states), just that it is not “pleasant” but rather “painful” for the person experiencing it.

Not all pain, suffering, or distress needs to be evil. It may seem to be to the person on the receiving end of a loving action that they would rather not have done, but it does not need to be identified as an evil. If I discipline my child, it is not evil…unless I do so in a way that actually hurts him. My kids might find it "unpleasant" and experience it with sorrow, but that is only a function of their not wanting it to be done to them. However, if I do violence against my child, I am not disciplining any more, I am showing my fallenness. They would rightly identify my discipline as an evil act. This is why I don’t punish my kids when I am angry. I am unlike God—when I get angry, I cannot discipline without doing harm.

But God can discipline his children without doing harm, for all his discipline is in love. He is not angry with us, ever. The wrath has been dealt with on the cross. So, it seems to me that his "discipline" must never amount to “calamitous evil.” If it does, then God is not good.

So, what do you think? Does God “spank” his children?



How is God in Control When Terrible Things Happen?

That’s the question that many who face life-and-death situations ask.

It’s only a hypothetical question for many of us. That is, unless you have nearly lost your life or you have lost a loved-one in some tragedy. It’s the question my friend Todd asks after the loss of his young boy. It’s the question that those who lost loved-ones on 9/11 ask. It’s the question I ask (and my wife asks) in light of the awful year we just experienced.

A year ago (February 2 is the one-year anniversary!), I nearly lost my life to an aortic dissection. Worse yet, my wife and kids nearly lost their husband and daddy. It was a horrific ordeal for Linda because after the initial surgery I developed respiratory complications that, again, threatened my life on a daily basis. I was in a medicated coma for four weeks.

Most would like to look at the positive of this and say, “Wow, God was so good to you for saving your life like that! He spared your family from such heartache!”

It sounds good to say that, and at many times I definitely agree with that sentiment. But then there are other issues that are raised in my heart-of-hearts:
  • If God is in such wonderful control of everything, then why did this happen in the first place?
  • If God was so good to us, then why did he put my wife through four weeks of absolute stress, not knowing if I would survive another day?
  • If God has a good plan for his children, then why was I in the hospital for seven weeks and then basically home-bound for the entire year while they awaited my ability to have a second surgery to re-do (!) the emergency surgery and to repair another aneurysm and to replace a faulty heart valve?
  • If God is soveriegn, then why is it that my ministry was placed at a stand-still for a year, right when it was starting to launch?

These are the issues that I want to face square-on.

Watch for more ruminations here at the blog.



Five Streams of the Emerging Church

Scot McKnight has offered readers of Christianity Today his clear and informative description of the "Emerging Church." This is drawn from his earlier lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary entitled, What is the Emerging Church?

In the CT article, he identifies five "key elements of the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today:"
  • Prophetic (or at least provocative)
  • Postmodern
  • Praxis-oriented
  • Post-evangelical
  • Political



I’ve been “Tagged…”

…by both Michael Kruse and Scot McKnight.

When you’ve been tagged, you’re required to answer the questions posed to you. This tag requires me to say five personal things about themselves that my readers may not know.

1. My wife Linda and I went to the same High School (she was a year behind me). Whereas she was valedictorian of her class, I was…ummmm…not. We hung around in different circles, and thus did not know each other. We met seven years after high school at church. She was leading the single womens’ Bible study and I was leading the single mens’ Bible study.

2. While Linda was valedictorian of her class; I was the class clown of mine (I didn’t actually win the official title, I was first runner-up). Like I said, we hung around in different circles.

3. I used to have flaming red hair in my youth – and lots of it. Most of my readers wouldn’t know this, since I…don’t have lots of any hair now. My son is a spitting image of his dad at his age. Pray that he can keep that beautiful hair!

4. From the age of five to the age of thirteen, I was in-an-out of the Cleveland Clinic hospital for kidney reconstructive surgeries. I averaged a surgery each year of my youth to repair congenital defects. Interesting that last year I had my aorta surgery at this same hospital. It brought back many memories.

5. Now that I’ve had surgery to replace my aortic valve with a mechanical one, I can never sneak up on you and I can never play poker. With every heart-beat, I click. It’s like wearing a bad watch—click, click, click. It’s hard to fall asleep sometimes, when, in a quiet room, all I hear is the click, click, click of my own heart (You're not supposed to notice when you breath or when your heart beats!) Linda says she has trouble falling asleep too, because she listens to it and wonders, “Why is his heart beating at that rate? Did I hear him miss a beat?” Its very odd. I think the surgeon accidentally dropped his watch in my chest and won’t admit it.


We Still Have a Dream

Here is a 3 minute excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.

It was the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The march made specific demands (according to Wikipedia): “an end to racial segregation in public school; meaningful civil rights legislation, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all workers; and self-government for the District of Columbia, then governed by congressional committee.”

“More than a quarter of a million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington's history. King's I Have a Dream speech electrified the crowd. It is regarded, along with Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as one of the finest speeches in the history of American oratory. President Kennedy, himself opposed to the march, met King afterwards with enthusiasm - repeating King's line back to him; "I have a dream", while nodding with approval.”

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith wrote the must read book on racism in our contemporary world (Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America). It shows how evangelical Christians have failed miserably to move our nation away from racialization.

You can read an excerpt of the book here. This short article is required reeading for the students in my Ethics class.

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Christian Community and Harley-Davidson

In their book, Living On Purpose: Finding God’s Best for Your Life, Christine and Tom Sine offer an excellent chapter entitled, “Seeking First the Kingdom in Community.”

They report that the West has moved away from connectedness and community toward isolation and individualism. Not only that,

“As we have seen, there has also been a growing emphasis on seeing ourselves as individual consumers whose primary task is to keep the economy booming. This may be great for the economy, but it doesn’t seem to be doing us much good as persons.”

It’s sad, really: Even Christians have been trained to meet our needs for intimacy through the things we buy. We identify who we are by what we consume. And this is now shaping the way we view church.

“Far from challenging the growing individualism and consumerism of modern culture, many churches have bought into it…[and] settled for a view of the church that is barely different from a consumer mall…The church is reduced to a place we go once a week to have our individual ‘consumer’ needs met. If the church can’t meet our needs, then we will ‘shop around’ until we find one that does.”

Interestingly, while the church is adopting the marketing techniques that appeal to consumers, the marketers are now figuring out that individualism may not sell as well as community.

Take, for example, Harley-Davidson. The Sines report that,

“Harley-Davidson brought itself from the brink of extinction by forming owner groups and getting them together to build community around their common passion. ‘To really experience the full value of a product community is the best way to do it…it can be a transforming experience.’

Harley-Davidson is saying that community is a “transforming experience.”
The Church is missing the fact that community is her central reason for existence.

This is a frightening revelation. Maybe I’d better buy a hog and start riding it on Sunday mornings.

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Praying Community Prayers vs. Just Individual Prayers

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven…”

Interesting how one pronoun changes everything. For years, I’ve prayed through the Lord’s Prayer, knowing those lines, and yet I rarely prayed it literally. Funny since, being an evangelical, I’ve been trained to read the Bible “literally.” But though we evangelicals often say that is our way of interpreting Scripture, when it comes to certain passages our sub-cultural traditions take precedence (for instance, in your next Bible study, try asking evangelicals if Jesus really meant the poor when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” in Luke 4, or, “Blessed are you who are poor,” in Luke 6).

So, here we were in our Oasis gathering Sunday night when my friend Miche brings up the fact that when he prays “we” prayers instead of “me” prayers, it radically changes the meaning of his prayers and gives them deeper context, meaning, and practicality.

As evangelicals, in our zeal to promote each individual’s “personal relationship with God,” we have shifted the balance of our prayers toward the “me and God” kind. And then we pat ourselves on the back that we’ve taken the Lord’s Prayer and “personalized it” so that it has more significant meaning.

But then the prayer of the evangelical gets truncated to this:
My Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give me today my daily bread.
And forgive me my debts,
as I also have forgiven my debtors.
And lead me not into temptation,
but deliver me from evil.

I need to remember that The Lord’s Prayer starts out with, “Our Father in heaven.”
Not, “My Father in heaven.”

What would happen to our prayers if we intentionally prayed for “us?” What would happen to our prayers if our “me” prayers were shifted from individualism toward interdependence - my living in the context of “community?” If being human means being relational, then everything we do as Christians is to be done in the context of redeeming all our relationships (with God, with others, and with the Creation).

What would happen if we read the Lord’s Prayer literally?

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Back to Blogging!

After a "holiday break," I'm getting back to blogging this week.

Subjects for upcoming posts:
  • Suffering and Evil. In the wake of my near-death experience, I'm going to explore why bad things happen and how God relates with us through those experiences.
  • The Religious Right. I'm reading Randall Balmer's provocative book, Thy Kingdom Come, and will have reflections.
  • Missional Community. I've been asked to start a new missional community within the context of a local megachurch. I will be exploring what missional community means and how that can practically be implemented in my situation.

Looking forward to a new year of blogging!