Seeing the end of his earthly life draw near, the great eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards spoke to his daughter Lucy, who attended him during his last days, the best last words I have ever seen come from a dying father. Edwards, who dedicated his life to studying and teaching about a God who is sovereign over all things, knew he could entrust his family to this same God as their heavenly father. A child may learn nothing else from his father (or mother!) but to love God and walk in his ways, but this is more valuable than the greatest earthly inheritance any parent can hope to leave his children. This is the best thing a father or mother can do for their children, and it’s sweet to see the great theologian of the Great Awakening be that kind of father. From John Piper’s God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2006):
“Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue for ever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you.”
In recent days a couple of friends asked me if I’d been keeping up with my blog, which brought to mind that indeed, since this unusually busy fall semester began, I’ve broken one of my 2015 resolutions: To post here at least once every two weeks. (My last post was over a month ago.) The good thing is that this pushed me to do this third and last post on Marilynne Robinson’s breathtakingly beautiful, and beautifully written, Gilead (Picador 2004). To re-cap, the book is written as a series of letters from a father who is soon to die to his young son, and in it he speaks of his father and grandfather who, like him, are preachers, and of the ties, and loves, and even sins, that bind these generations. Like the first two I shared, I love this excerpt for the way it captures beauty – the beauty that a man beholds in the woman he loves, the son he cherishes – and which he connects to God, its source, in a most appropriate expression of gratefulness and awe.
“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just another way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face” (237).
- What do you believe is the most important thing about God?
- What kind of father did you have?
Do you realize that every time your father loved you – such as by putting thought and energy into making sure you were protected, or embracing you and forgiving you after you did something you weren’t supposed to do, or giving you that toy or dress you’ve wanted, and delighting in watching you receive it with joy – he was reflecting God? And even those, like me, whose fathers were absent, or worse, abusive, have seen this phenomenon of the created being reflecting a perfect Creator because we have seen fathers act like this – that is, as they were meant to act. (I have been especially blessed by the care, counsel, and example of many fatherly figures who at different times were to me the father I didn’t have.)
But compelling as they are, these images are mere shadows of God, who “before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.” From Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity, 2012):
“… The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father. Again and again, the Scriptures equate the terms God and Father: in Exodus, the Lord calls Israel ‘my firstborn son’…he carries his people ‘as a father carries his son, disciplines them as a man disciplines his son’…
“… Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that this God ‘does’ being Father as a day job, only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God.’ It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father.” (21-23)
Thomas Aquinas was a remarkably lucid and logical thinker, one of the best minds to have graced this earth who set his mind to work on the most important of topics: God and the things of God.
Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft has done us a huge service in compiling an anthology, with his own footnotes, of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, one of the most important texts in the history of Western thought, let alone theology and philosophy. In this book, titled Summa of the Summa, we find the explanation to why our medieval ancestors considered theology the “queen of the sciences”:
“Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint it is nobler than other sciences” (42).
Kreeft then writes in the footnote: “The medieval formula ‘philosophy the handmaid of theology’ and the associated idea of theology as ‘the queen of the sciences’ are seldom taken seriously today…Yet neither philosophy nor science have ever refuted the claim during the past seven hundred years. It has been dismissed by fashion, not by reason. If God is, and is our ultimate end, then the science of God must indeed be the queen of the sciences” (43).
In his excellent treatment of the Bible’s passages on God’s love, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson retells the Les Misérables’ story of Jean Valjean to make the point that we must “never, never underestimate the power of the love of God to break down and transform the most amazingly hard individuals”:
“Sentenced to a nineteen-year term of hard labor for stealing bread, Jean Valjean becomes a hard and bitter man. No one could break him; everyone feared him. Released from prison, Valjean finds it difficult to survive, as innkeepers will not welcome him and work is scarce. Then a kind bishop welcomes him into his home. But Valjean betrays the trust. During the night he creeps off into the darkness, stealing some of the family silver.
“But Valjean is brought back next morning to the bishop’s door by three policemen. They had arrested him and found the stolen silver on him. A word from the bishop, and the wretch would be incarcerated for life. But the bishop instantly exclaims, ‘So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?’
“Jean Valjean is released, and he is transformed. When the gendarmes withdraw, the bishop insists on giving the candlesticks to his speechless, mortified, thankful guest. ‘Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man,’ admonishes the bishop. And meanwhile the detective constantly pursuing Valjean, Javert, who is consumed by justice but who knows nothing of forgiveness or compassion, crumbles when his black-and-white categories of mere justice fail to cope with grace that goes against every instinct for revenge. Valjean is transformed; Javert jumps off a bridge and drowns in the Seine.
“Of course, this is Christian love – i.e., the love of God mediated in this case through a bishop. But this is how it should be, for God’s love so transforms us that we mediate it to others, who are thereby transformed. We love because he first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven.” (81-82)
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
We read Job for comfort.
I believe there is no more satisfying answer (or rather, non-answer) to the problems of suffering and evil than the one we find in Job. Here is a righteous man who suffers misery upon misery without knowing why this is happening, who wishes he’d never been born and shakes his fist at the heavens and questions God’s ways, only to be humbled by a God who comes not to tell him why he is suffering, but rather to throw his own questions at Job and silence him with the precious knowledge that God is God and he is more powerful, wise, and good than any of us can imagine. This is why we read Job for comfort – because in it we come upon the wall that faces us the end of all our agonizing questions in the face of suffering, and we find not a neat answer but a person: God himself. And this is more than enough.
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the British journalist, poet, novelist, and all-around man of letters, wrote about this comfort, as well as the way God’s questions confounds the most stubborn of skeptics, in a 1929 essay titled, “The Book of Job.” (From In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius, 2011)):
“When, at the end of the poem, God enters (somewhat abruptly), is struck the sudden and splendid note which makes the thing as great as it is. All the human beings through the story, and Job especially, have been asking questions of God. A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number more questions on His own account. In this drama of skepticism God Himself takes up the role of the skeptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some questions which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners…
“… In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.
“… Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man” (97-99).
In The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson seeks to balance the popular view of the love of God (often reduced to the fuzzy, feel-good claim that “God is love”) with what Scripture says about his holiness and sovereignty, attributes that actually enrich our understanding of God’s love. And while most of us, whether Christian or not, tend to think of the love of God as his love toward us, Carson spends a significant amount of time on the intra-Trinitarian love of God – the love expressed among the three persons of the Trinity – which is the basis for the love that we receive and, because of Christ, are empowered to give. The passage below, which discusses the primacy of the Father’s love for the Son, completely blew me away.
“We too quickly think of our salvation almost exclusively with respect to its bearing on us. Certainly there is endless ground for wonder in the Father’s love for us, in Jesus’ love for us. But undergirding them, more basic than they are, is the Father’s love for the Son. Because of the love of the Father for the Son, the Father has determined that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father (John 5:23). Indeed, this love of the Father for the Son is what makes sense of John 3:16. True, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’- there the object of God’s love in the world. But the standards that tells us just how great that love is has already been set. What is its measure? God so loved that world that he gave his Son. Paul’s reasoning in similar: If God did not spare his Son, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things (Romans 8:32)? The argument is cogent only because the relationship between the Father and the Son is the standard for all other love relationships.” (35)
In Can I Really Trust the Bible? (The Good Book Company, 2014), Barry Cooper offers a compelling series of arguments for the historical reliability and truth of the Bible. Cooper puts forth several types arguments – historical, logical, philosophical – but my favorite type of “evidence” he gives is the living testimony of those he calls “Bible-shaped” people. The best part of this for me is that I know many people like this. They’re many of the people at my church, and they were among those in the church where I used to attend before moving to the District. Some aren’t from my church but were part of the campus ministry my wife and I were part of in college. What they all share, as Cooper writes, is a love of God and others that is informed by what the Bible says about who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. But enough of what I think. Below, see what these “Bible-shaped people” – who do exist! – are like:
“As people look for certainty that the Bible really is from God, they sometimes miss what seems – to me at least – to be very persuasive evidence.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know are a wonder to me. You don’t hear much about them in the media because their lives are self-sacrificial and other-centered. They love tirelessly and genuinely, in the background, under the radar. They want to find ways to encourage you or mourn with you or give you practical help. They are patient. They are kind. They take their Bibles seriously, but not themselves. They know how to laugh. Engage them in conversation, and they want to talk about you. They don’t pelt their Facebook feeds with mock-humble pronouncements of their own greatness. And when others say that Christians are bigoted or stupid, they don’t lose heart or respond with anger. They carry on, quietly loving and serving others.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know have been men and women who opened their homes and their lives to me. They spent time with me. Loved me when I was at my least lovable. Some of them, having no education to speak of, spoke with a wisdom that left me slack-jawed. During periods of depression, when I was seemingly unreachable, they sat patiently with me, they put their arms around me. They never lost patience, they never lost hope. They called me to throw off the sin that so easily entangles, but they weren’t shocked or self-righteous about any darkness they saw in me, because they acknowledged it in themselves. Love like that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It isn’t self-seeking, or easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs.
“I’ve only ever seen love like that in two places. I’ve seen it in Jesus. And I’ve seen it in the most Bible-shaped people I know” (75-76).
BONUS: Here’s a funny promotional video of Barry Cooper talking about the book, the “most yellow” that’s ever been written.
One of the best things about St. Augustine’s Confessions (397-8) is the bishop’s deeply personal, searching expressions of praise to God. These are not only fascinating statements by perhaps the most important and influential mind in the history of Western Christianity, but also fine examples of prayers of confession and praise. Here’s another short excerpt that struck me for its beauty and which I wanted to share:
“Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Eternity – all this, my God, you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and day…I gazed on you with eyes too weak to resist the dazzle of your splendor. Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you. It was as though I were in a land where all is different from your own and I heard your voice calling from on high, saying, ‘I am the food of full-grown men. Grow and you shall feed on me. But you shall not change me into your own substance, as you do with the food of your body. Instead you shall be changed into me'” (147).
Which is more impressive: the man who observes, studies, and investigates a plant, knowing all its properties and contents and even uses for medicinal and other beneficent purposes, but who denies the existence of God, or the man who owns a plant and, while knowing little about it, eats from it and thanks God for creating it and giving it to him? Most of us moderns might more readily be impressed by the first man, whose scientific prowess and non-religious, humanitarian sensibility accords well with the spirit of our age. Yet as Augustine – that intensely religious thinker among the ancients – makes clear in his Confessions (Penguin, 1961), it is of no lasting benefit to know all about a created thing if one does not know the One who created it: the God of life-giving power, “whom all things serve.”
“A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all. It would be foolish to doubt that such a man, though he may not know the track of the Great Bear, is altogether better than another who measures the sky and counts the stars and weighs the elements, but neglects you who allot to all things their size, their number, and their weight” (95).