“Doesn’t God want us to be happy?” The question hung in the air between us, my friend and I.
I think I’d answer the question with a, “Yes… Eventually.”
But plainly, the answer would not be, “Yes. Always.” He’s thinking long-term happiness. Which (apparently) must require a great deal of short-term misery. Short-term misery that, somehow, He turns into eternal joy. It is a clear message of the Bible.
But in the meantime, how can He be so hard? How can attempting to follow Him be so hard? Why is life so hard? Why is God so hard, so unyielding to our pleas?
These days, I keep pondering on a certain depiction of God that is repeated throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms: “My God is my rock…”
What does it mean that the God of the Bible is a “rock”?
To quote the full verse that I snippeted above… “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Psalm 18:2).
Jesus quotes from Psalm 118 when He states in Matthew 21:42-44, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
These verses give us the reasons we can be glad God is a rock: When seen from the right side, He is safety (in that long-term, if not short-term, kind of way). He’s a hiding place, a fortress, a protection. And He’s a firm foundation on which to build.
These verses also give us the reason some have no reason to be glad God is a rock: This Rock has a right side and a wrong side. There’s only one way to find Him a rock of safety. Don’t be in the position where you will be crushed by His cold, hard reality. Come into alignment with His reality.
On top of the rock: safety. The rock on top of you: destruction. Crushing.
True, depending on the landing, even on top of the rock can be a painful experience. But much better to be on the right side of the rock than the wrong side.
What is that trait in the nature of God that makes Him a rock? It’s His hardness, his unyieldingness, his unchangeableness. The same yesterday, today, forever. In religious-speak, His immutability.
Not on an unrelated topic, I’ve also been doing some pondering on the subject of, “What is reality, and how can we know it?” and this definition of reality has been roaming around inside my head for a few days now, trying to find its way out: “Reality is that cold, hard wall against which, sooner or later, all our stupid ideas crack up.” I decided the definition needed its own blog post to find its way out of my head and into the real world.
As I’ve said before, I’m fascinated by epistemology: the study of how we know what we know. This might be a strange study for someone who has admitted the justice of the relativist position, that we can’t really know anything beyond any and all possible doubt or dispute. But I’ve also said that we will and must all believe something. There’s no other way to get through life. How best to choose our belief-set? (I looked at one certain epistemology last post. I’ll tackle another couple this post.)
I sometimes encounter the observer who wants to stand back and learn how other people think but arrive at no belief-set of his or her own. The impartial neutral. Perhaps this seems safest. Hard to be wrong if one believes nothing at all. But this standoffish position falls apart as soon as it encounters the hard rock of reality. In reality, we are forced to make hundreds of decisions every day about what we believe whether or not we realize that’s what’s happening.
The type who airily quote catch-phrases like, “It’s not the destination that counts; it’s the journey,” will suddenly care very much about the destination when they’ve boarded a plane to a particular one. Ideas that seem like good ones while adrift in the cloudy and lofty regions of philosophy and religion will be unacceptable when landing with a thump back on the cold, hard surface of Planet Earth. It’s only because these sceptical minds have already decided to embrace the notion that philosophical, spiritual, religious kinds of beliefs don’t matter in any sort of actual way (that the invisible is somehow less real and weighty than the visible) that they’ll be content with this sort of sophisticated apathy. But what if this belief is false, and the invisible realities matter much more than the visible ones?
In fact, a quick brush against the cold, hard rock of reality should crack this belief into pieces and show up its hollow core. All the most important things in life are the invisible realities. I challenge you to start a list of all the things that give any kind of real meaning or satisfaction or enjoyment to your life and then to discern the invisible element back of whatever visible elements may make your list. Just this simple exercise should strip away our excuses for intellectual laziness when it comes to the invisible realities.
But of all the epistemologies of those who have decided to embrace some sort of belief-set in today’s world, the one that keeps surfacing and resurfacing as the winner of the people’s choice award is this one: feelings.
Back of this epistemology is the theology of Self. If I am my own god, if I am my own ultimate authority, then I can simply look inside myself to determine truth from falsehood and right from wrong. What I feel is true. For me, anyway. And I’m the only one I’m accountable to. In the theology of Self.
I’ve been thinking about the proper role of emotion lately. I think emotions make bad foundations but good fuel. Nothing of importance should be built on an emotion, but once a sturdier foundation has been laid, emotion can be (and should be) an important motivating power. Emotions are the wind in our sails. But because they move us so powerfully, it is vital our emotions are guided. Our thinking (our reasoned beliefs) should lead our emotions. Our emotions should not be leading our thinking.
This should be obvious to the general public (though when was the last time the general public got anything right? Popular movements almost always make for bad epistemologies.). The reason emotions are not a proper footing on which to fashion beliefs is because emotions are the opposite of rocks. Emotions are volatile and changeable. I may wake up feeling a certain way; I may go to bed feeling the opposite. How could emotion possibly be a proper guide when unguided emotion will lead us all over the map?
This very quality of changeability in this epistemology some will see as a virtue. The same people who will advise me to “follow my heart” will tell me not to worry that my heart changes its mind on the regular. After all, change is good. Change is growth. Change is progress.
Not entirely, I’d say. Good change is good. Growth is growth. Progress is progress. If you’re heading in the wrong direction entirely, turning around to go back the other way is a form of progress. But if the turnings are constant, if there is no movement other than back and forth, around and around, there is no progress. In order for there to be progress, there must be movement in the same direction. Likewise, in order for growth to be growth, there must be movement in the same direction—an upward direction. As discussed last post, “newer knowledge is better knowledge” is not a thoroughly reliable epistemology, but insofar as there has been an increase in knowledge over time, that means we don’t toss out old knowledge. We build on it. We move forward in the same direction. We don’t get ahead in learning math or science, for instance, by tossing out all that came before but rather by recognizing what was already true and moving forward in the same direction.
The changeability of our emotions is not reliable progress. It is up and down and back and forth and to and fro and aimless and shifting. Here it differs from reason.
This bad epistemology cracks up against the rock of reality so dramatically and so often it’s shocking that so many still stubbornly refuse to admit it. Only by steadfastly denying all the previous shipwrecks of our lives that came from letting the winds of emotion steer our ships can we carry on with this way of thinking. Again, that rock called reality makes shipwreck of all our bad ideas. But we like to deny it and cling desperately to our bad ideas, anyway. This is definitely not progress.
So here I am disparaging emotion as a proper epistemology. Am I advocating reason—admittedly flawed human reasoning—as a more reliable one? Yes, in one sense, I am.
My reasoning may also change, certainly. I may be likely to get out of bed in the morning believing a certain way and go to bed believing the same way, but it happens that I might change my beliefs somewhere in that interval. Especially over the course of years, I may come to believe differently on many different issues. I will hopefully grow in knowledge as I build on what has been shown to be likely to be true, but progress will require leaving behind bad, old ideas. In the moment, how can I know which ideas I may come later to decide are bad, old ideas? If the goal is building on a rock, is the shifting sand of human reason any more reliable? Reason may be less changeable than emotion, but isn’t it also flawed? Isn’t it also changeable?
Certainly, it is!
Ultimately, as a Christian, I own divine revelation to be the only solid ground. “God is my rock,” I affirm with the psalmists.
But the problem is that we can’t start off with revelation. We must, of necessity, start with reason. (Or emotion. But I recommend reason over emotion as our basis as already discussed.)
The problem is there are just too many contradictory authorities out there for all of them to be true. There are too many “divine revelations,” saying very different things, to all be divine revelations. All roads may lead to God, but which God do you want to reach? For myself, I’d like to reach the One True God.
Flawed human reason is the best tool in our belt for looking into each of these claims. It’s unavoidable. It’s where we must start. As I’ve said repeatedly, most of what we believe will come to us through authority of one kind or another, but we are wise to weigh which authority we’ll accept as reliable. And where. And how far. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves in that camp of the gullible who believe anything on any dubious authority. I’ve been convinced that it’s a bad idea to accept even the truth of the Bible just because we’re told it’s true. Or because we “just feel” like it’s true. Even those of us raised in the faith should reach a point where we make a decision on the truth or untruth of the Bible after a careful examination. We may already believe it, but then it’s a good idea to know why we believe it. That belief will be challenged on all fronts. It can only be strengthened by the challenges if it’s a reasoned belief.
I would never advocate placing flawed and faulty human reasoning above the authority of the divine revelation of the Bible—once I’ve been convinced that the Bible is the divine revelation. But I can’t find any way around the necessity for using human reasoning to compare and contrast and rule out different authorities, even authorities claiming divine revelation.
It appears to be the way things were set up. We must use our reason to evaluate the evidence, but here’s the thing: the (as I believe) divine revelation of the Bible gives us good evidence to believe it is divine revelation. And once accepted as such, we’ve found our solid and unchangeable rock on which to build safely.
That’s my conclusion. But how did I reach this conclusion? What evidence did I use to evaluate the authority of the Bible?
For one, the rock of reality. I unavoidably began noticing which ideas cracked up on it. And which ones didn’t. I began to notice that the Bible’s principles didn’t crack up when they met my observable reality. They strongly looked like they conformed to the same shape as the rock of reality, and reality strongly began to look like it conformed to the same shape as the rock of the Bible. I came to the conclusion that they happened to be the same rock.
Try it! Start being observant. And honest. Which of your ideas have cracked up on the rock of reality? What about the ideas of others? Does it really work to look inside to find all the guidance you need based on your own feelings? Is this popular epistemology working for our world? What does it mean for moral issues, matters of good and evil? If there is real evil in the world, where does it come from? How can one person look inside their “divine essence” to find the desire to commit any of the unspeakable evils we know exist in the world? How is that possible? Does “follow your heart” (aka: emotions) really work when lived out, given the changeable nature of emotion?
That’s what I’d advise: Whatever your belief system, start noticing where it falls apart when it hits reality. As far as epistemologies go, it’s not bad for a start.