Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 5 - COPING WITH EVIL I)

So far we've discussed that God uses cognitive biases (which many of us, with out modernistic worldview, would label 'errors') in his progressive revelation as he works toward his ultimate aim of relationship with us. Relationships include inevitable and healthy ‘gaps’ and ‘excesses’  of experience (and cognition). But some of the gaps God allows go beyond this to create 'evil effects' of limiting our experience of God BEYOND these normal and healthy experiences of relationship. In this post I want to talk about how our relationship copes with such messiness. And we'll start to think about why God allows gaps and cognitive 'errors' that he knows will have negative effects.

Love becomes Faith

In the face of these gaps of experience, our relationship takes a form known as faith. We go on seeking and living out the relationship, even while we are temporarily deprived of the experience of the relationship{1,2}. Faith has all the usual characteristics of a relationship. And as a relationship it needs a basis, which include all forms of experience (e.g. Scripture communication, the Holy Spirit's inner witness, The human character of Jesus, our experience of God through other people and events, reason and science, etc). It is not necessarily about any particular accurate cognitive view of the person we're relating to, but it nevertheless engages our whole being (including the process of cognition), and all experiences of the person (including cognitive understanding) will strengthen the relationship. Faith then uses the grounds it has, to bridge the relational gaps we are faced with, persisting when the relational experience is impaired. Faith thus simultaneously co-exists with both the grounds of the relationship AND the ongoing doubt and uncertainty. 

There are multiple ways to describe how faith uses its existing relational strength to bridge gaps. It can remember God's universal goodness expression which must pervade even the 'evil' we are facing (treating 'evil' as ultimately a matter of temporal perspective). It can grapple more intimately with what God's good purposes for these gaps might be. Specific answers can even be an experience of God which subsequently strengthens the relationship and faith. Faith can also remember that God’s ultimate solution to evil is an actual change in reality, not just in our minds - and so faith can work concretely to oppose evil, attempting to be the means by which God expresses Himself in these gaps. Faith doesn’t necessarily consciously engage in all these methods – it is a relationship, and so it will express itself in unique strengths and weaknesses. We can tend to react to some legitimate expressions of faith (within us or within others) as if they are actually opposed to faith, and squelch them in favour of our preferred expressions of faith. ‘Submitting to God’s will in suffering’, ‘questioning God’, and ‘fighting suffering’ may sometimes spring from a lack of faith (in which case they need redeeming by a right relationship with God), but often they can simply the unbalanced form a healthy faith naturally takes in the face of evil. We need to encourage our faith to express itself in all these ways in order for the relationship to flourish maximally in the face of evil{3,4}.

'Questioning' and working concretely against the 'gaps' created by the complexities of Scripture can likewise be an expression of faith, just like how faith deals with evil. And we can squelch faith (in ourselves or others) by squelching particular modes of its expression. It is common practice to focus on techniques and strategies that distance us from the reality and weight of the uncomfortable aspects of Scripture, making it easier for us to dismiss them without engaging in other full flourishing-faith dealings (e.g. emphasising the harmony of Scripture, and engaging in rhetoric which belittles claims to the complexity of Scripture). These uncomfortable aspects of scripture are real and weighty and deserve a proper dealing{5}. 

God's purposes for Evil

So if faith grapples intimately with the specific good purposes God has for allowing 'evil gaps', what kinds of answers can it come up with? The first purpose to think about, is that evil allows relationships to take the form of faith. This is important because Faith (when understood as above) is the most undeniable demonstration of a relationship possible. Faith demonstrates the authenticity and health of a love relationship because the relationship it is based on persists even if the desired experiences are not there. Our responses to gaps reveal where our heart really lies - the degree of distress at gaps reveals the value of what is now lacking, and the degree of relational resilience DESPITE these gaps reveals the strength of relationship{6}. 

Progressive revelation allows for the demonstration of faith by leaving us with cognitive questions and challenges, with grey zones and apparent conflicts. How we navigate these based on our relationship to the person of Jesus, and not based on a commitment to a set of rigid interpretations of particular aspects of revelation, reveals our faith.

I’ve run out of room for this post, so the other two purposes for evil will have to wait for next post (allowing the full varied expression of God, and directly causing specific historical or character development effects). These are also important for faith to consider as it wrestles with God's purposes for evil and progressive revelation.


Faith is the form a relationship with God takes when there are experiential gaps in that relationship ('evil'), including the difficult aspects of progressive revelation. A healthy faith will deal with these things in multiple ways - one of which is to wrestle with God's purposes for evil and provide potential answers. One answer is that evil provides opportunity for relationships to take the form of faith, which is important to God.

What do you think of this relational definition of faith? Does it fit with Scripture?
How do you think faith ought to respond to evil and difficult aspects of Scripture / revelation? What do you think of the concept of 'questioning God' in a positive way, as opposed to the Devil's way?
Do you agree with that one purpose for evil is to allow the expression of faith? 
How do you think our faith is meant to interact with God's secret will when it comes to actively opposing 'evil'?

Coming Soon...

  • Next post I'll discuss the other two major purposes for evil and progressive revelation. 
  • After that I've got a couple of other interesting properties of progressive revelation to talk about, including our modernistic OVER-estimation of the bias that exists in progressive revelation. 
  • Then I can finally summarise how I think God actually wants us to approach Scripture, how to practically use it faithfully in our relationship with God while still valuing those aspects we've been discussing that can seem uncomfortable and confusing! And then we can explore some practical implications.

The series so far:


1 - This definition of faith fits well with Scripture. It explains why faith is the 'substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen' - it IS the manifestation of a relationship that has real substance, but is nevertheless 'hoped for' and 'not seen'. It explains why God must first call people with experience before faith can arise. It explains why many of the qualities of faith in God (including exclusive rewards like grave and salvation) are also ascribed to individual components of this relationship (like love, humility, wisdom, obedience). It explains why sin (NOT living in a love relationship with God) is naturally opposed to faith, and why faith results in sanctification. It explains why faith is a constant integral part of our relationship with God here on earth, but disappears in heaven (by way of graduation to a form without ‘evil’ experiential gaps). It explains why faithful saints can still powerfully express strong doubts and wrestle with God.

2 - This description of faith still encompasses the more specific 'faith' we can have in particular promises or blessings. Technically according to Scripture we should not 'have faith for’ any particular blessing, but we can have faith in God’s goodness and faithfulness to His promises. This alters our hope / assurance / expectation / confidence regarding specific blessings - they can exist on a spectrum from possible to very likely to absolutely certain, depending on the context and God’s revelation on the matter.

3 - Faith which works to concretely oppose evil may seem at odds with a faith which submits to God's purposes in evil. But this is not necessarily true. Firstly, faith must express itself because it is relational - even if it cognitively understands that God has purposes for evil, our desire for the ultimate solution God promises (a changed reality in the new heaven and earth) MUST express itself in working toward this. Building on this, one of God’s purposes for evil IS to allow faith to express itself in this way - so God's purpose for evil may well include its defeat by the very faith it encourages. God may make it clear to us if He has other ongoing purposes for evil that require its ongoing existence – but many times, God wants both the demonstration of our faith AND the ongoing existence of that evil, in which case He keeps simultaneously encouraging our faith and thwarting faith’s efforts to defeat the evil.

4 - Also worth noting is that these abstract / concrete reactions of faith toward gaps, are also reactions our relationship can have on behalf of others. Our relationship with God is not self-centred, but God-centred - and as such, we seek ongoing experiences for ourselves AND for others. When others relationships are taking the form of faith and wrestling with gaps, we will bear their burdens and help them wrestle in abstract and concrete ways with these gaps.

5 - Some worry that wrestling with and questioning God's revelation is a lack of faith because this is what the devil tried to get Adam and Eve to do – but their ‘bad’ questioning was aimed at pushing the boundaries of God's revelation as far as possible in order to satisfy their own curiosity and independence and desires. Faith’s aim is to pursue a relationship with God. Some also worry about concretely working to oppose the 'evil' of the uncomfortable complexities of progressive revelation - as if this implies a deficiency in God's expression Himself. Faith views it instead as a designed opportunity to exercise itself - obviously valuing God's chosen expression, but seeking a more desirable relational state without as many 'gaps'. It utilises 'secular' disciplines (such as science, archeology, linguistics, history, logic and philosophy) to do so. All our efforts - as with our efforts to oppose generic 'evil' - are sincere but flawed. We rely on God to either work alongside us with His power, or to clarify our limits (as He has done by banning tampering with his revelation), or to simultaneously encourage and thwart our ongoing efforts.

6 - Obviously this is highly contextual - sometimes faith might be only mildly distressed at financial strife, because what ultimately matters is the relationship with God, which is persisting despite this 'gap', and is probably being experienced in a myriad of other ways. This same faith might be more distressed by more direct reflections of the relationship (e.g. besetting sin, a difficult ethical problem, or a lack of access to Scripture or fellowship). Or the financial hardship may become so pressing that our human minds simply cannot focus to appreciate the other more direct expressions of God, so that the immediate problem BECOMES the most direct relational expression of God that is possible in the circumstances - in this case, although the relationship continues to persist in the form of faith, there will obviously be a greater degree of distress.