To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed.
When I first heard about this book I was in the middle of thinking about suffering myself. I was writing an essay on evil and was consumed with the topic. So it was with great interest that I watched from a distance the last few months of the book’s production.
Of course, it’s easy to sit back and isolate the ‘problem of evil’, treating it purely intellectually. Pub chat, blog posts, academic essays – they go some way to examining the issue but all the talk falls short of actually confronting the full scope of this topic which seems to be as an 18-tonne truck, poised to run any one us over at any moment.
Yes, we can philosophise and wax lyrical about Hume, Epicurus etc. etc. but as we are told by Leonato in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, “there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.”
It is with great sensitivity that Sharon Dirckx delves into this age-old problem. The genius of this book lays not so much in the answers given – which are presented clearly, concisely, and reasonably – but the manner in which the answers are wrapped up in bite-sized reality.
The book starts with the story of Millie, a little girl with a rare brain abnormality. The pain and anguish of the parents is conveyed through the pages as we watch their little girl fight for life. The story of this family retold frames the focus of the book as the search for meaning in the midst of pain and suffering.
The philosopher William Lane Craig has said that the question of suffering is, “undoubtedly the greatest intellectual obstacle to belief in God.” Perhaps in part the obstacle is so large because it is heard so loudly. It is of course a question that is common to all people. As Philip Brooks, quoted in the foreword by Ravi Zacharias, says, “If you preach to a hurting heart, you will never lack for an audience.”
Through the five stories of people coping with suffering the book positions the answers given as answers to real questions, questions any of us may ask. Far from an abstract treatment of the issue, we are tenderly coached to answer the questions honestly, in the face of reality.
However, it is the final narrative – that of the author’s own experiences – that provides the book with the proper tone to tackle this question. In sharing the suffering of her own family, Sharon Dirckx is able to treat this thorny subject with great care and sensitivity. Sharon’s shared experiences presents the text with a voice that resonates with the prayer, searching, and questioning that has been a part of her and her family’s life.
The stories of Sharon’s family, the other five stories, the answers from Christianity (alongside answers from other religions), and ultimately the portrayal of a deeply caring God, in Jesus, offers the reader a true hope.
I have already been happy to send copies to friends seeking answers in this world that can hold much pain, inevitably – or so it seems – coupled to confusion. Why? gently offers an accessible peace by placing suffering into a context of meaning, and ultimately hope. Sharon shows how Christianity – a relationship with Jesus Christ – makes sense of this broken world. And more than that – because knowing about something is never enough – we are shown how Jesus enters into our world and suffers for us and with us.
Buy this book, read it, and then think about whom you can give it to.
It was a great privilege to study under Professor John Lennox last year. Here’s a recent clip of his November 2012 debate at the Oxford Union.
You can catch Professor Lennox, along with Amy Orr-Ewing and the RZIM team at the Oxford Training Day on Saturday 26th January.
Featuring: John Lennox, Amy Orr-Ewing, Keith Small, Tanya Walker
Location: Examination Schools, 81 High Street, Oxford
Date: January 26th 2013 – 8:45am start
As if all of a sudden, the church bells across the little village began to ring out in the cold, dark night. They were heralding in the new year and at the same time marking the passing of the year gone by.
2012 was a year of completion and of new beginnings for me. From an initial nudge towards Oxford in February of 2011 opportunities have blossomed. Here are some of the things I got up to last year:
- I graduated from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics
- Completed a successful evangelistic missions and training trip to Sweden
- Taught a week on Worldviews and Apologetics in a YWAM Discipleship Training School in Herrnhut, Germany
- Started writing a regular Big Questions column for Sorted Magazine
- Planted a new Missional Community, Latimers Oxford
- Started working for Azusa Pacific University as a chaplain to their students studying abroad in Oxford
- Created a brand new apologetics division of Christian Vision for Men called the Demolition Squad, with Andy Kind
- Spoke at a variety of church and university events across the country, including Make A Difference
Additionally I found myself enjoying periods of travel, which even brought me back to Maui where I was able to share with the School of Biblical Foundations and Missions. That trip was one of those coming-full-circle moments. It was in 2004 when I first studied Apologetics and Worldviews at this little Pacific island base, thousands of miles away from England.
All of this stemming from a coffee with a friend in an ice cream parlour in Oxford.
Some times life can seem confusing, the future unknown and unmapped. In these times it can be of benefit to pause, reflect, and look at the track that your life has been moving down. God’s hand of providence and guidance is more easily observed retrospectively.
Observing all that 2012 and before brought me, I have every confidence moving in to 2013 in the plans that God has for me, whatever they may be!
It used to be that the idea of belief in God, particularly the Christian God, was laughable in intellectual circles. Not so any more. Today you don’t have to search too hard to find a Christian in a philosophy or science department in a leading UK university.
And so the battleground moves on. Leaving behind the intellectual front, those with a particular disdain for Christianity retreated only to launch an offensive on the moral character of God. Instead of talking about such things as beginnings and designers and all the rest of it, now perhaps some of the thrust is towards what sort of a God is there.
Richard Dawkins, the best-selling author known for his articulate attacks on religion – and Christianity in particular – takes special objection to the character of God found in the Old Testament. Dawkins tells us that “[the] God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”, before unleashing a torrent of nasty character attributes upon God. Whilst leaving aside claims of the Bible as “fiction” for a later article, the accusation of unpleasantness should be taken very seriously.
Let us be quite clear here, the Bible has some very difficult passages to digest. Many of these are found in the Old Testament and centre on the exploits of Joshua in his handling of the Canaanites.
Cries of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ and ‘Genocide’ ring out from the towers of atheism. How on earth could you love that same God? How on earth could you say that same God is loving? After all, we rightly condemn the atrocities committed at the hands of the Nazis upon the Jews, or of blood spilled in Rwanda in 1994, so how can the God of the Old Testament not be held to the same standard?
Some of the problematic parts can be found in the book of Joshua. In one such place it is said that Joshua “struck all the land” and “left no survivor”. He is said to have “utterly destroyed all who breathed”. Heavy words. Now to set the scene briefly, we must understand something about Canaanite culture. It was bloodthirsty. Think of a scene from the film 300, but worse. Child sacrifice? Absolutely, it was built in to the heart of the culture. Bestiality? Part of the norm. If we today, part of a nice, civilised, anaesthetised, culture were to be transported back to their day we would most likely break down under sensory overload at the horrors that confronted us.
But surely, you might say, there could be a better way to deal with this than killing everyone. After all, isn’t God supposed to merciful? Well, we read earlier in Genesis that God was patient. In fact, God waited 430 years before acting. We also read that this sort of thing wasn’t just a judgement on one people group, and indeed, when the Israelites, God’s own people, got mixed up in some bad things their judgement was equally bad.
But why did everyone have to die? The question persists. Paul Copan, author of Is God A Moral Monster?, looks at the wider culture of the Ancient Near East. Copan explains that it was common to practice the art of exaggeration in warfare rhetoric, a practice still used today. Let me give you an example. When Andy Murray thrashed Roger Federer in straight sets to win the Olympic Gold Medal all the talk was of the “annihilation” of his opponent. Reading the reports do we for a moment think that Andy, in the match, jumped over the net and ruthlessly murdered Roger? Not at all! We understand that this language in this context means that Andy well and truly thumped Roger. In the same way, the language used in the Bible here followed the pattern of the age. And how do we know? Immediately following on we read commands for the Israelites not to marry or associated with the Canaanites. Funny talk if by this time their nation were supposed to be extinct.
The Bible is a complicated book written over 1500 years and spanning several cultures. Cheaply writing off God with strongly emotive terms such as “genocidal” simply won’t do without proper examination of the text and the culture.
Last weekend I had the privilege of visiting Bath University Christian Union at their House Party just outside of Cardiff, Wales. We had a fantastic time, with talks from Simon Edwards and myself, engaging with apologetics and evangelism training before their Mission Week
Christian university students are often faced with tough questions about their faith. These questions may come from friends but also they may be questions that they face personally. Apologetics is what we call the discipline of tackling these questions, of removing the obstacles that prevent people from coming to faith and at the same time strengthening the faith of the believer.
Simon Edwards and myself – both graduates of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics – were given the opportunity to address some of the tricky questions through a variety of talks, including:
- Jesus and Science: Where does the tension really exist in this debate?
- The Cross: The central message of Christianity
- Jesus in a Broken World: Dealing the the challenge of suffering
In addition to the main talks we had a couple of seminars, one of which was given to a general question time. There were many, many good questions that just go to show what people are really thinking. Questions on Hell, Homosexuality and the Bible, Biblical Ethics (Old Testament, Canaanites etc.), Free Will, Suffering and many more were a representative sample of the many questions students face all the time.
People have questions and dealing with them sensitively and with understanding goes a long way towards helping them see Jesus as the true hope for this world.
The other seminar was spent highlighting the fantastic Bible Study resource, Uncover. This resource, from Rebecca Manley Pippert is a great tool for engaging unbelievers and new believers in Bible Study. Woven together through media, great content, and packaged in an accessible way, Uncover is proving as useful as it is easy to use.
Leading a demo Bible study with the students from Bath, we saw just how easy it is, through asking questions, to dig into the text in a rich way. The ease of which Uncover can be used saw many students getting excited to pick it up and start using it with their friends.
I left the weekend encouraged and excited to see a group of students praying and planning to see Jesus proclaimed as Lord in their university and the wider city of Bath. I look forward to hearing the stories that come out of this year!
“Ladies and Gentleman, the captain has just switched on the seatbelt sign in anticipation of upcoming moderate turbulence.” A string of words never followed by a cheery, “enjoy it!” When the bumps start I instinctively look out the window, just to make sure the wings are still there. I’m suddenly rudely aware of the extent that I’m not in control. Additionally, the thought occurs to me that if airplane disasters are simply statistics then every flight is a reduction in my odds.
So just how dangerous is turbulence? To answer that question, I turned to that master of knowledge, the Discovery Channel. Three words: airplane disaster documentaries. I was hooked. Human error, mechanical failure, unpredictable weather – I soaked it all in. You may think it an odd way to deal with undesirable high-altitude stress. Maybe so. My rationale was that the more I understood the more I would feel OK (as if my knowing that human error was the number one cause of airplane crashes was going to help me when I was strapped in to seat 49J with as much command over the elements as an Englishman with his BBQ hoping for that “perfect summer evening”).
My obsession with these re-enacted disasters did however bring some consolation. Through these dramas I learnt that airplane crashes are taken very seriously. They are investigated at great depth with the knowledge gained from the studies used to make future flights safer. As I learnt about the resulting developments in airplane technology my fascination with the complexity of airplanes grew and grew. I am in total awe of how advanced these modern vehicles are.
Men have sat in rooms and thought and schemed and sketched and calculated and come out with things like Concorde. Absolutely incredible. Airplane designers have my total respect. Airplane economy-section planners on the other hand … I digress.
As with my marvels at airplane technology I am profoundly in awe and wowed by scientific discoveries. As I write, NASA’s Martian rover, aptly named ‘Curiosity’, is scrambling around the Red Planet at the beginning of its two-year mission to see if conditions were ever suitable for life. Utterly fascinating.
Science describes the world we live in. It unravels mysteries that stun us with their complexity and beauty. Now, some have said, that with all of our acquired collective scientific understanding there is no need today for God to explain things. We can comprehend our world now in ways we couldn’t possibly fathom a century ago and therefore science and knowledge have replaced faith and superstition.
But science is what science is, a description of the way things are. Science relates theories and laws and provides a deeper understanding of what is physically there. Science enhances my understanding of the greatness of the makeup of the world but to conflate my knowledge of the way things work with the question of the existence of God, who explains why things exist, is to make a serious category mistake.
Being in increasing wonder of the way it all works only serves to enhance my utter awe of God. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, writing in the Times put it this way, “The more Newton understood of the mathematical structure of the universe, the more he admired the creative genius of God, not the less.”
Science is the poetry we use to articulate the genius of God expressed in the creation of the universe. It is a language to explain what exists, not an explanation to the question of why it exists. Just as understanding how a well-designed plane keeps me safe at 36,000 feet goes no way to understanding what I’m doing in the plane in the first place.
In February last year, whilst visiting Oxford for the day, I paused for coffee at G&D’s with a friend. Over the light chit-chat my friend, Tom, found out that I was leaving my job to study full time. “Why not come and study in Oxford?” he asked.
Or talk about a God with purpose and destiny for your life.
I have found that opportunities for the next thing in life often pop up in a way one could hardly anticipate in advance. And so the next step in my life followed suit.
After a great week of mission in Sweden and another week in east-London earlier this year, one of my tutors came up to me and said, “We’re looking to launch an apologetics missional community in the heart Oxford. Will you come and lead it?”
And now, as I type, we are four days out from the launch of Latimers Oxford, a missional community in the heart of Oxford.
Dreams and prayers and planning have converged. A team has formed and is gelling together. A vision has blossomed and people want to be a part of it.
Latimers Oxford is a fresh shoot of the growing Latimer Minster church in Beaconsfield. We are a group of people gathering together to worship, pray, and get engaged in mission. The focus of the mission component is mission through apologetics – that is, dealing with people’s objections, intellectual and emotional, that they might see Jesus.
I fell in love with Oxford last year. This city of great heritage and history has played and continues to play such an important role in this nation. Great waves of revival and reformation have rippled out from this City of Dreaming Spires.
I long to see the vision of giants of the past sustained. Men like Wycliffe, Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer, Wesley, Wesley, and Whitfield.
Jesus’ hope is powerful to change lives, communities, and whole nations. We at Latimers Oxford seek to play our part in proclaiming the risen Christ as Lord and Saviour in our city.
We kick off the Sunday meetings with a look at the life and death of Hugh Latimer, the namesake of our little group. If you’re in Oxford why not join us? We’d love to have you.
I’m speaking at the Making A Difference festival in Newham, London this Saturday (1st September 2012). If you’re in the area, join us!
Each seminar will be followed by Q&A.
Don’t All Religions Lead To The Same God? - 1:30pm
If God Is Good, Why Does He Allow Suffering? – 3:15pm
Find out more and register for both sessions here.
UPDATED: Christ Church, 663 Barking Road, London E13 9EX