Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Six, “Evaluating the Evidence”

We have learned from our study of the Bible that all God asks of us is trust. If we would only trust in Him enough, He could readily heal the damage sin has done. That is all He asked before the war began. That’s all He asks now of those who have been damaged and caught up in this war. All He will ever ask of us in the future is trust. Where there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, no cheating, there is perfect security, perfect freedom, perfect peace. And this is what God desires the most. But is that conclusion based on the right interpretation of the Bible? Have we rightly weighed and understood the biblical evidence?

Others have read the biblical evidence and drawn different conclusions. Many of these are sincere followers of God, yet they perceive Him as arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. Many of them earnestly seek to win others to that kind of God. But if that is the kind of person God is, then He is not worthy of our trust, nor is He safe to trust. Sadly, this picture of God sounds a lot like the accusations Satan has made against God from the beginning of the conflict.

In responding to the accusations against Him, God is not willing to issue mere claims or denials. Anybody could do that. But when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it does no good to deny it or to simply claim to be trustworthy. So God has answered the charges against Him with the evidence of demonstration. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a sufficiently long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, can trust be re-established and confirmed. The Bible is a record of just such a demonstration.

Why is there so much historical detail in the Bible? So much of it seems of such little importance. But if God’s way of revealing Himself is demonstration, it is involving Himself in human affairs and saying, “Watch the way I handle situations. That’s the way to find out what I’m like.” If we did not have the historical details, we would not be in a position to recreate those original settings and understand why God would thunder one time and speak so softly another time.

The Bible is no mere collection of theological statements. Nor is it a code book of deeds to be done and sins to be shunned. It is rather an inspired record of God’s handling of the crisis of distrust in His universe. The only way to truly understand the Bible and rightly interpret it is to pick up the Bible and read it through as a whole. To be confident that we see the real meaning of the Bible, we must view it as a whole, relating all its parts to the one central theme — the truth about God Himself. Of every story, teaching and event, the same question must be raised: What does this say about God? Another question naturally follows: Can we trust the God that we see? That will be the subject of future chapters.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Five, “The Record of the Evidence”

Without the Bible we would know nothing about this conflict in God’s family. Nor would we have the record of how He has demonstrated His trustworthiness by His infinitely skillful and gracious way of handling the revolt. But can the Bible itself be trusted? Do we have the right collection of sixty-six books? Have the words been accurately preserved? Can we trust the many translations? And, most of all can we have confidence that we understand the meaning?

How should one decide which books of the Bible belong and which books do not? I think it helps a great deal to know the origin of these books. The opinion of centuries of believers, who were much closer to the writing of these books than we are, is of consequence. But nothing compares with reading them all. I have done it several times. It takes a long weekend without any interruption. I read all the way through the Old Testament and then the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament, and the New Testament Apocrypha. And when you arrive at the Revelation of Peter, you haven’t forgotten Maccabees and Enoch and Romans and Genesis. They are still in your mind. Based on that experience, I agree with Catholic Jerome, Protestant Luther and the great Bible Societies, that the sixty-six books of our Protestant Bibles are the only ones that really measure up.

Have the words of the Bible been accurately preserved? All the original copies of the Bible have disappeared. There are thousands of hand-written copies, though, that have come down to us through the years. And no two of them are the same, which could distress a person who doesn’t know better. But there is a bright side to this. When you look at thousands of these manuscripts, and note what the differences are like, you would be moved to say that no other ancient document has been preserved with such care and accuracy as the books of the Bible. Let me quote the one-time curator of the British Museum, who spent a lifetime studying such matters, “You can pick the Bible up with confidence and say, for all practical purposes, we have the word of God.”

“In many and various ways” (Heb 1:1-3) God has spoken to us through the years. And in many and various ways those words have been translated into English and most of the other languages on this earth. How else could the gospel go to all the world? How could people find out about our God? So there is no substitute for taking the Bible (or preferably the versions, plural, of your choice) and sitting down together to read and study. Never has the evidence contained in the Bible been so readily available. And having all this evidence so readily available, let’s read it. Can we confidently come to the conclusion that we understand the meaning? That the evidence is really there? That the Bible can be trusted? And, as some of us who have spent a lot of time reading these versions believe: the Author who is behind the Bible can be trusted because there is trustworthy evidence in the record.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Four, “God’s Way of Restoring Trust”

In the previous chapter we concluded that in order to have peace once again in His universe, all God asks of us is trust. And there will be peace again, just as there was before the war that began in heaven (Rev 12). There will be peace once again because all the members of God‘s vast family will trust in their heavenly Father and He in turn will be able to safely trust in them. Along with that, the members of God’s family will learn to trust each other. Wherever there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect peace, perfect freedom, and perfect security.

Our heavenly Father, however, has been accused of being unworthy of the faith and trust of His children. He has even been accused of being a liar; of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. It might seem incredible that the Infinite One would permit such accusations. But in His far-sighted plan, God has allowed these accusations and charges to spread throughout the universe, including our planet. These accusations have led to the point of war, open rebellion, and revolt. In light of this rebellion the question arises, How could God ever restore trust in His universe—in His family?

In an atmosphere of accusation, suspicion and distrust, trust cannot be established through shows of superior power. Satan tries to do that. He loves to impress people with miracles, signs and lying wonders (2 Thess 2:9). He has to, because what he says about God isn’t true. In the absence of evidence He has to use other methods to seduce, intimidate, mislead or deceive us. But if God were to use Satan’s methods it would only increase the distrust and cause people to serve Him out of fear.

In an atmosphere of accusation, suspicion and distrust, trust cannot be established through assertions and claims either. When a person has been falsely accused, there’s no way to establish the truth simply by denying the charges. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time and under a great variety of circumstances – especially difficult ones – can trust be reestablished and confirmed. The sixty-six books of the Bible are precisely the record of just such a demonstration, and every one of those books is an important part. It is particularly in the stories of the Bible, that we see the evidence of God’s character as He patiently deals with the complications wrought by sin. The evidence found in the Bible is God’s way of restoring trust. God seeks to convince us, not by authority or power, but on the basis of truth and evidence.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Three, “All God Asks Is Trust”

It is apparent, from the biblical description of this controversy in God’s family, that there was a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness—even to the point of war in heaven (Rev 12:7-9). That war spilled down to this planet, where we experience continuing misunderstanding and distrust of God. Not that we’ve all become irreligious, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be deceived by the adversary. Even many who do worship God, worship a false picture of Him—with all the hazards that follow. We tend to become like the kind of God we worship and admire.

The third chapter of Conversations About God explores the meaning and necessity of faith, in the larger setting of the Great Controversy. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he needed to do in order to be saved (Acts 16:30-31), Paul did not offer a series of doctrinal lessons, he simply said “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” The difference between belief and faith matters in the English language, but there is no such difference between belief and faith in the Bible. There is only one word for both, and it can be translated “faith,” “belief,” or “trust.” Faith is trust in the way God chose to save us. We’re not saved by faith. Faith does not save us, God saves us. But God can only save those who trust Him.
If anything should happen to any of us tonight, I would hope that we would die God’s trusting friend. Because if we do, we will arise in the next moment of consciousness face to face with God. And we will not be afraid, because we will know the truth about God. We will trust Him, know Him, love Him, and all those other things. We will have been set right. And if He should say to us, “You know, there’s a great deal for you to learn,” we would say in response, “I’d be pleased to listen, because I trust and admire You. I want to be Your friend.”

You see, faith is just a word we use to describe a relationship with God as with a person well known. The better He is known the better this relationship may be. Faith implies an attitude toward God of love, trust, and deepest admiration. It means having enough confidence in God – based on the more than adequate evidence revealed – to be willing to believe what He says, to accept what He offers, and to do what He wishes – without reservation – for the rest of eternity. Anyone who has such faith would be safe to save. This is why faith is the only requirement for heaven, and for salvation.

This long debate regarding faith, works and obedience has troubled saints through the years, but it could be so readily resolved when we realize that the Biblical word for obedience literally means “listening under.” It describes a humble willingness to listen. If we truly love and trust God, we’ll be willing to listen. It wouldn’t make sense for us not to listen to one we love, trust and admire.

What matters most is for us to trust God enough to be willing to listen, to stand humbly in His presence and ask “What must I do to be saved? What must I do to be well? What must I do to be safe?” In the beginning God created the entire universe. He is able and willing to heal all of the damage done by sin. There is no substitute for trust. Anyone who has such faith would be perfectly safe to save.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Two, “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe”

The Bible describes sin as a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn and suspicious unwillingness to listen. Left untreated, sin makes peace impossible. Sin began in heaven, in the mind of God’s most honored and trusted angel. This raises the question, What really went wrong in God’s universe? This question is important because understanding what went wrong helps us to understand the methods God is using to put things right again. In the larger view of the great controversy, the plan of salvation is God’s way of setting things right in such a way that they will never go wrong again.

Before the war in heaven began, there was peace throughout the universe because all the members of God’s vast family trusted each other. They trusted their heavenly Father. And He in turn could safely trust in them. Where you have that kind of mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect peace, perfect freedom, and perfect security.

A crisis of distrust, nevertheless, developed in the family. Our heavenly Father was accused of being unworthy of our trust, of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. Sin entered our universe when angels ceased to trust. As a consequence, they themselves became untrustworthy. And thus sin entered our universe for the first time. For the Bible, sin is much more than a mere breaking of the rules, serious as that might be. Sin changes us, producing fear and mistrust of God. In its essence, sin is a violation of mutual trust, a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn unwillingness to listen to the One who desires only the good of His creatures.

The hazard of regarding sin primarily as breaking God’s rules is that such a mindset tends to encourage an impersonal, even fearful relationship with God. Love cannot be commanded, it cannot be produced by force or fear. When we believe Satan’s lies, we don’t trust God and allow Him to heal us. And the ultimate result of that can be found in Romans 6:23: “Sin pays its servants: the wage is death” (Phillips). So the remedy for sin depends on what sin is. If sin is distrust and its consequences, forgiveness alone will not heal the damage done. Forgiveness does not do away with sin. For there to be lasting peace in God’s universe, trust must somehow be restored. Questions must be answered. Satan’s accusations must be met. God must be seen to be righteous, and infinitely worthy of our trust. How God rebuilds our trust is the subject of the next chapter summary.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter One, “The Conflict in God’s Family”

In the beginning, God created a vast family in the universe. That family existed in the context of perfect love, freedom and peace. There was peace because all the members of God’s vast family trusted each other, and all of them trusted their heavenly Father. The Father in turn could safely trust in them. In the context of mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect freedom. Perfect peace. Perfect security.

But the Bible speaks of a war that began at the very center of God’s family, a crisis of distrust. Sin in its essence is a breach, a breakdown of trust. And thus sin entered our universe for the first time. The story begins with the most brilliant of all God’s creatures, the one who went forth from the presence of God bearing light and truth to his fellow angels. But moved by jealousy and pride, this brilliant, most trusted, even revered angel, set out to undermine trust in God by circulating misinformation and lies about our heavenly Father. And thus he became, not a bearer of light and a teacher of truth, but a bearer of lies. He charged that God did not respect the freedom of His children; that He was arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. With carefully chosen words Satan hoped to turn his fellow angels away from God, and win them to worship him instead.

God bore long and patiently as He watched this insurrection developing in His family. He watched until one-third of His brilliant, intelligent angels agreed with Satan that God was not worthy of their trust. It was at this point that “war broke out in Heaven” (Rev 12:7-8). Satan and his angels were expelled from heaven, but the war in the universe continued. He wasted no time passing his lies on to our first parents in the garden, thus involving us in the conflict as well. So whether we want to be or not, all of us are now caught up in the consequences of this war. Everyone in the universe is unavoidably involved. And the future of God’s family, to which we all belong, depends upon the outcome of this war.

Through the book of Revelation you see that God has already won this war, and the angels in heaven all agree with Him. This is the good news. Revelation also invites us to join in the celebration; and then to go out to the world and invite all who are willing to listen, to join in God’s victory in the war. When Christians discover this larger view of things, they don’t need to be on the defensive all the time; they have good news to tell. God and those who are on His side will win in the end. God is waiting until the truth about Him, the good news about His character and government, has been spread all over the world. The highest privilege of God’s friends on this planet today is to understand and to present the plan of salvation in the larger setting of the great controversy.

How God wages this war, how He refutes Satan’s lies, and what He asks of us are all issues to be addressed in the chapter summaries to come.

Conversations About God: Summary of Preface

I am in the final stages of editing a book called Conversations About God. The title not only reflects the book’s content, but also its origin in a series of twenty programs by that name presented at the Loma Linda University Church in 1984. In that memorable series, Dr. A. Graham Maxwell opened each evening’s topic with a presentation, followed by questions and comments from the audience, moderated by then-pastor Louis Venden. The book will be an edited version of the original “conversations.” I have sought to preserve the flavor of the original conversations as much as possible; guided by Graham’s daughter, Audrey Zinke, and his close friend Cherie Kirk. The manuscript is also being enthusiastically examined by Pastor Venden. The words that follow here are from the introductory summary by Graham Maxwell.

These conversations offer another look at our heavenly Father in the larger setting of a universe-wide conflict over His character and government. God is infinite in majesty and power. Yet, when He came in human form, He didn’t try to intimidate or overwhelm people with a show of majesty and power. Instead, He sat down among them. He conversed with them. He even invited their questions. As a matter of fact, Jesus taught some of His most important truths while reclining at tables, eating supper with His audiences.

As indicated in the title of this book, these twenty conversations are primarily about God. But one could fairly raise the question, whose God are we talking about? God is not the exclusive property of any particular denomination. For example, the Methodists and the Baptists worshiped God before Seventh-day Adventists came on the scene. The Lutherans were worshiping God before the Methodists and Baptists came on the scene. The Jews were worshipping God centuries before there were any Christians. Adam and Eve were worshipping God before there were any Jews. And before there were any people on our planet, God’s loyal angels worshiped Him throughout the universe.

God belongs to all of us. While there are religious differences among us, and those differences may be important, we are all members of His family. Or should we rather say that only the good ones among us are members of God’s family? Is that the way you count your children? Will you report today that you have only one child; while tomorrow you may report three? And the next day only two? Do you only acknowledge the children who are behaving well? Frankly, we have all misbehaved. And yet God recognizes every one of us, counts every one of us as members of His family. It is this amazing, gracious God that is the subject of this book. And “conversations” like this are needed today and will continue to be needed. Even eternity will not be long to enough to fully understand and celebrate our God.

The Blog: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

I thought I’d take a moment and let you know where we are with the various blogs and series that have happened this last year and moving forward. In 2017 I began sharing the book I was working on, summarizing the ideas of Graham Maxwell’s series Conversations About God. I covered the first ten of the twenty chapters about a month at a time, but then put that series on hold so I could share a series on the theology (big picture) of Revelation through much of 2018. More recently I shared three timely series: One on LGBTIQ and the Church, one on the actions at the Annual Council of SDAs, and a series of introductory overviews of the book of Revelation. All three of these have been completed. So it is time to get back to Maxwell series and finish it. But since the first ten chapters were done more than a year ago, I will begin summarizing the first ten chapters briefly before sharing chapters 11-20 in full. Expect the first of these summaries shortly. But that series will intersperse with another in the first quarter of 2019.

I had the opportunity recently to write the Teacher’s Guide to the First Quarter Adult Bible Study Guide on Revelation. The primary author of the lessons was my former student Ranko Stefanovic. If all goes as planned, expect the following each week in the First Quarter of 2019. A blog that provides my original teacher’s helps for the following Sabbath. A blog that summarizes all the changes that the editors introduced to my teacher’s helps. And, if all goes as planned, a blog from Ranko Stefanovic outlining the changes that were done to his lesson study. We imply no evil intent here, we just think it would be helpful to teachers and students around the world to know what the original authors were thinking and how things changed in the editorial process. Sometimes you will think the editors messed us up, other times you will see that they made things better. And by highlighting these things, you will be the best prepared people when these lessons are studied around the world.

Since that will be a lot of material each week, it makes sense that I postpone the start of chapter 11 of the Maxwell series until after the first quarter of 2019. The goal will be to provide the rest of the Maxwell material to you over the course of 2019.

Hope that helps you know where we’ve been and where we’re going.

From Principles to Practice (LGBT 21)

The three biblical principles outlined in the previous blog are often in tension with each other when an institution faces real-life issues. People and relationships are messy things. Balancing biblical integrity with biblical compassion may seem easy in principle but they are not easy in practice. In everyday life, one often faces situations where it seems one has to choose between compassion and other biblical values. Jesus faced many such situations and overcame them with a brilliance that most of us don’t have (see John 8:3-11 as an example). And it gets much more difficult at the institutional level. The tension between integrity and compassion is quickly compounded when institutional policies and legal complications enter into the mix. Let me share three scenarios of how the three biblical principles could be applied to specific situations.

Supposed you have a top-rank candidate for one of your graduate programs. But you do a little research online and in social media. And you find out that the prospective student has not only adopted a gay identity, but has been a leading and disruptive campus activist for LGBT issues at the undergrad level. Should you deny the student admission even though his or her grades and test scores are at the head of your prospective student list? Denying admission would not be a problem with the law in most places, since academic institutions are allowed a lot of freedom in terms of who they admit or deny to their programs. Compassion would not be an issue in this case, as the student would likely be able to get into a similar program elsewhere. So following the church’s teaching in denying admission to a gay activist would not be in tension with the other two principles in this case. But one program director handled a similar situation in a different way. She invited the prospective student in for a personal interview. Among other things, she shared the institution’s values regarding marriage and sexuality and asked the prospective student whether abiding by these while at the school would be a problem. The student said “no,” was admitted, and behaved in a manner consistent with the institution’s values throughout the program.

Suppose an Adventist health care entity received an appeal from one of its nurses. The nurse discloses that she is legally married to a patient with late stage cancer being treated in the hospital. She requests that the hospital extend spousal health insurance benefits to the gay partner. The hospital could respond by firing the nurse (and terminating her own health care benefits), thereby also abandoning the dying spouse to minimal or no treatment. In many places firing the nurse would be considered discriminatory and therefore illegal. In some places denying insurance benefits to gay partners is also illegal. One could decide to do so anyway in the name of fidelity to the church’s values. But such an action would need to be weighed against the danger to the entire mission of the institution. Compassion in this case might be the biblical principle that breaks the impasse. As noted by Ellen White, when in doubt, err on the side of mercy. When thought through, it could be decided that extending insurance benefits to a gay spouse is probably not, in itself, a compromise of the church’s larger mission. Obviously, decisions like this are not easy and are best made by people who both know the Bible and are also close to the situation.

Suppose a student in medical school approached the dean and informed her that he would like to undergo a sex-change operation. The church is at the beginning stages of its explorations of the complicated issue of transgender, where the gender of the body and the brain are in conflict. At this point the church recommends that the best approach to “gender dysphoria” is counseling in order to help the person deal with the inner conflict and accept the physical gender of his or her birth. Sex-change surgery is a radical therapy and many who undergo such therapy regret it later and may be even more prone to suicide than transgender people in general. But counseling does not always resolve matters and most Christians see a difference between restorative surgery and physical mutilation. So an institution may not wish to reject a decision in favor of sex-change surgery that is made thoughtfully and prayerfully in consultation with specialists. But it might be wise for the student to drop out of med school, spend a year dealing with the outcomes of the surgery and the psychological challenges associated with it, and then return to school in a different class so the change will be less awkward for the student and less disruptive to other students.

Every situation is a little different and all require a great deal of prayer, counseling and careful weighing of the three biblical principles that apply most closely to matters related to LGBTIQ. By no means do I consider this series of blogs the last word. I have based my considerations on the best conservative biblical scholarship and scientific studies and also my own experience. It is my hope that opening such discussions with what thinking Adventists can agree on will provide a starting point for addressing areas of concern that are much less clear. There are many points at issue that faithful Adventists still disagree on. We have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn (CWE 33). But we need to be thinking intelligently about these issues and talking respectfully with each other. LGBTIQ people are children of God twice over. They are children of God by creation and children of God by redemption. They are souls for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15). May the rest of us view them through the just and compassionate eyes of God.

LGBTIQ and Adventist Institutions (LGBT 20)

There is no part of the church that finds these issues more challenging than the church’s educational and health care institutions. In health care there is the assumption that all people will be treated equally regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender. But what is perceived as equal treatment often seems to challenge the church’s biblical positions. In the educational arena you have large numbers of young people who grew up in a different environment on these issues than did those who are trying to educate them. Because of financial aid, accreditation, legal complications and state oversight, both health care and educational institutions are often hampered in their ability to apply a traditional approach to LGBTIQ issues even if they felt it was the right thing to do. As an administrator at Loma Linda University (which combines the challenges of both types of institution) I have experienced these challenges first hand. And there is no “one size fits all” in most situations. Having said that, it seems to me that there are three core biblical principles that need to be carefully consulted whenever an institution faces specific dilemmas in these matters. The three biblical principles follow:

1) Integrity/ Moral Purity. The leadership, mission and values of SDA educational and healthcare institutions need to be unashamedly Seventh-day Adventist. This means that core values such as integrity and purity/self-control must inform where the institutions stand in matters of gender and sexuality. To abandon core Adventist teachings in relation to marriage and sexuality for the sake of political or economic advantage would be a violation of personal and institutional integrity. The SDA Church affirms the biblical ideal that marriage in God’s eyes is between a man and a woman and that sexual activity between individuals who are unmarried falls short of God’s ideal. As I have discussed earlier, such a position is defensible, both biblically and experientially. Institutions that identify with the SDA Church should continue to teach and practice the church’s position regardless of legal standards they may be required to meet. But that is not the only biblical position health care and educational institutions need to affirm.

2) Compassion. Central to the campus at Loma Linda is a sculptural display that illustrates the story of the Good Samaritan. The teaching and healing ministry of Jesus calls Adventists “to make man whole.” The value of compassion, therefore, is at the core of the church’s mission. This means that the policies and practices of the church’s institutions must, as far as possible, express compassion for any who are hurting or disadvantaged. Many or most homosexuals did not choose their orientation, and people of God will sympathize with their unique struggles to achieve purity in a broken world. In the words of Rom. 13:10, “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (NIV). Likewise, the first rule of the health sciences and of education is to “do no harm.” Compassion toward the other, even when we do not share the same values, is fundamental to the mission and values of SDA institutions.

3) Legal Compliance. Adventist health care and educational institutions cannot avoid engaging the realities of the real world. In any case, Romans 13 also teaches us that the governing authorities of this world “have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1, ESV). To resist these authorities is to resist “what God has appointed” (Rom. 13:2, ESV). The leaders of the state are God’s servants for our good (Rom. 13:4). This means that actions of the state, even if they seem misguided or oppressive, may be used by God to teach us things we might not learn otherwise. So Adventist institutions need to comply with the laws of the land in which they serve, with the caveat of Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men” (ESV).

It seems to me that Adventist institutions should attempt to comply with the laws of the land to the degree possible in light of the first two principles. Exceptions to such legal compliance must be decided on a case by case basis in ongoing consultation with appropriate church leadership. The people of God, guided by the Holy Spirit, will seek to determine in the context of practical realities what it means to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, ESV, cf. Matt. 22:21; Luke 20:25).