The Itch

Sometimes I don’t drink enough water, leaving my body in a state of dehydration. There are other drinks that I prefer so water can sometimes take a second, third, or fourth place. Certain drinks like beer and coffee are even diuretics, which cause more water to be eliminated from my body, making the issue even worse. When I get dehydrated, my skin tends to become dry, and then it gets itchy. When this happens, I naturally find myself scratching my skin even though the itch (the most immediate source of the problem) is not the fundamental problem. Why? Scratching provides temporary relief from the itch, it feels good physically – and at some less-than-rational level it seems like it will solve the problem at hand. Ultimately though, the itch is only a signal of the real issue: that I need to supply my body with water. If I ignore this signal, the situation gets worse and the signals will become more serious. If I were satisfied with the solution of scratching as the solution to my dehydration problem, it would not end well for me.

Why is it that in most cases, it is not good to scratch an itch? We know that the pull to scratch is strong, but as everyone learns through childhood, that rash, scab, burn, mosquito bite, or dried skin, should not be itched because it doesn’t help, and in fact can make things worse.. And yet our biology works in a way that makes it feel so good to give in. Everything in those glorious few seconds of scratching an itch screams “Beautiful solution!”, screams “Cure!”. The pull can be overwhelming at times, but itching even a little just increases the pull to itch it again – if you can give in and then find the zen-like strength to refrain from then on, you’re good, if you can’t, it becomes a literal mini-addiction.

So, from ages past, humanity has learned that giving in to the pull to itch does nothing to solve the root problem, and rather, what is needed is persistent restraint in the face of a persistent itch, and addressing any root problem. The counter-intuitive reality: the biological pull to gratify the signal is real, the immediate result is pleasure, pleasure is good (so we generally think), and yet the pleasure I get from scratching is superficial, it does not satisfy no matter how good it feels in the moment, so most of us  have learned to avoid the deceptive pleasure of itches. Pleasure itself, doesn’t mean health. Pleasure, though good in context, doesn’t always make it safe for us to engage in just because the opportunity exists. There are of course thousands of examples of this.

So what is going on with an itch? Why the bait and switch? An itch is a signal to the brain that something is not right with your body, just like pain, only not as extreme. An itch is a sign of a subtler kind of damage, and we can be thankful that minor issues have a different signal than pain, yet are still significant enough that signals are sent. But why pleasure? Actually, an itch is not the pleasure itself – we add that by responding to the signal, but it’s only pleasure for a while – and of course, repeated giving in to the itch causes abrasion and breaking of the skin, which does lead to pain – entirely self-caused. Through this uncomfortable bodily armistice, we have learned that immediate gratification does not lead to health and fulfilment. Rather, we know we ought to apply the needed solution, and wait.

What if an itch is a symbol for a greater form of the same thing? Our desire for pleasure and satisfaction is much like that of an itch. There is nothing wrong with pleasure in and of itself – as intended, it is a God-bestowed gift. However, even good things can be used in wrong ways. For some pleasures, the critical point is amount, as with alcohol for example: use it in moderation, and you’re fine – go into excess, and it can become an insatiable force that does not add to fulfillment, but only takes away. For other pleasures there are specific boundaries: stay within them and you will maximize the pleasure, step outside the boundary and you will risk harm and an increase of the unhealthy urge that keeps pulling you to cross the boundary. Like a child needs their parent to show them what is good and what is harmful, so humanity needs God, after all, if He created humanity, only He knows what ultimately works for us and what doesn’t.

The biblical concept of sin is much like an itch and scratch scenario. God states certain actions are wrong – anything that causes harm within creation and dishonor to Himself so, far more activity is actually sin than tends to be acknowledged (if you don’t believe that dishonour should be part of what God counts as sin, remind yourself of that, the next time someone cuts in front of you in line!) Biblically, sin operates in all sorts of areas: from how we handle money, to how we speak about others, to how we desire certain things in our heart, and much more – and yet something deep within our human make-up causes a pull towards these actions.. just like an itch. Giving in, promises, and provides, immediate pleasure and never ultimately fulfills.. And yet, apart from the most apparent vices, we have not learned to ask why we keep pursuing these things that only offer superficial satisfaction and over time, cause damage, pain, and emptiness. Following such pleasures without restraint, may lead to numbing and subtle damage we are oblivious to, or it may land us in an obvious mire that is not at all what we wanted, and nothing what the pleasure seemingly promised us. We failed to recognize that, like an itch, such pulls are a false form of pleasure. These sins may have an element of truth and goodness, but it is distorted. Even more disturbing is that sin, being essentially defined in relation to God – and knowledge of God being something we choose how much or little we seek out – means these are things we may not even recognize as sins until we are shown – much like a child with a mosquito bite or dry skin, who must be taught not to itch it. Left in their natural state, a child will scratch away until the damage is maximized. Among other things, the outlining of what actions and dispositions are sin to God is what Jesus Christ has provided mankind. This is part of His grace and truth that He offers a humanity plagued with sin. If we rely on our own wisdom to define sin, we may avoid some pitfalls but we will stay bound to much of the preoccupation with the surface pleasures that life provides. In this place, we are not only damaging ourselves emotionally, physically, and interpersonally but further hindered by being distracted from the deeper, more authentic and sustainable fulfilment from God that we have not yet taken hold of.

Why can’t fulfilment come from pleasure? Why can’t these earthly fountains of seemingly good things, satisfy? So many pleasures don’t harm anyone else, right? Why would God give us desires and have them turn out to be damaging and empty? Learning from Christ, the answer, though it plumbs the depths of the human make-up, can be summed up in a basic truth: life is not about pleasure. Pleasure is icing – created as a gift from God. Icing is food but consuming icing wrongly will make you sick, some people it could even kill. Rather, life is about returning to peace with our Creator – and it is only our grip on sin (these actions that we may not even realize dishonor Him) that keeps us away (Isaiah 59:2). In fact the Bible summarizes our primary problem of sin, saying we are all already dead, spiritually, because of it (Ephesians 2:1-2) – also calling it a form of sin “enslavement” (John 8:34) – stressing why we cannot simply choose to overcome our deeply rooted connection to sin. Yet, in all of this, God’s attitude is still one of goodness and love towards us – just like the father in the story Jesus tells of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).  This revelation of the heart of God shows the way to the deeper, most authentic satisfaction that exists in life, and it is truly good news that it is still intended for us. How is it achieved? By first acknowledging God’s view of right and wrong and then accepting His offer of a return to Himself.. the state of renewed spiritual health then accompanies this. But if this is possible, there must be many ways to get there? Perhaps through self-help? Meditation? Picking a religion and following it as closely as possible? If anything is demonstrably clear in life, it is that all of these things give only minor help. The unique claim of Jesus Christ is that He is the one person who has “defeated sin” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57) and also made this victory available to anyone who wants to accept His real presence in their life.. But wait – if He is God then He is the one we have offended by our sin – isn’t facing Him a cause for worry? It would be if it wasn’t for His clear demonstration that He is fully motivated towards reconciliation with us (just read any of the gospels!). The ball is in our court as to whether we will take him up on it. (Provision has been made for God to welcome us back – the only thing necessary is a sincere effort to keep trusting Jesus is there and that He promises to be reliable to anyone who comes to Him (John 6:37) and sticks with Him (Matthew 24:13)). But rather than trying to align to the rules of Christianity on your own strength (which doesn’t work), It actually just requires hearing him out and putting your trust in Him with the appropriate steps.. and letting Him do an internal work in you so you can exclaim along with the Psalmist “I delight to do your will oh my God, your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:8).

This life is still not always a walk in the park.. but those who realize He’s calling them, and who respond, find that He’s there, with power in hand to live as we should.  (I myself have experienced Jesus’ power in this miraculous way, though I, like most Christians, don’t always apply it every time since I still have my free will and my faulty earthly body). The power to resist sin and over time, evict it from our lives, comes as a gift, obtained through accepting Christ, and it is continually worked out in our lives as we continue to walk with him. (Romans 8:13, Hebrews 10:14). With power to resist sin, I have the freedom to set up healthy patterns of living. Jesus claims to be able to put “springs of living water” inside us (John 7:38) (this refers to internal satisfaction from God), and with drinking ample amounts from these waters, comes much less of the itch – the pull to the superficial gratification of sin. Temptations don’t always go away, so it is still something to be careful to avoid even after starting a life with God, but the promise (and my experience testifies to this as well) is one of increase of strength in the long term – the actual, supernatural power to consistently avoid otherwise dominating sinful pulls. But even more than this, it includes finding pleasure that satisfies – life with Jesus, God’s ultimate gift, who is the real, living water that fulfills our deepest thirst.

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The Fallout of Humanity Revealed in Chernobyl

The HBO miniseries Chernobyl is a fantastic historical drama, with rich production and high-calibre performances. It chronicles the tragic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant found in modern-day Ukraine, and the subsequent radiation catastrophe that killed or shortened the life of thousands, and continues to plague the surrounding area to this day.

Over its five-episode span, this series tells the whole story of the disaster, splendidly portraying the cultural setting, the human players, the extreme measures taken to mitigate the damage, the investigation into the causes, and of course the repressive political context. The glaring swath of failures and inadequacies of the Soviet government, and communism in general, are perhaps the main message of Chernobyl. It vividly demonstrates how a system built on the perception of power and held together by coercion, invariably compromises the truth when the truth would show the powers that be in a bad light. It is the classic human problem of needing to protect one’s image above all, but in this case, at the cost of the country’s population. It is the picture of a dark nation indeed, when the government is composed primarily of people hungry for internal promotion, terrified of the ruthless oversight of the KGB, and who therefore toss away respect for human life if it means protecting their own name.

But there is another message that emerges in HBO’s storytelling of Chernobyl – one that reaches even deeper into the heart of humanity. In the fourth episode we meet a squad of soldiers tasked with eliminating the animals, mostly pet dogs, remaining in the evacuated quarantined zones. This is required because all the animals have become radioactive. Bacho is the battle-hardened leader of the group, an alpha-dog with a tough-as-nails persona. Pavel is the new recruit, barely an adult, introverted and greener than a spring meadow, knowing nothing of life as a soldier. As tough as Bacho is, he is also fiercely protective, and takes Pavel under his wing. As they progress through Pavel’s first day on the job, Pavel finds it extremely difficult to shoot the dogs, who by all external accounts, seem perfectly happy and healthy. After avoiding it at first, he eventually shoots one, but it eats him up inside. At lunch, Bacho, knowing the turmoil Pavel is in, tells him this story:

“This happens to everyone their first time. Normally when you kill a man, but for you a dog. So what, there’s no shame in it… …My first time – Afghanistan. We were moving through a house and suddenly a man was there and I shot him in the stomach. Yeah that’s a real war story. There are never any good stories like in the movies, they’re shit. Man was there. Boom. Stomach. I was so scared, I didn’t pull the trigger again for the rest of the day. I thought, ‘well, that’s it Bacho, you put a bullet in someone, you’re not you anymore, you’ll never be you again’. But then you wake up the next morning and you’re still you. And you realize, that was you all along – you just didn’t know.”

When the final line is shared, it carries with it the weight of authentic human experience – the innocent finding themselves in situations where they are unable to remain in the comfort of their preferred identity, and finding they can do things they never thought possible. It should assault the modern day sensibility that says we are basically good people, but it doesn’t – rather, it resonates with us. Sure a person can say, ‘well if your country asks you to go to war, and if it is for good reasons, it is not wrong to kill in those circumstances’. But that is not Bacho’s point – we clearly see him acknowledge that it is the act of killing a fellow human being that is suspect – he worries that it taints or even removes one’s soul (“…you’re not you anymore…”) and that resonates too. Why is this? It certainly begs the question: even though humans have long had their reasons to fight and kill, why at some level, has it always felt.. wrong. Somehow a sense of this wrongness remains, even when we can come up with righteous reasons for it to be done. Evidence for this can be seen in the entrenched availability of counseling for police officers when they’ve had to kill a perpetrator. (Of course we know there are valid reasons for society to have public servants who are able to take up these tasks, but that there is often associated psychological trauma, is telling.) This aversion can be seen as the inbuilt moral sense of the wrongness of taking the life of something that God has placed eternal value on. Jesus believed that humans were made in the image of God and are meant to be an outworking of His glory – to end a life, therefore, is a violation of the divine. God has wired this sense into us, (not that we can’t use our free will to act against it, deadening this sense, if we continue in a contrary direction). So we all recognize that killing is wrong – that’s a good thing about us, right? Well, it would be, if that were the only state of affairs, but the really unsettling part, as Bacho surmises, is that “killing” is inside us already. (“…that was you all along – you just didn’t know.”)

How did this precarious state of inner confliction come about? It’s easy to see why God would have built in the sense of wrongness of certain things, but why the wrong things themselves? This darker side of the coin has come about by humanity’s rejection of God through the preferring of our own knowledge and ways (this having occurred both in the first human, and in each of our own lives), and our subsequent loss of connection with God. God intended to sustain the good motivations within us, but with God out of the picture, we have hearts that are at the mercy of their own selfish motivations. Now, rather than exclusively producing the good desires God intended (desires like loving others, peace, patience, joy, etc.), we have a completely mixed bag. This story of the human condition is described by Jesus in Matthew 15:9-10: “ For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what defile a person..” Bacho is agreeing with Jesus’ assessment given two thousand years earlier, that murder (among other things) now resides in the human heart in the form of desire, however occasional, to do it – and this taints (defiles) us. It may not work its way out in actual murder, but even the thought – the inclination towards evil – making its presence known, reveals the truth about us: we’re beings that have the kernel of evil hidden somewhere inside. Most humans in our culture the way it is, would never kill for their own benefit – but if the situation was different, the chips stacked against us, with no one looking.. It is a frightening thought experiment. Regardless, Jesus goes as far as to say that even “simple” hateful acts, like cursing at someone is, at some level, as bad as murder, because it is the same root (Matthew 5:21-22). It is an uncomfortable indictment against the nature of each and every human.

Thankfully, it is this shocking state of affairs that Jesus came to remedy. By bringing us peace with God through His own sacrifice, Jesus paved the way for humanity’s reconnection with God, but not just that – also the promise of a new heart – for each and every person who honestly trusts in Christ’s accomplishment (Ezekiel 36:26). This new heart is Jesus’ heart: pure, inclined only to do good, without the least “spark” to do evil – a heart that loves and values everyone, even those disagreed with. Ultimately, God cares more about whether a person has the “spark” to evil within them, and not only about how many evil acts are committed. Why? Because He’s making a new society that will be perfectly peaceful and safe. That means no such “sparks” can exist there. Even an inclination to act harmfully is dangerous to a society, because that’s how acts start. But Christians still sin, right? Yes, the old selfish motivations are still trying to persuade, through the memories of the old ways and the enduring free will (believers can choose to accept God’s internal help to keep proper motivations or not). God has chosen to work in His followers organically. We have all made our “room” messy with sin, and instead of immediately zapping it all clean, Jesus says He’ll help us clean it up – His return to the human heart, His proper domain, is the only hope to flush out all the improper old patterns, and He does it, step by step. (I, for one, testify to this internal progress and strength.) Those who stick with Jesus are promised that the old patterns of sin will be fully removed before the transition to the next life. Awesome news, and a future that He wants for every person!

This brings us to one last parallel with Chernobyl – the dogs. It didn’t matter how happy, well-behaved, or lovable they were – they were radioactive, so they could never safely be part of a normal society again – meaning their future was sealed. In a starkly similar way, humanity’s leanings to sin are radioactive to the environment God ultimately wants for us. We humans are certainly loved by God, we may be well-behaved, but unless we can safely get the “radioactivity” out of these bodies, tainted with their inclinations as they are, we simply cannot be part of the new world God has planned. Thankfully, because God is rich in mercy and goodness towards a rebellious creation, He’s made a way that we can! Trust in the gift, receive Jesus and the promises, and let life with the new heart begin! Thank you Lord!

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A Righteous King with a Father Heart

Exploring the nature of someone as big as God, takes a careful approach. It’s a bit like walking a tightrope – making a statement that is true but not balanced, can create the wrong concept and knock us off the rope to one side or the other. Christianity claims that God is a righteous king (meaning one that is honourable, deserving, and without fault), while at the same time, someone with the heart of a father – in fact, these aspects are so key that one cannot properly comprehend God unless both are understood. So how do these two unique attributes work together to describe a single being? In this article, I will explain these concepts, using each to refine the other, to help us arrive at a cohesive and accurate image of God. Continue reading

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Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

This is a recommendation to go read an article by Dr. James Anderson, in which he helpfully explains the related nature of moral norms and epistemic norms – and how rejecting the existence of moral norms (as hard-atheism does) seems to requires the rejection of epistemic norms as well.

It’s worth the read.  Go check it out.

Moral norms and epistemic norms, while distinguishable, move in similar orbits. […] There are parallels between the two kinds of norms, even if one kind cannot be reduced to the other. [Atheism’s denial] of moral norms can be extrapolated into grounds for denying the reality of epistemic norms. If you think that talk about ‘morality’ is really just “a matter of subjective value or desire,” it’s a natural next step to think that talk about ‘rationality’ is “in the end … a matter of subjective value or desire as well.” On the face of it, it’s hard to see why, given atheism, there would be objective epistemic norms but no objective moral norms. Why would it make sense to talk about right thinking but not right acting? Why would there be objective standards that govern our cognitive faculties but no objective standards that govern our other faculties? For the atheist it’s really only a small step from amoralism to arationalism.

via Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism — Analogical Thoughts

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Atheism, Abortion, Guilt, and Forgiveness

This is an article that deals with the moral status of abortion. It attempts to show that any worldview that claims (1) science as its ultimate arbiter of truth, and (2) that all human lives are of equal value, must find abortion to be morally impermissible. This is the position that atheism would otherwise find itself in, inasmuch as it strongly agrees with (1) and generally agrees with (2).  And, as expected, some atheists do argue that abortion is morally impermissible.

But this is not the position that all forms of atheism take.  Some forms of atheism, against the conclusion dictated by their own principles, hold to the moral permissibility of abortion.  But how? Ostensibly, any worldview that claims both (1) and (2) cannot hold abortion to be morally permissible without being in contradiction.  And yet, some atheists, apparently, prefer the contradiction.  Why is that?

Though this article deals with abortion, this article is not about abortion per se. Abortion, however, serves to illustrate the lengths to which some forms of Atheism will go to avoid dealing with one of its intractable problems: The problem of guilt.

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Is Reality Subjective or Objective? Pick Your Poison!

Case Study #1: Reality is Objective

January 8th, 2016 at 11:20 pm, Edward Archer, a self-professed Muslim, attempted to kill Jesse Hartnett, a police officer with the Philadelphia Police Department, as he sat in his police cruiser.  Archer fired 13 rounds, striking Hartnett three times.  Hartnett, though wounded, quickly called for backup and returned fire.  Archer was wounded, and was quickly captured by the convergence of police, his pistol still in his possession.  During police questioning, he gave a written confession of the attempted killing.

“I follow Allah. I pledge my allegiance to the Islamic State and that’s why I did what I did,”

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Trinity vs. Tawhid – Part 1 – Which God Can Speak to His Creation?

This is the first of a five part series investigating the differences between God as described in the Quran and the in Bible, and the implications thereof.

Which God Can Speak to His Creation?

The nature and character of God as described in the Quran is very different from that as described in the Bible.  The Islamic concept of God is that of Tawhid, in which God is ultimate unity, and only unity.  The Christian concept of God is that of Trinity, in which God is both ultimate unity and ultimate plurality – a God one in essence and three in person.  These two concepts of God cannot both be true, just as the respective Scriptures in which these two concepts are expounded cannot both be true.  Which God, if either, has actually spoken to His creation?

Or perhaps, we should first ask the logically prior question – which God, if either, has the ability to speak to His creation?  Which God can communicate with mankind?  This is the question that this first part in this series seeks to address.  In coming to answer this question, we find that the Islamic position has a fatal flaw that renders Allah mute, while there is a fundamental strength in the Christian position through which the Triune God can speak into the world.

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Podcasts Worth Listening To

I love to listen to podcasts. I have a subscription list of around 40 different podcasts, and I track around 40 more for episodes of interest. My work provides me abundant opportunity to listen to podcasts all day long, and they make the work day that much better. Whatever your interests are, you can find a good podcast.

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Nobody is ever argued into the Kingdom

In Apologetic circles we regularly hear the claim that “Nobody is ever argued into the Kingdom.” It never seems to help change people’s minds by pointing out that many Christians do, in fact, specifically claim that the evidence persuaded them that there was something to this Christianity thing that deserved consideration. Was the intellectual aspect the whole story? Usually not, but it is often the difference between being willing to consider the claims of Christ and not being willing to consider them. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, factor.

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The Absurd Moral Logic Behind #shoutyourabortion

The Backstory

Planned Parenthood is in the business of killing little boys and little girls. This is a fact that they would never publicly admit to. But in the seclusion of their back offices, they admit this truth amongst themselves, as they peer into petri dishes splayed with tiny bodies which their own hands have dismembered. Another boy, another girl, another dollar.

But not so long ago, those back offices were visited by a man with a camera. And that camera saw Planned Parenthood displaying their wares in petri dishes – arms and legs, brains and kidneys, girls and boys. Planned Parenthood doesn’t like cameras in their secluded back offices. And when you don’t like something in America, you threaten legal action.

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