How do we really examine our own beliefs, and how do we know if our ideas about God and the world line up with reality?
Only seven months before he passed, Ravi Zacharias appeared on The Rubin Report and discussed with David Rubin how to live a life filled with purpose.
At some point, the conversation turned to a famous Canadian intellectual, and Ravi said, “I think Jordan Peterson’s conclusions are terrific; his foundation is weak…. I have a very great respect for Jordan Peterson. But,” he thought then said with a smile, “let me give you an illustration. In Ohio, there’s a building called the Wexner Center for the Arts, supposedly the first postmodern building. I asked the person, ‘What is a postmodern building? I know what postmodern philosophy is. What’s a postmodern building?’
“He said, ‘Well, the architect said if life itself has no purpose, why should our buildings have any purpose?’ So he built it with no particular purpose in mind; you know, stairways that go nowhere. So he [the guide] said, ‘What do you think of it?’
“I said, ‘I have one question. Did he do the same with the foundation?’
“You cannot fool with the foundation…. And so, to me, when Peterson talks of absolutes, when Peterson talks of right and wrong, his conclusions are very good. But the only reason I think those conclusions stand is if there is an ultimate, eternal purpose for life itself. Otherwise, it’s just one ideology against another….
“There are really four questions of life, David: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. That forms our worldview. ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘What does life actually mean?’ ‘How do I differentiate good and evil?’ ‘What happens to a human being when he or she dies?’
“And there you put the two tests of truth: correspondence and coherence. ‘Are my answers corresponding to reality?’ ‘When my answers are put together, is there a coherence to them?’”
Wrong Answers to the Right Questions
The foundational beliefs of Christianity are relatively straightforward by all appearances. God made and runs the universe (including us); Christ is God in the flesh and died to redeem us; we live as ambassadors for the gospel in the world until we die and are taken to be with God.
Done and done. Or so it would seem.
When people run into internal crises, questions like “Why would God do this to me?” or statements like “I don’t see any way to go forward now” are indicative of a faulty, ‘postmodern’ foundation.
We answer questions like those Ravi posed on the Rubin Report all the time, but our answers may not actually be aligned with biblical values. For instance, if my answer to “What does life actually mean?” is “Well, for me to be happy and successful…in God, of course” then I am destined for disappointment and disillusionment at some point because the Bible makes no such guarantees.
In fact, Christ promises his followers the very opposite of pleasure and success. While on the Mount of Olives, Jesus’ disciples point out the beautiful temple, and he promises them that it will be destroyed. The disturbed disciples ask him about the future, probably wondering why the Messiah wasn’t going to save their country.
He tells them, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9-13, ESV).
Often we’re not entirely wild about the answers that Christ gives us to our questions.
What if I don’t like that the purpose of my life is to serve others and maybe even sacrifice myself? What if Christ’s command to pick up my cross and follow him, the suffering servant, sounds really, really unappealing? What if I’d like a big house, perfect spouse and nice car instead?
What if I’d like God to adhere to my definitions of good and evil? If my child comes out as gay, God will agree with me that homosexuality isn’t so bad, right? If I occasionally tell a little white lie now and then, I don’t have to apologize for that. If someone doesn’t agree with my political views, they’re the real unredeemed sinner here. Aunty Sue was agnostic, but she was a good person, so I’m sure God will give her a pass into heaven.
Finding the Coherent Answers
God has a way of using troubles or tragedies to highlight the ways our answers don’t correspond to reality as he has designed it.
The incoherence of our base beliefs about the Father, ourselves and the world always come to the surface eventually, and that emerging disjointedness is almost always painful, usually because it’s attached to difficult circumstances.
Tim Dilena, senior pastor of Times Square Church, said in a sermon, “See, there are times I think that God makes me really, really angry. Not because there's a defect in him, but there's a defect in me. Because I want answers, and God is going, "Just trust, sit still and trust the engineer." It's not he has the defect; it's God getting at something in me….
“I love the words that GK Chesterton reminds us — Listen to these words. He says, ‘When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from Him.’ And then he says this, ‘But in heaven's name, to what?’ What are we going to run to?”
Rather than turning away from God, these moments are an invitation to re-examine the incorrect answers we may have unconsciously started applying to our lives.
John Mark Comer unpacked this idea of God’s foundational answers and the trouble we run into if we ignore those answers in his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. “In reality Jesus’ moral teachings aren’t arbitrary at all. They are laws, yes. But moral laws are no different from scientific laws like E = mc2 or gravity. They are statements about how the world actually works. And if you ignore them, not only do you rupture relationship with God, but you also go against the grain of the universe he created. Cue the splinters.
“So many of Jesus’ teachings—especially on money and stuff—were just telling stories about the way the world actually is.
It is more blessed to give than to receive.
“Notice: that’s not a command, much less an arbitrary law. It’s a counterintuitive observation of the human condition.
You cannot serve both God and money.
“Notice, again, not a command. He didn’t say, ‘You shouldn’t serve both God and money.’ He said, ‘You can’t.’”
If we can’t make up our own answers to how the universe works or what moral law should be, then we have some serious soul-searching to do if we run head-first into disappointment and anger with God. ‘Why does this upset me? What fundamental belief do I hold that may be flawed?’ We may not like the answers, but that doesn’t make them any less important.
Making a Q&A With You and God
Pastor Joe McKeever, a longtime theology writer, mused over some questions that Vanity Fair asked its interviewees, noting that analyzing our answers to these questions might not be a bad exercise for many believers.
Some of these questions were the following:
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
What is your greatest regret?
What do you value most in your friends?
On what occasions do you lie?
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
He added a few of his own that might be especially applicable to those of us who follow Christ and want to align our lives to the Word.
What sin in other people do you find hardest to forgive?
Who are two people who have contributed most to your spiritual life?
If money were no problem, what would you do next year?
Our answers, especially the ‘why’ behind our answers, can tell us a lot about how our foundational beliefs about God and ourselves may have gone askew.
As Pastor McKeever noted, “First, it’s a good thing to find out how well you know yourself. Men, more than women, are not typically used to analyzing what’s going on inside themselves. And no one is suggesting you become addicted to this. But it’s good to stop once in a while and take stock of things. Try it.”
Invite God to sit with you as you answer these questions. Come up with a few of your own. Be honest; nobody else has to see or hear this except you and the Holy Spirit. Think a lot about the ‘why’ behind each answer and if that reason is biblical. Take your time; this exercise might not be done in a few minutes or even a day.
Realigning our answers to the reality God has made will bring coherence to our beliefs and peace to our hearts, even as we go through trying times, because we will better know the God we serve and his will.
“I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (Proverbs 8:17).
“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord…” (Jeremiah 29:13-14).