Did Paul actually have God speak to him personally?

When I was sick in bed and feeling rotten I thought of Paul “pleading with the Lord three times”  in 2 Corinthians 12:8 to take his sickness away, and the Lord then actually replying to Paul in verse 9 in words that Paul wrote down. So it sounds like God actually spoke to Paul, and in words that were obviously clear to him, because verse 9 is a direct quote of what God said.

Well, that stirred a thought or two, like, “Could I do the same thing with my sickness, then?” Could I plead with God to take it away, and God would answer me personally in some way, and especially if his answer was “No,” as it was in Paul’s case? And was this, in fact, what God expected me to do? Did he want me pleading with him so he could give me a personal answer, and was I denying myself a personal answer from God by not pleading? Could it be that I’d been missing out on very personal answers from God all those times I got sick through the years by not pleading until he gave me a clear reply I could write down later word for word?

But that raised further questions, like, “Why did God wait until Paul pleaded three times?” Does God wait to see if we’re really looking to him before he answers? And what does “pleading” mean? Does it mean “badgering” God until I get a clear answer out of him, or does it mean “reasoning” with him as to why I need healing? In Paul’s case his reasons for healing were probably very sound, like how on earth could he do the job God had given him when he was being tormented by “a messenger of Satan”? I could say the same thing, though: “How on earth can I be of any service to God lying in bed unable to concentrate on anything but my own misery?”

And then it dawned on me that God would only be repeating himself if he gave me an answer, because the answer he gave to Paul applies perfectly to my situation too – and to anyone else who’s ever wondered why God lets us get so sick that we’re useless to him. God’s answer to Paul was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what condition we’re in physically, because it’s not by our strength and power that his work is being done, it’s by his. So here I am lying in bed thinking I’m useless, when in fact God is still doing his work in my sickness.

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Why shouldn’t we have “the knowledge of good and evil”?

Surely it’s good that we know the difference between right and wrong, so why did God create a tree forbidding Adam and Eve from seeking that knowledge?

God’s explanation in Genesis 3:22 is that man, having eaten the forbidden fruit, “has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Becoming like God was the problem. But God deliberately made man in his own likeness, so “becoming like him” in his likeness in something would surely be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

But did it turn out that way? Did it turn out to be a good thing for humans to suddenly know everything about good and evil like God does? No, because it overwhelmed them, it was too much all at once. Adam and Eve were like children at this stage of their lives, only just starting out on this incredible voyage God had in mind for them, and they had no clue as yet what they needed to know. So God started them off slowly, learning the secrets of the soil, first of all, by having them take care of a garden. And that, in God’s wisdom, was the best way for them to begin: Start off with basics, learn by hands-on, and don’t get in a hurry.

And it worked wonderfully. In his child-like innocence Adam trusted his “Dad,” he did everything God said, and the work and learning progressed. Imagine, then, if that had continued, and humans from Adam on had trusted God and followed along at his pace, believing he knew best.

But the chance for Adam and Eve to speed things up and take off on their own, rather than hobble along at God’s pace, was hugely appealing. Why not get all the knowledge they needed to know all at once, so they could quit messing around with soil and jump straight to all that God knew about nuclear physics or quantum mechanics? So they went for it. But what happened?

They immediately lost their child-like innocence and trust. They suddenly grew up into mature, independent adults, where instead of happily running around naked like children, they suddenly became aware of sex and sexual differences, which totally overwhelmed them. They didn’t know how to react, just like children who get all embarrassed when they catch their parents kissing.

God knows what knowledge we need when, and he gave us brains that learn in stages, not all at once. The question that faces all us humans, then, is, “Will we trust God to teach us at his pace and in his time, because he knows what’s best for us – including what we need to know about good and evil?”

Does God approve of war to destroy evil?

Or, to phrase it another way, “Does a political leader have the ‘divine right’ to declare war on another nation that he believes is evil?” God gave his divine right and approval to the leaders of Israel in the Old Testament to wipe out entire tribes and nations that were evil – so why not today as well?

Two clear differences exist, however, between leaders today and the leaders of ancient Israel declaring war on other nations. The first difference is that with Israel God was the one defining evil, not the leaders. So the evil truly was evil. There was no confusion like today, where the leaders decide who is good and who is evil. And they’re never going to think their own country is evil, are they, so we end up with the tragic and ridiculous situation of two countries going to war, both of whom believe the other country and its leaders are evil, and therefore they both have the divine right to wipe the other country out.

A second difference is that in Israel it was God who ordered the killing of people, not the leaders. And he certainly had the ‘divine right’ to make such an order since he has the power to restore life to the dead. So even if God uses what we might call ‘evil means’ to kill people, like war and genocide, that’s not the end of those people’s lives forever. He can bring them back to life again. But no human leader has that power. And yet human leaders feel they have the right to snuff out other people’s lives, even if it means the death of innocent people too.

To ask the question above, then, “Does God approve of war to destroy evil?” the answer is, yes, but only if he approves it, because only he can truly determine who is evil, and only he can restore life to the dead, including those he orders to be killed. When a human leader takes such ‘divine rights’ and powers to himself, therefore, he’s assuming he’s on the same level as God – which is a really stupid thing to do, because in God’s eyes that IS evil.

It would meet far more with God’s approval if leaders concentrated on the welfare of their own people and left the threats coming from other countries up to him. God got that point across to Israel many times, and when they got the point God did amazing things in their defence without them lifting a finger or losing a life. But when they took things into their own hands, that’s when their troubles began.

Should Christians always do what their governments tell them to do?

Christians on both sides of World War 2 did what their governments told them to do and they went to war – the result being that millions of Christians killed and maimed each other. But what were those Christians supposed to do instead when Romans 13:1 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities (because) the authorities that exist have been established by God,” and in verse 2, that  rebelling against one’s government is “rebelling against God,” and in verse 8, that “it is necessary (therefore) to submit to the authorities”?

But what is the context of Romans 13? Is it about international warfare and giving a government leader the divine right to declare war against another nation, and his people must support him? Is it giving a national leader the authority to decide who is right and who is wrong on the world stage, and to use whatever means he deems necessary to stop what he believes to be evil? But doesn’t Romans 13 also give the leader of the other nation those rights as well, since he too has been “established by God”? So, which of the two leaders should people now obey?

If that is the context of Romans 13 it’s very confusing. But what if the context of Romans 13 is simply about Christians being responsible citizens in their own home countries? If so, then Romans 13 is very comforting, that so long as one’s government is not pushing anything against God, Christians have nothing to fear, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right,” verse 3. And God has rulers in place who really do try to make their countries a good place to live in, and where that is the case a Christian can happily obey his or her government and live in peace.

“That’s also why you pay taxes,” as The Message continues in verses 6-7 – “so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligation as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.” The context of these first few verses in Romans 13 are clear, then, that God works through government to keep order in a country for the benefit of its citizens, and where such a country exists a Christian should definitely and absolutely do what his government tells him to do.

The only exception to that is when a government (or religious leader) is pushing something that God would clearly not approve of, in which case a Christian could not go along with it, because obedience to God has priority over obedience to man (Acts 4:19). Perhaps if more Christians had believed that, they would have resisted killing their fellow Christians in World War 2 as well.

“I wish Jesus would hurry up”

Having grown up with the idea that God has a six thousand year plan between creation and Jesus’ second coming I was really looking forward to getting this life over and done with soon, now that the six thousand years was nearly up. So instead of having to tread water in this mess any longer, with no hope of things improving or Christianity being accepted worldwide, we could get to work clearing up this mess with Christ’s power and authority behind us, and get rid of mad dictators, stop greed and pollution, and make this world a great place for children.

And surely enough time has gone by already to justify ending things soon, because the evidence of history has conclusively proved that we are incapable of solving the problems that are killing us, no matter how well-intentioned we are. So why doesn’t Jesus hurry up and get this lot over and done with? Why hang around allowing more pollution, more poverty, more starvation, more child abuse, more disease, and more of the same old things that will never change in ten, fifty or a thousand years’ time?

Well, the good news is, Jesus hasn’t been hanging around. He’s been actively changing things ever since he was resurrected and given all power and authority over this planet by God, by going right to the heart of the problem, rather than just blowing people’s heads off.

The heart of our problem was made clear in Genesis, that we don’t trust how God does things. Adam and Eve, for instance, didn’t like the idea of taking care of a garden as God’s training program for them. They much preferred having all knowledge all at once. Why take years off their lives messing around with soil, when they had the chance to crank the program into high gear right away, all guns blazing? And surely, isn’t that what God wanted, a bit of initiative on their part, and a willingness to get to work at full bore?

But God works slowly, because he wants to know if we’ll trust him. And it’s the same with Jesus today. He works slowly too, because that way he too finds out who trusts him and is willing to go at his pace, and who wants to “do an Adam and Eve” and get things moving at their own pace instead.

Jesus himself had to go at God’s pace too, accepting and trusting that God knew best in him having to live out a human life first, and fortunately, Jesus is more than willing to live his patient trust in us, because patient trust is our best training for the future.

Must we repent, accept and believe, etc. – to be saved?

The good news message of the Christian gospel is that God’s already “reconciled us to himself (past tense) through Christ,” 2 Corinthians 5:19, “through Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross,” Colossians 1:19-20.

Our salvation, therefore, was totally taken care of at the moment of Jesus’ death. But isn’t our acceptance of that fact also necessary for salvation to kick in for us personally? Shouldn’t we do a “sinner’s prayer” first, or “make a decision for Christ,” or “repent and believe”?

No, says Paul, “For it is by grace you have been saved not by works, so that no one can boast,” Ephesians 2:8-9. Salvation from beginning to end doesn’t depend on anything we do, including our acceptance of it. We couldn’t accept it anyway because our sinful nature wouldn’t let us (Romans 8:7). Any acceptance on our part has to come from God, which is exactly what Paul says when he adds the statement in Ephesians 2:8, “you have been saved through faith – AND THAT NOT FROM YOURSELVES, it is the gift of God.” God GIVES us the faith. We accept and believe because God gives us acceptance and belief.

Jesus also said, “No one can come to me unless THE FATHER HAS ENABLED HIM,” John 6:65. It’s the Father who enables us to accept what Christ has done for us, not us. How did Peter, for instance, understand and accept that Jesus was the Son of God? It was the Father’s doing, Matthew 16:16-17. And where did Paul turn to enable the Ephesians to accept and grasp the enormity of what God had accomplished for them in Christ? To the Father, Ephesians 1:17.

It’s the Father who enables us to believe and accept. And how does he do it? Through the gospel plainly preached, and the Spirit takes it from there. “Before your very eyes Jesus was clearly portrayed as crucified,” Galatians 3:1 – the gospel had been plainly preached, in other words – and from then on the Spirit “worked miracles among them,” verse 5, miracles of hope, faith and love, Colossians 1:5.

No wonder, then, it’s so important to preach the gospel accurately, because that’s the Father’s starting point for enabling belief and acceptance in people. “Faith and love SPRING FROM the hope you heard about in the gospel. All over the world the gospel is producing fruit and growing, just as it has been among you since the day you understood GOD’S GRACE IN ALL ITS TRUTH,” Colossians 1:5-6. First of all, they heard about God’s amazing grace – how through Jesus’ shed blood all humanity had been reconciled to God – and then the Spirit gave them the faith to believe, accept and love it.

Salvation is ALL God’s doing. Nothing required from us.

Does religion help in tough times?

The answer to the above question is a resounding “No.” No, religion does not help us in tough times. It never has and it never will because religion (not based on the Bible) has no idea why “tough times” exist in the first place. 

Tough times exist, according to the Bible, because we are “in bondage to decay,” Romans 8:21. We are stuck in a world that’s falling apart and we can’t stop it. Why? Because God made it that way, verse 20, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” And our history conclusively proves the truth of that statement. No matter how hard we try to solve our pressing global problems, our efforts always end up in frustration. 

Religion, however, does not accept that we are incapable of solving our problems. Buddhism is a classic example. It recognizes we have a serious problem as humans, that we have these cravings for things that can never satisfy, and all our suffering can be traced back to that – BUT – we have the power within ourselves to solve it, by subduing our cravings. How? By having a right mind, right speech, right intentions, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. In other words, we can solve our problems and stop all suffering by making ourselves into better people. We have the ability within ourselves to do this. Buddhism would never admit we are helpless. 

Nor would Islam. Tough times in Islam are interpreted as a means of cleaning up sin, or making us into better people – but never as proof of our helplessness. Never would Islam or Buddhism accept that we have minds controlled by a sinful nature so powerful that only the Spirit of Christ living in us can control it. Instead, religions think human nature can be controlled and improved by laws, techniques, energy forces (like karma) and suffering. How, then, can these religions be of any help in tough times, when they have no clue that tough times are meant to illustrate our helplessness, not to make us better?

But it’s recognizing our helplessness that leads us to God’s solution. When Paul cried out in frustration, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (7:24)?” that’s when he discovered there’s a Spirit who “helps us in our weakness (8:26).” It was when he accepted his helplessness that he realized God had provided him with power that he didn’t have naturally. It wasn’t religion that helped Paul in tough times – it was the Spirit.