16) Is there an exact time appointed for us to die that only God knows? Does that mean that no matter what the circumstances around us, nothing can be done to change it?
The answer across the board is yes. There is a time appointed for our death, there is nothing to do about it, and only God knows when our time is up. Psalm 139:16 says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” That’s clear, isn’t it? All our days are ordained, and God writes them in a book ahead of time. Here’s the catch. There is only one copy of the book, and it’s locked up on the third floor of the administration building in heaven. There’s no way you or I can get a copy. So I have no idea when I’m going to die. Is it today? Next Thursday? Or maybe October 14, 2034? Personally I’m pulling for the latter date, but I don’t get a choice in the matter. This isn’t something to worry about but rather to rejoice over—that we didn’t just show up on planet earth as a random act of fate. Our lives have a God-ordained beginning and end. And we get to enjoy the ride in between. Live each day as if it might be your last, and one day you’ll be right. See Christ and the Problem of Death and my book The Incredible Journey of Faith.
17) What is the emergent church? Is it a positive or negative to the cause of Christ?
Here’s my personal take. The emergent church movement looks at culture in the 21st-century and says, “We are living in postmodern times.” And then it asks, “How should we be doing church in a world that is radically different than it was 40-50 years ago?” Almost everyone agrees that the world has changed and that many of the ways we did church (the forms and structures) a generation ago don’t work very well today. Most emerging churches emphasize living out your faith in society in practical ways, living in community with other believers, following the “narrative” of the Bible, encouraging creativity in worship, moving away from an “us/them” approach to evangelism, desiring participative leadership, and looking to the whole life of Christ as a model for serving others and transforming society. Besides actually visiting an emergent church, you can learn a lot (pro and con) by surfing the blogosphere because the leaders of these churches (and their critics) tend to be highly tuned in to modern technology. My short comment is that I am all for new ways of doing church so long as we don’t sacrifice biblical truth in the process. To the extent that the emergent church movement challenges us to think in new ways, that’s a good thing. When we end up sacrificing truth in the name of meaningful engagement with the culture, it’s not worth it in my judgment. As with most movements, it’s a mixed bag. They are definitely asking good questions. It’s the answers that we argue about. See First Century Patterns for 21st-Century Churches and I Will Pour Out My Spirit and the chapter on “God Has a Great Big Family” in my book Credo.
18) I am not a beautiful woman. When I turn to the Bible for comfort, I find it speaking about Jacob’s desire for beautiful Rachel and how he woke up in shock to find himself facing “wall-eyed Leah” (Genesis 29:16-17). I have not found anything about “ugly women” in a positive tone in the Bible.
The observations about Jacob and Rachel are Leah are basically correct except that the Hebrew word that describes Leah’s eyes is uncertain. It may mean “weak” or “delicate.” In any case, the text does emphasize Rachel’s beauty. Rather than deny the point, I would ask you to consider the biblical description of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31. As I read the text, not a word is said about her appearance. You cannot tell if she is tall or short, large or small, how she wears her hair, or what sort of skin she has. Those things are not mentioned because ultimately they don’t matter. The woman in Proverbs 31 is praised for her hard work, her business skill, her generosity, her wisdom in planning for the future, her creativity, her marketing prowess, her honorable character, her wise words, her tireless care for her family, and the great benefit she brings to her husband and her children who rise up and call her blessed. She is known and praised by the whole community. What is her secret? It has nothing to do with physical beauty. “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (v. 30). This is God’s bottom line. It is entirely true that we live in a world that rewards physical beauty. Who could deny that? And even in the church, we can put too much emphasis on outward appearance. But those things will not last forever. A woman who fears the Lord will be praised, in this life by those who know what really matters, and in the life to come by the Lord himself. See Inner Beauty and the chapter on “Beauty” in my book The ABCs of Wisdom.
19) Romans 1:18-20 says that the things of God are clearly seen by everyone. What about those who believe in a God (or gods) but not in the God of the Bible. Since God is just, what happens to those who never hear the gospel?
The observation from Romans 1 is absolutely correct. Paul is saying that through creation and conscience, something about God “gets through” to every person. Some understand more, some less, but everyone knows something about God. That applies to the tribesman in Irian Jaya, to the Hindu in India, to the secularist in Prague, and to the corporate lawyer on Wall Street who was raised in some kind of church but now doesn’t really believe in much of anything. And it applies to all those people who are vaguely “spiritual but not religious.” And it even applies to the atheist. Something about God “gets through” to them too. But don’t miss Paul’s point. They are all “without excuse” (v. 20). The revelation of God in nature and conscience leaves every person guilty before the Lord.
Embedded in the question is something deeper. What about that “sincere” person who truly seeks after God according to the light he has? If such a person exists, then we can simply say that light received leads to more light. God will send more light to those who respond to the light they have. And the ultimate light, the true light, the light of the world is Jesus Christ (John 8:12). He alone is the light that leads to eternal life. That is why we send missionaries—and that is why we hear stories of people who were waiting to hear the Good News of Jesus.
Light received leads to more light.
Light rejected leads only to the darkness.
People do not go to hell because they reject Christ. They go to hell because they are sinners. Rejecting Christ simply seals their fate. The man without the light is in the darkness still. We have no word of hope to offer anyone apart from saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ because he is “the way” that leads to the Father (John 14:6), the only name by which anyone can be saved (Acts 4:12), and the only foundation for eternal life (1 Corinthians 3:11). See What Happens to Those Who Never Hear About Jesus? and my book An Anchor for the Soul.
20) Why is it so hard to love someone?
I happen to know that this question comes from a young person who is not yet a teenager. So my answer goes this way. Loving people is hard business because some people don’t want to be loved. We all would like to be loved—but only by the people we choose. Some people will push us away and even hurt us in the process. Sometimes people have been hurt themselves so they don’t want anyone else to get close to them. Love comes in all varieties, and we don’t love each other in the same way or to the same degree or express it in the same way. Pray for God’s help so that you won’t give up even when people don’t seem to want to be loved. Sometimes we need to love people from a distance, so to speak. Be encouraged. The struggle you face is part of what it means to be fully human. It is better to love and be rejected than never to love at all. See The Agape Factor: 12 Ways to Love.
21) Does God expect me to keep forgiving someone who is a “repeat offender” for 32 years? This person does not feel they have done anything wrong or need any forgiveness. I know Jesus said 70 X 7 (Matthew 18:21-35), but I feel I’ve met my quota.
The questioner added this sentence. “This person claims to be born again and some of the offenses are unspeakable.” That fact makes the question more poignant and much more personal, but it doesn’t change the answer. I think the question assumes that forgiveness equals reconciliation or forgiveness means overlooking consequences. But that is not true. A genuine “repeat offender” who does not admit his guilt cannot be treated as if everyone is okay when it isn’t. That’s different from someone who may repeatedly do wrong (that basically describes all of us) but truly wants forgiveness and intends by God’s grace to demonstrate repentance by a changed life. We all sin in many ways, and in truth all sin is “unspeakable” in the eyes of a holy God. So we cannot approach forgiveness of “unspeakable” sins without including ourselves and God in the equation.
What, then, say we say? Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting a person walk all over you with no consequences. Nor does it mean pretending that sin has never occurred. When a person won’t repent, we can still forgive in the sense of letting go of bitterness and refusing to live in the past. We can forgive in the sense that we release our anger by God’s grace, but the relationship can never be truly restored without repentance.
I find it helpful to remember that forgiveness is not about the other person. It’s between us and God. We forgive because God commanded us to forgive and because we desperately need to forgive. Otherwise bitterness will destroy us. That doesn’t mean you overlook repeated sin or refuse to take proper action. It means that you forgive for your sake and for God’s sake. You release them so that you might be set free. See Forgiveness: Healing the Hurt We Never Deserved and my book The Healing Power of Forgiveness.
22) Why are you living in Tupelo, Mississippi?
The answer is that my brother Alan is a plastic surgeon in Tupelo and about sixteen years ago he purchased an abandoned church camp about nine miles north of Tupelo. When God led us in a new direction in 2005, Alan encouraged us to come and live on the property until we decided what we were doing to do next. We planned to stay four or five months and then move on to whatever God had next. We ended up staying 20 months in a cabin on the property and then bought a home in Tupelo. We’re as surprised as anyone else at how events have unfolded. I like to tell people that I’m getting out of the prediction business because every prediction I’ve made about our future has been wrong. As the wise man said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” I told God my plans, he laughed and said, “Why don’t you stay in Tupelo for a while?” That’s how we got here and why we are still here. And I’m making no predictions about where we’ll be in five years! See A Journey, Not a Destination and Chapter 1 of my book Fire and Rain.