Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reasons why God permits the existence of trouble and calamity

In a previous blog post (Does God really help those who help themselves?), I discussed some of the sources of trouble and calamity. I want to follow-up on this subject by discussing in this post some of the main reasons why I perceive God permits and allows human beings to have troubles and sorrows.

First of all, it must be acknowledged that God permits suffering and troubles to affect both believers and unbelievers. Neither of the two groups may be exempt from suffering. However, both find themselves in difficult situations for distinct purposes.

For unbelievers, God permits them to have trouble in order to give them an occasion to encounter him. This comes out in Psalm 107's story of the rich merchants at sea. While the merchants set off on the sea to do business, God sends a storm to turn their trip into one where they lose themselves with fear (Psalm 107: 23-30). While it might seem in this case, that God gave them a wild amusement ride on the sea for the LULZ or to get a good laugh, in truth, the apparent motive in this story for God taking the merchants on a wild roller-coaster sea ride is for the purpose of introducing these rich and powerful merchants to their human limitations and inability to help themselves. This indeed allows one to recognise the need to believe and trust in God when one has no other source of help. Hence, unbelievers have trouble and sorrows as a megaphone to announce their need for a Saviour or Messiah.

But trouble does not stop there. Even when unbelievers become believers, they still face trouble. It is not sufficient to believe in God for all your troubles and woes to cease. Even those who believe in God still need and are faced with troubles.

For believers, the main reasons why we have trouble and sorrow are:

  1. So that we won't forget God. We can forget God if our lives are too comfortable. (Deut. 8:11-14; Proverbs 30:9). When we have all that we want to eat and have nice homes to live in and much stuff and possessions, it is easy to think we have it all. Hence, from time to time, God has to send trouble to remind us that we must not take all that we have for granted.
  2. So that he can prove if we truly believe in him. God gets glory out of us passing various tests of our faith. Our faith tried and tested prove that we are genuine (1 Peter 1:7). According to Apostle Paul, we are on display to the universe/multiverse (1 Corinthians 4:9). Earth is a laboratory that is being used to not only test us, but to reveal to other inhabitants of the universe/multiverse God's character and laws. We are being watched by other beings [angels and the different classes of angels] for our faith and how we respond to God as agents created with free will to settle a controversial matter about God (1 Peter 1:12). The story of Job also proves this (Job 1). In that story, God boasts to Satan about his servant Job. Satan therefore challenges God to a bet that Job is only serving God because God has been good to him. Hence, God takes the bet and let Satan bring trouble and calamities on Job so that he can prove to Satan that Job is a genuine believer and righteous man.
Hence, we are to count it joy when we have temptations, for as Jesus says, temptations must come (Matthew 18:7). As they say, 'you can't have a testimony without a test'. Just make sure that you trust in God so that you can past the test.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What do Video Games & Religion have in common?

Video games and religion? What do they have in common? The answer may be more similar than you think.

A child of the early 80's, I practically grew up with the personal computer around me. My dad was a programmer (part-time) but then launched into his own full-time computing business at the time. At that time, my only interest in the computer was to play video games or have it interact with me by responding to my input (if you remember command line prompting). However, I was also raised in a Judeo-Christian faith based on Herbert Amstrong's interpretations of the holy scriptures, which gave me a unique experience of Christianity that actually drew heavily on Jewish festivals and celebrations. Yet, in my past life, I never made the connection between the similarities between religion and video games until now.

My modern day journey into understanding video games came when I began my thesis looking at the idea of how folklore could inform the design of information retrieval systems. This initial topic of exploration led me to reading the book by Miller (2008) on digital storytelling. It was in Miller (2008) that I first learned that role playing video games can actually be traced back early interactive storytelling practices of religion including the participatory dramas of ancient pagan religions, where masks and costumes were used for role play to represent spirits or gods similar to how modern day avatars are applied as the embodiment or incarnation of entities from another world who are not actually present. Miller also mentions modern rituals such as the Jewish holiday of Passover and Halloween, noting similarities between people assuming roles not performed in real life and transitioning into worlds different from their own reality.

So getting back to the question, what do video games and religion have in common? Three main things:

  1. Role-play
  2. Symbols, icons and avatars
  3. enactment and re-enactment 
So taking Miller's argument, religion with its rituals and ceremonies is the first precursor to modern video games. In essence, religion can be considered a video game played or enacted outside of the computer.

Let us take the faith(s) that I am most familiar with and intimate of: Judeo and Roman Christianity. There are countless icons, symbols and avatars in my religion. In essence these religious icons, symbols and avatars are real objects used to represent an idea or a reality, or to tell a narrative or story. Examples are:
fish - to remind us about our purpose and mission - to evangelize [or proselytise] and bring in people to God
cross/crucifix - to represent the rising Saviour, the idea of resurrection
bread  - for Christianity it is a symbol of fellowship
wine - symbol of joy (for the Jews) and symbol of blood (for Christians)
lighted candlestick - symbol of inspiration
matzah/matzo - bread of affliction (symbol of the body of Christ for Christians)

Role-playing games are not much different from religion as the same elements are very much present, namely:
  • a narrative world or space - with rules, restrictions and limitations
  • a central narrative underlying the game and its rituals
  • symbols, icons and avatars 
  • role-play and enactment
Current we are in the period [that is if you are reading this blog in March/April] of two festivals where both Christians and Jews will be involved in role-playing. Most Western Christian traditions will role-play the Lord's supper (and other events), and enact through symbols Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. My Jewish friends on the other hand, will enact historical Passover night in Egypt.

As to the narrative world or space, both Christianity and Judaism today construct elaborate spaces designed to facilitate their telling of Biblical and communal narratives. Both construct spaces and ascribe rules and restrictions and limitations to what can be done within the space and who gets to play what role within specific spaces. 

For example, while it is deemed unacceptable to snack "in  church" either during the ceremony or even after, it is perfectly acceptable to "snack" of the communion bread and grape juice during the narrative event enacting Communion.

Finally, both video games and religions have communities formed around their narratives and rituals.The conclusion, perhaps video games and religion are more similar than we think. Just a thought.


Miller, C. H. (2008). Digital storytelling: A creator's guide to interactive entertainment (2nd ed.). Amsterdam; Boston: Focal Press/Elsevier.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday and Passover 2014 preparation reflection

So Passover 2014 begins April 14. As I attempt to lead my family (or household) in remembering and celebrating this feast, I want to share five thoughts that came to me as we prepared to remember Passover:

  1. On Palm Sunday morning, respecting my wife's Christian tradition, we listened to a Bible reading on the events of Palm Sunday. As we listened to the readings prior to the main Palm Sunday event, I noticed the themes of Jesus sayings and teachings prior to his entry in Jerusalem. All the teachings and sayings recorded then seemed to have a reoccurring theme: that of getting rid of the things that separates one from God. Hence, the major idea of Passover preparation is to take time to think about what brings us closer to God and what separates us from him.
  2. Cleaning through my refrigerator, I came across numerous vegetables that were abandoned or forgotten, including frozen vegetables. This inspired me to reflect that Passover is a good time to look back at our store house of food and see what we have wasted and make sure that we make good use of food that God provided us. To help do this, we should have a feast and invite friends, neighbours, loved ones or even strangers to help us eat the good food that God has provided us with, and celebrate and not forget his provision in the previous [old] year while we look forward to continuing provision for the new year.
  3. Cleaning my refrigerator took the whole morning and I was basically tired and a bit sick after the activity. Despite my enthusiasm to do more, like vacuum and mop the whole house, my body could not meet the goals I set for Passover cleaning. This reminded me that my efforts to remember the Passover by doing some of the activities  in the Bible will always fall short, hence my need for Jesus as my Saviour. Essentially, all the good that I intend to do, cannot be done, because of the limitations in my body and flesh. Hence, I need a substitute who can help me do the will of God and help me to acquire his favour.
  4. The matzah is really the "bread of affliction". My wife after eating matzah for an entire week for several years now, does not like the bread (or cracker). Whenever the Passover season comes and I acquire the bread, she reminds me of her horrible experiences and why she does not like the bread. For her, going without leavened products is more like a fast than a feast. I can empathize with her to some extent. Because Matzah is not the kind of food that you want to eat seven days straight. It is a bread that cuts. Because it lacks leaven, it is crunchy but can also lead to sore gums and cuts in the mouth (or lip). Nonetheless, the hardship of eating Matzah can remind us that we as Christians must share in the afflictions of Christ. (For Jews, the affliction is shared with their ancestors). To me the Passover experience reminds me that even though I might have freedom today, religious freedom is not guaranteed tomorrow. Just like how the Jews prospered in Joseph's time in Egypt, it only takes a few generations before your faith can be outlawed and your freedoms taken away. I see parallel today that the Western world, once the bedrock of [Western] Christianity is now becoming increasing secular. The results are, freedoms we used to enjoy are now being curtailed. Yet, the Passover experience reminds me that this is nothing new, and in fact, is promised by our Saviour. As Jesus says: In this world, we shall have sorrow (John 16:33). Hence, we must be prepared and prepare ourselves each Passover remembrance for this reality. We don't know when it may be illegal to be a Christian (for some in the East, this is already reality), but we must always contemplate this reality so that we can be reminded that even though we will be oppressed that God will deliver us as he did with the Hebrews under Pharaoh.
  5. Finally, as I cleaned my refrigerator, I wondered if Passover was also a way of getting the Hebrews to practice the hygiene of cleaning their food storage houses once a year, so as to clear out bacteria and other contaminants of food. I not only removed expired food from my fridge, but also wiped away much of the scum that made me wonder how much bacteria lives in the fridge, despite the cold temperature. I can only imagine that the Hebrews in leaving Egypt, without fridge technology, had to deal with hot temperatures associated with their food storage spaces that led to the breeding of fungi, mold and other micro-organisms. 
Finally, I share an insider's joke. My wife argued with me that I shouldn't wait once a year to do "spring cleaning" of the house. In fact, she suggested that we should be doing such activities at least every two weeks, so as to maintain the clean environment, rather than having a whole lot to do at one time. I shot back that God only cleansed his sanctuary once per year. :)