Is the pen a circle or a rectangle? Yes.

Dear Renea,

Seeking wisdom from some of my favorite theologians.  I’ve been in a two month e-mail conversation with a highly intelligent high school junior (who happens to be a close friend of the family).  He passionately loves Jesus and reads non-stop.  We’ve walked through discussing women in ministry, God’s view of war, forgiveness and several other topics.  I’ve done my best to respond to his questions thus far – but feel like I won’t be able to provide him with a thorough enough answer to the following e-mail.  Any thoughts you have on the topic and how to best answer would be greatly appreciated!

With Joy,
A Friend


Thank you so much for responding! I just returned from Colorado for Christmas Break and I can finally have access to internet again. I think I also agree most with that position in regards to pacifism and I also found another really interesting argument on forgiveness from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. I’ll provide most of the important parts but you can find the whole thing in the Forgiveness chapter of Mere Christianity.

“Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not meant that I ought not to subject myself to punishment–even death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy…All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery. When soldiers came to St John the baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army: nor did Christ when He met a Roman centurion…We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed…Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves–to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not…Perhaps it makes it easier if we remember that that is how He loves us. Not for any nice, attractive qualities we think we have, but just because we are the things called selves.”

This I believe makes the most sense; however, I think the heart of what I was asking was how can one know the will of God and can we be having a false experience of God? Because if the pacifist prays in front of a gun shop asking God to close it down because God calls us to be non-violent and then it does close down. He will interpret this as an answer to prayer and a confirmation of this view of God. But if a soldier prays for protection against the enemy and justice against the oppressors, and his unit has a successful raid against the enemy and no one is hurt, he will interpret that as a confirmation of his view of God. But can both be right? How can we even interpret the will of God and what does it mean when people say that God told them? I can’t say for sure about other people but I am constantly tormented by the voices in my head that I am unable to tell whether they are the Holy Spirit. I have talked to random people in the park and then I get called a creeper, I have driven to a friends house late at night for no obvious reason and then no one answered the door, and many other situations all because I thought the Holy Spirit was telling me to do this. To have faith and do not doubt, but when I try the previous is often the result. I am scared because I do not want to grieve the Holy Spirit by not doing what it asks, but yet I don’t even really know if it is. I hear other stories of people who have healed sicknesses or injuries because they felt God told them to step out in faith, but what does that even mean. God does know all I guess and has complete control, but are we to interpret every thought as an act of God, no accidents of coincidences, and if not then how do we tell which ones are and aren’t? It’s a tough question and maybe I need to not be so introspective, but it is kind of my nature, so any help regarding these questions would be appreciated.

Thanks so much,
A Student

Hello dear friend.

It’s good that this young man has such a friend in the faith as you. The teen years are so angsty, especially for such contemplative young women and men. It can be a time when we are coming to the realization that some questions have no answers. We wrestle and wrestle with this until at last, exhausted and desperate, we find comfort in God’s godness; we find that odd, not entirely comfortable comfort that God is still there even when answers are not, that God knows fully even when it is impossible for us to fully know until we see him face to face.

I believe the answer to the question, “But can both be right?” is yes. God is big enough to cover what to us is a complete contradiction (see also predestination and free will). This is part of the comfort of God’s godness I am talking about, not that we won’t still at times be bothered with these same questions here and there, even as an uneasy comfort with these sorts of unsolvable questions being unsolvable arises in us. I once sat in a lecture Rob Bell gave where he addressed this better than I’ve ever heard it addressed. He said — I’m paraphrasing, of course — “Imagine you’re a two-dimensional stick figure,” and he drew a stick figure on the white board behind him. Then he held up the marker he was using and said, “Now as three-dimensional people, we understand this marker in three dimensional terms: a cylinder, which is made up of both circles and rectangles. But imagine you’re a two-dimensional stick figure and someone tries to tell you about a cylinder. ‘It’s both a circle and a rectangle.’ they say. But you know that’s impossible. Circles and rectangles are complete opposites. How can one thing be both?” Bell went on to say, “God exists in dimensions we do not; in fact, physicists aren’t even sure how many dimensions there are in the universe. They think there are possibly 14. 14 dimensions! And we’re only really comfortable in 3. There are some things which are to us like this 3-D pen is to the 2-D stick people.” Is the pen a circle or a rectangle? Yes. The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. Deut 29:29

In regard to his other question about how we recognize the Holy Spirit amid the other competing voices, that’s quite a bit trickier. The best way I believe to recognize and distinguish God’s voice is to be as familiar as possible with the way it sounds in holy Scripture (in other words, be as familiar with God’s written Word as possible. If we are not merely puffing ourselves up with knowledge, pursuit of the Word is pursuit of Jesus himself). But I think what your young friend ought to remember most chiefly is that success in God’s Kingdom is not always recognizable as success to us, and it certainly isn’t always instant. Furthermore, we cannot control other people’s reactions and responses, only our own obedience. On the other hand, I do not believe God would always lead someone in seemingly fruitless directions and never show his hand so to speak. I have no Scriptural support for this but that it just isn’t like God. Only Job forces me to consider that God might for a time reveal nothing of his bigger picture to us. But in general, in Scripture and Church history and testimony, God does not seem to operate that way.

Finally, I believe we put too much pressure on ourselves to discover or know God’s will. God simply asks us to be faithful, and in the little things at that. And even as those little things get larger, in some sense, they are always little, and yet, it is the “little things” that Jesus considered most significant. If we are praying as Jesus instructed us — Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done… — I don’t believe we have to be looking for it. It will find us. Jesus instructs us, simply, to have ears to hear, to make ourselves ready. If we seek after God himself rather than his will, surely we will find both.

“Can we have a false experience of God?” Absolutely. But the fact that he is asking this question is evidence that he is not blindly walking on a path of false light. He has placed himself in God’s hands. He must trust God can and will keep him. Whenever he finds himself tormented by these questions, he must remind himself of this, perhaps with some physical symbol serving as a reminder, and/or perhaps like Luther who prayed in the midst of similar torment, “Christ, I am yours. Save me. Christ, I am yours. Save me. Christ, I am yours. Save me.” which is the same as saying, “I am in your hands, keep me.”

Grace and Peace to your friend in Christ our Lord.
And love to you.


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