“Why did you do that, daddy?”
“Because when people leave trash in places they shouldn’t, it makes the world uglier. But if other people clean it up, it makes the world prettier.”
“But why do people put trash where they shouldn’t?”
“Well, you know how sometimes you leave toys out after playing with them, and we have to tell you to put them away?”
“It’s sort of like that. Everyone makes messes, but there are three kinds of people: those who don’t clean up their own messes, those who clean up after themselves, and those who clean up after other people. And we want to be people who clean up other people’s messes, whether it’s trash or disagreements or anything.”
“You mean like being peacemakers?”
“Yes. As long as there are more people cleaning up for others than there are people not cleaning up after themselves, the world works fine.”
“Daddy. I like cleaning up things and making the world prettier.”
“That’s good, Spencer. God does, too.”
“In heaven, will brothers always get along and not fight with each other?”
“In heaven, will everyone have enough to eat?”
“In heaven, will you always be able to stay home and play with us and not have to go to work?”
“In heaven, dogs will never bite people?”
“In heaven, can I listen to that song I like by Jeremy Camp as much as I want?”
“In heaven, you won’t ever get frustrated when something doesn’t work right?”
“In heaven, will I get to meet grandma Gini?”
“Daddy, I think I like heaven. It sounds good to me.”
These are not abstract or theoretical cases. Even the skeptic names them with deep, visceral revulsion at their evil. Yet such a response to this world is powerful evidence that we cannot be merely products of this world. A child raised in a racist home considers bigotry normal because environments mold their inhabitants to fit. But none of us fits this world. We all view it as deformed almost beyond recognition, especially the skeptic.
Such universal disgust at what is so common can only be explained with reference to a God who designed us for better. Though the problem of evil is difficult to reconcile with God, the problem of the awareness of evil is impossible to reconcile without Him.
Christian: Do you want to believe in the existence of God?
Atheist: How’s that relevant?
Christian: Well, you’re saying that our beliefs are tainted by our psychological motives, and I was just wondering what your psychological motives are. Clearly, if you want to not believe in God, your ideas are as tainted as mine. So, would you want to believe if you could?
Atheist: Actually, yes. I truly wish your story was true, but evidence and reason tell me it’s not.
Christian: Then you agree it’s quite possible to want to believe in God and yet still not do so?
Atheist: Exactly, that’s me.
Christian: So some people who want to believe do, and some people who want to believe don’t?
Christian: Then it doesn’t seem that wanting to believe determines anything at all. You and I share the same psychological need, yet we believe differently. I guess you’d have to admit there must be something more to religion than just psychological need.
Atheist: Do you want to play some X-Box?
In logic we have a term for the error being committed here: equivocation (or four-term fallacy, for you Aristotleans), the verbal slight of hand accomplished by using two different definitions of the word “unnatural.” When hedonists use it, they mean “not occurring in nature,” but when conservatives use it, we mean “contrary to design and purpose.”
Thus promiscuity and homosexuality can be either natural or unnatural, depending, of course, on whether you think morality is a matter of emphasizing our beastly nature or our divine nature.
Should we care what siblings, friends, coworkers, church members, and parents think of us? Obviously, yes. Should we care what immoral, tasteless, or falsely pious people think of us? Obviously, no. In fact, one might even say that the proper test for distinguishing among people is precisely the issue of whether we should care what they think of us.
Love means being vulnerable, and being so precisely in the sense that you suffer when the appropriate others judge you adversely. The person who cares about the wrong opinions may have misdirected love, but the person who cares about no one’s opinion has no love at all.
Whereas only-children can appear peaceful simply by lacking competitors, siblings will squabble over every item in the house. Things you’d never think to be scarce become prized pieces of territory in the struggle for self-exertion: a pizza pan, a scrap of torn paper, mom’s lap, or even some old toy that was sitting on a shelf for a month until three minutes ago when brother started playing with it.
And although I expect to have sufficiently redirected these impulses before my sons reach their teens, I’m not so optimistic as to believe that a society can be built around the assumption that all parents will succeed with all children at this task.
In fact, from your eye level, all you can see is unending, unchanging walls of exit-obscuring corn stalk. But when you finally near the end, they often feature a little bridge or viewing station from which you can look down on the entire maze. Not only does this put you in a position to see the way through clearly enough to give directions to others (if you were so inclined), but it also lets you see for the first time what the pattern of the maze is: a witch, a polar bear, or perhaps a giant pumpkin.
What is discouragingly meaningless while you’re in it becomes fascinatingly beautiful when you can finally see it from the right perspective. That seems like it might be a useful metaphor for something.
Which is why I was annoyed the other morning when Spencer woke me up by thrusting my open cell phone into my face and telling me someone was on the phone. I answered it, had a conversation I didn’t really want to have so early in the morning, and then hung up. Then I had a choice to make: scold him, let it go, or gently thank him for trying to be helpful and remind him that I only want to answer the phone myself.
See, when we expect to make someone happy by doing a loving thing for them and instead they become angry at us, it’s devastating. And the exasperation this creates is exactly what the Bible warns fathers to not cause our children, lest they lose the heart to do good deeds (Colossians 3:21).
So I put him on my hip and walked out to see our guests off. My own bare feet didn’t worry me, mostly because my wife and I have different sensibilities about risk. But I was willing to indulge her concerns about Ethan, partially because he’s small and less able to handle pain and partially because, well, that’s what it means to honor your spouse.
At the same time, if someone was going to get a cactus needle in the foot, I wanted it to be I, not my son, who did so. Not because I enjoy pain, but because part of what it means to be a father is suffering things yourself so that your children can be saved from them.
So we fought, which was ironic since this began as a real achievement and fatherly pride, and I neared imposed my will upon him. But then he said something wonderful. “Daddy, this is frustrating me, will you please let me write on it?” Though I still wanted to preserve the paper, I wanted to reward his second big breakthrough of the day: describing his emotions rather than whining or complaining. So I gave it back to him, hugged him, and told him how proud I was of him for that.
And you know the funny thing? A few minutes later he beckoned me back into the kitchen to show me how he had hung the unimproved paper on the refrigerator door himself. It’s interesting what happens when we yield a little instead of forcing people to do things our way.
When asked, they proclaim no affection for either mom or dad, and the kids never spend time with the adults. So here’s the question: is this a successful family? Put it another way: are the parents pleased with this result? Speaking as a parent, I would be horrified. But can you even imagine this entire set of facts being true? Neither can I.
And that’s why it’s so naïve to think people can be good to their fellow man without first loving God, their Father. But even if it were possible, what sort of parent would God be if He were actually satisfied with such a result?
To put the matter bluntly, nothing makes you stupider about your relationship than having sex, which is actually part of the point. God built us to lose objectivity about a person and really want to stay with them after doing this. That’s why waiting until you’re married solidifies everything rather than confusing everything.
So, understanding all these elements, I was recently thinking about how in many ways our relationship with Jesus is like a long-distance romance. And as frustrating as it is to be separated from my Beloved and plagued with all the problems we see this side of heaven, I’m pretty confident that the really good stuff is still ahead of us.
Rather than truly wanting him, we assume she just wants the lifestyle that comes with him. If he suddenly lost it all, her departure would surprise no one. But why is this so bad? Because he deserves to be loved for who he is, not merely loved for his goodies. After all, gold-digging is just a more prolonged and less anonymous form of whoring.
But doesn’t it seem strange that we judge her manipulation of him so harshly and then turn around and praise people for advising non-Christians to engage in precisely this sort of manipulation of God…even calling it evangelism? Doesn’t God deserve better?
This active willingness to be charitable is called love and respect. In contrast, we do the opposite with our enemies, interpreting their every word and deed as the product of malice, ignorance, foolishness, or hatred. Whereas we deliberately try to think of the best case scenario for God’s motives, we naturally imagine the worst case scenario for those we hate.
So then the real question is: If we’re honest, which disposition do we use most often with our spouses? And which one should we use if we truly love and respect them as opposed to treating them like our enemies?
Then my second reaction is understanding. “I’ve done it, too, so I can forgive him because I don’t want to be a hypocrite.” But that makes no sense. If one person breaking a rule justified everyone doing so, then we’d all be entitled break every law just because someone else already had. Silly stuff, indeed.
My final reaction is proper judgment. “He is breaking a law, dishonoring God who grants authority to make laws, causing stress to us who obey the law, endangering other drivers, and thus damaging his own soul severely.” Does that make me feel superior to this wretched sinner? No. Rather I pity him for being so misguided about what is truly good for him, and I pray he becomes wiser. At least, that’s what I do eventually…on most days.
You say, “You never told me about that appointment.”
You should say, “I don’t remember you telling me about that appointment.”
You say, “I hate that you never do what I tell you.”
You should say, “I’m displeased that you’re not doing what I asked you to do a few minutes ago.”
You say, “That’s the dumbest idea you’ve ever had.”
You should say, “I’d like to understand your suggestion better. Can you explain it to me again?”
You say, “How come you’re never in the mood anymore?”
You should say, “I find you very arousing, and I’d like to be romantic more often. Is there anything I can do that will make you more interested in me that way?”
If you want to receive respect, give respect. If you want to be in control, allow for the possibility that you are responsible for the problem. And if you want to have a happier marriage, stop thinking that you can ever get there by vanquishing your spouse in personal combat. To fight is to lose, even if you win…especially if you win.
~“Look, buddy, if you don’t marry her, you’re a fool. You’re never going to find anyone else as good as her. In fact, I don’t think anyone else will even put up with you. ”
~“But I don’t think I really love her.”
~“So what? You wanna be alone for the rest of your life? No sex? No kids? No one to comfort you in your old age. You don’t want to end up like that, do you? Marry that girl before it’s too late!”
~“Yeah, you’re right.”
This conversation is troubling in many ways, but mostly because wanting to avoid singleness is a terrible reason to get married. She deserves a man who loves her, and it’s very unlikely that such love will ever spring from the seeds of fear.
But doesn’t evangelism often sound just like this? We act as if getting people to want to avoid hell is the same as getting them to love God. But doesn’t God deserve better? If so, then perhaps our sharing of the Gospel should look more like romance counseling and less like a scare tactic.
Well, naturally his purpose will (or at least should) influence his tactics. Many techniques which would help him score today would actually prevent a lifelong marriage and vice versa. The same is true of evangelism. If our goal is to have one-night conversions, we might do things one way. But if our goal, based on the Bible (Matthew 28:19), is to have lifelong disciples, these same methods might actually be harmful.
So the real question is: Are we aiming for the immediate gratification of humans or are we aiming for the eternal glorification of God? Let me reiterate. Objectives determine methods.
Now imagine that I accept Jesus for the forgiveness of my sins? Good, right? But what if, on the Day of Judgment, God says I never loved Him, and I say, “Why did I waste my time acting like a Christian all those years?” Not so good. See, salvation is primarily about honoring God, not getting something from Him.
And the true evil of advertising Jesus as the best fire insurance policy isn’t that selfish people will mistakenly think they’ve manipulated God into saving them. It’s that we’ve dishonored God by making His Glory secondary to man’s happiness.
So we become very attached to that idea, and then we hear about sin. We find out that we are awful, wretched people, and we naturally think, “OK. I’m an adult. I’ll take care of this. I’ll apologize. I’ll give to charity. I’ll do good, and everything will be fine.” But of course the problem is that what seems like help from our perspective is just making the mess worse to God. We need Him to do it for us.
Just as cleaning up your own spills is the starting point of adulthood, knowing that you can’t clean up your own sins is the starting point for Christianity.