Thou shalt not grow green needles, but thou shalt grow leaves which change color and fall off in winter.
Thou shalt not grow thine branches in the shape of a triangle, but thou shalt grow them in the shape of a circle.
Thine fruit shalt not be brown, hard, and bitter, but shalt be red, soft, and sweet.
All who do not obey shalt be hewn down and thrown into the fire.”
Assuming you want to avoid the fire, there’s a problem. Pine trees simply can’t obey these rules. And only by a miraculous intervention which grafts an apple tree into their wood so that it grows inside them and replaces everything about their current nature, can they ever become the apple trees which cannot fail to obey them.
This, in short, is the message of the Bible. And I don’t know which is more tragic: pine trees struggling to obey the rules…or apple trees encouraging them to just try harder.
See, the citizen thinks the criminal is scandalous for not cherishing family and our fellow man enough. The criminal, in turn, thinks the Joker is scandalous for not cherishing money and power enough, in fact cherishing nothing at all. But the real scandal is the failure of anyone to Cherish God enough, since only He has absolute worth. In other words, it really doesn’t matter what you love if you don’t first love God completely. At least The Joker comes closest to grasping this truth when he proclaims, “everything burns.”
Thus, Alfred is only half-right when he tells Batman that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” The deeper problem is that until God becomes our primary love, we are all such men, a fact made all the more tragic because we refuse to realize it.
See, the worried people are essentially saying they know what’s going to happen and they don’t have faith in their own ability to handle things or improve them. At bottom, they are self-reliant, but the fear that they won’t be adequate self-saviors distresses them.
Yet the calm people are essentially saying they know what’s going to happen and have they do have faith in their own ability to handle things or improve them. At bottom, they, too, are self-reliant, and the confidence that they will be adequate self-saviors comforts them.
But the humble man accepts that only God knows what will happen and that only God has the power to handle it. Thus, his peace grows from putting faith in God rather than in himself as he simply trusts that the only truly capable Savior will save him through whatever happens.
“You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it.”
Are you sure?
Though I’ve even said this myself, I’m recently wondering how true it is. What if our responses are no more within our control than the circumstances themselves?
Imagine a person born into wealth and fame with natural good looks and intelligence having the audacity to preach to people that they can have all the same by just working hard at it. We would guffaw at someone trying to present such good fortune as personal merit.
But what if our ability to respond well to adversity and offense is largely the result of a variety of things beyond our control, just like circumstances? Aren’t those of us who then promote this as a skill essentially bragging about beauty we didn’t really earn?
After all, telling a miserable person that his misery is his fault is quite cruel if your ability to choose happiness was basically an unearned gift from God.
Modern man: It’s very narrow-minded of you to say your religion is better than someone else’s.
Christian: Why is that?
Modern man: Because you’re insulting and disrespecting his capacity to know things for himself.
Christian: So, saying I’m right and someone’s wrong is disrespectful?
Modern man: Precisely. And it’s a form of oppression since you’re just trying to dominate him into being just like you.
Christian: Oh, dear. That is serious. But you telling me that I’m wrong for telling him he’s wrong is actually a service that prevents me from being disrespectful and oppressive?
Modern man: Now you’re starting to see the light.
Christian: So anybody who tells anyone else they’re wrong is wrong, unless they’re you…
Modern man: Um….
Christian: Because, unlike me, you aren’t trying to coerce me into believing what you believe and you aren’t disrespecting my capacity to figure things out for myself…
Modern man: Um….
Christian: In other words, it’s okay to have a narrow-minded view of religion, just so long as it’s your narrow-minded view which holds that no religion is better than any other.
Modern man: Um…, I’ll have to get back to you on that.
But Jesus, wanting to get at the man’s heart disorder, exposes his hypocrisy by noting that he will untie his own donkey and lead him to water on the Sabbath. The point is obvious: he cares more about the minor needs of his donkey than he does about the major needs of his fellow human beings.
But if we’re honest, most of us are no different than this man. We would eagerly help a wounded or stray dog that we saw suffering, but we turn a blind eye to the hundreds of wounded or stray people that suffer around us every day. And though we rightly cherish God’s forgiveness for such negligence, real gratitude for that Grace would impel us to start sharing more of ourselves with His other children.
See, most of us read that passage and perhaps we think of a single tree producing nine different kinds of fruit, sometimes being patient, sometimes being joyful. But Paul is using a nature metaphor, and this just isn’t how things work. A tree only yields one sort of fruit, and a given seed will always produce that fruit.
Honoring the grammar, then, we must say that when the Spirit grows, It produces a single fruit with all nine of these characteristics. And just as an apple without skin isn’t really an apple and an orange without segments isn’t really an orange, we must realize that a person with anything less than all nine flavors of the Spirit isn’t really a Christian, just a fruit impostor.
Thousands of bits of metal and rubber pushed together is not the same as an automobile.
Ink dripped on a canvas is not the same as a painting.
Hundreds of people milling about is not the same as an army.
A big pile of rocks is not the same as a castle.
And, no matter how many times we have internalized the notion, millions of prospering individuals is not the same as a healthy society.
All functionally complicated entities require both the ingenuity of a skilled designer and the compliant integration of the materials being used in the artwork.
Thus, once we realize that God is interested in creating something so ultimately integrated out of the pieces of this world, we are compelled to stop and ask how we could have ever thought that simply taking care of ourselves would be a serious contribution to His finished vision.
See, when your occupation isn’t your real calling, you’re essentially selling your life to a cause you can’t affirm. And when you do a worthless thing for money, it’s very natural to think that the universe still owes you a certain amount of satisfaction which you then try to get through purchasing good and services…not a very wise plan. Of course giving your treasure away seems absurd since you had to endure such misery to get it.
It’s so different when you believe in your work. Regardless of income, you receive satisfaction from the simple doing of the work. Thus, having already been partially rewarded, you don’t depend so heavily on the money to satisfy you, and you can more easily part with some of it to bless others.
Find a job you believe in more, and you may find it easier to believe in money less.
See, I know what the coach has in mind. He wants Spencer to learn sound fundamentals so that he’ll be good in three or four years. But knowing my son as I do, I want him to enjoy playing enough to stay playing that long. So when he finally had a granny-style shot that almost went in the other day, he was so excited…excited enough to keep playing.
Parenting, as a kind of leadership, isn’t always so much about having the right values as it is about knowing which values matter the most right now.
Consider investment account managers. They handle a lot of money, doing on behalf of the investors whatever they instruct, whether that purpose is profit, charity, community development or anything else.
Now if they manage really well, their accounts will grow and they will be personally rewarded to some degree. But there is one simple concept that all money managers understand: the money is not their own. And there is a word for people who forget this fact: embezzlers.
So the question becomes quite simple. Are you being a good money manager for God, getting everything done with His money that He wants done? Or are you embezzling from Him to fund your own desires?
At this time of year, some Christians wonder whether to promote Santa Claus, and my view is that we should not. Not because Santa is a sort of deity that kids petition with their requests and then try to appease with their good deeds. That’s a problem, but there’s something much more fundamental here.
Children are born without a clear template for God, so they must learn Who He Is. But given the early exposure and the lovability of Santa, I worry that children will long find their picture of God tainted by this being who is everything a man-made god would be: predictable, safe, jolly, plump, and cuddly. Like a bearded, gift-giving Buddha.
But the real God is terrifying, fierce, mysterious, and extremely unlike Santa in so many ways. We have a whole generation of people following prosperity preachers whose god looks much more like Santa than he looks like the God of the Bible. Could their popularity be the long-term consequence of emphasizing Santa at Christmas?
Then a couple of years ago, something awful happened. I went to open my old account and couldn’t. I tried contacting customer service, but all they could tell me was that they had closed the email division and there was no way to recover the data. I was livid…devastated…and disgusted. But what could I do?
I hadn’t thought about this tragedy in years until this morning I happened to notice the old link still in “my favorites,” and that’s when it hit me. My life wasn’t one little bit worse for having lost all of that information, but I would have fought tooth and nail to preserve the burden of it.
Sometimes the only way to receive the blessing of losing the things you don’t really need is to have them ripped out of your cold, dead-works fingers.
Having lived in Illinois for most of my adult life, I know Rod Blagojevich pretty well. He is an Eastern Orthodox Serb, an avid Cubs fan, and a former Golden Gloves boxer. He served three terms in the US House (succeeded by Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel), and he was the first Democratic Governor of Illinois in 30 years, elected largely on his pledge to end the corruption in state government. But as the current news reveals, on the inside he’s a foul-mouthed scoundrel blinded by power.
So why would God allow such a miscreant to rise to such a position of power? I suspect His motive is love. Perhaps God gave him the office knowing it’s temptations would destroy him…a destruction which might be the only possible way to give him the humility which might lead his soul to repentance and faith.
In the first view, people’s gardens naturally grow only good fruit. Weeds come from corrupting outside influences, which can be stopped by properly structuring society.
In the second view, people’s gardens naturally grow both fruit and weeds, and people need to be trained how to properly cultivate their own gardens.
In the third view, people’s gardens naturally grow only different varieties of weeds, and the seeds for fruit must come from somewhere else.
Each view has Christian advocates, but if the first or second view is correct, then people don’t need a Savior, just better social structures or life skills. Only if the third view is correct does Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross make sense, because it brought an entirely new kind of plant life into this world.
In contrast, if a man merely attends his job for 40 hours a week and spends much of that time doing unrelated personal tasks, the correct label would again be idolatry. In this case, the idol is hidden from view, but only someone who is deriving his identity through the worship of something other than God could degrade himself this way.
See, when we are devoted to God and have experienced His Grace, we learn that everything in life becomes an act of worshipping Him, including work, marriage, parenting, charity, sport, and even leisure. And we do them all in joyous zeal, but within the limits set by the need to faithfully worship Him in all the other areas as well.
Even though Ethan was never particularly affectionate in his first year or two, he is now extremely cuddly and always wants someone to hold him. And when I come home from work, he rushes me and tries to jump into my arms. But I was usually burdened with things I was carrying in from the car like my bag, travel mug, lunch sack, or the mail.
I could have seen this as an annoyance to me getting my items into the house and tried to get him to be less exuberant. But at what cost? Instead, I started deliberately leaving everything in the car on my first entry so that I would be free to fully receive his loving assault. Full-on toddler hugs are far more valuable than an extra trip to the garage.
Will being lonely keep you out of heaven? No. But being popular might, and shunning people almost certainly will.
Will being ugly keep you out of heaven? No. But being beautiful might, and withholding validation from others almost certainly will.
Will being powerless keep you out of heaven? No. But being powerful might, and working to maintain your power at the expense of others almost certainly will.
When Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, He isn’t primarily talking about money. Certainly money is included, but the broader implication is that the biggest barrier to entering heaven is having too many of the things this world values and not having enough of the things God values.
Flustered and baffled, you finally go to the teacher for some help. He asks if you understand why your answers were wrong, and you say, “Yes, I always see the mistake after you grade it, but I seem unable to get the right answers beforehand. Can you please help me?” He looks at you patiently and shares one little insight that suddenly makes everything in the class make sense.
On the next test, you score a 98, but then you realize something. Everyone else in the class is still scoring in the single digits. Here’s the question: Would you share his insight with everyone else as freely as he shared it with you, and would you give him the credit for your success?
A few minutes later Ethan came wandering into the kitchen, cozied up to my legs and told me, “Ethan want be like Jesus.” It was such a touching moment until he added, “Spencer not like Jesus.” Well, Spencer had been overhearing this and began insisting, “Spencer’s more like Jesus,” which made Ethan say, “No. Ethan more like Jesus.”
Although a large part of me was thrilled that they were competing to imitate the Savior, I was distraught that they were turning this goal into a competition, meaning that they were not doing it for the glory of Jesus at all, but for the glory of themselves. And how so thoroughly without glory such forgeries always are.
The first is the Eastern religious error of thinking the world is bad and we should detach ourselves from it. This leads to asceticism, thus denying the basic human need for objects of devotion.
The second is the Western secular error of thinking that the world is good and we should unashamedly indulge ourselves in it. This leads to hedonism, thus devoting people to the wrong things.
So does the good life require denying the body or satisfying the body? Well, Christianity teaches us the good life flows from loving God above everything, which then frees us to enjoy these other things to the proper degree. Having them is nice, but lacking them doesn’t destroy us.
When we love God that much, we can be satisfied no matter what else we do not have because we always have in our possession the one thing we most want.