Thought of the Day 09.01.09

I used to know a guy who ran a very successful web design company, and the one thing I always remember him telling people over and over was a simple formula which has stuck with me for years. He’d tell them, “I can make you a website that’s excellent, I can make you a website fast, or I can make you a website inexpensively. Pick two.”

His fairly obvious meaning was that you couldn’t have all three, but any two could be arranged. Good and now at a high price. Good and later at a low price. Or bad now at a low price. And his implication was that if someone else told you he could deliver all three, he was lying.

This, in a nutshell, is my biggest concern with President Obama’s proposed health plan. He tells me it will give far more people far better health care at a far lower price, especially if we do it really fast right now. Since I know this to be a fantasy, I’m left to wonder which part of his offer won’t come true, and my concern is that the more “right now” the thing gets done, the more likely it is that’ll be the only part that will turn out to be true.

Thought of the Day 08.31.09

Have you ever wondered what percentage of your beliefs might be mistaken? I mean, we all think that every particular belief we hold is correct, but we also know that we must be wrong about a lot of them and just don’t yet know it. Despite being a talk show host and editorialist, I have to honestly say that I suspect something like 50% of my beliefs are wrong. However, there are about 20% of them I know for sure I’m not wrong about.

I bring this up because I think that something like 90-95% of most people’s beliefs are ones they aren’t justified in saying they “know” with any degree of confidence but rather take for granted. So, what makes beliefs not be in this category?

Well, obviously you can put more confidence in ones you have changed during your lifetime because you’ve lived on both sides. Also, beliefs that deal with controversial subjects are slightly more reliable if only because they get social discussion. Thirdly, it’s possible to intentionally explore your belief in any area. All of these strategies help us make fewer blunders in our beliefs.

Thought of the Day 08.28.09

Our culture is terribly confused about the nature of love, the basic error being that love and pleasure are the same thing. Thus, we love people who bring us what we want and we love people by giving them what they want, both of which generate pleasure. Since no one is pleasured by criticism, giving it is viewed as unloving and receiving it is viewed as an impediment to love.

So when the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, our culture mistakenly believes this means we must never criticize them. Unfortunately, the Biblical concept of love is rooted in devotion rather than in pleasure. And if I am devoted to the wellbeing of my neighbor, then I might very well confront him if he is behaving in a self-destructive way.

Loving our neighbors, then, looks a lot like loving our children. We make tremendous sacrifices for their benefit, but we also correct them and even withhold things from them if that is what they need from us. To do otherwise, either to our children or to our neighbors, would look much more like hatred than like love.

Thought of the Day 08.27.09

Critics sometimes say that the only reason Americans are Christians is because they grew up in a Christian culture. Had they grown up somewhere else, they would have believed something else.

Ignoring the irony of hearing this objection from someone who also grew up in America but rejected Christianity, let’s consider the real issue here. The underlying idea is that people tend to adopt a faith that matches their socio-cultural background. Thus Middle Easterners become Muslims, Indians become Hindus, and Americans become Christians.

However, although Christianity has long dominated Europe and North America, it is currently growing exponentially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In contrast, the local religions of those areas have never successfully penetrated other parts of the world.

Thus, even though those cultures strongly condition people to be something other than Christians, they still convert to Christianity by the millions. Viewed globally, then, the “religion is culturally conditioned” argument actually backfires into becoming one of the most powerful endorsements of the trans-cultural truth of Christianity. It also shows why the label “world religion” technically only applies to one faith group.

Thought of the Day 08.26.09

My middle son, Ethan, is so fascinating to me. Depending on the moment, he might either knock me down to get me to hold him or else throw a fit if I even try to touch him. He’s three.

So the other day in our van, I reached back to tickle his knee, as every good parent periodically does. But rather than rewarding me with a giggle or a pleased grin, he just looked away and sort of harrumphed at me. Nevertheless, I reminded myself that such tickling is always driven by more than just the selfish desire to have my affection reciprocated.

Although I enjoy simply expressing my love for him through touch, the most important reason to tickle or caress or hug or hold Ethan is because I want to continuously send him the message that I am glad he is my son and I love him deeply.

And even if that message doesn’t seem to be received on any one particular occasion, I think I’ll just do what God does for us: continue sending it every chance I get. Regardless of whether he wants it, it’s my job to know he needs this from his daddy.

Thought of the Day 08.25.09

“Everyone else is doing it, so it must be okay.”

Ignoring for now the troubling idea that rightness flows from popularity, let’s pause a moment to consider this phrase itself, which “everyone” seems to use when talking about things like speeding, resume exaggeration, athletes on steroids, premarital sex, cheating on taxes, and even outdated singles photos.

Sadly, the expression is false. Not everyone else is doing any of these things.

The truth in each case is that, “Many people are doing it.” But if you say it this way, what previously sounded like a tidal wave of public consensus now seems almost trivial, a fact made worse because saying, “Many are…,” immediately invites awareness that, “Many are not….” And if many are not, then the question isn’t whether you’ll swim against the entire tide of your fellow man, but which sort of fellow man you will swim with.

So the next time someone tells you, “Everybody’s doing it,” simply remind him that what he really means is, “Many people are doing it.” At least then you can have an honest conversation rather than one based on an exaggeration.

Thought of the Day 08.24.09

Is it a sin to be angry at God?

As I was listening to an old show where we discussed this question, I figured something out. The reason we are angry at God is because we want so badly to love Him. So when He misbehaves (by doing or allowing things we dislike), He is impeding me loving Him as I want to. So I get angry at Him because His violation of my expectations thwarts my desire to love Him. “Why won’t He just make it easy for me to love Him?” And here we get our answer.

God refuses to be codependent. He demands not merely that we love Him, but that we love Him for Who He really is rather than merely loving what we want Him to be. So whenever I am angry at God, it’s always for two connected reasons. First, because He refuses to give me what I want. Second, because He refuses to be what I want.

God knows that we need to love Him in truth. And because He loves us enough to get us to that place, He refuses to let us see Him as something He isn’t.

Thought of the Day 08.21.09

I took my boys camping last weekend, and they totally loved it. Playing with fire. Killing ants. Hiking in the woods. Burning marshmallows. You know, camping.

At one point, I had some rope laying around, and Spencer asked me if he could play with it. As I watched him try a variety of things with the rope, I observed him unintentionally tying it in knots and then getting frustrated that they were so difficult to undo. My impulse was to interfere and caution him against doing that. But I immediately realized that making knots you struggle to undo is a vital part of the process of learning about rope.

More importantly, I knew that there was no knot he could put into the rope that I couldn’t later remedy myself. And I figured when he came to me for my help, he would be impressed by my skill and also grateful for it, both of which turned out to be correct.

Now, I don’t pretend to know all the reasons God allows us so much freedom to tangle up our lives, but I do know there’s no knot we can tie that He isn’t capable of unkinking if we ask Him.

Thought of the Day 08.20.09

My wife wants me to be faithful to her, which means she desires my total loyalty.

Obviously, I’m supposed to forsake all other women, and not cheat on her with any of them. But loyalty also means actively supporting her, taking her side, working together with her, and treating her with respect and dignity. In other words, being faithful to my wife means much more than just not sleeping in the wrong bed. But it also means much more than just declaring my faithfulness to her, words which would be of no comfort to her if I don’t also do the things that show them to be true.

Similarly, our faithfulness toward God is much more than simply verbal pronouncements of our commitment to a relationship with Him. Although statements of faith are important, the real issue is whether our daily practice is faithful in the much more substantial sense which both God and our spouses desire from us. Simply put, a person who claims faith without then living faithfully is confused at best and lying at worst.

Thought of the Day 08.19.09

When we lived in a third-floor apartment with our two boys, it was miserable. If we let the boys be themselves, they would run and jump and irritate our downstairs neighbor. But if we tried to stop them, we were constantly scolding them for simply being young boys. There was just no good solution to a situation with such incompatible goals. So we rented a house and all became well.

Culturally, I fear we’ve put our older children in a similarly impossible situation. On the one hand, we tell them that it is responsible to wait until they are older to get married. And on the other hand, we tell them to be abstinent until they are married. Although it is logically possible to do both of these, in practice it’s extraordinarily difficult. But the solution is fairly simple.

If we encourage our children to date toward marriage and then to marry early, they can live a life that happily expresses their biology rather than a life which must constantly stifle it. In short, the main reason it takes such massive effort to wait until marriage these days is because waiting that long is unnatural.

Thought of the Day 08.18.09

When my wife and I were getting gas the other day, we both noticed a mother and son eating hotdogs on the trunk of their fairly old car. As we watched in stunned disbelief, they first threw their ketchup packets on the ground and then also the hard plastic container the hot dogs had come in, despite being only two feet from the trash can. We were both horrified, but we agreed that simply confronting a mother in front of her child might be counterproductive.

Instead, I drove to where they were, got out, walked over to pick up their trash right in front of them, and placed it in the garbage can myself without saying a word. Surprisingly, the boy said, “Thank you,” to me, and I replied, “You’re welcome.” Obviously, my strategy was to make them think about their behavior without inviting an argument. But after I was back in the car, I realized my own error.

Instead of avoiding eye contact, I should have smiled and been kind as I cleaned up their trash. That would have been truly loving correction rather than prideful resentment. Apparently, we all have areas where we can improve.

Thought of the Day 08.17.09

Technology has funny effects on our interpersonal behavior. Not usually good effects. Consider the Internet. Having read an abundance of blog posts on lots of different sites over the years, I think I’m only announcing the obvious when I say that people tend to be rude on the web.

Certainly part of this can be chalked up to people not realizing that they must write much more carefully than they speak because without voice modulation and body language to narrow the possible range of meanings, others will often take your words as representing the worst possible meaning. But I don’t think this is the main source of the harsh tendencies of blogging.

The simple truth of the matter is that face-to-face interactions strongly deter rudeness. Oh sure, people do say intemperate things to our faces, but even the rudest people are less so in person, and most people refrain from being rude at all. Obviously they might be hiding their true feelings, but that’s the point.

Whether we fear looking bad or whether we’re simply reluctant to actually witness the pain caused by our comments, looking someone in the eye at least makes us behave as if we are better people. The Internet, on the other hand, allows us to expose our worst selves if we let it. This is why it’s a good idea both to reread anything we write there before posting it and also to ask whether we would really say it directly to someone’s face. To do otherwise is both unloving and cowardly, effects the technology is all too effective at producing.

Thought of the Day 08.14.09

Yesterday, my boys and I were all leaving a room when I noticed that my three-year-old had closed the door slightly ahead of the baby. Crawling into the backside of the door, Sage actually closed it on himself and, sitting directly behind it, became trapped on the other side by his own weight. To rescue him, I had to gently slide him back with the door until I could reach around far enough to move him back with my hands.

Then I scolded Ethan for being mean to the baby, explaining, “Sage doesn’t know how to open the door to get out, so you have to leave the doors open for him.” Even as I was saying it in my stern voice, I realized I was making a mistake. Obviously, this is a pretty complicated physical situation, and although Ethan is smart enough to not trap himself in this way, he isn’t smart enough to figure out that Sage isn’t yet that smart.

That’s when it dawned on me that I hadn’t been smart enough to realize that Ethan wasn’t smart enough to take account of the way Sage wasn’t smart enough to escape. What did I learn? Think first; scold second.

Thought of the Day 08.13.09

A sermon on the parable of the lost sheep from Luke 15 recently got me thinking about the nature of sheep. Well, sheep are extremely stupid. Sheep are obstinate. Sheep are slow of foot. Sheep are vulnerable to predators. And sheep are so self-destructive they will sometimes kill themselves out of clumsiness after putting their lives in jeopardy seeking food in a precarious location.

In short, left to their own devices, sheep are not viable. This is why they so desperately need a shepherd. And although this is a fascinating analogy for our human nature, it got me thinking in a different direction.

Sheep seem remarkably ill-suited to any natural environment without men. Yet if evolution is how all animals got here, why does it seem so unlikely that such a slow, stupid, and tasty creature could have ever been “fit” enough in a man-free environment to develop and survive for over two million years before we domesticated them?

One alternative hypothesis is that they were meant as livestock in a garden in the Middle East from the beginning.

Thought of the Day 08.12.09

A friend of mine was recently forced to accept a job change that he really didn’t want after everyone else above him refused. The reason nobody wanted this job was because it requires an exorbitant amount of work, and even though it pays by the hour and overtime, nobody with a life and a family wants to work a 60-hour week. Nevertheless, here he is, doing the job and it turns out to have been everything he had feared and then some.

The reason the job is so awful is because the person leaving it never refused any of the additional impositions his bosses made on him over the years. He just kept accepting things, no matter how unreasonable they were. And now, because he did that for so long, my friend is put in the very awkward position of either looking bad for telling the truth or continuing to suffer.

This is the part about enabling abusive behavior that people rarely consider. It’s never just the wallflower alone who suffers. Anyone else who comes into contact with the bully or the situation thereafter suffers, too.

Thought of the Day 08.11.09

“We’re going to wait a few years to have children so we can enjoy some time together just by ourselves.”

Of all the reasons people give for delaying (and ultimately limiting) the size of their families, this one recently strikes me as the most misguided. Not because I know it’s false, but precisely because it is such a small part of the truth.

I just took my boys bowling last weekend, and I can say it was mostly horrific, probably worsening my relationship with them and even with my wife because of how stressful and frustrating it was. Certainly, bowling was far more fun when it was just the two of us. So, yes, it’s far easier to enjoy life without children. No argument.

But when given the choice between merely enjoying the wonder of Each Other’s company for eternity or making us, Our God chose to create a race of children who would yield an abundance of bowling alley experiences. They thought it worth the sacrifice of Their own pure and blissful intimacy to share Themselves with us.

Thought of the Day 08.10.09

At breakfast this morning, a friend and I were discussing politics. He’s a black man and a staunchly conservative Christian. When I asked him whether he’s had to endure very much criticism from other blacks, he just started laughing. They’ve called him every name under the sun, but this has actually been a blessing in disguise for him.

Because 90% of American blacks vote Democrat, he’s been forced to really think through his beliefs, which has made him extremely knowledgeable and skilled at discussing politics. In contrast, most liberal blacks he’s met have never really had to think about their views at all, which has left them far less equipped in this area.

And this is why he agreed with my assessment that there are no moderate conservative blacks in America. Quite simply, the persecution cost for being conservative is too high to pay for something you’re only moderately sure of, and the ongoing pressure to recant forces you to continually remind yourself why you’re paying it. This, in a nutshell, is why oppression can be such an undesirable blessing.

Thought of the Day 08.07.09

My boys usually take a two hour nap every evening, waking up to go for our nightly walk. Unfortunately for them, they don’t always go right to sleep when they should, so they’re still very tired when it’s time to get up. Sometimes, even after several efforts to rouse them, they just stay asleep.

Our tactic for handling this is to simply turn the fan back on, turn off the lights, and close their bedroom door, as if to let them sleep through the night. They respond by howling and screaming and immediately emerge to crabbily demand going for a walk.

What’s funny about their reaction is that all we’ve done is give them the fullest version of what they were already choosing. But for whatever reason, that end result was viewed by them as an unbearable punishment, and it elicited the behavior we desired all along.

Unless I am mistaken, this is the proper understanding of the doctrine of hell. And if repentance for any of our seemingly minor sins eludes us, it could be that we’ve simply never been shown their true and ultimate trajectory played out on an eternal time scale.

Thought of the Day 08.06.09

A friend’s recent email about the moral failures of American business got me thinking about the essential elements of leadership, one of which is restraint.

Sometimes this means declining to take as much advantage of a flawed system and foolish people as you can. Sometimes it means foregoing profits because there are more significant things to being human than the size of your pile of money. But sometimes leadership requires more than just restraint.

If the very system which feeds your children and clothes your neighbors is being jeopardized by everyone else doing the same insane things, it’s not enough to simply keep your own hands clean. Leadership in those moments means actively correcting others and fixing the system which is being abused.

This will likely cost you much more than just lower profits. But leadership at its core is knowing when to take risks for the sake of what matters, especially at great personal cost. That is what distinguishes true leadership from mere success.

Thought of the Day 08.05.09

Have you ever heard someone say that Jesus was a great moral teacher whose purpose was to give us a set of wonderful moral instructions and then to serve as an outstanding example of them for us to imitate?

I think the people who say this genuinely believe they are being helpful. For my part, however, if I actually believed this, all I could do is weep. If my task is to try to measure up to Jesus, either in word or deed, then I am in deep trouble. Far from comforting me, Jesus as moralist condemns me every hour of my life. His doctrine made moral perfection seem so hopelessly unattainable that I might as well quit. Then, making things worse, He took away my excuses by living flawlessly Himself.

That’s why I always think that people who describe Him as our example know neither how surpassingly excellent He was nor how abysmally awful we are. What I need from Jesus is precisely what He offers: to give me what He deserves and to take from me what I deserve.

Change in Comments Protocol

Just an FYI. I have disabled anonymnous comments on my blogs. They are still open to anyone to post, but you have to identify yourself with a Google account or some other form of online ID. I didn't think I would need to do this, but I strongly prefer to know with whom I am speaking. I'm sorry for the inconvenience this may cause any of you.

Thought of the Day 08.04.09

It’s very interesting to notice what it takes to impress most people, and the thing it usually requires is to measure up on some scale they have adopted; a scale which winds up favoring them and their attributes.

For instance, a beauty queen will tend to find you valuable if you are beautiful. A professor will tend to find you valuable if you are smart. And a virtuous man will tend to find you valuable if you are good.

But compare this with the approach of our Savior. He is more beautiful than any beauty queen, smarter than any professor, and more virtuous than we dare imagine. Thus, if we were to try to measure up according to His example, we would be abject failures.

And yet He begins our relationship by telling us that we have supreme value for an entirely different reason: because He says so and confirmed the appraisal by what He sacrificed in order to get us. The most difficult and most exhilarating aspect in Christianity is simply this: to have value for no other reason than that He says we have it.