But I wasn’t impressed with us at all. In our view, anything less would have been reprehensible. We just thought we were doing the minimum for decent citizens. Hence, praise felt a bit awkward.
Now, rationally, I know we live in a society where people often don’t satisfy such minimums. But maybe our basic problem lies in having allowed them to think that such low-grade civic obligations are optional.
People will always live within whatever range of options seem acceptable. Thus, there is a vast motivational difference between believing that an action is a very good thing and believing that the failure to do such action is a really awful thing. We simply must not confuse basics with virtues.
For instance, my wife never sends me emails at work, partially because we just recently got the Internet at home and partially because, well, we talk for an hour each night on our walk. But just today she sent me a short note saying, “Thought it would cheer you up to know...Starting tomorrow the forecast is for a high of low 90's. Today is probably the last day of 100 degree weather.”
Obviously, the news of horrid heat ending made me happy. But being reminded that my beloved wife knows how much I hate Phoenix summers and cares enough about me to send this small, personal note brings me far more joy than the news contained in the note itself.
At this point, I always hem and haw a little bit. It’s not because I don’t want to tell my secret. It’s because there is no secret to tell. I just follow the Betty Crocker recipe, with the exception that I make about 50% more because I prefer a thick crust. Since I feel like I just followed instructions, taking the compliment is a little weird. I’m glad they liked it, but the credit has to ultimately go to the cookbook and not me since I feel like I’ve actually done so little to make it turn out right. Mostly, I just did what I was told.
Similarly, whenever people are impressed by my kids or my marriage or my finances or even my wisdom, I’m always a bit embarrassed. God wrote the cookbook. Taking credit for myself just feels like plagiarism.
Every night, we go for an hour-long family walk. Unfortunately, the first step in this process is ending our sons’ naps, which involves wailing and gnashing of teeth. Well, the other day, Spencer took his complaints to a new level, declaring adamantly, “I don’t want to go for a walk. I’m not going.”
So, I said, “That’s fine. But just so I’m clear on the new rule of this house, no one has to do anything we don’t want to do. Is that right?” “Yes. I like that rule.” So I told him, “Cool. I won’t be cooking you dinner since I don’t want to. And I won’t play games with you since it’s too much work.” This made him look sad.
Then my lovely assistant joined in, “And daddy won’t make models or rockets with you or take you to the park anymore.” It’s nice to have an accomplice. After a minute, I asked him, “So what’s it gonna be? Will we all do what we want to do, or will we all do what we are supposed to do?”
“Let’s do what we’re supposed to do, daddy. I’ll get ready for the walk.” He’s sharp for a five-year-old. Sometimes he just needs a little help to see the right answer.
When I bought my car, I knew I would need a new clutch within the next six months or so. Well, a year and a half later, I still haven’t replaced that clutch, and the car shifts just as well as it did when I bought it.
A year ago, my wife had her brakes inspected, and they told her they were at 30%, which meant they would need replacing in the near future, but not immediately. Six months ago, they told her the same number. And then, just this week, when she took her van in for an oil change, the number still hadn’t moved.
How could these things be? Well, my wife believes the description of the Jews wandering the desert for 40 years without the soles of their shoes wearing out. So, when she prays, one of her requests is for our stuff to not wear out.
Does such prayer always work? I don’t know. But I do know that the clutch on my previous car lasted about 150,000 miles. So it’s okay with me if my wife keeps on praying for God to preserve our stuff. We are in the desert, after all.
Despite working for a few people, tens of thousands of others tried this and failed. And an interview with them would yield a far less inspiring commentary: “I kept trying, working, believing, sacrificing, and dreaming every day. Yet, here I am, not a success. And keep in mind that I am the vast statistical norm.” No drug with such abysmal results would ever pass the FDA.
So what is the real secret to success, if not this? Truth be told, people win such shows because of genuine skill, temporary popularity, and a heaping pile of luck. And one time, I’d like to hear a winner admit he won because he was better than the other acts and he got really lucky. What’s true and what’s encouraging just aren’t always the same thing.
So, for years, I’ve been either shielding little eyes with my hands or else telling them to look away until I can change the channel. Naturally, they disliked this, but their resistance was futile. But during a baseball game last night, something quite wonderful happened. An for Pandorum came on, and Spencer immediately looked away from the set, asking me, “Daddy, do you see how I’m not even looking?”
Not only was he quickly able to identify a problem ad, but he turned away from it and was eager for my approval for this act. So I praised him, which was easy since I was flush with the excitement of finally seeing years of parenting pay off so vividly.
Last week, I returned a DVD, which I told the clerk I had enjoyed. She said she hadn’t seen it, which didn’t surprise me. It was a slightly obscure Spanish film with English subtitles. Hearing this, she said, “I don’t normally like foreign films. I have to really be in the mood to read subtitles.”
My instinctive response was to feel a little bit of contempt for her, yet another superficial American who can’t be bothered to digest the artistic wonder of foreign film. But since contempt didn’t seem very Christian, I decided to say, “Yeah, they are extra work, aren’t they?” Being nice felt good.
But then I realized something. I actually agree with her! Although I occasionally watch a foreign film, I too dislike having to read the dialogue. Moreover, hadn’t she actually said that she does sometimes watch them? So there I was, secretly judging her for things we actually had very much in common!
I wonder whether I would have seen this accurately if I hadn’t forced myself to say something nice to her against my sinful impulses.
Now, I don’t everything about the law, but I’m pretty certain that legal obligations can’t actually be avoided simply by saying, “Not it.” If they could, just imagine the profit potential in a line of products bearing the message, “By the power of this magical sign, I am no longer responsible for anything.” Unfortunately, I can’t see a judge saying, “Yes, he did drop a piano on your dog, but he WAS wearing that sign.”
Mockery aside, this tailgate sticker offends me because it tacitly admits that dump trucks, by their very presence on the road, raise the risks to me and my property while the owners want to avoid all responsibility for that elevated danger. This isn’t just childish, but truly contrary to the basic principles of civilization. As my friend once put it, “Hey, man, we’re trying to have a society here.”
Ignoring for the moment that Christianity without this fact is not Christianity at all, there is some very good news for such a doubter: the original apostles were every bit as skeptical about the resurrection as he is.
First, the women told them about the empty tomb and weren’t believed. Then, two disciples who spent the day with Jesus on the road to Emmaus weren’t believed by them either. Finally, when Jesus appeared directly to the apostles Himself, they thought they were hallucinating. (Mark 16:9-14, Luke 24:1-39, John 20:19-29) If even the disciples needed convincing against such strenuous denials, then doubting the resurrection must clearly be quite normal.
But there’s also some bad news as well, because Jesus severely rebuked those same doubters for their reluctance to accept what they should have eagerly believed. From all of this we learn that skepticism about Christ’s resurrection is both absolutely normal and yet also absolutely unacceptable.
Today, while I was helping my grandmother eat lunch at her nursing home, I had a chance to look around at all the other residents. And, as always, watching them at their various stages of disability made me sad.
Partly, it forces me to think about my own future in old age, but more so it bothers me to see all these formerly strong, capable, and smart people now unable to do almost anything for themselves. Comparing them with fully functioning human life makes me pity them in their diminished condition. But today I suddenly realized something. God must feel just such sadness whenever He looks at us.
See, He knows what fully functioning human life really looks like because He designed us to live that way. He also has a dismally accurate view of what actual human life is. And whereas my definition of healthy life is merely the average of what I see around me all the time, His definition of healthy humanity is the example of His Son: an ideal compared to which even the most capable of us look embarrassingly incompetent.
Then it occurred to me that one of my friends might have borrowed it without saying so. Since this explanation was both more likely and also more comforting to imagine than the alternative, I chose to believe it and emailed to ask. Sure enough. The reply confirmed they had needed it for a client. Problem solved.
But here’s the funny thing. Even though there was a perfectly good explanation and there is no more evidence today than there was yesterday that we have a security problem around here, I’m still feeling less secure simply because I lived with that possibility for a few hours. Truly, the human imagination is a powerful and irrational faculty.
But what if you took a second look and realized it was one of your good friends, whose car you just hadn’t recognized. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed and maybe even offer an apology later?
Have you ever been trying to merge onto the highway but discover that there’s no room for you? So you speed up and nose your way in front of the inconsiderate jerk who wasn’t paying attention? What? He honked at me? How dare he! That guy really needs to know Jesus!
But what if you took another look and realized that he was actually one of your friends, whose car you just hadn’t recognized. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed and maybe even offer an apology later?
Because we feel anonymous in the car, we often both behave worse ourselves and judge others more harshly than we ever would in person. Even if that other person isn’t actually my friend, pretending he might be will probably make me behave slightly more like a Christian should.
In response, John Piper has written a book challenging Barna’s core assumption: that anyone who says he is born again is in fact born again. Because accepting this would mean rejecting the Biblical doctrine that being born again always results in a radically changed life, Piper instead concludes that vast numbers of American Christians must not really be born again.
The elegance of this response must not be understated. Whereas Barna presumes that human incompetence can ruin the plans of God, Piper shows that human arrogance about our role in salvation is the source of the seeming paradox that so many people can declare their own salvation even while anyone else looking at them would surely doubt it.
To avoid waiting in line every time, she asked if there was another option, and the clerk recommended using the automated kiosk. Unfortunately, the kiosk doesn’t dispense media mail postage, which meant she had to wait in line again on the next visit. So this time she asked if she could buy postage online, and was told she could. But again she discovered that the website only offered first class and priority mail, so it was back to the line again.
When she told me this saga, all I could think was: this is what happens when the government runs something. Sometimes people are great, but other times people are incompetent to a degree you don’t expect in an ordinary retail store.
And it’s experiences like this that influence my thinking when someone tells me that the best approach to any of our problems is to let the federal government solve them for us.
For instance, there is this one small family I’ve been helping support for a few years now. It’s a mother and her three young children who live in a really barren part of the world where life is basically miserable all the time. But because of my support, she’s able to feed her children and even give them clothing and shelter. As is common with such programs, I have some pictures of the kids, and whenever I pray for them, I just can’t tell you how much it fills my heart to know that my generosity is blessing them and making their lives better.
But I think the best part of this particular program is that it allows me to see firsthand the impact I’m making when I tuck them in for bed each night and kiss their mother, who happens to be my wife.
When the celebrities lose, they generally seem fairly happy in spite of the fact. In contrast, when pros get eliminated, they often seem truly devastated. But why the big difference? You might think it’s because the $10,000 entrance fee means so little to boxers and TV stars who make millions a year, but the poker pros play with sums of money like that all the time.
Far more than money is at stake here. See, when a TV star loses at poker, he still has his acting accomplishments to validate him. But when a poker pro loses, he’s failed at what makes him who he is. His identity has been challenged, and for a time he really doesn’t know his place in the universe.
In a nutshell, this is why Christians can be happy in any circumstance. Since our identity is based only on Christ, we know who we are in spite of any endeavor we might fail at. Truly, we are always TV stars just playing in the world’s poker tournament.
My friend said that he’s trying to help her realize that she can do all sorts of things and to not believe what she’s been told about her abilities, at which point I wanted to caution him a bit. See, if she comes to view herself as valuable based on her skills and abilities, we’ve only given her a different assessment without changing the basic problem. This way of acquiring high self-esteem would actually be an opportunity lost rather than a success.
Instead, I encouraged him to focus on teaching her that she has infinite value precisely because she is made in the image of God and was thought worth saving by Jesus Christ. If skills fix your esteem issues, then skills will earn your adoration. But if God fixes them, He will earn your worship.
Just this morning, I walked into the office and saw our new sales coordinator, whom I had met once just two days before. I wanted to greet her and chat a bit, but I couldn’t remember her name. So my instinctive impulse was to go check the updated staff list on my desk or ask a coworker. But why was I so reluctant to merely approach her and say, “Hi, please tell me your name again?”
Obviously, because I wanted that additional mote of esteem that comes from seeming like the sort of person who remembers your name. In other words, I wanted to deceive this new acquaintance into the impression that I’m better than I am, a practice so common that recruiting accomplices is easy. Instead, I voted for honesty and simply asked her.
One tiny little tendril removed, probably only a thousand or so to go.
Annoyed, I went through every point of maintenance I could think of. I checked the oil, cleaned the air filter, added gas even though it wasn’t empty, spun the blade manually to make sure it wasn’t stuck, and even sanded the spark plug prongs. After all this, I first dry pulled and then primed and pulled to no avail.
Exasperated, it occurred to me to pray. This seemed silly, but I was reminded of Peter filling his boat with fish after Jesus told him to try once more. So, touching the handle, I started to bless the mower. God told me to touch the engine itself, so I complied and blessed it to function properly in Jesus’s name. “Prime again?” I asked. “Yes,” He answered. I pumped twice. “One more,” He said. Okay.
Expecting disappointment, I pulled on the chord one time, and the mower exploded into life and ran like a champion.
Americans seem angry to me. Angry to a degree I find troubling. Angry as a constant tension just waiting for a fresh outrage to unleash upon. So what can be done about this?
Well, the Christian perspective on anger has three elements. First, we aren’t really supposed to direct anger at the world around us. We offer salvation, not contempt. And anger usually means we’ve forgotten that sinners tend to behave sinfully. Second, we are allowed to be angry at our own shortcomings, especially insofar as that drives us to God in prayer that we may become better representatives of Him. Third, we’re commanded to trust that God in His infinite wisdom and power is truly in control, regardless of what we see happening around us.
So our task, then, is to diminish our unproductive anger at the outside world, enhance our productive anger at the inside world, and reinforce our calling to have faith in the God who holds the whole world in His hands. Will you join me?