Thought of the Day 01.05.09

I recently put a candy dish on my desk, which I filled with two types of non-standard candy corn: caramel chocolate (tan and brown) and caramel apple (tan and red). At first, people were cautious in taking them because quality was an unknown. They quickly discovered both kinds were good, just not equally good.

My coworkers clearly prefer the chocolate to the apple. So, although I fill each side equally, the chocolate disappears more quickly until it’s all gone. If I then refill that side, the same preference shows up. But if I don’t, people will simply eat the apple since it’s all that’s available. Any economist understands this perfectly well.

Given new products of the same price (free), people will sample them to decide quality, then consume the alternative they like best, and eventually settle for consuming what is merely available if they must. The implications for elections, relationships, jobs, and even church membership (in addition to mere economic questions) are fairly obvious.

Thought of the Day 12.23.09

Most people think of gluttony as the sin of eating too much. But why is that a sin? Because the person who puts too much of his reason for being into eating is declaring that God and God’s promises aren’t real enough to satisfy him. Sadly, the same theological defect underlies a much more common form of gluttony: the picky eater.

Doubting the ecstasy of eternity with God, this person is driven to fill this life with as much carnal pleasure as possible. He puts his faith in finding the perfect meal prepared the perfect way. Failing to recognize this as gluttony, his sin goes unnoticed. But what happens when these same patterns show up in a far more important area than food?

When I watch people searching for a spouse, it vividly reminds me of someone on a quest for the perfect culinary delight, a desire all the more pressing because he will have to eat only that one dish for the rest of his life. And trust me when I say that the consequences of such romantic gluttony are far more devastating than those of any mere culinary obsession.

Thought of the Day 12.22.09

I don’t know if any of you have ever heard of this concept, but I’m currently working on a list of tasks my wife gave me. It’s my favorite thing in the whole wide world.

Well, as you would expect, the things on this list are supremely irritating, mostly because I’ve neglected to do them across the span of so many previous lists that they are now gargantuan, both in reality and psychologically. But some of the items are irritating for another reason. Even though they seem small, they also seem to always have just one last little bit of them which never gets done. Like after I’ve mailed and handed out all the Christmas letters, I’ll discover one for which I have neither an address nor a likely personal encounter. No check mark yet. Drat!

But here’s the thing, even as annoying as these items are, I still feel a tremendous sense of relief when I can actually check one off. In fact, I suppose it’s precisely because they become so annoying that this feels so good. Do you think this might be why God allows some of the holiness goals in my life to remain unchecked for awhile?

Thought of the Day 12.21.09

The other day, I was walking to my car when I saw a piece of metal on the ground in the parking lot. I immediately picked it up and threw it over onto the rocks so that no car tire would be punctured by it. I did this so routinely that I barely thought of it as a virtuous act. But this instance exemplifies the process of moral evolution we all go through.

Stage 1: Moral ignorance. You don’t even think of the benefit of clearing the road this way.
Stage 2: Moral awareness. You see the benefit, but you don’t bother doing it.
Stage 3: Moral inconsistency. You sometimes do and other times do not pick up such hazards.
Stage 4: Moral virtue. You regularly do the good thing and feel sort of proud of this.
Stage 5: Moral constancy. Doing the thing becomes so automatic that you don’t even consider it a virtue anymore.

One additional interesting thing to note is that this progression, rather obviously, can also run in the opposite direction describing the cultivation of evil.

Thought of the Day 12.18.09

There’s something about being physically in the presence of another person which is fundamentally different from any other sort of interaction. Now in the old days, you basically had two options: meeting in person or writing letters. And even though writing letters is better than no communication at all, no one ever made the mistake of thinking that correspondence and being physically together were the same thing.

Nowadays, however, we have all sorts of gradations on the spectrum between those two extremes, from telephones to email to videoconferencing to texting. But all these technologies suffer from the same basic defect. Unlike what Ma Bell used to say, you simply can’t “reach out and touch someone” over a land line.

Why is this a problem? Because the existence of technology that facilitates the illusion of proximity has caused many people to lose actual proximity. As with so many other things, bad forgeries aren’t the real danger. It’s the well-crafted impostor which makes you forget the importance of having the real thing.

Thought of the Day 12.17.09

If you’ve listened to my show at all, you’ll know I’m not President Obama’s biggest fan. I’ve vehemently criticized his policies many times. And yet, just this week I spent an hour praising his Nobel prize acceptance speech both for its explicit content and for the courage he displayed in rebuking the Oslo audience with it. So how is it possible that I can so fiercely criticize him on one thing and then so effusively praise him on something else? Because I’m a Christian.

See, most people who engage in political discourse commit idolatry. They become so enthusiastic about their political ideas that they literally derive their identity from them. This forces them to slice the world up into friends and enemies. And once a person has been labeled an enemy, the political idolater must hate everything about him. Likewise, if a friend, no criticism can be voiced because that would jeopardize the satisfaction derived from being on “our side” of the battle lines.

Though I care about my political ideas, they don’t define me. Since Jesus validates me, I don’t have to accumulate self-worth by first finding enemies and then vanquishing them. I can afford to simply criticize mistakes and celebrate successes.

Thought of the Day 12.16.09

I despise the mobility of modern society because it robs me of my favorite thing in this world: my friends. What happens is I meet and grow close to someone because of a structural coincidence like sharing a job or a cul-de-sac or a common project. But inevitably one of us changes jobs or homes or endeavors and I lose them.

Oh, sure, we try to maintain contact, but the truth is that my acquaintances at work are more a part of my life than my best friends simply because we see each other every day. Just last year, I met one of my dear friends when he rented the house next to mine. But then he bought a house 15 minutes away, and now I rarely see him.

Can I Facebook him? Email him? Call him on the phone? Of course. Is it the same? Only a fool would claim it is. But there is a consolation prize. See, I know that when eternity comes, I will not only continuously be meeting the most interesting friends I’ve ever known, but nothing as silly as a new job or suburban community design will ever separate us thereafter.

Thought of the Day 12.15.09

Ethan (our 3-year-old) has developed the habit of demanding what he wants in a fairly shrill tone of voice. “Gib me one dos cookies!” So, we’ve recently been focusing on tone, form of address, and using the word please. Now, whenever he forgets, I’ll say, “That’s not the way you ask for something.” He’s pretty quick to rephrase, “Please, daddy, can I have a cookie?”

Unfortunately, he’s now beginning to make a fairly understandable mistake in his thinking. He thinks this new language game is about satisfying me rather than about him needing to learn basic social skills for his own benefit. This leads him to imagine his new magic wand will get him things he otherwise wouldn’t. “Please, daddy, can I play with your nail gun?” “No, son, but good job asking properly.”

Naturally, I still base my decisions on his welfare. The word may be “magic,” but it doesn’t magically make daddy stupid. As the man in charge of his future, I must still often refuse him, even though I’m glad he’s finally praying to me in just the right way.

Thought of the Day 12.14.09

I talk a lot about the ethics of driving, a fact which might strike some of you as a sort of peculiar moral obsession. Perhaps. But allow me to notice that there are basically three types of reactions to my driving comments.

The first person agrees with my assessments and is glad I’m promoting virtue in a daily activity like driving. The second person doesn’t necessarily enjoy hearing his own flaws exposed, but recognizes that it’s good for him. The third person is annoyed with me for intruding into his life by making these grandiose moral pronouncements about his driving, something he’s been doing all his life and knows at least as much about as any snot-nosed punk on the radio. talk radio host.

If you happen to otherwise be a moral conservative but still react in this latter way, today is a good day for you. The reason it’s good is because your irritation at me for constantly nitpicking your driving habits should give you a small sense of what it’s like for sexually immoral people to hear us constantly talk about their misbehaviors.

Thought of the Day 12.11.09

This morning, I finally figured out why it’s so irritating when other drivers change speeds on me. It’s because they’ve lied to me. See, driving is essentially a long series of short-term interactions with other drivers which requires us to predict their behavior in the near future and make our own moves accordingly.

Thus, when someone goes 60 on the highway, he is sending a message which says, “I will continue driving 60 unless I have to brake suddenly.” But when I pass him at the speed limit and he accelerates to 65, he is breaking the promise his prior driving had made. Being lied to in this way is extremely frustrating, especially since I’ve accommodated myself to the false information he was pedaling (sorry).

Loving our neighbor in driving means keeping them safe at the very least and helping them enjoy it at the very best. Achieving the predictability required by both goals entails a moral duty to send other drivers as much true information about our intentions as possible. This, by the way, should also explain why it is so patently immoral not to use turn signals properly.

Thought of the Day 12.10.09

Yesterday, I had a really neat opportunity to be a “celebrity” judge for a grade school spelling bee. Recalling my own somewhat mixed emotional memories from childhood spelling bees, I was eager to see how the process looked through adult eyes. I was not disappointed.

The most notable thing was the way the kids responded to the spellers. They were all soundly applauded when introduced. Then, every time someone got a word right, the place erupted with nearly deafening claps and hoorays. And whenever someone got a word wrong, the whole audience sighed in sadness, as if to say, “We’re sorry, too, and we’re with you.” This was of course immediately followed by reaffirming applause for having tried their best, despite failure. And then, predictably, there was a final round of applause for all the competitors at the end.

I obviously can’t know whether it would have been any different in another venue, but I do know one thing for sure: this environment of support and encouragement was extremely satisfying to find in a Christian grade school.

Thought of the Day 12.08.09

Last night, we spent an hour talking about the ethics of contraception, an issue which is notable mostly for not being an issue at all for the vast majority of Americans, both Christian and secular. As usually happens in these discussions, someone called to ask about getting married and waiting to have kids so as to pay off debts, in her case to facilitate going to the mission field.

I responded with a simple question: “If contraception were either unavailable or illegal (as it historically has been), would your marriage plans be any different?” She answered that they wouldn’t, and to her credit, I believe she immediately understood the reasoning behind both my question and her answer.

The truth is that technology has created and the law has permitted many things which Christians must pretend are not so. Though divorce is available, I must ignore the fact. Though abortion and pornography and even adultery are allowed, I must act as if they are not. And since contraception is such a grave moral evil (for reasons I obviously haven’t explained here), our simple duty in this society is to pretend it does not exist.

Thought of the Day 12.07.09

Northbound 51 exiting at Highland (on my way to work) is a horrible stretch. The merge area and the off-ramp are both regularly dangerous given the volume of traffic. But even if you make it safely to the light, another problem awaits you: the dreaded two-lane right-hand turn. I normally try to be in the right-most lane to avoid someone taking an obliviously wide turn into me, but today I was in the other one.

Naturally, the truck beside me did just what I had feared. But, since I was anticipating this problem, I avoided the accident and honked at him to let him know what he had done. Then something miraculous occurred. We both came to a stop at the next light beside each other, and I yelled over to him that there are two turn lanes there.

He replied, “Yeah, I’m so sorry, as soon as you honked I realized what I had done.” I immediately reassured him, “I’ve done it myself before, and I just wanted to be sure you knew for the future.” “Thanks,” he said. Reconciliation after a social breach just makes the universe seem a little bit prettier.

Thought of the Day 12.04.09

If I tell you that average American income, adjusted for inflation, hasn’t increased since around 1990, what’s your reaction? If you’re like most people, this makes you feel bad about how stagnant your life has been and makes you feel as though things aren’t getting any better, a narrative loved by our media.

But what if I rephrase and say that household income has remained constant for two decades? That’s logically the same thing, but psychology follows language, not logic. Whereas failing to increase sounds bad, remaining constant sounds like stability, a good thing.

Even so, there’s another, deeper deception here. Instead of asking whether the average worker today is better off than the average worker back then, why not ask whether the average worker today is better off than he was back then? How does the income of a typical 50-year-old today compare with a typical 30-year-old of 20 years ago? At least this comparison would acknowledge the fact that almost everyone lives better as his own life progresses.

I know this perspective doesn’t help reinforce the media’s cherished pessimism narrative, but it does help us remember how much better most of our lives become as we age, gain skills, and acquire wealth.

Thought of the Day 12.03.09

Imagine for a moment a fairly common problem in marriages: a spouse who doesn’t understand what the other spouse wants. For instance, let’s say a wife believes that her husband cares deeply about having the house nice and clean (perhaps because her own father did) when in truth he doesn’t care about that at all. Two consequences might follow from this error.

First alternative, she continually cleans the house and feels proud of herself. But, since he doesn’t care, her sense of wifely devotion is falsely inflated, which is why his lack of appreciation frustrates her. Also, in the effort to give him what he doesn’t want, she neglects doing other things that would, in fact, genuinely please him.

Second alternative, she rarely cleans the house and feels inadequate as a wife. Even though he’s quite satisfied with her, her unfounded guilt prevents her from knowing this. And if he ever does remark on the house, even just as a practical matter, she takes it very personally and feels defensive, leading to additional problems.

If you understand this catch-22, here’s the question: how sure are you that the things you’re proud of and also the things you’re ashamed of are actually things that your Lord God cares about?

Thought of the Day 12.02.09

Every parent knows the pain of seeing no change in behavior after repeated correction. Whenever I feel this way, it helps me to remember that there are at least four patterns of correction.

The first occurs when we correct something once or a few times and the children behave properly. This might be called the “miraculous” pattern.

Second is when we correct something ten thousand times, but it never really improves. Nevertheless, we continue correcting it anyhow because it’s right to do so, even in the absence of results. “Do not grow weary in well-doing.”

The only difference in the third pattern is that after enough tries, we simply give up because we realize it’s not bad or at least not so bad to keep fighting over.

But the fourth pattern is the one that gives me hope. This is when we have to realize that it will take several hundred or even several thousand corrections before change occurs. The hope comes from knowing that, whatever that magic number is, correction number 648 is one repetition closer to that tipping point than correction 647 was.