Why not take it?

For a couple of days now, there has been a Peter Piper Pizza game token sitting on the counter next to the sink in the community men’s room here at work. It’s not something you can easily miss. Nevertheless, no one has taken it. In my mind, there are four reasons why not:

1. People generally don’t want to pick up anything in the bathroom, even when it’s right next to the sink and, thus,easy to clean.

2. Nobody yet has thought they were likely to go to Peter Piper in the near future, either because they don’t have kids or because they’d just as likely misplace it as wind up using it.

3. Realizing it doesn’t belong to them means people don’t want to take it because it feels a bit like stealing from our informal little 5th floor community.

4. Taking something of such little value under these circumstances is an admission of low socio-economic status. Not taking it is worth more in pride points than taking it is worth in monetary value.

For my own part, I didn’t take it, either. I’m just an observer who writes about stuff. But I think it would be interesting to see what might happen to something of greater value.

The audacity of secure children.

The other day, I made French Toast for the boys for breakfast just the way they like it: butter, jelly, and a layer of powdered sugar to top it all off.

When I was back in the kitchen for a moment, Spencer exclaimed from the living room, “Ethan spilled his powdered sugar everywhere!” Rushing to the scene of the incompetence, I discovered the white plague on the table and on the carpet, evidence that Ethan had done something catastrophically clumsy, since I had been the one to put the plate safely on the table in the first place. After scolding him mildly for making a mess, I went to get the vacuum cleaner and a wet paper towel, irritated.

While I was doing this, I suddenly heard Ethan say, “Daddy, I need more powdered sugar for my French Toast.” The audacity of this request even while I was still occupied in cleaning up his mess stunned me. But then I realized what it really meant. That’s how generous he believes his daddy is. And sure enough, after I was done cleaning it up, I got him some more. French Toast needs powdered sugar, you know.

What does legalism look like?

A few weeks ago, Buffalo Bills receiver Steve Johnson dropped a game-winning touchdown pass and went on Twitter to say, “I praise you 24/7!!!!!! And this how you do me!!!!! You expect me to learn from this?? How???!!! Ill never forget this!! Ever!!!” (sic)

I think any of us can understand the frustration someone might feel at such a moment of personal failure. But this outburst has the hidden gift of honesty. In such an unguarded moment, Johnson showed that he doesn’t really know the Gospel. Oh, he may be able to repeat the basic facts of it, but it hasn’t really penetrated to his being yet.

This Tweet shows that he considers his good behavior as “extra credit” to bribe God into giving him the things he wants in his life. In contrast, the Gospel teaches that God gives us things on the basis of His Character, not our behavior. Any obedience is just a meager response to His majestic gift, and whatever He allows in our lives is a pittance compared to the true joy and wealth of merely knowing we are accepted by Him.

Christmas and weirdos.

Christmas has a funny way of bringing out people’s inner weirdo; you know, people with some conceptual axe to grind about Christmas. And much of the time, their favorite Bible verse is, “My people perish for lack of knowledge.”

Unfortunately, this verse doesn’t mean that anyone without every last little bit of insight you have is going to perish for the lack thereof. But sometimes these folks seem to think that the more obscure the idea is, the more necessary it is to being in right standing with God. So they nurture it and even start judging people by whether they accept it, creating a kind of crank Gnosticism, adding it to the Gospel, which is always the preface to full-blown cultish thinking.

But the true Gospel encourages us to fellowship even with people who reject what we believe, including that Gospel. So, the simplest test of any doctrine is whether holding it leads us to a sense of love, joy, and peace which others admit to us having, especially whenever we’re discussing our pet views.

Is ethics a blessing?

Some people view ethics as a set of restrictions or burdens. Others see it as a source of blessings. The latter group sometimes speak of the value of an orderly society, the cultivation of personal character, or even pleasing God. But one thing you don’t normally hear people mention is the benefit ethics gives us in making decisions.

For instance, if I’m in a store and I desire a DVD, stealing it would mean getting it for the lowest possible price. But ethics tells me I can’t do that. When I’m out somewhere and a beautiful woman asks me to get a drink with her, I might be very interested. But ethics tells me I have a wife already. And if I’m trying to decide whether to take my car to the mechanic today or tomorrow since I’m running late already, ethics reminds me that I told them I was bringing it today.

The funny thing about not living by ethics is that life is much more complicated, being so full of open or uncertain scenarios. One blessing of ethics, then, is that so many situations are already solved properly for us.

Are antinomians safe?

The clear message of Matthew 7 (and Luke 6) is that only the man who lives according to Jesus’s words will stand on the day of judgment. Some people, however, have been told that once you say a prayer or walk down to an altar or even get baptized, everything thereafter is optional and you needn’t change your ways. This is glaringly unbiblical.

Think of it like this. If the Holy Spirit of God were actually living inside of you, would He be comfortable with your sins? Of course not. He’d be horrified at them! So if you aren’t horrified by your sins and earnestly desiring to change them, how can you say the Holy Spirit lives in you?

Simply put, anyone who is indifferent to sin in his own life has most certainly not been renewed by the Holy Spirit. And yet, paradoxically, only a person who has been so renewed can safely look the fullness of his sin in the face and withstand its horror because he knows his status with God is not determined by that disfigurement, but instead by the sinless perfection of Christ.

How God Views Sin

The justice of God is something most people really struggle to understand, but I think I’ve found an analogy that may help.

In baseball, we all know that a batter can fail nearly seven times out of ten and still go to the hall of fame. Even pitchers or managers can lose almost half the time and still, if they do that for long enough, go to the hall of fame. Baseball, you might say, is a sport with an extremely low threshold for greatness for everyone on the field. Everyone, that is, except for one: the umpire.

We expect umpires to be perfect. And if they make zero mistakes, they aren’t praised for it. That’s expected. But if, as often happens, they make a big one, that single error can come to define an entire umpiring career. This was the case when Jim Joyce missed the call at first to rob Armando Galarraga of baseball’s 21st perfect game last summer. Despite being widely known as a great umpire, this will likely be his legacy in baseball.

As near as I can tell, that’s how intolerant God is of sin in us.

Freedom and public spaces.

One of the most challenging dilemmas for a free society is what to do with public space.

On the one hand, we want to let people have as much freedom as possible in their lives, including in public. But on the other hand, we don’t want to suffer from public areas overrun with distasteful behavior.

For instance, it’s actually quite difficult to say precisely what’s so bad about loud music, smoking, profanity, litter, and even nudity in public areas. They’re not things that do enough harm to others to categorically outlaw, which is why we allow people do them within their own homes or (possibly) in a private association.

But as a parent, I want to raise my children in an environment relatively free from these things, and we all have a stake in a publicly beautiful society. Yet this requires the cooperation of others. And if people won’t voluntarily restrain themselves in public, then laws come in; laws which preserve the public space from the polluting effects of too much poorly-used freedom in the hands of uncivilized people.

From just dating the Bible to marrying it.

Everyone who has watched a movie more than once has had the experience of seeing things you didn’t notice the first time around. Even on a third and fourth viewing, the same thing happens, and the better the movie, the more pronounced the effect.

But if you’ve ever had the opportunity to go beyond just a few viewings of some movie and see it 15 or 20 or more times, this novelty gap completely closes, but your knowledge doesn’t stop growing. Even though you aren’t really seeing new things, you start seeing the connections and elements in a whole new and richer way, an experience made possible only because you already know them all so well. As with any great art, the longer you look at it, the more beautiful it becomes.

Studying the Bible is like this, and at some point you start to really view it in a whole new way because you’re finally seeing it as a whole rather than as a very long string of pieces. When that happens, it’s like putting down a nice picture of the mountains and beholding their breathtaking majesty right in front of you.

What conclusion would you draw?

About two weeks ago, my wife was rear-ended on the highway by a drunk driver speeding. Amazingly, she was mostly unharmed. My car, however, was totaled. The entire rear end was crumpled, so badly collapsed that we couldn’t get in the trunk, not even from the rear seats inside the car.

I wasn’t sure what had been in the trunk when she was hit, so I went to the body shop to see if there was any way to get inside. Well, in the process of doing the estimate, they had to crack the rear end wide open, so it was easy to see the seriousness of the damage.

Among the things in there were many broken and bent and destroyed items, which is pretty much what I expected. What I had forgotten, however, was that I had put an old, leather-bound, oversize Bible in the trunk months ago. And in the middle of all this debris, that Bible survived without a scratch.

Now, I’m not generally one to interpret things this way, but it seemed almost like that Bible had protected the rest of the car and, far more importantly, my wife, from much worse harm. The Word of God protects us in many, and even unusual, ways.

Foolish or Divine?

Have you ever gone out of your way to give an excellent Christmas gift to someone who didn’t appreciate it?

How did you react?

A perfectly normal way to handle this is to be irritated at the person for being such a jerk. But if that was your reaction, what did you do the next year? Did you give to that person again just as lavishly, a little less so, or not at all?

Well, here’s the ugly little secret. Gratitude is a form of payment. And if you refuse to give to the ungrateful, it’s because you care more about the payment than you do about the person. Think about it the other way around. When someone is lavishly grateful, it makes you want to give them more, right? But why? Because they are really paying off well. Is that generous, or is that just seeking a better return on your investment?

See, God is fascinating. He gives gifts to those who appreciate it and also to those who do not. And He keeps on giving gifts to both year after year. Although He enjoys the relationship crafted with the grateful, I think He enjoys the demonstration of His own goodness in that He keeps on giving unrequited love. In fact, He may even enjoy it more. The question is whether we will join Him in this awesome absurdity.

Special or specially protected?

The story of the first Passover in Exodus is truly an amazing one. As the final plague God sent against the Egyptians, the angel of death would go from house to house killing the firstborn wherever there wasn’t the blood of a lamb over the doorpost, the special protection given to the Jewish homes. But have you ever wondered why they needed it?

I mean the Jews had true religion. They were descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so their pedigree was right. They were God’s chosen people, the people of promise. They lived by the morality of their fathers. They were the weak, oppressed, and impoverished people suffering under an unjust government. And God had already levied nine plagues on their behalf against their enemies in His efforts to free them.

But none of this was enough.

If any of them had not put that lamb’s blood over their door, their oldest child would have died just as surely as any Egyptian’s did. Despite everything else in their favor, they still needed that lamb to avoid death.

When I grow up....

Imagine a son making the following statement about his father: “I love my dad. I admire my dad. He’s a great man, and I’m tremendously grateful to have had him in my life. However, I don’t want to be like him when I grow up.”

Say what?

We all know that kids want to be like their parents, and even before they choose this consciously, they do so automatically, imitating us in all sorts of ways. True, some sons eventually realize their fathers are deeply flawed and strive to not emulate them. But the normal scenario with a good dad is to want to be like him, both unconsciously and also intentionally.

So why is it that we all say we love God our Father, we admire Him, He’s great, and we’re tremendously glad to have Him in our lives, but then turn around and live as if we don’t believe a word of it?

The Holy Spirit has a simple message for us. “You’re Our children. You’re completely accepted by Us through Christ. Now it’s time to grow up and start acting like you’re a member of this Family.”

Who's the better parent?

“Daddy, give me more milk!”

Let me begin by saying that this is not the ideal way for my children to ask me to give them something they need. However, it’s not a particularly uncommon way. And it’s symptomatic of a general demeanor of ingratitude and being demanding. So the question arises, what should I do when they ask me for something this way?

Should I scold them? Should I physically punish them? Should I require them to ask properly? Or should I just get the milk for them?

In answering this question, I first and foremost think of how God deals with me. When I ask Him for something rudely, does He punish me? Does He scold me? Does He withhold His blessings until I ask in just the right way?

No. Of course not. God deals with me by giving me what I need (even most of what I ask for), and then gradually making me love Him so much that I want to ask more humbly. He’s very patient with me.

So, on any given day, I will either remind them how to ask properly and then give it to them or else simply do it, despite their rudeness and ingratitude. It pleases me to bless my children, even when they haven’t behaved properly. And I never want them to learn that a father’s love is part of some bargain they perform into.

Whose language are you speaking?

One of the most natural mistakes in persuasion is to offer the other person statements which you are personally fond of rather than those which will actually persuade him. Sometimes, of course, the two categories overlap, but so many times they really do not. This can be something as simple as presenting logic and evidence when what’s really needed is a good story.

In fact, this particular distinction (between reason and storytelling) is one that all too many modern conservative Christians have neglected. In trying to give people a solid theological foundation, we have tried to argue them into (first) the kingdom and (subsequently) holy living. So why doesn’t it work?

The reality is that humans respond to stories and are motivated by beauty much more powerfully than by logic. We can either whine about this fact or embrace it. For my own part, I recommend we follow the example of the Bible, a book which is itself primarily composed of stories rather than theological exposition.

Why Lego barely advertises.

The other day, Spencer asked me why we see so many ads on TV for cars and almost none for truly cool things, like Legos. This occasioned what was probably an overlong explanation of advertising for a six-year-old. I told him there are basically four reasons a company advertises.

First, to expose people to an unknown product.

Second, to preserve market share against viable competitors.

Third, to improve the public perception of the company or product, usually by correcting false (or true) beliefs about their flaws.

Fourth, to promote specific offers and discounts.

As I explained all this to him, he easily understood why Lego doesn’t really need to advertise. Everyone knows their product. There are no real competitors for what they make. People have a universally positive view of them. And they never go on sale, mostly because of the first three facts.

But all of this did make me wonder which sort of advertising purposes make sense for 21st Century American Christianity, especially since we are obviously not as securely positioned in this market as Legos.

Postscript: Fifth, to remind people in proximity to a purchasing opportunity about the product they like. This, I think, explains most of what little advertising Lego does do.

On being a non-symphony.

Imagine a symphony performing a complicated piece of music, with every instrument playing precisely the right notes at exactly the right time.

Now imagine that same symphony performing, except that a quarter of the members have refused to accept the leadership of the conductor. They’re playing the right music, but not in time with the others.

Now imagine that another quarter of the members haven’t even agreed to play that same selection, so they’re actually trying to play a competing piece of music while half the orchestra plays properly and another quarter plays to the wrong tempo.

Finally, imagine that a third quarter of the members decide that instead of playing their own instruments they’ll sit and loudly complain about everyone else’s performance; a cellist yelling at the bassoons, and a percussionist scolding the flutes. Listening to the pre-performance tune-up would be more enjoyable. Calling it chaos would be an insult to chaos; an embarrassment to the reputation of the orchestra and humiliation for the conductor.

Surely, I don’t need to explain this metaphor.

What is truth?

Imagine you were hired to be the public relations person for a major charity. Then imagine that you made the following comments:

“My charity is the biggest and best in the world. Anyone else doing this sort of work is nowhere near as good as we are. People who don’t give to our charity are losers. And you should be ashamed of yourself if you don’t get on board!”

How long would you retain that job? Not long, obviously. But why? Is anything you said factually false?

Presuming that it is the biggest and most effective charity, it’s all true in a sense, right? But that’s the point. There’s more to truth than just getting the facts right. And in this case, the tone and style of the presentation actually say false things about the character of the charity.

One of the terrible legacies of Greek philosophy is the idea that truth is entirely a matter of getting the facts right. But as Christians, we know that truth means accurately representing God, both in content and in character. That’s why unloving speech, even if it quotes the Bible, falsifies the very content it reproduces.

Do you have standing?

For my work, I stay as informed as I can about what’s going on in the world. It’s a daunting task. But recently this challenge got me thinking about the legal concept of standing.

It’s sort of complicated, but the doctrine of standing basically means that anyone who wants to sue has to show the court that they’ve been harmed personally. You can’t just sue someone because he’s done something wrong. Only the state can do that, and it’s called a crime then. For you to sue, they have to have wronged you. Otherwise the court will dismiss your suit without even considering the merits.

In thinking about this doctrine, I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of things that trouble us are offenses not against us, and therefore with respect to which we have no standing. Of course, this is due to the nature of our massive worry-and-infuriation industry, what some people call news media.

So here’s my suggestion: If you want to be happier, the next time someone tries to sell you outrage, first check to see whether you have standing on the issue. If not, dismiss the case. Like a court, you may then find you actually have resources to solve what does affect you.

Postscript: Someone might reply that we’re supposed to have concerns beyond our own personal harm. I wholeheartedly agree. But another aspect of standing is redressability, the capacity for the harm to be solved by the person being sued. So, the second tier filter here would be whether you have any ability to influence the situation or whether you’re just being asked to get worked up over it for the sake of being worked up over it.

Spoiled rich kids.

We are all well aware of the danger that the children of wealthy parents will become selfish brats. The best way to combat this is carefully rationing what the child receives financially.

But in talking with the mother of a four-year-old today, I saw this same problem in a new context. She mentioned how selfish and stubborn her daughter is, despite money being tight. Over the course of our conversation, I discovered that this girl has both parents, two grandparents, and several other relatives in close proximity, all of whom dote on her, the only small child in the family.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Whereas some children are spoiled by too much stuff, this little girl is being spoiled by too much attention. With that many adults treating her like the center of the universe, it’s no wonder she believes the message.

Her mother and I both agreed that the best gift she could give her daughter was the natural deprivation that would come from having at least one more sibling to defray the focus. Like Augustus Gloop, this little girl was becoming relationally obese from a social diet far to rich in continuous adult attention.

What fences teach us.

We live in a typical Phoenix house with a typical six-foot-high cinder block fence that serves largely as an outer perimeter to our fortified family compound. On the massive, steel-framed gate, we have a padlock so that bad guys can’t easily come in and overactive boys can’t escape.

In St. Louis, our back yard was on two sides a four-foot wooden slat fence and on the third side chain-link, almost barbarically permeable to air, bugs, and eyes. On the gate, we never installed a lock. It never seemed necessary. Kids freely left and neighbors entered, and a lock would have just be a nuisance.

Is there a difference between the people of the Midwest and those of the Southwest? I’m reluctant to draw sweeping implications, but isn’t it na├»ve to ignore the influence such architectural differences can have on how we feel about our neighbors; whether they should be trusted…or feared? And doesn’t believing such tutelage eventually form us (and our children) into a particular sort of people?

Postscript: In The Mending Wall, Robert Frost did indeed say, “Good fences make good neighbours.” But this was carefully placed in the mouth of a neighbor who clearly did not grasp the point of Frost’s poem.

The other cost of your freedom.

“If you don’t want your kids playing violent video games, finding porn on the Internet, or hearing profanity on television, then just do a better job of controlling what they watch.”

For decades now, our society’s refrain on moral-cultural questions that might affect children has been that parents are the true guardians of the home. That part I agree with. The part that’s dead wrong is the idea that they are the only guardians, usually paired with a nonsense premise that it’s just as possible to parent effectively in a decadent society as in a vibrant one.

As a parent, I’ve learned how stupid this really is. I’m a vigilant parent, and I find myself often feeling like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke trying to protect my homeland. And if I feel often overmatched by the threats from this toxic society, how many of those threats rush in unopposed in to the lives of children with average or below-average parents?

There’s something profoundly dishonest about a culture which lets itself rot in the name of personal freedom, tells parents to hole up inside their homes if they don’t like the smell, and then blames those parents for not effectively protecting their kids from the zombies clawing at every door and window.

The right of children to a civilization that isn’t trying to defile them is no less real a human right than their freedom to go outside and breathe fresh air. And just imagine how foolish someone would look for saying, “Well, if you don’t want your kids breathing air pollution, then just don’t let them play outside.”

What's the point?

Probably the single greatest misconception people have about Christianity is that it is primarily a moral system. Even a great many Christians believe that the purpose of Christianity is to live a better, more exemplary life. As a result of this misconception, the main thing that so many people seek from a sermon and, tragically, the main thing that so many preachers seek to give in a sermon is moral guidance.

The truth is that Christianity is about adoration. God wants us to be in love with Him, and the purpose of a sermon, therefore, is to reveal the glory of God in such a way that we find ourselves enraptured by Christ, our Lord. The purpose of everything we do, especially church, is to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Any other agenda severely misses the point, by definition replacing it with something far less important.

That’s why a sermon properly conceived is the crescendo of a worship service, not some secondary instructional appendix to it.

Is video better?

When approaching the Bible, it’s vital to realize what cultural assumptions we do not share with the audience it was written to. For instance, raised on newspapers and , we Westerners think that the most important truth is the simple reproduction of whatever happened. Thus, when we read the Bible, we’re first and foremost interested in knowing the facts of the case.

The reality is that they were much more concerned with the significances than with the facts. There was simply no felt need to put a premium on accuracy if instead small changes would better serve to bring out meaning. Like painters each portraying their subject differently, Bible authors are interested in revelation, not mere replication.

That’s why when two or more of them, all inspired by the Holy Spirit, quote Jesus differently, they’re doing it to bring out more truth not less. Unfortunately, we always want to ask, “But what did He really say?” when we should instead be asking, “But what did He really mean?” a question presumably better answered by their artwork than by a mere reproduction.

On being judged fairly.

How would you like it if other people judged your entire life by your very worst moral moment? Pretty depressing, right? We’d know we’re not as bad as that, and it’d be galling to think people only knew our bad stuff. Well, one source of solace would be that some people (usually our family and friends) would at least know the good stuff, too.

What about the opposite “problem?” What if your entire life were judged by your very best moment of moral victory? Pretty exciting, right? Although, it must be admitted that our friends and family also know the bad stuff, too. But have you ever thought about why people don’t qualify for heaven?

See, we tend to think that the reason we don’t get into heaven is because God knows our worst deeds. The truth is that Christianity really begins with the realization that, even if our very best, bright shining star moment was the only evidence at our Divine Judgment, we’d still be found completely deserving of hell. And yet, precisely in that condition, God loves us not the least bit less because of it.

Not necessarily the perversion you think.

The city of Sodom in the Bible is infamous for being judged and destroyed by God with fire and brimstone. But the interesting part is why, exactly, He did this.

See, most people think that the big sin of Sodom was sexual immorality, and that aspect is certainly true (Genesis 19:1-9, Jude 1:6-7, 2 Peter 2:6-7). But there is a little-known passage in Ezekiel 16 which brings an entirely new perspective on things.

In verse 49, the Lord declares “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.” Keeping this in mind, if you go back and read the story of Sodom’s destruction in Genesis, you notice a curious expression, where God says He has come in response to the “outcry” of Sodom, which can only mean the lamentations of the poor and needy there.

So why did God destroy Sodom? Because of both its sexual wickedness and its social injustice. It’s a pretty sobering thing to ponder in a nation of economic prosperity and “sexual liberation.”

The evangelization of Han Solo

When we first meet Han Solo, he’s a greedy, egocentric smuggler. He only agrees to help Luke and Obi Wan for the money, not because he supports the rebellion. On the journey, he expresses open skepticism about everything relating to the Force. Then, after being captured on the Death Star, when they discover Princess Leia is on board, Han isn’t interested in doing anything about it until Luke explains, “She’s rich….If you rescue her, the reward will be more well than you can imagine.”

After rescuing her and escaping the Death Star, there is a poignant scene in which Solo tells Leia, “Look, I ain't in this for your revolution, and I'm not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I'm in it for the money!” for which he earns the contemptuous reply, “You needn't worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that's what you'll receive!”

Then, in the buildup to the final battle, as Han is packing up his massive reward, Luke tries once more to recruit him to the rebellion, to which he quips, “What good’s a reward if you aren’t around to use it?” Feeling guilty about this (in the first signs of a new heart), he lamely tells his disappointed friend, “Hey Luke,…May the Force be with you.”

Solo then leaves, and the rebels are off to their impossible mission. But of course, at the climactic point of the movie when all seems lost, Solo and the Millennium Falcon whoosh down from out of nowhere to shoot the Tie Fighters, allowing Luke to destroy the Death Star and win a huge (though temporary) victory.

He didn’t come back for the rebellion, he came back for his friends. But his friendship with them eventually led him to become an active participant in the cause they had devoted themselves to. Money led to friendship. Friendship led to loyalty. Loyalty led to devotion. And devotion became conversion to a cause.

As a pattern for evangelism, this is a pretty instructive example.

Why are you surprised they're surprised?

When most people look at a sunset or the ocean or a tree or a child, they think of how amazing God is. The natural world proclaims His artistic ability so magnificently that it routinely moves people to weep in joy. This is why so many of them feel connected to God when they visit nature.

But when these same people look at an earthquake or a piranha or a cancer cell or maggots, they rarely think of how amazing God is. In fact, if they ponder these things, they often find themselves doubting either His goodness or even His very existence.

Clearly, one of the most confounding aspects of God is that some of His acts in this world look exquisitely beautiful while others look monstrously awful. But if that’s true, then it should really come as no surprise that, as we draw closer to Him, our ideas and behavior will sometimes look virtuous and sometimes look vile to a world that couldn’t comprehend God long before it couldn’t comprehend His followers.

Fathers, don't exasperate your sons.

Last week I had a chance to go to the Suns game with my uncle, and part of my decision was whether to offer to take my oldest son, Spencer, as well. See, I knew he would love to go, but I also knew this would really upset my middle son, Ethan. In consultation with my wife, we decided it would be acceptable, but of course I still had to break the news to Ethan.

So I sat him down and explained that Spencer was going to the game, but he would be staying home with mommy.

“But I really want to go with you, Daddy.”

“I know. But the thing is, you’d be miserable there. Whenever we go to baseball games, you hate it because there’s nothing for you to do. And if you’re miserable, you’ll complain and make us miserable, too. I don’t want that for you or us, so you’re going to stay home. When you’re older, maybe we’ll take you.”

“But I promise to sit still and be happy.”

“Oh, sweetie, I know you want to believe that, but it’s just not true. And it would be unloving of me to put you in the position of trying to keep that promise when you aren’t really able to do so.”

Asking the wrong question, part 2

In Matthew 12, Jesus first mentions and then refuses to clarify just what the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. Yesterday we learned that this deliberate omission means we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what the sin is, we should consider what the Holy Spirit does.

The major work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation is to convince us of our sin and lead us to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible talks about some people receiving the Holy Spirit in this way and others rejecting Him. But if the Holy Spirit is God, then the only proper label for refusing to listen to Him is blasphemy, since our rejection so clearly implies He isn’t really God.

At this point in the book of Matthew, the Pharisees are encountering Jesus and His miracles firsthand. And since we know that the miracles were performed to testify to them about Jesus’s authenticity, this was the mechanism by which the Holy Spirit was reaching out to them. But they refused.

It’s not that they did some particular thing wrong, it’s that they did everything wrong by this one act of blasphemous resistance. They rejected the gentle, loving, divine hand of the Holy Spirit, and this is the one and only thing which we must all not do.

To the man who receives the Holy Spirit, any sin may be forgiven. But to the man who rejects Him (and His God-sent-ness), no sin can. That’s why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the one unforgivable sin that makes all others equally unforgivable, whereas hallowing the Holy Spirit leads to the expunging of any other violations.

Asking the wrong question, part 1

In Matthew 12, Jesus proclaims one of the most worrisome and perplexing doctrines in the entire Bible when He says, “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Anyone who has ever read this passage immediately asks two very obvious questions: What, exactly, is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and have I committed it?” After all, if there is an unforgivable sin, it’s understandably natural to want to be sure you haven’t done it.

In answering the question of what it is, people have offered a variety of creative suggestions. Perhaps it’s denying a miracle was done by God. Perhaps it’s declaring your hatred for the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps it’s denying the Trinity. These and other suggestions are very clever. But what if they are all predicated on a mistaken assumption?

The most glaring feature of this passage is its failure to specify the sin, an omission so obvious that it must be taken as deliberate. If we’re honest, most of us read this passage and get angry at Matthew for not his colossal flub in first telling us there is such a sin and then forgetting to tell us what it is. But if the entire Bible is inspired by God, then the omissions are as much a part of the message as the inclusions.

If the Bible tells us what it tells us for a reason, then we can safely assume it just as certainly refuses to tell us what it refuses to tell us for a reason as well. God surely knew we would eagerly ask what this sin is, but He chose not to say. And rather than assume His silence was an editorial oversight, we should instead interpret it as a clear message that we’re asking the wrong question.

Tomorrow, we’ll see which one we should be asking.

A false dilemma.

The other day, a friend of mine confessed that he feels less dogmatic about doctrine recently even as he also finds himself becoming more loving of other people who disagree with him. I told him he was needlessly worried, mostly because he was making a very common but false assumption.

See, most people believe that you can either be dogmatic about doctrine or else you can be kind and generous to people who disagree with you. In essence, they think you can either have firm beliefs or else treat people lovingly. And the reason for their view is simple: the vast majority of people with firm beliefs are mean to others who disagree and the vast majority of people who treat others lovingly don’t have firm beliefs.

But the good news is that if an increasing commitment to your doctrine makes you arrogant and mean, that’s just evidence that it’s bad doctrine. When your doctrine is good, the more adamant you become about it, the more humble, charitable, and flexible with others you become. You don’t have to weaken good doctrine to love others more. You have to strengthen it.

If your doctrine makes you obnoxious, it’s not doctrine from God.

Who loves him more?

A friend of mine recently wrote me an email explaining how difficult his son is being and how frustrating it is to see him turning out to be such an incorrigible brat. He has tried everything and doesn’t know how to get through to him and of course is worried that he’ll never get any better.

I consoled him, knowing how difficult parenting can be. Then I admitted I didn’t have a solution for him, but I did have a new perspective that I thought might help.

“As much as you love Brian, you need to remember that God loves him more than you do. And precisely because He is such a good God, we know he wouldn’t let you guys be solely responsible for the outcome of Brian’s development.

“It’s frustrating to you because it feels like if you don’t get through to him and see progress soon that he’ll never come around. But the God who loves him more than you do is far more in control of his life than you as his parents ever will be.

“Unbelievers worry about their kids in part because they’re parents but also because they don’t have a God in whom they can trust the way we can. God is our good Father, and He loves Brian infinitely more than you do. He rescued you and He can certainly reform him. And remember, His very favorite thing to do is to show people how amazing He is so that everyone comes to believe it more.”

The problem is significantly larger than you think.

Why does God allow good people to suffer?

This problem terribly perplexes pretty much everybody who believes in a loving, generous, powerful God. But in a way, that fact alone should worry us about our theology.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say a man walks into a doctor’s office one day to get a physical. After the exam and lab results are taken, the doctor says, “Okay, we’re going to give you these pills for your high blood pressure, we’re going to do some physical therapy for your knees, and I want you to cut down on caffeine for the headaches.”

But imagine the man replies, “Well, doc, that’s all fine and good. But what are you going to do about the fact that my right hand is three times normal size and bright purple?”

“Unfortunately, son, I can’t explain that and I’m not sure how to fix it. But trust me about the rest of what I’ve said.” Naturally, the man might be skeptical of medical advice that can’t even address his most glaring problem. What’s the point?

Not only does God let good people suffer, but God caused the very best Person in history to suffer more than anyone else ever has or ever will. And if our theology can’t explain that oversized purple hand of a historical fact, it’s surely not equipped to explain more routine forms of injustice.

What scrapes prove.

This weekend, we were outside with the boys while they rode around on their bikes. Over the course of about half an hour, Spencer, who never falls, managed to take two spills: one on the asphalt and one on some rocks. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but both legs got a number of mild scrapes. When I was cleaning them off, he offered a sophisticated medical opinion: “Scrapes are bad, daddy.”

After a moment of thought, I asked him why they were bad. Looking at me like I was a bit of an idiot, he said, “Because they hurt.”

“Of course,” I said. “But how would you make sure you don’t get any?”

“Well, if I didn’t ride my bike, then I wouldn’t fall down and scrape my knees again.”

“That’s true, “I replied. “But does it hurt enough that you want to give up riding your bike for the rest of your life?”

“No, not really.”

“See, Spencer, I know that scrapes are bad. And I’m sure that some little boys don’t have any at all. If this is because they got really lucky, that’s okay. But if it’s because their parents don’t let them do anything risky, that’s really bad. If we didn’t let you do anything risky, what would be left for you to do?”


“Right. So you might say that even thought scrapes are bad, they’re evidence that you’re actually living an adventure-filled life, which is good, right?”


“So in a weird way, scrapes are actually sort of a good thing, aren’t they?”

“I guess. But they still hurt.”

“I know.”

Rescuing everybody

The parable of the Prodigal Sons is one of the most famous in the Bible. Nevertheless, most people who notice the wonderful story of redemption for the younger brother miss the more powerful story of the elder brother who rejects the father precisely because of his flagrant grace.

This was meant, of course, to show the Pharisees just how wrong they were for refusing to welcome sinners back into God’s fellowship. In fact, the more we study this parable, the more evil and outrageous the elder brother attitude looks because it stridently rejects the most amazing part of God’s character: His mercy. Properly recognized, his sin is far greater than that of his younger brother. However, there is a very dangerous trap here.

The trap is that we who love grace become elder brothers ourselves by despising elder brothers who despise grace. In our contempt for their contempt, we can easily miss the fact that the same father who ran to greet his repentant son later left the celebration to go plead with his unrepentant one.

God wants to rescue the righteous from their righteousness every bit as much as He wants to rescue the sinful from their sin. And only when we are lovingly reclaiming both kinds of outsiders are we truly imitating Him.

Are you still rich?

If I take away your iPod but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your television, your Internet, and your cell phone but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your car, your house, and your savings but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your skills, your knowledge, and your job but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your friends, your children, and your spouse but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your health, your reputation, and your country but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

Until Christ becomes so precious to you that the difference between having all of these things or having none of them becomes as insignificant as five dollars to a billionaire, you still haven’t yet fully grasped the riches you have in Christ through the Gospel.

What's my bargaining position?

Sometimes when I visit my grandmother’s nursing home, she’ll be in a group of seniors listening to a pastor explain the Gospel. Since my grandmother is a lifelong Christian, I’m not worried about her.

But in thinking what it might be like for the others, I imagine they might struggle with comprehending the offer of a free pass after such a long, sinful life just because they’re suddenly afraid of getting what they deserve in hell. “Why would God want me so late in life when I have nothing left to offer him?” The funny thing about such normal questions is how frequently they betray basic misunderstandings of the Gospel.

See, the 80-year-old who asks God’s forgiveness with nothing to offer Him isn’t in any substantially different position than the 20-year-old who does so. Neither of them have anything to offer in their bargain with God. And the only thing that prevents any of us from coming to God is the persistent mistake of thinking that we do.

In a very real sense, we are all deathbed conversions. And until we are, we aren’t really conversions at all.

When the inspector comes.

When I worked in restaurants, health inspections always cracked me up. At 3:03 on a Tuesday afternoon, the health inspector would come in the front door. By 3:03 and 30 seconds, every employee in the restaurant was aware of the fact and already tidying up the place: spot cleaning, checking for expired or missing labels, etc. By the time he made his way back to the kitchen, it was a completely different restaurant.

Even then, we were always hoping for a couple of basic things to go right: that this person was not going to see everything he could possibly see and that even if he did see some stuff amiss he would grade on the side of generosity because he wields so much power. And keep in mind that this was true even in the best of restaurants. Usually, being prepared, acting quickly, holding your breath, and getting a bit lucky paid off.

If we’re honest, most of us think of God like He’s the cosmic health inspector. We hope we can fool Him by hiding things or quickly cleaning up on short notice. Between the uncertainty and (even worse) the certainty of what He will find, it’s terrifying.

But the reality is that if we have Christ, then even God as the strictest, most despotic health inspector isn’t frightening at all. He will come in with a white glove and no advance warning, but when He looks under every counter and behind every cabinet, He will always grade us 100% clean by the power of our Savior.

On not divorcing English.

As I overheard a volunteer teaching a non-English speaker irregular verbs this morning at the library, I was moved with compassion to tell him, “Don’t give up. English is a horrible, wicked, and ridiculous language. But it can be learned.”

Naturally, the reason I’m both qualified and entitled to say such a mean thing about English is because it’s my language. I can objectively admit that if you wanted to design a language impossible to learn, you could scarcely produce by design anything as sadistic as what we actually have. And yet I also believe that English is beautiful precisely because of those complexities which make it torture to learn.

No loving person would ever choose to inflict English on himself or others. Still, this undesirable misfit language is dear to me precisely because my lifelong relationship with her was an arranged marriage. I have the option of acquiring others, but I can never forsake my native tongue. Though English is certainly an abusive spouse, we are nevertheless together until death do us part, and maybe even after that.

On the pace of God.

I’ll admit it. I’m a lane-changer. If I’m going to only drive the speed limit, well I want to drive the speed limit. So, if someone is going slow, I’ll pass around him.

Well, this morning on the way to work, I came up behind a slow truck in my lane. When I went to switch, however, I discovered another car blocking me. “No problem,” I figured. “I’ll just let him pass me, then I’ll pass behind him.” But he neither moved ahead nor dropped behind. Now I was stuck, and going slow. I was very frustrated.

Well, he eventually did move along, so I pulled in behind him. Guess what his license plate said? “TRINITY.” A message for me about Your pace, Lord?

So as I continued driving along that road, it was a real freakshow. Construction, weird slow traffic, cops working on a signal. I switched lanes numerous times, always because of some new impediment. After the final switch, I looked up to notice something very unpleasant. The car in front of me after all of my effort? “TRINITY.”

So you’re saying the best I can do with all my effort is still just end up right where I would have been if I’d followed you all along, Lord?

Virtues of omission.

My wife and I just finished watching the first season of the TNT show Leverage on DVD, and we loved it. The premise is a superstar insurance fraud investigator whose own company refused to help save his son’s life who decides to organize a team of thieves to pick up where the law leaves off by running cons on people who abuse others.

Aside from being clever and funny, the concept of a group of misfit criminals who find themselves doing good only because a brilliant leader organizes them is a fascinating analogy for Christianity. But perhaps the thing I love most about it is that it’s clean. There is fighting, but rare bloodshed. There is only the mildest of language, and there’s virtually no sexuality at all.

In fact, in one episode, to portray the character of an addictive person, they showed him coming out of a strip club. And that’s the point. The scene was outside! They declined a gratuitous trip inside a strip club, something which most other shows are eager to include. So, kudos for a show that’s really trying to be better than its competitors.

Virtue is so often about what you omit.

True isn't enough.

Truth isn’t true just because it’s true.

This may seem silly, perhaps self-contradictory, but allow me to explain.

Whenever we speak, we are representing more than just propositional content. We are revealing God and His Nature. Because the Bible is true and Jesus calls Himself the Truth, honesty is an essential part of the Christian paradigm. However, truth can become a tool for evil in a variety of ways, most notably when it is used to hurt people rather than bless them.

For instance, when people are vicious in the way they wield true ideas, we call them “brutally honest,” a label which should immediately show a speaker’s ungodliness despite his statement’s non-falisty. As Richard J. Needham explained, “People who are brutally honest get more satisfaction out of the brutality than out of the honesty.” Thus truth without mercy actually becomes untrue.

But merciful truth can still fail the test of godliness by being weak or impotent. If God’s Word is both true and merciful, it is also abundantly powerful. In short, any expression which is not true, merciful, and powerful becomes false as a result. Achieving all three simultaneously is a terribly high standard, but then again, consider Whose Word we represent.

On tests and cheating

This weekend, my pastor preached a sermon on honesty, during which he mentioned in passing that well over half of all high school students admit they would cheat on a test if it meant the difference between passing and failing. Of course I found this statistic extremely troubling. But it didn’t make me think so much about the pathetic state of our moral culture as much as about the structural defects of mass education.

See, in a setting where teachers know their students for only an hour a day and each class has 25-30 of them, the simple fact is that any student is almost a complete stranger to any teacher. This means that tests become ripe opportunities for cheating precisely because of the teacher-to-stranger ratio.

In the school in my house it is not like this. Because the teacher knows each of our students so intimately and interacts with them so intensively, she truly knows where each of them is educationally. She needn’t rely on a test, and the ability of her students to trick her is virtually zero. Even a tutor would be in virtually as confident a position as she is, if only because of the intimacy of the relationship.

When mom is the teacher, the teacher already knows how you’ll do on the test before you take it.

The problem isn't where you think it is.

Sometimes, it’s the most subtle pieces of the Bible that have the most impact on us, if only we don’t miss them entirely. For instance, Matthew 28:16-17 says, “But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him, but some were doubtful.”

Some were doubtful?

These men had seen Him raised from the dead, touched him, eaten with Him, seen His miracles, and even worshipped Him. But some were doubtful? Whatever way you cut it, that’s exceedingly strange.

The point being made here in passing is that our problem is never a lack of evidence. These people had far more of it than we will ever have, and some were still doubtful.

And the only plausible explanation is that the heart wants what the heart wants: whether to believe or to doubt. Although we should encourage honest questions and strive to provide reasonable answers, we must never delude ourselves into believing that the difference between faith and doubt is primarily a matter of how much evidence we have.

The wisdom from having a spouse.

Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.”

Generally, we take this to mean that it’s important to have a group of wise people in your life who can help you think through your big decisions, avoiding catastrophic errors and increasing the chances of significant successes. That’s no doubt true. But I see something else entirely here: the brilliance of marriage.

A spouse is a very consistent source of second opinions. Though many people lament this fact, I view it as a tremendous advantage precisely because lots of times I’m not sure what is best to do. And in those very common moments of uncertainty, gaining either the confidence of my wife’s support or the wisdom of her correction is extremely useful.

Simply put, two heads are better than one, and realizing that leads to making better decisions about everything from money to spiritual matters to how to raise children properly. After thirteen years of shared decisions, I have no idea how single people do it on their own.

How to cure anxiety.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), Jesus commands us to not be anxious about our basic needs in this life. But how do we do this?

Well, the ascetic solution to anxiety is to stop caring about things in this world. But God made us embodied beings with real needs, and denying this only makes us angry at our Creator and alienates us from Him.

The self-reliant solution to anxiety is to take matters into our own hands by provide for our needs ourselves. But as we learn how weak, inept, and vulnerable to things outside our control we are, this only produces more anxiety rather than less.

Similarly, the religious solution to anxiety is to earn God’s protection by performing our holiness rituals well enough to deserve it. But as we learn how sinful we are, this only makes us more insecure about every little aspect of our self-righteousness.

In contrast, Jesus teaches us to solve anxiety by thinking about who God is. God made us. God loves us. And God provides for plants and animals, which He cares much less about than us. So, of course He will meet the needs of His children. The Christian solution to anxiety is to need having our needs met by a Father who is able and eager to meet them.

Who would God hire?

The kingdom of heaven is like two men who went for a job interview, one a college valedictorian and the other a high school dropout.

The valedictorian sat comfortably before the interviewer and extolled himself saying, “I never missed a class, and I aced all my courses. I wasn’t one of those people who needed help or wasted time socializing. My roommate actually failed out of the same program I was in because he couldn’t hack it. I did it all on my own, and I’m ready to get what I deserve. I hope you make me a good offer, because I have two other interviews later today.”

But the dropout sat nervously and could barely look the interviewer in the eye. “Sir, you hold my future in your hands, and I’m sorry I’m not more qualified for this position. I have made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I really regret them. If somehow you can find it in your heart to give me a break, I promise I’ll be so grateful that you won’t have to worry about me working hard. Please take a chance on me. I really need this job.”

I tell you that this interviewer hired the dropout rather than the valedictorian. (Luke 18:9-15)

What's your system?

Ethics test question 1: If the speed limit is 65, but everyone else is driving 75, what speed would you drive?

Some people would answer, “75, because everyone else is going 75.” This ethical system is called cultural relativism.

Some people would answer, “70, because even though it’s over the limit, I don’t want to be unsafe.” This ethical system is called pragmatism.

Some people would answer, “70, because I want to speed, but the cops aren’t going to pull me over if others are going faster.” This ethical system is called egoism.

Some people would answer, “65, because I have a duty to obey the law, especially when I disagree with it.” This ethical system is called absolutism.

Some people would answer, “70, because that way I’m sort of honoring the law and sort of going along with traffic and I probably won’t get caught and it’s probably safer and I sort of want to go fast anyhow.” There is no name for this answer. Only serious answers deserve a label.

Learning the rules.

My son Spencer is learning to read and write the English language (as I think we all still are). As a result, he enjoys spelling out words instead of just saying them. This all began with him answering, “N-O” to questions instead of “No,” which has now expanded to include a variety of short words.

Unfortunately for him, he was born in America, where we speak the stupidest language on the planet. As a result, he’ll use spellings which are wrong, but which make sense given what he’s already learned. So, he’ll say, “D-A-D-E” for daddy and “M-A-K” for make and “M-O-R” for more. Whenever he does this, my first impulse is to correct him, the same way I do when he says, “Daddy, I catched the ball.”

But I stop myself because I realize that he is at the point in his education where he needs to learn the basic rules before learning the medium rules before eventually learning the exceptions. If I overwhelm him right now with all the correct answers, he’ll be too confused to make any progress. So I praise him for practicing rules properly even though this makes his actual answers wrong.

On second thought, maybe English isn’t the stupidest language. Maybe it’s just a really great analogy for Christian ethics.

No partial credit.

We all find things in the Bible that we like and agree with. But we naturally tend to ignore the parts that correct us. The problem is that until we can comfortably read and affirm both, even the stuff we think we have right isn’t actually right. Some examples may help.

The rebellious person enjoys reading that the apostles kept preaching the Gospel even when ordered to stop. But he isn’t quite sure how to handle the fact that Paul apologized for dishonoring the high priest.

The angry person revels in Jesus cleansing the Temple with a whip. But he doesn’t know how to process Jesus quietly drawing in the sand during a lynching.

The vengeful person delights in David destroying Goliath and tens of thousands of other infidels. But he is flummoxed by David bending over backward to not harm the wicked King Saul.

Interestingly, of course, the submissive person, the quiet person, and the wallflower would have exactly the reverse difficulty with each respective passage pair, liking the latter but being befuddled by the former.

Because the Bible represents a complete and integrated God, taking out the threads you dislike ruins the entire tapestry. The truth of the matter is that until we get right the things we get wrong, we don’t even get right the things we get right.

There's no wrong way to grieve.

In and of itself, grieving over the loss of a loved one is a terribly painful thing to handle. But sometimes such a loss brings an additional set of burdens in the expectations that other people lay on us about how we should handle our grief.

For instance, one friend of mine recently lost a parent who was actually a real source of trouble in his life. Although he loved her and is pained by the loss, there is also a part of him that feels relieved. But he hates to admit this because he thinks it makes him look like a monster, and so he feels guilty about not feeling more sad.

Another friend of mine lost a parent not too long ago, and his concerns had more to do with people implying he was taking it too hard. They seemed to think that his “reasonable period of mourning” had passed and he should get on with his life.

I gave them both the same advice: “When you lose a loved one, you are free to grieve any way you need to, for as long or as short, for as intensely or as meagerly as you like. And if you need to distract yourself by activity or if you need to sit and cry, you do whatever you need to do. Your relationship with this person was exactly that: your relationship. Therefore your grief over losing them is also that: your grief. Someone else telling you how to feel it is as ridiculous as them trying to tell you that they know better than you what this person meant to you.”

Why is forgiveness divine?

As Alexander Pope famously wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”

It’s a beautiful line, and yet it is missing one key feature.

See, we as individuals are made in the image of God. But we only fully image God when we are knit together into loving relationships like the community within the Godhead we call the Trinity. And sometimes when we think of sin, we think only of the harm done to our individual natures and not also of the damage done to our nature as a community. What makes forgiveness divine is that it restores that communal image of God after it’s been damaged.

But forgiveness is only half the remedy, a kind of potential healing which still waits on an apology to be complete. The breach is in our relationship, and until both of us have contributed our portion, the relationship remains broken.

Forgiving is indeed divine. But because refusing to apologize preempts the most vibrant aspects of the divine purpose, we should say that apologizing is divine as well.

There's only one Sun.

Popular culture has a funny way of dividing Christians. This is often mainly a matter of disposition. Some Christians are eager to find flaws and heresies in any offering from the culture, whereas other Christians are eager to find useful elements we can redeem and use to teach greater truths.

Consider Star Wars. The detractors of course focus on the various ways in which “The Force” is completely unlike the God of the Bible, and they’re not wrong. But my son Spencer recently showed me an aspect of The Force which is just like God. He asked me, “Daddy, if the Dark Side of the Force is the bad part, why don’t they call the good part of the Force the Light Side?”

“Well, son, it’s because that would make it seem like there’s two Forces when there’s actually just one. The Dark Side isn’t really its own thing, but just what we say when someone misuses that one Force. So, when Darth Vader acts on anger or hurts people, he twists that good thing into a bad thing. Similarly, there’s only one God, not a good God and also a bad God. So all of our abilities comes from Him, but when we use His gifts the wrong way, we turn them dark.”

That’s the answer I wish I had given.

What I actually said was, “The Light Side of the Force? Cool. Then maybe the bad guys could use ‘dark sabers!’”

Do they even want to believe you?

Advertisement 1: “Your current car is very ugly. It is very uncomfortable. It costs you too much money, and it makes you look uncool. Stop being so stupid, and come purchase our car.”

What effect will this ad have on a person? Well, he either already knows it’s true but doesn’t enjoy being told this way, or else he doesn’t believe it’s true. In both cases, this ad offends him.

Advertisement 2: “Do you love beauty and comfort? Do you want to save money and feel proud of yourself? Well, that’s exactly why we make our cars. Come on down and climb into a better version of what you already care about.”

What effect will this ad have? Well, at the very least, he’ll want to believe its true. And rather than being offended, he will feel like you are validating him and what he already cherishes.

With this in mind, how should we approach people from other cultures and religions? Should we tell them their whole worldview is idiotic, or should we show them how Christ better fulfills everything true in what they already believe?

Why are you surprised?

In the span of about ten minutes on my way to work today, God gave me five new insights that could be articles or thoughts of the day. Since I’ve long since accepted that such insights are one of His primary forms of blessing me, I naturally jotted them all down so as to not be a bad steward. Afterward I just sat there marveling at the scandalous generosity of God, amazed that He gives me these things when I don’t deserve them.

But my shock suddenly turned around on me. “Why am I so surprised? God doesn’t bless me because I deserve it, but because He is generous. So why am I so amazed? I must still secretly think I should only get what I deserve. I actually believe the universe runs on merit rather than on God’s character. Man!

“I guess it’s okay to be honored by God’s gift, but when I’m shocked by it, that reveals something else entirely. Besides, if I realize that God gives what He wants to give rather than what I deserve, I won’t be bummed out or self-critical if He ever gives less lavishly. Neither getting nor not getting will surprise me because I’ll truly believe God’s character is running things.”

Correction. Six insights.

Is success what I most need?

In Judges 7, the Israeli leader Gideon led a pretty substantial army of 32,000 men off to war against the Midianites. But God told him this was too many. So he made one cut down to 10,000 men. But God told him this was still too many. So he made another drastic cut down to 300 men. Not much of an army at this point, really. Nevertheless, by employing a God-given strategy based on a prophetic dream, they routed the opposing force.

God even explained why He did this. See, a larger army might have looked like a purely natural victory, but such a tiny army could only have won by God’s help and therefore only such an impossible victory would clearly glorify Him. So the gift to Gideon, his men, and all of Israel was the vivid reminder that having God on your side is always enough. He knew they needed this lesson even more than they needed a military victory.

But two questions for us remain. First, which makes me feel more comfortable: having God’s promise of victory or having a large army? And second, do I want God to be glorified at least as badly as I want that victory?

On bowling.

This may seem like a simple thing, but how do you get a high score in bowling?

Well, imagine someone came to you and said, “The way to become a good bowler is to avoid the right-hand gutter.” If you believed him, you’d line up way over to the left. But of course, you’d probably bowl a lot of gutter balls down the left side. Then imagine someone else told you, “No, no, no. The key to bowling is to avoid the left-hand gutter.” Well, perhaps you’d line up to the right, and of course you’d see very little improvement in score.

In life it’s often like this. We have experienced what it means to fail to one side or the other of some goal, and so we play the game of life as if the important thing is to avoid that error. But if our focus becomes avoiding one error, we almost always wind up falling into some other contrasting error.

So what’s the right way to score high in bowling? It’s simple. You aim at the pins. And of course, by aiming at the pins, you’ll naturally learn to avoid both gutters.

Why a multipersonal God?

This morning, my wife caught our four-year-old Ethan doing something he knew was wrong. The evidence? He immediately began crying and ran to me for protection. Mom arrived on the scene and started asking him why he had done what he did, which wasn’t a major infraction but obviously enough that he was worried what would happen to him.

Well, he just kept crying, so I put my arm around him and told him that he didn’t need to be afraid. “Just tell mommy why you did it.” It took a little while, but eventually he settled down enough to tell her, “Because…I…wanted…to.” Both of us knew that this was a case where punishment would be pointless, so she just explained to him again why he couldn’t do that.

In the end, what he really needed was for me to hug him and give him enough security that he could bring himself to tell the truth about what he had done. And in that moment, it felt very much like we were playing God in the best possible sense. She was disciplining him even as I was giving him enough safety and comfort to endure that discipline and trust that both of us still loved him.

What matters?

Stephen J. Cannell, the prolific television producer, just passed away this week at the age of 59. As the man most directly responsible for Adam-12, The A-Team, The Rockford Files, 21 Jump Street, The Greatest American Hero, and Baretta, Cannell most certainly had a strong impact on American popular culture.

Looking at his legacy forces people like me to ask whether I, as a Christian, am having anything like that sort of impact for the glory of God. But there’s the rub. If we define success by worldly standards, we would have to say that pastors of small churches, stay-at-home mothers, and even local radio hosts don’t really matter too much. And we can choose to let this bother us.

But if we then realize that leading a single person to Christ has more eternal significance than all the plays of Shakespeare, perhaps we don’t feel quite so insignificant. And even if all we do is praise God and do whatever He assigns us to the best of our ability, it’s comforting to know that this pleases Him just as much as if we’d shaped an entire pop culture through television shows.

Starting with common ground

Pro-choice people love to use President Clinton’s famous phrase that the goal is for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.”

The brilliance of this phrase of course is the inclusion of “rare,” which reminds people that abortion is generally a bad thing. And although many pro-lifers wonder just how serious pro-choicers are about the rare part, I’ve always said that anyone who is genuinely pro-choice would prefer a world where almost no one chooses abortion.

But something else suddenly intrigues me about this phrase. Instead of leading with what divides us, wouldn’t it be interesting if people reversed the order of words? Since the real point of commonality between the camps is “rare,” why not emphasize it by saying “rare, safe, and legal?” In fact, if we’re really shooting for emphasis, why not leave the latter bit off entirely?

I don’t know how much difference it will make, but wouldn’t it be fascinating if both sides started reinforcing to this culture a message in unison that our common goal for abortion is simply to make it “rare?”

What's the lesson?

In my house, my children are lucky enough to be afflicted with parents who are always challenging them to think about everything. The question they have learned to dread hearing is, “So what did you learn?” The reason they dread this is because it always follows a mistake they have made or else a mistake they didn’t even realize they made. Either way, bad things happened.

For instance, just this morning, Ethan (my four-year-old) was climbing on top of their fort, stretching to reach something at the top of the closet. (For those without boys, yes, this is pretty normal behavior.) Well, as I watch him, sure enough, he loses his footing and falls in that slow-motion way monkeys learn to do. When he’s reached his landing (one leg on the fort, one on the floor, and his head laying on some boxes in the bottom of the closet), I first ask him if he’s okay.

“Yes,” he replies.

“And what did you learn?” I asked, anticipating a safety breakthrough.

“Not to fall.”

Indeed it is important to remember to think about what we’ve learned from a mistake. However, it’s also important we succeed at identifying the right lesson.

There's nothing "merely" about it.

One of the great modern lies is that sex is just another bodily appetite to be satisfied however one pleases. “We eat when we’re hungry, we sleep when we’re tired, and we have sex when we feel like it.” Ignoring the obvious fact that even mere bodily appetites entail ethics (nutrition differentiates between good and bad eating and there are many situations where sleep is not an acceptable course of action), there’s something much more profoundly inaccurate here.

See, the view of sex as a bodily appetite is inherently degrading to sex, reducing it to something “merely” bodily. And yet, everyone knows that there is nothing “merely” about an activity which has inspired millions of works of art from poems to songs to paintings to sculpture to novels to movies. Someone may dislike being hungry or tired, but healthy people don’t weep in agony over a bad lasagna or a missed nap. Yet, emotions strong to the point of artistic expression are precisely the normal result of sexual fulfillment or frustration.

Thus, it is precisely because this human endeavor is so uniquely powerful that it must be treated so carefully and protected so vigilantly. We do no one a service when we encourage them to believe that something this precious may be treated with such casual contempt.

What a good director does.

I love to watch movies. Unfortunately, one of the problems of having watched a lot of movies is that it becomes harder and harder to surprise me. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that I generally want a movie to end in a satisfying way, which of course further limits the options a filmmaker has when creating his art for me.

A good movie thus manages to do several different things. It identifies a character with whom I can bond and vicariously live through. This character will then have some significant struggles which create tension and the hope of a final triumph to overcome them. Most importantly, the means of this triumph need to be plausible after the fact but so unforeseeable in advance that you actually start to worry it won’t turn out right. When all of these factors come together properly, we say that a movie “pays off” in giving you what you really want from it.

And when you find a director who can consistently do this, it’s a real joy to experience his movies. Of course, the real question is whether I believe God is as clever and reliable at directing my life as these men are in making their films.

On missing pieces.

I grew up doing lots of jigsaw puzzles. In fact, I believe it’s one of the things that trained my mind to work as it does.

One common experience in doing a jigsaw puzzle is to become irritated over not being able to find a particular piece. As you scour for it in the pile, it’s easy to get so frustrated that you actually come to believe it’s simply missing. Obviously, in a used puzzle this can happen, but not so much in a new one. Nevertheless, what you do is you keep going with the rest of the puzzle. And a funny thing happens.

When you work on the bits you can do, you make progress. Then when you get to the end, somehow the piece you were absolutely sure was missing just suddenly appears. Of course it was there the whole time. You just couldn’t see it for whatever reason. And you feel a bit sheepish for having been so sure it wouldn’t work out in the end.

So if I can rationally learn to have faith in a puzzle manufacturer, why do I so often still struggle to believe my heavenly Father will make sure my life has all the pieces it needs to be finished properly?

On artistic license.

Having been asked to preach several times recently, I’ve had more reason than normal to consult Bible commentaries. In the process, I noticed that they all say things such as, “Matthew likely rearranged the material in this section to suit his purpose in writing the Gospel.” This initially bothered me because it implied the Bible’s authors were playing fast and loose with the facts, an assessment which seems to undermine the reliability of my beloved Scriptures. But these commentators were really serious about the Bible’s authenticity and its authority. They were not liberals. So how could this be?

I finally figured it out. As a modern American, I presume truth to be a matter of chronological fact correspondence. But this is a huge bias. The artist in me knows better than to think that truth can only be communicated or even best be communicated in such a realist style. The Gospel writers, under the influence of the greatest Muse of all, were revealing truth that a merely chronological account would have left hidden.

This is why their portraits of the same Person are all so distinct. But far from being evidence of fraud or forgery or even error, this is simply the natural result of men overcome with Beauty wanting to share that rapture effectively with others.

Christianity is not an item on the menu.

I suppose there are numerous misconceptions about Christianity. But whereas some of them can be brushed off as minor sundry details, others matter tremendously because they concern the very essence of what our faith is.

For instance, some people think Christianity is basically a belief system, but this is a mistake. Although Christianity produces beliefs, it’s not essentially about beliefs. Some people think Christianity is basically a way of life, but this is also a mistake. Although Christianity produces behavior, it’s not essentially about behavior. Some people think Christianity is basically membership in a group, but this, too, is a mistake. Although Christianity produces community, it’s not essentially about community.

See, you can believe new things without becoming a new person. You can do things a new way without becoming a new person. And you can join a new group without becoming a new person. But unless you do become an entirely new kind of person, you aren’t actually a Christian.

On not jumping to Biblical conclusions.

Did you know a person can actually know too much about the Bible to understand it properly. I know that may sound absurd, but allow me to give you an example.

In the Sermon on the Mount as recounted in Matthew 7, Jesus tells his audience that they will know true from false disciples “by their fruits” as if they are trees. Since this statement isn’t clarified, one naturally wonders what the “fruit” would be. Well, anyone familiar with the New Testament immediately thinks of Galatians 5, where Paul talks about the Fruit of the Spirit, which shows up as things like love, joy, and peace.

But here’s the problem. Reading the Bible this way treats it as a mystery scavenger hunt that can only be solved by people like us who happen to have the whole thing. When Jesus preached on that mountain, He meant His audience to understand Him even without the decoder ring of Paul’s writings twenty years later.

Although Paul was probably building on Jesus’s theme, the real question is whether the message Jesus delivered would have had this meaning in itself or not. Perhaps so, but we can be too eager to make that leap because, ironically, we know too much.

An explanation that isn't.

One of the most fascinating (and frustrating) things about baseball is it’s essential unpredictability. Good teams lose to bad teams and weird things happen often enough that there’s actually an expression for it. We say, “That’s baseball.”

Oddly, although this feels like an explanation, it really isn’t. No team has yet lost a game because of some voodoo endemic to the game. Rather, they lose because of specific reasons on that particular day.

Also, there’s a bothersome asymmetry here. When good teams win, we don’t say, “That’s baseball,” since the more obvious explanation is, “They were the better team.” Thus, on those less likely days when poor teams play well, we actually rob them of the credit by chalking their win up to mischievous metaphysics.

Call it luck, call it the variables of individual contests, or call it the seductive deception of statistical reasoning. In the end, the one way to describe all of it including the silly propensity to come up with vacuous statements to explain it all is by saying, “That’s baseball.”

What's your consolation?

The term “consolation prize” was coined to describe something we give to a person who loses a contest as a way of consoling him in his sadness at failure. It may seem a bit silly, but everyone practices consoling, especially ourselves.

For instance, imagine a man who is worried about losing his job. Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have a great wife.” But what about the unemployed who are divorced or single not by choice?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I’m in good financial shape otherwise.” But what about those who are in debt?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have my children.” But what about those whose children have been lost, are angry at him, or were simply never born in the first place?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have my health.” But what about those who are ill?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have Jesus.”

When we get to the end of everything else we think is valuable, we eventually come to the consolation prize of knowing Christ. And when we do, we discover that what we thought was the littlest of consolations turns out to be the greatest prize of all. And, if the Bible is correct, one which we never need worry will be taken from us.

What's a moderate?

Words have meanings, which is why it’s so important to use them accurately. For instance, when we talk about Muslims, we generally refer to people who sympathize with Al Queda as “extremists.” But the large majority of the Muslim world which opposes them we label as “moderates.” But this is a very misleading word choice.

Having known a few Muslims, I don’t think I’ve ever met a moderate one. They pray, they fast, they study the Koran, they attend worship, and they live by a very strict moral code. Calling such devotees “moderates” is a sort of insult. I would hate for someone to call me a moderate Christian, since I prefer to think of myself as a committed or serious one.

The problem here is that our modern culture is fond of the error that devotion is danger. But as should be obvious by considering the Amish, the particular shape of devotion is vital in assessing its danger.

So, to make things clearer, perhaps we ought to distinguish between “violent Muslims” and “peaceful Muslims.” That way people are reminded that it’s not the depth of belief that matters, but the direction. After all, what would you rather have, a moderately violent Muslim or an extremely peaceful one?

Looks can be deceptive.

People who travel to really poor areas of the world consistently report some of the same feelings in those places. They always stand out as Americans, which means they are constantly begged for money. Further, because the prices are so low, their American dollars represent a tremendous amount of wealth. This means that even when getting services like taxi rides, the inclination is to lavish fabulous tips on the natives because it would be so easy to do.

But what’s interesting is that most people familiar with these countries will tell you that it’s actually a bad idea. Whether overtipping or giving to beggars, the problem is that you disrupt the local economy and cause additional problems with such simple generosity.

In other words, they say to act like a stingy person, behavior which observed at a distance would seem almost callous and cruel. But sometimes that which looks superficially loving can be harmful and that which looks superficially mean can be the most loving.

Perhaps this is why a wealthy God doesn’t just give us everything we beg Him for, even though He wishes He could.

Compared to whom?

I have to admit that I feel pretty constantly like a failure as a parent. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in this. In fact, part of the reason I wanted to share this with you is that I know some of you consider me a good parent. But even good parents feel like failures.

And why wouldn’t we? There is only one good parent, and that’s God. By comparison with Him, we are all terrible, with only minute differences of terribleness between us. And the more we look at Him, the more each little interaction with our kids shows the truth about us. That’s in fact why part of the evidence that you are a good parent is that you feel so bad at it. Because it shows you’re comparing yourself to the right standard. And it’s also why the notion that if you were just a little better at it you’d feel good is such a destructive myth.

So how do we solve the problem? Simple. Although we can never fully measure up in our parenting, we know that we are made perfectly righteous in God’s sight by the gift of His Son. Thus, even in our terrible parenting, He accepts us just as we are. And if God has accepted me and my imperfect parenting, who am I to argue with Him about it?

Who does your decorating?

Is Jesus your interior decorator? What I mean to ask is whether Jesus has done some rearranging in the rooms of your life?

You see, an interior decorator comes into your somewhat shabby home and asks you what you want to do with the place. He discovers your tastes and clarifies what makes you happy. Then, with his vast expertise in fabric and paint and furniture, he assists you by extrapolating your personality into your surroundings so you feel like your house is a vibrant expression of who you are, pleasing you whenever you inhabit it.

So, has Jesus has done this for you yet?

Because although this is the way many people think Jesus works in our lives, they are eternally mistaken. You see, Jesus doesn’t show up with swatches and an attentive ear. He comes with a bulldozer and a wrecking crew.

When the real Christ comes to visit the lives we call home, He razes them to the ground in the most violent fashion imaginable. Sometimes only explosives will do the trick. And if you have never experienced the horrific joy or of seeing all you prized about your life blown apart to be reformed according to His blueprint, well, perhaps that nice chap stroking your tastes so pleasantly isn’t at all who you thought he was.

Of emailers

I receive emails from three sorts of people about my show.

The first type is the either/or. This person sometimes writes to praise me and sometimes to criticize me, often both in the same email. This is by far the largest category.

The second type is the reliable critic. This person only writes to disagree with me about something or other, rarely communicating when things are to his liking. He apparently thinks that silence is a form of praise. Although these are valuable, whenever I see this person’s name in my inbox, I sigh with a mixture of dread and disappointment.

The third type is the encouraging advocate. This person always has something positive to say, even when it’s critical, and often just wants me to know how much he appreciates me. My dad, my pastor, and a handful of others fall in this category, and I obviously delight to see their names in my inbox.

All three categories include Christians, but which of the three do you think make me want to know more about the God they say overflows with love for me?

If you can't say something well....

“The sky was red.”

“The lips of every maiden wept with jealousy for the crimson stain smeared across the clouds that night.”

To a logician, these two sentences are identical. This alone should testify to the deep imbecility of that discipline.

You see, logic cares only about truth and falsity. But in human experience, the inescapable truth about language is that truth is not the issue. Simply put, men respond to beauty, not merely to truth. This is because the distance between a falsehood and a mere truth is meaningless compared with the gulf between a truth and an eloquence.

Yet when we make our proclamations, we often think we have done enough to merely say what is true, thus satisfying the logicians. But only a logician could be stupid enough to believe that poetry can be reduced to propositions…or to believe that propositions alone have ever changed the course of history…or even a man’s heart.

Same name, different family?

My children do not live in the same family. Although this may seem like a nonsensical statement, it’s actually so obvious that most of us never recognize it until it’s pointed out.

In his six years, Spencer has experienced two years as an only child of novice parents, two years as an older brother of one boy with slightly more able parents, and two years as an older brother of two boys with yet even more competent parents. In his four years, Ethan has always had an older brother, and his parents were never amateurs. And in his brief 22 months, Sage always had two older brothers and basically expert parents. One simple implication of these facts is that whereas Spencer sort of knows what it’s like to be alone and then to lose aloneness, Sage will never even have a mental picture of privacy.

But more important than the fact that each boy is raised by very different parents and accompanied by different siblings is the fact that even in the same family at the same time, every child experiences it from his own point of view, a unique vantage never quite replicated in anyone else. And, of course, all of these differences are only compounded in families with divorces, remarriages, larger time gaps between children, or radical changes in location of residence or the occupations of their parents.

And once I realize that none of my children really live in the same family as each other, I become more aware of how I must adjust my own expectations and treatment of each of them as individuals who might just as well come from three different families rather than from the same one.