To his credit, my friend first told me about this by way of asking whether I thought he and his wife were doing anything wrong. I assured him they were not. The purpose of celebrating mom’s birthday is to honor mom in a way she will most appreciate. When the people who claim to love her complain that her way of wanting to be honored isn’t satisfying to them, they betray their confusion over who is really being celebrated.
But we all tend to make this mistake. And we must continually ask ourselves whether we’re truly honoring God by giving Him the gifts and service He want to receive or whether we’re merely claiming to want to honor Him by giving Him the ones we want to give? It’s just so easy to misidentify selfishness as love.
My awareness of a spill came when my 6-year-old started dancing gleefully around the mess his brother had made, chanting, “Bad Ethan, Bad Ethan.” Now, I know from experience that Spencer takes pleasure in getting Ethan in trouble, and usually Ethan does get some sort of discipline when he does something wrong. But recently I’ve been working on something much more important in Spencer. That’s why my reaction surprised him.
Basically, I looked at Spencer and scolded him for not helping Ethan avoid the mess in the first place and for failing to help him clean it up afterward. “But I didn’t spill anything,” he protested. “I know. But your job as a big brother is to find a way to help him, not just to stand around proclaiming his sins. That’s what it means for my children to love one another.”
Once I had it on the sidewalk, I was then torn whether to wheel it a couple hundred extra feet to one of the grocery cart returns. Realizing that someone would eventually have to do this, I volunteered again. In the end, tidying up someone else’s mess cost me about three minutes of time. That’s when it struck me just how radical Christian morality is.
See, basic immorality is neglecting your personal responsibilities, and basic morality is taking care of them. But Christian morality is taking care of other people’s responsibilities…because you can and because they need you to…just like Jesus did for us.
And if this is right, then the real evil in this world isn’t neglecting our own responsibilities. The real evil is labeling such a pathetically low standard as righteousness.
“But how can that be fair?” comes the natural follow-up. Aside from the erroneous assumption that sinning is beneficial and godliness harmful, there’s another mistake here. In reality, the deathbed conversion is easier to accept.
This is because at least he lived a life of sins for which he may not have known better. In contrast, those of us who convert midway through our lives and continue to sin afterward seem more guilty than he is. In any case, we both trust Jesus to wipe away an entire life full of sin. This is because the key fact isn’t whether we come to faith before, during, or after our sins occur, but that we come to that faith at all.
What’s interesting for me to imagine, however, is what I might do as an individual stranded and forced to stay several extra days away from home. Of course I might prefer someone else to pay for that inconvenience, but how much of a fight would I put up to get that result? Not much, quite frankly. Here’s why.
Many times in the life of a Christian we have the chance to scratch and claw for our financial rights, but we don’t. We already have and cannot lose the One Thing we truly need, and His example was one of generosity and self-sacrifice. So we learn to, “Oh, well,” to many disappointments in this life. Our faith is in Christ, not in demanding our perceived rights from others, and we know it would profit us nothing to gain the whole settlement but become a twisted, angry person in the process.
Unfortunately for our country, I believe his sentiment is a common one. I know I’ll seem curmudgeonly for saying so, but this boy didn’t do anything special. He simply did the right thing. The two options here were stealing and returning the money. So by avoiding theft, he merely did what was morally required. And it’s a mistake to describe the satisfaction of a moral minimum as amazing.
When an outfielder makes a diving catch, it’s impressive. But when he catches a routine fly ball, it’s just that: routine. The alternative would be to drop it, which is an error. Same thing in ethics. And the more we describe minimums as achievements, the more we encourage people to think that the minimums might, in fact, be optional.
Now, obviously I must “believe in her existence” to “believe in her,” but what it means to “believe in her” is that I depend deeply upon my wife to provide for a wide variety of my needs. A marriage without this wouldn’t be much of a marriage at all.
This distinction is why I worry we focus too much effort persuading people to develop a belief in the existence of God. Although it’s necessary, by treating it as a major objective, we mistakenly lead people to think they’ve arrived when they’ve really only just begun to travel.
I think that’s one reason why so many Christians find themselves just barely living Christianity. Because the word “faith” has been used so sloppily for so long, many people think they have Christian faith when all they really have is “faith in Christ’s existence.” In contrast, the Biblical idea is for us to look to Him to meet all our needs in their entirety. Only then can we properly be said to have “faith in Christ.”
As always happens, they asked how old they were, and I mentioned that Spencer just turned 6 and Ethan was about to turn 4, which immediately prompted them to say, “Oh, that’s why. He’s a Taurus, and this one’s an Aries.”
This completely stunned me. I mean, I have so long been separated from people who would take such things seriously, let alone advocate them out loud to a stranger, that I really didn’t even know how to respond.
The women were quite sweet, and there didn’t seem to be any value in squabbling about it. But mostly I realized that hanging around with Christians so long had cost me my ability to interact with pagans. Perhaps not needless to say, this is my defect rather than theirs.
See, freedom is usually thought of as being intrinsically valuable, which means that the purpose of having freedom is to have freedom. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, the purpose of freedom is to preserve the meaningfulness of being good. Compulsory goodness is compulsion, not goodness. This means that every time we talk about freedom without also talking about the use which endows that freedom with its value, we’re just facilitating badness.
We should never talk about freedom of property without also talking about the moral mandate to be generous. We should never talk about freedom of religion without also encouraging the worship of God. And we should never talk about freedom of speech without also advocating civility and edifying use of that speech.
Simply put, freedom without the expectation of virtue is just permission to do evil.
Pets are simple. When things are good, they’re happy, and when things are bad, they’re sad. No hungry dog ever sat home alone smiling, and no well-fed dog being petted by his master ever wore a frown. This is because an animal’s mood is defined by his circumstances.
Humans, in contrast, have precisely the capacity to be happy in the face of terrible pain and to be sorrowful in the presence of surpassing pleasure. Why? Because humans can believe in unseen things that impact them more than their experiences do. Since this so clearly distinguishes us from animals, you might say that those ideas which enable us to be frustrated in prosperity or satisfied in poverty are the most human.
Christianity is thus utter humanism, for its ability to make men feel differently than their circumstances would dictate. It’s also why a belief system which deprives people of any tools for being more than mere animals in this way is terribly ironic for having chosen to label itself “humanism.”
I mean, I suppose it’s possible that virtually all constructions workers everywhere are just lazy. But did it ever occur to you that maybe there’s a fairly good reason they’re just standing around like that? I know it never occurred to me…at least not until I had the chance to help my friend tear out his concrete patio last weekend.
When I first arrived, I noticed four or five of my friends all just sort of standing around watching the guy on the jackhammer. So I asked what I should do, and my friend gave me one of the sledge hammers. He told me to swing it 5 or 7 times then take a break. Sure he was wrong, I swung it 10 times and couldn’t do it again. Then after a breather I did it 6 or 7 times. After another break, I did so again. And then I found myself standing around watching the jackhammer…for several minutes…breathing hard…just like my friends…and just like every construction worker I’d ever seen.
It was at that point I turned to my friend and said, “I’ll never make fun of construction guys again.” It sort of makes me wonder what other lacks of experience are allowing me to keep such foolish judgments.
So, imagining that God did this on purpose, why did He make such an obviously bad choice? Simple. It tells us the most important thing about His character. See, if God were to love the beautiful, smart, virtuous people, that would have showed us nothing. But by deliberately choosing to reveal Himself as the lover of such pathetic people, He was profoundly proclaiming His generosity and compassion.
The question for us is whether we will cherish this about Him and follow His example in our own lives or whether we will continue to show our favor to only the people who basically deserve it.
First, money is not my salvation. Though I believe in property rights, I believe more in Christ. And so I can either wail in indignation at tax day’s myriad injustices or praise God that money doesn’t define me.
Second, government is not my salvation. Though my vision of government is quite different from our current one, I know that my real Kingdom is governed by the very best Monarch imaginable. So I can either nurture revolution against a corrupt government or trust God by submitting to the earthly authorities He has ordained for my benefit.
Even though evil is evil, one of the unique benefits of evil is that it allows the real character of God to shine through us in how we react to it...if we don’t botch the opportunity.
The other day I was at Taco Bell, and the lady who helped me was fantastic; friendly and helpful far above any basic requirements of simply getting me the food I ordered. Seeing that a manager was in the main area, I went to tell him. But the Spirit of God stopped me. Confused but obedient, I left.
Outside, I realized that I should at least have praised her directly, so I went back inside to do so. Well, she told me that I should take the phone survey on my receipt and put in a good word for her at the end because that stuff makes a big difference, which I of course did later that night.
Now, I have no idea how many other plotlines were also involved in that particular moment of God stopping me from doing what seemed like a good thing, but I’m grateful He allowed me see at least one of them. He’s just such a brilliant director!
See, we had to learn everything by trial and error, and starting at total ignorance, we gradually refined our process to what seemed to work best. This involved hitting the slab with a sledgehammer four or five times until a small crack appeared (what my friend called “the tenderizer” phase). At that point, I would position the jackhammer about eight inches from the edge, regardless of where the hairline cracks showed because I always knew there were more than just the ones I could see.
Sure enough, even though the area would have looked perfectly sturdy to the casual observer, my newly trained eye knew the internal damage had always been done and a few seconds later a nice big chunk could be easily pried off. And as I was doing this, all I kept thinking about was how much experience Satan has had with his tools and how chillingly similar a concrete patio is to a marriage.
But then they do discover what you’ve done. You stand before them ashamed, afraid, and angry at yourself for having been so foolish as you await your punishment. But then instead of rejecting you or disowning you, they tell you they’ll take care of it and that they forgive you. Expecting disaster, you instead receive acceptance.
Now, in a certain sense, you loved them before all of this happened, right? But isn’t it obvious that you now have an entirely new level of appreciation for their goodness precisely because it was given in response to your evil rather than in response to your good? And telling this story to others would make them look like the greatest parents in the world, even more glorious than you could have ever known before, right?
At first glance, it seemed like they were saying that Jesus isn’t enough reason to get people to church and it was okay to try to bribe people into converting, not to mention the likely prosperity teaching issues. But then I realized that I may have had it exactly backwards.
If this was presented right, and I hope it was, the message is profoundly anti-materialistic. The church is daring people to answer a question: “Why do you think we can so eagerly give away the things you find so precious?” Perhaps it is precisely because what we were freely given is so much more valuable than these trifles.
I sometimes wonder whether I would have been with the woman anointing Jesus with the costly perfume…or with the disciples who criticized her extravagant, Gospel-imitating waste.
For instance, science should be humble for the simple reason that the history of science is the history of dogmatic error after dogmatic error being reversed by evidence. Nevertheless, scientists today all too often refuse to accept the obvious implication that at least some ideas held dogmatically today will be absurd errors tomorrow.
But another example comes from theology. When Christians look at Jews who reject Jesus, we are baffled. We wonder how people could know the Bible so well and still get it so completely wrong. Yet, look at this another way.
We observe that millions of Scripture-studying Jews think they’ve got it right yet miss the whole point. If so, is it also possible that millions of Christians who study the Bible seriously have it equally wrong? Logic compels us to believe that it is not only possible, but tragically likely.
See, the problem so many people have in understanding the Bible is they think it reveals a set of ideas or principles or doctrines which, being true, give us insight or power to accomplish our goals in this universe. But this is not the case because the Bible is not primarily about us.
In John 14:6, Jesus amazingly tells His disciples quite explicitly that He is “the truth.” In a nutshell, this means that Jesus defines truth and everything true is so because it is in harmony with Him. That’s why saying, “The Bible teaches the truth,” leaves people tragically short of the whole truth.
Since Jesus is the truth, the thing we ought to say, which would leave no one confused about the full point, is, “The Bible teaches Jesus.”
Obama is extremely pro-abortion, but Muslims are staunchly pro-life. Obama favors expanding gay entitlements at every opportunity, but Muslims consider homosexuality a grave sin. Obama consumes alcohol and appears addicted to smoking, both of which are sins in Islam.
But more obviously, the President does not pray five times a day, nor toward Mecca; he doesn’t fast at the appointed times; he doesn’t read the Koran; he doesn’t acknowledge Mohammed or Allah; and he doesn’t speak Arabic. Finally, he goes to Christian services with Christian ministers, prays to Jesus Christ, and openly affirms Christianity…all of which points to a simple, obvious conclusion:
Barack Obama is either not a Muslim at all or else he is one of the very worst Muslims in the whole entire world, and wouldn’t that basically be the same thing?
For instance, when walking on the water, Peter started to sink because he focused on the storm instead of Jesus, which was certainly a failure. However, Peter was the only one in that boat full of disciples who both asked permission to be with Jesus on the water and then tried to do so.
On the other, even more famous occasion, Peter denied Christ three times to strangers after having professed that He would never do so. But all the disciples had said this, and they all abandoned Him (Matthew 26:35, 56). At least Peter tried to defend Jesus with a sword (Matthew 26:51, John 18:10), and only Peter was concerned enough about Jesus to risk his own arrest by following Him to His encounter with the Jewish Council. Being close enough to be challenged as a follower of Jesus required him to get that close in the first place, unlike the others.
Thus, right in the midst of his most famous failures, Peter actually showed himself to be more eager for Jesus than the other disciples. If only he had played it safe, his failures wouldn’t have been so well documented. But would that have made him a better disciple?