Squint and you might see God.

When I came home from work the other day, I had two unpleasant facts to deal with, one known and one a surprise. I expected the house to be empty, since my wife and children were still on vacation away from me. What I didn’t expect was a broken air conditioner.

Since it was already late, I suffered through the heat until morning and called for a repair. By that evening, I had civilized temperatures again. Of course, part of my reaction to all this was to be grateful for normally having cold air and to remember what life is like for billions of people around the world; things easy to forget.

But during that one night of unpleasantness, I realized something else. Although I missed my family, I was glad they weren’t there. Given the choice of either my whole family suffering or only myself, I definitely prefer what did in fact happen.

So, thank you, God, that the unit didn’t break while we were all gone or while we were all here, but precisely in that small window between the two. Sometimes God’s masterful providence only appears when you squint to find it.

What others can't see may not be there.

Recently reading an excellent book on preaching has helped me see just how easy it is to get the Bible wrong if you aren’t vigilant in the way you study it. I don’t mean merely trying hard to seek what’s really being said. This is obviously necessary. The real vigilance is in knowing our own personal tendencies toward error and not letting them misguide us.

For instance, one historically significant but bad method of interpreting the Bible is called “allegorizing,” an approach which treats a text as if it has two meanings: the obvious literal one and a “deeper,” “spiritual” one hidden from the casual observer. The allegorizer usually takes some superficial detail of the passage and draws from it a conclusion which is clever and fascinating but not reliable. The connection or insight is plausible enough to captivate our imaginations but not sturdy enough to sustain the weight handled by true doctrine. The more creative and imaginative you are, the easier it is to allegorize Bible texts. I know because I’m creative and imaginative.

But this is precisely the problem. In pretending to uncover the “real” meaning of a passage, allegorizing actually jettisons the authority of Scripture in favor of the authority of the preacher’s imagination, which in practice then becomes the only functional constraint for his enticingly unique interpretations. Just like in math and science, if others can’t duplicate your work, it’s not sound exegesis.

Note: The book is “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament” by Sidney Greidanus

It's in the way that you use it.

On the plane flying back from St. Louis this week, I happened to be sitting in front of a father with an infant lap child, a situation most people disdain but which I love because I actually enjoy the sounds children make. About an hour into the flight, I was feeling drowsy, so I decided to stop reading and take a nap. Before reclining my seat, however, I turned around and asked the man if it was okay to do so. A bit startled by the courtesy, he said it was fine and thanked me for asking.

Now, I obviously did this because I wanted to be sure I didn’t inadvertently harm the child. But it immediately made me realize that it’s always a nice thing to warn the person before I recline. After all, how many times have I wished for some such warning from the person in front of me? The Golden Rule is pretty clear on this question.

“But it’s my right to recline my seat! Why should I have to ask permission to use my rights?” Well, the funny thing about rights is that their existence tells you nothing about a person. Their use, however, says quite a lot. And the most powerful use of any right is the choice to not, or at least to do so carefully…as if you love other people.

Who's Your Accountant?

Imagine for a moment that you have received some significant insight about God or life which will definitely benefit other people who hear it. Now consider three possible scenarios for sharing that insight.

Scenario 1: Your name is attached to it (so you get personal credit), and it reaches a total of one thousand people.

Scenario 2: It circulates anonymously (so no one gets credit), and it reaches one million people.

Presumably, you would rather benefit a million people, even if it means you don’t get credit, right? But let’s see if your principles hold up under:

Scenario 3: Someone plagiarizes it as his own (thereby getting the credit for himself), but it reaches one billion people.

Would you still choose to benefit the maximum number of people?

Finally, just to put all of this in perspective, no one knows for sure who wrote the Book of Hebrews. No one except God, that is.

Plagiarism is the gravest of sins mostly to people who don’t trust God to do their accounting.

When imitating love doesn't work

Every advice book in the relationship section of the bookstore will tell you the same basic thing: treat your spouse better than they deserve. If you do this consistently, they will eventually start treating you better than they currently do.

Well, I have a simple question: what if they don’t?

What if you spend time with your wife, buy her gifts, and tell her sweet things, but she never does anything back for you? What if you praise your husband lavishly, make yourself pretty, and please him physically, but he never does anything back for you? What then?

You see, the in vogue wisdom is to use generous behavior as a strategy for self-gratification. But trying to pry rewards out of a spouse’s stingy heart with nice treatment isn’t love, it’s manipulation. Love gives because it wants to give, not because giving is a good investment strategy. In fact, love revels in making terrible investments.

And unless I’m horribly mistaken, God gave us the institution of marriage precisely so that we would have the opportunity to practice love when there isn’t a thing for us to gain by doing so.

Bad medicine only diagnoses the symptoms.

Precisely because we love America so dearly, it can be understandably difficult to objectively assess some of the things that are going on in our beloved country. So, permit me a moment to make some unflattering observations.

In America, we love capitalism because it allows the individual to best satisfy his material needs and desires. We love freedom because it permits him to express himself and pursue happiness fully. And we love democracy because it forms a government best fit to the will of the individuals it represents.

But notice that there is only one worldview which is truly compatible with these key American values: individual relativism. Whatever else you might say about him, the one thing that a person in a traditional culture would never even consider it might be possible to do is fashion his own personal moral or religious code.

So the real question for Americans is not whether babies are precious, marriage is for life, or Jesus is the real Savior. The real question is whether a society which has already embraced capitalism, freedom, and democracy can even answer such questions. We don’t yet know for sure, but the evidence at this particular moment in history isn’t encouraging.

When joking proves love

I had a conversation with a friend over the weekend where I was trying to arrange a meeting time with her. When she told me one, I deliberately added 30 minutes to that as a way of joking with her that she tends to be tardy, a condition from which I also suffer. She laughed a little but also denied it, basically saying, “I’m not quite that bad.”

In reality, she is, and I told her it really didn’t matter since I loved her anyhow. It’s not as though I would love her more if she became a punctual person. I have other friends who are punctual and whom I love dearly, but not more than her. In fact, it’s precisely because both she and I know that my love for her is complete that I can afford to be so honest with her. And this is the basic nature of unconditional love.

What would otherwise feel very much like rejection in the mouth of someone making acceptance of her conditional on better time skills should feel like the warm embrace of someone who loves her flaws and all. Oh what a joy it is to be known and loved so fully that we can endure being made fun of in our weakness!

Repentance deeper than deeds

It seems to me there are two very different sorts of advice we might give to help people in struggling marriages.

The first type is what I might call typical marriage advice based on improving behavior. “Here, try these tactics. Buy her flowers. Spend some time talking with her. Do a couple of the around-the-house tasks you know she would like you to do. Give her a neck massage. Tell her how much you appreciate everything she does.”

But there’s a very different kind of advice which is given much less often. “Think about the vows you made to love her unconditionally. Consider what marriage is and what it requires. Remember what your wife has done for you and how much of who you are is because of her.”

Now, surely both sorts of advice are useful and mutually compatible. But notice that Romans 12 says to be transformed by the renewing of your mind, not by the renewing of your behavior. If God gives us the Bible so we can be moved by pondering what He has done for us, perhaps that same model could prove useful in other areas as well.

The Gospel in matrimony?

One of the most significant things we do in our lives is select a spouse. Picking well can be a great source of happiness, and the opposite is also true. As a result, when I taught ethics, I would finish the long section on sex, dating, and marriage with a list of twenty-some items to consider in selecting someone to marry. These criteria were entirely designed to make sure you were marrying someone with whom you would find lasting happiness.

But what if we started from the premise that every aspect of our lives should be patterned off the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Well, in searching for people to bring into a covenant with Himself, did God search for the most beautiful, attractive, interesting, virtuous, and dependable people with no discernible flaws or pathologies? It’s not a question you can even hear without guffawing, right? Instead, what did God do? He picked wretches whom He loved and wanted to bring to their maximum potential of flourishing.

So, here’s the ultimate question for Christians: Should we encourage our friends and children to marry prudently, or should we encourage them to marry redemptively?

Milking the right part of the cow

There’s no doubt that the parables of Jesus are difficult to properly interpret. One common error is to become fixated upon some incidental element of the story and push on it for a lesson, forcing the parable to answer a question that just wasn’t being asked.

For instance, in the parable of the prodigal sons (Luke 15), someone might observe that the younger son decides by his own willpower to return to his father’s estate. They might then conclude this passages teaches that sinners can choose on their own to seek God.

Likewise, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20), someone might notice that, even though the workers were all paid the same, they all had to work hard to earn the pay. They might conclude this passage teaches that salvation is earned by our effort.

Although it feels a bit feeble, the only correct response to such errors is to say that this just isn’t what the passages are about. All parables invite us to draw out the meaning, but the challenge is pressing on the right part. Those who don’t are like a farmer trying to get milk by adamantly pulling…on the hoof of the cow.

Too much struggle for something so small

“The Last Airbender” is one of the newest movies at the theaters. As a fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s early work, I wanted to see this from its first ad. However, the reviews have been overwhelmingly negative. Rotten Tomatoes ranks it just 8% favorable out of 100 and an average of under 3 on a ten scale (the equivalent of 1½ stars).

Having been disappointed by recent Shyamalan offerings, this doesn’t surprise me, although it does frustrate me. You see, despite knowing it’s terrible, some perverse impulse in me still want to see it, hoping against reason that it might prove out. But I know it won’t. So, somehow or other, with great perseverance, I intend to force myself to avoid it all the rest of my life.

But here’s the thing, despite my commitment, every time I see the ad on TV, that irrational part of me wakes up again and wants to check it out, even though reason assures me I’d be disappointed. And if I have to struggle so mightily just to avoid yielding to such an insignificant impulse, I am forced to conclude that it is only God’s Grace which preserves me from all the far more enticing and consequential temptations which besiege me.

A dialogue on force fields

When a six-year-old interrupts you while you’re cooking to ask whether a force field can stop molten lava, you have some options to consider. Is it important to take this question seriously, or can I ignore it as the background chatter of a young person’s verbal incessancy? Should I take this as yet another chance to put my activities above his conversation, or should I engage my son as if he actually were a valued member of my family? I opted to answer seriously:

“I guess it depends how good your force field is. A cheap one from Wal-Mart probably wouldn’t hold up, but an expensive one might.”

“What about ten force fields?”

“Well, that seems like a bit of overkill, doesn’t it? I mean you usually don’t need more than three.”

“But what if a comet comes at me?”

“I guess in that case, it wouldn’t hurt to have ten.”

“Daddy, if I have ten force fields and someone shoots a giant missile at me, it wouldn’t even touch me.”

“Agreed. Is there anything else you need my advice about?”

“Nope. That’s it. Thanks. Will dinner be ready soon?”

“In just a few minutes.”

Questions about divorce

Some simple questions on marriage, divorce, and remarriage:

Do you think there is such a thing as an illegitimate divorce?

What’s the difference between a legitimate and an illegitimate divorce?

If someone is illegitimately divorced, would it be adultery for that person to get remarried?

Is it possible that some divorced people should be allowed to remarry but others should not?

Can people be victims of divorce? If so, who might divorce victimize? The children? The spouses? Their parents? Friends and acquaintances?

Do you think of marriage as being entirely a private matter, or is it also a public thing?

If marriage is a public thing, do you think divorce should also be a public thing to that degree?

If both divorce and remarriage are sometimes illegitimate, if divorce often has victims, and if marriage, divorce, and remarriage are all public things, do you think that society has a role to play in permitting or denying them or should people just be able to have them anytime they want?

Their peculiar, droning institution

The vuvuzela is the bees-buzzing horn blown continuously by South African soccer fans. Despite an otherwise fantastic job of hosting the World Cup, this highly irritating sound has come to define the event.

It creates a mindless and continuous noise. Players can’t hear coaches. Fans can’t either praise or condemn through their yelling. And people attending the events have said that it’s deafening to the point of distraction or headache, if not harmful to one’s hearing.

What’s fascinating is that commentators seem reluctant to condemn it because they feel we should respect the differences of other cultures. South Africans themselves have celebrated the decision not to ban it, since, “The vuvuzela is ours, made here on South African soil.”

Notice that this explanation is no explanation at all. Instead of offering a rational justification, the sentiment here is simple cultural relativism. It’s as if they were to say, “We admit it’s stupid, but who are you to tell us not to be stupid?” The vuvuzela itself matters very little in the scheme of things, but the cultural relativism such discussions take seriously matters very much indeed.