What does love mean?

“Oh, Lord, I love the way you so generously forgive me my sins.”
“Do you likewise forgive others when they harm or offend you?”

“Oh, Lord, I love that you provide for my needs so completely.”
“Do you likewise give help to people when they have needs you can satisfy?”

“Oh, Lord, I love how patient you are with my foolish questions and ideas.”
“Are you likewise patient with the foolish people around you?”

“Oh, Lord, I love that you died for me even though I did not deserve it.”
“Do you likewise seek out those who do not deserve your help so you may sacrifice for them?”

“Oh, Lord, I love how you always comfort me when I am sad or lonely.”
“Are you likewise willing to make your activities wait so that you may spend sufficient time with those who need your companionship?”

To say we love God when we are then unwilling to imitate Him in our own behavior is to proclaim our own condemnation.

Garbage in, success out?

How important would you say it is for you to have a fantastic marriage? Okay, now how many films have you seen that have portrayed that result and helped teach you how to achieve it?

How important would you say it is for you to be an excellent parent? Okay, now how many television shows have you seen showing that result and how to get it?

How important would you say it is for you to be financially successful by being honest and then being generous with the money you earn? Okay, now how many movies have you seen offering an example of someone doing just that?

How important would you say it is for you to be a devoted Christian, proclaiming the Gospel with integrity and effectiveness? Okay, now how many shows have offered you a character who has really achieved this sort of an ideal?

When people ask me why I think America isn’t doing better, I honestly have to say that the amazing thing is that we aren’t doing so much worse.

First, get a good appraisal.

The Bible teaches us to be good stewards of what God has given us. To call this obvious is an understatement, and there are many things to which it applies.

We are to be good stewards of the environment, managing it well and keeping it for future generations. We are to be good stewards of our bodies, keeping them healthy and fit. We are to be good stewards of our money, earning, saving, and giving wisely. We are even told to be good stewards of our skills, developing and exercising them at every opportunity. And in truth, none of these are wrong. But they all miss the point.

If our task is to be praiseworthy handlers of the valuable things God has entrusted to our care, it makes sense to first ask what the most valuable such thing is. It’s not the world. It’s not our bodies. It’s not our money. And it’s not our abilities. It’s the knowledge of His Son.

So although these other things require our attention, if we are not good stewards of the Gospel, having impressive records on the others won’t impress God at all.

Absurd generosity?

Imagine, if you will, a wealthy American businessman who takes a vacation trip to Mexico. While he’s there, he becomes friends with a local who tells him how difficult his life in Mexico is and how deeply he wants to live in America. The businessman, moved by this man’s situation makes him a radical offer.

“The guys at the border checkpoint know me, so here’s what I want you to do. I want you to put on my clothes, take my car, take my money, and take my passport. I’m going to go over to the embassy and work out all the details, but I’m going to give up my citizenship and let you have it instead of me and I’ll write you a letter to carry with you to this effect. Now you can go live your life in America, and I’ll just stay here in your place.”

Considering the riches and lifestyle that Jesus gave up in coming from heaven to Earth to get us, it seems at lease plausible that this man is a Christian who really grasps the Gospel, right? But that raises a much more challenging question for us: What would a fully Christian immigration policy look like?

On passing grades

Salvation is much less complicated than people imagine. On Judgment Day, everyone will be graded by God. What makes it confusing is people have experienced so many other judgments in their lives that they think they know what it will mean to be judged by God.

For instance, in school, some teachers give us grades based on objective standards, whereas others assign grades based on a bell curve distribution. But either way, the scale is structured so that the vast majority of students pass. And now, 40 years after Vietnam caused grade inflation to protect mediocre students from the draft, almost everyone feels entitled to Bs and As, as if even average is now above average.

Similarly, on the job, most people do well on evaluations because the scale is crafted to realistically the labor pool’s potential. And you usually get to stay employed unless you make some colossal mistake. Even in sport, where of course some win and others lose, all you have to do to win is be a little better than the other guy.

With God, it just isn’t like this at all. God’s judgment is a pass/fail system based on a single final exam with only one question: “Do you deserve to pass?” Everyone who thinks he deserves to pass fails, and everyone who knows he deserves to fail passes, and this for a simple reason. The man who knows he deserves to fail begs for mercy, a gift God so eagerly wants to grant that He sacrificed His only Son to make it possible.

Many bags look alike.

One of the concepts people seem to find challenging about Christianity is the difference between the way a Christian does what is right and the way a person imitating a Christian does what is right. But in reality, this isn’t hard to understand at all. Consider two employees who know there will be a performance review a few months in the future.

The first one is generally a good employee, and he has a strong relationship with his boss (both knowing and being known quite well). He might jot down some notes to document his activities, but this is mostly just to make his reviewer’s task easier. He enters the review with the attitude that he will be evaluated fairly and given any rewards he deserves, trusting his boss’s judgment.

The second one doesn’t really like his job, doing only what he must to not be fired, and he barely knows his boss. But, anticipating the review, he deliberately starts doing more and carefully documenting his good work. He obviously does not include an equally meticulous account of his prior slacking. His goal is get a better position or pay than he really deserves by fooling his boss, whose approval he covets but whose judgment he clearly neither trusts nor respects.

I would think it’s needless to say that although the second strategy may work with men, it does not work with God. But given how prevalent it seems to be, I guess it’s not so needless to say after all.

What does love look like?

I love Albert Pujols, the superstar first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. Of course, I'm not alone in my view of him. The only serious dispute about him among sports fans is whether he’s the greatest player to ever play the game or just one of the greatest. Time is expected to settle the argument.

What does it mean that I love him? Well, for starters, I love telling other people about him, and I especially relish being able to say he's on my team. When he is playing, I want him to do well, and it's thrilling every time he does something great. I own several Cardinals jerseys, but the one with a 5 on the back is my favorite to wear to games.

If I were to play baseball, I would sincerely try to emulate him. I would work as diligently as I could off the field, practicing harder than anyone else. I would study the game obsessively as he does. I would probably even try to stand as he stands at the plate. Above all else, I would cherish any opportunity to speak with him and learn from his baseball wisdom. In short, if I were actually engaged in baseball playing, I would hope that my admiration of him would shout louder than my vocal praise. And even when I'm only engaged in baseball watching, I hope my love for him is obvious to even a casual contact.

I would say that all these things together show that I love Albert Pujols with some of my heart, some of my mind, some of my soul, and some of my strength. I wonder, then, what loving Someone with all of them might look like.

Of rips and repairs.

At the exact moment of Jesus’s death, the New Testament records that the veil of the Temple was split from top to bottom. Most commentators interpret this to mean that God had now made it possible for anyone to have direct access to Him through His Son rather than needing a priest.

What I wonder is how the Temple leaders would have reacted to this big rip. History doesn’t tell us, which isn’t surprising since few non-Biblical historical sources have survived, but if it happened as our Scriptures teach, it would certainly have been an issue. Most likely, I expect they would have been very surprised and then set about repairing it without asking too many questions.

After all, the implications for their lives, jobs, and entire religious system would have been devastating. And even if some of them had been mildly concerned, there weren’t any other obvious problems. The Temple itself stood and functioned for another three and a half decades. So as they repaired the divider, I suppose their attitude was simply, “Pay no attention to the man who ripped the curtain.”

But it does make me wonder how many times in my own life God has ripped open a problem and told me to do things a new way but I’ve just quietly tried to sew my old habits back together, hoping no one would notice the giant gaping discrepancy.

A childish notion of what's good.

Imagine a child fighting with another child over a toy the first child owns.

What is the child’s view of things? Virtue entails getting back what belongs to him, right.

What is a parent’s view of things? Virtue would be finding a way to share with that other child.

What is the Christian’s view of things? Virtue would be offering to give the toy to the child as a blessing.

Without actually saying that every grabby child should be given his ill-snatched booty, let’s consider how the child reacts to either his parent’s advice or the Christian’s advice.

He hates it, right? He will either refuse to comply or else comply sulkily or perhaps even throw a tantrum of frustration. It certainly would never occur to him that he is simply too immature to see the wisdom of these superior alternatives. Nevertheless, we do. Why? Because as parents and Christians, we understand things better than he does.

So here’s the question: Why does a loving God permit evil in the world? Why won’t He just do what’s right!

Mistaking a crumb for the feast.

One of the biggest barriers to understanding the Bible is already understanding the Bible. We somehow acquire an interpretation of a passage that isn’t necessarily wrong, but misses the big point and keeps us satisfied enough to stop looking for it.

For instance, the Third Commandment says to not take (carry) the Lord’s name in vain. People commonly think this means to not swear, which unfortunately leads them to believe they are satisfying it so long as they don’t say, “Jesus,” with the wrong tone of voice.

Actually, the real thing prohibited here is religious hypocrisy; saying you follow God but living like you don’t. You’re vainly attaching God’s Name to your life precisely when that life denies God’s Lordship over you, like an ambassador who dishonors his home country.

Once you see this as the main point of the Commandment, it becomes easier to explain why Jesus was so furious with the God-lipping (but not God-living) religious leaders of His day…leaders who probably never spoke God’s Name the wrong way even one time in their whole lives.

It's easy to overlook what's missing.

One amazing aspect of the Bible which almost everyone notices is its blunt honesty about its heroes. Again and again, we see leaders fail in the most embarrassing possible ways. And given the nature of some of the sins, it seems as if the Bible actually goes out of its way to show the faults of its main characters, often revealing events that might easily have simply remained hidden. It’s especially annoying to virtue advocates who want to say the Bible is a set of moral rules since there aren’t any exemplars to emulate. But maybe there’s a purpose.

In stark contrast with this, the disciples lived every moment with Jesus of Nazareth for three and a half years and not a single defect emerged. Although the Pharisees tested Him for a week prior to Passover as the Lamb of God, the inspection of the disciples was far more rigorous. And the verdict is emphatic: this Man alone was without spot or blemish.

Just when I begin to think I’m grasping how the Bible is really all about Jesus, I discover an entirely new and embarrassingly obvious way in which It proclaims His unique Glory.

What is tolerance?

A recent Fox News poll revealed an almost perfect three-way split among Americans about building an Islamic cultural center near ground zero: those who oppose the mosque and want it stopped, those who oppose the mosque but think it should be allowed, and those who support the mosque. These three groups rather neatly illustrate a simple concept most people misunderstand: tolerance.

Who is being tolerant here? By definition, the first group is being intolerant by trying to prevent the mosque. (Keep in mind that sometimes intolerance is good, such as of slavery.) The last group is neither being tolerant nor intolerant. They are supporters and so the concept simply doesn’t apply to them. Only the middle group is being tolerant. They dislike the thing and yet they refuse to forcibly prevent it from being built. Even if they try to verbally persuade the builders to stop construction, they are still being perfectly tolerant.

Of course, none of this analysis settles which group is right. The point is simply that if you want to educate people about what tolerance means and does not mean, the ground zero mosque is a phenomenally lucid illustration.

Safety, freedom, and moral development

So, the speed cameras are gone. Well, not gone, but inactive. And the results have been pretty obvious and utterly predictable. We are not-so-gradually returning to the status quo ante where most people drive too fast and some people drive ridiculously fast. But there is a sort of moral silver lining to all this rediscovered recklessness.

In the old days, the only reasons I had for driving the limit were moral (since I rightly believed that I could get away with speeding if I wanted to). I was submitting to the law only because it was the law. When the cameras appeared, I suddenly had mixed motives precisely because I would be caught. Deprived of the liberty to disobey, I made no moral progress. So now that they are back off, I’m free to be good for the sake of being good again. This is truly a selfish benefit.

Of course, the selfish cost of such moral development is that I’m again afraid of collisions from the fools around me. The question is which benefit would I prefer? In this case, safety, quite frankly. That’s the one you go for when everyone else around you is a dangerous child.

On driving badly

As I was driving home last night, I experienced a familiar irritation. Approaching a highway interchange, the SUV in front of me first switched out of our lane and then a few moments later switched right back into it in front of me. A very well-known thought ran through my head. “This idiot has no idea what he’s doing.” Usually, this thought is followed by me contemptuously wondering, “Is it that hard to not be an imbecile when you’re driving?”

But that wasn’t the one that came next for me last night. Instead, I was stymied by my own inner phraseology. “He has no idea what he’s doing.” It caused me to realize that this person wasn’t trying to be annoying. He simply doesn’t know his way around this particular road. It’s possible he’s never driven here before. But even if he has, it’s pretty obvious that annoying me is not his intent.

Still it kept nagging at me this business of ignorance, and that’s when it clicked. There was only one right response. I should forgive him for he knows not how he drives.

Smarter than children?

I have to chuckle at the evil genius of pediatricians every time we make a visit. The visits always go the same basic way. After the initial pleasantries with the nurse and the waiting, the pediatrician comes in. She plays with the kids, checks them for whatever, and answers our questions. Then she leaves, and the nurse comes back in. To do what? Administer the shots, of course.

This is brilliant in two ways: the nurse gets the blame and she has to see the pain. What about the doctor? Oh, the kids love their doctors, and why wouldn’t they? The doctor never does anything bad. And of course we laugh at their naiveté. But all this reminds me of another situation, perhaps less obvious yet more sinister.

Why do people despise IRS agents? Well, the job of an IRS agent is to make people pay what they owe. But this means that those of us who are honest should really love IRS agents for making the cheaters play by the rules. And of course the most ironic fact is that the IRS doesn’t even write the tax code. Congress does. The IRS are just police.
Pretty funny how those four-year-olds get so easily fooled by the doctor, isn’t it?

When you come to a homiletical fork in the road, take it.

Presuming that you are presenting the right basic content, there is one major challenge to preaching effectively: crafting the message so it has an impact on all the listeners. Any audience is made up of a spectrum of people ranging from those who know nothing about the Bible to those who are extremely familiar with it. Since both need to be reached by a good sermon, the trick is to simultaneously make the Bible both more familiar and less familiar.

To those who do not know it at all, preaching reveals what is new and therefore unknown. But to those who know it well, preaching needs to reveal what is unknown precisely because it is not new. The Bible is intrinsically shocking to the new believer, but it needs to become at least mildly surprising again to the old one. Ignorance and familiarity are thus both obstacles, the challenge being to help some people see it at all and others to see it afresh.

It’s never enough to reach only the one or the other. Really effective preaching forces itself to find a way to reach them both simultaneously.

When to call it quits.

Have you ever suffered the terrible misfortune of being promoted beyond your competence? I mean one day you discover that you’re in over your head at doing something you just aren’t qualified for and can’t get out of? What does it feel like?

Well, you constantly get frustrated because of things beyond your ability to control effectively. You feel stress because expectations from others and yourself are not being met. You feel ashamed and guilty because you know you just aren’t getting the job done and you’re letting everyone down. You certainly feel tempted to pretend as if everything is much better than it really is, irrationally hoping things might just magically improve. But they don’t, and the only feasible solution is to request a demotion so that someone competent can step in and take over, right?

Funny thing, though. Don’t most of us often have precisely this sensation about our own lives? And wouldn’t that lead to the conclusion that running our own lives is a tragic case of overpromotion? If so, maybe the only solution is to resign the position and let Someone qualified sit in the big chair.

Who am I pretending?

With my wife and children out of town, I’ve had enough time recently to really be about as selfish as I want to be. I control the television. I control the temperature. I control the kitchen. I even control the level of noise in the house…oh yeah!

As I was pondering just how to spend my last evenings of liberated loneliness, it occurred to me that I am highly skilled at entertaining myself. Perhaps as a result of having been an only child, I’ve spent my 39 years becoming a master of doing things that make me happy. And now I truly am an expert on acquiring satisfaction through activities.

But as I was consulting my internal desire algorithms for guidance, a rather distracting thought occurred to me: What if I made it my new hobby to become just as much an expert at making other people happy as I am at doing so for myself? Even more uncomfortably, am I really even trying to love my coworker as myself if I don’t pursue such otherishness?

The hidden benefits of conflict.

One of the most annoying things about having three boys is their constant squabbling, fighting, and conflict. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are stretches sometimes as long as 8 or even 9 seconds when silence rules, but most of the time, not so much. One benefit of so much conflict, of course, is they all learn better how to deal with conflict. But another benefit of it is better parenting by us.

See, when Spencer mistreats Ethan, it requires us to intervene and guide him toward better character. But what if Ethan weren’t around? Well, it would be easier for us, of course, because there would be less conflict. But this absence of strife would actually be a great loss for us as parents. Without so much constant provocation, Spencer’s real character would much more easily remain hidden from our view and thus go uncorrected, perhaps for his entire life.

I guess what I’m saying is that there are important but hidden benefits to giving a child siblings to bicker with.

What's a Samaritan?

“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.”

But wanting to vindicate his behavior, a man said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered, “A man was walking on Baseline when a gang beat him up and took his wallet, leaving him for dead. By chance, a Republican was going down the sidewalk, and when he saw him, he crossed over to the other side and kept on walking. Likewise a Democrat also, when he came to the place and saw him, he crossed the road and kept going.

“But then an illegal immigrant, who was on his way to work, saw him and felt compassion. He took him to an urgent care medical clinic and, pulling out a handful of money, told the nurse that he didn’t know whether this would cover the treatment, but he’d come back with more tomorrow. The next day, he came and took the man to his own house, cooked for him, and let him sleep in his own bed while he recovered.

“Which of these three do you think proved to be a good citizen?” (Luke 10:25-37, loosely paraphrased)

You must know more than the truth to set others free

“Poor people can’t help poor people.” In the limited and purely economic sense of giving them financial assistance, this is inarguable. The implication, of course, is that a good way to help poor people is to become financially successful yourself. Just as obviously, forgetting to actually help the poor after one becomes rich sort of fails to make good on the given justification. But if they really do use their wealth to help the poor, such people behave lovingly.

This same principle also applies to ideas. Foolish people can’t help foolish people. So a great way to help fools is to become wise yourself. But it’s not enough to simply have right answers yourself, since then only you benefit. You must also have the ability to “give” them to others effectively. This entails learning persuasion, rhetoric, psychology and a variety of other skills beyond merely having the truth.

Just as wealth without the willingness to share it is unloving, so is wisdom without the practical ability to share it.