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.