The command to believe.

As yesterday’s thought expressed, I have recently had a major shift in how I view the Gospel. Whereas previously, I would have described salvation through Jesus Christ as an invitation or an offer, I now think it’s far more accurate to describe it as a command, really the major command God issues. Consider these passages in the New Testament:

Just after the famous John 3:16, verse 18 says, "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

Acts 17:30-31 says, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

And 1 John 3:23 says, “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.”

See, what’s fascinating about thinking of belief in the Gospel as a command rather than an offer is that it winds up restoring this simple faith to its rightful place as the pinnacle and foundation of all other moral obligations. We must believe in the greatest act of love God has ever performed, because to deny it is to deny His very Nature.

Selling or telling?

Imagine you and a friend are discussing a plan to murder someone when a police officer walks up and says, “Excuse me, I overheard your conversation, and I’d like to encourage you to make a better decision. You see, murder is a very foolish endeavor, and you’d be much happier choosing differently.”

If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because a cop is not a salesman enticing you to pick between valid alternatives. He’s an authority figure. And regarding a plan to murder, his job (at the very least) would be to order you to stop it. In other words, he would command you, not invite you, to obey the law.

Similarly, whenever Christians talk to the world around us about morality, we usually have the good sense to know that we are justified in denouncing adultery or theft with all the authority of God behind us. Sure, we may reason with people, but this is a kindness, not an obligation. Yet sometimes it leads us to think of morality as some buffet choice among competing dishes.

But here’s the funny thing. What we know about morality, we seem to suddenly forget about the greatest moral obligation of all: having faith in God. And it makes me suddenly wonder just how much mischief has been done over the years by the notion that believing the Gospel is an offer God makes to humanity rather than a command He issues to us.

Restraint, the hidden virtue.

A lot of people have devoted a lot of time to critiquing President Obama’s State of the Union address. Even I spent most of last night’s show dissecting it and lamenting over so many of the elements in it. However (and this is a massive however), I want to give credit in as lavish a way possible to the President for the one most notable omission from his speech.

In the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, the most normal thing for a liberal Democratic President to do on Tuesday would have been to talk about gun restrictions. I’m sure many people urged him to do so, wanting to see him use this moment to advance their agenda. But he didn’t. He completely avoided it.

And bravo!

See, it’s rare that we give people credit for their restraint, but in this case it’s well-deserved. After all, conservatives have been for weeks criticizing liberals for exploiting the assassination attempt as a pretext for gun control. And if we would so loudly criticize them when they do this, then we must be equally as vocal in praising someone when he doesn’t.

It could be worse....

Proverbs 26 is a fascinating chapter which opens by denouncing fools. They don’t deserve honor. They deserve corporal punishment. They must be ignored or answered judiciously. Don’t trust them with your correspondence. They mishandle wisdom. Again, they don’t deserve honor. Again, they mishandle wisdom. You shouldn’t hire them. And they are like vomiting dogs.

So far so good. Fools are really bad. Don’t be like them. Check. Got the message.

Then in verse 12 Solomon drops this bombshell on us. “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Whoa!

All this time, he’s been setting the fool as the lowest of the low in every way, and then he says that even as bad as a fool is, he’s still ahead of the self-righteous man! And as if he hadn’t quite made the point fully enough, just three chapters later, he says, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 29:20)

Until today, I never would have guessed Solomon had heard of talk radio.

Vocabulary is paint, not timber.

As a lover of language, I have no problem with people using rhetoric to amplify a point or make an idea more enticing or even beautiful. On the other hand, because the lure of terminology is so great, many people wind up using language to score points or even win arguments despite there being no substance underneath the linguistic smoke. Here are two examples.

The next time you hear someone espouse a right to something or other, you might consider asking him, “What, exactly, is the difference between something you want, something you need, and something you have a right to receive?”

The next time someone accuses you of bashing someone, you might consider asking him, “What, exactly, is the difference between disagreeing with someone, criticizing him, and bashing him?”

In all such cases, be sure to get a clear answer. However, since clarity will probably undermine the point being made, you should also be prepared for the person to get angry at you for asking such simple questions. That will be the surest sign you’ve properly identified the problem.

Why would someone prefer to be at war?

One very natural human tendency is to associate ourselves into groups of likeminded people and then cultivate hostility towards those who are not part of our group, especially when our groups disagree about things we take seriously. The more areas of disagreement and the longer the division, the more each group learns to derive its identity not merely from believing what it believes, but also from being “not-them.”

That’s why one of the most common strategies people like me use in trying to bridge such gaps may actually be the most counterproductive of all. See, we usually try to find common ground between two positions from which to build a kind of temporary cease-fire. What this approach fails to realize is that even acknowledging the existence of common ground is extremely threatening to such entrenched combatants.

When being “not-them” is as important to a group as being ”us,” common ground is unacceptable because it threatens to undo the self-defining idea that we and they are so deeply and properly alienated from each other. Thus, precisely the thing that bridge-builders see as the starting point is, ironically, the most bitterly dangerous territory for both sides because it risks undermining the war whose perpetuation is at least as important as anything else. Far safer to know who we are by staying at a state of total opposition to those we hate than risk losing our identity by admitting we actually have something in common.

The problem isn't really the problem.

Because I already own an abundant supply of books, I most often go to the library to browse DVDs. Whenever I do this, the available titles are almost entirely things that came out two or more months ago. In other words, not new releases. That’s why, whenever I go and happen to see one, or even two, actual new releases on the shelf, I get a little giddy thrill out of the unanticipated find.

On the other hand, something very different happens whenever I go to Blockbuster, where I get most of my newest movies. Since I review DVDs on my show, the station pays for this, so these movies are also free as far as I’m concerned. But if I’m looking for one particular movie, it’s terribly annoying if there aren’t any copies available, even though the store is stocked with hundreds of copies of movies I would be thrilled to find at the library.

The only difference is that I have such different expectations and, therefore, such different preparation for either joy or disappointment. I wonder whether this has any bearing on why some people are grateful and others, even with more, are petulant.

On not obeying a principle only halfway.

One of the arguments you sometimes hear about certain contentious political issues is that the Supreme Court has long settled the question and therefore people should really stop whining about it. This, for example is what we often hear about Roe v Wade. As you might suspect, however, there’s a difficulty with this line of reasoning.

The problem is that the Supreme Court’s authority to set precedents is not a freestanding thing. It rests on the prior authority of the United States Constitution. And if the Court is not itself honoring the plain, original meaning of the Constitution in its rulings (both in what it overturns and in what it lets stand), then it’s hard to see why we are bound to honor the Court’s rulings themselves.

See, the people who want me to honor the long-standing legal precedents they endorse get bothered when I look at the even-longer-standing Constitution and say they’re in violation of it. To put it another way, if (as they say) the Constitution is a “living document,” which means that we don’t have to hold too strictly to it, then why shouldn’t we also view the more recent precedents set by the Court as “living pamphlets” which are even flimsier in their ability to bind us?

The overspill of a strong core message.

Because I was forced to sit and wait for a substantial amount of time at a bank the other day, I had enough time to read the entire book of Galatians. When I returned the next day, I again had to wait, so I started reading it again. And I was really struck by the opening, where Paul says he’s an apostle sent by God not by men.

See, I had always read this as Paul just emphasizing to his people that he’s the real thing, and it almost seemed like a persuasive trick or perhaps a bit of vanity to me. But the point he’s making here is really just a result of how saturated his mind was with the core message he was communicating in the letter.

The entire message of Galatians is that there’s man’s way of doing anything and there’s God way of doing it, and the only way that works is God’s way of faith. We are saved by faith, not by keeping the law, so we should pursue sanctification by faith, not by the law. Abraham had an heir in Isaac by faith, not by works of the flesh in Ishmael. And even the deeds of the Spirit are profoundly different than those of the flesh.

So when Paul says this business about his authenticity, it’s really just because he’s so overcome with the bright line distinction between God’s ways and our ways, and rejoicing he’s been delivered from men to be with God. And I would never have seen it if I hadn’t gone back to reread the beginning with the whole thing fresh in my mind.

Just doing my job.

Children are fickle. Any parent knows this. It’s one of the great challenges of trying to satisfy them that what they loved yesterday may make them turn up their noses today. To make matters worse, they might change their mind about something over the course of weeks, days, or just minutes.

The other morning, I was getting ready to cook breakfast, and I was planning to make omelets. So, I asked Spencer and Ethan whether they wanted any. Spencer eagerly said yes, but Ethan said no. When I asked him what he did want, he didn’t give me any answer. Ignoring what he’d told me, I proceeded to make enough for all three of us anyway.

After I brought out Spencer’s and mine, a few minutes went by before Ethan turned to me and said, “I want some omelet, too.” So I got up and brought the plate with his over to him. “How did you know I’d change my mind?” he asked with a smile. “It’s my job to know you better than you know yourself,” I told him. “It’s what any good father does, and I learned from the Best.”

Who is your real god?

One way to define a god is as the ultimate source of meaning and security in your life. But if you want to know someone’s true god, you can’t just ask him. People are notoriously ignorant of their own heart-motivations. So, the more reliable method is to look at his behavior.

Unfortunately, when things are going well, people with very different real devotions can all behave quite similarly. That’s why adversity has such a clarifying effect. If you want to decipher someone’s true religion, watch how he reacts to tragedy. First, he’ll try to ascribe meaning to the events. Then he’ll propose solutions to prevent the same thing from happening again in the future. Both of these will reveal his true god.

So, when the shootings in Tucson happened last week, lots of people inadvertently revealed their true god to be politics. While others were simply mourning, these politicalists immediately interpreted the calamity as the result of political factors and started calling for political changes. This was not a calculated strategy, as some have mistakenly thought. It was just the instinctive behavior of people under stress kneeling before their real deity.

Everyone should take Logic 101

The “tu quoque” (or “you, too”) fallacy is certainly one of the most prevalent. In it, the user responds to criticism by saying that the person criticizing him is guilty of the very same offense. Sometimes called the “appeal to hypocrisy” fallacy, the classic formulation is, “You can’t tell me not to smoke, mom. You smoke, too.”

Of course, someone violating the rule doesn’t invalidate the rule itself. It only means that you’re both guilty of it. The moral force doesn’t lie in the consistency of the person raising the criticism, but rather in the rationale or authority behind the rule in the first place.

Sadly, in responding to the recent talk by liberals about the need for a more civil tone in talk radio and TV, the vast majority of conservatives have employed some variant of this fallacy. The problem is that it’s difficult to convincingly maintain you are morally better than your opponents when the only defense you offer for your conduct is that it is no worse than theirs.

Being better than your them means allowing yourself to be held to a higher standard than, “They do it, too.”

Why dysvangelize?

The atheist narrative goes something like this:

“Life is short, and then there’s nothing. There is no meaning to it all, other than what we create for ourselves. Most people aren’t strong enough to handle this truth, so they turn to religion. They invent a big man-in-the-sky to soothe their despair, a strain of wishful thinking that makes them feel good about things and gets them to behave so they don’t lose the happily-ever-after ending to their fairy tale. But some few, proud, noble souls are strong enough, mensch enough, to handle it. These become atheists.”

It’s a fine narrative (as narratives go), with obstacles and heroes and a nice, large group of foreigners to deride. But what if it’s true? What if the gentle delusion of religion comforts and virtuefies people who really are incapable of enduring “the truth?” If that part of the story is right, then what sort of monster would rip away their sappy fable and replace it with the despair which, by their own theory, is far too crushing for most people to bear?

The twin dangers of self-improvement.

When I weighed more, hearing people boast of their success on the walk-half-an-hour-every-other-day method would annoy me because my wife and I walk nearly an hour every single day, yet my weight was going up, not down. Thus, I discovered in myself the ugly little idea that I felt entitled to any success others were having and by the easiest way possible.

Eventually, I accepted the sad truth that, if I was going to lose weight, it would have to be by eating differently and much, much less. So, now that I’ve dropped about 30 pounds on the vegetables-and-starvation diet, I have another problem: arrogance.

See, this was one of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever done in my life, mostly because I LOVE to eat and HATE to be hungry. Nevertheless, I endured it, and it worked. So now I’m prone to looking down on people who say they want to get thin but can’t as wimps who just won’t pay the price I paid. This, too, is an ugly thing to see in myself.

Who would have guessed that physical improvement could be so morally treacherous?

Why do we seek an explanation?

Everyone everywhere has been talking about the shootings in Tucson on Saturday, and the major theme underlying all the discussions has been getting more knowledge and finding someone to blame. Why? Because if we can explain the tragedy and assign blame, we can ignore it as something understood, thus making the world again predictable and safe enough for us to snuggle up in the false security of our very good theory.

See, we scoff at the Indians who wore “ghost shirts” to ward off army bullets at Wounded Knee, but we turn around and think that having a better theory of the universe will ultimately prevent pain and tragedy in our lives or around us. The truth is that the world is full of evil and it will not be predicted, controlled, or prevented in its entirety by anything we do. And no matter how good your theory, evil will still occur, probably even to you.

Evil is real. There is very little we can do to stop it. And God is in control. If we come to Him, He doesn’t promise to protect us, but He does promise to make us His, which is much better than any protection.

What should count as a reason?

2000: “Now is the time to buy gold. It’s at an all-time low, which means the factors driving it down must inevitably reverse and make the price bounce back.”

2011: “Now is the time to buy gold. It’s at an all-time high, which means the factors driving it up can only take it even higher.”

2000: “Now is the time to buy a house. Rates are at historic highs and are only going to go higher if you don’t act now.”

2011: “Now is the time to buy a house. Rates are at historic lows and can’t stay down forever.”

2006: “The United States is unusually hot and the carbon dioxide emissions which caused this are only going to make the temperature climb to even more dangerous highs unless we do something right now.”

2011: “The United States is unusually cold and the carbon dioxide emissions which also caused this are only going to make the temperature go back to being really hot unless we do something right now.”

What is integrity?

As most people know, I’m a bit of a fanatic about driving ethics, particularly driving the speed limit. So when a good friend of mine was recently driving me somewhere, he jabbed at me while speeding that maybe he wasn’t really a Christian. “That’s okay, “I replied, “I already suspected.” Naturally, we both laughed about it.

But in thinking it over, I realized that although there are lots of different ways to discuss the ethics of obeying the speed limit, some of them can sound rather high and mighty, like, “The Bible tells us to obey the authorities….” or “Who has the authority to decide such things?” But sometimes simple questions are more compelling: How do you drive with a cop behind you? And, do you pass a cop who is driving the speed limit?

See, if you drive differently because someone may enforce the law you want to break, then there’s really no other description for the behavior besides hypocrisy. It’s not even rebellion, since true rebels endure the consequences. As the noted scholar Dudley Moore once said, “The best car-safety device is a rearview mirror with a cop in it.”

Have you ever seen a unicorn?

Libertarians eagerly self-describe as freedom-worshipers, an interesting religion to say the least. Since they think freedom is an end in itself, government may only ever do three things: preserve peace and order, administer justice, and defend the country. Anything beyond this is a form of tyranny.

What’s so very fascinating about this freedom-centric utopian vision is that it has never once in the history of mankind been successfully implemented. No society has ever been built on so tiny and impotent a form of governance.

Now the libertarian might try to persuade you that the Constitution did so, but this fable only lives by forgetting the tremendously robust forms of government which existed at the state and local level among the thirteen societies represented at the Convention, all of which would be classified as tyrannies by today’s libertarian .

So, when you hear people assert that libertarianism is the true form of government, try to resist the luring ideological simplicity of the claim and ask why it’s never actually been tried before.

Atheists don't even ask the hardest questions.

All atheists (and most believers, by the way) are aware of the seeming tension between a good, powerful God and a universe of pain. But if we start from the premise that this world is temporary and (therefore) all suffering in it is marginal by comparison with the scope of eternity, evil in this life isn’t so challenging a problem after all. Few atheists realize that the real problem is hell.

If God wants to save all men and is powerful enough to do so, why doesn’t He? Within Christianity, your answer on these three issues (God’s desire, His ability, and the results) divides Arminians from Calvinists from Universalists, really serious divisions by the way. (Each says yes to two of them and no to the third.)

But that’s the point. Even among believers referring to the same Book, we seem unable to resolve the much greater tensions within our own theology regarding the ultimate evil of hell. Does that make our God untrue? Or does it merely demonstrate that we finite and dull humans still don’t yet fully comprehend our Daddy as much as teenagers like to think they do?

The differences of infidelity

My wife has higher cleanliness standards than I do. Unreasonably higher. Nevertheless, when I am washing or cleaning things, even if she’s not around, I do them to her standards just as I would if she were there. This is a form of fidelity.

As the more permissive parent, my sons have learned to ask me first when they want to do something. But many times, even if something would be okay with me, I know Dani wouldn’t like it. So I either tell them no or to ask her. This is a form of fidelity.

When I’m with friends, and wife-talk comes up, I never say anything to them which I haven’t already told Dani and gotten permission from her to share with them. In essence, I talk as if she were there, too. This is a form of fidelity.

See, I believe that any time there is a difference between how I would act if my wife were around and how I do act when she isn’t is a form of infidelity. And my wedding ring is a symbol to remind me that because she and I are one, she is always with me…even when she isn’t.

What did I really say?

“The response you get IS the communication.”

See, so much of the time, we find all sorts of justifications for being satisfied with a standard much lower than this. When people don’t laugh at our jokes, we find fault with their sense of humor rather than with our grasp of their mindset or our delivery. When we say something that makes them angry, we blame their surly disposition instead of our poor word choice and intonation. When people misunderstand what we’ve said, we chalk that up to their stupidity instead of our ineloquence. And not at all needless to say, we invert all these judgments when we are the ones not laughing, getting mad, or misunderstanding.

In other words, we would all rather be proud of having said what we wanted to say rather than learning to be proud in achieving the result in the other person we want to achieve. And even a professional in the field of communication like me finds this constantly challenging. Nevertheless:

“The response you get IS the communication.”