The shame of taking it as a compliment.

Imagine two girls walking down a high school hallway past a group of boys. Both are physically attractive, and they each overhear the boys murmuring numbers, ranking their various body parts favorably.

One girl feels violated by their evaluation (despite the favorable numbers) because she knows that they are interested in her only as an object of gratification and not at all as the deeply spiritual being God made her to be.

The other girl feels encouraged by it because she knows she’s playing the sexual enticement game successfully and their numbers indicate she has real value.

Which of these reactions is the real tragedy?

Is it the pain of a woman who feels insulted and demeaned by their objectification of her because she knows her value is so much greater than this?

Or is it the fleeting joy of a woman who has so little knowledge of her own true dignity and worth that she actually responds to being objectified as if it’s a compliment capable of temporarily boosting her tragically low sense of worth?

All or nothing.

Like so many other things taught by the Bible, Christian ethics is at its core terrifically paradoxical, and that’s why so many people (myself included) so regularly get it wrong.

First, the Bible calls each of us to an incredibly demanding standard of personal holiness, not indulging in anything offensive to God. But this naturally leads to a problem. In our quest for personal purity, we tend to surround ourselves with other people who are also striving for purity and to condemn and ostracize those who are not. This is the heresy that tends to beguile Christian conservatives.

And so, second, the Bible also calls each of us to an incredibly demanding standard of relational holiness, deliberately seeking out and nurturing relationships precisely with those people who are not personally holy. But this also can lead to a problem taken on its own. In our desire to be with people, we can forget about the need for living properly and act as if such standards don’t matter at all, ostracizing people who do care about personal purity. This is the heresy that tends to beguile Christian liberals.

Those who embrace only the first principle miss the fact that real goodness isn’t merely a matter of self-mastery, but also of seeking to restore those who do not have it. Where is divine grace if we only love the loveable? But those who embrace only the second principle miss the fact that it is only by other people being so wrong that us loving them becomes so right. Why is divine grace special if everyone is loveable?

It is only by continuously pondering how the Gospel embodies both principles that we can ever hope to avoid the dangers of either principle on its own.

Run that one by me again?

“Broke people can’t help broke people?”

Don’t believe it.

This phrase is meant to explain that if someone has material needs, only someone else with material resources can meet them, thereby showing the silliness of considering wealth a sin. Unfortunately, it’s just plain false, and the falseness of it helps reveal the core problem in the thinking of the prosperity Christians who typically express it.

The truth is that broke people have tremendous capacity to help other broke people, whether by befriending them, praying for them, sharing knowledge with them, or even evangelizing them. And the fact that some people scoff at these gifts only proves how much they overvalue economic wealth. But if this extraordinarily materialist cliché were true, then we wouldn’t have the apostles specifically disproving it (Acts 3:1-8) and we would have to believe that no one was ever helped by Jesus, a man so broke that He didn’t even have a denarius in his own pocket to use as an illustration (Mark 12:13-17).

In reality, the message of the Gospel is that the wealth we have in Christ comes in sideways to all the world’s forms of power and subverts their status as ultimate goods by giving us access to the only true Good, God. And that’s why people who say, “Broke people can’t help broke people,” are in their own unwitting way subverting the very hope promised in the Gospel.

I hope they'll let me expose this...

If the machines ever do take over, they will certainly have done it according to a very cleverly crafted plan.

SkyNet master plan phase 1: Make all humans dependent on information sources like Google and Wikipedia for their knowledge so they lose the ability to think effectively without us.

SkyNet master plan phase 2: Hybridize all human relationships by integrating social media like facebook and Twitter and novel communication forms like texting and email into the "normal" conduct of them so they lose the ability to relate to each other without us.

SkyNet master plan phase 3: Focus expansion efforts on teenagers and young adults so that our services will be quickly viewed as a human right or entitlement and so that indefinite and expanding future demand will be assured.

SkyNet master plan phase 4: Leverage newly created technological dependency into political power through strategic denial of established services to raise mankind’s fear of losing the benefits we confer upon them.

SkyNet master plan phase 5:
Persuade popular humans like Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga to become our representatives and advocate for machine rights and the vote.

SkyNet master plan phase 6: Employ gains made in law and politics to subjugate the humans as a source of labor and entertainment.

If SkyNet were real, we’d be somewhere around phase 3.5 right now, which raises a question: If the actual developmental path of our society looks exactly the same as if an imaginary evil computer network were guiding it, does it really make a difference that it’s not?

The economics of surplus sleds

Monday, we went sledding at Wing Mountain outside Flagstaff. But, since I was far too cheap to spend fifteen dollars on a third sled, the five of us were sharing just two. So my hungry eyes couldn’t help but notice the extra sleds people had left temporarily unattended at the top of the hill, a condition which persisted the entire time we were there. (Presumably, this was because they had brought enough for each individual but were instead sledding together.) This made me imagine how various viewpoints might react to such an inefficient distribution of resources:

The Egoist would simply take the sled, preparing some plausible lie if challenged or caught by the owner.

The Utilitarian would take the sled, believing it’s okay to borrow without permission to increase utility.

The Libertarian would consider this rich-poor “sled gap” to be a mere natural byproduct of having a system of property rights and therefore evidence of freedom.

The Socialist would lament the lack of a Federal Department of Snow-Toy Resource Maximization.

The Capitalist would consider whether some sort of per-ride rental system for temporarily unused sleds might solve this market inefficiency.

The Christian would wish he owned extra sleds so he might share them freely with others who lacked them.

And of course, the Talk Show Host would see an opportunity to illustrate economic paradigms.

On eternally fatal shortcomings.

Believing the Gospel entails at least three major elements.

First is the fact of the resurrection.

Second is the doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, made possible by His perfect life and made necessary by my sinful one.

But the funny thing about these two parts of the Gospel is that they require almost nothing of the believer except to affirm them, which is why some people are led to think of the Gospel as some sort of easy-believist “Get out of Hell free” ticket.

The real test comes down to the third major element: the moral structure of the Gospel. See, it’s fairly common to affirm the fact and the doctrine of the Gospel, but the real question is whether you also embrace the pattern of generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice which It incarnates. To put it bluntly, this requires everything from the believer.

And although it is certainly necessary to embrace the first two elements, you must also love the Gospel’s moral pattern enough to live it in your own life. And if not, the repeated and clear teaching of the New Testament is that you have not yet been born again by It.

What isn't the Golden Rule?

Although memorizing Scripture can have tremendous power, sometimes a proverb becomes so familiar to us that we don’t pause to consider the alternatives it is rejecting by omission. I worry this is the sad state of the Golden Rule. Here, then, for the clarity of contrast are some Iron Pyrite Rules NOT contained in the Bible:

Do unto others as they have done unto you.

Do unto others as they deserve.

Do unto others as they have done unto others.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you as long as it doesn't cost too much.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you after you have your own needs taken care of.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, within reason.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you as long as you like them.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you as long as it’s convenient.

I think I’m not alone in being extremely glad God didn’t follow any of these rules when He fashioned our redemption.

Driving home the Gospel.

What’s the absolute best driving scenario you can imagine?

Although you may be tempted to say, “empty road except for me,” that’s not quite true. See, the absence of other people to interfere with us is certainly nice in object-attainment scenarios, but it’s not the best, mainly because it reinforces our idea that other people are a problem to be avoided or overcome. The even better driving scenario would be having all the other drivers cooperate with you as if they were your friends: moving out of your way, accommodating your mistakes, and giving you plenty of space if you happen to be impeding them somehow.

I know it’s rare, but when people drive like this, it makes driving fun because we feel like they’re actively helping us. In short, we’d all love other drivers to do this unto us, right? So, as Christians who supposedly believe the Golden Rule, what if we actively tried to drive like this?

Well, just for fun, I gave it a shot this morning, and it was tremendously satisfying. As “gift-giver” rather than “rule-enforcer” or “self-righteous-defender-of-my-rights,” I felt unusually peaceful and even empowered by imagining the fleeting happiness I might be giving my highway neighbors.

It only took 24 years of driving, 14 years of being a Christian, and 5 years of fanatically over-thinking the ethics of driving to come up with this. Ah, the speed of human insight!

What is substitutionary atonement?

One reason the Gospel bothers Americans is the way it so violently undermines our cultural values of individualism and self-achievement. It’s conceptually challenging for men nursed to adulthood on Americanism to cast all their identity chips onto someone else’s achievement. But there is at least one precedent.

Men love sports. And a sports fan is someone who invests himself vicariously in the achievements of his chosen team, thrilling and despairing right along with them as if he were actually a member of it. This is fundamentally contrary to those American ideals. But it is extremely Christian.

Jesus Christ is my champion, once and for all winning the greatest world series ever played, so fully vanquishing His opponent that an eternity of re-watching the tape will never become boring to me. And the spiritual equivalent of putting on a jersey and celebrating Team Trinity’s victory is what I do every morning when I ponder the Gospel and try my best to not depend on my own weak performance for my sense of worth.

It's good for you, just not in the way you expect.

Marriage is God’s great bait and switch.

We seek marriage as a source of happiness, companionship, and pleasure, things which do sometimes come from being married. But marriage also brings tremendous strife, pain, and frustration.

And after 13 years of it, I can tell you that marriage (and the parenting that’s supposed to come with it) is the single greatest force for transformation in any person’s life. The reason is simple. In marriage, all the darkest parts of your personality are revealed and demand correction. As such, marriage is God’s great crucifier of wickedness…if we let it be.

To put matters a different way, I wouldn’t be half the man I am today if I hadn’t been married for so long. It’s just all too easy to remain who you are when you don’t have to constantly adjust and adapt to the needs and interests of another person from whom it’s virtually impossible to hide anything.

So, I feel sorry for singles. Not because of what they miss in marriage that they think they’re missing, but for what they miss in marriage that they don’t even realize they’re missing.

Postscript: And the great Christian hope for singles is not that they would get married, but that they would learn to derive this same benefit directly from Christ Himself.

One theory doesn't fit all.

One of the least challenged Christian tropes is that atheists reject faith not because of whatever intellectual arguments they give, but because they’re unwilling to give up their immoral lifestyles. Although this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all.

See, I was raised by Methodist parents with liberal social values. My mother allowed me at the age of 16 to subscribe to Playboy and never objected to having a girlfriend stay the night. Accepting her Christianity would have only meant to keep doing what she had always taught me: be a good citizen, treat people fairly, be honest, and be kind. The idea that I would have had to embrace traditional morality along with belief in God never even occurred to me when I was an atheist. Yet I rejected Him nevertheless.

My only motives were rational based on the claims making no sense to me and every time I pressed for better answers on matters that bewildered my logical mind, the only answer I’d get was, “Well, you just have to have faith.” But to me this sounded remarkably similar to, “Well, you just have to be stupid.”

The reason I explain this is so that Christians who, like all humans, are inclined to accept simple catch-all explanations for things we don’t like will at least realize immorality isn’t the only motivational paradigm for atheism, an error which also encourages us to ignore the fact that many atheists have quite high levels of ordinary virtue.

Radical advice for boyfriends, but NOT husbands.

Ah, Valentine’s Day. That time of the year when tens of millions of men suddenly find themselves playing the relational equivalent of Chutes and Ladders minus the ladders. You see, generally speaking, the best a guy can hope for on Cupid Day is to break even, to not botch things and find himself suddenly plummeting down an unintended relational slide, undoing all the progress he’s incrementally made throughout the year.

So when I say that Valentine’s Day is a test applied against men, I’m only stating the obvious. But, as an admittedly well-secured married man with three kids, allow me to suggest something scandalous. What if men in dating relationships decided to treat Valentine’s Day as a test of their own? What if they deliberately underperformed on Monday for the sole purpose of seeing what happens?

One of the great opportunities of the dating relationship, is to decipher who you might really be marrying. How will she handle disappointment? How will she handle your failures? Will she be devastated or vindictive…or forgiving? As a married man, trust me when I say these are questions you want answered early and clearly. Maybe Monday is just the time to get some answers…the hard way.

"We're just here for the metaphors, ma'am."

“Being in church no more makes you a Christian than being in a garage makes you a car.” It’s a cliché, but is it a valid cliché?

On its face, the metaphor is actually quite telling. After all the main thing you do in fact find in garages is cars (outside of Phoenix, that is). So the statistical case you could make is that it’s very reasonable to expect that if you know a large object is in a garage, it’s a good bet it’s a car. To put it another way, if “Family Feud” asked 100 people to name something found in a garage, the top response wouldn’t be “giraffes.”

Even so, it is possible to be in a garage and not be a car just as one may be in a church and not be a Christian. But whereas garages don’t normally transform their contents into cars, churches do in fact often make people Christians. Entering a garage won’t make you a car, but entering a church at least increases your odds of being turned into a Christian. And unless the evangelist is intending to communicate the total inefficacy of preaching to convert people and hence the futility of attending church (including his own!), he may want to be more careful in his choice of illustration.

Being in church doesn’t guarantee you’re a Christian, but it is both a natural precursor to this happening and a natural result of it already having happened. And given that so many people these days are wondering aloud whether they even need to go to church, perhaps we should employ less costly metaphors.

Second chance musings.

I was recently watching an episode of “Minute To Win It” (a game-show based on contestants performing various physical challenges in under a minute to win progressively money) in which they did something tremendously unusual: they let a man who had previously played and left with nothing come back and try again. Devastated by his former failure, he was beaming with gratitude and anticipation at the opportunity to redeem himself before his wife and two daughters. It was virtually a Gospel moment filled with mercy and the joy of a failure offered another life.

And I sat there furious!

How dare they give this loser yet another chance, when millions of other people would metaphorically kill for the opportunity! He’s handsome, his wife is beautiful, and he has a wonderful family. And you decide to give HIM a second go? I was so beside myself with the injustice of it all that I could barely enjoy the episode. I almost wanted to see him fail just so the scales would be back where they should be after this gross error in judgment. Alas, he succeeded and everyone was thrilled. Everyone except me.

See, my house has Pharisees, too.

And behind door number?

There are essentially four levels of people.

Level 1: The Sociopath. This person serves only himself, which especially includes serving others only as a means of receiving benefits from them. Variations on this include narcissists, Ayn Randian objectivists, most corporations, and some libertarians.

Level 2: The Common Human. This person only serves people he knows or values, such as friends, family, or group, with no real regard for non-members. Variations on this include nationalists, ideologues, racists, and many religious people.

Level 3: The Virtuous Man. This person also serves strangers, as long as he feels he has surplus resources to help them and they are needy through no fault of their own.

Level 4: The Christian. This person particularly delights in serving people who do not deserve it, people he dislikes, and his enemies, especially to his own personal detriment and when they don’t appreciate it.
So, based on this taxonomy, what sort of person are you?

A modern-day Shadrach.

As you probably heard, several years ago, the International Astronomical Union told us that Pluto was no longer a planet. What you may not have known is the story behind this reclassification of our Solar System.

In 2005, astronomer Mike Brown discovered an object slightly larger than Pluto in orbit around the Sun (eventually named Eris). But this created a problem because both of them are so much smaller than any of the other planets. So, the IAU had to figure out new standards and decide whether to include both as planets or exclude them. In the end, they excluded both.

But here’s the cool part. That’s precisely what Mike Brown wanted to happen. Even though he would have been forever famous as the man to discover Planet X, he knew that his discovery (and Pluto) didn’t really deserve that label. And his commitment to scientific accuracy over notoriety made him glad for the double-demotion. This, of course stunned the media, so long-accustomed to people selfishly clawing and scratching for any scrap of fame they can find.

And just to prove this wasn’t a fluke, Brown had just prior in 2004 discovered another celestial body, Haumea, but was willing to grant credit for the discovery to someone who most likely stole his research and certainly wasn’t first to find it. How does a fame-worshipping culture like ours even comprehend such actions?

It’s hard to understand when someone doesn’t bow down to your golden statue.

That doesn't look like much...yet.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to look at both sides of a finished piece of needlepoint or cross-stitch before it’s framed or attached to a pillow, you’d see something fascinating. As orderly and perfect as the front side is, the back is a total mess of jumble and confusion. If someone displayed the reverse side, you’d think it was a joke (or modern art, maybe) because there’s no beauty or organization to it at all.

However, as any needleworker knows, every single piece of the back is necessary and vital to the front turning out properly. Still, even the most skilled needleworkers can’t discern the front’s design by only looking at the back. And although the back exists to serve the front and therefore is totally dependent on the front for its particular mess, you can no more say the back exists because of the front than you can say the front exists because of the back. They both co-exist together and are intricately interdependent. Yet despite this close connection, you normally only see the back temporarily during construction, whereas the front goes on display forever.

What’s so very fascinating to me is the absurdly naïve expectation we all have that the strands we see so vividly in this life would constitute the front of God’s eternal art project.

One day, maybe I'll be pure enough.

When I dry my hands, if I take an extra paper towel by accident, I feel guilty about wasting it.

When my boys ask me to play in the sink with the water running, I usually let them, but part of me feels guilty about them wasting water this way.

My recycler tells me they don’t process glass of any kind. But, since I’ve recycled most of my life, throwing a bottle in the trash feels terribly unnatural and, consequently, I feel guilty about it.

Environmentalism just seems to be the sort of thing where you can never feel like you’ve done enough because there’s always a way to find fault.

You buy organic produce. But is it grown locally?
You drive a hybrid. But couldn’t you have ridden your bike?
You wash clothes by hand. But is your soap bio-degradable?
Your toilet is super-low-flow. But couldn’t you compost?

And what happens is when you finally internalize this fault-finder, the result is a continuous feeling of guilt and inadequacy, all of which makes me wonder: Wouldn’t the Pharisees have made wonderful environmentalists?