What's a fair share?

One of the most common expressions heard during budget and tax discussions is the importance of making sure “the rich pay their fair share,” the premise being that they are not yet doing so and therefore need to be made to pay more. But this immediately raises two related questions.

First, “Is there any other group of people who also needs to pay their fair share but isn’t?” The premise of some people owing their share implies that other people have a “share” to owe as well. And second, “At what point would we say the rich are being made to pay more than their fair share?” Paying too little and paying too much are both unfair.

Interestingly, although the Bible clearly says prosperous people have a duty to the community, it also puts a precise limit on that obligation: the tithe. This means that a man with five times more cattle and land than his neighbor would wind up paying five times as much in tithe tax. In Israel, charging him six times as much would have been unfair, as would have been charging his neighbor nothing. And if a flat income tax like this was fair enough for God’s beloved Israel, why wouldn’t it be fair enough for us?

On lust and love.

Lust sees another human being as an object, a mechanism for personal gratification. Lust thus considers the other to be essentially replaceable, to be judged against competitors on the basis of how well they satisfy lust’s demands. And if one is not satisfying fully, lust instinctively seeks using another to reach quota. If lust considers serving the other or giving pleasure away, it does so as a means of proving it’s adeptness at conquering the other or as a more reliable means of securing reciprocal favors with the evidence it has satisfied the provisions of the arrangement. Lust believes in negotiation and protecting itself, demanding its rights.

Love sees another human being as a person, an opportunity to honor God by serving His image-bearer. Love thus considers the other to be essentially unique, precious in their own right and incapable of comparison with another. Love cherishes the needs and desires of the other, finding maximum satisfaction in meeting them while knowing that the greatest need of the other is to love similarly in return. If love considers its own pleasure, it does so as a means of giving the other the joy of fulfilling service. Love strives only to conquer itself and its own deficiencies. Love believes in sacrifice and making itself vulnerable, demanding nothing beyond not being used by the other in lust, since allowing the beloved to defile them both this way would be unloving.

So, does marriage magically transform the evil of lust into a good thing? Quite the contrary. To lust a non-spouse is at least consistent with the failure to love through marriage. But to lust a spouse is to violate by deed the vows made by word.

Two trees.

Imagine the Day of Judgment comes and two peach trees stand before God hoping for admission to His orchard.

The first peach tree is withered and thin, barely having enough life in himself to produce a few wimpy leaves but never any fruit. He confidently struts up to the Bench, proclaiming, “It’s not my fault I never bore fruit. I wasn’t watered properly. I didn’t have good soil. And I was all alone in a field. But none of that matters. You told us that all peach trees get into your orchard, and I’m a peach tree after all, even if I never grew any peaches. You have to let me in or else you’re a liar.”

In contrast, the second peach tree is massive; thick, tall, and full of branches so fruitful that peaches keep dropping off even as he shuffles carefully up to the Bench, where he barely whispers, “I’m so sorry, Lord. I know I should have grown more fruit over the years. I’m not nearly the tree I should have been, and I imagine you must be disappointed with my yield. Nonetheless, please have mercy on me and allow me to have just a small corner in your orchard where I can at least see the worthier trees in the distance.”

So here’s the question, Christian. Which sort of peach tree are you?

Removing the unremovable.

This past Saturday, Ethan found himself the victim of chewing gum. Somehow, he had gotten it to that perfect consistency where it will stick to anything (in this case, his hands, his clothes, and the couch) and simply will not come off, instead forming ever-longer-and-more-unremovable strands of destruction.

After wiping off his hands with a paper towel and putting his clothes in the freezer for later scraping, I turned my attention to the couch. Having no idea what to do with it, I consulted my trusted colleague, Google. “Apply ice in a bag for 15 minutes, then scrape,” the wise Internet told me. I did so, to no avail. But a second recommendation said, “use a toothbrush and peanut butter.”

“Peanut butter? Are you serious?” I asked, doubting the oracle. “Trust us, this actually works,” she replied. Having nothing to lose, really, at this point, I removed the fabric from the cushions and went to the bathroom armed with a jar of Skippy (smooth) and my toothbrush. Sure enough, everything came out just as easy as possible.

Somehow or other, the magic power of peanut butter conquers the impossible-to-remove contamination of chewing gum. I’m not sure whether to call this an Easter miracle or just an Easter illustration.


So last Thursday was a completely frustrating day. I was woken up by the boys to a pantry-full of spilt Cheerios and a living room full of spilt Rice Krispies. During cleaning, the boys seemed surprised that I kept telling them to stop walking on the spilt cereals. Later in the action, Sage had (yet again) pulled an entire roll of toilet paper into the toilet, which was dangerously close to sharing its contents with the floor. “Daddy, we’re hungry.” “Yes, as soon as I am finished wasting my time on your messes, I’ll feed you…more food.”

During breakfast, Ethan wanted to try my coffee, Spencer wanted a screwdriver to open his piggy bank, and Sage freaked out when I cut his waffle in half right after he had just told me…to cut his waffle in half. Then, already way late coming to work, I made the mistake of doing a “quick” transaction at the bank. One hour later (not kidding), I was back on the road where no one (yet again) knows how to just drive not like an idiot.

So, I was angry, and I had let the bankers know, for which I felt guilty. I had yelled at my kids, for which I felt guilty. And I had silently wished nuclear events on other drivers, for which I didn’t feel guilty since other drivers don’t count as real people.

I was frustrated. And I was more frustrated because I knew I shouldn’t be so frustrated. Take up my Cross daily? God help me to do so. As small as mine is, it’s still way too big for me.

How does viewpoint bigotry blind us?

Yesterday on my show, we had a pretty interesting discussion about whether it’s better for pastors and priests to be married or single. However, I’m sure some people found it frustrating that I’d even ask this question because the notion of single (and celibate, of course) pastors is too closely associated with Catholicism for them to ponder it seriously.

Tragically, some Evangelicals have such a strong anti-Catholic bias that it’s very difficult for them to even consider the possibility that Catholics might say anything right, let alone something that we get wrong. This is because they are so invested in the post-Reformation turf war that it feels a bit like treason to concede any ground. And if the prospect of yielding any ground at all to the Catholics weren’t enough, the idea that the doctrine of priestly celibacy might have anything going for it is uniquely horrifying to consider since most non-Catholics hold that idea particularly in contempt (as the cause of priestly abuse, for instance).

Simply put, allowing ourselves to scoff at a viewpoint makes us that much less able to ever consider it as a possibility. It’s one reason I try not to scoff at much. But it’s only when we are willing to love our opponents enough to take their views seriously that we can honestly claim to be more interested in truth than in merely winning.

Fear and faith in reading materials.

When I was an atheist, I would talk with anyone because I viewed humanity like a library full of intriguing books that might contain new insights. And because I trusted myself to judge them wisely, I never felt threatened by anyone or their ideas.

Then, when I became a Christian, I learned I shouldn’t trust my own judgment so much. So once I mastered all the right answers of Christianity, I became eager to protect myself from contaminating errors. Because I now viewed people as potential threats to my doctrinal purity, I would always intellectually “frisk” them to see if they were truly friend or foe. And if I found one error, I knew from then on to be cautious about everything they said.

But at some point it dawned on me that I was yet again just trusting my own judgment about which human books to read. Instead of trusting God to guide me toward a richer grasp of His Truth, I was trusting in my own adeptness at disqualifying unsafe people. And whereas before I had surely been allowing in far too much, I was now just as surely allowing in far too little. How many insights and relationships had I missed in turning away so many non-clones of myself?

So I gradually learned (and am still learning) to replace my interpersonal hermeneutics of suspicion with the hope that anyone God loaned me wasn’t a contaminant, but rather a vessel for valuable new insights about Him I might not otherwise ever read.

Stop shoving your horticulture down my throat!

If you’ve ever bought plants, you know that they come with little plastic cards inserted into the soil to tell you the basics of how to grow each one successfully. They tell you what sort of soil, sunlight, and water the plant likes. Most of us appreciate these instructions because we want a flourishing plant and we know we aren’t experts.

But I imagine there’s a certain sort of person who might buy some plant and find the whole business of being told what to do irritating. “Just who do they think they are to try to control me like that? If I feel like watering this plant, I’m going to water it. How dare they try to tell me what “over-watering” it will do! I don’t have any “partial shade” at my house, so I’ll just put it in the sun. After all, it’s my plant, and I’ll do with it what I want. The gall of some people!

Now the interesting thing about this approach is how it completely misunderstands the purpose of the cards. They aren’t there to oppress the aspiring gardener. They’re they to assist him. And it isn’t really a question of personal liberty. It’s more a matter of getting the results you hoped for in buying the plant in the first place.

What is neglect?

My three boys really love to eat strawberries, and we normally serve them whole on a plate with sugar to dip in. In the past, I have occasionally flirted with giving them a "party tray" to share, but this always ended in disaster. Fighting, kicking, screaming, bickering, wailing about an unjust distribution of fruit. So, wanting to avoid such discord, I normally just give them each their own individual plate.

But it occurred to me this morning that in so doing, I was failing my children for the worst of reasons. See, it's a real pain to actually deal with their selfishness. And instead of making yet another payment on the slow, frustrating mortgage of teaching them how to behave like decent people, I had been catering to their sinfulness by working around it just so my life would be easier. But society will not always indulge them this way.

Realizing this, I decided to give them a single plate and instruct them to share and take turns. Then I had to sit there and enforce their civility. They complied, and in the end this means they are now one lesson closer to being adults rather than just one missed opportunity closer to being the sort of people who need someone else to protect them from themselves.

What would it feel like?

If you’ve ever had a serious romantic relationship, you know how thrilling and satisfying it can be to love and be loved. But if you’re like most of us, you also know what it feels like to have that reciprocal joy ripped away and replaced by the deep anguish of having your heart broken when your beloved rejects you and leaves the relationship. The pain of such a thing can be so intense that it literally incapacitates us from doing anything productive for a time.

Even worse than just losing someone this way, imagine that the reason for the breakup is something awful you did to betray your beloved. So now, the person who once cherished you despises you, thus compounding the already unbearable pain of loss with the guilt and self-loathing of having only yourself to blame for it. You deserve to be hated, as evidenced by the fact that you even hate yourself for what you’ve done and what it’s cost you.

The guilty heartbroken are far more right than they know when they describe this as being in hell, something no one would voluntarily endure…unless He was our Savior.

Through a glass darkly...

I know my wife better than anyone else does, and yet I will never know her fully. I learn about her every day from my what my children tell me and what she shows me in dealing with them.

Is my wife’s identity undermined or threatened by the fact that each of my children’s description of her will differ from the others? What about by the fact that my own description of her will differ much from theirs and also from that of her mother or friends? Or is it possible that these variations actually affirm and prove the rich reality of who she is?

The logical and necessary consequence of believing God wants personal relationship with each of us is the sometimes uncomfortable fact that we will not all see precisely the same things in Him or know Him in exactly the same ways or even through the same mechanisms or means of encounter.

This is not a threat to God’s Godness, but an exuberant endorsement of it. If any mere human can be frustratingly complex and unpredictable, why should we be surprised to find God is even more so?

Being right requires far more than just opposing wrong.

Illegitimate sex is unacceptable, and yet we must treat those who do it with love and forgiveness.

Profane speech is a terrible form of social pollution, and yet we must not think our ears can be polluted with things even a completely Holy God hears.

Abortion is wicked, and yet we must treat the woman who has had an abortion with love and forgiveness.

Every man should be productive, and yet we must have compassion and generosity for the poor.

False religion is extremely contaminating, and yet we must become loyal friends to those whose religious views are wrong.

Political corruption is a grave evil, and yet we must remember that all politicians are imperfect and that our salvation is never found by selecting the right ones.

Racism is a horrible cancer, especially in America, but we must patiently cherish the racist who is also a child made in God’s image.

In short, we must always be proclaiming a standard which reminds people of the requirements of holiness and righteousness while equally reminding ourselves of the requirements of grace and love. This is why practicing only half of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, in fact, practicing the full anti-Gospel of hell.

All that it really takes for evil to control the world is for men to think that goodness lies in merely opposing evil.

More on parenting...

Things I regularly say to my three boys:

“Stop bickering over such ridiculous things. Just be the bigger boy and give in.”

“There’s more than enough for everyone, but you have to share.”

“Stop fighting. Just go away. You don’t have to hit him back just because he hit you. I don’t care who started it. The one who quits first is the winner.”

“Be more careful! He’s smaller than you are, and it’s the bigger boy’s job to look out for the little one.”

“When he’s annoying you, just leave the area. It doesn’t matter if he’s saying something you know is wrong. You don’t have to win to be right.”

“Stop screaming. That’s not important enough to be crying over.”

“I know it’s yours, but you weren’t using it, so just let him play with it.”

“Why are you crying? Is crying going to change anything? Has crying about something ever made you feel better?”

“I know you didn’t make the mess, but I want you to clean it up anyway. Somebody has to do it, and it might as well be you. Do you remember how many of your messes I cleaned up for you?”

So, I have this theory that God allowed us to experience parenting as a way to understand Him better, but I’m still a bit fuzzy on the details….

On parenting

Having learned the concept of April Fools Day, but not the importance of only doing jokes in love, Spencer has been playing pranks on Ethan recently, for which we keep correcting him. Well this morning finally may have been the teachable moment.

See, both of them love strawberry milk, and we had just finished off a canister of Nesquik. So Spencer pretended to have a glass and told Ethan he should go get some for himself. When Ethan opened the container, it was empty, and Spencer announced his prank with laughter. Ethan, of course was very disappointed. As a good daddy, I naturally stepped in to fulfill his frustrated expectation by opening a new canister and giving him strawberry milk.

Seeing this, Spencer immediately started clamoring for one as well, which I denied. “But you gave it to Ethan,” he complained. “Yes, and I wasn’t going to. But when you tricked him, I decided to be generous and give him what you had promised because he was sad. But because you played the prank, now you don’t get any. I’d like you to think about this the next time you consider playing a joke on someone that’ll make them sad.”

The giver in me was willing to be generous, but the father in me knew he needed to learn a lesson he would remember.

Toward virtue without pride.

Lord, please make me wise, but grant me patience, especially with the foolish.
Lord, please make me virtuous, but keep me tender toward even the wicked.
Lord, please make me charitable, especially toward the stingy.
Lord, please make me clever, but allow me to find delight even in the dull.
Lord, please make me holy, but always incline my heart toward the profane.
Lord, please make my marriage strong, but preserve my compassion for those whose marriages fail.
Lord, please make me a good parent, but keep me from despising those who are not.
Lord, please give me good friends, but help me to be a good friend to those who do not deserve one.

Forgive me, Father, for I have judged, and in so doing, forgotten that only by Your gifts and generosity do I have anything of worth at all.

How sin evades the spotlight.

One of the great difficulties in teaching ethics is something I call “sin-protection bias.” This is the built-in defensive power all sin has to shield itself from the sort of careful scrutiny that might lead to its exposure and eventual expulsion. Sometimes this manifests as anger or outrage at the person raising the questions, especially by fixating on some minor flaw in the presentation rather than dealing with the substantial challenge being raised. But another way it shows up is in the impulse to relativize moral concerns.

The truth is that something might be “mostly wrong” or “usually wrong,” but if you say this instead of saying it’s “always wrong” or “absolutely wrong,” the people who need to hear it most will almost always interpret it as meaning their own circumstances constitute an exception. Sin always wants to wiggle away from a potential moral critique.

An additional problem for some Christians is their distinction-blindness about a third moral category between “absolute prohibition” and “matters of individual liberty.” Many things are mostly wrong (or right), but this doesn’t mean that they are merely matters of individual conscience. It means that the applicable objective moral concerns don’t make the behavior categorically wrong, but situationally wrong, which means there are some exceptions. “But,” they think, “if a generally wrong behavior might sometimes be okay, it must mean it’s really nothing more than a matter of individual conscience.” Thus with a sigh of relief, they just dismiss it as not applying to them.

The sin-protection bias loves abusing or ignoring these moral nuances to excuse itself from being threatened, which is precisely why it’s sometimes more productive to present a “usually” rule as if it’s an “always” rule, at least for now. Nuance and exceptions can wait until after the main issues are taken seriously. A child needs to learn to never lie and always obey his parents before he should ever be allowed to consider times that might not be best.

What's a tautology?

If you’re at all familiar with the Theory of Evolution, you’ll know that one of the key ideas in that origins story is the notion of “survival of the fittest.” The simple concept is that when things reproduce, variations occur in the offspring. Some of those offspring are more fit to the environment, which means more capable of surviving until they reproduce offspring of their own. Some are less fit, which means they either die prior to reproduction or fail to reproduce for other reasons. Thus, fitness means staying alive long enough to produce offspring.

But this raises a pretty obvious question. If the “fittest” are all those who survive to parentage, then what’s the difference between fitness and survival to parentage? Well, none. Any evolutionist will tell you that the concept of fitness is defined by reproductive survival. So, things survive because they are fit, and things are fit because they survive. In other words, “survival of the fittest” is really just “survival of the survivors,” which isn’t quite as catchy.

Now I don’t generally mind how any theory defines its terms, and it’s not as though this is any deeply hidden secret of Evolutionary Theory. But “fittest” does encourage people to think that survival is always a matter of genetic “betterness” rather than, say, luck. I mean, after all, even the fastest gazelles sometimes just happen to be on the wrong side of the herd or stumble on an ill-placed twig. But most evolutionists are so enamored of their theory that they are driven to explain every structure in terms of its advantage, explanations whose compulsive ingenuity often make me chuckle.

I guess I just believe that when someone says, “The most expensive dress was the one that took the most money to buy,” it’s important for people to not think he’s actually giving them new information.

Why would you do it, then?

Is parenting a good investment?

Well, one way of thinking about it would be whether children wind up being economically beneficial. Unless they happen to grow up and send you massive payments as recompense, most parents would say that children are not the sort of economic investment from which you recover much of your principal.

But perhaps they are a different sort of investment, where you put money in to get something else of even greater value such as companionship or admiration. So, maybe parenting is more of a wise purchase than an investment, technically speaking. But here again there are problems. Even if some children perform quite well, they still have massive negative balances from all their inconvenience and frustration costs (in addition to money). Plus some children never pay off at all.

So it seems like children aren’t enough of a benefit to justify the cost. But what’s the purpose, then? Well, you get to grant another being existence, nurture, devotion, and sacrifice, all of which they will never fully appreciate. And that is precisely why you don’t become a parent because it’s a good investment. You become a parent because it’s a God-like investment.

What isn't prose?

You just can’t translate poetry. It’s a problem anyone who has ever tried knows quite well. But the reason is fairly interesting.

See, poetry (at least good poetry) is always a complex mixture of cadence, sound, emphasis, grammar, rhyme, nuance, hinting, and presumed cultural references. Way, way, way down on the list of things in a poem is the logical, propositional content of the words. But when you translate poetry, this is the only thing you really have left.

The way the words hung together in the original. The way they reflected off each other or their subject. The way your ear replayed their melody. And the way it all felt in combination. All this is lost in the butchering of even the most careful extraction from the original expression. It’s also why any particular poem would become a completely different one with other words even in the same language. Every poem is inextricably embedded in its particular languagidity.

This, in short, is why Christians believe in the eternal resurrection of your body.