Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seeing What is There

Let's be real. Most of us are dead. I know that most of the time I am. We see our problems and little more. We see red lights, the slow person in front of us, the traffic, and the clock and how much time is running out before our next "thing." We see the fresh stain on our shirt, the brakes that need to be fixed, the dishes that need to be done, and the bills that are piling up. We see the difficulties in our relationships, how we screwed up here or there today, and how our kids are just pulling on us when all we want is a few minutes to unwind.

In chapter 38 of Job, God gives Job an answer to his suffering complaints. When all of Job's suffering first came upon him, he handled it well ("the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord"), but as the pain and suffering lingered for some months, Job began to crack. He started to feel like a) God was his enemy, somehow, for bringing all this suffering, and b) there was some injustice in this, since Job knew (perhaps too well) that he was a godly man. After Elihu told Job and his misguided friends that they were both wrong in their understanding of the purpose of suffering, God entered the scene to address Job directly.

The dark, booming thunder clouds rolled in, and suddenly God spoke to Job from the whirlwind. The questions God aks Job are rhetorical -He is obviously not really asking Job for answers. He is declaring His "Godness" in the face of a tiny creature... Job. I love this one particularly:

"Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? (Job 38:12-13)

God commands the morning. The dawn is an act of God. Amazing? When is the last time you thought of it that way? How often do you even notice the dawn, much less let it point you to the personal hand of God? God declares His "Godness" every day in bringing the dawn. Yet, so often we look at the things around us as though we are naturalists... atheists. Has our sense of wonder and awe at the hand of the One who made it and still, to this day, sustains and commands it, gone away?

I'm not a tree-hugger type at all, but this is something worth repenting of. We tend to think of sin in terms of bad things we do, often consciously, but some of the most deadly sin is simply forgetting God. You don't even see it happening. Everything else just becomes bigger as He becomes smaller. Our relationship with Him becomes mechanical, even non-existent, and as that does, so does the rest of life. The things, cares, and worries of the world become imminently more real, and they swallow us, they obscure His face.

I want to make a regular habit of taking a moment to quietly gaze at His creation and allow it to declare God's "Godness" to me. More importantly, I ask Him to give me that faith of a child which never gets bored with the wonders my Father does. I want to see His hand wherever I go. "Do it again, Daddy! Do it again, Daddy!"

O God, open my eyes, that I may be amazed at the works of your hands and the ways you daily, moment-by-moment, work your might and power to sustain and order it. May it be a delight to my soul as it points me to You, my Father, and Your beauty and superlativeness. May I never dishonor you by looking at the things around me like a naturalist viewing a mechanical, impersonal creation.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

God, I Want More

At some point in your life, the things of this world will truly disappoint you and make you feel empty. It is then that you will say, "God, I want more." Your marriage is on the rocks -it is cold and lifeless. "I want more." Your job is unsatisfying. "I want more." Your children are undisciplined, in spite of your best, most prayerful efforts. "I want more." All of those things you hoped in to make your life happy and meaningful are now rusty, delapidated, and falling apart. "I want more, God. God?"

This is where where we need to walk carefully. There isn't anything wrong with wanting God to bless us or bring restoration to brokenness in our lives, but there is a danger found in wanting more of the right now. The danger is that our hearts are incorrigibly prone to seeking ultimate satisfaction in the things of this life.

We are prone to live as though this life is all there is, even if we believe differently in our minds. We may say to ourselves, "Seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be added...," but our hearts betray a different story. Our sight is focused and set upon the things of this life and our taste of the things of the age to come, no matter how utterly they are ours right now in Christ, is dull and small and overlooked. Our heart essentially is saying, "Yes, God... it is wonderful that things will be so nice some day," out of some sense of joyless, uninterested obligation, "but I want this thing right now."

With this, we are prone to forget God, at least functionally. We may have God for our times of prayer and for Sundays, but look at where our hearts are. What fills our prayers? Are they merely petitions to make our life go better, to make the things of this life more comfortable? That isn't all bad, but if that is the main pulse of our heart then we have somewhere forgotten God and the hope we have before us, and we are now asking God to serve the idols we worship, instead. It is, as the Puritan Stephen Charnock put it, "practical atheism."

In some ways, it may actually be more dangerous to have your life be perfectly happy and contented because the circumstances around you are just so. It is then that we are perhaps the most blind to how much we look to things in this world as our "god" and provoke the Lord to jealousy. At least when trials come we are forced to face what it is we really want, what our hearts truly cling to, and where our treasure really is.

As said above, it isn't bad, necessarily, to want more, and when things go awry it truly hurts -always. But ultimately the things in this world, as good as they are, or as broken as they can be, are meant to be appetizers to the main course... and nothing more. They are meant to be shadows, foretastes of what is to come. They are, in some ways, like manna from heaven as we tread through the wilderness on our journey to the promised land. They are temporary and point forward to the land flowing with milk and honey that is just around the bend.

Marriage problems or marital bliss? Remember that marriage is a temporary picture of a greater reality that is ours now, in taste, and to come in fulfillment when the Lord returns. Remember that it is a picture of the union between Christ and His Bride, us. That union will always be more glorious, more satisfying, more awesome than anything found on earth. Let the good times in our marriages remind us of that, and let that truth console us during the bad.

This does not mean we don't feel pain. Bad circumstances are not things we can shrug off stoicly. If we could, I would wonder if we love at all (the only way to avoid pain, that I am aware of, is to harden your heart and lock it up so tight that it will never love). But in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the loss and sorrow, let us be reminded of the temporary nature of this life and the hope that is ours, that everything in our life points to in some way. Let this truth console us in the midst of the trial we face. Rather than causing us to cling more tightly to the things here in this life, let suffering and loss cause us to set our eyes and hearts above (Col 3:5), where our true treasure is (Mat 6:21). The Lord endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy set before Him. (Heb 12:2-3) We will enter into that joy, one day, the joy of our Master (Mat 25:21), and we taste of it right now, in part.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reflections on Kierkegaard and Self-Hatred

I have recently been muddling through some of Soren Kierkegaard's work, The Sickness Unto Death. If you have never read it, picking it up will blow your mind -not necessarily because of its insight, although I believe it has great insight, but because of how difficult to read it is! Insecurity and self-hatred have been enemies of mine for a long time. I only recently came to see this. I always used to think that things like this were "psycho-babble." Kierkegaard, along with pastor Tim Keller and in particular his message "Blessed Self-Forgetfulness," has shown me many things about this and how, ultimately, it is sin that needs to be confessed and not merely a personal problem.

One of the things Kierkegaard talks about is what it means to "despair of the self." This, to me, was profoundly interesting because I could resonate with it almost immediately. Here is a great example:

"A young girl is in despair over love, and so she despairs over her lover, because he died, or because he was unfaithful to her. This is not a declared despair; no, she is in despair over herself. This self of hers, which, if it had become "his" beloved, she would have been rid of in the most blissful way, or would have lost, this self is now a torment to her when it has to be a self without "him"; this self which would have been to her riches (though in another sense equally in despair) has now become to her a loathsome void, since "he" is dead, or it has become to her an abhorrence, since it reminds her of the fact that she was betrayed."

What is the "self?" It is, simply put, like what we see in our own reflection, but with a mirror that looks deep into our soul and identity rather than merely our outward appearance.

If my wife left me, for example, and I felt like my life was over... what is really going on? Am I in despair over the situation? No, not properly. In reality, I am in despair over myself. I loathe the self that I have, and I long to be rid of it "in the most blissful way," by having my wife be mine. But if she left me, I would be losing that escape from the self that I have -the one that I desperately want to be rid of. To have her, in my mind, would give me a self worth having, a self worth being happy about. But otherwise, I am doomed as if to a prison. I despair of the self I have.

Now, this is where it gets even more strange. Upon reflection, I came to realize that one of the main reasons for my self-hatred is because I am insecure and tossed around and controlled emotionally by things like these. I despair of my self, in other words, because I see that the self I have is weak because it despairs in itself. Do you see the vicious cycle?

Kierkegaard addresses this form of despair and properly identifies it as self-righteousness, although without using those precise words. Thus, I see more clearly why self-hatred and puffed-up pride are essentially the same thing, but on opposite ends of the same deadly rope. To despair of the self because you see the self you have as weak and sinful is to say, "If I had a different self, If I was more like that person, If I was better in this area, I would be a self worth having." This is the same thing the religious legalist says when he cannot live up to his own demands. His ego cannot take that he cannot be as good as he thinks he should be. He longs to boast, but cannot, so he slumps in sorrow over himself. The self he lusts after he cannot reach, and so his failures are a torturous reminder of the self he has and hates. He cannot stand the sight of himself. When he comes across others who have seemingly done what he cannot, who have what he does not but lusts after, he cannot take any pleasure at all. These others are only a reminder which tortures his soul all the more. He hates them because they remind him of his bondage to the self he deeply hates and longs to be rid of. Thus, the only difference between this person and the puffed-up, arrogant individual is that the arrogant one is deluded into believing he has attained his own righteousness. He believes that, with that thing, he has arrived -at least for a moment. He boasts well, though he is truly deceived. His foundation is merely shifting sand.

Loathing ourselves because we are weak, did not do enough, failed, don't compare to others as we like, or might not have gotten it all perfectly right is self-obsession and self-righteousness scorned. We are not comfortable with ourselves because we are trying to build our own righteousness, and hence every failure is not merely discouraging -it is a stab into the heart. It is a reminder of the self we are seeking to leave behind, which we hate, which we believe is nothing, and which we are desperately seeking to recreate and establish apart from our Maker by using finite, created things and boasting in them.

Therefore, I came to see that despairing of myself because of my weaknesses and sins is abominable. It is not repentance. It is self-righteousness, it is idolatry, and it is something to be confessed as sin. It is wounded pride. In other words, it is the fruit of a lustful desire to create a self so worthy of our self-centered love and self-exaltation that we ideally would become our own god, worthy of self-worship.

The only sphere in which we can have significance, true significance, is in relation to our Creator. Anything else is a myth, a mirage, a phantom. Therefore, only with the Gospel are we broken free since it is only with the Gospel that we are re-connected with Him and able to be both wholly transparent and accepted. Faith, which Kierkegaard basically describes as the opposite of this despair (sin), is seen essentially as a rest in or acceptance of what God has done in Christ, through which we see we are transparently known and completely accepted. Faith amounts to transparency before and security in God. Only then can the self be at rest. And when it is at rest, when it is in connection with its Maker through grace, it no longer is bound in the chains of this insatiable desire to be rid of the self we have by idolatrously building our life on the finite. It is free. It is free to love and serve, for it knows it is complete. The self is "OK" and free to not be fixated upon itself.

The "solution" to this sin, then, is not more law. Law has its place in relationship, not in the area of self creation and justification. The solution is the believe the Gospel. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? This is where it gets hardest, and all of this is why grace is so foreign to us. As Luther once said (paraphrase), "we would more readily receive grace if we could earn it than have it for free."

In case we would begin to think that we are free from self-hatred and don't suffer from this, it seems it is a universal problem. It is the reason behind boasting, comparing to others, exploiting others, becoming angrily defensive in arguments, bitterness and unforgiveness, racism, hatred, self-righteousness, etc. It is sin at its most core level. The racist says, "my race is what gives me a self of significance," and thereby he looks down upon those of other races. The braggart says, "my achievements and talents and skills give me a self that has significance, better than those," and so he is pleased with himself, looking down on others less fortunate, though in reality he takes no pleasure in the things he has achieved or the things he is skilled in -only in being able to stand upon them higher than the next man.

P.S. I started a new blog with a bit of a narrower focus. Check me out at http://gospelid.blogspot.com

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween

You can feel free to disagree with me about Halloween, and I can still call you brother. I have no problem with that. Below is a compilation of questions I put together to think through some issues. You may remain in your convictions, and that is fine, but I hope I am able to stir some honest thought instead of fostering what I generally feel is a kind of phobia or hysteria toward anything deemed "un-Christian" or part of the "pagan culture."

1. Is "fear of man" rather than "fear of the Lord" really the only reason anybody would ever have any participation in something like Halloween?
I read an article, recently, which essentially said that people participate in Halloween because they fear man and not the Lord. It said that people who participate in Halloween are embracing evil rather than shunning it. Hmm...

I think many Christians interpret "fear of the Lord" to mean living like how they live, while many of them may live the way they do out of the same fear and pride they accuse unbelievers or "liberal Christians" of. Ironic, no? In other words, the reason one person does things that are externally "bad" and the reason another person does things that are externally "good" can really be the same sinful reason: fear of man and/or pride. A person can do all of the right things because they fear losing the approval of their group and/or don't want to be like "those people." The fear of the Lord is to abstain from evil, but we must also realize that, for example, it is just as evil to believe we are in the "good people group" because we do the "right things."

The reason I lump fear and pride together is that they both revolve around comparing ourselves to others. They are both of the flesh -they are both worldly. The flesh loves to lead us back under systems in which we try to build our personal identity and significance in things other than God and what He did for us, by grace, through Jesus Christ... things that involve comparing ourselves to others in various categories that we idolize and esteem very highly. Maybe it is that we homeschool and "they" don't. Maybe it is that we don't see R-rated movies. There is nothing wrong with those things if that is your personal conviction, but often we make good things into ultimate things, identity things, and that is of the flesh. We compare, we boast, and we are really no different from those other people we think we are so different from. That can be hard for us to swallow, because it means we can do and be involved in lots of things rubber-stamped as "Christian" and yet be just as worldly and fleshly in our hearts.

The reason I don't like this way of thinking (that celebrating Halloween = fear of man) is that it completely demonizes and dismisses all contrary opinions without actually addressing them fairly. It stridently implies, as if obvious, that their own way of thinking is God's way. Are there evil things associated with Halloween? Sure. Are there evil things associated with lots of things we enjoy or engage in? Yes. That does not mean "anything goes," but...

The other reason I don't like this kind of reasoning is that often the folks who are so cut-and-dry about one issue do not apply the same standards in everything. They pick and choose. With some things, they can enjoy them moderately and shun the parts that are not glorifying to God, but with this one thing, they see it as completely black-and-white, one-dimensional. Therefore, whether they intend to or not, they are often picking one thing they abstain from and dismissing it as "evil" as a way to build their own personal significance and identity, which is really the same idolatry they accuse others of.

By all means, have an opinion (and I do believe that some things are black and white), but please avoid making blanket judgments about your brothers and sisters.

2. What makes celebrating Reformation Day so much better?
I love the Reformation, and I love using October 31 to tell people about Martin Luther and the great work that God did in the Protestant Reformation, but what is really so much better about this? Again, are we just trying to rubber-stamp something as "Christian" so that we feel better? Are we just trying to be counter-culture so that we aren't like "those people?" Is there something inherently more pleasing to God about turning October 31 into Reformation Day, or are we just trying to say "my culture is better than yours?" What makes this a more "Christian" way to observe the day?

If there is one thing we learn from the Reformation, it is that things can be extremely "Christian" and religious and yet be completely bankrupt, spiritually speaking. The human heart is incorrigibly religious, and the Reformation marked a huge movement of God to overcome centuries of religious tradition with the Gospel. But guess what? Even that was imperfect, and that is why one of the slogans of the Reformation is "semper reformanda" -always reforming. We always need to be reforming, conforming to the Gospel. Does that mean celebrating Reformation Day is better than Halloween? I don't know. That is what I am asking you to think about. What is the motivation, really, in doing so? Is it in line with the Gospel?

3. What makes having a Harvest Festival at your church so much better?
I really don't understand what makes it so much better as to justify its existence. It isn't mandated in Scripture. It is still observing a day as special over another. It seems like we are, again, trying to produce a "Christian-clean" environment. That isn't all bad. I don't let my kids watch just anything on television, for example. But it implies that there is something bad and evil out on the streets of the typical neighborhood that isn't found in having a more "Christian" celebration within a church building. Maybe you don't see scary costumes. OK, fine, but in my personal experience those are few to begin with. Maybe you don't see jack-o-lanterns. OK, but what is so evil about those? Is it really worth avoiding your neighbors, escaping the neighborhood, and huddling with other Christians? Is it really the "Christian" thing to do on Halloween? I don't mean to demonize Harvest Festivals, if I am. I don't think they are bad, but I think they might be making a really big deal out of something not so big and doing what history has shown us is not always a great idea: providing a "rival" celebration to a more "pagan" cultural celebration. Look at how Christmas turned out. Ho Ho Ho! Need I say more?

4. If having so much candy on Halloween is gluttonous, then why is it OK for you to stuff yourself at your Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving feasts? Does God make special rules for those days?
I have heard some folks say that one of the reasons Halloween is so bad is because there is so much candy involved in it. Apparently, Halloween supports gluttony, and the sugar isn't good for you or your teeth. That is fine. I will remember that when all the candy-free people stuff themselves on Christmas and Thanksgiving or drink fruit punch or any of the other sugar-filled juices in the stores. :) Is "Christianized" gluttony permissible? I'm kidding. This isn't a competition, but sometimes I think that what is really going on has very little to do with gluttony, sugar content, or the health of the body. I think it is that Christians, whether they admit it or not, create little cultures of their own with practices and norms and mores, and, just like everybody else out there, they have a flesh which loves to boast in the things that make us not like others. I do it, too, so I'm not picking on anybody, but that is what I think is really going on in most cases. Besides, if you don't like the candy, then don't take any and give out something other than candy when kids come to your door. Dare to be like that one weird lady that hands out sliced apple and granola bars every year!

5. If you refuse to participate in Halloween at all, do you participate at all in Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving? If so, why?
None of the above mentioned observances are mandated in Scripture. The only thing the Lord told us to remember was His death, and He told us to do that often (not yearly) in fellowship together (what we call "the Lord's supper"). All of the above mentioned observances are cultural traditions. The only reason Christians celebrate them is because they deem their content more "Christian" in nature, even realizing that for holidays like Christmas and Easter, there are loads of pagan symbols and worldly traditions associated with them -Santa Clause, the Easter bunny, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, parties with drunkenness and gluttony. We know there are bad things associated with them, but for the good things we still celebrate them. Think about how many people die every year during the "holiday season" (Christmas and New Year's) due to drunk driving. Yet Christmas is OK and Halloween isn't? I think this may be a case of deeming some evils as more "respectable" than others. What does God think, though? Maybe God hates Christmas, too.

I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate any of these days. Most Christians admit that there are pagan roots and godless cultural traditions associated with these holidays, yet they choose to moderately observe them in light of the good things associated with them. If that is acceptible with those days, the why not with Halloween? To me, there is plenty of good associated with Halloween. There is plenty to enjoy and plenty of fun to be had, and, just like with Christmas, we have an opportunity to get to know people better and share Jesus with them. I'm tired of hearing how "Jesus is the reason for the season." No, Jesus never told us to celebrate Christmas, and Jesus is the reason for everything, not just that season. Jesus is the reason, for example, we can celebrate victory over the powers of darkness and enjoy each other's company in light of that victory. It is the reason I can receive the good, enjoy it, and shun the bad, knowing that I am in an intimate relationship with my Father based solely on Christ's work on my behalf.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, what could be better than having droves of people come to your front door as you hand out Gospel tracts, books, share the Gospel, or just get to know people better? I'm not saying that any kind of fun is legitimate fun, but I am saying that the idea that the only legitimate fun is the kind that includes "Christian" content and "Christian" symbols is narrow and stupid. What makes "fun" glorifying to God? Things like love, humility, enjoying God's gifts in their rightful place, recognizing all things as His, etc.

6. Is all fantasy bad?
I'm not saying that all fantasy is good, but is it all bad? What makes good fantasy and bad fantasy? Is Frosty the Snowman better than Santa Clause? Is Bible-Man so much better than Spiderman? Why? If my daughter dresses up as a witch, does that mean she is going around pretending to cast spells on people, studying Wicca, and trying to emulate real witches, or is it just that she thinks the costume is cute? Could it be that sometimes it just depends on the individual, as well? I'm asking you to think it through. I think we Christians are very prone to a low view of sin that is often based largely upon tradition and externals.

Our view of sin typically says, "Sin is drinking, smoking, going to bars, watching R-rated movies, wearing clothes with bad words on the front, etc." It may be that those things are sinful, depending on the circumstance, but what about pride, self-righteousness, gossip, and idolatry of the heart -things we can be completely guilty of, even if we abstain from the "bad list" above? This view can sometimes (unfortunately) lead us to overlook the good, even glimpses of Christ, found in things we would traditionally label as "bad."

Remember in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf (the Grey) fought that demon and, as far as we knew, perished... only later to return as "Gandalf the White?" Gandalf was a wizard, a sorcerer -something forbidden in Scripture... yet, given that this story is fantasy fiction, this is, to me, a picture of Christ. He "died" to save his friends, only to return later in "glory" for battle against the forces of evil.

So, I'm asking you to think. What makes fantasy and make-believe evil?

7. Is it possible that we may be contributing to erroneous views about Jesus and the Gospel by how we react to things like this?
Are we contributing to the false impression that most irreligious people have, which is that Jesus and Christianity are all about joining a religion and observing certain rules and a particular way of life? In other words, are we helping our unsaved neighbors continue to believe the lie that Christianity is all about a list of do's and don't's, caring mostly about your own little tribe, and recruiting others to join you?

The funny thing is that, while most irreligious people think the only alternative to their worldview and way of life is religion (follow these rules and you will be a good person whom God loves), many of us Christians act the same way. We are incorrigibly religious, we think the problem with the world is "those people" who aren't like us, and our reason for remaining that way is because we believe the only alternative is going to a pagan lifestyle. The Gospel is neither religion nor irreligion. The Gospel humbles the religious and tells them to repent of their "righteousness," while it calls the irreligious to repent of their irreligion. It calls both people to forsake the idolatrous forms of identity they build their lives upon and to be founded solely upon the grace of God in Christ. It tells us all that we are ultimately no different and that we are both lost apart from Christ alone.

Where I stand

Halloween, yesterday, consisted of taking my two dressed-up girls downtown, walking around, getting candy, having a pony ride, carving a pumpkin, and then later walking them around with some of the neighborhood guys and their little girls. We saw neighbors, we chatted and got to know each other a bit better, we had fun with our girls, and, yes, we got some candy. At home, my wife (and I, after I returned home), greeted people and handed out candy.

It was a fun night, and I'm not ashamed to say it, even as a Christian. I am not even compelled to try to assuage my conscience and "Christianize" my exploits by handing out tracts, though I have done that in the past and think it is a great idea given the opportunity to see and meet so many people. Why am I so OK with it? Because there is nothing wrong with hospitality, greeting neighbors, the excitement of dressing up and treading the sidewalks of the neighborhood with with your kids, and even enjoying some candy.

It could be bad to take those things too far, just as it would be bad to take anything, even good things, too far. But there is nothing wrong, in my view, with enjoying the fun of a cultural tradition for the good things found in it, shunning the bad. It is, in my view, no worse than listening to a Clash record and enjoying the music for what it is or getting together with the neighbors, even those pesky unsaved neighbors, for a block party. It doesn't mean that I love everything about Halloween or everything associated with it -I don't, but it doesn't mean that I can't enjoy what we and our kids deem to be the biggest parts of it. By all means, I do not want to be trying to share the table with demons, but I'm not convinced that I am.

And still... I might be wrong...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sex As Salvation

Some things in my life lately have caused me to reflect a lot on the issue of sex. Some of the reflections have been personal, and some of them have been sort of mental commentary on things I have seen on television or heard discussed from others. Sex can certainly be a touchy topic, but before I get to it, let me back up first and lay a little ground-work.

A bit of truth that has hit really home with me is that we, as humans, have a deep insecurity inside which causes us to constantly seek to justify ourselves. It is undoubtedly an artifact of the fall -a sense of inner shame combined with our active rebellion against God ("I want to live apart from you, God. I want to define myself and my worth apart from you, God.") and the scars we experience in this life from our own sins and the sins of others.

This inner craving to self justify expresses itself in many ways. We are professional at creating mini self-salvation systems: schemes we devise or live by to fill the empty, undeniable holes that exist in our soul and say aloud, and to ourselves, "I am OK. I matter. I am someone. I have worth!"

We believe the enemy's lies that our worth or "OK-ness" is built upon our performance and/or the opinion of others. If we are Christians, we know we can't work our way to heaven, yet we live like we need to work to establish ourselves in our eyes, everyone else's eyes, and God's eyes more than we know. In other words, although we are certainly saved through faith in Christ (it is not the perfection or strength of our faith which saves but Christ's perfect work which faith clings to), we live as though we don't believe the Gospel in many areas of our lives. We still don't really believe we are "OK" as humans.

So, we end up slaves, and often we don't know it. We live in a perpetual court-room, trying to evade the emptiness within by performing more, avoiding failure like the plague, trying to please certain people in our lives or seek their approval at any cost, and seeking out things to make us feel important, special, desired, pretty, significant, worthy, justified. "If I do this, I am OK." "If this person is pleased with me this time, I will be OK." "If I fail, I need to find a way to succeed, or I will never be OK." We endlessly plead our case, and it never works. Often our tune changes to, "I am hopeless, and things will never change." The enemy has us right where he wants us... ignoring the fact that our case has already been settled in court by a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

Sex is one of those things we pervert and use as a self-salvation system. Maybe it is how some guys high-five when they "hook up" with some "chick" or pat themselves on the back after a dry patch by going out and sleeping with some girl, later glorying in their sexual accomplishment and performance. Maybe it is how some girls view certain men as a conquest, because not only does the experience promise to be pleasurable, but that guy is "so hot" that it would make them feel very good and pretty about themselves. Quite an achievement!

On the opposite end of the spectrum silently live people who are terrified of sex. The problem is the same, though. They have bought into the lie that sex is a means to self-justify or prove oneself to be a "man" or "woman." They have bought the lie that sex is a means of defining oneself as having worth. So, due to some bad relationships, bad sexual experiences, or simply a fear of not measuring up to some nebulous standard or opinion, sex is gutted of its true meaning as the lie enslaves one more person, causing them, this time, to resent sex, awkwardly flee from it, and withdraw from sexual intimacy. This kinda of thing may not be shown and glorifed on television and amongst friends like the former manifestation of "sex as salvation," but again the issue is the same.

Sex was never meant to be a means to establish our identity or worth. The moment we do that, we enslave ourselves and dishonor the Lord. Instead, the God of the universe wants us to turn to Him and listen to and believe how He defines us. In Christ, we are deeply loved, fully accepted, and eternally justified. We are more than OK, and that acceptance is where it truly counts: in the eyes of our Maker, the One who loves us more than any human ever could and the One whose view of us defines everything. The doors to the courtroom have been closed forever. The Lord has won our case, and we are vindicated. We don't need to victimize people, use them as conquests to try to establish our worth, or fear something that God made to be a wonderful expression of intimacy and acceptance between a husband and wife. Believe the truth and resist the lie. Have sex with your spouse, and go wild, because it is meant for your enjoyment, not your justification!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Discipline and Punishment

I was discussing parenting and our parenting methodology with someone from work, the other day, and an interesting issue arose. My co-worker was concerned that the kind of discipline I spoke of sounded good, but she would be concerned that it would turn things like running or physical exercise (used as a form of correction) into a negative things viewed as punishment. She wants to encourage physical exercise, not turn it into something bad or negative.

My response was two-fold. I first used the example given to me by someone else of a child whose parents made him run laps as a form of correction. When they began that form of discipline, he was basically lazy, whiny, and unwilling to do anything or help out. But the following year, the boy joined the track team at school. The discipline he received was actually good for him, and he enjoyed the fruit of it in more ways than one. First, he was learning to get his work done responsibly so that he could enjoy extra-curricular activities, and secondly, he was in great shape... so why not go out for the track team?

My second point, which relates to this, is that I think by and large kids understand the difference between punishment and discipline, even though sometimes we use those terms interchangeably. I have explained to my kids what discipline or correction is for, but I think even without the explanation they experientially know the difference between that and "punishment" (or at least that a difference exists).

In my mind, punishment is something I do for me. I feel that justice has been offended and that retribution is in order. I act as Lawgiver and Judge. They have transgressed me, and I must make them pay. They have pissed me off or not done what I asked, and I'm going to do something so that there is a sense of appeasement. That is punishment. Punishment operates in the realm of justice, and in this context it is a warped, personal, self-seeking form of justice. I know, because I have "punished" many times before, unfortunately.

Discipline or "correction" is different. It is done for them. When my son back-talks his mother, for example, I make him do pushups (he is 14). He must not dishonor and disrespect his mother. Why? Because God says it is sin, sin if offensive and dishonoring to God, and sin has consequences. Because I love my son, I will discipline him so that he will be reminded of God's authority over him and the fact that this is sin. If I were to allow him to continue in that, yes, it would be personally unpleasant for my wife and I in our home, but it would be horrible for him, and we would be unloving parents to allow him to continue to walk in rebellion against God without correction. How could allowing your kid stand against his Maker be good for them? You might as well let them jump off the roof.

The same goes for my daughter if she is grumbling, for example. If she is incessantly grumbling, that reveals a self-centered and pretty ungrateful attitude which believes that the world should bow to her wishes, give her these things and comforts which she believes will give her happiness, and she is grumbling because it isn't. Because I love her, I will discipline her for that. Discipline, though unpleasant, has something of a redemptive aim. And of course, each opportunity for discipline is also an opportunity to remind them of the most important truth: our sin is a neon sign pointing out our need for a Savior -which God has graciously given us. That is not oppressive. That is the best news in the world!

The Bible, as we would expect, is replete with passages about the goodness of discipline, especially in Proverbs. Here are just a few:

"For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, " (Prov 6:23)

"Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." (Prov 13:24)

"Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him." (Prov 22:15)

All of these, and more, depict discipline as something good -not just good in a general sense, but good and loving for the person (child) receiving it. Do you see that?

When I discipline, I am not judge. I am standing in a position of God-given authority, yes, but acting for the good of my children. I, myself a sinner, am acting as for the good of other sinners, my children, in obedience to and for the glory of God. This is a tremendously humbling thing to grasp. I am an imperfect agent of God, acting for the glory of God and the good of my kids.

And this is what love is -to act for the true good of another. It is not loving to allow our children to follow the foolishness in their hearts without reproof, as though they are their own gods, living at the center of the universe. It is wicked to sit and idly allow that. God says if we do that, we hate our children.

And as I mentioned before, I think kids understand the difference between discipline and punishment (and certainly if you explain it to them). A few months ago while we were driving home from somewhere, my son told me how glad he was that God gave him parents that cared enough about him to give him firm boundaries, protecting him from his tendency toward foolishness (my paraphrase of his words). That blew me away. But it isn't only in random moments like that where I see the difference consistent discipline makes, by God's grace. Although he doesn't like the act itself (running laps, pushups, etc.), I see that he is growing to appreciate it, and I thank God for every bit of it.

Recently, he returned to Tae Kwon Do lessons, and after his first lesson back (he took a "break" for about 6 months to get back on track with school and things), we talked a bit with his instructor as students emptied the building. While expressing his joy that my son is back, the instructor noted how he seemed in much better shape than before. In response, my son was open about the fact that he has been running laps as a form of discipline. He was mildly bashful, but he almost seemed proud that his dad (me) was making him do it.

Kids know the difference. They understand when their parents are for them and not against them. Actions speak so loudly on this point -much louder, as the adage goes, than what we say to them. And even though they might complain or put on a grumpy face when given discipline, they know it is better for them. They need their parents to be connected to them, and they need that discipline. Though temptation and foolishness tell them that doing things their own way promises happiness, they are overall happier when dad does his job and steps in to correct them.

My responsibility, my challenge, is to find that right amount for each child. I don't want to crush them, but it must be enough to actually serve as a corrective. I need to connect with them personally as their dad, but with that I also need to be consistent in loving them through discipline.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Worse Than I Think and Better than I Deserve

How would you describe the Christian life? It is commonly called a "walk." The writer of Hebrews calls it a "race." These metaphors describe certain aspects of the Christian walk. There is a path, and endurance is required (and graciously supplied).

Lately, I've been realizing more and more that the Christian life involves a constant renewal and increase of the knowledge of your own sinfulness and God's graciousness. If you aren't still being surprised at how wicked you are, then why not? In the past months, I've been blown away. But I am not destroyed. It is the kind of destruction you welcome -like a laser cutting out cancer. It hurts, sure, but the pain is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the devastation the cancer has brought, is inflicting, or will bring.

There is a kind of freedom in it, too. Its almost like that line in Ferris Bueller's Day Off... something about how "freeing" it is realizing that you are "completely screwed." That is only half true, really. It is freeing to know that you are completely screwed a) when it is true, and b) when it sets you rightly in your place before God so that you can drop the act, stop pretending you are a "good person," and actually enjoy God and His graciousness, serving others from that.

It isn't like being in that nightmare when you are in your underwear and everyone is looking, but then you find out they are all in their underwear too, so you don't feel so bad. There is some truth to that. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, and forgetting that is dangerous. But what is really all that helpful about comparing yourself to others? Nothing. In fact, that is dangerous, too.

No, its more like realizing that all the facades you put on and all the acts you play and all the small salvation schemes you run in your life... are thin and transparent, and One who loves you has seen right through them the whole time. He has, in some sense, been waiting for you to grow weary of them and come back to His arms.

Two phrases come to mind, lately.

1) "Cheer up, you are worse than you think." Give up on being a religious person who is inwardly afraid, insecure, and exerting himself to live up to others or some nebulous standard. You *are* those things you fear and don't want others to know about. You really are those things. Admit it, and praise God!

2) How am I? As C. J. Mahaney habitually answers, "Better than I deserve." I really am.... and part of it is realized when I gather how shallow my apprehension of my own ill desert is. I don't even know how bad I am. I just know that my dullness to my wickedness is part of my wickedness, so everything I enjoy in my life, every single day, is truly much more than I deserve. Even with trials and struggles, which truly pale compared to what so many have gone through (I'm a total wimp), I have every reason to say, "Wow, this is still so much better than I deserve." To swing the axe one more time, then I realize that these trials, are small as they are, are not punitive. They come from the hand of a loving Father who is shaping me into the image of His Son with them. So not only is my suffering woefully less than I deserve, but even any suffering I endure is a gift for my good!

So, what right do I have being a person who is perenially insecure and pissed off? None, but it is freeing to admit to you, dear reader, that I am such a foolish person... because my Master already knows all of it, and in Him I rest. Oh, how freeing it is to embrace who you are, warts and all, and know that God does as well through Jesus Christ... who is our only ultimate Audience. Amen.