On Overcoming Ourselves

Ramsey confronting Kirby

In the classic movie You Can’t Take It With You, the climatic scene is a confrontation between the brutally capitalistic Anthony P. Kirby and his competitor and one-time friend, Ramsey, whose business Kirby has just destroyed. Kirby is on top of the world, about to sign a hard-won deal which will make him fantastically rich, when a broken Ramsey bursts into his office with a prophetic warning.

I have suddenly realized that I haven’t lost a thing; that I never gained one moment’s happiness out of it. And I warn you, Anthony, neither will you. In spite of your victories, you can’t shut out every decent impulse and survive. You’re top-heavy with power right now, Anthony, but you’re going to crack under it. You’re bound to crack under it… You’ll scream for help and suddenly find yourself alone in the world. You’ll wriggle on the hook and find that nobody gives a hang. I know—because that’s what happened to me. And it’ll happen to you. That’s what happens to all men like us, Anthony; it’s coming to us.

Kirby listens quietly to the hoarse warning and watches impassively as his old friend collapses on the boardroom table before being helped out of the room. Moments later, in the sort of instant reinforcement which only happens in the movies, the businessman’s only son, Tony Jr., comes to tell him he’s leaving, unwilling to follow in his father’s footsteps. He departs, and the great Anthony P. Kirby sighs, gathers himself to his feet, and walks into the elevator that will take him up to the top floor to sign the deal.

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Faith Amid the Waves

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

One of my favorite Bible stories is the account of Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14. Caught in a dangerous storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples were surprised and frightened by the sudden appearance of their Master, walking through the storm. Peter, impetuous as always, cried out to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” and Christ replied simply, “Come.” So Peter came, but partway there his fear of the waves overcame his faith in the Lord and he began to sink, until he cried out for help and Jesus snatched him to safety.

The story has much to teach us about the nature of faith—about the danger of focusing on our circumstances rather than our God, and about the hope that comes from having a God who acts to help us even when our meager faith is spent. But there is also a danger in Peter’s story if we take it too specifically as a guide for what faith should look like. The danger lies in a detail which is vivid and memorable—the stuff of ten thousand Sunday School flannelgraphs—but is ultimately of secondary importance: That faith, in this particular situation, involved getting out of the boat.

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Stop Worrying and Pick Something

Happily Ever After sign

I had a conversation recently with a young woman who was agonizing over whether to go out with a fellow who she felt was likely to ask her on a date soon. She was pretty sure she wasn’t interested in him, but she was concerned: What if she said no, but he was actually The One?

Her look of concern mirrored the one I’ve often seen on high school students and their parents whom I’ve advised as they made college plans. What if they don’t get into the right school? Or don’t even apply there? Or don’t even know about it?

Making wise and informed decisions is important, of course, but our preoccupation with selecting the right option, whether we’re talking about a spouse, a school, a career, or any other important life choice, is the unhelpful product of bad theology. It misunderstands both God’s role and ours in our decision-making and it misdirects our focus, treating the lead-up to a decision as more important than its aftermath, when in reality it’s usually just the opposite.

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Rooting Faith Deeper than Intellect or Emotion

Young man sitting by a river

Most of the young people she knew who had left Christianity did so after participating in academic debate during high school. Competitive speech training was supposed to prepare them to combat the world, she observed dryly, but apparently the world won. It was just one anecdote, but the counterintuitive observation from a friend of a friend stuck in my mind because it is not very different from what I’ve noticed in the dozen years since I graduated from the world of Christian debate and apologetics training. I would never have guessed how many of my friends in those circles would go on to drift away from evangelical Christianity or leave the faith altogether.

But when I turned my musings into a short post about the dangers of a faith that is only intellectual, another friend with a similar background disagreed—in her experience, young people left Christianity because for them it was only an emotional experience without enough intellectual content. And right there, in that assumed dichotomy between emotion and intellect, I think we find a key part of the problem.

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Technology and the Lure of the Easy

Man relaxing with laptop

Since I spent the weekend away with my wife, I decided to revive one of my favorite posts from back in 2012 for today’s article. –David

From the moment of the Fall, when the forbidden fruit promised an earlier and easier entrance into bliss, growth, and knowledge, one of Satan’s favorite strategies has been to take some promised good and offer his own version; easier, simpler, and always, in retrospect, somehow diminished and corrupted. The golden calf offered Israel a safer, less demanding God. As Abraham waited for the promised son, Hagar seemed a simple solution to his wife’s infertility. Even Jesus himself was offered a far easier path to dominion if he would only bow before the Evil One.

It’s not that “easy” is necessarily or even usually bad; merely that the appeal of the easy is a powerful lure into danger. One of the best ways to draw us off the straight and narrow path is with a shortcut.

I bring this up because this feeling of an easier path to a lesser good is a theme of many of the problems and potential problems in our interactions with modern technology. The whole appeal of technology lies in its ability to make things easier, whether in communication, calculation, learning, shopping, or transportation. Of course, as I said, easier isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it’s often good, allowing us to be wise stewards of our resources by saving time and money for other uses. (I certainly appreciate being able to type these observations on the keyboard of a handy laptop, rather than pounding away on a typewriter or scribbling with a pen.) With technology as with the rest of life, the danger lies in the appeal of the easier path to draw us away from the better.

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Working to Make Space for Delight

Hands forming a heart

I’m whisking my wife away to an undisclosed location for a few days before the school year starts, so I was all set to write a brief post explaining that my usual Thursday article would not be forthcoming. Then that brief explanation grew somewhat less brief and it appears we have something of a Thursday article after all. (This is one of the hazards of being a writer.)

With our rare and long-awaited weekend getaway fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about marriage and the kind of work that goes into cultivating delight. It seems like every stage of a marriage throws up some different barrier to staying in love. Leah and I are still in a relatively easy stage, but we have already discovered that the premarital advice was true and we do need to work to tend the spark which flared so naturally when we were dating. So we work at it. Which may not sound especially romantic—and frankly, it’s not. Planning and scheduling and prioritizing aren’t exactly the stuff of poetry, but then they aren’t supposed to be. They are about preparation, not poetry.

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When Trials Are Trying to Tell You Something, and When They Aren’t

Depressed man

Life in a fallen world isn’t easy, and we all know the dark pressure of hard times. The collapse of a relationship, loss of a job, loss of health—they are sad reminders that sin brought all flavors of death and loss into the world and there is no escaping their effects in this life. But sometimes the burden is heavier because we don’t know how to respond. Some suffering is simply a consequence of living in a dying world, but the Bible also makes it clear that our Father may use trials to correct or discipline us. When troubles come, it is easy to feel stuck in the middle, unsure whether God is looking for us to repent of some sin or simply to trust and wait on him.

Proverbs 3:11-12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Sometimes, God uses troubles to shake us awake and confront us with our sins or mistakes. If your girlfriend is breaking up with you, it might be because life can be painful in a fallen world, or it might be because you are kind of a jerk. If you lost your job, it might be because God is giving you a chance to grow in your faith, or it might be because you don’t work very hard. Or you may have some habitual sin which is unrelated to this particular trial, but which God is trying to draw to your attention. Yet, on the other hand, desperately trying to ferret out some unnoticed besetting sin may simply add an unnecessary burden to an already painful situation. What to do? How can we remain open to our Father’s correction while also realizing that some troubles call for endurance rather than repentance?

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On Thinking Small and Changing the World

Pawn on chessboard

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

The world is not what it should be. In just the past few days, we have been inundated with news about jihadist murder in France, racial tensions in America, an attempted coup in Turkey, and starving millions in Venezuela. I think we would all agree that Someone Should Do Something About That, and we probably feel guilty that we aren’t stepping up to be the Someone who does the Something.

But perhaps we are not quite on the mark about the Something we ought to be doing. Several unrelated social trends have worked together to give our era an unbalanced and counterproductive understanding of how renewal comes and what it takes to make the world a better place.

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Reasons for Hope, Part 3: About America

American flag

So far, my “Reasons for Hope” series has taken a narrow perspective, considering God’s promises of sanctification for individual believers, and then a big-picture one, considering God’s promises for the future. In this final article, I’m going to finish up in the middle, with a look at reasons for hope about our country and our place in it.

While patriotism should never shoulder aside the priorities of our faith, we still ought to care deeply about the state of our country. “Love your neighbor” naturally leads to an interest in our society and government, and in fact Paul instructed Timothy to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). In the Old Testament, God told his exiled people, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). God put us in a particular place at a particular time for a particular reason, so we have a degree of responsibility for “the welfare of our city” and ought to pray and act and feel accordingly.

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Reasons for Hope, Part 2: Confidence About the Future

I started this short “Reasons for Hope” series last week because it is so easy for us to fall into negativity and frustration about the news of the day and the state of our culture. The Bible, though, says that Christians can and even should be hopeful and joyful. Last week I considered a couple of very encouraging promises centered on the gift of sanctification which we receive from God as his children. Those promises were for individual believers in the here and now. Today, I want to look at the bigger picture and consider two reasons for hope about the future.

The first reason for optimism is that we are citizens of a victorious kingdom—and I’m not just talking about the final judgment. For two thousand years, and at this very moment, the kingdom of God has been expanding. If the Christian church was an empire, it would be the longest-lived, farthest-spread empire in history.

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