Cultures to Avoid – Jealousy and Selfish Ambition

I wasn’t planning a series on the world’s fallenness, but of course it’s still on my mind. How could it not be? New revelations of sexual sin (including assault, harassment, adultery), abuse of power, and deceit in high places continue almost daily. And we’re seeing that it’s not just one “bad apple,” but rather a culture of abuse and dishonesty in many organizations or even industries. It leaves one thinking, is everyone everywhere where a sociopath? Can anyone be trusted? How do we protect ourselves? What should we watch out for?

James, the brother of Jesus, has some good advice in this regard:

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom.  But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying.  For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.  For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.
James 3:13-16 NLT [emphasis mine]

That sure resonates with me. Aren’t the entertainment industry and D.C. Beltway politics filled with jealousy and selfish ambition? It’d be hard for any objective observer to suggest otherwise. Not to say that every actor is a prima donna or every politician is on the take, but these industries (and politics is an industry) do have that kind of “it’s-all-about-me” culture. The National Football League also comes to mind, but reasonable people could argue about that.

At an individual business level, culture varies across companies, departments, and even work units. Some are emotionally healthy, others less so. Even voluntary associations – clubs, churches, and other groups – may experience harmful or toxic cultures. No organization is too small to be affected by sin. Perhaps you have seen jealousy and selfish ambition in action at your homeowners association for example.

Honestly, we’re all subject to jealousy and selfish ambition; this isn’t about pointing the finger at someone else. But as we work to let go of our own jealousy and selfish ambition, let’s be mindful of James’ warning. There are some industries, organizations and places that we should avoid for our own protection, and he gives us one way of spotting them.

Be safe,

Pete

On Bad Behavior – There but for the Grace of God Go I

As we covered in the last post, bad behavior is epidemic in the world. Always has been, always will be (that is until Jesus comes back). But something does seem different now; for whatever reason, we are seeing the corruption more clearly than ever. Individually and collectively, we now know that we have a large problem of moral decay in America today.

In a healthy response, people are demanding accountability, demanding that the powerful should experience consequences for abuses of power. I’m all for that, but I’m also detecting a spirit of judgementalism or self-righteousness in many of the criticisms and calls for “zero tolerance” or “heads to roll” (as it were). Perhaps because the abusive behavior seems so extreme, we’re able to see ourselves (and I’m including myself here) as “better than that,” not like the abusers.  It’s easy to do, and it feels good. As the Pharisee prayed, God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

On the other hand, we are supposed to be good! It’s good to be good, and many of us are working (and it does take effort) to live honestly and morally. When I hear of some new accusation, I really want to be “better than that.” Moreover, I think God wants me to be better than that. But God also wants, and deserves, the credit. That last part was the Pharisee’s problem.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”         Luke 18:9-14 ESV [emphasis mine]

I’m happy that I sin less than I used to, but giving credit where credit is due, it’s God who has changed and is changing me, giving me an increasing desire for righteousness and greater self-control. Even then, my self-control is not enough to avoid or resist all temptation and I ask God for his intervention to help me live as I want to and ought to. This prayer comes to mind a lot:

Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:

Remove far from me falsehood and lying;

give me neither poverty nor riches;

feed me with the food that is needful for me,

lest I be full and deny you

and say, “Who is the LORD?”

or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:7-9 ESV

Truly, I (or you) could be as wicked as any of the people profiled in the investigative journalism story of the week. Let’s let go of the self-righteousness and contempt. The saying “There but for the grace of god go I” is valid for all offenses. I’m trying to keep that in mind as new stories break. How about you?

Pete

 

Trying to be More Patient Than Job

file0001894206932“Is your middle name Job?” the woman asked my wife. “You sure are being patient with me.” Sharon just smiled and encouraged the elderly and forgetful assisted living facility resident. I smiled too when she told me about it the next morning, and it got me thinking about patience.

Was Job really patient? Despite the expression, “the patience of Job,” I didn’t remember Job as seeming particularly patient. What is patience anyway?  Looking up the definition of patience I found this:

Patience, noun

  1. the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like.
  2. an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay

Hmm. Not so sure I’d call Job a patient man. Yes, he bore a lengthy period of misfortune and suffering, but not without complaint or irritation. Checking a Bible translation comparison site revealed that it’s the King James Version where Job is credited with patience. More modern translations use perseverance, endurance, and steadfastness instead.

Here are several versions of James 5:11

KJV – Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.

NIV – As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

NLT – We give great honor to those who endure under suffering. For instance, you know about Job, a man of great endurance. You can see how the Lord was kind to him at the end, for the Lord is full of tenderness and mercy.

ESV – Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

Not being able to read the ancient Greek, I’m not able to evaluate the exact word for myself, but these latter alternatives seem to better reflect the nature of the story to me.

I’m not writing to cast aspersions on Job, I’ve had no suffering like his, just to relate how my thoughts were going. After meditating on patience for a day or so and getting to this point, I brought my attention back to myself. Am I patient? How good am I at enduring trouble with a cheerful or calm demeanor? Better than I used to be. I’m doing okay at this “ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.” Then I left for work.

Facing an hour drive, I popped in an audio CD with the monthly Bible message from Ligonier Ministries. R.C. Sproul’s teaching usually begins on the second track, following some introductory comments on the first track. This day the introduction seemed prolonged and boring, and I got irritated. Going to skip a track, I noticed that I had only been listening for about 3 minutes. That woke me up. Wow. I’m really not that patient. I need to work on this.

I had my chance five minutes later when traffic backed up for half a mile on the approach to Interstate 4. I had forgotten to allow additional time for construction at the ramp and was again immediately irritated – with the delay and with myself. After just a minute I thought – Here I go again! It’s just that easy to slip into impatience. It’s ingrained more than I know. – and then I relaxed. Nothing to do now. I’ll get there when I get there.

And as you might have guessed, I didn’t experience a substantial delay. I arrived right on time only to walk in and have to wait for an elevator. What’s up? These are taking longer than usual, I thought to myself. Then a flash or recognition – No, not this again! Third time this morning! Yes indeed. Third time’s a charm as they say.

I get it. I accept it. I should be more patient, and I’m going to work on it. Be patient with me, I’m a work in progress. You are too. Whatever you’re working on, keep at it.

Abiding 2 – Much to Offer, Little to Say

the dudeYou may have noticed that I’ve been writing less lately. No, I’m not too busy, I just don’t seem as motivated to write. It has something to do with the concepts I outlined in “Less Striving, More Abiding” and “Thinking Just for Fun.” My thoughts are still flowing freely, and I’m enjoying figuring things out, but I don’t feel as compelled to spread my conclusions around. It’s a new sensation for me. Thinking without communicating about it. Abiding with my ideas.

There was a time, and not too long ago, when if it was in me, it had to come out. I’ve been like that my whole life. If you knew me, you would know what I think.

Although expressing myself hasn’t always gone smoothly, it has been a learning experience. First I learned that I’m not always correct. Embarrassing oneself with confident pronouncements subsequently shown to be in error will help with that. Next I learned how to raise issues and share my ideas without being a jerk about it. (You’d be surprised how long it takes to learn things like this.)

Most recently, I’ve learned that many people don’t want new ideas. We’re all prone to get too comfortable with our own understanding, and most of us avoid challenges to our worldview – too much cognitive dissonance. I’m sure you can bring to mind issues from diverse fields (e.g. business, lifestyle, politics and religion) and many individual topics where facts don’t seem to matter much and people hardly ever change their minds.

It took me a long time to really get this because, often, people invite new ideas, only to reject them, no matter how compelling. Sometimes it’s subtle – listen, nod, not disagree (or even agree), then do nothing. Other times it’s overt hostility. Mostly it’s somewhere in between. So I’ve learned to hold my peace, to not share what I think, when rejection seems likely. Although I learned to keep it in, it certainly wasn’t natural for me. I’ve had to work at it.

That’s what seems to be changing now. I don’t have to work at it.  I don’t think I did anything.  Must be the Holy Spirit at work.

People sometimes introduce me as a “speaker” and “author” (especially when I’m speaking). That never seemed quite right to me. I’ve never thought of myself as author, but rather as a man with a message. Writing was simply a means to communicate a valuable message. Similarly, I’m not a speaker; I just had something to say.  I still have the “something,” even more than before. But I have a lot less to say.

Thinking. Abiding. Feels fine.

Humbled by the Peanut Butter Jar

I love this stuff!

I love this stuff!

A few years ago I realized that I had the beginnings of generalized osteoarthritis – low back pain, neck pain and crepitus, creaky knees, and mild intermittent discomfort at the base of my thumbs. But, by my nature, I don’t quit and so nothing slowed me down really, until last summer when I tore the medial meniscus in my right knee (which can be a complication of arthritis). Since then I’ve stopped running.  The knee feels pretty good now and I’m enjoying walking with Sharon three times a week instead. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the improvement in my lumbar and cervical pain too. The new normal seemed to be okay.

But now my left thumb is acting up. I’ve been experiencing pain and tenderness at the base of my thumb for about a month, and it’s becoming increasingly troublesome.   It bothers me throughout the day, is a little worse at night, and hurts with direct pressure (like when doing pushups), gripping and turning motions, or if my thumb gets tugged or pulled away from my hand. So, as is my nature, I’ve been pressing on without limiting my activity or pursuing treatment. How serious could it be anyway?

Well… I had difficulty opening a fresh jar of peanut butter recently because it hurt too much. Whoa!  This is serious.   Without peanut butter (the crunchy kind of course) is life worth living? I love peanut butter! Fortunately I managed through the crisis, and my serum peanut butter levels have remained high.

All joking aside, it was humbling to have trouble with a simple jar. It was a wake up call of sorts; I can see the possibility of being seriously limited by arthritis in the future. Time to do something about it. I don’t think I need to see a doctor yet, but I’ve decided to try supplementing with glucosamine, and I’m thinking about a splint at night. We will see how it goes. If it continues to worsen it will be time to see a physician.

Beyond the thumb, the episode also has me reflecting on my “nature.” An internal drive and intensity makes it hard for me to slow down or accept weakness. Perhaps it’s a “man thing” or maybe it’s just me. I’m also generally conservative and skeptical of healthcare and I tend to avoid medicines and doctors even when they might be helpful. It’s a form of pride no doubt, and I need to work on that. Perhaps you do too. Illness and death will humble us all eventually. Better to get humble in advance.

Comparing Myself to Others – Grace Make the Difference

In church a couple of weeks ago the pastor said something that caused me to think, “I’ve got to stop comparing myself to others!” At this point, I can’t remember the sermon topic, or the passages that he cited, or even exactly what he said, but the issue of not comparing myself to others has stuck with me.  I’ve been turning it over in my mind since then.  I do understand that my ultimate responsibility is to God, and that we all have the same judge – a judge who does not grade on the curve.  As the Apostle Paul says it,

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Galatians 6:1-8 NIV

Okay, I get that. But in day-to-day living it seems that I am always needing to compare myself to, or I am being compared with, other people. Examples abound:
– Do I sing well enough to serve in the choir? [no]
– Am I smart enough to get into medical school? [yes]
– Am I good enough to get the job, or the promotion? [maybe]
– How popular are my books and my blog? [not that popular]
– Can I make the sports team? [never could]
– What are my talents and abilities? [varied]
– How do they measure up in the marketplace? [some better, some worse]
I’m sure you can think of many more. Our human systems and societies typically reward talent, skills, drive, ambition, intelligence, beauty and other personal characteristics that are not equally distributed. Some can be acquired (education for example) but others are inborn gifts – if you don’t have them, you can’t get them. Life isn’t fair.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to completely stop comparing myself to other people without the Holy Spirit changing me from the inside (which is happening, albeit slowly). But honestly, comparison seems to be built into our social fabric, it’s how the world works. As I’ve thought about this, I’m not sure the real issue is “comparing,” but rather the “judging” that is part of my sinful nature. The Bible warns us more about judging than comparing, and we are to be “discerning” about people and issues. Doesn’t discerning involve comparing, at least sometimes?

Given that, I’ve begun to think that controlling my attitude is the most important thing to do as I inevitably continue to view myself in relationship to others. I can control my attitude. What’s my perspective? Am I operating from a perspective of Grace or from that of Law/Works? I think that makes all the difference. I’ve tried to express this in the 2×2 matrix below.

Comparing

Here’s how I’m seeing it:

If I operate from a perspective of Law, where I compare favorably to others (quadrant 1), I adopt a self-righteous attitude and am contemptuous or disregarding of “lesser” people. Where I don’t measure up (quadrant 3), I become envious of others’ success or giftedness, and I may despise and disparage them in an attempt to elevate myself.

On the other hand, operating from a perspective of Grace, where I compare favorably (quadrant 2), I am grateful for my talent, success or other blessing from God. I know it is not me who is responsible. This also leads to compassion for those who may be relatively lacking in those same areas in which God has blessed me. Where I am not gifted or specially blessed (quadrant 4), I can accept my limitations or shortcomings. God’s grace is enough. I don’t have to “measure up” to any human standard. Seeing and appreciating the gifts and blessings that God has given to others allows me to be happy for them.

That’s a very short explanation; Grace goes a lot deeper. It is by Grace that we are saved and transformed. It’s so easy to slide back into a Law- or Works-based perspective in selected areas of life. That leads to a person who may be saved all right, but perhaps has persistent bitterness, envy, or self-righteousness. Understanding and operating from Grace is the cure for that. Think Grace!

No Reason to be Proud, Many Reasons to be Grateful

I’ve been thinking about pride and grace a lot lately. Not sure why. Perhaps church sermons, perhaps theological readings, or perhaps the influence of the Holy Spirit – likely all three. What I’m grasping is that everything good flows from God’s grace. But if so, what have I accomplished? What can I be proud of? I’m starting to think the answer is probably “nothing.” Even if I “did it myself,” I didn’t actually do it by myself, but was empowered through the grace of God.

Consider the following Scriptural passages:

For in him [God] we live and move and have our being.  Acts 17:28

 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5

They don’t suggest that we pat ourselves on the back for too much.

I’m now realizing that I’m alive, day-to-day, minute-by-minute, because God wills it. Beyond life itself, I may accomplish many things here on earth, but I will do so by talents and abilities that, although I may have nurtured, I did not create. By nature, I am intelligent and hardworking with a significant internal drive to achieve. It’s gotten me far in life, but I can’t claim to have made myself smart or granted myself a strong will; it’s just how I am, and I’m grateful for it. (When I was a child, my father used to say to me, “Remember, you didn’t make yourself smart.” Sorry it’s taken so long to sink in, Dad.)

Also, how much of my success is due to a combination of favorable external circumstances? I didn’t choose my parents or my siblings, and I didn’t arrange to be born in America. Yes, I’ve turned out okay with the advantages I’ve been granted, but make no mistake; I’ve done many stupid and foolish things along the way, including ignoring God for many years. (For that matter, I still do many foolish things.) How has it all worked out so well? Grace is the only answer.

Given my work in health and wellness, I often wonder, how do people actually become inspired and motivated to change for the better? What causes someone to, suddenly or gradually, decide to be well and take action? Why does one person, after years of drug or alcohol addiction, become clean and sober, while another, in seemingly identical circumstances, succumb to his or her disease?  Lesser illnesses are no different. How and why was I able to get emotionally and spiritually well? Why didn’t I stay stuck in my dysfunctional state? There are no human answers. There but for the grace of God go I.

So, of what accomplishments can I be proud? Can I say that “I’m proud to be an American,” in the words of the famous song? Proud to be a doctor? Proud to work at Florida Hospital? Proud to be married for 27 years? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that I can be proud of anything. Grateful, yes. Proud, no.

Of course, I am grateful for all of those things and more. Other words that work here are “happy”, “excited,” and “glad.” I’m glad to be an American, happy to be a doctor, excited to work at Florida Hospital, and grateful for to be married to Sharon, now for 27 years. And I’m especially grateful to God for his grace, which has made it all possible.

What are you grateful for?

_________________________

The greatest spiritual crisis comes when a person has to move a little farther on in his faith than the beliefs he has already accepted. – Oswald Chambers