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

 

Seeing the World as It Really Is – Thank God for God!

Kevin Spacey, Trump, Hilary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood, Russians, Facebook, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Politics, Google, Steve Mnuchin and wife, Wall Street, Violent Protesters, Crooked Cops, Lois Lerner, Baltimore, Greedy Admirals, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Charlie Rose… where does it end? It’s been a remarkable couple of years. At this point everyone’s eyes should be opened to reality.

The powerful exploit the weak. Greed and corruption are endemic at all levels of government. What’s not overtly criminal is incompetent. Hypocrisy is so common that our first instinct is to assume “he’s lying” or has something to hide, and the next blockbuster story revealing a politician’s secret life confirms our jaundiced view. Even worse, what is evil attacks what is good. Honest people of high character are drawn down by those in the mud.

Here’s the deal – the world runs on power, sex and money. Really. See it. Believe it. It feels bad to admit it, but it’s true. I for one don’t really want to believe it. Like many others do, it would be nice to pretend that “people are inherently good.” “Oh sure, they’re a few bad apples out there, but you can trust people.” But that would be wrong. We all need to accept reality. The world is fallen and we can’t fix it.

Jesus reminds us of this, saying to his disciples; I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16) His point was that they should understand the world’s corrupt and greedy operating system (for their own self protection) but not be corrupted themselves. Easy to say, hard to do. Christians are still trying to do that 2,000 years later.

And of course, pretty often the world wins, or seems to win in the short run. The disciples were almost all killed in nasty ways. Although we may not die for Jesus, being innocent, fair and honest doesn’t usually “pay off” in the ordinary sense of the term. As the saying goes, “nice guys finish last.” But again Jesus has words for us; “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

And the disciples themselves give us a lot of advice on how to go about living rightly and cheerfully in wicked and troubled times. Here’s a bit:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:4-9)

And there’s more where that came from.

So if, like me, you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, disillusioned and depressed, take heart! Be of good cheer despite the world. Encourage a brother or sister. Turn off Fox and CNN. Trust God. Follow Jesus and do the best you can. It will all work out just fine.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pete

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Remember brothers and sisters, they can kill us but they can’t hurt us.
– Justin Martyr (beheaded 165 AD)

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Driving the Speed Limit and Other Submissions

file0001487854709As with anytime I’m on the highway, our recent Thanksgiving road trip got me thinking about the speed limits. Mostly I stick to them. Mostly, it seems to me, other people don’t. Coming to and going from my brother’s house we were passed by a steady stream of vehicles, but one in particular caught my eye – an SUV with a large bumper sticker (more of a sign really) that read in part, “Jesus can read the speed limit sign” and went on to urge obeying the limit to save lives. It was probably doing 85.

Sharon and I shared a laugh and assumed good intentions on the part of the driver. Who among us can always practice what he preaches? Not me for sure. Nevertheless, the point stuck with me. We Christians are called to be model citizens, obeying the lawful orders of our government, including the speed limits. Yes, speeding is sinful, and we should not flout the traffic laws.

It hurts to say that, doesn’t it? Oftentimes speed limits seem arbitrary and unnecessarily slow, even “stupid” perhaps. Maybe they’re even intentionally set on the low side to generate ticket revenue for the city. We scoff and tell ourselves, “I know what’s safe,” and drive however we like. Well, we’ve got some emotional and spiritual growth coming apparently.

The Bible teaches us that God ordains all human authority and that, in general, inferiors owe a duty of compliance and allegiance to superiors. (See Q&A #123-#127 from the Westminster Larger Catechism reproduced below) Children should obey the parents, employees the boss, and citizens the government. Rebelliousness for it’s own sake is simply not appropriate.

Yes there is a place for legitimate civil disobedience, non-compliance with, or defiance of orders which are in opposition to God’s moral law. I don’t want to talk about that here because I think our larger (and my larger) problem is a certain level of baseline rebelliousness. It’s practically the American way.

Now I mostly drive the speed limit, but it hasn’t been out of a great respect for authority. Rather, I just don’t think speeding is a good idea from a safety standpoint, and also I don’t seem to be in as much of a hurry as when I was a younger man. The passing SUV sign has got me rethinking the issue and recognizing my inherent rebelliousness.

Maybe the laws are stupid. No matter, it’s not about that. It’s about meekness. Honestly, I do think a lot of our governing authorities’ requirements are ill-conceived to say the least. My compliance is often more from fear of negative consequences than anything else, when what’s called for is submission for Jesus’ sake. So I repent of that and plan to work on killing my “rebel spirit.” How about you? Any advice?

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Some interesting excerpts from the Westminster Larger Catechism on the subject of obeying authorities:

123. Which is the fifth commandment?

The fifth commandment is, Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

124. Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?

By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.

125. Why are superiors styled father and mother?

Superiors are styled father and mother, both to teach them in all duties toward their inferiors, like natural parents, to express love and tenderness to them, according to their several relations; and to work inferiors to a greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents.

126. What is the general scope of the fifth commandment?

The general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals.

127. What is the honour that inferiors owe to their superiors?

The honour which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behaviour; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defence, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love that so they may be an honour to them and to their government.

Resisting the Call of Laziness

file7621243117077If you’re like me, there’s always something else you could or “should” be doing. Perhaps it’s chores or tasks around the home. I try to get my entire honey do list accomplished on the weekends, but it never seems to happen. Sooner or later I’m done for the day without being done with the jobs. But by and large, I’m pretty industrious, and if you looked at what I accomplish between Friday and Monday, you probably wouldn’t call me lazy. What I realized yesterday, was that my laziness was in putting the tasks off until the weekend in the first place.

Last night after dinner, as I was taking the trash out, I caught sight of a spare fence board in the garage. My mind jumped to the two fence boards that needed replacing the back yard, a repair left undone before Sunday night. Hmm… I’ll get to it next weekend. No. Wait. Why not fix the fence now? Good thought! Twenty minutes later, the fence was good to go. Then I realized that if I did just one of the needed jobs each evening, I would probably easily complete my list each weekend. What prevents me from doing so? Laziness.

Even as I write this tonight, there are a couple of burned out light bulbs in the kitchen and bath that need changing. They’ve been out for a couple of days. Yes they’re both in enclosed fixtures, which is a little more work than just unscrewing the old bulb and inserting the new, but really they’re both very small jobs. I know I’ve wasted at least several hours in surfing the net or other mindless activities since they’ve needed changing. I could have easily changed them by now, but haven’t.   Laziness again. (With my newfound insight, I intend to change them right after this post is up.)

This is pretty minor stuff, but it’s made me think about how easy it is to give in to comfort and ease, and I don’t want laziness to derail me in anything more important than light bulbs. For example, this morning I ran my usual five miles. I’ve been doing five miles twice a week for 18 months now, but it’s getting pretty hot and humid in Florida now and today I felt like quitting. Laziness was calling, Cut the run short. Just do two miles, three at the most. After all it’s hot. That’s still a good run. Honestly, I thought about it, even though I knew I was perfectly capable of completing the entire course. So, I talked back to myself, Look you know you can do this. You’ve been doing it twice a week. Sure it’s hot but it’s not deadly. If you quit it’s just because you want to, not because you have to. Do you really want to? No, I didn’t want to. I wanted to finish. A little more self-talk, You can do it! Just keep at it! and a quick prayer, God help me do what I want to do. Help me finish, and I was over the period of temptation and completed the run.

Despite my fitness, despite 12 years of very regular vigorous exercise, I still experience this “call of laziness” pretty often during my workouts. There’s always this little voice around that says, less is okay. You don’t have to do so much. Quit now. Sometimes I do give in and cut the run short or skip the last couple of reps, and when I do, I always feel bad about it. Mostly, I talk and pray through my temptation like I did this morning, and that seems to work pretty well.

There may be other fixes. Today it occurred to me that perhaps I should change my running route so as not to be a double loop that brings me back close to home at the halfway mark. Then once I was halfway, I’d have to complete the other half. In my view, a structural solution to temptation is always preferable than continuing to rely on one’s power of resistance.

Regarding this issue, I don’t think I’m too different than most people. Laziness calls us all. The question is do we give in or do we resist? We know God helps us in our weakness, but many still can’t seem to overcome their laziness. I think the keys to victory here are:

  1. acknowledging our human weakness/laziness/sin,
  2. knowing what we really want,
  3. asking for his help, and
  4. persisting.

When laziness called me this morning, it was the sin in me that wanted to quit. The “real me” wanted to finish. With God’s help I did, and I plan to keep doing so!

What does the “real you” want to do?

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Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.
Eccl 10:18

Defiance Blocks, Submission Unlocks God’s Grace

2000px-Gadsden_flag.svgLately, I’ve been impressed with and writing about my own and humankind’s weakness. We have a great deal of trouble doing what we know is right, and we succumb to harmful temptations frequently. That explains a lot of our problem with lifestyle illness and poor health in general, but it’s not the whole story. Sometimes we’re just defiant; we simply refuse to do what we know we should do.

Case in point – seat belts. Recently, John Nash, the famous mathematician, and his wife died in a traffic accident after being ejected from the vehicle.   A few months ago, CBS correspondent Bob Simon died of injuries sustained in a car crash. He, like the Nashes, was an unrestrained, back seat passenger in a car for hire. Both of the belted-in drivers are alive. This isn’t an isolated problem. Pretty frequently I read local newspaper reports of traffic accidents in which unbelted people have been ejected and killed. I’m sure you do too.

What’s that about anyway?! What can it be about? Surely not simply personal weakness or temptation. There’s nothing hard about buckling up, and riding while unbuckled is not a sensuous thrill. It can’t be about ignorance. Everyone knows the rationale for and the benefit of seat belts. And it’s not for lack of external motivators. “Click it or ticket” laws are common and well understood. No, I see only one reason not to buckle up – defiance! “I won’t and you can’t make me!”

But why be defiant? It’s in our nature. Defiance feels good to us. We like being rebels, non-conformists, doing our own thing. Especially in America, where cultivating a fierce independence of spirit is practically a religion. But this is also a basic human trait, part of the fallen nature of humanity. Each of us wants to be “king of him- or herself,” and to prove our power we act out. Seat belts are just a clear example of this larger issue. We defy our parents, our teachers, the government, social conventions, God, and even basic common sense or objective reality. We’ll do whatever it takes to reassure ourselves that we are in charge. Basically, “Defiance-R-Us.”

That’s not how God calls us to live. Submission, not defiance, is the way of Jesus. We are not kings of ourselves, and if we try to hold on to our own power we lose – in this life and in the next. Why are lives still being cut short in car accidents for lack of proper restraint? Why do people purposefully, willfully keep choosing this and other harmful behaviors? They refuse to submit to God or man.

Don’t be like that. Submit and be well. I’m still impressed that weakness is a huge issue for us humans, but defiance is the worse problem. It’s more upstream, a blocker of God’s grace. When we submit, God helps us in our weakness. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can gradually overcome much of our sinful behavior to live fuller and healthier lives. But submission comes before strength.

Given the rapidly shifting state of postmodern society, an extra note is probably warranted here. Christians often need to defy social norms in a secular society. You will need to live very differently (even “abnormally”) from the average person to be physically, emotionally and spiritually well in today’s world. Christians may be even called to defy governmental laws and regulations in so far as they conflict with the higher law of God. This kind of defiance, defiance of man’s improper ordering of society, should flow from submission to Jesus with a joyful spirit, and not from one’s own pride or self-righteousness. Easy to say, hard to do.

Submission remains the first step.

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And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”    Mark 8:34-38 ESV

The Only Thing I Can Control Is Myself… Well, Not That Much Actually.

I imagine that most of you, like me, have learned that you really can’t control other people, places or things, and also that it’s an exercise in frustration to try. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to control our spouses, children, friends, relatives or coworkers. Often the more effort we make in that regard, the worse outcomes (from our own perspectives) we seem to get. It’s usually liberating, to us and to them, when admit our powerlessness over others, stop the controlling behaviors, and focus on ourselves. After all, the only thing you can control is yourself.

Not only is this idea liberating, it’s empowering. Wow. I can control myself! So, what do I choose to do! What’s my plan to change? How will I live, regardless of how others choose to live? I can control myself! It may take an emotional struggle to get to this realization, but once you’ve arrived you’re ready to take charge of yourself and make positive changes. For me personally, this concept has been life changing. I enjoy much better emotional health and better interpersonal relationships that I used to because of my ability to focus on myself and to choose different thoughts and behaviors.

But lately I seem to be running up against my limits. Or perhaps I’m noticing them more. Really I think God is doing it. He seems to be showing me my own weakness and impressing me with the weakness of people in general. Although I probably have more willpower and self-discipline than most people, truly I still struggle to control myself. I give in to laziness, comfort seeking, arrogance and my other character faults pretty often. Compared to some others, I look okay (from the outside anyway); compared to who I should be, who I want to be, I’m out of control.

It’s not just me. Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say about this issue:

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.  –   Romans 7:14-25 NLT

That is the way it is for most of us. God has given each of us a certain baseline measure of self-control, which we can grow over time with some effort. Maybe just a little, maybe a lot. Whatever. It won’t be enough. Fundamentally we are all weak inside. All of us have an inner sin nature that prevents us from living the lives we want, and we are not able to overcome it on our own. At the deepest level, we really cannot control ourselves.

The good news is that the Holy Spirit has been sent to help us overcome our old nature. One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. I’ve written before about this idea that the Holy Spirit changes you from the inside, but I don’t think I emphasized it enough, and I don’t think I have lived it enough. The Holy Spirit isn’t just a backup for when I reach my own human limit; he’s there to lead me in the way I should go and to empower me to get there.

Now, in my attempts to improve myself, I’m starting to pray differently. Instead of requesting more strength for the struggle, I am admitting my weakness and asking God to change me from the inside, to change my character, in order that I may not struggle so much. I don’t want to be empowered to “fight harder” to be better; I want to not need to fight at all. My prayer might go like this: God, the only thing I can control is myself, and, really, I’m not that good at it. But you have all power. Please change me from the inside. Take away my selfish desires, so that I don’t need to struggle so much. Help me be the person you’d have me be.

I now feel that asking for God’s help, and specifically asking for his direct intervention in my internal nature, should be the first thing I do in my personal change effort, no matter how small or large the issue. What do you think? How do you approach God on the issues with which you struggle?