The Off Switch for Your Personal Pain

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For many of us, the pursuit of happiness is closely related to the numbing of pain. Vacations are as much about shutting off cellphones and not answering emails as they are about sunny beaches. Addictive behaviors are as much about escaping unwanted feelings as they are about the activity itself. The Bible itself even defines paradise in terms of the absence of pain – “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) So, in one sense, salvation is the absence of our present hurt.

Though there’s obviously no shortcut to experiencing salvation, I do believe God gives us resources to mitigate unnecessary hurt in this lifetime. One of these resources is his encouragement to in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil. 2:3-4) A Christian at some point has to see that caring for others is not something we do merely because we’re naughty if we don’t, but because we’re blessed when we do. 

In the early 1900s there was a Russian physiologist by the name of Alexei Ukhtomsky, whose main contribution to the scientific community was his “Principle of the Dominant Focus.” This principle stated that when it comes to the human nervous system, the brain can only focus on that which is causing the greatest stimulation. For instance, when it comes to pain, your brain doesn’t really register consciousness of two pains simultaneously though you may experience two separate pains simultaneously. So, let’s say you have a bad headache but you also recently sprained your ankle. If on a scale of 1 to 10, your headache is like a 6, but your sprained ankle is like a 3, that doesn’t mean that you’re experiencing pain at a 9. The pain reception doesn’t stack. Your brain would only focus on the primary stimulus, the headache pain, the 6. It’s all part of God’s brilliant design.

Now since there is one God who created this integrated physical, psychological, relational, spiritual world, the principles frequently overlap. You can’t register multiple pains simultaneously.

Consequently, while it may seem counterintuitive, the fastest way to overcome one pain would seemingly be to more deeply register a different pain. Furthermore, a unique characteristic of humanity is our ability to relate to the pain of other beings despite it not being our own personal pain. We call this empathy. Practically, what this means is that the most effective way for you to get over your own pain is … to occupy yourself with the pain of others. As you concern yourself with others ahead of self, you proportionately stop feeling so much pity for yourself. If you work to meet the needs of others you will feel proportionately less discontented. Empathy can help free you from your own pain.

As someone who has battled depression at various points throughout my life, I experientially know the deep self-focus often attached to the sadness. It’d be unfair to categorize everyone’s depression, so I’ll just speak for myself. I’ve never gotten depressed when I was deeply focused on the needs of others. I have gotten depressed focusing on my own wants and desires. I have gotten depressed constantly comparing myself to others. But taking God’s advice, “not looking to (my) own interests but…to the interests of the others”, has never created a period of overwhelming sadness for me.

Show me someone who’s obsessed with themselves, whether a high or low opinion of themselves, and I’ll show you a soon-to-be miserable soul. On the other hand, show me someone who’s so convinced of Christ’s providence and sufficiency that they’ve nearly forgotten about themselves, and I’ll show you someone who’s been liberated.

My primary evidence for this is none other than the Son of God himself. Jesus was the only truly other-focused person to ever walk the planet. In fact, in his last moments, at his most piercing pain, upon the cross, what kinds of things was Jesus crying out about? He reasonably could have been crying out about his head due to the crown of thorns, or his back due to the lashings, or the injustice due to the mistrials, or the betrayal and abandonment by his closest friends. But he doesn’t cry out about any of them. Instead, concerned about his mother’s well-being, he pointed her to his friend John and said, “Woman, here is your son now.” (John 19:26) Concerned about the souls of those who were crucifying him, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) All he could think about was someone other than himself. And because he thought about you and me instead of himself, our sins of self-obsession are washed away and can’t hurt us anymore.

The more the other-focused nature of our Savior melts our hearts, the more we become like him. Believe that because he was so obsessed with you, Jesus has done everything to take care of your eternal welfare. Believe that because he’s still so smitten with you, he constantly intercedes and works to take care of you. And if that’s true, then low and behold, you find yourself with all of this extra time and money and energy available for you to invest in the welfare of others.

Filling your calendar, your budget, and your mind with thoughts of others helps you imitate Christ and experience Christ (Eph. 5:1-2). But it will also numb some of the pain on the road to happiness.

 

NOTE: By encouraging an other-focus that helps alleviate personal pain, I’m not intending to be insensitive to those who are currently going through immense personal hurt. Of course someone in the ICU is going to struggle with physical pain. Of course someone who has recently lost a loved one will appropriately experience emotional turmoil. Of course there will be some pain in life that demands our attention. I’m merely making the case for the general truth that other-focusedness is not only a command, but a blessing from God. Processing pain involves information reception and communication. And in the same way that a human can only reasonably listen to one person in a conversation at a time, that same human brain can only focus on one dominant pain at a time. God’s commands are not arbitrary – they always have blessing attached.

Feel Free to Not “Be Yourself”

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The most commonly offered advice today from parents to children is simple, seemingly profound, and almost universally unchallenged: “Be Yourself.”

In The Road to Character, David Brooks muses on this. He highlights the recent prevalence of societal self-love doctrine:

As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following muddied messages of a timid world.” … “In her mega-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifested himself through “my own voice from within my own self….God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” (Road to Character, Brooks, pg. 7)

For many years, Americans have been converting to this doctrine of self-trust.

But it now appears the tide on this advice might be turning. Adam Grant, in perhaps my favorite article from last year, wrote a fantastic piece in the NY Times called “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice.” Grant writes:

If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.

And he concludes:

Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.

Grant offers examples of individuals who have conducted a dangerous social experiment – doing everything they felt they wanted to do. This included the story of an author who tried for several weeks to live a completely “authentic life,” stating everything that he felt was true of himself. This meant that he told a colleague that he would have sex with her if she were single. He told his nanny that he would ask her out on a date if his wife left him. He exposed his daughter to the harsh, cold realities about the death of pets. He told his in-laws they were boring. That author eventually conceded defeat and concluded, “Deceit makes our world go round.”

Deceit as the driving force of life not only sounds sad, but I believe it’s untrue. Personal restraint and willful deception aren’t the same animal.

From a biblical perspective, it’s certainly true that encouraging “authentic selves,” i.e. unfiltering ourselves, is like streaming pure oxygen in front of a blow torch. “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Rom. 8:7) The most basic of God’s commands is to love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39) If you encourage your natural self, you will unquestionably nurture a “me first” self that is disrespectful to God and detrimental to humanity. A Christian, by definition, cannot practice a purely “be myself” philosophy.

And, as stated, even the secular world is beginning to admit that a level of what psychologists call “self-monitoring” is necessary, beneficial, and healthy. In fact, civilization is predicated on the idea of a collective people group who are willing to compromise some amount of self for the sake of the greater communal good. So, if you’re a bit of a lead foot, don’t be yourself in heavy traffic. If you love loud music, don’t be yourself late at night in your apartment complex. If you’re kind of a bully, please, by all means, pretend to be anybody else on the playground. Just don’t be yourself. Furthermore, as Grant points out, studies seem to suggest that high self-monitors – people who are constantly scanning their environments for social cues and adapting – generally are more likely to receive promotions, higher status, and responsibility in the corporate world. We’re beginning to understand that, to some extent, we must restrain and repress the natural self.

But how do you do this without deceit? If you have an innate desire to be me-focused, but you pretend that you are, by nature, other-focused, does that not make you an inauthentic hypocrite?

Again, the biblical perspective offers tremendous resource. The solution is not to pretend to be something you’re not (hypocrisy & deception) nor to merely “be yourself” (radical authenticity & acceptance of yourself in your current state). The secret comes in recognizing that God, by grace, has accepted you as the person the Father created, the Son redeemed, and the Holy Spirit now empowers you to be. And that person is not an authentic, independent individual per se, but an important part of the body of Christ.

Here’s the kicker. To truly be in the body, to truly become alive, you MUST die to yourself. In Christianity, life only comes after death. Resurrection only comes after burial. This is not an optional part of Christianity. It’s essential. And it’s completely alien to modern western individualism.  “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matt. 16:25 NLT) The path to the life that really is life does not come from embracing the natural self, but killing it.

You want authenticity? Christians should be the first in line to transparently broadcast their frailties, their weaknesses, their struggles, their regrets. And yet this doesn’t psychologically break them, because their identity doesn’t come from their self-love, but in a greater verdict – the permanent love of God himself.

What kind of stability would we possess if, like John the Baptist, we were able to say, “Lord, my only pursuit is to know you and walk with you and serve you and be closer to you. I want to lose myself in you. I want to become less and you become greater. I want to fall into you, that your light would burn brighter” (cf. John 3:30)?

Furthermore, if we recognized that we are not yet finished products this side of heaven, but children whose hearts the Holy Spirit continues to operate on, we wouldn’t insist on the world accepting us (and our shortcomings) while being cut by our rough edges. Instead, we’d humbly offer our best, apologize for our faults, and demonstrate grace at the flaws of others.

It appears as though we’ve got a generational divide that still requires gospel healing. Millennials tend to perceive Boomers as deceptive, two-faced, living for appearances and hypocritically pretending to be something they’re not. Boomers tend to perceive Millennials as little monsters “being themselves” and demanding that the world think they’re wonderful. But regardless of generation or ideology, in Christianity the proud become humbled and the lowly become emboldened, because God sees every bit of your life and yet accepts you, not because you are yourself, but because he is himself.

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The Myth of Perpetual Christian Happiness

Does God want you to be happy?

Before I can even get the question mark out, most Christians will resoundingly affirm that, “Yes, of course a loving God wants me to be happy!” It’s merely taken for granted in the modern understanding of an omni-affectionate God, that God’s highest pursuit would be my immediate happiness.

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So, the Willy Wonka meme is overplayed, and this is way snarkier than I’d ever say it. But…the point is nonetheless made.

And thus, when life inevitably comes crashing down as a fallen world fails us, we wonder what went wrong. After all, has God not said, For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11) This verse is the first in the catechism of modern Christian comfort. The great irony is that in this verse God is speaking to a people group who’ve lost everything. The exiles in Babylon that Jeremiah writes to have lost family members in a Babylonian siege, they’ve lost their homes, their careers, their financial assets, everything. They were not happy. They had no circumstantial reason to be. And yet, they were afforded hope, because God still loved them and sought a future of ultimate joy for them.

It reminds me of the ironic disappointment of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. At one point, literally talking with a resurrected Jesus (unbeknownst to them), they expose their hearts by confessing, The chief priests and our rulers handed (Jesus) over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:20-21) Allow me to paraphrase. They’re saying, “We thought Jesus was going to save us, but he just got crucified instead.” See, when you have a more sober biblical interpretation, you realize that Jesus, God’s Son, saved us precisely by getting crucified for us. But these disciples thought Jesus couldn’t save them, BECAUSE he got crucified. This suggests the Emmaus disciples were looking for a Messiah other than one that would save them from their sins. They were seeking a Messiah that would save them merely from some negative life circumstances. Every single one of us makes the same mistake.

Every one of us, as our first instinct, would identify something other than our own self-centered sin as the culprit trying to steal our happiness. “If I could just get ahead at work. If I can just get through school. If I could just get my finances in order. If I could just get this health problem taken care of. If I could just lose those last 5 lbs. If I could just get my husband to be a little more _________, THEN…”

Put differently, many modern Christians merely want a little “chicken soup for the soul” and “their best life now” and this quest for perpetual happiness in a fallen world is not only short-sighted and false, it’s unhealthy. I can prove it. If you were perpetually happy in a fallen, sinful world, you’d have to either be delusional or a sociopath.

For instance, people in the hospital who are loaded full of dilaudid, morphine, or oxycodone are typically happy, because things feel good. They’re also incapable of operating heavy machinery…because they’re delusional. They’re not in touch with reality. The situation hasn’t actually gotten better. Instead, their sensors of reality have been numbed. They’re temporarily insane and therefore don’t realize how bad certain things are. In a fallen world, it’s possible to impair yourself in such a way that you feel good much of the time. The exchange, however, is that you become proportionately out of touch with reality – DELUSIONAL. From a spiritual perspective, American excess is largely the legal, capitalistic self-medication of unhappiness. The American Dream itself is virtual reality.

On the other hand, if you realize how bad certain things are in the world, and yet you’re  still completely happy, you’re a SOCIOPATH. Let me put it this way – let’s say circumstances in your life are great, everything is going exactly the way you’d hoped for – great job, great marriage, great health, great friends – you’re perpetually happy. Wonderful. What about everyone else on the planet? If you are perfectly happy while other people are falling sick, starving, being oppressed, dying without Christ…then you’re a sociopath. You care for no one but yourself. A sociopath, by definition, is one who lack’s any social conscience. Consequently, this incessant quest for my own personal individual happiness is a self-centered and sinful illusion.

So, let me say it again very clearly: If you are perpetually happy in a fallen, sinful world, you’d have to either be delusional or a sociopath. If it isn’t obvious, neither of those is in step with a child of God.

The negative circumstances under which we suffer in this life are not really the things that enslave us and therefore are not worth all of our energy to attempt avoiding or escaping. They’re simply further evidence that we live in a fallen world. It means you and I were built for a bigger and better world.

The thing that really enslaves you and me is the sin that freezes our heart and clouds our judgment. Consequently, we don’t need a Messiah who makes circumstances in this world a little better. We need a Messiah who, by paying for our sins, redeems us to a new life entirely.

“He was crucified, but we thought he would redeem us.” (Luke 24:20-21 para.) Like Cleopas on the Road to Emmaus, when people fail to see the depth of their slavery to sin, they’re looking for a Messiah to help them feel a little better, who will improve their circumstances, not redeem them.

As a Christian, the grace and promises of Jesus Christ fuel me to a deep and unshakeable joy and optimism. A Christian grieves the problems of this world, but with a foundational hope underneath (1 Thess. 4:13). As one who has struggled throughout life with occasions of severe anxiety and depression, the gospel gives me an anchor to weather storms. The gospel has such buoyant force that it prevents me from hitting rock bottom. And yet, understanding that I’m a mere stranger in this world, a visitor, an ambassador for Christ in a deeply broken world, gives me the permission to not be happy all the time. And that’s actually quite liberating.

No, despite what I might say in the moment when you ask, I’m not always having a good day. But I’m also, in truth, never really having a bad day, because, in Christ, I have a constant awareness that a day is coming when “bad” won’t exist, in the presence of the Lord. And that allows me to be a real person right now.

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Make Earth Great Again

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“Make America Great Again” turned out to be a winning slogan and a powerful brand for president-elect, Donald Trump.

Although the phrase had been used at other times by other candidates, it hadn’t been leveraged to Trump’s degree. Many analysts attempted to explain why exactly the phrase resonated with American voters.

Throughout the campaign we heard a lot about America “not winning anything anymore.” And there was a seeming consensus that education quality, employment opportunities, financial stability, and moral character were all important areas in which America had regressed. In short though, the nostalgia-inducing slogan seems to harken back to a period of our country where we believed we were leaders in the world. And many who remember that feeling, or simply want that feeling, were willing to roll the dice on a candidate who’s claiming to offer it.

I’d like to propose a slightly different thought though. I believe the slogan is powerful because it actually reverberates deep within our souls. In other words, the collective consciousness of humanity recognizes there was a time when things were great, that we’ve fallen from that greatness, and that we’re looking for a powerful leader to come and usher us back into greatness once again, a return to paradise.

Enter Jesus.

In the Christian Church year, we currently find ourselves in the season of End Times. And Judgment day is the day on which Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the world, will literally come back to Make Earth Great Again.

What does this mean?

In our best picture of the End of Days, the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John writes:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life… There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.” (Rev. 22:1-2, 5)

None of that imagery really makes any sense according to our finite, limited understandings of time and space. Rivers, in our experience, flow down from mountains into oceans. They don’t flow from thrones. They don’t flow down the middle of streets without FEMA getting involved. You don’t experience daylight without the sun. And you don’t have trees that grow on both sides of a river. This is a city with a great infrastructure, crystal clear water, great park system, the light always shines but without a sun, and none of this is comprehensible based on our experience. It’s similar enough to our existence that it’s relatable, but still perplexingly different.

John also highlights the reason why our current experience of earth is drastically different in vs. 3 “No longer will there be any curse.” (Rev. 22:3) Our experience of earth is different from the New Heavens & New Earth because our current earth is under a self-imposed curse. By that, I mean that when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, the rest of creation began rebelling against Adam and Eve. Humanity’s sin overturned the authority structure that God had created as the dominion of a perfect universe. But on the last day, Jesus is coming back and turning it right-side-up again.

I used to be of the impression that, upon Judgment Day, believers would be sent away to a distant galaxy to live in a far off heaven (and new earth). But then I realized that in Revelation 21, John says, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev. 21:2). We’re apparently not going off to heaven as much as heaven (i.e. the essence of which is the presence of Jesus) is coming down to us. In that perfect experience of our new earth, “He (Jesus) will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Rev. 21:4)

Most believers understand that the resurrection means our physical bodies will be brought back to life, better than before, the way they were truly supposed to be. And they will. But isn’t it fascinating that God doesn’t just give our souls brand spanking new bodies? Instead he gives us redeemed and resurrected bodies. He doesn’t just send us off to a distant galaxy. Heaven comes down to this earth.

Here’s the point: In a sense, our bodies are a metonymy for what all of life and all of creation will be. The wrongs will not just be gone; they’ll be made right. The knots caused by sin won’t just be cut off; they’ll be unwound. The evil will become untrue. It’s not just that there is now a line of demarcation from which life will always be good. For his children, just as he grabs from the grave our old bodies ravaged by sin and long decayed, God reaches back into our past and, in a sense, mysteriously undoes what was wrong.

When Adam and Eve sinned, humanity was banished from paradise. We cursed ourselves. But because of the grace of Jesus, we’ll return to paradise. The curse is being undone. When God created man, he created him from dust. But because man sinned, he returns to dust. Curse. But because of the grace of Jesus, in the end, humanity will rise again from the dust. The curse is being undone.

The Doctrine of Resurrection on Judgment Day means that every wrong will be made right, in an incomprehensibly beautiful way. The curse is gone. The spell is broken. It’s not just new. It’s revisited, revitalized, and resurrected but perfected old. Do you realize how powerful this is? The shame you’ve been carrying for the stupid things you did in your youth – the Bible doesn’t seem to be suggesting that you’ll merely be lobotomized and forget about them – it will be as though they had never been. The abuse you endured and the lasting scars that remain – those scars won’t just be gone. Seemingly, somehow, it appears the experience of heaven means it will be as though they had never been!

You say, “Well that doesn’t make sense.” Well, sure, no more sense than a tree that grows on both sides of a river or a world that’s constantly lit with no sun. But the doctrine of Resurrection (of both humans and earth) on Judgment Day suggest it’s true.

Dostoyevsky once wrote,

I believe … suffering will be healed and made up for … that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened …” (Brothers Karamozov)

Because of the impending resurrection made certain by Christ’s own resurrection, he’s right.

C.S. Lewis used to say that “heaven is the remote music we were born remembering.” Yep. We know paradise was here. And we know it’s coming again. And when people, even political figures, unwittingly tap into this truth, it moves us, though we don’t entirely know why.

But the Bible explains why. We were born in paradise. We miss paradise. And for the sake of Jesus, we will return to paradise.

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The Sad State of Democracy & The Opportunity for Faith

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To modern western people, and the world at large today, a democratic rule is almost a no-brainer. Collective wisdom seems to suggest that when we put too much power into the hands of one individual, it’s corrupting.

One of the major themes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the inherent flaws of political power. In them, you see a parade of characters who are committed to war for personal gain, who once they get their hands on great power (i.e. One Ring), they become addicted to it. This power exposes the ugliness of pride and the weakness of their character, so the ring must be destroyed. The world has also come to agree with this theme – one of the reasons the books remain classics.

In the 20th century, this inherent flaw/temptation of political power became “common sense” and democracy became the solution, the Savior. Democracy removes the potential for one individual to become corrupted by power – or, more accurately – to allow the inherent corruption of any one individual to curse the masses. The majority serves as a check and balance.

But…what would happen if the majority loses track of its cultural North Star?

Well, before anyone suggests that the majority will be guarded by the inherent moral code from God (Rom. 2:14-15) and guided by the alarm (called a conscience) that fires off whenever that code is violated, remember that this conscience can become misguided, even useless (1 Tim. 4:1-2). We saw this thing happen to almost the entire human race at the time of Noah (Gen. 6:5). We saw this happen in the South in the 19th century when it came to slavery. We saw this happen to much of Germany in the mid-20th century when it came to the Jewish population. The majority opinion is, by no means, a moral authority.

Signs of Regression

What would be the signs of a civilization in which the majority was almost entirely incapable of discerning right from wrong anymore? It’s simple. When authority is no longer authority, you cannot have society. According to the Bible, the God-invented authorities for mankind are parents (for children) and church and state (for adults).

So let’s check the vitals and see how we’re doing?

Family

Several years ago the NY Times referred to childbirth outside of marriage as “the new norm,” a particularly frequent trend amongst millennials (among those who are actually having children). I’m not, by the way, trying to point this out for the purpose of shaming a generation – I’m merely mentioning that it’s non-arguably the new statistical norm and encouraging people to think why. The very premise of the TV show Modern Family, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series its first 5 years on air, is the idea that whether you’re a married man and woman, a divorced older man with a new trophy wife, a homosexual couple, a single parent, or whatever other possible combination, it doesn’t matter, all options are equally legitimate and beautiful. Two generations ago, some of these relationships used to literally be defined as “illegitimate” in our country. No longer. The God-designed family unit as authoritative “norm” is gone in America.

Government

Americans also don’t trust politicians…at all. This is to such a degree that, ironically, as Republicans were seeking a nominee for the upcoming presidential election, NOT being a career politician was considered a distinct advantage for Trump or Carson in a quest to become … a career politician.

Further interesting (and sad) is the running narrative that, by and large, Americans don’t like EITHER of our front-running potential candidates for president. How does this happen in a democracy?! It seems almost impossible in a “popular” election. But this is part of the issue plaguing a 2 party system – anyone who desires to become their party’s representative almost invariably has to sell their soul and compromise core beliefs. Candidates then invariably appear untrustworthy/compromising, and thus unlikable, under the nation’s scrutinizing eye. As a result, every debate is spent checking what candidates said against what they previously said and losing yet more trust. Governing leaders, despite being elected, are no longer perceived as an authoritative “norm.”

Our nation clearly is struggling to respect local law enforcement at this time as well. There is a palpable tension over the perception of the mistreatment of African-Americans. This has erupted in recent years as the disgruntled in major cities have each taken turns expressing their angst – from rioting in Ferguson, Baltimore, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Milwaukee, Charlotte, etc., with no realistic end in sight. The other day while teaching a Catechism class in a central-city Milwaukee classroom, I received push back on something I thought was simply universal morality. I was contextualizing the story of the Good Samaritan. I told it in terms of kids playing a pickup game of basketball, where a fight broke out and one was beating on the other. I explained how the “innocent bystanders” who stood by and did nothing were guilty of something called the “sin of omission” – not doing the right thing by intervening and helping out the party being unjustly treated. I teach three sections of these Word of God classes, and in every section, several students commented on how they wouldn’t want to intervene to help out the child in trouble, because “what if the police came and accused me of doing something I didn’t do.” I went on to explain how this illustration is really just Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the “innocent bystanders” who were more concerned about themselves than the hurting party were the Levite and the Priest. Eventually, each classroom turned to recognizing that the Samaritan did the “right” thing. More importantly, every classroom eventually understood that spiritually speaking, we all are really the guy who was left for dead alongside the road and Jesus was the Good Samaritan who came and sacrificed everything to help us, getting beaten in our place. So the lesson was eventually received, but there nonetheless remains an obvious and undeniable skepticism towards traditional authoritative law enforcement “norms” as well.

This breakdown of trust in civil servants is clearly causing some societal unraveling. Within the past week, a Chicago man, high on PCP nearly beat to death a female officer, a 17-year veteran of the Chicago police department. The woman had her gun drawn, but admitted she was afraid to fire out of fear the negative media attention would bring to her unit and her family. Yes. Of course. That is the picture of societal breakdown. A supposed public authority, hired to protect and serve, is not allowed to bring justice to a drugged criminal, acting like a crazed animal.

Church

And of course there is the traditional spiritual authority of “clergy.” Outside of politician, I’m not sure the American public is more cynical of any profession. Just ask yourself – when was the last time you saw clergy portrayed well on TV, in a movie, in the media, etc (I’m not counting those produced by Pure Flix)? If you’re an actor and auditioning for the role of clergy, I can nearly guarantee it’s as a suspect on Law and Order SVU. That’s the new norm we’ve been conditioned to.

What to Do

So is there anything wrong with democracy? No, not in theory. But there is something wrong with American Christians looking to it (or any other earthly “authority”) as the Savior.

There’s a reason why popular American pastor Andy Stanley’s recent video encouraging people over 45 to “stop scaring kids” has been so wildly popular. He’s tapped into the fact that somewhere along the line, Christians in America (as a generalization) stopped trusting God as Lord and started trusting politics and the economy as Lord, despite continuing to confess the Creed on Sundays. Really, he’s essentially saying what Jesus said to his panicked disciples when the storms of life crept up, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matt. 8:26) When the circumstances of life seem to be crashing around you, and you panic, this is evidence of lack of faith in God, trusting worldly circumstances ahead of God’s promises.

Repeatedly throughout Scripture God demonstrates the fact that he accomplishes his purposes despite, and even through, godless governments. Prime Minister Daniel, whose wisdom was studied by all in the Ancient Near East seemed to think so (Dan. 2:21). God calls Babylon his servant (Jer.25:9; 27:6). He says the same thing about Assyria (Isa. 10:5-6). God made possible the release of his people from exile by working through the military prowess of a pagan king, Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1, 13). God made possible the rebuilding of Jerusalem by working through the actions of a pagan king, Artaxerxes (Neh. 2:1-10). In the midst of political discussion, Jesus seems to speak about the impending destruction to the Jewish community that rejected him, referring to the Roman soldiers as “his army” – He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Matt. 22:7) And the last of these, the Apostle Paul, says the same thing about “God’s servants” (Rom. 13:4, 6). He’s referring to the same government that killed his Savior.

God’s providence is not constrained to getting the right candidates in office. And the spiritually clarifying moment is this: Democracy (and its elected politicians) aren’t your Savior. Also, heightened intelligence isn’t your Savior. Tech advancement isn’t your Savior. Your beauty isn’t your Savior. The suburbs aren’t your Savior. Guns aren’t your Savior. New medicine isn’t your Savior. There is no Savior but THE Savior.

Christians expressing faith in something ahead of the Savior, as much as anything, is creating the foreign outsourcing of Christianity from this nation.

The Savior is your Savior. Period.

We daily forget this. We daily want to repent of this. And we daily receive the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of the Savior we forgot. If the political circus we now encounter compels us to despair and turn to Jesus, then so be it, and glory be to God.

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)

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Dying to Rest

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“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.  Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish.” (Hebrews 4:9-11)

The operative word in Hebrews 4 is clearly the word “rest.”

The author is saying something we already sorta know – humans are limited, finite creatures who need rest. We get wearied. We get tired. Let me guess, you’re currently “struggling with fatigue.” I’m confident you are because I don’t know many who aren’t. And I’m not making light of chronic fatigue. I’m saying it’s a national epidemic. Do you find it strange that coffee shops and energy drinks have become some of the most rapidly expanding industries in the past 20 years? Why is that? We need help staying awake, staying alert, fighting fatigue…because we can’t find sufficient rest.

The Elusiveness of Rest

blog-rest-3There are many possible factors contributing to our lack of rest today, a good chunk of them related to rapidly advancing technology. In the mid-twentieth century, the Jetsons caused us to believe that advancing technology would make life easy. You’d wake up and a machine would brush your teeth, comb your hair, bathe you, dress you, and feed you. And if there were any chores left over, a sassy maid robot would come around to clean up the mess. Swing and a miss, Hanna-Barbera. Technology doesn’t make the world easier; it makes life more complex. A few reasons why:

  1. Access – Technology doesn’t cause you to do LESS work, it enables you to do MORE. Certain things may improve, but that doesn’t mean life is easier or better overall. Technology means you can work from anywhere, so you work everywhere. One of my friends who worked at IBM, who’d been there for a number of years, said awhile back IBM shifted from a model of work/life balance to work/life integration. The old mentality was that you could come and put in a hard days work, and then you’d leave to go home to your family, your hobbies, and your weekend. The new model, work/life integration, allows for more casual behavior – so you can wear jeans, wear your headphones, and come and leave work as you please, BUT, your company wants access to you around the clock, so please check your email in bed at 11:30pm. There’s no reprieve. It never stops.
  2. Competition – Technology creates a global culture. This means you’re not merely battling with local competition anymore. You’re competing with everyone around the world. I KNOW this is affecting you, because it’s affecting me as a minister. 30 or 40 years ago, a WELS minister would never have had people come up to him and say, “Pastor, you really should check out Andy Stanley, or Tim Keller, or Francis Chan.” Notably, three of Evangelical America’s biggest darling pastors, Mark Driscoll and Tullian Tchividjian, and Pete Wilson recently got out of ministry. Why? I’m convinced they sort of cracked under the pressure of competition and unrealistic expectation. If this is affecting the American church, how is this affecting your business? It’s crazy pressure, constantly increasing quotas and demands. It’s not just ‘Mom & Pop’ vs. Wal-Mart anymore, it’s you against the world. Constant competition. You take a day off and you fall behind. No rest.
  3. Income Inequality – This can just be a fact, not a political issue. Almost no one believes in absolutely equal wealth distribution. Everyone realizes there probably has to be some disparity, which incentivizes hard work and quality work. That said, the fairly non-debatable data, like IRS returns, suggests that while income inequality remained pretty consistent with inflation from the 1940s-1970s, since then, the distance between those at the very top and those at the bottom has accelerated pretty significantly. This is certainly true in expanding tech industries, which ranks only behind “investments” in terms of controlling American wealth. Again, I have no desire to make a political point out of this. For our purposes, what this practically means, however, is that the people at the bottom of the income ladder are having to take multiple jobs to keep up with rates for rent, education, childcare, etc. People at the top are having to work 80-100 hours/week in order to keep their high-powered, high-paying jobs. And if you’re not willing to make those sacrifices, guess what? Someone’s in line right behind you. The people at the bottom and the people at the top are arguably BOTH working too hard. None of us is getting any rest.

The Counterfeit to Rest

In an attempt to find rest from our stress and our concerns, we typically try to program in some vacations and think that’ll do it. Maybe we even do an all-inclusive getaway. We visit family. We take a nap here or there or spend a day at the beach. Those are all nice, but they don’t really give us rest. Honestly, do you get back from a family visit and say, “Yes! Re-energized!” Or do you get back and say, “Man, I need a nap.”  You think you need a vacation from your vacation because you never truly found any rest on your vacation.

The writer to the Hebrews clearly is saying the rest that we crave is much more profound than a little more sun and a little more sleep. Our souls are what truly are restless, which, in turn, has effects on the body. Lacking deep soul rest is the reason why many of us work so unrelentingly, why we’re so tired, and why vacations don’t recharge batteries.

In my estimation, here’s what has happened: Humans are wired to be in relationship with God. The gospel says that comes by grace, not by works. As our society has increasingly rejected traditional organized religion, we haven’t become any less wired for God. Instead, many of us have actually gotten religious about our work/professions/accomplishments. We’ve defined our salvation in terms of life accomplishments, and as a result, much like a Pharisee, many of us are constantly working, because we’re trying to achieve our worth. We don’t yet believe we’ve really received our worth by grace. So, in the same way that the self-righteous camps of the New Testament were tirelessly pressing to gain their salvation, modern people are tirelessly pressing to earn theirs too, just with less formal religion.

III. The Only True Rest

God himself created the notion of rest when he set aside the 7th day of the week as a Sabbath (Gen. 2:2) Having created a perfect planet, reflecting on his work and evaluating that it was very good, God rested. Now this cannot mean that God was tired and just took a nap. The Bible makes it clear that God doesn’t get tired (Is. 40:28). It cannot mean inactivity either, because God calls his throne, the place from which he rules, his resting place (Isa. 66:1). Rather the concept of God’s rest is more the idea of his satisfaction in knowing that everything he wanted to do, everything he needed to accomplish, was now complete. He’s brought about his creation and now he gets the satisfaction and joy of ruling over his creation. So rest is not laziness. It’s not inactivity. It’s the satisfaction of knowing that nothing more needs to be done. That which is essential has already been accomplished, it is finished, and it is very good.

Adam and Eve initially experienced that rest in the middle of paradise. But Satan convinced them that somehow something was missing, that more needed to be gained. They broke God’s command and became restless wanderers. God’s children became slaves of this world, but he gave them a hope of a Promised Land in the midst of their wilderness. When they cried to God for help, Moses delivered them out of Egypt, and then his successor, Joshua, brought them to the door of the Promised Land. But God’s children still didn’t really want to listen. They still wanted to do things their own way. They weren’t slaves in Egypt, but they were still slaves to this world, and to their own sinful devices.

But instead of giving up on us, God expressed greater love. He sent another Joshua, a greater Joshua, a superior Deliverer/Successor to Moses. This is difficult to see in English, but in a beautifully poetic twist, Joshua and Jesus are actually the exact same name. They’re the Anglicized versions of Hebrew and Greek, respectively. And the point is this: Joshua tried, unsuccessfully to help God’s people find rest in the Promised Land. But where Joshua fell short, the greater Joshua, i.e. Jesus, guaranteed our eternal rest in the ultimate Promised Land.

When you believe by faith that Jesus has accomplished everything for your eternal salvation – he’s paid the price for all of your sins; he’s worked to earn you credit for a perfect life – then the pressure is off for you workaholics. Then you can rest from your labor just like God rested from his on Day 7 of the Creation week. That which is essential has already been accomplished, and because it was done by God’s Son, Christ Jesus, it is very good. So now you can relax. You don’t need to earn a thing. You’re playing your life with house money, to the glory of the one who laid down his life for you. Only when you realize that, then whether work or vacation, awake or asleep, can you truly rest.

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The Lost Art of Discipleship

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I’ve been at the congregation I currently serve for about 1/2 a year. One of the first tasks on my plate when I arrived was to assemble positions for a pastoral team. We knew we needed more manpower, but we didn’t yet know exactly what qualifications and skill sets would best serve the needs of our healthy-sized church and very large school.

As I studied and prayed, I began putting together a detailed grid of pastoral roles that I believed might best serve our needs. And by God’s grace, one of our vacancies has recently been filled. We now have on staff a Dr. and a Prof. and a Skipper/Senior Pastor, which I suppose makes me…that’s right, Mary Ann.

Our hope/prayer is that by early 2017 we’ll be able to add another pastor. One of the questions I’ve been most frequently asked by those who know I’ve been involved in forming the roles grid is “What would that pastor do?” It’s a perfectly legitimate question and one that I myself have considered while in the process of laying out the responsibilities. But within the question lies a problem. The pastoral position is being perceived primarily as a series of tasks to accomplish rather than a relational role to fill.

There’s an important principle that’s been discovered, mostly popularized in the business world, referred to as the Dunbar Rule. In short, the Dunbar rule is named after an Oxford anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, who stated that a human being cannot maintain more than 150 meaningful social relationships. Technically, the range is from 100-250, but the typical number used is 150. Dunbar’s findings have been considered essential to the development of things like social media.

If Dunbar is correct, then this is a hard and fast rule of human capacity. None of us, no matter how talented, can adequately maintain more than a few hundred relationships at most. This has to be seen as the max potential for a human. While anthropology and psychology are often considered soft science, they are still data driven, and human relationships have to be considered somewhat scientifically. So consider relationships like this: Usain Bolt, the fastest human alive and can run at a max speed of approximately 28 mph. You absolutely cannot expect humans to run at 50 mph. Similarly, if the person with the highest relational aptitude possible can manage 250 meaningful relationships (more likely 150), you simply cannot expect a single man to pastor 500 members effectively for a prolonged period of time.

This has massive implications for churches, many of which have been woefully understaffed for ages – partially due to unrealistic congregational expectations and poor stewardship, partially due to ministerial arrogance. This as much as any other factor has led to the insane ministry burnout rate (the average pastorate in the US has dropped to about 4 years, far faster than most other professions).

A lesson on ministerial size dynamics needs to be learned. The common New Testament word used for “church” is the Greek word ecclesia. It is NOT a building (Acts 17:24); it’s a body of believers gathered around Word and Sacraments (Eph. 2:20-22). As a group of people rather than an inanimate structure, a minister’s work must be understood not merely in performing tasks, but in fostering relationships, of which we now know there is a numeric ceiling.

Consider the analogy the Bible offers of pastors as shepherds. Did you know the max number of sheep a shepherd is capable of overseeing himself is recognized to be around 400? In fact, there’s a fairly sophisticated counting system developed long ago by English shepherds, called Yan Yan Tethera, in which they can keep track of their sheep, up to 399, by counting on their fingers. Occasionally a shepherd can handle a few more sheep, but even this number can only be accomplished through an extensive support system of sheep dogs.

Point being, even 400 SHEEP are difficult to account for by one man, let alone humans who have significantly more independent (and rebellious) wills. If overseers are truly called by God to shepherd a flock, a congregation had better be mindful of numbers, and furthermore have a number of other well-trained sheep dogs incorporated into a system of accountability.

What does this all mean? It means churches have to get smarter about human relational dynamics. Since every active member seeks some sort of relationship with a pastor, you cannot reasonably anticipate a pastor to shepherd more than 200 people. If that’s the expectation, you will almost invariably, over time, struggle for survival. So you have to decide whether you’re staffing to expand, maintain, or survive. Similarly, in the same way that every human can only have so many “meaningful relationships”, every human can also only have so many “close” personal relationships as well. Consequently, a larger church’s goal should not be that every single person in the congregation knows everyone else. But everyone should know somebody. In other words, no one in The Body will know everybody, but everyone in The Body should know, serve, and be accountable to somebody.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek outside of Chicago, the massive church American churches were aspiring to be, notoriously admitted in 2007 to Christianity Today that “We made a mistake” by being overly dependent on programs at the expense of “age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships.” The church needs more discipleship.

In a world of fragile egos, driven by numeric likes, views, and hit counts, churches developed consumer-catering, bigger and better programs and lost the art of discipleship. Numbers aren’t evil. They’re necessary and helpful. But there is not a direct correlation to ministry success. The greatest attendance boon in recent U.S. history for American churches were the two Sundays following 9/11. Logically then, by measuring success in terms of numbers, the best “attractional program” for your church would be an Islamic terrorist attack.

Obviously, numbers cannot be the endgame. If healthy discipleship leads to increased numbers, then praise be to God. But inflated numbers that exist apart from actual relationships are a disservice to the Church in the long run.

The ultimate relational inspiration for the Church naturally is Christ himself. To properly minister to us, an infinite God became a man of self-restricting finitude in the person of Christ. Jesus spent the three years of his ministry pouring himself quite intentionally into 12 young men. This is not to say that he didn’t ever minister to others, but counting his twelve disciples, his converted brothers, his female followers, etc., Jesus’ church numbered about 120 members shortly after his resurrection. The Holy Spirit moved these trained leaders to ministry action and then on the day of Pentecost 3000 were converted. By the way, guess what 3000 divided by 12 is? ANSWER: 250. Granted, they were about to scatter throughout the Mediterranean world, but they were still accounted for. The early church continued to add to their numbers daily (Acts 4:4 says there were now 5000) and by Acts 6 we see the number dynamics coming to a head. Some of the widows were being overlooked. So, they decided to add 7 more men as laborers. By the way, guess what 5000 divided by 19 (i.e. 12 +7) is? ANSWER: 263.

Human relational numbers are perhaps soft science, but they’re quantitative and real nonetheless. I’m convinced Jesus and the early Christians understood this long before Robin Dunbar.

Jesus “discipled” and began the Christian Church with a congregation of about 120. If you’re a pastor and you think you can handle considerably more than 150, you may very well have an ego issue. If you’re a church member and think your pastor should be able to handle considerably more than 150, you may have unrealistic expectations – like a “we want our pastor to have more meaningful relationships than Jesus did” level of unrealistic expectations. Jesus poured himself into the lives of a specific group, and the lasting result was that he brought salvation into the world and provided a firm foundation for his Church.

For churches that have had unrealistic expectations, the solution is not merely to learn and try harder, but to repent and become new. Jesus offers both forgiveness and guidance. And by commissioning us to “make disciples” he encourages us to pour ourselves into the lives of a few who are eager to learn and minister themselves, and likewise, place ourselves under the leadership of someone else we can learn from.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

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