Christians and Social Issues

I may have posted this in the past, I don’t know. But here’s my personal algorithm for dealing with social issues and political ideologies as a Christian.

  1. Always deal with people in terms of Jesus’ command to love neighbor and enemy, Christian and non-Christian. With this, practice what Paul and Peter both say about being civil toward outsiders, respectful toward political authority, and keeping with amoral social norms to avoid bringing contempt upon the Christian community. But always remember that individuals coming to Christ and wishing to do what the New Testament says is a far more likely mode of creating Christians than simply enforcing laws from the top.
  2. Secondly, study what Scripture and Christian tradition say about the issue at hand and weigh the issue on three levels:
    1. ought I participate in this activity?
    2. ought Christians participate in this activity?
    3. ought society participate in this activity?
  3. Third, based on your own political preferences (I’m emotionally anarchical, but on the rational level I understand the need for government and appreciate what it does), opinions, options, theories about what is good for society, and government structures determine if it is wise to take part in publicly opposing this or that action or policy or whether or not it is wise to carry on with being and making disciples.

New Job or Learning by Doing

I recently got a job as a software developer/computer programmer.

This is weird for several reasons. One of which is that when I was in high school, one of my goals prior to being thirty was to become a computer programmer to pay for seminary. I just did it in reverse. The programming I’m doing is pretty top level, but it’s all new to me and in many ways is more frustrating than some of the “harder” stuff I learned in college.

Anyway, I basically create UI tests for laboratory software. In the very brief time I’ve done this job I’ve learned:

  1. A handy version of git
  2. Way more C# than I would have covered in any college course (I was hired only knowing C++, Sci-Lab, and Mat-Lab).
  3. Selenium
  4. Way more HTML than I ever cared to know.
  5. And I’ve learned to use the laboratory management software for which I’m creating tests.

There is a great deal more to learn. But this reminds of a time when I was younger and I went down a water slide and my aunt realized I was struggling to swim because I panicked. It was really weird, I still remember wondering, “Why am I not swimming like I normally do.” She said, ‘Do or die, Geoffrey!” So I paddled to the side of the pool and she or my grandma yanked me out.

This job is like that. It isn’t like being in a college class. That can be motivating because I’ve paid for it. But it has the limitation of being easy to make second place to my other job (teaching). Getting paid for this requires me to learn a great deal at a fairly quick pace or I have nothing to produce and thus no money to make.

Anyway, for folks who wish to learn new things I recommend reading up on it for a while and then jumping into it. Nothing helps you learn like sitting and staring at something until it hurts with no answers in sight. You’re forced to be creative, ask good questions, and fail. Such events force us to learn.

Devotional Thoughts: Blessed are the pure at heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, because they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)

In my opinion, the beatitudes here in Matthew are Jesus’ declaration that “the good life” is available to the people who are not typically seen residents in such an honorable estate. His idea, that those who suffer or are lightly esteemed can be blessed, is rooted in the Old Testament. It can also be found in Plato and the stoics (“Better to suffer injustice, than to commit injustice.”). The difference is that Matthew is making the claim that only through Jesus and his ministry the good life with God is definitively available, or rather through Jesus and his teaching can it be actualized with certainty. For Matthew seems to see several Old Testament figures as blessed in similar ways.

Now, the message of the four gospels is not merely the happy parts of Matthew 5:3-10. Indeed, there is more to being pure at heart than simply being good for a while and then seeing God and enjoying the good-life. Jesus, who would qualify as pure in heart in an exemplary fashion, certainly sees God. But his single-mindedness led him directly to the cross, where Matthew says that Jesus cried:

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)”

Now, I do not think that God the Father literally “turned his face away” from Jesus or anything like that.

But what I do want to point out is that becoming pure at heart and “seeing God” is often accompanied by the worst trials, the most profound temptations to sin, and the most unexpected assaults from evil (personified or not). The gospels are literary wholes, so we must take their promises for pleasure and ecstatic experience of God along with their expectations of pain and exposure to the evils of the god of this age. Indeed, Jesus says that our daily prayers should include, “rescue us from the evil one.” But there comes a time, perhaps not for all Christians, when the answer to that prayer is “My grace is sufficient for you.”

In this respect the good life, with all of its proportions of appreciation for God and his gifts must find its main satisfaction in God himself and his promises that remain unanswered and we have to learn that the eternal weight of glory far outweighs any momentary wasting away of the flesh, dimming of our vision of God, or feelings of abandonment in the face of the periodic crescendos of evil in our world.

Sanctification, Repentance, and the Habit Loop

Introduction to Concept:

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains something advertisers have known for quite some time: human beings can be trained to respond to cues with routines as long as there is a reward. He calls this the habit loop. It looks like this:

The Habit Loop

The idea is that when we have a cue, we usually will follow a certain routine that leads to a reward and if this cue occurs enough times it becomes a habit and is very difficult to break. Many habits have no particular reward but are still hard to break. Think about things Americans do not eat (cartilage, fat, and animal skin) that are good for you and if you do not eat these things, think about how gross it feels to try eating them.

Anyway, Duhigg’s book is very interesting but because he’s a journalist and not a brain scientist, psychologist, or philosopher, he probably leaves a lot to be desired, but what interests me is the model for habits.

The habit formation model is especially interesting for the Christian who wishes to use spiritual disciplines, start performing some virtue, or to overcome some particular sin.

Keep in mind this line from James:

Jas 1:13-15 ESV  Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  (14)  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  (15)  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James’ rhetorical point is concerning the go to guy for blame when we sin. But for this thought experiment, I think we should focus on one piece of his argument: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Desire is the cue, this or that sinful action or constellation of thoughts and actions is the routine, and desire fulfillment is the reward.

Personal Case Study

I have a tendency to struggle with acedia. It’s essentially a feeling of weird existential boredom and sloth. The best cure for it, in the moment, is to pray, do something physically productive, and move on with life. The thing about acedia is that it never really happens at work, but it can happen after a really productive event or series of events at work. Now, coupled with acedia, I love information. My grandfather used to think it was weird how I always had “factoids” that seemed to have no practical use. He’s right. I remember, though I can’t place the story, when Holmes told Watson, “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles.” This love for knowledge coupled with a periodic lack of motivation to exert effort causes what the medieval scholars called “curiosity.” Not the good kind that leads to scientific discovery, but the waste of time kind wherein you simply search for novelty. I suppose that if I were less conscientious it would be the sort of feeling that makes one easily addicted to drugs (and I am susceptible to binge playing video games when I cannot sleep).

  1. Cue: Feelings of lack of motivation coupled with a constant desire to know things.
  2. Routine: The internet now exists: follow links, listen to music, and read pointless articles.
  3. Reward: Dozens of silly facts rather in the same time it would take me to read one sustained argument concerning an important truth, perform one satisfying repair to part of my home, or write one chapter of a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount I am trying to finish by the end of the year.

Here it is in habit-loop format:

Acedia Loop

Duhigg notes that there are two main ways to change the habit loop: keep the cue and reward the same, but change the routine or remove the cue. To change the routine, Duhigg notes that we must come to understand precisely what craving is set off by the cue. For instance, a shopping addict might have the desire to accomplish something, but the routine (buying something on credit) is so easy that it is the only option that comes to mind until the loop is further examined by the obsessive clothing buyer. Removing the cue only goes so far, but it is better than nothing. For instance, one would no longer be able to binge watch The Office instead of studying their Bible if they cancelled the internet for a month.

For the Christian who wishes to overcome a particular temptation, the question must be asked, “What good desire is being warped in my mind and body that finds its satisfaction in sin?” In my case, the desire is for productivity or mental stimulation, but it is warped into a desire for immediate satisfaction of desires that are meant to be satisfied through hard work and communication with other human beings. So, how can I change the routine? Well, there are several options available when acedia kicks in:

  1. I could do a household chore.
  2. I could recite Bible memory verses out loud.
  3. I could exercise (walk, squats, punching bag, push-ups, juggle, and so-on)
  4. Email/call an old friend
  5. Pray for specific people

Once I complete one of these tasks, I normally feel up to studying, writing, or meditating in silence and solitude without wasting my time surfing the internet. From this personal evidence as well as Duhigg’s book and the Christian soul-care tradition I infer that such a reworking of the “habit loop” can be very helpful for Christians who struggle with habitual sins like impulsive buying, pornographic use, laziness, or being quick to anger.

Two Necessary Things to Keep in Mind

There remain two other elements to changing the habit loop:

  1. The role of belief
  2. The education of desire

As to the first idea, Duhigg observes that belief plays a crucial role in long term habit transformation (82-86). In the case of athletes, they have to believe that the new habits will help them succeed. Similarly, AA members who commit to the steps and the whole program are more successful when they actually believe in the higher power (84). In the case of Christianity there is a cluster of beliefs that are important for manipulating the moral habit loop:

  1. Sin really is disgusting and bad for you
  2. The way of Christ is meant to give you joy (often now, but infinitely so in eternity)
  3. You are dead to sin (in other words, it is not your master and you always have a way out)
  4. God will help you

The second element, the education of desire, is implied by Duhigg, but made explicit in Scripture and ancient philosophy.[1] This should not be news to us. Many people grow to love the routine of exercise no matter how grueling, people start to enjoy the food of a new diet For instance, I can only drink one or two types of soda now since I went about four years without a sip of the stuff. Soda, even a sip, burns my mouth and is so sweet that it makes my teeth hurt. So, if Christianity is true, it stands to reason that this reality applies to the moral life we see in Scripture as well. And we do see this. Paul speaks of being transformed by the renewing of the mind. This implies that one does change for the better over time. Similarly, Peter speaks of growing in grace and knowledge. It is also the case that John and James speak of love and faith being perfected in us, respectively. The author of Hebrews says that we should strengthen our weakened joints in our quest for holiness, and so-on. In other words, God shapes our wants through the habits we develop.

[1] In order to fully change our character, eventually our choices and then habits, must result in an incremental change of desire toward the good. Jesus talks about this difference of orientation in several places. For instance, he observes that the Pharisees do their religious rituals in order to hide their sin from others rather than as acts of faith, hope, and love toward God (which obeying the Law was always meant to be, see Psalm 19:7). So, when one begins to put to death sinful habits and to put holy habits into practice in their place out of sincere trust and hope in God, ones desires start to change.

Common Misconceptions Concerning Discipleship

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that knowing a bit of theology is important for Christians now, in a way that it was not in the past:

…In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have got a lot of wrong ones-bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted about as novelties today, are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected… C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity 4.1.4

His advice lines up with that of a clever-silly economist named Keynes when he explained that practical men who have no use for philosophy often find themselves enslaved by the bad ideas of those long dead.

When I was in seminary and reading “the literature,” I discovered several approaches to Christian discipleship that all seemed lacking in one way or another. Here they are:

  1. The Romantic/Internalist Approach
    This particular approach is focused almost totally on the affections or feelings of the individual. It ends up redefining almost every major Biblical word (faith, hope, love, Spirit, and prayer) in terms of internal experiences. There is a Calvinist version of this (think Jonathan Edwards or John Piper) and there is a slightly charismatic version (think phrases such as, “Jesus told me,” “I don’t feel led,” “I wish I was more ‘on fire’ for God”). I find this approach unhelpful because it focuses almost totally on trying to control or aim the passions so that good deeds will happen which is nearly impossible.[see note a bottom] Or, much worse, this approach equates the passions/emotions with God’s will! In the first instance, believers going through a dry spell feel unfaithful to God. In the second instance, the hamster wheel of self-justification is given free reign over the mind and will.
  2. The Externals Approach
    In this approach the idea is that getting people to conform in visible ways to good Christian behavior is synonymous with discipleship. While the Bible is clear that externals will come into line, it must be recognized that a system which focuses on external signs of obedience as the goal is precisely what Jesus criticizes over and over again in the gospels. Many of the ways that this system manifests itself include many good things and some made up things: getting people to dress well, getting people to give to their church, getting people to believe right dogmas, getting people to not say cuss words, speaking in tongues, dancing in church, not dancing in church, getting people to come to church regularly, getting people to vote for and against certain things, and getting people to do all sorts of other things.

    It is not the case that motivating people to do external things is bad, but basing Christianity on a few easily observable external behaviors misses a large portion of what several of the things concrete, but non-obvious things Jesus said to do: love God, love neighbor, pray in secret, give in secret, fast in secret, deny oneself, show hospitality, call God Father, love enemies, over come lust, wash the inside of the cup, forgive those who apologize to you, reconcile with those you hurt, ask God for forgiveness with humility, become servants of all, be wise as serpents, be innocent as doves, and so-on. This approach often, though not always, comes with a simplistic view of salvation by grace alone. It either says, “Salvation is by grace alone, therefore the words of Jesus aren’t as important as simple faith,” or in certain denominations, “Salvation by grace alone is false, you’ve gotta do good works to go to heaven, so conform to our list of good works.”

  3. The Event Approach
    This one is a combination of the first two because it is based on generating feeling and motivation by means of events. The event approach is utilized most often in mega churches and youth ministries. Discipleship, in this case, is defined as occurring whenever people show up to events. Discipleship is really really happening if even more people come. In mega-church situations, discipleship is centered around the pastor’s vision for a larger church. In youth-group situations, discipleship is built around having bigger, better, and more exciting programs to keep the kiddos motivated.

I’ve talked about this before, but I think that the central idea in Christian discipleship is simply learning from Jesus, because he is meek and humble-hearted (Matthew 11:26-30). The Bible refers to this reality in several ways:

  1. Paul calls it “the obedience of faith,” which I take to mean the obedience which comes from trusting God’s self-disclosure in the gospel message of Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-7)
  2. Jesus elsewhere says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…” The idea is coming to inhabit (in the same way that one inhabits a home and comes to know it, tend to it, and reap the benefits of living there) his whole message about himself, God’s kingdom, God, and how humanity should respond and relate to God. (John 8:31-32)
  3. Peter says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, discipleship seems to mean to respond to God’s grace increasingly and learn from gospel teaching and experience what Jesus Christ wants you to know. (2 Peter 3:18)
  4. James says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” The word, in James is pretty clearly the gospel message about “the faith of our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ.” (James 1:22-2:1)
  5. John says that “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk as he walked.” For John, the claim of Christian religious identity is born out by means of personal adherence to the way of Jesus Christ. (1 John 2:6)

My point, in all of this is that it would seem that the most valid understanding of Christian discipleship is hearing the words of Jesus and trusting him enough to put them into practice. So the approach to discipleship in our churches should probably revolve around teaching:

  1. What Jesus said and did (including what he said to do).
  2. What the gospel authors interpreted that to mean.
  3. What the other New Testament authors interpreted Jesus’ life and message to mean.
  4. What the Old Testament means in relationship to Jesus (see Matthew 7:12 and Luke 24).
  5. How to actually put Jesus’ teachings into practice.

Points one and five are especially important because many people do not actually know what Jesus said. Secondly, when they do know, it can be very daunting to try it out without any guidance from contemporary brothers and sisters or those of times past. Pastors and Sunday school teachers have the unique opportunity to make this information available to the members of their churches. Sadly, I fear, the misunderstandings seem too obviously true to most people.

Note: The more ancient approach to Christian sanctification was the idea that habitual obedience and faithful response to God’s grace is the means that God’s Spirit uses to shape the human heart. One can see this echoed in C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard, but it is explained rather thoroughly in older luminaries like Thomas Aquinas, Richard Baxter, Thomas Brooks, St. Gregory, Horatius Bonar, Charles Finney, Charles Hodge, and so-on.

Tim Hunt and the Science Worshipers

A few days ago Tim Hunt, an important medical researcher made a remark to the effect that women in laboratories are easy to make cry, easy to fall in love with, or too easily fall in love with the men. What he said was a joke (he’s married to a top scientist in her field!) based on some of his observations over time.

My first thought was that all of the people who talk all the time about how science is literally no different from what expert scientists say (like when Richard Dawkins is quoted as though he understands philosophy just because he is a former biologist). But, that same group, it seems, found Hunt’s remarks so offensive that he has been asked to resign from his job doing important research to fight cancer! The feelings of a small group of people are considered more important than his research now! The fact of the matter is that lots of women are scientists and the ones who are wouldn’t be deterred by a remark like that, just like men aren’t deterred from leadership positions when journalists claim that women are better than men at leading.

Anyway, science (read: the opinions of experts on ideas beyond their expertise) is only worshiped by the science pagans when it agrees with them or has cool graphics attached.

Music Monday: Ghost by your side

One of my favorite bands is Lovedrug. It’s hard to say when I discovered them, perhaps when I still lived with my parents. I distinctly remember thinking that their purevolume page was super awesome. Anyway, this song off of their second album, which I ordered on half.com and somehow received an advanced copy of, love before my friends got the actual thing is one of my favorites. The singer’s voice takes some getting used to, but the concept in the song is pretty cool. The character is a bit of a white knight kind of guy (showing over much affection to a girl who is not interested), but if you think of it as though things were occurring on a more cosmic or epic scale, then it’s pretty awesome.

Lyrics:

Remember I told you in life and death
Don’t bury our secrets, they will not they tear us apart
Because love means going this far
Even when the ending is only the start

If you dive into the ocean then I
Will be the wave around you tonight
And if you’re sinking then oh, it’s alright
‘Cause I will be the ghost who is at your side

Remember your demons will surface and fight
But I will be a good phantom
And keep on romancing this cold little devil’s tribe
And hold them away
While you are escaping into the light

So tell me where you’ve gone by now
I’m getting no reception on my heart radio
Now meet me where the angels collide
And I will be the ghost who is at your side

Now I’m changing (oh oh)
I am changing (changing)
Now I’m changing for you, love

When you dive into the ocean alive
Oh, I will be the ghost at your side
And if you fall into the devil’s tribe
Oh, I will be the ghost at your side
And when anywhere the angels collide
Oh, I will be the ghost at your side
Now dive into the blinding light…

Learn To Read For Pleasure

If you cannot read for pleasure, start. It can be anything: history, how-to books, philosophy, great literature, popularized science, theology. I recommend a bit of everything. But learn to read for pleasure in the same way one might lift weights for pleasure. That way, even if something feels boring or unpleasant in the moment, it could be good for you when you finish. In order to make time for this you’ll need to watch less television, but it is worth it because reading for pleasure improves your ability to study by increasing certain brain functions that correlate with empathy and problem solving.

I recommend making a list of some classic novels, essays, and non-fiction books and trying to read them. It is best to read a chapter at a time and write questions and notes after each chapter is finished.

Learn To Budget

Learn to budget. Write a budget and stick to it rigidly. This will save you a lot of trouble in college and in your early thirties when many people are buried under massive debt from their college years while still working in entry level positions with low income.

Learn To Cook

I mentioned cooking when talking about the morning routine. People often joke about how bad they are at cooking. Do not let them intimidate you. People who say such things are simply admitting that they are bad at following (or more likely refuse to) instructions. Cooking is fun, produces tasty things, and gives you options for dinner. Ask your parents, buy a cookbook, or use internet videos, but cooking is great fun and an important milestone for approaching adulthood.

Learning to cook is useful in several ways:

  1. You get to choose what goes into your meals.
  2. You get to create something from scratch which makes eating fulfilling rather than just filling.
  3. You get to bless others with your creation.
  4. You can save money by buying groceries instead of eating out.
  5. You get to practice studying in a way that can apply to other things (the habits that help you learn to cook work for math, computer programming, literature, and so-on)