List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

Reasonable Religion

Several authors have done a wonderful job of defending the rationality of the Christian faith (Alvin Plantinga, N.T. Wright, Francis Schaffer, and C.S. Lewis [even though I’m not really a fan of the last] all come to mind). They have thoroughly defended the historicity of scriptural texts and the rational foundations of theistic belief in general and of Christian belief specifically. However, there is a huge difference between warranted, rational Christianity (i.e. Christian belief that is philosophically and historical defensible) and reasonable Christianity (i.e. Christianity that fits into our ‘normal’ conception of life).

I cannot count how many times someone has told me to ‘be reasonable’ about my faith. By ‘reasonable’ they meant ‘I know that you feel like God is telling you something, but you shouldn’t do it’. People told me this in college when I sold my computer to pay for a missions trip. They told me this when I changed majors, when I decided not to pursue a pastoral position, even though I had a degree in Christian Leadership. They told me this when I quit a job at Walmart to substitute teach, and when I was convinced that God was pushing me towards a 17 year old girl (I decided that I wouldn’t actually pursue a relationship until after she turned 18, but she shot me down regardless… I’ll have to write that story sometime). Each of these decisions has led me into some difficult times, but in each of them following God and allowing him to guide my life has led to significant spiritual growth and has helped me to better understand God. It is easy for us to doubt, to convince ourselves that our reasonable decisions are a better guide to life than God’s will. However, I’ve also made some reasonable decisions, even when God was telling me not to (that’s what led me to Walmart in the first place), and they have never turned out well.

While our faith is absolutely rational and defensible, it is rarely reasonable from a human perspective. If you are ever convinced that God’s will is always going to be the reasonable thing try reading Genesis, or Exodus, Ezekiel, Hoshea, personally, I think my favorite example of the unreasonableness of the Christian faith is the crucifixion. Throughout scripture God asks those who are willing to follow him to do entirely unreasonable things. To sacrifice their own happiness and well-being for his glory. To sacrifice themselves for the good of others, and to trust God in impossible situations. Remember when God told Abraham to get up and leave everything he’d ever known? No idea where he was going, or what he was going to do, just leave. Or when God commanded him to kill his only son, the son of the covenant he’d made with God? Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is an excellent discussion of this.

Ultimately, the greatest argument for a reasonable religion is the pursuit of comfort. The American dream tells us to pursue our own comfort, our own ends, to take care of ourselves first, and that true strength comes from taking what we want. However, scripture tells us something completely different. Scripture tells us to put God first, and then others. To pursue God’s glory rather than our comfort. To leave off our own ends and pursue the ends of the kingdom. Lastly, scripture tells us that God doesn’t value the strength to take what we want, but the weakness to put others first, even when this means allowing them to take advantage of us.

The reasonable, Americanized church often rejects these concepts. It tells us to be hard and forceful, to defend our rights rather than live up to our responsibilities. It tells us to ignore God and do the culturally acceptable thing. To focus on this world instead of the next. All to often we develop the wrong priorities and the church encourages us in this development. So, one of the most fundamentally difficult aspects of Christian living in America is to avoid the trap of easy, reasonable religion that surrounds us, and instead to pursue ‘the upward calling’ of the faith.