Friendship and Days Off

It’s four in the morning and I haven’t been able to get to sleep yet. I’m finally starting to feel like I could get to sleep, but I’m picking up a friend’s sister at the train station at 6, which means even if I could get to sleep, I’d only get an hour and a half of sleep, which isn’t enough to actually help me at all. I do have all of my work for the week done, and this is a good thing. I don’t want to have to try grading papers without sleep again.

I also took a day off from God today. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? It wasn’t really an intentional day off. I had work, and then I had plans with a friend, and then I had to workout, and then I had more work, and suddenly I found myself at 11 pm thinking about God for the first time. That being said, God made a point to me tonight. When I finally did get around to spending some time with him, he pointed me to Psalm 23. Obviously, Pslam 23 is beautiful (if you haven’t read it lately you should try… I’m thinking about memorizing it in Hebrew). I have a copy of the New English Translation, which I love, but it’s one that I don’t see around very often. Psalm 23 opens with “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”.

I spent a good amount of time with this verse tonight. Sometimes taking a day off from God can give you a little perspective. We all need a rest sometimes, and sometimes that means a rest from trying, from striving, from pushing to rest in God. Remember that whole Taoism thing that I’ve talked about a few times? Laozi wasn’t completely right. Sometimes we need to strive, to push, to fight for the things we want.

Sometimes, though, we need to rest from everything. We need to stop striving and just enjoy the day that God has made. Today I enjoyed the day that God gave me. I enjoyed working, I enjoyed that crappy movie that my friend and I went to see, and I enjoyed exercising. I’m almost enjoying the forced all-nighter that’s going on right now. This is the thing with God, even when you take time off, he doesn’t. He waits for you, wraps you up in warmth, and lets you enjoy your day alone. This is the kind of love that we all need, and it’s the kind of love that lets you say: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

There is nothing in this life that I can’t survive without, except time with God. He is my shepherd, my rock, my redeemer, my lord. Something that a lot of people don’t know is that Psalm 23 was probably written during Absalom’s rebellion. This was a time in which David was old, beaten down, besieged, and had no reason to hope for the future. Psalm 23 was not written during a time in which David had great blessings, it was written during a time in which David had great trials. In the midst of this, David opens with the phrase, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.”

I want to be in the place where I can say that honestly and with a full heart, no matter what my circumstance or situation. Like David, I want to be able to say, at my lowest point, that I lack nothing, that my cup is overfilled, and that I will not fear. I’m not there yet, but he keeps working on it.

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Where the Mind Goes…

I am a wholly sinful man. All to often a wholly sinful man with very little control over his mind. I’m sitting in my favorite coffeeshop right now, praying and communing with God precisely because of this. There are some days when women hold no interest for me whatsoever… for anyone who reads this it’s probably obvious that those days are few and far between, but they do happen. There are many days when a particular woman is on my mind. Not always the same woman, the heart of a single man is a mercurial thing, but a particular woman. Then there are days like today.

I’m praying and meditating because a few minutes ago I realized where my mind was. I found myself not with a particular woman on my mind, but desiring every woman in the shop simultaneously. One had a prettier face, one had a smaller frame, one was dressed in a manner that caught my eye, one young woman had beautiful eyes, another had larger breasts, etc, etc, etc. I think I was on the verge of fantasizing about a seven-way. Needless to say, this is not something that I was comfortable with.

So, I turned to God. To the source of my hope and my peace, and then I decided to write about it. Both have helped immensely, and I find my mind moving back into the domains that I want to focus on. Not to say that any of the attractive women have left… well, maybe one has, but to say that the focus of my mind and heart have shifted. Laozi said ‘let me have fewness of desires’, and I think that this is very important. I could easily get lost in my desire. I could easily say ‘give me all the women’. I could easily find myself dissatisfied simply because what I desire isn’t what I can or should have.

Instead, as Christ tells us in Matthew, I want to seek first the kingdom of heaven. That is where my heart and mind should lie.

The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about women and relationships in general. She said something that struck me, not so much for what she said, but for my reaction to what she said. She told me that I deserve to find love. There was a time, not too very long ago actually, when my automatic response to this would have been ‘yeah, right’. This would have reflected not simply a belief that I wouldn’t find love, but that I didn’t deserve to be loved.

This wasn’t my automatic response, and this is a good thing. My automatic response was ‘I know’. I believe that I do deserve to find love (at least, as much as anyone does), and that I deserve to be loved. I believe that I deserve to find someone who will love me, desire me, and treat me like a king, and someone who I will love, desire, and want to treat like a queen.

As an aside, this is something that I think a lot of women today fail to realize. I have met a great many women who say something along the lines of ‘I should be treated like a queen’, and this is not untrue. If I love a woman then I should treat her very well. However, it is also an inherently selfish statement. I want to find a woman that I can treat like a queen, but I also want to find a woman who understands that she should treat her man like a king. I’m very good at finding woman whom I want to treat well. I am not good at finding women who want to treat me well. This then leads me to try to change them. They do not want to treat me well, and so I set out to teach them the importance of doing so. It becomes my quest not simply to make them better, but to make them what I want… which is inherently and extremely selfish and immature.

Back to my point: I am finally in a place where I actually believe that I deserve to be loved. However, my friend also said ‘you’ll find a woman who will fall head over heels for you’, and my instinctive response to this was still ‘yeah, right’. While I am in a place where I believe that I deserve to be loved, I still have trouble seeing myself as lovable and desirable. The whole issue that began this post is a part of the reason for that, but I also know that this is something that everyone deals with. My friend pointed out that I ‘have so much to offer a woman but don’t believe in’ myself… well, she said ‘yourself’… why I ended the quotes early.

…That probably didn’t need to be explained. Anyway, my friend was pretty chalk full of wisdom. She’s completely right that I still have a lot of trouble seeing myself as desirable. I can identify things about myself that I think a woman should want, but I don’t really believe that any woman does want these things… or at least, not from me. Part of this is simply experience. I’ve been rejected by a lot of women, and that does help to shape my beliefs… more reinforce that ‘shape’ if I’m honest. However, the actual problem is much deeper than that.

While I see myself as deserving of love, I still don’t really see myself as fundamentally lovable. I still retain some measure of the belief that there is something in me or something about me that makes people essentially incapable of loving me… even though I believe that I am deserving of that love. Like I said quite some time ago, if you take away all of the masks I’m still that scared little kid who wants his parents to love him, and there is no woman who can touch that.

This is something that I think God is currently working on, and I have no doubt that it is not an easy task. I don’t know what its going to take to change this, or how long its going to take. However, I am confident in him.

Getting What You Ask For

Taoism provides an interesting philosophical trap. I think that it is a good trap to fall into, but it is a trap nonetheless. Taoist teachings promise great authority and ability at persuasion, the ability to bend the world to your will and to make people do what you desire. However, to achieve these abilities one must truly, thoroughly, and permanently give up any desire to have authority, any ambition of the will, and any pursuit of power. In leaving off these things the ability to bend the world to one’s desires becomes obvious, but one’s desire to bend the world is gone. I think I’ve rather over-simplified this argument, and I have no doubt that both Laozi and Holmes Welch (the author of the book on Taoism I’m reading) would shake their heads in consternation at my inability to effectively express these ideas.

Nonetheless, reading today had me thinking about the many biblical promises that God will grant our every desire, and how they form the same wonderful trap. There are many places in scripture in which we are told that if we abide in Christ then we may ask whatever we desire and it will be granted. Note the italicized phrase there… it’s really important and I’m going to come back to it.

I used to work for a ‘Christian’ ministry company that prayed with people over the phone. People would call in and ask for prayer about something, and we would pray with them. Needless to say we had a lot of strange calls… I actually still have a list somewhere of 1400+ of the strangest prayer requests you’ve ever heard. Someday I plan to publish it… I should do that actually…. Anyway, the point, that I seem to have ambled away from rather thoroughly, is that the vast majority of the callers wanted magic. They believed that if you said the right words, in the right way, and with the right person that God has to give you what you ask for. We all tend to do this to some degree.

Richard Cavendish, a historian and occult author, defines magic as the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve the magician’s temporal ends. This is a good definition, although my personal definition of magic is the illusion that man can control supernatural forces. In either definition the power is a reality. I am always amazed at people who believe in miracles but not in magic, or people who believe in God but not in demons.  However, the mistake that many Christians make is the attempt to control God. Whether we do so through bargaining, words of power (often scripture taken out of context), or ritual, the goal is the same: we want to make God give us what we want.

However, this is not what the New Testament promises. The New Testament promises that if we abide in Christ then God will give us what we want. However, when I am truly abiding in Christ, then my desires are few. Primarily, my desire is to know and pursue him more fully. Other desires fade away, or at least become unimportant by comparison, and when my desire is to know and pursue Christ more fully, then of course God is going to grant my desire. It is a beautiful trap, and it is a trap that seeks to and succeeds in making us both better and happier. Laozi said ‘Let me have few desires and be happy’ (I’m paraphrasing here). I think I agree with him.

Love, Hate, and Taoism

I’ve been reading a book about Taoism that has helped more clearly understand Taoist concepts and their relation to Christian concepts. I’ve written about the concept of Wu Wei before, and I think I’m still somewhat enamored of the idea, but perhaps not as much. Laozi puts forth the idea that being is better than doing. This idea, as Holmes Welch describes it in the book I’m reading (Taoism: The Parting of the Way), is the concept that attitude is better than action. Laozi’s argument, in its essence, is that when we act we provoke reaction, and the reaction will often be in opposition to the action that we take. Laozi’s answer to the evils of his day was to take no action to stop them, oppose them, or even address them, but to simply ‘be’ good. His argument was that in being good one’s nature would naturally stand in opposition to evil without actively opposing that evil, which would create a strong reaction from said evil. Laozi argued that no one can fight with the sage simply because the sage refuses to fight. Mahatma Ghandi’s life was an excellent example of this principle in action, as was Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement.

This same concept can be seen in portions of the scripture (i.e. if a man strikes one cheek, give him the other), but Laozi takes the concept further than scripture allows us to do. Laozi argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being (i.e. true attitude is better than hypocritical action), but he also argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing (because action causes reaction). However, scripture commands both Being and Doing. 1st John is an excellent example of this. John commands us throughout this book to an attitude of love (agape). He juxtaposes love with two possible opposites though: first he tells us that a man who hates his brother does not love God. Here Love (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the well-being of another, even at the expense of one’s own) is juxtaposed with Hate (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the harm of another, even at the expense of one’s own well-being).

It is important not to confuse this Love/Hate juxtaposition with the Love/Hate juxtaposition used in Paul’s legal terminology. Paul tells us that God ‘loved Jacob, but hated Esau’. Does this mean that God had a ‘deep emotive concern for the harm of Esau’? Of course not. This is a legal use of the terms ‘love’ and ‘hate’ that reflects a covenantal choice that holds no emotive value. God did not wish Esau harm, but he did choose Jacob through whom to continue the spiritual line of Abraham, a place for which Esau was rejected. This is important, but entirely different from the emotive love/hate juxtaposition that John creates in his letter.

However, John does not simply juxtapose love to hate. He also tells us that ‘he who does not love his brother does not know God’. Thus, love is also juxtaposed with apathy. Hence it is not enough to show love by not hating another, but we must also show love by showing a deep emotive concern for another’s well-being. This concept is necessarily active in nature. While the love/hate juxtaposition could potentially reflect a non-active attitudinal love, the love/apathy juxtaposition cannot. This is also reflected in James’ exhortation that ‘faith without works is dead’. Thus a very, very important difference between Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy is the necessity of action. Scripture certainly argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being. However, scripture absolutely argues against the concept that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing.

The other area of major difference is that of ultimate goal or purpose. Laozi’s writing was ultimately concerned with the temporal (though not necessarily material) world. He sought an answer to the warfare that was rife in China during his lifetime (which was probably somewhere between 60 and 200 years, if he existed at all… I must confess that I cannot bring myself to argue that Adam lived 900 some years, Abraham 180 years, Moses 120, and yet completely reject the notion that Laozi may have lived for 200 years). Ultimately, Laozi’s argument is that through Being and Not Doing we can more effectively implement our will in the world than through Doing and Not Being, or through Being and Doing.

However, the ultimate goal or purpose of the Christian is not to implement our will in the world, but to glorify the Godhead (I’ve said this many times) in part by implementing his will in the world (though this is not our only means of glorifying him). Thus, Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy again find themselves at odds simply because of the source of the will that they seek to enact. There are many good things in Laozi’s philosophy, and his concept of Being as primary is one that I think many American Christians need to embrace. However, ultimately, the differences, as well as the similarities, must be addressed, and it is never enough to only examine one or the other.

Striving and Satisfaction

We’ve all had good days, and we’ve all had bad days. We’ve probably all had days that went from good to bad, or bad to good, or stayed solidly somewhere in the middle. If anyone ever tells you that they’ve just had the worst day ever, tell them to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki… or Auswitch… or Carthage… then hit them… preferably with something metal… ok, that’s probably going a little far. Don’t do that, but you get my point. Even though we should love overly dramatic people (thankfully, I can be one sometimes), it’s a ridiculous claim. Of course, on the other hand, the claim that you’ve never had a bad day is equally ridiculous.My day today went from pretty good to mildly bad and back again. I mentioned the other day that there’s a lady that I’m somewhat fond of, and I happen to know that she’s spending time with a friend of mine tonight… well, a couple of friends actually (which makes all of this even more ridiculous). Honestly, I know that what they’re doing is innocuous, and yet my satisfaction was ruined. Why? Very simply, I don’t know what she thinks of me. Now, here’s the ridiculous thing: Honestly, I don’t have a clue where I am romantically. I like this woman, but I’m really not sure if I’m ready for any kind of relationship, and I don’t know if I actually want to do anything about the fact that I like this girl. Nonetheless, my satisfaction is ruined because I’m not sure whether she wants something that I’m not sure that I want. This is the ridiculousness of humanity. The ridiculousness of me!

We all strive for the things that we want, or the things that we think we want, or even the things that we don’t really want, but think that maybe we should want, and when we don’t get them, or think we might not get them, we lose all sense of satisfaction. The thing is, happiness isn’t a choice. I can’t simply choose to be happy, or choose to be satisfied any more than I can choose to be orange or choose to be thin. None of these things are simple choices.

Our happiness is based on our desires, and our desires are based on the things we focus on. When my focus is on the fact that I want to be married, then I find myself unsatisfied because I’m not married. When my focus is on a woman, then I’m unsatisfied because she isn’t mine. When my focus in on wealth, then I’m unsatisfied because I am not wealthy, or at least I am not as wealthy as someone else. Thus, in striving to become I destroy my own satisfaction.

I lose all sense of the fact that I am who God has made me, not that he is finished (far from it in fact), and that I am who God is making me. I forget that he is what I should be striving for, instead of striving for all of the things that I see and want around me. Laozi, a Chinese philosopher, introduced the concept of Wu Wei, or ‘non-action’, though the idea might be better translated as ‘non-striving’. Laozi believed that the Tao was the essence of all things (obviously I disagree with him here), and that our only striving should be a striving to be in harmony with the Tao, and even this should not be a true striving. He believed that we should seek to be in harmony, and that when we were in harmony we would naturally do the things that should be done. That is to say, that we will do right without striving to do right.

Christians are commanded to abide in Christ, and when I truly abide in Christ, when I am holy, then my actions will be right. When I abide in Christ and keep my focus on him, then I find myself satisfied because he does not fail. When my focus waivers, when I focus on something else, then my satisfaction disappears. In striving to better myself, or to achieve my desires, or to meet arbitrary goals, I find myself unsatisfied because all of these things are dust. These strivings can never satisfy me, because these achievements are meaningless.

Do not think that I mean that marriage is a bad thing, or that to be wealthy is evil. This is not what I am trying to say. However, marriage without Christ is meaningless. Wealth without Christ is worthless. Christ is all things, and when I am in Christ, then I will be satisfied with whatever he chooses to give me. When I am in Christ, then marriage will be wonderful, if that is what he chooses to give me, and if it is not, then it will be equally wonderful to be single.

I think that I’ve probably botched this entirely, but I’m still kind of working these ideas through in my head. However, I think that Americans have generally lost all concept of being satisfied with what God gives us, and this makes me very sad.