Prison walls started falling

On Tuesday, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone in preparation for giving up social media for Lent. Now my phone is just a phone and not a time-wasting distraction. This morning as I drove to the gym, I listened to a beautiful song that not only expresses how I feel about the “sacrifice” I’m making, it reminds me of the real reason for the season of Lent.

Red Letters is a song written by David Crowder and Ed Cash about the life-changing impact of the red letter words of Jesus.

Then I read the red letters
And the ground began to shake
The prison walls started falling
And I became a free man that day

Red Letters – David Crowder Band

The phrase, prison walls started falling describes how I feel about being freed from the addictive hold of social media. Over time, I have become a slave to Facebook, depending on it to keep myself entertained, looking to it for social affirmation, and ridiculously fearing that I will miss out on something important if I don’t read my news feed everyday. It’s only been a couple of days since I gave it up, but the prison walls are already falling.

Red Letters also reminded me of the real sacrifice that Jesus made.

For God so loved the whole wide world
Sent His only Son to die for me
Arms spread wide for the whole wide world
His arms spread wide where mine should be
Jesus changed my destiny

Thank You, God, for red letters
When the ground began to shake
The grace of God started falling
And I became a free man that day
The prison walls started falling
And I am a free man today

Red Letters – David Crowder Band

Thank you, God, for red letters. Thank you, God, for Jesus!

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Photo by Denis Oliveira on Unsplash

Giving up social media for Lent

This year, my pastor encouraged us to give up social media for Lent. As a Presbyterian, I have never been asked to give up anything for Lent. I have decided to take my pastor’s advice because I am addicted to Facebook and I know that I waste a lot of time on it.

I did not tell anyone that I’m going to stay off of Facebook for Lent. Will anyone even notice that I’m not posting anything?

It will be interesting to see how my life changes in the next 40 days. Will I miss out on anything important if I don’t use social media everyday? How will I use the time that I would have wasted scrolling down my news feed? Will I have a more positive outlook on life?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Tell the truth: who is man?

The third lesson of Focus on the Family’s Truth Project is Anthropology: Who is Man? Our culture’s assumptions about mankind conflict with the Christian worldview in significant ways: beliefs about the essence of man, his moral state, and the purpose of his existence. Is man purely the product of mindless forces? Is man basically good? Is our purpose for existence nothing more than self-fulfillment or do we have a higher purpose?

Is man merely a physical being or both flesh and spirit?

The first chapter of Genesis say that God created the heavens and the earth; before the earth was formed, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. So from the earliest scriptures, God is described as a creative being with a Spirit. According to Genesis 1:27, “God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” If God has a Spirit and we were created in his image, it follows that humans are more than a physical being.

Spirit is defined as “the nonphysical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.” Scientists study the brain to find physical or chemical explanations for emotional or even spiritual experiences. And while scientific knowledge is useful, it doesn’t disprove what intuition and experience tell us is true. Many of us have a strong sense that there is a powerful life force within us that is independent of our physical bodies.

Is man inherently good?

In the video lesson, Dr. Tackett asked one of his students: do you do what you want to do? I don’t think the student understood what Dr. Tackett had in mind because he responded yes. The apostle Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Paul realized that the sin living in him kept him from doing the good that he desired to do. (See Romans 7:15-25).

I don’t do what I want to do. I want to be good. I want to be in control of my emotions. I know that I shouldn’t get angry when things don’t go my way. But even though I want to be patient and calm under pressure, evil is right there with me making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. No matter how good my intentions are, I am a slave to my impulses.

Christians believe that when God created the first man and woman, they were good. Sin entered the perfect world God created when man disobeyed God’s command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man still bears the image of God within his being but he also has a sin-prone nature. As a result of “the fall,” our sinful nature is in constant conflict with the Spirit of God. As Tackett says, there is a “conflict between humanity as it was meant to be and what it has actually become as a result of sin.”

What does our culture say about our moral state? Dr. Tackett quoted psychologist Carl Rogers, who said, “I do not find that evil is inherent in human nature.” If people are not inherently sinful, where does the sin come from? Why do good people do bad things? Secular psychology places the blame on cultural influences. But as Rollo May asked, who makes up the culture if not people like us? And how can a culture become evil if there is no inherent tendency towards evil within each of us?

What do we need to be fulfilled as human beings? What gives our lives purpose?

Dr. Tackett says that the notion “that man is basically good and that his greatest need is to self-actualize and get in touch with his inner desires” is a “pernicious lie.” We certainly deceive ourselves about our sinfulness. We focus on outward appearances of goodness. We compare ourselves to others and conclude that we are not as bad as they are even though other people cannot see the sins hidden in our own hearts.

What is our greatest need? Dr. Tackett spoke dismissively about Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of human needs. According to Maslow, once our lower level physiological needs are met, we ultimately seek self-esteem and self-actualization. Self-actualization can be defined as self-fulfillment or reaching one’s personal potential. Maslow’s original five level model has since been expanded to include cognitive and aesthetic needs and a level even higher than self-actualization – transcendence.

I am not as dismissive of Maslow’s ideas as Dr. Tackett. I don’t see the hierarchy of needs as necessarily self-centered. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be your best and reach your potential. To me the pernicious lie is the objectivism philosophy expressed by Ayn Rand. She said that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.”

How does this contrast with the Christian view? Christians believe that we exist because God created us. Christian’s believe that what humans need is not self-fulfillment but grace, redemption, and spiritual transformation. Christians believe that our ultimate purpose is to love God with our whole being and to love others as we love ourselves. Christians believe in living sacrificially, in serving others and putting the needs of others before your own. The reality is that we have a moral responsibility to look out for the interests of others.

The human dilemma

Thinking about human nature reminds me of the essay written by Rabbi Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith. He pointed out something I had never noticed before about the story of creation in the bible. In the first chapter of Genesis, it says that God created both male and female at the same time. He told them to be fruitful and fill the earth and to subdue it and to rule over every living creature on earth. In the second chapter, the story is very different. In this version, God created man from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. He put man in the Garden of Eden to work and take care of it but prohibited him from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Then God decided it wasn’t good for man to be alone so he created woman from man’s rib to be a helper for him.

The rabbi believed that the reason there were two versions of mankind’s creation is that there are two natures in man. Each nature has its own needs and purpose for being. The personality described in Genesis I, Adam I, strives to control his environment. He is achievement-oriented and has a practical, utilitarian approach to life. He is on a narcissistic quest for human dignity – to feel important. In contrast, Adam II yearns for a relationship with his Creator. He is humble and not self-centered. He is on a quest for redemption and so he strives to control the self and its selfish impulses.

Personally, I do not think it is truthful to look down at our culture from a religious point of view. Every culture is flawed because mankind has always been flawed. Many people who are outwardly religious have never honestly confronted their own need for redemption.

However, pragmatic modern man – whether secular or religious – works only with categories of the intellect, not realizing their limited purview. He adopts religion to the extent that he deems it as being useful and comprehensible to him. His is a religion of convenience, not commitment; it is geared to suit his own needs, not to serve God’s will. He does not comprehend the meaning of total devotion and does not sense the need for redemption, which constitute the essence of faith. The danger, then, is not just that secularists have ceased to understand the man of faith; it is that adherents of religion have ceased to understand themselves and their commitment.

Reuben Ziegler, an Introduction to The Lonely Man of Faith

The truth is, God designed man as a complex physical and spiritual being and he created a world in which we are in constant conflict with our human nature. Man often suppresses or ignores the Adam II part of his nature. He denies that God exists. He denies his need for transformation. For those of us who do pursue the quest for a relationship with God, we must honestly face the ugly reality of our own brokenness. We must confront the truth about who we really are and who God meant for us to be.

Anger: name it and tame it?

My pastor read a ghost story to us, an excerpt from The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. There was a red lizard on the ghost’s shoulder that kept whispering things in his ear. He was embarrassed by it. An angel offered to make the lizard be quiet by killing it. The ghost was reluctant to let the angel kill the lizard even though it tormented him; he was afraid that he would be killed too. When the ghost finally accepted the angel’s help, he and the lizard were transformed.

My pastor shared the lizard story because we are studying the book of Ephesians. In Ephesians 4, Paul told the believers that they must no longer live as the Gentiles. “Put off falsehood and speak truthfully.” “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Get rid of that thing that is controlling you. Ask God to help you resist whatever temptations you are facing.

Years ago, I read a book called Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts, by Michael Mangis. Anger is one of my signature sins – the red lizard on my shoulder. Fortunately, it doesn’t whisper in my ear everyday but I struggle to tame it when it raises its ugly head.

In Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It, Michaeleen Doucleff explains that if you are able to distinguish specific kinds of anger, it will help you regulate your emotions. This is known as “emotional granularity” or emotion differentiation. If you differentiate between the many variations of anger, you will better understand what is causing the emotion and how to handle it in a more constructive way.

Doucleff named three variations of anger that she struggles with: hurry-up anger (directed a people who are too slow), illogical anger (directed at people who are illogical), and disonophous anger (a made-up word for anger caused by noise). I can relate to Doucleff’s hurry-up anger but I sometimes think of it as “get out of my way” anger.

I have a few names for the kinds of anger I struggle with:

Overwhelmed Anger. This is one of my most challenging kinds of anger because it is stress-induced. If I am being pulled in too many directions, I feel overwhelmed. If there are too many things on my plate, I can’t even think straight. My anger stems from feeling stressed and out of control. And if I am feeling overwhelmed, I am less patient with other people. To get rid of this kind of anger, I know that I need to ask for help or to say no more often.

Interference Anger: This anger is directed at people who interfere with my ability to get something done or to accomplish my goals. For example, I get angry with my manager when he waits until the last minute to review my reports. He keeps me from completing my work early so I end up being stressed out as deadlines approach. I realize that my priorities are not my manager’s priorities. I have learned that he doesn’t have great time management skills so I have to manage upward.

Interruption Anger: This is another form of work-related anger. When I am really concentrating and focusing on the task at hand and someone interrupts me, I can get annoyed because the interruption messes up my train of thought. I have to anticipate that there will be interruptions and that unexpected things will happen.

Righteous Indignation: This anger is directed at people who are dishonest, immoral, greedy, selfish, unjust, unmerciful, etc. While I don’t want to be and should not be indifferent to immorality and injustice, my anger at evil does not always produce the kind of righteousness God wants. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr wrote, “most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image…”

Michael Mangis says that “we are justified at being angry only at the evil that also angers God.” It’s very easy for righteous indignation to turn into self-righteous indignation. Our reasons for being angry are rarely pure and unselfish. Getting rid of righteous indignation requires humility. I have to admit my own sinfulness and accept the fact that I can’t fix people and I can’t eradicate evil.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

James 1:19 (NIV)

In writing about anger, Mangis said that it cannot be safely tamed. He quoted St. John Cassian who described anger as a deadly poison that must be completely rooted out of your inmost being. Anger can be extremely destructive. As long as anger remains in our hearts, it prevents us from seeing clearly. It impairs our judgment.

I don’t know that you can really tame your anger by naming it but I think it is beneficial to understand the causes and the underlying emotions. In a blog post on Psychology Today, Leon Seltzer, Ph.D., says that “anger is, unquestionably, the most moralistic of emotions.” We think our anger is justified if someone wronged us. A variety of other emotions underlie anger such as feeling disrespected, powerless, humiliated, etc.

Anger is most accurately understood as a potent psychological defense against a variety of more distressing emotions that underlie it.

Leon Seltzer, Ph.D.

There are all sorts of corrective actions you can take when you feel yourself getting angry. If you know your emotional triggers, you can anticipate the behaviors that provoke you to anger and become less reactive. You can try to see things from the other person’s point of view. You can become more assertive. You can try to see the humor in the situation.

The truth is, I have struggled with anger for years even though I know what triggers it, even though I can take my anger temperature, even though I’ve got emotional granularity. I would love to get rid of it once and for all. So maybe the next time the little red lizard of anger whispers in my ear, instead of trying to fix myself, I will just say, God, please kill it.

*****

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Truth: Philosophy and Ethics

I am studying Focus on the Family’s “The Truth Project” this year. The topic of the second lesson is Philosophy and Ethics. The lesson guide states that “there is a formal and vital connection between our ideas about the nature of the world (philosophy) and our understanding of right and wrong behavior (ethics).” What happens to this connection when you exclude God from your search for knowledge and wisdom? How can you really understand God’s truth if you conform yourself to the ways of the world?

Dr. Del Tackett says that philosophy is the love of wisdom. Dr. R.C. Sproul defines philosophy as “a scientific quest to discover ultimate reality.” The website, The Basics of Philosophy, lists many other definitions of philosophy including “the study of knowledge” and “thinking about thinking.” Philosophy is a broad subject that includes thinking about the nature of existence and reality and the search for knowledge and truth.

Because truth is based on reality, the quest to discover ultimate reality should be aligned with the quest to discover ultimate truth. Dr. Tackett notes that contemporary culture has excluded God from the search for ultimate reality. Many people only believe in what can be perceived with the senses. As an example, Tackett quotes Carl Sagan:

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Carl Sagan

Tackett calls Sagan’s philosophy the “cosmic cube.” It’s the belief that the material world is all that there is, that nothing exists outside the box. And yet human beings long for something beyond the material. We long for a higher meaning and purpose. We sense that we are not just physical beings.

Tackett points out that many people accept the words of people like Sagan because they use powerful and deceptive “assumptive language.” If you don’t critically examine the assumptions, they may sound plausible. He makes a good point. I have long noticed that when explaining human conduct, people claim, without proof, that evolution explains our behavior. For example, they would explain my husband’s inability to find something in the kitchen cabinet and his concurrent ability to spot a deer far away with evolutionary psychology. 

Tackett reminds us that there are scriptural warnings about being taken captive or sucked in by hollow and deceptive philosophy.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces[a of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2:8 (NIV)

Dr. Tackett didn’t say much about ethics but he explained the difference between morality (the rightness or wrongness of conduct; that which is) and ethics (principles of conduct; that which ought to be).

I have taken ethics courses but I have never formally studied philosophy. So how do I connect philosophy and ethics? How are my ideas about ultimate reality connected to my beliefs about right and wrong and how humans ought to behave? Why do I believe God exists? How do I defend my faith in an age of profound skepticism?

Those of us who believe in God believe that he is inside the box and outside the box. He’s everywhere. We can’t see him with our limited human senses but we see physical evidence of him in the wonders of creation.

C.S. Lewis said that if there is a controlling power outside our universe, it could show itself as one of the observable facts, as an influence to behave a certain way. He said that if this power behind moral law is interested in morally right behavior, then it follows that it would not approve of wrong behavior. I think it also follows that this higher power would want us to know what it means to be upright and moral and he would want us to live together in peace. And what better way could he show us the way the world ought to be than to come down to us like a Son of Man?

We have a sense that the world is not the way it ought to be. We have a sense that we are very flawed and yet very great. We have a longing for love and beauty that nothing in this world can fulfill.  We have a deep need to know meaning and purpose. Which worldview best accounts for these things?

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God.