Trust

We think of trust (and faith) as cognitive states: to trust someone is to believe that they won’t let you down. It’s hard to force yourself to believe something that you don’t believe. And yet we’re supposed to trust God? How do I make myself do that?

But we misunderstand trust if we think of it as akin to belief. It’s more than that. Trust is something we do with our bodies and our wills, not just with our minds. And because of that, we can trust someone even when we don’t really believe that they are trustworthy. We do so by relying on them, by putting ourselves in their hands. You don’t need to be confident that someone will be faithful with what you have entrusted to them; you just need to do it.

So faith and trust are not states of mind. They are practices. And the result of that practice, provided that our trust is well-placed, is a sense of greater security and confidence in the person we have trusted. There will, of course, always be room for doubt to creep in, but the practice of trust does not require us to be free from doubt. And our past experiences give us good reasons to persist in trusting in spite of our doubts.

Given that trust is a practice and not a cognitive state, how do I trust God? With people, trust feels more concrete. I can ask a professor to write a letter of recommendation for me, for example. But with God, asking for things feels different. There are some things you don’t ask God for (like letters of recommendation) and other things you would only ask God for (like good health, world peace, etc.). Plus, when you ask God for something, it’s not like he (ordinarily) responds and tells you that he’ll do it for you. We have this understanding that God knows even better than we do what we actually need, and for that reason he might not always give us what we ask for.

For that reason, I think that trusting God is largely about focusing on the big picture, rather than on the details. God has told us how the story ends: we are to be made perfect as his Sons, heirs of his eternal kingdom, so that we can love him and take joy in him forever. But what about everything before that? What about the things I’m doing right now? God never promised that I would get into my dream school or get my dream job. He never promised that I would find a wife and start a family with her. He never promised that I’d be free from disease, or that I wouldn’t struggle with anxiety or depression.

From my perspective, all of these things are supremely important. And the fact that God has not guaranteed any of them to me is sometimes scary. But I remember what God has guaranteed me: the resurrection of the body and eternal life. Salvation. Doesn’t that outweigh all of these other goods that I care about so much?

Trusting God isn’t about believing that he will give us everything we want. It’s about accepting his guarantee and affirming that it is enough for us. Being saved from sin and death is enough. Being made an heir of God’s Kingdom is enough. Being made holy is enough.

Which brings us back to the question of how we can practice this kind of trust. You can’t just force yourself to believe that God’s Kingdom is better than landing the perfect job. But there are things that we do that can help us to see the world differently, practices that focus us on God’s plan instead of on ours. One of those practices is Sabbath. Taking time to rest instead of working requires us to trust that God will provide for our needs. To rest in such a way is to affirm that God is in control, and that the goodness of our existence does not depend on what we do or accomplish.

Another such practice is generosity. Choosing to spend our scarce time, energy, and resources on other human beings is an affirmation of human value. When God created us, he found us “very good.” Sin distorts the picture, making us feel like we need to earn our worth. But when you treat others as image-bearers, you affirm the inherent worth of all persons, including yourself.

I pray that God would grant me greater faith in him through these practices and others. That he would open my eyes to see all the good things he has created. That he would make me free to enjoy them instead of striving after other goods. And most of all, that he would remind me at all times of the sufficiency of his grace for me and for all the universe.

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Why I’m in Law School

I used to think that law school was just for learning law; that’s all I really wanted out of it. And now, a couple months in, I’ve learned some law.  But I’ve also gotten some things that I didn’t bargain for. In particular, I’ve gotten a great deal of stress about grades and my future. And I’ve gotten this overwhelming feeling that my performance in school is what ultimately defines me as a person.

Obviously, I don’t like these things. I’ve prayed to God to take them away from me, and I still do. But whereas before I viewed them as entirely incidental to my law school experience, I’m starting to see them as an integral part of it. And that’s because, for me, law school isn’t just for learning law. It’s also about becoming a more devoted servant of Christ. God is using law school to bring my sinful tendencies out where I can see them and repent from them.

It’s hard not to view this as a nuisance, at best, and a curse, at worst. I want to pursue my studies unencumbered by these feelings of stress and inadequacy, so that I can do my very best. Repenting from idolatry is hard, and so is law school. Why do two such difficult things at the same time? Wouldn’t it be better to space them out? Sort of like how you might avoid taking multiple notoriously challenging courses during the same term.

Of course, in law school we take an absurd number of credits during the first term. There’s no time to warm up. You just get thrown into the deep end. At Harvard, we take 18 credits during the first term. But during your second and third years, you only need to average 12 credits per term to graduate. It’s quite imbalanced. But I think that’s by design. The shock has some sort of pedagogical function. And 1Ls that make it through the first term come out stronger than they were at the start.

Similarly, God is not going to wait until the easy times of our lives to teach us the things we need to learn. And he certainly does not let us hold onto our idols just a little longer, until a time that’s more convenient for us. I need to stop worshiping the idols of academic excellence and professional achievement and be a fully devoted servant of God. And the best time to repent from my idolatry is now.

What I said at the beginning of this post isn’t actually accurate. I don’t just want to learn law. I want to get excellent grades and graduate near the top of my class. I want to get one of the most competitive and prestigious jobs available. I want credentials that show people that I am important and brilliant and talented. And there is a part of me that wants those things to the exclusion of everything else, a part of me that worships them.

God is killing that part of me. Slowly, painfully putting it to death.

I don’t want to be captured by the pursuit of vain honors. I want to worship, honor, and serve God. He is using my law school experience to show me all the ways in which I foolishly choose vain honors over him. He is showing me the extent of my sinfulness in a way that I couldn’t see before. And by doing that, he is helping me to become more righteous and more faithful.

If law school makes me a more faithful servant of God, then it will be worth it, even if I don’t get the grades or the job that I want. Grades, jobs, honors—they are vapors, and pursuing them is striving after the wind. But God endures forever.

Confidence in the Flesh

I’m back in school now. And now that I’m back in school, I’ve found that two of my more destructive tendencies have come to the fore again. First, I constantly seek to prove to myself that I’m better than others, and I take pride in myself when I think I’ve succeeded. Second, I worry constantly that I’m not as great as I think I am. These are two sides of the same coin. When your sense of self-worth comes from your perceived superiority to others, you will feel insecure. Because at some point, someone will be better than you.

I have been learning how to fight these tendencies for my entire life. As early as elementary school, I evaluated myself on the basis of my abilities relative to my peers. And whenever I felt that I came up short, I felt awful about myself. Even if it was something I didn’t particularly care about. In third grade, we had to draw a map of the world from memory. One of my classmates, Zhong, did a great job (although he did forget to draw Australia). I can’t remember how mine turned out, but I do remember being upset with myself to the point of crying because his was so much better. Why was I so bothered? Drawing wasn’t even “my thing.”

Over time, my expectations of myself became somewhat more reasonable. I didn’t have to be the best at everything, just my things, i.e. academics. I didn’t need to be the most talented when it came to art or athletics, but I did need to get the best grades. And, for the most part, I could. And I did. And because I did, I’ve been able to preserve this unhealthy way of thinking about myself and my worth. I have “proven” to myself that I can rely on my abilities and achievements to give me value.

But I know that I can’t rely on my abilities and achievements to give me value. I know that’s not where value fundamentally comes from. And I know this because I don’t value other people in my life solely for their abilities and achievements; I value them because of who they are.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what Paul wrote in Philippians 3:

1Finally, my brothers,a rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

2Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of Godb and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law,c blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The word translated “rubbish” in the ESV is σκύβαλον, which basically means animal excrement. The connotation is of utter worthlessness, and even of disgust. Paul looks at his fleshly advantages and assigns them the same value as excrement in comparison to the value of knowing God.

I am a Christian, and I know that God has adopted me as his son, making me an heir to his eternal kingdom. In comparison to that, what are my grades? What is this degree I’m getting? It’s all “rubbish.”

But I have this constant worry that I won’t get the grades I want, or that my degree won’t be conferred with the kind of honors that I hope for, or that I won’t get a sufficiently prestigious job. I tear myself apart over things which are ultimately trivial, because I have convinced myself that they are important. Or perhaps I have managed to convince myself that I can trust myself more than I can trust God. Either way, I have made myself into a fool by putting my confidence in the flesh.

I pray, as I have for years, that God will give me the ability to trust in him instead of in myself, that he will take away my pride. I don’t want to put my confidence in the flesh. It’s exhausting and miserable. I feel as if I’m constantly in this precarious position where my entire sense of self depends on how I do on the next assignment I turn in. And I don’t want to feel like that. As I always have, I need to be delivered from my own pride.

Owen Strachan and Gay Identity

When you hear “Gay Christianity,” you might assume that the phrase refers to Christians who reject the church’s historic teaching on sexuality, in particular the part about sex being reserved for opposite-sex unions. However, there are many Christians who, while affirming the church’s historic teaching on sex, want to work harder to accommodate members of the LGBT community. Revoice is a conference for Christians seeking ways to help the church to better love LGBT people while also maintaining its teaching on sexual ethics.

Owen Strachan has written an article that mischaracterizes both the Revoice conference and the general move towards affirming LGBT people that some Christians are making. Some of his concerns are understandable, particularly if “affirming LGBT identities” means claiming that same-sex attraction is part of God’s design or that sexual orientation is a fundamental feature of one’s identity. But I don’t think that’s what the folks at Revoice are up to.

Strachan refers to just a few items from the Revoice website to make his point that the conference is “biblically unfaithful and fundamentally unsound”:

One presenter will speak on how “queer treasure, honor, and glory” will be brought into the New Jerusalem; another presenter identifies as “bisexual” and is “actively involved” in the Chicago “LGBTQ community”; a third key participant argues that “Simply experiencing attraction to the same sex (or being gay) is not in itself a morally culpable sin.”

The first example is a simple mischaracterization that I hope is the result of careless reading. Here is the summary of the session that Strachan quotes from:

REDEEMING QUEER CULTURE: AN ADVENTURE

Presenter: Grant Hartley

For the sexual minority seeking to submit his or her life fully to Christ and to the historic Christian sexual ethic, queer culture presents a bit of a dilemma; rather than combing through and analyzing to find which parts are to be rejected, to be redeemed, or to be received with joy (Acts 17:16-34), Christians have often discarded the virtues of queer culture along with the vices, which leaves culturally connected Christian sexual minorities torn between two cultures, two histories, and two communities. So questions that have until now been largely unanswered remain: what does queer culture (and specifically, queer literature and theory) have to offer us who follow Christ? What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time (Revelation 21:24-26)?

Strachan writes: “There will be nothing unholy in the celestial city, nothing sinful that will be brought to the worship of the crucified and resurrected Lord of the church.” Need this claim from Strachan contradict what is written in the above summary? Only if you make an unwarranted assumption about what exactly “queer culture” is. Strachan seems to think that “queer culture” must be characterized by an acceptance of homosexual activity or something similar. But “queer culture” is just the culture that is born from the experience of LGBT people (or people who experience same-sex attraction/gender dysphoria). The boundaries aren’t rigidly fixed, but any cultural artifact that either was created by an LGBT person or portrays LGBT people sympathetically would probably fall under the “queer culture” umbrella. Are we to believe that all of this is “sinful” and “unholy”?

The second example demonstrates that Strachan holds some assumptions about what it means to identify as LGBT. He seems to think that saying, “I am gay,” is equivalent to saying, “experiencing homosexual desire is fundamental to who I am as a person.” It’s certainly possible that many people mean that, even self-identified LGBT Christians. However, it’s also reasonable to interpret “I am gay” as shorthand for “same-sex attraction is a significant component of my lived experience that has shaped my view of the world.” Likewise, people with anorexia might say “I’m anorexic” without implying that anorexia is somehow fundamental to who they are as people.

LGBT Christians need some way to communicate their experience and how it has shaped them, and the alternatives to saying “I’m gay” or “I’m transgender” are clunky enough that I find it entirely understandable if people don’t want to use them. “I experience same-sex attraction,” or “As a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction…” vs. “I’m gay,” or “As a gay Christian…” etc. Identifying as gay is not the same as saying “being gay is who I am.”

With the third example, Strachan is making a point that has only tangential relevance to whether Revoice is “fundamentally unsound.” He writes: “I can note that a fellow man is good-looking, but if I am attracted to him (even for an instant), I am sinning, and I should instantaneously confess my sin to God, repent of it, and seek in the fullest possible extent to build in ways of preventing said sin in the future.” I am inclined to think it would be more precise to say that the hypothetical attraction would be sinful. But would he really be sinning?

I don’t know. Maybe. But in any case this disagreement about whether experiencing a sinful desire is a way of sinning isn’t limited to situations that involve same-sex attraction. And if the conference speaker is wrong, it would be wrong to blame this belief on “gay Christianity.” The belief that experiencing a desire to sin is not a form of sin itself is not the result of wanting to affirm LGBT identities, but of trying to deal with the fact that we do not always choose to experience sinful desires. Obviously, we’re culpable for giving into them, but for experiencing them? Something about that seems intuitively wrong. Perhaps my intuition is incorrect, but that’s not because it’s trying to justify homosexuality.

I think Strachan’s whole article stems from a misunderstanding about what Revoice is up to. He seems to think they’re highly concerned with affirming LGBT identities, when in fact they’re concerned with the understanding the experience out of which such identities are born. Whereas Strachan writes repeatedly about LGBT identity, sinful identity, etc., the word “identity” doesn’t even show up on Revoice’s page. You can go check for yourself.

Perhaps we need better language to distinguish between identity and experience. There are things about me that have heavily shaped my experience that are not fundamental to who I am as a person, even though the experiences that have resulted from them are foundational to how I view the world. For instance, I struggle with depression. The experience of depression has helped to make me who I am, but it is not who I am. Likewise, the experience of being LGBT undoubtedly shapes people at the deepest level, even though LGBT-ness itself isn’t fundamental to their identity. Revoice is not affirming LGBT-ness as an identity; rather, they are affirming the identities of people who are united by the common experience of living as LGBT persons. If the church cannot recognize that distinction, then it will fail to adequately care for LGBT people.

Arpaio and the Offensiveness of Forgiveness

Like many people, I am unhappy that Trump decided to pardon Joe Arpaio. He flagrantly disregarded the law and brutalized people during his time as Maricopa County Sheriff, and he will suffer no legal consequences for doing so.

This post isn’t primarily about Arpaio, though, but about the feeling of indignation many people feel at his pardon. I feel this indignation as well. As I was sitting in church on Sunday, it occurred to me that this feeling is a good illustration of the utter offensiveness of the Gospel.

I often hear people ask how a loving God can send people to Hell. But the following question is just as concerning: How can a just God forgive people who have committed great evils?

I want history’s Hitlers, Maos, and Stalins to burn in Hell. I don’t want to share the new earth with them. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t belong there. And yet, under God’s standards, I’m equally deserving of condemnation. If God can forgive me, then God can forgive anybody, can he not?

Something about forgiveness as such violates our sense of justice. When the offense is small, we are willing to let things slide, sometimes. But for a grave offense, we cannot tolerate forgiveness. Things need to be made right, somehow. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Evil acts must be punished, not ignored or rewarded.

And it feels like unconditional forgiveness is the same as ignoring evil acts.

But since I am powerless before God, and I am obviously grateful for his forgiveness, I don’t have much choice but to trust his exercise of his rightful power. God’s justice is not bound by my ideas about justice. He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As an undeserving recipient of God’s mercy, I have no right to complain when he forgives people who I consider less deserving than myself. And from some other vantage point, God’s choice to forgive me is just as offensive as Trump’s decision to pardon Arpaio.

Our War Against God

We have always been at war with God, fighting him at every turn, in everything we do. We commit sins, yes, but it’s not as if we’re otherwise innocent. No part of our lives is untouched by this war. Just as the whole of the United States participated in World War II, whether through fighting or growing food, our whole being is tangled up in the war against God, whether through willful acts of sin or through the mundane acts that take up the majority of our time and energy. Were it not for God, every part of us would be wholly against God.

But God has defeated us, is defeating us, and will defeat us. The war we fight is a losing one, and thank God. He will capture us as prisoners and then make us into citizens, and even into his heirs. He has forced us to surrender and submit, and we are better for it. And after he has done so, we wish only that we had surrendered sooner.

Know Your Enemy

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 ESV)

We are at war with the powers of Hell. That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? And yet it is true. It is easy for us to forget that the devil himself is our enemy. We get so absorbed in the details of life that we can no longer see the big picture. When viewed from up close, we’re competing with other people, trying to achieve status, make money, develop skills, make friends, etc. In these minigames that, taken together, make up the metagame of life, our opponents are not too different from us. But if you take a step back and look at the metagame, you can see that we, collectively, are in a cosmic struggle against evil personified. Does any of us stand a chance against that?

In the Plato’s Alcibiades, Socrates speaks to a youth about what it takes to lead a polis. Alcibiades thinks he’s hot stuff. He thinks he’s prepared to be in charge, despite being young and inexperienced. Socrates sets him straight, pointing out to him that his true rivals are not those within the city, but those outside who seek to destroy it. They are descended from gods, better raised and educated, better trained in the art of war. His goal in saying these things is to instill fear in his pupil to motivate him to improve himself and become worthy of the power to which he aspires.

I think that Peter is doing something similar in the passage above. He is pointing out that our enemy is more powerful than we are so that we will be appropriately cautious. Neither Socrates nor Peter, however, say that we are to abandon hope because our enemy is great. On the contrary, because we have God on our side, we can be proceed with cautious confidence.

I have pasted an excerpt from Alcibiades below. I recommend reading the dialogue in its entirety, if you have time.

SOCRATES: Well, and in reference to your own case, do you mean to remain as you are, or will you take some pains about yourself?

ALCIBIADES: With your aid, Socrates, I will. And indeed, when I hear you speak, the truth of what you are saying strikes home to me, and I agree with you, for our statesmen, all but a few, do appear to be quite uneducated.

SOCRATES: What is the inference?

ALCIBIADES: Why, that if they were educated they would be trained athletes, and he who means to rival them ought to have knowledge and experience when he attacks them; but now, as they have become politicians without any special training, why should I have the trouble of learning and practising? For I know well that by the light of nature I shall get the better of them.

SOCRATES: My dear friend, what a sentiment! And how unworthy of your noble form and your high estate!

ALCIBIADES: What do you mean, Socrates; why do you say so?

SOCRATES: I am grieved when I think of our mutual love.

ALCIBIADES: At what?

SOCRATES: At your fancying that the contest on which you are entering is with people here.

ALCIBIADES: Why, what others are there?

SOCRATES: Is that a question which a magnanimous soul should ask?

ALCIBIADES: Do you mean to say that the contest is not with these?

SOCRATES: And suppose that you were going to steer a ship into action, would you only aim at being the best pilot on board? Would you not, while acknowledging that you must possess this degree of excellence, rather look to your antagonists, and not, as you are now doing, to your fellow combatants? You ought to be so far above these latter, that they will not even dare to be your rivals; and, being regarded by you as inferiors, will do battle for you against the enemy; this is the kind of superiority which you must establish over them, if you mean to accomplish any noble action really worthy of yourself and of the state.

ALCIBIADES: That would certainly be my aim.

SOCRATES: Verily, then, you have good reason to be satisfied, if you are better than the soldiers; and you need not, when you are their superior and have your thoughts and actions fixed upon them, look away to the generals of the enemy.

ALCIBIADES: Of whom are you speaking, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Why, you surely know that our city goes to war now and then with the Lacedaemonians and with the great king?

ALCIBIADES: True enough.

SOCRATES: And if you meant to be the ruler of this city, would you not be right in considering that the Lacedaemonian and Persian king were your true rivals?

ALCIBIADES: I believe that you are right.

SOCRATES: Oh no, my friend, I am quite wrong, and I think that you ought rather to turn your attention to Midias the quail-breeder and others like him, who manage our politics; in whom, as the women would remark, you may still see the slaves’ cut of hair, cropping out in their minds as well as on their pates; and they come with their barbarous lingo to flatter us and not to rule us. To these, I say, you should look, and then you need not trouble yourself about your own fitness to contend in such a noble arena: there is no reason why you should either learn what has to be learned, or practise what has to be practised, and only when thoroughly prepared enter on a political career.

ALCIBIADES: There, I think, Socrates, that you are right; I do not suppose, however, that the Spartan generals or the great king are really different from anybody else.

SOCRATES: But, my dear friend, do consider what you are saying.

ALCIBIADES: What am I to consider?

SOCRATES: In the first place, will you be more likely to take care of yourself, if you are in a wholesome fear and dread of them, or if you are not?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly, if I have such a fear of them.

SOCRATES: And do you think that you will sustain any injury if you take care of yourself?

ALCIBIADES: No, I shall be greatly benefited.

SOCRATES: And this is one very important respect in which that notion of yours is bad.

ALCIBIADES: True.

SOCRATES: In the next place, consider that what you say is probably false.

ALCIBIADES: How so?

SOCRATES: Let me ask you whether better natures are likely to be found in noble races or not in noble races?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly in noble races.

SOCRATES: Are not those who are well born and well bred most likely to be perfect in virtue?

ALCIBIADES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then let us compare our antecedents with those of the Lacedaemonian and Persian kings; are they inferior to us in descent? Have we not heard that the former are sprung from Heracles, and the latter from Achaemenes, and that the race of Heracles and the race of Achaemenes go back to Perseus, son of Zeus?

ALCIBIADES: Why, so does mine go back to Eurysaces, and he to Zeus!

SOCRATES: And mine, noble Alcibiades, to Daedalus, and he to Hephaestus, son of Zeus. But, for all that, we are far inferior to them. For they are descended ‘from Zeus,’ through a line of kings—either kings of Argos and Lacedaemon, or kings of Persia, a country which the descendants of Achaemenes have always possessed, besides being at various times sovereigns of Asia, as they now are; whereas, we and our fathers were but private persons. How ridiculous would you be thought if you were to make a display of your ancestors and of Salamis the island of Eurysaces, or of Aegina, the habitation of the still more ancient Aeacus, before Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes. You should consider how inferior we are to them both in the derivation of our birth and in other particulars. Did you never observe how great is the property of the Spartan kings? And their wives are under the guardianship of the Ephori, who are public officers and watch over them, in order to preserve as far as possible the purity of the Heracleid blood. Still greater is the difference among the Persians; for no one entertains a suspicion that the father of a prince of Persia can be any one but the king. Such is the awe which invests the person of the queen, that any other guard is needless. And when the heir of the kingdom is born, all the subjects of the king feast; and the day of his birth is for ever afterwards kept as a holiday and time of sacrifice by all Asia; whereas, when you and I were born, Alcibiades, as the comic poet says, the neighbours hardly knew of the important event. After the birth of the royal child, he is tended, not by a good-for-nothing woman-nurse, but by the best of the royal eunuchs, who are charged with the care of him, and especially with the fashioning and right formation of his limbs, in order that he may be as shapely as possible; which being their calling, they are held in great honour. And when the young prince is seven years old he is put upon a horse and taken to the riding-masters, and begins to go out hunting. And at fourteen years of age he is handed over to the royal schoolmasters, as they are termed: these are four chosen men, reputed to be the best among the Persians of a certain age; and one of them is the wisest, another the justest, a third the most temperate, and a fourth the most valiant. The first instructs him in the magianism of Zoroaster, the son of Oromasus, which is the worship of the Gods, and teaches him also the duties of his royal office; the second, who is the justest, teaches him always to speak the truth; the third, or most temperate, forbids him to allow any pleasure to be lord over him, that he may be accustomed to be a freeman and king indeed,—lord of himself first, and not a slave; the most valiant trains him to be bold and fearless, telling him that if he fears he is to deem himself a slave; whereas Pericles gave you, Alcibiades, for a tutor Zopyrus the Thracian, a slave of his who was past all other work. I might enlarge on the nurture and education of your rivals, but that would be tedious; and what I have said is a sufficient sample of what remains to be said. I have only to remark, by way of contrast, that no one cares about your birth or nurture or education, or, I may say, about that of any other Athenian, unless he has a lover who looks after him. And if you cast an eye on the wealth, the luxury, the garments with their flowing trains, the anointings with myrrh, the multitudes of attendants, and all the other bravery of the Persians, you will be ashamed when you discern your own inferiority; or if you look at the temperance and orderliness and ease and grace and magnanimity and courage and endurance and love of toil and desire of glory and ambition of the Lacedaemonians—in all these respects you will see that you are but a child in comparison of them. Even in the matter of wealth, if you value yourself upon that, I must reveal to you how you stand; for if you form an estimate of the wealth of the Lacedaemonians, you will see that our possessions fall far short of theirs. For no one here can compete with them either in the extent and fertility of their own and the Messenian territory, or in the number of their slaves, and especially of the Helots, or of their horses, or of the animals which feed on the Messenian pastures. But I have said enough of this: and as to gold and silver, there is more of them in Lacedaemon than in all the rest of Hellas, for during many generations gold has been always flowing in to them from the whole Hellenic world, and often from the barbarian also, and never going out, as in the fable of Aesop the fox said to the lion, ‘The prints of the feet of those going in are distinct enough;’ but who ever saw the trace of money going out of Lacedaemon? And therefore you may safely infer that the inhabitants are the richest of the Hellenes in gold and silver, and that their kings are the richest of them, for they have a larger share of these things, and they have also a tribute paid to them which is very considerable. Yet the Spartan wealth, though great in comparison of the wealth of the other Hellenes, is as nothing in comparison of that of the Persians and their kings. Why, I have been informed by a credible person who went up to the king (at Susa), that he passed through a large tract of excellent land, extending for nearly a day’s journey, which the people of the country called the queen’s girdle, and another, which they called her veil; and several other fair and fertile districts, which were reserved for the adornment of the queen, and are named after her several habiliments. Now, I cannot help thinking to myself, What if some one were to go to Amestris, the wife of Xerxes and mother of Artaxerxes, and say to her, There is a certain Dinomache, whose whole wardrobe is not worth fifty minae—and that will be more than the value—and she has a son who is possessed of a three-hundred acre patch at Erchiae, and he has a mind to go to war with your son—would she not wonder to what this Alcibiades trusts for success in the conflict? ‘He must rely,’ she would say to herself, ‘upon his training and wisdom—these are the things which Hellenes value.’ And if she heard that this Alcibiades who is making the attempt is not as yet twenty years old, and is wholly uneducated, and when his lover tells him that he ought to get education and training first, and then go and fight the king, he refuses, and says that he is well enough as he is, would she not be amazed, and ask ‘On what, then, does the youth rely?’ And if we replied: He relies on his beauty, and stature, and birth, and mental endowments, she would think that we were mad, Alcibiades, when she compared the advantages which you possess with those of her own people. And I believe that even Lampido, the daughter of Leotychides, the wife of Archidamus and mother of Agis, all of whom were kings, would have the same feeling; if, in your present uneducated state, you were to turn your thoughts against her son, she too would be equally astonished. But how disgraceful, that we should not have as high a notion of what is required in us as our enemies’ wives and mothers have of the qualities which are required in their assailants! O my friend, be persuaded by me, and hear the Delphian inscription, ‘Know thyself’—not the men whom you think, but these kings are our rivals, and we can only overcome them by pains and skill. And if you fail in the required qualities, you will fail also in becoming renowned among Hellenes and Barbarians, which you seem to desire more than any other man ever desired anything.

ALCIBIADES: I entirely believe you; but what are the sort of pains which are required, Socrates,—can you tell me?

SOCRATES: Yes, I can; but we must take counsel together concerning the manner in which both of us may be most improved. For what I am telling you of the necessity of education applies to myself as well as to you; and there is only one point in which I have an advantage over you.

ALCIBIADES: What is that?

SOCRATES: I have a guardian who is better and wiser than your guardian, Pericles.

ALCIBIADES: Who is he, Socrates?

SOCRATES: God, Alcibiades, who up to this day has not allowed me to converse with you; and he inspires in me the faith that I am especially designed to bring you to honour.

ALCIBIADES: You are jesting, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Perhaps, at any rate, I am right in saying that all men greatly need pains and care, and you and I above all men.

ALCIBIADES: You are not far wrong about me.

SOCRATES: And certainly not about myself.

ALCIBIADES: But what can we do?

SOCRATES: There must be no hesitation or cowardice, my friend.

ALCIBIADES: That would not become us, Socrates.

Insomnia and Giving Thanks

We’re used to things working as we want them to, most of the time, but there’s a lot of stuff that could go wrong at any given moment. In a sense, it’s a miracle that anything ever works. When things go wrong, it’s frustrating, but it also reminds us how remarkable it is that we can usually count on things going right. I feel like I’m experiencing that right now, as I deal with one of my occasional bouts of insomnia.

Every few months, I have a week or so during which I have trouble sleeping. I go to bed and can’t fall asleep for hours, and then I wake up long before my alarm. As far as I can tell, it’s worse during the summer months, perhaps because of the longer days. At these times, I’m reminded of how little control I have over those things that are most important to me. When I can’t fall asleep, I can’t fall asleep, and that’s all there is to it. There is nothing that I can do.

Of course, it’s agonizing. I’m too tired to do anything except sleep, but for whatever reason, I can’t sleep either. All I can do is wait for morning and hope that I fare better tomorrow night. I hate this feeling.

I thank God, though, that this isn’t what it’s like every night. I thank God all the more that I only suffer from insomnia every once in a while, and that most nights I sleep just fine. After all, what right have I to expect a good night’s sleep? I have no such right. Every moment of rest is a freely given gift of God.

When I grow accustomed to things being easy, to getting what I want when I want it, I start to regard God’s many gifts as my due. Having these things taken away from me for a time reminds me that I am owed nothing. I am reminded to be grateful for God’s many gifts when those gifts are temporarily taken away. And I’m reminded to ask God for what I need, too.

So I’ll be praying that God will grant me the ability to fall asleep. I’ll also be praying that, when he does take my insomnia away, he reminds me to be thankful to him for doing so. In fact, even this momentary deprivation of sleep is a means of God’s grace, as it is driving me back towards him. So I thank God for my insomnia, too, even as I pray for him to take it away.

Someone Else’s Words

If you listen carefully to yourself, you might be surprised to find that you do not understand many of the things you say. People borrow phrases from others, and in doing so, they borrow thoughts. But when you do this without understanding the thought and making it your own, you’re borrowing the thought, not as a thought, but as a tool. You need to understand a thought to incorporate it into your belief system, but you don’t need to understand it to use it to get what you want in the world. The problem is that when you adopt a thought without mastering it, so to speak, it will master you. As Carl Jung said, “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.”

For this reason, I’m highly skeptical of easily chantable phrases. Examples of these phrases include “trans rights are human rights,” “hate speech isn’t free speech,” and “lock her up.” It’s easy to shout these words or put them on a sign, but it’s not so easy to figure out exactly what is meant by them. But because they have that quality of chantability, you can use them as weapons against your ideological opponents without reckoning with the thoughts which they express.

It’s not just chants that are a problem. Even a less pithy phrase can become a linguistic unit whose meaning is never clearly defined. For instance, evangelical Christians might speak of “asking Christ into your heart” without quite knowing what this phrase means, or where it comes from. Indeed, it seems to me that evangelicals regard a great number of theologically dubious phrases as being somehow derived from scripture. As a result, the ideas represented by these phrases infect the minds of the members of the congregation.

If you find yourself resorting to a few ready-made phrases in certain situations, then you might have borrowed them from someone, who might have borrowed them from someone else, etc. Who knows where the thought originated? Perhaps in the mind of God, or perhaps in the depths of Hell. In any case, examine it and trace it back to its beginning. Figure out why you think what you think and determine whether the words you’re saying express a good thought. Otherwise, you’re just enslaving yourself to an idea that is not your own, making yourself a mouthpiece for someone else’s words.

The Real Counter-Culture

I think there’s a general sense in the American evangelical church that Christians are supposed to be counter-cultural. I think this is correct. What else could holiness entail? We are to be set apart from what is around us, just as the Israelites were to be set apart from the pagans that surrounded them.

Where I disagree with a lot of evangelicals is on what being counter-cultural entails. I had breakfast with a friend this morning, and he mentioned a book he was reading, called Reset. The book is by this guy, Nick Hall, who founded an organization called Pulse. It’s a student-led evangelistic organization that mostly operates on college campuses. Another campus ministry. These campus ministries seem to be breeding grounds for a view of Christian living that I view as well-intentioned, but mostly wrong in addition to being a clear reflection of the current culture in middle-class America.

There seems to be a dichotomy for people involved in these ministries between ordinary and extraordinary living. Ordinary living is comfortable, or normal, perhaps. Extraordinary living requires taking big steps of faith, doing things that are too big for you to do without God’s help. For example, you could start a campus ministry and hope that it spreads across the country. Or you could become a missionary and go to some unreached country and spread the gospel. You know, the big stuff, the exciting stuff, the radical stuff.

Funnily enough, though, this way of thinking is basically the same as the way non-Christian young people think. Everybody is all about building movements and changing the world (even if we can’t keep our rooms clean). We’re entrepreneurial. We don’t want desk jobs at huge corporations. We want to start businesses and non-profits, to take risks that might end in failure, but also might not. We want to share our stories in order to influence minds and hearts for whatever gospel it is we’re purveying at any given time (whether it’s feminism, basic income, or fair-trade coffee). We like big ideas and big achievements.

Big Christian ideas and big Christian achievements aren’t really all that different from their secular counterparts. There’s nothing wrong with starting a campus ministry, nor is there anything wrong with starting a business, but neither of these things is essential to a good life, Christian or otherwise. The idea that you need to shoot for these fancy accomplishments is what Anthony Bradley, one of my former professors, calls “the New Legalism.”

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

I share in his amazement. Because if you pay attention, it becomes pretty obvious that this is the new normal for non-Christians as well as Christians. Avoid anything that might be perceived as stagnation at all costs. That’s the goal of today’s young people. Keep moving, don’t get married, don’t have kids, do cool stuff for your career, and have a killer Instagram account.

Wouldn’t it be far more counter-cultural if young Christians chose to get married and settle in “ordinary” communities? If we chose to invest in what is most immediate to us for rewards that may never be recognized by outsiders, wouldn’t that fly in the face of the narcissistic spirit of the age? And doesn’t it require just as much faith to maintain a marriage and raise children as it does to start a national campus ministry? People kind of suck at staying married, and they also suck at raising kids. If Christians could do both of those things well, that would be pretty revolutionary.

There is so much pride wrapped up in this evangelical obsession with doing remarkable things, and that’s why it isn’t truly counter-cultural. Christians, first and foremost, need to learn humility before God. We need to recognize that, in the scheme of things, we are dust. And we need to be okay with that. Our lives are a gift from God, and we are to humbly receive them from him as a gift, even if we don’t view them as particularly exciting compared with those of our more “radical” counterparts. We need to be more open to seeing the grace of God manifested in things we consider dull or boring. Because it is there, and you’re not rejecting the grace of God by choosing to live an “ordinary” life.

Why are we so short-sighted? We have adopted the surrounding culture’s standard of a good life and we don’t even know it! My hope is that God opens our eyes to what we’re actually doing, that we see how we are often pursuing our own glory with vain projects, trying to find a kind of fulfillment apart from God himself. How easily this preoccupation with living the “extraordinary” life becomes a form of idolatry!

It is certainly possible that God wants to use you in “huge” ways. He might want to use you to reach thousands of people with the gospel, or he might want to use you to provide aid to those who are needy around the globe. It’s very possible, however, that he has something much less glamorous in store for you, like child-rearing, a 9-to-5 job, a modest suburban community, a modest house, a modest car. But this is still God’s grace. Do what you can with what God gives you and praise him for choosing to give you anything at all. Humbly accept the burdens God has placed upon you and bear them. Submit to his yoke. God has decided to make you a part of his grand plan, and that is pretty amazing, no matter how “small” your role may appear to you right now.