The Meaning of Life

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What is the meaning of life? Are you curious? Would you like to know? Can a single blog post solve this great philosophical and existential puzzle?!?

Well, I object to the premise of the question. An individual life can have meaning, and the things that occur to a person during the course of life can have meaning, but seeking “the” meaning to this vague and amorphous concept of “life” is doomed to non-specificity from the start. Now the purpose of human existence on this earth, or the goal of life we should seek to accomplish… those are different ideas and more answerable.

Now, the reason why God created humanity in the first place and the marching orders he originally gave the species can be and have been addressed elsewhere, but in our post-fall / pre-heaven parenthetical existence, what is the purpose of our ongoing life now? Why this multi-millennium span of human imperfection and suffering as all creation groans under sin, curse, death, and depravity? (see Romans 8:22) This life indeed, as Martin Luther put it, is a vale of tears. If it is within God’s present power and long-term plan of salvation history to right every wrong and wipe away every tear, what’s the hold up? For that matter, why not provide atonement for sin immediately after Adam and Eve initially transgressed and save us all the heartache?

The Purpose of Existence

Let me pose this question: how can free will and a perfect world exist at the same time? In our fallen state, man-made attempts at Utopia routinely end up in despotism. From a spiritual perspective, if free will exists, then a person is always free to choose something other than God’s perfect parameters for creation. Either free will cannot exist (and I hold limited free will to be a self-evident truth) or the risk of an imperfect world must always endure (which is not God’s stated intention per scripture).

The only solution I see is to create a world where free will exists, and then select all those who freely choose to do good and follow God’s design to live in a rebooted world. And more than that, these individuals use their free will to seek to have the nature of their character permanently changed by God! Christians, once awoken, yearn to be free from their corrupted sin nature and to experience the glorious transformation and relational eternity promised in scripture.

Some verses that point to this overall conceptualization:

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us,” (Acts 17:26-27).

“For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his,” (2 Chronicles 16:9a).

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous,” (Matthew 13: 47-49).

God seems to be building a family of free-willed image bearers who freely choose enduring loyalty and believing allegiance to him.

The Goal of Life

Such a purpose to existence, although impacting our eternal destiny, might be viewed passively, as set by God and residing external to ourselves. We don’t have to do anything for the purpose to be what it is. But what is the ultimate goal for us? What do we aim at and how do we orient our lives? As Chuck Colson said, how now shall we live?

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famed Hierarchy of Needs model posited that Self-Actualization was the highest need of man to be achieved. Although never a Christian, Maslow began to critique his own work toward the end of his career and wrote and spoke publicly about the need to add an additional stage to his model: that of Self-Transcendence. This was based on his observations of altruism and varieties of religious experience. As a Christian I would say that Self-Actualization is certainly not man’s highest achievement or goal, and Self-Transcendence, while crucial, is too religiously universal. Also, rather than Self-Transcendence being a stage only reachable after Self-Actualization, I believe the self can be transcended at every point on Maslow’s Hierarchy.

I appreciate a lot of theologian John Hick’s early work, and elements of his soul-building theodicy ring true. God is a master craftsman at work, desiring to improve the souls of all who are his. There is a sense that God is progressively sanctifying us through his Spirit, through Christian teaching, through circumstances and suffering, through pruning and discipline, etc. As much as we allow him to work in our lives and submit to his leading, we will morally progress; others may enter the eternal state with little to show from their time on Earth (1 Corinthians 3:15).

The ultimate goal of all spiritual formation efforts, as Dallas Willard argues in Renovation of the Heart and Larry Crabb does similarly in Effective Biblical Counseling, is the imitation of Christ. Achieving Christlikeness or ‘putting on the character of Christ’ is the guiding light that beckons us down the narrow path, but an accomplishment we will never fully attain this side of the eschaton. It is in heaven alone that we see “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). With soul-building in mind, it is irrelevant that we cannot achieve moral perfection in this life; the love and pursuit of God’s goodness will continuously pay off as long as we are making forward progress toward the destination.

Importantly, this is not based in legalism or motivated by self-righteousness, but obedience to Christ’s call. Jesus challenges his disciples to “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48) and, in the Great Commission, sends them out to, in part, teach others to obey “everything” that he taught (Matthew 28:20). For me, the goal of life can be summed up in eight words. It is my motto, my slogan, my creed, my lodestar.

Fulfill the Law of Christ no matter what

The Law of Christ is understood by me as the ‘two greatest commandments’ discussed by Jesus in all three synoptic gospels:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, see also: Mark 12:29-31 and Luke 10:27).

There you have it. Two rules that fulfill the whole of what was written in 2/3 of the Old Testament, including the 613 civil, ceremonial, and moral laws observed by ethnic Israel’s ancient theocratic society. But now comes the ‘no matter what’ piece, and I can’t emphasize it enough.

If you were born in desperate poverty: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born wealthy: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born disabled or handicapped: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born in perfect health: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you are a high school dropout: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have a PhD in astrophysics: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have been cheated, mistreated, abused, imprisoned, abandoned, or persecuted: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have participated in great criminality in your past: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have tragically lost everything and everyone in your life: fulfill the Law of Christ.

The call to follow and imitate Jesus, fulfilling the two greatest commandments, is the great equalizer, and every living soul is without excuse or pardon from this sacred charge.

The Paradox of Christian Environmentalism

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On many political and social issues, there is often a predictable split between traditional / conservative and so-called progressive wings of the Christian church, at least for certain denominations. Environmental activism, pursuit of clean energy, and concerns about climate change tend to be found more among the ‘Christian Left.’ Liberal-minded Christians emphasize the role of humanity as caretakers and stewards of God’s creation while conservative-minded Christians emphasize the call for humanity to exercise dominion over creation. The former are accused of worshiping a false god of Mother Nature; the latter of raping the Earth and denying science.

Paradoxically, both sides are wrong and right. Where the Christian environmentalists err is in failing to realize the total eschatological destruction of the creation they are trying to preserve. Scripture is clear that “the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire” (2 Peter 3:7) and that “the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). Again, “the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!” (2 Peter 3:12). Some physicists argue that our universe is permeated by an ocean of Higgs field. If the value or energy state of that Higgs field changes, the Biblical scenario referenced above would indeed happen.

So no matter how hard we work to preserve the environment now, all of it will inevitably be erased from existence. The Great Barrier Reef? Gone. The Amazon Rainforest? Obliterated. The African Elephant? Extinct.

But the ultimate promise is of new heavens and a new earth, a return to the paradisiacal Edenic state – Earth 2.0, if you will. Although all physical matter in the entire universe in this current stage of reality will be gone, yet we are told that the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the future heavenly city of God on the renewed planet (Revelation 21:26). But what glory and honor will remain if everything is wiped out? The Mona Lisa and Crown Jewels won’t be around. Godiva chocolate won’t be there either. What is this verse referring to?

I interpret this in part to mean that the knowledge and expertise Christians gain in this life will be carried over and useful in the age to come. Although the skyscrapers we build will not endure, our engineering and construction experience will. Although our spaceships and satellites will be long gone, our understanding of astrophysics and rocket science will be preserved. Although your favorite pizza place won’t be there, our understanding of making incredible, authentic Neapolitan-style pizza will endure (if anyone with that knowledge makes it into heaven). This same principle applies to environmentalism.

Christians should become experts in clean and renewable energy and sustainability now, because that knowledge is going to hugely benefit us in the life to come. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Who wants to be told to stay out of the ocean due to high bacteria levels? Who wants to walk around their city wearing a breathing mask because of air pollution? Who wants to suffer the consequences of radiation poisoning when a nuclear reactor fails? Who wants to see a Garden of Eden paved to make room for gaudy strip-malls? If you love fishing, sustainable fishing matters to you. If you love books, you are going to want sustainable forestry for the printing of paper. If we have the opportunity of Earth 2.0, let’s get it right from the start, especially if we are going to live there forever.

What is the Bible, really?

Opening of The Shrine of the book, Israel Museum

I often like to remind my readers that theology is the “science of God.” Scripture, found in the Bible, is the primary data source we analyze in the pursuit of supporting or falsifying theological hypotheses. The normative or binding Special Revelation of the Bible is primary (although it may be bolstered by data gleaned from General Revelation and non-binding Special Revelation). But what is the Bible?

At times our culture takes it for granted. We walk past the sensory-overload of options on the shelves of bookstores, ignore the copies placed by the Gideons in the drawers of hotel rooms, and have long forgot where those pocket-sized, orange New Testaments went that some street evangelist handed us years ago. Believing and unbelieving politicians alike are sworn in on them. They line the backs of church pews and lay open superstitiously in some dusty relative’s house. A hundred different English translations are available online for free at the click of a button.

But what is this book, really?

Well, it is not a book at all. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six different documents (in the Protestant canon most familiar to us), written by no fewer than forty human contributors, across the span of some 1,500 years, in three different languages.

These diverse writings encompass many different genres and forms: creation stories, history, genealogy, narrative, law, covenantal agreements, song lyrics, wisdom literature, prophecy, erotic poetry, apocalyptic, gospel, epistle, and more. Some ‘books’ of the Bible are brief letters written from one individual to another, while another ‘book’ may symbolically and/or literally describe the future end of the entire universe.

Yet these laws, prophecies, and writings are tied together by some crucial factors. First, the collection tends to follow the nation of Israel in general, and more specifically the genealogical family lineage of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and, later, the effects of his ministry and the actions of his followers. Second, many sections purport to be records of Divine Speech. A writer will often record a supernatural encounter that happened at such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time, in which the writer will be commanded to “write down these words.”

The Old Testament depends on the testimony of recognized prophets, persons commissioned by God to be his messengers. Likewise, the New Testament rests on the concept of apostolicity, that all of the contributors were eye-witnesses of Jesus Christ. All of these documents were recognized fairly early as authoritative and legitimate by their respective audiences, with other writings being excluded for not passing the sniff test.

Despite the span of geography and time, and the complexity of writing, editing, transmitting, collecting, preserving, and ultimately translating these supernaturally-themed works, Christians recognize the final product now known simply as the Bible as being both a human book and a divine book. There are many terms that can be used, including ‘inspired,’ ‘authoritative,’ ‘inerrant,’ and so on. That may lead to confusion for the uninitiated, because the Bible at times inerrantly quotes from non-inerrant sources, and our best manuscripts might actually have missing pieces (see: 1 Samuel 13:1)!

One concept I like to focus on is that of ‘inscripturation,’ which is to say that our closed canon of scripture contains everything that God wanted it to contain and nothing that God did not want it to contain. The Bible is a collection of literature, the creation of which God superintended, sometimes even having his literal speech recorded word for word. To the extent that we can find the most accurate manuscripts, being closest to the original, ancient-language autographs, and seek to understand them through the best linguistic, archaeological, and cultural study tools available, we have access to an amazingly invaluable resource.

Support my Mission Trip to Japan!

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I am seeking to raise support for a short-term mission trip to Japan at the end of July of this year. Although I have a deep love for Japan and it has been a lifelong dream to visit, this is not a vacation or sightseeing excursion, but rather a working trip to support and encourage a young, growing Christian church. In connection with Carolina Lighthouse Ministries and Discipleship International church, I will travel with a small team to the Ishikawa Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the main island of Honshu. We will be sleeping on the floor of the church at night and rolling up our sleeves during the day!

Japan has been historically resistant to Christianity, with periods of violent persecution of both foreign and domestic believers. Even today, Shintoism and Buddhism dominate the spiritual landscape. Current estimates are that only 1% to 1.5% of the country’s population is Christian. Compare this to Syria, which is 10% Christian! The good news is that God loves the Japanese people. I am praying for an awakening!

The $2,000 I am seeking to raise will go toward roundtrip airfare and passport fees, with whatever is left going toward basic day-to-day expenses. I am spending the next six months immersing myself in the Japanese language and prayerfully considering what message God might have for me to share to encourage my Japanese brothers and sisters. Thank you for your support!

“And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” – Matthew 10:42

gofundme.com/c4xsb-mission-trip-to-japan

Simulated Worlds and Harmonizing the Age of the Earth

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Elon Musk believes that we live inside of an advanced computer simulation. Spoiler alert: we don’t. However, the concept of the simulated universe is a useful tool, perhaps the tool, to drive the next leap of theological advancement. See my related posts here, here, and here.

This is not dissimilar to other secular origin theories that have arisen out of skepticism and dissatisfaction with traditional Darwinian evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and philosophical naturalism that can actually be leveraged in favor of Christian creation theories. For example, Directed Panspermia is a theory that early lifeforms were deliberately transported and planted on Earth by advanced beings (extraterrestrials). Compare this to the Christian concept of life being purposefully created on Earth by an advanced being (God). Another example, The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time theory basically argues, “that our universe may have emerged from a black hole in a higher-dimensional universe.” Compare this to the Christian concept of matter and energy appearing in nothingness, originating from a higher-dimensional source outside of our physical universe.

But I digress. The age of the Earth is a point of Christian contention between Old-Earth Creationists and Young-Earth Creationists and, at times, between Christians and non-Christian scientists. In my current thinking, the only two coherent arguments that have been advanced which satisfy evidence found in both General and Special revelation is the Day-Age Theory and the Ideal-Age Theory (or Apparent-Age Theory) of creation. The Day-Age Theory states that each day or “yom” of creation is really a period of time, so that creation is then completed in six periods of time or stages rather than literal 24-hour days in a calendar week. The Ideal-Age Theory states that the universe was created with all the hallmarks of age: Adam had the body of an adult male, trees had rings, distant stars as well as the light particles between them and the Earth were created simultaneously, etc. For a good discussion from Wayne Grudem on this debate, go here. Both views have adamant advocates and detractors, and neither are without difficulties.

Using the concepts of Simulated Worlds or Simulated Universes, we can actually harmonize these two conflicting views. Let’s look at the world generating process of the computer game, Dwarf Fortress. I am pulling the next section whole cloth from Wikipedia:

The first step in Dwarf Fortress is generating a playable world; only one game can be played per world at a time. The player can adjust certain parameters governing size, savagery, mineral occurrences and the length of history. The map shows symbols representing roads, hills, towns and cities of the various civilizations, and it changes as the generation progresses.

The process involves procedurally-generated basic elements like elevation, rainfall, mineral distribution, drainage and temperature. For example, a high-rainfall and low-drainage area would make a swamp. Areas are thus categorized into biomes, which have two variables: savagery and alignment. They have their own specific type of plant and animal populations. The next phase is erosion—which the drainage simulates. Rivers are created by tracing their paths from the mountains (which get eroded) to its end which is usually an ocean; some form into lakes. The salinity field defines oceans, mangroves or alluvial plains. Names are generated for the biomes and rivers. The names depend on the area’s good/evil variable (the alignment) and though in English, they are originally in one of the four in-game languages of dwarves, elves, humans and goblins; these are the four main races in any generated world.

 After a few minutes the world is populated and its history develops for the amount of in-game years selected in the history parameter. Civilizations, races and religions spread and wars occur, with the “population” and “deaths” counters increasing. The ticker stops at the designated “years” value, at which point the world can be saved for use in any game mode. Should the player choose to retire a fortress or gets defeated, this world will persist and will become available for further games.

So, here you have an example of a simulated world that does not pop up instantly, but rather develops algorithmically and procedurally. But this process, which covers an incredible stretch of in-game time, takes only a few minutes of outside-game time or real time. To put it another way, in our higher-dimensional world, we experience the acceleration of lower-dimensional time for a set period, and then a more normalized lower-dimensional passage of time when the world generation ends and the game begins.

So, a harmonization of the Day-Age and Ideal-Age theories of Christian creation might be as follows. During the process of creation, the universe did not appear pre-fabricated, but rather developed procedurally. For example, light emitted from distant stars had to travel through the vacuum of space, the Grand Canyon slowly eroded, etc. However, all of these events occurred at an accelerated pace. We might say that a higher-dimensional measure of time (the Transcendent Time’s Arrow? Multiversal Standard Speed?), was increased, while all the processes remained at the same relative speed to one another within the physical universe. For example, the speed of light stayed the same relative to other physical processes, such as radioactive decay, but all were greatly accelerated relative to a measure of time external to this physical universe.

In this way, you could have what would ordinarily take millions of years accomplished in a much shorter period of time, and the higher-dimensional acceleration would go unnoticed in the lower-dimensional world because of in-universe relativity. I am not saying that I personally hold to this view, but hey, if an old PC running Windows 98 with 256 ram can do it, why not God?

How Socrates Taught Me to Trust Jesus With My Money

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Growing up as a preacher’s kid, the importance of tithing eluded me. My tithe money to the church would help pay the salary of my dad, who would then give me money for allowance, from which I would then tithe, which would pay for the salary of my dad… To my young and self-absorbed mind, it seemed like an unnecessary financial loop.

Of course, as I became a follower of Jesus at age 19 and realized the importance of obedience and prioritizing God above other things, my attitudes shifted. Still, although I have surrendered many things and experienced great change and positive growth through my maturing Christianity, truly trusting God with my money was always just out of reach. Fear or selfishness would often win. The most obvious area where this would play out is tithing.

Financial immaturity or foolish mismanagement? Scale down on the tithing a bit this month. No need to be legalistically bound to an exact 10%! Unexpected medical bill? Oops, well I guess I “have no choice” but to skip tithe this month. After all, God, you could have prevented that trip to the ER if you wanted! Need extra money to buy Christmas presents for my ever expanding circle of friends, family, in-laws, co-workers, and acquaintances? Well, it’s for a good cause – celebrating the birth of Christ and sharing with others (rationalize, rationalize, rationalize).

Many Christians and many sermons focus on the second half of Malachi 3:10, “test me now in this,” says Yahweh of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.” Not as much focus is placed on the imperative at the beginning, the command to, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house…”

The longer I was a Christian, and the more steps to financial maturity and financial oneness with my spouse I took, the more my failure to consistently tithe a full 10% troubled me. I would go long periods of doing really well, and then blow it. Sometimes during those good stretches God would clearly bless my obedience and other times he would not. I began to realize what this signified about me – I really didn’t trust that God would be there for me and have my back, at least in this area. Or I would give up control only later to take it back. It also highlighted a core belief that I have carried for a long time – “I can ultimately only rely on myself to get my needs met.”

But one day, Socrates made it all come together. What? How did this ancient, non-Christian (pre-Christian) philosopher from Greece help me trust Jesus with my money? For a few years I have been teaching classes on the Seven Christian Virtues, the first four Cardinal Virtues originating in ethical Greek philosophy. One quote from Socrates that would always start off the series of classes would be, “It is not living that matters, but living rightly.” One day I decided to actually research the context of that quote, which led me to Crito, a dialogue captured by Plato between Socrates and Crito on the subject of justice:

Socrates
Then, most excellent friend, we must not consider at all what the many will say of us, but what he who knows about right and wrong, the one man, and truth herself will say. And so you introduced the discussion wrongly in the first place, when you began by saying we ought to consider the opinion of the multitude about the right and the noble and the good and their opposites. But it might, of course, be said that the multitude can put us to death.

Crito
That is clear, too. It would be said, Socrates.

Socrates
That is true. But, my friend, the argument we have just finished seems to me still much the same as before; and now see whether we still hold to this, or not, that it is not living, but living well which we ought to consider most important.

Crito
We do hold to it.

Socrates
And that living well and living rightly are the same thing, do we hold to that, or not?

Crito
We do.

As I used this excerpt to expound on that initiatory quote for my virtues class, a deeper truth dawned on me. Living well and living rightly are indeed the same thing. Here in America, very few people think of living well and living rightly as being the same. After all, we were raised on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, try to keep up with the Jones’s, are exposed to thousands of advertising messages a day designed to make us feel discontent, and stress over first-world problems on a regular basis.

I needed to radically shift my perspective.

If I faithfully pay the whole tithe, and have to eat ramen noodles and peanut butter all week, that is living well. If I faithfully pay the whole tithe and am not able to buy a single Christmas present this year, that is living well. If I am late on a power bill or have to work extra jobs to make ends meet, but I faithfully pay the whole tithe, that is living well! If I have to move my entire family into a one-bedroom apartment in an unglamorous part of town, but I am 100% obedient to God, that is truly a life lived well!

And now, for the first time in my life, I am truly and completely trusting God with my money.

Popcorn – Your New Favorite Card Game

A couple years ago I was introduced to a fun, pick-up-and-play, multiplayer card game with an exciting mix of tactics and chance. It was being called ‘Flip It’ and was all the rage in the residential treatment facility in which I worked. However, I could find no external record of this card game’s existence. After many, many hours of personal interviews and internet research, I discovered that Flip It was a variant of a game called Moonshine – that edgier name being softened in certain North Carolina religious summer camps.

If you are spending time with loved ones over this holiday season and have a deck of cards handy, Popcorn (a re-branding of Flip It that pays tribute to its origins) is a great game for the whole family.

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Popcorn is a competitive, multiplayer card game. It is a fixed variant of a game known as Moonshine, which is a variant of Screw (which is itself perhaps based on a Finnish game called Paskahousu.) Popcorn uses a 54-card deck (standard deck of 52 plus jokers). It is named after Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, the most famous moonshiner in Western North Carolina.

Alternative name(s) Flip It
Type Shedding-type
Players 2+
Skill(s) required Tactics
Age range 12+
Cards 54
Deck Anglo-American
Play Clockwise
Playing time Various
Random chance High

Objective: As a shedding-type card game, the goal is to get rid of all your cards. The first player to do so wins the round.

Setup: A dealer shuffles a deck of 54 cards. Starting with the player to the dealer’s left and continuing clockwise, a total of three face down cards (“the basement”) are placed in front of each player, side by side. A player may not look at these cards. Next, three face up cards are dealt that cover the face down cards, forming “the porch.” Finally, the dealer deals a five card hand to each player. The remaining cards are placed on the table as the draw deck.

First Move: The player to the left of the dealer can play any single card or set (two of a kind, three of a kind, etc.) from their hand onto the table. They must then draw as many cards as it takes from the draw deck to return to a five card hand in order to end their turn.

Play: Play continues clockwise. The next person may now play a card equal to or higher in value than the last played. Multiple cards may be played at a time as long as they are the same value. If a player is unable to play a card, they must take the entire pile into their hand.

Once all cards from a player’s hand and the draw deck are exhausted, a player may use any of the three face up cards on their “porch.” Once the three porch cards are gone, a player may use one of the mysterious face down “basement” cards.

Rules:

  • Aces are high.
  • Playing a 2 resets the value of the pile. You can then play another card or set on top.
  • Playing a 7 forces the next player to play a card or set of lower value.
  • Playing a 10 clears the pile – all the cards, including the 10, are discarded from play.
  • Playing a Joker forces the next player to take the pile and lose a turn. The Joker is discarded.
  • Four of a Kind, no matter how many players contributed, clears the pile just like a 10.

Winning: The player who plays their final card instantly wins the round.

Emotions Are Everything

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It is a cliche that therapists ask the question, “How does that make you feel?” However, one thing I have learned about human motivation after 10 ½ years in the counseling field is that feelings, or rather emotions, are everything. You may be familiar with the behavioral psychology concepts of positive and negative reinforcement, but that is just surface level stuff. The internal mood states experienced by individuals are what really drive behavior and preferences.

That may sound simplistic, sentimental, perhaps even anti-intellectual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Emotions are powerful. Before the cognitive processing abilities of your frontal lobes were developed, before you were able to encode memories using language to assign meaning, you were experiencing the world emotionally, deep within the limbic system of your growing brain. Emotions were shaping your concepts of the world before you even knew you were distinct from the world.

People do things that create or result in positive mood changes. Now, a behavior itself might not be “positive” in and of itself according to certain standards or perspectives, but the individual subjectively experiences the mood change as desirable. When you listen to your favorite music, watch your favorite movie, or eat your favorite food, you experience a mood change. When I drink a cup of coffee, lay in a hammock, or hug my children, I experience positive mood change. The physical markers of this involve surges in neurotransmitters and other physiological responses.

Now, William Glasser observed that while we can directly control our thoughts (cognition) and actions (behavior), we do not have direct control over our emotions or physiology. But we do have indirect control. If somebody is experiencing a negative mood state and finds a way to experience a positive mood change, the reinforcing of that behavior will be magnified. The more powerful the mood change, the more the behavior will be reinforced. A teenager seeing their favorite band in concert and belting along with their favorite songs is experiencing a powerful mood change. A gambling addict pulling the lever of a slot machine experiences a powerful mood change. These are emotional highs.

Of course, other factors such as worldview, core beliefs, core values, temperament, and genetics mediate what we experience as “positive” or “desirable.” An identical behavior will result in “positive” mood change for one person and “negative” mood change in another. For example, somebody may light up a cigarette and feel rebellious, satisfied, cool, connected, and/or energized. If it were me, I would feel unsatisfied, contaminated, unhealthy, and seedy. People who overeat feel full, nurtured, and safe when they indulge in food. People who restrict themselves from food may feel powerful, in control, and confident.

Abandon your simple ‘mad, sad, glad, scared’ list of feeling words and go deep. If you want to start to understand your own behavior better, start to analyze the exact emotions you experience when you engage in that behavior. For example, when I listen to my favorite music, the songs that really do it for me, I tend to feel a combination of mournful, sensuous, validated, and powerful. Get a thesaurus if you need so that you can accurately identify the specific feelings involved in your mood changes.

Divine Wind & Plum Wine

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A couple months ago I walked into a Starbucks and saw a guy studying from a premium Bible at one of the tables. “Is that a Cambridge Clarion?” I blurted to the stranger excitedly. He confirmed that it was. “Nice!” Later, as I saw him hard at work, we began a brief dialogue and I asked him if he was in seminary or perhaps writing a sermon. He told me that he was actually preparing to move to Japan that upcoming Thursday to be a missionary – indefinitely. Wow. Here was a young man setting off on a divine adventure, leaving relationships, home, and native language – doing something courageous that I have only dreamt about doing but cannot due to family, vocational, and financial reasons.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan is 1.5% Christian. That is not a typo. I love the people, the language, the cultural aesthetics, the history, and the food of Japan, but it is one of the spiritually darkest countries on Earth. Despite the many ways that Japan has thrived and prospered, I detect a pattern of fatalism and ennui when examining their pop culture art, which I believe reflects the spiritual undercurrent of the nation.

One recurring theme in Japanese pop culture art is uncontrollable, world-consuming destruction. Perhaps this is a remnant in the cultural consciousness of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla is an obvious symbol. Others include the enveloping headless forest god of Princess Mononoke, the rampaging No-Face spirit in Spirited Away, and the Tokyo and Neo-Tokyo obliterating destructive force of the titular Akira. Another theme is boredom or feelings of emptiness as motivation to engage in violent or extreme actions. Both student Light Yagami and the Shinigami Ryuk cite boredom as contributing to actions that eventually result in mass killing in the manga series Death Note. Not one but two murderous antagonists in the videogame Persona 4 cite boredom / emptiness as reasons for their diabolical actions. Even satirical manga superhero One-Punch Man struggles with the drudgery of lacking meaningful challenge. No wonder. English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple states that people who are bored, alienated, or not spiritually anchored may find that “danger absolves one of the need to deal with a hundred small problems or to make a thousand little choices – danger simplifies existence.”

In March of 2011, I awoke in the middle of the night. I was trembling, shaking uncontrollably, much to the alarm of my wife. I thought my body was cold, so I tried to bundle up with extra clothing and get back in bed. It didn’t work. I wasn’t cold, my body was just trembling. I had no idea what was happening to me and I begged for God’s help. After quite a while I was able to stop shaking and fall asleep. In the morning, I read that there had been a devastating earthquake in Japan, followed by a tsunami. It happened at the exact same time that I woke up, half way across the world. As the ground in Japan was shaking, so was I.

Interpret that however you wish, but when I shared this mysterious occurrence with a Japanese friend of mine, she later told me how encouraged she felt upon hearing it. To her, it meant that God still cared about Japan and the Japanese people, and perhaps he had good plans for that Land of the Rising Sun.

Astigmatism and Progressive Sanctification

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When you invite God to work on your character, he obliges. Perhaps you prefer the metaphor of a refining fire or horticultural pruning (sometimes it feels more like an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw). Either way, God will faithfully carry out his purposes of progressive sanctification if you allow him. And maybe even if you don’t.

Near the beginning of the year, God gently called me out for my pride and stubbornness. I knew about the pride, but I was unaware of the stubbornness. After the initial transformative burst at the time of my salvation at age 19, God has generally changed my character very gradually, allowing me to be prompted by my own conscience as I grew. My tastes in entertainment, political involvement, and even several core theological beliefs have evolved over the years. This past year God has really challenged me in an accelerated fashion on ecumenicalism, racial attitudes, transparent communication with my wife, and trusting him with my money. However, this past month has ramped up to a whole new level of character formation. God has been teaching me some powerful lessons. Namely, that I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on him. Happy with my good health and strong immune system? Boom! Incapacitated by a bout of pneumonia. Have a plan to get debt free and take control of my finances? Boom! $400 chest x-ray and $530 state tax bill. Truly, apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5) and in him I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

The latest plot twist is that after 32 years of “perfect” eyesight, I am now wearing glasses. Just last month my older brother and I were talking about how neither one of us has ever experienced any vision problems. A week ago I was fine; I went to bed one night with zero concerns and woke up the next day needing glasses. I call it sudden onset astigmatism. There does not seem to be much medical precedent for this, and the optometrist I saw for my first ever eye exam thought it quite strange as well. My sincere belief is that God did it to further humble me. Yesterday I had some clarity on this – needing glasses means I am normal. I am ordinary. If I am honest with myself, ordinary is something I’ve never wanted to be. It is a four letter word.

My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, contains a scene where T.E. Lawrence is meeting with General Allenby after experiencing a major setback. Lawrence is doubting himself and wanting to return home to lead an ordinary life, “Because that’s what I am.” Allenby pressures him, and eventually the façade cracks. “All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?” Lawrence knows he is special and destined for greatness. That is a scene that resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, I have always been an outsider. I have stood apart, never really fit in with the crowd. A self-protective strategy becomes, ‘I don’t fit in because I am different… special… smarter… better than.’ So this concept of being ordinary is something that I need to come to terms with, because thinking of myself as extraordinary sets me apart from the people I am called to love and serve. It is bad old-fashioned pride. Every human being on this planet are like my siblings in the eyes of God. I don’t get special preference. Even as I write these words that is hard for me to grasp. We all are the main characters in our own stories, the centers of our own little universes.

Some of the great men of faith that I admire most – C.G. Bevington, Rees Howells, Brother Yun – were men that had to become completely dependent on God. Reading their memoirs is exhilarating, but terrifying. I’ve never found myself voluntarily or involuntarily placed in a position of true or total dependence on God, but I’m starting to feel it now. He is twisting his divine screws and tinkering at my soul. Thank you, Jesus.