The Peace of Christ is Powerful

Christian intellectuals laudably relay this really powerful and appropriate Christian message:  “Know yourself.  Know your sins.  Dig deep into the sins of your life and sacrifice them to God.”  We seek to motivate the complacent, uninterested, non-invested sectors of Christianity, and rightly so.

But analytical enthusiasts can take this call to action too far.  We can seek to know our deep sins with such fervent earnestness that the responsibility becomes a self-sanctifying pressure.  This occurs especially among the intellectual Christian community: some of us take on the heavy burden of uncovering our flaws, adjusting in light of the illumined flaw, and trying to be really careful not to overcompensate.

For example, a fellow college student might see the various ministry opportunities around his campus and decide to participate.  He joins an evangelistic ministry in steady alignment with Christ’s Great Commission.  As his education grows, he realizes that sin can even lurk in the purest-seeming parts of his soul.  Being sharp and inquisitive, he starts to question the motives behind his ministry involvement.  He notices that some reasons he is in ministry are quite sinful: he does it to look good before others and give himself peace of mind.  Therefore, he cuts back his participation a little, but not too much, constantly assessing and reassessing both his reasons for involvement and the satisfaction he finds in the ministry.

We try so hard to know ourselves, our deepest desires, and our various ambitions so that we might attain better grounding in Christ.  But if we are so preoccupied with self-awareness, analysis, and even over-analysis whatever happened to Christ’s ostensibly easy yoke and light burden?

Paul addresses the Ephesians, who struggle with the inability to understand the mystery of Christ’s gospel and wrestle with the tendency to pursue deeply intellectual Gentile ways, reminding them of what Christ is doing:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

Here, Paul is not very concerned with what Christ’s work allows them to do, but what work Christ is actually doing in them.  Christ stands as their peace, breaks down hostile walls, creates one new man, and reconciles them to God.  There’s a lot of talk of what Christ is doing, to the end that peace replaces hostility and oneness with God replaces division.

The peace is important for Paul. It even shows up in the armor of God, “…shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15).

In this passage Paul could have said, “gospel of salvation” or “gospel of Christ “ or  “gospel of truth,” but he chose “gospel of peace.” Why the gospel of peace, specifically?  Because the fact that Christ orchestrates and completes our oneness together, in peace, with God is good news.  It’s good news because we’re attaining to a peace with God.  Even better news:  we actually aren’t the ones doing the attaining: Christ is presently making this otherwise impossible peace happen.

This peace is not a feeling of coziness with God, but a dissolved hostility and resultant oneness with God and fellow Christians, through Christ’s work, not just on the cross, but in our daily lives.   Notice that such news would have prepared the ministry enthusiast student for ministry, not led him to unduly second-guess his ministry motivations.  He thinks he might be involved because it gives him peace of mind, when Christ’s work within him actually gives him the peace of mind in preparation to do God’s work in reliance on Christ.

All this to say the pressure to expose hidden sin rests under Christ’s jurisdiction.  And it’s our responsibility to listen to his exposing judgments.  We will naturally fight against this, but Christ’s work in us will bring even our tantrums against Him to our attention.

We need not worry about a pressure to over-analyze ourselves.  We can instead rest in Christ’s peace-forming work within us, which conforms us to His very likeness.  One sure way to attend to Christ’s work in us involves noticing consistent messages that come our way.

Again, take the example of the student involved in ministry.  It’s one thing for him to assess his motives to the point of madness.  It’s quite another to hear a message on finding identity in ministry at Church, and then hear a buddy say, “You care more about ministry involvement than the people with which you are involved,” and even see a billboard on the side of the road saying, “Is your work your livelihood?”  And still think nothing of his ministerial motives.

We cannot pre-determine the messages we encounter.  We cannot even ensure that we will connect the things we notice in life’s encounters, though we can take steps to improve observation.  Situations, messages, observations, and memories sometimes just come to us, vividly. This is the power of Christ within; the peace of Christ is powerful, not requiring our own power but showing-off Christ’s.

This is not to say that a Christian cannot cultivate careful and observant instincts, but that reliance on himself to do the cultivating results in a less reliable cultivation than a hearty dependence on Christ.  Christ’s peace working within us is a power beyond our own, yet mysteriously accessible to us.  We need not struggle to make sure it will be attained; but we must struggle to remember our place as his patient.  We need to let Christ do what he does best, His Father’s healing and redemptive work.

Exercise Does More than Build Your Body

Consider this popular complaint about male gymnasium enthusiasts:  “Roughly half of a man’s workout consists of admiring his muscles in the gym mirror.”

True, a lot of us go to the gym to improve our image.  We want results, so we commit ourselves to a workout routine.  While I admire the commitment it requires, I want to focus on what exercise, in itself, actually is. Notice that the act of working out is not the act of growing muscles.  We might feel our muscles fill with blood and expand during use, but the resulting growth we expect is just that — a result.  Ignoring all ends and results, the actual experience of working out is naturally not image focused, but pain focused.  The actual activity of exercise centers more on pain felt than muscle growth experienced.  The pain we feel signals muscle tissue breaking down, not becoming better and stronger.

So what is working out really all about, if the growth so often correlated with it concerns more the outcome than the actual activity?

This semester I am taking a rigorous weight lifting class in which my coach has addressed this very question.  Whenever everyone in the room is absolutely exhausted, struggling to keep up with the pace of the workout, the coach says, “Keep it up, men.  Remember, we’re doing this for Christ.”

I initially reacted adversely to these words of encouragement.  We aren’t exercising for Christ.  Christ does not command us to exercise.  Neither does our workout take the form of undergoing persecution for Christ’s sake.  How on earth can we be exercising for Christ?

However, upon further reflection on Christ as a man who walked this earth, I realized he was a ripped guy.  He was a practicing carpenter for years and years which, back in the days before the invention of power tools, meant that he must have been really buff.  But he was also ripped in a very different way, ripped by the Roman scourge, and thereby bearing the excruciating pain reserved for us.  Christ uses the human experience of pain he knows so well to bring His church together as well as the meaningful tastes of pain we experience to remind us of Himself.

Exercise presents an opportunity to worship Christ for the small taste of His sacrificial pain we can partake of.  That’s probably what my coach meant when he reminded us that we are exercising “for Christ:” not that Christ somehow needs us to lift weights for Him, but that we offer up our hard work and painful experience to Him in praise.  Exercise is a form of praise both because we get to exert ourselves bodily and because we get to taste of his sacrificial suffering and, realizing our pain is but a meager taste of His pain, praise Him all the more for the pain he underwent on our account.  For Christians, a difficult workout is a time of meaningful Communion, in remembrance of Him.

It is also a unique way to taste how Christ builds up His church in that exercise isn’t an activity for loners.  It is extremely unwise and dangerous to do it alone.  Conventional wisdom tells long-distance runners to bring a buddy.  Weight lifters always weight train with a spotter, a friend who can safely disengage the weights when the lifter’s own strength fails him.  Both runners and weight lifters can push themselves further and with greater confidence in the company of others than would have been possible in isolation. In this way, it is unique from most other pain.  Hitting myself in the thumb while nailing together my wooden fence does not reflect Christ’s pain because it is self-absorbed:  I look for any way to ease the throbbing pain I feel.  Experiencing the pain of exercise, however, challenges me not to seek ease, but to look beyond myself and rely on others in order to arrive beyond my own pain.  They help me bear my burden, and we all increase in unity, coordination, and strength.

The centrality of community in painful exercises like lifting weights illustrates the building up and strengthening of the Church.  We experience pain together and we depend on the light Christ shines through the hearts of our fellow Christians in order to be raised up beyond the isolation our pain tempts us to seek.  We find not short-lived, haphazard ease from our pain, but a refocused comfort beyond it.  Building the body of Christ by tasting Christ’s pain together deepens and strengthens our relationships in unfathomable ways just as the pain of Christ we taste is itself unfathomable.

As Romans 12:1 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is spiritual worship.”

More than anything, exercise is an opportunity to commune with Christ, build up the Church, build up our bodies, and lift it all up to the praise of His glorious name.  Exercise does more than build your body; it builds Christ’s.  At the end of such a workout we are exhausted, but surprisingly fulfilled, know it is Christ’s work we have tasted, it is Him we have adored, and it is His body we have tended.

We don’t go to the gym to contrive an image; we go there to be conformed to the image of His Son.  We experience both the way he builds us up into His glorious body and the meaningful pain he suffered, that we might praise him all the more as his return approaches.

How Federal Debt is Not Like Personal Debt

If you want a scare, check out our nation’s Debt Clock.

The Guardian warns that continuation of this debt crisis translates to the end of the American dream.  It cries out, “The US has enrolled at IOU University where no one graduates until his debt has been paid in full.”

The central concern here is that the uninhibited spending translates to an impending paralysis.  As is supported by experience, a budget operating on costs that dramatically exceed income is unsustainable.  It’s only a matter of time before a budgetary disaster takes place.  So proclaims that wise adage, “When your output exceeds your income your upkeep will be your downfall.”

What shape does the American federal debt downfall take?  Since there are a multitude of complex predictions out there, it’s probably best to explain what the Federal debt is not like.

Federal debt is not like personal debt.

We are inclined to think that both types of budgets, personal and federal, are so similar that the only significant difference between them concerns the size of the figures they use in budgetary calculations. We tend to think of the federal budget as a little personal budget on a much bigger scale.

However, the main difference is much more important: it concerns the system within which the government budget operates.  Let’s consider the different systems personal and federal budgets answer to.

We, with our puny individual budgets, don’t want to accumulate debt because we are accountable to debt collectors.  We face an American justice system that condemns the inability to pay back excessive debt.  We also face a credit rating system in which, given a bad credit rating, we jeopardize future credible promises to delay full payment of something.

International debt repercussions work a little differently.  The American debt operates in an international system which operates anarchically.  This international anarchy basically means that a country can do anything they want without worrying about someone calling 9-1-1 (no established international emergency hotline).  There is not an international debt collector that makes a country pay back its debts.

If no one enforces international debts, why would one nation want to lend money to another nation?  The main accountability mechanism in the international system is credibility (the same principle underlying personal credit ratings).  If someone never pays back money we lend them, we probably won’t want to do business with them ever again.  Other countries will only believe that we will pay back our debts if both our record and our position reinforce the trustworthiness of our promise to pay them back in the future.  The fact that countries have to continually do business with one another motivates good behavior and punishes unfulfilled promises.  There is no international emergency hotline, but the pressure to maintain credibility keeps countries accountable to the promises they make to one another.

It’s also important to understand exactly how countries manage debt.  American debt accumulates not because that we’re spending money we don’t have, but because other actors (both foreign and domestic investors) choose to invest their money in America.  The government issues bonds (or treasuries), which it sells to buyers near and far.  Basically, these bonds say that the buyer will be paid back the full value of the bond plus interest when he sells the bond back.  The federal government does not print money it doesn’t own, it asks people for money, saying it will pay them back later.

Notice that the whole American debt system rests on the choices of investors.  If people don’t want to invest their money in the Federal government in return for its commitment, the federal government cannot have debt.

The fact is investors worldwide find it choiceworthy to invest in the American federal government. This means that the federal debt is substantiated by those willing to trust that the federal government can credibly commit to paying them back in the future.

They trust the American economy.  They trust the word of the American federal government.  More to the point, multitudes would place bets on our stability over and above the stabilities found anywhere else in the world.

Thus the federal debt is not as scary as it seems.  We like to conceptualize it as an analogy to personal debt.  But it federal debt is not the Federal government begging others for money; it is others begging to invest in the stability of our government. The disparity between personal and national debt illuminates the altered priorities and motivations of a Federal government.

We may be in the IOU University, but we can still graduate confidently knowing that others believe in us enough to invest in us.  Federal debt derives not from our indebtedness to others so much as a credibility debt worldwide.

The Presidential Claim to Ignorance: Is it Ever Valid?

“President Obama’s ‘I don’t know’ Strategy – and its Limits”

So declares the title of an article that echoes the general frustration that “‘I don’t know’ has become a regular refrain for this White House.”

Should we criticize the president for his “not knowing” or validate the presidential claim to ignorance?  We must realize how much the president can reasonably know about his administration, to determine exactly how responsible he is for the decisions of those who serve under the executive.

When considering the responsibilities of a president, I am reminded of President Truman’s farewell address, which puts the presidential job description in perspective.  Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), the first president to deliver a televised farewell address, gave us a sort of ‘sneak peek’ into the life of a president.

He emphasizes the strain of a relentless presidential schedule:

“Since I became President, I have been to Europe, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, Wake Island and Hawaii.  I have visited almost every State in the Union.  I have traveled 135,000 miles by air, 77.000 by rail, and 17,000 by ship.  But the mail always followed me, and wherever I happened to be, that’s where the office of president was.”

People criticize the scandalous nature of frequent presidential “vacations.” But, in a manner of speaking, though the president leaves the Oval Office, he never truly leaves his presidential desk.

Truman also presents the exhausting presidential way of life:

“And all these emergencies and all the developments to meet them have required the President to put in long hours—usually 17 hours a day, with no payment for overtime.  I sign my name, on average, 600 times a day, see and talk to hundreds of people every month, shake hands with thousands every year, and still carry on the business of the largest going concern in the whole world.  There is no job like it one the face of the earth…”

Truman certainly allows us to sample the burden of the presidential position.  But he is not asking for a pity party; he is asking that the people remember just how demanding the presidency is.  Truman wants to push the people not to relentlessly criticize the president’s positions, but partner with his presidential successor (Eisenhower) in his struggle to carry the weight of domestic and foreign affairs.

I don’t want to say that criticizing the president’s claim to ignorance is necessarily bad, but that sometimes the president does have a legitimate claim to ignorance.  Truman’s farewell demonstrates just how valid such a claim can be.  The president has so many responsibilities, people, and urgent decisions weighing on his shoulders that it would be unrealistic to think that he knows absolutely everything that happens within his executive jurisdiction.

But does a valid claim to ignorance eliminate presidential responsibility?

Absolutely not; the president is still responsible for all the official actions and policies of his administration.

As evidence, consider the debate among the founders to determine whether the American presidency should be one person or multiple people.

Some thought that the presidency should consist of an odd number of collaborative leaders, kind of like the bench of United States Supreme Court Justices.  Under this system, we would vote for, say, 3 leaders, each with their own area of expertise and party alignment to ensure balanced, experienced, deliberative executive leadership.

The main problem with this multiple-actor presidency idea was the utter lack of accountability.  If a bad decision is made, who do you blame?  Do you kick them all out of office?  Since the presidency collaborates secretly, do you simply make an educated guess about which president is responsible for bad decisions?  Maybe it was a 2-1 vote; do we still punish all of them?

The single-man presidency solves this problem.  Blaming is a mode of accountability.  And if executive decisions go awry, there is only one person we can blame, the president.  The founders chose a unitary presidency, partly so that we can blame him for bad decisions.

So, just how valid is a presidential claim to ignorance?

Claims to ignorance send us a strong signal:  the president wants us to think he is not responsible for a bad decision that was made.  He is communicating that he was so burdened with other presidential demands, that he cannot be held responsible for a specific flaw we want to blame him for.

I think we can do more than draw attention to a specific flaw.  We can do more than seek a rhetorical response from the president.   We can keep the president accountable.  Accountability does not mean criticism of his claims, but of his conduct.  Give the president’s speeches the benefit of the doubt, but keep him strictly accountable for his actions.  The power of his words shouldn’t matter as much as the prudence of his decisions.

In the case of ignorance-claiming, the president claims no responsibility for an imprudent action.  This is an exciting opportunity to witness the president’s prudent decision-making at its finest: how he reacts to exposed failure within his administration.  It is not what he says in response, but what he does in reaction to the failures of those under his superintendence, that really counts.

When the president says, “I didn’t know.”  We should respond, “Now that you know, what shall we do?”  It provides a space for decisive presidential leadership and our more meaningful partnership.

Don’t endlessly propound his blameworthiness, but assess the ways he compensates for and adjusts to the past failures in his administration.  Executive limbs answer to him alone; the executive head answers for their failures and glories in their successes.  Don’t get stuck on assessing how he answers “I don’t know” but who he becomes now that he knows.  Does he get stuck in the presidential claim to ignorance, or does the president assume decision and responsibility in spite of this ignorance?

Why Distrust of Government is a Good Thing

My colleague, Mr. Daniel Larsen, recently published an insightful article arguing that a government that cannot be trusted leads us to a Savior who can.  He poignantly articulates how the general lack of trust in American political leaders pushes us toward a better  hope in Christ.  That government deficiency illuminates Christ’s sufficiency.  I want to argue that the government’s questionable trustworthiness is not quite a deficiency, but a central strength of the American system:  Distrust of government cultivates unmitigated, self-revealing honesty.

As Americans, we are always looking for savior statesman to protect us from the vast pool of untrustworthy politicians.  We are distinctly aware that candidates tell us what our itching ears want to hear, not necessarily what their true intentions are.  By discrediting themselves individually, politicians have discredited the whole community of American political leaders.

From fear of the government’s power to spy on its own citizens to the deception of the Watergate Scandal, the government has shown one thing about itself – its questionable, if not absolutely compromised, trustworthiness.

However, by “government,” Americans mean government leaders, not standard government functions.  We subconsciously trust government responsibilities like keeping our currency credible, delivering our mail, and (most certainly) collecting our taxes.  But we do not necessarily trust our leaders’ actions in the wake of national emergencies, urgent policy-making, and other pressing issues.

Does this mean that our system of government is less trustworthy than other government systems?

Not necessarily.  Our distrust of government does not illuminate a structural deficiency, but an intentional efficiency, an efficiency that allows us to clearly perceive the shortcomings of government leadership.

Elected government officials repeatedly offend us, the voters.  Over and over again, candidates that seemed courageous and convicted at election time either compromise their previously nonnegotiable positions or pursue all kinds of scandals once they reach office.  And we are left wondering whether anything any leader or candidate says can be trusted.

Washington, in his farewell address, articulates this tendency as, “…that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates the human heart.” Men, even government leaders, are corrupt, seeking to further their own ends at the expense of, and by the deception of, those around them.  With power, this inner depravity becomes more apparent: leaders view their powerful position as a way to accomplish well-intentioned ends, without concern for the nature of the means, however dishonorable or misleading.

The really smart men who constructed the American form of government recognized this human depravity as the core element that the American political system must account for.  Madison famously said, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary” (Federalist Paper 51).

Madison therefore espouses a system in which, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

This counteraction, which plays out between the three of branches of government, more specifically structures the ways that individual leaders interact.  If I am a leader, and I want an easy way to reduce the power of an opposing or disagreeable leader, I can simply discredit him in the eyes of his voters.  This not only significantly reduces his trust-based power but also nearly eliminates his chances of reelection.

This does not mean that political leaders will not act deceptively and try to outsmart the system.  Neither does it seal the failure of deceptive leaders.  But the structure does motivate leaders to rat each other out.

If nothing else, the fact that we are aware of the government’s ability to spy on us or Nixon’s Watergate Scandal should lead us to trust the efficiency of the system’s built in lie-detector.  When everyone who disagrees with you is trying to figure out when you are lying, it’s difficult to get away with a lie.   Thus, our government leaders seem so untrustworthy because the structure of government encourages leaders to call out the untrustworthiness of other leaders.

The political system does not corrupt our leaders so much as it exposes a deeper corrupt nature already within them.

So, though we cannot necessarily trust our leaders, we can trust the system to make known their untrustworthiness.  The failures, shortcomings, and corruptions we continually see in our government should not make us despair in our government, by the very fact that we see these evils.  If we discover the untrustworthiness of our leaders, the government system is actually doing its job.  Therefore, my distrust of our leaders actually signals the system’s reliability; the American system deserves my trust because it naturally distrusts.

So, here’s a structurally dependable strength: my government will be transparent, even if it communicates its own lack of transparency.

Other government systems may portray themselves as better, more virtuous, or less corrupt, to which we should respond, not with praise and congratulation, but unease at the thought that men are so blind as to think they can deceive us about their own corruption.

Distrust is never a good thing; yet distrust of government is a good thing insofar as it exposes its own untrustworthiness for all of us to see.  I’m not advocating a blind distrust and cynicism of all American government action, but an open-eyed trust of what the government as a whole tells us we should trust it with.  The government structure is doing its job.  It’s our job to perceive the structure’s limits:  those things we should not entrust to the government, those spaces in government with no built-in motivations to self-expose hidden flaws.

How Living Safely is Dangerous

I tend to think passivity and the middle-way are pretty safe ways of life.  But choosing neither virtue nor vice is more dangerous than choosing vice.  If I am an outwardly vicious person, I cannot deny my viciousness.   On the other hand, by internalizing, that thereby ignoring, my own vice, I risk denying its very existence.

Consider Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees (Mark 3.4):

Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
Pharisees: *crickets*

Their problem here is not the typical Pharisaical hypocrisy.  It is a subtler, more paralytic hypocrisy.  They are silent because they hate public correction.  They would much rather be correct than corrected.  If they open to the possibility of their own error, then they also open to the pain of correction.

In life, the ways we tell ourselves we are don’t need correction are just as subtle and crafty.

For example, let’s say that I get really angry when my roommate retires early to bed because it prevents me from staying up late studying in our room (a totally theoretical situation).  In response, I can either lash out in anger, communicating how much I dislike the inconvenience of his early bedtime, or I can pretend it doesn’t bother me in the least bit.  Ignoring my anger seems the holier option, but it turns out to be the more dangerous one.

It seems that resisting anger could be the better option in the following ways:

  • It exemplifies a holiness that should be emulated.
  • It resists the natural tendency to sin in this way.
  • It displays self-control, which is Spiritual Fruit.
  • It avoids painful confrontation.
  • It practices self-denial.

Nevertheless, what if this passive response is more deceptive than constructive?

Notice that my pretending not to be angry is just that: a pretense.  It is just like that Pharisaical lie that tells me I don’t need correction:  it communicates something false about myself.  Thus, being bold in the wrong ways will tell me more true things about myself than my silence.

Whenever we convince ourselves to live safely, we actually hinder the process of sanctification.  By “safe living” I mean choosing the least confrontational, most holy-seeming option available.  These can vary from offering a service you really don’t want to do to seeming really solemn during a worship service to Pharisee-like silence.  We sometimes think seeming like the caring person is more important than actually caring for others.  This sort of self-deception does two things:

First, in these pretenses we hide from men.  Instead of confronting us about our flaws and failures, they praise our purity. By producing this positive image of ourselves, we deceive others.

Second, this success in hiding from men actually conceals us from ourselves. If we hear their praises enough, we will actually start to believe them. Then, when the pretended safe living becomes our truest form of living, we have trouble recognizing our own flaws.  By extension, we will also have trouble with sanctification. The temptation to sanctify a projection of ourselves paralyzes the process of the true purification that works at the core of who we are, where Christ is.  We feel safe because we try to hide from the exposing power of sanctification.

By safe living, we distance ourselves form our fundamental identity in Christ.  As we continually try to reinforce the self-perfection we have constructed, we rely on the people around us to tell us how sound this self-perfection structure is.  Affirmation can feed the monster within that desperately wants others to confirm the false perfection we outwardly project.  We forget to cling desperately to the perfection of Christ, subtly defending, instead, our own self-righteousness.  We choose to identify with a false righteousness instead of the perfect righteousness Christ offers us.

Fortunately, this form of self-deception is relatively easy to identify.  We must, however, be open to the fact that we practice deceptive safe living in the least suspecting areas of life.  There are two main ways to recognize this self-deception.  First, you have an unexplained need for affirmation.  If you need others to approve of you in certain areas of your life, dangerous safe living has probably crept into those specific spaces. Second, you are hurt deeply by personal flaws that people bring to your attention.  If you feel a powerful aversion to a confrontational remark or probing question, search for self-deception lurking nearby.

The Holy Spirit will bring people into your life to provide this service.  He will also remind you of the painful remarks people make about your flaws.  These all serve to keep us truly safe, in Christ, not deceptively safe, in ourselves.

One who finds freedom in Christ is free to live dangerously.  You are no longer bound to sin, so why be burdened by the thought that others might consider you sinful?  Instead consider those occasions when the deep darkness inside you swells to the surface as opportunities to boldly confront that deep darkness and give it, with all its twisted ways, to Christ.

It is unhealthy to have sin, but it is fatal to silently pretend it isn’t there.

The truly safe man rests in this prayer:

Lord I need you, oh, I need you

Every hour I need you

My One Defense, my Righteousness

Oh God, how I need you.

Government Shutdowns: Moments of Insanity?

We should stop criticizing government shutdowns and start thinking about what the shutdowns tell us.

Our government inflicts us with pain all the time.  The recent government shutdown is the most accessible example of such pain.  This kind of discomfort is so repulsive because it happens without our consent, which leads us to mistrust the responsiveness of our American government.  And for good reason:

In a shutdown, well over 800,000 non-essential federal employees don’t know when they’ll receive their next paycheck.  In turn, the rest of us are left to deal with life under a temporarily incompetent, unresponsive federal government.  A lot of uncomfortable stuff happens and the government doesn’t seem to care.

We think situations like these shouldn’t happen in America.  If a government is by the people and for the people, as Lincoln pointed out, the people should never be angry about what the government does.  It should people-please; yet the vast majority of people aren’t pleased with government shutdowns.

Why do shutdowns like this happen in America?

A shutdown happens when Congress cannot agree on a budget before the start of the new fiscal year.    The Constitution and the law do not punish the government if it inconveniences the people with a shutdown.   Instead, Congressmen, as essential employees, still get paid.  And they are still given the responsibility to pass the budget.

The idea is, in a representative government, the representatives do not need legal punishment.  The ballot box is the Congressional cattle-prod.  All Congressmen, unless considering retirement, want to keep their jobs: they either enjoy the distinction that comes with it or want to continue their good influence in Congress.  Sure, legislators must respond well to organized interests who have lots of money, but at the end of the day, the right votes, not the right number of dollars, keeps someone in office.  The one sure way to keep their jobs is to pay attention to the input, opinions, and demands of their constituents.  A representative who does not have one eye in Washington and the other in his district is sure to jeopardize his seat.  So, they need no legal repercussions; we as voters also serve as the punishers.

This accountability mechanism, termed the ‘electoral incentive,’ means that if the representative does stuff in office that his voters disapprove of, it will show in the next election — with his unemployment.  With this in mind, the budget deadlock we just witnessed shows that some Congressmen held to the deep-seated conviction that a shutdown is better than its alternative (in this case, ObamaCare fully-funded), risking their seats in the process.

Does a shutdown like the one we just experienced successfully prevent its alternative?

Americans surely don’t think so: they tend to blame those on the other side for the pain they feel.  They ignore the risky signaling that’s taking place, and consider partisan actions that eventually force a shutdown rash, imprudent, and hopeless.

Americans in general agree that Congress was most to blame during the shutdown, which lessens Congress’ power to be successful.  Shutdown polls declare that the people blamed Republicans rather than Democrats and President Obama.  But notice that the polls tend to lump President Obama and Democrats into one category, which does not account for the consistently higher approval ratings of the President with respect to Congress.  In the end, Congress, not the president, will seem even more blameworthy.

With success falling out of sight, what were Republicans in Congress thinking by forcing a shutdown?  What response were they trying to invoke?

All government shutdowns anticipate pain and anger, but they communicate gravity. A shutdown communicates that the alternative is a more painful than itself. If we feel pains, we should assume something significant is happening.

Even further, In light of the fact that the Republican Party forced a similar government shutdown in 1995, when conditions were better, and had to deal with heavy repercussions, it is safe to assume that Republicans are definitely risking similarly punishing outcomes.  They have communicated a grave issue indeed.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation ran deeper than funding or defunding ObamaCare.  Perhaps they feared that such a law will instill dangerous ideas about the nature and purpose of health insurance.  Or, beyond health insurance, they feared that the law will feed the growing appetite for entitlements and instantaneous gratification that threatens the generous and selfless side of today’s America.

Must we merely complain about our pain?  No.  We should listen to the problem the pain communicates.  Look beyond the discomfort to its source; then consider why the cause is weighty enough to inflict the pain you feel.

In American government, pain is not weakness leaving the body.  The pain leaving the legislative body (and coming down to us) signals graver, more threatening, weaknesses in ourselves and our nation.

US Policy on Syria: Courage or Cowardice

Press releases from the UN, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and even the front lines of Syria itself, universally signaling Syria’s present instability, make one thing clear:  Syria’s future is not clear.   Should the world do anything to improve this situation?  Or should we cowardly sit back and watch Syria burn?  If world leaders, like the US, have the ability to control situations like this, shouldn’t they also have the responsibility to courageously improve it?

The civil war that now rages in Syria started two years ago when civilian protests and military suppression quickly escalated into bloodbaths killing thousands on both sides.  America quickly took an official but under-committed stand with the rebels, and on September 21, 2013 the whole world resounded with the cry to end Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

The reason world powers, like the US, have not come to Syria’s aid is clearer than Syria’s uncertain future.  The conflict that rages within has two divisions:

1) The rebels against the government.  The civilians despise the way Assad brutally mistreats them.  They have therefore taken up arms against him and his regime.

2) The rebels against themselves.  Up until a few days ago the rebellion groups, representing the hostile and diverse nature of Syria itself, fought each other with the same fervor they used against Assad.  For now rebellion groups have framed an alliance contract evidently undersigned by the leadership of 75% of Syrian rebellion forces.

There is little hope for a positive outcome from US intervention.  The US must justified its intervention before it actually intervenes.  Just as the UN employed moral justification to commit to the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons, so too could America justify supporting the rebels on moral grounds, by saying “We protect human life.”

But support a side in Syria does not necessarily protect more lives than the current status quo.  Allying with Assad sends the message that the US cares little for human rights. Assad’s utter indifference for the lives of Syrians sparked the rebellion in the first place.  But allying with the coalition of rebellion forces promises more evils than it remedies.  The rebels’ present alliance in opposition to Assad paints over the rebel differences but does not make those differences disappear.  There is no reason to believe that giving the rebels the victory they want will result in respect for human life.  But there is much reason to believe it will result in a more vicious and sectarian civil war over Syrian power.  The US and other world powers must either leave things as they are or risk worse upheaval and bloodshed by intervening.

We should not charge America with abandoning its courage by choosing not to seek justice against Assad’s violations of human rights.  Such a charge demands a bad form of courage.  In the words of G. K Chesterton, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”  Yes, the US must be willing to risk life in order to preserve life, even Syrian life.  Nevertheless, as Chesterton points out, courage as a principle has two extremes that are not courage:  living for nothing and dying for nothing.  That is, courage is the midpoint between the two extremes timidity and rashness.  Thus, present conditions matter just as much as the intended end result.  As Obama articulated so clearly to the UN, “The question is whether we possess the wisdom and the courage, as nation-states and members of an international community, to squarely meet those challenges; whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time.”  America has not abandoned courage to stand up for justice in Syria, but it has abandoned “courage” pursued unwisely through rash, unclear decision-making.

The present situation, therefore, stays as it is.  The temptations to err on the side of foolhardiness or faintheartedness also remain.  External pressures discourage the US from true courage by reminding us of an obligation to virtue.  They say that America has the power to both envision and realize a more positive future for Syria.  And that power should not be left untapped.

Still, the idea that we can guarantee an improved future is a self-deception.  The United States can do nothing to ensure Syria’s future improvement.  The future is always unclear, though marginally predictable.  Our work as humans is not to enforce a re-envisioned future, but live excellently given the conditions present to us. Perhaps being a courageous world leader is less about what you do and more about when and how you do what you do. We must pursue good decisions not decisions that try to show how good we are.

We, as well as the people of Syria, must be courageous enough not to be tight-fisted, white-knuckled humans preoccupied with the future’s vast unknown.  Rather we should allow the present realization of our own helplessness, even smallness, lead us to trust in a God that both orchestrates and improves.

To best safeguard our future we must begin with our limited influence upon it.  The temptation to seek justice badly is too great for us to presume clear vision.  We alone cannot see; therefore let us be bold enough to trust in the One who does.