Tag Archive: choice


Intentionality

A little while ago, blogger Dave Ramsey wrote an article entitled “20 things rich people do every day”. He received  lot of criticism for it, but as he later pointed out, he was simply observing cause and effect. Good habits consciously applied make success more likely, and are found more often in people we would call successful.

Please don’t misunderstand. This is not an endorsement of the “prosperity gospel” and I continue to think it a dangerous distortion. Nevertheless scripture plainly teaches the just rewards of applied effort; Ramsey’s article merely points out the people who do these things generally do better in life. People who succeed in life are intentional; they don’t drift with circumstances but have goals and focus their attention and talents to reach them. They are lifelong learners, they plan, they dream and pray and give thanks. They don’t let life just happen: they make a life as stewards of God’s gift.

My first real encounter with God involved a calculated – and very unemotional – decision to learn and read the Bible for information, not out of a sense of guilt or religious duty, but because I simply wanted to know God better.

We are choosing creatures, and one of the significant ways we are made in God’s image is that we have a free will. We are not just victims of circumstance; we are not fatalists. We can make things happen – in fact, we are plainly commanded to do so in scripture, even while we give thanks for all life brings.

We can drift with the current of circumstance, or we can choose to learn, to seek, to change ourselves and the world. Life is a gift from God: what will we do with it?

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The problem is, it’s hard to ignore feelings. We live in bodies that experience this world with its bumps and worries, and experience feelings that are reactions to this reality whether we like it or not. The question is what we are going to do with them. The feelings themselves are neither good nor bad, but how we choose (there’s that word again) to react is a moral issue.

How do can I rein in these feelings? Is it possible to gain a degree of mastery over them? How can I train myself to trust in God – regardless of the emotional noise in my head?

It’s easier said than done, but  developing good habits of the soul will go a long way to helping us. As I write this (originally written in January 2010), I’m facing a layoff from a job I’ve held for more that 23 years. With 5 dependents, believe me when I say that my feelings are all over the map. I’m not sleeping as well, and concern for the future is where my natural inclinations lead. My worry is a reaction to the circumstances I find myself in; yet I am told that God will provide. Memorizing some key passages from the Bible has been a great help, and they are there, accessible and right in my head when I’m lying awake in bed at night with a brain that won’t shut off. If there’s too much static in there, a dose of some helpful passage can restore perspective and calm the waters. This is a habit to train ourselves in: it won’t happen by itself, and I have a long ways to go.

Speak what you choose to believe, not how you feel. Put it into words. There’s a real distinction between feeling and belief that we often forget. It’s a vital difference. Saying what you believe helps unmuddy these waters; there is something special about the spoken word. It’s not some abacadabra to invoke God’s power; but more a point of nailing your colours to the mast, taking a stand unashamed. It bears witness to God’s reality, the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It emboldens and fortifies the heart.

We are encouraged to pray for His strength to help us obey. Can we claim to be His sons and daughters if we don’t? We have been invited to be co-maintainers of God’s universe, called to live like the sons and daughters of God we are, to display God’s kind of life and to and to insert it into nature. Talk about being salt in this world! “Be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven”.

This is essentially a work of creation as opposed to being a mere cog in the cause-and-effect machine that nature is. This is the point I want to make: good habits are creative acts – we are injecting a new cause into the chain of events that stretch back to the beginning of time. They are not something that would happen if nature ran its course. Bad habits are merely natural reactions to our surroundings and will occur unbidden: fallen nature works by cause and effect. Moral choices, however are events of another kind – and their source is outside of nature.

If our spiritual side is what defines us as humans, then it follows that those who listen only to their natural, reactive nature are becoming somehow less human, spiritually dead. And doesn’t scripture bear this out? 2 Peter 2:10b-12 says, “…and especially those who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed. They are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries, whereas angels, who are greater in power and might, do not bring a reviling accusation against them before the Lord. But these, like natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed, speak evil of the things they do not understand, and will utterly perish in their own corruption,…” The spirit is what makes moral decisions. To act amorally is to deny the spiritual, to ratify the natural, animal part of ourselves.

I used to get confused when I saw in the Bible that we are saved by grace, and not our works, but then read we were to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”, and that “faith without works is dead”. The two views seemed contradictory. But when you think of “working out” as disciplined, applied effort towards a goal – mindful of the price that was paid to make our spiritual rebirth possible – the contradiction evaporates. If we were given a great gift at enormous expense to the giver and then treated it as a common thing, that would speak volumes about the value we placed in the gift and its Giver. I will be very careful to esteem the gift given to me – to be otherwise speaks of ingratitude and an unchanged, hard heart.

God calls us to be agents of change – both in our own lives and in the world. We need to cultivate these good habits – forgiveness, grace to others, prayer, thankfulness.

Jesus told us to love our enemies (Matt 5:44-48). Why? Just as God’s grace gives good gifts to all – even those who don’t deserve it – so are we to do.  God is a moral Being, one who makes choices. Made in His image, we share this ability to choose. And we are told to choose love, grace, and forgiveness, even to those who don’t have it coming.

This doesn’t come easy; it involves a conscious decision to swim upstream. Our own souls are, in their natural state, like the unweeded garden. Through Christ’s work God has given us each a garden, so to speak, but without cultivation  it will fill with weeds. That’s what discipline is about: the focused effort to achieve a goal, in this case the goal of obeying our Lord and to thus know Him better. It involves the developing of good habits: habits of the soul. This always takes work, repetition, and God’s help; He can, and will, give “grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

We hit a wall. I think it’s the sheer impossibility of loving our enemies that forces us to God’s throne for help. In fact, I think we should be hitting this wall all the time, acutely aware of our own need for His help. We’ll stumble for sure: so what? Keep trying. I suspect it will get easier as leaning on Him becomes habitual. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. This is a habit of the soul as well, one we must develop, because it teaches us not to depend on our natural resources and capabilities.

Feelings are natural, meaning a part of nature, and therefore reactive. Moral choices and faith are things that rise above that; eternal and underived, the realm of reason and free will is the borderland between nature and supernature. The exercise of our free will is often not a reaction to events, but functions in spite of them. To love an enemy is not a reaction; it’s a choice.


 

Let’s Get Creative

A few years back, I was at an investing seminar. The speaker pointed out that we are creatures of habit; and that if you don’t deliberately form good habits, you will unconsciously form bad ones. This came as a bit of an epiphany, for it holds some real spiritual truth.

 

I’ve noticed two things about nature. First, that its basically reactive: something happens because something else caused it: cause and effect. In society, people react with hate when abused, they jump when startled. Secondly, there is a tendency towards a running down, a wearing out. A deck of cards won’t deal itself, a house won’t build itself, and my lawn (regrettably) will not mow itself. Untended, it will soon be a mass of weeds.  Disease and age take their toll, things wear out, decay, and fall apart. The universe itself is in fact running down.

 

Like the weeds in my lawn, bad habits form all by themselves. They are part of nature and don’t really take any effort on my part. They just happen.

 

Good habits are different. Every time you do something against your natural inclinations, you rebel against the natural way of things. You have become proactive, rather than reactive. When we don’t clean our house, mow the grass, or even brush our teeth, the natural course is one of decline, decay, and disorder; we have to be constantly adding energy to the system to maintain it.

 

In a very real sense, the spiritual disciplines – like all good habits – are creative acts, the invasion of a supernatural, rational, and moral reality on nature. They are a demonstration of our being more than just biological machines. They are a demonstration of will and choice entering the universe.

 

I think this is one of the ways we are “made in God’s image”. We are to be sons and daughters of God, something of the same type of being – that is, spirits in essence. We have biological life because we live in the natural world; but we have a supernatural life contained in these bodies, because we also inhabit the realm of spirit. I think that is what Jesus meant when He told us to be “perfect”, even as our Father in Heaven is; in effect saying, “You are the same sort of being as your Father in Heaven (i.e., a spirit, and therefore moral and rational): now act like it”. A spiritual being reasons and makes moral choices; in fact, the Author of morality is a Spirit.

 

Christians, especially those of the more charismatic type, are often accused of being emotional. Mature faith involves putting our emotions in their place and determining to trust – and obey – regardless of our emotional state. It’s the most natural thing in the world to love those who love us. It is the path of least resistance – the easy path, the natural, reactive way. Hating those who hate us also comes pretty easy. God calls us to something higher; he tells us to love the unlovely, to bless and not curse, to pray for those who persecute us, to share with the world the same grace He has shown us. He wants us to help Him maintain His world by inputting love and grace into it, even as He Himself does. This is a long, long way from being “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good”.  It’s immensely practical and (no pun intended) down to earth.

 

He wants us to develop good habits of the heart. The deeds of the body in its natural state are primarily emotional and therefore reactive. The disciple is one who rises above these through faith. He chooses to trust – often in spite of his feelings. Romans 12:13 talks about putting to death the deeds of the body by faith. Discipline is an indicator of our faith: do we trust, do we think it’s worth doing? If we take the trouble to put down our natural inclinations, it must be because we expect a benefit, a better knowing of God. The  word disciple derives from the word discipline; the disciple submits to the discipline of seeking God through developing these good habits of the heart, habits of trust, learning what pleases God, and obedience. The undisciplined one lacks faith, or at least isn’t putting it into action; he is an “un-disciple”.

 

Jesus was the first example of a new kind of Man: spiritually alive and in fellowship with the Father, yet inhabiting a human body. Through Him we can come alive to God again, and possess a reflection of that same sort of life in our human bodies. In fact, it stands to reason that we need to be thus connected if we are to really show God’s sort of grace, God’s sort of life to the world. We are to be conduits; “Out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water”. Jesus meant it when He said, “Without Me you can do nothing”. Without that vital connection to Christ what flows out of us is more reaction; and in the scale of eternity, of no value.

Being Yourself

Who are you?

What determines how you live your life? Many just sort of let life happen, taking things as they come, a series of reactions to what life deals them. But is that the best way to live? I think we determine our life’s path by the choices we make.

Reason and Morality are siblings; or perhaps it might be better illustrated by saying that morality is a reasoned response, and therefore you can’t be moral without being a reasoning being. Reason and moral truth hint at something uncreated: not a result of chaotic, senseless processes, but of a higher, rational and moral source, because they are not an result of some cause but exist all by themselves. These reasoned moral choices (for instance, to love an enemy or forgive someone who has hurt us) often run exactly opposite to our natural reactions.

Some Christian apologists have based arguments supporting the existence of God on these realities, and it really does make sense – the best kind of sense. I am a believer largely because the concept of a rational, moral God simply scratches the most itches. The universe makes sense. And of course these are things that set us apart from the animal kingdom. Whereas animals simply react, people can reason and make moral choices. We can be proactive; nature is exclusively reactive.

If we do away with reason and moral truth, we are left alone with our emotions. Emotions are something we share with the animal kingdom, and are reactive rather than proactive in essence. We don’t make feelings; they happen to us. We feel a certain way because of what is happening around us or within our own bodies.

But as a motivator, emotions are dangerous: they are variable, unpredictable, and can be manipulated.
In a democracy, the direction of government is determined by the will of the people. But what happens when those people are ill-informed (and it’s impossible to be adequately informed about all the issues we face these days) or worse yet, are subjected to the spin doctors? Politicians and their hirelings play on our fears and hopes to get us to vote them into power. Advertising agencies spend millions of dollars trying to make us feel we must have the latest toy. We become more the product of our environment and influences than ourselves; what I consider my “tastes” are often the result of somebody else telling me what is cool and fashionable.

The best defense against such ploys is to have a solid belief in a moral framework that determines how all these other inputs are evaluated. When you hold high values, you can’t be spun or manipulated as easily. And if this moral construct is really true – absolute reality- it must have an Author, One whi cares about right actions and who yearns for relationship with us. As we give ourselves to Him, we become more truly ourselves.

We live in the world of Enron, of the Subprime crisis and banking scandals, of spin doctors and opinion polls. If more folks approached politics and finance on the basis of a transcendent ethical truth instead of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the present day, I think we’d be in a lot better shape.

And that’s just for starters.

Who are you?

What determines how you live your life? Many just sort of let life happen, taking things as they come, a series of reactions to what life deals them. But is that the best way to live? I think we can determine our life’s path by the choices we make.

Reason and Morality are siblings; or perhaps it might be better illustrated by saying that morality is a reasoned response, and therefore you can’t be moral without being a reasoning being. They hint at something uncreated, not a result of chaotic, senseless processes, but of a higher, rational and moral source, because they are not an effect of some cause. In fact moral choice (for instance, to love an enemy or forgive someone who has hurt us) often run exactly opposite to our natural reactions.

Some Christian apologists have written strong arguments supporting the existence of God based on these realities, and it really does make sense – the best kind of sense. I am a believer largely because the concept of a rational, moral God simply scratches the most itches. The universe makes sense. And of course these are things that set us apart from the animal kingdom. Whereas animals simply react, people can reason and make moral choices. We can be proactive; nature is exclusively reactive.

If we do away with reason and moral truth, we are left with our emotions.  Emotions are something we share with the animal kingdom, and are reactive rather than proactive in essence. We don’t make feelings; they happen to us.  We feel a certain way because of what is happening around us; but as a motivator, emotions are dangerous: they are variable, unpredictable, and can be manipulated.

In a democracy, the direction of government is determined by the will of the people. But what happens when those people are ill-informed (and it’s impossible to be adequately informed about all the issues we face these days) or worse yet, are subjected to the spin doctors? Politicians and their hirelings play on our fears and hopes to get us to vote them into power. Advertising agencies spend millions of dollars trying to make us feel we must have the latest toy. We become more the product of our environment and influences than ourselves; what I consider my “tastes” are often the result of somebody else telling me what is cool and fashionable.

The best defense against such ploys is to have a solid belief in a moral framework that determines how all these other inputs are evaluated.  When you hold high values, you can’t be spun or manipulated as easily. And this moral construct has an Author, One who yearns for relationship with us. As we give ourselves to Him, we become more truly ourselves.

We live in the world of Enron, of the Subprime crisis and banking scandals, of spin doctors and opinion polls. If more folks approached politics and finance on the basis of ethics instead of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the present day, I think we’d be in a lot better shape.

Faith and Love

Deciding to have faith in (that is, to trust) and deciding to love both involve letting your guard down; by their nature they imply vulnerability. We are in effect saying, “I am letting you get close enough to hurt me if you want to; I love and value you enough that I’m willing to risk it, and I trust my heart is safe with you”.

When we commit to one another in marriage, we are not just investing our emotional security on the beloved, but our finances and future; in a word, our lives. The vow of marriage is a tremendous statement of love and trust in the beloved.

So is our walk with God. We are betting the farm on His faithfulness, on our belief in His love for us. But could we really approach Him in any other way? Legalism – man’s religion – kills relationship, and has nothing to do with love OR trust. It’s only a business arrangement: I’ll do this, if you do that. We keep our hearts away from God.

Would we think that healthy in a marriage? We give less than all to our mate to our detriment; in the same way our relation to God is hindered when we hold out on Him. Legalism more than anything defines just what we will, and will not give to God: it implies we are not yet ready to trust Him because we want to hold something back.

Give Him your heart. Jump in with both feet; both with marriage and your decision to trust God with your life and future.

God’s Love

C.S. Lewis, in his classic tome The Four Loves, describes the different kinds of love as Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Agape. The first three are based in nature; the fourth, Agape, is God’s love: eternal and underived.

Love that is not self-existent is necessarily fickle, because it is part of nature; that is, the material universe. Natural love can grow cold through time, distance, and betrayal; it depends on an object of love. But God’s love can’t, because it is its own source. Even when betrayed, God’s love, the kind that isn’t the what’s-in-it-for-me variety – continues to love and to give, for that is its essential nature. “God IS love”. We are told that God’s love is demonstrated in that while we were still enemies, still separated from God by our rebellion, that Christ died for us. That’s the kind of love that loves in spite of our rebellion, our betrayal, our decision to not trust. It is indicated in the original Greek as “agape” love. It doesn’t happen because of something else: it’s not loving in return for being loved. It loves even when love isn’t returned. And we are told to have that kind of love when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, the unlovely and unattractive.

How are we to display this kind of love? Especially, how do we do so when we don’t feel like it, which is (at least concerning enemies or the unlovable) most of the time?

First, we need to ask ourselves: is love a feeling – or a choice? If it’s a feeling, then it’s simply a reaction to something else, to someone else’s love or affection. And it’s no big deal; Jesus said that anybody can do that, but that we are called to something more. Matthew 5:43-45 says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”.

What Jesus is pointing out here is that like God, we are spiritual beings and as such live in a moral realm. To choose to love is a moral choice; the Author of morality loves, and as we also live in this spiritual, moral realm, we can choose to love as well, regardless of our natural reactions of hate and revenge. Animals don’t make reasoned moral choices in the same way humans can. They simply react.

So it is a choice, a moral choice. And loving somebody does not mean convincing yourself that they are nicer than they are, or even that they deserve your love. It means action, sometimes in spite of your knowledge or feelings about them. The interesting thing is that when we act loving,  the feelings usually do come; but they are after the fact. We are to love out of obedience to God’s command, and because we are of the same sort as He: spirit beings, His very sons and daughters. He is in effect telling us to act like the redeemed children of God that we are, to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Our love is supposed to be our hallmark, the sign to the world that we belong to Jesus.

I wonder how much more peaceful our churches would be if this was more in evidence; or how much stronger our families and marriages would be if we consistently practiced this kind of love with our spouses and children, being kind and loving even when the other has hurt us.

The exciting thing is that we can.

Getting past the idea that love is a feeling is key. Love is action, and action involves a choice to be proactive instead of being driven by our emotions. When you try to love someone who is unkind or unlovely – not because of anything you might get out of it, but because it’s the right thing to do –  you aren’t being “phony” (certainly the lamest excuse on the planet); you’re being obedient to God’s law of love. We will certainly stumble, especially when we first decide to obey God this way, but I suspect it gets easier with practice, and God will help us if we ask Him (Hebrews 4:16).

Realizing this has tremendous practical implications, and is an important part of gaining a functional life in our relations with others. In his excellent book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduces the idea of an “emotional bank account” that we have with each person we know. When we rub with others, when we react with anger, or are the instigators ourselves, we make withdrawals from this emotional bank account. Eventually, we may go bankrupt, and from that point on things we say, even when offered with genuine motives, will be suspect. We won’t be given the benefit of the doubt, and motives may be attributed to our actions that aren’t even there. The person reacts negatively (when we thought we were being so nice), we get hurt, and respond with anger (which merely confirms the other’s suspicions): and a vicious cycle ensues.

If we are, on the other hand, proactive in our decision to love – when even in spite of the other person’s actions or reactions, we continue to make deposits – we’ll be cut some slack when we eventually mess up. The dynamic created is positive, and tends towards healing and reconciliation.

But there is an important caveat: if we want to mend our fences with someone, we must be patient. It may take a while to build trust, and we may have lots of deposits to make. Don’t expect a favourable reaction the first time out: but if you persist, love will truly win the day.

The same principle works in reverse as well. If we treat people with disdain, if we indulge in petty cruelties and snubs, we soon find it easier to hate.

Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing”. Doesn’t it stand to reason that in the light of eternity, “nothing” is what these human loves accomplish when compared to God’s love? Nature, with its cause-and-effect, reactive character, will be remade; only God’s love, self existent and underived, is eternal and unaffected by the reception it gets. He IS Love. When we separate from God, we are cut off from that kind of love. What remains is a pale imitation of it, and always contingent on the environment it finds itself in.  Love means vulnerability, and betrayal can cool one’s love in a heartbeat – unless it’s a disinterested love, a love that expects nothing in return, but loves because that is Its essence: God’s love. We need rather to be conduits for that kind of love, and for that to happen, we need to be reconnected.