Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why do we want to be awesome?

It hit me a couple of nights ago. The day had been crazy and busy and crammed full of good classes, and I spent the evening sitting around with dear friends, laughing and doing homework with a feeling of great accomplishment and satisfaction. Good fellowship, laughter, camaraderie, the joy of successfully helping others, managing to accomplish good things. Life was good that day, and I went to bed and lay there... completely confused and uncomfortable with life.

That was weird. I was happy. Really, I was so, so happy just then. And something was bugging me to death. It took a good while of lying in bed in the dark, arguing with my mind to try and get it to open up and tell me what was wrong. And finally, I realized that I want to not get what I want.

There are a thousand and one voices in my head. The thousand voices cry out for love, for happiness, for joy, for peace, for hope that does not disappoint, for dreams fulfilled. And they usually, but not always, drown out the one little voice, the one that wants me to be hurt and broken, wants to see my every hope cut off, my every dream crushed, my every love unrequited, my every desire trampled underfoot by the world without a second glance.

My favorite characters are always the noble, semi-tragic ones, who never give in despite all the darkness life can throw at them, the ones who love with all they've got and are never cared for in return, the Eponines who die for people who never loved them, who give up everything for something higher than themselves, whose own desires are cut off by their own nobility. And being a hopeless idealist, I want to be these most beautiful characters. I want to find the brightest star and reach for it.

(Photo credit.) Gratuitous superhero reference!

Thus the tiny disappointment with good days, the vaguely unsatisfied feeling I get from happiness. And maybe, after all, this is why I've this habit of opposing Aristotle so violently when he says that the good of man is happiness. (I know, I know, he was using the term to describe man fulfilling his purpose, but I still say that at least to some degree, he means happiness. Why else would he have used the term?) There's a noble pain that's lovelier than happiness, and I say it's better to have a lovely soul than a happy one.

Yes, there is justice, and you reap what you sow, so nobility does end in joy. Ultimately, happiness is tied to the good, sure. But what if it wasn't? Would we do the right thing even if it did us no good? Would we serve God though He slew us? Would we, if we could, agree to take Hell for someone even if we knew that we'd spend all of eternity in misery and that in that eternity, we would come to regret our decision? I know the world doesn't work that way, and I know that there's a way in which "if" is useless, because such things cannot change. But still, isn't happiness just a wonderful bonus to doing right? Happiness cannot be our aim, even if it leads us to seek virtue. We would then be making righteousness into an exercise in selfishness. Hypocrisy, that.

So my idealism tries to aim higher than happiness, tries to shoot instead for that specific sort of noble selflessness that is made more noble by the accompanying pain. And understand, Christianity and a certain, ultimate sort of idealism are actually quite compatible. God is good. God is sovereign. He loved me enough to die for me, and loves me still, and will love me forever. What's more idealistic than this worldview we Christians claim?

But at the same moment as I heard the idealism the little voice was saying, I also realized why I wanted that. Pride, people. It was all pride. I want to be awesome for pride's sake. I am disappointed in happiness because happiness doesn't satisfy my pride. I want to be noble because I want to be that beautiful. And that won't cut it. That's the funny thing about pride. It defeats its own purpose, because if you're proud, you've nothing to be proud of. Pride defiles whatever it glories in simply by its presence.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be awesome. We should rejoice in the prospect of goodness anywhere, even in ourselves, but if we want to be good so that we can have the pleasure of being good, then we defeat ourselves from the start.

What good is one who lays down their life for another just to be the noble character who gets killed? He wouldn't even be dying for his friend, then. He'd be dying for himself. In the end, it's no better than Aristotle's happiness. Virtue, goodness, nobility... If we seek them for happiness, we're just as selfish as villains. If we seek them for pride, are we any better then?

True nobility, that highest, most beautiful thing, is to forget about yourself so much that you are not concerned with whether or not you are beautiful. To be lovely because it's right, to be noble for a higher cause, and to seek all the glory not for oneself, but for God. And of course, the only way you get there is by being willing to be anything for God. Suffering? Sure. Living a quiet, unobtrusive, unglorious, happy life if that glorifies Him more? That too. To be "Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified," to completely forget ourselves in our effort to glorify Him. Paul said he had learned the secret to being content in all circumstances, good or bad. "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:12-13)

Am I wrong, friends? Isn't true greatness that which concerns itself not with its own greatness? Isn't true nobility that which is only noble because it cares so much about something outside of itself? Isn't true selflessness that which gives up everything and forgets itself entirely, except only as a tool for love? Isn't that truly good which lays itself down, pours itself out on the altar of goodness to be used however is best, rather than trying to take and claim goodness for itself?

So it turns out the best idealism was there in the Bible all along (surprise, surprise!), in a verse some dear friends and I were discussing this past Sunday: "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 first commandment.'" (Matthew 22:37-38) To give it all up, not for my own glory, but for Him. This is the bright star I mean to aim for. To be willing to be invisible if only others will see Christ through me, forgotten if only they remember Him because of me, unloved if only they will love Him in me. But to want this not so much because I want to be epic, but because of a simple, innocent wish that He will be seen and remembered and loved. To praise Him for the happiness as well as for the pain. To live in pure, unadulterated selflessness, to forget myself so that I can focus all of my being on God, to hardly even care what happens to me, just so long as He is glorified -- that is right.

Because life isn't about me. It's about Him. It's all about Him.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thoughts that ought to be obvious and are nigh impossible to keep in mind in daily life.

Every person is a soul.

Every day is a good gift from God.

Every circumstance is an opportunity to be epic.

Every room is a place of ministry.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Who Am I?

If this sounds like it was written in the middle of the night... it was.

This post is not about Les Mis, despite the title referencing one of the songs from said movie. (I liked it, but that's irrelevant.) But I do think it's interesting that the main character makes such a point of his identity, that he doubts it. It's one of those classic, fundamental questions, one of those harder-than-it-looks questions. Our attitudes are based on who we think we are. What we do flows from what we are. It's important, and it's confusing.

I've been thinking about who I am, recently, at my core. What defines me? I could, like Jean Valjean, answer the question with my name and leave it at that. I am whoever I am. I am my name. But that raises so many questions. Am I the me others see, am I my reputation, or am I whatever I want to be, or am I what I feel that I am? Am I my past, my aspirations, my beliefs, my actions...?

No. No, none of that defines me. I am Christ's. The rest is purely coincidental to my identity. And really, people, it's quite the identity.

Christ's. Whatever else I am, I belong to the world's Creator. I belong to the single greatest being who exists, the One who makes language look cheap when we try to describe Him, because He is beyond us. Infinitely. And I belong to Him. (Oh. Okay. Self-worth problem automatically taken care of. There is an inherent dignity in belonging to such a One. And of course, He calls me His beloved. Need for love likewise taken care of. I need no other love.)

Christ's. I don't belong to myself. My life is not my own. My life is not about me. It's not about what I am and do, but about what Christ is and did.

Christ's. I am redeemed. I am one for whom He died. Whatever I was before, whatever I am in and of myself, I am redeemed. I am saved. I am justified. I am spotless in the judge's eyes. And in my redemption, my identity is removed from myself and set in Christ, for when God looks at me, He doesn't see me, but the Son's righteousness. He sees not me, but one who belongs to the Son.

That is my identity. Whatever else I am falls away. I can be a sinner, a failure, a nobody who never did anything right or useful, I can be effectively invisible, but none of that is who I am. None of that is my identity. No, because I am Christ's.

And really, I think that's the only way to be joyful and honest at the same time. Self-esteem is a stupid idea, friends. It is not honest at all. Why would we esteem ourselves at all? We have no clue how wrong we are, how broken. We've never actually seen what we were supposed to be, and I have this idea that we don't, even in our most self-deprecating moments, know how far we've fallen. The only thing I deserve is Hell. That is all I have earned. But if we admit that, we must lead on to the truth, "But Christ has earned Heaven for me. I am His." Otherwise we are more honest about ourselves than those who cling to self-esteem, but we've nothing to rejoice over.

(Photo credit: my brother's skills) This is another philosophy that will fall short.  Because, sadly, you aren't Wolverine.

So my identity isn't in me. I have to put it elsewhere. And that leads to putting other things elsewhere. Joy. Peace. Hope. If you put them in yourself or other things or other people, you will be disappointed. You will break. The whole world, you with it, is up in the air, free-floating through space, and if you touch things, they move away. There's nothing to brace against, nothing to hold onto, no fixed point of reference, no fixed point of anything. Except God. Nothing moves Him. He's the constant. So you hand your heart over, you cling to Him with all you've got, you put your joy and peace and identity itself in Christ, and there alone it is perfectly safe, untouchable by both the mildest and the harshest of harms.

But of course, my joy and peace and identity aren't the point. He is. Those are naught but symptoms of knowing that all you really are is Christ's. You have to not care about those things before you can find them. You have to lose your life, lose it in Him, to find it. You have to be willing to give up everything, not temporarily, but to give up your grip on them eternally, and you will find them in your hand. Such things do not take to gripping.

I'm not saying that you should put your identity in Christ so that you can be happy. I'm saying that if your identity isn't in Christ, you shouldn't be happy until it is, and if it is, then for heaven's sake rejoice! Be at peace, be content, be glad, be hopeful, for your identity is invincible. Even if all of that didn't result from giving oneself to Christ, one still ought to do it, just as much, simply because it is right, and simply because He is glorious and beautiful. But idealism meshes surprisingly well with realism, and God is not only just, but merciful. (That's the fun of Christianity. You get to be an optimist, a pessimist, an idealist, and a realist all at the same time. Then you confuse everyone to death, which is also tremendously fun.)

Yet again, I'm deciding that truth is unexpectedly simple. It's all the lies that are so complicated. Granted, the truth is often incomprehensible, but it's the simplest things that are the most beyond us. It's the most concise that are the most grand. So God is good, and I am Christ's. Simple, yes, but I don't understand it. It doesn't make any sense to me. But I love it, and it's true.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Truth is deceptively simple. It's also happy.

In which I ramble rather disjointedly. A lot.

It's funny to me that deep down, we all know that words don't inherently mean anything. They only mean what we mean by them. So we forget, sometimes, what the real meanings are behind the little words we say. Sometimes they sound so small, and they sound so insufficient and flat, and especially when the idea we are trying to express is inexpressible, our phrases become trite, both in our minds and in our conversations.

We say that God is good, but I wonder if we know what we mean by it. I wonder, too, whether or not we would find that we were right if we did know what we meant.

Granted, I don't think anyone really knows what is meant by God. We can spend our lives discussing just Who He is, and certain things we know, but we can never grasp it. It is too wonderful for us. It will take all of eternity to even begin comprehending this, and already, I feel in over my head in what I do know.

And what of "good"? An enigmatic little word, that. It is, I suppose, the broadest positive expression we have. Things can smell good, look good, be good morally... There is no end to the uses. Which, of course, is why one is sometimes told not to use it when writing specific description. It's too broad for that. You can't possibly mean all the uses of good when you are talking about a bowl of soup. Soup is good in its own way, but it is not good in the way of a butterfly or of the sky or of a just judge. You probably also don't mean that it is the best soup you have ever tasted. All you mean is that it isn't bad. You have positive feelings toward the soup. (I know, I know, bear with me. Analogies always sound weird.) If you wanted to say more than that, you would embellish and say something more exciting, something more convincing, to pin down just how good the soup really is.

This makes it a bit surprising when you come to the Bible's statement that "God is good." Unqualified. Unspecified. Unembellished. Just good.

When we say that God is good, we aren't just saying that He isn't bad, and we aren't even saying that He excels in a particular point. He is good. The phrase needs no qualification, because unlike your situation with the bowl of soup, you do mean every single use of good in this context. He is beautiful, just, satisfying, strong, gentle... Everything you can rightly call good is found in its deepest sense in Him. And why embellish it? Once you try to say just how good He is, you're setting a limit. But there isn't any limit, and I suppose that is why the phrase is so simple. It leaves the door open for God's goodness to reach as high and as deep and as wide as it really does, beyond the comprehension of our minds.

He is good. In the deepest, truest, broadest, most terrifyingly brilliant way imaginable. And of course, more than that, because our imaginations cannot do it justice. He is the sort of good you recognize at the happiest moments of your life, at the times when you see beauty so stunning that you cannot speak, at the times when music makes your skin tingle, at the times when someone treats you so kindly and gently that you start to cry, and you cannot understand it. And those are just shadows of how good He is. Tastes. Whiffs. Touches. Glimpses.

If I had to boil down everything, everything, to a single statement of truth, if the whole universe could somehow be compacted, sucked into a tiny pinpoint of reality, and then named, I would say, "God is good." I am alive because He is good, and somehow His goodness motivated Him to make me. Same for every other person. Same for every creature, every thing, every material, every atom that exists. He is sovereign (I suppose that's some of what we mean by "God" -- a being that is in control of it all), and He is good, and therefore everything is as it is because in some way or other, He in His goodness wanted it so. Every question in the world, if you trace it back long enough, is answered by those three words.

The world in which we live is the story that this God, the God Who is good, has written. I think it is safe to say that the story will be good as well. Deeply, broadly, breath-takingly good. So take heart, friends. Take heart, and marvel, and rejoice always, for God is good.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Moderation? No.

This is really long. I'm sorry.

I guess it displays a certain arrogance, a certain indecorous gutsyness and impertinence, to call into question the ancient philosophers on a point on which almost everyone agrees with them. I don't mean to be indecorous and arrogant. I just think they're wrong. The odds are against me here. I admit that. And maybe I am wrong, but please, hear me out, and then tell me how absurd I am.

We in Western Civilization have this idea of moderation. We've had it for a long, long time. We all know it, and it's deeply embedded in us, deeply accepted. There's a ditch on both sides, we say. Take the middle road. Don't be extreme. Not too much, not too little.

(Photo credit.)
Please understand, I'm not saying this is entirely wrong. I'm not saying we should all go jump in the ditches and do too much or too little. I just think the paradigm we use gives the wrong idea. It gives the idea that we should not be extreme about anything, that we should live moderate lives. I honestly think that's a terrible way to see it. It is, in any case, for anyone who thinks like me. (If you don't think even a little bit like me, then you probably have no clue what any of my posts are talking about, so you've probably already left, and my only remaining audience is somewhat sympathetic to my bizarre brain. Thus, I will continue boldly.)

We were made in God's image, right? As believers we are being conformed to the image of His Son. Well, people, God is not moderate. God is the most extreme thing I can think of. He is more good than Hitler was evil, more bright than the darkest pit. He created a world, a magnificent but earthy world, and He weaved a story for it. All the most extreme things in that tale, all the things that shock us, are far less extreme than their Maker. Whenever we try to describe Him, we end up with a long list of words that all start with "omni" - "all." All-knowing, all-powerful, all-present. Etc, etc, etc. But this is not a problem, because all of His extremeness, so to speak, is directed at His goodness. And then, like I said, we are made in His image, and we are to try and emulate His character, so we should be extreme too. Extremely good.

And now you say, "Well, of course, but you've changed tracks, haven't you?" I know. I have indeed, and that's sort of my point. The moderation paradigm doesn't work with those things which are greatest, those things which we are told to "think on" in Philippians 4:8. ("Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Not exactly a moderate-sounding list, by the way.)

We were talking about avoiding being extreme in vices at first. Now, when we switch to God and goodness, we are talking about being extreme in virtues. These are obviously not contradictory ideas. Avoiding the bad, embracing the good. But guys, by the moderation paradigm, goodness is defined as moderation. As walking the narrow road between the vices. How is it possible, therefore, to be extremely good within this paradigm? Extremely moderate? What does that even mean? This is where I think our philosophy is messed up.

(Photo credit.) Completely irrelevant. BUT ISN'T IT GREAT?
I'm all for avoiding vices. But I would suggest that the way to do so is not to be moderate, but to be as extreme as one possibly can in the right direction.

Maybe I'm the only one who has this problem, but whenever I try to think about life through the moderation paradigm, I end up with this image of myself simply bouncing back and forth from one side of the road to the other, never really getting anywhere because I'm so focused on the ditches. Maybe, too, I'm making a mountain out of a mole-hill, but at least for me it's a big deal. I mean, granted, it's just a matter of syntax, a matter of preferred expression. But I think it's important, because as our words go, so often go our minds and hearts.

You see, I know that moderate doesn't mean mediocre, but does your brain know that after you've drilled into it that one should always avoid the extremes? If we talk like the only thing to be concerned with is avoiding the ditches, and if goodness is only ever expressed in the negative (being good is not being bad), then I think we will begin to believe that all there is and all that is required is the not-bad. In other words, the mediocre. The staying out of trouble. And even that will be hard to accomplish, because when you look at the ditches, you have a tendency to fall into them.

Likewise, you never can shoot straight if you're afraid of shooting the wrong thing. You must simply be single-mindedly aiming at the target. Really, why should we even refer to ditches at all? It's all the same problem: not focusing on what we ought to be focused on.

Tullian Tchividjian's book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (I recommend it; as in, go get it right now, or if you know me, borrow it from me asap, because I intentionally got an extra copy for lending since it is so awesome) gives a good example of this. He's talking about legalism and license in the Christian life, and explaining that people typically think that you get legalism from focusing too much on the law and license from focusing too much on grace. No, you don't. You get them both from focusing too much on your own performance and too little on grace. Grace is what saves you from both. Your performance, whether breaking or keeping the law, simply isn't the point.

Life's not a balance. It's a high-dive into God's grace. You can't focus too much on that. You can't focus too much on Christ. You can't focus too much on goodness. That's the funny thing about truly, deeply good things: you can't get too much of them, and when you throw yourself into them without holding back, the moderation that you're looking for falls into place. Of course you don't eat too much chocolate. You don't need more chocolate. Chocolate is not what you're looking for. But you don't shun chocolate. You enjoy it like never before, because it's a lovely part of the world your Father has given you.

Moderation is a by-product, people. There are a lot of those, a lot of by-products of pursuing God with everything you've got and more. A pet-peeve of mine is when people see the by-products and think that this is the goal. Aristotle does this with happiness. It drives me nuts. Happiness and moderation are just things you happen to get when you're lost in God. They're symptoms, to put it another way. But if you try for happiness, and if you try for moderation, without first trying for godliness... you get nothing.

So friends, if you still like the moderation paradigm, fine. If it doesn't confuse your brain or impede you, and if you can still keep in your mind that when it comes to goodness, extremism is an admirable thing, then go for it. But I'm ditching the paradigm. (Pun totally intended. You're welcome.) It ties me up into thinking that mediocrity is somehow the safe option, and therefore the best. I don't want to be mediocre. I want to be radically good and extremely godly. I want to fix my eyes, to fix my whole being on the unspeakable awesomeness of God. I want to be emptied of myself, and to be nothing but a vessel for His glory. I want to forget myself and run the race before me for Him. I have no greater ambition.


I will be overwhelmed by what I see, 
By what I hear and smell and touch and taste,
By everything I understand and know, 
For in it all I'm overwhelmed by thee.

In darkness I'll be overwhelmed by grief,
But darkness sets a foil for your light,
And thou art proved anew by gaping holes,
For you can overflow them, only you.

I will be overwhelmed by this, the time,
By every hour, minute, every day,
I will be overwhelmed that every moment
Is its own perfect, precious gift from thee.

I will be overwhelmed by who and what
And when and where I am, for I am yours,
And I live in your world beneath your will,
And you will win this battle -- You have won!

I will be overwhelmed, for all my life,
The more I look, the less I'll see but thee,
Until I find there's nothing else to say
But "Goodness reigns," -- by this I'm overwhelmed.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Mental architecture, whatever that is.

Warning: this post really doesn't have a point. I suppose I'm writing it because I'm trying to work out this idea in my head, so I thought I'd try putting it down on paper -- er, blogger. Also, it might help you, dear reader, to understand any future posts and why they do not make any sense. Haha.

I can't think in a straight line. My thought process could not pass a sobriety test, ever.

It's pitiful, really. Pathetic. But true. Most people who are thinkers, the sort of people who will intentionally reason things out, who like to sit around and contemplate life, think in a straight line. At least, I suppose they do. I wouldn't really know. But it certainly seems like they do, judging from the way they talk and write and debate. I'm guessing that they think from point A to point B, and the entire point of the thought process is to see if the two points are really connected, and how. They don't want to get lost on the way, they don't want to make an error, so they walk carefully, step by logical step, and find out whether the logical process between these two points is valid and sound.

How logical. How practical. How useful for those friendly arguments where you're trying to convince someone of your opinion, or at the very least explain why you hold certain opinions. How useful for finding out the truth.

I admire this process. I admire people who are good at it. I love to listen to them explain exactly what I think. And sometimes I try to think in a straight line. It is a skill I have yet to acquire.

I don't think from point A to point B. I play connect-the-dots in my head, partly because I want to understand the universe, but partly just for the fun of it. So when one person says, "Ah, here is point A. Let us cautiously set out and logically walk a straight line and see if the path from here to point B, over yonder, is really valid, is really sound," I say, "Hey, look, two points! Wouldn't it be cool if they connected, and maybe they do! If they did, where would they fit in with all the other dots? What other connections can I make here? What if point A connected to point B, which connected to point C and also to point K (which would be extra cool because those two letters make the same sound) [no, really, my brain actually is spastic enough to think things like that]. And how does this affect my picture as a whole?"

So apparently I'm a big picture person, to the max. The details bore me. While normal, more logical people are trying to establish the truth, I'm making theories and getting more and more off-topic every moment. If I try to focus in and figure the connection out, even if I succeed in staying detailed and not mentally leaping and bounding and praising God for the forest and not for the trees, I lose sight of where I'm going. I get lost in the woods, and I wander around aimlessly getting myself all confused. Again, I can't think in a straight line.

Then I get frustrated, give up on that, and zoom back out to play connect-the-dots again.

Friends, it's inconvenient.

Someone asks me my opinion on predestination. I try to answer. Before I notice what I'm doing, they ask, "Wait, are we talking about the perseverance of the saints?"... Nooo... Of course we aren't. We are talking about predestination. Only I somehow decided that the two were interconnected, so I randomly switched without telling you why or even hinting at how I thought they were connected. So I try to get back to predestination, but within two sentences, I notice that I'm talking about Aristotle's concept of "the good," and why I disagree with him. My friend does not see the relevance. Frankly, I'm not sure what it is either. I'm pretty sure there's a line between those two dots. I glanced over and thought I saw one. But I never took the time to walk it out and figure out exactly how they were connected, if in fact they were at all. I was too busy skipping from thought to thought like a stone on the water. And as far as explaining the connections... well, even if I could, that would take too long. I want to cover as many dots as possible in as little time as possible.

So I'm bad at explaining things. And honestly, sometimes I don't know what I think, because my head is so full of theories, and proving them isn't as interesting to me as making them in the first place.

Once, I took a personality test and looked up my result to see a description of my "type." One website called me a "mental architect." I thought that was interesting. Also, disturbingly accurate. I'm too busy building a big picture, a structure for my way of looking at the world, at the universe, at life, tracing from point to point to point, to focus on each individual line.

(Photo credit) Oh look, it's the architect from one of my favorite movies ever, and her name happens to be Ariadne... What a coincidence, right? ;)

It's fun. It's glorious fun. And you know, somehow, it must be a good thing. It must be useful. God would not have given me a spastic brain unless it was going to turn out to be some sort of good. So even though it's as inconvenient as all get-out, I'm hoping it's a talent of some sort. But I still want to try and develop the discipline of slowing down and cautiously taking the mental sobriety test of walking  point A to point B, without skipping off to other concepts as soon as I decide there might be a reasonable connection. It takes me years, usually, to figure out exactly how the connections work, and even then, it's usually because I just finally gathered enough dots that they filled in the line better, and I found I could explain it. It took me years to figure out what I'm telling you here, and it's still a struggle for me to stay on-topic and not go enthusiastically making random connections without ever explaining how they work. Writing is useful here. Especially when you're writing to an audience that expects you to make sense. (Gosh. Talk about pressure.)

So I'm trying to learn. I'm trying to figure out how to slow down in my brain and pass a mental sobriety test. But if I post things and you find that I'm not making sense, just laugh and shake your head and imagine me gleefully playing a game of connect-the-dots in my head, or imagine me looking up, all awed and fascinated like Ariadne in the picture above.