Why wisdom is so difficult

From where I sit, one of the most urgent needs for everyday people, especially believers, is wisdom. Actively cultivating wisdom is difficult even when such a pursuit is universally acknowledged to be worthwhile. How hard is it when almost everything in a society is encouraging the abandonment of wisdom, the suspension of careful thinking, and outsourcing virtuous belief to political tribes? I fear losing wisdom is a loss that compounds interest. The less of it you have, the less of it you can recognize.

Why has wisdom become more difficult to cultivate? Here are three main stumbling blocks I see:

1) The spiritual problem

By this I mean more than unbelief and the noetic effects of sin. Yes, those are real and devastating. But they’re also evergreen; they’re never not problems. The spiritual problem I have in mind here is the loss of common spirituality and community virtue. Call it polarization, call it identity politics, call it what you want: it’s a fundamental loss of shared religious and moral commitments. I’m not pining for “civic religion,” but it does seem to me that the alternative to Christ-less public spirituality ought not to be social disintegration.

The reason cultivating wisdom is threatened by social fragmentation is that wisdom assumes its own possibility. To be wise is to look at disparate things in life and understand them coherently. In an age of expressive individualism, we despair of the possibility of understanding. It’s why we stop thinking and start asserting our own right to self-definition. A friend of mine recently sent me this passage from Charles Taylor:

That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demand of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed,’ as Bloom says. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.

2) The technological problem

On this issue Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been a revelation for me. We simply do not talk enough about technology’s potential to radically alter public epistemology. One of the points Carr makes in the book is that the printed reading and internet reading position reader much differently. Printed reading, especially after Gutenberg, centered the individual reader and asked him to come to terms with ideas and arguments that could be presented in a linear structure. Internet reading, however, de-centers the reader and centers the disparate elements of digital text: hyperlinks, comments, etc. Internet reading blurs the lines between receiving meaning and giving back interpretation, which is one reason why trolling is effective at altering people’s perceptions of an idea.

As daily reading shifts almost entirely online, linear thought is threatened by “loaded” digital forms. An embedded link can transform the context of an argument. A “related article” or algorithm can imply logical connections subliminally but illegitimately. Comments, tweets, and “Likes” manipulate our intuitive response to written words. This is all noise—noise that handicaps the authentic pursuit of wisdom. Instead of becoming wise we are often becoming marketers. Minutia dominates our emotions. We see enemies where algorithms tell us to enemies. We lose wisdom in the weeds of the online jungle.

3) The tribal problem

Our response to the above problems leads to the third wisdom roadblock: hyper-tribalism. In the absence of thick communities of shared value, the internet atomizes and manipulations our thought, making judgments simultaneously more difficult and more instant. The only logical thing to do is to preserve our energy by letting political categories think for us. We “sort, lump, and dismiss” ideas instead of engaging with them. We lose the ability to communicate as words become hijacked by movements. Everything is ideology, ideology is everything.

Biblical wisdom is about perceiving the way God designed the world and patterning our thought and life accordingly. Wisdom is living in reality: the reality of divine providence, grace, judgment, mercy, and design. All three of these roadblocks to wisdom plunge us into unreality. We are left adrift by fragmentation, tricked by technology, and rendered passive by tribalism. I’ll say more later about this. For now I’m trying to look more soberly into my own intellectual and spiritual habits to see traces of these problems. I know they’re there. They don’t have to be.

It feels wrong to think about anything else (that’s why we must)

This is probably the most captivated the collective American imagination has been since 9/11. COVID-19 dominates the news and reminds us of its existence every day (and will continue doing so). The stakes are as high as life and death. It feels pointless to try to think about anything else. In fact, it feels wrong. How can we peel our soul away from awareness, prayer, acts of kindness, and watchfulness to indulge in things like literature or film? Isn’t that trying to flee from stress into the arms of indifference?

I’m reminded of a passage in The Return of the King. After the captains of the West decide to sacrifice themselves in a sure-to-be-crushed march on Sauron’s black gate, Imrahil, the Steward of Gondor, reminds them that they must leave an army behind to guard what’s left of the kingdom.

To prudence some heed must still be given. For we must prepare against all chances, good as well as evil. Now, it may that we shall triumph, and while there is any hope of this, Gondor must be protected. I would not have us return with victory to a City in ruins and a land ravaged behind us.

Imrahil is the only one of the Captains who considers that they might emerge victorious. The whole point of the march is to invite the full weight of Sauron’s army onto them, distracting attention away from Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom. Gandalf counsels that they have “little hope for ourselves.”

But then it works! Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom and the ring is destroyed. The lone voice that showed concern for defending what is left rather than throwing everything at the imminent threat is proven wise.

Here’s the point. To be supremely urgent is not to be exclusively important. This isn’t a sneaky way to argue against lockdown measures. Yes, the economy matters, and unemployment kills people too, but triage exists for a reason. My point is not political, it’s spiritual. Our temptation now is to abandon any thought or attention toward non-pandemic things, because those things are not supremely urgent. Our temptation is to turn absolutely everything into a parable for getting through coronavirus. But in so doing, we risk leaving the soul unguarded.

Worship of politics, a long-term problem in American culture and especially in evangelicalism, will intensify in the aftermath of COVID-19. This pandemic will fill the minds of many so completely that the things of heaven will grow strangely dim. That’s part of what makes global tragedy so tragic. This virus will kill people, economies, and it will try to kill minds and hearts. We have limited power over those first two. The third, however, is a willing surrender. We can resist it by actively cultivating a love and pursuit of truth and beauty that transcends utility.

As difficult as it seems, we must try to redirect our gaze away from this pandemic. Even as I write those words I hear the inner critic saying, “Come on. Is this what you would say to someone holding a hand in a hospital bed, or someone who can’t even bury their loved one?” No, that’s not what I would say to them right now. But it is what I would say eventually. The generational wreckage, the elevation of political conscientiousness as the highest moral state and activism as the most pious sacrament, is not going to happen because bereaved people grieve their loss. It’s going to happen because people who didn’t lose nearly as much will write and Tweet and preach in such a way to justify the idolatry that existed long before the coronavirus.

The city must be left manned. Why? Because of victory. The possibility of preserving life means preserving the things that give life meaning. While there is any hope, the eternal things must be defended. Today it feels wrong to think about anything other than a pandemic. That’s precisely the reason we must try.

 

Not Magic, But Not Nothing

On New Years and the gift of seasons.

The sophisticated critic looks at Western people, coming up with their New Years resolutions and commitments and “fresh starts,” and decries it as arbitrary. “There is nothing about a calendar that makes personal change more likely or more desirable,” he might say. The fetishizing of New Years, he observes, merely fills gyms in the winter and empties them in May. Genuine personal transformation doesn’t wait for a date. It comes out of a deeper need or realization and is authentically now, awake to the realities of the moment, not tethered to vague ideas of yearly progress.

To which I would say: Yes, but also no.

A secular age is also a rhythm-less age. In the absence of spiritual practices deeply embedded into cultural fabric, we are left only with raw motivation. This is generation burnout, an era where the people most immersed in the language of self-care are the same ones likely to working 60 hour weeks, binging Netflix alone in the downtime. The tell is how the word “work” has been displaced by the word “hustle.” It’s not enough to work at something; now one must have a lifestyle of frenetic motion.

Smartphone technology has destroyed our sense of seasonality and place. Selfies at Holocaust memorials don’t indicate disrespect as much as they signal the blurring of life into overlapping lines. You’re supposed to be following up on email the same time you’re having dinner. Keep up the social media clout as you vacation with the kids. Take the artsy photo of the pastor preaching while you reflect and pray. Everything is an occasion for everything else. There is no rhythm, no seasons, and certainly no sabbath. For a people allegedly domineered by the tyranny of the clock, we increasingly have absolutely no sense of time.

This is why I would push back against the New Years critic. One can agree that genuine transformation and improvement has nothing to do with the Julian calendar, while at the same time giving thanks for the persistence of one of our final truly cultural seasons. That people look to the New Year as an opportunity is a testimony to how wired the human soul is for seasons. There is something about coinciding the rising of the sun to the turning of the page that resonates deep within us. A Christian would suggest this is the resonance of an image-bearer being in tune with the physical realm he was created to help subdue and fill with glory. New Years Day is not magic, but it very well might be spiritual.

Looking to a New Year as a chance to walk more confidently in those good works we were created for is good. Slavish devotion to self-help mantras don’t usually stick, for the same reason that New Years discounts on gym memberships look less alluring in May than they did in January. Without continual awareness of the season Giver, we will almost always blur the seasons into a morass, trying with finite, self-oriented strength to once again do everything at once, be our own savior, and receive validation from the idols that broke our hearts last year. One of the great realizations of walking with Christ is that as we keep closer and closer to him, we get rest, we get order, and we get strength. He knows what the human soul needs, and he gives it freely. It’s a mistake if we think we can only receive it once a year. It’s also a mistake if we miss an annual chance to remind ourselves of it.

There Are No Extraordinary Means

We all want extraordinary fixes to our problems. God’s given us ordinary ones instead.

I’m suspicious that one reason older generations of Christians tended to be skeptical toward ambition—even calling it a sin on occasion—is that they were able to see something more clearly than we moderns can. Life in the 21st century West is by definition fast, mobile, and wandering. If you want to do something else, you can. If you want to be something else, you can. For most people alive right now there’s never been another reality except this one. Like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous illustration, we don’t really see this, we simply live within it.

Older saints, on the other hand, were more likely to see freedom and upward mobility as a singular thing, something that stood out when someone you knew claimed it surrounded by family and friends and community that were more or less resigned to their lot in life. For moderns ambition is ambient, but for them it was a condition with a definable list of attributes and consequences.

My point is this: When you’re removed from something in this way, removed enough to recognize it as something other and not just swim in it, you probably have a better angle of vision on it than others. And I think one thing that these older Christians saw within ambition was a rule of diminishing return with spiritual side effects. It’s what I’m learning right now in my own life and thinking:

There’s always something else.

The problem with most species of ambition is not that they seek good change or more success or greater mastery. The problem is that most species of ambition are self-referential. Ambitious people don’t generally say they want to make a million dollars or start 3 companies or earn 2 doctorates. They don’t put numbers to their ambition. They simply say, “I’m ambitious,” by which they mean, “I’m always moving.” The constancy and restlessness shift from the means to the end. Spiritually speaking, continual dissatisfaction—a resilient inability to say, “Ok, I’m good now”—has almost always been flagged as dangerous.

But it’s not just material ambition. What about spiritual ambition? Recently in my reading I came across this sentence from a theologian and it stopped me in my tracks: “There are no extraordinary means of grace in the Christian life.” I lingered over that line for a while as it delivered a broadside to most of my Christian walk. How many years have I spent as a believer earnestly, diligently, even tirelessly, seeking an extraordinary means by which I would finally feel the intimacy with Christ I desire and the temptations that beset me just fall off like sawdust? The matter-of-factness of that sentence pummeled me. That one book, that one sermon, that one conference or that one conversation I’m looking for to put all the jagged parts of my spiritual life into an incandescent whole…it does not exist. There’s always something else to do, but there are no extraordinary means of grace.

Extraordinary means are what most people want: in their spiritual lives, in their careers, and even in politics. Most political discourse, at least in the US, can be reduced to the following formula:

My unique solution + my unique implementation – the obnoxious, interchangeable input of others = the outcome you want.

This is one reason why politicians always contrast, and almost never compare, the current moment with history. You never hear things like, “This is exactly the kind of problem we were facing in 1930, and here’s what we learned then.” What you hear is some variation of, “We are at a utterly unique moment in our history and this is the most important election of our lifetime.” Nobody even cares that most adults can remember when the same politicians said the same words about the election four years ago. We just expect potential leaders to say this, possibly because we want it to be true.

Extraordinary means are sold everywhere. I love how Scott Alexander summarizes therapy lit:

All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root.

What we want are extraordinary fixes to ordinary problems. In this desire we miss the reality that there’s always something else to fix, there’s always something else to do, and there’s always something we’ll miss. Looking for extraordinary means is a roadmap to variously intense levels of personal frustration.

Ordinary means of grace are sufficient because our problems are ordinary. This is one of the things that becomes gloriously clear when you read books older than your parents, or heck, even when you just talk to your parents. The market of extraordinary means thrives in direct proportion to how little we are aware of the past, of the lives of others, or even the nature of objective reality. When you become hermetically sealed in the present, ordinary becomes a synonym for “ineffective.” The gnawing craving for a spectacular new solution becomes like water to a fish: all we know.

Consider the case of someone trying to break a pornography habit. I know from experience that the temptation here to look for an extraordinary means of grace—the one book, the one article—is overwhelming. This is why I’m almost to the point where I wish evangelicals would write a little bit less about porn. It’s become the topic du jure for Christian living content pieces (particularly those trying to get the attention of male readers), but I wonder if the sheer amount of words about overcoming pornography actually betray the most reliable sources of grace–namely, the church, the Word, and the ordinances. None of these things automatically destroy a guy’s porn habit. But what if God knows that, and still intends them to be the primary conduits of transformation? What if God values the kind of change that these ordinary means offer more than he values the speed which books and sermons implicitly offer?

Consider someone who is unsure about their future or calling. She’s stuck in what sure looks like a dead-end job, or a fruitless ministry, or an exhausting care-taking role. There’s a good chance she’ll attend the Christian conference looking for that one plenary message that will illuminate and inspire and create lasting satisfaction and contentment. What if the plenary messages all took the opportunity to say, “Actually, what you’re going through is normal, God is doing something good through it, and he’s given you a community of believers, his word, the ministry of prayer, and the Lord’s Supper to sustain you in this season?” That’s not going to sell many books. But it’s true.

I’ve been both of these people at different times of my life. I’m finally coming to the realization that there’s always something else; an extraordinary means will just run out of gas and leave two more issues for every one it seemed to fix. This is why ordinary means are so much better. They’re not for sale and they don’t expire. The URL won’t break and the guru won’t commit a moral failing. They’re wonderfully, gloriously, there, have been there, and will be there. Just like our troubles, and just like his grace.

The Outer Ring

On learning wisdom from the Wrong Kind of People.

The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.

What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”

There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”

In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:

“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.

What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.

A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)

Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. 

The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.

The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.

My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.

Faithfulness With a Full Quiver

At 18-years-old, in the midst of goofing off with friends and playing a lot of Call of Duty, I discovered that I wanted to work in ministry. After support and confirmation from pastors, mentors, friends, and family, I decided that I needed to go to seminary. Five years later, my goal was the same, but my circumstances could not have been more different. I was married with a newborn, finishing my undergraduate degree online, working a full time labor job, and I was the youth director at my home church. Before we got married, my wife and I both knew seminary was on the horizon. But even though we were confident in this trajectory of our life, it was not easy. See, I inefficiently made my way through my online undergraduate program. I did fine, but it was time consuming and extremely taxing, and if I was going to put my young family through one of the more difficult seminary curriculum in the country, something had to give regarding productivity.

Thus, my search for productivity hacks began. It wasn’t long however until I ran into a significant but not surprising problem: Most of the “productivity lit” is  curated for the unmarried and childless audience. Some of the advice was just not going to cut it given my position. When I finally entered seminary and began this new stage of life, I happened to find a few work habits that helped my family and I survive what was the most difficult season of our life (thus far). To be sure, no one magic trick makes taking 16-18 units a semester, working part-time, and being a husband and dad to 2 babies easy (yes, we had another one during seminary). However, some methods and habits made it less strenuous.

Early Mornings or Late Nights?

Whether you are working on a side project, or pursuing higher education, an inevitable choice to make is whether you will do your work early in the morning or late at night. While the option is up to you, I believe early mornings are the preferred choice. Here are three reasons why:

  • You can look forward to ending the day with family. If you know you have a significant amount of work to get to after the kids get to bed, you will be distracted all through your dinner and the kid’s bedtime routine. This is unavoidable at times, sure, but you do not want to give your already distracted mind anymore excuses to be absentminded. An increased workload will inevitably effect your entire family, but you are the one who should bear the most inconvenient schedule, not your family. This was honestly the least I could do given the circumstances, but in all of life, if it comes down to your family spending and exhausting themselves for your efficiency, or you doign that for them, the choice is obvious. Plus, if the work you would typically do at night is out of the way before the day begins, then you can look forward to your time with your family as the capstone to your day.
  • You can start your work fresh, rather than tired. Albeit, you will be tired and groggy if you wake up at 4am, but this does not last long. The opposite is true if you stay up late, where you only grow more tired. The full range of experiences through a day is taxing, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Moreover, with kids and a spouse, their day’s experiences, good and bad, become things you bear as well. If you practice rejoicing with and weeping with your family, this is difficult to shut off only to focus on tedious or technical work.
  • You need Scripture and prayer. Perhaps you think early mornings will allow you the extra time to write a blog post a day, get ahead in school assignments, or get through a week’s worth of email, or whatever. That may be, but in this life, our workload is never-ending. Your work will not naturally mitigate itself; it will take over your life if you let it. As long as there is extra time in the morning for work, there is extra time (even if it’s a small amount) for focused and intentional time spent in prayer and hearing from God’s word. I have many regrets during my time in seminary, allowing my work to overrun this part of my life more often than I care to admit is at the very top.

For myself, early mornings amount to waking up at 4am. While in seminary, this gave me at least 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work every day. The main reason, however, that I maintained this routine through seminary was that I was not willing to sacrifice Saturdays for studying. When I did study on the weekend, it was minimal. My wife and I did not look at weekends as “free time,” but a time that we needed to especially strengthen ourselves and our little ones through rest and creativity. Part and parcel to weekends is time without mandatory obligations; for the most part, there is no work, no class, no meetings, etc. I suggest taking full advantage of days like these, not to get extra work done, but to cultivate memorable and meaningful times with your kids and spouse.

Think in time, not assignments or projects.

Suffice it to say; time is of the essence when you have a young family. If you think of all you have to do to merely get through the day, from breakfast to bath and bedtime, not to mention additional work or projects, it can all feel overwhelming. What works against parents with young kids is when our work and goals are ambiguous. For instance, if our to-do list looks like this: “write paper for class,” “lose weight,” “workout,” “build dining room table,” etc., chances are when we look at this, it will feel overwhelming.

A friend in seminary helped me find a solution to the problem of ambiguity. His advice was that you want to see every single thing you have to do in one place, namely, your calendar. What this looked like was, instead of carrying around six different syllabi, I merged them all into one master list. Now that I had a master list of everything I needed to do each week to complete the entire semester, I evaluated each assignment in terms of minutes/hours. When I saw a 120-page reading assignment, I translated that to 4 hours of reading, and then I scheduled those hours in my calendar. This is easier said than done because depending on the master list of your project; this can take a day’s work by itself. While we might think we do this in our heads naturally, I advise against that. When you put something on paper, you begin to see what it’s going to take to accomplish it. An equivalent to this would be a reminder on your calendar that, instead of saying, “go to the gym,” it should contain the entire regiment of your workout over the span of 13 weeks. If you know what you need to accomplish in a specific amount of time to achieve goal or project x, it alleviates a significant amount of the stress around each task in your schedule.

The opposite of this is seen in TV shows and movies, where a character is struck with inspiration over goal or project x, and they stay up all night working on it to finish at sunrise. That’s a convenient way to move the story forward, but it is nothing to be modeled. If we wait for a sudden burst of inspiration to climb our proverbial Mt. Everest, we will get nowhere. By all means, strike when the iron is hot, but do not depend on those creative bursts of energy to propel you through our work.

Keeping a detailed and broken down to-do list also gives you feedback on your performance. If you had an hour to read 25 pages and you only read 18, you can chalk it up to being distracted or less than diligent with your time.

I cannot stress how beneficial this is for your spouse, as well. Ambiguity in your schedule equates to ambiguity and frustration in the life of your marriage. Seminary was extremely hard on my wife and I, and the hardest days were those that my wife was not qued in on what I needed to accomplish that day. While my vocation changed as a student, my wife’s work changed as well. Her workload increased immensely, not only because we had another child in seminary but because I was not always home to do the tasks that were normally mine. For the most part I did spend my time well and worked diligently, but there was also a good many lunch hours spent pontificating with my friends and classmates. Communication regarding my tasks each day created a needed sense of stability for us and gave us a “light at the end of the tunnel” to look forward to.

Do not reinvent the wheel.

Much of the advice on productivity begins with, “just do it.” This advice focuses on people’s hesitancy to start whatever they want to do: write, workout, go to school, etc. However, as I learned in seminary, having a strong work ethic is pointless if you are working in the wrong direction. For my first Greek quiz, we had to do the simple task of writing out the alphabet by memory. I memorized the alphabet alright, but I shuffled my flashcards, so when I sat down to take my first quiz, I realized I had no idea the order of the alphabet. Rookie mistake, right? That’s precisely the point. If we assume we know how to accomplish even the most straightforward task, we are likely missing out on the more efficient methods of our friends and peers. It was through friends in seminary that I learned that the bibliographies of journal articles are the best place to look for resources for my papers, that memorizing 20 pages of 10 point font is possible by memorizing the outlines of topics, and that studying for an exam also means studying with the peculiarities of each professor in mind. Reading self-help material outside of the work you are in can only take you so far. You have to find someone who has been there and done that. You won’t only need their advice, but you will need someone who can genuinely empathize with you because your spouse will not always want to commiserate about your work. They will help share the burden in other ways without having to “get it,” and that’s completely fine.

Conclusion

While the worksheets, schedules, and productivity hacks ultimately belong to the realm of common grace, an essential truth for Christians to remember in our work is how God is at work in us. Sanctification is a particular work, in that it is ongoing, and it employs our actions. Even though we are never told to justify ourselves, God exhorts us to “put to death what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5), “purify yourselves from all unrighteousness” (2 Cor. 7:1), etc. In the work of sanctification, God treats us as human beings. That is, our humanness does not change upon being saved. As a professor of mine explained to me, we can’t flip a switch and not desire alcohol after abusing it, and we can’t flip a switch and become a concert pianist. Even though God is the guarantor and giver of sanctification, it is a long work of rehabituation, where our habits are reformed over time. I do not mean the process of ‘running the race’ and ‘fighting the good fight’ is analogous to productivity, but I do mean that when we go about our work, we must remember that God’s work in us after our decree of justification does not work like an on and off switch. Our work will be full of roadblocks and failures (Gen. 3:17), and while our plans are easily upset due to our fragile frames (Ps. 103:14), God is still working out our salvation in us to his good pleasure. So, when your plans of productivity get interrupted by your 1-year-old who is still not sleeping through the night, remember God’s promise to work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). There is not an ounce of our work that can guarantee that promise. Acknowledge and be thankful that even though our to-do lists fail, God’s work does not fail. From here, of course, adjust your goals and plans accordingly, and keep on working.

5 Things I Learned as a Pastor’s Kid

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1. Pastors are people too!

There seems a resilient misconception that pastors are less prone than the rest of us to things like exhaustion, temptation, frustration, and loneliness. I’ve seen that the opposite is actually closer to the truth. A pastor is especially vulnerable to all these things because of the constant emotional vigilance of his calling. Most of us are grateful, even unconsciously, that our spiritual lives and our vocations don’t overlap to the degree that they do in the pastorate.

If I had one piece of advice for all evangelical churches, it would be: Generously grant rest to your pastor. If everything falls apart when he’s not there, that’s not a reason to limit his rest, it’s a reason to seriously rethink the culture of the church. A pastor who feels like he has to choose between stewarding his mind, body, and family, and making sure the church functions well, is a pastor who is on a path to burnout (or worse).

2. A childhood filled with church attendance isn’t an immunization against sin and unbelief. But neither does requiring such attendance automatically turn kids into resentful prodigals.

Two seemingly omnipresent misconceptions: Kids will be fine if they’re in church regularly, but requiring them to come with you will foment rebellion. Both ideas are intuitive to different kinds of people in evangelical churches, but both are wrong.

My brother in law likes to say that evangelicals often think the gospel is something you catch like a cold. If you’re around infected churchgoers, eventually you’ll come down with salvation. I don’t need to go into detail about all the stories I could tell of how this cliche was proven false, sometimes with grave consequences. Youth ministry is as good a substitute for home discipleship as going to the ER is a good substitute for diet and exercise. If there’s no prayer, bible reading, or parent-child discipleship going on in your home, and everything “seems” OK, that’s cause to be alarmed.

On the other hand, I’ve seen so many parents sheepishly acknowledge that they didn’t require their 14 year old to get out of bed for church because they were nervous such requirements would turn him against church. This might be more true if human maturity and development stopped at 16. But it doesn’t, and it turns out that when the teenage years are in the rear view, it’s still pretty easy for most folks to remember what their parents did and didn’t think was important in their home.

3. PKs don’t need to see and know everything about the church that Dad sees and knows.

This is one thing that my Dad has said he wished he’d done differently with me and my siblings. Seasoned saints are more equipped to handle the frustrating parts of church government, business, or discipline than teens are. You can’t hit a button and make your child resent the local church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before he is able to see the beauty.

Here’s a very practical tip for pastors with kids: Think of your kid seeing business meeting fights and hearing moral failures similarly to how you think about them seeing conflicts in your marriage. You won’t be able to keep them out of the know on every tense or sinful moment with your spouse, but when they are witnesses to it, most couples will talk to them instead of assuming they’re processing it correctly. Apply that same logic to the dark side of church life. Keep your PKs out of the ecclesiological trenches as long as possible, but when they must see it, help them respond.

4. The most freeing thing a PK can feel is that his Dad and Mom don’t view him as a PK.

Hearing my Dad encourage me as I approached high school graduation that he wanted to me to follow God’s call on my life, and that that call did not at all need to be ministry, was absolutely crucial. I don’t think most pastors set out to put pressure on their kids to follow their footsteps, but what they can communicate unwittingly is that vocational ministry and “true spirituality” go hand in hand. How is this communicated? One way is by holding PKs to higher standards merely because they’re dad is the pastor. Not only is that frustrating, it communicates that the pastorate is closer to heaven than the regular jobs.

5. PKs need Dads who are more than theology nerds.

I don’t know if I can remember even 3 of my Dad’s sermons growing up, but I can remember dozens of chats over milkshakes and trips to ball games. One of my fondest memories is watching an incredible Super Bowl alone with my Dad in a hotel somewhere in Indiana while the blizzard of the decade pummeled us outside. The conference we attended later was fine, but I don’t remember most of it. I remember that night with my Dad perfectly.

In a lecture to his divinity students, Charles Spurgeon urged them to be as normal as possible, rather than bland, flavorless ministry machines.

I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways. If they saw us, in the pulpit and out of it, acting like real men, and speaking naturally, like honest men, they would come around us. Baxter’s remark still holds good: “The want of a familiar tone and expression is a great fault in most of our deliveries, and that which we should be very careful to amend.” The vice of the ministry is that ministers will parsonificate the gospel. We must have humanity along with our divinity if we would win the masses. Everybody can see through affectations, and people are not likely to be taken in by them. Fling away your stilts, brethren, and walk on your feet…

What’s true of “working-men” is even more true of pastor’s children. Pastors who cannot connect with their kids on a level beyond, say, reading (or, God forbid, politics) need to expand their horizons. Love is attention. Being attentive to more is the best way to tell a PK that their pastor-Dad loves them for the K, not the P.

It’s Not About the Dragons

My gifts were meant to be stewarded, not squandered on megalomania.

Life lessons aren’t something to be sought after. They simply happen to find us.

That’s what I found on a summer day moving junk wood in the backyard of a man who I had just met. It was initially just an odd job that a mutual friend of ours had connected me to, but as we tossed the carcass of an old shed into the back of his pickup, he took the opportunity to speak into my life while Johnny Cash’s crooning bass-baritone carried on in the background. He told me that he had terrible arthritis in his feet, and, being both a pastor and high school mathematics teacher, many assumed his were particularly hurtful occupations. Nevertheless, he persevered, and when those with furrowed brows would ask just why he would put himself through such an ordeal on a daily basis, his reply was that, at the end of the day, the only thing he is always responsible for is his mood. Circumstances come and go, but his response to them is what matters in the eyes of God.

As I’ve entered into my twenties, I’ve realized that the mood which has gripped me these past couple of years is one that demands my circumstances directly correlate to my ideals at all times. In this mood, fulfillment and self-actualization in my work and relationships must be instantaneous. Opportunities that came my way, however exhilarating and undeserved they might be, were ultimately judged according to what benefit they brought to my public image. Even those closest to me began to be measured on a scale of the degree to which they affirmed me in all my insecurities without truly holding me accountable for what were festering character flaws (not just personality quirks). Yet it took those same people’s finally revealing the concern they had been harboring for me for so long to get me to realize how my irrepressible need for approval had led to the suppression of divine wisdom. That wisdom is calling me back to the yoke of costly, committed discipleship and authenticity in my relationships with others.

How exactly had I gotten here? Surely an education from a prestigious evangelical seminary would plead my case on my behalf. But amidst all the fluttering of textbooks and rebuttals in class, I had forgotten who I was apart from it all. No amount of fame gained from a platform would be able to hide the brokenness beneath. I was still a ragged soul whose scars could not be covered by any amount of contributions to society. My reputation could never be the source of my justification.

At the heart of all of this, I bought the lie that success in life is to slay dragons. A dragon is an infernal beast, a creature that has committed terrible acts against others out of a spirit of either greed or pure malice. When they are confronted, we are never the problem; they most certainly are. We often never stop to consider what the state of our armor might be or whether we have the mettle to endure the battle ahead. But deeper than all of this, a terrible truth lurches forth behind us as we enter the keep of the castle and see the fire and the red scales glisten: this might just be a mirror.

I had sauntered through so many blessings without once thinking about how what I was doing in the moment would ultimately come to benefit those I had been appointed to serve. I assumed that I had simply earned it, and that the furtherance of my self-aggrandizement would bring my turbulent soul some serenity. But as the waves continued to crash, I realized that I had been outrunning my design. My gifts were meant to be stewarded, not squandered on megalomania. A good name and glowing compliments never save.

The only way in which we ever gain anything is if it is done in the service of the very same Creator who gave us those capabilities in the first place. They were meant for employment in the working out of his will. Exercised outside of it, they’re idols that only offer us a thousand-yard stare in return. I had forgotten about my humble place in the tapestry of God’s kingdom. I was a speck, but a beloved speck nonetheless.

Captain Ahab made the mistake of thinking it was about the dragons. As Herman Melville masterfully explores the problem of obsession in Moby Dick, we read how Ahab completely disregarded the safety of his entire crew as he doggedly pursued the great white whale. In the end, one fateful encounter with the object of Ahab’s rage spelled out the demise of the ship and its crew. As the narrator Ishmael floats along with the wreckage, he spots a ship called Rachel, and he is reminded of Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice was heard in Ramah, a lament with bitter weeping–Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children because they are no more.”

I’m glad that I’ve found dry land again.

10 Suggestions for Christians When Talking About Social Justice

  1. For Christians who are uneasy about talking about things like systematic racism, sexual abuse, and economic disenfranchisement, remember that this isn’t just a theoretical argument. There are stories of real people behind the “issues” you debate.
  2. Remember that because of globalization and the internet, these stories are more accessible than ever before to people who might in previous generations never heard them. What you think is “liberalization” might just be people reading what that their parents didn’t have to read.
  3. For Christians who feel strongly about those things listed above, remember that, in America, those topics have been disingenuously weaponized against pro-life, pro-religious liberty causes. Take the time to learn about that instead of assuming indifference or ignorance.
  4. Remember that not everyone is an activist, just like how not everyone is a professional theologian or counselor. That’s OK.
  5. Brush up on American history. Your narrative—whichever one—will probably be challenged. That’s OK.
  6. If your goal is to pump up people who already agree with you instead of persuading those who disagree, that’s OK; there’s a time and place for both! But be honest with yourself about what you’re doing, and don’t get frustrated at others for not being persuaded by something that wasn’t ever meant to persuade.
  7. You should feel more community through the creeds and confessions of the church than you feel through political party or ideology. If you don’t feel that way, ask yourself which of those you’re thinking more about throughout the day.
  8. Remember that, for mass media, there’s no such thing as a hate-click. If you click it, you bought it.
  9. Remember that social and political issues are over-represented on social media because that’s what social media engineers know will get you to engage. Log off and go talk to someone in McDonald’s for a more realistic experience of “what culture is saying.” You’ll probably end up talking about sports or movies.
  10. Heed the Wisdom Pyramid.

Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. Continue reading “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”