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You’re Still Not Special

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If you remember middle school and even high school at all, you remember wanting to fit in. Being different from about 6th grade to 10th is a terrible curse fraught with repeated attempts to be yourself—whoever that is—while being like everyone else. Most kids don’t want to be special. Yet our culture constantly tells them that they are. The media we aim at our youth (What a loaded metaphor that is!) continually reinforces the message that mere uniqueness is good. But there is no virtue in being different, nor is there anything wrong with being ordinary.

When you first begin, you are the center of the world. Even in impoverished countries, children begin life being cared for and protected from most of life’s vicissitudes. Some, pampered too long or by nature resistant to learning about themselves, never outgrow that infantile sense of entitlement. I find evidence of it still in myself.

Alain de Botton notes that anger comes from frustrated expectations. His solution? Lower your expectations. This is harder than it may appear. I find myself getting angry about the paltriest events. I drop a tool while I’m working. “Damn it!” I exclaim, usually under my breath. Why? I find that I expect perfection of myself. Other people may fail but not me. Others might fumble; their tools might succumb to gravity, but I am better than that. If I drop a tool, it is supposed to remain suspended in air until I grasp it again. Why isn’t the cosmos organized to suit me? What the hell1Hell may well be thought of as a place for people to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” kind of world is this where things obey impersonal rules instead of obeying me?

One would think that my experience of life in this world would have cured me of such foolishness long ago. Yet here I am still cursing when things don’t go my way, still frustrated by a cosmos that refuses to yield to my whims.

Having grown up as a Pentecostal Christian and a hillbilly, I inherited the moral superiority of the one and the recalcitrant independence of the other. Not only am I better than you, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let you tell me what to think or do. Like the Jews of Jesus day, I had an absolute certainty about my own righteousness and contempt for those who didn’t measure up. I was insufferable. My journey toward freedom and perhaps a little humility has been long and arduous. It took me a long time to realize that God’s acceptance is not based on my goodness but on his mercy. That is why he is able to accept anyone who comes to him without showing favoritism. Yes, he expects us to give up our sin, but the most common sin we all commit is in grading ourselves on a curve while flunking everyone around us. We want special treatment. Our situation deserves special consideration. Yes, we’ve done some bad things, but there were extenuating circumstances. Our parents! Our race! Our class! Our culture! Pity us, O God! It is you who made us as we are! Amazingly, he forgives even such transparent attempts to manipulate his mercy.

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All Things New

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Aging takes place at a pace that makes so many changes imperceptible. When you are a child, every experience is new. You don’t crave novelty because novelty is all you’ve ever known. Nameless feelings well up within prompted by intense sensations. Plain bread is exciting. Primary colors are a thrill. You hear upper harmonics in the music your parents listen to, and it either irritates you or enthralls you, and you can’t understand why your parents don’t respond the same way. The front lawn is a vast landscape of adventure and possibility. You love to hear the same stories over and over, so much more often than adults are willing to tell them. All your senses are sharper than they will ever be, yet you lack the vocabulary and experience to appreciate their sharpness.

As you age, your senses become duller. You learn to appreciate complexity. You are no longer satisfied with plain bread. You want a range of flavors and textures in what you eat. You learn to appreciate art. The upper harmonics fade, and you keep telling your kids to turn the bass down. You travel and find the world more strange and wonderful than you had ever imagined. You get bored with the same stories and begin to crave novelty for its own sake. Your experience and vocabulary have grown, but you sense that you have lost something ineffable, something fleeting and good like a distant flash of lightning at the periphery of your vision.

Memories begin to crowd into your mind, distant and dim memories covered with a patina of re-imagining and reinterpretation. You become less sure of the formative experiences you’ve told and retold to friends and family, especially when a brother or sister contradicts what you vividly remember. You begin to long for something new, but every purportedly new experience, every supposedly new development, begins to feel like a recycled version of something you already know. You come to realize that as much as your memories define you, they also limit you, pulling you back inexorably into your own past.

You don’t want something new.

You want all things new.

You want to be a child again, to experience the world with wonder and awe, to be free from your own experience while retaining the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

The promise of eternal life, an unending consciousness piling up more and more memories and experiences, has come to seem truly dreadful to me. To live and live and live and be unable to die sounds more like hell than heaven. Of course, no living thing welcomes death, except as an escape from intolerable pain, so it’s hard to imagine relinquishing life as long as the pain of living is tolerable, and if we know anything of heaven, it is that it is tolerable. But a tolerable existence cannot last long, surely cannot last forever. Eternity wears down everything. Joy, excitement, delight, pleasure—all partake to some degree of newness, and eternity must surely drain the newness out of everything.

So God promises, “See, I am making all things new!” It is this promise that restores hope in an eternal life. The universe is vast. If there is adventure among the insects and blades of grass in the front lawn, then surely there are untold wonders throughout the universe. Perhaps we will live to see them.

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Just Deserts

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Among atheists, Christians have a reputation for consigning people to heaven or hell based on the orthodoxy of their beliefs. You can be a sexual predator who preys on children, but if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your savior, you have a guaranteed spot in heaven. On the other hand you can be a world-class humanitarian, but if you deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith, you are doomed to hell. To be sure, this is something of a caricature of Christian beliefs, but I think it describes fairly accurately what many Christians believe to be true. However, there is no foundation for this view in the Bible. The Biblical view of judgment in the afterlife is that it is based on deeds. Again and again, both Old and New Testaments stress that all people will be judged according to what they have done, whether it is good or bad. This includes Christians. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of people being judged according to their beliefs. Everyone is judged according to their deeds.

Suppose a man believes—as some Muslims reportedly believe—that he will go to heaven if he kills an infidel. Will he be sentenced to jail for such a belief? Will our courts fine him or exact some other punishment for this belief? No. He will go to jail only if he is found guilty of actually killing someone. Are human courts more righteous than God’s? Of course not. Then how can we think that God will condemn people or reward them for what they believe?

Someone may object at this point that there are many Bible verses that also tell us we are saved by faith, that God rewards believers with eternal life in heaven, and that these rewards are not promised to unbelievers. To answer this objection, I need to introduce a distinction in different kinds of believing.

I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is a nearby star, that all life on earth has a common ancestor, that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th President, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Will any of these beliefs save me? No. They will not. Most of them have little or no impact on how I live my life. Even the last one cannot save me if I do nothing about it. It is perfectly possible for me to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not follow him or do anything that he commands. These are what I think of as propositional beliefs. They are beliefs in certain propositions, statements of fact or opinion. This kind of belief is almost never meant when the Bible talks about faith. James is a notable exception, and if you want to see what the Bible has to say about whether faith or deeds are more important, read James 2:14-26. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? James points out that demons believe in God’s existence. Merely believing that there is a God gets you no brownie points with him.

I believe in my children. I believe in my wife. I believe in myself. I believe in Jesus. This is a different kind of belief. This is not an academic assent to certain propositions. This is relational trust. I have confidence in my kids. I have watched them grow into adulthood and take responsibility for themselves. I know they have learned good principles, and I have done my best to set them a good example. I believe in them. Likewise I believe in my wife. She is talented and smart and strong, and she can do what she sets out to do. I trust her. And, yes, I trust Jesus. He has proven himself loving and good in everything I know of him. He encouraged me when I struggled with depression, and he has given me a family to love, enriching me beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. This is the belief the Bible talks about, confidence in God’s goodness and love as a father to us all. It is this faith that saves us because we fully entrust ourselves to him, fearlessly doing what we know is right because our souls are at rest in him. By this faith we share with others when we have barely enough for ourselves. By this faith we speak out against injustice. By this faith we continue to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus even when we are ridiculed for believing impossible stories.

What we believe matters far less than what we do, but what we do depends a lot on whom we trust.

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