Christian Marriage, Fatherhood, Money, Parenting, Philosophy, Relationships, Work

The Secret to the Christian Life

Do you still get angry? Do you fight with others in actuality or even in your own mind? Do you know why? I do. And I think you can stop. In fact, I think your whole life can change if you can understand two verses of the Bible. 

James 4:1-2 “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

The secret to the Christian life, that is, the answer to the question: How shall we then live, is given in these two verses.

James is writing to Christians in a church. They are fighting with each other pretty intensely over something or other. What is it? It doesn’t matter. They should not be treating each other this way, because they should not be feeling so murderous and angry. 

Why are they feeling murderous and angry? Because they have “passions” at war within them.  

This is “lusts” right? No. It’s the word for “pleasures,” the same word we get our word “hedonism” from. My translation:

“Why do you fight? You want pleasure, and your desire for pleasure is at war with another one of your desires for pleasure, AND, with someone else’s desire for pleasure.

So, desire for pleasure is wrong? Sure, if you don’t want to have any enjoyment of life at all. But is that what you want? Is that what God wants for you? You might be thinking: “No, God wants me to have pleasure in him.”

But how will you do that if you shut down your pleasure mechanism, which is what you’d have to do. You’d have to train yourself to be stoic. If you’re stoic, you won’t take the right kind of delight in God.

So, desire for pleasure must not be wrong, and I guess I can take pleasure in some things.

Ok, logically, that must be true. So it’s ok that we take pleasure in some things. So how is it that our pleasures get at war inside us and with others? 

I think it is because we have not done the hard work of prioritizing our life and values.

Pleasure is something I get when I gain something that I value: God, success, sex, cake, something beautiful, lot’s of things. The lack of pleasure comes from not getting those things when I’d like them, or losing them when I had them. It feels bad. It feels like pain, or depression. It should feel bad. This is not sinful.

So here’s how I do it: I set priorities logically based on what I perceive to be the facts of reality and causality. These are the things that I value, that is, the things that I act to gain or to keep. I make sure these things are the proper things for the way God has called me to live. 

It starts with my ultimate purpose: To enjoy and glorify God. He is my highest value. If I were thrown in a dirty dungeon to starve to death, I’d still have my highest value. You want your highest value to be the hardest thing for anyone to take away.

My penultimate purpose is my life: I believe in the biblical principle stewardship, so I believe life is not about what you have, but what you do with what you have. The most basic thing I have is my life. While I am on earth, I value staying alive and enjoying it if I can without corrupting my other values. Because of this, my next value is…

My health: I can’t do any of the important things of life if I not only don’t stay alive, but don’t have any strength or energy.

My work: I have to produce something in order to provide for me and my family. You could convince me that my family is a higher value than my work, but in the sense that I would tell a young man who wants to find a wife and have a family that he needs to get a job first, I put producing as a higher priority. If I don’t, all the Millers (that’s me and my wife and kids) die. I also put handling finances/investing in this category, and any mundane daily work as well. I put dishes, diapers, home repairs, and lawn work in this category. Work is producing some kind of order. But this would not justify workaholism, because my next value is…

My wife: Marriage has to be attended to. It is such an important part of joyful life and it brings attention and glory to God. I want my marriage to be fulfilling, and encouraging. Romance, connection, and cooperation are the key areas of focus and all equally important.

My Children: The kids come before any other relationships outside the marriage. I won’t put friends, church members, or extended family before my kids. The areas of focus in order of importance are: Their faith, love between us, character training, education. I suppose I might put my home in this category as well, because my home is the place for my family to live.

My church: For me, this is mixed up in my work, since I am a pastor, but I still try to think of my church as my church family separate from thinking of my job as the pastor of that church. Otherwise, worshiping on Sunday with my church family feels more like work and less like gathering with my brothers and sisters in the local expression of the worldwide Body of Christ. One is not restful, the other is.

Service to the community, the poor, and my geographical neighbors: This is not optional for Christians. We make time for it after the other things. If you are tempted to put this before the stuff above, seriously rethink that logically.

Extended family: They technically come before service to the community, but none of mine live close.

Leisure: Reading and playing the piano are my leisure activities. I don’t have time for any others (well, Mario Cart with my kids too), although there are things I would do if I had much more time (fishing, golfing, playing softball, singing in a choir).

Nice things: Having something I like is a bonus, but not a huge priority. I’d like a nicer car (I have 2006 Hyundai), but I value financial freedom more.

That’s the main stuff. To get any of it out of order will cause confusion, a war of pleasures/passions. For instance. I say I value family over reading. If I am trying to read more than I really have time to, and one of my kids is trying to get my attention, I might blow up on him. If I am aware of my value priorities, then I would get the proper pleasure from putting my book down, a lesser value, and talking to my child, a greater value.

Some of these values could seem like they are equal and need to be balanced as though they were. What I mean is, they are all important when it is possible to have them all in the course of your regular life. Work is really important, but things get messed when you cross a line into the other really important things in your life. So you balance intelligently based on your true and righteous values. You pick your values based on principles. If you currently don’t feel like making your health a high priority, then you need to readjust based on logic, not on what you feel like. If you don’t feel like putting your wife ahead of your friends, then you need to readjust your values based on logic, based on truth, based on what you thought was best when you were in your right mind with God with some space for visioning and planning.

Have you taken space for visioning and planning? Do it. Figure out what is important, and make those things important. Your “pleasures” will begin to align with your values in the right order. They won’t be at war with each other, because each of your values will know its proper place. Your emotions, the pleasure and pain mechanisms, will begin to serve you. This is the secret to never having “fights and quarrels.” It is the secret to a peaceful enjoyment of a powerful and productive life abundant. It is a life that glorifies God and brings a smile to the face of your good Father in heaven, who loves you very much.

Fatherhood, Parenting, The Christian Life

Principles are Better Than Laws, Part 9 Honor Your Mother and Father

Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

In these posts we’re exploring some of the key laws of God in the Bible and considering them, not only as commands of God, but also as principles for how life can and should be well-lived on earth and beyond.  

Moving along the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20, today’s command is to honor your father and your mother. The reason is for long days in the Promised Land.

Different cultures have different takes on this. In America where I live, we don’t “follow” our parents for life as they do in other countries. In many cultures, and in most cultures of the past you are born to obey your parents. They will raise you, and then you will spend the rest of your life following them, and eventually caring for them. There are some benefits to this system. One is that it dispenses with the necessity of finding an identity. Your identity is the family you were born into, along with the career that comes with it, that is, the family business.

I recommend the book, The Pastor as Minor Poet, by M. Craig Barnes. In it he explains this idea. Today in the West, we often search for a job with the idea that it will give us identity, while in other cultures and even our culture in the past, the identity was covered already by birth. You grew up already knowing who you were. My name is Miller, so I suppose my ancestors were millers. I’d be born to run the town mill. Work identity covered, I could focus on developing my character instead of “finding myself” in a job.

This applies to our commandment, because this would be part of honoring your father and mother.  But in our context, this just doesn’t happen the same way.  So how does a 21st century American think about this, and more importantly, how do we practice it?

As a son (or daughter): I am nearly fifty. I love my parents, but realized at some point that they were not perfect (nor did they claim to be). I know that I am not obligated to obey them at this point even if they were perfect. In fact, I think it is crucial that a person “leave his (or her) father and mother at some point, and do what they think is right. An example could be when a young person wants to have a career in a certain field that is different than the one his parents wanted for him. If he ignores what he wants because he wants to please his parents, he will not grow up. He will not take his place as an autonomous image-bearer, responsible for his choices and beliefs. This will lead to a sense of instability and anxiety. At some point, everyone must separate themselves from their parents in this way.

Most people, unless they have zero self-awareness, will find themselves resenting their parents for the way they were when they raised them. A lot of that resentment will fall away when a person begins to make their own choices and decisions, especially if it requires “disappointing” their parents. But many of us may find that it is necessary to confront our parents, lovingly and gently, to tell the truth about how they have made us feel, or still are, and then genuinely forgiving them for those things which have caused resentment. We should hope that our own children will do the same to us someday.

In this case it is not necessary to get a certain response from the parents. It is nice if they acknowledge their sin and apologize, but it is not the point. If you think it is, you will not be free. It is enough that you can say what you honestly feel, and then forgive.

That said, we should always be respectful to our parents.  We should not pretend they are something they are not, but the very fact that they are our parents is cause to honor them.  Don’t speak ill of them.  Don’t talk down to them, even when they are old and at your mercy.  You will be judged for it.  

As a father (or mother): Teaching our own children to respect God and biblical wisdom is done by teaching them to respect their parents. You must not try to control your children with shaming and manipulation. Give consequences for disobedience and disrespect and apply them dispassionately. Insist on respectful attitudes, but NEVER take it personally when they fail. Simply discipline accordingly and lovingly, explaining the importance of honoring their parents. Don’t allow sassy tones, eye rolling, disobedience, yelling at you, or anything of the kind. If it happens, stop them and say calmly, “My dear, I love you too much to let you treat me (or your mother) that way. You will be disciplined for it. There will not be warnings.” The discipline must be appropriate and not out of anger.

Valuing your parents’ traditions: Be slow to throw them out. Doing them “just because” can sometimes give you the benefit of taking advantage of the practices without totally understanding them yet. It is often hubris that causes us to assume our parents and grandparents are dumb and don’t know anything. Until you know exactly why you are chucking out their time-honored traditions, seriously consider just continuing them.

The “principle” of honoring your parents is a principle of humbly honoring the God who made the commandment, and who identifies himself as “Father.” It is the opposite of a spirit of rebellion, while it leaves ample room for proper independence as an autonomous image-bearer who can be useful to others, especially his or parents. I invite you to see an earlier post for more details on biblical parenting.

Christian Leadership, Fatherhood, Parenting, Relationships

Brainstorming on Parenting (after five kids)

I have five children. Their current ages are nine to eighteen.  I love being a dad.  It is one of my very favorite things.  I think I have become a good one. How do I know? I really like all my kids, and they seem to like me too.  Of course, I also love them.  I would love them even if I didn’t like them, but I do like them.  

Here is some brainstorming on how this came about: 

  1. I see myself as an image bearer of God.  Furthermore, I am a redeemed image bearer because Jesus saved me and gave me his Spirit.  This has many implications, but importantly for this topic, it has caused me to like myself a lot.  Why wouldn’t I?  God does.  He has made me, and made me clean.  I am so thankful.  I’m not perfect, but I seek to grow, and will seek to grow until I’m out of time for growing—either dead, or with Jesus at the judgment.  
  1. I see everyone else around me as image bearers.  This impresses me to no end.  This means I will not be justified to dominate any of my fellow image bearers.  This means that all my relationships are horizontal, not vertical (except the one with God.  He is higher than us. He created us out of nothing). But other humans are my impressive equals.  If they are messed up, they could begin growing by the grace of God and by concrete biblical principles applied with power through the help of the Holy Spirit, a gift of God in Christ.  It also means, btw, that I would not allow a fellow image-bearer to assume any power over me personally.  If he or she is a vested authority from God, such as the cop who pulls me over for speeding (right?  —- because he represents the state, who in a sense represents the God who has empowered them to make and keep laws, and protect his people (Romans 13)) I will obey them because I obey God. So there is no one to fear, and there is no one to dominate us, or be dominated by us.  
  1. Therefore, I also see my kids as impressive fellow image bearers.  I am in awe of them because I am in awe of the God who created them.  And therefore, I will not dominate my kids.  I will, however, wield my vested authority as God’s servant (Ro 13:4-5).  I will make rules and enforce them as God’s agent.  But, that doesn’t leave room for anger or insecurity on my part to get in the way of my job.  It’s not personal.  
  1. This means that I can focus on what is most important and that is building our loving relationship. If I don’t have to personally dominate them, then they don’t have to feel that they were dominated, and they don’t have to rebel. Do you think your kids won’t rebel if they feel dominated by you? Think again. They will definitely rebel, and you will start to dislike them as much as they dislike you.
  1. Another way to say this is that I respect my kids, and I make sure they respect me and their mother. I don’t do this by dominating them, but by personally not putting up with any, at all, of any kind, words, tone, body language, disrespect. I say, “hey bud, I respect you, you need to respect me, especially because God says your life will be awful if you dishonor your parents. So, I love you, I’m not personally threatened (this is important, although I don’t actually say that part), but you are going to have a consequence for the disrespect (or disobedience). And then I give them one. It is how I can respect them, teaching them that consequences have actions, even for saved Christians.
  1. I spend an inordinate amount of time teaching them to think in principles, have courage, love the truth, and make their own choices whenever possible.  If I have to pull rank on them, I say, “I’m only going to tell you what to do until you are eighteen, so I’m going to take advantage of that while I can.”  
  1. I never ever take our disagreement personally, and I pastor them to do the same.  I have no problem with them disagreeing with me.  We’ll talk, and then if I have to pull rank, they understand that I would not do that if I didn’t have to, and if they don’t like it, just wait until they are grown and they will no longer have to deal with it. 
  1. It also means that I hold my kids with an open hand.  They don’t belong to me, but to God.  My job is to teach them the truth by instruction and example.  This means I am responsible TO them, but not FOR them.  I’m sure this is where most of us screw up in our responsibility of leadership in any sphere (I am also a pastor in a church).  I’ve heard it said it’s like that old adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  I think it’s better said, “You can lead a horse to water but IF YOU MAKE HIM DRINK IT YOU ARE COMMITTING EVIL AGAINST HIM.”  When you force personal will and power on another human, you dehumanize them.  I’m not talking about the consequences from breaking rules.  I’m talking about any yelling, manipulating, rewarding behavior that makes a kid behave the way you want them to. Instead, teach them to make their own choice whether-or-not to obey and avoid the consequences or disobey and face them.  That preserves both their dignity and your relationship with them. Isn’t this the way God Fathers us? 

Bonus: Consider never saying, “Good job (or especially good boy or good girl)” to your kids. It sets you over them in a dominating way that makes you the judge of their personally. They will learn to love pleasing you, instead of loving to do a job well done for the sake of it. It also creates a fixed mindset. I want them to have growth mindset (see Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset).

If I can think of anything else to say, I’ll post a part 2. Feel free to comment if you disagree. We can sharpen each other.