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Ptolemaic Vanity

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.

1 Peter 5:6

Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” is a 1970’s pop classic with its hum-along melody and biting lyrics describing a self-absorbed boyfriend. The refrain highlights the song’s theme of narcissism: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” Vanity is sneaky and gets the better of us more often than we would like to admit. We often think only in terms of self — how things effect me, myself and I.

We’ll call this arrogance ‘Ptolemaic Vanity.’

Ptolemy was a 2nd century Greek astronomer who advanced the theory of Plato and Aristotle that the earth was at the center of the universe with all other celestial bodies revolving around it. Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the cosmos was, of course, proven wrong, but not before being accepted by the Roman Catholic Church and most of the Western world through the Middle Ages. Ptolemy’s model seemed to support the Judeo-Christian belief that the earth holds a special place in creation and is unique among the cosmos. But just because humanity is the central concern in God’s plan of redemption (theology) doesn’t make humanity the center of the physical universe (astronomy). Many people attempted to prop up this mistaken theory by interpreting poetic texts and metaphorical language in the Bible with literal meanings (Psa. 104:5). Some things never change.

Copernicus came along in the 16th century and proposed the heliocentric model of the universe with the sun at the center and the earth and other planetary bodies moving around it. Later, Johannes Kepler refined the Copernican model by describing planetary orbits as elliptical. Since then, we could no longer think of ourselves as the center of the universe.

But sometimes we still do.

We betray this kind of Ptolemaic vanity when we only interpret events in terms of how they effect us personally. This spiritually immature condition makes it impossible to see beyond ourselves and our own concerns. But the world is much bigger than “me” and “my” own perception. We are not the one fixed point around which the entire universe turns. We are very important to God, but not that important! Developing this humble view of ourselves will save us a lot of trouble in life.

Have you ever fallen prey to this vanity? Perhaps, like me, you have an active imagination that gets away from you. Perhaps, stewing in the wake of some trial you imagine what other people are thinking of you and saying about you behind your back. You allow these baseless suspicions to run amok in your imagination. But, most of the time, no one is actually thinking about you or talking about you at all. At least, they are not thinking about you and talking about you as much as you are thinking about yourself.

It reminds me of the Carly Simon song… and it stings! By imagining that people don’t have anything better to do than talk about us, we invite a whole mess of unnecessary drama and self-destructive anxiety into our life. Not only does this anxiety borrow trouble and do actual harm (Mt. 6:34), it shows that we lack faith and are stuck in a me-centered universe.

How does Jesus teach us to deal with anxiety about the unknown? “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Mt. 6:33) In other words, stop thinking about yourself “first” and start seeking God “first.” God can lift us out of our harmful vanity when we learn to live this prayer:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt. 6:9-10)

Note the focus of the beginning of Christ’s model prayer. It’s all about God’s name, God’s kingdom and God’s will. Jesus not only taught us to live God-centered lives, he exemplified it. Before his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Lk. 22:42) He enveloped his request in the will of his Father. Jesus honored his Father’s name, established his kingdom and did his will. That God-centered humility led him through the cross of shame to the throne of victory (Phil. 2:5-11).

When we humbly learn that God is the one fixed point around which all reality turns, including our very lives, then we too will be exalted at the proper time (1 Pet. 5:6-7).

A Bug's Life

Saturday, July 06, 2024

“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.”

Proverbs 6:6-8

Scripture often appeals to nature to teach valuable lessons. Jesus tells us to “look at the birds” and “consider the lilies” to learn how to live anxiety-free lives by trusting in God’s provision (Mt. 6:25-34). Proverbs tells us to “go to the ant” to learn the value of diligence and personal responsibility (Prov. 6:6-8). Other insects are used as metaphors: locusts were symbols of devouring destruction (Ex. 10:4; Joel 1:4; Rev. 9:3); the Canaanites would be driven out of their land as if chased by a swarm of angry hornets (Ex. 23:29; Deut. 7:20); grasshoppers stood for human frailty (Num. 13:33; Isa. 40:22); moths were symbolic of impermanence and decay (Job 4:19; Mt. 6:19). Perhaps we could draw two more lessons from a bug’s life and apply them to the church.

There are moths and there are roaches. Moths are attracted to light due to a phenomenon knows as “positive phototaxis”—a behavioral response where an organism moves toward the light. It’s easy to understand why plants do this (to begin photosynthesis) but scientists do not fully understand why moths do it. Whatever the reason, moths always fly toward light while roaches always flee from it (“negative phototaxis”). Roaches hide from the light because they are nocturnal creatures and darkness provides cover from predators. They thrive in the dark where they can reproduce in the safety of cooler, humid conditions.

Spiritually speaking, God’s word shines like a light which guides and protects (Psa. 119:105, 130) but also exposes. Paul exhorts us to “walk as children of light” and to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them… when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible” (Eph. 5:11-13). How do we respond when the light of God’s word shines on us, perhaps even exposing our hidden sin? Do we draw closer to God by walking in the light or do we flee from it and choose the cover of darkness? (1 Jn. 1:5-10) Are you a moth or a roach?

There are bees and there are ticks. Bees are attracted to flowers as a main food source. While on the flower collecting nectar, grains of pollen stick to the bees. The bees then fly to other flowers depositing the pollen and fertilizing them in an amazing process called pollination. Both bees and flowers benefit. Ticks, on the other hand, are parasites. They attach themselves to a host and feed on their blood to survive. Unlike bees which cause life to flourish, ticks spread diseases. Unlike bees which benefit the flowers they are receiving from, ticks help themselves and harm their host.

In the church, there is a necessary give-and-take as we serve one another in love (Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:10). Always conscious of one another’s well-being, we want to follow the way of the bee. That is, our relationships ought to be mutually encouraging (Rom. 1:12; 14:19). Even when being served by another, we can have a refreshing influence on them (Philem. 1:20) by being sincerely grateful for their help and seeking ways to serve others because we know “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Through this kind of spiritual pollination, when each member serves in the way it can, the Lord causes the church to grow (Eph. 4:15-16). The church cannot grow when its members only take and never give. Instead of spiritually revitalizing others, some have a draining effect. In only feeding off the service of others and never giving of themselves, they spread the disease of discouragement in the church. Beware the leaven of the ticks! Ask yourself these questions:

  1. When meeting with other Christians, do you ever ask about their life, what’s important to them, how they are doing? Or do you monopolize the conversation and focus only on your life and your problems?
  2. Do you seek opportunities to help other Christians by praying or studying with them, helping them finish a project, babysitting, inviting them for dinner, etc.? Or are you constantly soliciting their service?
  3. When coming to worship God, do you greet others warmly, welcome visitors, offer assistance and words of encouragement? Or do you complain about other’s behavior, grumble that the singing was off key or the sermon was too long and you didn’t get much out of it?

Whereas roaches are truth-averse because they find the darkness comfortable, ticks are allergic to generosity because they haven’t learned to put others before themselves (Phil. 2:3-5). Let’s be like moths, not hiding in the darkness of sin but living in the light of God’s word. Let’s be like bees, not merely receiving but also giving of ourselves.

Seeking the Truth

Saturday, June 29, 2024

“Buy the truth, and do not sell it.”

Proverbs 23:23a

The 90s science fiction TV series “The X-Files” follows FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they investigate unsolved paranormal cases known as X-Files. Mulder believes in the existence of extraterrestrial life and paranormal activity, driven by the mysterious disappearance of his kid sister, which he believes was due to an alien abduction. Scully is a medical doctor and a skeptic who is assigned to work with Mulder and debunk his theories. As the series progresses, however, Scully gradually accepts the reality of the supernatural.

Mulder and Scully follow the trail of evidence, often leading them to uncover embarrassing secrets of high profile people, government conspiracies and shadowy organizations that suppress the truth. Throughout the series, the agents’ findings are constantly frustrated by covert government forces. The opening sequence states that “the truth is out there,” with the implicit challenge to the viewing audience to seek it for themselves.

In the series finale, Agent Reyes says, “What's the point of all of this? To destroy a man who seeks the truth, or to destroy the truth so no man can seek it?” Whenever people oppose or suppress the truth they try to do one of these two things: 1. Destroy the one who seeks the truth, or 2. Destroy the truth so no one can seek it.

There may be a lesson in this fictional TV series for us. Jesus prayed to his Father concerning us, “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). Knowing and living by God’s truth is one of the things that makes Christians distinct from the world. Agent Reyes’ words on truth-seeking are worth thinking about.

Of course, truth cannot be destroyed. It can be hidden temporarily, twisted beyond recognition, buried in obscurity or flatly denied, but it can never be destroyed. Paul speaks about those who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Whenever the truth is suppressed, the naive are duped into believing lies. People suppress the truth when it condemns them in some way. If the truth were to be discovered, they would lose face, power, control or credibility. This is because truth shines like light in the darkness, exposing evil and robbing it of any cover. Truth threatens error. God’s truth, then, cures both intellectual ignorance and moral impurity (Prov. 6:23; Psa. 119:105, 130; Eph. 4:17-19; 2 Pet. 1:19).

If the truth cannot be sufficiently covered up then those who seek it are targeted. Truth-seekers (and truth-speakers and truth-followers) are often threatened, insulted and injured by those who want to keep a lid on the truth. But in the end, the truth will be vindicated. Think of Jesus, whom people tried to destroy by nailing to a cross, yet was vindicated in his resurrection (Rom. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:16).

Despite the danger it often puts us in, we must remain committed to seeking the truth because, ultimately, “the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). Jesus is God’s Word incarnate, the truth in human form. He is full of both grace (to forgive) and truth (to guide). “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17, 14; 14:6). So stick with the truth by following Jesus. No matter what people say about the truth and no matter what they do to those who seek it, let the truth be your focus. Truth will be vindicated with all those who embrace it.

It’s hard to stick with the truth but, in the end: it is better to stand alone with the truth than be wrong with the masses, it is better to be divided by truth than united by error, it is better to be hated for telling the truth than be loved for telling a lie and it is better to ultimately succeed with the truth than to temporarily succeed with deception. “Buy the truth, and do not sell it.” (Prov. 23:23a)

Christian Status

Saturday, June 22, 2024

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Philippians 3:7-8

We have a compulsion to define ourselves based on external criteria: what we do, where we come from, to whom we are related. We reveal this tendency in the ‘ice-breaker’ questions we ask and answer in our introductions: “What do you do?” “I am an accountant…” “Where are you from?” “I’m from Northern Virginia…” “Who are you related to?” “You may know so-and-so who lives in such-and-such a place…” Sometimes we define ourselves not only by what we do but how well we do it, not where we are from but how well we are respected there, not our family’s name but the prestige and popularity of our family.

There is a dangerous, sneaking pride at the heart of this self-identity that says, “This is who I am, this is what makes me unique and gives me status.” It was this sense of superiority that the apostle Paul found so repulsive and poisonous to the church that he calls those who advocate it “dogs,” “evildoers,” even “mutilators of the flesh.” These are rather severe words, especially coming from the one who told us to “always let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt.” (Col. 4:6) What led such a meek man to speak in such a bold way?

He was talking about those who put “confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). Such people trusted in external factors for their status with God, things like their Jewish ethnicity, tribal heritage and religious denomination. So Paul lays out his own credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil. 3:5-6) His point being that if anyone had reason to put confidence in the flesh it would be him. His resumé would impress any Jewish contemporary. He was a staunch member of the strictest sect of Judaism, culturally pure in his refusal to adopt Hellenism, zealous to the extreme, faithful to the law of Moses, highly educated, a rising star among the movers-and-shakers of Jerusalem.

But none of this mattered to him. He put zero stock in his pedigree. His worldly status was all—using the financial terms of credit and debit—a big “loss.” Why? Because Paul found something so valuable that “everything” else compared with it was a liability. He calls these human accomplishments “rubbish” in comparison (except the Greek word is much more vulgar!). Of course, that something was actually a someone: “Christ.” And in order to gain Christ he had to “suffer the loss of all things.” He had to give them up, forfeiting his place in Jewish society, his reputation, his career, his connections, his national and ethnic pride, even his own moral record. Like the disciples before him, Paul “left everything and followed [Christ].” (Mk. 10:28)

Rather than trust in his own accomplishments, Paul “gloried in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh” (3). He left all the earthly accolades behind “for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” and gaining him. More than that, Paul wanted to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (9). That is, Paul knew that he could never achieve a right standing with God except through faith in Christ.

Real status has nothing to do with outward things. We have our own form of social posturing in the West that is just as reprehensible as the version in Paul’s day. We put confidence in ourselves and gussy up our flesh by taking pride in our own performance, our moral upbringing, our education, our career, our wealth, our personality and our achievements. If we possess any of these things, we must be willing to consider them as “rubbish,” place them in the debit column of our spiritual accounts and cast them off if we want to gain Christ.

There are only two ways to live: we can “put confidence in the flesh” or “glory in Christ.” (Phil. 3:3) Every other religion and philosophy teaches a form of self-salvation. They teach that you can lift yourself up if only you try a little harder, have the right background or know the right people. The gospel tells us this is impossible. The only status that matters is a right standing with God. The only way to gain that status is through putting all our confidence in him and not trusting in ourselves. This is why eternal life is presented as a gift to be received, not a reward to be earned. Where is your confidence? What is your status?

Christian Fatherhood

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:4

In Ephesians 5-6, Paul explains how the gospel impacts the Christian's relationships in marriage (5:22-33), the family (6:1-4) and at work (6:6-9). In each pairing, one is in a position of authority while the other is in subjection. It is remarkable that when Paul addresses how the one in authority is to treat the one in submission, he never emphasizes the exercise of their authority but rather the restraint of it.

When ancient philosophers drew up codes of behavior, it was usually one-sided. Wives, children and slaves were to obey. Period. But the gospel teaches that everyone has both rights (including those in submission) and responsibilities (including those in authority) because, no matter our earthly roles, we are all under God’s authority (6:9).

Fathers are to be self-controlled, gentle, patient educators of their children. In this one verse, Paul captures what thousands of parenting books have struggled or failed to express. Sometimes discipline is over-emphasized and restraint is forgotten in the zeal of fathers not to spare the rod lest they spoil child. Other times, the child’s rights are over-emphasized and they trample over the family to get their way because fathers are too afraid of crushing their spirit. Children need discipline, but so do fathers if they want to be the dads God has called them to be.

First, Paul gives a negative warning: “fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” In a parallel verse, he gives the reason for this: “lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21). We can parent in such a way that discourages our children and drives them away. Fathers need to recognize how delicate and precious our child’s spirit is and how lasting an impact we have on their lives. How might we ‘provoke’ our children?

We may provoke our children through manipulation: threatening them, bribing them with rewards for obedience or shaming them when they get it wrong. We may provoke them through our hypocrisy when we hold them to a higher standard than ourselves. Yes, kids misbehave. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15) and they need discipline. But so do fathers. These aren’t the answers. Fathers, let’s not provoke our children.

Next, Paul gives a positive command: “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” To “bring up” is to literally nourish or feed, an act of sacrificial love (5:29). We are to love and value our children for who they are, not for who they ought to be, should be, or could be if they only tried harder. A father’s love cannot be conditional (Mt. 5:43-48).

Love must be expressed through the balanced pairing of “the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Fathers must take their cues from the Lord. How did Jesus discipline and instruct others? He is our model.

The “instruction of the Lord” primarily refers to teaching. That is, we “bring them up” by telling them about Jesus and instilling within them biblical ethics and principles. We teach them to make their bed, not because the house will explode if they don’t. We teach them to do their best in school, not because they will never be successful if they don’t get straight A’s. We set expectations and limits in the home to instill within them self-control, honesty, respect, accountability and hard work because these are the principles that will serve them throughout their lives.

The “disciple of the Lord” refers to the whole training program. This is a more hands-on approach that includes commands and warnings, rewards and punishments. Discipline enforces the instruction when it is loving (Prov. 3:11-12), fair (Prov. 29:15) and constructive (Prov. 22:14; 23:13-14).

But parenting isn’t just about enforcing regulations. In the Christian home, grace is needed in addition to law (Jn. 1:17; Titus 2:11-12). When grace accompanies instruction and discipline, it results in heart transformation. When there is misbehavior in the home, fathers must take time to connect their child’s behavior to their heart. Ask them what happened, what were they thinking when they did it, why they responded in the way they did, what the result was and what they would have done differently. Such questions can give them insight into the condition of their heart and lead them to true repentance and seeking the grace of God.

Moses’ leadership of Israel through the wilderness is a lot like parenting. There was plenty of grumbling, complaining and frustrated prayers but there were also many blessings along the way. Fathers, if we want to help our kids get to their Promised Land, let’s resolve to be faithful (Ex. 3:10-12a; Heb. 13:5), patient, humble (Num. 12:3) and merciful (Num. 14:19-19). Children need discipline but so do fathers.

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