Monday, January 10, 2005

Get Real

Secrecy, Authenticity and Community

A discussion came up in class today about a question I’ve been pondering for the last month or two. It’s a pretty straightforward issue: living with authenticity, being who you really are, taking “what you see is what you get” as a motto for life. The tough part is gauging how rigorously to apply this value to our daily lives. I’m not talking about speaking your mind, a virtue only virtuous in the eyes of those tactless enough to practice it. I’m talking about how we live, especially how we present ourselves to other people. To what extent should transparency characterize our lives? Here’s the answer I’m inclined toward: more than it usually does.

We all appreciate authenticity in others, and most of us value it as an abstract virtue. But it seems that we all tend more toward secrecy than openness, at least in areas or with people that really matter. It’s like a gloomy gravity of the soul, this pull toward isolation that is universal among us. And since we weren’t made to be alone, we hate it. But often our drift apart is so subtle and happens at such a deep level in our soul, we can’t even put our finger on the problem. Sometimes our whole life just feels wrong, even though most what we can see (family, career, etc.) looks like it should make us pretty happy.

Perhaps this partly explains the burgeoning phenomenon of internet friendships: a feeling of community without the risks of authenticity. I have heard that genuine friendships really can be formed on the Web, and so I don’t want to speak in universal terms here. But I can’t help but suspect that the internet offers an environment that fosters an insincere and contrived kind of connectedness, a mere shadow of the real thing our hearts were made to know. It seems like it would be far too easy to hide the most painful, embarrassing parts of ourselves and thus to forfeit the sense of community that comes from true authenticity. Or, when we’ve been totally honest about who we are, we can just disregard the more critical responses from our internet “friends,” because they don’t really matter to us anyway.

Anyway, as I’ve already implied, I think authenticity is vital because genuine community is impossible without it, and we were made to be in community with other people. One of the most significant parts of the Creation story is what it teaches us about how our souls work. It’s a really cool story, too. God creates Adam and gives him his marching orders: have lots of kids, manage the creation, watch out for that one tree. For the earliest hours of human existence though, Adam is entirely on his own. God comments on the problem first: “It is not good for this guy to be alone.” But before He brings Eve along, He gives Adam his first creation-management responsibility: name all the animals. As every species of bird and critter saunters by, Adam comes up with a label that fits: “OK, those are hyenas. Um… we’ll call you guys ‘elephants.’ Those really slow ones are sloths.” Here’s the actual account from the Bible: “The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” (Gen 2:20)

Did you notice that last sentence? It’s significant. “For Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” Since God already commented on that point a couple verses earlier, I think this verse describes Adam’s realization of it. Remember that thing about naming all the animals? Imagine the scene. Adam has seen every critter in the garden, and every one of them trotted or slithered or soared or crawled by... in couples! Every animal had a companion, a perfect match. And so he’s like, “Dude! Where’s mine?” One nap later, he’s laying eyes on Eve for the first time. Isn’t it awesome that the first recorded human words are a love poem?! He sings out: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:23)

Interestingly, medieval art depicting the Fall has Adam on one side of the tree with Eve on the other. It’s a poignant illustration of the isolation sin always causes. God created us to be in open, honest relationships; Satan seeks to get us hidden and alone. In fact, even God isn’t secret in any of His ways since He exists eternally as three persons in one. Nothing hidden; perfect community. Maybe the doctrine of the Trinity actually has some application to our lives after all!

Listen to this evaluation from author and Christian counselor Larry Crabb: “I have come to believe that the root of all our personal and emotional difficulties is a lack of togetherness, a failure to connect that keeps us from receiving life and prevents the life in us from spilling over onto others. I therefore believe that the surest route to overcoming problems and becoming the people we were meant to be is reconnecting with God and with our community.” (Connecting) Those are some pretty lofty promises, but I’m coming to believe that he just might be correct.

To what extent should transparency characterize our lives? More than it usually does. Take a hard look at your own life. How much energy do you exert maintaining a façade? Do you have secrets that you’d be mortified for your most respected friends to learn? Are you two or three or four different people, depending on where you are and who you’re with? Does anyone know the real you?

When I saw The Incredibles a few months back, I pondered what superpowers I would like to have. I have a hard time narrowing down the list, but I can promise you one ability that I don’t think any one of us needs: invisibility.

Want to be what God intended? Get real.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A Little Target Practice of My Own

My Resolutions for 2005

OK, I’ve decided to do it. I’m going to go public with my goals for 2005. (Yes, I’m aware that it’s doubtful whether the small readership of this blog can truly be considered “public,” but what else could I say?) Here they are…

1. To orient my heart to Christ’s approval as the strongest and highest motivation for all I do, especially over against approval from others.
2. To demonstrate such a pattern of consistency in prayer in daily life and such a quickness in resorting to prayer in times of need that could truly be called devotion to prayer.
3. To develop a rhythm (2x per week is my tentative goal) of exciting and effective discussions with my two oldest boys to ground them in the fundamental beliefs and practices of the Christian faith.
4. To respect others’ time more by beginning and ending events under my control at the appointed or published times.

That’s it; just four. Every other area of my life is under perfect control. NOT! I have a whole lot of areas beyond just these four that could use some attention. I just don’t want to bite off more than I can chew, and these four are the greatest priorities in my heart right now.

So, why did I put my goals out here for you to read? Three reasons:

  1. I want to demonstrate to you that I don’t just dispense advice without attempting to live by it myself. I’ve encouraged you to set goals for this year, and I want you to know that I’ve done it, too.
  2. I welcome the accountability that publishing these goals creates for me. It helps me combat the laziness and indifference that inevitably set in after a couple months. After all, God designed the Christian life to be lived in community right alongside fellow strugglers, but the benefits of walking together come only when we walk with transparency and openness. By the way, this means that you can feel free to email or call or talk to me anytime you want about any of these goals. It’s open season, and you have all the ammo.
  3. I’m hoping you’ll do the same thing. See that little blue hyperlink “# comments” down there? I want you to use it. I want you to go public with your own resolutions for 2005, at least the ones that aren’t too private. Don’t worry about your grammar or writing style; write however you want. But please write something. I know there are at least a few regular readers out there, most of whom don’t comment. That’s usually perfectly OK with me, but just this once I’m asking you to be brave and go for it. Thanks!

Saturday, January 01, 2005

"Crossing" Off Another Year

My Major Lesson from 2004

For me, 2004 was a year defined by relearning the gospel. Its bearing, not its meaning. Its importance in my daily life, not only at the Judgment Day. Its crucial role in my day-to-day Christian life, not just its role as the entry point to my Christian life. The defining lesson of 2004 was this: I need the cross, the gospel of Jesus Christ every single moment of every single day.

What do I mean by “the gospel”? Simply this: God sent His Son into the world to live a perfect life and die an atoning death for sinners like you and me. Jesus Christ, holy (and wholly) God, absorbed the unrestrained fury of God’s wrath against us so that you and I, rebellious sinners, could enjoy the unreserved benefits of God’s pleasure in Him.

Through the eye-opening work of the Holy Spirit in His word, the help of several authors, and the fellowship of several close friends, I am learning to live the gospel every day. I’m learning what Jerry Bridges meant when he wrote: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And you best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” (The Discipline of Grace)

Here are some areas I’m learning to live the gospel:

  • Relating to God. The gospel frees us from emotion-driven concern about whether we feel close to God by explaining that Jesus truly has brought us close to Him. When we really understand the gospel, we are released from the fruitless struggle to earn God’s favor with our goodness and the contstant tendency to despair because of our failures.
  • Relating to others. The gospel allows us to be who we really are—no secrets, no façade, no desire to impress—with the people we know; after all, Jesus already knows about all our crud and He’s taken care of it. The gospel also causes us to take our sin against others seriously—no rationalizing, no blame shifting, no minimizing; after all, the perfect Son of God had to die to atone for it. And the gospel opens the way for us to forgive their sins against us, since our sin against God will never match what someone else could do to us.
  • Reading the Bible. The entire Bible is the story of God’s pursuit of His people—the gospel. Everywhere we read, we should look for pointers to or illustrations of or implications from the gospel.
Casting Crowns’ song “Who Am I?” was the soundtrack of my life in 2004. It seems to have been playing, either audibly or in my mind, at each major experience over the last 12 months. I love the carefully crafted poetry, the God-exalting images, the way the music affects my entire person (heart, mind, body), everything. But what makes the whole song for me is Mark Hall’s answer to the question he poses in the title: “You've told me who I am/I am Yours.” I love that! The question isn’t really “who am I?”; it’s “whose am I?” The gospel tells me that what defines me, the essential answer to the question “who am I?”, is quite simply that I am God’s. No matter what else might be true about me, that’s the main thing. Who am I? Because of the cross, I’m God’s. And that’s the gospel.