The Desires of Your Heart

Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Psalm 37:1-4 NIV

We were speeding down the highway, on our way to a Christmas Eve party, for which we were considerably late.  We were exceeding the speed limit, that is certain, but we were driving safely, and staying in our lane.  Suddenly a car sped up behind us, and the driver, unwilling to wait for us to shift lanes and let him pass, and after dangerously tailgating us, quickly shifted lanes himself, and sped by.

Already somewhat annoyed at the driver’s unsafe maneuver, not to mention the prick to our pride, we became even more agitated as he continued down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, sometimes traversing two lanes in one move.

The whole event became the topic of conversation, as we considered our options.  Should we call 911? Look at him!  Did you see what he just did?  We should report this!  And so it went for the next few minutes until we finally all calmed down a bit.

Around this time, Psalm 37 came to my mind.  I brought up my Bible app, looked up the Psalm, and read the first four verses to the others in the car.  I told them I thought these lines were appropriate to this incident because we were fretting about the wrong behavior of the driver.  The others disagreed, and after some discussion that did not resolve the issue, we continued on to our party, and of course we did not call 911.

What is it about our nature that agitates us so much when we see someone getting away with something that they should not be doing?  Is it simply our sense of justice?  A concern for safety?  Or is there more to it than that?  Is there maybe just a little bit of envy there?  Isn’t there just a little bit of, “Boy, if I did that, I would probably get a ticket”?

The majority of us live our lives “by the rules,” for the most part, and we get upset when people violate the rules with seeming impunity, and worse yet, profit by it in some way.  But let’s face it, one of the reasons we live by the rules is that we are afraid we’ll get caught and punished.  When someone acts as if they don’t care about punishment, this impacts our emotions in several ways.  It scares us, but it also often inspires a bit of admiration, and yes, envy.  Why is this?

One explanation, I think, is that someone who is not concerned about consequences appears to be able to act with perfect freedom.  Let’s make something clear though, when it comes to the big sins or crimes, most of us would not in any way admire or envy this kind of freedom.

But what about the “small” stuff? What about those things where nobody gets “hurt,” especially the “little guy?”  Or, maybe even the “big guy” does get shaved a little?  “Slick” Willie Sutton comes to mind.

For those of you who may not have heard of him, Slick Willie was a bank robber operating mostly in the  1920’s and 30’s.  He allegedly stole $2,000,000 during his “career” and ended up spending about half of his life in prison.  The thing about Willie, though, is that he was a popular figure with the public and was well liked and respected by those who knew him, both in prison and out.

The reasons for his popularity are many.  He was always a gentleman, even during his robberies, and no one was ever hurt.  He always had a gun, but admitted shortly before his death, that it was never loaded because “somebody might get hurt.”  He was highly intelligent, engineering three prison escapes, including one from Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, considered to be “escape proof.”  And of course, he was robbing mainly banks.  Particularly during the Great Depression, banks were very unpopular, because they were taking people’s homes in foreclosure.

So, in the case of Willie Sutton at least, who was admired by many, there was probably considerable envy by those who wanted to be like him but were not willing to take the risks.

The driver of the car, on the other hand, while he may have inspired some small amount of envy, did inspire quite a bit of fretting.  But whether it is fretting or envy, the problem is it takes our minds off of what is important, which is “Trust in the Lord and do good. When we are focused on the unrighteous actions of others, we are not trusting G-d, and we are not doing good.  As such, it is worse than a complete waste of precious time, it is a misuse of our time and takes us backward in our spiritual journey.  Why?

Two reasons are given: 1)  The efforts of all “those who do wrong” will ultimately come to nothing.  As the passage says, “for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.”  So, what is the point of our concern?  But more importantly, 2) when you trust in the Lord, and “Take delight” in Him, “he will give you the desires of your heart.”   So, what this means is that we are missing out on the good things that G-d has in store for us when we are not delighting in Him.

Well, as you can see from the way this post started, I am as guilty as anyone of focusing on the wrongs committed by others and not taking delight in the Lord and the good things He has done.  But, at this point, I at least can realize it is a problem.  This is progress.  As I have said, this is a journey, and the destination seems a long way off.  But, progress is progress.  I’ll take it.

 

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Grace

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV

It was a Saturday, late-afternoon and we were hanging out at the “church lot.” The church lot, for all intents and purposes, was our multi-purpose playground.  We played baseball there in the spring and summer, we played football in the fall, and when we were doing neither of these things, we would just meet there and “hang out.”  This was one of those hang out days.

When we were hanging out at the church lot, we often got into discussions, usually political, as our families were a mixed bunch politically, and sometimes about religion, even though we were mostly Roman Catholic.  I enjoyed these discussions very much, whether political or religious, and looked forward to them – and if at times they got a little heated, well, so much the better.  We can all benefit from having our beliefs challenged now and then; but, little did we know how challenging this particular day would be.

The church, for which the church lot was named, had a reputation as being one of those “fundamentalist” congregations.  The church building itself was relatively new, and was a large, impressive brick structure, with one of the tallest steeples in a town that had about a dozen churches.  Not only was the church impressive, but it was part of a complex of buildings that included a K-12 school and a gymnasium.

It was near the gymnasium that we came across several young people who belonged to the church.  They were a little older than us, but not by much.  There were three of them, two boys and a girl. The girl appeared to be the oldest.  They asked us what we were doing.  “Just hanging out,” we said.

They asked us what church we went to.  We told them.  They asked us if we would like to hang out in the gym.  “Sure,” we responded.  I for one had always wanted to get inside the gym. After all, a church with its own gym?  Not common in my youth.

Once we got inside they began to engage us in conversation, which soon turned into a discussion about religion. Ahhhh, so we weren’t the only kids in town who liked to debate.  This was too good to be true.  A discussion about religion with others who were not our religion.  I was enjoying this very much.

The conversation was polite and went very well, but then the young lady said something like, “you know, just living a good life doesn’t get you into heaven.”

A momentary silence ensued as we, the Catholics, tried to figure out what she was trying to say.  Finally, one of us asked her.  “I mean,” she replied, “that doing good things, going to church, praying a lot, doing those things won’t get you into heaven.”

This sounded ridiculous to me.  Doing good, helping people, going to church and praying won’t get you into heaven?  This was to much.  “Then how do people get to heaven,” I asked?

“By believing in Jesus,” she said.  “By putting your faith in Him.  He died for your sins.”

Oh, oh, now I was getting it.  Of course, being a Catholic, I knew that Jesus died for our sins.  But I thought she was a little confused.  “You still have to be good, go to church, pray; you still have  to be a good person,” I said.

“No,” she said, “You just have to have faith.”

At this point we, my friends and I, decided it was time to leave, and so we amicably parted company with our new found debate opponents.  It had been an interesting discussion, and one that I would never forget.  But that thing about “being good won’t get you into heaven” – what was that all about?

Sometime later in religion class, I was in parochial school at the time, the topic  came up about the seeming conflict between faith and works.  There is a passage in the Letter of James which goes “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:18-20

This, apparently, has been debate between Protestants and Catholics for centuries.  Are we saved by faith (Protestant)?  Or, are we saved by works (Catholic)? I thought that this was an interesting topic, and I came down firmly on the Catholic side-no surprise there. It wasn’t long after this, though, that I started to explore other, non-Christian beliefs, and I thought little of my debate or the question of faith or works for quite a while.

Years later I would come back to my Christian, and eventually Catholic faith, but when I did, I took a distinctly Protestant route.  Of course, the faith/works debate was central to my “re-conversion,” only now, I came down hard on the Protestant side of the argument.  I understood what the young lady was trying to say so many years prior and what Paul was saying in Ephesians.

As fervently as I now believed that our good works could not save us, still, that passage from James gnawed at me.  “Faith without works is dead faith.”  What did that mean?

As time passed, my discomfort over James grew.  This was probably due to the fact that although I was a Christian believer, I was not exactly a paragon of Christian behavior.  My misbehavior would cause me to question my faith, and this is when the passages from James would start to kick in.  “Faith without works is dead...Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  

It wasn’t that I was trying to justify my misbehavior with Ephesians, I knew that some of the things I was doing were wrong.  But I would take comfort in Ephesians – that is until the passages from James came to mind.  No comfort for the back-slidden sinner there, for sure.  So, of course, I would avoid James as much as possible.

I was able to do this successfully for quite some time, but it finally got to the point where I just had to come to terms with James.  I was getting less and less comfort from Ephesians, and more and more discomfort from James.  But I faced a dilemma.

The dilemma was this:  Whenever I tried to “be good,” I would be more inclined not to “be good.”  Paul describes a similar experience in Romans 7:21: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”  So, I thought, the answer was not in trying to be good.  Then how do you be good?

Of course, the passages from James, the ones that were causing me so much pain, also held the cure.  I started to realize that when my faith was strong, my natural inclination was to “be good.”  When my faith was weak, well, my inclinations were otherwise.  But according to Ephesians, faith, like salvation is a free gift from G-d.  Now my temptation here was to blame G-d.

After all, if faith, like salvation, is a gift from G-d, and if G-d wanted me to be good, he had to give me more faith, right?  No, wrong.  Faith is faith.  OK, I know that this is a tautology, but nevertheless, it is a very meaningful one.  Faith is not weak, it is not strong – it just is. And we either have it or we don’t.  When G-d gives us faith, and he gives it to all freely, what we then do with it is up to us.

One of the things we can do with faith is act on it, and when we act on our faith in G-d, then by definition, we are doing good.  How could it be otherwise?  Faith comes from G-d, we act on and out of that faith; would G-d let us do evil? I don’t think that is possible!

The other thing we can do with faith is not act on it.  But if we act, and not on faith, then what are we acting on – or out of?  We are by default, acting on and out of our own desires, motivations, and (good?) intentions.  Uh-oh. What did Paul say again?  “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”

So, I learned that it is when the person of faith stops trying to be good, it is then that faith takes over, and we are good.  But, faith is very willing to step aside when the person of faith wants to take over for a while.  This is when we say our faith is weak; but no, our faith is not weak, we are weak.  And when we act out of our weakness and not out of our faith, we are putting our weakness on display and hiding our faith.  Again, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 

I started to become comfortable with James.  I started to use my “good works,” or lack thereof, as a measure, not just of my faith, but of how well I was doing in letting G-d be good in me, so to speak.  Whenever I try to do the right thing under my own power, my faith starts to weaken, and I find myself less able to do the right thing that I desire to do.

When I stop trying to do the right thing, and just rely in faith, on G-d, I find that what I do is the right thing.  How could it be otherwise?

So who is right in the faith versus works debate?  Are the Catholics right? Do our works of faith save us? Or, are the Protestants right?  Is faith alone sufficient to save us?  The answer to those questions, I believe, is “Yes.”

 

The Era of Big Government

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  Genesis 11:4 NIV

Big Government is not a modern creation, at least according to the book of Genesis.  It first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago.  The first Big Government program, as related in Genesis, was the building of the Tower of Babel.  The project was undertaken as a means of uniting the people and preventing them from spreading out across the earth. Strength in numbers, I suppose.

The problem is, they had been specifically commanded by G-d to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  So it would seem that the first Big Government was formed, and the first Big Government program was undertaken, as an act of rebellion against G-d and in direct disobedience to His command.

G-d’s response was to confuse the language of the builders, which in turn led to the eventual dispersion of man across the earth (Genesis 11:7-8), as G-d had originally commanded. Interesting, how G-d’s will is always fulfilled, despite man’s best attempts to thwart it, but that  is the subject of another post.

Unfortunately, the era of Big Government was not over with the failure of it’s first major project. From the early empires of Egypt and the Middle East, to Alexander and the Caesars, from Charlemagne to the Caliphate, to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, history is littered with the ruins of failed Big Governments and their projects, along with the corpses of their countless millions of victims.

Big Government comes in many forms. In ancient Babylon, all one had to do was worship a golden statue of the king, or be thrown into a furnace.  In Rome under the Caesars, complete loyalty to the emperor was required, and any sign of disloyalty, such as being a Christian, would get you hung on a cross or made part of the days entertainment in the arena.

In more recent times, a lack of commitment to the International Proletariat in the Soviet state would earn you time in the Gulag, or worse, make you “disappear”.  And of course, in Germany under Hitler, not conforming to Aryan purity got you a trip to the “showers”.

Alternatively, here in the US, and elswhere, there are Big Government programs that provide for retirement, medical care, and food for the poor, among others.  These programs are generally looked upon favorably.

Whether they are viewed as good or evil, though, there are some common attributes of Big Government programs, and given these attributes, we need to ask what is their impact on individuals? Not necesarily the political or economic impact, but the spiritual impact?  Do these programs promote spiritual growth and maturity, or impede it, or are they neutral in this respect?

Let’s first take a look at some of the common elements of Big Government and its programs: 

1. Participation is mandatory.  Whether the goal is ruling the world, or feeding the poor, Big Government programs require full participation.  If you allow one person to dissent, the whole scheme eventually unravels.  This is problematic for those who disagree with the goal, or the methods of achieving it.  Punishment for non-participation, or worse, outright resistance, can range from social ostracism, to imprisonment,  to execution.  Even the most benign Big Governments resort to extreme measures to ensure compliance with its programs.

2. Fear is the primary unifying factor.  It is hard enough to get even small groups of people to agree to a particular course of action, let alone large, diverse nations.  In addition to penalties described above, cooperation with Big Government programs is achieved by identifying some threat, real or imagined, and then managing the resulting public response to the desired result.  The threat could be military, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or simply not being able to pay for health care, as in the Affordable Care Act, but Big Government programs require some fear generating mechanism to gain support.  The leaders of the Tower of Babel project used man’s individual vulnerability as its fear generating mechanism.

3. Individual responsibility and action is futile.  Big Governments play down the effectiveness of the individual and individual action, unless it is directed toward the stated goal of the group.  Providing for one’s own retirement, or medical care, cannot be done effectively, therefore Big Government must do it.  People cannot be expected to provide lunch for their children, therefore Big Government must do it.  Families should not be responsible for the care of their elderly, so of course Big Government is there to help out.

4.  Targeted problems are exacerbated rather than solved.    It is telling that the first Big Government project at Babel resulted in the very thing the people were trying to avoid, being scattered across the Earth.  This is typical of Big Government projects.  Programs to make education more affordable in the end drive up the cost of education, programs to make health care more affordable end up making it more costly, wars of conquest lead to the eventual destruction of the would be conqueror.  The list goes on and on.  Never does a Big Government program actually solve the problem it was created to solve.  This leads us directly to our next common element.

5.  Big Government programs are self-perpetuating.  There are several reasons for this.  As indicated above, these programs tend to make the problem worse, requiring new and improved Big Government programs to correct the problems caused or worsened by the previous “solutions”.  Also, Big Government programs require Big Government bureaucracies to administer them.  Certainly it is not in the interest of the bureaucracy to actually solve the problem, as this would make the bureaucracy obsolete.  Finally, and most importantly, the very existence of these programs creates a need for them, because of the dependency they create.

6. Freedom and liberty are always diminished.  Big Government programs always require some sacrifice of time or property by some for the “benefit” of all. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  Of course, Big Government determines what one’s abilities are, and hence one’s contributions, and also what one’s needs are, and hence one’s rewards.  However, this requires a form of tyranny, either “soft” or “hard”, to enforce.  Individuals cannot be trusted to voluntarily make these decisions for themdselves, because they may not conform to the common good, as defined by Big Government; and the free market, which is simply the combined decisions of millions, can be trusted even less than the individual.

7. All other possible solutions are precluded.  Big Government programs stifle innovation and creativity, because of their very nature. We can all point to programs that have done a lot of good, but at what price?   Have they done any harm as well? Is there a better way of doing it?  The problem is, we’ll never know, once a Big Government solution is implemented.  In fact, other possible solutions represent a threat that must be eliminated at all costs.  Proponents of other solutions are considered to be unreasonable and uncooperative, they are misguided, maybe even insane.  They require treatment, or re-education; and if that doesn’t work, well, see item 1 above.

Now that we have enumerated some of the characteristics of Big Government, it is useful to review several legends concerning the Tower of Babel project, because, along with the Genesis story, they illustrate many of these characteristics.  Both of these legends concern an individual named Nimrod.

Nimrod, in Genesis, is not associated with the Tower of Babel story.  However, he is mentioned in Genesis 10:8-12 as being a mighty warrior and a “mighty hunter before the Lord”.  He was also a king who founded the cities of Babylon (Babel), Erech, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.  He then moved to Assyria and built the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calneh and Resen.

The Nimrod legends, on the other hand, do associate Nimrod with the building of the tower, but in completely different ways. In the one legend, related by the Jewish historian  Josephus, Nimrod was the king of Babel and desired to consolidate his power over the people with the building of the tower. An interesting comment by Josephus, concerning this Nimrod is “He also gradually changed the government into tyranny-seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of G-d, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his own power” (Ant. I: iv: 2).  As an added incentive, he told the people that they would build the tower high enough that if G-d decided to flood the Earth again, they could escape the waters by climbing to the top of the tower. 

It is important to note that in this story, Nimrod wanted to turn the people’s dependence on G-d to a dependence on Nimrod!  Isn’t this what Big Government and its programs are ultimately all about; dependence, power, and control?  The fact that Josephus wrote this almost 2000 years ago is more evidence that the Era of Big Government, and awareness of its impact, has been around for a very long time.

In the second legend, as told by Ephrem the Syrian, Nimrod was actually a righteous individual who opposed the building of the tower, and a Jewish tradition further relates that Nimrod fled Babel to Assyria because of his opposition to the builders. This would seem to agree at least in part with the book of Genesis’ information on Nimrod, that he went to Assyria and founded cities there.

So what are we to make of these opposing stories?  And more importantly, can we learn anything about Big Government from them?  Most definitely, yes!

Let’s first take a look at the Genesis story of the tower.  As stated earlier, Nimrod is not mentioned at all.  In fact, Genesis does not provide any information about the leader(s), except that it appears they were a group, not an individual.  In the verse just prior to the one quoted at the top of this post, it says, “They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (Genesis 11:3).  The “they” and “each other” being referenced here are the people who had “migrated from the east” (Genesis 11:2).  It seems that a group, and a fairly large one at that, led the people.  If there was a single ringleader, the Bible is silent about him.

Given the two opposing stories, what did actually happen in the land of Shinar, so many years ago?  We can’t really know for certain, beyond what scripture relates, but perhaps Nimrod was in fact a righteous man, and the primary leader, or king, of the group that initially founded Babel.  Further, perhaps there was a group of leaders (a city council?) that proposed the building of the tower, for the purpose of controlling the people and keeping them together, and dependent on them, instead of on G-d.  When people are in a large group, it is much easier to control them and create the illusion that they can live without G-d, than if they are living independently in small groups.

As a righteous man, Nimrod could not go along with this rebellion against G-d, and not being able to dissuade the people from their folly, he left Shinar for Assyria, and founded several cities there.  Sometime later, G-d confused the language of the builders, and spread them out across the globe anyway.

So how did the first story arise, that made Nimrod the primary culprit? Well, this leads to an eighth common element of Big Government, and that is that the architects of Big Government and their projects are never to blame when the project fails.  It is always someone else’s fault.  In this case, Nimrod, no longer around, was made responsibile for the undertaking, and therefore responsible for G-d’s displeasure, and the scattering of the people.

This is just one very speculative explanation of what may have happened, and I’m sure you could come up with your own.  What I believe we can safely conclude from scripture is that the building of the tower was a group action and a group decision.  Maybe Babel was the first democracy and the building of the tower the first example of “democratic” action?  There was no single leader, at least none is specified in the bible story, but perhaps a number of community organizers led the effort.  Seems like resonable conclusions given the Genesis account.

The greatest danger of Big Government and its various programs is the loss of liberty, independence, and individual identity that they foster in those that depend on them.  Even those that are initially forced against their will to participate are in great danger of succumbing to the illusion of peace, safety, and prosperity that they offer.  So what can an individual do?

The Babel story itself provides the answer. Man is a naturally dependent creature.  Even the smartest, strongest, and swiftest among us are woefully weak and helpless in the face of the forces, natural and otherwise, that are arrayed against us.  Our temptation is to band together in large groups, seek safety in numbers, and build great cities, nations and empires.  We think that by doing this, our numbers and our reputation, our “name”, will protect us.  This is a dangerous illusion, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.

We have a choice to make, a decision: be dependent on G-d, or be dependent on man.  If we choose dependence on man, it is clear we are choosing slavery.  If we choose dependence on G-d, we can participate in these programs, if we choose to, without becoming dependent on them.  That is the freedom that comes from being dependent on G-d.

Now when I say “if we choose to”, we must consider that these programs are mandatory.  If we choose not to participate, there are penalties, fines, imprisonment or worse.  So, unless these programs are so completely offensive to us that we believe we are committing a moral wrong, it is in our best interest to participate.  The point is, with dependence on G-d, we do have a choice; with dependence on man, we don’t.

So, we can choose dependence on man and slavery, or dependence on G-d and freedom.  It is a simple decision, really, clear cut and well-defined.  I know what mine is, what’s yours?