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.”

 

What is Love?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV

Songs have been written about it; and poems, short stories and novels. In fact the greatest songs ever sung, and the greatest stories ever told, are all about love.  Look at the most popular plays, they are all about love: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Rent.  Rent? Well, you tell me:

One thing I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have as well, is most love stories have death and dying as a major theme.  This is, of course, because love seems to be about sacrifice, and dying for love represents the ultimate sacrifice.  Hence all the stories about dying for love.  But, what about living for love? What is that and how does it differ from dying for love?

For one thing, dying for love is in a sense easy, because it is so dramatic, and final.  You steel yourself for the inevitable, and then it’s done.  Living for love, on the other hand, seems very hard because it is not a single tragic moment, but moment to moment, and it never ends. Ever.

Living for love has something in common with dying for love in that it also requires sacrifice.  The difference is, the sacrifice that characterizes living for love doesn’t end in one final dramatic event but is something that we live, day by day, day in and day out, like love itself.

The reason this is so is because love requires a certain universality; it applies to everyone, even, according to Jesus, our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).  As long as there are others, there is the requirement for love, and so there is also the requirement for sacrifice.  To take it even one step further, if we include G-d in those “others,” we can sense the magnitude of the sacrifice that love actually requires of us.

When we look at the above clip from Rent, we notice that it is also about death and dying, but it is not explicitly about dying for love, it is about living for love.  It is about Tom Collins’ love for his dying Angel, and the sacrifices he makes out of that love.  It’s about Roger’s conflicted love, and conflicted sacrifice, for the HIV positive and drug addicted Mimi and her love for Roger, who is also HIV positive.

While these examples have much of the drama associated with dying for love, they still give us a glimpse at what living for love is about, but what is living for love like, without the drama?

Initially, I thought that I could not come up with an example in the arts of living for love without the drama.  Then it hit me, of course there are plenty of examples, one being one of my favorite movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the movie, Jimmy Stewart plays a young man, George Bailey, who has big ideas.  He was going to get a college education, an accomplishment achieved by a relative few in those days.  He was going to travel the world and build things: bridges, skyscrapers, airports.  He was going to be somebody.

However, one circumstance after another arose that forced upon him a choice: does he pursue his dreams, or does stay for the sake of others?  Of course, he stays, and therein lies the story.  Due to his Uncle Billy’s mistake, he faces disgrace and jail.  At the end of his rope, he contemplates suicide but is saved by an angel, Clarence.  Clarence shows him what life would have been like in his hometown had he never been born; this changes his mind, and of course, there is a happy ending.

Now my point here is not that there isn’t plenty of drama in the movie – there is – and humor, and all those things that make up a great movie.  But many of the important decisions were, in a sense, rather mundane.  Does he stay and help the members of the Building and Loan after his father’s passing, or does he go after his dream? Does he hang on to his college money for when he is able to use it, or does he give it to his brother, with the understanding that his brother will return so George can then pursue college?  When his brother graduates and is offered a position in another city, does he hold his brother to their agreement and go off to school himself, or does he give his brother his blessing to take the other job?

Do you see what I mean?  Just a man living his life, making decisions similar to ones we all have made with the important distinction of always putting others ahead of himself.  One could argue that there is a death here: the slow, painful death of George’s dream, and this is a valid point.  But in the end, this turns out to be a good thing, because George realizes that what he has – family, friends, their love for him, and his love for them – is far more valuable than anything he could have achieved as a big shot engineer traveling the world.

The life and death decisions for most people are, thankfully, few, but it’s all of the little decisions that we make in between them that challenge us and define our lives. These are the most important because they occur everyday, many times in the day.  What does love require from us when someone cuts us off on the highway?  What does love require from us when a friend tells us that they can’t meet an obligation as promised?  What does love require from us when a child asks us the same question for the hundredth time?  What does love require from us when our spouse is late for a dinner party? I could go on, and on, and on.

There really is no end to the opportunities for us to sacrifice something for love: our pride, our time, our money, our ego; to live for love.  We are constantly given opportunities to meet the demands that love places on us.  What do we choose?  Or more accurately, who do we choose?

What is Faith?

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1 NIV

When I was in my self-improvement phase, I came across a book titled “The Power of Positive Thinking“, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.  The basic premise of the book is that in order to accomplish our goals, whatever they may be, we need to believe that we will accomplish them.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, if we do not believe we can accomplish our goal, it is unlikely we are even going to try; and, if we do try, our efforts will be halfhearted, at best.  Which, of course, makes success very unlikely.  On the other hand, there does seem to be a natural inclination to follow through on those things we believe in, and do what is necessary to bring them about.

Anyway, after I read the book, I would try to get the things I wanted by using the techniques presented there, and in fact, the problem is they didn’t work, at least not for me.  I would try to believe, but something would come along that would shake my faith, introduce doubt, and I would fail to achieve my goal.  Oh, I would say the prayers, I would recite the scripture, I would try to picture in my mind achievement of the desired end, but it just didn’t work.

To be quite honest, my goals weren’t really the loftiest, but why should that matter?  After all, if I just stayed positive, continued to believe, visualized success, I could do anything, right?  The answer I got was no, not right.

For some time after that, I would often wonder what went wrong.  I assumed there was something wrong with me because this book had sold millions of copies, so the problem had to be me, right?  My faith just wasn’t strong enough; I was weak, and I was a failure.

Where did go wrong?  It would be years before I got any reasonable answer to that question, but as my knowledge of G-d, scripture, and faith grew, I eventually did come to some understanding, and yes, what we desire does matter, to answer my earlier question.  Let’s start there.

What do we want?  Years ago, I used to play the horses.  I read up on it, studied it, and was actually pretty good.  Periodically, I would buy a system for picking winners, and one such system came in a paperback book.  On the cover was a picture of the author and creator of the system.  He was sitting in the clubhouse of Santa Anita Park, legs crossed, wearing a sports jacket, with an open shirt, and ascot.  In one hand was the Daily Racing Form, which he studied intently, and in the other was a pipe.  He was the picture of success, exuding class and competence.  I wanted to be just like him!

I did try for a time to be that person, but after some effort, I finally gave up.  I never did achieve my goal, and to this day I am thankful to G-d I didn’t.  Why?  Because I started to value other things.  I started thinking about the incompatibility of my goal with some of my other goals, such as wanting a family.  I wanted to get an education, get a job that had some benefit to others, make a contribution.  If I had achieved my gambling goal, it might have been years before I realized what a mistake I had made.

The point is, what we want at some particular time in our lives may not be what is really good for us, and it may not be in G-d’s will for our lives.  To be successful at these things would actually be a curse rather than a blessing and could set us back years on the path we should be on.

So this is the first thing I learned: what we want is important to our ultimate success or failure, and very often, failure is a blessing.  It is just one way G-d lets us know what is and is not in His plan for us.  But, this is where it gets tricky – just because something is hard, or seems impossible, doesn’t mean we should not pursue it.

Later in my life, I decided to go for my masters degree in Computer Science.  I was married at this point, with two young children, and I was working full time.  In order to get done as soon as possible, I took two classes per semester, at night.  This turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I spent long hours away from home either working, in class, or in the computer lab.  When I was home, I was very often off away from the family studying.  And, just to put some icing on the cake, I was plagued with almost constant doubt and fear of failure.

Yet, somehow, in three years I achieved my goal and received my Master of Science in Computer Science from a prestigious university.  How did I do it?  You may think that the details are important, but they are not, really.  What is important, I learned, is that if you are on the “right” path, G-d will provide you with what you need for success, including the will and the desire, no matter how difficult things are or how improbable success seems to be.

But how, you might ask, do you know if you are on the right path?  And my answer to your question is, “you don’t really ‘know’ but more on that later!”

What I did know when I went for my masters was that I was really interested in computers, you might even say I loved computers (still do).  I wanted to know how they worked and why they worked, how they were made, and how to better use them.  I wanted to know about the hardware, the firmware and the software.

The other thing I knew is I had an aptitude for computers, having earned a B. S. in Business Information Systems, and had worked in the field several years as a programmer/analyst and systems programmer.  I already had a good basic understanding of computers and wanted to know more.

I also had some “reverse” incentives, as well.  My company would pay 80% of the cost for every course passed with a B or better.  Less than a B, and I had to pay for it..  But this wasn’t the worst part, what was worse is that failure would have been humiliating; at work, at home, with family and with friends – failure was just not an option.

This experience was so intense, in fact, that for years after I graduated, I had a recurring nightmare.  In the dream,  I was one class short of graduation, everything else was done. I just needed to finish the one course with a passing grade, but in the dream, I never did!  I would wake up convinced I had failed and never had earned my degree.

Doubt and fear are funny things.  We try to avoid them, put them out of our minds, be brave and certain, but they still persist.  It seems the more we resist them, the stronger they get!  The more we resist them, the more they control and dominate our lives!

So what is the answer?  How do we overcome doubt and fear?  Simply put, we don’t.  What we do is stop trying to overcome them, and, in faith, embrace them!  What?!

Once we recognize that doubt and fear are not the enemy, but actually our friends, we start to live in confidence and peace.  They are our friends because they tell us there is something that needs to be looked into, issues that need to be resolved.  Too often, we let doubt and fear prevent us from fulfilling  G-d’s will and plan for our lives, when in actuality, they are G-d’s way of telling us to stop and think, to evaluate, to question, to learn, and thereby continue on, armed with faith, knowledge, and confidence.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.  We want to go to London, and our idea is to build a boat and sail there.  We dream of this for years, and finally, we’re in a position to build the boat, so we start right in.  We buy the lumber, and some plans, and start building.  We are so excited about the prospect of fulfilling our dream that we make great progress, but over time we start to have doubts.

After all what do we know about shipbuilding, or navigation?  Nothing, really.  So far, we just have this dream and some pent up energy.  We could just quit and take a plane to London – maybe we’ll do just that.  But no, the dream is to sail with our own boat.  So what do we do?  Well, in this case, we do some research.

Let’s say we research boat travel and we find that only 1% of the most seaworthy of vessels makes it across the Atlantic intact, all of the rest sink.  Not very good odds, to say the least, and so for very good reason, we drop the boat idea, and move on to plan B, take a plane.  So doubt was a good thing because it saved us from near certain death.

On the other hand, let’s say we research boat travel and we find that 99.9% of the most seaworthy boats make it across the Atlantic intact.  Now, that’s better.  Knowing this, we research boat building a little more to determine what makes a boat seaworthy, and we continue with our plan.  So here, doubt was a good thing because it caused us to build a better boat and increase our chances of success, and confidence in our plan has been restored.

But, as time goes on, we start to have doubts again, because there is still that .1% chance that the boat will sink, and that’s if we have the skill to build the most seaworthy of boats.  And how do we know?  Maybe our real chances are only 90%, or 85%, or even 50%.  How do we know?

The bottom line is, we don’t know, but that is where true faith comes in because I am talking about faith in G-d, not in our research skills, our shipbuilding skills, or our navigation skills.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t need all of those things – we do – it just means that we don’t trust in them, we trust in G-d.

The story of David and Goliath illustrates this point perfectly.  G-d told David to go out and face Goliath and He would put victory in David’s hands.  David, a young boy, went to the river and picked five smooth stones for his sling.  David then went to face Goliath, and we all know what happened.  With one of those stones, he felled the giant and then cut off his head with Goliath’s own sword.

I have often wondered why David picked five stones instead of just one.  After all, G-d Himself had promised David victory, didn’t He?  And David was an expert with a sling, so why five stones?

The answer that I have come to is this: David understood his own limitations, and G-d hadn’t actually told David how He would give him victory, only that He would.  As good as David was with a sling, it would have been the height of chutzpah and foolhardiness to go up against a raging giant with only one stone.

Now, all it took was one stone, but if David had gone out with only one stone, do you think it possible doubt would have crept in?  That once he got out there, David might have started to think, gee, what if I miss with only this one stone?  The time for doubt was before he went out, not after.

Of course, G-d knew that David was humble and smart, that’s why He picked him.  He knew that David would prepare himself for battle the best way he knew how.

So it is with our dream of sailing to London in our homemade boat.  Not only is faith in G-d necessary to achieve this goal, but we must make the necessary preparations.  We may believe that G-d has blessed our undertaking, but there are no shortcuts.  Skill and preparation are necessary, otherwise we may be testing G-d, which we are not permitted to do.

No matter what we undertake, we should place the outcome in G-d’s hands in faith, then prepare in every way we need to be successful.  When doubt and fear step in, use it as an opportunity to question and evaluate.  Perhaps we are on the wrong path, and our reasoning will show this.  Or perhaps, we are on the right path – we just need to adjust our plan, learn some new skill, or maybe we have started to put our faith in someone or something other than G-d, including possibly our self.  In these cases, just make the adjustment and move on.

The Bible verse that starts this post provides tremendous clues as to how this process works.  It seems to be saying that simply having faith is evidence that the thing we hope for is true or will come to pass, even though we cannot see the thing itself.  How can this be?  Because G-d is the source of all true faith, and He would not mislead us.

When He needs us to make changes, He allows doubt and fear to creep in.  When we resolve those doubts and fears through reason and work and make the necessary adjustments, He restores our confidence, and we move on with a stronger faith in Him than before.

It is in this sense that faith is the substance, or raw material, of those things that we hope for.

The Final Solution

then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” Deuteronomy 30:3 NIV

As I begin writing this, it is January 27, 2015, a date that marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. This day is of particular significance to me for a number of reasons, but first a brief review of the history of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was actually a network of concentration, extermination, and labor camps that the German Nazis built and operated in occupied Poland during World War II. Auschwitz I was originally established in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners. The extermination of the prisoners there began in 1941. By early 1942, Auschwitz II was constructed as part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, their plan to exterminate all of the Jews of Europe, and ultimately the world. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners were executed at Auschwitz; about 90% of them were Jews. Later came Auschwitz III, a labor camp that supplied workers to an IG Farben factory. (Most of this information is from the Wikipedia article “Auschwitz Concentration Camp“)

When I was very young, probably in the range of 5-7 years old, I came across a set of books belonging to my father. They were a five or six volume set, entitled “A Pictorial History of World War II”.

As the name states, the books told the story of the Second World War, mostly with pictures.  Some of the pictures were relatively benign: pictures of troops in training, of USO gatherings where coffee and donuts were served, or perhaps a USO sponsored dance, and pictures of Women’s Army Corp (WAC) members dealing with the rigors of life in the field.

Other pictures, though, were taken during battles, of land, sea, and air, and showed up-close ground combat, aerial dogfights, and tremendous naval engagements.  As I viewed these pictures, my young heart and mind were awed and made fearful at the same time.  What would I have done, if I had been there?  Would I have been afraid?  Would I have been brave?  Would I have come home?

Still other pictures depicted the aftermath of these battles;  burned out tanks and sinking ships, the wreckage of planes, the desolation in the wake of the atomic bombs, the fire-bombing of Dresden, and of course, the wounded, the dying, and the dead.

One day, as I paged through a volume, I came across pictures that I had difficulty understanding.  They were the pictures of the liberated concentration camps.  War, to a degree, I understood, even at that age.  There were two sides; they disagreed, they fought, killed, and died, for what they believed in.  But the concentration camps were another matter.

At first, I wasn’t even sure of what I was looking at: emaciated survivors with hollowed eyes, crematoriums with half burnt bodies, bodies piled eight feet high awaiting burning or burial, mass open graves with bodies tossed in helter-skelter, where, incredibly, the Nazis had tried to hide their atrocities before the Allied troops arrived but were forced to flee ahead of the advancing armies before their work was done; and, finally the “showers” themselves, where the victims, mostly Jews, were herded and gassed.

This was, to my young mind, incomprehensible.  Why had this been done?  What had these people done to deserve this?  What could anyone possibly do to deserve this?  And who were they, the victims of these crimes?

I went to my parents with my questions about the “war” books, and they were a little upset with me that I had been in their room by myself, something I was not supposed to do. But much more than that, they were horrified that I had been exposed to these things at my young age.  They made an attempt to explain to me what I had seen, but how do you explain such things to someone so young?  How do you explain them to anyone, really?

You can’t, except maybe to simply say that the German Nazis were bad people and, for some reason, they hated the Jewish people.  The bottom line though, was that I was absolutely forbidden to look at the books anymore, and in fact, I did not until years later.

But I never forgot them and the impression they made.  Over the years, I got answers to my questions, but the answers only raised more questions.  For example, to say that the German Nazis considered themselves the “Master Race”, and Jews (and just about everyone else) as inferior; that they were trying to “purify” their nation and their culture explains nothing.  It is delusional and insane.

A modern, “civilized” nation, one of the most modern and most civilized, put people in charge that not only held these deranged ideas, but believed them to the point that the they would methodically and systematically go about the task of murdering a people with the same detachment and business-like efficiency of a successful sausage maker.

Of course, though the holocaust may be the worst example, persecution of the Jews did not begin with the Nazis.  We should not forget that Israel was born a nation of slaves in Egypt.  The Pharaoh tried to wipe them out when they left Egypt.  Later, the Assyrians defeated the ten northern tribes of Israel, and scattered them to only G-d knows where – and He does.

When the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were in exile in Babylon, another villain whose name begins with an H, Haman, plotted to induce King Xerxes to destroy them, only to end up plotting his own ignominious execution.  In more recent times, the sorrowful, shameful history of most of the nations of Europe, and their relationship with the Jewish people, led up to the holocaust and made it possible.

And of course, unfortunately, the persecution of Israel did not stop with the German Nazis, either.  The day in 1948 when, for the first time in almost 1900 years, Israel once again became a nation, the neighboring countries tried to drive them into the sea, and out of existence.  This is still the desire of many, if not all of them, to this day.

The most amazing thing, though, about this story of attempted genocides and persecution isn’t that it happened, but that the people of Israel not only survived, but have prospered.  This is where the story gets really interesting because all of this was predicted thousands of years ago.

The prophets of the Torah predicted, starting with Moses, that the people of Israel would be scattered and persecuted.  They predicted that they  would lose their land and reside in the land of strangers, even those hostile to them; but, they also predicted Israel’s restoration and ultimate vindication

The Christian scriptures, which also had Jewish writers, followed in this tradition and spoke of these things.  Jesus Himself spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and the Book of Revelation describes Israel’s restoration in the end times.

So, is the modern state of Israel a fulfillment of these prophecies?  Some argue that no, they won’t be fulfilled until the nation is fully restored and the Messiah rules from Jerusalem.  My view is that it is a fulfillment of prophecy, but there is still more history to go and more prophecy to be fulfilled.  Anyway, there are plenty of books on Bible prophecy, and that is not the purpose of this article, so lets just say for the sake of argument that the state of Israel is at least a partial fulfillment, and the rest is yet to come.

What does all of this have to do with explaining the Holocaust?

I am reminded here of the story of Job.  In the beginning of the Book of Job, we find G-d holding court, and in comes Satan from “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it”. (Job 1:7 NIV)

G-d asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless–a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil”. (Job 1:8 NIV)

Satan replied that, of course Job fears G-d – G-d has protected Job and made him wealthy, but if G-d took everything that Job had, he would curse G-d. G-d then gave Satan permission to take everything from Job, except his health. (Job 1:9-12 NIV).

Satan left G-d’s presence and attacked Job, taking or destroying all of his possessions, and even killing his children, but Job did not curse G-d. (Job 1:13-22 NIV)

Later, G-d was once again holding court and Satan was there.  G-d pointed out to Satan that even though Satan had challenged G-d into allowing him to attack Job, Job did not curse G-d.  Satan responded that Job still had his health, and if G-d allowed him to take Job’s health from him, then surely Job would curse G-d.  G-d then gave him permission to take even Job’s health from him, but not his life.  (Job 2:1-6 NIV)

Satan once again left G-d’s presence, and afflicted Job with terrible, painful sores all over his body.  He was in such torment, even his wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9 NIV)  But Job refused to do so, and in the end, Job’s fortunes were restored and he was given many children. (Job 42:12-17 NIV)

In my narration, I have skipped many chapters, in most of which three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong for G-d to allow him to be treated this way.  Job protests his innocence, and at times, questions God’s justice, because He allows the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer.

Job’s friends, while they say many true things about G-d,  persist, and even accuse Job of self-righteousness.  This is of course wrong, as G-d Himself said at the beginning of the story that Job was righteous in all his ways; and besides, innocent people suffer all the time in this world, a point which Job’s friends seemed to have missed.

One more of Job’s friends speaks up, Elihu, but instead of claiming that Job must have sinned in some way in order to suffer, he addresses Job’s attitude in the present.  He asserts G-d’s essential righteousness and tells Job that G-d cannot treat anyone wrongly.  He addresses Job’s complaints against G-d, and provides answers to those complaints, but unlike Job’s other friends, he never does accuse Job of unrighteousness.

Finally, G-d speaks up, but rather than try to explain Himself, He challenges Job with a series of questions, just as Job had questioned and challenged Him. Of course, Job is completely unable to answer G-d’s questions but, through these questions, G-d demonstrates to Job His omnipotence and His sovereignty, and Job realizes his folly for questioning G-d, and repents.  When G-d is done speaking to him, Job responds:

“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:2-6

But G-d did one more very important thing besides question Job, He fully vindicated him.  He told the three friends who had accused Job of unrighteousness that they had done wrong, and they needed to make the appropriate sacrifices in the hope that Job would forgive and pray for them, so they would not be punished for their own folly.  Job of course prayed for his friends, and was rewarded with far more wealth than he had before.  He was given seven sons, and three daughters who were the most beautiful in all the land, and he saw his children’s children to the fourth generation. (Job 42:12-17)

There are many lessons that can be learned from the Book of Job, but one that stands out for me and is most relevant here is that, according to the scriptures, there is a war going on in the spiritual realm.  It is a war between good and evil, between G-d and Satan.  The war began when the angel Lucifer, the most beautiful and intelligent of G-d’s creation, let pride enter his heart and determined to make himself god in G-d’s place.  One of his strategies is to demonstrate that G-d is not sovereign, that He is a liar, and unfit to be G-d.

As part of this war, Satan enlisted man on his side through cleverness and deception.  G-d, out of love for man, developed a plan, His own strategy to win the war, and to win man back.  G-d could have made other choices, such as to simply destroy Satan and the angels that followed him, as well as man, and started over; but, what would that have proven? In a creation where G-d has given created beings the ability to choose, brute force solves nothing, and persuasion, diplomacy, and most important, love, are necessary.

Man, then, has become both a combatant and a battlefield in this war.  Satan continues his deception and constantly tries to create doubt in men’s minds about G-d.  G-d simply continues to show His love for man, and requires man only to have faith in Him and His plan.

The book of Job teaches many other lessons, one very important one is about our attitude towards those who suffer and how we should treat them.  Do we accuse them of sin and unrighteousness, or do we provide them with comfort?  Do we tell them that G-d is punishing them, or do we assure them that G-d loves them and cares for them?

Our answers to those questions could very well determine whose side we are on in this great, millenniums long war that we are in.

Food for Thought

For the kingdom of G-d is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…” Romans 14:17 NIV

I went on a diet a little over three years ago. I lost some weight, which is good, but what was most astonishing to me was how much better I felt, and within only a few days.  But I didn’t just feel better; I felt years-younger better, I felt no-more-heartburn-indigestion-acid-re-flux better, and I felt more-energy-needing-less-sleep better.

The diet is a relatively new, high-protein, low-carb regimen that attracted me initially by its simplicity.  No calorie counting, no points to worry about or weighing food; not that there is anything wrong with those kind of diets, it’s just that they’re not for me.

As I progressed in the diet though, an odd thing began to happen.  The above verse of scripture began to come to mind, and the better I felt, the more frequently I would think of this verse.

I finally had to face the fact that G-d was trying to tell me something, and after some thought, I realized what was going on.  It seems that as I felt better, I was actually beginning to think I was better.  That feeling better, because I was eating better, was actually making me a better person.

To be sure, there were improvements in my behavior.  Since I needed less sleep and had more energy, I began getting up earlier on weekends and taking on a bigger share of the housework, for example.  With far fewer aches and pains, I began exercising more and took up running, something I hadn’t done in years.  Also, feeling better physically helps me to feel better emotionally, and I generally have a better attitude and outlook.

The point is, if I wanted to make a case that in fact I was a better person, I could do it.  The problem is, I would only be looking at one side of it.  While I am not going to list my current personal failures and weaknesses, if for no other reason that I don’t have the time or space, I can, in an honest moment, admit that I am still the same person I was before the diet.  I am sure my family would attest to that, as well!

OK, I lost weight, I feel better, I have a better quality of life, so what’s the problem?  So what if I’m not intrinsically a better person, what’s the big deal?  Honestly, there is really no issue here, is there?  I’m not perfect, I should just get over it!

But, of course, for me things are never that simple.  Earlier in life,  and for a number of years, I had gone on a self-improvement binge.  I read all the self-help, self-improvement, pop-psychology books I could get my hands on.   Some of them were pretty good, others, not so much, but they all seemed to have one thing in common,  they all required that you take control of your life and change it in some way, and by doing so you could achieve health, wealth, happiness, long life, etc., etc., etc.

Sounds great, right?  Do this, do that, and voila, the new you!  Now, some would tell you – look, this isn’t going to be easy, but you can do it, anyone can, and here’s how.  Just a little effort, a little willpower, and you’ve got it made.

Oops, what’s that?  Effort, willpower?  Uh-oh!  This could be a problem.

Let’s take a look at effort first.  Effort requires motivation.   People are simply unwilling to exert any effort whatsoever, for anything, without motivation.  But what does motivation require?  Motivation requires a need.  Oh, what’s that, you want to eat?  Well then, you’ll have to work.  Now that’s motivation!

Willpower, on the other hand is a little harder to define, and I think the reason for that is that there really is no such thing, at least not in the popular sense.  You may disagree, and I have had this argument before, but I just do not believe that there is any such thing as willpower as the term is commonly applied.

Let’s break it down: will – power of choosing one’s own actions; power – ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.  For the record, the definitions are from dictionary. com, and were chosen from the many definitions for each word to fit the present context.

Both words imply action, but “will” is about choosing to act and “power” is about the ability to act.  Willpower, it would then seem, is the ability to choose and to act upon one’s choices.

So far, so good.  Everybody can make choices, and everybody can act on those choices – or can they?  If I choose to walk from point A to point B, but I am incapable of walking, then I can’t act on that choice.  I may have other options for getting from A to B, but walking isn’t one of them.  Will power has nothing do with it and in fact it would be more than a little cruel to suggest to me that if only my willpower was stronger, I could walk from point A to point B.

The above illustration begs the question:  If it would be cruel to suggest to a person with a disability that they could walk if only they had the willpower, why do we think it is OK to suggest to a smoker, for example, that they could quit smoking if only they had more willpower?  Or to suggest to an obese person that they could lose weight if only they had more willpower?  Might this be just as cruel?

One might point out that the person who can’t walk has a physical disability that prevents them from walking, but the person who smokes or who eats too much is choosing to do so, and that would be correct, but let’s expand our illustration a little.

The disabled person wants to walk from point A to point B, but they can’t, so they lift themselves into a wheelchair, and wheel themselves from A to B.  They have accomplished their goal, albeit not by walking; and again, willpower has nothing to do with it.

Now, what about the person who smokes, for example?  I have had experience in this area, having smoked for 23 years.  I stopped, by the grace of G-d, over 26 years ago, but not after a long struggle in “trying” to quit.  In fact, the more I “tried” to quit, the more I smoked.  Right before I stopped, I was smoking 3 packs a day, and had been for some time.

So what happened?  Before I answer that, let’s take a quick look at human nature.  People, in general, don’t do anything without a reason.  The reason may be rational, or irrational, but they have to have a reason. Secondly, they require motivation.  A reason, and motivation are related, but in the end very different.

Let’s look at the reasons for quitting smoking: smoking shortens lifespan, smoking degrades the quality of life, smoking can harm others, smoking costs a lot of money, and you could probably list others.  I had all of these reasons to quit, yet could (would?) not.  Why?  Because none of those reasons were enough to counteract the fact that I enjoyed smoking, and in fact, rightly or wrongly, I believed I was actually getting some benefit out of smoking.

Therefore, none of the listed  reasons motivated me to want to quit.  I enjoyed smoking and I was willing to take the risks.  The problem, however, is that I have a wife who wanted me to quit, and society in general was bringing more and more pressure on smokers to quit, and still is.

So what to do?  This is where “trying” to quit smoking comes in.  Let’s face it, if you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, but to others, it looks like you’re doing it, right?  At least you’re trying.

“Where’s Bill?”, someone might ask.

“He ran out to have a smoke.”

“Bill smokes?”

“Yeah, but he’s trying to quit.”

“Oh, well at least he’s trying.”

I’m not saying that my efforts were deliberately insincere, but as I said, when you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, you’re just trying.  At best though, I was deluding myself into thinking I was quitting smoking when I was really just trying.

So reasons do not,  in and of themselves, provide motivation to quit. And honestly, having someone nagging you to do it or being pressured from society only makes things worse.  Our fallen human nature automatically rebels against any pressure to do anything, let alone something we have no good reason to do.

What I’m getting at here is that we human beings do not do anything  unless we want to do it.  This is  much more profound than it may appear.  It is profound because it is so simple.  When we want to do something, like the person who can’t walk from A to B, we just do it, we don’t try to do it, we do it!

So this was my dilemma:  I enjoyed smoking, but I was under pressure from my family and society to quit.  The more I viewed things in this way, the worse things got.  Periodically, I would try to quit, not because I thought quitting would be beneficial to me, but because of the pressure to do so.

The problem is, each time I tried to quit, I would end up smoking more. At least the pressure to quit would let up somewhat, and as an added benefit, each time I tried and failed, I got a certain amount of sympathy.  “Poor Bill, he’s really trying to quit [I was], but he just can’t seem to do it”.

But I did quit, eventually, so how did I do it?

As a Christian, I believe that all things ultimately come from G-d, including the ability to quit smoking.  In one of my more objective and honest moments, I said to Him, “Look, I know that I should quit smoking, but I just don’t want to [this insight also came from Him], so I’m going to have to turn this over to You because it’s just not going to happen if left up to me.”

I would like to say that at that moment I quit and never picked up another cigarette, but alas, that is not what happened.  The reason is that I still wanted to smoke, and G-d will not directly interfere with our will.  Whenever Jesus cured someone, He would often say “Your faith has healed you,” and there is at least one passage that refers to the fact that Jesus could only perform a few miracles because of the relative lack of faith of the people in that particular area.

What did happen though is that things just kept getting worse until I was, as I said earlier, smoking three packs a day.  As things got worse though, some other things began to happen: like the commercial said, I was “smoking more and enjoying it less”.  Even those times when I normally enjoyed smoking, I was not.  I also started to see just how destructive smoking could be, and not just to my health, but potentially to my family.  After all, I was an example, and I really did not want my children to smoke.

There was the financial damage.  I had a wife and two children, with one on the way, and I was spending almost $100 a month on cigarettes.  That does not seem like much now, but in 1988 it was almost a car payment!  What was I thinking?

Also very important, I started to realize that my rebellion was misplaced.  Instead of rebelling against G-d and man, I should rebel against smoking and my desire to smoke because that is what enslaved me, not G-d and my family or society.

What was happening over a period of months, is that my heart and my mind were being remade in a way that, in the end, I wanted to quit smoking, and I finally said to the Lord, sincerely and from my heart, “I want to quit smoking.” It was from that moment on that I have not smoked another cigarette.

I still get uncomfortable, to this day, when people hear that I quit smoking after 23 years, and they say “Wow, how did you do it”?  The fact is, I didn’t do it, I just put it in  the Lord’s hands and He did it.

And willpower had nothing to do with it.

So, what are the lessons I learned from my smoking and diet experiences?  First, it all starts with G-d.  Any power we have to do anything comes from Him.  Even that act of turning to Him in faith comes from Him.

Second, we have to have faith that G-d can address our problems, if He chooses to do so.  When He chooses not to for a time, we have to have faith that He has His reasons for not doing so.  This faith also comes from G-d.

Third, we have to want to resolve the problem.  This is a statement, or assertion of will, not a passing fancy or simple desire. Wanting to resolve the problem also comes from G-d.

The fourth step is relatively easy because once we want to do it, we don’t try to do it, we just do it.  Does this guarantee success? No, because the outcome is in G-d’s hands; but we still, in faith,  do all of the things necessary to accomplish our goal.

As for being a better person, simply quitting smoking or losing weight does not make us better people, but it even goes further than this. None of our efforts can make us intrinsically better people; but G-d, when He chooses, and in response to our faith, can not only make us better, He can and will, in His time, make us perfect.

 

I Did It… My Way?

 ““For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.” Isaiah 55:8 NIV

I enlisted in the Army in the early 1970’s. My basic training company was one of the last to be trained under what was referred to as the old “Brown Boot” Army. After us, the rules and regulations of the new “All Volunteer” force would kick in.

The new way of training appeared to be a somewhat “kinder, gentler” basic training.  At least this is what it seemed to me as I observed the unit training several weeks behind mine, which trained under the new way.  Less running through the sand at Fort Dix, maybe a little less in your face.

For some reason, I’m glad I went the old way, maybe even a little bit proud of that fact.  I think that I just would not have had  quite the same sense of accomplishment, and one experience, among many memorable ones, has always stood out in my mind.

After several days of being processed in,  I found myself standing in formation outside the brick barracks that would be my “home away from home” for the next eight weeks.  There, the Senior Drill Sargent, Sargent First Class Hatcher, informed me and my fellow recruits of what would be expected of us over the course of our training.

While I can remember little of what he actually said, one thing he did say that I’ll never forget is, “In the Army, there are four ways of doing things, my way, your way, the right way, and the Army way, but while you’re here in this unit, you’ll do things…”

Now here I have to say that, at that moment, I knew what he was going to say.  I was so sure that I started to smile a little, this was too easy, I thought, he was going to say “the Army way”, I just knew it.

“…my way”, he finished.  See, I told you, he said… what?

Why wouldn’t  we do things the Army way?  This didn’t make sense.

And so we spent the next eight weeks doing things Senior Drill Sargent Hatcher’s way; not the Army way, not even the right way, and certainly not our way.  Now the purpose of basic training is to turn sorry-*ss civilians into soldiers, and you can imagine, this is no easy task; but, Sargent Hatcher and his associates were certainly more than up to it.

The first thing that needed to be done was to teach the trainees that everything they knew up to that point in life was wrong.  Not just some things, not just most things, but everything.  This was absolutely necessary because the relative lack in civilian life – of discipline, of commitment, of fortitude, of, well just about everything necessary for success in military life – meant that you pretty much had to start over with a blank slate, tabula rasa, as they say.

Once the “purging” was complete, the next step was for the Army to remake us in its image, or I should say, Senior Drill Sargent Hatcher’s image.  To say that this entire process was painful would be a great understatement, at least initially; but, after a while a surprising thing happened – we started to “get it”, at least most of us.

The more we “got it”, the less we resisted our extreme makeover, and the less we resisted, the less painful the training became.   Now, “getting it” wasn’t just things like learning to follow lawful orders, or learning how to fire a weapon or throw a grenade.  And there was much more to it than just the physical, mental, and emotional conditioning that was required.  These things were all absolutely necessary, but really don’t come close to comprising the “it” I’m referring to.

It wasn’t just thinking like a soldier or acting like a soldier, but it required a change of heart and mind, a  reorientation of our focus and attitude.  What it ultimately came down to was really just being a soldier.  It was just being a soldier.

I have found that most big changes in our lives require this kind of “re-making” experience.  The one really big change that readily comes to my mind that most people experience is marriage.

It seems that no matter how well your parents teach you (the “Army” way), or how many books you read (the “right” way), or how much you think you know (“your” way), the way you really learn about marriage is through your spouse (the “Drill Sargent’s” way).

Now, I am really not comparing your husband or wife to a Drill Sargent, but I think your spouse does fulfill a similar training role in marriage in that while your parents, the “book”, and your own experience and knowledge are all good for preparing you for your married life, no one or nothing can prepare you like your spouse.

The point here is that in both cases, one really doesn’t get to do things his or her own way, or some theoretical “right” way, but the way of the person best in the position to know how things should be done.

In the military, that’s the Drill Sargent.  In marriage, it’s your spouse.

Who better than a knowledgeable and experienced Sargent to teach recruits what they need to know to succeed, and survive, in the military?  And, who better than the spouse to teach their partner what they need to know to succeed, and survive, in a marriage with them?

I think there is a general principle here, which is actually very simple, and it is that the best source to learn something from is the person most experienced in the subject matter at hand who has a vested interest in you learning it.  Books are great, advice is often valuable, and your own experience and knowledge certainly plays a large role, but nothing beats learning from a true expert in the field, who is motivated to see that you learn, and has some means to compel you.

If we look at these items one at a time we can see why this is so.  Books, for example, have the great advantage of being neutral and dispassionate.  They also have the great disadvantage of being neutral and dispassionate.  The book is not intimidating, and can be read at your leisure, but the book doesn’t care if you learn what it has to teach, or even whether you finish it.  The book has no real vested interest in whether you learn it or not, and no means to compel you.

Advice from family and friends  is limited by their experience and while they may have an interest in you learning, they have no way of compelling you to learn either, in most cases.

As for you, while you may be a very knowledgeable and experienced person, your objectivity, when it comes to you, is almost non-existent.  Left to ourselves for motivation, we often let ourselves down.

Fast forward from Basic Training about two years.  I was doing well in the Army, making rank, and more than just getting by.  To be sure, I had made my share of mistakes, some big ones, but I had also met my fair share of success as well, and I liked being a soldier.

I was a paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.  At that time, there were frequent outdoor concerts out in the country, usually in the woods.  Mostly Bluegrass and Southern Rock or Blues, and being the music lover that I am, I attended as many as I could.  Few things can compare to sitting out in the woods on a warm summer day, in the shade of the trees, listening to the Earl Scruggs Revue, or the James Gang, and maybe passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, to take your mind off of things.

It was at one of these concerts, after parking in a grass field, that – little did I know at the time – an event occurred that would change my life forever.

My friend and I had just locked up the car and had turned toward the area of the concert stage when we were confronted by a hairy individual in cutoff jeans and t-shirt – a “Jesus freak”, as we called them then.  He stuck his hand out toward us, and in it was a small booklet.  My friend declined, but I was never one to pass up on a free book, so I accepted it gladly, thanked the hirsute fellow, stuck it in my back pocket, and moved on to the concert.

When I grabbed the publication, I glanced at the cover before slipping it into my pocket.  It read “The Gospel of John”.

I quickly forgot about the whole thing, and then months later, I was sitting in my apartment in Fayetteville and had probably just finished reading the local paper when I glanced down at the table next to my chair.  There was this little booklet from the concert.  I still don’t know for certain how it made its way to that table.

Now, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the gospels, having been raised a Catholic.  But as I have mentioned in previous posts, I had gone on a journey, a quest, to find the truth, and during this quest the Jewish and Christian scripture was the one place I hadn’t really looked.

So, I opened the booklet and it was in this context that I began to read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-1:5 NIV).

As I read these words, a very uncomfortable thought entered my mind and my heart, and it was that what I was reading was true.  But that just could not be.  Why?

Well, for one thing, I understood the Bible well enough to know that if this were true, then the entire Bible was true.  If John 1:1 was true, then so was Genesis 1:1.

But even more disturbing to me was that if this were true, then everything I knew and had learned up to that point in my search, and my life, was wrong!  And I just could not accept that.

There is an old and wise saying, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”.  This was the dilemma I found myself in.  I began thinking of all the reasons why this was not the truth, but again, something or someone spoke to my heart and said “There are answers to all your questions, all your reasons, you just have to make the commitment to finding them”.  I distinctly remember standing in the  center of my living room, my heart and mind in turmoil, arguing with…  who? myself? Well, no, I don’t think so.

Searching people who consider themselves open minded – if they are sincere – will always experience a certain amount of distress when they finally find what they are looking for; in particular, when the object of their search is something life-changing and profound, like The Truth.  One reason this is so is because once they find the truth, they can no longer be open minded, at least not in the same way as before they find it.

Before, I could consider every thought and philosophy, as possible.  After though? The funny thing about the truth, it is very exclusive.  I knew this instinctively, and this is why I fought and struggled so hard against believing what I was reading.  But I also knew I was being challenged to be, ironically, open-minded enough to at least consider this to be true, as I would any other viewpoint or fact.

In the end, I had to cave to the spirit of open-mindedness that I had embraced for so long, and make the commitment that was being thrust upon me to at least consider the Jewish and Christian scriptures to be true.  But to whom was I making this commitment?  To myself?

Well, once again, I don’t think so.  Then to whom?  Well, to the G-d that I still wasn’t quite sure I believed in.  I asked Him, if He existed, to help me know the truth.

From that point on, my life began to change.  The change wasn’t instantaneous by any means, and in fact, it is still going on.  For one thing,  I began reading everything “Bible” I could get my hands on; bible history, bible prophecy, apologetics, science and the bible, bible hermeneutics, anti-bible, pro-bible, bible neutral, bible commentary.  Anything and everything bible.

Another change began to happen as well, even more life-altering than my insatiable thirst for knowledge.  Little by little and piece by piece, my world was being torn down and disassembled.  Everything I had learned and thought I knew up to that point in my life was fair game to be questioned, deconstructed, and discarded.  I often had the feeling that I was “walking on air” with nothing firm under me for support.  Like Nino the Mind Bender from the Firesign Theater, I began to believe that everything I knew was wrong, and that was the one thing I was absolutely right about.

And more than that, I began to get the distinct impression that there was nothing random about the re-learning process that I was experiencing, that there was a plan and an intelligence behind it.

I would ask a question and the answer would come, in one form or another.  Maybe it was a book I would come across, or an article.  Maybe it would come in the form of a person that I would meet, seemingly by chance, or a television or radio program, or an ad in the mail.  Sometimes the answer would come sooner, sometimes it would come later, and sometimes the answer was, in fact, no answer.

What’s more, there was a deja vu familiarity about my experience, like I had done this before.  This thought nagged at me for some time until it finally occurred to me: I was back in Basic Training!  This training was much more thorough, though, and reached much deeper than my military training.  It left no thought undisturbed, no idea unexamined, no opinion undissected.

As my spiritual “basic training” wore on, I began to realize some things.  First, while it may be true that in the Army there are four ways of doing things, in life there are really only two: G-d’s way, and the world’s way.  Second, my training, as with my military training and later, my marriage training, consisted first of being torn down and then rebuilt.

In this case, the tearing down was being disabused of the world’s way of thinking and doing things, and the building up was being reformed into G-d’s way of thinking and doing things.

What is G-d’s way of doing things?  I’ll give just one example, but its a big one.

The world wants you to focus on man and his efforts.  The world says trust in yourself and your own efforts, or of some other person or group.  Believe in man.

G-d, in His scriptures, says to focus on him.  G-d says to trust Him in everything you think, say, and do.  Believe in G-d.  “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” Isaiah 26:3 KJV

Recently, I was challenged to have a bucket of ice water poured on my head and make a monetary donation to a good cause.  I took up the challenge, and it was cold!  But I did it.

I am not going to list any more differences between G-d’s way and the world’s way, because I have a challenge for the reader.  The challenge is to make a commitment to know the truth.

Don’t make it to yourself – that will never work – but make it to G-d, as best you conceive Him to be.  If you’re not sure you even believe in G-d, then make the commitment to this G-d of which you’re uncertain, this “unknown” G-d, as the Greeks referred to Him.

If you take up the challenge, do it with an open heart and open mind, but with the understanding that as you learn the truth, most of what you think you already know will have to be discarded.  That is just the nature of things.

So what are you going to do?  Are you going to take up the challenge and make the commitment?  I can assure you, if you do, your life will never be the same.

 

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?

Slavery and Deception

You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.”  Genesis 3:4 NIV

Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve.  G-d created a perfect world, a paradise.  He created a man and a woman, placed them in this perfect world, and put them in charge.  G-d told them that they could eat of any tree in the garden, including the Tree of Life, but they could not eat of one tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Along came the serpent, who we find out later was already at odds with G-d, and he deceived the woman Eve into eating the fruit from the forbidden tree.  She then offered it to Adam, who had apparently witnessed the interchange between Eve and the serpent, and he ate of it also.  And so began, according to Genesis, the entirety of the human experience: alienated from their creator, enslaved by the serpent, and awaiting the “seed of the woman” to crush the serpent’s head and redeem them (Genesis 3:15).

Whether you believe that the book, of Genesis was written by Moses, by some unknown group of scribes, or by G-d, through Moses, its assessment of the human predicament is right on, and it has many lessons to teach.  One of those lessons is about deception and in fact, the story is a case study in deception and seduction.

The first thing to observe is that the deceiver always has a goal, an objective.  What was the serpent’s objective?  Although it is not explicitly stated, it would seem that the serpent’s objective was to separate man from G-d, but why would he want to do this?

It is commonly believed that the serpent was jealous of man and the position that man held and would hold.  Man was created by G-d, in G-d’s own image and likeness.  In addition, man was given charge of the Earth and everything in it (Genesis 1:27, 28).  Another factor may be the Tree of Life, of which it is understood that if man ate of it, he would become immortal.  Perhaps the serpent knew this and desired to prevent it.

Finally, man had a special relationship with G-d.  G-d would walk with the man and the woman in the garden, conversing with and teaching them.  Regardless of the reason, though, it seems pretty clear that the serpent desired to break up man’s relationship with G-d, and by doing so usurp G-d’s position in that relationship.

The conversation between Eve and the serpent seems to begin innocently enough, with the serpent saying “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1).  However, by asking this question, the serpent was able to bring Eve’s attention to the one thing G-d had forbidden.

Of course, G-d had not said that the man and woman could not eat from any tree, only the one tree.  Eve was quick to point this out when she responded “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

Notice how Eve embellished G-d’s command with the addition of “and you must not touch it”.  Many interpret this to mean that the serpent’s deception was already working in Eve, and it may also indicate that Eve had previously thought about the tree.

Maybe Eve thought that by adding the extra prohibition, it would help her obey G-d, after all, if she didn’t touch it she couldn’t eat it, right?   If so, this strategy may have backfired, by making it harder, not easier, to keep G-d’s original commandment.  After all, if Eve touched it and did not die, then why not eat it?

What it does show though, is that Eve was at least interested in the forbidden fruit at this point, or she would not have added the additional command. 

The serpent responded with the bold face lie “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4), directly contradicting G-d.  He further explained that G-d was actually the jealous one, not wanting man to “be like G-d”, knowing good from evil.  There is a twofold irony here; first, man was already like G-d in may respects, having been created in G-d’s image and likeness, and second, had man eaten from the Tree of Life, he would have become even more like G-d, having everlasting life (Genesis 3:22).

By now, Eve is completely taken in by the serpent, and is looking at the fruit of the tree as not only a source of good food, but also a source of wisdom and pleasure (Genesis 3:6).  She tasted the fruit and gave some to Adam, who had been watching and listening.  He readily ate the fruit also, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Before going further with the main theme, it is worth mentioning that over the years, more than a few have accorded the woman the blame for The Fall, as it is known, but even a superficial reading shows that this is not the case, for many reasons.

First, the command had been given to Adam, before Eve had been created (Genesis 2:15).  Now, it is clear that Eve knew of the prohibition, but this is still a mitigating fact.  In addition, the serpent directed his deception directly at Eve, and only indirectly at Adam.  Adam was there and made no attempt to stop the serpent, or stop Eve from being deceived.  In my opinion, the woman comes out of this much better than the man.

That the woman comes off much better is demonstrated later, when G-d finally catches up with them.  The woman blames the serpent, but the man blames the woman!  Neither one of them was willing to take responsibility for what they had done, but at least the woman had some reason to blame the serpent, but what reason did the man have to blame the woman?  Sorry guys, but it looks pretty bad for the man here!

Having said that, what can we learn about deception from the story?  First, as stated previously, the deceiver has a purpose for his deception, a goal.  I think we can also say that the deceiver must be subtle, at least at first, only slightly distorting the truth, but then will resort to the boldest of lies when the time is right.  The deceiver must also know something about the deceived that leaves them vulnerable to deception.

Ok, but what about the deceived?  What I mean is, if Adam and Eve were both deceived, why should they bear any responsibility at all for disobeying G-d?  They were deceived, right?

Unfortunately for our first mom and dad, and for the rest of us, it is not quite that simple.  The question that begs to be asked is, why was the serpent able to deceive them?  After all, it was just one simple rule, and they could eat from any other tree, including the Tree of Life.  What was so hard about that?

And man had a good, loving relationship with G-d.  Had G-d given man any reason to mistrust Him?  He placed man in paradise, gave him lordship over an entire planet, walked and talked with him in the garden.  G-d had done nothing but love and bless the man and the woman.

The reason the man and the woman were responsible for their disobedience, even though they had been deceived, lies in the nature of disobedience and in the nature of deception.

Disobedience requires a lack of trust.  Clearly, Adam and Eve both had been thinking about the forbidden tree.  This is demonstrated by Eve’s embellishment of G-d’s command and Adam’s inaction when Eve was being tempted.  Perhaps they had discussed the tree beforehand.  Perhaps they had considered the same issues that the serpent brought up and had wondered themselves why G-d had forbidden the fruit of that tree.  This isn’t stated in the text, but it is not unreasonable to think this based on what is stated.

But G-d had already told them why they should not eat from that tree, it was because they would die.  Many people seem to think that this was primarily a punishment, but I don’t think so.  I believe it was  just a consequence of eating the fruit.  G-d was simply saying to them look, don’t eat from that tree, it will kill you.  Certainly there are fruits and vegetables today which are poisonous and  if eaten in sufficient quantity can result in death, and this was one of them.  Had they trusted G-d, they would have gone to him with their concerns, but instead chose disobedience.

This brings us to a very important point about deception, which is that people who are unwilling to be deceived will not be deceived.  Adam and Eve wanted to eat of that fruit, and all it took was the subtle and crafty serpent to tell them they would not die, and they went for it.  They had a choice, they could believe G-d or the serpent, and they believed the serpent, because he told them what they wanted to hear.

I am reminded of the Fleetwood Mac song in which some of the lyrics go “tell me lies tell me sweet little lies”.  Unfortunately, this is all too true.  We often want to be deceived because we think that it provides us with an excuse for doing things that we know we should not.  It does not, as the story relates.

Finally, deception always results in slavery.  From the false advertiser who induces us to spend our money on a product that does not live up to its billing, to the unscrupulous lender who deceives us into buying a house that we cannot afford, to the politician who promises us the world on a string if we only vote for him, they are slave masters all.  They prey upon our weakness and thereby have us do their bidding.

In the end, though, the real enslavement is not to the deceiver, it is to ourselves, and the weakness within us that leaves us vulnerable to deception.  Whether it is greed, or lust, or pride, or envy, whatever it is that causes us to allow ourselves to be deceived, that is the thing which ultimately enslaves us.  When we indulge that weaknesss, it only strengthens its hold on us, when we refuse to indulge it, we will be taking the first steps to emancipation.

Emancipation cannot take place though, without an unshakable commitment to the truth.  If you read my previous blog, “Freedom and Truth”, you know that the truth will set you free.  Perhaps now you are starting to see how that is so.

Freedom and Truth

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 NIV

The post-modern world says that at best, the truth exists but is unknowable, and at worst, it does not exist at all.  On the other hand, Jesus said that knowing the truth will set you free.  They both can’t be right.

Before we go to that question, though, we need to ask what is meant here by freedom.  Is it physical freedom, such as freedom to move about, freedom of association, of speech, of worship?  Is it intellectual freedom, the freedom to explore unhindered the various ideas and philosophies of this world?  Or maybe Jesus was talking about spiritual freedom, not freedom of worship,  which is the freedom to practice a particular religion, or go to a favored place of worship, but the freedom to be loving, giving, kind, hopeful, faithful, unafraid, without guilt, and content?

Given the context and the application of Jesus words by his disciples, I think it is safe to say that Jesus was speaking of spiritual freedom; he was saying that by knowing the truth and, one assumes, believing it, one will be set free from spiritual deception and the spiritual bondage that goes with it.  But, while I believe spiritual freedom was Jesus’ primary intent here, I am sure that Jesus was well aware that after spiritual emancipation comes emancipation in all other areas.  After all, didn’t Jesus also say “Seek the Kingdom of God, and you will get everything else along with it”?

This truth has been demonstrated throughout history.  The nation of Israel physically came out of Egypt, but they were still in spiritual bondage and because of this they could not enter the promised land.  After forty years of wandering, the original faithless generation died off, a new generation, strong in faith in the truth that G-d had given them, emerged to take possession of the land that G-d had promised.  There they lived for hundreds of years in relative freedom, peace and prosperity.

America as well had a similar beginning.  Various small groups of Christians, often a persecuted minority, left their native lands, and strong in faith in the truth that G-d had given them, endured great hazards to settle a new land.  Based on that faith, and the philosophy and moral principles that came with it, a nation emerged that would become the most free and most prosperous in history.

History has also demonstrated that as nations, and individuals, lose that spiritual freedom, they also lose the physical freedoms that come along with it.

After Israel entered the promised land, they lived as a loose confederation of tribes, with no central authority, except G-d and the laws he had given them.  Over time though, several hundred years, the people left the original faith, and as they did so, chaos began to reign.  Ominously, the history book of this period, the Book of Judges, ends with the line “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

The situation deteriorated to the point that in the first Book of Samuel, the people demanded that Samuel appoint a king.  Samuel protested that a king would conscript their sons, collect taxes, and otherwise diminish their freedoms, but the people insisted.  Samuel consulted the Lord and the Lord told him to give them their king, that it wasn’t him, Samuel, that the people were rejecting, that it was the Lord.

Parallels can also be drawn here to America, which started as a loose confederation of states, and now has empowered government at all levels, particularly at the central , federal level, at the expense of individual’s and state’s freedoms.  Few people know that a popular battle cry of the Revolutionary War was “We have no king but King Jesus”.  Much like Israel, at it’s founding, America’s king was G-d, and much like Israel, over time the people began demanding another “king”.

So far so good, but we still have a problem.  The modern world tells us that, for all intents and purposes, there is no truth, while the wisdom of the ages says that the truth will set you free.  What to do?

Well, let’s take a look at the concept of truth.  What is truth?  Some of the definitions in Merriam-Webster are “the real state of things”, “the body of real events or facts”, and “agreement with fact or reality”.  So truth is reality, right? So if reality exists, then truth exists, right?  I am unconvinced by my own argument here, but I do believe that truth exists.  Why?

Because, on a practical level, without truth, we simply could not function.  Imagine a situation in which you buy a pound of beef, put it on your scale at home, and it only registers a half a pound.  You go back to the store, they put it on their scale, and it registers a pound.  You contact the local Bureau of Weights and Measures, they bring out their scale, and lo and behold, your scale is correct, and the store owes you another half pound of beef.  The store is also fined and is required to get an accurate scale.

What does this have to do with truth and reality?  Everything, actually.  We have the truth of the money having an accepted value at the time of purchase, we have the truth of the beef having a certain value at the time of purchase, and we have the truth of the amount a pound is equal too.  Now you might say that the value of the money changes over time, and the value of the beef changes over time, so they can’t be truths because the truth is unchangeable.  Well, who says?  They are all a part of reality and reality changes, so the truth can change as well.  We might call these transient truths, but they are truths none the less.

But what about the pound?  Does that change?  Well in theory, it could, but as a practical matter, the purpose of the Bureau of Weights and Measures is to see to it that it doesn’t change, so the answer is no, the amount equal to a pound does not change.  This could be termed a permanent truth, the kind I think we’re all looking for, but there still is a sense of dissatisfaction.  Why?

Well, you say, it’s because you are talking about “practical” truths, and we want to talk about moral and spiritual truths, the kind of truths that set you free.  My answer to that is, they are the same thing, because it should be apparent that there can be no truth of any kind without a standard.  In the case of the value of the money and the beef, the market, which is changeable, provides the standard, and in the case of the pound, the Bureau of Weights and Measures, which is not changeable provides the standard,

So what is the standard for moral and spiritual truths?  This seems obvious to me, the standard is not a what but a who, it is G-d.  The creator of all things is the creator of all truth.  Of course, it is no wonder that the post-modern world denies truth, it is because the post-modern world denies G-d.  Without G-d there is no truth; without truth, there is no hope.

We still haven’t addressed the problem of knowing the truth.  How can one know the truth, especially in a world seemingly so full of lies?  Here again a practical example might help.  A parent tells a young child, don’t put your hand in the flame or it will burn you.  When the parent is not looking, the child tentatively places his hand near the flame, feels the heat, and immediately learns the truth.  The simple answer is we learn the truth primarily through trial and error, in other words, experience.

But that isn’t really enough, because pure trial and error can be very dangerous, and few would survive for long.  The key then, is that we must have a guide, just as the parent served as a guide to the child in the example above, so we must have a guide, maybe more than one.  There are many possible guides, including scripture, religions, philosophies, other people, even G-d Himself.  I am not going to tell you who or what to choose as your guide, but you can probably make a good guess as to who and what are my guides.

I will say though, choose your guides wisely, make sure they have stood the test of time.  What has been the fate of others who have followed those guides?  Has the guide ever been wrong and what were the consequences?  Make sure it is a guide you can put your faith in.

I believe that the journey from being a caterpillar to a butterfly requires a firm commitment to the truth.  Truth is reality, what is.  A commitment to the truth provides you with the ability to explore all possibilities, strengthens your faith, and allows you to grow.  Deny the truth and you will be a slave to whatever lies you believe, but know the truth and it will indeed set you free.