Friday, December 21, 2007

Bad Christmas Gifts, Part 1: Not Giving Them

Published 11.24.07 at Townhall.com

Have you ever received a Christmas gift you didn’t want? Idiot mittens from grandma. A subscription to the deodorant-of-the-month club. Membership to the “We Fix Fat People” gym and spa. Yes, we’ve all received bad gifts.

But do you remember what it felt like? Burdened. Insulted. Irritated. Disturbed. All are candidates. Naturally, however, you smiled and said, “Thank You” while you secretly considered how to dispose of the new curse you’d acquired. And, of course, if someone gives you a bad gift once, next year’s gift is preambled with a nice holiday dose of anxiety to boot.

So if that’s how you felt when receiving a bad gift, why would you want to risk being such an anti-blessing to someone else? If you love them, you surely wouldn’t. We all want to be the sort of person who gives the gifts people can’t wait to open and are thrilled to receive. If so, why does this process go so wrong with such regularity?

1. We live in America.

In the United States of America, the vast majority of us have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want. If I want a shirt, I buy it for myself. If I want a DVD player, I buy it for myself. And if I want a new CD, I buy it for myself. In short, anything someone might give me that I would actually want, I already own. So in buying a gift for me, someone should ask himself a simple question: “Why doesn’t he already have it?” There are three possibilities.

One, I’ve never thought of it. This is obviously a good reason to buy it for me, and quickly, before I think of it myself. Two, I can’t afford it or don’t think it’s worth the price. This may seem like a fine reason, but such gifts then burden me with the obligation to be equally wasteful on you in return. That’s rarely a blessing. But the third and primary reason a gift recipient doesn’t already have this something is pretty obvious: he doesn’t actually want it. Clearly, such gifts really aren’t. But wait, there’s more.

2. Some people are picky.

I can’t buy gifts for my wife. Not because I’m bad at buying gifts, but because she is extremely particular. The good news is she doesn’t care whether I buy a gift for her. She is unusual in that she is perfectly happy for me to tell her to go buy what she wants for herself, and I get the credit for that. Other people have the unfortunate disease of being picky and also desiring gifts. I’d love to tell you that I have a solution for such people, but I don’t. However, I do have a thought.

Picky people are usually unhappy people, and unhappy people are usually not worth trying to please. So, one viable option is to simply not get a gift for this person and see what happens. “Why didn’t you get me anything this year” can easily be answered with an honest, “Because nothing I ever buy satisfies you, and I’d rather save my money and spare you the grief of receiving what you don’t want.” Isn’t honesty liberating?

3. The nature of gifts escapes many people.

These two problems make things harder, sure. However, the biggest problem with giving gifts has nothing to do with either of these difficulties. The real hang-up is that people don’t understand what a gift is. A gift is a tangible demonstration of your love for someone.

Bad gifts are a burden precisely because they show your lack of love for the recipient. The prerequisite of love is knowledge. You cannot love whom you do not know. Thus, a gift shows love when it demonstrates a real knowledge of who someone is and what he desires. Bad gifts are evidence of a bad relationship because they demonstrate that you do not know enough about this person to be capable of giving a good gift.

Thus, an unwanted gift is a double failure. First you’ve burdened the recipient with something he wants about as much as more telemarketing calls. Second, you’ve actually insulted him by saying that he isn’t important enough for you to really know who he is. This may sound harsh, but it’s the truth that few people are willing to tell bad gift-givers. Unless the giver is a child who cannot do better, it’s not cute when someone gives a bad gift. It’s obnoxious.

Let me be clear, the reason I’m writing this is so that people will swallow some pride and actually accomplish their (hopeful) purpose in buying Christmas gifts: to bless the recipient. Just think of how awful the theological implications are in celebrating the Perfect Gift from God by giving someone a gift he neither wants nor needs. But just as a bad gift wounds a relationship, a good gift solidifies it. And, because I want people to have good relationships, I want people to learn how to be more like God and give great Christmas gifts.

4. But isn’t it the thought that counts?

There is one final myth that needs direct dispelling. The thought does not count. The gift counts. And I’ll tell you why this phrase disgusts me. When do we say it? We say, “It’s the thought that counts,” precisely when the gift is terrible. But if the gift is terrible, that means that the thought wasn’t really so great either. It takes a lot of thought to give a good gift. It takes only a little thought to give a terrible one. So, a bad gift is actually evidence that you don’t care enough about the person to bother taking the time to have a quality thought about what would make a good gift for him. Thus, rather than the thought being the thing that counts, it’s the lack of thought that winds up counting.

By the way, this is why it’s so tacky to ask people what they want to be given. If you have to ask, you’re admitting you don’t know them well enough to be giving them a gift in the first place. It’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I really want to pretend that we have a strong relationship and I want to earn false affection from you, so can you tell me who you are and I’ll just act like I already knew?” Now, granted, it’s better to ask and get it right than to not ask and get it wrong. But the real challenge is to not ask and get it right. And if you can’t get it right without asking, maybe you shouldn’t be buying gifts for this person in the first place. Just maybe.

5. Categories of bad gifts

To illustrate some of the pitfalls, here are my six categories for bad gifts:

The insult gift, which criticizes rather than edifying the person. “Here’s your Thigh-Master video and a subscription to Escaping Codependency Magazine, hon.”
The selfish gift, which shows you can’t distinguish between what you like and what others like. “Here’s your organic lotions that I’m really into all of a sudden.”
The narcissistic gift, which serves your ego, not his needs. “Here’s your own framed portrait of me.”
The gift from me to you for me, which looks like a gift, but it’s really selfish. “Here’s that uncomfortable lingerie I know you hate to wear for me, dear.”
The burden gift, which is the gift that keeps on giving you problems like stealing your time or space. “Here’s your own copy of War and Peace. Let’s talk about it when we have lunch next week.”
The almost good but really bad gift, which shows you know a little about someone but haven’t really taken the time to realize that a person’s interests are actually a dangerous place for gifts precisely because you probably don’t know enough about the field of interest to gift well in it. “Here, Dr. Schwartz, I thought you could use this copy of “Basic Anatomy for Dummies” in your neurosurgical practice.”

6. Being a good gift-giver

Okay, sarcastic humor and acerbic comments aside, how do you give good gifts? It’s simple, but it’s not simple. Be humble, and do your homework. That’s it. You have to realize that there is no formula because every relationship and every person is different. The idea of giving gifts is to put aside every desire you have other than the one to bless someone. Then you just learn whatever you have to learn about this other person so that you can buy (or make) a really good gift.

In fact, one of the most powerful gifts is a gift that you do not even agree with and the other person knows this because this is a statement of great love. “I love you more than I love myself, and to prove it I’ll submit my own desires to my love of you and give you what you will appreciate.”

Now go do the work necessary to give a gift so precious that the recipient would never even think of having to say something ridiculous like, “Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts,” because the thought really did count. If this column means you need to go make some returns, so be it. There are still a few days until Christmas. And look for my next article on what to do when you get a bad gift. A hint: the answer is not to politely say, “Thank you.”

Bad Christmas Gifts, Part 2: What To Do When You Get Them

Published under a different title 12.24.08 at Towhnall.com

In my previous column on bad Christmas gifts, I explained why we give bad gifts and how to avoid doing so. The main point of that column was that bad gifts are a burden because they fail to show real love. But what should we do when someone loves us this badly? The most habitual response is to say that we should be polite, smile, and say, “Thank you.” The most habitual response is wrong. Why? Because lying is a sin.

“But being polite is not a sin.” That’s a discussion worthy of it’s own attention. Fortunately for this column, acting pleased in the reception of a bad Christmas gift is not a form of politeness. Being polite is what we are supposed to do to strangers and people we don’t know well enough to be fully honest with. Such people are not usually giving us Christmas gifts, and, if they do, that’s a different case. I am talking about bad gifts from friends and family, people with whom we have a relationship, or are supposed to.

“Still, why is lying and acting grateful not acceptable? Isn’t it the thought that counts?” As I explained in the previous column, no. But the danger of lying is already well-known to anyone who’s tried this approach: it only makes things worse. I once had a good friend give me a book as a gift. I added it to the 3,000+ other books I own and forgot all about it…until he asked me a few months later if I had enjoyed it. I told him I hadn’t read it yet, and I distorted reality slightly by saying I intended to do so. Another few months passed, and he inquired again. Now I had to make a choice, either continue to lie and act as if I intended to read this book as soon as I could make the time or else tell him the truth.

And that’s the point, bad gifts accepted gratefully only cause further problems. Your friends visit and inquire if something went wrong with the lava lamp you’ve been storing in the garage sale pile. You get asked why you never wear that hand knit green and orange sweater you acted so glad to get from your grandmother. Or perhaps your realtor notices that your skin tone doesn’t seem to be responding to the Siberian anchovy cleansing cream he sent you.

Maybe you lie. Maybe you have to invent subsequent outrageous lies to cover over the first. But the worst part of lying is the awful thing that happens when you do it well: you receive another bad gift next year from the person who thinks he’s doing you a blessing. Alternately, at some point the deception becomes so fraudulent that you rightly recognize it as being incompatible with the honesty that’s supposed to be the cornerstone of any non-pathological relationship. So you tell the truth later, which turns out to be messier than if you’d done it earlier, before the scope of the fraud was so extensive.

Let me come at this a different way. When you give a gift, do you want it to be a blessing to the other person? Of course you do. If it isn’t one, do you want to continue falsely thinking you’ve succeeded while the person secretly deceives you and harbors resentment over having to do so because of your bad gift? Surely not. Unless you’re so selfish as a “giver” that you’re really doing it only to please yourself and you don’t really care about whether they are pleased.

When I give someone a gift, I make sure it’s going to be something the recipient wants. But even so, I will make it as easy for him to tell me it isn’t as I possibly can. “Here’s the receipt. If you want to exchange it. I won’t be offended at all. Please, if it isn’t what you really want, get something you’ll enjoy. I want to bless you, not be a problem, and I’d be truly upset if you didn’t exchange it.” Precisely because I know that bad gifts are an awful moral burden, I want to eliminate that possibility in giving something. But, of course, we all know the paradox. People who give gifts so selflessly are also the same people who give good gifts. It’s the bad gift-giver who makes honesty so challenging.

But honesty is your only viable option. Bad gifts are immoral, and just as a child needs guidance when he does something foolish, bad gift-givers need honest feedback if they are ever going to learn to do better. Not because it’s a way of punishing them, but because we care about them and about our relationship to them. But I get ahead of myself. You’re probably still balking on the idea of objecting to a gift in the first place. Allow me to persuade you with some examples.

I’m a Christian man. Imagine someone were to buy me a subscription to Hustler and a VIP pass to a local strip club. Should I smile and say, “Thank you?” What if he gave me a couple of ounces of cocaine? Perhaps a copy of the Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce? What if someone bought my 3½ year-old son a hunting knife? What if someone gave my Muslim friend a one-year subscription to the pork-of-the-month club or my Mormon friend a copy of “Polygamy for Beginners?” Now, obviously, these are ridiculous and even sometimes evil gifts. But that’s the point. Some gifts are so inappropriate that being polite is clearly wrong.

If my son comes to me one morning with a dripping paintbrush in his hand and says he decided to give me the gift of painting my car for me, he would be in deep trouble, not in deep affection. If someone decided to “clean up” my desk and papers “as a favor,” this act would be such an affront that to act grateful would be nearly as inappropriate as the act itself. And that’s the point. When a gift is really bad, it demands an honest response. So why don’t we react honestly when it’s only moderately bad? The real answer here is painful to admit.

It’s because we’re selfish.

Bad gift-givers are selfish (see my other article), and polite bad-gift receivers are also selfish. It’s simply easier to avoid the conflict honesty would cause. It’s easier to make jokes about the person to a sympathetic spouse than to tell him the truth to his face. So we take the easy way out and deceive ourselves into thinking that we’ve done something loving. It’s almost perfectly symmetrical with the immorality done by the person who gave the bad gift. Both parties are selfish, and both parties think they are behaving lovingly. Now isn’t that ironic?

But there’s more wrong here than first meets the eye. We lie to them with our gratitude, but we lie to ourselves about our motives. We say that being polite is the loving thing to do for the other person, but we are equally motivated by the desire to protect our own reputation. See, you worry people will think less of you if you complain about a gift, so you do whatever is necessary to keep this fear from happening. Instead of voicing your ingratitude, which you fear will make you look mean, you lie and seem like a perfectly decent person. Thus, what seems like selfless etiquette actually turns out to be a very deceptive maneuver to prevent yourself from being judged for who you really are. What did the Bard say about webs and deceptions?

Here’s further irony. We would never feel such a burden in dealing with our enemies. Although I admit it’s a bit weird to imagine, consider how you would respond if someone you despised gave you a bad gift. Likely you would feel no compunction about telling this person the truth, and rudely. Why? Because you care neither about this person’s feelings nor about his image of you. But isn’t there something askew in a moral system where we only feel at liberty to be honest with those we do not love? I suspect our notions of love and truth need revising.

There is an explanation: we’re bad at telling the truth effectively. The reason for rules of politeness (though I repeat this isn’t about being polite) is because it’s easier to not mess them up. Honesty is really difficult. Nonetheless, there’s enough light at the end of the tunnel to make it worth trying. A bad gift is a kind of rupture in a relationship. It shows lack of knowledge and, therefore, lack of love. But any rupture is also an opportunity.

Bad gifts create a sort of crisis, and the relationship can’t stay where it is. It must either become stronger or weaker, and ignoring the breach can only make it weaker. Confronting it runs the risk of total ruination, but it also runs the risk of deeper intimacy. So you have to ask yourself a very simple question: Would you rather keep such relationships forever trivial by protecting them from the stress that might break them, or would you rather risk losing them in the hope that you might gain real ones in exchange? Every meaningful relationship I have is so because it survived one or more crises of honesty. The only way to get respect and real love is to tell people the truth. So here’s how to do so successfully.

The three keys to effective confrontation

1. Apologize in advance. “I’m sorry, John.”

2. Admit the obvious. “I have something really awful to say to you, and I’m genuinely afraid that it’s going to hurt your feelings or make you mad and ruin our friendship. I’m really scared right now because you mean a lot to me and I don’t want to lose that. ”

3. Get permission. “So would you rather have me tell you the truth or keep it hidden from you?”

Certainly, the frenzy of Christmas morning may not be the correct time for such a confrontation. This you must decide for yourself. The Bible wisely teaches that we should confront people and resolve our issues with them privately, in part because defensive anger is a more likely result in public encounters. But some form of honest confrontation is the only loving way to proceed, and the benefits should by now be clear.

You’ve taken a breached relationship and tried to heal it. You’ve dealt with the giver honorably, as a loved one who deserves your honesty. You are likely helping that person to become a better gift-giver to you and others in the future, which should make everyone a lot happier. And you’ve cleared your conscience against the need to indulge in subsequent deceptions. But there’s one more benefit to this approach. When people know you react honestly, they know your expressed joy at a gift is real. Precisely because my friends know I’m honest, they also need never second-guess my reactions. I yield no false positives. And as a symbolic reinforcement of this very concept, my honesty about the need to be honest is my possibly unwelcome Christmas gift to you. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Religious Test Oath?

Published 12.20.07 under a different title at Townhall.com

Charles Krauthammer writes, “The Constitutional injunction against religious tests is meant to make citizens understand that such tests are profoundly un-American.” Well, Chuck, I’m growing tired of you and others telling me what I may or may not consider in my voting decision.

I care about a candidate’s religion. It’s not the only thing I care about, but, still, I care about it. And I’m about fed up with people telling me I’m a bigot and un-American because I happen to have a different idea of what matters in my decision for whom to vote than they do. How about this: I won’t say you’re un-American for ignoring religion if you stop saying I’m un-American for considering it.

I care that Mike Huckabee is an ordained Baptist. I happen to think Baptists are wrong about a lot, but I still care that he is. I care that Hillary Clinton is a full-fledged non-Wesleyan United Methodist. That tells me a lot about her. I care that Barack Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ. I care that Rudy Giuliani is a Catholic, mostly because the fact that he is so disconnected from the staunch doctrines of his own faith tells me a lot about him. Yes, he is rebellious, but he’s also independently stubborn like a mule. Rudy would never have had to give the JFK speech because it would be preposterous to think he cares what the Pope thinks about his political views.

And, as it happens, I care that Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I could still vote for him. Though I’m a non-denominational Evangelical Christian (since you asked), I’m not of the camp who thinks that Latter Day Saints are members of some Satanic cult in league with the FreeMasons and the Bilderbergers.

But what if I thought they were?

If I did in fact believe that a candidate’s religion were evil, would you really be so audacious as to tell me that I’m not allowed to consider that when I enter the voting booth? For all the conservative lip-service given to protecting religion from government, that sure sounds to me like you’re saying I’m not allowed to bring my religious views to the ballot box with me.

I would not vote for a Scientologist. They make good movies, especially when John Woo is directing, but I don’t want them running NASA. I would not vote for a Christian Scientist. I love their newspaper, but I don’t want them overseeing the FDA. I would not vote for a Muslim. At this moment in world history, I’m having a hard time really believing that Islam is compatible with the notions of freedom from government coercion that we cherish in this country. Most Muslims and I agree deeply about private morality, but I don’t share their belief that God only cares what the society looks like and not whether freedom is allowed as part of the process of getting there. And perhaps most obviously, I don’t want to vote for an atheist. I was one, and I am no longer. I do not want to deliberately put someone in the White House (or any other marble hall) who does not consider himself accountable to any god at all.

Allow me to clarify myself slightly. By saying, “I would not vote for” them, I’m actually saying I would prefer not to have to. This is not a strict pass/fail grading system. These are merely strong considerations for me because they pertain to character and judgment, and other factors could certainly counterbalance them. Still, these are strong preferences.

So do these views make me a bigot? If so, then bigot I am, but I’m hard pressed to draw the further hasty generalization that all bigotry is bad. My Webster’s says that a bigot is someone “obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.” That sounds like an apt description of Martin Luther, Saint Paul, any Pope you name, and even my Savior, quite frankly. It certainly doesn’t mean a racist, which is the similarity implied by the tone of the word use.

Also, lest you mis-stereotype me, I’m probably the most tolerant and open-minded Evangelical you’ll meet in your life. I’ll talk with anyone. I’ll be friends with anyone. And I don’t feel threatened by a wildly pluralistic society such as we enjoy in America.

But that’s not the point. When I go into a voting booth, I’m not picking a friend or a conversation partner. I’m picking a leader. I want leaders that I would trust my money and my children with….since I sort of am. And that means that I consider a person’s religious views. Because religion matters, and it matters to me. Why is that so wrong?

“But, Andrew, don’t you know that the Constitution prohibits a religious test for elected office in the United States?” Of course I do. But do you realize that there is a vast difference between officially requiring such a test and me privately considering the results of such a test? You seem to think that simply because it is illegal to require a religious test for office that it should also be illegal to consider a candidate’s religion. Should it also be illegal to ask about it or for him to describe it to us?

“Well, I didn’t say these things should be illegal. I merely meant that you’re being un-American and neglecting the great principles of the Constitution by using them yourself.” Really? Are you sure that you want to take a position which states there is no difference at all between what we do officially through the Constitutional and what we do in our own private judgment?

Swearing is protected speech. Does this mean I’m un-American if I consider a candidate’s predilection to profanity in my vote? Blasphemy is protected speech. May I not consider a candidate’s irreverent references to God in my vote? Pornography is protected press. May I not consider whether someone is a pornographer or porn consumer in my vote? The Constitution only requires that someone be 35 to be President. May I not, therefore, consider youth or elderliness as a factor in my vote?

As I understand democracy, I am free to vote how I think best. Perhaps I’ll vote based on age. Perhaps I’ll vote based on gender. Perhaps I’ll vote based on policies, past record, education, party affiliation, or height. Some of these factors are better than others to consider, but just because I agree that we should not have a State religion, this doesn’t mean I should become religion-blind in my judgments about leadership capacity. Precisely because I believe religion (or even its lack) is central to who a person is, I not only will consider it, but I expect lots of other people to consider it as well. The ones who ignore it can only achieve consistency in their views by believing that religion can and should be walled off from every important area of a man’s life. I’m probably more troubled by such aberrant theology than I am by that of the non-believer. They would have us believe that God exists but shouldn’t matter. Even the atheist is not so foolish.

I’ve no doubt that this column will be misunderstood by many. They will think this is an attack on Mitt Romney and Mormons more generally. They’ll probably accuse me of opening the door for anti-Semitism. And I’m sure they’ll be saying that I want to make every religion other than mine illegal.

They will be wrong.

Let me repeat. I can easily see myself voting for Mitt Romney. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time convincing those who object to his Mormonism that they should not. Not because religion doesn’t matter, but because they’re wrong in thinking this particular religion is wrong enough to disqualify him. I know too many Mormons to be overly worried about a Mormon President, even though I also have many questions about this very secretive faith.

If I do vote for Mitt, I would be doing so in part precisely because of his commitment to religion, even one other than my own. But that’s the point. I am considering his religion in my decision, and I am very frustrated by hearing so many conservatives tell me and others who disagree with me in my assessment of Mormonism that we are all a bunch of unpatriotic bigots because we happen to think that what a man believes and practices with regard to God is important stuff.

Truth be told, your bigotry on this point against me is at least as distasteful as my bigotry in considering religion, if either is bigotry at all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How And Why I Do Radio

Published in Faith Talk Magazine--November 2007
Published under a different title 01.09.08 at Towhnall.com

Have you ever wondered why Christians aren’t smarter? I mean, we have the only true religion, we have a Book which is responsible for all of Western Civilization, and we serve a God who can safely call Himself the supreme champion at every trivia contest. So why aren’t we smarter? Well, the reasons are many, but the goal of changing that condition is the driving passion of my life. Having taught college philosophy, my background is in equipping people to think better, and I used to think that talent was best used in the secular world. Three years ago, however, I was persuaded by some good counsel to turn my attention toward the Body of Christ, and that’s why I came to Phoenix to do my radio show weekdays from 5 to 7PM on AM 1360 KPXQ.

Not thinking well is a sin.

God commands us very simply: Love Him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. Catch that last part....with all our mind. This means thinking is not optional for the Christian. Thinking, and thinking well, is a form of worship of God which is nothing short of obedience to His primary command. Hence, if we do not “use the brain God gave you,” (my mom’s favorite rhetorical chastisement), we are sinning.

Not thinking well is a scandal.

The most pervasive myth about Christianity is that it is incompatible with intelligence.
This is what I believed before I became one, and it made me not want to be one. I say it is a myth both because nothing demands more thinking capacity than being a faithful Christian and also because our history is rich with intellectual giants. Nonetheless, Christianity has a reputation as a religion for fools, and this is at least partially our own fault. By offering empty platitudes such as, “Well, you have to have faith,” when challenged with difficult questions, outsiders can be forgiven for forming the impression that what we really mean is, “Well, you have to be stupid.” This puts people in the painful situation of feeling like they have to choose between their mind and God. Also, it makes Christianity offensive to the smartest people in society, who tend to be culture’s greatest influencers. Thus, simply showing non-Christians that one can be both smart and faithful is a powerful form of evangelism.

Fishers not just fish-eaters.

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Simple. Obvious. But, all too often, it’s not the guiding principle of Christian education. Christians can be so concerned about having the right answers (good doctrine), that we fail to teach people the thinking skills and patterns which would lead them to these and other true conclusions. They may have the unreliable dogmatism which comes from mere repetition, but they lack the true confidence which comes from deep and honest examination of an idea. Sadly, it also means they do not have the ability to discover new answers for themselves in novel situations. On my radio show, I deliberately do not provide people many answers because I am more interested in helping people learn how to think than I am in telling them what to think. My confidence is high that such an ability will ultimately get them to the right place, and it will be a place of true security as well.

Disciples, not an audience.

Jesus mentored His disciples. He interacted with them. He answered their questions. He joked with them. And He corrected them. He didn’t lecture them. He lectured the masses. And I think the reason is simple. A lecture is not the ideal form of education. The reason are many. If a listener doesn’t like what is being said, he can simply ignore it. If he doesn’t understand or if he disagrees, he cannot easily inquire of the speaker. Because such questions go unanswered, other people miss out on having these questions answered. When the teacher fields questions, he replaces his own assumptions about his audience with real knowledge and can more accurately tune his teaching to the real needs they have. Finally, I believe in collaboration rather than solo performances. Although I think I have many reliable insights worth saying, I’d rather talk with people and work together toward truth instead of just trusting in my own ideas too much. So my show is built around discussion rather than presentation. I am working with my listeners to fashion a product together rather than simply distributing to them a prefabricated one.

Haggling, not purchasing.

In the Mediterranean culture of the Bible, haggling is a way of life because such negotiations are a great way of coming to know someone. The process of haggling gains both friends and sharper minds. We are often baffled by this when they travel to that part of the world because Americans are so transaction oriented. “I agree,” “I disagree,” “I will buy,” or “I will not buy.” Such shallow interactions we are very comfortable with. In the Mediterranean, the sellers understand that the product is insignificant compared with the relationship it’s sale can create. In contrast, I think Americans are too concerned with conclusions instead of being concerned with relationships. Thus, the key in my show is to find stimulating topics which cause people to want to talk with each other and build friendships. Whether we agree is not so much the issue. Whether we are able to love each other while we disagree and talk about it. That matters.

In Conclusion

I was concerned when I took this job; concerned that my fellow Christians wouldn’t endure me because they wanted their own ideas reinforced rather than examined and challenged. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered vast numbers of Christians who were excited about the prospect of being made to think, even if they didn’t always agree with me. And so my audience and I have created an environment where we love each other not because we agree all the time, but because we enjoy the experience of talking it over together. Every day we collaborate to show that theology, like a good relationship, is not something to be purchased or rejected, but something to be enjoyed….together.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

To Husbands: How To Have A Great Wife

Published in Arizona Family News--November 2007
Published at Townhall.com--November 14, 2007

“He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord,” and he who nourishes a wife preserves a good thing and maintains the favor of the Lord.

God allowed you to find your wife because He believed you would take good care of His precious daughter. This is why you obtain the dual blessings of having her and pleasing Him. But what happens when you don’t take good care of your wife? A man who neglects his wife makes her miserable and then she makes him miserable. As the saying goes, “When mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” But she isn’t the only unhappy one. I believe you also anger God by betraying His confidence in trusting you with her. After all, what father is happy when his son-in-law fails to keep his darling content?

I’ve been to many weddings, and I have yet to see a woman stand at the altar promising to “love, honor, and obey so long as you both shall live” while thinking to herself, “I despise this man, and I expect this marriage to make me miserable.” Not likely. She stand there with hope, anticipation, love, admiration, and the expectation of great joy in her heart. Unfortunately, if you fail to meet her needs and fulfill her hopes, she will not stay that way. The best way to ruin a good woman is to marry her and then fail to give her what she expected to receive.

Oh, sure, perhaps she exerts a tremendous effort and manages to stay sweet and wonderful in spite of you neglecting her. Even the Bible teaches her to love you into being a better man. But to expect or demand this from her is naively optimistic and, quite frankly, unfair. There is a much better way: the Biblical way.

When we quote Ephesians 5, men often emphasize the wife’s duty to submit. Okay, fine. But the husband’s duty is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church, His Bride. In thinking about the relationship between Christ and the Church, who has the greater challenge? Who does more? Who is primarily responsible for the ultimate success of the Relationship? Your obligation to represent the love of Jesus in your marriage is a monumentally greater task than your wife’s obligation to represent the submission of the Church.

So, what does it take to have a great wife? Simple. Be a great lord. And what does it take to be a great lord? Equally simple. Know the needs and desires of your wife and meet them. If you don’t, she will become just the sort of wife you don’t want: nagging, withholding, bitter, and frustrated. God gave you a beautiful flower. He does not expect a dead thorn bush in return. You’d have done better to remain single than to so ruin the beautiful human rose He entrusted to you.

That’s the simple part. It may be unpleasant to ponder, but it’s simple. Your job is to nurture, cherish, love, honor, serve, provide for, lead, impress, and protect your wife. And if you never stop doing this, the chance that she will be a great wife is very good. Yes, she retains free will and may fail on her part, but, when you do your part, it becomes much easier for her to do hers.

So how is this to be accomplished? This is where things get dicey. Willard Harley wrote a very helpful book called “His Needs, Her Needs,” in which he outlines the top needs of women. They include affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment. This is all true. Gary Chapman wrote another helpful book called “The Five Love Languages,” in which he talks about giving love through gifts, quality time, words of encouragement, physical touch, and acts of service. This is also true. Gary Smalley has written books. James Dobson has written books. Ellen Kreidman has written books. And all the books in the world are helpful and at the same time not. Here’s why.

Women aren’t a formula.

Every woman is different. Every woman is complex. Every woman is mysterious. And just about the worst thing you can do is think that she can be solved like some math equation. Men, by contrast, are not all that complex. This is why men and women don’t understand each other. Women often refuse to believe men are so simple. Men often can’t grasp that women are so complicated.

Yet God is represented in both of these. He is at once both absurdly simple and astoundingly complex. He is straightforward and mysterious. In other words, God made it so that women could learn about Him by understanding men and that men could learn about Him by understanding women. That’s why marriage is such a rich theological gift.

And your part, husbands, is the harder one. Though the task is simple (to make her feel loved and precious beyond comparison), the method is not simple. Although I can confidently tell her what to do in general to make you happy (see my previous article), I cannot tell you the same about your wife. You have to figure that out for yourself, and, even if you figure her out today, it may be a new puzzle tomorrow or the next day.

That’s okay. That’s one side of God’s Nature you’re experiencing. If it frustrates you, you’re really just admitting you’re frustrated with God. But if you take it as the greatest challenge with the neatest reward, then you’ve suddenly discovered something far more interesting than fantasy football ever can be.

But if I can’t give you a formula, why did I bother writing this? Because if I can merely get you to recognize the nature of the challenge and stop thinking that there is a four-step plan you can follow to nurture a great wife, I’ve already helped you immensely.

Let me conclude with a personal example. Most women like surprises. My wife hates them. Most women like to be given sweets such as chocolate. My wife likes it once but then gets angry because she worries it will make her fat. Most women like to be given lavish gifts that show their value. My wife considers that a waste of our carefully managed budget. Most women like to celebrate anniversaries. My wife couldn’t care less. So what do I do?

Well, I could ignore everything I know about her by surprising her with an expensive chocolate extravaganza on our anniversary. Then I could pride myself for having followed a set of rules that would apply for most women as I sit back to enjoy the fruits of my stupidity. Or I could let her purchase season 10 of Little House on the Prairie on DVD for herself at Target on sale two months before our anniversary. Guess which one I did? And she was quite satisfied with that. We must give our wives what they truly want, not what we think they want…just like God.

So, what’s the lesson? Learn what YOUR wife needs from you to feel loved, and then give it to her. Pay attention. Really pay attention. Try some experiments, and see how it turns out. If you find something that works, try it some more. Never stop trying to impress her with the things you will do to make her feel loved. But also never forget that she’s a woman, not a formula…just like God.

And if you follow this simple (and completely unsimple) advice, I suspect you’ll find yourself married to a great wife. At the very least, she’ll appreciate you trying so hard to understand and satisfy her…just like God.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What I Learned About Liberalism From Barry Manilow


Barry Manilow recently gave a seminar on liberalism. Oh, not intentionally, of course. But sometimes unintentional seminars are the most instructive of all.

It all started when the singer suddenly cancelled his September 18th appearance on the television show “The View.” This statement was posted on Manilow’s website on the 17th:

I wanted to let you know that I will no longer be on The View tomorrow as scheduled. I had made a request that I be interviewed by Joy, Barbara or Whoopi, but not Elisabeth Hasselbeck. Unfortunately, the show was not willing to accommodate this simple request so I bowed out. It’s really too bad because I’ve always been a big supporter of the show, but I cannot compromise my beliefs. The good news is that I will be on a whole slew of other shows promoting the new album so I hope you can catch me on those.

Although he had appeared twice in the past year without conditions, the fuss between Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Rosie O’Donnell back in May changed all of that. As a close friend of Rosie’s and a large Democratic contributor, Manilow didn’t relish the idea of putting himself anywhere near the token conservative. As he told TMZ, “I strongly disagree with her views. I think she’s dangerous and offensive. I will not be on the same stage as her.” When “The View” refused his “simple” request, he declined to appear.

Or did he?

Barbara Walters discussed the event on her radio show with Bill Geddie, her co-executive producer. According to them, Manilow didn’t cancel “The View.” They cancelled him. Geddie explained it this way: “He said, ‘I’ll do Barbara and Whoopi or I’ll do Whoopi and Sherri or some combination, but I won’t sit with Elisabeth,’ and I said ‘Well, then you won’t be on the show. It’s that simple. And that was the end of it. He’s not going to call the shots. You’re not going to tell me how to produce the show.”

So what did Barry Manilow teach me about liberals through all of this?

1. Liberals are very confident in their views. In fact, Manilow is so confident that he doesn’t even feel the need to demonstrate the fact in a public discussion. He’s like the kid on the baseball team who is so much better than the other players that he doesn’t even want the coach to put him in the game. Some people think this is because he can’t really play his position, but that’s only because they don’t realize how good he is.

2. Liberals really believe in free speech. Regrettably, truth is fragile and must be protected from dangerous people like conservatives. Free speech, therefore, means letting a wide variety of liberals speak as freely as possible. This is called diversity. As a good liberal, Barry Manilow opposes all forms of censorship and wants to ensure that everyone who agrees with him has full freedom of speech.

3. Liberals think clearly. Barry said that he really supports the show, which can only mean he believes in robust debate. When he also says that appearing on “The View” with Hasselbeck would compromise his principles, we must infer that he has an even stronger personal conviction that’s it’s wrong to actually be a participant in such debates. One wonders whether Barry thinks that Barbara, Joy, and Whoopi are also compromising their values by being on stage with her. Then again, their value systems probably just aren’t as refined and contradiction-free as his.

4. Liberals are friends of the minority. Of the five people, including Barry, four of them would have been liberal or liberal-leaning. You might think Barry would champion Elisabeth in her underdog status, but you would be forgetting that minorities only count as minorities when they agree with liberals. “Conservative minority” is, by definition, a contradiction. This is confusing when the conservative is a woman, often considered a minority. But one must remember that conservative women are really gender-traitors, so it’s okay.

5. Liberals are gracious to their enemies. As Manilow told one reporter, “I will not be on the same stage as her.” Given Barry’s obvious self-confidence, he probably didn’t want to risk crushing poor Elisabeth’s fragile mind with his overpoweringly rigorous political philosophy. Since he also called her “dangerous,” you might think he’d want to stop her from harming others. He must have meant that she’s only dangerous if his glorious presence on the show entices other, less-confident liberals to watch and risk being infected by her.

6. Liberals are very good at thinking ahead. Although the spat between Rosie and Elisabeth leading to Rosie leaving “The View” happened three months ago, Manilow wisely decided to make his demands the day before his show was to air. Sure, he could have declined to book the appearance in the first place or cancelled earlier, but only people who plan poorly would do that. Then, when reporters wanted to ask Barry about his provocative comments, he became frustrated, even telling one Fox TV reporter, "Alright, stop! I'm sorry this thing had to happen. Let's just talk about the album, OK?" If only all of these developments weren’t so darned impossible to foresee!

7. Liberals are honest to a fault. “I bowed out” is virtually the same thing as “They refused my silly request.” Only a grammar-Nazi would think otherwise. Besides, we all know Barbara Walters’ terrible reputation for deception over her four decades of broadcast journalism. Anyone who says Manilow’s statements were self-serving or misleading just hasn’t plumbed the depths of his honesty yet.

8. Liberals are not their own worst enemies. Whereas Elisabeth, the lone conservative-leaning voice on “The View,” sticks it out day after day with as much grace and eloquence as she can muster, Barry writes songs, attends hair-frosting parties, and throws darts from a distance at people he dislikes. The contrast between Elisabeth’s conservatism and Barry’s liberalism is stark. With role models like these, it’s amazing everyone isn’t a liberal already.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why Dr. Dobson Is Wrong

In recent weeks, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, Dr. James Dobson, has generated a lot of discussion with his public announcement that he will support a third party candidate if the Republicans nominate Rudy Giuliani or anyone else who is pro-choice. Although I agree with Dr. Dobson’s principled stance on family and life issues, in this case he could not be more mistaken. Ironically, it is our common ground that causes me to say this.

Both Dr. Dobson and I believe we have a moral obligation to participate effectively in elections. We must use our votes to advance virtue and to hinder evil, insofar as government is able to do so. Hence, given the grave evil of legal abortion, we must work to elect people who will limit and abolish this practice. Both of us believe that such considerations must be the beginning and heart of our thinking rather than electives to be included as convenience allows. Where we differ is in our understanding of the nature of politics.

Christians despise the word “compromise” because it connotes yielding on our principles. This is appropriate in the realms of theology and ethics, but politics is not theology. It’s politics. We must accept that the choice to participate in democracy is the choice to share decision-making with people whose ideas we can’t stand. Thus, the very essence of politics is compromise, and, unless we believe that democracy itself is contrary to our principles, our goal must be to advance as much of the common good as we realistically can.

Therefore, we are obligated to vote for the person who is closest to the ideal, even if he is quite far from that ideal, as long as we have reason to expect he will be better than the alternative. This is precisely the situation in a hypothetical choice between Senator Clinton and Mayor Giuliani.

On a pro-life 1-10 scale, I desire a 10. Clinton is a 2. She affirms abortion and supports it in many circumstances, regardless of her mouth saying otherwise. Giuliani is a 5. He personally opposes abortion, but thinks it should be each woman’s decision. Whereas Clinton is truly pro-abortion, Giuliani is truly pro-choice.

The key consideration for us is the Supreme Court. When it comes to political impact and justices, Giuliani might turn out to be anywhere from a 3 to an 8. He is close friends with Justice Scalia and has said he would eagerly support nominees in the Roberts-Alito-Thomas-Scalia mold. If so, then how would he differ from a truly pro-life President? Surely there is more to the life issue than just such nominees, but the key is to keep in mind how he might compare with Senator Clinton. And here the contrast is stark.

Think of it like a tug-of-war. Those of us who oppose abortion are pulling on one side when we vote. If we choose to let go of the rope, it’s impossible to imagine that the knot will move any closer toward our ideal. But how can I vote for a pro-choice candidate without becoming complicit in the evil he supports legislatively? Allow me to let another pro-life advocate answer for me.

Despite disagreeing with the Catholic Church on many points of theology (as I also do), I’m sure Dr. Dobson wouldn’t doubt their pro-life credentials. Within the Catholic Church, no one in recent years has been more clear about the ethical ramifications of voting for pro-choice politicians than Archbishop Raymond Burke.

Burke became nationally famous four years ago for stating that Senator John Kerry should not be allowed to receive the Eucharist because he was pro-choice, which he has also recently said about Giuliani. So how could Burke ever support voting for candidate Giuliani? One way: if his opponent is even worse.

In his excellent pastoral letter “On Our Civic Responsibility for the Common Good,” Burke explained it plainly:

“43. In such cases, would it be better not to vote at all? While I respect very much the sentiments of those who are so discouraged with the failure of our public leaders to promote the common good that they have decided not to vote at all, I must point out that the Catholic who chooses not to vote at all, when there is a viable candidate who will advance the common good, although not perfectly, fails to fulfill his or her moral duty, at least, in the limitation of a grave evil in society.”
Although it is frustrating to be given a choice between bad and worse in candidates on the issue of abortion, Christians are obligated to vote for the person who will most “limit this grave evil in society.” We cannot be enthusiastic about the choice, but we must not abandon what little ability we have to shape the outcome either. We must be clear to others that our support for this candidate is not whole-hearted, lest we be misconstrued as supporting his errors. However, we must not abdicate participation.

Remember the tug-of-war? Letting go in disgust may feel better. It may even feel like virtue. But letting go always moves the knot farther away. And make no mistake, whether it’s not voting or supporting a hopeless third-party candidate, the end result is the same as if we had dropped the rope.

For the sake of the million-plus children per year killed legally in the United States, it’s better to take a chance on Giuliani than to stand no chance whatsoever with someone else. The chance of real victory is always better than the certainty of real disaster.

Dr. Dobson has said that he doesn’t even consider Giuliani a viable candidate because too many conservatives will not be able to hold their noses and vote for him as I can. To this I have a simple response. They will if people with real power and influence come to understand what’s at stake and explain it to them properly. People like Dr. James Dobson.
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Significant response pieces to this column:

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To Wives: Some Advice On Preventing An Affair

Published in Arizona Family News--October 2007

If I told you there were some simple things you could do to dramatically lower your risk of cancer or heart attack and that, in the process, you’d actually have more fun now, would you want to know what they were? Likewise, given the devastation that infidelity causes in a marriage, presumably you would be glad to know how to prevent it. And if that prescription is enjoyable, so much the better. So, then, what can you do to prevent an affair?

As a married man for ten years, I am writing this from the perspective of a man to women, and I’ll warn you in advance that you may not like some of what I’m going to tell you. But if you take me seriously, I’ll explain to you things that every man knows to be true. Just keep in mind that all I’m really doing is explaining how men think and behave. If you doubt me, go ahead and have your husband read this so he can tell you whether I’m correct or not. He’ll probably look at you in disbelief that you don’t already know this stuff about him. And remember, my goal here is to equip you with useful information and help you know what to do, not to criticize you. If it sounds like criticism, I’m sorry. My goal is healthy marriages, and helping you know how to have one. Some men may also misunderstand what I’m writing as some sort of excuse for them or justification for them. It’s not. Nothing a wife does or fails to do justifies adultery. Ever. There are simply things she can do to make it easier for him to obey his vows and this absolute rule.

First, understand that men are naturally predisposed to be promiscuous. Whereas, for a woman, infidelity entails a total rejection of the man she married; men do not think about it this way. Men like to have several different cars. Men like to have several different hobbies. Men like variety. And men like to hunt. And the problem is that the trifecta of wanting variety, liking to hunt, and having a much higher level of simply biological sexual desire means that men are not naturally monogamous. Marriage is an unnatural condition for most (not all) men. That’s the bad news. But marriage is such a blessing to men that loving them means wanting them to enjoy it rather than to lose its benefits because they give in to their unsavory nature.

So it’s important to realize just how much of a struggle it is for most men, even those who are firmly Christian and believe in marriage and love their wives, to keep themselves from thinking about and doing things you don’t want them to do. This basic problem is compounded by living in a culture where men are encouraged to express this nature in ways hostile to marital fidelity rather than in ways which affirm it. Add to this the idea that most men have spent their post-puberty lives hunting women…with their eyes,…with their imaginations,…and with the stories they tell each other. This means that learning to stop hunting other women after marriage is far more difficult to accomplish than it is to merely say the words, “I do promise to forsake all others.”

Why do I point out all this very unpleasant stuff? Because the Bible teaches us to be wise about the difficulties we face, and knowing the reality is the first step in becoming equipped to solve it. Being na├»ve about men is the single best way to find yourself on the receiving end of a conversation about how “this won’t ever happen…again.” So, understand what you’re up against and that it’s not a peculiar defect of your husband. Almost all men are like this, so wishing you had found a man not like this is a vain hope. Wanting men to be otherwise is really the same as wanting them to be…well…women.

This, by the way, is why most modern advice on relationships is useless because it starts from the premise that the man is defectively made and must be fixed rather than from the premise that he is properly made and must be understood. God built men as they are, and God designed wives to provide what they need. Starting from this recognition will get you much farther than the modern approach which tries to fix men by turning them into women. Of course, it goes without saying that men were also built to meet women’s needs, and have an equal, if not greater, obligation to understand and satisfy these.

So, what can you do? Well, first, understand that when your husband married you, he believed he would be satisfied with you for the rest of his life, and he hoped you would be satisfied with him. Second, understand that, over time, most all marriages move from a stage of supreme optimism and joy to something less blissful. In this process, men easily forget how little fun it was to be single, especially when television, magazines, and movies try to convince them that it was wonderful. Third, realize that the main thing which allows a man to cheat on a wife he loves (and yes, most cheaters still love their wives) even though he believes in marriage and even fears God (remember David?) is that he does not feel his wife is meeting his needs. It’s that simple. And, by the way, it’s usually the same for women. The difference is that when women don’t get their needs met, they usually withhold meeting their husband’s needs in an effort to get his attention. Unfortunately, this doesn’t so much provoke him to be better as encourage him to seek benefits elsewhere.

The key to preventing a man from cheating is to make him feel like his most important relational needs are being met by you. So, what are they? Most men need just two things from their wives, and they really like a third thing. What they need is sexual gratification and admiration, and what they really like is food. Hence, I have the simplest recipe for any wife willing to do a little relational cooking. Feed your man food he likes. Give him your body as often as he wants. And praise him like he’s a rock star and you’re his groupie. You know…like you used to do before.

A man with a happy stomach is very easy to get along with. Surely you’ve noticed. A man who has been pleased sexually is equally easy to get along with. Again, surely you’ve noticed. And then there’s that third component: admiration. This is the part most women simply don’t understand about men: their need for admiration is even stronger than their need for sex. Think about it for a moment. A man can buy a pornographic magazine for five dollars, and it will “provide” for him numerous times. But the same man will spend two hundred dollars at a strip club in one single night. Why? Because the stripper will listen to him, admire him, and treat him like he’s special. Strippers do not sell sex, they sell the fantasy of being admired by a beautiful woman; admired by her body as well as by her words. And he will gladly pay lots extra for that one vital difference.

Women whose husbands cheat with some cute young thing at the office deceive themselves by saying it is primarily because she is attractive. It’s not. It’s because she gives him admiration and encouragement. She validates him and praises him, and if he has not felt that same sense of honor from his wife, it is truly like showing a man in the desert the way to a river…the wrong river. By the way, this is why nagging a husband to do better is such a counterproductive choice. Yes, you believe in him and what he is capable of becoming, but that’s not what he hears. He hears you saying that he is not adequate and that he is not worthwhile, things which would be devastating if he said them to you, right? In short, you’ve taken away his river. You would never consider depriving your children of water to get them to listen to you, and here’s the truth: Men need admiration like children need water. They die very quickly without it.

So how do you keep a man from thinking about other women? Lower the incentive to cheat, and raise the cost of cheating. Fortunately, you can do both at one time by meeting his most important needs in such a generous way that you give him something monumentally worthwhile to lose by acting on any such thoughts. Make yourself the source of such bodily pleasure (food and sex) and such ego satisfaction that he never wants more from anyone else. And then, even if he does occasionally think about reverting to his promiscuous hunter nature, he can easily remind himself of just what he would be risking in the process. In short, make the gamble unthinkable. Make him feel so adored by you that he literally can’t stand the idea of letting you down or losing what you provide him. Be like the job he loves and cherishes rather than the one he wishes he could quit.

And, by the way, I think you’ll also find that he will become so eager to please you in return that these gifts you give him will avoid not just the cancer of unfaithfulness, but will also create the sort of marriage you both hoped you would have when you chose each other. Will this suggestion always work and save all marriages? No. But is it the single best thing you can do to save your own? Yes.

So there it is. The hard truth that most men won’t tell you and that most women refuse to accept. Men are simple. They need admiration, sex, and food. And the way sex and food are provided serves as a tangible form of admiration in addition to bringing him pleasure. Remember, asking him to forsake all others is perfectly decent, so long as in exchange you become the one who gives him the things he needs to receive. It was that exchange he both had in mind and strongly desired when he said, “I do.”

At this point, allow me to repeat some things I said much earlier, just to be sure there are no misunderstandings. First, nothing a wife does or fails to do can ever justify a man cheating on her. There are no exceptions to this rule. There are times when we talk about a justified homicide or a justified theft. There is simply no such thing as justified adultery. His vow before God and men to his wife is permanent and inflexible. Next, a wife can do all the things I mentioned and still have a husband cheat or suffer a bad marriage. There are many, perhaps more, duties husbands have as well. And nothing a wife can do will ever eliminate free will, immaturity, selfishness, or just plain stupidity completely. However, the regrets and anguish that always accompany being cheated on will be greatly diminished if you can honestly look back and know that you did everything you could have done to satisfy him. Third, I know that children make everything more difficult, and being stressed or tired rarely puts a wife in the mood to give these things, especially if she feels like her own needs aren’t being met. What you have to decide is whether you are willing to do more than you must in order to have a better marriage or whether you’re willing to accept the risks that come from doing only what you feel like doing. One of the great lies is that marriage is supposed to be easy and not take a lot of work. Parenting requires us to often do what we don’t feel like doing, and so does marriage.

Finally, I truly understand that much of what I’ve written runs the risk of shocking you or making you feel angry or condemned. That is not my goal. I want to see marriages thrive both because marriage matters but also because I want to see you enjoy having the marriage you hoped you would have when you made your vows. But precisely because I was concerned about this, I had several female and male friends read this first. Many of their suggestions were incorporated in this final draft, but the one most common thing they said was, “This is really helpful, and, even though I found myself wanting to disagree, I really couldn’t.” But seriously, don’t take it from me. Let your husband read this, and ask him whether he agrees. Because ultimately none of my advice nor the general truth of these ideas matters at all. What matters is your particular marriage. And I only hope that these ideas will be an eye-opener and a blessing to you in making your marriage outstanding. In the end, if all this does is get the two of you talking, then I’m satisfied with that outcome. That’ll help prevent disaster, too.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

A Chat With My Friend About What Makes Sense

Published in Arizona Family News--September, 2007

Brenda: Andrew, I’m so furious. I just found out my boyfriend cheated on me.
Andrew: So, you’re angry that your boyfriend had sex with another girl?
Brenda: Yes.
Andrew: Why?
Brenda: What do you mean, “Why?” What a stupid question!
Andrew: Why are you angry at him?
Brenda: Because it’s wrong to cheat, of course.
Andrew: I agree. But why is it wrong to cheat?
Brenda: Because he made a promise?
Andrew: Really? I thought you weren’t married.
Brenda: Well. I mean he promised me he loved me.
Andrew: Were there any witnesses?
Brenda: Witnesses? No. He just told me. He told me lots of times.
Andrew: But no one else was there? So it’s just your word against his?
Brenda: I guess. What’s that got to do with it? A promise is a promise.
Andrew: Do you think he might have made similar promises to this other girl?
Brenda: Probably. He’s a jerk.
Andrew: Do you think maybe he could only get away with that because he only made them privately?
Brenda: I guess.
Andrew: Did he make a list of specific things he was promising?
Brenda: No. He just told me he’d love me forever.
Andrew: But he didn’t spell out exactly what it meant to him to love you forever?
Brenda: It was implied.
Andrew: So he didn’t really promise, right?
Brenda: I guess not.
Andrew: And no one can really confirm it, right?
Brenda: I don’t like you very much.
Andrew: I’m sorry. But let’s say that he had promised, just for argument’s sake. Why would it be wrong to cheat if he had?
Brenda: Because it’s wrong to break promises. Are you stupid or something?
Andrew: Bear with me, I’m a little slow sometimes. Why is it wrong to break promises?
Brenda: Because it’s a lie.
Andrew: And lying is wrong?
Brenda: Are you from Mars? Of course lying is wrong!
Andrew: Why?
Brenda: Because you’re not supposed to.
Andrew: Who says?
Brenda: Well, God, right? He says you shouldn’t do stuff to other people that you wouldn’t want them to do to you. And that’s why you shouldn’t lie and cheat. Because no one wants it done to them. And God says not to do that.
Andrew: So we should do what God says?
Brenda: Yeah. That’s what it means to be a Christian, right?
Andrew: You’re a Christian?
Brenda: Of course. I go to church every week.
Andrew: Okay. So you think we should do what God says?
Brenda: Yes.
Andrew: But doesn’t God say to wait until you’re married to have sex?
Brenda: That’s different.
Andrew: Why?
Brenda: Because nobody follows that rule.
Andrew: So, if everyone started lying and cheating, that would be okay because we should only follow God’s rules when everyone else does, too?
Brenda: Well, no. Those things are wrong because they hurt people. Having sex doesn’t hurt anyone.
Andrew: So it’s not really about obeying God. It’s about obeying God when you think it makes sense?
Brenda: Yeah. That makes sense. He gave us free will, right?
Andrew: So when your boyfriend cheated on you, was he using that same free will to do what made sense to him?
Brenda: That’s different.
Andrew: How.
Brenda: He hurt me.
Andrew: So?
Brenda: You shouldn’t hurt people.
Andrew: Why?
Brenda: Because God says not to hurt people. Aren’t you listening?
Andrew: Well, one of us isn’t.
Brenda: What does that mean?
Andrew: So, your boyfriend hurt you because he did something you really wanted him to not do, right?
Brenda: Right.
Andrew: And you’re mad at him?
Brenda: Very.
Andrew: Do you think God should be mad at you?
Brenda: What? Why?
Andrew: Well, you did something He really didn’t want you to do, right?
Brenda: I guess so.
Andrew: And doing things other people don’t want us to do hurts their feelings, right?
Brenda: Yeah.
Andrew: So I guess your feelings are more important than God’s.
Brenda: That’s an awful thing to say.
Andrew: But isn’t that what you told God when you had sex with your boyfriend?
Brenda: I guess I wasn’t thinking about it that way.
Andrew: What way were you thinking about it?
Brenda: Well, I really wanted to do it.
Andrew: So it’s okay to hurt God’s feelings as long as we really want to do something?
Brenda: Well, no.
Andrew: Do you think he makes rules for our benefit.
Brenda: Yes. He loves us, right?
Andrew: So which of His rules do you think we should follow.
Brenda: I guess all of them.
Andrew: So does it make much sense to be mad at your boyfriend for breaking your rule when you don’t want God to be mad at you for breaking His rules?
Brenda: I guess not.
Andrew: So what did you learn?
Brenda: That I haven’t been acting very smart.
Andrew: But you know what?
Brenda: What?
Andrew: God still loves you, and He’ll forgive you if you ask Him to.
Brenda: I know.
Andrew: And do you still love Him?
Brenda: Of course.
Andrew: Then maybe you can start obeying Him better.
Brenda: That makes sense.
Andrew: And I’m truly very sorry it took you being hurt so bad to see this.
Brenda: Me, too.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Should Children Be Encouraged To Think For Themselves?

Published in Arizona Family News--August, 2007

This is one of those questions that seems to invite an immediate and emphatic, almost dismissive answer. “Of course children should be encouraged to think for themselves. We’re not raising robots, after all. What’s wrong with you? How dare you ask such a silly question!” Well, my personal defects aside, the question is far more difficult than it first appears.

For one thing, we should all learn to be particularly cautious when our response to a question is too strong. The tone of an answer like the one just given is often an indicator of two rather unpleasant truths. First, the person is far less sure of his answer than he would like to be, but he covers this uncertainty over with emotional emphasis. He is scared that he might be wrong, and he doesn’t want to entertain the possibility of investigating a weak point in his thinking, so he raises his voice in psychological self-defense. Second, and closely related, we often become emotional in resisting ideas which expose our own flaws. We seek to deflect even our own eyes from looking at our actual practices by more loudly using our voice to proclaim our “true” values.

See, no parent in America today would likely affirm the idea that children should not be encouraged to think for themselves. But a closer look at the way they treat their children would reveal the clear fact that they do not practice what they yell. Children are told to do things “because I said so,” “because I’m the parent,” or even, in a Christian home, “because God says.” Personally, I think all these phrases serve the quite useful purpose of teaching a child about authority, as long as they’re not used exclusively in situations where the parents really have no idea why the thing they’re commanding is correct. Yet, even though we all know that children should sometimes be told to think as we do, it’s still not something we’re supposed to say out loud. So we practice wisdom privately and proclaim submission to a foolish social standard. This disconnect explains the indignant voice. “How dare you make me contemplate my inconsistency!”

But this is not the entire story. Many parents, and particularly Christian ones, are scared by the idea of individual thinking. “God provides the answers in His Book, and who are you to even consider questioning them?” Well, true. But how does memorizing a set of answers cultivate the capacity to form conclusions in new situations which do not come prepackaged with ready solutions? It does not. And if we are supposed to use the brain God gave us for something, that something is probably the art of thinking effectively for ourselves.

For my own part, I think God wired children to remind us of this important developmental feature. They seem almost wind-up doll like in their use of the question, “Why?” And it’s plausible that one purpose of this tendency is to encourage parents to impart not merely a set of catechetical answers but also the ability to comprehend those answers and form new ones as well.

But the real challenge for parents who understand both the need for honoring parental and Godly authority in good answers as well as independent thinking is obvious. What do we do when children come to self-formulated ideas which are at odds with what the Bible or we teach them? You might wish for a simple solution for this conundrum. I do not possess it. Nor, I think, does anyone else. I’ve tried their wares, and the proof is not in the intellectual pudding.

It is not possible to fully affirm both a process and a result at the same time. Fair competition means you may not win. Free markets will often produce inequality. Electoral politics will often yield officials we do not prefer. And teaching a child to think for himself may well produce an adult who does not think like you.

So here’s my encouragement. It’s tempting to just propagandize children. Tempting because we fear the real danger they may, if taught to think for themselves and ask questions, come to conclusions we abhor. But God gave them brains, and we must honor the gift as good stewards. So the key here, as with so many things, is to trust the Maker that honoring His gift will work out alright in the end.

God gave children their brains. And the real question at the end of each parenting day is whether you are more interested in shaping that child in the Image of the God who made him…or in your own image? Then, we must acknowledge that picking the right answer to that question will require from us more than just loud lip service to the idea that children should be encouraged to think for themselves…most of the time…especially when the scariest thing to imagine is the possibility that they might actually learn the lesson.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Must Trust Be Earned?

Published in Arizona Family News--June, 2007

Just like honest communication, common values, and enjoying each other’s company, trust is a necessary component of a marriage destined for survival. Most observers readily agree upon this much. However, as is often the case when everyone seems to agree at first, this consensus is based upon a failure to be clear about the meaning of a key word. Education and love and justice are universally praised values, but the devil (and the dispute) is in the details. Of course trust is vital, but do people really know what trust is?

To understand trust, allow me to contrast it with it’s opposite: prudence. Prudence is what we call it when people take account of the past and then use it to guide their behavior in the future. It’s prudent to put the dog on a leash after he nips at someone. It’s prudent to loan your car to your teenager again when he returns it safely the first time. Prudence, whether it entails having confidence in someone or the opposite, is guided by reason. But this is not trust.

Trust is essentially imprudent (and, hence, unreasonable) because trust extends confidence beyond what is deserved. Trust is giving the teenager the car after he has mishandled it previously, or even giving it to him the first time. Trust, you see, is what you give to someone who has not earned it; what you choose to do when you are unsure whether the person will handle it responsibly. In short, if you have total certainty (as much as that is possible for humans regarding other humans) that the other person is “trustworthy,” then trust is not in play at all.

To trust is to give the benefit of the doubt to someone, to believe in his abilities even when you have reason to think this is a foolish thing to do. In fact, the more reason tells you to beware, the more trust exists when you ignore or merely discount the counsel of reason. But it is precisely this sort of trust which is necessary in a marriage.

This sort of trust doesn’t need to know where someone has been, instead choosing to believe a good answer exists without needing to actually know it. This sort of trust is shown when a father tells a son that his mother is correct even though he initially disagrees with what she has said. To be blunt, trust is currency put at risk. If there is no risk, there is no trust. And those who think that trust needs to be earned simply do not comprehend this point.

As I have recently grown fond of saying, the key to a good marriage is both people consistently treating each other better than they deserve. And trust is one very important example of this principle put in action. Merely having confidence in someone to the degree that he or she has earned it is not trust. It’s prudence. Having more confidence than is warranted is the sort of thing that will nourish a marriage. And this should make it all the more clear that trust is neither a feeling nor a reward, but a gift made with the will…much like it’s close cousin, love.

That being said, I’d be remiss in this brief essay if I didn’t say at least a bit about betrayal. As should be clear already, the very act of trusting is an invitation to betrayal. But how can trust be given in the wake of a betrayal? Simple. Remember the formula. Any confidence beyond what is merited is an expression of trust. So, the greater the betrayal, the smaller the act of confidence required to represent trust. After a major betrayal, even a small amount is more than has been merited. A spouse who has been unfaithful has no complaint when the offended party requires email passwords, time reckonings, money accounts, a job change, and anything else, reasonable or not.

Trust in such a case could take the form of requiring none of this, but it could also take the form of simply not requiring all of it. Although not demonstrating maximum trust, even small gestures of trust, such as allowing the cell phone to be returned to a cheater, still embody the unmerited nature of grace involved in all expressions of trust.

But even in these cases, one must never be misled into thinking that the level of trust to be given should be based on what is safe or reasonable, for that is not trust at all. In short, the recipient of trust who is thinking clearly will recognize the gift for what it is, a gift that honors and humbles the recipient precisely because it is not merited. And it is in this sense that I say that trust is not only necessary in a strong marriage because it edifies the unworthy, but also because it is Divine in the way it seeks to bring the unworthy to restoration.

Thus, we should not regret trust given and violated. Rather, we should weep for those poor, doomed relationships where people feel so little indebted to God that they are incapable of giving the other person more than is deserved after such a violation.