23 May 2017

Three ways "internet culture" trains us


I stand by the "right tool for the job" adage.  There's nothing worse than stripping a bolt because you're using the wrong wrench.  I've removed plenty of license plates that way and regretted it.

I also believe in progressively replacing old tools with new ones, because new needs require new methods.  Outside of a "green" agenda and nostalgia, no one can earnestly advocate that we go back to pulling carts rather than driving automobiles, because the tool matches the pace and demands of life.

The internet is a modern tool.  It is the access point for information, for communication, for entertainment, and more.  However, unlike a more conventional tool like a car or a hammer, the internet brings with it some detrimental side-effects -- not just because of the morally compromising content it can supply (though that is certainly a factor), but primarily due to the ways in which its accessibility and pervasiveness can negatively influence our thinking and priorities.  Briefly, here are some subtelties of internet culture impacting our lives.

First, internet culture trains us to require instant gratification.  This is the big one, so I'll get it out of the way.  Thanks to the immediacy of the digital age, I demand service and entertainment at every second.  Whether I'm concerned about my megabits-per-second downloads, or I'm annoyed that the e-mail someone sent me seconds ago hasn't yet appeared on my screen, or Netflix is just lagging, I am in some way expressing a desire for instant gratification.  In fact, the digital age is all about removing the need to be patient, as it seeks faster processers, more reliable cell signal, quicker load screens, better transportation, faster checkout lines, instant downloads.  Furthermore, these things should be accessible wherever you are, and the same philosophy should apply to to needs that aren't digital -- anything in life for which you are required to wait should be reconstructed to deliver a more immediate payoff.

I don't know about you, but whether I'm waiting in the checkout line at Shoprite or sitting in standstill traffic, my immediate urge in any moment of pause is to reach for my phone -- even though I just checked to see if I had any messages, even though I know the notification didn't chime.  We don't know how to be still in the digital age, to be alone with our thoughts, or to enjoy human interaction in a public setting, because internet connectivity demands constant stimulation, constant interaction.  We require titillation at all times.  This is an underlying motivation for replacing percolators with K-Cups, for raging when 2-day shipping isn't a free option, and for trading the genuine intimacy of marriage in favor of casual sex.  Because there should be a way to get what you want faster, without the time, the effort, or the commitment.  Because anything worth having later is better had now.  Because waiting sucks.  Because you should never have to be bored.

Internet culture also trains us to prefer fake interaction to real interaction.  I'm not the only one I know who hates talking on the phone -- I'd much rather text or e-mail because I like having the time to think through what I'm saying.  Only part of this is excusable on the basis of wanting to express my thoughts clearly: the rest falls under the prideful desire to leave a good impression.  It's the same reason we crop and edit and filter our profile pictures, and nitpick the details of our bios.  We prefer texting to talking because we don't have to stammer, we can reply at our leisure, and we can disguise whatever emotion our body language might reveal in an in-person conversation.  We want people to perceive us as intelligent and attractive.

Ultimately, we fear what they think.

In fact, the common defense of "I'm socially awkward" or "I'm introverted," given by people who are absorbed in their phones when they are in public places, is often just a coverup for the idol of boredom.  People are boring and awkward and uncomfortable -- unless we're viewing them through Facbeook, Instagram, or Snapchat, where we can select what, when, and how we want to view their content.  Furthermore, those same individuals who struggle to have a simple conversation face-to-face with a person they know will spew volumes of heated speech to any person they don't know in an online comment thread, at the drop of a hat.

Internet culture provides a false intimacy, an artificial flavor, and we've come to prefer its accessibility and anonymity to the real thing.  The root of this tendency is undeniably pride itself, but sin seizes opportunity wherever it might arise, and the internet left that back window wide open.

Lastly, internet culture trains us by groupthink to believe the worst of people.  By "groupthink," I mean modern witch-hunting: casting topics in extremes, as EITHER supremely righteous OR completely egregious, and rallying troops to share in these voracious opinions.

Groupthink is what inflates the most heated political issues to enormous headlines, and is a major source of the increasing polarization of conservative and liberal peoples.  Groupthink is also why words like "awesome," "awful," "love," and "hate" are commonly applied to pizza, because authenticity in internet culture is measured in exuberance.  Ultimately, groupthink relies on biased, unsourced, and negatively skewed information to demonize those who think differently and glorify "the cause" by uniting its disciples under a crusading banner.

Groupthink is particularly rampant via internet news and other media-based communications.  Those of us who use these tools as platforms for written communication recognize them as powerful vehicles for self-expression, and certainly for sharing particular viewpoints.  And therefore, if we aren't careful, we'll discover that we too are falling into this tendency to draw battle lines, to attack, rather than rationally stating our point of view after carefully considering the other side(s) of the issue.  The internet is a megaphone.  Its booming declarations create radical divisions of EVIL vs. GOOD, training us to think the best of those who share our opinions and the absolute worst of those who don't.

As stated, I don't believe the internet is inherently evil.  It's an incredible resource that fuels society's forward momentum.  But like all things man-made, we must be increasingly aware of our own motivations for using it, and the ways in which we allow it to shape our thinking and our self-discipline.  In fact, it is internet culture, not the internet itself, that I'm seeking to challenge -- that is, the priorities and worldview of a demographic that clings to the internet-fueled priorities outlined above.

Paul cautioned believers to be actively filled with the Spirit rather than wine, because drunken living is a form of debauchery (Eph 5.18).  Rather than simply being a critique of alcohol, this passage communicates a much bigger principle: the only thing that should control a believer should be the Holy Spirit Himself, not any sort of sensual desire.  Instant gratification, false intimacy, and hateful speech are all underlined by such.

Therefore, as a Christian, I must be active, taking responsibility for sin and making God-honoring choices; I must not be passive, allowing cultural trends to shape my thinking and behavior.  In fact, the Spirit's influence should press out any worldliness that might threaten to compromise my testimony as a follower of Jesus.

The priorities of internet culture have the dangerous capacity to do just that.

The next time you're in the check-out line at Shoprite, rather than pull out your phone, force yourself to make eye-contact with the cashier as you say hello, and maybe even think of something kind or encouraging to say.  Maybe the window for gospel truth might even open.  Who knows what God might do when we stop browsing Facebook and pay attention!

03 April 2017

Repentance

Last summer, I taught my teenage students through concepts, postures, attitudes, and elements of worship found in the Psalms.  We spent one week in particular looking at repentance in Psalm 51, the passage containing David's humble words of contrition, penned after Nathan the prophet confronted him with his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah.  Recently, in our church family's read-through-the-Bible plan, we covered the pages of 2 Samuel, which brought the conversation to mind once again.

It's an age-old refrain, but the gospel truth is timeless on this issue: if David, a "man after God's own heart," could still be loved by God and considered an esteemed servant even after such an egregious descent into sin, then there is tremendous hope for the rest of us.

So here are my take-aways from studying 2 Samuel 11-12 and Psalm 51.  Entire books could be written about each of these bullet points, so I'll attempt to be brief with each.

True repentance isn't just an "I'm sorry;" it involves a genuine appeal for mercy (51.1).  In order to properly repent of wrongdoing, I must acknowledge that I am weak (at fault), and that God is strong (in the right).  I have been morally compromised, but He remains holy.  In other words, I recognize that I am a sinner who should never assume I deserve coddling from a holy God when what I really deserve is eternal damnation.  What I am saying through the repentance process is, “Father, I am a wicked sinner, and I am so thankful that, because of the blood of Jesus, you have not given me what I truly deserve.”  Grace upon grace, such as God liberally gives, demands my humble and contrite repentance after I've fallen into sin.

True repentance involves an accurate understanding of my sin (51.3-4) -- that is, acknowledging whom it is against and whom it affects (2 Sam 11 ~ David’s attempts to hide his sin).  All sin is ultimately against God Himself: in doing wrong, I violate my relationship with God either by harming others or by committing some act of idolatry.  This doesn't mean I can deny my culpability toward other people, but it does demand that I recognize all sin as being ultimately against God at the most fundamental level.  Most people probably tend to assume they are on “good terms” with God because they think of their sin being principally against other people, or simply because they just don't think their sin is that big a deal.

Accurately understanding my sin also means I must acknowledge that I can’t fix my problem on my own (51.2) -- whether by penance, practical behavior changes, or self-flagellation.  Attempting to do so is simply a legalistic attempt to atone for my own wrongdoing.  Rather, acknowledging that my sin is a violation of God's moral law and a direct offense to His holy character, I should confess it to Him as such and trust anew in the blood of Jesus that has made me new and permanently righteous in God's eyes.

True repentance involves an understanding that God loves me deeply, and that it is through this compassion that He disciplines (51.1).  "How can this be?" cries a generation that equates love with tolerance -- overlooking another's flaws without changing them, citing a self-deceiving rhetoric that assumes love should refuse to acknowledge all failure and all shortcoming in the name of acceptance.

God's love is so much greater than such shallow concepts.

Truth #1: God loves me unconditionally (51.1, 7, 9-11, 14).  That means He does love me despite my failures, extending grace to me through His Son's own death on the cross, because I could never fix my wrongdoing to live up to the standard of holiness.  However, (Truth #2), God also loves me enough to change me (51.8, 10).  True, biblical love wants the best for others -- it does love despite failures (unconditionally), but it also seeks to build and correct (not to ignore).  Absolutely we should love others for who they are, despite their flaws, but we should also love them enough to respectfully confront them when they are engaged in sinful, destructive patterns of living.

True repentance involves a change in heart attitude.  Not just after things get better, but as I recognize my errors and begin to walk through the process of repentance.  That means I should accept the Lord's discipline with gratitude (51.8), because it is intended to produce a change.  This is not masochistic.  This is a deep and desperate desire to put sin to death and live in the way God intends.  When things around me are crumbling -- relationships, job opportunities, physical possessions -- instead of falling into panic and trying to fix everything, perhaps I should recognize that maybe God is attempting to bring my attention to some unconfessed sin in my heart.  What He is allowing to happen in my life is either a test of my faith or a test of my spiritual sensitivity toward my own sin.  Although I cannot damage my eternal security, to live with unconfessed, unrepentant sin in my heart is to quench and deny the Spirit at work within me.  God is willing to break me so that I don't remain in such a cold, disconnected state.

Therefore, repentance also means that my joy in having a right-standing relationship with God is restored (51.12).

Repentance involves transparently instructing others so they don’t make the same mistakes I did (51.13).  Because repentance results in my return to proper worship (51.16-19), I believe Christians are called to exhort one another out of our own experience of failure -- for the sake of conviction and encouragement.  In other words, God didn't allow me to walk through sin and failure just to hedge my own soul against repeating those mistakes; I now have an enormous opportunity (I'd argue responsibility) to address these issues in the lives of others.  When we see in others the same telltale signs of temptation and failure that we ourselves experienced, we should be bold and transparent for the sake of steering that follower of Christ away from the pitfalls we know are yawning hungrily in his or her path.  This, of course, requires us to be intentionally attuned to the lives of others within our spheres of influence, to develop compassionate attitudes toward them, and to practice humility in the endeavor.

To conclude, repentance doesn’t much feel like a posture of worship, simply because I'm content with my life the way it is.  In other words, it's far easier to live like my sin is not a big deal.  Dragging my errors out into the light and addressing them is uncomfortable, and the old sin nature I still battle doesn't like it.  Furthermore, when I honestly evaluate my heart against the truths of Scripture, I’m never as good as I thought I was.  I don't like to be confronted with how much work I still have to do -- especially if I don't make it a regular habit to reflect on what God is currently doing in my heart.

Repentance IS a posture of worship, however, because God is glorified by my brokenness over sin (51.17) and by my ongoing struggle against it (Lam 3.22-23).

By way of encouragement, it's important to remember that experiencing temptation and giving into sin are two different things: Jesus experienced more temptation than anyone, but He did not sin (Heb 4.15).  In other words, to feel temptation and to say "no" is to glorify God.  Even if we feel guilty because our hearts still desire to sin, we are still walking in righteousness when we consciously deny sinful desires and work to replace them with holy desires.  Not every experience of worship is a mountaintop celebration: confessing the sinful tendencies we still possess and working to conform them to the image of Christ is worship in the trenches, and it exalts the name of our Savior.

You and I still have work to do, so let's be about our Father's business.

14 March 2017

Three lessons from Judges


We've been reading through the Bible as a church family since the beginning of the year, and yesterday we concluded the book of Judges.  This is one of the more challenging sections of the Old Testament, largely due to its gruesome content, spiritually destitute characters, and unabashed warfare.  The central theme is  found in the repeated refrains, "Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD" (Judges 2.11; 3.7; 3.12; 4.1; 6.1; 8.33-35; 10.6; 13.1) and "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (17.6; 21.25), clear indicators of the spiritual temperature of the nation that was supposed to represent God to the world.  The book's horrific conclusion alone, five chapters of utter depravity, paint a stark picture of the darkness and self-deception of which men are capable.

Here are a few observations to be gleaned from such a heavy, poignant text.

Ultimately, God is THE Judge.  Though God raised up men and women alike to lead the nation of Israel and rescue the people from oppression at the hands of their enemies, ultimately God Himself is the judge.  Jephthah's words to the king of the Ammonites in 11.27 make this point clear: "The Lord, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon."  Jephthah's own personal story -- despite the great victory he won as Israel's judge -- is a tragic reminder of this very fact: that the Lord alone rules with equity and flawless judgment.

One of the larger, undergirding themes of the book of Judges is therefore the insufficiency of man's leadership.  You and I wholeheartedly acknowledge this truth at the same time we deny it, because we all have our heroes as much as we have our scapegoats.  The guy I vote for is the only candidate worthy of the job; the guy who gets in instead is inept and unqualified.  The last boss knew what he was doing, but the new guy is a joke.  Moreover, when we find ourselves in leadership roles, we are even more likely to forget the reality that human leadership is flawed, because we envision ourselves to be fair, moral human beings perfectly capable of (and entitled to the right of) meting out justice.

While the Judges of Israel were men and women chosen specifically by God, they were still sinners who exhibited critical lapses of judgment.  Sometimes, it's difficult to find even a shred of godliness in these figures (i.e. Samson).  And we sometimes struggle with understanding why God empowers some and not others.  But all of this points to the reality that God alone is perfectly just, and that He alone rules with perfect holiness.  This fact reminds us that, although we are subject to imperfect human institutions and required by God Himself to honor them, those who hold power in this world are not above error or worthy of our unwavering allegiance.

Israel's repentance was genuine (if short-lived).  And therefore, God's mercy and restoration were genuine as well.  God would not have called the judges to restore the people had their cries of contrition not been in earnest.  Unfortunately, it was only after they'd tried everything else, endured oppression for as long as they could on their own power, and clung to the false gods of the surrounding nations that they would finally remember the Lord and His goodness.  Out of their sorrow, they would cry for help, and God -- impatient to rescue His people from their plight (10.16) -- would respond.

This is a powerful reminder that, though we often fall repeatedly into the same sins, God's mercy remains.  One of my favorite worship lyrics comes from Laura Story's "Indescribable": "You see the depths of my heart, and you love me the same."  I can take confidence in the fact that, though I am weak and still subject to temptation, my status as His child is unchanged, and His grace is never rescinded.

While it's impossible to identify a singular root cause of the pattern of rebellion we see in Judges, it seems to me that the cycles are largely generational.  One generation does what is evil in the sight of the LORD, comes to repentance after a decade or so of oppression, and God raises a judge to defeat the enemy and give the people rest, but then they ultimately fail to impart to their children the importance of sacred devotion to the Lord.  And so, 18-20 years later, this new generation -- poorly taught and still beset by the foreign nations their forefathers failed to eradicate -- is doomed to walk the same path as their parents.

Certainly not every single member of the previous generation had died off by the time of the next rebellion, nor were they  immune to the allure of temptation.  Furthermore, every man and woman is ultimately responsible for his or her own sin (Ezek 18.20; Jas 1.14).  But in a similar situation to the wilderness wanderings of the Mosaic era, the parents ultimately failed to teach their children well, setting them up to repeat their own failures.  This is what prompted Moses to deliver the series of speeches just outside the Promised Land that comprise the book of Deuteronomy, because the children had no "knowledge of good or evil" (Deut 1.39), despite the miraculous experiences of their parents in the wilderness.

We would do well to take this indictment of parenting to heart: we should endeavor to teach our children well about the Lord's goodness as well as our own failures, so that they are prepared for the temptations they themselves will face and will (hopefully) seek the Lord's will rather than their own.

The life lessons we give to our children should be saturated with Scriptural truth, not just practical wisdom.

God does not condone human violence.  This is especially difficult to grasp when reading the Old Testament, the pages of which drip with the blood of slaughtered peoples, families, and nations -- Israeli and Gentile alike.  In the book of Judges alone there is enough brutality to satisfy Game of Thrones audiences.  However, the violence in Judges is always directly connected to the people's sin.  God had promised repeatedly that, were the Israelites to walk in worshipful obedience, they would live in peace and prosperity with His sovereign protection shielding them from their enemies.  Instead, Israel first failed to complete the conquest of the land, and then descended into all kinds of depravity as a direct result.  The judgment for this was the oppression of the foreign nations, which in turn necessitated war to free the people of Israel once they acknowledged their error.

Even within that framework, most of the violent activity we see in Judges is excessive and not God-sanctioned.  For example, cruelty such as the severing of Adoni-bezek's thumbs and big toes (1.6), the killing that resulted from Abimelech's power struggle (Ch. 9), Gibeah's crime and the Levite's grotesque response (19.22-30), which in turn prompted Israel's civil war with the tribe of Benjamin (Ch. 20).  These, amongst other examples, were not done at God's command, though the perpetrators were often the very men He called to lead the people (for more on this, see point #1).

Did God command the conquest of the Promised Land, in which Israel was expected to fully eradicate the peoples living there?  Yes.  Moses and Joshua both make this case very clear (e.g. Deut 7.1-2; Josh 3.10).  And the reason is that the Canaanite tribes were wicked people groups who viciously slaughtered their own neighbors and engaged in abominable practices such as child sacrifice in worship of their false gods.  They were perverse tribes who hated God and His people, and God's decisive judgment of them was as much the reason for their eradication as was fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Gen 15.16; Lev 18.24-25Deut 7.10; 9.5).  As John MacArthur put it, "The question is not why God chose to destroy these sinners, but why He had let them live so long, and why all inners are not destroyed far sooner than they are."

In the pages of Joshua, we see God's hand leading Israel to victory over wicked peoples whose iniquity was a stench upon the earth.  In Judges, it's a different story -- a worst-case scenario that unfolds again and again.  The wars that ensued after the death of Joshua were direct consequences for the people's wickedness and their failure to permanently depose the Lord's enemies.

A fuller discussion of why God commanded literal war for Israel yet requires peaceful coexistence of His church is beyond the scope of this post, but what we must remember is that even in the conquest era God never condoned human violence.  In fact, the Word attests that He hates hands that shed innocent blood (Prov 6.17), claims just vengeance for Himself (Deut 32.35Rom 12.19), and prohibits the taking of human life (Ex 20.13; 1 John 3.15).  Leading the people to seize the land promised to Abraham was an act of sovereign judgment that is in no way to be imitated by Christians in any capacity.  Frankly, no legitimate follower of Christ will commend the Crusades.  Our responsibility as His children today is not to determine for ourselves who is worthy of judgment, but to communicate the gospel message in our best, compassionate effort to -- in Paul's words -- "overcome evil with good."

In a day and age when everyone is again doing what is "right in his/her own eyes," understanding the concepts put forward in the book of Judges is more than just a lesson in ancient history.  These truths are pertinent to understanding the complexities of sin in the world, as well as embracing our own God-given responsibilities for walking in righteousness.