Substance (13) - Belonging to the Formational Community
The last twelve weeks I have written about God’s desire for us to become people of substance. According to Pastor Gibson, becoming more like Christ isn’t something optional for Christians; it is part of the Gospel, part of what Christ died to give us. We grow in substance by doing things like embracing discipline and escaping diversion. This week I will finish this series by writing about the importance of doing these things in community with other believers.
God’s solution to the deformational community of the world is simple: He created his own formational community to exist in the midst of a worldly world. Yet many believers misunderstand the Church and thereby underrate it.
Gibson makes the strong claim that secular modernity is not to blame for our lack of substance; the fault lies with our neglect of God’s good design in His two formational institutions: the family and the Church. Why two? Why not just the family? Because of sin many families fall apart, so God has made sure that at least one formational community is open to and includes everyone who belongs to Christ.
The Church is to be a place where the Gospel is not only heard, but also seen, experienced, and absorbed in a comprehensive community in which Christ is Lord.
But why a community? Why can’t we follow Christ alone? When we recognize how people are formed we will understand the importance of the Church. Most of what we learn is not taught directly by words. Rather we absorb the culture of the environment in which we find ourselves. That being the case, if we want to become more like Christ we must commit ourselves to communities where Christ is loved and worshiped as Lord.
The New Testament simply does not teach that one can be a Christian apart from Christ’s body, the Church. To grow in Christ requires that we be immersed in and intimately connected to a local church. We cannot love the Church and refuse to be a part of a concrete local church any more than we can claim to love Work and refuse to get a job.
A lot of us have had bad experiences with a church, but this should not lead to a rejection of the Church. There are a lot of great churches in Madison and many of them are represented in our school. If you are not connected to a local church, I would encourage you unequivocally to join a local church.
In conclusion, growing in substance seems impossible. And it is if you are a worldly person that is shallow, vaporous, fragile, and looking to everything and everyone but Christ. But everything we need for life and godliness has been given as a gift to us in Christ out of God’s own glorious grace and goodness (II Peter 1). If Christ is good enough to give us forgiveness, why should we not trust Him to give us everything we need to be formed in the godliness for which He created us? Being remade into the image of Christ is the single greatest calling of our lives.
The people of God have always fixed their hope not in their own ability, but on their Father’s perfect strength and immeasurable compassion. If we are in Christ, the very same power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand of God is alive in us. In Christ, we are stronger than we ever imagined and we lack nothing, absolutely nothing!
Substance (12) - Embracing Discipline
Last week I wrote about escaping diversion. Many things divert us from things we should be giving our attention to. If we want to grow in godliness we cannot let our desire for diversion control us and dominate our use of time. But as we move from diversion, what are we to move towards? This week I will write about how we need to embrace discipline.
Every great movie has a short training montage (c.f. Rocky I, Rocky II, Rocky III, and especially Rocky IV). This gives us the impression that transformation is either simple to achieve or impossible for mere mortals. Both are untrue.
It is true we are weak, especially if we expect to be. Technology and secular modernity have coddled us to the point that we have incredibly low opinions of human capability. Think of how quickly we excuse ourselves for overindulging in anything or for engaging in sins like gossiping. People used to blame the stars for their weaknesses; we now blame our genetics and brain chemistry. This is an evasion and we know it. For we excuse our own weaknesses, but rage at others when they hurt us.
Think about ways you lack discipline: do you focus and read?, do you limit your television viewing?, do you stick with your exercises? Most of us struggle with discipline, but we have God-given capacity for it. When your mind tells you you’re totally out a gas you have only used 40% of your real capacity. Yet most of us fail to push through difficulty and find our true limits.
Morality and spirituality have their own disciplines. Jesus calls us to exertion, but He does so in grace. We are called to discipline not as an end in itself, but so that we can survive and thrive and accomplish things we never thought possible. If we want to unleash our moral and spiritual potential we will need discipline. And if we see the value of spiritual discipline, we will do whatever spiritual discipline requires.
And we need discipline because we strength! We live in a battle zone and we must be brutal. Our capacity for brutality is not the result of sin, but a God-given faculty that has been corrupted by sin. Our life must be marked by constant, vicious, and brutal conflict—not against flesh and blood, but against our pride, unbelief, our fears, our sin. If we don’t wrestle with sin we will be continually victimized our entire lives (and those that are victimized by sin will inevitably victimize others in sin). This begs the question: how do we grow in discipline?
First off, we must be vigilant. Consider Cain. He allowed hatred to grow in his heart against his brother. As a result he unleashed his brutality against the one he should have loved and protected rather than against the sin that was poisoning his heart, mind, and soul. Because life in the contemporary world is the safest it has ever been (and this is true even in the midst of Corona!), it is easy for us to fail to see the importance of vigilance. We must recognize that none of the achievements and physical safety produced by secular modernity provide for spiritual or moral safety. We must also recognize that much of the raging of our flesh is predictable. We want approval, power, comfort, and control. Knowing this allows us to be vigilant against these things and vigilant in the building up of fortifications of their corresponding opposite virtues: humility, charity, chastity, patience, temperance, kindness, and diligence. We must also understand the dynamics of our own self-deception. This will allow us to humbly receive correction from others. The fact is we all are deceived about multiple things at this very moment. If we receive criticism with this assumption our hearts will burst with gratitude, rather than resentment, when one of these deceptions exposed.
Second, we must be brutal. As we find peace in God, His spirit leads us into war against the enslaving tyranny of indwelling sin, rooted in the flesh, inflamed by the devil, and reinforced by worldliness. Our human enemies still bear the image of God and have redemptive potential so we are called to love them; sin does not have redemptive potential and it must not be loved. Sin is an infection preventing our sanctification. Where sin lives, it infects, steals, kills, and destroys. It spoils potential, robs happiness, degrades creation, and defies God himself. It is the most heinous, hateful thing in all of creation, infecting and polluting the bearers of God’s very image, wielding divine gifts for evil. If we saw sin for what it is, we would have no trouble mustering the spiritual ferocity necessary to put it to death. Without brutality towards this indwelling sin we can never really love others. If we’re not brutal with indwelling sin, sin will brutalize others through us. We must do whatever it takes to overcome sin. If necessary we must quit a job to get untangled from an adulterous temptation, get rid of our television if it keeps us from investing in our children and friends, cut up credit cards if they keep us from staying within our budget, get software that tracks our Internet use and then sends it sent to our mom and wife to keep our eyes from lust. Yet our unconscious second religion (worldliness) makes the actions necessary to grow in our spiritual freedom seem unthinkable. We need the Spirit to fill us with a ferocity to overcome this. Sin is not cute. As Solomon wrote, it is like a little fox—it will destroy everything if we do not destroy it. We cannot stop striking it so long as it remains living.
Third, we must see everything as training. If we are training we only accept one option as a possible result. This is important because if quitting is an option and the task is profoundly difficult, we will take that option. People persevere when they have no other choice. We must also remember that God is our trainer. You can’t see God as a trainer and think that His job is to make your life easy. And we must look to Jesus as the best and perfect example of the race we are called to run. If the road was not long and hard, He wouldn’t have to prepare us to “not grow weary and lose heart.” We, in faith, can see purpose in difficulty. This allows us to receive all hardship as discipline—not as punishment, but as training. We can then turn most of our lives into training, because life is tough!
Fourth, we need to see the importance of cooperation. Jesus didn’t leave behind a single successor; He left behind Him the Church. Most Christians who get a vision for substance and discipleship become spiritual loners. It’s complicated to be focused on discipline when others think you are being legalistic or uptight. The growing believer will often feel out of place or feel a sense of superiority growing in his or her heart. But cooperation improves vigilance since other people see your weaknesses much more easily than you do. When we are surrounded by people who are committed to spiritual training, we will find ourselves moving farther and doing so faster.
In all of this we must remember that we embrace discipline in order to embrace Jesus; we don’t do it so that God will approve of us. God approves of Jesus and applies that approval to us through justification by faith. We don’t pursue discipline so that we can control our lives. We trust God’s loving providence and know that we can never control our lives, and we shouldn’t want to.
Substance (11) - Escaping Diversion
The last few weeks I wrote about things we ought to pursue like godly ‘ordinariness’ and self-sacrificial love. But in order to embrace and say “yes” to good things we often have to let go of and say “no” to lesser things. This week’s message will be about saying “no” to things that divert us.
Centuries before the iPhone Blaise Pascal wrote, “the only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries for it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us thoughtlessly ruin ourselves. Without [diversion] we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”
Pastor Gibson talks about an experiment in which Japanese and American first grade students were given an unsolvable math problem. Many Japanese kids had to be cut off after an hour because they would not give up, while the majority of American students gave up after 30 seconds. This shows a distinct difference in character between the two groups. According to Gibson, the difference in their character was fostered by different cultural values and environments.
For many of us, diversion and ease have taken over the primary place of our God-given capacity for grit and focus. We accept our spiritual slavery and fail to rouse ourselves to freedom because of diversion. It numbs and binds us to our spiritual weaknesses and slavery.
As a culture, we are constantly limiting our attention span and our tolerance for sustained mental exertion or uncomfortable topics. Facebook allows us to pay attention to what and whom we like, Twitter demeans reasoned argument by limiting thoughts to 280 characters, Instagram favors pictures over words, we have a welfare state that will catch us if we fall so we don’t need to be vigilant, the news cycle gives us constant movement with no sense of relative importance or proportion while confirming our biases and feeding our fear and pride, entertainment displaces active leisure with passive amusement, video games replace real experiences with virtual ones, socialism makes us think we are part of a story we can’t control, technology allows us to do things with less effort, our phones notify us constantly with trivialities and divert us from full engagement in the present, and of course we fear missing out.
According to Pastor Gibson, there is no path to spiritual freedom and substance without the conviction that we must escape diversion. Diversions seem innocent and so we don’t focus on escaping them. But every diversion diverts us from something that requires our attention.
Why do we divert ourselves? Ultimately, we don’t want to deal with the fact that we are going to die. But when we divert ourselves we only avoid our cure.
This has always been a problem, but modern technology now allows us to distract ourselves immediately and precisely the way we prefer. Not only that, but the diversions we have are more intense and engrossing. The very things (e.g. computers and smart phones) that could allow us to be greater stewards and achieve new heights of creativity and productivity are actually distracting us from both. If we don’t learn to master technology, it will master us.
Yet, it is hard to recognize diversion because we see it as relaxation, leisure, fun, or a hobby. And it is easy to replace diversion with a set of legalistic rules. How do we reject diversion without replacing it with legalism? We must ask the questions that Paul does in I Corinthians: is a beneficial (i.e. for our own true good)?, is it constructive (i.e. for the true good of others)?, will it master us, and does it align with who we are in Christ? Thinking through these questions can help us to cut out non-sinful pursuits and activities that are crowding out better things in our lives.
It is essential to overcome diversions because diverted people do not grow in maturity. Diversion weakens our ability to focus at all and focus is like a muscle. We cannot be passive in our relationship with God. We need to keep up our passion for and devotion to God. That means we need to give Him time, focus, and attention. We must make “every effort” to grow in godliness, for godliness is part of the gift that Christ paid so dearly to gives us (II Peter 1:3-11).
This will take sustained effort! William Wilberforce said that his work “must be affected by constant and regular exertions rather than by sudden and violent ones.” The opposite of this is what John Piper calls “cardiac Christians”.
And yet, despite the work we must do this is ultimately not a question of accomplishment or effort. It is a question of faith. Do we think that growing in godliness is part of the great treasure that God has given us? Are Jesus and his work so beautiful to us that becoming like Him is as valuable as escaping Hell and gaining Heaven?
Substance (10) - Welcome to the Ordinary (Part II)
Last week I wrote about why we should ‘embrace the ordinary’; this week I will write about how we can pursue that by embracing rest, work, and gratitude.
Rest is an important part of life. When we rest we prove that we mean it when we say that we trust that God has wisely ordered the world, that His commandments lead to our good, and that He will provide our needs. While we are called to be productive, we are not called to be busy.
Along with rest we must also value producing and serving over consuming and receiving. By our work we help the weak by providing them with goods and services that they are unable to provide for themselves. What is more, practically speaking, unproductive people are almost always unhappy.
Yet in thinking about work we must not adopt a worldly view of it. The value of work is not judged by its wages, but by whether or not it is productive—does it provide for people’s needs, enrich the lives of others, or prepare you or others to do so?
Likewise, thankfulness will also help us embrace the ordinary. Consider Daniel. There is a fair chance he was castrated and he was enslaved in a foreign land. Prayer had only been temporarily banned and the penalty was a bad death, yet he prayed three times a day simply to thank God.
On their own receiving and consuming only create more craving, not happiness. Yet we can find joy in them if they are supported by thankfulness. Thankfulness takes our pleasure of receiving something beyond the mere gratification of the object to something greater. Thankfulness helps our pleasures transcend the senses by combining them with truth, goodness, beauty, dignity, and God’s glory. This is the opposite of entitlement. Entitlement is the idea that I deserve more than I have received. On the other hand thankfulness is the idea that I’ve been the recipient of grace and have received more than I deserve.
Yet we must not pursue thankfulness for the sake of enhanced gratification. Thankfulness will not bless us if misused as an idol. It will not draw our souls up to greater enjoyment if we try to drag it down to be consumed. Like all blessings, it must be done for the right reasons. When we do the right things for the right reasons the Bible makes it clear that God freely gives us the blessings that He has hidden in righteousness.
According to Ecclesiastes, ordinary life is a “burden.” Yet this burden can be the means by which God leads us into rest, reality, dignity, productivity, love, thankfulness, deepening pleasure, stable happiness, fascination at everything, and wonder for God.
Substance (9) - Welcome to the Ordinary
Last week I wrote about how Christ did not come to simply save us from the guilt of our sins, He also freed us from the power of sin. In following Christ we are asked to kill our sin. This does not make us right with God; salvation is a free gift. But part of the gift of salvation is victory over sin. To put it another way, while justification is a gift we receive passively, our sanctification is something we actively participate in through the power of God’s Spirit. One way to grow in sanctification is to embrace ordinary things.
Many believe that nothing is worse than being ordinary. We worship youth and Photoshop our models. We avoid long-term responsibility and celebrate leisure, luxury and obsess about celebrity. Yet real human life is ordinary. It is made up of roles, rhythms, responsibilities, and repetitions. In the end it is ordinary things done competently, faithfully, and joyfully that make up a life worth celebrating. We must embrace these things in such a way that we find in them a life worth living.
Consider the things that we pursue in place of ordinary life. Sensual pleasures don’t last, they can’t even fill a day. Because they are decreasingly satisfied by repetition they require time to recharge their intensity. For example, no one wants to eat right after they’ve eaten; no one wants their arms stroked for 2 hours. Yet the visceral pleasures are the only pleasures the flesh knows and for many people they are the only pleasures that they know. This has always been the case. The difference is we can now broadcast them on social media and get additional pleasure and recognition from how extraordinary we appear. Yet whether it is food, shopping, naps, or hobbies they diminish as we treat them like more than they’re meant to be and in the end they make our lives smaller—they make us typical and miserable.
In God’s creation the extraordinary life is found by embracing the ordinary in life with extraordinary character. And if you misunderstand God’s purposes, you will miss happiness. God has intentionally designed the world in such a way as to frustrate the world’s attempts to grasp happiness and meaning apart from Him. God wants us to receive happiness as a sheer gift from Him as we go about ordinary life with substance. He doesn’t want us to lose our lives by chasing happiness, ending up with nothing but thistles and mist in the end.
We live in a tension knowing that the universe has eternity in it and that there is deep meaning to be found in it. And yet everything is only beautiful in it’s time: our pleasures don’t last. According to Pastor Gibson, in Ecclesiastes Solomon wrote that accepting these limitations is the key to human meaning and happiness.
Solomon wrote that he was full of delight while doing work, but when he surveyed the results of his work he was filled with hatred and despair. This is like dishes. You can be perfectly happy washing them and making them clean, but what have you accomplished? Nothing lasting! This is true of everything in life: nothing lasts like we want to. The solution is not to seek other or novel things, the answer is to trust God by taking pleasure in what is wholesome and ordinary. For what God frustrates in our independence and self-will He freely gives as blessing when we trust and revere Him.
We need to accept the burden that God has put on us and let go of seeking happiness in our worldliness and idolatry. We have no access to ultimate meaning outside the Ultimate One. Yet we fear that we really do only live once and that our lives will soon be spent. We fear missing out. This leads us to frantically chase the pleasures of the world. But there is and can be no happiness in seeking things outside of God. We see this in the lives of those that attach themselves to great causes. Too often they overlook the people right front of them, for they get focused on some abstraction of humanity, rather than the concrete neighbors God has placed in their lives.
Yet the longing to be extraordinary is given by God. Why is that? God wants us to be extraordinary in character, not in the things we consume. Normal life has meaning because every role, responsibility, rhythm, and repetition is an opportunity and avenue for love. Every moment is an opportunity to either love or deny love.
When we seek good things in Christ we will find Christ, the good that we sought, and happiness; when seek happiness apart from Christ we’ll miss Christ, lose good things, and become unhappy. The secret to happiness isn’t attaining a certain extraordinary thing, but rather receiving and enjoying normal things in Christ.
Substance (8) - In Step with the Spirit
Last week I wrote about how God not only saves us from sin, death, and damnation but for righteousness. Titus 2:11-12 shows this: the first verse talks about how God has saved us from damnation and the second about the righteousness God has saved us for. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” The next few messages will give some practical steps about how we can pursue living this type of life.
Just as the compulsions of the flesh drove our lives before conversion, now the leading of the Spirit fills our minds and drives our desires. But shouldn’t we limit this in some way? Isn’t there a danger in being “too religious”? According to Pastor Gibson, the desire to avoid being “too religious” is often a sign of idolatry. If we limit how much of our life welcomes God’s complete rule, then we are merely using God to manage part of our lives. We are trying to put God in the service of or idols. And when we strive to please our flesh we’ll produce a shallow character that is capable of enjoying only shallow pleasures.
What is more, we will find ourselves ultimately frustrated! When we strive for self-justification, we will fall short even of our meager and small goals. This will lead to pride (we will measure ourselves against others to justify ourselves), hypocrisy (we will lie to ourselves and others about how bad we really are), or self-hatred (we’ll see ourselves in our sin, but fail to see how God sees us in Christ).
The principle by which we can do all the things Christ is calling us to do is to walk and live by the Spirit. But what does this mean? Spiritual things are not just visions and miracles, something spiritual is that which is done by the grace of God through his Spirit, even if the thing done is normal or mundane.
The Spirit does not only empower us to do what is good and right, He reorders our desires so that we want to do things that please God. Our longings are one of the most revealing things about us. As Augustine wrote, “In order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.” The righteous long for righteousness. The Spirit will lead us toward love, service, forgiveness, and everything else that fits the character and mind of Christ.
God wants us to be like proficient jazz musicians. He wants us to be people that not only have mastered the needed technical skills, but are also able to improvise and adapt in the moment alongside companions that are contributing their own improvisations. We need to know not just the notes of music (the words, acts, and attitudes that please God), but also the feel of it (how to live them out in the concrete moments we find ourselves in—e.g. when to comfort and when to rebuke; when to listen and when to speak). The more we obey, the easier it will get, but because growth in godliness always involves the death of our flesh, it nearly always feels like dying.
This is because our flesh doesn’t want to know what God plainly reveals! The Bible says that the acts of the flesh are obvious. Yet our fallen minds are constantly obsessed with making sin more complicated or less violent than it is. If we can’t make evil sound good, we try to cover it in a fog of confusion or accuse others of judging us and claim that they are guilty of the greater offense. But because we are made in God’s image there are certain things we cannot not know. If we don’t see them it’s not an understandable limitation; it’s a moral deficiency. It’s a vigorous rebellion against reality.
Pursuing God requires us to kill the flesh. Listening to the voice of our flesh isn’t an act of authenticity. The flesh is the counterfeit us. Though it promises life, it is leading us down to death. As John Owen wrote: You have to kill sin before sin kills you. Pastor Gibson relies heavily on John Owen in this chapter as he argues that killing the flesh is not something we have to do in order to be acceptable to Christ, but it is part of what it means for Christ to save us. Part of the promise of what it means to be saved is to be saved from the slavery of indwelling sin. Salvation is isn’t a buffet where you can take what you like. Sin is the object of God’s wrath and is the very thing from which He delivers us. We cannot trust Him to save us from the guilt of our sins while simultaneously attempting to hold onto our sin and sinfulness. We must accept the execution of our sin and flesh, and be its executioners. And this is one of the things His Spirit empowers us to do.
Substance (7) - Virtuous Freedom 2: Freedom For
Last week I wrote about how God not only forgives our sins and saves us from our sins, He also frees us from the power of sin. Without God’s grace we are slaves to sin, slaves to our flesh and worldly desires.
God’s sanctification of us produces the virtues that direct what we are meant to do with our freedom. Yet growth is often slow. Painfully slow. Pastor Gibson reminds us to remember that virtue and deep faith often take decades to grow and that what God is planting now are mere shoots that will only fully blossom in eternity.
God created us in His image so that we would express Him and His dominion over creation. We are to be embedded in His creation while thinking and acting like Him. To this end God initially gave us the law. Law is an expression of universal truths applied to particular situations, times, and cultures. And while the law restrains sin, it also provokes it. God’s goal is to have people that do more than just obey the law. As much as law can do it is limited in that it can’t produce anything more than law abiding people and God desires sons and daughters, co-heirs of Christ.
According to Gibson, Jesus freed us from the law for at least two reasons. First, so we would not look to it to be made right with God. Second, He freed us from the law in order to allow us to be maximally good. The law, in order to restrain evil, often prevents the full development of good by limiting people’s freedom.
God’s purpose for making us remains the same; He wants us to be His stewards. God didn’t just give us creation. He gave us a job here. In the redemption He allows us to carry out the job. We are to bear God’s image in his creation as His stewards. It was our job before the fall, after it, and it will be our job in Heaven. We own nothing, but govern everything.
Think of what a steward does. A steward uses his judgment to invest and govern the master’s affairs and is free to do so as long as what he does furthers his master’s goals and is done according to the master’s ethics. A faithful steward only honors his master and doesn’t worry about the opinions of others or even his own desires.
Ultimately, as Christians we are to be guided by God’s character and purposes. We are not helpless children with no responsibility. We are also not slaves attempting to win approval that has already been freely given. When we give ourselves to God we become fully ourselves, freed from the law not so that we may sin, but freed so that we may do the good work He has prepared in advance for us to do as He conforms us into the image of His Son.
Substance (6) - Virtuous Freedom 1: Freedom From
Last week I wrote about how Christ is the only true and fully trustworthy one. An essential step in walking with Him is to recognize this and to trust Him. However, in our love for worldly things we don’t want to admit that clear things are clear—we don’t want to see the truth because then we might feel obligated to change our actions. For example, Galatians 5 says that the works of the flesh are obvious. Yet many today claim that we cannot know what is right and wrong—they convolute and confuse obvious issues; they throw dirt in their eyes and claim that everything is cloudy. But we cannot walk in the freedom that Christ desires for us without first trusting that His definition of what is right and wrong, loving and unloving is the definition that is true.
As a people we love freedom, but poorly it. True freedom includes freedom to and from, but also freedom for (which I will write about next week). Freedom is not about doing what we want, rather it is moral in nature—true freedom is the liberty to do what is good and right.
Freedom is not an unqualified good—it can be used for both good and evil. We are qualified to freedom to the exact proportion in which we put moral chains on our own appetites. For freedom requires us not only to give rights to others, but also to trust them to use their rights and freedom not to harm us. Therefore only widespread virtue can sustain the trust necessary for freedom.
(Pastor Gibson includes an interesting footnote at this point in the chapter about the problem of democracy in a society declining in virtue. According to Gibson, even if that society produces a man of great virtue, the wicked will never appoint the man of virtue to power. This is because they don’t know what to look for and are more easily deceived by scoundrels; virtuous behavior seems foreign to them and, therefore, suspect. They will elect the corrupt or the tyrannical or they were will revolt to install a wicked man. The key, therefore, to reforming a fading democracy is not merely to elect the right person, but rather to become people, families, churches, schools, communities, cities, states, and a nation of godly virtue. This is food for thought as we find ourselves in the midst of a presidential election.)
Everyone wants happiness and many seek justice. But God has designed the world so that divorcing freedom from virtue cannot produce happiness, gratitude, hope, or justice. If we seek freedom as liberation from moral restraint we must reject virtue and thereby create anarchy. This is why so many reformers (c.f. from the Jacobins in France to post-colonial leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa), though well intentioned, have created tyrannies worse than the ones they fought to overthrow. We cannot get good ends without good means! Ultimately justice and hope are only found in God and they cannot ever be achieved if we ignore His means, His commands.
But to pursue virtuous ends we must become virtuous people. This doesn’t come naturally any more than one is naturally an Olympic caliber athlete. As the body must be forged into a place of athletic strength and prowess, so too the soul must trained and forged into one of virtue. But how? The soul must pursue something of greater value than the things the flesh desires.
Given our sinful condition, we are all slaves, all dominated by the cravings of the flesh. We not only want to gratify the flesh, but are guided by what it wants. This enslaves us from within even when we think we are free. It dominates our thoughts and feelings. Compulsion builds the slavery of habit and at the same time encourages other people to control us because they fear our instability. It leads us to idolize the things of this world if only they will fill our desires. The antidote to this is not self-improvement, but faith.
Faith is ultimately a question of allegiance. We’ve been called by God to act like God in this world. The more we obey God the more we will resemble Him. The idols of the ancient world, the gods they represented, were always connected to a real human desire: protection, strength, fertility, good fortune, and so on. We’ve never stopped looking to things in creation to provide for us, fulfill us, gratify us, empower us, approve of us, or comfort us in our desires, passions, and cravings. Jesus never feared we would serve nothing. He took His time to show and tell us we cannot serve more than one thing. This is not only because He alone deserves our praise, but because our idolatry harms us. Idols can only offer the kind of counterfeit and diminishing pleasures that leave us perpetually hungry; they won’t point us to anything higher than the flesh. They are like Pharaoh: they give us no rest, but constantly demand more while giving us less. In contrast, real freedom means to be dependent only on what is greater than ourselves and to give ourselves over to nothing which God has told us to govern.
Far too often we say “I had no choice.” But we gave ourselves over to our craving for security and then we looked to our job, our marriage, or the approval of others for that security. And then we felt we had to protect that idol by paying whatever cost it demanded—dishonesty to please a employer; adultery when our spouse wouldn’t give us the approval we desired; gossip when we felt insecure in our circle of friends. We boxed ourselves in, led ourselves along the path of sin, by giving the idol a monopoly on providing liberation and salvation. We did all this because we decided that God was too risky an option for liberation and salvation.
Most of our idols are good things that have a real purpose in God’s creation, but when we make these created things our gods, they can’t bear the weight. Not only will our idols not deliver us like God, but in the long run, they won’t even be able to deliver the very thing they claim to be. Even idols of good things, like children, work, health, love, or leisure, will crush us under the weight of our expectations. Our kids will resent us. Our hobbies will feel empty. Work will feel more like a prison than a blessing. It is a perennial truth that whenever we put something in the creation in the place of the Creator we ruin it, ourselves, and rob God of his rightful place. The real and final cost of idolatry is the loss of God, ourselves, and everything in creation.
Substance (5) - The Mind of Christ
Last week I wrote about how love is a summary of the law (Romans 13:10). If this is true, then to understand what love is we need to understand God’s written revelation to us; love is not an open category that we get to define. Rather love is a virtue, a habit grounded in a character that pursues and loves things that are good, true, and beautiful. But given our sinful condition, we are never going to understand love or be loving apart from God’s grace. In grace God does not just empower us to be able to engage in this or that loving act, He remakes us into His image so that we become loving.
The purpose of creation and redemption was always and is for us to receive the very thing (being like God) the snake claimed God was withholding. The devil claimed and continues to claim that God withholds from us, but God’s ultimate and final plan is for us to walk in “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16).
God desires that we know Him, but that means more than just mental assent. It means familiarity. It means having something in the bones of your character, attitude, and behavior. And this takes time.
The very first and fundamental step in growing in God is that we must trust the Trust-Worthy One. Our first parents failed to do this in the garden and all of us have failed since to truly trust God. That is why Christ lived the perfect life and died on our behalf. His perfect life not only paid for our sin, but opens the way for us to grow in godliness. To be formed in righteousness and holiness we must trust put our trust in God, not the wisdom of this world.
We need to remember that the wisdom of the world is ultimately futile because it failed to recognize Jesus as the rightful ruler. No religious leader, professional academic, or political leader recognized Jesus as God; instead, they crucified Him. In the same way, the world does not see or recognize the Gospel as the ultimate revelation of the wisdom of God. We cannot have the mindset of the world and see Christ as God.
But this seems impossible to the post-modern mind—is there really truth? And can we really know it? Gibson argues that our biggest problem is not that we cannot find the truth, but because of our sin we don’t truly want to find it. We say we are seeking the truth, yet we never obey the truth we already have and we ingeniously avoid the truths we don’t want to find.
Yet the Bible claims that there is Truth: He has revealed Himself to us and He sets us free. As Christians we are not only to have Christ in mind, but have the same mind as Christ. As we renew our minds in Christ we learn to appreciate the goodness of His mind, the beauty of His plans, and the nobility of all His work. We need all of this to feel a deep and devoted approval toward God’s will. We need not only to see it, but to love it.
This sounds great, but how do we get there? First we need to recognize that becoming like Christ is a gift of God and seek after and pray for this gift. Next we need to try to please God, to have faith that He is good and that His commands are good and truly try to follow Him in all things. We can’t do this alone, but His Spirit empowers us to do what He desires of us.
Substance (4) - Self-Sacrificial Love
Last week I wrote about how we need to “say goodbye” to worldliness. To use Christ’s words, “no man can serve two masters.” We cannot both seek Christ’s approval and the approval of men; we cannot simultaneously grow in Christ-like character and mange our image. Yet one of the challenges of growing in worldliness is that it is hard to recognize how and where we are worldly. A great example of this is our conception of love. There are many things we believe are loving that are not. How does happen?
When we are captured by worldliness, we make Jesus look like us while saying we are becoming more like Him. God has given us not only the Gospels, but twenty-four other books in the New Testament and 1,500 years of divine revelation before Christ. God went to great lengths to keep us from misunderstanding Jesus. We must not only read the Gospels, but all of scripture.
However, in desiring to become more like Jesus we must not confuse this pursuit with the free gift of salvation—becoming like Jesus does not make God love us and it does not make us worthy of His salvation. God has already defeated sin, death, and with them guilt, shame, and punishment. That is God’s free gift. God has saved us from these things. If we are in Christ, we must ask: what is he saving us for? What does God desire to transform us into?
Paul says that love fulfills the law, which implies that the content of love is a summary of the law. In other words, contrary to contemporary opinion love is not an open category for us to define as we feel or like. There are certain words and actions that are unloving that we must refrain from, no matter how we feel and there are certain things that love requires of us, even when we don’t feel loving. This may seem harsh, but only strong things can ground people in the midst of their weakness, anger, pride, bitterness, fear, and pain.
True love requires much of us. In order to love us God sacrifices much. For example, He forbears against our constant and countless insults against His divine Majesty. In the same way to love others we must sacrifice our dignity, our “rights”, our time, energy, and resources.
Ultimately it is only in God that we can understand what love is. God’s commands are always examples of love and their reverse is always unloving. If someone calls something love that violates a commandment, then we know that something is distorted; it is not truly love.
But what is love? Love is a virtue, a habit embedded in our character grounded in something far better and higher than us. Love is not mere feeling. Rather love produces feelings and motivates good and noble actions. Love consistently chooses what is best for others—not what we or even they want. To truly love therefore we must know what is good and pursue it consistently. None of us does this perfectly, but God’s Spirit empowers us to truly grow in true love.
Substance (3) - Saying Goodbye
Last week I wrote about how the world has become more “worldly”. This is in large part due to the fact that technology addicts us to the shallowest experiences of human instinct and self-gratification.
Yet if we are to follow Jesus we need to say goodbye to all other paths, to all the lesser things that numb our cravings for greater things. Yet we are not to leave the world. We are to be completely set apart from the world in godliness, while being entirely embedded in the world for its redemption. To do this we need to discern the ways in which the world is subtly influencing us.
How are we subtly influenced by worldliness? Gibson asks us to consider the idea of dreams. According to him, our obsession with pursuing dreams is borderline insane. We often don’t consider whether our dreams are worth pursuing (and most dreams are very shallow, centered on ways to gain us recognition or happiness). We also have a tendency to fixate on our precise dream in a way that inhibits us from pursuing the good opportunities God puts before us.
Instead of specific dreams Gibson encourages us to develop “imaginations”. Imagination helps to create possibilities that can be easily discarded. This allows us to expand our mental horizons of what is good and worth pursuing without being debilitated when things don’t work out as we plan (and they rarely do!!!).
Ultimately, if we are to grow as people we don’t need a “dream”, we need to know and obey God’s revelation. We need a character formed God, not our own subjective, personal dreams. Think about Joseph: God used Joseph’s character to bring about his dream. Dreams and visions are good exercises, but bad gods. Without profound substance they tend to be unrealistic, narcissistic, self-important messes of idealism run amok that disappoint us, debilitate our expectations, and hurt others. They tempt us to use sin and worldly means to bring them about
Self-esteem or self-worth is another false pursuit that has influenced many of us. The type of self-worth we have and how we acquire it and the kind of character to which it is bound determines whether self-esteem will be a good thing or a bad thing. Kids with high self-esteem bully, get pregnant, do drugs, commit crimes, and so on at the same rate as young people with low self-esteems. Our self-worth must come from a larger truth about both selves and worth. And this truth is not found in this world.
We must decide if we are going to manage our image or develop a character that deserves approval. The two are exclusive. To build our lives on the image we construct is to build a house out of sand that will inevitably come crashing down. But when we seek God He works in things we cannot control to build the type of character that we need to accomplish His plans and purposes, purposes that both glorify Him and work for our good and the good of others.
Substance (2) - Worldliness in a Changing World
In last week’s post I wrote about the seeming contradiction between what Christ promises and many of us feel like we are experiencing. Christ promises that ‘His burden is light and His yoke is easy and yet life seems really hard! He calls us to be “oaks of righteousness”, but we often feel weak.
According to Pastor Nic Gibson the reason many of us feel this way is worldliness. In chasing and longing after the things of this world we have allowed thorns and thistles to grow up in our lives and these choke out the fruit of the Gospel. The solution isn’t to “try harder”, but to be sanctified and overcome worldliness in Christ.
We are in the midst of a terribly trying time and I believe there is no better time to train our hearts to rely more fully and completely on Christ. In this message I’ll talk about some of the specific issues we face in the contemporary world (not so much with Corona, but the world as it has been the past few years.)
People have always worried about the young and “our changing times”. Yet many of these worries and the solutions they lead to are superficial (e.g. we worry that kids are too obsessed with social media “likes” and that this causes them to obsess about self-image or do dumb things. But when in human history have young people not been concerned with image and when have they not acted foolishly in the hopes of gaining popularity?) Wisdom directs us to dive deeper. Wisdom asks questions like: what is changing, why is it changing, what is the spirit of the times, and how do we respond with discernment?
According to Gibson, the world has changed. The world has become more worldly. Why? Modern technology addicts us to the shallowest experiences of human instinct and self-gratification. We play video games and watch TV instead of talking to friends, spouses, or children. These addictions distract us from developing our higher gratifications. It is not that these things are evil, they are banal and shallow and when we engage in them we become shallow and banal.
What is more, we’ve also silenced are warning sirens. Much of our wealth and energy is put into developing systems and technologies designed to save us from the natural consequences of our wickedness and foolishness—e.g. we take pills to help us with our bad health because we refuse to eat healthy and be disciplined in our exercise.
We are also becoming more interested in self-esteem, sensual gratification, social engineering, personal dreams and visions, and unrestrained consumption. At the same time we’ve become less concerned with faith, virtue, wisdom, self-discipline, productivity, perseverance, godliness, fraternity, humility, hope, prudence, and self-sacrificial love. Taken together this has made us shallow, vaporous, unstable, and brittle.
As a society we think that old teachings are out-of-date—why memorize proverbs or learn wisdom? What can Solomon or Moses tell us, they lived in a different world? Why do we even need to submit to reality if we can control it?
The claims of the world often feel ‘more real’ than Biblical truths because we have so deeply absorbed them. The secular worldview is so pervasive it never has to justify itself. It is in the air we breathe; we are as unaware of it as a fish is the water it swims in. In order to escape worldliness we must learn to recognize it.
But the more we live in the world and give ourselves over to worldly desires the less capable we are of recognizing worldliness! Giving in to the flesh makes us intense, yet shallow, forceful, yet fragile. Knowing only worldly pleasures we think that really following Christ will mean a loss of all pleasure. But Godliness is not the denial of desire, but rather the transformation of our desires into their most substantial, vibrant, and beautiful forms. This is Christ’s desire for us.
Substance (1) - Introduction
God is sovereign: nothing happens without His purpose, permission, and limitation. Right now we can’t see God’s purpose in allowing the majority of our students to be prohibited from meeting in-person. But we know from His Word that He is always working for our good and His glory. Think of Joseph’s enslavement and imprisonment or the years David lived as a fugitive—we serve the same God and as He was with them in difficulty so is He with us now.
God doesn’t take away all our troubles, but He is present in them all (Psalm 91:15). What is more, He uses the difficulties we encounter in this fallen world to make us more like Him. If we saw Christ’s beauty fully we would realize that He is indeed the Pearl of Great Price and though we lose all to gain Him we still gain all. If we had eyes to see God as He truly is we would be able to consider all our trials “pure joy”, knowing that they can help us to become more like Him for there is nothing more beautiful or worthwhile than becoming more like the Beautiful and Holy One.
As many of you know I write weekly messages centered around our four distinctives (Gospel-Centered, Classical, Collaborative Learning, and Joyful Discovery). The goal of these messages is to deepen your understanding of what we do as a school and why we do it as well as to empower you to flourish in your dual roles of co-teacher and parent.
I am going to start this year with a series on how we as Christians can grow, and how we as parents can hep our children to grow, in substance. In writing these weekly messages I will be relying on the book Substance by Nic Gibson. (Nic Gibson serves as a pastor at High Point Church.) Substance is designed to help people grow in sanctification. A core assumption of this book is that godliness is an integral part of God’s great gift of liberation and freedom—i.e. Christ did not come only to save us from sin, death, and damnation but for something as well. He died so that we can be like Jesus—so that we can live lives of moral beauty, strength, and goodness.
But if this is true, why are many of us not experiencing this promise? Jesus said that we would feel like we were living unfruitful lives when our faith is strangled by worldliness. Worldliness is the source of many of our feelings of despair, dissatisfaction, and fear.
In discussing worldliness it is important to remember that worldliness is not simply a desire to appease the flesh. Legalism/moralism is a kind of worldliness. The legalist is trying to get what he wants by obeying the rules rather than through rebellion and lawlessness. But he too puts the goods of the world above Christ. By making anything in creation an end in itself is to put on it a burden that it was never designed to bear. Christ may be our savior, but as long as we put our hopes for happiness or security in things of this world, we make them into false “saviors” and they will do nothing but let us down.
According to Gibson, the solution to our fear, anxiety, despair and dissatisfaction is not the mere removal of these things or “trying harder”, but overcoming them in Christ. According to Gibson, “Jesus makes his yoke light by making us strong.” Christ desires that we be “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3). To a mature oak tree, every burden is light.
The first step to becoming an oak in Christ is to admit that we are not one. This is hard! It is hard for us to admit when we are fragile, but there can be no growth without humility grounded in the truth.
Reflecting Back on This Year
As we reflect back on this year it is tempting to think about all that we have missed and lose sight of the good. Much of what I have read about the impact of the virus focuses on the more exceptional and superficial things we have lost—“we can’t go out to dinner and a movie what are we to do?!?” But I think the changes have hit most of us more deeply than this.
For example, even though we are with our kids more often, we can’t integrate them into the normal rhythms of life. Right now we are planting a family garden. We went to the garden store this weekend to let the kids pick some things out only to find that no one under the age of 16 is allowed in the garden center, not even in the outdoor area. Or some of you may have had the experience of trying to buy a new pair of shoes (my son’s old shoes were letting in water through the soles) when you aren’t able to touch, try on, or return shoes. We currently are stuck with three new pair of shoes for our son and none of them fit well!
We also find ourselves kept from normal celebrations and milestones of loved ones—birthday parties, weddings, graduations. When good things happen to people we love it is moral to celebrate with them! But we can’t. As a result both their and our joy is diminished. (And when normal, healthy sources of joy are cut off it is far more tempting to turn to sinful counterfeits.)
Finally, we find our children completely bereft of normal socialization. Playgrounds are closed, playdates caput, and while our kids are getting a lot of sibling time, their ability to interact with new people has been severely diminished. I worry about how my youngest son is going to transition into Kindergarten this year if he is kept from normal socialization through this summer!
I of course could go on. But my goal isn’t to complain or focus on the negatives, rather I want to simply give expression to what all of us are feeling in some way and to some degree: you are not alone in your fear and frustration!
I also want to affirm that though this is a bad situation God is using it to bring about good things.
Consider patience. I doubt there is a single one of us who has not come to recognize the limits of our patience. A lot of how we control our temper is by controlling our environment—we can no longer do that! Instead we find ourselves cooped up, surrounded by kids bouncing off the walls, and all the while our kids (how do I put this delicately?) often don’t pick up on the subtle signals that mom and dad put out when they are under stress. No one would choose this, but here we are and it is a great opportunity for us to grow in patience!
Likewise, every single one of us has experienced fear and anxiety to some degree. Whether it is fear of the virus, fear for our business and livelihoods, fear of the government’s growing authority—all of us have experienced fear to some degree. Though fear is not good, it can be a prompt, a spiritual cattle prod, that leads us to repentance of our self-sufficiency and repentance of the foolish trust we put in things and people so that we may trust more deeply in Christ.
Finally, this time has forced many of us to reevaluate how and where we are investing our time and money. Are youth sports worth all the effort we put into them? In some cases yes, in some no. Only one of my kids knows how to swim—I really want them all to learn how to swim this summer and I hope they can! Yet we have found better alternatives to some of the other organized activities I had them involved in. As we can longer go out and “shop for fun”, many of us have been challenged to consider what it is that we really need and what we are buying out of a sense of boredom or to create some purpose that we should find elsewhere. Most of us don’t revaluate our life in deep and meaningful ways unless we are forced to. And here we find ourselves forced to do just that!
As we think through all the ways we can be growing during this time it is easy to despair. You may be thinking, “great, not only did this time suck, but I am less patient, more fearful, and compulsively spending on Amazon instead of at Target!” That is how all of us feel in some way and to some degree. And this leads us to the greatest opportunity yet, something that, Lord willing, we’ll be able to model and pass on to our children. We have the opportunity to trust in Christ’s atoning work more deeply. The solution to sin and failure isn’t self-improvement; it is Christ! Here we have gone through this difficult time that we could have used to grow in character and not one of us did it perfectly! And that is ok!!! Christ didn’t just die for our sins of commission, but also our sins of omission—He lived the life that all of us should have lived but never can and never will. And we can rest in that. Even now. Especially now. Though we are faithless; He is faithful. He is the answer to our impatience and fear as well as our failure to respond well to difficulty. We will never model perfection to our children, but we can always model repentance from sin and faith in Christ.
This year didn’t go the way that any of us desired. Our plans have been frustrated time and again. But God’s plans cannot and will not be frustrated. As the world around us grows darker, the light of Christ grows brighter! While I am looking forward to a return to normalcy, I am also eager to see the good things that God will bring out of this time of trial.
Our Approach to Next Year
A lot of you are probably wondering what school is going to look like next year. Right now we are in the process of putting together a protocol to ensure that we are doing what we can to keep our community safe while also ensuring that our students get the education that they need and that you all desire. When it comes to the details of our plans, a lot of what we will be able or have to do will be dependent upon state mandates that have not yet been announced. We, like all the other area Christian schools, will open when we can and will comply with state law, but what that law will look like is at this time unknown (as I am typing this I see that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled against the extension of Governor Evers’s ‘Safer at Home’ order. But it looks, as I understand it, as if their order will be stayed for six days and in the interim Dane County has issued its own order. I am not sure what all this means yet, but I will continue to follow it and watch for new developments.)
This being said, I think that we all recognize that our collective response to this virus has in many places divided our country. My hope and prayer is that this virus will not divide our school. Our mission and our vision have not changed, but the circumstances in which we pursue and live them out have. These circumstances will not last forever, but for the time being we need to learn to deal wisely with them.
I have put together a short video (https://www.dropbox.com/s/lttpy8zm2q89efc/Approach%20to%20Next%20Year.MP4?dl=0) in which I talk about the approach, the posture, that I hope we will all adapt. No matter what decisions we make as a school, some of you will want us to do more and some of you less. And that is ok—godly people can disagree and nonetheless find a way to remain in fellowship with one another. If we walk with grace and patience and mutual forbearance; if we listen in love and defer to one another in humility; if we trust in God and seek to honor Him in all our thoughts, words, and acts, this can be a great year no matter what we face! But if we interpret our school policy through political lenses we’ll drag the division and disfunction that we see all around us into our school and we will set ourselves up for frustration and failure. My prayer is that we will not be divided by what is passing and temporary (e.g. the virus and our response), but will be united in what is lasting and high above us, namely Jesus Christ.
Thank you for your time. You know it is a good video message when the Headmaster discusses The Thirty Years’ War, plastic straws, and Thomas Jefferson. Please let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part XI) - Chapter 9: Make America an Idea Again
Senator Sasse foresees three challenges in the near future:
1) Accelerating technologies are going to make a lot of current jobs disappear. 2) The coming-of-age crisis that he's discussed in this book. 3) The fact that in times of economic disruption we see the rise of people who offer quick fixes, nativist campaigns, and more centralized powers as a way out.
In other words, he believes we need to solve the second so that the first does not bring about the third. If we want to avoid tyranny, if we want to avoid discipline and control from without, we must become self-disciplined and self-controlled.
Right now only a third of US adults know the three branches of the federal government. People who cannot identify the branches of government are probably equally hard-pressed to explain the roles of the different branches. (Over one third can't even name one branch of our government.) 85% of US citizens cannot define "the rule of law"; 82% can't name at least two of the three "unalienable rights" listed in the Declaration of Independence, and 71% aren’t aware that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
And yet though many people don't understand our government far too many people find their ultimate meaning within politics. This is backwards. The government exists so that we can find joy and happiness outside of it.
Sasse believes we need to return to foundational ideas and character traits that made America great. What makes America great? Sasse, building on Tocqueville, says that it is not our government, not our bureaucracies, and not our politicians. What makes America great is the existence of many small, voluntary associations wherein people build their lives together: things like churches, the Rotary club, and this school. Our system encourages individualism, which in turn discourages people from fully participating in public life. Without local communities to connect to, places that create a shared sense of civic purpose, we will drift toward materialism. Materialism makes people shallow and vapid, unable to embrace hard work and face challenges head on. This is what we are seeing happening. And according to Sasse, if this continues to happen we will lose something great.
Ben Sasse believes that ultimately our national destiny depends less on what happens in Washington and more on what we do at home. If we want to live in a free and virtuous society we must raise our children so that they value and are able to embrace both freedom and virtue. We must teach them to read and to embrace hard work; we ought to encourage them to travel and show them that consumption does not lead to happiness. This will help them to live better, happier lives and it will create a society where virtue and human flourishing can advance together.
This concludes this series. I hope you have found these messages edifying.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part X) - Chapter Eight: Build a Bookshelf
Allan Bloom: the failure to read good books both narrows people's vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency: the belief that the here and now is all there is.
America was founded deliberately by people who believed in heaven and hell, who thought about rights and responsibilities, and that considered what type of society would promote virtuous living by serious thinking. What we read, or don't read, still drives not only what we believe but also how we engage with each other and how we make decisions about our future. Living in a republic demands a great deal of us. Among the responsibilities of each citizen one is keeping ourselves sufficiently informed so that we can participate effectively, argue our positions honorably, and, hopefully, forge sufficient consensus to understand each other and then to govern. Critical reading skills are not a luxury, but rather a necessity for responsible adults and responsible citizens. America's future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes.
Ben Sasse relates a time when a friend of his asked, "what books do you want your kids to have read by the time they leave home?" In response, he and his wife created a list that they now constantly update. He encourages all parents to think through what type of wisdom and knowledge they want to pass down to their children.
Becoming truly literate requires work. Reading done well is not a passive activity, like sitting in front of the screen. It requires attention, engagement, and active questioning. But our culture of the “ever present” conspires to blunt our curiosity and distract us from sustained thought. The average American now reads only 19 minutes per day. According to Sasse, this is a threat to our republic. Great books create a shared community with those who have read them, discussed them, and argued about them. In contrast with our age of short attention spans Sasse discusses the Lincoln-Douglass debates. Back when Lincoln and Douglas debated, they would speak for hours without interruptions, and then would proceed to rebut one another. At one point Douglas spoke for three hours uninterrupted. In another debate, Lincoln suggested a break so that the audience could go home, eat dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. We no longer have the habits, that is the attention span, that comes with concentrated, uninterrupted reading that makes debates like this conceivable, let alone pleasurable.
Sasse ends the chapter by sharing a list of books that he has found helpful. I'm not going to repeat this list, but I will say many of them are books that your sons and daughters will read if they continue on at this school.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part IX) - Chapter Seven: Travel to See
Senator Sasse believes that, like hard work, travel can challenge and transform us. It can create empathy. It can create challenges for young people to overcome. Sasse quotes Edward Gibbon’s description of a good traveler. "He should be endowed with an active, indefatigable vigor of mind and body, which can seize every mode of conveyance, and support with a careless smile every hardship of the road, the weather, or the inn. It should stimulate him with a restless curiosity, covetous of time and fearless of danger, which drives him forth at any hour of the day or night, to brave the flood, to climb the mountain, or to fathom the mine, on the most doubtful promise of entertainment or instruction.”
In our increasingly connected and democratic world it is possible for people to travel to more places more economically than ever before. Yet Sasse recommends that we reject consumer tourism. In his words, "nobody's life is ever greatly changed by spending a week on the beach in Cancun." He advises us to be active, not passive travelers. An active traveler searches for people, adventure, and experience. Indeed, the old English word “travel” has the same root as the word travail, which means trouble, work, or torment. The goal of travel should be to do something laborious, troublesome, something meaningful. On the other hand the passive tourist expects interesting things to happen to him.
Travel done right takes one out of one’s comfort zone and offers one the chance to see the world with new eyes. One begins to think, “do I really need so much stuff when I seem to be freer when I'm away from it?”
Traveling with kids can help them to grow and mature by forcing them to make decisions, to reflect and summarize on things they discover, and by requiring them to help plan the trip.
What is more, people that are well-traveled tend to be more mentally flexible, not tied to one approach or solution. They tend to be calmer under pressure and thus able problem-solvers. Traveling can help us to conquer the fear of the unknown, to see beyond instinctive prejudice, and to look at things more deeply. It can help us learn to be less upset about minor inconveniences and see beyond social convention.
Finally, the more time you spend in other cultures the clearer it becomes that most things and phases you thought important aren’t terribly important after all. Indeed, many people reorder their lives after experiencing extreme poverty. Travel has also helped many to overcome prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Done rightly, travel should awaken a desire to read history and geography and economics.
Ben Sasse recommends living somewhere for two months, if you can. He says we should consider having our children take a semester off of high school to live with a relative and work a job, preferably doing something with their hands. While a lot of these suggestions may not be possible to embrace, Sasse says that even visiting a new part of the city or a new town with an “active traveler mindset” can help us and our children to grow.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part VIII) - Chapter Six: Consume Less
In another chapter perfectly fitting the current crisis, Senator Sasse writes that we need to teach our children to exercise self-control in what they consume and train them to seek happiness in non-material things.
He says that we must draw a firm line between things that help us to survive, to learn, to live a fulfilling life, and those that are merely wants. We need to teach our children this by not over-consuming ourselves. We also need to consciously instruct our children how to resist the strong forces in our advertising and popular culture that push us in the direction of immediate and over-gratification. Instead we need to teach our children self-denial and deferred gratification. The idea of limitless acquisition is a soulless idea; limits are real and often good.
There are many people that have uncritical views of consumerism. They fail to ask whether our affections are rightly ordered, whether all of our appetites are necessarily healthy. Instead they think: whatever makes you happy is good.
This is leading to economic hardship for many people. 30% of Americans today are not credit worthy. A lot of this is due to technology that allows us to buy things quickly. A sandwich beyond the reach of kings is now available to us by the push of a button on a phone.
Markets are good. Poverty rates have fallen faster than even the most optimistic writers and thinkers predicted a century or even 50 years ago. Yet despite the expansion of our wealth and leisure Americans report being less happy than they were 50 years ago. This is because we are looking to things to make us happy. They never will. If the unexamined life is not worth living, neither is a life of passive material appetites.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part VII) - Chapter 5: Embrace Work Pain
Productivity is essential to human flourishing. We often fail to see this. Among our young there is an outsized sense of entitlement without any corresponding notion of accountability. This is because we often see freedom the wrong way. Ben Sasses was president of a college for five year. While there he conducted a survey wherein he asked students what they enjoyed the most. They said things like partying, sleeping in, skipping class, and so on. Almost nowhere did student surveys reveal that they had eyes to see “freedom to” categories like the freedom to read, to learn, to be coached, and to be mentored.
What is more, there is a fetish with authenticity among the young that hinders their ability to mature. Many young people think it is "fake" to act mature. But it is not fake to begin imitating desired behavior even before it is a full and fair representation of who you are in the moment. That is the only way people grow.
In sum, our kids view freedom the wrong way and don’t know how to mature. A lot of this is because they haven’t been exposed to work that would train them to see the value of being productive and show them how to grow and mature. Whereas young people in the past used to be trained in trades, our young people now spend a lot of their time in organized games (sports). Both parents often work and there is no energy to train kids to work at home. As a result kids aren't learning anything useful and helpful, but rather things that tend to increase their own pride and vainglory. Sasse believes that instead of putting fun first, we ought to put work first. Our children live in a world of celebrity driven pop culture, secularism, consumerism, and hyper-sexuality. Much of American life seems to be focused on the goal of finding more efficient ways to shirk responsibilities. But the fact is, nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty. We need to teach our children to swim upstream. We need to teach them to learn how to embrace suffering and to embrace difficulty. We need to teach our kids that hard work, not the absence of work, will help to make them happy and good.