jasonbwatson

July 28, 2016

Battling Porn

This post contains mature content that may be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Pornography is not topic that many people are comfortable talking about in an honest and forthright manner. Many people do not like to talk about it at all–at least not many people outside of a locker room or frat house gathering. For many years the church was not willing to take about it at all in any constructive manner, by which I mean saying anything beyond “it’s bad, don’t do it” (or something even more directly threatening and minimally helpful). That has changed some in recent years with Stephen Arterburn’s The Every Man Series of books, Clay Crosse’s honesty in his 2005 book I Surrender All: Rebuilding a Marriage Broken by Pornography and others. In my November 6, 2015 post Not-So-Good News I explained that the announcement that Playboy would no longer publish nude images in its magazine was good news but actually indicative of the ease with which nudity and all manner of sexual activity is now available to just about anyone just about anywhere thanks to the internet. That post also addressed some of the high costs of pornography.

In April 2016 TIME ran a cover story on the subject entitled “PORN,” with the “o” depicted as a red circle with an X in the middle of it. Belinda Luscombe’s article was subtitled “Why young men who grew up with Internet porn are becoming advocates for turning it off.” The article consumed five-and-a-half pages of the magazine (not including a two-page photo and headline introducing the story) and included a graph showing that there were 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult internet sites in February 2006, which equated to 34.7% of all U.S. internet users. Broadband internet had just reached 50% of Americans that year. in January 2016 there were 107 million monthly visitors to adult internet sites, accounting for 41.3% of all U.S. internet users. The graph also showed that in 2009 there were 22.3 billion video views on the adult video-sharing site Pornhub. In 2015 that number was 87.8 billion. In 2016 Pornhub launched a virtual reality channel.

I already told you what TIME‘s cover said for the April 11 issue. The cover page of the article, though, reads this way:

Porn and the threat to virility.” The subtitle says, “The first generation of men who grew up with unlimited online porn sound the alarm.” The lead to the story introduces Noah Church, “a 26-year-old part-time wildland firefighter in Portland, Ore. When he was 9, he found naked pictures on the Internet. he learned how to download explicit videos. When he was 15, streaming videos arrived, and he watched those. Often. Several times a day, doing that which people often do while watching that genre by themselves.

The article then informs the reader that it did not take too long before those videos no longer aroused Church as much as they used to, “so he moved on to different configurations, sometimes involving just women, sometimes involving one woman and several guys, sometimes even an unwilling woman.” Church stated that he could find anything he could imagine as well as plenty that he could not imagine. Eventually the appeal and arousal from those diminished as well, and “he moved on ot the next level, more intense, often more violent.”

This is a truth that has been too often ignored over the years–that pornography is like a drug. Plenty of studies show that it has a similar effect on the brain as drug use and that, over time, the effect is diminished, requiring the user to find something stronger and more arousing in order to get the same result achieved previously. In other words, porn works just like gateway drugs which progress to stronger and more dangerous ones. Can use of porn eventually result in death, like a drug overdose? No. It could, I imagine, result in the user killing someone else as a result of acting out what was seen in the pornography or seeking to achieve a thrill by making what was fantasy a reality. I think there are a number of such stories that could be found with little effort.

The TIME article goes on to explain that when Church finally had the opportunity to “have actual sex” during his twelfth-grade year, his body would not respond. “There was a disconnect between what I wanted in my mind and how by body reacted,” he said. That was the segue into the article’s discussion of PIED–porn-induced erectile dysfunction. I had never before heard of this term or condition but, unlike some new medical diagnoses that seem to be fancy made-up terms that serve as excuses for something that is simply a matter of a lack of discipline or some other easily-corrected behavioral issue, this seems to be legitimate. I can easily imagine how regular, increasingly-graphic and extreme exposure to pornography can have a very real impact on the brain and, thus, on the rest of the body.

Luscombe describes the PIED progression like this:

A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.

While there are more publications–Christian and secular–openly addressing the dangers of pornography now, there is still confusion and conflicting information. The increasing availability of studies and professionals willing to address the dangers of porn are countered by plenty of studies and professionals willing to state the opposite. Just last November, for example, Dr. Sandra LaMorgese posted a blog on The Huffington Post that included the following:

Studies have shown no increase in rape or other sexual deviance due to porn viewing. There is also no apparent connection between excessive porn viewing and sex addiction. In fact, it might be good for you if used properly: a 2008 Danish study found that moderate porn watching gave viewers some benefits. Both men and women who did so said they had more satisfying sex lives and healthier attitudes towards sex and the opposite gender. One interesting find was that the more hardcore the videos were, the more positive the person’s view on sex tended to be.

Now, LaMorgese’s byline includes the, shall we say interesting, description that she is “Author, Podcast Host, Sexpert, Metaphysician, Keynote Speaker, Holistic Practitioner, Ordained Reverend” so maybe her thoughts on The Huffington Post are not the best source. Fair enough. How about this from TheHealthSite.com in February 2014:

In the last decade or so, it’s become quite fashionable for people to throw around big words like dopamine addiction and blame everything from the rise of sex crime to erectile dysfunction on porn. However, research suggests that sex addiction is not similar to cocaine or alcohol addiction, in fact there’s no proof that it reflects any unique brain-related issue at all. A study which looked to prove sex addiction was an illness, actually found the opposite. A new study claims that there really is no such thing as porn addiction and those who say it actually ignore the positive benefits of porn. The study has found very little scientific data to suggest that porn actually even causes any negative side-effects. ‘There was no sign that use of pornography is connected to erectile dysfunction or that it causes any changes to the brains of users,’ explained David Ley, a clinical psychologist and executive director of New Mexico Solutions – a large behavioural health programme.

In a 2010 post on the Psychology Today web site entitled “Pornography: Beneficial or Detrimental?” the findings of a 2008 paper written by Gert Martin Hald and Neil M. Malamuth are summarized like this:

In their survey of 688 young Danish adults (men = 316; women = 372), Hald and Malamuth found that respondents construed the viewing of hardcore pornography as beneficial to their sex lives, their attitudes towards sex, their perceptions and attitudes towards members of the opposite sex, toward life in general, and over all. The obtained beneficial effects were statistically significant for all but one measure across both sexes. Now here is the kicker: A positive correlation was obtained between the amount of hardcore pornography that was viewed and the impact of the benefits reaped. This positive correlation was found for both sexes. In other words, the more that one watched porn, the stronger the benefits (for both sexes)!

And, in a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times Candida Royalle began with the statement “Watching pornography is not inherently harmful to men or women.” She went on to provide some potential benefits derived from the use of pornography before also saying of sex or porn addiction, “I don’t believe in it.” In the same online debate in which Royalle offered her opinion, Ana Bridges, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas played Tevye by writing, “Can pornography harm users? Yes, in some cases it can, but in the vast majority of cases it does not. Can pornography be beneficial? Absolutely, but many times it is not.” In the same debate, Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, headlined her opinion piece “Pornography Can Be Empowering to Women Onscreen.”

I mention all of this to make sure that we understand that, despite the increasing prevalence of voices opposing porn and exposing its negative effects, there still are–and always will be–those who say that’s all a bunch of baloney and porn is harmless and worst and beneficial at best. We can never hope that the world is going to reach the conclusion that something that sin is sin. In my previous blog post linked above I stated that “only a heart change can cause someone to realize that genuine relationships with real people are more meaningful and more satisfying than the fake interactions made possible through porn.” That remains true. There may be movements within the world that oppose porn and offer solutions for porn addictions, and those can be beneficial. Luscombe’s article provides a number of examples, describing “online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos to help men quit porn” all of which are being created by men who have traditionally been “from the same demographic as [porn’s] most enthusiastic customers.” Noah Church, with whom Luscombe led her article, now “devoted about 20 hours a week to trying to help others eliminate porn from their lives.” Such efforts are admirable. Porn is not going to go away, and if you are a firm believer in free speech you may have a hard time even arguing that it should, but there are still reasonable means for limiting its availability. Luscombe describes one such effort coming from Utah state senator Todd Weiler, who said, “We’ve changed how we’ve approached tobacco, not by banning it but by putting reasonable restrictions in place.” There are reasonable ways to limit the access of pornography from public places and to minimize the exposure of children and teenagers to pornography.

Even then, though, there will be real work for the church to do. There will still be a need for candor and uncomfortable conversations. There will still be a need to find ways to help those struggling with porn be willing to acknowledge that and work through it. There will need to be a change from the judgment and condemnation that has traditionally been associated with any discussion of this topic.

The articles in the August 2016 issue of Tabletalk magazine are devoted to the topic of addiction. They are not dealing specifically with porn addiction, but the principles and recommendations in the articles are relevant. The first article is by Ed Welch and is titled “Addictions and Idolatry.” His article begins like this:

“I want”–addictions start here. Then, though small steps, want becomes need. There is no recognized definition of addiction, but most of its proposed definitions share a common core. Addictions are compulsive searches for a desired object or state of mind that are generally unresponsive to the inevitable harmful consequences of those compulsive searches. Most definitions also include how addictive behaviors change underlying brain patterns.

That explains why porn is so prevalent and is not going away. The word says that sexual pleasure brings happiness and satisfaction and porn is one way to achieve that “desired object or state of mind.” Welch later writes that “We are able in Christ to do battle with old slavemasters rather than succumb to the inevitable.” Heath Lambert, in another article in the Tabletalk issue, writes, “God has made provision for enslaved addicts to follow a better master who brings freedom from slavery.” In yet another article, Michael Morales writes, “God’s Word calls us to flee our natural lusts, which would shackle us again, and to make every effort to progress in sanctification.” He goes on to explain, “The ‘putting off’ aspect relates to deliberate and disciplined mortification of sin, requiring both vigorous effort and sacrifice,” while “the ‘putting on’ aspect relates to training in godliness, the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.” My post Besetting Sins from earlier this month talks about these issues as well, and includes discussion about how to overcome sin.

May we who profess the name of Christ become bold in our willingness to acknowledge and confront issues like pornography and do it in a loving but uncompromising manner. May God grant us the willingness and surrenderedness to defeat sins like porn addiction and replace such “compulsive searches for a desired object or state” with “training in godliness” and “the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.”

February 3, 2016

Will you be my friend?

I was recently teaching my U.S. History students about life in the United States during the early 20th century. One of the points I made was the very close same-sex friendships were common at that time. Not coincidentally, I also explained that homosexual behavior was illegal at the time, even though there were urban areas where it was fairly common. This got me to thinking that close same-sex friendships seem fairly uncommon in 21st century America. I do wonder whether or not the increasing acceptance of homosexuality has anything to do with that, because there is no denying that those who are not homosexual may fear the perception of homosexual tendencies if they have very close–shall we say intimate (in the non-sexual, non-physical meaning)–same-sex friends. If that is the primary reason for the lack of such friendships that is another sad result of the increasing embrace of homosexual behavior and identity.

Still, I think there is more to the problem than that. I think it is far to say that there is very little instruction, in schools, churches or families, about what it means to be a friend. Sure, we teach broad-stroke lessons about being honest, sharing toys, not lying and so on, but, other than a series of devotionals on friendship that a colleague shared a few months ago, I cannot remember the last time I heard a message or a serious lesson on what it means to be a friend. Search “friendship” on Amazon.com and you will get some 86,500 results. Nearly 54,000 of those, however, are children’s books or works of fiction. Still, that leaves more than 32,000 books on the subject that do not fall into those categories. So what do those thousands of books have to offer?

Well, when I narrow down the results to the “Relationships” category and then request that the results be sorted according to “most reviews” the top results are the well-known How to Win Friends and Influence People (which is not exactly about deep, meaningful friendships), Tuesdays With Morrie (a heartwarming account of a specific friendship and the impact it had on Mitch Albom but, again, not really a how-to book on friendship), Jane Austen’s Emma (which really should be in the fiction/literature category), Matched (a science fiction/fantasy novel also erroneously categorized), An Invisible Thread (which looks like it may be interesting, but along the same lines as Tuesdays), and Little Women (again, miscategorized). Among the top fifty results it appears to me that only two are possibly anywhere close to what I have in mind when I say a book about what it means to be a friend and to develop a deep, meaningful friendship. Both of those, by the way, are about relationships in general rather than the unique relationship of friendship in particular. The books I found in my search that seemed they were about friendships specifically were all targeted at friendship among women. I did finally find two books that are focused on male friendships, and while I have read neither the descriptions seem promising. They were Breaking the Male Code by Robert Garfield and Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendship by Geoffrey Greif. The only book I found in my search–which was not, I will grant, exhaustive–that seemed like it might be along the lines of what I was looking for without being gender specific was The Art of Being a Good Friend by Hugh Black. I may have to check that out.

Last November Janie B. Cheaney wrote, “Stranded in a landscape of ferocious individualism, with families and communities falling apart all around, it might be time for the church to develop a theology of friendship.” I think Cheaney is absolutely correct, and her terminology gave me another search term for my Amazon quest. Searching “theology of friendship,” however, did not yield much either. There were some results–320 to be exact–but most of them were about two friends exploring their differences, about the trials of “celibate gay Christians,” about friendship with Jesus and about specific friendships, such as with a disabled individual. There were a few books that looked they may come close to what I was hoping to find but it was obvious they were not all that popular. Martin Marty wrote a book in 1980 called, simply, Friendship. It is available from four different sellers for the staggeringly small sum of one penny and it is sitting around 2.8 million on the Amazon bestseller list. Gary Inrig’s 1988 book Quality Friendship, published in 1988, seemed like another possible match. There are six sellers offering it at one cent, but it is some 2.3 million places higher on the bestseller list than Marty’s book. I was curious if there were any recent books that might approximate what I was hoping to find and I discovered that Adam Holland’s Friendship Established was released just yesterday–in e-book only, it appears. Skimming the first five pages of results revealed nothing else.

Where to look next? Google, of course. There I found the work of a fellow WordPress blogger whose blog is entitled Resolution 28 (which comes from Jonathan Edwards). It included an excellent post entitled “Theology of Friendship.” The author of the blog, identified only as “bc,” wrote this:

Yet there is a gaping hole in the church’s theology of friendship. Some may not know what genuine Christian friendships are supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to feel like. Even more disconcerting is that many people know mentally what good, Christ-centered friendships are supposed to be like yet half-heartedly implement those concepts into their own lives. We often hear stories of Christians who hold grudges, gossip, and take advantage of each other–I’ve seen them and I’ve been a part of them–and often times those associated are the ones who attend church regularly!  It seems that too often our friendships are characterized by actions–the giving, the smiling, and the joking–and not enough by our heart for one another. It’s admittedly easy to act like friends on the surface level and it’s surprisingly difficult to be a genuine friend.

That shows tremendous insight, and is exactly along the lines of what I was feeling and hoping to find addressed elsewhere. It appears he wrote six posts in his series on the Theology of Friendship and I look forward to reading them.

I am no expert on friendship, that’s certain. I surely could have been a better friend on many occasions in my life. Another point “bc” made in his post excerpted above is that pride is the chief reason why there are not more deep, meaningful friendships among men in particular, and I am afraid he is right. After all, a deep and meaningful friendship–an intimate friendship–is one which requires transparency, vulnerability, honesty, patience, forgiveness and more. Indeed, intimate friendship requires many of the same things a successful marriage requires yet without the physical intimacy and without the formalized commitment. Therein, no doubt, is part of the problem–anyone can walk away from a “friend” at any time. There are no strings attached, no contracts to break. When the friend gets on your nerves, or when being his friend becomes unpopular, inconvenient or difficult, why bother? That probably sounds cynical but I would challenge you to reflect on your own life, the friendships you have had, and then tell me you cannot count yourself among the guilty.

While I am no expert on friendship, I am fortunate to claim a number of true friends. Not a lot, mind you, and I do not think it is all that reasonable to imagine that anyone can–should?–have an abundance of intimate friends. But these are friends whom I could tell anything, I think, without fearing that they would abandon me. In fact, I feel confident that, if necessary, they would challenge or confront me, telling me I need to get my act together. I can also say that at least once in my life I was decent enough to be that friend to someone else, and never once did I regret doing so. Sure, there were some awkward times when I was not sure what to say and when I was not sure how he would respond when I did say something, but our friendship endured. Endures.

It was same-sex friendships that got me thinking about this subject, but I am not convinced that intimate friends must be of the same sex. Sure, there are some potential dangers in having an intimate friend of the opposite sex, but the same can be true of same-sex friends. In fact, among my intimate friends I have both men and women. The nature of opposite-sex intimate friendships could no doubt be explored at length, and perhaps I will tackle that someday, too. But not today.

For now, I encourage you to think about whether or not you have any intimate friends and if not, why not. I encourage you, if you are a parent, to teach your children what it means to truly be a friend. If you are a pastor, I encourage you to consider preaching on friendship. If you are not a pastor, I encourage you to ask your pastor to preach on friendship. Oh, and no matter who you are, if you ever do find a really good book on friendship, please share the title with me.

Here’s to friends.

November 30, 2015

Mercy is Messy

For the past eleven years I have been in positions that entail enforcing rules and administering discipline for young people. There have been many times when I have wrestled with making the right decision in situations when disciplinary consequences were necessary, hoping and praying that I would make the right decision. Balancing justice and mercy is not easy to do. For some reason, though, a recent situation prompted me to wrestle with this matter even more than I have in the past, or at least more than I have in a long time. I probably spent the better part of three days mulling over how to handle a situation, praying for guidance and wisdom. Here’s the conclusion I reached after all that mulling: mercy is messy.

It is easy to make a decision to impose consequences. When in an institutional setting, there are almost always guidelines in place that inform discipline. Nothing could be easier than finding the offense and following your finger across the chart to the predetermined penalty. That requires no thinking at all, though; a computer or a robot could be programmed to do that. People are more complicated than that, though. And when you are enforcing discipline in a ministry that claims to be following Christ, it gets exponentially more complicated. God does not use a cookie cutter approach to discipline. He does not kick us out of His family when we blow it. He does not revoke our salvation. He does not eliminate the consequences of our actions, either, of course. There are often very real, even very painful, consequences for sin. Dallas Willard wrote, “If you choose to step off the roof, you cannot then choose not to hit the ground.” His point was that our actions and choices all have consequences, and we cannot opt to avoid the consequences after we have made our choice. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I do not want anything I am saying here to suggest that I think we should eliminate consequences. What I am saying, though, is that meaningful, effective, God-honoring consequences do not come in neat, clean packages.

Laura Coulter has written this: “I think when we aren’t being merciful, it’s because we aren’t seeing the wild mercy of God in our own lives. If we were, we couldn’t help but splash it everywhere we go, all over everything.” This is the rub, actually. When I stop and reflect on all of the mercy God has shown me, I am left wondering how in the world I could not show mercy to someone else. If being a Christian means being like Christ, showing mercy has to be an essential part of how I live my life. The reality, though, is it isn’t. I don’t really like mercy most of the time. When I have been offended or wronged or, let’s face it, even just irritated, I want justice. I want revenge. I want punishment inflicted and pain felt. I want to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth. I want to see fire fall from heaven and the offending party obliterated, blown into a billion tiny particles scattered across the universe. I want the offending party to get exactly what’s coming to him.

When I calm down and think about what I am really saying, however, I realize exactly how much like Jonah that sounds. Jonah got ticked off at God because He decided to show mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah wanted no part of mercy. He wanted to see cosmic destruction, up close and personal, from a front row seat on a hill overlooking town, enjoying the shade of a lovely plant that God provided for him. When God took away the plant and extended mercy on the Ninevites Jonah was so incensed he wanted to die. How many times have I read Jonah’s story and used him as a great example of the wrong kind of heart, the wrong kind of attitude? It’s not so fun when I look into the mirror of God’s Word and see Jonah staring back at me, though.

Being merciful means taking a huge risk. Multiple risks simultaneously, in fact. It means risking the comments that will come from others who see you as weak for not giving someone what they deserve. It means risking the behavior that others may engage in when they saw someone else “get away with it,” whatever “it” may have been. It means risking the possibility of having that mercy thrown back in your face by the very one to whom it was extended when, rather than seizing the opportunity to change his life, he decides instead to capitalize on the opportunity to do whatever he wants yet again. It means taking the risk of having to look back later and wonder if all of the trouble, headache and heartache that comes from the possibilities just enumerated could have been avoided by just saying “see ya” the first time someone messed up.

I have no idea if the decision I made in the instance that I alluded to at the start of this post will turn out well or not. It is too early to know for sure. I do know, though, that I have–for now anyway–peace about that decision. When I ponder why I have that peace I am left with a simple conclusion: if doing my best to treat someone the way God would treat them, I cannot be doing the wrong thing, even if it turns out to be a disaster. Phillip Holmes wrote recently on the grace of God, describing it like this:

God is neither motivated by his own sinfulness nor enabled by his ignorance. He is a holy and righteous God, completely void of sin and full of goodness and love. He’s never made a mistake and can do anything but fail. He is perfect in all his ways. If he were a doctor, he’d never lose a patient. If he were a lawyer, he’d never lose a case. There is no moral compass that could measure how upright and blameless he is.

Nevertheless, when we, his sinful and rebellious prodigal children, spit in his face, wallow in our sin, and grieve his Spirit, he calls us to repentance with open and loving arms saying, “Come home, child.”

He’s not ignorant of all the ways we’ve sinned against him. He knows everything we’ve ever done and is able to stomach it. His knowledge of who we really are will never hinder his love for us. He’s even aware of the evil behind our righteous deeds. The intimacy by which the Lord knows us but is able to lovingly embrace us as his children is supernatural. God’s grace is mind-blowing. Every time I think of this reality, I’m brought to tears because I serve a God whose love and grace baffle me.

I have to agree. God’s love and grace baffle me, too. So does His mercy. God gives me far more than I deserve, and, in His sovereignty, does not give me what I do deserve. I am not God. I am not perfect, I am not all-knowing and I surely make mistakes. I know all of that quite well. Here’s what else I know, though: If taking the opportunity to extend mercy to someone has even the slimmest chance of leading them to the Lord, or closer to the Lord, it’s worth it. Every time. All of the mess, the risk and the headache is worth it. I do not spend much time reading Rick Warren and I rarely quote him, but he got it right with his blog post on May 21, 2014 entitled “Don’t Be Reluctant to Show Mercy.” “The mercy God shows to us is the motivation for us to show mercy to others,” Warren wrote. That is certainly true, because in and of myself, there is no motivation for mercy. In and of myself I am just like Jonah. In and of myself I am like James and John in Luke 9–I want to call down fire from heaven. But I don’t really want to be like I am in and of myself. I want to be like Christ.

In a sermon entitled “Blessed Are the Merciful,” John Piper said the following about mercy:

[M]ercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, and has come to grief over its sin, and has learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord, and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need.

The mercy that God blesses is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like fruit in a broken heart and a meek spirit and a soul that hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.

The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the real feeling in your heart that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is imperative that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God.

That last sentence is a doozy, isn’t it? How transformational it is to understand that everything in our lives is “owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God”!

Importantly, Piper also points out that knowing when and how to show mercy is not easy. Note what he has to say…

If we ask, How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy? I would answer, by getting as close to Jesus as you possibly can. I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don’t think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide and exhaustive list of rules for every situation.

The beatitude says, “Blessed are the merciful,” not, “Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances.” We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice.

That’s an insightful reminder to end with, I think. It seems contradictory, but sometimes mercy does require the effective administration of swift justice. Guess where that leaves me, though? Exactly where I started–with the point that knowing what to do and when is difficult. Mind-taxing, heart-wrenching, time-consuming and just plain hard. Like I said…mercy is messy.

October 14, 2015

Choices (Part 2)

Christians need to have a predetermined mindset about what is and is not acceptable in their lives. They need to have decided-upon convictions that will enable them to make the right decisions. Some years ago the WWJD movement had folks wearing rubber bracelets with those letters, representing the question “What would Jesus do?” That’s a good question, and Christians should use that question as a filter in evaluating their own choices. However, Christians must already have the knowledge available to make the right decision when the time comes to make a decision. Effective, God-honoring decision making takes more than a conscience. The conscience is an important guide in decision making, but the conscience is really only a window or sky light–it serves only to let in light from our decided beliefs and convictions. In other words, conscience that is not informed by biblical principles will be a false guide.

What kinds of decisions am I talking about? Any decision, really. For the sake of the three principles I want to share now, though, think specifically about the influences you allow to enter into your mind through your eyes and ears–what you watch, what you listen to and who you hang out with. This includes movies, television shows, internet sites, video games, music and more. There are three tests that I believe will be helpful in making wise decisions.

First, there is the content test. Philippians 4:8 tells us what we should be thinking about. Ask yourself if the content you are filling your mind with is pleasing to the Lord. Is it helping you grow in your relationship with Him or is it hindering that relationship? I Thessalonians 5:22 tells us that we are avoid even the appearance of evil. I John 2:15-17 and James 4:4 tell is that loving the world means loving sin. Reflecting on these verses and using them as filters through which we evaluate our choices can help us to make God-honoring decisions.

Second, there is the control test. In I Corinthians 9:27 Paul writes that he disciplined his body in order to keep it under control. Some things may pass the content test but fail the control test. How? Because whatever controls us is sin. It becomes idolatry when we get fulfillment from anything other than God. Many people, quite frankly, worship themselves. Just a few chapters earlier, in I Corinthians 6, Paul writes that not everything that is permissible or acceptable is also beneficial. In the NIV translation of that verse Paul writes, “everything is permissible for me but I will not be mastered by anything.” We must be careful not to allow anything other than Holy Spirit to control our lives, thoughts ans actions.

Third, there is the clock test. Ephesians 5:15-16 tells us to redeem the time. In other words, we are to use our time wisely–to be good stewards of it. If we spend so much time on unnecessary and unbeneficial things that it takes us away from God then we have failed the clock test. Even those things which are good become bad if they are getting in the way of what is best. Again using the NIV translation, Ephesians 5:15-16 says we are to “making the most of every opportunity.”

So, next time you need to make a decision or evaluate some options, put the matter through these three tests. If it passes the content test, the control test and the clock test, the odds are quite high that the decision is a safe one to make. If, however, there is a failure in any of those tests there should be cause for concern. The should be careful evaluation and consideration given to whether or not that choice which failed the test is really the right one to make. Is it, in other words, really what Jesus would do?

October 1, 2015

Managing Time (Part 2)

So what are the standards against each of us should evaluate how we use our time? I believe they are as follows.

1. Do I have my priorities in order? Fishing or golfing or collecting stamps may be perfectly fine activities, but doing any of them when I am supposed to be working would not go over well with the boss and we all know that. That is why we do not pursue these activities while we are on the clock–at least not as long as we want to stay employed. That is because we know that our hobbies cannot take priority over our work. Why, though, do we sometimes allow our hobbies to take priority over our relationships with our family members or with the Lord? If I spend every Sunday morning fishing instead of going to church I am not going to get fired by God but my priorities are quite skewed. The same would be true, by the way, if I spent every Sunday morning sleeping in. Sleep is important, but not at the expense of my relationship with the Lord–and Scripture makes it clear that being an active member of a church is an important part of that.

2. Am I giving my best to whatever I am doing? If I apply myself fully to my work only when the boss is watching then I am not working as unto the Lord. If I put halfhearted effort into my job, my lawn, my laundry, my relationships or anything else then I must not be surprised when I get halfhearted results. Nor, by the way, should I be surprised if (1) I do not get satisfaction out of what I am doing and (2) I will not be doing it long if the “what I am doing” is paid employment. I worked for a while in a setting in which employees were eligible for bonuses based on their annual performance evaluations. It boggled my mind that some people thought they were entitled to a just for doing exactly what they had been hired to do. If you’re one of these delusional individuals then I need to let you know: “bonus” means extra. Beyond the minimum. More than required. In other words, expect not a bonus for doing only what thou hast been hired to do. If you are not doing the best that you can in whatever it is you are doing then you are not maximizing your time. Notice, by the way, that I did not say “if you are not the best at whatever you are doing.” By definition there can only be one “best.” But each of us can do our best at whatever it is we do.

3. Do I have a realistic understanding of “my” time? When you are not at work, when you’re “off the clock”, your time is yours, right? Well, not really. Not completely anyway. I would suggest that if what you are doing with your time is having a negative impact on what you are doing on your employer’s time then you are shortchanging your employer. If you are busy all weekend doing whatever it is you may doing, and thus you are worn out and sluggish on Monday morning, you’re not giving your best. If you stay up late watching a movie, reading a book, chatting with a friend or doing anything else, and do not get the sleep you need to perform at your peak at work the next day, you’re not giving your best. By the way, if you do any of that on Saturday night and thus can barely keep your eyes open in church Sunday morning, you’re not giving God your best. And if you give all of your energy and effort at work and get home zapped with nothing left to give your family, you’re not giving them you’re best either. In any of these scenarios what you are really saying to your boss, to God or to your spouse is that they are not as important as whatever it is you were doing before that has left you unable to give them your all. In other words, your time is only your time insofar as what you do with that time does not interfere with giving your best when you are on someone else’s time.

4. Am I content? If whatever you are doing, whether it is work, play, relationship or whatever, is causing you to be discontent then you need to do one of two things: do something else or get your heart right. If you hate your job and you’re just putting in your time and collecting a paycheck then you need to find a job that will give you fulfillment or you need to correct whatever is wrong with your heart, your brain or your attitude in order to find that contentment. Sometimes, by the way, doing something else is not even one of the options, leaving only the heart adjustment. When your marriage is not bringing you contentment, quitting it is not an option except in a very, very few specific situations. When effectively, meaningfully, lovingly parenting your children is not bringing you contentment, you need to get your heart right, because you cannot quit being a parent. I would suggest you as well that if you are not content in whatever it is you are doing the answer to at least one of the three questions above will be no. You might answer no to two or even all three of them. Inversely, I would suggest as well that if you can answer yes to questions one, two and three, you will almost certainly answer yes to question four.

There are plenty of other places to find tips about the effective management of your time and I am not really sharing anything new here. For whatever reason I have had multiple conversations within the past week about wise use of time and proper time management, so the subject is on my mind. My hope is that these four principles will be helpful reminders to you if (when) you find yourself struggling with time management. We all have the same number of hours in a day but none of us knows how many days we have. May we each manage our time well and make the most of each and every day.

September 30, 2015

Managing Time

Filed under: Personal Development — jbwatson @ 7:46 pm
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It is has been said that time is the great equalizer. No matter what else may separate, divide or differentiate us, we all have the exact same amount of time in a day. Accordingly, what we choose to do with our time may well be one of the biggest difference-makers in our lives. Some people are incredibly busy but never really accomplish anything. Some people waste their time, either doing nothing or in pursuit of those things which will not last: fame, pleasure, money and more. Still other people are busy primarily so they can either boast or complain about how busy they are. You’ve met people like that, I know–they say yes to everything and they seem to spend most of their time running around like a chicken with its head cut off, but they also derive tremendous fulfillment from letting everyone else know exactly how busy they are. I have not yet determined whether these individuals think they can shame the rest of us into helping them or if they are just soliciting compliments for all the great things they do. I do know that their prattling on can be tremendously irritating. I had a coworker years ago who was quite selfless. She would do anything for anyone at anytime. She had two major flaws, though. First, she would never ask for help herself nor would she usually accept it graciously when it was offered. Second, she could rarely have a conversation without interjecting something about all the things she needed to do and then providing a list for whoever happened to be listening. She was not unlike Martha, who busied herself in the kitchen and then complained to the Lord when Mary was not doing the same. “Everyone needs to be as busy as I am,” Martha was really saying. My coworker seemed to feel the same way. Jesus told Martha, though, that Mary had chosen the better part.

That was not because there was anything wrong with what Martha was doing, by the way. Cleaning the house, preparing meals, serving guests–those are all good things. Even good things, though, can get in the way of what is best. That was the message Jesus had for Martha, and that message is just as applicable for us today. We are responsible to give our best to whatever we are doing–I think that’s biblical. Still, we have to evaluate whether what we are doing is really what we should be doing, either at all or at least at that time. If my job, for example, requires sacrificing time I should be spending with my family or at church then I need to reevaluate my job and whether it is the right job for me.

One of the things I have had to learn since assuming a formal leadership position is that not everyone is capable of bearing the same load. This is why it is important for leaders to get to know the members of their team; taking a cookie cutter approach to determining work load is a recipe for disaster. Some people thrive under pressure while others crumble. Some people live for deadlines while others dread them. Some people need to be busy, busy, busy while others need to be able to work at a more methodical, even plodding, pace. Neither is inherently right or wrong, better or worse. Some may get more stuff done but, as mentioned above, getting more done may not necessarily mean much. I, for example, do well when I have a lot to do. I like to have projects to work on, goals to pursue, and meaningful work to keep me busy. I am quite capable of getting bored. My wife, on the other hand, cannot remember the last time she was bored. She can always find something to do and some worthwhile way to spend her time. When I reflect on what I am doing with my time it may be tempting for me to assume that someone else could surely do more with theirs. That may not be the case, though. Thus it is good both to be reminded that there are people who do far more than me and that there are people who are about at their breaking point but are doing far less.

I serve as the superintendent and principal of a Christian school. I also teach a college-level class. I am currently taking a graduate school course, I blog (semi) regularly, I fill a pulpit somewhere most every Sunday, I just started leading a Sunday evening Bible study that will last at least six weeks, and I read quite a bit. Some people would even say a lot. I am also a husband and a father. Oh, and I help my wife clean our church every week, too. I would be lying if I said there are never times when I look at someone else who seems to be overwhelmed and wonder, “what’s their problem?” Too, though, there are times when I consider how much someone else is doing, how much someone else is reading, how many balls someone else is juggling and I realize I have nothing to boast about. I might even be tempted to think I need to get it in gear. Therein lies the problem, though: comparing myself to others, or others to myself. There is no magic number or secret formula for knowing how much is the right amount of responsibility, of knowing what the optimal work load is or what the ideal work-personal life balance may be. The secret, if you want to call it that, lies in evaluating self against standards which help determine good stewardship of time without comparing self with others. And those standards are what I will address next time.

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