WHEN GOD SHUTS OFF THE VALVE OF AMBITION


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I‘m the kind of person who has a creative idea just about every day, whether it’s a way to make something better, a new innovation, or a business. At the same time, I believe God put a dream inside me to be a storyteller through the medium of film when I was only 11 years old. That dream has kept me going for many decades, that is, until a week ago when everything changed. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

When God gave me that dream as a child, the first thing I wanted to do was purchase a $500 video camera, but that was a pretty expensive purchase for an 11 year old, especially in 1991 dollars. So, what did I do? I made a deal with my parents that I would wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning every day for one year to walk our new dog. If I did that, I would earn an allowance that would give me enough money to afford that video camera. I did just that.

When most kids my age were focused on playing video games, I spent my days using my camera to shoot silly things. I built sets out of boxes and produced skits with my neighborhood friends to perfect my craft as a “director.” That 8-millimeter video camera brought me so much joy. 

As I got older, I started to take filmmaking more seriously. My first job at 17 was as an intern at a movie studio in my neighborhood where they shot Miami Vice in the 1980s. From there I got a job working on a feature film that was in production on one of the sound stages. 

Throughout my early 20s, I worked with many producers, directors, and actors I admired as a kid. But instead of moving out to Los Angeles like most people who want to work in the film industry do, I decided to stay in Miami and pursue a career in publishing. I wanted to make it as a screenwriter and I believed publishing would give me the strong writing chops I needed. 

There are many interesting details and colorful Hollywood anecdotes I have to leave out because I want to get to my point. And here it is. With as much ambition as I’ve had since I was 11 years old to fulfill this dream of making movies, along with my ambition for other creative ventures in recent years, today, at this moment, that ambition is … poof … completely gone! It’s almost as if God shut off my valve of ambition from one day to the next. Not only am I not feeling ambitious about my goals, I’m also questioning why I had any ambition toward them in the first place. What will reaching any of these goals really achieve? Will they help anyone? Will they leave a legacy? What’s the point? These are the questions going through my head.

While I was experiencing these feelings, I asked myself three questions: 1. Is ambition a bad thing? 2. Does God have the power to just completely turn off ambition? 3. If He does, were those dreams and goals really mine in the first place? Well, they aren’t, and they are. You see, Psalm 37:4 talks about God giving us the desires of our heart, which He placed there, and which are very real. But there’s a caveat. You must delight in the Lord first and foremost.

To tell you the truth, and as much as it hurts me to say this, I haven’t really been delighting in the Lord these last couple of years. Yes, I pray every morning. I go to church on Sundays. I faithfully lead my bible study group. I serve on my team at church consistently. And I frequently surround myself with God’s word. And no, I haven’t been doing any of these with an obligation mentality. I truly enjoy each of these activities. But despite all of this, I realized, I haven’t been all in for God. Truth is, for much of my life I have been betting on my own ambition even while I have been doing God’s work.  

In the midst of my striving to release my first two books as an author, work on a movie project, and take my social media startup to the next level, I was putting the spotlight on … me. I wasn’t dying to self. I was trying to make myself. I was trying to achieve the results in my life that only God could achieve. So now here I am, and you know what? I’m tired. I’m exhausted. And I’m depleted from all of this ambition. Well ... I was a week ago anyway. Right now in this moment I’m actually feeling more refreshed than I have in years because I’ve completely surrendered to God’s will in a way that is more than just lip service or activity, and it’s an incredible feeling. 

This whole experience began after I took a week off from work to catch my breath and ask God what he wanted me to do next because I believed I was at a crossroads in my career. Yeah, God definitely spoke to me, but He didn’t give me some awesome plan. He said what He says often: “Wait. Wait on me. I’ve got somewhere I want you to go, and that dream I gave you at 11 is still what I have for you, but you need to trust my path and the pace of my grace. You don’t have to hustle or grind. I will open the right doors, and in due time, I will turn that valve back on. But don’t ever let your ambition become selfish like it was. I need you to focus on me. And I need you to stop striving and let go. I love when you don’t want to know where your next season will take place and that you don’t care what the next step will be, because it tells me you trust me no matter what.”

These were eye opening words, even for someone who has a pretty good understanding of grace and God’s timing. Is God telling you the same thing today? To die to self and trust Him blindly? Has he shut off your selfish ambition so you can focus on Him and only Him? If so, that’s the best place to be because it’s at the center of His will.

Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.

— Psalm 37:4

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

— James 3:14–16

PICK UP YOUR CROSS(FIT) AND FOLLOW ME


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I firmly believe that the impulse toward religion is ineradicable from the human soul. It cannot be destroyed; it can only be diverted or redirected. There is something comical about those who claim they are not religious; for what they are really saying is that they are no longer distinctly “Christian” in their religion. However, their lives will not be marked by the absence of things identifiably religious; they will be marked by having replaced the Christian God with some other object.

Here, I would like to suggest to you that one of the major objects toward which the religious impulse in Americans has been diverted is fitness. Put another way, the real religion of the United States is health. It is often said that Americans are becoming “spiritual but not religious,” and this is certainly true, but I would like to suggest that one’s faith has become more spiritual and less religious precisely because the rest of their lives has become more religious.  

This thought first occurred to me as I saw fitness swell to fill my own consciousness in precisely the way a Christian would want God to swell and fill one’s consciousness. The regularity, intensity, and single-mindedness with which I approached diet and exercise seemed to have a distinctly religious character to it. This might seem preposterous, but consider a few things that fitness and religion share in common:

  1. Exercise is by definition ritualistic. It is something you build into your schedule, and which displaces things of lesser importance. One does virtually the same thing over and over in hopes that its repetition will have a salutary effect on one’s being. Exercise is for health of the body what prayer and meditation are for the health of the soul.

  2. All religions have historically been deeply concerned about food and food laws. All one need to do is flip to Leviticus or the heated debates in Acts to see that this is true. This is because one’s diet has always been thought to have a bearing on one’s overall health, both physical and spiritual. The modern manifestation and proliferation of strict diets remains fundamentally religious, yet the change in the character of our modern religion can be glimpsed in the fact that we no longer consider the effect of diet on the spirit. We care only about a diet’s effect on the body. (More on this at the end.)

  3. Diet is perhaps the only ascetic element yet remaining in the modern world. Just like the saints of old gave up food and drink for some spiritual benefit; we give up food and drink and hold ourselves to a rigorous standard. Yet this is a remarkable contrast to everything else in American culture, which is obsessed with self-development, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment. Diet is, in short, the only area of life in which self-denial is fashionable.

  4. The way in which diet and exercise have been conflated with identity is incomprehensible outside of a religious framework. Think of the zealous self-identification of an individual as a “vegan” or “paleo” or “keto.” Think also how many Instagram profiles list “Vegetarian” as if it were some deep insight into one’s identity. Really what it belays is a religion of one’s own choosing and a self-constructed moral code. Really what it shows is the shallowness and self-centeredness of modern identity.

  5. The wars between rival diet and fitness groups, as in between say vegans or paleo folks or between partisans of cardio and partisans of weightlifting, has come to resemble denominational battles within Christianity. One gains a sense of group identity by belonging to a group with a strict moral code; and one’s group identity is further enhanced by finding a common enemy.  

  6. When one describes why they are so passionately involved in a particular type of fitness, they use terms one could use to talk about their church: “I found good community there.”  “It is a place where I can shut myself off to the world.” “It helps me deal with anxiety.” “I like seeing progress in myself.” “When I walk in, everyone is equal.”

  7. Finally #transformationtuesday is the new (and shallow) version of religious repentance. Social media is filled with testimonies to the transformation fitness brings to a person’s life, and finding fitness often results in a paradigm shift in one’s lifestyle, diet, and habits.  

These things all suggest that the gym has become America’s church; and fitness, America’s God. These things are all well and good on their own, but they are a profound problem when they misdirect the religious passions away from their proper object.

So why this remarkable displacement of the religious passion? It is a sign, I suspect, that we have bought into the modern conceit that the needs of the body are more immediate and more important than the needs of the soul (see John Locke). Modern philosophy sought to bring peace to the world by emphasizing the precariousness of human life and showing that all human beings see physical death as the greatest enemy (see Thomas Hobbes). I suspect that the displacement of our religious passions from spiritual needs toward the needs of the body belies a creeping atheism in our hearts: we protect our bodies because we fear death and we fear death because we secretly doubt the existence either of heaven or of God. The modern world was predicated on the fact that human beings need to take care of themselves because God and His creation will not (see Francis Bacon). Perhaps the fact that we have directed the religious impulse solely to the needs of the body suggests that we have a dessicated understanding of the needs of the spirit.

I will leave you with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson and a question:

“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

What are you worshipping? What are you becoming?

GOD ON THE CLOUD


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CHRISTIANITY AND TECHNOLOGY

PART ONE

There is growing evidence to suggest that the way we think has been fundamentally altered by the advent of the internet age. As Norman Doidge and others have shown, the human brain is not a static, predetermined thing, but a dynamic, adaptive thing. The technical term for the brain’s adaptability is “neuroplasticity.” Just as the brain will respond to injury in one part of the brain by adapting and repurposing the other, healthy parts of the brain, so too does the brain adapt and repurpose itself in response to external stimuli.  

Technology has proven to be the strongest of these external forces working upon our brains. Each successive technology has changed the structure of how we think. Plato saw that the advent of written language would change the way the brain functioned, with the singular effect of reducing the capacity of our memories. That is, the brain would no longer cling to language, as if it were life and death, if it can offload some of that storage to an external storage unit, like a clay tablet or papyrus. Clearly he was right given that no bard-poets like Homer yet walk the earth, spinning long and complicated tales of precise verbiage by rote memory.

The rise of codex books and the printing press were a further extension of this principle, allowing us to offload our memory to paper, which now became more readily available. And it seems to me that we have now reached the logical conclusion of this millenia-long process with the advent of the internet, which, if it is anything, is a storehouse of information. This would seem a unmitigated boon to human beings if it weren’t for a equal and opposite response in our brains. Again, our brain’s ability to retain information contracts as we offload information to external sources. This process should be familiar: you remember phone numbers when you have to mechanically enter them; you forget them once all the digits are stored in a virtual phonebook.

Now you might be saying, “okay, well, isn’t it a good thing that I no longer have to remember useless details like phone numbers?” The answer would be yes, if I were confident you were using that freed-up “space” for better purposes. But the evidence suggests you aren’t. And haven’t we all heard the refrain uttered by an exasperated student, “why do I have to remember all these facts and figures and dates when I can find them in 1/1000th of a second with the internet?”  

The answers to these questions have been, for the most part unsatisfactory. But let me show how this might be a topic of real concern for someone committed to living as a Christian in the modern world. We now have the Bible, in every possible translation, available at our fingertips; but, as supply increases, demand decreases. The sheer ubiquity of the Bible has diminished its relative value in our eyes. The words on the page of sacred Scripture become indistinguishable from the myriad words and writings we encounter everyday. The vast ocean of ink spilled in the writing of innumerable books have brought about a nihilism in our thinking—an inability to sift the gold from the dirt. Put simply, there is a glut of information, and we have neglected the hard work of determining what’s of value and what isn’t. Our easy-going tolerance doesn’t allow us to make those judgment calls.

But this is just the start of our problems, for it is not merely the reading of the Bible that changes one’s life, but its internalization. Yet, I have been describing all along how technology causes us to externalize information. This does not bode well for us. One can simply look inside themselves and see that we now use the internet as an external hard drive, with our minds no longer storing content, but coordinates. Our minds are like the index cards of old, indicating where one might find a book in a library; except in this metaphor, our mind stores the coordinates for where one might retrieve the content should it become necessary in the future. My students make this evident each and everyday when I ask them to recount an argument from a book and they prove incapable without first flipping through it in order to find the passage that triggers their memory. They have offloaded the content of the argument to the book, retaining merely the coordinates to retrieve the information. But content is the thing of value; the coordinates are merely utilitarian. Isn’t this a profound reversal of the proper order?

If what I have said rings true, and if we do in fact tend to store coordinates rather than content, what does this mean for the study of the Bible? We are commanded to meditate on God’s Word, for its effects on our soul and our life come about through a process of assimilation and internalization. Can the Bible still change lives if we read it, as we do everything else, setting aside its content aside until a later date when it might be useful? Does its content produce a “change of heart” in us if the information passes through our minds and hearts like sand through our fingers? These are the questions that keep me up at night, but they are the questions that any 21st Century Christian must consider and answer. In short, can the Bible change our lives if it never resides in the mind and changes the heart?

Take hope in the fact that neuroplasticity means that changes in one direction mean changes in the other direction are also possible (with considerable and concerted effort). To put it another way, neuroplasticity makes possible, in quite literal terms, Paul’s call to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We can start by cultivating a zone of silence, a time to ponder the depth and worth of Scripture; and then fight with all your might to retain the information in your mind long enough that it might take up residence in your heart.

WHY I AM NOT PRO LIFE


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1. Because I am Anti-Abortion. Some may say that to be anti-abortion rather than pro-life is just a quarrel over words, but I’d like to think that it is more than a mere logomachy; in my mind, it is a difference of atmosphere. The thing I am trying to describe is not simply the idea of advocating a thing, it is more so the idea of attacking a thing, for two strong reasons. For example, my first reaction in response to abortion is total terror, like when a man sees a woman in the mouth of a crocodile. Now, a man who witnesses that does not necessarily take the time to compose in his mind a reflective and relaxed thesis on the pros and cons of exactly why that woman should not be an animal’s appetizer. He also, shockingly, does not consider the fact that the woman’s dress may be ripped apart in the rescue process. And, to the dismal disappointment of socialists everywhere, he does not contemplate the kind of health care that may be available to her before he attempts the rescue. What he does do is react rather immoderately against the fact that a human life will be indiscriminately killed.

To extend the analogy further, if that man also discovers that the crocodile is just the pet of some sinister zookeeper who is colluding with the woman’s mother in a plot to kill her, his terror turns to horror. He is no longer reacting only against the terror of killing, but also against the horror of murder. And what he does is what any sane man would do: he inadvertently kicks, stabs or shoots the beast until it dies.

Likewise, the only sane and solemn response towards the sinister atrocity of abortion is to kick it until it dies. It is to fight against it tooth and nail, blow by blow, until the great Leviathan is drowned in its own blood. The idea of caution in the face of such evil as abortion is closer to the idea of cowardice. To complain that the phrase ‘anti-abortion’ is negative is to convolute and grossly misunderstand the crisis. It is to completely misunderstand that we are at war with abortion. War is not a positive thing. It is only a positive thing to the man who starts it. But the truth is that when a man says that he is anti-abortion, he is making a declaration of war upon that evil; and a declaration of war is the only honorable way to fight a foe—even the brutish and barbaric foe of abortion.

2. Because I am Anti-Euphemism. We live in an age of euphemism. Instead of mustering the courage to call a spade a spade we would rather use terms that cover everything and touch nothing. Thus, we never really get to grips with our opponents. That is the second reason why I dislike the word Pro Life; because it misses the main point of the argument. Our opponents are birth preventionists. They will do anything to prevent the birth of a child; even murder that child in the womb (and, in some cases, when it is partially outside of the womb). They call this position pro choice, which is an obvious euphemism for pro abortion. So, given the fact that our opponents are pro abortion, the obvious name to represent our counter position would be pro birth. But instead of simply stating that we are pro birth, we have allowed the equally vague phrase ‘pro life’ to represent our position; and so we are left with a term that is just as oily as the term we oppose.

Additionally, pro life activity has become associated with being what many call “whole life” activity. In other words, the pro life position has been hijacked by the belief that every other social cause associated with human life should be of equal importance to the issue of abortion. Again, this is a mistake. Having a policy of moral economics is quite important, but it does not compare to having a policy of unchecked infanticide. And anyone who thinks that economics and infanticide are on the same moral level is either morally misguided or delusional. In the words of the late Cardinal John O’Connor, “I simply don’t see the rationale in saying that a politician is for better housing, a lower rate of unemployment, a more rational foreign policy—and the only thing wrong is that he supports abortion, so it’s okay to vote for him. You have to go back to the basic question: What is abortion? Do you think it’s the taking of innocent human life or don’t you? If you do, then translate it: How can we talk about a rational foreign policy or the horrors of nuclear war if we hold the position that you can take innocent human life?”

3. Because I am Pro Capital Punishment. As opposed to the fashionable pacifism and mushy materialism of our times, I believe in capital punishment for certain capital crimes; that is, I believe that in some cases, it may be just, according to natural law, that some criminals should be physically punished to the point of death. I think that capital punishment is morally good because it is based upon the judicial concept of expiation—that is, paying back a debt for crimes against society—even at the cost of life.

Many opponents of capital punishment cite the sanctity of human life as a reason to oppose its implementation, but the whole point of capital punishment is that it exists because of the sanctity of human life. Life is so sacred that for us, to kill it unjustly is one of the gravest of sins and subsequently requires one of the gravest of punishments. That is the whole difference between killing and murder. To murder is to kill an innocent human life. And that kind of killing is and always has been abhorrent to the mass of mankind and deserving of the greatest of punishments. For opponents of capital punishment, it becomes difficult to explain, in the face of justice, how a man who takes the life of another in cold blood should not pay for that crime by having his own life taken in cold blood; and the issue only compounds when the criminal has taken multiple lives at the same time. Capital punishment should be rare, but so should murder; and hopefully, in the face of such consequence, murder may be deterred.

4. Because I am Pro Just War. During the middle ages, St. Thomas Aquinas enunciated the theory of the Just War by stating the three qualifications of it: that it must be condoned by authority, that it must be waged for a just cause and that it must be fought with a right intention. I am convinced that these reasons make up the right criteria for any real war. Some have said that there is no war in history that could be qualified based upon these reasons, but I would answer to the contrary; the trouble is that almost every war in history is based upon these reasons, just as almost every lawsuit is based upon two parties that both believe they are right. But it is no answer to say that because both people say that they are right, that one of them is not wrong. There isn’t one judge in a hundred that would believe that. The point, however, is that the pro life argument does not include a proper response to the issue of Just War and because of this, it is not an effective name.

5. Because I am Pro Family. The first principle that makes up my social philosophy and therefore comprises my answer to almost every social cause is the fact that I believe the family to be the cornerstone to any society. Without the family you cannot have society and that is because society is simply composed of a collection of families. In fact, the family is a society within itself with its own laws, court, worship, festivities, and self-sustaining ability. Those who reject the tradition of truth about the family, that it is comprised of man, woman, and child, are cutting the ladder from under themselves. Every foe of the family was raised in a family; that is the enduring paradox of social commentary in our times.

As Chesterton said, the family “cannot be destroyed, it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.” But the right of the unborn to be born is more than just a self-evident principle; it’s part of the social philosophy of any society. And that philosophy must be pro family. It must regard the unborn, not merely as wards of the state, or as numbers to be tallied in population density charts, but rather it must regard the unborn as kings and priests, as citizens and saints. It must protect the unborn as though it is protecting itself from an intruder or invader. The family is the borderland between civilization and barbarism. It is the birthplace of any nation and the factory that manufactures mankind.