Editors preface: For quite some time, I have wanted to showcase the work of erudite friends of mine for a wider audience than those who are typically exposed to their scholarship. Anticipating that I would have little time to devote to writing during the months of March and April due to a trip I had planned to Israel, I asked my friend, James Beal, whether he would be interested in sharing any of his work here. James graciously obliged, and I am happy to say that there is no one else’s thought for which I would rather use this website as a platform for broader discovery.
James is an attorney in Chicago with an expansive interest in a variety of subjects, including philosophical theology. He adapted the following essay from a dialog he conducted on the topic of aesthetics which I further edited for a more general audience. While James’s subject matter might seem a bit abstract on first blush, let’s be honest: A lot of ostensibly Christian art is really, really terrible. In fact, it is so egregiously poor that multiple different theologians have taken to analyzing why this could possibly be the case, from Scott Nehring’s medium-specific prognosis in “Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?” to Tony Woodlief’s more general yet scholarly “Bad Christian Art.” Nathan Kennedy’s blog went so far as to devote a two part series exploring the “suckage of Christian art,” and even the Gospel Coalition has taken to mounting discussions between various church leaders on the topic.
James’s essay intentionally leaves some questions unanswered, e.g. How are Christians supposed to promote good art, let alone nurture budding artists? Is there an assertive, one might even say missiological purpose behind Christian art as such? Are some contexts more and less appropriate venues for the production, distribution, or consumption of Christian art? Nevertheless, I believe his perspective advances the discussion instructively, and it is my privilege to recommend it for your reflection and edification.
I have listened to Bach’s cello suites. And I have listened to some of his overtly religious works, such as St. Matthew’s Passion. They are both beautiful. Are they both “Christian?”
It is difficult to describe religious experience compared to, say, religious exercise. An experience is inherently subjective while an exercise is objective. An exercise can be observed. It can be prescribed and followed. What happens in the mind or heart of the adherent during the course of the exercise is different from the exercise itself, and that happening is experience.
Art may not only be produced, it may be experienced. In fact, most art is meant to be experienced; it is meant to evoke thoughts and feelings of one sort or another. Can art be distinctly Christian in this evocative capacity? I believe it can.
Christian art is defined by a representation of at least two key elements: sacrifice and fealty. Thus, experiencing fealty and sacrifice in the context of something like an artistic element of Christian worship is different than experiencing the beauty of nature. Bach’s cello suites are like experiencing nature.
Don’t misunderstand me; I am not degrading natural beauty. I have been to the beach at night in coastal South Carolina and Florida. The combination of sensations—smelling the ocean breeze, seeing the stars glimmer, hearing the waves crash—is a powerful experience. One wonders if this is the sort of beauty that Adam and Eve encountered each moment before they were banished from the Garden of Eden.
But whatever our most distant ancestors experienced in antediluvian paradise, on the plains of Africa, or wherever, many of us know the Christian story, and we know it well. And that story is set apart from our daily life as animals on a physical planet. Human introspection, human ideas about how to organize and effect both our own lives and society, human thoughts about the physical nature of the universe and all that is in it—these concepts help define us as specifically human creatures. So, too, do vice and sensual experience, which are not always the same.
But, think about all of these things and then compare them to Christ’s words in Luke 9.23:
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Where does that come from? That is totally different from a person’s typical experience with nature, with ideas, with another human, or with another human’s creation, such as art. What Christ articulated in this short passage is a glimpse of another layer of existence, an existence not dedicated solely to our physical and societal needs.
This is not to say that humans do not create things that remind us of, even engulf us in the fundamental basis of the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ: sacrifice and fealty. We do create things that specifically attempt to evoke this response, that attempt to raise our awareness of fealty and sacrifice. And those are the sorts of created things that are “Christian.” Everything else is something different. That is not to say that everything else is bad—hardly. But it is different from a distinctly Christian creation.
There is another key element of the representation of the Christian ethos in art, and that is love, or charity when understood in the old way as an altruistic, concrete, sincere expression of compassion. Sacrifice, fealty, love–these three things define Christ’s existence. He sacrificed his life in fealty to God the Father and for the love of us. This is the Christian story. And art, which is accurately called “Christian” is defined by these three elements.
From this perspective, I would call Bleak House by Charles Dickens a Christian novel. Dickens’ representation of uncompromising love in the character of John Jarndyce vis-à-vis the love he shows his wards and even to rotten Mr. Skimpole is a fundamentally Christian portrayal of a character. In fact, Dickens is perhaps most “Christian” in his representation of prideful, dishonest, cruel, and folly-ridden villains. Dickens’ concept of evil embodied by these characters is fundamentally Christian because it purposefully represents the opposite of sacrifice, fealty and love. By doing so, Dickens’ villains reinforce the importance of those elements through impactful, negative counterexample.
In contrast, purely or simply beautiful art like Bach’s cello suites may be understood as “primitive” in the philosophical sense of the term. When Rousseau idolized infancy and simple-ness in works like Emile, or On Education, he expressly longed for the primitive. But if one accepts that humanity has left the Garden and tried to erect for ourselves some firm and steadfast structure reaching beyond the primitive with profoundly deleterious results—a process the Bible discusses in the story of the Tower of Babel—then the strictly simple, primitive nature of humanity is presently lost to us.
This fundamental fact of the loss of wholesale, social innocence or primitiveness is why we talk about “duty” and “sacrifice” and “striving for the greater good” even in secular contexts. What separates the secular version of these things from the Christian version is that they are tied to a man’s or a group’s imagined sense of right, virtue, or glory instead of being tied to those first relationships we found ourselves a part of from the beginning of time, like family or community. When we promote some sort of altruism or durable significance beyond whatever we would normally do by a sort of God-given default, we are acknowledging that we have moved beyond the primitive.
Eden and Babel are not the same. They are opposites. Eden is permanent even if its full recovery is lost to us right now; Babel is “happening” right now but frustratingly never finished. Put more philosophically, Babel is the idea of one person’s or one group’s action against another person or even against nature itself as a whole. Eden is the idea of “permanence” as true home, as perpetuity and peace and situated place.
So what does this have to do with art? Purely aesthetic experience—say, of a cello suite by Bach or a beautiful lyric poem—is not Babel. But neither is it the whole of Eden. It is more like a constituent element of Eden. Because of the distorting effect of sin, we do not experience the whole of Eden absent sacrifice, fealty and love. These are the keys that unlock for us a glimpse of the serenity from which we came and towards which God desires to ultimately locate us in eternity.
Returning to the illustration of English literature, these three elements converge powerfully and beautifully in Dickens’ Bleak House when Nemo, the law writer, interacts with the poor sweeper boy, Joe. Even though both characters have their problems, Nemo eventually dying of an opium overdose and Joe dying consumption, there are brief moments of distinctly Christian representation, e.g. when Nemo gives Joe a portion of his meager earnings with no strings attached or when Joe sincerely thanks Nemo for his kindness without any pretense or expectation but also without false humility.
A similar thing obtains in Charlotte Brontë’s magnum opus, Jane Eyre, through the juxtaposition of its eponymous protagonist with the character of her cousin, St. John Rivers. Both are ostensibly “Christian” figures, but it is Jane who achieves something closer to the unlocking of Eden while John remains counter-intuitively trapped in Babel. St. John expresses a single-minded obsession with working as a missionary; he implores Jane to marry him so as to be his helper, so as to partake in this all-important mission. But Jane refuses, desiring instead to experience her life in the company of those she loves and who love her. Late in the novel, she realizes a large inheritance and decides to divide it evenly between herself, St. John, and St. John’s two sisters—much to St. John’s chagrin. He would prefer that the whole of the inheritance be devoted to his missionary work. Jane persists in her course of action and eventually departs the company of her family for that of Mr. Rochester, a former suitor who has been struck blind since his last encounter with Jane. Despite his state of relative debilitation given the early 19th century setting of the narrative, Rochester is still deeply in love with Jane, who concludes that her true aspiration is to be nothing more than his wife in the countryside at Thornfield Manor.
Bronte’s representation of Jane is the that of a character whose central desire is for the “permanent” rather than something that is “happening” yet never finished, and her irrevocable divestment of financial resource to the benefit of her extended family coupled with her devotion to Mr. Rochester despite his functional decline in station fortifies this. Similarly, Nemo’s gift to Joe was a pure gift, given only for love and met by Joe’s sincere but not unduly humble thanks in Dicken’s Bleak House. These represent the story of Christ more compellingly than a thousand missions of Bronte’s St. John to the farthest flung corners of the world, let alone the construction of an indestructibly prosperous, healthy, secured state that Jane could have pursued had she kept the whole of her fortune and “married up” as far as possible instead of choosing Mr. Rochester.
These are “Christian” moments in Bleak House and Jane Eyre because they fundamentally represent sacrifice, fealty and love with a trajectory towards the permanent, with an eschewal of building some grandiose, unfinishable, always happening Babel. They represent the example of Christ, emphasizing Eden’s quiet to Babel’s clamor. As Jesus said to his disciples:
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33 NRSV)
Christian art is that which distinctly represents sacrifice, fealty, and love unlocking the permanence of our true home. Put another way, Christian art provides a representation in music, a literary character, and so forth of Christ.
Prologue: Since October of 2011, I have been posting a series of reflections on some of the most important lessons I learned the hard way over the past year. I published the first of these shortly after my birthday regarding the fine line separating the utterly depressing from the categorically awesome, arguing that we should relentlessly pursue the latter as if our lives depended on it (because they actually do). A few weeks later, I shared a second reflection addressing the common misconception that working hard is enough, asserting that we will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for our efforts alone–a truth so obvious that we constantly miss it and suffer accordingly.
While considering which topic to address next, I received a bunch of requests for input on personal finance. I learned my most difficult lessons in this area a few years ago. Nevertheless, I’m interested in writing about stuff that is helpful to others whether or not it fits perfectly with my outstanding plans for blogging. So, I guess one can take all of the posts in this category of “Building Wealth Tips” to constitute a nice, multi-part lesson cross-listed in that category of those “33rd Birthday Reflections,” just in case anybody is keeping score.
Finally, I’ve noticed that a lot of people get spooked from substantial discussions about personal finance because so many of these discussions are 1) ridiculously focused on bean counting, 2) nowhere close to being comprehensively instructive, and 3) lacking hardcore, scientific support for the activities they so passionately promote. Instead, I’ll begin with a personal story and gradually work my way towards some nuts and bolts mechanics of the discipline, thoroughly citing the main things I want to share as food for thought. I figure that anybody reading this blog who wanted a bunch of arithmetically fixated information right out of the gate or a collection of disassociated financial pro-tips will have looked elsewhere already. There’s something else “in the way” for a lot of us when it comes to really gaining financial strength, and my goal with this post is to obliterate that obstacle as much as possible.
Also, I’ve never shared this story with anybody before. So, I hope it provides some insight for you.
I packed my last suitcase and slung two ill-fitting blazers over my left shoulder. The pine trees framing my dormitory window fragmented beams of late-afternoon sunlight, dribbling their golden rays across my face in piecemeal obscurity as the day’s events disturbed my hopes for what lay ahead. I was partway through a graduate course of study at Princeton Theological Seminary with a vaguely defined career goal, a sharply reinforced cost, and a path almost perfectly opposed to Fitzgerald’s Amory. I knew that God was still alive and kicking in my heart, that wars worth fighting abounded, and that there was some good in humanity still. But I was just moments away from the abrupt realization that I did not know myself as surely as I thought. And I was completely embarrassed to learn this lesson through what seemed like the most base catalyst possible: Money.
I had just signed a promissory note for another several thousand dollars of student loans, a process required by my school every year seminarians wanted to avail themselves of such an opportunity to offset the cost of their education. And despite the fact that I had concluded that such a thing was “good debt,” I had never come close to possessing a tenth of what I now owed. Plus, I still had another year and another round of loans to go. Having grown up just above the poverty line, nobody from whom I had received financial counsel in the past could speak compellingly to my situation. I had been taught to avoid all debt like the plague, but I recognized that the net effect of achieving a more substantial education earlier in my life, likely leading to a higher level of compensation for my labor, was the more mathematically sound way to go. Moreover, none of the people who had so thoroughly impressed upon me the importance of avoiding all debt were particularly wealthy, which either meant that it was impossible to grow legitimately wealthy in one’s lifetime that way (a demonstrable falsity) or that there was something fiscally wrong with their perspective.
In short, math and logic were picking a fight with my upbringing. And while I knew that logic and math told no lies, I hadn’t risked anything this gutturally important on them since that one time I won a bet about calculating the velocity at which a drunken friend would strike a submerged refrigerator after leaping from a bridge suspended a certain height above a river–thanks to integral calculus. Delaying my education until I could afford to pay for it out of pocket with money squirreled away from whatever job I worked in the meantime deferred an increase in my earning potential, an increase great enough to easily outstrip the cost of financing the aforementioned loan. But more importantly, such a delay prevented me from pursuing the sort of work I wanted sooner by definition, which also postponed all sorts of life-events, relationships, and complimentary endeavors connected to that work. This made my student loan a type of investment in myself enabling a swifter, more impactful benefit for the people and projects what would be positively impacted by my own growth. And since this was a federally subsidized loan under consideration, there were all sorts of advantages and protections woven into the system amplifying the smartness of incurring that debt despite the inherent risk that even the most worthwhile investments carry.
Simple call, right? Wrong–I panicked.
I looked for every feasible way I could whittle down my expenses to as close to nothing as possible. I ate fewer meals and guiltily sneaked cereal out of my dining hall for breakfast the following morning. I bought no clothes, which made me horribly dependent on the good graces albeit risky stylistic conjunction of holiday presents. I spent hours researching the most inexpensive versions of the class texts I was forced to buy when repeatedly checking them out at the library would not suffice. I rued the fact that I could not afford to take a lady I fancied on anything but an utterly cheap date–all the while not picking her up in the car I did not posses because I was too freaking penurious to purchase a decent vehicle, let alone maintain one. And while thrifting and cycling were all the rage among the graduate student set in my hometown of Chicago, this approach was not generally well received or advised at Princeton.
Deep inside, I sensed that all my efforts at frugality were insignificant. I was sure that I needed to substantially cut a major cost. And dormitory housing coupled with a mandatory meal plan was my single, largest expense category. So, I made a painful decision to mitigate that by taking a job as a resident manager of an institutionally affiliated conference center off the seminary quad, enabling me to effectively zero-sum rent, food, and part-time pay. While that probably sounds like a brilliant idea, I said “painful” because the life of an aspiring theologian at Princeton was frequently, deeply lonely for reasons I’ll probably get around to describing some other time. Healthy, robust community was rare and difficult to cultivate even living on campus, let alone removed from it, and it was not just something I craved but something I wanted to be able to give to others at the core of who I was.
Cultivating robust, healthy community where people could grow and support one another to their mutual benefit was a central, guiding principle of the life I wanted to live. Being able to engage in this project more effectively on the far side of seminary was one of the main reasons I chose to pursue that course of training in the first place. Thus, my aforementioned financial “solution” functioned as a shift of expense from finance to purpose and ethics. In fact, it risked a net loss of “wealth” defined not just as one’s fiscal wherewithal but also the strength of one’s key relationships, long term prospects, freedom, security, and so forth. My solution threatened a conflict with who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, and what I knew that both my colleagues I needed at that stage of our lives. But there was no way to ascertain whether the benefits of this shift would be worth the cost apart from giving it a shot and finding out. And since the whole idea of a seminary education boiled down to an investment in me, my own lack of confidence in myself effected a recursive loop of irritatingly pitiful consternation.
I planned a final departure from my dormitory when most other students were taking their evening meal to avoid encountering anyone who might probe the turmoil I feared I could not keep from surfacing. I strode briskly through the autumnal dusk across the deserted quad. And while I was somewhat tired from previous trips carting boxed-up belongings to and fro, I felt something other than mere fatigue silently approach me from the darkening woods lining my path. If you’ve ever blacked out from standing up too fast, felt your stomach drop whilst peering over a momentous ledge, or sensed a tingle run through your limbs before executing an exciting but also terrifying feat, you know about the sensation. You’ve felt everything around you slow down. You’ve become hyper-aware of your own processing of whatever’s confronting you, and your mind has raced with abnormal clarity to exhaust all available options towards some eureka-like conclusion by brute-force if necessary.
And that’s when something within me finally broke.
I felt dazed and moved to tears and short of breath and stymied and somehow also somewhere else from everywhere I had ever been before. I muffled myself as much as possible until I could duck behind the closed doors of my destination and began to sob uncontrollably. I felt caged and exposed all at once. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, looked vaguely unrecognizable, and began to wonder whether professional counseling or psychopharmacological intervention were in order. I was sick of carrying the tension of trying to figure out something that should have (obviously) been so easy to resolve as a few thousand dollars owed by a young, able-bodied, single man with half a brain in his head. And that tension had finally shattered something I carried deep inside me.
I not only believed in a God commanding the floodgates of heaven but had so frequently witnessed this God provide for people in completely mundane and thoroughly surprising ways by turns that I had chosen to devote my life to guiding others to worship and be liberated and renewed and flourished through a loving relationship with that God. I had traveled the world, helped save people’s lives, witnessed vistas of penetrating beauty, loved, lost, and lived more at twenty-something than many do by the time they depart this mortal coil. I was supposed to be made of stronger stuff than this. But no matter what I knew, said, or did, I could not escape the fact that around twenty-something-thousand dollars of debt was all it took for me to completely flip out.
How embarrassingly weak and conflicted and immature it seemed I truly was.
Over the subsequent years, I also learned to give myself a break rather than merely suffer from one. I gradually realized that I had encountered something back then that has only lately occurred for a lot of people, and this is the interior experience of the catastrophe of a financial worldview of insidious nature, a background subroutine of total maleficence propagated as conventional wisdom. Despite achieving an undergraduate degree with highest honors in four different, bankable foci, despite gaining admission to the most selective seminary in America, I had never taken a single, comprehensive course in personal finance–nor was I required to do so at any stage of my formal education. The closest I came to something like that was a merit badge I earned along the path to become an Eagle Scout as a teenager–thank God for the BSA at least. But I had never encountered anything strong enough to course-correct for this pervasive coadunation of fiscal claptrap coupled with a progressively greater dependence on a resulting web of economic misbelief ensnaring the vast majority of people I know today.
I was a smart, hard worker in general, but that no more guarantees financial health than being born rich–a lack of soundly applied fiscal principle can easily decimate both and, in fact, does just that with cold regularity every single day. Most unfortunately, my abysmal level of financial literacy at that time is the norm for America. Unless you are one of the lucky few, you probably received a terrible financial upbringing, too. It doesn’t matter if your parents were responsible, generous, and involved with your life (like mine) or if you had to figure everything out completely on your own, either. To depart from personal narrative for the sake of statistically broader applicability, consider that:
- Just 25% of American adults claim that they are satisfied with their “personal financial condition.” Moreover, we are used to living this way; we are comfortable with being for the most part oblivious about how to improve our financial condition even though we don’t like where we are.
- About 66% of American high school students participating in a country-wide survey by The National Council on Economic Education flunked a basic economic literacy test, with 49% of adults surveyed failing similarly.
- Lacking the ability to work our way towards managing greater wealth, we try to live as if we already possessed all the benefits of this process through credit. Total American consumer debt topped the $2.43 trillion mark in May 2011, i.e. roughly 16% of our gross domestic product. This correlates with the 2010 figures for the United States’ public debt-to-GDP ratio of 102% compared to healthier economies like Germany’s at 78.8% or Norway’s at 48.9% or New Zealand’s at 30.3%. Translation: We are taking on progressively greater levels of private debt, and we are becoming statistically less likely to pay back the debt our government is incurring. Our inability to find a solution for the latter issue is precisely why Standard & Poor downgraded the United States’s credit rating for the first time in history in August 2011.
- Moreover, Americans now hold roughly $772 billion in credit card debt alone, and we typically underestimate our credit card debt by around 33% of the actual figure that we owe. That’s how accustomed we have become to poor financial principle coupled with living on credit.
- Despite the above, children’s spending has roughly doubled every ten years for the past three decades, and it tripled in the 1990′s. Paired with this trend, more than 1 in 5 youth ages 12 to 19 have their own credit cards or have access to their parents’ according to The Jumpstart Coalition’s research on the matter. Since we are becoming less fiscally adroit with every generation, this means that we are literally setting up our children for personal financial disaster, bit by bit and day by day with every ounce of negligence and penny hocked on credit.
- And out of control credit card abuse is just one indicator of the problem. In the month of December 2011 alone, total consumer credit grew by $19.31 billion, more than twice the $7.7 billion increase expected by Reuters analysts to yield the single largest jump in ten years for non-revolving credit, which covers categories of debt like auto and student loans.
- Despite the fact that almost all of us know we’re supposed to cultivate sound habits of saving, our actual rate of savings has steadily declined for over thirty years regardless of the state of the overall economy–that is the power of a weak command of building and managing wealth. In fact, our aggregate rate of savings recently dropped all the way to 0%–as a group, Americans saved nothing whatsoever–from a high of nearly 12% of our income in previous generations.
- Roughly 60% of Americans don’t even know much they need to save for retirement according to a national survey on Financial Capability in the United States for 2009. Even if all of us leaped back on the wagon of prudent practices of saving, we wouldn’t even know how much to save to cover our basic necessities in our old age.
- A large quantity of Americans do not substantially invest as part of a strategy to build wealth, and only 5% of those who do invest feel that they “know everything” they need in order to make good financial decisions.
- Ironically, our common sense beliefs about what constitutes “safe” and “risky” places to store or invest money arguably run exactly the opposite of what is actually the case. We think that saving a bunch of currency is the safest way to go in the long run, but inflation annihilates this. In contrast, we think that stocks are extremely risk despite the fact that the market overall has grown by 10% on average each year even in the case of a down economy while the average rate of inflation–i.e. a measure of the effective decrease in purchasing power for hard currency–has run about 3.43% over the past 100 years. To put this in perspective, it now takes $700 to purchase what $100 would have bought in 1965; in contrast, $100 properly invested in the S&P 500 index starting in 1965 would have grown in value to $6072 today–that’s a loss of more than 85% for currency and a gain of over 6000% for stocks.
If we live in a material world, why on earth are we so terrible at managing our finances? The experts are divided on this one, even when we limit the question to savings, but one thing is for certain: This is a terrible excuse for a way to live. Most of us are not totally disinterested in money or how it works–even those of us aspiring to an ascetic or a bohemian ideal still use money. But many of us have been trained to regard the ability to build wealth as being ancillary if not distracting or overtly poisonous to a life well lived. Everybody knows that people who focus their attention on money inevitably become consumed by it, right? Think about how many books or movies or plays or songs you’ve encountered with precisely that script.
The problem is not that we are unduly sheltered from pointed teaching about money. To return to my own story for a moment, I shared more conversations with respected teachers about personal finance than I could remember before my involuntary, gut wrenching paradigm shift as a grad student. I had read multiple articles and books recommended to me from trustworthy sources, and I figured myself for a pretty responsible, capable guy. I had already learned that managing money effectively was important–not just for my personal level of comfort but because of the broader, ethical implications for those impacted by my level of financial strength. This is probably one reason why pastors like Greg Laurie emphasize that there are over twice as many Bible verses on the topic of finances as there are for topics like “prayer” and “faith” combined. Financial aptitude is spiritually important; there is something related to universal justice and personal priorities when it comes to what each of us do with our money. In fact, there are roughly 800 passages of scripture dealing with money alone, and about half of Jesus’s parables utilize money as a teaching illustration. But here’s the problem with all this.
A bunch of conversations, articles, books, and Bible verses that are not comprehensively organized by a sound command of the basic principles of financial health for our time and place don’t amount to a pile of beans. In fact, they can inoculate us against the realization that we still don’t have a clue about what to actually do when it comes to effectively building and managing wealth. Too many of us act like a bunch of weekend warriors who know every possible basketball or baseball statistic, who religiously watch our favorite teams on television week after week, and who study the history of our sports with dutiful attention but never actually get off the couch and learn how to play the game in real life.
The way most of us are taught about wealth lacks this basic command of the discipline of personal finance. Instead, we get a bunch of fragmented pieces of data flung at us while lacking an effective, discriminating toolkit to process that data usefully, e.g. Get good credit (somehow)! Buy a house! Invest in gold! No wait, don’t buy a house! Save your money by getting a credit card with rewards points! No wait, credit cards are the devil! Want to grow rich ethically but you’re born poor? Your odds are about as good as playing the lottery–oh well! Invest in a Roth IRA with actively managed mutual funds contributing to a diversified portfolio! No wait, dump everything into bonds in a volatile economy! No wait, screw all that, work 80 hours a week, and save like crazy! Go to the best, private college in which you can gain admittance–everybody pays off student loans for thirty years! No wait, neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg finished college; so, stay away from higher education if you really want to be rich! Oh yeah, and remember to give to charity every once in a while! And so forth…
So here are the two big ideas of this post:
- Knowing how to properly build and manage wealth is an absolute necessity for a life well lived, and we need to gain command and control now. Even if you wind up eschewing the acquisition of capital assets (like property), current assets (like cash), or investments (like stocks) for some reason, you must know what you’re getting in exchange for this trade-off and it must be worth it for the way of life you’ve chosen. Explicitly chosen or de facto ignorance of personal finance is just perpetuated foolishness layered atop a festering pile of crappy social convention that is destroying people’s lives, wreaking havoc on our families, and damaging society. As a comparison, I can chose to neglect studying literature comprehension and composition, chose to disregard developing a facility for philosophical though, and chose to pass on gaining those social graces commonly called “people skills” or “emotional intelligence.” But all of these turn out to be incredibly, demonstrably valuable for my time and place–not just for me but for the people with whom I associate, those who depend on me on a day to day basis, my friends, my work associates, my family, my community at large, and my world. So, I had better know that whatever I’m getting in exchange for not burning the time and energy it takes to acquire those skills is really worth it. The same thing applies to knowing how to properly build and manage wealth.
- Everybody can learn how to properly build and manage wealth better, and it is far easier to do than most people think. Why? Because it is so completely counter-cultural that hardly anybody has tried to do so who is not already one of those lucky ones raised with a comprehensive, working knowledge of personal finance. Notice that I am not saying that it is easy to become phenomenally wealthy; I am just saying that it is an achievable and worthwhile goal to gain the skills necessary to build and manage wealth better. You may be terrible at mathematics; that doesn’t matter. You may be a 100% type-B creative, artsy individual; you can and should still learn how to properly manage and build wealth more soundly–in fact, your livelihood and creative output as an artsy individual depends on it. You may conclude that you’re pretty bad at some part of the process of managing your finances; you must know why and to whom you can safely delegate that part of your overall responsibility. You may have been dealt an incredibly tough, impoverished hand in life; you should and can learn how to properly build and manage wealth still. As professors Thomas Stanley and William Danko found in their research leading to the text, The Millionaire Next Door, roughly 80% of American millionaires are “first generation affluent,” meaning that they built and managed their wealth in an utterly mundane and often broadly achievable ways, i.e. from the ground up rather than simply inheriting it in one shot of ultra-fortuitous, windfall privilege.
The way I began this post might suggest that I regret my time as a graduate student at Princeton, that I still feel embarrassed over how irrationally I responded to the simple act of taking out a student loan and moving away from my dormitory for a spell. But nothing could be further from the truth. When I look back on the day the haphazard edifice of my sorry excuse for economic competence crumbled to oblivion amidst my confused blubbering, I thank God that the lesson came across so intensely because it finally motivated me to change–no matter what.
Most of us never get this chance. Most of us become so so deeply committed to financially insolvent patterns of life that it is too late to substantially alter our situation for the better once our eyes are finally opened to the ramifications of our ignorance as we grow old and progressively less able to fly by the seat of our threadbare pants. We are vaguely uncomfortable for years on end but never so pointedly so that we do anything to really rethink and rebuild this broken way of life. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When it comes to your financial health, depart from the herd now. Gain command and control now–not tomorrow, not someday when you’ve “grown up,” not in a couple years when you have a better job or more time to think about this stuff. Gain control and command of your own ability to better manage and build wealth starting today and every day afterwards. Dentists are fond of saying that we only need to brush the teeth we want to keep. Something that basic is true of personal finance. The cost of denial inevitably extracts its revenge, and the benefits are manifold and life enriching. So take action and be courageous.
In subsequent posts in this series, I’ll try to address some of the keys to bridging that gap from the status quo of poor fiscal practice to a future of financial health. But if you’re already feeling pretty motivated to get the ball rolling, here are some decent ways to do so:
- First, get your head in the game–apply as much diligence to gaining command and control of your ability to build and manage wealth as you would to any other important, life-impacting skill. Take everybody’s word with a grain of salt, and leverage your own learning style. If you don’t handle large blocks of new information well, then break the following down into tiny bits that you purposefully and systematically process day by day. If you hate reading, find solid resources you can listen to or watch online or talk about with others who are similarly inclined. Keep checking out the stuff below, and keep on rocking in the free world.
- In the event that the basics like budgeting or getting out of unhealthy debt are challenging for you, consider a text like Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover to present some options. If you need more help than a book, find a Financial Peace University class in your area. If you live in Chicago, you can even participate in one that some folks from my own church are going to host in April. Just email me for details, and I’ll be happy to help get you connected. If you don’t like Dave Ramsey’s approach, there are plenty of other options out there, like the Good $ense curriculum developed by the Willow Creek Association, as well as several others.
- If you’ve passed beyond dire straits and are ready to really build some wealth, a couple good volumes on this subject are the aforementioned The Millionaire Next Door and one of my personal favorites, The Millionaire Teacher, by Andrew Hallam–a regular guy who built a multi-million dollar portfolio before he turned 40 on a teacher’s salary. Again, there is no such thing as an “always applies in all circumstances,” no-brainer way to go when it comes to building wealth, but those two books present good food for thought if you want to begin to develop a lay of the land regardless of your present level of employment.
- Concerned about the ethical questions involved because of your religious upbringing (or lack thereof)? Check out Randy Alcorn’s Money, Possessions, and Eternity for an extensive essay attempting to address these topics from a biblically informed perspective. I’ve also heard good things about Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, but I have yet to read it and cannot personally vouch for it on that basis.
- Just want a couple good article online with immediate pay-off? Read this short post and you’ll know more about the difference between assets, liabilites, and equity than the vast majority of Americans today. Read this article from Generation X finance for the most basic, one-shot explanation of how to build wealth that I’ve encountered so far. If you’re totally up a creek without a paddle, Dave Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps to Financial Peace summarize a substantial portion of the core teachings of his aforementioned book and class curriculum.
- Hate reading a lot of stuff but still want to learn? Try the Khan Academy’s selection on core finance and, for the high fliers out there, valuations and investing. There are a ton of open courses on these and similar topics from institutions like Berkeley and MIT, but if you’re not sufficiently motivated to Google search them, then you probably won’t click through any links I provide, either. (Okay, here’s an article with a nice, top 10 list.) Another way to go would be to check out a few of the Internet forums that have developed to promote discussion on personal finance. My favorite at the moment in this regard is /r/personalfinance, but your mileage may vary.
The American author and speaker, Jim Rohn, once said, “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” In conclusion, I hope and pray that you’ll embrace the discomfort it takes to gain command and control of your ability to effectively build and manage wealth right now for your sake, for those whom you love, and for the truer dream you can live that beats the tar out of the American lie too many of us have swallowed–hook, line, and sinker. The best is yet to come…
Note: I have dedicated this post to a few of the people who helped me move towards a more mature understanding of personal financial competence than just about anybody else of late. So, here’s a big thank you to my uncle, Bruce Heverly, to my friend, Dan “realtor for life” Spransy, and to the good people of /r/personalfinance and its associated subreddit community. May God bless you to be a blessing in the days ahead more than ever before.
This is not an anti-Valentines Day post. Yes, the holiday has been ridiculously commercialized. Yes, it can be a total downer if you are single. Yes, it can exert a ton of pressure if you are not single and you feel you need to come up with some grand scheme to communicate your affections or else completely disappoint the person you’re with. Yes, our current observance of the holiday bears little resemblance to Victorian Era bliss when people quoted Chaucer at whim and wrote their own cards with beautiful penmanship, when men were truly men and women were truly women and everybody knew how to dance and court and woo like Pride and Prejudice.
But here’s the thing: Valentines Day was originally a commemoration for martyrs, people butchered for their unyielding commitment to sharing God’s love no matter what. So can we all agree to shuffle our various decks of expectation and get out there to kick some butt for love’s sake? Feel free to consult your favorite encyclopedia or History.com or something if you doubt me, but the celebration of Valentines Day is ancient–as in practiced informally nearly two thousand years ago and formally established somewhere around 496 CE ancient. Its purpose was to memorialize several different people with “Valentine” or “Valentinus” somewhere in their names who were all slaughtered for their active, counter-cultural faith in Jesus by a powerful Roman Empire. For example, one of the dudes whose death the holiday recalled, Valentine of Terni, served as the bishop of Terni, Italy until his death around 197 CE. His reputation as an evangelist, miracle worker, and healer was so great that he was not only imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded to halt his ministry during the persecution ordered by Marcus Aurelius, he was executed at night in secret so that the people of Terni would not break out into riots to avenge him because of their adoration for the guy.
When a pagan government has to kill you in secret because they’re scared of their own pagan citizenry flipping out, you are doing it right. And that is why Valentines Day should ultimately be a call to arms, a call to compassionately and assertively embrace others–risking blood and thunder if necessary, with quiet and sustained and painstakingly humble means if that is what gets the job done best, with a heart so committed to responding to God’s overwhelming love for us that it can no sooner be dissuaded from inhabiting and sharing that love than it can stop beating and survive.
Some Christian holidays were derived from preexisting celebrations of other cultures, such as the explicit attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt and borrow elements from Dies Natalis Solis Invicti through its formalized celebration of Christmas. And while there were multiple different festivals from multiple different people groups around the same season as our contemporary celebration of Valentines Day in its formative context of Late Antiquity, there was virtually no carryover whatsoever into the original celebration of Valentines Day. Moreover, there was no romantic overtone to the holiday at all until Geoffrey Chaucer took a whack at it around a thousand years after it had been formally established. All the “love” celebrated in Valentines Day for the first millennium or so of its existence referred to the selfless compassion of people who literally laid down their lives to share the love of God with others.
This is not to say that romance has absolutely no place in the “proper” observance of Valentines Day or that other forms of love, like friendship or affection, are patently base. What’s at stake here is a matter of perspective and priority. In The Weight of Glory, the Christian essayist and former Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, launches into a diatribe against the popular notion that proper faith in God should merely blunt our passions:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
No matter what your station, you have the opportunity to live the dream this Valentines Day of tasting and passing along a dose of the infinite joy that God’s very self has offered us. Don’t hate on all the lovebirds. Don’t turtle up in your shell of forever alone-ness. Don’t get so absorbed in your significant other or latest crush or going-on-thirty-years-of-marriage-spouse-of-consummate-awesomeness that you miss the deeper and even more awesome opportunity to get out there and kick butt for love in the way that those long-dead martyrs once knew. And just in case you’re totally devoid of ideas about how to do that, here are a few that I came up with for your consideration:
- “Like” on facebook as well as donate to The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, which is building a global community free from all forms of sexual exploitation, including sexual assault and the commercial sex trade.
- If your grandmother is still alive, call her. Just do it.
- Remember that whole martyrdom thing? Visit Voice of the Martyrs homepage to learn about the millions of people suffering intense persecution for their faith in Jesus right now and donate to support their ministry.
- I read an email from a good buddy of mine who’s a dude fifteen minutes after midnight of February 14 that concluded with an all-caps “HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!!!” This inspired me to duplicate the matter for all the messages I will send today. Hey, why not join us and take things up a notch by linking the salutation to this article to inspire others, like this:
Just wanted to check on those TPS reports. How’s it coming?
- Buy a dozen flowers and distribute them to the oldest, most homely, or most needy people you encounter, looking them right in the eye as you wish them a Happy Valentines Day. By the way, just because some random person gives you a flower today does not mean that you are ugly :D
- Scope out this article listing fourteen different charitable options for Valentines Day compiled by the Case Foundation, spanning everything from fair-trade cards to ways of volunteering to methods for expressing compassion for those who could really use some, like nursing home residents.
- Still need some ideas about how to celebrate the holiday with that special someone or total lack thereof? Check out this article by USA Weekend listing twenty-three ways to do so whether you’re spoken for, single, chilling with kids, hanging out with friends, or all by yourself. But, seriously, don’t spend today all by yourself; there are plenty of people who would enjoy your company.
- Remember God’s love for you and take advantage of the precious opportunity you have to share that love with others. If you just need to hear it, this reading of 1 John by the award-winning Max McLean is a pretty good option.
Note: This post is dedicated to four women who have recently, unexpectedly, and graciously brought a dose of joy into my life. To Kay Spreitzer for definitively introducing me to the swing dancing community at Fizz, to Rachel Durchslag for teaching me about the amazing work of CAASE, to Katie Fretland for her dedication to The Howard Brown Health Center with well wishes for her new journalism gig in Oklahoma City, and to my sister and favorite valentine, Adriel Harris, for sharing the masters and demos for her forthcoming musical releases to which I wrote this piece. (Holy Moses, get ready, world…)
I don’t spend much time writing specifically about the act of blogging, but I realize that a lot of folks have found their way to what I’m writing lately because they have tracked me down from my reddit username, because they are even more into blogging than me, or because they’ve clicked through links shared on facebook. While redditors undoubtedly need no primer whatsoever on pwn’ing teh Interwebs (cutting out that cat facts craziness–now that’s another story), I figure those of you committed to facebook or interested in so distributing your blogs might enjoy some shop talk about syndication.
I started a public facebook page a few months ago based on the hunch that there was probably a class of people out there who wanted to “like” a page in order to follow its updates rather than “friend” or subscribe to another facebook user. Sure enough, around 15% of the people who are currently pulling updates from my page right now fall into that very category. To utilize this fact whilst preparing for the inevitable flood of friend requests that will overwhelm my personal profile after I share my research on cold fusion, the cure for cancer, and how to put the toothpaste back in the tube, I decided to syndicate my blog posts straight to my twitter feed and facebook page.
There are a lot of ways to do this, but my favorite one at present utilizes Networked Blogs’ protocol. It’s pretty easy to set up if you want to check it out for your blog. And if you’re a facebooker looking for an even easier way to get to my posts without leaving your comfortable womb of social networking, just click that neat-o little “Blog” icon like so:
This will magically bring you to this part of the page where you can see all the syndicated posts, like so:
And as the French gnome I met at the Starbucks near Chicago and Franklin would put it, c’est tout ce qu’il ya à faire!
Many thanks to Chris Bruno of The Restoration Project and Rose Gardner of Daskea.net for hipping me to this method, and many thanks to Paper Diamond for supplying the soundtrack to the composition of this post through their erstwhile soundcloud account. I gotta a show to catch by my buds of Milwaukee’s I’m Not a Pilot; so, until next time, Shabbat shalom!
Somewhere between now and January 31st, roughly 35% of us who have established a list of New Year’s resolutions will break at least one of them. By the end of the year, over 75% of us will have probably abandoned these goals altogether. Trends like this exacerbated by the constitution-decimating grind of a Chicago winter make most people in my home town already a bit less hopeful about 2012. What a difference a couple weeks can make! Remember the way things seemed back on January 1?
Twee hearts were still aflutter from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” More macabre Batman fan-girls and boys alike were just getting excited about the promoted conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night series this July. Alarmist cabals remained consternated by the conclusion of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar heralding the supposedly immanent end of the world–perhaps through the Nibiru collision. On the soberly optimistic side, the payoff of 2011′s Arab Spring and Occupy Pretty-Much-Everywhere suggested that my generation was finally getting a bit more politically proactive, albeit haltingly and not always productively. On the deeply foreboding side, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 evidently suspended the Bill of Right’s protection of due process in its now infamous provision for the “indefinite detention” without trial of any American citizen suspected of terrorism.
And while grassroots politically fascinated Americans like yours truly found a legislative silver lining in the shelving of SOPA and PIPA week, most people I know didn’t have a clue what was even at stake (to hilarious albeit profane effect in the case of these Twitter users baffled by the blacking out of Wikipedia). Most of us have simply moved on from the alternatively cute, exciting, menacing, promising, and disconcerting tropes attending the birth of 2012 to the more stressful but not quite as game-changingly eventful toldderdom of 2012. Already, this New Year doesn’t feel quite so “brand” and “spanking” as was so recently the case. The best winter holidays are over. Our old habits and fears and comforts and conditions haven’t changed all that much after we’ve rubbed the party glitter from our eyes.
Where can we find a more substantial, focused source of motivation and follow-through? What can serve as our anchor? How can we pick out that north star amidst the clouds obscuring our vision to chart a course forward? I don’t know what the rest of this year will bring, but I’m convinced that one of the best shots we have at accomplishing the work legitimately requested by all those interrogatives above is the following truth:
God is making all things new.
Nothing else laying either predicative of descriptive claim upon this year means m0re than this single, deceptively simple sentence. You and I already know that 2012 will be filled with its share turmoil and fortune, but nothing amounts to a hill of beans compared to the overarching truth that the Supreme Lord of all Creation is guiding every single thing towards a purposed conclusion marked by cataclysmic, divine renewal: God is making all things–all things–new. The second to last chapter of the Bible puts it this way when we follow the New Living Translation of Revelation 21:1-8:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” 6 And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.
8 “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
It’s been a while since I’ve attempted some roughly hewn theology on this blog, and the book of Revelation is one of the most psychedelic ones out there, stiffly challenging sound interpretation. Nevertheless, here are five things I drew from this portion of scripture with key concepts bold-faced for emphasis. (And if none of the following makes a lick of sense or you’re just a more auditory processor, check out this message I delivered a couple weeks ago based on this text instead.)
From vs.1 – God’s very self will create “a new heaven and a new earth.” You and I can probably think of a lot of great reasons to fix up this planet given all of its problems, but why a new heaven? Because there will no longer be the same sort of qualitative separation between heaven and earth as is presently the case. A clue towards this reading is the absence of the sea. From the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Old Testament was written through the Hellenic context of the New Testament, the sea is most typically representative of chaos (cf. Daniel 7:2-8 and also this). For any biblically scholarly fact-checkers out there, this is probably one reason why Revelation 13 describes a “beast rising up out of the sea” that wars against the forces of good. But this beast is conquered along with everything else that opposes God in Revelation 19. That there is no sea in this vision indicates that our story ends with absolute harmony between earth and heaven, the dwelling place of humanity and the dwelling place of God.
From vs.2 - God will achieve this harmony between heaven and earth by overtly bridging the gap that presently exists between them. And we’re not talking about a miracle here or a vision there, nor are we discussing a sort of rollback to some idyllic, Eden-like state of nature alone. Rather, there will be a ”holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Among other things, this means there is a God-given dignity to life in the city now. Medieval Christian hermits and romantic transcendentalists made the same mistake; when we attempt to flee the corruption of society, we abandon the opportunity to function as its salt and light as God has called us to live and do (cf. Matt. 5:13-16). By departing from this mission of redemption between God and the world, we step out of the very stream of divine life that renews and sanctifies us, too. Ironically, it is a type of corruption to merely flee corruption without doing anything about it; it is stereotypically “worldly” in the pejorative sense of that term to merely abandon the world–we are called to engage it with God’s love. And while there is certainly a God-given dignity that obtains to other physical stations, there are fewer places on earth where one can as readily commit oneself to such loving engagement of others as robustly as in the city. As the seat of humanity’s political, commercial, and cultural vitality, its idolatry is particularly deprave, and its violence particularly dark (cf. Ez. 7:23 & 22:3). The city is but a shadow of what will ultimately come, but there is meaning and hope in that shadow, too. Indeed, while Genesis locates the Tree of Life in a garden predating any city, Revelation locates this Tree whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations” right in the center of the city God’s very self will establish in the end of days (cf. Gen. 2:9 & Rev. 22:1-2).
From vs. 3-4 – This unified harmony between heaven and earth is not depicted by a bunch of people lazing around the clouds, plucking harps whilst bored to tranquilized oblivion. Rather, the upshot of God making everything new is this: “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” This makes protracted just and compassionate action possible. If we commit ourselves to declaring and living our lives according to this truth, we can do so optimistically but also soberly. We do not retreat to mere mysticism; we are not drunk on delusions but wide awake, gazing upon the shattered, filthy parts of our world as they truly exist right now with an unwavering eye, a kindled heart, and a readied hand. Until God’s very self effects that future state of harmony, suffering persists–and not just among people but throughout all nature. As Paul puts it in the New International Version’s treatment of Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” It is ultimately the activity of God’s very self that will remove all injustice, yet we are called to participate in this process now. We comfort the heartbroken courageously, and we do battle directly with death, neither purgatively aggrandizing pain nor timidly fleeing its grizzled visage. We are protected from disillusionment when we encounter severe difficulty because we have abandoned the merely illusory as a first principle predicated on the substantive reality of God’s ultimate home being with us, of God’s wiping our tears from our eyes to obliterate sorrow and crying and pain in the end.
From vs. 5 – The source of definitive commentary on all of this comes from God; it is God who commands the author of Revelation to “write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” When we embrace or communicate such a message to others, we do so confidently yet humbly; neither this event nor its proper description have come from us. We are scribes, we are messengers of the One who has spoken. We are not the Author of this story; it is news to us just as much as to anyone else.
From vs. 5-8 – God possesses generative and rectifying sovereignty over everything. The divinity of God envelops what is limited by time and space within externally unlimited eternity; as Acts 17:28 puts it, it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.” God’s commentary on new creation promises supreme restoration and justice from the basis of all-encompassing sovereignty. (“It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End.”) God freely welcomes and will slake the thirsts of any who so desire. (“To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.”) God will surely reward those who have righteously persevered–chiefly, through blessing wrought by dwelling in unity with God. (“All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.”) God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, imploring those bent by their evil ways to turn and live (cf. Ez. 18:23). God wants everyone to be saved from corruption, coming to a knowledge of such truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4); in fact, our present circumstances lacking perfected justice are a part of God’s plan to save as many as possible from perishing due to their wickedness (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). Nevertheless, there are those whose unrighteousness will staunchly remain despite God’s appeals, those who will persist in rejecting God’s ways to embrace corruption in its various forms. And by rejecting the source of all life, they will embrace their inevitable fate. (“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”)
To shift from a more devotional reading of this text to an applied reading, one that directs us towards specific action on the individual and collective levels, I learned the following by comparing this passage of scripture with other texts:
1. We should base our individual identity on God’s creative renewal - What is most fundamental about our identity is not our collection of individual achievement, our ethnicity, our preferred forms of media consumption, our political affiliation, our right versus left brained-ness, our socioeconomic status, our relative level of physical beauty, all the stuff we accumulate, or anything else. As the Egyptian church leader, Clement of Alexandria, wrote circa 195 C.E., “We have no country on earth; therefore, we can disdain earthly possessions.” As the Assyrian writer, Tatian, put it around that same time, “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it; live to God.” Nothing else matters compared to the fact that God is still making all things new, including the very being and identity of we who are pursuing a relationship with this God by the salvation extended through Messiah Jesus. As Paul puts it in his letter to the early believers in Jesus living in the central Anatolian highlands of modern-day Turkey, nothing about us counts for anything when compared to the fact of our “new creation” (cf. Gal. 6:11-15). No matter what people think about us or what happens to us externally, “our inner self is being renewed day by day” as we pursue life predicated on God’s transforming, revitalizing activity through Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16).
2. As a corollary to the above principle, detrimental activity clashes with our truest self, and that’s exactly why we should avoid it - We do not eschew unethical patterns of behavior merely because society might otherwise punish us, and we don’t fixate on our failures either. As that quote from Tatian implies above, we literally die to our old self while embracing the newness of our creation wrought by God. Romans 6:6 puts it this way, “For we know that our old self was crucified with Messiah so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Ephesians 4:22 underscores this same point, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” All this means that immoral activity is the same thing as entanglement with an old self that is fading away; the righteous life pursuing Jesus is liberation to the new creation we most truly are. Hebrews 12:1-2 puts it even more forcefully, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
3. Living a life predicated on God making all things new includes sharing this truth with others as a fundamental operating principle – New creation makes an appeal to others on the basis of its own being, a being that is itself directed back towards its source in God. The key scriptural metaphor describing this phenomenon is that of ambassadorship. Ambassadors do all sorts of things that are exactly like the people with whom they dwell; ambassadors pay rent, forge relationships, eat meals, bear children, follow sports teams, weep at opera houses, and spill coffee on the postal mail. But there is one gigantic difference; the entire purpose of ambassadors is to represent the party who has sent them above and beyond all the incidental stuff. 2 Cor. 5:17-20 puts it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” Not only does God literally effect new creation in those who pursue life “in Christ,” God draws those newly created people into the process of extending this grace of worldwide reconciliation. It is impossible to forego sharing this message of God making all things new with others yet still live according to that message. Failing to communicate God’s desired reconciliation is abdication of one’s ambassadorship by definition.
4. Our collective lives should leverage the communication of God making us new- We should celebrate that the dwelling of God already exists in a real but muted way among those of us who have been transformed by Jesus, even as it will one day exist in technicolor, high definition brilliance across the entire earth when God completes this activity of making all things new. Paul emphasizes this point by rebuking wayward followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth with the words, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Now, the Greek for the term here translated as “you” is ἐστε, which is a second person plural form of “to be”–in other words, Paul is saying something specifically about a group of believers and not just about one or two of them individually considered. In fact, Paul argues that this lived experience of the Spirit of God should be so powerfully present in this group of believers that even somebody who does not believe should be able to notice it; according to 1 Cor. 14:24-25, “unbelievers” encountering a gathering of people truly following Jesus should be so thoroughly convinced of their need for salvation from the encounter that they will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” Our primary text under consideration from the book of Revelation encourages us that one day, for certain and with totality everyone will witness God’s new creation. Yet, we have the opportunity to experience a dose of that reality together right now, and we should purposefully foster this to the end of amplifying our collective ambassadorship.
5. We accomplish the most powerful form of collective ambassadorship by living according to higher law, a pattern of behavior that is utterly foreign to this world right now - We are not just talking about rounding up a bunch of people who have experienced God’s new creation and then deploying them all over the place to verbally articulate a message. We are talking about the implicit witness of a concretely lived experience, one predicated on social norms that only make sense from the perspective of God making all things new at the end of days. This makes us nothing less than strangers and aliens here and now; as Tertullian of Carthage wrote to his fellow Christians in the volume, De Corona, “As for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven.” He was unpacking Paul’s point from Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Consequently, we exercise fidelity to one another, pursuing life in Messiah together at all costs in a way that fortifies our message of reconciliation. We exercise faith in God’s supremacy as Alpha and Omega rather than fear whatever lies behind that next bend in the road–we know that our collective origin and our global destination are anchored to the being and activity of the supreme Lord of all Creation. We are strategic, motivated, at peace, and thereby always proclaiming by our life together Whom we serve and why everyone else should, too. We frame everything from that posture of sober hope in God’s supreme, creative work, committing ourselves to living according to and actually speeding the coming of the very kingdom of God on earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). It is this concretely lived experience that constitutes a fundamental part of the most powerful form of our collective ambassadorship.
I’ve recently received some criticism about the length of the articles I post on this blog, and I plan on including a greater quantity of briefer posts in the future for those short on time or attention span. But the topic of this article is worth burning ten times as many words as the 4400+ that I will have spent by the time I wrap this thing up. And that is because there is literally nothing more important than meditating upon and responding to and celebrating this simple, profound truth developed within these various portions of scripture upon which I’ve reflected to unpack just what it means that God is making all things new.
My life swiftly drifts off-course when I lose sight of this, and I’m alternatively too hard on myself or too flippant. On the one hand, I can become discouraged when I fail to achieve the things that I want, and I repeat the same, stupid mistakes that I already know won’t deliver specifically because of my fatigue and irritation. On the other hand, I can fling my weight around boorishly, inadvertently hurting other people as I traipse along my merry way without reference to who God is and what God is doing in me and throughout the world. Maybe I struggle with this sort of thing more than most; I lack a trustworthy means of discerning that. But even if you are reading this post right now without any of the tension I’ve shared such that there is subjectively less at stake for you in considering the points I’ve mentioned, I hope that you will still take a chance on experiencing and celebrating and committing yourself to the reality I’ll never have enough words to fully describe.
God wants to reconcile you and me to God’s self, every day more deeply and yet always afresh. God doesn’t want to merely forgive you for that one time you stole the candy from the drugstore or that other time you cheated on your taxes or screwed your buddy’s crush or talked crap behind that one girl’s back. God wants to redeem you from a death of which you aren’t even fully cognizant towards a life categorically different and more substantial than anything you or I have ever encountered–repetitively, day after day, moment by moment. And God doesn’t want to just stop there; God wants to draw us into this very process of expanding wholeness and well being throughout the world, of sharing this message even as we live it with other people moving from shadow to substance, from decrepit adolescence to youthful maturity. God wants to knit you together in relationship with others resisting a world marked by decay and rebellion that will one day be overturned and yet somehow redeemed by an apocalyptic, divine fiat of compassion and justice perfectly balanced. Nothing you or I have done or seen or known up until now is like this or more important than it.
So, what does this mean for you today? How does this affect your work, your family, the friendships you’re forging, and the goals you’re setting? What does this mean for the way you manage your finances, for the use of your time, or for the sorts of things you talk about and meditate on? What parts of your life already reflect these truths pretty clearly, and what parts sharply clash with them? Moreover, what would it look like for you and me to take these truth more seriously but also more joyfully, as leap-off points for action rather than mere nodes of reflection? What aspirations may emerge and what habits or attitudes will need to be put to rest? What might it mean for you, just this day or even just for the next couple hours to explore this way of life more fundamentally? In what intentionally embraced manner can this be, right now for you, more “trustworthy and true”?
God is making all things new.
- I utilized David Bercot’s summary of multiple points from The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down for quick reference to the thought of various Ante-Nicene fathers in this article on scrollpublishing.com while writing this post.
- Many thanks also to the hosts of the five best parties I ever attended on a New Year’s Eve in a row: Micah and Lauren McLellan, Michael and Christine Evans, Dana Chen, Lauren Parton, Jake VanKersen, Lizzy Hill, Katie Nelson, Sarah Joy Mikolajczyk, Kevin Harris, and Jenifer Dodsworth–you people are amazing.
- I would not have written this article if I had I not been blessed with the opportunity to preach about its subject matter on New Year’s Day at the congregation where I was raised and came to faith in Messiah, namely, Jesus People Covenant Church of Uptown, Chicago, and this would not have been possible apart from the invitation of Rev. Neil Taylor and Rev. Thomas Cameron, to whom I am more deeply indebted than just about anyone else on earth for literally years of wise counsel. My bosom buddy, Nathan Cameron, ran the PowerPoint making the message optimally comprehensible given how pooped most people are the morning of New Year’s Day.
- These songs by Skrillex, Broken Social Scene, The Who, and Monchy Y Alexandra helped motivate me to finish this post. Check ‘em out if you have flash.