The True Moral Fallacy of #justiceforHarambe

western_lowland_gorilla3 (1)The death of Harambe the gorilla has taken the Internet by storm. If you somehow missed the story, you can find a summary of it here.

It should come as no surprise that animal activists are outraged by Harambe’s death. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition calling for “justice for Harambe,” insisting that the boy’s parents should be held accountable.

The “justice for Harambe” movement is predicated on the concept that all life – human and animal – is of equivalent value.

Most of us, of course, don’t agree. We object to the concept of human/animal equality in a sort of visceral way, without being able to clearly articulate why it’s wrong. “Of course people are worth more than animals,” we say. “It’s just obvious.” Or this: “If it were your child in that enclosure, you’d certainly feel that his life was worth more than the gorilla’s life.”

Many Christians take their reasoning one step further, correctly noting that humans are made in the image of God, while gorillas are not. But few of us can articulate what it means to be made in the “image of God.” As a result, we struggle to explain specifically what is wrong with the “animals are equal to people” arguments making the rounds at the moment.

Upon close inspection, though, the argument that Harambe deserves justice collapses in on itself. In other words, if humans and animals are truly of equal value, then nobody would be insisting on justice for Harambe at all! 

What do I mean by that?

Let’s imagine for a moment that Harambe had, in fact, killed the child. Animal activists, of course, would be insisting that the gorilla was justified. After all, the boy invaded his home! When their environments are invaded, gorillas feel threatened and they rip people to bits. That’s just what they do. There would be no “justice for the boy” movement. Nobody would ask Harambe to go to jail, or pay a fine, or make restitution in any way. After all, he’s a gorilla. The boy and his parents should’ve known better.

But wait a second. Isn’t this a double standard? Why are humans held accountable for killing gorillas, but gorillas are not held accountable for killing humans?

Here’s why: Because we all recognize that humans and gorillas are not, in fact, morally equivalent. We don’t hold gorillas morally accountable for their actions. If they pose a threat to a human being, we restrain them or even kill them, but that’s not a punitive measure. It is a practical measure. The zoo employees who shot Harambe were not trying to punish him or to set an example for all the other gorillas. They were just trying to protect a child’s life.

This is why the concept of “justice for Harambe” contains a deep moral and logical fallacy. The entire movement is built on the premise that people are morally superior to gorillas. Those asking for justice for Harambe recognize that people should be held accountable for moral decisions, but gorillas should not. Gorillas do not have the ability to think morally, even if they have the ability to think rationally.

Let’s imagine another scenario for a moment: Think of the biggest, strongest man you can imagine. Maybe The Rock or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now imagine that the man’s home is invaded by an unarmed 4-year-old child. Would that man be justified in ripping the child to pieces with his bare hands? No? But why not? After all, the child has invaded his home! The man is big and strong and angry and startled – shouldn’t he be able to kill the intruder? Of course not. He would go to jail for that crime. He might even face execution.

We hold the man accountable because we understand that he has the capacity to act morally. He is not driven solely by instinct. He must not allow his size and strength to dictate his actions. We expect more of the man than we do of the gorilla. That is because there is more to the man than there is to the gorilla.

Here’s where we come back to the concept of the image of God. To be made in the image of God is – at least in part – to be capable of reflecting God’s moral character. Because we are made in the image of God, we are called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). Humans are superior to animals because we are made in God’s image, and God’s image includes the capacity to make moral choices.

Because Adam and Eve were made in God’s image, He punished them when they disobeyed Him in the Garden of Eden. They didn’t disobey God because they were stupid; they disobeyed Him because they were rebellious and evil. We might call a gorilla dangerous and stupid, or gentle and playful or any number of other things, but we never call it evil. We do not attribute good and evil to animals, because we recognize that they are not morally responsible. Even animal activists recognize that, although they do so unconsciously.

Hence the irony of insisting on justice for Harambe, when we would not ask the same if the gorilla had committed the same offense. People can be evil. We all agree on that. Gorillas, on the other hand, can only act according to the nature of gorillas. They act on instinct. And if that is true, then people are superior. Their lives are more valuable than those of gorillas.

It’s not that gorillas have no value at all. It’s just that their value is less than that of a human being. From a Christian perspective, we recognize that being made in the image of God confers upon us a great deal of value, but also a great deal of responsibility.

While the death of a beautiful gorilla is sad, the waste of a human life is even sadder. While the life of a gorilla might bring us joy for a few years, the life of a human being can last forever.

While we strive to be kind to all of God’s creatures, let’s never forget the eternal nature and immeasurable value of humanity, created in God’s image and redeemed by God’s son.


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Love, Mortality, and Aggie Football

11230612_10156141018410160_4599014232661230164_oI didn’t grow up watching Aggie football. My parents both went to Oklahoma, and neither of them were ardent fans of college football anyway. I remember watching college football each year on Thanksgiving, when we visited my mom’s family in Oklahoma City. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were die-hard Sooners. At least once, my grandfather (whom we called Ghido) took us to a game in Norman. All I remember about the game is that Ghido, who was a prominent attorney and later a judge in Oklahoma City, seemed to know every person at the stadium. I came to realize over the years that he seemed to know everybody wherever he went. He was one of those rare individuals who could walk into a room of strangers and quickly turn them into friends.

Still, Ghido loved his family above all else. He especially loved his grandchildren. There were nine of us, and each of us believed we were his favorite.

In a sort of ironic twist, it was my love for my Sooner grandfather that eventually cemented my love of Aggie football.

I came to A&M in 1994, following in my older brother’s footsteps. We were the first Aggies in our family, so when A&M played Oklahoma that September, I made sure to be at the game. OU entered the game ranked 15th; A&M was 16th. Since A&M and OU were not in the same conference at the time, the matchup had only been recently revived. OU won the game in 1993. In 1994, A&M had their revenge and beat OU 36-14.

When I got home from the game, I decided to call Ghido and harass him a little bit. My grandmother answered the phone. When she told my grandfather to come to the phone, I heard him say, “Tell Matt I’m not here.” She told him that he’d better come to the phone right that minute and talk to her grandson, a demand with which he complied (he was really never able to tell her no). I gave him a hard time for a few minutes, and in his gracious way, Ghido said, “You guys have a good team and a good coach. But these things always go back and forth.”

A&M won the next three times they played Oklahoma, but as Ghido predicted, the series swung the other way in 1999. A&M and OU were both in the Big 12 by then, so we played each other every year. OU absolutely decimated A&M, 51-6, in Norman that year. Ghido called me to remind me that “these things go back and forth,” but then followed it up by saying things were sure to turn around for us.

Over the next ten years, A&M only won once, leading me to think that “back and forth” was no longer an accurate description of the rivalry. Ghido never forgot to call me when his team won. Not a single time. I think he even began to feel a little bit sheepish about the calls, since he was on the winning end of a very long streak. And yet he always called nonetheless.

Over time I realized that the phone calls weren’t about football. They were about him and me. They were about a young man from Generation X and a old man of the World War 2 generation, who stumbled upon a shared interest, an inside joke that cemented our love for one another. I grew to love his calls after the game every year, even when the Aggies lost. I’d wait by the phone and look forward to hearing his voice gently razz me about our team. And I know that on the few occasions I got to call him, he eagerly waited by the phone, although he’d always pretend that he was trying to sneak out of the house before the phone rang.

In 2006, my wife and I were living in College Station again, having moved back from Dallas in 2004. It occurred to me that I’d never actually attended an A&M-OU game with Ghido, even though we had watched one or two of them on the same television. So I called to invite him to the game that Fall. He was 85 years old at the time. My grandmother had passed away a few years earlier, and I had a feeling that our time with Ghido was running short as well. I didn’t know if we’d have another opportunity to see the game together in person.

My grandfather sat with me on the west side of Kyle Field, the old “former student” section. He was a bright red speck in a sea of maroon. Ordinarily, a fan of the opposing team sitting right in the midst of home team fans would face some ribbing, maybe even some hostility. But this was Kyle Field, home of the friendliest fans in college football. And, as I’ve mentioned before, my grandfather had a way of winning people over. By the end of the first quarter he was friends with everybody sitting within speaking distance. Since we ended up standing through most of the game, my fellow Aggies periodically checked on Ghido. “Are you doing okay?” they’d ask. “Need any more water? Can we get you anything from the concessions stand?” He stood for the entire game, with the exception of halftime, although I could tell it took a toll on his knees. He just didn’t want to miss a minute of the action.

The Aggies ran out of time that day, losing 17-16 to Oklahoma in a nailbiter that turned into a heartbreaker. As always, Ghido said something like, “You guys have a good coach. It will turn around again eventually.”

As I’d feared, that was the last time I would attend a game with my grandfather. He died in 2012, just after A&M entered the SEC. Oklahoma won their final matchup in the Big 12. Other family members tell me that he talked about attending that game in 2006 for years, how he and his Aggie grandson shared a rivalry that somehow turned into an alliance. To this day, it’s one of my favorite and most poignant memories.

Less than two months after Ghido died, A&M played OU in The Cotton Bowl, and this time the Aggies won 41-13. After the game, I reached for the phone, and then remembered he was gone. For seventeen years, we’d talked to each other after the game. This time, A&M’s victory was bittersweet.

Moses wrote in Psalm 90 that “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength, eighty” before we “fly away.” My grandfather had 91 good years before he flew away. 

These days, when I watch Aggie football, I often reflect on the bond it created between me and my grandfather, and on the fleeting nature of life on this side of eternity. I remember what my grandfather taught me through those yearly phone calls, that the people we love matter so much more than any game. I remember that our days pass quickly, so we’d best use them wisely.

Another great sage, King Solomon, says to “remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Because time flies. Three or four hours and the game is over. Seventy or eighty years and so is your life. And then eternity beckons. As a pastor, of course, my calling is to point men and women to the reality that Jesus is risen, to the truth that eternal life is found in knowing Him.

I’m an avid Aggie football fan these days. But I’ve transformed in more important ways since that first game I watched in 1994.

I now understand from experience that time is short. I know in a deeper way how much people matter, how significant our time is with those we love. I remember that eternity awaits us all, so the wise among us prepare for it.

Lessons God drove home through Aggie football and phone calls from my grandfather. Unlikely teachers, but the greatest wisdom often comes from unlikely sources.

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Heaven is (at Least) as Important as Noah

After the firestorm surrounding the Noah film, I’ve been surprised to see no online discussion about the upcoming film version of Heaven is for Real. Is it possible that people care more about the Noah story than they do about heaven? It seems to me that our eternal destiny is more important than whether or not rock people helped Noah build the ark.

I haven’t seen Heaven is for Real, but I have read the book. I’m guessing that, like Noah, the upcoming film will have its strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to suggest one of each, just as I did for NoahKeep in mind that my thoughts are based on the book, so it’s possible the movie could move in a different direction altogether.

One strength of the book is its clear testimony to the biblical idea that death is not the end of life for those who trust in Christ (e.g. Phil 1:22-23; Luke 16:19-31). That’s why the story has generated hope for so many people. The book also affirms the deep love that Jesus has for children, something we adults often forget or minimize (Matthew 19:13-15).

One weakness is that the book minimized (or omitted) the reality of future, bodily resurrection. In other words, our ultimate hope as Christians is not a disembodied existence, floating around like angels with wings. Instead, we look forward to a new body on a new earth (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). The intermediate state, where our souls are separated from our bodies after death, is called “nakedness” by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:3). Everybody knows that it’s not OK to be naked all the time! Instead, we seek to be clothed with an eternal, resurrected body. That won’t happen fully until Jesus returns and we rise from the grave. Heaven is for Real focuses exclusively on the intermediate state and places all of our hope there, rather than pointing us ahead to the final resurrection.

Here’s what I’m recommending for those who want to see Heaven is for Real: Spend as much time comparing it to the Bible as you did with Noah. Don’t assume that because the book issued from a Christian publisher that every concept in the movie is biblically accurate.

I’m not suggesting that we cynically doubt the Burpos’ claims. I’ve no reason to believe they are lying or making up their story. On the other hand, this movie (like Noah) is a great opportunity to revisit what the Bible says about heaven and hell and death and resurrection. Go to the movie with an open but critical mind. (By critical, I don’t mean “negative,” but thoughtful).

Ask questions like these: 

-Does this movie accurately reflect the Bible’s testimony about heaven? Why or why not?

-How do we reconcile this story with passages like Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus says that Scripture itself ought to be sufficient testimony for us to believe in heaven?

-How can we appropriately discuss this movie and its story with our non-Christian friends and neighbors? Should we whole-heartedly endorse its picture of heaven, or should we be cautious?

As with any media, take this story back to the Bible and consider its claims in light of God’s Word.

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What’s Really Worth Discussing About Noah

Director Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic vision of Noah has been praised and criticized from nearly every possible direction. I wavered over whether to write about this movie, because so much has already been said.

I finally saw the movie, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the reviews I’ve read are exercises in missing the point. Noah has its strengths and weaknesses, but the most important ones aren’t the ones that people have focused on. 

So bear with me here: Forget about rock people, environmentalism, or whether every detail of the story matches Genesis 6-9. All of those issues would be worth discussing if the movie didn’t raise some bigger questions that need addressing. To be honest, it troubles me immensely that so many Christians have centered upon the details of the movie without paying attention to what it’s actually trying to say. With regard to the film’s message, then, I’m going to highlight one major way Noah gets it right and one way the movie gets it wrong.

Before diving into its theology, though, I need to say this: Noah asks precisely the right questions about humanity and God, although its answers are quite often incorrect. For that reason alone, the movie is worth considering. I’m not of the mindset that we should stick our heads in the sand and refuse to engage with Aronofsky’s portrayal of Noah. Some will watch the movie and find it artistically beautiful, others will find it to be a mess. Frankly, there is enough of both sides to go around. Theologically, we can say the same. However, this film provides a rare opportunity to Christians to engage with one particular cultural understanding of God and provide a response.

OK, so what does the movie get right? Noah correctly highlights mankind’s utter wickedness, and leaves viewers with the strong impression that people can’t be saved without God’s intervention. I’ve read one or two reviews that criticize the film for being “anti-human.” There’s some accuracy to that charge, but I don’t think the film is anti-human in ways that the Scripture is not. Read Genesis 6-9 again, and you’ll read about people whose every thought was only evil continually. In others words, people have the capacity for terrible evil. Aronofsky’s Noah gets that right, and in the process justifies God’s judgment. Noah even questions whether he and his family deserve to survive, because he knows that the wickedness of mankind resides in his heart as well. The movie is so heavy-handed with that idea, in fact, that it stumbles artistically. There’s an extended and very uncomfortable sub-plot revolving around Noah’s desire to kill his baby granddaughters. He feels it’s necessary, because he doesn’t believe humanity deserves a second chance. That sub-plot dragged on so long that I was silently pleading for it to end. But Aronofsky and company are working to make a broader point, that perhaps people really do deserve extinction. And in fact, they’re correct. Noah wasn’t saved because he was a perfect person, and that’s a point that many Christian reviewers have missed. Instead, he was saved because he found favor with God. He was only “righteous” in comparison to others of his generation, meaning that at least some of his thoughts weren’t totally terrible. That’s not a ringing endorsement of mankind, and the movie highlights the theme well.

What does Noah get wrong, then? The filmmakers bypassed the mercy and love of God, in favor of a unilaterally vindictive Creator. Again, please forget about whether anti-environmentalism is a sin, or whether the rock people are dumb, or whether Tubal-Cain should sneak onto the boat or not. This issue is the one that matters. In the final analysis, all of the mercy and love in the movie emanate from Noah rather than from God. The only reason Noah refrains from killing his granddaughters is because he simply can’t do it. Noah loves them too deeply, and it’s at least implied that Noah loves them more than God. The filmmakers leave us with the impression that God wanted Noah to kill them — or at least that God was alright with it — but that Noah was overcome by kindness, despite God’s cruelty. I disagree with those who say Aronofsky’s Noah is not righteous enough. To the contrary, he’s more righteous than God Himself, which poses a major problem.

God never speaks to Noah throughout the story, leaving him to piece God’s will together through short dreams and drug-induced hallucinations. God shows up in nature (which is of course a biblical theme), but he never speaks. God also casts demons out of heaven for being too kind to humanity. They were condemned for trying to help people. Ultimately, the movie implies that kindness doesn’t come from God Himself, but from those humans who free themselves from God’s vindictiveness and wrath. The only character who refers to God’s image in mankind is the vicious Tubal-Cain, who uses God’s image as a justification for violence and destruction. Partly because nobody corrects his viewpoint or explains what it really means to be made in God’s image, we’re left with the impression that God is one dimensional, all about judgment, without any real mercy.

This impression of God’s character doesn’t match what we see in Scripture, even in the story of Noah. It’s easy to forget, of course, that the story of Noah and the Ark isn’t the happy flannel-board version we learned in Sunday school. This movie highlights that well. The biblical story of Noah is truly dark and brutal. However, it’s also easy to forget that the God who destroyed the world also provided a way of redemption, not only for the animals, but for people. God loves mankind, not because we are good (or because Noah was good), but because He is gracious and because He made us. He loves us despite our evil, and He always provides a way of redemption. Noah, while raising some great questions about God and man, is a tragically incomplete portrayal of His character. 

All that said, I think the film provides a helpful opportunity for Christians to fill in the gaps. We don’t need to be afraid of the movie, but instead to take this chance to explain that God is more merciful and more loving than any of us can imagine. It was God who provided the Ark as a way of redemption. It was God who started over and gave mankind a second chance. Noah was an imperfect, although “graced,” tool of God’s mercy. All mercy, all love, and all kindness spring from God Himself. All human love is a dim reflection. 

I was talking about the movie with some friends on Facebook last weekend, and mentioned that the film isn’t a total loss, whatever its content, if it inspires people to pick up a Bible to read it and discuss it. Too few Christians are actually familiar with the story (e.g., I read one review that criticized it for portraying a drunken Noah, a scene which actually occurs in Genesis 9). Too few of us have taken to heart what the destruction of the world and the salvation of the Ark communicates about God’s wrath and mercy. What a great chance for us to review those basics and share them with others.

But please, please, don’t get involved in secondary issues about political environmentalism or whether the rock people are poorly created. Major on the majors — is God just, merciful, gracious, and true? Yes! And the story of Noah is a great window into His character. 

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Should Phil Robertson Be Our Spokesman?

The online controversy surrounding Phil Robertson’s suspension from Duck Dynasty highlights the deep divisions that exist in our country regarding Christianity and sexuality. For the most part, I’ve seen two responses on social media: those who wholeheartedly support Robertson and his statements, and those who vehemently repudiate them. Depending on which side of the cultural divide you are on, Robertson looks either like a hero or a hateful bigot.

My first reaction to the controversy was probably similar to many of my readers: anger and dismay at the way “big media” treats traditional Christian viewpoints. How dare A&E go after this man for his stance on sexual morality?

Like many issues, though, with a few hours of thought and consideration I’m seeing things a bit differently. I don’t think we evangelicals should be so ready to jump on the “torch A&E to the ground” bandwagon, or that we should be so eager to line up behind Robertson and his statements. 

Now, I absolutely agree with Robertson that homosexual behavior is sinful. It’s a view that Christians have held and affirmed for a long time. And it certainly troubles me that expressing that view in the public square is now completely taboo. No matter how carefully it’s qualified or explained, believing that homosexual behavior is wrong is considered the unforgivable sin of public discourse. It has become impossible to even discuss the issue without being shouted down or completely silenced. I understand all of that, and as a Christian it makes me sad.

However, I think it’s a mistake to hitch our wagons to Phil Robertson as the spokesman for evangelical Christianity. And without intending to do so, that’s what many Christians have done in the past 24 hours or so. There are a few critical facts that we’re failing to take into account:

First, A&E is a business, and they made a business decision. They calculated — correctly or not — that the fallout from sticking with Robertson would exceed the fallout from firing him. Blogger Matt Walsh has argued that A&E has just committed suicide, that everybody will flee from their network and they’ll go down in flames. I think he’s wrong in this case. Walsh lacks the perspective of history here. If you’ve followed the culture wars for long, you’ve seen this story before. The attention span of those who are furious will fade in a few weeks. A&E will likely cancel the show, the Robertsons might find another network (perhaps a Christian one?), but people will move on. Sticking with the Robertsons was a riskier decision for a secular business like A&E. If they hadn’t pulled Phil off of the show, the advertisers would have fled in droves, not just from that one show, but from the entire network. A few thousand Christian viewers migrating to different shows pales in comparison.

A&E isn’t in the business of preaching biblical Christianity. They’re in the business of making money through entertainment (after all, the network is called “Arts and Entertainment”). It’s certainly within our rights to stop watching their shows, and perhaps we should. But it’s also within their rights to decide who gets on their network and who doesn’t. It’s a hard reality, but it’s the reality of the entertainment business, and it shouldn’t surprise any of us. It also shouldn’t surprise us that our Christian views are minority views. Although those of us in the South are often surrounded with people who share our views, the national picture looks quite a bit different. Frankly, there are more people who disagree with traditional Christian sexuality than who agree with it. So again, A&E made a very deliberate and careful business calculation here, and I don’t think it will hurt them in the long run.

Second, Phil Robertson’s comments do not exemplify how Christians ought to approach the discussion of biblical sexuality. I’m not sure that those who are lining up behind Robertson have carefully read the words he actually said. He was deliberately crude, and he seemed to be trying to poke a stick in the eyes of those who disagree with him. If Robertson had made those same remarks in front of my church’s college group, I would have told him he could never talk to them again. The problem with allowing an entertainment figure to be our spokesman is that his job is to provoke, to draw laughs, and to entertain. Even if he does it crudely and offensively. The Robertson family are skilled entertainers. But they’re paid a lot of money to be silly and shocking. I think Christians need to engage in thoughtful discussions about biblical sexuality. But not in discussions laced with the kind of talk that permeates junior high locker rooms. I do realize that Robertson would have been attacked even if his comments had been measured and careful. That being said, I can’t endorse him as my spokesman, because of the way he said what he did.

Third, if we make Duck Dynasty our rallying point, we might communicate that we care more about popularity than about the gospel. When I stand before Jesus Christ, I am confident He won’t ask me if I went to bat to keep Duck Dynasty on the air. It’s a television show. Our identity does not rest in whether or not Christians remain popular on television. When I read the New Testament I see stories of Christians experiencing real persecution for their faith: loss of property, loss of life, imprisonment. What does it say about us that we go ballistic over the shaming of an entertainment figure? Especially one who will continue to make millions of dollars through books, speaking engagements, and probably a whole new cottage industry based on his Christian beliefs?

What’s interesting to me is that there are some key theological issues in which the Robertsons probably disagree with the evangelicals who watch the show. For example, they attend a church that believes in baptismal regeneration, the belief that baptism is essential to receive eternal life. Yet I’ve heard very few Christians discuss that issue, which is directly related to the gospel. On the other hand, we are very concerned about the issue of homosexuality, an important issue that is more about morality than about eternal life. My point is this: I think we are often more concerned with winning a cultural battle and looking good than we are about sharing the gospel in a winsome and accurate way.

Because I know I’ll receive some pushback on this post, I feel the need to clarify again: I agree with Robertson that biblical sexuality is important. I agree that the Bible clearly teaches homosexual behavior is sinful. I’m troubled and saddened that we can’t have a reasonable discussion about the issue.

I’m more concerned, though, that we take care to faithfully and winsomely preach Jesus Christ before we inundate our culture with messages about sexuality. 

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Random Kindness and the Image of God

One of my Facebook friends shared an article today, about a man who was photographed last week on the subway allowing a young stranger to sleep on his shoulder.

It’s been shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook and liked more than 97,000 times on the original page where it was posted. It’s hard to say why a picture like this would go viral — some have suggested that people are intrigued by a seemingly random connection between two men of starkly different races and backgrounds. Whatever the reason, people are clearly moved by what Mr. Thiel, the Jewish man in the photo, viewed as a very small kindness. I was more intrigued, though, by the statements Thiel made when he was interviewed:

“There is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.”

Without stating it directly, Mr. Thiel made it clear that he was motivated (consciously or not) by the fact that both men share the image of God. He was kind, simply because this was a fellow human being, one who needed a soft place to sleep. In the same interview, Mr. Thiel said he can remember many times when his own head bobbed onto a stranger’s shoulder on the way home from work. He felt it was right to extend the same sort of kindness to a fellow human being in need. Such empathy stems from an understanding of our shared humanity, a humanity that is endowed with God’s image — even though that image is broken by sin.

One of the foundational concepts in the book of Genesis is that mankind is made in the image of God. If this had been a picture of a man and a monkey, it would have been cute, but it wouldn’t have been deeply moving. It’s moving because we recognize that we are called to treat fellow human beings with dignity, respect, and selflessness. We don’t treat people with kindness because they look, think, or believe like we do. We treat them with kindness because they are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27).

As Christians, we have the chance to reflect the perfect kindness of Jesus Christ. We know that the God of the Bible defines perfect love (1 John 4:8). That love is perfectly and completely reflected through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s in Jesus that we clearly see God’s image (Hebrews 1:3) and know what it looks like to reflect the Father.

Other than the fact of his Jewishness, I know next to nothing about Mr. Thiel. I do know that you and I are called to serve and care for other men and women because of what God has made them to be — image-bearers, made to worship Him, with the potential to reflect His glory to the rest of Creation.

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Are You Authentic or Just Whiny?

There’s a fine line between between being transparent and being whiny. Complaining is easy, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, people even reward us for grumbling online.

Don’t believe me? Which of these posts is more likely to elicit likes and comments:

“Great day! My kids were sweet and joyful and they cleaned their room! Who else had an awesome and blessed day? #awesomeblessedday”


“AARGH! My 3-year-old broke my phone, punched his sister, and bit me in a very sensitive place. 🙁 🙁 🙁 Does this happen to anybody else? #terribleangryawfulchildren”

If you’re like me, the first post would actually make you roll your eyes — what a braggart. The second post would come across as “real,” and “gritty.” You’d chuckle to yourself, hit the Like button, and  make a comment about how kids are little demons. You might even appreciate the authenticity and honesty of you and your friends.

Don’t get me wrong — both posts have major problems. It’s just that we only notice the problems with the braggy post. We ignore the fact that the second post is also blatantly disobedient to God’s Word.

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Philippians 2:14). I quote that to my kids all the time — you might do that also. But do you ever quote it to yourself?

“So,” you ask, ” should we just pretend everything is OK? Should I ever share my burdens and weaknesses and complaints with others?”

The answer is yes, under certain circumstances and in certain ways. Ask yourself this: “Why am I sharing this here, at this time and in this way?”

If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is often that we are looking for validation or sympathy. The ugly part of our souls, the prideful part, wants to be noticed. Playing the martyr is a quick way to get attention. Sharing complaints on social media accelerates and increases that attention. These days, it’s not just our family members and friends who hear our griping; it’s everybody we’ve ever known!

Authenticity means we’re not afraid to share our weaknesses and strengths, but we’re also don’t broadcast them to get attention. Allow me to suggest three good reasons for sharing our life’s problems with other people:

(1) We need prayer.

(2) We need help or assistance.

(3) We can encourage another person with his struggles by sharing our own. (Although this is rare).

Most of the time — not always, but most of the time — none of those functions require broadcasting our complaints to everybody on the internet. There are exceptions to the general rule. For example, I’ve joined several groups specifically designed so that I can pray for friends with sick children or cancer or other serious concerns. I’ve also seen some helpful posts about physical needs — somebody needs financial help or assistance fixing something.

However, the majority of our complaints (mine included) are simply whining. Whining happens when we talk about how hard our lives are, not so that people can pray or help, but so they’ll notice us. 

So let’s try something new: Before posting a problem on Facebook, pray about it. Then call a friend or family member and ask for prayer. Talk to a pastor or counselor if necessary. Then, evaluate whether the broader world can pray or help in some specific way. If not, let’s stick with posting funny cat pictures or silly stories.

There’s a good reason Paul encourages us to do everything without grumbling or arguing. It’s so that we can “shine like stars” in the midst of a “warped and crooked generation” (Phil 2:15). Do our words shine the light of Jesus Christ, or are they just whiny? Let’s pray for the grace to shine like stars, so the world can see the joy and grace of our Savior.

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Do High Wedding Costs Reflect Our Beliefs About Marriage?

While preparing for a sermon about marriage and sexuality, I ran across an interesting statistic done by a company that does wedding venues near Charlotte that the average cost of a wedding in the US is now more than $28,000!

In the UK, couples are more than doubling their engagement times (to 3 years!) in order to save money for the big weddings they’re planning.

My wife and I recently caught an episode of Say Yes to the Dress, and I was stunned at the costs of the dresses the brides were casually purchasing. $10,000 and up seemed to be the normal cost. I know that “reality” TV is anything but real, but the fact is that many people take their cues from the media. The wedding industry has effectively convinced most of us that a good wedding needs to be extremely expensive.

So here’s my question for you: What does the rising cost of weddings say about our cultural views about marriage?

Do people believe that an expensive wedding is necessary in order to represent the depth of their love? Do people overemphasize the wedding day itself, while underemphasizing the years of work and ordinary life that will follow? Is it possible that rising wedding costs indicate that we think marriage ought to resemble a fairy tale or a Disney princess movie?

Or is all of this normal and within the bounds of reason? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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How to Avoid Being a Digital Jerk

I just stopped myself from sending a smart-alecky email to a friend. He sent me an email with a seemingly silly question. I thought of a hilarious response, a joke that would have us both in stitches, and I typed it up. But right before I hit “send,” I decided to read my response one more time. Reading it again, it didn’t seem so funny after all. It seemed mean. So I deleted it.

I wish I could say that I’m always that discerning, that I’ve never fired off a message that I later regretted. The downside of my quick and offbeat sense of humor is that I can hurt people with it if I’m not careful.

Digital communication — through email, Facebook, Twitter, or text — doesn’t always lend itself well to empathy or compassion. When I can’t see the other person’s face, I’m more likely to use words that I would never use in person. To make things even tougher, the online world seems to encourage humor, sarcasm, and razor-sharp wit, even at the expense of other people’s feelings.

I’ve been stunned before by the harsh words people exchange on Facebook and Twitter, things they would almost certainly never say to a person’s face. How can we keep a civil “tongue,” even in our online interactions? 

Here are a few ideas: 

1. Read it three times before you send it or post it. That might sound excessive, but I’m convinced that we send most of our angry, unkind, or snarky messages without thinking. If it’s going to be in cyberspace forever, doesn’t it make sense to spend just a few moments considering it before you put it out there? Without fail, in every instance which I wished I could take something back, I failed to reread it before posting.

2. Imagine how you would feel if somebody said to you what you’re about to say somebody else. This is a simple exercise in empathy. It’s almost laughably basic, the sort of stuff we teach to preschoolers, but it’s an easy principle to forget. Bullies nearly always justify their unkindness by saying, “It was just a joke.” Don’t succumb to the temptation to be funny at somebody else’s expense. Think in advance how they might feel as the target of your hilarious wit.

3. Ask yourself if your post, email, message, or comment is consistent with The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Are your words loving? Joyful? Will they promote peace? Are you being patient? Kind? Good? Loyal and true? Gentle? Self-controlled? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then don’t send it!

4. If you’re not in the right frame of mind, step away from the computer. Step. Away. A wise friend of mine once said, “If you feel angry or in love, don’t use a keyboard.” How true it is. Wait until you’re in a better place before posting your angry thoughts about your friend’s weird theological or political views. You just might decide not to post it at all.

5. If you feel offended by something, pick up the phone or set up a meeting. I guarantee you that any major problem will be better settled face-to-face. The resolution will be quicker and the fallout will be less severe.

6. Finally, if you really mess up, apologize. I’ve had to eat crow on more than one occasion. You can’t undo the damage your words have done, but you can at least work toward restoration of the relationship. Admit when you’re wrong and follow up in private to apologize.

Do you ever struggle to be kind and compassionate in your digital communication? How do you handle the problem? I’d love to hear from you!

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Miley Cyrus Isn’t Real

I know I’m extremely late to the Miley Cyrus blogger party, so you might not care anymore. But my blog was down last week, and I felt I had to write this post. In the midst of all the concern and anger about Miley’s infamous performance last week, I think we’ve failed to notice one key concept:

Miley Cyrus is no more real than Hannah Montana. Yes, there is a real person named Miley Cyrus. But you and I know virtually nothing about that Miley Cyrus. What we know and see is a facade, a carefully constructed public persona. That may seem obvious to you, but bear with me: this has some serious theological and spiritual ramifications. 

Hannah Montana was always built on the idea of a double life. By day, she was just Miley, a normal kid with normal friends. By night, a major pop star with legions of fans. The whole concept of Hannah Montana was that one’s public persona can be radically different from the private reality. 

What most of us missed was that Miley Cyrus herself was simply an image. Even the off-screen moments we saw were designed to fit the image that Disney and Miley wanted us to see. None of us had any idea what Miley was like in private. We still don’t, for that matter. The Miley that the world saw a week ago, “twerking” and gyrating, might bear absolutely no resemblance to the Miley known by her parents and closest friends. For all we know, she’s shy and demure and even chaste in private. From the perspective of the entertainment industry, none of that matters as much as what she presents to the world.

In other words, the “new” Miley is no more real than the “old” Miley. The public Miley is as real as the perfect family portrait you took last Christmas. Everything is planned, posed, and carefully executed. The old Miley was designed to appeal to the longing that we parents have for our kids to have positive and sweet role models. The new Miley is designed to appeal to a whole different crowd. She’s designed to appeal to the millions of young women who find themselves wanting to break free of their parents’ values and morals. The shock and outrage that we parents felt last week was the whole point of the performance, in other words. Parents, Miley wasn’t doing her act for the likes of you and me.

All of this leads me to my main point: We live in a world obsessed with one’s public image, often to the neglect of one’s private integrity. As long as Miley’s public image was wholesome, we were fine with her, even though not one of us knew what she was truly like off-stage. Once that public image became offensive, we turned on her in a major way. What’s ironic is that the Hannah Montana image itself suggested that it was all an illusion. It celebrated the type of prevarication that ultimately creates a huge disconnect between one’s character and image. To top it off, Miley and Disney actually told us that from the beginning. They were tongue-in-cheek and subtle about it, but they told us nonetheless. So the deeper problem is really that we want the image to be well-scrubbed, even if we have no idea about the reality behind the image.

This isn’t just about Miley, by the way. We do the same thing with our kids, and even with ourselves.  We emphasize “clean” language, inoffensive Facebook and Twitter profiles, outward obedience, and dirt-free ears. None of those things are evil — in fact all of them are good and even necessary — but we often focus on those public displays of righteousness to the exclusion of inner holiness. The result is a shiny peel with a rotten core. Or, as Jesus put it, we clean the outside of the cup while leaving the inside virtually untouched (Matthew 23:25). As long as the public persona seems clean, we assume everything is fine. We rarely care to look deeper until the pretty facade falls apart in such a cataclysmic way that we have no choice.

Jesus consistently directed us to look beyond the outer appearance to the heart. That’s the basic message of the Sermon on the Mount. Our outward conformity to certain standards will never pave our way to the righteousness of God. We need the inner transformation that comes only through the Spirit of God. That transformation comes to those who recognize their failure and trust in the One who can provide true goodness, a goodness that penetrates to the very core.

The Miley Cyrus debacle reminds us of the danger of putting too much stock in one’s outward image. We need to remind our kids and ourselves that celebrities craft their public personas for a particular purpose — to get us to watch and to buy merchandise. The objectives of the entertainment industry are at odds with the purposes of Jesus Christ. It goes deeper than Hollywood, though. The problems we face are ultimately found at the center of our sinful hearts, and they find their solution only in the cleansing work that God’s Spirit can provide from the inside out. 

The Miley Cyrus we saw last week wasn’t real. But Miley Cyrus is a real person, and like every person — you and me included — she needs the kind of transformation that can’t be found in the office of an image consultant or publicist. And just like Miley, we need the same eternal and lasting change, granted to us by the One who created us and promises life that is new and real.

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