Following my Documenting 2015 in Mental Pictures, here are the highlights from my life in 2016. These are just some of the biggest lessons learned in a (pretty) random series of mental pictures. Here we go.
Motivation will never last, but discipline will.
Why do I have such high standards for myself? Is it pride? Insecurity? I honestly don’t think so. I think we humans in 21st c. America have missed the boat. I judge myself historically and I fall dramatically short of that standard. The culture I was born into values entertainment and pleasure over discipline and greatness. We have lost definitions, and with them lost meaning and the ability to answer with convictional definitiveness the basic questions of life. I am blessed: in my illness I was given the gift of education (albeit a meager dosage), and now I am simply living the life I think is only proper. But I feel odd: I’m not the American ideal. I have been given convictions by someone other than what my eyes and ears see around me, and that can make me appear arrogant. But it’s not about that; it’s about what I see, about a vision I can’t forget.
Seeing is only ever described these days as physical—something that happens with the eyes and the brain—but the word originated with an intellectual seeing: an understanding.1 To see, the mind must be opened, trained to observe what is already there but what it is overlooking. We all are born blind, and just like Sherlock Holmes, we must learn to acquire vision of things: what is there and what is not; the value of things. This is education—and experience. When someone asks me why I read so much or love history and art, it tells me they’ve fundamentally missed the boat on what it is we were created to do. They don’t see what is gripping me. They don’t see that it isn’t me pursuing that stuff; it won’t let me go. If they saw, they would know.
We weren’t created for ourselves, but for Him: we’re made to behold Him. And beholding isn’t passive; it’s active. It’s a shaping of the mind and the senses to be able to perceive Him as He is, to see glory and see it as glorious. To see the final kick of the soccer ball to win the world cup as what it really is, not as a random man kicking a white ball into a smallish net. We are arrogant materialists, assuming we see all there is to see, and if not, that it doesn’t matter and wouldn’t change our lives in any way: thus, we explain away our need for God, and our ability to enjoy Him. Thus, we miss the boat…and the joy ride.
Joy isn’t in indulgence, it’s in restraint. You can’t enjoy a sunset if you have a cell phone dinging in your pocket, a loud neighbor playing music, and a dog pulling at your pants leg. You find joy in focus, and focus is precious—the result of limitation. You pay for it with attention: you pay attention, and you reap experience. Joy is deep…so deep it’s often compared to pain. For greater joy, you must limit—you must discipline. You must say no.
You can’t be an expert in everything, and chances are when you try to be you’ll fail at being even decent at one thing; therefore, you must limit. You have to make the hard choice to intentionally shield yourself from things and information. You can live by whim and serendipity, but you’ll never go far. If you want to GO somewhere and BECOME someone because of your journey, you have to limit yourself to one trip and discipline yourself to stick to the path. Discipline is freedom.
The most valuable thing in the universe is the Truth, and the most valuable thing you and I can possess is character (or, integrity to that Truth). And character is only forged in slow, laborious applications of Truth to your life in creative, imaginative ways that sneak around your defenses and teach you who you really are.
Character is who you are when nobody is watching: when you go against your conscience, you go against God (Jam 4:17).2 Your relationship with God isn’t “off” when you’re alone and “on” when you’re around others. It’s 80% in your heart where only you live. Which is why true character and spirituality is fought for where no one will ever see. They will see the fruits, absolutely, but never the roots.
Learning is often explained in the metaphor of a journey, and as with all journeys, you can’t arrive without starting, without getting lost and finding your way back. And none of this even happens if you exit and stop at an entertainment shop and plug your brain into the entertainment vortex all day after work. You can’t develop deep trains of thought that burrow into the great unknown and find vision without reading and thinking in long, plodding spurts. The internet trains us to think in soundbites, to access information instead of understand it, to use it instead of see with it. We need to sit still and read, think, meditate, ponder, and eventually, see.
We become what we worship and we worship what we spend the most time on. Most Americans worship themselves and pay their attention to their own pleasure in entertainment. But if we are lifted from this self-focused gaze to behold an infinitely higher and more glorious Being and reality, we are changed to be like Him, to be satisfied by Him, and experience His joy.
I’m exhausted from emotionally engaging the news. So I gave it up as a focus and now just dip in when I have the time and reason to. Finding a reason to is what then allows me to connect what I’m reading in the news to what I’m learning in eternal truth, and that doesn’t exhaust me. It feeds me. It’s hunting with a rifle instead of a shotgun.
News is information that is just-in-time, but I crave information that is just-always-the-case. Not to say news is bad; it’s just a small piece of the puzzle.
Television is destroying our culture. Or, better put, Satan is destroying our culture through manipulating the inherent evil in fallen human nature, and television is playing a huge part:
Neil Postman provided some clues about this in his illuminating 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. The media scholar at New York University saw then how television transformed public discourse into an exchange of volatile emotions that are usually mistaken by pollsters as opinion. One of the scariest outcomes of this transition, Postman wrote, is that television essentially turns all news into disinformation. "Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing ... The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.”3
Television does the seeing for us, and it tricks our minds into thinking it knows when really is doesn’t. Seeing isn’t believing. Seeing with the mind is believing, and the imagination is all but dead when the TV screen comes on.
I’m not against TV, but I hold it at arms-length because I know the damage it can do: namely, to train me to simply see the surface of things and form judgments based on emotion instead of fact.
Discernment is the art of judging well, it’s a mental process. It is obvious that if you abuse your mind by never reading or building it up or making it stronger or more capable, you will have bad discernment, and that will affect every area of your life. It is very important to renew your mind.
Being a Christian is about striving. It’s about never letting go of ideals in the face of failure and inevitable hypocrisy. We all will fail, and yet we are called to wake up every day and make it our goal to be like God (Matt 5:48). That tension gives way to cynicism before long, because it never happens for us. We are fighting the long defeat. But the antidote to hypocrisy is confession. When we confess our sins to God, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleans us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Thus, we are no hypocrite, just sheep being led by our shepherd. We all stumble in many ways (Jam 3:2; cf. Rom 7).
Don’t believe the lie. Ever. But specifically, don’t believe the lie that darkness is good, that a little dark side is a good addition to the Christian life. Let it go. Your past is evil and part of the past. Instead of dwelling on it, dwell on Christ and whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, or of good reputation (Phil 4:8). There are no medals in heaven for angsty Christians who are “in touch” with the darkness.
Don’t get carried away with cynicism: don’t let the darkness invade your worldview. Never truly respect J. D. Salinger, David Foster Wallace, or other angsty, secular authors. They speak the truth as they see it, but they are in rebellion against their Creator, and you should do everything you can to NOT want to be like them. Never stop seeing life as a comedy instead of a tragedy. The precursor to faith is laughter, not angst.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook:
Just saw Rogue One for the second time, and I was reminded of this old Latin phrase which was Caravagio's personal motto: NEC SPE, NEC METU. It means “without hope or fear." It's the idea of going into a battle with no hope of winning and thus no fear because you know you're fighting for something bigger than yourself, and there is hope for something larger than your own failure or success. I think that's what the movie was about. I am with the Force and the Force is with me.4
THAT is the proper balance between hope and cynicism.
But overall, In the day-to-day, moment-by-moment Christian battle, cynicism and humor aren’t all that great. The Christian life is a war (Eph 6:12) and there is no place for that in the trenches. I don’t want a man guarding my back who reads (and worships) Catch 22. I’d rather him read Homer’s Iliad and, in his hubris, think himself the mighty Ulysses for heaven’s sake. Give me hubris over cynicism any day. Give me courage, honor, and bravery (even a little naivety!) from a heart that believes his mission over a witty writer-type who thinks he is better for harboring mistrust at the world. Humor is great, don’t get me wrong. But when it is used to undermine, it’s evil.
Strength is required, because life is a war. And strength requires humility because you can’t leave room for failure. It’s the hipster mantra to undersell, downplay, and side-step, but when the bullets are flying I want a level-headed, accurate assessment of the situation, and fearless strength to carry out the mission.
You have to learn to be optimistic. that’s not innate. You have to indoctrinate yourself that things will turn out for good, that God is a God of love, that His plan for you is perfect and without fault. When you begin to lose hope, anchor your soul to Him (Heb 6:19) like a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1). Grope for those ideals and hang onto them, even when your whole heart is saying something different. Thankfulness and positivity is a spiritual discipline, not an emotion.
Okay, so thankfulness is an emotion, but it is a by-product of thanksgiving, which is a verb. So, go give thanks for things, and eventually you will begin to feel thankful. And that gratitude will lead you to Joy.
Never underestimate the power of small sins. Your heart is a sin-factory and it is very sensitive. Evil gets into you and when you let it grow it will devastate your worldview and then the motivation for your morality. Then all the chains of cause-and-effect you have set up in your Christian life will fall away and you’ll be left virtue-less. Example: you will stop giving thanks for God’s good gifts, and then you will lose your gratitude and lose your joy, and at the end of the day you will stand there waving your fist at God and praying “restore unto me the joy of my salvation”, which is a decent thing to pray, but if you never go and fix the root of the problem, you’ll never heal.
When you are a regular joe working a secular job, why do you really need godliness? This question is one of my favorites because I have so thoroughly explored it—because I was a doubter and wanted a way out of that high calling of Matt 5:48. But since I am God’s child, I have that calling still. Here is why.
We all have two callings:
- Primarily, we have a vertical, spiritual calling. We are called to love God with our whole beings (Deut 6:5; Mark 12:30), to be like God (Matt 5:48).
- Secondarily, we have a horizontal, worldly calling. We are called to love others as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31), to subdue the earth and reign over it in discerning right from wrong (Gen 1:28) and to serve the world with the work we do, doing it to the glory of God, not to men (1 Cor 10:31).
How those two work themselves out is different for everyone, but we all need Him, desperately, and we all also need hard work, desperately, daily.
For the love of all that is holy, read more books. Begin by reading this: the best article I’ve ever read on reading.
- “In fact, for the first two hundred years of its existence, the word “vision” referred exclusively to sight with the mind’s eye, whether in the form of a prophetic or mystical revelation, or simply the contemplation of a thing not actually present. Only later, in the late 1400s, did it come to mean bodily sight” (Source). ↩︎
- Which is why you should follow your conscience but also educate it with God’s Word to know what truly is good and what truly is evil. That is called discernment. ↩︎
- Source. ↩︎
- Citation: Taylor Reynolds. ↩︎