Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Biggest Wimp of All

What image does the term "wimp" bring to your mind?

Not hard to guess. All the way back to the "Popeye" cartoons, someone who is characterized by wimpiness is assumed to be weak, lacking in self-confidence, and most importantly, unwilling to fight or unable to defend himself in a confrontation. A wimp, in most people's minds, is a person who is more likely to allow himself to be taken advantage of rather than to stand up for himself. A person who fears a fight more than he fears the loss of respect involved in refusing to fight.

A tough guy, on the other hand, is any member of the A-Team, willing and able to throw a punch and connect over the slightest provocation, knocking people out cold without a thought. A little closer to daily reality, a tough guy is someone who is eager to intimidate, ready to defend himself, and even willing to get physical if necessary (or perhaps when not totally necessary, but fitting with his frame of mind).

At least that is the defense the tough guy will offer for his actions. Unfortunately, our culture has become steeped in a twisted version of toughness, in which many people walk around with ridiculously shaky chips on their shoulders, so eager to confront and fight over almost anything, it makes you wonder how people became so touchy.

Fighting has been a prominent part of my work experience in my nine years of public school administration. Over these years, I have dealt with many students and their parents in the aftermath of fights that break out in school. Parental reactions vary somewhat, but a common theme is this one: "I've taught my child to defend himself, so he shouldn't be punished for fighting!" Of course, the student is punished anyway, despite his sensei's teachings, and learns a hard lesson. Unfortunately, the parent has given the child a weapon and a blessing, but not the judgment to use it properly. Self-defense in a truly life-threatening situation is one thing. Creating a needless melee in a perfectly safe public place is something altogether different.

Most of the time, these disturbances arise from nothing more than gossip. Second, third, even fourth-hand, unsubtantiated rumor is oftentimes the only basis for the confrontation that erupts and turns physical. Oftentimes the root of the problem is an insult perceived when none was intended. A glance or a gesture can also serve as the catalyst for open conflict.

Rarely is the cause for the fight something the students will still feel strongly about the next day, let alone the next week or month. The consequences of the confrontation far outweigh the original spark that set it off.

Sadly, any viewing of the TV show Cops will remind us that this description is not limited to adolescents, but applies to many adults as well.

What does this say about the nature of the wordly "tough guy"? (Or "girl", of course. Our culture is filled with girls and women
who are just as devoted to this way of thinking as any boy or man. You've come a long way, baby.)

This world's tough guy equates respectability with strength, which in his mind means the ability to make sure no one takes advantage of him or gets away with insulting him. Since this is his most dearly held value, he finds insult in daily interactions where none was intended, and he is quick to confront over the slightest violation of his self-imposed code. Pity the poor soul who tells a third party something derogatory about the tough guy, or who pulls out in front of the tough guy on the road, or who even makes eye contact with the tough guy in a way he doesn't like.

You just don't mess with this person, because this person is strong.

As usual, Scripture challenges the commonly held human assumptions about things.

Proverbs 16:32 reads, "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city."

We're accustomed to hearing about being slow to anger, but the phrase "rules his spirit" packs a punch more potent than anything this world's tough guy has in his arsenal. As Scripture reveals, the strength it takes to control oneself is far greater than the strength it takes to intimidate, confront, challenge, and fight another person.

"Ruling the spirit" includes far more than simply avoiding open warfare with other people. What about our reactions to the things people do? Do we react to rumor, rather than demanding facts? What about our thoughts concerning other people's motives? What about our wishes toward others? Do we assume the worst about people? Are we quick to judge our neighbors? Do we bear ill will, and hope for bad things to happen to other people? Do we churn with anger over perceived slights and insults?

Or, are we willing to take every thought captive for Christ? (2 Cor. 10:5). Are we willing to make the mental and emotional effort to keep our neighbors' actions in perspective, and see the good along with the bad? Are we willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not allow negative assumptions about their motives? Are we willing to pray for our enemies and refrain from wishing them harm? Do we remember our own faults when rehashing those of people we don't like? Do we keep alive the joy of our salvation, even in the face of inconsiderate acts all around us?

Make no mistake: Christians are not called to be mere pushovers. Jesus Himself took a stand against making His Father's house a house of merchandise, by driving the peddlers out of the temple. Christians, too, may be called upon to display outwardly visible strength for His purposes. But Jesus also instructed His disciples to give to others who ask, and to give more than others ask, and not to worry about being insulted, in order to demonstrate the love of the One we belong to. (Matt. 5:38-42). The glory of God is the important thing. Our personal feelings are not.

Who is the bigger wimp?

The student who avoids a fight at school? Or, the student who throws a punch over a rumored insult?

The wife who ignores criticism of her husband, or the wife who puts her husband in an even more difficult position by making a scene over it?

The man who continues to treat his inconsiderate neighbor with grace, or the man who returns slight for slight, and provocation for provocation?

The husband at home helping put his children to bed, or the shirtless, drunken fool being wrestled to the ground by law enforcement at 2 a.m. on Cops?

In each of these examples, our culture calls the former soft, and the latter tough. In reality, the latter is the wimp, the wuss, the pushover, the milquetoast. He or she is led by the leash by Satan, bent and submissive before the power of the evil one, barking when he says to bark, jumping when he says to jump, shamefully yielding the entire human will to the puppetry of a master manipulator. That's what is really happening behind the intimidating facade we see on the surface of the world's "tough guy".

Here is where the fundamental misunderstanding lies: Toughness or softness is not primarily related to what people see on the outside. It is first a matter of who has control. Do our actions, especially our acts of strength, come from Christ, or do they come from Satan? Whose purposes do they serve?

Peter demonstrated strength when he rejoiced at being "counted worthy to suffer shame for His name" (Acts 5:41), not when he cut a man's ear off with a sword (John 18:12) in an attempt to prevent Jesus's arrest.

The real tough guy is the one with the guts to face down Satan, and, by the power of Christ, cause the coward to flee. (James 4:7) He or she is living in Christ, blessed with the presence of the Spirit, able to look at Satan's temptations, see them for what they really are, and yield no ground to his evil.

So, what will it be, tough guy?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"I will be you."

Just the other night, I asked our son Benjamin, "What will you be when you grow up?"

His response was both heart-warming and terrifying: "I will be you."

"I will be you"?

You mean, you're thinking you'll be just like me? You mean, I'm the one you think of as a model of what to become? Obviously, he does. Most little boys, in their innocence, think of dad exactly the same way. Fathers should be honored and humbled by this sentiment, but far too many fail to appreciate the gravity of what this means.

Yes, it means many small things: Mannerisms, patterns of speech, trivial habits, loyalties to sports teams, preferences in music, and on and on.

But, many fathers, for a variety of reasons, forget the biggest things at stake in their influence over their children. After everything else has been forgotten, a child's view of God and relationship with Him are subject to tremendous influence at the hands of his parents.

Of course, every soul will stand accountable to God, but there is no doubt that the influence that shaped that soul early in life will have an effect on the ultimate outcome.

Indeed, Jesus Himself cautions against a careless attitude toward the influence we have over not only our own children, but anyone less mature in faith, when He states: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matt. 18:6)

What a tragedy to be the father whose children learn to take God's name in vain, but not to pray. To seek entertainment, not to read Scripture. To seek vengeance, not forgiveness. To sing along with popular music, but not to worship. To react in anger to small inconvenciences, but not to exercise patience. Every father will teach his children a lifetime's curriculum in bite-size portions, one real-life moment at a time. There is no question about whether the learning will take place. The only question is what will be taught.

Humbling stuff. The kind of stuff that prompts a not-so-confident look in the mirror: "Is this what I want my child to become?"

Is that all there is? Nothing but a frightened realization of how much is at stake, and how unprepared for the task any honest father is likely to feel? Is there anything beyond a son's declaration of intent to imitate his father, and his father's mixed reaction to it? Is there any confidence at all that a Christian father can have?

Paul took his influence very seriously, and very personally. When writing to the Christians in Corinth, he tells them, "For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ I have begotten you through the gospel." (I Cor. 4:15-16) Later in the same letter, he reminds these Christians, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ." (I Cor. 11:1)

Where does Paul, the self-professed chief of sinners, find the confidence to embrace his role of influence, and boldly instruct less mature Christians to follow his example? After all, this is the same Paul who struggles in Romans 7 with the reality that he often fails to do the good he wants to do, and does the wrong he does not want to do. What Christian father cannot relate to that struggle? Yet, somehow, Paul finds the confidence to lead his less mature brothers and sisters in Christ, actually using the word "imitate" in his instructions to them. How do Christian fathers today find this same confidence when it comes to bringing up our children to love the Lord?

The answer lies in the reason Paul was so confident. Jesus Christ was the only reason Paul could tell his "children" in the faith to imitate him. As the Scripture states, the instruction to imitate Paul is a safe one, only because Paul is imitating Christ. By imitating Paul, these Christians will, in turn, be imitating Jesus Himself.

So, Paul's commitment to Christ makes him confident enough to hold himself up as an example to immature Christians, in spite of his own past conduct. Paul does not allow his haunting memories of past sin to stop him. Paul does not allow his ongoing struggles with sin to stop him. Paul simply strives to imitate Christ.

What does this say about many Christian fathers' feelings of fear and uncertainty about our own example to our children? Why are we afraid? Why do we feel insufficient to the task?

Perhaps the first step to increasing the Christian father's peace of mind is to return to the fundamental statement of who our example is. Perhaps it's a matter of realizing that our feeble ability is not the only factor in the equation. In fact, it's the least important factor.

Our Father, our example of how to be a father, equips us with all we need to provide the example our children need. He can overcome our flaws and make our sinful past an irrelevant memory.

What our Father is looking for are believers who will look to Him with the faith of a child and say, "I want to be just like you!"

What every child needs is a father who will look to God and say, "I want to be the kind of father you are!"

Such a father will be ready, and fully equipped, for a child who looks to him and says, "I will be you!"

And, that child will be safe in imitating such a father.

Dads, who will we be?