As the world’s top diplomats, military strategists, and political leaders continue to construct a punitive global response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the internet is offering another diplomatic possibility: charm Putin and just ask him to stop. The past week has sparked an online trend of young social media users posting on Russian profiles simply asking Putin to call off the war.

The trend has been reported by outlets from Reuters to Task & Purpose. The posts are a strange mix of flattery, flirtation, and sarcastic jest, referring to Putin as “Vladdy Daddy.” Comments include: “Vladdy Daddy please no war…” “Vladdy Daddy, you don’t have to do this.” “Vladdydaddy look at me this isnt you.”

For some, it is mostly a joke, but there seem to be more series in their petitions. For example, one online activist posted a 3-minute spoken-word poem explaining to Putin that he would have felt true love and not felt the need to lead such a war if she had been his mother. She writes,

“Dear President Vladimir Putin. I’m so sorry I was not your mother… If I was your mother… This night, instead of Mother Russia you would call me and I would set your mind quite free… Whatever your story Mr. President Putin… I would have loved you so.”

Of course, these appeals missed the widely repeated fact that Putin does not use social media or have a cell phone. Perhaps youth have long trivialized the significance of world events (though many Ukrainian teenage boys are now taking up arms in the midst of it). Still, I think this trend reveals a hole in our culture’s narratives, and so by it, our preparing them for a broken and dangerous world. We don’t recognize sin; how can we recognize evil?

Lewis once wrote, “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.”

Writing in The Abolition of Man, Lewis warned that youth were no longer being educated in moral truth but instead a kind of relativism that wakened their ability to engage the moral questions of the day. When we teach kids there is no natural law of morality or that all truth—right and wrong—is individually determined, we rob them of the knowledge needed to recognize evil. We weaken their resolve to stand up against it.

Most kids have not been taught that evil exists. A recent American study found that 1 in 10 members of Generation Z had never heard the word “holocaust.” Sixty-three percent had no clue how many Jews had died. Instead, we have spent our educational time and energy on self-expression, self-esteem, the courage to articulate your truth.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the lack of real villains in many of the stories being produced for our kids. I used the example of Moana, but you can observe the same trend in movies like Frozen and Encanto.

Moana’s task was to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of creation. She faced many obstacles but the greatest was Ta Ka, the fire-hurling monster which guarded the island. But Moana realized what everyone else had failed to recognize. The fire-spewing Ta Ka was Te Fiti. Ta Ka was not evil; with her heart stolen, she was misunderstood and afraid. Without a sense of who she really was, she had transformed from a nurturer to a destroyer. From a god to a monster.

What Moana recognized was that the villain was no villain at all, just misunderstood like Moana herself. There are no villains, only individuals who have lost their way. This is increasingly one of Disney’s favorite themes. There are no “bad guys,” only individuals who have been robbed of their identity and misunderstood by the world that has wounded them.

In one of the film’s most moving moments, Moana sings a song fittingly titled, “Know Who You Are.”

I have crossed the horizon to find you
I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
You know who you are

That sounds a whole lot like the viral trend, “Vladdy Daddy, look at me, this isn’t you.”

The Myth of Human Progress

Facing the most significant military conflicts since WWII and facing the growing reports of catastrophic civilian casualties, the only framework our youth have for understanding this madness are the stories we’ve previously given them. The stories we tell frame the way they see the world. And so, many in the West are finding it hard to understand Putin’s motives.

The kids appeal to how Putin must have been misunderstood and mistreated, but it’s not just the kids struggling for an explanation. Leaders throughout the West have repeated the idea that Putin’s actions are from the past. This wasn’t supposed to be possible. Not any more. Many assumed we had grown beyond such barbaric actions, particularly at this scale. The West has long trusted the logic of mutual destruction and believed that society had progressed beyond such displays of naked aggression. Perhaps it’s why the full scale of Putin’s actions came as a shock to so many or why some find insanity to be the only rational explanation. As the Secretary General of NATO explained, “Peace in our continent has been shattered. We now have war in Europe, on a scale and of a type we thought belong to history.”

If our youth struggle to understand the possibility of evil, our politicians too often assume we’ve progressed past it.

Philosopher John Gray put it this way, “If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.” Our accumulation of information has not changed the human condition. We can colonize mars, learn to customize the human genome, innovate new clean technologies, and carry a universe of information in our pockets, but there is no human progress that cures a man’s heart.

Gray ultimately concluded, “in the most vital areas of human life, there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our own nature.”

Jesus long ago reminded us that there would be wars, that nation would rise against nation. That the rulers of this world would flaunt their power and rage in madness, so, let us not be overcome with fear or confusion. This world is broken. Let us pray for His kingdom to come. Let us stand for what is right. Let us sacrifice for those who are in need. And let us remind our kids and ourselves that there is no real progress. Our hearts are sinful. This age is evil. Now is a moment for Christian sobriety. This is a world of sin, of depravity, a world deeply in need of salvation, salvation we can not construct for ourselves.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” ― Malcolm Muggeridge

Okay, fine, I’m vaccinated. I’ll admit it. As a writer, there is always a temptation to open with caveats, to carefully identify your location on the contours of the controversy you are about to wade into. You’ve probably done the same in countless conversations. And let me remind you, it’s the holiday season, so there will be many more of these delicate, or perhaps emotionally charged and exasperated, conversations to come.

I recently filled out a questionnaire for a religious conference I was attending. You know, things like, “Have you been vaccinated?” “When was your last vaccination?” “Have you had a booster?” “Would you be willing to provide proof of vaccination?” And of course, “Have you recently had a fever, cough, headache, body chills, or lost sense of taste or smell?” I told my wife, “they now know more about my COVID opinions than they do my theological ones.” At the moment, one is surprisingly far more controversial.

To be fair, I have a lot of sympathy for them and the complexity they are trying to navigate. I’ve led a congregation through two years of it. I’ve heard every opinion possible, been asked to sign statements, protest mandates, and participate in drives. COVID and vaccinations have proved controversial worldwide, but my seat for the show has been ring-side for the church fight, and, it turns out, professing faith in Jesus hasn’t made any of the decisions simpler. To put it simply, when it comes to the decision to be vaccinated, Christians disagree.

They disagree from church to church, from pastor to congregant, from husband to wife. Kids trying to convince their elderly parents to get the shot, and other elderly parents trying to convince their thirty-something kids to do the same. Some see mandatory vaccination as a massive governmental overreach that threatens religious freedom and the foundations of individual liberty. Others argue that Christians who refuse a vaccine deny science, wading into a murky cesspool of nationalism and conspiracy that risks the clarity of our witness to a lost world.

Both caricatures do exist; I’ve seen them for myself. And while the church is certainly capable of both capitulation and conspiracy, there are two other dangers we’ve failed to acknowledge. These two fallacies are quickly exposing the Christian vulnerability of conforming to the world’s ways of framing just about every conflict. We’re being backed into corners and prodded into controversy like dumb sheep constantly afraid and on the defensive.

The Twosideism Fallacy

There is an old fallacy called bothsideism, in which we are tempted to give credibility to both extremes in the name of sensationalism and interest. This fallacy suggests that both sides are not always equal, and by presenting them as equal, you distort the truth. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence of this at work in our media.

But I want to add another more broad fallacy which I’ll call twosideism. We tend to be driven by the same sensational news cycle and to frame every discussion as a debate between two possible views. You are either for the vaccine or against it. That’s the question we’re each trying to delicately sniff out with family and coworkers to avoid offense. But the whole question is absurd.

Does being pro-vax mean you’ve had at least one shot? Or does it require two? Or does it require two, plus a booster? Does it require your children to be vaccinated? At what age? Does it require a mask and vaccination? Does it require a Facebook post showing your vaccine card? Does it require vaccination upon emergency approval, official FDA approval, or if you just waited a few months, are you still on the pro-vax side?

And are you an anti-vaxer if you had COVID and want to count on antibodies? Are you anti if you had COVID and such mild symptoms you’ve decided, much like you have previous flu shots, to skip it? What if you are concerned about the novelty of mRNA technology? What if your concern is the use of fetal stem cells in research? What if you legitimately believe mandatory vaccination is a governmental overreach and though you may not be worried about the actual shot, decide to abstain in protest? What if you’re convinced it’s a deep state conspiracy, or a Chinese weapon, or a divine judgment?

Do you belong to one or the other? We are growing increasingly used to seeing the world in two sides. Republican/Democrat. Left-wing/Right-wing. Pro/Con. For/Against. Vaxer/Anti-Vaxer. To be fair, there are some on both sides who feel like the stakes are so high that there is nothing left but two sides to pick. They see Fort Sumter already under fire and imagine people like myself late to the news.

But I want to suggest that even such extreme positions are on a spectrum. There are not two sides; there is a spectrum of decisions and evaluations. With its split-screen sound-bite debaters, the news will never cover it this way, but the vast majority of Americans, and Christians too, do not fit neatly into either extreme.

I’m not convinced the church is as polarized as news agencies, including some of our own evangelical ones, are wanting us to believe. Even when we do disagree adamantly, and we feel irreconcilably opposed, I still see us on a spectrum, a spectrum with room to move in both directions.

All Christians agree that there are times in which our faith compels us to comply and pay honor to the state. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But we also agree that there are moments in which Christians must stand opposed to the state, in which our faith compels us to disobedience. It is helpful when the question before us is so explicitly clear that we understand where we are and what is at stake. When asked to renounce Christ or face the wild animals, we understand where we are on the spectrum pretty clearly.

But historically, the church has often wrestled with recognizing when that moment is only theoretical, when it is approaching and when it is here. Let me give you a current example. Consider the complex decisions of Chinese Christians who have been forced to navigate their nation’s limited child policies. For several decades, the state has limited families to only one, and more recently two children. Does the Bible allow the state to dictate the number of children you bear? Should you violate it and pay a fine? Violate it and cover it up? Is this an issue worth Christians speaking out against and risking greater persecution or the closing of their churches? China has recently increased its policy to allow for three children. Does that change the Chinese Christian’s decisions? There is a fascinating Christianity Today article from June of this year that explores how complicated these issues have been for believers and churches in China.

Certainly, Christians should all agree that the state’s forced abortions violate a fundamental line and demand opposition, but there is a complicated spectrum of decisions and interests that must be weighed out even before such definitive lines are crossed. Could we not recognize that a Christian couple who abides by the one-child policy with careful planning and another who knowingly violates it in protest might both be faithful to their religious convictions?

Was this not the same tension churches in Germany faced during the rise of Nazism? There were definitive lines crossed that should have triggered Christian resistance, but we look back from our position and also fault those churches for not recognizing earlier signs that might have avoided the whole thing.

Let me tip my hand, a thing I have been reluctant to do as a pastor. I do not hold any conspiracy views about the vaccine. I do think regulations in some places have unjustly targeted churches. I never felt such unjust motivations in our community, and our church was happy to abide by local health codes, but I can understand other churches deciding to protest them. They see a trajectory leading to a clear line. I hope they are wrong, but perhaps they are right, and I’m one of the Christians missing critical signs of our time. There are signs I do see.

We are not opposites; we are on different points of the same spectrum. Some saw in the meat sacrificed to idols a demonic system and a potential violation of the Christian’s stand within society. Others saw just meat. Paul was willing to give his opinion on the controversy, but he wasn’t willing to split the church or to subject the fellowship into endless rounds of guilting and shaming and arguing.

But What About Our Christian Witness?

Some will respond that the arbiter of our decisions should be how our opinions impact the church’s witness. This might be the single argument I have heard more than any other during the church’s vaccine discussions. Christians should be vaccinated in order to preserve their witness to neighbors and communities. The obligation to love our neighbor through vaccination supersedes even personal liberties or concerns. Christ’s love compels us.

Such arguments are not a surprise. For several decades the church has been working to maintain an effective witness in a world less interested in or deferential to the Christian message. There is much talk about the church’s need for a winsome witness, but what has surprised me about this push is that the church’s winsomeness always assumes the lost neighbor is on our left.

(I don’t like describing this second fallacy in terms of right and left. I’m falling into the same twosideism I just described above. But given the two fallacies are congruent with each other, you’ll have to momentarily indulge me in making the point.)

Many worry that Christians are sacrificing their witness by opposing mandatory vaccinations. They fear that a portion of the church’s response to COVID has jeopardized our lost neighbor’s willingness to listen to our message. How can we speak a message of love if we cannot demonstrate love in the ways our neighbor understands it? But is it only Democrats who are lost and in need of a winsome gospel witness? I don’t think so.

I was recently visiting a family member who does not claim to be a Christian believer or attend any church. He is a devout Trump supporter; put him in whatever box you think necessary. He was explaining to me that during the COVID lockdowns, all of the churches in his area simply shut down. That probably isn’t true. They were probably meeting online, as our church was doing. “How can churches just shut down?” he asked. “COVID is more important than church? You think Jesus would have just stayed home if they told him to?”

Disagree all you want. Certainly, he didn’t have all of his information straight, but I can’t point to any winsome attempt to contextualize the gospel to his political or ideological views. The same shutdown that was meant to improve the church’s witness to one neighbor offended the other neighbor and appeared like capitulation to the thing he most opposed.

If you get a vaccination to protect the health of your neighbor, both of you may take that as a sign of Christian love and hospitality. But if another Christian refuses the vaccine in solidarity with a different neighbor’s valued right to limit governmental intervention, a right he holds higher than even his own health and safety, has the Christian not offered a sign of Christian love and hospitality as well? The ways in which we rank values—health and liberty included—are not opposites but on a spectrum.

Should some church have attempted to match the rhetoric of the right for the sake of preserving our witness to this second neighbor? Be sure it would be quickly identified as nationalistic, Trumpism, and a perversion of the gospel. To be fair, many who make the same move to the left are just as quickly identified as woke, Marxist, and also a perverter of the gospel.

You may protest, “But one is correct, and one is wrong.” Or, one is more fundamentally important than the other, but that would put us back at the spectrum in which we all have a range of measurements and disagreements. There are more than two sides and more than one winsome witness needed to reach the lost.

If people of good faith understand this moment in very different ways, we should be slow to accuse one another of poor Christian witness. How the world will receive our witness is a poor arbiter of how Christians should behave. There are lost people in need of the gospel across the entire political spectrum. The neighbor on your left and the neighbor on your right both need Jesus. Guilting one another into certain behaviors of conscience for the sake of acceptance from one neighbor, and by doing so, offending the other, is no way for Christians to make decisions about how to live in the world.

The Winsome Witness of Complexity

My favorite way of defining humility is self-suspicion. The longer I follow Christ, the more I am suspicious of my first thought. I’ve waited two years to write this after all. I have been wrong about so many things before. I’m probably wrong about plenty now. Maybe you’re shaking your head thinking I got this whole article wrong too. But maybe that is the point. I want to understand. I want to get it right. I want to recognize better the way of Jesus and how I faithfully follow him in this world.

People I deeply respect have deeply different answers. Time will tell. Eternity will tell.

We will shuffle around on this spectrum. Things change. After all, the vaccine itself changes. Why shouldn’t our views on it? Some will be proven more right than others, but perhaps our greatest witness right now is a willingness to listen. Perhaps the refusal to reject brothers and sisters of different conclusions is far more winsome than parroting culture’s expected refrains.

For many, this article will not be decisive enough. Do you even have something worth saying if it doesn’t condemn or confirm a particular side of the existing debate? And honestly, I do have stronger personal opinions than I’ve articulated in this article. But I’m not sure they are the same thing as my Christian faith. To say that another way, I respect the genuineness of faith in those who may disagree. That is the very thing too often missing in the church. Jesus said the world would know we were his disciples by the love we have for one another. He didn’t say we couldn’t disagree, even his first disciples did, but he anticipated our disagreements would include a humble love distinct from the world’s ways of conflict.

Maybe the way we embrace being peculiar in our time is acknowledging the complexity of our challenges, the humility of our solutions, and our desperate need for Christ to lead us. Imagine how radical it would be for a people with enough courage to say, “I disagree with you but I genuinely hear your point.”

Throughout the pandemic and on days when I’ve felt confused and disoriented, I’ve turned to this prayer by G. K. Chesterton and found each time only more profound. I have been particularly struck by the line, smite us and save us all. All is not a spectrum. The one thing universally true is our propensity toward pride and conflict.

God, humble us all and save us all.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
– G. K. Chesterton

While we were preoccupied with petty disputes and celebrity headlines, Twitter threads and Facebook drama, we became naive. From C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, we are reminded of how a world of comfort lulls us into a loss of moral clarity and how real danger calls us back to conviction and charcter. The world is dangerous. We need courage.

Now that it is certain the German humans will bombard your patient’s town and that his duties will keep him in the thick of the danger, we must consider our policy. Are we to aim at cowardice – or at courage, with consequent pride – or at hatred of the Germans?

We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered the whole moral world for the first time. In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor .

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world – a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

If you had forgotten it, this week, you were reminded that the world is dangerous. Let us remember, there is real evil at work in this world. Let us see again that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Let us recognize that character and honesty matter. For when we are lulled into ignorance of it, real suffering ensues. These things are not campaign slogans. They are not abstractions. They must exist in action more than mere words. When they are absent there are consequences. We are reaping the fruit of imagining we can play around with such important truths as morality and character. 

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Our comfort and decadence have atrophied our moral clarity and strength. We need a move of God that produces a people of conviction and character. As Lewis understood, we need humility that leads to courage.

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14

Our land and that land too, oh Lord. Give us courage that we might have the strength of character again.

According to ancient historians, most of the Jewish families sitting on that Galilean hillside listening to Jesus teach would spend every day of their lives on the edge of hunger and starvation. Some days were better than others, but they never escaped hunger for long. By some estimations, as much as 85% of a Galilean’s wages/time went toward acquiring food. By comparison, the average US family spends 9.5% of their annual budget on food.

The gospel writer, John, records that there were 5,000 men seated there. With wives and children, the crowd would have been well over 10,000. As the day drew on, the disciples recognized they were facing a logistical dilemma. Where would these people find food? They didn’t have the money to feed them. They suggested to Jesus that he call it quits and let the crowd disperse to nearby towns to find food for themselves.

But Jesus instead found a boy with just five loaves and two fish. He blessed it and began breaking it and passing it out to the people. John records that every person there ate until they were filled.  They all sat reclined on the hill with full bellies, satisfied. Nowhere else in the New Testament is that language used for another meal. Jesus had fed them to their fill. Many had probably never experienced enough food to have to stop eating.

It’s no surprise that the crowd responded by attempting to seize Jesus and make him king.

Bread and Games

Food and political power have long been linked. There is an old Latin phrase commonly translated as “bread and circus.” It refers to the equally old realization that the masses could be easily controlled with food and games. Many Roman emperors secured their political power by passing out bread in the streets and funding festivals of spectacle, week-long displays of entertainment in theaters and colosseum.

The roman poet, Juvenal, wrote around the year 100 AD:

“Long ago we sold our vote to no man, but the people have abdicated our duties; for the people once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions—everyone now obeys for and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

Jesus’s miraculous bread passed out on that Galilean mountainside echoed with symbolic images of Moses’s provision of manna in the wilderness. The crowd must have imagined what it would be like to have Jesus as their leader. Daily bread to their fill. Think of all the time they would save. Think of the money they could save. Think of the future it meant. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. Jesus the new Moses. Jesus king of the Jews.

Jesus had what all the Roman Emperors reached deep into their own storehouses to manufacture, the support of the crowd. How did he respond to this political opportunity? He slipped away. He disappeared. He wandered off.

Jesus was familiar with this bread and games business; after all, he had turned down these same impulses in his own time of hunger and temptation. Satan had urged him to turn those stones into bread and to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that all of Israel could witness the angels deliver him in a spectacular display of his power. Jesus saw through that temptation as he did the temptation of the crowd.

Bread and games may make for a compelling political campaign, but they were not the means of his kingdom.

Bread and games have long been a human temptation—as recent as Georgia’s newly passed election law which now forbids the incentive of free food for those waiting to vote, or as old as Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. The Corinthians gorged themselves before others could get to the communion table. The Israelites grumbled and complained about even the manna. And as those Roman emperors recognized, times of starvation and social anxiety are just the opportunity to exploit such human tendanceis.

The COVID Excuse

Everywhere I go, people keep talking about how challenging the past year was. They aren’t wrong. I know several families who lost loved ones, I’ve seen the toll on my own family members, and as a pastor, it was one of the most challenging times to try and serve a congregation. But I’m more worried about the months ahead than those now behind us.

In Neil Postman’s famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he compared two dystopian views of the future, arguing that the one we worry least about is probably the more insidious. Postman compared two novels, George Orwell’s 1984 in which an authoritarian government oppresses and controls society through power, and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World in which citizens are instead controlled by pleasure and appetite—bread and games. Postman wrote:

”What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture… In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

This past year has had plenty of bread and games. Like most Americans, we baked more loaves of Sourdough in the last 12 months than we had in the 12 years previous. And like most Americans, I had the extra COVID pounds to prove it. Or consider that in the past twelve months, online streaming has increased by 50%, with 30% of Americans adding new streaming subscriptions to what they already owned.

For most Americans, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic looked a lot more like food and games than it did the end of the world as we know it.

But something has changed. COVID offered us an easy excuse for everything. Secretly it felt pretty good to have an out for absolutely anything you didn’t want to do—an excuse with a thin veneer of morality. COVID made us deeply self-focused. We got to decide—what we did, what we would risk, what we thought, who we believed, on and on.

Plus, we’ve long known that objects at rest stay there. As Emma Brockes wrote in The Guardian, “the less you do, the less you want to do.” She concluded:

“It’s a free pass that will, in the next 12 months, presumably come somewhat to an end. We will have to shape up. It will no longer be permissible to do all the things we were, on the sly, kind of doing anyway but before the pandemic were inclined to feel bad about. I guess this is a good thing; if the sense of a return to business as usual shames me into tidying up, showering more often and making slightly more effort to get my children off their iPads, it’s probably all for the better. But I needn’t kid myself: neither that these behaviours were new, nor that, when it suits me, I won’t be looking back and guiltily using the pandemic to excuse some echo of them for years to come.”

I’m not so convinced we can do it. I’m not so convinced we can go back. That kind of self-interest is hard to turn off.

Church has Changed

Most pastors are now accepting that church attendance will never be the same. According to one recent study, “Among those holding in-person worship in January, 31% said attendance remained less than half of what it was a year before, while 37% reported attendance between 50% and 70%.”

Churches have responded by making church services available where people are—at home on their couches. All of the church experts are telling us that online streaming is the future of the church. We must rethink church in light of this new world we find ourselves in.

Give the people what they want.

For A Fully Belly

When the crowd finally managed to track Jesus down in Capernaum, they wanted an explanation. “Why did you leave?” “How did you get here?”

Jesus didn’t answer their questions but instead explained, “you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” To paraphrase Jesus’s response, “You’re not here for me, you’re here to get more food. You’re here for the bread and the games.”

Jesus went on to explain that he wasn’t just the source of heavenly bread; he was the bread. It wasn’t just about what Jesus could do for them; it was about Jesus being with them. He pushed them to the point of being offended. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Their obsession with food and spectacle caused them to see the world, and God, through a consumeristic expectation. They were so self-interested in their pursuit that many left Jesus that day, convinced he wasn’t what they were looking for.

They tasted his miracles, filled their bellies with his divine bread, and yet walked away when he offered his own life as well. Talk of flesh and blood made them squeamish. Sounded strange and somehow risky. Let’s get back to the fish and bread. When he didn’t, they left. They had their own bread to find for the next day.

The risk of your spiritual pursuit slipping into a kind of consumerism that seeks to fill your belly and catch a good show can not be overstated. It cost many in that crowd Jesus.

This Spiritual Complacency

My concerns are not just church attendance or holding on to some nostalgic idea of what the church once was. I’m concerned about your soul. I’m concerned that you are filling yourself with a cheap imitation of Christ. When Christ becomes a means before an end, you will soon leave him too.

I’m concerned the gospel is becoming just more online content. That faith is now a brand witnessed to only in your Instagram bio. I’m concerned that if we allow our faith to become a show, we watch online whenever it fits best into our schedule, that the next generation may choose a different show altogether. If faith is about finding what works best for you, what will you say when your kids explain they’ve found something that works better for them.

Huxley was right. The greater risk we face is not our religious rights being taken away but our squandering them in triviality and self-indulgence. The real test we face is our own spiritual complacency.

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

John Piper writes in A Hunger for God:

”The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night… And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.”

Fasting for Hunger

We are one month away from Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day the church remembers the Holy Spirit being poured out on those first followers. It’s also that ancient feast that celebrated the first harvest of grain—that first possibility of bread.

I’ve committed myself and asked my congregation to join me in fasting between now and Pentecost. Perhaps a day a week or a particular meal. I wonder if you might do the same.

We fast so that our experience of physical hunger might create in us a spiritual hunger. We deny ourselves bread and games so that we might receive the Spirit and that better bread from heaven.

I do believe the pandemic was a risk to have been taken seriously, but the spiritual complacency we now face is one much greater. Let us not lose Jesus for the sake of a full belly and a funny show.

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

The Sadducees brought Jesus the most complicated question they could craft against him and his talk of resurrection. They imagined a family of seven sons in which each died passing along their wife to the next brother. They asked Jesus, “In this coming resurrection, whose wife will she be?”

Jesus’s answer was simple, “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

Micah warned likewise, “they do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand his plan.”

Let me be very clear, I will not untangle our nation’s problems in a thousand-word blog post, and neither will anyone else. I don’t intend to try. Who understands all that God is doing?

All Things Exposed

One of my favorite stories from the Bible is Saul’s attempts to capture David at Ramah. Saul got word that David was hiding with Samuel and his community of prophets. Saul sent subsequent rounds of men to capture David and each failed to return. So, Saul went himself. We’re told that when Saul reached Samuel and his prophets, Saul was filled with the Spirit, stripped off all his clothes, and lay naked prophesying.

Clothing is a critical part of the Saul and David stories. Jonathan gave David his cloak, Saul offered his armor to David before he faced Goliath, Saul tore Samuel’s robe and in return, Samuel predicted that God would tear the kingdom from his rule. Michal rebuked David for his choice of a common linen ephod to lead the ark. And Saul took off all his royal robes when the Spirit came upon him.

Do you remember when Saul went to inquire of the witch at Endor? He went in disguise but as soon as the spirit of Samuel appeared, the witch immediately saw through Saul’s facade and recognized exactly who it was seeking her service.

Things always end up exposed. Neither the garments of power nor the cloak of deceit can ultimately cover what is true. Before God, all men lay naked. All power melts away. All pretense is dissolved. All schemes are laid bare. No one gets away with anything. Neither Saul nor, God’s own man, David.

How dumb David was to not recognize the Prophet Nathan’s story. Nathan came needing a judicial opinion about a rich man who stole a poor neighbor’s single lamb. Having just murdered Uriah and swiped Bathsheba, a child could have recognized Nathan’s setup. But in his pride of having supposedly “gotten away with it,” David couldn’t recognize his own life laid out in the story. David called for the rich man’s punishment. And with just two Hebrew words, Nathan declared, “you’re him.” David too was exposed.

We the People

If I have learned anything from the past few weeks of our nation’s intensifying political conflicts, it’s that we truly are a government of people—we the people. Our government is not eternal nor sacred. It is not made of marble or bronze. It is not monuments or rotundas. It is not guaranteed nor inevitable. It is people. Complicated, compromised, flawed, frustrating, and sinfully rotten people. Men and women like Saul. Men and women like David. Men and women—as much as I wish it weren’t the case—like me. Like you.

Franklin wasn’t joking when he explained we possessed, “a republic, if you can keep it.” Count on people and you’re sure to taste some disappointment.

There has been much recent talk about what the constitution does and doesn’t allow, everyone is now a constitutional scholar. But we should remember that its opening words are not about rights, checks, or powers. Its opening words are an assumption that what follows is based on us being people—“We the people of the United States.” It assumes we know how to be people. That may be the real challenge we are facing. Do we know how to be a person, a people?

We have become ideologies, crowds in support of slogans, likes, and retweets, polls, and projections. Better defined by which podcasts we subscribe to then by our families, careers, faith, or place. According to several recent studies, fewer American’s know the names of their neighbors than ever before. But I bet you have suspicions about their politics. Maybe those yard signs already gave it away. We are increasingly more ignorant about and isolated from people, yet we assume more than ever.

When Did We Stop Being People?

In the late 1880s, Neitzche wrote a story about a madman who lit a lamp in the morning and went searching for God. “Where is he,” he cried. The gathering crowd laughed and mocked him. “Is God a child that you must go find him?” “Has God gotten lost somewhere?” They were enlightened people, no longer lost in superstition or fairytale.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

The crowd went silent and stared at him in confusion and astonishment. Probably the same response you had. Seems a little mellow dramatic but pretty good writing for a crazy man.

At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

He finally concluded; they hadn’t felt enough of the consequences to have recognized what they had done. The madman had come too soon. But one day, they would feel the consequences of their death to God.

Do we not feel it? “Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?” “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?”

Neitzche was convinced that the only way to deal with the death of the divine was to become gods ourselves. Where else would we turn for morality, for meaning? We would take up the work of good vs. evil. We would become judges of our brothers and sisters. We would expose and we would condemn.

The world of God’s rule shattered into a pantheon of men climbing Olympus to claim his spot. It is a zero-sum game in which he who holds power declares right and wrong.

Man was created for things greater than what we now possess. We feel it. We know there must be more. But having laughed away any narrative of the divine, having rolled our eyes at talk of the eternal, having relegated religious narratives to the realm of medieval history, we are left to find our own story, our own meaning. We must find our own good vs evil in which to take sides. We mock such ideas and yet our rhetoric is increasingly full of it. Our culture laughs at those who speak of evil and yet accuses nearly everyone else of it.

The novelist Walker Percy captured it in the despair of his Moviegoer:

“and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.”

The Truth

What was the prophet Samuel doing during all that turmoil of Saul’s unraveling? Apparently, he was with a group of prophets worshiping. What exposed Saul was a group of people, filled with the Spirit in worship. It is always that way. What exposes the world, what exposes you and me, is worship. It is the most subversive act in the world. To simply say, Jesus, is Lord. To worship him.

The truth is not exposed through ballots or speeches, not through power or revolution. The truth is exposed to the world through people who gather to worship God and to have the truth humbly expose them. You can not legislate the truth, you can’t advertise it, or force it down people’s throats. Because the truth is a person.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus explained.

We know the truth by knowing a person. By humbling ourselves and reaching out beyond ourselves. Odds are, His Spirit will expose you and leave you naked, but you need that. You must love him with all your heart, soul, and mind. He is not a political ideology. He is not a position to defend. He is not an argument to be won. The Christian religion is not a philosophy or a culture, it is a person. A person who will challenge your ideas and your conclusions.

And learning to follow him teaches us to be a person as well. It teaches us how to recognize other persons. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He teaches us to be human. To be a named individual, a soul. And so we are instructed in how to recognize others as souls too.

He took fishermen and tax collectors, zealots and Pharisees, men and women, and reworked their identities into named disciples.

Smite us all; Save us all

Some will say, this is naïve and too moderate for the importance of the moment. You’re probably right. You are going to have to make decisions.

The truth is, I have plenty of opinions as well. I cast a particular ballot for a certain candidate. I have thoughts about economics and social justice and election integrity. I have thoughts about big tech, about foreign policy, and black lives matter, and about our police officers. I have thoughts about global warming, and China, and North Korea, and Iran. I bet you have thoughts too. And I bet there are plenty of places we disagree.

But I am convinced that my first decision must be to know Christ more. He has exposed me enough for me to know I am often right and wrong.

The political story is not the only story. We are people. We have to learn to see one another as people. To hear one another as people.

I’m under no illusion. We will continue to disagree, even as believers. But God help us if we reduce one another to less than a person. God help us if we reduce Christ to less than a person.

And I’m of the “Samuel” opinion that the best place to do all of this “re-personing” is in worship with other persons and with Christ.

I have been praying the line from a G. K. Chesterton prayer all week. Smite us all; Save us all. Let us know you as the truth and expose us in any depersonalizing pretense. Expose what is true. Strip us of our royal garments. Strip us of our disguises. Strip our nation of falsehood and propaganda. Pour out your Holy Spirit and drive us all to the ground before you. Give us courage and give us meekness. Give us Jesus.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
– G. K. Chesterton


I’m grateful to the team at The Gospel Coalition for publishing some of my thoughts on leadership and the identity of the pastor.

I never liked the title “pastor.” My plan was to practice law and pursue politics. I was fascinated with leadership, and all those career tests told me I had a knack for it. But unexpectedly, at a youth summer camp my junior year of high school, I felt a distinct call to become a pastor.

When I informed my high school debate coaches that I wouldn’t be pursuing my college debate scholarships and would instead be attending a small midwestern Bible college, one pleaded with me: “Why would you throw away the gifts God has given you?” Like her, I imagined pastoral work would be pedestrian and marginal—a sacrifice of my potential and plans.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Read the Article

As a pastor responsible for a congregation of believers, it’s been a tough week. There are hard decisions to be made and challenges to serving those who are most in need.

It has been shared widely, but these words from C. S. Lewis have been a wise reminder of how Christians live not just in these complex days, but every day. Lewis was writing about a spreading fear from nuclear proliferation, but you need only replace his context with our own pandemic to recognize his broader point.

C. S. Lewis writes:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. — “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

A Word from the Psalms:

Also, as many pastors have, I’ve been turning to the psalms this week. Much attention is being given to Psalm 91.

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say[a] to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge[b]—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

What’s so interesting about that psalm is the way it was distorted by Satan during Jesus’s temptation. In his second attempt, Satan encouraged Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple and allow the angels to rescue him, a display of power and importance that was sure to catch the attention of the world.

Satan quoted from verse 12 of Psalm 91: “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

Too many people read Psalm 91 in the same way that Satan distorted it—reading it as a promise that nothing bad will come upon those who follow God. Given our current situation, we too can clutch verse ten’s promise that disease will not touch us.

But what are Christians to think when they do become sick or when sickness does invade their bodies and congregations? Jesus understood something more profound about this psalm’s intention.

Like the psalms so often do, they lead us by our most honest prayers and desperations to the higher truths of God. That truth comes through clearest in verse 15. “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble.” God’s promise is not that trouble will never come. His promise is that He will be with us in the midst of it. The promise is His presence. Or, as the final verse reminds us, God will show us His salvation.

I’m reminded of Christ’s beatitudes. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted. For they shall see God. They shall be comforted. They shall be satisfied.

This satisfaction and vision and comfort come in the midst of suffering and poverty and hunger.

Dionysius and Joy

What Christians have is not a secret antidote against pain or death. Faith hasn’t yet reworked the believer’s genetics. We are as susceptible to sickness as any of our neighbors. But we do possess an inoculation against fear, anxiety, and dread, though too often we forget we have received it. For it is often in these places of sickness and suffering that God’s presence is most powerfully known. Our sickness is transformed into something strangely different.

We are capable of every effort to protect our communities and comply with all their recommendations and to do it without fear. For the spread of hopelessness and the distrust of God are a far greater risk than any virus. It is this sickness and this trouble which the psalm promises to rescue us from. The sting of death as scripture refers to it and the hope of a new and whole creation.

In 252 AD, the ancient city of Alexandria faced a massive plague. Christians, like Dionysius, were at the center of both its costs and Christian responses of support. Writing about their situation in an Easter letter to his churches, Dionysius explained, “other people would not think this a time for festival [but] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.”

Dionysius was surely thinking of James’s words: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

God, make us steadfast people who see every moment of struggle as another moment to taste more deeply of your salvation and to sense more tangibly your presence. Pour your Spirit out upon your church even as we are separated from one another. And fill us with joy, not that we might escape this suffering, but that it might be transformed into hope, faith, and steadfastness of service.

The Bible warns of man’s tendency to over-identify with his impulses of aggression and passivity, a topic I’ve explored at length in a previous article. But the Bible is also careful not to present these traits as mere personality types. We make a profoundly naive mistake in imagining that some men are aggressive while others are passive. As if the difference can be located in a gene or predetermined by some developmental event.

The Biblical image—and in my opinion, the fairly obvious observation of life and one’s self—reflects that we are more likely to swing repeatedly from one to the other. Aggression gives way to apathy, which eventually explodes again into aggression.

It may be that each man is more naturally inclined to one position, but our frustrated attempts at control often leave us searching for means of coping—means which can appear unlike ourselves. The man who finds his most ardent attempts at power and aggressive control to have failed often resigns to withdraw. The man who actively disengages eventually finds that his passivity has really been aggression, and he too lashes out when he can’t have his peace the way he wants it.

These oscillating attempts at control can be found in almost any number of Biblical characters, but Moses is a helpful place to observe it.

Moses’ Action and Inaction

At some point, Moses, the prince of Egyptian power, upon seeing the suffering of his own people, began to identify with their cause. The passive and powerless image of a baby carried by the currents of the Nile and raised by royal servants gave way to an impulse for action, an impulse driven by conviction. It is the defining act of Moses. Seeing an Egyptian master beating a Hebrew, Moses acts. Moses struck the Egyptian. He killed him and hid the body in the sand.

It’s hard to know just how premeditated Moses’ sudden involvement may have actually been. Was this the momentary impulse of passion or were there impulses building for something more, for a revolution, for a new way, for freedom, for a new identity? Whether it was first degree or second, Exodus suggests that it was violent and it was spoken of as murder. It is the Biblical image of aggression: Cain with is raised rock, Joab’s hidden dagger, and Pharaoh’s call to drown the infants. It is Moses’s first independent act, his coming of age—Moses, the man.

He becomes one by taking the life of another. And it backfired horribly. Far from sparking revolution or seeding defiance in his native tribe, his people mocked him. The next day, a fellow Hebrew, fighting with another Hebrew, snickered back at Moses, “Are you going to kill me too.” With neither the people nor Pharaoh on his side, Moses’ attempt at control had produced only isolation. He ran. Far from Egypt, he fled to the wilderness. Tucked into the rocky crags of Middean, the sound of bleating sheep around him, the cries of Egyptian cruelty finally resolved into silence.

It’s hard to criticize Moses for wanting the solitude of that place. It changed him. Moses of the wilderness now seemed so far from the Moses of Egypt. Take Moses’ hesitancy when God called him back to Egypt. “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue… Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”

It’s hard to imagine Moses as a man afraid to speak. It’s hard to imagine the aggressive and impulsive Moses begging to keep his seclusion, wanting someone else to go in his place. His defining first characteristic had been action and Moses would go on to speak boldly before Pharaoh and passionately before his people. We have an entire book of his sermons. Or remember his frustration at the people’s lack of faith. Just before he raised his staff and struck the rock? He berated them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” He hardly seems “slow” of speech. Is not his striking of the rock an image of the same aggression which he showed that first day in Egypt? So who is this timid man in the desert?

Like most men I know—myself included—Moses can not be easily dismissed as either aggressive or passive. His life is a complicated twisting of these traits. Intertwined in his story are these two ways of acting, two ways of carving out a way of being in the face of a world which so rarely gives way to his control. Moses strikes, and Moses retreats. Moses acts, and Moses begs not to be involved. Any man who is honest with himself—shy and timid or are aggressive and resolved—knows that these two ways of being exist in all of us.

No One Is Talking About Meekness

Twisted with these two threads is an uncommon virtue which Moses is credited with possessing more than any other man on earth. “The man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”

I have come to believe that meekness is the defining quality of Biblical manhood. Probably not something you’ve heard before. Without a proper understanding of what it means to be meek, we are ill-prepared for understanding masculinity, maturity, and in the end, ourselves. I think I can show you why it is so important.

I chose not to use the word meekness in the title of this article for a good reason. I’m not naive. Talking about meekness is not a topic most men are interested in. It gets some vague sense of approval for Jesus’ having included it in his Beatitudes, but no one is talking or thinking about meekness—not in this world. How would you take it if someone said, “When I think of you, I always think of meekness. You’re just such a meek person.” Could you even conclude that it was meant as a compliment? Whatever Jesus meant by “the meek shall inherit the earth,” it’s hard to see much evidence of it. Who of our heroes would we call meek? Who of our great leaders? Who of our great masculine role-models?

But Moses earned the distinction, “meekest man on earth.” He earned it through a specific situation recounted in Numbers 12. Israel was trudging through its wilderness years and beginning to show wear. As seems to happen anytime a group of people attempt a common goal, complaining set in and suspicion soon followed. Worst, the most destructive resistance was forming within his own family. Miriam and Aaron were whispering and critical behind Moses’ back. “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” Word was getting around, and even Moses must have realized things were coming to a head.

How did Moses respond—the man who had received his audible calling from a burning bush, the man who had faced off with Pharaoh and his sorcerers, the man who had received the law on the mountain of God and had led Israel through war and water? How did he respond? Moses did nothing. He didn’t respond. Moses chose not to act. But it wasn’t passivity. He would eventually pray and beg God to spare the very people who cut him down. For this inner strength, navigating when to act and when to refrain, Moses is called meek. Maybe that seems weak to you. If so, you’ve probably never tried it.

A Pollutant of Progress?

The aggression and passivity that are typical of our responses are really both symptoms of insecurity. The man who strikes in anger and the man who shuts his eyes share this similarity, they are both insecure. They are both searching for a way to control their situation, one by dominating it the other by ignoring it.

Moses’ meekness is not his natural disposition. He, too, was prone to strike and run. But the faithfulness of God had formed in him a perspective which, even when his control was tested, mitigated that insecurity and allowed him to overcome the impulse to revert to his base inclinations. The inner strength which Moses possessed was a faith that control is not ultimately his anyway.

The German philosopher Nietzche saw meekness as a Christian pollutant, hindering the progress of man. Nietzche saw modern man’s rejection of God as an opportunity to form a new stronger humanity. From Nietzche’s perspective, the constraint meekness imposed on man’s ambition only held him back. Virtues like meekness kept man from claiming the full potential of his control. Derek Rishmawy explains that Nietzche “thought meekness was exactly the sort of false virtue that the weak would applaud because, well, it’s about the only virtue they could actually pull off. Since the weak can’t win by the standard rules, they change the rules.”

I think Nietzche’s evaluation of meekness feels very modern. It is a virtue weak men claim to justify their weakness. It is the virtue of a man who has no success to call his virtue. It is the kind of virtue we only claim when we have failed or are too passive to try. But Nietzche was wrong. He, like so many men, are blinded by their own ambition and unwilling to call virtuous anything which might force their control into submission.

What Nietzche, and we, often get wrong about meekness, is that it is not an absence of power. Neither is it the warmed-up leftovers of our failed ambition. Meekness is a virtue precisely because it must be earned, it must be practiced, and it takes both maturity and strength to keep it.

A Better Image of Meekness

The greeks are known for their debating the value of various virtues, and meekness is one which often made their lists, although, as we will see, the Bible offers a unique source for obtaining it.

Plato uses the word to describe a general who, victorious in battle, was put in a position of ultimate power. He was justified in annihilating his enemy completely. But Plato called a general who instead spared the conquered people, meek in his treatment. Plato saw that not as appeasement but strength.

Similarly, the Greek philosopher and soldier Xenophenon used the word meek often in his description of war horses. The best horses would be tamed but not broken of their spirit. A horse prepared for battle would need to maintain its power, energy, and wild nature but be brought under the control of its rider. It’s nature needed to be disciplined but not forfeited. A prized warhorse still possessed all of the traits that made it wild: strength, determination, and fearlessness. It would face cannons and muskets, fire and smoke, cries, and chaos. But it must also recognize and respond to the most sublet shift of its rider, the kick of a heel, the whispered command, and at its best, anticipate even before commanded.

My wife grew up showing horses. She spent plenty of summer afternoons correcting my form and telling me to keep my heels down. Our horse could hardly be described as one ready for battle, but the willingness of an animal his size to cut in a new direction by only the slightest pressure of a knee is remarkable. Even after years of riding, he has not lost his disposition. He is still mischievous and prone to test the limits of each new rider, but once established, his obedience is remarkable. He is meek, not a statement of weakness but disciplined strength.

I marvel at the same strength in my bird dog, Millie. We have spent years hunting together, and watching her work a field of pheasants is one of my favorite ways to spend a day. A great bird dog does not need to be trained to be interested in birds. You don’t teach a dog to hunt. That comes naturally. A dog with good genetics knows what to do and will often display beautiful points even as a puppy. The real question is, will the dog hunt with you. Will the dog hold point for you to get into a proper shooting position? Will the dog retrieve a downed bird to hand? Will a dog hold when it can smell a field of prey before it?

Meekness doesn’t breed out the horse’s power or the dog’s impulse to chase; meekness matures these drives into something useful, something controllable, something disciplined. A meek person feels the same burning passion for acting, but they have discovered their real strength lies in the discipline to be led by God, not their emotions.

This meekness is strength without the insecurity to prove it. It is self-control that doesn’t need to be in control of others. So much of what appears to be power is desperation, and so much of what appears to be strength is insecurity. Similarly, so much of what appears to be indifference is an obsession. Meekness knows what is true, without the need to prove it to oneself or others.

The Value of Authority

You could characterize the Greek virtue of meekness as a kind of disciplined self-control, but the Bible is more realistic about the difficulty of ruling ourselves. The Bible suggests we are the horse, not the rider.

The virtue of meekness can not be drummed up by determination. Such strength can not be manufactured by strength. Any attempt at self-control which is attempted by controlling one’s self is constantly prone to crack under the pressure of insecurity. The wild horse can not be tamed by himself. He needs a higher authority.

Peter captured an image of Jesus’ meekness in writing, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” Where did such restraint and strength come from? Peter continued, “Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Jesus’ meekness is not his passivity before man, nor is it self-determination to demonstrate virtue and show himself to be a superior man. Jesus’ meekness is a submission to a greater authority. He entrusted himself. His meekness is a sign of his submission.

Spurgeon picks up on this mystery in writing, “‘The Lord is slow to anger,’ because He is GREAT IN POWER. He is truly great in power who hath power over himself. When God’s power doth restrain Himself, then it is power indeed: the power that binds omnipotence is omnipotence surpassed.”

The real question of meekness is not what you recognize in yourself but the authority you recognize beyond yourself. It is this yielding to surpassing omnipotence that produces meekness. Your strength is directly related to the strength of that authority to which you are willing to commit. Meekness requires a rider, a commander, an authority. We so easily identify and long to be that lone rider, seated upon his horse, determined and confident as he rides westward into the setting sun. But that is not our calling. We are the horse. Confident and strong, only when we are ruled by guiding authority. Without his direction, we are an undisciplined horse, spooked, and restless.

Consider how Andrew Murray linked this idea of meekness with a proper understanding of what it means to be a man. He wrote, “Men sometimes speak as if humility and meekness would rob us of what is noble and bold and manlike. O that all would believe that this is the nobility of the kingdom of heaven, that this is the royal spirit that the King of heaven displayed, that this is Godlike, to humble oneself, to become the servant of all!”

The Pull Potential of Man

Our modern masculine ideal is individualistic, ambitious, independent, and self-determined. Submission is its antithesis. Submission is seen as weakness and the forfeiting of the masculine ideal. Submission is domestic and womanish. To submit is to be broken and robbed of your masculinity. It’s no wonder submission becomes a perverted word in our demands of submission from others. But submission is rightfully a masculine ideal. It is man’s most wise move by which the strength of meekness is given room to form. It is our submission that builds strength. We must be broken, not to lose our masculine spirit but to have it matured into something stronger—something of use in this world, something of use to God.

The man, who can not be led, who submits to nothing but himself, is far weaker than the man who submits to God.

We need a new image of meekness and its priority in the lives of men. Meekness is the bridle of our aggression and apathy. It is the tugged reins by which God calls for our halt and by the same loosened, which he calls for our courageous action. Only the man who has submitted to his lead can discern the difference. He is a horse well prepared for battle, his undisciplined brother, only for pasture.

Nietzche was wrong. Meekness is not a sign of subjugation but submission. It is the power by which the kingdom of God reclaims the earth. For the proud men of Troy who boast only in victory, meekness is a trojan horse. As they beat their shields and fight to take the hill, they only lose it and themselves in the brutality of the process, a stream of men dejected and disengaged in their defeat. Our power is not in our elevation; our power is in the one we elevate above ourselves.

The full potential of man is not ultimately in his self-achievement but in his self-submission. Maybe this seems impractical and unrealistic. Perhaps it seems so idealistic as to be completely irrelevant. Nothing in this world seems to actually work that way. But it may be as Chesterton put it, “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.”

This articles was taken from my Christmas Eve message to Bent Oak Church: December 24, 2019.

My kids have a little wooden nativity set that each year we assemble beneath our Christmas tree. This time of year, you see them everywhere—plastic ones illuminated in front yards, wooden ones set up in front of McDonald’s, some metal and wrapped in Christmas lights, others expensive porcelain or olive wood.

This year, nativity scenes even made the news being used by some churches to make political statements. Growing up, some of the Catholic churches in my home town were forced to bolt down their baby Jesus—stealing them having become the popular teenage seasonal prank.

That little scene is more than 2,000 years old, and although 2,000 years of nativity nostalgia have slowly evolved some details of the original scene, where else do we set up historical depictions from the First-Century world.

It’s easy, these nativities yanked out of their ancient time and set alongside our wrapped presents and busy shopping lines, to lose a sense of the nativity’s actual place. We often imagine Christ’s birth wrapped in darkness, only the light of that brilliant new star washing down over the family: Marry, Joseph, and Jesus, aglow in heavenly light. The scene more made for holiday cards with glitter than the actual complexity of First-Century life on the margins.

Like the Christmas song puts it, “Radiant beams from thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace.”

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. A small town, but rich in history, and in Jesus’ day, probably home to a few hundred people. First-Century towns like Bethlehem were built tight, families often adding rooms to existing houses as their families grew. With the census underway, Bethlehem was more crowded than usual, crowded enough that Mary and Joseph found space with the animals, probably in a seller, cave space beneath the family’s house.

The place of Jesus’ birth alludes to how little attention was given to it; after all, the families of Bethlehem must have been busy. With relatives in town, there were grandkids to play with, meals to be fixed, extra bedding to pull out, and talk of life in every other part of Judea. An out of town Jewish girl about to give birth was hardly a thing to note. Mary and Joseph slipped into their place, most likely unnoticed by the others going about their business. Maybe a few hellos. Maybe a few “good to see you again.” But never a bending knee or word of worship.

It’s not hard to imagine what had caught the attention of Bethlehem—there was plenty to talk about. Jesus was not born into a historical blank space. That year had not been divinely chosen because nothing else significant was on the world’s calendar. Hardly, the world into which Jesus was born was fully occupied with power and politics—revolutions, collapses, impassioned arguments, rumors, and growing divisions.

The Gospel’s subtle references to these tumultuous times have become such a part of our reading that very little of these events still color our Christmas imagination. But the gospel writers make several significant historical references surrounding that first Christmas morning.

The Political Atmosphere of Jesus’ Birth

First, there was the most proponent name in the list, Caesar Augustus. For us, it’s an Imperial name indistinguishable from the rest, but in Jesus’s day, Augustus was a name plenty were talking about round Bethlehem dining room tables, just an earshot from Jesus’ manger. Augustus had risen to power less than thirty years ago, the soul victor of the massive Roman civil war sparked by the assassination of Julius Caesar. The war had produced legendary names like Brutus, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra. Surely, it was one of the most significant events in world history.

Augustus used the war to not only gain power but to reinvent Rome itself. He is remembered as the first Roman Emperor, having all but decimated the old Roman Senate. He was a man of vision and ruthless determination, and after the blood bath of eliminating his opposition, he ushered in an era, known by historians as the Pax Romana—the era of Roman peace. Peace earned by the sword and ensured by his legions.

The birth of Jesus intersects this monumental figure in the order of Caesar Augustus’s decree, “all the world should be registered.”

These censuses were extremely controversial in Israel because they were seen as an attempt to tighten control and inevitably raise more taxes. The jews saw the order as a political move in the wrong direction. There would eventually be several registrations taken of Judea, some before the rule of Quirinius, who is mentioned by Luke, and some during. The Jewish historian Josephus traces the Jewish revolt and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, all the way back to opposition to these registrations by Augustus.

The Jewish leadership, like the High Priest, were able to convince most of Jerusalem to participate, but more conservative regions like Galilee, where Jesus’ family was from, remained a hotbed for talk of revolt and opposition.

There is an interesting note in the Book of Acts when Gamaliel is the lone member of the Sanhedrin to recommend not persecuting the new Christians. He mentioned that maybe Jesus was a false leader like other revolutionary. He specifically named Theudas and Judas the Galilean who had led revolts against Rome and failed. We know for sure that Judas the Galilean lead his revolt from Galilee and in opposition to these very censuses we read about in Luke 2.

I know Christmas Eve is not typically a service to use as a history lesson, but I give you this history to hopefully make a point; Jesus was born into a world immersed and engrossed in politics, controversy, and hotly divided opinions. I’ve said nothing about the violence and insecurities of Herod the Great or the political divisions on how to handle Rome led in opposing directions by the Pharisees, and Sanhedrin, and Essences.

Politics at the Table

It’s not hard to imagine that night, a Jewish family whispering in the dim oil lit light of their Bethlehem home. One begins, “We are Jews. God is our emperor. Caesar Augustus is not our peace. And now he wants more money to pay for it.”

Another whispers back, “We should resist. I hear there is a man leading a rebellion near Galilee. Some say he may be the Messiah who will finally overthrow Rome.” Another family member pushes back. “It’s too risky. We still have the temple. I don’t want to risk losing that too.” Still, another, hearing mention of the temple becomes more frustrated, their voices now above a whisper. “The temple is as corrupt as Rome. We should leave while we can. There are priests in the desert who are practicing our faith as we all should.” In that day, politics and religion were topics no family could avoid, nor would they try.

But they find themselves at an impasse. What is this world with its kings and armies and taxes? What does it mean to follow God in it? Do you resist? Do you comply? Do you ignore everything and pretend?

They blew out their lamps and fell asleep, divided, yet with a mix of fear, uncertainty, frustration, and longing shared between them.

A few yards away, a baby is born and brakes the stillness with its first cry. What a world to be born into.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.”

And to the shepherds, heavy-eyed, watching sheep on the margins of town, suddenly an angel, and a word, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

“And this will be a sign for you..”

What will be the sign of this savior? What will be the sign of this new Lord? What is this good news and joy for all people? What is this revelation of God breaking into the darkness, into the silence?

“You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

At that very moment, somewhere in Rome, Caesar Augustus was probably plotting and signing more decrees. Pundits were weighing-in on clashes between the emperor and the Roman senate. In Galilee, rebels were also plotting and planning their resistance. They would wait no more. There was a nation to save. In Jerusalem, priests were trying to balance conflicts and keep their own positions of power. There was so much at stake.

And yet it would be this little nativity scene—young unknown first-time parents, poor bowing shepherds, a stone feeding trough holding an infant, and scrapes of cloth for swaddling—it would be this scene that was remembered.

Remember This Christmas

I’ll offer you only this, Christmas reminds us that God is with us, but not in the ways or places many would expect.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,  for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And I might add, for this Christmas, blessed are those wise enough to look for him, passing by kings and emperors and revolutions, to find him here, in this nativity. Because it is no easier for us to recognize him than it was for those of his own time.

The light of our Christmas Eve candles isn’t enough to burn away the complexity of our own time. There is just as much talk of power, and politics, and disagreement on how to handle them both. Such things matter, but maybe not as much as some others. Maybe not as much as this.

“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

I want to close with this Christmas poem from G. K. Chesterton.

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

I want to remind you tonight, far more is going on than the news finds reason to report. In fact, the headlines of Jesus’ world became nothing more than the historical footnotes surrounding his birth. Could it be true here as well.

It would be this baby by which history itself would pivot, the count of this Christmas, 2019, derived from that moment of his birth.

This is the ways of God. As Paul would put it, “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”

The kingdom of God is at hand. Here it is. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

I’m aware; toxic masculinity is a phrase of extreme controversy. Wrapped up in the phrase are hotly debated ideologies, fueled by very different perspectives on what a man is and should be.

At the center of these masculine critiques is a concern of over-identification with the attributes of violence, aggression, and dominance. In 2018, The American Psychological Association released findings entitled “Harmful masculinity and violence: Understanding the connection and approaches to prevention.”

The APA summarized:

“In early childhood, violence and aggression are used to express emotions and distress. Over time, aggression in males shifts to asserting power over another, particularly when masculinity is threatened. Masculine ideals, such as the restriction of emotional expression and the pressure to conform to expectations of dominance and aggression, may heighten the potential for boys to engage in general acts of violence including, but not limited to, bullying, assault, and/or physical and verbal aggression.”

The APA suggests that instead of maturing out of childhood aggression, our socially constructed masculine ideals teach men to identify with and lean into their aggressive traits. The APA also suggested that a struggle by some men to live up to these masculine expectations leads them to overcompensate with aggression and violence.

The APA is not wrong in recognizing and condemning the violence and aggression many men act out. In a previous article, I considered the significant evidence that something is deeply flawed in the lives of, particularly, young men. Violence is a part of the problem.

However, the APA study went on to make several suggestions to help solve toxic masculinity. Consider these three suggestions: “Address social norms condoning male dominance and violence,” “Create marketing campaigns designed to modify social and cultural norms that endorse the unhealthy male code and consequent violence,” “Identify and treat psychological distress precipitated by gender role socialization.”

What’s Wrong With Us is More Complicated… And Much Older

The problems facing men are more complicated than the APA acknowledges. What’s wrong with men is not something an ad campaign or a public service commercial can solve. And the ways men go wrong are far more complicated than violence and aggression. It’s also worth remembering; we are hardly the first to deal with these questions. The problem is much, much older.

There is an Irish proverb that goes, “For every mile of road, there are two miles of ditches.”

I’m worried that our conversations about toxic masculinity have become far too narrow. Our culture’s characterizations of toxic men are incomplete. There is more than one ditch on this path to understanding manhood. Avoiding one doesn’t guarantee to miss the other. In fact, many drivers have learned that the real danger can be over-correcting, which often leaves you in the ditch on the other side of the road.

The Biblical Take on Man’s Aggression

The opening chapters of Genesis narrate how the first couple’s act of disobedience proliferated into a world that could only be described as cruel and perverse. As God put it, “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” The evil which now dwelled in man’s heart spilled out across creation. Cain murdered his brother in premeditated hatred and soon men were killing and taking as it benefited them. We watch as Adam and Eve’s curse corrupts every corner of the human experience.

Just after Abel’s murder and Cain’s exile, we are given a genealogy of Adam’s descendants. Eventually, from the descendants of Cain came Lamech. Lamech was the first man to have two wives. More descriptively, Genesis records, “Lamech took two wives.” He was also the second to be credited with murder. He bragged about killing a younger, and, as seems to be implied, weaker man to his wives. He taunted, “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s (talking about one’s self in the third-person apparently being a universally recognized sign of a scumbag) is seventy-sevenfold.” It was a reference to God’s promise to protect Cain even in exile. Lamech boasted of his own vengeance and his own power for protection. It’s probably safe to call Lamech toxic.

The genealogies then lead us to what has to be one of the most perplexing passages in all of scripture—Genesis 6.

“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose… The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…”

Lamech’s taking of wives becomes the pattern, as these “sons of God” began to take wives as they pleased, or as these women pleased their eye. These were the mighty men of old. We know very little about them. Commentators aren’t sure how to translate Nephilim. It literally means “fallen ones,” but may also refer to these men and their offspring as giants. And what are we to make of the title “sons of God?” Tradition has it that these are spirit beings who slept with women to produce demigods, legendary men of renown.

Ancient Men of Renown

The ancient world is filled with stories of such men—heroes. Heracles and Achilles. Perseus and Orion. These were the men whose names are forever remembered, the men whose stories are recorded in songs and memorialized in constellations of the stars. That generations of men would model their lives after such figures is how history progresses.

We can’t be sure if Genesis saw these legendary “sons of God” figures as truly divine or only as figures of mythical lore, many having claimed divinity. Still, we do know two things about how Genesis evaluated them. First, their tactics were oppression, violence, and wicked pursuit. They conquered women as they conquered land and cities. As Leon Kass put it in his commentary on Genesis, following these heroes, “The rest of mankind goes boldly and heroically wild.”

They become toxic.

In response, God would no longer allow men to live for hundreds of years, inflicting lifetimes of brutality and pain. Still, the toxicity of mankind became so great that God “regretted” that he had made man at all. He would send a flood to purge the earth of their violence.

But the second, and maybe the most surprising lesson of Genesis, is that the heroes of old have no place in the history of God. Their names are washed away with their time and with their violent deeds. Their power, their achievements, and their conquests are dismissed with a single summary sentence. “These were the mighty men who were of old.” Genesis has no interest in remembering their names or their achievements.

While the ancient world delighted itself in all the nefarious and sordid details of their heroes’ lives, Israel’s God paid little attention.

As Psalm 37 put it, “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land.”

The Man Who’s Name Was Remembered

Noah’s name is the one name remembered from those days. And what is it that placed Noah above the heroes of his age?

Genesis states simply: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.”

That is the full extent of what we know about Noah. These are the traits that earned him a place in the story of God. As one commentator put it, “we are put on notice that it is these qualities, not heroic manliness (prized everywhere else), that are divinely favored.” Noah walked with God.

Noah’s character is, however, more complicated than your Sunday school flannel-board may have presented it. In fact, there are tensions which run through the story of Noah which too few readers have recognized. Noah’s story is more thann an ark and animals. Noah’s story presents the full complexity of what it means to face our broken identity and to discover that there is more than one way we go wrong.

Our Expectations for Noah

Interestingly, the hairy-knuckled Lamech, who boasted of murder to his conquered wives, is not the only Lamech in Genesis’ genealogies. There was a second Lamech—Noah’s father.

Upon the birth of his son, this second Lamech named him Noah, explaining, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” In Hebrew, Noah sounds similar to the word, translated here, relief. Noah is a play on words for rest.

If the first Lamech was known for his bravado, this Lamech seems weary and pensive. The pain of centuries of toiling under the curse had left him longing for relief. His son might be the one to finally bring rest. No other son in all of the Genesis genealogies is given such expectations.

Both Lamechs were looking for relief, one by conquering it, the other hoping his son might accomplish what he had not. One through aggression, the other passively longing. Noah’s father makes no mention of God, but his hopes were messianic. Could Noah reverse the curse?

To then discover that Noah is, in fact, the single man to be recognized by God as worthy of saving, to the reader unaware of the story’s conclusion, the expectations could not be higher. But there is an interesting observation about Noah, which, once noticed, is impossible not to see. Noah never speaks.

He is the hope of humanity. He is the one selected by God. He is the one who thousands of years later, Fisher-Price continues to produce as a kids’ bath-time playset. Yet he moves through his own story speechless.

To his credit, Noah’s silence has the literary effect of reinforcing the consistency of his action and character. Each time God speaks, Noah obeys. There is no negotiating, no complaining, no boasting or fear. The simplicities by which God affirmed Noah’s righteousness is expressed in the simplicity of his obedience. His quiet dedication carried him through the floodwaters and onto dry ground where his silent sacrifice placed upon a fresh alter was received by God as a pleasing aroma.

But his long silence has another effect; it produces a jarring and horrific impact when Noah’s first utterance is a curse upon his own son. “Cursed be Canaan.”

Noah, the son who had been his father’s hope for rest from the cursed ground, now speaks his first words, a curse upon his own son to the devastation of his father’s hope.

The Second Ditch of Masculinity

I have often wondered about the world into which Noah stepped from the ark. The images of doves and rainbows tend to wash the story in a sense of newness: green meadows, snow-capped peaks, and bubbling streams rinsed of their previous pollution.

But Genesis states only that Noah stepped out onto dry ground. After a year of floating on the ark, months of water covering the earth, the landscape may have appeared more martian than utopian. The horizon must have been stripped of its trees and bushes, the ground caked and cracking with mud. The ark, weathered and beaten, now wedged useless in the rock. And the animals, which God acknowledged, would now fear men, scattered, leaving Noah and his family with only their stone-piled alter and a thin wisp of smoke rising to heaven above.

Back in 2005, a dam broke not far from where I live. At 5:00 am, and with no warning, 1.3 billion gallons of water were leased down the side of a Missouri mountain, draining the 50-acre reservoir in a few minutes. The water stripped the ground bare down to the bedrock, piling up trees like tooth-picks at the bottom. More than ten years later, you can still see evidence of the disaster. It is an unmeasurable fraction of the water that was released in Genesis.

Into that bleak landscape, God commanded them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” This had also been his garden imperative to the first couple, but this was no Eden, a reality which would soon be evident in more than scenery. Onto this panorama, God’s rainbow stretched across the sky. The scene provides even more profound significance. Its colors now the only vibrancy in an otherwise barren world. Though the destruction had been catastrophic, and its aftermath must have been staggering, the world was not dark. By God’s covenant, there was color, light, and promise.

Noah was once again silent.

What does Noah do with this new world, with these new promises of God’s faithfulness? Noah planted a vineyard. “He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.” Noah cracked open a PBR and passed out half-naked on the couch. He becomes more Homer Simpson than Homer’s Odysseus.

Noah is alive—breathing at least—but unconscious and sprawled across the dirt floor, he has more in common with his neighbors washed away by the flood than his previous status of walking with God. And he is again silent, this time to his discredit. In Jewish history, Noah is credited with having invented alcohol, and he became the first of many who would disengage from the complexity of their world by the drink.

As G. K. Chesterton warned, “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable.” Far from reversing the curse, man was once again naked and ashamed.

As Kass puts it, “Noah’s drunkenness robs him – of his dignity, his parental authority, and his very humanity. Prostrate rather than upright, this newly established master of the earth has, in the space of one verse, utterly lost his standing.”

The one who was described as walking with God drank himself into immobility—passive and disengaged.

It’s not clear if Noah’s son, Ham, only mocked his father’s indecency or, as has long been posited, took advantage of his father’s unconsciousness with more perverse intent. What we do know is that Noah awoke to realize his shame and cursed his son.

And so, having avoided the ditch of violence and aggression, Noah slid into the ditch of passive disengagement. It, too, divided and wounded his family.

The Danger of a Passive Man

It’s customary to describe the Bible as a patriarchal tool used by generations of men to justify their misogyny. Critics point to what are clear injustices and oppression against women. But such readings don’t pay close enough attention. It’s like a middle school student reading the first racist pejorative and concluding that To Kill A Mocking Bird is a racist book and its author, clearly, a racial bigot.

The Bible offers plenty of evidence for how men tread along in the ditch of aggression—Cain, Samson, and Amnon, to name only a few—but the Bible also suggests the devastating tendency of man’s passivity and just as many examples of its destructive force.

Once you’ve recognized it, you’ll see it stretched across the Biblical story: Adam’s passive taking of the fruit. Abraham’s yielding to a perverse plan. David unable to discipline his disintegrating family. Barak powerless to take up the sword. And Noah, drinking away his reality.

Men produce destruction by more than violence. To warn only of man’s aggression is to imply that passivity makes him safe. Nothing could be further from the truth, for we all know that most passivity is only another form of aggression. As the novelist, Agatha Christie put it, “A weak man in a corner is more dangerous than a strong man.”

It’s not hard to look beneath the surface of most passivity to discover a brooding aggression. Our term, passive-aggressive, was first coined by a WWII Army psychiatrist, William Menninger. He noticed that some soldiers, while not openly defiant, exhibited more subversive forms of “aggressiveness” by “passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism.” Menninger coined the phrase, passive-aggressive.

Is it possible that Noah’s drunken detachment is itself a kind of aggression, a refusal to participate in what God had ordered, a rebellion of apathy?

I worry that while our culture, often rightfully, warns about the dangers of violent men, we have produced too many disengaged men. Men who bear no responsibility for their children, nor time, nor pain they passively inflict on others.

Our culture, influenced by the suggestions of organizations like the APA, suggests that what men need are new models, new expressions of masculinity. So our shows are full of bumbling fathers who stumble their way through episodes, more joke than character. They never understand their wives, they feel awkward talking with their kids, and only seem happy when at work or in front of the TV. We play a zero-sum game, believing that to elevate women necessitates we degrade men.

To some degree, the APA is right about needing new masculine models, but the biblical model does not seem to be one they are willing to consider. The Bible offers both a fuller warning and a better way.

The violence of Genesis is perpetrated by men who are desperate and insecure. They are godless men who, afraid of being weak, use power to protect themselves. They see the complexity of the world and attempt to control it. Passive men see the same complexity and, seeking the same control, they content themselves to face only the smallest realistic possibilities which they can rule.

Both are anxious. Both are insecure. Both acknowledge very little of themselves yet depend only on themselves. Both are wounded animals—fight and flight—overwhelmed by their wounds and simmering frustrations. Both are dangerous. Passive and aggressive.

The single flash of light that illuminates the darkness of Noah’s story is the simple phrase, “Noah walked with God.” Here is the path which rises above the ditches. Here is the path that saves us from ourselves. Here is the path that promises true rest.

But to walk with God implies a way ridiculed by both the aggressive and the passive—the sacrifice of control. Maybe the best description for this better way is the virtue of meekness… more on that in the next article.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30


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