September 22, 2007

Why I Love U2.

Posted in Media at 5:46 pm by Caleb Winn

I was driving down the road the other day, and I heard When Love Comes To Town, by U2 feat. BB King. I’m amazed at the power and truth of their lyrics. An example:

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide

At work the next day, I was thrilled to discover that Popmart was recently released on DVD! They don’t play this particular song (sorry Phillip!) but it’s full of glitz and glam and a gigantic, 60-foot lemon. It’s well worth watching. And U2 is a band well worth loving. =)

September 21, 2007

The Rationality of Irrational Investments

Posted in Economics at 10:23 am by Caleb Winn

In his recently-released book, and in interviews to promote said book, retired FED Chairman and economic “maestro” Alan Greenspan takes a swing at the irrationality of investors, specifically during times of rapid economic growth or decline. Money-quote:

Greenspan also turned to psychology and anthropology for explanations of economic irrationality. The erratic behavior of investors during and after bubbles—excessively exuberant on the upside, unwarrantedly pessimistic and fearful on the downside—continuously confounds economists. . .“There’s a long history of forgetting bubbles,” he writes. “But once that memory is gone, there appears to be an aspect of human nature to get cumulative exuberance.” When the bubble inevitably breaks, as reality fails to meet expectations, “the result is a dramatic 180-degree switch from exuberance to fear.”

These “bubbles,” such as the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble that has recently begun to deflate, can cause rapid economic growth, but at the expense of fiscal stability. Investors all jump onto the same bandwagon, driving up prices and pouring in money until it reaches a level that is simply not sustainable. Investors are [i]too[/i] excited during times of rapid growth, and [i]too[/i] fearful during times of rapid decline, and these wild shifts in moods only exarcerbate the problems of investment bubbles. From a macro-economic perspective, this just doesn’t make sense.

Greenspan’s conclusion from this is that investors are irrational, acting emotionally, and not intelligently. In summarizing his position, MSNBC writes:

The ultimate rationalist seems to have concluded that fear, resistance to change, exuberance and human limitations play a bigger role than expected in economic development. And he recognized that economists have proven so human—i.e., fallible—in their forecasting because the force actually driving the economy is humans who are prone to act on emotion rather than reason.

Part of the problem here is that investors are pursuing short-term personal gain, and give little thought to how their actions impact the broader economic health of the U.S.. From a macro-economic level it makes little sense to create and sustain bubbles, or to yank out assets when the bottom falls out of the investment sector. As far as Alan Greenspan is concerned, that is foolish bevaiour because it is not good for the economy overall.

But for the individual investor, it is hard to resist the benefits of an investment bubble even if their actions will hurt the broader economy in the long-run. No individual investor has enormous control over the economy, and so no individual investor feels a sense of responsibility for the overall economic health of these United States. Any given individual investment has no real impact on the broader economy, but can have a huge impact on the investor. Each investor has an incentive to take a slice of the pie, but no responsibility for it, since they are only one tiny part of a much broader economic system, and their choice won’t make any real difference one way or another. Because of this, investors make their choices on the basis of rational self-interest, seeking to maximize personal profit.

So while this investment pattern seems irrational from a macro-economic perspective, it may be the product of perfectly rational individual decisions. The problem lies in the fact that the decision is replicated millions of times, and what makes sense for the individual becomes catastrophically unsustainable for the economy as a whole.

September 20, 2007

To catch a fallen star…

Posted in Media at 10:36 pm by Caleb Winn

Stardust is an amazing film, and a phenomenal book. There are numerous changes from the book to the movie, as indeed there must always be, and I enjoyed both versions immensely. The adventure and merriment found in the fantastic, magical world over the wall make my heart glad. You should watch it, and read it, though not necessarily in that order.

Cryptic thought(s) of the day:

Posted in Personal at 11:02 am by Caleb Winn

Redemption isn’t just about the past; it’s about the future.

I’m sure that there is a line between sarcasm and sincerity, but I have no clue whither it lies.

The child who is afraid of the dark can go on the grandest of adventures in his dreams if only he has a little light.

September 18, 2007

The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun.

Posted in Personal at 9:24 am by Caleb Winn

Heaven ain’t close in a place like this…

I went to see Stardust again last night. It is a delightful adventure story about a magical Kingdom where fallen stars are more than just space dust: they are men and women who look down on our humble lives and shine with joy and love.

I went outside last night and looked at the stars. I grew up in Southern California, where there aren’t many stars. Even in Texas, light pollution obscures all but a few dozen. But nevertheless, there they were, twinkling away in the heavens. The sheer number of stars, and the realization that there are millions more than I could see, was astounding. And the millions and millions of miles between us was amazing as well. The universe is so great, so big, so mind-bogglingly enormous, that contemplating the heavens should make any man feel humbled to the point of insignificance.

Bring it back down, bring it back down tonight…

But somewhere along the way, we stopped looking at the stars. Maybe it’s because the lights of the city distract us from contemplating the eternal, and so the heavens became unimportant to us.

Or maybe it’s because we tried to bring them down to our level, and bridge that gap between earth and sun. We use telescopes and cameras to understand the world, learning what a star is only to forget what a star means. We seek to learn out of a sense of wonder and whimsy, and somewhere along the way we lose that wonder, and the whimsy is replaced with a lab coat. Rather than being humbled by the enormity of God’s creation, we grow confident in our ability to comprehend the deepest mysteries of the universe, though our understanding is so very superficial. What should cause us to feel small only makes us feel grand indeed, as we shrink the world down into pieces small enough to fit into our tiny brains. We are like the playground bullies who belittle the universe in order to make ourselves feel big and tough and wise.

What does it mean to consider the heavens?

September 17, 2007

Politically confused.

Posted in Politics at 10:49 pm by Caleb Winn

I am a Republican, and loyally so. I have great affection for the Grand Ol’ Party. I love Ronald Reagan, and think that Democrats are, by and large, the “bad guys.” But these emotional attachments don’t necessarily translate into corresponding policy views, which leaves me wondering where I lie.

The nature of partisan politics

The party establishments tend to hold opposing and divergent views on almost everything. This is caused by their divergent constituencies, and is dramatically worsened by fierce antagonism between the parties, which accentuates those differences and makes compromise virtually impossible.

The GOP establishment depends on corporate fat cats, upper-middle-class suburbanites, rural rugged individualists, and angry evangelicals for support. In order to win in primary elections, Republican candidates have to adopt positions that appeal to these voters, sounding ‘tough,’ ‘fiscally responsible,’ and ‘values-oriented.’ A “real” Republican must be pro-life, pro-gun, anti-illegal immigration, hawkishly pro-war, anti-environment, and no matter how low taxes are already, they can always be cut again!

Democrats, on the other hand, must answer to a myriad of interests all their own. Labor unions, feminists, environmentalists, the GLBTetc lobby, anti-war doves, and the urban poor, especially among minorities. This leads to a whole host of policy commitments that most democrats must honor if they hope to be successful. While some pro-life, pro-gun Democrats may be successful in Congressional elections in states like Tennessee, they often find themselves snubbed by their national caucuses, and could never succeed at the national (Presidential) level.

To make matters worse, these groups don’t really like each other very much, which leads to reactionary policy-making. If the Democrats propose an idea, Republicans will often oppose it regardless of its merit, or vice versus. Additionally, niche groups within the party will adopt the political views of the party that extend beyond their niche, so that evangelical Christians borrow the economic policies of the corporate fat cats, simply because the opposing economic views are held by the “other team.” For this reason, people whose moral convictions cause them to be pro-life are also, by extension, anti-tax, anti-welfare, and pro-gun. We have these bizarre groupings of tangentially-related interests in place of a consistent political ideology, wherein the economic libertarians are married to the socially fascist, and the social libertarians are in bed with the economically socialist.

So where does that leave me?

I am a very partisan man. I really do like the Republican party. At some level, politics is an exciting game, and I want “my team” to win. But while this makes for engaging (if sometimes soul-destroying) political showmanship, it almost certainly makes for bad, inconsistent policy. The fact of the matter is, I am not in lock-step with the GOP. On a whole host of issues, I might break ranks with my party and try to find common ground with the Democrats. On some issues, I just think that the Democrats have it right, and the GOP needs to get its head on straight.

So how does that work? As a political non-entity outside of the power and influence of the Beltway, I suppose it doesn’t matter what I think. I can borrow ideas from both sides without anybody really caring. And when it comes to selecting a candidate, I just have to choose which issues I care about more passionately. Do I suppose the candidate who shares my social views, or my economic views?

It’s just a darn shame that a candidate can’t succeed in this political climate without spreading divisiveness and vitriol. It’s a shame that a candidate can’t transcend constituencies and seek meaningful compromise on important issues. Well, maybe he can, but we’ll see how successful he is.

Policy laundry list

Economic policy

I am in favor of a guest worker program (call it “amnesty” if you want), with or without securing our borders.

I am opposed to universal health care, especially of the nationalized variety.

I do, however, support Bush’s plan to make all medical insurance costs tax-deductible, whether through an employer or not, and may even support a Massachusetts-style plan to mandate health care coverage, with limited government subsidies.

I also support Bush’s approach to social security reform, though I may also consider lifting the $90,000/year cap on FICA-eligible earnings in order to increase the pot. Regardless, the Democratic head-in-the-sand approach to Social Security reform is as shameful as it is asinine.

I think that sometimes we honestly just need to raise taxes, or at least stop cutting them. Deficits are sad.

Social policy

I am ardently pro-life. This is a (the?) big one for me.

I don’t have a problem with affirmative action, gay marriage, or sex education in public schools.

I don’t believe in an innate right to bear arms, and generally favour gun control, though it’s probably best left to localities where possible since NYC and KY have rather different threats and needs.

I oppose the death penalty, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and a whole host of other wrong-headed anti-crime bills that are based more on anger than on common sense.

Security policy

I am opposed to torture in all instances, and support the legal rights of the very worst in society.

I hold to a fairly Neo-conservative foreign policy, and think that withdrawing from Iraq would create a situation so violently awful that it would make Darfur look like Disneyland.

I think that the UN is generally a good thing.

I believe that Globalization leads to greater security through greater economic interdependence, provided that our bilateral investments are diversified.

I believe that the United States probably isn’t doing enough to engage in the ideological, intellectual struggle against Islamo-fascism.

In conclusion

I support John McCain for President, because he isn’t a partisan hack. The man is the Real Deal, a principled Statesman who holds firmly to his beliefs even when it hurts him politically (see immigration reform), and is willing to stand up for what’s right to Democrats and Republicans alike (see torture). But he is a man who is willing to meet in the middle, to try to reach meaningful bipartisan compromise on the details wherever possible. He’s a man who understands what is at stake in the Global War on Terror, and can be trusted to be an effective Commander-in-Chief.

Sadly, I suspect that a Statesman cannot succeed in the modern political climate.

September 16, 2007

This Half-Full Glass Needs To Be Washed…

Posted in Personal at 2:12 am by Caleb Winn

It occurs to me that although life has moments of unbearable agony and indescribable joy, the vast majority of our time is spent in an in-between state, where we mostly eat, sleep, and wash dishes.  At times our cup runneth over. At times we drink from the cup of bitterness. But most often, we just throw the cup in the dishwasher and spend the evening reading a book or doing a Sudoku puzzle: nothing too exciting, but nothing too tragic, either. 

How we evaluate such evenings is important, since they comprise the vast majority of our experiences. Depression likely has its roots in an inability to accept and enjoy this middle ground. If we expect to live in a constant state of indescribable joy, then the boring routines of life will seem like unbearable agony.  

So the trick, then, is to develop a healthy emotional life. We’ve got to learn to be content even when we are not ridiculously happy. We must learn to embrace routine, and not to cultivate an unrealistic longing for constant bliss.

I suspect that stories and music have a major role to play in the development of our emotional states. Especially in this digital era, it is easy to allow ourselves to be constantly bombarded with emotive media. But allowing our expectations about life to be shaped by romantic comedies or pop musicians is a one-way ticket to disappointment. Some discretion is valuable here. To quote Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity

It seems to me that if you place music (and books probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the centre of your being, then you can’t afford to sort out your love life, start to think of it as the finished product. You’ve got to pick at it, keep it alive and in turmoil, you’ve got to pick at it and unravel it until it all comes apart and you’re compelled to start all over again. Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship. Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realised.’ 

September 14, 2007

A face from long ago…

Posted in Personal at 12:24 am by Caleb Winn

In the spring of 2003, I took a train to San Jose with Kirsten Flewelling and Josh Nadal. On the way back down, we met a friend. His name was Taylor Gustafson. 

We were leaving the Stockton train station, heading south to the next stop at Bakersfield, where we would transfer to a bus for the trip down to L.A. Just three high school students, two seniors and a junior, sharing some laughs and building some memories. But there was a little boy who didn’t want to be aboard the train. He stood just inside the doors, with tears streaming down his cheeks, begging his mom to let him stay there with her, and not to send him back to live with his dad in Bakersfield. He didn’t want to leave. He was only a little boy, 11 or 12, traveling all alone. His name was Taylor Gustafson.

We saw him crying, and took him under our collective wing. Kirsten was the first to reach out to him, and she invited him to join our little 4-person station aboard the train. We asked him questions about his life, and about school, and told jokes until he cheered up. He was living with his dad, but had been visiting his mom, whom he didn’t want to leave. He was also an enormous Pokémon fan, with the playing cards, trading cards, Game Boy games, toys, and VHS tapes to prove it. Since I had friends and brothers who had played the game, I was able to ask him how his Charmander was doing, and whether it was close to evolving into Charmeleon. We invested just a few short hours into his life, learned just a tiny bit about him, and then it was time to go. His stop came, and we transferred to our bus while he waited for his dad to come pick him up. A sad, smart, interesting young boy, whom I will never see again. His name was Taylor Gustafson.

I’ve been thinking about him, lately. I’ve thought about him several times a week, for months. I’ve wondered how he is doing. I’ve wondered how he is enjoying high school. I’ve wondered if he still plays with Pokémon. And I’ve wondered what his name was. Because for the life of me, I couldn’t remember it, until it hit me tonight. His name is Taylor Gustafson.

I’m not sure why this has stuck with me so much. We barely scratched the surface of his life that Sunday afternoon, and then we parted ways. But there is so much depth, so much pain and joy, that lies far below the surface. There is so much more than we can discover through casual conversation. We cross paths with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people every single day, and do not realize just how much there is to know. Most of the time, I can’t even understand myself. To think that there are 6 billion other people with lives as involved as my own is staggering.

I think of the people who read my blog. I get several hits each day from people searching for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I get other visitors, too. I had several visitors who read my post about Psalm 51 in German. I hope that nothing was lost in translation. And I’ve had visits from people who turned to the sacred oracle of Google to find the answers to deep and important questions like, “Can God forgive me when I’ve hurt others?” and “HOW DO I LET GO AND GIVE TO GOD MY PAIN?”

I know nothing about these people. I can only imagine the heart of somebody who asks Google that sort of question, and looks for the answers among this hodgepodge of Buffy, the Bible, and Freud. What great shame causes them to feel unforgivable? What great pain so burdens their hearts? There is no way to know. I can only hope, and pray, that God used my words to bring some of His great peace and comfort.

There are more than 6 billion people in this world, and they are alive – human beings created in the image of God. Some of them ask complete strangers whether they can be forgiven. Others sit aboard trains by themselves, speeding towards unhappy homes, with only Pokémon to keep them company. 6 billion of God’s children, and I have known and touched so very few.

But there is Taylor Gustafson, a little boy that I met on the train 4 and a half years ago. I wonder how he is doing. And I am glad that I remember his name.

September 12, 2007

What Debate Teaches About How To Deal With Life’s Disadvantages

Posted in Personal at 11:30 pm by Caleb Winn

Why Debate?

I have been involved in competitive speech and debate (”forensics”) for 9 years, since I took an Introduction to Speech and Debate camp in the fall of 1998. It has dramatically shaped the way that I think, and the way that I communicate. Speech and debate teach a lot about thinking, a lot about communication, and perhaps most importantly, a lot about the relationship between the two.

This has a lot of implications, not only for the academic game of debate, but for life. Beyond the obvious conclusion that it’s good to know how to speak in public, I’ve given little conscious thought to the lessons that competitive debate might have to offer. But I think that there is a lot to learn from forensics beyond how to make eye contact, and why a counterplan has to be mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, many of the life lessons that I might draw from debate will be of little use to those who do not have some experience in the activity. So in order to explain myself, I’ll go through a little bit of basic debate theory, explaining how arguments work in forensics in order to better understand how they work in the real world. Please bear with me, and if I become incomprehensible to non-debaters, feel free to leave me a comment or email me and I will try to revise and clarify until it makes sense.

How To Make A Disadvantage

In competitive policy debate, both sides attempt to build their case by looking at the pros and cons of the proposed change. The affirmative team argues that their plan will create positive “Advantages,” while the negative insists that it will bring about severe “Disadvantages.” For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus solely on the Disadvantages of the case, which are presented by the Negative team.

These arguments “link” the plan to a factual result, which is then assigned a negative “impact”. It works a little bit like a syllogism:

A (”Plan”) => B (”Link”)

B (”Link”) => C (”Impact”)

A (”Plan”) => C (”Impact”)

For example, the negative team wants to convince the judge that the plan is a bad idea, so they will run a “Disadvantage” about the economy. They argue that:

A. “the plan increases environmental regulations;

B. this will decrease residential construction by 30% (factual ‘link’);

C. this is bad because it will weaken the economy, increasing poverty and lowering the quality of life of the American people (evaluative ‘impact’).”

All of these connections are necessary to constructing an argument. If the plan doesn’t decrease residential construction, there’s no reason to vote against no matter how important residential construction is to the economy overall. If the plan decreases residential construction, but that doesn’t hurt the economy, then there is once again no reason to reject it. The plan has to link to the impact in order for the argument to be persuasive.

How To Respond To An Argument.

When it comes to responding to a disadvantage, there are basically three responses that can be made, either individually or in conjunction with one another. You can:

  1. Attack the link.
  2. Attack the impact.
  3. Grant the argument, and outweigh it.

1. The first approach is to attack the link-level. You can “no link” the argument, by claiming that it is simply untrue. In this context, you would say, “or plan will have no impact on residential housing.” You can also “link turn” the argument, by arguing that your plan would actually do the opposite of what the negative claims. So if the negative says that your plan would decrease construction, you would argue that it would actually increase construction. If less construction is bad, then more construction is good! By Turning the link, you’ve made their disadvantage into an advantage of your case.

2. You can also attack the argument on the impact level, by running a “no impact” or an “impact turn.” Here, you might agree that your plan will decrease residential construction, but insist that it will have no impact on the economy, or even that it will cause the economy to grow. (You could even argue that economic growth is a bad thing, if you wanted to get all wild and crazy about it.) These would be examples of impact-level arguments.

3. The third response is probably not as strategically useful within the debate round, but I think it may be the most realistic argument to be made. Basically, you admit that what the other team is saying is true, but argue that other factors are more important. For example, the affirmative might agree that their plan will hurt the economy, but insist that the benefit to the environment is far more important than the economic impact.

The Disadvantages of Life

It strikes me that this is an interesting metaphor for how we deal with challenges in real life. We are constantly confronted with challenges and disappointments. We are always taking account of our external circumstances (”links”) and evaluating them (”impacts”). As a simple case study, let’s say that life’s “Disadvantage” is that “I have little money, which is bad because I cannot buy nice things.”

In response, we can:

1. Attack the link. Since it’s generally a bad idea to live in a state of denial, the best way to go about this is to try to change the factual circumstances of our lives. If my problem is that I have no money, which keeps me from buying nice things, one solution is to get more money. This is a no-brainer, but sometimes it is simply not possible. For good or for ill, we can’t always control our external circumstances.

2. Attack the impact. Perhaps we cannot change our circumstances, but we can still change how we evaluate those circumstances. Even if we can’t earn more money, we can change how we think about that fact. We can try to convince ourselves that poverty is not bad (”no impact”), because there are lots of nice things that do not require money. We might even come to believe that it is a blessing (”impact turn”) because it allows us to focus on that which is truly important, and not be distracted by shiny baubles.

3. Grant, and outweigh. Sometimes external circumstances just suck, and there’s no way we can no-link or no-impact our way out of them. To the person who has lost a loved one to cancer, the external circumstances are far beyond human control, and the emotional impact is undeniably negative. All we can do is accept reality and find comfort in the fact that other factors outweigh our present pain.

This third strategy is far more powerful in real life than it is in debate. In a debate round, it’s hard to weigh economic impacts against environmental impacts. Nothing can be concretely quantified, and so much is subjective. But in life, the promise of eternal life is so far greater than any temporary pain that the comparison is clear. When there is no resolution to a problem, when no amount of thought or action can bring about positive change, then the ability to focus on other, more positive factors can bring peace.

The Power of Distraction

This is important because when there is no way to resolve the problem, continuing to focus on it is really counter-productive. The more we think about it, the more it will dominate our perspective, and the less we will be able to function with a healthy and robust view of our lives overall. The inability to accept unhappy circumstances and “get over it” is dangerous, as it creates an obsessive cycle that impairs our ability to see the good through the bad.

This has led me to appreciate the power of distraction. When God gives us a problem that is unresolvable, He also gives us the grace to ignore it, and to focus on other things. Whether we turn our thoughts to work, friendships, cathartic stories, or academics, these distractions help us break out of an obsessive cycle of negative self-reflection.

I suppose that various distractions have different values for different people. Some people can lose themselves in their work, while others would only be frustrated even more. Some people find academics engaging, but others would simply be bored. Regardless of how we distract ourselves, it is important to have an activity that can engage our minds and hearts to distract us from the Disadvantages of life.

Along these lines, I think that reflection on the grace of God can be an enormous source of comfort. The Word of God offers more than mere distraction; it offers Hope. We have an infinite, eternal Hope that outweighs any and all finite, temporal suffering. When we cannot change our circumstances, and we cannot accept our circumstances, we still have the blessing of being able to place those in a far greater context, and to realize how small our current pain is in light of the eternal joy that awaits those who are in Christ.

September 9, 2007

Authentic Christianity

Posted in The Church at 3:17 pm by Caleb Winn

 

And I must be an acrobat

To talk like this and act like that

~ Acrobat, by U2

Christians are often called hypocrites because of the enormous gulf between what we believe and how we actually live. Straddling this gap requires a certain degree of acrobatic flexibility, as identified by U2. It is easy to grow angry at the man who praises God with the same mouth that he uses to belittle his wife. And it is easy to feel that our own worship is disingenuous when we see our own sin. I am an ungracious man, who claims to live for grace. How can I talk like this, if I know that I will turn around and act like that?

The problem is that God’s goodness and our own wretchedness stand in tension with each other. Hypocrisy is bad, so it seems as if we ought not speak graciously while living in sin. We ought not talk about morality and goodness and the glory of God if we harbor bitterness and lust in the secret places of our hearts.

In order to alleviate this tension and resolve this contradiction, there are two possible alternatives, both of which are wrong. These errors are the false righteousness of the Pharisees, and the despair of Judas Iscariot.

There is also a Biblical model of the correct response, which is the penitent humility of the Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable.

Whitewashed Tombs

The first error is that of the pharisees, who claimed moral perfection, and whose faith was about standing on their own merits before God. They spoke very highly of God’s law, but did not understand their own shortcomings. By claiming to be without sin, they escaped the clutches of divine forgiveness, and so resigned themselves to damnation. They did not realize that Grace lives in the gulf between sin and salvation.

We can be tempted to praise God, but ignore or disguise sin within our lives. Since we claim to serve a great redeemer, we want to appear to be greatly redeemed. Such an attitude says true things about God, but conceals the truth about ourselves. The “everything is ok!” Christianity is decidedly inauthentic, and it is problematic for many reasons.

First, we must recognize sin in our lives in order to recognize God’s grace to us. We have been forgiven much, and our gratitude and worship should increase proportionally as we recognize just how much we have been forgiven. Refusing to admit that we still sin is implicitly refusing to admit that we need God’s grace, and it hardens our hearts to the mystery and glory of the gospel.

Second, we must recognize sin in our lives in order to be sanctified, and freed from sin. Internal repentance and external accountability are essential for overcoming areas of sin. If I am an alcoholic or a bitter man, but refuse to admit that to myself and to my community, then I will not be able to repent and overcome the sin that damages my soul.

Third, we must confess sin within the community of believers in order to strengthen and encourage each other’s faith. The honest confession of sin is an instrument of God’s grace within the church. If I pretend to have no sin, and hide that successfully, then the external, legalistic moralism will only spread poison within the church. If I praise God’s grace, but act ungraciously, that will hurt those around me. When that happens (and believe me, it does happen!) it is appropriate to confess sin, and seek forgiveness, and not to pretend that nothing is wrong.

Field of Blood

The other error is the one committed by Judas Iscariot who, having betrayed his Lord with a kiss, was so overwhelmed by grief that he took his own life. He was so aware of the depth of his sin that he could not conceive of redemptive grace. Though he would admit his sin, unlike the pharisees, he was incapable of accepting forgiveness. He was so focused on his own depravity that he could not see God, and so resigned himself to damnation as well.

I’ve already written about the dangers of engaging in self-destruction as a means of evading true love-based guilt and repentance. The idea here is that when we focus on our sin, and do not see God’s grace, we come to believe that we are beyond the power of divine redemption. We think of ourselves as all-bad, and do not claim goodness, nor associate ourselves with the name of God. In order to avoid the hypocrisy of trying unsuccessfully to be good, we simply give up, and wallow in our own depravity. This attitude is problematic as well.

First, it simply is not true. God’s grace is far greater than our sin, and to deny His grace is to deny Him. Recognizing our sin should drive us toward God, and not away from Him, for only through recognizing our dependence on God can we embrace the life of the Spirit.

Second, this self-punishment is completely narcissistic, and isn’t even really rooted in love or concern for those against whom we have sinned. Our inability to perceive God’s grace reflects an excessive, even obsessive focus on our own lives, which is itself a sinful state of self-idolatry.

Third, this despair is purposeless, leaving only physical and/or spiritual suicide as outcomes. There is no room for sanctification or spiritual regeneration if we think that any movement towards grace is a sinful act of hypocrisy. We cannot come to know life, if we think that we are essentially, irreparably dead.

The Middle Road: The Tax Collector

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The Pharisee prays loudly, really praising his own virtue and external morality. He commits the first error I identified, in that he is unable to humbly recognize his need before God.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, does recognize his sinfulness and depravity. But unlike Judas Iscariot, he does not commit the error of believing himself to be beyond redemption. This humble tax collector realizes his own sin, but simultaneously recognizes the grace of a glorious God. He cries out, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This simple statement of a broken man is the essence of redemption. Unlike the Pharisee, he recognizes his sin. And unlike Judas, he recognizes that there is a God who will show mercy on him, a sinner. A God who is far greater than his own sense of remorse.

God, have mercy on me. A sinner.

The Redemptive Process

We ought to do our best to reconcile our lives with our beliefs. In order to do this, it is important to hold an honest view of both God’s goodness and our own depravity, and seek to bring out lives, attitudes, and actions in line with our belief and our worship. We must say true things about God, and also say true things about ourselves. Through holding these two in tension, we can become progressively sanctified.

I think that both the error of the Pharisee and the error of Judas lies in not recognizing that redemption is a lifelong process. It’s not about Being Good, or Being Bad, as if those were absolute and unalterable states. It is about Becoming good, progressively letting go of our shameful sin and turning to God for grace. I am not a static identity, but rather a person in flux, at times gracious and at times not. I am not defined by my virtue or my wickedness, but am the product of a dynamic interchange between the two, defined by turning to grace in the midst of sin, and praising God when I realize how far I have fallen. The sometimes enormous gulf between my words and actions does not represent true hypocrisy, but rather reflects the heart of a man in flux, showing who I am, and who I want to be.

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