As For Man

A meditation on Psalm 103:14-17 dedicated to Pastor Tom Eckblad

Lilium asiático blanco
(Photo credit: F. C. Romero)

Amid a sprawling field where lilies grow
There grew up one that towered above the rest.
In fairest white and luscious green was dressed
This son to whom the Father did bestow
His love and grace that he might humbly show
The same to other lesser lilies faint, distressed
Beneath the sun’s harsh rays, his life’s bequest
To them what God had granted him to know.

Yet naught but grass was this soon withering flower,
And fade he would, time’s wind him passing o’er.
As his leaf droops we lesser lilies cower
And fear the absence of his bracing bower.
Though he be gone we’ll cling to something more:
That though grass fails God’s love remains our power.

© 2012 Eric Evans

The Christian Fight of Faith

This is the fourth post in a series addressing the question of the relationship between a person’s behavior, his desires, and his perception of reality according to a Christian worldview.  Find previous posts here: “Oh, Those Things I Do”, “Perception, Desires, Behavior In That Order”, and “The Result of Our Perceived Treasures”.  These articles will be especially helpful in understanding how I’m using the terms behavior, desires, and perception throughout this post.

The more I’ve thought about the interplay between perception, desire, and behavior, the better I’ve come to understand my own personal Christian experience and the normal Christian experience in general.  The struggle between the new perception that a Christian has been granted and the old, sinful desires of the human heart seems to be normal Christianity as Paul described it in Romans 7.  Paul said that he did (behavior) what he didn’t want to do (desire) and didn’t do (behavior) what he wanted to do (desire).  It’s true that he already had a new perception of life.  And that new perception had begun to work in him to where the longings of his heart were being transformed.  Yet to Paul’s frustration, his behavior was not on board.  In fact, his behavior flew in the face of what he longed to do.

How can that be?  At some level Paul wanted to do what he did, or he wouldn’t have done it.  As James 4:1 makes clear, I’m operating on the premise that you do because you want.  So on some level Paul continued to sin as a result of the sinful desires that remained in him.  Those sinful desires, however, weren’t all that resided in Paul’s heart, however.  Fighting against sinful desires (resulting in sinful behavior) were righteous desires (resulting in righteous behavior).

Doesn’t this perfectly describe the typical Christian experience?  In fact, doesn’t this describe how much of life works when it comes to our longings, our behavior, and how we perceive reality?  For example, when we’re little, we don’t realize how bad eating candy all the time is for us.  By the time we do come to perceive this truth, we’ve developed a taste for sweets that can be hard to overcome, even in light of our new perception.  We know so much isn’t good for us.  We believe it.  We’re not living in denial.  We see the value of eating broccoli.  We don’t doubt in the slightest that it’s the better choice.  We even want to eat more broccoli because we know that the road lined with sugar only leads to obesity and diabetes.  Yet, at the exact same time we’re torn by our old desires that stemmed from our old perceptions.  Our old desires have to be subjected to our new perceptions.  Old habits, as they say, die hard.

So one reason that Paul, you, and I aren’t perfect, dear Christian, is that the old sinful desires that for so long were all we knew are in conflict with the new sight that we have of Jesus and his gospel.  But there’s more.  Another reason he, you, and I aren’t perfect is that our perception isn’t perfect.  Remember this graphic:

Perception → Desires → Behavior

(And just in case they don’t show up on your computer for some reason, those are right-pointing arrows between each word.)

So right to the right of my perceptions I’ve got my desires fighting against me, and worse yet, my newfound perceptions aren’t perfect in and of themselves.  This, too, hinders true change in my behavior.

Question: When will our behavior be perfect?  Another way to ask that question is to ask, When will our sanctification be complete?  Answer: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2, emphasis mine).  The Bible says that we will be like Jesus when we see him.  Dwell on that for a moment.  We will be perfect when we see Jesus perfectly.  Something about rightly perceiving Jesus in all his glory will alter us to our very core.  I would say that when we see Jesus, we’ll be freed from every other lesser desire in this universe and will want only him forever.  As a result, then, we will in our behavior move toward him only and ever away from sin.  In that moment, our sanctification (our being made holy like God is holy) will be complete, and that moment will be when we “see him as he is.”  Incredible.

However, we don’t see Jesus perfectly yet.  Our perception is distorted.  It’s not complete.  Paul says that “now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  And the mirror is dirty and scratched and needs desperately to be polished.  Yes, we as Christians have seen the light, but we have not yet seen the Light—Jesus—completely as he really is.  It’s like lighting a match at midnight during a new moon.  The match helps, but more light—like, say, from the sun—would help a lot more.  One day we’ll see the Son!  But not yet.  Therefore we desire Jesus and we desire the things of this world.  Therefore, our behavior is good and it’s sinful.  What’s the fight now, then?  To see Jesus more and more clearly.

Here’s another “graphic” representation the normal Christian experience:

imperfect perception of Jesus → mixed desires (some driving us toward the world, some driving us toward Jesus) → imperfect behavior (both sinful and godly)

So what do we do?  Sit on our butts in helpless apathy and wait for Jesus to come back so that we can see him fully and as a result be completely sanctified as we so long for?  Not on your life.  We’ve got the weapons to fight this fight for sight right now.  But what are they?  If our fight as Christians is to see Jesus more, how are we going to do that?  He’s not physically here!  How I wish he were!  But he’s left us something even more sure than audible voices from heaven and mountaintop visions of heavenly beings (1 Peter 1:18-19).  We can see and come to know Jesus and see him through his written word.  There we can see how Jesus walked and talked and interacted with those around him.  We can see what he valued.  In the record of this man we can gain new perception of how he thought and what was going on inside his heart.  And right there the transformation begins.

I can remember particular instances of vividly coming to “see” Jesus more clearly.  For example, one time I was listening to a sermon about the time when Jesus was preaching in the temple.  There, looking into the eyes of probably some of the very men who would not too soon afterward have him beaten, mocked, and then hung on a cross, he proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).  What an incredible offer of love to people who hated his guts.  And in that moment, I saw Jesus.  I came to perceive him more clearly.  And I was changed.  Not completely, no, but I am different today because of that vision of Jesus.  And so I continue to fight.  And my fight is a fight to see him.

Psalm 119:18 is the prayer of my heart, and may it be yours: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”  And beholding wondrous things, may we be changed.

The Decree

The midday sun blazed hot above his head,
And lifting up his gaze toward yonder sphere
Of burning light, a thought struck hard and spread
Across his tired mind and soon did sear
His soul as hot iron brands a cow’s thick hide.
Enraptured by the radiant glow, all fear,
Though proper ’neath the sun, was laid aside
And lust for what he shouldn’t want did grow
Up in its place, misgivings all denied.
It was a rather simple thought, although
Not bright, and yet it took him all the same:
“The sun, the source of light, decides to show
Or hide this world to farmers. We declaim
The moon-held night when work is lost to dreams
And we reap lesser yields come fall. I’ll tame
That sun and force his all-resplendent beams
To cast their light from dusk to morning’s dawn
As well as in the day. Yes, well it seems
To such a lowly farmer set upon
Nothing but his and other farmers’ good.”
And so the fool impelled his burly brawn
Toward wrangling in the sun, so out he stood
Beneath the sprawling sky with bricks in hand
And laid a firm foundation. Then with wood
He built the sturdy walls of what he planned
To be his tow’r atop which he would rope
The raging beast and cause it there to stand
Mid-flight across the navy sky with hope
Of making his small farm forever day,
Not grasping his rash aim’s enormous scope.
Till one day to the farmer’s great dismay,
He finally let his lasso loose to seize
The sun and all at once his plans fell prey
To harsh realities that didn’t please
The fool as his rope came up far too short
To catch the sun, which only worked to tease
His reckless heart to furthermore assort
Yet more plots that would bring his longed for end.
If not a tow’r, perhaps he’d just extort
The sun’s cooperation and contend
Directly with the king of heav’n and earth
To see whose will would be the first to bend.
So, never recognizing blatant dearth
Of potency on his part, eyes on high,
The farmer swelled his chest to fullest girth
And dared the sun to straight away comply
With his demand that he suspend his flight.
The sun, not even pausing, did defy
The call, soon disappearing out of sight.
The farmer, left alone, began to see
His place beneath the sun there in the night.
The sun is never forced by man’s decree.
Great God, you are the sun; the farmer’s me.

© 2012 Eric Evans

The Result of Our Perceived Treasures

This is the third post on a topic that explores the question, “Why do we do the things we do?”  Find previous posts here: “Oh, Those Things I Do” and “Perception, Desires, Behavior In That Order.”

I’ve been arguing from James 4:1 that the reason I do the things I do is because of the passions and desires of my heart. Going one step further, I’ve been arguing that I desire the things that I desire because of the way I perceives those particular things. My heart will hunger for whatever I perceive as good and satisfying.

A “graphic” representation:

Perception → Desires → Behavior

(And just in case they don’t show up on your computer for some reason, those are right-pointing arrows between each word.)

So far, however, I haven’t laid a biblical foundation for my second premise as I did for the first. James 4:1 makes it clear that our actions are a result of our passions, but does the Bible say anything about the fact that our desires are stirred up primarily because of our perceptions of what is satisfying? I think it does. I think that’s exactly what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 6:19-23:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Here Jesus commands a person’s behavior: “Do not lay up yourselves treasures on earth.” That’s an act we can obey or not at the level of behavior. However, Jesus doesn’t stop there. In verse 21 he says, “For [that is, the reason I’m telling you not to lay up your treasure on earth is that] where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus says to not focus your attention on getting treasures here on this earth because of this fact: What you view as valuable dictates the desires of your heart.  Your heart follows what you perceive as valuable.

Test me here. Could Jesus’ words not be paraphrased this way: “Your desires are moved in the direction of what you perceive as your treasure. Therefore make sure you’re not accumulating your treasure here on earth”? Our desires are rooted in our perceptions of what will be satisfying to us (the causal side of our desires), and our desires will result in the behavior of either laying up for ourselves treasures on earth or treasures in heaven (the effect of our desires).  I think this perfectly accords with my thesis that one’s perceptions result in his desires which result in his behavior.

Astoundingly, Jesus continues to shed more insight into the inner workings of the human soul in the next two verses:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

For a long time, these verses eluded me. However, in light of what Jesus just said about our behavior, our desires, and what we view as valuable, these verses do make sense and are very relevant to the preceding verses. Let’s take those phrases one at a time.

First, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” What does that mean? I believe Jesus is talking about the “eyes” of our hearts, not our physical eyes, and when he says “body,” he’s talking about our entire being—body, spirit, heart, mind, etc.—not just our physical bodies. To use my phraseology, he’s talking about the perceptions of our hearts (hearts here being a designation of our entire, composite being). Our perceptions are the gatekeepers to our whole being. Our perceptions will determine whether what fills us is light or darkness. “So, if your eye is healthy [that is, if your perceptions of what is valuable are in line with the reality of what’s actually valuable, then] your whole body will be full of light.” Another way to say it would be to say, “If your perception mechanism is working properly and you perceive what is actually valuable, then the light of God’s glory will fill you.” To push this to its logical conclusion, if you perceive correctly, you’re desires will move you toward the thing that you correctly perceive is satisfying and good. And as a result, you’ll act accordingly.

“But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” This is the negative way to say what Jesus just said positively. If your perception mechanism is broken and you incorrectly perceive certain things to be valuable that aren’t actually valuable, you’re lost in darkness. You’re desires will push you toward all sorts of behavior that will never ultimately satisfy you, like hording wealth on earth that will eventually rust, be eaten by moths, or stolen. That’s stupid. And Jesus doesn’t want you to be stupid. What you’ll need to change, however, is new eyes to see that what’s truly valuable is not found on this earth. It’s found in Jesus.

Just like last time, I feel like I have a lot more to say on this topic, but again, I’ll stop here. Stay tuned for more.

May God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” shine in your hearts to give you the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). May he give you new eyes to see that God alone is better than anything else this world has to offer, and may that new perception deeply change the focus of the desires of your heart. And as a result, may those newly focused desires radically alter the way you live your life.

Behind the Poem: “It is Enough”

Click here to read the poem “It is Enough,” published on this blog on May 17, 2012.

The Meaning
It had been one of those days at work. Long. Trying. One of those days where quittin’ time just couldn’t come soon enough. When it finally did, I grabbed my things and headed for the door. As I walked out of the building, my senses were struck by the piercing blue sky above me and the radiant sun that illuminated the semi-transparent leaves in the trees just overhead. The grass was vibrantly green. I was surrounded by life. More than that, I was alive to behold it all. And that, my friends, is called grace. In that moment it hit me that life in and of itself is a good gift from God and a sign of his great love toward me. It’s certainly not owed to me. And in that, if in nothing else, I can rejoice. No job, no boss, and no unruly class of fourth graders can take that grace away apart from God’s sovereign will. That moment inspired me to write the poem “It is Enough”.

Technical Stuff
This poem is written in iambic tetrameter. The word iambic refers to the beat of the poem. It reads ta-DUM-ta-DUM-ta-DUM-ta-DUM, where every second syllable is emphasized (for the most part; it can be fun to alter the general pattern at times for effect). The word tetrameter means that each line is comprised of eight syllables (and just in case you’re counting and I’ve goofed somewhere, be a doll and let me know).

The rhyme scheme is, well, of my own invention. I started this poem, as I do so many, not exactly sure what rhyme scheme I would use. I figured that out as I went. I like the rhyme scheme A, B, B, A, A, B, B, A, which is the rhyme scheme used for the first section of an Italian sonnet, but I soon realized there aren’t a ton of words that rhyme with alive that are poem worthy. So I got the idea to repeat the words “I am alive” to emphasize this central feeling that was so firmly pressed upon me as I walked out of my work that day. That’s what’s enough for me.

Read other installments of “Behind the Poem” here:
Behind the Poem: “Unrestrained”
Behind the Poem: “Innocence Lost, Glory Gained”

Have you read any poems on this blog that you’d like to hear the story behind? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Perception, Desires, Behavior In That Order

A short while back I wrote a post entitled “Oh, Those Things I Do.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that topic these past few days—so much so I wanted to write some more about the topic. Distilled into a single paragraph, this is what I wrote in that previous post:

Question: Why do I do the things I do? Answer: Because I want what I want. That is, my desires shape my behavior. My behavior stems from what my heart craves (James 4:1). Going one more level down, I ask this question: Why does my heart long for what it longs for? Answer: Because I perceive what I desire as valuable. That is, I have judged that thing to be good or satisfying to me in some way. Therefore, if I ultimately want to change my behavior, I must change the way I perceive what is valuable because what I deem as precious dictates my longings, and what I long for dictates to a large degree my behavior.

A few clarifying remarks about how I’m using my terms.  When I use the word perception, I am not intending to say that a person’s perceptions correlate to the rational thoughts of his mind while his desires correlate to the emotional feelings of his heart.  When I talk about a person’s perceptions, I’m referring to what he perceives intellectually as well as emotionally.  I’m simply referring to man’s sensory mechanism by which he judges what is good and satisfying and pleasurable to him.  I’m not trying to locate that sensory mechanism within any certain facet of man’s makeup.  In addition, when I use the word heart or desires, I’m not only referring to what we commonly refer to as “the heart,” as in, the seat of our emotions. I’m referring to what a man, as a composite whole of intellect, feeling, and being wants–what his mind wants, what his heart wants, and what his body wants.

Here’s how I would put it (slightly) graphically:

Perception → Desires → Behavior

(And just in case those symbols aren’t displayed on your computer, between each word is an arrow sign pointing toward the right.)

The Bible says that the devil has us at this third, deepest level. He’s blinded the eyes of our hearts from seeing the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan blinds our perceptions from judging Jesus as valuable. That blindness, in turn, affects what we crave. Just because we can’t see Jesus doesn’t mean we stop desiring things. Satan may have blinded us from seeing the Son of God, but he hasn’t blinded us to a host of other options that he would love to take his place. Fueled by passion, we move toward obtaining whatever we do perceive as satisfying. In short, what we perceive as valuable determines what we want, and what we want is manifested externally in the way we act.

So if you’re looking to change what you do (your behavior), you’ve got to go deeper than mere behavior modification. You’ve got to change your desires. But let’s face it, who can will themselves to want something or not? You can’t merely change out your desires like last season’s wardrobe. Therefore, in order to change what you want (your passions and desires), you’ve got to change how you view what is satisfying to you. You need new eyes to see reality as it actually exists.

Want to stop looking at pornography? Come to view Jesus as more desirable to your soul than sex. Want to stop lying? Come to see Jesus as the Truth and be captivated by the beauty of truth found only in him. If you can win the battle at this deepest level—the level at which you perceive what is good and satisfying to you—then change will work ultimately work its way upward. What you view as satisfying will determine what you desire, and what you hunger for will dictate your external behavior.

At the same time, I want to be careful here. While I am convinced that our deepest problem with sin resides at the level of how we perceive what is desirable (the level of perception in my “graphic” above), sin does not merely reside at this deepest level. Our perception is what ultimately needs changed, yes. Ultimately, this is where Satan has us blinded, and therefore ultimately gaining new sight to see Jesus is the key to defeating sin. However, Satan can gain strongholds over us at all levels. He works to enslave our behavior, our desires, and the way we perceive what is good, and the result is an interplay between the three.

For example, behavior that’s often enough repeated becomes habit. And habits tend to influence our desires. An example of this? I taught myself to like coffee. The habit of drinking coffee (the level of behavior) produced within me the wanting of it (the level of desire). Now I actually like coffee. In fact, I have stopped viewing $4.00 mochas as a complete waste of money (the level of perception). So, at least in this occasion, my desires were shaped by my behavior, and my desires, in turn, color the way in which I perceive reality. (God made us very complicated beings.)

Therefore, a change in perception (a bottom-up change) does not always mean there will be an immediate change in one’s desires and therefore an immediate change in his behavior. I do believe there is a place for behavior modification even though that alone is not enough. I’m usually pretty inclined to extremes, and once I come to see that in the end what I really need in order to change my behavior is to change the way I perceive reality and what is satisfying, I’m quickly tempted to think that working at any other level (the level of desire or the level of behavior) is a complete waste of time. The more I think about it, however, I’m coming to see that it’s not. Why is this so? As explained with my example of learning to like coffee, one’s behavior reinforces his desires, and his desires reinforce his perception of what is good. The more a person masturbates (behavior), the more the hunger for that specific pleasure is enflamed (desire). The greater the desire becomes, the foggier that person’s perception becomes of the reality that God’s design for sex between one man and one woman within the bounds of covenanted marriage is a thousand times more satisfying physically, emotionally, and spiritually than anything he’s able to do by himself. So a person struggling with masturbation does need to quit the behavior. He must stop intensifying the desire and affirming his incorrect perception (and at the same time deadening his incorrect perception of what is good). This is a marvelous and necessary first step. Yes, he will ultimately need to correct a much more fundamental issue, namely that of his incorrect perception that God’s design for his body is much better than anything he could come up with. However, on his way toward correcting that deeper issue, he’s got to stop adding fuel at the level of behavior to his raging desires.

In short, gaining ground over the devil at any level is not wasted energy as long as ultimately the goal is a clearer vision that Jesus is what ultimately satisfies, not sin. I’ve got a lot more to say about this topic, but I think I’ll pause there and write another post for another day.

Grace and peace to you as you fight against sinful behavior and sinful desires ultimately in order that you might clear the dirty windshield of your and see Jesus better.

Mere Moments

A stalwart, loaded beast of arid lands
Trod slowly over scorching desert sands,
Until one final straw was rashly thrown
Atop his hump and broke him as if stone.

A negligible breeze unnoticed by
The captain or his men ’neath sapphire sky
In silence slowly charts an unplanned course
Toward frigid waters, icebergs, and remorse.

An untied shoe at intersection’s edge
Held up a little girl atop curb’s ledge
Just long enough for Dad to grab her hand
And stay her urge to run as she had planned.

Mere moments stir up ripples then create
The crashing waves that dictate one’s whole fate.

© 2012 Eric Evans

Feeling the Flames

The rainbow flag that flew outside the church door said it all. And in case that wasn’t enough, their website was even more explicit. I admit I felt anger every time I passed by the old, brick church on the corner of 31st Street and 16th Avenue.

I love God. I love his word. I rejoice in the righteous rules that he has established for his creation. They are good. They are for his creation’s benefit. They are loving laws. Stepping beyond them is to our own destruction. It’s suicide to rebel against our good King.

A few days ago Walker Community Church, which is located a mere five blocks from my house, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground (click here to read a local newspaper report). Any remaining structures of the church that still stood after the flames had been extinguished had to be demolished, I’m assuming for safety concerns of their imminent collapse.

And here’s the million dollar question: How am I supposed to feel about that? It’s a question that has been very heavy on my heart for days.

Jesus had something to say about disasters: “[T]hose eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5). The fact that 18 people died underneath tower rubble didn’t mean that they were somehow more deserving of God’s wrath and that for that reason they died. In fact, their death is a warning to the rest of us. There’s something much worse in store for anyone who doesn’t repent and turn to Jesus.

No one died in the Walker Community Church fire (praise the Lord for that!), although five firefighters had to be treated in nearby hospital. God was very merciful. But let’s not miss the point. One thing that God is doing in every disaster—be they tsunamis or church fires—is calling people to repentance. He’s calling the sinful members of Walker Community Church to repentance. He’s calling the greater Powderhorn neighborhood to repentance. He’s calling me to repentance. And if you’d hear him, he’s calling you. Something much hotter than lightning awaits those who refuse to heed his call.

How should I feel that Walker Community Church burned to the ground five blocks from my house? On the one hand, fear and trembling. The one true living God of the universe is a holy and righteous God. He is just in leveling churches and in leveling cities. He would be just in leveling me and my red brick house just five blocks west. The fact that he hasn’t is absolute mercy. On the other hand, in light of that mercy, I should feel hope. I have been granted one more day. One more day in which to know and accept and cling to and rejoice in God’s free, undeserved grace to me, a sinner the likes of which even Walker Community Church couldn’t imagine.

Want to hear the real tragedy of it all? It’s not the fact that a beautiful, 100-plus-year-old church burned down. No, the real tragedy is that most people won’t hear Jesus’ voice amid the rubble of Walker Community Church: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And if we all did perish that way, we’d be deserving, and God would be just. The fact that this entire world doesn’t go up in flames is jaw-dropping.

His arms are wide open, Powderhorn neighborhood (including 10th Avenue South, my street). His arms are open, Minneapolis. Greater Twin Cities metro. Minnesota. United States. Planet earth. Draw near to him, and he will draw near to you (James 4:8).