Growing up, I had two close friends: one came from a devout, Christian family, and the other came from a devout, atheist family. One family went to church Sunday mornings and prayer meetings Wednesday night. The other played golf on Sundays and watched TV on Wednesdays.
Apart from Sundays and Wednesdays (and perhaps personal prayer times), the lives of my friends’ parents looked identical. Both taught fidelity in marriage, neither would have cheated on their income taxes, both valued self-effacement over self-importance, and when neighbors were sick, both brought over casseroles and mowed their lawns.
Despite huge theological differences, both sets of parents taught similar approaches to humility, kindness, hard work, and civil service. Both sets of parents looked identical.
Most people today—parents and kids—also look the same. Most sleep together before marriage, chase self-esteem over self-giving, and most desperately seek to build a legacy by making a name for themselves in career or family. Whether Christian, agnostic, or atheist.
Temptations in sexuality, self-naming, and greed were just as compelling fifty years ago as they are today. And people gave in before just like today. Why, however, are they considered acceptable today when they were considered temptations a generation ago?
My university degree was in Intellectual History. It studies not what happened in the past as much as why it happened. That is, Intellectual History is the study of the hidden (usually unconscious) beliefs of a culture; for it is those buried beliefs that that determine our behavior.
For example: Why did you get angry at your wife today when she asked you to take out the trash? You didn’t blow up a month ago. Maybe you were tired, but last month you were exhausted and kept silent. This time, however, you pitied yourself. Your mind obsessed with, “Why does ‘this’ always happen to me? Why doesn’t anyone have my back?” And you blew up.
The what in your life was weariness and an untimely chore, but the why of your behavior was the unconscious belief that you must protect yourself for no one else will.
Every society has the same what’s of just and unjust systems, longing for significance, commitments of love, and temptations to greed, sex and power. So, why do we accept sexual “freedom,” exploding executive pay, and a self-glorifying need to build legacies?
What’s, Why’s, and Therefore’s
God’s people play a spiritual version of the daisy game: “He loves me, he loves me not.” We re-experience the up and down cycle of trust in God followed by a deep reluctance to wait on him.
When God seems distant, or his answers take too long, we opt for the world’s instant solutions. Like a worm on a hook, the prospect of an immediate meal undermines our spiritual wisdom:
- When Moses tarried on the mountain, Israel insisted on a god they could see.
- When Israel tired of divinely selected judges, they demanded, “Appoint for us a king … like all the nations.”
- When the troubles in this life overwhelm us, we grasp for self-love, self-esteem, self-naming, and the prosperity gospel.
After Babylon sacked Jerusalem, a psalmist lamented, “O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.”
Only it is us—you and me—who opened the door and welcomed in the invaders. We open the door whenever we look for quick answers, shortcuts to long journeys, and immediate gratification. God simply asks us to wait on him and his timing. He waits on us to wait for him.
The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and he exalts himself to show mercy to you … blessed are all those who wait for him. And though the Lord gave you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will hide himself no more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. (Is. 30:18 and 20)
We look for quickie remedies to adverse troubles, while God says all we need is him.