Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Celebration and Challenge of #Lovewins

Here's the link to the best Christian response I've found to the Supreme Court's 5-4 vote to legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. 

The Background: I first heard about about the decision through Facebook. A number of my friends and youth in our church celebrated the ruling through social media posting, with the most popular expression being rainbow-filtered profile pics.  

The conservative Christian response could not provide a starker contrast. There's a sense of loss and tragedy. There's a sense of hiding out and starting a commune. There's a sense of panic and consternation. There's a lot of fear, especially for our children. A friend of mine half-jokingly said we should move our families run off to a European country where laws follow traditional Christian sexual ethics. Like many in this camp, I too was initially saddened when I heard about the court decision.

But here's my conundrum: I have LGBT friends and some of them are mature Christians. At the same time, I also believe marriage is between a husband and a wife. 

So I feel torn between both camps. 

Much of the conservative Christian response  invokes war imagery ("central assault upon marriage"). The imagery is biblically accurate but not   helpful in public discourse. It is neither empathetic nor compassionate towards supporters of the SCOTUS decision. The rhetoric only broadens the yawning chasm between the two groups. 

I was searching for a response that captured the Christian sexual ethic without animosity and mistrust towards the LGBT community. And I think I found it. What Rosaria Butterfield and Christopher Yuan wrote captures exactly what I've been wanted to express. Here's why.

Celebration: There is genuine cause for celebration. Homophobia is real. It is damaging and repulsive. Discrimination against sexual orientation is also real. So there is cause for rejoicing the triumph of diversity and equality. I am excited for brothers and sisters who see this as a validation of their identity. I also rejoice that for many same sex couples, this decision offers stability they could not previously enjoy. I also appreciate the background of the writers - Rosaria Butterfield was a lesbian atheist and Christopher Yuan lived a promiscuous gay lifestyle (I highly recommend reading his memoir, written with his mom).

Challenge to popular culture and LGBT community: Popular culture idolizes romantic love. Your romantic partner defines you. Who you love romantically and sexually is your identity. Without a romantic partner, you lack personhood. That's why same-sex marriage proponents view their opposition as bigoted - they deny a fundamental aspect of one's identity. 

This is historically unprecedented. #Lovewins narrowly defines love to mean sex, romance, and marriage. Those are the highest virtues. Yuan and Butterfield challenge that notion by repudiating our culture's idolatry of marriage. Sex, romance, and marriage manifest love but they are not it's fullest expression. Marriage does not save you. Jesus does. Singles are not, as Justice Kennedy states, "condemned to live in loneliness". Only the gospel has redeeming hope in either singleness or marriage. 

Challenge to Christians: Jesus teaches his disciples to first remove the log in one's own eye before removing the speck in another's. If popular culture is guilty of idolizing romantic love, we are guiltier of idolizing marriage. This is especially true in the ethnic church, where we worship not only marriage but also having children. Full personhood is only recognized through matrimony and parenthood (and even then, it's questionable). 

I have close friends who have been stigmatized and alienated by their singleness from other believers. They're often treated like second-class citizens who are a more readily available labor source than their hitched brethren.

I'm guilty too. I think married people are superior. I behave as if the highest quality human connection can only come through marriage. I wonder what my single friends do with all their time. I act like marriage or parenthood is the end goal of every believer.

If we are going to offer the LGBT community a picture of the gospel that is positive rather than prohibitive, it starts with elevating Christ and singleness. And if doing so means we need to repent of our idolatry of marriage, let's get on with it. There's a tree blocking my view and it's time to get it out of the way.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Converse like a Boss: Ask Fewer Questions

Uncle Drew schooling a young blood
I am the Lebron James of nursing home conversation. Elderly people don't intimidate me, I intimidate them. When I swagger into the foyer of a skilled nursing facility, 90-year old women with walkers quake from paralyzing fear (or arthritis). They know what is coming next: talk smack-down. The grizzled love to sharing their lives with me. They tell stories non-stop and we laugh and cry together. I am the magician of geriatric confabulation, the Gandalf of gabbing with the gray, and the vicar of venerable vulnerability.  

Two weeks ago in Missouri, I went to two nursing homes with Asian Christian kids. Those young bloods did great. This post is not for them. It's for the adults who are still making young blood mistakes. We're taught to ask questions. Questions are good. They are the dribbling and passing of conversational skills. They are foundational. If you don't know how to talk to someone, asking questions is essential. And asking good, non-generic questions is even better.

Get buckets: But as NBA legend Bill Russell advises Uncle Drew, the game will always be about one thing: buckets. If you want to elevate your conversation game, you need to score the rock. 

Buckets in interpersonal communication translates into empathy, personal disclosure, and observational insight. This is the fuel of human connection. If you simply fire questions at another person, it feels like an interrogation. These conversations tend to be one-sided, awkward, and brief. It's not so much a dance but a forced march. 

Say something interesting: In the nursing home and on the court, you read the defense and take what they give you. As my friend Walt, a seasoned nursing home conversationalist, advises, speak LOUD and slow to seniors. Tread carefully around family questions because relatives might be estranged, dying, or dead. Rather, ask about a person's past as an older person has a treasure trove of memories. Move from general to specific. 

After you ask question, listen to the answer and formulate a response that, at minimum, demonstrates you were listening. Aim to say something thought-provoking: an observation about context, a brief personal experience that connects with what the person has been through, or offer a suggestion of what it must have felt like to be in their shoes. Volunteer something about yourself. After all, a relationship is reciprocal - if you ask someone a personal question, you can, in turn, offer something about yourself.

I posted up Howard Rizor, an 85-year old man who's been married for six years (married at 79!). He was reluctant to talk to me at first. I asked him about his work history. I could barely understand the guy so I moved closer. Physical proximity is important as conversation, like basketball, is a contact sport. He mumbled something about driving a truck for ten years. I have never driven a truck but I know about sharing the road with trucks so I said:
Something that bothers me which I'm sure you've experienced is when I see a truck is on the highway and there's a big gap between it and the next car ahead of it because a truck is so much heavier and you need way more stopping distance. And cars will see the big gap and cut in front of the truck so they have no room to stop. I've seen this happen to trucks and they have to slam on the brakes and burn rubber because they need more room. It must drive you crazy when cars do this. (I neglected to mention I sometimes do this myself - the gap is so tantalizing.
As I spoke, Howard's body language shifted visibly, he began nodding, started leaning towards me, and increased his eye contact. He had been giving brief responses up to this point but after I said this, he replied "Oh man, tell me about it" and then gushed forth a decades-ago story of how he survived his truck losing braking power over nine miles of downhill coasting. After that, I couldn't get him to stop talking about his collection of cars, how Ford pick-ups are unreliable, and the 1927 vehicle he owns sitting in his front yard. Now the toughest part was how to exit the conversation (also a very important skill like clutch free throws - if you make them, you can keep the game from dragging on forever).

Practice and feedback: As with acquiring any basketball skill, the best way to improve your conversation game is practice and feedback. Practice alone is insufficient because you may repeat the same mistakes. You need feedback from other people to refine what you say and it also helps to observe and evaluate how people respond to your statements.

Watch and learn from people who are good at making conversation and learn from their game. Watch what they say and how they say it. Most importantly, try saying different things during the conversation and watch how people respond.

Airplanes and nursing homes are great places to work on your communication skills. You have a captive (and attention-starved in the case of the nursing home) audience that you will never see anywhere else. You can make all kinds of mistakes with little at risk. It's like playing ball without keeping score. But you have to put yourself out there and go and meet new people.

Courage to take the shot: Here's another response upon finding out someone was a truck driver -
It must have been tough to stay awake after driving for a long time. If it were me, I would put the radio on blast and slip ice down my back. I'm sure every truck driver has a bag of tricks to keep himself from falling asleep.
Note the empathy, personal sharing/opinion, and implicit question. But don't worry about coming up with the perfect statement because there isn't one. My first thought when a guy tells me he is/was a truck driver is:
Wow, driving a truck sounds hella boring and you must have gotten obese from all that sitting.
That's probably not a response most people would want to verbalize but it's honest and provocative. Most of all, it takes courage to pull off that response. I've said stuff like that. Sometimes the person laughs and sometimes the person glares and clams up. After all, if a statement requires courage to voice, it's probably interesting and will generate discussion. My most memorable conversations were birthed out of someone (including yours truly) making controversial and/or offensive statements. The only way to find out is to try. In talking with people, I've thrown up a lot of air balls and I've shot enough bricks to build a mansion. But my percentages have improved and I'm no longer afraid to shoot. As in basketball, there are no guarantees in conversation but one thing is certain - you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Power of Outsiders

We sat at a table at a Sonic Drive-In in Warsaw, Missouri, trying not to move under the heat and humidity. A 13-year old boy walked around us, pressing buttons on various call boxes and, without waiting for someone to pick up, immediately proceeded to the next one. 

"So what's the theme this year?" asked the college student wearing a $2 Justin Bieber t-shirt.

"Unashamed" replied the teenage boy, slender in face and stature.

"That's . . . nice and generic" observed $2 Tee.

Her pause before the adjectives indicated she had more derogatory thoughts but she was able to suppress them and come up with a diplomatic response. I thought about telling her I came up with the theme but thought better of it. 

Christian retreats with the theme "unashamed" typically quote something in Romans or 2 Timothy about how followers of Jesus should not be ashamed of the gospel. The subject is the believer and the object is the gospel. It is imperative for a believer to live boldly on behalf of the gospel, to share it with others, and not to be ashamed of his identity. I'm cool with that but it wasn't what I was going for.

Mike and Jenny, the wonderful couple coordinating the retreat, asked me as the key note speaker to come up with the theme for this six-day long retreat attended by eighty youth. Kids hailed from Iowa, Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri. My friend Peter, who had spoken at this retreat in past years, told me many of the kids experienced racial discrimination as one of few Asians in their school and city. This factor made this camp unique from the typical California metro area Chinese church youth retreat because it was a spiritual and social refuge for kids who make up a small ethnic remnant in their own community. Most of the kids in the bay area attend schools where Asians make up 20-60% of the student population, compared to 2-6% for kids in the Midwest. It's a totally different ballgame. 

I tasted it during the year I spent attending North Springs High and Sandy Springs Middle in North Fulton County, Georgia. Coming from Asian-saturated San Jose, it was a culture shock. I have vivid memories of being bullied, overlooked, and embarrassed about my ethnic identity. It was probably worse to be invisible than it was to endure racial taunts. Interestingly enough, I experienced the worst discrimination from blacks and Hispanics. The low bully the lowest. It is painful to be an outsider.

And yet everyone can relate to being an outsider. We are all outsiders, outcasts, and exiles in some significant whether because of gender, socio economic status, mental/physical handicap, or ethnicity. As I brainstormed themes, I thought of three women who were socially alienated, foreigners to Israel, and possessed no rights, and yet were chosen to be part of the ancestry of Jesus. God is in the business of selecting outcasts to carry forward his redemptive plan. In Hebrews 2:11, Jesus sanctifies believers and is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. The subject is God and the object is the believer. That's the essence of the gospel - not what we do for God but what God has accomplished on our behalf. "Unashamed" does not describe our attitude towards the gospel as much as it describes the Father's sentiment towards his children because of the Son. This is what I was going for.

Of course there were more conventional "unashamed" moments. A 16-year old boy stood in front of a Wal-Mart in ninety degree heat and shared his testimony to complete strangers.  It was one of the first times he had ever talked about his faith in public. Many of the kids wrote out their testimonies for the first time. Students initiated spiritual conversations with nursing home residents. There were priceless images as they prayed for each other, hand-in-hand. 

Throughout the six days of camp, I was delighted to discover how friendly, mature, welcoming, and earnest the kids were. There was a little about the camp they took for granted. They were genuinely appreciative of my presence and I loved their curiosity. I especially enjoyed leading a group of older high school and college guys. They took initiative to lead, serve, and love all the attendees. When you experience the pain of being an outsider, you have a special empathy and gratitude for others. 

I wanted to ask the students about their experience of racial discrimination but the demanding schedule afforded little opportunity. This would be a painful place to explore. But during the campfire on the last evening, there were glimpses. The lakeside atmosphere was bucolic. Muddy buddies (or "puppy chow") were passed around. Benches collapsed. And a young man shared about the loneliness of being the only Asian kid in his school and how the camp was a sanctuary for him. It was a place for him to belong and build and learn and grow in ways the outside world could not encourage. Many kids shared about the power of the camp and the enduring fellowship, year after year, for the attendees. There is a tremendous power in being an outsider - a unique perspective and a capacity to bond with others because of shared pain.

Pastor Billy Ko started the Christian Witness Center (CWC), the organization sponsoring the camp, in 1980 when he realized there was a tremendous need to reach Chinese exchange students in the Midwest. There were few Chinese churches and the Midwest was an isolated environment for foreigners. CWC was started to reach outsiders and since then, the ministry has multiplied exponentially. Outsiders have a unique influence.

My prayer is for these young people to see Jesus neither as an extension of their parents' faith nor as the Caucasian ambassador for Western civilization but as an elder brother in pursuit of his outcast siblings. If Jesus favors a particular nation or group of people, it is the Jews. And these poor people have been outsiders throughout their entire history. Indeed, Jesus warned his followers to be wary of the relationship with larger society. We were never intended to fit in. God chooses outsiders. The Son of Man became flesh and went outside heaven's camp in order to bring His lost family members home. He is unashamed to call us his own.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

It's Not Always Racism

And I agree with her (1:54 or so in the video). The average native-born, raised, and educated Chinese citizen is not terribly imaginative, innovative, or entrepreneurial, as compared with the average American citizen. Is that truly a racist comment or a cultural/national one?

I haven't worked in China for decades like Fiorina but I've worked with native Chinese people for decades and I'm fairly confident no native Chinese person would take issue with Fiorina's comments. The Chinese educational system is superb at preparing students to excel in standardized tests.  Asian countries are awesome at rote memorization in a way Western countries couldn't begin to approach. China also indoctrinates people from birth in communist philosophy. Chinese people are not trained to think critically as individuals, at least not in the way the American universities do (which helps explains the massive influx of Chinese college students into the US). The social, cultural, and political environment of China does not produce top entrepreneurs and innovators due to the simple fact that it was not designed to. The quote Angry Asian Man pulls from Fiorina's book acknowledges as much.

Thus, the reason no Chinese people would have a problem with Fiorina's comments is because all native Chinese recognize this - the entrepreneurial and creative advantage of the West. That is precisely why Chinese citizens steal American intellectual property. And they are doing so in unprecedented numbers. From a recent Mercury News article about six Chinese citizens charged with tech theft from a Silicon Valley company:

"This is not the only case of this kind," said Asia specialist Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute. "They happen all the time."

I know a Chinese citizen who was put in federal prison for stealing proprietary technology from his US company. This married father of two received all kinds of death threats for "being a traitor". But Chinese ethics operate differently. Imitation (stealing) is the ultimate form of flattery. Chinese citizens do not consider stealing trade secrets a form of espionage. Rather, it's an effort to level the playing field and a praise to US innovation. I'm not trying to justify theft; I'm trying to help understand what theft means in a cultural perspective outside of our own. 

Just because someone make a negative comparison with another country in a specific regard does not give us license to impulsively slap the "racist" label on them. It would be wise to examine not only the context of the comments but whether the comments are based on something factual and finally, whether they are racial, cultural, or national in substance. Please note Fiorina is not disparaging, in any way, the creativity and innovation of American-born or even Western-educated Chinese. 

Something is racist when a race is posited as superior or inferior in value to another. Fiorina's comments cannot be racist because she's evaluating two nations from the standpoint of entrepreneurship and innovation.

I watched the video of Fiorina and to his credit, Angry Asian Man does not quote her out of context. However, where he goes wrong is ignoring the reality of Fiorina's observations and quickly assumes she is a racist because she makes a negative cultural/national generalization based on reality.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My Money Story

A couple years ago, our couples group at church went through the book Free by Mark Scandrette. The subtitle of the book is "how to spend your money and time on what matters most". Time and money are both private matters but money is often a much more sensitive and personal topic than time. It wasn't easy for our group to share openly and consistently do the exercises the book recommended. I also sense it was difficult because most of us were fairly entrenched in how we view money. It almost felt like it was too late to change.

Our college/young adult group is now going through the same book and I'm hoping to adopt a different approach this time, by cultivating an atmosphere of vulnerability. That's why I'm sharing my story. Because I'm convinced of this - 

Our values are revealed by how we spend our money. And many of those values, conscious or not, are formed by our childhood.

So here are two dominant images that have shaped how I view money today. They are typical narratives for an American-born child of immigrants. 

Budget Nazi

One frequent adolescent memory was the sight of my father's back on Sunday afternoons. He would sit in front of his IBM PC and clack-clack away with only his index fingers on the keyboard, methodically recording the past week's spending. His family finance journal started with Excel and later graduated to Quicken. He would print budget spreadsheets and expense reports from his dot-matrix printer and place them on the dinner table before we ate to show us how meticulous his tracking had been. He wrote in a little spiral notebook the date, mileage, total price, and gallons purchased every time he got gas. He would boast about how much money he had saved because of his frugal spending. Periodically, my dad would sit us in front of the computer and show us the method to his madness - how to enter an expense, how to categorize it, how to create budget categories, how to calculate a buffer, etc. 

This was better than what he used to do - tell my brother and me stories of how materially impoverished his childhood was. These stories always arrived in the context of some behavior or attitude he wanted to change in us. After our eyes repeatedly threatened to roll out of our sockets, he stopped with the poverty narratives. But not until we graduated from college did he stop boasting about his ability to conserve cash. 

I asked my dad recently about his view of money, especially before he became a Christian twenty years ago. He told me he he loves to save money and he used to derive tremendous emotional satisfaction from counting every penny. He observed that he and my mom, like most immigrants, had a profound insecurity. It stemmed from growing up poor. And it meant that no matter how much money they accumulated, it was never enough. As the next generation, I inherited part of their financial insecurity but due to my materially secure childhood, I now manifest insecurity in other areas. I'm only partly driven by ambitions of material success.

LEGO houses vs. real houses

I was obsessed with LEGOs for most of my childhood. The set I wanted most was the mid-1980's LEGO space station set (6971 to be exact). I think it retailed for around $50, which was quite expensive back then. Every time we went to Toys R Us, I would grab the box and flip it around lovingly, gazing at the pictures, and envisioning all the play possibilities. I asked my dad repeatedly for two years to buy it for me. He eventually did but he made it so painful. He would ask me things like - 

What's the point of this set?

Why can't you have a smaller one?

Why would you spend this much money on a toy?

How does this benefit your future.

What kind of investment return can you get on this?

How can we afford this thing?

Money doesn't grow on trees. (OK not a question)

He would pepper me with these questions, shake his head in disdain, and then walk away. 

During the 1980s, my mom and dad, who worked for Apple and IBM respectively, upgraded our family home twice. Many IBM employees lived in upper middle-class Almaden Valley because of the excellent schools and proximity to the company site. We moved there in 1983 from a nearby, middle-class neighborhood. Our Eldridge Dr. house was less than a block away from the junior high I attended and a couple blocks from a local pool. I have fond memories of riding my bike with my brother to swim practice on summer mornings and on one particular day my mom crashing our 1978 Volvo 240DL station wagon (the original "Mokmobile") through the side of the garage and bringing down the front of house. 

In Silicon Valley terms, this was the top of hill. We had a spacious home in an affluent neighborhood within spitting distance of great schools. But it wasn't enough for my parents. 

In 1987, we moved again, staying in Almaden Valley but purchasing a newly built custom home near the top of the Almaden hills less than two miles from the Eldridge house. The semi-rural area known as New Almaden was just starting to get built out into new subdivisions. Our backyard bordered Quicksilver County Park. Since then, my parents' house, like many homes in the area, has almost quadrupled in value. 

Our second move baffled me. We didn't need a new home. We lived in a great location. My brother and I had friends nearby. Our family was only the four of us and I don't recall my brother and I ever asking for more space. Now we were in this large house, farther away from everything, and my parents worked longer hours than ever to pay the bigger mortgage.

In my recent money conversation, my parents told me, in retrospect, their motivation for buying the New Almaden home came down to one thing: upward mobility. They wanted status. And nothing speaks status like a big house in the hills. It was also an investment decision - after all, Chinese people love real estate. 

In the end, what confused me most was my parents were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new home we didn't need but acted like we couldn't afford a $50 LEGO set I felt I couldn't live without. It seemed like such a strange and irrational way to value objects. Nowadays, I go through a rigorous mental checklist on whether to buy small items while being tempted to make large purchases on impulse - out of lust or envy.

How childhood images shaped my view of money

My upbringing, coupled with later a Christian value system (my family began to follow Jesus when I was 14), birthed a conflicted relationship with money. 

On the one hand, the enduring image of immigrant insecurity has blessed us. My wife and I are both exceedingly frugal and this is one of two main factors in how we've been able to raise four kids on a pastor's income in ultra-expensive Silicon Valley. The other factor is the generosity of both my and Judy's parents in helping us purchase our home. It's a similar story for many of my friends. Few of my peers could afford to live here if it weren't for our parents' financial assistance in buying a house.   

And yet on the other hand, the images of insecurity and upward mobility have also been a curse. I have an unshakable feeling that no matter how much money I have, I should be saving more. When I first started working at IBM, I maxed out my 401(k) retirement plan contributions and stock purchase plan. I did it because my parents told me to. Even now, much of my interest in finance and investing revolves around greed and competitive desire (outperforming the market). I also have this nagging sense that I should be upgrading homes every five to ten years. And as our kids grow, that our house and lifestyle should be expanding proportionally. 

Although I appreciate the lessons my parents taught me about my money as a child, I have a deeper appreciation for how their view of money has been transformed by kingdom values. I would love to replicate their journey but my wife and I have our own path to figure out and that means replacing old and dark images with new and brighter ones. And the first step in our adventure is examining how our view of money today has been shaped by pictures from the past.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Does the Holy Spirit Convict Believers?

John 16:8-11 ESV*  And when [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
Feeling convicted about the convicting of the Holy Spirit: Within evangelicalism, there's a popular notion the Holy Spirit convicts the believer of sin. The verb "convict" is used in the sense of making one aware of a sinful thought or behavior. Feelings of remorse and regret will often accompany sin awareness**.

Whether the Holy Spirit convicts the believer is an important question because it gives the sense the Holy Spirit is dissatisfied with us. As a friend puts it, because the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, we often perceive Him walking through the rooms of our heart and remarking in disgust -
Wow. What a mess. How do you live like this?
When the Holy Spirit convicts the believer, He is telling you in specific detail how filthy your heart is. There's a subtle (or not) tone of condemnation. After all, if the Spirit of God is living in you, how does He not notice how sloppy your heart is?  Therefore, note perfectly innocent evangelical comments like this:
During dinner, I felt convicted by the Holy Spirit that yelling at my son during his basketball game was wrong. I felt so bad and decided I would apologize to him before bed.
In the usage above, "convict" is a feeling of guilt, remorse, or regret. The Holy Spirit speaks to the believer through a negative emotion that results from his sin being exposed or made aware of. It's like the Spirit of God asks the believer:
Hold on a sec. What just happened right there? Did you notice the mess you just made?
I want to address whether the Holy Spirit "convicts" believers through sin awareness, whether in the true meaning of the word He convicts believers at all, and what therefore is the Holy Spirit's role in the life of the believer.

This idea of the Holy Spirit's role in convicting believers comes from John 16:8. There is nowhere else in the Bible where the Holy Spirit is referenced together with the verb "convict" . Before analyzing the verse, let's clarify that "convict" and "conviction" are two different words with distinct meanings. To convict someone usually means to find someone guilty of a wrongful act whereas to have a conviction means to posses a deeply held belief. The evangelical notion is the former meaning - finding the believer guilty of some type of wrong.

This verse must be quoted with it's accompanying verses 9-11 to make any sense. Jesus is speaking in the Olivet Discourse about the arrival of the Holy Spirit coinciding with his departure (death, resurrection, ascension). Jesus assures his disciples the advent Holy Spirit will be superior to the presence of Jesus himself (John 16:7).  Jesus says the Spirit will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.

What does "convict" mean? How is is this term used elsewhere in the New Testament? The closest reference is earlier in John's gospel in 8:46. Jesus defends himself against the Pharisees' accusations about Jesus' legitimacy. The "convict" in this verse is meant to highlight the gravity of the Pharisees' sin accusation against Jesus. It's not about a deeply held belief in any way. The other New Testament references include 1 Corinthians 14:24, Jude 1:15, and James 2:9. All of them are references to awareness of sin, almost in a legal sense. The instances where conviction refers to a deeply held are also pretty clear: Hebrews 11:1 and 1 Thessalonians 1:5.

For example, James 2:9 says "But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." In this case, believers are convicted, that is, declared guilty as law breakers, but the convicting is done by the law not the Spirit. 

Who is the "world"? The closest reference to "world" is in v.11 where it says the ruler of this world will be judged. In this context, world cannot possibly mean believers because Jesus rules believers and this passage cannot mean the Holy Spirit will judge Jesus. World must mean either the non-believing population of earth and/or the value system held by non-believers. Earlier in John 15, Jesus says the world hates him and will hate the disciples in the same way. Thus, "world', in the context of this passage, cannot mean believers.

What is v.8-11 talking about then? I'm not sure about everything but certainly a primary meaning is the Spirit's role in making non-believers aware of their sin of disbelieving Jesus. Before I became a Christian, I felt convicted that my primary allegiance was to myself. That sense is something the Spirit gives. The part regarding righteousness, I have no idea what that's about. Regarding judgment, the Holy Spirit confirms the ruler of this world (Satan) is judged and defeated.

Does the Holy Spirit convict believers? Based on the above, there is no credible interpretation of the John 16:8-11 that teaches the Holy Spirit either 1) finds believers guilty of sin or brings awareness of sin behavior 2) gives believers a feeling of remorse or regret after sinning. Similarly, I don't find ANY biblical passage that teaches either idea (Whether God gives us feelings of guilt, regret, or remorse will be the subject of a future post).

If the Holy Spirit doesn't convict, what then does He do? A couple verses later in John 16:13, Jesus declares the Spirit's role is to guide believers into all truth. That's what the Spirit does. He guides us to the truth of who we are in Christ - holy, righteous, blameless, justified, and free from sin. This is consistent with the rest of the New Testament and in particular, Romans 8:1-2 . There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ because the principle of Spirit triumphs over the principle of sin and death. Conviction leads to condemnation and death. The Holy Spirit's work is to affirm our identity as God's beloved - He cries out "Abba" inside of us.

That word does not mean what you think it means: This probably comes down to how we use the word "convict". I believe most well-meaning Christians mean "convict" in the sense of being made aware of their sin. This is an improper usage of convict. The verb, in its biblical context, means to declare guilty of sin. But does the usage indicate an inaccurate view of God? Perhaps. Understanding the Spirit's role in guiding us into truth has far greater value than Him being a spiritual smoke detector. It changes the way we see God. It means His role is to continually lead us into a more intimate experience and understanding of our righteousness in Christ. He is a wilderness survival guide not a spiritual thought Nazi. That is so reassuring.

So when we imagine the Holy Spirit entering the the rooms of our heart, there is no need to flinch at the impending nagging and condemnation.  He is not concerned about your mess. Rather, watch Him as He walks around, gleaming proudly -
Behold! Let us marvel at the beauty of what Daddy has built here.
* All scripture references are from English Standard Version (ESV)

** I first heard about the idea of the Holy Spirit not convicting believers from Joseph Prince's book, Destined to Reign

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Expressing romantic interest vs. DTR

Recently, a couple guy friends told me their plans to have a "Define-The-Relationship" (DTR) with women in whom they had a romantic interest. It got me thinking about when a DTR is necessary and when it's not. 

When two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship (casual dating, serious boyfriend, etc). - Urban Dictionary definition of DTR

False Advertising 

A DTR is a discussion about how to label a relationship. Labels are important. Without labels, it's easy for men to manipulate women and easy for women to be manipulated (the converse happens as well but it's not a labeling issue*). In this award-winning essay, a young woman, Jordana Narin shares about the one-way relationship she developed with a guy. The object of her affection is clearly a douchebag but the tragic part is Narin completely fell for it because among other issues, their relationship never bore a label. 

Narin emotionally and sexually bonded herself to a guy who never clearly communicated his romantic interest, never initiated a DTR, and most damning of all, never exerted more than a casual effort in their relationship. 

Each of one of those is a red flag but taken together, they're a recipe for disaster. It is false advertising of a tragic nature.

A Cautionary Tale on Over-DTR

But there's another extreme prevalent in Christian circles - the unnecessary DTR. It's meant to guard against the above scenario but ultimately leads to relationship fixation and frustration. 

When I was a high school junior, I developed a crush on a close friend. We were part of the same youth group, our families were close, and we went to the same high school. It was a natural progression. I don't remember who initiated but we eventually expressed feelings for each other and spent a good chunk of our time exchanging hand-written letters. What complicated things is she was a year ahead of me in school and she wasn't romantically invested enough to date me publicly. 

Our relationship was an extended DTR**. 

And just as DTRs are not particularly enjoyable, so too was our relationship. She wrestled with whether or not she should invite me to her senior ball (she didn't), whether or not I was handsome enough for her (I wasn't), and whether or not our non-platonic, non-dating relationship would extend beyond high school (it didn't). We were two travelers stranded outside without an umbrella - constantly scanning the clouds for rain and fretting over the eventual downpour. We didn't go anywhere and we didn't figure out a label. 

The pain of this non-labeled relationship and the advice of some wise college mentors taught me two valuable lessons about dating. The first was this: Discussing the uncertainty of a relationship is helpful to no one. It's an exercise in mutually miserable futility. An older friend once told me: "Pull a plant out to examine its roots too many times and you will kill it." It's possible I killed a budding high school relationship by constantly uprooting it and fixating on its future. It's a compulsion that is too easy to fall into. If you truly have anxiety about the future of a relationship, sharing it with the other person is often counter-productive. He/she will likely get defensive or anxious. And then you both get worked up and self-absorbed. Good times. 

Initiative vs. Neediness

Upon reflection, the second lesson was this: It is vital for guys to express their romantic interest (and invest accordingly) but it does not require a DTR. 

I have a traditional view of gender roles. The guy initiates and the girl responds. If a guy expresses romantic interest, it's not so much a negotiation but more of an FYI. If she's not interested, she will vote with her feet - stop responding to communication or refusing invites. If they're already close friends, preparing for awkwardness is important and emotional distance may be necessary if feelings aren't reciprocated.

Does expressing romantic interest qualify as a DTR? I don't think so.  Does expressing romantic intent qualify as a change in relationship status? No, it doesn't - it means you're still friends unless you both mutually decide otherwise, that's where the DTR might come in. Therefore, most DTRs are unnecessary. Even a marriage proposal is not a DTR. It is an attempt to re-label the relationship from boyfriend/girlfriend to fiancee but it's not a discussion, it's an invitation. 

Egalitarianism, in this regard, does not appreciate how men and women are wired differently. For women, emotional attachment takes longer to form and is riskier. For men, attraction tends to spark quickly and requires effort to sustain. A guy who expresses romantic interest without begging a response signals confidence. 

Initiative without desperation is attractive.

Having a DTR to express romantic interest smacks of neediness because it makes the conversation dependent on reciprocity. If you like a girl, pursue her and make your intentions clear. I did this in college with a girl I became attracted to during a missions trip. Thankfully, she didn't say much in response. She didn't "let's just be friends" me. She didn't say the the feeling were reciprocated. She simply acknowledged them. It was pointless to have a DTR when she didn't know me well enough to be attracted to me. We eventually became better acquainted through exchanging hand-written letters that were not fixated about our relationship status. It was refreshing to enjoy the sun together. 

Dangers of female-initiated DTRs

Couldn't Narin have initiated a DTR? She could have but I don't think it would have helped. He would have told her what she wanted to hear and then go back to behaving the same way as before. A man will often avoid a DTR because he benefits from the ambiguity of the relationship. He gets friends with benefits status without commitment or expectations. So if he's not willing to wear the label, he's probably not willing to invest in the relationship (and in her case, he was willing to do neither). 

Most DTRs occur because the behavior and relationship status are contradictory. A guy and a girl spend time alone studying together, giving each other rides, sharing meals together, etc. 

But when asked, they respond: "No, we're just friends".

As if. 

This is a labeling problem. Your relationship is labeled "friend" but your actions indicate otherwise.

Usually a woman initiates a DTR because the man is sending conflicting messages and she is romantically invested and wants the relationship labeled accordingly. This is where it's important for both a man or woman to watch what the other party does and not what he or she says. Thus, in dating relationships as well as in life, action speaks louder than words.

* I saw this happen during high school, a girl would call various guy friends of mine, hang out with them alone, and each of my guy friends were lured into thinking there was something romantic going on. These guys were not accustomed to getting positive attention from an attractive female and they got sucked in. 

** If I had known better, I would have moved on from this non-relationship much sooner. There could be no romantic future if she didn't want to wear the dating label. But it was difficult to move on when we saw each other all the time - at school, with our parents, at church, even Chinese school. And I have no regrets about what happened because it taught me about friendship and intimacy. We were good friends who had similar values, shared experiences, and felt safe with one another. It was a teaser of the kind of transparency and vulnerability possible between a man and woman.