What’s Thwarting a Win-Win World

Photo Credit: Oona Räisänen

1. Is there mutual submission in your home?

Day-old scones in hand, I mentally outlined my blog post and waited for the microwave. To my pleasant surprise, when it finally dinged, Annie turned and offered me the first hot plate. This momentary, sweet exchange reinforced the cheerful atmosphere of our morning and perfectly illustrated the concept I’d been trying to verbalize in my mind. I was happy for her to put her breakfast in the microwave first and she was happy to give me the plate that came out first. This “mutual submission”–two or more people simultaneously caring for one another’s needs more than their own–is markedly missing in our society, the Church, and often in my own home.

In your home, when it’s time to do the dishes, pick a restaurant, choose a movie, or finish the ice cream, how are decisions made? Is it husband against wife, mother against daughter, brother against brother,  roommate against roommate, each for his or her own way?

In an exchange from Season 2 of The Office (you can watch the clip here), Angela wants to put up her poster of babies playing saxophones, but Oscar contends, “It’s the opposite of art. It destroys art–it destroys souls.” Michael, having recently seized the HR binder, is trying to find a “win-win-win” solution. Ultimately, the conflict proves nearly impossible to resolve, because Angela and Oscar are each arguing for opposite outcomes. What the characters fail to realize is that the key to a win-win outcome has little to do with changing the decor and everything to do with changing their attitudes. If each party had wanted to serve the others, any furniture arrangement would have become win-win.

2. Mutual submission is Christ’s love in action.

Of course, we don’t expect anything like this from sitcom characters, but Christians should hope for and contribute to mutual submission in our daily lives. Before talking specifically about husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves, Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be filled with the Spirit…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Mutual submission is more than peripheral moral minutiae from The Wedding Passage; it is the day-to-day expression of Christian love. It’s what Jesus demands of his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that other would do to you, do also for them, for this is the law and the prophets.” It’s the love embodied in deference and epitomized in sacrifice, as Jesus both taught and displayed. Mutual submission is what ensues in Christian relationships and communities when love is practiced by multiple people at the same time.

In the Sermon on the Mount (and it’s counterpart, the Sermon on the Plain) Jesus envisions a mutually submissive kingdom, but he also commands selfless love to selfish people, even in a fallen society (“non-mutual submission,” as Annie dubbed it this morning). “If you love those who love you,” Jesus asked, “what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them!…But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Therefore, as Christ’s followers, we must submit our own desires to God’s and our neighbors’. If this loving submission is mutual, all the better!

3. How do we begin?

The Seattle Mariners are at their best when the offense and defense are both playing well, but even when they were struggling this past June, we still got to watch Raul Ibanez hit some home runs. Similarly, mutual submission has a peculiar beauty, but even if your husband’s, sister’s, coworker’s, or neighbor’s behavior is out of your control, you can choose to start showing deference today.

Setting out to get your own way creates win-lose situations. If the other party is setting out to get his or her way with equal fervor, you can expect to win half the time. If the other party is more selfish than you–something Jesus teaches us to expect–you will lose every time.

Setting out to serve others creates win-win situations. Mutual submission does not mean we set out to fail; it means we change our definition of success from satisfying out own appetites to serving other. If dinner is wrapping up and I’ve already made up my mind to do the dishes for Annie, it’s become a win-win situation:

  • Outcome A: I end up doing the dishes tonight and I was able to serve her. Win.
  • Outcome B: She convinces me to let her do them tonight and I’m not too proud to accept. Let’s be honest, that’s also a win.

If it’s not just an act and you truly “consider others more significant than yourself,” it doesn’t matter if it ends up being Option A every time; as Jesus’ disciple, you win. Some people will never offer you Option B, but even in non-mutual submission, you have loved as Christ has loved.

I challenge you to try it today. Set a tone of mutual submission in your home, neighborhood, or workplace. Get a little bit competitive–“Outdo one another in showing honor,” as Paul says in Romans 12.  You’ll initiate peace in your relationships, free yourself from constant disappointment, and honor the God who submit Himself to death and is therefore exalted above all.

Stop Waiting

At 16, I presumed that a girlfriend would complete my life. I’d finally met someone charming and kind, and as soon as things were “official” (harder to inform the plebes about in the pre-Facebook era), I anticipated 70+ years of whistling under perpetually blue skies. Yet, a few weeks into the new arrangement, I discovered familiar, lurking dissatisfaction. Even surrounded by friends or reading the comics on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I still found myself waiting for “it,” only now that I had fulfilled the top wish on my list, I was unsure what “it” was.

We touched down at Boston Logan a week ago this morning and our past 7 days have been filled with similar gratification. We arrived ready to replace the things that didn’t make the move. We bought the car I’ve been dreaming of for the last couple months, complete with a realtime mpg computer to make me an obnoxious driver. To my toes’ delight, our rug-shopping hobby actually yielded a living room rug, for the first time in our marriage. On Friday we drove to New Hampshire and bought an A/C unit listed on Craigslist. With all these new (to us) toys and sunshine filtering through the leaves outside our window, I’ve been tempted to call this “perfect.” Yet, a few weeks into this new arrangement, I now know that that expectation would disappoint.

Many of us spend the preponderance of our lives either waiting for supposed paradise, just around the bend, or wishing we’d cherished the good old days.

Yesterday morning, I was struck by the opening words of Haggai:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little.  You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Annie and I talked about this passage over our grapefruit and cereal because so much of our last week has been about checking off the things we “needed” (see: wanted) to furnish our new life. I do think we made relatively responsible decisions on a case-by-case basis, but this process endangered our souls with its materialistic siren song. Anticipating perfection puts our hearts in peril of endless discontentment, because it’s never just around the corner like our appetites and advertisements would have us believe. Furthermore, God clearly indicts the exiles for waiting to obey until circumstances improve.

First Congregational Church of Hamilton. Photo Credit: John Phelan

After breakfast, we drove down the road to our first Massachusetts church (they’re celebrating their 300th anniversary this fall, which blew our Seattle-bred minds). Perusing the program, we were surprised to see that Pastor Kevin Baird was speaking on the same passage from Haggai that we’d discussed over breakfast. Baird enriched our understanding by turning our attention to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, where Paul tells the church, “you (plural) are God’s temple.” Considering Haggai’ and Paul’s words together, we must ask ourselves: People are saying that now’s not the time for working on the Church, but will I continue to focus on my own affairs while the household of God is incomplete and even neglected?

Are you waiting for certain aspects of your own life to fall into place before you will work on the household of God? We now understand that this goes well beyond the physical building. The Church is not what the Body of Christ should be, nor does it yet include those who it must. Baird emphasized a refrain from Haggai 1 that we should each take as a personal command: “Consider your ways.”

Will you be thankful today, despite that which you currently want and do not have?

Will you be generous today, despite the things you want for yourself?

Will you obedient today, despite all that you’ve taught your heart to wait for?

Today is always the day for obedience. Less than a month after Haggai rebuked the people, the whole community repented of their procrastination and chose to obey. In response to their faithfulness, God gives them the promise that should be our true longing and satisfaction: “I am with you.” Happy is the heart that needs nothing but the presence of the great I Am. 

Queue This Up: John Piper on C.S. Lewis

I have read as much C.S. Lewis lately as I read John Piper in my late teen years, and I heartily recommend the latter’s treatment of the former. If you have a long drive or run sometime this week, you can find the audio here or on the Desiring God app. It’s well worth an hour of your time because it will:

1) Help you experience the “unfulfilled desire” of joy.

2) Remind you to find wonder in everyday life.

3) Reassure you that logic and beauty fit hand in hand.

Repent Like Bilbo

Photo Credit: Jeff Hitchcock

“I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.

Standing alone, Zephaniah’s opening line snaps us to attention, evoking as visceral a response as any passage in Scripture. The threat is clear, frightening, and for most Christians, embarrassing. Do we really serve such a vindictive God? Surely, this should have been run through his PR people, right? Yet, alongside his contemporaries, Zephaniah comes across as rather average because so many prophets promised destruction in the last days of Judah.

Few of us have chosen Zephaniah 1:2-3 as our life verse. There are no Zephaniah 1:2-3 mugs or posters for sale on Ebay. In fact, we largely avoid this whole middle section of Scripture because we don’t know how to involve it in our Christian worldview. We don’t know how to handle a wrathful God, and if we read it at all, our reflex is to theologize away any danger or fear.

“That’s just the Old Testament God,” we say. “Jesus has changed all that.”

Or, in case that fails us, “That certainly doesn’t apply to me. I have been covered by the blood of the Lamb.”

If you trust and confess Jesus as your Lord, you do indeed live under the grace of Christ. He took God’s wrath for you. Yet, we should not be so quick to theologize all meaning out of these books. There is a time and a place for theology, for both pastors and laypeople (one of the reasons I came to seminary is to better understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament), but we should not rush to process doctrine with our minds before we repent and worship with our hearts.

Rather, when we read of the wrath and the righteousness of God, Jesus’ warning from Matthew 7:21-23 should shake us:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

If we know that we know Christ, we don’t necessarily need to question whether we are saved, but we should question whether we are pleasing God. In fact, we should go beyond intellectually considering and respond to the righteousness of God with the appropriate emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. True belief is more than intellectual consent. Consider the way that Bilbo responds in this video clip when he finally believes that Gandalf is more than just “some conjurer of cheap tricks.” In the moment that the thrill of Gandalf’s power shivers through him, he instinctively hurries to embrace his old friend. So should we, desperately, run into the arms of Christ when we realize the fierce holiness of the one who has called us “friends.”

We should respond with humility rather than dismissiveness. We must repent before we theologize. Consider what Lloyd Jones says in his chapter on “blessed are those who mourn”: “The man who truly mourns because of his sinful state and condition is a man who is going to repent; he is, indeed, actually repenting already. And the man who truly repents as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit upon him, is a man who is certain to be led to the Lord Jesus Christ. Having seen his utter sinfulness and hopelessness, he looks for a Saviour, and he finds Him in Christ.

This is, in fact, what God calls for in the end of Zephaniah. He assures His people in 3:11-12,

“On that day you shall not be put to shame
because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
in my holy mountain.
But I will leave in your midst
a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD.”




We’ve stupid strong noses
from holding back sneezes
and stifling tears
How silly we sound
saying “sorry” for making a scene
when all we’ve ever longed for
was meaning
Leaving home for the very first time
walking out for the last
these are the long hug moments
when your tears reassure me
that part of you will be empty
because I matter
These are the slowly turning moments
when we finally find
we don’t have to wait
’til it’s just like the movies,
’cause the movies dream of being this
Actors envision
and writers recall
their first real leaving
when they found they’d been living
the tale they’d been seeking
and let the tears come and go freely.

Step Away From the Mirror

Michael Jackson Sculpture in the Netherlands. Photo Credit: Sjors Provoost

Michael’s Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” has been stuck in my head for the last few months, since my friend Topher and I performed it as part of a medley for a youth group event back in May. It’s fairly redemptive for a chart-topper from the King of Pop, communicating the “be the change you wish to see in the world” sentiment often attributed to Ghandi. This is probably the best outlook we can hope for from the current milieu: Humanism, but altruistic humanism.

However, it is insufficient for the people of God to simply decide, “I’m gonna make a change for once in my life. It’s gonna feel real good–gonna make a difference; gonna make it right.” Experientially, we’ve all learned that changing oneself and one’s world is more of a lifelong challenge than a momentary choice. Theologically, the Beatitudes give us good reason to find this song unsatisfying.

In Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (a going-away gift from my good friend Tim Williams), Martin Lloyd Jones contends for the necessity and power of Matthew 5-7. He claims that the famous oration is an extended explanation of Jesus’ “new commandment,” a way of living that should unmistakably distinguish Christians from all others. In his chapter on “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Lloyd Jones says that this poverty of spirit is the vital prerequisite of all the ethical injunctions that follow, pushing back on our (sometimes charitable) self-obsession:

How does one therefore become `poor in spirit’? The answer is that you do not look at yourself or begin by trying to do things to yourself. That was the whole error of monasticism. Those poor men in their desire to do this said, `I must go out of society, I must scarify my flesh and suffer hardship, I must mutilate my body.’ No, no, the more you do that the more conscious will you be of yourself, and the less `poor in spirit’. The way to become poor in spirit is to look at God. Read this Book about Him, read His law, look at what He expects from us, contemplate standing before Him. It is also to look at the Lord Jesus Christ and to view Him as we see Him in the Gospels.

Does Christ play a major or minor role in your day-to-day Christianity? Is prayer primarily your discipline or God’s presence? When was the last time you were struck speechless by God’s grandeur?

Early in our marriage, I would meticulously plan dates on Friday night. We couldn’t afford extravagance, so I tried to show off my savviness instead. I would research restaurants and events for hours, trying to create the perfect evening that would show Annie what a remarkable husband I was. Without fail, my showboating backfired. At the end of a long week, she (rightfully) wasn’t in the mood to play a supporting role in “ode to my awesomeness, December 2010 edition.” Sooner or later, if I wanted our time to be a success, I had to let go of the show and focus on her. We might still end up at that ice cream shop I’d read about in the back of Seattle Met, but none of it really meant anything until it stopped being about me and I noticed, cherished, and prioritized Annie.

Is your Christianity about you, or Christ? Would you be willing to give up all the pretense you’ve built up, to step out of the patterns you’ve planned around, and the persona you’ve put on, to follow Him where He is and where He’s going? Are you open to the idea that Christianity is about following Christ more than leading others? The whole Sermon on the Mount awaits–there is, indeed, so much to do–but Jesus’ opening line tells us that we must first sit at his feet, poor in spirit. Lloyd Jones continues:

Look at Him; and the more we look at Him, the more hopeless shall we feel by ourselves, and in and of ourselves, and the more shall we become `poor in spirit’. Look at Him, keep looking at Him. Look at the saints, look at the men who have been most filled with the Spirit and used. But above all, look again at Him, and then you will have nothing to do to yourself. It will be done.

Will you spend your in-between moments today checking yourself in the mirror, or acknowledging the presence of God? Poverty of spirit, and the kingdom of heaven that it unlocks, await those who fix their eyes on the Lord.