Do, Review, Improve

doreviewimprove

Years ago there was a lot of talk about Total Quality Management (TQM), a management philosophy that aims to create an environment of continuous improvement. I have found the essential idea of TQM to be helpful in thinking about personal growth, and in particular, the development of relationships. While the basic concept is simple, it’s surprising that Christians often don’t view their own sanctification and maturity in such terms.

The idea is to see things as a cycle. As we go about the business of living and interacting with people, we should regularly reflect on our successes and failures, looking at both the surface and root causes of problems we faced, and then seek ways to calibrate our behaviors in order to increase the likelihood that our next round will be better. In other words: Do, Review, and Improve. I suggest that this is one way to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

On the one hand this seems like a rather obvious process we should be involved in, and yet I find that some either think of it as simply human effort and natural thinking (and therefore not spiritual) or as an undesirable thing to do because it might reveal our weakness and possibly threaten our identity in Christ. It’s as if we are supposed to treat our spiritual and relational growth in a completely different way than we handle every other skill and ability we seek to develop. When it comes to the things that matter most (our relationship with God and others) we’re not supposed to think intelligently about how to make progress. That’s just crazy.

We need to see that God’s grace includes the guidance to courageously examine ourselves and evaluate how we’re doing on a regular basis in order to work out the bugs that hinder our personal growth and prevent our relationships from becoming deeper and stronger. As His beloved children, we need not worry what we’ll find. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Self-examination is a normal and natural activity that doesn’t threaten our sonship, but enables us to cooperate with God in obtaining what we really want – warmth in our relationship with Him and others.

Why Chastity is a Virtue

Wedding

Chastity has historically been considered a virtue in almost every segment of Christianity. It has sometimes been, however, the only test of holiness for some Christians, while today there are a great number who hardly see it as necessary. I want to explore why it is a virtue and yet show that it is superficial to make it the sum of all righteousness.

Definitions
Firstly, let’s consider some definitions. Virtue is generally defined as moral excellence. It is righteous behavior and godly character. Chastity, as I mean it here, is sexual behavior that conforms to Christian values. It is sexual faithfulness in marriage and sexual abstinence outside marriage. Chastity as a virtue, therefore, says that sexual activity conforming to the Christian vision of humanity is a moral good. But why is it a moral good? The answer to this question solves the problem of ignoring it as a virtue as well as having a myopic obsession with it as a moral litmus test.

Morality – How we treat people
The biblical understanding of righteousness and sin is always from a relational perspective. In other words, right and wrong have to do with how we treat people. Righteousness is behavior that respects and honors people, whereas sin is a violation of relationship. Morality isn’t about some abstract code written on a tablet in heaven, but is simply the reasonable requirement of how to conduct oneself toward others.

What matters most in this world is people. In fact, things only have meaning in relationship to persons. Morality, therefore, has to do with the welfare of people. Behavior that diminishes a person’s humanity is wrong. Behavior that respects and contributes to a person’s worth is right. Chastity is a virtue because it respects the person and contributes to their welfare.

Intimacy = Vulnerability = Responsibility
Sexual union is about as intimate as you can get with another person. The more intimate we are with someone, the greater obligation we have to them since intimacy is vulnerability. The more vulnerable you are to me, the greater power I have to jeopardize your welfare, and so the greater moral responsibility I have toward you.

Intimacy is probably the most fulfilling experience a human can have because with it you are partaking of the greatest treasure in this world – the soul and essence of another person. Like Wesley says in the movie The Princess Bride, “This is true love – you think this happens every day?” Intimacy is the grand prize that everybody wants. But something so valuable must have an equally great cost, and that cost is commitment.

Solemn Gift, Solemn Commitment
Chastity basically acknowledges that if you’re going to entrust me with your soul, the most valuable thing possible in this life, I must be willing to commit to you in an equally valuable way. That’s called marriage. If I won’t bind myself with the most solemn of commitments when entrusted with the most solemn of things, then I necessarily cheapen what’s shared. And to cheapen a person is immoral.

Chastity is preserving the value of people. It’s saying that you can’t be treated lightly, that you are more important than a cheap thrill, and if I want to draw irrevocably close to you, I must irrevocably care for you. This affirms both your value and mine, and thus, chastity is a virtue.

Conclusion
Sex has been divorced from its meaning and has either been treated too lightly or been focused on in a way that eclipses the real story behind it. Sexual sharing isn’t simply about biological impulses and taking your clothes off. It’s an act of soul sharing that allows people to commune in a profound way. Sex matters because people matter. Making sure that people matter is what virtue is all about. Chastity ensures that the most sacred thing a person has, their very self, is treated in a most sacred way.

Course Adjustments and Bug Fixes

Software Development

Two analogies that have helped me to better understand personal growth are airline flights and software development. The first analogy I learned from Stephen Covey. The second I gleaned from my work as a software engineer. Rather than think of growth in dichotomous terms (pass or fail) it is more helpful, and true to life, to see it as course adjustments and bug fixes.

Correcting the Deviations
In his excellent “Seven Habits” material Covey discusses maturity and how to view failure. He explains that a plane is often off course from its destination due to wind and other factors. It arrives at the intended goal, however, because the pilot is constantly making course adjustments.

The significant point in this analogy is that the plane almost never is headed in a perfect direction, but that there is consistent attention given to correcting the deviations. The goal (destination) serves as a beacon to enable the plane to properly navigate the vicissitudes of the flight.

Iterate Towards Perfection
Software is developed through a process known as beta testing. Unfinished versions of the software are released to a group of testers prior to bringing the final program to market. The hope is that the testers will find problems in the software before it is released to the public. The software has to be put through numerous scenarios to really see if it works properly.

Even after software is turned into a final product and sold to the public there will inevitably be updates that fix bugs that surfaced as the masses start to use the software. A larger audience means more opportunities to work the software in ways the engineers couldn’t anticipate. Software is so complex that iteration is the only way to perfect it.

Humility is the Key
These analogies help me to see that human growth requires a process. We learn mostly through trial and error and so failure (error) is an integral part of the journey. Wrong doesn’t necessarily mean bad. If we have a dichotomous view, however, all shortcomings are seen as fundamental flaws and failure as tragic.

Life is much more complex than software and learning to be a loving person is quite difficult. Iteration is needed (i.e., living life and relating to people) to shake out habits of heart, mind, and action that will ultimately get us to our destination. We’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. They key is to be humble enough to make course corrections (and apologies) when needed and to learn from our errors.

Having this view of maturity and growth is helpful and productive. A pass/fail approach to growth doesn’t comport with reality and will actually hinder us from reaching our destination – to become kingdom citizens who reflect the love of God.

Community and Culture

Why Christian community is essential to following Christ:

“But what we value in a culture is the inside view – the view of the participants, whose emotions, attachments and goals are all clarified by their immersion in a shared way of life, and the web of rituals and images that has been woven into it. This inside view can be taught, but only by a process of acculturation, in which the one culture is put across as ‘ours’. Acculturation is valuable as the precursor to the ‘we’ attitude – the thing that makes it possible to look on yourself as one among many, with a destiny that is shared.” Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope

The Christian Vocation – Furthering the Kingdom

Cooperate

As a young boy, when Jesus was found by His parents in the temple He said that He had to be about His Father’s business (Luke 2:49, literally: “in the things of My Father”). Jesus had a vocation and that vocation was doing the work of His Father. A vocation is a person’s calling in life, their unique service while on earth. Jesus devoted Himself to accomplishing the Father’s business and He passed that calling onto us as Christians (John 20:21). But, what is the Father’s business? What is a Christian’s vocation?

Put simply, every Christian’s vocation is to further the Kingdom of God. This was the essence of Jesus’ work (Mark 1:15) and it is the essence of our work. To further the Kingdom of God is to cooperate with God to extend His rule and reign, which ultimately means bringing His goodness to the world. God is sovereign, but because He has chosen to limit His sovereignty by man’s freedom, we live in a world that has an actual potential for love, but also unfortunately, suffering. The Father’s business is to do whatever we can to see the potential for love reached while reducing the possibility of suffering. Specifically, that means extending truth, hope, and love.

“Truth works and lies don’t.” That’s a little aphorism I coined to help bring home the idea that cooperating with reality is the only way to flourish in life. Indeed, the truth shall set us free. In God we live and move and have our being. All reality comes from Him, therefore, the closer one is to truth, the closer they are to God. Extending truth is encouraging knowledge and behavior that reflects reality, for example, rejecting hurtful misbeliefs, having a modest view of oneself, treating people respectfully, learning as much as we can about the world, and being honest. Satan is the father of lies, and his defeat entails shining the light of truth whenever we can.

Extending hope is proclaiming in word and deed the fact that God writes the last chapter. He is good enough for everyone of us and He promises a bright future. There are a lot of dark clouds in this life and suffering is the way of man, but it doesn’t end there. We have a Friend who sticks closer than a brother and One who is preparing a place for us. There is every reason to have hope because there is a God. Optimists are realists. Evil doesn’t have the last say. How we talk to our neighbors, how we raise our children, how we think about our problems, and how we plan our future can all be shaped by this hope, which furthers the Kingdom of God.

Lastly, furthering the Kingdom of God speaks of love conquering all. Love is the delightful dance of community. When we treasure and bow before each other, we find fulfillment that’s at the heart of God. As Trinity, God has His being in communion. Giving and receiving in mutual appreciation is the drama of literature and history and is universally recognized as the point of all our living. Extending love is to treasure people, resolve conflicts well, sacrifice for others, and encourage the wonder of oneness. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).

While Jesus had a unique mission, we share the same general vocation, that is, furthering the Kingdom of God. This vocation, expressed by extending truth, hope, and love is targeted toward ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. In a future post I’ll give some practical ways to carry this out.

I can ‘see’ better

The impoverished soul says, “In lieu of good relationships, I can at least take pleasure that I see better than others.”

Conflict

Conflict is a normal and essential reality when humans seek to relate together.  It is basically the flash point of differences in thinking and behaving.  While conflict may be uncomfortable, it need not be destructive.  In fact, it can and should help to deepen relationships.  The main concern is to make sure that conflict is healthy.

Healthy conflict is cooperative where people together seek to clarify and correct the problems they are having in relating to each other.  Unhealthy conflict is adversarial where people seek to win points and vanquish their opponents.  The metaphor I like to use is the circle and the line.  Healthy conflict is like two people standing in a circle together looking at the relational problems they are facing and jointly trying to solve them.  They have the same interest, namely, improving their relationship.  They are on the same side, standing together facing a challenge.

Unhealthy conflict is when people draw a line in the sand and do battle with each other.  They are adversaries.  Someone is going to “win” and someone is going to “lose”.  The truth is that both will lose.  There is no communion when one person seeks to dominate the other.  The conflict is unhealthy because the relationship suffers and will eventually succumb to disease if disagreements continued to be resolved this way.

In order to have healthy conflicts both people need to listen, seek first to understand the other, and admit when they are wrong.  It is admittedly difficult to do these things when you feel hurt.  The natural urge is to retaliate.  Honestly communicating can help to overcome this tendency.  Simply admit that you are hurt or angry, but you still want to resolve things and are open to being wrong.  A frank confession can do wonders to keep the doors open.  Then listen with the objective to understand rather than reply.  And like everything in life, the more you practice these skills the better you will get at them.

Community is about good relationships.  Conflict is inevitable and a necessary process for maturing relationships.  Learning to accept and positively engage in conflict is an essential skill for those in any kind of community.

Community Requires Generosity

Generosity

If community is about anything, it’s about living well with others. For something so fundamental to everyone’s experience, it is amazing that we often don’t know how to live well with others. I’m convinced that many relationship problems are the result of simply not being generous enough with each other.

Each of us can be rude, thoughtless, self-preoccupied, forgetful, ignorant, impatient, and even lazy. Even when we are trying to diligently live a life of kindness, our journey will include making mistakes and failing our ideals. This is the human condition, of which we all partake.

It would be helpful to compare our weaknesses with other people’s strengths, rather than our strengths with other people’s weaknesses. Doing so can help us become more generous. Generosity, in this context, basically means we’re willing to freely put up with the difficulty other people’s weaknesses cause us because we recognize that the difficulties we present to others are no less troubling.

Paul tells us in that familiar passage in 1 Cor. 13 that love is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. In other words, love is generous. We just won’t be able to live well with others if we’re not generous. Community requires generosity.