Articles on Life, Truth, Love, Computers, and Music
Get out of your
That's what I would say to my college-aged self if I could. In college, I spent too much time cooped up in my dorm room. I'm an introspective person, and Christian Science is a religion that focuses on entering into what's called a "prayer closet," a term first used by Jesus and later echoed by Mary Baker Eddy. But I've seen, in myself and others, that sometimes that prayer closet can be less about genuine prayer and instead can become gradually, subtly, more about hiding.
But what I've seen in studying Christian Science is that neither Jesus nor Mary Baker Eddy were very prone to timidity. Jesus promises that each of us are the light of the world, and that when you light a candle you shouldn't hide it under a bushel, but rather you have to hold it up on a candlestick so others can see it! Rather than promoting acedia, Christian Science is a religion with a strong emphasis on overcoming fear.
The story most illustrative of this point is that of Jesus walking on the water found in Matthew 14. When the disciples see Jesus literally walking on the water, they're terrified. They think they've seen a ghost. What's the first thing he does? Calms their fear. Jesus reassures them that it's only their beloved teacher and there's nothing to worry about. They still doubt this, so they put him to the test. Peter, the disciple, asks if he can join him on the water, as a litmus test for whether he was the real deal or not. Without any hesitation, Jesus agrees, thereby helping assuage his students' fear.
Then we see the most inspiring and instructive part of the story: Peter runs out on the water to meet him. For a few brief moments, he has no inhibitions about this. Peter too starts literally walking on the water. But as soon as he notices the storm going around on him, he starts to doubt and consequently starts to sink. And as the Bible says, Jesus "immediately stretched out his hand and caught him." And the storm subsided, too.
I've learned to love that story more and more. Because what Jesus was doing in that story was teaching us about how the Christ operates in our lives today. When we're frightened by unknown surroundings, the Christ is there, calling out to us, reassuring us that we're in good company. When we doubt this, we can put it to practical tests, which the Christ does respond to. And when we have the boldness and conviction to do what is asked of us, we see that same Christly nature reflected in ourselves, perhaps in ways that seem remarkable even to ourselves. And even if we stumble, we can trust that the Christ is there to catch us without hesitation.
But in order to see any of this put into practice, we first have to have the willingness to step out of the boat. If not literally, then at least figuratively! Remaining in the boat represents trying to stay within a very narrow comfort zone -- perhaps a college dorm room -- which in fact isn't always all that comfortable. In the middle of a storm that comfort zone can be rocking back forth and even become waterlogged. The choice we have to make is whether we want to be like one of the eleven disciples who aren't really mentioned in that story, standing still and perhaps a bit seasick, or if we'd rather be more like Peter, willing to take a risk and try something new at Christ's calling.
My advice? Try things! There are so many opportunities in college, in life, anywhere you are. Don't be afraid to try something new. Christ will be there with you, always.
In the 27th chapter of Acts, there's a brilliant gem of a story about the apostle Paul, as he was being transported as a prisoner on a Roman ship ultimately headed for Italy. The final destination was quite a distance to travel, so they had to stop at several ports along the way. At one of these stops (on the island of Crete), Paul heard an intuition from God telling him it was not safe to continue their journey right then, and so he counseled his Roman captors of this. But they ignored his warning, and set sail anyway.
Shortly thereafter, just as Paul had predicted, they encountered a huge storm called a nor'easter that was going to run the ship aground. And in the midst of the storm, Paul received another intuition from God -- which we can apply to our lives today. Here's what he said to the soldiers, sailors, and fellow prisoners:
Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Crete. You would have avoided all this damage and loss. But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down.
How often are we determined that we are going to get to our destination -- whether that's a certain career, or a marriage, or family event -- on our own schedule, no matter what, even though we may have seen the warning signs? We want it to be this ship, right now.
On the other hand, I'm not saying you should always jump ship at the first sign of trouble. Sometimes we need to have a little more faith. But when it's gotten to the point that warning signs have grown into a painful storm, perhaps it's time to take an honest look at the situation, and start listening for God's voice over our own desires.
Even as the ship is going down, it can be tempting to think "but the captain always goes down with the ship!" as if that sentiment makes us more honorable than the other passengers. The thing is: you're not the captain! And you'll never be.
So let go of the wreckage and start swimming back to shore. That isn't selfish. Let God guide you back to still waters. And don't try to use other passengers as personal life preservers, either! You have to let them swim, too. Remember God's promise: "none of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down." Almighty Love is watching over you, as well as anyone else who was aboard that ship.
Whatever ship may have just crashed was not your final journey. Next time, you'll be more able and determined to listen to the real Captain, and to set sail on His schedule. He will get you where you need to be. He's already doing so right now.
Recently I saw a TED talk titled Surprising Lessons From 100 Days of Rejection, given by Jia Jiang, an aspiring entrepreneur and blogger. He tells his own story of how he quit his job to pursue a dream of becoming a self-made entrepreneur, and the rejection he's faced along the way. For instance: over the course of four months, he built a small company, developed a business model, and pitched a prototype to investors, only to have all his ideas coldly shot down without explanation.
"I was crushed," he said, "I wanted something so bad, that when you get rejected, it really hurts. [...] It really crippled me." Before getting back up and trying again, he decided he needed to deal with his fear of rejection. He discovered a program called "Rejection Therapy," where people intentionally put themselves in situations where they are sure to be rejected, in an effort to numb themselves to it.
I'm not really sold on the idea of "rejection therapy" myself. But I could definitely relate to his description of feeling "crippled" by rejection, and his earnest desire to get past that. He goes onto explain that during his rejection therapy, when he expected to hear "no," he started to hear "yes"es (to his pleasant surprise!). The most memorable "yes" was when he asked a Krispy Kreme worker to make him custom donuts, not on the menu. Not only did they do this for him, but they did so free of charge.
It's gotten me thinking about this deeper issue of rejection. Lots of people develop a strong aversion to rejection which can end up buried beneath the surface -- whether that's rejection by a romantic interest, or by investors, employers, or perhaps by ones own parents. The sting of rejection can make you want to throw in the towel and just be done with life. So I started doing a little digging through the Bible along with Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures for answers to the question: how do I get past rejection? Does Jesus provide any instructions for Christians on this?
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
Don't bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need.
In both translations, Jesus encourages you to ask for what you need, to be specific about your request, and promises that your request will be fulfilled. Jesus doesn't say, "ask, and if it's not given to you, then you might as well quit." No, if we are going to expect goodness, we must keep asking and striving for it. It isn't our job to open the door; it's only our job to knock. It's God's job to open the door, when we let Him.
I believe that God puts desires in our heart for a reason. But sometimes we feel the influence of the world and start to believe that we desire things that we don't really want. So there's a distinction to be made between real desires and unreal desires. Real desires come from God, while unreal ones don't. Real desires have a plan of fulfillment already in place, unreal desires must pass away. And because real desires come from God, they can never really die.
Rejection can seem like an aggressive voice trying to say that your real desires are illegitimate, or that you're not good enough to have those desires fulfilled, and so on. But that "voice" is nothing but a lie, repeating itself. Even in the fires of rejection, a real desire cannot ever burn away, though it certainly can be purified and refined.
So what do you do when faced with rejection? Keep asking for what you need. Keep striving for it. Be importunate. (Look it up.) But you also have to be humble enough to listen for the answer, even if it doesn't come in the form that you had in mind. It may seem like the world will not make room for you, but when you shut out the voice of rejection and humbly listen for the voice of God, you will find whatever it is you need. That's a promise.
In the 25th chapter of Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells what is called the "parable of the talents." Here the word "talent" is a little unconventional by today's standards. It actually means a large sum of money. A Bibical "talent" was a type of currency, and converted to today's standards one "talent" would be worth about half a million dollars.
In the parable, a master gives different amounts of money to three of his servants, and then leaves to go on vacation. He gives five talents ($2.5 million) to guy #1, two talents ($1 million) to guy #2, and one talent ($500K) to guy #3. And he tells all three of them to look after his money while he's gone. The first two trade the money around (on their equivalent of the stock market), and they both double what they have. The third one buries the money in the ground to keep it safe.
When their master gets back, the first servant explains that he now has $5 million. The master is elated, and rewards him. The second servant explains that he now has $2 million, and the master is equally happy with him as he was with the first guy. But when the third servant reveals that he still has the exact same amount that he started with, the master is furious and scolds him harshly, saying that the servant should have at least put the money in a savings account where it would have earned interest.
The point of the story is all about using what you've been given. And it's about more than just literally investing money in the stock market; we can actually substitute in today's meaning of the word "talent" (meaning skill) to gain some insight.
Maybe you've been given a talent for cooking, or a talent for raising children, or a talent for playing the flute. What this parable teaches us is that you've got to use your talents! Jesus even starts out by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is [like this]..." The kingdom of heaven is like taking risks to use your talents, rather than burying them in the ground with fear, doubt, lack of confidence, and so on. The final servant, the one who was reprimanded, hides his talent and never uses it. The world has no idea that his talent ever existed. And Jesus is clear that this servant's mentality is NOT heaven.
This is something that I've had to work on over time. I play a number of musical instruments. Anyone who knows me personally knows this, but if you didn't know me personally, you might not have known. I admit: I haven't done the best job really using those talents, and that's actually something I've been thinking about.
Recently I came across the following quotation from Dave Grohl, the frontman of Foo Fighters (and former drummer of Nirvana). This quote was taken from a profanity-laden magazine interview. I've highlighted (and edited) the part that relates:
When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, "Oh, OK, that's how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it's not good enough." Can you imagine? It's destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old junky drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they'll suck, too. And then they'll start playing and they'll have the best time they've ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they'll become Nirvana. Because that's exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some junky old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy garbage, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don't need a computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol.
I think Mr. Grohl is actually spot-on here. I confess that I've had trouble with my own perfectionist nature when it comes to this kind of thing. I often don't want to show anyone a finished product unless I know it's absolutely perfect. The trouble with that attitude is that it often ends up paralyzing your creative spirit, because then it's never quite perfect enough. If everything has to be American Idol-quality stuff, then no one but a superhero could ever get started. Mr. Grohl's comments that you just have to take the plunge with your musical talents, even when you still sound awful, really parallel Jesus' parable a lot. And you can apply that same mentality to any sort of talent.
Don't let criticism, or pessimism, or perfectionism, or fear bury your talents in the ground. Anybody can be a critic. But only you can use the unique set of talents that you've been given in the unique way that you know how to use them. So what if they're not perfectly developed yet? You can't be sure how well they'll be received until you start using them. But you can be sure that they will never be received at all until you start using and sharing them with the world. So get out there and use them! Yes there are risks. Yes there are fears to overcome. And yes there will be criticism. But the promise is that you'll get to enjoy what Dave Grohl calls "the best time you'll ever have," and what Jesus calls "heaven."
One year ago, I had an idea while on a camping trip. I wanted to re-tell my #1 favorite story from the Bible in a fun and relevant way. I had a blank notebook and a pen, so I started making a bunch of different stick figure drawings. Normally I don't bring notebooks with me on camping trips, but this time I had felt impelled to. It's a little strange when I think about it in retrospect -- while I was drawing, I didn't really feel like I was creating anything. I felt like I was discovering something that was already there, and that it was the most natural thing in the world.
This idea progressed and unfolded over the next several months. I carefully digitized each of the drawings and made tweaks to them. I spoke with an editor about shortening the script. And I even composed a score of background music and roped some of my students into recording different parts for me.
Yesterday I woke up, put my shoes on, and immediately headed out the door for a 5-mile jog. I often like to do this in the morning. But yesterday, I started my run carrying some baggage with me. And I don't mean a backpack or even ankle weights, but I mean mental baggage. It seemed to start out as a somewhat hazy sort of day. I've learned, however, that neither our circumstances nor our feelings can really determine our happiness (or lack thereof), but that happiness is a choice. So if I'm jogging in the morning and it feels kind of "grey," I've learned not to make the choice to just go along with that feeling. Instead, I make protests against that, and I choose to be happy.
I heard an analogy recently that I love. Suppose you put on a pair of glasses, and then later you notice that a friend has some kind of strange mark on their face. You point that out to them in the hopes that they do something about it. A little while later you notice another friend with a similar mark. So you point that out as well, because they need to be aware of the problem if they're going to fix it. Later a third friend has the same mark. After awhile you realize that the problem doesn't really lie with all those other people, but the real problem comes from a defect in the glasses you're wearing. So you take those glasses off and -- lo and behold -- no one seems to have that problem any more!
When it seems like circumstances never quite work out, or that people always tend to act a certain way, or even if you just feel some mild fear or anxiety about what someone might do or say, it's useful to realize that we, too, can take off those glasses of despair, and change our perspective. The problem doesn't lie out there with all of them, and it doesn't even exist as an unfortunate, permanent part of us. No matter how discouraging or offensive that problem "out there" may seem, it's a defect in the glasses -- not in reality. So just take off the glasses! That is always a choice.
So when I was feeling burdened at the beginning of my jog, I remembered that idea. Then, almost instantly, that burden just vanished. Recently I heard a song on the radio that really speaks to this concept. It's called Strangely Dim by Francesca Battistelli. Here's a part of the lyrics that seems apropos:
But when I fix my eyes
On all that You are
Then every doubt I feel
Deep in my heart
Grows strangely dim
All my worries fade
And fall to the ground
Cause when I seek Your face
And don't look around
Any place I'm in
Grows strangely dim
I love those lyrics because I can prove them myself. When we focus too much on a specific person -- even when those thoughts are good -- that can breed anxiety. But when we instead take the focus off that person and onto God -- on infinite, boundless Love -- then worries really do start to "fade and fall to the ground." The reason for this is because there is no person on earth that is big enough to be God. Only God can do that. So when we keep our focus on God, that takes all the pressure off, and starts to open up new possibilities.
This doesn't mean that thinking about others is bad, because it is important to love and cherish and support others. But even that we want to keep in moderation, and not neglect to keep our focus on God.
Yesterday morning, I consciously chose to do this. I had started out with the kind of laser focus on one individual that anxious thoughts try to impose on us, but that changed as I made the effort to resist that, and to replace those thoughts with seeking God. That's when the little fears that had seemed to creep in like foxes just melted away. And at that point, it really felt like I was running with angels!
Mentally, I heard all sorts of encouraging thoughts for the day. I heard angels in the form of ideas -- ideas for what I could do with my lesson plan for Sunday School the next day, what I could do later that afternoon to inspire others, and what I might include in some readings for church that I had coming up. My point is: this influx of inspiration and good ideas for the day just started coming, and it felt invigorating!
You can prove the very same thing for yourself. Maybe you've been feeling in a bit of a rut lately. Maybe things have just seemed hazy and you are wishing that certain circumstances could change, so that you can finally get back to not feeling so stressed out. The good news is that you don't have to wait. You can start right now by taking off those glasses.
Resist the temptation to think that your circumstances or even your feelings are shaping your outlook and attitude. Let your outlook and attitude shape your circumstances and feelings. As the Bible says, "resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Resist worries, doubts, and mental haziness, and realize that you've got angels all around you, waiting on you. Listen, and be receptive to them! And maybe go for a jog too.
If love is merely an emotion, then perhaps. But the trouble with emotions is that they're unreliable and unpredictable. Sometimes they may seem alluring, but even that is temporal. "Unreliable, unpredictable, sometimes alluring" ... does that sound like love to you? I certainly hope not!
If you fell down a well and started crying, who would you prefer: someone who jumped down into the well and sat there crying with you, or someone who stayed above it and threw you down a rope? If, at some later point, you willingly jumped back into the well, would it be right to protest that climbing is difficult and it fatigues you? Yet, haven't we seen those very sorts of scenarios played out by others, or perhaps by ourselves?
I do not see a very strong connection between being loving -- expressing real love -- and being emotional. But I do see a similarity between emotions and drugs. Both have an addictive nature to them. Both can act as an alterative on the mind. If you would not knowingly trust your thoughts to mind-altering drugs, why would you likewise trust them to mind-alterting emotions?
Does this mean all emotions are bad, and that we should try to eliminate them, like in the futuristic societies of Equilibrium or The Giver? Hardly. There is a distinction to be made between genuine emotions, and being emotional. The love a parent feels for a newborn child is a genuine, honest emotion. Thinking of oneself as predisposed to "being emotional" is more often akin to vanity. Besides, it's not possible to eliminate anything real.
Difficult circumstances and big changes in ones life can throw a person into a very emotional state. When people find themselves in such a state, a question that often gets asked is: was any of that real? "That" refers to whole portions of ones life which once held so much meaning, but can appear startlingly meaningless after such an event. But when those waves of emotion eventually subside, that is actually a very hopeful state of mind. At that point, one can finally start to see what is really real -- and what value certain experiences really did hold for them.
Every experience we've been through, good or bad, has value. Sometimes this value is less than we might otherwise make it out to be, and unfortunately an overdose of emotions can cloud that. The real value of our experiences -- of our lives -- is not found in the highs and lows of emotionalism, no matter how glamorous they may seem. The real value of our experiences is found in the stillness, in the calm, and in the satisfaction that does not need to argue but rather just is. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love never fails."
Right now lots of people are glued to their TV screens watching the events unfold in Watertown, Massachusetts. With a host of cities in the area effectively shut down in a state of emergency, lots of people feel they don't have any other choice but to watch the news reports and wait. But there is one option that's always available, no matter the situation: prayer.
In the Bible, Jesus gives counsel on how to pray effectively. Here's how Mark records it:
What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
That's a very hopeful statement. A prayer, silent and confident, will be answered by God. But everyone knows that not every prayer they've ever said has been answered in the way they wanted. So what gives? Well, James has an answer for that:
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
So prayers aren't answered when they are meant to be "consumed upon ones lusts." What the heck does that mean? Well, the word "lust" certainly stands out. But lust isn't just limited to things like prostitution and pornography. Lust, as a concept, is really about the "more, more, more" mentality that is never satisfied and never has enough. The word "consumption" also stands out. Though, consumption in and of itself isn't a bad thing. We consume food every day. Jesus even instructs us to pray for "daily bread" -- and not just to look at, but to consume. But it's the pairing of "consumption" and "lust" together that is really the key to this passage. That speaks to the concept of overconsumption. Because while consuming daily bread is normal and natural, consuming 300 pounds of daily bread wouldn't be.
And I believe the same is true when it comes to any kind of consumption -- including information consumption. We want to consume a normal and healthy amount of information. We don't want to hide away from the world with our heads in the sand. But on the other hand, we want that consumption to be natural and not in excess. Being glued to news reports isn't healthy. That isn't consuming in moderation. And there are more productive ways we can use our thinking than simply getting sucked into reactionary media reports.
What is the opposite of overconsumption? Satisfaction. Creation. Giving. Each of those things, as qualities of thought, can be very potent prayers in and of themselves. Rather than allowing the time to pass away glued to a TV screen, why not find ways to give? Why not find ways to love and embrace those around you, and not while looking over your collective shoulders at a TV or computer screen?
The events of the day will unfold whether you are watching the news reports or not, so instead of spending time worrying about them, why not silence the noise and spend that time praying about them? Your individual prayers matter. You are not insignificant. The gifts you have to give to your family, to your neighbors, and even to strangers, are invaluable, and are needed right now. So get praying!
Last week Thursday, I attended a concert by artist Nataly Dawn. She is touring with two other singer-songwriters, Ryan Lerman and Lauren O'Connell, and you couldn't ask for a better power trio. They were brilliant. I bought two tickets to their show, one for me and one as a very-belated birthday present for my friend Bob. And I also quickly snagged a chance to purchase a private, backstage guitar lesson from the very talented Ryan Lerman, who was offering that opportunity as first-come, first-serve.
I've been playing guitar myself, on and off, for over 13 years now, so suffice it to say that I am pretty comfortable with my own playing abilities. I know my way around the fretboard, and I can usually pick up most songs pretty quickly. Going into the guitar lesson, my motivations were less about learning new techniques and more centered on discussion of audio equipment, audio production, recording techniques, and songwriting in general. I thought I probably didn't have much to learn about actual playing techinque. And I was most certainly wrong! I got to witness firsthand what the difference between being an amateur musician and a professional musician really is.
I did still talk with Ryan about all the production value things I wanted to talk about, and he had a wealth of knowledge to draw from. I'm grateful I brought a pen and paper to write some of it down. But the best part of the lesson was talking about music theory and chord progressions with him. Like I said, I thought I knew my way around the fretboard, but I was wrong. That man knows his way around the fretboard, and traverses it so effortlessly and with such polish. And dammit, that man has swagger.
Now, let me share two quotations with you. The first is from a 20th century science fiction author, and the second is from a 19th century female pastor.
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
"...there is no excellence without labor in a direct line. One cannot scatter his fire, and at the same time hit the mark."
-Mary Baker Eddy
At first these quotes might seem contradictory, but I actually try to live by both. I love the Heinlein quote because he's talking about being a Renaissance man, wearing many different hats, being well-rounded. I love that idea; it's fun to learn and try new things. But I also recognize the truth in the Eddy quote as well. At the end of the day, I'm a computer programmer. It's what I do really well, partially because I spend at least nine hours a day writing code. I have all sorts of varied hobbies and obligations that I do after work, but the bulk of my day is always spent programming.
I'm decently good at guitar, because I've played it for so long, but I realized last Thursday that I will probably never be as good as Ryan Lerman. And the reason is that at the end of the day, I am a programmer and he is a musician. That's what he spends at least nine hours each day doing. And there really is no substitute for that; no shortcut to excellence for hobbyists like me. If you want perfection, you have to practice, practice, practice.
But I don't find this discouraging, not in the least. I know that I won't be a rock star, or have that same polish that has already become second nature for both Nataly and Ryan. But I'm not setting out to be a rock star. I'm setting out to be a computer programmer who happens to write songs on the side. And so, interactions with real, professional musicians like this are invigorating, because they give me so many new ideas. One of the things that was extremely helpful was when, during my lesson, I started playing some of the various fragments of songs I had written -- songs I started long ago but ran into writer's block halfway through -- to see if Ryan would have any pointers. He did! Here are a couple of things I remember:
- Songs are like bringing someone into your house. The verse is your living room, the chorus is your kitchen, and both are visible pretty much immediately upon entering. The bridge section shows people a brand new part of your house that they hadn't noticed before, maybe the backyard or basement, and so that's your chance to modulate and try all sorts of new things.
- Not every song needs a bridge. If it feels complete, don't try to force it.
- Try to have the melody land on, and sustain, the "cool" notes -- the transition notes outside the main triad, like the 9th or 11th (aka 2nd or 4th). That keeps things moving.
- Diminished and half-diminished chords are fun.
- Common tones are nice and Louis Cole uses them a lot.
- Open triads often sound better than closed ones.
- Try not to repeat notes in a chord.
It was so inspiring hanging out with Ryan. I'd really like to introduce you all to some of his music, so I thought about including one of his YouTube videos here. But rather than do that, I figured it would be worthwhile to record my own cover of one of his songs and perform that myself, just to show that his lesson paid off. And actually, the one I want to share isn't really his. It's a duet of him and Lauren, and Lauren wrote it. Now please keep in mind, I am a computer programmer first, a guitar player second, and a vocalist... well not really a vocalist. What I'm trying to say is that this won't be American Idol quality vocals. But without any further adieu, here's a video of me performing "I Belong to You" by Lauren O'Connell. Enjoy.
I've been thinking about the quality of fidelity lately. The dictionary defines fidelity as "the quality or state of being faithful," "conjugal faithfulness," and "strict observance of promises, duties, etc." Fidelity can also be thought of as the fulfillment of the Seventh Commandment. But is fidelity merely the absence of adultery, or is it something more?
In the Bible, Jesus doesn't have a whole lot to say about adultery. And unfortunately, I've seen people use his relative silence on the matter to justify all sorts of human behavior, saying, "Jesus never said anything about that!" He never spoke about writing computer viruses, either, but that doesn't mean he would condone it. And the few times he did speak about adultery and faithfulness, his remarks were pretty intense.
I teach a Sunday School class each week to a group of high schoolers, and so you'd better believe they are brimming with the kinds of questions that teenagers want to know about. Every once in awhile, they actually build up enough courage to ask me those questions. A couple of weeks ago, in response to one of my student's questions, I shared with the class part of the Sermon on the Mount -- one of the few times Jesus explicitly talks about adultery. It's in Matthew 5:27-28, and reads as follows:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Now let me put that into my own words: "You have heard it said, 'Don't sleep around; that's adultery.' But I tell you that if you so much as think/fantasize about having sex with someone that you're not married to, you already have committed adultery." Ouch! I can imagine the reaction of the men that Jesus was speaking to. It was probably very similar to the reaction of some of my students a couple of weeks ago -- paralyzed with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, that still makes me laugh!
Shock is a common reaction for those who encounter that passage for the first time and really let it sink in, as people realize the great moral distance between themselves and Jesus. But sometimes people don't really progress much beyond that shock, and they start to think it's an impossible standard. And I think that's unfortunate. Is real fidelity an impossible standard? People will look at that passage and think, "well shoot, I've done that; therefore I must be bad." But I don't read that passage as condemnatory. I see it as a call to go higher.
What if, instead of approaching adultery as judgmental, we approached fidelity as progressive? Certainly, anyone overtly committing adultery needs to stop. The very next thing Jesus recommends is to cut off your right hand if it offends you -- meaning stop making excuses for immorality and cut it out of your life. But what about those who are not making any overtly immoral choices, and want to strengthen a relationship, but worry that perhaps they're not good enough? Or maybe they have had the kind of "wandering eye" that Jesus describes here, and although they haven't acted on it, they worry that it's a bad omen, or perhaps that their partner deserves better than them?
The worst forms of evil are often the most subtle, because while it's easy to distinguish an overt lie from the truth, we sometimes mistake a more subtle lie for the truth. It is a subtle lie to think "I'll probably never be good enough; my partner deserves better than me." That is a form of self-condemnation. The Christ does not come to condemn us, but to uplift us. So when we think about fidelity as it applies to our own relationships, it's crucial to approach things from a standpoint that saves and uplifts, rather than one of condemnation.
You can rise out of self-condemnation by focusing less on the negative, and more on the positive. Don't merely practice a lack of adultery; practice active fidelity. This means open communication with ones partner. This means building up a genuine desire to do things together, rather than apart, or with newer or more exciting friends instead. Your partner should be the most exciting person in the world to you. And what if they're not? Well, don't self-condemn, and don't condemn them either. Start by seeing the best in them. And give your best to them. Practice giving.
Alone time is still important. Time with ones friends is still important. But you should never have to dread the time spent with your partner. And what if you do dread it? It might help to start by remembering what it was that made you fall in love with them in the first place. And then look for fresh reasons to do it again. Find ways to give, to encourage, to celebrate. Carry the conversation if you need to. Rather than approaching relationships from a consumer mindset, approach them from a creative mindset. Each day with your partner is a gift, a new opportunity to express your best qualities, and to recognize the best in them. That is progressive fidelity. That is a higher fidelity.