Friday, January 15, 2010

Needs Analysis

If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7.11-12)
A Bit of Housekeeping
Before looking at this truly fascinating passage, I apologize for dropping from sight this week. The early part of every year is very busy for me professionally—but this one is proving to be especially so. Over the next couple months I’ll be away from home more than usual. I left for my first assignment thinking I could carve out time to keep things up and running here. I was overly optimistic by half. Having learned my lesson, I’ll see everything is place for the normal three-posts-per-week schedule to continue uninterrupted. You mean very much to me and I personally can’t bear the thought of letting any of you down. With that, let’s dig into today’s text!

Exchange Rate

Matthew 7 finds Jesus rounding out The Sermon on the Mount, the most complete transcript of His teaching we have. It opens with The Beatitudes, a manifesto that lays out His doctrine of divine justice. Heaven’s reward belongs to impoverished and persecuted souls. Comfort comes to the sorrowful; honor is given to the humble; those craving righteousness are satisfied; and people who extend mercy obtain it. God reveals Himself to those who resist corruption, and He calls those who promote peace His children. Continuing on, Jesus shifts His focus from “them” to “you,” and in doing so, His message moves from rewards to responsibility. “You are the salt of the earth,” He says in Matthew 5.12—you preserve goodness. “You are the light of the world” (v14)—you illuminate lives. You forgive without being asked, you stay faithful to those you love, and you love everyone equally, enemies included.

Chapter 6 applies these principles to how we express faith, pray, handle daily anxieties, etc. Finally, chapter 7 marries both chapters to advance Christ’s doctrine of moral reciprocity. Everything He’s talked about so far has revolved around give-and-take. Now He defines the exchange rate, which basically comes down to this: determining what we need determines what we offer. If we want to be seen clearly and fairly, we look at others clearly and fairly. If we want our beliefs to be respected, we share them with those whose beliefs we respect. In this manner, what we desire will be granted, what we seek will be found, and doors we knock on will open.

A surface reading obstructs our view of what Jesus is really saying, though. It sounds like a pie-in-the-sky formula for happiness: be nice and everything will come up roses. That’s not His point. He’s instructing us to consider our needs and desires very carefully. Once we’ve distilled them to their essences, we can observe similar shortages in others and set out to fulfill their lacks and longings. Jesus reinforces this by completely reversing the perspective He establishes at the Sermon’s outset and uses up to this juncture. Instead of assuming the role of children of a beneficent Father, He urges us to take on the nature of our Father. He casts us as parents. In verses 9 and 10, He says, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” If we examine both examples, we find something truly astonishing.

Should our child ask, “Can I have a piece of bread,” it would never enter our minds to hand him/her a stone and say, “Here. Grind up some flour and bake your own loaf.” We’d automatically reach for ready-made food to meet his/her need. Should the child say, “I want some fish,” we’d never misconstrue that to mean, “Can I play with a cold-blooded, scaly animal?” The child craves protein; he/she wants replenished strength and energy. Why do we intuitively recognize the child’s true needs? We also get hungry and weak. We know exactly what he/she is feeling. Now, let’s listen to how Jesus ties all of this together: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (v11-12)

Knowing What We Need

And there it is: knowing what to offer others starts with a thoughtfully executed needs analysis. When we take the time to identify core needs we often express in secondary ways, we become highly adept at detecting others’ basic needs. Here are some examples of how this works. Do we truly want to be popular? Or are we actually seeking acceptance? Is wealth really our goal? Or are we anxious about long-term insecurity? Must we always have the last word? Or are we looking for confirmation our views matter and others are listening? Once we realize needs for acceptance, security, and respect drive our fantasies and demands we also realize how often they drive the attitudes and actions of others. What first strikes us as unseemly, outrageous, and selfish in them becomes more reasonable. We look beyond their wants and find their needs.

Without adequate understanding of our needs, we can’t effectively do for others what we would have them do for us. The Golden Rule never transcends its proverbial idealism to become the definitive force in our lives that Jesus intended. To fulfill Christ’s principle of moral reciprocity, knowing what we need to do for others entails knowing what we genuinely need.

Transcending The Golden Rule’s proverbial idealism requires a thoughtful analysis of our needs. Doing for others what we would have them do for us starts by knowing what really drives our demands and desires.

(Next: Not Done Yet)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Gray Days, Bright Nights

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light. (Exodus 13.21)
Turned Around to Move On
Did you know the Israelites could have taken a quicker, easier route to the Promised Land? The shorter road would have reduced their 40-year trek to a few months at the most. In fact, the other route went the opposite direction from the desert and circumnavigated the Red Sea altogether. Exodus 13.17-18 reads, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.” The shorter road was probably the route Joseph and his brothers followed to Egypt. It was probably the road Moses anticipated taking. And its existence probably influenced the Israelites’ decision to go with him. Had they not known of the shorter route—if their only choice were tramping through the desert—would they have packed up and left the relative stability (miserable as it was) of Egyptian servitude? It’s doubtful.

The easiest, most familiar road wasn’t the best road. It steered Israel straight into trouble. Before getting far enough from Pharaoh to rule out turning back, they’d meet their perpetual enemies, the Philistines. Perilously unprepared to face the region’s fiercest warriors, they’d likely decide Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. Furthermore, if they did turn back, the experience surely would discourage trying to escape Pharaoh again. God’s people would never be free. His promise to deed Canaan to Abraham’s children would never be realized. The only way Israel could move on was by getting turned around. Weighed against interminable slavery, the 40-year hike was a bargain.

The Desert Road

The desert road was hardly a road at all. Everything we read about the Israelites’ wilderness experience indicates the road dropped them in the desert to find their way out on their own. Without maps and compasses, they were completely dependent on God’s guidance. And while we’re tempted to say, “Splendid! There can be no better way to travel than going with God,” we must also acknowledge having God as our pilot adds complexity to our travel plans. Speed, distance, and comfort are secondary to Him. What we learn from our travels matters most. The Israelites took four decades to figure this out. They continually refused to heed God’s counsel and obey His direction. And so He had no remorse about steering them down circuitous paths until they could get their heads on straight.

Like tour guides who keep their groups moving by holding up colorful umbrellas, God mobilized the Israelites in a most unusual manner. “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light,” Exodus 13.21 informs us. This made for less-than-ideal traveling conditions—gray days and bright nights. Yet just as He decided to take the long route for Israel’s protection, God chose these guidance methods for their safety. Overcast weather shielded them from harsh desert sun and cooled the ground under foot. Meanwhile, though the fiery night sky made sleeping difficult, it also permitted the Jews to travel past sundown and illuminated their campsites so they could stay watchful for predators and thieves. When we put all of this together—the route God chose for His people, the weather He created for their journey, and the light He provided for their nights—we can’t help but conclude ensuring Israel reached the Promised Land intact and in compliance with His will took top priority.

Our Walk with God

Our walk with God is an experience, not an excursion. The conditions He sets for our journey have little to do with our preferences and comfort. While roads we know best may be quicker and easier, that He’s chosen a different path confirms our way isn’t the best way. Where we’re going, not how we get there, drives His decisions. From the start, God was very clear with Moses about the destination He selected for Israel, saying, “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3.8) He couldn’t turn over a country of such enormous wealth to a ragtag bunch of former slaves. Before Israel could inhabit the Promised Land, they needed to learn to trust God’s protection and obey His leadership. If that meant walking in circles, living under a cloud, and tossing and turning through restless nights, so be it.

When walking with God proves tougher than we anticipate, we ask for wisdom to understand why it’s necessary to lead us as He does. It’s highly probable His reasons for us are no different than those for Israel. Often there are unavoidable dangers on the well-trod, shorter road. Being ill equipped to defeat enemies we’re sure to cross puts us at risk of turning back to our old lives as slaves. We may not be happy about going in circles until we recognize God is actually preparing us for where He wants us to be. We may not like gray days and bright nights. Yet God is in the cloud and fire to ensure we reach our land of promise intact. Our safety and success are His top concerns. The longer we take to grasp this, the longer our journey will be.

The shorter route may not be the safer one. Often God leads us out of the way to teach us to trust Him and prepare us for where He wants us to be.

(Next: Needs Analysis)