I reached my fitness high water mark at the age of twenty-four. I ran thirty miles a week, sweated three hundred pushups a day, and I brawled each week in the local boxing club.
Used with permission: www.judophotos.com
In the midst of my peak physical prowess (never mind its short duration), I met a man with a black belt in Judo. He was forty-ish, chubby, and he wheezed as he walked. I think his exercise routine consisted of lifting large bottles of beer rather than heavy barbells.
He was the first black belt of any kind I had ever met. He intrigued me. Could this chubby, middle-aged man really beat me in a friendly fight? The fool inside me challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.
Not since infancy have I spend so much time on the ground. The lawn and I became intimate allies. I huffed, puffed, wheezed, and groaned (and maybe cursed, but it’s still all a blur) as he repeatedly—and effortlessly—tossed me to the ground.
It didn’t matter what punch I threw. Each jab, hook, and uppercut finished with me staring at the sky, gasping for air, and wondering what had happened.
As a college student, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but money was so tight that Raman noodles were my Sunday treat. I found a communal farm in Israel (sort of like modern WWOOFING) that provided room and board plus ten dollars a month (and a daily pack of cigarettes!) for simple, manual labor. I signed up.
I talked with a few people who had “volunteered” in the past. They said that it’s difficult to gain the respect of the communal farm members; partly because the large farms attracted loads of volunteers; but mostly because the host members found the volunteers to be irresponsible, unreliable, and lazy.
I wanted the respect of the farm members, so I signed up for a small farm (in order to actually rub elbows with members) and I resolved myself to be responsible and diligent.
On the flight to Tel Aviv I read this verse: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Pr. 17:28). In my continuing determination to gain respect, I decided to speak less and listen more.
My siblings had been urging this practice on me for years.
The angriest emails I’ve ever received were responses to my articles about self-love and self-esteem. And yet . . . yet I remain convinced that the greatest obstacle to hearing God lies in precisely our self-love and self-esteem.
Most of us unconsciously believe that God speaks only to those who are mature and pure.
To cover our inadequacies, we jury-rig our hearts with positive self-talk like, “I’m a good chap” and “I really feel bad about what I did.” Or else we excuse our failures with, “I was deeply wounded as a child” and “If you had a spouse like mine, you’d understand.”
We disguise our shortcomings because our thinking is distorted: we believe God is attracted to the spiritually successful. So we scurry for good feelings about ourselves and we explain away our faults.
The trouble is, positive self-talk forms barriers to hearing God: he loves the broken-hearted.
A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
I once told a friend of a recurring temptation of mine. Over the next month, he shared my secret with a dozen other friends, spicing up the tale with the fib that I had yielded to the temptation—even though I hadn’t. His betrayal shocked me. I skipped several lunch and dinner appointments, unsure who had heard and what they thought.
His disclosure also angered me. I obsessed over his treachery: How could he have divulged my secret temptation? And why worsen my shame with the sneering proclamation I had done it! I would never have betrayed a friend like that.
One day, as I fumed over his relational-adultery, I sensed God’s voice speak into my seething self-pity: Sam, why are you so angry? I thought the answer obvious: My friend had stabbed me in the back! Then I remembered a verse:
“I tell you, when one sinner repents, there is joy among the angels of God.” (Luke 15:10)
I thought, Sure, I suppose there would be joy in heaven if this jerk (I mean, friend) repented. His public confession might even bring me a bit of joy here on earth.
And I sensed God say, “I’m not talking about his sin; I’m talking about yours.”
Last spring I attended a wedding and heard an impressive pastor preach a stirring sermon on a powerful passage called The Kenosis (or The Emptying).
It’s my favorite passage on humility:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)
The pastor urged the couple to be humble, to think first of the other person, and to give the remote to their spouse. He said humility is one virtue all religions agree on:
Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues,” and the Quran says, “The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility.”
He claimed to offer the key to marital bliss found in the gospels. He said the entirety of the good news can be summed up on one simple sentence: Be ye humble as Jesus was humble.
But equating the gospel with our humility is confusing cause and effect. The fruit of the gospel is humility, but chasing humility to find the gospel is squeezing bad news from the good news. We’re trying to get wine from a rock.
Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). I think it was prophetic.
Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.
Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.
On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.
My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!”
The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.