Beyond Symptoms: Getting to the root of our problems

What’s the root of your problem?

I ask because we’ve become a symptoms-focused culture. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it certainly is now. We look at a problem and gravitate toward addressing the most obvious symptoms while doing little for the disease.

I don’t have to look any further than a mirror to find a guilty party.

For instance, my wife and I adopted a couple of kittens about 14 months ago. They lived inside through their first winter, which spoiled them more than a little. They’ve been mostly outside cats since the spring and full-time outside cats since we got a new couch this summer.

Here’s the problem: Because we live in a wooded hillside area, our property is visited by any number of wild critters, including raccoons. These black-eyed bandits are fond of cat food, so they regularly make themselves at home on our back deck. One of my solutions has been to trap them (cat food makes great bait) and then release them several miles from our home. But God has provided a seemingly endless supply of raccoons in our woods, and I’m getting a bit tired of hauling them off.

The root of the problem is that raccoons will always find their way to this free and easy food source. The best solution, of course, is to limit their food supply by not leaving cat food outside after dark. It’s a hassle to remember, but much less of a hassle than becoming a taxi service for the area’s raccoon population.

Maybe we treat the symptoms because we don’t know of a cure for the disease. I can’t eradicate all raccoons or change their desire for cat food. Despite advances in modern medicine, doctors often can’t do much more than address the symptoms of our ailments. Or, maybe we know the cure — which is sometimes true in medicine — but we find it easier or more convenient to treat the symptoms and just live with the disease. That’s why we wear clothes that make us look a little thinner rather than eating healthy food and exercising. Or, maybe we focus on the symptom because it gives the appearance of progress. Perception is better than reality.

For the world to really get better, however, each of us needs to do the hard work of addressing the true root of our problems: We’re sinners.

We can mask that reality and find all sorts of ways to justify it or explain it away, but the truth of it will always gnaw at us and prevent us from living as we’re called to live.

How do we treat this disease? We call on the Great Physician and then follow His prescriptions. Only God can take away our sins. He’ll do it if we ask, but we still have to live as fallen creatures until He brings us home. In the meantime, we can treat our disease through obedience to Him. That includes disciplines like prayer, the study of His Word, fellowship and worship with other believers, and submission to His authority over every aspect of our lives.

Those things aren’t easy, but they are essential to our spiritual health.

Treating the symptoms of our spiritual illness isn’t a bad thing, it’s just incomplete. We don’t have to do one or the other; we can address both at the same time. But if we never address the root of the problem, we’ll spend the rest of our lives treating symptoms that only get worse over time.

Read this Blog and Earn 10 Points!

My wife tells the story of a teacher who motivated his students by awarding their obedience and success with points.

“What do we get for the points?” one student asked.

“Oh, points are great,” the teacher said with great enthusiasm. “They are the best! Everybody loves to get points. When you’re older, you’ll really understand. Points are great. Trust me. You want more points!”

We live in a world that keeps score, even if the score doesn’t always matter and the points don’t really hold any value. You can’t redeem them for money or merchandise or favors. All they buy is ego biscuits.

I, too, like points. I prefer points that matter, like the ones that get me a free cup of coffee. And I like it when my team (the Arkansas Razorbacks) accumulate more points than their opponents, especially when the opponent is Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, or Ole Miss. And don’t forget Texas. But I also like points that are essentially worthless – points in a computer game or points in a friendly game of cards with my wife (she usually wins).

Points are great. Trust me. You want more points.

The problem with points, however, is that we often come to expect them. We feel entitled to get points for anything and everything we do. And even when the points clearly have no real value, we expect to somehow redeem them for something. You owe me points, and, by the way, I’m ready to cash them in. It’s in the Constitution, right? But expecting a payoff for everything we do can suck the joy out of doing things for others.

When I cook breakfast for my wife, should I do it because I love her and want to bring joy to her life, or because cooking breakfast will earn me points? When I memorize a verse of the Bible, should I do it because it earns me points (and maybe a “level up”) on my Bible memory app, or because it draws me closer to God? When my wife and I lead a Bible study, should we do it because it earns us jewels in our heavenly crown, or because it’s a natural response to God’s love for us?

We all need a little help with motivation from time to time, and points and other rewards can be a good way to keep us engaged. But we’re wise to keep those points in perspective. God looks at the motivations of our hearts. If we want to grow in favor with God (Luke 2:52), we won’t get very far if our primary motive is to earn points. Such points are worthless in God’s economy. The Apostle Paul said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus put it this way: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

That’s far more valuable than all the points the world can offer. Trust me. Points are great. Love is better.

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Adopting the Mindset of Jesus

The daily struggle to grow like Jesus typically begins between our ears. It’s strange how that finite space at times can seem totally empty while at other times feeling overwhelmingly cluttered. But if we want to grow “in favor with man,” as Luke 2:52 advises, then we have to free ourselves of both the clutter and the emptiness. We have to adopt the mindset of Jesus.

What does it mean to have the same mindset as Christ?

Philippians 2:5-8 lays it out for us: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”

First of all, Paul is applying this to human relationships. So while it’s also important to have the mindset of Christ in our relationship with the Father, Paul’s advice in this passage is about getting along with people.

Here’s what I unpack from these verses about my mindset when building relationships:

Be humble, not self-righteous.

If anyone had a right to be self-righteous, it was Jesus. He was and is fully righteous. But He lived with a humble spirit that invited others into His life and His heart.

Serve others.

The humble spirit of Jesus gave Him the “nature of a servant.” He took care of the needs of people. He didn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” He didn’t say, “I’ll help you after you stop sinning.” He didn’t demand the gratitude He deserved. He served out of love, sacrificing Himself for the needs of the world.

Be obedient to God.

Love calls us to service and service requires sacrifice. It’s easy to serve others when we don’t have to go out of our way or give up anything of value. But God often calls us to step out of our comfort zones, especially when dealing with other broken people. Jesus loved the Father and loved us so completely that He was “obedient to death.” Will we be obedient in life?

If our mindset is steeped in humility and reflects service to others and obedience to God that are rooted in love, then we’re on the right track to toward building relationships with “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”


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3 Lessons from Lunch with an Atheist

The atheist invited me to lunch. He wanted to ask about Jesus.

I played it cool.

Externally: “Sure, man. Let’s roll.”

Internally: Fist pumps. Shouts of, “Yes!!!”

photo credit: Split Pea and Ham Soup via photopin (license)

This is what followers of Jesus in the secular marketplace long for, right? A chance to be salt and light to a co-worker who is suddenly eager to hear about God’s redeeming love.

So we went to lunch, me and the atheist.

He shared some of his the troubles. He asked why believing in God would make any difference in his life. And he asked why I “bought into Jesus.”

I listened. I asked questions. I made observations. I shared from my personal experiences as an agnostic-turned-believer. I gave him blunt answers to his blunt questions. I drew stuff on a napkin.

He listened. He asked more questions. He made more observations. He looked at the stuff I drew on the napkin.

We spent more than an hour talking about life, death, and God. And guess what happened?

Well, that was more than 10 years ago and, as far as I know, he’s still an atheist.

On the one hand, he left with a clear understanding of mankind’s sinfulness and the solution Jesus provides for anyone who seeks forgiveness, grace and redemption. On the other hand, I felt like a failure. Intellectually, I knew better. But I had invested emotionally into this friendship—and others in our office. Why wasn’t I seeing fruit? Surely it was my fault.

There are times when I still experience this type of frustration. But a few decades in the marketplace mission field has driven home an important theological point: It’s not about me, it’s about God.

That’s easy to forget in a results-oriented culture, especially when the challenges of life are beating on us like the winds of a hurricane – when Satan whispers (or shouts): “You’re not good enough!” So when the storms begin to form, here are a few things that help calm my waters:

  1. Remember the seed-planters. When I feel like I’m not making a difference in the world, I make a mental list of all the people who invested in my journey who have no idea I’m no longer the same misguided agnostic they once tried to help.
  2. Disrobe and un-gavel. One of my sisters is a federal judge. She gets paid to judge others and interpret the law. Not me. So why should I judge myself (and others) when it’s so clearly not my job?
  3. Take my medicine. Sometimes I enter into a conversation believing God is using me to teach the other person something. That might be true, but too often I arrogantly miss something God is trying to teach me. God is sometimes working through me, but He’s always work in me and on me.

In our work, we set goals and we’re held accountable for the results. In the Kingdom of God, we act in obedience and leave the results to Him. We can get uptight when the results aren’t what we expected or wanted, or we can remember that God is far more qualified than we are to spin this world forward as He sees fit.