You Always Have A Choice (Part Two)

In Part One, I argued that we always have a choice in how we respond to terrible situations simply because, as humans, we are created in God’s image. We are not brute beasts, so we can choose to transcend our condition and our conditioning. We have “response-ability” — meaning the ability to choose our response. As Steven Covey wrote, “Our unique human endowment lifts us above the animal world. The extent to which we exercise and develop these endowments empowers us to fulfill our uniquely human potential.” 

If we are moral and rational creatures capable of making choices, and not merely animals limited by instinct; why do we often feel helpless to make the choices we should? Jealousy, anger, resentment, addiction and depression seem unconquerable. They hold us down like a lion devouring its victim.

To understand our sense of helplessness we must go back to the beginning. At creation we reflected God’s image perfectly, like a mirror. But after humanity’s fall into sin that reflection was fractured. Now when we look at ourselves, in the shattered mirror of sin, God’s image is distorted. We see heartbreaking brokenness and feel helpless.

Our capabilities appear totally ruined, and yet our responsibility remains. When God appeared to Cain after rejecting his offering God said, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6) God explained to Cain that sin is a ravaging beast; crouching at the door, desiring to consume. He warned Cain not to give into this inner beast (jealous anger) but to rule over it.

Did God ask Cain to do the impossible? No, He asked Cain to claim his identity as a man, made in God’s image; responsible to reflect God’s goodness, wisdom and truth. He warned Cain not to let rage devour his humanity. God implored Cain to exercise reason and trust his Maker, not his anger. Cain chose poorly. His jealousy ravaged him, so he murdered his brother. The beast prevailed.

We always have a choice how we will respond to situations we don’t like. However, we must be careful how we define this ability.

On the one hand, if we over-estimate our ability by failing to account for the devastating effects of sin; we will wrongly assume we don’t need God’s help to see clearly and respond wisely. Like a person who has only looked into a shattered mirror, we are prevented from seeing ourselves accurately. Arrogance keeps us from seeing our sinful ugliness and we think ourselves more beautiful than we are. Any choice we make will appear justified, simply because it is our choice. On the other hand, if we downplay our ability to choose our response; we neglect the common grace God still provides all people. Even after the fall, we retain God’s image. Like God, we evaluate, reason, problem solve, and apply solutions. But ignorance about common grace emboldens excuse making. Like a man pleading insanity, we think we’re beyond judgement because “I can’t help myself” seems a credible excuse. But we are still culpable.

After the fall, human nature was corrupted comprehensively. Everyone’s core shifted from a God focus to a self-focus. We became by nature: self-reliant, self-righteous, and selfish. Our loves and desires, even our fears, shifted from godly to ungodly. Of course, sin hasn’t turned most people into criminals. Most sinners haven’t committed felonies, abused children or raped women. But history proves, again and again, that when God’s providential care is blocked by war, famine and ignorance even the noblest people devolve to brutality.

Yet common grace enables us to still recognize God’s image in all humans. Though the reflection is shattered by sin, every person maintains shards of God’s image. So Christians should not be surprised when they meet non-Christians who are: more thoughtful as friends; more patient as parents; or more generous as neighbors. An aspect of God’s common grace is that He gives good gifts to the godly and ungodly alike. Some people are simply born with better temperaments.

Common grace may be sufficient to enable people to respond well in bad circumstances. But its sufficiency is limited by time and degree because God’s image remains fractured in every living human. Common grace will only keep the shards of the mirror from tearing away from its backing and crashing to the floor in this life.  But in the next life, those who ultimately reject God will lose this restraining grace. Then their beastly nature will roam freely.

Thankfully Jesus offers special grace. He came to restore the broken shards so that God’s image will be reflected perfectly in His people again.

He began our restoration by imaging God perfectly. No matter how bad the situation, Jesus always responded well. Religious leaders collaborated against him. Soldiers beat and mocked him. Disciples betrayed and abandoned him. Yet Jesus responded from the cross with courage and love as He cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34).

He continues our restoration by giving us His power. When we choose Jesus, His Spirit enters our lives and we are doubly empowered with grace (common and special) to respond well no matter the situation. The remarkable thing about special grace is that it is never limited by time, nor degree because it is God’s Spirit working in us! So the same power that flowed in Jesus — enabling him to overcome betrayal with forgiveness and vice with virtue — flows in us.

So choose how you will respond! By God’s grace may it be with hope!

Feature Picture Credit

(Personal Note: I took a break from blogging to be with my family after my dad passed away from pancreatic cancer on April 28, 2016. Lord willing, I hope to return to posting bi-weekly.)

Hope Builder #2: Choose Life

“Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying!”  (Andy Dusfresne)

Hope is always an active choice.

thIn the movie Shawshank Redemption, a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is unjustly convicted for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover. Andy is sentenced to two consecutive life terms at Shawshank, a notoriously brutal state penitentiary. He befriends Red (Morgan Freeman) who helps him to learn the ropes of his new life in prison.

Strangely, Andy possesses an immunity to the dehumanizing process of prison life; a devolution the inmates call being “institutionalized”. Once fully institutionalized, a man surrenders his hope. Andy never becomes institutionalized.

Andy’s hope empowers him to overcome persistent and grievous injustices and then devote himself to improving the lives of his friends. He magically creates moments when the prison walls all but vanish in the eyes of his fellow inmates.  At one point, he gains unauthorized access to the prison’s loudspeakers and plays Mozart (Le nozze di Figaro) to the whole prison compound.

“I tell you those voices soared, higher and further than anyone in a great place dares to dream.”  Red proclaimed.  “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Andy’s punishment is two weeks in solitary confinement. When he returns to the general prison population, his friends ask him if his stunt was worth the cost. Andy replies that it was the easiest time he ever did because Mozart’s music helped him forget.

“Forget?” Red asks.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there is something inside that they can’t get to. That they can’t touch. It’s yours.” Andy says.

“What are you talking about?” Red asks.

“Hope.” Andy says.

“Hope? Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. Its got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea.” Red says.

“Like Brooks did?” Andy quips.  (Brooks Hatlen, their friend, had become institutionalize and lost hope.  When Brooks was freed from prison, fear ruled him and he eventually hung himself.)

Everything came down to a simple choice for Andy. When suffering, we either choose life or choose death. Those are the only options.  Andy fought for hope with all his energy. In the end, hope won!

The same choice faces us all. We cannot control terrible things from happening. But we can control how we respond.  Each moment we can choose to “get busy living or get busy dying”.

What will you choose? Realizing there is no middle ground is the first step out of the solitary confinement of helplessness. If you keep stepping toward hope, your own prison walls will begin to disappear. Like Andy Dusfresne you may even give other people a glimpse of life beyond these stone walls.  But, the more depressed you are, the more likely you are to ignore Andy’s charge. Feeling helpless you’ll believe there is middle ground between “get busy living or get busy dying”.  You’ll think you don’t have to choose, or worse that you can’t chose.  But that is a lie, believable, but false.  And this lie will blind you to the hopeless choices you are already making.

The Bible says it this way.  “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off… I have set before you life and death… choose life.”  You might ask, “How do I choose life?”  The verse continues, “[By] loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.” Deuteronomy 30:11,19-20

Some of you might be thinking, “I need more than a promise.  I need help.  I need someone to show the way.  If only I had my own Andy Dufresne!”  You have someone better!  Jesus Christ was the only innocent person to live in the prison of this fallen world and never give up hope.  He too devoted himself to improving the lives of his friends. He got busy living and giving life — even his own life on the cross!  As a result, Jesus has torn down the stone walls that blind us to the world beyond.  Knowing Him allows you to sense the beauty of the real world and feel like you are free.

Hold fast to Jesus and hope will find a way!