One More Thought About "the Debtor's Ethic"

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In the post below, I mentioned John Piper’s concept of “the debtor’s ethic”–the subtle, seductive tendency for genuine heartfelt gratitude to God to metastasize into something spiritually unhealthy. That “something” is usually the impulse to pay God back or to want to feel you’ve done your bit to earn some additional future blessing.

It’s an important difference but a subtle one.

So how can you tell when you have slipped over from the cool pure waters of gratitude into the brackish muck of the debtor’s ethic? Here is a mental picture to help you understand the difference.

Imagine you’re trapped in a deep dark well with no means of ever climbing out. To make matters worse, the icy water is rising. Your situation is as desperate as it is hopeless.

Just as you are about to succumb to despair, you see a head silhouetted against the small circle of blue sky above you. A voice says, “Hold on. I’m going to lower down a rope.” And as that promised rope reaches you, what you are feeling in that moment is pure, crystalline gratitude.

Fifteen minutes later you are squinting and drip drying in the bright sunshine. You thank your rescuer for the 14th time. But now that your feet are on dry land, your pride and dignity are beginning to rouse themselves out of the terrified stupor that previously had them paralyzed. The next thing you know you hear yourself saying, “What do I owe you for the rescue?” Or, “Hey, can I paint your house for you?”

What you feel when that rope comes tumbling down the well shaft . . . that’s gratitude. And God’s offer of salvation and abundant life . . . that’s our rope.

The Well-Intentioned Insult of Trying to "Pay God Back"

A few days ago I found myself with my Bible in my lap, strolling through a familiar neighborhood of the Old Testament.

Rounding a well-worn corner of 2nd Samuel, I came across the passage in which David tells the prophet Nathan that he’s been thinking about building God a decent house in the city center instead of making Him live in a tent on the outskirts of town.

In reading the passage, I was struck by something I’d never really noticed before.

Here’s how Chapter 7 begins:

After the king was settled in his palace and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.”

Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”(NIV)

God had been extraordinarily good to David and he knew it. The Lord had blessed him with favor, victory, and abundance. Surrounded by the trappings of that success, David succumbed to one of the most common religious impulses known to man . . . he determined to do something for God.

This always sounds noble and praiseworthy. The prophet Nathan seemed to think so. Without even bothering to consult the Lord about David’s grandiose plans or even hear about them in detail, he essentially says, “Whatever you’re planning, go for it!”

That night, however, God grabs Nathan by the scruff of the neck and shares a few choice thoughts with him:

That night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

Allow me to paraphrase God’s message here. He commands Nathan to go tell David, “Hold on just cotton picking minute there, pardner. Just when, exactly, did I ever mentioned being unhappy with my living arrangements? I’m not insecure. I don’t need a fancy house to validate my worth. I don’t recall asking you to help me out.”

Then God’s message for David takes an abrupt turn.

“Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth . . . I will also give you rest from all your enemies. The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you'”

Suddenly the Lord goes from chastising the King for his presumption about doing God a favor to talking about how much he plans to bless him in the future. One minute, God is rebuking David for trying to do something for Him. In the next breath, God is telling David what other great things He plans to do for him.

There is a lot of important insight to be harvested in this little incident.

First, we see in David the universal tendency to respond to God’s incredible generosity by moving from heartfelt gratitude (which is appropriate in God’s eyes) to a works-based attempt to pay God back. It’s a religious impulse.

It’s what theologian John Piper has labeled “the debtor’s ethic.”

The debtor’s ethic says, “Because you have done something good for me, I feel indebted to do something good for you.” This impulse is not what gratitude was designed to produce. God meant gratitude to be a spontaneous expression in the gift and the good will of another. He did not mean it to be an impulse to return favors. If gratitude is twisted into a sense of debt, it gives birth to the debtor’s ethic–and the effect is to nullify grace. (Future Grace)

Of course the root of the debtor’s ethic is pride. There is a part of every fallen, flawed individual that resents the reality of our utter dependence upon God and his grace. That’s the same part that urges us to work or sacrifice or perform for God in order to generate some false sense of having earned God’s blessings.

This is an insult to God and the Lord’s feisty rebuke of David reflects this.

So what does God want from us? It’s simple. Obedience. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam. 15:22) Enjoy the blessings. Be humbly grateful. And obey.

That obedience will almost certainly involve serving and blessing others. “Do you love me, Peter?” Jesus asked. “Then feed my sheep.”

“Don’t try to do me any favors!” That’s the startling message from God to David. And to you and me I suspect.

Home

I arrived home late last night after four days cradled in the pine-scented arms of southeastern Oklahoma’s hills.

We attended my sister’s wedding on Saturday and it proved to also be part family reunion for my mother and part class reunion for my younger sisters. The sisters are 10 and 11 years younger than me respectively, and an number of their old classmates attended the festivities.

I worshiped in the church of my childhood and youth on Sunday morning and saw my nephew baptized in the same tank in which I was dunked roughly 43 years ago. The upholstery fabric on the pews is a different color. Other than that the sanctuary looks almost exactly as it did back in 1967 when I walked the aisle and took the pastor’s outstretched hand.

I and about 180 fellow worshipers heard as fine a sermon as any preacher in Oklahoma would deliver on this day. It followed a song service led by my closest friend from high school.

Every trip home seems to be a long, warm nostalgia bath these days. I wonder if my girls are weary of me pointing out all the sites of my milestones and memories.

“That building there used to be the Red Bud store where I bagged groceries and stocked shelves.” “See that rocky cliff face over there? I was almost killed freehand climbing that thing with Ott Taylor my final week of high school.” “The dilapidated barn behind that old house there? There I was surprised by my first real kiss from a girl.”

It seems every road in town is littered with mental historical markers.

Monday I drove Mom, Dad and sisters to his appointment in Tulsa for an outpatient procedural attempt to remove the bladder cancer that we learned had returned on my previous trip.

I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the staff at the Oklahoma Surgical Hospital, in what was the old ORU City of Faith medical complex. They handled dad with amazing patience, empathy and compassion and will forever have my profound gratitude.

North to Kiamichi Country

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Like an aging salmon struggling upstream to return to the spawning grounds from whence he was hatched . . .

Today I, Mrs. Blather, and Female Offspring Unit #3 will be loading up the Expedition and heading north up U.S. 75 into southeastern Oklahoma, a.k.a., Kiamichi Country.  Several years ago I shared some thoughts about this drive in some detail here.

There will be lots of activity over the next few days. One of my sisters is getting married tomorrow. (A happy thing.) Her son, my nephew, is being baptized on Sunday to consummate a commitment to Christ he made at youth camp a few weeks ago. (A very happy thing.) And on Monday I will drive my mom and dad to Tulsa where Dad will have a “procedure.” (A not so happy thing.)

A few weeks ago we learned that Dad has experienced a recurrence of the cancer he had successfully fought off a few years ago. Back then, he had undergone a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. It made him miserable and when he had finished he told my mother in very clear terms, “I’m never doing that again.”

So this upcoming out-patient procedure will attempt to utilize a laser to burn out the growth or growths. If it hasn’t spread, that will be the end of it. If it has spread . . . well . . . we’ll play it by ear from there. Actually, we’ll play it by heart.

So north we go, carrying with us a strange mixture of conflicting emotions. We’ll celebrate a fresh start and a re-birth. And then we’ll call upon heaven’s grace and wisdom as we walk alongside a father who approaches the end of his race.

Into the beautiful Kiamichi hills.  Where life goes on.

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41 Years Ago Today

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I was nine and had a special parental dispensation to stay up as late as I could manage to keep my eyes open.

Like countless other little boys in the late sixties, I was captivated by space travel and astronauts. And on this night, men were walking on the surface of the moon.

The Eagle had landed at 3:17 that afternoon, Wilburton, Oklahoma Daylight Time. Around 7:15 Neil Armstrong took a small step and created a human footprint on another world. Walking outside a little later, I found the half-moon low in the pink western sky, chasing the recently set sun. I recall thinking, “Men are up there. Brave men. Men from my country.” I also remember wondering what amazing places we would be exploring when I was my father’s age.

Today I am ten years older than my father was on that wondrous night. Of course, we haven’t had many “gee whiz” moments since that era. But I must admit that some of the pictures those little rovers on Mars sent back were pretty stunning. And more than a few of the images of Saturn and her moons delivered home by the Cassini-Huygens were simply jaw-dropping:

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Take a look at the above image in full glorious resolution (here) and you will see a pale blue dot inside the next-to-outermost ring on Saturn’s left side. That dot is home. It is Earth, as seen from almost a billion miles away.

It has become increasingly clear that it is not government-funded space exploration that is going to be providing our gee whiz moments in the future. As Bill Whittle points out in this wonderful video piece for Pajamas TV (free registration required), if we’re ever going to see a real version of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, it most likely is going to built by private enterprise.

Last year, the National Geographic Society marked the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing by releasing freshly restored video imagery of the mission. Enjoy. And feel the wonder again.

The Ongoing Obama-Reid-Pelosi War on Job Creators

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The folks running the show in Washington seem genuinely bewildered that the unemployment rate remains high in spite of throwing hundreds of billions of dollars into “stimulus.”

I can solve this mystery for them.

The reality is that while the government has been tossing out stimulus candy with its right hand, its been using the left (its dominant hand) to wage a relentless war on the only ones who can actually create private sector jobs–businesses.

This war has been particularly brutal against small to medium sized businesses, the sector of the economy which just happens to be the one which has produced the majority of new jobs in recent decades. This is something David Brooks pointed out in his NYT column yesterday. (hat tip, Fergus!)

And today the National Federation of Independent Business released a study which reveals that only ten percent of small businesses have any hope of making new hires in the coming year. The news release also said:

Small businesses grew more pessimistic about their economic outlook in June in the face of weak sales and political uncertainty, the National Federal of Independent Businesses said on Tuesday.

That phrase “political uncertainty” is a tactful way of saying “We don’t know for sure in what new ways our own government is going to be making things harder for us in the months to come so we’re going to just hunker down and pray.”

It stands to reason that if you’re actively creating an environment of threat and uncertainty for job providers, while simultaneously running massive deficits that will require taking more and more money out of the pockets of consumers through higher taxes, they are not going to be inclined to take the risks associated with providing new jobs.

This war began in earnest when the Dems took control of both houses of Congress in 2006. But it shifted into high gear when Mr. Obama took the oath of office.

The elements of this multi-fronted attack have included:

  • The strengthening of labor unions–politically and legally. Obama-Reid-Pelosi have taken huge steps to help Big Labor do for the rest of America what it has done for Michigan and the Rust Belt states. That is, turn them into vast wastelands of unemployed workers, abandoned homes, and boarded up commercial buildings.

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  • The strengthening of OSHA and other regulatory bodies. The Obama Labor Department has sicced OSHA on business owners giving the dreaded agency additional funding and a fresh mandate to be all over employers like ants on a dropped Kit Kat bar. (At least OSHA’s mission hasn’t been expanded to include outreach to the Muslim world.) But it’s not just OSHA, every regulatory agency inside the beltway is freshly restocked with reams of red tape with which to mummify any poor entrepreneur foolish enough to harbor dreams of growing a business.

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  • The health care take over. Business owners know that by creating another massive underfunded entitlement and the bloated bureaucracies that invariably accompany it the Dems have activated another ticking debt bomb.

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  • The threat of Cap and Trade legislation. The likely economic costs of the proposed “cap and trade” legislation the Dems keep trying to ram through Congress are so enormous, the burdens placed upon U.S. businesses so immense, the CBO has given up on even trying to calculate them.

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  • The threat of increased capital gains taxes. If you want to get less of something, tax it. The Cap Gains tax is a tax on investment income. Increase the taxes on investment and you’re going to get less investment in business enterprises. In fact, as the chart below shows, cap gains revenue goes up when rates go down because of increased investment activity, and vice versa. By some credible estimates, the increase in the cap gains tax already locked into place by the Dems will cost the U.S. economy 700k jobs.

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  • Hidden racial and gender quotas in the financial “reform” bill. There is a lot of blame to spread around for the economic debacle of the last two years. But no two individuals are more responsible for the bad policies that brought it about than Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank. So who do the Dems get to draft the legislation designed to prevent another collapse? You guessed it.

Some deep digging into the language of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform bill recently revealed that the presence of a provision calling for a new federal bureaucracy and host of new quotas relating to race and gender in finance-related companies. It’s a prescription for inefficiency, corruption, and confusion. But for civil rights shakedown artists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, it’s a dream come true.

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I could add dozens of other items to this list. Of course, you must add to all of the above discussion of a VAT tax, a Justice Department that seems to be governed by the values of Louis Farrakhan,  and a general dual vibe of ineptitude and arrogance by our president, and you have a prescription for a siege mentality on the part of American business owners.

When I hear someone on television suggest that the government isn’t doing enough to help our economy, I find myself suppressing the impulse to shout at the screen. We don’t need Obama, Reid, Pelosi and company to do more. We need them to do less. Much less.

Stop this war, Mr. President. Stop the war on American business owners. Do that and the economy will take care of itself in surprisingly short order.

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Inside the Obama – Netanyahu Meeting

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The good news is our president managed to meet with the Prime Minister of our strongest ally in the volatile Middle East without treating him like a door-to-door Ebola virus salesman.

Sadly, this represents progress.

We are not privy to the nature of their behind-closed-doors conversation, but I can fantasize. Here’s how I see a portion of their private conversation going:

Mr. Netanyahu: So, Mr. President. Where do you think the first Iranian nuke will be detonated? My country or yours? Or perhaps one of the capitals of Europe?

Mr. Obama: Have I mentioned how much I hate the British?

Mr. Netanyahu: This is serious, Mr. President. Our respective intelligence agencies are in agreement. The Iranians are only months away from having enough enriched uraniaum to build a nuclear explosive device–perhaps several.

Mr. Obama: That would be unfortunate . . . deeply regrettable . . .

Mr. Netanyahu: It would be a catastrophe of the highest order, Mr. Obama. Even a modest nuclear explosion in Tel Aviv could kill upwards of a million innocent people. But what if Ahmadinijad and the Mullahs decide to hit you first?

Mr. Obama: Pardon me?

Mr. Netanyahu: You must be aware that one well placed nuclear explosion at roughly 100 kilometers above U.S. soil would produce an electromagnetic pulse that would knock out your nation’s electrical grid and most of the rest of your electronic infrastructure. It would bring your economy to its knees and might take decades to recover. You would see a breakdown in social order and suffering on an unprecedented scale.

The Iranians and North Koreans have already tested missiles capable of such a thing. Your Republicans in Congress have examined this prospect.

Mr. Obama: My money is on Tel Aviv.

Mr. Netanyahu: Charming.

Mr. Obama: Just relax, Bebe. As you may have heard I have recently commissioned the director of NASA to reach out to the Muslim world through the mesmorizing power of space stuff.

Mr. Netanyahu: Very comforting, Mr. President.

Holiday Wrap Up

Drove the family down to Austin for the holiday weekend. Mrs. Blather’s brother and his family have a wonderful home in the Lake Travis area that hangs high on the edge of a canyon. The views from their decks offer panoramic 50-mile views in three directions.

The weather was relatively mild and pleasant for central Texas in early July; the food was amazing; my golf (two rounds) was appalling; and the whole long weekend was relaxing.

On Sunday night we enjoyed cool breezes on the balcony and from our happy vantage point took in dozens of fireworks displays simultaneously.

Regular blogging, twittering and productivity will recommence tomorrow in earnest.