Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dividing Desires

The primary passage examined is James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, with a brief look at Mark 9:30-37.

As the Rolling Stones remind us, you can't always get what you want. So what's the remedy? Cheat, apparently! In a survey of more than 40,000 high school students the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that almost 3/5 of them admitted to having cheated. But 4/5 of them said their ethics were above average! Studies of college students find that the majority will fib--usually just a little--when asked to take a test for money, grade it themselves, shred it and then tell a researcher how well they did so they may be paid accordingly. And if they got paid in tokens which could be traded for money, making their larceny one step removed, they cheated twice as much. (The experimenters knew who was cheating because the shredder was set to shred only the margins of the test papers.) When similar studies were done outside academia, they found adults cheated to the same extent. The percentage of cheating was even higher among--big surprise--Wall Street bankers!

The shredder tests were done by psychology professor Dan Ariely, who wrote "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves." In a Wall Street Journal piece, he writes of a student who locked himself out of his house. He called a locksmith and was surprised that the man didn't rigorously try to confirm that he belonged in the house. The locksmith said 1% of people never steal. 1% always steal and a lock wouldn't stop them. A lock protected you against the 98% who might steal from you if they knew your door was unlocked. Locks keep honest people honest.

The locksmith was closer to the truth than he knew. Professor Ariely has found that most people will lie or cheat a little. Surprisingly, fear of being caught didn't stop them. In some studies, they paid themselves from a bowl outside in the hallway. In one, they simply told a researcher who was obviously blind. They still cheated by only 1 or 2 questions. Nor did the amount of money motivate them. In the studies, the amount offered for each right answer was varied from 50 cents to $10 and yet didn't significantly increase the amount of cheating. In fact, when they offered $10 per right answer, the cheating decreased. Ariely thinks that it was harder for the subjects to think of themselves as basically good guys if they took too much. The real conflict is between our desires for money or glory and our desire to see ourselves as honest and honorable people.

The ability to rationalize was, therefore, an important factor in influencing people to cheat. Other factors were conflicts of interest, creativity, being drained by a difficult mental task, a past history of dishonesty, having others (like your teammates) benefit from your dishonesty, watching other behave dishonestly, and a culture that gives examples of dishonesty. (Which makes my enjoyment of the show "Leverage" a really guilty pleasure.)

They found that what actually decreases dishonesty is supervision, moral reminders, honor pledges and having people sign tax or insurance forms at the top (before they fill it out) rather than the usual place at the bottom of the form (after they have already committed their lies to paper.) If they asked the subjects to recall the 10 Commandments or the school honor code before the test, no one cheated. At one school, they reminded students of the honor code and it worked even though the school didn't have an honor code! In an even more surprising experiment, they had self-identified atheists swear on the Bible, and no one cheated!

While it was rare for anyone to brazenly cheat by a large margin, the professor says his researchers lost thousands of dollars to the majority of people who cheated just a little. The problem, as Ariely sees it, is not the outrageous outliers but the "small but ubiquitous" cheating by the rest of us.

Bad behavior is contagious. Because we are social animals, we tend to take our cues from others. If people see bad behavior practiced in a school or a company or a society, they take it as acceptable conduct. "Everybody else is doing it" is an excuse we learn as kids. There is no other way to explain how whole towns participated in the lynchings of blacks in the American South or how Germans and non-German citizens of occupied countries cooperated with Nazi policies that made people turn in their Jewish neighbors.

But the desire to "fit in" or "go along" is not the only motive for bad behavior. Generally speaking, we are motivated by 3 things: our needs, our fears and our desires.

Sometimes, needs can drive bad behavior. My wife says when she worked at the public defender's office a lot of their cases were about homeless people shoplifting sandwiches from a local supermarket. One of the inmates I visit regularly at the jail was transferred for 10 days to the high security/corrective unit for taking 2 hard-boiled eggs from the kitchen and hiding them in his sock. When you are hungry, when your needs aren't being met, you are willing to break the rules.

Some fears are legitimate: that of fire, falling from a height, of disease and of pain. Some fears are phobias which, if they really interfere with everyday life, need to be treated. The problem is that fear literally bypasses the areas of the brain that handle critical thinking. Which is why disproportionate reactions to fears can lead to bad behavior. Shooting a foreigner in a Halloween costume for merely ringing your doorbell, as happened in Louisiana 20 years ago, is a bad response to fear. Rounding up Asian Americans and putting them in camps during World War 2 because we were fighting, among other nationalities, the Japanese, is a bad response to fear. That was worse because it required a lot of time and thinking to execute and so cannot be attributed to a split-second panic reaction.

Desires, as James reminds us today, can lead to bad behavior as well. Some desires are good: to excel at a sport or an art, to learn, to have a family. Some desires are evil: to possess what belongs to another, to see someone suffer, to get out of an essential duty or obligation. But even good desires can lead to evil if they are frustrated by people or events or if they are pursued ruthlessly. It's not wrong to want to win a contest or competition but if you resort to cheating, sabotage or deceit, your otherwise good desire can lead to evil. We are slowly coming out of an era in which many sports records are going to be either erased or marked with an asterisk because of the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs.

Sometimes the desires of a group or a nation may be considered so important that they feel that they should be allowed some moral slack in realizing them. For the good of the many, the rights or health or lives of the few may be taken away. It happens in slavery, when one race or class has absolute control over another and uses them as a labor force. It happens when rich countries exploit poor ones, taking their materials or using their cheaper labor to make products that can be sold for high profits back home. It happens when nations go to war, figuring their national interests justify the violating those of another nation. And the bloodshed, of course. The ends always seem to justify the means.

James is thinking less of national conflicts than of personal ones in our passage but the same principles apply. He mentions bitter envy, selfish ambitions and cravings at war within us. Our desires drive us to bad behavior and ironically to unhappiness. Getting what you want doesn't always leave you feeling good, especially it puts you at odds with family, with friends or with yourself.

Another religious thinker felt that at the root of suffering lay our desires. For the Buddha the answer was to stop desiring, to free oneself of attachment to anything. For James, there is a different way.

The Book of James is the closest thing the New Testament has to wisdom literature. And sure enough, James' solution to the problem of being driven by desires, either bad ones, or good desires taken too far, is wisdom from above. This heavenly wisdom is first of all pure. It is not mixed with self-interest. If some way of thinking, speaking or behaving is bad for others, it is bad for us as well. Too often we excuse in ourselves things we condemn in others. We don't like it when others put themselves first but feel we are entitled to certain perks because of how hard we work. We don't like it when others get angry but we deserve to vent because of the stress we're under. James reminds us that godly wisdom is without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

God's wisdom is peaceable. That is, its goal is peace--peace with God and with others. If your primary objective is peace, as opposed to getting your own way, the odds of achieving it are higher. And God's wisdom leads us to use methods that encourage peace. In James' first chapter, he tells everyone to be "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger." Keeping your ears open, you mouth shut and a lid on your temper is a good way to keep the peace.

God's wisdom is gentle. A lot of Christians forget this. They like to thunder on at people about their sins. Oddly enough, that rarely wins them over. When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well, he doesn't start with her checkered sexual history. He is more focused on getting her to desire the living water that will quench her spiritual thirst. That comes first. If she doesn't want what Jesus offers, she won't change her life.

The wisdom from above is willing to yield! The Greek word here could also mean "open to reason." Righteous folks are often caricatured as rigid, stubborn people who can't be reasoned with.  But refusing to hear the other person out means they are unlikely to hear our witness. Notice the word doesn't mean "open for anything." It doesn't mean we back down when God's wisdom is clear. But, as James said, we should be quick to listen. Since all truth is God's truth we need not be afraid of anyone's input. We may receive a new insight. We may, on the basis of what they tell us, find a way to persuade them. We in turn must be genuinely open to persuasion ourselves. If we aren't willing to consider what they say, why should they reciprocate?

God's wisdom is full of mercy. Part of getting people to open up is to be non-judgmental while we listen. If we keep interjecting "Well, that was stupid!" or "Wrong, wrong, wrong!" as they open their hearts the conversation will be over very soon. When listening to inmates, I sometimes have to suppress expressing horror or shock. I don't say "I wouldn't have done that if I were you." I'm not them. And I am there to offer God's forgiveness and grace. If the person seems to be punishing himself for what he's done, I don't need to help him beat himself up. I need to remind him that Jesus has already taken the punishment for all our sins and if the inmate accepts that, he can stop torturing himself and start following Jesus out of gratitude for all he's done and all he plans to do with that inmate's life. We are to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful.

God's wisdom produces good fruit. If the wisdom you are following isn't producing good things, you have to ask if it is really working. If being angry and judgmental and rigid and loud and rough isn't bringing more people to Jesus, then why not try God's wisdom instead?

A theme that underlies all of this is humility. We know we can't always get what we want. We know that's true of everyone. But we feel we should be the exception. And that's where James' advice meshes with that of his big brother Jesus. In reaction to his disciples squabbling about which of them was the greatest, Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." The essence of what he is saying is put others first. I'm reminded of George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life" who puts his community and town ahead of all the plans he had to travel the world. And, of course, the ultimate example of this is Jesus himself, who, despite wanting the cup of suffering to pass him by, gave his life for the world.

If we really desire something, rather than fight others for it or cheat, we should simply ask God, says James. He is clearly recalling Jesus' promise that if we ask, we shall receive. And if we ask and don't receive, James observes, it's probably because we are asking wrongly, selfishly. No loving parent gives his kid everything he ask for, but uses his wisdom to decide if it is good for his child. Sometimes God says, "Yes," sometimes "No," sometimes "Not yet," and sometime his answer is "I have something else for you, something ultimately better."

In the end , the key is to submit to God, James writes. Accept his wisdom. Ask but be open to an answer you may not have expected. And if we receive our desires, we should be careful. You may rue the day your parents gave you a smartphone if you wreck your car while texting. In the same way, God's gifts are meant to be enjoyed but used properly and not abused. And a gift from him  is always to be seen as a way to bless others as well. 

As always our chief desire should be for God himself. He is the source of all goodness and love and wonder and joy and understanding and mercy and compassion and beauty and song and wisdom and hope. Only he can fill the bill of being our true heart's desire. How do we get him? "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you," our passage concludes. Cause you can't always get what you want. But if you try God, you get what you need.

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