Will My Dog Go to Heaven?

Gracie - John Niven - cropped 1.jpg

People love their pets, and want to know what will happen after they die. The Bible provides an answer. 

About two weeks ago I saw John at a riverboat party. The general mood was light, but he stood alone in the shadows, his face stained with dry tears. John and his wife, their children long out of the house, had been forced to put their beloved dog, Gracie, to sleep. I listened long and said little as he shared his heart, and soon the party was over. A few days later he approached me at another gathering.

“Mark, you are a minister, right?”

“Yes, I was ordained as a Southern Baptist lay minister.”

“Will Gracie go to heaven? I have heard both – some people say that she will, and others say that since she doesn’t have a soul, she won’t.”

He paused. There was silence as I considered my reply. John was still visibly distressed, and I had to be right, but I equivocated.

“Well, the bottom line is that no one knows for sure.”

John’s face fell.

Scrambling to recover, I said “but I think that the best Biblical answer is that they will.”

His face brightened a little, but I knew that I had lost my chance to comfort and encourage a friend. I dove into a long explanation, ranging from the nature of the soul and the image of God (Imago Dei) to the nature of God and heaven. I enlisted the help of scholars from Moses to C.S. Lewis. I was unsure how much John understood, and even how much he was listening. When I finished, John said “thanks”, mustered a weak smile, and walked away. John did not need an academic discourse – he needed comfort in his pain. But he also needed the truth, so I set out to find it.

The Options After Death

Some people believe that after people, animals, or plants die, they cease to exist. Their organic and inorganic substance returns to the earth and is reused by succeeding generations. It is true that biological material is reused over generations, but these people also hold that no personal, non-material essence, such as a soul or spirit, exists. Nothing endures after death, and there is no immortality – no eternal existence. Atheistic naturalists fall into this category.

Others affirm that people, animals, and plants are reincarnated (reborn) as other people, animals, or plants, in a succession of lives. Eventually, every living entity will escape the cycle of rebirth and enter a state of blissful nothingness. Some who believe in reincarnation, especially Hindus, believe that each individual creature has an immaterial and immortal element. These elements merge into the Universal Spirit. Others such as Buddhists do not.

The Hebrew Tanakh (Torah – “Teaching, the Five Books of Moses”, Nevi’im – “Prophets”, and Ketuvim – “Writings”), the Koran, and the Bible do not support either annihilation or reincarnation. Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian scriptures teach that humans have an immortal, immaterial (spiritual) element that lives on. After death the spirit goes to either a good place (heaven), a bad place (hell), or an intermediate place (purgatory).

Other religious and philosophical traditions fall into one of these three categories, although individual beliefs vary. Those who believe in heaven or hell generally have three criteria to determine if a created being ends up in heaven or hell after death.

  1. The being must have an enduring personal soul/spirit – an immaterial part that survives death.
  2. There must be evidence of that type of being in heaven or in hell. The Bible records that angels, humans, animals, and plants are all seen in heaven, while only angels and humans are seen in hell.
  3. The morally good go to heaven, and the morally bad go to hell.

Creatures with an enduring spirit or soul, with others of their type in heaven, and moral goodness go to heaven. Those that are bad go to hell. Those that don’t meet criteria 1 or 2 may not go anywhere – we cannot know.


Christianity is traditionally dualistic, positing the existence of separate but related realms – the physical world and spiritual world. Bible scholars have argued about how strict this separation is, what it actually means, and where it came from, but few doubt that it exists. Jesus Himself said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).” If the common definition of the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal,[1]” then Jesus is teaching a form of dualism. John adds “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).” Many other New Testament passages and even a few in the Old Testament (i.e. Daniel 12:2) support the existence of separate but related realms of matter and spirit; a dualistic world view. These and other Scriptures teach that man has an individual soul, just as he has an individual body. Humans, therefore, meet the first criteria for going to heaven or hell.

God breathed life into Adam, thus making him a “living soul (Genesis 2:7).” There is no mention of God “breathing life” into animals or plants, or them becoming a “living soul.” The distinction between “having a living soul” and “being a living soul” can be very large, but is out of the scope of this article. Restated, the progression for humans was “formed”, then “God breathed”, then “became a living soul”. The progression for every other creature was “created”. This is the main reason some people believe that animals do not have a personal, everlasting soul.

However, animals and plants have some kind of life force; otherwise they would not be alive. That life force may be general and impersonal, shared by all non-human living things, similar to “The Force” of Star Wars fame. Or the life force that inhabits plants and animals may be personal – unique to each individual. Native Americans believed that animals, trees, and other creatures had individual spirits, or at least individual manifestations of the “Great Spirit”. Medieval German hunting customs honor the individual spirits of the departed game and thank them for their sacrifice with a Strecke Legen[2] and Letzte Bissen[3] ceremony after each hunt. Ancients from across the globe also believed that plants and animals had individual spirits.

Scientists, trainers, zookeepers, pet owners, and others who work closely with animals recognize that each animal has its own personality. Animals are friendly, nervous, energetic, or fearful in varying degrees, just as humans are. They adapt well, or not so well, to their environment, just as humans do. As a physician who has occasionally cared for animals, a volunteer at the Memphis Zoo, and a pet owner, I see distinct evidence of personality in animals. Some people argue the same for plants.

Since the existence of a “soul” or “spirit” is not measurable with scientific observation in any creature, including humans, science cannot tell us anything about the soul or the spirit. The fact that every living thing has a “life force”, and that animals, and perhaps plants, demonstrate individual personality, provides strong if circumstantial evidence that living creatures besides humans have individual spirits or “souls.”

In his article from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Barrett Duke lists ten things that the Bible clearly teaches about animals[4]:

  1. God communicates with animals (Genesis 7:9, 1 Kings 17:4-6)
  2. God cares about the well-being of animals (Psalm 104, Jonah 4:11, Matthew 10:29-31)
  3. God enjoys animals (Psalm 104)
  4. Animals reveal God’s sovereignty (Job 38-42)
  5. Animals bring glory and praise to God (Psalm 148, 150)
  6. Animals are reasoning creatures (Numbers 22:21-33)
  7. Animals may have a more acute awareness of spiritual reality than we realize (Numbers 22:21-33)
  8. Animals have the capacity to enjoy life (Job 39, 40, Psalm 104)
  9. Animals teach us about the nature of justice (Leviticus 16)
  10. Animals belong to God (Job 41:11; Ps. 50:10-11)

Balaam’s interaction with his donkey suggests that animals have a personal spirit. After all, the donkey was able to see the angel and Balaam was not. She judged the danger and tried to evade the angel for Balaam’s benefit. Then she complained when he beat her. The text said that “God opened her mouth” and then the donkey spoke, suggesting that she had thoughts and a personality (Numbers 22:21-33). This passage reads as straight narrative, not as allegory, so there is no reason to interpret it otherwise.

The presence of a life force, a personality, and human-like characteristics does not prove that animals, much less plants, have a personal, eternal spirit. But such facts certainly increase the likelihood that they do.

Are animals pictured in heaven?

Animals and plants were present in God’s initial creation and in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1 and 2). Furthermore, God stated that the animals and plants were “good”, and even “very good.” In the beginning, our Creator filled His world with a huge variety of beautiful and fascinating creatures – each occupying its place in a complex ecosystem. The Lord never changes, so there is every reason to believe that He will also include plants and animals in His perfect universe.

The Bible records that animals will be in God’s eternal kingdom. Isaiah 11 describes the wolf, the lamb, the leopard, the calf, and the lion living together with people in harmony on God’s holy mountain. The prophet continues “a little boy will lead them.” The context suggests that Isaiah is describing the Lord’s permanent kingdom.

Another question is “are individual animals pictured in heaven?” Humans are – Elijah and Moses appear at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-13) and the Rich Man and Lazarus are portrayed in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). Angels are – Satan is shown in heaven (Revelation 12:7-9). But individual animals are not – if Balaam’s donkey was recorded praising God in his own way at the Great White Throne, our problem would be solved. Nonetheless, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because individual animals are not mentioned in heaven does not prove that they are not there.

What about morality?

The Bible teaches that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-31), distinct from animals, plants, and other parts of creation. Because man is made in God’s image, he is the ruler and steward of all creation. Oceans of ink have been spilled on what the Imago Dei (image of God) means. Some hold that the image of God includes intelligence, emotion, and will. If so, that distinguishes humans from animals only by degree, because animals also have intelligence, emotion, and will. Others affirm that the image of God is the ability to reason morally – to know right from wrong. Animal scientists argue that mammals also display rudimentary moral reasoning – a sense of fairness and social obligation. Insofar as this is true, such moral reasoning would only distinguish humans from animals by degree. Neither “intelligence, emotion, and will” nor “moral reasoning” are good candidates for Imago Dei, because the Image of God is something radically different, not just a different level of the same thing.

The Imago Dei is the conscious ability to glorify God and enjoy Him in perfect relationship forever. Humans have this, but there is no evidence that animals do. To restate, man alone is able to bridge the gap between God and the rest of Creation. No giraffe, however tall, or elephant, however wide, can reach up to God and across to his fellow creatures. Only man can. One man, the God-Man Jesus Christ, forms that bridge perfectly. But all men (and of course, women) are called to join Christ in this work. Humans are called to rule the earth because we, and not animals or plants, can know the Creator consciously, intentionally, and under Son of Man, perfectly.

Animals, and perhaps plants, seem to meet the first criteria, having an immortal and individual soul or spirit. They also seem to meet the second criteria. Both animals and plants are pictured in the perfect state – before the Fall of Man and after the restoration of the universe.

It is in the third criteria that the distinction between animals, probably plants, and man becomes clear. Man can disobey God, and we have. Animals cannot. As a result, animals cannot be wicked, but they also cannot be virtuous. Instead, animals are innocent.  Though the entire created world is subject to death and destruction because of human sin (Romans 8:19-22), each animal is individually blameless.

A good and loving God would not send a blameless creature to eternal punishment. Such as act would be against His nature as revealed in Scripture. The Sovereign creator made the animals. God spared “many animals” when He withheld judgment on Nineveh (Jonah 4:11) and God cares for even the sparrow (Matthew 10:29-31). He feeds the animals. Our Lord cares deeply for all of His creation – not just humans.

The Old Testament sacrificial system provides insight into animal morality. The sins of the people were ritually transferred to a blameless animal, who was then sacrificed in lieu of the people. The innocent took the place of the guilty. The glory of Jesus Christ is that a morally perfect man assumed the wickedness of morally responsible men, and then He died for us. The virtuous took the place of the guilty. Restated,

  1. Animals are innocent – they cannot sin.
  2. All humans (except the Messiah) are guilty – we do sin.
  3. Jesus was virtuous – He did not sin.

The penalty for group two (humans) first fell on group one (animals). Ultimately the penalty for our sin fell on Jesus Himself.

Will my dog go to Heaven?

To summarize based on this evidence, animals, and perhaps plants have an individual, enduring immaterial essence…a spirit. Their spirits are different from human spirits in at least one fundamental way – humans (and probably angels) are created in the image of God and other creatures are not. Animals and plants are clearly portrayed in times of perfection, both in the Garden of Eden and in the Final Restoration. Finally, while animals seem to have a rudimentary moral understanding, they are incapable of a conscious, personal relationship with God. Therefore, they cannot sin against God, they are morally innocent, and they do not deserve eternal punishment.   We can reasonably conclude that our pets will be in heaven. The same may be true for insects, plants, etc. Unfortunately, the distance between them and us is great so it is harder to tell.

There are many faithful Christians who would disagree. Some would argue that Genesis proves that animals do not have an immaterial element beyond what they need to survive earthly life. Others would counter that the Bible does not answer this question plainly. Others will have other objections. I am happy to talk with such brothers and sisters in the love and spirit of Christ, and we can learn together.


Gracie is in heaven. She is morally innocent in God’s eyes and has an individual, enduring existence. John himself is a lover and follower of Jesus. Therefore, he will see his beloved dog again. If the Lord gives me another chance to talk to him about this, I will.


[1] https://www.bing.com/search?q=soul&form=EDGTCT&qs=PF&cvid=5db77c37dc204078aface0db23480dea&cc=US&setlang=en-US

[2] A strecke legen is a laying out of the animals killed in the hunt, with the Hoch Wild (large or “high” game in the front and the little game in the back.

[3] Letzte bissen is “last bite”, a sprig of oak, fir, pine, or spruce placed in the slain animal’s mouth

[4] 10 biblical truths about animals, https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/10-biblical-truths-about-animals

Robust Thrift

Thrift doesn’t start with seeking sales and clipping coupons, but with a character of contentment.

Disasters strike, both in nations and in families. Hurricanes happen, jobs are lost, and terrorists crash airliners into buildings. Our first reaction is disbelief and disorientation. On 9/11/2001 many Americans spent the day staring at the television, unable to accept that such an attack happened in the USA and uncertain of what the attack meant for our future. On any day, when a family member is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a friend dies in an accident, or a husband loses his job, our normal reaction is stunned silence, fear, sadness, and stunned silence again.

Our second reaction depends on the individual. Some people sink into despair, others begin frenzied work, and still others lash out at whoever or whatever they think is responsible for their pain. Over time, those who are psychologically healthy transform their hardship into a new way of looking at the world, adjust their actions, and resume a normal if inexorably altered life. Those who cannot end up getting help from health care providers and ministers to help them reassemble the pieces of their shattered soul.

Robust Thrift

One of the best ways to live life and to handle disaster, is thrift – using resources (money, possessions, and time) carefully and avoiding waste. Though not valued in convenience-focused, image-obsessed America, thrift enables individuals, families, communities, and nations to weather the storms of life. Robust Thrift, thrift that comes from strength of character rather than just a desire to save money, is best. It forces us to focus on what is truly important, teaches us that we can live joyfully with far fewer things than we think we need, and provides the freedom of greater control over our lives. Ultimately, disengaging our happiness from our desire for things makes us free. Robust Thrift, is not merely about actions – it is about attitudes, and ultimately character. There are three major character traits associated with Robust Thrift – Humility, Security, and Godliness.

The first kind of thrift is financial, and most articles and books on thrift focus here. They discuss coupons, bargain hunting, and haggling. Most of this advice is useful, but limited, because it doesn’t address the underlying attitudes and belief systems. Robust thrift in financial matters is an outgrowth of humility, a self-forgetfulness that focuses its attention on God and others.

Vendors make mountains of money catering to our vanity. The woman who boasts of her ability to get a “great deal” will often spend more money than she should simply to get more “great deals” that she can then brag about. Photographers, venue operators, caterers, florists, and decorators gouge brides and families who want their wedding to be more grand and glorious than those of their friends. Automakers sell the image – tough and individualistic, sleek and sporty, or trendy and socially conscious – far more than they sell the car. Clipping coupons is no cure for the vanity that besets us, and there is no financial thrift without humility.

The second kind of thrift deals with possessions. We fill drawers, closets, attics, basements, garages, and storage units with things that cost us money to buy, money to store, money to maintain, money to move, money to protect, and money to dispose of. Our surfeits of stuff also take time to buy, time to store, time to maintain, time to move, time to protect, and time to dispose of. We get food that we don’t like to fill our pantry just because it is “on sale”, and collect trinkets that we don’t need because they are “free”. Shelves in book stores and libraries groan under the weight of tomes telling us how to declutter our lives, but we rarely do it. Why? Because we mistake possessions for security. Some belongings such as a shelter, food, and clothing contribute to our security, but most, like the 27th key chain that we got free at the trade show but can’t bear to part with, do not. Those who find security in something other than possessions will find that their thriftiness is robust – it can weather the storms of life.

The third kind of thrift deals with time. Time is our most precious possession, and armies of authors wielding quills, pens, or keyboards tell us how to use ours. Despite their best intentions and advice, we waste vast amounts of time. Why? Because we do not know who we are, and what we are supposed to do. A young man graduates from college and faces a bewildering array of possible careers, possible pastimes, and even possible wives. Paralyzed with choices, and never having taken the time to discover who is he, who God is, and what He has created him to do, the man takes whatever opportunity is easiest. Without knowing our Maker, the One who created us to do a specific task as we have created saws to cut wood, we cannot do otherwise. Robust thrift with our time is rooted in glorifying and enjoying God, and allowing Him to direct our steps.


Thrift is a good thing – we could all stand to take better care of our resources. But thrift is ultimately a matter of the heart. Robust Thrift moderates our money with humility, purges our possessions with security, and targets our time with Godliness. When hurricanes happen, jobs vanish, and terrorists attack, Robust Thrift will help us overcome adversity every day.

Communication Conflicts

Assumptions, Emotions, Perceptions, Conditions, and Facts color our communication with ourselves and others. We must learn to manage them.

A wise man once said that the hardest thing about communication is the illusion that it has occurred. I have been involved in hundreds of medical, military, and public safety operations, and the after-action reviews of each one cite communication as a problem. Whether in business, relationships, or anywhere else, avalanches of academic papers and mountains of media articles bemoan our inability to effectively talk to each other, and propose ways of fixing it.

Several factors are present in every communication event, including assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts. They change the communication, often without the participants realizing it.


Assumptions are believed true but without proof. Each person, whether he considers himself religious, spiritual, philosophical, materialistic, or something else, makes metaphysical assumptions, assumptions about the fundamental questions of life. Suppose three college students, Mike, Sienna, and Jorge, are talking about their planned vacations. Mike, a Christian, believes that God created everything, that He is the center of existence, and that the purpose of every created thing, including people, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Sienna, a secularist, believes that the universe is just one of many universes in a “multiverse”, that the human community is the center of existence, and that making oneself happy is the purpose of existence.  Jorge, a philosophical naturalist, agrees with Sienna on the origin of things, believes that each individual is the center of existence for that individual, and claims that the universe has no meaning or end at all. Mike plans to do a mission trip to Brazil for his spring break, Sienna is scheduled to take an eco- and poverty-tourist trip to Belize, and Jorge is going to the Caribbean for alcohol, parties, and women. Each is acting in accordance with their fundamental assumptions about life, but their discussion will probably be no deeper than “whatever works for you.”

Most people do not recognize their own assumptions, but have a smorgasbord mishmash drawn from religions, the media, popular culture, and those around them. Nonetheless, these assumptions color everything that we do – from who we marry to how we work and vote. When two people talk, the further apart their assumptions are, the harder it will be for them to communicate, and the less likely it will be for the conversation to go well. Keep in mind that we are talking about fundamental, important assumptions; beliefs about life, the nature of good and evil, and purpose.

Imagine that Asherah, an ancient Sumerian woman, were listening to the conversation between Mike, Sienna, and Jorge. Unfamiliar with any idea of universal religion, she would puzzle over why Mike was sailing over the ocean (she couldn’t conceive of flying) to bring his religion to another people, who already had their own gods. Scoffing at the idea that all people are created equal, she would be scandalized that Sienna was going anywhere without her father or brother, and that she should be care about poor at all. Even if our Sumerian maiden secretly admired Sienna’s independence, she would not admire her egalitarian leanings. Asherah would understand Jorge’s plans the best, and if Jorge were wealthy, might approve.

Lesser assumptions also impact communication. If a woman believes that black men are threatening, or that men in general are oppressive, she will have trouble understanding anything that a male is trying to say, no matter how he says it. If a man considers women little more than sexual prey, he will be equally impotent in understanding women. The same is true for other prejudices, no matter their basis (religion, culture, nation, etc.). That is why such attitudes are so toxic.


I know the look. When I am talking with my oldest daughter, I am in trouble when she squints, tilts her head, and furrows her brow. At that point, I better start apologizing, because we have moved from (usually) rational discourse to emotional damage control. It is not that she is unusually irrational but that she, like all people, is a complex mix of intellect and emotion. Often the emotion leads. My daughter is helpful in that she signals when the switch has occurred – with others you may never know.

Emotions powerfully affect communication, sometimes blocking it entirely. When doctors give a patient a terminal diagnosis, the patient hears nothing else during that conversation, no matter how the doctor says it. When a judge announces a contest winner, the same thing happens. Excessive anger or fear can also stop the ears and close the mind. Stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol surge in the body, and all the person can do is react.

Emotions color conversations. All else being equal, speaking with someone you love will always be better than speaking with someone that you do not like, or are neutral towards, even if the words are as tame as “Please pass the butter.” Newlyweds eating by candlelight might see that request with the rose hue of love, while feuding co-workers at a mandatory company dinner might see it with the red fire of anger or the blue ice of bitterness.

Talking with someone new may be exciting, but it also generates fear. The same is true of talking to a person of a different age, sex, religion, culture, nationality, race, or political persuasion. Discourse with those who are different from ourselves is imperative, but the emotions involved often make it more difficult.

Emotions amplify or deaden the importance of communication. When a rigorous teacher in an important class says, “the test is tomorrow”, students will color and amplify the statement based on their perceived readiness. Prepared students will feel satisfied in their work and a readiness to get the exam over with, and unprepared students will feel dread about their anticipated grade and shame for not working harder. The words “the test is tomorrow” will pound in the unready student’s head all day long, while the ready student will hardly give them a second thought.


I was standing near a military medical tent in Washington DC during Barak Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. The Presidential motorcade was approaching, and several black women were chattering wildly in anticipation of seeing America’s first black president. Their emotions were high, and from the tenor and text of their conversation, had been for days. It was hard to know which black limousine the President was in, and hard to see anyone inside the vehicles due to their dark, tinted windows. Nonetheless, everyone found him and in the few seconds that he passed by, studied his every move. One woman shouted, “he looked at me!” while another exclaimed “he smiled at me!” Watching the same scene, I could not be sure that the President had done either. He could have scowled, or more likely not noticed them at all given the tens of thousands of people on the parade route, but it didn’t matter. Those women will stick to their stories and tell them to their friends and family all of their lives.

Perceptions are mental impressions or intuitive insight. In day to day life, what we perceive is often more important to our understanding and our actions than the truth. A look, body position, or tone of voice perceived as threatening, unkind, or even uncaring will undo the best of words. Similarly, favorable perceptions can make the communicating parties feel better about themselves and each other. Regardless of what Barak Obama actually did, the perceptions of these women at the Inauguration made them like him more.


Everyone who communicates does so to gain something:

  1. Money
  2. Self-esteem
  3. Esteem in the eyes of others
  4. A chance to do good, whether by advancing their business or some other cause
  5. Specific, personal goals

While everyone more or less shares general goals, communicators are not likely to share specific goals. A boss might want to get his employee to do a task, while the employee might want to shift that work to someone else. A politician may want each person in the audience to vote for her, while listeners might want free food, a good time, and a chance to have an interesting experience with an important person that they can share with their friends. A man may want a date, but the woman he is talking to may simply want to escape from a “creepy” situation.

Real communication will be much harder to achieve if the parties don’t know what motivates others. If they know what the other person is thinking, the boss might emphasize the benefits of doing this particular job, the politician might design a rally to provide an exciting experience, and the suitor might learn more about the object of his affection to avoid making her uncomfortable. If the boss knows that nothing he can do will make the employee do the work, if the politician has no chance of getting certain votes, and if the man’s amorous advances are dead in the water, each would drastically change their tactics, or give up communicating all together.


People generally believe that they are communicating in facts, those objective truths upon which life is based. Because each party feels that he is dealing only in irrefutable facts, he may have trouble understanding how anyone could disagree. When we are not careful, this opinion leads to dismissing other opinions as stupid, or even evil. We demonize those with whom we disagree, and they demonize us. Our assumptions, emotions, and perceptions align against our opponents, and our desired outcome is no longer understanding or compromise, it is victory. Crushing the hated enemy, not understanding each other and accomplishing mutual objectives, becomes the goal.

Actually, facts can be challenged, debated, and seen from different perspectives. Truths are still objective – a person with colon cancer has colon cancer regardless of what they, their friends, or all the doctors in the world think. But finding the objective truth can be extremely difficult – much harder than we assume. No one has a monopoly on truth, but some do understand reality better than others – at least in certain fields. By comparing facts, acknowledging other opinions, being humble enough to learn, and keeping all participants’ best interests at heart, we all can get closer to the truth, and closer to solving the problems that vex our world.


It is hard to communicate effectively. If communication is an iceberg, facts are the visible part above the waterline, and assumptions, emotions, perceptions, and conditions are the barely visible parts below the surface. Just as the Titanic never would have foundered if it had hit only the top of the iceberg, so communication rarely founders on the facts. Rather, it founders because the parties don’t understand and sometimes don’t trust each other. Anyone who wants to communicate will take the time to ponder the assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts of others. These people will communicate better and have success.

Why We Buy

We often buy not to enjoy our purchase or meet a physical need, but to fill a hole in our hearts, a lack in who we are. 

The Christmas season has just ended, and people worldwide have been evaluating the effects of the holiday. Some people do not celebrate Christmas, and so whatever effect the holiday has on them is indirect. A Buddhist in China, for example, may not believe in Jesus Christ, but may be employed manufacturing toys or clothes given as gifts by those who do believe. A Muslim in the Islamic State may hate the very idea of Jesus Christ, but realize that his American and Western foes are less likely to attack him on December 25th. A Western secularist may scoff at Christianity, but still take advantage of Black Friday shopping bargains and deal with holiday traffic. For many in the West, and in other parts of the world, Christmas is a social rather than a religious holiday.

What happens to Christmas gifts? Some presents go back to the store, food gifts are eaten, and a few offerings end up in the trash. Most presents, however, are used, stored, cleaned, and perhaps used again. Years of Christmases, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and other occasions result in a continually growing pile of presents, but gift-giving events are relatively rare and so the pile is modest.

Much more than buying for others, we buy for ourselves. Rarely associated with a specific event, self-shopping empties our pocket books and fills our homes with items of greater or lesser usefulness. Shopping becomes a major form of recreation. We spend our free time in malls rather than in parks. Our closets, shelves, and garages fill up with clothes, computers, and cars, and so we rent storage units. Eventually we buy bigger houses, and still our possessions proliferate. We spend our time buying stuff, sorting stuff, storing stuff, maintaining stuff, moving stuff, and finally disposing of stuff. We own our stuff, but our stuff also owns us.

Ultimately, we buy things to fill a need. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in the form of a five-level pyramid. Physiological needs such as air, food, water, and shelter formed the base of the pyramid. The next level up is safety; personal, financial, health, and a safety net against adversity. Love and belonging comprise the middle level, which includes friendship, intimacy, and family. Esteem, both from oneself and from others, is the second highest level. Finally, self-actualization and self-transcendence, the desire to fully accomplish your purpose in life and in relation to the rest of the cosmos, are the highest need.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html)

  1. Self-Actualization/Transcendence
  2. Esteem
  3. Love and Belonging
  4. Safety
  5. Physiological

Though Maslow’s work has been criticized throughout the decades, it still provides a useful paradigm to address the question “Why do we buy?”


The most fundamental reason for buying is to acquire the basic things that keep our bodies alive. Food, water, and shelter are required, but these purchases do not only serve the bottom of the pyramid. Food nourishes us, but it also ties us to a certain culture and social group. European Americans may favor beef and potatoes while Asian Americans prefer fish and rice. Such food-based ties contribute to our sense of love and belonging, as well as our esteem.

Shelter meets a physiologic need but our choice of shelter helps meet other needs as well. A well-built and locked house in a good neighborhood provides a sense of safety. A large, beautiful home reflects and confers a higher social status than a small, plain one. A dwelling in an area of clean air, safe water, good sanitation, and a beautiful landscape will help its occupants be healthier than one without these advantages. When a man with a beautiful home takes care of his family and entertains others, he adds to his sense of love and belonging, and ultimately his self-actualization.

Clothing is another physiological need, but most people use clothes to do far more than just protect their bodies. Humans as animals could do fine covered with burlap sacks, with more or fewer layers as needed for the climate, but even the poorest people dress themselves better than that.  Soldiers and law enforcers wear body armor to keep them safe. People wear clothes similar to their social group to identify with that group. Men dress to communicate wealth and virility. Women wear clothing to attract a mate, highlight their best features, and excite envy in others. Long hair, jewelry, and high heels are entirely unnecessary and may even be detrimental from a physiologic standpoint, but they are important to esteem, love/belonging, and self-actualization.

In summary, humans buy to meet physiological needs, but do so in such a way as to meet higher needs as well.


Some purchases are specifically to enhance safety. Insurance policies are not necessary to live, and most people don’t boast about their coverage, but we buy them nonetheless. A few boorish sorts might brag about the size of their savings accounts, but most citizens, at least in the developed world have one. When disaster strikes, however, failure to have either damages people at every level in the pyramid. Men and women who have failed to take such safety measures and then lose their job, suffer a disease, or lose their home face withering censure.


Much of what we buy is to enhance our sense of love and belonging. As relational creatures, we are largely defined not by who we are but by whose we are. This is true even in the hyperindividualistic West. My friends and I used to joke in high school that all of the people who considered themselves nonconformists looked alike. Millions of teenagers follow celebrities on social media so that they can be like them.

Certain items like wedding rings, family photos, art work, and presents for special occasions are purchased specifically for love and belonging. People buy sports team jerseys, music artist T-shirts, and organizational polo shirts for the same reason. However, the need to be loved and to belong is so powerful that it permeates everything we buy, and everything we do.


Why do we buy a car for $50,000 when we could buy one for $20,000? They are probably equally safe and get the same gas mileage. Why do we buy intentionally ripped blue jeans with a famous tag for $100 when we could buy intact blue jeans with an ordinary tag for $20? The former will fall apart sooner. In hundreds of similar circumstances, from handbags to glasses, we spend far more than we need to, from a purely functional standpoint. We part with much of this money to raise our self-esteem, and others’ esteem for us.

Self-Actualization and Transcendence

In the Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), a wealthy widow, is donating money for a grand cathedral to the memory of her departed husband, and in penance for never really loving him. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) desperately wants the cathedral to be built, but the task of agreeing on plans is threatening both his ministry and his marriage. Both were striving for self-actualization and transcendence, and using everything they had, money and influence, to attain them. Only the intervention of the angel Dudley (Cary Grant) allows them to find real self-actualization and transcendence.

We all yearn, consciously or subconsciously, for the same thing. We spend our money and our lives to achieve what we believe will give us self-actualization and transcendence. Buying is a major part of both.

Why do we buy so much?

Having discussed why we buy, we need to ask why we buy so much. Our physiological needs are quickly met; the human body can only consume a relatively small amount of food and water, can only wear a limited number of clothes, and only needs one shelter at a time. Safety needs are also limited – except for those with mental illness, most people don’t stock up on house locks or insurance policies.

Love and belonging needs may be limited, or may not. Humans can only have a certain number of parents, children, or friends. Time and space limit the scope and depth of our relationships. Once a person has a loving family, a solid circle of friends, and a strong association with their favored group, they will often be satisfied. This need cannot be met with possessions or accomplishments.

Needs for esteem and self-actualization are the hardest to define, and the hardest to meet. John D. Rockefeller was once asked “how much money is enough?” His reply was “just a little bit more.” This answer applies to everything else that we seek in our drive for esteem and self-actualization. Hollywood superstars want more fame, and Napoleon Bonaparte wanted more power. In most cultures in the world throughout history, the sheer number of one’s possessions is a key indicator of wealth, power, and fame.

The preceding discussion, however, implies that purchasing is mostly a cognitive activity, in which your brain makes the decision to buy or not based on rational, or at least semi-rational, criteria. In truth, buyers spend a lot of money on impulse. A product or service makes them feel a certain way, the shopper likes the feeling, and so he or she buys the product or service. The emotions decide, and the reason rationalizes the decision. Merchandizers collaborate with our inner hopes, dreams, and insecurities to part us from our money.

  1. Mannequins look away from customers at display windows; their eye position enticing passersby to make eye contact and walk into the store.
  2. Scents are powerful. Floral or citrus scents make us linger, talcum scents evoke nostalgia, and lavender or vanilla scents relax us.
  3. Companies decide who their target customers are for each product and in different locations and times, and play music that was popular when those target customers were 18 years old. Middle agers may hear classic rock, while millennials may hear modern pop.
  4. Clothing departments have warm and soft lighting, and clothing tags are printed so that larger women wear smaller sizes.
  5. Cheaper products seem like a better deal when placed alongside more expensive products, and red ink on sales signs make the markdowns seem bigger.

The overwhelming message from the media is that everything, or almost everything, is bad. The overwhelming message from advertising is the you are bad, or at least not as good as you could be if you had the advertised product or service. When we immerse ourselves in media, whether television, internet, print media, radio, social media, or something else, we eventually become convinced of these messages. Then we go to stores, or order online, to make ourselves feel better.

The Christian Perspective

Many have criticized Maslow’s hierarchy and even understanding of needs, but few will object to the general ideas of needs and that they can be categorized. Most understand the pivotal role that our unconscious plays in our spending, and the array of forces constantly trying to separate us from our money.

First, the Bible recognizes the needs of man on all levels, but provides only one solution to these needs.

  • Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall have no want (unmet needs)
  • Lamentations 3:24 – The Lord is my portion, says my soul. Therefore, I have hope in Him.
  • Philippians 3:7-8 – Count all things as loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ
  • Philippians 4:19 – My God shall provide all of my needs according to His riches and glory in Christ Jesus

God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, meets all of our needs. Jesus promised to meet our physiological needs (food and clothing – Matthew 6:31-34). He protects us (Psalm 91), loves us (John 3:16), and invites us into His community (1 Corinthians 12:27).  The Holy Spirit does not delude us with foolish self-esteem but tells us that we are precious in Christ. He helps us want good character before God more than a good reputation before man (Proverbs 29:25, Matthew 10:28). Jesus Christ doesn’t offer self-actualization or self-transcendence. He offers perfect forgiveness, unquenchable love, eternal life, and a role in God’s redeeming work in the world. God is less concerned with “self” than He is with “Other”.

Second, the Bible teaches that our resources are not our own. God gives us everything that we have, and we are not at liberty to use these resources any way we wish. Our money, our homes, and even our lives belong ultimately to Him, and are to be used in His service and for His glory. In shopping as in every other activity, our focus is not on ourselves. Christians are not to think “what can make me safe, what can make me belong, what can make me loved, what can give me esteem, or what can make me actualized.” Instead we are to think “how can this please God, how can this serve others, and how can this make me more effective in His service.”

What does this mean in day to day life? Each person must search the Scriptures and answer this question for themselves, but here are a few ideas.

  1. Immerse your mind in Scripture, in prayer, and in intimate fellowship with other Christians. In so doing, you will develop the mind and heart of Christ.
  2. Think, speak, and act outside yourself, dwelling not on your own needs but on the work of God in and through you.
  3. Spend more time outdoors – in parks, forests, beaches, rivers, and mountains.
  4. Spend less time indoors – time inside four walls is likely to be time sitting (sedentary, bad for health) and time consuming media.
  5. Give away more time and money.
  6. Shop less – don’t go to stores, malls, or internet sites just to hang out. Make a list of what you actually need, and add a few wants occasionally. Buy only what is on your plan.
  7. Spend more time with others doing non-shopping activities – picnics in the park, dinners at home, church activities, sports (live viewing and participating).

Think, ask family and trusted friends, and pray about how you can become more like Christ in relation to buying. Your pastor may be a good source of guidance as well.


Most people in the United States and throughout the developed world buy too much. Rather than us controlling our stuff, it begins to control us. We buy for cognitive (thinking) and for emotional (feeling) reasons, but the latter are often dominant. We buy to meet needs within ourselves, and sometimes to bless others. Possessions can never meet our deepest needs, but still we buy more.

Christians cannot live this kind of life. God through His Holy Spirit due to the work of Jesus Christ meets all of our needs. He feeds us, clothes us, protects us, loves us, gives us a community, gives us value, and makes our lives matter. Since He fully meets every need, to live as though He does not is unbelief. The resources that He uses to meet our needs are not our own. God does not meet our needs for our benefit, but rather so that we will come to know Him and His glory.

Open Windows

How to keep our hearts and our lives open to the people and experiences that God has put around us.

It was a three-car accident, with three distraught drivers walking between their disabled vehicles and the flashing blue lights of police cruisers drawing attention to the scene. Traffic was slow, with hundreds of bypassing drivers craning their necks to see what had happened. Though I have long disparaged such “looky loos”, I found myself drawn into the action. I gazed for a second too long, turned forward, found a car stopped just a few feet ahead, hit the brakes, and swerved into the shoulder to avoid a crash. I barely made it; with no harm except to my pride.

After thanking God for saving me from this close call, I considered why it happened. The morning temperatures were in the high forties but road conditions were good and visibility clear. On leaving home I had opened my driver’s window, and had noticed that of the thousands of cars on the road, only two had their windows even partly open. It was easy to see why – it was cold, and the wind chill made it worse. Still, opening the window made me much more aware of my surroundings. Instead of just seeing the activities on the road, I could hear them, and to some degree even feel them. I had gotten cold and closed the window just before my near crash. The traffic opened up, but several minutes and several miles later I saw another emergency vehicle about ¼ mile behind me. He moved closer and I pulled over, seeing rather than hearing him from a distance. Others didn’t pull over at all.

A morning commute can be supremely isolating. Thousands of people drive alone in almost hermetically sealed cars with careful climate control. They hear little road noise, because skilled engineers have engineered much of it out. A driver’s only contact with the outside world is through the windows, the radio, or the phone. The isolation, especially in the early morning, can lull drivers into a near-stupor. Accidents happen, in part, because there are few open windows.

Later that week I was visiting offices and noticed the same pattern; isolation from the outside world and from each other. Aside from meetings, which workers almost universally deride, people are glued to computer screens, like I am as I write this article. Offices are climate controlled, sound-deadened, and seem almost hermetically sealed. Surprisingly, perhaps, cubicles can be just as segregating. Maybe workplace rules and cultural norms discourage individual office workers from opening emotional and social windows with their colleagues.

Non-auto commutes can similarly separate people from nature and from other people. Few people ever conversed during the years that I took the Metro and the Virginia Rail Express to work at Health and Human Services (HHS). Most people looked straight ahead, looked down at a magazine or cell phone, or slept. Trains and buses have few open windows.

Windows are not merely physical; they are emotional, social, intellectual, and even physical. One thought provoking memory was of six people, four women and two men, walking along the sidewalk on 4th street near an HHS building in D.C. Each had head forward, neck bent, and shoulders hunched. They were wearing ear buds and looking at their phones. Though being within a few feet of the others they showed no acknowledgement of those around them. One woman stepped on to the street and almost got hit by a passing car.  An accident nearly happened because her attention had no open windows.

Homes can also isolate us from nature, from others, and even from God. Television, game consoles, and smartphone apps take the place of work computers in consuming our time. Kids don’t play outside together; they sit inside playing alone on their electronic device. Whether office or home, doors open only long enough to go in or out. Windows let sunlight into our houses. Perhaps the media fixation with conflict, sex, and violence teaches people to close the windows of their homes, and the windows of their hearts.

Health care, by its very nature, requires interacting with patients, and therefore it is less isolating. However, today doctors spend more time with Electronic Health Records (EHRs) than with patients.[1]  Past physicians performed comprehensive history and physical exams, largely because they did not have the technology that we enjoy today. However, physicians today often take short histories, perform minimal exams (just enough to get paid), and order an avalanche of tests.  A little girl drew a picture of her doctor’s visit:[2]

The doctor is off to the side typing on the computer, while the patient and her family are far away on the other side of the room. The doctor is not even looking towards them, and the back of a large chair separates him from them. We have to wonder if this doctor had many open windows. Was he open emotionally to the needs of this patient? Was he open intellectually to the diagnostic and treatment possibilities? Was he open socially to meaningful interactions with her and the others pictured: her mother and her grandmother? Was he open physically to touching his patient in a good physical exam? Did he want to be open, but was unable too because of the situation? Perhaps the government’s mandate to use electronic health records and hospital’s requirement for high patient volumes forces health care professionals to close windows that they wish to leave open.

One of the most common psychological complaints that I hear in my medical practice is that people feel isolated. People may have “friends”, but no one that they can open up to, or count on. Men and women have sex, but don’t talk. Even husbands and wives guard themselves from each other in a dance of dashed hopes and disappearing dreams. Friends split and couples divorce. Accidents happen because hearts have few open windows.

Windows are open or closed to the natural world. Do we see, hear, touch, and smell the trees, the sky, the grass, the mountains, the sea, and the rest of the world or do we not?

Windows are open or closed to new experiences. Do we seek variety in the moments of our lives, or do we not?

Windows are open or closed to other people. Do we yearn to grow closer to others, or do we not?

Windows are open or closed to God. Do we desire to relate to Him, or do we not?

In my car, in my home, in my medical practice, in my life, and before God, I will try to have more open windows. In our society, I will try to encourage open windows. What will you do?

[1] In the wake of the 2003 and 2011 duty hours regulations, how do internal medicine interns spend their time? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23595927

[2] http://www.gordiandynamics.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/iPatient-drawing.png

Our Persian Sister

She moved out just over one year ago. Things had been tense for several weeks, especially since her sister had visited. We didn’t know why, but I could hear the tension in Jane’s (not her real name) voice, and see her almost continually locked door in our basement. We tried to understand why she seemed to grow more distant, but the closer we tried to get, the farther she moved away.

Jane was a young Christian Persian woman who I had met on a mission trip to Central Asia in 2011.  She had come to New York City in September 2013, lived in rooms rented from families, and ate out. She linked up with the Persian community and enjoyed the night life of the Big Apple. Perhaps to save money, Jane moved to Virginia to live with us in December 2014.

Sometimes Jane felt homesick. One Sunday afternoon she and I attended a Persian church together. I was taking a class in Islam at the time, so I asked her a lot of questions. Our family attended a Nowruz exhibit at the Smithsonian, and we all enjoyed the Persian dinners that she occasionally made.

Jane took pains to be fashionable. She used things to make her eyes look larger and to plump her lips, which puzzled our adolescent sons. She wore lots of makeup, tight clothes, and short dresses. She bleached her naturally dark hair. Jane ate very little, at least at home, and did not exercise. Jane had no car, and our since house was about three miles from the Metro station, she got rides or took a taxi to the Metro when she wanted to go out.

We never charged Jane rent, or even assigned her chores. We forbade male guests in her room, and asked her to eat with us when she was home at dinnertime. We required her to attend church and expected her to join evening prayers with the family. I told her frequently that as a medical worker and polyglot, she would be a fantastic interpreter on future missions trips that I hoped to do in Central Asia.

The final break happened in early December. I was speaking at a college life group affiliated with our church. My two oldest children were going, and I invited Jane. She agreed to come. The topic involved missions and evangelism, and I asked Jane if she thought that she would always be more emotionally tied to the country of her birth, or to America, her adopted land. The question provoked an angry response, and no apology helped. At the life group, Jane and my children were in the other room when I started the lesson. No one, not even our host, invited them in. My children sat in another room and listened, but Jane went into the yard and talked to friends on her phone. She was livid at the slight.

The next morning I flew to Southern Seminary for classes, and in the afternoon Jane exploded at my wife and children. That night she found an apartment with three Indian girls, and within a week she was gone. My wife Nancy and I loaded her remaining possessions into our van, drove to her new apartment, and moved her in. For this young Persian woman that I had treated like my own daughter for almost a year, I could only muster a tense handshake goodbye.

We saw Jane at church occasionally, but over time she appeared less and less. Nancy brought her mail and a Christmas present to the services but it was weeks before she picked them up. Jane soon moved to a different place with different roommates, and didn’t let us know her address. We heard that she got her work visa and found a job at a convenience store. Later she found employment as an assistant in a dental office, a field in which she is pursuing a career.

It is hard to know what happened. Jane once told me that it is harder to be a Christian in America than in Central Asia. Authorities in that part of the world persecute Christians, but American culture tempts them away from God. Jane wanted the life of a young, single, Persian-American woman, while we offered the life of a family led by middle aged, married, white American parents.

Occasionally someone in my family texts Jane and gets a brief update. Nancy and I feel sad whenever we think of her. We have moved to a different state, and there is a good chance that we will never see her again. Our family prays for Jane regularly. We still care for her, and take comfort in the knowledge that she is, and always was, in the hands of God. Why am I posting this? In the hopes that our experience will resonant with others who may have endured a similar situation.

Consumer Product Safety

In my grandfather’s childhood in rural Arkansas, most of the food that he ate and the clothes that he wore were produced at home. His ancestors had built their own houses and furniture for generations, and store-bought goods were rare and expensive. While people knew little about foodborne illnesses and other hazards, they knew where the food and other products in their lives came from.

Such is not the case today. Our plates are filled with Indian rice, Honduran bananas, Japanese fish, or American wheat. We buy shirts from Mexico, cars from Germany, shoes from Italy, or electronics from China. Imported consumer goods are only as safe as the governments and producers in their country of origin require. A report in the New York Times stated,

“Nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States now come from abroad. Half of the medical devices and 80 percent of the active ingredients in medications sold here are also made elsewhere, often in countries whose regulatory systems and manufacturing standards are weak.[1]

Chinese tilapia, cod, apple juice, mushrooms, and garlic are considered dangerous.[2] Indian pharmaceutical manufacturers have been selling fake medications and falsifying laboratory results.[3] US inspectors examine only a small fraction of the foreign-made products coming into America. Many nations are trying to improve the quality of their products, but hazards abound.

American food, water, and consumer products are much safer than in the past, and manufacturing processes are better. Local, state, and federal government agencies regulate everything from alfalfa to zucchini, and this helps to keep US producers vigilant for customer safety. However, America is not immune to homegrown food borne disease outbreaks and unsafe products. Consumers must report unsafe products to manufacturers and government agencies.

Most Americans have experience with unsafe food and other products. I have included a recent case below.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/25/opinion/25sat3.html

[2] http://guardianlv.com/2013/11/china-top-five-most-dangerous-imported-foods/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/world/asia/medicines-made-in-india-set-off-safety-worries.html?_r=0

Your Permanent Record

A little boy couldn’t resist the urge to pull the hair of the girl sitting in front of him. Across the room, a little girl couldn’t help chatting with her friend while the teacher was talking. These incidents happen every day in thousands of classrooms across the United States. Modern teachers have a variety of new techniques for dealing with such infractions, but in bygone days teachers would often respond with the same threat: “if you do that again, I will write that in your permanent record.” The children would immediately stop, at least for the moment, because everyone feared bad reports in their permanent record.

As children grew and went to school to school, perceptive ones realized that these transgressions never actually appeared on their report cards. The few who were able to see their school records found that only the most egregious sins were documented. Parents didn’t seem to have a “permanent record”, unless it was a criminal one. By the time that school ended and the working world beckoned, the secret was out; there was no “permanent record.” Teachers had known it all along, and their pupils had taken 20 years to figure it out.

Over the years several of my children have told me that a school teacher had mentioned a child’s permanent record. I felt the familiar egoism of experience, the smug sense of skepticism, gained in decades of American schooling, and told my children – there is no permanent record.

Your Permanent Record – Body and Mind

Recently in my clinical practice I cared for a 14 year old girl with a torn anterior cruciate (knee) ligament from a soccer game. Several months earlier I counseled a 26 year old whose life had been overturned by rape. Years before I treated a 23 year old for cervical cancer; she had started sex at age 13. Some patients, especially boys, have been hooked on tobacco before they started high school.  One young boy had a head injury from a bicycle accident, putting him far behind his peers. In all of these cases, the decisions that these people made as children, or decisions that were imposed upon them, changed their lives forever. My experience as a physician belies my skepticism. There really is a permanent record, and it is found in our bodies and minds.

Another obvious example of your permanent record is memory. While we usually overcome the pain of past mistakes and experiences, we usually can’t erase the memory of them. Few people reach adulthood without carrying a bag of regret, and before middle age that bag grows into a knapsack. Over the years our knees buckle and backs stoop with the growing weight of the past. As we enter the winter of our lives, many people can think of little but summers past. Much of the psychological illness that I treat every day comes from my patients’ memories of what they did, didn’t do, or what someone else did to them.

Your Permanent Record – Habits and Emotions

One of the key concepts of physiology and psychology is that of practice; what we do becomes easier to do again. If we throw a ball, we can through the ball more easily the next time. If we think a thought, we can think that thought more easily the next time. Champions in sports and music are made because the body improves through practice. Neophytes in a field make two common mistakes. First, they expect practice to make huge improvements, then become disappointed and quit when it does not. Second, they believe that practice makes perfect. In truth, practice makes permanent; only perfect practice makes perfect.

When a person thinks, neurons fire and hormones flow in certain patterns. When someone moves, neurons fire, hormones flow, and muscles contract in certain patterns. Repeating those patterns thousands and even millions of times develops habits and skills in certain areas.  This is how champions are made.

It is also how people fail. Repeating the same negative thoughts, refusing to forgive and wallowing in bitterness will develop neural pathways and hormonal patterns just like more productive activities will. Lying makes it easier to lie just as kicking a ball makes it easier to kick. Using foul language makes it easier to use foul language just as smiling makes it easier to smile. There really is a permanent record, and it is found in our habits and emotions.

Your Permanent Record – How Others Perceive and Treat You

Just as people develop patterns within themselves, they develop patterns in their interactions with others. I was caring for one woman in clinic while her husband sat in the exam room berating her. They had only been married two years, but his habits were toxic to her, to him, and to their marriage. I asked him, “If you have committed yourself to this woman in marriage, why would you want to hurt her, and yourself, by chiding her so? You had better change your ways or she won’t be there when you need her.”

Our actions change how others treat us. If a child gets a reputation as a troublemaker early in the school year, others in the class will treat him as a troublemaker, even if he improves over the course of the year. Because others are not as interested in us as we are, they will take a long time to notice our actions and change their opinions of us. Sometimes they will not change their opinions no matter what we do, because changing an opinion is harder than keeping the same opinion.

Benedict Arnold has a terrible reputation in American history because he tried to betray his country. Few will change their opinion of him, even if they learn that he was one of very few successful admirals (Battle of Valcour Island) and generals (Battle of Saratoga) in world history. Arnold fought with wisdom and courage for the colonies, only succumbing to pride and ambition at the end of a noble career. Richard Nixon was another character whose decades of admirable service have been forgotten and only his late mistakes remembered. People refuse to change their opinions of others because they gain something by keeping the opinions that they have.   That is one reason that it is so hard to make changes in life. A person does something good, no one notices, and others will treat them the same way as before. There really is a permanent record, and it is found in how others perceive and treat us.


Thoughts, words and actions are self-reinforcing spirals, and the summation of all of those spirals makes a life.  There really is a permanent record, and that record is you. Nothing good or bad is ever lost, and every moment makes a lifetime. Use them well.

Our Mechanistic Minds

As some of my children have gone off to college, I have thought more about their generation, which demographers call the Millennials. A young man in our church graciously asked me to lead his Life Group once per month, and that has given me more occasion to discover this fascinating generation. We also have a young woman from Persia living with us, and she is wonderful at explaining much about how non-American millennials think.

Some examples stand out in my mind. Though earnestly seeking a wife, one 25 year old man agonized over dating a woman he met on Christian Mingle, concerned that it might be risky. A woman in her mid-twenties wanted to meet a man but wasn’t willing to do much to attract one. The very idea of attracting a man was offensive. A 24 year old college graduate hoped to be dating and knew many eligible men her age but did nothing to encourage their overtures. Another man was afraid of yet another rebuff. In one incident, a young man teaching a coed Sunday School class facetiously suggested that the women in the class, who were going to pick blueberries together after church, could make some blueberry pies for the men. For their part, the men could bring back wild game. His tongue in cheek suggestion was met with incredulity and derision. On hearing the story a few hours later, my mother in law said “If they wanted a blueberry pie, I would bake one.”

When asked what they think the problem is, some observe that men and women no longer have socially acceptable roles to play and don’t know the historic rituals by which men and women relate. Such sex roles have not only been forgotten, among many they are scorned. Movies like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which Millie sings about how to woo a girl in the song “Goin Courtin”, are non grata. Another issue is that a culture of fear – fear of rejection, fear of accusation, fear of pain – permeates American culture. Millennials seem afraid to start and hesitant to commit to relationships. Men, who traditionally lead, fear leading, while women, who traditionally follow, fear following. Yet few people, religious or secular, are comfortable with the roles reversed.

Interpersonal relationships, especially intimate ones, have always been difficult. In the Sound of Music, Kurt opines that “Only grown men are scared of women.” Misunderstandings between the sexes is one reason gender roles were created in the first place. But another issue has complicated matters in the modern world, our mechanistic mindset.

Since the Industrial Revolution, man has shaped machines and he has been shaped by them. With a machine, a given amount of input produces a given amount of output. If I put one gallon of gasoline in my Prius I can expect to drive 40-50 miles. Henry Ford could reliably produce 1000 Model Ts per day on his assembly lines. Machines produce reliable results.

The same is true of services. If you enter a phone number into your cell phone, you expect it to connect your call (or text). McDonald’s and other chain restaurants became big not because they make the best food or had the best prices but because they produced reliable food at reliable prices. Hamburgers at McDonald’s are predictable anywhere in world, while those at some restaurants may not be. McDougal’s (a fictitious name) might consistently have wonderful burgers at good prices while McDonough’s (another fictitious name), in the next town, might have terrible burgers at awful prices. Without trying them, people would not know.

People’s work and financial lives are little different. If my daughter spends $80,000 and four years studying at college, or actually if I spend it for her, she should get a bachelor’s degree. That degree, in turn, should provide a predictable benefit in terms of job opportunities, salary, and other perks. If my brother works for 40 hours at his job, he should get a reasonable and reliable amount of money and other benefits. Our experience with money has taught us that our return on investment should always be predictable. As a result we buy bonds instead of stocks, receiving a steady, albeit low, rate of return, rather than lying awake at night wondering if we will lose or make money the following day.

We like machines so much that we try to make men into machines. Frederick Taylor’s (1856-1915) Scientific Management taught us that there was one right way to do everything, no matter how trivial and no matter the characteristics of the individual worker. Clinical practice guidelines based on medical algorithms regulate medical practice and insurance companies can be loath to pay the doctor who deviates. Structure, policies and standard operating procedures try to make organizations mirror images, “cookie cutters”, of each other, sometimes regardless of local conditions. Whenever we can we replace a man with a machine, such as using robots on the assembly lines and developing driverless vehicles. Such standardization can be very good; medical guidelines can improve care and robots can save money and improve quality. But it can also be very bad, removing part of the essence of what it is to be human.

Mankind has always wanted something for his efforts, and our mechanistic mindset has taught us how to get a predictable return for almost all of our investments. It also allows us to quantitatively justify our actions to ourselves and others.

In the most important parts of life, however, mechanistic thinking doesn’t work. One hour and $300 spent with a woman does not mean that a man will accomplish his goal, unless all he wants is sex and she is a prostitute. Time together doesn’t necessarily lead to marriage or even a meaningful relationship, although time apart certainly won’t lead to either. Gifts, even expensive ones, do not guarantee that the recipient will love, like or even appreciate the giver. Sex is not security that a boyfriend will remain faithful, or even stay, with the woman who provides it. Marriage doesn’t promise that a couple will stay together “till death do us part”, although people who do not get married are much more likely to be alone. Is the time we spend in failed relationships all “Wasted Time” as the Eagles sang? We can easily justify 24 months and $20,000 spent on a graduate degree, but can we justify the same investment in a failed relationship? Or even a successful one?

This mechanistic, transactional mindset doesn’t work with other people either. The employee with the best attitude, most skills, and longest hours often doesn’t get the promotion. A near-perfect upbringing is no promise that children will succeed, or even appreciate their parents. People are unpredictable, and no matter how much we use technology, psychology, sociology, and coercion to make them predictable, they are not. This is one of the curses, and blessings, of being human.

Is it any wonder that a young 20-something focuses on education and work instead of people? By emphasizing his career, a man can work, plan and expect something tangible and predictable for his efforts. With many more options than ever before, a woman can do the same. These priorities make them busy, and as a result neither has time for relationships. The man and the woman can enjoy material success and professional acclaim without the danger of “wasted time.” However, with those goals consuming the moments of their lives, they can’t enjoy each other.

Mechanistic thinking has brought great improvements to the lives of men and women. We are safer, richer, and healthier as a result. However, it cannot be our only way of thinking. The most important parts of our lives, our relationships to others and even to God, cannot be mechanical. Perhaps by identifying this problem, we can consciously move to fix it.

Fatherhood and Ballet

Last week I was at a ballet studio watching my daughter dance. It was a fun show, similar to ones that I have seen countless times before. Since my oldest daughter was three, I have attended ballet recitals, shows, and the annual Nutcracker. Over the years, ballet has become an important part of our lives.

It was not always this way. My mother was not a dancer and she had two boys. Our nearest cousins were boys and so were all of our friends. Boys dance, but finding a boy in a typical ballet school can be as hard as finding a Republican in New York City. We played football, joined Boy Scouts, and attended church, but never danced, or knew anyone who did. This all changed when our oldest girl was born.

In the early years, I went to ballet performances to see my daughter, the cutest person in the world to me. From Coppelia to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I didn’t want to miss seeing her dance or giving her flowers after a performance.

When my little ones started ballet, they began asking me questions after their performances. “Daddy”, one would ask, “What did you think about the Russian dancer?” or “How did you like the Sugar Plum Fairy?” The first time my oldest asked a question like this, the blood drained from my face and I stammered a helpless “They were great, sweetheart, what did you think?” In truth, I didn’t remember the Russian and I couldn’t tell the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Snow Queen. I wasn’t attending dance performances to enjoy dance; I was going there to see my daughters. I thought that this was enough.

It wasn’t. My puerile answers sent the girls an unmistakable message – I didn’t enjoy ballet for the sake of ballet, as they did; I only went because I got to see them. They challenged me “Daddy, you wouldn’t even go to a ballet if we weren’t in it, would you?” I replied, “No, I wouldn’t. I go to the ballet because my daughters love it.” My answer seemed quite satisfactory to me, but not to them. I was baffled.

As Nicholas Wolterstoff explains in Art in Action, there are two ways to experience any art, whether dance, music, visual arts, or something else. The first is instrumentally, in which we experience the art to accomplish some other purpose. If I go to a ballet to watch my daughters dance, I am trying achieve the goal of enjoying and supporting my daughters. Ballet is merely an instrument to accomplish this end. In fact, ballet is not necessary at all; I could attain this goal equally by watching them at a soccer game or listening to them at a music recital.

If I go to a ballet performance because I enjoy ballet, whether or not my daughters are dancing in it, I am experiencing the ballet for its own sake. Disinterested aesthetic contemplation occurs when we experience an art for its own sake, irrespective of any other gain. My girls enjoy ballet, and other children enjoy other arts, for the sake of enjoying the arts. There is nothing wrong with using art instrumentally, and all humans probably have many motivations for everything that they do. But until fathers learn to enjoy ballet, and other things that our wives and children love, for their own sake, we will not be everything we can be for those we love.

I don’t claim to score high on the sensitivity meter, but my wife helped me get it. The girls loved ballet. They loved to move, they loved the music, they loved the stage, and they loved how strong, flexible and graceful they had become. The girls loved ballet for its own sake, whether they were in it or not. They wanted to share this love with me. I made a change.

In addition to my daughters, my closest link to ballet was through medicine; I often care for dancers and gymnasts in my sports medicine practice. So I learned more about common dance injuries, and remembered to marvel at the magnificence of human motion. I noticed how the dancers’ movements complemented each other in the flow of the music. Slowly I began to enjoy ballet because of ballet, not only because my girls do it. We have begun to share this affection.

I am still not a ballet connoisseur, and cannot tell third position from fifth position. Occasionally I watch ballet segments on video just because I want to. My daughters have many more years of dance ahead, and I will be there for them. I will also be there for the art itself, and someday will treat my wife and daughters to an evening of ballet at the Kennedy Center. Maybe I will even be in the Nutcracker myself as a party guest, or in my dream role…Drosselmeyer.