Adventures in Athens – How We Treat Others

How we treat others matters far more, to the individual and to everyone around, than we can possibly imagine. 

My daughter Anna is getting married in June, so she and I traveled to Greece this past week to adventure together one more time. It has been a marvelous week; we have enjoyed the place and enjoyed each other. I will treasure these few days forever, and I hope that she will do the same. With all of the fun that we had, God used our experiences to build our character and our faith as individuals and as the Body of Christ.

Yesterday Anna and I traveled to Corinth to see where Paul walked and worked. The ruins of the ancient city featured a temple of Apollo, a basilica of Julian, shops, houses, and the Bema where the famous apostle was tried before Gaius. After almost two hours of exploring the ruins, we agreed to finish individually and then meet at the temple to conclude our visit. I stopped by the Pirean fountain and explored the historic road entering the city. Anna finished first and went to the temple. I tried to get to the temple faster by leaving the site through the exit and reentering the main entrance.

I pulled my ticket out of my pocket and showed it as I walked by the Greek woman in the ticket booth. She said “that is the wrong ticket”, and I realized that she was right. I emptied my badly overstuffed pockets – camera lens, wallet, keys, cell phone, reading glasses, sunglasses – and found nothing. The line of people behind me grew. An older, rotund Greek worker fell into the bushes next to me. I normally would have helped him, but I kept looking for my ticket instead. I told the Greek woman “I came through here two hours ago” and she smirked “I don’t remember you.” Under my breath I replied “even if you did, you wouldn’t”. I considered paying another four euros to go in, but the snarky looking face in the booth dissuaded me.

Thinking that Anna must have my ticket, I called her twice, but she did not answer. While I was calling a third time, Anna walked up and snapped “I have your ticket, why did you leave?” Then Anna turned to the Greek ticket lady and said “I have his ticket.” The lady smiled triumphantly, as if this stupid, middle aged father had just been saved from his incompetence by his clever and beautiful daughter. My anger flashed, I reloaded my pockets, and walked away.

Anna followed. “What is wrong with you?” “nothing.” I replied, in my typical overcontrolled voice. We walked in silence to the temple. Anna said, “I’m sorry that I snapped at you”. “It is ok” I replied, but my voice did not change. I was not yet in control of my emotions, and it was better to say little. I snapped a couple of photographs and walked to the museum. It was after 1400, and we were both hungry. Anna was already in the museum. I texted her “Remember, I love you”. By the time we finished the museum, 45 minutes later, I had my emotions under control. I told her that it takes me a while to rein my feelings in, even with her mother. Then I told her my side of the story.

Like most events, this one got me to thinking, in this case about how we treat others. Rumor has it that when Donald Trump was on The Apprentice, his staff told the film crews, actors, reality show guests, and others to treat him with the utmost respect. In so doing, viewers and other outsiders would be inclined to treat him with respect as well.

Lessons from how we treat strangers

Most people have someone that they treat well; otherwise they would be utterly alone. How a person acts with strangers, how they treat a new acquaintance, is revealing. If how we treat strangers can be reduced to a continuum, it might include: Treating Poorly — Ignoring — Treating moderately — Treating Well. I am not including physical harm in this scale. Most people would prefer to be ignored than to be physically harmed, but this is not always true. Many people, in my experience predominately women, stay in abusive relationships because they prefer to be hurt than to be alone. To ignore someone is to essentially deny their existence, or at least deny that they are worthy of your attention, however fleeting. To treat someone poorly is to mock them or berate them. To treat someone moderately is to display conventional niceties, and to treat some well is to show kindness over and above the prevailing cultural norm.

If this continuum represents how people treat strangers, then a bell curve may represent how a population of people is likely to treat others whom they have just met. In such a curve, the majority of people treat strangers moderately or ignore them entirely. The advent of smart phones and other electronic devices seems to have made it easier and more socially acceptable to ignore others completely.

Imagine a group of workers at a party for a very large office, where few people know each other. The workers are Mike, Donna, Robert, Julie, Hernan, Hans, Hermione, and Hannah. A small percentage (the left side of the bell curve) of people will strangers poorly simply because it is their character to do so. If Mike habitually is rude to strangers, and if Donna is a stranger to him, he will likely treat her with contempt. Likewise, a small percentage (the right side of the bell curve) will treat others, including new people, well because it is in their character to do so. If Robert has developed real kindness in his nature, he will be kind to Julie, whether he knows her or not. Hernan, Hans, and Hermione might be indifferent to Hannah because they are indifferent people.

Notice however, that others are affected by how we treat someone. Mike may find Donna more appealing, or smart, or worthy of respect, if Robert does. Using the bell curve illustration, Hans is likely to behave better towards Hannah if he sees Robert’s kindness towards Hannah. What is more amazing is that kindness begets kindness, and unkindness begets unkindness, regardless of where it is directed. Mike may not only treat Donna better if he sees Robert doing so, but he may treat Donna better if he sees Robert being kind to Julie. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. Hernan may be crueler to Hannah if he watches Mike treat Hannah badly, or even if he sees Mike treat Donna with disrespect. People in the middle of the bell curve – most likely to treat others moderately or with indifference – are the most likely to be swayed one way or the other.

Lessons from how we treat those close to us

What is true for strangers is even truer for our family and friends. The Greek ticket lady viewed Anna and me differently by how we treated each other. If Anna saw me as a good father and noble man, the Greek ticket lady would be more likely to think the same. If Anna saw me as an annoying parent who was barely competent, the Greek ticket lady would probably think likewise. Since Anna is in my family, and knows me well, her influence on how others see me is powerful. They assume that her judgment is right.

This is truest of all for husbands and wives. I have heard many couples berate each other in the clinic and in counseling sessions. Doing so not only hurts their spouse, but makes it harder for others (like doctors, counselors, and pastors) to have a clear picture of the situation.

Aside from a few English words, gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice, I have no way of knowing what the Greek ticket lady in the booth was thinking. She may have been a wonderful human being, acting as kindly as she could and wondering why I seemed irked. But I do know, and did know, how I felt – devalued, misunderstood, and annoyed. I replied crossly at first, but with the discipline of years following Christ, put a lid on my emotion and fled the situation. While my temper cooled, I resolved to respond not in accordance with my hurt, but in accordance with the Spirit that indwells me.

Conclusion

Movie stars and Presidents have people to tell others how to treat them, whether those others listen or not, but the rest of us don’t. We can influence rather than control how others treat us and those around us, but have complete control over how we conduct ourselves. As hard as it may seem, Christians must honor the Spirit of God within us and seize that control. Emotions are wonderful, even God has them, but we must be lord over our feelings even as Jesus Christ is Lord over us.

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Does Character Matter in an Artist, or any Profession?

Contrary to what much of the modern world will claim, character is the fundamental requirement for excellence in every field. 

In the late 1990s, President William Jefferson Clinton had an affair with one of his interns. He then lied to a grand jury about the case. During the controversy leading up to his impeachment for perjury, his defenders argued that his lack of character, in this and many other circumstances, did not matter. The economy was booming and the world was at relative peace. They said that Clinton was a good president, and that his character did not matter.

Continue reading “Does Character Matter in an Artist, or any Profession?”

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.

Continue reading “Robust Thrift”

Understanding Authority

The US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Whether he said this or not, the idea of questioning authority has woven itself into the DNA of American culture. But the idea of questioning authority is not new; indeed, it is as old as man. Since the serpent convinced Eve to question God’s authority in the Garden of Eden, sinful man has questioned authority. Even more, we have an inherent dislike of it. The idea that anyone or anything should be “over” us in some way is anathema to man, especially individualistic Americans.

Before we continue, we must define our terms. For our purposes, “to question” will be “to ask” or even “to challenge” authority but not to automatically reject it. We will define “authority” as “the power to give orders or make decisions: the power or right to direct or control someone or something.”[1] Note that authority is not the same as power. Power is simple ability, while authority is ability plus legitimacy. A man holding a gun may have the power to take your money, but he doesn’t have the authority to do so. A tax collector in a democratic government has both the power and the legitimacy, hence the authority, to take your money.

The Bible claims to be an authority in its own right and makes many statements about authority. Matthew 8:5-13 contains one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible. A centurion, a young Roman officer roughly equivalent to a company commander in the modern US Army, had a sick servant. He came to Jesus and asked Him to heal the man. When Jesus offered to go to his house to do so, the centurion refused and replied “Lord, I know how authority works. I am not worthy to have you come to me. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith, a reaction He had to no one else in Scripture. This young Roman leader understood authority, and he knew that Jesus had it.

This article will discuss where authority comes from, how we know when someone has authority, how to respond to authority, and how to wield authority.

The Source of Authority

All authority comes from God. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, and His nature forms the informational and moral basis for existence. He is the Supreme Power and the Ultimate Authority. It really cannot be any other way. Christians understand that the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ, has all authority (Matthew 28:18-20). Judging by the texts of the two documents, the Framers of the US Declaration of Independence[2] understood this but the Framers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man[3] apparently did not. The results of this were clear to see – the American Revolution ended in the world’s first constitutional democracy, the “last, best hope of mankind.[4]” The French Revolution ended in the First Republic (1792-1799) and the Napoleonic Empire (1799-1815), during which millions were slaughtered.

God gives authority to man. In one of the first acts of creation, He commanded Adam and Eve to rule over the earth and to take care of it (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15, 9:2-3). The Lord also ordains governments to regulate the affairs of men (Leviticus, 1 Samuel 9:16-17, 16:1-13, Romans 13:1-7). Governments in Biblical times were generally despotic, benevolent or not, but God’s authority is not limited by the form of government. He exalts and humbles leaders in democratic governments as well. The same goes for businesses and all other organizations; authority is given by the Holy One (John 19:11).

The Lord gives authority to man in three ways. First, God’s authority is fundamentally based in His character, and so God gives man authority by transforming his character to be more like His. The character of the Holy One is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), and so shall be the character of the man or woman to whom He has given real authority. It is an active process, with God and the person working in tandem (Philippians 2:12-13). Godly character is the foundation of all real authority.

Second, the Lord gives authority to man by helping him or her to do things in fulfillment of His will. He teaches doctors to heal, lawyers to argue, leaders to speak, pilots to fly, and businessmen to negotiate. God gives fathers the ability to protect their families, and mothers the ability to nurture them. The list is as endless as the Lord’s will is broad, from artists reflecting beauty to zookeepers tending animals. God has commanded us to keep the earth as a gardener tends her beloved garden, so He gives us the power and legitimacy, the authority, to keep His commands. Knowledge and experience are primary ways that the Lord confers these abilities.

Third, the Lord gives authority to man by providing resources. He gives most people enough money to survive, and to some He provides great wealth. God gives most people positions in the family, the tribe, the business or the government where they can command enough resources to fulfill their purposes, and some He calls to be presidents, prime ministers or kings. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).

One may object that many people use their authority for wicked purposes. This is as true as it is tragic, both for the person and for those harmed by their evil. This paper will not address theodicy, the problem of evil in the world. Nonetheless, what people do with the authority that they have been given has little to do with how they are given it. A person’s importance has nothing to do with his or her abilities, resources or position; a taxi driver who is fully in the will of God is more important in the eternal schema than a president who is outside.

One may argue that authority comes from the people, whether an army which is supporting a dictator or a voting bloc which is supporting a candidate. This argument is partly true but it is limited, because men and women help each other gain authority in far more than just governance. Mentors help men and women develop good character, teachers build knowledge and skills in their students, investors and customers provide money, and voters provide votes. This argument is also partly false because individual actions make the crucial difference between a champion and a ne’er do well. Men and women take what they have been given and transform their lives into gold, silver and precious stones or wood, hay and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:12). In a real sense, man creates his own authority. And behind it all is the sovereign grace and power of God.

Another problem with the position that people are the ultimate source of power is that this position mistakes recognizing authority with conferring authority. God is the one who gives a man the raw material (health, intelligence, etc.) with which he works and enables him to develop into who he becomes (intelligence, skills and character). These characteristics enable a man to “direct or control someone or something.” God confers authority. Other people recognize the man’s intelligence, skills and character, the real source of authority, the “power or right to direct or control someone or something.” But even if Man A fails to recognize Man B’s authority, that fact in no way diminishes Man B’s authority, because in the final analysis Man A didn’t give it to him…God did.

Jesus is the ultimate example. He is God incarnate, the rightful Ruler of the Universe. He possesses ultimate authority, and yet many of the people failed to recognize Him. That does not diminish His authority. It only eliminated the blessings that His doubters would have received by following Him.

There are many other examples. Moses had no votes, no army, and no money compared to Pharaoh’s awesome power, but who had the greater authority, whose work changed the course of history? Paul had none of these things compared to Emperor Nero, who had him beheaded. But Paul’s labors have lasted for millennia and Nero’s perished when he did. Augustine, Aquinas and Luther were neither kings nor princes, boasting of little wealth and station, but they tower in the annals of mankind. Even today, who had more eternal significance, Billy Graham or Pol Pot? People did not give these men the authority that they commanded…God did. At first, people did not even recognize the authority that God gave them, but that fact did not decrease their power. Sometimes the man who is passed over for a position, whether by jealously or fortune, holds the real authority.Remember, the things that we hold as most powerful, armies and nations, are little more than nothing in the eyes of God (Isaiah 40:15-17). He does not evaluate the world as we do (1 Samuel 16:7).

The best that people can do is to confer what authority they can wisely, in all of the ways mentioned above, and recognize that God, not man, is the ultimate source. In democratic governments, voters hopefully will choose the leaders with the greatest industry, skills, intelligence, and most importantly, character. They will thus select through the popular vote the leader that God, who wants the best for their nation, had chosen for them.

This truth does not negate the value of democracy but endorses it. The judgment of a godly people must be heeded. As hard as it can be to determine the will of the Almighty, the vote is the best way yet devised to choose leaders. It is better to have many people participate in selecting their government than just a few. Also, the separation of powers is the best way yet devised to limit the abuses of government.

Viewed from another angle, the German sociologist Max Weber identified three sources of authority. The first was rational-legal authority, such as a sergeant has over the privates in his squad. The second was traditional authority, such as that of a king over his country or a father over his family. The third was charismatic authority, such as that a religious leader claims God gave him over his followers. In actuality, God is the prime mover behind all of these types of power, using them for His purposes.

How do we know when someone has authority?

The first test of a man or woman’s authority is his or her character. God confers authority to all who will serve Him ably. Followers of Christ exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” noted above, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Those who seek leaders with God-given authority must look for these traits. Of the current American presidential candidates, the current front runners show the least fruit, which is probably an indictment of the American electorate, the media, or both.

The second test of someone’s authority is the results of their work. A doctor whose diagnoses and treatments are sound and whose patients get better is a doctor with authority. A preacher whose parishioners learn the Bible and grow in their faith is a preacher with authority. A chief executive officer whose customers are satisfied and whose business makes money possesses authority. The results confirm the blessings of God, the ultimate source of authority, on their actions. Jesus’ success in teaching and healing was proof of His authority.

The third test of a person’s authority is their knowledge and experience. God is the source of all knowledge and experience, and He confers authority on this basis. I have authority in medicine, the military, and Christian ministry by virtue of 27 years of training and experience. Because of decades on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia has authority in the realm of US law and government. Alan Greenspan has authority in finance and Warren Buffet in business for the same reasons. In every case, the Lord provided knowledge and experience in various areas to people, thus giving them authority in what He called them to do.

The fourth and least important test of a man or woman’s authority is the position he or she holds. We also know when a person has authority by the position that God gives them. When He places a person with inherent authority by virtue of their character into a position of authority in a society, such as a governor, that person receives additional authority from the consent of the people (at least some of them). Most inhabitants from the lowest to the greatest recognized the rational-legal authority of the centurion in Matthew 8, but some Jewish nationalist zealots did not.

Consider again the example of the centurion. He recognized Jesus’ authority in His character, His knowledge and His ability to teach and work miracles. Though without formal education, Jesus had awesome personal authority (Mark 1:27). The centurion himself had authority in his character (he cared for his servant), his abilities (he picked the right guy to ask for help), and his position (a leader in the Roman army).

How do we respond to authority?

The first thing that Christians must do is question authority, to seek its source in leaders we encounter. Jesus did not ask others to accept His authority blindly. Rather He lived a sinless life, spoke powerful words and performed mighty deeds, attributing His power to God the Father. Jesus based His claim to authority on the evidence of who He was (character) and what He could do (abilities), despite His lack of wealth or position.

Doctors and other professionals claim power to heal, teach, practice law, or whatever they do, on the basis of training and experience. Bureaucrats and businessmen base their claims on the positions or money they hold. If a person claims charismatic authority, they had better be prepared to back it up with Scripture, or other evidence that God has really called them. None of these, however, have real authority unless they have godly character, as reflected in their actions. We shall know a tree by its fruits (Luke 6:43-45).

Questioning authority is an ongoing task. Mankind is nothing if not unstable, and the best leaders can go rapidly astray. Followers must ensure that their leaders stay accountable to the pertinent laws and to the needs of others. Peter was a mighty man of God and worked amazing miracles, but he needed to be rebuked by Paul when he fell into sin. King David is another tragic example.

Once we are convinced that a leader has authority, we must follow him or her. Our words must support our leaders, and our acts must align with their priorities. Whether or not we like our boss, our governor, or our president, we must pray for him or her. Insofar as leaders have authority over us, we must follow them. In Romans 13 Paul taught that Christians should obey those placed in authority over them. The only exception is when a leader says or does something which is clearly against the will of God. In that case, Christians must disobey the leader and face the consequences (Acts 5:29).

Christians should be slow in giving their loyalty to others, but slower in taking it away. There is no perfect leader on the earth, and we should expect none. There is also no perfect follower. Sometimes leaders make mistakes, and sometimes they intentionally do wrong. Sometimes followers misinterpret a leader’s action as a mistake or an intentional wrong when in reality it was the best that anyone could have done in that situation. Sometimes leaders do the same vis a vis their followers. Rather than discard relationships like yesterday’s newspapers, followers of Christ must show grace towards one another and stay together unless it becomes impossible to do otherwise.

How do we wield authority?

Everyone has to be a follower at some point in life, and everyone has to be a leader. Whether a garbage man or a general, a homemaker or a high ranking bureaucrat, everyone follows someone and everyone leads someone.

As God is the ultimate source of authority and will remove it eventually from everyone who misuses it, the way to wield authority is to do so as God does. Jesus had the power of the Almighty, even over life and death, and yet He used it to bless others. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, taught the confused, forgave the sinners and raised the dead. While our power is limited, we must do the same. God never gives power so that a man can enrich himself; He always empowers someone to accomplish His work.

Therefore, leaders must wield authority with character – the fruits of the Spirit. We must demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in all of our actions. Sometimes I give money to the needy, an act of authority since God has provided me enough money to give. However if I remind the receivers of my largesse towards them, I am not wielding my authority properly.

Whether a leader’s authority is based on their knowledge, experience, position, or (more likely) a combination of these, they must also wield their authority in such a way as to produce good and enduring results. Good intentions do not equal good results, as President Ulysses S. Grant realized. An executive might throw open the doors of her hospital and provide free care for all comers, but bankrupt the hospital in a few months. She exercised authority but not in a way that produced enduring good results.

Conclusion

Authority, the power or right to direct or control someone or something, is a great mystery. To varying extents everyone wants it, everyone needs it, and no one wants others to have it over them. God holds all authority and dispenses it to men for a time as He sees fit. Authority comes from God through what a man is (character), what he can do (training, experience), and what resources he controls (wealth, position). Christians must question authority, follow authority, and wield authority for the glory of the Lord and the good of others. We must never wield it for our own selfish good.

 

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authority

[2] http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[3] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

[4] Annual Message to Congress 1862 — Concluding Remarks, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm