Never Enough

Why is nothing in this life ever enough?

James Bond tells us that the world is not enough. Billionaire John D. Rockefeller is reputed to have said “Just a little bit more” when asked how much money was enough. While King of England, Henry VIII created a new church, the Anglicans, and made himself the supreme religious leader. Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire chronicles an endless line of men and women from Europe, Africa, and Asia who stopped at nothing to grab the Imperial purple.

The past is no different from the present. Bashar al Assad in Syria has butchered thousands of his own people to retain the reins of power. Chief executives from Beijing to Ankara deceive and destroy in the name of virtue but ultimately to exalt themselves. The world of work can resemble gladiators in the Forum, with managers and employees at every level whispering, gossiping, flattering, threatening, shaming, and accusing subordinates, peers, and superiors to try to look good and get ahead.

This is not to say that all people and organizations are equally prone to such behavior. Some Roman emperors were crowned against their will and ruled with as much virtue as they could muster.  Some politicians energetically pursue the public good. Some billionaires, including John D. Rockefeller, are generous philanthropists. Some work teams and companies are honestly united around a common mission, truly get along, and generally treat each other well. Some leaders are genuinely inspirational and self-sacrificing, placing the needs of others before themselves.

Why does this conflict rage within us? As usual, the Bible has the answer. Proverbs 27:20 tells us that “Hell and destruction are never full, so the eyes of man are never satisfied.” Even the best of us, in our best moments, can think of something that we want. The innocent thoughts “I would like a little more…money, fame, power, good looks, or time off” or “I wish my spouse…” or “I wish my kids…” or “I wish…” can quickly turn into “I am dissatisfied.”

Dissatisfaction itself is not necessarily wrong. We should be dissatisfied with injustice and cruelty and do what we can to correct them. To oppose real evils done to others is the mandate of a follower of Christ.

But dissatisfaction is like a weed that soon grows out of control. Our dissatisfaction with morally wrongs quickly becomes dissatisfaction with things that we simply don’t like. Our indignation with genuine injustice rapidly morphs into anger at “people not giving us our due.” We spend time resenting our bosses for “unfair pay” or “lack of a promotion” and our coworkers for “trying to look good in front of the boss” and “making me look bad.” No matter what good things we receive – pay, promotions, people, and opportunities – they are overshadowed by our resentment at what we didn’t.

The root problem is that God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but we think in terms of time. Since He is God, our Creator, our Sustainer, and the source of all that is good in the universe, we cannot be joyful outside Him. Innately prideful and unwilling to follow His moral laws, we want to be joyful in ourselves. God is eternal, but our focus is temporal. He is infinite, but our desires are finite. He wants to give us life forever and joy unbounded, but we want a bigger house, a shinier car, and a more important job. God offers the chance to praise Him, but we want to praise ourselves. He has set us a little lower than Himself, but we crave being higher than the guy or gal next door.

No matter what we get, it is never enough. Man tries to fill his soul, the part that craves the infinite, with the finite. We try to build bridges across the chasm separating us from God with money, power, fame, human relationships, and achievements. It never works, because only the infinite can fill the infinite, and only the eternal can fill the eternal.

Government Officials and Flights – Abuse of Money and Power?

The dangers of making decisions too quickly, with too little information, or with too much emotion.

The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Tom Price, was forced to resign after revelations that he took charted civilian and military aircraft on trips that were of debatable value to the US taxpayer. The price tag was over $400,000 for the civilian flights and about $500,000 for the military airlift. Since his tenure in office was about eight months (10 February to 29 September 2017), Price spent over $100,000 per month for these flights alone; seemingly an impressive rate of burning taxpayer money. This appears to be prima facie evidence of corruption, or at least rank insensitivity to the needs and resources of the American people.

Price is not the only one. According to the New York Times[1], Secretary Ryan Zinke (Interior), Administrator Scott Pruitt (EPA), Secretary David Shulkin (VA), Secretary Steven Mnuchin (Treasury), and others also garnered criticism for flights from Las Vegas to Europe. These accusations are serious, as public service is a public trust and leaders must act with discretion. Several of these Cabinet members protested that they followed proper procedures, and they may have, but the damage remains. In this time of enormous Federal deficits, and national debts, leaders must not only be squeaky clean; they must appear squeaky clean.

But we the people are responsible to calmly and carefully gather the facts in each case, then make and communicate our own opinions. Since by and large the media gave up the calm and careful approach long ago, we citizens are left to our own resources. Just as we don’t allow people in court to be judged, sentenced, and executed without due consideration of the facts, we must do the same for our elected leaders. They are, after all, just people – other citizens like us to whom we have entrusted powers and resources.

From my limited investigation, I am not sure that any of these trips were irresponsible or an abuse of power. Consider the following:

  1. Civilian charter aircraft are used when an executive has a tight schedule and cannot reasonably travel commercially. Cabinet members are busy people, having many demands on their time. If one has a meeting with the President at 1000 in DC and a meeting with the Governor of California at 1600 in Sacramento, a charter may be the only option.
  2. Highly visible leaders make lots of enemies, both through commission and omission. William McKinley was a popular president who loved meeting with the public. He was widely regarded as a nice man and couldn’t understand why anyone would be angry with him, much less want to kill him. Nonetheless on 6 September 1901, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired the shots that would kill him. Charter aircraft are generally more secure than commercial aircraft.
  3. Trips that may appear to be a boondoggle often have genuine political and government value. Members of Congress and their delegations go on CODEL trips all over the world. The cost is phenomenal, with dozens of people involved, including staffers, security, crew, and military personnel. Yet, these trips are important. Don’t we want leaders who are familiar with the people and places that we trade with, or send our soldiers to?
  4. Military aircraft are a special case. Pilots and crews are required to get around 20 flight hours every month. They can get these flight hours on a bona fide mission (combat, transport, reconnaissance, etc.) or on a training mission (touch and goes, approaches, flight maneuvers, etc.). The cost to run the plane may be $20,000 per month, but it is a sunk cost; taxpayers will pay the same whether the crew is on board alone or whether a Cabinet secretary and a few staffers are sitting in the back. In fact, any active or retired service member and their families can ride for free on a military aircraft if they travel when and where there is space available. Even if the political leader asks for a special flight, it provides worthwhile training for the crew. Most military crews in peacetime complain of getting far too few flight hours, not far too many.
  5. The amount of money involved is very small relative to the overall budget. Many people will not bend over and pick up a penny off the sidewalk – to them the effort is not worth the reward. Real corruption must be rooted out, but we as citizens must ask ourselves if tightening regulations to limit travel in government, and expelling officials, is worth the reward.

Leaders in government often make far less than they could in a comparable civilian job. As a result, good and capable people often do not enter government service. Some that do volunteer get their reputations sullied and lose their effectiveness due to baseless charges. Only the accusation, not the resolution, makes the news.

We as citizens need to investigate allegations of misconduct, or have the appropriate authorities do so. Only when we have calmly and carefully gathered the facts in each case should we make a decision and act on it. We harm ourselves and our Republic if we crucify people for legitimate work, and we should give the benefit of the doubt about what is legitimate.

This is hard work, but America is worth it.

[1] Health Secretary Tom Price Resigns After Drawing Ire for Chartered Flights,

The Power of Repetition

Multnomah Bible College professor John Mitchell was renowned for having vast swaths of the Bible memorized, including most of the New Testament and much of the Old. He denied having more than average ability and wasn’t even trying to memorize Scripture. Dr. Mitchell absorbed so much of God’s Word because while preparing a sermon he read each passage aloud fifty times before preaching it. The key to learning the Bible is repetition.

This morning I read the story of Demetrius the silversmith in Acts 19. I do my daily Bible study in German and Spanish, checking my interpretation in English. In so doing I improve language skills and get a different perspective from reading the English alone. It is good work but sometimes slow, especially when I run across a new word or phrase. By about the fifth time seeing a word or phrase, I know it. At work I converse with a Spanish speaking lady every day, and talk in German as often as possible. The key to learning languages is repetition.

My daughter took several friends to an archery range to learn to shoot for her birthday party. I taught the girls the basics, including the parts of the bow and arrow, nine basic steps in shooting (stance, nock, set, pre-draw, draw, anchor, aim, release, and follow-through), and safety. Most of the girls were a little awkward and a few quickly tired. One young lady seemed to take to archery like a fish to water, and her shooting was good. She grasped the concepts and had control of her body from years of playing other sports. The key to learning sports is repetition.

We all understand that repetition is the key to helping us do good things, like preach the Bible, learning languages, and shooting archery. Repetition is also the key to help us deceive others, or be deceived ourselves. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious propaganda minister, wrote “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” He was not the first.

Ty Cobb (1886-1961) was one of the top ten baseball players in history. His batting average of .367 was the best of all time. He was a super-competitive player, made many people jealous, and made some people angry. Shortly before his death, journalist Al Stump wrote a biography charging that Cobb hated blacks, sharpened his cleat spikes to injure other players, and even murdered as many as three people. Charles Aelxander’s 1984 book Cobb repeated these accusations. The 1989 movie Field of Dreams disparaged Cobb, and the 1995 movie Cobb followed suit. Conventional wisdom suggested that Cobb was a skilled player but a terrible person. The problem is that these allegations are largely false. Doing research for his book Ty Cobb; A Terrible Beauty, Charles Leerhsen discovered that Cobb supported black players in baseball, tried to get professional baseball to dull cleat spikes, and never killed anyone. Cobb was a flawed person, like we all are, but Stump made up many of the stories out of whole cloth. Conventional wisdom was wrong.

The Nazis in Germany committed terrible crimes and so it was natural to blame the massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest and elsewhere on them. Stalin encouraged this story as a way to kindle further hatred against Hitler. For over 40 years the Soviets blared their innocence and Germany wickedness in the matter. Nonetheless, the Soviets were the ones who killed these Polish officers. Their lie seemed plausible, and they repeated it time and again, and the world believed it. Polish blood in that case was on Red hands.

One reason that people believed these lies about Cobb was because they wanted to. As Randy Stonehill sang in The Dying Breed, we cheer our heroes while we hope that they will fall. One reason people believed Stalin’s lie that the Nazis killed the Poles in Katyn Forest was because they wanted to. We make our enemies even more evil than they actually are, thus dehumanizing them and making ourselves feel better than we are.

Jesus said that the Pharisees were liars because their father, the example, was Satan, and he was a liar. Satan has repeated the same lie since Eve in Eden, saying in effect “if you disobey God, you will be like God (Genesis 3:5).” Eve believe that lie, and we have continued to believe it ever since. The proof that sin destroys the sinner and righteousness is its own reward is visible everywhere, from medical science to ordinary life. Disobeying God does not improve our relationship with Him any more than disobeying our parents gives us a better relationship with them.

Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it does make permanent. Repetition will make us good at whatever we repeat. Repeating untruths, even if we do not know that they are untrue, makes us more likely to repeat more untruths. Repeating intentional lies make us more prone to lie. Perhaps we should check our own hearts before accusing others, and check the facts before repeating a lie. Perhaps we should repeat the Truth.

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Philippians 4:8.

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.


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.





[4] Annual Message to Congress 1862 — Concluding Remarks,

How ordinary people can contribute to extraordinary change

Ordinary people often feel powerless to improve our society, or even our lives. We can, and we do, but we can do it better. 

Last night after dinner my family and I were discussing some of the Middle East events of the day, and the picture was not pretty. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were capturing more territory, killing more people, and destroying mosques and other religious sites. Hamas and Hezbollah were launching rocket attacks on Israel, who was retaliating with air strikes, killing many. Syria remained embroiled in its civil war, and the “Arab Spring” of 2011, with all of its hopes of democracy, has turned sour. My daughter, visibly troubled, asked what our government was going to do about all of this mayhem. I answered that no matter how powerful, governments have limited ability to intervene. The American President Barack Obama, who some consider to be the most powerful man in the world, has four main elements of American national power that he can use to accomplish US goals in the world, which in this case is to restore peace and stability and promote democracy.

1. Diplomatic power – the ability to persuade other nations to think, speak and act in a way which furthers, or at least does not oppose, US interests.
2. Informational power – the ability to influence other nations via culture, mass media, research and development, intelligence, and cyber activities.
3. Military power – the ability to influence or compel other nations to act in accordance with American interests by physical force.
4. Economic power – the ability to influence other nations via providing or withholding money and other economic resources.

With respect to the Middle East, the US has diplomats working furiously to persuade all of the parties to the conflicts above to lay down their arms. America is using Voice of America, international cooperation agreements in science, arts, and hundreds of other areas, intelligence and cyber activities to encourage (and threaten) international players. The US military has fought in the region for the past 10 years, and America gives billions of dollars per year to all sides to influence them into peace. Nonetheless, lasting success is elusive.

Developing nations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) have slowed their rapid growth and have major environmental and demographic struggles. Conflicts, such as that between Japan and China for the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, and that between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, loom. Developed nations such as the Western democracies have difficulty doing much at all, domestically or internationally. America struggles to reform entitlement spending, taxes, and immigration, and falls deeper into debt. Europe languishes, with the South needing ever more money from the North and the European Area unemployment rate at nearly 12%. The very existence of the European Union as it is currently constituted is in doubt.

With this as context, we gathered for our nightly family devotions. After reading and discussing a chapter in Exodus, my son assigned each of us items for prayer from the book Operation World, a prayer guide for the nations. Almost every night for several years we have prayed through this book, learning about the work of God in the world and intervening before the Lord on behalf of the nations. It is one way that we regularly bless the world.

What can regular people like us do to bring glory to God and make the world better for all?

In the song Do Something, Matthew West reminds his listeners that Jesus is the head and Christians are the body of Christ. Therefore we need to act to spread His message and promote peace and justice on earth.

1. Glorify God at all times and in everything that you do.
2. Be excellent at whatever you do. It does little good for a plumber who is a Christian to pray and give money to important causes if he is dishonest in his business dealings or incompetent as a plumber. As 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.”
3. Develop the character of God. If Christians were consistently people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, the world would be a different place.
4. Pray for the peoples and the nations, and that justice and mercy will go hand in hand in every situation.
5. Read, study, ponder, and memorize the Bible every day.
6. Repair relationships with others; forgiving those that you should forgive and allotting more time to people than things.
7. Repent of your sins and confess them to God, and to others if you have wronged them.
8. Share your needs with others, encourage them to share theirs with you, and work together to meet those needs.
9. Study the issues and learn about them in detail; they are generally much more complicated than the media reports.
10. Give money, other resources, and time to your local church or a charity engaged in causes that God has called you to advance; those that you care about.
11. Vote.
12. Teach your children and those who follow you. Success without successors is failure.
13. Share your beliefs with others in your circle, and your church, community and elected leaders.
14. Boycott companies and countries that behave badly or support causes and people with which you disagree. Patronize and invest in their competitors
15. Do business with companies that express your values, such as small, local companies instead of big, sprawling ones.
16. Go to troubled areas yourself in conjunction with a group supporting good work there.
17. Do things yourself – cooking and eating together with your family at home, gardening, and other home projects make each family more independent. They also can save money by decreasing sales tax and fees paid.
18. Spend less money on yourself. Instead invest more in productive enterprises and donate more to worthwhile causes.
19. Consume less media, whether television, internet, social media, or whatever. Spend more time reading and thinking and less as a passive receiver of information.


Whether we look at military conflict, economic issues, or cultural trends, the world does not seem to be getting more stable. Governments are unable to make lasting, positive change. However, this has always been the case. It is not government but people who make the world better. Whether the people work in the government, work in the private sector, volunteer, or go to school, individuals make life better, or worse, for each of us.

Ultimately, it is God working through His people that makes our world better. Participating in His work requires faithfulness, sacrifice, and patience. Few changes happen quickly, and those that do often do not last. The path to lasting change in the world, in the church, and in our lives, is laid out in 2 Chronicles 7:14

“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

The Future of the Military Health System


In the book Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945, Max Hastings described how ships’ crews took on the characteristics of their commanders. One captain was not well liked but was respected because “he had a mind like a slide rule.” Most good commanders took care of their sailors.

One characteristic of all effective commanders was that they communicated all that they knew about the strategic situation to their crews. In December 1944 the US Navy had 1100 warships and 5000 support ships. Most sailors never saw the big battles and instead spent the war shipping cargo between ports. For example, it is 5100 nautical miles from Honolulu, Hawaii to Darwin, Australia. Cargo ships took 21 days each way to make the trip. Temperatures in these all-metal ships reached 110 degrees, the odor of fuel and sweat was ubiquitous, and the noise was deafening. Men swabbed, repaired, ate, slept and repeated the process endlessly. They saw nothing but the sea, the sky, their ship, and each other. Few knew how their part, no matter how small, fit into the overall plan for victory.

How many of you feel like one of these sailors, endlessly repeating the same tasks with no idea of the impact of your labors?

Good sea captains in the Pacific in World War II told their sailors how their ship, their section, and their own work contributed to winning the war. The leaders in the Military Health System, (MHS), including the JTF Cap Med, are dedicated to telling our warriors and civilians how your work contributes to our mission.

The Problem

The MHS consumes $50 billion dollars per year, 10% of the entire defense budget of the United States. In 2001 the MHS consumed $18B, 5.9% of the defense budget. These skyrocketing costs are unsustainable. The United States must find a less expensive way to provide health care, and a system for health, to its military beneficiaries and others.

The key question before Congress, the White House, and the American people is: “Is the Nation’s commitment to the Warriors and their families a military health care system or a health insurance plan for the military?” If the latter, there is little reason not to contract out beneficiary direct care services. If the former, then military medicine must better align under the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) and take its military duties very seriously. The MHS’ mission under the JSCP includes provided beneficiary care, with active duty as first priority. It also includes defense against Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, Radiological, and high Explosive threats (CBRNE), whether intentional or not. Finally, the JSCP mission for the MHS includes Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA), Stability Operations and Humanitarian Assistance.

Of that $50B about $32B is spent providing garrison patient care (not including salaries for active duty medical personnel, field medical care, etc.). Of that $32B, over $16B is spent on purchasing care from the private sector and the other $16B is spent for direct care in the MHS. Civilian medical providers in the national capital region and throughout the country would love to get more of the $16B spent on direct care in our area. That will happen if we have no space for our patients, or if they choose civilian care instead of choosing military care.

Many patients were forced out of the MHS by the needs of war wounded and are not coming back. Some cannot get military health care because of inefficiencies in our own system. Others leave because of inability to get appointments, poor customer service, too long a drive from home, or no parking.

We have a duty to our service members and their families. We are honor-bound to fulfill the promise of Abraham Lincoln when he said “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

The MHS is not fulfilling this duty, or even competing successfully for our patients. It is increasingly difficult to get care in the military system, and many recent investigations suggest that our quality is average. We do well at public health, combat casualty care, and medical evacuation. However we struggle at the basics of low cost, high access, and high quality.

What if the MHS shrinks, or even goes away?

If America loses the MHS, we lose:

  1. A vital combat force multiplier

Consider the history-making survival rates among wounded warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan. No civilian organization (or other military) can come close to the MHS in saving and restoring our wounded, ill and injured service members.

  1. A source of soft national power

When serving as vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), ADM William J. “Fox” Fallon suggested that the Navy get rid of hospital ships because they cost too much money. When later serving as PACOM commander and coordinating US relief efforts after the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, he noted that “in the Global War on Terrorism, a hospital ship is more cost effective than a carrier task force.” Carrier task forces can rain terrible destruction, but medical care can win the hearts and minds of the people. The response to the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa has demonstrated the successful use of medicine, as well as engineering, as an element of national power.

  1. Education and research

Other institutions can train doctors, nurses and medics, but only the MHS can train these professionals to be leaders and warriors as well. America needs civilian trained clinicians, but it also needs outstanding medical professionals who are also excellent in military skills.

No civilian or other academic institutions can duplicate the research of the MHS. Combat injuries are often significantly different than civilian trauma, and the MHS is located in areas with high concentrations of these patients. Further, civilian facilities often do research on diseases Americans care about (such as cancer) but not on diseases that are not common at home (such as malaria, schistosomiasis, and African sleeping sickness).

  1. America’s ability to respond to manmade and natural disasters and national security special events (NSSE) with military-unique medical resources.

No one in the world has the deployable medical capability of the military health system. Medical warriors have responded to civil wars, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, tornados, and a host of other disasters and NSSEs with resources and expertise that no one else could. Countless lives have been saved and suffering averted by the men and women of military medicine.

What must the MHS do?

The Military Health System is already getting smaller, and that is probably a good thing. We have demonstrated that we cannot consistently provide better access, higher quality and lower price for routine medical care than our civilian colleagues. Should we choose to, we could compete better, but often we don’t choose to. Many of our patients are going to civilian health care, and that means that many of our jobs will be going to the civilian sector as well. If that is the best for our patients, our families, and our nation, so be it.

The MHS must focus on what we can do well, and maintain a good infrastructure to support the nation in the future. This should include:

  1. Institute a unified medical command, US Medical Command, which will align and provide command and control to the entire MHS, regardless of service affiliation. The Defense Health Agency is duplicative and would be made obsolete.
  2. Close organizational and planning alignment of military medicine with their parent service.
  3. A single major military medical center in the main metropolitan areas of Washington DC, the Tidewater area, San Antonio, Puget Sound, Hawaii, and Landstuhl.
  4. Moderate sized hospitals in areas of large troop concentrations, including San Diego, Fort Bragg, and Fort Bliss.
  5. Outpatient clinics, including primary care, behavioral health care, and public health, in all other areas when significant numbers of troops are present.
  6. Military medical education and research facilities including the Center and School in San Antonio, the Walter Reed Institute of Research.

To improve military medicine, we must do the following:

  1. Each person in military medicine must be convinced of the indispensable work of caring for warriors and their families.
  2. Each worker in military medicine must understand our vital role as individuals and as teams.
  3. Each of us must do our part to the best of our abilities and top of our competencies.
  4. Each of us must hold ourselves and others accountable for excellence.
  5. Each of us must place our primary focus on the needs of the patients, met within resource limitations.
  6. We must work together, escaping every snare that entangles and divides us and laying aside every weight that slows us.

Together we must move from a health care system to a system for health, including implementing certain programs such as patient centered medical homes, behavioral health, public health, and others.


From the days when Dr. Jonathan Potts cared for Washington’s patients at Valley Forge, military medicine has served our warriors and our nation. Our private sector colleagues will take care of more and more of our military patients and their families. Current leaders in the MHS must position military medicine to move into the future. It is a challenge, but no more than that faced by Dr. James Thacher at Saratoga, or Dr. Jonathan Letterman at Antietam.

America owes its warriors and their families a military health plan, but also a powerful military health system. Nothing less can provide the quality and scope of care, and of health, that America and the world needs. It must be excellent, be available to all of our beneficiaries, be an agile element of national power, and be affordable to our nation. The task falls to the professionals of military medicine to make this happen.

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day is a special day in America, whether your candidate wins or not. 

On 21 January 2013 I served as the deputy tactical commander for US military medical forces at the 57th Presidential Inauguration, opening the second term for President Barack Obama. All told, nearly 200 military and hundreds of civilian medical personnel provided care to the estimated 800,000 spectators and 10,000 participants. Hundreds of patients ultimately found their way to the dozens of medical tents, aid stations, roving medics, and others involved. Most people were simply cold and aching but a few had heart problems and other more serious conditions. Our National Capital is a beautiful place and the parade was a panoply of music and color. Regardless on one’s political convictions or voting record, everyone on our team was proud to have been a part of this event.

This was my third inauguration; I was the deputy commander of forces from Dewitt Army Community Hospital in 2009 and a spectator at the Bush Inauguration in 2001. In each case I was struck by how many people stayed to watch the presidential motorcade and how few to watch the parade. Even though the motorcade was delayed by over 30 minutes yesterday most of the people lining the route remained. After the president’s armored limo, preceded by press trucks and surrounded by Secret Service, passed by, thousands of spectators disappeared. It was as if the highlight of the day was a chance to see the President.

Two women, African Americans in their early 20s, jumped with joy as he passed, shouting to him and blowing kisses. They had been Democratic campaign volunteers, having spent hours on the phone and door to door grind. Some other black women argued, albeit good naturedly, with each other about which of them Obama had actually waved at. As the limo crept past shouts erupted from the onlookers. Many donned Obama hats, wore Obama T-shirts and carried Obama bags.

I could not help but puzzle at the fascination; almost worship, shown by many in the crowd to the president. Presidents are not generally exceptional in other things that generate such adoration, such as appearance, wealth, or talent in drama, sports or music. Though Obama has a unique standing among African Americans, who were very well represented yesterday, Bush also enjoyed such attention. What is it about the President of the United States that engenders such devotion? How does this feeling continue, though diminished, into the second term despite the inevitable disappointments?

From an economics standpoint, scarcity is a factor. The country needs a president, there are 330 million Americans and there is only one American president, so the supply and demand curve is heavily skewed in his favor. This is certainly one advantage that the president has over Congress and the Courts.

From a success standpoint, simply becoming president makes a person more successful, at least in the eyes of the world, than most people will ever be. Though presidents rarely have movie-star looks or talent, they have been reasonably well appointed and gifted. Success breeds success, and people feel more successful when they are around a successful person.

From an historical standpoint, presidents are part of history, no matter how good or bad, and people with a sense of history, no matter how small, want their fleeting lives anchored in something bigger than themselves. In 2005 I was deployed to Fort Polk to assist with the rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While there I visited the Los Adaes State Historic Site and met a worker whose ancestor had been the commander of the Presidio Los Adaes in the early 18th century. When visiting Antietam for the sesquicentennial my son and I were guided by a Park Ranger whose ancestor had fought in the battle. Their history had given these men direction and even purpose, and being a part of presidential history can do that for some.

From a personal interest standpoint, the President, more than any other single individual in America, can advance the interests of one person or party over another. Between the bully pulpit, the appointment of judges, the enforcement of legislation, and the control of the massive executive bureaucracy, the President of the United States can heavily influence who wins and who loses in many fights.

The single greatest factor in the appeal of the presidency is power. While the President exerts control on the domestic scene, he also exerts tremendous power internationally. The American president controls the most powerful military on earth, and the most powerful in human history. Insofar as he can work with Congress he holds vast wealth to distribute to whomever he sees fit. Those who claim that the President of the United States is the most powerful man on earth are probably not too far off the mark. Whether he is too powerful (or some might say not powerful enough) will be the topic of a future article.

All of these factors help us understand the fascination of the onlookers yesterday with the president. But in some cases even more is at play.

The president might be the closest thing to God that some accept. Many refuse to believe in the Biblical God and yet understand that they cannot personally make the world as they wish it to be. So they try to find someone else who can do it for them. Perhaps this is the real reason that Americans are giving their presidents more and more power. Perhaps that is why some Americans make their president an object of veneration.

Those who refuse to accept any reality beyond the physical world must attribute to this world the highest priority. Governing this world then gains the highest urgency. Could this be why zealots left and right seem to hate those who disagree with them, even though they are fellow Americans? Could this explain “gridlock in Washington?” Finally, could this explain the emergence of what many have called The Imperial Presidency?

President’s Day – Christians and the President

American Presidents are extraordinary, and they are ordinary. We should value, and can learn from, them all. 

This President’s Day, it is reasonable for Americans who follow Jesus to consider the President of the United States, the man and the office, and to commit ourselves to praying for him, for the rest of our government at every level, and for our nation.

“The conclusion of a brief speech made by Gen. Garfield at a mass meeting in front of the Merchants’ Exchange in New York City, April 15, 1865, the day of President Lincoln’s death. The excited throng was demanding vengeance upon certain newspapers for utterances considered treasonable; two men lay dying in the street for exulting in assassination, and telegrams from Washington gave intimations of other probable victims of a general conspiracy. At this critical moment, a man known to but few stepped forward, and, beckoning to the crowd with a small flag, spoke these words in a clear and impressive voice:

‘Fellow-citizens,—Clouds and darkness are round about Him. His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of his throne. Mercy and truth shall go before his face. God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.’
The effect was instantaneous. The crowd listened, and became calm, and the meeting afterwards was quietly dissolved (”

The Power of the President

The President of the United States is considered the most powerful man in the world; primarily because the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. He has command of a military of over 3,000,000 and influences a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion dollars. There are over 310 million Americans, almost 5% of the world’s population, and the US gross domestic product is over $15 trillion, over double that of China, who has the second biggest economy. For the brief time that he is in office, the man who is the President is the personification of America. His may be the most recognizable face on the planet, with people everywhere seeing his face on television, on the Internet, in magazines, and in a thousand other venues.

Within the United States, the power of the President is unequaled. He has what Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit”, the ability to be heard, but not necessarily agreed with, nationwide on any issue of his choosing. The president will always be more popular than Congress or the Supreme Court because, unless he is an idiot or a sadist, it is always easier to like and harder to dislike an individual than an organization. From 1975 to 2010, Congress’ job approval rating averaged about 35% ( while the President’s, though much more variable, has most often been in the 40-50% range ( The president has the power to unilaterally modify legislation through signing statements and Federal rulemaking, and can move the executive branch through executive orders. He can also decide to enforce certain laws and disregard others. Congress and the Supreme Court can do little except by consensus and the courts can decide on only what comes to them.

The Demands on the President

We have had good presidents and we have had poor presidents, but regardless of the qualities of the man the American people, and many others throughout the world, put great faith in him. Making the world safer in an age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, encouraging the equitable distribution of scarce resources, protecting the Earth’s climate, and helping safeguard human rights for all is a nearly impossible task, but we expect our president to do all of these things. Simultaneously he needs to laugh when we laugh, cry when we cry, and grow angry when we are angry. Americans expect the president to inspire them when they are discouraged and point the way to a brighter future. It is a burden no man can fully bear, but the best among us can handle for a time.

No one who has never been president understands the diamond-crushing pressure, the microscopic scrutiny, the impossible expectations, and the gravity of the decisions inherent to the office. When Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945, he famously asked Eleanor Roosevelt what he could do for her. Eleanor replied “Is there anything that we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

The Limitations of the President

Though presidents have tremendous power and control an impressive array of resources, people, money and expertise, they are not able to do whatever they wish. The Founders specifically limited the power of the presidency to prevent tyranny. Government was and is limited, and the citizens of America have a vital interest in keeping it that way. This is because government is comprised of people, and we all have the same corrupt nature. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Unlike more autocratic nations, the United States has multiple centers of power which limit the president. Corporations and other organizations can and do vigorously oppose him at times. Citizens vote every four years to keep or replace the president, and the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution ensures that no one can ever be president more than 10 years.

Putting Hope in the President

Too many people put too much hope in a president. For reasons good and bad, his power is always limited. Presidents and other political figures, no matter how good they are, will always disappoint. Presidential satisfaction levels are nearly always high when he first takes office, and drop off significantly thereafter. Presidents are men, and even the best, like Lincoln or Washington, sometimes failed. King David, one of the best leaders in history, failed spectacularly. And as noted in the introduction, presidents die. Through natural processes, accidents or the hands of others, the Great Equalizer strikes down even the most capable, the most likeable, and the most powerful.

What should Christians Do?

As Christians, we must pray for the president, both the office and the man. We must pray for Congress, the Supreme Court, and all of the other executives and legislative bodies that govern our land. Shortly before the 2012 Presidential Election, a woman in my church told me in passing that she was praying for the presidency, but not the president, with whom she vehemently disagreed. Though that opinion might sound good to some Christians, to whom Barack Obama’s policies are anathema, Jesus would have vehemently disagreed. He commanded His followers to “pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).” The Apostle Paul wrote “Bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14).” No U.S. President in history can compare to Herod or Nero.

Believers in Christ should be active in all aspects of life, including politics, to try to “form a more perfect union.” If governments at all levels in the United States are truly governments of the people, by the people and for the people, such governments are not our enemy. When they do wrong, however, the Church must oppose them, as Friedrich Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did against Hitler.

But we must never place our hope in a man or in any group of men. Psalms 146:3-4 reminds us “Put not your trust in princes, [nor] in the son of man, in whom [there is] no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Though governments seem to have so much power, God still reigns (Psalm 2). When Pontius Pilate, the appointed governor of Judea in the Roman Empire, told Jesus that he had the power to free Him or condemn Him, Jesus replied “you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (John 19:11).”

James Garfield, on that somber day in April 1865, got it exactly right: “God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.”

The Financial Crisis and the Concentration of Financial Power

One of the most troubling realizations during the financial meltdown of 2008 was that some companies were “too big to fail”. Chrysler and General Motors were “too big to fail” because of their strategic importance to American industry and because of the thousands of jobs that would be lost if they collapsed. So they received billions in taxpayer money. Remarkably, Ford Motor Company, just as big, in the same industry, the same environment and also threatening thousands of jobs, did not need government assistance.

Big financial companies, including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Bear Sterns, Wachovia, American International Group, and others were also considered too big to fail. The fear was that if they failed, so much confidence would be lost in the financial system that markets would implode. As a result the Bush and later Obama administrations did some legal ledgermain to merge companies and sank hundreds of billions of dollars into these entities. Individual taxpayers, home owners and account holders got a shakedown. While the blame for the crisis belongs throughout our society, from greedy lenders to irresponsible borrowers, the pain hit us all, including many who never deserved it.

The free market is built on the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest”; if a company can’t compete, it goes bankrupt. It may emerge from bankruptcy as a leaner, stronger version of its former self, or it may not emerge at all. Either way, in the free market no company should be too big to fail.

If a company, or any institution, cannot fail, it loses its most powerful motivator to perform. Why work hard if you can be lazy? Why save when you can spend? Why plan when someone else (like the government) will save you from any bad decisions that you, as a company, make? The Soviet Union was loaded with companies, really state enterprises, that were not allowed to fail. Instead, the nation failed. Communist China had the same state-run companies but did not go the way of the Soviets. Instead, it opened up the market, at least partially. Many companies failed but others adapted to the new reality and succeeded. Today China has the second biggest economy in the world. “Creative destruction” has always been a fundamental principle of the free market.

Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010 to try to prevent the 2008 Financial Crisis from ever happening again. Whatever one’s opinion of the law, however, financial services and investment dollars are still highly concentrated and the financial system is still vulnerable. No one believes that regulation alone can protect America from another financial crisis.

While many financial institutions stumbled into the morass, some flew above the pit. USAA, a member-run insurance and banking company, retained its AAA credit rating throughout the crisis (at least until Standard and Poor downgraded the United States Treasuries to AA+ in 2011, and all US companies were downgraded by default). Credits unions also did better than commercial banks, with three times as many banks than credit unions failing in 2008. In 2010, almost five times as many commercial banks failed ( Employee run pension funds and other cooperative arrangements were similar. Such companies typically have a more conservative investment strategy, provide better customer service, and are more responsive to their stakeholders.

It is difficult to identify exactly why these institutions and others like them succeeded when others failed, but we can gain some insight by considering the major difference between them and the commercial banks. Commercial banks and other publicly traded companies are often controlled by people who do not have large amounts of their personal wealth in the company. Credit unions, mutual banks, and other financial organizations such as USAA are owned and operated by their members. Their leadership teams have financial skin in the game, while leaders of commercial banks may not. Likewise, rather than making or losing money exclusively on investments, they make money on each transaction. High transaction volume and fees, not necessarily smart investments, are their “streets of gold”. In such an environment, is it surprising that bankers spent other people’s money on investments that they didn’t understand?

This is not to imply that commercial banks, or any other company, are inherently bad. No institution is better than the people working in it. People working in the investment industry are no more stupid or wicked, than anyone else. However, they are also not smarter or more virtuous. Humans are weak and vulnerable to the temptations of fame, money, and power. When too much of these are entrusted to anyone, especially if oversight is lax, disasters happen. Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, they can become ensnared in their “precious”, the thing that they value most, and harm themselves and others.

We often expect the government to fix our problems for us, but government can never be more powerful than its citizens. Government regulation at the federal, state and local level is important to control private sector excesses, but the best remedies are private. All companies exist to make money, including those that are “too big to fail”. Customers have the power to make any company survive, or die. If Americans want big investment companies to stop making poor investments, provide better customer service, and be more socially responsible, we need merely to invest in their competitors. The same is true for car manufacturers. As we have seen, credit unions, cooperatives, and other member-owned institutions are sound alternatives to the big banks and the big companies.

However, companies that caused problems in the past are not necessarily the ones that cause problems today. The issue is the concentration of resources, in this case, financial. Keeping wealth diffused between many organizations is good business and good policy, but only individual Americans can make it happen. Each man and woman in this country has far more influence than we realize; we simply need to be informed and deliberate in how we use it.

Magic, Science and Prayer

Last Sunday my family and I watched The Hobbit, the latest movie from the writings of the great fantasy author JRR Tolkien, which also includes the Lord of the Rings series. It was a good show, bringing the audience through sadness, excitement, laughter, and the whole range of emotions. During my time of prayer and meditation this morning I considered some of the differences between science, prayer, and magic, as it is portrayed in The Hobbit and the Harry Potter series,


Magic, as it is popularly portrayed, is a means of using unseen powers, usually along with a bit of a physical material, a gesture and an incantation, to accomplish a specific end. In The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, the wizards Gandalf and Saruman mutter incantations at their enemies, and sometimes at each other. Dumbledore, Voldemort, and the other wizards do the same in Harry Potter.  In the popular fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, the spell Darkvision, allowing the caster to see in the dark, requires him or her to speak a certain phrase, perform a specific gesture, and use a pinch of dried carrot to cast the spell. These fantasy writers and game designers didn’t invent these procedures for casting spells out of whole cloth. Instead, they studied the history of mythology and magic and wrote their works combining and sampling practices from throughout the world.

Magic as seen in games, books and movies is exciting and powerful. It lets the caster do what few others can, defies the laws of nature, and brings with it great power, fame and wealth. In Harry Potter, only wizards can practice magic; non wizards, known as “Muggles”, are excluded. In a modern form of “noblesse oblige” (the obligation of nobility), the wizards are supposed to protect the muggles, who are not as powerful as they are.  Magic can be done for good and for evil, as its only moral filter is whatever moral filter the caster brings with him. Magic is inherently self-focused; the power of the magic may not reside in the user (as with “The Force” in Star Wars) but the power to use the magic does reside in the user, and she uses it for her own purposes. Though mistakes occur, the magician is portrayed as having essentially complete control over what the magic will do. The biggest problem with “magic” in the real world is that it doesn’t work, at least not to control physical phenomena. Priests in Egypt, druids in England, and shamans in North America tried for centuries to discover the words that controlled the Nile flooding, the materials that reliably calmed the seas, and the dances that brought rain, but they failed. Modern users of “magick” such as Wiccans or other pagans generally claim that it primarily affects oneself, not the outside world.


Science, as it has been practiced for the past four centuries, does not provide merely the illusion of excitement and power; it is exciting and powerful. Science does not oppose the laws of nature but uses them to the advantage of the scientist and the society that supports him. Science does not focus on the words and gestures of the individual scientist but rather on using proper materials in proper proportions at proper times and in proper ways to achieve great effects. One of the greatest scientific advances in human history, gunpowder, is composed of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Mixed in proper amounts, each ground to a fine powder, and lighted in a controlled manner, gunpowder revolutionized warfare and destroyed social structures, such as feudalism in Europe, and empires, such as the Mamelukes in Egypt, throughout the world. Gunpowder is even present in the Lord of the Rings, though it is portrayed as magic rather than science.

Unlike magic, science is available to the many; not limited to the few. The practice of magic in most of history was limited to those born to it, but there are no inherent genetic, racial, social, or economic limitations to who can learn science and wield its power. Science can be used for good or for evil, and like magic its only moral filter is the moral filter that the user, and her society, applies. Mistakes occur in science, but the user has reliable control over its effects.  Science can be self focused, because though the power of science lies outside the scientist, the ability to use that power lies within him, and he uses it to advance his own agenda. Science works. Engineers in Egypt figured out how to control the Nile, scientists in England discovered how to avoid rough seas, and farmers in North America devised how to irrigate croplands.


Prayer, defined popularly as asking God for something, has been practiced since the dawn of time. Some skeptics may consider prayer to be a form of magic, specifically divination, which is an attempt to gain insight into a question or situation with the aid of the supernatural. As such, they might suggest that everything mentioned in the paragraphs about magic applies to prayer as well.

A Christian would more likely define prayer as encountering God and experiencing His glory, whether or not the person praying asked for anything. Prayer involves consciously acknowledging the magnificence of the Creator, asking forgiveness of sins, intentional and unintentional, and asking God to make the petitioner less inclined to sin. Prayer frequently includes giving thanks for what the Lord has done for the person praying, and concludes with a set of new or repeat requests.  Any or all of these elements may occur in any given prayer. Common prayer practices, such as closing eyes, folding hands, standing up, kneeling, or whatever else, are merely cultural in the Christian tradition. There is no required gesture or body position in Christian prayer, nor is there a specified verbal (script or incantation) or material component. Prayer is not the same as spell casting. Prayer is available to anyone at anytime in any place and for any reason.

Prayer is different from magic and science in other ways. Christian prayer is not focused on the person praying; it is focused on the person of God. While it is tempting to use prayer as another way to advance one’s self interest, the Bible is clear that humans were created to know God, serve Him, love Him, glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Prayer has a moral filter independent of the one praying. First, the one praying places himself under the authority of God. God uses the Christian to accomplish His purposes rather than the Christian using God to accomplish his. Second, when the believer asks God for something, the Lord applies His moral filter to the request, and will not grant a request which is evil. The power of prayer lies in God, not in man, and the one praying does not have reliable control over its effects.

Some believe that prayer does not work. Others argue that prayer works, but since man has no reliable control over its effects, it is a waste of time. Why then should Christians pray?

  1. In the Bible, God commands His people to pray.
  2. God is truly glorified, our sins are really forgiven, and others are honestly blessed.
  3. By coming into the presence of God, the person praying becomes more like God. The power and peace of God dispel the weakness and frustration of man. The clarity of the mind of God overcomes the confusion in the mind of man, and the love in the heart of God melts the hatred in the heart of man.
  4. We are reminded of the glory of the Lord, the seriousness of our sin, the generosity of His gifts to us, and the power of God to meet our needs. His glory makes us humble, His forgiveness and provision make us grateful, and His power gives us comfort throughout the trials that we and others face.
  5. Prayer, like meditation, has positive physiologic benefits including lowering blood pressure and decreasing inflammatory chemicals in the body. This contributes to better health in the one praying.
  6. The Lord never intended prayer to be used as a sole intervention. Prayer for others must be accompanied by acts of service to them, done with selflessness and joy. It must also be accompanied by Bible study to learn the truths of God and His universe, which allows for wise interventions. Spiritual disciplines are maximally effective to change the life of a man, of others, and of the world when used in combination.
  7. God may change what He does in response to the prayers of man (Genesis 18:20-33, Isaiah 38:1-5).
  8. We are a good example to others.

How does Christian prayer actually work?

Since God provides the power in prayer, the man who wants to pray effectively must know God. This begins with Christian salvation (justification), but it includes knowing Him intimately through the Bible, through worship, through personal experience, through Christian service, and through other people. No one who neglects any of these areas can have consistent power in prayer.

Psalm 66:18 teaches that if man regards sin in his heart, the Lord will not hear him. Therefore God will not hear a prayer (except a prayer for salvation) from a person who has unconfessed sin. Prayers can also be hindered by poor interpersonal relations (Matthew 3:23, 1 Peter 3:7).  The man who wants effective prayers must not have unrepented sin and must have done all he can to be at peace with others (Romans 12:18).

God is at work in the world, and since prayer is focused on Him and not on man, the praying person must ask God what He is doing in the situation at hand. Then the person of prayer must ask God what He wants him or her to do about it. If the prayer does not fit in His plan, it will not be granted. Does this mean that we should ask God what we think He wants instead of what we actually desire? Absolutely not! More than the most loving Father, God wants us to be honest with Him (Philippians 4:6) and He wants to give us everything that we ask. He will only deny us that which will hurt us or hurt others. Our poor understanding, not His lack of grace, is the problem.  Even if God does not grant our petition, He will give us peace throughout it (Philippians 4:7)

As a wizard recites a spell with a specific purpose, and as a scientist uses materials for a specific result, so the prayer warrior asks God for a specific outcome.  The scientist seeks a measurable outcome and so should the saint. Once the man of prayer specifies his request, he expects to receive what he has asked, just as the skilled magician or scientist expects his craft to be effective. If someone asks about it, the person of prayer boldly tells others of his request and his expectation that God will honor it.

Sometimes we ask the Lord for something different than what we actually want or need, and are disappointed when He does not grant our petition. One young boy prayed that the rain would stop so he could go with his family to watch a baseball game. The rain did not stop, but the father managed to get dry seats under an overhang in the sparsely filled ballpark. God may not have answered the boy’s specific prayer, but did He not grant his real request? How often do we pray, not knowing what we really want or need, not receive our request, and feel disappointed? How often does God grant our desire, only to have us not notice because He didn’t answer as we expected?

The Lord provides a moral filter for prayer. If someone humiliates us at work and we ask God to break his legs, we should not be surprised if God does not grant our desire. He is not evil and will never aid or abet any evil desire. Man does evil, but the Lord is never a party.

Imagine a man kneeling in prayer. He is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and knows God intimately. He is faithful in prayer, Bible study, worship, service, and the other spiritual disciplines, and has good relationships with those around him. There is a challenging situation at work and he has searched the Scriptures to see what might help resolve it. During this prayer time the man has confessed his sins, and given God glory. As a result, He has quieted the anxieties and distractions of this man’s busy world. The prayer warrior has sincerely thanked God for His generous provision, and it is time to ask the Lord for help at work.

Our praying man will ask God what He is doing in the situation, for nothing happens, good or bad, that God does not use for the greater good and for His glory. Sometimes it takes a long time, and the Lord may refer him back to the Bible or to someone else for guidance. Eventually God will reveal the part of His plan that His saint needs to know and what he needs to do. In obedience the man on his knees will pray what the Lord commands, and when the prayer is done the man will obey

Like wisps of smoke from the smoldering fire the specific, God-inspired prayers of the righteous man will rise as a fragrance to the Lord. The prayers from other saints on the same issue will likewise rise to heaven. God will harmonize the prayers, helping the petitioners to ask for what they want in the right way, and transform the wisps of smoke into a raging fire of godly power.  Then prayers become effective, as the prayers of Elijah were in the days of Ahab (James 5:16-18).

Prayer works in other ways as well. Praying for someone often reveals ways that the one praying can help the one prayed for. While I prayed for a would-be missionary to get to the mission field, the Lord revealed to me some ways that he could raise money. I was able to help link someone else to a job. Just telling someone that you are praying for them can encourage them. Praying about an issue can bring mental clarity to that issue. Many times while praying for my patients I have had an insight that has led to a better diagnosis or treatment. The medical effects of prayer are well documented and positive.  A network of people praying for each other multiplies these good effects. Unlike science, which is focused on the physical world, prayer impacts the physical world primarily through the spiritual world. This is not to say that God does not impact the physical world directly as a result of prayer. He does. However, God primarily uses ordinary means to accomplish His extraordinary ends.


Magic may be exciting and powerful in books, games or movies but in reality the magic described there is fiction. Science is powerful but not moral, and sometimes does more harm than good. Prayer, communion with the One God, Creator and Lord of the Universe, is the most powerful thing of all. However it does not work like anything else because its object is not to serve us, but to serve Him. Christians must learn and live the power of prayer, because the troubles that we face in our individual lives and in the world are far too great to address with our poor powers alone. The dominion and glory of the Risen Lord alone provides our hope.