Monday with Michael Spencer: Trusting the Father?


Monday with Michael Spencer: October 14, 2019
Trusting the Father?

Yesterday, I experienced the great part of being a teacher; one of those experiences that make all the others worth it.

It was in my advanced placement English IV class. Our brightest seniors. I’m fortunate to be able to work with them.

A few days before we’d taken our final exam, and with two days left in the quarter, I decided to show the 1989 Peter Weir movie, Dead Poet’s Society, featuring Robin Williams in one of his finest performances, and then write an essay.

It’s the late 1950s, and conformity is in the air at little Welton Academy, a college prepatory boarding school where Mr. Keating has been hired to teach senior English. Keating tosses the boys some high-grade existentialism and budding beat philosophy along with an adolescent love of romantic literature. The effect of Keating’s mentoring on his young charges is explosive, with results varying from the revelatory to the tragic.

If you haven’t seen the film in the last twenty years, then prepare for a spoiler. One of the boys, Neil Perry, has been ordered by his compulsively authoritarian father to become a doctor. Neil has little reason to resist until the acting bug bites and, against his father’s express wishes, he plays the part of Puck in a community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His father is furious and pulls Neil out of Welton with the intention of sending him to military school.

His first night home, Neil commits suicide.

I asked my students to write Neil a letter, assuming that he would read it before killing himself. I’ve done this assignment before, but this time I asked the students to read their letters before the class, with one student designated as a responder.

Predictably, all of the students advised Neil, among other things, to wait till he was 18, then do whatever he wanted to do, no matter what his father wanted for him. The point was getting out from under the authoritarian father and doing whatever you most wanted to do in life.

It was a good assignment and we had a good discussion. Then I asked Kim Kwan, one of my Korean students, to read his letter.

We have a lot of Korean students. They are, in the main, some of our hard-working and most successful students. I’m fascinated by the process they are part of as they bridge two cultures. This is particularly obvious on the subject of the value of education, as we were about to learn.

Kim very matter of factly told the class that Neil should obey his parents and become a doctor. Kim said that Neil’s parents had sacrificed for him and they loved him. His greatest happiness should be in doing what they wanted him to do in life.

My American students were stunned, to say the least.

Further, Kim said he related to Neil because he had wanted to be in the hotel industry, but his family wanted him to be a dentist. Without any of the expected bribery, his parents simply told him that he should be a dentist, and he changed his mind and vocational direction. His parents, he said, were willing to work hard and sacrifice so he could become a dentist, and he beleived their wisdom was best for him. He could make many persons’ lives better as a dentist, and he might even make enough money to buy a hotel. It might be difficult sometimes to make this choice, but it was the right decision and the way to the most happiness.

He trusted his parents, and he wanted to honor them.

The reaction of our students — and my own — was fairly predictable. We simply would never go this far. In fact, I have doubts, as a Christian, that anyone should go this far, though I have no problem with using as much influence as possible to keep a student in school and in a position to make a choice of careers based on a degree and an education.

But deciding for them? Like an arranged marriage? Believing that I know what my son or daughter should do with the rest of their lives? I’m not that competent. My own feelings about freedom are mixed in with my desire to be a good parent. In the end, I support my children’s decisions about vocation.

But I’m also an American. I’ve never believed that self-sacrifice was all that great an idea. My students and I are hard-wired to avoid difficult choices that might be less than what we wanted at the time. Why can’t we all do what we want as much of the time as possible? Why trust anyone when you can follow your own dreams and desires?

Kim was telling us that, in his worldview, doing what he wanted was not the way to happiness. Trusting his parents was the way to happiness, even if it meant sacrifice, suffering, an uphill struggle in a career that wasn’t his first choice.

Honoring his parents was more important to him than doing what he wanted to do.

We wanted his parents to make their happiness dependent on letting Kim do whatever he wanted to do.

Sound familiar?

Yes, that’s where I’m going.

I thought about it all day.

I should trust and honor God. I should trust his choices that are not my first choices. I should trust the sacrifice he has made for me. What further proof do I need that he is for me and wants what is best for me?

Why do I assume that the Gospel is all about a God who makes my happiness and a guarantee of my choices his greatest concern? Why do I assume that discipleship is a process where I will always get what I want, the way I want it, when I want it?

Why do I think that the way chosen for me by a loving Father can’t possibly be that path of sacrifice; that path of difficulty?

Why does what Kim Kwan is saying sound so strange to me? Why does it sound so unlike the way I want God to be?

Why does it irritate me that he trusts his parents so much?

Today, I was the student and my Korean friend was the teacher. I’m not signing up for the superiority of this way of being family, but I see the beauty of it as well as the weaknesses. What I see most clearly of all is what Ravi Zacharias called “the imprint of the Father” on the human soul; the deeply imprinted fingerprints of a time when we trusted God more than we trusted ourselves. The deep imprint of what it means to be made in such a way that you know your happiness and your own choices are not the ultimate path to joy.

The shadow of the cross that lies at the heart of the Father’s love; the cross that made Paul say “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”

41 thoughts on “Monday with Michael Spencer: Trusting the Father?

  1. But then how will they KNOW We are Christians(TM)?

    “And they’ll know we are Christians
    ‘Cause we’re jerks, ’cause we’re jerks,
    Yes they’ll KNOW we are Christians ’cause we’re jerks…”
    (Go ahead and laugh, guys. IRL that’s true way too often.)


  2. “Religion is one of the larger roadblocks that God has had to put up with in the process of getting his message through to the world. The usual religious view is that God has his finger in every pie, and, as the infinite meddler, never lets anything act for itself. People bolster such ideas by an appeal to Scripture, pointing out things like the parting of the Red Sea or Elijah starting fires with wet wood on Mt. Carmel. That won’t do, however. To be sure, I am not about to make out a case that God can’t do miracles–that he can’t from time to time stick in his thumb and manufacture a plum if he feels like it. Nor am I going to maintain that he can’t answer the prayers of those of his free creatures he has bizarrely said he would take advice from. All I want to insist on here is that most of the time he doesn’t meddle; that his ordinary policy is: Hands off.”

    – Robert Farrar Capon

    (The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair With Theology)


  3. I’m not selling Trump as a decent Republican president. I’m trying to get you to see the massive hypocrisy of going bananas when Trump does things that have been going on for years. He is the most vulgar president of my knowledge. He says things which are wildly egotistical and ridiculous. However, his actual corruption is no worse than the previous administration, which deported more people, and bombed more people than the one before, got us involved in new conflicts, is largely responsible for the mess in Syria, spied on reporters, blatantly lied to the public about why an ambassador was killed, and on and on. It was only scandal free because the media was on its side and would never report a scandal. Go ahead and call Trump out, but please be consistent, or at least open your eyes.


  4. I think sometimes ‘grand’ context is essential to understanding. Humanity seen in context as a growing person who has been born and is coming to adulthood is in keeping with many philosopher’s and theologian’s understandings. If it is the case, then certain things that are essential to the child become detrimental to the adult and vice versa. Now I’m not making any statement about how far we have come because things don’t look very good at the moment but could it be that we have reached a stage of independence that requires us to seize hold of things and step away from our tutors? The allusion to Paul’s statement about teachers and tutors feeding us the milk of the word… Do we come to a place where humanity in general is required to rebel from their parents and take on the mantle of responsibility because we as a people are required to do so? Perhaps there was a time in history when it was generally more appropriate and generally more healthy for the young to submit to their parents dream. Perhaps there is a new requirement for the young now, actually not very new at all but more prevailing, to step away and forge a new thing. A new thing that is always informed by the old. I don’t know. Just rambling.


  5. picture it:

    the monthly meeting of The Red Hat Club, wherein all the ladies come wearing red hats and purple dresses in order to celebrate their individuality

    I kid you not.


  6. ‘Many many Christian communities can forget about heroic nonsense like “self sacrifice” and go back to working on “not being a jerk”.’

    Michael Spencer would have loved this comment, Adam.


  7. –> “if you want to sell him as a decent Republican president, go ahead and try”

    I’m not sure you could even sell him as a decent human being, let alone a decent Republican president…LOL.

    But it’s difficult for fans to see him objectively.


  8. Yes, if the East could’ve delivered what it promised, the “self-actuated” individual would not have ascended. But I think we make a false dichotomy between East and West much of the time; there are gradations all along the spectrum in both spheres, and the fact that Eastern religious teachers spent so much time warning their disciples about the dangers of the inflated self indicates that the “self-actuated” individual was a widespread problem, at least among certain classes in certain eras (for instance, the newly developed mercantile classes in the India of the Buddha’s era, in whom he found his primary audience and followers).


  9. The “self-actuated” individual is no more an invention than the community; the individual is a discovery (as is the community in its different way) that has come to the fore in certain places, classes, and ages more than others, and has been lost and rediscovered many times over. If it is lost in the future, after this age in which it has proliferated and flourished to both good and bad affect, be assured that it will be rediscovered in other ages by a great or lesser number of people.


  10. The first is that God is not the parent that sends the kid to military school if the kid will not obey his wishes – God’s way is to warn, and hold out a hand, but allow bad choices to be made so that his children understand his will and the reasons for it and obey freely out of love – the most important thing for God is that our will grows to be conformed to his will, not grudging compliance out of fear.

    During my time in-country in the Seventies, Fear of God’s Wrath/Punishment was a major (and sometimes the only) motivator. Turn or Burn, Clock is Ticking, Tick Tick Tick TickTick…

    That way lies madness. God becomes a Cosmic Monster who we have to worship and adore because He Holds the Biggest Whip. (See Jonathan Edwards’ most famous sermon.)

    Redefine God’s Sovereignty as raw POWER and things can go real sour real fast.
    (Chrstiane — It also sets you up for pastors and overlords who are into POWER; you get conditioned/groomed to see that thirst for POWER as God’s Anointing.)


  11. All too often, Holiness and Godliness gets presented as doing whatever makes you miserable. Killing your own interests, talents, abilities, creativity. This is called “Joy” in Christianese, and is one of the unrealistic expectations that mass-produces Nones and Dones.


  12. JM Jones has had direct experience with churches who deliberately appoint the LEAST QUALIFIED person to the job because “Then he’ll be doing it in The Spirit instead of the Flesh.”

    Three guesses how that stunt ends up.


  13. but our country betrays its ally to slaughter

    but our borders are redolent with babies and toddlers in lock-up facilities, and the word is out that the kids are not being cared for properly

    but our government takes infants from their mothers’ arms

    but our parents who wed in the Church abandon their vows and their children hurt

    but the ‘rallies’ of our ‘elected’ (?) President have become curse-word laced hate rallies against minorities

    And the Christians chorus “AAAAAA-MENNNNNN!” to it all.
    Because their latest Second Coming of Christ DELIVERS THE GOODS — a Supreme Court who WILL Overturn Roe v Wade, put Prayer back in (and toss Evolution out of) schools, and a general Culture War Victory for Christian Morality.

    Everybody’s got his price, and American Evangelicals came CHEAP.

    P.S. The Kurds have a new protector and defender — SYRIA & RUSSIA (AKA Gog & Magog); the Rapture Ready crowd is probably giddy with glee over that development.


  14. Why not find a balance point between Individual and Community?
    All Community/No Individual and you have an Insect Hive.
    All Individual/No Community and you have Atlas Shrugged.


  15. > But doesn’t loving our neighbors sometimes mean self sacrifice and not doing what we
    > would otherwise want to do?

    Once upon a time I would have answered Yes.

    Today I would answer No.

    Not “doing what we would otherwise want to do” is “self sacrifice”? Maybe, sometimes. But almost never. There is a big space – at least for matured adults – between Free and Self-Sacrifice. Many Christians haven’t evolved to that stage, and their pastors have actively worked to prevent them doing so by underwriting their entitlement.

    Many many Christian communities can forget about heroic nonsense like “self sacrifice” and go back to working on “not being a jerk”.


  16. I like your analysis, Iain. Any analogy between the father/son relationship in the film and God/Jesus Father/Son relationship breaks down when you consider the human element on the former compared with the perfection of the latter. In both instances, you have fathers who think they know what’s best, but the “film father” is clearly flawed (I like Michael’s term “compulsively authoritarian”); in fact, he’s flawed to the point that he pushes his son to commit suicide (which does NO earthly or spiritual good for ANYONE) rather than show him any kindness, mercy, and understanding.

    On the flip side, we have God and Jesus, both who seemed to know and understand each other intimately. God knew His son’s strengths (among them compassion) would carry him through to complete his mission; Jesus knew intimately His father’s will, and that the death he was being asked to undertake had eternal benefits for EVERYONE, including Jesus!

    I don’t know exactly what I would write a letter to Neil, but it would probably be something about his father being flawed but the doing the best he can whatever he shaped him (and alluding to his father probably having some childhood and early year issues that have set his course for being an a**.) I would also probably try to talk about Neil needing to live this life of theater to bring joy to others, and use his experiences with his father to help others like him get out of those oppressive family relationships. In other words, try to convince him that LIVING is the best way forward for EVERYONE.


  17. “We promise a lot in the West that we can’t always deliver.”

    The East has the same problem. You just trade atomization and isolation for grinding Order and Patriarchy. Which you find worse depends on personality and circumstances, I suppose…


  18. Yes. Otherwise, you can get to the extreme of “I do the work/marry the person/practice the disciplines I am the worst at, because self-denial.” That ain’t Gospel, that’s Law.


  19. There is self-sacrifice, and then there is self-effacement. Giving of ourselves is one thing – totally changing everything about ourselves to conform to/please another is something else. Does God give us gifts and desires to simply deny and negate all of them all our lives? I have trouble jiving that with “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”


  20. This post is a reminder that the concept of the self-actuated individual, possessing needs and desires and rights apart from any pre-existing social roles is a cultural invention of the West. There was a time before it existed and it’s entirely possible there will be a time after it disappears. What has come to be called “filial piety”, the honor and even worship expressed through the idea of the ancestor, is still very strong in the Far East..

    Dang it I can’t find it now that I want it of course but a few months ago I read an interesting online article written by a young Chinese woman about the differences (and conflicts) between East Asian young people raised in the West and their parents. The young lady was troubled by the fact that her own parents fully expected to retire at a certain age and be fully supported by her and she was feeling the pressure for success and the natural desire to pursue her own interests without being saddled with old people depending on her for half her adult life (and of course the associated guilt for feeling this way).

    We promise a lot in the West that we can’t always deliver. I think we are finding that you can’t really reconcile complete individualism with the idea of a flourishing community which we all seem to naturally desire. We all want to do what we want but we also want to belong.


  21. I see three key distinctions here.
    The first is that God is not the parent that sends the kid to military school if the kid will not obey his wishes – God’s way is to warn, and hold out a hand, but allow bad choices to be made so that his children understand his will and the reasons for it and obey freely out of love – the most important thing for God is that our will grows to be conformed to his will, not grudging compliance out of fear.
    The second is that God is infallible where our earthly parents are not, and knows us as our earthly parents can never do – “Father” is an analogy only. The despair, it seems to me, of the boy is as much the lack of understanding by his parents of him and his needs, wants and desires as about a specific career choice. More loving and understanding parents even if right about being a doctor would at the least have allowed and encouraged his amateur acting as a sideline, so long as he continued his studies. Jesus said that we should “hate” our parents to follow him – God alone should command the absolute obedience that society may seek to require for earthly authority.
    The third is similar – God needs nothing from us and desires our good only for our own sake – he is always and only father and never self-interested. From the above, Kim is not saying simply that the boy’s parents know what is, objectively, best for his happiness, but rather that the boy ought to be happy to sacrifice his own needs for his parents’ ambitions and desires: that he should be a doctor not because that is best for him, but because of his parents’ ambition to have a doctor for a son. The parents’ action in threatening him with military school is pure childish petulance at not getting their own way, and there is no obligation on the son to obey, indeed almost an obligation not to indulge their childish behaviour, in my view.
    If writing the letter, I would start by saying that his parents do think they are doing their best for him, but it is unfortunate for everyone that they aren’t really equipped for the job and don’t seem to be able to get past the invented kid they think they want to see the actual kid they have, but he’s going to have to make the best of it while he’s stuck with it. I would tell him they certainly love him in their own, crabbed sort of a way, and agreeing to go to medical school for the time being if they let him keep up the amateur acting as a sideline may well have them gratefully surrender under the (mis)apprehension he will “grow out of it”. He’s then free to mark time in study at least until he’s 18 (and a lot of colleges have active drama stuff anyway). If not, again, it’s only a temporary thing.
    I would tell him his obligation to his parents extends only to trying it their way in case they are right, but with no obligation to abandon his own aims and dreams permanently once he us an adult. If he goes his way, and whether he us successful or not, his parents should come around eventually and, if not, it is their loss and grief, not his, and, crucially, he is *not* responsible for their happiness.


  22. Of course it does, but does it tell me what my career choice should be or who I should marry (what most people fret over when waiting for an answer from God). 🙂


  23. you’re not the first Christian woman to ask . . .

    in the 14th Century, this from Birgitta of Sweden:

    “O Lord, make haste and illumine the night.
    Say to my soul that nothing happens without Your permitting it,
    and that nothing of what You permit is without comfort.
    O Jesus, Son of God,
    You Who were silent in the presence of Your accusers,
    restrain my tongue until I find what should say and how to say it.
    Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.
    It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.
    Answer my petition and show me the way.
    I come to You as the wounded go to the physician in search of aid.
    Give peace, O Lord, to my heart.”


  24. How, please, do I discern what God wants me to do? Whose voice can I trust? Who, here with me, can explain to me that God doesn’t want what I want, but something entirely different. How do I know that they speak for God, and not themselves? No doubt I will make mistakes–but those mistakes will be my own. I’m sorry–the best I can do–on good days—is to try hard to love and help where I can, hoping that an all-loving god, if one exists, will understand.


  25. “or at least give us a clue now and then”
    does the Cross count as a ‘clue’ about self-giving ?


  26. no way can you compare Donald Trump to any other president of either party

    if you want to sell him as a decent Republican president, go ahead and try, but people are not buying this so much anymore, are they?

    I think the days of trumpism unexposed are over . . . . and no, he is not above the law or above being held accountable


  27. Yes. Life might be so much easier if God did micromanage our lives,or at least give us a clue now and then. I spent too many years seeking ‘God’s will for my life’ (actually wasted them), never to hear a definitive word, before I learned that loving Him (whatever than involves) and loving our neighbors is about the best i can do (or try to do) and about the only ‘word’ he’s likely to give me.


  28. But doesn’t loving our neighbors sometimes mean self sacrifice and not doing what we would otherwise want to do?


  29. Much of what you mention is troubling. What is also troubling is that you seem to be blind to the other political side doing the exact same thing for years, or at the very least I don’t remember post like these before Trump. One of the necessities back to sanity is going to be the ability to honest about your own side of politics. And perhaps what would be even better would be to focus the point of the post on ourselves before pointing our finger at everybody else.


  30. ‘Why does what Kim Kwan is saying sound so strange to me? Why does it sound so unlike the way I want God to be?’

    Because, unlike many Asian parents despite how the “knowing God’s will for my life” people depict Him, God isn’t in the habit of micromanaging our lifestyles and career choices. Just loving Him and loving our neighbors in our present circumstances is enough and more to occupy us, right?


  31. Imagine ones parents were not hardworking, decent, self-sacrificing people, like Kim’s parents, worthy of trust and honor — but Donald Trump! It would be foolish and immoral to honor such parents by sacrificing ones own dreams and hopes for theirs.


  32. Let’s assume that Kim had trustworthy parents; that’s a wonderful thing. It helped Kim to understand and relate to God in a constructive and positive way But in the case of those who don’t have trustworthy parents, and there are many such, imaging God as a good or self-sacrificing parent who deserves to be honored and trusted is highly problematic — to say the least.


  33. maybe if we honored our commitments made FREELY, then we could look ourselves in the mirror and be at peace

    but our country betrays its ally to slaughter

    but our borders are redolent with babies and toddlers in lock-up facilities, and the word is out that the kids are not being cared for properly

    but our government takes infants from their mothers’ arms

    but our parents who wed in the Church abandon their vows and their children hurt

    but the ‘rallies’ of our ‘elected’ (?) President have become curse-word laced hate rallies against minorities

    so where do we begin, how can we understand Kim Kwan’s thinking when we cannot even look ourselves in the mirror because we have abandoned our own chosen commitments?

    is there a road back to sanity? and to ‘wholeness’ (shalom) and to something that even remotely resembles HONOR ?

    we’re in trouble . . . Michael would have had much to say these days when my hyperbole is exacerbated by something that looks a whole lot like ‘selling out’ of what really mattered to us as a people, our own humanity


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