Exceeding Expectations

The Entry into Jerusalem – Giotto, 1305

Oftentimes as an engineer, my solution to a client’s problem isn’t what they wanted to hear: a building owner (or his architect) may have a daring, grand, idealistic vision of their building that the laws of physics simply won’t permit. And so structural engineers sometimes have to be the bearers of bad news. Of course, in the long run, their building not falling down and killing them is actually pretty good news, in my humble opinion. Occasionally, clients have much more realistic expectations, and I get the opportunity to exceed those expectations. They’re hoping for a bearable solution to one problem, and I get to help solve multiple problems. Those are good times that remind me of what I love about engineering.

The Jews had a similar “down to earth” expectation of what their Messiah would be. If you’re not familiar with Church lingo, “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew word for “Anointed One”. And while many think of the word “Christ” as being part of Jesus’ name, it’s actually just the Greek word for that same title. Christ and Messiah are synonymous. Now, to be clear, it’s not so much that the Jews had low expectations, per se – they just didn’t didn’t have high enough expectations. God’s plan was so much bigger than anything they were anticipating, that many didn’t even recognize it. Even with the clarity of hindsight, many today still don’t. The Jews were looking for a bold, triumphant solution to one problem – oppression of their nation (by the Romans at that point) – while Jesus brought the bolder, but humbler, solution for the problem of all humanity. They wanted the conquering hero riding in to Jerusalem on a war horse, not the sacrificial “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, riding in on the foal of a donkey [Jn 1:29, Mt 21:6-11]. Even Jesus’ disciples, after the resurrection, were still stuck on this idea of restoring the kingdom of Israel rather than the Kingdom of God [Act 1:6]. How sad it would be for all of us Gentiles (non-Jews) if God had given them the merely localized, national¬† salvation they wanted. But instead, He sent Jesus to free all who will receive Him: Jew and Greek, men and women, citizens and slaves, kings and peasants – even Americans like me! And this freedom is not some temporary thing that can be taken away by the next empire to rise up; Christians from the catacombs of ancient Rome to the prison camps of modern North Korea have experienced this freedom, even in their bondage. Rather than a divine King “dwelling” with His people like when God led the Israelites out of Egypt, we have the Holy Spirit residing in each Christian believer [1 Cor 6:19-20].

However, God’s good news of salvation can sometimes sound like bad news to our sin-plugged ears. Like the building owner or contractor who wants the project engineer to say “yes” to some requested deviation from the plans, we don’t like the idea of submission or obedience, or limitations on our supposed freedoms by God. We think, in our insecurity, that we’ll be cheated by God. And yet, He takes our “freedom” that is actually nothing more than enslavement to sin, and gives us true freedom [Jn 8:32,36]: freedom from fear of our circumstances[Ps 56:11]; freedom from the fear of death now, and ultimately from death itself [1Cor 15:54-57]; freedom to love and serve God as we simply could not do on our own [1Cor 2:14, Heb 11:6]; but most importantly, freedom to bring glory to God, which is actually what we were designed to do. As long as we run from our Creator and His solution to our problem, we will always be falling short of our true, ultimate purpose in life.

But we can trust the omniscient One who “sees the end from the beginning” [Is 46:9-10]. In spite of the temptation to think (in our arrogant finitude) that “if I were God, I would do such-and-such”, His ways really are better. I can’t really fault Israel for underestimating God: it seems pretentious to hope for as much as God has lavished on us. As Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” [Ro 11:33] Indeed, understanding that His perfect plan will far exceed our expectations, we can truthfully say with Paul, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” [Eph 3:20]

Have there been times in your life where you’ve only seen how God was working in hindsight? Have you gone through bleak trials and come out on the other side knowing that the trial, though unwanted, was the best thing for you in the end? It’s been said that God desires our holiness rather than our comfort, and that getting us there may be an uncomfortable, though necessary, process. Have you gone through that molding process and, looking back, realized the wisdom of God’s ways over ours? Something to chew on this this week. ūüôā

Dangerous Assumptions

Ever assumed you knew something that turned out to be completely different? I know I have. It doesn’t take long to learn how embarrassing hasty assumptions can be. Yet we still have to make a lot of assumptions in life every day. I have to assume when I go to bed each night that my truck will start in the morning, and I don’t actually need to get up at 2 in the morning and run an ultra-marathon just to get to work on time. A dead truck is a possibility, but practically speaking, my assumption of reliable transportation is a fairly safe assumption given that truck’s history of dependability. In engineering, we have to make a lot of assumptions that can drastically change the results, and we’re expected to be able to judge whether those assumptions are justified or not. Assuming certain vibrational characteristics for a project, only to find out your structure’s resonant frequency actually matches the frequency of the average person’s walking gait, can change a client’s bold, cantilevered office building with a view into a nauseating life of trying to do office work on the end of a diving board. Assuming a connection to be rigid when it’s not, or assuming a high frictional resistance that may or may not be present can completely alter load paths, and divert force into components never designed for it. Assuming a beam is adequately braced when it’s not can change the mode of failure from a nice slow yielding to a sudden lateral-torsional buckling, drastically lowering the safe load on the beam, and possibly resulting in a structural failure. Just like assuming a snake isn’t poisonous, a lot of engineering assumptions can pack a deadly bite.

So what is it about assumptions that can be so disastrous? The issue is how close they are to, or how far they are from, reality. In essence, it’s a matter of how truthful the assumption is, for truth is simply correspondence to reality. If I assume the max unbraced length of a 30 foot long beam is 5 feet and it turns out to be 6 feet, then I’m fairly close to the truth of the matter , and I’ve erred on the side of caution, so my design should do well. If I assume it’s 30′ and I don’t need any bracing at all, then I’m working off a false premise, and I’m flirting with disaster. Sadly, a lot of people are making an even more dangerous assumption every day, many never realizing it until it’s too late.

What is this deadly assumption, you ask? Let’s work through some examples of it and find a common denominator:

  • “God is love, so that means everybody goes to heaven, right?” This assumes a very one-dimensional caricature of God, who is also just and righteous and holy. One could just as easily state, “God is just and we’re all sinners, so that means everybody goes to hell, right?” Or we could see Him as He has revealed Himself to us, and recognize that His love provided a way for us to be reconciled and justified before His perfect unbending justice, but only if we don’t reject it. Thus, some will be saved and some won’t.
  • “I’m a pretty good person, so God surely wouldn’t send me to hell.” This assumes that an absolutely perfect and holy God grades on a curve. We may lower our standards but why assume a perfectly just God would do the same?
  • “I don’t need God to be a good person, and that’s what counts, right? – Leaving the world a little better place than I found it?” This common misconception is based on a relativistic notion of “goodness”. But unless you happen to be the one perfect person in the whole world, good isn’t good enough to meet God’s perfect standard. And besides that, a lot of people throughout history have convinced themselves their heinous actions were actually for the “greater good.” So beware of subjective standards of “goodness”.
  • “I don’t like this God yours, so I’m going to just find one I like better.” My preference often has little to do with reality, and this dangerous assumption makes the mistake of thinking one’s dislike and rejection of God somehow circumvents the need to deal with God’s independent existence (and our potential obligations to Him) on His sovereign terms.
  • “I hadn’t really thought about what happens when I die, but I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.” When has apathy and sticking one’s head in the sand ever been a good strategy for anything? The person saying this isn’t really sure of anything other than that they don’t want to think about anything that might require them to change course.

There’s a common assumption at the base of all of these statements – that we, as individuals with our finite comprehension, somehow know better than our omniscient Creator how He should’ve done things. It’s the notion that our way – our personal and very subjective way – is the right way, instead of God’s way. Ultimately, it comes back to pride, which, as the Bible wisely warns, “goes before destruction” [Prov 16:18]. So be wise and learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the eternal consequences of these most dangerous assumptions.

The Stabilizing Influence of Logic

Spock, logic’s most famous advocate?

We live in a very emotion-driven culture now. Don’t get me wrong – emotions are good, but usually not when they’re in the driver’s seat of our lives. While our emotions may produce great poetry and stirring songs, they make for very short-sighted guidance counselors. Ever done anything really stupid when you were mad? I know I have. It felt like the right thing to do at the time… but later my lapse in judgement was all too obvious. Yet we are bombarded with messages every day discouraging us from slowing down and thinking through our actions, and instead doing what “feels right”.

“Obey your thirst.”
“Just do it.”
“Order in the next 5 minutes!”

Whether it’s advertisers appealing to our lust with bikini-clad models eating burgers, or politicians competing in a popularity contest to see who has the biggest cult of personality, or popular songs glorifying “acting like we’re animals”, it is typically our emotions and baser urges being appealed to. But are we just animals driven by instinct and momentary urges? Aristotle would say “no”. His classic definition of man is that we are “rational animals”, different from mere animals because we are capable of reasoning. Christians can also agree with Aristotle on this, for the Bible tells us that we are “created in the image of God”.[1] In other words, we have the distinct ability as humans to reason, even if we refuse to do it sometimes. So how do we combat this reductionist obsession with mere animality and reclaim our humanity? I’d like to suggest a reacquaintance with logic.

A solid grasp of classical logic is one of the best life skills one can develop because it hones the reasoning that’s needed in every part of your life. That this is a skill sorely lacking in today’s world is highlighted by the first 5 words to Peter Kreeft’s excellent Socratic Logic textbook: “This book is a dinosaur.”[2] If you’ve ever wondered why “common sense” doesn’t seem to be very common these days, that’s because it is quickly going the way of the dinosaur, for logic is the heart of common sense. The 3 Laws of logic (Identity, Non-contradiction, and Excluded Middle), are so basic and self-evident that small children can easily grasp them. Once these are understood, various principles like the Principles of Sufficient Reason and Causality follow and build on them.[3] And yet, these are precisely what relativistic, “post-modern” views denigrate.

But there is something else that logic provides: stability. Emotion is a chaotic and fickle thing, ebbing and flowing, always threatening to rise to such extremes as to overwhelm us. Logic is the always predictable, all-deadening countermeasure that dampens both high and low extremes. Stability is achieved when logic steadies emotion, guiding it in its general course while allowing those variations that make us human. It provides a foundation for clear thinking based on objective truth that doesn’t change. Emotion may tell you to run the guy off the road that cut you off; that “if it feels good, just do it”; that “love” is love even if twisted into something harmful; that gender is just a social construct even if biology says otherwise; but logic reminds us that our actions have consequences and that the truth is what corresponds to reality and cannot be ignored. Logic helps us ride out our emotional roller coaster and remember that life won’t always be as good as it is in our best times, nor as depressing as it may be in our worst times. It helps us to articulate our beliefs coherently (or figure out that our beliefs aren’t coherent in some cases). It helps us to see through the deceptions of others and to be honest ourselves, for the Law of Identity corresponds to truth itself. It helps us to dialogue with others by reminding us that both parties in a debate serve the “common master” of truth, as Peter Kreeft would say. We should not seek to win a debate or quarrel at any cost, but rather seek out the truth of the matter with our opponent: no matter who wins, may we both scour our beliefs of error and draw nearer to truth.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I keep harping on logic on a site about defending the Christian faith. That’s because logic is more compatible with Christian thought than any other worldview. Eastern religions are sometimes justified as using a “both-and logic” instead of an “either-or logic” that Westerners are used to (of necessity because of the Law of Non-contradiction). But this notion that truly contradictory statements can be compatible has one problem: it’s simply not compatible with reality. On the other side, atheists often have to oppose causality to get out of the need for a Creator that comes with the universe having a beginning. Christianity does not have these problems. Indeed, logic and reasoning are part and parcel of the Christian faith. So the more people become familiar with sound reasoning, the more they will find themselves in conflict with any other view besides Christianity.

[1] See Genesis 1:27, 9:6 in the Bible. See Augustine’s City of God (Book XII, Chapter 23) and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Part I, Question 3, Article 1, Reply to Objection 2), for examples of traditional Christian interpretations of the imago Dei.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, Edition 3.1, 2010), Preface.
[3] Although there are different formulations of the laws and principles mentioned above, Kreeft summarizes them as follows (Kreeft, ibid, pp. 220-1):

  • Law of Identity: x is x. Or,¬†whatever is, is. (Yes, it really is that simple).
  • Law of Non-contradiction: x is not non-x (i.e. “The same property cannot both belong and not belong to the same subject at the same time in the same respect” – Aristotle).
  • Law of Excluded Middle: Either x or non-x (i.e. there is no 3rd, middle alternative between existence and non-existence, between true and false, or between a statement and its negation).
  • Principle of Sufficient Reason: Everything that is has a sufficient reason why it is – both why it exists and why it is what it is.
  • Principle of Causality: Everything that acts or changes has a reason or cause why it acts or changes.

Another good (and less intimidating) book than Kreeft’s college level textbook is D.Q. McInerny’s short Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, appropriate for younger grades. Travis Lambert recently wrote a short and nicely illustrated book explaining logical fallacies to very young children in fairy-tale fashion, entitled “The Fallacious Book of Fables”.

No Time

Author’s photo of Big Ben while on a layover in London in 2013.

“Time marches on” – Metallica;
“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin… into the future” – Steve Miller Band;
“Get busy like a schoolboy making an ‘A’ cause time my brother is tickin’ away” – dc Talk;
“Time, why you punish me?” – Hootie & the Blowfish.

The subject of time is a favorite topic of songwriters and poets from all different genres and eras.¬† I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam later this year, so time has been on my mind a lot lately, too. As I work practice problems, taking far longer than the average time I’ll have on the exam, I’m reminded of how quickly time can pass when you’re busy. As I look at the calendar and realize I only have 7 months left to study, I find myself echoing Dr. Seuss when he observed (in his classic style), “My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” And when I get to the exam, time management will be critical. The temptation in an open-book exam is to waste precious time searching for answers. However, you can’t afford to be looking for answers in all the wrong places; you have to know where to go. Another trap is not having studied the right material and being unprepared for the questions asked on the exam. Suppose I’m more comfortable with steel and concrete design, and only study those areas to the exclusion of wood and masonry. I’ll be in trouble when I don’t know how to work half the problems on the exam. Fortunately, while the actual questions are a surprise, applicants are provided a breakdown of what areas of knowledge are required. So I know in advance that of the four design problems in the afternoon session, there will be one each dealing with concrete, masonry, steel, and wood. Knowing that,¬† and acting on it, I can (and should) be prepared going into the exam.

But as important as my upcoming exam is for me as an engineer, it is insignificant in comparison to the question of where I will spend eternity. Like the exam, I can waste all my time looking for answers in the wrong references. I can go worship Progress at the altar of secular humanism, or tread the Buddha’s Eightfold Path,¬† or read the Qur’an and the Hadith of Muhammad, or seek “enlightenment” from the¬† most respected guru, all to no avail. There is only one way to God, and all these other attempts are only dead ends. Trying to get to God by any of the merely human attempts, rather than the way that He opened up for us, is about as useful as trying to design a masonry shear wall from tables in the Steel Manual. It’s simply the wrong book, no matter how much one believes it has the right answer.

I can also simply ignore my lack of planning in certain areas of life, and appear some day before Jesus Christ, the judge of all, woefully unprepared, with no recourse, no appeals, no “retests”, – no second chances. Maybe you’re too busy chasing money, fame, power, knowledge, success – or even admirable goals like family, or “leading a good life”, or “leaving the world a better place” – to think about God. As Jesus famously said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” [Mk 8:36] Don’t blow this divine exam by ignoring the very things that are actually going to be on “the test”. What will we be tested on come Judgement Day? None of those things we like to use to define a “successful” life. Rather, it all comes down to this: Did you accept God’s free gift of salvation [Ro¬† 6:23] on His terms or did you try to demand it be on your terms? If not His terms, you’ve been preparing for the wrong exam.

Maybe you’d rather not think about death and what might occur afterward, and instead just “focus on the here and now”.¬† Hey, I prefer using structural steel to masonry, but the fact that I’m not as comfortable designing a masonry shear wall is why I need to study that. Whether I like it or not won’t change the fact that there will be a masonry design problem on the exam. I’ll have only myself to blame if stick my head in the sand and choose not to think about what’s coming. Life is pretty short, when you think about it, even if we die of old age. What’s a hundred years or so in comparison to human history? Tragic accidents, disease, or the acts of murderers and drunk drivers and terrorists and the like can make it considerably shorter.¬† Unfortunately, you never know exactly when that end will come. Don’t waste the time you have been given looking for answers in all the wrong places or simply avoiding thinking about the questions. The Bible is the master reference book that has the critical answers to life’s big questions: How did all this begin? Who am I? Why am I here? How will all this end? Origin, identity, purpose, and destiny are 4 words that drive much of our search for meaning in life, and they are all answered by our Creator in His book. And if you can read my rambling little blog, but haven’t invested in reading God’s Word, then what are still doing here?! Go buy, borrow, check out, or download a Bible and get to studying!*

*I hesitate to advocate stealing a Bible, although I don’t know any Christian that wouldn’t gladly give their Bible to a potential Scripture thief hungry for “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].