Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Below the Surface

When people I meet find out that I study psychology, the most cliché question they ask is “so are you analyzing me right now?” Another question that I tend to get is harder to answer and usually occurs later in relationships. Sometimes they ask: “so what do you think is wrong with me?” The former question is such a cliché that most people in my business have some cliché answer to give them, such as: “What would make you think I am analyzing you, do you have something to hide?”

Sometimes people seem to think that studying psychology gives you magical powers so that you can see deep into the core of people you barely know. This is as ridiculous as saying that physicists can see electrons without a microscope.

 At the end of the second chapter of the Gospel of John, we are told that Jesus “knew all men” and that he “knew what was in a man.” There was no such thing as psychology when the book of John was written. There was no scientific way to interpret people’s behavior. Jesus knows all men because he can look below the surface. He knows every neural action that happens in our brains. Sometimes I imagine him chuckling at our naiveté, like we would chuckle at a child who is trying to learn something new.

I think it is incredibly valuable that humans seek to understand our own brains and thinking processes. It is an intellectually stimulating pursuit that is very beneficial to humanity. However, psychology is a flawed human science just like every other human-formed entity. There is always a margin of error and bias. Christ, on the other hand, is not a flawed human entity. He knows you completely, with no margin of error.

Friday, March 26, 2010


I once had a boss who almost never gave positive feedback to me. He seemed to love heaping loving praise on a few people. I worked really hard in that job, for a long time, trying to please him. However, this same boss did not often give negative feedback either. The one time that he did give me negative feedback, he communicated it in quite a humiliating fashion. He did not seem too mad, but he made me feel stupid.

That job was very important to me from the start, but receiving praise from him was a goal I wanted badly. I felt that if I could join the “favorites” group, everything would be fine. He would recognize that I worked really hard and did a good job. I was never able to join that group of favorites, but I did get some praise from him that made me feel ten feet tall.

In the second chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus performs the miracle of turning the water into wine. The interesting part of it to me is that he was careful that only a select few at the time knew about what he had done. He could have performed the transformation in front of all the guests at the wedding. Everyone would have been stupefied. Instead, his mother, the servants, and his disciples were the only ones who witnessed it.

Seeking validation has been an overall theme in my life. It can be a very tough battle. I think it is a pretty common theme for most people in one way or another. Jesus seems to have been immune to it. He did not try to get anyone to praise him. He knew his true identity.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Keep it Real

Sometimes I am amazed with the human capacity to act fake. It has been found that individuals who believe lies enough and have decent control over their bodily arousal systems can very easily beat a polygraph lie detector. How often do you find yourself wondering if they really mean it when an acquaintance says: “how are you?” More importantly, how often do you really want an answer when you ask the same question?

When I catch myself acting this way, it makes me feel stupid. I try to ask myself: “What are you doing? What good is this doing?” Another perplexing question might be “Why do I not want to really talk and invest in this person?” A recent research article found that people who are happy seem to have less meaningless small talk conversations.  I think happy people have less small talk because walking around all day trying to give false impressions is exhausting and leads to superficial unfulfilling relationships.

In the first chapter of the book of John, Jesus calls Nathanael. When Nathanael’s brother tells him they have found the messiah, Nathanael makes a remark that was not exactly respectful of the savior of the world. He says; “does anything good come from Nazareth?” Yet when Jesus meets Nathanael, he says he is a “true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

I would really like for Jesus to have a similar impression of me (not the Israelite part, there is nothing I can do about that, but the “nothing false” part). I think I already tend to veer in the direction of being blunt, but I think I always can improve the genuineness of my relationships.

I think we should all make some attempts to skip the niceties and really relate to each other. Some research shows that disclosing your weaknesses to another person often has the effect endearing yourself to them and strengthening your relationships. Unfortunately we often think the opposite and hide our weaknesses. So give it a shot, keep it real for at least once. Have a real conversation with a small-talk-type of acquaintance and post a comment about how it works. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


During my first week of orientation for my Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin, I overheard some of my classmates talking about their scores on the graduate requisite exam (GRE). They were talking about how they had taken the test more than once. One of the young ladies said, “I got a ___ for my score, and I knew I had to take it again because that score would never allow me to get into a good program.” When she said that, I chuckled to myself, because my score was substantially below that score she thought was no good. I kind of wanted to tell her “well I got a ___ and we both got into the same program!”

Sometimes I walk around campus, wondering, are these best and brightest students in the state of Texas? If you look at the numbers, they pretty much are some of the best and brightest. In 2008, 75% of UT freshman were in the top 10% of their high school class, 94.7% were in the top 25% of their high school class. I know I never would have been admitted out of high school, yet I do not feel like I was/am academically or intellectually inferior. The more I study in the field of learning and education, the more I realize that there is a host of variables which have a big impact on one’s academic success.

In the last part of the first chapter of the book of John, we see Jesus essentially enrolling his students. From what I have learned, it was quite common in those days for a teacher to enlist young men to follow him as a sort of internship for those who would like someday to also be teachers. Yet something that strikes me is that it does not seem that Jesus was very selective. It is almost like he just kind of said, “sure, come on, bring your brother too” when willing prospective students presented themselves.

It seems willingness may have been the most important factor Jesus required. He did not stop to give them a grammar test. He also did not seem to care about how they looked, their politics, or their parental lineage.

I can understand why institutions have selection processes, working at a community college for three years taught me about some of the difficulties associated with an open door. However, I am thankful that when it really matters, Christ wants my heart, not my credentials.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Not too long ago, I got into some trouble for what was described to me as my “swagger.” Evidently, some people were not impressed with what they called a “street-wise, Joe Cool” attitude from me. I did not mean to upset anyone. I honestly think there was some type of miscommunication that unfortunately led me to making a bad first impression. Nonetheless, I tried to be more conscientious.

I have done a substantial amount of study on the topic of humility and pride. It is a complicated issue. It seems like sometimes humility is seen as quiet strength, other times it is seen as weakness. Sometimes pride looks like self-confidence, other times it looks like ignorant arrogance. People seem to prefer one or the other in different situations. We want politicians to emanate pride, whereas we like to see humility in professional athletes.

I think that John the Baptist is a good example of someone who had a good balance between humility and pride. In the first chapter of the book of John, he describes himself as a “voice” and a person who baptizes with water. He does not degrade himself or call himself nothing. He knew he had an important role. He also did not inflate himself by assuming the role of prophet. Instead, he defined himself through his relationship with Christ. He basically said he is a human billboard, not worthless or incredibly valuable, yet his value lies in pointing the way to that which has value.

Sometimes I pretend to have all the answers, pointing to my own goodness, which is probably where pride comes in. Other times I can bring myself so low as to doubt his goodness in me. Instead, I want my life to be a voice, a message to the world about the goodness of God.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Final Frontier

Watching LOST has helped me encounter something about myself that I had never encountered in the past. It must lie somewhere deep within the depths of me, so deep that it remained undiscovered for such a long time. I think my propensity towards social desirability may have formed a thick protective layer, keeping this trait far beneath the surface. I have spent most of my life in situations where those who have this trait usually kept it silent, or were pushed off to the fringe of social circles. I am not sure if I have felt it before or not, but if I did I was afraid to admit it even to myself. But I can no longer keep silent, I must admit it and let it be as it may.

I enjoy science fiction. I cannot hide it. I never enjoyed Star Trek, I did not even see the Star Wars movies until I was 24 years old. I was sucked into LOST when it seemed to be an interesting survival drama, but I am even more engaged now that it is full-blown sci-fi with mythical monsters, time travel, and alternate realities. In the last week my roommate has got me hooked on watching “Battlestar Gallactica” and I enjoy it immensely.

Reading the first chapter of the book of John this morning made me think about science fiction. I can just see the first 18 verses in large yellow letters appearing at the bottom of a star-lit screen and moving slowly into the distance accompanied by a dramatic John Williams symphony. “In the beginning was the Word…”

It seems to me that there may be some similarity between the draw of science fiction and the intrigue of this chapter. Both include epic, larger than life stories. Both are mysterious and other worldly. Both draw you in by toeing the line between what is familiar and what is novel. I believe it is our attraction to God’s story that makes science fiction’s stories attractive.

So as I continue to work my way through “Battlestar” and everyday life, I need to be reminded that the reality God created is more epic and intriguing than any science fiction story. I do not need to try to hide my desire to part of his bigger story. Life can sometimes seem mundane, we need to remember that the story is epic. May the force be with you, live long and prosper.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


I recently heard a story (on “The Moth” podcast) about a woman who received a disturbing phone call. The unknown voice on the line told her that her boyfriend was having affairs with two other women. Understandably, she was enraged. She got all of his stuff and proceeded to his house. The storyteller said that until that moment, she had never understood how murder happens. 

I have never been in that particular situation, although I have been in situations in which I found out how someone was very different from whom I thought they were. There is this sense of psychological loss of the person I thought I knew. From that point on, one’s perspective will never again be the same.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11 about people who deceive others through a masquerade. He wrote that even Satan himself performs a masquerade as an “angel of light.” According to Paul, the result of such behavior will be that the deceiver shall get what is deserved.

I think our response should be first and foremost to examine our own lives for deceptive practices. I know there have been times in which I have been worn a deceptive spiritual mask. Second, as much as it does hurt, we need to be exceedingly careful about enforcing God’s judgment on someone who deceives us. Although we should not enable it to continue, it is God who should be the one to punish. Finally, being deceived is just a part of life. I think it does us little good to beat ourselves up, always thinking “I should have known better.” We have to accept our own fallibility and move on with life without the tethers of paranoia tying us down.

As far as the woman in the story, I propose you follow the link and listen to it. The story is by a woman named Teri Garr, it is named "The Wake Up Call." That podcast is really interesting.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I sometimes find myself trying to please people who are hard to please. There was one particular faculty member back at ACU who was not everyone’s favorite guy. He was not afraid to tell you what he thinks. During my first meeting with him, it felt like he was trying to talk me out of going to graduate school. He was pretty intimidating. We all learned very quickly that whenever we needed to meet with him, we needed to have our ducks lined up in a row.

It was not too long before I ended up working as his graduate assistant. It seemed to me that he did not get much pleasure out of people who merely did what he said. Everyone did what he said. So I started not being afraid to speak my mind to him. If his instructions were vague, I did it my way. If we disagreed, I would have a reason to support my position. Of course I still did what he said because he was my boss.

I guess I enjoy the challenge of proving myself. Getting approval from someone who is so hardcore somehow seems to mean more than getting it from someone who is less discerning.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10 that he does not want to be compared to those who commend themselves. He said that comparing yourself with others is not wise. Instead, Paul advocates boasting in the Lord and receiving his commendation.

I think this is a great spiritual challenge. We must be reminded continually to seek God’s approval, not in order to get gold stars next to our spiritual name on the board, but in contrast with always seeking the approval of other people.