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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Unselfishness vs. Love - Part 1

Is there a difference between unselfishness and love, or are they one in the same thing? Let's take a deeper look at this question.

Unselfishness and Love Are the Same, or Not

We all know selfishness when we see it. Someone who is selfish is focused on him or herself. For example, we, in our society, would call a person selfish who is capable of working but spends his days lazily sitting in front of his television eating potato chips while receiving government assistance. We would probably also call a person selfish if he decided to withhold his usual $30 from the offering plate on Sunday mornings to buy a new fishing pole.

I think the vast majority of people in our society would agree that the behavior exhibited in these two examples is selfish. But not all cases are this easy to determine. Let’s say Bob is Joe’s client and Bob mentions to Joe that he’d really like to go perch fishing on Lake Erie sometime. Joe happens to own a boat and knows where and how to catch perch. Would it be selfish of Joe to offer to take Bob fishing on his boat with him? The action doesn’t seem to be enough information to determine whether Joe is being selfish. Instead, we need to determine the motive behind the action in order to determine whether it’s selfish. If Joe offers for Bob to go with him because he likes Bob and merely wants to do something nice for him, then we’d say it’s probably not selfish. But if Joe offers Bob a chance to go fishing with him because he expects to get more of Bob’s business, then we’d probably conclude that it is selfish.

In all of these examples, whether an action is selfish or unselfish seems to be derived from whether a benefit is expected as a return on the investment. If Joe offers Bob the opportunity to go fishing because he expects more business from him in return, then we would deem the action selfish since Joe is expecting to get something in return. But if Joe offers Bob the opportunity to go fishing simply because he wants to do something nice for Bob, then we would deem the action to be unselfish because he had no expectation of receiving anything in return.

Based on my observations, I would conclude that most people in our society would equate doing something without expecting anything in return with love. As a result, we could substitute the word “love” for the word “unselfishness.” We could then say that Joe is demonstrating love (not in a weird way) to Bob by offering him the opportunity to go fishing with him on his boat if he does it without expecting to receive anything in return.

At this point, we may think we have answered the question: unselfishness and love are the same. According to our society, the most loving act is the most unselfish act and the most unselfish act is the most loving act. But I don’t think we are quite done answering the question because unselfish love poses a rather large practical challenge which cannot be solved within this idealistic framework.

The Problem with Unselfish Love

Let’s say I wanted to be the most unselfish, and therefore the most loving, person to ever live on earth. In order to be completely unselfish and loving, I would have to do everything without expecting anything in return. I would have to invite people over for dinner without expecting them to return the favor. I would have to give money to homeless people without expecting them to repay me. I would have to cook dinner for my wife, Amy, and watch chick-flicks with her without expecting to receive anything in return. These three examples all make sense and sound doable.

But what would happen if I treated every aspect of my life that way? I would have to pour my money, time, and energy into my friends’ lives without expecting anything in return. I would have to go to work every day without expecting to receive a paycheck in return. I would have to invest my money without expecting anything in return. I don’t know anyone who would willingly give in these ways without expecting anything in return. In an ideal world, living out this type of unselfish love is the epitome of the life most of us desire to live. But it practically doesn’t make sense. It’s impractical to always give and never receive.

Do you have needs? I know I do. I have lots of needs. I have a need for food. I have a need for water. I have a need for sleep. I have a need for relational intimacy. If I were to live completely unselfishly/loving, then I would have to do what I do without expecting any of these needs to be met. If you’ve ever lived with one of these needs going unmet, then you realize how dysfunctional you become. For example, let’s say I didn’t eat for a few weeks because I decided I was only going to behave unselfishly. To dedicate time in my schedule to eating would be selfish because I would be doing it in expectation that I would receive benefit from it. As a result of not eating, I would probably starve to death, meaning that I wouldn’t be able to love anybody anymore because I’d be dead! How loving is that?

The conclusion we may draw at this point is that there are certain “selfish” actions which are acceptable and necessary because they allow us to be unselfish the rest of the time. But this raises another dilemma: Where is the line drawn? Which “selfish” actions are acceptable under which circumstances and which ones aren’t? I can see it right now: We could develop a list a mile long describing whether a given action is selfish or unselfish based on the situation. And then we could spend the rest of our lives trying to memorize the list so that we can make ourselves into unselfish people.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered a much better way to live than creating long lists of acceptable and unacceptable actions based on an infinite number of life situations. But unfortunately for you, you’re going to have to wait until next week to find out what it is.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Influence vs. Power

I was chatting with a friend one day who rather bluntly claimed, “You have power over other people.” In response, I said, “I don’t have power over anybody, but I do have influence on a few people.” In response, my friend asked, “What’s the difference? Aren’t they the same?”

What do you think? Is there a difference between influence and power, or are they simply synonyms–two words used to describe the same thing? After a thorough study of these two words, especially as they exist in the leadership world, I have concluded that although the outward behaviors resulting from a person having power versus influence may be similar, power and influence are actually very different from one another.

A Lesson from the Aztecs and Apaches

In their book The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom shared a historical story about some encounters the Spanish Conquistadors had with a few native groups in Central America. Here’s a summary version of the story.

When the Conquistadors, led by Hernando Cortés, first landed in Central America in 1519, they stumbled upon the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs were far from a primitive, nomadic civilization, boasting a population of 15 million people, their own language, an advanced calendar, and a central government, led by their fearless leader, Montezuma II. Upon arriving in Tenochtitlan, Cortés met with Montezuma II, took all of his gold, and killed him. Within two years, Cortés and his men had managed to cause the collapse of an empire which traced its roots to centuries before the time of Christ. Similarly, when an army of Spaniards let by Francisco Pizarro landed in South America in 1532, they took all the gold, killed Atahualpa, the leader of the Inca Empire, and brought the empire to ruins in two years.

As the Spaniards pressed north, they encountered another tribe, the Apaches. From the outside, the Apaches seemed primitive and nomadic compared with the Aztecs and Incas. They didn’t have large cities, roads, or even a central government. Their weapons were far less superior to that of the conquistadors. Yet, the Apaches managed to resist the Spaniards for hundreds of years. It was only when the United States became involved that the Apaches were brought under governmental control. How did the Apaches manage to resist far-superior armies for so long?

Centralized vs. Decentralized Systems

Brafman and Beckstrom’s answer to this question was that the Apaches persevered against the Spaniards because of the way they were organized. Unlike the Aztecs, Incas, and even the Spaniards, all of whom were centralized, the Apaches were decentralized. In a centralized system, there is a hierarchy of command, making it very clear who is in charge. Power, in a centralized system, is held by a few people who demand obedience from people lower in the chain. We are all very familiar with this type of system because it’s the system used by most large corporations. The CEO is in charge (outside of the Board of Directors) and has the most power within the company. If he tells you to do something, you’d better do it. When the Spaniards eliminated the people with the power, the common people were easily conquerable.

Contrast this system with a decentralized system which has no hierarchal structure and therefore, no clear leader. According to Brafman and Beckstrom, “If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others. The best that person can do to influence people is to lead by example.”[1] Rather than being held by a few people, power, in a decentralized system, is equally distributed among all the people. Now, this is not to be confused with anarchy. Unlike anarchy, rules certainly exist within decentralized systems. But instead of needing a group of police to enforce the rules, everyone has the power to ensure the rules are enforced. Wikipedia, although centralized to some degree, is a good example of a mostly-decentralized system since anyone, not just a few select people, can write and edit Wikipedia articles. Because Wikipedia is open-source, it gets a reputation for not being a source of reliable information, but a study conducted by Nature magazine found that Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia are almost equally accurate.[2]

If there’s no leader, how are decisions made within a decentralized system? Specifically, how did the Apaches make decisions? Within each tribe, there were people known as Nant’ans who were spiritual and cultural leaders. They didn’t have power to tell the rest of the tribe what to do; instead, they had great influence on the people. The rest of the tribe followed the Nant’ans, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Even when an opposing army, such as that of the Spaniards, showed up, the Nant’ans didn’t possess the power to command the tribe to fight. Rather, they would just start fighting and the others would join in too.

All the centralized civilizations the Spaniards encountered were quickly disposed. But since the Apaches were decentralized, the Spaniards couldn’t dispose of them. They didn’t have a central headquarters, central leader, or property that the Spanish could eliminate and thereby bring their civilization to ruin.[3]

Influence vs. Power

At this point, hopefully you see the connection between this story and my discussion on influence versus power. A centralized system operates by distributing power to a few people at the top of the chain. If I have power, people follow me because I’m higher up in the hierarchical chain of command. When I command them to do something, they must obey me. If they decide not to obey me, I have the authority to punish them for their disobedience.

A decentralized system, on the other hand, operates by the influence of many people within the system. If I have influence, people follow me because they respect and trust me, not because they are forced to obey me. They can choose to do something completely different than what I’m doing, and they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions because I have no authority to punish them.

This contrast demonstrates that influence and power are far from being synonyms for one another; actually, they are two very different things and work in two very different ways.


Is it better to have influence or power? I don’t think one is a silver bullet in every situation. There are times when influence seems to be what’s needed and there are times when power seems to be what’s needed. But personally, I would much rather have influence than power. Power is very fragile because it only exists when a system exists to support it. Once the system collapses, the power held by a few people in the system collapses with it. Influence, on the other hand, lasts beyond (sometimes far beyond) the life of a system. People like Aristotle, Jesus, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Luther King, Jr., even though they’ve been dead for many years, all continue to have influence on people around the world.

[1] Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 19.
[2] Ibid., 74.
[3] The preceding information is from Brafman and Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider, 10-26.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Are You Successful?

Successful: “Having the correct or desired result.”[1]

Last night, I had the opportunity to play in a thrilling hockey game. My team, a mishmash of random people from the Findlay area, joined together to take on a team of players which is primarily composed of members of the Findlay High School hockey team. Needless to say, the skill level difference between the two teams was astonishing. I couldn’t help but be in awe watching the Findlay High School team so eloquently pass the puck up the ice in professional fashion, deek around our defenders, and place the puck precisely where they wanted in the back of the net.

The objective in hockey is to put the puck in the net more times than the other team. Since success is defined as “having the correct or desired result,” to be successful last night, my team needed to score more goals than the Findlay High School hockey team. We were outshot by a 2-1 ratio, out-skilled, and out-worked, but somehow, in the only place where success in hockey is measured, we won by a score of 8-7. If I didn’t believe in miracles before that game, I certainly would believe in them now!

What Is Your Objective?

When you play a sport, you have a clear objective at which you are aiming. When you play hockey, the objective is to score more goals than the other team. When you play football, the objective is to score more points than the other team. When you play golf, the objective is to put the ball in the hole in as few shots as possible. These objectives are fairly straightforward and aren’t questionable. It’s not like someone is going to randomly decide to change the rules of golf so that the person who puts the ball in the hole in the most shots would be the winner. However, I wouldn’t be opposed to this rule change because I’d win almost every time.

But when it comes to measuring life success, the objective is not quite as straightforward. Some people have the objective to gain wealth, respect, fame, and power. Some people have the objective to gain a vast array of experiences. Some people have the objective to build lasting, meaningful relationships. Some people have the objective to earn their way into an afterlife of reward. These are just a few examples of the wide variety of objectives people have.

Now, I want to ask you to dream with me. What is your life objective? You may have lots of different objectives, but if they all came into conflict with one another and you had to choose only one, which one would it be? Do you have a clear picture in your head of this objective? Once you have a clear picture of your objective, move on to the next section.

Are You on Track to Accomplish Your Objective?

It’s one thing to create a clear picture of our life objective, but it’s another to actually achieve it. The easy part is the dreaming; the hard part is the achieving. How well are you doing at achieving your objective?

This is actually a much tougher question than it may seem on the surface. If you’re objective is to have a million dollars in your 401k plan, then it’s pretty easy to track how well you’re doing at achieving your objective–just plug the numbers into a spreadsheet with a certain rate of return and you can quickly generate a chart to see how well you’re doing. But not all objectives are this easy to track. If your objective is to build long-lasting relationships, for example, then how do you track your progress on this objective? It’s quite a bit more difficult than plugging numbers into a spreadsheet and generating a graph. Can you imagine trying to graph this objective? It’s virtually impossible!

Nonetheless, the people who achieve their objectives do well at continually tracking their progress. They know what they want to achieve, they have a plan to get there, and they continually evaluate their progress, or lack thereof. These are key ingredients which lead them to be able to call themselves “successful.”

How are you tracking your progress? When you evaluate where you want to be versus where you are, do you think you’re on track to achieve your objective?

What Is Success For Me?

I’ll wrap up by sharing a few of my experiences with success. When I was growing up, I decided that my primary objective was to be a millionaire. When my seventh grade math teacher gave me a plan for how to achieve this objective, I went to work on achieving it. The plan started with investing $1,000 in a mutual fund that year, so I scrounged up $1,000, which was a lot of money for a seventh grader, and invested it in a mutual fund. Throughout high school and college, I continued to stick to my plan. After graduating from college, I began working as an engineer and married an engineer, both of which allowed me to continue stashing money away in investments. I regularly ran numbers in spreadsheets to track the progress of our investments, which time after time indicated that we were well on our way towards not only achieving our objective, but blowing it out of the water.

But then things changed. Looking back on it, I guess the word “changed” is really putting it lightly. I didn’t go through a dramatic job loss, death in the family, or some other tragedy; I had a personal encounter with the God of the universe. He turned my world completely upside down and inside out. I had a radical heart transformation which changed everything, and I mean everything, about my life. I was hanging out in my living room one evening and clearly heard God, not audibly but in a still small voice in my heart, calling me to lay down my kingdom. For twenty-seven years, I had been building a kingdom by myself in my own strength, which, according to the Creator of the universe, was good-for-nothing. He was calling me to lay it down so that he could replace it with his kingdom. Having read the Bible countless times, I knew exactly what was going to happen–God was going to completely destroy my kingdom and start over from scratch, including ripping out the foundations. I knew it was going to hurt more than anything I’d experienced in my life. Everything inside of me wanted to continue holding onto my kingdom. But God gave me the strength that evening to acknowledge the inevitable–He also had an objective for my life, and his objective was not for me to become a millionaire, but to become his child. Whether I decided to acknowledge it or not, he was going to get his way because he always gets his way. So I decided it was better for me to go along with his plan than to continue to fight with him about it. Following this encounter, my life has been continuing to be radically transformed as God continues building a new kingdom within me, his kingdom, which is of infinite value compared to my kingdom which had no value whatsoever.[2]

This transformation has brought with it a new objective for my life. Instead of working towards gaining a million dollars, my objective now is to gain Jesus. If I gain Jesus, then I will count my life as a success. How can I track my progress? Well, that’s a complicated question. Since God is the one in control of achieving this objective, he’s the one who’s responsible for tracking the progress and evaluating it rather than me. This actually brings me a lot of peace because I trust him to accomplish his objectives much more than I trust myself, considering he has the power to thwart the plans of men, but no one has the power to thwart his plans.[3] But that doesn’t stop me from trying to catch a glimpse of his progress. The way I track God’s progress on achieving his objective is evaluating the “fruit” coming out of me.[4] Fruit is not outward behaviors, but rather, it is the condition of my heart. Is the fruit coming out of my heart idolatry, enmity, lust, jealousy, greed, and divisions, or is the fruit coming out of my heart love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control?[5] If the second type of fruit continue to be more and more present in my life, then I know God is accomplishing his objective, which means I’m accomplishing my objective!

Picture yourself, maybe many years from now, when you’re retired and reflecting back on your life. Did you achieve your objective? Were you successful?

[1] Merriam-Webster, “Success,” n.d., Accessed may 17, 2017,
[2] See Matthew 13:44-46 and Philippians 3:2-11.
[3] See Psalm 33:10-11 and Job 42:2.
[4] See Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33-37, and John 15:8.
[5] See Galatians 5:16-24.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Biggest Hindrance to Your Happiness

Do you want to be happy? Of course you do. After all, who doesn’t want to be happy?

Now, let me ask you a serious question: Are you happy? I’m not asking whether you’re happy every once a while; I’m asking whether your life is characterized by happiness. Are you truly happy or have you tricked yourself into believing you’re happy when deep inside, you long for something more? During the past couple years, I have uncovered what I believe to be the biggest hindrance to your and my happiness: settling for less when we could have more. Let me explain.

Dietsch’s Ice Cream

When I was old enough to start walking on my own, my parents began walking me down the street to our local Dairy Queen where they’d buy me a treasured ice cream sandwich. This was definitely the highlight of my week. The taste of DQ soft-serve ice cream wedged between two chocolate wafers was to die for. I savored every bite. As a kid, I thought nothing could top my weekly treat of a DQ ice cream sandwich.

Five years ago, I moved to Findlay, Ohio, home of Dietsch Brothers fine chocolates and ice cream. One day at work, my boss treated us to some ice cream from Dietsch Brothers. As I was surveying their broad selection of ice cream options, I noticed that they made an ice cream sandwich which looked exactly like the ice cream sandwiches I had eaten at DQ as a kid. Remembering the glorious taste of those ice cream sandwiches, I selected a Dietsch’s ice cream sandwich. I opened the package and scanned the sandwich, comprised of two chocolate wafers with a slab of vanilla ice cream wedged in between, for the best entry point. After picking a spot, I took a large bite into my ice cream sandwich. I couldn’t believe my taste buds! This was absolutely the best tasting ice cream sandwich I had ever eaten. I’m convinced that if there are ice cream sandwiches in heaven, they’re going to be from Dietsch’s. I was so impressed with my ice cream sandwich that I went back for another one and another one and another one. I couldn’t get enough of them!

A week later, I was traveling for work and happened to be driving by a Dairy Queen. Remembering the taste of heaven I had experienced a week earlier while eating Dietsch’s ice cream sandwiches, I pulled in to the DQ and bought myself an ice cream sandwich, expecting similar results. Eager to experience the taste of absolute amazingness again, I quickly opened the package and took my first bite. Similar to my experience a week earlier, I couldn’t believe my taste buds, but for a completely different reason. This ice cream sandwich didn’t taste anything like the ice cream sandwich I had gotten from Dietsch’s the prior week. It didn’t even taste good. I was so disappointed with my DQ ice cream sandwich that I haven’t been back to DQ for an ice cream sandwich since.

When I Experienced More, I Became Disenchanted with Less

What happened? For years, I savored the taste of DQ ice cream sandwiches, but once I experienced the taste of a Dietsch’s ice cream sandwich, I became completely disenchanted with DQ ice cream sandwiches. Was it because Dairy Queen changed their recipe? Not at all. It was because I had experienced the taste of an ice cream sandwich which was so much better that it made the DQ ice cream sandwich taste disgusting.[1] All those years I had settled for DQ ice cream sandwiches which were disgusting compared to the far-superior Dietsch’s ice cream sandwiches.

We do this same thing every single day. We become so desperate to be happy that we’re willing to grab any happiness we can find, even if it’s only a small ounce of temporary happiness. Instead of holding out for Dietsch’s ice cream sandwiches, we settle for DQ ice cream sandwiches. Instead of experiencing an intimate relationship with a loving spouse, we settle for one-night stands. Instead of pursuing happiness in the creator of the universe, we settle for the temporary, ever-disappointing happiness we find in his creation. As C. S. Lewis once wrote:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[2]

Like C. S. Lewis, I believe the biggest hindrance to your and my happiness is that our desires to be happy are not too strong, but too weak. We’ve experienced painful disappointment after painful disappointment in our lives, and as a coping mechanism we’ve successfully suppressed our desire for happiness in order to lessen the pain. We’ve reasoned with ourselves that if we can completely kill every desire we have to experience happiness, then when we don’t experience it, we won’t feel pain, and when we do experience it, it’ll seem like a special treat. The only thing this logic is doing is robbing us of the joy we can experience by allowing our desires for happiness to be so strong that we’re unwilling to settle for anything less than a full tank of happiness.

What Can Quench My Hunger for Happiness

When I first came to this discovery, I began trying to figure out how to increase my desire for happiness. I went searching for it. I prayed for it. I even reasoned that it was okay to glut myself on things which brought me temporary happiness such as Dietsch’s ice cream sandwiches in order to try to maximize my happiness. But I was really doing nothing more than making the same mistake which had originally gotten me to the point where I had suppressed the desire for happiness: I was settling for temporary happiness in things which can’t really quench my long-term hunger for happiness. Had I continued on that path, I would’ve done nothing more than repeated the same cycle all over again of trying to find long-term happiness in things which can only provide temporary happiness.

What can quench my hunger for long-term happiness? In the Bible, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”[3] Does Jesus really possess the ability to quench our hunger for happiness? I can tell you from my own personal experience that he continues to quench more and more my hunger for happiness day after day. But if you’re still skeptical, consider this question: If the creator of the universe is powerful enough to give life to everything in the universe, why wouldn’t the creator of the universe also be able to quench our desire for happiness, a desire which he built into us?

Maybe you’re feeling pretty down right now and aren’t experiencing happiness at all. Maybe you’re feeling like you’ve just been coasting for years, hoping that there’s more, but not quite knowing where to find it. Then again, maybe for the most part you’re experiencing happiness, but still have a deep yearning for something more. If any of those are you, I would encourage you to ask God to allow you to experience the type of happiness he can offer, a type of happiness that won’t come through the created things in this world, but through him. As Jesus once said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.”[4]

[1] I don’t want you to get the impression that I think Dairy Queen ice cream sandwiches are disgusting. They are not disgusting. A Dietsch’s ice cream sandwich’s taste is so superior to that of a DQ ice cream sandwich that on a comparative basis, it’s disgusting.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 26.
[3] John 6:35.
[4] John 4:14.