The Human Will: Shackled and Redeemed

We often do not pay much mind to our habits, especially innocuous ones like brushing teeth or checking the weather before deciding what to wear. Habits entail those behaviors that have become relatively automatized, so they can be executed with ease and efficiency. Cognitive resources in turn become freed up and can be devoted to more effortful, deliberate thinking. But here’s a disquieting thought: in reality, a wider swath of our behaviors, which should otherwise be subject to deliberation and possible revision, tends to land on the habitual side of this automatic/controlled spectrum—if we’re honest with ourselves.

Think about the last time you or someone you know started gossiping about others, almost effortlessly. Or, think of someone quickly launching into an unchecked, villifying tirade or tantrum. Indeed, we seem to be too good at falling into habitual patterns of thought and action. Sayings in English reflect some awareness of this fact. When attempting to account for erratic or harmful behavior, we’ll say things like, “S/he just couldn’t help it.”

This comes to a head in the case of more severe addictive and compulsive behaviors. Those who suffer from drug or alcohol dependence, as specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), will openly acknowledge the destructive effects of their addiction, but also claim it’s incredibly difficult to inhibit their drug-seeking behaviors. In the past decade or so, research in psychology and neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural bases for these powerful and seemingly inescapable compulsions. The brain’s reward system, which usually promotes healthy and adaptive reward-seeking behaviors (e.g., acquiring food and drink, selecting a mate), effectively gets hijacked when drugs take on affective and motivational value. Then, the perfect storm of sensitization (i.e., a lower threshold of activation when a drug cue is present) and tolerance (i.e., diminished responses to the drug after repeated exposure and intake) occurs, severely compromising one’s ability to resist the impulse to seek out the drug.

In discussing the topic of drug addiction here, I hope to illuminate a wider issue about the will and nature of the human heart. That is, the reality of sin has penetrated even into our neurochemistry, such that our God-given capacity to freely decide between different courses of action becomes constrained and sometimes threatened altogether. Now, a captive will does not mean it is no longer free. But, this dire example screams of the need for an all-encompassing change whereby the human heart is renewed and no longer prone to destructive, compulsive ruts of thought and behavior. Although a very learned man and righteous in the eyes of many, St. Paul saw this need in himself when he was writing to the Roman church: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Later in the same letter, he admonishes his audience to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).

How is this transformation possible, especially given the unshakeable nature of habits and addiction? In Jesus Christ, we are entirely new creatures, with re-fashioned hearts that enable us to freely love God and others. God, speaking through prophet Ezekiel, made the following radical promise that finds its consummation in Christ:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God (36:26-28).

The human will is indeed fragile and fickle, but the hope of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ freely and willfully chose the brutality of the Cross, so that our wills and capacities could be redeemed and re-purposed in such a way that we can freely respond to the amazing love of God in Christ.

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الشهيد

“I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” – Psalm 118:17

Khadra al-Kassasbeh presses her forehead against mine. The 90-year-old grandmother is so close I cannot see her eyes. She touches my cheeks and kisses them, hunched over and whispering, “You are his mother too. You are his sister, you understand. God bless his soul and God give you a thousand healths, you understand.”

I don’t understand, really, because I don’t have a grandson. I didn’t raise my son and his sons under olive trees on green hills in Karak. I have never lost a family member in war. I cannot fathom how it would feel to bounce a baby boy in my lap, watch him grow up strong and tall, hear him calling me jidda, grandma, and then watch him burned in a cage on the Internet.

I don’t think I’d believe it was real.
I hardly believe it is real even now.

Jordan is filled with hurt this week. I don’t feel a right to hurt along with the country because I am a foreigner, an outsider, a listener catching snatches of pain at its outskirts. I have tried to understand every event unfolding in this region. I watch all the videos, track all the deaths, think hard about different narratives, political motives, historical contexts and propagandistic purposes. I consider what makes people angry and desperate. I imagine myself or my father in an Iraqi prison, imagine my family members tortured and killed without reason, imagine watching my country torn apart, myself running out of money, more and more burdens heaping on my chest with no breath or hope to keep me upright – in my imagination, radicalization is not so far-fetched. I see why fear and hurt turn into hate. I see how I might pick up my passport, sneak onto a flight and fling myself toward a preacher’s promise of meaning, self-sacrifice and worth.

But this, I can’t understand.

All week long I’ve heard the word shaheed. Muath al-Kassasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was shot down, captured then killed on video, is shaheed, a martyr, they say. He is shaheed of the nation and of truth, of Jordan and Islam and humanity and goodness, say the newspapers and radio and television and posters all over town. Thousands of people prayed and marched in downtown Amman with posters of his face, calling for death to ISIS and blessing to the martyr’s soul. Hundreds gathered in Karak for three days of mourning, filling a Bedouin tent in the same place where Muath held his wedding six months ago. The king honored his family with a visit as his father spoke to the crowd: “Muath is not just my son. He is our son, the country’s son, martyr for our nation.” Fighter jets roared overhead, coming back from anti-ISIS bombings in Syria. Muath’s neighbors and relatives cried. Young men pushed to the front of the crowd, shouting that they wanted to be shaheed as well. “Let us join the military. We will give ourselves. We will be like him.”

I am an outsider, but I feel the hurt. Karak’s people are kind and hospitable. They open their homes at a second’s notice, begging strangers to stay, stay for ten minutes, stay for three days, drink coffee, have tea, be with us, be together, be filled. Khadra al-Kassasbeh whispers blessings into my cheeks, and I am angry that anyone would want to hurt her. I spend an afternoon with Muath’s wife and sister, hearing their stories, then I go home to write. I am filled with adrenaline from reporting, eager to get the story out, but when I’m finished I still don’t understand. I am sad. I wake up at 5 a.m. and cry.

LORD, I pray. Why would You want Your children to die? Back in the Kassasbeh house, two family friends are trying to comfort Muath’s sister and wife. “For sure he is shaheed now,” they murmur. “For sure he is in paradise, he is happier, he is well.” The holiest people we know have all prayed for him, they say. The imams at al-Aqsa, in Mecca and Medina, thousands in downtown Amman, hundreds of thousands around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, they have prayed! He is shaheed, he is happier, he is well.

The sister and wife say nothing.

I don’t say anything either, because I don’t know what happens to people after they die. I only know that I hate Death. It feels haram, blasphemous, senseless and cruel. The young men rush forward, crying to be made martyrs. I feel their anger but wish they wouldn’t go.

LORD, I pray. I can’t find the words for my questions.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, I wonder if his disciples called him a martyr. I wonder if they sat in the dark on the floor, staring past each other’s faces, saying, “For sure he is happier now.” How dark it must have felt, how heavy the night, how thick the air pushing against their chests and breaths. I wonder if they were gripped with an urge to destroy something – the computer screen with a grandson shriveling into ashes, the world with its hemorrhage of pain, the cross dripping vinegar and blood, or their own selves, heaving for air and light.

The word shaheed shares Arabic roots with the meaning, “to witness.” Yushahid means “he watches.” Shuhada means “certificate.” A shaheed dies in testimony. But I sit with Muath’s wife and she tells me that he wasn’t sure about the airstrikes. Muath didn’t want to kill innocent people, she tells me, especially other Muslims. He’d wake up early before every strike and pray two extra raka’s at the dawn prayer, she says, asking God to keep him from causing death. The morning he was captured, Muath’s wife says, he’d asked the Lord for foggy skies.

If I’d been a disciple of Christ when He died, I don’t think I’d have understood. “He’s a martyr,” I might have mumbled. “He’s left us for Paradise.” But it would hurt.

I am awake at 5 a.m., turning Death over in my head, asking why God would want martyrs spawning martyrs, death making hate, birthing fear, calling young and strong and beloved children to throw their lives into flames. I am quiet, and then I hear.

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup,saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

I told you that I’m leaving, Christ said to His disciples. I am going, I am going, I am leaving, I will be gone, He said, but they could not understand where, how or why. Do not fear, take heart, trust in Me, He said. I am going, but I love you. He knelt and scraped the mud off their feet.

It took days before they saw Him again, longer before they understood. I am the good shepherd, Jesus said. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. My sheep listen to my voice: I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.

I find words for my prayers. Ya rabb, thank You for Your witness. Ya rabb, You did not abandon us. Ya rabb, You were shaheed to the truth that You see us and love us, we who are frail, we who are tangled in our hollow boats and empty fishing nets. You are shaheed and yet victorious, the One and only One who caught the senselessness of Death and burst through it with spring and morning. You are the One lifting birds to sketch Glory in the air, the One drawing mountains into swells of indigo praise. You died to prove that You loved us, and then You lived.

Make me a witness too, I pray. There are festering poisons inside me that I beg of You to kill. Fear is gnawing at my spirit, anger stifling its breath. Pride will freeze me into stone and hurt is ticking toward self-destruction.

In the early morning, I ask God to cut these things away. Nail them on a cross. Burn them in a cage. Shear Your sheep that we might die to ourselves, but live in witness to a Shepherd who is alive. Make us humble. Make us meek. We press our cheeks to those around us, whispering: God is still here. God has come that we may have life, and have it to the full. God loves us. God still loves us. God will make us living sacrifices. God will make us shaheed, help us die only to live, help us find a second life.

God is our Shepherd. We shall not be in want. He will help us to love one another.

Being a Good Husband (Yea, you know you want to click)

So yea, the title was a bit misleading. I know all of you were really hoping that I secretly got married and was going to spill some sagacious advice on marriage, but unfortunately, that is not the case … I’m hoping to shed a little light on animal husbandry, something that I’ve started thinking about more and more ever since my love for cooking really blew up. While we traditionally think of cooking as all the actions that happen after you’ve obtained your meat/vegetable/other food product, such a mindset is incomplete (I’ve definitely had this mindset for the majority of my life). The restaurant industry is quite ahead in this area; there’s a strong understanding that food which is treated with respect in both the pre- and actual-cooking process, it just plain tastes better. Many restaurants build strong relationships with local farms and chefs are actually out there to see and understand how the animals/plants are raised with care. Unfortunately, when it comes to the average home cook, we can’t always do this, and the animal husbandry industry can take advantage of this through factory farming/industrial agriculture that produces cruel conditions to the animals.

“Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10)

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26)

Avoiding and preventing animal cruelty seems like a pretty normal Christian thing to support. I mean … even without the verses above or considering the Genesis dominion verse (Genesis 1: 26) and what dominion means, it seems like the “right” thing to do. Preventing the unnecessary suffering of a living being just seems like something that most people can get on board with. So given this pretty reasonable stance and, on top of that, a clear call from God to take care of the animals on this earth, is there anything we can do? I mean after all, most of us aren’t in the animal husbandry industry. Surprise surprise, my answer to the question is “yes!” But I’m not going to go into that for this post. It will probably come up when I do a post on some of the intersections of food and economics. For this post, I want to just share some reflections on a particular case of (potential) animal cruelty.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. (1 Corinthians 6:12-13a)

A few weeks ago, the ban on foie gras in California was lifted. For those who don’t know, foie gras is the liver of a duck or goose.[1] While I’ve never had it (I did get to touch it once when I was externing at the restaurant), foie gras is, to many, the Holy Grail of fine cuisine. Perhaps the best analogy to think about is that bacon could be considered the “layman’s foie gras?” It’s rich, fatty, buttery taste/texture goes deliciously with just about anything. Anyways, such a description probably doesn’t even do it justice.

So if such a food is so delicious, why would there be a ban on it? A quick search will yield countless results. The main controversy behind foie gras is that its production relies on the force-feeding of the goose until its liver has become severely bloated. What this process, also known as “gavage,” looks like in practice is as follows, several times each day the geese are gathered and a long metal or plastic tube is shoved down each goose’s neck and then food is pumped straight into the goose’s liver. Watching this process can certainly be discomforting, and on top of the discomfort the geese must feel during the force-feeding process, there are other bodily discomforts that they also face because they are artificially bloated.

Many aviary experts, however, argue that gavage actually doesn’t produce additional harm to the geese for two reasons. 1) Geese have a different type of neck/esophagus that was naturally built to handle swallowing large objects whole, and 2) fowl naturally store a lot of fat and being fed such large quantities of food doesn’t cause extreme discomfort. While I’ve never been to a foie gras farm, based on some of the videos I’ve seen and accounts I’ve read, at least at the better foie gras farms, it doesn’t seem like the geese are harmed in any way worse than what you would traditionally see on farms for other animals.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1: 27)

Conventional wisdom says that this force-feeding is necessary for foie gras production because otherwise, farmed geese would not have such an enlarged liver that was as fatty and buttery and delectable. But is such force-feeding really necessary? I was recently introduced to a “this American Life” segment on natural foie gras that was being raised in Spain by a man named Eduardo Sousa. The segment can be found here and a similar Ted Talk here, both with chef Dan Barber explaining his experience going to this farm and what he saw. (I do highly recommend listening to either of these whenever you have some down time or on your next commute to work. It’s just a very fascinating story.)

At this farm, which Eduardo believe is the only completely natural foie gras farm in the world, Eduardo’s philosophy is to let his geese live as naturally as possible, to the point that are even free to just leave. The fences are built in a way such that there is only an electrical current on the outside, so as to protect the geese from predators. There is absolutely no force-feeding; the food is simply all available naturally throughout the hundreds of acres of farm space. When asked how the geese can have such large livers Eduardo explains that geese have a natural inclination to find abundance of food and generate reserves of fat. Normal domesticated geese sense that they are in their master’s control and will not freely eat. By creating an environment that is so free and abundant with food, Eduardo’s geese will fulfill their natural desires to gorge on the food. Additionally (and I am shocked by this), when wild geese fly south, Eduardo’s geese will call these wild geese to come down and enjoy the abundance of food on the farm. These wild geese willingly come onto the farm, mate with the domesticated geese, and even stay!

Naturally, such an unorthodox way of raising foie gras does incur a cost. Just to name a few of these: the land-to-geese ratio is much higher than the average geese farm, meaning higher costs for fewer geese; the geese are free to leave if they choose to do so; even when the geese gorge on the available food, their livers still won’t reach the largest sizes that force-feeding can produce.

“Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?” (2 Chronicles 1:10)

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:21)

Every time I think about the topic of foie gras, I feel extremely conflicted. I can get on board with the arguments that aviary experts make about gavage not being cruel, so long as the other farming conditions are acceptable. And yet, the act of force-feeding is just not natural and must be inferior to an option that allows the geese to naturally grow and experience life. Additionally, this action is for a food that’s considered a luxury, not an everyday food. … I really don’t know when it comes to this specific topic. It seems … passable, but nowhere near optimal …

What’s fascinating as I hear about Eduardo’s natural foie gras, though, is just how much there is an understanding that everything he produces comes from God. Two things comes to mind, first, in response to the fact that Eduardo loses out on foie gras production by giving the geese so much freedom and such great living conditions, Eduardo states that he views this as “God’s tax.” Second, when asked about giving his foie gras to the chefs of the Spain, Eduardo says that chefs don’t deserve his foie gras (which btw, was described by chef Dan as so amazing/transformative that he would say it was like eating Eduardo’s foie gras was the first “real foie gras” he ever had). When chefs use foie gras for a dish, it’s about them, rather Eduardo wants to present his foie gras as an expression of nature and as God’s gift and reward for doing good work.

As I think about these points, it makes me think that the way I consider the question of animal cruelty in animal husbandry needs to profoundly change. The conversation should not simply be about minimizing animal suffering while maximizing food product to be sold, but should be a positive one that asks how farmers can best raise their animals such that the produced food product glorifies God. Such an understanding of what it means to raise animals for food (and vegetables) seems so distant from the vast majority of what is done today with the industrial agriculture and factory farming. In some ways, it’s almost unimaginable what it would look like for this aspect of food to change such that it is no longer about producing the particular type and quantity of food we want to eat, but about producing food in the way God would see fit. But, Eduardo’s farm gives me a glimpse of what it means to glorify God when working with food, and I hope and pray that God will also give me more glimpses in the future.

[1] From now on, to cut down on words, I will just refer to geese.