Status Update on the Flesh of Man – Part 1: Meet Marv.

Posted on June 19, 2014

20140619-142110-51670026.jpgWhen statistics are presented carefully and accurately they help humanity see the direction we are heading. And even though the college Statistics courses can be mind-numbing and repetitive (for all but serious math majors), we should be thankful that someone is laying out standards for accuracy with regards to any trends.

But I’m also mindful of Mark Twain’s rubric: “There are three types of lies; Lies, damn lies and statistics.” If a person wishes to persuade the world to adopt their opinion, they can often twist collected data to say whatever they want. Fortunately, the balancing factor to statistical results is often common sense.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman notes that our brains have two systems for thinking. System 1 takes quick intuitive leaps, and though it often arrives at answers faster, it is much more susceptible to being suckered by the kind of conclusions it already expected. This tendency to believe something that aligns with what you already believed is called “Confirmation Bias”. It is what makes System 1 so suspect as the basis for decision-making. System 2 is much more methodical and reaches conclusions by the long route: careful study, deep thinking and more time set aside. Kahneman counsels that if one wants to really know what is happening, they should combine the findings of research with the gut responses borne from our experience.

For instance, let’s take divorce. Some statistical models claim that we have a 50% divorce rate in America. They figure this many ways, but the most common one is to divide the amount of couples getting married each year by the amount getting divorced. If say a million couples marry and a half million divorce, there is a 50% divorce rate. But does that statistical trend really tell an accurate story?

Think of ten of your closest married friends. How many of them have been divorced? Now think of another ten…and then another ten. Of that thirty, how many have been divorced. The number will probably (though not always) be closer to a third of them, much smaller than the 50%. Scientists call this, among other names, an anecdotal survey. I call it common sense.
I once heard a conference speaker claim that 50% of pastoral marriages will end in divorce. I was appalled at that number and quite skeptical when I heard it, for I counsel a number of pastors among my clients. A few hours later, I applied the common sense method to this statistic. Out of 100 pastoral marriages, I could only think of six divorces.

Therefore, the next week I called up this speaker’s office and asked him for the references behind his quote. His assistant gave me the names of two reputable Christian organizations and said they were the source of the statistics. Still doubtful, I called both the organizations in question, and they told me they had never done a study on pastoral marriages.

One person at Barna Research group asked how one could even do a study like that. Even with my rudimentary Statistics background, I knew how hard it is to get statistical models that have control groups, measurements of accuracy and redundancies. How many denominations and independent churches would readily offer up personal information on pastoral marriages?

Since I didn’t find either of his sources to be true, I called up the Speaker’s office again. His assistant eventually told me his boss had been told these two groups had done the studies from another speaker in St. Louis. I called the office of the St. Louis speaker and actually got her on the phone. She was a marriage counselor. She told me where she got the information from. She had been at a professional conference of counselors and it was quoted there and the two organizations mentioned earlier were cited as sources.

I then asked who the speaker at that conference was. It was the guy I first heard it from at my conference. Now I was back to square one and even more doubtful that 50% of pastoral marriages will end in divorce.

In relating this incident, I am being deliberately vague regarding names because I don’t want to blame anyone for this. Statistics take a life of their own once they start being mentioned. It’s possible this statistic came about over coffee in a coffee shop where one person speculated on the difficult state of marriages among church leaders – and then that speculation became a theory which then morphed into a fact.

Honestly, I never did get to the bottom of it all. But I did convince the first speaker to stop disseminating this false and confusing statistic. My point is that common sense and experience told me very few pastoral homes will see divorce. I would guess the divorce rate among clergy homes is close to 5%, though I have no statistics that have ever been done (to my knowledge) which back this up.

In researching that rabbit trail, I did come across another Barna study on divorce in America. This was done with much different parameters than the ones mentioned previously. The problem with researching divorce rates is the numbers statisticians choose to use. If they divide people who marry in any given year by the number who divorce that year, those are actually two completely different groups of people. Yes, there are a very small number that divorce the same year they marry, but essentially the common comparison is like apples with staplers. The better model is to compare the same groups of people with reference to marriage and divorce.

This is how Barna does it. They ask interviewees if they have ever been married. Then they ask if they have ever been divorced. They take the number of people who have been or are married and divide that by the number of people who have been married and divorced and from that compute the divorce rate. This more accurate rate for divorce in America comes out at 34% in almost every region of our country (except Utah). Statisticians are now beginning to adopt this method to determine divorce rates. What I fear is that someone will now claim the divorce rate is dropping, when this is not true.

Here is the most meaningful part of that Barna study for this book’s focus: The divorce rate among people who claim to have a personal relationship with God is exactly the same as the divorce rate for the general population. There is no discernible difference.

I didn’t really need a statistic to tell me that either. My gut (and probably yours as well) told me that Christians are struggling in marriage just as much as those outside of Christianity. Followers of Christ would love to be seen as a shining example to the rest of the world, but we’re not pulling it off. Our country knows we are no more ethical than they are, and if we wake up and taste the Red Bull, we can come to grips with why this is.

The problem extends far beyond divorce rates. If we look at some other statistics from Barna’s survey on morals and ethics among Christians, there are some glaring discrepancies between what we believe and how we live:

Have been divorced (among those who have been married)”
Christians – 33%; Non-Christians – 34%

Gave money to a homeless person or poor person, in past year”
Christians – 24%; Non-Christians – 34%

Took drugs or medication prescribed for depression, in past year”
Christians – 7%; Non-Christians – 8%

Watched an X-rated movie in the past 3 months”
Christians – 14%; Non-Christians – 16%

Donated any money to a nonprofit organization, in past month”
Christians – 47%; Non-Christians – 48%

Bought a lottery ticket, in the past week”
Christians – 23%; Non-Christians – 27%

Attended a community meeting on local issue, in past year”
Christians – 37%; Non-Christians – 42%

This study confirms many things about today’s North American Christian. But one conclusion I draw from it is that many Christians are firmly rooted in the Flesh; and no amount of hell-and-brimstone preaching is going to solve that. If preaching solved the Flesh, then the online proliferation of podcasts currently available would have eradicated sin from every Christian home five years ago.

The frustrating reality though is that Christians want to get out of the grip of sin’s clutches. Because this is not happening, they simply learn better ways of hiding or explaining away the fruit of the Flesh. But when anonymous surveys are done, the results are almost never good. Leadership Magazine, a journal for Pastors and Church Leaders has conducted a number of anonymous surveys since the 1980s and, without going into the actual statistics, the conclusion is that even those who preach for a living struggle with sexual sin at a significant rate. But if the survey had not been done anonymously, no one would really know this for sure.

Speaking specifically about Pastors viewing online pornography, Leadership Journal drew this conclusion:

Pastors are as vulnerable as anyone else to sexual sin. In fact, they may be more vulnerable. Isolation and loneliness are inherent to the position. And many pastors neglect their personal relationships for the sake of ministry.

The Internet feeds these. And for wired pastors, who will be in cyberspace for legitimate purposes, it’s a short journey from the sacred to the profane.

Here’s another tragic example. In the 90s, Christian teens embraced the concept of Promise Rings and instituted “True Love Waits” movements. They did this to encourage each other and dedicate themselves to sexual purity. Modern culture made fun of these groups and I was offended that people would mock such a worthy goal.

Unfortunately, this concerted effort to stay sexually pure before marriage didn’t work as well as most people hoped. In recent anonymous surveys of adults who signed up for the “True Love Waits” and other programs, the results are not good. They actually had premarital sex at a rate slightly HIGHER than their peers who did not put on promise rings and pledge before others to be chaste.

It is easy to become discouraged when bombarded by these statistics, but take heart. It is not the purpose of this book to lambaste the Body of Christ or to propose another version of the “just try harder” approach to holy living. These statistics are what they are because we have been seeking the results of Spiritwalking while walking in the Flesh.

I feel so badly for my teen friends who are trying with all their might to live up to moral standards and failing miserably at it. Many of them conclude that it is because Christianity doesn’t work or they aren’t cut out for holy living. Neither conclusion is true.

Marv met me at Starbucks on a sunny California Tuesday. But he looked as dark as winter. He didn’t even want to do small talk.
“Mike, I have given up on living like a Christian. I can’t do it.”
“Marv…what? What’s happened?”
“I’m a big joke. I go to all the Promise Keeper meetings and sing the songs and come back deciding I will never look at porn again and stop ogling my secretary. But then a month later I am back at it. I have given up pot so many times I am like a mental revolving door. Yet, I love worship and Bible study, and I accept God’s forgiveness every time I sin. I just can’t change, no matter how many books I read and how many sermons I hear. The bottom line is I can’t try any harder than I’m trying”.

I believed him. I have seen it hundreds of times with Christians. As well-meaning as many teachings and books are, their advice many times boils down to some version of “just try harder”: Do more inductive study, attend more meetings, pray better, longer, more often. Worship, fast and pray at the same time. Stop watching Family Guy and Reality Television. Wear a promise ring.

The Flesh loves the “try harder” method, because even if you succeed, you did it yourself – and that feeds the Flesh just as much. There is something inside of all people that wants to sing out in parody of Frank Sinatra: “I did it My Way.” As I said in an earlier chapter, my life goal was to live my life so I didn’t have to need anyone. That personal philosophy is tailor-made for the “try harder” way of life.

I asked Marv if he would keep going if God wouldn’t reject him no matter how little or much he viewed porn, how many joints he lit up and how often he prayed. He laughed at me and called my sanity into question. But I told him it was a serious question. What if there was a way you could live for God and not have to try harder? What if you could live for God and not have to worry about being a moral failure every day? Would it make life easier?

I had his attention.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Marv Meets His Savior…Again.