Tim’s newest book, Eyes To See: Recognizing God’s Common Grace in an Unsettled World, is out. Rick and Tim take up the book’s theme of common grace and consider how it impacts topics and issues around winsome conviction. What is common grace? How should we think about divine and human action in this gift? They explore how we can develop eyes to see common grace and skills from communication theory to speak with others about common grace as well as an interesting commonality between cash gifts and compliments. This is part 1 of a 2-part conversation on common grace.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. I'm Tim Muehlhoff, a communications professor here at Biola University in La Mirada, California. I'm the co-director of the Winsome Conviction project and co-host of the Winsome Conviction podcast. But I don't do this alone. My good friend and colleague, Rick Langer.
Rick Langer: Thanks, Tim. And as Tim mentioned, I'm also working with the Winsome Conviction project. I'm a professor as well in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department and the director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And Tim and I have had a wonderful time doing these podcasts for the last year plus, talking to interesting guests about interesting things. Because we couldn't find any interesting guests, we decided just talk to Tim about his new book.
So today, we're taking a look at a book that Tim recently wrote on the issue of common grace. And Tim, I'd love to have you just explain to us. The book is called Eyes to See: Recognizing God's Common Grace in an Unsettled World, and it's out from InterVarsity. And I'd encourage you to take a look at it. You can find it on Amazon or wherever else. But Tim, it's an interesting topic. And I would love for you to first, just to help out all of our listeners to understand exactly what common grace is. And then also, how does it connect with communication, some of the things that we talk about on the Winsome Conviction podcast.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, thanks, Rick. Great to be here on your podcast.
Rick Langer: Yeah. I'm happy to bring you in [crosstalk].
Tim Muehlhoff: As a guest. Common grace basically are the generous blessings God pours out to the entire human race, even though we're actively in rebellion against him. He doesn't withhold that love, but he gives us these good gifts that we can see in technology, we can in medical inventions, art. I love what Psalm 145 says. The psalmist says, "The Lord is good to all, compassion on all he has made." And I just love that, that God hasn't abandoned us.
And so we're in crisis mode. One of the reasons I wrote the book, Rick, was we're in a pandemic that continues to go on. And my students ask the question, I ask the question, where's God during this pandemic? And that is a great question. And I have a whole chapter on scientific discoveries, medical discoveries. Imagine where the human race would be without penicillin or antibiotics or vaccines. We'd be in the Dark Ages. We'd be in pretty bad shape.
But we're not just in a medical pandemic. We are in a crisis of another kind, and that's why we have the Winsome Conviction project. So in the chapter on communication, I mention some statistics that you've probably, if you're a regular listener, you've heard these before, but 98% of Americans believe that instability is a major threat to this country. 68% believe we're already at crisis levels. And 45% would say of Americans, "I don't feel safe sharing my perspective." That's a different kind of pandemic. And we have got to figure out a way of having conversations with each other, or things like COVID are just going to get worse and worse and divide us even more. So the question becomes, what's God doing to help us with our community practices with each other? And I think we can see that through common grace.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Actually, it's an interesting point you're making. When I think of communication, I think of it as one of those incredible gifts that God has given us to make... I guess I would first say, just simply to make human life, what human life actually is. And then also to make it good, the blessings we have in so many ways from conversing with each other. And it's stunningly ironic, having said that, that right now you're reading these kinds of quotes and most of us are resonating with it, where we're feeling like communication is a thing that is causing us great harm. It's actually a source, not of grace, but let me create a word here. Let me call it dysgrace, not D-I-S but D-Y-S. The same way we talk about dysfunctional, it's like we've created dysgrace in certain areas. It should be blessings, but they have somehow become destructive and dysfunctional within our communities. And it's a double loss. The very thing that was supposed to be good, ends up being bad. The person's supposed to love you, ends up hating you.
And so, I guess I have a sense of urgency about this topic relative to communication, because it really ought to be a thing that is a great source of blessing.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we've got to figure out a way to talk to each other. And again, we're preaching to the choir. If you're listening to this podcast regularly, then we're on the save wave length. We've got to learn how to talk.
But in the 1960s, Reuel Howe wrote a great book called The Miracle of Dialogue. And Rick, I love this quote. And boy, is it timely for today. "Dialogue is to love what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies." And we are seeing a type of communication climate death today that we... We use words like tribalism, cancel culture. So when we need to talk about immigration, politics, race, COVID, we've lost the ability to do it in a way that's civil, engaging, and kind.
And so, the chapter on communication, I basically took the famous verse from the book of Proverbs, "Life and death is in the power of the tongue." And then I said, "Hey, let's consider some ways that the tongue can impart death, but then let's take a look at some ways that God has, it seems to me, instilled in the human consciousness how words can help us, how they can heal us." And there's one section in the book we'll get to where he's given that information, not just to Jewish writers. He's given that information to people from many different traditions, this idea of life is in the tongue and giving us a vision what virtuous communication looks like, sounds like.
Rick Langer: Well, I think... So, great topic to talk about. And I guess one of the things I would want to begin, just by planting this seed in our listeners' mind, is that when we talk about God's common grace, the way we phrase that somehow makes us... It's easy to think of God somehow doing these things directly. And it's a little bit like Psalm 145, you already mentioned that, it has this wonderful phrase that God opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every little thing. The context is like him feeding everything.
Okay, fair enough. But let's think about this. Sometimes when God opens his hand to satisfy the desire of every living thing, manna comes out and we eat manna from heaven. But normally what comes out is rain that comes to a farmer who then sends grain to the miller, who then sends flour to the baker, who then sends bread to the grocer, who then sells it to you for your table. And you suddenly see the incredible amount of human agency that is used to distribute this common grace of God. And honestly, a big part of the task that we have as Christians in loving our neighbor is exactly becoming vehicles of God's common grace to our neighbors. We're serving that up to them, so to speak. And then back to our language, to stop and think, "What are we serving with our words to our neighbors and the people around us?"
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And that's a huge part of the book. I don't want our listeners to miss that serving up part. So the book is written, for sure, for us recognize common grace in science, technology, the arts, communication, even how God lessens war through things like the Geneva Convention, just war theory. But the book is very much about how do you glean illustrations of common grace from pop culture, from Netflix to podcasts, to all those things? Use those as illustrations to explain common grace to your non-Christian friends, coworkers, and family members. So it's very much an outward-facing book. Let's not just take great comfort in common grace, but let's learn, how do you have these common grace conversations in the midst of a pandemic-
Rick Langer: Developing eyes to see it, so to [crosstalk]
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, eyes to see, but then even a tongue to communicate it to your neighbors is very much the heartbeat of this book.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Well, that's great. So talk to us a little bit. When it comes to common grace and communication, if you were to just simply say one thing I'd really want people to walk away with, when you think about what would you really want to underscore and highlight?
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, one thing is that death and life can be imparted, and there's a ton of psychological research to support both of those propositions. Think about what the ancient writers who have created the book of Proverbs say. Reckless words are presented as a piercing sword, Proverbs 12:18. A word spoken in the wrong way can break a bone. Proverbs 25.
Quick story. My kids love baseball. So all three of them were pitchers, which is like a curse to every parent, watching your kid pitch when an umpire will not give him the strike. Will not. And they're walking and people are scoring runs. Obviously, I still need to process this [crosstalk] a deeper level.
Rick Langer: Yeah, there's a few lingering things here, but go ahead.
Tim Muehlhoff: So I would take my kids to a park where they had a netting ,and you would throw them pitches and they would hit batting practice. But there was a covering made out of netting that you stood behind, an L shape, and you could throw the pitch.
So I'm throwing Michael all these pitches, and I take away the covering, and I'm grabbing the loose balls. Michael says, "Dad, one more." And I'm like, "Oh, I don't want to pull whole netting thing out. I'll be fine." I throw him one more, Rick. And he hits that ball as fast as you can imagine and hits me in the thigh. Rick, I went down in such pain, and I'm thinking to myself, "Did I just break something?"
Now think about the pain I felt, these ancient writers are saying your words are exactly that painful to a person's self-esteem, to their identity. And part of communication, we call it feed forward, anticipate the effects of your communication on another person. That's when James says, I want you to think that the spark of your tongue could create a whole forest fire. So that's called feed forward, and we're losing the ability to do feed forward today. We just send out that tweet, email exchange, but the ancient writers are saying, but those words really do hurt people.
Rick Langer: And so you almost need to enter into a... I don't know if this is the right way to put it, but a pre-empathy exercise where you say, "If I were to do this, say this, what would this person end up feeling as a result?"
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Perspective [crosstalk] empathy, yeah.
Rick Langer: And I would want to point out that doesn't keep you then from saying bad things. That's not the argument, but you want to think ahead of time what the feeling would be, and then think, is that actually the desired feeling I want to create, or will I have ended up actually creating unintended side effects, collateral damage, whatever language you want to use to describe it.
Tim Muehlhoff: And psychologists use this phrase, the Michelangelo phenomenon, which Michelangelo, I have a whole illustration about his sculpting, what many people have said was the perfect masterpiece, David-
Rick Langer: The sculpture David.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, the sculpture David. But man, he started out with a 17-foot tall block that actually had some imperfections in the marble when he was actually working with it. But the Michelangelo effect is, just like he would chisel into that marble, he would sculpt it. Well, our words literally do what Michelangelo did to the marble, is every word I say to you, sculpts you. And working with women in abused, domestic violence shelters, you see the effect of the negativity of our words. So I need to say, recognize every time I talk to you, I might will be having a chisel in my hand because I'm sculpting your self-esteem. And we're called as Christians to care about people and to understand the effect of our words.
Rick Langer: One of the things that you... Well, so let me just dial it back a little bit and frame this just as the discussion about common grace and our words and our communication. I was reading through this chapter and thinking about the things that we can do with our tongue, exactly to speak life, to flip this around to the other side, power of life and death. And one of the things you talk about in there is the issue of dialogue. Roughly speaking, that it nurtures our souls that expresses love, it binds people together in a relationship. And at every point, dialogue is this incredible contributor to human flourishing and wellbeing. Where would we be without conversation?
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh yeah.
Rick Langer: We would not be flourishing as individuals. Why don't you talk to us a little bit more about that?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. We have to have communication to flourish as human beings. God has just hardwired this into us, and we know that social isolation is as damaging to us as cancer. It has this same effect upon us. And actually, social isolation is a precursor to many of the diseases that most of us fear. So, I think we see this in the Genesis narrative. God looks at Adam, who has all the benefits. He is-
Rick Langer: He's in paradise.
Tim Muehlhoff: He's in paradise. He has access to God. And God looks at him and says, "It is not good that Adam is alone." And it's only when Eve comes, and now there's social dialogue between him and his counterpart, that Adam is deemed as being good, even though he had communication with God. I think right in the creation mandate, you see this idea of communal living and communicating with each other in ways that are virtuous, good, and flourishing.
Rick Langer: Yeah. And the absence of that possibility, it isn't even so much that the creation was evil. It just wasn't finished yet.
Tim Muehlhoff: It wasn't finished yet. Yeah.
Rick Langer: It was incomplete because this was an essential good, not simply an add-on. And I think that communion, community, communication really does... It is incompatible with fully being human to live in the absence of it.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I wonder if we believe that today, Rick, in our current argument culture. I think a lot of us are like, "No, I'm good with my community. I don't need other people. I'm fine with my small group of friends who believe what I believe politically or theologically. I don't need other communities." And I think when we have that attitude, we're shrinking our souls, not expanding them. We need broader communities, not just the small one that we belong to.
Rick Langer: I think in the book, you quote Theodore Zeldin, who's a communication scholar from Oxford or wherever he is from. He's actually a guy that I've quoted in some stuff I've done as well. Let me just read my quote that I love using. He says, "A conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits." And notice this premise, that it involves not just like people, but different people, people with different memories and habits. "When minds meet, they don't just exchange facts. They transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards. It creates new cards."
Tim Muehlhoff: Good.
Rick Langer: And I think one of the things that we have lost is a curiosity and interest in someone who's simply different than we are, who sees things differently. And we don't think we lose anything by not talking to those different people. I'll just, as you pointed out, happily talk to my own folks. But as Zeldin points out there, it's like, you know what? You've sentenced yourself to always living with only the cards you already have. And there's so many more things to develop if you're just willing to engage in that kind of a constructive card creating, so to speak, dialogue.
Tim Muehlhoff: And John paints that picture in Revelation. He says, listen, heaven will be every tongue, tribe, nation. God will purposely expand the cards that we're going to have to work with. And I think that's a picture of what our ultimate destination will be, is conversing with people from very different contexts.
Rick Langer: Yeah. So this is really interesting. I think you mentioned this in the chapter, but you think of where we got our different languages in the biblical narrative. So you have the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 10, and you have this division of languages that was born, basically, of sin, of people's aspiration to become like God in an obviously destructive and problematic sense of that term. Not God's moral behavior, but become all powerful, replacing God, so to speak. And God said, this is not good. So we're going to split them in these different tongues.
So it would be natural and easy to think, therefore, for you to look forward to the eternal state, that part of that would be healing that division. But as God so often does, he doesn't simply heal it by reversing it back to the original state where everyone spoke one language. Says, "No, no, I'm going to take something beautiful out of this consequential, negative judgment I had to place on humans. I'm going to transform it into something that actually makes the final product even better, even more full and complete than the original did."
And so we, interestingly enough, see in heaven this diversity of languages, every tongue, every nation, every tribe that seems to be worshiping Jesus with a single song, but in many different languages.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good.
Rick Langer: All these different perspectives.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that's what the book is predicated on. God, because of his foreknowledge, knew exactly what a rebellious world was going to have to deal with. It'd be disease, poverty, war. We would use language as a weapon. There's an interesting part in the book, where obviously the book of Proverbs is heavily represented throughout the entire book, because God has much to say about words, but in Proverbs six, we encounter a remarkable list of what God hates. And in it, he gives us the list. When you are going to read a list of things God hates, you take notice of this. This is what the list says. "Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to shed evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up conflict in the community." Proverbs 6:17-19.
What's interesting is that if the seven mentioned, four have to do with communication. So God is paying very much attention to our communication, and it evokes an emotional response from God when we use communication in a negative way. That's why maybe, I argue in the book, God hardwired our brains to receive positive communication. So I mentioned that really interesting study, where a woman makes the comment, a lead researcher, that our brains are wired to receive a compliment the same way we do a cash gift. Isn't that interesting? So if I walked up to you, Rick, and this is purely hypothetical.
Rick Langer: I can imagine, but go ahead.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. Because we're Biola professors. If I gave you a $50 bill, totally unexpected, you would take it and go, "Wow, thank you. That's really cool. I'm really going to use-
Rick Langer: You know what? I think this would be far more real if you actually engaged in this. So we aren't just talking about the [crosstalk]
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. I should call Sherry and get money... Rick's wife, ahead of time. Guess what she says, based on her research of giving people compliments... You have to read it in the book, but this fascinating study of taking three different groups, they all perform the same task. One group is complimented on the job that they did. The second group just watches the first group gets compliments, but they don't get any. The third group has no idea compliments are being given. They're all brought back the second day and performed different tasks. The group that got the compliments vastly outperformed the other two groups. And she makes a fascinating statement in her research that the brain is constructed to receive a compliment as much as we would a social reward of being given money. Now I think that's common grace, Rick. I think that's God saying in a fractured world, the argument culture, I'm going to hard wire the brain to receive a compliment, that it really registers with you. I think is God's common grace to intervene in today's argument culture of instability.
Rick Langer: Well, it is one of those things that draws us naturally. In effect, pleasing others in that sense is its own reward.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.
Rick Langer: Because we do this, we sense the favor of the other person. And then we're reinforced in being able to do this. And of course, like anything else, like language itself, it can be used badly. Our desire to please others and things like that, the positive feedback we get from a compliment probably happens even if the person shouldn't have given us that compliment or they're complimenting a behavior that isn't actually good. Nonetheless, we're wired that way. But again, I think this is one of the points that we just need to be honest about the fact we live in a fallen world. But the point is, we therefore want to be all the more skilled in using these things well, to accomplish the things that God would really want us to do with them.
Tim Muehlhoff: Absolutely. Now the question is, and I round out the chapter this way, did God just give this insight, the power of words, life and death in the power of the tongue, just to Jewish writers? Or if this is... Remember, common grace is benefits to everybody. It was so interesting, Rick, to see a universal appreciation of words in so many diverse groups and leaders that didn't have any communication with each other.
So very quickly, a quick synopsis. Hinduism, nearly 15% of the world, 1.1 billion follow the teachings of Hindu scripture. This is what comes from the Vedas. "Words can comfort or hurt. It is our pride that makes us use words that hurt." Listen to what the Buddha says. "Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change the world." Muhammad says that if you truly want to please God, speak righteous words. Confucius says, "Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more." And then I even mention Sam Harris, a noted atheist-
Rick Langer: Notice whatever he is. Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Who says this. "All we have to solve our problems is conversations. It's either conversations or violence." Now think about that for a second. If you go back to the Buddha, that is almost a paraphrase of what the ancient Jewish writer said, right? The Buddha says, "Words have the power to both destroy and heal."
Rick Langer: Yeah. Life and death is in the tongue.
Tim Muehlhoff: Now, we can reasonably assume that the Buddha most likely had no interaction with the Jewish scriptures.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: So if that's true, just like the point I make when I do a chapter on inventions, Rick, imagine inventions that are popping up all across the world at roughly the same time. Fire, tools, the wheel, shoes, and these cultures don't have any interaction with each other. Could you imagine what an ancient Zoom meeting would look like, Rick? They're all together going, "Hey, what are you guys working on?" It's like, "Well, your feet ever hurt with stones? Oh. We came Up with shoes."
Rick Langer: Shoes. You should try them.
Tim Muehlhoff: "Wait a minute. You froze. What did you say? Shoes? Well, we're working on this thing called fire." Now, if you research... And by the way, Rick, people write academic articles [crosstalk]
Rick Langer: About anything. Yes, indeed.
Tim Muehlhoff: About the advent of fire. Now everybody agrees this is popping up all over the place. Some disagree on who got it first, but it's popping up everywhere. So it's like God said, "Hey, you're going to need these gifts in a world of turmoil and sweat and sorrow." That's why James says every good gift comes from the father of lights." Some commentators believe he's looking up at the starry sky and saying, just as there's a plethora of stars, that's what the good gifts are going to be.
So I think when it comes to communication, God is saying, "Okay, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, an atheist..." And I even mention one of the leaders within the Native American community, same thing. It's like he planted this idea. Words can hurt. They can heal. And he gave it to everybody. And that's what we mean by common grace.
Rick Langer: Well, Tim, that's great. Fascinating to talk about this. There's so many different aspects of this. I think we're going to take a little bit more time to do that. So I'd love to encourage you to continue to tune in. Thanks for joining us on the Winsome Conviction podcast. We'll continue this conversation with Tim in our next session. But if you would like to subscribe, we'd love to have you do that on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. And then you can also check us out at the winsomeconviction.com website. So thanks so much for joining us.