The Bible and Self-Knowledge

The Socratic ideal of self-knowledge is hard to come by, but it can be done. We are often apt to give up when we find unpleasing information about ourselves or we can deceive ourselves. The Bible gives some philosophical tools to help you find this rare form of knowledge. 

Here are five resources from the Bible to help you overcome self-ignorance and gain self-knowledge:

  1. Critique yourself as harshly as you feel tempted to critique others.
    Matthew 7:1-5 ESV “Judge not, that you be not judged. (2) For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (3) Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (4) Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? (5) You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
  2. Do a thought experiment and judge your life as though you were keeping watch on accurate teaching. Does your life measure up? You’ll find your flaws and virtues very quickly this way. You could also imagine that you are a pastor and that somebody who is just like you came to you for advice. What would you need to know about them to help them overcome their sins, bad habits, and folly in general?
    1 Timothy 4:16 ESV Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
  3. Compare yourself to the ideals contained in the word of God, especially Jesus.
    1 John 3:2-3 ESV Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (3) And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
  4. Compare yourself to the ideals in the world around you.
    Proverbs 13:20 ESV Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.
  5. Invite Criticism from Others
    Proverbs 24:5-6 ESV A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, (6) for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

The Three Value Systems and Their Mindsets

Here is a rough sketch of three value systems and the three mindsets that seem to correlate with them. These value sets aren’t meant to be seen as ideological. But rather, values observed in practice. So they don’t necessarily go with specific ethical conclusions like “abortion is good” or “polluting is bad.” These are the ‘in practice’ values that people utilize to manage their lives. Because these clusters of values can be held by people of varying degrees of moral insight, they aren’t necessarily good or bad. They just identify how we operate. Some of the items here have moral consequences or underpinnings, but I’m not trying to talk about the moral value or individuals who operate in these ways. I’m just trying to categorize things practically. So these are the sorts of ideals that people consciously or unconsciously pursue and find ‘motivating.’

  1. Aspirational – Aspirational values include personal progress, results, information, effort, entrepreneurship, personal criticism, opportunity, non-interference from the government, ideological disagreement, and volatility. The aspirational mindset always asks, “How can I come out of this better than before?”
  2. Survival Values – Survival values include comfort, stability, tranquility, routine, entertainment, ideological ignorance, and protection. The survival mindset always asks, “How can I get through my circumstances intact?”
  3. Entitlement – Entitlement values include gifts, equality, free government services, authority, influence over authority, resource redistribution, sympathy, ideological hegemony, and public display of negative emotions. The entitlement mindset asks, “What can others do to improve my circumstances?”

People move in and out of these value systems and sometimes pursue values from each one. Actual victims or recipients of government aid may not hold to the entitlement mentality. People who are in actual survival situations do not always merely seek survival values as their highest goal. People who are very financially successful may not have apsirational values.

Of course, maybe these, like most personality tests, are bogus. But I think you can easily see individuals (yourself included) fitting into one of these categories in different life stages and you can probably also see how each value set confers advantages and disadvantages while somebody is in different stages of life.


N.N. Taleb on Inequality and Skin in the Game

N.N. Taleb writes:

Again, on that account, the detractors of Donald Trump, when he was a candidate, failed to realize that, by advertising his episode of bankruptcy and his personal losses of close to a billion dollars, they removed the resentment (the second type of inequality) one may have towards him. There is something respectable in losing a billion dollars, provided it is your own money.

I think that this is one among many factors that the media missed in their coverage of the 2015-2016 presidential race.

Thomas Sowell once said that, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” He was speaking about the school system, but this is a sort of categorically imperative principle for management, leadership, and so-on. And Taleb gives the example of university professors that wait until they have tenure to start saying wildly incorrect things that influence the world negatively and yet they are in no danger of losing their pay-checks.

The nice thing about skin in the game is that it allows you to experience volatility in two directions financially. If you find work or a calling in which you have no skin in the game, then you have less risk as well as less opportunity for growth.

Of course, skin in the game is scary.

Book Review: The Mountain of Silence by K. Markides

Kyriacos C Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 2001).

Kyriacos Markides, a professor of sociology, spent several years studying mysticism and shamanistic practices in several monastic type communities. He’s written several books on these topics, this particular book is about his experiences with Father Maximos on Mt. Athos.

This book was recommended to me by O_Vivliothikarios on Twitter.

The Bad

The only bad thing about this book is that the kindle edition has no links to endnote content. This will likely change in an update.

One thing that is only relatively bad is that if you are familiar with church history or read the ancient fathers with any degree of thoroughness, many of the ideas that the book portrays as unknown or ignored will already be very familiar to you. But this is not really a flaw because the ideas were new to the author and will be new to 99% of the readers.

The Good

The narrative is engrossing. You want to know more about Mt. Athos, Markides, and Father Maxime the whole time.

The book also offers a great deal of spiritual counsel that, perhaps, many Christians, especially protestants, would be unfamiliar with. In the book you also get off the cuff answers to long standing theological problems and because they’ve rolled off the tongue of a theologians and mystic, the answers are fresh and memorable.

The best chapters are five, ten, and twelve through fifteen. Chapter ten is especially helpful as it discusses the monastic strategies for overcoming logismoi which is the Greek word for thoughts, but it came to mean much more. The most intriguing notion in this chapter is that prayer should not be used, in the moment, to overcome temptation. The reasoning is that it undermines the need for self-mastery, rational interpretation of our inner state, and a sort of resignation to external forces. More on that, here.

It’s worth mentioning the five stages of a logismos (124-130):[1]

  1. Assault – a thought enters the mind urging us to commit a specific sin. The best council is to literally ignore it or distract yourself. This is similar to Martin Seligman’s techniques.
  2. Interaction – at this stage the disciple interacts with the logismos, trying to reason with it, and perhaps entertains the possibility that it’s a good idea. This is not yet sin.
  3. Consent – This is, as it sounds, consenting to commit the act. This is sin, but not yet the same kind of sin as actually committing the act. The book has a great illustration of this principle.
  4. Captivity – This is when one succumbs to the logismos, puts it into practice, and therefore makes committing it easier next time. Think of it like driving a trail and creating wheel ruts.
  5. Passion – Finally, the action becomes an entrenched part of the personality that is difficult to part with and destructive to the self and to others.

The book is filled with other gems of this sort like the threefold path: catharsis, photis, and theosis, the strategies for overcoming sin, and nature of ceaseless prayer.

There are also some theological oddities in the book, especially in the chapter ‘Escape from Hell,’ but the certainly provide grist for the mill.


I highly recommend this book to anybody who wishes to understand ancient Christian spirituality, how to overcome temptation, or the Eastern churches. The biggest problem with the book is that some of the speculative theology might be confusing to new believers, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible itself is confusing, so it’s no big deal in the long run.


[1] It’s worth noting that Father Maximos’ discussion of the stages is has one less stage than the stages outlined in the glossary of the Philokalia.

On the power and perils of free-will

You probably have a lot of excuses. I do. Sometimes science gives evidence to support them. Especially when it allegedly contradicts free will. But you do have free-will. This means that your character is your fault and you have to deal with it.

Origen, an ancient theologian, thought that since God had offered the grace of the gospel to all, every Christian must take responsibility for his entire spiritual state. For him, purity is essential to God’s nature, but it is only coincidental to human nature and must be attained and maintained consciously.

Origen, preparing to drop bombs about free will.


Now it is certain that by the dragon is understood the devil himself. If then they are called opposing powers, and are said to have been once without stain, while spotless purity exists in the essential being of none save the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but is an accidental quality in every created thing; and since that which is accidental may also fall away, and since those opposite powers once were spotless, and were once among those which still remain unstained, it is evident from all this that no one is pure either by essence or nature, and that no one was by nature polluted. And the consequence of this is, that it lies within ourselves and in our own actions to possess either happiness or holiness; or by sloth and negligence to fall from happiness into wickedness and ruin, to such a degree that, through too great proficiency, so to speak, in wickedness (if a man be guilty of so great neglect), he may descend even to that state in which he will be changed into what is called an “opposing power.”[1]

On the other hand, of course, Origen would also say that we cannot take credit for personal moral/spiritual purity because it is from God’s grace.

His point of view is similar to that of St. Peter. Peter tells us that God gave us everything we need for life and godliness so that we might partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). Peter then says that the only Christian way to live to add all of the virtues to our faith (2 Peter 1:5-8). Peter goes on to tell us that  some false teachers who have left the faith, even denied the Lord who bought them (2:1). In other words, they rejected his atonement for their sins. By so-doing, he says, they have become worse than they were before they knew Christ (2:19-22).

Free will is too weak alone to help us attain to God’s glory, this is why it must be enabled by his grace. But if it is used to deny God’s grace, there are few depths of depravity to which it cannot plumb.


[1] Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 259–260.

Guard Your Heart: How?

Pro 4:23 Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.

What does it mean to guard your heart?

In your Bible, ‘heart’ tends to mean the seat of reason or the human will.[1] In our world we’re so influenced by the romantic nature poetry of the 1800s, it’s easy for us to assume that the Biblical authors are speaking about our authentic feelings when they use the word heart. But in general, they mean the will and/or the reason. That being said, what does ‘guard your heart’ mean? The first guide should be the meaning of heart and the meaning of guard. Here are some suggestions just from those word meanings:

  1. To guard your heart against simple errors in your thinking.
  2. To guard your heart against simplistic understanding by seeking advice.
  3. To guard your heart against idolatry by seeking to know the truth about God from his revelation.
  4. To guard your heart against unsavory influences.
  5. To guard your heart against evil choices by acknowledging the commands of God and plain moral sense in your decisions.

Another set of hints are in the passage at hand. Here is the ESV translation of the surrounding verses:

Proverbs 4:20-27 ESV My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. (21) Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. (22) For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. (23) Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. (24) Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. (25) Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. (26) Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. (27) Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.

  1. Listen to and memorize the advice of your elders/parents.
  2. Don’t engage in evil plans or crooked speech.
  3. Try to always make progress in character growth.
  4. Plan carefully.
  5. Do not deviate from the good, no matter what tempts you.

Two other elements of guarding the heart can be found by looking elsewhere in Scripture. In Genesis 2:15, Adam’s calling is to ‘guard’ Eden. The Hebrew word is different, but the concept is the same.[2] Why was he to guard the garden? Presumably he was to protect it from talking serpents. Similarly, I think that we should guard our own hearts by capturing destructive and evil thought patterns before they can tempt us to sin. Another aspect of guarding the heart could be discerned from Jeremiah 17:9. There, the Lord diagnoses that the heart is deceitful above all else. Because of this, I suggest, we should protect ourselves from our heart. How? Checking our reasoning against Scripture, the advice of others, and the examples of those greater than ourselves. Not only so, but we should guard against the deeply engrained habits of our hearts by diligently seeking them out and replacing them with habits that honor God (Romans 6:12-14).

When I was a new Christian, I swear that every time I heard the phrase, “guard your heart,” it was always in the context of not dating. While telling high school kids to eschew dating was wise advice, it wasn’t quite what the phrase meant. The actual meaning is something closer to a Christian-mindfulness or self-mastery.

How else can we guard our hearts?


[1] Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 51. While in your Hebrew Bible, the word translated heart has a wide range of meaning, the core of these meanings is “the seat and function of the reason.” Wolff says that the heart includes, “everything that we ascribe to the head and the brain- power of perception, reason, understanding, insight, consciousness, memory, knowledge, reflection, judgment, sense of direction, discernment.”

[2] The Greek word in the LXX is the same, though.

Growth in Grace: Transformation of the Feelings


Over time, our response to God’s grace will lead to a transformation of our feelings and emotions.

This is evident from two perspectives. First, from observation, we know that part of a long-term diet plan includes learning to like different foods. If this change does not take place, then evidence shows that people tend to end up heavier than they were before going on a diet. Secondly, from Scripture, we see that the ideal Christian life includes the experience of appropriate positive emotions regarding God, truth, goodness, and beauty and negative emotions regarding evil, sin, suffering, and so-on.[1]

The topic of emotional growth and transformation in the life of God’s grace is dangerous, though. It’s dangerous territory because emotions are pathologized in many ways. In this post, I do not mean to:

  1. Conflict with some actual medical diagnosis somebody may have. A genetic predisposition toward depression or a measured chemical imbalance is not to be scoffed at or treated as fake.
  2. Allow people who excuse their behavior because of the feelings.

But, despite the dangers of discussing feelings and emotions, this is an important topic. Besides, a life boat is a dangerous on the high seas, but it is better than sinking with a damaged vessel. Similarly, a Christian approach to our feelings is much safer than simply staying upon a sinking vessel in those same high seas.

Four Theses on Feelings

  1. People make major decisions based solely upon their feelings.
    This is almost an axiom, but if you need evidence use social media.
  2. Basing your choices on feelings is not ideal.
    Many people think that going against their feelings is inauthentic. I’ve even heard famous pastors define hypocrisy as obeying the Lord when you don’t feel like it. The Star Wars films use the phrase, “search your feelings” over and over as a call to seek higher knowledge than sense or reason can provide. Despite the popularity of this way of life, you can easily see how impulses and feelings lead us astray on a regular basis. For instance, many sweet foods are eaten too frequently and this has led to health problems on a national scale. Similarly, the sexual impulse of humanity misapprehended leads to children growing up in terrible and broken households.[2]
  3. The Biblical picture is that feelings are a good gift from God that have been distorted by sin.
    In Romans 1:18-32, Paul says that God gives idolaters (the human race) over to debased minds and shameful lusts as a punishment. In 1 Peter 2:12, Peter observes that our passions actually wage war against our souls. On the other hand, the Bible often uses positive emotions as motivations for living the good life with God. One need only read Proverbs 1-9 to see how frequently pleasant emotions are associated with growing in wisdom, maturity, and godliness.
  4. With our cultural acceptance of feeling as a prime source for authentic living (if it feels good, do it!), Christians must re-examine and re-accept the Biblical picture of human feelings and their place in life with Jesus Christ.
    If the first three theses are true, then this one is a matter of course. A non-ideal state of affairs based on a false belief should always be changed. This is part of the meaning of biblical repentance.

3 Myths about feelings

  1. Self-control means to directly go against your emotions all the time.
    Some people caricature stoicism and think that self-control is bad because it means turning off your emotions. Very few people put this in writing. This is more of an awkward conversation that occurs with people who are about to make a bad decision based on emotion. “There are five good reasons to never do what you’re describing.” “But that’s just who I AM.” We’ve all been there, so we might as well refute it here. Self-control, Biblically, is having a mastery over your feelings. It means crucifying feelings which make it easier to sin and encouraging feelings which honor God (Galatians 5:22-24).
  2. On the other hand, it is a myth that to go against your feelings to do the right thing is bad.[3]
    For instance, John Piper says that buying your wife flowers because you feel obligated isn’t actually love, therefore similarly obeying God out of duty is also not love. This is an interesting point and is helpful from a certain point of view, but it contradicts what the Bible says in several places. Paul says that we are under obligation to the Spirit, not the flesh in Romans 8:12. Now, where Piper is right is that our duty is to delight in God. But it is also our duty to act loving when we feel despondent, hateful, or angry with somebody (God included).
  3. All feelings are true/All feelings are false
    Some people treat their feelings as a totally accurate source of data. Other people treat them as routinely unreliable. An important step is to learn to treat your feelings as an important part of who you are and just like your thoughts and beliefs, they can be right or wrong.

Developing Grace Shaped Feelings

Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart, offers excellent tools for experiencing the transformation of the feelings. What I say below will be partially adapted from his work as well as a collection of some of my own thoughts on the process.

  1. Have a vision of yourself transformed
    If you’re a Christian you want Christ-formed vision of who you are meant to be. This is true of the feelings as well. Few people can overcome their desire for an unhealthy diet because they refuse to imagine themselves as somebody who really doesn’t want the first bite of cake in the first place or at least as somebody who thoroughly enjoys a small piece and moves on with their life. Dallas Willard puts it this way, “If a strong and compelling vision of myself of as one who is simply free from intense vanity or desire of wealth or for sexual indulgence can possess me, then I am in a position to desire not to have the desires I now have. And then means can be effectively sought for that end.”[4] So imagine yourself as somebody who, upon not getting your way, simply makes a reasonable choice instead of being angry. Visualize this. Imagine the angry scenario and all of its physical results (increase heartrate, burning skin, red ears, etc). Then imagine the same scenario with a reasonable response. Which is better?
  2. Reason with your emotions
    Many of us believe that our feelings are deeps sources of knowledge about reality. That’s why believe that they must be satisfied. This can be true of sadness, anger, lust, hunger, and so-on. Part of dealing with these feelings is reasoning with them. “Will I really just die if I go for a walk instead of look at porn?” “Is it realistic to think that I must win this argument with my wife?” “Did my child really try to make me angry?” “Am I literally worthless?” If we ask these questions of our feelings and then dispute them, we may find ourselves slowly having transformed feelings. When you reason with your feelings, it’s important to focus on the positional elements of the Christian life. I’ve written more about this here and here.
  3. Learn the circumstances under which you experience your emotions and change them
    1. I mean two things here. The first is to recognize the bad external circumstances over which you have power, and change them. If you need more sleep, start going to bed early tonight. If you watch depressing or violent television, stop. If you read salacious literature, don’t. If you watch the food network and feel hungry all the time, stop watching it.
    2. There are also internal conditions of feelings. These can be beliefs and thought patterns. If you really believe that you are worthless, then you really will feel like a worthless. Repeat true, Biblical statements to yourself until your belief is changed. “I am in loved by God.” “I am made in God’s image.” “God is worth giving up my immediate desires.” “Self-denial for the sake of Jesus is good.” “With wisdom, I can have good success before God and man.” Other beliefs or processes can be important as well. I have several circumstances that opposed my life success that everybody I know says were the fault of others who took advantage of my niceness and problem solving ability. If I live my whole life thinking about how so-and-so messed me up, I will live my whole life weakening my resolve. So, I’ve chosen to believe that I am fully responsible for those failures and what comes next. This belief is only partly true, but I don’t know enough about those other people’s intentions to really believe that meant to take advantage of me. But I do know that I simply did not have a biblical form of self-love and put others interests before my own in an unbiblical fashion.[5] Learning to change this past belief to one of personal ownership of the result has helped me have way more peace about my current circumstances and to feel must more ownership over my course in life.
  4. Don’t repress your feelings, but change them (in the ways mentioned above) or use them constructively
    Many people, as I mentioned above, see self-control as an inauthentic attempt to repress or hide all feelings. While there are times to hide your feelings, repression is not the best way to have your feelings transformed. There is a time to ‘fake it’ till you make it. If you feel hungry, but don’t eat to train yourself to keep your new diet, that is probably good. But you have to own the fact that you felt hungry despite having eaten enough. If you do not own your feelings as an actual part of who you are , then it can be hard to change them over time. I’ve written about this in more depth here. Another way to approach this is to take potentially sinful feelings and use them to seek the good thing they were designed to point you toward. Examples:

    1. Anger: Anger is meant to tell you where your will is being thwarted. If you’re angry about something you currently cannot solve, go solve another problem.
    2. Lust: Use feelings of lust to motivate yourself to improve your marriageability, attractiveness, or marriage by going to the gym, being more romantic, increasing your earnings, praying more for your marriage/prospects.
    3. Sadness: Sadness comes from a sense of loss or demoralizing defeat. Use sadness to propel you to empathy with others or to motivate you to improve your chances of overcoming your circumstances. You could also use it to guide you toward repentance. Remind yourself that this feeling is the feeling that should accompany sin.


The point of this post is to give clear guidelines for transforming your feelings. The three biggest challenges for this are:

  1. The belief that we should base our lives on feelings.
  2. Our lack of vision about the Biblical picture of feelings formed in Christ (read the New Testament and Proverbs very thoroughly to solve this)
  3. Our inability to admit that our feelings are often the result of choices we make that are sinful at worst and foolish at best.

If we can get these things straight, then we can hopefully chart a clearer course through this aspect of growing in God’s grace.

May his Spirit help us.

Posts in the series

  1. What does “grow in grace” mean?
  2. Growth in Grace: Vision
  3. Growth in Grace: Intention
  4. Growth in Grace: Means
  5. Growth in Grace: Transformation of the Feelings


[1] For instance, Paul commands us to “abhor the evil” but also says that God’s spirit will work “joy” in our lives. And while I am quite opposed to the idea that love is an emotion, love is often accompanied by delight. Our sense of delight in those we choose to love (rather than only gravitating toward loving those in whom we delight) is an important sign of spiritual growth.

[2] The research on the difficulties children raised in single-parent homes face should make everybody more circumspect about one-night stands, but few people perceive future generations as worthy of respect, care, or concern unless it involves public decisions like driving a Prius. But people will rarely be choosy with sexual partners based upon their potential children.

[3] John Piper, Desiring God ([Sisters, OR]: Multnomah, 2003), 93, “Consider the analogy of a wedding anniversary. Mine is on December 21. Suppose on this day I bring home a dozen long-stemmed roses for Noël. When she meets me at the door, I hold out the roses, and she says, “O Johnny, they’re beautiful; thank you” and gives me a big hug. Then suppose I hold up my hand and say matter-of-factly, “Don’t mention it; it’s my duty.” What happens? Is not the exercise of duty a noble thing? Do not we honor those we dutifully serve? Not much. Not if there’s no heart in it. Dutiful roses are a contradiction in terms. If I am not moved by a spontaneous affection for her as a person, the roses do not honor her. In fact, they belittle her. They are a very thin covering for the fact that she does not have the worth or beauty in my eyes to kindle affection. All I can muster is a calculated expression of marital duty.”

[4] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 119.

[5] Paul, in Philippians 2:1-11, teaches us to emulate Christ in putting others interests above our own. And we should, but insofar as the interests of the other involve the purposes of the gospel. For instance, Paul won’t put others interests above his own when it comes to his calling or responsibilities. Same with Jesus. Jesus tells would be apostles (people who want to go preach with him) that they can’t come because they want him to wait for their needs to be met first. This is important to remember. If somebody’s need involves you failing to feed your family, pursue your calling, or whatever then think very carefully about whether or not it is wise to do. For instance, in the parable of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan didn’t invite the guy into his home or offer to pay all of his bills. But he did help him in the moment and agree to pay for his care at an inn.

Book Review Pt 1: The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

This is part one of a multi-part review of The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.

The Four Loves: Introduction

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Four Loves. London: Fontana, 1964.

In Lewis’ book on the kinds and nature of love he starts the book by distinguishing between Need-love (like a small child for its mother) and Gift-love (like a man working to leave a legacy for his family which he may never see). Lewis had hoped to write the whole book based on this distinction saying essentially that Need-love is bad and Gift-love is good and Christian. What he found, though, was that this is impossible (7).

Lewis points out that while it is true that the Christian’s spiritual health is gauged by his love for God, “Gift-love” for God is the exception. He uses the story of the publican and the Pharisee from Luke’s gospel to make the point. The observation holds, it’s when the Pharisee assumes that his gifts to God, even his grace inspired gifts (he thanks God for making him good) put God in his debt, that he finds himself unjustified before God. Offering God purely “disinterested love” is impossible because spiritual growth includes a growing “awareness that our whole being is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty, yet cluttered, crying out for Him… (9).”

Lewis makes one more very valuable distinction in the chapter. He distinguishes between likeness to God (by nature) and nearness to God by approach. Likeness to God, by nature, is something which every created thing shares to one degree or another. Rocks have being, animals have life, angels have intellect, will, and immorality, mankind has will, rationality, and so-on. Nearness to God by approach is the intentional conforming of the human will to the divine will. Likeness to God is a fact of nature, Lewis observes and can be received with thanksgiving or not acknowledged at all. Nearness to God by approach is what grace enabled creatures must do (11). This is similar to what I’ve written elsewhere about positional vs progressive elements in the Christian life. One of the best observations Lewis makes in the book is that since human beings have the incarnation to look to, “our imitation of God…must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions. (11)”


The Christian Life: Positional and Progressive Elements


In kinesiology class back in college, I had a professor tell me that since the triceps muscles functioned to extend the forearm, one only needed to do bicep curls to exercise the whole arm. Her reasoning was that lowering the weight extended the forearm, and therefore exercised the triceps. She had taken a basic fact and misapplied it because she neglected to account for simple facts like gravity being the force that lowers the weight as the lifter slowly relaxes his biceps.

Similarly, in the Christian life, we can easily misapply things. This is especially so in the case of the Bible’s language regarding Christian growth and God’s grace. For instance, some see the passages about justification by grace through faith is the ultimate or only expression of the Christian life. In so doing, they can actually believe/explain a version of faith that does not lead to good works or obedience in Christ. In fact, some might even disparage good works!

On the other hand, some look at the passages in Scripture about spiritual growth and the need for obedience and see these as the ultimate or only expressions of the Christian life. The danger here is teaching that one is saved by one’s efforts and not God’s grace and the progress is always obvious and linear. Such teaching may indeed lead to boasting in one’s works as the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14.

As all imbalances in Christian teaching go, one can see both of these aspects of the Christian life in Scripture. They go by many names: the gospel/law distinction, justification/sanctification, and indicative/imperative distinctions. Well explained, all of these end up saying the same thing. I’m not a fan of the words used though. They create unnecessary confusion of vocabulary. Here are some examples: in Scripture the gospel includes commands, the law of Moses includes promises, indicatives result from imperatives, and sanctification is sometimes a state not a characteristic of a person.

I prefer to distinguish between the positional and progressive elements of the Christian life. I’m sure somebody came up with the language before me, but I haven’t seen it anywhere and it popped into my mind when I was teaching an introductory course on Christian theology. Below I’ll simply describe some of the positional and progressive elements of the Christian life.

Positional Elements

These are aspects of the Christian life concerning one’s identity in Christ. They are gifts of grace to be claimed as a certain possession by the faithful. Biblical examples include but are not limited to:

  1. Justification by faith (Romans 4:24-5:10)
  2. Adoption (Ephesians 1:3-23)
  3. Sanctification/being called saints (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:29-31)
  4. Being beloved by God (all over the Bible)

The importance of the positional aspects of the Christian life included the fact that they are true (it is important to know true things), they depend on God’s grace and not necessarily our progress, and they supply us with an individual and communal identity.

Progressive Elements

These are elements of the Christian life in which growth and progress can be made. The confusing thing is that sometimes the Bible uses the same words for progressive and positional categories (sanctification, grace, live like children of God, etc). Biblical examples include but are not limited to:

  1. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. Being a son of God here is a designation based on character, not a declaration based on grace received through faith.
  2. Matthew 6:33 (seek first the kingdom of God and it’s righteousness). Righteousness is not a courtroom declaration like in Paul’s letters, but a virtue to be pursued.
  3. Hebrews 12:14 says to strive for the holiness/sanctification necessary to see the Lord.
  4. Abiding in God’s love (1 John 3, John 14-26)

The importance of these aspects of the Christian life is that they speak of the goals toward which faith strives. While one does not have to be a perfect peacemaker to be justified by faith, one should have a faith of the sort that will lead to peacemaking. These aspects of the Christian life also speak of how one experiences life with God and approaches true happiness and Christian virtue.


When we understand the difference between the two ways the Bible talks about the spiritual life, we can have hope in our justification, but still ‘strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)’ because faith that justifies is faith that seeks holiness (the holiness doesn’t justify).


Overcoming Self-Defeating Ideas

When you narrate your life, how do you write yourself? Personally, I have a long history of narrating myself as a loser, failure, or unfortunate person. If this is your struggle I found a helpful tool for you.

The reason that your self-narration is so important is that it affects your emotions, decisions, and ultimately your character. If the story you’re telling in your head is narrated by the voice of a jerk then you sacrifice your virtue as well as your personal power on the altar of self-pity. If you dramatically describe the tragedies of your life and how awful you are to an imaginary audience of zero, then you are wasting thoughts which could turn your attitudes to joy, your habits to virtue, and your demeanor to strength.

In Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimsm [1]. He outlines five steps for arguing with your self-doubts and while simple is usually better, simple is not always complete. His five aspects of self-talk are excellent. Here are my explanations of them below:

  1. Adversity – Whatever comes your way that leads you to either positive or negative explanations of yourself.
  2. Beliefs/Behaviour – The belief(s) that you base your self-talk on and the behaviours they lead to.
    You also reinforce those beliefs with your self-talk. You also reinforce those beliefs with destructive and unhelpful behaviours.
  3. Consequences – The consequences of your belief/self-talk/behaviours.
    For instance, saying, “I’m a loser,” won’t help fix your life. Saying, “I’m acting like a loser, but if I do [x] differently I can improve,” is more likely to give you a positive attitude. Also it’s important to ask, “What are the results of my behaviour when this adversity comes? Do they lead me to a place of strength, confidence, happiness, and virtue?”
  4. Dispute – This is where you argue with what you said or what you believe about yourself. Seligman recommends four possibilities for disputing:
    1. Evidence – This is important. Most hyper pessimistic thoughts are simply false and if you can distance yourself from them you can refute them by finding evidence to the contrary. You can also find evidence that things will get better. The forms of evidence can be found in the section called, “The Expanded Common Topics of Aristotle” below.
    2. Alternatives – Look for alternative explanations. Instead of “I’m a loser” say, “I messed up, I’ll fix it tomorrow.” Instead of “I always fail,” “This is hard, I’ll have to study longer.”
    3. Implications – If your negative belief is true, look for its implications. See what it means and how it connects to other truths. In a real way, this is just using the common topic of “cause and effect” or “antecedent and consequence.”
    4. Usefulness – Ask yourself, “Is this belief useful for attaining my goals?” If the answer is that the belief is hurting you, then reject it. I’m not a big fan of this approach, but it’s better than being stuck. Also, just because a belief is true does not mean you need to keep repeating it. “I messed up” said a million times in a row does not solve the problems created by the mistake.
    5.  Alternatives – There are alternatives to disputing false beliefs and bad behaviours. You can distance yourself from them. This means realizing that beliefs are just beliefs. They may be the result of poor thinking, habit, or accidentally believing a lie. You can act based on what you wish to be true or hope to be true about yourself. Similarly, you can distract yourself. Do something that has nothing to do with the belief. Paint, exercise, cook, go to a coffee shop, anything but wallow. I highly recommend singing a song that is happier than you currently feel.
  5. Energize – Focus on the positive steps that you can and did take after disputing with your false/negative belief. This obviously corresponds with distracting yourself, but this step also includes energizing true beliefs by acting on behalf of them even when your feelings don’t measure up.

To practice write these out. And think of specific times where your ABC had a negative belief and a bad consequence.

Then write out how you could have defeated that bad belief and acted (energized) in a more positive direction.

Do this five times. I recommend doing it several times. This is a thought-kata. A kata is a pattern for learning movements in martial arts. Katas must be practiced over and over again to until they become reflexes. But with practice you’ll find yourself having a much more positive approach to your self-defeating ideas because the though kata above will become a reflex.

I highly recommend using the types of argument below for the evidence against your negative self-beliefs.


Don’t let your inner jerk argue you into depression or helplessness. Use the best tools available, ancient and modern to destroy that jerk.

  1. Write the thought kata and practice it five times and see what you think.
  2. Use the common topics to perfect the art of refuting your inner-jerk.

Appendix: The Expanded Common Topic (types of argument) of Aristotle[2]:

The common topics are tools for building arguments. The idea is that there are certain types of evidence to be used in any speech. It is important to categorize them so that you can research the various avenues of evidence and form an argument using the topics most convincing to your audience. Obviously, these can also be used to critique the arguments of others.

I recommend using the common topics not only as tools for rhetoric and argument, which I’ll write about in the future. For this post recommend using them to argue against a crappy mindset because they are forms of evidence and argument which will help you know yourself better and convince yourself to move on.

  1. Definition
    • Genus
    • Division
  2. Comparison
    • Similarity
    • Difference
    • Degree
  3. Relationship
    • Cause and effect
    • Antecedent and Consequent
    • Contraries
    • Contradictories
  4. Circumstance
    • Possible and Impossible
    • Past Fact and Future Fact
  5. Testimony
    • Authority
    • Testimonial
    • Statistics
    • Maxims
    • Laws
    • Precedents

When some adversity comes your way and bad/negative beliefs come up and you want to argue against them here are examples using the different common topics:

  1. Definition – Using definitions to frame an argument.
    Negative Definition of Adversity: “Why do bad things always happen to me?”
    Positive Definition of Adversity: “How will I overcome this time?”
  2. Testimonial – Using a personal example from yourself or somebody else.
    Negative Belief – I have a bone disorder, I’m just a loser.
    Testimonial – Remember a story of somebody with a medical problem who succeeded.
  3. Authority – Appealing to an expert or an accepted body of knowledge.
    Negative Belief – I totally failed everybody, I’m the worst. I’ll never change.
    Appeal to Authority – The Bible says that people can change.
  4. Similarity – The comparison of similar things to yield new knowledge (argument by analogy)
    Negative Belief – I’m just a regular person, I can’t figure this stuff out.
    Similarity – This or that regular person is happy and takes ownership of like, I can too.



[1]  Martin E. P Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 210-223

[2] Edward P.J Corbett and Robert J Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 84-140