Let Your Light So Shine

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Question:

Doing your good works ‘before others’ so that they will glorify God seems to be a bit narcissistic on the surface. “Do your good deeds in such a way that people notice them and glorify God,” why should we be so sure that others notice us and attempt to parse out our motivations?”

Answer:

The solution is in the metaphor: Nor do people light a lamp and hide it. The Christian is somebody who does good deeds in such a way that their left hand is unaware of what the right hand does. In other words, they so habituate themselves to be generous that they just behave generously. So back to ‘do your good deeds before others.’ A candle doesn’t know (as a human would) that it’s a candle. It just makes light. Jesus is saying something like this, “Do your good deeds so un-self-consciously that you even do them before others and like a candle that people light so that the room will be seen, your works will bring attention to the goodness of God.” It means something like that rather that, “go around doing things to attract attention to yourself and then claim to be glorifying God.” It means exactly the opposite of what Jesus criticizes in Matthew 6.

Self-Esteem

A former student sent me a link to a video about self-esteem last week. She asked for my comments. I finally made time to watch it today. Here’s the video:

 

Matt Walsh is certainly correct here. Confidence, defined essentially as known competence in the face of difficulty is superior to self-esteem (see note below). 

But I was asked, why I do not know, for my thoughts. William James defined self-esteem with this equation:

Self-esteem, in this sense, is inevitable. It is impossible to be void of self-reflection to the point that you never compare your level of success to your pretensions. For James self-esteem is your pretension (an ideal vision of yourself) compared to your attainment. Spiritually speaking, this is most fully explained in Romans 7, but Galatians 6:4 puts it most concisely (and more positively):

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. (Galatians 6:3-4)

For the Christian there are two challenges when it comes to self-esteem:

  1. Determining whether our ideal self is a realistic portrayal of our potential based on our understanding of Jesus Christ and our personality, circumstances, and calling.
  2. Making the wise choices necessary to make progress toward our ideal self.

If you confront those challenges and always recall your admiration of Christ and your confidence in his ability to accomplish what he says he will, then I suspect you’ll be in good shape:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Colossians 2:9-10)

So, “do good things, and you’ll have all the esteem you need.”

Note: What I don’t like about Walsh’s video is that Walsh criticizes a theoretical construct (self-esteem) with a colloquial one (confidence). Note Albert Bandura’s distinction between confidence as a general term (the word Matt uses) with self-efficacy, the definition of which, Matt uses for confidence:

Thoughts on the Trees in Eden

In Genesis 2:9, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are both “in the midst of the garden.” That’s not a literary happenstance. Proverbs 3 makes a startling connection if you keep Genesis 3:6 in mind (the tree was desirable to make one wise): 

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. (Proverbs 3:13-18)

Finding wisdom is a tree of life. 

In terms of what the trees are representations of in our own daily experience I am not quite sure why the trees are in the same place (or are the same tree?). But in Proverbs, wisdom is a tree of life. Maybe something like self-consciousness of death is wisdom but also catastrophic from the point of view of personal experience? I don’t know. 

Jung and God

In Man and His Symbols, Jung attempts to tackle the topic of religious experience:

Christians often ask why God does not speak to them, as he is believed to have done in former days. When I hear such questions, it always makes me think of the rabbi who was asked how it could be that God often showed himself to people in the olden days while nowadays nobody ever sees him. The rabbi replied: “Nowadays there is no longer anybody who can bow low enough.”

This answer hits the nail on the head. We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions. The Buddhist discards the world of unconscious fantasies as useless illusions; the Christian puts his Church and his Bible between himself and his unconscious; and the rational intellectual does not yet know that his consciousness is not his total psyche. This ignorance persists today in spite of the fact that for more than 70 years the unconscious has been a basic scientific concept that is indispensable to any serious psychological investigation. (92) 

As interesting as Jung’s interpretation of the rabbi’s quote is, I find the quote itself more interesting. Why don’t we have direct experiences of God? There is no longer anybody who can bow low enough

The New Testament says this:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6b)

And, interestingly, so does the Old:

And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
(Numbers 12:6-8)

But Moses’ experiences with God are not even mediated through dreams and riddles, but through a direct conversational experience that the Bible says is unparalleled (Exodus 33:11)

But the nature of our experience of God is not what concerns me (we cannot decide how God will communicate with us). What concerns me is the mode by which we receive communication from God, and the rabbi said to humble ourselves. And over all, I think that this is right.

Now, of course, we’ve got to humble ourselves before God in the way in which God has revealed himself, but the facts of God’s revelation (Scripture, the resurrection of Jesus, the church in history, etc) are not self-evident to all. But I would suggest that whether you’re a Christian or just somebody who really wants to understand the core of reality, the first personal step is to humble yourself

Note

Jung is right. Christians can use the Bible as a barrier between themselves and God. Jesus warned the Pharisees of this exact danger:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
(John 5:39-40)

You can rely so thoroughly on the faith experience of the characters and writers of Scripture that you never place your faith in God or practice the teachings of Christ. 

But he’s not totally right. Scripture does provide truths about God which register on the moral, logical, and mythological levels and it is meant to do this. The Bible itself is clear that God doesn’t need the Bible to communicate to us. But history has shown that when the Bible is interpreted as a witness to Jesus Christ, it provides a sure guide to God. 

 

A brief spiritual exercise from Genesis 1:26-31

In Genesis 1, the Lord makes the world insofar as it is experienced by humanity, as a place he considers good and very good. It is a composition of chaos and order and more fully, in Genesis 2, God makes a Garden to demonstrate to man how, as a being in his image, to subdue the earth in a way that brings more potential out of it rather than ordering it in a stifling way (think of a garden with no bugs…super orderly but no fruit!) or leaving it to pure chaos (a field with no edible food for humans, but covered in fire ants and fleas hiding in the weeds).

With this in mind, I think part of being God’s image is asking at the end of our days: “Can I look at what I’ve made of this day and say, with honesty, ‘this is very good?'” And if you can’t, then revise yourself.

Jonathan Edwards had a practice like this, though it wasn’t explicitly based on Genesis 1:26-31:

41. Resolved, to ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.

 

Psalms 34:11-14 Genesis 1:26-31
Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
(Genesis 1:26-31)

Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.

Brief thoughts on Eden

In Genesis 1:1-2, God creates chaos and starts to bring order into the world.

In Genesis 2, the author is retelling the creation story. You can tell because Adam and Eve are made on different days, and Adam precedes the plants and animals. That’s not a contradiction any more than Jesus telling a set of parables about sheep, coins, and prodigal sons is a contradiction.

But anyway, the chaos/order motif is still present in Genesis 2. Man must tend the garden (Genesis 2:15). There is a wall (garden means ‘enclosed region’). The waters, which represented chaos in Genesis 1:1-2 are present but flow out of the garden (I suspect we’re supposed to suppose that that’s how the serpent got in).

Anyway, Eden represents a sort of ideal picture of the correct composition of chaos and order, potentiality and actuality.

It’s important to see Eden as a picture of the promise to God’s people as well, and the Bible gives us that, but in Genesis 2, Eden isn’t that yet. For instance, when Adam is put there there is something “not good” (Gen 2:18).

I think there’s a moral/spiritual application of the Eden story which we often overlook about how we manage our families, property, work space, and so-on. There will be a measure of unrealized potential in any well-ordered space. If you over-order a garden (let’s say by mowing it down) it’s not longer beautiful nor fruitful. But there’s less chaos. If you let a garden overgrow too much, perhaps there will be no safe fruit left.

So there’s a picture of something like, “in the space which God gives you, you’re responsible for ensuring that it is orderly in a fashion that does not destroy it’s potential but brings new potential out of that place.”

Of course, every choice to create order in a room or in your life is saying no to millions of other choices. But each new choice can be made in a way that makes space for new chaos/potential to be discovered. There are Proverbs about this very thing:

Proverbs 14:4 Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

Proverbs 24:27 Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

Without an ox, there’s no ox cleanup (less chaos), but there is more work.

If you build yourself a house where you can relax and chill before you order your field in a fashion in which working it is convenient, you may not work.

And here are some OT laws about this:

Leviticus 25:1-7 ESV The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (2) “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (3) For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, (4) but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (5) You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. (6) The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, (7) and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

 

From the outside in?

The pattern we typically set for people who wish to be more like Christ is this:

Start from the inside out.

It’s not unreasonable. Jesus says roughly that to the Pharisees:

Matthew 23:25-26 ESV “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (26) You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

And I think the advice in generally sound. But, sometimes people’s desire to be like Jesus is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already working on the inside and they need something to do to actualize the potential God is putting there.

First, a passage from Proverbs:

Proverbs 24:30-31 ESV I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, (31) and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.

What the passage is getting at is that the sluggard won’t even care for his own property. And the problem with the sluggard is a spiritual problem. But it would seem that taking care of the outside, the literal outside of his house (his field), might help his inside. And Proverbs does mention something like that:

Proverbs 24:27 ESV Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

The meaning is very practical, but it may have a spiritual application as well.

If so, for some Christians, especially young men and women, maybe the first steps in discipleship might really be things like:

  1. Clean your apartment.
  2. Clean out your car.
  3. Change your oil.
  4. Get out of debt.
  5. Get to work/class on time.
  6. Groom yourself.

One somebody turns their life into something resembling order, it might be easier to help them overcome something like despair, arrogance, porn, or anxiety.

This Life and the Next

1 Timothy 4:7-8 ESV Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; (8) for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

Mark 10:29-31 ESV Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, (30) who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (31) But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

The Bible isn’t shy about talking about material, this worldly blessings associated with attaining godliness and wisdom. My problem with the prosperity gospel is not that it tells people that God will bless them materially. It’s that it tells them God will bless them materially through the wrong channels. I’ve spent hours discussing this issue with people who’ve heard the prosperity gospel their whole life. They frequently wonder why Ephesians 2:8-9 isn’t working to make them rich, better at school, fix their car, etc.

But the whole book of Proverbs tells you how to get rich, how to be content when you’re not rich, how to study and learn anything, how to make friends, be a good husband, and so-on. Ephesians 2:8-9 explains how one aspect of our covenant with God, through Christ works. We don’t earn our way into God’s family. We couldn’t, because by sinning in any case, we’ve fundamentally rejected the concept of goodness, which means that no amount of good deeds on our part could allow us in. God has to accept us into his family and offer us forgiveness. He does require works from us, but works as a result of faith or an aspect of true faith, not works as a counter balance to evil we’ve done. Galatians 5:6 says that saving faith is faith working through love.

But all of that is beside the point.

The Bible is clear that there are present and future tense blessings for the Christian before death and before the coming of Christ, but with persecutions.

Jesus lists those blessings fairly thoroughly. Paul is a bit more vague. But even without referencing Jesus’ list, I can think of several “this-worldly” blessings from Christianity:

  1. In Mark 10:45, Jesus says to become a servant of all to achieve greatness. If you start a business with the goal of serving people in the most effective way you can, it’ll likely be more successful than a business whose only goal is making short term financial gains. The principle of being beneficent to those around you instead of arrogant in order to achieve greatness really does have wide reaching implications.
  2. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says to treat others the way you wish you were treated. And while the most immediate application is to other Christians in the church, it is not untrue that this command is very helpful in all contexts. Examples: be the employee you’d want at work, be the boss you’d want, be the spouse you’d want, be the friend you’d want, and so-on. Such a principle enlarges your imagination and helps you make friends. It’s just true.
  3. Christianity defines God the Father in terms of love, justice, and transcendent beauty. For people who struggle to cope with having been raised in a single parent home or with a father who wounded them, this vision of a fundamentally loving presence in, through, above, and at bottom of reality can strengthen young men and women. This idea, from a psychological perspective, places a disciplinary perspective upon all of life’s challenges. People who take that frame of mind, that life’s challenges can perfect them, have a growth mindset.
  4. Christianity provides a sense of meaning, which is one of the core components of happiness.
  5. Christianity resulted in the best civilizations the world has ever seen.

Any others?

Learning to Pray

My wife and I were speaking with a psychologist friend, whose colleague is an atheist.

She’s never studied theology in depth and so she found herself frustrated with his argument that the archetypal underpinnings of Christianity and its similarity of aspects of previous myths show that it isn’t true. This led to a brief discussion about prayer which led me to some thoughts about the meaning and experience of prayer and how to help Christians learn to pray:

  1. We tend to talk to ourselves, so when we pray and it feels like we’re talking to ourselves, that’s not as awkward a state as we think it is.
  2. We frequently talk with imagined versions of people we know, rehearsing arguments we want to make, things we wish we said, bouncing ideas off of idealized versions of parents, fictional characters, and so-on.
  3. We also reason to ourselves about our ideals and our relationship to various rules: am I speeding? was that the right thing to do?
  4. We, if we’re really self-conscious, have conversations with ourselves about an ideal version of ourselves: “will this make me who I want to be…do I care?”
  5. This can lead us to moral and practical introspection of the sort that is very helpful.
  6. We frequently wish, in an impersonal way, for things. “I wish I had less debt.”
  7. Psychologically, when we wish for something or make a goal, our perceptions tend to filter the world in terms of that goal. If you want a motorcycle and set yourself to getting, you see more motorcycles, more open opportunities to buy one, and so-on. And so, there is a psychological explanation for why prayers seem to be coincidentally answered. For a brief look into how this happens with goal based behavior, here’s the gorilla study.
  8. So, if all prayer does is change your perceptions it’s worth it.
  9. Prayer, defined as making requests of what we perceive to be the greatest possible being (God), forces us to compare ourselves not just to the ideal people around us, but to the greatest possible ideal. And so prayer, in the way previously mentioned, reconfigures us to look for opportunities to seek the highest possible ideal we could imagine for ourselves.

And again these aren’t theological reasons to pray, per se. They’re natural experiences most of us have. And they may be conversation pieces to have with somebody who struggles with prayer. The theological realities of prayer, that God hears our weakest requests and honors them are not negated by recognizing some of the more natural elements of prayer. If you believe that we are what God made us, then all these natural results of prayer are God ordained anyway.

Another brief thought, Christian devotion times don’t have to be all prayer in the sense of “asking God for things.” Christian devotion includes soliloquy, prayer, meditation (mulling over a subject), contemplation (focusing the mind on aiming at God), letting your mind wander in silence, introspection, study, family discussion, and so-on.

Our devotion time doesn’t have to be “15 minutes of prayer…followed by listening for God to tell us something specific.”