Asking for Wisdom

In James’ letter to the early churches, he makes the claim that God will, without fail, give wisdom to any who ask without doubting. This is a staggering claim. What does it mean? Here’s the main passage (James 1:2-7):

2 Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord. 

There are apparently three conditions for receiving free wisdom from God:

  1. That those suffering through trials should be seeking moral perfection rather than mere relief.
  2. That God gives wisdom to those who lack it is the next. More on that later.
  3. Third, that they pray without doubting.

What does he mean by doubt? In this passage doubt appears to be more than “intellectual uncertainty.” Its more like “entertaining duplicitous thoughts about moral progress.” James elaborates by saying that such a man is double minded and unstable which is basically a hypocrite or a sloth. Or less damningly, such a man is an immature Christian who has little resolve in his pursuit of Christian virtue.

More proof of this may be found in James 4:2-3:

2 You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

In other words, unanswered prayer is due to requesting blessings which one will not use for good.

Back to the second condition. It reveals a profound reason we don’t find our requests for wisdom answered. We ask for wisdom which we do not lack. 

Often, as we face life’s trials and moral struggles we know exactly what we ought to do and what would benefit us most. Yet, we act as though we did not know. So we pray for God’s will and for wisdom, not because we don’t know, but because we do, yet, will not obey to the truth already in our minds. 

And so we ask for wisdom and we receive no answer because we ignore our wisdom, buried, as it were, like a coin receiving no interest, wondering why the master has nothing for us.

There is a fine line in the Bible between the fundamental goodness of man’s divine image and inbuilt moral intuitions and man’s deep moral corruption. But part of that corruption is that we look in the mirror of God’s natural and Biblical law and act as though we have nothing to change or as if God owes us specific advice when we don’t practice the wisdom we have.

Biggering and transposition: more thoughts on fatherhood

I was talking to a friend a friend about marriage, couples’ counseling, and parenting and she told me that her test for whether she’ll be on board with a friend’s relationship is whether or not the both parties become more or bigger than they were without each other. Her comment reminded me of a line in the Lorax, in which the Onceler rhymes:

I meant no harm,

I most truly did not,

But I had to get bigger,

So bigger I got.

In Seuss’s yarn, BIGGERING is bad. But I think that in the context of relationships and parenting, biggering is good. For instance, being a father tempts me to want to sleep in, watch more television, read less, and learn less new skills. Why? Because I’m tired all the time. But there’s a deeper more fully-human desire to “bigger” myself. It’s like Jack Donovan said, to be a dad you’ve got to be big. And so being a father has made me conscious of a truer, but still biological aspect of myself, to which I am spiritually accountable.

It’s a weird experience, but I think it is one to which all our biological impulses point if you interpret them with reason. For instance, sexual impulses lead us to pursue an experience that exacerbates how incomplete we are without another, but that only lasts for moments. And so sexuality causes us to seek transcend our finitude. Our biology can hide our spiritual nature from us or be ennobled by it. It’s as Paul says in Romans 6. At every moment you can choose to use your members (the components of the flesh) as instruments of righteousness or tools of sin and destruction. The process of eliciting transcendent supernatural value from mundane realities is what C.S. Lewis calls transposition or what I’ve called, in reckless abuse of Seuss’s own meaning, ‘biggering.’

I’ll need to reflect on it more, but being a spouse, a parent, a child, an employee, a manager, a friend, a cancer patient, or just a person is to have a wide field of opportunities for biggering that could just as easily be used as opportunities to give up on anything transcendent.

A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

Corruption and Perfection

Imagine the horror of your bad habits being made known on your body, on the news, or to the masses on social media. Even more than your social life, imagine the effects of such habits on your soul or upon your highest aspirations in life. If you’ve ever read The Picture of Dorian Gray you get to experience that through a man whose indiscretions are hidden from view by virtue of their effects being transferred to a painting of himself that essentially represents the sum total of his virtues or vices.

The power of the novel, or even the concept of a painting that ages in our place for anybody who hasn’t read it, is in its ability to make us reflect upon whether or not our actions move us closer to perfection or deeper into soul and aspiration destroying corruption.

The processes of corruption and perfection are measurable by comparison to an ideal self, a moral standard, or, in the case of physical goals, literally measurable by the strictest standards of science (fitness, financial, and other such material based goals).

With this in mind, I suspect that the best way to help somebody pursue a like of moral virtue is to get them to imagine an ideal version of themselves that seems ideal to them. Once you start pursuing that vision of the good, two things can happen. First, you realize how poorly you make choices, in other words, you’re a sinner by your own law. Secondly, you realize both the greatness to which you could realistically aspire and the silliness and small-mindedness of your ideals.

Richard Swinburne explains the process of personal corruption. It is essentially the encouragement of bad desires and elimination or deformation of good desires. This is the result of choices we make. In the book he proposes the case of somebody who decides to do what they know (or think they know) to be evil. He describes what he considers to be the two possibilities for somebody who repent of their actions:

“Gradually, unless a man to some degree pursues the good, one of two things happens. First, the agent may try to persuade himself that the action which he believes to be wrong, say stealing, is not really wrong. He looks for disanalogies between stealing and other wrong acts, and analogies between stealing and acts which are not wrong. ‘It’s only luck the victim had the watch to start with,’ says the thief; ‘so I’m just upsetting the balance of luck. Anyway, hardly anyone really loses anything, because almost everybody is insured.’ And so on. Or secondly, the agent may say ‘I don’t care about right and wrong. I’m not going to be a moral man in future.’ In one or other of these ways the agent intentionally dulls his conscience, blinds himself to awareness of good and bad, right and wrong.”1

In other words, as we make poor decisions we either deaden our emotions to that decision but justifying it over and over again or we convince ourselves that morality in this or in all cases is not real.

An important question for thoughtful people is this:

Are there any habits for which I feel the need to justify myself to my conscience? And then ask, “Is my conscience right or wrong?”

This process, I think, applies not just to matters of right and wrong, though it obviously does. I think it applies to any good habit that makes us more fully alive, more fully functioning, and more happily human. Areas that take extra effort to develop good habit like diet, frugality, paying bills on time, working on your art daily, managing your property, reading instead of watching television, exercise, cleanliness, intellectual effort, and so-on can go through the process of corruption until we find ourselves unfeeling and ungoverned by reason with respect to these things. We revert to our merely animal nature and live on the basis of impulses rather than reason.

This particular discussion is interesting to me because my favorite definition of free-will is “the ability conceive of an ideal and pursue it.” I heard it in a lecture and I don’t know from whom the lecturer was quoting. But it’s elegant and sidesteps all the other metaphysical baggage that comes with debates concerning free will.

Anyway, what good thing do you want? Do you want honesty, freedom from pornography, control over your emotions, a positive net-worth, to be truly tranquil in yourself and benevolent to those around you? Now ask, do my habits tend toward these goods or away from them? Is it worth it to keep up with habits that lead you to eventually abandon your highest aspirations or live with the anxiety caused by desiring what you believe you’ll never acquire? In other words, ask yourself if you’re on the path to corruption or perfection. You’ll have plenty of time to decay when you’re dead.

 

Footnotes

1 Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford [England]; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1989), 174

*Image: By Ivan Albright (1897 – 1983) – en:File:The Picture of Dorian Gray- Ivan Albright.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757597

Wisdom Wedneday: The Evil Woman in Proverbs 6

Pro 6:23-35 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, (24) to preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. (25) Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; (26) for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life. (27) Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? (28) Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? (29) So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished. (30) People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry, (31) but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house. (32) He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. (33) He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away. (34) For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge. (35) He will accept no compensation; he will refuse though you multiply gifts.

There’s a myth that persists in the minds of young men. I call it the “perfect princess” myth. I talked about it in a post on the forms of lust a few years back. The myth is that men are bad bad bad and women are good good good. On any evangelical reading of the world and of Scripture the truth of the matter is that hearts of men and women are sick and evil (see Romans 3:23).

The myth often holds tightest in the minds of young men who obsess over women who have no interest in them but in many cases will use them as a sounding board for their frustrations with other men (husbands, boyfriends, etc), free food, or even financial support.

The author of Proverbs was aware of these dangers. As an aside, before it was an internet meme, I knew a guy who found himself in the “food zone.” The food-zone is the relationship space you enter when a spends non-romantic time with you for free food. The author of Proverbs would say that preying on a young man’s affections for free food is evil. But he would also say that the young man is just as evil for refusing the see the truth in the hopes of having his far-fetched desires for affection fulfilled. The “I can fix her/him” is a powerful narrative in the minds of the lonely.

Image result for "the foodzone"

The book of Proverbs warns young men here that such feelings of wanting to rescue such women are actually sinful because behind them is ultimately a desire (on one or both ends) to commit adultery. The proof is that when such a relationship reaches a sexual peak, nobody will sympathize when consequences occur. The attitude, the sneaking, the wishing, etc are all wrong. What’s funny is that I’ve heard this passage called “sexist” because it calls a woman evil. But at the heart of it it’s a warning to young men that evil women exist and that the innate desire to be with such women is itself evil.

Note: Observe that the evil of this character in Proverbs 6 is a particular type of evil. When the Bible says that all are sinful it doesn’t mean that all commit literal adultery. So the “evil woman” here is a particular kind of person for young men to avoid. It’s not a call (as I’m sure some monks have interpreted it) to avoid all women all the time.

 

 

 

Brief thoughts on McKnight on Pennington on the Sermon on the Mount

Scott McKnight read J. Pennington’s book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, and while he liked the book, he found the argument for a virtue ethics reading of the Sermon on the Mount helpful, but not totally convincing. This doesn’t surprise me, McKnight wrote a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that rejected any attempt to do what Pennington’s book attempts to do. 

As an aside, in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, McKnight wades briefly into the deep waters of philosophical ethics and utterly dismisses the arguments made by Kant on the basis of their being “leveled” by Stanley Hauerwas (ha!): 

“Kant’s statement of the categorical imperative is an attempt to free us of the need to rely on forgiveness and, more critically, a savior. Kant’s hope was to makes [sic] us what our pride desires, that is, autonomous.” 

I’m all for pithy dismissals of academics and dead people whose influence has gone on too long. But this doesn’t refute deontological ethics or the need for a categorical imperative (for instance, Christian theology must admit of at least one naturally available law of conscience: do what God says). Hauerwas just states Kant’s alleged intentions without any evidence that Kant thought or felt this way! For instance, if I intend to over-populate the world to destroy the human race by famine, and therefore, devise great anti-abortion arguments, they are not thereby refuted if Stanley Hauerwas tells everybody what my journal or his crystal ball says my true intentions were.

On to McKnight and Pennington.

Here are McKnight’s criticisms of the ‘virtue ethics approach’ used by Pennington:

So, while I would agree with the general description of virtue ethics he offers, the question for me is Whether or not Jesus taught that habits form a character that form a character-who-acts virtuously. I don’t see that habit of thought for Jesus.

 

So, too I can agree with this in general but I wouldn’t put the emphasis on what he does: “Namely, the Sermon is offering Jesus’s answer to the great question of human flourishing, the topic at the core of both the Jewish wisdom literature and that of the Greco-Roman virtue perspective, while presenting Jesus as the true Philosopher-King” (36).

 

Thus, too, I don’t agree: “Thus, to conclude this discussion we can arrive at an important point and depict this dual context intentionally. The point is that both of these contexts overlap in their goal of and emphasis on whole-person human flourishing, but the basic orientation of the Sermon is first and foremost that of the eschatological story of Israel, the coming of God’s reign/kingdom with Jesus as the King. This redemptive-historical perspective greatly shapes and modifies the virtue vision of the Sermon relative to its otherwise similar approach in Greco-Roman philosophy” (38).

 

So, to the point directly: Pennington finds Solomon or David behind the Sermon more than I would and he does not find Moses enough. Nothing is more clear from Matthew’s text than Mosaic themes in 5:1 with 7:28-29 and the whole — yes the whole — of 5:17-48. Not enough Moses, too much Solomon/David, and too much Aristotle. My contention is the Sermon has three plus more angles: an ethic from Above (God’s revelation as with Moses), an ethic from Beyond (eschatology of judgment/prophets) and an ethic from Below (wisdom tradition), plus christology and plus ecclesiology and plus Spirit.

 

A few thoughts:

  1. Regardless of New Testament background, if virtue ethics is true and philosophically demonstrated to be true, then that is the ethical context of humanity and therefore the proper mode of applying the Sermon on the Mount to life if it is accepted as true on the basis of its divine source. And so regardless of whether Matthew or Jesus had the Aristotelian background of virtue ethics in mind, if such a theory of human flourishing is true, then it provides a thought-space within which to interpret a divinely provided summary of ethics. 
  2. It is important to see Moses in the Sermon on the Mount (obviously), but it’s equally important to see Moses as a literate Hellenized Israelite Christian might have seen him. Philo and Josephus saw the way of life exemplified and taught in Moses’ life and law as the exemplary life of a philosopher.
  3. I would add that neither McKnight nor Pennington see Abraham enough in the Sermon. Jesus is presented as ‘the son of Abraham.’ How does that theme appear in the Sermon? I suspect in Jesus sharing a blessing with the world as Abraham was promised his children would do, and going back to Matthew 4:1-17, by being a light to the gentiles, in particular Jesus is a light of truth about the true nature of righteousness. And Abraham was also read by Philo as an exemplar of the philosophical life. Matthew doesn’t have to mean this for the resonance to be present. And Philo’s views weren’t novel. The letter to Aristeas shares similar concerns and predates Philo.
  4. In McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy, he defines ‘kingdom of God’ as basically the church: a people with a king and laws. But if that’s true, then in Aristotle’s taxonomy of politics and virtue, it is only natural that an ethos of a sort will arise from and is exemplified in the laws of a kingdom. And so this provides some coinherence of ideas between the New Testament and Aristotle.
  5. It’s well established that μακαριος is synonymous with Aristotle’s eudaimonia by the writing of the gospels. 
  6. The Old Testament itself treats flourishing as something like contemplative action oriented toward God which leads to prospering/blessedness over time, especially Psalm 1. 
  7. In ancient writings, claims of divine revelation were frequently written/interpreted as a form of philosophical discourse. Parmenides is the paradigmatic example, having written little over a century after the time of Isaiah. Socrates and Heraclitus did the same. Stephen Clark’s work Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy or Yoram Hazony’s Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. And it is in the case that several Jewish works from just prior to and during the time of Jesus and the New Testament authors (re?)interpret the Old Testament as a book of philosophy: Sirach, Wisdom, and 4 Maccabees all come to mind. 
  8. Finally, nothing in McKnight’s approach comes close to negating an Aristotelian synthesis, aside from McKnight’s insistence that it does. If Jesus’ ethic is ‘from above, from beyond, and from below, what prevents us from learning from Aristotle, and empirical psychology/social psychology about the nature of habits and their acquisition in order to help us become the sort of person Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This is what Aquinas was attempting in all of his writings, but McKnight hardly interacts at all with Aquinas, which makes sense because books cannot be infinitely long.
  9. The apparent stoic influence on the New Testament is well documented. This could be because the authors imbibed from stoicism or because the moral universe they inhabited was so thoroughly influenced by a stoic virtue ethics that they simply wrote that way. This cannot be left unsaid in a discussion of the role of human flourishing and virtue ethics in the New Testament. 
  10. The New Testament simply doesn’t have to utilize the language of philosophy to answer philosophical questions. I’ve hinted at this twice above, but I felt the need to be clear. 
  11. Finally, by the time of Justin Martyr the Christian lifestyle and thought world was considered ‘the true philosophy.’ The question is this: was this a natural development from the nature of the source material or was it imposed upon Christian discourse by the apologists? Some confirming evidence is that some recent scholars interpret Jesus as a cynic philosopher (he was obviously more than that and also probably was not self-consciously attempting to be that).  

As an aside, I’ve only skimmed a prepublication copy of Pennington’s book. So I don’t know if I agree with his whole argument. But I certainly see what he generally says is in the Sermon on the Mount in there. I recommend his article Resourcing a Christian Positive Psychology From the Sermon on the Mount

Pornography is Cultural Subversion

While at the most obvious level pornography exists as either an alleged celebration of the human form or as a trangressive method of making money by playing on a constellation of psychological issues: insecurity, loneliness, depression, and our need for immortality, the genre is less obviously meant for something else. Nate Abrams (a Jewish author) wrote:

Extending the subversive thesis, Jewish involvement in the X-rated industry can be seen as a proverbial two fingers to the entire WASP establishment in America. Some porn stars viewed themselves as frontline fighters in the spiritual battle between Christian America and secular humanism. According to Ford, Jewish X-rated actors often brag about their ‘joy in being anarchic, sexual gadflies to the puritanical beast’. Jewish involvement in porn, by this argument, is the result of an atavistic hatred of Christian authority: they are trying to weaken the dominant culture in America by moral subversion. Astyr remembers having ‘to run or fight for it in grammar school because I was a Jew. It could very well be that part of my porn career is an “up yours” to these people’. Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw, said (on lukeford.net), ‘The only reason that Jews are in pornography is that we think that Christ sucks. Catholicism sucks. We don’t believe in authoritarianism.’ Pornography thus becomes a way of defiling Christian culture and, as it penetrates to the very heart of the American mainstream (and is no doubt consumed by those very same WASPs), its subversive character becomes more charged. Porn is no longer of the ‘what the Butler saw’ voyeuristic type; instead, it is driven to new extremes of portrayal that stretch the boundaries of the porn aesthetic. As new sexual positions are portrayed, the desire to shock (as well as entertain) seems clear.

 

Abrams goes on to ask what reason, if any, should anybody be ashamed of such a cultural influence. 

It would appear that pornography is not just a nihilistic use of pleasure to cynically pursue profit from the chronically lonely and undersexed, but it is (for some) a mode of cultural subversion in a ‘spiritual battle.’ The problem with secularists who engage in spiritual battles is that their lack of belief in spiritual things does not nullify the negative effects of “winning” on the side of evil. 

To win the spiritual battle against Christian-values/Christendom in their American iteration by using pornography has all of the measurably bad effects porn has. I think the one positive thing that porn has allegedly accomplished is that neighborhoods with higher porn consumption supposedly have less sexual assaults (it’s a study I’ve heard cited but have never found). All of its known effects and qualities: lower libido, social isolation, wrong sexual expectations, being generally disgusting, and requiring the enjoyment of the debasement of others are all observably bad for individuals and civilization.  

Anyway, American Christians should think of porn this way: it’s an attack on your soul, it’s a mocking of the past that brought you into existence, and it’s an attempt to cancel your continued influence on the world after you die (by dissolving the structures meant to help you raise a family). 

Porn sucks. Subverting the goods of civilization sucks. And I don’t believe in associating norms and self-mastery with authoritarianism. 

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.

Why is Covetousness Idolatry?

In Colossians 3:5, Paul equates covetousness with idolatry:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

Why?

Well, in Genesis 1:29, man is given explicit permission to eat any plant.

In Genesis 2:16-17, God forbids consuming one fruit (incidentally, the eating of animals is not prohibited, not is their use for sacrifices).

So in the whole field of potential possessions, man is limited. Why? Because to limit man’s desires implies that they are not meant to receive total fulfillment in created things (Ecclesiastes 2:9-10). Man’s desires are functionally infinite (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The created order is simply not suited to the vastness of human desire.

Covetousness is the notion that created things are the primary point of human desire. It arises from the attempt, whether implicit or not, to fill the infinite void in the human soul with the limited field of creation.

When God placed limits on consumption in the garden, the lesson was, apparently, that humanity cannot possess all of creation and the attempt to do so results in futility and meaninglessness.

And so coveting, by replacing God with created things, is idolatry in a way that other sins besides actual idol worship are not.

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: