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.

What is my calling?

Briefly, Jesus outlines the calling for every Christian here:

Mark 12:29-31 ESV Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (30) And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (31) The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

This isn’t a very specific answer, but it’s a very significant one.

It’s in response to Jesus being asked what the most important part of the law is. Why would somebody ask that? Because they’re hoping to trip Jesus up or they’re hoping for some sort of permission or endorsement of their current way of life. In the case of the Israelites of Jesus’ day, they were looking for laws connected to overthrowing the Romans or perhaps gaining public honor through religious ritual (Matthew 6:1-18).

But the most important thing, before you start looking to do some “world changing” or “personally enriching task” is to learn to appreciate God and to bring well-being to your neighbor.

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.

The Mindset of the Spirit and the Mindset of the Flesh

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve been utterly intrigued by Carol Dweck’s concept of mindset. What’s interested me most is where the idea appears in Scripture. The most obvious part of the Bible is in Romans 8:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.[1]

The more literal translation of “to set the mind on the Spirit” is “the mindset of the Spirit,” or perhaps “the mentality/outlook of the Spirit.” The concept is something like, “the way of managing one’s mind which starts with “setting the mind on the things from the Spirit” from verse six. In other words, it’s the total of beliefs, attitudes, and thought processes that a Christian uses to be transformed by the renewal of the mind (Romans 12:1-2).

But what is this mindset? What are the beliefs, attitudes, and thought processes that Paul means? And beyond that, what are the beliefs, attitudes, and thought processes provided by the Holy Spirit outside of Paul’s immediate reference? I propose a three-step way forward:

  1. Look at what Paul says in Romans pertaining to thoughts, the Spirit, and the flesh/sin.
  2. Look at what Paul says in the rest of his letters.
  3. Look at what the rest of the Bible says that fits the conceptual framework of a mindset that comes from God’s Spirit.
  4. Forth Bonus Step: Look at what nature can tell us about a good mindset from philosophical reflection and scientific experimentation. This would still be, insofar as it was not sinful, a mindset of the Spirit, who was over the face of the deep when nature was created.

Below are some of the contrasts yielded by this approach. Some elements of contrast indicate the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. But others indicate where you might be in the process of having your mind renewed:

Mindset/mentality of the Spirit Mindset/mentality of the Flesh
1.      Regarding God as ultimate reality.

2.      Treating Jesus as the supreme revelation of knowledge about God.

3.      Hearing and doing the commands of Jesus.

4.      Regarding the Bible as a repository of genuine knowledge about God and wisdom for life.

5.      The Abel ethic.

6.      Growth mindset.

7.      God saves you from sin.

8.      You cooperate by faith, hope, and love.

9.      Reverence for divine law.

10.  Creative dominion in the face of chaotic circumstances.

11.  The wise man in Proverbs

1.      Regarding creation as ultimate reality

2.      Treating anything as supreme to Jesus w/respect to revelation.

3. Hearing and ignoring the commands of Jesus.

4.      Ignoring the Bible in your quest for genuine knowledge about God and wisdom for life.

5.      The Cain ethic.

6.      Static mindset.

7.      Something else/nothing saves you.

8.      You either exercise virtue on your own or not at all.

9.      Hostility to divine law.

10.  Resentment, hatred, and retreat in the face of chaotic circumstances.

11.  The fool in Proverbs.

References

[1] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994), Ro 8:5–8.

What is a good person?

Dallas Willard defines a morally good person:

The morally good person is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. Thus, moral goodness is a matter of the organization of the human will called “character.”

This is a serviceable definition. It is a few words away from a definition of a mature Christian. I would alter it this way to make it Christ-centered:

The mature Christian is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. The mature Christian recognizes that Jesus Christ’s teachings are the surest guide to the relative degrees of importance of those goods, especially Jesus’ focus on the kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof. They understand that God is the highest good and source of all good in the world, including any good in themselves. They also see that at any moment may reject the good and are therefore themselves in need of constant repentance and are necessarily in need of forgiveness and atonement. By treating Jesus’ words as the foundation of their lives, they thereby rely on God’s Spirit and receive transforming help from God himself. 

Willard also describes the morally bad person:

The person who is morally bad or evil is one who is intent upon the destruction of the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, or who is indifferent to the existence and maintenance of those goods.

Of course, this is the person who is like Cain. Cain sees his brother Abel, wishes to have God’s approval just like him, and instead of sacrificing his own behavior and desires to achieve his ideal (to be like Abel) he slaughters his ideal. The morally bad person is similar. It’s not that they literally pursue evil. It’s that they take imprudent shortcuts to the good that destroy the good in the process or they pursue penultimate goods as the ultimate good (idolatry). Of course, the mature Christian sees the potential to become this person residing in their heart at all times. In fact, even an innocent person who has never sinned has the potential to become evil (see the Adam and Eve story).

Anything I’ve left out?

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Main Point:

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is meant to impart knowledge of good and evil through the constant practice necessary to say, “No” to the desire to eat from a tree with tasty fruit.

Minor Point

God never offers instant wisdom in Scripture, but instead treats wisdom as a good to be sought over time. So whatever Adam and Eve receive when their eyes were opened in Genesis was either evil in itself or evil because they were not ready for it.

In my effort to make those two points, things got circuitous.

The Tree

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
(Genesis 2:8-9 ESV)

Was there really a tree with fruit that conferred knowledge upon its eater? Initially, the idea seems silly. But eating an apple confers knowledge of the taste of an apple. And if you eat a fig and it kills you, your fellow tribesmen know that the fruit is poison. If it does not poison you, you now know a reliable food source. In this sense, knowledge is conferred by the consumption of fruit.

Knowledge of Good and Evil?

But how is it possible that the Bible, which lauds the value of knowledge of good and evil, starts out with a command from God not to eat of a tree which allegedly confers this very knowledge? In Genesis, it appears that God is opposed to the very knowledge that is apparently necessary to please him.

If we read this story in its canonical context, we can see some of what the Biblical authors thought it meant to obtain “knowledge of good and evil.” The Bible is clear that growing in knowledge and wisdom is a process which God intended to take place over time. For instance:

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
(Hebrews 5:14 ESV)

 

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
(Colossians 1:9-12 ESV)

Maturity of the sort which allows for solid food (explanation of deep knowledge of God) comes from “constant practice” of discerning good from evil. And being filled with knowledge of God’s will is implied to be a process when it leads to “bearing fruit in every good work.” The road of easy knowledge and instant wisdom is a road unknown in Scripture. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that God’s will is that people grow in wisdom over time. We also know that God forbids some things that aren’t intrinsically immoral. An example of this can be found in various dietary and fashion restrictions in the Old Testament. So it’s not knowledge of good and evil that is forbidden. It’s knowledge of good and evil that could result from not eating of the tree.

My thinking is that in Genesis, the tree is named “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” because having a moral prohibition helps human beings learn moral reasoning, particularly in a world in which things are made to be a hierarchy of goods (Genesis 1). For instance, many things God did not command are morally wrong. God never told anybody not to murder. Yet, Cain’s murder of Abel was immoral and led to punishment.

Similarly, God never commanded anybody to worship, but Cain and Abel innovated sacrifice. In fact, eating meat was neither commanded nor prohibited, Abel did it (as is evident by his sacrifice from his flock) and was not reprimanded. And so it appears that the point of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to show that in the hierarchy of goods there are many conflicts and difficulties (it’s wrong to kill humans but not animals), but that explicit rejection of God’s instructions is usually bad (though at times, God has spoken things he apparently did not want obeyed or put into practice at all, see Ezekiel 20:25-26 and Exodus 32).

Possible Corollaries

If what I outlined above is true, it seems that the Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were made innocent, but not perfect. This makes more sense to me. In Genesis 103, it is clear that they are not immortal. They understand death and they also can only obtain immortality by eating from another tree (the tree of life).

This is helpful for general theology/anthropology/theodicy as it is evidence to the effect that God’s purpose in making man was to make a being who would/could grow into moral and spiritual maturity in the face of risks to that process. In other words, the pay off for the possibility of moral development is worth significant potential and actual downsides.

It also helps us understand the fall. A being of perfect righteousness and wisdom would not be able to fall from grace.

 

 

I’m Bigger Than You

A friend recently texted, as a joke, “Calvinism is true because I’m bigger than you.”

But being big has advantages.

Physically

Being obese is unhealthy. And being too tall can be harder on your heart as you age.

But being physically bigger is good.

Height provides advantages to lawyers, salesmen, teachers, principals, managers, and most athletes.

Not only so, more muscle mass makes you harder to kill, even for diseases.

It makes you look more competent, to an extent more attractive, and requires a lifestyle that will typically improve your health all around.

Mentally

Becoming more expansive in your way of thinking, more capable of entertaining new evidence, strange ideas, or unexpected outcomes is generally better.

Reading more books, though not too many, gives you the thought world of another person without your having to go through their experiences.

Learning new skills gives you more opportunities to make money, to bless others, and to have fun. Man was made to tend to things, this can only be done with a skilled and active mind, lest reality become boring.

Psychologically/Spiritually

Growing bigger spiritually is something like this: “with every challenge or disaster, you learn to conform ever so slightly more to the logos or to nature in order to avoid that disaster next time.” This is very close to what Marcus Aurelius says. Jordan Peterson also says something like it. So do Nemeck and Coombs in their books.

For the Christian the spiritual growth must go further than this because the logos is not only available in nature, but is specified in Jesus Christ and revealed in bits and pieces through the Bible as well. And so we not only grow spiritually by seeking to avoid the catastrophes of nature in order to perfect our will and then impose it upon the world, but we also conform ourselves to the character and calling of Christ.

To grow bigger in the Christian sense is in some ways to shrink as Christ grows in our estimation (John 3:30). It is to go into the depths of ourselves and say no to every evil thing which resides there. But it is also to grow larger than we could imagine as we approach the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). There is often a chasm in the teaching of the church between the aspirational values of Proverbs and the condescension pattern set by Christ. In reality they are not opposed but in a hierarchy. But my main point is this, when the Christian faces the disasters of life and responds with love to God it will work to the good, especially the good of becoming like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29).

Being bigger is better.

To the Christian who Can’t

One of the saddest claims I hear from Christians struggling with suffering, sin, or bad circumstances is “I can’t do anything about it so I’ll just have to let God do it.”

It’s a claim that sneaks into so many contexts. Even questions like, “What are some helpful tips that could make us better listeners?” elicit responses like, “rely on God’s grace.” My guess is that churches have accidentally provided an environment where phrases with very little actionable content are considered wise.

There are several reasons this way of speaking has become popular. I’ve written about them here before.

But the ancient church simply did not see it that way, nor should we. Here are two passages from a wiser age:

The chief part then of our improvement and peace of mind must not be made to depend on another’s will, which cannot possibly be subject to our authority, but it lies rather in our own control. And so the fact that we are not angry ought not to result from another’s perfection, but from our own virtue, which is acquired, not by somebody else’s patience, but by our own long-suffering.[1] – John Cassian

 

And the consequence of this [the manner with which the demons became evil] 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.”[2] – Origen

Both of these men believed thoroughly in God’s grace and man’s moral weakness, but when it comes to Christians, they wrote that we are thoroughly morally responsible for our spiritual state. And this makes perfect sense. The Bible says that God’s grace enables us add virtue to our faith, it does not say or ever even imply that grace enables us to passively become virtuous:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.[3]

Now this is not to imply that I’ve attained great virtue or learned to fully take responsibility for my own spiritual state. Like Cain I tend to wonder why circumstances don’t make it easier (which is an indictment of God) rather than wondering why I haven’t made myself more adept at managing myself. But I do strive to make such a practice my own. And if I have a central message or theme as a Christian educator other than, “believe the gospel about Jesus,” it’s “take full responsibility for yourself, sort your life out, and then take responsibility for the world around you.”

I don’t think any of that is opposed to God’s grace, any more than Jesus telling people to “go and sin no more” or “the greatest among you shall be the servant of all” is opposed to God’s grace.

References

[1] John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Cœnobia,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Edgar C. S. Gibson, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 262.

[2] 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), 260.

[3] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994), 2 Pe 1:3–8.

Jesus and Conservative Family Values

I saw a goofy journalist on Twitter claim, in essence, that Jesus opposed “conservative family values.”

Leave aside for a moment that Jesus wasn’t much of a screamer (Matthew 12:19-20).

As an experiment let’s see what the gospels related concerning Jesus’ views about the topics of conservative family values:

Marriage/Celibacy/Divorce

Matthew 19:3-12 ESV
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Non-conservatives outside of the group that identifies as asexuals are typically astounded any promotion of intentional celibacy. Similarly, non-conservatives overwhelmingly support no-fault divorce. Jesus utterly rejected the ancient equivalent. Jesus also endorsed sexual dimorphism as the divinely instituted rfoundation of marriage.

Children

Matthew 19:13-15 ESV
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.

Jesus, who taught that the kingdom of God was the highest value, made it clear that it was meant for children. In other words, Jesus supports the having of children, through the means mentioned in marriage.

Parents

Matthew 15:3-6 ESV
He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.

Jesus says that honoring mother and father extends to financial care in their old age. He then claims that any tradition or practice that gets in the way of doing so constitutes rejection of God’s word. This is so, even if that practice is explicitly connected to worship.

Jesus’ Teaching Goes Beyond

Now, Jesus’ teaching goes beyond conservative family values. But he’s certainly not opposed to marriage, having children, raising them to live in God’s kingdom, or even going to work to support your family (which he did). He goes beyond when he said to love your enemies and choose moral rectitude over family loyalty, but Jesus never contradicts family values. He actually makes them harder.

Passions: Natural or not?

The Passions

In Christian theology, the passions are the desires of the mind and body that often tempt people to sin. One of the big debates among ancient theologians and writers was over the passions: are they created by God or are they a deformation of character as the result of having sinned? I’m simplifying what follows by a lot, but not in a way that damages that debate.

Scripture

The Bible weighs in on this indirectly in James and Hebrews:

  1. In James 1:13-15 and James 4:1-3 we find that temptation is not the result of God trying to entice us to sin (this helps make sense of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Instead, temptation is the result of our desires [passions], reasoning, and choices.
  2. In Hebrews 4:15, we find that Christ was tempted in every way that we are.

If temptations came upon Jesus, he must have had the sorts of desires that could lead one to sin if managed with impropriety. And if Jesus is the “new Adam,” presumably his capacity to be tempted in analogous to our own.

The Passions: Crucified and Resurrected

This doesn’t end that debate, but it’s the summary of an argument that is convincing to me. One other way to put it is that for Paul the apostle, disciples are those who crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24), but for Paul crucifixion is always conceptually connected to resurrection. In other words, the flesh and it’s passions and desires are resurrected and reformed by the action of the Spirit. For instance, joy can be a sort of spiritual fruit (even though positive emotions could easily lead one to sin). Paul can also say to “put off all anger (Eph 4:31)” and “be angry, yet sin not (Eph 4:26.)”

On the other hand, Paul never once uses “passions” in a positive way. But he rarely uses the word flesh positively either, but that doesn’t mean that the basic principle of bodily existence is evil in his mind.

Now, the church fathers were split on this issue, some saw the passions as an unmitigated evil. I don’t accept that, but I’m open to the possibility. I think that the passions are like the will. They are a source of evil when estranged from God, but in themselves they are a good (like the mind, the will, or the body). Anger tells you that something seems off about the world, lust (which in the Bible  is always the word for sexual desire) is a driving force behind entrance into holy marriage, pleasure is a motivation for seeking God (Psalm 16:11), and greed is just an exaggerated desire for prestige and material security. All of these desires are commended in Scripture.