Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil

Thou shalt not take up a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to wrest justice: neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause. (Exodus 23:1-3 ASV)

In ancient cultures, conformity to the majority was near the top of the hierarchy of values. In fact, the Old Testament takes great pains to enforce conformity to social norms through various and elaborate status rituals and harsh legal penalties. But, the Old Testament vision of social conformity is not conformity to society as such. Instead, the vision is of society conforming to the good, rather than the individual becoming a microcosm of society. The expectation of breaking rank when the rank and file turn to evil is an implicit demand to contemplate social norms and reason whether they be good or evil. This passage also calls for a rejection of social naivete which implies gaining some degree of contemplative virtue. And as a strange conclusion, the passage also proscribes allowing pity to substitute for truth. A conservative error is to equate poverty with vice. The liberal error is to equate poverty with virtue. The Biblical middle-ground is to pursue the good generally and legal justice particularly. The following passages from Proverbs illustrate the same principles in aphoristic format:

A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies. (Proverbs 14:5)

The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving. (Proverbs 14:8)

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps. (Proverbs 14:15)

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless. (Proverbs 14:16)

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.

Gary North on Training to Lose

Gary North wrote an article in 1980: Training to Lose, in which he observed:

The athlete has to train before he enters the race. He must discipline his body and his will, in order to be fully prepared for the exertion of the contest. The contest has winners and losers, and the Christian is not supposed to be a loser. This means that he must enter into the contest with self-confidence, enthusiasm, and a strategy for victory. He is not to spend time looking over his shoulder to see how far he has come from the starting- point, or how well his competitors are doing. He is to look straight ahead at the finish line, pacing himself so that at the end he will have spent all of his reserves. He should give the race everything he has– emotionally, physically, and strategically.

 

If we look at modern Christianity, we find very little of this sort of training for life’s race. Christians act as though victory is achieved passively, as it the race were not worth training tor, as if the hope of victory were not part of the motivating factors in running. If we were to regard modern Christianity as a training program, and it lite were viewed as a race, how would we judge the success of the program? Would we conclude that modern preaching has raised up a generation of skilled athletes who are ready for the competition? Or would we have to conclude that the program has produced a lot of overweight, under-motivated weekend joggers who would collapse half way to the finish line?

I fear that North’s criticisms are right on.

 

William James, God’s Word, and James’ Mirror

William James and the Four Selves

In Principles of Psychology, William James outlines four aspects of the self:

  • The material Self; (this is constituted by your physical body, clothes, property, and family)
  • The social Self; (this your perception of the recognition you get from your fellows)
  • The spiritual Self; (our estimation of ourselves as active players in reality)
  • The pure Ego. (over all sense of I-ness)

I’m interested in the first three.

We usually put tremendous effort into maintaining our material and social selves. Some maintain the body by seeking to perfect it and others through giving it as much pleasure as they can without killing it, but it is maintained. We do the same w/property, clothes, etc.

The social selves are selves we put a great deal of effort into maintaining. We won’t tell the truth to keep from being criticized, we don’t do what we perceive to be right, we’ll buy things we cannot afford, and so-on to maintain our various social selves.

And for both of these selves we use, rightly, a mirror. The mirror tells us of what’s wrong wrong, how to hide it, or how to fix it. Some of us avoid mirrors because we either fear the effort it would take to change and some of us obsess over the mirror to cover up what’s wrong so we don’t have to change. But all of that is to say that we use the mirror to clean our various selves.

Hiding from the Spiritual Self

But what of our spiritual self? The Bible makes a point rather early on about the embarrassment of an unclean spiritual self:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7 ESV)

Sometimes when we see what our real self is like, it gets the better of us and we hide. Just like the people who avoid the mirror, refuse to look at their bank statements, or won’t go into a messy room in their home. Other times, we go into hiding mode. We don’t just avoid the mirror. We, like Adam and Eve cover up! Imagine the examples earlier, except the person who looks in the mirror, buys baggier clothes. The woman who looks at the her bank statements, buys pricier items to look rich. Or the depressed father uses the messy room for “storage” instead of cleaning it. In other words, we hurt ourselves to maintain an illusory self. In Adam and Eve’s case, they hurt themselves by lying to God and hiding from him. When we do this to our spiritual self, we call it hypocrisy.

James’ Mirror and God’s Word

Another James, the brother of Jesus, wrote of this very issue, but proposed a solution:

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:19-27 ESV)

Observe the connection between the mirror and the spiritual self. We can remain defiled, stained, filthy, and even deceive ourselves if we just walk away from the mirror! Similarly, our moral self might be in fairly shabby condition. In response we might avoid the mirror (in this case the Scriptures) to avoid seeing our true selves. Or we, like the Pharisees, use the mirror to hide our stains rather than clean them.

James’ solution is so simple it beggars belief! Like the person who notices a stain on their face in the mirror and washes it, so expose yourself to the word of God and practice it. We can theologize all we want about how justification, election, atonement, faith, and so-on fit into the equation, but James says to hear the word [which implies thoughtful understanding] and to do it.

 

 

 

 

Trinity Sunday: Thomas A’Kempis on

The doctrine of the Trinity, is meant to be, as far as is possible, an expression of something God has revealed in Scripture. Insofar as it is, indeed, revealed by God it is designed to do no other than encourage piety, virtue, and the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty in the gospel and in creation. Thomas A’Kempis, in the first reading of his classic The Imitation of the Christ gets at this beautifully.

“HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.

Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.” Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.[1]

This passage is, at its heart, about mindset. In the Bible, there are essentially two mindsets: the mindset of the flesh and of the Spirit. The mindset of the Spirit is the collection of attitudes, processes, and ideas used to approach life from a Christ-like point of view. Right ideas without right action is fundamentally anti-Christian mindset. A’Kempis here explains this.

References

[1] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 1–2.

Cain and Abel: An Interesting Reading

In almost any commentary from the last century, the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 is typically explained as a justification for/explanation of the conflict between agricultural and nomadic life. There’s something to this, but it’s not merely about two modes of food production. The distinction is between two approaches to ethics.

Cain and Abel

When you commentaries enough you just kinda think: Here we go again. I’ve never really read it explained beyond the surface distinction. But in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, he explained the distinction in terms of the ethic represented by the two characters. Here it is in full:

The life of the farmer. 

Cain has piously accepted the curse on the soil, and God’s having sent Adam to work the soil, as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as his father did before him. And within the framework of this submission, he initiates ways of giving up what little he has as an offer of thanksgiving. In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, the life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live.

The life of the shepherd.

Abel takes the curse on the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God has decreed it, and that his father has submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure the improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will. (108)

Hazony goes on to observe that while God did not command shepherding, God did make man to be good. God told downcast Cain, “If you do well, won’t you be lifted up? (108)” Meaning, “If you have a problem with the world, make the best of it, bucko!”

Hazony’s Omission

Some details in Genesis that he left out make Hazony’s argument tighter. God made man “very good” and commanded man to subdue the earth. So, it doesn’t seem like God wanted man to submit directly to the curse. Instead, he wanted humanity to continue the mission from Genesis 1. The curse did not nullify God’s purpose for creation, it simply made it more difficult to obtain.

The Human Side of Spiritual Formation

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he passes over the intellectual difficulty of human and divine agency in spiritual growth with no effort to resolve the apparent contradiction contained in his statement:

…with fear and trembling, work to acquire your own salvation; for God is the one working in you both to will and to work his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12b-13)

Paul speaks of both elements of salvation in his letters, both God working and us working. My theory is that one cannot claim that God is working in them unless they’re working and that one cannot also claim that their work is effective unless they acknowledge God’s work in them. It’s a back and forth. But all of that aside, what does Paul say about the human side of spiritual growth in Philippians? There is one passage in particular that says a whole lot:

12 Not that I have already received it [the resurrection] or have been made perfect, but I seek to make it [perfection] my own because Christ has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have made it [perfection] my own. But I do one thing: forgetting what lies before me I strain forward 14 in accordance with the goal I seek the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore, if anybody has been made perfect, let us think this way; and if anybody differs in thought, God will reveal even this. 16 Only, let us hold firm to what we’ve already attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)

Paul outlines a paradigm for personal growth in Christ-likeness:

  1. Admit your imperfection.
  2. [Implied] Have a vision for your life as perfectly Christlike.
  3. Seek to make that perfection your own.
  4. Leave your imperfections behind you rather than dwelling upon the. (Paul struggled with this, he mentions his persecution of the nascent just earlier in the letter)
  5. Strain for the perfection of Christian character. In 3:11, Paul says “if somehow” or “if by any means.” In other words, do what it takes to be like Christ. And since the metaphor is of running, think of “any means” like the any means of running away from danger and toward safety.*
  6. Not only should the appeal of the good life in Christ motivate us, but also the ‘prize’ or the rewards God offers to Christians should motivate us as well.
  7. Don’t get resentful of people who don’t get it.
  8. Hold fast to what you’ve attained. Don’t go backwards…but with step one in mind, don’t insist that where you are is perfect either. Anybody can be wrong. Sometimes your understanding of life in Christ is what needs to change before you can change.

Paul says more about the human side of things, but the passage above is a good summary of his point of view. If you grab a Bible and read the rest of Philippians, you’ll see that he also recommends meditation on good examples, pursuing assistance from other Christians, avoiding obsession over food, seeing the Christian church as your tribe/nation, and prayer for help.

 

 

*Note: When I was a senior in high school, I went for a job one night after karate practice. In our neighborhood, late jogs weren’t that uncommon. But a rottweiler escaped somebody’s front door and started chasing me and I climbed up on a stranger’s car and jumped onto the other side waiting to climb back over if the dog ran around. I was willing to do whatever it took not to die.