Loving your enemies does not mean neglecting to love your friends.

This is a repost from my old blog

Jesus put love pretty high up in his list of priorities for human flourishing. The biggest problem for modern romantics who prefer to rhapsodize about love is that he said to actually do it. Look how one of his closest friends summarized his message:

1 John 3:18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

John, is talking about love for other Christians, which is easy to snarkily ignore.* This is super relevant in light of certain habits of talking in Christian circles. A lot of Christians will mock other Christians who disagree with them politically or philosophically in the name of fitting in with the non-Christian group they are closest too in temperament. Btw, I do not merely mean that some Christians clearly bested others in careful argument and through in a rhetorically powerful jab. I mean, they literally make fun of each other.

I could give examples, but for the time being I would rather not draw extra attention to a behavior that makes us look bad.

Mike Cernovich, as far as I know, does not claim to he a Christian. He certainly is not known for being nice to his enemies, but he does shame many Christians in his relationship to his friends:

Your life is the sum total of your activities and the people in your life. Be useful to other people. Find ways to meet market demands. Be good to your friends.

When is the last time you emailed a friend to say, “How can I help you?”

His question points to an important aspect of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. Jesus asks, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”(Matthew 5:37). Many Christians seem to take this as a sign that Christian virtue does not include love for the Christian in-group. But Jesus elsewhere intensifies the love Christians are to have for one another, “…just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another” (John 13:34). So, while Christians are to love even their enemies, Jesus takes the time in John’s gospel to intensify the level of love Christians show to one another. In other words, Jesus isn’t denigrating love for family or other Christians in Matthew, he is instead showing that it is a starting point for becoming like God in his concern for human well being. In fact, our love for enemies is, in a real way, less than, our love for other Christians in Jesus’ moral system.

So, what are you doing for other Christians? Have you emailed somebody just to ask them how you can help them meet a need, become more successful, or overcome a challenge? Have you called your pastor and asked how you can pray for him or her? Have you looked at the budget report for your church and tried to shore up weaknesses? How about cleaning the parking lot? While such gestures are not the sum total of Christian morality, according to Jesus, they are the litmus test, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34).

Of Saints and Serpents or the Christian and Inner Darkness

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In Revelation 20:2, the dragon is the Serpent, both Satan and the devil. Why did Jesus say to be as wise as serpents when the connotation of the day was frequently one of evil cunning? 

Part of my work as a teacher is to help students acquire good habits which ultimately become dispositions. To do this, I’ve been studying the cardinal virtues. To study courage, I’ve been reading up on fear, evil, and the psychology of both. On the popularly level, I found Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. In the book, I ran across this old quote from Nietzsche that I hadn’t heard in quite a while:

146. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. – Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil aphorism 146

This line took me to Matthew 10:16. I wondered, “Why on earth does Jesus say ‘wise as serpents’?” He could have said, “As wise as Solomon” or “clever as a fox.” By the time of Jesus, the serpent of the Old Testament had pretty well become associated with Satan or some demonic personification of evil. So, why be clever in that way? I’m speculating below, I don’t presume to know what Jesus was thinking, but things are written to be understood and “be wise as serpents” has a reference point. This means it was chosen for a reason.

In the passage, I see several layers of potential meaning:

  1. Jesus says to beware of people and “behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” So for his disciples to avoid being the victims of predation, he challenges them to think like a more dangerous sort of predator.
  2. The fact of the matter is that we are all sinners. The mistake we make is that we pretend not to be. Admittedly, pretending to be put together is very important in polite society. But we too often lie to ourselves about just how evil we really are. In doing this we make ourselves more likely to fall prey to the evil of others. De Becker observed that, “the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognized by the naked eye. (De Becker 47)” Thus, in order to be safe in a dangerous world, we have to be aware of what we’re really like in order to predict what others are really like. Finding the evil in ourselves and the ease with which we slip into sinful behavior protects us from others.
  3. There are more reasons than avoiding evildoers to look at our own sin. We must also look at the direction our own sinfulness and our cunning at sin may take us in order to run away from it. In The Hammer, Father Brown was asked if his apparently supernatural knowledge of sinful motivations was indicative of a demonic identity:
    “Are you a devil?” “I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
    So, perhaps the reason Jesus says to think like the serpent is that in Genesis, the serpent is the cleverest of all the animals and we could easily, find circuitous routes to justifying, planning, hiding, and calling others along with us in our sins. And so Jesus uses the image not only for its predatory imagery, but also for its demonic imagery. In our very efforts to preserve ourselves, we’ve also got to be aware of ourselves. This is why he says, “be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Jesus is reminding us of the temptation faced by those who fancy themselves clever. And this, tragically, is a sin which befalls members of the churches in Ephesus when travelling teachers use their abilities to seduce neophyte Christians into sexual sin (2 Timothy 3:6).

Your thoughts?

Women and Men Need Toxic Masculinity

In the feminist literature, one of the features of toxic masculinity is stoicism with respect to your emotions. The idea is that controlling, regulating, or moderating your emotions is a form of freudian repression that somehow hurts men. As an aside, having anger is also considered a form of toxic masculinity. I’ll agree that outbursts of uncontrolled anger are bad, but most authors who ever wrote about masculinity or virtue have only ever said that anger, even when justified, is dangerous to allow to grow uninhibited by reason.

All of this to say, it appears that a lack of stoicism (toxic masculinity) is harming women and their relationships in the UK. In an article posted at the Daily Mail, Antonia Hoyle observes that women seem to be exhibiting significantly less self-control with respect to anger:

‘We are treating more women than ever who are struggling to regulate their emotions and express themselves appropriately,’ says Dr Monica Cain, a counselling psychologist at London’s Nightingale Hospital.

So what is causing the red mist to descend for so many women? And why is this anger afflicting so many upstanding women, the sort you might hope would be immune to, or too ashamed of, having outbursts?

Some experts suggest women believe that such outward displays of aggression allow them to seize the initiative from traditionally dominant men. Whether it’s in the workplace or around the dining table, shouting, swearing or throwing things are increasingly viewed as valid methods for women to assert themselves.

Dr Elle Boag, social psychologist at Birmingham City University, says: ‘Women feel aggression is a form of empowerment. It has become so commonplace that it’s not even shameful.’

Indeed, Jo insists it’s her right to shout at family and strangers alike. ‘When I’ve calmed down, I apologise if I’m in the wrong. But if someone has been rude or disrespectful, I feel my temper is justified,’ she says.

‘Lashing out is just a way of expressing myself.’

As well as this sense of entitlement, there’s the ever-present, age-old pressure to ‘have it all’. With competitive streaks accentuated by demanding careers and the seemingly perfect lifestyles displayed by celebrities, women are cracking under the pressure.

‘There is a perception that women have to have the perfect home, raise children and have a career that’s fulfilling and brings in an enviable lifestyle and income,’ says Dr Cain.

If someone has been rude or disrespectful, I feel my temper is justified. Lashing out is just a way of expressing myself

‘We are driving ourselves to the limit and a build-up of internal pressure over time can lead to us getting very frustrated over issues that would normally cause no more than a niggle.’

Such outbursts can also become addictive, a form of almost animalistic release. The burden mounts, tension builds and the almost exquisite joy of letting it all out becomes almost compulsive for some women.

It’s a feeling that Jo, who lives in Brighton with her partner Steven, 50, and his two children Jane, 21, and Tommy, 17, can identify with.

‘While I don’t feel proud of myself there is a cathartic release in letting my emotions out,’ says Jo.

Also, one can see an example of non-toxic femininity from the paragon of sensibility and reason, Jezebel:

One of your editors heard her boyfriend flirting on the phone with another girl, so she slapped the phone out of his hands and hit him in the face and neck…

According to feminists of this sort, an example of a toxic male in ancient literature would be Marcus Aurelius’ friend Sextus:

[A]nd he had the faculty both of discovering and ordering, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion, and also most affectionate; and he could express approbation without noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without ostentation.
Marcus Aurelius, “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,” in The Harvard Classics 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, ed. Charles W. Eliot, trans. George Long (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1917), 195.

Instead of showing displays of uncontrollable passion, Sextus was known instead for affection, intelligence, knowledge, humility, and praise of others. Interestingly, accumulated research tells us that acting out on anger without deliberation leads to further irrational displays of anger:

Psychological research has shown virtually no support for the beneficial effects of venting, and instead suggests that venting increases the likelihood of anger expression and its negative consequences.

In other words, the women discussed in the articles above need to absorb the lessons of toxic masculinity (self-control) rather than buying into the idea that angry displays are empowering or worse, the idea that controlling your emotions is a failure to “express yourself.” Stoicism would also be helpful with respect to food.

Approval seeking and its dangers

Everybody wants to be accepted and approved of.

In fact, social rejection (or by inference, sense of rejection by God) can be just as jarring as physical pain.

There’s a haunting scene in the gospels in which people respond negatively to Jesus, and while he has a theological explanation for the event at hand, he still asks Peter, “Will you leave also? (John 6:68)” To wish for acceptance is human and indeed.

In fact, being accepted by the group, is a generally good desire. It could mean the difference between life and death. An Old Testament punishment is being “cut off” from civilization itself! (Exodus 30:33, etc)

Paul the apostle observed that receiving emotional support and acceptance is a positive good:

They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. (18) It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, (19) my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! (Galatians 4:17-19 ESV)

On the other hand, seeking approval of others can be a deadly poison that keeps you from truth, goodness, beauty, and true friendship with God and man. For instance, New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, whose Theology of the New Testament is a most excellent book, sought approval so hard that a bad book review tanked his motivation and self-image for life.

John Piper observed that:

George Ladd was almost undone emotionally and professionally by a critical review of Jesus and the Kingdomby Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago. And when his New Testament Theology was a stunning success 10 years later, he walked through the halls shouting and waving a $9000 royalty check.

But, in A Place at the Table, John D’Elia observed that Perrin’s critique led Ladd to

“…descend into bitter depression and alcohol abuse from which he would never recover. (xx)”

I think one of the elements Christians struggle with is acceptance with the world, particularly because of an egregious misunderstanding of Jesus’ command to be “let your light enlighten.” But the struggle is essentially based on a poorly aimed desire to evangelize and therefore seem pleasing. But while acceptance and being accepted are aspects of virtue, they are not themselves virtuous or necessarily indicative of virtue. Seeking acceptance is just another form of seeking status, which ultimately begs the questions:

  1. Acceptance by whom?
  2. Acceptance on the basis of what?

Below I offer a rough sketch of a hierarchy of acceptance/social approval in the Bible. Social approval is a good and it ought to be desired, but it

Acting in order to achieve approval or group acceptance as an absolute leads to conformity, immorality, regret, and resentment. In marriage it can lead to misery. At work it can get you fire. The Bible challenges us to seek approval, but from specific people and groups and by particular standards:

  1. Seek to be acceptable to Christ, while recognizing that he already accepts you.
    “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12 ESV)
  2. Seek approval from God by doing what is good, even in the face of mass social disapproval (Exodus 23:2).
    In one of my favorite comic books a character which the author, I think, meant to paint as a bad guy said, “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” Of course, there are limits to this, you might be wrong about your point of view. But the Bible reminds us of this, too (Proverbs 29:1).
  3. Seek the approval of your family by gaining wisdom in particular and virtue in general. “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.” (Proverbs 10:1 ESV)
  4. Seek the approval of the virtuous people in the kingdom of God by confessing your sin and seeking Christ and Christian virtue with them (Matthew 18:15-20).
  5. Seek the approval of the humanity in general by not being unreasonable by common standards as long as your behavior isn’t objectively evil or illogical (Romans 12:17).
  6. Seek the approval of the rich, not by sucking up, but by offering exceptional service at a fair rate (Proverbs 22:29).

Appendix

My copy of Ladd’s magnum opus:

What does the Bible say about finding romance?

Perhaps the two most frequent things young Christian men ask me for advice about are relationships and overcoming a pornography habit. I’ll stick with relationships, though Dallas Willard has great advice for those who struggle to kick pornography: Beyond Pornography. On to relationships.

Most of the guys who ask for advice, though sometimes women come to my wife for such advice as well, ask how to enter into a relationship in the first place in the current dating market. Many of them suffer from a glut of two pieces of advice:

  1. Be yourself.
  2. Just be a nice guy and girls will fall in love with you.

The problem with both of these pieces of advice is that neither of them are connected in any specific way with Christian piety or with general wisdom. Here are the problems with each piece of advice:

  1. Be yourself.
    This piece of pop-culture advice has the potential to be very valuable when applied to truth telling, staying the course when virtue comes up against resistance, or refusing to compromise on important decisions. But in general it is suicide for anybody whose personal problems stem from personal failures. Telling people who struggled fundamentally with the following sentences to just be themselves won’t help them:
    “I’m lonely and have trouble making friends.”
    “I’m overweight.”
    “I’m lazy.”
    “I’m disorganized.”
    “I’m not funny.”
    What most people need to do is make fundamental changes to how they live in order to be happy.
  2. Just be a nice guy and girls will fall in love with you.
    If what people mean by this is, “Stop being immoral,” then it  is half reasonable. But in practice, it amounts to, “Don’t ask a girl out, just be her friend, be nice, and eventually she’ll notice.” It’s similar to the bad evangelism advice, “Just follow Jesus and people will ask.” It’s a bit narcissistic and it sets people up to be bitter about being friendly because they expect an unlikely or even impossible result. One should not simply become virtuous (especially if it is defined as niceness) in order to get people to love them. That’s stupid on the surface. But it’s also untrue that niceness, as described above, will land you a date.

So, what should a man who wants to be a disciple of Jesus do when struggling with loneliness or failing to ever successfully ask a girl on a date (or ask at all)? The advice below, by the way, is also applicable to women and married people.

  1. Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. (Matt 6:33)
    The first thing that needs to happen anytime there is a lack in our lives is that we need to reevaluate whether or not we’re living virtuously and basing our choices upon what benefits God’s people and what is in line with God’s purposes. Establishing, in our minds that our purpose is to pursue virtue and fulfill the duties God has placed before us is a powerful medicine for discontentment. The command to focus on our righteousness in the face of missing elements of the good life (read all of Matthew 6 if you would) is central to understanding what it means to be a Christian and it requires us to always re-calibrate our understanding of the good life and also recognizing that there is a highest possible value to seek in life. If people are so obsessed with getting a romantic partner that they compromise on virtue, success, or God’s purposes in general, then they are likely to find sinful romance (see Proverbs 1-9) and end up unhappy anyway. To seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness means (or see here for a rough sketch of what it means):

    1. Accept responsibility for your sinfulness.
    2. Accept responsibility for your problems in general.
    3. Work regularly on trying to fix them.
    4. Work on gaining all the virtues of Scripture (not just niceness).
    5. Learn to be content with God and virtue (in other words, gain some outcome independence, be fine with failure, and be comfortable with lack when you’ve done the right, wise, and courageous thing).
  2. Become skillful (Proverbs 22:29).
    In general, it’s important to have a skill or set of skills for making money, occupying your time, and bringing order into the world which God has given to us. We’re happier when we’re good at something. But learning to make your way in the world, accrue resources, and manage them well is very important for happiness in general (regardless of relationship status) as well as for finding love. Many young Christians spend so much time volunteering, hanging out, and ‘doing ministry’ that they neglect their studies, gain few useful skills, and make very little money in their twenties. This is economic suicide for your thirties and beyond. And being skillful tends to make you more interesting. I knew a woman once, who felt her calling was to be “a stay at home wife.” But she had no domestic skills. A man who expects to be married to somebody who pulls their weight in the relationship would run like Carl Weathers in Rocky III to avoid that sort of marriage. Similarly, men who cannot make money are simply less interesting to women generally. These claims aren’t always true, but they hold with the general population.
  3. Become likable and interesting. (Song of Solomon 1:3)
    One of the reasons that the woman in Song of Solomon is enamored by the man is that “his name is like oil poured out, therefore all the young women love you.” In other words, people love talking about him and they have pleasant things to say. She likes him, likes hearing about him, and likes talking about him. There are dozens of ways to become likable and only some of them require that you give up on virtue and God’s purposes. But having interesting stories, being generous, learning to be funny, dressing well, having bigger muscles, having a healthy BMI, learning to cook, being skillful (see above), being involved in your church, learning rhetoric, reading books, memorizing poetry, having party tricks, and having fun hobbies all go a long way to making you likable.
  4. Be selective. (1 Corinthians 9:5)
    In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul mentions that he and his fellow single apostles would be within their rights to have a “sister wife.” What that means is “wife who believes the gospel and cooperates with our life vision to share the gospel abroad.” Paul doesn’t take a wife because he believes it is virtuous to care for her and not endanger her. But the point stands that he perceives Christians should only marry other Christians. But I would add that one should try to marry somebody who is interested in your career and calling. One’s perception of these things changes over time, but marrying somebody who also wants to do what you want to do is both Christian and wise. Living with somebody who hates your career, calling, or life vision is miserable. It essentially forces you to have committed yourself to seek romance/sex from the only person in the world who regularly resents you, I suspect that nothing could be more miserable. On the other hand, having a virtuous circle of encouragement, challenge to improve, increased attraction, and increased friendship is idyllic and quite possible. It’s like the Scripture says, “at the right of the Lord are pleasures evermore.” (Ps 16:11) And marriage is God’s idea.

To summarize, working on yourself is the most central key to getting others to like you and learning to improve yourself whether or not others like you is utterly central to happiness. Failing to learn that lesson will not only lead to loneliness, but deeper dissatisfaction with relationships as well because you force your happiness to depend upon things other than God and upon things you cannot control.

Jordan Peterson and the Psychology of Redemption

Psychology of God Belief

In his excellent talk on the psychology of redemption in Christianity, Dr. Jordan Peterson explains how the Christian vision of God creates balance in the people’s minds. It does do by allowing for them to pursue an ideal without treating their own personal interpretations or reductions of that ideal as absolute in themselves. How? Because God is beyond our understanding, except as the highest possible good.

A New Testament Theological Take

What Peterson’s take might mean for the Christian is that our vision of God provides an ideal to pursue. But what idea? Primarily, it is that of the virtue revealed in Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, it is the Old Testament, interpreted through Christ. Finally, the virtue evident through the study of nature. But, since God and even the highest human character possible are ultimately incomprehensible, conversations with truth-telling as the goal must occur so that we can make the course corrections necessary to attain to the ideal. This is why Paul can say that he presses onward toward the goal, but also that he does not think he has attained to the goal of perfect participation in God or in the character of Jesus Christ.

The Jordan Peterson Video:

Here’s my own take on that concept:

Here are some of the relevant passages of Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-34 ESV “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (27) And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (28) And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, (29) yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (30) But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (31) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (34) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (8) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (12) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, (2) but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (3) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (4) having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

 

Philippians 3:12-14 ESV Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Christians and contentious social issues.

Here’s my personal algorithm for dealing with social issues and political ideologies as a Christian. My hope is that this keeps people from whining and resorting to yelling and general sissiness in disagreements, even contentious ones.

  1. Always deal with people in terms of Jesus’ command to love neighbor and enemy, Christian and non-Christian. With this, practice what Paul and Peter both say about being civil toward outsiders, respectful toward political authority, and keeping with amoral social norms to avoid bringing contempt upon the Christian community. For the Christian, evangelism and discipleship come first. So disagreements with outsiders about government/politics and so-on should, as a rule (with exceptions) be handled with civility. The same goes for disagreements in the church, if both parties come to the discussion with the concept of mutual discipleship in mind, then disagreements over social matters are easier to deal with without losing one’s cool.
  2. Study what Scripture and general wisdom say about the issue at hand. This matters because you’ve got to recognize the difference between asking a non-Christian to agree with divine revelation and sound reasoning. Similarly, you need to know the difference between your gut reactions and divine revelation.  weigh the issue on three levels:
    1. What do philosophy and common sense have to say about this?
    2. What does recent research say about the issue?
    3. What does Scripture teach about the issue?
  3. Based on your own political preferences (I’m emotionally anarchical, but on the rational level I understand the need for government and appreciate what it does), opinions, options, theories about what is good for society, and government structures determine if it is wise to take part in publicly opposing this or that action or policy or whether or not it is wise to carry on with being and making disciples. Important questions to ask here:
    1. Is this action/movement/practice wise for me?
    2. Is this action/movement/practice good for society?
    3. Is this action/movement/practice in need of refutation or of regulation?
    4. How show the church respond to this disagreement in its polity?

Mindset: All of Life Could Be Heaven or Hell


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When it comes to learning to be spiritually minded or to have a Biblical mindset, part of the process is learning to look at the present moment (as you hope for the glories of heaven) as though from the future bliss of life with God (looking back and seeing the Providences and graces which led you to heaven). And while none can do both at once, it’s an important facet of the mindset of the Spirit enjoined upon us in Scripture. Your whole life can be heaven, and as a gift from God, this power lies within you (insofar as you actuate the graces God has granted you). Your whole life can be hell, even before you’re judged, and this too, as a gift from God, is a power that lies within you (insofar as you are free).

Here are three quotes which have helped me to understand this process:

Resolved: To live so, at all times, as I think is best in my most devout frames, and when I have the clearest notions of the things of the gospel, and another world.[1] – Jonathan Edwards

 

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less than he

Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,

To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.[2] – Milton’s Satan

 

Anodos looked through the door of the Timeless he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.[3] – The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.

References


[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), lxiii.

[2] John Milton, The Harvard Classics 4: The Complete Poems of John Milton, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 96–97.

[3] Lewis, C. S.. The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 69-70). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


By Leeds University Library – English Wikipedia: en:Image:Milton paradise.jpg, Public Domain, Link

Jesus and Matthew 6:33

Matthew 6:33 Now, see first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and these things will be added to you.[1]

Introduction

Everybody wants to be happy and every good wandering philosopher tries to tell them how to do it. Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ summary treatise on human happiness or how to live an honorable life.[2]

Like all teachers on human happiness, Jesus tackles the relationship between possessions, necessities, and human happiness. He counsels people to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness as a first priority in order to cure the anxiety one might have over the future acquisition of food or clothing.

Jesus neither trivializes these needs, as he says to pray for them later in the sermon, nor does he make them absolute sources of happiness or honor as many did in his era. Instead, he says that seeking God’s kingdom and its righteousness will suffice for happiness as well as for the acquisition of the goods of the body.

How can this be so?

Psychologically

On the psychological level, what Jesus is doing is telling people that if they focus upon what they can definitely change, they will not worry. Why is this? Jesus knew one of the great insights of the human mind. You can generally only focus on one thing at a time. If one is focused upon the purposes of God and gaining righteous character, then anxiety (the constant churning of unhelpful and negative thoughts) will slowly cease to be a persistent reality in the human mind.

The other psychological aspect Jesus exploits here is that he tells people to focus upon what they can do. The kingdom of God, in the sense used here, appears to mean “the people of God and his purposes for them.” So for Jesus to say to seek the kingdom of God means for people to be busy about accomplishing the commands of God, particularly, the commands which pertain to the wellbeing of other Christians. The second thing Jesus says to seek first is ‘its righteousness.’ That means that character that befits a citizen of God’s kingdom. In other words, seek to become the kind of person who is disposed and poised to act righteously. One has no control over the weather, the crops, the clothing market, etc. But one does have control over their character. By putting people’s minds on the things which they can accomplish (with God’s help, of course), Jesus is helping people to gain an internal locus of control. To have an internal locus of control is to live with a sense that you choose how you handle the world around you and are not by necessity merely the outcome of the events around you. The research is clear that people with an internal locus of control struggle less with anxiety.

Materially

Jesus observes that for those who seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness “all these things” will be added. Here he clearly means the goods of the body (clothing, food, human resources in general). But how will they be added? Are we to believe that Jesus is making a promise of miraculous intervention for all do are good enough? I don’t think so. Jesus was aware of the martyrs, Job, and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Instead, I think Jesus is making a general claim about the nature of virtue. If you have a good relationship with God’s people and possess righteousness, you’ll generally get what you need. Jesus knew there were exceptions, the Old Testament speaks of them. He also never taught people to expect routine divine protection from harm, he even taught that often, the righteous may have to die for righteousness’ sake. So it appears that here he speaks of the general results of having virtuous habits. Here are the components of “righteousness” according to the book of the Wisdom of Solomon (a Jewish work which approximates Jesus’ thought world quite nicely):

And if any one loves righteousness,

Her [lady wisdom] labors are virtues;

for she teaches temperance and prudence,

justice and courage;

nothing in life is more profitable for men than these. [3]

 

For those who love righteousness as taught in the Hebrew Bible, wisdom works in them even the four virtues of pagan morality: justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. And while the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is colored by Jesus’ specific teachings, there is really no reason to suppose that it was no longer seen as an all-encompassing virtue by Jesus or the gospel authors. And besides, “nothing in life is more profitable for men than these” is quite similar to what Jesus was saying.

So the point I wish to make is that if somebody have the righteousness of the kingdom, they essentially are growing in the virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and prudence and they can find ways to acquire their needs, stay out of trouble, avoid over indulgence, and take appropriate risks for the good. Such people are able to manage their lives in the world contently and without compromising with evil.

Not least, as I hinted at above, people who seek first the kingdom of God, will find themselves in a community of people who will help them through their trials.

Theologically

Theologically, it’s important to note that Proverbs teaches that:

Riches profit not in the day of wrath: but righteousness delivereth from death.[4]

And for Jesus, no need of mankind was more desperate than the need to know God. And so the central aspect of human happiness here is that those who enter into the kingdom of God and receive righteousness from Jesus Christ will survive the day of wrath.

Final Thoughts

To seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness first, in my mind, implies that it should be a first priority and driving motivation for our actions but also a temporal one. In our day we should begin with prayer for God’s kingdom to come, forgiveness from sins, and help to do his will. This is why the Christian practice of beginning the day with Scripture reading, meditation, and prayer is so crucial for Christians today. Without this discipline, we’re so likely to rush off into the day and seek anything but God’s kingdom or his righteousness.

References


[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 6:33, “ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν ⸂βασιλείαν [τοῦ θεοῦ]* καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην⸃ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν.”

[2] The word in Matthew 5:3-10 translated ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ carries with the connotation of ‘those who are in this state are honorable.’ Matthew 5:3 could be translated, “How honorable are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

[3] The Revised Standard Version (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971), Wis 8:7.

[4] The Holy Bible: King James Version., electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. (Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995), Pr 11:4.

Don’t resort directly to prayer in the face of temptation?

We all know that prayer is a great tool for spiritual growth and in some ways it is the method and even the goal of the Christian life. But is there ever a time in the Christian life in which prayer is not the go-to tool? In Markides‘ book on Orthodox spirituality, he recounted a conversation that was shocking:

There is a detail we must keep in mind in reference to the repetition of the Prayer as a method of overcoming the logismoi,” Father Maximos said softly as we turned back to where the car was parked. “A person should not resort directly to the Prayer immediately after being assaulted by troublesome logismoi.” “Why not?” I asked puzzled. “I know that what I am about to say may sound paradoxical. But an automatic recourse to the Prayer could have the opposite effects. It may lead a person to extreme psychic turmoil and to a loss of self-mastery. Old Paisios used to tell us that when confronted with a logismos, whoever resorts to repeating the Prayer very rapidly resembles a terrified soldier in the heat of battle. He holds his rifle tight to his chest, paralyzed with fear. To reassure himself that he is not afraid he repeats ’Holy Virgin help me, Holy Virgin help me.’ And he shakes from head to toe, sitting there completely immobilized and unable to fight or even to breathe.” Father Maximos laughed. “That reminds me,” he mused, “of the dentist we had on Mount Athos. The moment he would take a look into our mouths he would sigh, start crossing himself, and begin lamenting. ’Holy Virgin! May you help us. May God place His hand here.’ “Before a person begins to pray, when confronted with a troublesome logismos, a rational mastery over the situation must be developed. Again, if at all possible, the best way is to employ the strategy of complete indifference.1

When I first read this I was taken aback. But then it hit me, Jesus says to pray for God to protect us from temptations when we go to pray. But his instruction to his disciples when it comes to sin is to ‘deny yourself.’ Not only so, but St. Peter’s instructions to disciples is to “be sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). Later in the same letter, being sober-minded is connected with resisting Satan’s temptations! Sober-minded, rational mastery over temptation is what we do for our prayers.

It would seem that having rational mastery over your emotions, your deepest desires, and the things which tempt you to sin is precisely the remedy to temptation in the moment. And one of the chief strategies of overcoming self-defeating thoughts is to distract yourself. The same, it seems, applies sinful thoughts in general.

It makes sense. While we should pray for God’s help in all things, asking God to help us overcome a temptation when we’re not trying to remove ourselves from its presence, master it’s cause in our hearts, or arrange our lives to exclude it is like praying for good health when eating donuts. It seems doubtful that the Lord would help us to do anything we don’t care about. Overcoming sin is no different.

References

1. Markides, Kyriacos C.. The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (p. 139). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.