In what sense is Christianity comforting?

One of the many conceits of the modern era is that religion is believed precisely because it provides irrational comfort to those who refuse to see things as they are.

And while I have no doubt that many believe various religious dogmas for this purpose, it simply isn’t true that Christianity can be believed, by those who understand it, solely because it is comforting. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Christianity says that the world is your fault. The problems in the world are simply because of wrongs you’ve done and you’re responsible for them. Not only so, but it teaches, at its best, that while you must somehow make all of this right, that you cannot.
  2. Christianity, in its Calvinist iteration, says that all the evils of the world are God’s idea, and really and truly good, and that nothing can be done about them except that God undo them. There isn’t much comfort here if the wheels of providence oppose you.
  3. Christianity, in its non-Calvinist iterations, teaches that the earth has fallen under the control of a cosmic socio-path who hates God and pursues destruction as though it were the good. Not much comfort in knowing that not only is nature dangerous and that your sins put you cross-ways with God, but also that supernatural forces which influence human behavior and ideologies hate you.
  4. Christianity teaches that Jesus demands that you give up several legitimate goods, which God made for you to enjoy, in order to do what is right.
  5. Christianity teaches that your inmost secrets are under the scrutiny of a being of infinite goodness and justice.
  6. Christianity teaches that the creation is subject to meaninglessness (vanity) and that we must live as though the world is imbued with meaning even when it feels pointless.
  7. Christianity teaches that our prayers may go without answering because of supernatural incidents beyond our control (see Daniel).
  8. Christianity teaches that even at your most miserable, you’re responsible for your neighbor.
  9. Christianity includes the Old Testament.

The idea that one would adopt beliefs of this sort for emotional solace is a fiction. I do believe that Christianity offers comfort and that Christians are to comfort each other. I’m of the opinion that people would only subscribe to beliefs with such potential to crush their spirit for one of three reasons:

  1. They think they’re true (for good or bad reasons).
  2. They find, in Jesus, an irresistible personality.
  3. A deep fear of hell which lead them to bet on Christianity for redemption.

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.

Sunday School: Career vs Calling

Christianese:

  • I’m not sure what I’m called to do.
  • I’m pretty sure God is calling me to become a chef.
  • God told me to change majors.
  • God called me to date so-and-so.
  • I’m feeling called to the [insert cause that allows for very little personal accountability here].

3 Aspects of Calling (in and out of the Bible)

  1. Being Addressed by God[1]
    This is God’s commissioning of a specific individual or group of people for a specific task. Such as when the Lord calls the prophets of the Old Testament or gives somebody a task through a prophet. This would also include the baptism of Jesus, the resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples, as well as to Paul. In such circumstances, the idea is that the individual in question was addressed by name and given a specific task by God. Or, the group was addressed by God through such an individuals or group and given an identity and task by God, “Hear O Israel…”
  2. Being a Christian[2]
    In the Bible, calling is also used to refer to converting to follow Jesus Christ. The idea is that the gospel message is a summons from God himself. To become a Christian it to be called. Bible passages like Ephesians 4:1 show that every Christian, by virtue of being a Christian, has a calling. This is the calling of every single Christian: to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in a community of Jesus’ people.
  3. Finally, in modern life, “calling” often refers your unique purpose in life.
    This is where the confusion sets in: When you ask, “what is the task to which I should devote my life that is unique to me and my circumstances?” The Bible does not say how to find a calling or that you “have to do it.” The idea that you must leave a unique mark on the world with your life is recent in history. The nature of your calling is tied up with your career, your family, the civilization in which you live, and your life circumstances. But many people assume, without much thought, that this particular aspect of calling is something that God will tell you to do if you only listen carefully. Therefore, many Christians never use wisdom, advice, or forethought in choosing their career or their calling because they confuse God’s calling of prophets in the Bible and his calling of all Christians to follow Jesus with the notion of discovering a life goal or life mission.

Gary North‘s Concepts for Discovering Careers and Callings:

  • Capacities– This is what you’re really good at, what you’re willing to spend thousands of hours upon, and what other people tell you you’re good at when they’re not being flattering. See Ecc 10:10 If the ax is blunt—the edge isn’t sharpened—then more strength will be needed. Putting wisdom to work will bring success.
  • Job Importance– This is what you can do that makes money for your family, the causes you’re interested in, for missions, for charity, etc. Not only that, but it is what you do that leaves a legacy, that changes people’s lives with what you build, what allows you to raise your children to lead godly lives, to spend time with your spouse, and to influence others for the gospel. See 1Ti 5:8 If anyone does not take care of his own relatives, especially his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
    Also see 1Co 12:18-23 But now God has arranged the parts, every one of them, in the body according to his plan. (19) Now if all of it were one part, there wouldn’t be a body, would there? (20) So there are many parts, but one body. (21) The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or the head to the feet, “I don’t need you.” (22) On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are in fact indispensable, (23) and the parts of the body that we think are less honorable are treated with special honor, and we make our less attractive parts more attractive.
  • Replaceability – This is the concept of being replaced in your context. Are you doing a job wherein anybody with no training can replace you? Get out of it. Do something that you’re willing to be good enough to be irreplaceable in the region you live for the field of work you’re in. Pro_22:29 Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.

Conclusion Questions for Finding Your Career and Calling

Questions for Career:

  1. What are my capacities?
  2. What is the most important job I can perform with my capacities?
  3. What is the most important job you can perform in which few men can replace you?
  4. What career will let me give to charity, pursue my calling, and leave wealth behind me?

Questions for Calling:

  1. What do I like to do?
  2. What kind of legacy can I leave behind for my children, my church, and the well-being of the world?
  3. What can I do that helps others to know God, find happiness, and become successful?

Footnotes

[1] This is the most common notion in Scripture. It can be seen in with individuals in Isaiah 6:1-5 and Ezekiel 1. It can be seen with the people Israel in Deuteronomy 28:10 where the Lord makes it known that the Israelites were called by him and for his purposes. In Romans 1:6-7 we see that Paul considers the church, as the community who faithfully obeys Jesus, to be called by God to be holy people.

[2] The second is like unto the first, as was noted. Here is some Biblical support for the idea: 1 Corinthians 1:26 and all through chapter 7 Paul refers to the Corinthians of their calling as the state in which they lived when they were converted to Christ. The idea is that their state of poverty, obscurity, and foolishness when the gospel came to them should always be a humility inducing matter in the face of their pride. But, a take away ancillary to Paul’s main argument is that Paul wants them to, on the basis of this calling, live as disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, their calling, is not only their circumstances (which Paul wants them not to change unless it would improve their lot in life), but their entrance into a community whose main task is to “do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)” and to “imitate me (Paul) as I imitate Christ.”

On the sissyness of Christian advice.

Often, advice from successful Christian men and women boils down to platitudes that sound spiritual, but reflect neither wisdom nor what those very people did to become successful.

Here are things I heard in sermons to college students when I was in college or that I heard when I asked for advice:

  1. Ask God for guidance.
  2. Listen and see what God tells you to do.
  3. Your early twenties is a good time to spend yourself on volunteer work (usually the mission cause of the agency represented by the preacher) because you won’t have time when you’re older.
  4. Just wait on God.
  5. Don’t worry about that kind of thing, God will provide.

When somebody reads that list, they are likely to think, “Of course that makes sense, it’s all good advice.”

I call foul.

I think evangelical Christianity is so influenced by this very language that we often cannot even tell that what we’re saying makes no sense.

If a young Christian man asks an older Christian man a question like, “How can I make more friends?” He’s obeying Scripture when it says, “with many counselors there is victory.” He’s probably asking because he feels lonely or gets picked on often and he sees the man he asks as successful and likable. But many people, instead of giving advice based on their own experience say the silly nonsense I mentioned above, even though the man who was asked does things like dresses well, makes interesting conversations, listens to others, and has masculine body language.

Similarly, somebody who is wondering what to major in is often told to pray about it and listen to the Lord to find his calling, even though the Bible never says that God will tell you what to major in, in college. The Bible does say, to “pray for wisdom” (James 1:5) and to gain skill in order to be successful (Proverbs 22:29).

Anyway, Christianese is usually not biblical and is almost never helpful. Don’t give it and don’t believe it when you hear it. Also, try asking better questions like, “what did you do to get ‘x'” or “if you were me, what would you do differently to achieve ‘y’.”

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

What did Jesus write in the sand?

When I was in high school, my buddy Steven and I went to a concert a couple of hours out of town. We skipped school to do it. I don’t remember if we had had permission from our parents or not. We must have, because we got home at like 2 am. Either way, the band Denison Marrs played there and this song had me entranced:

Around 3:13-3:16 in the song, the singer asks of Jesus, “what was it that you wrote in the sand?”

I’ve wondered that off and on for years. The Biblical passage in question, of course, is this:

[[They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
(John 7:53-8:11 ESV)

Of course, it is disputed whether this passage belongs in John’s gospel and whether the events described therein occurred. But either way, the author meant for the event to be understood. So what could an early Christian author with an understanding of the Torah and a desire to portray Jesus as a Torah expert have meant hearers and readers to understand by this cryptic event? My thought is that Jesus would have been understood to be writing this excerpt from Deuteronomy 19:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
(Deuteronomy 19:15-21 ESV)

Deuteronomy would indicate that perhaps every single person present, if they were witnesses of the adultery, would deserve the death penalty because they maliciously brought the woman and not the man. Or every one of them perhaps committed adultery with her (shades of the woman at the well?) and therefore were malicious witnesses. Or only one of them witnessed the crime and were therefore bringing her before Jesus. Incidentally, the entire scene is a miscarriage of justice because nobody was brought before judges or priests. Incidentally, the tabernacle, which would be the necessary ingredient for such a dispute, was missing. So to bring the dispute before the Lord was impossible, but the men did bring the dispute before the Lord unknowingly. This, with John’s theology of Jesus’ presence might work as an argument for the story’s inclusion in John’s gospel. But the story does completely interrupt the narrative where it stands and so it’s hard to imagine where it belongs other than as an appendix.