Jordan Peterson: Heretic or Helpful Pagan?

Rachel Fulton Brown writes:

…I don’t think that Jordan has a Messiah complex. But I do think that he thinks that he is capable on the strength of his own will of saving the world. It is why he spends so much time speaking. Because he believes that through his speech he can save himself—and that by speaking in the way that he does, he can save everyone. Sure, Jordan uses Christian vocabulary, but he does not think like a Christian, nor does he claim to.* Rather, Jordan thinks like Nietzsche, as he shows clearly in his book.

She claims that Peterson is a Pelagian. That is, essentially, the Christian heresy that claims that we’re left to work to save ourselves and the world without the assistance of God’s grace. Further definition and explanation gets tricky and technical. But the point being, Peterson may well be exactly that. But I submit that he may not be a heretic at all, but perhaps a pagan or even a gnostic who finds Christian ideas to have remarkable psychological depth and therefore metaphorical truth value. I say this because he remains publicly agnostic as to the resurrection of Jesus.

I had taken Peterson’s claims to be a Christian in the past at face value, but when it comes to him, everything is pretty complicated. And that’s fine. Btw, my definition of Christian is not the same as the Bible’s definition of how somebody comes to be saved. People are saved by God’s mercy, full stop (Rom 9:18). A Christian is somebody who is a member of a church and believes Christian dogmas (Trinity, Incarnation, Salvation by Grace, etc). These are overlapping, but not coterminous groups. 

I tend to think of Peterson as somebody who articulates excellent natural(istic) rationales as well as how-to explanations of important Biblical ideas and instructions. He manages this even when he gets the metaphysics and theology incorrect. For instance, is there a sense in which we save ourselves and those who hear us by our speech? Yes:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
(1 Timothy 4:16)

For Paul, of course, that speech is sharing the message of Christ carefully and appropriately. But Peterson articulates an explanation as to how this is true in natural circumstances that provides an analogy as to how it is true in spiritual ones. Speaking the truth does accomplish something that ultimately brings goodness into the world. But what Peterson misses, or at least doesn’t say, is that this not only justifies existence for those who practice it, but it does so precisely because the Father of Jesus Christ really is the cause of the world. 

Peterson is right that if everybody took full responsibility for their social self, then things would be better. Jesus says that Christians should be the ones who seek to reconcile to those they wrong as soon as they remember they did it. Jesus says Christians should rebuke those who sin. Jesus says that Christians should forgive those who repent as soon as they repent: See below:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 

(Matthew 5:23-24)

 

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
(Luke 17:3-4)

The question, of course, is salvation from what? For instance, the Stoics claim that philosophy can save you from internal disturbance. If that’s their definition of salvation, then yeah, Stoicism can do that. But Stoicism cannot offer the salvation Christ offers, but it does not claim to do so. So if Peterson’s claim is that true, precise speech can save us from sin, Satan, and death, then he’s wrong. But if he’s claiming that we need salvation from nihilism, social decay, and the potential dissolution of Western civilization, then maybe the hard road of rugged personal responsibility is the salve for our wounds. It doesn’t heal original sin, but it isn’t meant to. Of course, Satan, sin, and death are connected to the problems Peterson wants to solve. But I think that by articulating the truth, even improperly, one acts as though they have faith in Christ as the Logos/Word (John 1:1-18). And sense the Logos who orders the Cosmos is revealed to be none other than Jesus of Nazareth, one could say that Peterson’s efforts to get people to act in line with the Logos are things Jesus could use, just as Christ, through his church, used Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics to clarify the gospel in the first 1200 years of the church. 

And so there is a sense in which Peterson’s claim that salvation from nihilism and social destruction can occur if everybody takes ownership of their lives at every layer is right and perhaps even articulated in the Bible. As such, it is important stuff to say and many who try to teach the Bible understate or perhaps poorly state it.

But there is also a sense in which Peterson’s message is absolutely inadequate as an expression of the Bible’s full message. For instance, Peterson, in claiming to offer a sort of salvation (a good sort even) that is available in the Bible, leaves out the central narrative of salvation contained within the Bible (God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died, to buy my pardon…). In this sense he is, as a preacher of the gospel, utterly incompetent. But as a teacher of wisdom, even wisdom contained in, and perhaps necessary to fully appreciate the gospel, he does a pretty good job. The question is, what is he trying to do? If he isn’t trying to replace the teaching ministry of the church, then he probably isn’t a heretic, he’s like Marcus Aurelius or Musonius Rufus who explains his philosophy in terms of Christian symbols. If you know what he says, it’s foolish not to consider it and practice the best of it. It might even lead you to Christ. But in itself, it cannot save you in the full Christian sense.

But, it’s important to consider this side of it all: 

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:38-41)

Jonathan Edward’s Resolutions

RESOLUTIONS OF JONATHAN EDWARDS[1]

“Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake. Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.

1.   Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.

2.  Resolved, To be continually endeavouring to find out some new contrivance and invention to promote the forementioned things.

3.  Resolved, If ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.

4.  Resolved, Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God, nor be, nor suffer it, if I can possibly avoid it.

5.  Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.

6.  Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.

7.  Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.

8.  Resolved, To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God. Vid. July 30.

9.   Resolved, To think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

10.  Resolved, When I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.

11.  Resolved, When I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder.

12.  Resolved, If I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.

13.  Resolved, To be endeavouring to find out fit objects of liberality and charity.

14.  Resolved, Never to do any thing out of revenge.

15.  Resolved, Never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings.

16.  Resolved, Never to speak evil of any one, so that it shall tend to his dishonour, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.

17.  Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.

18. 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.

19. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour before I should hear the last trump.

20. Resolved, To maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.

21.  Resolved, Never to do any thing, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the ore meanly of him.

22.  Resolved, To endeavour to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigour, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.

23.  Resolved, Frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God, and trace it back to the original intention, designs, and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it as a breach of the fourth Resolution.

24.  Resolved, Whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then, both carefully endeavour to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.

25.  Resolved, To examine carefully and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and so direct all my forces against it.

26.  Resolved, To cast away such things as I find do abate my assurance.

27.  Resolved, Never wilfully to omit any thing, except the omission be for the glory of God; and frequently to examine my omissions.

28.  Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.

29.  Resolved, Never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer, nor that as a petition of a prayer, which is so made, that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession which I cannot hope God will accept.

30.  Resolved, To strive every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.

31.  Resolved, Never to say any thing at all against any body, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of christian honour, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said any thing against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution.

32.  Resolved, To be strictly and firmly faithful to my trust, that that, in Prov. 20:6. ‘A faithful man, who can find?’ may not be partly fulfilled in me.

33.  Resolved, To do always what I can towards making, maintaining, and preserving peace, when it can be done without an overbalancing detriment in other respects. Dec. 26, 1722.

34.  Resolved, In narrations, never to speak any thing but the pure and simple verity.

35.  Resolved, Whenever I so much question whether I have done my duty, as that my quiet and calm is thereby disturbed, to set it down, and also how the question was resolved. Dec. 18, 1722.

36.  Resolved, Never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call to it. Dec. 19, 1722.

37.  Resolved, To inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent,—what sin I have committed,—and wherein I have denied myself;—also, at the end of every week, month, and year. Dec. 22 and 26, 1722.

38.  Resolved, Never to utter any thing that is sportive, or matter of laughter, on a Lord’s day. Sabbath evening, Dec. 23, 1722.

39.  Resolved, Never to do any thing, of which I so much question the lawfulness, as that I intend, at the same time, to consider and examine afterwards, whether it be lawful or not; unless I as much question the lawfulness of the omission.

40.  Resolved, To inquire every night before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking. Jan. 7, 1723.

41.  Resolved, To ask myself, at the end of every day, week, month, and year, wherein I could possibly, in any respect, have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.

42.  Resolved, Frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism, which I solemnly renewed when I was received into the communion of the church, and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1723.

43.  Resolved, Never, henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s; agreeably to what is to be found in Saturday, Jan. 12th. Jan. 12, 1723.

44.  Resolved, That no other end but religion shall have any influence at all on any of my actions; and that no action shall be, in the least circumstance, any otherwise than the religious end will carry it. Jan. 12, 1723.

45.  Resolved, Never to allow any pleasure or grief, joy or sorrow, nor any affection at all, nor any degree of affection, nor any circumstance relating to it, but what helps religion. Jan. 12 and 13, 1723.

46.  Resolved, Never to allow the least measure of any fretting or uneasiness at my father or mother. Resolved, to suffer no effects of it, so much as in the least alteration of speech, or motion of my eye; and to be especially careful of it with respect to any of our family.

47.  Resolved, To endeavour, to my utmost, to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented and easy, compassionate and generous, humble and meek, submissive and obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable and even, patient, moderate, forgiving, and sincere, temper; and to do, at all times, what such a temper would lead me to; and to examine strictly, at the end of every week, whether I have so done. Sabbath morning, May 5, 1723.

48.  Resolved, Constantly, with the utmost niceness and diligence, and the strictest scrutiny, to be looking into the state of my soul, that I may know whether I have truly an interest in Christ or not; that when I come to die, I may not have any negligence respecting this to repent of. May 26, 1723.

49.  Resolved, That this never shall be, if I can help it.

50.  Resolved, That I will act so, as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world. July 5, 1723.

51.  Resolved, That I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned. July 8, 1723.

52.  I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: Resolved, That I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age. July 8, 1723.

53.  Resolved, To improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer. July 8, 1723.

54.  Resolved, Whenever I hear anything spoken in commendation of any person, if I think it would be praise-worthy in me, that I will endeavour to imitate it. July 8, 1723.

55.  Resolved, To endeavour, to my utmost, so to act, as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven and hell torments. July 8, 1723.

56.  Resolved, Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.

57.  Resolved, When I fear misfortunes and adversity, to examine whether I have done my duty, and resolve to do it, and let the event be just as Providence orders it. I will, as far as I can, be concerned about nothing but my duty and my sin. June 9, and July 13, 1723.

58.  Resolved, Not only to refrain from an air of dislike, fretfulness, and anger in conversation, but to exhibit an air of love, cheerfulness, and benignity. May 27, and July 13, 1723.

59.  Resolved, When I am most conscious of provocations to ill nature and anger, that I will strive most to feel and act good-naturedly; yea, at such times, to manifest good nature, though I think that in other respects it would be disadvantageous, and so as would be imprudent at other times. May 12, July 11, and July 13.

60.  Resolved, Whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasiness within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination. July 4 and 13, 1723.

61.  Resolved, That I will not give way to that listlessness which I find unbends and relaxes my mind from being fully and fixedly set on religion, whatever excuse I may have for it—that what my listlessness inclines me to do, is best to be done, &c. May 21, and July 13, 1723.

62.  Resolved, Never to do any thing but my duty, and then, according to Eph. 6:6–8. to do it willingly and cheerfully, as unto the Lord, and not to man: knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord. June 25, and July 13, 1723.

63.  On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true lustre, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: Resolved, To act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time. Jan. 14, and July 13, 1723.

64.  Resolved, When I find those “groanings which cannot be uttered,” of which the apostle speaks, and those “breathings of soul for the longing it hath,” of which the psalmist speaks, Psalm 119:20. that I will promote them to the utmost of my power; and that I will not be weary of earnestly endeavouring to vent my desires, nor of the repetitions of such earnestness. July 23, and Aug. 10, 1723.

65.  Resolved, Very much to exercise myself in this, all my life long, viz. with the greatest openness of which I am capable, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him, all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and every thing, and every circumstance, according to Dr. Manton’s Sermon on the cxix Psalm. July 26, and Aug. 10, 1723.

66.  Resolved, That I will endeavour always to keep a benign aspect, and air of acting and speaking, in all places, and in all companies, except it should so happen that duty requires otherwise.

67.  Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them; what good I have got by them; and, what I might have got by them.

68.  Resolved, To confess frankly to myself, all that which I find in myself, either infirmity or sin; and, if it be what concerns religion, also to confess the whole case to God, and implore needed help. July 23, and August 10, 1723.

69.  Resolved, Always to do that, which I shall wish I had done when I see others do it. Aug. 11, 1723.

70.  Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. Aug. 17, 1723.”

 

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

What I’ve Learned from Jordan Peterson

I’ve come to appreciate Jordan Peterson a lot. It’s rare for me to find a recent scholar from whom I learn more than one or two important things. Peterson is an exception. 

Here are some of the main lessons I’ve learned from him: 

Practically Speaking

  1. A key practice for good teaching is getting students to envision their future selves and the steps necessary to get there.
  2. There is a connection between my internal state and the orderliness of my immediate environment.
  3. Try to think of five good reasons to make any decision you make. I tried to do the opposite as well, try to find several good reasons reject an idea or not do something. As an aside, offering the most good arguments possible is not good rhetoric.
  4. Remember that you’re a loaded gun, especially around children. This makes you circumspect about your words and actions. Somebody who knows that “I’m the sort of creature who might shake a baby unless I take steps to not do that” is less likely to shake a baby.
  5. Say what you really think is true, and therefore think through what you say to see if you really think it’s true…or at least say it like it’s true so that it can be corrected and challenged. In other words, conversation can strengthen you or work as a hypothesis testing process. 
  6. In conflict with a partner (romantic, co-worker, etc), agree to say what you think the other person is saying to their satisfaction before you respond. This forces everybody to be clear and ensures everybody is on roughly the same page. 

Academically/Philosophically

  1. His paper on goal setting interventions helped me clarify the process I use to get my students to take ownership of their educations. I used to have them do a ‘diligence audit.’ I would ask them to look at their habits as though they were a third person advisor and describe where they will take them if they continue on the path they’re on. Then I would ask them to imagine who they would like to be by the end of a semester and to write the habits that would help them get there. Finally, I would have them write what they should do to gain those habits. Peterson’s paper showed me that this practice really has helped people and his self-authoring exercise helped me aim my questions more effectively. 
  2. His insistence on cleaning your room and sorting yourself out and their inextricable link has helped me see the centrality of the Cain and Abel narrative for the whole Bible. God’s instructions to Cain were to master his sin and to improve his lot. We can suppose that those were precisely the qualities that made Abel’s sacrifice preferable. Peterson regularly utilizes that story to remind people of the importance of cleaning their rooms and organizing their habits around the good instead of around their immediate desires, but even that way of saying things fits with the idea that Cain and Abel are archetype at the bottom of the whole Biblical narrative. Jewish writers like Yoram Hazony have made this point for years. 
  3. Peterson helped revive Jung for me, particularly the idea of the archetypes. This was significant because I needed to understand the relationships between the symbolic overlay that human beings use to interpret the world and the innate nature of the world itself. A combination of Jung, Husserl, and Aristotle helped me see that. But if it weren’t for a footnote where Dallas Willard mentioned Jung, I would have never listened to Peterson after I found that paper of his, because I was prejudiced against Jung. 
  4. In Eric Johnson’s Foundations for Soul Care: A Proposal for Christian Psychology, there’s a throw away line about the value of evo-psych for Christian counselors because of the information they provide about mating patterns. I didn’t dispute that and even read a lot of evo-psych over the last decade, but Peterson really helped me see how the Biblical material intersects with those claims. Whether his model of concordance is ultimately accurate is a question to consider, but it is definitely pragmatically accurate. 

Dallas Willard on Coming to Know Christ

The paragraph below remains one of my favorite from Dallas Willard’s work. The last sentence breaks the flow with its “mainly…Paul” line, but he’s attacking a stream of thought in academia with which he was all too familiar. 

If you really want to know Christ now, you have somehow to set aside the cloud of images and impressions that rule the popular as well as the academic mind, Christian and non-Christian alike. You must try to think of him as an actual human being in a peculiar human context who actually has had the real historical effects he did, up to the present. You have to take him out of the category of religious artifacts and holy holograms that dominate presentations of him in the modern world and see him as a man among men, who moved human history as none other. You must not begin with all of the religious paraphernalia that has gathered around him or with the idea that his greatness must be an illusion generated by an overlay from superstitious and ambitious people—mainly that “shyster” Paul—who wanted to achieve power for their own purposes. (Willard. Knowing Christ Today, 67)

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.


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