Monthly Archives: June 2016

A Good Human Being is Hard to Find and Finding a Good Christian is Even Harder

 

Jesus summarized our duty to God in the command to love God with our whole being and our duty to other people in the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But what does it mean to “love God”? And what does it mean to “love your neighbor”? Sadly, many people within our culture are so alienated from the Christian way of understanding human life that they do not know the answer to these questions. Some even reject the idea of there being a right answer. In the previous two posts, I began to explore what it means to love our neighbors.

Paul charts the course for us in his ethical teaching. In last week’s essay,  I quoted 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, where he lists 7 things love does and 8 things love won’t do in relation to others. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul does something similar; but here he relates the love command to the negative provisions of the Ten Commandments:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul makes it clear that love should never be defined in a way that makes breaking the commandments the loving thing to do. Never! In coming weeks I plan to explore in detail some ways in which the Bible’s moral commands show us how to love our neighbors.

Today, however, I want to pursue a related set of questions: is the Christian moral vision recognizably “good” by all people of good will and sound reason? Is there a universal moral law? Or, is there such a thing as “a good human being”, and would a person who lived according to Christian moral vision be “a good human being”?

The New Testament writers clearly assume that to a certain extent everyone recognizes the difference between good and evil and right and wrong. And there is a huge overlap between the Christian vision of a good human being and the pagan vision of a good human being. I shall quote a few examples:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:3-4).

Paul speaks here of the Christian’s relationship with those responsible for maintaining the civil order. No society can tolerate murder, robbery and theft, lying under oath, armed rebellion, and other anti-social behaviors. Consequently, everyone recognizes an honest, truthful, faithful, peaceful, self-controlled, and helpful person as a “good human being.” The angry, murderous, thieving, lying, out-of-control person is universally condemned as a “bad human being.” In Paul’s view, Christians have even more reasons and more power to be “good” in the area of social virtues than pagan do. Clearly, pagans do not think the distinction between a good person and a bad one is arbitrary. The virtues and behaviors that make a good person good are recognizably good and beautiful.

Peter also assumes that the difference between a good person and a bad one is universally recognizable, and pagans know the difference:

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (1 Peter 2:11-15).

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed (1 Peter 3:13-14).

As did Paul in the earlier quote, Peter assumes that everyone recognizes the difference between behaviors and attitudes that contribute to the stability and welfare of a society and those that do not. The “good lives” of Christians refute the false accusations of some pagans. Indeed, Peter envisions Christians as model citizens that outdo the pagans in embodying the highest social virtues.

Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and other Greek and Roman moralists agree that a good human being should possess the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. These virtues are also praised in the New Testament along with many others that are implicit within them or consistent with them. I think one can argue that Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard than even the highest pagan moralists do. But the most pressing issue in morality does not center on its ideals but on our failure to live up to those ideals. The pagans have high ideals but fail miserably to live up to them.

Hence the first imperative of the Christian moral vision is to become good human beings in the universally recognized sense. Christians don’t live by a totally alien and weird morality. We should at least live up to the best pagan morality, displaying prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. We should be kind, helpful, trustworthy, gentle, compassionate, honest, peaceable, faithful, patient, and generous. How can we rise to the heights of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us if we’ve not internalized the more basic virtues? By all means aim to become a good Christian, but understand that you cannot be a good Christian unless you are also a good human being.

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Finding True Love in a Me-Centered Culture

In the last post, I wrote about the nature and logic of hatred. Hatred is seething anger at perceived insults. And the logic of hatred is “you are like what you hate.” Jesus demands that we replace anger with kindness and hatred with love. In this post I want to ask about the nature and logic of love.

What is Love?

What is love, Christianly understood? Let’s begin by defining love in opposition to hatred. True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. It’s so deep you could almost call it a “longing.” Hate is deep and habitual desire for harm to come on another in response to harm cause by the other. Notice that I have included the cause of hatred in its definition but I did not mention a cause for love in its definition. Hateful people hate those who insult them. In contrast, loving people love others whatever they do or say. Hence the “cause” of love does reside in the deeds and words of the loved one. Christianity teaches clearly that the “cause” of love is God’s love, which is made known in his action for us and in us. John summarizes the message of the entire New Testament when he says:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:7-19).

John grounds our love for others in God’s eternal nature and in his loving act of sending his Son for our salvation. Our love for others is not merely a dutiful imitation of God’s love for others. John makes this interpretation impossible when he says, “God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (verse 12). That is to say, through Christ and the Spirit, God unites his loving heart with ours and changes us from the inside out. We not only act like God in our external acts but become like him in the depths of our being. We love because it is now our nature to love. Because “God is love” and we are united to God, we are in a derived sense love as well. What God is in his eternal nature, we become by grace. Resonating in harmony with God’s love, we love others for the same reason God’s loves others. In loving us, God bestows on us the supreme good, that is, himself. And in our love for others we desire for them that same supreme good, which is God. Allow me to quote again one of my favorite passages from Kierkegaard:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

 

How Does Love Act?

How does love act? What does it do and what does it avoid doing? In Paul’s justly famous hymn about love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, rather than attempting to define love as I have done, he describes how it acts:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

For most people, it is not enough to explain that true love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. Most people are not very clear about what the “supreme good” is or how a person who desires it for others would act in various situations. Paul lists 15 things love does or does not do. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but illustrative. We could add many more. In each case, the loving person seeks something good for others or avoids doing harm to others. We are a bit fuzzy at times about what is good and bad for others. Listing ways of doing good and harm in specific ways helps us get a feel for what love would do or not do in other situations.

Counterfeit Love

However, there is much confusion in contemporary culture about the nature of love, and there are many counterfeits. Love, in the Christian understanding of it, is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good. Love, Paul asserts, “does not rejoice in evil but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6). Only a superficial love hides from the truth and reinforces another person’s ignorance and self-deception—or you own. Compassion that concerns itself only with how people feel and doesn’t bother itself with their true condition is cowardly and selfish, concerned with its own feelings more than with the genuine welfare of others. You do not love others truly when you rejoice with them in the harm they do to others or to themselves. True love knows that the supreme good for every person they meet is fellowship with God. Wisdom informed by Jesus’ example and teaching guides us to those goods and activities that further others on their journey toward God.

The Real Thing

Jesus Christ is the act and revelation of the love of God. He is the wisdom that teaches us how to love and power that moves us to love others in truth. In him, the supreme good and final end of human life is made known. I will say it again: True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. And, in the Christian understanding of it, love is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good.

Jesus’ Answer to the Logic of Hatred

 

Hate, hate, and more hate! Hate crimes! Hate speech! Hate looks! Hate thoughts! Television commentators, college administrators, columnists, political pundits, and political officials have a lot to say about hatred these days. However, as far as I can discern very little of it is grounded in any serious moral philosophy, much less in a thoughtful application of the original and most radical prohibition against hatred and hate speech, that is, Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. So, as we continue our thoughts about the Christian way of life let’s think hard and deeply about hatred.

Keep in mind Jesus’ words from Matthew, Chapter 5, as we think about hate and hate speech:

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell…

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Who is My Enemy?

In verses 21-22, Jesus deals with what our culture calls hate, hate crimes, and hate speech. Most murderers are motivated by hatred, and Jesus addresses the motive as well as the act. But he makes a surprising move. Rather than saying “Don’t hate your brother or sister” he says “Don’t be angry” with them. We might make a plausible denial of hatred but we can hardly deny that we get angry with others. Jesus severely condemns even mild insults like “raca,” which means something like “idiot!”  And he warns that calling someone a “fool” places one in danger of divine judgment.

In verses 43-48, Jesus speaks about hate and love. It is human nature to think we can love some people and hate others. But Jesus teaches that it is never permissible to hate. Who is your enemy? The enemy is here defined relatively. Your enemy is anyone you think wishes you harm or refuses to give what you think you are due. Of course, the person you think wishes you harm or will not give you what you think you deserve may not actually wish you harm or intentionally withhold what you are due. But that makes no difference. Whatever the truth of the matter, Jesus commands that we love our enemies.

What is Hate?

What is hate? Let’s begin where Jesus began, with anger. Anger is an emotional response to insult.  In anger we desire revenge for the disrespect others show us. Anger feels a lot like fear, and sometimes it accompanies it. But they are not the same emotion. Fear precedes and anger follows a damaging act. We fear something that threatens to harm us. When we suddenly feel that we might fall from a great height or when a huge dog charges us, teeth bared and fur raised, we become afraid. But when a human being moves to harm us the threat is accompanied by a sense of outrage. Human beings know they ought to respect our dignity.

If we think we have been insulted repeatedly by a person or if we can’t get a past insult out of our minds, anger becomes habitual. Anger has become hatred. In a moment of anger we desire revenge, but hatred, as constant desire for revenge, becomes obsessed with imagining and plotting ways to get even. Hatred is anger that has taken root and come to dominate other motives. In its poisonous imagination it magnifies, distorts, and deepens the insult to the point that taking revenge becomes a sacred duty to oneself…and sometimes a duty to God. For the person consumed by hatred, taking revenge feels like the only way to find release from self-destructive emotions.

Jesus and Your Enemy

But Jesus says to love your enemy. And your enemy is anyone you think may wish you ill. And to wish someone ill is to hate them. “Your enemy” is the one you think hates you. Now don’t miss this: The “enemy” Jesus says to love is precisely the “hater.” Jesus warns us not to insult anyone, not even the one who hates.

But in contemporary culture it has become acceptable to target people who “hate” us and others as long as we think their hatred arises from irrational prejudices. Such “haters” deserve anger and insult from the “good” people, that is, the non-haters. Labeling “haters” with insulting and damning names and pronouncing severe judgments is a duty, rational, holy, and good.

The logic of hatred is subtle indeed! For it was precisely this logic that Jesus’ exposed when he rejected the rule “Love your neighbor but hate your enemy”!  The enemies you are duty bound to love are the irrational haters. There is no other kind! And if we rage in anger and hurl insults at that person, we have become “irrational haters” ourselves. The logic of hatred is this: You are like what you hate! Jesus’ answer is this: “Love your enemies.”

Idolatry—The Carefully Guarded Secret of Contemporary Culture

Perhaps there was a time when a catechism of the church could transition smoothly from discussions about what Christians should believe to how they should live. After explaining the doctrines of creation, atonement, sacraments, eschatology, and others, we could move right into morality, virtues and vices, duties and sins. But that time is long gone. Contemporary culture no longer holds presuppositions that make discussions of the Christian way of life understandable. And we have to face the unhappy truth that many people who think of themselves as Christian no longer hold them either.

The foundation and presupposition of biblical morality is God’s right and demand for our absolute loyalty:

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

God is Creator and Lord, the beginning and end of all things. He gives all things their existence and purpose. God’s will is the law of existence. And those who know and acknowledge this truth seek to know and obey God’s will. They do not claim a right to direct their own lives. Instead, they follow Jesus’ example and say to God, “Not my will but yours be done.” Even the Son of God, who loved his Father and acknowledged his goodness and wisdom, had to obey his God. He renounced all independence and autonomy in relation to God. We should relate to God in love, joy, faith, and admiration. But true test of love for God is obedience, because obedience continues to do God’s will even against inclination, even unto death.

But contemporary culture unequivocally rejects this presupposition. This rejection has roots that go back 300 years in Western history and beyond that to the Old and New Testaments. Christianity asks each individual to establish a relationship to God characterized by faith and obedience. Ultimately each person is answerable to God alone for the way they live their lives. The individual enjoys freedom in relation to God, to believe or not, to obey or disobey. The 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment and the democratic movements that followed applied the Christian view of the God/individual relationship to politics to argue for greater individual liberty over-against the political order. God’s authority trumped human authority, and the individual’s obligations to God trumped the individual’s obligations to the state. Hence human governments have limited authority over the lives of citizens.

However over the past 300 years, the individual’s sacred obligations to God evolved slowly but relentlessly into the sacredness of the individual’s own autonomous self. After the rights of the individual in relation to the state had been established, people forgot the original basis of that freedom. The individual became his/her own god, the source of their own rights and dignity. God became superfluous. Contemporary gods and goddesses reverse Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father. They say,

“Not your will, but mine be done.”

The First Commandment has now been inverted to say:

“I shall have no other god but me.”

The Greatest Command has been rewritten to say:

“I am the Lord my God, me alone. I shall love myself with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength”

Many of our contemporaries knowingly or unknowingly reject the presupposition of all biblical morality, that is, that God should be obeyed in all things. Perhaps there is no more offensive and counter-cultural word than “obedience.” It strikes at the heart of the modern view of the sacred dignity and rights of human beings. Our absolute obligation to God has been transformed from the origin and foundation of human rights and dignity into their greatest enemy. Our contemporaries display an intuitive resentment and a knee-jerk rejection of any moral assertion that suggests submission to any will other than their own, even to God’s will.

A catechism of mere Christianity for a post-Christian, post-denominational culture will be ineffective unless it recognizes and exposes the modern divinization of the individual as the root of modern culture’s enmity toward the God of the Bible. Popular rhetoric of freedom, justice, individual rights, and tolerance is too powerful for immature and acculturated Christians to resist. Its power derives from its deceptive resemblance to Christian morality. Though it sounds vaguely Christian, it is actuality idolatry in its most original form: self-deification and self-worship.

The first and most basic premise of the Christian life is that we should passionately seek God’s will that we might obey him in all things, no matter what the cost.

A Truce in the Worship Wars?

Worship has become a controversial subject lately. Come to think of it, I suppose it has always been contentious. Is worship for us or for God? Should it be quiet and serious or loud and celebratory? Does worship address the mind or the heart? Before expressing an opinion on these questions, it might be wise to think as deeply as possible about the nature of worship.

Surely every Christian would agree that the object of worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t worship ourselves or other gods or money or other people. We worship God. No one will object if we distinguish between worship and the teaching/learning process. And though loving God and loving your neighbor cannot be separated, we need to distinguish between worship as a religious act and moral acts such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. And I think everyone would agree that worship is an act, not simply a belief or a feeling. Worship, then, is an act directed to God. What kind of act?

As an act directed toward God, worship needs to do something appropriate, something that truly corresponds to God. Since our most fundamental duty to God is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it stands to reason that worship must be an enactment of that duty. It is an act of love toward God. But it is an odd sort of act. An act of love toward a human being would supply some good thing to that human being that enhances their life. Since God does not lack anything, acts of worship cannot supply God’s needs or add to his knowledge, or make him feel more worthy. Worship doesn’t build temples, heal anyone, or accomplish anything in the world. Indeed from a worldly perspective, worship seems like a waste of time, energy, and resources. What appropriate act do we perform when we worship?

Worship is a symbolic act, and its symbolic nature gives to those who do not understand it the impression of waste and meaninglessness.  A symbol points beyond itself to something in the real world. It must resemble the thing it symbolizes in some way. Otherwise the symbol would be ineffective in directing our attention to the real thing. A symbolic act points beyond itself to a real act. It compresses, summarizes, and perhaps, dramatizes the real act so that its essential nature can be grasped in a flash of insight. In Christian worship, the body becomes a symbol. We bow down, kneel, eat and drink, raise our hands, and close the eyes; we light candles, sit quietly, or express words of admiration, faith, gratitude, and longing in prose, poetry, and song.  What, then, is the real act that the act of worship symbolizes?

Worship is a symbolic expression of love for God. And an act of love must give something to the one it loves. As I said above, however, God does not need anything we can give. But God deserves everything we can give. Worship symbolizes our appropriate response to what God is and what God has done for us. And what is that appropriate response? It is to accept without reservation God’s love for us and to offer our entire being to God to use according to his perfect will. More than that, the real act symbolized by worship is our actual living in this way. And I believe this is what Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Perhaps it’s time for a truce in the worship wars. We might discover that the dichotomies mentioned in the first paragraph above do not really express mutually exclusive things. Worship should be directed to God, but we are the ones who need it. God is so rich in his attributes that it is appropriate on occasion to be quiet and serious in his presence and on others loud and celebratory. God is both Truth and Beauty, so worship should address both mind and heart. Whether worship is tilted toward the head or the heart, whether it is quiet or noisy, we should not mistake the symbol for the reality. The true test of worship is the quality of life it provokes us to live.