Monthly Archives: July 2016

Lies, Lying, and Liars

Have you read what the Bible says about lies, lying, and liars lately? Pretty strong words! “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:12). Jesus spoke of the devil as “a liar and the father of lies” (Jo 8:44), an obvious reference to the lie the serpent told to Adam and Eve. Paul lists lying among some outrageous sins, saying that the law was not made for good people but “for slave traders and liars and perjurers” (1 Timothy 1:10). As a child who more than a few times lied to get out of trouble, the verse that really scared me is found in the scariest book in the Bible, Revelation:

But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation  21:8).

And there are so many more condemnations of lying. But as the essay progresses, you will see why the Bible presents the Ninth Commandment as the paradigm case of lying:

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor (Ex 20:16).

Falsehood and Lies

Why is the Bible so hard on liars? Let’s think for a while about the nature of the lie and the act of lying. A lie is a falsehood asserted knowingly and with the intention of deceit. But not all falsehoods are lies. Some are simply mistakes. A simple falsehood is a statement that does not correspond to the facts it mentions. The statement, “Highfield’s car is worth over $100,000.00,” is a falsehood. A falsehood, whether intentionally or unintentionally told, misstates what is real and unreal. In many cases, the practical consequences of believing a falsehood are insignificant. It makes little day-to-day difference whether I believe our solar system contains seven or nine or ten planets. However, believing and acting on a falsehood can have grave consequences. If I belief falsely that my car’s brakes are in working order, I may find myself in danger on a mountain road.

Knowledge is Power

Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge in itself is power.” If you have knowledge you have power, and in so far as you are ignorant or misinformed you are vulnerable. If you have a certain skill or have access to the latest technology, you have more economic and physical power than those who do not. If you are able to persuade millions of people that you know how to cure all social ills, you will command the power of millions of bodies and minds. If you know someone’s dark secrets, you have them at your mercy. If you have secrets, you will do your best to hide them. Knowledge is power! Ignorance is weakness! And falsehood is ruin!

Lies, Lies, and More Lies

People don’t lie gratuitously. Lying is always a means to an end; it is an act designed to gain power. Under the impression of imparting knowledge (power) to someone else, it offers falsehood (weakness) instead. In doing this, the liar exercises power over others or keeps others from exerting power over them. We do, feel, and think many things that we would be ashamed for others to know. When someone asks us about one of our secrets or is in a position to discover them, we feel the impulse to lie to cover ourselves. In this case, our aim in lying is to protect ourselves from others. We tend to judge this type of lie less harshly that the next one. Let’s call it “defensive lying”. Nevertheless, even this type of lie does harm to us and others. Instead of avoiding our shameful acts or confessing them we compound them by lying. Perhaps if we practiced the discipline of confession we would develop greater self-control and find ourselves less self-deceived in moments of temptation. Confession is the practice of telling the truth to God.

Some lies are designed, not to protect ourselves from others, but to gain power over them. These liars are on offense. They intend to seduce, manipulate, and deceive others into acting in a way that benefits the liar and harms the victim. A dishonest car dealer, a seducer, and a swindler intend to cheat us through deceit. A false witness intends to bring us to ruin through abuse of the legal system. Crooked politicians hope to gain political power by making false promises, lying about their opponents, and covering up the ugly truth about themselves. Quite reasonably, we tend to judge these liars more harshly than the previous class. They lie for the purpose of inflicting harm—to reputation, to liberty, property, and even life. And the Bible is even harder on false prophets who lie in God’s name to the spiritual detriment of others!

A More Excellent Way

I am not going to enter into the tortured case logic of lying: Can you lie to an intruder to protect life and property? Is refusing to answer a question a kind of lie? Is allowing someone to remain ignorant when we could enlighten them a lie? Is it okay to lie to spare someone’s feelings? May you lie when it “harms no one”? Clearly, from a certain point of view the seriousness of a lie can be determined by the seriousness of the harm it causes. But human judgments about the seriousness of the harm a lie causes to others are fallible and limited in scope. We often fail to take into account spiritual harm or the lost opportunity for love and unity.

In the Bible, there are two sides to the issue of lying, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is obvious but the positive one is subtle. Of course, Christians should not be liars. But more than that, we should love truth and be willing to confess our weakness, sins, and faults. We should try to live our lives so that we have nothing to hide. If we trust in God’s power, we will be less concerned about gaining advantage over others and we will feel less vulnerable to others. If we love God, we will love others and will want to do them good. Speaking truth is an act of love. Lying always offends against love.

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Sometimes the Soul Needs to Listen to the Body

Nine days ago I underwent surgery for an inguinal hernia. My recovery from the anesthesia took longer than I expected, and I’ve been exhausted the whole nine days. What surprised me is how much my physical trauma manifested itself in my psychological moods and thoughts. I kept thinking I would use the physical recovery time to read and perhaps write a little. But instead I felt two disturbing moods come over me. I felt no energy for work, and when I tried to get something done my concentration failed me. Usually, I feel so many ideas clamoring for expression that I feel no lack of creativity. So, I feel like I’ve got nothing accomplished in the last nine days. And in those moments the thought crept in that my creative days are over. Nothing will change, ever! Compounding my inability to work was a burden of guilt (I can think of no better word.) for not accomplishing anything really worthwhile. My book project languishes, and I don’t feel like writing an essay for Ifaqtheology. But as I am pulling out of my funk, I’ve started thinking about the ethical and theological implications of these experiences.

God created us body and soul, physical and mental. And sometimes we downplay the intimate unity of body and soul. From an ethical point of view the soul/mind is supposed to rule the body. The body sends demands to the soul/mind, and the mind is supposed to judge the merit of those requests, measure them against other demands and the moral law. The body does good work for us, but it needs the eyes of the mind to enlighten its myopic vision of the good. But in the last nine days, I’ve learned that sometimes the body is smarter than the mind. The mind can be driven by wishes and theories to ignore the facts. The body stays stubbornly in the realm of fact.

I find it very interesting that the body can communicate with the soul/mind in a way that the mind can translate into thought and proposed action. In my case, my body was not urging me toward immoral actions so that my mind/soul had to be on its guard to redirect its urgings. My body was telling me to rest and let it heal. It communicated that message in clumsy ways as the body always does. It simply communicated a feeling of sleepiness, tiredness, pain, disinterestedness, and lack of creative energy. My mind at first was confused at this. “No, we have work to do! Books to read! Essays to write!” I was treating my body’s messages as if they were telling me to do something immoral, to be lazy, to shirk my duties. It took my mind nine days to accept the truth that my body knew from the start. After a physical trauma, my work, my duty, is to give my body time and leisure to regain its strength. I just have to believe that it will happen and I will know the joy of productive work again. Sometimes the soul needs to listen to the body!

A Study in Vice

The Bible describes moral life in terms of virtues, vices, and actions. Virtues and vices have to do with dispositions of character. Actions concern movements from the self toward the external environment. The English word virtue derives ultimately from a Latin word that means power, that is, a learned skill that enables one to act appropriately. And the English word vice comes from the Latin word for fault, defect, or failing. A vice is not a power but a weakness, a lack of power. Virtues complement each other and together create harmony within the soul and promote harmony with others. Vices contradict each other and pull the soul in many directions at once and they set the vicious person against others. A virtue like courage or love is called a power because it enables us to act in a self-determined way regardless of the circumstances. Vices or weaknesses of character make us vulnerable to losing control of our behavior and becoming emotional slaves to our circumstances.

We cannot generate from within ourselves everything we need to survive. We are possessed with a desire for life. To live we need things that nature supplies. And to live well we need the companionship and cooperation of other people.  That is to say, we have desires and those desires are rooted in human nature. One of the four cardinal virtues is temperance. Temperance is the power to restrain and direct our desires so that they achieve their natural purposes but do not lead us into behaviors that are damaging to ourselves and others.

In many New Testament translations, desire (epithumia), when it is not moderated and directed by temperance, is translated “lust.” In older translations, it is sometimes translated “concupiscence”, and Christian moralists sometimes designate it “inordinate desire” or “unnatural desire.” Lust or intemperate desire is a very general concept. It is made specific by the type of object desired. Lust has come to mean inordinate desire for sexual gratification. Inordinate desire for money is called greed or avarice. Inordinate desire for food is called gluttony, and inordinate desire for rest is called indolence or sloth. Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Sloth are four of the traditional seven deadly sins. These four are simple extensions of desire for physical things. The other three, wrath, envy, and pride, are more complicated and have a personal and spiritual component.

Envy

Now I want to consider vice of envy because it combines inordinate desire with another vice that intensifies its destructive power.  Envy is more than desire; it is desire for what rightfully belongs to someone else.  The envious person doesn’t simply desire the girl or boy, the car, house, or diamond. Envy is more than desire for recognition and reward. Envy resents the person who possesses something we want. As it grows envy becomes less about the desirability of the thing we want and more about the fact that the other person has it and we don’t. Why should you have the girl, the gem, or the money, and not I?  Why should you receive the honor and not I? Envy leads to all sorts of bitter thoughts and rationalizations, which in turn find expression in faultfinding, gossip, and lying. The cold wolf of envy often cloaks itself in the warm robes of righteousness, justice, and fairness.  He can call on God and all that is holy to justify his bitter judgment. And words can spiral out of control, producing anger, rage, hatred, and even murder.

The vice of envy illustrates well how sin against the neighbor is also sin against God. The question, “Why should he or she have that thing and not I?” is really an accusation against God. “God, why did you give the girl or boy, the money, or honor to that person and not to me?” If we trusted and loved God we would be satisfied with what he gives us. If we believed God loved us, we’d be satisfied with how God distributes his good gifts. And if we loved our neighbors, we’d rejoice with them over their blessings. Our tendency to envy others shows that we resent God and consider him unfair. If we believed that God is just, we’d leave judgment about who deserves what and who rightfully owns what to him alone.

Jealousy

The word jealously is often used as a synonym for envy.  In my view, we should reserve them for different vices; they have different objects. Jealousy like envy involves a desire, but in jealousy’s case the desire is to keep what one already possesses (or what one thinks he or she possesses) from falling into the hands of someone else. And the object over which one is jealous is almost always a person, not a physical object. It can be a spouse, friend or relative. I may think I am entitled to the exclusive attention of my friend or parent or spouse. A jealous husband or wife, for example, grows inordinately angry at the attention another man or woman pays to his or her spouse and resents the spouse’s apparent enjoyment of this attention.

Jealousy like envy has deep roots. If we feel insecure about the faithfulness of our spouse or friends, will we burn with jealousy when they give or receive attention from another person. Jealousy, too, is inordinate desire, not simply the desire for affection and faithfulness from the beloved, but selfish to the point of robbing the beloved of living their own life. The jealous person demands not only that the beloved love them but that she or he love no one else. From this description, we can conclude that jealousy also refuses to love and trust God. If we loved God above all things and trusted his love for us, we would not be so devastated at the thought of someone else robing us of our beloved. If we hold on to God, we will know that all good things come from God and that he will take care of us even if we are betrayed. God will be faithful even if the whole world becomes faithless.

Jealousy also violates the second greatest command. Jealousy as inordinate desire seeks to absorb the beloved and rob them of friendships with others. It is far from a jealous person’s thought to rejoice in the beloved’s joys and successes or to glory in his/her development toward maturity. Jealousy produces nothing good. Instead, it drives the beloved spouse or friend further away. Though on one level the beloved might mistake jealousy for love, on another level the beloved knows that they are not loved at all but only valued as a means to a selfish end.

The jealous person places the desire to be loved above the desire to love, and here the inordinate nature of jealousy comes clearly in to view. The proper order of love is to accept God’s love and return that love to God in praise, trust, and obedience. Jealousy can find no soil in such a heart. The jealous person loves no one but themselves, and even this self-love is an illusion because “to love one’s self in truth is to love God.” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love). If you don’t love God or your neighbor, you cannot love yourself truly. For you don’t desire or strive for the best for yourself.

Now we are in a position to see why the New Testament warns against such dispositions of the human heart. Envy and jealousy indicate disharmony in a person’s character. Hence when they are expressed and acted upon, they create conflict rather than promoting harmony among people. Whereas people that display contentment, self-control, gratitude, and love can live together in harmony, people who envy and are jealous cannot get along with each other.

I don’t think we can free our hearts of envy and jealousy by sheer will power. As I said above vices are weak, thoughtless, and defective. They are not things to root out but holes that need filling. So, instead of attempting futilely to change ourselves, we should contemplate God’s love for us, trust completely in God’s faithfulness, and meditate on the true order of love, which is God, neighbor, and self. At the same time, we must put the virtues into practice in our external actions. We will find that our hearts follow.

Please Don’t Say Everything You Think!

 

Today, in a world ablaze, I say to myself, to other Christians, and to all people of good will: “Please, please do not say everything you think.” Our minds and memories are full of evil, selfish, petty, and blasphemous thoughts.  Who is without sin? Who will deny it? When I was young I thought Jesus’ teaching against swearing applied only to certain words or perhaps to the act of placing yourself under a curse. Don’t use God’s name except in reverence, don’t say “Jesus Christ!” or “Damn!” But I did not notice verse 37, which I have emphasized below:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

Verse 37 condemns and warns against speaking a single word designed to wound or express anything other than respect, love, and truth or do anything other than good. We think many hateful, prejudiced, selfish thoughts. Don’t say them! Once you do, they will escape your control and take on a life of their own; and they will eventually turn on you.

When I was a teen I loved the Book of James. Perhaps it was because I felt such a need for wisdom. Life is so complicated and living in human society presents so many difficulties. James’ extensive instructions about the use of speech grabbed my attention. I have since that time tried (and often failed!) to put into practice James 1:19-20:

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:19-20).

James nails it. Anger makes its first external appearance in speech! James urges us to listen, get the whole story, allow reason, wisdom, and common sense experience teach us what to say, if anything at all. Don’t speak when angry. Better yet, learn where anger comes from and deal with the root problem. As I said in a previous post, anger is a reaction to insult. But Jesus told us to bless those who curse us. How can we do this? It can be done only if we refuse to be insulted, because we are clear that our dignity depends on God’s love and not the momentary thoughts of other human beings.

I heard many sermons on James 3:1-12, which is one of the most extensive discussions of the dangers of speech in the New Testament. And those preachers were right to preach often on this text. The power of words is deceptive. They are so easy to utter! But they can unleash hell, war, and murder:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:1-12).

Oh, how we love to express our opinions, prejudices, and fancies…especially on religion and politics! We love the sound of our own voices! For the moment we feel as wise as our words boast. The tongue is so close to the brain and takes so little energy to operate. It works almost automatically. James warns us that teaching is a serious act. Teachers will be judged with stricter judgment. We don’t get off the hook by claiming that we are not “official” teachers. In any act of teaching in any context from a casual conversation to a blog post to a Facebook comment we should take seriously our responsibility to tell the truth and do something good. The tongue is so difficult to control that James uses self-control in speech as the gold standard measurement of maturity. Learn to discipline your speech and you will have learned to control every other impulse and passion.

A fire! A fire sparked by hell’s flames! That is what James calls uncontrolled speech. Thought is an internal act while speech is an external act. Speech is the gateway through which the demons within escape into the world to spread their poison. Oh, how sweet it is to let the poison out! Keep the gate shut! Let reason and wisdom, the twin guards, do their work.

In a culture where we can speak to the whole world through the media at our finger tips, allow me to say it again: “Please, please don’t say everything you think!” Don’t say it yourself, and don’t “like” or “share” any words you would not say yourself. Liking or sharing or forwarding anything that violates Jesus’ and James’ teaching is just the same as saying it yourself. We are not less guilt of a crime because we get someone else to do it for us. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. Bless and do not curse!

 

Christian Morality—Arbitrary, Irrational, Outdated?

The Christian vision of the moral life is often ridiculed as arbitrary, irrational, or outdated. It’s too strict! It’s too serious! And it’s unrealistic about what human beings can do! We hear such things quite frequently in the media and from our secular friends. Sometimes the voice from which we hear such challenges comes from our own hearts. As I explore the specific contours of the Christian moral life, I will keep these accusations in mind, addressing them explicitly or implicitly in every essay.

Arbitrary

Before rushing to defend Christianity it is always wise to turn the tables on the critics to discover whether or not they can defend their criticisms from the very charge they make, in this case, of being arbitrary, irrational, or outdated.  What does it mean to assert that a moral rule is “arbitrary”? The English word arbitrary is derived ultimately from the Latin word for “will” or “willful.” The decisions we make should be informed by reason and wisdom gained through experience. But we succumb to arbitrariness when we ignore or suppress reason and follow fancy or prejudice. We become impatient and decide to “take a chance.” A moral rule is arbitrary, then, when it finds its origin in the whimsical impulse of a single will. Does any aspect of the Christian vision of the moral life fit the definition of arbitrariness?

Irrational

What about the charge of irrationality? The question of the rationality of a belief or action or moral rule concerns how the belief or action or rule is held by the one who asserts it. Is it held for good reasons or poor ones? One acts rationally if one acts for good reasons and irrationally if one acts for poor ones. The question of truth or falsehood is very different issue. It concerns the relationship between the assertion and the real state of affairs. Does it correspond or not? Critics often confuse the two questions.  Are critics saying that Christians hold their moral beliefs for reasons that should not count as evidence? Or are they saying that the moral belief in question is false? Or are they simply hurling thoughtless accusations that mean no more than “I don’t like what you are saying!” or “I don’t get it!”? I suspect that in most cases the last alternative applies.

Outdated

To say something is outdated is to depart altogether from moral categories and move into aesthetic categories. Clothes, hair styles, and carpet become outdated after a while, that is, they no longer appeal to our aesthetic tastes. The process of changing tastes is fascinating. Why do some old things seem outdated while others remain “classic,” or others make a comeback as “retro”? Clearly, fashion is based on some kind of social agreement, seemingly arbitrary in origin, but perhaps subtly articulating some wish or self-image of the age. However that may be, to speak of a moral rule as outdated assumes that it was at one time in style.  And “in style” is not a moral category any more than “outdated” is. Instead of taking the trouble to argue that a moral rule that was once thought to be right, just, and good, is no longer so, the critic misapplies aesthetic categories to moral issues. It’s much easier to dismiss something as “not in style” than to argue that it is wrong. The former appeals to the public’s subjective tastes and the latter can be substantiated only by appealing to a moral law that transcends subjective tastes.

Ends, Means, and Reason in Morality

Human beings act to achieve ends. Morality seeks to guide human actions toward the right ends and right means by which to achieve those ends. Often, a moral vision proposes an ultimate or highest end toward which all actions should be directed and by which they should be measured. All other ends and means should be subordinated to that chief end.  Almost all moral systems assume that individual human beings need to be directed to ends that transcend their private interests and momentary whims and passions. The long term health and happiness of an individual is a more worthy end than momentary pleasure, especially when the immediate pleasure damages the prospect of achieving the long term end. Since no one can achieve the human end alone, the good of the community within which one lives must take precedence over the private ends of the individual. Hence most moral rules concern interpersonal relationships, and seek to promote peace, harmony, and justice within the community by limiting individuals’ pursuits of their private interests when those pursuits seriously disturb the peace of the community.  Reason comes into play in morality through the necessity of making judgments about the relationships of ends and means to each other and to the supreme end of all actions.

Christian Moral Vision—Deliberate, Rational, and Never Out of Date

Christian morality also values reason, proposes a highest end, and subordinates and orders other ends to that chief end. God is the highest good and chief end of all things. And by “God” Christianity does not mean merely a supreme being but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose character and purpose has been disclosed in Jesus. This God is the highest good toward which all our striving should be directed. The second highest end is the good of our neighbor. Our private interests must be subordinated to the good of others, and the “good” of others is defined by and subordinated to the love of God. By the “neighbor” Christianity means each individual we meet and the community constituted by those individuals. How can human striving after God, loving the neighbor, and seeking our own good be harmonized? Or can they?

Christianity envisions a universal community where the highest good of each person and the whole community are harmonized perfectly and directed to the supreme good. This community includes not only human beings; it includes God and the whole creation. God’s purpose in creating will be fulfilled in the formation of this community:

“ [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Jesus Christ is the perfect union of God and humanity. In him, the hostility and distance between God and man has been overcome. Sin has been defeated and death swallowed up in victory. The mystery of God’s will is that God will extend and expand the sphere of Christ to include “all things in heaven and on earth.” Fragmentation and disharmony will be replaced by unity. Given God’s plan to unify “all things” in Christ it should not surprise us that unity, peace, and love are at the center of Christian morality:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Col 3:13-15).

Christianity envisions a moral community that in the present age strives for the unity, peace, and love that will characterize the perfect divine/human community that God will bring about at the end. Every action that Christian morality forbids is forbidden because in works against this community. And every action it encourages promotes this community. And this ordering all things toward their end of union with God in Christ is where Christianity’s use of moral reason is most evident.

Conclusion

Perhaps a rational and thoughtful person could argue that the Christian moral vision is based on a false view of the highest good and ultimate end of human life. And we might wish to take seriously an attempt to argue that Christianity ranks goods in the wrong order. But the charge that Christianity’s moral vision is arbitrary, irrational, and outdated can be dealt with rather swiftly. Clearly Christianity’s moral rules are neither arbitrary nor irrational, since they are based on the Christian community’s experience of God’s revelation in Christ’s resurrection and its hope for a future perfect community. And, if they direct us truly to our chief end, they are certainly not outdated.

Next Time we will examine envy, covetousness, and jealousy, showing what they are, how subtly they touch all our relationships, and how they fail to embody the future unity of “all things” in Christ.