Tag Archives: Jesus

The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not About A Word

A few years ago I gave a talk to a popular audience on the doctrine of God. During the question and answer period a questioner ask, “Would you explain the Trinity?” The audience laughed. I replied that I find the doctrine of the Trinity quite simple and would be happy to answer his question. For today’s post I will share my understanding of this simple doctrine. Let me begin with two preliminary qualifications.

(1) The doctrine of the Trinity is not about a word. The Greek word “Trinity” (trias) was first used to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the late 2nd Century. The word “Trinity” was not used in the New Testament, and some people turn this absence into an argument against the substance of the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They seem to think that the whole issue turns on what word you use. If the word “Trinity” were that important to the doctrine, surely the Nicene Creed (381), the definitive statement of the Trinitarian faith for nearly all Christian churches, would have used it. It did not. The debate about the Trinity addresses the question, who is God? Or more precisely who is the God we meet in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who raised him from the dead? The name “Trinity” is simply a shorter way of saying the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), into which we are baptized.

The real question of the Trinity is this: is it proper for Christians to believe and confess that the word “God” means Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Gregory Nazianzus (A.D. 329-89), Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the chief defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity says it this way:

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity, either Judaizing to save the monarchia, or falling into paganism by the multitude of our gods. For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.  This then is the Holy of Holies, which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and is glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription to the title Lord and God (Oration 38, 8).

(2) The doctrine of the Trinity is not a speculative doctrine that claims intellectual comprehension of God’s essential being. The church fathers who articulated the Nicene Creed were well aware that God dwells in unapproachable light and that no one has seen God. God’s essence is incomprehensible by any being other than God. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a protective formula whose only claim to truth is that it faithfully summarizes the revelation of God made in Jesus Christ. Only God knows God. Hence only God can reveal God. The Son knows God and can reveal God (Matthew 11:27). The Spirit knows “the deep things of God” and can reveal the “thoughts” of God (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). In sum, the doctrine of the Trinity aims not to comprehend “the deep things of God” but to restate the truth of divine revelation in a compressed formula that protects the faithful from one-sided interpretations of the scriptures.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative, and it’s not complicated.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

John dealt with similar doubts in his own context in the First Century. And his answer is similar to the one the church eventually gave in the doctrine of the Trinity:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).

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The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

The Christian church confesses that the eternal Son of God became a human being in Jesus Christ, lived a human life, and died a human death for our salvation. The prologue to the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). In verse 14, we hear that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The man Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Paul speaks about the one who dwelt in the “form of God” emptying himself and humbling himself to take on the “form of a slave” and to die on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). And in Colossians, he speaks of Christ as the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” The writer of Hebrews speaks of one who secured purification from sins as the one “through whom also God made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Hence the New Testament certainly teaches that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed with the Father before he was made flesh. But how did his disciples arrive at this knowledge, and what does it mean to say that the Word became flesh or that the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily? These questions are not easily answered. It seems clear, however, that the doctrine of incarnation was not understood during Jesus’ earthly life. Only after the resurrection did this become clear. What changed?

It seems to me evident from  the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, his post-resurrection appearances, and his close connection to the sending of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus as one whom God had designated from all eternity as Lord, Savior, Revealer, Creator, and Judge. These functions cannot be carried out by a mere human or even an angel. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Jesus Christ could not be thought of as a mere instrument God used or a space in which God dwelt while doing this work. The risen Jesus is one with God in will and action. God acts “through” and “in” Jesus. But Jesus is not the Father. Nevertheless, in calling Jesus Christ the Word of God or the Son of God the apostles view Jesus Christ as some sort of “extension” of God.

The disciples did not realize fully the identity of Jesus as the Son/Word of God incarnate before the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. However, once they knew his true identity they concluded that from the very beginning of his human life he had been the incarnate Son of God. The resurrection revealed the identity of Jesus in glory, but it did not constitute it. The question I raised earlier becomes relevant at this point. What does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? We can readily see that the resurrected and glorified Jesus has been united to God, filled to overflowing with divine life, one in will and action with God. His body was transformed and spiritualized and his consciousness united with the divine mind. But how shall we understand his divinity during his earthly life before his glorification?

The first thing to keep in mind in answering this question is the truth I stated above: the actuality of the incarnation before the resurrection is a deduction concluded from Jesus’ resurrection and his status after that glorious event. It cannot be known from experience of his humanity or from pure speculation. And it could not have been established merely by a claim by Jesus or his followers. However, once that conclusion has been secured by the resurrection we can retrospectively see signs of Jesus’ identity in his earthly life: his miracles, the authority of his teaching, and his claims.

But accepting the resurrection-grounded truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate from conception onward does not grant us understanding of how this is possible or complete insight into the nature of the union between the Son of God and the human life of Jesus. Our expectations of what an incarnate God would be like create difficulties in thinking of Jesus as the Word made flesh. We tend to think that a divine presence in Jesus would necessarily manifest itself in a special divine-like consciousness and action through the agency of the body. But we cannot imagine a human consciousness that includes all knowledge or a human agency that exercises omnipotence. In the same way, we cannot imagine a divine consciousness that is limited to a human mind and bodily senses or a divine power bound by the limits of the body. Hence we get hopelessly entangled in contradictions. Some theologians develop theories of divine self-limitation, wherein the Word gives up or refuses to use some divine attributes and others think up theories that lessen the humanity by replacing the human mind with the divine mind or making the entire humanity a mere appearance.

The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds assert that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man” and that he is “one and the same Christ…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” These statements do not attempt to explain how this is possible or speculate about the psychological experience of the God-Man. Perhaps it is enough simply to confess the biblical and orthodox Christology and refuse to speculate further. I believe this stance is sufficient for the life of faith, and it is the foundation on which I base my thinking about the Incarnation. But we are curious to know the answers to these questions, and we cannot help imagining some sort of answer. And this curiosity can lead us to propose heretical or fanciful theories.

As I hinted above, I do not find it helpful to think about the Incarnation primarily in psychological categories, speculating about the union of divine and human consciousness and self-consciousness. I find it more helpful to think in ontological categories, that is, the being or existence of a thing rather than the self-consciousness of that thing. No right thinking person identifies their humanity fully with their consciousness. We are human even when we are not aware of the fullness of our human nature. Our humanity does not rise and fall with our self-consciousness. Human life is a life-long quest to understand and experience our full humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of all human existence is to become spirit, that is, to achieve identity between what we are in existence and in our self-consciousness.

Clearly, here and now there is a difference between my existing humanity and my ego or any other medium in which I am aware of my existence. Nevertheless, I can truly affirm that my existence is me and mine, even if I am not yet aware of all of it. I do not think or feel this way about the existence of other things, rocks, mice, planets or light beams. Why not? They are within my sphere of possible experiences. Indeed they are, but when I experience for the first time aspects of my existence, I experience them as me and mine, as having been me and mine all along. I do not experience other objects this way. I experience all dimensions of my existence as constituents of myself, and I realize that they were aspects of my constitution even before I knew of them.

Jesus Christ was fully human from conception onward. But like all human beings he grew in consciousness of his human existence and nature. It was not his consciousness and self-consciousness of his humanity that made him human. Jesus shared with other human beings the drive to know the fullness of his human nature and existence. But Jesus was also fully God from conception onward; that is to say, for Jesus the divine nature was a constituent of his existence. (For us, the divine nature is the cause of our existence but not a constituent of our persons.) In the same way that Jesus was not fully conscious of every aspect of his human nature from conception onward, he was not fully conscious of his divine nature always. And just as his lack of complete consciousness of his humanity did not make him less human, lack of full consciousness of his divine nature did not make him less divine. I think we can safely say that Jesus grew both in his awareness of his humanity and his divinity during his earthly life. And even if Jesus did not become fully conscious of the full depths of his humanity or his divinity until his glorification in the resurrection, this in no way diminishes the completeness of his pre-glorification divinity or his humanity!

Note: this is the 151st essay I’ve written and posted on this blog since August 2013.

 

Who is Jesus?

The first generation of Christians was occupied with grasping for themselves and explaining to others the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  One of the earliest identifiers is expressed in the confession, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9). His original disciples also designated Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the world, Word of God, and many more titles. Jesus saves and judges the world. He is the one through whom God created the universe (Hebrews 1:1-3) and the one in whom the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

He existed in the “form of God” but took on the “form of a servant” (Philippians 2). The eternal Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). He is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Jesus is not identified in a one-to-one correspondence with the God of Israel to whom Jesus prayed as “Father.” He is distinct from but in the closest and most intimate relationship with the God the Father.

Though Jesus is called a prophet, lawgiver, messenger and teacher, he is more, much more. The Gospel of Mark begins with the affirmation that this is the story of “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Mark’s gospel tells the story of how Jesus came to be recognized as “Messiah” and “Son of God.” John baptized with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. What a contrast! Jesus speaks with authority and casts out demons, which recognize him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24). He heals the sick and raises the dead with a simple command and in complete confidence.

In Mark 8, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say that I am?” At this point in the narrative, Jesus’ actions and words have asserted such unprecedented authority and provoked such wonder that none of the usual labels can do him justice. Peter replies to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (8:28). But not even that label says all that needs to be said about Jesus. For “messiah” means one anointed to be “king,” and Jesus, we discover, is more than a king.

In the next chapter (Mark 9), Jesus is transfigured and meets with Moses and Elijah. The three disciples wish to honor Jesus as the equal of Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the greatest of the prophets. But God, speaking from heaven declares, “This is my Son listen to him.” Jesus is greater than the law and the prophets! He is God’s “Son.” Mark wants us to view Jesus’ messiahship or kingship—which could be viewed simply as an office like those of prophet and priest—in light of his “Sonship.” When the human beings in Mark’s gospel speak about Jesus’ identity, they speak of him as the bearer of an office such as king or prophet, but when God or demons speak, they speak about Jesus’ person, that is, the inherent personal qualities that make him qualified for the work he does and the offices he holds.

In Mark, as well as the rest of the New Testament, the title “Son of God” means more than an office; it means an intimate relationship with the Father based not simply on a divine choice but on something analogous to natural kinship. John calls Jesus “the only-begotten” Son of God, emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus relationship to the Father (John 1:15), and Paul contrasts Jesus the Son of God with “the sons of God” who are adopted into “sonship,” in an obvious contrast between natural born and adopted children (Romans 8:15). Jesus is “Son of God” by nature. There never was a time when he was not God’s Son.

 Israel’s lawgivers, prophets, judges and priests were chosen by God from among the people and endowed with the authority of the office. Whatever authority they exercised or wisdom they displayed derived not from their own persons but from their divine appointment. Apart from that divine choice, they are just like their brother and sister Israelites. But Jesus was not only chosen and appointed for his work in this world. He was sent from the Father. He is not qualified because he was appointed but he was appointed because he was qualified. And this fact distinguishes Jesus Christ from all prior and succeeding prophets, priests and lawgivers. Jesus is Lord.

To be continued…

 

When Religion Goes Wrong: God and the Modern Self (Part 3)

In Part 2, we examined the anti-religious attitude of defiance. When we think of God primarily as power, especially unjust power, we feel a rising urge to defy. This urge is amplified in the mind of the modern self by its self-understanding as autonomous. If I am defined as a real person by my free will to do as I please, an all-powerful God looms a threat to my identity and dignity. But not every modern person is a Prometheus, willing to endure torture and destruction just to witness to the Power’s injustice. Even if we think of God largely as an undefeatable authority, most of us take another approach. I shall call that attitude subservience to distinguish it from submission, which is an act of faith and love. The subservient resist the urge to defy and give precedence to their desire to survive. Better a dog alive “to lick the foot of power” than a lion dead but defiant to the end.

Subservience is a religious attitude that views God as the inescapable law of reward and punishment, the ultimate source of blessings and curses. Ancient pagans worshipped the gods to secure their favor and ward off their wrath. Divine favor brings bountiful crops and fertile animals. Divine wrath brings floods and earthquakes. Subservient religion is religious worldliness, a science of the divine capriciousness. For people who think this way, God is part of their personal economy, a means to the end of wellbeing here and now. They may seem very religious, but it’s the world they love, not God.

Doubtless there have been a few pagan critics of subservient religion, but its earliest, severest and most radical critics are found in the Bible. The prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned their people against viewing temple worship and sacrifice as replacements for justice and mercy. They championed relating to God with inner devotion and ethical behavior. By criticizing idolatry they insisted on God’s transcendence over nature and his immunity from religious manipulation.

Jesus takes up the perspective of the prophets and radicalizes it even more, if that is possible. External acts of religion are empty and even offensive if not accompanied by a pure heart, that is, with wholehearted and undivided devotion. Hypocrisy is a mismatch between two parts of life, public and private or internal and external. One wishes to appear pious and morally upright for the worldly advantages such appearances give while retaining the “advantages” of a worldly life practiced in secret. Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the strongest terms, reminding us that God knows the secrets of the heart and sees what goes on in the dark.

Paul follows his Lord in demanding that we give our whole heart to God, become new creatures, be transformed in our minds and live by faith. Above all, he urges us to love. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice, stirring worship performances and great acts of generosity count for nothing—indeed they are displays of pride and hypocrisy—if not motivated and accompanied by love (1 Cor 13). Not to be out done by Paul, John helps us enter into God’s heart by reminding us that “we love because he first loved us.” If we see how much God loves us, we will love him back. And in loving him back and loving our brothers and sisters, we will experience his love from inside. In the Spirit, God’s love and our love become one heart and one spirit.

In his beautiful essay On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) follows Jesus and his disciples Paul and John. Bernard outlines four stages of love beginning with pure self-love. Once life’s hard knocks teaches us that we need God and others we move to stage two, loving God for what he can do for us, that is, subservience. We enter stage three when we learn how beautiful God really is and how much he loves us, that is, we begin love God for his own sake. Ultimately, we must learn to love ourselves only in our love for God. Listen to Bernard as he struggles to find words to explain why we should love God:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?”

Subservience is religion gone wrong. It views God from the outside, as a law or a power to which we relate in external acts because we must. It resists the Holy Spirit who wants to join our hearts to God’s heart, so that we live in his life and love with his love. In subservience…

“We…pledge to give God whatever God asks, but earnestly pray that God does not ask for too much. We want what God wants for us only when we want it anyway; we submit our wills to God in areas where we would prefer something else only because we must…[subservience] manifests itself in our lack of passion for God, in our inability to love God with our whole heart. We do not consciously think of God as a threat, but neither do we see God as our soul’s passion, the one thing for whom giving everything up is worth doing. We do not rise to the level of loving God for God’s sake (God, Freedom & Human Dignity, p. 63).

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 3 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Subservience: The Religion of Idols, Hypocrites, and Hirelings”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe the subservient attitude in its distinctions and likenesses to defiance.

2. What are some modern forms of subservient religion? Explore some ways it can appear so deceptively like true religion.

3. What is the central feature of idolatry and how does it embody subservience?

4. What is hypocrisy and how is purity of heart its opposite? Give examples.

5. How do the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and his disciples understand pure and true religion; and how does this view of religion fit with their view of God and God’s actions?

6. Explain how Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love progress from one to the other.

Next week we will examine the attitude of indifference.

A New Series Begins: God and the Modern Self

With this week’s entry I begin a series of posts dealing with issues I addressed in my recent book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2013). I will not write the series as a book review but as a study guide. The complete series, at least 16 entries, can serve as a study guide to the book for individuals, Sunday school classes, sermon series, college or seminary teachers or students, campus ministers, and youth workers to use their respective settings. But I also intend the posts to make sense even apart from the book; so, you can be stimulated and edified even if you are not reading the book.

The series will follow the book’s outline. The first half will deal with “The Me-Centered Self” and the second half with “The God-Centered Self.” The first part contains seven chapters and the second nine. Each week I will deal with a different chapter.

Introduction: Life in Two Worlds

Christians live in two worlds, the world of Scripture and the world of contemporary culture. Scripture embodies divine wisdom and revelation and a history of the prophets and saints and apostles. It preserves the words and deeds, suffering and triumph of Jesus Christ. The church has preserved Scripture, reflected continuously on its meaning and attempted to embody its truth for nearly 2000 years. Christian identity is shaped by 3500 years of history and tradition. Unlike many of our contemporaries we have (or should have) long memories.

From the world of Scripture and tradition we learn to see ourselves as God’s creatures, dependent on God for all good things, as sinners in need of forgiveness and renewal, as God’s beloved children, chosen for greatness, as mortals eagerly anticipating the advent of eternal life. We learn to value such moral and religious attitudes as trust, obedience, self-control, humility, love, reverence and hope. We see our lives as directed to accomplishing the will of God, to bringing glory to him and sharing in that glory. This shared, long-term and God-centered memory gives us stability of identity and clarity of character as individuals and as a community; and it protects us from the ever-changing winds of fad and fashion.

But we also live in the world of contemporary culture. And, just as we need to practice remembering that long story to keep alive our Christian identity, we need to observe, analyze and evaluate contemporary culture as a part of our own faithful self-examination. We face the double danger of forgetting the past and becoming enchanted by surrounding culture. That double danger can be overcome only by forming habits of remembering and by thoughtful engagement with culture. Attempting to preserve memory without thoughtful examination of culture will render us unable to communicate the Christian message to our contemporaries and, paradoxically, it may make us even more vulnerable to adapting to secular culture in substance while maintaining orthodoxy in words. But attempting to stay in tune with contemporary culture without constantly remembering our story in Scripture and tradition will lead to loss of God-centered identity.

My book and this series address this double danger by analyzing and evaluating contemporary culture and bringing to remembrance the Christian message of divine and human identity as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The first installment, “God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)”, will be posted immediately.

 

 

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part Three)

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith is belief that God is, was and always will be alive, that God is, was and always will be the source of life for all living things. Faith is conviction that God is the giver of every good thing we now have or can hope to have. Faith clings to God as the ever-present, always-attentive sustainer of our lives, as the unchanging beginning of temporal movement, as the end toward which all things strive. Faith understands God as the eternal unity that embraces all creation and every moment, every feeling and thought, every act and all our sufferings into a meaningful whole. It looks to God as that transcendent still point that imparts peace to our fragmented and chaotic lives.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith does not view God as an anonymous, purely transcendent Good; it sees the character and plan of this transcendent Good in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the transcendent source, the centering still point, the eternal unity has united creation to himself in the most intimate way possible. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth—and in him human nature and all creation—has been so united to God that human nature partakes in divine qualities without ceasing to be human; indeed, it becomes truly and fully human for the first time. In Jesus Christ, creation has reached its glorious fulfillment and God has achieved his eternal purpose. In faith, Christians look to Jesus Christ as the trustworthy basis of hope that we too will share in the glory of God.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Augustine said truly, “The happy life is joy based on truth.” But everyone knows the difference between holding a statement to be true and experiencing the reality that makes the statement true. Only in living by faith, that is, by acting on faith, facing suffering in faith and even suffering for faith, may we experience the truth on which joy is based. When all other supports have failed, all other helpers have fled and the last human hope has faded into darkness, we find that God is there. God is there, has been there and will always be there. When God is all you’ve got you realize that God is all you’ve ever had.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. But how can we keep this realization alive? We are forgetful creatures, creatures of habit; and most of our habits pull us into the mesmerizing flow of ordinary life. The sights and sounds, the worries and responsibilities, and the desires and ambitions of life in the world distract us from our true joy. Because we are forgetful, habit-forming, and distractible beings our strategy for maintaining awareness must counteract these tendencies. We need to form habits and practices that remind us that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness.

I would like to suggest some ways we can keep vividly aware that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness. These are suggestions only, designed to provoke thought; you may find other ways: (1) Since you will not always be consciously focused on God, surround yourself with reminders, with symbols and words. You might place the words I have been repeating in this essay (You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.) where you are sure to see them every day. Make connections between everyday activities and the memory of God. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said, “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe; indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing besides” (Or. 27.4). What if every time we noticed our breathing we remembered that God alone breathes into us the breath of life? (2) Make the unbreakable habit of meeting frequently with fellow believers to remind each other of who we are, on whom we depend and in whom we find our joy. Remember in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of the Lord. Remember your baptism.

(3) In your solitude, practice stripping away every finite good and every temporal joy. Be alone, be still and let it wash over you that you exist and are alive through no effort of your own. We are so busy in our striving to get ahead, make a living, make the grade or gain approval, that we become anxious and unhappy. We begin mistakenly to think that our existence and meaning and value depend on us; and, despairing of our strength to carry such a burden, we add unhappiness to our load, making it even heavier. Stop. Ask yourself this: what if I were dying alone in a ditch in a thunderstorm? In what could I find comfort and hope and joy?  In God alone. Even there you would have what you have always had: You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

If we know this and can keep constantly aware of it, we can return to ordinary life with a new freedom and joy. We can enjoy and use the good things of this beautiful world as they were meant to be enjoyed and used. We can take joy in them as divine gifts that evoke gratitude and remind us of the goodness and joy of God. In these gifts we enjoy the Giver. If we know that God alone is our joy, we will be freed to use the good things of creation properly, that is, to sustain our lives and to share with others the bounty of creation so that they too may rejoice in God and that we may enjoy their joy in God. The circle of joy begun by the Creator spirals upward forever!

Remember! Burn it into your memory. Never forget it:

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

On Being Worldly in a Secular Age (Part Two)

As a young person, when I heard older people sermonize against worldliness I got the impression that worldliness consisted in the practice of certain vices. I won’t compile a list of those forbidden acts because your list might differ from mine. And vice lists differ from generation to generation. This variability is an indication that such lists do not get at the essence of worldliness. What, then, does the New Testament mean by worldliness? Let’s think about the classic text on the subject, 1 John 2:15-17:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

First John speaks incessantly about love of God and others. Your true self is revealed and your life is ordered by what you love. God is the highest and best. God loved us first and best, and if we know this we will love God in return as our first and best. To love something is to value it and seek it above other things. Only if we love God best can we love other things rightly. The essence of worldliness is loving something else more than we love God. Let’s explore this thought.

John uses the standard Greek word for world. It means “the order”, the order we see with our eyes and perceive with our minds. But he puts a negative connotation on “the order”. He does not deny the beauty and goodness of creation; that’s not his point. By “the order” John means the distorted, fallen cosmic and social order that opposes God and God’s arriving kingdom. And how is the world ordered? By the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life! Lust is distorted love. It seeks gratification in physical stimulation without moderation or order. It refuses guidance from moral law, the law of love or leading of the Spirit.

What does John mean by the “lust of the eye”? Perhaps something like the following: The flesh can take in only so much. You can’t eat all the time or enjoy erotic pleasures continuously. There is a limit to how much you can stimulate your skin with finery or your nostrils with perfumes. But the eyes! The eyes can survey the whole universe and take in unlimited sights. They can look with envy, lust or morbid curiosity on an infinite number and variety of things. The lustful eye serves the insatiable imagination wherein the fleshly mind can enjoy what the fleshly body cannot embrace. Still, the lustful eye does not see what it ought to see. It cannot see the true order of things because it is blinded by the disordered mind that controls it.

And the pride of life? It is noteworthy that John uses a Greek term that means not so much life itself as the stuff that supports life. We want some things for their utility or for the pleasure they give. But we also enjoy having “stuff” (things and money) for what it says about us to other people. We can enjoy our bodies, natural talents and acquired skills for the good we can do with them; or we can credit them to ourselves as marks of worth and inflate our egos by imagining we are better than others. The pride of life is a kind of distorted love of ourselves in which we try to base our sense of dignity and worth on our qualities, powers and possessions.

To “love the world” is to be caught up in a disordered order that seeks from creation what only the Creator can provide. It is to treat the temporal as eternal, the corruptible as never dying and the creature as the Creator. Self-evidently, to love the world is to exclude “the love of the Father”; for the world is “the (disordered) order” precisely because it does not love the Father first and best.

It is unlikely that the worldly person John has in mind could be classified as “secular” in the modern sense, that is, someone who has “ceased to feel religious feelings and ask religious questions.” People can be worldly even though they are religious; they simply love the world more than they love God. They relate to God only when there is a worldly advantage in doing so. But one cannot be secular without being worldly. For someone who “feels no religious feelings and ask no religious questions,” the world with its lusts and pride is all there is. Since we are not God and do not possess within ourselves the means of life and happiness, we will seek, love and worship something outside of ourselves. Apart from its Creator, creation is just “the world”. Hence, when our love and worship are directed to “the world” apart from the Father, they degenerate into “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”