Tag Archives: love

Does God Love Each Equally?

As a prepared for the lecture I plan to give tomorrow (“Love and the Question of God”), I was struck by a quote I intend to use. Some of us have a hard time and we wonder if God cares about us, and some of us seem to have it easy and we feel guilty about that. So, I simply wanted to share the quote with you and hope it helps you in whatever state you find yourself:

God wills our highest good. But we cannot attain our highest good as isolated individuals. We exist in relation to God primarily, and secondarily we depend on the whole creation and other human beings for our lives and personal identities. And we can experience the highest good, which is perfect fellowship with God, only in fellowship with the whole creation. Each of us plays a part in God’s story with the world. Some of those parts are short, some long, some painful, some mostly happy, some relative easy, and some very hard. From within life and from the perspective of the individual, life does not seem fair and God seems to love some more than others. But from the perspective of the end and the whole history of creation, God loves each person perfectly—and equally. God loves the whole world in each person, that is, God blesses the whole world by using each individual to bring something to the whole that makes it complete. And God loves each person by loving the whole world, that is, each individual will experience the whole good God makes of the whole. And in the end, all converge and each gets what has been given to all (A Course in Christianity, p. 48).

Be at peace. Rest in God’s love even when you feel you are not being treated fairly. The story is not over.

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Eight Things You CANNOT do with 248.5 Billion Dollars

I just read that the combined net worth of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos is greater than the net worth of the poorer half of the population of the United States. These three men possess as much 160 million Americans, that is, $248,500,000,000. Should we be outraged at the injustice? Or, do we have to fight our temptation to envy? Do we resent them or admire them? Do we feel sorry for the poorer half of the nation, or do we make moral heroes of them? All of these and more are possible reactions. But I had another thought this morning.

Sometimes I think of what I could do with Gates-level wealth. I dream of the good I could do and, I admitted it, of the stuff I could buy, the fame I could have, and the influence I could exert. But not today. Today, I thought of all the things I COULD NOT do with $248,500,000,000. Here are my top eight things we cannot buy with any amount of money, not necessarily in order of priority:

  1. We cannot acquire the love of another person. Love must be freely given. If you want to be loved, you must love, love with no expectation of having that love returned. Attempt to purchase it and it will turn to dust at your touch.
  2. We cannot become good people. Virtue is acquired through God’s grace, reason, practice, and humility. Virtue consists in power over oneself to direct the self single-mindedly toward the highest good. It’s not for sale.
  3. We cannot buy God’s approval or sway his judgment. God does not judge as human beings judge. God knows and judges according to truth, and the standard by which he judges is his own perfect justice and love. In relation to God, all we can say is “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Receiving God’s approval should be our supreme desire. And you can’t order it from Amazon.com.
  4. You cannot buy an education. You can buy a teacher’s time, computers, and libraries of books. You may avoid having to spend your time working. You can afford to attend an expensive university. But rich or poor, learning is acquired by study. You can’t get it by writing a check.
  5. We cannot buy health. Being able to purchase excellent medical care is an advantage, for sure. But everyone dies, and cold viruses, cancer, heart decease, and genetic disorders do not distinguish rich from poor. Accidents do not check the financial position of their victims. We need other resources to deal with sickness and death: courage and faith and love. And you can’t charge them to your platinum VISA card.
  6. No amount of money can buy happiness, peace, or joy. In these states of mind we have a sense of fullness, of having everything we need, of wanting nothing beyond what we have. But no finite thing can establish these states as permanent. True and lasting happiness, peace and joy must be grounded in the knowledge of possessing and being possessed by the infinite source of everything good, God. And God is as close to you as your heartbeat. The one who has God has everything, but the one who lacks God will sooner or later find everything else worthless. And God’s purchase price cannot be translated into Dollars, Euros, or Pounds Sterling.
  7. You cannot change the past or buy forgiveness. Only God can work all things, bad and good, for good. Only God can forgive sin and heal sin’s evil consequences. You cannot absolve yourself of your sins; nor can you erase the memory of your guilt. The ghost of regret is immune to bribery.
  8. Banishing anxiety about the future is not within our power. Whatever safeguards you put into place, you cannot exorcize the specter of what could be. The possibilities for evil are as rich as our imaginations, or even greater. There is only one ground of hope, the faithful Creator. And there is only one way to benefit from this Ground, to surrender all hope in yourself and to trust God in life and in death. God’s reliability bears no relationship to our net worth, and trust is not a financial transaction.

I could have turned these eight points around and written about

“Eight Supremely Valuable Things You Can Enjoy Right Now Free of Charge.”

You can love and be loved.

You can become a good person.

You can enjoy God’s approval.

You can learn about God and God’s creation.

You can appreciate the health you have.

You can experience happiness, peace, and joy.

You can experience God’s forgiveness.

You can let go anxiety about the future.

At what price, you say? We don’t have to give up anything of real value. Quite the contrary, we get to trade in our worthless stuff, our pain, sadness, disappointment, despair, self-deception, pride, shame, and fear…. God will take those worthless things in exchange for things valuable beyond reckoning.

Perhaps envying, resenting or vilifying the rich or pitying, praising, or excusing the poor—understandable though they are—are not the most Christian, or even the most rational, responses to economic disparity. Perhaps we ought to learn to make our judgments according to the value system determined by God’s economy.

Ron Highfield’s Amazon author page:

https://www.amazon.com/Ron-Highfield/e/B001JS5TK8/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

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 is Risen—History’s Probability and Love’s Certainty!

It is a huge mistake to think of the questions of the resurrection of Christ and the truth of Christianity merely as philosophical or historical problems. Approaching them as if they could be limited in this way will lead to interminable debates and wild speculation. Today I want to place the question of the resurrection in larger framework that better models how a person actually comes to believe reasonably and responsibly.

First: Of course philosophical and historical reason plays a role. Christianity does not ask us to believe contradictions or impossibilities. Nor does it ask us to believe that an event happened that we know did not happen. We’ve already looked at some New Testament statements about the resurrection from a historical perspective. Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians and Galatians possesses the strongest historical warrant in the New Testament because it is direct, firsthand. The number of ways we can respond to Paul’s claim is limited. We can believe that he is telling the truth about his experience and interpreting it correctly or that he is lying or mistaken. Paul also tells us in his own words that Jesus appeared alive after his death and burial to Peter, James, John and many others (1 Cor 15). We know that a few years after his conversion—more than three but not more than 5 or 6—Paul met Peter and James the Lord’s brother in person. He stayed 15 days with Peter (Gal 1:18-19). Hence Paul was in a position to hear about Peter’s and James’ (and others’) resurrection appearances from their own mouths. We must either believe or disbelieve Paul’s claim to have met with Peter and James, and through Paul we are placed in the position of having to believe or disbelieve Peter’s and James’ testimony about the resurrection. Now add to this most direct historical connection, the accounts in Acts and the Four Gospels. (I place them second in historical weight because we can’t say how much is direct and how much is indirect testimony.) In Acts, we have accounts of Peter’s and Paul’s preaching and Paul’s Damascus Road experience. In the Gospels, we have very detailed accounts of the crucifixion, and we hear the story of Jesus’ burial, the empty tomb, and some resurrection appearances. Some facts mentioned in Acts and the Gospels are also supported in Paul: the empty tomb, the dramatic conversion of Paul, the appearances to Peter and the others. Hence we have a historical warrant to fill in the gaps in Paul testimony by using Acts and the Gospels.

There is no doubt that if we possessed this level of historical support for an “ordinary” historical event, no one would doubt that it really happened. Supposed we substitute for Paul’s claim to have experienced an appearance of Jesus Christ, the claim of having visiting the Temple in Jerusalem after his visit to Arabia. Suppose further that this fact is mentioned in the Four Gospels and Acts and serves as an assumption for the rest of the New Testament documents. No historian would doubt it. Indeed no historian would even think of doubting it. It would be historically certain. But because it is a miracle, and not simply a miracle but a miracle with revolutionary, world historical, religious, moral, and metaphysical significance…some people are willing to entertain the most outlandish conspiracy theories and speculative alternatives to the resurrection. Paul, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, changed from persecutor to persecuted preacher because of a deception? Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and all the rest conspired to deceive the world? The disciples saw Jesus die but lost track of his body after his death? Historically speaking—leaving out the bias against miracles and the epic implications of the resurrection—any event as directly and widely documented as the resurrection appearances would be accepted as historically established without question. Hence no one can be warranted historically for rejecting the resurrection. There must be another reason.

Second: To think reasonably about the resurrection event in historical terms, one cannot apply the presupposition that miracles cannot happen. To do so would make historical argument a waste of time. I have already dealt with the issue of rejecting the resurrection because of a belief that miracles cannot happen. Last week, I pointed out that believers should not take seriously historical objections to the resurrection based on atheism or deism. The discussion must be focused elsewhere, that is, on one of the first three decision points in the move from atheism/materialism to full Christian faith.

Third: Belief in the event of the resurrection from a historical perspective is just like belief in any other event. But from an existential, moral, and religious perspective, belief in the resurrection is dramatically different. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands from us what it demanded from Paul and the first disciples, a complete change of life direction! To say believingly “Jesus is risen!” is to say “Jesus is my Teacher, Lord, and Savior.” It is to reject ordinary, prudential, worldly life and risk everything! From this perspective, to believe Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, the women at the tomb, and all the rest appears as a very scary proposition. Even if historical science tells us the resurrection really happened and even if rejecting the resurrection requires us to consider outlandish conspiracy theories, we still hesitate.

At this point in the argument, apologists often attempt to construct an argument for the trustworthiness of the New Testament witnesses, centering perhaps on the fact that they gave their lives for their testimony. And I have no strong objection to these arguments. But arguments create incentives to rebut and think of reasons to doubt. Arguments always create their dialectical opposites. Hence I want to take another approach. In his Confessions, book 10, Augustine of Hippo expresses confidence that his readers will believe him when they read his confessions to God, which they cannot check out for themselves, because their “ears are opened by love.” He says, with reference with 1 Corinthians 13:7 “love believes all things, at least among those love has bonded to itself and made one.” In his reflections on faith, Gabriel Marcel speaks of the certainty of faith as an intersubjective bond that not only credits but “rallies to” the one in whom it believes (The Mystery of Being, Vol. 2). The certainty of faith in the resurrection arises when we get to know the New Testament witnesses, enter into their minds and hearts and see through their eyes. In other words, we believe them because we love them. If we don’t love them, we will not believe them.

Fourth: How can we get over the scariness of the revolution called for by the resurrection faith? Augustine famously said, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” Believing in the resurrection is not merely a matter of examining the credibility of some 2,000 year old documents. You have to love the people who bore and bear testimony to Jesus. You have to see that the resurrection faith and all that flows from it produces good people, people whose virtue and love you admire. The church should be, and sometimes actually is, the living reality that embodies the revolution implied in the resurrection of Jesus. How can a nonbeliever, one who understands practically nothing about the New Testament, come to love Jesus and those who loved him first, Paul, Peter, and the others? Only if they get to know a living human being who loves Jesus, Paul, Peter and the others! Only if they are loved by someone who has been transformed by their faith and love for Jesus, and for Paul, Peter and the others! The church—I mean the living body of believers under Christ their head—helps people believe by helping them love, and it helps them to love by loving them.

The Spiritual Dimension of Sex: Body, Soul and Sex (#2)

God created our world. Nothing in it is evil in its sheer existence apart from its use. Rivers, oceans, mountains, sun, moon and stars! From galaxies to fireflies, everything is good. Plants and animals are good. Human beings as God’s creatures are good, body and soul. As Genesis says, human beings are made in the “image and likeness of God.” The image of God refers not simply to the mind or soul alone, nor to the body alone. It refers to the whole human being. Because human beings possess intelligence they can “see” God’s character, perceive his will, and know his truth. And because they possess the ruling power of reason, they can do his will even against resistance.

But because they possess bodies they can make these divine qualities visible and active in the world of creatures. Human beings are meant to be the rulers and caretakers of the created world. As body, we share in the nature of all other creatures, but as soul we are open to the Creator of all things. As the union of body and soul, our God-given task is to reorient the time-bound, circular order of nature to the spiritual order, to integrate it and elevate it into this higher order. Everything praises God by its sheer existence and beauty. But in us creation becomes conscious of itself and God and finds itself praising its Creator. We are called to be the priesthood and choir of creation. What an amazing calling!

In our role as priests of creation, our bodies acquire a sacred meaning. The human body is the first sphere of created nature to be spiritualized and reorient to God. The body, like the rest of creation, is time-bound and circular in its ordinary order. Our task is to break open that futile order and make our bodies holy temples that ring with praise to the Creator and shine with divine light. We serve as priests for the rest of universe by making our own bodies the first fruits of a spiritualized creation, examples in miniature of the destiny of the whole creation. In spiritualizing our bodies—and through our bodies the whole creation—we do not destroy the created order of nature; rather, we direct the natural order to its supernatural destiny.

But what about sex? If God calls us to become priests of creation and to make our bodies into holy temples that anticipate the eternal destiny of the creation, how does sex fit into it?  We have many urges. Some urges move us toward things and some repel us away from things. We want to live, breath, eat and drink, and experience sexual union. We fear pain and death. We usually think of these urges as located primarily in the body because of their instinctual and unthinking nature and because we share them with other animals. Other desires and fears are associated with the soul, for example, desire for approval and fear of rejection.

But the strict division of body and soul is artificial, and this becomes obvious when we consider sex. The desire for sexual union is multidimensional. The obvious natural end of sexual union is reproduction. Though physical pleasure accompanies sexual union, it is clearly not its natural end. It is a means and motive. Higher animals usually take care of their offspring and nurture them until they can fin for themselves, but animal parents cannot understand that their offspring come from sexual union. They cannot consciously decide to mate in order to have offspring. Hence the physical urge for sexual union in animals is purely instinctual and irresistible. The end achieved by nature was not sought by the animals themselves.

Human beings, too, possess the physical urge for sexual union. But the rational and spiritual dimensions of human beings dramatically transform the urge for sexual union by placing it into a radically different context. For human beings, too, the natural end of sexual union is a child, and this end should never be forgotten or rejected. But human beings, in contrast to animals, know about this natural end and, hence, can consciously adopt it as their own personal end. Physical desire precedes union, but for human beings sexual desire is not purely instinctual, and it is not irresistible.

Physical pleasure accompanies sexual union, but the pleasure is not purely physical. Human beings can receive joy from giving pleasure to each other and hence raise physical pleasure, which is limited to each individual’s body, to a spiritual act of love and union. But sexual union in its spiritual dimension cannot be isolated from the whole relationship between the two. In sexual union one enters that most intimate and tender area of human soul where dwell our deepest needs for approval and presence and our equally deep fears of rejection and abandonment. Great care must be taken. For human beings, sexual union is a soul-damaging lie unless it is also a symbol of a life of self-giving.

The idea of reserving sexual union to a man and woman committed to life-long, loving marriage is not an ideological construct of a by-gone era. It is the life form love must take to realize itself fully in this relationship. It’s part of our task of spiritualizing and reorienting creation to its supernatural end. And it is the only way to elevate sexual union to a level worthy of human beings who are made in the image of God, body and soul. Only eternal self-giving love can make sexual union a means of transforming our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. Only by treating our bodies and the bodies of others as sacred objects can we fulfill our vocation as priests of creation.

To be continued…

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.