True joy makes suffering its friend.
Dear Father, I don’t want to want what I want; rather, I want to want what you want me to want. Amen
Yes, the repetitiveness of this prayer is somewhat humorous, but along with this humor I offer it with sincerity. As far as the use of the word “wanting” as a modifier for this prayer, I primarily intend that it refer to the amount of want expressed. However, I like double entendres, and so I also want to cash in on the definition of wanting as “something essential that is lacking,” but I intend that the essential thing that is lacking refer to a heart that only wants what God wants, and not some quality of the prayer itself.
I have developed a sick religious consciousness. This is not to say that this consciousness is the sum of who I am, or that it is dominant in my personality, but it certainly is prevalent. It occurred to me moments ago (and so, I of course have to blog about it) that this consciousness is like a person who receives a diagnosis of cancer and then becomes obsessed with cancer, and in his obsessive analysis of his cancer is surprised that cancer is so cancerous. In this analogy cancer is a good analog for sin because it is a destructive reality, and it seeks to dominate its host. Moreover, when one is in the process of being healed of cancer what happens is that the presence of cancer diminishes in the host. In other words cancer is always cancerous and healing is not about converting cancer into something healthy, but about its shrinking to the point that it vanishes. In the meantime, while one is in the process of healing, whatever remains of cancer is still cancerous, is still a destructive and ugly reality.
Continuing with this analogy, just as chemotherapy can provide healing for cancer, grace does provide healing for, and deliverance from, sin. With respect to religious consciousness, and this is where the analogy breaks down, it seems to me that when one enters into grace one can either focus on the reality of grace, or the continuing reality of sin, and what I am starting to see is that what you focus on dominates your vision, which in turn powerfully affects how you live in the world. For whatever reason, I have developed the depressing habit of constantly analyzing myself to see if I am in grace (my consciousness is a weird hybrid of a cloistered, medieval monk and a dour Puritan. Keep in mind, not all Puritans are dour, but the Puritan in me is), and in this analysis I end up discovering all sorts of sin, and I run to the conclusion that grace must be absent or not working because sin is still so sinful. Going back to the analogy, it’s like I am in the midst of the healing process, and yet I run to the doctor and say, “The chemo must not be working because the cancer is still so cancerous, it’s still such a diseased and destructive reality”
To take all that I am saying and make it more specific, I currently struggle with anger, at times a dark anger, and when these feelings of anger well up and crash upon my consciousness I am very tempted to despair in the belief that grace cannot be present where such anger exists, yet what I am also experiencing is a still small voice saying, “You can either focus on the anger or you can focus on the grace.” In this instance I assume the grace of which the voice speaks is not a transforming reality, but an embracing reality, a reality that embraces me while I am angry, and what I sense is that this embrace is the foundation for any transformation that is to come. In this way grace is utterly gracious, and what I must learn to do in those darkest moments is embrace the grace that is embracing me, embrace the grace when its most clear that I don’t deserve it, which of course is the very nature of grace.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Perhaps the above breath prayer is a bit odd to tack on at the end of this post, but somehow it seems fitting.
True repentance happens at the cross where our inability meets the ability of God.
True repentance happens at the cross for repentance is not essentially deciding to do better; it is not committing yourself to live by a righteous standard that you have previously denied or neglected. Repentance is most essentially turning to God to receive from God, for it is through his self-giving that you are able to change, be transformed, and recover the lost humanity to which all genuine standards of righteousness bear witness.
True repentance happens at the cross for the cross is a threefold revelation. At the cross the false humanity we have become is revealed through the brutally broken body of the Son. At the cross the holy love of God is revealed in that he judges our false humanity, and offers himself to bear our judgment. At the cross our true humanity is revealed for there we receive the self-offering of God, and this is true humanity because God designed us to have our very being in his self-offering.
The cross is the end of sin because the cross is the end of the self-life (self-reliance and self-determination) and the beginning of life in God (life leaning upon God’s grace and goodness).
If you want to be saved, you have to be a sinner. I realize that what I just said can be taken wrongly, but I imagine that a number people don’t get this rightly. Jesus really did come to save the sick and the sinners.
I get that doctrine is important to the life of the Church. Doctrine is part of the Church’s call to bear witness to the work of God in Christ, and it can be both an act of worship, as well as a catalyst in bringing the Church to it’s knees in worship. And yet, for all this, I often sense that beneath doctrinal articulations is a hard flexing of the will-to-power, that doctrine is itself the product of an aching desire for exacting control.
The sage of Proverbs states, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” On the other hand it’s also true that there is a way that appears to be death, but its end is life. This is the testimony of the Cross. The hitch in both of these instances, is having the discernment to see through the appearance of things to the substance and end towards which they lead us.
I know many people were surprised by Robin Williams suicide, but given the relationship between comedy and sorrow, was it really such a surprise? Comedy has its roots in tragedy, deep insecurity, and loneliness, and we laugh at comedians because they give us a socially acceptable way to vent our own insecurities and fears, without being so damn vulnerable in the venting. On some level I knew Robin was lonely, depressed, and hurting, for the hurting in me resonated with the hurt in him, and it is this resonance that caused many of us to connect with him. Like many, I am saddened by his passing, but I am also disturbed, because when a comedian dies by suicide it is a bracing reminder that laughter, as good as it is, is not enough. We need vulnerability because it is the key to connection: to genuinely knowing others and being fully known, and living in connection is the kind of creatures we are.
Having said this, I realize that depression, clinical depression, adds a biological depth to the relational dynamics I am describing, such that a depressed person can have many significant relationships, and yet the depression keeps them from meaningfully engaging those relationships. In rooting depression in tragedy and loneliness I don’t mean to undermine the biological aspect of depression. I just want to acknowledge how all of us, whether we are clinically depressed or not, have a share in Robin’s pain, because, living in a fallen world, none of us are unscathed.
As I am writing my way through this, it occurs to me that laughter points to compassion, and compassion is what we really need. Laughter is sometimes a blessed reflection of compassion, and sometimes its dim shadow. Like laughter, compassion connects us to one another through our pain and insecurity, but unlike laughter, compassion is always vulnerable. As I said before, this vulnerability is so hard to accept, and is likely why genuine compassion is hard to find. Yes, we all feel compassion at times, and express it here and there, but to live in compassion requires that we be at home in our vulnerability, and that is just too much.
So, where am I going with all this? Simply put, I’m just processing, and hopefully moving towards compassion even as I laugh along the way. I’ll just finish by saying, “God have mercy on Robin; God have mercy on me, and God help me to live in compassion by embracing my vulnerability, and thereby learn to laugh with unyielding joy.”
Here is another letter that I am sharing because having the opportunity to respond to these concrete, heart-felt, and existential questions gives me the opportunity to unpack the implications of the Gospel to the realities of every day life. As always, I hope reading this is thought provoking and edifying.
Dear Ms. O,
Regarding your questions about marriage, Wow! That’s a lot to process particularly in trying to give such a subject its proper due. I would say that marriage is one of the basic elements of society, as it takes a natural reality, the biological impulse for procreation, and it directs it toward something greater: the development of civilizations and all the good it can bring into our life. I would also say that from a Christian perspective it is a profound theological reality, as it potentially mirrors the dynamics of the life of the Trinity, and is a kind of living parable of Christ’s relationship to the Church. With this context in mind, the character of a potential mate is one of the key factors to consider, and by character I don’t mean perfect moral character, but rather qualities that are critical for a person to have in order to be open to growth and to sustain good relationships. I suppose good conversations could be had about what these characteristics are, but off of the top of my head a person should be relatively humble, honest, at least moderately considerate of others, principled and yet open-minded. If two people possess these qualities I believe that on the whole they will be able to navigate the promises and pitfalls that two imperfect people face when living the challenges of life together.
You asked why it is that people get married and what is marriage’s purpose. In some ways these questions are intertwined. Of course the personal reasons why people get married are diverse, with some reasons being more noble than others. I think on some basic level we have a deep drive to connect with others in an intimate way, and marriage is the avenue for expressing the deepest intimacy, body and soul. Often people approach marriage seeking self-fulfillment, which is not bad, but it can become idolatrous, and in the world often is idolatrous. I mentioned marriage mirroring the dynamics of the Trinity, which specifically is being-in-communion, a deep sense of one’s self in the giving of one’s self to the well being of the other. In the Trinity this is the Father eternally begetting the Son, and the Father eternally processing the Spirit, and the Spirit intimately moving through the Father’s begetting of the Son, as well as the Son’s response of self-giving obedience to the Father. This means that the Father knows himself in and through the Son, and the Son in and through the Father, and the Spirit in and through the Father and the Son. I could go on, but the point is that each distinct person has himself in and through the self-giving relationship to the other. In other words, the fulfillment of each is found in self-giving to the other, and in God this distinct self-giving is so complete and without reservation that they are substantially one, one being. Marriage, in a limited human way is supposed to be this reality in time and space, and marriage goes awry or dies when the two involved either become enmeshed, which means the loss of distinction of the two members, or when the two members never really give of themselves to the other in a self-sacrificing way, which is the loss of communion. Most often marriages die because the two people of the marriage are using the other for their own self-fulfillment, which, from a Xian perspective, goes against the most foundational law of the universe, the law based on the very being of God. This is the problem of sin, and this is why in marriage much grace is needed.
Regarding how you know you are ready for marriage, I am not sure how to answer that. Throughout my dating life I lived in great ambiguity and uncertainty about these things. This uncertainty about readiness and finding “the one” is in part because of the complexity of relationships, but at a deeper level, it was about my own brokenness. Fortunately, graciously, God acted in my life by confronting an idol I had long been laboring under, and that confrontation freed me so that I knew I loved Paula, and soon after I proposed. I don’t think my experience is common, nor do I think it should be, as it is more likely a testimony about my brokenness and God’s grace, than it is an expression of how God moves in people’s lives to bring them together. During the time in my life that I was dating Paula, I remember having a discussion with a brother about marriage and making the right decision, and I remember him telling me that “It’s not about making the right decision, but about making the decision right.” Obviously that stuck with me. As I see it, this notion frees us from the search for “the one” or “the soul mate” who is going to bring self-fulfillment, and moves us toward considering whether the person we are attracted to has the qualities to face the challenges of life together, as well as opening us to the grace we will need to overcome our own brokenness, however it has taken shape in our life. It is this kind of wide-eyed perception of both the realities of human sinfulness, especially our own, as well as the promises and possibilities of marriage, as a reality patterned after the Trinitarian life of God, that provides a good foundation for marriage.
Peace be with you.
Below is a letter I sent to a friend who had a question about the relationship of body, soul, and spirit with respect to human nature. I offer this letter as a post, for a few reasons: it’s been too long since I have posted anything, it provides some clarity regarding a subtle aspect of human existence, and I found that in the process of writing I experienced some grace for myself, and I hope that it might provide grace for others.
Dear Ms. R,
Regarding your response to Beth Moore’s presentation of the tripartite model of human nature, I think typically it is not the most biblical way to understand human nature, as it owes more of a debt to Greek philosophy than it does to the Scriptures, but neither is it completely off, or outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in fact, it is sometimes a helpful model to use. Before continuing, let me say that theological language is analogical in nature, and so when we talk about spiritual things we are always going to construct models to represent the reality as it is in-and-of-itself, however, this representation means that there is some functional semblance between the models we use and the reality they point to, and this furthermore means that some models will be better, and in our case, more biblically sound, than others.
Going back to Beth Moore’s presentation, I think it is helpful to make this distinction, particularly in a pastoral setting, when we can help people understand that their emotions, which the tripartite model equates with the dynamics of the soul, is not the touchstone to determine how things are in one’s relationship with God, who is Spirit. One could have feelings of elation and yet not be in union with God. Likewise, one could be in the dumps emotionally, and yet be in a state of gracious union with God. Again, our emotions are not the touchstone in discerning this. However, this does not mean that emotions should be ignored. We are, after all, not Stoics, and so, emotions should be addressed, but on the right foundation, which most essentially is the grace of God uniting us with God through the Cross by the Spirit. Our emotions reveal our perceptions, and patterns of thought about such things as our identity, the nature of God, and the nature of the world in which we live, and often our patterns of thinking are diseased, sometimes horribly so. (Can I get a witness?!?) So, a part of maturity requires that we address these patterns and perceptions, and allow the Spirit of God, who works at a level deeper than our thinking (spirit to Spirit) to renew our minds through the Word of God, as it leads us into the gracious ministry of the Living Word.
Now that I have communicated a little about how this model can be helpful, let me address where it can go wrong. In short, under the influence of Greek metaphysics, this tripartite model can lead us into thinking that human kind is some kind of composite of three substances: body substance, soul substance, and spirit substance, that are somehow integrated yet, when push comes to shove, completely distinct. From better biblical minds than my own, I have heard that the Scriptures tends towards a model of human nature that has been referred to as holism, where these three parts of human existence are more a matter of angles of approach than substances. Humankind is one unified, holistic reality that can be viewed as body, as soul, as spirit, and each of these factors of human existence are essential to human being. Teasing this out with you, I posit that we could say that the body is the surface and empirical dimension of the soul, and the soul is the depth, and intangible dimension of the body, and the words “body” and “soul” are useful in referring to different perspectives of a singular whole. Likewise, the spirit is depth dimension (can I say depthest dimension?), but specifically denotes that aspect of human existence that is capable of communion and union with God. This is why the spirit is dead when the person is alienated from God, because the meaning of spirit, from a biblical perspective, is that relationship with God: we have ourselves in relation to God, and outside of that relationship we don’t have ourselves. Instead what we have is something we call the self that is really the sum total of biological and socio-cultural forces, with the spirit, such as it is, making limited choices within a closed and constricted system that is perishing. This is why, outside of Christ, we perish with the world, we literally lose ourselves, because in a real sense we never had ourselves.
After all this, you may be thinking, “Okay, fine, I get the difference, but how does it matter with respect to effective Christian living?” Even if you aren’t thinking this, I am still going to address it, because as you know, ideas have consequences. First let me say that it is not completely clear to me what are the consequences in failing to make this distinction between the tripartite model and the model of biblical holism. Rather, I think we, on principle should go with the model we best perceive in Scriptures, and trust that our understanding of the consequences will follow. That said, one critical, indeed very critical, issue that comes to mind is that the significance of the Resurrection is more clearly seen in the holistic model, for in this model Jesus’ bodily resurrection means our total salvation. In the other model one could think, “I accept that Jesus was bodily raised, but what does that have to do with righting my soul, and bringing life to my spirit?” Keep in mind, however, that this question can only be asked in the tripartite framework, for in the holistic framework body, soul, and spirit are different facets of one whole. Thus, to raise the body is to heal the soul, and this resurrection is the sign that the spirit is in communion with the Spirit of God.
Now my mind is racing, and there is so much more I want to say about sacramental realities, incarnational spirituality, and the sanctified senses and imagination, as well as how all this ties into cultural engagement and culture making, but grades are pressing, and I think enough has been said for the present moment (Jesus, help me live in the present).
Peace be with you.