Love in the Pandemic

WalkerPercy_TheThanatosSyndrome

During the lockdown, I’ve been reading Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome, his 1987 novel, set in Louisiana, about a psychiatrist who slowly discovers a mysterious, chemically-induced syndrome that gives people superior intellect but appears to be driving them mad. This diatribe from the part-paranoid, part-prophetic Father Smith seemed appropriate to share during this time:

You are a member of the first generation of doctors in the history of medicine to turn their backs on the oath of Hippocrates and kill millions of old useless people, unborn children, born malformed children, for the good of mankind—and to do so without a single murmur from one of you. Not a single letter of protest in the august New England Journal of Medicine…

If you are a lover of Mankind in the abstract like Walt Whitman, who wished the best for Mankind, you will probably do no harm and might even write good poetry and give pleasure, right?…

If you are a theorist of Mankind like Rousseau or Skinner, who believes he understands man’s brain and in the solitariness of his study or laboratory writes books on the subject, you are also probably harmless and might even contribute to human knowledge, right?…

But if you put the two together, a lover of Mankind and a theorist of Mankind, what you’ve got now is Robespierre or Stalin or Hitler and the Terror, and millions dead for the good of Mankind. Right?

This pandemic has been an illuminating unveiling of people’s operational ethic–on the left and the right and everywhere in between. Christians everywhere should take care that we don’t lose even more credibility on the paramount issue of the dignity of all human life, from womb to tomb. And not just in the abstract, but in the concrete particulars of our lives and relationships.

Don’t Waste Your Lockdown

Virus

Source: Nature.com

Almost twenty years ago, pastor John Piper delivered a sermon that “swept over a generation.” Indeed, it was my generation. I matriculated at Auburn University the autumn after Piper preached his famous “seashells” message at Passion’s One Day conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 20, 2000. My classmates who had attended the conference were still buzzing about that one sermon. Piper’s message to the 40,000 college students gathered that day was simple but explosive: Don’t waste your life. Don’t buy the American dream of a nice career and a nice retirement, collecting seashells. Instead, give your life away for one thing: boasting only the cross of Jesus Christ that all the nations might glorify him. “Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.”

It ended up being an earth-shattering—and career-changing, vocation-defining—message for many of us. Such a pithy but profound imperative: don’t waste your life. None of us older Millennials and younger Gen-Xers could have predicted the challenges that would attend the next 20 years of our lives: 9/11, the global war on terrorism, and the Great Recession, not to mention our own personal tragedies and professional challenges as we emerged into adulthood and eventually to midlife. But the singularity of the focus that we fostered, not only through Piper’s sermons and writings but also through the world of serious-minded, warm-hearted theology that it opened up to us (Piper, Packer, Stott, and Sproul eventually led us to Edwards, Owen, Calvin, and Augustine), helped to sustain our faith through these challenges.

And now we face a new challenge in coronavirus. And we face it shoulder-to-shoulder with every generation, remembering especially the elderly who are most at risk. We are tempted to be anxious. How could we not be? There is no time-stamp on this virus. We don’t know what the next day or week or month or year will bring. How long will we be in social isolation? Will more places begin enforcing the lockdown? How many more will get sick? How many more will die? Will the healthcare system hold up under the strain? Will the world descend into another Great Depression? How long can we stay cooped up? What strains will the lockdown place on our mental and spiritual health?

It is this last question that I want to address in this post (and to invite others in to offer their own reflections). My counsel for us during this time deliberately echoes Piper’s sermon: don’t waste your lockdown.

The very same big vision of God that has sustained us through the last twenty years can be our fortress during this time as well. A time of crisis can serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to God’s mysterious and horrible (Latin, horribilis, “making one shudder or tremble”) but wise and benevolent sovereign control over everything, “whatsoever comes to pass” (Westminster Confession). “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). None of these passages mean that we will be spared calamity or even death: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). But we know that nothing in all creation—not even a virus or a financial collapse— “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

So what can we do to leverage our lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit? Here are some things to consider.

  1. Reset your personal and family devotional life. The virus is forcing us all into a kind of monastic lifestyle. Use it well. Try reading the daily and weekly Scripture lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary. Pray the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer. Commemorate the saints. Regardless of your plan: read Scripture, pray, be silent.
  2. Read good books. Don’t feel guilty about watching movies or starting a new show on Netflix, but don’t miss the opportunity to read either. Try reading theology, poetry, and fiction every day.
  3. Learn to love again. For many families, one or both parents will have to adjust to being home with the kids all day long. After just a week at home, I have a renewed respect for my wife, who stays home with our children all the time! Work through the inevitable tensions and conflicts of cloistered life at home. Make the adjustment as quickly as possible and be gracious to each other.
  4. Find a proper balance between work and rest, structure and flexibility. Some will be tempted to be lazy and unproductive during an extended time without structure. Others will be tempted to force a rigid schedule on themselves and their families. Try to strike the right balance.
  5. Stay connected and engaged with your local church. It is perhaps not an accident that during this Lenten season, we are all being forced into a kind of “fast” or abstinence from the benefits of corporate worship. Many churches are finding industrious ways to stay connected through recorded or streaming services or through teleconferencing. But even if you just pick up the phone to call or text your fellow church members, you can continue to fulfill your covenantal commitments to the local body of Christ. This time away should make us long to renew our bonds of embodied, corporate worship through Word and Sacrament.
  6. Serve your neighbors. Find an appropriate circle of influence, based on the recommended guidelines (even if it’s one neighboring family) and find ways to love and serve them.
  7. Be selective in what news you read and how much. If you are like me, you may be tempted to stay glued to the news through Twitter, news websites, cable news, etc. But not all information is equally reliable, responsible, and quite frankly good for your mental health. So be selective both in content and in time spent scouring the news.
  8. Get outside. Go for a walk. Sit on the porch or patio. Lie in the grass. Listen to the birds. Slowing our frenetic pace and our daily commutes may just open our eyes to the glory around us, to the “love smiling through all things.”
  9. Develop healthy habits. Related to the last point, use this time to refocus on healthy habits. Eat well, sleep well, and do some kind of physical activity every day. The gyms are likely closed. So try a bodyweight routine or just a walk through the neighborhood. Think about your health in comprehensive terms: “a sound mind in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid.”
  10. Give yourself grace. In all likelihood, you will waste this lockdown to one degree or another. So, focus on moving in the right direction, not merely arriving at the right destination. Focus on process, not goals.

One of the things that was so striking about Piper’s call not to waste your life was just how sober-minded it was. For many of us in college at the time, it was like a punch in the gut, a wakeup call. This was no kitschy, sentimental youth group rally. It was a blood-earnest, prophetic plea to think and act in light of eternity, life and death, heaven and hell. This virus affords us another opportunity for sober thinking. The point of these reflections on how to leverage the lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit is not to belittle the crisis by turning it into just another opportunity for self-help and self-improvement. People are dying. It’s not just about us. The point is to order our lives as if they will end. Because they will. If not during this pandemic, then soon enough. Sooner than we realize. So, don’t waste your lockdown. Don’t waste it.

Comfort on the Far Side of Sorrow

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“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Today marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the commemoration of the children killed by the rage of King Herod as he was seeking the Christ-child (Matt. 2:16-18). It is always jarring to read about the death of the Holy Innocents right there in the gospel’s infancy narrative and to celebrate their feast three short days after Christmas. But Christ was born into a world of acute suffering (what is worse than the loss of a child?) precisely in order to bring relief to those who are mourning. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

Without this dark backdrop, we might be tempted to believe the sanitized, sentimentalized picture of the Nativity that a culture with a thin (and thinning) veneer of Christianity offers up to us: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But Jesus wept. And Rachel wept for her children and refused to be comforted through half-measures. Comfort only comes on the far side of sorrow. No one is exempt from this. Not even innocent children. Not even the Holy Family.

The death of the Holy Innocents paints in striking colors the sharp contrast between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by Christ. The one is marked by self-preserving power. The other by self-sacrificial weakness. The one is ensconced in the halls of worldly power. The other is on the run, on the pilgrim trail to Egypt and back again through the wilderness and only then to the Promised Land.

The Old Testament text that St Matthew cites as a kind of prophetic advance of this bloody scene is Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus says the LORD:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”

Ramah was the site of a shrine to the matriarch Rachel. The Israelites in Babylonian captivity saw in Rachel’s weeping for her children a fitting picture of their own sorrow in  exile. But the Lord doesn’t leave them comfortless. His response to their weeping is a promise: “they shall come back from the land of the enemy” (Jer. 31:16). And just a few short verses later, we learn the source of this great comfort in the Mount Everest of all Old Testament promises: the promise of a New Covenant.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).

The only time the gospels use this precise phrase, “new covenant,” is set in another bloody context: at the Last Supper, when Jesus, facing his impeding passion and death, passes the cup to his disciples and declares, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Comfort for the weeping doesn’t come cheap in some hackneyed platitude that “this too shall pass.” No, comfort is purchased at the price of blood.

Another Herod would eventually catch up to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus willingly gave himself over to him (John 10:18). Herod laughed on that day and Jesus mourned (Luke 23:11). But the rulers of this world did not know that the one whom they mocked was the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). They didn’t see the great reversal of the last day that would be proleptically brought into this present age on the third day, the eighth day, the first day of a new creation. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25).

Comfort is coming for those who weep, even for those who weep over lost children. Or lost fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends. Or lost jobs or lost dreams or lost innocence. In Christ, all that is lost will be found, all that is taken will be restored. That’s the lesson the Holy Innocents leave to us, these “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves” (Augustine). We all, like Rachel, will find ourselves in moments where we “refuse to be comforted.” But comfort doesn’t depend upon us. We, like the Holy Innocents, find ourselves in the crosshairs of a cosmic battle of kingdoms. But the decisive victory has already been won. Comfort comes not in the form of cheap sentimentality. The New Covenant promises–forgiveness, internal transformation, the knowledge of God, union with God–come sealed in blood, and the Holy Innocents foreshadow this.

Life with God

 

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Photo by Nicole Avagliano on Pexels.com

The ultimate evil of idolatry is the forsaking of God. It’s not merely unauthorized worship or illicit pleasure; it’s the folly of seeking satisfaction in anything other than the fount of all goodness. It is the rebellion of seeking acceptance from anyone other than the Father of all mercies, of seeking protection from anyone other than the Lord’s Christ, of seeking comfort from anyone other than the Paraclete. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. We pursue the gifts rather than the Giver. We settle for the seen rather than seeking the Unseen. Over and over again in the Scriptures, the people of God are warned against contenting themselves with God’s blessings and thus forsaking the true and lasting beatitude of life with God himself.

But let’s be honest: the seen has certain advantages over the unseen. For starters, the seen is, well, seen. It is in right in front of our eyes. It promises immediate gratification. Furthermore, injunctions to move through and beyond the visible world to the invisible God are difficult even to understand. What does it even mean to seek God above everything else? Is it anything more than a pious cliche? Do we even know what we are talking about?

The whole concept of God seems abstract and mystical. This is because, in part, the concept of God is abstract and mystical. To be sure, God has made himself concretely known. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible God has made himself visible to us. The intangible has become tangible. The unseen has become seen. It is precisely through the concrete revelation of God in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ that God has come near to us and has disclosed to us his true identity.

The incarnation reveals to us the dignity of the created order. It shows us that Christianity can never be a world-denying religion, that redemption is not a flight from creation but a restoration of it. But the purpose of the incarnation is to lead us back to God himself. God became man so that man might become God, as many of the Fathers put it. The goal of incarnation is theosis—union with God himself. This goal reaches its apogee in the life to come and the beatific vision of the glorified saints. But it begins even now in the present life, as believers learn to seek the things above, where Christ is, rather than the things of earth.

Life with God is, then, in a very real sense abstract. It asks us to think beyond the merely physical and concrete. It stretches our minds to consider a being who is beyond being, the source and ground of being. It beckons us to meditate on a God who is utterly independent, timelessly eternal, and absolutely immutable. It requires our greatest intellectual resources to consider the very idea of God.

But, in another sense, life with God is also irreducibly mystical. When we skate beyond the capacities of our reason in our contemplation of God, no more cogitation is advisable, or even possible. All that remains is the experience of God. This is why the mystical writers of the Eastern tradition have sometimes spoken about God as utter darkness. Of course, they were familiar with the Scripture that teaches us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  The point being made wasn’t about God’s moral character but about God’s knowability: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). We could even say, the point wasn’t so much about God as it was about us. As creatures, we cannot comprehend God–we cannot traverse his circumference and subject him to our rational measurements. It is not a function of some kind of quantifiable inability. It is the qualitative distinction of the Creator and the creature. This apophatic approach to God has much to commend it when we consider the scriptural teaching about God’s incomprehensibility: “Behold,God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable” (Job 36:36; cf. Psalm 145:3).

So where does this leave us? How are we to avoid the sin of idolatry, of becoming so enamored with the creation that the Creator himself is eclipsed? What does it mean, in the trenches of the battle against sin, to treasure God above all? Perhaps we could seek some help from the mystical writings of Maximus the Confessor. At the risk of oversimplification, we might summarize his contemplative approach as a three-step movement from mediation on the created order to the patterns and principles (logoi) according to which the world was made and finally to God himself. So, the abstract and mystical is not divorced from the concrete and creaturely; they are organically related. God made the world good; he reveals himself to us through it; and he came among us in Jesus Christ in order to restore it. So, he means for us to enjoy the gifts of creation as the gifts that they are. When viewed from within the creation, these gifts are ends in themselves. No one loves anything for what he can get out of it. Otherwise, it would not be love. So marital love, the love of children, the enjoyment of the creation or art—these are ends in themselves when viewed within the system of creaturely goods. But when viewed in light of God, the gifts of creation were meant to led us in contemplation to the mind of God, who so designed and ordered and disposed of these gifts that they reflect the divine reason and benevolence. And beyond these creaturely designs, we are finally led to contemplate God himself—absolute, unqualified, unneeding Blessedness. It takes time and effort and prayer to get to this place. But surely this life with God is what lies behind such biblical cries as “you have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7) or “one thing I have asked of the LORD, that I will seek after…to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Psalm 27:4).

What Kind of Person Do You Want to Become? Education as Formation

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Philosophia et septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts. By Herrad of Landsberg – Hortus Deliciarum, Public Domain

In his brief but extraordinarily helpful book, Basic Moral Concepts, the late German Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann defines education as follows:

Education is the name we give to the process whereby a human being is led out of the animal preoccupation with self to a state where he is able to be objective about his own interests and differentiate between them, in such a way that his capacity to experience joy and pain is increased.

For Spaemann, moral reasoning is fundamentally about “ordering one’s priorities into a correct hierarchy,” that is, being able to discern what we truly want out of life and making judgments between higher and lower pleasures based on objective moral truth. Making these kinds of value judgments however doesn’t come automatically; we must learn to “regard our own interests in an objective way.” And this is the role of education.

All this got me thinking about how far education—from pre-K through graduate studies—has strayed from this classical perspective Spaemann articulates. Just take a look (if you dare) at the reading lists in elementary and secondary schools, or colleges for that matter. Tweaking Spaemann’s definition, we might summarize the common educational philosophy of our own day as follows:

Education is the name we give to the process whereby a human being is led further into the animal preoccupation with self to a state where he is able to have the skills and competencies (especially those associated with the STEM disciplines) needed to maximize his earning potential, in such a way that his capacity for consumption and self-gratification are increased.

Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But then again, maybe not. Even leaders of the supposedly “conservative” political party in the United States have a bad habit of denigrating the liberal arts. And stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education about schools cutting liberal arts programs are far too frequent. To be sure, the STEM disciplines are hugely important for our society and economy, and many people find their own sense of calling in precisely those fields. But even these students need the formation afforded by the liberal arts in order to flourish optimally in those callings. Employers are increasingly coming around to this fact.

When I sensed a calling to ministry as a sophomore at Auburn University, I decided to switch majors from chemical engineering to history as a better preparation for seminary (I learned classical Greek and honed my skills at researching and writing). I will never forget my first meeting with my new supervisor in the College of Liberal Arts, the charismatic and immensely popular medieval historian, Joseph Kicklighter. Dr. Kicklighter was eager to correct any misconceptions I had about what I could “do with a history degree.” He complained that he got that question all the time from students (and parents). I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to this effect:

The liberal arts aren’t about what you can do with them; they are about what kind of person you want to become.

Indeed.

A Brief Post on Self-Doubt

We live in an age of self-confidence, self-assertion, and, indeed, self-worship. Social media, polarized political discourse, and online posturing feed these trends. But it’s my contention that self-doubt is actually where true virtue lies. Political pundits and religious polemicists thus prove themselves often to be more vicious than virtuous.

It actually requires all of the cardinal virtues to admit that you may be wrong or misguided: prudence for discernment, courage to risk ridicule, temperance to avoid self-indulgent pride, and justice to own that you may be unfairly misjudging things.

And it requires the Christian virtues to show where your true trust lies: faith in God’s judgments alone, hope in the ultimate righting of all things, and love for your fellow man who is on the same quest for truth.

But self-doubting does not mean truth-doubting. Chesterton is worth quoting on this score:

Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason… The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

Christians must lead the way in recovering a sense of our own limitations. It isn’t a matter of some kind of radical postmodern skepticism about the Truth, but an honest assessment of our own limitations and weaknesses. From this kind of posture, when we do speak with bold confidence about the Divine Reason, we may just offer a more winsome presentation of God’s truth.

An Amplified Lord’s Prayer

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Tissot’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” Public Domain

There is a special power that accompanies praying the words of Scripture. It’s not matter of magic or superstition. It’s simply a matter of praying in accord with God’s revealed will—praying God’s inspired words back to him. The Psalter is given to the people of God for this very reason. And the Scriptures provide many other prayers to this same end as well, including the prayers of Moses, Solomon, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and more.

This is also one reason why I think all Christians should pray the very words of the Lord’s Prayer every day, preferably several times a day, and why I think the Lord’s Prayer should have a central place in the corporate worship of the people of God on the Lord’s Day. Praying in unison the model prayer that our Lord gave to us is a moving experience of the church’s spiritual unity. The Lord’s Prayer is almost hymnic in its meter, giving us good reason to believe that this prayer was memorized in the earliest layers of Christian tradition. And it quite obviously has served as a formula for prayer down through the centuries of Christian history.

But the Lord’s Prayer also sets the agenda for the priorities of Christian prayer. It’s not a matter of either recitation or a pattern of priorities to be followed, but both/and. Still, the “Our Father” can be amplified in our personal prayers to great spiritual benefit. Here is one way that the Lord’s Prayer might be utilized in this way:

Our Father, the one who in your great love has sent forth your only begotten Son in the fullness of time to redeem us, and the one who has sent your Spirit into our hearts, leading us to cry out to you as our Abba, Father (Gal. 4:4-6),

Our Father, the one who has not saved us as isolated individuals, but who has incorporated us into the body of Christ,

Our Father in heaven, the one who transcends space and time as the almighty maker and sustainer and Lord of all that exists,

May your name be hallowed, sanctified; may you vindicate the holiness of your great name, despite the ways that we have dishonored it among the nations (Ezek. 36:23),

May your kingdom come; may your saving reign and rule in your Son, Jesus Christ, come in my life and in my family’s life and in the life of the church and among all the peoples of earth,

May your will be done, your saving, end-times will to redeem a people for yourself and to sanctify them for your service (1 Thess. 4:3),

May all of these things be done so that a taste of heaven might be brought down to earth.

Give us this day our daily bread; principally give us anew the Bread of Life, the life of the world, your Son, Jesus Christ (John 6:33); give us also what we need materially, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically in order to do your will this very day.

Forgive us our debts, our great sins and transgressions against you, and form us into the kind of people who willingly extend forgiveness to those who have sinned against us.

Lead us not into temptation, guard us from ourselves and from the indwelling sin that pulls us away from you.

But if we are to enter into temptation, into a time of testing, deliver us from the Evil One and from all of our spiritual enemies.

We ask all of this in faith and confidence knowing that to you alone belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory, both now and forever. Amen.

Harassed and Helpless

sheep-agriculture-animals-countryside-87081I’ve been reading Matthew’s gospel recently, and one of the things that has stood out to me on this reading is Jesus’ compassion for people oppressed by sin. We often think about sin only in terms of our agency, that is, sin is something we do and are responsible for. Jesus certainly doesn’t diminish that understanding of sin and its consequences. He consistently calls people to repent of their sin and self-absorption and to believe the good news of the kingdom of God.

But Jesus also sees sin as a power that exerts itself over us and renders us helpless to rescue ourselves from its vice grip. He sees the crowds and has compassion on them “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). He has compassion on those living with the painful consequences of a fallen world by healing their diseases (14:14). He has compassion not only on Israel but also on those living in Gentile territory, feeding their hungry bodies and souls (15:32).

His exorcisms also demonstrate that he knows the demonic powers have their hooks in us. He describes his Satan-plundering work as one who binds the strongman (Satan) and takes his property from him (12:29). It is not so much that sin is either something we do or something that has a power over us. It is both.

This same idea is also communicated in the Old Testament. When God reveals his glory to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he also reveals the depths of his compassionate character:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7).

God is just and will punish the wicked. But he is also gracious and merciful and desires to pardon and deliver us from sin’s power.

The Psalms express the same truth. Consider just one passage that demonstrates the compassion of God for weak and helpless sinners. Psalm 103:8-14,

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

God’s mercy is not permissiveness. He doesn’t suspend his justice in order to extend forgiveness (that’s why the cross was necessary for salvation, Rom. 3:25-26). But God knows our weakness. He “knows our frame” and “remembers that we are dust.” God is not surprised that we stumble and fall, many times in the face of the same temptations. He is like a compassionate father, who sees his children struggling. He knows. He remembers. And he extends compassion and mercy.

The apostle Paul also sees sin not only as a choice we make (it is certainly that) but also as a force or power that has been unleashed on the human race, abetted by the demonic principalities and powers. Unbelievers are those who have been blinded by Satan, “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). Paul conceives of the cross of Christ not only cancelling our sin debt but also disarming the demonic rulers and authorities by triumphing over them (Col. 2:14).

To highlight sin as a power over us is not to obviate our responsibility or guilt—far from it. It is to highlight the depth of God’s mercy in Christ, who understands that sin, though our own doing, is not something we can free ourselves from. He stoops all the way into our darkness, taking on the powers himself, in order to lift us up into the light and liberate us from sin’s bondage. One of the key terms for salvation in the Scriptures is, after all, redemption—a concept rooted in the Exodus, when God bought back his people from slavery.

We need to apply this truth both to ourselves and to others. We need to know that God has this kind of mercy and compassion for us in our struggles with sin. God is not a slave master, waiting for us to mess up so that he can bring down his hand of vengeance. He is a Father, recall, who has compassion on his children and knows our weakness. But we also need to be the conduits of this kind of mercy to others. Rather than seeing those who offend us or those in rebellion against God as our enemies, we become children of our heavenly Father when we too remember and when we too know that humans are dust. They are weak. They are oppressed. They are blinded by Satan. They are like sheep without a shepherd. May we become the kind of people who bear witness to this merciful Good Shepherd, not by being moral scolds, but by being willing to bear with people in their helplessness and to show them the path to true liberation.

Like It or Not, God Is With You

mccreight

This Lenten season I have been reading I Am with You, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, which was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2016. It is a biblically rich and pastorally sensitive reflection on the presence of God with his people. This quote from Erasmus has really stuck with me over these past few weeks:

Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. 

Which means, “Called or not called, God will be there.” Or, in Greene-McCreight’s looser rendering, “Like it or not, God is with you.” Sometimes God’s presence is discomfiting and even frightening. His nearness often means judgment. His presence often brings rebuke and chastisement. His providence often spells sorrow and pain. But he is still there with his chosen people, sanctifying, prodding, sustaining, pulling us to glory.

And when the dust settles, God’s people know: the threat of his absence is even more terrifying than his sometimes uncomfortable presence. And so we give thanks, knowing that our Triune God is still with us. Even in death, we know that our crucified and risen Christ has promised to remain with us to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20), like it or not.

Maximus on the Mystical Knowledge of God in Christ

I have recently been reading St. Maximus the Confessor’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, and it, like all of Maximus’ writings, rewards careful (and prayerful) reflection. If you don’t know about Maximus, I’m not talking about this guy (but he was pretty awesome too). Maximus was a seventh century Byzantine monk, theologian, and controversialist. He is most well-known for the pivotal role he played in the monothelite controversy—the debate over the number of “wills” in the incarnate Christ—which culminated in the sixth ecumenical council (the Third Council of Constantinople, 680-81) and its proclamation that Christ does in fact have two wills (dyothelitism) that correspond to his two natures. Maximus was so convinced of this position that he was willing to endure torture (he had his tongue cut out and his hand severed) and ultimately the exile that took his life. As such, he is referred to as the “Confessor,” which in Eastern Christianity refers to one who suffers for the sake of orthodoxy.

But Maximus’ theology is much richer and wider than this single doctrinal controversy. Indeed, his work is nothing less than cosmic in scope, in that he sees the whole of reality—everything from personal piety and the church’s liturgy to the created order and the grounding of abstract properties—summed up in the Incarnate Logos and the Triune God that he reveals.

But back to his comments on the Our Father. His commentary is wide-ranging. It touches on the specifics of the prayer but also interprets the prayer as a kind of window into the whole economy of redemption. It is full of rich intertextual connections and allegories that illuminate the mysteries of the Christian faith. This paragraph, in Maximus’ prologue to the commentary, especially stood out to me:

In becoming incarnate, the Word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God because he shows us in himself the Father and the Holy Spirit. For the full Father and the full Holy Spirit are essentially and completely in the full Son, even the incarnate Son, without being themselves incarnate. Rather, the Father gives approval and the Spirit cooperates in the incarnation with the Son who effected it, since the Word remained in possession of his own mind and life, contained in essence by no other than the Father and the Spirit, while hypostatically realizing out of love for man the union with the flesh.

Maximus provides here a tightly packed summary of the whole Christian faith. Notice several salient points:

  1. Christocentrism: For Maximus, the incarnate Christ provides the key that unlocks the mystical knowledge of the whole Trinity. The Son reveals the Father and the Holy Spirit because, even though the Son alone is incarnate, the other divine persons are fully present in the Son, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. Thus, true Christocentrism can never be Christomonism, because Christ reveals the whole glorious Godhead.
  2. Perichoresis: As Maximus argues, this Christocentrism is predicated upon the mutual indwelling of the divine persons. The Cappadocian concept of perichoresis is often misused in contemporary Trinitarian thought when it is leveraged as a kind of catch all, meant to solve the problem of divine unity in social or relational models. But this misuse should not cause us to jettison this crucial insight. Perichoresis is not the interpenetration of distinct divine agents but the intimate sharing of life together in the numerically singular divine essence.
  3. Inseparable operations: Maximus argues that the incarnation is not an act of the Son alone but of the whole Trinity in unity. The Augustinian insight that all of the external acts of the Trinity are indivisible is echoed here by Maximus. It is not enough to say that the Father sends the Son or that the Holy Spirit is the agent in his virginal conception; the Son himself also “effected” the incarnation. The Trinity acts in unity to bring about the mystery of the Word-made-flesh.
  4. Appropriation: Having said that, Maximus is also careful to safeguard against theopaschism or patripassianism, by maintaining that the Son alone is made man. Incarnation is properly appropriated to the Son alone, but this truth should never be pitted against the indivisible divine act of incarnation. The doctrine of inseparable operations and the doctrine of appropriation must be held in tension.
  5. Extra Calvinisticum: In becoming incarnate, the Son did not surrender his divine “mind and life.” He continues to share in the selfsame divine life as the Father and the Spirit, even in his incarnate state. This doctrine, which came to be known as “Calvin’s extra” in the Reformation debates over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is actually a much older teaching. Indeed, as David Willis has suggested, the doctrine is more properly titled the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum because of its near universal acceptance in classic Christologies.
  6. Hypostatic union: Finally, Maximus highlights the union of divinity and humanity in the person, or hypostasis, of the Son. This union is realized “out of love for man,” since the motivation and telos of the incarnation is the salvation of fallen humanity. As the Nicene Creed has it, the Word became incarnate and was made man “for us men and for our salvation.” So the goal of God in the incarnation is soteriological in nature. As Maximus says elsewhere, “the realization of the divine counsel is the deification of our nature.”

What a rich paragraph! If you have never read Maximus, you should remedy that. You might start with this selection of his spiritual writings or this collection of his Christological reflections. For secondary sources, you might try Balthasar’s classic treatment, Andrew Louth’s introduction (with several important translations of Maximus’ own writings), or the recent work of Paul Blowers.