forgiveness and… Forgiveness

I ran into my ex today… well, sort of my ex. This is a girl who I kind of dated a little over a year ago, and by kind of dated what I mean is that we dated for about a month, but she was never willing to make it official and eventually she stopped talking to me. After a couple of weeks of me bothering her trying to find out what was wrong she finally told me that she just wanted to be friends, and then jumped in bed with another guy a couple of days later. That hurt more than a little… kind of a lot actually. Still, it was necessary for healing from something else… not important at the moment… I’ll probably talk about that eventually. This was one of those relationships where she stopped talking to me. I tried everything I could to stay friends, but she wasn’t having any of it.

So, I ran into her today. Apparently she’s working at a bookstore I go to every now and then. I was there a couple of times, and the first time I noticed her and deliberately avoided her. Honestly, at the time, I wasn’t sure why I avoided her, I just knew that I didn’t want to talk to her. After that I took a long walk to do some praying and some thinking about why I didn’t want to talk to her. The thing is, I’ve forgiven her. And this is where I rant for a moment about the complete inadequacy of the English language, because the word I want to use here doesn’t exist. I haven’t Forgiven her, because Forgiveness is two-sided. The scriptural model of Forgiveness is the restoration of relationship, it requires two willing parties, one to repent and the other to Forgive. God does not Forgive our sins without our repentance and reliance on Christ, because until that repentance is made, the relationship between man and God can’t be restored.

So, when I say that I’ve forgiven her, what I mean is that I bear no grudge for the hurt that she caused me. I’ve let that go. I’m sure that she had reasons, and I have no doubt that they were not good reasons, but really our reasons for hurting others are rarely good. However, sometimes I’m not entirely sure of that. It took me a while to forgive her, and when I first saw her I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt or why I avoided her. I thought that maybe I was still mad at her, that I hadn’t actually forgiven her for hurting me. I thought that maybe I was afraid that I would say something or do something to try to hurt her, and I was half right about that. I was afraid, but not of what I would do. My ex is a girl that lashes out as a defense mechanism. When she’s scared or uncomfortable she says and does things to hurt people. This is part of the reason that I was so hurt in the first place, and I was afraid that on seeing me she would say or do something to lash out.

Well, eventually I went back to the bookstore, there was something I needed anyway, and I made sure that I saw her face to face (she was my cashier). I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I still kind of thought she might lash out or say something cruel, but she didn’t. She wouldn’t even look at me, and just pretended that she didn’t recognize me. This made me sad. I’ve forgiven her, but I haven’t had the chance to Forgive her, because she doesn’t appear to have any desire to restore a friendship or relationship.

I thought about that as well for a while. If I would want to restore a relationship with her, and I don’t. Honestly, even if I didn’t need to be single right now, I don’t think I’d want to try dating her again. However, I would like to be able to have a conversation with her without pretending that we don’t know each other. However, I think that is up to her. As I said, Forgiveness takes two parties, and if she doesn’t want a restored relationship, then I’m not going to try to force it. I could try to reach out to her, to say or do something to spark the conversation that we would need to have to actually begin a friendship again. I’ve considered the fact that it’s entirely possible that I’m just being a selfish bastard by not taking that step, but I don’t really think that I am. I’m not entirely sure how to defend that, it’s just a gut feeling.

Christianity and Ethics

I had the chance to run into a friend of mine today while I was out at a coffee shop grading papers. This was thoroughly enjoyable, and I continually find it amazing that some people are closer friends even though I don’t even have their phone numbers than other people whom I’ve known for years. Perhaps not closer friends… and I’m honestly hesitant to say better friends, but this guy and I have a connection that I don’t have with many of the people I’ve known for a very long time. I think this is born of a mutual understanding of some common concepts and trials, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ve mentioned before (I think) that sometimes I have a hard time connecting with people because I never know what they are going to be comfortable knowing, and what they will run away from. I think the connection I’m talking about is comfort. This particular person… we’ll call him Paul… Paul and I were pretty instantly comfortable with each other. No judgment, no anger, no misinterpreted attacks, we were just comfortable being ourselves. That is something very rare, and I’m going to miss that.

Anyway, while I was grading papers Paul was reading a book and would randomly ask me questions, and we got to talking about the importance of ethics in Christianity, and how scripture and tradition both play a part in this. However, the most important thing that we discussed, and something that I believe a lot of Americans (Christian or otherwise) either never realize or quickly forget. This is that Christianity is not a moral system. Obviously Christianity contains a moral system, but that moral system is not the core of the Christian faith.

Plato argued that ethical living is necessary for a fulfilling life. However, Christ pointed out that the ethical lives of the Pharisees, a group of people obsessed with ethics, were worthless. I find that Dante Alighieri makes this point extremely well in his epic poem Inferno. Dante’s pilgrim, who many scholars argue represents Dante himself, is guided through hell by Virgil, the Roman poet and one of Dante’s heroes. Through this journey Dante lifts Virgil to almost inhuman heights of virtue, and Virgil continually exhorts the importance of the classical virtues to Dante.

However, through the entirety of this, and especially at the end with Virgil’s last exhortation to courage, in the face of Satan himself, the poet expresses clearly that for all of his virtue, Virgil is still trapped in hell. This is not to say that Virgil’s virtue has no merit (I’ve made that claim before and been suitably chastised for it), but to say that Virgil’s near perfect virtue has not allowed him to escape from the place of torment. It may have brought him fulfillment in life, but it has not brought it in death.

This is the mistake that many people make. Morality is important. Virtue is important. However, these things are not the goal or the center of the Christian faith, they are tangential. The concept that a person must be morally perfect (or even ‘good’ whatever that means… I’m sure I’ll discuss the concept of natural sin on here sometime) before he can be saved is ridiculous. Even the concept that a Christian must be morally perfect is insane. This is why Christ was crucified in the first place, because we can’t live up to the standard, no matter what.

1st John tells us… well a lot of things, but one of those things is that those who claim to have no sin have no truth in them. John often (especially in chapters 1-3) sets forth very clear black and white distinctions. He who hates his brother cannot love God, and he who knows God will love his brother. He who sins does not know God, and he who knows God will not sin. Honestly, it’s fairly hard to read the first three chapters of 1st John and say with confidence “Yeah, yeah I’m a Christian”. However, after all of these black and white juxtapositions John then tells his readers that if we doubt, then we must simply trust God. This again returns to the concept that we are never capable of living up to the standards required, and if we think we are, then we’re missing the point entirely.

The goal of the Christian life is not moral perfection, it is to please God. Like making disciples, moral perfection is one of the ways that we do this, and it is certainly something that we should all strive for, but it is also a goal that we can never reach. So, does this mean that moral perfection isn’t important? No, of course not. Moral perfection is an important goal in the life of every Christian, and the fruits of the spirit generally show a greater striving towards that goal. Does this mean that we should all strive for moral perfection and beat ourselves up every time we sin? No, not at all. We will inevitably fail and this is what grace is for, while repentance is important, beating ourselves up over every sin is neither helpful nor realistic. Then what does this mean? It means that a strong moral character will be an inevitable outgrowth of our Christian walk, but that growth must be a natural process.

We don’t get to tell God which lessons we need to learn or when we need to learn them. God teaches us the lessons he wants us to learn when he wants us to learn them. Part of learning to trust God is learning to trust him with our failures, and this is often one of the hardest parts of trust to learn. We should be moral, but we will fail, and God will pick us up, dust us off, and tell us to try again. So, where do ethics fit in to Christianity? It is important, and we fail, always. When we fail… Grace.

Bible Study Blessings

So, today involved getting up at 5 am again for our floating bible study. I’m going to be honest, I really hope we don’t keep that particular time. I can get up that early, and I will get up that early to study the word with this particular group of guys, but I don’t think I will ever like getting up that early. That being said, I have to see today in juxtaposition with the bible study a week ago.

Last Tuesday I was over-tired, apathetic, disconnected… I made no real effort to contribute anything of import in the bible study, and I spent the rest of the day avoiding God. Last Tuesday was a pretty completely crappy day. Today was kind of an awesome day. Even though it was early, the bible study was great! We got into the word pretty deeply, and I thought and learned… and wrote yesterdays blog post about what I thought and learned (at least in part). After the bible study today I did some reading, and then did some writing, and the worked for most of the rest of the day.

I had a good, productive day. I spent time with God, instead of running away from him, and my life reflected that… at least I think my life reflected that. Certainly I was tired for a good part of the day, that’s what getting up at 5 am does to me, but it wasn’t a grumpy, frustrated, easily tempted tired. It was a blessed, refreshed, enjoyable tired. The kind of tired that lets you curl up with a good book, or with a good friend to watch a movie and just enjoy relaxing.

Like I said, I have to juxtapose today with last Tuesday to really see the extreme difference that God makes in my life on a daily basis. It’s a difference that I deeply value, and that I long for. The answer? Focus on him every day. I also met a new acquaintance today. Let’s call her Cindy, she was supposed to get married a few days ago. Supposed to being the key word. She and her fiance broke up a couple of months ago, and she’s pretty obviously still really hurting over it. We talked for a little bit, but we both had work to do.

I have to admit that I feel for Cindy. I didn’t ask why she and her fiance broke up. I’m curious, well… I’m a curious sort of person, but I don’t need to know, and I don’t really think she needs to tell me. It was clear that she was trying not to talk about him, even though she still wanted to, and I get that. I’m a person that generally wants to deal with things, face my pain or my fears, and move on immediately. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes I think it’s not. I wonder if this is why God has me single right now?

I know that I’m afraid of getting hurt again, and normally I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing something, but maybe (at least sometimes) it should stop me. Perhaps the reason that God wants me single right now is that I need some time to heal. Time that I don’t want to take, that I’m naturally disinclined to take, but that I need to take. I think I’ve mentioned before that I can be an old, stubborn bastard sometimes, and I find that God often has to whack me on the head with a mallet and scream in my ringing ears before I’m willing to listen. It’s something that I’m working on, but it part its something that I value. Not the mallet and screaming part, that would be stupid.

However, often our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses stem from the same traits. I generally don’t give up, at least not easily. I keep trying, even when it is clearly pointless to do so, and I have a very hard time letting goals/desires (and people) go. This means that I’m always ready to love someone, that I can forgive pretty much anything, that I’m there for my friends when they need me, and that I’m always ready to help if asked. It also means that it takes me a long time to see that I’m going in the wrong direction, that I hold onto relationships that I really need to let go of, that I’ll keep trying and keep failing at something I have no chance of succeeding at. It’s both one of my best qualities and one of my worst. This is often true of the things we value about ourselves.

Love, Hate, and Taoism

I’ve been reading a book about Taoism that has helped more clearly understand Taoist concepts and their relation to Christian concepts. I’ve written about the concept of Wu Wei before, and I think I’m still somewhat enamored of the idea, but perhaps not as much. Laozi puts forth the idea that being is better than doing. This idea, as Holmes Welch describes it in the book I’m reading (Taoism: The Parting of the Way), is the concept that attitude is better than action. Laozi’s argument, in its essence, is that when we act we provoke reaction, and the reaction will often be in opposition to the action that we take. Laozi’s answer to the evils of his day was to take no action to stop them, oppose them, or even address them, but to simply ‘be’ good. His argument was that in being good one’s nature would naturally stand in opposition to evil without actively opposing that evil, which would create a strong reaction from said evil. Laozi argued that no one can fight with the sage simply because the sage refuses to fight. Mahatma Ghandi’s life was an excellent example of this principle in action, as was Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement.

This same concept can be seen in portions of the scripture (i.e. if a man strikes one cheek, give him the other), but Laozi takes the concept further than scripture allows us to do. Laozi argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being (i.e. true attitude is better than hypocritical action), but he also argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing (because action causes reaction). However, scripture commands both Being and Doing. 1st John is an excellent example of this. John commands us throughout this book to an attitude of love (agape). He juxtaposes love with two possible opposites though: first he tells us that a man who hates his brother does not love God. Here Love (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the well-being of another, even at the expense of one’s own) is juxtaposed with Hate (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the harm of another, even at the expense of one’s own well-being).

It is important not to confuse this Love/Hate juxtaposition with the Love/Hate juxtaposition used in Paul’s legal terminology. Paul tells us that God ‘loved Jacob, but hated Esau’. Does this mean that God had a ‘deep emotive concern for the harm of Esau’? Of course not. This is a legal use of the terms ‘love’ and ‘hate’ that reflects a covenantal choice that holds no emotive value. God did not wish Esau harm, but he did choose Jacob through whom to continue the spiritual line of Abraham, a place for which Esau was rejected. This is important, but entirely different from the emotive love/hate juxtaposition that John creates in his letter.

However, John does not simply juxtapose love to hate. He also tells us that ‘he who does not love his brother does not know God’. Thus, love is also juxtaposed with apathy. Hence it is not enough to show love by not hating another, but we must also show love by showing a deep emotive concern for another’s well-being. This concept is necessarily active in nature. While the love/hate juxtaposition could potentially reflect a non-active attitudinal love, the love/apathy juxtaposition cannot. This is also reflected in James’ exhortation that ‘faith without works is dead’. Thus a very, very important difference between Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy is the necessity of action. Scripture certainly argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being. However, scripture absolutely argues against the concept that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing.

The other area of major difference is that of ultimate goal or purpose. Laozi’s writing was ultimately concerned with the temporal (though not necessarily material) world. He sought an answer to the warfare that was rife in China during his lifetime (which was probably somewhere between 60 and 200 years, if he existed at all… I must confess that I cannot bring myself to argue that Adam lived 900 some years, Abraham 180 years, Moses 120, and yet completely reject the notion that Laozi may have lived for 200 years). Ultimately, Laozi’s argument is that through Being and Not Doing we can more effectively implement our will in the world than through Doing and Not Being, or through Being and Doing.

However, the ultimate goal or purpose of the Christian is not to implement our will in the world, but to glorify the Godhead (I’ve said this many times) in part by implementing his will in the world (though this is not our only means of glorifying him). Thus, Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy again find themselves at odds simply because of the source of the will that they seek to enact. There are many good things in Laozi’s philosophy, and his concept of Being as primary is one that I think many American Christians need to embrace. However, ultimately, the differences, as well as the similarities, must be addressed, and it is never enough to only examine one or the other.

Desiring Singleness Part 2

I had a comment today that I’m fairly sure was intended to be encouraging, and it generally was, but I also think that the commenter did not entirely understand what I was trying to say. This may be because I did not effectively clarify my meaning, or it may be that the commenter was not sufficiently careful or thorough in his reading. It is also possible that the post that was commented upon assumed that other posts had been read, which the commenter had not read. I do this fairly often, mostly because this blog is my own record of my thoughts, feelings, fears, desires, frustrations, and intentions, and so I assume that my own knowledge of myself will be sufficient in reading these posts. However, that isn’t always going to be the case.

When I talk about ‘desiring singleness’ I do not mean that God would have me pursuing someone and I would rather that he would have me be single, nor do I mean I want to want to be single, regardless of what God has for me, nor do I mean that I have given up on finding someone, even though I believe that God would have me find someone. What I mean is that, at the moment, God has me single and he has made clear that he wants me to remain that way for a time. What I want is not to ‘desire to be single’ as opposed to ‘desiring a committed relationship’, but instead to be content with where God has me, whether that is singleness or marriage. This is what I am struggling with at the moment, and what God is working on in me. I am seeking to be satisfied in him, and that is not easy because it means giving him my wants and desires, putting his intents above my own.

There are theologians who will argue that anything we enjoy is sin. This argument is much less common now than it was a hundred years ago, but it still exists. However, I don’t put much stock in this argument. However, the opposing argument, that everything we desire is clearly God’s will for us, also has little justification in scripture. God’s will and our desires are sometimes the same, but this does not mean that they are always the same. Sometimes what God has for  us is exactly what we desire. Sometimes, God gives us our desires, but only once we learn to desire him more. Sometimes, God works in us to change our desires and teach us what he intends for us to desire.

I think that I am currently in the second place (not entirely sure), and so I am currently seeking to be content with and in God, instead of insisting that my desire is paramount. If and when God chooses to bring someone into my life, then it will be because that person will draw me closer to him, and because I will draw that person closer to him. A mutual seeking after God, and a mutual encouragement towards God is important in any relationship. This is what is means to sharpen one another, and this is what husbands and wives should do.

There was also another point in the comment that I want to address, because it is a very common mistake in the Christian community. The commenter made the comment that our primary purpose as Christians is to make disciples. This is based on the ‘Great Commission’ most commonly argued from Matthew 28.

Let me first say that making disciples is one of the most important tasks that we as Christians have, and it is one that I take seriously. I am always happy to share my faith with anyone who wants to hear, and I make a practice of discipling those who are seeking a strong relationship with God, who are struggling with their faith, or are seeking to understand themselves. However, as with my post on the cross, this is an area of the faith that we tend to exaggerate for our own benefit. Our purpose here is to please God. As with the cross, we often confuse the means with the purpose. We are here to please and to glorify the Godhead, and making disciples is one of the primary means by which we do this. However, the same question can be asked here as of the cross, if sharing my witness with someone did not, for some reason, glorify God, then should I do it?

Of course not. Unlike my post with the cross, this has a practical example. A few years ago I ran into a man who believed that his purpose in life was to witness to Satan. He argued, contrary to scripture, that Christ’s death clearly covered the sins of Lucifer as well, and thus that if he could convince Lucifer to repent then Lucifer could be saved. However, clearly Lucifer is the enemy of God, and nowhere in scripture are we given the barest inkling that he is even capable of repenting. Thus, witnessing to Lucifer does nothing to glorify God, and hence it is not something that could be considered a part of the Christian purpose.

In and of itself, this example shows that our purpose is not simply to make disciples (or witnessing to Lucifer would be a part of the plan). However, as I said above, making disciples (and we should not separate evangelism and discipleship) is the primary means by which we achieve our central purpose, which is to glorify the Godhead. As with my post on the cross, confusing the purpose and the means can have important consequences (such as spending your life trying to witness to Lucifer).

Hopes and Fears

Sometimes I’m just afraid. Sometimes, not incredibly often, but sometimes I don’t even know what I’m afraid of. That wasn’t really the case today, but it partially was. I’ve actually had a really good couple of days. I’ve been in a play that ended yesterday, and that was a lot of fun. It’s also kept me very, very busy, but that’s not really a bad thing. However, my good computer is being worked on right now, which is making all of life just a little bit more frustrating. However, back to fear.

Today wasn’t a bad day by any means. A little bit frustrating at times, but certainly not bad. Nonetheless, I found myself afraid almost the entire day. I’m honestly not entirely sure how to explain how I feel right now, but I’m going to try, and hopefully it will make sense. I found myself at church today surrounded by happy families. My church tends to have a lot of kids… we actually have a running calendar of pregnancies… at least 2 or 3 new ones every month… and we aren’t exactly a large church.  Not a small church either, but not a huge one. Needless to say, lots of happy families, and this week was the beginning of vacation bible school, which meant that many more kids running around.

The thing is, I love kids. Some of my favorite people are kids, but today… I’ve been at the place where seeing the things that my heart desired simply hurt. It’s a hurt so deep that you can’t express it. You just stop breathing and wish you could cry. Today didn’t hurt, and I think that’s a good thing. However, there was a feeling… part fear, part grief, part desire… like I said, I’m not sure I know how to put this in words… actually… I do. Proverbs 13:12 says “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire granted is a tree of life”, and Proverbs 14:30 says “A tranquil heart is life to the body, but passion is rottenness in the bones”.

I didn’t hurt today, but I felt like I was looking at something that my heart yearns for, but will never have. I don’t honestly think that’s true, but that fearful grief weighed on me all day. I prayed about it, I actually had lunch with God today. It was quite nice, but it didn’t make the feeling go away. I’m still trying to give God both my pain and my desire. I’ve been… moderately successful so far. Still, I know that I have a long way to go, and some days are easier than others. This is the thing though, as a friend of mine reminded me tonight, it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be good, and it has been, but it’s not supposed to be easy. I hope that by the end of the summer I’ll have learned this particular lesson and given my pain, my fear, and my hope all to God. I’m afraid that I’ll still have this yearning though. I guess we’ll see in a couple of months.

Desiring Singleness

I know that I need to be single right now. I’ve mentioned this several times in previous posts. I need to be single, and I need to be content being single, and I need to want to be single. However, today I didn’t. I’m really not sure what it was, it wasn’t even a particular woman, but all day I just wanted something. I wanted someone to walk up and kiss me, to hold me, to tell me that she loved me, and to tell me that she admired me. I just wanted someone. I gave this to God, several times… or at least I tried to. That helped some, but the desire was still there, and this is my struggle right now.

I want to be content. I want to be happy. And there are days that I am completely content to be single. However, that wasn’t what I was made for. I know that, I can feel it my bones, in my heart, but I also know that it’s a desire that I need to let go. Not to give up on, I think I’ve made that clear. Even on those days where I’ve been completely content in my singleness, I’ve still known that it wasn’t going to last, but I need to let the desire go, to learn to be satisfied without it.

I struggled for a good part of the day with the feeling that no-one could love me as well. That is to say that there is something in me that is simply unlovable, undesirable, and that no-one will ever get past that. The feeling that I’ll always be the second choice, the ‘nice guy, but…’. I know that this comes from the way I was raised, and I can see the way that its been reinforced by the relationships I’ve sought out, and I honestly know that it’s not true… at least, I know that it’s probably not true. The feeling though… yeah.

Feelings are powerful. Much as we laud the reason (more than we really should, honestly), feelings are often more powerful in our lives. I know that there are people who love me, but I rarely feel that love. I know that I have good qualities that would make me a very desirable man, but I generally don’t feel desirable. The difference between knowing something and feeling something is pretty hard to overstate (not that it can’t be overstated… seriously, you can overstate anything).

David Hume once wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” I teach an ethics class and my students have to interact with this quote, so its safe to say that over the years I’ve seen just about every interpretation (good and bad) that you can draw out of this statement. Honestly, I generally disagree with a lot of Hume’s reasoning. God is real, man is not inherently good, and his passions do not lead him to inherently good ends. However, this quote… it has legs. Even if we don’t like it, the fact is that we are generally driven by our passions. Our feelings run away with us… our reason rarely does.

We use reason to justify our desires, good and bad. We use reason to be effective in our desires, but we aren’t driven by our reason. It’s the same way with our feelings. We feel things, we have gut impressions, and we use our knowledge to help us understand them. However, no matter how much we ‘know’, those feelings are powerful and lasting. They aren’t easily changed, and even when they do change, we keep trending back towards the original feeling, and we have to maintain the change that we’ve made in our lives.

I think… well, I hope that I’m in the process of changing the feelings that I’ve listed above. I’ve been trying to change them for a long time. Trying and failing. I have no doubt that God can change them, but God generally takes his time to work in us. Free will and all that balagan. It takes time to change, and the more deep-seated the thing that has to change, the longer it takes and the more it hurts. I have a feeling this is going to be a long, frustrating summer. Still, I think it will be a good summer in the long-run. The dawn only follows the darkness, right? Well… that’s what I’m holding onto right at this moment, anyway. Hopefully, tomorrow will be a happier day.