Suffering and Weakness

You’re all ridiculous. I hope you know that. I’ve said it before and I’ve no doubt that I’ll say it again: I don’t write anything worth reading. My random thoughts are not far off from a madman’s ravings, which inevitably implies that all of you are following a lunatic. At least I’ve kept my post count above my follower count for a while. I think that means I’m winning, but honestly I’m too tired to be sure right now. However, I do hope that in my insane ramblings I at least keep good company. Peter and Paul are both rather depressing authors of the New Testament at times (many times). Between the two of them we are exhorted (repeatedly) to rejoice in suffering and weakness (Consider 2 Corinthians 12 or 1 Peter 3 if you need examples [though really the entirety of 1 Peter will do]), two things that are fairly anathema to the American way. We don’t rejoice in suffering and weakness. In fact we don’t even approve of suffering and weakness. According to the American Church at large (much like Job’s friends) if you are suffering then you must be a bad Christian, and weakness simply isn’t tolerated.

Suffering is, apparently according to the Gospel of the US, God’s way of telling you that you are a sucky person, and if you weren’t such a sucky person then he would be giving you many and varied blessings like he does to all the non-sucky church-goers. This, of course, flies in the face of scriptural teaching and 2000 years of Christian tradition, but who cares, we’re Americans!

… … …So, I might be in just a little bit of a mood this morning… slightly… I blame it on the fact that I didn’t get any sleep again last night. After a week’s worth of wonderful rest (yes the alliteration is intentional) I had another night of sleepless torment, temptation, and failure. After I’d finally given up on sleep I turn to scripture to find this waiting for me: boast in your weaknesses! Well… I have plenty of weaknesses to boast in. I’m prideful, arrogant, supremely confident in my own intelligence (which is, admittedly, modest at best), lustful, foolish, insecure, and terribly, terribly afraid. Oh, and I tend to be pretty lonely most of the time as well. I generally console myself that it’s because I’m a smart, deep thinker and most people can’t keep up with me (what a crock… did I mention that I’m arrogant? I think I must be pretty hard to be around at times).

My bad mood aside, honestly looking back over the past few months I think one of the major lessons God has been trying to teach me is to find joy in my weaknesses. Paul was a pretty incredible man, and he certainly had a lot to boast about, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he talks about a thorn in the flesh that God had given him to keep him humble. Some scholars argue that this was some physical deformity (which they inevitably attempt to identify as buggy eyes, bowed legs, albino skin or some such), but others connect this thorn in the flesh with his rant Romans 7:14-25 and conclude that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some issue of sin that presented him a continual and humiliating struggle (of course they also feel the need to identify this, often as a sexual issue, though only Paul’s staunch stand against sexual sins provides any support for this). I tend to side with the latter as I have trouble seeing a physical deformity being of much shame to Paul (given that he had been beaten, stoned, drowned, etc repeatedly I would imagine that he had several deformities). However, for a man of Paul’s stature a struggle with sin (which we already know from Romans 7 he had) would certainly be very humiliating.

We are all weak. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we all suffer from many and varied weaknesses. As I write this my mind is drawn back to Desperate Housewives, which (as I’ve said before) is a surprisingly good and surprisingly uplifting show. There are two couples  (well, one couple and half of a couple) that, in many ways, exemplify what the church should and should not be respectively. First, Tom and Lynette are two imperfect people who accept one another’s imperfections and choose to continue in love regardless. One of my favorite scenes revolves around this couple. There is a portion of the show in which Lynette is tempted to cheat, and when Tom discovers this he confronts the man who is in the process of seducing her. Tom doesn’t threaten the man (well… much), but instead points out this (I’m paraphrasing here): “Have you thought about what’ll happen if she does slip and spend the night with you? It’ll destroy her. She’ll hate herself. And you think I’ll leave, but I won’t. I won’t go anywhere. I’ll stay right here and love her as hard as she hates herself, and we’ll get through this, because that’s who we are.” Honestly, Tom and Lynette are a fairly good example of the kind of undying, complete, self-sacrificing, gracious, imperfect love that the church could potentially show to one another. None of us are perfect people. None of us are even good people. However, when we recognize our own weaknesses and lovingly accept the fact that others are just as weak, we can show the grace that God has shown us. Does this make the actions that come out of our weakness good? Of course not, but it does mean that sin causes grace to abound.

The second character is Bre Van DeKamp Hodge. Bre is an excellent example of the faux perfection that the church often exhibits. She has her moments of true goodness and goes though some hard things, but generally she is unwilling to accept any weakness in others, even when that same weakness is all to apparent in herself. She does genuinely try to help people, but she is generally unwilling to show either grace or love, and this is a problem. Where Tom and Lynette forgive easily and often (as we should), Bre rarely forgives anything.

Bre seems to assume, as many of us do, that grace equals a lowering of standards, and this isn’t true. My students often tell me that my standards are too high and that I need to lower them. However, as I tell them, this is not going to happen. However, what will happen is the chance (if they seek it) to try again. To rewrite papers, seek advice, improve their abilities to meet my standards, and all of this I am more than happy to do. Similarly, we cannot expect God to lower his standards. It’s simply not going to happen. However, we can expect him to let us try again, and we should be able to expect that of one another as well.

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Faith and Violence

As a culture we have developed the concept that violence, in any and every form, is evil. Yet we entertain ourselves with endless violence throughout every form of media, which we decry even as we consume it. We support seemingly endless wars, we encourage violence against criminals even as we chastise our children that ‘hitting is wrong’. We deprive our children of any legitimate means of expressing their frustration and anger, and then we wonder why school shootings are on the rise. In truth, as a nation, we have no clear concept of when violence should be used and when it should be avoided. We have no consistent philosophy of violence in relation to our daily lives. We might be able to espouse the tenets of Just War theory, but we can’t explain if or how America follows those tenets,or why they are justifiable in the first place. We certainly can’t explain the tenets of Just War theory in relation to Christ’s command to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the sermon on the mount. As individuals and as a nation we must answer the question: when and why is violence appropriate?

There are a number of seemingly pacifistic commands in scripture. Four of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9, 43-48; Matthew 6:39; Matthew 7:12) and another warning against violence appears in Matthew 26:52. However, only Matthew 7:12 truly supports a concept of Christian pacifism, and it only to the degree that every presentation of the Golden Rule supports pacifism, which is to say that it can be taken that way, but is better understood as a general standard of behavior. After all, if we all went around treating one another exactly as we individually want to be treated, we would doubtless cause many people to be aggrieved. No two people want to be treated in quite the same way. That being said, these verses do give us strong and real warnings against violence. Christ tells us that peacemakers will be blessed (though historically force can and does bring peace: consider the Pax Romana or the peace brought by the military might of the Han dynasty), and he tells us to turn the other cheek (i.e. violence is not a tool for vengeance). He also tells us that those who wield violence will die violently, which is all to often true, and he commands us to love our enemies.

However, the scriptures also have an inordinate (at least with a concept of pacifism) amount of violence in them. God commands the Hebrew people into many violent conflicts, and multiple times commands the people to commit genocide. He raises up violent oppressors to punish the people in the form of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and he himself does violence, both to the Jews (as a punishment) and to their enemies (as a boon). In the New Testament we see Christ drive the money-changers out of the temple violently. It is also interesting that in Luke, before his capture at the Garden Christ commands the disciples to procure the very swords that he later chastises Peter for using. In Matthew 10 and Luke 12 Christ promises to bring violence and division rather than peace, and in the book of Revelation we see God bring immense amounts of violence to the Earth, culminating in Revelation 19 in which Christ slays all those who oppose him. We also see, both in the Mosaic law and in Romans 13, the acceptance of violence in the pursuit of justice.

So, as faithful Christians, how can we practically approach the philosophy of violence? First, we must accept that violence does solve problems. As Jean V. Dubios says in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when confronted with the claim that violence never solves anything: “Tell that to the people of Carthage.” It is true that violence has probably solved more disagreements throughout history than any other method. However, this does not mean that it is the best method of solving problems.

Second, we must understand the places in which violence is appropriate. For instance, violence is appropriate between friends. A good-natured fight can be a lot of fun and a good way to get exercise. As long as both people are involved for the same reasons and no grudges are formed, then violence between friends is appropriate, natural, and healthy. Violence can even be a good way to solve problems between friends, as long as all parties are recognized as equals in the end. Violence is also appropriate in the pursuit of justice, for the protection of oneself or others, and in the defense of national interests. Formalized violence (i.e. refereed matches) can also be both a good form of entertainment and a practical means of solving a dispute between two parties.

Third, we must understand the places in which violence is not appropriate. For instance, while violence is appropriate in the pursuit of justice, it is not appropriate in the pursuit of vengeance. Violence should not be used to satisfy the emotional need for retribution. While violence can be a good means of resolving disputes between friends or opposed parties, it should not be used to oppress. A good fight between friends leads to agreement and mutual trust. When violence between friends results in oppression and resentment, then it is not healthy in itself, and it does not lead to healthy ends. Violence should never be uncontrolled. Whether it is controlled intentionally by those using violence, or controlled by a referee, violence that is controlled can be an excellent emotional outlet. However, when violence is uncontrolled, while it may be an emotional outlet, it generally doesn’t end well.

Lastly, we must understand that violence is never a replacement for faith. When one has a choice between faith and violence, faith must always win. God is our guide, our lord, and our judge, and when he commands us either to commit or abstain from violence we must obey. The capacity for violence demands responsibility, because if a violent person is not responsible in their use of violence, the result is almost never desirable.

Concerning Signs and Wonders

In my life I have vacillated between rejecting the need for signs in an effort to ‘walk by faith’ and asking God for signs in times of difficulty, fear, and frustration. It’s easy to run too far in either direction and thus ignore the entirety of scripture in favor of only seeing a part. In Matthew 12:38-42 we find a rather famous passage in which Christ rebukes the Jews for asking for signs and wonders. However, many times we fail to ask a very simple question: why? As I drill into my philosophy students, many of the most important questions that we can ask in life are ‘why’ based questions. “Why am I here?” “Why should I believe?” “Why do I want to be happy?” “Why am I unsatisfied?” etc. Many of us focus on asking ‘what’ based questions, but we ignore the ‘why’ based questions on which they rely. In this passage we must ask the question, “Why did Jesus rebuke the people?” The simply answer is, “Because they asked for signs and wonders”, but this answer isn’t entirely correct. Consider Isaiah 7, in which God tells King Ahaz to request a sign from him, and Ahaz refuses. Consider Gideon, who (admittedly out of fear) requests signs from God and is not rebuked. Consider the multitude of signs that God provides throughout the scriptures, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the parting of the Red Sea, water from the stone, the signs of the prophets, the miracles of Christ, all the way down to the miraculous signs done through the apostles. To say that God is ‘against signs and wonders’ ignores almost the entirety of scripture for the sake of a theological perspective that relies on a single verse. So, why does Christ rebuke the people?

A more fundamental question might be why does God give signs in the first place? The answer to this question is three-fold: 1) God gives signs to show his character (i.e. the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of water from a stone, the execution of Ananias and Sapphira), 2) God gives signs to encourage faithful response (i.e. the signs given to Gideon, the healing of the Lame man by Peter, etc), and 3) God gives signs to guide his people on the proper path (i.e. the pillar of fire and smoke, the signs of the prophets, etc). The miracles of God serve his purposes first and foremost. Through them he displays his glory, love, mercy, and justice, and by them he leads his people where he wants them to go.

Miraculous signs do not exist from the pleasure of man, and that is what the Jews were asking for in Matthew 12. These Jews did not want to believe in Christ, they didn’t intend to follow him, they were not seeking a greater understanding of God, and they did not desire to be shown a true path. Instead, they wanted to see something cool, which is often the by-word of our own culture. There is a vast difference between seeking a sign so as to more thoroughly understand God, and seeking a sign that titillates the mind. There is also a difference between seeking a sign because you doubt the power and authority of God (not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a sign of weakened faith), and seeking a sign because you do not trust yourself to correctly discern the will of God.

A great example here is Hand. You might remember that I mentioned her in some posts a while back (I’m not going to go find them and link them, you can find them yourself). Hand was a young woman that I was attracted to, but that I had doubts about. I asked God for guidance, but I know myself. I have, several times, tricked myself into believing that God has led me to pursue whom I wanted to pursue, regardless of God’s desire. So, I asked God for a sign, a very specific sign, not because I doubted him, but because I doubted myself and my own ability to clearly listen to him in this particular situation.

This brings up another issue with signs. A sign is always specific. It is very easy to pull Homer Simpson’s trick and pray, “God, if you want me to eat this donut then do absolutely nothing.” While I have no doubt that God could easily smite a person with lightning, I also believe that God is willing to allow us to wallow in our own stupidity and self-will. God generally doesn’t divinely stop us from making stupid decisions (though sometimes he might protect us in those decisions). If you want a sign from God, make it specific, and make it antithetical to your self-will. Going back to my example with Hand, I knew what wanted. So, I asked God for a specific sign showing me to pursue my desire. I did not ask him for a non-specific sign showing me not to pursue my desire. The latter would be easy to ignore while the former is very difficult to ignore.

That being said, signs and wonders aren’t the core of our faith, and they shouldn’t be the core of our faith. They are a part of the Christian faith, but they are a small part at best, useful for specific circumstances. If your faith relies on signs and wonders, then take some time to actually get to know God, instead of looking for miracles.

The Inward Understanding of Prayer

Recently I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and I just started E.M. Bounds Essentials of Prayer. Prayer is an interesting topic on which many great and worthy volumes have been written, each with it’s own approach, conception, and fundamental understanding of the importance of prayer. There are many who believe that prayer exists solely to guide the mind and heart of the believer to God, and that it has no fundamentally real effect on the world outside of the believer. There are others, as I have written about before, who believe that prayer is akin to a magical spell which the believer can use to force God to accede to his wishes. Some believe that prayer is a simple thing, that it is easily pursued and it’s goals are easily obtained. Others argue that prayer requires the absolute and total concentration and devotion of the believer, that a half-hearted or half-minded prayer is utterly worthless, possibly even that God does not hear these prayers in the first place. I think that prayer is all of these things and more.

Prayer is, at its very core, our communication with God. There are times in which our prayers are uttered in confusion. They are half-hearted, half-said, half-meant because we ourselves do not truly know or understand for what we pray. We are easily distracted and often utterly without conviction. We lose ourselves on a daily basis, and must seek God for any hope of finding ourselves again. In these times, we are told by scripture, the Holy Spirit translates our prayers for us. No prayer passes by God unnoticed. No utterance, no matter how confused or insincere, is lost to the rolling tides of time. God knows all, sees all, hears all, and so all prayer is meaningful in that it is communication with God, but this does not mean that God responds in the affirmative to all prayer.

However, any attempt to parse out the prayers that God answers and those that he doesn’t is an exercise in ridiculousness. Who are we, simple and foolish men, to lay out rules upon God. Make no mistake, this is often what we do. We search the scriptures for verses that support our ideas and desires, and then we make those into unbendable sanctions upon the divine. We claim verses from John 15 or Christ’s promises to Peter and make them into manifest laws that, when we pray in a certain way, God must give us what we want. Similarly, we take verses from Paul’s epistles or from James and transform them into unalterable standards that all men must meet for their prayers to reach God’s ears.

I have found that these issues of practical theology are best governed by one simple rule, place not upon God, but upon man’s desire to define things: God is God. He can do whatever he wants.

There is much wisdom concerning prayer in scripture, and many promises concerning the effectual nature of prayer. However, the one thing that we can see both from scripture and from experience is that God does as he desires. Consider the failure of Paul’s prayers to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’, or the failure of the disciples in casting evil spirits out of a young boy. Even at our best, the understanding of man is utterly and thoroughly limited, and any attempt to understand the power of prayer must begin with an inward conviction that we are not in charge. We do not make the rules, we do not define the standards, we do not tell God how things work or what he is allowed to do.

Instead, we must come to prayer with a humble spirit and a contrite heart, fully aware of our own depravity, and of the eternal grace that God has laid upon us to cover our many sins. We must begin by understanding that prayer, at its core, is communication with God. It is our conversation with a loving, gracious, jealous, wrathful, just (and so much more) father who has the will, the right, and the power to do whatever he desires with and in us, and who loves each of us more than can be understood. Any discussion of prayer must begin with the inward understanding that our first purpose is to glorify him, and the humility to make that purpose our overriding goal. Whatever other intention our prayers might have, this is the core, and when we forget that, then we lose sight of the foundation upon which our lives of prayer are built.

What Are You Looking Forward To?

I’ve been trying to keep this question on my mind lately. It’s a good question to consider on a regular basis. However, it’s not always an easy question to answer. I’ve had times in which there wasn’t anything that I was looking forward to. I was just existing, waiting to die, and often during those times rather hoping that death would catch up with me fairly soon. It’s easy to lose track of the things that you might have to look forward to, and it’s easy to forget that there is something to look forward to. Sometimes it’s difficult to think of anything to look forward to. I look into the future and see wave after wave of sameness. The same struggles, the same pains, the same frustrations, and the same lack of answers, and in those times trying to maintain hope is more painful than just being contentedly miserable.

So, this is my question for you today: what are you looking forward to?

My answer: I’m looking forward to a coffee date that I have tomorrow, and I’m hoping that it goes well. I’m looking forward to filling out a seminary application next month, and I’m hoping that the timing is right and it is finally God’s will for me to go back to school. I’m looking forward to getting some miniatures painted and playing a couple of very fun new games with friends. I’m looking forward to the new Thor movie and I’m hoping that it’s as good as it looks. I’m looking forward to my bible study this week, and I’m hoping that we get to really delve into 1st Peter. I’m looking forward to feeling better, and I’m hoping that I don’t need to go to a doctor. I’m looking forward to my Aikido-Jujitsu class this afternoon. I’m looking forward to getting some writing done tomorrow, and I’m hoping that my muse sees fit to fill me with creativity. I’m looking forward to getting into Isaiah again tomorrow, and I’m really enjoying the commentary that I’m working my way through. I’m looking forward to seeing my family next month, and meeting my new nephew, and I’m hoping that I have the chance to get together with a friend at the same time. I’m looking forward to meeting the right woman someday, and I’m hoping that it’s soon. I’m looking forward to publishing a second book, and I’m hoping that I have the energy to work on it consistently.

I think I’m done listing things for now. Honestly, I had to wrack my brain for some of those. This probably isn’t an exhaustive list of the things I’m looking forward to. There’s a new Riddick movie coming out, for instance. However, it is a fairly thorough list of the important things. However, there is one thing that I left off of the list intentionally. Mostly because I think it needs to be separate, and because I want to talk about it a little bit: I’m looking forward to spending each day with God.

It is important to keep in mind the things that you are looking forward to. It’s important to be able to look at the future and be excited, instead of incensed, terrified, or hopeless. However, none of those things are going to fulfill me. None of them is going to bring me eudaimonia. While they are all good things, and all things that I am sincerely looking forward to and excited about, they are just things. They are events, experiences, etc some of which bear more importance than others, and some of which aren’t really important at all. However, none of them compares with actively spending time with God, and this is something that I should always be looking forward to. I can’t say that I always am, but I always should be.

Spending each day with God is something that will complete me. It is something that will bring me complete joy. It would be easy to say: ‘when you’re listing the things you’re looking forward to, don’t forget time with God’, but it would also be hypocritical and legalistic. Simply including God in a list of things I’m looking forward to doesn’t mean that I am actually seeking him or spending time with him. Christ told us to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all to often we think this means that God should be at the top of our list, the first thing we do in the day, or the word that comes out of our mouths most often. None of these is a bad things, but it is the quest of the heart that matters. I can easily make sure to always include time with God on a list of things that are important to me, but it is significantly harder to actually spend every day with him. The former requires a little mental effort while the latter requires a continual adjustment of perspective and priorities. So, what are you looking forward to?

Friendship and Days Off

It’s four in the morning and I haven’t been able to get to sleep yet. I’m finally starting to feel like I could get to sleep, but I’m picking up a friend’s sister at the train station at 6, which means even if I could get to sleep, I’d only get an hour and a half of sleep, which isn’t enough to actually help me at all. I do have all of my work for the week done, and this is a good thing. I don’t want to have to try grading papers without sleep again.

I also took a day off from God today. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? It wasn’t really an intentional day off. I had work, and then I had plans with a friend, and then I had to workout, and then I had more work, and suddenly I found myself at 11 pm thinking about God for the first time. That being said, God made a point to me tonight. When I finally did get around to spending some time with him, he pointed me to Psalm 23. Obviously, Pslam 23 is beautiful (if you haven’t read it lately you should try… I’m thinking about memorizing it in Hebrew). I have a copy of the New English Translation, which I love, but it’s one that I don’t see around very often. Psalm 23 opens with “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”.

I spent a good amount of time with this verse tonight. Sometimes taking a day off from God can give you a little perspective. We all need a rest sometimes, and sometimes that means a rest from trying, from striving, from pushing to rest in God. Remember that whole Taoism thing that I’ve talked about a few times? Laozi wasn’t completely right. Sometimes we need to strive, to push, to fight for the things we want.

Sometimes, though, we need to rest from everything. We need to stop striving and just enjoy the day that God has made. Today I enjoyed the day that God gave me. I enjoyed working, I enjoyed that crappy movie that my friend and I went to see, and I enjoyed exercising. I’m almost enjoying the forced all-nighter that’s going on right now. This is the thing with God, even when you take time off, he doesn’t. He waits for you, wraps you up in warmth, and lets you enjoy your day alone. This is the kind of love that we all need, and it’s the kind of love that lets you say: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

There is nothing in this life that I can’t survive without, except time with God. He is my shepherd, my rock, my redeemer, my lord. Something that a lot of people don’t know is that Psalm 23 was probably written during Absalom’s rebellion. This was a time in which David was old, beaten down, besieged, and had no reason to hope for the future. Psalm 23 was not written during a time in which David had great blessings, it was written during a time in which David had great trials. In the midst of this, David opens with the phrase, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.”

I want to be in the place where I can say that honestly and with a full heart, no matter what my circumstance or situation. Like David, I want to be able to say, at my lowest point, that I lack nothing, that my cup is overfilled, and that I will not fear. I’m not there yet, but he keeps working on it.

I Hate That Movie… Why am I Living It

I’ve never liked the movie Sleepless in Seattle. Nonetheless, the title (if not the plot) is probably the best possible description of my summer.  Needless to say, it’s been a rough twenty-four hours. However, this is only partially because of the sleeplessness. Yesterday was just hard in general. I mentioned Proverbs 13:12 a little while ago (Hope deferred makes the heart sick and all), and that is an apt description of my day yesterday. God has been teaching me to turn to him for my joy and satisfaction, but for some reason yesterday, as hard as I tried, I completely failed. At one point I even found myself in the bathroom trying desperately to cry. I failed at that to. For whatever reason, and can’t cry when I’m in pain. Inspiring moments and speeches will move me to tears very quickly, but pain, heartbreak… I can’t cry even when I need to.

So, yesterday moved from random heartache, to rejection (accompanied by a truly stupid excuse), to insomnia, and finally to pornography. I’ve mentioned before how much I hate pornography. It is a consistent thorn in my side… or in my heart. That being said, I don’t really have that much to say about it. I looked. I felt deeply sucky. I repented. I hope that I’ll never look again, but know that’s not realistic, so I hope that it’s at least a few months before I struggle with it again, and the next time I struggle with it, I plan to win. That being said, insomnia has made my summer both very long and very hard, and I don’t see any sign of it ending soon. I probably need to go to a doctor, but lack of money combined with lack of medical insurance makes that quite difficult. So instead I’m doing my best, taking sleep aids, and sometimes going without. I probably need to get some herbal teas, it’s something that I haven’t tried yet.

That being said, I actually don’t have much to say at all at the moment, and I have papers to grade. So, I’m going to read some Isaiah and then go do that.