Sin and Guilt

Yesterday I was at lunch with a group of people from church. Flowergirl was one of them. I generally take her and one of her roommates to church on Sundays, and then buy them lunch afterwards. This isn’t an attempt at a group date (I’ve given up on her… almost completely), just something I like to do because they are both poor college students in need of good meals. During the meal flowergirl was rather frustrated with me, mostly because I kept laughing at her. She hadn’t had much sleep the night before and was very tired, and so I had to keep waking her up in church. I commented that her head resembled a metronome in the way it kept bobbing up and down as she tried to stay awake. She didn’t see the humor in this, mostly because she was ashamed that she was struggling to stay awake in church.

Flowergirl, like many of us, was under the impression that the fact one struggles with something is, in and of itself, something to be ashamed of. This is not true. All Christians struggle with sin, and as one of my professors used to say: all means all and that’s all all means. While I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment (in some cases ‘all’ clearly means ‘most’, ‘many’, or ‘those of which I have knowledge’), in this case it is entirely true. Outside of Jesus Christ who, being the Christ incarnate, can’t really be called a ‘Christian’ (i.e. little Christ or follower of Christ) there has never been an individual who did not fail in his/her struggle with sin. However, even Christ himself struggled with sin. We know that he was ‘tempted in every way as we are’ from Hebrews 4, and from both Matthew and Luke we know that he was tempted by Satan himself. Christ did not sin, nor did he have a sinful nature, and some will argue that he could not have fallen to temptation (this position is called ‘hard impeccability’, though personally I prefer ‘soft impeccability’ which argues that Christ was capable of sinning, but didn’t), but I do not know of anyone who will argue that Christ did not struggle with temptation. This fact is made absolutely clear in the scriptures. So, given that Paul clearly fell to sin… repeatedly (Romans 7), that Peter fell to sin the the worst possible way (the denial of Christ), and that Christ himself was struggled with varied temptations, why do we believe that to struggle is, in and of itself, a shameful thing?

The answer, of course, is the American need to be ‘better’. If you sin then I am better than you because I do not sin. If you struggle with sin, then I am better than you because I do not struggle with sin. If you are tempted to sin then I am better than you because I am not tempted to sin. None of these things are true, obviously, but they are the lives that we often attempt to portray, and also one of the most prominent reasons for the frequent and warranted accusations of hypocrisy within the American church. None of us is perfect. We all struggle with a variety of sins. Those sins may be different for different people, but none is better or worse.

This is another facet of the American church that needs to be addressed. We often rate actions by their ‘sinfulness’. Homosexuality is the most sinful thing a normal person could do. Pornography is a close second. However, gluttony, gossip, worry, and pride are all innocuous, inconsequential sins by common American standards. This is, obviously, a giant load of crap. James 2 makes it clear that sin is sin. All sin equally removes us from a right relationship with God and no sin is inconsequential. There is a passage in John 5 that discusses the difference between ‘sins not leading to death’ and ‘sins leading to death’, which was (I think) the primary impetus behind Augustine’s division between mortal and venial sins, but this is a theological question that I will address another time.

For our purposes here, sin is all equally damning in the eyes of God. All sins should invoke guilt in us until we turn to God in repentance. However, the simply fact of struggle with a sin should not. In fact, it seems to me that a man or woman who truly and honestly struggles with sin is respectable. It is easy to give up the struggle and simply fall to sin, and if we struggle we will eventually fall. However, to continue in the struggle, to run the race, to fight the good fight, is something that scripture repeatedly calls us to (1 Peter and 1 John are both good examples, as are 1 and 2 Timothy). We are called to struggle with our sins, and in struggling we pursue perfection, which is the process of sanctification. This isn’t something that we can, or even should escape.

So, do not let the struggle be a thing of shame. When you struggle and are victorious, count it as glory to God who aided you in your struggle. When you struggle and fall, be aware of your human frailty and repent. However, the struggle in and of itself is a part of being human. Consider it as such.

Feeling Down

Sometimes you don’t even have words to explain how you feel. There are times when this is due to the extremity of the emotion. It is certainly possible to feel love, joy, pain, fear, or despair to such an extreme degree that all words fail. To the point where you actually do simply stop trying to explain how you feel. I can say this because I’ve been at that point for each of these emotions. I can’t explain how terrifying it was to be chased through the woods with someone trying to shoot me. I can’t describe how much I loved a certain young woman who broke my heart several years ago (I’ve written about this before). I think this is probably true for any emotion. We are capable of feeling things that we simply can’t describe in any meaningful way, and this is not surprising. Much as we revere them, words are really an incredibly weak medium. However, sometimes it isn’t the extremity or intensity of an emotion that makes it difficult to explain. Sometimes it is the sheer complexity and variety of interacting emotions that become difficult to parse.

Lately I’ve been feeling rather unwanted and unappreciated. Some of this has to do with a difficult class that I’ve just finished. Some of it has to do with deciding to give up on flowergirl. Some of it has to do with being continually turned down by women in general. Some of it has to do with my spiritual life, which has been rather dry lately. Some of it has to do with the simple day to day drudgery of my life. Ultimately, I’m feeling joyful, depressed, stoic, sad, frustrated, excited, fearful, relieved, and hopeless all at the same time. A while back I started talking to a lady over eHarmony (I mentioned that I paid for a year long account this summer). Today she and I decided that, while we both liked the other, there wasn’t anything more than friendship in our future. This is one of the few times that I’ve had this actually be a mutual decision. She and I were both honestly relieved and we both look forward to talking again. I also asked another lady… let’s call her Paula… for her number today… well, yesterday technically. That is, I asked for her number yesterday, put her name into my phone, and then tried to text her with a name only and no number. I ran into her again today and got her number. However, I’m not really one to wait… that’s not entirely true. Perhaps its better to say that I’m interested in this woman and I don’t particularly want to play games, so I texted her earlier tonight. So far, there’s been no response.

I don’t know that I’m honestly surprised about this, and it is certainly a part of the ‘unwanted, unappreciated’ feeling that I mentioned above. However, it certainly isn’t the entirety of it. In general, I talk to people. I reach out. I call. I text. I walk over to say hello. It’s relatively rare for someone to reach out to me, and the past few months it’s been even rarer than normal. Honestly, I rather feel like I could disappear off of the face of the earth and no one would be significantly affected. This feeling is generally exacerbated by the kind of tacit rejections that are all to common in my life. Personally, I much prefer it when a woman tells me, ‘I think you’re a really great person, but I’m just not interested’. This is significantly better than the tacit, silent rejections that seem to be the norm among… well, women in general. Honestly, what makes it harder is to then watch these women find someone that they are interested in, and again I get left behind.

In a lot of ways I feel like the cliche little boy, standing cold and alone in the dark and snow with his face pressed against some families window, watching everyone else enjoy what he can never have. At the same time, I honestly am happy for my friends and acquaintances who have found love and who are doing well in life. Sometimes I just want to cry, but then I haven’t been able to express pain through tears for… well, longer than I can remember. Even when that young lady gave me a heart attack I couldn’t cry. I tried, and I almost did. I could feels the tears, but I couldn’t manage to coax them out.

I care about people. I do my best to show this, and I don’t want to ask for things in return. Like with Flowergirl, I try to do for others without thinking about myself. I want to do for others without thinking about myself. I want to be able to love God first and to love others completely and not worry about myself. To be honest though, I’m a little pansy wimp. Much as I want to be strong and take care of others… I think I need some people in my life who are interested in taking care of me. Problem is… I’m pretty sure everyone forgets that I exist when I’m not actually there in front of them.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 4

In part three I focused on the emotional, and presented the first positive signifiers of manhood. Prior to this I had only presented negative signifiers of manhood. For instance, a child is not a man, a mental vegetable is not a man, and similarly I have shown that certain commonly revered qualities (such as wealth, physical strength, or attractiveness) are completely unimportant in a discussion of ‘real’ masculinity. Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Practical Reason, provided an interesting point that has, in some ways, guided my rational in determining the qualities that must appear in a true man. Kant argues that those things which truly define us are those things that are truly capable of being respected. For instance, one does not respect an individual who was gifted with great natural strength or beauty. One may admire those persons, but there is a significant difference between admiration and respect. We admire those qualities that we find desirable in others (i.e. strength, beauty, wealth, charisma, etc), but we respect those qualities that an individual has achieved through their own means (i.e. emotional stability, strength of character, a good work ethic, etc). For instance, wealth itself is not inherently respectable. A man who inherited $20 million from his father’s death and through no practical effort of his own is not respectable for his wealth. However, a man who earned $20 million through hard work and wise decisions is certainly respectable. However, in this man it is not the wealth that we respect, but the qualities that helped him attain that wealth. The means by which such wealth was obtained may change our respect for the individual. For instance, a man who earned $20 million through questionable practices such as extortion or ruthlessness is less respectable than a man who earned $20 million through hard work that exemplified a care for those around him and a concern for fair play.

In the last section, I argued that a man who is not emotionally mature cannot be called a ‘real’ man. Whether the individual is emotionally closed off and incapable of dealing with his feelings in a healthy manner, or emotionally frail and prone to excessive sensitivity and outbursts, the lack of emotional maturity is not a respectable quality. Emotional maturity, on the other hand, is very respectable. A similar argument is true in the case of skill. Often certain skills are attributed to ‘real’ men. For instance, ‘real’ men know how to cut down a tree, kill and skin a deer, repair a car, build a house, start a fire, etc. The various lists of skills attributed to ‘real’ men is rather lengthy and certainly monotonous. However, the problem is that each list connects ‘real’ manhood with a particular skill set. One group argues that ‘real’ men are men of the wild. They have skills associated with survival away from civilization. Another group argues that ‘real’ men are builders. They have skills associated with the construction of certain items, often items that require a degree of physical strength to create (i.e. many argue that real men build cars, work with stone, wood, etc. Few argue that real men knit doilies). A third group argues that ‘real’ men are warriors. They have skills associated with finding and killing the enemy. The problem with each of these is that none of these skill groupings is inherently more or less respectable than the other. All have value in the world, all are important in maintaining an orderly, functioning society, and all are equally difficult to master.

So, does this mean that skills can have no impact on a meaningful discussion of ‘real’ manhood? Absolutely not. While no particular group of skills can be identified as ‘manly’ or supremely respectable in and of itself, the effort, determination, and drive to master a particular skill set is certainly a highly respectable quality. While a soldier is no more or less respectable than a carpenter or an academic, a bad soldier is certainly less respectable than a good soldier. The ‘manliness’ of skills lies not in the choice of skill to master, but in the achievement of mastery in that skill. For instance, a man who is unwilling to put forth the effort necessary to master a skill, who waffles from one skill set to the next, dabbling in many things until the learning becomes ‘too difficult’ or ‘too tedious’ to continue is not particularly respectable, nor is he particularly manly. However, a man who puts out his best effort to master a skill and, through drive and commitment does so, is certainly both respectable and manly.

However, this brings us to a problematic question: does this mean that a male who lacks natural aptitude at a particular skill is not a man? Again, it does not. This is, I think, an entirely positive qualifier for manhood. Those who have set forth and made the effort necessary to master a skill are certainly respectable and manly. Those who (and this crosses somewhat into the realm of character which I will discuss later) lazily give up because something is too difficult for them to try are not particularly manly. However, there is a third category: those who put forth the effort to master a skill, but still fail. Every individual has a different set of inherent aptitudes that, to some degree, limit their ability to learn a particular skill. For instance, my friend… John… plays the Piano. However, if John and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put in the same amount of effort and practice, Mozart will still be significantly better than John at playing the Piano. This is because Mozart had a very high natural aptitude for the piano and John has only an average aptitude for the piano. John may work his hardest to improve, but he will still not surpass Mozart. However, this does not make John less respectable or less manly than Mozart. Kant’s argument concerning admiration and respect applies here. Mozart’s devotion to the piano is respectable, as is John’s. However, Mozart’s aptitude for the piano is not more respectable than John’s aptitude because it was not earned in any way. Mozart’s aptitude for the Piano is more admirable than John’s, but it simply makes him better at playing the piano. It does not make him better at being a man.

Admittedly, as I mentioned above, parts of this discussion of manhood and skill are inextricably interwoven with the discussion of manhood and character. This will be my next topic, but some presuppositions concerning that topic can certainly be made from this discussion.

It’s Impossible I Tell You!

I have a superman complex. Especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Show me a young, broken, hurting woman who is not ready or willing to commit to a serious relationship and I’ll pursue her for all I’m worth, convinced that I can heal her wounds and we’ll live happily ever after. So far this hasn’t worked well for me, but I think it’s symptomatic of a more significant problem both in me and in American culture as a whole.

As a culture we push for the impossible. This is evident in our entertainment media, in our heroes, in our attitudes, and in the things that we pursue. As a culture we strongly emphasize pursing and doing things that should be impossible. I’ve talked a lot about doing hard things, and I think that it is important to do the things that are hard. The things that challenge us, stretch us, and push us are also the things that grow us as individuals and as a community. It is important to challenge ourselves, to push ourselves, and to set goals the require us to rely on God and on others. That being said, it is equally important to set goals that are realistically achievable.

Actually, one of the foundational keys to success is to set achievable goals, and this is something that we aren’t often encouraged to do. American media and culture encourages us to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘believe in the impossible’, and ‘trust that we can be whatever we want’. However, this has led to a patent and pervasive denial of realism. A few days ago I spoke with a friend of mine who is currently frustrated with waiting for her boyfriend to be ready to commit. I challenged her to set a realistic goal concerning how long she would wait, and her response was ‘I’ll wait for him forever’. While this certainly sounds romantic, it never actually works. We hear stories about the few people who can do something like this, who wait for their beloved for 10, 12, 15, or 20 years. I once knew a man who pursued his ex-wife (who had left him) for sixteen years before finally winning her back. I have to admit that there is a part of me that wishes I could do that, but I can’t. I’ve tried. I can last a few months, maybe a year… but my record is two years before finally giving up.

The attitude that ‘I can do anything’ is clearly and utterly ridiculous. For instance, as an extreme example, I can’t walk out the door of my favorite coffee shop and fly away. I am limited by my physical capabilities. I will also never be an astronaut. I am not mathematically minded enough nor committed enough to truly succeed in this career. Thankfully, I’ve never particularly wanted to be an astronaut. However, the principle is sound. We are all limited by our physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychological abilities, and while it is important to expand those abilities, it is equally important to set goals that are achievable within those abilities. Through hard work, determination, and commitment I can successively set grander and more difficult goals. However, those successive goals must be representative of my expanding abilities (i.e. they must remain achievable).

All to often the attitude I see in myself, and in others, is that I can do anything without effort. I set grand goals for myself (like healing a broken heart or waiting for years for someone) that are not even remotely achievable within my current capabilities. Often I see the same in my students. I can’t count the number of students who have declared to me, in grammatically atrocious (barely understandable) English, that they are going to get a Ph.D. in whatever their chosen field may be. Some are willing to do the word it takes to improve their writing and thinking abilities, but many are not, and this makes their goal clearly unattainable. Doing hard things doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort, commitment, and a willingness to suffer in order to obtain even minor steps towards our overall goals. The impossible isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. It it was, then it wouldn’t be impossible.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 3

I’ve spent most of the week thinking about how to write this next post. I think that we’re coming into the most important areas of question in this. While strength is certainly emphasized when it comes to manhood, most people won’t argue that we should judge the ‘manliness’ of an individual based on his property, appearance, or inherent abilities. This is quite clearly ridiculous. However, I think it is worth pointing out here that we often do judge an individual’s manliness on these qualities, and not just an individual’s manliness, but an individual’s worth. It is easy to dismiss a person as ‘not our type’ or ‘not the right kind’ based on how they dress, how they look, what they can do, or what they have to offer us, and I think we need to realize that this is a foundational element of American society. We judge one another on stupid things.

Admittedly, to some degree, in the context of romantic relationships ‘not my type’ is a justifiable objection. A strong romantic relationship requires physical attraction, and trying to date someone that you aren’t at least kind of attracted to is a bad idea. That being said, we often blow this one aspect of relationships far out of proportion, both romantically and in less physically important relationships. It really doesn’t matter if I’m attracted to my friends. In fact, if they are friends of the opposite sex, it is often better if I’m not particularly attracted to them. That way we can actually stay good friends.

However, I got a comment (still not letting any comments post, but I’ll always try to address the good ones) from a reader addressing a key message that men receive in American culture: Men “Gotta be strong, self-sufficient, never vulnerable, never fragile, never in need”. I think this is actually one of three major messages that American males receive on a regular basis. The second is that men have to be emotionally sensitive, fragile, and womanly to be acceptable. While the first message leads to the ‘man’s man’ stereotype, the second leads to the metrosexual stereotype, and neither of these men is a particularly good example of a healthy man. The last message I often see combined with both of these. This is that men are cretinous, stupid, worthless, and beastly. We live in a culture that repeatedly casts men as the villains, and if you don’t believe me try the following experiment. Go sit in a coffee shop or bookstore until you see both of the following scenes: an older man leading a young girl (5-6 years old) into the bathroom, and an older woman leading a young boy (same age) into the bathroom. Ask yourself which scene made you more uncomfortable and why. Then consider that there is a growing body of research arguing that sexual assault by female perpetrators, both on children and adults, has been grossly under-reported for decades, and that women are only slightly less likely than men to be be sexual predators. Lastly, consider that a relatively small portion of the population. Realize that, in 2011, there were just over seven hundred thousand registered sex offenders living in a nation of over three hundred million. Also realize that public urination can result in registry of the offender as a sex offender. We live in a culture that casts men as villains.

So, the majority of these messages have to do with the next category that I was going to discuss: emotions. Can we judge manhood based on emotions? I think the obvious answer here is in the negative. We all have emotions, and to be emotionally healthy we must recognize and deal with those emotions. This is just as true for men as it is for women, men simply often do this in a different way. However, there is nothing inherently masculine about being stoic, sensitive, etc. Being overly stoic and bottling things up, or overly sensitive so as to be incapable of functioning are both signs of emotional immaturity. So, the obvious answer is not necessarily correct. While emotional maturity does not ‘make one a man’ it is certainly a very important component of true masculinity. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, emphasizes a mature emotional state that recognizes feelings but is not controlled by them. I think this kind of maturity may best be described as sensitivity combined with endurance. True men must embrace their emotional natures and understand what they are feeling when they are feeling it. However, they must also respond appropriately to those feelings. A boy refuses to acknowledge his feelings. A boy throws a temper tantrum. A boy tries to stand strong on his own when he is vulnerable and weak. A man recognizes his feelings, good and bad, and acts on them appropriately. He expresses anger well by calmly addressing the situation. He stands before those he trusts, admits his weaknesses, and asks for help. A man is strong precisely because he knows when he can’t stand alone and is willing to accept that and ask for help.

So, while emotions may not entirely define manliness, they certainly add something to our understanding of what a man actually is.

Safety in Love

Sometimes we fall into sin. It’s not necessarily that we want to, or that we go looking for it (though there are times that we do), but sometimes we just fall into it. St. Teresa of Avilla referred to sin as ‘snakes and lizards’ or ‘the little lizards’ in her book Interior Castles, and she makes the point throughout that text that they are present at each stage of the Christian journey. Hopefully as we mature certain sins are left behind, those old struggles simply make way for new ones that we don’t realize were a problem… until God makes it clear to us.

However, when we fall into sin God always gives us a way to walk out. Sometimes that way is hard to see and hard to take. Sometimes it means making a herculean effort just to get up and walk away. Sometimes that way out is shockingly easy, like when my teenage niece messages me for advice on boys just as I start looking for something to watch that involves lots of naked people and sex. I think it would be downright impossible to talk to my niece about the guy she likes and watch porn at the same time. The two are simply antithetical to one another. This was the way out that God provided me today in a very weak moment, and I can’t explain how thankful I am for it.

The phrase ‘love conquers all things’ is often used to describe the frustrations, pains, and fears that romantic love brings with it. However, this isn’t the only apt reference for this particular phrase. True love is not confined to romance. True love hopefully exists between romantic partners, but it also exists between parent and child, siblings, close friends, and in many other kinds of relationships. True love, in fact, is all around us. It is in the way I talk to the barista at my favorite coffee shop. It is in the way I listen to my friends work problems. It is in the way I stop to help the homeless man on the side of the road. And it is in the way I walk away from sin to help my niece.

When I allow the love of God to flow through me into others it takes me away from sin. Thus, just as the love of Christ conquered the grave, that love in me conquers sin that will lead me into a grave of my own. On the other hand, when I step out of that love, death finds a welcome home in my heart and sin comes all too easily. My sin is conquered by his love and this is something that I need to hold onto. It’s something that I need to remember when I am weak, and when I think that I am strong. This is what I must run to when I am tempted.

Rain

I was going to write another entry on my thoughts about manhood today, but it’s just not coming to me right now. Today has been a rainy day. Unlike the short, sudden downpours that we’ve been having all summer (the ones that I can only describe as God pissing on Lynchburg), today has been wet, dreary, and rainy all day long. Yet this somehow seems appropriate. Water is cleansing, and at the moment my mind and heart could certainly use a cleansing. I made dinner for flowergirl and her roommates last night, and I think it went fairly well. We all ate, and everyone enjoyed the meal, and then one roommate left for a concert and the other went to bed, leaving flowergirl and I alone. We cleaned up and talked for about two hours. I think it was a wonderful conversation about philosophy, politics, and life… I have no idea if she would agree with me. Much as I think the dinner went well, I am now more convinced than ever that she has absolutely no romantic interest in me. Still, God hasn’t told me to date her, or to romance her, or to pursue a relationship with her. He’s told me to love her well, and to expect nothing in return. This, I think, is thoroughly annoying.

I am left with the feeling that no woman will ever truly love me. I don’t honestly believe that this is true, and yet at the same time I do. As much as God has grown me this summer, as much as he’s taught me about joy and satisfaction in him, the idea that a woman would ever put my needs and desires before her own seems anathema to me. Yet, now more than ever, I know that the most significant thing that I am looking for in a romantic partner (among an array of desires) is a woman who will make me a high priority in her life. Actually, I’m looking for a woman who will make me the second priority in her life, right after her relationship with God. I think that this is personal growth, at least growth of a sort. In the past I’ve always pursued women who needed me or women who would let me love them, and I’ve always been hurt.

Earlier this week (…I might have written this down, not sure) a friend of mine, in an off-hand comment, told me that I should be picky. I honestly don’t know what he intended when he said that (though, given the context of the conversation is was clearly about my dating life), but the comment has stayed with me, and it’s meant a lot to me. Honestly, I’ve always felt like the bottom of the barrel romantically. A part of me wants to say that I’ve always been made to feel like the bottom of the barrel, and I’m not entirely sure that statement would be untrue, but it feels like a lack of responsibility. Regardless of how others treat me, I decide how I see myself. That being said, I have generally been treated like the bottom of the romantic barrel by the majority of the women in my life. However, the key here is that I’ve always felt like the bottom of the barrel.

Regardless of how people have treated me, I’ve looked at myself and seen someone that no woman would want. I’ve seen someone who’s place is to give love, but not receive it. I’m not completely sure that I’m past this. I still look at myself and can’t imagine a woman ever wanting to love me. I still see someone who is fundamentally undesirable in some indefinable way, and at the moment I’m still not sure how to change this. However, I think actively looking for someone who is willing to love me as much as I love her, instead of looking for someone who simply needs love but won’t give it. I also realized a couple of weeks ago (and I’m pretty sure I did mention this) that it actually wouldn’t matter to me if flower-girl wasn’t a virgin. This is the first time I’ve been attracted to a woman and not truly and deeply worried about this.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly hope she is, even if only for her sake. I also still hope that I wind up marrying a virgin. However, in the past I have been afraid that I’d wind up with a woman who wasn’t a virgin. I’ve been afraid of being judged, or of not measuring up, or of… whatever. Of something going horribly wrong and my new wife, whoever she may be, finding herself completely sexually dissatisfied with me. I have not had this issue with flowergirl. It really just hasn’t been an issue. At the moment I’m not entirely sure whether to attribute this to some personal growth in myself (conceivably possible) or to something about her (…also possible…) or to something particular about my feelings for her (also possible… perhaps the most likely, not sure though).

Ultimately, I think I still have some growing to do. Probably a lot of growing to do. Its entirely possible that I’ll spend my life alone, and I think that’s something that I’m still afraid of. However, I also think that this summer has brought a lot of spiritual and personal growth in me, and that is most definitely a good thing.