The Power of a Joyful Life… or Revisiting the Notion of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before (at least I think I’ve said it here… if not I know I’ve said it elsewhere), that I dislike John Piper’s notion of Christian Hedonism. It strikes me that any philosophy based solely or primarily in what brings me the most pleasure is problematic, regardless of the ends it espouses. If my pleasure is the ultimate goal, then I am putting myself at the center of all things, and this is a place that I should never be. That being said, for the past two years God has been teaching me about joy, and I feel like I’m finally getting to the heart of the lesson. For most of my life happiness has been… unimportant. My goal was to be strong, or to be powerful, or to be righteous, or to be good, or to be spiritual (kind of in that order actually), and happiness was something that I always saw as an addendum at best, or a distraction at worst.

A few years ago a friend of mine was lecturing me about the way I approach life and asked me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ The only response that I could give was ‘Eh, maybe I guess…’ I want to stress here that my goal was not to be unhappy. I’ve never seen misery as a sign of righteousness (or at least I don’t think I have), but I also never made it a goal to be happy. Over the past two years God has been slowly changing this.

So, recently my bible study (yes, I’m part of a bible study now… yes, I realize that I haven’t posted in ‘like forever’ which translates to a couple of months in real time… thus proving the theory of internet relativity:T=CPI or Time=Care exponentially multiplied by the Perspective of the Individual)… anyway, my bible study has been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a book that I’ve loved for a long time, but recently I’ve had a new perspective on. I think that, at its core, Ecclesiastes is an admonition to joy. The author repeatedly points to the pointlessness, injustice, and repetitiveness of life, and then responds to himself by arguing that true purpose can be found in God.

In chapter one and two he shows that none of the things we normally cling to: labor, love, wealth, knowledge, and pleasure, can possibly serve as the purpose of a meaningful life. All of these are fleeting, ephemeral, and ultimately vanity. However, in chapter 3 he shows that, while none of these things is the point of life, all of them have a point in life. This is an important distinction. A life lived for the pursuit of any of these things will ultimately be unfulfilling, because they are, in themselves, vane. However, all of them are gifts given by God to bring pleasure to life and add to its ultimate purpose. Solomon argues that everything happens for a reason, and that God is the ultimate arbiter of that reason, so should we argue that he got things wrong?

Chapters four and five continue in this vein, showing the vanity and injustice of everyday life when we live it without God, but the pleasure that God can bring through that same vanity when we place him at the center of our lives. I have long been somewhat enamored by the mystic ascetics (or ascetic mystics… whatever you want to call them). And I think that true joy can be found in the ascetic pursuit of God, but this is not the only way to glorify him.

Whoever we are, whatever path God takes us on (and I’m not trying to preach Universalism here, if you think God is calling you to be a Buddhist Monk you need to revisit the scriptures), we can and should find joy when we truly place him at the center of our lives. This is something that I’m currently working on. For a long time I, like the Pharisees, turned moral virtue and righteousness into an idol, all too often replacing my worship with God with a worship of goodness. Even when I left this behind, I didn’t seek to enjoy God, but simply to endure with him.

My circumstances haven’t changed much in the past few years. I’m still single, still poor, and I still have debts that I’ll probably never be able to realistically pay (though this is in God’s hands). I still struggle with depression, fear, doubt, worry, etc. However, I’m struggling less and enjoying more. I’m learning to find my joy in God and truly, thoroughly worship him.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 5

I’ve been discussing what it means to be a man for a while now. So far I’ve presented an introduction of the problem, shown that innate traits and talents are not a qualifier for manhood, argued that emotional maturity is one qualifier for manhood, and defended the idea that particular skills are not a qualifier for manhood, but dedication to mastering skills is. So far all of this has led to one overarching conclusion. It is not how I appear, what I have, or what I’m good at that makes me a man. It is the choices I make. Real masculinity lies in the character that I develop and portray on a daily basis. The claims that I have made thus far all lead to this conclusion. Neither the way I look nor my inherent capabilities make me a man. The emotions that I feel also do not make me a man, though the manner in which I express them might. The skills that I pursue do not make me a man, but the dedication with which I pursue them certainly says something about my manliness. All of this leads us back to the above conclusion: true masculinity is found in the qualities of character that an individual develops.

This being said, what character qualities make one ‘a man’? If we remember Kant’s argument that it is respect, not admiration, that is truly valuable in determining quality, then the conclusion is obvious. Those character qualities that are inherently respectable are what separates a man from a boy. Of course, in all of these things the same could still be said to separate a woman from a girl. While there are clear physical and emotional differences between the masculine and feminine genders, the qualities that separate an adult from a child are still going to be largely similar. Plato proposed four qualities of character essential to a valuable person: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance. The code of Bushido argued that the significant qualities of character were Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, and Loyalty. Confucius argued that the character qualities of a man were seen in five right relationships: Ruler to Ruled (Obedience), Father to Son (Respect), Husband to Wife (Devotion), Elder Brother to Younger Brother (Filial Piety), and Friend to Friend (Loyalty). The Christian Bible lays out the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, faithfulness, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, and temperance.

Many of these we can see as similar. For instance, Plato’s ‘justice’, Bushido’s ‘rectitude’, and the bible’s ‘goodness’ all speak of essentially the same thing. Similarly, Plato and Bushido both set forth courage as an important trait, Plato and the bible both set forth temperance as an important trait, and Confucius and Bushido both set forth Respect and Loyalty as important traits. Some of these we can also throw out entirely because they result from other traits. For instance, if one is righteous (just or good), benevolent, courageous, and loyal, then one will be honorable. Similarly, if one is good, kind, temperate, and gentle, then one will be patient. If one is loving, faithful, and at peace, then one will be joyful. At the same time some, while not exactly the same, are similar enough that they may be embodied in a single word. For instance, love, kindness, and gentleness may all be embodied in the word ‘love’. If one is truly loving, then one will be both kind and gentle. So, here is my first compilation of the essential traits of a ‘real man’: Wisdom, Courage, Righteousness, Temperance, Fortitude, Love, Honesty, Devotion, Humility, and Community.

Over the next few months (I said days when I started this series and it’s been two months already) I intend to discuss each of these in detail (I’ve already discussed Courage), but for now I’ll give a brief explanation of each:

Wisdom: A man pursues both knowledge and experience. He considers the world around him and is not rash or foolish in his decisions. He is capable of being impulsive without being ruled by his impulses.

Courage: A man does not allow himself to be ruled by fear. Instead of running or hiding, a man faces his fears and masters them.

Righteousness: A man has a strong moral compass and holds fast to those beliefs. He does what is right simply because it is right and does not knowingly choose to violate his moral understanding. (Please note that I have not attributed Righteousness to a particular moral system here)

Temperance: A man is emotionally stable and capable of controlling his actions. He rules his desires instead of being ruled by them.

Fortitude: This is one that you will not see in any of the lists above, though Plato does include fortitude in his idea of courage. A man does not avoid difficult things. He does not shy away from doing that which is good and/or necessary simply because it is hard or uncomfortable. Courage and fortitude are related, but courage is directly related to fear, while fortitude is simply a steadfast endurance in the face of hardship.

Love: A man shows concern for those around him. He is kind, caring, gentle, and patient. He willingly puts others before himself. Moreover, a man loves fully and deeply. He does not hide his heart away, nor does he build walls around it. A man accepts the risk of being hurt by others in order to have the chance of investing into their lives.

Honesty: A man speaks the truth. He is open, truthful, even vulnerable. A man is blunt when necessary, tactful when appropriate, and always speaks truth in order to be a boon to others, not to harm them.

Devotion: A man commits. Whether this is loyalty to a nation/faith/organization, dedication to the pursuit of a particular skill/career/path, or commitment to a woman or family, a man shows commitment to the things that he pursues.

Humility: A man has an honest view of himself. He is capable of seeing his strengths without being puffed up, and he is capable of seeing his flaws without being destroyed.

Community: A man realizes that he does not exist in a vacuum. He understands that independence is an illusion. Instead of insisting on his own independence, a man is willing to depend on others when necessary, and allows others to depend on him. He considers those in his community in his actions, he contributes to the community, and he allows the community to support him.

Obviously, none of us is a perfect representative of any of these traits. Courageous men falter, wise men make foolish choices, devoted men stray, and humble men have moments of pride. The judgment of manhood must not be an unrealistic expectation of perfection in these qualities. Instead it must be an understanding that one’s life should be characterized by these qualities. One should be known for these qualities, however imperfectly, instead of being know for foolishness, fickleness, pride, selfishness, cowardice, or deception. So, hopefully soon I’ll be discussing each of these qualities in greater depth, but these are the qualities that a man of high character embodies.

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.

A Life of Worship

It seems that I have a lot more to say when I’m struggling with things than I do when I’m not struggling. Honestly, I don’t suppose that should really surprise anyone. I think we all tend to have more to say when we are struggling with God. The issues in our lives tend to be more evident when God makes them undeniably clear to us. In turn, this obviously means that we pay more attention to them, and that we have more to say about them. All to often I (we) have little to say when life is good. The reason for this is, I think, very simple. In the church today there is a dearth of true worship in the church. I have much to say when I am struggling with God because my struggles are at the forefront of my mind. I am frustrated with God, frustrated with myself, and I want everything to be better. However, when things are better I am not thankful. E.M. Bounds illustrates the difference between thankfulness and gratitude in his book The Essentials of Prayer. Bounds argues that gratitude is inward focused and negatively associated (i.e. not that gratitude is a negative or bad thing, but in association with action gratitude, being focused inward, is negatively focused because it does not produce action). Thankfulness, Bounds argued, is outwardly focused and positively associated (i.e. again, towards action: that thankfulness, being outwardly focused, produces action). I find that I agree with him in this, and I think that both are necessary for a life of true worship.

Obviously one may demonstrate thankfulness without being grateful. This happens quite often when we utter words of thanks to God or to others, even though we are inwardly bitter, angry, or disappointed. This is, of course, hypocritical (i.e. hupokrites refered to an actor, so a hypocrite is literally one who acts), but we are often hypocritical in our lives without paying much attention or care to our hypocrisy (this is something that has strongly disabused younger generations [who value genuineness greatly] from the mainstream church). So, we go through the motions of thankfulness with no true spirit of gratitude. I have found, in my own life, that this often leads to even deeper feelings of disappointment and resentment. I have, many times, felt truly grateful for the trials and struggles that God has put me through. However, I have also (probably more often) been thankful out of a sense of obligation. I suppose Kant would argue that acting on this sense of obligation, especially when my feelings ran counter to it, was the most truly good action. However, while I have great respect of the man, this is one place where I think that I profoundly disagree with Kant.

Sacrificial love is, in my opinion, a beautiful and very important thing. However, love that is truly sacrificial is gracious and grateful as well. It is not resentful, which is what I find my hypocritical thankfulness often turning towards. To act out of obligation is good as long as the action is truly genuine as well. I may thank God for trials because I am obligated to do so, and still feel truly grateful for those trials. However, if I give obligatory thanks in bitterness and resentment, I cannot find the wherewithal to call this ‘good’. Thus, I must argue that this kind of hypocritical thankfulness is not good.

However, one may also clearly be grateful without being thankful. I have often found myself in this place: filled with a feeling of grateful contentment, but so focused on my own internal pleasures that the outward exercise of thankfulness disappears. St. Teresa of Avila warned of this in The Mansions. St. Teresa claimed that she had known several sisters (she was a nun and so her writings were generally directed towards the sisters) who became so overwhelmed by the internal pleasures of God’s gracious love that they ceased all activities. She called this a deathly illness (though it isn’t entirely clear if she meant physically or spiritually) and called on the ranking sisters to keep watch on nuns who showed signs of this malady. St. Teresa claimed that this cessation of outward activity was a sign of spiritual weakness that would inevitably delay or even halt the spiritual growth of the sisters so affected.

I have to admit that I have seen this in my own life. There have been times when I hoarded God’s love and compassion, keeping it to myself and enjoying my time with God without letting anyone else benefit. When my spiritual life is turned entirely inwards it doesn’t stop being real, but it stops being prosperous. When we turn our affections entirely inward then, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we are edified, but the body is not. However, when we keep our holy affections balanced, with a strong inward life of spiritual gratitude that spills over into an outward life of thanksgiving and praise, then we edify not only ourselves, but the body as a whole. This is, I think, the best life that I could hope for, and I hope that it is the path that I am now on.

Suffering, Hardship, and Certainty

Sometimes the bible sucks. Not the whole thing, mind you, just parts of it. There are parts of it that really, thoroughly suck… at least, from a selfish American perspective. 1 Peter 2 is one of these passages that calls us to things that we just don’t want to do. Peter starts off the chapter well enough by reminding his reader’s that they’re not actually alone (remember that the book was written to Christians spread throughout Asia-Minor and currently undergoing persecution). However, then he gets into issues of obedience, specifically obedience in the face of suffering.

As Christians we are going to suffer. Paul makes that perfectly clear in 2 Timothy 3 when he tells Timothy that those who follow Christ will suffer. Of course, for many this has led to the question: since I’m not suffering right now, does this mean that I’m not really following Christ? Of course not, but… maybe. The fact that Christians will suffer does not mean that all Christians will suffer at all times in all places. Christians are not promised constant suffering, nor are we promised universally equal suffering. We are simply promised suffering. If you consider yourself a Christian and you have never suffered for your faith, then the above may be a valid question. However, the fact that you haven’t suffered yet doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer in the future. To assume a constant or universally past quality in this would be a mistake.  That being said, Christians will suffer persecution. This persecution may come at the hands of people who disagree with us, people in authority over us, or people who hate us and are powerful enough to make the authorities look the other way (certainly this is far from a complete list), but it will come.

Not every Christians suffering will be equal. One Christian my be bullied in school, another may lose a promising career, another may be beaten, and another may have he hands and feet amputated. However, any suffering for the sake of the cross is a reflection in our lives of the suffering of Christ, and thus a thing of honor in which we should rejoice. This is a part of Peter’s message in 1 Peter 2. Of course, he also reminds us that there is a difference between suffering in general and suffering for the cross. If you are imprisoned for murder, you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering because you killed someone. If you were lazy in school and thus have lackluster opportunities, then you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering for you laziness. However, when we do suffer for the cross, it is a wonderful thing… this doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant thing.

I am always amazed by the (generally very young) Christians I see running around singing and praying and talking about how they want to be broken. I am often tempted to add to their prayer’s something like ‘God, please make so and so’s girlfriend dump him and kill his grandmother…’. Anyone who honestly, truly wants to be broken is insane. I have been broken, multiple times. Consider the meaning of the word here: to be broken, at it’s most basic, means that a thing no longer works correctly. When I am broken, I stop working. Being broken… hurts… to an unendurable degree. No one in their right mind finds this desirable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary. There is a huge difference between wanting to be broken, and being willing to be broken. If I truly trust God, then I must be willing to allow him to break me, because I know that being broken is the path to being better, and I want to be better.

Now that I’ve finished my rabbit trails, 1 Peter 2 calls us to submit to those who would persecute us. This is antithetical to the American mindset. An American, even most American Christians, is convinced that his/her rights and freedoms are paramount. However, 1 Peter 2 calls him to cast aside his rights, even in the face of unjust actions on the part of those in authority over him. American’s value independence and freedom to the point of making selfishness a virtue. However, the scriptures claim that we should think of ourselves as less than others, give of ourselves by putting others first, and allow ourselves to be treated unjustly and thus rejoice in sharing the sufferings of Christ. This is a hard shift to make.

A few years ago, I was fired from my job for unjust reasons (I think I’ve shared the story before). The company that fired me only gave me half of my last paycheck. They had deleted the rest of my hours. It took about a month… maybe a month and a half… to get everything worked out, and at first the company didn’t appear to be willing to handle the situation at all. For a few weeks I didn’t think I would ever be seeing that money, money that I sorely needed. I had a number of friends tell me that I should sue the company, and I wanted to. I had my schedule, and I had kept track of the hours that I worked (the company was notorious for losing hours). Moreover, I had a desire for vindication. However, I prayed about the issue repeatedly, and repeatedly God told me that I was not only not to sue them, I wasn’t even to mention the possibility. No suggestions or threats to create leverage or put an emphasis on getting things worked out. Even after mentioning this to my friends who suggested that I sue the company, they continued to push me to sue… I should mention that all of these friends were Christians. They cared about me, and they wanted me to take the ‘wise and reasonable’ course of action. However, in doing so they encouraged me to flout God’s specific will. They put human reasoning and my rights above the glorification of God, and I honestly lost a lot of respect for several people because of that experience.

God is trustworthy. Whether we are in times of plenty, times of hardship, or times of persecution, he is faithful to care for us, and he has not forgotten us. He has been, is, and always will be faithful to work everything to his glory and our good. This is something that we are all to prone to forget, and we shouldn’t be.

My Day Started With a Funeral

One of my college professors died this weekend, and honestly I don’t think it actually sunk in until I was sitting at his funeral. This is a man who I never really knew particularly well, but was still extremely influential in my life. Amazing how that works isn’t it? I hadn’t seen him in probably six or seven years, but I still practice things that he taught me on a daily basis. So, I was sitting there at the back of the church in blue jeans and a dress shirt because I wasn’t particularly close to the family, and it hadn’t occurred to me that people would be wearing suits and ties until I’d walked into the building and seen them wearing suits and ties. Honestly, I doubt the dead man would have remember my name even if I’d seen him a few days before he died. So, I sat there in my completely inappropriate clothing wondering who might be sitting at the back of my funeral wearing inappropriate clothing? Who have I influenced without ever realizing it, and who’s life have I changed, even though I don’t remember who they are?

We all influence people on a daily basis. In 1 Peter 2:11-12 the apostle exhorts his audience to live righteously so that those who would malign them will see the truth of their virtue in their daily lives. Paul does the same thing in Titus. It might be one of my students, or someone at church, or a person whom I met at a local coffee shop. It might be someone to whom I’ve taught martial arts, or a neighbor, or someone I ran into at the mall. Regardless, there are people to whom my life matters that I will never know about, and I have to wonder how I’ve influenced them. Have I spurred them towards righteousness? Driven them away from the faith? Made them give up on a dream? Or pulled them back into reality? I wonder what kind of role model I’ve been, because I can see how this man influenced me.

Of course, if I spend all of my time trying to be a strong role model to whom others should look in awe, then I invite pride, hypocrisy, and deceit into my life. The man who died wasn’t a perfect man. He wasn’t even close to it, and he didn’t hide his flaws, but he was also humble, forthright, and consistently inspired me towards Christ. He was a navy man, and I remember something he told me about serving in Korea. He told me that it was always easy to tell who the Christians were on the ship. When the shop docked at post most of the crew went into town to get drunk and visit prostitutes. The Christians were the ones who came back and felt horrible about it. He pointed out to me that the mark of a Christian is not that he is morally perfect, but that he is convicted of his sin, and that he seeks repentance.

I have often heard the argument that repentance is a turning away from sin. That a part of repentance is to not do the same thing again, and this is true to a degree. Christ did tell the adulterous to go and sin no more (assuming that this story is a part of the original text), and he does hold us to a higher calling. However, he also offers us grace. There is a difference between repeated sin and willful sin. I may stumble in the same fashion many times, but this doesn’t mean that I have chosen to live in that sin. However, this is a difference of the heart that only God can judge. I can’t look at someone else’s struggle with a particular sin and judge whether he truly repents and stumbles again, or whether he’s simply stopped caring about that particular sin. I can point out to him that it is something he needs to avoid. I do everything in my power to help him to avoid it, and I may gain some insight into his motives. However, I can’t truly know his heart.

So, I think, using this professor as a model once again, that the best way to be a role model is to pursue Christ with everything that I have. To put him first and do everything in my power to live my life for him. I try to do this, and I hope that I succeed. I hope that I am a good influence on the people around me, and that I stand out as a Christian truly pursuing the father, and as a man of virtue. Maybe when I die I’ll find out if I did.

P.S. I’ve had more posts than followers for a while now :). It makes me feel like I’m winning.

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.