Our War Against God

We have always been at war with God, fighting him at every turn, in everything we do. We commit sins, yes, but it’s not as if we’re otherwise innocent. No part of our lives is untouched by this war. Just as the whole of the United States participated in World War II, whether through fighting or growing food, our whole being is tangled up in the war against God, whether through willful acts of sin or through the mundane acts that take up the majority of our time and energy. Were it not for God, every part of us would be wholly against God.

But God has defeated us, is defeating us, and will defeat us. The war we fight is a losing one, and thank God. He will capture us as prisoners and then make us into citizens, and even into his heirs. He has forced us to surrender and submit, and we are better for it. And after he has done so, we wish only that we had surrendered sooner.

Know Your Enemy

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 ESV)

We are at war with the powers of Hell. That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? And yet it is true. It is easy for us to forget that the devil himself is our enemy. We get so absorbed in the details of life that we can no longer see the big picture. When viewed from up close, we’re competing with other people, trying to achieve status, make money, develop skills, make friends, etc. In these minigames that, taken together, make up the metagame of life, our opponents are not too different from us. But if you take a step back and look at the metagame, you can see that we, collectively, are in a cosmic struggle against evil personified. Does any of us stand a chance against that?

In the Plato’s Alcibiades, Socrates speaks to a youth about what it takes to lead a polis. Alcibiades thinks he’s hot stuff. He thinks he’s prepared to be in charge, despite being young and inexperienced. Socrates sets him straight, pointing out to him that his true rivals are not those within the city, but those outside who seek to destroy it. They are descended from gods, better raised and educated, better trained in the art of war. His goal in saying these things is to instill fear in his pupil to motivate him to improve himself and become worthy of the power to which he aspires.

I think that Peter is doing something similar in the passage above. He is pointing out that our enemy is more powerful than we are so that we will be appropriately cautious. Neither Socrates nor Peter, however, say that we are to abandon hope because our enemy is great. On the contrary, because we have God on our side, we can be proceed with cautious confidence.

I have pasted an excerpt from Alcibiades below. I recommend reading the dialogue in its entirety, if you have time.

SOCRATES: Well, and in reference to your own case, do you mean to remain as you are, or will you take some pains about yourself?

ALCIBIADES: With your aid, Socrates, I will. And indeed, when I hear you speak, the truth of what you are saying strikes home to me, and I agree with you, for our statesmen, all but a few, do appear to be quite uneducated.

SOCRATES: What is the inference?

ALCIBIADES: Why, that if they were educated they would be trained athletes, and he who means to rival them ought to have knowledge and experience when he attacks them; but now, as they have become politicians without any special training, why should I have the trouble of learning and practising? For I know well that by the light of nature I shall get the better of them.

SOCRATES: My dear friend, what a sentiment! And how unworthy of your noble form and your high estate!

ALCIBIADES: What do you mean, Socrates; why do you say so?

SOCRATES: I am grieved when I think of our mutual love.

ALCIBIADES: At what?

SOCRATES: At your fancying that the contest on which you are entering is with people here.

ALCIBIADES: Why, what others are there?

SOCRATES: Is that a question which a magnanimous soul should ask?

ALCIBIADES: Do you mean to say that the contest is not with these?

SOCRATES: And suppose that you were going to steer a ship into action, would you only aim at being the best pilot on board? Would you not, while acknowledging that you must possess this degree of excellence, rather look to your antagonists, and not, as you are now doing, to your fellow combatants? You ought to be so far above these latter, that they will not even dare to be your rivals; and, being regarded by you as inferiors, will do battle for you against the enemy; this is the kind of superiority which you must establish over them, if you mean to accomplish any noble action really worthy of yourself and of the state.

ALCIBIADES: That would certainly be my aim.

SOCRATES: Verily, then, you have good reason to be satisfied, if you are better than the soldiers; and you need not, when you are their superior and have your thoughts and actions fixed upon them, look away to the generals of the enemy.

ALCIBIADES: Of whom are you speaking, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Why, you surely know that our city goes to war now and then with the Lacedaemonians and with the great king?

ALCIBIADES: True enough.

SOCRATES: And if you meant to be the ruler of this city, would you not be right in considering that the Lacedaemonian and Persian king were your true rivals?

ALCIBIADES: I believe that you are right.

SOCRATES: Oh no, my friend, I am quite wrong, and I think that you ought rather to turn your attention to Midias the quail-breeder and others like him, who manage our politics; in whom, as the women would remark, you may still see the slaves’ cut of hair, cropping out in their minds as well as on their pates; and they come with their barbarous lingo to flatter us and not to rule us. To these, I say, you should look, and then you need not trouble yourself about your own fitness to contend in such a noble arena: there is no reason why you should either learn what has to be learned, or practise what has to be practised, and only when thoroughly prepared enter on a political career.

ALCIBIADES: There, I think, Socrates, that you are right; I do not suppose, however, that the Spartan generals or the great king are really different from anybody else.

SOCRATES: But, my dear friend, do consider what you are saying.

ALCIBIADES: What am I to consider?

SOCRATES: In the first place, will you be more likely to take care of yourself, if you are in a wholesome fear and dread of them, or if you are not?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly, if I have such a fear of them.

SOCRATES: And do you think that you will sustain any injury if you take care of yourself?

ALCIBIADES: No, I shall be greatly benefited.

SOCRATES: And this is one very important respect in which that notion of yours is bad.

ALCIBIADES: True.

SOCRATES: In the next place, consider that what you say is probably false.

ALCIBIADES: How so?

SOCRATES: Let me ask you whether better natures are likely to be found in noble races or not in noble races?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly in noble races.

SOCRATES: Are not those who are well born and well bred most likely to be perfect in virtue?

ALCIBIADES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then let us compare our antecedents with those of the Lacedaemonian and Persian kings; are they inferior to us in descent? Have we not heard that the former are sprung from Heracles, and the latter from Achaemenes, and that the race of Heracles and the race of Achaemenes go back to Perseus, son of Zeus?

ALCIBIADES: Why, so does mine go back to Eurysaces, and he to Zeus!

SOCRATES: And mine, noble Alcibiades, to Daedalus, and he to Hephaestus, son of Zeus. But, for all that, we are far inferior to them. For they are descended ‘from Zeus,’ through a line of kings—either kings of Argos and Lacedaemon, or kings of Persia, a country which the descendants of Achaemenes have always possessed, besides being at various times sovereigns of Asia, as they now are; whereas, we and our fathers were but private persons. How ridiculous would you be thought if you were to make a display of your ancestors and of Salamis the island of Eurysaces, or of Aegina, the habitation of the still more ancient Aeacus, before Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes. You should consider how inferior we are to them both in the derivation of our birth and in other particulars. Did you never observe how great is the property of the Spartan kings? And their wives are under the guardianship of the Ephori, who are public officers and watch over them, in order to preserve as far as possible the purity of the Heracleid blood. Still greater is the difference among the Persians; for no one entertains a suspicion that the father of a prince of Persia can be any one but the king. Such is the awe which invests the person of the queen, that any other guard is needless. And when the heir of the kingdom is born, all the subjects of the king feast; and the day of his birth is for ever afterwards kept as a holiday and time of sacrifice by all Asia; whereas, when you and I were born, Alcibiades, as the comic poet says, the neighbours hardly knew of the important event. After the birth of the royal child, he is tended, not by a good-for-nothing woman-nurse, but by the best of the royal eunuchs, who are charged with the care of him, and especially with the fashioning and right formation of his limbs, in order that he may be as shapely as possible; which being their calling, they are held in great honour. And when the young prince is seven years old he is put upon a horse and taken to the riding-masters, and begins to go out hunting. And at fourteen years of age he is handed over to the royal schoolmasters, as they are termed: these are four chosen men, reputed to be the best among the Persians of a certain age; and one of them is the wisest, another the justest, a third the most temperate, and a fourth the most valiant. The first instructs him in the magianism of Zoroaster, the son of Oromasus, which is the worship of the Gods, and teaches him also the duties of his royal office; the second, who is the justest, teaches him always to speak the truth; the third, or most temperate, forbids him to allow any pleasure to be lord over him, that he may be accustomed to be a freeman and king indeed,—lord of himself first, and not a slave; the most valiant trains him to be bold and fearless, telling him that if he fears he is to deem himself a slave; whereas Pericles gave you, Alcibiades, for a tutor Zopyrus the Thracian, a slave of his who was past all other work. I might enlarge on the nurture and education of your rivals, but that would be tedious; and what I have said is a sufficient sample of what remains to be said. I have only to remark, by way of contrast, that no one cares about your birth or nurture or education, or, I may say, about that of any other Athenian, unless he has a lover who looks after him. And if you cast an eye on the wealth, the luxury, the garments with their flowing trains, the anointings with myrrh, the multitudes of attendants, and all the other bravery of the Persians, you will be ashamed when you discern your own inferiority; or if you look at the temperance and orderliness and ease and grace and magnanimity and courage and endurance and love of toil and desire of glory and ambition of the Lacedaemonians—in all these respects you will see that you are but a child in comparison of them. Even in the matter of wealth, if you value yourself upon that, I must reveal to you how you stand; for if you form an estimate of the wealth of the Lacedaemonians, you will see that our possessions fall far short of theirs. For no one here can compete with them either in the extent and fertility of their own and the Messenian territory, or in the number of their slaves, and especially of the Helots, or of their horses, or of the animals which feed on the Messenian pastures. But I have said enough of this: and as to gold and silver, there is more of them in Lacedaemon than in all the rest of Hellas, for during many generations gold has been always flowing in to them from the whole Hellenic world, and often from the barbarian also, and never going out, as in the fable of Aesop the fox said to the lion, ‘The prints of the feet of those going in are distinct enough;’ but who ever saw the trace of money going out of Lacedaemon? And therefore you may safely infer that the inhabitants are the richest of the Hellenes in gold and silver, and that their kings are the richest of them, for they have a larger share of these things, and they have also a tribute paid to them which is very considerable. Yet the Spartan wealth, though great in comparison of the wealth of the other Hellenes, is as nothing in comparison of that of the Persians and their kings. Why, I have been informed by a credible person who went up to the king (at Susa), that he passed through a large tract of excellent land, extending for nearly a day’s journey, which the people of the country called the queen’s girdle, and another, which they called her veil; and several other fair and fertile districts, which were reserved for the adornment of the queen, and are named after her several habiliments. Now, I cannot help thinking to myself, What if some one were to go to Amestris, the wife of Xerxes and mother of Artaxerxes, and say to her, There is a certain Dinomache, whose whole wardrobe is not worth fifty minae—and that will be more than the value—and she has a son who is possessed of a three-hundred acre patch at Erchiae, and he has a mind to go to war with your son—would she not wonder to what this Alcibiades trusts for success in the conflict? ‘He must rely,’ she would say to herself, ‘upon his training and wisdom—these are the things which Hellenes value.’ And if she heard that this Alcibiades who is making the attempt is not as yet twenty years old, and is wholly uneducated, and when his lover tells him that he ought to get education and training first, and then go and fight the king, he refuses, and says that he is well enough as he is, would she not be amazed, and ask ‘On what, then, does the youth rely?’ And if we replied: He relies on his beauty, and stature, and birth, and mental endowments, she would think that we were mad, Alcibiades, when she compared the advantages which you possess with those of her own people. And I believe that even Lampido, the daughter of Leotychides, the wife of Archidamus and mother of Agis, all of whom were kings, would have the same feeling; if, in your present uneducated state, you were to turn your thoughts against her son, she too would be equally astonished. But how disgraceful, that we should not have as high a notion of what is required in us as our enemies’ wives and mothers have of the qualities which are required in their assailants! O my friend, be persuaded by me, and hear the Delphian inscription, ‘Know thyself’—not the men whom you think, but these kings are our rivals, and we can only overcome them by pains and skill. And if you fail in the required qualities, you will fail also in becoming renowned among Hellenes and Barbarians, which you seem to desire more than any other man ever desired anything.

ALCIBIADES: I entirely believe you; but what are the sort of pains which are required, Socrates,—can you tell me?

SOCRATES: Yes, I can; but we must take counsel together concerning the manner in which both of us may be most improved. For what I am telling you of the necessity of education applies to myself as well as to you; and there is only one point in which I have an advantage over you.

ALCIBIADES: What is that?

SOCRATES: I have a guardian who is better and wiser than your guardian, Pericles.

ALCIBIADES: Who is he, Socrates?

SOCRATES: God, Alcibiades, who up to this day has not allowed me to converse with you; and he inspires in me the faith that I am especially designed to bring you to honour.

ALCIBIADES: You are jesting, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Perhaps, at any rate, I am right in saying that all men greatly need pains and care, and you and I above all men.

ALCIBIADES: You are not far wrong about me.

SOCRATES: And certainly not about myself.

ALCIBIADES: But what can we do?

SOCRATES: There must be no hesitation or cowardice, my friend.

ALCIBIADES: That would not become us, Socrates.

Insomnia and Giving Thanks

We’re used to things working as we want them to, most of the time, but there’s a lot of stuff that could go wrong at any given moment. In a sense, it’s a miracle that anything ever works. When things go wrong, it’s frustrating, but it also reminds us how remarkable it is that we can usually count on things going right. I feel like I’m experiencing that right now, as I deal with one of my occasional bouts of insomnia.

Every few months, I have a week or so during which I have trouble sleeping. I go to bed and can’t fall asleep for hours, and then I wake up long before my alarm. As far as I can tell, it’s worse during the summer months, perhaps because of the longer days. At these times, I’m reminded of how little control I have over those things that are most important to me. When I can’t fall asleep, I can’t fall asleep, and that’s all there is to it. There is nothing that I can do.

Of course, it’s agonizing. I’m too tired to do anything except sleep, but for whatever reason, I can’t sleep either. All I can do is wait for morning and hope that I fare better tomorrow night. I hate this feeling.

I thank God, though, that this isn’t what it’s like every night. I thank God all the more that I only suffer from insomnia every once in a while, and that most nights I sleep just fine. After all, what right have I to expect a good night’s sleep? I have no such right. Every moment of rest is a freely given gift of God.

When I grow accustomed to things being easy, to getting what I want when I want it, I start to regard God’s many gifts as my due. Having these things taken away from me for a time reminds me that I am owed nothing. I am reminded to be grateful for God’s many gifts when those gifts are temporarily taken away. And I’m reminded to ask God for what I need, too.

So I’ll be praying that God will grant me the ability to fall asleep. I’ll also be praying that, when he does take my insomnia away, he reminds me to be thankful to him for doing so. In fact, even this momentary deprivation of sleep is a means of God’s grace, as it is driving me back towards him. So I thank God for my insomnia, too, even as I pray for him to take it away.

Someone Else’s Words

If you listen carefully to yourself, you might be surprised to find that you do not understand many of the things you say. People borrow phrases from others, and in doing so, they borrow thoughts. But when you do this without understanding the thought and making it your own, you’re borrowing the thought, not as a thought, but as a tool. You need to understand a thought to incorporate it into your belief system, but you don’t need to understand it to use it to get what you want in the world. The problem is that when you adopt a thought without mastering it, so to speak, it will master you. As Carl Jung said, “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.”

For this reason, I’m highly skeptical of easily chantable phrases. Examples of these phrases include “trans rights are human rights,” “hate speech isn’t free speech,” and “lock her up.” It’s easy to shout these words or put them on a sign, but it’s not so easy to figure out exactly what is meant by them. But because they have that quality of chantability, you can use them as weapons against your ideological opponents without reckoning with the thoughts which they express.

It’s not just chants that are a problem. Even a less pithy phrase can become a linguistic unit whose meaning is never clearly defined. For instance, evangelical Christians might speak of “asking Christ into your heart” without quite knowing what this phrase means, or where it comes from. Indeed, it seems to me that evangelicals regard a great number of theologically dubious phrases as being somehow derived from scripture. As a result, the ideas represented by these phrases infect the minds of the members of the congregation.

If you find yourself resorting to a few ready-made phrases in certain situations, then you might have borrowed them from someone, who might have borrowed them from someone else, etc. Who knows where the thought originated? Perhaps in the mind of God, or perhaps in the depths of Hell. In any case, examine it and trace it back to its beginning. Figure out why you think what you think and determine whether the words you’re saying express a good thought. Otherwise, you’re just enslaving yourself to an idea that is not your own, making yourself a mouthpiece for someone else’s words.

The Real Counter-Culture

I think there’s a general sense in the American evangelical church that Christians are supposed to be counter-cultural. I think this is correct. What else could holiness entail? We are to be set apart from what is around us, just as the Israelites were to be set apart from the pagans that surrounded them.

Where I disagree with a lot of evangelicals is on what being counter-cultural entails. I had breakfast with a friend this morning, and he mentioned a book he was reading, called Reset. The book is by this guy, Nick Hall, who founded an organization called Pulse. It’s a student-led evangelistic organization that mostly operates on college campuses. Another campus ministry. These campus ministries seem to be breeding grounds for a view of Christian living that I view as well-intentioned, but mostly wrong in addition to being a clear reflection of the current culture in middle-class America.

There seems to be a dichotomy for people involved in these ministries between ordinary and extraordinary living. Ordinary living is comfortable, or normal, perhaps. Extraordinary living requires taking big steps of faith, doing things that are too big for you to do without God’s help. For example, you could start a campus ministry and hope that it spreads across the country. Or you could become a missionary and go to some unreached country and spread the gospel. You know, the big stuff, the exciting stuff, the radical stuff.

Funnily enough, though, this way of thinking is basically the same as the way non-Christian young people think. Everybody is all about building movements and changing the world (even if we can’t keep our rooms clean). We’re entrepreneurial. We don’t want desk jobs at huge corporations. We want to start businesses and non-profits, to take risks that might end in failure, but also might not. We want to share our stories in order to influence minds and hearts for whatever gospel it is we’re purveying at any given time (whether it’s feminism, basic income, or fair-trade coffee). We like big ideas and big achievements.

Big Christian ideas and big Christian achievements aren’t really all that different from their secular counterparts. There’s nothing wrong with starting a campus ministry, nor is there anything wrong with starting a business, but neither of these things is essential to a good life, Christian or otherwise. The idea that you need to shoot for these fancy accomplishments is what Anthony Bradley, one of my former professors, calls “the New Legalism.”

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

I share in his amazement. Because if you pay attention, it becomes pretty obvious that this is the new normal for non-Christians as well as Christians. Avoid anything that might be perceived as stagnation at all costs. That’s the goal of today’s young people. Keep moving, don’t get married, don’t have kids, do cool stuff for your career, and have a killer Instagram account.

Wouldn’t it be far more counter-cultural if young Christians chose to get married and settle in “ordinary” communities? If we chose to invest in what is most immediate to us for rewards that may never be recognized by outsiders, wouldn’t that fly in the face of the narcissistic spirit of the age? And doesn’t it require just as much faith to maintain a marriage and raise children as it does to start a national campus ministry? People kind of suck at staying married, and they also suck at raising kids. If Christians could do both of those things well, that would be pretty revolutionary.

There is so much pride wrapped up in this evangelical obsession with doing remarkable things, and that’s why it isn’t truly counter-cultural. Christians, first and foremost, need to learn humility before God. We need to recognize that, in the scheme of things, we are dust. And we need to be okay with that. Our lives are a gift from God, and we are to humbly receive them from him as a gift, even if we don’t view them as particularly exciting compared with those of our more “radical” counterparts. We need to be more open to seeing the grace of God manifested in things we consider dull or boring. Because it is there, and you’re not rejecting the grace of God by choosing to live an “ordinary” life.

Why are we so short-sighted? We have adopted the surrounding culture’s standard of a good life and we don’t even know it! My hope is that God opens our eyes to what we’re actually doing, that we see how we are often pursuing our own glory with vain projects, trying to find a kind of fulfillment apart from God himself. How easily this preoccupation with living the “extraordinary” life becomes a form of idolatry!

It is certainly possible that God wants to use you in “huge” ways. He might want to use you to reach thousands of people with the gospel, or he might want to use you to provide aid to those who are needy around the globe. It’s very possible, however, that he has something much less glamorous in store for you, like child-rearing, a 9-to-5 job, a modest suburban community, a modest house, a modest car. But this is still God’s grace. Do what you can with what God gives you and praise him for choosing to give you anything at all. Humbly accept the burdens God has placed upon you and bear them. Submit to his yoke. God has decided to make you a part of his grand plan, and that is pretty amazing, no matter how “small” your role may appear to you right now.

The Use of Contempt

I find that I experience more negative emotions toward other people than I once did. There are many people whom I do not like. Toward a large subset of this group I feel something like contempt. I’ve been trying to determine where this contempt has come from. It didn’t exist before. What about me has changed?

My best guess is that I no longer suppress the negative emotions I feel toward other people around me to the degree that I once did. I have become more comfortable with my judgments, more confident. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. I don’t want to have contempt for all the people around me, but some behaviors and ideas are truly contemptible. The difficulty is figuring out where to draw the line between self-serving contempt and just contempt. I know for sure that a great deal of the contempt I feel is manufactured by my ego for the purpose of elevating myself in my own eyes, relative to other people. This is the kind of contempt I want to minimize.

At the same time, however, a person who finds nothing contemptible will find it difficult to hold any values seriously. Shouldn’t we regard Richard Spencer with contempt? Probably. We need to express moral judgments on the actions that people take and the ideas they subscribe to, and contempt is the proper way to express judgments upon contemptible actions and ideas.

But I want to be as charitable as possible. In this context, this means that I want to direct my contempt toward actions and ideas and give people the benefit of the doubt insofar as I am able. No one is beyond hope. We have all said, thought, and done terrible things, and none of these mark us as permanently contemptible beings.

The best way to practice this, I think, is to turn your contempt inward. Pay attention to what you find contemptible in others and ask yourself a hard question: Do I adhere to the same standard I’m applying to this other person? Often, the answer will be no. This is where contempt becomes particularly useful. You can direct it toward your own vices and weaknesses and strive to become a better person. You have an ideal for yourself, even if you ignore it. The contempt that you sometimes feel for other people can tell you how you are failing to meet your own standards.

For the most part, it’s not relevant to you if other people aren’t measuring up to your moral ideal. You can’t do much about that. The best you can do is tell them that you think they’re wrong. But how likely are they to listen to you, especially if you yourself are engaging in equally contemptible behavior? Hint: they will not take kindly to it, unless they are remarkably humble and gracious human beings.

Your own behavior, however, is directly relevant to you. To an extent, you have control over it. If you are doing things that you despise when other people do them, then stop. Don’t do things that make you have contempt for yourself. Pay attention to the gap between who you aspire to be and who you actually are, and do everything you can to close it. Obviously, you can’t. But what else are you supposed to do? Lie to yourself about who you are? Better to honestly confront your wretchedness than to ignore it.

Contempt can be a manifestation of God’s grace, because it reminds us of the moral standards we hold and exposes our hypocrisy. When my moral sense has grown dull in relation to my own actions and thoughts, it remains sharp against those of others. For a moment, then, I can see what is right and what is wrong, and by God’s mercy, I see all the ways that I have sinned against God and against even my own comparatively lax standards. My contempt drives me to repentance, for it reminds me how truly contemptible I am, and how powerless to change my behavior.

But God does not leave us to drown in our self-contempt and guilt. God gives us sight so that we can see our own sins, he gives us a heart of repentance so that we ask forgiveness, and then he forgives us and strengthens us by the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. He works miracles within our souls every day by the power of his Holy Spirit to make us fit for life in his Kingdom. Any contempt we have for ourselves is immediately overwhelmed by gratitude, by awe, by love for this God who has adopted us into his household to serve him forever.

Good Habits as Common Grace

We don’t think about what we’re doing, generally speaking. Most of what we do is built into us through habituation. As I type these words, I’m not thinking about the movement of each individual finger. After practice, I’ve gotten to the point at which I can just think the words and decide to type them as they come to mind. Other human activities are the same. We learn patterns of behavior and embody them more or less automatically.

I’ve been reading Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love over the past few weeks. I enjoyed the book; it’s worth reading. The main point is that humans are primarily creatures who love, rather than creatures who think. Thus, faith is not just about affirming a set of propositions about God; rather, it is about being transformed so that we can love God, which is our true purpose. This transformation takes place through embodied practices that eventually become second nature to us.

Many of these practices take place in church. By celebrating holy communion, we keep Christ’s passion before us, constantly. We remember that he died for our sins and was raised from the dead. When we baptize people into the Church, we are reminded of our own baptism and God’s faithfulness in keeping us in Christ’s Body. The remembrance that takes place when we celebrate these rituals isn’t cerebral, but existential. We are not merely calling the grace of God to mind; we are incorporating it into the fiber of our being so that we simply cannot forget.

There are a bunch of activities which we take part in outside of church, though. These shape us as well, for better or for worse. Reading Smith has encouraged me to think about the kinds of habits I’m forming, and whether they are directing me towards God or away from him.

A sacrament (like communion and baptism) is a means of grace. You participate in the sacraments, but at a fundamental level, the sacrament is not your act. You are being acted upon by God himself. I think that habits can be considered in the same way. When you form a habit, you are allowing something to act upon you and to shape your character. When you form a good habit, something is shaping you for the better.

The formation of good habits is somewhat of a mystery to me. When you’re a kid and your parents basically make you do stuff that you’re supposed to do, it makes sense that you’d be able to pick up good habits. But how do we form habits that are contrary to our inclinations when no one pushes us to do so? The question becomes even more pressing when I try and fail to form a good habit, or when I end up forming a bad one.

To me it seems that this is fundamentally the same question as the question of how our faith originates. It seems that my faith needs to be my own, but I know that I am incapable of producing it. God must be the author of my faith. But if God is the author of my faith, then how can it be my own? Likewise with works. I lack the will to do what I know is good. Yet sometimes I do what I know is good. This I consider to be the work of God, and yet the works are mine as well, even though I cannot take credit for them.

The grace of God is a mystery. The more I consider it, the more I realize that God’s grace permeates every aspect of my being. My sins and bad habits remind me that, were it not for him, I would have no reason to boast, because my righteousness is not my own, even though he considers me as if it were. Thank God for all those moments when, by some miracle, I desire and will what is good instead of what is evil. Were it not for him, I would not and could not do so.

 

Avoiding Fatalism

It’s hard to strike a balance between recognizing our powerlessness and abdicating our responsibility to act rightly. We humans are pretty puny. In the scheme of things, we are just specks in the universe. At the same time, we each have moral responsibility for our actions. For whatever reason, God cares what we do. Even if you don’t believe in God, you probably would not deny that our actions matter, at least to a degree.

It seems that a lot of debates about policy nowadays have to do with finding this balance between placing too much and too little faith in the power of individual responsibility. Those on the right tend to think that making good choices is all you need, while those on the left tend to think that people born into certain circumstances never stand a chance unless helped from outside. I think that both of these are true, and that they can only be true when taken in conjunction. The tension between them is where the truth resides.

Obviously, both right and left have more nuanced views than what I have written in the paragraph above. But still, the disagreement seems to be over to what degree individuals are responsible for their lots in life. We cannot lose the disagreement, because we need to affirm both our responsibility for our actions as well as the fact that we are, in many ways, a product of forces beyond our control. To put it theologically, our wills are not free, but bound.

And it’s not just our wills. Our abilities have pretty sharp limits imposed upon us from birth, or as a result of accidents or diseases. According to Jordan Peterson, intelligence is basically immutable and is the strongest available predictor of socioeconomic outcome, even better than parental wealth. What if you’re just not very smart? What if you just can’t do anything complex enough that people are willing to pay you to do it? You’re basically just stuck.

And even if you’re born smart, there’s a degree of structural injustice and random chance that might end up screwing you over. There are no guarantees. Life is chaotic.

But at the same time, we still have to answer the question of how we ought to respond to chaos and uncertainty. Does knowing that our hard work might not benefit us excuse us from working for the good? No! We try to make the world better in whatever way we can, having faith that even if the world does not reward us, then God will. Or at least, we have faith that virtue is worth pursuing in itself, even if it is not accompanied by a reward. The alternative is to give up, and there is probably nothing more dismal than resigning oneself to a fate of misery. Where is the meaning when life is something that happens to you, and not something that you actually participate in? There isn’t any. It’s just a stream of events whose only commonality is that they’re happening to you.

And that’s not even taking into account what would happen if ever larger numbers of people began to give up responsibility for their lives. How much would be ruined? How pathetic would humanity become if everyone just decided that they didn’t have to care, because what can we do anyway? It would be Hell in the truest sense of the word. To put it in Augustinian language, if we relinquish entirely the end of our existence, then we will find ourselves becoming more and more disordered until we may as well not be at all. You exist a little bit less when you give up being as you are meant to be.

The myopic emphasis of some conservatives on individual responsibility can sometimes seem cruel. Why not help those who need help? And that’s a fair criticism. But we are more than input-output machines. We need more than nourishment and healthcare and money. We need to be called out of death into life, out of chaos into order, out of non-being into being, repeatedly. Otherwise we will disintegrate. Fatalism is corrosive. We need to reject it.

Baptism: a Thought

When we baptize in my church, the priest finishes the baptismal ceremony by saying to the one baptized that he is “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s forever.” Every time I hear this, I’m dumbstruck. The fact that we dare to utter such words is incredible. Jesus has irreversibly claimed you as his own, rescuing you from the realm of sin and death, and nothing will ever separate you from his love. This good news is beyond my capacity to comprehend! I am a child of God. How can this possibly be?

The Gospel is literally unbelievable. The idea that the Son of God would become a man, die on a cross, and rise from the dead for the purpose of making his enemies into fellow heirs of his perfect kingdom is too grand, too beautiful for our limited human minds to accept. I cannot believe something so wonderful. Only by God’s grace can we receive this good news, and even then, so much of it must be lost on us. He has given us the ability to hear, but how much have we yet to hear?

I wonder this whenever I find myself struck anew by God’s wondrous story, as I was today when we celebrated baptism in church. I think that this must be what life in the Kingdom is like: each day we see the grace, the love, the glory of our God as if for the first time, for his grace, love, and glory are infinite, inexhaustible, unfathomable. We will never run out of new reasons to be in awe of our God.

Thank God for the gift of baptism, that by water and the Holy Spirit he makes us into his children, so that we may serve him forever. And thank God that he is so gracious as to reveal himself to us, giving us the privilege of rejoicing in his holiness, his power, his wisdom, and his love, even though we can scarcely begin to comprehend his greatness.

Know Thyself

You think you know yourself. We all do. But we’re wrong. We are opaque to ourselves, perhaps more than we are even to other people. This is because we don’t watch ourselves, nor do we listen to ourselves. We ignore ourselves so that we don’t have to think too carefully about what kind of people we are. We lie to ourselves about who we are, constantly, and we believe the lies, because they are more flattering than the truth.

You have ideas about what you should value, and you probably think that you actually value those things. But ask yourself, “If a person holds such a value, how does he act?” Then compare your answer to this question to how you actually act. The discrepancy should disturb you. You do not value what you think you value. You do not love what you think you love. You do not worship what you think you worship. And you can tell because you do not act as you know the person you claim to be would act.

Nietzsche pointed out that we do not know ourselves because we have such a strong incentive not to know ourselves. We have every reason to distort our self-image, to portray ourselves in a more favorable light. For that reason, self-knowledge is in short supply. To know yourself, you must watch yourself as if you were watching another person. Resist any instinct that smacks of self-serving bias. Otherwise you’re bound to rationalize away all of the behaviors you engage in that are contrary to the values you have claimed.

The age we live in does not provide good conditions for self-knowledge. Secular people do not confess their sins. Even many religious people do not confess their sins. Indeed, even when a person confesses, he can do so for show (even for an audience consisting of only himself), picking only the most mundane sins and refusing to dig deeper into his soul to root out the idols that have implanted themselves in his heart. In order to know yourself, you must first be willing to see that you are a monster, that your heart is filled with perverse loves, and your mind with perverse thoughts. We are bad at this. Though perhaps we have always been bad at this.

We have eyes, but do not see. We have ears, but do not hear. We say with our mouths what is right and just, while violating the laws that we claim to hold sacred. Humans are hypocritical by default. It is in our nature to twist and bend the truth to serve our purposes. But truth does not take kindly to being so twisted.

When you act, ask yourself what kind of person would do the thing you are about to do. Do you want to be that kind of person? If not, then don’t do it. When you speak, first ask yourself if what you are about to say is a lie. And if it is a lie, then do not say it. Watch your actions and words. Do not do what you know is wrong. Do not say what you know is false.

Truth is a quality of persons, and not just propositions. The one who lives truly is not the one who knows everything about reality and behaves in such a way that reflects his correct beliefs about reality. The one who lives truly is the one who is honest with himself and others about who he is and what he values, in thought, word, and deed. The true man is transparent to himself, instead of opaque, because he does not hide himself from scrutiny. He confesses his sins, even the ones that he can hardly bear to name aloud, for he knows that if he does not do this, he will remain enslaved.

The easiest lie to believe is the flattering one. That is why flattery is so dangerous. Do not be led astray by your self-serving biases.