Category Archives: Reflections

A Lenten Reflection on Sloth

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against You and our neighbors, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

Lent is our special opportunity to devote time toward introspective admission of sin as we make room in our hearts for Christ through penance. Our faults, as we are becoming more aware of day by day, seem vast, nearly unending – in short, we are sinners through and through. There is nothing in our lives or in our individual being that is not touched by sin in some way. The time we have to patiently wait for the coming of Christ is fundamentally marked by sin. Whether in our social life, in our relations with other human beings, or in our individual lives, in the depths of our identities, we cannot escape the effects of sin.

This is a difficult reality to face. In our everyday lives, we are not usually aware of the extent of sin; yet, during Lent we are pressed to confront the reality of our sinfulness head on. There is no space in this season to whitewash the reality of our fallen world and the fault by which we are to blame for its condition.

Although we usually focus on wrong-doing, this only encapsulates one half of sin. In the opening prayer, we confessed that we have sinned by what we have left undone. We have failed to love God with all of our hearts and we have failed to extend this love to others. Irrespective of anything we have actively pursued through our actions, our sin extends further to what we have not done. We are not only beset by evil action, but by evil inaction as well.

We have so often refused to answer Christ’s call, “Follow Me!”


We would rather continue fishing or collecting taxes, so it would seem. Let us at least bury our own dead first, Jesus! Most of the time, Christ’s call to follow him goes unheeded. We might say that the cares of this world are too great, or that our time is too short. Leave me alone. Let me be.

And so, we bury our talents in the ground hoping to secure what we have thus far accumulated.

The grace of God in Christ calls us not only to repentance, but to action. We cannot stop at merely admitting our past faults, though that is a welcome start. Sin as sloth is not, because of its apparent emptiness, somehow lesser than our evil actions. In both senses, our sin is disobedience – first because we do what God does not want, and second, when we do not do what God wants. In a fundamental sense, however, sloth is the most basic form of sin because it is this very refusal to heed the call to follow Christ that sets us further down the path of active sin, rebellion, and idolatry.

Christians are called to action, to diligent action on behalf of the gospel. Focusing for a bit on our duty to love our neighbors, we can begin to see the intensity of the Gospel’s call on our lives.

You shall love your neighbor. This call is a personal one; it is directed to you – there is no escape. You shall love your neighbor. This call directs our attention to others, away from our own comfort. You shall love your neighbor. This call consists in the duty of an active pursuit – it is a demand, a joyful demand to extend God’s love.

In our sloth, we treat Christ’s call with indifference. We disobey God’s command to love others. We do not trust in Christ’s promise to those who actively follow his will. Chiefly, sloth expresses our refusal to give thanks for the gift of Christ. We demonstrate our own ingratitude toward what Christ has done and has called us to continue alongside him. Here then, our sloth results finally in our refusal to love God.

And so, we confess that we have sinned by what we have left undone.

What does God offer as the remedy to our slothful condition? The remedy lies chiefly in that which sloth refuses: the call, “Follow Me!” This call is not simply an arbitrary expression of what we ought to do. First and foremost, the call is a response to Christ’s person. It is Christ whom we are called to follow. “Follow Me!”

A call to follow is a call to imitate, to tag along if you will. In contrast to our sloth, we see in Christ the supreme example of God’s love in its diligent, ever-active expression.

“Christ, who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:6–8.

God, knowing our need for redemption, did not exhibit sloth – just the opposite, in fact. During Lent, we should recognize the incredible nature of the Incarnation. Although it has likely become a matter of simple affirmation, no longer connected to our sense of joy or wonder due to the sheer repetition of its presentation to us in Church, let us return to a childlike faith filled with awe at the humility through which God demonstrated love toward us.

In the Exodus story, too, we are confronted with God’s diligent activity on our behalf. God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” Unlike the call whereby we are directed to follow Christ, our cries to God never go unheeded. We respond with slothful inactivity, God responds through redeeming acts of love.

God’s diligence, moreover, is superabundantly greater than the strength of our sloth. God upholds the world in its entirety in each and every moment of its existence. Were God to exhibit sloth, we would cease to exist. Our very being is held together by God’s sustaining grace. By following Christ in our situation today, we are called to imitate this active love toward others that God demonstrates in Christ: “Follow Me!”

Our lives are in the meantime marked by sin. Sloth is the chief expression of our mistrust, disbelief, and disobedience. When we confess these inactions of ours, we figuratively make room for God to come into our lives. May we allow this Lenten season to provide us with a more complete recognition of our sin, and so for our repentance to more fully express the reality of our slothful refusal to completely love God and others. As we liturgically prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, let us not lose sight of the hope which is ours: God’s diligence, in redeeming acts throughout history and the sustaining grace that gives us every breath we take, is always actively demonstrating God’s unconditional love for all of creation. “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

And so finally, we close just as we have begun: looking to our most merciful Lord and Savior, acknowledging our sin.

We confess that we have sinned against You and our neighbors, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

This post originally appeared in Emily Bricker’s “Voices of Lent” Reflection series

Living the Intellectual Life as a Christian

I’m usually quite weary of people who try to proclaim what the Christian life looks like because sometimes it doesn’t leave open the opportunity for different sorts of people to exercise their gifts based upon their own unique capacities. Of course, there are things that all Christians should care about and live out, like loving others, caring for those in need, advocating for peace and reconciliation, etc. Yet, these things look differently for different people, and I am afraid that lumping everyone into the same pool has contributed to this false dichotomy in Christian’s lives where there are certain things they do as Christians and other things they do as normal everyday people. In other words, we have often separated our actions that we do specifically out of our faith from those actions that we do as part of our jobs, to make a living, our hobbies, all of these which don’t really originate from being a Christian, but from other sources. Instead of falling prey to this distinction between Christian and not specifically Christian parts of our lives, I would like to offer a vision of what a Christian life might look like, in principle, for those of us in intellectual professions, or who just love learning, knowledge, and using our minds to think about and solve problems in our spare time.

I have a feeling that some of my readers might immediately think I’m speaking only to theologians or pastors but this is far from the case. I’m speaking to all of us who work in knowledge-based professions (e.g. insurance workers, businesspersons, workers in STEM fields, teachers, etc.), and basically anyone who, even if it isn’t based around their official profession, loves reading and learning (whether specifically Christian books or not) as a hobby. In all of these areas of life I just described, the main element is deploying knowledge in different capacities. For the teacher it is more obvious as they inspire their students to think and learn, but even in STEM professions, workers think about problems and provide solutions that hopefully make a difference or help people lead better lives. In short, it’s likely that most of us fall into the category that I have in mind for the audience of this post.

What might be the specific vices and virtues pertaining to the intellectual life, as Christians? How should we think about our tasks as our calling, vocation, or exercising our gifts? What types of Christian ethical commitments should we emphasize as we do our work? And more generally, how can we best use our intellect to love God and others?

I’m sure all of us have heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It was occasioned by someone asking Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” While Jesus used the opportunity to highlight the importance of neighborly love toward one’s enemies (the Samaritan!), I think there is a broader application here even if we all have a special duty to love those considered our enemies. For intellectuals, our neighbors are those who stand in need of the truth, or those in need of the fruits of our intellect. Many of our actions should be directed toward this end, to properly love our neighbors with our intellect, to provide them with helpful knowledge, and to spread this love to them in the fruits of our intellectual labor.

It’s tempting to isolate our intellectual pursuits from the world and its needs, but a specifically Christian intellectual should use her or his intellect to make the world a better place. What are the needs of your community? God endowed us with unique gifts that we should put to the service of helping others. Again, this is not limited to working in a food bank, organizing a non-profit, or volunteering to provide shelter to the homeless. While these are part of the Christian life in general, in addition to these, intellectuals can use their minds to do similar things. Are there people you know who could benefit from a healthier understanding of God? Are there people you know who could flourish if only they knew basic economic principles? Are there parents you know who stand in need of knowledge about how to raise their kids in ways that promote their own wellbeing? Does the company you work for need to function more effectively? Are there problems that you could use your intellect to solve? If so, then you have tasks ahead of you, and performing them is partly your act of love for your neighbor. As intellectuals, we love others by providing them with the knowledge they need to live a good life.

The view from my favorite study spot.

The view from my favorite study spot.

In my own life as a student of theology, I try to use theological principles to solve problems we face here in everyday life, and I read those who have done similar things before me. It is part of my duty as a Christian theological student to help others learn about God, to lift up the church, and to love others by providing them with knowledge of the gospel that will make all of our lives better. I’m far from getting a grip on this thing, but maybe the specifics of my own life might help you discern where to direct the efforts of your own life, in your perhaps very different circumstances.

What might be some virtues proper to intellectuals? In my opinion, studiousness should be at the absolute top of the list. Your intellect will not help others unless you are determined to make use of it. Concretely, this might involve an audit of how you use your time, where you direct your attention to, and realizing all that you have yet to learn. The opposites of studiousness are negligence and vain curiosity. We are morally negligent when we do not use our intellect to the best of our abilities to help others and love them. We may also fall into morally destitute ground when we continually seek to know things just out of a self-centered curiosity. Again, an intellect is of no use unless it is used to love God and our neighbors. It cannot be our goal, no matter how tempting for some of us, to merely know as much as we can. We must learn to be studious with the way we deploy our knowledge in our work, so that the often strenuous efforts we put forth to learn things does not go to waste or ends up serving no one else besides ourselves.

On this same theme, it is extraordinary important for the Christian intellectual to work hard. Whenever they are devoting themselves to study, learning, or solving a problem, they should give it their most intense effort. Whatever we do (in our case, study, thinking, and learning), we should do it with all of our strength, as if we were doing it for Christ. There’s an old saying regarding our use of time: “Whoever knows the value of time always has enough; not being able to lengthen it, they intensify its value; and first of all, they do nothing to shorten it.” This might require us to defend our “study time” from distractions, and interruptions. We are doing part of the work of the Kingdom; we should do it with all of our might. This type of study forms part of our charity to others. Even if semi-isolated in this type of work, it is our charity toward others as we think to solve the problems others face or to learn what others need to know.

Study, the time it takes to learn something that you can put to use, can also be the intellectual’s specific act of prayer if it is devoted to God. If God is the source of all truth, then for the intellectual, they live a continuously sacramental life whenever they discover truths in their particular area of interest or expertise. God is, if you will, “incarnated” in each truth we find along the way. Each truth allows us to know God just that little bit more than we did before – and likewise for others when we share knowledge and use it to help others. Nevertheless, one ought to question their practices if their study distracts them from the more normal forms of devotion to God like worship, studying our scriptures, or even if it distracts them from serving others in a broader sense – like attending to the poor, oppressed, and promoting reconciliation.

We should constantly ask God for the grace we need to motivate our intellect and to continue our work even when it seems like we are getting nowhere. Another means of grace God has provided to the intellectual is the ability to make contact with the minds of the greatest scientists, theologians, pastors, teachers, and engineers (among others) through the writings they have left behind. This grace, of understanding the lives and work of those intellectuals who have come before us, pushes us to be our best selves and is often the source of much of our learning. This is why reading great books is so important for the intellectual, whatever they might be in one’s specific field. God has given us the opportunity to look back on those who have faithfully lived out their calling as intellectuals before us.

Some of the other more important virtues for the intellectual are constancy, patience, and perseverance. Our task will not always be easy, and we will face temptations along the way, but we can all learn to use our intellect for the betterment of others. We always have the opportunity to pray to God for strength when we are weak. In my own, albeit limited, experience, sloth, or laziness, is the largest barrier the Christian intellectual must overcome. It is too easy to go through the motions and be content with being mediocre at our tasks. Instead, we should try to always be the best we can be; in this, we love others better. In this area, one of my favorite quotes has become this dandy from Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of his life, after his efforts had been pushed to their max, he wrote: “My capacity is exhausted. Whatever deficiencies remain, may God and my neighbor forgive me.”

May God give us the grace we need to use our intellect to make the world a little bit better than it would have been without us.

The Myth of the “Clear, Easy to Interpret” Bible

For some reason, many of us think that we can just open up the Bible and get an infinite amount of immediately clear truths from it with little to no effort (except the effort to merely open up the thing!). In part, this ideology was caused by the Reformation wherein the scriptures were increasingly produced in the vernacular (the language of the people) as well as the introduction of the printing press that allowed individuals to have their own copies of the Bible. Before this modernization, the majority of Christians had to rely on their priests and pastors to read them books of the Bible during Church services. Moreover, the clergy had a tight hold (not necessarily malicious of course) upon how the Bible should be interpreted. In short, in that age, one had to rely on their priest for all they would receive from the Bible.

Today, we obviously do not live with that reality. Each of us likely have multiple copies of the Bible just laying around at home, easily accessible whenever we feel like reading. This is certainly a good thing (because we all have unmediated access to the Bible), but it has also resulted in some unfortunate developments. To begin with, many Christians have this belief that the Bible is perfectly clear. Of course, most of us recognize that some of the phrases or props used in individual stories are products of their times – eras we don’t understand very well. Yet, at the same instance, many of us have this peculiar idea that one can just open up the Bible to a particular verse and immediately get a profound truth from it (or at least from much of the New Testament). However, I would like to reflect a little bit upon the difficulty of reading the Bible. We may think the difficulty lies merely in the difference of historical context (which is important as well, of course) and not in the difficulty of the truths themselves.

Most obviously, its difficulty should be evidenced by the thousands of different Christian sects (and billions of individuals) each claiming to have finally gotten the Bible right after all this time (gee, I wish it were that easy! Who knew we just needed to wait until so and so came along to finally interpret the whole Bible rightly!?). From this, it should be obvious that the Bible is not perfectly clear, nor are humans easily trusted with reading it correctly – hence the extreme variation of conflicting interpretations. On a side note, one should take into account their own limited capacity to properly interpret the Bible (perhaps the Christian concept of sin is relevant here!) when claiming to use the Bible as a once and for all authoritative document.

jacob wrestling.jpgI would argue that God made the Bible difficult to understand on purpose. It was by design. Not to foster a spiritual elitism of those trained in biblical studies over against lay people, nor so that the common person has no hope of understanding the Bible for themselves. With those passages especially entrenched in historical contexts unfamiliar to us, it may be true that an understanding in light of context is only available to those trained in discerning and evaluating those contexts (for example, historians – but we often put a bit too much emphasis on understanding the historical details). However, this difficulty is not primarily what I am talking about. Even in passages that may seem to be less tied to a particular historical context, the truths contained within them are often difficult to grasp. Many of us have stopped reading the Bible just because of this fact. We find some of it so un-relatable or un-applicable, so we just give up. Those of us that do this (and those of whom are much too quick to read and interpret), however, are missing one of the most important elements of the act of Bible reading – its capacity for sanctification.

Many of these texts do not allow us to just pick them up and get a clear interpretation/application of their contents. And by the way, forcing a text to conform to our own notions of applicability (immediate applicability often) is just plain dumb. We should not go into every Bible reading with the assumption (or requirement even!) that we get something immediately out of it to apply to our lives. This habit does not allow the truths of the Bible to shape us in their own ways, but only in the ways we presume they must. Sometimes, it’s best to just read and allow the truth to work within us, grow over time, and place ourselves under its gaze (rather than the other way around!). We also should not presume that the Spirit will lead us to a clear interpretation for that is presumptuous of the Spirit’s role in our own lives (and constitutes our own arbitrary limitation of God’s freedom – shaping us how God intends to shape us rather than how we think God ought). Perhaps an equally sanctifying time of reading the Bible will require us to wrestle with its truths.

Sometimes we must struggle with the text as we try to discover how it can be formative to our own faith. The effort necessary in these cases and the discernment it fosters are both sanctifying for our lives. As we struggle with the text – a struggle not limited to interpreting its content, but also to its meaning for our lives – we are transformed. We must not think that we can only benefit spiritually when we grasp an immediate applicability of any particular text, nor that only the most clear biblical texts can be sanctifying in the same way. Do not limit the truths inherent in scripture to your own initial perception of scripture’s truth. Perhaps a story from scripture may mean something much different from what we initially assume (or what we have assumed for all of our lives!). But we will never know this if our Bible reading stops at whatever initial perceptions we happen to come up with, nor will it happen if we give up by thinking a text is not relevant to our own lives.

The fact is, much of the Bible is extraordinarily hard to understand, and even more difficult to derive meaning from. But this teaches us to not treat God like a spiritual genie who must conform to our wrong-headed need to have an immediate truth to apply to our lives. Sometimes, instead, we will get absolutely nothing out of reading the Bible (at the very least initially). This need not be as a result of a failure on our part or on God’s to deliver truth. On the contrary, this has the potential to produce a sanctifying patience in our own lives so that we do not try to force truth to conform to our own terms, but ours to its. Our initial disappointments, when we read the Bible in this way, should not therefore be grounds for giving up the whole endeavor but may actually result in some of the more edifying moments of our whole spiritual lives.

In addition, we should be careful to refrain from pridefully asserting (even if only in our own minds) that we know everything about the Bible, or that we understand all it has to tell us. That idea would not only be blatantly false, but it would further hinder our ability to allow the Bible to do its own work in our lives. Once we remove such presumptions from our lives, it becomes possible to read the Bible more faithfully. We should approach the Bible humbly; aided, of course, by our experience in the Christian faith, our educations, and our circumstances among other things. In addition, it should cause us to rely on others to help us understand the text. We should not despise biblical scholars or theologians, but learn from them and from the Church as a whole in our communities. Bible reading ought not to be a solely, or even a primarily, individual thing. It should be done with the help of others, who, as the Spirit works in all of our lives, can come to our spiritual aid while reading the Bible.

Wrestling or struggling with the truths of the Bible is not the sign of a spiritual deficiency, but is rather one sign that God is active in sanctifying through your reading of the Bible. This should give us all comfort, and at the same time, lead us to gleam more from the texts we cherish so much.

Humans: Servants or Children of God?

“God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:9.

I’m going to address something that many of you might find a little odd at first. I want to talk about the importance of communion with God.

To start off, many of you have probably heard the sermon or youth group message on “living a life of worship.” The idea is that we shouldn’t just be Christians on Sunday or Wednesday night bible study, but throughout all of our lives including each activity of our day. We are, as Romans 12 exhorts, to “offer ourselves as living sacrifices.” Normally, this call to a life of worship is given by those in your group who are the “more spiritual, ” in that they are constantly carrying with them the idea of serving God in each and every one of their daily activities, always thinking about how they can do God’s will. They are driven by the familiar idea recounted by Jesus about the day of judgement in which God will tell the righteous, “well done my good and faithful servant.”

Often times, this idea of servanthood is extraordinarily overblown. Many people use it to such a degree that their primary orientation to God is one of servant. I can’t help but to think of the various ancient conceptions of the gods’ creation of human beings to serve them and make food for them while they lounge around Mt. Olympus or some similar place. In this vein, theological anthropology is centered around human service to the gods; we are supposed to constantly be doing their will here on earth, always working, to fulfill our created purpose.

Now, before you grab the pitchforks and torches approaching me like an agry mob toward Frankenstein, I want to say that the idea of serving God is very important. We are co-laborers with Christ and have been given the ministry of reconciliation for the whole world. There is no doubt that servanthood is an important theme in our relationship to God as Christians.

However, I do think that the idea can be harmful if taken to its extreme where every single moment of your life is supposed to be one of service towards God and others. This is just not healthy. As the opening verse to this post proclaims as the heart of the gospel, we are called into communion with God. This means that much of our orientation towards God should be one of fellowship as part of our new identity in Christ. Jesus calls us “friends.” Our relationship with God should have this idea of friendship and communion at its heart.

Christ blessing the children

Christ Blesses the Children

Even more so than just abstract communion or friendship, however, the gospel makes it abundantly clear that we are formed as adopted children of God. Each of us is a daughter or son of God. We can now call out “abba” to God rather than merely conceiving of ourselves as servants to a master up above. This has profound implications for how we understand what it means to be human. It is not that work or service doesn’t play a central role, but that our lives are oriented towards God as a child to a parent or towards a friend in fellowship with another.

To that end, I wouldn’t discourage you from using servant language, nor from thinking of yourself as serving God. However, I would encourage you to think of what it means for you to be called God’s child or Christ’s friend. The different conceptions carry with them profoundly different implications. It may just be that we are allowed to stop our constant work and service towards God’s will and merely stay a little while in God’s presence. Maybe our Church services really should be different from the rest of our lives in that we set aside a special time just to enjoy God. We don’t always have to serve. Sometimes we can rest in God, and that makes us all the better as we continue to explore what it means to be adopted into God’s family, sharing fellowship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Theology of Everyday Life: Merit

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8.

Usually when one uses the word “merit”, they mean that someone has earned something. It is our word to describe the fact of another being a worthy recipient of some end. We give out merit scholarships to the best students, trophies for the athletes who merited first place, and promotions to employees who, by their work, merited a raise. Of course, all of these are good things. People who work really hard at what they do are rewarded. There are countless other examples of positive merit out there as well ranging all the way from schooling to profits in business.

Especially in an age still trying to claw its way out of racial and gender discrimination, rewarding merit seems the perfect way to go. No longer is someone made rich only by the wealth of their parents and their elite boarding school education, now anyone (at least supposedly) can rise to the top of the wealth bracket and live the American Dream of upward social mobility. This is good. Increasingly, people who would have been subject to poverty for their whole lives merely because of their race, or social standing, can now work their way out and merit their own success.

This phenomena doesn’t only deal with economic matters, but also concerns something normally termed opportunity. Though progress is still needed in all of these areas, the plight of everyone seems to be getting better (as long as you are a hard worker). People normally denied access to opportunity, ranging from entrance to private schools to captaining the golf team, are given the chance to succeed in those realms. Historically exclusive clubs and groups are opening their doors to a wider variety of people.

No one wants to be poor. Furthermore, people certainly don’t want to be forced into poverty without regard to their hard work or merit (something that has been the case often in the past based solely on birth). All of this discussion so far seems to be in favor of increasing the opportunity of merit to promote good. We want the rewards to be given to people who have worked hard to attain them, and not just given to those who by birthright received a place in the upper echelon of society.

The problem, especially for people who are trying to create a better world, is when we equate merit with an individual’s worth and dignity. Again, I need to stress that merited success is a good thing. For those who come out on top especially, it is a tremendous boost to their livelihood bought through hard work and diligence. But consider the scenario from the other perspective. Think of someone in poverty who lives in a society in which “anyone can succeed if they work hard.” In the past, the person in poverty was forced into their lifestyle because of overwhelming social obstacles beyond their control. In short, they were poor not because they deserved it, but because the structure set them in that place. With the rise of merit however, the poor are no longer deemed “unfortunate” due to their circumstances of birth, but are now considered the “losers” of the game of success (consider the benefits of the ancient term “unfortunate”). They had their opportunity to work hard, but didn’t. They had the same opportunity as everyone else (so it goes at least) to achieve a better life. Now, when they live in the projects, they deserve to be there. They are no longer considered unfortunate. But rather, just like the successful merited their own position in life, they merited theirs through inaction and laziness. This is a very harmful idea, adding shame onto the already negative life condition of poverty.

I’m not claiming that this idea is necessarily widespread in 100% of people. But if you probe most ordinary people, they will claim that everyone has a more or less equal opportunity for success and it is only those who don’t take those opportunities that end up in a state of failure.

Vincent Van Gogh,

Vincent Van Gogh, “The Good Samaritan” Look closely at 1. The two other people walking off in the distance and 2. The effort of the Samaritan in providing help.

Economics aside, from a theological point of view, it is extremely important not to equate one’s value with their merit both in our own mindsets and in our practices in everyday life. Regardless of how much we have bought into the idea of merit and think it now rules our society (I certainly think we have a long way to go until everything is merit based), it is important to value every human being with the dignity that God gave them as creatures. People are not worth more just because they may have merited more or less. Rich people aren’t worth more in the eyes of God. Neither are those who have succeeded in other venues and ventures. God may applaud their hard work, of course, but does not attribute more or less worth to certain people. Everyone is equally deserving of God’s love just because everyone equally needs God’s love!

When we as Christians are stingy, in regard to grace and service, with new churchgoers or people in poorer communities, we are implicitly saying that they are less worthy recipients of God’s love. The problem however is that we treat God’s grace on this same level of merit. Only the so-called “good” Christians receive grace (note: I do not want to discount the idea of rewarding good behavior), and those who are morally “bad” do not receive God’s grace. But look at Jesus’ life. He spent much more time with the morally destitute people of society. Why? In his own words it is because they were the one’s who especially needed his grace. The healthy have no need of a doctor, it is only the sick who need a doctor.

Now, in applying to our culture today, we should understand that we are all in need of grace. We all need reconciliation with our creator. We all “deserve” the spreading of that grace by other Christians. No Christian has the right to refuse grace to someone they deem “unworthy.” Simply put, grace has nothing to do with merit (unless you want to say that “the more sin abounds, grace abounds all the more”). The love of God is not limited to people who deserve it, nor only to those who have been Christians and worked hard in the Church for 30 years. The love of God is also reserved for the one whom everyone knows has a reputation for sinning. The love of God is reserved for the poor and the rich, the successful and unsuccessful.

In other language, this has been expressed through the idea of the image of God. All human beings are created in this image, just because they are what God created them to be: human beings! The Church has always at least tried to apply this idea universally to all of humanity in a way that promotes their good just as it does those within the Church made in the image of God. As Christians, believing that all are created with equal dignity and worth by God becomes the catalyst for promoting positive social change to increase the quality of life of those around us. Often times though, this is not limited to the culture’s definition of success or quality, but one defined by Jesus. It is a world, while encouraged to promote the rewarding of effort and merit, that doesn’t stop at defining someone’s worth in society to the numbers in the bank account or the trophies on their shelf.

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2:4-9. 

To conclude, don’t confuse grace and merit. Everyone should have access to grace, both the kind distributed directly by God, and the kind given by Christian benevolence all around the world. Everyone has worth regardless of whether or not they always made the right decisions or always made the wrong ones. Each person, made in the image of God, is a recipient of God’s unconditional love.

Theology of Everyday Life: Anxiety

Sorry for the long delay in-between posts; I’ve been busy transitioning/moving to life in Connecticut. I hope to be back posting frequently at least until my fall classes begin, which will probably reduce my posts to once a week for the semester.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18.

When one uses the word “anxiety,” they could mean many different things, especially within the context of Christianity. For Protestants or Evangelicals, this has usually meant anxiety in the face of eternity. It’s a derivative of the “fear of God” that looks upon the final day of judgment with immense anxiety. Preachers will often use the tactic of reminding the unbeliever of the ten commandments, e.g. “Did you ever steal money from your mother’s purse when you were a child?” “Have you ever told a lie, even when meant to spare someone from the harmful truth?” etc. This is designed to create a feeling of anxiety so that one runs (sometimes literally) towards Christ so that guilt may no longer be their defining characteristic before God. Using the biblical story from Matthew 7, this concept is even applied to “Christians” who profess Jesus as Lord, but whose actions speak otherwise (ironically, the Bible is also full of reassurance that anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord will be saved, see for example Rom. 10:9). Will I be one of those whom the Lord says, “Depart from me, I never knew you?” These two concepts of anxiety are closely related.

However, I do not wish to really say much about this preacher/hellfire produced anxiety. I have in mind something much closer to worrying about the everyday circumstances of life. As humans, we are sometimes primarily marked by this form of anxiety. We wonder whether our job will still be there in a few months, we are torn by thoughts of our significant other leaving us for someone else. Our anxiety consumes us when we think of a big-event in our life happening in the future. Anything with an outcome outside of our immediate control can be a cause for anxiety (sometimes caused by our desire to play God and control everything for our personal benefit). A lot of the time, we are anxious about what others will think of us, whether it is our parents, teachers, or closest friends (sometimes even people we don’t know).

So far I have highlighted things that seem more superficial in some ways, but anxiety hits us even more profoundly when it is of a matter of extreme importance to us. We worry whether or not we have lived a good life; have our choices been good ones? Am I recognizing my short time on earth? We are anxious about diseases that have fallen upon our family members; what will we do if they die from this? Adults feel this when they are anxious over whether or not they will be able to provide for their family during a recession.

In short, we seem to feel anxiety in a vast array of different situations, from mundane to life-threatening. All of life is filled with anxiety inducing moments. Perhaps our earthly fate is one filled with only these moments. Everyone, if honest with themselves, irrespective of their desire to appear as if they have it all together, will admit that anxiety of various kinds does affect their lives in powerful ways, even if the feelings do not appear as often as in others.

What are we to do given our situation? Should we be relegated to merely living in spite of this anxiety? Is there anything we can do about it? Is it only a problem of mindset, or is it much different than that?

Looking to the Christian tradition, there are a few answers that I would like to give. I cannot pretend to solve everyone’s problems, but I can point to a few things that have really helped me deal with moments of paralyzing anxiety.

birdFirst, Look at the birds. Matthew 6. Jesus used this example because he knew everyone has experiences with birds! None of us can say, “I don’t understand that.” The next time you see a bird, consider its life in regard to your anxiety. It doesn’t care to buy clothes so it can impress random people in public. They are not constantly worrying about huge transitions in their life. When it’s winter, they just fly south, knowing that anywhere they go there will be enough sticks and worms to build a nest and feed their children. They are not concerned about a pay raise, nor whether or not their teachers will give them an A on a paper. Yet, they seem to be doing just fine. They still tweet (albeit beautifully, not argumentative garbage like we tweet!) songs of joy in the morning, reminding the world that everything is okay for another day. The sun indeed came up.

You might wonder how birds have anything to do with theology, but theology isn’t just limited to abstract thought about the nature of God, but is concerned with the created world as well. As part of God’s creation, they can give us signs for how God designed life on earth. Though somewhat cheesy, Jesus’ example of looking towards the birds, does provide some comfort in the face of constant anxiety, knowing that life does not need to be filled with so much worry and stress. The biological classification giving rise to birds has been around the earth for many millions of years longer than humans! When the rest of the dinosaurs went extinct, species of birds remained, largely unaffected by giant clouds of ash and dust left by meteor strikes 🙂

Life can be a lot simpler than we imagine to ourselves when we cannot go to sleep at night. This is not a call to go back to the stone age, or to hunter-gatherer societies (what could cause more anxiety than having to hunt for food!), but rather an invitation to accept that the worries of life do not have to have an entirely damaging affect upon our level of happiness, nor our relationship with God, as our ultimate provider.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

Second, consider God’s love. When Paul was in Athens, following the account within Acts, he reminded the people (using their own cultural language from popular poetry) that God is the source of their existence, both initially, and for the duration of their lives as sustainer. “For in him we live and move and have our being,” Acts 17:28. Paul knew that our very being was caught up in God as the ground of our being. If even the most intimate part of ourselves, our existence/being, is grounded in the constant provision of God, how much more our everyday lives and activities that cause us undue stress and anxiety?

A consideration of providence also supports our idea that we are much too anxious than we should be, in light of our Christian faith if we want to use its resources for our everyday condition. However, I am not talking about the kind of providence that understands humans as the puppets on a string controlled by God destined for a life without independence or freewill. Nor am I talking about the kind that supposedly predestines people to burn in a lake of fire just because they had the unfortunate occurrence of their birth.

Rather, I am talking about the kind of providence that knows God’s love and presence are inescapable. It will always be there when we need it, and we will continually be truly connected to God, our source of existence, through this unconditional love shown by Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39. 

Providence is believing Romans 8 to be true. It’s really believing that nothing in creation, no circumstance, no anxiety, can ever separate you from the love of God. Though trials and anxiety may come in life, we can at least rest assured knowing that our external circumstances do not affect how God loves us. Though anxiety may not be completely removed from our daily lives, understanding the nature of God’s love can help. It reminds us that our lives do not have to be controlled by our anxiety, but by confidence in the unconditional love of God.

Can God Be in the Presence of Sin? – Yes.

Before reading this post, please go over to my 8 Things To Know About My Blog.

“Sinners are not loved because they are beautiful, rather, they are beautiful because they are loved.” – Jurgen Moltmann.

A common argument I hear about sin concerns the idea that God cannot be in its presence. Therefore, sinners cannot be with God. This is a major simplification of the idea, but I’m sure you’ve heard it in some form before. Your sin must be removed before God can have dealings with you or be with you, because God simply cannot be where sin is. God is perfect and requires perfection if one is to be in heaven. Of course, this is where a legal theory of the atonement comes in wherein God wipes away  our account of sin rendering us not guilty and therefore, on the face of it, perfect, able to be in God’s presence.

If you have not yet gotten it from my previous posts, I really disagree with this understanding of God and sin, and I think the most fundamental beliefs of Christianity do as well. To say that one must be perfect before they can be with God is not very faithful to the Christian tradition. We need a new understanding of how God works with sin. I do think that in the eschaton we will be without sin, but I do not think our dealings with God require us to be perfect. I would like to counter that suggestion here.

First and foremost, the divine Son became Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not merely to say that the Son was born into a human body, but rather to say that, throughout his life, from the moment of his conception forward, the divine Son was united to, or assumed, a human nature in everything that it means to be a human being. Contrary to those who think this humanity of Jesus was perfect, I think that Jesus was a human just like ourselves. He had a body just like our own which had to fight off impulses to sin, deal with fierce biological temptations, and one that was limited in the same ways that ours are. In short, he was a human just like us.

But he was not merely a human, he was also the divine Son in and through his humanity. In this way, God comes directly into the world of sin, makes a dwelling among us (John 1), for the purposes of redemption. God dealt with all the messiness that a human nature entails, as well as living in a world marked by sinfulness and violence. However, it was not merely his entry into the world that marks his dealings with sin. On the contrary, the entire life of Jesus could be read as a constant interaction with sin whether it be sinful people, events, or nations. In other words, there was never a time in Jesus’ earthly life in which he did not have direct confrontation and interaction with sin and its power. This is not to deny the sinlessness of Jesus himself, but it is to deny that Jesus was never around sin.

crossCulminating in his death on the cross, the ultimate act of human sin (murdering the Son of God), and therefore taking in to himself the greatest consequence of human sin, that is death, Christ overcame it all. God used the very acts of sin as the means for our redemption. Apart from revealing that God cannot have any dealings with sin, the life and death of Christ point to God dealing in the most intimate way possible with human sin. In fact, it is just the fact that God did take on sin head-to-head that our condition was healed. In his temptations, he proves himself strong to ward off the influences of evil. In the betrayal, arrest, beating, and crucifixion, Christ ultimately overcomes all of them by the life-giving nature of the Son through the resurrection. Marred by death and sin, Christ takes that which is the most fundamental consequence of our sins and transforms it, refusing to allow death to have the final say.

So too, in our lives, the times when we are most affected by sin, most prone to its temptations, along with our instances of grave failures, become points of divine and human contact. In our sins, God says we are forgiven. In our failures, God reaffirms our character as children of God. In our temptations, God provides us with the Spirit’s power of overcoming sin. Just as humans initiate the worst tragedy of human history, God is right there to overcome it, transform it, and bring life through interacting intimately with that sin. You and I, just as well, do not have to be perfect before God can deal with us. We do not have to be sinless before we can receive grace. Rather, it is in the very moments of our sinfulness and imperfections that God chooses to respond with, “You are loved.”

As we all know from experience, it is often the times in which we feel furthest from God that actually prove to be the times when God is closest to our side, working invisibly through our own struggles with sin to redeem us. Contrary to God requiring perfection, God opens up to our sinful lives and saves us sometimes even through our ultimate acts of sin as we realize God’s love for us and the power that God provides for our transformation.

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8.

The life of Jesus proves just this as God came into our sinful, messy situation taking on all of our sin culminating in his death, that despite its sinful character, actually proved to be reversed through resurrection for our own redemption. Rather than refusing to deal with sin, God, in Christ, goes directly to human sin and transforms us even while we are in the midst of sin.

In unrelated news, check out my friend Daniel’s post refuting John Piper’s complementarianism. Its a funny and disturbing read at the same time.