Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Consumerism

Thanksgiving is over. What now?

“The holiday shopping season got off to an ugly start with shoppers pepper-spraying one another to battle for bargains and robbers shooting shoppers to steal their Black Friday purchases, police said on Friday.” – Reuters (full story)

The day after Thanksgiving is always the biggest shopping day of the year. Something about this strikes me as perverse. Around Christmas, everyone is encouraged (for the sake of convenience) to sit down and make a list of all the things they want, and especially the things they don’t need, so they can then pass the list to others. In my more cynical moments, I wonder why we don’t all just buy ourselves things for Christmas and skip the nonsense of exchanging lists.

It might be too simplistic to say consumerism is evil. I’m not an economist, but consumerism seems to be an almost inevitable outgrowth of wealth and freedom, neither of which are bad. But one of the worst aspects of consumerism is perceived need. Even though much post-thanksgiving shopping is for Christmas presents, somehow we get it into our heads that buying the right gifts is some kind of necessity that must be undertaken under pain of death, rather than the jovial act of generosity it’s supposed to be. For many, Christmas shopping seems to be a terrible burden, a creeping doom to be attacked with frightening gusto, desperation, and apparently, pepper spray. It’s as if people feel their relationships with those closest to them really depended on buying the right stuff. It might behoove Christians to spend a few more days cultivating a spirit of thanksgiving before it’s forgotten in Christmas shopping shenanigans.

But what is the “spirit of thanksgiving” and why is it important? Well, Thanksgiving as a regular celebration came along in the 1660s in New England. Despite the sordid history between Europeans and Native Americans, the associated “thanksgiving story” you were taught in elementary school is true, more or less. After landing in America, the Plymouth colony didn’t have enough food to last long, and starvation was a serious concern. However, they managed to befriend the Wampanoag Native Americans, who gave them seeds and taught them how to fish. The gift was not merely food, but friendship and instruction. I picture Wampanoag folks patiently trying to show the bumbling pilgrim by example how to catch a fish, like a father would teach a son. Perhaps one of the most fitting ways to celebrate Thanksgiving would be to thank God for our teachers–the parents, professors, mentors, and friends who have set us straight more than a few times.

As Christmas approaches, we shouldn’t banish Thanksgiving. Christmas is a time, above all others, to thank God for his gifts. Thankfulness is the cure for greed. Giving thanks for all we have serves as a humbling reminder that despite our ceaseless desire for more, what we have is really enough. His grace is sufficient.

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.

Is Your Grief Godly?

Travis wrote previously about the merits of guilt and shame as gifts from God to turn us back to him. Yet there is also a breed of guilt and shame that is counterproductive. It is not a matter of how much guilt and shame are felt – they are fundamentally different types. Fortunately, St. Paul helps us distinguish between the two. I was reading Second Corinthians today, and came across this.

“For even if I made you grieve with my letter [that is, probably, what we know as 1 Corinthians], I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.”

Here we see some of the characteristics of godly grief over one’s sin. First, it is short. According to Paul it lasted “only for a little while,” and in the time between the first and second letters, their godly grief came and went. We also see that Paul is careful not to glorify the grief by itself. “I rejoice NOT because you were grieved.”

We can let godly grief over sin be short and to the point because it has  a point; it exists to serve a specific function: repentance, turning to God. Once that function is filled, it is dismissed.

It is very important not to get this backwards. God does not exist to draw you into grief over sin. Grief over sin exists to draw you into God. When you are facing God, grief loses its potency; its use is spent. If you find yourself feeling more and more rotten every time you sin, and you find yourself focusing on sin more than God, stop. You’re barreling head-first into worldly grief.

What’s so bad about  this sort of grief? See Paul’s next words: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

A while ago I was talking to a suicidal person and her entire argument for why she shouldn’t live was that she was ugly and wasn’t good at anything. It’s common for a suicidal person to simply say “I hate myself.” I wonder: how many people kill themselves because of self-hate? How many Christians hate themselves because of sin? “Worldly grief leads to death” might sound like a dramatic flourish on Paul’s part, but for some, nothing could be more literal.

Most people don’t commit suicide, but few are immune to the debilitating effects of self-deprecation. Divorced from their God-given purpose, guilt and shame become corrupt. Somehow we have gotten it into our heads that because we haven’t attained God’s standards of virtue, and we feel like we can’t, the next best thing to do is to simply go on feeling rotten about it.

I wonder if this so different from the flagellants, that is, the 13th and 14th century monks who beat themselves with whips. If you can’t beat sin, beat yourself. But God is not the critic in the audience yelling “your sin is bad and you should feel bad” as if God drew satisfaction from your wallowing in self-deprecation.

Godly grief and worldly grief might sound similar on the surface, but according to Paul, their effects are as different as life and death. So does this godly grief that leads to salvation without regret look like? Paul goes on.

“For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment!”

This seems at first like a random assortment of attitudes, and it’s not clear from the context just what he means by all of these. But it gives one a general sense that the response to godly grief is energetic. This is the exact opposite effect of worldly grief, which seems to sap our strength, erode our resolve. Godly grief is inspiring, never discouraging.

I’ll leave you with some more of St. Paul, this time a famous segment of Romans 7:

I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
(Romans 7:23-25 ESV)

I don’t claim to totally understand this passage or know anyone who does. For starters you should carefully read chapters 6-8 if not the whole book. But one thing I see is this: Paul has been complaining about sinning even though he doesn’t want to — and while he has not resolved this tension, he sounds like he has somehow come to terms with it. Regardless of his sins, he is a servant of God. That is the allegiance he has chosen, and it doesn’t seem like he let grief over past and present sin slow him down too much.

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” God is patient with us even when we are frustrated with ourselves.

I’ll make a statement which should not be controversial, but for some reason might be: it is far more important for you to keep chasing God and loving others than it is for you to establish a sinless track record. In fact, Jesus said the whole law was summed up in loving God completely and loving others as ourselves. The more we think of life in terms of honoring those two laws, the easier it will be to remember that sin is already defeated, and though it still slows us down, it cannot stop us. We press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.

Critique Our Monastery Manifesto

So, my friend Rachel and I want to start a monastery in the near future. Yep, a monastery. We just finished writing the rough version of a manifesto, and we’d appreciate it if you took a look at it and offered comments/criticisms before we go distributing a final version. What we’d most like to know is:

  • Is it fairly clear what our intentions are?
  • Is it clear why we’re doing it?
  • Any criticisms or suggestions for the model as it’s presented here?

Download the PDF and tell is what you think: Monastery Manifesto

You may also want to google “new monasticism”.

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.

My Yoke is Light

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them….

After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

[From a letter written to the believers at Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:] It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. – from Acts 15

Sam Torode and his now ex-wife Bethany Patchin—when they were 26 and 21 years old, respectively—wrote a book called Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception (2002) that vilified married couples’ using contraception; in 1999, Bethany had asserted that people shouldn’t kiss until they are married.[1]

After having four children within six years, the couple realized that contraception wasn’t outside of God’s plan, got divorced, and now consider themselves liberal agnostics. Bethany is currently on the Pill.

Pharisees, Catholics and Protestants throughout the millennia “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Jesus calls these solipsistic teachers “children of hell,” “blind guides/fools,” “white-washed tombs,” “serpents,” and a “brood of vipers” because that’s what they are: marauders who masquerade as messengers of God.[2]

Jesus claims that His yoke is easy; his burden, light.[3] He beseeches Jews and Gentiles, the prudes and the whores, to approach His throne freely, to sit next to Him.

As the Word of God, Jesus brought creation into being for this purpose: God wants to dine with us as a father would with his children.[4] The father does not invite his children to dinner, serve delectable food, and then lambaste the child sitting across the table for dropping a crumb on the linen. The father also does not require from his children a processional upon entering into the house; they don’t even have to wash their hands.[5] But if they tip-toe into the house, cowering from their father, and refuse to join him at the table because they forgot to call beforehand that morning, it grieves the father.

Christianity has become a tomb of rotting flesh, even though Jesus Christ has overcome death and obliterated the grave. Why have we—His children, His followers, His messengers—noosed ourselves with a theology of lies, proclaiming that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we have to behave according to impossible guidelines?

Don’t touch! Don’t watch! Don’t drink! Don’t speak! Don’t do! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!

Scripture warns the believer that whoever claims to be in Christ must walk as Jesus did.[6] Remember that His burden is light; remember that He has given us the precious promise and fulfillment of the Holy Spirit.[7] It is through His power that our weakness is overcome.[8] We are strong when we stop focusing on the rules and instead look to Him with an open heart, a heart that He wants to make whole.

Jesus speaks two commandments: ‘’’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[9] The apostles preach for believers to abstain from two unwise choices to live in freedom:

1.      Food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals

2.      Sexual immorality

If I exegete the apostles’ commands practically and theologically, the practical argument reads that blood remains trapped in the bodies of strangled animals; blood contains toxins meant to be filtered through the kidneys. Therefore, don’t eat blood. Regarding sexual promiscuity, a strong argument can be made that people function physically, psychologically, and emotionally healthier in monogamous relationships, particularly with only one life partner. For example, see: sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, I’ve heard that men lose their spiritual strength—and ironically their virility—if they have sex with random women. Women perhaps bear the heavier burden: the majority of us find it difficult to enjoy sex without reciprocation of love and commitment. This is why brothels are typically patronized by men. Most women wouldn’t pay for removed sexual experiences that can’t even guarantee orgasms.

Also, adultery is the most vindictive rejection. It revokes a promise, it sabotages both spouses’ identities, and it spits out this lie: you are not worth my time and love. I’ve noticed that even when couples who aren’t married but who have been sleeping together break up, the pain feels like divorce—total separation.

Theologically, Craig W. Booth explains that the two (or four, if read otherwise) apostolic stipulations are really just one command that echoes Jesus’ mandate[10]: avoid idol worship because it is a counterfeit of what’s truly available from the living God: “Drinking blood is the false wine of the idol’s communion cup. Strangled flesh is the false body of the idol’s communion dinner. And the temple prostitute is the false unity of the idol’s servants. The things listed are the false communion in the service of the idol.” [11]

The living God, made known through the shed blood of Jesus Christ and His resurrection, sacrificed His only son because of atonement. Humankind needs restoration. Most, if not every, civilization has a variation of temple worship and idol sacrifice that underscores this need: I am unworthy, yet I long for redemption. But if it is true that there is only one God, one creator of the heavens and earth, one messiah, one Lord, then wouldn’t it be fair of this Most High deity to require us to worship only Him? I wouldn’t want my daughters calling the woman down the street “Mommy,” especially when I’m present, willing to attend to their needs and desires.  Not only is it a lie to assert that another woman is their mother, but it removes the inherent bond I have with them as the person who carried them within her womb, birthed them, and then nurtured them. For them to turn from me would be ignorant and cruel. But Christians are accused of being ignorant in their acknowledgement of Christ as their Lord; God often is seen as being cruel because we do not fathom the reality of this fallen world that He is trying to redeem.

Serving Jesus Christ is not a decision to abandon all freedom. It’s the opposite: by coming to Christ, one is reconciled to her creator, to the One who knows her best. In responding to her Creator, a person can thus be formed into her truest self: her secret desires will be found and granted; she will discover and flourish in her calling.

My compassion for the Torode-Patchkin situation recognizes their deception: sex, a product of God’s creation, caused them to amass children. The idea, however, that God forbids us to make choices about the size of our family is extreme. The couple became tangled in Pharisaical thinking and tried to sell it to others; once they realized the burden was too much for even them, they gave up.

We Christians need to stop tying ourselves down to unfair regulations that are really just flesh floggings. Christ isn’t holding the whip; you are. Put it down.

 


[1] Oppenheimer, Mark. “An Evolving View of Natural Family Planning.” 8 Jul. 2011. Web. 14 Jul. 2011.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/09/us/09beliefs.html?_r=2>.

[2] Go read  Matthew  23:1-26

[3] Matthew 11:30

[4] Genesis 1:3; John 1:1-5; Revelation 3:20

[5] Mark 7:5-23

[9] Luke 10:27

[10] “Never again worship idols by eating with the idolaters in the sacrificial meals, drinking the cup of blood at the idol sacrifice ceremonies, do not ceremoniously eat the flesh of animals strangled during the worship of idols, and abstain from ritual acts of fornication with temple prostitutes” (par. 22)

[11]: Booth, Craig W. “These Essentials: Abstain from Idols, Blood, Strangled Meat, Sex:

Understanding the Prohibitions of Acts 15.” The Faithful Word. 25 Mar. 2005. Web. 14 Jul. 2011. <http://www.thefaithfulword.org/acts15copy.html>.

Renee Klug

Renee Ronika Klug is a writer and English professor. Her fiction and non-fiction focus on themes of facing and triumphing over loss, loneliness and defeat. Her teaching emphasizes students' cultivating their craft by developing their world-views and personal identities. Her ministry highlights the transformed life, especially for women who have histories of abuse and rejection. Her blog shares what she has learned about overcoming—as a writer, an educator, a Christian, a wife, and a mother. She lives in Colorado with her husband, a composer, and their two young daughters.

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Should We Strive For Perfection?

est quodam prodire tenus, si non datur ultra. – Horace

“It is worthwhile to reach a certain point, even if one cannot go further.” In other words, progress is possible even if perfection is unattainable.

Np = 2p?1 (2p ? 1)

Lately I have heard people say that striving for perfection is dangerous and possibly immoral.  Think of an athlete who kills himself training for a competition or a girl who starves herself to death trying to fit into society’s standard of aesthetic perfection.  Think also of the person who tries to reach moral perfection but only attains, at best, a small-minded self-righteousness or, at worst, frightful hypocrisy.

Now on one level I’m inclined to agree with this assessment.  Those who turn the pursuit of perfection (moral or otherwise) into an obsession are liable to do more harm than good.  But there is one very important thing we ought to remember: Whenever a person does in fact make objective progress in any thing, he is moving toward a standard of perfection. That is to say, in order for progress to be real, in order for “progress” to mean anything at all, one must progress towards a fixed point.

Imagine someone running in a race.  If the finish line is being moved away from him at the same rate at which he is running towards it, he is not making any progress.  In order for progress to be real and objective, the finish line must not move; there must be a point at which, when (or if) it is reached, the action will have been completed.  (Interestingly enough, the Latin word for “to complete,” perficere, also means “to perfect,” and is where we [probably] get our adjective “perfect.”)

Two more points about this.  First, though it may be disheartening, it is possible to make progress towards a fixed point one can never reach.  If the finish line were on the other side of the globe, moving towards it would still be objective progress.

Second, one doesn’t even have to know what the standard of perfection is in order to progress towards it.  Think of a baby learning to communicate.  He may not know that his practice of associating sounds with meaning is objective progress towards mastery of a language, and yet he is in fact making progress.

Christ commanded us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48).  He didn’t command us to obsessively and constantly reassess our position in relation to moral perfection.  He didn’t even tell us that moral perfection was possible in this life.  I think He commanded us to make objective progress towards moral perfection, of which He is our only exemplar, and which He promised to help us towards.  If we were to give up because we didn’t think we could reach perfection in this life, we would be guilty of disobeying Him.  Remember: progress is possible even if perfection is unattainable.  Thanks be to God that we who believe in Him will be made perfect in the next life (1 Corinthians 15:35-58)!

As for those who try to attain moral perfection and only achieve self-righteousness and hypocrisy, do not judge them too harshly.  They, at least, are trying.  And where they fail Christ will forgive them.  But He will not forgive those who make no attempt at all, those who throw in the towel at the first sign that the virtuous life is hard work.  We’ve got to repent—really repent—which means making a start in this life towards that which we can only obtain in the next.  If we don’t, there will be nothing for God to perfect.

“If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again.  If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear.  But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever.  They must be swept up.”  – The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

Travis Lambert

Interests: Apologetics; Classical and Medieval Latin, Literature, and Philosophy; Epic Poetry; C.S. Lewis; chess; travel; writing (novel, short fiction, creative nonfiction, essay, Latin composition, translation).

How to Choose a Local Church

As I said before, I’m actually attending a church now. I encourage others to overcome their apathy and cynicism and look for a church if you don’t already have one. But perhaps now more than ever, one must be shrewd in choosing a home church among  dozens of local, apparently uniform churches. Note that this article is about choosing a local church, not about choosing a church tradition or denomination, which is a separate issue. I’m writing primarily about protestant churches, though some of these are applicable to our Catholic/Orthodox friends as well.

An old church pew.

 

First, a word on the whole notion of church shopping. Some decry the consumerist mindset of the very phrase, and they’re right in that we can’t approach church as if it exists to please us. However, there are churches everywhere you look in America, and it would be stupid to pick one randomly when you can pick one intelligently. If you’re not really going to a church at the moment, but are thinking that maybe you should, church “shopping” is the next prudent step.

However, shopping is a means to an end. The reason it’s so important to choose wisely is because once you choose, you should have some intention of commitment. One problem with our modern culture is that we’re incredibly fickle. Not only that, but we view this as a virtue. We think it’s for the best if we don’t get too attached to anything, and in the end we’re all just here to “do our own thing” and only form temporary alliances with churches when it’s the most convenient. But building community and doing God’s work together takes time and commitment. Churches will not get anywhere if everyone simply floats in and out on the wind, with no sense of obligation or loyalty.

Establish your priorities. No church is ideal; you probably will not get everything you want out of any particular church. Decide what’s most important to you: theology you agree with? Community full of people who seem like those you’d hang out with? Reverent, worshipful attitude? Proper view and use of spiritual gifts? Rich tradition? Brilliant sermons? Pleasing aesthetics? Lots of outreach? If you find a local church that has all of these elements, that’s fantastic. But seriously, it probably won’t happen. This is where it’s okay that your personality leads you to care more about some things than others. Choose how important each of these things is to you and weigh the churches around you accordingly.

That said, beware of churches that seem to emphasize one element to the extreme sacrifice of others. A church with great outreach and totally whacko theology, or a place with great sermons but a disjointed, strife-ridden community, are not ideal.  Unless you are going to a church as a missionary, avoid churches with any giant, critical problem you can see a mile away. Avoid places where the staff and congregation seem almost uniformly corrupt, insane, or lifeless.

Consider personal taste, but don’t obsess over it. In addition to your core priorities, there are plenty of blatantly subjective things about churches, like its architecture or worship style. It’s sort of like picking a college or a girlfriend. There may be particular things that immediately attract you based on your personality and aesthetic sensibilities, and it’s good to care about them, but they aren’t everything, and there is probably no church perfectly suited to the exact combination of your personal preferences. I for one have completely given up on finding a church with music that I like. And that’s okay. I’ve established my priorities for church, and type of music just has to slide. And since a church is built around a whole community, personal taste might just be too personal to be a high priority.

Focus on giving more than receiving. You will be far less bored and more involved in God’s kingdom if you join a church that actually needs your help to do what they do. Typically, these are smaller churches and freshly planted churches, but not always. If you’re at a church that does not seem like it would benefit from more manpower, you may be tempted to be uninvolved and aloof, and it may not even matter to anyone if you are active or not. Come to a church wanting to serve and wanting to improve the place, not just wanting to be entertained or profoundly enlightened.

Find a pastor you can get along with. It goes without saying that you should find a pastor who is not a heretic or a fraud. But also important is whether or not he (or she) is someone you can personally see yourself serving under. This is different than finding a pastor you totally agree with. If you’re going to be anything more than a spectator in the church community, the pastor is essentially your boss. Other things being equal, be pragmatic and avoid pastors you’d clearly have a major personality clash with. Unless you’re just a disagreeable fellow who doesn’t get along with any authority, in which case, grow up.

Find a meaningful community. This might mean different things to different people. Perhaps you’re looking for people your age, an older mentor, or people who share your particular tradition or perspective on key issues. But no matter what a church may do, a church is its community. Many of the things you do at church you could do at home if you really wanted to. Community is really the only reason to go to church. But it’s a good reason, so choose a church with a community you want to be involved in. Small churches tend to have tight-knit communities, though on the flipside if you’re young it’s hard to find a small church with people your age.

Of course, none of these are rules. Use prayer and common sense. It might take a while to settle in; for me it was several months of going to nine churches before I picked the one I was happiest with. You might be able to pick one sooner, and if you live in the middle of nowhere you have less choices. Resist the urge to think a church community is pointless. Be critical, but don’t use it as an excuse for laziness or self-righteousness. When you find a decent place, invest your talents early and often and make a real effort to build relationships.

Lastly, as you settle on a church, be prepared for the following unavoidable flaws:

Too Cool / Too Lame. Churches vary greatly in their amount of apparent excitement/hipness or rigid boringness. But these are in essence the same complaint: you think church should be one style while the pastor thinks it should be another. “Cool” churches tend to focus on the arts and seeker-sensitivity at the expense of depth and truth. “Lame” churches tend to focus on reverence and biblical literacy at the expense of being lively and approachable. As you visit a church it will most likely strike you as erring on one side or the other. However, ask yourself how critical of a problem this is for the church. It’s not always as big a deal as it looks.

Lack of Proper Emphasis (According to You) On Some Important Thing. This will almost surely be the case. Unless that issue is vital to the Christian faith or one of your pre-established priorities, don’t get too worked up about it right away. This may be your chance to influence things for the better. In time you may be able to help shape the church for the better. Key phrase is in time. Don’t barge in and tell everyone what they’re doing wrong. That won’t work.

Your Stupid Self. With all your personal pet peeves, baggage, besetting sins, and bad ideas. It’s okay, we all have them. Compared to Christ, most of us are self-righteous idiots with huge egos. But we’ll put up with each other. That’s community, and we need it.

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.

Present Tense Forgiveness

Our Christian vocabulary is robust, full of words like justification, propitiation, and sanctification, words that have libraries devoted to their study. Smaller, but no less powerful words a six-year-old can pronounce come to mind as well: words like love, joy, grace and hope. Words like these make up the backbone of the Christian faith. But I wonder if we understand the words we use so regularly, even flippantly, in a way that changes the way we view our relationship to God.

I think of the word forgiveness in particular. It’s a tricky to define. Even the dictionary fails to capture its meaning. It defines forgive as “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw or mistake.” But this cannot capture the Christian concept of forgiveness. Is God’s forgiveness merely a lack of feeling? A passive resignation?

When asked what forgiveness means, most Christians will likely talk about how their sins have been removed “as far as the east is from the west,” washed away by the blood of Jesus. This is certainly true, but incomplete. Most Christians talk about forgiveness as if it were a one-time occurrence at the outset of the Christian life, but in reality, it’s a continuous process.

One-time forgiveness makes sense to us because it seems fairly reasonable, and it’s how we tend to forgive others. “It’s okay,” we say when someone apologizes for some small wrongdoing, “just don’t do it again.”

One-time forgiveness also sounds good because it sounds so easy. God takes away our sin, and then we’re good, right? It makes us believe that, even though we messed things up, once God puts us back on our feet we’re set for life.

But that fails to account for the fact that we continually make messes of our lives. Maybe it’s just me, but I get so tired of coming to God with the same sins over and over, praying that same prayer of repentance, and then messing up all over again no matter how well-intentioned and sincere I am. I get burnt out. And eventually, rather than running with abandon toward God, I shut down and push away because I’m tired of feeling weak and guilty. Which, inevitably, makes me feel bad and in need of forgiveness, starting the destructive cycle all over again. From talking to other Christians, I know I’m not alone in this.

We need a new understanding of forgiveness. Rather than viewing forgiveness in terms of “I have been forgiven and made new,” Christians must learn to see forgiveness as “I am being forgiven; I am being made new.” Forgiveness does not belong in the past tense.

We tell non-believers to “come as they are” to God. We paint a picture of a God who delights in broken and battered people who come to Him empty-handed, having nothing to offer but their messed-up lives. But in our own lives, we live as if God is repulsed by that kind of Christian because, after all, we’ve received our one-time dosage of forgiveness and should be better by now. We live as if we’re saved by grace, but must maintain our salvation by works. It’s exhausting.

The truth is, God still delights in our brokenness. His holiness demands perfection, but he knows that we are desperately dependent on his grace, and his grace has given us Jesus. And that is what God sees when He looks at us–the sinless life of Jesus. We are called to live holy lives, but not in order to win favor with God. We already have that. No matter how high on our holy horses we get, God knows the truth about how messed up we still are and is more than willing to grant us the daily grace we need to continue and change. He knows we have not yet arrived; after all, He designed it that way. Rather than zapping us with holiness, He allows us to struggle, perhaps to show us just how unfathomable and abundant His forgiveness truly is.  It’s this kind of forgiveness that sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. It’s unwarranted and limitless and doesn’t make sense. It’s this kind of forgiveness that changes lives.

God never wavers in His affections toward us. He will not get tired of us, as we tire of others, nor will He ever turn us away. Daily we need forgiveness, and daily we must raise our empty hands and let it fall upon us.

Tia Murray

Tia is an unashamed idealist who finds pleasure in walking barefoot, messy hair, and the revolutionary life of Jesus. She sees the grace of God in the most unlikely places (and people), experiences God in brokenness, and shuns fear, practicality, and mediocrity in order to achieve the impossible.

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Admitting You’re Wrong

Eve After the Fall
Rodin's 1886 Marble "Eve After the Fall"

They say pride is the chief sin, pregnant with all other sins. If pride is that serious of an ailment we should all be combating it regularly on as many fronts as possible. I’m often frustrated with my own pride because it’s so slippery. Unlike some of the more concrete sins, it’s hard to regulate one’s own motives and thoughts. Even when I make progress, I start thinking about how much less prideful I am than certain other people, and that itself is pride welling up again.

So what’s a person do to? One of the simplest ways to beat pride–not the easiest, but the simplest–is to admit when you know you’re wrong. Three time-tested methods come to mind, depending on the circumstance.

Apology

Apologizing can’t erase your actions, but it does go a surprisingly long way in healing the smaller injuries we all inflict on our friends and family. It seems that men are especially bad at this. Partly because we don’t like to admit we’re wrong in any fashion, but also because our fellow men aren’t as likely to appear moved by apologies. Whenever someone apologizes to me I usually dismiss the whole issue and pretend that it never bothered me, even if it did. But I secretly appreciate the apology, anyway. And though I forgive people for most things within one day, I forgive them instantly if they just acknowledge wrongdoing. It’s also better to apologize as early as possible. The first moment you realized you have accidentally (or intentionally but unjustly) injured someone, call them up and apologize.

Confession

“Confess your sins to one another” is one of the more basic commands of scripture which usually goes ignored. Besides exercising humility, confession does several good things. It forces you to process and articulate exactly what you have done wrong, accepting both that you have really done it and that it was really wrong. It also usually draws you closer to the person you’re confessing to (one of the better effects of vulnerability), which in turn makes the other person more likely to confess his or her sins. Most people don’t confess their sins out of fear of being judged. There are of course judgmental people, but this concern is usually way overblown. If your friends are any good, they’ll listen, support you and hold you accountable while feeling more at ease about confessing their own sins. Basically, everyone wins.

Admission of Persuasion

There’s nothing more annoying than people who never admit to changing their minds. The final and most overlooked way to admit you’re wrong is to intentionally tell others when you have changed your mind about something the two of you previously disagreed. Usually, in the midst of an argument, I will stick to the original angle I was arguing to begin with, but afterward I might further consider it and realize that the other person is right. I’m sure this is a common experience, and if this doesn’t happen to you it’s either because you always admit being wrong immediately after being shown your error (yeah, right) or because you’re too stubborn to ever realize that you are wrong. Even if there was no bitterness whatsoever in the argument, going back and affirming your opponent’s position creates unity between you that will be a relief for you both. No longer will they have to put up with that slight antagonistic feeling that arises when they know they’re approaching a topic of disagreement.

When you know you’re wrong, admit it early and often. It only takes a minute to do so, and it opens up a wealth of goodness both for yourself and for others. Resist the urge to say “it’s not really necessary in this case.” If nothing else, it’s practice at chipping away at pride, that worthless monument to yourself that only isolates you from God and everyone else.

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.

Can Prayers Time Travel?

Let’s say you are praying that your friend get a job. Little do you know, the decision has already been made and your friend has been informed of it. Does that mean that God cannot take your prayer into account?

Or take another example. You pray for someone in the hospital that he tests negative for some disease. Now, before the test results are known, even before the test is performed, he either has the disease or he doesn’t. Does this mean that your prayer cannot be answered? Of course not. If God is omnipotent and exists outside of time, then He can answer your prayer. It makes no difference whether God healed him five minutes ago or set in motion a chain of causes at the creation of the world to the same effect. If God answers prayer, as He says He does, then your prayer was taken into account quite apart from any kind of temporal restrictions. It makes little difference whether you pray for something after the fact, except psychologically.

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that you can pray away the Black Plague. That has already happened. But how do you know that things might not have gone far worse for the world if you had not prayed? I only use this extreme example to make a point, that there is no good philosophical reason why we should resist praying for others out of a false sense of futility.

Perhaps a more practical example would be praying for the dead. Now, I am a Protestant, but I have nevertheless felt a leading at more than one funeral to pray for the dead. I am not just praying for his family, and I am not praying that he have a shorter stay in Purgatory. I believe that, now that he is dead, the matter is settled. I don’t think I can pray him out of hell, if he’s there. But I can pray that God gave him every opportunity in his lifetime to accept Christ. I don’t think that I am alone in desiring to pray for the dead, and this explanation is the only way I can account for that desire.

At any rate, we should not let any philosophical difficulties (or rather, difficulties for our human, time-bound imaginations) keep us from obeying the prime directive: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6).

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Matthew 21:18-21

Travis Lambert

Interests: Apologetics; Classical and Medieval Latin, Literature, and Philosophy; Epic Poetry; C.S. Lewis; chess; travel; writing (novel, short fiction, creative nonfiction, essay, Latin composition, translation).

New Years Resolutions Cause Suffering

If you’re like most people, you did one of two things around New Years.

1. Made a resolution that you will probably break by February, and forget all about by March. Heck, it’s the 3rd, maybe you’ve broken it already.

2. Thought it was dumb that people make resolutions on New Years Eve they will only break, so you’ve decided to make a pre-emtive strike and not make a resolution at all. You’ll change not for some arbitrary celebration, but in your own natural timing. Which is to say, never.

I don’t think there’s anything special about January 1st, but it’s as good a day as any to redouble our efforts to not suck at life quite so badly.

Our resolutions (new year’s or otherwise) tend to crash and burn because we get excited about changing, and we expect to ride the high of that excitement long enough to make a difference. But then we barely make it out of the driveway before we run out of gas. It doesn’t help that we are in the midst of an impatient and pleasure-obsessed culture offering distraction at every moment.

Often we write it off our failure to the absence of some substance called “willpower.” But the vagueness of that term only serves our secret desire to not bother with the hard work of self-improvement all while pretending that we really wanted to change. So, forget willpower. Let’s talk fortitude. Plato called fortitude one of the four cardinal virtues which he believed to be the root of all other virtues. Fortitude is simply the ability to confront pain. And the more you confront pain the more fortitude you will get.

This means you should not get any romantic ideas about how you’re going to joyously (and painlessly) blossom into a new person. What you should expect is suffering and lots of it. That’s why when Christians talk about change we say “dying to the self.” That’s why Jesus talks about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes. Extreme language reminds us that refinement of character is not a fun recreational activity to undertake out of boredom. That good feeling of making a decision to change will soon become an awful pain: the terrible burden of some new practice, the unbearable withdrawels from some beloved sin. Expect to suffer and embrace it without whining, and you just might have a chance of changing for real this time. Here’s a couple of related articles I found useful.

Why You Can’t Make That Habit Stick

Forging Habits of Steel

Happy New Years’.

A personification of Fortitude by Sandro Botticelli

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.