Joy, Sadness, and Success in Vancouver

If you’re a regular reader then you know that in December my family and I packed up our lives, left our church community in Burnaby, BC, and emigrated to Scotland so that I could begin a PhD. It’s been a wild ride, and we’ve been busy! In May we were privileged to return to Vancouver for a wedding. It was a great experience, and it allowed me a special perspective from which to reflect back on my own ministry. I thought I’d share a few of those reflections with you today.

First, leaving a church is never easy. (Or, at least, it never should be easy!) You are leaving relationships, many of them deep, with people for whom you have prayed, laboured, and with whom you have suffered in ministry, people you have married, people whose parents and friends you have buried, and children whom you have dedicated. A minister gets slowly but deeply integrated into the life of a community—you can’t possibly leave without some discomfort!

However—and this was an enormous blessing that I in no way take for granted!—we were able to leave on great terms. From day one, the church knew that further studies were part of my life goals. What is more, God’s provision for our studies had been so evident, and the story of His provision so compelling, that it gave my people (and us with them!) a real sense of God’s call. This made the pain of leaving truly bittersweet—happiness about God’s self-evident work mingled with sadness over the loss of relationships.

What wasn’t so good is that, although we were on good moral and social terms with our church members, we left town badly. We had a firm deadline for when we were to leave Canada (mid-December), and we were leaving both without visas and without a place to live in Scotland. In the midst of that uncertainty, the overwhelming business of packing, saying goodbye, cleaning our house, selling our cars, preparing boxes for storage and shipping, and tying up all our other affairs left our heads spinning. Not only that, many of these things—such as the final packing of our storage facility, the selling of our cars, and the cleaning of our house—happened after we left and were done for us by our church members! Leaving was ugly, but in the midst of it our people were absolutely beautiful!

Originally, in planning our final days in Vancouver, my wife and I had slotted the last two days for eating at some of our favourite restaurants, visiting a few of our favourite locations, and saying goodbye to the various houses we’d lived in. Instead, a snowstorm on those last days (and our own insane busyness) made a mess of that plan. Three days before departure we slept for about four hours. Two days before we slept for about two hours. The day before we left we may have slept for about an hour on the floor of our nearly empty apartment. Rather than an easy departure in the early afternoon we left late at night, exhausted, drained, and almost completely miserable. (Did I mention that throughout this process my wife was in the early months of pregnancy?)

The only consolation, then, was the knowledge that in about six month’s we’d be back for a wedding, and in my mind I lodged the thought that maybe with that trip we could make up for the ugly departure we’d just been through.

Fast forward six months. We’ve moved to Scotland, found a place to live, and settled in to a new life in a new world. May has come, and it’s time to pack up our bags and head back to Canada. We’ve slated 13 days for the trip, have a list of restaurants to visit, people to see, baby clothes to collect, and a few things to buy. What I didn’t—and couldn’t—expect, were the things I would learn visiting my “home” community again, as a former minister. I want to talk for a moment about the following five.

1) I am humbled by the quality of people in our Vancouver life, and honoured to call them friends. The people in our church life—the friends we’d built up over the past 8.5 years—are some of the most amazing people I know. They housed us, and loaned us a car, and fed us, and loved on us and on our kids in an unremitting way for all 13 days we were there. For my part, each and every day I ate at least three meals a day with our church friends, and sometimes more than three. I came back to Scotland with my belly fatter but my heart full. Again and again as I sat with them (and ate!) I couldn’t help but think how much I appreciated each and every person I saw, how much I valued their lives, their faith, their stories, their children, and their parents. I was struck and humbled as well by the sheer excellence and quality each person. For so many of them, six months had passed, and yet it felt as if no time at all had transpired. For me, that only happens with my closest of friends, and yet I felt it with so many of my former members. It was a shock!

2) I succeeded in ministry, but I could never have realized it until I left. On paper and in public I set myself to operate a ministry based on friendship. I didn’t want relationships which were based solely on my office or the power of the pastorate (although I wasn’t shy to utilize that power as appropriate and necessary). Instead, I wanted to highlight the fact that we shared a common faith, a common lord, and that my purpose as pastor was to strengthen their personal relationships with the King in such a way that it would never depend on the pastor. While I was active in ministry, I couldn’t really gauge my success. I was too busy, and had too many relationships to maintain, and not enough time to invest the way I would like in each person. Ironically, it was only leaving the ministry that could reveal its success—so, to return, and then to receive the love of so many people who are friends left me gobsmacked. But this led to a third lesson:

3) The fact that I was too busy to enjoy these friendships is a HUGE problem. On one late afternoon and early evening our kids had a play-date with church friends. I ended up sitting on a couch, casually reading a book, while my wife and the other mom visited. Later, we ate together, walked to the park, and enjoyed a quiet evening in beautiful Vancouver. It struck me in that moment, “Why didn’t we do this before?” Immediately I knew the answer. I would have been too busy. I would have been at my office, or at a meeting, or speaking at an event, or working on some other project, or handling an emergency, or resting in exhaustion from the execution of some combination of each of the above tasks. I would have sent my wife and kids on their own to the play-date and would never have made it to the house of the very friends whose everyday faith would have restored me. It is a deeply ironic situation. I can only conclude, in the future, that if I am in full-time ministry again I must create those spaces simply to be with people. They may be as important to my ministering soul as are times of devotion and rest. They are rest.

4) Preaching again was an experience in discernment. One joy was to preach again after the six month hiatus of moving-to-Scotland. I got to tell the story of our adventures, travels, and things I’d learned so far in Scotland. I got to encourage my members to take risks, to step out in faith by following Jesus. But while I stood in front of their welcoming faces a few key things ran through my head. One was a sense, again, that no time had passed. Preaching remains one of the things I am called and equipped to do, and there was an easy comfort to stepping back into that space. At the same time, as sometimes happens at these moments, there was no hint of nostalgia—no inner sense of, “I could come back and do this again…” In its place was a clear sense of, “Your time here is done.” For what it’s worth, preaching again showed me that I’m supposed to be in Scotland, and supposed to be pursuing this PhD right now. There was a satisfying comfort in that moment of discernment.

5) I’m seriously considering a book about Second Generation Ministry. My 8.5 years in full-time ministry with Vietnamese and Chinese churches has taught me enormously. In the process, I’ve had to reflect (creatively!) on the dynamics that make my churches operate—cultural, structural, interpersonal, and so forth. In the process I’ve tried to share these insights with my members, whether in the big public spaces of preaching or in private conversations. The result is a notebook with quite a few jottings about these issues. Not being Asian myself, I’ve hesitated to write such a book—I don’t want to present myself as another non-Asian telling Asians how to run their lives as Asians. But maybe, just maybe, as a friend who cares deeply for my many friends who happen to be Asian, I can write something that will articulate things going on in their lives, as well as encourage, bless, and enrich their faith.

Of course, such projects might be slightly delayed by the 80,000 word thesis I’m supposed to be writing for the University of St Andrews. Between that, and dinner with my children as often as possible, we’ll see how my spare time shapes up!

Announcing a New Book! People of a Certain Character

Dear Reader,

In my eight years of pastoral ministry the most frequently recurring request, from laypersons and leadership alike, has been to implement some form of “Leadership Training.” From the top, church leaders see a crisis in volunteers; from the pews, members feel ill-equipped to take on Christian service. “Training” is often the language we use for the process of bridging this gap.

I have come to believe that there is something troubling, even deeply broken, about this process. Especially from the leadership level, I am uncomfortable viewing my people as resources to be harnessed for our projects. From the lay level, I’m troubled by both the tacit appeal to secular leadership models and the role that “technique” seems to play in training curricula. Both processes seemed far removed from the business of making disciples into Christ’s image.

People of a Certain Character Cover_ThumbnailThat’s why I’ve written People of a Certain Character—it is an attempt to bridge this gap in our ecclesial discipleship. The central argument of the book is that it is in the formation of our Christian character, not the adoption of techniques, that we become most fit for service in the Kingdom of God. To do this I ask a series of questions directed at the heart of the reader. For example, one of the first questions is “Do you know you are loved by God?” This seems to me the single most essential characteristic for an individual in Christian service. After all, if you don’t know that you are loved by God, you will strive to be loved by people. And a heart that desires to be loved by the people it serves is most likely to go astray. There are twelve such questions in the book, and each is an attempt to get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in service.

There is an additional problem in the business of discipleship and the training of leaders—namely, that there is both a shortage of capable leaders to teach the material, and a shortage of time for those leaders who are capable. It seemed to me, then, that there was a clear need for a resource which could be used in a group. Chapters would need to be short so that nobody would fall behind in the reading. Lessons would need to be anchored in Scripture so that we don’t fall into the trap of secularizing our leadership practices. Each lesson would need to be deep enough to sustain discussion, and each lesson would require questions to facilitate such reflection and discussion. A well-crafted book, I hoped, would enable groups of disciples to gather together and do the business of discipleship in a small group. With a minimal commitment of time in preparation, it might free both leaders and laypersons alike to walk on a journey towards more Christlikeness. This is, indeed, the kind of ambitious book that I hope People of a Certain Character can be, and, by the grace of God, I pray that you might read it and find that I’ve succeeded to some degree.

If this sounds like the kind of book you’ve been waiting for, then you can purchase a copy from either Amazon.com or from my createspace store. If you would like a review copy, send me your name, address, a brief bio, and your blog address to contact@jeremyrios.com and I’ll see if I can mail you a copy for review as soon as I’m able.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios
St Andrews

Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

I hinted at this throughout our correspondence, but I’m not fully convinced that sins can be ranked—at least in the traditional sense of ranking them. They have degrees of external effects (on individuals and groups), but the real measure of sin in my estimation is in its capacity to remove you from the presence of God. Whether the removing happens on account of your belly, your loins, or your mind seems largely irrelevant. The fact that you have been removed seems to be the most important. In this sense I am skeptical of the division between “mortal” and “venial” sins, since the division seems to be so clearly rooted in a fundamental ranking of sinfulness. Given that, I believe I can still hold Pride to be the chief and worst of sins because it is, fundamentally, the replacement of God with the self. In this it sits behind and beneath all the other sins we’ve discussed; they are, in their extreme, expressions of this attitude of self-love and self-exaltation. To commit the sin of Pride, therefore, is to reject God.

Pride, then, is the sin of sins. But be careful not to confuse this theological pride with our human conceptions of arrogance or vainglory. There is an appropriate pride that I feel when my children do something praiseworthy, or when I take pride in my work to make it presentable. To get at the real meaning of sinful Pride we’ve got to look closely at the Garden again. There, Adam and Eve make a choice. They have the capacity to choose to obey God’s command, to live with the bounds of His provision, or to capitulate with the Serpent’s wishes. They choose against God’s way; they choose their own ethics, their own desires, and I believe that the heart of that choice is a choice to do things my own way. I exalt my will, and diminish God’s. I place my own desires in command, and ignore my Maker’s. I declare my independence and self-sufficiency. And that act of rejection, which happens at the level of the soul, is an act of necessary self-damnation. In Pride I stand upon my own power for life and living. In the extremis of Pride God grants to me the right to stand upon my own power for life and living. The storm necessarily comes, and I, built upon the sand, am washed away.

George MacDonald once wrote that “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” That’s the ethic of self-damnation in practice. I do what I want, for myself, by my own rules, and all others be damned! But the only one I damn is in fact me. We are not self-sufficient creatures, we are creatures, made for a living dependency upon our maker, made for relationships with one another. The inverse of MacDonald’s phrase is therefore equally true, that “The one principle of Heaven is—I belong to someone else.” We see that principle in action when the Father gives to the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit to us, and in the Spirit we are presented as gifts to the Father. At the centre of the nexus of Heaven and Earth is a being whose whole existence appears to be wrapped up in a giving away, a man on a cross who spills himself out for the life of the world.

So much of our world depends on this self-love, this self-supremacy. I’m reminded of that story of Laplace speaking of science to Napoleon. When asked where God fit in this theories, Laplace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The story may not be true, but the sentiment certainly is. What need has the modern world for a God-hypothesis? We have power, and resources, and medication, and happiness—what use have we for the theory of a God who might interfere with such happinesses as are offered by the world? Who regulates pleasure, and finances, and creativity, and industry, and the treatment of other persons? Isn’t such a “God” merely an interference in fulfilling our true joys? The answer, of course, is “Yes, He is.” He does interfere; but we forget that it is His world with which He interferes.

Pride then expresses itself in our resistance to God’s interference. It is the petulant “No!” which pushes back against the loving (occasionally painful and discomforting) advances of our creator. Pride hates to be told what to do, hates to be told to self-mortify, hates to give up authority over life. It is in this sense that Pride expresses itself through our other sins. Pride behind Lust refuses to release desire to God’s control. Pride behind Greed refuses to trust in God’s provision. Pride behind Sloth clings to control by blocking God’s call. In the grip of Pride, I reject God so that I can maintain what I believe to be control of my self. It is a sin of self damnation, God help us all.

My will is too corrupted to even see all the Pride that sits within me. I need help. And I think the best help we get is to meditate upon the obedience of Christ. He who had all power became powerless so that we could be restored. There—in another Garden!—he says “Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said, “No.” “Thy will and not Mine.” We go on to examine the extent of his obedience—prayer, pain, loss, fear, suffering, unjust suffering, betrayal, excruciating pain, and death itself. No human has ever or will ever do away with Pride who will not suffer the image of the humble and obedient Christ to penetrate his heart.

James, may image of Christ so penetrate you and I this Good Friday, and bring us to new and restored life this Resurrection Sunday!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (F)–Greed, Which is Idolatry

Dear James,

I agree that the more we look at sin, and look into sin—especially that sin which sits lurking in the quiet unexamined spaces of our hearts—the more we look the more we’ll see. It’s almost neurotic, like the student of pathology or psychology who finds, through study, that she bears the symptoms of every disease and disorder she encounters! But where with the student such a thing is a necessary phase, one out of which she ought rightly to grow, the analysis of sin for us is both accurate and unending. It is also a worse experience. Sin is not limited to its bodily effects, it is also psychological, and indeed goes beyond the psychological to touch the very soul. The pathology runs throughout the entirety of the human person. It’s a scary business, looking into your own heart.

I trust, despite your note of alarm, that throughout this season our exercise together hasn’t slipped into despair. We’ve tried to balance the grim with the good, and while I admit that I haven’t made much of forgiveness, it’s worth remembering that our salvation from sin hasn’t really been the point so far. In Christ we’re both saved already, are we not? What we want for is an act of transformation in the inner man to root out the twisted evil of our hearts. To get at that, we’ve got to commit to the long, hard look inward.

It’s possible that one of the hardest places to look today is at Greed, if only because our political and economic systems are crafted to sanction and shape human Greed. Acquisition is at the heart of capitalism, and the system claims to free men by freeing their capacity for acquisition. It is interesting to remember that the Hebrews had strict injunctions against charging interest, if only because application of those same laws today would destroy our economies. In this way, and others, Greed is hard to look at; we can’t imagine living without it.

Greed has to do with stuff, and with the desire for stuff, but of course it goes much deeper than that. At its root, it’s about the danger of stuff to stand between us and God. When Jesus talks about Mammon in the Sermon on the Mount he’s speaking about a deity—the god of things—which wars with God for our allegiance. Greed’s power is to help us to think that our things will save us, that acquisition really is the meaning of life. It lends power to the belief that a sufficient buffer of money, power, and influence will be what I need to protect me against the day of trouble. “You fool!” Christ says, “This very night your life will be required of you.” In these ways, Greed keeps us from trusting in God.

But Greed also flattens our human relationships. Rather than seeing my fellow man as someone made in God’s image and likeness, a brother or sister in need, I see dollar signs. I see someone who can be used to make money, or someone whose needs will cost money. Greed reduces persons to things, and relationships to economics. (Which suggests, ironically, that Marxism’s materialism actually generates a politics to rival capitalism’s Greed.) In the end, the old phrase becomes true—rather than using things and loving people, in Greed I use people and love things.

And this, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of Greed, that it wars against Charity. Here the word Charity is important in both of its senses—that of giving alms, and that of the love that is proper to Christians. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to be truly Charitable when I am in the grip of Greed—not only because I believe that these things are mine, and therefore not fit for another, but also because I have permitted the weight of my stuff to stifle the right response of my heart. Properly Christian love sacrifices itself for the benefit of another. Greed throws checks in this process, and by so doing perhaps fundamentally inhibits our growth in grace.

All of this is part of that hard, inward look, and yet it seems to me that we as the Church haven’t got the best track record for this process. Far too many people still seem to think that—or at least act as if—“accepting Jesus” were the end of the story. Not only do we appear to have an aversion to the hard work of faith, we categorically dislike being forced to look into the mirror of God’s truth. I wonder if Greed might actually play an important part in this aversion. Greed, as it manifests itself in a belief that I deserve something, that I am owed certain things in life, extends outward to mean that I am owed a good life (from God), and owed an easy faith journey, and owed peace, and security, and happiness. When I don’t get those things, I feel at liberty to make them happen by my own power. With Greed in control, I get to be my own master. With God in control, I don’t. This indeed is the Greed, in Paul’s words, “which is idolatry.”

I think there might be two clear answers to Greed in the human heart. The first, of course, is Charity itself, in the sense of sacrificial giving. We ought to be giving away from what God has given us. And I don’t think we ought only to be giving to the Church, but we ought also to review those charitable options available to us and allow ourselves to be moved by the other kind of Charity. Where our heart is touched, we ought to give. The other answer is to commit to the work at your local church, and to allow your heart to be touched by the needs you see there. Where you see needs, attempt to meet them. Above all, both these activities ought to generate in us a sense that we are seeing people and using things.

All the best to you as you prepare your heart for Holy Week.

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (E)–The Walls of Wrath

Dear James,

You’ve asked a couple of questions that I’ll respond to specifically. First, am I “suggesting that all sin is a distraction from duty?” I have indeed linked many of these reflections on sin to distraction, but it doesn’t follow that the essence of sin is itself distraction. Rather, I think that distraction is a frequent byproduct of our sinfulness. Trapped in sin, we fail our duty (which further complicates sin!). So, not all sin is distraction, but in sin I am almost always distracted from my God-given duty.

Second, “To what degree can a sin be purely a matter of the body, and to what degree can we have a sin which is purely of the soul?” In the tradition, sins like Lust and Sloth were considered to be purely bodily sins, and therefore of a lesser significance that more spiritual sins, like Pride and Greed. But I am wary, first of all, of overly dividing the body and soul. Is it really possible to commit a physical sin that doesn’t in some sense impact my spirit? And is it really possible to commit a spiritual sin which doesn’t have some necessary impact on my body? As I’ve treated our sins so far, I’ve made an explicit point to try and exhibit them in both bodily and spiritual form, not dividing one from the other. This seems like good sense. Additionally, I’ve avoided ranking them, especially because I feel that the essence of sin is something that separates us from God. If a sin of the first rank can separate us from God just as effectively as the sin ranked seventh, then the rankings are clearly irrelevant.

Does this suggest that all sin is equal? In one sense, yes. In another, no. All sin is equal in its capacity to separate us from God, and in this adultery is every bit as bad as murder or theft or covetousness. But in the no sense, sins are unequal in their effects on other people. So while the consequence of Envy could potentially affect only me (ruining my capacity for joy), the consequence of Murder necessarily affects another person. My sin is not merely a sin of the inner life, nor a sin against my own body, but a sin against someone else’s body. In this sense, it seems to me that some sins are clearly worse than others.

This suggests that we can view sin in three different capacities—sin as it affects the inner life, sin as it affects the body, and sin as it affects the community around me. Consider, for example, Wrath. As a sin of the inner life, Wrath seems to involve the undue embrace of anger at another person or situation. In this, you are angry when you have no right to be. Now we have lots of reasons to be angry (and for the record I think anger is one of God’s gifts to us). But we have times to be angry, and purposes for our anger, and Godly means of exercising, discharging, and dispensing with our anger—and these are conditions which I would suggest are always filled by God’s Wrath in the Scriptures. Sinful Wrath, to me, seems to involve a failure at one of these points—angry at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose, and discharged without Godliness. Paul famously commands us to “be angry and do not sin.” Be angry. Feel what is wrong with your life. Experience this particular pain. But do not sin in it! Wrath is sinning in anger.

The bodily aspect of the sin of Wrath may seem opaque at first, but I think it clear enough upon reflection. When we prioritize our anger it has a habit of flattening out all our other emotions. The man who lives in the grip of an ongoing rage feels little else—sadness, joy, melancholy, interest, happiness, etc. Ironically, sometimes, I’ve found that people will almost subconsciously adopt Wrath as their dominating emotion simply so that they won’t have to feel anything else. Their hearts are wrapped in a Wrath of self-protection. Wrath is then a sin against the body by limiting my capacity to experience the world God has given me, in all its joys and sorrows.

With regard to community, Wrath generates what we might call a dishonest distortion. Instead of seeing a person, I see red; instead of really hearing, I hear only talking points for arguments. Wrath, having flattened my own emotional life, then flattens my perception of other persons as well. This is perhaps something of what is going on in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says that calling our brother “fool” and “emptyhead” leads to a murder of the heart. Instead of receiving his accusation that I’ve done wrong, I dismiss and label him. Once labeled and dismissed, in Wrath I can do away with them in my heart. It’s a kind of murder, certainly.

In this, Wrath is the sin which builds up walls around the heart. It keeps other people, and other emotions, at arm’s length. It is a self-protective sin, and it seems to me that times of quiet prayer and meditation can especially provoke those strongholds of Wrath. God, after all, pursues us in those places where we try to hide, where we are attempting to cover up. And I wonder if what is often our Wrath at God is not the manifestation of the walls we’ve erected to keep Him out? Not that we can’t be angry at God (the Psalms make that possibility clear!), but when our anger becomes a habit of life, ongoing, undischarged, and disallowing of other emotional states.

I remember counseling a man who lived in the grip of Wrath to listen to sad music. It seemed to me fairly clear that if he would open his heart to experiences other than anger, then perhaps it might jumpstart his capacity to feel other emotions on a more regular basis. How many men, I wonder, have simply forgotten how to feel any other emotions?

The church service you mention sounds marvelous. I’ve enjoyed a fair share of the “smells and bells” services in my time, and you’re absolutely right that our material worship matters for our spiritual capacities for worship. What a medieval insight!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (D)–The Slanted Gaze of Envy

Dear James,

There are two errors against which we must maintain our vigilance. The first is in rejecting outright the insights of Medieval Catholicism—to do this is to commit the “chronological snobbery” of which our friend Lewis wrote so eloquently. But the other, and opposite, error is to over-romanticize the medieval period. It seems to happen, often enough, that once a person gets a taste for a different worldview—one that can challenge his own with some effectiveness—he can begin to uncritically accept the whole of that other worldview and become blind to its inherent shortcomings. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to resist the urge to label certain time periods as “golden eras.” No such times exist—there are only present moments, and while we ought to view these present moments through the corrective lens of the past, we must never permit our love for old things to take us away from our duties in the present.

The whole idea of golden eras seems to me to be rooted in Envy. When I long for another time period I am commonly “looking over the fence” at some other era, which from the light of my present circumstances appears far greener and more lush. Perhaps I like the 1940s-60s, especially because it was a heyday for publishing. Or maybe I favor Pre-Reformation Europe simply because the reality of Christendom was an undisputed fact. Or perhaps any era but our own for how clergy were viewed by congregants and society alike! But the thing to note about such envious gazes is that we always choose the favorable and ignore the difficulties. Our sight is slanted. Perceiving a present difficulty (for example, in publishing, Christian identity, or clergy relations), some other era appeals on the simple basis that, to my understanding, in that era there was no such difficulty. What this ignores is that the figures from those eras were troubled by other, significant problems! Envy, in these circumstances, is tantamount to grumbling about my present problems.

I am reminded that the Israelites grumble when coming out of Egypt—they’re free from slavery, but they aren’t happy because they don’t have the cucumbers of Egypt! They’ve taken a present difficulty (a certain kind of hunger), and are looking now slant-eyed at the past (at least we were full, there!). Envy involves a distortion of vision—we no longer look at the world properly. In Envy we are blinded to the goodness of God in the present because we’re too busy longing for the things of the past, or the things possessed by others. In this way, Envy and ingratitude are the same. Envy also destroys our practical obedience. We’ve each got tasks to do in the present—a call, a vocation issued by God and determined by where we’ve been planted in faith. In Envy, I ignore the needs and duties that surround me while daydreaming about other needs, other duties. I preach badly to my congregation because I wish I was preaching at another, larger, more attentive, more Berean church up the road. I care poorly for the child who is interrupting me at the moment because I’m busy writing something that I perceive will be enjoyed by thousands. I fail to enjoy the simple meal in front of me because it isn’t as rich as the meal of my neighbor. And yes, I think the enjoyment of what is before me is an act of obedience, while the pretended enjoyment of what is not before me would necessarily be an act of disobedience!

That isn’t to say that we can’t think about the past, or look at other people’s lives, or even compare grasses across the fence. I think there is actually a more Godly form of Envy—not sinful, of course—which is one of our natural human emotions. It is the pleasure we ought to feel at another person’s success. Did you hear about X’s raise? I’m so pleased that God has blessed him in that way. Did you see Y’s new car? What a blessing for her! When someone we know experiences an accomplishment or a blessing which we haven’t, then it ought to be our response to celebrate with that person. In such celebration, I think it perfectly reasonable to piggyback our own desire for success upon their actualized success—not in imitation of theirs, but in the hope that we can achieve what is rightly our own. When someone wins a book deal, the response of wicked envy would be to wonder why it was not my book deal, or to complain about that person’s qualifications, or to generally grumble about the situation. The response of Godly Envy, however, would be to celebrate and rejoice with what God has done for that person, then prayerfully double-down on my own call. I have personally found this process to be one of the best tonics against Envy (the wicked kind)—to celebrate the successes of my companions and to pray actively for God to increase their successes. There is a great sense of joy in being released from the bondage of my own opinions regarding what is meritorious!

Fundamentally, the human creature is made to desire greatness, and yet not all of us will experience greatness in the same capacity. Envy creeps in and takes root when we begin to compare greatnesses and fixate on our own perceived deficiencies. The slanted gaze of Envy, thus, interrupts our call to the present moment. It will do no good to deny the existence of greatness or of merit, however. Some people will always be better than me, have more than me, and so forth. But they cannot fulfill the task which God has given to me to perform. Therefore a corrected Envy—the pleasure at another’s accomplishment—ought to reinforce my call to the present task.

Despite our summons to greatness, it is remarkable how quickly we can descend to the most astonishing pettiness, and hunger’s ability to bring us to such a place is unmatched. Envy at the fact that other people get to eat! But by God’s grace, the intentionality of fasting helps to expose our absurdity, and we are given fresh opportunities to pray through our focus on self, even going so far as to bless the Lord for the food others get to eat! Truly, a grateful heart is one in which envy can find no footholds.

Your mention in passing of a great church service has my interest piqued. Do tell me more in your next letter.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (C)–Sloth, Disobedience, and Listening

Dear James,

It is true, as you say, that Pride is traditionally thought to be the sin of the Garden. That doesn’t mean that Lust wasn’t part of it as well. But please note that I was very careful in my last letter to avoid suggesting that Adam and Eve’s sin was some form of sexual consummation. Rather, I focused on how their sin elevated an appetite above their obedience to God. It was carnal, therefore, in the sense that it was rooted in the body, in that it was a sin of the flesh. Claiming that their sin was a sin of Lust does not eliminate Pride, but perhaps merely augments it. (And for what it’s worth, I still believe Pride was central in that moment, but we’ll have to discuss that another week.) What this does illuminate for us clearly—and what you note as well—is that there seems to be a blurring between these sins as we’ve dealt with them so far. As far as I’m concerned, this blurring is to be expected, if only because (as Jeremiah says) the heart is deceitful above all else. Its deceit is surely manifested in the manifold ugliness of our invention for sin, and in the festering motives which sit rooted in the heart. It is the heart that is sinful, and the Seven Deadly Sins are useful inasmuch as they can bring me into fresh insight about my own, corrupted heart. In that sense, Gluttony or Lust or Pride aren’t the problem—they are symptoms. The problem is deeper—it is sin itself, rebellion against God—and all our acts of meditation and personal reflection upon sin are ineffective if they don’t target the real problem.

When you think about it, it seems that a great deal of Christian spirituality is geared toward addressing symptoms. We’re a very ad hoc people—always addressing the problem of the present moment. Part of the reason for this, surely, is that we’ve become so bad at simply listening. We hold one-way conversations with God. We abhor silence. We privilege activism over reflection, tangible service over prayerful contemplation. If you set aside time for silent reflection, however, it won’t take long for God to begin to show you your deep need for Him, and to do this by bringing to your awareness your misdeeds and failures. At least that’s what He does for me!

Ironically, this failure to listen generates our widespread subservience to Sloth, which is, I imagine, the sin we most commit out of simple negligence. The irony, of course, is that for many people silent reflection looks like laziness—it is Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while there are things to be done. But true contemplation is never laziness, and nor, for that matter, is laziness quite the same thing as Sloth. Sloth is the business of ignoring our duty, or, of seeing it, and then neglecting to do it. It is an indolence in the face of a call, a turning away of our attentions from what God is asking us to do toward our own preferences, a disposition of disobedience, and it is deadly. Consider how the Rich Man in Jesus’ story reveals his Sloth by ignoring Lazarus at his doorstep.

Sloth wars against our human call to magnanimity—and here I borrow from Josef Pieper’s language. As humans we each bear within us an urge toward greatness, one that I expect is rooted in the image of God. This urge is toward what Pieper (quoting Aquinas) calls the extensio animi ad magna—the stretching of the soul towards greatness. To deny this urge is to deny something essential to our humanity. To ignore its call, or to deflect it, or to live in intentional ignorance of what it implies, is to live in Sloth. In the grip of Sloth, I sanctify my own disobedience.

The tonic to this, of course, is listening and obedience. We set aside time for meditation and reflection, to listen to God’s voice, to really hear what He wants to say. From those gleanings, we must seek to obey His voice. As a rule, this process becomes cyclic—the more we listen and obey, the more He speaks, and the more opportunities we are given to obey. Ultimately, because our true greatness can only be found in obedient service to Christ (and not by our own efforts at greatness), it follows that an attitude of intentional listening is critical to the fulfillment of call. The kind of listening, in fact, which is precisely in view when we approach a season of fasting such as this one.

In view of this, is it not possible that in some sense busyness—our chronic mania of activity—is actually a manifestation of Sloth? From what we’ve seen, the Slothful person could conceivably be extremely active and busy, but busy about all the wrong kinds of things. And indeed, how often it is that we utilize our busyness wickedly, whether to earn credit with God for our actions, or to drown out our true obedience. Busyness dulls the ears from hearing God’s voice.

That’s not to say that our lives won’t be full. Busyness and fullness are not the same thing at all. Nor are rest and play to be confused with laziness. The Lord has given us time and pleasure as gifts. They only become wicked when utilized out of proportion to their purpose. In this sense, in addition to listening, Sabbath keeping would be another ironic answer to Sloth. In Sabbath, I declare that I am not too busy to stop, rest, and enjoy God’s goodness.

May God continue to bless your fasting, James—please pray also for mine!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios