Dear James (B)–Medieval Wisdom and Lust

Dear James,

I’m pretty sure I understand your concerns about the lurking Catholicism and implicit medievalism in the practice of fasting and the language of Gluttony. There is, of course, nothing wrong with things that are specifically medieval. For whatever their liabilities, theirs was also an age which seemed to know a great deal more about the interaction of the body and soul. And I hope we’re both sufficiently self-aware to evaluate beliefs on their intrinsic merit, and not on their association with a specific time period. Where the medievals were right we ought to agree with them, learn from them, and utilize their thoughts as a corrective to our own, distorted age. It’s the same with things we might consider more “Catholic” than others. Whatever the liabilities or merits of Roman Catholicism, we would be foolhardy to assume that all Catholics throughout all of history are to be dismissed because of the errors of some Catholics at some points.

In this, it seems to me that our Medieval Catholic friends showed extreme wisdom in highlighting what today we know as the Seven Deadly Sins. Not because there are only seven sins, nor because we ought to rank sins as a way to measure how good we think we are. No, what the medieval mind shows is a kind of comprehensive awareness of those things which have power to keep us from the fullness of life in God—Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Greed, and Pride. Ignorance of the means by which these things can keep us from God is not a strength on our part. Similarly, medievals had a robust conception of the body and the need to mortify it for the sake of our enriched life with God. Just this morning I read in Walter Hilton that “The flesh must be chastised, with discretion, to atone for past sins, and to restrain sinful inclinations, and to make the body obedient and compliant to the soul.” Note the strength of his claim—the body must be chastised. Your faith will remain infantile until some sort of physical mortification has taken shape in your spiritual life. But note the immediate appeal to discretion—we mustn’t go too far, or exceed our body’s capacity to benefit from the activity. And note the ultimate purpose—that we are striving to make our bodies “obedient and compliant to the soul” That, with concision, seems to me precisely what this season of fasting is really about, and illustrates nicely why it is at such places that we must study at the feet of our medieval, Catholic masters.

You are right to observe that by identifying sexual indiscretion as a sin of Gluttony I must therefore mean something much more nuanced by Lust. I still hold the first assertion to be true, if only because a significant part of our growth in faith and awareness of sin is the business of disambiguating the motivations of the heart. Many people who have committed sexual indiscretions may think they’ve committed a sin of Lust, when really they’re in the grip of Gluttony, sinning against both pleasure and time. They would sin less, not by denying their sexuality, but by both building up their temperance and striving to savor those pleasures which are appropriate for the given time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something intrinsically sexual about Lust, but I think the heart of the sin is placed somewhere different.

For me, the essence of Lust is in the privilege it gives to our animal nature. In Lust, my desires (and, specifically in focus, my most animal, instinctual desire—the desire to procreate) are granted decision-making power over my will. The result is that by privileging my animal nature over my spiritual I begin to deny my humanity. Lust, by fixating on desire, reduces me to nothing more than my desires. Sub-human, then, I am crippled in my capacity for relationships. By privileging personal desire above all else, Lust makes me supremely selfish.

I think it’s interesting that when we look at the creation of human persons in early Genesis we see a kind of recipe for the human creature—dirt, plus the Spirit of God. We are material (earth), and spiritual (God’s breath), at the same time. This is the central thing that sets us apart from the rest of creation. When as human creatures we are operating rightly, then the spiritual is in a position of governance over the material. But when we begin to privilege our animal desires and give them precedence over our spiritual ones, then we break the human creature and death is a necessary consequence. In this very specific sense, the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin of Lust—of the privileging of animal desire (for fruit, for knowledge) over our spiritual selves (in submission to our maker). In this, it seems of especial note that our Lord’s first temptation centers on food, and that his answer to the devil was that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fasting, it would appear, is about getting our humanity back in the right place—it’s like a scheduled tune-up for the human machine.

Fasting is therefore extremely useful in addressing Lust. However, we must be careful not to turn it into a kind of cure for Lust—or indeed for any sin. There are two things to say about this. First, we mustn’t think that by engaging in spiritual activity we can merit specific spiritual merits. What I mean is that we can’t bargain with God by saying, “I’ll fast in this way if You’ll fix me with regard to sex.” That’s not the point of fasting, and that’s not how things work with God. (And yet I wonder how often these attitudes creep quietly into our thoughts when we’re fasting!) To be fair, there will always be some spiritual benefit for all intentional acts of spiritual self-discipline, but we don’t get to determine what those will be. The best thing that can happen—especially during a time of fasting from food—is that I might gain a new sense of quiet patience before the Lord, a submissiveness, a prayerfulness. From that quietude, perhaps He will work in me something unexpected, like a desire for greater kindness, or a conviction of a certain unkindness. It can be anything! But better attention to the Word of God seems to me the sole and pure motive of fasting—I starve my belly so that I can open my ears.

Second, while fasting is useful against Lust, when we use fasting to try to “defeat” sin then we open the door to self-pity. Think of it this way. When we make our fasting penance for sin, then in addition to turning it into a bargaining chip with God, we also interrupt the central process of quietude and attentiveness to God. Our focus is upon our selves and upon self-evaluation when we ought instead to have been listening to God. And so long as our attention is self-focused in fasting, the snake of self-pity writhes in our subconscious. Hunger becomes quiet self-acclamation. Sin generates a need for further self-focus. The simple truth is that fasting in itself cannot defeat sin. Fasting opens us to God, and it is God alone who defeats sin. And so long as we are seeking some other thing through fasting, then we are interrupting the very process which might actually change us.

I wonder if the positive virtue which best aligns against Lust isn’t contingency. If, in Lust, there is a temptation to depend upon my own desires as determinative of my identity, then wouldn’t it be answered by an awareness of my true, deeper dependency upon God and God alone? “Man does not live by bread alone.” Fasting seems to me one of the best ways to go about getting that relationship sorted out. Additionally, if this disordering of my desires in Lust creates selfishness, then the other positive area of focus would be intentional relationships and acts of sacrificial service. Anything, in short, that can get me out of the echo-chamber of my own desires.

Please lay aside any concerns about our correspondence. I’ve always looked forward to your letters, and it seems to me that this Lenten season has given us a perfect opportunity for just this kind of discussion about sin, fasting, and goodness. As always, I hope it will continue to be mutually beneficial!


Jeremy Rios

Matthew 24, Genesis 1, and the Eternal Reign of King Jesus

In Matthew 24 Jesus gives an extensive sermon on the end of the world, teaching his disciples what to look for in the near future. He describes wars and rumors of wars, false christs, earthquakes, and other terrible events. At the end, Jesus says that the following will happen:

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days

             “‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 

 30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

 32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that itis near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generationwill certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. [Matthew 24:29-35, NIV]

There are three (relatively) clear events that Jesus identifies here: first, the darkening of the heavenly bodies (quoting Isaiah); second, the visible arrival of Christ, the Son of Man (esp. v.30); and third, that these things will happen within the lifetime of the present generation (v.34).

End times speculation, despite Jesus’ specific warning (that nobody knows the day or hour of his return—v.36) and exhortation (to live faithful lives as if the return could be any moment—v.42-44), has flourished, and this passage has been a frequent victim of misguided exegesis. A part of the confusion stems from the nature of end-times speculation, but another part from the reality that this is a highly layered and textured passage. I cannot treat the whole in depth at this time, but for today’s purposes I want to focus our attention on Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah and what that means for the end times in light of Biblical Theology.

An evocative and powerful image...

Regarding Matthew 24:29—the darkening of the sun and moon with the falling of the stars—I have understood there to be two broad interpretations. The one I grew up with was a literal darkening; that the cosmic order would itself collapse with the return of Jesus and that the demise of sun, moon, and stars would be a herald of the parousia. The popularity of this interpretation is no doubt linked to its powerful imagery; we can easily picture this happening. Consequently, it shows up in our interpretations of the event—even good interpretations such as C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle (which had a profound and lasting effect on my young eschatology).

The other interpretation, which I encountered as I grew in awareness of critical scholarship (‘critical’ here meaning thorough, not skeptical), is that the darkening of the heavens is a prophetic image which identifies the symbolic, and not literal, end of the cosmic order.

Let’s consider the two places in Isaiah where this message of cosmic disordering occurs, and from which Jesus has likely drawn his source. Isaiah 13:9-13 is a passage of cosmic judgment—the sun, moon, and stars are darkened as a preamble for the revelation of God’s judgment against mankind when God will “destroy sinners” and “make the land desolate.” Isaiah 34:1-17 is the same message, although judgment is preached against “the nations” and the dissolution of the cosmos is combined with the image of the fig tree dropping its fruit (v.4—which echoes Jesus fig tree reference in Matt 24:32). Clearly, the context Jesus wishes to evoke by quoting this passage is that the final judgment of all the people who oppose God’s ways (both sinners and the nations) is at hand.

Other Old Testament passages that speak of the sun, moon, and stars cast even more light on Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 24. Genesis 37:9ff documents Joseph’s prophetic dream wherein he saw his father, mother, and brothers as the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. He foresaw a reordering of his family, where a younger son was given the authority over all his family (in some violation of the present cultural order). Deuteronomy 4:19 admonishes Israel against worshipping the heavenly bodies as the other nations do. Psalm 148:8 describes these heavenly bodies worshipping God themselves. And Jeremiah 8:2 predicts judgment against the people who have worshipped these heavenly bodies, rather than God—they will get what they have worshipped (that is, nothing at all).

Now, given these Old Testament referents (referents which no doubt strongly inform Jesus’ use of this passage), it seems that our interpretation could go both ways. There may, or may not, be a catastrophic cosmic dissolution. The events are clearly symbolic of other realities (judgment and reordering, to name two), but these passages alone do not permit us to determine whether it is a metaphorical or literal occurrence.

But one further passage casts a different light on this whole meta-structure of Biblical thought on the sun, moon, and stars: Genesis 1. Many have observed an implicit oddity about that passage—that light is created on the first day, but that the sun, moon, and stars do not appear until the fourth day. This has troubled many. Knowing, as we do, that light is generated by the sun, for some it testifies to the implicit falsehood of the creation story. Others have sought to reconcile this account with science by appealing to the science of planet creation, observing certain kinds of atmospheric coverage that would block visible light but allow other forms of radiation. But no solution draws near to John Walton’s in simplicity, consistency, and elegance. He observes in The Lost World of Genesis One a parallelism between days one and four, two and five, and three and six. That the first three days mark the creation of cosmic spaces, and the second three days populate those cosmic spaces. Let’s view these in reverse in order to make it clear—day three is the creation of the ground, and day six is the creation of the animals that populate the ground (both beasts and man). Day two is the creation of the sea and sky, and day five is the creation of the fish and the birds. And day one is the creation of time, and day three the beings that govern (or populate) time. This may seem strange at first, but step for a moment into the mind of an ancient person and this will become imminently clear. How do you measure a day? By the light of the sun. How do you measure a month? By the phases of the moon. And how do you measure the seasons? By the light of the constellations in the sky. The sun, moon, and stars are the bodies God has created (they are not deities themselves) and they govern our days, months, and seasons.

With this in mind, let us return at last to Matthew 24, and I think we will perceive Jesus’ words in the fresh light of a biblical cosmology. We should note, first, that immediately after the darkening of the heavenly bodies, in verse 30 Jesus says that “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn.” And the image is that as the old cosmic order sets, the new cosmic order of Christ rises. That Christ’s coming on the clouds with power and great glory is the dawn of the new cosmic era, the next age of the created order. That no longer will the sun, moon, and stars determine our times—whether as beings under God’s creation or the falsely worshipped deities of other nations—but Christ alone shall be the measure of our time and existence. That Christ will be the supreme measure of all things, for all time (Eph. 1:19-23). That all the nations will mourn because the rise of Christ is the enthronement ceremony of the highest judge, the Day of the Lord, the last, unending, inescapable day of God’s great reign in Christ. That in the city from which God reigns there shall be neither sun nor moon, for “the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev. 21:23). The darkening of the heavens means that the old order has passed away, and that the new order has come in Christ.

Funny that the Medieval's got the right idea...

A final word is in order, because Jesus promises in Matthew 24:34-35 that the present generation wouldn’t pass away until “all these things have happened.” And we must recognize that in the resurrection of Christ the new order of things has begun, his reign has started, and that with his Ascension Jesus Christ was raised into the clouds and seated at God’s right hand. We still wait for his final return, but the end times have begun and we are in the midst of them. Our attention must not focus on current events, earthquakes, wars, rumors of wars, or false christs, but at all times on Christ the Risen One, who rises over our universe as its final authority. Jesus’ use, then, of the image of the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars identifies not, primarily, a literal cosmic event, but the literal rise of Christ as the supreme ruler of all. And even as Joseph saw the heavens bowing to him in a dream, Christ will see all bow to him in reality. One day, perhaps, the sun and moon will truly fall from our sky—heaven and earth may pass away—but regardless of those events, for those of us who follow Christ he is even now the sun who gives light and measure to our lives, who governs our times, who is the perfect and merciful judge of all, and to whom we owe our total worship.