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

A Letter of Thanks to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

You’ve been the recipient of a great deal of public criticism these past months. I’m sure it’s been extremely challenging for you! And yet, for my part, I can’t help but feel that your candidacy for president has generated some significant good for Christians, and for Christianity in America. I thought I would utilize this letter as an opportunity to thank you for some of these crucial contributions.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping to expose our tacit lust for power and influence. Christians throughout recorded history have struggled to navigate between the Kingdom of God and the earthly political world. Christ’s Kingdom is, of course, not of this world, and operating in the press between worldly political structures and an otherworldly kingdom has been a source of perpetual tension. In the great American experiment, political power has been placed, in a heretofore unprecedented way, into the hands of its citizens. American Christians rightly feel their duty to be both good Christians and good citizens, and yet it would seem that we have never come to comfortably understand what it means to utilize our religious power in the political sphere. Are we a voting bloc? Is it our best political goal to elect a devoutly Christian president? Do we vote for the person who will lead best, or for the person who most resembles our Christian convictions? None of these questions have simple answers. And yet, what is becoming clear, thanks in part to your candidacy, is that in the process we have apparently come to love both our influence and our power. That we love our influence is exhibited by how much we kvetch about losing it—how America is no longer Christian, how our rights are being restricted, and so forth. That we love power is evidenced in how quickly we will sideline many of our public convictions for the sake of certain political ends. This kind of love reflects an idolatry—idolatry for the best seats at banquets, to be seen and acknowledged as authorities in the public square, for all the kingdoms of the world if only we will bow down.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for illustrating our love for utility. One of America’s great contributions to the world is her drive to make things happen, to get things done. Giving a free rein to capitalism has unleashed creativity powerfully, and that creativity has generated much of America’s wealth and influence in the world. However, at times this freedom—our most treasured asset!—has also manifest itself in utility. We prize what works, more than what is good; we value results, more than process; we are impatient with the slow or the inconvenient, and gobble the quick. In this, we have learned to be utilitarian. Our first question about a thing is not, “Is this good? Is this right?” but rather, “Will it work?” This is, of course, simply an alternate expression of that old phrase, “The ends justify the means.” If I get what I want, then the means by which I arrive there are largely irrelevant. If, for example, we get a Supreme Court which can overthrow Roe v. Wade (which I trust any likeminded Christian would consider an unqualified good), then whatever means we must engage in to achieve that are permissible. In this, your candidacy, which has found support in the Christian world substantially through its appeal to ends (better than Hillary, the Supreme Court) over means (you), has exposed us to the rank and repulsive vulgarity of means.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping us to see just how little of America is truly Christian. It wasn’t long ago now that statistical research declared that Christianity in America was shrinking. In fact, what it showed was that many people who were only tacitly Christian now formally identify as not, which provides a helpful winnowing of perception. Further, it has invited ministers like me to consider with greater intensity just what makes someone a mature Christian—it is certainly not their one-time prayer to receive Christ, nor is it their American political identity, nor is it their voting habits or political affiliation, nor is it their opposition to Islam, nor is it their public outrage at various anti-Christian sentiments in the world. No, what makes individuals followers of Christ is their life of, quite simply, following after Jesus. Such a life is marked by a sustained study of the Scriptures, fellowship with other Christ-followers, and an ever forming and reforming personal character into the image and likeness of Jesus. Amazingly, your candidacy has given us an opportunity to see just how much work at converting our fellow Americans remains to us. It is abundantly clear that, somehow, over the past years, we who are the Church have lost much of America to a weakened, unreflective, un-lived, and sometimes outright false or pseudo-Christianity. You have shown us, Mr. Trump, just how much re-evangelization we must perform.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for giving us this unprecedented opportunity to re-think our political and social strategy. One of the most powerful Christian political movements, of course, happened in the last forty years or so, and was publicly called the “religious right,” or the “moral majority.” Its agenda was to address in the political sphere many of the social and moral problems facing the American nation. When it began, in the early 80s, America’s moral center still largely overlapped with Christian convictions. But in an unprecedented shift, over the past 35 years that center has spun far afield from the comfortable consonance we once enjoyed. Conscientious Christians in America today find themselves, for what may be the first time in America’s history, quite simply at odds with the moral center of their nation. There was a time when policies and politicians formed by sincere Christian convictions would resonate with a majority body of average Americans. Your candidacy has helped us to see that such a time has passed. We are pressed, then, to reconsider our public strategy. If our convictions no longer represent a majority of Americans, then the place to alter those convictions—the place to regain our Christian influence—is surely not at the highest political levels. A president who reflects our convictions will be completely impotent to change the convictions of everyday Americans who disagree with him completely. In this, Mr. Trump, you have helped us to see that our greatest need is not political power, but revival—a revival of Christianity in America through discipleship, through trained Christian character, through the development of the Christian mind, and through a nationwide revival of the spirit. In the light of your candidacy we are enabled to see that the temporary benefit of the presidency, or of Supreme Court offices, is of little value when our public witness is at stake with the very people we so desperately need to reach. What good is it to gain the whole world but lose your soul? What good is it to gain a “Christian” nation, but lose its people in the process?

Mr. Trump, your influence these past months has had, and will continue to have, an unparalleled effect on the reshaping of Christian mission in America. It is my prayer that, if we repent and seek revival, you yourself may become one of the beneficiaries of the renewed Christian mind, and a public image of the formed and forming Christian character in action. In the meantime, thank you for helping us to perceive our real needs!

In Christ,

Rev. Jeremy Rios


The Weaker Brother, Part 2: A Q&A

(Note: The contents of this post reflect a real conversation I had with a friend. However, I have edited it into simple questions and answers for readability. He contributed as much, or more, to the “Answers” as I did, even though they’re in my voice below. For the full context you’ll want to read the original post, here.)

"Excuse me, I have a question."

“Excuse me, I have a question.”

Q: You’ve claimed that the Weaker Brother Principle isn’t about personal sin but about community life, but can’t we still use the Weaker Brother Principle for some kinds of issues which are cultural in origin? For example, what about the church from the 40s and 50s–no drinking, dancing, playing cards, or cinema? If the conscience determines something is sin, isn’t it still sin, and doesn’t the principle still apply?

A: The answer to the question is “Yes, we can.” But we can only do it very advisedly.

The problem is twofold. In the first place, we must object to the manipulative use of the Weaker Brother Principle to maintain a centre while explaining outliers. The centre (who are proscribing behaviours) are by definition the weaker brothers–that’s how Paul has identified them in the passage. But they don’t apply the principle that way–they don’t actually think they are weak. To them it must be made clear that the proscription of activities which have no Scriptural or historical ground as sin is a weakness of faith (i.e., rather than an inward reality, faith is ‘proved’ by a set of predetermined actions–“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with girls who do.”) The Weaker Brother Principle is, first of all, a public rebuke of sin. That’s what I was hinting at when I mentioned that Romans was originally read out loud. Don’t you see? Paul is publicly identifying one group of believers in the church as weak, and this is not a compliment but a rebuke.

The second problem is with the libertine use of the Weaker Brother Principle to permit some people in the church to abandon holiness in profligacy. These are not exercising their freedom in service but in rebellion. They cannot possibly fulfill the command because they have no actual strength of faith to lend to the brother who is weak in faith.

So, to round this out, for the Weaker Brother Principle to work properly there must be both these elements of rebuke for weakness of faith as well as call to service for those strong in faith. The Weaker Brother Principle exists to strengthen community, not to explain sin.

Q: Still, what about the conscience? If I can’t look at sexual content in movies because I recognize in myself that opening those doors will lead to sin, am I not still weaker? Are you not still stronger?

SmokingA: Perhaps you are weaker, and perhaps I am stronger, but that weakness and strength has nothing to do with our faith. This, in focus, was also the problem with the understanding of faith and holiness in the church from the 40s to 80s (or so). Leaders in the church defined ‘faith’ as a set of actions–it was a way of determining who was in and out of fellowship. If you drank, smoked, and danced, you were clearly out; if you avoided those activities you were clearly in. Public perceptions of sin, in other words, came to determine who belonged or didn’t belong in the church. But these were all about outward conduct, and had little to do with inward reality (although the two are, admittedly, linked).

In other words, honoring your conscience by not presenting you with sexual material doesn’t fall under the Weaker Brother Principle–it falls, rather, under the law of love from Romans 13–for if I am loving you, how can I possibly want to do you harm? Again, this is simple courtesy, not necessarily accommodation to weakness.

Q: But what about sins of conscience? What does it mean for one person to drink and another to abstain? For one person to view cinematic content that another must avoid?

BeerA: The answer lies in self-knowledge. Let’s take alcohol as an example. Drinking, we know, is not in itself sinful (although drunkenness is clearly proscribed by Scripture). For you and me, we can visit over beer with no ill effect (quite the contrary, when we visit over beer we have conversations like this one!). But for another brother who struggles with alcoholism that beer–or even the smell of the beer–may be enough to tempt him into falling away from his sobriety. Now sin for our alcoholic brother is not in the alcohol itself but in the moment when he chooses against his conscience and his own limitations. Sin on our part is placing before him a condition which could make him stumble despite our knowing of his limitations. In matters of personal conscience, therefore, if the Weaker Brother Principle obtains it obtains at the level of self-knowledge. You are aware of your personal limitations when it comes to content of movies, as am I of my own for that matter, but we have different limits. It is not that I am particularly ‘free’ to watch whatever I wish–I, equally, am under constraints, but I have to attend to my own conscience to know when I am watching for the right or wrong reasons. That, really, is where sins of conscience fall–not in the activity itself (which, if it is a candidate for this kind of activity, cannot be a sin proscribed by Scripture), but in the limits of the conscience for the individual believer. Now if–and this is a big if–if the Weaker Brother Principle is going to work, then my strength of self-knowledge and maturity of conscience must be converted in accommodation to serve the weakness of your self-knowledge and immaturity of conscience. The goal, for us both, will be greater Christlikeness. But just to clarify, here again the failings of applying the principle to personal sin arise–in what way is an alcoholic’s inability to drink alcohol a ‘weakness of faith’? In what way is the gambling addict’s inability to play cards a ‘weakness of faith’? The Principle can only help to strengthen community, when it comes to matters of conscience and personal sin, when we are strengthening one another in self-knowledge in Christ.

Q: Okay, but how does this all tie in with Paul’s words about idolatry and idol’s feasts in 1 Corinthians 6?

A: It’s funny you should bring that up–weren’t you the one who was just talking to me about Helmut Thielicke’s thoughts on this very subject? In fact, here’s the book now, and here are the relevant paragraphs:

Helmut ThielickeThe statements occur in a discussion of the question whether the Christian may eat meat that has been dedicated to pagan gods. In brief, Paul’s position is as follows. In principle there can be no objection, since we have only one God, the Father of Jesus Christ (8:6). To that extent there are for us no other gods. No sacrifices can be made to beings that do not exist and have no significance for us. Hence the meat offered to them is only meat for us. It has no sacral implication. It is simply a means of nourishment. In principle eating idol meat is an adiaphoron, a matter of indifference.

If nevertheless Paul asks the Corinthians to refrain from eating it, this is for different reasons. Christians might participate whose spiritual understanding is undeveloped so that they do not yet see that idols are unreal. Their situation is thus very different from that of mature Christians who can eat without scruples. Since the immature still regard idols as realities, by eating they would be deciding against Christ, not accepting him as the only Lord. Hence those for whom Christ died might be destroyed (8:11). For they would be coming under the power of demons and letting ungodly forces come between them and the one Lord (10:18-22). In simple terms, the reasons why Christians should abstain from idol meats are not theological (there can be no theological reasons in view of the unreality of idols). They are ethical reasons which demand regard for weak and spiritually immature brethren.

The difference between the theological and ethical aspects reflects the ambivalence of what is said about the gods.

Theologically, since there is only one God, the gods are a negligible quantity. Ethically, however, their nothingness can suddenly become a real power which can captivate the weaker brother, who is not yet rendered immune by faith, if he comes under their influence (8:10ff). Perhaps one might put it this way. Whereas God calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17), unbelief calls what is not as thought it were. It enables the idol’s nothingness to become a demonic power (1 Corinthians 10:20). Its nothingness is intrinsically an occasion for achieving freedom over it (10:23, 29). The moment, however, that God is no longer the one and only Lord for me, I am deprived of my freedom by what is outside God. This takes his place as a demonic alter ego. I come under the sway of a power that is nothing in itself but is something for me. It is because the mature Christian cannot let this happen that he must freely abstain from anything that might rob another of his freedom (10:24, 33). (Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, 96, bold emphasis added)

I think Thielicke ties up our discussion nicely. These aren’t questions of sin per se (i.e., they are not “theological” questions), they are questions of idolatry and culture. Those who are free in Christ recognize that Christ is Lord over all and are free in their conduct. Those who are not yet mature in Christ continue to view the world and culture as having power. This is their weakness (one worthy of public rebuke!), and viewing these things as powers they give to them power. The idol meat is not idolatrous because it is idol meat (because an idol is nothing at all); it is idolatrous because the weak-faithed believer, out of his weakness, gives it power. The Weaker Brother Principle, then, is really about applying my strength of faith to help weaker brothers gain victory in Christ. And this is not a victory of conduct-holiness (proscribing certain behaviours, which is often how we speak of victory), but rather a victory that comes from the ingested knowledge of Christ’s absolute lordship over all things, powers, cultures, histories, events, and so forth. Naturally, when Christ indwells us in power more fully our conduct will change accordingly, holiness being a byproduct of Christlikeness, but the metrics of holiness are outside the Weaker Brother Principle, which is ultimately about knowledge of Christ’s absolute Lordship leading to service for the saints.