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 time.) 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!


Jeremy Rios

Becoming Virtuous Never Feels Virtuous

Wise Woman CoverGeorge MacDonald’s classic fairy tale The Wise Woman is the penetrating story of two young girls—one the daughter of a king, the other of a shepherd, both thoroughly wicked and selfish. Each girl’s wickedness requires treatment at the hands of the Wise Woman in order to grow out of her bestial selfishness and into a nascent semblance of virtue. One of the tactics utilized by the Wise Woman is simple, ordinary work—such as chores, tasks, and other assignments. At one point in the story MacDonald says this about one of the girls, who had begun to respond to the treatment and was becoming better, but was on the cusp of a relapse into her old selfishness:

She had been doing her duty, and had in consequence begun again to think herself Somebody. However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes. Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it. Could any but a low creature be conceited of not being contemptible? Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures. [George MacDonald, The Wise Woman, 53]

MacDonald is nearly unmatched in his insight into human nature, the human heart, and the process by which we are drawn from our own self-absorption into a more selfless, virtuous humanity. And the feature of the human heart that he so succinctly captures in the paragraph above is our propensity for fair-weather virtue. We are generous when it is convenient, not when it is difficult; kind when it feels good, not when it doesn’t; forgiving when it costs us nothing, miserly when it does. In almost all our pursuits of virtue, our good deeds are as reliable as the weather, ever shifting, ever changing based on our circumstances and momentary preferences. We do not grow in virtue because we have failed to recognize that becoming virtuous never feels like virtue.

Pieper CoverTake, as an example, Josef Pieper’s definition of Courage from his book A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He observes that “Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable. To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous” [Pieper, 24-25]. In other words, no risk, no Courage. An invulnerable individual is not courageous because he or she risks nothing in his or her pursuits, and where there is no fear there is no Courage. The brave person, then, is someone “who does not allow himself to be brought by the fear of secondary and transient evils to the point of forsaking the final and authentic good things” and who furthermore, despite his fear, “advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good” [Pieper, 26, 27]. Convinced of the highest good, such a person pursues it through any pain which might stand between him and that good. Courage, then, is the dogged and unrelenting pursuit of the true good in the face of fear.

If courage requires vulnerability, risk, and pursuit of an objective in the face of fear, then Courage is unlikely to feel like Courage. In fact, Courage will feel like fear, and growing in the virtue of Courage will mean not growing less fearful, but growing more steadfast in the midst of our fears. If we feel courageous feelings and conclude that we are brave, then we are as conceited and ill-informed as the child who feels pride that he successfully ate his dinner. And so long as we await courageous feelings to be courageous, we will live at the mercy of animal nature and momentary circumstance. Instead, true growth in virtue will require us to pay a difficult, unexpected, and often ironic emotional cost. Becoming virtuous, to state it again, never feels virtuous.

If courage feels like fear, then what ironic feelings ought we to expect for the other three cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice? Not long ago I counseled a young woman who was in need of Wisdom to navigate a difficult interpersonal situation. As we discussed the particulars of her situation, it became clear that she was mired in a morass of conflicting perspectives. Decisions had become difficult, and what was required most was the ability to slow down and attempt to perceive the situation with clarity. In that moment it was eminently clear to me, however, that Wisdom doesn’t feel like Wisdom; Wisdom feels like mud. The person who feels wise is simply taking pleasure in her momentary cleverness, while the person who is growing in Wisdom is becoming accustomed to the murkiness of discerning the truth. Mature Wisdom is not found in the momentary insight, but comes through slogging your way into clarity. Temperance is not the good feelings we get when we show some measure of restraint—not purchasing that item of clothing, or not eating that extra cookie. Temperance feels much more like death—it is not the momentary pleasure of a pleasure avoided, but the putting to death of desire to make it serve other goods. Temperance is the death of sexual freedom, of appetites, of acquisitiveness—it is the subjugation of the unwilling will to a higher purpose and good. Lastly, Justice is not found in the feelings of justice—which are too often simply expressions of smug self-righteousness. We are most likely to feel Just when we have done some thing that makes us feel good. But a true commitment to growth in Justice demands grave discomfort, anger, and longing. “How long, O Lord?” is the cry of the Psalmist—a longing which I expect ought to be similarly echoed in the heart of the individual who would grow in the virtue of Justice.

Lady Justice

The irony exhibited through the feelings attached to the four cardinal virtues is abundant—he who would grow in Courage, Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice must willingly choose to experience fear, murkiness, death, and longing. And yet, so long as we await the feelings of virtue to be virtuous, we will remain ethical and moral infants, blown by every wind of emotional fancy. Instead, the man or woman who would grow into virtue, who would commit to becoming more fully human, must resign himself or herself to the difficult work of not feeling virtuous. In this, I am reminded of Baron von Hügel’s austere words to his niece Gwendolyn Greene—words which I keep written on the wall beside my desk:

You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain step-plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth. All demand for constant light, for ever the best—the best to your own feeling, all the attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling. [Friedrich von Hügel, Letters to a Niece, 72]

Virtue is hard work—which is probably why so few people attempt it. And yet there is no other means through which we can actively labor to become mature. But if you’re eager for a little help along the way, may I make a recommendation? His name is George MacDonald—and the book is called The Wise Woman. I give it my highest possible recommendation.

Why Sex is Making us Morally Stupid

C.S. Lewis, writing on June 3, 1956 to a man who asked him about masturbation, offered the following striking and relevant advice:

For me the evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. [Emphasis in bold added]

Obsession with the sexual life is obsession, in the end, with the self—it is a pure expression of the incurvatus in se, what in George MacDonald’s thinking is “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” When my sexuality is the measure of my life and relationships, then I am also removing from influence those people who would challenge me into real mortification. I have elevated my flesh in such an idolatrous way that any call to the willed death of the body is viewed with horror and suspicion. But the deeper danger of such lust, according to Lewis, is what this process does to my imagination. If my job is to extend beyond the prison of myself, and if my faculty of imagination is one of the key areas of my mind given to my by God to accomplish this task, then imaginative activity which corrupts and retards this process is a profound danger.

Claustrophobic Man Sitting

When the pursuit of bodily pleasure dominates a life, that person’s intelligence becomes suspect, and in time inevitably crippled. I was struck by this clearly while recently reading through Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He writes that “an unchaste will to pleasure has the tendency to relate the entirety of the sensory world, especially sensual beauty, to only sexual lust.” The unrestrained desire for pleasure begins to work its way through the perceptions of the individual until the sexual appetite defines all other appetites. Lust becomes synonymous with pleasure. Pieper continues, “Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything, for its own sake.” The mind which is dominated by porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], by pleasure, sees in bodies only objects for consumption, sees in women only opportunities to express itself in lust. Pornography’s unique power is in its ability to render the irrational rational. The consumer of porn maps onto his or her mind not only a set of images, but a certain way of thinking, and those pathways are carried away from porn and applied in the rest of life. Lust in this way inevitably cripples moral knowledge.

Why should this be the case? Because the eyes are the organ that perceives beauty. When the eye is no longer searching for beauty itself, but seeking to map onto the world an expression and application of its own lust, then that lust in time warps perception of the good. What is best, and what is preferable, become enslaved to my personal desires. Pleasure makes subjectivists of us all. In turn, with beauty and good both soured, the capacity to apprehend truth is also corrupted. In this way, a man or woman who is led by his or her sexual desire is engaged in a process of dehumanization. After all, who would fail to agree that a crippled capacity for beauty is dehumanizing? He who suffers porneia to thrive in his life is being reduced to brutishness and eventual stupefaction.

Disintegration_Cyril Rana

Flickr: Photo by Cyril Rana

Lest you think this simply academic, this diminished capacity for moral knowledge has been on vivid display in churches which have chosen to affirm what is traditionally, and Scripturally, considered to be sexual deviance. The general convention of the Episcopal Church, after the US Supreme court ruled Gay Marriage to be the law of the land, immediately introduced new services and prayers to bless such unions. One such prayer, introduced at that time, is recorded by Robert Hart, writing in the March/April 2016 issue of Touchstone Magazine:

An Episcopal priest named Kimberly Jackson, of the Diocese of Atlanta, read a prayer to begin their version of communion: “Spirit of Life, we thank you for disordering our boundaries and releasing our desires as we prepare this feast of delight: draw us out of hidden places and centers of conformity to feel your laughter and live in your pleasure.”

God, then, conveniently affirms our choices and “releases our desires”—He gives us what our warped imaginations desire. The result, today, is not only that such unions are blessed, but churches have paved the path for openly gay clergy to rise to the highest ranks of church office. Moral corruption is pervasive, and the capacity to see such corruption is curtailed. It is doubtful that the Church has faced since the days of Arius a crisis of moral knowledge more serious than the one which confronts it now.


Pieper concludes his argument about purity and vision with the following phrase, “only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty.” Purity of sight is a necessary precondition to the apprehension of beauty, and thus by proxy of both goodness and truth as well. And yet, in a very real way it is impossible for humans to achieve perfect purity of sight, if only because, as Jeremiah says, “the heart is deceitful above all else, and is desperately sick” (17:9). The wickedness which corrupts my capacity for beauty, goodness, and truth, is born from within me. From whence will we find help to resolve this dilemma? Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude come to mind—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity precedes the vision of God—but purity is impossible on my own. Therefore I must request help from outside myself. In this, I think Jesus has also spoken an irony—it is not only that the pure will see God, but those who set their gaze upon God who will be rendered pure. The solution is to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and beauty.

For too long we have allowed ourselves to imagine that there is a divide between our sexual purity and our capacity for moral intelligence, between our sexual conduct and our pursuit of knowledge. Silently, as we allow ongoing and unrestrained life to our lust, we are also strangling our awareness of the beautiful, the true, and the good. Only a sight that is reaffixed on the beauty and holiness of God will be able to rescue us from the horror and stupefaction of our own persistent and self-serving inward gaze. Only a renewed commitment to God as He is, and not God as we want Him to be, will rescue the Church from its frightening trajectory towards apostasy.