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

Dear James (A)–Lent, Fasting, and Gluttony

Dear James,

I read with real pleasure of your intention to fast during this Lenten season. It seems to me more important than ever, in a disembodied and Gnostic age such as this one, that we humans strive to bring our bodies into alignment with our souls. Discipline is a very unpleasant and unpopular word, but it seems immensely good for us. In fact, all acts of bodily submission appear to bear some spiritual fruit. Not in a base and absurd way, as if we could bring our good deeds to God and bargain with Him for advantages, but simply because measured and intentional self-denial is a process which inevitably bears fruit. I applaud your intentions, and am eager to walk with you in fasting this season.

You are right to mention, of course, that a traditional part of the Lenten season is to reflect upon our sin and strive for fresh repentance. But I would hate for that to be where our focus stops. Surely, as in all spiritual exercises, our true end and goal is intimacy with God. Sin is not an end upon which we ought ever to focus exclusively, but only a road-stop on the way to life in God. It seems to me that we’ve got to keep that in mind as we reflect and pray these next six weeks. It can help in this to put special emphasis on things like the fruit of the Spirit. We are as much mired in sinfulness as we are deficient in Godliness, are we not? So if you’re going to meditate on an area of sin, then I would advise marrying that meditation to a similar area of Godliness. Our meditations, then, will have teeth, because we’ll have something positive to aim for.

It’s of note to me that you bring up Gluttony. On one point I have to disagree with you, because I don’t think it’s accurate that Gluttony is the sin which fasting most addresses. Gluttony is less about food, explicitly, than it is about pleasure. After all, I can fast for a day then break my fast on the next day by eating extravagantly. To make the most spiritual benefit from a fast, there’s an extra step that must be taken. That extra step, in turn, applies to all our sins. Of course, fasting is linked most commonly to food, and fasting from food is the simplest and easiest way to fast. It is also the way our Lord fasted, so that’s something keep especially in mind. But deeper than this, and for whatever reason, physical hunger has the capacity to awaken our awareness of not only our dependence upon God, but also our innate sinfulness. You’ve experienced, no doubt, the peckishness and inattentiveness that comes from a long time between meals. You can easily lose your temper, or not give proper focus to a task at hand. It has the effect of showing us just how contingent we are—if I don’t get my regular meals, I suddenly turn into a monster! But a simple act of self-denial has such remarkable power to not only illuminate my dependencies, but to show me what kind of a person I become when my presumed comforts are removed. In a word—a bad one! This drives me to pray, and seek the Lord, and to strive for His transforming power to work in these ugly, exposed flaws which simple hunger have revealed. In this way, fasting offers us special insight into our sin—and not merely the sins of food.

That’s not to suggest that Gluttony is a sin which doesn’t require redress—far from it! Gluttony is one of the most widespread yet unacknowledged sins of our time—a pet sin, a favorite sin, especially in its clearest forms. We take pride in overeating, and occasionally in being full of food and drink we do this to the expense of those who hunger and thirst. With our food, we have the capacity to violate righteousness, and this is a frightening prospect. What gluttony truly impinges on, however, is pleasure. I am no longer enjoying the bite I’m chewing because I am hasting to stuff my mouth with the next bite. I am no longer enjoying the meal I’ve eaten because the quantity which now fills my stomach has created pain. I am not enjoying the food in front of me because it isn’t as rich as what I would like to be eating. In the grip of Gluttony, I lose my capacity for the enjoyment of simple things. I wonder even if the phenomenon of photographing food is an indirect expression of gluttony—the artificial extension of pleasure, the pleasure at showing other people what I’m eating.

The deception of Gluttony is that, while I think I am consuming, in reality some other thing is consuming me. I am not enjoying a single episode of a show, I am watching all of them at once. I am not enjoying dessert in proportion, I am eating the whole cake. I am not enjoying the business of holding hands with my beloved, I am eager to drive forward into the marriage bed. I am not present with the person in the room, I am striving for presence with something called “the world” through access to the internet. I wonder, come to think of it, if our common usage of the internet is not the clearest expression of Gluttony we have. In all of these ways, by demanding the consumption of increasing pleasures, Gluttony eats at joy.

We have both agreed previously that pleasure is a marvelous gift from God. It is one of the ways that He calls people to Himself, a harbinger of those “pleasures forevermore” that we will discover in His presence one day. God is liberal with these pleasures, and manifold in their design. But Gluttony flattens this cornucopia of pleasures to one alone—my personal satisfaction in this present moment. We see less because we only wish to see what will make us full to our specifications. Contentment, it seems to me, is the virtue most attuned to Gluttony. That we would know when to say “enough.” That we would practice presence with our pleasures—whether it be a bite of food, or a walk on the beach, the holding of a hand, or the person in the room; that in each and every experience of pleasure we would offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord who gives them out so liberally.

May your fasting be enriched this season, James, and may we each, in our hunger, hunger most for our common Lord!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (8)–Equality and Justice

Dear James,

What a change! When you first wrote me, you were complaining about your pastor—now you are defending him! I guess that sitting down and listening to him has had some effect on your perceptions, after all.

Don’t hold yourself too much to blame for this group which have gone after him so doggedly. I think, from what you’ve told me, that you did your best to avoid this kind of action. Now, because of your friendship, you can see the effect this has on him personally. One group, who sees only their grievances, are now attacking a man who perceives only their anger. Of course, I’m not suggesting that these grievances shouldn’t come to light—it is important that your pastor deal with these concerns and deal with them directly. But I am grateful that, at this difficult point in his pastoral career, he has at least one friend in the congregation who can advocate for him.

In this, I think I perceive a couple of different roles for you. The first is that you continue to serve as a friend to your pastor. Walk alongside him and be a listening ear to his concerns. Attempt to help him hear what the aggrieved brothers and sisters are saying, but to hear it well. But second, as a friend you also need to be a discerning voice for him—that is, to help him discern the voice of God in the midst of all this. If, as you have told me, he has drifted from the Scriptures, is uninspired as a preacher, is overly focused on social issues, and overall has lost some passion for ministry, then within the bounds of relationship bring those subjects up. Have a long talk together and ask the question, “What is God saying to you in the midst of this?” He might say, “I feel like I want out.” Or he might say, “God is saying nothing to me right now.” Or he might say something else still. Whatever it is, take advantage of this opportunity—as difficult as it is for him—and make use of it to speak into his life for the Lord’s sake. I pray that you will be truly surprised by the outcome.

It is interesting, given our recent discussions, how this episode reveals some of our topics. Observe, for example, how power has switched places in these relationships. Just a short while ago, your minister held the power—in his pulpit and his sense of church authority. Now, because of this committee and the elders’ intervention, he has lost that power and is in a position of scrutiny and weakness. Where before the members felt weak, now they feel the heady rush of power. And you can already see how dangerous this is for them. Because they have not examined their motives carefully, their attitude toward power is now motivated more by envy than by grace—they are seeking reparations in response to their perceived wrongs, rather than justice for the heart of their minister. If they are not extremely careful, he will become simply a victim of their abuse of power—and not only him, but the next minister who comes to serve you as well. Once a group like this begins to abuse power, unless it is checked their abuse will continue on and on. I’m reminded of something from the Proverbs,“Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is filled with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maid when she succeeds her mistress.” Whenever there is a sudden switch in power, the envy, bitterness, and vengeance of the originally weak party is given life and vitality by its new empowerment. And power without character is like a driver’s license in the hand of a child—someone is going to get hurt.

Once again this illustrates the illusion of “equality” as well. There is no such thing as equality. It is one of the more generally accepted lies of our recent century (especially in political discourse) that a belief in equality is one of the most important things we hold. But it simply isn’t true. In every situation, in every relationship, in every discourse and exchange, there is a fundamental inequality at work. No two people on earth are equal—in strength, intelligence, vitality, wealth, capacity for work, capacity for leadership, and so forth. You and your pastor are unequal in training, and at this moment your pastor and the committee formed against him are unequal in position and authority. And now, having found new power, the committee will attempt to “equalize” the situation by squelching and scrutinizing your pastor further. But this is not equality either, so much as it is a violent flattening.

These ideas have found footholds in the church as well, particularly through passages such as Galatians 3:28, where Paul says that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now, at a surface level, we might conclude that this is a clear statement of equality in the church, but a careful reading muddies that clarity. For one thing, in this passage (as in similar lists in Paul’s other letters) Paul is at pains not to equalize the church, but to neutralize the advantages traditionally offered to certain classes. In other words, we get no special benefit towards salvation by virtue of our Jewish heritage, free status, or masculine gender. All the traditional, social advantages are nullified in Christ. But at the same time, this does not mean that roles are eliminated, nor does it mean that all these individuals are “equal” in the church. The New Testament makes no provision for freeing slaves, but rather for the conduct of both slaves and masters within the established economic system. The New Testament has almost nothing to say about “women’s rights” as we would conceive them, but instead makes provision for the conduct of husbands and wives within the established system. In other words, the New Testament assumes inequality, then prescribes just actions in accordance with those inequalities.

This factor is very important to keep in mind, especially since holding bad ideas about equality has messed up our perceptions of justice (and this is why justice today is so often flavored by envy, greed, pride, and wrath). Believing that “everyone should be equal” we have utilized justice as the mechanism which equalizes individuals. Have you worked twice as much as person X? Rather than it being just that you are paid twice as much as X, the thinking generated by false equality says that it is “just” to pay you equally. Did your parents or grandparents work hard to provide you with a better life? Justice today claims to strip those advantages and give them to another. Equality under the law (a great principle of the modern age) does not mean that “everyone gets the same.” It means that each person is judged impartially by the law—it means that the laws, which preserve our freedom, judge the wealthy and poor alike, the powerful and the weak the same. Justice, then, is a measure of my own right-relatedness toward my resources, my God, and my neighbour. I have been entrusted with X—am I utilizing X according to the law of God? I have a relationship with God—am I living in accordance with the dictates of His commands? I have a relationship with my neighbour—am I above reproach in regard to my conduct with that individual? Justice, you see, is therefore slightly different for each person (but not radically different).

And all this comes back to the situation with your pastor, of course, because you are now accountable in all three areas. Is your conduct upright before God—your conversations, your thought life, your prayers for him? Is your conduct with what God has given you upright—your authority and influence within the church, your friendship and experience with the pastor? And is your conduct with these other members upright as well—are you seeking true justice together, or vengeance? And that might be one of the most important questions of all—what will be the just action of your church? If they run away with their anger, they will wound their pastor and themselves in the process. What does God want for him? What does God want for them? And what does God want for you? You see that true justice is impossible without a conviction of what God wants, and that right action in these circumstances requires a clear understanding of the underlying inequality.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios­

Baron von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece

This is a reprinted edition. Page references in this review are to an out of print 1955 hardcover.

“You think you swallow things when they ought to swallow you. Before all greatness, be silent—in art, in music, in religion: silence.” (von Hügel, 16)

Most people of faith crave guidance. They have pastors, but their pastors are busy. They crave discipleship, but few seem qualified to perform the task. Those who are qualified are busy guiding others. With such a need, yet so few to meet it, believers are left to one of two options: they can throw their hands up in resignation or go find a good book. If you are looking for such a book—one that will challenge, encourage, and sharpen your faith, then Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece might be just what you need.

First published in 1928, this volume is a collection of letters from von Hügel to his niece, Gwendolen Greene, who edited these letters. One of the most brilliant and influential Christian thinkers of the early 20th century, von Hügel (1852-1925) was an Austrian born Roman Catholic. Although self-taught, he was widely studied (learning several languages), and became an authority on the mystics of the Church. But perhaps most pertinent here, von Hügel was also a Spiritual Director. In that role, he guided particular souls—employing all his vast learning—toward greater Christlikeness and devotion. When he could not meet a person face-to-face, he wrote a letter.

Letters, of course, are conversations in print. And in the pages of Letters to a Niece we have conversation after conversation of rich spiritual advice, guidance for souls that are both immature and maturing. These letters overflow with spiritual wisdom, and draw their unique energy from von Hügel’s deep insight into the nature of humanity, our desperate need for God, and his comprehensive awareness of how the Church, historically, has guided souls into maturity.

A hallmark of von Hügel’s spiritual direction is his passion to put spiritual matters in perspective. Toward this end, we must put ourselves in our own place; we must see our own limits and God’s good graces toward us. Von Hügel writes:

We have not got to invent God, nor to hold him. He holds us. We shall never be able to explain God, though we can apprehend him, more and more through the spiritual life. I want you to hold very clearly the otherness of God, and the littleness of men. If you don’t get that you can’t have adoration, and you cannot have religion without adoration. (24)

The boss man himself.

We must acknowledge God’s greatness, but at the very same time, though He is so categorically other, we must not forget that He is also extremely imminent. Von Hügel writes: “People put God so far away, in a sort of mist somewhere. I pull their coat-tails. God is near. He is no use unless he is near. God’s otherness and difference, and his nearness. You must get that.” (38) Ultimately, when it comes to our thinking about God, we must recognize that we are not ‘in control’, but rather that “We are like sponges, trying to mop up the ocean” (24). We don’t understand God, we soak in God.

Von Hügel’s Spiritual Direction, in addition to profound teachings on God’s nature and our relationship with Him, touches on numerous practicalities of everyday Christian faith. He speaks frequently of the role of the will in the Christian life, writing in one place that “After all, every soul, boy or girl, as they grow up, have to pass through that delicate difficult crisis, when they themselves have deliberately to will the right and God.” (181) Von Hügel knows, and wishes to prepare us for, those moments when we must choose God for God, when serving will not be a simple matter of feeling good, but of choosing against our feelings. Recognizing that suffering is therefore an integral part of the Christian walk, von Hügel says the following: “God never makes our lives comfortable. Even in heaven I believe there will be an equivalent of suffering—not as it stands here—but the equivalent, suffering beatified.” (29)

All this, of course, is to prepare us for a religion which is genuine and faith-filled, one which is undaunted by changing times and tastes, by our shifting moods, by our passions and false desires. Von Hügel writes:

What is a religion worth which costs you nothing? What is a sense of God worth which would be at your disposal, capable of being comfortably elicited when and where you please? It is far, far more God who must hold us, than we who must hold Him. And we get trained in these darknesses into that sense of our impotence without which the very presence of God becomes a snare. (148)

If you sincerely crave spiritual direction, you will be hard pressed to find a better volume of guidance than here in von Hügel’s letters. But do not come to these letters looking for soft comforts and feel-good meditations—you will find none of that here. Come instead craving maturity, depth, and spiritual richness, and you will be greatly satisfied. Let me leave you with this final quote from von Hügel:

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. (72)

Amen, von Hügel. Amen.

Related post: Zest vs. Excitement