Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (9)–Hierarchy and the Good

Dear James,

Once again I’m sorry for the delay in writing you—yes, I have received both of your letters in the meantime. I was away for three weeks in the summer, was recovering from illness, and have been otherwise swamped with church work overall. I am glad to get back to my correspondence at last (especially ours).

I am as surprised to hear as I expect you are to report that your pastor has chosen to stick through this difficult time. It certainly sounds like it has been rough. And I can attest to how difficult it is to perform the pastoral office faithfully while every move and motive is being examined by committee. I shudder at the thought. Does his perseverance elevate your opinion of him, or do you begin to think that he is stubbornly refusing to see the truth? Ironically, every pastor needs stubbornness—in positive language we would call it “backbone.” The only question is where we pastors should choose to dig in, and wisdom is the business of choosing those battles correctly.

If you think about it, to choose anything always means to choose between good and bad, and sometimes even between one good and another. I bring this up because of one of your objections—you say that “doesn’t the kind of inequality you are talking about point to hierarchy, and isn’t hierarchy oppressive?” But I think you are wrong to assume that hierarchy is bad—hierarchy, in fact, is necessary for us to make any discerning choices at all. All choices depend on our ability to discriminate between goods, and the process of discriminating requires us to employ hierarchy.

This is actually a process that is grounded in the basis of human thought—that we have the ability to discern between good and bad, and then within goods to discern between good, better, and best. For any given set of choices I have there is often a choice between good and bad itself. For example, I have a son, and the good choice is to feed him, while the bad choice is to neglect him. But within the good choice I also have a ranked series—a hierarchy—of goods to choose from. I can feed him bread and water (good), or I can feed him a bologna sandwich (better), or I can prepare him a proper meal with spaghetti and salad (best). The differences between the three kinds of meals are relative goods. Surely it is better to feed him bread and water than to neglect him, but it is also best of all to provide him with regular, proper meals. The point is that we are making these discernments all the time, and in every circumstance we make choices between goods by utilizing a hierarchy of thoughts.

It is interesting that we see Jesus displaying this process during the temptation narrative. Satan there prompts Jesus to feed the multitudes, perform miraculous signs, and inherit the nations. Jesus refuses Satan in all three temptations, but then goes on in his ministry to do all three of those things. The problem, we see, wasn’t that Satan tempted Jesus with evils, but with goods that were outside of God’s timing. Jesus didn’t really refuse to feed the multitudes, he refused to do it on Satan’s schedule. He made a choice based on relative goods.

So, it is incorrect to claim that hierarchy is evil, or wrong. In fact, even to make that claim you have to argue that hierarchy is bad, and in arguing that it is bad you are arguing that something else is better, and therefore using hierarchy to argue that hierarchy is wrong. You can hear the saw working at the branch even now.

Perhaps this brings us back to our discussion of equality and inequality. I have argued that equality is always a fiction, and that just behavior in the world demands acknowledgement of those fundamental inequalities. This, you have observed, appears to imply a hierarchy among people, and this is a concept which the world finds abhorrent. But revulsion is not an argument, and hatred cannot equalize except by violence. There are people in the world who exceed me in virtue, as well as others who exceed me in power and influence (they are rarely the same people). They are my betters (relative to those particular categories), and I must function in the world acknowledging those differences, aspiring to greatness in virtue and to justice in using the power I have been given. I am not intrinsically more valuable than someone else, but by virtue of the gifts I have been given by God I must administrate those gifts according to their good. Hierarchy, in this way, is inseparable from responsibility and stewardship.

What I think has happened is that we humans fear power and hate pride—at least we fear and hate it in others, because we love it plenty well enough when we have it ourselves. Once again, envious of power and discontented that any should be exalted over us, we use the language of equality to violently reject the differences. The person who says, “Hierarchy is oppressive” is also saying he or she hates that any person would be higher than them. It is pride, rejecting the natural humility of life as a human. Hierarchy is not naturally oppressive, it simply exists. We might well reject actual oppression, and we will rightly condemn all misuses of power. But to reject hierarchy itself is to reject thinking at all. Human discourse decays into meaninglessness. Nothing can be done because nothing can be thought of as right or wrong.

You mention the parable of the vineyard workers from Matthew 20, where the master hires men at different times of the day but pays them all equally at the end of the day. This parable does not, in my estimation, argue for equality—certainly not as the world argues for equality. The point of the parable highlights the order of salvation. The Jews, who were God’s first workers in the vineyard, will receive the same reward (God’s kingdom) as the Gentiles who come in late. The final word gives away the game, “Are you envious because I am generous?” It hearkens to the sin of Jonah, filled with bitterness because God saved the Ninevites. Stated in Paul’s language, this is exactly what it means for there to be “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” These factors no longer give us privileged access to God’s kingdom, which is open to all. There is no place for racism among God’s people. But that does not mean there is neither status, nor roles, nor hierarchy. All are part of the people of God; those exalted by God with power are expected to steward their power for the benefit of others.

So, as you continue to walk with your pastor, try to help him discern these goods. What is the best choice? And is there a better set of options available to him? Remember that at this time you have been given an exalted place—access to his heart and mind. You are “above” many others, but he is “below” the committee. You cannot escape these hierarchies, but you can act as a faithful steward within them. I am eager to hear how the situation develops.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (7)–Privilege and Power

Dear James,

My apologies that it has taken so long to write you back—travel, illness, company, and work, together conspired to take me out of the game for a while. Please be assured that I have not forgotten our correspondence.

In your last letter you brought us to one of the great bugbears of our time—the question of privilege. You say that you “can appreciate the vision for reconciliation” that I have outlined (and I hope you will do a great deal more than simply appreciate it!), but ask how this, now, connects to the discussion of privilege that appears to dominate our public discourse. It is a highly appropriate question, and I’m glad you have presented it.

First off, I think that the language of privilege is what Lewis described as a Bulverism. A Bulverism is where you or I dismiss a person by means of appealing to a factor outside of whatever position he or she has espoused. A classic Bulverism is the phrase, “You say that because you’re a woman.” Note that in saying this, I have not addressed the claim of my disputant, rather I have identified some separate factor in her persona (namely, her womanhood), and am using it to dismiss her position summarily. Instead of dealing with a person as the person he or she is, or even instead of dealing with the arguments as the argument, I am introducing an external factor in order to win my case.

Most of the time when I hear a person identify “privilege” in another person it’s this kind of dismissal—“You say that because you’re privileged.” It is a conversation-ending statement in much the same way that, were I to announce to my wife, “You say that because you’re a woman,” I would discover that I had ended the conversation. In both cases it stifles understanding and denies effective communication. It can also, we should note, ruin a relationship.

However, we should acknowledge that power is real, and that furthermore differentials in power really do exist between people. I have been raised in North America, am the beneficiary of dietary and social benefits which are attendant to my upbringing, have been well educated, and today inhabit a career which (barring extreme circumstances) ensures that I will never rank among the global poor. In those senses, of course, we might identify something likening itself to a kind of privilege—that is, to the gift of circumstances which have enriched my life apart from my effort.

But this difference in power and advantage must be sharply distinguished from issues of race—not to suggest that they do not at times combine, but that they are not the same thing. My use of power, and my beliefs about race, can be combined for either great good or great ill. We must remember that racism, historically, always begins with belief about the self—not with belief about others. Nazi Germany believed first in the primacy of Arianism, and that belief in themselves gave permission to redefine and dehumanize others, especially the Jews. Japanese Imperialism similarly believed in the native mastery of their own heritage, and this gave them permission to dehumanize the Chinese, as well as their other enemies in the Second World War. Japanese and German atrocities were birthed, in other words, from their beliefs about themselves, and only secondarily from their beliefs about others.

I hope you can see that, within these structures, power is a neutral force. It can be used for either good or evil, applied to either health or destruction. Racism, false belief in the self which redefines the ‘other,’ added to power, creates vast destruction. But racism can be just as prevalent among powerless people as “privileged” ones. Racism is racism; power is power.

Notably, within this dialogue of privilege and race we still witness an abuse of power—in this case with the inversion of the power differential through words. “Privilege” is thrown about as a term to silence the opposition. Words are used, not to encourage understanding, nor to expand the boundaries of human self-perception, but to divide, exclude, and punish. The language of “privilege” is then reduced to a punitive missile aimed at leveling the perceived inequality of power. To use this language, then, is to commit an injustice in the service of one’s favored justice.

This brings us, at last, to the use of power, which is really the most helpful discussion we might have. Here, as a clarification, we ought to keep in mind that the fact of identifying power (or privilege) does not mean that we have dismissed power. The fact that I have a measure of privilege relative to others is not in itself a problem, it is how I use that power which is important. The Christian question to ask, then, is this: am I being a good steward of the power with which God has entrusted me? This, of course, is precisely what we see in the parables of the talents and the pounds in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels respectively. In both cases that master (our Lord), has entrusted his servants with unequal responsibility. This is a point we mustn’t overlook, because inequality is a fact of life, and it is therefore not an evil fact. When the master returns, each of the servants is then judged according to the responsibility he was given. On the Day of Judgment I will answer for how I have made use of the gifts God has given me, and you will likewise answer for the gifts God has given you. And it won’t matter then that I had more than you, and you had more than person X, but it will matter a great deal whether we have been faithful stewards of that which we have been given. And the standard of judgment will not pay regard to the quantitative value of that trust.

One of the great strengths of the dialogue about “privilege,” then, is that it can highlight for us the fact that many of the things we have taken for granted are in fact portions of the investment God has placed in our lives. They are therefore elements of our stewardship for which we are accountable. In this, the role of the Church in the dialogue of race and power ought to inhabit a profoundly prophetic voice, calling the powerful to convert their resources (all of them!) into service for the Kingdom. We ought not, in other words, blame white Christians for being white, or privileged Christians for being privileged, or black Christians for being black, but to each and all we should call them prophetically to seek the complete sanctification of every aspect of their lives—of race, power, privilege, and all else.

At the same time, the danger remains that those who perceive themselves as “underprivileged” will forget that although they may have less power and access than others, they are equally responsible to spend their power well. We are all judged alike, and if identifying privilege makes you feel better about yourself, then I suggest that you are motivated by envy rather than justice, and that you are in an altogether dangerous place.

All that being said, I believe that the world’s vision of privilege and race is deeply flawed, while the Church’s vision presents great hope. The world claims that we are unequal and divided, and that therefore we should take power forcibly from the privileged and distribute it among the underprivileged. What the world neglects to mention is that this change still operates under the dictates of power—it is not that we have transcended power, merely that we have made it change hands. The new masters will be every bit as wicked as the last, if not more so. The Church, on the other hand, says that the answer to the problem of race is the New People of God, and that the answer to the problem of power is its complete submission to God’s purposes. Instead of suppression, or vindictiveness, it is an action of redirection and sanctification. In Christ we do not do away with race or power, but sanctify them both, and therein lies the glory of the Church.

It’s time for us to wrap this up, but maybe we can end with a personal point—you yourself have already experienced some of this power in meeting with your fellow disgruntled church members. There is great power in coming together, in talking things through, and in dreaming about how to change the situation in your church. Have you considered what it will look like to convert that power for the service of Christ’s church? What will true submission to Jesus’ agenda look like for this group? What might it look like for your neighbors?

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

The Law of Forgiveness

clenched-fist-silhouette_21-56776952“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15

According to Jesus, we don’t have a choice about forgiveness. If we forgive others, we will be forgiven. If we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. This is explicit. There is no wiggle room. There is no option. Forgiveness for the Christian is a command, not a choice.

It’s not like this is the only place where Jesus says this kind of thing. When Peter asks about forgiving his brother seven times, Jesus drops an ideological bomb on him in response—not seven, but seventy times seven (in other words, so often that you’re not counting anymore). Then he tells that chilling parable about the guy who owed a lot, was forgiven, and then went on to choke the other guy who owed him a little. The story finishes with the lord, moved to anger, handing “him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” Wow—but that’s not all, because Jesus completes the parable with the following stunner: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Huh? If we don’t forgive from the heart the Father of Jesus will hand us over to the torturers to make us repay what we are owed? Not forgiving others invalidates our own forgiveness like that? Apparently this forgiveness business is serious stuff.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, which is the passage immediately preceding the scripture quoted at the top, there is a subtle hint to this—one that our traditional translations obscure. You’ve heard this clause as, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One small problem—the word “forgive” in the second part is in the perfect tense. That means it’s something that has been done and completed already. A better translation would be, “Forgive us our transgressions as we have already forgiven those who transgressed against us.” Before we even ask for forgiveness, Jesus commands, we must deal with our own forgiveness issues. This is serious, tough stuff.

It’s such tough stuff that some have attempted to write these passages off entirely by dividing the teachings of Jesus into two categories—they argue that all the teachings before the cross fall under law, while the Christian life is all about grace. Passages like these three certainly have a force like law, and this equips these readers to dismiss them with a clear conscience. “Jesus came to free us from the law,” they say, “and these words are law. Therefore we aren’t bound by them.”

This seems inadequate, even laying aside the fact that such a reading invalidates most of the New Testament. So, presuming that as followers of Christ we must take the words of Christ with utter seriousness, how will we make sense of such a statement? What do we do with this “law” of forgiveness?

Sermon on the Mount_Altar in Copenhagen ChurchLet’s begin with the immediate context—the Sermon on the Mount. The first time Jesus lays down this law of forgiveness is in the section of the Sermon where he talks about three aspects of the Christian religious life—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each of those teachings he makes a specific point to talk about not performing these actions “to be seen by men.” Instead, we must focus our attention solely on our Father “who sees what is in secret.” Our model for bad spiritual practice in each case is the Pharisees, who love to give in order to be seen, who love to pray in public places, and who love to disfigure their appearances when they fast. This is noteworthy: in each case the Pharisees are taking advantage of their power—whether status, visibility, or position—in order to make themselves look better. This is perhaps most clear for us in the passage on almsgiving. The only way to be seen giving to someone in need is to make the need of the other person highly visible. If I were to give today in the Pharisee fashion, then I could stand in front of my church, summon a needy member to come forward, then make a show of offering this poor person some portion of my grand resources, perhaps in the form of an oversized cheque. In that circumstance I would look big at the other person’s expense—my magnification would be one of perspective only, a righteousness achieved through injustice. This seems to be the heart of Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees. It is a rebuke of their abuse of power.

To take this and apply it to the other three teachings is straightforward—we cannot ever give, pray, or fast in such a way as to either shame others or seek to make ourselves look good. Our religious life is designed to focus our attention on God alone, and not our fellow man; that is its “secrecy.”

So then, how does this impact the law of forgiveness? Observe that in the middle of a passage about the abuse and right use of power—especially religious power—Jesus speaks a word about human forgiveness. The placement of Jesus’ command begs the question: if we are not to use our religious power to make ourselves look good or others look bad, how are we to use our religious power? The answer is forgive. This is the proper use of power—and not just a proper use, but the mandate of human power. We are not in control of our circumstances or our futures, of what will happen tomorrow, of what others will do to us—but the thing over which we do have control is whether or not we will forgive. In this place, the place where we do possess control, our Lord commands us to forgive.

Christian in Pilgrim's ProgressEven the word for forgive is interesting—it is aphiemi and it means “let go.” In the place where you do have power, hold your hands openly. In the place where you might hold a grudge, or be tempted to keep something, you must let it go. In the same way that we are commanded to trust our Lord with provision for our lives, we are also commanded to trust him completely with the wounds and grievances we bear. We entrust absolutely everything to our Lord and King, and perhaps our greatest obstacle to receiving and living out these words—the reason we ignore them and invent theological motifs to remove them from consideration—is that we recoil in fear from the radical submission required by absolute forgiveness.

The command to forgive is a command that humbles, convicts, and challenges God’s people. You can never shame someone when you are forgiving them. It is not possible to make yourself look good when you forgive someone from the heart. Forgiveness is the power that makes us powerless, and this, perhaps, is one of the innermost foundations of this thing called “Church.” How will we survive if we do not forgive one another? How will we preach a message of forgiveness from sin if we refuse to forgive at home? Will we allow our lack of forgiveness to invalidate the message we are commanded to bring? Would we be like that wicked servant who choked the other servant for a pittance, forgetting that we have been forgiven an amount that cannot possibly be repaid?

The Law of Forgiveness. Lex Aphesis. The law that breaks, and makes, the People of God.

The Myth of Mitigating Circumstances: An Essay on Power and Morality

If you like, you can get this printed on a t-shirt.

If you like, you can get this printed on a t-shirt.

Money, sex, and power are the three sins to which people in power seem most prone to fall. Money, because it is tempting to allot extra to yourself, to permit yourself another dip in the bucket, and to make use of the fiscal resources at your disposal to illicitly advance your agenda (i.e., bribery). Virtually every politician in history has had some connection to the misappropriation of civic funds—and in my home state of Illinois three of its recent governors are serving prison sentences for just this. Sex, because power is attractive, and the allure of power appeals to people who want to be near power, possibly to influence power, and who consequently mold themselves to appear more attractive and appealing to your desire. They prostitute themselves to the powerful in exchange for power, whether real or perceived. The list of examples for this is quite long as well—Bill Clinton, David and Bathsheba, etc. Lastly, power itself awakens its own breed of temptations. The allure of getting your own way, the desire to exact vengeance on your enemies, the pleasure of achieving something for your own name, no matter how you damage others in the process, the allure of justifying improper means with appealing ends. In recent news, we might point to Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill church, who is on record saying that “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” Do the ends justify the means?

Hundred Thousand KingdomsThese thoughts trundled through my mind when I recently read N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin’s book was a compelling story, portrayed an interesting world, and did these things with above average execution. But after I had finished the book I was troubled by a fundamental flaw in the book’s logic. The premise of the story is that a group of gods walk among humans, imprisoned and unable to access their full divine power. The main character, a human, is unexpectedly jettisoned into a position near the apex of earthly power. As the story unfolds, Jemisin makes an explicit point that the humans have been made in the gods’ image, and that this explains their immorality. The humans are capricious and cold, violent, vindictive, acting according to whim and fancy, and are profoundly immoral (or possibly amoral)—just like their gods. But as the heroine acquaints herself with the imprisoned gods she discovers that they answer to a moral code which, because of their power, is inscrutable to human minds. This shows up in capriciousness, violence, and, especially (in the novel) sex—these gods are permitted to sleep with whomever they like, each other, without boundaries, consequences, gender differentiation, or limits.

As I hope you can see, Jemisin has taken a common assumption—that power mitigates morality—and simply extended it to a divine level. We humans assume that the more powerful a person is, the more immoral he or she will become. If this is the case, then how much more will a god be immoral by extension? Look, for example, at the Greek gods, who are essentially personifications of human emotions and whims—war, sex, creativity, love, thought, power. The Greek gods are essentially human figures boosted to levels of incredible power, and with the freedom to exact that power on any human figure they desire.

The flaw within Jemisin’s book is fairly simple, if essential, because all actions, whether they are divine or human in origin, are moral actions; all choices are moral choices whether the actor is powerful or weak. The strength of the heroine’s position is that she maintains a moral centre within the chaos of the immoral world she inhabits. She judges the actions of others. But if Jemisin’s world really is a place of shifting morality, shifting especially as you achieve more power, then her heroine has no viable perspective from which to judge the immorality of her compatriots. Furthermore, assuming the logic of the world is accurate, then we the readers have no position of morality from which to consider either the heroine’s actions just or the divine actions unjust. To remove morality is to remove the judgment of any motive entirely. The plot falls apart because there is no reason for concern, growth, or change.

What troubled me about Jemisin’s book was not the immorality of her characters, but rather the assumptions about morality that she made in writing it. We seem to believe that circumstances have power to mitigate our morality, that power causes morality to blur. When President Bill Clinton was being investigated for his illicit sexual actions while in the White House, there was a strong move, at that time, to excuse Clinton’s actions precisely because he was president. I even remember one person suggesting to me that one of the perks of being president ought to be sexual access to whomever he liked at any time—after all, this person reasoned, he’s got other things to think about.CLINTON LEWINSKY

Whether the issue is money, sex, or power, with each indiscretion there is a temptation to blame immorality on power. As if by identifying the fact of power we have at the same time made full excuses for its abuse. “What did you expect?” we reason, “It’s power we’re talking about, and don’t you know that power corrupts?” Thus we are given permission at the same time to both excuse and blame those who have power.

But something else bizarre happens—not only do we mitigate the circumstances of the powerful because of their power, we also mitigate the circumstances of the powerless because of, ironically, their powerlessness. In recent news, (some) protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have rioted and looted local businesses—their excuse for this behaviour is their powerlessness. Against the militarized perception of the police, some have reacted with (un)civil disobedience. And so, in either case the problem isn’t that power corrupts, it is that we use both the presence and the absence of power as excuses for immoral behaviour. It seems that whether power or powerlessness is involved, we are eager to throw off the yoke of our morality.Fergusun Rios

Ironically, we do this with the Christian God as well. We make a deduction from our perception of power, then apply it to His character. We assume that power mitigates morality, then we conclude that because God is the absolute apex of power His morality must be of a different order than ours. Luther once remarked, in attempting to assert the absolute authority of God, that if God chose to declare something evil to be good, it would be good, even though we considered it evil. It seems our perceptions of power have changed little in the past 500 years.

Sir-John-Dalberg-ActonThere are a few things to say about this. First of these is a clarification about power itself. Our widely held perception that power is essentially a corrupting force has been given cultural strength by a famous quote from Lord Acton—one that we famously misquote. The actual quote is as follows: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” (Note the missing word in bold.) Today we take Acton’s sentiment as axiomatic, but I think it fair to ask if it is even true. Does power corrupt people, or are people natively corrupt, and power only magnifies their inherent corruption? The latter, I hope, is self-evident. As humans we have wickedness within us. It can be small wickedness of petty words, spiteful actions, tax-fibbing, or little lies; it can be great wickedness of murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. We can commit our wickednesses in the quiet of our homes, or we can commit them on stages of public viewing. It is the same wickedness in both cases—the only difference power makes is that of the amplification of the wickedness. David sins with Bathsheba, and the wickedness is common enough—the consequence, however, affects the whole kingdom. Clinton sins with Monica Lewisnky and the sin is common enough—even banal and stupid—but the consequence drags a whole nation down. Driscoll sins with power and the sin is common enough—doing anything to get one’s way—but the amplification by power affects the reputation of the church catholic.

So, to begin, let’s be clear about something: power is neutral. It is neither evil, nor good, but can be used by humans for either good or evil purposes. It is a magnifying, amplifying force, one that projects the inherent faults in the human creature onto a canvas both visible and large. It is not that people in power sin more, it is that their sins are visible for everyone to see.

That being said, there is a real danger in power—the danger of trusting in one’s power. It is a very slight, subtle shift from the sentiment of, “I want this” to the belief that “the power that has been allotted to me means that I deserve this.” The temptation of power is precisely in its ability to turn our wants into deserves. I want to get my way—am I appealing to power in order to force my way? I want to enjoy the benefits of illicit relationship with person X—am I appealing to power in order to permit myself that illicit relationship? I want this benefit, this reward, this advantage—am I using the excuse of power to claim that I deserve it?

Again, however, it is not just the visibly powerful who have this temptation. The man who feels powerless in his relationships may turn to pornography to feel the illusion of power, to experience some relational control where he has none. He, quietly, is also sinning in his power. The woman who uses her words to put others in their place is also appealing to the power of her language to dominate and control. She also, quietly, is sinning in her power. And this is one of the dangerous misperceptions of power: that only the visibly powerful—presidents, celebrities, megachurch pastors—have power. In fact, each and every human is endowed with incredible power—power to bless or curse.

The computer creates the illusion of power--a powerful illusion it is.

The computer creates the illusion of power–a powerful illusion it is.

But, you may ask, does divinity mitigate morality? Are things different at the apex of power? That this is impossible ought to be clarified by a simple illustration. To the human mind, an error in measurement of .01cm would seem irrelevant—one not worth considering. Is it an error? Certainly, but other circumstances (among them the impossibility of perfection) mitigate the mistake. But imagine making a .01cm mistake in plotting a journey from one solar system to another. .01cm magnified by a distance of four light years has become an enormous error in magnitude. It is the difference between finding your mark and missing it completely. The point of the illustration is that at the level of divinity—which is comparable essentially to a measurement of infinity—the small errors become not inconsequential, but absolutely essential. At the apex of power morality is not ambiguous but absolute—the heights of power demand a perfection beyond anything humans have conceived. Therefore God’s power makes morals explicit. When Isaiah beholds a vision of God’s power, his first response is repentance for his unclean lips. Visions of absolute power convict us of our moral imperfections. Holiness and ethics are foundationally inseparable.

It should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means. We cannot calculate costs and conclude that injustice in one area is permissible if it achieves a separate justice elsewhere. Especially at the level of divinity, this is absurd. After all, our arguments for ends and means each depend on an assumption of time and temporality. We reason that we can endure a temporary evil for the sake of a later good. But at the Divine level the same divisions of time do not apply—injustice once is injustice for eternity. Therefore if God participates in evil it does not follow that evil is good, but rather that God is evil.

But the lie of ends and means continues. In the church it takes the form of a kind of unholy expediency. We place volunteers in positions of authority because we have a perception of their qualifications and choose to overlook the significant flaws in their character. We resolutely refuse to acknowledge the bodies under the bus by pointing at the successes of a ministry—people saved, ministry accomplished, churches planted. We spend our funds on unnecessary building projects while the church catholic struggles, suffers, and starves. And we excuse all of these with a perception and apprehension of power that, ironically, we lay at the feet of God Himself.CrystalCathedral

But the place where, perhaps, we sin against power most is the way that we militate one kind of justice against another, particularly when we pit morality against ethics. “How can you care about Driscoll when there are people suffering in Ferguson?” “The focus of the church shouldn’t be on homosexuality, especially when there are suffering people overseas.” Or, as Tony Campolo is famous for saying, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh*t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” Can we at the same time pursue God’s character for Justice while repudiating His moral character? Can we pray “Thy will be done” while ignoring “make your name holy?” In each case we have missed an important reality—that a justice which compromises with injustice ceases to be justice. Or, theologically, a Christian justice that compromises on the character of God is no longer Christian. Morality and Ethics cannot be separated.

And yet the narrative of the world says something different. Our world’s narrative tells a story that grants license to immorality because of injustices experienced, whether perceived or real. A person in poverty cannot be blamed for his moral indiscretions. A person suffering under an unjust regime cannot be blamed for her immoral behaviour. Riots are permissible because of the imbalance of power. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sexual indiscretions are overlooked because of the good he accomplished and what he stood for. The ironic twist remains, and both power and powerlessness are used as mitigating circumstances. In the process morality is rendered meaningless—but then again, so also is justice.

In the end, power does not diminish, but rather magnifies the need for morality. The book of James says that not many should presume to teach, because we ought to know we will be judged more severely. Each week I stand and speak before a group of gathered Christians. I will answer for the incautious, misleading words I have spoken. You also will answer for your own misleading and incautious words to your friends, family, children, parents, and people online. But the Scriptures teach that my judgment will be more severe for the simple reason, I suggest to you, that my power has amplified my influence. If you sin, it affects you. If I sin, it affects my whole church. And as with me, so also with every human on earth—as our power increases, as we gain more access, more influence, a bigger platform, then our need for absolute morality increases as well. Power in no way mitigates morality; it only enhances our need for it.Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_Eleven

Lastly, we cannot defer the need for moral growth to people in power and authority—each and every person is endowed with incredible power, and each and every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer for his use of that power. And that means, from small to great alike, that it is essential for us to develop and grow our moral fiber. We must reject the myth of mitigating circumstances, resisting the urge to excuse our indiscretions through appeals to power in whatever form. This will create integrity, so that when we are presented with access to power, what is projected out to the people around us is an image of the Christlike moral core we have labored to build. Amazingly, from such a position even our failures become opportunities for leadership, because our confession and repentance are also projected by power to a wider audience. In this way the individual grace of God allotted to you can be magnified by the power of your position. In this way, Christ’s power is made perfect even in our weaknesses.

The Cat and the Comedian

Tiananmen Square

One of my favorite high school teachers once spoke a lesson I will never forget. It was about the difference between fear, terror, and horror. Fear, he said, was like saying to one of our classmates, “I’m going to kill you!” and meaning it. The classmate would then experience fear. Terror, he said, was—imagining him to be much larger, stronger, and meaner—grabbing that student by the neck, hauling him to the top of a high building, and holding him over the edge. At that point, the student would be experiencing terror. Horror, he went on to explain, was what the people on the ground would feel when he dropped the student to his death.

Just a few days ago my wife and I witnessed a horror while driving home. While we waited our turn at a busy intersection, an unwise black cat (evidently stray) attempted to beat the first three lanes of oncoming traffic and failed. It was struck once, attempted to turn back too late—a second time—turned again, now confused—and was hit a third time. The oncoming cars had nowhere to go, the cat was small and stupid, the outcome was inevitable.

My wife covered her own eyes, then worked to avert the eyes of our young son in the back seat. Meanwhile, I watched—I felt somehow that it was important to watch—while the cat twitched and spasmed, its back arched. The light had turned, no cars passed through the intersection, and all that could be done was to keep a strange vigil during the final moments of that feline’s life.

Meanwhile, in a lonely room in California, another horror took place. Robin Williams, comedian extraordinaire, brilliant fount of joy in others, took his own life. But for him, no one was there to witness. No cars stopped. No one knocked on the door. No one was there to keep vigil as he twitched, and spasmed, and expired.

At the same time as both of these things—even at this very moment while you read these words—horrors are enacted around the world both close to you and far away. Humans are shooting other humans in eastern Ukraine. Islamic militants are invading and—by all accounts—massacring thousands of innocents in Iraq. Ebola is ravaging lives in Liberia. Some 150,000 people die each and every day, and that means that since you began reading these words moments ago, almost 100 people have passed away, a full third of them by unnatural means.

Cars pass by. The house is silent. The world continues to spin. Tomorrow, another 150,000 will die. The sun rises on another day.

Each of these horrors identifies experiences with which we are bombarded on a constant basis—each is, objectively, horrifying. We stand on the ground and watch it happen. And yet, to each we respond in markedly different ways. The outpouring of grief over the death of Robin Williams seems disproportionate to the grief warranted by the global atrocities, or even to that of the local horrors. It is fair to ask the question: Why should this be the case?

Let’s consider the three kinds of horror in turn. Let’s call the first horror Hometown Horror. This is the cat, dying in the street. It is the junkie overdosing in your neighborhood. It is the car accident you witnessed. It is the shooting which happened nearby. It the cancer ward of your local hospital. It is the neonatal ICU. These horrors are close to home—they are terrible things to see and witness. They are hard to forget.

The second kind I’ll call Global Horror. These are the news reports, the (endless) Facebook posts, the grainy and uncensored video of atrocities. These are horrors for which you, as a witness, have no particular personal investment—you don’t know where Ukraine is on the map, you can’t identify where Israel ends and Gaza begins, Liberia is part of Africa, right? They are abstracted images which nevertheless evoke our sense of compassion and justice, if we let them.Ukraine-map

And let’s call the final kind of horror Imaginary Horror. This is the horror we experience when someone we don’t actually know, but feel that we know, experiences a personal horror. In response we, because we imagine that we know them, imagine that their horror is our own experience. The word “imaginary” here is not meant to diminish the horror—rather it is meant to describe the action by which we enter into the other person’s story.

Why then is it easier to feel grief and horror for the third kind, the Imaginary Horror, than it is for the Global or Hometown varieties? Why does Robin Williams get more grief than the people dying in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and Palestine?

First, I think there is a problem of scale, and this is one of the chief things that stands in the way of responding to Global Horrors with appropriate conviction. One man dying is imaginable, while a whole city being destroyed is unimaginable. The number “1” is conceivable—you can wrap your head around the integer of a solitary man, in sadness, taking his life. You cannot wrap your head around 1,000 people dying violently. It is quite simply beyond your capacity (even if you witnessed it firsthand). Practically speaking, there is a cap on the human capacity to take in suffering (thank God).Arlington-National-Cemetery-during-Spring

Second, I think there is a problem of solitude. This is particularly the case with Hometown Horrors. These are starkly solitary. I and my wife alone, and perhaps one or two other drivers, witnessed the death of the cat. We will never know or speak to the other drivers. Nobody else knows what happened. Nobody will remember the event. There is nothing to share about it. And this was only a cat. There is a terrifying solitude to hospital rooms and hospice wards, a debilitating loneliness to the horror of a lost loved one. Nobody can go through that with you, and you are brought abruptly and violently face-to-face with the stark reality of loss.

By contrast, the death of a famous person invites us to grieve and respond in community. You can talk openly with your friends, family members, fellow workers and students about these events. You can share your favorite memories of the individual. Even though you didn’t actually know him or her, you are able to imagine together as if you did. The loss, though real in our emotions, is more manageable because we walk through it together.

Third, and closely attached to the problem of solitude, is that of un-grieved grief. Systematically over the past century we in the West have removed our habits and customs of ceremonial grieving. We no longer mourn for our losses; we don’t wear clothes for mourning; we abbreviate or skip funerals altogether; we expect those who have lost to recuperate quickly. It is as if by ignoring death we hope it will go away. But it seems to me that with the deaths of celebrities we give ourselves permission to grieve. I suspect that we do this because we have allowed our emotional lives to be trained by our media. Film has taught us how to feel, and when our film stars die we show deep outpourings of feeling. They, after all, have been our counselors and friends, interpreting and making sense of the horrors of the world. It is to them that we have turned for comfort when the horrors closer to home loomed large. And so our un-grieved grief at the tragedies and horrors of life are given permission to express themselves when a cinematic icon has died—even more so when the death was tragic and horrible.

like-us-on-facebook-buttonFourth and finally, there is the problem of powerlessness. To witness the violent death of an animal awakens a portion of our human powerlessness—I immediately knew there was nothing I could do. I could only watch. But to stand by the bedside of a sick loved one and acknowledge his or her imminent death evokes a powerlessness that is orders of magnitude higher. In the face of our powerlessness we become anxious and attempt to fix the problems. When this happens we aren’t really trying to help the person, we’re only trying to resolve our own anxiety. We recommend crackpot cures for incurable diseases. We tell people to cheer up and think positively. We ask people to “like” posts as shows of support for global suffering. We share news stories and anecdotes and bad advice. Each is a product generated by our impotence in the teeth of suffering and horror.

It is because we feel so powerless in the face of Hometown Horrors, and so impotent in the face of Global Horrors, that we are eager to grieve the Imaginary Horrors. Our grief—the emotion itself—is something we can do. We can participate, and be part, and share our memories, and talk about suicide prevention, and diagnose mental illness, and remember all the good, and so forth and so on. The Imaginary Horror provides an outlet for us to trick ourselves into thinking we’ve actually done something with our grief.

There is nothing wrong with the experience of Imaginary Horror, but there is something wrong when we pursue, experience, and seek out Imaginary Horrors at the expense of the Hometown and Global varieties. It is easier to feel the grief—and therein lies the trap, because a person who consumes a diet of Imaginary Horrors and ignores those closer to home is himself in the process of becoming a horror. Such a person will grieve for the celebrity but ignore the starving child; she will wallow in sentiment and be bankrupt of real conviction; he will “like” the news story but hate his suffering neighbor. That person is in grave danger of becoming a consumer of horror.

Viktor Frankl once said that “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” If there is significance in human life, in the whole experience of being born, growing, living, aging, and dying, then that significance must find roots in human suffering. Frankl speaks with conviction and authority—he himself was a Holocaust survivor.viktorfrankl1

How then do we find the meaning in these horrors? What are we to do? Well, to begin we must grieve where grieving is appropriate. The Imaginary Horrors help us here—in our sickness they grant us permission to grieve. The trick is that our grief, our reaction of sadness, must not end there. We must take that grief and apply it closer to home. If I feel sadness for the death of Robin Williams (and I do), how can I apply that sadness into grief for matters closer to home, or matters of global importance? I can begin by reminding myself that, indeed, grief is the appropriate response. I ought to feel sad, and horrified, by the news I read and the stories that are published on social media. To not feel these horrors as the horrors they are is to be callous, empty, inhumane.

Next, we must remember that the barrage of information we get about the world is a based on the illusion of interconnectedness. It is tempting sometimes to think that there are more horrors in the world than ever before, but I don’t think this is the case. We must acknowledge that, in fact, it is a product of our media environment that we are even aware of most of these horrors to begin with. In other words, we are documenting more horrors than ever before, and because we feel more interconnected, these all feel closer than they previously did. To this, I think some balance is in order. We should set times for ourselves to read the news, and set times when we don’t read the news. Our attention must be either equally or more focused on the real, practical world around us than it is on the world as presented to us through the lens of media. Otherwise we will be like Levites on the road to Jericho, checking our cell phones for the latest horrors but missing the wounded man entirely.

Additionally, we must act where it is appropriate to act. There is little or nothing we can do for Imaginary Horrors—they are pure emotion with little useful practical actions. However we must consider careful and appropriate action for Global Horrors. Is there suffering we can alleviate? Can I give money? Can I volunteer? Do I know anyone who is near that location who can give me solid, non-media information? Discern, then act in accordance with wisdom. When it comes to Hometown Horrors our powerlessness is most apparent. There we must also act with the greatest wisdom—there also we will need to be most aware of our anxiety. Ask yourself: Am I trying to fix this problem? Am I trying to fix this person’s grief? Don’t try to fix it unless you’ve been asked to do something. If you are with someone who is grieving, just be with the person. He or she needs your company and friendship more than your solutions. Buy lunch. Bake cookies. Do the dishes. Be available. Don’t try to explain things.

Lastly, because all horrors confront us with our powerlessness, we must take time to experience that powerlessness. This is extremely hard to do. It means silence, and confrontation, and acknowledgement of our own weakness in the face of death, dying, and misery. It may mean tears. It will certainly mean some solitude. But the willed and chosen experience of our own powerlessness is the only way to harmonize the three kinds of horror—to bring them together and reconcile our divided humanity. Only then will be able to grieve, and grieve wisely, and act appropriately—to respond with full and robust humanity to both the cat and the comedian. And, perhaps also, it is the only means through which we will be blessed with real, lasting comfort.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

To Carry the Weaker Brother–Romans 14 and 15 in Focus

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

“For if on account of food your brother is grieved, no longer according to love do you live. Not by means of your food shall you destroy another on whose behalf Christ died. Do not therefore blaspheme your good.” Romans 14:15-16

A friend and I share interest in international film—in particular, Asian crime dramas. When he sees one he thinks I’ll like, he passes me the info. When I see one I think he’ll like, I pass him the info. It’s a convenient arrangement. However, whenever I consider recommending a film for him I always attend especially to any sexual content. I am not particularly troubled by it, but I know that it troubles him. Therefore I don’t recommend films to him that I perceive have content he doesn’t want to see. In certain cases where I judge the film to be worth viewing in spite of its content, I make sure to warn him specifically.

This situation came to mind the other day while I was watching—you guessed it—an Asian crime drama. But it struck me as significant because, for the past months, I have been engaging in a close study of the book of Romans. I’ve been translating it, making notes from the Greek, and attempting to summarize Paul’s arguments in my own words. Near the end of Paul’s letter he speaks about members of the Church with weaker faith—specifically about taking care not to make a weaker brother stumble. As I reflected on my arrangement with my friend—Paul’s words fresh in my mind—it occurred to me that our dispositions relative to the content of cinema have precisely nothing to do with the “weaker brother” principle from Scripture.

For as long as I can remember the “weaker brother” passages from Romans 14 and 15 have been used in this way. There are certain ‘worldly’ activities which some Christians can continue to engage in, from which other members of the Church must refrain. Some Christians can watch movies, others cannot. Some Christians can drink alcohol, others cannot. Some Christians can gamble, or work on Sundays, while others cannot. “Freedom in Christ,” under this logic, is the freedom of some Christians to engage in specific behaviours that would be sin to other Christians.

I think this is completely wrong, and it is wrong for a variety of reasons.

Strength and WeaknessFirst, it is wrong because I don’t believe that my friend’s ‘inability’ to view sexual content reflects weakness of faith on his part. It might, quite the contrary, reflect a deeper appreciation of holiness, in which case it would not be that my faith is strong and I am free, but rather that my faith is weak and I lack the maturity that he has. Aside from that (distinct) possibility, I don’t conclude that my ‘ability’ to view a variety of cinematic content reflects particular strength of faith on my part. It might be a gift, or it might be a call (since I am able to review content for others without the same adverse effects), or it might, upon deeper spiritual reflection, actually turn out to be a vice which needs correction. Either way, I take no notion about my own strength from this situation.

Second, it is wrong in light of Romans 15:1, which says: “Now we who are powerful ought to endure the weaknesses of the powerless and not to please ourselves.” Note that Paul commands us to “endure” the weaknesses of the powerless, but that word “endure” also means “carry” or “bear.” It is not only that the strong are asked to put up with the weak, but that the strong are commanded to carry the weak. It is almost as if we are Israel once again in the wilderness—do we abandon the infirm because they are slow? By no means! We endure/carry them along with us. Now as I’ve already observed, it is common when we talk about the “weaker brother” to speak of specific areas of sin which are debated in culture—entertainment choices, alcohol consumption, trips to Vegas, sexuality, working on the Sabbath. The common application of the “weaker brother” principle—especially when I was a young legalist—was for the ‘weak’ to use it to try and limit, or at least section away, the so-called ‘freedom’ of others. The goal was to preserve a centre of holiness and at the same time explain the moral outliers. But given the command of Romans 15:1 we are left with a troubling, unanswered question: if these brothers and sisters who can engage in these activities are, by definition, the “stronger brothers,” how is their strength serving to benefit the fellowship? In what sense is it possible for me to enjoy many kinds of cinema and drink alcohol while fulfilling this command? How is my ‘freedom’ a show of spiritual strength that enables me to benefit my brother who is weak in his faith?

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

By extension from this, at no moment have I ever felt that I am ‘accommodating’ or needing to ‘bear’ my brother in faith because of his ‘weakness.’ At the very minimum, our arrangement is a manifestation of courtesy. More likely, it is simple consideration—I want to honor both him and his conscience. More specifically, because I regard him as a brother and know his preferences, why would I knowingly present him with something that he has expressed concern about? Knowing that he dislikes mushrooms, why would I offer him mushroom soup? Knowing he has a date with his wife, why would I pressure him to join me at the pub?

A third reason why this application of the “weaker brother” principle is wrong because I do not believe that the particular aspects of conduct to which we apply the “weaker brother” principle are reflections of ‘freedom in Christ.’ My ability to watch movies is not really about freedom in Christ, nor for that matter is my ability to drink alcohol. One of my former pastors is a recovered alcoholic—am I to assume, under our common interpretation of this passage, that his continued inability to consume alcohol reflects a weakness in his faith? That if he had more ‘freedom in Christ’ he would be strengthened to drink alcohol again? Far from it!

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

The root of this confusion stems from our false definition of freedom. We presume that ‘freedom’ means freedom from something—freedom from laws, from strictures, from limitations. But freedom, in the Scriptural sense, is always freedom for something. We are not released from the Law in order to do as we please, we are released in order that we can perform that function for which the Law existed in the first place (that is, love of God and neighbor). I am free from food laws not because the food laws don’t matter, but because God abolished the food laws as a way to prepare the way for one new people no longer divided by food.

This gets us quite close, in fact, to what Paul is really on about in Romans 12-15. The trouble that occasions the letter to the Romans is this new people, called the Church, who are composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul is at pains to give grounds for existence to both groups—to the Jews to explain how the Gentiles are the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan, to the Gentiles to explain their newfound heritage in the traditions of Israel. One group is not prioritized over the other; what is prioritized is the reality and new life of the Church.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

In Romans 1-11 Paul writes his argument for this new people of God. In Romans 12-15 he offers specific commands on how to live this new life together. He speaks about love, about love as the fulfillment of the law, and about relations with one another. At the end of his argument, in 14 and 15, Paul speaks about food. Now let us be clear: when Paul is speaking about food in these passages, what he has in mind is the Jewish food laws. These laws were longstanding traditions of the Israelite people which Jesus had specifically removed. Paul is keenly aware of Jesus’ commands (which is why, I suspect, he is comfortable publicly labelling some members of the church ‘weak’ and others ‘strong’—don’t forget that the letter would have been read aloud originally!). In 14:13 Paul even quotes Jesus when he said that it was not what goes in a man which makes him unclean, but what comes out of a man (Mark 7:14-16). Jesus’ point in that passage was to show that it is the inner condition of a man which makes him clean, not his ritualistic activities. The other occasion when Jesus declared all foods clean was in his vision to Peter on the rooftop (Acts 10). On that occasion, the declaration that “all foods are clean” was made in preparation for Cornelius’s arrival. In other words, all foods are clean as a way to prepare for the new people of God, composed of Jews and Gentiles. Paul is aware of these things—he even (Galatians 2) once went toe-to-toe with Peter about it.

But there is a curious phrase in the second half of Romans 14:14. It says this: “I know and I have been persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing unclean is through a man, except such a thing as he reasons to be unclean, in that thing it is unclean.” In the first part of the sentence Paul quotes Jesus, in the second part he seems to contradict Jesus. Why does Paul elevate the conscience above the word of Christ? Are not the brothers stronger in faith—those obeying the command of Jesus fully—performing Jesus’ will, while the weaker brothers are disobeying?

The answer to this lies in the purpose for which Jesus abolished the food laws. Simply put, Jesus removes them to prepare the way for God’s new people, the Church—one that would be characterized by inward and not ritual holiness, and one that would include all, and not ethnically particular, people. The food laws are removed so that the Church can exist. The freedom from the food laws is really freedom for us to be the Church. And perhaps now Paul’s logic becomes clear: if an issue of food destroys the faith of a brother for whom Christ died—that is, if our genuine freedom in Christ has become an obstacle to fulfilling the very purpose for which Christ came and died—then it is better to limit ourselves. In this way, the strength of those with stronger faith carries along the weakness of those who lack power. We who are strong limit ourselves so that we can walk together with our weaker brethren.

To put this clearly, freedom from the food laws is given so that we can be one new people, the Church. But if food divides us still, then we aren’t fulfilling the intention of either the law or the freedom. This is why Paul rebukes the Church—because in their eating they were dividing God’s holy people.

Hey, Man! It's my freedom in Christ!

Hey, Man! It’s my freedom in Christ!

In view of all this, to take the “weaker brother” passages and use them as a crib for sin seems to me grossly inappropriate. The Church is not divided into two classes of people—the weak and strong of faith—along a boundary line defined by particular sins in culture. It is inappropriate to use these passages to attempt to manage sin in community. And maybe that’s the real bait and switch that I don’t like. Paul isn’t talking about sin, as if some people can get hammered while others have to be sober, or as if some people can sleep around while others have to remain celibate. No, he’s speaking about a highly unique aspect of community life and giving advice on how to maintain the greater fellowship despite these challenging differences. He is teaching us how to live together under the new unity of God’s people by the command of love. He’s using this principle of accommodation to defend the purpose of freedom; that is, the community of the Church.

But there’s one further irony to our abuse of this passage. Paul gives a command to those stronger in faith to help those weaker. Today, those ‘weaker’ in faith typically use this passage to manipulate the ‘stronger.’ There is no accommodation or strengthening at work, only limitation. In return—and I have witnessed this many times firsthand—those ‘stronger’ ones appeal to their freedom with an air of rebelliousness. They drink, watch what they wish, curse, and sleep around with an air of smug superiority, while they are not, in truth, any stronger in faith. They are merely using the Scriptures as a pretext to sin.

How, then, are we then to interpret this passage? After all, there is not a class of believers in the Church today who, because of unified heritage and tradition, have a special struggle with certain aspects of our freedom in Christ. But perhaps by rephrasing the question we can find some clarity. Where, we can ask, are the stumbling blocks that genuinely threaten the weakened faith of the Church? What are the places where we who are strong in faith are called to “carry along” those brothers and sisters most likely to stumble?

It's one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

It’s one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

Framed that way, I think we get some real clarity, because Paul’s use of the stone of stumbling imagery is another reference to Jesus’ teaching. Specifically, it references our Lord’s command to place no stone of stumbling before any of his “little ones,” and pronouncement of woes upon anyone who did (Mt 18:6, et al). We have been warned, in other words, in the strictest of terms, to cause no loss of faith among the members of the Church. Paul, expanding upon Jesus’ explicit teaching, commands us to take stock of our own strengths and consider how to employ them for the service of the Church—to carry one another along this journey. The principle to which he appeals throughout the passage (14:1-3, 15:7) is to ‘accommodate’ or ‘take along’ one another in the same way that Christ, our Lord, has accommodated or taken us along. Christ converted his strength into service for the Saints, so also we must convert our strengths into service for one another.

With these two pieces in place, we are prepared to apply the passage. Where do we stumble today? Where is faith weak in the church today? Where am I, especially, as a minister of the Gospel called to use strength to benefit the weak of faith? I think there are three areas of particular weakness today; first, the Church today is weak in identity (Who am I?); second, it is weak in integrity (Can I trust you?); third, it is weak in reasons to believe (Can I trust God?). These are the stumbling stones which threaten to undo our fellowship, and to which we must train the faithful to be strong for the service of others.

Ned FlandersThe issues of identity stem from our interaction with culture. Despite our best efforts culture has been more successful in defining Christian identity than Christians have. Cinema, entertainment, news, and opinion all collide to create a Christian identity that is a bizarre caricature of real faith. If you are a Christian according to culture you are someone who believes despite evidence, believes in the face of contrary evidence, are defined by hatred, are legalistic, are attempting to push a foreign agenda on an unwilling world, are unkind, are stupid, are naïve, are backwards, are ‘medieval,’ and are complicit with abuses financial, sexual, familial, and cultural. Is it any wonder that members of the Church struggle with their identity? Are they called to defend abusers? Make excuses? Apologize? What of new believers? How do we rightly bring them into fellowship that appears, to all outward views, to be so colloquial?

But more even than the false caricature generated by the world, the issue of identity pulses through the Church. Brothers and sisters are eager to know who they are, why they are here, and what God wants for them. Into their hearts the world has sown vast seeds of doubt about identity—sexual, familial, cultural, racial, economic. Never have we been more confused about who we are. Never have we more needed ministry that reveals to us who God is. The strength of those strong in faith must be the strength of those who know God and know themselves—and I suggest to you particularly, in this age of malformed identity, that it will be knowledge of the Father which is the tonic for our confusion. I say this because Jesus’ own identity is grounded in the will and knowledge of the Father. Our strength must be strength that is similarly grounded in God our Father.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that 'success' is more common than we recognize.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that ‘success’ is more common than we recognize.

Integrity is the second stumbling stone, and quite frankly this is because nothing has done more to discredit the belief of the Church than the behaviour of some of the clergy. The scales aren’t fair, of course. For every clergyman who has fallen from grace another five have served faithfully. It is just that our failures shine more memorably than successes. Still, the people of the Church need clergy they can trust, and that means clergy who are committed to the faith, who are committed to holiness, and who are committed to service. The work of seminaries, whatever else they perform, will be meaningless unless men of character and self-sacrifice are trained to serve the Church with their God-given strengths.

Lastly, the Church is weak in reasons to believe. Doubt and confusion are at epidemic levels. These doubts are sourced in both lack of good teaching and false definitions of faith. In the first place, it is my conviction that the story of Jesus ratifies itself, but we have appealed to other sources, accommodating culture rather than the truth. We have spoken self-help sermons, and through our inattention to the gospel message paved the way for the empty wash of moral therapeutic deism. We reason that belief matters less than feeling, and try to make people feel a certain way in order to keep them in faith. We forget that there is no substitute for the story of Jesus, and that the claims of Christ are claims upon our souls, and not merely our emotions.

Not only this, but ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ regularly work actively to discredit the Christian faith—many of them from positions that claim to be inside the faith itself. J.B. Phillips, who translated the New Testament into plain language, was angered that modern scholars were undermining faith through their cavalier and irreverent approach to knowledge. He wrote: “But I say quite bluntly that some of the intellectuals… who write so cleverly and devastatingly about the Christian faith appear to have no personal knowledge of the living God. They lack awe, they lack humility, and they lack the responsibility which every Christian owes to his weaker brother” (Ring of Truth, 20). Woe to the teacher who teaches doubt! Woe to the professor who professes matters which weaken faith!

In this vein there is a category of ‘Christian’ bloggers and writers who in the name of inquiry have done more damage to the faith of the Church than any fallen pastor or any goofball boondock fellowship. In the spirit of free inquiry these thinkers equivocate truth, they misrepresent Scripture, and through and through they prove that they are voices not for faith but for culture. They are all the more dangerous because they believe, and present themselves, as the new face of Christianity, as the face of Christianity that can weather the storm of culture by cutting loose our anchors. I say, without naming names, that they have violated the people of God, and the spirit of Romans 12-15, and that their faith is the destruction of faith.

Against these trends, ministers of the gospel must offer reasons to believe—not false reasons, not emotional reasons, but reasons which are grounded in the truth of the Christian story and the work of the Spirit in the Church and in history. Our strength of belief must itself be a boon for the weak-kneed faith of today’s Church. And this must not be belief that is blind and closed-eyed to the world, but belief that is grounded in the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. On these three things we live or die.

(NB: There is a Part 2 to this post which clarifies several further points in a Q&A format. Click this link to reach it.)