Our True Theology is Revealed in How We Handle Money

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What shall I do? I shall pull down my barns and build greater. (Luke 12:18)

  1. Our true theology is revealed by our approach to finances
  2. Jesus presents the radical view
  3. Covetousness is the weakness of man
  4. St. Augustine describes the two motives of covetousness

1. There are very few things that reveal our true theology as precisely as our approach to finances. A person may profess to be deeply faithful to Christ. He may radiate piety, smiling humbly and making references to God all the time. Or she may regularly attend church, never absent from the pew. An external performance of Christianity is as old as the faith itself. And yet, our Lord takes pains to teach us that if our theology has not reached the wallet and chequebook – if the way we view finances are no different from the shrewd unbeliever – then our faith is, at best, questionable.

Our relationship to money – and indeed, to goods more broadly – tells us a lot about where we are in our relationship to God and the extent to which we trust God to be our provider. It shows to us the extent to which we are truly content with God. When we are content with godliness, this will manifest in both satisfaction and gratitude for the things we possess in the sure knowledge that all that we have (and no more) has been given to us by the express design of our Father for our own good.

Our attitude toward money is a great revealer of the quality of our conversion. Whether we are fretful about losing our property; worried about the markets; or whether we agonise over the future tells us much about the authenticity and depth of our faith. And, of course, how joyfully we give to others – “for God loves a cheerful giver“. Giving generously is particularly demonstrative of true conversion, for mankind in his dead nature is never tempted to divest himself of his money. He does not struggle with the inborn impulse to hand money over to others.

Quite the opposite. The prevailing sin of mankind is to be covetous, avaricious, greedy and grasping, which is why St. Paul could describe money as the “root of many evils”. On one hand, man ceaselessly wants more than he has. On the other hand, he holds jealously to what he has gained already, like the proverbial dragon guarding his store of gold.

The Lord addresses these impulses in the human heart many times during his ministry. Always, Christ directs us to a new view of life that must become the “new norm” for a true Christian. It is a view of life in which our relationship to things and money is radically altered. Where the bare frame of our human outlook is coloured in with divine realities, eternal priorities, and with a preoccupation with God and his kingdom.

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2. The view of life that Jesus teaches is neither comfortable (for it demands living by faith and not by sight), nor is it congenital to our inborn nature (because it makes eternal, invisible things the priority of life). Moreover, what Jesus teaches is starkly realistic and people have never liked stark realism in any generation. “Life is short and uncertain,” Jesus says, “and you could die tonight. So stop living in the fantasy world that everybody else lives in. Stop worrying about money and goods. Start labouring for the treasure that does not fade or spoil, a treasure in heaven that lasts forever“.  Jesus tells us that a man’s life – his true security and happiness – does not consist in the abundance of what he has.

This point is established by Christ in the Parable of the Rich Fool.

Of all his parables, this represents one of the Lord’s most stinging rebukes during his ministry. It deals directly with man’s natural covetous desires, although it is only part of a much longer discourse on money and worry. Nonetheless, even without the rest of the context, it still clearly reflects Christ’s low tolerance for greediness, and equally clearly sets out the new view of life that Christians are to have. Yet it has often been ignored within the church because its message is unwelcome and difficult, especially as times have become more prosperous and every individual has more to lose.

One theologian observes:

The world, Christian as well as pagan, in each succeeding age, with a remarkable agreement, utterly declines to recognise the great Teacher’s view of life here.

3. Jesus begins by warning his audience to: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness” (Luke 12:14).

The fact the Lord urges his hearers to be energetically on guard suggests that covetousness is subtle and common. If a Christian is not on his guard, Jesus implies, and does not learn to think with kingdom mindedness, he will surely be overpowered by a view of life that is acid to Christianity. Like the seed that fell among the thorns, he will soon find the gospel choked in his life by the love of riches.

Note that the Lord refers to all kinds of covetousness. Covetousness is not simply the desire for more than we have. It is not even breaking the laws of God and man for the sake of gain like Judas Iscariot, although this is certainly the result of covetousness. Rather, covetousness also includes holding onto that which we already have and the attendant belief that life is not worth living if we lose our possessions, comforts, and little luxuries.

Jesus describes an industrious farmer who gets a bumper harvest. He is giddy with delight, for now he can pull down his barns – actually, enormous underground granaries – and build bigger ones, and retire. He can spend the rest of his life taking his ease, eating and drinking, and having parties.

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It is a significant example of covetousness for our Lord to have chosen.

Jesus often turns our concept of vices on its head, attacks our safe definitions, and drills down to the attitudes beneath them. Note how the rich man in this parable does not provide a typical illustration of what people generally think covetousness looks like.

The rich farmer does not seem like he is desperate for more. Quite the opposite. Here is a man who has finally reached a point where he judges that he “has enough”. Enough for what? Enough for a long retirement in which he can wallow in his wealth, living a life of ceaseless pleasure. It is a testament to the ever-current nature of the gospel that if we fast forward to the 21st century, we discover exactly the same widespread disposition among millions who make it a serious goal of their lives to reach easy retirement, so that they might hit a golf ball around a green or spending hours relaxing in local cafes.

God’s answer to such a disposition: “You fool!“. The fact that God speaks directly in this parable – which is uncommon in Christ’s parables – strongly suggests that this is not merely an illustrative story but a cautionary biography of a real person. A biography enhanced with Christ’s heavenly knowledge.

In any case, God refers to him sternly as a “fool”. A biblical fool is an insensible man who thinks himself clever when he is not. In his stubborn pride he refuses to hear or repent, and thus places himself beyond all correction or redemption. If this farmer was an actual historical person, then he had evidently not listened very obediently to the message of Ecclesiastes in which the preacher describes the very phenomenon Christ illustrates. Ecclesiastes observes that men who labour all their lives and store up wealth frequently do not enjoy their earnings, but die and leave it to others to enjoy.

Why is the man a fool? Because, having finally set everything up for a pleasure-filled existence, his life was going to end that very night. The earthly paradise he longed for would not materialise because the stopwatch of his life’s span had run down to zero. He had held on to things that he could only keep temporarily. And since everything that falls into our hands is ours only for a fraction of time, and since we are eternal souls, wealth and goods can never be the source of our happiness and joy. To live for them is madness.

The parable underscores the serious reality of life which ought to underpin our handling of finances. The reality is this: even if we gained the whole world, the day will soon arrive when our soul will be demanded of us and we must give an account before the Judge of all the earth.

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4. St. Augustine addressed the issue of covetousness in his sermon (Sermon 36) on the text of Matthew 19:21: “Go sell all that you have and give to the poor“. In this sermon, St. Augustine presents the two major motives behind covetousness or avarice. He also goes on to argue that for a Christian – when he is renewed by the Holy Spirit in both mind and soul – the same motives remain, but are now purified and changed in focus and orientation. Instead of drawing the soul downward, those motives are set free to draw him upward.

This concept of corruption is a central feature of St. Augustine’s theology, and it makes a vivid reappearance in the 20th century through C. S. Lewis’ writings, especially the extended application of this principle in his book The Screwtape Letters.

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St. Augustine explains that all human desires are, at their root, desires for God. Whether it be food, sex, drugs, money or music, behind every human yearning is a keenly felt emptiness, as if the soul had fallen into twilight and were vainly seeking to ignite the lamps with sodden paper. Man is a fallen creature, writes St. Augustine, and therefore does not realise his soul’s true need and does not seek for God. His soul cries out for communion with his Holy Creator but wretched man that he is! He tries to slake his thirst for an eternal God by indulging his sensual appetites. He engages in a relentless search for more – more money and more pleasure – as if the sheer volume of an unsatisfactory delight will eventually fill his need. So it is that “man is always restless until he finds his rest in God.

It is a striking theology that C. S. Lewis expands upon. “It is not that our desires are too strong,” writes Lewis, “but that they are too weak.” If we really desired abundant happiness we would seek it in Christ, the “Joy that man has always secretly desired”. Instead, man’s mind is so numbed and blunted by his fallenness that he thinks a bit of money or a new car will satisfy him. Lewis uses the illustrations of children stubbornly making mud pies in a puddle in the backyard because they cannot imagine what it would be like to go for a holiday to the beach.

This twisting of man’s desires and motives is a recurrent feature in St. Augustine’s writings. As in many of his pastoral writings and sermons, St. Augustine personifies virtues and vices. Of covetousness he writes:

What says avarice? “Keep for yourself, keep for your children. If you should be in want, no one will give to you. Live not for the time present only; consult for the future…” Thus avarice did enjoin one thing: “Keep for yourself, consult for the future”. 

Covetousness (or avarice), says St. Augustine, is motivated by the two impulses of keeping for oneself and laying up for the future.

“Keep for yourself,” says avarice. Suppose you are willing to obey her, ask her where you shall keep your gains? Some well-defended place she will show you, a walled chamber, perhaps, or iron chest. Very well, now you apply every precaution. Even so, perhaps some thief in the house will burst open the secret places; and while you are taking precautions for your money, you will be in fear of your life.

Or, it may be while you are keeping your store, he whose mind is set to plunder has it even in his thoughts to kill you. Lastly, even though by various precautions you should defend your treasure and your clothes against thieves; defend them still against the rust and moth. What can you do then? Here is no enemy without to take away your goods, but one within consuming them.

St. Augustine echoes Christ’s teaching here that our goods and money are simply never secure, regardless of our best efforts. Certainly, we can keep try to keep our money and property safe, but there are numerous cases of burglaries that have gone terribly wrong and someone has been left dead. Or banking errors that have seen people’s money leeched away. Or inflation or volatile markets that sees the value of every dollar erode away until it is worthless. Or, our goods become worn and damaged by mould, rust, or other forms of decay.

When covetousness demands that we “keep for ourselves”, it is a fictional demand. For even with our best efforts nothing that we have, from books to furniture to money, can be kept. Everything will pass from our grasp in time, one way or another.

No good counsel then has avarice given. See she has enjoined you to keep, yet has not found any safe place where you may keep.

Let’s consider her next advice, “Consult for the future”. But for what future? Only for a few and uncertain days.

She says, “Consult for the future,” to a man who may not live even until tomorrow. But suppose him to live as long as avarice thinks he will… [suppose] that he grow old and come to his end: when he is bent double with old age and leaning on his stick for support, even then he still hears avarice saying still, “Consult for the future.”

(The number of elderly retirees who have been caught in investment scandals in recent years have skyrocketed. Much of this has come to light in the current banking commission exposing poor industry practices. In some cases, people well advanced in years have taken out loans for properties that they would not live long enough to pay back. Others made more and more exorbitant investments into the millions. It is a technicolored confirmation of St. Augustine’s observation that even old people can continue to live in the delusions of covetousness.)

For what future? When he is even at his last breath she still speaks. She says, “for your children’s sake”. If only we could find that old men who had no children were not avaricious! Yet to even to childless elders, who cannot even excuse their sinful greed by pretending to have family affections, she still ceases not to say, “Consult for the future.”

…so let us look to those who have children. Can they be certain that their children will possess what they shall leave? Let them observe the children of other men. Some lose what they had by the unjust violence of others. Other children lose what they had by their own wickedness, consuming everything they possessed. So it is that the children of rich men can remain poor.

…But a man will say, “My children will possess this.” It is uncertain. I am not saying that this is a false claim, but at best, it is uncertain.

But now suppose that their inheritance of your estate is certain. What do you wish to leave them? What you have gotten for yourself. But everything that you have gotten was not left to you. Yet you have it. If you have been able to get possessions that were not left to you, then they will also be able to get what you have not left to them.

St. Augustine then shows how these motives can be more properly directed in a heavenly direction:

Thus have the counsels of avarice been refuted… Now let righteousness speak. The words will be the same, but they will not have the same the meaning.

“Keep for yourself,” says the Lord, “consult for the future”.

Now ask Him, “Where shall I keep?”

You shall have treasure in heaven, where no thief approaches, nor moth corrupts. Against an enduring future you will be able to keep it! Come, blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

How many days this kingdom will last for is shown by the end of the passage. After He had said to those on his left hand, “these shall go away into everlasting burning”, to those on his right hand He says, “but the righteous into life eternal.”

This is consulting for the future. A future which has no future beyond it. Those days without an end…  neither preceded by a yesterday nor succeeded by a tomorrow. So then let us consult for this future. The words which avarice spoke to you are not different from this, yet by them is avarice overthrown.

But what am I to do about my children?”

Hear on this point also the counsel of your Lord… I would be bold to speak through His mercy; I would be bold to say something, not of my own imagining, but of His pity.

Keep then for your children, but hear me. Suppose any one should lose one of his children… This is man’s condition. It is not that I wish to see it, but sadly we see cases of it. Some Christian child has been lost. Perhaps you have lost a Christian child.

But you have not indeed lost him. Rather you have sent him before you. For he is not gone away, but only gone before. Ask your own faith: surely you too will go there too? The same place where your child has gone.

Does your son live? Ask your faith… Consider with Whom he is. If any son were serving at the Court and became the Emperor’s friend, and were to say to you, “Sell my portion, which is there, and send it to me; would you find what to answer him?”

Well, your son is now with the Emperor of all emperors, with the King of all kings, with the Lord of all lords…

Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

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When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Aspiring to Servanthood: The Transforming Power of Humility (Part I.)

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PRIDE AND HUMILITY

It was a job so terrible only a Christian would do it“.

So it was said of the midwives who served in the East End of London during the early 20th century. Midwives laboured up to their neck in squalor, disease, and mortality. All tragic byproducts of poverty, alcohol, and violence. Who would wish to work with such people under such circumstances?

Only a Christian.

In hellholes around the world, you find “only Christians”. They do jobs no one else will do. They are found in the places too dangerous; doing work too revolting; caring for people too broken for any one else.

It is Christianity alone that creates servants. Not Buddhism with its serene meditative calm. None of the thousand Hindu deities inspire missionary love. Not Islam with its fiery dogmatism. Certainly not animist religions with their efforts to squeeze power from nature. Only Christianity. Because only Christianity has at its centre a living King who became the Servant of all mankind.

Humble servanthood is so much the product of the Holy Spirit that Christ taught it is not possible to be one of his people without also becoming a servant. Aspiring to servanthood is a mandatory marker of true Christianity. Such profound self-lowering attends all authentic conversion:

 “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Being a servant has never been popular. Despite the language of service still hanging limply from the lexicon – “serving on the counter“; “serving my country” – the true subordination of oneself for the sake of another is a dead practice in our culture. We need only look at politicians to see the nakedly self-serving character of their craft, notwithstanding the pretence to “public service“.

Humility has always been the leper among virtues. It is a virtue despised by the thinkers and movers in this world.

The German philosopher Nietzsche, to select one example, claimed that humility was nothing more than the subversion of the strong by the weak. Humility, Nietzsche claimed, was just a fiction created by people with “slave morality”.

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Later, the influential psychologist Abraham Maslow claimed that the highest level of human fulfilment would be a stage he termed “self-transcendence”.

Maslow argued that if a person’s needs were fulfilled, their personality would expand into a star-burst of wonderful self-sufficiency, creativity and competence. They would reach their full potential and crack out of their cocoon as amazing enlightened beings. No wonder Maslow was popular among the Human Potential Movement of the 1960’s.

Outside of Christianity, one must search hard to find any philosophy or scheme that is founded on humility. Rather, the human story seethes with pride. From kings and queens swanning around in diamond encrusted robes while their people went hungry, to popes assuming divine titles and having their fingers kissed by the men and women they claimed to serve. Even in our own time we see ample news coverage of people grasping for power, privilege, wealth, fame, control, and the fulfilment of appetites at the expense of others. Few hands reach for the scrubbing brush of servanthood, and nearly all of those are Christians.

In fact, humility is frequently diagnosed as a disease of the mind or defect of character. Talk to people about taking the lowest place, putting yourself last; letting others go first; and being content to be unnoticed by any but God, and it will not be long before adjectives like “doormat” or “spineless” or “weak” will come at you like stones. Humility is seen as psychological defect needing correction. More self-esteem is the fix! It is considered a flaw that is detrimental to your health. To be humble is to be weak. Ignoble. Contemptible. Unworthy of respect. A human punching bag.

Christ speaks to this cultural delusion with sparkling and uncompromising clarity:

“Truly I tell you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The struggle of the convert is largely the fight to forsake the tentacles of pride that wrap themselves around the soul like a hungry octopus. Human nature is proud. By birthright we are selfish and conceited. Fierce in absurd self-admiration. Constant in self-idolatry. Desirous of elevation and applause.

C. S. Lewis wrote that the essence of pride is comparison. Pride, Lewis observed, always wants to be in some sense better than someone else:

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over.

I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’

The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.

They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

I would add to Lewis’ observations. Pride is also about deceit.

St. Paul says that if any man thinks of himself as something when he is nothing he deceives himself. Pride is self deception. But if a man wants truth then humility will eventuate. The essential characteristic of humility is truth. You desire truth in the inward being (Ps. 51:6).

The more a person sees the truth about themselves the greater their humility will be. This is because humility is not a form of conscious, unwilling abasement. That’s merely the imitation of humility and quite as bad as pride. A person can still feed their pride on fake humility. “Well, I didn’t get the attention I wanted but that’s because I was being humble and more virtuous than those who did“.

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Humility is about reality. When the painted layers of self-glory are sanded away, a man will eventually come to the real surfaces of his true being. And we have it on God’s authority that what a man will find is not nice or worthy or good. We are not self-actualised beings (sorry Maslow). We did not make ourselves (sorry Darwin). We are not powerful and self-sustaining (sorry Nietzsche). Quite the reverse.

No good thing dwells in me, wrote St. Paul. Not one thing.

St. Paul saw the reality of his own being in the blinding rays of Christ’s perfection. And he saw so clearly that he completely disowned himself. I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live. But Christ lives in me.

Paul saw the reality about Paul. And when he did, he crucified him.

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That is the nature of humility. The nature of truth. This is authentic conversion that breeds a deep yearning to serve out of gratitude and love for Jesus Christ.

Standing Firm in the Winds of Persecution: Christ Overcomes

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(Text: Mark 14:53-65)

After the agonising night in Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested and eventually brought before the Sanhedrin. There he stands trial before the leaders of Judaism and by extension, the representatives of the Jewish people.

Contrary to Jewish legal precedent, this hastily assembled court meets at an unseemly early hour, and far from giving preference to acquittal, this court is designed to give the thinnest gloss of legality to a predetermined death sentence. St. Mark tells us that the “whole Sanhedrin was looking for evidence to put him to death”. In other words, this was a kangaroo court: prejudiced against the accused, presided over by biased judges, and one that ignored standards of justice in order to secure the desired outcome.

Or, perhaps more accurately still, this was an example of a legal process that has long characterised authoritarian regimes: the show trial.

The Lord had already given the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants shortly before so that the thoughtful reader can understand what is happening. Here the rightful King of Israel – the legitimate heir of the vineyard – is being usurped by envious and greedy men who want to hold onto their power, prestige, and the tradition-rusted, corrupted religion that had given them so much control over the people. The hour of darkness has come. St. Mark tells us that these rulers actively seek his blood. They want nothing more than to see him suffer a miserable and painful death.

It is worthwhile to note here how evil works. For there is nothing new under the sun. Then, as now, evil is expressed through institutions. Whether it is the Sanhedrin, or the modern parliament; whether it is the meeting of the High Priests and elders or a meeting of a corporate board, men and women generally do evil through institutions. Certainly, there are always some violent and cruel men at the bottom of the heap. There are the sharp-toothed bottom feeders who use actual force or inflict actual torments on others.

Yet even these violent men or women may, in some cases, be thought upon with mercy. The Lord prayed from the cross for the violent Roman soldiers who nailed him, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. Not for the High Priests and the rest of the Sanhedrin. They knew what they were doing. And not for Pilate.

Although Pilate never drove any nails into Jesus or laid a single stripe on his back, the procurator was nonetheless quite aware that Jesus was innocent of any crime. He understood that the motive to judicially murder Jesus was solely to quench the outraged envy of the Jewish leadership.

Human beings create institutions. Nearly all of them are hierarchical, and all of them have both written and unwritten codes that govern them. Institutions can be very useful when they are overseen by benevolent and honourable men, but they are also susceptible to corruption and to the furtherance of unrighteousness. So often they provide a respectable covering, or a camouflaging skin, for distasteful behaviour: for greed, lying, manipulation, bulling, and propagating immorality.

When men and women gather together in an institution, they tend to work together to achieve corrupt purposes and promote the works of Satan in the world. We see this in corporations who successfully managed to suppress inconvenient information, as tobacco companies have done. Although many employees must have been made aware that they were promoting a dangerous product as documents were received, typed, circulated, filed, few spoke out against their companies in the heyday of the cigarette.

The cover-ups in government departments, the unbridled greed of corporate policies that often leave victims helpless in the face of a barrage of legal firepower, and the suppression of any Christian viewpoint in other circles points to the same corruption St. Mark documents on that cold night in the Judgement Hall. It is no wonder that ungodly activists who wish to remodel society in their own image are so quick to form groups, since propagating evil tends to be most effective when done in packs. Those who would advance God’s kingdom are often lonely men. The righteous are always outnumbered.

Institutions tend to be merciless, but merciless in a peculiar, paper-shuffling way. After all, Stalin, Mao and Hitler – who stand as history’s most vicious tyrants by dint of the sheer scale of misery and death they supervised – never killed anyone with their own hands. Hitler never gassed a single Jew; Stalin did not physically pillage the food from the Ukraine; and Mao never put a single bullet in anyone’s head. But, as St. Mark reminds us, guilt does not attach alone to those who perform deeds of evil, but to those who put the wheels in motion and use their positions to facilitate evil.

How do we stand firm, then, in a morally revolutionary age where institutions across society often seem irredeemably corrupt?

Jesus gives us the answer. Forsaken by his friends and delivered into the hands of his enemies, he stands (at first) silently like a sheep before his shearers. Their baseless accusations, distortions, and lies crash like water over his impassivity. Sometimes holding silence is necessary especially when it is clear that there is no point. One cannot reason with those who are determined to wield lies like a sword and who persist in their purposeful efforts to misunderstand or misrepresent us.

Yet Jesus also shows us the necessity of standing on the truth and declaring it. He did not hold himself aloof from suffering but shared it in full at the hand of unjust men. At the critical moment he did not resile from God’s truth. He stood firm, even knowing that his words would push the Sanhedrin over the edge and seal his crucifixion:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

One must stand upon truth at all costs. One must bear witness. In this case, Jesus bears glorious testament in that dark chamber to the reality that God had come; the Son of Man and the Son of God.

St. Mark reminds us that when evil manifests it is often through institutions of power. And small though a single Christian may be, the voice of faith rising from even the weakest believer can sound like a thunderclap in the eternal scheme of things. When we echo the words of Jesus and speak the truths which the world despises, we may suffer the cost at the hands of men and women combining in institutions of power.

But God, who is the ultimate Judge of all the earth, is not slow in keeping his promise. He will arise and do right. And those who followed the example of our Blessed Master will be vindicated and not fail to be rewarded in the life of the world to come.

The Loss of Transcendence

nave-panorama

Ecclesiastes and the Christian historian

One of the philosophical principles generally accepted by historians is that no one can fully appraise or appreciate the time in which they actually live. People have often tried to give definitive and authoritative explanations of their own time period – it is a staple of opinion columns in newspapers – and many minds have flailed around trying to make sense of things. But invariably they arrive at deficient conclusions. The broad failure of this intellectual effort has been long recognised by some of humanity’s most enlightened minds. Ecclesiastes wrote nearly three thousand years ago: “Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.

It is not wise, asserts The Teacher, to approach historiography in any way that romanticises the past, unreasonably magnifies its wonders, and airbrushes away its horrors. Yet over again, we see that people think exactly in this way. Ancient Romans of the Imperial period looked back fondly to the days of the Republic. In their minds, Imperial Rome was decadent and immoral. But in contradistinction, Republican Rome had forged its heroes in the fires of glorious combat, had produced its white-bearded scholars, and the citizenry had breathed a luminous atmosphere of enlightened values.  Nearly two millennia later, we find the same thing in the minds of Frenchmen in post-revolutionary France. Only they looked back to the Ancien Régime with nostalgia for the glories of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”.

In modern times we have entered our own period of longing, told through the hundreds of romanticised historic television shows and movies that mostly give us a version of the past as modern people wish it had been. And our times are strongly characterised by an attitude that Chesterton described as the “cult of simplicity”. He meant the yearning people have (or claim to have) for “nature”. To go back to supposed cleaner and healthier way of life before the grime and plastic of industrialisation.

Ecclesiastes’ basic point is that people fail to appraise the past accurately. They unwisely forget each time period has it own unique blend of good and evil, and in forgetting this, they come to unwise conclusions about their own lives. They neither see their own time properly nor the past. To fail to see the one is to fail to appreciate the other. And like the man who brings his face very close to an oil painting until it blurs into meaningless colours and patterns, human eyes often water with the effort of dealing with history.

Developments that will be seen as monumental in a few decades may be shrugged at carelessly in the present. History is garlanded with examples. Guglielmo Marconi is considered the father of radio yet his invention was received with a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the early 1900’s. He was told by the authorities to check himself into a lunatic asylum. Yet, from our standpoint more than a hundred years later, the tremendous importance of radio is readily seen. Without Marconi’s work, Hitler could never have come to power; the Second World War could never have been fought; the culture could never have been unalterably shaped by radio entertainment. Even baseball would not be the sport it is.

It is only in the rear view mirror of history, as we get greater distance from the period we consider, that it becomes evident which forces and attitudes shaped it. But, does this mean that our own time period must always be scorched earth to us? That it is merely dead ground, shrouded in heavy fog; dense; impenetrable? Not all. It is possible to understand our time through a process of comparison. But it must be done carefully so that we do not run afoul of the warning given by Ecclesiastes who, after all, was sharply insightful when it came to the condition of man and the sociology of mankind.

We must lapse into neither apocalyptic nor romanticised thinking. We must avoid arriving at conclusions that view the past as unspeakably wonderful or our own time as unspeakably evil. Neither must we arrogantly imagine that our current state – after a mere two hundred years of industrialisation – has advanced us morally and spiritually to be wiser than our forebears. Only a sober and sensible comparison can serve as the flare in the night that lights up our age for us to see rightly.

Loss of transcendence

I contend that if there is one thing revealed by a side-by-side comparison between the present and the past, it is the profound loss of any concept of transcendence in our time. Transcendent beliefs and experiences have been evacuated from the public and moral sphere in the Western world in a way never seen before in human society.

Let me first define my terms. By transcendence I mean the social and moral anchoring of humanity to a realm that is higher than itself. For me, transcendence is a shared sense of significance that imbues life with a richer meaning than mere existence itself. It is a framework that aggressively denies the view that we are organic machines whose only real function is to consume, replicate, acquire, and amuse ourselves before death.

A sense of transcendence always lets man brush his fingertips over things that are eternal. By feeling the infinite, he is properly integrated into the stream of time. Man lives a transitory life. We all are pilgrims, transmitters of a sacred trust; a precious deposit of truth that must be safely handed on until the ending of the world. To quote Alan Bennett, “Pass the parcel boys. This is the game I want you to learn. Pass the parcel! Not for me; not for you. But for someone, someday. Pass it on!

An awareness of the transcendent is what enables a person to experience emotions and thoughts that can only arise when standing before something monumental. Awe; veneration; reverence; wonder; self-conscious humility; gratitude; adoration; and genuine worship. Unlike our forebears who valued these experiences and went to great effort to establish settings in which they might occur (churches, museums, galleries etc.), modern people have surgically excised this whole emotional domain from their psychology. Especially among the young, the words awesome or wonderful are now only terms of approval. They are unhooked from what they once signified. The term irreverent is a synonym for good and prides is synonymous with healthy.

Transcendence has been replaced with a narrow band of utilitarianism that presents an entirely different universe of values. Few things are considered sacred anymore. Important things are also consumable. Anything new is good. Anything old is bad. The is no reverence, not even for time itself. Amusing ourselves to death, wrote Professor Neil Postman in his seminal work. The number of human hours wasted on entertainment, particularly screen based entertainment, is probably higher now than ever in history.

Does it work? people now ask. Does it matter to me? They do not ask: Is it right? Is it good? Does it matter to God? There is no longer a common  template of transcendent principles against which all things are tested and measured for worth. In this sense modern man is worse off than the pagans, for at least they had their heroic men, their legendary philosophers, mythologies, gods, and their epic poems against which they could judge their present.

It may have been a deficient template, alien to the concept of holiness and overburdened with immoral deities, but it was undeniably transcendent. It crossed the threshold between the material and the spiritual. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, in these ancient stories we may even see faint echoes of a longing for Christ. Prometheus, man’s greatest benefactor, stole from the gods their flame and fought with Zeus on man’s behalf.

The assumption that anything new is better than anything old has become more and more ingrained until it now dominates the latest generation so completely that they are hardly even aware of what the past was like before their august advent into the world. Terms like “updating“, “moving with the times” and “modernising” have become synonyms for good. These terms are applied not just to the domain of technology but also to morality, lifestyle, and behaviour. To update one’s household furniture is a good thing, requiring no further explanation since it is obvious that the new is always better than the old. When a politician speaks of updating the law to fit the times, it is never questioned whether “the times” would be better off fitting the law than the other way about. It is never questioned because these terms are complete microwavable arguments in and of themselves. If a house is repainted in the latest style and someone asks what was wrong with the old style, one may simply rebuke the questioner with the phrase, “We must move with the times, mustn’t we?” and this is considered a satisfactory, even unanswerable, response.

Modern Protestantism must reclaim a sense of transcendence

I am convinced that the loss of a transcendent sense is not isolated to unbelievers but also to Christians. The decline is most accentuated among Protestants but no group of Christians is really immune. This inescapable deduction flows from the most elementary observations. Consider following image:

Church

This is St. Helen’s Church in the small village of Lea, West Lindsey district of Lincolnshire. This church is a typical representation of small, country churches found throughout Europe. It was built in the 12th century and during the 900 years since, has been restored several times. It features items – pews, stained glass windows, towers, roofing, paintings and so on – that date from nearly every century between its construction until now. The east window of the northern aisle features stained glass from 1330, a century that was particularly busy for the church.

Several things are noteworthy. First, this is a building constructed for a very small village. Lea’s current population is just over 1,000 people and the village is so small that it has no shops. Other than the church, its two major communal institutions are a tennis court and a small primary school. Major metropolitan centre it is not.

Over the centuries, the local population would never have much exceeded what it is today. Yet despite the small number of people that would have worshipped here, Christians of the 12th century constructed a building that required a significant investment of capital and labour, and was obviously intended to be permanent. The builders of St. Helen’s expected it to be in use for a very long time. They were not building something that might – maybe – last for merely a hundred years. They were building something that would be used by their great-grandchildren. It would last for as long as God willed, maybe even to the ending of the age.

The building reflects an attitude of confidence about the future and a collective concern for coming generations that is quite foreign to modern man. They may not have been historians but the villagers who built and worshipped here 900 years ago would have known about the prophets, biblical kings, apostles, and probably a good deal of hagiography. They would have been trained to see their faith as one that stretched back through the mists of time to the dawning of the world. Their confidence in the long history of the church and in a transcendent God resulted in a stability of purpose. This building, in other words, was a vote of confidence in the future.

Secondly, note the aesthetics. Although only a small country church and therefore built with some degree of economy and functionality in mind, the designers and builders were still keen that it should offer a clear expression that something special occurred in this place that occurred nowhere else. For it was here that the community gathered to offer up their communal worship of God, the King of Creation in whose hands their lives rested.

For many centuries this would have been the most ornate building in the village and certainly among the largest. Situated more-or-less in the dead centre of the village, its tower reaches higher than any other structure; its windows are long and beautifully outfitted with stained glass. There are a number of Gothic features on the tower and the interior is colourful. Nothing is disposable. Everything is built with durability in mind.

The building is doctrine and faith taking form in stone and wood. It reflects a formality and otherworldly concept of worship. The fundamental attitude behind this building is that worship involves being lifted into the heavenly realms; of handling carefully the sacred trust of the Faith. It is an act of coming into a sanctified place to kneel before an omniscient and holy God, and there participate in something awesome and mysterious. Participating, it must be said, not as individuals who happen to be sitting in a group; but as a community approaching the only true God together.

This building, although one among many churches just like it, represents an entirely different way of thinking to our own. Contrast with this:

group

Could meaningful worship be offered up in a setting like this? Of course. Christians have worshipped in caves, in prisons, and holes in the ground before. Our Lord promised that wherever there are two or three gathered in his name, there he would likewise gather in the midst of them. We are all familiar with the Christians in the Roman catacombs during the early centuries of persecution.

These arguments for the “democratisation” and “de-formalising” of worship are so well known by nearly every Protestant of the last hundred years that they trip from the tongue with hardly any thought. And yet, so soon forgotten, is that in the long intervening years since the ascension of Christ, the predominant and favoured form of worship of the overwhelming majority of Christians everywhere has been decidedly toward the elevated and formal. Borrowing from the forms of worship laid down in the Old Testament, Christians have sought to worship in an atmosphere of sacredness and other-worldliness, with a true effort to maintain a faithful continuance of worthwhile practices laid down by dozens of generations.

I would argue that their sense of the all-pervading holiness and greatness of God – as the One before whom man in his smallness bows – has been largely dispensed with and modern worship is more akin to the receipt of information.

I am not suggesting that reverent and meaningful worship cannot be offered up in a variety of formats, neither am I advocating for a particular form of worship. Only that a study of the past conveys a very different attitude toward life and toward God from what is generally expressed today. The difference is the loss of a heavy sense of transcendence, and this has diminished the practice of the faith, and I believe driven people from it. In some way, an informality in worship renders it something less than that which our forefathers of faith experienced and practiced, and passed to us.

Power over the Waves: Jesus and the Psychology of Fear (Part I)

calming sea

(Text: Mark 4:35 – 41)

A recent survey conducted in Australia revealed that young people now experience worry and fear at an unprecedented rate. Among the most common fears were those connected to the future, which is not terribly surprising. Almost by definition our worries and fears are about things set in our future. “What is going to happen to me?” people wonder, “What if everything goes wrong?”

Sometimes worry or fear can be so immanent in the mind that it poisons the entirety of a person’s life. A fearful mind results in waning joys; exhausted disinterest in legitimate pleasures; and God is made to seem cold and distant. Life is emptied of sunlight. And since fear exists solely in the realms of the mind, it is in the mind that fear must be dealt with.

The Bible promises that it is possible to be truly and completely happy in this life (on God’s terms, of course). This is a revolutionary doctrine in a world where great numbers of people are unhappy, where others have lapsed into glum pessimism, and where many other people believe that the best they can hope for is merely moderate levels of happiness before death. Into this defeated moral landscape, like an urgent message on a battlefield radio, comes word from heaven: full happiness is possible whatever our circumstances. But to experience “joy unspeakable” – the “joy that is full” (John 15:11) – it is first necessary that a person be set free from worry and fear. Nobody can be purely and simply joyful if he is afraid.

And this is biblical. For the stern and parched hyper-Calvinists among us who glory in preaching doom and misery like the man sitting under the shade of the last palm tree in the desert, this is the explicit instruction of scripture. Indeed, our Lord teaches his disciples “do not worry about your life” and St. Paul writes “be anxious about nothing“.

The Christian disciple, in practising the faith, should be keenly concerned about setting himself free of fear and worry. This is part of our spiritual patrimony; our heritage of joy. Happiness belongs to those who have feet that are set toward the City of God. The Spirit himself bequeaths this state of mind to those in whom he lives: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love and self-control“.

Likewise, the commandment “be not afraid” appears in the Bible (NIV) some 70 times. But the theme of fear is addressed a great deal more often if we also consider attendant teachings such as commandments to trust in God, take refuge in him, and be full of courage. “Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death“, says the king who travelled that valley many times during his turbulent life, “yet I will fear no evil because You are with me.

Freedom from fear and worry is therefore a product of right thinking. To achieve a mind liberated from fear, the Christian must understand fear and why it is a sin to worry and fret in the Lord’s universe. The Bible gives us a complete taxonomy of fear and how it works. It does this for our edification, that we might better realise that worry and fear flow downward from a stark deficiency in knowing God. It is precisely because we fail to really know God as a Person in wonder and joy – notwithstanding the correctness and orthodoxy of our doctrine – that we become afraid. The remedy therefore (which I will address in a later post) is found primarily in the manner in which we relate to God.

Faith and Fear on Display

In the text referenced above, Jesus tells his disciples to set off across the lake. The Lord being tired out by a day of teaching and healing falls asleep in the back of the ship. A terrible storm erupts on the lake. St. Luke tells the reader that the ship was in serious danger. So much indeed that the disciples, the experienced fishermen among them concurring, thought that they were at imminent risk of drowning.

In their fear, the disciples wake Jesus. Each evangelist records a slightly different statement helping the reader to imagine the hubbub of fearful cries:

“Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” (Luke 8:24)
“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25)
“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)

St. Matthew tells the reader that Jesus’ first response upon being roused by this urgent din was to rebuke his disciples. Carefully note that St. Matthew tells us that this rebuke occurred before Jesus calmed the wind and waves. “You of little faith? Why are you so afraid?” Having said thus, he then issued a command to the furious storm and immediately there was a great calm. The Lord turns to his terrified disciples and says, “Where is your faith?” (Luke). “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark).

Fear is not legitimate for the disciple

Jesus’ rhetorical question to his disciples presupposes a remarkable truth. It tells us that from Jesus’ perspective, which is the only right and valid one for a disciple purporting to follow him, there were no legitimate grounds for them to be afraid. This is astonishing on the face of it given that all the evidence would suggest the reverse. It would seem to us that the disciples had good grounds to be afraid since they were totally at the mercy of the storm. Not so, says our Lord. Quite the contrary!

Jesus firmly impresses upon his disciples that had they possessed genuine faith in him they would never have been afraid. Faith would enable them to see the hidden realities behind the storm and the surfaces of the world around them.

But, in lacking faith, they saw the world as a colourblind person sees the world: in flat and brutal monochrome, unable to tell a red door from a green one, or a tomato from an apple. Severe indeed is the myopia of the faithless soul! For without faith men are doomed forever to view the world as though standing on their head. And in so doing, life, and the world at large, and everything in it is seen through the wrong end of the spiritual telescope, so that things which are small loom large, and things that are truly great appear insignificant.

The story gives a number of insights into the psychology of fear:

1. Fear is now native to the human mind.
According to Jesus, his disciples had “no faith” or “little faith“.

Faith is alien to us in a fallen world and does not come naturally to anyone. This is why St. Paul says that faith is a “gift from God”. It has to be since we cannot manufacture it ourselves. Yet this intruder – the condition of faithlessness – creates an existential vacuum in the mind and heart of man (who was, after all, designed to be a creature faith-filled and trusting). This void is filled with another in-rushing spiritual element. Fear. Fear has displaced faith in the human condition. In fact, the first recorded human emotion in Genesis is fear. (Genesis 3:10).

Without faith the grandeur and scope of man’s understanding shrinks to the orbit of a pinpoint, and fear, as it were fixed on a sliding scale, increases in the same direct proportions. Whereas once man in his innocence saw all things under the great unifying governance of God, such that we could confidently have walked the stars had we wished or trod on the flames of the sun which would not have harmed us neither overflowed upon us, now we are conscious only of ourselves, our smallness, weakness, fragility, and the tyranny of our circumstances. The world seems massive. Life in it appears to be the only thing that matters. The titanic and eternal depths of the spirit seem ethereal and insubstantial. Our various problems seem insurmountable.

Faithlessness pretends the universe is all about us, and God is pushed to the periphery of his own creation, distant or even absent altogether. To be alone in the universe is to be a spiritual orphan. To be abandoned by our Spiritual Father is to invite fear into the soul.

Without faith, our native reaction is innate distrust of God. Even the Christian, in his unguarded hours, may be both suspicious and cynical about God’s power. Yes, we can readily believe theoretically that God is all-powerful, all-wise and all-good. On paper, of course, the theory is extremely straightforward and childishly easy to grasp. But when things get difficult and worries and fears emerge from the surf of the fleshly mind, we find it much harder to function on the basis of our cherished theory.

It is like a man who has been told that there is an invisible bridge crossing the span of a deep chasm. The man learns about the bridge. It is a strong bridge, he discovers, and never fails. He comes to confidently proclaim the existence of the bridge to others.

But all the theory in the world is meaningless until the man places his foot over the chasm and puts his weight on the invisible surface he has claimed is there. At that point we get to see whether the man really believes what he says. If he steps forward, we see that his message is more than mere fantasy because now, at last, he is operating as if he knew that his theory were true. He trusts his life to it.

The same goes for faith in God.

2. Fear is the product of having our godlike pretensions exposed.
The first sin was not just disobedience to God but an effort to assume his status. This insufferable pride colours the thinking of every human being to one degree or another. We prefer to be in control of our circumstances and destiny. Self-determination!

We also hunger for knowledge that belongs only to the Almighty. Humanity has had a fascination with foreknowledge, and therefore always longed to peer through the mists of time and see the future. Clairvoyants and mediums have always ranged from cheap parlour entertainers, to mendacious tricksters, to shameless carpetbaggers, to properly deluded souls with a demonic odour rising from their clothing. But they have always been in demand, in every culture, because they promise access to the future. And lest we readily despise such a culture, even in a scientific age, predicting economic, meteorological, sporting, environmental, and social and political outcomes are big business. Humanity craves to know what it is not entitled to know.

For the disciples, the storm stripped away these pretensions. The Twelve realised that they were powerless. The storm was big and they were small. The storm was strong and they were weak. It was beyond their resources to cope with and they did not know what to do or what was going to happen. They probably did not think even Jesus could do much to save them, except lend his strength to an oar.

They were certain that their fate rested with themselves and since they were unable to deal with the storm on their own, they expected the worst.

The Christian disciple is most afraid when he most convinced that his fate rests with himself. He is afraid when he is convinced that God will not intervene in his life and that he is thrust into the cosmos alone. He is afraid when he thinks that he alone is ultimately responsible for dealing with his circumstances and problems. He is afraid when he distrustfully assumes that God’s intervention in his creation is miserly and capricious, instead of ongoing, omnipresent, constant.

We are most afraid, in other words when we assume a godlike perspective and attitude, and forget that God is God and we are not. That God is sovereign over ever square inch, every particle, and every happening in his creation.

3. Fear mangles the future and looks to it with distrust.
The problem with both lacking faith and at the same time pretending we are little gods who can confidently speculate about our future, is that we tend to assume the worst. The future looks painful, difficult, problematic, and downright frightening when we adopt the godlike perspective.

This attribute of the psychology of fear is fully displayed in the inspired narrative. Since the disciples could not deal with the storm, they assumed they were going to drown.

That was a perfectly logical atheistic deduction and would make sense if the universe was a godless one. But this is not an atheistic universe and neither we nor our circumstances and limitations are the deciders of our fate. God is.

4. Fear mangles the past and jettisons all memory of God’s mercies and care.
Don’t you care if we drown? asked the disciples, with the heavy implication that Jesus did not. If he did care wouldn’t he be bailing water and hauling on the rigging too?

Yet in the space of a few chapters, St. Mark has already shown us that Jesus handpicked his apostles. The evangelist gives us the deeply touching scene of Jesus surrounded by a circle of his disciples, exclaiming, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” And just a short while earlier Jesus had told his apostles that it was their privilege, unlike those outside, to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.

A fearful state of mind quickly forgets the past mercies and care of God. It forgets the storms through which God has already led us; the answered prayers; the loving guidance through the valleys of the shadow of death. Indeed, the faithless mind makes past mercies seem small compared to the present crisis (although if we recall accurately, very often past crises also seemed to be the worst thing ever at the time).

Fear and faithlessness rounds upon God. Don’t you care if we drown?

Even if it does not emerge as a railing accusation against the Almighty, the same attitude can be expressed in other ways. In quiet despair, in nervous exhaustion, in persistent gloom, in listless brooding, in anger directed against human targets, or trickles of fear.

We so quickly and readily take the view that although God has helped us in the past, somehow he is going to desert us in the present. Or, we take the view that past challenges were far smaller than the present crisis and that while God was adequate to those problems maybe he is neither willing nor able to help us with the present problem.

5. Fear is a product of thinking we know better than God what is good for us.
The disciples woke Jesus probably in the expectation that he would help them operate the ship and fight the storm. From their perspective that was the best help that Jesus could give to them at that moment. They certainly were not expecting deliverance from the storm. They were not expecting Jesus to stand up in the ship and address the sea. They were not expecting a miracle at all. We know this because once Jesus had calmed the sea the text tells us that the disciples were terrified. What kind of man is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!

Fear often emerges when the Christian comes to understand that God is not going to dance to our tune, we must dance to his. Yet over and over again, we become convinced that we know better than God what will make us fulfilled, holy, happy, content, joyful, and peaceful. And when it looks like God is not going to assist us in the way we think he should, it produces fear. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God because we are confronted with the reality that we are not in control.

It can be a frightening thought that God is going to make us happy, holy, and peaceful by the means he has determined. It can be a fearful thought that God will save and sanctify us according to his wisdom, and not ours. We do not like this because of our innate distrust of God’s motives and methods. We never seem to realise that God does what he does for his glory and our benefit, and that ultimately, at the end of our days, at the dawning of eternity, we will be satisfied with the work that God has done in us. With clarity we will see the love and wisdom in it and we ourselves would have it no other way.

In short: trust God. He knows what he is doing. And we will increase in joy and peace through the process of his dealings. Always.

The Healing of the Paralytic

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“Son, be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven.” (Mat 9:2)

In the ninth chapter of his gospel, St. Matthew relates a remarkable miracle.

Some men brought to Jesus a man who was a severe paralytic. So immobile, indeed, that he needed to be carried on a mat like a patient on a stretcher. St. Matthew does not tell us precisely how the man was paralysed, but one is left with the impression that this was not a congenital paralysis. Usually the gospel writers are very careful to mention whether an illness or disease was “from birth”.

We do know that severe accidents were relatively common in the ancient world. Our Lord even references a number of people who were tragically killed in the collapse of a tower.

In the ancient world, people unfortunate enough to be badly injured usually died. Medical technology of the era simply could not cope with extreme conditions and so the injured were “left in the hands of God” – as we always are, even if modern medicine sometimes deludes us into thinking we are not.

People who survived accidents with broken and deformed bodies – especially men – lost most of their economic capacity. They essentially became beggars, reliant upon their wife, children, or friends to provide the essentials of life. It was an unenviable and pitiable condition. Particularly if they lived with chronic pain.

St. Matthew tells us that our Lord “saw their faith” – the faith of the paralytic’s friends.

This is a remarkable observation. We know that Christ could see into the hearts of men with perfect perspicuity. But St. Matthew intends us to see that the faith of these men was demonstrated in action: they invested effort to bring their friend to Jesus, and they came with expectancy. This was not a scholarly expectation. It was not theologically complicated.

Their comprehension was simple and straightforward: This is the One who can heal!

When Jesus saw the paralytic he did not immediately tell him he was going to be healed from his paralysis. Instead, the Lord tells him to “Be of good cheer! Your sins are forgiven”. Do we get what St. Matthew is saying here? Forgiveness of sins is the first order of business. Indeed, righteousness with God was always the foremost priority in the economy of our Lord who sees and knows all things.

The forgiveness of sins! If we see things rightly, then we understand that reconciliation with God is greater than even being able to walk again. People who have found salvation come to understand that this is the foremost source of “good cheer”.

Could there be anything greater? To be a criminal engaged in a longstanding civil war against our Creator and King, only for him to set aside his royal robes; step down from his throne; and descend to our level in order to tell us that all who lay down their weapons; all who sign the Armistice; all who surrender and come into his presence – even if only with a trembling, weak, solitary sinew of faith – will be received. Will be forgiven. Will be reconciled. They will be given the right to call their former enemy, “my Father”.

It is only after addressing the paralytic’s soul that our Lord heals his broken body. Yet even this is done with purposeful deliberateness, to confirm the reality of the forgiveness he had bestowed.

No matter what the devil will try to tell us about the importance of earthly gain, or that we should look for happiness in sin and material goods, the reality is that a man can only really be at peace – to “be of good cheer” – when he has encountered Christ in faith and heard his words spoken as unto the very recesses of his soul:

“My son, your sins are forgiven.”

Do you hear that welcoming voice? Has your heart ever yearned for unconditional, compassionate and understanding love – the love of Christ, a wellspring of affection that is reserved just for you from the centre of heaven itself?

Have you grown weary of the dusty wilderness tracks through the desert of unrighteousness? Do you feel any tug on your heart at all?

You do not need it to be complicated. You do not need to have the same experience someone else had. You do not need complex doctrinal understanding. You need only to have an atom of desire toward Christ and enough faith to come – fainting, wounded, paralysed – into his presence. For all who truly come, he will never cast away.

In the words of the old revival hymn:

I hear Thy welcome voice,
That calls me, Lord, to Thee;
For cleansing in Thy precious blood,
That flow’d on Calvary.

I am coming, Lord!
Coming now to Thee!
Wash me, cleanse me, in the blood
That flow’d on Calvary!

Though coming weak and vile,
Thou dost my strength assure;
Thou dost my vileness fully cleanse,
Till spotless all, and pure.

And he the witness gives
To loyal hearts and free,
That every promise is fulfilled,
If faith but brings the plea.