Encouragement, Not Intimidation, from Proverbs 31

Women can be intimidated by Proverbs 31. The excellent wife is just so perfect, and we’re not. But the point of the passage is not to discourage us–in fact, we can be inspired and encouraged by the characteristics this woman illustrates for us. Rather than feel limited by this passage, we are set free to be inspired by her example.

I originally set out to write a single article about the encouragement we find in Proverbs 31. But as I explored the characteristics of this inspiring woman, I found the encouragement she offered was simply too much to fit into a single article. To my surprise, she provided enough material for a five part series! These are the links to the first four parts – subscribe here for more:

Who’s Afraid of Proverbs 31?

The assumption is that an unsoftened look at the woman in Proverbs 31 will lead to discouragement. The assumption is that the first emotions this passage will raise in us will be negative emotions, and that these negative emotions will need to be navigated and managed before we can get anything useful out of the passage. And I don’t deny that this is often the case, that often these are the emotions stirred up by this passage. But I don’t think this needs to be the case. It should be possible to re-frame the passage as a whole, from discouraging and disheartening to uplifting and inspiring. Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman can be encouraging without being softened.

Read here.

A Woman of Strength: Searching for a Strong Female Character in Proverbs 31

What is a strong woman? On one hand, we have many talking heads in media calling for more “strong female characters” in entertainment. On the other hand, strength is not typically the first female trait that comes to mind. If asked to come up with a list of feminine qualities, and you weren’t too afraid of going with the honest associations that came into your mind, you might come up with words like delicate, soft, gentle, meek. Asking for strong female characters is seen as one way to counteract this, to create new stereotypes that counteract the old. But too often “strong females” are interpreted as physically strong, as demonstrated by the number of “kickass” female characters who keep up with, surpass, or beat up men. But this kind of knee-jerk, opposing reaction to the stereotype of a weak female often glosses over the reality that women actually live.

Read here.

A Woman of Impact: Passivity vs. Effectiveness

We so often feel helpless to make an impact. We wash the dishes, only to immediately see the sink fill up again. We buy groceries, only to eat them all within a day. It feels like much of the world is arranged in a way that constantly erases our progress. So we hang in there, and our gaze wanders over to our ideal woman, the Proverbs 31 wife. And immediately we see she is so effective. She succeeds in clothing her family against the snow. She succeeds in feeding everyone in her household. And not only that—she impacts her community by taking care of the poor. The woman in Proverbs 31 exercises her strength to make an impact on those around her. After all, a woman of strength and power is a woman who has an effect.

Read here.

A Woman Without Fear

Right now, we’re living through times that make us nervous and on edge—and when we look at others around us, their anxieties just feed into ours. We’re, frankly, scared of the future. Don’t we all need people in our lives that can laugh at the days to come? Someone who strengthens us by example, by personally facing the future without fear? And there is a woman—not a stereotypical emotional, frail, helpless woman—who dares to stand in the face of the storm and laugh. Let the future bring what it wills.

Read here.

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How to Be an Ideal Woman: Encouragement From Proverbs 31

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Looking for A Strong Female Character (in Proverbs 31): October Issue

Hello, dear readers! This is the October issue of my newsletter–if you enjoy, please subscribe!

In what way is the woman in Proverbs 31 inspiring? In what way does she challenge us to stretch ourselves, and what characteristics does she have that we could develop? I have already talked about how she presents an exciting example to us. But we all know many women, many wives and mothers, many who do the same or similar activities as laid out here. And so if she is supposed to be an ideal, there should be some characteristics that stand out about her—some aspects that opens our minds to wider possibilities. Well, this female ideal is unique in many ways, when compared to other female stereotypes throughout history. And one way is how she lays before us an example of strength. 

Strength is not the first word I associate with women, but it is the first association brought out here, in the very first line: “A woman of strength, who can find?” She draws our eyes to the quality of female strength specifically.
 
Strong and Weak Stereotypes 
What is a strong woman? On one hand, we have many talking heads in media calling for more “strong female characters” in entertainment. On the other hand, strength is not typically the first female trait that comes to mind. If asked to come up with a list of feminine qualities, and you weren’t too afraid of going with the honest associations that came into your mind, you might come up with words like delicate, soft, gentle, meek. Asking for strong female characters is seen as one way to counteract this, to create new stereotypes that counteract the old. But too often “strong females” are interpreted as physically strong, as demonstrated by the number of “kickass” female characters who keep up with, surpass, or beat up men. But this kind of knee-jerk, opposing reaction to the stereotype of a weak female often glosses over the reality that women actually live.  

Women live their lives under the awareness that they will never be as strong as men. There is a limit to what we can physically do, and aside from a few exceptional women, most of us will burn out measuring our strength against men’s. Because of this, some of us can conclude it is not worthwhile to develop our own strength and capacity. Or others may choose to highlight only these exceptionally strong women as a defense against perceptions of weakness, in a way that makes regular women feel inadequate.  

Another way we do not feel strong is in our awareness of our vulnerability—we live knowing we can be overpowered and harmed by others with more strength. We structure our lives because of our awareness of our vulnerability, not walking alone in the dark, or holding our keys in our fists when we feel threatened. So no, I don’t believe that physically strong female characters in media are enough by themselves to encourage and inspire us in our regular lives.  

However, it does not follow that in order to be a woman, we must emphasize our weakness. There has been a growing awareness through time that strength in women is a benefit and not a drawback, starting with the nineteenth-century encouragement to throw off tight-laced corsets and be physically active. Nowadays, the capacity of women is recognized on a society-wide level, and women are encouraged to develop and use their abilities to accomplish what they set their hand to do. And Proverbs 31 gives no support to ideas that weakness, fragility or delicacy are defining characteristics of womanhood. 

It is at this intersection between “kickass” female stereotypes and the experiences of regular women that the woman in Proverbs 31 stands. This passage is “a heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” or, “an ode to a champion.” In this way, she stands alongside Achilles and Beowulf. And yet she is not unreachable or alien to us in our everyday life. In fact, one thing many commentators notice about her is the mundane normalcy of what she is described as doing, even as the passage uses phrases such as “girds her loins” as she does these things. We might expect a woman who does “great things for God” would have more in common with female superheroes than with us. But we can relate to the strength needed to consider a field and buy it—or, in more modern terms, decide to launch a business, or plant and harvest a garden, or challenge ourselves with an activity we have never tried before. 

Let’s take it a step further and compare the Proverbs 31 woman with some older female stereotypes—she may be rich and of high status, but she does not spend her days in the cool shade of her porch, being fanned by servants. She has not retreated from the world to seek the safety of a carefully ordered life, buffered from anything that might jolt her poor nerves—an image of femininity that would be unreachable to most of us, even if we did desire such a life. Instead, her strength is demonstrated by taking up the task of living, including the hard things, and by working with her own hands.  

In other words, she demonstrates that strength is a non-gendered Christian quality. It is not men with strength, and women with fragility. But both draw on God’s strength to use their full capacity. 
Christianity has never been about strong men and weak women. Christianity has always been about strong men and strong women.
 
A Woman of Strength 
We’re not used to hearing the first verse of this passage quoted as, “a woman of strength, who can find?” It is more recognizably quoted as, “a wife of noble character.” The description is translated in various ways: a wife of noble character, an excellent wife, a virtuous woman. Literally, it is a woman of valor, and the description is the same description given to Gideon (“The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor”) and Ruth (“I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman.”) When we read it translated as “virtuous woman” we might not quite get all the overtones of power, competency and initiative this word carries. But it would be misguided to read this chapter and come away thinking this woman is not empowered (she is a woman of power), or that she is a passive housewife experiencing a lack of control over her life. 

And it doesn’t really matter if the power this woman possesses does not come through in every translation, because further verses in the passage underscore it: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong,” and “Strength and dignity are her clothing.” If there exists any strong female character, it is this female character! She is the purest demonstration that strength and women can, in fact, go together. But what does it mean that she is strong? What does this equip her to do? Well, we’ll take a good look at what she achieves next month, when we study her impact. 

However, it is clear that while she is described with power, capacity and strength, this is not reduced to the physical ability to bench-press heavy weights. It is not an ability to defend her home from intruders, or protect herself through hand-to-hand combat. The various translations demonstrate the meaning of this word is much broader. Her strength is her competency at what she does, and her capacity to consider a plan and complete it. Strength in this passage is not only physical strength (though a certain amount of physical strength would be necessary for her to accomplish all the things she does), but also includes competency and strength of character. And when we talk about “strengths” we tend to use this term in a broad way as well. 

Strength of character in particular is important, as she is “a woman who fears the Lord.” When we think of that other “worthy woman,” Ruth, we understand it was her character that brought her notice, and not only her unflagging energy while gleaning for grain.   

Lastly, don’t forget that this passage is directed to a man—a king, instructing him on what kind of wife to look for. A strong woman will not be a drawback for him. “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” 

Strength in Action 
There is, then, such a thing as female strength, in that woman can develop and exercise their strength. There are some aspects of this that are uniquely female, such as the ability to bear a child, but in a more general way it is women intentionally developing their capacity, skills and character. Developing one’s individual capacity is something everyone can do, regardless of what your starting point is.  

Sometimes women don’t realize how strong they are. They may hesitate to do things by themselves, or to take initiative to develop an idea of theirs, or to build on their skills and talents. There is nothing wrong with depending on other people, as humans are made to interconnect and rely on the strength of each other. But sometimes, if we habitually rely on others, we forget what we ourselves can do. In Proverbs 31, it does not mention her consultations with her husband over her initiatives, such as buying a field or planting a vineyard—this is not to say that she did not consult her husband (and I would argue most likely she did, and it says he trusts in her completely and her plans always brings him good).  But it does demonstrate that the emphasis in this passage is that this woman can have an idea and carry it through. She knows her strength, and does not shrink away from taking action. She makes plans, and then puts in the grunt work necessary to bring her vision into reality. 

This is especially true when it comes to our own faith life—we all need spiritual leaders to follow, but we also need to be able to study, learn, grow, tell truth from error, and so on, even when not directed by someone else. When many sections of Christian publishing target fluffy, easy, devotional reads to women, we can get a glimpse at what some marketing bodies think of the readers of these books. But we can also counteract these stereotypes by growing in our own faith. 

Strength can be used wrongly, of course. Strength can be used to bully. Strength can be used to overwhelm others. This is true of female strength too, and there can even be extremes such as female-on-male abuse. However, strength and gentleness are not contradictory. After all, 1 Peter 3:4 still applies: “let your adorning be… the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” If you can think of strong men who are gentle, you will know strong women can be as well.  
 
Am I a Strong Female Character? 
There are two responses to this idea of strength. The first is to glorify the strength of women as if this strength did not come first from God. To elevate the strength of women to the point where we almost require women to attain the same level of strength as men, or to speak as if female strength always surpassed men’s. We are afraid to betray our gender if we speak of our fragility. A broader understanding of strength is a good defense against this. The other response is to feel intimidated because we personally feel so very beaten down and weak. There are many of us who hate hearing about how strong women are because we don’t feel able to take even another step.  

Can you tell I relate more to the second? I have never considered myself the strongest, and because of health reasons I’ve spent the past couple years feeling very weak. To the point where, when certain types of men have expressed the idea that women are inconveniences, I felt like I agreed, in that I wasn’t sure I could help anyone much. It is a modern cliché—“the strong, female hero”—but I tend to notice all the ways I am not strong, physically and otherwise. And then I am reminded of verses like 1 Peter 3:7: “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel,” and I feel like a weaker vessel. “A woman of strength, who can find?”

In this regard, it’s worthwhile to remember that weakness is not a gendered characteristic either. What does Paul say about weakness? “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” he says, because as he says elsewhere, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He knows his weakness points him to the power of Christ. We all know what it is to be weak, and we all need to know where to turn to be strong. 

The modern female hero can feel intimidating and unreachable and alien, in a way the woman in Proverbs 31 is not. Female superheroes might be fun to watch, but they do not change how I live. But Proverbs 31 is different. Proverbs 31 inspires me, because she is both like me and better. She challenges me to reach higher, through Christ who strengthens me. 
 
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On Hope in a Tough Situation: Still Life

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Who’s Afraid of Proverbs 31? September Issue

Hello, dear readers! This is the latest issue of my newsletter. I would be glad to have you join me for future issuessubscribe at the very bottom of the post. In a sea of online fluff and negativity, get in-depth content and encouragement in faith, straight to your inbox.
 

I can still see the cartoon in my memory—she was robed in white, her nose in the air, gracing a marble pedestal under which lesser women cowered. Inscribed on the pedestal were the words, the Proverbs 31 woman. It was illustrating a comedic piece in a Christian women’s magazine, describing exactly what the author felt when faced with such a perfect, perfect woman. My mother lifted the magazine out of my hands. “Don’t read that nonsense,” she said.

“Why not?” I wanted to know.

She thought a moment. “People like to mock her. It’s easy to make fun of her. But I don’t like it.”

Lots of women do feel intimidated by Proverbs 31. We feel if we were to meet her in real life, we would only meet with judgment. We react to her as if she is a standard that points out all our inadequacies. And authors who write about her know this—they feel compelled to include an apologetic paragraph somewhere near the beginning of their article: Don’t worry, everyone comes from a different life situation. Don’t worry, this woman appears to be rich, and you might not be. Don’t worry, everyone is unique, and not everyone needs to live up to this passage in the same way. A recent article I read started off with, “Reading Proverbs 31 can be discouraging! Who can live up to such expectations?” The first reaction to her is to downplay her a little, and make her more approachable.

The assumption is that an unsoftened look at the woman in Proverbs 31 will lead to discouragement. The assumption is that the first emotions this passage will raise in us will be negative emotions, and that these negative emotions will need to be navigated and managed before we can get anything useful out of the passage. And I don’t deny that this is often the case, that often these are the emotions stirred up by this passage. But I don’t think this needs to be the case. It should be possible to re-frame the passage as a whole, from discouraging and disheartening to uplifting and inspiring. Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman can be encouraging without being softened.

Actually, I know it is possible. I have often read this passage with a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility. In contrast to many human writings, it does not downplay the capabilities of woman, and it acknowledges and appreciates them (and urges the rest of society to do so). It is not a passage that needs to be clarified with the sentence, “oh, this applies to women too,” but it is directly applicable. However, this woman can clearly inspire either excitement or discouragement in many women. What causes the difference? Can she be inspiring to everyone?

The Ideal Woman

One problem is that we tend to think of ideals in the wrong way. The woman in Proverbs 31 is an ideal, and ideals are judges. Ideals are meant to draw our attention to the gap between them and us. They do give a verdict on our conduct by demonstrating the ways we fall short of them. But ideals are meant to be a vision of what could be, of what we can strive for, rather than a standard that is meant to crush and punish us. They aren’t there to push us to quit, but instead give us a vision of a different way to live.

Our modern world doesn’t like ideals very much. In the past, people did frequently talk about the ideal country or ideal city or ideal king. But nowadays, who talks about the ideal prime minister? We don’t believe any politicians could ever be ideal. Our cynicism is unavoidable—if you speak of a just and equal society, we are much more comfortable speaking about the way our current society is not just and equal, than speaking of what a just and equal society would actually look like. Human realities have led us to give up on utopias, and create lists of our problems instead. But maybe we should take our eyes off our lists of problems, and learn to feel inspired once again. We can draw fresh enthusiasm from working towards a vision of the good.

When presented with an ideal, we feel like ideals force conformity on us, tell us to be all the same, and can only make us feel bad about ourselves. But instead, the power of ideals is that they can open our eyes to a better way of living. In that way they are not limiting, but rather are a demonstration of opportunities we would never have imagined in our current circumstances.

After all, children look to their parents to see what it is like to be a person who can accomplish more than what their childish limbs can manage. They can’t do what their parents do, but they can imagine growing into a future where they will be able to do more. When they look to their parents they can see an example of how to live a life they have never yet experienced—an adult life. And Christians are inspired by Christian role models too. Paul the apostle advises the Corinthians to imitate him as a model in their Christian life, as an example of a more mature Christian (1 Corinthians 11:1). Having examples can be freeing rather than limiting, because we see how different lives than ours can be lived.

Yes, visions of what could be are intimidating. But to erase them is to limit ourselves only to what exists right now.

And this is the way I think the woman in Proverbs 31 can function. She can demonstrate the power of a virtuous woman, and lead us in turn to feel enthusiasm about what is possible for us in our femininity. After all, it does not take much for us to feel ground down in our femininity—we’re confronted daily by negative portrayals of silly women, clingy women, bullying women, or passively helpless women in media, online, or just mentioned in general conversation. We can feel hormonal and wonder if our genetic makeup is a curse. We can struggle to perform heavy labour and feel dependent on others as a result of who we are. We can hesitate to speak up and make our voice heard, and feel held back. And when others reject us and label us or neglect to appreciate us, and we become vulnerable to harmful images of femininity.

When we turn to our Bible to counteract this, we find the Bible itself does not shy away from portrayals of the shortcomings of women (just as it does not shy away from the shortcomings of men). Women can be gullible (2 Timothy 3:6), weak, (1 Peter 3:7), or just unpleasant (see elsewhere in Proverbs itself, such as Prov 21: 9). Faced with all this, how does one remain hopeful about womanhood? Is there any vision of a woman being a woman in a positive way? Yes, there is.

When we need a picture of a woman exercising female traits and positively affecting the world around her as a result of being a woman, we can look to Proverbs 31.  We can look to Proverbs 31 and begin to heal from our doubts and worries about womanhood. There are many things a woman can do, even a very “traditional” woman such as this woman. She can be strong, both physically and mentally, even though we’re tempted by negative images to believe we’re doomed to be fragile and unstable. She can be effective, even though we’re afraid we’ll only be passive and ineffective. And she can be courageous, even though we’re worried and anxious. In this way she is purely encouraging. We are not fated to be that taunting caricature of ourselves that may live in our imagination. When we need to insist our womanhood is a gift God has given us and the world, she is on our side.

“A heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” is how one commentator classes this passage. Another calls it, “an ode to a champion.” What women do is not only worthy of being recorded, it is worthy of being applauded in exactly the same way as a warrior who slew a lion. But she girds her loins and takes up the heroic role in a very different setting.

And we can feel confident in this picture we receive in Proverbs 31. This is not like the argument over whether Cinderella is a good role model for girls or not; we can take it as a given that this woman is a good role model. And if she is, what opportunities does that present to us? I want to dive in much, much more into the details of this woman, but the examples of her strengths will have to wait for future issues of this newsletter. She brings so much to the discussion that I cannot begin to include everything in a single article, though I’d love to go on about her for a while!

The Greatest Ideal

What do you do if you don’t feel this way? If you feel ground down by Proverbs 31 and don’t feel enthusiastic about its picture of opportunities for women?

First, there is another ideal that is very familiar to Christians, and that is the ideal of Jesus Christ himself. All Christians are called to conform themselves to Christ. And all Christians are aware of where we fall short in this. Do we look to Christ to feel bad?

Of course, the woman in Proverbs 31 is not an ideal in the same way Christ is. We are not required to live up to the ideal of Proverbs 31 in the same way we are commanded to put on Christ-like-ness. But while pursuing Christ we can see the examples of other Christian role models, who give us ideas about how to apply Christ’s work in our own lives. The Bible has not neglected women—rather, it speaks right to us.

Second, there is an undeniable cultural context here. It’s not wrong to point out that this woman is set in a specific place and time, and this affects the way she is described. She acts in the way a wife of a rich, high-standing husband would act. And since this passage is advice given to a king by his mother (see Proverbs 31: 1), it is in a sense an ideal woman viewed through the eyes of a man who will need to find a wife someday, which does explain why some features are emphasized more than others. After all, Jesus Christ himself put on human flesh in a specific place and time, and we still understand that the universal application of his example is not tied to being an unmarried carpenter. It is correct to say she’s rich and you’re not, but not as a way of downplaying her achievements or making her easier to stomach, but rather as a way of re-contextualizing your response to her. In your circumstances, what can she inspire you to do?

Therefore, the third point is that we can see her as an example of a different way to live, rather than a standard meant to intimidate us. We are not doomed to some of the repeated negative stereotypes about females that are spread around: neurotic, weak, anxious, gullible. None of this is our destiny. It is not encoded in our genes, a sentence given by God at birth. No, we can draw enthusiasm about our femininity from this picture presented here.

The woman in Proverbs 31 does many things. As Wikipedia sums it up, she is “an industrious housewife, a shrewd businesswoman, an enterprising trader, a generous benefactor (verse 20) and a wise teacher (verse 26).” You can look at all that and think, oh wow I have to do all that? Or you can think, wow, I could be a business woman. I could be a trader. I could be a benefactor. Look at all the things I could do and be.

And that sense of possibility is a good place to start.

Don’t be afraid of her. Remember, she comes to you with words of kindness in her tongue.

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More Articles/Links I Enjoyed This Month:

It can be difficult nowadays to find online articles that don’t drag your mood down. Here are my top recommendations for interesting and uplifting links to get you through the month ahead—read at your leisure:

On beauty: The Difference Between Beauty and Usefulness

On love: Anna Dostoyevskaya on the Secret to a Happy Marriage

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Encouraging New Believers When Fellow Christians Don’t Live up to Their Beliefs

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The new Christian sits across from me, brow wrinkled in confusion. “I don’t understand. It makes me ask, what difference does it make to be a Christian?”

She’s just been detailing to me some of the difficulties she’s been through since joining the church, like her search for a Christian social circle to support her in her new faith. But also her confusion—her confusion over the drinking and partying ‘like you see in the movies’ that she’d assumed would never happen in the church—her confusion at the disconnect between the people who’d been introduced to her as ‘good Christians’ who she’d seen dating non-Christians, getting sloppy-drunk in bars, and playing very suggestive games. Her question hit me hard. After observing this, can she still believe Christian faith makes a difference in believers’ lives?

I don’t know how to respond. I know all the excuses for the behavior. I know young people often ‘let loose’ before they settle down and follow their faith more seriously. I know some of them are sincere Christians who just fold under peer pressure. Or Christians who didn’t fully think every action through.

I really don’t know how to respond. I know there’s a particular kind of temptation in some of these areas that those who’ve been Christian for a long time can give in to. There is an extra thrill for us in going as close as possible to something we know is wrong, or even going over the line—because it feels rebellious. Nothing really bad, of course, just a little suggestive, a little titillating, a little daring.

But it’s a shock to someone who’s just committed to ridding sin in her entire life. And it should be.

Losing Perspective

We lose perspective when we’ve been ‘good’ our life. We become blinded to the unbreakable divide between living for Christ and living for anything else. We get really good at finding acceptable ways to let a little ‘bad’ in, because then we can be a little more comfortable—we can’t be on our best behavior all the time anyway. It’s fun to relax a little, and relax on some of our standards too.

And if everyone agrees some standards are just expected to be crossed, well, why should we protest? It’s just easier if we can let our guard down in certain areas of our lives. Sometimes it takes the fresh eyes of a new believer to help us see what we’ve gotten used to.

This all goes through my mind as I listen to my friend talk. Then this young new Christian goes on to tell me how she’d rightly gone to more mature Christians in her church for advice. She tells me of the shrugs—“Oh, they’re young.” She expresses the feeling that no one else seemed to think it was a problem. The feeling that, in fact, it was her that had to loosen up, and that it was her whose thinking had to change.

And I feel even less confident about how to answer her. These other believers might have a better perspective than me—they have seen many Christians sow their wild oats and return to the warm embrace of the church. Maybe I am not the right one to be counselling my friend on this situation. I want to shout that this behaviour is incorrect, that my friend is right to think there is a problem when belief does not make a visible difference, but maybe I am the judgmental one.

For a brief moment I wonder if I am there to soften the blow for her, to teach her that she can’t expect to see everybody living up to their Christian ideals and that she will often see many in the church who don’t follow them, to explain that people can be saved even though from time to time they fall very short. Maybe it is my role to help her follow her faith in a church that is full of imperfect people. But then I think—no, she should be able to see the difference it makes to be a Christian.

Our faith should make an objective, observable difference that others can see. She should be able to live out her faith in a church full of imperfect people, but she should be able to find encouragement in seeing these imperfect people strive to live differently.

I realize suddenly that there are two issues at play here. First, that long-time Christians can lose perspective on the vast difference between the old life and the new, and start to enjoy the thrill of small rebellions instead of running from them. This is where someone who recently committed to renewing their whole life can cause us all to re-evaluate—where new believers help us reawaken our joy. And second, many of us can be reluctant to be the one to stand out and be the person to call others to aim for higher standards. Here, too, the enthusiasm of new believers can open our eyes to what we’ve been tolerating.

A Divided Life 

First, when we search for agreed-upon areas to relax our standards a little, we take a big step, not a negligible one. What we are really doing is saying we are living for Christ, but ever so subtly separating our lives into areas for Christ and areas for ourselves. Areas where we can ‘actually have fun’, and areas we can point to, to reassure ourselves that we’re still good Christians. But once we do that, we’ve lost our battle.

We’ve redefined fun as something transgressive, a thrill we get from rebelling. And by doing this, we turn our faith into the motions we go through, instead of something that matters so much to us it runs through every thought and action in our lives—including what we find enjoyment in in our lives. Worse, we have become hypocrites. Our actions contradict what we say we believe.

This is not to say that everyone who has gotten a transgressive thrill out of a small rebellion is not saved—of course not. Our salvation does not require our perfection. We will likely all be proven to have been hypocrites in some are of our life, and we will need others to call us back. But too often we use this reality of forgiveness as a reason to quite striving. It can be a reason to be lazy about reevaluating what we’ve gotten used to.

The path of Christian living is an idealized one—not a path of ‘close enough’, but a path that reaches for perfection. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,” as Paul says in Philippians 3:12-14, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Christians in fact strive for an ideal, not a loophole. We do not allow our inability to be totally perfect to tear down the standard God sets out for us, but we help each other reach it, bearing with one another’s’ weaknesses.

Too often we use our lack of perfection as a reason to quite striving. We admit we’ll always struggle against some little sin or another, and we feel our admission of this is enough. It’s more comfortable to laugh about these than fight them. It’s more comfortable to set aside certain environments where we can indulge. And we start to edge uncomfortably away from anyone who takes these things too seriously.

Sometimes someone with fresh eyes and new enthusiasm can see what we’ve become too accustomed to see. Being a Christian is supposed to make a difference in you.

Turning from Toleration

What can we do? Well, we can first of all redirect our own lives. We can examine if we truly do find joy in our life with Christ. We can think about the not-good-but-somehow-acceptable activities we find ourselves drawn towards, and think about why. Have we lost our first love? Goodness may look insipid and tame to those who don’t truly understand it, and “wholesome” might sound boring, but to those who have experienced it there is a depth to such experiences that cannot be matched—it is a thrill that doesn’t fade. If we’ve forgotten what this feel like, is that why semi-illegitimate thrills are so attractive?

But I suggested there were two issues at play. The first issue is that believers can lose their perspective on Christian living, growing desensitized to the joys of Christian living because it is so “normal” to us. Then we become drawn to the thrill of transgressing boundaries, or at least relaxing standards once in a while. But the reason we need to freshen our perspective and remember our first love is that there is a second issue: the issue of being reluctant to call others to aim for higher standards.

I cannot look away from the struggle my newly-believing friend has in defining the contents of a Christian life as a result of what she sees. And I know I must be there for those with worries or frustrations about the real or perceived hypocrisies they see. I need to have a deeper response than, ‘don’t worry about it, they’ll probably grow out of it.’ And so my response is—yes, we are called to do better.

We must learn to care about the spiritual well-being of our own brothers and sisters in the church. We must genuinely want to see them grow. If we truly care, not just about whether they’re objectively ‘in’ the church or ‘out’ of the church, but about whether they are truly finding more and more joy in Christ, then we will better be able to stand the potential scorn of speaking up. We will find more courage to call out behavior because we know it’s hurting our brothers and sisters. And we will be more willing to be called judgmental, puritanical, and uptight. We’ll allow ourselves to be pushed to the fringes of social circles, because we are driven by deep caring for our brothers and sisters.

And yes, I myself have frequently failed to live out of this level of caring for those around me.

Believers may come to us with struggles over how apparent Christians can act in certain ways, and we must be there for those with worries or frustrations about the real or perceived hypocrisies they see. We must have a deeper response than, ‘don’t worry about it, they’re part of the church.’ Many do struggle with how apparent Christians can act in certain ways, and if we care about their spiritual life as well we’ll teach them how to use this to grow in their faith, not how to better turn a blind eye. We can encourage them that they are not alone, and demonstrate this by urging others around us into a closer walk with Christ. We can help assure struggling new believers that they do walk beside many brothers and sisters who do have a deep desire to live out their faith.

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Spiritual Care for the Spiritually Healthy

So we’re reading a book about pastoral care in one of my classes, and it’s frequently making me cry. Because too many of the scenarios mentioned are too similar to things I’ve walked through, and yet they’re presented as if there is a spiritual side to them, a side that can be addressed by wise people of faith—and yet I’ve never personally gone through these experiences and felt there was spiritual “medicine” for the wounds they inflicted—that the pain they inflicted could be fully worked through in this earthly life. The pain could be born in faith, of course, but the solutions too often seemed beyond all of us.

All we had to offer was the silence of Job’s friends, the long silence that might’ve been a comfort before they opened their mouth to their hurtful words—the hope our mere presence meant some comfort because our own mind was in a whirl of struggle—no, I don’t know what God means by this either. And our own soul slowly succumbed to the effects of the experience of living: bruised, beaten, and then even bleeding.

How many of us have walked through these situations alone, without advice, thinking that was just reality, the way things were? Bracing ourselves to walk into a circle of grief without a thought this grief of others or ourselves can be navigated, only endured. And then there’s books like the one I’m reading for class that mention scenarios like this and stir up deep longing within you—what if during those dark times we had had someone who had applied the supposed spiritual cure? What if there are actually “cures” that exist–that a spiritual application could be poured into certain situations and reframe it, and cause healing? The answer is that I should’ve been mature enough to be my own guide, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that I’m not.

Because, in theory, what are supposedly spiritually healthy people supposed to do in these situations? Pray. Read the bible. Go to church. What does the book I’m reading say spiritual medicine even is? Applying God’s word to the soul. There is no reason I should not be able to do that. So if I’ve struggled—perhaps I am not one of the spiritually healthy.

To be clear, I’ve never characterized myself as one of the healthy—I am using this more as a convenient term for those who do not need constant spiritual intervention by those in authority over them in faith—those who can be trusted by the church to travel onwards in the Christian life without constantly being shoved in that direction. We’re all directed to grow into a maturity of faith, and part of becoming mature is to learn to apply Scripture to your own faith, to see God’s work in the world for yourself, to know how to be a hand and a foot to other people. The mature learn to stand in the storm, and those around them don’t worry that the next time they see them they will have collapsed out of sight. And so I start to feel that perhaps I have not really reached maturity in that way, that I need constant leading by the hand like a little child, and constant advice and wisdom given to me.

But how can this realistically be provided? Anyone who has a wisp of spiritual maturity is run off their feet already. It is important that at least some sheep are independent enough to not constantly run back to the wise with questions. And maybe it is just me, and not necessarily a common problem after all–I do remember sitting in math class in high school and needing to ask the teacher to walk me through every single word problem in the assignment, because I just could not grasp how to put my knowledge into use in the context of a new problem with different numbers–maybe it is just that I am a fragile person who needs constant feedback on my thought processes, and all this musing about care for the spiritually healthy is really only applicable to me in my own personal situation. When I say I need spiritual guidance, people tend to take that as a veiled hint that I’m saying I need a husband, which maybe goes to illustrate how foreign this concept I’m voicing is to others, and how maybe it’s not easy for others to relate to. Maybe others out there don’t feel so much like they need this interaction to navigate their path. But maybe there’s a few out there like me, who do–which is the reason I write.

After all, I think we all desperately need guidance in our spiritual life. No matter how much you learn, no matter how much life experience you obtain, it’s difficult to form yourself to be more and more like Christ without any outside perspective on what you’re actually like. I’d say it’s impossible, if I’m allowed to make such a firm pronouncement. You can be taught about your own tendency towards self-deception, but unless someone with a more objective viewpoint steps in and helps you see exactly where you are deceiving yourself, you’re stabbing in the dark trying to find what you’re blind to. You might be aware you have failings, but again it’s a guess as to how to work them out–are you too selfish or self-effacing, and how can you tell which one you are when? You might know you’re not fully conformed to Christ, but have no idea what particular area is an area that you can make a realistic plan to fix. How do you see these things from within yourself? Don’t we all need an extraordinary amount of guidance and advice as we walk?

Maybe—and I hate to give suggestions like this but I don’t think I can avoid it if I write on this topic–maybe it’s possible that those who are spiritually healthy, those who can be characterized by spiritual independence, need spiritual care just as much as anyone else. Maybe they need wisdom from external sources, and someone to check on the cracks in their spiritual life.

There must be something between needing discussion and advice and reassurance for every step you take, and complete, self-contained spiritual independence. Both extremes are, well, extreme. However, the path that moves away from these extremes are not always clear. If you need every step explained, how do you gain the maturity to grow away from that? Not towards a self-contained, spiritual independence, but rather towards a path that interacts with other believers and yet is directed.

Now, most will point to Christian community at this point. It’s not like Christian friends and communities don’t talk about life together. But there’s a difference between sharing life experiences with each other, and recasting your life experiences as part of a path to greater maturity. There’s a difference between friendship and mentorship, I suppose, or between empathy and true guidance. Most people will not give advice, and this is probably a correct approach in a majority of cases. They will not say, no, you’re wrong, or stop it! And it’s right—no one can solve your problems for you. No one can fix anything except you—you HAVE to take responsibility for what you decide to change, and what you decide to do. And yet, and yet, and yet—I have to think there’s room for someone who really does know, to say, “you do have a problem, it’s X, and here’s what I recommend to fix it.” There’s room for diagnosis of issues you’re too blind to see.

How then can spiritual care be provided to the spiritually healthy? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about a problem I don’t know the solution, but at the very least I thought it was worth it to frame up the issue. I think first we might have to recognize that everyone needs spiritual care. The actual realities of providing it is somewhat overwhelming, as humans face the hurdles of growing in wisdom to the point that they actually can give advice, and then growing in courage to actually give that advice. Another issue arises is that when there is a wise person, they often struggle to deal with the demands for guidance, and are limited in the amount of personal relationship they can provide to all of those who need it. The best guidance is provided in the context of a relationship with someone who actually knows you, and this can’t be achieved for every person that exists. No wonder we have to hope a lot of people can function in life a little bit independently! So all in all, I don’t really know how these hurdles can be overcome.

Anyway, we can at least start with the recognition that no one is fully independent and finished growing, nor should we be! Any further thoughts can be entered in the comments below 🙂

 

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Christ Shares Our Sufferings–Does He Understand Existential Angst?

You’re not supposed to experience existential angst if you’re a Christian. Existential angst is the despair that stems from the conviction that life lacks meaning. We believe life has meaning, and therefore the suffering from existential angst is not suffering Christ experienced or shares in. Simple as that, right?

However, there is a paradox in the “meaningfulness” of the world in Christianity. “Meaningless, meaningless,” says the Preacher, “everything is meaningless.” As Christians, we recognize the futility of our toil under the sun. We build houses, which fall into ruin. We attempt to begin relationships, and never see the person we connected with ever again. We struggle to overcome our faults, and see no progress. We fail at our jobs. We make no progress in life.

On one hand, Christians recognize that this world is subject to futility. Everything is broken. When we see things fall apart, it is only what could be expected. When there is nothing to live for, it is only logical, because outside of God nothing else is worth living for. A house isn’t our purpose, and our relationships can be idols, and our abilities can be taken away at any moment. None of this is “the point.”

And yet at the same time we hold to the fact that God ultimately works everything for good. Futility is woven into his pattern by him in a way that removes the ultimate sting of it–there is an ultimate goal in the end.

I have a deep desire to do something that matters. To live for more than merely the purpose of lifting food to my lips each day, to go on breathing air, to get myself through the next day and week and year–but rather to live for something that is directed to a goal, that builds towards a greater end. And yet more often all I see is the futility. I see myself succeeding in bringing food to my lips, and working to bring the next bite of food to my lips, and I wonder, is this all I was made for? Is not life more than food?

What DO we do when confronted by our lack of progress? The business we poured years of our lives into, and all of our money, might be disintegrating in front of our eyes right now. What was the worth of all our sweat? Or the degree program we were working on and took such joy in is abruptly cancelled and we’re sent home to huddle in the basement of our parents’ house. Or if we’ve been laid off of the last in the string of a dozen jobs. Or we’re dating someone who just isn’t working out for us, despite our best efforts, and this chaotic time is revealing that too clearly. We thought we were able to buy a house, and now we can’t. And so on, and so on. It could be me, wondering why God would so obviously bring me to Ontario, and then make it clear I could’ve stayed home after all.

We feel like we’re spinning our wheels, with no where to go. We work madly towards what ought to matter, and it disappears. There’s no foundations to build on.

It seems silly. Of course there’s more to worry about than food–there’s “the poor,” there’s “the lonely,” there’s “injustice.” There’s these vague descriptions of concepts outside myself that we ought to be directing my life towards. And yet, I fail to make progress towards these things that supposedly really matter. If God closes the doors to places I thought I could really make a difference, then perhaps I was too self-centered in thinking I could contribute after all. And this is what we do hear from time to time from experts about our attempts to improve the world: that we’re more likely to make a mess than we realize, and that our “obvious” solutions are usually not taking a piece of reality into account. When I look at myself, I am weak, helpless, frail, unskilled. I have failed. I do not help.

So what is there to do? Is there an escape from the existential angst of not living for any concrete purpose? Is there an escape from the endless strain of moment-to-moment decisions–should I take this step or that step, since neither one appears any more important or useful than the other one? If God removes tasks and goals and abilities from you, is there any way to reorient yourself and submit to him in a way that is not despair? There must be. There has to be.

Only through God is the work of our hands established. Only as a result of eternity, do our actions in this day matter.

But this still leaves the question–Christ shares in all our sufferings. He wipes away the pain from our sickness, our experience of death, our sin. But can he relate to this existential angst, this void of meaninglessness, this lack of purpose for living? How can he relate to us in this? Perhaps, in this experience, we truly are all alone.

Is this the root of some of our depressions, the pit we struggle to climb out of? The feeling that perhaps nothing really matters after all. In the end, everything will turn out to ultimate good, but our silly wants and activities and irritations will be nothing but chaff that drifts away in the light of ultimate reality. And that no one knows what it is like to feel this way. Others do know what matters in their life. And worse, God does not know what this is like, because he always knew what mattered, and always existed in direction to his goals.

There’s an answer to what we should do when we don’t know what to do, of course. I’ll write it out, because to leave it out is to be irresponsible in regards to what hope I have to offer, though I do not know yet how it heals our aloneness in our existential angst. Our chief end is to glorify God. That is enough for our existence. When we do not know what to do, we can praise him. The psalmists remind God of this over and over–oh Lord, why destroy me, because then I cannot praise you? And this is an integral part of the Christian message. We do exist and draw breath in order to praise him.

And maybe I can offer a few more thoughts:

  • We can’t establish our identity on what we do, on being goal-directed, on getting things done. That’s not to say these things are not important, but sometimes we’re called to live without goals and not getting anything done–we need a Christianity that can address these situations and bring hope to them
  • We need to learn to glorify God and find that to be enough for us.
  • We can’t build our theology of how God understands our feelings on the basis of the incarnation. God knows what we feel when we feel existential angst because he is all-knowing, but not because he can personally experience what it’s like to not know the future. The solution to feeling understood and known by God is not to look at our own experience and then search Christ’s human life to see whether he experienced the same thing. There is more to his knowledge of what we experience than what occurred in his human life.
  • To some extent, we are in exactly the same position as God, only we don’t know the “how,” and we lack the control. God sees the same futility we see, and he has the same knowledge that everything ultimately will be good that we have. And yet we want the “how” as well, and imagine knowing the how would heal our angst.
  • Maybe the suffering from our angst is as necessary as all the suffering that happens in the world.
  • One strategy that can really help is to read Ecclesiastes several times over.

May God be with you.

 

 

A previous post I wrote on the experience of existential angst can be found here: How to Find the Meaning of Life

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Singles and Social Distancing

solitary path

It has been said that perhaps our current requirement to remain at home with our families, with no responsibility except to keep others safe by not going out, is given to us for a reason. Perhaps we’ve been granted the opportunity to reset and re-focus–to restore the bonds with our families that may have become frayed or broken. To enjoy the blessings of home, that we lost in the bustle of our hectic, modern world. To enjoy the small things in ordinary life, instead of running, running, running, after something “better.”

This may all be true. But left out of it is just the astounding amount our society has changed. It presents the picture of a happy nuclear family, with husband, wife and children uniting in their cozy home. We lift our eyes out to see the world as it really is, and we see people alone. In Canada, large numbers of people remain single, and stats report fourteen percent of people live alone. Lest you begin to worry, no, I am not currently isolating all alone. However, I do know what it is like to live alone, and how many people do live alone. I also know that convenient living arrangements with various strangers in one house, which is also quite common in our culture, is not quite the same sort of community as living with a group of people you consider “family.”

That’s just the modern world now–tight-knit communities have frayed. Independence has been emphasized to our young adults as a goal. We may go to church, but few of us see the church as a major figure in forming our salvation–we follow the modern, individualistic route of having a direct, personal relationship with God. In some ways, our world is just too complex to live in those tight-knit clans and tribes we knew before. But when the complexity of the world suddenly stops, and we’re all left as individual islands in the middle of chaos, we’re forced to face our situation. Will our self isolation reset our assumptions? Will singles, too, reap whatever supposed benefits families are projected to reap from this time?

Shortcomings of Living Alone

I know very well the shortcomings of living alone. I know the way you can tweak your arrangements to precisely your liking, do dishes on precisely the schedule you prefer, throw your stuff exactly where you want it, and get out of the habit of ever considering the comfort of anyone else. I know the temptation to just fill the empty social space, and endless quiet, with the mindless chatter of entertainment and internet. There’s sins that become apparent when you live in family, but there’s also sins that sneak in when you live alone.

And now some of us are set in position where we can’t flee our aloneness–we’re firmly set in a situation where we are contained within our self and responsible only for our own tiny little world. How many people joke on Twitter that they adapted far too easily to doing nothing? Our discipline dissolves due to a lack of routine. Sometimes responsibility needs to be shouldered in the context of community, and the condoning of isolation becomes the pretext for sliding out of the need to do anything. We focus on what we think will keep our spirits up, to numb ourselves to the quiet. Yes, please, send me new podcasts. Upload new content to YouTube. I’m pretty content with my isolation when I’m watching them.

How do we repent of the sins of individualism from our little quarantine boxes? How do we repent of amusing ourselves to death? Is it even possible to live in community and submit to the church, the way God requires us to be, when we are confined in four walls and left to our own devices? Without a task, or responsibility, or anything outside of ourselves, other than the now-heroic duty to do exactly what we’re doing–stay home.

I feel quite unequipped to give advice to counter this. I know how much I struggle with motivation, if no one tells me what to do, or cares about what I do with myself. There’s already a ton of advice on how to improve your internal motivation to do things–make your bed–and ways to avoid distracting yourself endlessly. What I’m thinking about is the spiritual framework for social isolation. If we’re going to start disciplining ourselves in this time, we might as well start with spiritual disciplines. In the context of us, within ourselves and without community, can our time be redeemed?

Christians throughout history have retreated from society to refocus themselves–there have historically been hermits living in the desert, or monks committing to live in silence, or (less dramatically) Christians who spend weekends on retreats from everyday life. While some aspects of a more monastic model might be helpful to us, I’m not putting that forward as the spiritual framework for all of us in this particular time. Life and faith in the Bible is lived in the context of communities. Our faith is not this quiet thing between us and God, that has no impact on anything outside of ourselves. We need to learn to live through faith, in love, with each other.

What’s a Spiritual Framework for This Time of Isolation?

So if we’re not going to retreat into ourselves and develop independent, inner spiritual experiences as the goal of our isolation, what kind of spiritual framework should we look for during this quarantine? This may be our opportunity to examine individualism itself. Is this how we should live? Is this how we want to live?

Maybe, if we don’t completely self-medicate the silence away, we can grow more aware of our individualism through this time. Maybe we can see the habits we grew accustomed to, which might be careless of other people. Maybe we can examine ourselves and see the sins that impact others.

We’ve been given a time to build our vision of the good life. Our circumstances reveal how much of what we spent our time running after is not important after all. In a crisis situation, we’ll chuck various non-essential things out of the window. So in a good life, we need to think about what should really matter. If we want to grow into the fullest version of ourselves that God has created us to be, we need to live a life that develops us well mentally, emotionally, spiritually and relationally. Unfortunately, we shy away from considering this because it can feel overwhelming and painful. We see how wounded we are mentally, relationally, and even spiritually. But if we never face our wounds, we can never heal them.

It can be harder for singles to meditate on the good life. It can be a bit overwhelming to look at the ideals. What’s presented as a good life is a rich community atmosphere where everyone has a role and everyone contributes and everyone receives encouragement and appreciation for their contribution in turn. It may seem impossible to be part of such a vision of Christian life for many of us, and even more impossible for us from our current isolation. We look at ourselves and feel we are not lights in the world like we desire to be, like we’re told we should be. From the outside, we often look like individuals just following our own paths like anyone else.

For example, it’s hard enough to read about the virtue of hospitality and know you utterly fail to reach that virtue no matter how much you try, possibly because it’s very difficult to do on your own–and then be told you can’t even use the small beginning of hospitality you have reached, for the foreseeable future.

For me, personally, I struggle to contribute to social situations, so I try make up for it by being “there”—signifying the objective reality of the existence of the group by showing up when our flaky society insists we don’t have to. And now I cannot even do this.

So we face our inability to reach the ideal. What has this pandemic taken from me? It has laughed in the face of my intense desire to build community. I spent a year as helpless as a little child, reduced to one room and one couch, removed from the world at large as a result of a hip injury. My primary social connection was my parents, and I contributed almost nothing to the benefit of others in any way during this time. And it has only been since about January that I began to feel strong enough to do things for others without the fear I’d have to bail on them—with the confidence I would show up when needed. I began to think I could begin to contribute to the world again. I thought perhaps there was a path, despite my fragility, of participating the world in a way that made it better. And if I retreat to my room again, with my only contribution, or even connection, to others is clicking “like” on Facebook—then I may as well not have recovered at all.

And yet, despite the enormous incentive to despair, there must be hope in all of this. We have always been given unfulfilled longings in the face of the ideals we know we’re striving for—there’s always been reason to grieve the unrealized good in this world. We may ask God to take away our thorns in the flesh because we really can’t see how God is glorified when we’re so hampered by them, but we can trust him when he tells us “no.” Right now, for whatever reason, he’s removed the goodness of true Christian community from us for a time. We ought to meditate on the goodness of living among others, so we do not forget it. We also ought to lament that it is so far away from us. But we can also trust. Our longings and lament are not for nothing.

After living alone for many years, I can say that too often I’ve failed in all of the advice I give above–self-examination, trust and hope. May God be with us in our spiritual development during this quarantine, and open our eyes to the deeper ways we can learn to serve him.

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Maybe We’re Not in Control

sun-through-clouds

by Michal Klajban (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I still remember setting eyes on the “flatten the curve” chart last week Thursday. Everything clicked into place. It was so clear–okay, that’s what we have to do next. There were actual steps to follow. Everyone seemed to start taking them over the next days and week. Social distance, social distance, social distance….

Here we are, more than a week later. We watch helpless from our quarantine boxes as the virus races across the globe. We watch the death rate tick up, up, up. Even worse, we watch cars out on the roads around our homes–is that travel really necessary? We see posts online pleading for others to not go to the grocery store so frequently, to stop going in to work, to stop socializing even at a distance of two meters. Then we watch videos of spring breakers wrestling in the sand on the beaches of Florida and throw our hands in the air–why don’t people understand?

We know what our governments need to do. They need to pay everyone so everyone can stay home. They need to make everyone stay home. They need to buy more ventilators, stat. They need to buy more masks. They need to make everyone wear masks. They need to…………… We watch helplessly as our politicians race around putting out fires, answering media questions, getting things done achingly slow….

We don’t have control. We don’t have control. We don’t have control.

What would you do if you could? Put everyone in little boxes and make them stay there for a month? That would probably work, and in a way that’s what we’re trying to do. And the vast majority of people are listening, and doing their best, and working together. And yet–there’s still people in the streets. There’s things the government isn’t doing. There’s so much we can’t control.

And then one person goes to a party and spreads it to ten other people, and our caseload goes up, and the fire seems to burn and burn.

And the economy tanks, and people who were making money suddenly aren’t anymore, and jobs that seem secure suddenly disappear, and there’s no sign anything will function normally again anytime soon. What would you do if you were in control? Would you be able to fix it?

It doesn’t matter. We are suddenly aware of ourselves, puny little bags of flesh, helpless and powerless. We’re doing everything we can, and yet it might not be enough. We might throw all we have at this, and still watch people die, and still feel like we failed. We might fail to ever make this end, by our own strength and ingenuity alone.

I’m not saying there’s no hope. There’s signs of light on the horizon–signs the curve is flattening, signs a drug might be effective, signs a vaccine may be here soon. But can you speed that up? Are you in control?

Our illusions are shattered. We thought we’d eradicated disease, and our modern healthcare system was triumphant. We patted ourselves on the back. We felt in control, even though we never lifted a finger to create the medicine we used. But we’d deceived ourselves. We’d trusted in an illusion. We were stupidly mistaken.

Our hope can never be in ourselves and our own intelligence. This is not to say human intelligence won’t work miracles–humans have done amazing things, and can do so now again. But our hope cannot rest on that. There’s more unknowns than our minds can grasp. We’re ships listing at the mercy of waves we haven’t fully understood yet. We’ve been thrown out into the bitter reality of the unknown.

Let go. Yelling at spring breakers won’t do any good. A million rolls of toilet paper won’t do you any good. Stocking up on guns and ammo won’t do you any good. Frantic pleas to the government may go unheard. Rants on twitter may never be seen by the people who so clearly need to read them.

What will do you good is to see yourself as you are. Look at your illusion of power, and destroy it. The virus may be creeping through the air, mutating, hiding, ready to kill you despite your Lysol and scientific knowledge and advanced medicine. You are not in control.

We have hope. To look at ourselves is to be lost. We look beyond ourselves to see the hope, out beyond the horizon and not within, to see the glimmer of sunlight peeking over the hills. Is there anyone in control? Yes, Someone is.

Your suffering is real. Find the One who knows your suffering. It’s not the government.

Your fear is real. You need Someone to hear your fears, who never changes. It’s not the economy.

Can we see ourselves in our true fragility, and not despair? Can we be honest about our inability, and yet find hope? Stop grasping at straws you have no control over, which could betray you in the end–chloroquine , a vaccine, universal basic income. There is a way to face reality in all its terror and truth.

What strength is there in a man? His life withers like grass. He cannot act if he feels his actions land without effect, if chaos sweeps away each step he takes. Despair rushes in when powerlessness does. And yet he can be crowned with wisdom, and effectiveness, and resilience. He can be powerful in his powerlessness–if he sees himself as he truly is yet knows he does not stand in his own strength alone.

We have been blessed in the past, and we will be blessed in the future, but not as a result of the levers we pull or the acts we set into motion. We stand on solid ground, but it is not ground we placed beneath our feet.

So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O Lord! How long?

Have pity on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,

that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,

and for as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be shown to your servants,

and your glorious power to their children.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,

and establish the work of our hands upon us;

yes, establish the work of our hands!

  • Psalm 90:13-17

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Should We All be Theology Nerds?

theology nerd

Searching for the theology nerd in me

I realized that, when I watch other church groups haggling over some obscure point of Christian doctrine, I tend to shake my head and think, “that’s so stupid, that doesn’t matter at all!” But if it’s something that I am disagreeing with someone about, I always think it’s the most important detail in the world (this really matters!). Now, I’d be the first to admit that there are a lot of stupid disagreements within Christianity, but I think it’s good to be aware of my own bias towards the discussions I personally am involved in. Are all these other discussions that I’m judging really about angels dancing on the head of a pin, or is it some area of Christian thought that I undervalue because I know nothing about it?

It’s funny how we have a tendency to push large areas of Christian knowledge to the category of “unimportant.” One of the most common responses I get, when I tell people that I’m going to study theology, is, “Ok, so you are, you know, actually interested in all of that?” And, “I’d like to know more, but it’s just so much detail–it’s just a bit overboard for me.” And, “That’s all good to know, but it’s not really essential, is it?” These are the responses I get from Christians, I mean, not secular people, who tend to go, “Good for you.” And I nod to these Christians and say “yes,” and feel like some weird egghead academic who is insistent on living in an ivory tower.

Geeking Out:

So there seems to be a level of detail in theology that most people accept is a bit much–a level of theological nerdiness, if you will. But if there’s one thing that modern culture has taught us in recent decades, it’s that nerds have taken over the world. “Nerd” and “geek,” once such potent insults, are now labels of pride that people apply to themselves. And “geeking out” over a topic–once considered a bad thing to do–is now celebrated. Nobody cares if you know all the roads in Westeroes, or how many parasecs it takes to cross the Star Wars galaxy. Or rather, a lot of people in a niche fanbase located somewhere on the internet do really, really care if you know these things, and you won’t have to work hard to convince yourself it’s worthwhile to know them.

I thought of this because on Tuesday we had our first Old Testament Background class, and we have to memorize prominent roads in Israel. Now, the roads in Israel are something I never thought about before. When the Good Samaritan saved the man by the road, I never thought much about the road itself or where it was going to. I never thought this might’ve been the very same road that the Israelites fled down away from the Babylonians at the end of 2 Kings, or that the men who killed Ishbosheth took Ishbosheth’s bloody head down this road to David. In other words, it was just an isolated text plucked out of the Bible, and not a concrete place in spot filled with the history of a particular nation. I never imagined the unpaved, dirt path avoiding the loose gravel and deep fissures in the ground to wind down into the Jordan valley, or pictured the dusty dangers of that path, or thought the travelers may remember the fates of the people who went down that way before them. But suddenly, after hearing the description of this place, the land that the stories took place in felt very close and real.

A storied place in an unfolding drama…

It brought me right back to my childhood, curled up over The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, trying to orientate myself to where exactly the characters I was reading about supposedly were in their fictional world. And I know this is an odd comparison, to say the Bible’s similarity to a work of fiction made the Bible feel more real–but then, does not fiction borrow these elements of real stories in order to appear more convincing? And do not so many fans enter into the game of knowing all these obscure details about an imaginary world in an attempt to enter that world more fully? So, in fact, there may be merit in achieving a greater level of knowledge of obscure biblical details.

Maybe we ought to wonder why so many throw themselves into being nerds of fictional worlds, but find the real world tedious. It could be that Christians lack passion for their faith. Or it could be that Christians don’t realize there is a whole wealth of knowledge that is known about their beliefs, which they could geek out on (in which case, passionate and knowledgeable teachers can open doors). Or there may be more to this observation of mine…

On the Edge of the Knife:

Because if I guess right, many of you who read this are thinking about my opening paragraph and the arguments that rise up between Christians. If all Christians were passionately devoted to even the most obscure details of their faith, then wouldn’t arguments between Christians get out of hand? The briefest glance at online fan culture demonstrates how utterly toxic some of these fan communities can be. The backlash at the conclusion of both Game of Thrones and the last two Star Wars movies demonstrates how inconsistencies in details such as what the Force is capable of doing, or whether Daenerys’ character was properly set up to commit a massacre, lead to torrents of outrage from people who “know” these worlds better than the people tasked with creating stories about them. If passion about fictional worlds leads to such anger, vitriol and at times even abuse, then what can we expect in Christianity if people become passionate about details? You even see, sadly enough, a whole host of Christian blogs by people claiming to be theological nerds that basically seem to exist to pour flames on any thought voiced by other Christian in the public sphere. It just looks ugly.

People shrink back from this. It appears to be better to not feel any personal connection to these debates, to stand back and observe as if some monk was arguing about the precise weight of a human soul, and think, “This doesn’t really matter. This is not important.

The church is balanced on a knife’s edge here, as we tend to be in so many areas. On one side of the edge is a deep ditch of apathy and lack of passion. On the other is a sea of venom and anger and church splits. Often we weigh up the two sides and feel if we have to veer towards any side at all, we’d rather be just a little closer to the apathetic side. After all, if we’ve fallen in the apathetic ditch and are struggling to climb out, it’s all too easy to launch ourselves right over the balanced edge into infighting, more infighting and infighting.

But, as in so many things, we have to strive for the ideal, not the “better” ditch.

Why We Need More Theological Nerds:

So yes, my conclusion is that we should all be theology nerds. I don’t think we should allow our knee-jerk reaction to be That doesn’t matter, but rather that we should evaluate this knee-jerk reaction and understand where it stems from. Instead of holding back and feeling superior to other debates, we should look at ourselves and think about why we feel superior because we don’t care. Are we right to not care? Maybe on this particular subject, we are right to not care (there are many stupid debates as well as worthwhile ones). But let’s be less quick to jump to this conclusion, because it might be possible to really get something out of knowing whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father.

Now, we can’t all have the same level of theological nerdiness–I can hear the howls of protest at the idea everyone should know all the roads in Israel. I’m not one to talk, either, as my eyes tend to glaze over when people ask if there was one, two or three covenants, or whether I’m infra- or supra- lapsarian. But no, I’m arguing for more theological geekiness, not for an enforced program of subjects all Christians must memorize. I’m not arguing to identical, uniform Christian passion in all areas. We are all individuals, and we don’t all have the same level of interest in obsessive detail. But we can look at what theological geekiness a bit closer, before we dismiss it.

If you’re still wondering what on earth theological geekiness could be, think about what we call geekiness in general, especially the kind of geekiness that is now considered a positive thing. Individuals geek out over different things, but the wide variety of individual passions (one for drawing maps, one for creating lists, one for doing material calculations, and so on) drive the whole fandom forward – people eagerly share the “good stuff” found or created by others that relate to their shared fandom. Geekiness is an enthusiasm for collecting knowledge, for fleshing out the full picture of a subject, to find value in facts that other people overlook, for imposing organization on the knowledge found and to work together to do so (think of wikis and so on). It’s people  who enjoy putting forward an opinion, constructing an argument for it, and working out the implications of it with others (and deciding if it fits the rest of the story well). And lastly, there’s this fascinating definition of geekiness found online that might be incredibly relevant:

“A person who displays the willingness to bear the public shame of liking some weird thing and not caring who knows it.” (Jim MacQuarrie)

There’s a lot more that can be said–a lot about whether someone can fall down an unproductive rabbit hole, or the value in exploring areas of interest one doesn’t have a passion for, or the danger of becoming a theological crank instead of a theological nerd. But let’s leave all that aside for now. If we see a complete absence of theological geekiness in ourselves or others around us, what does that say?

We need more theological geekiness overall, even as we recognize not everyone has a mind that thrills over every obsessive detail. Don’t allow yourself to play this card, while looking at biblical information, this card that allows you to flip by it all while thinking, this is not essential, this is not essential, this is not essential… Passion revels in the utter joy of something, rather than the strict judgment of precisely how useful it might be.

A lack of theological geekiness leads to endless repetition of big-picture, encompassing summaries that skate over the actual depth of Christianity–ideas like, Christ is the Lord of your life, the Lord’s strength is revealed through your weakness, only God’s fullness can fill your emptiness…. –these ideas are all true, but they lose so much of the immediacy by retreating into such a grand, over-arching summary that gets repeated until people’s ears can’t grasp what it means anymore. This is when an advance into detail can really dig in and demonstrate how all the pieces do fit into this overall theme, how this idea has been demonstrated at a micro-level over and over in salvation history, and therefore actually refresh your understanding rather than dull your ears.

What’s the benefit to you, or finding a seam of theology that your mind dig into, of finding a topic that’s like a feast to you? What about it is worth the risk of your passion making you overzealous? Well, you’ll feel alive, for one thing.

Maybe you’ll feel that old feeling of excitement as you bring out treasures new and old to share with those in faith around you.

.

Note:

As mentioned in the above post, I’m currently back doing seminary courses – so this means any posts about the Summa of the Summa are on hold for at least several months!

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Everyone Knows the Earth is Round (even Thomas Aquinas)

Summa of the SummaLately there’s been an odd increase in the number of people promoting flat earth theories. What is fascinating, however, is how long humans (at least some of them) have known the earth was round. I just came across this quote from Thomas Aquinas:

“[T]he astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion—that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e., abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.”

Summa Theologica, Question 1, First Article

When did Thomas Aquinas write this? Well, the Summa Theologica was written between 1265-1274, so somewhere between those years. And he writes this as if it is SO obvious—he’s just using it as an example that proves something else he wants to prove about theology. Isn’t it funny that educated people back then are assumed to “know” the earth is round? This kind of puts to rest the idea that the medieval church was somehow suppressing the knowledge that the earth was round until Columbus sailed to North America. (This inaccurate version of Columbus’ journey has been debunked a million times by now online, but you still constantly run into people who believe this is what happened, so I guess it bears repeating). It also expands our ideas of what medieval people knew. There’s a tendency to assume people nowadays are so much smarter than the people in the past, so we’re inclined to believe stories that make fun of people in the past who thought they’d sail off the edge of the world. I’m not saying not a single person existed in the Middle Ages who thought they could sail off the edge of the world—I’m sure such people existed! After all, we still have flat-earthers with us today! All I’m saying is that people haven’t changed much.

This quote is actually from Summa of the Summa—a shorter summary of the Summa Theologica by Peter Kreeft. It is much shorter than the actually Summa, but it is long enough! It’s actually the second time I checked this book out from the library, and I hope to make more progress on it this time around. If anything more strikes me, I may blog about it again.

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