Weird Favourite Bible Verses–John 21:25

I want to do a series on my favourite Bible verses that are a bit weird.

I have a weird taste in favourite Bible verses. By weird I just mean they’re not exactly the ones you’d print on coffee mugs or t-shirts. Obviously I do think the verses that are constantly printed on coffee mugs are valuable–all of the Bible is valuable–but I think the level of cliché reached by constantly repeating some of these verses really puts me off. While I find the verse, “I have plans for you” interesting, when I hear it I tend to tense up because it’s so overused (and badly used) at this point. So I thought it would be far more fascinating to look at weird Bible verses that are still my favorites, rather than common ones. After all, all Scripture is useful for teaching, as Paul says, and Scripture is just chock-full of little surprises.

So here’s a Bible verse I love:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

  • John 21: 25

I told someone this was my favourite verse once, and they just stared at me uncomfortably. I guess they were hoping I’d pick something more spiritual-sounding? But I think this verse is amazing, for at least two reasons.

First, I love books. I love imagining so many books that the world cannot contain them. And all of these books could be about what Jesus did! I love reading books on a huge variety of topics, but I also love the thought that there’s enough to say about what Jesus did that there could be that number of books. What we know of him in the four gospels just scratches the surface of everything he did in his life. It’s exciting to imagine what could fill all the books that could’ve been written about Jesus’ life–and someday we may in fact find out. If we spend an eternity walking and talking with Jesus, we will have time to hear enough stories to fill the whole world.

The second reason is that this drives home how beautiful the four gospels are. Out of such a vast amount of material about Jesus’ life, these four narratives were carefully curated and presented. Nowadays we have endless materials to write biographies as thick as our hands can hold if we want to, but works from antiquity took into account the limitations of creating literature at the time, as well as the author’s intention. So we can assume that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John thought the details they recorded really did matter (yes, even the genealogies!). It was worth spending parchment on.

Since Christians also believe the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of scripture as they wrote, we can be confident that not only did the human authors think these particular details mattered, but God did as well. So what’s the purpose of some of the confusing detail we do have? Well, we have a lifetime of studying God’s Word to devote to learning about why. Why is it recorded Jesus wept, or that he was the Son of David, or… This is what Bible study is for.

So this verse expands the vision in my mind of what Jesus actually did on earth, making me step back in awe of what this God-humbling-himself-in-human form did while walking on the same dirt you and I walk on today. And yet, and the same time this verse underscores for me the importance of exactly what was revealed to us, that every word has its place. And both of these ideas excite me.

 

There is likely much, much more to unpack in this verse, especially if you know Greek and are skilled in hermeneutics. Feel free to share! This is just what first caused me to love this particular verse, and what continues to fascinate me.

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How to Know a Man is Just–Plato and Jesus

 

PlatoChristianity has always maintained that, in order to restore the relationship between us and God, Jesus Christ had to be without sin—without his own contribution to the human evil that divided humanity from God. Approximately 350 years before, a Greek philosopher laid out his criteria for declaring a man perfectly ‘just.’ If you really think about it, it is a tricky problem–how can we know someone is trying to be good for the sake of goodness itself, or merely trying to be good in order to be admired by others? Is a person truly good if they’re being self-centered? So the philosopher’s requirements for a perfectly just man are fascinating:

Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected?

Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just… [T]he highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice….

And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards;

therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering… Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.

[T]he just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound—will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled: Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just; the words of Aeschylus may be more truly spoken of the unjust than of the just. For the unjust is pursuing a reality; he does not live with a view to appearances –he wants to be really unjust and not to seem only.

– Plato, The Republic, Book 2

Now, of course we don’t follow or apply all of Plato’s logical deductions in The Republic. And the fact Jesus Christ did meet his criteria for a perfectly just man does not mean that Plato was some sort of prophetic figure, looking for a new religion, or anything like that. Some may even argue other historical figures have fulfilled these criteria (Socrates himself is the obvious allusion Plato makes), and certainly these criteria are not exhaustive of what Jesus actually did on earth. However, I am fascinated by the thought Jesus met them. I am fascinated he met the logical criteria someone else proposed. He didn’t have to fulfill any demands for evidence of his goodness that humans proposed, but he did anyway. And if we agree logic is a good part of God’s creation, we can see this confirmed by this as well.

The incredible thing that I derive from this is that a historical philosopher laid out several criteria that would prove to him that another man was perfectly just, and that these criteria were indeed met by Jesus Christ.

There’s your interesting thought for the day. Enjoy!

 

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Why Are ‘Christian Women’s Topics’ so Depressing?

Girl Watering Flowers, by Amélie LundahlDoes anyone else get a sinking feeling when reading women’s blogs? “Hope for Weary Women.” “Trusting in God When Life is Out of Control.” “Stop Stressing Over Being the Perfect Mom.” Women seem to be weary, anxious, lost, miserable. It all makes womanhood look like a wasteland of negative emotions, and I get nervous–when is this misery going to descend on me? After all, I’m a woman. Should I be bookmarking all this advice about anxiety, so I’m prepared for all these horrible issues women seem unable to avoid, and must cope with somehow?

I remember coming home from a women’s retreat once, desperately trying to shake off the comments I’d kept hearing about how much of a struggle a woman’s life really was. I’d been perfectly happy as a woman on the drive to the retreat, but on the way home I felt like there was a wall of negativity in my future that I’d have to run into someday. I’d end up lacking self-confidence, or overwhelmed by the day-to-day, or resentful at my husband, or weary of my kids… I’d never thought the future was so bleak. And of course the advice to find my joy in God and trust in him alone was true–but the overall message felt like: you’re going to be miserable, but your solution will be to cling to God through your misery. Which wasn’t as comforting as it could be.

In addition, what kind of Christian books are popular with women? Self-help books–Girl, Wash Your Face–you-have-a-problem-and-here’s-how-to-fix-it books. Maybe we have to take a step back from trying to plug every leak, from zeroing in on every possible female problem and writing book-length strategies for ‘solving’ them. Maybe not every dip in our self-confidence needs to be fretted over. Maybe some of life’s issues can just exist, can just breathe.

There’s just this veneer of ‘women have problems.’ This implication given by endlessly addressing negative emotions women have. From a distance, overall, the picture starts to look unappealing. Is it at all possible to talk about being a woman in a more positive way?

I’m not one for burying my head in the sand. I am actually against ignoring reality and pretending real problems don’t exist. And I do think part of my inability to relate to these depressing headlines is I don’t have a husband and half a dozen kids. I’d know more about being weary if I did! But on the other hand, it’s very difficult to convince those on the outside that being a Christian woman is so great if the only things that get blogged about are how to endure, how to hang onto hope, how to stay optimistic when you feel the opposite. I get that this is encouraging, but it makes the alternative appear impossible–a non-weary, non-anxious, non-depressed woman who talks about other topics because these negative states of aren’t constantly on the top of her mind.

This is why Proverbs 31 is so fascinating, and maybe why people hate this woman so much. She ‘laughs at days to come.’ She laughs. She’s clothed in strength. She’s productive. Now, we should remember that this passage is actually directed to men, describing the type of woman to look for, rather than the way it’s often used–as an ideal for women to compare themselves to and find themselves lacking. Maybe she’s less of an ideal than an inspiration. She could, in fact, be encouraging to women. Women can be strong and productive and filled with laughter. It’s possible. There is a reality of misery in this life. But that’s not the only vision of life that is possible.

To take another example, look at the Psalms. The Psalms are fascinating because of the deep emotions on display. They contradict any idea that the Christian life is only happy, happy, happy. And yet–some Psalms are happy. Some are confident, some are full of celebration. A female life is not any different than a male’s in this way. There is a positive side to highlight too.

I certainly do experience anxiety and depressed moods. I’ve stared into the future and seen a wasteland of hopeless. So yeah, it’s not fun, and it’s not a surprise people experiencing such rough times seek encouragement. I’m not really asking women to stop giving out this encouragement. I’m asking us to step back and look at the bigger picture. After all, one or two posts is not the problem, it’s the impression left by the blogsphere as a whole.

Overall, what is the big picture that is presented to women who daily absorb content targeted at women’s issues? Is there any vision of a positive material experience that is within reach for the average reader? Let’s consider that seriously.

So where are our female blog posts about laughing at days to come? Perhaps such posts would be disliked into oblivion (‘she must be lying about being happy’), or perhaps they go unrecognized by the algorithms. Perhaps thousands of such posts have been written and I haven’t seen them. Or perhaps it’s a function of the way our conversation tends to get divided–‘general Christian topics’ for both genders, and specific women topics for specific women’s problems. A potential solution might be to write about some of these general Christian topics from a woman’s perspective more often, just as a counterbalance to the negative view of womanhood that’s unintentionally presented to us otherwise. Or write more about the joys of life as a woman in general. And lastly, perhaps we don’t write about laughing at days to come, or examples of female strength, because we’re afraid of coming across as feminist. There could be a whole list of reasons or solutions to explore. Let’s start exploring them.

 

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Do the Ten Commandments Support Gun Rights, Private Property and Capitalism?

Ten CommandmentsI have a problem with people turning the Ten Commandments around, changing negatives statements (“Do not…”) into positive ones. Humans instinctively shrink away from “Do not” statements, and often modern humans wonder why God would’ve phrased his commands in such a negative way. But then I see the way people restate the commands in a positive way, and it starts to become clearer why God set them out the way he did. There are harmful human behaviours he meant to prevent, but he did not narrow the walls of Christian living so tightly that we are only allowed to “do” one (or ten!) things.

If you’re interested, the positive command is the summary of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22: 37-38)

So, here’s what many Christian bloggers insist on. These are often stated with the assumption the reader knows what they are talking about, and has heard these arguments before, but don’t worry if you’re like me and are surprised to see these premises:

The eighth commandment (“Do not steal”) demands private property.

The sixth commandment (“Do not kill”) demands gun ownership.

The ninth commandment (“Do not covet”) makes socialism invalid.

In other words, current issues like private property, gun rights and anti-socialism get read into the Ten Commandments. Now, just because guns weren’t even dreamed of by anyone at the time the Ten Commandments were given doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t address such issues. We do use principles found in the Bible to address many modern issues (“Do not kill” is one principle we still apply often). But many of these claims certainly seem to push the interpretation of these commands to the furthest extreme that can be managed.

In fact, it seems to me that an opinion is first formed (“socialism is evil”) and then the commandments are made to fit it. For example, “do not steal” certainly implies that private property exists if one is told not to take it, but to say it means private property is therefore always required to exist in every society at any time in history is stretching it. In other words, if someone owns something, don’t take it away. But if a group of people own something collectively, are we required to divide it up so it is owned privately instead? I’d argue no.

To live as humans does mean we have to do certain things in groups. Some activities are just too big to carry out as individuals. I’m not arguing there is no tension between individual and group priority—pretty much all of human history illustrates there is tension between these two. But to decide to do certain major undertakings together, like the healthcare of own society, is not outlawed by the eighth commandment, just because we do it together rather than individually. Of course, supporters of this idea would argue that a group represented by government is totally different from a group represented by private business, but to explore this is beyond the scope of this post. This post is about initial impressions of such arguments, and why they fail to convince.

The most surprising assertion to me is that “Do not kill” requires gun ownership. The logic goes like this: since we’re not supposed to kill each other, we are required to defend ourselves and our fellow humans, and therefore we should own guns in order to carry out this defense against anyone who wants to kill us. Now, I do find this an interesting sequence of logical arguments, but I can’t say I buy them all. I do think killing in self-defense is permissible, but I don’t think we should be eager to do it—if we kill in self-defense it seems to be more of a symptom of a sinful world rather than an ideal Christian way of living. This interpretation seems to pull so far away from the original commandment that it almost reduces the commandment to mean the opposite of what it says.

“Do not covet” is often applied to socialism, of course, because only people who desire what other (rich) people have want socialism, according to this theory. Now, everyone can have evil motives for whatever system they advocate. Socialists constantly accuse capitalists of greed, so it’s not a surprise supporters of capitalism would shoot back a similar accusation at supporters of socialism (we’re all greedy humans at heart!) But is covetousness therefore the foundation of socialism? It seems plausible that a highly equal society could decide to implement socialism, and that this would not suddenly cease be socialism due to a lack of coveting. Of course, much could be said about all the arguments made about Christianity and economic systems, but it’s not my plan to go into all of that here.

This is a very cursory glimpse at how these commandments are marshalled in internet articles about Christianity! This was a very strange observation to me, so I had to make a few comments. I’ve heard the Ten Commandments repeated to me weekly all my life, and none of the arguments about guns, property and economic systems ever occurred to me until I saw other people bring them up. It was never taught to me in church, school or seminary, so it surprised me to hear this was the “orthodox” interpretation. As you can see above, my initial inclination is to disagree with that.

Appendix: The Ten Commandments as Explained by the Heidelberg Catechism

It’s good to examine the ways fellow Christians have interpreted the Ten Commandments in the past. The church I attend uses the Heidelberg Catechism as one summary of our beliefs, and I double-checked to see if these modern debates are mentioned in the Catechism. If you’re curious about how the commandments are applied, here’s some further background:

Do not kill: This command is expanded to disallow hating, injuring or dishonouring others by thoughts, words or gestures–just as Jesus taught this command in his Sermon on the Mount. Hatred, jealousy and so on are the “roots of murder.” Interestingly, the Catechism includes self-harm under this commandment. This implies that we should take care of ourselves, but self-defense in not addressed here.

Do not steal: This is expanded to include “false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury.” We’re not supposed to be greedy, defraud our neighbour, or waste the blessings God gives us. This last point is nice–we should use all of the wonderful things that we’re given well.

Do not covet: This interpretation is interesting–we’re not supposed to have “even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any of God’s commandments should ever arise in our heart.” It’s seen as a summary of the Ten Commandments as a whole.

Check out the links if you’re interested in the prooftexts, and more on the background to the Heidelberg Catechism.

Lots more could be said on this topic, but I’ll leave this here!

 

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Reading the Earliest Christian Writings: Impressions of the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

Clement of RomeMany authors have denounced the shallowness of modern Christianity, and Christianity’s ignorance of both its theological and historical roots. This is a worthwhile issue to point out—but of course I must avoid the temptation to point out a speck in my brother’s eye while ignoring the log in mine! I feel like I am often tempted, just because I know some details about Christian history, to assume I am better educated than most Christians on the subject. But can I really say I’m educated on Christian history when there’s swathes of writings I have never touched?

Christians are fascinated by the early church, but often in a sort of mythical sense. We imagine everyone shared everything as in the book of Acts, that everyone was orthodox and in agreement, and that there was a confidence in the truth of their beliefs because they were so close in time to the apostles and Jesus himself. But do we ever read what writings we have left from the early church, to flesh out this picture? Very rarely. So I recently picked up Early Christian Writings in an attempt to remedy my own ignorance of this time period. And I decided to write a few brief notes on each document I read, in the hopes of stimulating discussion on these writings.

What is the First Epistle of Clement?

What’s the earliest Christian writing we have? Well, this obviously depends on what dates scholars estimate the writings were made on, but one of the earliest pieces of Christian writings is First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. It is addressed to the church of Corinth, from the church of Rome. The person who wrote it, assumed to be Clement of Rome though the letter itself does not mention this name, is an Apostolic Father—one of a group of people who knew the apostles or were closely influenced by them. The reason for this letter seems to be that the Corinthians had kicked out some bishops from their position even though these bishops had apparently done nothing wrong.

What’s interesting about this letter is that for several hundred years it was unknown in the church, until being rediscovered in the 1600s. Yet it doesn’t contain any “shocking secrets” about the early church, which may be why it’s not as well-known in our culture as, say, the Gospel of Judas. This post will not cover shocking secrets, but rather the implications of this letter for Christian sermons (and writing), Christian leadership, and the belief in being saved by faith alone.

My First Impressions:

Upon first reading, this letter does appear quite similar to other biblical letters (though it’s quite a bit longer). What I found most striking is the way it takes the story of the Bible as a whole and uses it as an illustration of its message, in a similar way the letter of Hebrews does. In modern sermons and Bibles studies we tend to isolate a Bible chapter or verse and study that piece intently and in-depth, and sometimes we get so focused on the detail that we lose sight of the passage’s place in the overall story. This letter very skillfully weaves retellings of Biblical narratives with quotes and allusions to specific Biblical passages. For example, Abraham, Lot and Rahab are all used as examples of obedience, but their example of obedience is centered very specifically in how they were hospitable—especially Lot to the angels in Sodom, and Rahab to the Israelite spies. It surprised me to consider hospitality as an example of Godly obedience.

In fact, almost every other sentence is an allusion to some Biblical verse, to the point where it’s hard to notice all of them.

I think Christians do need to pull back from examining the detail alone, and look at the whole narrative more often. Of course, the First Epistle of Clement was written before modern methods of hermeneutics and exegesis were developed, and methods of intense study of individual Biblical texts have greatly expanded our understanding of the Bible as time has progressed. I’m not at all suggesting we go backwards. Our step-by-step methods, and rules of accurate quotation, certainly provide safeguards against distortion of the Biblical texts. It especially prevents modern people from distorting Biblical narratives out of ignorance, as writers such as Clement appear to have a deep familiarity with the Bible that not every writer would possess. There’s always the temptation to say if someone in the Bible did something it was approved by God, even if these actions are not specifically described as good or bad but rather just things that happened (for example, giving dowries, and so on).

However, when you look at the Bible itself, few of its ‘sermons’ look anything like a modern sermon. Peter’s sermons in Acts recount Israel’s Old Testament history, and so does Stephen’s speech. The letter of Hebrews also takes the story of the Old Testament as one whole. This was most likely especially important for early believers who wondered how the God of the Jews fit in with the story of Jesus. But I don’t think that modern believers are suddenly very clear on how the Old Testament fits with the New Testament. In fact, many Christians I talk to, and this includes myself, have a really fuzzy understanding of the ‘big picture’ themes. So I’d advocate for scholars with a deep understanding of the Bible as a whole to write a few modern versions of the First Epistle of Clement.

Main Theme: Church Leadership

This letter certainly contradicts a happy and harmonious vision of the early church—but then, the Biblical letters themselves contradict such a mythical picture, as most of them were written to address problems in individual churches. People have always had trouble getting along with each other, and there have always been jealousy, power-thirstiness and other less-than-Christian motives that have driven people in Christian communities. What this letter does demonstrate is that Christians have always had to hold each other to account and continuously point each other to Christ. Here, a bishop named Clement that was based in Rome took it upon himself to hold the Corinthian church to account for its actions (and most scholars seem to agree that Clement of Rome is the best assumption for the author of this letter).

So the question Clement addresses is how to treat church leadership. Leadership position are certainly something humans fight over—just think about Jesus’ own disciples. We often focus on how to remove bad leaders in modern discussions, but this letter focuses on how to treat legitimate leaders. It is heavily implied that the leaders Corinth removed were removed out of jealousy and disobedience.

First of all, how does Clement define a legitimate leader? Basically, leaders in the church receive their appointment through the apostles, and with the consent of the church. To quote Clement,

“Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full foreknowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these should fall asleep, other accredited person should succeed them in their office. In view of this, we cannot think it right for these men now to be ejected from their ministry, when, after being commissioned by the Apostles (or by other reputable persons at a later date) with the full consent of the Church, they have since been serving Christ’s flock in a humble, peaceable and disinterested way, and earning everybody’s approval over so long a period of time.”

This indicates a main principle that the authority of church leadership should flow from someone else who already has legitimate authority—ideally the apostles, but since they are no longer alive, another ‘reputable person.’ Rather than authority stemming from ‘the people’ as in a democracy, authority flows from Christ as head of the church, through the apostles or other ‘reputable’ authorities in the church, to the new leaders. At least, this is Clement’s position on authority in the church, and possibly the general opinion of the Christian churches at the time. I think this all hinges on the leaders living out their Christian beliefs—being humble, peaceable and disinterested, as Clement says. He is against removal of leaders who display these Christian virtues, just on a whim, and this is very reasonable. I think it does imply that leaders who prove themselves to be disreputable are problematic, but this is a situation Clement does not address (nor should we expect him to).

“Bishops” and “presbyters” are used interchangeably in this letter, perhaps indicating a “bishop” is not some higher, hierarchical level of authority in the church, but that’s there’s only one level of authority in each church at this time—the leaders with the authority they received through the apostles. It also appears churches have a right to hold other churches to account, as Rome does to Corinth in this letter. Therefore the picture I would argue arises from this letter is local congregations, led by presbyters/bishops, which interact with other local churches who are also led by a group of presbyters/bishops. Deacons are mentioned as well, so this also seems to be an office present in the church at the time.

“The consent of the church” is an interesting phrase. It implies leaders are not randomly inserted into churches from the outside. In my church, leaders are elected by the congregation, which is our way of putting forward men with the consent of the congregation—but then these men are installed by the other presbyters/bishops (we call them ‘elders’). They are not leaders on the basis of their election by the people, but rather through the authority of the leadership—but at the same time, the congregation has indicated their consent through the election. This is one way of fulfilling this early church model of church government. There are, of course, myriad other models of church government.

Nowadays there are many churches run like democracies, where the congregation has the final say. There are also other churches run like businesses, with elders and pastors functioning as board members and CEOs. I would humbly state both models seem quite disconnected from biblical and historical roots.

Since this is a letter from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, an obvious implication arises: was the church of Rome an authority over the other churches, as the Roman Catholic church maintains? In the Roman Catholic’s lists of popes, Clement is usually listed as the fourth pope. However, it would be difficult to prove anything definitive from this letter alone. It is from “the church of Rome,” not “the pope,” and while it has an authoritative tone it is not a commanding tone. It is at least an open question. On reading this letter, it is clear why it would be used to support apostolic succession and other aspects of the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy—but the same evidence reflects Reformed Christian church government. There is not enough detail given.

It might be impossible for us to know now, but I do wonder what the reaction in Corinth was to this letter. Did they agree with the church of Rome, or were they offended? Did their bishops get reinstated?

A Few More Themes: By Faith Alone, yet Faith Plus Works!

The First Epistle of Clement proclaims that amazing distinctive message of Christianity, that we do not have earn our salvation. We are saved by faith alone—and Clement actually says ‘by faith alone.’ It’s lovely to see this important theme repeated in this early Christian writing:

“[We] are not justified by ourselves or our own wisdom or understanding or godliness, nor by such deeds as we have done in holiness or heart, but by that faith through which alone Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning of time.”

Of course, Clement goes on, very similarly to the way Paul does, to say that being saved by faith alone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good. He uses God Himself as an example of delighting in working good without being required to do anything at all. Clement also states, “A good workman can accept the reward of his labour with assurance, but one who is idle and shiftless cannot look his employer in the face.” This is a fascinating defense of why Christians, despite not needing to ‘work’ for their salvation, still do work at good works.

Lastly, this isn’t a major point, but it’s pretty fun that Clement treats the phoenix as a real creature and not a mythical one, and uses it as an illustration of death and resurrection. It’s fascinating to imagine a world where mythical creatures, for all anyone knew, might be as real as the animals one saw every day. I kind of do wish I lived in a world with phoenixes, dragons and griffins.

 

In conclusion, if you’d like to read a short work written in a style very similar to Biblical letters, this work is for you. It will flesh out your understanding of the early Christian church. In fact, I’d highly recommend Christians do read works outside of their own narrow present, so this is one good place to start!

 

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What if I Write Something Wrong?

As a young writer, I was eager to get something published, but the first time I actually sent something in for publication an unexpected terror descended over me. Considerations I’d never considered before suddenly popped into my mind. What if there was a factor I hadn’t known existed, and therefore hadn’t taken into account when I wrote my article? What if I didn’t have enough knowledge to actually take a position on this topic? What if, in the future, I look back on this article with shame because I was so very hasty in writing it?

 

I remembered this feeling recently because a new trailer for “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye” just came out. This is a documentary about the impact Joshua Harris’ book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, had on Christians. “My book made people feel like they had to do things a certain way,” Joshua Harris says in this trailer. “And I regret that.” This is an incredibly brave thing to say! Imagine pouring your heart and soul into a book when you’re young, firmly believing your message is something the world needs to hear. And then later, as time goes by, starting to realize you missed the mark on what you were trying to say. Or that people interpreted your words more strictly than you meant them to. Or, even worse, that what you firmly believe now has changed just a bit from what you firmly believed back then. What would you do? Would you take a deep breath and tell the world about this?

 

Here is the trailer:

 

Now, in the blog post I don’t intend to get into whether Joshua Harris’ book was helpful or harmful. (I did read it in highschool, by the way, but I don’t know if it affected me in any way.) I want to examine the responsibility a writer has when his or her work impacts an audience a certain way. To be fair to Joshua Harris, he wrote his book when he was twenty-three or so, and it’s absolutely normal for a person’s opinions to become more nuanced as they grow up. But does this mean all young writers should hesitate before they publish?

 

James’s words in James 3:1 comes to mind here: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” In other words, I have taken on an enormous responsibility by saying things in public to people—things other people might take and follow. I was right to hesitate.

 

But I see two more observations in this verse. First, that those who teach will be judged. Ultimately our deeds are judged by God, of course, but I think this also includes the judgment of other Christians. And by judgment, I don’t mean the type of judgment Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather the weighing of words and teachings that Christians ought to do. When Joshua Harris sought out the opinion of other Christians on his book, he opened his teaching up to the judgment of his brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Not every opinion he received was necessarily useful or valid. But through this weighing process, the worth of his opinion is tested and refined.

 

Perhaps the wisest way of testing your words and opinions is to get feedback on them from experienced Christians around you. Perhaps the right Christian person in young Joshua Harris’ life could have noticed issues in his book that snowballed into bigger issues later on. However, not all issues are apparent beforehand, and I highly doubt Harris’ book was completely un-evaluated before it was published. Therefore, the feedback process that comes after releasing your words is important as well. In a certain way, all of us are participants in an unending dialogue of ideas.

 

This brings us to the second observation I see in the verse from James: that we all stumble in many ways. That, in fact, it is impossible to say something without what you say falling short. “If anyone does not stumble, he is a perfect man…” Who of us claim possibly claim this perfection?

 

I am often afraid of the ways I will stumble when I put words onto paper. But on the other hand, the opposite consideration occurs to me. What if these words are never spoken? We are all frail human beings scrambling to find words that communicate the truth about reality. If we know we fail to communicate what is true, we should not speak. But if we see a truth lying there, unspoken, there is often a time and place for it to be said.

 

Writers should hesitate, especially young writers who eagerly believe they have the whole world figured out. There can be terrible consequences for saying something wrong. You can deeply affect the lives of others who follow your opinion, and this should be a major consideration in your mind. There were many hurt by extreme interpretations of Joshua Harris’ words, after all. You ought to count the cost of potentially saying something wrong before you say it, and think about whether you’re willing to pay that cost. Would you humbly face your mistakes and do you utmost to fix your mistakes, if such mistakes became clear to you later? If not, perhaps you should keep silent after all.

 

But all I am trying to say here is that I think it is healthy for people to learn to formulate and speak their opinions, despite the necessity of hesitating before speaking or writing. A nebulous fear of an unknown mistake hiding in our own words should not seal our lips forever. If we commit to a willingness to find our mistakes beforehand, and take responsibility for our mistakes after publication if some do arise, then perhaps we are on the right path. Perhaps we can speak out.

 

Therefore I try to pen my thoughts only when I have something to contribute, something to contribute that someone older and wiser hasn’t already said in better words. And when I toss my thoughts out into the crowd, I do so in the expectation that judgments will come back at me. If what I write is worthwhile at all, it will be refined by its exposure to the world.

 

So now it’s your turn! What are your thoughts on this?

 

Side note: I do include writing as teaching for the purposes of this post. I think by stating your opinion in public in any kind of authoritative way invites others to follow your words. By the nature of stating your opinion, you invite people to either agree or disagree. I don’t want to hide from the fact that my words might influence people, no matter how casually I speak them. I don’t mean to say, by this, that this type of teaching is the same kind of ‘teaching of the Word of God’ that pastors do to their flocks. I would never presume my words ought to fit into that category.

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How to Find the Meaning of Life

“I’ve never met someone so concerned about doing something meaningful,” someone told me the other day. He was surprised by me, but I found myself surprised by the comment–how on earth do so many people go through their day without constantly facing this question? Isn’t this the most obvious thing to be asking–what should I do right now, and why?

It’s true that obsessing about the meaning of your actions can catch you in a trap. You may spiral into doing nothing at all because nothing clears the hurdle of ‘meaningful’ for you. But there’s something strange about not even thinking of the meaning of our actions.

Life is not meant to be accepted as it comes to us, unquestioned. We must shoulder the responsibility of living for God’s glory, and this includes examining our mundane activities. We may be doing things because that’s just what people do, and not noticing what really should be done. So while it’s challenging for me to wrestle with this question, I think it’s worth wrestling with.

I’m not sure how other people go about their day, but here’s an example of how this question comes up daily for me. For example, I come home from work (or more accurately right now–school). What should I do? I’m faced with hours of time, time which is not empty time since there’s always a certain number of things that need to be done at some point in the near future, but there really is no indication of what to do when. I need to eat, but that could happen immediately or several hours from now. I could educate myself by reading a stimulating book, but I could always do that later. I could clean my house or do other chores, but I could always do that later. In fact, every activity could be done later, and is in fact nonessential in the moment. How, then, do I decide what is a priority? Certainly not on the basis of necessity.

This is the modern difference. In the past, our ancestors never faced this decision. Everything was necessary. Every action mattered for survival, so they wrestled less with the existential angst of the meaning of their actions. They didn’t have time to wrestle with it anyway, even if the thought occurred to them. And if the thought occurred the immediate answer was: my actions matter because otherwise I’d die.

Now, many of you may be Christians and therefore are now saying to me–yes, but don’t you know the ultimate meaning of life? Isn’t it to glorify God and to enjoy him forever? To which I wholeheartedly agree. Does this then mean my priority in every decision should be what is most spiritual? Not if you have a good understanding of a Christian life. A Christian life is not fundamentally a life of reading the Bible and doing nothing else. It is living in God’s creation. This involves deepening our knowledge of God, but also using his gifts and interacting with our environment. So it’s very hard to say anything in particular is not glorifying, unless it is of course obviously against God’s will.

In other words, while this clarifies my ultimate aim and puts urgency into my ability to choose well, it still leaves the decision about what practical actions I take moment-to-moment in my hands. And what I’m actually looking for is a relatively reliable method of making moment-to-moment decisions about what to do without having an existential crisis every time I need to decide.

In psychology they talk about heuristic techniques, which are simple shortcuts our mind takes so it doesn’t have to make a decision every single time. You don’t have to decide what you’re seeing with your eyes, because your mind has already decided it’s an apple. And so on. What I need is a decision-making heuristic, one that will give me a relatively good answer most of the time. And in fact, this is probably what most people have. This is probably why so many people around me don’t seem to worry about this very often. They’ve decided: fulfilling my role in my family makes my life meaningful, therefore I will do what’s expected of me in that role (clean the house, shovel snow, have fun as a family). Or, if I achieve this one thing in life, I will have achieved something recognizable and memorable that contributes to the world (becoming a doctor or starting a business). However, the difficulty comes in when you have the limitless ability to choose roles, but no requirement to choose any.

Another concept in psychology is the tyranny of choice. As mentioned above, in the past people may not have worried so much about what to do moment-to-moment. However, once we were presented with endless freedom, we did not in fact become happier. We became more anxious, because we constantly had to choose.

This is where I’m at–constantly facing a choice. Does this help to explain how a person could become obsessed with understanding meaning?

No one is given a free pass to do nothing (think of the Parable of the Talents–the one who buried his talent in the ground was chastised). We’re can’t excuse ourselves from action because we’re bewildered about what, precisely, we ought to do. That by itself is not reason enough. At the same time, we are charged to use our wisdom and not to choose our actions at random merely for the sake of doing something. Making a random choice is not really better than making no choice. Yet making a wise choice does not imply we’re responsible for making choices that avoid all possible pitfalls. We do have the ability to live free from the judgment of God after a choice does not go so well. However, this does not give much direction beforehand.

All the same, I don’t think it is useless that I am in this position. There is an idea that whatever problem annoys you the most may be a problem that you ought to work on. So I’m pondering this question–really, I have been working on it for years now. It seems to be one worth answering: when one is faced with an endless array of choices in one moment with no requirement to choose any of them, how does one make a wise choice? I do feel as if in general we tend to vanish into the “no choice” option, where we never attempt to progress (for example, remaining in our parents’ basements). But I believe life can be much richer than that.

 

Appendix: Priorities I’ve Tried to Use as Heuristics, Which the Book of Ecclesiastes Also Addresses

Social:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

In practice, I tend to prioritize activities that involve other people. This obviously meets my social needs, but I also think it is upbuilding in that it helps me take the focus off myself and attempt to contribute to others’ lives. However, I’m not sure this should actually be the primary standard for prioritizing. I could always try to do activities that impact the greatest number of people for the better, but then I would never cook for myself or clean my own house. No, there is some value in doing menial chores even if no one knows you do them.

Pleasure:

“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” – Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

Another approach is to just enjoy the goodness God has given to you in your life. Enjoy good wine, nice food and amazing sights. Pursue your interests with all your enthusiasm and see where they take you. This is a valid consideration in making a decision, but it can’t have the highest priority in absolutely every case. I’ve certainly been blessed through it though.

Achievement:

“So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” – Ecclesiastes 3:22

This one gives me the greatest sense of meaning and purpose. When I have a goal, such as teaching someone some aspect of English, or finishing a course in Theology, or leading a summer’s worth of camps, and then I achieve that goal, I feel fulfilled. I’m not entirely sure that just because I feel fulfilled it means I ought to continue use this as a priority, but it is worthwhile in life to have a goal. I’ve attempted to apply this in bigger areas of my life, such as my career, and achieved success, but the feeling of fulfillment does not last forever. In addition, failure is a common result as well, and meaning can come out of failure though we often try to avoid it. Lastly, deciding what goals to pursue is perhaps the most existential-crisis-inducing thing of all, because it is hard to justify one goal versus another.

Ecclesiastes is certainly about what to do with your limited days on earth, and whether human beings truly can choose one better way of living over another (especially in the face of the futility of life!)

 

It must be a combination of all these things. First, what you do must strengthen your life with God. Second, it will involve work–either a necessary work for survival, or the most obvious chore in front of you, or a task of such worth it outweighs the obvious chores (as many of us get caught up wiping spots off our kitchen cupboards rather than taking on bigger projects). Lastly, the joy of giving of ourselves to other people and interacting with other people will come into it, as well as the pure pleasure of living and enjoying the blessings of God. Perhaps this heuristic can be simplified, but it’s a start.

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Top Ten Works of Christian Fiction – What Are They?

UPDATE: I’m glad to see The Gospel Coalition make an attempt at such a list here.

The other day my fellow seminarians and I were discussing the lists of top ten Christian books you so often run across online, and how far too many of them feature only really recent books published in the last ten years—not to mention how these lists tend to skew towards whatever theological tradition the compiler is from. Many suggestions could be made to improve these types of lists, but here’s one: why do most of them neglect to list any Christian fiction?

The unfortunate implication of mostly-nonfiction lists is that Christians shouldn’t waste their time reading fiction. That Christian art does not matter. That while Christian fiction might be interesting, it never rises to the level of “classic.”

We agreed that if Christian art is to be rehabilitated from the sentimental trenches it has fallen into, good Christian art should be celebrated. So we set about to compose a list of the top ten works of Christian fiction.

However, we quickly realized why so few people attempt to create this list.

The Trouble with Defining Fiction

First, what is fiction? In the few Christian fiction lists that do exist, the list is filled out by poetry and allegory—for example, see this list which includes The Faerie Queen and Pilgrim’s Progress. Poetry and allegory are great forms of art, and Christian artists certainly have made great use of them. However, if someone asks you for a recommendation for good Christian fiction nowadays, they’d be very taken aback if you gave them poetry. Perhaps Christians should also work at rehabilitating the genres of poetry and allegory—but that’s an issue for another day. What works of Christian fiction exemplify greatness according to our modern expectations of what fiction is?

Google defines fiction as: “literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.” Okay, let’s stick with that definition.

How to define “Christian” books:

The next question is—what makes a work Christian?

If you look at the current state of Christian publishing, you’ll see the struggle to pinpoint what Christian fiction is. In order to make it abundantly clear a novel is Christian, Christian fiction tends to feature conversions, sermonizing, and praying. In addition, Christian publishers have a very strict list of what will not feature in any of their publications, a list that would surprise many authors in other areas of the publishing industry. All of these are strong signals that define “Christian” novels, and make these works more easily marketable to a general Christian audience.

There is nothing wrong with standards, or even some of the common Christian tropes—however, very little of what modern Christian publishing produces falls into the realm of “art.” There are perhaps a handful that are recognizable to a somewhat broad audience—Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, and Love Comes Softly, by Janette Oke, but beyond that most are quickly forgotten. If Christians are serious about producing art that brings glory to the name of God, it is worth considering what precisely is the gap between the current Christian fiction being produced, and what might be called classic Christian fiction. What could be promoted, or should be promoted? What areas of our storytelling need elevating?

A deeper exploration of modern Christian fiction would need another post.

The main point behind all this discussion is that these concrete Christian signifiers so common in mass-market Christian fiction are not the only way to define Christian fiction, and perhaps not even the best way. Does a Christian work need to be about Christian characters? If it involves, or features, non-Christians, do these non-Christians have to convert by the end?

Take Lord of the Rings, for example. While widely accepted as a Christian novel today, it is understandable why Christians were hesitant to embrace it at first. Its Christian themes are not displayed at the surface level, the gospel story merely reenacted by its characters. No, in fact the closest equivalent of ‘God’ in Tolkien’s world is not even mentioned in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.

Well, let’s look at another angle. Should a Christian work be required to mention the name of God?

It seems pretty clear a work does not have to say the word “God” to speak of God—think only of the biblical book of Esther. Esther clearly demonstrates the power of God and his ability to turn all events to the good of His people, without explicitly spelling out its message in a little sermon at the end. Now, Esther is a biblical book by an inspired author, so fiction authors should hesitate before attempting to replicate such a feat. However, it does indicate strong Christian messages can be brought across without sermonizing.

This, by the way, is part of the reason I would argue Pride and Prejudice counts as a Christian novel, but I’ll leave that argument aside for today.

I’ll hesitantly point to Christian themes as a necessary ingredient, with full recognition of the difficulty involved in describing the Christians themes of a particular work. In addition, we should avoid lumping just any story where someone sacrifices themselves for another person as “Christian,” even though it parallels Christ’s sacrifice for believers. There’s got to be a deeper understanding of Christianity present than that.

So, if a work of Christian fiction need not feature Christian characters, reenact the gospel, or mention the name of God, what makes a work of fiction Christian?

Who are “Christian” Authors?

Well, maybe the author does. This is a good question—should Christian art be made by Christians? The answer is usually, of course! But think a little more. First is the difficulty of discerning a particular author’s precise beliefs. Take, for example, the debate over precisely how “Christian” Charles Dickens was (or really, any author who does not specifically spell out their beliefs). Or take George MacDonald, a strong influence on Lewis and Tolkien but who held some views that many Christians would declare unorthodox (at the very least). Determining the level of Christianity is difficult, and perhaps is beyond what the compiler of such a list should really be doing anyway.

Second, there is the recognition that non-Christian works of art can echo similar themes. If two works both condemn the folly of pride, for example, and point to man’s inability to improve himself, what difference does it make that one is written by a Christian and one is not? Well, I’d argue it does make a difference—in order to fully interact with a Christian worldview an author must understand it intimately. However, while drawing up a list many people will certainly put forward general works that agree strongly with a Christian message, and a compiler would have to consider what precisely the difference between Christian and non-Christian is.

I’d argue Christian themes discussed in the above section matter more than authorship—if an author’s level of commitment is doubtful, his work should be judged on its merits and his faith given the benefit of the doubt (especially if strong and theologically rich Christian messages come through his work). However, since we are looking for Christian themes that are not merely surface-level but deep, we want the authors to not describe themselves as unbelievers. To work with Christian themes at a deep level requires strong knowledge and some level of commitment to the faith. So this is my suggestion towards a solution here.

A Few More Issues:

There’s three more issues that occur to me when coming up with a list of Christian fiction:

First, there is difficulty of reading all the potential works to decide on the list. This takes time, but is essential to do a proper job. Preferably this would be done by more than one person, so it does not dissolve into merely one’s personal preferences.

Second, there are many theological traditions in Christianity, and sometimes great works from one tradition are essentially unknown in other traditions. For example, I know there have been many Roman Catholic fiction authors besides Tolkien, but I have never read any. This feeds into the related question of how well-known a work should be to be included on a list for all Christians everywhere.

Third, should Christian fiction be comforting or troubling? Should it pose issues without answering? I think here of the well-known novel, Silence by Shūsaku Endō, which I have never read. Its conclusions are perhaps more troubling than uplifting. But to narrow Christian art to merely what is uplifting does run the risk of throwing us back into sentimental territory again.

In conclusion, I think much of the above issues would be cleared up if we had a good of idea of what “art” is, and what makes art “Christian.”

The Start of a List

After stating all these problems—I still think such a list should be made! I’m open to suggestions for what to put on it. Here’s a few obvious ones to start:

  • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite being non-allegorical and not mentioning God, its Christian themes are obvious. It is also dearly loved by readers of all backgrounds, so its narrative quality is also clear.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Many categorize this one as ‘allegory,’ but it in fact goes much deeper than strict allegory–the Christian gospel is retold in a narrative that holds up on its own merits. Again, readers of all backgrounds enjoy this work.
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This one is mentioned so frequently it must be included.

This is a sad-looking list that I hope will greatly expand over time. These are classics that everyone I spoke to broadly agreed on. If it were down to personal preference, I might add Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis–but I’d prefer to have broad agreement on all works included on such a list!

Drawing up such a list would be a multi-year process that would take serious study. However, if Christians are serious about glorifying God with the works of their hands, I believe such a study is worthwhile to do! Let us celebrate Christian art that points us towards our Creator.

 

Note: We also agreed that filling a list of ‘top ten’ with books all by the same author (every work by C.S. Lewis, for example) is not especially fair or helpful.

 

 

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Augustine on a Drunk Homeless Man–Augustine Again

I’m so glad I’ve been able to pick up Augustine’s Confessions again, and came across this passage of Augustine’s reflections on his encounter with a drunk homeless man. I love how it doesn’t go in the expected, modern direction (why is the man homeless? should the man be drunk?), but swerves into profound spiritual reflection instead:

My heart was panting with these anxieties, and boiling with the feverishness of consuming thoughts. For, passing through one of the streets of Milan, I observed a poor beggar, then, I suppose, with a full belly, joking and joyous: and I sighed, and spoke to the friends around me, of the many sorrows of our frenzies; for that by all such efforts of ours, as those wherein I then toiled dragging along, under the goading of desire, the burden of my own wretchedness, and, by dragging, increased it, we yet looked to arrive only at that very joyousness that the beggar-man had arrived before us, who should never perchance attain it.

For what he had obtained by means of a few begged pence, the same was I plotting for by many a toilsome turning and winding; the joy of a temporary happiness. For he verily had not the true joy; but yet I with those my ambitious designs was seeking one much less true. And certainly he was joyous, I anxious; he void of care, I full of fears.

But should any ask me, had I rather be merry or fearful? I would answer merry. Again, if he asked had I rather be such as he was, or what I then was? I should choose to be myself, though worn with cares and fears; but out of wrong judgment; for, was it the truth? For I ought not to prefer myself to him, because more learned than he, seeing I had no joy therein, but sought to please men by it; and that not to instruct, but simply to please.

Away with those then from my soul who say to her, “It makes a difference whence a man’s joy is. That beggar-man joyed in drunkenness; you desired to joy in glory.” But even as his was no true joy, so was the glory I sought no true glory: and it overthrew my soul more. He that very night should digest his drunkenness; but I had slept and risen again with mine, and was to sleep again, and again to rise with it, how many days, Thou, God, knowest.

But “it doth make a difference whence a man’s joy is.” I know it, and the joy of a faithful hope lies incomparably beyond such vanity. Yea, and so was he then beyond me: for he verily was the happier; not only for that he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, I disemboweled with cares: but he, by fair wishes, had gotten wine; I, by lying, was seeking for empty, swelling praise.”

  • Augustine, Confessions, Book VI*

I started Confessions last year and look forward to finishing it! This ancient man has a reputation for a reason, and his words hit us in the heart even today.

*Note: I simplified a few of the more difficult phrases in the translation I happened to find, so look up the full version if you want to quote this 🙂

 

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Contentment Vs. Ambition–Let’s Examine Each More Closely

This is the second post examining ambition vs. contentment, or, in other words— If there’s something we really, really want, should we teach ourselves contentment because we don’t have it, or develop our God-given talents in order to achieve it? I promised I would examine both contentment and ambition in more depth today. But before I start I’d like to emphasize my exploration should in no way be authoritative, though I hope it’s helpful.

Contentment

First, let’s look at contentment.

If contentment is something you struggle with, there are thousands of resources out there to help you develop a spirit of contentment within yourself. If man’s purpose is to glorify God, as mentioned in the previous post, then we obviously won’t be content if we focus on anything other than him. What I want to explore here is whether, knowing that we are required to be content, we should ever try to achieve anything. After all, doesn’t the drive to achieve (or ambition) stem from discontent? Usually ambition is an attempt to fill our lives on our own without God’s help.

Besides this, we must take seriously the well-known biblical passages on contentment. There are of course Paul’s well-known words about being content in all circumstances, but there is also this little gem from 1 Thessalonians 4:

“Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters… to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

This is a very modest aim!* All a Christian needs to do is live a quiet life and work with their hands. This should be very comforting for anyone who feels guilt over not running a mega-ministry, or giving up everything they own to go to the ends of the earth to spread the gospel. It’s quite clear that not every Christian is required to do the same thing Paul did, and that in fact the vast majority of Christians are just supposed to be ordinary. In other words, despite our culture insisting big ambitions are absolutely necessary, and even some well-meaning Christians trying to spur you on to do ‘great things for God,’ it is ok to live a quiet life.

This is a great relief to me, when I consider all the big, world-changing things I am not achieving.

So it is ok to live quietly–but it is ok to want to do more than that?

Well, one step to figuring this out is to recognize that too much emphasis on contentment leads to determinism.

You’re still single? God must not want you to be married. You’re poor? God must not want you to be rich. Don’t try for anything. Just wait peacefully. Don’t try to change. Everything you’re meant to have will just fall into your lap.

Clearly this is an unbiblical message.

There are a few caveats to the idea of contentment that help us avoid determinism. When Paul talks of being content in all circumstances, he was working towards a goal, and the circumstances occurred while he was attempting to achieve it. Perhaps it is not the goal you’re supposed to avoid having, but the discontent over the difficulties that spring up on the way to the goal. It may in fact be that the goal is not one you’re meant to achieve, but contentment in all circumstances includes contentment during the deep disappointment that hits when you don’t achieve your goal. In other words—strive! Keep striving! But be ready to be content with what the Lord brings you.

Choosing what to strive for still involves difficulties, especially when the striving involves sacrificing time or money, but I’ll discuss this under ‘ambition.’ But no one needs to be ashamed over a little goal. And there must be some big goals that can fit in a Christian life as well.

Another caveat is that contentment in Scripture, including contentment in the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, is mentioned in relation to suffering. It is an approach to situations that are not in Christians’ control. When life is hard, especially when life is hard as a result of being Christians, Christians are to be content. So the intent is not to say, ‘don’t be ambitious,’ but rather, ‘I know you’re suffering, and this is where you can find comfort.’ These passages also emphasize that no circumstances of life ever prevent us from being saved by God—whether in chains or free (1 Corinthians 7), whether rich or poor—no one needs to be discontent because their circumstances prevent them from truly being Christians. If such circumstances did exist they would surely be reason for despair—but thanks be to God there are none!

We can be content because our circumstances do not prevent our salvation.

We all suffer in some way, but in comparison to many Christians in the Bible we are faced with an endless array of choices—we can choose a career, we can choose a spouse, we can choose where we want to live, we can choose to travel, we can choose our level of education. It’s not a surprise the Bible doesn’t predict that we in the future would be faced with this array of choice, and advise us on how to wrap our minds around the dizzying display. And therefore it is not a surprise when we try to apply biblical principles to our choices instead of our sufferings, and end up at the conclusion that we should never desire anything, and never try to achieve anything.

But rather than arriving at this conclusion and then ignoring it, we should think about whether this is really correct.

It’s one thing to be content when we don’t have a choice in our situation. But should we be content when we do?

I think when we recognize our desires, we can at least try to approach them in a good way, and perhaps that can work within our overall contentment. This might be one way to approach them:

When we face desires, the first thing to realize is that every single desire in us is not a pure desire, but rather stained with sin. Even the desire to preach God’s word has a selfish inclination running through it. Yet when we examine our desires we can see many of them are not good or bad on their own. If we desire more education, for example, knowledge in and of itself is a gift from God. So after recognizing our desires and evaluating their appropriateness, we can separate out our own sinful impulses. What is wrong about our desire for this thing? And do we in fact possess any impulse to using this to glorify God, or is it only for ourselves? Obviously if it is a good or neutral thing but we really have no inclination to use it for God, we should reconsider before pursuing it.

Next, we must consider the desire in the light of the reality that we will never be satisfied. If this desire is fulfilled, we still will not have enough. Does that change how much we want it? If once we have achieved this thing we still find the same discontent bubbling up inside, will the thing we achieve still be a worthwhile thing?

Lastly, passivity and contentment are not the same thing. I’m not sure how much ambition is acceptable, but the solution to wrong ambition is not passivity. Keep this in mind, and we’ll move on to exploring ambition.

Ambition

Next, let’s examine ambition.

Ambition can be defined as trying to fulfill your life on your own, but I think it’s a very limited definition if you define it only in that way. You can have “a strong desire to achieve something” while still knowing your ultimate fulfillment comes from God. But there is still a problem.

Often when we have ambition we look at what we’re good at and what we really enjoy doing. We’re incredible hockey players, or skilled artists, or wonderful musicians… or we have a real touch for soothing little babies or something and would love to have a family. And our ambition becomes doing it ‘professionally.’ Using what we’re good at in order to survive, rather than using a skill we have very little passion for in order to survive.

But is that what God calls us to do?

On one hand, we have the parable of the talents, where servants are given talents in order to use, and one is punished for not using it. We often cling to the idea that we’re given our incredible artistic skill, or entrancing musical ability, for a reason. It would be wrong not to use it. And it probably would be wrong to look at one of our gifts and pretend not to have it.

However. We know that in order to live off our painting or singing or athletic ability we must be very good. We need to devote time and energy, and often money, to getting to be very good. And even if we are very good, we may not achieve what we desire. And we are not blind to the fact that our time and energy and money can very easily achieve other worthwhile things for God if only we just became accountants. So should we chase our ambition, or try to reorient our desire?

A few people do have the assurance in their hearts that painting is what they have been put on this earth to do, and this assurance gives them the confidence to make the sacrifices. But most of us are not sure. We look at the poor as we buy expensive paint brushes and wonder if we should be donating to charity instead. Or if we should be earning a higher income so our families don’t experience so many financial problems. Or if we really should be living off the kindness of others as we pursue our dreams.

What are we justified in sacrificing when we choose one path of life over another?

It is true that the word ‘ambition’ is often paired with the word ‘selfish’ in Scripture—see James 3:16, Philippians 2:3, and 2 Corinthians 12:20. This does not mean ambition is always selfish, but it surely indicates selfishness frequently accompanies ambition. And we all have seen people treat others horribly in their drive to what they want. More than that, we know ambition often stems from our comparison with others, instead of focusing on God, and the selfish ambition the Bible refers to is often competition between people to raise themselves over each other. We fail to recognize our measurement is not ‘beating out’ other people, but rather figuring out what matters to God. So any desire we have to achieve must not stem from a desire to be superior to other people (or a fear of falling behind them).

There is actually at least one time ambition is used positively (in the English translations, at least). It’s in Romans 15, where Paul says, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.” And of course ambition to spread the gospel cannot be viewed negatively. But if that is the only kind of ambition that is ‘okay,’ then it is really only pastors and evangelists who should have any drive for anything at all. Or perhaps ordinary people who share the gospel in their spare time should view that as their ‘real’ work. But again, this seems too limiting.

One reason why vocations such as minister, evangelist, missionary, etc. start to look so attractive is because they simplify this question so much. You’re doing your work for God. Of course any sacrifice is worth it. However, Protestants have historically emphasized the worth of the work of ordinary believers—we are all working for God. We don’t need everyone doing only one job, but rather we need many different types of people for both the church and the world to function. In addition, someone can desire to be a pastor out of selfish ambition just as easily as someone might desire to be a painter. But it is much harder to justify your sacrifices for painting than for preaching. Christianity hasn’t really developed a framework for choosing vocations other than the spiritual vocations.

If Protestantism is serious about the worth of ordinary vocations, it would be helpful to devote more time to develop this sort of framework.

Now, we saw above that striving for something is not necessarily contradicting contentment, and most of us would agree that we can have ambition for a wider range of things than only spreading the gospel. When God put man in creation, he did intend for man to do more than just preach. Man was to work in creation, and enjoy creation as well. So less practical ambitions do appear to fit into Christianity better when you keep this in mind.

To sum up ambition, I’d argue that while it is easy to cast ambition negatively it is not always negative. More work needs to be done on what gives value to certain ambitions and not others, and this goes a long way to explaining why, when an ambition seems hard to justify, we fall back on ‘be content.’ But rather than just falling back on ‘be content,’ we need to seriously judge all the ways humans are meant to live in creation and use creation.

Putting Ambition and Contentment Together

Contentment does not require passivity. Contentment does not require living life without a real-life, non-spiritual goal. But contentment is the required response in the face of suffering, in the face of disappointment when we don’t reach our goals, and in the face of our continual dissatisfaction.

Ambition is a negative thing when it is centered on self-fulfilment and becoming greater than others around us. It is not always negative. A good ambition should fit in with our central goal to bring glory to God, but this does not automatically mean we must all only aim for spiritual goals. However, more exploration should be done on the worth of earthly goals, and how to choose which earthly goals to pursue—especially as each one involves sacrificing other things.

All of these considerations I’ve gone through above will not give us an easy formulaic answer every time. I wish it could. But perhaps it narrows the perimeter of the problems, and removes a few of the pitfalls that are easy to fall into.

I hope each one of you does manage to chart that narrow path between ambition and contentment as you go through life.

 

Two Questions for Further Consideration:

These are two questions I was not able to answer, which either someone else can study more, or I will revisit if I come to new insight 🙂

1.) How contentment can fit with our modern opportunities to change things for the better—how are they compatible?

2.) How does one know when an ambition is worth pursuing and sacrificing for?

 

*(Though I must admit it is still very intimidating to not be dependent on anybody, and to win the respect of outsiders. These are hard enough things to achieve, and I am with all of you struggling to stand on your own two feet.)

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