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.

 

 

 

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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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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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