Category Archives: Actual Practical Application Category

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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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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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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Contentment Vs. Ambition–Should Christians Be Content or Ambitious?

I’m going to try a different type of article today, and perhaps a few more times in the upcoming year. I’m going to explore the tension between two valuable concepts, and see if there’s a way to reduce the tension a little. There are two opposite messages our culture tells us, and which Christianity repeats without much additional judgement being applied to these messages. First, we’re told to be grateful for everything we have, since no one gets everything they want anyway. Christianity attaches Paul’s words to ‘be content’ to this idea. Second, we’re told to run after our dreams, and try everything to achieve them. Christianity then attaches the idea of ‘using our talents’ to this concept. But the trouble comes in when you need to decide which one outweighs the other. When are you justified in abandoning one blessing to reach for another?

Actually, the fundamental question is this: 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?

In practice, we answer this question in all sorts of contradictory ways. If someone longs to get married, we don’t usually insist that they must be content to be single, but rather encourage them to keep trying to meet someone. But if someone is bored with their job, we talk about how no job is perfect and even if someone has their dream job they still have very boring things they have to do. Now, there are people who would approach these situations with different advice, but the point still remains—we don’t consistently value ambition over contentment, or contentment over ambition. But what criteria should we use to apply one of these concepts in one situation, but not another? This not a question I’ve ever seen a detailed answer to yet.

When we identify something we want, what practical ways should we approach our desire?

Let’s explore a few ways of answering this question.

First, the goal of our lives, as Christians have declared over and over again, is to glorify God. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says.

But how does this answer our question? We can reply in two ways: first, that it is glorifying to God to work for something and achieve it, or second, that God has already given us more than we’ve ever asked for, and that to ask for a different life is not glorifying to him. So let’s agree on the central concept that whatever way we take must be glorifying to God, but understand that from a human perspective we can be utterly confused as to what precisely is most glorifying.*

Second, some desires are easily identified as good or bad, but the vast majority are not, at least not at first glance. Both marriage and singleness are approved of in the Bible, so both choices can be glorifying to God. And if someone wants to become a policeman instead of an electrician, there would be no grounds to argue one job is more good or evil than the other.

In other words, the most knee-jerk responses to the question of contentment vs. ambition do not provide much direction. This is frustrating. However, like in most life situations, there is not an easily applied formula to use, but there are certainly principles that help us navigate the foggy paths of life.

Another way to answer this question is to look at each of these concepts—contentment and ambition—and evaluate their value. I will do that in Part 2. This post is already lengthening quickly!

I’d like to end this post by pointing out the right balance between ambition and contentment matters to me personally. I’m sure it is directly practical to many others as well. As the New Year approaches, you start to wonder what you should direct your energy and talents towards. And to be honest, I struggle with ambition. So much of what culture tells me I should be doing with my life—earning lots of money! changing the world by campaigning for something or starting an organization! proving women’s value by becoming powerful and prominent!—I struggle to summon up much enthusiasm for.

However, I struggle with contentment too. Lack of ambition does not equal contentment, because you do want your life to be meaningful. You think if only you could change a few things in your life, you would be happy, because your life would be directed to something bigger than just satisfying yourself. But lack of contentment is not a good thing—it is undeniable that we are commanded to be content.

Beyond that, when I examine my desires for what I would have enthusiasm to pursue, it is something either outside my control, or something that is rather unwise to pursue. This little summary makes ambition sound rather negative, and I am sure it is not in every case. So I look forward to tomorrow when I will explore contentment and ambition more deeply! UPDATE: Part 2 is here.

 

*This is not to deny that as one grows in their spiritual maturity, they gain a better understanding of what is glorifying to God. Spiritual maturity helps enormously in life choices. However, I just mean to say this is not a trump card that makes everything clear in every situation. It is deeply frustrating to be told you should know what to do when you actually don’t. Especially when no further advice is provided on what you should supposedly already know.

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Feeling Unfulfilled?

It’s been a while since I posted here! I’ve certainly posted more on my ‘Stories and Stuff’ blog, but since I recently had a short article published in the Edmonton Journal, I thought I should update ‘Somente a Deus’ with a link to it. This article comes from a time when I was thinking through what it meant to feel fulfilled in your Christian life, and whether complete fulfilment is ever truly felt by anyone. You know, because we all know in theory true fulfillment can only come through a relationship with God, but so often we don’t really feel fulfilled in practice. Anyway, here’s a short excerpt:

“How often do you meet someone who wouldn’t change a thing about their life? Very rarely will you meet someone who claims that their life is perfect – that they are completely satisfied with how things are going. And that’s pretty universal for each of us.

When we look inside we see there is something each of us desperately wants: to be looked up to by other people, to be loved by someone special, to have a purpose in life, to make lots of money. There’s always something not quite right with the way our lives are right now.

We might have strong relationships, but those relationships may not be quite as upbuilding, romantic or supportive as they could be. We might have a good job, but we hardly feel we’re making the world a better place by doing it, or that we’re really doing anything worthwhile.

Some of our longings are the result of being flawed humans, of course. Our inability to be satisfied with what God gives us is not a good thing. On the other hand, some of our longings point to the reality that the way the world is now is not how God intended it to be…”

 

The full article can be found here.

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We Might Be Camels

For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25)

Camel, by Aloys Zötl {PD}

Camel, by Aloys Zötl {PD}

Who do we think Jesus is talking about here? Our minds immediately go to fabulously wealthy people like Warren Buffet – or maybe Bill Gates. Do we ever stop and think that maybe Jesus is talking straight to us?

We like to think of ourselves as just your average Joes – not exactly rich, but not poor either. We probably don’t own a Ferrari, or blow thousands of dollars on expensive champagne in one weekend. Really, when we look at everyone around us, we’re pretty normal. Just middle class.

The fact that our society around us is so amazingly rich blinds us to the fact that we’re amazingly rich. For example, here I am, a university student, getting an education that only a small percentage of the world has the opportunity to obtain. Why should I be born into a situation where university, though still expensive and a lot of work, is within my grasp, whereas for most people it is beyond their wildest dreams?

Maybe you’re not in university. But think, exactly what is considered poor in North America? It may be a struggle for many to get by, but some of our poor are still richer than the rest of the world. Add in the social safety nets we have in North America, such as welfare, unemployment insurance, etc., and we have a situation richer than a good majority of the world – or even a good majority of history.

Yes, of history. We have riches beyond what even some kings in history could’ve imagined. Access to gigabytes upon gigabytes of information, far beyond what even the great library at Alexandria used to hold. The ability to travel almost anywhere in the world in a few hours, maybe days. The ability to treat multitudes of illnesses people used to die young from. An increase in lifespan to eighty, ninety or even a hundred years. We may not be loaded down with gold, jewels and furs, but our ancestors never dreamed of computers or ipods.

And we live in peace. In Canada, where I’m from, we have security we take far too much for granted. Have you ever considered what an amazing thing this is? Coming out of a century that produced two world wars and multitudes of other ones, it is amazing to live in a society that is not up-heaved by revolution, torn apart by civil war, or invaded by another country. To have a stable government (though flawed) that does uphold a certain amount of justice, keeping people’s worst impulses somewhat under control. Why should we be granted peace and stability at all?

To illustrate with an example, the city I live in (Edmonton) had a scare two years ago because our murder rate rose to forty-two murders in the year. There are cities in the world that see that many murders in a weekend. Compare this to the riots in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in 2010, where the government had to send in the army to deal with the drug cartels, who were attacking civilians. Or riots in Syria, where the government itself slaughters its own citizens. Look at us. Safety and security is not something easily visible, and is not often thought about. But we are blessed.

Here, we should stop a moment and think about what riches actually are. Material things are very nice and all, but what are true riches? The Word of God, of course. How truly blessed we are! Everywhere in our society there is access to the Bible – Bibles, Bible studies, churches – the Word of God is raining down around us. It can fill every aspect of our lives, if we let it. Yet it’s easier to complain while dragging ourselves to Bible study, or find an excuse to stay home from church. We can send back the finest feast of delicacies, because we know there will always be more food tomorrow. We can take our riches for granted.

What are to think, then, about Jesus’ words about the camel? Look at our world around us. Is there a possibility our enjoyments, our freedom, our society buffers us from the necessity of having to rely on God? Not that we shouldn’t accept these! I am in no way promoting we all immediately sell our possessions and go live among the poor. But we can’t be blind to how our own comfort interferes with our ability serve the Lord, who has given the great gift of all – salvation – to us.

We are insulated from a certain kind of desperation, a dependence that comes from having nowhere else to turn. We’ve never been asked to give up everything, so we don’t think about what we’re hanging onto.

Is this reason for despair? Not at all. Those who heard these words of Jesus looked at each other and asked, “Then who can be saved?” But reading a little farther in Luke’s gospel, we come across the story of Zacchaeus – a man who was specifically pointed out by Luke as rich, but who Jesus describes as saved. God can do anything, even save a rich man. Even allow that camel to go through the eye of a needle.

And for us, whom Luke might’ve described as rich as well if he had met us, it is an opportunity to open our eyes to how great God’s love is. Let our riches not be a barrier between us and God, but rather be an opportunity to do good and help others, and to show others exactly how much God has done for us.

 

 

Harma-Mae Smit is a contributor to the infinite stream of information that gets poured into the web each day – yes, a blogger and a writer. She blogs regularly at harmamaesmit.com and amrahpublishinghouse.com

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‘It’s Not A Waste’ on Powertochange.com

‘It’s Not a Waste’ was recently published on Powertochange.com! Check out the excerpt below, or the full article here.

Have you ever hit a dead end and discovered whatever career or job or schooling you pursued wasn’t for you? Maybe you’re just not cut out for engineering (or nursing, or teaching).  As you attempt to switch directions and you look back over the last year (or two, or three) of your life is one question haunts you. Was it all a waste? I have been there and I can tell you this: It’s not a waste. Let me tell you what happened to me.

I went into nursing straight out of high school and spent three years in it before I could face the fact it wasn’t the career for me. I’d spent three years slaving to pass each course and there I was left with nothing. I had no degree, no career, and was facing at least another three years in school if I wanted to do another program. I felt like I was starting back at square one. What had been the point of these years if it had all ended up in nothing? …”

 

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