Getting to the Heart by Way of Obedience

As human beings, you and I were created with both a brain and a heart—with intellect and with emotion. True Christianity speaks to both these capacities, revealing truth about God while also teaching us to love both our God and our neighbor. Yet because Christians are still individual people, with our own characteristic strengths and weaknesses, for many of us either the intellectual or the emotional comes more naturally than the other.

In my own part of the church, as we rightly emphasize the importance of theological study, we are often in danger of sliding into a dry knowledge of abstract truths with little joy or love to go along with them. Yet, as James warns, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (2:19). Theological knowledge by itself just isn’t enough; it can neither satisfy our souls nor put us in right relation to our God.

When we recognize that our Christian life is out of balance—that we have a full head above a cold heart, or at least a tendency in that direction—it is natural to seek to rebalance ourselves by trying to stir up warmth in our own hearts. We buy devotional books which are long on feeling and short on theology, or we sit through worship desperately sifting the singing and preaching for little embers of emotion which may fire our own hearts. We try to will ourselves to feel by raw effort, and usually all we end up feeling is tired and discouraged.

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A practical guide to abiding

The blueprint for a strong faith and a fruitful life is not complicated. It is sometimes difficult, yes, but not complicated. Jesus told his followers, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

A fruitful Christian life means abiding in Christ. But perhaps “abide” is not immediately enlightening. What does it mean to abide in Jesus? For many of us, I imagine “abide in me” sounds like a vague call for Christ-directed mindfulness or something similarly amorphous. In fact, though, Jesus himself explained in very concrete, practical terms what it means to abide in him, both in John 15 and elsewhere in Scripture.

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Naturalism and morality: The only thing that’s wrong is everything you know

In my post a couple weeks ago, I considered whether naturalism is as exclusively and objectively scientific as its proponents suggest. We saw that naturalists typically begin with an a priori assumption that there is no God, which, if true, would mean the naturalistic worldview is true by default. Since the nonexistence of God is an unprovable starting point rather than an empirical conclusion, the naturalist’s foundational assumption is, in a sense, unscientific. However, it would be unwise to press that point too far. If we want to challenge the naturalistic worldview, we need to offer something more compelling than “but you can’t prove God doesn’t exist.”

There are two main ways in which a Christian can respond to the challenge of naturalism. The first is to avoid the sphere of science altogether and focus on other reasons for belief in God. After all, if theism is true, naturalism must be false, across the board. To the degree that faith or experience or historical evidence or anything else give reason to believe there’s a God, naturalism is undermined. The Holy Spirit crying with our spirit “Abba Father” offers an absolute refutation of naturalism before even a shred of scientific evidence is considered.

If naturalism is false, though, we can expect it to falter even in the scientific realm. And if there’s further evidence which might sow seeds of faith in someone’s life, why not offer it? This brings us to the second possible response to naturalism, attacking it on its own ground.

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The almost-realism of “Game of Thrones”

The internet informs me that, on the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, an outmatched Good Guy fought a Bad Guy. The gallant and nimble Oberyn dueled the massive and seemingly invincible “Mountain,” flurrying spear strokes and shouting accusations of past rape and murder against his heavily-armed opponent. Despite the odds, Oberyn fought his way to unlikely victory, wounding and then stabbing The Mountain through the chest. The exhausted victor turned away, vengeance secured, and then The Mountain lurched from the ground, smashed Oberyn’s face with a punch, then grabbed the smaller man and forced his fists into his head until it exploded.

Game of Thrones is widely praised for its gritty realism.

In fact, that’s among the most consistent and loudest of the critical plaudits for Game of Thrones, which is currently HBO’s second most popular show ever, with around five million weekly viewers. Unlike other shows, we’re told, in which the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad and the good guy wins and rides off into the sunset, Game of Thrones paints a more complex picture where nobody’s really good and the bad guy usually wins. The last time the show was in the news, a few months ago, was when a once-unlikable character who had been slowly redeemed and humanized unexpectedly committed an attack sufficiently vile that there’s really no way to describe it without nausea. Because realism, you see. (Also hundreds of pages of free advertising for Game of Thrones, but let’s not be cynical.) In the world of Game of Thrones, the page is black and the whites are chalk outlines waiting to be smudged or brushed away.

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On love of self

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend on Facebook who posted a quote which said that self-protection ought to be avoided because it was a form of self-love, the assumption being that self-love is itself wrong. Of course, the point of the quote was simply to argue against a selfish fixation on our own wellbeing above that of others, but I disagreed with the premise that self-love is morally wrong. The discussion that followed made me decide to post something on the topic here as well.

We can certainly begin by acknowledging that self-love is at the root of a deadly collection of sins. Ever since the time of the Fall, when Adam sinned by desiring to raise himself to equality with God, no idol has been worshiped with greater fervor than man has lavished upon himself.

This leads rather naturally to the assumption that self-love is itself sinful. However, such an assumption is unjustified. The mere fact that a thing may be corrupted does not prove that it is bad. (Before the Fall, all of creation was corruptible but good.) The question, then, is whether self-love is inherently bad or becomes bad under certain circumstances.

One starting point for considering this question can be found in the fact that God loves himself, thus proving that not all self-love is wrong. Furthermore, God loves human beings, which means that humans ought to be loved. (Note that this is not the same as saying human beings deserve to be loved.) Jesus makes this explicit when he commands, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13).

Now, it would be logically possible for a human to be obliged to love all human beings except himself. However, if self-love is not inherently evil, as is proven by God’s self-love, and if humans qua humans are to be loved as a general principle, such a position would be hard to justify without explicit scriptural backing, which is lacking. In fact, when we turn to Scripture we find Christ suggesting the opposite when he commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (emphasis added). At first glance one might conclude this was merely a concession to the unavoidable fact of human self-love, but can anyone seriously argue that the One who commanded “Be ye perfect” would have shied away from declaring “You shall love your neighbor and not yourself,” if that were in fact the right course?

How, then, does self-love become sin? When we begin to love ourselves above our God or our neighbor. Returning to Mark 12, Jesus declares, “The foremost [commandment] is, ‘Hear O Israel! The Lord your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” God first, God most, always; our fellow man next, for he is created in God’s image. When this order is disrupted, and only then, self-love becomes sin.

Of course, leaving the theoretical for the practical, in our daily walk self-love does require constant control because it is so insistent on pride of place in our lives. Why not treat it as actually bad, since it is so inclined in that direction? Two reasons: First, because if in fact human beings ought to be loved, and if there is no scriptural exception for the particular human whom one happens to be, then failure to love oneself properly would actually be sin! Virtuous self-love dictates that we ought to always seek what is truly best for ourselves, provided always that it does not interfere with our duty to love God first and neighbor next.

Secondly, treating self-love as inherently sinful often leads to a dangerous misdirection of effort as we strive for virtue. When we believe that the existence of self-love stands between ourselves and God, we will naturally attempt to eradicate it. This leads to a difficult and ultimately harmful struggle to uproot a thing which is not actually bad; while at the same time, every ounce of effort devoted to this attack on self-love will not be devoted to our proper goal of seeking God’s grace to learn to love him and his human creation better.

On marriage as a ‘cure’ for lust

My earlier post on sexual purity resulted in a suggestion that I read Douglas Wilson’s Fidelity, which I have found rather thought-provoking. I damn with faint praise when I say it is on the whole one of the more sensible books I’ve read on the subject. There are, however, a number of things which I find troubling about the way Wilson approaches and addresses the issue. One particular disagreement is with Wilson’s view – common to most Christian books on purity – of the sexual component of marriage as a “cure” for sexual sin.

Speaking of lust, Wilson calls “a satisfying sexual relationship” the “specific help offered to married men in Scripture… A man who does not have the gift of celibacy, and who is struggling to maintain his purity should get married at the first opportunity.” Later he writes, “Suffice to say for now that masturbation should not be considered as a ‘cure’ for lust in the same way that a good marriage is” (emphasis mine).

In fairness to Wilson, I should note that he clarifies that “getting married is no automatic solution to the problem of lust” and warns husbands against thinking that “marriage simply means free sex.” However, despite these caveats, Wilson and most Christian writers offer a view of sexual satisfaction within marriage that seems most analogous to a fellow with a desperately full bladder racing against time to find an acceptable spot in which to relieve himself.

My objection to this perspective stems mostly from its tone and emphasis, but I believe it is a significant distinction nonetheless. To begin with, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that such an attitude demeans the wife, both on the abstract and the individual level, by directing such a single-minded focus toward her role as a means of sexual satisfaction. More broadly, one’s view of marriage is similarly distorted and diminished when it is viewed primarily as the holy way to have sex.

Now, the counter-objection could be raised that it is true that a man should derive sexual satisfaction from his wife, and that marriage is the proper framework for such a relationship. Yes, but. A piece of the truth taken in isolation can be treacherous. (It is absolutely true that belief in Christ is necessary to escape spiritual death, but an understanding of faith as nothing more than eternal insurance is vitiated to the point of falsehood.) A blinkered view of marriage and the wife which puts primary importance on sexual fulfillment (a primacy that is affirmed implicitly through emphasis, even if never explicitly) offers a similar danger of magnifying a part to the severe detriment of the whole.

A final problem with this view of marriage as a “cure” for lust is its defeatism. In essence, the unmarried man is exhorted merely to fight a delaying action, taking as few losses as he can, until he is able to duck out of battle by way of the church aisle. “Just try not to fall” is the mantra, and the loftiest goal, of the pre-marriage years. Whether or not this is the view of those Christians who proclaim that marriage is a cure for lust (and I suspect that Wilson, for one, would strongly object to such an interpretation of his comments), I believe it is the understanding of the vast majority of the young Christian men who hear them.

The outcome of such a view is twofold. First, and most obvious, is the young man who either stops trying or doesn’t try at all. Faced with such a daunting challenge, he acquiesces to the apparently inevitable. The second result is less clear cut. This is the young man who is more open to compromise, willing to toss little tidbits to his lust to keep it from devouring him before he can escape into marriage. A quick glance where he shouldn’t, a little soft-core pornography, going a little too far with his girlfriend: the sort of “realistic” accommodations one makes to ease a fight that will soon be over. If you know the enemy is pulling out tomorrow, why spend overmuch effort preventing a minor advance today?

Beyond the obvious results of pain and corruption, the tragedy of such a view of sexual purity is what it leaves out: the possibility of real victory and true growth of character borne of the battle for purity before marriage. Like all of creation, our sexual dimension is a corrupted good. Good as originally created, corrupted by our fallenness. Our task on earth is to restore, by the grace of God and as far as we can, our entire beings (sexuality included) to the Rightness – right orientation to God, man, and all creation – that was our original birthright.

In the sphere of human sexuality, the basic outline of the Right is clearly defined. As I wrote in my previous post, “The divine rule as regards sex is fairly simple: It is a good which is to be enjoyed within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman. In other words, when humans were invented as sexual beings, that was how sex was supposed to work; what it is designed to be. For a properly-functioning human creature – either male or female – this is what is best. What is natural. What offers highest joy and highest pleasure, in the fullest sense of the words. Anything else can only be corruption and diminution, because that is all that evil can offer.”

Of course, the human creature can be taught to love anything, in sex as in anything else, a fact to which the astonishing variety of fetishism bears ample testimony. And in sex as in anything else, if one wants to learn to love the good, one must choose it. Consistently. Of course, the corruption of our sexuality means that such choices will be difficult – more so for some than for others. Yet, there is hope in the fact that each choice against what is not good is correspondingly a choice for what is good, reducing the draw of that which is corrupt while increasing our capacity for joy in what is truly good.

The consequences of this understanding of sexual purity are significant. First, the battle is transformed from a holding action into one of annihilation. One is not trying to hold lust back, but to destroy it, and in destroying it to raise a new and better love in its place. It is a battle in which real victories can and must be won, though the final victory, in the sense of lust’s total annihilation, will not come in this life.

Second, “minor accommodations” take on a whole new light. If the goal is to teach oneself to love the right, rather than the more typical focus on simply avoiding actual intercourse until marriage, the idea of compromise becomes absurd. One cannot willingly allow small accommodations in order to focus on the most important battle, because to allow those small accommodations is to lose the most important battle. (One might observe further, in light of the effect that our choices have on our soul, that such small compromises are the most effective way to undermine a commitment to avoiding premarital intercourse, but an understanding of the corrupting influence of the compromises themselves renders that point almost irrelevant. The fact that slitting one’s wrists leaves them open to dangerous infection is not the best argument against such a course of action.)