Feelings

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

In 2012 a study by psychology researchers in Sweden concluded that people who go into engineering are less caring and empathetic than those who enter other professions such as medicine. Having studied engineering as an undergraduate, I concur. Engineers, in my experience, are laser focused on their practice area and generally unconcerned if not unfeeling about things outside their sphere of interest. Case in point – spring of 1970 during the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement when I was an engineering student at the University of Maryland. On May 1, violent demonstrations erupted across the sprawling College Park campus, fires were set, buildings occupied, and U.S. Route 1, which ran by the university, was blockaded by protesters. The National Guard was called out and the soldiers stormed the campus using tear gas and other riot equipment. Was the University shut down? Well, yes, except for the engineering school. We engineering students had lectures to attend and final exams to prepare for. Somehow we remained untouched and unmoved by the chaos all around.

I will leave it for those readers who know an engineer to decide whether or not the study is sound. My apologies to any engineer who feels misdiagnosed. For what it’s worth, my informal questioning of several engineering friends met with blank stares when I described the survey. They saw nothing remarkable in its conclusion other than perhaps that other people might find it remarkable. It was almost as if they were thinking, “Caring and empathetic? What’s that?” But we must move on.

I write this month about the importance of feelings in the pursuit of virtue. In my experience there is not a lot of teaching in the church about the role of feelings in our spiritual growth. And this is strange given the fact that Jesus teaches extensively about our feelings. In the Sermon on the Mount alone Jesus addresses feelings of: anger, lust, revenge, love, hatred, pride, self-righteousness, stinginess, worry, and being critical and judgmental. He speaks elsewhere about feelings of fear, unforgiveness, compassion, and defensiveness.   Paul and other New Testament authors write about many of these feelings and others such as joy, discouragement and guilt.

For, in truth, our feelings are at the epicenter of the great struggle of our spiritual life – the struggle between good and evil – the seminal human struggle recorded in the Biblical record from Genesis to Revelation. And so, I offer a few thoughts about the importance and role of feelings in the pursuit of virtue: 1) Feelings are a primary mover of our actions; 2) Feelings can be changed by changing our thoughts; and 3) Feelings are transcended in a virtuous life.

1) Feelings are a primary mover of our actions

Does anyone doubt the extent to which we are moved by our feelings? Is there anything more empirically verifiable than the power of our feelings? We humans are feeling creatures. In the physical realm, we feel hungry and so we eat, we feel tired and we sleep. So too in the emotional/spiritual realm – we feel loving and so we serve others, or we feel angry and we retaliate. Not every time nor in every situation, but our default response is to act in accordance with our immediate feelings.

Dallas Willard observed that, “A great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings, and think it only right. The will is then left at the mercy of circumstances that evoke feelings. Christian spiritual formation today must squarely confront this fact and overcome it.” (Renovation of the Heart)

How then do I proceed when my feelings would lead me to actions that are antithetical to the kingdom of God? For example, what do I do when someone hates me, or curses me, or mistreats me, and my feelings towards him or her would lead me to return tit for tat? Am I simply to override my feelings with a simple act of the will? Is this what Jesus is asking when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you?” (Luke 6:27-28) Does he expect us to ignore our feelings and simply “tough it out” by dint of our will? And if we are able to do this, what does it mean for our spiritual growth if we act loving towards others while we are hating them on our inside?

The answer is to consider first how our feelings can be changed. For, in truth, they can be.

2) Feelings can be changed by changing our thoughts

Because feelings have such power in our lives, the obvious question is how do we change our feelings? I have heard it said that “you cannot control your feelings,” and in terms of trying to will myself into feeling a certain way, I suppose this is true. For while I might be able to will myself into actions that I don’t feel like doing, I find it nearly impossible to directly will myself into different feelings. For example, when I am worried, I am unable to simply will myself to be at peace. When I am angry, I am unsuccessful in turning my feelings into compassion. Or when I am depressed, to instantly stir up feelings of joy.

Yet, it turns out that our feelings can be controlled indirectly, because feelings are always associated with and emerge from our thoughts. For example, unpleasant thoughts about the future can lead to feelings of fear, anger, or depression. Similarly, thoughts about our past can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or depression.

When our thoughts change, our feelings do as well. Again, this is empirically verifiable. Who among us has not been angry or depressed and suddenly received a good piece of news that changes our dark feelings to light? Have you ever had a medical problem that caused you to worry, and then have a doctor tell you that it is minor and easily treated? If so, you understand how changed thoughts lead to changed feelings.

The idea here is that while we may not have direct control over our feelings as such, we do have some control over our thoughts. And as we take control of our thoughts, our feelings change. I believe this is revealed in the wisdom from Paul when he writes about controlling our thoughts, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

That said, controlling our thoughts to control our feelings is difficult when those feelings are caused by deep hurts and/or ingrained habits in our lives. These present matters that can be challenging and complicated to overcome – often involving healing, repentance and other spiritual resources. Nonetheless, there is much spiritual progress possible as we learn to, “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5b)

3) Feelings are transcended in a virtuous life

Feelings can be powerfully productive or depressingly destructive. For example, compassion can lead us to heroic acts of love; whereas anger can move us to kill and destroy. Dallas Willard writes that, “Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem for human life. We cannot live without them and we can hardly live with them. Hence, they are also central for spiritual formation in the Christian tradition.” (Renovation of the Heart) As long as we are alive we will have feelings, indeed they are a gift from God. Yet, ironically, true virtue in the Christian sense of the word involves transcending our feelings so that we are able act for the good without reference to our feelings or for that matter even our thoughts. Consider the following mind experiment.

You are tired from a long workday, annoyed at having to stop for groceries, and impatient to get home to relax. As you are standing in the checkout lane, you see a woman struggling with two small children and a cartful of items. Your thoughts are to let her go in front of you. Your feelings are to ignore her. And so your will is at the mercy of an internal struggle between your thoughts and your feelings. We might say that if you accede to your thoughts, and let her in line in front of you, that you have done a virtuous act – and so you have. But the goal of Christian spiritual formation and the pursuit of virtue is not so much a choice between your thoughts and feelings as it is a natural response that transcends both. In other words, true virtue is revealed when you see the struggling woman and automatically let her in line in front of you without reference to what you think or feel at the moment.

N.T. Wright puts it this way, “None of these things [virtuous actions] come naturally. … The point of virtue, is that eventually, as a person’s character becomes more fully formed, such things may indeed begin to ‘come naturally.’ But the steps it takes to get to that point involve hard decisions and hard actions, choices that run counter to the expectations, aspirations, desires, and instincts with which every human comes equipped.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters)

Lord, thank you for creating us as a people with feelings. Grant us today feelings of love, peace and joy to enrich our lives and move us into actions that build your Kingdom. Protect us from feelings of anger, lust and pride that enslave our souls and separate us from You and other people. Give us wisdom and strength to take every thought captive so that we may follow the paths of righteousness everyday. All blessing, glory and honor be unto You.  Amen

S

 

Advent

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:10)

Christmas 1975 was memorable for Pat and me. Married in July we were excitedly looking forward to our first Christmas together. Our home at the time was a small cabin on fifty acres in rural Maine, isolated from our nearest neighbors at the end of a gravel road. Despite our “land wealth,” such as it was, we were dirt poor. Living on a teacher’s salary of $8000 annually, our budget was tighter than the Grinch’s heart. Pat handled all of the food and household shopping, which she frugally managed on a budget of $25/week. A lot of forethought went into the preparation of Christmas cookies. Starting in November, she would buy ingredients week by week as our money allowed: now sugar, now dates, now chocolate chips – all to prepare for our first Christmas. The tree was much easier (and cheaper) as we simply cut a small evergreen growing on our overgrown farmland. A highlight of our preparation that first Christmas was shopping for presents. One Friday night we drove forty miles to the Sears store in Bangor where we browsed the aisles giving ideas to each other – Pat’s focus being clothing and mine tools. We then separated to purchase from the identified suggestions. And so, we had our Christmas cookies, Christmas tree, and Christmas presents. Add to this a few Christmas lights, decorations, and music albums, and we were comfortably prepared for Christmas day. Or so we thought.

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, and bitterly cold – zero degrees. I had built our little cabin on a grid work of cinderblocks, creating a narrow crawlspace underneath. This space was blocked from the winter winds by a plywood skirt around the perimeter, which I supposed would keep the plumbing in the crawlspace from freezing. Unfortunately, what I had imagined as a protective barrier was inadequate against the cold of a Maine winter. This we discovered when we rolled out of our warm bed that Christmas morning and climbed down from the overhead loft where we slept. Turning on the kitchen faucet we were greeted with the sound of silence, that is, the sound of nothing. The cabin pipes were frozen. So rather than a sedate rising, sumptuous breakfast, and sharing of presents, we spent the morning slowly thawing pipes, sealing defenses of the cabin crawlspace, and stuffing insulation wherever we perceived a vulnerability. Through it all we learned a valuable lesson about living in that northern clime – always be prepared for extreme weather.

Being prepared for a Maine winter is a lifesaving necessity. Although Pat and I were prepared for the arrival of Christmas in 1975, we were unprepared for the arrival of artic temperatures. The principle of being prepared for exigencies in our day-to-day lives is commonsense; we ignore it at our peril. It is a principle that applies as well to our spiritual journey. For followers of Jesus, it is the season leading up to Christmas where we are invited to deeper reflection on being prepared. I am referring of course to Advent.

Now I confess that for many years I had a superficial understanding of Advent. The Lutheran church I attended as a child had an Advent candle lighting each Sunday in the month leading up to Christmas. And every year around Thanksgiving, I received an Advent calendar for December – a Christmas scene on lightweight cardboard with 25 numbered cutout windows, one each to be found and opened on the appropriate day. I suppose the idea was to keep a young child’s attention focused on the coming Christmas day, although I don’t remember needing any help counting the days. As I gradually outgrew churches and calendars, Advent lost any distinctive for me. When I “discovered” church again after a thirty-five year hiatus, I was a surprised that Advent was barely mentioned in the Evangelical church I attended. Yes, there were years when there was a gathering of families to make Advent wreaths, but otherwise it was seldom discussed.

Fortunately, many Christians, particularly those in liturgical churches, have kept the candles of Advent burning, so to speak. For these Christians, Advent is recognized and celebrated as a time of preparation. The word “Advent” means coming, and most traditions of Advent recognize and embrace two comings of Jesus – His First Coming on Christmas Day and His Second Coming at the end of the age. Dennis Bratcher writes, The focus of Advent is preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent. … In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power. That acknowledgment provides a basis for Kingdom ethics, for holy living arising from a profound sense that we live “between the times” and are called to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as God’s people. So, as the church celebrates God’s in-breaking into history in the Incarnation, and anticipates a future consummation to that history for which “all creation is groaning awaiting its redemption,” it also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Interest in Advent seems to be on the rise with many Evangelicals. For some, this is a reaction to the commercialization of Christmas and a desire to “put Christ back into Christmas.” For others, this is a weariness with Christmas pageants and manger scenes. And for others, this is a desire to go deeper in the spiritual life – particularly during a season so foundational to our faith – the incarnation of God. It is not a rejection of Christmas, but rather a longing for something more. And what many are discovering is that the way forward is by returning to the historical roots of Advent. A way that includes preparing not just for Christmas but for the Second Advent and the return of the King.

In many ways the pursuit of virtue is a matter of preparing for the Second Coming. Jesus’s words about the end times and his return are recorded in the first part of Matthew 24. His description of how we are to prepare for his return is recorded in the second part of Matthew 24 where he tells us to “keep watch” (24:42); “be ready” (24:44); and to “give … food” to his servants (24:45). And then in Matthew 25, he illustrates with three parables: The Ten Virgins, Investment of Talents, and The Sheep and Goats – describing various aspects of being prepared for his return.

In the parable of the sheep and goats Jesus makes it clear that we prepare for his Second Coming by caring for those in greatest need. I always find his words challenging. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

I have a friend, Dave, who is preparing for the Second Coming. Dave is an ornery looking dude, with a scruffy beard and slow, deep-throated drawl rooted in the hills of Kentucky. However, beneath this gruff exterior lies a tender heart. You see, Dave runs a small food pantry in a poor inner-city neighborhood in Dayton. He hustles for food and keeps the pantry shipshape for its weekly distribution. The clientele are the poorest of the poor and many of them depend on this out-of-the-way food pantry in an abandoned church building to get them through the week. Dave is generous to all, but nowhere is his heart revealed more than when he speaks of the young children who come in with their parents. Dave likes nothing better than to give out candy to the little ones, and indeed his eyes tear up when whenever he speaks of them. I doubt that as they are caring for the poor Dave and the other volunteers think they are caring for Jesus, but this is precisely Jesus’ point. The deepest truth about the kingdom of God is doing his will, which is revealed in how we love others.

Advent is a season of preparation – one that promises a banquet overflowing with hope, peace, joy, and love. When we prepare for Christmas Day we sniff its aroma. When we prepare for the return of the King we feast on its abundance.

S

Faithfulness

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10)

As Jazzminn slowly stepped onto the platform in the brightly lit ballroom, she could be excused if she felt nervous. She had no public speaking experience; indeed this was the first time she ever addressed more than a handful of friends. Even a seasoned after-dinner speaker might hesitate before appearing in front of six hundred well-heeled prospective donors. But even beyond the number of people, there was something in the layout of the great hall with its huge chandeliers, stately pillars rising up from marble floors, and floor to ceiling side windows that was overwhelming. The scale of the ballroom seemed further enlarged by an enormous overhead video screen behind the speaker and two lines of additional screens flanking the sides of the room. Magnifying and projecting bigger-than-life images of the speaker, these conspired with the vastness of the space to induce panic in anyone so inclined as to approach the podium.

The occasion was the annual gala banquet for the Miami Valley Women’s Center. Every year at the gala, one or two “clients” of the Women’s Center are asked to speak about the help they have received from the Center. For over thirty-five years volunteers and staff from the Center have faithfully served physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of women who are in crisis because of an unplanned pregnancy. Often a client who had chosen life for her child would be asked to speak at the gala about her decision and about assistance she had received through the Center: parenting classes, baby clothes, furniture, and the like. Occasionally, a client who had had an abortion would share a much different story – usually about a very dark journey of mental and sometimes physical suffering in the aftermath her abortion, but also about an emotional and spiritual journey of support, healing, and recovery she had received through those at the Center.

Attractive and fashionably dressed, Jazzminn’s appearance belied a hardscrabble upbringing. Born just before Thanksgiving in 1982 to an unwed mother, Jazzminn never knew her father. Her mother went from one relationship to another even as she struggled to raise Jazzminn and her sister. As Jazzminn entered adolescence, she discovered boys as they were also discovering her. And so it was perhaps predictable when at the age of sixteen she became pregnant. It was this seminal event in her life that brought her to the gala on a cool November evening in 2015 to share her story.

Jazzminn’s nervousness wasn’t simply due to the number of people in attendance, the imposing layout of the hall, or even that she had no formal speaking experience – it was that prior to this evening she had never shared her very private story in public. And so, as she stepped onto the platform while dinner plates were being cleared, she had many reasons to be apprehensive, if not terrified. Who among us would have the courage to share one of the most intimate and trying times of our life to an audience of hundreds?   In truth, no one could have known the emotions she was experiencing. No doubt the warm hug from the Center director was an encouragement, as was the kind applause from the audience. Yet the fact that her voice was clear and strong and never faltered as she recounted her journey is a testament to an underlying strength of character that perhaps surprised even her.

Jazzminn spoke honestly about her unexpected pregnancy some sixteen years earlier – of her surprise, of her fears, and of her decision to turn to the local abortion clinic for assistance. Supporting her determination to end the life of her unborn baby, the clinic scheduled a date for the abortion and provided forms for her to complete and bring to her appointment. Jazzminn’s mom was opposed to her choice, apparently being the only voice in Jazzminn’s life speaking against it. She pleaded with Jazzminn to visit the Women’s Center before having an abortion. Although her mind was made up, on the day of the appointment she agreed to her mom’s request; and so, on the way to get an abortion, she and her mom stopped first at the Women’s Center. Jazzminn was met by several women who greeted her warmly and then listened non-judgmentally to her story. They asked about her decision, explained some of the physical and emotional risks of an abortion, and described various options if she chose life for her unborn child. Whether or not anything they said sunk into Jazzminn’s soul was unclear because her mind was unchanged and her heart unmoved. However, there was one thing that happened that afternoon at the Center Jazzminn would remember. Just before she left, the women at the Center asked her if they could pray for her. Among the many prayers that were offered up, one stood out, “God, please cause confusion at the abortion clinic so that this will not go forward.”

Jazzminn left the Center with her mom in-tow, and clutching her paperwork hurried over to the abortion clinic. Lost in her thoughts, she sat quietly in the waiting room until her name was called. When the receptionist looked over her paperwork she had a puzzled expression – something was wrong. Apparently Jazzminn had completed it with red ink, and not black as the clinic required. It would have to be done over, so she was handed a new set of forms. What happened next in her own words, “my hand froze and I could not fill out the new paperwork.” Despite her determination, a force greater than Jazzminn knew was at work in her heart. The prayers lifted up a short time earlier by those faithful few women at the Center had surely been heard by the Lord – confusion did indeed occur at the clinic and Jazzminn’s heart had been turned.

At this point in her talk, those in the hall applauded for the courage she had shown so many years earlier as an unwed teenage mom, and for the movement of the hand of God. The affirmation though was a bit premature because there was more to the story. Jazzminn did indeed choose life, but not as she had supposed for one baby, but for two! Yes, she found out after her decision that she was having twins. Twin girls as it happened, and who even now were beautiful sixteen year olds standing in wings. With tears flowing down her face, she finished her story as the girls came forward to embrace her by declaring that the girls were not only her children, but, “my best friends in all the world.”

This time the great hall exploded in joyous applause. Indeed, many happy tears joined with theirs. All of us who had the honor that evening of hearing Jazzminn’s story will long remember her as an amazingly brave teenager who defied the spirit of our age to choose life.  There were many voices telling her to abort, yet she found the strength to reject the cultural pressures that would have had her kill her unborn child. When she made her decision for life on that fateful day, she had no idea of what lay ahead. Indeed the road would be much harder than she could have imagined – raising children, not to mention twins, as a single mom is uniquely challenging. Still, the reward was incomparable. Standing on the platform that evening was a moment for her to receive the accolades she so well deserved.

We celebrate Jazzminn’s story. Yet without diminishing it, I can’t help but reflect on another story, or should I say stories, that intersected with hers. These are the stories of the faithfulness of hundreds of women who have served at the Women’s Center over the course of so many years. At a time when many in our society have become desensitized to the pervasive culture of death that surrounds us, there are still faithful people who sacrifice their time and energy to support life. For the most part, these are not highly trained specialists, but simply ordinary Christians who possess a willing spirit to serve. The Apostle Peter wrote, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10). I believe that what these women did and what they do everyday at the Center is the definition of being faithful stewards of God’s grace.” The names of those who prayed for Jazzminn that fateful day may never be remembered in our time. Yet their names are recorded in the accounts of the kingdom of heaven where their faithfulness is surely known.

The pursuit of virtue is nothing if it is not serving those in need. Jesus said, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The volunteers and staff at the Women’s Center are not extraordinary people doing extraordinary things; nor are they ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Rather, they are ordinary people doing ordinary things and achieving extraordinary results through the power of God. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

Saving two lives through the faithfulness of service and prayer is certainly one of these “greater things.”

S

Patterns

Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear  (Matthew 13:16)

On September 8, 1900, a category 4 hurricane slammed into the island of Galveston, Texas. With a storm surge of fifteen feet the waters swept across the island, which was only nine feet above sea level at its highest point. Because there was limited weather data and crude communication, the Great Galveston hurricane struck with little warning – the deadliest ever to hit the United States with about 10,000 people killed. It was a much different story this year on August 25, when another category 4 hurricane hit Texas with historic flooding from as much as four feet of rain. Unlike the Great Galveston hurricane, hurricane Harvey was tracked for weeks prior to landfall. With nonstop satellite images, ground and water sensors, and airborne platforms, massive amounts of real-time data were crushed by supercomputers to generate hurricane forecast models. As these models were superimposed one on the other, a pattern of the hurricane track emerged. This led to watches and warnings that allowed time for preparations. Although extremely costly in terms of property damage, the death toll from Harvey was less than 100.

Science and technology help us discern the patterns of modern life so that we can predict and prepare for future events. I once worked for Aon, a company that ran sophisticated computer programs for mapping wildfire and other natural disasters to forecast expected financial losses and to deploy insurance adjusters. MapQuest and other mapping companies use traffic and accident data to identify delays so drivers can avoid backups. And myriad on-line entities track our Internet surfing patterns to predict what we will buy. [Ever wonder why you get popup windows with cars for sale after making a single on-line auto search? Hint – every click and keystroke is tracked when you are on the Internet!] Pattern recognition plays an important role in today’s world. And yet, in spite of all the advancements of science, there are patterns in our lives that often remain hidden to us. I am referring to patterns of our thoughts, emotions, and actions – the warp and woof of our souls that collectively define our character.

I vividly recall a time in February, 1999 when Pat and I were rushing through the Cincinnati Airport to catch a flight (which we ultimately missed). I was angry that we had been delayed on a previous flight and was ranting about the airline. Pat, bless her, confronted me about my conduct and refused to take another step if I did not calm down. It was like a slap in the face that brought me to my senses. We ultimately reached our destination and enjoyed a brief vacation. But the real benefit of this incident was that it caused me to think more deeply about how I typically reacted during times of stress. And as I reflected on this and other incidents what emerged was a pattern of impatience and anger that had woven a tight net over my soul. Whenever I was inconvenienced I responded with anger – often fuming over things as trivial as missing a traffic light. Realization of this pattern in my life did not immediately change my behavior, but it was a major inflection point.

The pursuit of virtue necessarily starts with a recognition and honest assessment of patterns of our inner life that are in opposition to life in the kingdom of God – patterns of our thoughts, emotions, and actions that hurt us and/or others. Indeed, life with God involves nothing less than the ongoing critical observation of patterns of our behavior that collectively define our character. It is really quite impossible to believe we can ever make progress in our spiritual life if we are blind to sinful habits of our heart, mind, and body. This is an age-old problem – our ability to discern patterns in nature more easily than those in the spiritual realm. Consider that even in Jesus’ day many people suffered from spiritual blindness. “The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. (Matthew 16:1-3)

Amazingly, the Pharisees saw the miracles Jesus performed but did not recognize him because they were spiritually blind to their own pride. Is it any surprise then that we can be spiritually blind to destructive patterns of thoughts, emotions, and actions in our lives? Certainly there are some such patterns that we see clearly, and as followers of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we work to overcome. But there are also sinful patterns of our heart, mind, and body that we do not see, and which inevitably cause harm to us and others. Perhaps like me it is impatience and anger when my will is thwarted. Perhaps it is defensiveness, or dishonesty, or pride, or the like. Even for those with a high degree of self-awareness, there are almost certainly patterns that are hidden from view. Yet, if we are willing, there are at least two well-accepted ways our eyes can be opened.

The first is to listen to others. To be receptive to what other people observe in us. We know that others can offer insights into our lives because we so easily see patterns in the lives of others. It might be a single unsolicited comment like Pat made in the airport, or it might be a response to a deliberate request we make of someone we trust and respect. Because other people observe patterns of behavior in our lives that we do not see, we forsake a wonderful opportunity if we close ourselves to the input of others. Last Sunday Pastor David challenged us, “Who could you ask to give you an honest evaluation [of your life]?” It is an excellent question because, The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)

The second is to listen to God. Traditionally, the Prayer of Examen is a way to seek the gift of self-knowledge. This simply involves taking time to reflect on our thoughts, feelings, and actions and asking the Lord to search our heart. In effect, it is a way of asking God for feedback on the hidden (and not so hidden) patterns in our lives. I know a number of Christians who speak with easy familiarity about hearing God, but I am not one. I struggle just to maintain a regular prayer life so I am not qualified to speak about it to others. Nonetheless, I can attest to the fact that during prayer I have received what I believe to be supernatural insights into patterns of my behavior. The palmist’s prayer is a good guide, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

Looking for sinful patterns in our life is not easy. It takes effort to pray, reflect, and listen. It is much easier to turn on the TV or pick up a book than to think about one’s character. Ironically, this tendency to avoid soul searching is precisely the kind of pattern that may need to be revealed. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice. We can set our will on discovering the hidden patterns in our life that are leading us away from the kingdom of God. This is the “way everlasting” in which the eyes of our heart are opened with new insights. Or we can close our eyes to revelation, in which case our eyes will remain blind. As blind as the idols we are warned about in Scripture. The idols of the nations come from silver ore and gold; they are the work of human hands, created in a mold. They have an open mouth but yet are silent as the night; they’ve eyes that stare out into space but don’t have any sight. They have two ears for listening but cannot hear a prayer; they have a mouth for drawing breath but cannot breathe the air. Their makers will become like them, and thus will live their days, and so will those who trust in them and follow in their ways.” (Psalm 135:15-18)

Science and technology have evolved in their ability to discern patterns in nature. Men and women have no such evolutionary advantage – we struggle as we have for millennia to discern patterns in our character. Yet we are not alone in our search; the Lord does not slumber or sleep, he is always watching out for us. And so, for those who would progress in the spiritual life, there is great hope that our eyes can be opened to the truth about ourselves.

S

PS The photo is a rarely seen sun pillar, taken by my brother on January 6, 2012 on Cape Cod. The scientific eye sees an atmospheric pattern caused by reflection of sunlight by the flat surface of ice crystals in the atmosphere. The spiritual eye sees the heavens declaring the glory of God.

Sowing and Reaping

“The one who sows righteousness gets a true reward.” (Proverbs 11:18b)

I love fall. It is a transformative season of contrasts: red/yellow foliage and blue/grey skies, warm days and cool nights, afternoon walks and evening fires, decaying leaves and ripening apples, settling frosts and migrating people, shrinking daylight and expanding darkness, spicy mulled cider and sweet pumpkin pie, and chilly mornings and warm fleeces. So many memories come rushing at me in autumn – school classrooms, football games, cross-country meets, falling leaves, flocking birds, and soaking rains. But above all, for me, fall is harvest time. Whether it is a neighbor searching a tangle of vines to find one last red ripe tomato, or a massive combine chewing its way through endless rows of brown stalks to extract a river of bright yellow corn kernels, there is a fascination and excitement in the fall harvest. And there is something deeply reassuring to know that the fruit of summer’s labor has been safely collected. It is a time to rejoice with the words of the old hymn, Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home; All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin; God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied; Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.” Henry Alford (1844)

A fall harvest, of course, does not happen without a spring planting and summer of weeding, watering and insect control. For when it comes to agriculture, sowing and reaping are two sides of the same coin; one does not reap what has not been sown and carefully nurtured. This is simply the way of the natural world. I was never much of a gardener, and my brief foray into raising vegetables was forgettable, except for one year when I grew potatoes. Instructed by local hippies, I embarked on a strangely effective cultivating method. Potatoes I discovered are not planted from seeds, rather, they are started from “seed potatoes,” which are simply potatoes that have been set aside from the prior year’s harvest. These are cut into pieces making sure that each piece has an “eye,” and then planted in the ground appropriately spaced apart with the eye pointing to heaven. After about a week or so, leaves of tender young plants emerge from the ground. At this stage, one might expect to enjoy watching their rapid growth. But no, the counterintuitive wisdom from the counterculture community was to bury most of the tender leaves by mounding soil around them – a process that is repeated every few days until a large hill of soil has been heaped around the plants. Eventually they are allowed to grow undisturbed (other than periodic weeding and watering) until harvest time. This is when the real magic starts. As the hills around each plant are turned over, potatoes are uncovered like so many precious gems. It was a wonder of the highest order on our Maine farm in the fall of 1976, when we reaped a harvest of golden brown potatoes from what we had sown in the spring.

The principle of sowing and reaping is foundational to other areas of our outer lives. For example, if I exercise daily, I will experience better physical health. If I am frugal during my working years, I will have savings in retirement. If I am faithful about building relationships with others, I will experience better emotional health. And on it goes. However, just as crops sometimes fail, these are not guarantees. I exercised regularly for decades yet needed major heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. Our elderly neighbors saw their retirement nest egg wiped out in a Ponzi scheme. And friends invested years raising and loving their children only to have their daughter run away in a fit of rebellion. And so, in external matters such as health, finances and relationships, sowing and reaping are correlative but they are not assured.

The pursuit of virtue alone promises that we will reap what we sow. As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:7-10).

Paul is clearly telling us that we have a choice to make in how we organize our life. We can either arrange it around our selfish desires (flesh) or around the needs of others. And depending upon our choice, we can count on becoming a certain kind of person (ungodly or righteous) irrespective of the circumstances of our life. He does not leave us to speculate on what it means to sow to please the flesh, enumerating some such acts: “sexual immorality, impurity, … hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Nor must we wonder about what it means to please the Spirit: “serve one another humbly in love … Love your neighbor as yourself … [and] do good to all people.” (Galatians 5:13-14; 6:10)

When we sow love, we reap a life of virtue, characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Paul doesn’t say we will prosper in the things of this world, or even that our love will be reciprocated by those we love. But we can count on becoming conformed more and more into the image of Christ. Which is why Paul also writes “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:28-29) And why Paul can assert unequivocally that “Love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13:8)

The challenge, of course, is to love others in the rough and tumble of everyday living. It’s not that we Christians are unaware of God’s word, but rather that his word is in direct opposition to our flesh; His commands standing in stark contrast to our feelings. And as observed by Dallas Willard, “A great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings, and think it only right.” (Renovation of the Heart) For example, we may feel justified in repaying evil with evil, but that is not the way of God’s kingdom where we are to overcome evil with good. Often we Christians struggle to get this right, particularly in the political arena where we are tempted to destroy our enemies with our words. Jesus tells us something radically different – to reject anger; to love our enemies and pray for them; to guard our tongue, our eyes, our heart; and to forgive even when we don’t feel like forgiving. I submit that Jesus’ teaching is every bit as counterintuitive as piling up soil on newly emerging potato shoots.

Notwithstanding my one-time success growing potatoes, I am not a gardener because I lack stick-to-itiveness. Although many times I planted a garden in the spring with great enthusiasm, inevitably my will power faded in the face of encroaching weeds, biting insects, and the heat of summer. Yet despite my own ineptitude there was a time on our Maine farm when the unexpected happened – we reaped a harvest that we had not sown. It was in the early years when we were still establishing ourselves on the overgrown and untended land that we discovered a lovely patch of asparagus – the remnants no doubt of a kitchen garden that had been planted in a time long past. For several springs we were the beneficiaries of tender stalks of asparagus, descendants of plants that other hands had lovingly set out and nurtured. For me, this is a great reminder that what I sow determines not only my character, but also my legacy; that my pursuit of virtue affects not only my destiny, but the lives of those around me.

And so, I pray with Paul that we “never tire of doing what is good” (2 Thes. 3:14), which is our singular challenge as Christians. And by the grace of the Lord that we will be like sown wheat – growing as wholesome grain unto a harvest of joy. Or in the words of Henry Alford, All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield; Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown; First the blade, and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear: Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.”

S

Drift

Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

There is an enormous area of marine trash in the Pacific Ocean – mostly plastics – that is commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Waste material that finds its way into the Pacific gets caught up in a system of circular ocean currents known as an ocean gyre that draws matter towards its center. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers about eight million square miles (roughly twice the size of the United States), and contains an immeasurable amount of debris. Picture a water bottle dropped into the ocean off the coast of Oregon and starting an epic journey circling the Pacific all the while being slowly drawn into the Patch by an invisible ocean gyre. Day after day, the bottle silently drifts along with no discernable movement other than the gradual and inevitable pull of the current. Eventually storms and waves batter and break the bottle into smaller and smaller pieces, which continue their voyage – all just bobbing along without hope of escape.

This image of a little bottle floating along a path of least resistance is a pretty good metaphor for those of us who at times feel like they are drifting through life. By “drifting” I am referring to a certain mental state characterized by a decreased interest in matters of importance to the kingdom of God. Not full-blown depression as such but simply a diminished excitement and focus on purposeful Christian living. A feeling not unlike Solomon’s despondent opening words in Ecclesiastes, Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:1). I write as someone who knows the feeling firsthand. Oh there are times when my energies are focused and directed, when I am fully engaged in the pursuit of some goal or another. But often I feel something akin to that empty bottle – aimlessly drifting without a sail or rudder in a vast ocean. And my fear is that while I am drifting an invisible spiritual gyre is slowly and inexorably drawing me into something like a soupy mire of trash. This affliction has become more acute in retirement when the demands of “making a living” decrease and diversions increase. But in truth, my inner man has always had a tendency towards laziness, what in an early time would have been called sloth.

The amazing thing is that an ocean gyre actually exerts a very weak force on objects in its field. This is no riptide that would cut us off at our feet and suck us into deep waters. No, this is a subtle current that imperceptibly tugs at us. Yet, a “drift tide” is no less dangerous than a riptide when it comes to our spiritual life. In some ways it is more dangerous because it pulls us in without the warning signs of more recognizable vices. For me, this is a most serious malady – potentially the greatest impediment towards the pursuit of virtue and life in the kingdom of God. NT Wright describes the process well when he says, “The difference between vices and virtues is this: Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice. But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.” (YouTube discussion about After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters).

For those who are in their prime, still working, perhaps caring for children or elderly parents, involved at church or other volunteer activities, drifting must seem like a far country – a malady perhaps of the gentry and those with abundant resources, but certainly not for anyone working hard under the daily pressures of living. Yet for those afflicted, the feeling can be overwhelming – like a sea fog rolling in at night that erases all familiar landmarks upon first light. A soul without bearings – like one set adrift. It is for those Christians so affected that I offer three thoughts. Alas, these are not a remedy, for I have none. Nor are any of them a mainsail of sorts for breaking free of this spiritual gyre. They are possibly, however, a small jib sail sensitive to a slight change in the wind that can nudge us towards a new bearing.

The first is physical exercise. Over the years, exercise has, for me, been an elixir that can elevate my feelings and motivate me to the pursuit of other activities. I first discovered this when I was experiencing wide mood swings in my late twenties. I started road running for my physical health and almost immediately found my mental state improving. There are undoubtedly studies that validate this, and I wonder why exercise is seldom mentioned in discussions about Christian living and the pursuit of virtue. Occasionally we hear about the care of the body as a spiritual duty because it is a gift from God. But for the most part, we Christians choose to avoid framing this as an imperative of the spiritual life. It’s true that not much is recorded in Scripture regarding exercise, although Paul acknowledges that it has some usefulness, For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8) But for the most part he only refers to exercise metaphorically when he compares running a race to our spiritual journey. (For example, 1 Cor. 9:24). I suspect exercise is not mentioned in the Bible because most people in those days lived a hardscrabble existence, which provided all the physical exercise they needed. Our reticence as Christians today to discuss health and fitness is no doubt rooted in the legitimate desire not to shame anyone, which though understandable is unfortunate insofar as our physical wellbeing is a major contributor to our emotional health.

The second is quality relationships. It is well known that social involvement is a critical predictor of mental and physical well-being. A 2016 Pew Research Center study of the ways religion influences the lives of Americans found that “people who are highly religious are more engaged with their extended families, more likely to volunteer, more involved in their communities and generally happier with the way things are going in their lives.” This, of course, is directly in line with the call of the gospel to be connected with one another. I have personally gained much by regular weekly meetings with other Christian men. And while not an antidote to drift, it can be a wonderful encouragement towards purposeful living.

The third is focusing on others. What I find particularly distressing about drifting is thinking about how difficult it must be to live with someone who is thus afflicted, particularly when the person drifting is me! One only needs to contrast this with the attractiveness of a person who has purpose and meaning in their life and is filled with the joy of living. And so, I am greatly challenged when I contemplate whether I am pursuing the kind of life that others, particularly my wife, find appealing. Or am I simply grinding my way through life, clinging to my existence like someone digging his fingernails into an imaginary chalkboard?

As helpful as physical exercise, quality relationships, and focus on others are, still I have a tendency to drift. I honestly don’t believe the solution lies solely within my own efforts; I simply cannot overcome this by picking myself up by my own bootstraps. So where does the help come from? In the words of the Psalmist, “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:2) He is the One who “lifts me out of the mire.” (Psalm 40:2) This is a theme repeated throughout Scripture – namely that help comes from the Lord. Though I am tired, He is awake. Though I am weak, He is strong. Though I am drifting, He is steadfast. In one of the great passages of the Bible, indeed all of literature, we read – “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)

S

PS Please note that the title of my blog is now Pursuit Of Virtue (pursuitofvirtue.org). I made this change to better reflect the direction of my posts, and because I believe that pursuing virtue is precisely how we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The pursuit of virtue is indeed a life worthy of the calling we have received.

Trust And Obey

Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God. (Isaiah 50:10)

I recently reread What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey. Many will recognize Yancey as a devoted follower of Jesus and a gifted writer. He is a natural storyteller with a wonderful ability to catch and hold our attention. I have read a number of his books and will continue to do so in the future. However, in What’s So Amazing About Grace he writes, “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more … And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” This is hardly a radical statement for Evangelicals. For example, I heard Rich Nathan, Sr. Pastor Vineyard Columbus, say essentially the same thing in a sermon – “Nothing we do can make God love us more and nothing we do can make him love us less.” For many fundamentalists, this is probably as close to extra-Biblical “black letter law” you will find. A seemingly straightforward paraphrase of the good news of the gospel.

Now I don’t want to be too picky about theological matters on which I am not qualified to opine. And I certainly don’t want to take a heretical stand on a popular and oft-pronounced mantra of our faith. And yet, my mind seizes whenever I hear this repeated because it seems so contrary to Scripture. Moreover, it has enormous practical consequences for how millions of Christians are (or not) living out their faith.

Contrary to Scripture?

On its face, the statement is contradicted by much of what we read in the Bible. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more? There is nothing we can do to make God love us less? Really? The Old Testament tells us that God loves the righteous and hates the wicked. There are far too many examples to make this even debatable. The Psalms are particularly pointed, The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them. The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion. On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot. For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.” (Psalm 11:4-7) And again, For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness; with you, evil people are not welcome. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence. You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies. The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, Lord, detest.” (Psalm 5:4-6) And yet again “The Lord loves the righteous.” (Psalm 146:8) There are many other such statements.

Old Testament examples are not limited to the Psalms. Consider, “Here are six things God hates, and one more that he loathes with a passion: eyes that are arrogant, a tongue that lies, hands that murder the innocent, a heart that hatches evil plots, feet that race down a wicked track, a mouth that lies under oath, a troublemaker in the family.” (Prov. 6:16-19) And again, The Lord declares, ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated’” (Malachi 1:2-3) And this is not to overlook God’s judgment on those who did evil in his sight – for example, “Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) Hardly the stuff of a God whose love is disconnected from how we live our lives.

And lest it be supposed that Jesus somehow changed all of this, consider how he tied the Father’s love to our obedience, Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John:14:21) And again, Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23) Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in His love, which is done by obeying his commands. Jesus thus implies that they (and we) can fail to remain in his love, As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:9-10).

A similar thought is stated by Jude, But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” (Jude 20-21) And Peter is most direct in contrasting God’s love for the righteous and his judgment on those who sin and otherwise follow the desires of their flesh, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment.” (2 Peter 2:9)

Another Meaning?

In fairness, there is a valid Biblical interpretation of “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less,” which involves a warning and a promise. The warning, “there is nothing we can do to make God love us more,” is directed towards those who suppose that they can earn their salvation by their own works and not by the grace of God. Indeed, a seminal verse for the Reformation is, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Forever foundational to our spiritual life is that we are saved by faith in Christ, not by ourselves. And so we take it as a warning that we cannot earn our salvation, it is solely by God’s grace.

The promise, “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less,” is that no matter how far we have fallen or for how long we have strayed, there is always a heavenly Father ready to welcome us home. Captured well in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), Jesus describes the heart of God to those who are lost, come to their senses, and return to Him. To hear that God still extends his love to us despite the awful things we may have done, is the amazing hope of the gospel.

Practical Consequences

Unfortunately, the foregoing interpretation must be teased out of the words, since the natural reading clearly suggests that our actions count for nothing, meaning we gain nothing (as far as God’s love is concerned) by living a virtuous life, and lose nothing by indulging in a profligate lifestyle. While God may prefer that we act in a certain way, at the end of the day he is generally indifferent to our actions – at least insofar as our “salvation” is concerned. And this I believe is the state of mind of many in the church today, which is empirically reflected in the similarity of lifestyles between many professing Christians and the culture in which we live. Not that there is an aggressive pursuit of sin as such, but rather that there is not a pursuit of virtue, which often amounts to the same thing. Virtue, you see, does not happen automatically. As noted by N.T. Wright, “The qualities of character which Jesus and his first followers insist on as the vital signs of healthy Christian life don’t come about automatically. You have to develop them. You have to work at them. You have to think about it, to make conscious choices to allow the Holy Spirit to form your character in ways that, to begin with, seem awkward and “unnatural.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters)

In truth, we live in an age where many in the church understand the pursuit of virtue (obedience) as a “nice to have” but not an essential part of their salvation. Such pursuit being at best a sideshow to the main act of being “saved,” which often reduces to only a heartfelt profession of faith. But, as Dallas Willard has asked rhetorically, “Can we believe that being saved really has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of persons we are?” He has written, “The sensed irrelevance of what God is doing to what makes up our lives is the foundational flaw in the existence of multitudes of professing Christians today. They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ’s merit account to ours, and to wipe out our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true – even if we trust everything but God in all other maters that concern us.” (The Divine Conspiracy)

The conundrum for many thoughtful Christians is how to square the agape (unconditional) love of God with the plain teaching of Jesus in the Gospels? Because nowhere does Jesus say that our actions do not matter to God, or that God is indifferent to whether or not we pursue him and a life of virtue. To the contrary, Jesus insists upon trust and obedience to him and the Father, with the promise of a full and abundant life for those who do. Indeed, Jesus teaches extensively on living a life of virtue – from honesty and purity, to kindness and humility. He shows us the futility of focusing on outward appearance over the greed and self-indulgence within. He calls us into radical discipleship with the promise that those who follow him through obedience will know the truth and experience real freedom. He commands us to love others. He blesses those who care for the destitute and hungry, and affirmatively disowns those who don’t. (Matthew 25) All of this he did during an earthly ministry that commenced with a call to repentance and ended with a commission for us to teach the way of obedience.

I submit that what makes God’s love unconditional is that he extends it to all without condition. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son … ” (John 3:16) And, “while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). God makes the first move and he never wavers. However, in order to realize his love, we must receive it by faith expressed through obedience. But therein lies the rub. Many Christians today either gloss over the meaning of faith, redefine it to mean some form of mental assent, or understand it as trusting in Jesus for life after death but not life today. James, of course, makes it clear that faith and action go hand-in-hand. And in this way he affirms the two great non-negotiables of the Gospel of our Lord, namely, trust and obedience – pillars of our faith that line the narrow path of discipleship.

Still, many Christians become uneasy when the pursuit of virtue is mentioned in the same breath as eternal life, for fear of the heresy salvation by works. But consider what bad news it would be if eternal life were disconnected from a life of virtue. Holding aside the words of Jesus (indeed the entire Biblical record) that conjoins a life of virtue with a life with God, the practical consequences of not trusting and obeying Jesus portends bad news for all. The idea that a person can live life as they please and have heaven to boot may seem like good news for them but is actually bad news for everyone else. It would be like a student thinking it good news to be awarded an MD without attending class, studying or passing any exams, which would obviously be very bad news for the doctor’s patients. Similarly, it may seem like good news to receive eternal life without any real commitment and effort towards trusting and obeying God, but those who live this way are going to be very bad news for all of those around them.

No Other Way

The fact is that we all must choose whether or not to pursue a life with God. He doesn’t force himself on anyone, but has given us freewill to accept or reject His love (grace) – a love that He extends to us freely and unconditionally, but that is realized by us only through trust and obedience. Indeed, our spiritual journey is reflected in how we receive his love – it is a narrow way we must follow as we repent (turn) from an old life focused on ourselves to a new life of trust and obedience to him. In the words of the honored hymn Trust And Obey – “there is no other way!”

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word, what a glory He sheds on our way! While we do His good will, He abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey.

Refrain: Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies, but His smile quickly drives it away; not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear, can abide while we trust and obey.

Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share, but our toil He doth richly repay; not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross, but is blessed if we trust and obey.

But we never can prove the delights of His love until all on the altar we lay; for the favor He shows, for the joy He bestows, are for them who will trust and obey.

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet, or we’ll walk by His side in the way; what He says we will do, where He sends we will go; never fear, only trust and obey. (John Sammis, 1887)

S