love is grateful

I recently came across this gem of a quote on Facebook; beautiful in its profundity, and breathtaking in its brevity.

“Grace is the essence of theology; gratitude is the essence of ethics.” – G. C. Berkouwer

It captures the heart of what any Christian thinker has ever tried to say about the fitting human response to divine grace.  The only way to respond to being given a gift is to say thank you.

My curious (and a bit obsessive) mind, always on the look-out for frameworks, pondered what the opposite might be.  That earning merit (and love) is the opposite of being given Grace (and love), and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad theology.  And that entitlement is the opposite of gratitude, and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad ethics.

In the back of my mind, however, was the framework of love and fear (wonderfully expressed by Michael Leunig here, scroll down and you’ll see it).  It left me thinking there must be a correlation between gratitude and love, and between entitlement and fear.  So I wanted to tease that out below (all the while hoping for a bit of it to drip down from my brain into my heart!)…

Love is grateful.  Fear is entitled.
Love is surprised at what it has.  Fear always needs more.
Love can freely give as it has received.  Fear always takes.
Love can accept what it disagrees with.  Fear tries to force it to change.
Love can cope without recognition.  Fear clamours for attention.
Love is empathetic.  Fear is narcissistic.
Love sheds tears on behalf of others.  Fear only sees its own pain.
Love can fail and try again.  Fear gives up.
Love is life.  Fear is death.

moral fear

Ethical discourse, I suggest, is degraded and corrupted by fear.  I’m not talking about the healthy protective fear that flows from love, but rather the unhelpful power-grasping fear that is its own source.  Below I’ll suggest two equal-opposite examples of this power-grasping fear, and then I’ll offer a suggestion about a third, ‘middle’ way.

On the one hand, we can see a fearful response to ‘misbehaviour’.  This kind of fear is reactive, and wants to (at best) guide or (at worst) control human behaviour.  It often takes the form of wanting to ‘raise’ ethical standards, or perhaps turn back the clock to prior times where standards were ‘higher’.  The logic seems to be along the lines of:

  • People misbehave
  • People misbehave because they don’t know what is good behaviour, and/or cultural moral standards are too permissive
  • Therefore, to improve behaviour, more moral instruction and/or more strict morals is needed

On the other hand, there seems to be a fearful response, not to misbehaviour, but to the effects of perceived misbehaviour.  This, too, is a reactive fear, and wants to protect people from (at best) false guilt or (at worst) any guilt.  It often takes the form of ‘updating’ or loosening ethical standards.  The logic seems to be something like:

  • People harm themselves and others
  • People harm themselves and others because they feel acute moral guilt
  • Therefore, people will harm themselves and others less if we loosen ethical views that are too outdated and/or strict

The point here is not to say that morals never need to be adjusted in either direction.  Arguably, they can be unhelpfully permissive or unhelpfully strict.  The point has to do with the way that fear plays a role, both in the desire to make morals, ethics, and laws, more strict, or less strict.

As suggested above, fear can be helpful.  Among other things, we should have a healthy fear of false guilt. Auckland-based theologian Neil Darragh calls this ‘disabling guilt’, signalling the way that victims of it are disabled from feeling and acting and being as they should.  But this false guilt is flanked by what he calls ‘enabling guilt’, which – contrary to what we often hear – is actually helpful in that it assists us to face our wrongdoing, take responsibility for it, and amend our behaviour and grow morally and personally.

The problem with the two types of reactive fear above is that they tend to short-circuit moral discourse and reflection.  Fear cements people, cornering them into angry and aggressive (or passive-aggressive and condescending) dismissal of those they disagree with.

Patient discussion is better.  People may not instantly agree when it comes to a particular activity and whether or not feeling guilty about it is enabling or disabling.  But at least they might be able to understand one another.

ordinary sin

The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin.  I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.

Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle).  Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it.  Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.

The extreme of “totally evil” 

At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.

The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept.  All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level.   Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’.  Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture.  A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’.  The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature.  There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil.  The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’.   And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.

The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity.  In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature.  And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.

The extreme of “basically good”

This leads to the positive “basically good” view.  In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative.  Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.  In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature.  Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection.  So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.

The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect.  It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us.  After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves.  Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!

And here we see the weakness of this view.  At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life.   It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do.  And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.

It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa.  What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.

The Doctrine of Sin

It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory.  But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth.  Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).  To be a human is a glorious thing.  But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).

The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin.  Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”.  That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest.  Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.”  I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”.  We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve.  We steal and cheat.  We parade our acts of charity on social media.  We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after.  Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.

The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin.  So we are sinful.  So what?  Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness.  The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply.  Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact.  But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.”  This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.

the uncomfortable freedom of Grace

I just finished a job at work, and not only did it take longer than I thought (I had to return to the job site to fix things), I didn’t do as good a job at it as I would have liked to.  The clients are satisfied and will pay the invoice, but the workmanship was not my best.  My errors involved trying to same time and effort: a.k.a. rushing and being lazy.

I was doing another follow-up job last week and I noticed a mistake that had been made by another team member.  It seemed that he had also tried to save time and effort.

It is so much easier to focus on the mistakes that others make than my own.  My tendency is to maximize and catastrophize the seriousness of others’ mistakes (“Wow, that’s pretty bad…“) and minimize and normalize the seriousness of my own (“Ahh, it’s good enough…” or “It’s not as bad as…“).

Grace is good news.  We are loved as we are in spite of our mistakes.  Grace covers our sin and shame.

But that’s not all Grace does.

Grace-powered love casts out and frees us from our fear, saying with the authority and voice of Christ, “Fear not.” (Me phõbos)  One type of fear we can let go of, thanks to Grace, is the fear of not being perfect.  When we don’t have to be perfect, we can admit our mistakes (or sins), even the serious ones; and we can be a bit gentler on the mistakes (or sins) of others.

This may be one example of the less “comfortable” work of Grace.  After all, Grace “teaches” (paideuousa) us (Titus 2:12).  This word for teaching is diverse enough to include usages concerning discipline and punishment or training.

I can’t speak for others, but I am grateful for the ‘uncomfortable’ help of Grace in assisting me to admit my mistakes and accept the failings of others.

active faith

Trust and obey, says the grand old hymn.  A lovely pairing, and a very biblical one.  This pair captures the nice middle ground between two extreme ways of understanding Christian life and discipleship.

At one extreme (hint: extremes are bad… almost always), we have faith that is ‘aggressive’ in the sense that it is all about doing and obeying.  Trusting hardly gets any air time, if it features at all.  People who advocate this kind of faith usually are pushing back against believers who do nothing…

At the other extreme, we have faith that is ‘passive’ in the sense that it is all about knowing and trusting.  Obedience, if the topic comes up at all, is usually something that you are not to ‘do’ but happens automatically.  People who advocate this kind of faith are often pushing back against a ‘religious’ or ‘strict’ approach to faith, full of ‘dos’ and ‘donts’…

In the middle, we have a faith that is active or assertive.  Faith and belief are married to deeds and actions.  The two mutually reinforce one another.

Jesus loves to describe the kingdom life with vivid metaphors.  Sometimes we get too used to them, and other times we just read them wrong, in the light of our pre-existing frameworks.

One of these metaphors is the image of the fruit tree.  Good trees bear good fruit.  One extreme (‘aggressive’ faith) sees the fruit as being all our work, which legitimates our faith.  The other extreme (‘passive’ faith) sees the fruit as all God’s work, and not ours.  We don’t ‘produce’ the fruit, we just ‘bear’ it…

The ‘aggressive faith’ folk have to remember that Jesus’ metaphor assumes sunlight and water and that ‘God gives the increase’ wherever there is growth.  The ‘passive faith’ folk have to face the reality that the word behind ‘bear’ is the same word used throughout the New Testament for a lot of doing, working, etc.

The strange mystery is that as we trust and obey God, we are enabled to be and to do.  We hoist the sail, God’s spirit blows, the boat moves.

 

ordinary

This Christmas I sit in our living room before heading to bed, typing out a festive blog post.  The room feels and looks very ordinary: couches, pillows, television, computer, DVD’s, books and more.  Life, most of the time, is ordinary.

Life is exciting and varied enough as it is.  We don’t need too many sensational experiences.  Highs come.  We are property owners for the first time, and are excitedly settling into our new home.  Lows follow.  My beloved Grandpa passed away the day after my son’s 9th birthday.  Even those highs and lows have an ordinary feel to them.  The joy of a new dwelling to own, enjoy and remake is tempered by frustrations of having too many things, facing the financial and time cost of renovations, and more.  The grief of losing a loved one didn’t fully negate the happiness of waking up Christmas morning to presents and pancakes.

The nativity narratives are laced with the spectacular, and awe-inspiring and the miraculous.  Angelic epiphany.  Prophetic insight.  Virginal conception.  It could be just me and my phase of life, but I’m drawn to imagine the lingering ordinary feel that life would have had for Elizabeth, the shepherds, Anna, the wise men, Mary and the others.  Elizabeth’s formerly-barren womb would still be subject to the pain of giving birth.  The shepherds, hurrying to Bethlehem after the angelic revelation, would have faced all of the familiar and mundane issues of getting themselves there.  Mary, despite her exemplary encounter with the angelic messenger, would have three full trimesters of watching her body and womb swell and transform.

And all of this has a beautifully Jesus-shaped dynamic to it.  For it is in Him that the spectacular resides within the everyday.  Eternity meets time.  God joins with humanity.  Creator with creation.  Word becomes flesh.

Nowadays I am more aware than ever of my simple need for God’s extraordinary strength in every ordinary moment.  Highs and lows; strengths and weaknesses; progress and stumbles, what I need is always to open myself to the ordinary process of participating with the Power who makes me just a little bit better, moment by moment.

dual tension

Christian discipleship in the kingdom of God, is well known to be characterised by what they call ‘eschatological tension’ between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.  The balanced tension helps us remember that, on the one hand, the kingdom is ‘now’, and we can and should expect to see evidence of it.  On the other hand, the kingdom is ‘not yet’, and we can and should expect to see the opposite of the kingdom.

I’ve often thought about all the ways in which both personal and public ethics can go toward either extreme, either expecting too much or too little evidence of the kingdom ‘now’.  But just now I had a thought: perhaps it is helpful to view this tension through the lens of another tension: namely the human and divine tension.

The balanced middle of this tension is called ‘partnership’, and it is expressed in many places in Scripture, one of my favourites being the end of Colossians 1, where Paul uses 2 terms to refer to his ‘labour’ and ‘toil’, and 3 terms to refer to God’s ‘energy’, ‘work’, and/or ‘power’.  Personal and public spiritual work is the result of partnership.  There are obvious extremes here too.  At one extreme, we passively wait for God to act and do nothing ourselves.  At the other, we aggressively work as though God’s action was not needed.  Partnership, between these extremes, is assertive.

If we view these tensions together, what do we get?

Perhaps there are two extreme ways to have an under-realised eschatology.  Both of them fail to expect or strive for a realisation of the kingdom.  One fails to expect this from God, and the other fails to expect it from self.

And perhaps there are two extreme ways to have an over-realised eschatology.  Both of them have unrealistic expectations.  One of God, the other of self.

In the middle, we keep coming back to contributing as much as we can to the kingdom, bringing as much of it ‘now’ as we can reasonably hope for, and trusting God to take care of the rest.

giving birth to life

In the most mysterious of all paradoxes, God seems to be the sort of God who – almost always – waits for our permission and cooperation to act in our lives.  The One who said ‘Let there be’ and gave birth to the life-cycle of all creation, will not force the divine life into ours without us agreeing to it with our ‘let it be’.  The One whose ‘Yes’ created all things, bends down to listen and wait for our own ‘yes’.

The holy and mild infant Jesus grew up and shaped his own moral life under the watchful and loving instruction of Mary, who, with her assertive and affirmative response to God, “Let it be unto me according to your will”, stands as the figurehead of human openness to the divine will.  The example of his human mother, mingling with the Spirit of his divine father, enabled him to finally in that fatal garden, utter these eternal words of assertive submission, giving life – in the shadow of the reality of death! – to his and our world: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

the truth about us

I know what self-justification and self-protection looks like, because like all of us, I do it far too often.  Into a world of self-justifiers (like me) where we defend ourselves from any responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, the words of Jesus by the hand of John’s gospel cut through to the basic motivations behind such self-protection:

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

My simple observation here (which I don’t want to clutter up the sermon for this Sunday night) is that Jesus is not contrasting ‘evil’ people with ‘good’ people, as if life were so simple.  Instead, the one who “knew what was in humans” (John 2:25) contrasts those who do “evil” and those who live “by the truth”.  The words used to describe their actions are also contrasted.  Those who do evil stay in the darkness not wanting their “deeds” to be exposed, while those who life by the truth can cope with “what they have done” being in the light of day, as well as the sight of God.

So the point of difference Jesus is making between these two kinds of people seems not to be that some have been naughty and others have been nice.  Some seem to see God as a God who is out to condemn the world, while others seem to trust that God, as Jesus says a few verses earlier (3:17), did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Fear drives some to hide their sin, while faith/trust (Greek: pistis) enables others to confess it. Johannine material elsewhere in the New Testament agrees.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

the church caught conducting a SSM

(a ‘targum’ of John 8:3-11)

3 The representatives of a group of churches brought in one of their churches which was caught in the act of blessing a same sex marriage. They made it stand before Jesus 4 and said to him, “Teacher, this church was caught in the act of blessing a same sex marriage. 5 In our understanding of our denominational processes, we have authority to discipline this church. We have spent two years drafting propositions to this effect, and some dare to want to edit our propositions.  What then, do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to ensure that the gathered assembly kept their original wording exactly intact, not a jot and tittle amended or softened, lest anyone suspect them of being soft on sin.

But Jesus walked past the microphone and sat down next to the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church. 7 When they kept on asking him to speak, he walked to the microphone and said to them, “Let any church which has never blessed any other kinds of sin be the first to kick this church out of your union.” 8 Then again he sat down next to the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church.

9 At this, those who heard began to lay down their voting papers one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church sitting next to him. 10 Jesus motioned to the empty room and asked them, “Church, where are they? Has no one kicked you out of their group of churches?”

11 “No one, sir,” they said.

“Then neither do I shame you, condemn you, or kick you out of my family,” Jesus declared. “But now, go and no longer bless what is sinful.”