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A Gracious Cycle (2 Peter 1: 5-9)

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love. If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” ~ 2 Peter 1:5-9

There are a few verses like this in the New Testament (and the Old Testament) that are just packed with meaning. More often than not, when I read them or hear them at church, I loose most of it because I don’t really dissect what God is trying to tell me. Despite my best effort (or maybe because I’m not really giving my best effort), I usually process these verses like the Charlie Brown teacher when all you hear/ read is generic vowels and consonants (and maybe cue a church bell or some other holy gesture in this case). I think I let myself down rather often in this regard as it pertains to my life of faith and I doubt I’m the only one. So in this blog, I thought I would take the time to look at what I think Peter is trying to tell me in these two sentences.

One advantage that I have when I read this and study it, is that I don’t need to look at it in order. In this case, I think the second sentence helps me frame the first. Peter is telling me that following the prescription in the first sentence, and increasing frequency and magnitude, will protect me from being stagnant [idle] or ineffective [unfruitful] in my relationship with God [knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ]. This relationship with God or knowledge of Christ is what many would consider to be the foundation of faith. Interestingly enough, that’s the first word in the chain that Peter discusses in the quote. Coincidence? I think not…

Before I get into the 8 specific characteristics that Peter emphasizes to Christians, I need to understand the relationship between each of them. Each of these words has a “supplement”al role to the others.

sup·ple·ment  noun \ˈsə-plə-mənt\ : something that is added to something else in order to make it complete. [Merriam-Webster online]

Other bible translations say “add to” (add later word to previous word) or “support” (support earlier word with later word). I need to think of each word that follows as something that strengthens, empowers and completes the previous word in my life.

 

So if I were to paraphrase: if you want stronger faith, be more virtuous. If you want to be more virtuous, be more knowledgeable. If you want to be more knowledgeable, have more self-control. If you want more self-control, have more endurance. If you want more endurance, have more devotion. Strengthen your devotion through mutual affection. And strengthen your mutual affection though love.

How does virtue strengthen our faith? The way I see it, living virtuously causes us to actually take ownership of our faith instead of allowing it to just be something in our head. Many people claim to have faith in God, but until we LIVE that faith, it doesn’t mean much. This is what the book of James refers to in Chapter 2 when it says, “faith without works is dead.” James isn’t talking about works of the law, he’s talking about virtuous living.

How does knowledge strengthen our virtue? Much like faith can be misguided into a mere belief and therefore grows stronger or more complete through virtue, virtue can be mistaken as mere volunteerism and easily veer off track if it is not fortified with understanding of what motivates the virtuous life and what does or does not actually constitute virtuous living. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t just strengthen virtue, it will also strengthen our faith to know more about who Jesus was, what the bible and the church teaches and WHY I believe what I believe.…

How does self-control strengthen knowledge? We don’t gain knowledge overnight, and studying virtue and the faith is rarely fun. It takes discipline to develop that stronger knowledge. Come to think of it, self-control helps us develop knowledge, but is also directly beneficial to virtue and faith as well. Funny…

And how does endurance supplement self-control? That discipline and self-control doesn’t come any easier than the knowledge does, and it will take endurance to keep trying and develop the habits of self-control so that they become a part of our character. And you know what, endurance in my faith, virtue and knowledge is actually a really good thing too. I think I’m noticing a pattern…

What good is devotion to endurance? Devotion gives passion and perspective to our efforts. It’s that fuel that we need sometimes when we just don’t WANT to. All that endurance, self-control, virtue, knowledge and faith seems REALLY BORING or inconvenient sometimes. If I don’t have a sense of devotion, none of it will last long…

How does mutual affection fit in? It’s that emotional factor and interpersonal relationship with other Christians and the world at large that keeps us from becoming a selfish, greedy jerk who thinks that all of the above is “all about me”.

And “What’s love got to do with it?” It’s not an emotion (second-hand or otherwise). It’s a selfless allegiance of the heart, formed and solidified by the will. It’s a decision for the good of the other and it’s the fuel that makes the world go round. It’s the relationship that God IS. It’s how we were made, why we were made and what we were made for. If I don’t have love, I’m nothing (see 1Cor13).

When all is said and done, Peter is inviting us solidify our faith by making it a habitual pursuit of both mind and body, will and emotion. It has to be an integral part to everything that we do. It won’t be easy, but it’s the only formula that can make our whole life worthwhile.

AMDG

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Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part II)

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I left off in the first part of this post with the statement that the primary role of government should be to protect its citizens.  This is where a government MUST legislate morality. I often hear people say, “You cannot/ should not legislate morality…” and you may have gotten the impression from Part I of this blog that this was my view as well, but I actually disagree wholeheartedly with that mentality. Morality is the ONLY thing which a government should legislate. Morality is the only metric which can be consistently applied. I should be clear though, morality and religious faith are two different things. Morality refers to the actions which logic and natural law dictate are acceptable or unacceptable. Religious faith is that which we choose to believe because of revelation by God (or a prophet).  A government cannot effectively legislate virtue or faith, but it can and MUST legislate to minimize vice. A law which requires all citizens to be kind and forgiving would be impossible to enforce, but a law which prevents citizens from murdering each other is about as basic and fundamental as we can get for legislation. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong. Even those who don’t acknowledge or understand the bible will still generally agree with that statement.  The society needs to determine a baseline of conduct which can be applied universally – a set of morals that all citizens can be held to. The purpose of this baseline is to offer citizens the freedom and safety to act virtuously according to their own beliefs and callings.

A secondary role of government is to empower its citizens in the direction of the morally good beyond that baseline and/or contribute further to the betterment of society as a whole.  There is a big difference though, between empowering people and coercing people to do something.   When the government wishes to promote a certain good, the most positive way to do that is to remove the road blocks which keep people from doing it to begin with and incentivize the action where possible. The US government already does this in some cases, for instance providing tax deductions for raising children or for making donations to charitable organizations or for buying energy saving home accessories. I think it can do more though and it would do well for our current politicians to make this the central focus of most legal policy.

Government has a constitutional right to levy taxes. I don’t always like it, but I get it. They need money in order to pay the bills that they incur to protect us and maintain order in our society. I think though, that the government would do well to use taxing power for positive reinforcement instead of punishment and coercion. For instance, instead of an individual mandate to get health insurance with increasing tax penalties, why not just offer tax incentives for signing up which decrease over time?  The government has a vested interest in people getting health insurance, because uninsured citizens usually end up sending the bill to the government through ER visits, not to mention higher chance of spreading disease etc. If the government is going to save money by a person’s actions, it makes sense to incentivize that action.  I think that statement could be applied to much of the tax structure. The government has certain fixed costs which can’t be reduced by individual actions (i.e. legislative overhead, military, emergency services, inspection and regulation etc) but much of the money that is spent by governments can be greatly offset by individual actions.  Parents who school their own children are providing a service which relieves the government. They should get a tax credit. A millionaire who hires a full time staff to take care of his estate should not be getting taxed on the money that he uses to pay those employees. The government is already getting tax money from the staff, and the millionaire is fueling the economy and putting cash in more people’s pockets who might otherwise be collecting unemployment (instead of stashing it in his hedge fund).

NOTE: I am not a huge fan of straight tax cuts for the rich with the expectation that they will spend it on things which will boost the economy. That may happen, but I think it’s more likely if you tie the tax cut directly to purchases and hiring which definitively boost economy.

To this point I’ve focused mostly on the government side of things, but religious organizations have a lot to do on their side as well. I think much of the confusion which has come about in this arena is due to the fact that there has been little to no discussion in churches about the role of government and its limits. Groups are eager to promote possible laws that can support their religious agendas (virtuous or otherwise) and horrified when laws are proposed or passed which seem to advocate conflicting views. In many cases, these reactions are well-founded, but I don’t hear too much conversation about why it is the government who should be handling the issue instead of individuals.

I think the goal of Christians and the goal of government officials should be to work the government out of as much of its job as possible. The more that individuals contribute to the betterment of society, the less the government will need to do. The more that the government promotes and fosters those activities, the more prevalent they will become.

AMDG

Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part I)

March 24, 2014 3 comments

There has been a great deal of controversy and discussion over the years in circles at every level of society about the role of religion in politics and government. I think the central cause of this controversy is that we have forgotten the purpose of both institutions and ignored the potential and dangers (and historical faults) of each of them.

Government exists for the protection of its citizens and to ensure order in society. Today in America (and even more in Europe) government has become the catch-all institution for handling the needs and wants of its people. Some consider this transition to be major advance in society. The upgrade in a sense from your basic run-of-the-mill government.  In many senses, it is easy for a Christian to appreciate this view since many of the services which the government ventures into are ones which the Church pioneered (i.e. public health care and education).  Isn’t it wonderful that the central authority of the land is now providing such altruistic services which were previously only available in the isolated locations where religious orders were available and had capacity? Now it’s available to the masses! What could be more charitable than wanting that? What could be more heartless than wanting anything else if that was an option? But I think that perspective misses a central aspect about Christianity, and humanity at large.

A truly Christian nation, by its very essence, must offer freedom. Freedom of religion and freedom for virtue.  A Jewish or a Muslim nation can look to their religious origins and see that the great leaders of their faith in their sacred writings placed their religion at the center of their civil law. Members of those faiths can understandably look to that as a model for their current times. As a Christian, however, I do not have that option. True, my sacred writings include the same ones that my Jewish brothers and sisters reference, but my faith teaches that those writings are fulfilled in the Gospels – in the life of God incarnate. The Old Testament demonstrated our fall from original grace and freedom, into slavery of sin and the laws designed to show our hearts when they were straying. The New Testament is an invitation to each individual to lead a life of freedom and virtue. Jesus made it very clear that he came to change our hearts. The law was a guide for our actions, but as long as we DESIRE to break it, our heart is where the problem lies. And Jesus came to heal our hearts.  His contemporaries expected the standard of religious rule, but instead he came humbly and offered all people a choice.

I think some Christians (myself included) don’t think about this fact in the context of modern government. I can logically see that many Jews didn’t accept Jesus because he didn’t come as a military and government leader to reestablish the kingdom of Israel on earth, but then I catch myself rationalizing that the gospel could have spread so much faster if it was part of the government. Maybe that’s true, but if it is, God didn’t want it to spread faster. If Christ wanted his religion to be a civil law, he would have shown us that in his life and the lives of his apostles would have continued that legacy.  Instead, we find that Jesus told his followers “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” We find that early Christian communities who most fully understood the gospels, “kept everything in common… no one was rich and no one was poor”   but they didn’t do it because they were forced to by the government, they did it because they were compelled by love. Christianity is a call to holiness – a call to be set apart – a call to virtue. And you cannot legislate virtue. It would be like taking a picture of a $100 bill. You can make it look the same, but it would lose the original value. The $100 bill has value because it’s backed by the U.S. treasury. The picture is not.  Similarly, acts only have value as virtue when they are backed by the intent and desire of the actor. A man held at gunpoint and forced to give someone money is not being virtuous, he is being mugged.

Now, some would argue, “OK, maybe it’s not virtuous if you are being forced into actions which we would otherwise consider good, but at least we get the result. Forcing rich people to feed the poor still results in people getting fed. Isn’t that good enough? Aren’t we achieving the proper end-state?” to that, the only Christian answer is “No, we’re missing the point.” Sure, it’s good to see that poor people get food, but Christ did not instruct us to go forth and legislate feeding of the hungry, he told us to do it ourselves.  Now, I’m not implying that the government has no responsibility here, I’m simply implying that it is not where Christians should be assigning the responsibility.

The part that really irritates me about many recent legislative attempts at solving social woes is that the generally favored solution is to pawn the sacrificial aspect off onto someone else.  Imagine if a man were driving home from work one day and saw a kid on the street starving and homeless. In the kindness of his heart, he decides that no child should endure such suffering. So he gets out of his brand new Mercedes walks over to the little one and says, “Child, I don’t know what your past is or what your problems are, but you will never starve or sleep on the street again.” With that, he grabs the child by the hand and walks down the street into a small inn. He asks to speak to the owner and when he meets her, he tells her that this child was out on the street and he would like her to make sure that this child has food to eat and a bed to sleep in for as long as necessary.  The owner is touched by the man’s generosity and, after discussing the details of expected care and supervision, asks how he would like to set up payment for this arrangement. With that, the man looks at her and says, “Oh, you seem to have misunderstood. I won’t be paying for this, you will. You see, I was generous enough to recognize the child’s need and the fact that you could provide a solution. You get to be generous enough to provide it J  By the way, if you fail to provide the standard of care we discussed earlier, I will see to it that your business fails (and yes, I have those kinds of connections).” With that, he smiles, walks out the door struts down the street and hops back into his car and drives home to his 8 bedroom mansion where he tells his wife and three cats about how generous he was today.

Over and over, our legislature seems to pass laws which it is exempt from (take for instance the Affordable Care Act), and we as voters look to solve our nation’s problems by asking other people to shell out the money or provide the services (i.e. tax hikes only on the rich to pay for our national debt or special programs that effect everyone). It may seem to make sense from a utilitarian perspective, but it does not add up from an ethical or theological point of view. Sure, I may be voting for a solution to the problem, but as a guy who makes less than $250k per year, I’m really just voting for someone else to fix my problem.

I should be clear, I don’t have an issue with tax brackets which increase at certain income levels, but voting on a measure that benefits everyone at someone else’s expense just rubs me the wrong way.

This, I believe, is the great confusion of our political age.  We seek to legislate virtue and in so doing only create a resentment for it. The surest way a government can help its society thrive is by protecting its citizens against foreign and domestic evils and empowering them to exercise virtue to address the problems of their age.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit more about what that looks like, but in the meantime let me know what you think…

AMDG

“Offer It Up”

September 11, 2012 2 comments

It seems to be something of a catch-phrase in modern Catholic culture, but what do we really mean when we say “offer it up.”? It’s more than just a religious way of saying “Suck it up” or “Quit complaining” (although that’s implied). It’s also more than a simple invitation to prayer. Those three words are an invitation to PARTICIPATE in the gospel.

It’s easy for us these days to read the bible or hear stories of how God worked in the lives of people long ago and think that it no longer applies to us. It can feel as if we got the short end of the stick. It’s tempting to think, “In the old days they had Peter and Paul and JESUS showing them the way face to face; explaining the mysteries, performing the miracles and demonstrating the example of how to live the Christian life. Now we have a book that tells us everything we missed.” What a bummer.

The reality however, is something entirely different. God lives outside of time. Jesus is Christ outside of time. He did not choose one specific instance in time to join us here in this world so that every other generation could realize what it missed.  Instead, he inserted himself into humanity after it had fallen away at juuust such a point when the example of his life, love and teachings could be fully exemplified, documented, transmitted AND PERPETUATED… That’s right, perpetuated.

The gospel is perpetuated through the written word of God in the bible, it is perpetuated in the Sacraments that Christ instituted; it is perpetuated through the Tradition of the Church; and it is perpetuated through our lives.

One of the consistent themes that we see through the gospel is that Jesus does not want to be crowned as king (on this earth) and he did not want the miracles that he performed to be publicized (before the ascension). If you cited the fact that he was “meek and humble of heart” as a reason for this you would be right. If you cited the fact that his “kingdom is not in this world” you would be correct as well. But you would also be missing something.

Jesus kept his miracles and power on the down-low because he knew that they would attract the wrong crowd. You will notice that in EVERY instance of Jesus performing a miracle; it was as a result of faith ALREADY present or a result of compassion distinct to the person or people who he was helping. It was NEVER an attempt to win believers or disciples. “Why not?” you might ask. It certainly would have been effective. Even when he was trying to avoid it, the miracles and authority with which he taught brought many to him, but I suspect they were the same that left him when his teachings became difficult to accept.

The Jews had experienced centuries of pain and subjugation at the hands of foreign rulers and they had been promised a messiah who would be their redeemer and savior. We see those terms very spiritually and theologically now, but to most Jews of Jesus’ time, they were very physical and legal ones. Much of the Old Testament is filled with a circular theme: God’s people turn away from him; He warns them and then allows them to fall into bondage by a foreign nation; they repent of their infidelity; God rescues them and brings them prosperity (until they fall away again and the cycle continues).  Each time, when His people turned back to Him, God redeemed them and saved them from their bondage in a physical way. When Jesus walked the earth, Jews were the subjects of the Roman Empire and they were greatly anticipating a savior, redeemer and king who would overthrow the Roman government, establish peace, freedom and prosperity in Jerusalem free from pain, hunger and disease. They were missing the point…

This cycle of bondage and redemption that we observed in the Old Testament was only the symptomatic outbreak of a much more pervasive disease – their bondage to sin.  The peace and prosperity that the Jews were looking for (and all of us are looking for too if we are honest with ourselves) cannot exist in a world that is still in bondage – a world that isn’t free to love. This is the subjugation which Christ came to save us from and the freedom which he came to redeem us for. Jesus consistently pointed to the fact that he wasn’t here to remove our suffering – he was here to remove our sins (which causes our suffering). God could have chosen to remove the suffering of His people as He had done in days past. Instead, He did something much more profound – He gave it value. He took Satan’s currency and placed the image of His son as a seal on top of it.

As a result of the Crucifixion, our suffering isn’t gone, but it has meaning – or at least it can. Christ demonstrated by suffering on the cross for our redemption that it is possible for the pains we encounter in this life to be applied as grace to other people or causes greater than ourselves. When we suffer, we have two options: (1) Complain and ask God to make it go away, or (2) thank God for the gift of His son and unite our sufferings to His for the redemption of the world or any specific cause in union with His holy will. Christ said, “Anyone who wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Saint Paul invites us to, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to the Lord.” He also mentions how he “makes up what is lacking in the cross of Christ.” All of these statements point to the same reality. The Gospel is not just a series of books, it’s an invitation to a transformed life that participates in the good news of our redemption.

That transformation will show itself in every aspect of a genuine Christian life, but it will shine most brilliantly in the way that we handle suffering: Do we see it as a burden or an opportunity? Are we focusing on ourselves or on God? Is it a chance to complain or a chance to grow in humility, virtue and appreciation of the cross? Will it cause us to worry or to trust, to hate or to love? Will it bring tension to our relationships or union with Christ? Will we allow Satan to claim that instance in our lives for his purpose, or mark his coins with the image of Christ crucified and place them in heaven’s treasury?

 

If this is a foreign concept to you and you want some practical steps or suggestions here is a quick step by step:

  1. Recognize an area in your life which is not ideal.
  2. Pray: Thank Jesus for the gift of his life and offer your inconvenience, pain or suffering in unison with his cross for any cause which he puts on your heart (possibly someone else’s wellbeing, your vocation, a virtue etc.).
  3. Quit complaining: Resist the natural urge to be unhappy about your situation and instead reflect on the cross and be grateful for the spiritual currency to affect your cause. Choose to be positive regardless of how you feel.
  4. Make it a habit: As you go through your day and your life, start conditioning yourself to take every situation that is less than ideal and offer it up in thanks to God for the good news of our salvation and the opportunity to grow closer to Him.
  5. Don’t give up: you may not see results immediately (or ever in this world) for the causes that you are offering up. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that is the end of the story. Remember, God’s timing is much better than ours.

 

That which we desire least has the power to unite us with Him who we desire most. The suffering in our life has the ability to unite us more closely to Him who suffered everything for love of us. I pray we don’t waste the opportunity…

 

AMDG

 

Being a Burden

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

“…man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” ~ GAUDIUM ET SPES

I was recently talking with a friend who recounted how she was worried that she was being a burden; inconveniencing others by taking their time to help her with personal issues. Actually, I can think of three different friends who the above statement applies to. It seems to be a common concern among those with an appreciation for their friends’ kindness and a degree of selflessness. The worry stems from an understanding that they are occupying a considerable amount of their friends’ time and that they might not say anything even if they did feel burdened.

The details are bit fuzzy in my mind, but the conversation that I had with my friend went something like this:

Me: So why don’t you think they would tell you if you were being a burden?

Friend: Because I know if someone needed to talk to me I would never tell them that.

Me: Why not?

Friend: Because even if it was a burden I wouldn’t want them to stop coming to me.

Me: Why?

Friend: umm.. I don’t really know.

Me: Do you think that it might be because even if it was a burden, you would rather bear that burden then leave them alone or let them go without help?

Friend: yeah.

Me: So why can’t you accept that from other people?

Friend: I don’t know. It just seems different.

Me: It’s no different. Plus, you have to remember that when you allow them to help you when it’s inconvenient for them this is also their opportunity to live out the love that they were made for. When the other obligations of our life or our own personal needs require us to take a step back we will say so, but when we sacrifice our own convenience to spend time consoling or helping a friend in need we are growing in a way that we can’t on our own. Read more…

The “F” Word

June 18, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve found something rather curious over the last few months and years. The title of this note might make you think it has something to do with profanity, but the reason I made that the title is because it seems the word that I’m talking about is much less accepted in everyday speech and interaction than any “swear word” on the books. In fact, I would say that it’s a word used more sparingly by those who do use profanity than by those who don’t. Of course, I wouldn’t exactly say that’s a good thing…

That’s right, the word that I’m talking about is FORGIVENESS. We have a cultural aversion to using that word, especially when conjugating the word, putting ourselves in front and anyone else on the other side. “I forgive you” is a statement that seems to have all but left our American mainstream conversations. Read more…

Love at First Sight

June 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Some people say that there is no such thing as love at first sight, especially for a Christian. I beg to differ. In fact, I would go so far as to say that love at first sight (LAFS) is the most authentic type of love (especially for a Christian). I would even say that it is the CALL of every Christian. The problem is our concept of love. Read more…