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Gender roles, Theology
Who’s Afraid of Proverbs 31?
I can still see the cartoon in my memory – she was robed in white, her nose in the air, gracing a marble pedestal under which lesser women cowered. Inscribed on the pedestal were the words, “The Proverbs 31 woman.” It was illustrating a comedic piece in a Christian women’s magazine, describing exactly what the author felt when faced with such a perfect, perfect woman. My mother lifted the magazine out of my hands. “Don’t read that nonsense,” she said. “Why not?” I wanted to know. She thought a moment. “People like to mock her. It’s easy to make fun of her. But I don’t like it.” *** Lots of women do feel intimidated by Proverbs 31. We feel if we were to meet her in real life, we would only meet with judgment. We react to her as if she is a standard that points out all our inadequacies. And authors who write about her know this – they feel compelled to include an apologetic paragraph somewhere near the beginning of their article: Don’t worry, everyone comes from a different life situation. Don’t worry, this woman appears to be rich, and you might not be. Don’t worry, everyone is unique, and not everyone needs to live up to this passage in the same way. A recent article I read started off with, “Reading Proverbs 31 can be discouraging! Who can live up to such expectations?” The first reaction to her is to downplay her a little, and make her more approachable. The assumption is that an unsoftened look at the woman in Proverbs 31 will lead to discouragement. The assumption is that the first emotions this passage will raise in us will be negative emotions, and that these negative emotions will need to be navigated and managed before we can get anything useful out of the passage. I don’t deny that this is often the case, that often these are the emotions stirred up by this passage. But I don’t think this needs to be the case. It should be possible to re-frame the passage as a whole, from discouraging and disheartening to uplifting and inspiring. Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman can be encouraging without being softened. Actually, I know it is possible. I have often read this passage with a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility. In contrast to many human writings, it does not downplay the capabilities of woman, and it acknowledges and appreciates them (and urges the rest of society to do so). It is not a passage that needs to be clarified with the sentence, “oh, this applies to women too,” but it is directly applicable. However, this woman can clearly inspire either excitement or discouragement in many women. What causes the difference? Can she be inspiring to everyone? The value of ideals One problem is that we tend to think of ideals in the wrong way. The woman in Proverbs 31 is an ideal, and ideals are judges. Ideals are meant to draw our attention to the gap between them and us. They do give a verdict on our conduct by demonstrating the ways we fall short of them. But ideals are meant to be a vision of what could be, of what we can strive for, rather than a standard that is meant to crush and punish us. They aren’t there to push us to quit, but instead give us a vision of a different way to live. Our modern world doesn’t like ideals very much. In the past, people did frequently talk about the ideal country or ideal city or ideal king. But nowadays, who talks about the ideal prime minister? We don’t believe any politicians could ever be ideal. Our cynicism is unavoidable – we are much more comfortable speaking about the way our current society is not just and equal, than speaking of what a just and equal society would actually look like. Human realities have led us to give up on utopias, and create lists of our problems instead. But maybe we should take our eyes off our lists of problems, and learn to feel inspired once again. We can draw fresh enthusiasm from working towards a vision of the good. When presented with an ideal, we feel like ideals force conformity on us, tell us to be all the same, and can only make us feel bad about ourselves. But instead, the power of ideals is that they can open our eyes to a better way of living. In that way they are not limiting, but rather are a demonstration of opportunities we would never have imagined in our current circumstances. After all, children look to their parents to see what it is like to be a person who can accomplish more than what their childish limbs can manage. They can’t do what their parents do, but they can imagine growing into a future where they will be able to do more. When they look to their parents they can see an example of how to live a life they have never yet experienced – an adult life. And Christians are inspired by Christian role models too. Paul the apostle advises the Corinthians to imitate him as a model in their Christian life, as an example of a more mature Christian (1 Cor. 11:1). Having examples can be freeing rather than limiting, because we see how different lives than ours can be lived. Yes, visions of what could be are intimidating. But to erase them is to limit ourselves only to what exists right now. An ideal woman And this is the way I think the woman in Proverbs 31 can function. She can demonstrate the power of a virtuous woman, and lead us in turn to feel enthusiasm about what is possible for us in our femininity. After all, it does not take much for us to feel ground down in our femininity – we're confronted daily by negative portrayals of silly women, clingy women, bullying women, or passively helpless women in media, online, or just mentioned in general conversation. We can feel hormonal and wonder if our genetic makeup is a curse. We can struggle to perform heavy labor and feel dependent on others as a result of who we are. We can hesitate to speak up and make our voice heard, and feel held back. And when others reject us and label us or neglect to appreciate us, and we become vulnerable to harmful images of femininity. When we turn to our Bible to counteract this, we find the Bible itself does not shy away from portrayals of the shortcomings of women (just as it does not shy away from the shortcomings of men). Women can be gullible (2 Tim. 3:6), weak, (1 Pet. 3:7), or just unpleasant (see elsewhere in Proverbs itself, such as Prov. 21: 9). Faced with all this, how does one remain hopeful about womanhood? Is there any vision of a woman being a woman in a positive way? Yes, there is. When we need a picture of a woman exercising female traits and positively affecting the world around her as a result of being a woman, we can look to Proverbs 31. We can look to Proverbs 31 and begin to heal from our doubts and worries about womanhood. There are many things a woman can do, even a very “traditional” woman such as this woman. She can be strong, both physically and mentally, even though we’re tempted by negative images to believe we’re doomed to be fragile and unstable. She can be effective, even though we’re afraid we’ll only be passive and ineffective. And she can be courageous, even though we’re worried and anxious. In this way she is purely encouraging. We are not fated to be that taunting caricature of ourselves that may live in our imagination. When we need to insist our womanhood is a gift God has given us and the world, she is on our side. “A heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” is how one commentator classes this passage. Another calls it, “an ode to a champion.” What women do is not only worthy of being recorded, it is worthy of being applauded in exactly the same way as a warrior who slew a lion. But she girds her loins and takes up the heroic role in a very different setting. We can feel confident in this picture that we receive in Proverbs 31. This is not like the argument over whether Cinderella is a good role model for girls or not; we can take it as a given that this woman is a good role model. And if she is, what opportunities does that present to us? She brings so much to the discussion that I cannot begin to include everything in a single article, so I’ll have to limit myself to the example of her strength. Strength is not the first word I associate with women, but it is the first association brought out here, in the very first line: “A woman of strength, who can find?” She draws our eyes to the quality of female strength specifically. Looking for a strong female character What is a strong woman? On one hand, we have many talking heads in media calling for more “strong female characters” in entertainment. On the other hand, strength is not typically the first female trait that comes to mind. If asked to come up with a list of feminine qualities, and you weren’t too afraid of going with the honest associations that came into your mind, you might come up with words like delicate, soft, gentle, meek. Asking for strong female characters is seen as one way to counteract this, to create new stereotypes that counteract the old. But too often “strong females” are interpreted as physically strong, as demonstrated by the number of “kickass” female characters who keep up with, surpass, or beat up men. But this kind of knee-jerk, opposing reaction to the stereotype of a weak female often glosses over the reality that women actually live. Women live their lives under the awareness that they will never be as strong as men. There is a limit to what we can physically do, and aside from a few exceptional women, most of us will burn out measuring our strength against men’s. Because of this, some of us can conclude it is not worthwhile to develop our own strength and capacity. Or others may choose to highlight only these exceptionally strong women as a defense against perceptions of weakness, in a way that makes regular women feel inadequate. Another way we do not feel strong is in our awareness of our vulnerability—we live knowing we can be overpowered and harmed by others with more strength. We structure our lives because of our awareness of our vulnerability, not walking alone in the dark, or holding our keys in our fists when we feel threatened. So no, I don’t believe that physically strong female characters in media are enough by themselves to encourage and inspire us in our regular lives. Strong and weak stereotypes However, it does not follow that in order to be a woman, we must emphasize our weakness. There has been a growing awareness through time that strength in women is a benefit and not a drawback, starting with the nineteenth-century encouragement to throw off tight-laced corsets and be physically active. Nowadays, the capacity of women is recognized on a society-wide level, and women are encouraged to develop and use their abilities to accomplish what they set their hand to do. And Proverbs 31 gives no support to ideas that weakness, fragility or delicacy are defining characteristics of womanhood. It is at this intersection between “kickass” female stereotypes and the experiences of regular women that the woman in Proverbs 31 stands. Remember, this passage is “a heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” or, “an ode to a champion.” In this way, she stands alongside Achilles and Beowulf. And yet she is not unreachable or alien to us in our everyday life. In fact, one thing many commentators notice about her is the mundane normalcy of what she is described as doing, even as the passage uses phrases such as “girds her loins” as she does these things. We might expect a woman who does “great things for God” would have more in common with female superheroes than with us. But we can relate to the strength needed to consider a field and buy it – or, in more modern terms, decide to launch a business, or plant and harvest a garden, or challenge ourselves with an activity we have never tried before. Let’s take it a step further and compare the Proverbs 31 woman with some older female stereotypes – she may be rich and of high status, but she does not spend her days in the cool shade of her porch, being fanned by servants. She has not retreated from the world to seek the safety of a carefully ordered life, buffered from anything that might jolt her poor nerves – an image of femininity that would be unreachable to most of us, even if we did desire such a life. Instead, her strength is demonstrated by taking up the task of living, including the hard things, and by working with her own hands. In other words, she demonstrates that strength is a non-gendered Christian quality. It is not men with strength, and women with fragility. But both draw on God’s strength to use their full capacity. Christianity has never been about strong men and weak women. Christianity has always been about strong men and strong women. A woman of strength We’re not used to hearing the first verse of this passage quoted as, “a woman of strength, who can find?” It is more recognizably quoted as, “a wife of noble character.” The description is translated in various ways: a wife of noble character, an excellent wife, a virtuous woman. Literally, it is a woman of valor, and the description is the same description given to Gideon (“The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor”) and Ruth (“I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman”). When we read it translated as “virtuous woman” we might not quite get all the overtones of power, competency and initiative this word carries. But it would be misguided to read this chapter and come away thinking this woman is not empowered (she is a woman of power), or that she is a passive housewife experiencing a lack of control over her life. And it doesn’t really matter if the power this woman possesses does not come through in every translation, because further verses in the passage underscore it: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong,” and “Strength and dignity are her clothing.” If there exists any strong female character, it is this female character! She is the purest demonstration that strength and women can, in fact, go together. It is clear that while she is described with power, capacity and strength, this is not reduced to the physical ability to bench-press heavy weights. It is not an ability to defend her home from intruders, or protect herself through hand-to-hand combat. The various translations demonstrate the meaning of this word is much broader. Her strength is her competency at what she does, and her capacity to consider a plan and complete it. Strength in this passage is not only physical strength (though a certain amount of physical strength would be necessary for her to accomplish all the things she does), but also includes competency and strength of character. And when we talk about “strengths” we tend to use this term in a broad way as well. Strength of character in particular is important, as she is “a woman who fears the Lord.” When we think of that other “worthy woman,” Ruth, we understand it was her character that brought her notice, and not only her unflagging energy while gleaning for grain. Lastly, don’t forget that this passage is directed to a man – a king, instructing him on what kind of wife to look for. A strong woman will not be a drawback for him. “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” Strength in action There is, then, such a thing as female strength, in that woman can develop and exercise their strength. There are some aspects of this that are uniquely female, such as the ability to bear a child, but in a more general way it is women intentionally developing their capacity, skills and character. Developing one’s individual capacity is something everyone can do, regardless of what your starting point is. Sometimes women don’t realize how strong they are. They may hesitate to do things by themselves, or to take initiative to develop an idea of theirs, or to build on their skills and talents. There is nothing wrong with depending on other people, as humans are made to interconnect and rely on the strength of each other. But sometimes, if we habitually rely on others, we forget what we ourselves can do. In Proverbs 31, it does not mention her consultations with her husband over her initiatives, such as buying a field or planting a vineyard – this is not to say that she did not consult her husband (and I would argue most likely she did, and it says he trusts in her completely and her plans always brings him good). But it does demonstrate that the emphasis in this passage is that this woman can have an idea and carry it through. She knows her strength, and does not shrink away from taking action. She makes plans, and then puts in the grunt work necessary to bring her vision into reality. This is especially true when it comes to our own faith life – we all need spiritual leaders to follow, but we also need to be able to study, learn, grow, tell truth from error, and so on, even when not directed by someone else. When many sections of Christian publishing target fluffy, easy, devotional reads to women, we can get a glimpse at what some marketing bodies think of the readers of these books. But we can also counteract these stereotypes by growing in our own faith. Strength can be used wrongly, of course. Strength can be used to bully. Strength can be used to overwhelm others. This is true of female strength too, and there can even be extremes such as female-on-male abuse. However, strength and gentleness are not contradictory. After all, 1 Peter 3:4 still applies: “let your adorning be… the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” If you can think of strong men who are gentle, you will know strong women can be as well. Am I a strong female character? There are two responses to this idea of strength. The first is to glorify the strength of women as if this strength did not come first from God. To elevate the strength of women to the point where we almost require women to attain the same level of strength as men, or to speak as if female strength always surpassed men’s. We are afraid we’d be betraying our gender by speaking of our fragility A broader understanding of strength is a good defense against this. The other response is to feel intimidated because we personally feel so very beaten down and weak. There are many of us who hate hearing about how strong women are because we don’t feel able to take even another step. Can you tell I relate more to the second? I have never considered myself the strongest, and because of health reasons I’ve spent the past couple years feeling very weak. I was weak to the point where, when certain types of men have expressed the idea that women are inconveniences, I felt like I agreed, in that I wasn’t sure I could help anyone much. It is a modern cliché – “the strong, female hero”– but I tend to notice all the ways I am not strong, physically and otherwise. And then I am reminded of verses like 1 Peter 3:7: “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel,” and I feel like a weaker vessel. “A woman of strength, who can find?” In this regard, it’s worthwhile to remember that weakness is not a gendered characteristic either. What does Paul say about weakness? “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” he says, because as he says elsewhere, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He knows his weakness points him to the power of Christ. We all know what it is to be weak, and we all need to know where to turn to be strong. The modern female hero can feel intimidating and unreachable and alien, in a way the woman in Proverbs 31 is not. Female superheroes might be fun to watch, but they do not change how I live. But Proverbs 31 is different. Proverbs 31 inspires me, because she is both like me and better. She challenges me to reach higher, through Christ who strengthens me. The greatest ideal Let me conclude with a question: what do you do if you don’t feel this way? What do you do if, instead of being inspired, you feel ground down by Proverbs 31 and don’t feel enthusiastic about its picture of opportunities for women? First, you need to recall there is another ideal that is very familiar to Christians, and that is the ideal of Jesus Christ himself. All Christians are called to conform themselves to Christ. And all Christians are aware of where we fall short in this. Do we look to Christ to feel bad? Of course, the woman in Proverbs 31 is not an ideal in the same way Christ is. We are not required to live up to the ideal of Proverbs 31 in the same way we are commanded to put on Christ-likeness. But while pursuing Christ we can see the examples of other Christian role models, who give us ideas about how to apply Christ’s work in our own lives. The Bible has not neglected women – rather, it speaks right to us. Second, there is an undeniable cultural context here. It’s not wrong to point out that this woman is set in a specific place and time, and this affects the way she is described. She acts in the way a wife of a rich, high-standing husband would act. And since this passage is advice given to a king by his mother (see Prov. 31:1), it is, in a sense, an ideal woman viewed through the eyes of a man who will need to find a wife someday, which does explain why some features are emphasized more than others. After all, Jesus Christ himself put on human flesh in a specific place and time, and we still understand that the universal application of his example is not tied to being an unmarried carpenter. It is correct to say she’s rich and you’re not, but not as a way of downplaying her achievements or making her easier to stomach, but rather as a way of re-contextualizing your response to her. In your circumstances, what can she inspire you to do? Therefore, the third point is that we can see her as an example of a different way to live, rather than a standard meant to intimidate us. We are not doomed to some of the repeated negative stereotypes about females that are spread around: neurotic, weak, anxious, gullible. None of this is our destiny. It is not encoded in our genes, a sentence given by God at birth. No, we can draw enthusiasm about our femininity from this picture presented here. The woman in Proverbs 31 does many things. As Wikipedia sums it up, she is “an industrious housewife, a shrewd businesswoman, an enterprising trader, a generous benefactor (verse 20) and a wise teacher (verse 26).” You can look at all that and think, oh wow I have to do all that? Or you can think, wow, I could be a businesswoman. I could be a trader. I could be a benefactor. Look at all the things I could do and be. And that sense of possibility is a good place to start. Don’t be afraid of her. Remember, she comes to you with words of kindness in her tongue. Author Harma-Mae Smit loves theology and loves the Lord. If you want more articles like this, you’ll be interested to learn she has started a monthly newsletter (where this article first appeared) as an antidote to the shallow and negative stories that tend to get shared online. Join her by signing up at the bottom of this webpage to get a new issue every month, and engage in discussion....
Church history, Theology
Original Sin: Luther’s other life-changing doctrine
Every Reformation Day we remember how God used Luther to teach the Church that we are justified by faith alone, not by what we do. But often overlooked is how God used Luther to revive another forgotten, life-changing, doctrine. **** Martin Luther is more than another dusty historical figure – he has become a symbol of the Reformation itself. His legend is vivid enough to obscure the details of the actual man and the world in which he lived. The legend tells us the story of the tight way his life mirrored his theology, in his journey from the bondage of doubt to freedom in Christ. Yet this is not the only legend told – a man as famous as Luther collects negative portrayals as well as positive ones. Not all Roman Catholics would see Luther as a man to celebrate.1 In fact, Martin Luther has been characterized as a coarse man, a divisive man – worse than that, a man who allowed his own personal struggles with his faith to split the church. He was offered every comfort in the church he was raised in. His priest confessor grew tired of listening to the litany of sins he had committed, sins so minor they were hardly worth the breath it took to confess them.2 Why couldn’t Luther find comfort in his faith? It is said of him, that surely he must have been of a depressive temperament, or mentally unstable.3 Surely he was a peculiar man, an unusual man, and not a man others should've followed. Of course, it shouldn’t come as a great shock to anyone that a Roman Catholic might disparage Martin Luther as being unhealthily obsessed with sin, even as a Protestant might respect him as a great mind. Yet what we are after in this article is an honest evaluation of the life and thinking of this pivotal figure who has had such an enormous impact on Christianity. So this is the necessary question:was Luther unhealthily obsessed with his defects, or was this an important piece in the formulation of his theology? Awareness of the full horror of our sinful inclinations Luther’s theology is well-known: justification by faith alone. But to focus on justification by faith alone is to miss the rest of the story. It misses Luther's awful awareness of sin, and his dawning realization that sin was not limited to his conscious actions but was linked to the very nature of who he was. In fact, Luther suffered because he was aware not only of his actualsin, but also his sinful nature. And the comfort his church offered him all the years he struggled as a monk was rooted in a very different view of humanity's original sin, a view that did not provide him with the strategies to address his own sinful nature as the fountain of his sinful impulses. This is not a mere scholastic discussion. Not only does one’s opinion of Martin Luther as a human being affect the way one views the Reformation, but it also affects the way one approaches anyone who experiences distress, as Luther did, over their sinful inclinations. Luther’s understanding of his sinful nature, can give comfort to those who are also rightly realizing the full horror of the sinful inclinations running through their every action. This is an important point. Understanding the sinfulness of our nature is necessary if we’re going to give true comfort to believers who produce sin continually. To neglect to define human nature as actively inclined to sin, even after conversion, leads to spiritual distress. Luther’s life illustrates this, and Reformed theology further confirms this. Consequently, it is necessary to first look at the doctrine of original sin as the Roman Catholic Church understood it, and then how Luther differed and how it affected his life. A sinful nature or an ungoverned one? Did Roman Catholics in Luther’s time, then, not think humans had a sinful nature? It is perhaps better to say they did not talk in terms of a sinful nature at all. Theologians defined original sin as a lackof a special gift God had granted at creation. This special gift, which is often called “original justice” in their writings, enabled man to conform his will to God. And as a result of original justice, man’s will could be rightly directed towards God. Then, when man fell, this special gift was removed, and therefore man in his nature was wounded and no longer directed to God.4 Man’spassions became unleashed as a result of losing original justice in the Fall, and these passions were no longer rightly directed by man’s will and reason. This ungoverned desire or passion was not in itself regarded as sinful unless it resulted in an actual sinful action. Therefore there did remain in man the “tinder of sin” or “concupiscence,” from which actual sins sprung, but which was not sin itself.5 Concupiscenceis not a replacement for the Reformed understanding of man’s sinful nature, but rather a separate concept, separated from man’s will and reason, and not something active in every part of a man. This illustrates that medieval theology had quite a different formulation of the nature of man, and used these divisions to explain original sin in a very different way than later Protestant theology. This doctrine had developed throughout the Middle Ages, with theologians such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas increasingly defining original sin as a lack of something, rather than an active inclination against God, as Augustine had.6 In one sense their move in this direction makes sense, because to define original sin as a lack and a removal of a special gift appears to preserve the justice of God. If God only took back what had never been essential to man’s nature, God is not unjust because he may grant or not grant gifts as he wishes. A division of the nature of man was one way to address this, and medieval theology was further influenced by philosophical traditions of the time.7 This conception of original sin was carried over by the Nominalist theologians that Luther reacted most strongly against. In this school of thought, God adapted his righteous requirements to mercifully accept the very best acts man could do, and that God would, in return, give grace to man if man did his very best.8 This has obvious implications for justification, but it affects original sin as well, as it teaches that man, after the fall, is still able to detest sin and seek God.9 It was asserted that man in his natural powers could achieve selfless love out of his own will, and God would graciously respond to this.10 This theology can only result from a conception of original sin as a lackof something, rather than an activeinclination to rebel against God. Luther’s struggle When expressed this way, the division between the usual Protestant and Roman Catholic view of Luther becomes clearer. Our opinion of Luther might hinge on the nature of the sinful inclinations Luther detected in himself. If God did nothold Luther guilty for his concupiscence, all of Luther’s fellow priests were right to be exasperated by his continual struggle with his worry over it, and Roman Catholics today are right to dismiss Luther’s obsession as anxious mental instability. But if he truly stood condemned before the face of God, as he felt he was, then he was justified in his terror and his struggle to find a source of comfort. As a result, the Reformation that resulted from his shift in theology was justified, and more than justified– it was necessary! Luther suffered deeply as he grew more and more aware of the sea of sinful inclinations inside him. He would confess his sins daily – for as long as six hours – searching his memory and analyzing his every motive to be sure he had not missed a single one. While his priest grew exasperated with listening, Luther grew more and more frightened that he could go on thinking of new sins even after six hours. Roland H. Bainton underscores this in his biography of Luther, Here I Stand: “There is, according to Luther, something much more drastically wrong with man than any particular list of offenses which can be enumerated, confessed and forgiven. The very nature of man is corrupt. The penitential system fails because it is directed to particular lapses. Luther had come to perceive that the entire man is in need of forgiveness.”11 This realization plunged Luther into terror. Philip Watson describes Luther’s state like this: “The scholastic theologians, it is true, taught that concupiscentiawas not in itself to be regarded as sin… But this again occasioned questionings and apprehension in Luther’s mind. Had his will not consented? … Was he really in a state of grace – for he could perceive no evidence of its effective working in him?”12 The comfort offered by his priests – that God was a merciful God – did little to alleviate this burden. To Luther, this kind of mercy diminished God’s righteousness, and he refused to conceive of God’s justice in such human terms.13 But was Luther’s problem his own sinful inability to accept mercy, or was there a flaw in his theology that needed to be rectified? Luther came to believe there was a flaw in his theology, namely, that every action a person takes, even those which outwardly appear to be good ones, are shot through with sin. One could easily conclude Luther’s conscience was overly sensitive, and that he suffered for nothing.14 It might even be comforting to conclude Luther could not have been in his right mind to have been so bothered by how he fell short of God’s standards. Everyone falls short, after all, and it is comforting to assume God will overlook small shortcomings. And Luther was a monk – he’d devoted everything to being a good one. But it is better to conclude that Luther had the valuable ability not to take his sins lightly. Perhaps his sensitive conscience was necessary to correctly depict a God who doesn’t make compromises with sin. Luther himself mused in this way later in his life.15 Luther experienced intense distress, and part of his distress was a direct result of the way theology was framed at the time. Defining original sin as a loss rather than an active inclination did not give him a conception that equipped him to understand the sinful inclinations he could see in himself. When he felt the desire to curse God, the only way he could fit it into the theology he knew at the time was in a way that damned him. If he truly was a believer he should be moving towards a deeper understanding of God, but despite all his spiritual acts he never felt his sinful impulses lessen. He knew what was inside him was an active inclination. The sins he confessed constantly were active rebellion, an active rebellion against God. And he needed a theology that could incorporate this rebellious inclination that he could not deny was in himself, and yet still grant him the comfort of being saved. Luther’s freedom began when he, finally, not only faced the reality of his depravity, but also grasped that Christ’s sacrifice had the power to atone for not only his actual sins but also his sinful nature. “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise.”16 It was only after this realization that he was freed from his constant inner reflection to be able to go out into the world and actually, by the grace of God, to change it. Luther’s concept of original sin When it comes to original sin it is clear that Luther objected to the church’s doctrine of original sin on two points: first, that natural man can take even a step towards loving God, or make any motion that God could condescend to respond to with grace; second, that even after conversion man still possesses sinful desires that are present even in outwardly good works. Luther never systematically pulls all of his theological ideas together in one work, but he discusses original sin throughout his writings. In particular, his early lectures on Romans are crucial in the development of his ideas on original sin because in connection with Romans he spends a lengthy amount of time considering this doctrine.17 Luther argues on the basis of Romans that original sin was not just a lack of a quality in the will or a lack of light in the mind, but a total lack of uprightness and power of everything in body and soul – a complete inclination to evil.18 The scholastic trend Luther discerned was an attempt to replace divine grace with light of human reason.19 Luther argues, in response, that using human reason to discern what is good will only define the best things according to humans, not God. “e should call ‘natural’ the fact that we are in sin and death and that we desire, understand, and long for things that are corrupt and evil,” Luther states in another one of his works. He then insists, “Who does not see the contradiction between the statement that the natural powers are perfect, and the statement that nature is corrupted by sin?”20 Human nature will result in doing “good things in an evilway.” Good things performed by natural capacity are good in an evil way, performed not for service of God but in service of the creature.21 In this work on Romans, Luther also works out the sinfulness of believers. One of the reasons Luther was so radical is related to his second assertion, that an active sinful nature still operates in a believer, and that therefore a person can be simultaneously saved and a sinner. Yet his lectures on Romans should utterly destroy any notion that Luther preached righteousness through faith alone in order to dispense with good works: Luther argues that a sinner has the beginning of righteousness and continues to seek more and more of it. In other words, while a man knows he is a sinner and knows every moment that he is entirely incapable of doing anything good, he continues to follow the will of God in his life. He continues to walk the path God has set out, because God’s grace has shown him the first step. Every intentional step a sinner takes is an intentional movement from sin to righteousness.22 Luther was convinced that defining original sin in terms of privation (or lack) alone was a reductionist approach and did not express the real severity of the Adam’s sin. He argued sin is not a localized part but in the whole person, as well as a positive reality and not privation.23 This doctrine needs to be intimately connected with salvation – Christ is the second Adam, and just as the penalty in Adam leads to condemnation, believers receive the gift of grace through Christ to avoid condemnation.24 Roman Catholic response It is clear Luther’s view of original sin was one of part of his theology that Rome objected to. In 1545 the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent specifically to deal with the theology of Luther and other Reformers. The Council’s decrees state: “This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy council declares the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is of sin and inclines to sin. But if anyone is of the contrary opinion, let him be anathema.”25 Here the Council declares that even when Paul laments that he is inclined to actively commit sin, he is not talking about something that is sin in and of itself. Due to conflicting streams of Roman Catholic thought on original sin at the time, the definition of original sin by this council is perhaps more vague than it could have been, and yet it still rejects any formulation of original sin that could fall in line with Luther.26 It is defined as a loss (of justice and holiness), and underscores that the origin and possible effect of concupiscence is sin, while concupiscence itself does not incur guilt – under this definition it is then possible for believers to do good works free of sinful inclinations. More clarity on the decrees of the Council of Trent is provided in TheCouncil of Trent: Catechism for Parish Priests, written soon after the Council of Trent ended. This catechism continues to define concupiscence as the “fuel of sin” and not sin itself.27 It confirms that when concupiscence is used to refer to the remains of sin after baptism, it is not conceiving of concupiscence as identical to the Reformed conception of the sinful nature. It is interesting to note is how concupiscence is defined as the remains of sin after baptism (the “fuel of sin” or the “tinder of sin”), and yet in this Catechism it is also defined as merely a desire for something one doesn’t have. Certainly a desire for warmth when one is cold should not be considered a sin, but can this desire be thought of as a remainder after original sin is removed? It seems more likely that the term concupiscence can be used in two ways, first as a more benign term which refers to desire, and then as a more negative term referring to the unbridled desires that man loses control over as a result of his wounded nature. The Reformed definition of sinful nature would not be a loss of control over human desires, but rather the active sinful bend in every human desire. And this parish priest catechism goes on to highlight the issues with understanding concupiscence in this way, when it goes on to define sinful concupiscence as concupiscence that conflicts with spirit and reason. The Reformed interpretation would emphasize that spirit and reason are bent away from God as well, and so a conflict between desire, spirit and reason would be meaningless as a barometer of sinfulness before God. The medieval Roman Catholic interpretations of original sin flow out of understandable concerns – concerns to preserve the voluntary nature of original sin, and to prevent an overly deterministic understanding of sin. There is an impulse to encourage believers to do good works, and fight against their actual sin. However, the solution runs up against obvious problems. If the radical nature of sin is diminished, and man’s nature is affected by the fall only by the loss of something, any active rebellious tendencies are left without an explanation. Our Comfort How, then, should original sin be defined? As with any doctrine, there are many different ideas about it. But a definition of original sin needs to be practical, and speak directly to the individual believer who sees in themselves a sin-streaked nature. This is why the Reformers formulated confessions to be used in the church, and these define sin clearly. First, the Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes man is unable to do good because he is by nature inclined to hate God and his neighbour. This active turning away from God is at the heart of both our sinful nature and every actual sin.28 The Belgic Confession also devotes an article to the doctrine of original sin, and emphasizes in the same way that man is a slave to sin.29 Original sin, according to the Belgic Confession, corrupts the entire nature of man: “As a root it produces in man all sorts of sin. It is, therefore, so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn the human race. It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”30 This formulation does a few things. It insists original sin corrupts the entire nature of man, not just one part of it. And it does not diminish the radical nature of human nature’s corruption. The Belgic Confession uses as scriptural evidence not just Paul’s well-known passage about doing the sin he does not want to do, but also Romans 5:12, which declares through Adam all were made sinners. Adam’s sin resulted in more than just a potential from which true sin could spring, rather it produced real sinners. This is necessary to grasp, and the various explanations of original sin must hold onto this central concept. Therefore in the Belgic Confession humans did not just merely lose something because of original sin, just as Luther insisted man did not just merely lose some quality in the will or light in the mind. “For whatever light is in us has changed into darkness,” the Belgic Confession agrees. Scripture supports this by showing the corruption of the will and of every part of man: the heart of man is polluted, the mind of man is set on sin, and the desire of man is contrary to God.31 Humans of themselves are by nature rebellious and always turned away from God – “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). The Belgic Confession insists the effects of sin are so radical and so widespread, especially in man prior to conversion, that it is impossible to imagine how man can take even a step towards a right relationship with God again. And it underscores Luther’s understanding that even in a believer this sinful nature will continue to produce sin, as it states: “the awareness of this corruption may make groan as they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death.” Therefore our confessions present to us a necessary formulation of the biblical passages on original sin – and, in addition, it provide unspeakable comfort. See, for example, the declaration in the Belgic Confession: “We believe that, when He saw that man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable, our gracious God in His marvellous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him.”32 This is utterly realistic about humanity. It does not shy away from the worst of our nature. Yet it magnifies God. God does not meet us halfway – God goes farther and actually saves those who are actively running away. In conclusion, this confession – and this entire doctrine of original sin – directly reassures those who are distressed because they are real sinners with active rebellious inclinations against God. Just as Luther looked at himself and despaired at his progress toward loving God, unable to leave behind sin and unable to make progress in ridding himself of his sinful nature, so too many believers may look at themselves in discouragement. In order to move on from despair, Luther needed to both acknowledge the bend of his own nature away from God – radically affecting every ounce of him – and to accept this inclination as true sin. Then he could fully grasp the even greater length God reaches, and find the assurance of astonishing forgiveness in Christ. Christ’s blood covers the guilt of our sinful nature just as much as it covers actual sins. Just as in Adam man fell so fully, so man was so united with Christ as to be absolutely saved. And believers today can follow in this comfort. They no longer need to be paralyzed by an inward focus on the depth of their sin, but they can move on from the depth of their sin to look outward to Christ. And this truly frees a believer to live and act. End notes 1 This is not to deny many Roman Catholics do, in fact, view Luther positively despite his excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church. 2 “Look here,” said , “if you expected Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—parricide, blasphemy, adultery—instead of all these peccadilloes.” Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, (New York, Abingdon Press, 1950), 54. 3 For examples of modern speculations on Luther’s mental state, including diagnoses of scrupulosity, see http://catholicexchange.com/from-scrupulosity-to-lutherosity-part-1, and http://www.catholicstand.com/scrupulosity-a-little-bit-of-hell/, for two examples. Accessed November 6, 2017. This Roman Catholic view of Luther stems from writings such as the above, as well as personal interaction with individual Roman Catholics. It is important to note no one view of Luther is unanimous. 4 George Vandervelde,Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1975), 30. 5 In medieval theology, the Fall did result in original sin; however, the guilt and condemnation of original sin is removed by God in his grace in baptism. The doctrine of original sin is intimately connected with the doctrine of baptism, however to explore the meaning of the sacrament of baptism in depth is beyond the scope of this paper. According to Roman Catholic theology, baptism remits original sin. 6 There were various theological strains on the doctrine of original sin within the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, with different scholars following Augustinian, Anselmian and Thomistic formulations of the doctrine. There was not one defined, dominant view. Vandervelde, Original Sin, 27, 28. 7 Jairzinho Lopes Pereira attributes Augustine’s lack of influence among the Scholastics (those Luther opposed) to Aristotelian philosophical influence. Jairzinho Lopes Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner(Bristol: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 267. 8 Ibid., 269-270. Gabriel Biel, who spoke of a ‘pactum’ between God and humans, where God promises to reward with grace those who do their best, not because humans deserve grace, but because God is merciful. Luther wrote against this, and others in the Nominalist school of thought. 9 Ibid., 275. 10 Another theologian Luther was likely reacting against was Duns Scotus: see Philip Watson’s description of Luther’s interaction with Scotus’ theology. Philip Watson, Let God be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1948), 50. 11 Bainton, Here I stand, 55. In Luther’s work on Psalm 51 he also describes his struggle to understand the doctrine of original sin, and his conviction that natural man could not will the good. He lectured on the Psalms early in his career, prior to lecturing on Romans. From this passage, it is not clear whether he finds much comfort in this conception of man’s sinful inclinations. He does not move on to justification in his explanation, but rather asserts an explanation of original sin is a mystery. A correct understanding of original sin needs to be tied to salvation in Christ to bring comfort. See “Psalm 51,” in Selected Psalms 1(ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; trans. Jaroslav Pelikan; vol. 12 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), 351. 12 Watson, Let God be God, 16. 13 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 322n.3. 14 Bainton goes on to address the question of Luther’s mental state, admitting many aspects of Luther’s state at the time do compare with mental disturbances. However, he maintains, Luther’s mental struggle never affected his tremendous work output. In addition, the issues Luther struggled with were real issues that existed in the religion he lived and worked with, and more than that, he did make progress through his struggles to clarify what religious solutions actually addressed his struggles and which were unhelpful. Later, Bainton shows Luther’s mentor, Staupitz, must have considered Luther fundamentally sound despite his exasperation with Luther’s inability to find comfort, because Staupitz told Luther he should assume the chair of the Bible at the university. Despite all Luther’s struggles, he was entrusted with teaching others, and Staupitz appeared to have confidence that by teaching the source of their religion, Luther would learn about what help the Bible offered him in his struggles. Bainton, Here I Stand, 56, 60. 15 Ibid., 361. Throughout his life Luther eventually worked out a technique for dealing with his spiritual depression. One important part was that he came to believe that sensitive believers could, by going through such struggles, understand their beliefs in a deeper way. Sensitive believers could then share these beliefs with less sensitive believers in a way that leads them to agree with the truth of it. 16 Bainton, Here I Stand,65. 17 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 28, 31. 18 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia(ed. Hilton C. Oswald; trans. Jacob A. O. Preus; vol. 25 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 299. 19 In Luther’s work on Psalm 51, he also describes being taught that man had only lost grace and that if man followed the light of his nature he would be given grace. Luther rejects this formulation. See Luther, “Psalm 51,” 351. 20 Ibid., 351. 21 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 338-339. 22 Luther, Lectures on Romans,260. 23 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 331-332. 24 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 335. 25 Council of Trent, Session 5, June 17, 1546, Decree concerning original sin, in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. Rev. H. J. Schroeder (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978), 27-28. 26 See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology(Grand Rapids: 1949), 258, http://downloads.biblicaltraining.org/Systematic%20Theology%20by%20Louis%20Berkhof.pdf Vandervelde argues that the reason the Council of Trent was somewhat vague in its definition was that there were participants from Augustinian, Anselmian and Thomistic traditions. They agreed on which errors to combat, but less so on what ideas to defend (p 33). It is interesting to note one of the participants at the Council of Trent, Seripando (who was an Augustinian), opposed defining concupiscence as “a morally neutral human drive” instead of a “morally qualified inclination to evil.” However, he was not successful. Vandervelde, Original Sin, 40. 27 Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans. John a. McHugh and Charles J.Callan (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1982) 183-184, 469-470. 28 “The Heidelberg Catechism,” in Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 309. 29 “Belgic Confession,” in Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 3:398-400. Hereafter I will cite the Belgic Confession in the form BC Article 14 with the volume and page number of Schaff following in brackets, e.g., BC Article 14 (3:398-400). 30 BC Article 15 (3:400-401). 31 See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 258, as well as Jer 17: 9, Rom 8: 7, Gal 5: 24. 32 BC Article 17 (3:402). Bibliography Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand. New York, Abingdon Press, 1950. Beattie, Trent. http://catholicexchange.com/from-scrupulosity-to-lutherosity-part-1. Accessed November 6, 2017. “Belgic Confession.” In Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, edited by Philip Schaff, 3:383-436. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919. Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: 1949. PDF. http://downloads.biblicaltraining.org/Systematic%20Theology%20by%20Louis%20Berkhof.pdf. Catechism of the Council of Trent. Translated by John a. McHugh and Charles J.Callan. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1982. “Heidelberg Catechism.” In Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, edited by Philip Schaff, 3:307-355. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919. Luther, Martin. Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. Translated by Jacob A. O. Preus. Vol. 25 of Luther’s Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972. Luther, Martin. “Psalm 51.” Pages 301-410 in Selected Psalms 1. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. Translated by Jaroslav Pelikan. Vol. 12 of Luther’s Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955. Miller, Leila. http://www.catholicstand.com/scrupulosity-a-little-bit-of-hell/. Accessed November 6, 2017. Pereira, Jairzinho Lopes. Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner. Bristol: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. Trent, Council of. Decree concerning original sin. Session 4, June 15, 1546. In The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, translated by Rev. H. J. Schroeder, 21-28. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978. Vandervelde, George. Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation. Amsterdam : Rodopi, 1975. Watson, Philip. Let God be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia : Muhlenberg Press, 1948. The painting is Ferdinand Pauwels' (1830–1904) "Luther discovers the bible."...
Should a Christian ever be discontent?
She sat across from me, sipping coffee, her forehead wrinkled with unhappiness. She’d struggled for two years in a job that clearly made her miserable, and which everyone else thought she should quit. But she couldn’t quite agree, wondering if there was a reason God had blessed her with the position. “I’m trying so hard to be grateful,” she said. “I just want to be satisfied with what I have.” **** My friend’s words hit me right in my chest. I didn’t know what to say, because I’ve struggled with the exact same issues. When is it okay to give up on the path you’re currently traveling on? When is it okay to quit and change what you’re doing? We know God has a reason for everything He brings into our lives, so doesn’t it just make sense that we should figure out that reason – figure out how to glorify Him in this situation – before we think of moving on to something else? But like so many other situations in life, we often don’t understand the invisible plans of God, or know what His goal is for us in our current season of life. And so we can be left unsure if it is okay to move on to something else, or if God means for us to learn contentment where we are. Often, when we find ourselves feeling like I or my friend felt in that moment – recognizing the strain of dissatisfaction running through our lives – we respond with guilt. We might think this discontent points to a lack in our spiritual lives. But is discontent always wrong? Dissatisfaction certainly can be caused by a spiritual lack. We humans never are satisfied with what we have. We never have enough. If we had the power to change everything in our lives, we still would not feel fulfilled. But this does not mean we should never take our discontentment seriously. Discontent might be the motivation to change something in our lives that needs changing. The value of discontent When we look at other people’s lives, it’s easy to recognize what’s causing them unhappiness, and it’s easy to say they should change these things. In fact, we often wonder why they don’t. This person is still young, so why don’t they try a new career? Or this person has the freedom to move, so why don’t they try living in another city? But when it comes to ourselves, we see how hard it is to justify our choices to make changes. Is “unhappiness” really a good enough reason, when we know we’re called to be content? To get here we've struggled, we've prayed, we've relied on God to achieve things – and by the grace of God we have achieved them. We know, because our strength was so weak and we needed God's strength so much to get where we are today, that our current situation is straight from the hand of God. What we need to know is if we can be grateful for God’s gifts while still choosing for change. No wonder people hesitate to make a change! One way forward is to consider when feelings of discontent have value. This is not to say discontentment should be embraced, but that the feeling can point us to areas of our lives we do actually have power over. So let’s look at discontentment a bit more closely. We shouldn’t be content with just this world First, there are some obvious things God intends for us to be discontent about. We are not supposed to be content with the fallen state of the world. We are supposed to be content that all things are in the hands of God, but we are not supposed to look at injustice be pleased about it. Some of our dissatisfaction points us to the new creation we are looking forward to. When we recognize that we never feel fully fulfilled, we also recognize that we are waiting for eternal fulfillment. We live with “eternity in our hearts” – we have a vision of an ideal kingdom this world cannot live up to. This also means that life’s frustrations, dead ends, and futility were never meant to be part of God’s good creation. No wonder we react so strongly to them. And yet, while we understand this, we also understand God is still holding all the threads of our lives in His hands. We cling to His promise that in him everything that seems meaningless has meaning. We shouldn’t be satisfied burying our talent There’s another aspect of discontentment to consider. Contentment ought to be separated from passivity. A wrong emphasis on contentment can make us believe we’re not allowed to change anything in our lives. But contentment and passivity are not the same thing. Perhaps discontentment may be a challenge to us. We may hide behind “contentment” because we’re afraid to take the risk of change, because we might fail if we try something new. But our dissatisfaction could hint that we are not reaching for goals that we could try to reach. We are not risking the bumps and falls that might develop our skills. Discontentment might tell us we are meant to challenge ourselves. And if we are taking the easier path without really thinking it through, our emotions may be a sign something is wrong. We should consider whether we need to choose a more challenging goal. If we do not separate contentment and passivity, it can result in a fatalistic determinism. We might conclude that wherever we happen to be, that is where God placed us so it must be where He wants us to be, and therefore we should be content. But this cuts off the possibility that God also blesses us with opportunities. Determinism leads us to say—You’re still single? God must not want you to be married. You’re poor? God must not want you to be rich. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just wait peacefully. Don’t try to change. Everything you’re meant to have will just happen if it’s meant to be. But clearly this is an unbiblical message. Learning contentment from Paul Contentment is still a good thing, and it is a virtue to be pursued in our lives. After much struggle, I’ve realized that while there may be something behind the vague sense of discontent that so often crops up in our lives, and that these reasons can be addressed, contentment is still the goal, not discontent. How, then, should we pursue contentment while avoiding utter passivity? There are a few things to keep in mind. Content even as we strive First, contentment is about where you are in the present moment. It is not a denial of any change in the future. When Paul talks of being content in all circumstances, he was working towards a goal, and the circumstances occurred while he was attempting to achieve it. Having a goal does imply you expect to cause change in the future. So perhaps it is not the goal you’re supposed to avoid having, but the discontent over the difficulties that spring up on the way to the goal. It may in fact turn out to be that the goal is not one you’re meant to achieve, but contentment in all circumstances includes contentment during the deep disappointment that hits when you don’t achieve your goal. In other words – strive! Keep striving! But be ready to be content with what the Lord brings you. Content in suffering Another caveat is that contentment in Scripture, including the contentment passage in Philippians 4 (“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”), is mentioned in relation to suffering. It is an approach to situations that are not in Christians’ control. When life is hard, especially when life is hard as a result of being Christians, Christians are to be content. So the intent is not to say, “don’t change your life path,” but rather, “I know you’re suffering, and this is where you can find comfort.” These passages also emphasize that no circumstances of life ever prevent us from being saved by God – whether in chains or free, whether rich or poor – no one needs to be discontent because their circumstances prevent them from truly being Christians. If such circumstances did exist they would surely be reason for despair—but thanks be to God there are none! We can be content because our circumstances do not prevent our salvation. Content when we have choices and when we don’t We all suffer in some way, but in comparison to many Christians in the Bible we are faced with an endless array of choices – we can choose a career, we can choose a spouse, we can choose where we want to live, we can choose to travel, we can choose our level of education. It’s not a surprise the Bible doesn’t predict that we in the future would be faced with this array of choice, and advise us on how to wrap our minds around the dizzying display. And therefore it is not a surprise when we try to apply biblical principles to our choices instead of our sufferings, and end up at the conclusion that we should never desire anything, and never try to achieve anything. But rather than arriving at this conclusion and automatically accepting it, we should think about whether this is really correct. We are to be content in situations we can’t change, including those which are really, really hard. But our contentment in the present moment doesn’t prevent us moving from one choice to another in the future. Second, we often think contentment means being stationary unless we’re sure God means for us to move. But Paul did not always sit and wait until absolutely sure that God was sending him somewhere else. If he was called by the Spirit he followed, but he continued to work and preach in all places while waiting for the Spirit’s call. He often made plans to go to different places, or to start new missions. When the Spirit of God prevented him from preaching throughout Asia Minor, he continued trying in place after place until he reached the sea – only then did he realized he was being called to Macedonia. In other words, sometimes we are not sure what we should do, but we do not necessarily have to wait for a firm confirmation from God before every action. Content in the day-to-day faithfulness Lastly, we are often discontent with our lives not because of the goals but because of the mundane tasks and the drudgery. Our actions seem so little, and so dull. We cry, like me and my friend did when we were having coffee, “I just want to work in God’s kingdom!” But perhaps the cathedral builders did the same, as they painstakingly placed stone on stone for hundreds of years, unable to see the buildings we’d gasp at in wonder today. Perhaps our grandparents did the same as they struggled to get their children to listen to a Bible story, not knowing if the generations who’d follow would do the same. When we ask God to use our lives according to His plans, we sometimes suppress a fear that God doesn’t want us to go anywhere, or do anything. This is our fear when we walk into the office and face a mountain of paperwork that needs to be done but hardly seems worthwhile – am I really contributing to God’s kingdom, we wonder? But our God is not a God of waste. If we are to be ordinary, it will be worthwhile. Our call to contentment brings us to a new understanding, where ordinary labour is not undervalued. We are not pressured to all conform to the mould of world-changer. We can put our hand to the task in front of us without fear our efforts will be washed from the earth, because we know they’re seen by the eyes of God. Conclusion What, then, is contentment? First, it is a focus on the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the world. It shifts our focus from yearning for the things of this world, such as money, fame, or power. We can trust there are eternal things that we are building, and contentment means that we can rest. Second, it is not a struggle with God over what can’t change. While we are not called to passivity, in our lives we will sometimes be told “no.” This is where we are most often tempted to fight, not necessarily with our actions, but with a rebellious spirit that insists on despising the situation forced on us. Only by looking to God in His Word and in prayer will we find the strength to turn back to contentment again. When my friend and I left the cafe, our lives were still the same as when we had come in. Yet somehow Christian company and very good coffee gave us new capacity to rest in the goodness of God. Harma-Mae Smit blogs at HarmaMaeSmit.com. ...
Adult biographies, Adult non-fiction
Shocked by Augustine's Confessions
There are many classics I mean to read in my life, but I just haven’t yet. Fortunately this summer, while laid up with an injury, I found myself facing Augustine’s Confessions without an excuse. So I dove into it. And I was quite shocked – not by any of his confessions, but how readable it is. You always imagine classics to be quite unreadable, which doesn’t really make any sense, because how could anything become a classic unless people read it? But whatever the case, this classic is engaging. FREE TO QUESTION The best thing about the first few chapters is all of Augustine’s questions. Instead of doing what most books do, which is pose a question (such as ‘Why does a good God allow evil?’) and then immediately answer it, Augustine just begins with posing questions. Many chapters start with a block of questions directed towards God, and Augustine doesn’t even pretend he has answers to most of them. If he has part of an answer, or a thought about the answer, he’ll say it, but it’s not from a position of authority. His bits of answers are not presented as definitive. He just lets his mind go wild with wonder over God. I’d give a few examples, but to baldly state the questions in my own words destroys his beautiful wording of them. I’ll just say one or two – for example, haven’t you ever wondered whether you have to know God first before you cry out to him, or if you can cry out to him in order to know him? And haven’t you ever wondered how a God who’s outside time, and created time, experiences time? AN ATTRACTIVE HUMILITY The unexpected thing about this is Augustine is such a revered figure in the church. He’s more or less the ancestor of many of the churches that exist. So much of Christian theology has roots that go back to his writings. So I expected him to present himself as an expert. It was refreshing because I haven’t read a book that admitted it didn’t have the answers for a long time. Most often people write books because they do think they have the answers. Or they write because they think people need the answers, so they cobble together some kind of explanation. They know their book won’t attract our precious divided attention if they don’t make bold claims. But Augustine shocked me because he’s not presenting himself as the pattern the Church after him should follow…even though the Church does. (At least, he doesn’t present that way in the first part of Confessions.) If anyone has a right to make bold claims, it would be Augustine, of all writers. Some translations of Augustine’s "Confessions" can be easily found online and downloaded for free. But the free versions often have older language, with "Thees" and "Thous." A more current, very readable (but not free) version is Benigus O’Rourke’s translation pictured here. – JD This is not to say Augustine is completely uninterested in answers. No, in fact much of his search for God is driven by his dissatisfaction with the answers given by his pagan worldview. And finding a few answers was central in his conversion – he explores answers more and more the further you delve into his book. However, the questions never stop. In the end, he is willing to have faith without answering every question that could be asked about God. QUESTIONS ASKED IN FAITH The second really cool thing about Confessions is that, unlike if I was the one asking the questions, Augustine is able to ask them without a trace of cynicism. He doesn’t resent God for not providing answers to all of them. Somehow Augustine is able to put down all his wonderment with the deepest humility, and in a fever of steadfast love. He’s asking because he loves God. He wonders because a person is obviously interested in the ones they love. I can only hope I present a similar attitude one day. If someone had wanted me to read Confessions before now, they should not have described it as Augustine’s autobiography, or however else people describe the book. They should have said, “Here’s a guy who lived a couple thousand years ago, who has a mind that works just like yours.” It’s crazy to reach across the centuries and find a thought pattern that feels familiar. And as for the unanswered questions? This is what Augustine says about them: “Let ask what it means, and be glad to ask: but they may content themselves with the question alone. For it is better for them to find you, God, and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you.”...