Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Power of Forgiveness: Forgiveness And The Christian Life (#2)

Last week we discovered that forgiveness is the act of renouncing revenge for insult or injury suffered. In forgiving those who hurt us we rely on God to do what we cannot, that is, to overcome injustice, restore our dignity and heal all wounds. Forgiveness is an act of faith.

In today’s post I want to consider the positive side of forgiveness. In forgiving, we refuse to take revenge. We don’t act. But in not acting in a destructive way, we do an act of love. The first step in loving your enemy is not returning injury for injury and insult for insult. The loving dimension in forgiveness is the space it gives for repentance. In forgiving wrongs we demonstrate the possibility of freedom from the cycle of “eye for an eye” justice. Forgiving our enemies expresses confidence in God’s power to change enemy. It is an act of loving faith, a faith that believes in the power of God’s love to do for others what it has done for us. In forgiving, we suffer by endure insult and injury for the enemy’s sake. And in suffering for our enemy we become instruments through which the suffering love of Jesus touches the enemy. This activity of suffering love brings us to the joyful side of forgiveness.

Think about the unhappiness we bring on ourselves when we keep a record of every insult and injury done to us! There is no limit and no end to the wrongs we encounter even in one day. The unforgiving, like emotional bloodhounds, can detect insult in the slightest gesture and threat of injury the least movement. The list of negative emotions associated with our sensitivity to injustice is long: fear, anger, hatred, envy, resentment, bitterness, sadness, nostalgia, regret, despair, guilt. Fear anticipates injury, and anger defends against insult. Anger becomes hatred when it is nourished with memories of ancient wrongs. Envy sees injustice in others getting what we would like to have, and resentment turns to bitterness when we feel we’ve been passed over for honors we deserve. Nostalgia unhappily remembers long passed happiness, and sadness settles in when hope of better days fades into expectation of endless disappointment. And these feelings are compounded by the dim awareness that we are responsible for our unhappiness.

But what a difference forgiveness makes! Faith in God’s power at work for us and his love toward us frees us from the power of insult and injury. In place of fear, anger, hatred, envy, resentment, bitterness, sadness, nostalgia, regret, despair and guilt, we find love, joy, peace and hope. The causes of negative emotions have been exposed as impotent. Insults are empty nothings, lies with no basis in reality. Nothing and no one can diminish our worth and dignity because it is grounded in the unchangeable love of God for us. And injury cannot touch our true lives, which are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 2:3). Hence we can forgive all wrongs. Our experience of insult and injury, instead of occasioning unhappy emotions, becomes an occasion to experience the love of Christ acting through us, healing, saving and repairing the world.

Next week we address the question, “How can God forgive?” We can love because God love us, and we can forgive because God can forgive…but what empowers God forgive?

To be continued…


Making Sense of Forgiveness: Forgiveness And The Christian Life (#1)

I am often asked about Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness: “Do we have to forgive everyone, no matter what they’ve done to us?” “Can we forgive someone who has not asked for forgiveness?” “What do we do when we cannot forgive someone?” Like many concerns that arise from trying to live the Christian life, these questions take some things for granted that we need to get on the table if we are to find satisfactory answers. For instance, what does it mean to forgive? And, is it always right to forgive? In this post I’d like to consider into some of these fundamental questions.

When someone injures or insults you, you get angry. Your first impulse is to injure and insult them in return in an act of revenge. To forgive means to renounce the act of revenge and let go the emotion of anger. I don’t want to place too much weight on this, but you can see a hint of the meaning of forgiveness even in the English word “forgive.” Instead of “giving it to them” you forgo that pleasure. And the Greek word aphesis begins with an “a” (alpha), which often negates the idea of the root word. So, forgiveness is a negative idea. It’s about not doing something that feels so natural, that is, taking revenge and harboring anger.

But what about justice? We always feel that injustice has been done when someone injures or insults us. The desire for revenge is the impulse to put things back into balance. But what happens when we forgive? Aren’t we allowing injustice to stand? Or worse, are we even justifying injustice by not punishing it? Forgiveness does not seem to address this problem. It does not put things right again. And we can’t convince ourselves that the injustice done does not matter. Something ought to be done about it! Because of Jesus’ teaching, we feel we ought to forgive, but it doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps, these problems are part reason we find it so difficult to forgive.

I think it has now become apparent that forgiveness makes sense only if we believe that God can and will make things right. We can “let go” injustice done to us because God never lets it go. Our power to forgive derives from our faith that God’s love refutes every insult and God’s power will heal every injury. In forgiveness, we deny the power of the enemy to lessen our dignity with insult or do us lasting harm with injury. We trust God to punish injustice or atone for it or overrule it and make it work for our good. Either way, God can do what we cannot. Forgiveness, then, is not an act of injustice but an act of faith.

To be continued…

Consenting Adults: Body, Soul and Sex (#4)

As I have documented in previous posts in this series, the dominant culture in western societies acknowledges no public validity to natural law, human nature, divine law, or traditional wisdom. It recognizes no natural obligations individuals have to one another. The good and the right are defined subjectively, the good being understood as what pleases you and the right as “what is right for you.” Hence modern people feel reluctant to impose moral restrictions on others or to condemn their behavior; and they feel anger toward those who do so.

Nevertheless, there is one moral principle the dominant culture can feel good about imposing on others. It is called the “harm principle”, and was most famously stated by John Stuart Mill (Liberty). We’ve all heard people say, “Do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.” It can be stated in various ways. But the principle is this: one must give an individual liberty of action up to the point where it begins to restrict the liberty of others. Hence the only condition under which our contemporaries feel justified in condemning a behavior is when one person coerces another person, that is, when one does something to another that the other does not want done to them. Whatever one does with and to oneself concerns only oneself and indeed falls completely outside the ethical sphere.

My goal today is to subject the “harm principle” to analysis, to show what it presupposes and where it leads. Clearly, the primary goal of the “harm principle” is to set limits on behavior that make sense within a fundamentally libertarian framework. (Without limits of some kind liberty becomes anarchy.) The harm principle defines the self in terms of will and the associated concepts of freedom, self-expression, authenticity, preferences, and a subjective view of the good (as the good-for-me according to my assessment). It is noteworthy that the self is not defined as God’s creature made in God’s image and responsible to God. The self is a will that does one thing: it acts to realize its desires. And it is limited only by the existence of other selves that also act to realize their desires, not in view of divine law, natural law or an objective understanding of the good passed down in tradition.

The fundamental instinct of the modern self is that it should be able to do whatever it wills. But most people stop short of advocating complete anarchy, realizing that this condition is war of each against all. Hence attempting to stay as close to the fundamental instinct as possible, they argue that liberty should be limited only by liberty itself and will by will. This move avoids appealing to human dignity, divine creation or other principles to limit liberty. In fact, the harm principle is not so much a principle as a pragmatic accommodation to the contradiction within the idea of liberty itself. There is no principle within the idea of my liberty that demands that I respect your liberty. Since modern culture refuses to acknowledge a law above human liberty, it resolves the inherent contradiction in the idea of individual liberty by turning to an even bigger will incarnated in the state. The state decides the scope and limits of individual liberty by deciding what individual or group activities cause harm to others. In a supreme irony liberty sells itself into slavery to escape its internal contradictions. Henceforth legality replaces morality.

Now let’s relate the well-worn phrase “consenting adults” to the harm principle. Our contemporaries have nothing to say about how human beings should act within, for and on themselves because they assume that when we do something with our own bodies we do so freely. The only moral question the dominant culture poses about the activities that two or more adults perform on each other concerns consent or lack thereof. There can be no rules for what two consenting adults do with each other derived from the harm principle; for harm is measured in terms of consent and coercion, not in terms of right and wrong or good and bad. To object to the activities of consenting adults one would need to appeal to other principles—human dignity, divine law, natural law—something modern culture adamantly refuses to do.

Here is the logical trajectory and emotional engine that drives the incessant change in sexual morality in contemporary culture. The dominant culture acknowledges no principle that can limit what individuals do with their solitude or what consenting adults to with and to each other. The harm principle cannot override the principle of mutual consent because “harm” is defined as coercion or lack of consent; and you cannot coerce a consenting party. As one after another formerly forbidden behavior is permitted, it is always accompanied with the judgment that no harm is being done; and if harm is defined as coercion, this judgment is self-evidently true. The human imagination is prolific in devising ways to excite pleasure or relieve pain. (Is it too much to say that it is unlimited?) And unless a third party is harmed (i.e. coerced) the modern person can make no moral objection to anything consenting adults wish to do. All claimed moral objections to behaviors that have been declared healthy by the culture will be interpreted as arising from a desire to dominate others or from sheer bigotry. And oppression and bigotry are deemed harmful to society. Since the state has been given the power to prevent harm, moral objections to approved behaviors will be subject to state coercion.

The Point of the Series

What am I trying to say in this series? (1) To those who reject divine law, natural law and traditional wisdom about what is good for human beings and celebrate maximum liberty as their sole value, I issue a warning: you are standing on the edge of the abyss of moral nihilism. Liberty is a purely negative concept. It means the absence of limits, and the absence of limits means the absence of distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong; and that is the essence of moral nihilism. If liberty to pursue your desires is your sole principle, there can be no principle by which to set limits to liberty. Such limits to liberty as the harm principle are in fact unprincipled and arbitrary impositions on liberty. It’s just a matter of time until some people transgress those limits into violence and murder in the name of liberty. If there is no God, there is no moral law; if there is no moral law, “all things are permitted.”

(2) To those who wish to remain serious Christians, I say: do not be fooled by the culture’s superficial appeals to tolerance, compassion and respect for other people’s autonomy and search for happiness. Underneath this beautiful veneer lies the rot of moral nihilism. Moral nihilism cannot affirm the good and right; it can only destroy. The dominant culture’s appeals to tolerance and compassion serve only one purpose: to undermine the idea that there is an objective good and right. Do not allow the false charge of intolerance to intimidate you into giving up or minimizing the importance of our faith that God is our Creator, that human beings are made in God’s image and are responsible to him for everything we do, and that there is a divine law and a natural law and that the Scriptures embody divine wisdom about what is good and right. Do not be deceived by the idea that desire and consent alone make an activity good or right.

End of series

Christ or Aphrodite? Body, Soul and Sex (#3)

In the previous post I placed before us an ideal for the meaning and use of our bodies. It’s a lofty ideal, I know. But it’s not too lofty given the greatness of human destiny. We don’t sink into a life devoted to sensual pleasure because we think too well of ourselves; we do not think well enough. Our noble task is to bring our bodies under the control of reason guided by divine light. In this way we participate in God’s eternal plan to unite all things to himself in Christ (Eph 1:10). By spiritualizing our bodies we make them instruments useful for bringing glory to God and communicating love to others.

By the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ unruly bodily urges can be made to serve the most beautiful harmony, as we see in Paul’s teaching about marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33. In submission to Christ, the union of husband and wife becomes a mystery participating in the Mystery of Christ’s union with the church. The union of body and soul in marriage signifies the larger uniting that is taking place in Christ. By their submission to Christ in the power of the Spirit the chaotic urges of the male and female bodies and souls are ordered, united and directed toward the higher end of the unity of all things in Christ.

As we all know, however, few people live up to this ideal. Indeed, most have never imagined it. Every society has rules about who can have sex with whom because without such rules even the most primitive civilization would not be possible. These rules and the punishments for breaking them vary from society to society and from age to age. I am not an anthropologist, but I know this: whatever the rules and punishments governing sexual behavior plenty of people will break them. And I think the explanation for this is very simple. For many, the urge for immediate sensual pleasure or acceptance is stronger than the threat of distant punishment or respect for order. To pursue this phenomenon further I would need to enter into psychology, a subject in which I have little competence, or the theology of the fall and original sin, which would lead us down a side trail. Instead, I want to deal with a cultural phenomenon that raises a very important moral question.

There is a growing trend in mainstream western culture to reject all moral and legal restraints on the use of one’s own body, especially in any area that has to do with sex. This trend involves more than the demand for tolerance. It demands approval and even celebration of whatever an individual does in this area. This cultural wave is full of ironies and contradictions, which I will point out in future posts. But for now let’s focus on the moral/philosophical perspective that underlies this cultural change and energizes it.

First, let’s consider the logic of individual autonomy or liberty, which finds its deepest roots in the seventeenth-century Enlightenment. For 350 years a significant number of western political and moral thinkers have been arguing for increasing the control individuals have over their lives and, correspondingly, lessening the sphere governed by state, society and associations. Thinkers have proposed a variety of justifications for such liberation: (1) nature has endowed individuals with reason; hence, they should be given space to use it to make their own decisions; or (2) nature has given individuals the desire for pleasure and happiness; hence, they should be given space to pursue it as they see fit. How many times have you heard the maxim that “individuals should be able to do whatever they want as long as it does not harm others”? This rule was most famously articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty (1859).

A second moral/philosophical perspective was articulated by thinkers of the Romantic Movement. Rather than basing their appeal on the power of reason common to all people, these thinkers emphasized the unique feelings and sensitivities of each individual. No two individuals are alike; hence, there is no single way of life good for everyone, no one path to happiness. Moral rules are by definition general and apply to everyone alike. But if each individual must follow a different path to find happiness, depending on their unique combination of feelings, desires and needs, conforming to a one-size-fits-all moral code will produce unhappiness and alienation in individuals. According to this perspective, to force, insist or pressure an individual into moral conformity is to condemn that person to an unhappy life.

These two moral perspectives have been at work in our culture for 300 years, in art and architecture, in literature, the performing arts, in movies and television, in education and law. In light of these two ways of evaluating human behavior, think about how the dominant culture approaches the body and sexuality. At least until it affects them negatively, the average person in our society thinks that each individual owns their own body and possesses the right to use it as they see fit. As long as an individual is not hurting anyone else, the average modern person would be unable to think of a good reason to limit that individual’s freedom to do as they wish. Any such restriction would be considered unreasonable, attributable only to bigotry, exploitation or oppression; and in our world these attitudes are considered especially detestable. Ironically, then, the demand for adherence to a universal moral code will be judged immoral by the dominant culture.

Our culture has also internalized the romantic notion that every individual is unique and must pursue a unique path to happiness. The average person can make no reasonable response to a protest of the following type: “Do you want to condemn me to a life of unhappiness? You are following your path! Let me follow mine! Do you think you deserve happiness but that I do not?” There is no answer to this complaint within the romantic view of morality. Add to the romantic view of the individual the near deification of sexual experience that dominates our culture and suppression of the individual search for happiness becomes blasphemy. (Or “hate speech” in contemporary terms.) Sexual ecstasy is portrayed as if it were the meaning of life and the only way to ultimate truth and eternal happiness. In the popular mind, to miss out on sex is to miss heaven, to be less than a full human being. And to disapprove or deny individuals whatever form of sexual fulfillment they desire is to condemn them to a living hell. No modern person could feel good about themselves for doing that, nor approve of anyone who did.

One thing is missing in all this: God. The modern culture of autonomy, self-ownership, unique individuality, sensuality, and deified sex takes no note of God, creation or the moral law. Everything is evaluated from within the human framework. But once you acknowledge God, the whole thing falls to the ground. We have to seek again for the truly good and right. And we raise our minds again to that lofty ideal and catch a vision of our true greatness: we are priests of creation and images of God whose destiny is Spirit-bonded union with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. I for one will not settle for less.

To be continued…