Making alterations: Resizing virtue to fit

Everyone wants to be virtuous. It’s part of our DNA. We are born pursuing a standard. We long to fit, or at least fit in. This is just as true of the felon as it is of the lawyer, of the prostitute as it is of the priest.

But what if we do not fit? What if we are not virtuous? There are two courses of action available to us. We can change ourselves to fit the virtue or we can change the virtue to fit us.

I recently bought a pair of trousers off the clearance rack at an Eddie Bauer Outlet. They were quite nice, and the original price on the tag was high. But they had repeatedly been marked down and now they were going for a song. And they just happened to be my size. So I bought them.

But they didn’t fit me. There was an extra inch or two in the waist. They were certainly not the size the tag displayed. So we asked a friend who does alterations to take them in.

That seems to me to be what happens with the virtues. We see them and think, “Yes, I would look good in that (particular virtue). And I’m sure it will fit me. It’s just my size.” Then when we try to wear that virtue we find that it doesn’t fit. It’s too tight or too big. So instead of changing ourselves, we alter the virtue to fit us.

Take chastity, for example. It wasn’t too long ago that a person who was chaste did not engage in sexual relations outside its proper place. President Clinton famously altered the definitions of “sexual relations” in order to preserve a virtuous image for himself. But it is more common still to alter the meaning of “its proper place.”

In previous generations, everyone knew the proper place for sexual relations: inside marriage. But authors and scriptwriters began floating the idea that the proper place for sex was inside a committed relationship. As long as you were really committed to the other person, you could have sex and still be virtuous – never mind how long the commitment lasts.

But in recent decades that too has been altered. It’s no longer about committed relationships, it’s about being true to one’s own feelings. As long as people are honest about their feelings (which were once called “lusts”), they will not forfeit their virtue by having indiscriminate sex. Being true to one’s own feeling is now the benchmark of virtue.

The virtue of courage – standing up for what is right, even at the risk of personal harm – has also been altered. The courage celebrated today is an end in itself. It does not stand up for what is right; it stands up in order to be noticed. Or to be thrilled. Bravery has become bravado.

The virtue of tolerance has undergone radical alteration. A tolerant person once put up with people he believed to be in error; he tolerated them, though he was convinced they were wrong. But to be tolerant today one must never suggest that anyone is wrong. Being tolerant now means accepting everyone’s views (and behaviors) as equally legitimate.

Some virtues have not been altered but abandoned to the back of the closet. They are simply not fashionable in today’s climate. Prudence is a good example. Prudence, which is one of the so-called Cardinal Virtues, is all about thinking clearly, seeing where an action will lead and considering its consequences before acting. In an age when feelings are the benchmark of virtue, prudence is about as fashionable as a bowler hat.

Patience is another virtue that has fallen out of favor. Only the powerless and the poor have to wait, and no one wants to be included in their ranks.

This alteration of the virtues is only possible if virtue (and vice) are merely human constructs, arbitrarily chosen. But if the virtues are objective qualities, we’re only fooling ourselves. They cannot be altered to fit us. We have to be altered to fit them.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, August 20, 2014

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You are worth more than you think

How much are you worth? That depends on who is paying the bill. A chemist could get about 50 dollars out of your body (though the cost of extracting the chemicals would be prohibitive). Airlines value a person at about two-and-a-half million, for insurance purposes. Your employer assigns you a value in the form of the salary and benefits package he provides.

The seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes stated bluntly that a person’s worth was equal to the amount society was willing to pay for what he can do. “The ‘value’ or ‘worth’ of a man,” said Hobbes, “is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power.”

Using an economic scale to gauge human worth has a long history. It is, I think, the way Americans routinely assess worth, but it is hardly the only way. If I give my time to someone, I am making a statement about that person’s worth. Listening is a powerful expression of another’s worth. Even the exercise of good manners makes a statement about the value of those with whom one comes in contact.

But in America, it is hard for us to escape the idea that a person’s value is tied to his wage or, as Hobbes put it, “his price.” This way of thinking shows itself in the ongoing debate about raising the minimum wage. It is a hotly contested and complex debate and both sides make important points. Yet it seems to me they both begin with the assumption that a person’s worth is primarily instrumental – that is, tied to his usefulness – rather than intrinsic.

I believe that assumption to be false and harmful. False because it mistakenly regards society as the final authority on human worth and harmful because it leads the wealthy to disregard the poor and the poor to discredit themselves. Worse, because it measures worth in terms of production, it sees the unborn, the elderly and the mentally challenged as lacking value.

The national disgrace of 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade is evidence that some Americans do not value the unproductive (and potentially costly) unborn. The growing number of states in which assisted suicide is legal suggests that Americans increasingly devalue the aged and infirm. Or it might be that the aged and infirm, rooted in a Hobbesian appraisal of value, believe themselves to be without worth.

One can easily imagine a chronic sufferer in Oregon deciding to commit suicide not because he wants to die – he really doesn’t – but because he doesn’t want to make his family pay (in time and money) for a life which he has been taught is without value. And it is frightfully easy to imagine people who subtly communicate that assessment to their aging family member.

To assign individual worth on the basis of usefulness is to regard people merely as a means to an end. As such, they cannot be the objects of love but only the instruments of advancement. Are there no grounds upon which we can say that every person is valuable?

There are grounds for affirming the worth of every human being, but they are mostly hallowed grounds – that is, religious – and society is reluctant to stand on them. Most religions consider human life sacred, though some only reluctantly ascribe worth to those outside their creed. The one with which I am most familiar, Christianity, assigns great value to all human life, Christian or otherwise.

The basis for this assessment does not lie with society’s appraisal of human life, but with God’s. He values human life as its creator and guardian, but also as its redeemer. So the apostle Peter writes, “…it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you … but with the precious blood of Christ.” As humanity’s creator, God alone has the right to assign a value to human life, and he set it as high as is possible. That means you are worth more than you think – much more.

Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, August 23, 2014

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New Messages Posted

In July we started a new series at LCC – Re-YOU - which is all about becoming the person God made you to be. There is a process God follows in spiritual formation, and in this series we discover what that looks like. You can now listen to the first two messages: Insight, Decision, Implementation, July 13; When He Came To…, July 20. Click “From the Pulpit Page” in the mast for the link.

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Can we forgive when we are still angry?

One of the great examples of forgiveness in our time comes from Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian woman who, during the Second World War, was arrested by the Nazis for harboring Jews. She was imprisoned, along with her sister, Betsie, in a concentration camp and subjected to brutal and degrading treatment. Betsie, and four other ten Boom family members, died as a result of the treatment they suffered in prison. Only Corrie survived the concentration camps.

Years later, at the conclusion of a speaking engagement, Corrie came face to face with the cruelest and most heartless of all her prison guards. The very thought of him had been too painful to bear. He had humiliated and degraded Corrie and her sister again and again. He had jeered and sexually harassed them as they stood in the delousing shower. He had treated them like animals. In her mind, this man was evil incarnate, the embodiment of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp. To her surprise, he now approached her with outstretched hand and said, “Will you forgive me?”

Corrie later wrote, “I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I knew that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed, ‘Jesus, help me!’ Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother,’ I cried with my whole heart. For a long time we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did that moment!”

It may surprise you to know that this remarkable woman, who could in one extraordinary moment forgive her greatest enemy, was still at times plagued by bitterness and painful memories. On another occasion, after sincerely forgiving a person who had hurt her, Corrie found that she couldn’t stop rehashing the incident in her mind. After many sleepless nights, she cried out to God for help. She tells what happened next in her own words:

“His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure… ‘Up in that church tower,’ he said, nodding out the window, ‘is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope the bell keeps on swinging. First ‘ding’ then ‘dong.’ Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down’.”

Corrie continues: “And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations . . . but the force – which was my willingness in the matter – had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.”

Like Corrie, if a person is to forgive, he must take his hands off the rope, and he mustn’t be surprised if the painful emotions and angry thoughts continue for a while. When such thoughts come, the best way to banish them is to pray for the offender – to pray for his well-being, his health, his family. This is in line with Jesus’ wise instruction: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

A person who reaches out to God in prayer every time angry, painful thoughts come, will find both their frequency and intensity reduced, and his or her disposition toward the offender transformed. But not only will the person’s relationship to the offender be changed, his or her connection to God will be significantly strengthened as well.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/16/14

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Clearing away the confusion surrounding forgiveness

In what is arguably the most oft-recited Scripture text in history, Jesus teaches his apprentices how to pray. We call this, “The Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father Prayer,” but it might be more accurate to call it, “The Disciple’s Prayer.” It was given as part of Jesus’ brilliant Sermon on the Mount and was meant to serve as a pattern for the disciple’s own prayers.

Jesus apparently felt one part of the prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” required clarification. Immediately following the prayer, he explained: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” With these shocking words Jesus puts us on notice: Our forgiveness is related to our choice to forgive.

Experience has taught me that many people struggle with this issue. They know, all too well, that they need forgiveness, and genuinely want to forgive those who have hurt them, but they don’t know how. When the pain of the past still washes over them like ocean waves, leaving a residue of bitterness and profound sorrow, what can they do?

The fact that God’s forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive can be unsettling, but one can learn to use that dynamic to one’s own advantage. A person who relishes God’s grace in forgiving his sins will find the grace necessary to forgive others’ sins, which is why Paul says, “Forgive, as in Christ God forgave you.” One ought to give thanks for God’s forgiveness, even bask in it. Only those who have experienced forgiveness can fully extend it.

“Forgive . . . as he forgave you.” If God’s forgiveness is the standard, then we must attempt to understand how he forgives. When God forgives us, for example, does he say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Forget it. It was nothing”? Not at all. In fact, he takes sin so seriously that he sent his Son to die for it. Offering forgiveness never minimizes the seriousness of the offense.

The idea that it does has prevented many people from experiencing the freedom that forgiveness brings. If I believe that forgiveness requires me to act as if abuse, deceit, or adultery – offenses that may have turned my life upside-down – are something trivial, best ignored, I simply will not be able to forgive. But the truth is, trivial things don’t require forgiveness; sin does. Forgiveness isn’t – and needn’t – be offered for idiosyncrasies or foibles or personality conflicts. It is offered for sin. God won’t ignore sin. He takes it so seriously that he insists on forgiving it.

People who have suffered physical and sexual abuse as children often struggle with forgiveness right at this point. If forgiving one’s abuser implies that his or her sin was insignificant, then it can only mean that the victim’s life is also insignificant. But rather than implying that sin doesn’t matter, forgiveness insists that it matters very much.

Forgiving as he forgave us also means forgiving completely. Some people hold out forgiveness like a carrot on a stick or offer it a piece at a time so that they can be in control. But God forgave “all our sins” (Ps. 103:3). Some people use the possibility of forgiveness or the threat of unforgiveness as an instrument to manipulate another’s behavior. This is especially common with parents and their children, but it is always counterproductive. God does not act this way with us, and we must not act this way with others. Forgiveness cuts the chains of the past, it does not use them as marionette strings to control someone else’s behavior.

Does forgiving as God forgave also require us to forget? No, we cannot forget on demand, but we can refuse to remember. Clara Barton, the founder of The American Red Cross, was reminded of an offense, but didn’t seem to remember. Her friend said, “Sure you remember what she did to you!” But Clara responded, “No, I distinctly remember forgetting that!” It’s not that she couldn’t remember, but that she chose not to, which is just how God forgives us.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/9/14

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The refusal to forgive chains a person to the past

A relationship with God is like a Baroque music composition: there is a point (what God must do) and a counterpoint (what we do in response). The point/counterpoint structure provides the soundtrack to a life of faith. Point: “He first loved us.” Counterpoint: “We love him.” Point: “He gave himself for us.” Counterpoint: “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Point: “The mercies of God.” Counterpoint: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices.” Point: “He has forgiven you in Christ Jesus.” Counterpoint: “Forgive one another.”

When point is present without counterpoint, the soundtrack of our lives loses its power and our talk about God rings hollow. If that continues – God’s work without our response – our children and friends will naturally tune out anything we have to say about God.

There are plenty of examples of the point/counterpoint composition when it comes to forgiveness. Consider these from the lips of Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Listen to the same point/counterpoint structure in the words of Paul. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We may be tempted to explain away these challenging words, but we must not do so. This is serious business.

The novelist and teacher Frederich Beuchner writes, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Unforgiveness not only ruins the music of one’s life, it can destroy the instrument as well. People’s lives and relationships – and even their bodies – can be damaged because they either refuse to forgive or refuse to believe that they can forgive. Unforgiveness stops the Christ-follower dead in his tracks, and he cannot follow any further until it is cleared away.

Here is the irony: In refusing to forgive, a person feels that justice is being served, that the offender is being made to pay for his sin. But the person who pays most – both spiritually and relationally – is not the offender, but the offended.

A man was once driving by a farm when he saw something in the farmyard that made him sick: an eagle chained and manacled to a stake. He swung the car around and went back to talk to the farmer. He asked him how much money he would take for the eagle. The farmer quoted some exorbitant sum and the man, without haggling, reached for his wallet. He then told the farmer to unclasp the manacle and free the magnificent bird. Grumbling, the farmer obeyed and released the eagle, but it didn’t fly. It continued to walk in a circle around the stake, as it had done a thousand times before.

This is a picture of the person who, freed by Christ’s forgiveness, still clings to his own injuries. He is chained to his past and will never soar again until he has unlocked the chain that binds him. Whether he realizes it or not, he already possesses the key: Forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/2/14

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Are we hardwired to believe in God?

There have been repeated studies over recent years that have suggested that humans are hard-wired for religion, including Dean Hamer’s book-length treatment, “The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes.” Scientists have linked structures within the limbic system of the brain with belief in God or other spiritual realities. Charles Darwin himself acknowledged, “… a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal.”

I don’t think we can make much of such studies. Even if it could be scientifically demonstrated that we are hard-wired for faith, it wouldn’t prove that God was the one who ran the wires. The case could conceivably be made that religious belief serves an evolutionary purpose: that it was not God who wired us for faith but, paradoxically, natural selection.

Yet before we discard these studies, it might be worth asking: If God created and wired us to seek for him (an idea endorsed by St. Paul in Acts 17:27 – “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him…”), what would that “wiring” look like? How would it express itself in real life?

If God created humans and wired them to seek him, we would expect to find religious belief virtually impossible to eradicate. And of course that is just what we find, and not merely anecdotally. Under communism, the Soviets and the Chinese made continual attempts to eradicate religious belief from their citizens, particularly from their children.

Under Mao, temples, churches and mosques were closed. Religious books were burned, clergy arrested, and children indoctrinated to believe that religion was just superstition – an instrument used by foreign powers to infiltrate and control the Chinese people. Even now, ChinaAid reports that persecution of Christians is ongoing in China and even getting worse.

And yet, after trying to stamp out religious belief for generations, China is now home to more Christians than any other country in the world. That is the kind of thing we might expect to happen, if God created humans and wired them to seek him.

We would also expect to find people praying. According to a report in The Washington Times, “Americans pray. A lot. Ninety percent have a spiritual interlude with God every day, according to a study released … by Brandeis University.”

Surprisingly, even atheists pray. According to a survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, seventeen percent of atheists say they take part in daily, weekly or monthly prayer.

Another thing we would expect to find, if God created humans, is the desire to have a right standing – to be justified, to borrow the theological term – with God or the universe or some transcendent moral standard. And indeed, we find this desire to be almost universal.

We see examples of this desire in literature and the arts (think of Shylock), but also in ourselves and in others. I have sat in jail cells with murderers, rapists, and child molesters, all of whom argued for their righteousness. They did so not on the grounds of their innocence but on the grounds that others were to blame. It was the way they were raised, it was the drugs and alcohol they used, or it was the victim’s fault. But it couldn’t be theirs. They were justified.

Not only is the desire to be righteous universal, so is the idea that an objective standard of right behavior exists, which is just what we would expect if humans were created by God. What’s more, this standard is remarkably consistent across time and cultural boundaries.

In his book “The Abolition of Man,” C. S Lewis identifies a standard of behavior that cuts across times and cultures and is accepted by both ancient and modern societies, religious and secular. From where does this surprisingly uniform code of “justified” behavior derive? A possible answer – certainly a logically consistent one – is that it derives from a just creator.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/16/14

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