Category Archives: Spiritual life

Humility: The Path Along Which All Spiritual Growth Proceeds

Jeremy Taylor was one of the most influential teachers and theologians of the 17th century. His influence reaches our day through writers like Geroge Macdonald andC. S. Lewis. His two most famous works are The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. My son Kevin recently showed me some of his instructions from Holy Living on the subject of humility.

Since humility is the path along which all spiritual growth proceeds, and since “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” true humility is of greater worth than gold. Taylor makes the following suggestions for anyone who would live in the “grace of humility.”

To begin with, we need to understand that “Humility consists in a realistic opinion of yourself, namely that you are an unworthy person.” For the self-esteem generation, this assertion cannot help but seem misguided and even harmful. It is perhaps the most difficult advice Jeremy Taylor gives on the subject – and the most important.

When Taylor says we are “unworthy,” he does not mean we are worthless. Far from it: our worth is incalculable. When he says we are unworthy, he means that we have done nothing and can do nothing to merit the value God has placed on us. Until I see this is so, I will always be trying to prove myself worthy by my strength, my intelligence, my kindness or even my spirituality. I cannot “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) while at the same time trying to prove myself. It is impossible. Continue reading

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The Role of Desire in the Religious Life

Desire plays an important role in life. If it were not for desire, the human race would not propagate. God made humans in such a way that they need, and are capable of experiencing, desire.

Desire is also important in the religious life, though its role is seen in vastly different ways, depending on the religion espoused. In Buddhism, if I understand it correctly, desire (or longing) is regarded as the principal cause of suffering. Desire is the fetter that binds people and keeps them from reaching enlightenment.

The Christian view on desire is nuanced. The King James word for it is “lust,” which frequently refers to inappropriate and destructive desires (like the desire to have another person’s spouse), but occasionally refers to appropriate and healthy desires. Jesus, for example, “eagerly desired” – the word regularly translated as “lusted” – “to eat the Passover” meal with his disciples.

Buddhism approaches desire or longing as something to renounce and eventually eliminate by following the eight-fold path. There are many points of contact for Christians and Buddhists along the eight-fold path, though their underlying assumptions will be at odds and will inevitably lead them in different directions.

Christians are never asked to make a universal renunciation of desire. Such a renunciation would be counterproductive. Instead, they are told to “put to death evil desires” while cultivating healthy ones. While they know that desire can fetter a person to a life of lovelessness and suffering, they also believe that desire can be a springboard into a life full of love and contentment. They don’t want to get rid of their desires, they want to transform them. Continue reading

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Exaggerthinking

St. Paul told the Roman Church, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” (Romans 12:3, NIV). The NIV supplies the words “of yourself” – they are not in the Greek text – which is something like “do not overthink.”

It does not seem to me that Paul is saying, “Don’t be conceited,” although that is what most people take him to mean. If that is what he meant to say, Greek offered him the vocabulary to say it, a vocabulary he makes frequent use of elsewhere. But here he uses a different word, one he may have coined himself, since it appears nowhere else in the Bible.

To translate the word Paul coined, I had to coin one myself. So here is the Looper translation: “For through the grace given to me I tell every one of you not to exaggerthink…”This doesn’t necessarily refer to thinking you are more important than other people. A person who exaggerthinks may be quite humble but her mind inflates what she can do, what she is called to do, and makes her responsible for how everything turns out.

People who exaggerthink often take on more than they should, robbing other people of service opportunities and wearing themselves out in the process. That is exaggerthinking. Continue reading

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Falwell and Evangelicalism’s Theological Confusion

Evangelicalism has a problem: Evangelicals. It is not a new problem. Evangelicals have been giving evangelicalism a bad name for years. The disconnect between the gospel proclaimed by prominent evangelicals and the lifestyle exhibited by them sometimes is impossible to … Continue reading

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Is Your Soul Healthy? Take the Test

Jesus was constantly saying things that undermined society’s norms and made people uncomfortable. This was never truer than when he spoke of money.   Jesus once said: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, … Continue reading

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Reader’s Question: What About Unbelieving Friends and Family?

Helen D. asked the question in the title in response to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago (A Biblical Look into the Future). It is a familiar question. I initially responded in the comment section but we … Continue reading

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What It Means to Be Alive

The phrase “full of life” occasionally appears in print or is spoken in conversation. This or that person or, sometimes, this or that city, is said to be “full of life.” The phrase is found in many languages. German communicates it in a single word: Lebensfülle.

What does it mean for someone to be full of life? The philosopher Dallas Willard defined life as “the power to act and respond in specific kinds of relations.” He gives the example of a cabbage, which is alive and acts and responds to soil, water, and sun. A dead cabbage, though it exists, cannot act or respond.

A cat is capable of acting and responding in a greater number of relationships than a cabbage. For example, a cabbage cannot respond to a ball of string but a cat can. Neither cat nor cabbage, in my experience, responds to a word of advice. Cat lovers may disagree.

Is it possible for something or someone to be alive to one thing but not to another? Yes. The cabbage is alive to soil, sun, and rain but quite dead to a ball of string. The cat is alive to a ball of string but quite dead to Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare, for his part, was alive to cats, though he clearly didn’t like them.

In biblical literature, only God is alive in all kinds of relationships: he is “the living God.” People are alive in some kinds of relationships but not in others.
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The Chosen

St. Peter gives us a picture, drawn straight from the Old Testament, of the people who trust in Jesus (1 Peter 2:9-10). We helps us see who they are and what God intends them to do.

First, those of us who trust in Jesus are a chosen people (or race; genos, in Greek). We constitute a new global race, whatever our ancestry, whether we are Jewish or Arab or Indian or Chinese or European, or African, or American. We are the worldwide family of Jesus. We are a distinct (and distinctive) people, the people of God. We belong to each other and we belong to God.

Peter says that we are chosen. This is the second of three times that he reminds his harassed and maligned family living in Asia Minor of this encouraging truth. The world may not want them but God does. He chose them.

Garrison Keilor, creator of A Prairie Home Companion, once talked about what it means to be chosen. He used the familiar setting of a schoolyard baseball game: Continue reading

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As Good as Fingerprints: The Words We Use

The “social psychologist James Pennebaker spent years researching the significance of our words. With a team of grad students, he developed a sophisticated computer program that analyzes what our words say about us. Pennebaker claims that the words we generate over a lifetime are like ‘fingerprints.’ Even small words, or what he calls ‘stealth words’ – like pronouns (I, you, we, they) and prepositions (to, for, over) – ‘broadcast the kind of people we are.’”

Our words show who we are. They also show who we are not. A teacher who speaks of grace had better be gracious. The person who exposits the Lord’s prayer better pray and the one who teaches us to forgive had better not harbor bitterness. Does the teacher’s life match his words? He or she will be judged by them. But the same is true for all the rest of us: Does our life match our words or do our words betray us? Continue reading

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Choose a Side That Does Not Divide Us

I feel like I am in a Doctor Seuss story – like we are all in a Doctor Seuss story – a story I know. My kids and grandkids know it too: The Sneetches.

In The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss presents a race of furry yellow, long-necked, narrow-footed creatures that are nearly identical to each other in appearance. The only difference among them is that some have a star shape on their bellies while others do not. By the third paragraph, we understand that the starred sneetches feel disdain for their plain-bellied cousins.

Into the story comes the ethically challenged grifter Sylvester McMonkey McBean. He sees an opportunity to use the sneetches’ self-righteous contempt for one another to his advantage. He builds a machine that can change a sneetch so that it looks like every other sneetch.

A sneetch, at a cost to itself, goes into the machine and comes out looking just like other sneetches. The grifter, of course, cares nothing for the sneetches, only for their money. He reshapes them for his sake, not for theirs.

Sylvester has reappeared. This time around, he has created a propaganda machine that imprints ideas rather than stars. All day long, people go into the machine – that is, into network, print, and social media – where they are made to look like every other person who accessed the machine through the same entrance. Continue reading

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