…but I’m totally there, dude.
…but I’m totally there, dude.
Jesus is called the “prince of peace”, and rightly so. But I don’t think we usually understand what that means. The prince of peace is — and must be — a conqueror. He must be a warrior. The prince of peace does not reconcile the warring elements within our nature; he does not reconcile good and evil. He destroys evil. He brings the dawn of a new peaceful era by waging warfare for us, in us, and (God willing) with us.
God, I repent of every time I have sought peace through the reconciliation of my spirit with my flesh. I resolve to see my flesh crucified on the battlefield of a Holy War, so that peace might be with me this day and forevermore. Make my enemies your footstool, that they might leave me and all your people at peace.
I am sitting in Starbucks, reading about the cave image in Plato’s Republic, reading about the way that the light of the sun illuminates reality and makes it hard to discern the objects that lurk in darkness. Meanwhile, the sun shines brilliantly through the window into my eyes, and onto my computer screen. In the dazzling light, I can hardly make out the letters on my computer screen.
Is the internet a new version of Plato’s cave? Are we frittering away our lives in unreality, while the sun beckons to us each moment about something else, something new, something bright and warm — some reality I can hardly even begin to imagine? Who shall lead me up the difficult pass, and into the light of day?
We usually think about the “flesh” in Paul’s letters as a principle focused on sexual or sensual gratification. This reading is not entirely arbitrary, but it is extremely limited. In Romans 8:6, Paul gives us a characterization of the flesh that we would be wrong to ignore: “the attention of the flesh is focused on death, but the attention of the spirit is focused on life and peace.”
We should ask, here, immediately, where our attention is focused. What are you intent on? Paying the bills? Entertainment? Doing your job well? Pleasing people? Fulfilling your desires for food or sexual pleasure?
THAT is the work of your flesh, if it distracts you from God’s work in your life. All these things are, biblically, vitally focused on death. Why do you worry about paying the bills? Because you fear that the “treasures” you have here on earth will be lost to you — because you fear death, or a kind of death. All the objects of fleshly attention carry with them some sort of anxiety about death or meaninglessness, and all of them keep us from the love of God — from life and peace, from the life of the birds of the air, whose needs their heavenly Father attends to.
This insight, I believe, opens up Romans 7-8 in a powerful way to all people — and just as importantly, to people whose struggle with sensual sins might distract them from the core anxieties that constantly fuel the flesh. We ALL tend to be concerned overmuch about the world; we just do it in different ways. When Jesus and Paul challenge THAT attachment, we all sometimes feel perfectly hopeless to change it — how can I stop being concerned with these things that are, literally, my lifeblood? “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
As if Paul didn’t think we were hopeless enough, he piles on the hopelessness in verse 8, one of the simplest and shortest verses of the New Testament: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Except that’s not what it says. Yes, this is one of those times where I show off my knowledge of Greek. (Look, mom! No lexicons!) The verse says this, when properly translated: “While someone is in the flesh, he cannot please God.” The point is not that God is constantly displeased with us because we often worry. The point is that God is not pleased with us when we worry, when we focus on pleasure, when we obsess about our jobs, when we fear for the futures of our families.
The verse is a perpetual instruction. Want to make your Daddy happy with you? Stop with this flesh business! When? Now. Worry about tomorrow tomorrow. “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”
What do we do with the flesh? The same thing they did with Jesus’s flesh: we crucify it. We “remain” in the Spirit, in the vine, by constantly redirecting our attention toward Him who is at every moment redeeming us. The Spirit “lives” in us, and the Father will “make alive our death-prone bodies” just as He raised Christ up from the grave. The futility of the flesh is realized, decisively, upon the cross — the moment of pure hopelessness, for those that lack faith — but the vitality of the Spirit is realized in the Resurrection. Even so, every time we turn from the flesh and heed the Spirit, we reenact the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our bodies, so that “in our bodies the life of Christ may be revealed” (2 Cor. 4).
And every turn brings joy and delight to our heavenly Father!
There is a law of sin and death at work in me, and in you. Think about that. It’s not merely that I sometimes do bad things. It’s that evil is a law — a rule — at work within me. I am occupied. As John Donne puts it, in his love poem to God: “I, like a usurped town, to another due, / Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end / Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, / But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.”
My crimes, my sins, these both are and are not my own. They are the work of that law that makes me “do what I hate” (Rom. 7:15). And yet, they are my responsibility — for, in God’s economy, it is only by taking responsibility for my crimes that I can be freed from them. I let the dragon in the door, and thereby made myself accountable for the havoc it has wreaked upon my life. It is my dragon. But it is not my dragon to coddle or to forgive or to be kind to. It is my dragon to destroy.
My friend Josh and I have been having some discussions lately about sin, condemnation, and redemption. (Josh blogs here). We decided to do a series together on Romans 8, a chapter that — I think — should become a central rallying point for anyone who attempts to wage a battle against sin. This is my first entry in that series. I’ll just be looking at the first few verses of Romans 8.
In the sections leading into chapter 8, Paul describes the Old Testament law, a law which both (a) created the possibility of sin, and (b) created the possibility of redemption. I will call this the “Law”, with a capital L. Then, in Romans 7, Paul introduces another law: we might call this the “law of concupiscence”. The Law is spiritual; Paul is not spiritual. The law of concupiscence is — unlike the Law and unlike Paul — carnal. The human person is neither spiritual nor carnal, but rather subject to both spirit and flesh. He is divided between “ton eso anthropon” (the inward man, Rom. 7:22) and “ton exo anthropon” (the outward man). In other words, he is a battleground.
The power of a law — any law — is its power to condemn. The law of concupiscence drives on almost infallibly toward the violation of the Law of God. By following one law, we are condemned by another. This is the experience I’ve had with pornography addiction: when I follow the law at work in my members (the “addiction”), I am condemned, and condemned, and condemned. If Romans 8 did not exist, I might assume — logically enough — that this condemnation came from God.
But Paul says quite clearly it is not from God. There is NO condemnation if I am IN Christ Jesus. Why not? Because He has taken it upon Himself. “He who knows no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5). Whenever the devil tells me I am unrighteous in myself, the proper response is to say that I am righteous in Jesus. Blessed be God for that wonderful truth!
The only person who is not worthy of condemnation is an innocent man. The only innocent man is Jesus Christ.
But this is the reality of the crucifixion: that now, when God the Father looks at me to assess my guilt, He sees Jesus Christ His precious Son. It is unthinkable to condemn me, so long as I am in Him — so long as I am in the vine. Romans 8:1 is the central rallying cry of everyone who longs for innocence. It is here, forever, when I offer myself up to the Father in pure and eternal gift.
To quote Jars of Clay, “He has washed us in His blood. He presents our souls to God.” Innocence at last!
To be a son, in biblical terms, means to be subject to a rightful inheritance. All Hebrew or Greek sons inherited portions of their father’s wealth; there was no single heir. Nevertheless, an inheritance could be withdrawn, and sons were compelled to give honor and service to their family in order to receive their rightful lot.
The prodigal son’s father was under no compulsion to give him an early inheritance — in fact, he could have taken the request for an early inheritance as a reason to disinherit him. When my son says, “Give me my inheritance now”, does this not mean, “I wish you were dead”? The son took advantage of his father’s virtue and humility, knowing very well that his father was not the type of person to disinherit at such a request.
Another biblical father, however, is not known for his virtue nor his humility:
John 8:43-44: Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
What does it mean to be a son, here? It means to want what your father wants. Those who are in submission to the devil desire what the devil desires — indeed, when we are slaves to sin, we are very good sons of our infernal father. What is our inheritance, if we follow the devil? We will become like him, with all his resources: we will be selfish and destructive and deceitful. We will — as the prodigal son did — wish death on all those who stand in the way of our desires.
Our heavenly father will, in turn, die for us.
But not because he wants us to get what we want; rather, because he wants us to learn the emptiness of any inheritance on our own terms. We were sons in Eden, but we are not sons anymore — that ship has flown. And yet, in Christ Jesus, there is a new thing: a new sort of sonship. It is not the sonship of a natural son, but that of an adopted son. By the action of the Spirit, we become the adopted sons and heirs of the living God.
Galatians 3:27-28: For you are all now sons of God because of faith in Christ Jesus. After all, everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
There are two points here: (1) We are sons and heirs, and (2) We are ONE son and heir, since we are one in Christ Jesus. Who is God’s son? Jesus. Logical conclusion: we are Jesus.
Rational correction: Eeek, we’re not Jesus!
But wait. Yes, we must be Jesus. If we are to be worthy, if we are to be heirs, we cannot be anyone else than Jesus Christ. My identity must be IN Christ; it must be wholly subsumed to Christ. How can this be? Well, I will be the HEIR of God precisely when I desire what my Father desires. It is not OK, then, for me to want what I want, and follow Christ despite my ungodly desires. No, I must aspire to desire all and only the things that the Father desires. I must place myself at the mercy of my Father as a servant, and allow Him to treat me as an heir.
This, my friends, is precisely what I do every solemn sacrifice of the mass. Indeed, it is aptly summarized by one of the prefaces to the Eucharistic offering, perhaps the most beautiful words I have ever heard:
So great was Your love that You gave us Your Son as our redeemer. You sent Him as One like ourselves, though free from sin, that You might see and love in us what You see and love in Christ. Your gifts of grace, lost by disobedience, are now restored by the obedience of Your Son.
When God the Father sees in us what He sees in Christ, then His gifts to us — our inheritance — is restored. We are sons, because the Son lives in us. Thanks be to God!
A little Greek…
Πάντες γὰρ υἱοὶ Θεοῦ ἐστε διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ· ὅσοι γὰρ εἰς Χριστὸν ἐβαπτίσθητε, Χριστὸν ἐνεδύσασθε. οὐκ ἔνι Ἰουδαῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην, οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος, οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ· πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς εἷς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.
My translation: “For you are all now SONS of God because of faith in Christ Jesus. After all, everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This passage is often used to deconstruct masculinity and femininity, but look what it says. We are all SONS. People who translate this “children of God” are missing the point. The Son was made complete/perfect through what he suffered. Just so, when we put on Christ, we are completed and brought to maturity only when we lay down our lives. This is something that we do AS Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man — but the fundamental reality behind it is the reality of SONSHIP.
We botch this in English, because “son”, for us, means merely “male child”. For the Greeks, though, “son” strongly implied “heir”. The Greeks would never call a “child” an heir, only a son. When people mistake this passage as a deconstruction of gender, they miss the radical nature of the passage: that women, slaves, and Greeks were invited to inherit the kingdom. There isn’t the slightest notion that, once a slave has been baptized into Christ, they can abandon their master, or that, once a Greek is baptized into Christ, they equivalent to a Jew.
There is, however, a sense that these sub-identities (like male or female) are subsumed to our central New Covenant identity: the identity of a son. My daughter is a daughter of Eve, but a “son” — which is to say, an heir — of the living God. The power of this language is phenomenal, and yet it has become ordinary and casual in our ears, especially when we water it down and say that we are all “children” of God.
Children, schmildren. We are sons.
So what is a son — aside from someone who receives the inheritance? I’ll leave that question for my next post…
I wish I could have been at this conference. Reports coming out of the conference are sparse so far, some of them rather obscure and slapdash, others lighthearted to the point of being offensive. The key question surrounding all such discussions, these days, seems to be whether it is best to describe oneself as “gay” and encourage others to do the same. This discussion seems like a red herring, to me. Let me explain.
Those who support Christian sexual ethics have more uniting them than dividing them. We have to be very clear on that. The devil can use mistaken terminology and mistaken theology to oppose Christian holiness, but that does not mean that the people with mistaken terminology or mistaken theology are on the “other side”. I see a lot of aggressiveness about this terminological issue, but I’m not convinced the aggressiveness is appropriate, on either side. Jesus turned over the tables of those who made his house a laughingstock, not those who misunderstood the Torah.
Chaste people who support identifying as gay are either: (A) correct, (B) wrong and deluded, or (C) wrong and devious. Some people think C is the right answer, and think that Spiritual Friendship is gay group poised to infiltrate Christian churches and change their teachings. That view is silly. No one would choose to endure the abuse SF folks get leveled at them from the gay community, if they were ultimately pawns for the gay community. The devil is devious, and may attempt to co-opt the “chaste gay” movement, but the people themselves are sincerely seeking truth and goodness.
The remaining options are A and B. The argument for B is simple:
1. Calling oneself gay involves identifying oneself with either a sin or a temptation.
2. It is wrong to identify oneself with a sin or a temptation.
3. Therefore, it is wrong to call oneself gay.
Usually, SF-type folks resist this argument by denying Premise #1. They say that there is a meaning for “gay” that is completely disassociated with sin or temptation. Nevertheless, if one were to ask them what qualifies a person as gay, I think — to a man — they would say that it is a necessary condition that a gay person be sexually/romantically attracted to the same sex. Thus, if they want to argue that a person can be gay without experiencing sinful temptation, they must find explanation for why God would gift someone with a sexual/romantic attraction the following of which would involve sin. This seems to me a Herculean task — trust me, I’ve tried my hand to solving the problem, and I always run up against a brick wall.
I think the better tack to take would be to attack Premise #2. But of course, #2 is a pretty strong premise. The only argument I see against #2 is what you might call the “alcoholics anonymous” argument. It’s a consequentialist argument, and it claims that the benefits of “identifying” as an alcoholic outweigh the harms, because identifying as an alcoholic is instrumental in healing from the damaging effects of one’s disposition to alcohol. Just so, admitting “I am gay” might, for some people, give them the capacity to flee from sin in a way they never have before.
This is hardly the sort of argument most gay-describing people (chaste or not) generally want to hear. They might respond that I am trying to introduce guilt trips and make them feel inferior in some way — after all, alcoholism is an addiction, and they don’t see being gay as anything like that.
But this is where I think God wants faithful Christians to push. The problem is not with identifying as gay; it is with identifying as gay, with the idea that being gay is a fundamentally good thing. I would say to gay folks that YOU are good, YOU are irreplaceable and awesome and a tremendous masterpiece made by the living God. But “the gay” — as Julie Rodgers calls it — is not part of the goodness that is you. It is an accretion — maybe an accretion that will never go away, maybe an accretion that (like Paul’s thorn) allows you to glorify God — but an accretion nonetheless. If telling yourself that you are “gay” makes it easier for you to act in ways that glorify God, by all means, tell yourself you are “gay”.
(My attack on #2 fails, by the way, if we are expressly forbidden — biblically or otherwise — from identifying by temptations. I don’t know of any such blanket prohibition, but there may be one).
Once we get #2 out of the way, though, we still aren’t out of the woods. This is because of 1 Cor. 1:8, concerning the knowledge that it is permissible to eat sacrificed meat:
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
Here’s what I get out of the passage: it would remain a scandal to describe oneself as gay, in situations where people would consider such an identification to involve oneself in sin. If you walk around calling yourself gay, your nephew might be inclined to do the same (if he has the relevant attractions), and your nephew might not distinguish chaste from unchaste.
Again, this will get me into trouble with many people. “If other people have bad reactions to me calling myself gay, that’s their problem, not mine.” But THAT is an un-Christian attitude. We are in charge of protecting other people’s consciences from the appearance of sin. Does this mean that you can’t tell your close friends — who “get” it — that you’re gay? No, you can do that — just as Christians probably ate sacrificed meat together sometimes, apparently. But it means that you shouldn’t publicize being gay to the world at large, probably.
These are my thoughts, not yours. And I say them knowing my own ignorance and my own sin. I am likely to be wrong about much of this. But I have thought very hard on these issues, and I very much desire to find the truth.
What do you, dear reader, think?
I am always looking for good reasons for or against people identifying as “gay”. Dr. John Cavadini, from Notre Dame, recently said the following, which pretty much summarizes the best argument I’ve heard FOR using the language of sexual orientation. I have a lot of sympathy for what Cavadini is saying here.
Suppose you have a kid who tells you they are “gay.” You try to convince him that he is “struggling with same-sex attraction.” He says, “No, I’m not, I’m gay, and I know the Church is anti-gay and I intend to leave the Church as soon as I am able.” I have seen this scenario worked out with friends of mine, with parents who are good conservative Catholics, and indeed their kid(s) have left the Church and remain hostile.
What if there were someone in the parish, self-identified as “gay,” and was public about agreeing with Church teaching on marriage. I would, if it were my kid, immediately send him to talk to this person. Someone like this person, who apparently has resources for defending Church teaching and can provide support and advice for someone, showing that it is possible for people to be this way and live this way faithfully in the Church, that there are options here, including the option of marriage (meaning as the Church understands it), and including the option of not running your life as though your sexual orientation was in fact your whole identity.
I think that such a person, self-identified as “gay,” and also equally self-identified as defending Church teaching, has something to offer, a gift, and I wonder if the Church is very good at receiving this gift. It seems that this is a way of helping someone who “struggles with same-sex attraction,” if by “helping” you mean, helps them to live according to Church teaching.
I think the option of a self-identified gay Catholic who is living according to Church teaching, defending it, and becoming more holy and loving in doing so, can be a great asset in the Church, without also going so far as to say, this is the paradigm for everyone, or that this exhausts the strategies that the Church should have. I think this is one strategy that could be very helpful and am, with this conference, trying to explore it more fully. It is not, and cannot be, the only strategy.
Every day I take a bitter pill that gets me on my way / For all the little aches and pains the ones I have from day to day / To help me think a little less about the things I miss / To help me not to wonder how I ended up like this / And the sky turns to fire / against a telephone wire / And even I’m getting tired of useless desires. – Patty Griffin
Useless desires. That’s what these are.
What good comes from my desire to be intimate with another man? That question is almost so embarrassing I won’t even put it on an anonymous blog — and yet it is a question that colors my prayer life. What is the POINT, God? Why are these stupid things here?
It’s like my dad told me to cut the lawn, and gave me a trimmer, a lawnmower, and an automatic rifle. My dad’s not one to make mistakes about these things, but what on earth am I supposed to do with the damn gun? It’s useless.
But even that’s not quite right. As I look around me, I realize that my desires are useful. The kinds of desires I have can be used to separate parents and children, to drive young men into hedonism and heedlessness, to rip apart husbands and wives, to destroy, and destroy, and destroy some more. The gun comparison is apt. This sort of sexual passion is powerful.
And yet, Saint Paul says:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I don’t understand why this desire is here, no more than I understand cancer, no more than I understand hurricanes. But I do rest in the promise that I am not capable of giving, the promise given to me, that in this — as in all things — I am “more than a conqueror” if I submit myself to the will of the living God.
Patty Griffin sings about taking a “bitter pill” that “helps me not to wonder how I ended up like this”. I’ve tasted that pill, and seen the world through pill-colored glasses. It’s a bit like being in the Matrix. Cypher says, “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
But you know what? Ignorance is hell on me, and hell on those around me. To live in a fantasy world where my desire isn’t useless, where it becomes the fulcrum of my life, where I somehow existentially “embue” it with meaning — that would mean abandoning my daddy, my brother, my precious God, who wants, more than anything, my good. Make my desire useless, Lord, that I myself might be used by You.