Tag Archives: Spirituality

“That Pretentious Business”

Luther by Lucas CranachScott Hendrix notes Martin Luther’s comments on holiness from a sermon by Luther given on June 24, 1525.

The greatest holiness one could imagine drew us into the cloister. . . . We fasted and prayed repeatedly, wore hair shirts under woolen cowls, led a strict and austere life. In short, we took on a monkish holiness. We were so deeply involved in that pretentious business that we considered ourselves holy from head to toe.

Luther had lived as a monk for 16 years by the time he was excommunicated in 1521. Nevertheless, he came to see that monastic holiness was an unattainable goal. Luther ultimately sought a less demanding and more merciful Christianity, says Hendrix, which would liberate people from anxiety about reaching heaven and redirect their concern toward others in place of themselves (in Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer,  27, 13).

In an earlier letter, written to George Spenlein, another monk, Luther said, “Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners” (April 8, 1516, cited in Hendrix, 47).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:10-11

JamesJames 2:10-11
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Here James defends his earlier assertion that those who practise partiality are “transgressors” (parabatai), which as we have seen, was a loaded and possibly offensive accusation for a Jewish audience. Whereas in verses 8-9 he uses direct address (“If you…” – second person plural), here he shifts to third person singular with the subjunctive to indicate a hypothetical situation: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point…” (Hostis gar holon ton nomon tērēsē ptaisē de en heni).

James assumes that his listeners in the messianic congregation are, like himself, Torah observant, aiming to “keep” the law as an expression of the divine will, to practise it, and to guard it from violation. His emphasis on the whole law was typical in Judaism and in at least some sectors of the early church. Jesus taught that “not an iota, not a dot” in the law can be overlooked, and even the “least of these commandments” must be kept (Matthew 5:18-19). So, too, Paul noted that the obligation of one who accepted the law was to the whole law (Galatians 5:3). Behind this sense of the unity of the law is the unity of the one lawgiver (James 4:12). The will of the one God is expressed in the one law, of which each command and instruction is a constituent part. Therefore to fail in one point—in this case, the command against partiality (Leviticus 19:15), itself a part of the love command which is the centre and sum of the law’s requirement—is to “become accountable for all of it” (gegonen pantōv enochos). Simply put, because the law is the singular expression of the will of God, to stumble or falter in one aspect of it, no matter how small or insignificant, is to become answerable or liable (enochos) to the whole law.

James extends his explanation with a specific illustration in verse eleven. “For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder’” (Ho gar eipōn, Mē moicheusēs, eipen kai, Mē phoneusēs). The first point to note here is James’ conviction that God has spoken his commandments, specifically these commandments found in the so-called second table of the Decalogue. As such, the commandments are the expressed will of God. Second, although the commandments are in themselves distinct, they express the one will of the one God. Third, we note that James has here reversed the order of the sixth and seventh commandments, though this reversal is probably insignificant (cf. Paul in Romans 13:9; and Luke’s report in 18:20). More interesting is why James chose to illustrate his point with these particular commands. The on-going relevance of the Decalogue for the New Testament church, and especially the “second table” is undoubted, and as we have already noted, the commands against murder and adultery are specifically mentioned multiple times by different authors. In Jesus’ list of antitheses, these two commands occupy pride of place, although in their usual order (see Matthew 5:21-30). James will also allude to both commands again in chapter four, verses two and four:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. … Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

In this text, at least with respect to adultery, James uses it as an analogy for his hearers’ relation to God. Spiritually speaking, they are adulterers. Is James similarly accusing them metaphorically, of murder? Certainly there are disputes, quarrels and disunity among them, which Jesus insisted was a violation of the seventh commandment (Matthew 5:21-26). It may be that James is extending the analogy that Jesus has already drawn: just as anger and insults constitute a violation of righteousness indicated in the murder command, so any failure to love one’s neighbour is a similar violation.

“Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (Ei de ou moicheueis phoneueis de, gegonas parabatēs nomou). Thus, the violation of the law at a single point—here the love command—makes one a transgressor. For James, obedience to the law is an all-or-nothing proposition, and his hearers’ partiality against the poor has rendered them guilty before God.

Two final points are needed here lest I leave a wrong impression. First, James is making a rhetorical point here in order to accuse his hearers and hopefully stimulate a change of their behaviour with respect to the poor. Thus, his reference to keeping the “whole law” must be understood in terms of the illustration he is giving, rather than as a theological point in which he insists that Christians must keep the whole Mosaic law, including the ceremonial detail and so on (see my comment on 1:25 and 2:8 where I explore James’ understanding of the ongoing relevance of the law in the life of the messianic congregation). Second, James is not commending a heroic spirituality of moral perfectionism. He knows as well as any that such perfection is impossible. While he insists on ethical rigor with respect to our relation to God’s will, he is also aware that it is only by grace that we stand in the presence of God (4:6-10), and that we remain ever in need of God’s forgiveness which thankfully, is also freely offered (5:16-20).

More Hugh Mackay

Hugh MackayOn Tuesday I gave a brief review of Hugh Mackay’s Infidelity. Here are a few more insights from the book, asides from Mackay the psychologist, which sparked an interest as I read. The first comes as Tom is discussing Sarah’s past with her mother, Elizabeth, and has relevance for the kinds of spirituality we nurture in the church, and especially in our youth and young adults groups. Elizabeth says of Sarah:

She went wild over religion, too. There was more than a bit of overlap, in fact. I think a lot of adolescents confuse spirituality and sexuality – don’t you, Tom? Or is it just that churchgoing covers all that steaminess in a cloak of respectability? (276)

The second finds Tom reflecting on the nature of intimate relationships, salient as a warning for all couples, and more broadly, for any kind of relationship:

I had heard plenty of clients describe the frightening lunge from ‘I love you’ to ‘I hate you.’ It had always struck me as being a bit like a passion hangover – when the stimulants were withdrawn, their toxic effects took over. The swing from devotion to indifference was more common, though, and more familiar to me. When the love switch is turned to ‘off,’ for any one of a thousand reasons, or none, the current simply stops flowing. You don’t have to hate someone to destroy a relationship – you just have to lose interest. (298)

The final thought comes from the final chapter of the book, and here Mackay’s agnosticism comes to the fore:

The hardest thing, finally, is to accept our insignificance in the scheme of things – or perhaps to accept that there is no ‘scheme of things.’ There are no inevitabilities. No embedded meanings, either – only those we choose to attach to what happens. And often, when we most ardently desire them, no answers.  Life surges on, mostly out of control, rarely giving us respite… (310)

There is both wisdom and pathos in this statement. In the end, though, it seems that life, for Mackay, has only the meaning we ascribe to it. That we do ascribe meaning to life is part of what it means to be human. That we ascribe meaning to life, though natural, is also somewhat arbitrary and threatens to undermine the kind of ethics that Mackay wants to commend. This approach inevitably leads us back to ourselves as the moral centre in a manner reminiscent of the biblical book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) – and the results were less than ideal. Stanley Grenz recognises this problem and argues that “justification of moral claims requires a foundational principle that in the end is religious” (The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, 58).

The message of the gospel is not that there are no inevitabilities, or that every question will be answered, or that life can be fully controlled. In these respects, Mackay is quite correct. Yet the gospel assures each person that their lives, choices and deeds can and do have enduring significance. Further, it testifies to a transcendent meaning embedded in the orders of creation and redemption that tells the truth of our existence and so provides an orientation to the good life. The moral life is not simply the assertion of power in this direction or that, but response to a transcendent reality which in the Christian tradition is understood in terms of the triune God of infinite goodness, holiness and love.

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 1:21

To Die is GainFor to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

I could never have written such words; I hardly dare to write them now. Their claim is too bald, too bold. From the pen of the apostle, however, they have the ring of truth. Paul was not just saying these words; he lived them. That, perhaps, is the reason he could say them and I cannot. Paul is imprisoned awaiting trial and very possibly death. Yet his letter to the Philippians is known as an epistle of joy. He rejoices despite his circumstances and he calls the Philippians likewise to rejoice despite theirs.

For to me, to live is Christ. This is an outrageous claim, that one could be so consumed with the vision of Jesus Christ, with such devotion to his mission, such conformity to his life, and such delight in his will. It was also Paul who could say elsewhere: It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). In chapter three he will go on to say:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Philippians 3:7-9).

Paul’s entire life was devoted to the presence, mission and message of Christ. Christ was his centre, Christ his motive and goal, Christ his source and power.

Nor was this merely an idealistic, romantic or other-worldly spirituality. For to me, to live is Christ: Not as mysticism but as concrete witness and proclamation that Jesus Christ might be magnified: this is what it meant for Paul to say these words. It is not uncommon to hear Christians speak of seeking an “intimate” relationship with God, to seek mystical union or experiences of grace. Such desires are not illegitimate, for truly we need a touch of the mystic, a touch of the Spirit’s presence and power, experiences of grace. Yes, indeed, but not as a goal.

A great danger with some forms of contemporary spirituality is the temptation to separate the grace of Christ from the mission of Christ. Paul did not seek some kind of personalised, individualised and interior experience that had no living connection with the mission of Christ, the work of the gospel or the need of the world. He sought concrete union with Christ “in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (3:10). Even though confronted with trial and possible death, even in the midst of imprisonment and suffering, he still cried:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (1:20-21). 

“That Christ will be magnified in my body…” that is, in the public sphere of his existence, in the concrete witness of his very life and death, in his proclamation and ministry, his service and suffering. For it is only as Christ is preached (1:18) that Christ is magnified.

And so we pray with Paul:

That our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. Lord, you have begun a good work in us; carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus (1:9-11, 6).

And also with St Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Progress in Perfection

The Desert FathersI read a few excerpts last night before bed from The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. The first chapter is entitled “Progress in Perfection” and perhaps summarises some of the main concerns of the early desert fathers, though I guess the rest of the collection will either confirm or disconfirm that.

The sayings reflect the asceticism of the early fathers but it is not an extreme asceticism, although a couple of the sayings are certainly idealistic. The main concerns are with humility and detachment from material possessions, or more generally, with self-control. Here are a few sayings that struck me, and which require me to put a big F against my name in measuring up to their spiritual concerns:

2. Pambo said to Antony, “What shall I do?’ Antony said, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness. Do not go on sorrowing over a deed that is past. Keep your tongue and your belly under control.’

3. Gregory said, ‘God asks three things of anyone who is baptized: to keep the true faith with all his soul and all his might; to control his tongue; to be chaste in his body.’

But a couple of other sayings also proved encouraging:

10. Cassian told this story about John, who was the father of a community because he was great in his way of life. When he was dying, he was cheerful, and his mind was set upon the Lord; his brothers stood around him and asked for a sentence that would sum up the way to salvation, which he could give them as a legacy by which they might rise to the perfection that is in Christ. With a sigh he said, ‘I have never obeyed my own will, and I never taught anyone to do anything which I did not do myself first.’

11. A brother asked a hermit, ‘Tell me something good that I may do it and live by it.’ The hermit said, ‘God alone knows what is good. But I have heard that one of the hermits asked the great Nesteros, who was a friend of Antony, ‘What good work shall I do?’ and he replied, ‘Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace.’

And so one more to finish with a challenge:

15. Poemen said, ‘If a monk hates two things, he can be free of this world.’ A brother inquired, ‘What are they?’ He said, ‘Bodily comfort and conceit.’

Now let me sit back with a drink and a chocolate biscuit and see how many hits and comments this post receives…

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:26

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:26
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 

In the final two verses of chapter one, James summarises his discussion in the chapter, brings it to its climax, and also prepares for the major discussion that he will undertake in the next sections of the letter. It is possible that in these verses James identifies the key theme of the chapter, and indeed, of the entire epistle: true religion. The word translated “religion” (thrēskos, adjective, in verse 26a, and thrēskeia, noun, 26b, 27) is used only infrequently in biblical Greek, the adjective (26a) only here. Generally it describes outward expressions of religious devotion and may be used in either a positively (e.g. Acts 26:5) or negatively (e.g. Colossians 2:18). James uses it in both senses in these two verses, negatively in verse 26, while positively in verse 27. While it is unclear what particular expressions of religious devotion James may have in mind in his initial comments, it is likely that he would include such things as prayer, fasting and corporate worship (Davids, 101).

For the third time in this chapter James uses an ei tis construction (“if anyone”; cf. vv. 5, 23). Although his statement is set up as a conditional clause, he probably has an actual situation in mind. In this case, there are, perhaps, some who parade their religious observance and think themselves uncommonly spiritual: “If any think they are religious” (Ei tis dokei thrēskos). The problem, however, is that if these same people fail to “bridle their tongue” (mē kalinagōgōn glōssan autou), they have “deceived their own hearts” (alla apatōn kardian autou) about the true nature of their religious practice: their undisciplined speech subverts and undermines their devotion so that they are not actually “religious” at all.

James, of course, has already raised the use of the tongue in verses 19-21, where we found that he was concerned that some in the congregation were tearing at one another with angry and malicious words. What the believers must learn instead is to “bridle” or “restrain” their tongue. Kalinagōgōn, the word used here (and in 3:2), may have been coined by James for it appears in Greek for the first time in this verse (Davids, 101), and only in these instances in biblical Greek. The participle is in the present tense and so suggests that the persons concerned speak in undisciplined ways at the same time that they consider themselves religious.

Finally, James brings his conditional clause to a devastating conclusion: “their religion is worthless” (toutou mataios hē thrēskeia). Mataios means that something is useless, futile or worthless, and in this statement means that their diligent religious practice produces nothing of value either before God or in their own lives. Their religious practice is empty and perhaps even fraudulent. Just as the one who only hears the Word without doing it is deceived, so the person who practices their religion without disciplining their tongue is deceived. Just as angry speech cannot and does not produce the righteousness of God (v. 19), so religious activities without accompanying works do not produce anything of value or worth. It is the “doer of the work” who is blessed (v. 25), and the first work that James highlights is the difficult work of taming the tongue. True religion, true spirituality requires this discipline.

As we have repeatedly seen in our discussion of James 1, James’ teaching echoes the teaching of Jesus who also emphasised the importance of disciplined speech:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:33-37).

Our speech is a truer indication of our heart than our religious practice. The way we speak and use our words reveals the nature, condition and content of the heart. If our heart is filled with vicious anger and malicious intent, it will be betrayed in our speech, and all the religious practice in the world will not cover or disguise the truth of our condition.