Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

Posted: September 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

9.  The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful  experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The most important point I want to stress is that whatever we call the wrath of God is always an expression of his love. Our God is love and a love so sublime and unutterably wonderful that the divine Son — the Logos — the one through whom everything that is was made and in whom all is sustained, became fully and truly one of us. This is the God who is not willing that any should perish. This is the God who is life.

It’s true that the first two councils that we now recognize as ecumenical were primarily defending against attack on the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But that has been more the exception than the rule. From the late first century and second century docetists and gnostics to the heresies that were the subject of the other five ecumenical councils, it’s usually been the humanity of Jesus that has been attacked. I sense the same sort of spirit today in a lot of evangelicalism. It often seems that the Incarnation is reduced to little more than a form upon which the Father can vent his wrath. Everything centers on the Cross. The Incarnation is an almost pro forma precursor and the Resurrection is reduced to an afterthought.

The Cross is, of course, the instrument of our salvation, but it only has meaning in the full context of the wonder of the Incarnation and in the light of the Resurrection. But if Jesus was not fully human in every way, if he did not become fully and truly one of us in order to heal us, and if he did not defeat death — destroy Hades as it is poetically stated — in the Resurrection, then our nature is not healed or capable of being healed and we are not saved. That which is not assumed is not healed.

So every time we consider wrath, we have to consider it in that context. We have tendency to confuse giving someone what they desire (or getting what we desire) with love. But the two are not the same at all. As Dallas Willard puts it, if we love someone it means we actively will their good. And what they desire — what we desire — is often not that which is for our good. Often our will is in the grip of those things we suffer — our passions. A heroin addict is ruled by their addiction. They might desire heroin with all their being. But would any of us consider it loving to give them what they desire?

Of course, even if we truly and actively will the good of one we love, we often have a very hard time discerning what would truly be for their good. Even if our efforts are not thwarted or twisted by our own passions, we often make mistakes. We will good, but we end up causing at least some harm. “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” I know I have often done ill where I meant nothing but good.

God does not suffer from either of those limitations. He unfailingly wills our good. And he always knows what is for our good. His is love and all his acts are love — even if they feel like wrath. Thus, as I discussed in my series on Hell, the wrath and fire experienced by some is not actually anything different than the warmth and comfort others experience. Rather, that particular wrath is the experience of the fire of the unveiled love of God by those who do not want it.

Similarly, as St. Maximos points out in this text, the wrath we sometimes experience now is also God’s love. We experience it as wrath because we are not getting what we want. But if we are not getting what we desire, we need to recognize that’s probably because what we desire is actually our destruction. Sometimes (actually pretty often, I think) God is like a loving parent who allows us to experience the pain of our own choices so that we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes he does not mitigate the cross of undeserved suffering — but whatever it is, he has been there too and experienced it as well. Sometimes he does act to protect or heal. In neither case is it random or arbitrary.

The Christian recognizes that God is always acting from love and from his unwillingness that any of us should perish. We often cannot see the reasons. That’s especially true in the middle of suffering. Sometimes, perhaps years later, we can see the hand of God in hindsight. Sometimes we can’t. But if Jesus of Nazareth is who we believe him to be — the fully divine Son who becomes fully human in every way — then this is the God we worship.


The Jesus Creed 12 – Women: The Story of Compassion

Posted: September 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 12 – Women: The Story of Compassion

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 7:11-17, 36-50; 8:1-3.

Jesus, in his radical actions of compassion, does not permit his followers to embrace the stories of only those who are similar — we are to love all those who sit at Jesus’ table.

Isn’t that the most difficult part of this? If our ‘fellowship’ looks homogenous (and it mostly does, especially when I see the pictures in publications like ‘The SBTC Texan’), what does that say about us? Do we seek the comfortable at the expense of faithfulness?

Sometimes we treat the needy as if they are pariahs, as if they have done something to deserve their fate. … Even when we believe that God loves everyone, we still don’t know what to do with some people. The distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ creates hostility between the haves and the have-nots.

But Jesus, with eyes abrightin’ and heart awarmin’ and hands astretchin’ and feet amovin’, does offer hospitality to persons at the edges of society. He enters the safety zone, walks to the edges, takes the needy in his hand, escorts them back across the zone, offers them a spot at his table, and utters the deepest words they are to hear: ‘Welcome to my table!’ He offers them a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

The first woman McKnight examines is the widow leading a funeral procession. “Jesus knows widowhood firsthand because his mother is widowed. Even though Judaism developed a small bundle of laws protecting widows, the label ‘widow’ (Hebrew: almanah) quickly became synonymous with poverty. … The widow from Nain had already seen the death of her husband, and she is now losing her ‘only son.’ And thus she is probably losing her income. She is weeping in grief when Jesus observes her.

Jesus empathized with the woman. And the words he utters reflect that fact. ‘Don’t cry.’ He had probably uttered them to his own mother.

Another story of empathy we see is toward the woman who bathed his feet in perfume and tears in the house of Simon. His response to her is full of compassion.

Notice how Jesus’ compassion for these women turns into action to resolve the problem: he raises the widow’s son, he forgives the prostitute and gives her a new vocation, he exorcises demons from Mary Magdalene, and he heals Joanna, Susanna, and others. … Jesus’ kind of compassion is not abstract commitment. It is real and personal and concrete. Compassion moves from the heart to the hands and feet.

Absolutely. McKnight concludes this chapter with Mother Theresa’s creed. He even calls it her “Shema”.

The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.

And I would add: Amen and amen.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 24

Posted: August 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 24

89. Some people with possessions possess them dispassionately, and so when deprived of them they are not dismayed but are like those who accepted the seizure of their goods with joy (cf. Heb. 10:34). Others possess with passion, so that when they are in danger of being dispossessed they become utterly dejected, like the rich man in the Gospel who went away full of sorrow (cf. Matt. 19:22); and if they actually are dispossessed, they remain dejected until they die. Dispossession, then, reveals whether a man’s inner state is dispassionate or dominated by passion.

It seems to me that St. Maximos touches on something very important here. The state of our heart when it comes to possessions is not usually revealed by what we have. Some greedily seek ever more and crush people to attain it. But many of us are not like that. The state of of our heart is revealed when we have our possessions taken from us or are in danger of losing them. Are they truly our possessions or do they in fact possess us? Do we have stuff or are we in bondage to stuff?

My older son loved the movie Labyrinth when he was little and my youngest daughter rediscovered the movie and also has enjoyed it. I’m reminded now of the scene in which the old women carrying great loads of their possessions begin to similarly burden Sarah with the stuff she “needs”. Freedom came in letting it all go. If we cannot let go, then we are not the owners. We are the owned.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

Posted: August 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

72.  Just as it is easier to sin in the mind than in action, so warfare through our impassioned conceptual images of things is harder than warfare through the things themselves.

I quit smoking slightly more than fourteen years ago. (I could count the days over fourteen years if I wanted, but I try not to dwell on it that much.) I had smoked and smoked fairly heavily for two decades by that time. My body and mind had been formed and shaped with and around nicotine. As studies have shown, one of the effects of nicotine is that it increases focus and concentration. So in addition to breaking the other physical aspects of addiction, I had to learn how to intently focus my mind without the aid of a drug. But I managed all of that and the physical aspect of my smoking addiction has long since passed. I not only fought that war, I won it.

My conceptual images of smoking are another thing entirely and I am still not free from them. I can still remember the feeling when that first deep drag floods your body with sensation. The memory is so intense, it’s as though I can almost relive it. And it’s compelling. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t have to remind myself that I am not a smoker and I am never going to be a smoker again.

I won the war over the things themselves years ago. The war over my impassioned conceptual images of the things? Not so much. That war continues. I think I grasp some of what St. Maximos is describing in this text.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 20

Posted: July 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 20

52. The intellect joined to God for long periods through prayer and love becomes wise, good, powerful, compassionate, merciful and long-suffering; in short, it includes within itself almost all the divine qualities. But when the intellect withdraws from God and attaches itself to material things, either it becomes self-indulgent like some domestic animal, or like a wild beast it fights with men for the sake of these things.

I’ve never been one to have the sort of attachment to material things that often comes first to mind in our modern consumer society. I don’t particularly care if I have the latest and greatest of something. It doesn’t much matter to me what others think of my car, my clothes, or my gadgets. Most of my life I’ve driven old, hand-me-down beaters with their own flaws like no working air conditioner, broken power windows, dents and scratches, and the like. Even when I did buy my first car from a dealer recently, I looked for the least expensive used car that met my needs at Carmax. I expect to drive it into the ground as well.

However, that’s simply who I am. It’s a quirk of my personality. I’m glad I’m not driven to acquire stuff, since I’ve seen what that can do to people. But it’s not something with which I’ve ever struggled, so there’s nothing praiseworthy in my lack of that sort of attachment.

That’s not the only way to be attached to material things, however. I do enjoy the more sensory and ephemeral aspects of our world — the pleasures of the senses and the mind. I love the taste of good food, a fine beverage, or the feel of silk or linen against my skin. I can gaze at works like Starry Night for extended periods of time and I can lose myself in a good book. I’ve practiced many forms of meditation over the course of my life, but few can compare for me to the experience of losing myself on a dance floor. The lyrics, the beat pulsing through my body, and the music used to create that perfect space where I could let everything go.

In my twenties, at times I called my sense a hedonist with a sense of pride in the particular way I used the word. Now? I perceive the difference, I think, between enjoyment of all the good things our God has given us and attachment to those things for their own sake. I’m not sure where on that spectrum I would say I am, but I would never say that I am free from the sort of attachment that promotes self-indulgence or poor behavior toward my fellow human beings. I would say I’m beginning to perceive the difference.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 10

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

30.  For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own or another’s, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or even between male and female. But because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and has fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, bond nor free, but Christ who ‘is all, and in all’ (Col. 3:11; cf. Gal. 3:28).

We are all human, sharing in one nature, all created in the image of God. Sadly, so few of us have ever truly been able to love the way we are intended and commanded to love. And sometimes we collectively as Christians in significant ways. We all know the historical examples, so I won’t point them out here. But consider America today. The majority of us claim the name of Christ, but our public discourse is often hate-filled, self-interested, and actively involved in turning other groups into the “other.” Even more sadly, it seems that those Americans who are most “serious” about their faith by typical survey measures are the worst offenders.

And we do that to each other as we treat much of the rest of the world as enemies, as less than human, or as not even worthy of our attention and care. While I at least try not to partake of the venom in our dialogue with each other in this country, I am as guilty as anyone of doing less than I should for those in desperate need around our globe.

Love is hard. We tend to do it poorly.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 5

Posted: June 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 5

9.  Men love one another, commendably or reprehensibly, for the following five reasons; either for the sake of God, as the virtuous man loves everyone and as the man not yet virtuous loves the virtuous; or by nature, as parents love their children and children their parents; or because of self-esteem, as he who is praised loves the man who praises him; or because of avarice, as with one who loves a rich man for what he can get out of him; or because of self-indulgence, as with the man who serves his belly and his genitals. The first of these is commendable, the second is of an intermediate kind, the rest are dominated by passion.

I wanted to include this text, not because I feel I have anything to say that adds or expands on it in any way, but because I think it’s something important to reflect upon. I know I’m not what St. Maximos calls a virtuous man because I know I don’t love everyone. I do have a growing love for those we recognize as saints who, at least in some measure, did achieve those goals. And I love those I directly encounter who love better than I love.

St. Maximos points out that what we often call love is actually dominated by passion. And I think the reason of self-esteem is the one of this sort we most often find among Christian gatherings. I could easily be wrong, of course. I don’t claim any special or unusual insight. But it seems to be more insidious and, given how well I understand my own capacity for self-deception, it seems like the sort of passion-dominate love more likely to take root in that environment.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 4

Posted: June 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 4

8.  He who drives out self-love, the mother of the passions, will with God’s help easily rid himself of the rest, such as anger, irritation, rancor and so on. But he who is dominated by self-love is overpowered by the other passions, even against his will. Self-love is the passion of attachment to the body.

When I consider it, it does seem obvious that anger, irritation, jealousy, greed, and a host of other things are fueled by “self-love.” And it can be very subtle indeed. We can do good things driven by our desire for others to recognize the self we love above all. And we lie to ourselves very easily in such situations. It is often as difficult to truly know ourselves as it is to know another human being.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 3

Posted: June 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 3

7.  Whatever a man loves he inevitably clings to, and in order not to lose it he rejects everything that keeps him from it. So he who loves God cultivates pure prayer, driving out every passion that keeps him from it.

This text again brings to mind Jesus telling us that where our heart is, there our treasure is also. Do I truly love God? That’s a question that is not as easy to answer as it is to ask. I know I am entranced by this God we see in Jesus called the Christ. I know I desire to love him.

I don’t live in a neatly categorized and partitioned reality. Sometimes it seems to me that there are people who manage life by putting everything in its place. But to me, life is more an experience of where you’ve been leading to where you are with many different paths leading to where you desire to go. The person I am at any moment is a combination and intermingling of all those experiences and forces. People can’t be forced into discrete categories without caricaturing their reality.

I do understand the struggle inherent in the above. If we love God, we will work to cultivate prayer. We will work to know the one we love. But there will be other desires pulling us in different directions. And those other paths sometimes seem easier or more attractive. Jesus’ warnings seem particularly applicable when I consider that truth.

Still, as poor as it is and as badly as I keep it, I need to keep following my prayer rule as best I can. We fall and get back up. We fall and get back up. This is life.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 2

Posted: June 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

3.  When passions dominate the intellect, they separate it from God, binding it to material things and preoccupying it with them. But when love of God dominates the intellect, it frees it from its bonds, persuading it to rise above not only sensible things but even this transitory life.

I have lived a life that has often been shaped more by the passions that have ruled me than by my own intention and will. Passion, it must be remembered, does not mean sin. It means suffering. (Or at least that is one of its meanings.) When I am ruled by a passion, I can still be many things, but I am not free.

God seeks always to heal and free us. If you encounter a group whose God does not do both, do not listen to them when they try to tell you that their God is the Christian God. In the past, I heard such claims and believed them. And as a result, I rejected Christianity entirely for a long time. I thought I knew the Christian God and wanted nothing to do with him.

God loves us. He is the one good God who loves mankind. He is the wise God who is always working to heal and free us. But freedom is a tricky thing. You cannot be forced to be free. I’m reminded of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. I’ve known since I first read the book as a child that I did not want to be those dwarves. But I didn’t realize for many years how difficult a task it is to be anything but a dwarf trapped in a stable that no longer exists.