Speaking of God – A Good God

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – A Good God

For you are a good God and love mankind, and to you do we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. (Orthodox Great Vespers liturgy)

When we speak of God, it’s important that we remember always that he is a good God who loves humanity. I notice that aspect often seems to become obscured in modern Western discussions about God. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in certain Calvinistic strands that either explicitly or implicitly end up attributing both good and evil to God. A God who is responsible for evil is not a good God. It’s one of the more outrageous assertions that can be made about the God we find fully revealed in Christ. (Moreover, it’s only in Christ that the creation of the human being is finished.) I thoroughly agree with the Orthodox that any such claims about God are utterly heretical and contrary to the faith which has been handed down to us.

But it can take subtler forms. For instance, in the strands of evangelicalism within which I swim, it’s very common to hear “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” when tragedy strikes. It permeates thought, conversation, teaching, and song. The concept comes from Job and illustrates one potential issue with lifting verses and phrases at will from our Holy Scriptures and applying them without the guidance of a deep and apostolic tradition. Here’s the verse from Job.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:21.

The first thing that we have to recognize is that in his fatalism, Job is actually incorrect! (Though the next verse goes on to note that Job did not, in truth, charge God with wrongdoing.) Yes, in a broad sense God allows freedom in creation. That’s part of being a good God who does not deny any good thing to his beloved creation, even if that good thing can be twisted. In the context of the narrative, we have something of a “God’s eye view” that Job lacks. We know that God took nothing from Job. Satan did.

But Job’s perception makes perfect cultural sense. It was normal in the ancient world to ascribe all sorts of things to the gods. We see that in, for one example, Homer. At one point in the Iliad when, speaking of the son of Atreus and godlike Achilles, he asks, “Which of the gods brought them both together fighting?” It’s not a rhetorical or allegorical question for Homer. He has an answer. Apollo did. Job, from the context of the narrative, doesn’t worship multiple gods. He worships the one God. So when he loses everything, it’s natural for him to ascribe it to God. It’s also what his friends assume — which is why they spend so much time trying to explain why God must have done it and Job must have deserved it.

But we know from the story that God didn’t take anything from Job. God never really explains himself to Job, but as the reader that’s one of the things we must understand. (Job is also a type or shadow of Christ as the suffering servant in the narrative. But that’s another discussion.)

Moreover, that should not come as any surprise to a Christian. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it’s so that we might by sons of our Father in heaven. Why? Because God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He is a good God who loves mankind without condition or reservation.

Ours is the God who makes all things new, from whom the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. We respond to evil by doing good, by blessing, and by acting to heal and restore.

Our God is a good God — a God of divine love. We must always speak of him in those terms when we dare to speak at all.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

Posted: March 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

48.  As has been said many times, in everything we do God examines our motive, to see whether we are doing it for His sake or for some other purpose. Thus when we desire to do something good, we should not do it for the sake of popularity; we should have God as our goal, so that, with our gaze always fixed on Him, we may do everything for His sake. Otherwise we shall undergo all the trouble of performing the act and yet lose the reward.

This text rephrases as a more general statement what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If you do anything for the sake of public recognition, the recognition we receive is the only reward we’ll receive from the act. It won’t fundamentally change us. It won’t make us more like Christ. It won’t heal us. God allows us to choose the paltry reward of fleeting acclaim from others if that’s what we desire.


The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

Posted: June 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

I’ll conclude my series of reflections on Khouria Frederica’s book with this reflection on the path thoughts take to pull us away from prayer. The fathers identify stages such thoughts take.

1. Provocation. Provoking thoughts can arise from our subconscious or whispered by other powers. They can appear blasphemous, evil, or even noble and good. If blasphemous, we might wonder how we could think such a thing, which is always a good indication that it may not be your own thought. The fathers consistently advise us to ignore provoking thoughts. Don’t try to argue with them or agree with them. Keep praying.

2. Interaction. Of course, we don’t usually do that. Instead, we engage the thought. Our nous turns from God and begins to consider the thought instead. The thought has a foot in the door. The fathers advise crying out to God for help. Wrap your nous in the Jesus Prayer.

3. Consent. “At this point, the nous has become intoxicated with the thought and embraces it. A sign of this stage is that the nous becomes absorbed in gazing at an image or playing out a fantasy.” It’s at this point, when we have consented to an image or fantasy, that we become responsible for sin as Jesus warns, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

4. Captivity. With consent, the ability to resist the thought begins to crumble. At some point, it will be put into action.

5. Passion. After repeatedly consenting, we no longer have the ability to use our will to resist. The thought appears and we act without resistance. It has become something we suffer, similar to a compulsion or addiction. We are ruled by it. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Without spiritual healing, we are helpless.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


The Jesus Prayer 19 – Repetition

Posted: April 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 19 – Repetition

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Mt. 6:7)

I’ve discussed Jesus’ exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount already in many of my posts on prayer because it’s often raised by those shaped within an evangelical or fundamentalist context. Khouria Frederica addresses it as well.

First, the prohibition is against doing what the pagans did when they prayed. I’ve noticed that many people who refer to that verse don’t actually ask the question that immediately occurred to me the first time I read it. What were the heathen doing when they prayed? If you don’t find the answer to that question, you have no context for understanding what Jesus means. And the answer to that is an interesting one. There was a common practice in many religions of the time of using grandiose, flattering, and often repeated titles and names in pagan prayer in order to get the particular god’s attention. That wasn’t particularly new (we see the same dynamic in the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal) and its particulars varied, but the idea behind it was similar to the way formal speech was addressed to powerful rulers. The flattery and roundabout way of speaking was designed to avoid giving offense, and were repeated over and over.

However, the prohibition was not directed at repetition, but at vain repetition. Jesus himself followed the Jewish practice of set prayers, and when his followers asked for a prayer, he gave them one to recite. And his prayer was simple and direct unlike the equivalent pagan prayers. A sincere prayer is never vain (though it might be misguided). Khouria Frederica offers a good illustration.

You can think about repetition this way. Imagine a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon. At a tender moment, the husband says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Will the bride say, “I heard you the first time”?

Jesus wants us to pray. In prayer, we are mystically connected to him. And he is the bridegroom of the Church. He never tires of our prayer. They never grow old and stale to him. And for us, the Jesus Prayer can grow ever deeper over time.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 32

Posted: April 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 32

69. The person who fulfills the promises he has made merits praise because he has sworn an oath before God and has remained faithful to it; conversely, the person who breaks his promises will be impugned and dishonored because he has sworn an oath before God and has been found false.

This text, of course, comes straight from the Sermon on the Mount. If we say we are going to do something, however we word it, then it counts as an oath before God. Our yes needs to be yes and our no, no. We like to make it more complicated and look for shades of gray that simply don’t exist.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 18

Posted: May 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

62.  ‘But I say to you, do not resist evil; but if someone hits you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek as well. And if anyone sues you in the courts, and takes away your coat, let him have your cloak also. And if anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him for two miles’ (Matt. 5:39-41). Why did He say this? Both to keep you free from anger and irritation, and to correct the other person by means of your forbearance, so that like a good Father He might bring the two of you under the yoke of love.

Before I read this text, I had never considered the ‘why’ of that part of the Sermon on the Mount in quite that way. But of course it has to be that the God who is ‘not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9)’ is working to bring all under the yoke of love. Often, when we read these passages, we categorize the other as ‘evil’ and ourselves as ‘good’. But the Father sees us all as ‘human’ and ‘beloved’.


The Didache 31 – The Lord’s Day

Posted: July 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”

A number of things immediately leap out to me here. First, we see confirmed here the very early Christian practice of gathering on the first day of the week (the Lord’s Day) rather than the Sabbath. I also think that some people, raised in the modern Christianized West, have misconceptions over what this meant. In the ancient world, only the Jews kept a “lazy day” (what the Romans called the Sabbath) each week. Many of the early Christians were not just poor, but actually slaves. And most were not Jewish. They had no option for a leisurely “lazy day” of rest. So gathering for the Lord’s Day meant they rose from sleep in the pre-dawn hours, gathered for worship, and then left for a full day’s labor. Maybe keep that in mind when you gather tomorrow? 😉

The center of the gathering was the eucharist (thanksgiving) in which the bread was broken. It was done after confession as was discussed earlier in the Teaching and was considered in some way also a sacrifice that could be pure or could be profaned. The charge to reconcile with others echoes the Sermon on the Mount once again.

So. Gather on the Lord’s Day. Confess your sins. Partake in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, in the breaking of the bread in thanksgiving. Those are the instructions we see here.


The Didache 23 – Fasting

Posted: July 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The “hypocrites” in this context would be those Jews who do not give Jesus of Nazareth their believing allegiance and obey his commands. The usage here echoes the way of using the idea of hypocrite in Jesus’ woes, which was a somewhat novel usage at the time. We know that some of the Rabbis around the time of Jesus (and the Teaching) had established Monday and Thursday fasts. While fasting in modern day Judaism has declined as it has in much of Christianity, sometime to little more than an observance of Yom Kippur, that was not the case when Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount or when the Didache was recorded.

I will note that pretty much only the Orthodox still fast as a community on most Wednesdays and Fridays. Most Protestants have little knowledge and less practice of fasting. And Roman Catholic practice in the U.S. has declined in my lifetime. However, it had already been reduced to a Friday fast of sorts long before the present era. I think we’ve lost a great deal and it truly shows when you explore something like fasting.


The Didache 11 – Flee From Every Evil Thing

Posted: June 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 11 – Flee From Every Evil Thing

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

My child, flee from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it. Be not prone to anger, for anger leads to murder. Be neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper, for out of all these murders are engendered. My child, be not a lustful one. for lust leads to fornication. Be neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye, for out of all these adulteries are engendered. My child, be not an observer of omens, since it leads to idolatry. Be neither an enchanter, nor an astrologer, nor a purifier, nor be willing to took at these things, for out of all these idolatry is engendered. My child, be not a liar, since a lie leads to theft. Be neither money-loving, nor vainglorious, for out of all these thefts are engendered. My child, be not a murmurer, since it leads the way to blasphemy. Be neither self-willed nor evil-minded, for out of all these blasphemies are engendered.

The Teaching continues with other “sins”. Notice how everything given here leads to graver sins: murder, fornication and adultery, idolatry, theft, or blasphemy. Does that mean that if you lie you will inevitably be a thief? No, of course not.

But this does explore and build upon the Sermon on the Mount. If you bring those behaviors into your life and beginning shaping yourself through them, then you are living on the way that leads to murder, to adultery, to theft, to idolatry, or to blaspemy. We never remain static. We can’t simply stay in one spot and tread water as human beings. Life is flowing constantly around us and we are moving toward becoming and being some type of human being. If you incorporate a pattern of telling untruth to others, you are shaping yourself into a dishonest person. At some point along that way, the dishonesty of theft will likely come to seem perfectly natural. That is so true that when you begin to adopt that way, in some sense you are already a thief.

The message is clear. These are markers of the way of death. If you perceive these within yourself, pray to break free from them so you can inhabit the way of  life instead.