Long ago the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about the reality and consequences of unbelief and disobedience towards God. He described how humanity had fallen away from its creaturely mandate by denying the power and reality of God. He went on to write,
20 For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools.
There is much theological richness to this passage, but one thing is striking: at the center of this indictment against the sinfulness of Mankind lies thanklessness. “They did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him.” In Paul’s eyes the lack of thankfulness (along with lack of honor) for God gets to the root-system of human primal sin. In God’s eyes unthankful people are sinful idolatrous ridden fools. Unthankful people are self-centered people, arrogant people, people who lack any capacity of self-awareness or introspection, and people who are disgruntled and fault-finding. All these things are precisely the kind of person Adam and Eve became when they opened their souls to the words of the Serpent.
Consider almost any sin and you will find weaved into its tapestry a lack of thankfulness.
Thankfulness is something the Adversary works double time to destroy in our lives. He seeks to throw so much abundance our way, so much excess, so much business, so much drama, that in the end we become a disgruntled ungrateful lot of eye-rollers and complainers. Therefore, in a very real sense thankfulness is one of the most powerful weapons we have to combat the Adversary and our fleshliness. It is a means by which we slay sin in our lives. God declared through the Psalmist, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies Me” (Psalm 50:23). Later the Psalmist declared, “You oh God will not delight in sacrifice . . . You will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16–17).
Thankfulness slays unbelief, for an unbelieving person naively sees all of life’s blessings as taken from the blind forces of nature rather than being received as gifts through faith from above. Thankfulness slays pride, for a prideful person is self-absorbed with the illusion of self-achievement rather than humbled by grace unmerited. Thankfulness slays anxiety, for an anxious person is consumed with the indeterminacy of the future rather than at peace in the providential promises of the now and hereafter. Thankfulness slays hate, for a hate filled person is enslaved to unforgiveness rather than overwhelmed by love undeserved. Thankfulness slays indifference, for an indifferent person is sluggishly disenchanted by anything and everyone in the world rather than awakened to the beauty and meaning that inhabits all things.
Thanksgiving is Deeply Theological
Thankfulness is that recognition that there are “givers” in our lives. That we receive benefits undeserved and unbeknownst all the time. It’s the megaphone used to rouse us to the fact that we are not islands unto ourselves. We are not rugged self-made men and women who have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, contrary to what American individualism teaches us. We are finite agents always interrelated and reliant on others. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote from a Nazi prison cell,
“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others.”
It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. This is truth. Thankfulness stands as the moral memory of who we are, reminding us of our limitations and inability to control all the forces that have shaped and affected our lives. In a very real sense thankfulness reminds us of our nothingness in the face of countless uncontrollable benefits and blessings. It obliterates our self-importance.
The great Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had argued that man does not exist and then become thankful bur rather “his God-relationship gives birth to a self-awareness and a neighbor-awareness which together constitute him as a self.” Don’t be taken aback by these seemingly abstract words. There is wisdom here worth mining. What Kierkegaard is arguing is that we cannot become our true selves, truly human, until we have come to terms with thankfulness. True thankfulness is as theological as it is anthropological – God centered and Man centered. True thankfulness directs us outward away from ourselves and upwards into worship to the Supreme Giver of all things while at the same time directing us outward unilaterally in humility and loving service to those before whom we call our neighbors. In both cases there is an “other directedness” in which we get out of our skin – we step out of our fleshly ways of self-absorption – and begin to live more for others, both for God and Man. This kind of living for others is precisely what we were made for, it is precisely our calling. Therefore, in a very real sense, thankfulness, which ends in worship and loving service to others, is a central element in crafting us into our True Humanity. This is why the Adversary of our souls fights to make us an ungrateful lot so much.
This understanding brings up the deeper nature of thankfulness all too often overlooked during the season of Thanksgiving. Most of us when asked around the table of bounty what we are thankful for focus upon people in our lives, for the gifts (both material and emotional) we receive from them and for the acts they have bestowed. Nothing is wrong with this at all! It is good and just. We should do such a thing! But far too often we fail to look further behind these goods. What about those blessings and benefits not touched by human hands, these outweigh all the treasures of human gifts. Not to get too far afield with this but consider but a few blessings that no human agent is responsible for: life itself as an example; or ponder on our health; consciousness is another example; or contemplate our cognitive and physiological capacities; the growing of our food; the availability of vast natural resources by which we produce clothes, goods, and services; the opportunity to observe and appreciate beauty in music and art; the capacity to taste and enjoy food; the weather and climate; and the sustainability and cosmological location of our planet. All these are but a few noteworthy blessings and benefits beyond the abilities of human agency.
The point is that all too often our thankfulness becomes one directional. We forget the deep theological sacredness lying behind and above these great goods of life. We forget that all these goods are but second-tier thanksgivings that can never be self-sufficient nor ends in themselves because in reality each blessing and benefit is itself (or themselves) a benefactor of blessings and benefits. James said it this way,
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)
In other words, we need to look behind and above all the blessings and benefits we are thankful for and see the True Giver of givers. True Thankfulness, at its root source, is fundamentally sacred and transcendent. It is theological. It rises above the mere physical gifts and givers in all their temporal frailty towards the Ultimate Good and Giver. This recalls the words of the Psalmist,
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
This opening doxology builds and builds into an ever-growing bounty of blessings that cannot be formed or fashioned by the hands of Man: from great wonders, to the making of the heavens, to the spreading of the earth’s waters, to the giving of light, to preservation from evil nations, to His giving of food to all flesh. In each case the same rhythmic pattern emerges, the linkage between thanksgiving and the enduring everlasting love of God. “Give thanks to the Lord… for His steadfast love endures forever.”
For this Thanksgiving remind yourself that genuine thankfulness is not a onetime a year event, it is not a mere declaration from our lips around the dinner table, a quaint thought gracing our minds on the holidays. True thanksgiving is a mode of living, it is the emblazoning of humble gratitude in the conduct of our character, it is the conscious acknowledgement of the blessings and graces we have been given. It is true worship.
Thanksgiving is an acknowledging our creatureliness, that we cannot and will not survive or flourish or grow in this world without the steadfast loving kindness of a God who provides for us, redeems us, empowers us, and sustains us in and through all things. When that is acknowledged, when that is seared on the walls of our hearts, when that becomes the natural mode of our living, then we are truly beginning to live in the delight of a God who is glorified when we delight in Him.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943-45)
 Paul Minear, Thanksgiving As a Synthesis of the Temporal and the Eternal (ATR, 1956), pg. 9, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/http://pmoser.sites.luc.edu/paulsmineararchive/Minear%20Thanksgiving%20ATR%201956.pdf
The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the [Mountains of Shadow] in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach…. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and the even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
This passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings perfectly illustrates true hope amidst seemingly unending darkness. Here we catch Sam Gamgee resting next to his master Frodo from their treacherous trek through the land of the Enemy. Their harrowing journey has left them exhausted, distraught, and hopeless. Will this great Darkness pass? Can the Shadow be overcome? Then, almost providentially, Sam’s eye catches a single star in the heavens – a glimmer fixed beyond the reach of the bellowing stench and darkness of Mordor. His heart is pierced then quieted by the sight for it reminds him of an unquestioning Truth: this is a passing Darkness.
Hear that again: This is a passing Darkness.
What a profound truth to be reminded of especially at this time in our world. While we are being hit with a tsunami of media disinformation, ten cent prophetic pronouncements, governmental scandals, and economic uncertainties, we must still our hearts and minds with upward sight. Tolkien teaches us from the passage above that true hope in times of trouble comes from an inner joy that can only be generated by self-forgetfulness that affixes itself to the Transcendent Reality of the Light. Only when our eyes are bound to the Light Above can our souls be put to rest in knowing that the darkness, dangers, and dastardly deeds bellowing forth are not a Final Master or Destiny.
The Spirit Of The Age & False Hope
Over the past two centuries our culture has been ingesting a steady diet of false hope. It is a hope deeply naturalistic, humanistic, and mechanistic. From thinkers like Karl Marx, John Stuart Mills, John Dewey, John Rawls, to Richard Rorty we have learned that the way we will save our civilization and species is by becoming sovereign over all Reality. Utopia – that Man centered Garden of Eden we long to establish – is going to happen (we think) as we expand the technologies and sciences and reforge our views of morality and democracy. We pride ourselves with the prospects of attaining human perfectibility and thus surpassing all limitations put on us by our histories, traditions, religions, and values. As author and public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari (1976-present) has said in his bestselling Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,
For thousands of years…the same three problems [had] preoccupied the people of [the world]. Famine, plague and war…. For generation after generation humans have prayed to every god, angel and saint, and have invented countless tools, institutions and social systems [to deal with these problems].… Yet at the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realization. Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war — and we usually succeed in doing it.
In short, we no longer need God for we have become God (the book title Homo Deus literal means “God-Man”). We can have a bright future in the world because we ourselves are at the helm. This secular ideology of intellectualized naiveté is a central tenet in the Spirit of our Age. We are a people who pride ourselves on being the masters and the forgers of our own destinies. We get to rewrite the history books, redefine our dictionaries, evolve our moralities, and transform our identities through sheer will and technology. Who can stop us? In the poignant words of one of our modern philosophers Miley Cyrus,
It's our party, we can do what we want
It's our party, we can say what we want
It's our party, we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can screw who we want
And yet, let’s look around. Despite all the talk from people like Harari and Cyrus by all major metrics we are failing in our quest for divine status. We are far less happy, far less fulfilled, and far less hopeful than any previous generation. Despite all the technological breakthroughs, despite all the social progressive policy making, and despite all the acceleration of information we are a mess of a race. Suicides are up 25% while depression and anxiety now affect about 20% of our population. Illicit drug use among us (especially those in their teens) has skyrocketed to the highest numbers in nearly 50 years. Atop of all this, indicators from those of us who are Millennials (1983-1994) and Generation Z (1995-2002) shows that we are far more dissatisfied and pessimistic about the future than older generations and are subsequently far less likely to even have children than all previous generations recorded.
It has been our party, we have done what we wanted to, and now here we are. Enslaved by our “freedom.”
We have affirmed God is a construct, virtue is subjective, traditions are repressive, and human nature is infinitely malleable. We have dared to be gods and then look on in perplexity as to why our world and souls are falling apart. As C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) said so poignantly,
“Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
In Nietzschesch fashion we have unchained ourselves from any Central Primary and are spiraling without any up or down. One of the reasons for this is because our quest to maximize hope for our civilization and species was rotten at its core from the beginning. It was a godless, hyper-materialistic, self-absorbed quest, seeking to find hope and peace by extinguish darkness through sheer mind and machinery. It didn’t work, it isn’t working, and it will never work. We are now seeing the fruit of such a pursuit.
The Hope Of The Resurrection
We need a far more vigorous source of hope if we ever “hope” to traverse the growing complexities and insanities of the world around us. Resting on the sovereignty of technology, social policy making, and personal enlightenment isn’t working, despite what people like Harari affirm. There is only one solution to our maladies and that is a recovery of the Transcendent at the core of our lives. We need to look up.
I am reminded of the work by the classicalist historian Kyle Harper (1979-present) who writes much upon the rise and remaking of the world by Christianity. One of the reasons he points to for the astonishing rise of Christianity in the earliest centuries was its capacity to create a robust hope that propelled its world through famine, disease, persecution, and war. He said,
It’s easy for us to think about Christians back then being apocalyptic in the sense that they were desperate, or giving up because the world was about to end. I don’t think that’s how it was. For them, it was a positive program. This life was always meant to be transitory, and just part of a larger story. What was important to the Christians was to orient one’s life towards the larger story, the cosmic story, the story of eternity. They did live in this world, experience pain, and loved others. But the Christians of that time were called to see the story of this life as just one of the stories in which they lived. The hidden map was this larger picture.
That “hidden map” of early Christians was not some wishful thinking or otherworldly meditative ecstasy, it was a rested assurance, a profound certainty (in Greek elpida) amidst life’s hardest circumstances that was grounded upon the reality of the Transcendent. It was an assurance that took seriously the work of justice, peace, love, and service not because those things are useful fictions or chemically induced brain states but are actual eternal realities possessing immortal weight and duration – justice, peace, love, and service will exist beyond the grave just as they have existed before the crib. It was an assurance resting in the fact that one’s personal story and identity was not forged by self-determinism or high-tech augments but was gifted and integrated into a far more glorious cosmic and everlasting narrative. The Apostle Peter put it this way to the persecuted and fledgling Christians of Asia minor,
3[God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3-5 (ESV)
The hope Peter speaks of, that “living hope” has weight richness and purpose to it precisely because it has Jesus smack dab at the center of its orbit. It is an expectant assurance not grounded in circumstances but in a Person. Consider again what Peter said,
God, according to His great mercy, has caused us to be born again to a living hope…
By what means?
…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
To what present and future end?
…to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
What beauty and power and joy reside in these words! The Resurrection is the absolute transcendent invasion of “living hope” into our world. Such hope is not wishful thinking nor expectant could-be-ism. It is an active present abiding assurance grounded in the reality of who God is and what God has done and will do in and through and by His Son! This is why it is a “living hope.” It is not something merely wished for based on uncertain circumstances but is a sign sealed delivered fact grounded in the power of the living and active Redeemer and Redeeming God.
Our hope can be and is “living” because it is rooted in the living God Who is not like the fickle promise maker who fails to deliver his end of the bargain but is the eternal, unbounded, self-existent, giver, definer, sustainer, covenant-making Creator King of the Cosmos that accomplishes all His promises, executes all His decrees, and fulfills all His blessings! That God is the same God who promises and decrees that there is (not maybe) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance for His children. That God is the same God who split into real space and time, cocooned Himself in the mind, bone, and blood of a Man, and was broken upon a tree and resurrection in a tomb that He might remake the World as it was intended to be.
This Christian hope is active, not passive. It is expectant not reactant. It is resilient, not restless. This Christian hope is not built on syrupy illusions of perpetual comfort, self-deification, or unthwartable success, but a restive resolve and power grounded on certainty. It is such a hope that can pierce the veil of circumstances and find an abiding peace, joy, and love at their expense. As Timothy Keller (1950-present) has put it,
“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”
This is why modern hope is bankrupt and Christian hope is solvent. Modern hope, as described by people like Harari and Cyrus, is vacuously naïve and self-centered. It seeks all the answers within rather than looking to an external transcendent source. Modern hope is forever looking forward in the prospects it can escape the past and present maladies to achieve a utopian vision. Christian hope looks back and up – to the resurrection of Christ and the resurrected Christ – so that it might transcend the present and glory in the future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said it this way,
“Man cannot live without hope, and that men who have really lost all hope often become wild and wicked. It may be an open question whether in this case hope = illusion. The importance of illusion to one’s life should certainly not be underestimated; but for a Christian there must be hope based on a firm foundation. And if even illusion has so much power in people’s lives that it can keep life moving, how great a power there is in a hope that is based on certainty, and how invincible a life with such a hope is. ‘Christ our hope’ – this formula is the strength of our lives.”
And he would continue at another time to put it like this,
“Jesus Christ the resurrected [means] that God, in love and omnipotence makes an end of death and calls a new creation into life. God gives new life…. The resurrection has already broken into the midst of the old world as the ultimate sign of its end and its future, and at the same time as living reality. Jesus has risen as human; so he has given human beings the gift of resurrection.”
The Shadow Is But A Passing Thing
The resurrection is not a useful fiction, it is the essential fuel that burns up darkness and ignites hope. It is an energizing fire that shows us True Reality. As has been said, “The cross and the resurrection together—and only together—bring the future new creation, the omnipotent power through which God renews and heals the entire world, into our present.”
Many people today may talk about The Great Reset or the path to Build Back Better, but the fact is only the resurrection was and is the Great Reset and the Ultimate Build Back Better event in the entire history of the world. It transformed the world and makes it possible for us to look at our relationships, our vocations, our purpose, and our futures in a new light.
We must get this down into the marrow of our souls. Especially as we proceed over the next months and years.
We must be reminded in the daily that this dark and decadent little orb we call Earth exists in an infinite sea of Light and Beauty which is God Himself, the One who came and conquered the powers of Death, Hell, and the Grave.
Dear friend, be reminded, this is a passing Darkness. The night is dark and truly full of terrors, but Light is greater still. Heaven wins. The transcendent, unbounded, unquantifiable, unsurpassable Creator Ruler is working His unruinable plan that WILL finds its crescendo in the Return of the King. That is certain and that can ground our hope. I leave you with a quote from New Testament scholar N.T. Wright (1948-present),
“Easter isn’t just about one person going through death and out the other side, as a sort of crazy maverick event unrelated to anything else, a sort of one-of display of supernatural power. It is the unveiling of God’s answer to the problems of the world…. The message of the resurrection is that this world matters; that the problems and pains of this present world matter; that the living God has made a decisive bridgehead into this present world with his healing and all-conquering love; and that, in the name of this strong love, all the evils, all the injustices and all the pains of the present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice and love have won the day.”
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 921-922
 Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2017), pg. 1-2
 Miley Cyrus, We Can’t Stop (2013)
 https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1555415521003615; https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
 https://www.addictioncenter.com/news/2021/07/drug-use-peaks-after-50-year-war-on-drugs/; https://drugabusestatistics.org/; https://behavioralhealth-centers.com/blog/american-drug-use-trend-on-the-rise/
 https://www.wsj.com/articles/to-be-young-and-pessimistic-in-america; https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/many-millennials-gen-z-pessimistic-on-life-deloitte-survey; https://www.newuniversity.org/2021/12/14/the-childless-generation-the-consequences-of-opting-out-of-having-children/; https://morningconsult.com/2020/09/28/millennials-economy-children-poll/
 Kyle Harper from his interview with Rod Dreher, The Germs That Destroyed An Empire (April 24, 2020) https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/roman-empire-plague-germs-kyle-harper/
 Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2013), pg. 31
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethge (July 25, 1944)
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Clifford J. Green (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), pg. 154
 Timothy Keller, Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter (United States: Penguin Random House, 2021), pg. xxi
 N.T. Wright, For All God's Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 62-63
In 2003 there was a song by the great intellectuals and philosophers of our age, the Black Eyed Peas, called, “Where is the Love?” It was a global phenomenon. It topped the charts in 13 countries. Several years ago, the band reunited to update the song by changing a few lyrics. Some of the lyrics to the song go like this,
People killin' people dyin'
Children hurtin', I hear them cryin'
Could you practice what you preach?
Would you turn the other cheek?
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
'Cause people got me, got me questioning
(Where's the love)
(Where's the love)
Every time I look up, every time I look down
No one's on a common ground
And if you never speak truth then you never know how love sounds
And if you never know love then you never know God, wow
(Where's the love)
Where's the love y'all? I don't, I don't know
Where's the truth y'all? I don't know
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders
As I'm gettin' older y'all people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin'
Selfishness got us followin' the wrong direction
Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinemas
What happened to the love and the values of humanity?
What happened to the love and the fairness and equality?
Instead of spreading love we're spreading animosity
Lack of understanding leading us away from unity
(Where's the love)
On Youtube the newer version of the song has over 55 million views & counting. In the comments section it was interesting to read what people have said about the song. Consider but a small sampling:
What is interesting is how so many people recognize there is something fundamentally wrong with us and our world. We know we are broken. We know there is something terribly askew with the soul of the human race – from which injustice, war, hate, fear, anxiety, and death spring. We know that these things ought not be, otherwise we would not expend such energy to denounce them and dispel them from our world.
What is this concern we have within our souls of our wretchedness? What is it stirring within us that craves the good, the beautiful, and wholeness? What drives us to yearn for Love in a world gone mad?
A large part of the answer, a central part of the answer, to these questions lies in who we are and what we were made for. These yearnings, these stirrings, these cravings are the desires of a sojourners heart homesick for their home-country. They are the steady primordial rhythm stretching from Eden within us calling us back to our True Home. We want wholeness and joy because we know, even if we haven’t thought about it, those are the things we and our world were made for. We crave the good and the beautiful because they are what the world was and is intended to display. We desire Love because it is what we were created to experience in endless bounties at a table not our own. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) spoke of such deep seeded desires within our human experience when he said,
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
Our quest for Love, within and without, is ultimately a quest to see realized the original beauty, goodness, and harmony of the Created Order. We were made for more, and although we suppress this Truth, it is the Ultimate Reality of our existence (Romans 1 and 2). We long for Love to inhabit this world and to wash over us and among us precisely because it was intended to do so. We know that the earthly experiences of Love we share are only approximations of this Grander Vision, yet all too often we seek such realization through the mundanities of earthly life. We seek love in all the wrong places.
SEEKING LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
We all too often seek Love through a myriad of mundane delights. We look to a lover, a drug, a drink, a job, a marriage, a child, or some other terrestrial pleasure to fulfill our deepest longings. For many of us our understanding of Love has become nothing more than a proverbial junk drawer that we throw anything we want into or extract from in the hopes that it will generate the necessary interest we need to have meaning and identity. This can become a reality in our lives through a variety of approaches we take to achieving Love. Consider but three dominate approaches in our world today:
SYNTHETIC APPROACH: Some of us seek a synthetic approach to Love. We try to manufacture it in the lab of our emotions. It becomes the quest to drum up emotional bliss, perpetual romance, or incessant arousal. It is an idealized and highly subjective dream of love that we apply to our personal relationships. This can either take the Disney approach or the HBO approach. With Disney it is the belief that Love is just a constant sentimentality and tearless romance while HBO is a self-gratifying, marketable, excess of passion.
Both approaches are hollow because they do not take seriously the earthliness, imperfections, and delights of real hearts and minds. These tactics are trying to harvest Love without ever having cultivated it.
EXCESS APPROACH: Another path many of us seek to touch Love is through excessive consumption. Love becomes eating, not dining; it becomes a conquest, not a dance; it becomes friction, not intimacy. Through self-indulgence one partakes in emotional cannibalism, the devouring of people in the name of “love.” This can take multiple approaches: from constantly cycling through an endless stream of memoryless relationships, to tasting the endless pleasures of one-night stands, to heedlessly and compulsively clinging to feckless lovers, to partaking in self-induced bestially arousal.
In all these methods the goal is the same, the quest for an excess of cathartic experience that is believed to satiate the deepest longings of the heart. But they all fail, otherwise there would not be a need for continual gluttonous consumption nor yawnish repetition with repeated results. As Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) character Clamence penitently says in the novel The Fall,
“Because I longed for eternal life, I went to be with harlots and drank for nights on end. In the morning, to be sure, my mouth was filled with the bitter taste of the mortal state.”
These paths of excess do not fulfill us because they are not what we are ultimately seeking. We are seeking a deeper and higher love that is not extinguished in a moment, not relegated to mere touch, and not riddled with anxiousness. The Love we seek through these things is one of True Peace, True Identity, and True Acceptance.
DETACHMENT APPROACH: Another approach to Love prominent in among us is to simply say love is illusory or not worth the heartache. The ancient sages of Eastern philosophy and religion, like The Buddha and Lao Tzu, and the Ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, would be in this camp. For example, The Buddha (c. 400s B.C.) said,
“Good men, at all times, surrender in truth all attachments. The holy spend not idle words on things of desire. When pleasure or pain comes to them, the wise feel above pleasure and pain.”
The point is that to achieve peace, tranquility, and happiness, one must detach oneself from all emotion and commitments. We are creatures with thousands of wounds to our souls, brought on by mothers, fathers, siblings, extended relatives, friends, church members, significant others, husbands, and wives. So, to be happy all we need to do is keep our heart from every fully committing to anything or anyone so as to never suffer anxiety or pain. In order that we be not destroyed by love we seek suppression and resistance to all love.
But again, this approach does not work. The road of safety is not the road of Love. Love is dangerous because love takes risks. To “preserve love” but suppressing it is to lose the real thing and only leads to a hardening and inevitable coldness of heart and soul. In short, it makes us at most inhuman, and at worst, a demon. As Lewis said,
“The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
THE ACTIVE, TANGIBLE, LIFE-GIVING REALITY OF TRUE LOVE
Our ways of love are broken and worn paths of disappointment. We spend exorbitant amounts of time marching for Love, singing about Love, and little time actually finding it. A central reason for this is because we fail to order our loves. As one author put it, “[The] issue is not that greatness of our earthly loves; it is the smallness of our love to God.” The core problem we have is like so many others, we want the system of the Garden of Eden without the source of the Gardener. Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) declared,
“[It] is God who frees us from any fear that he can fail to satisfy anyone to whom He becomes known; it is God who wants himself to be loved, not in order to gain any reward for himself but to give to those who love him an eternal reward—namely himself, the object of their love.”
The types of earthly love we seek are only approximations of the True Love the deepest parts of our souls are longing for. We are seeking an eternal reward, God Himself, who is the object of our love, even in the midst of looking for it in all the wrong places. Again, I am reminded of Camus, “Because I longed for eternal life, I went to be with harlots and drank for nights on end.”
The Eternal Life, this Eternal Reward, is the Love we are seeking after. Gloriously, Beautifully, Amazingly, such Love is known and knowable. Such Love came down to us precisely for us. Such Love is not a fantasy, not a dream, not bound in fakery, excess, or detachment. It is found incarnationally right at the beginning of the First Advent.
Before closing, I want to consider the power of all this by briefly dwelling on this passage in 1 John. Consider these words,
9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
1 John 4:9-11
There is so much richness to this passage that it could have an entire series of messages. However, for the sake of brevity, I just want to bring to light several key points about the nature of True Love that emanates from these words.
First, true love moves tangibly and selflessly for others: Love is something manifest (v. 9) and sent (v. 9 and 10) in and among us (v. 9, 10, 11). Love is a substantial active reality; it is not static nor merely fantasized about. It is not synthetic but genuine and raw. As Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) said,
“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all…. But active love is labor and fortitude….”
Love as a theory or a fantasy is not love. Love that sits still is not love. True love is gritty, palpable, messy, and dynamic. Love loves. This is perfectly displayed in the First Advent. God, in His infinity takes on finitude, in His majesty takes on bareness, and in His transcendence takes on humility. God doesn’t just talk about displaying lovingkindness, service, and sacrifice, He embodies them incarnationally into space and time and with selfless abandon offers them to an unworthy and hellishly self-centered people. J.I. Packer (1926-2020) put it powerfully,
“God loves creatures who have become unlovely and (one would have thought) unlovable. There was nothing whatever in the objects of his love to call it forth; nothing in us could attract or prompt it…. God loves people because he has chosen to love them…and no reason for his love can be given except his own sovereign good pleasure.”
Second, true love seeks the lifegiving good of others: Love is something that has an intended purpose within it, which is inherently to display and desire the best for others. Love has its reasons, so to speak. It is not merely about seeking the sentimentality of others, nor is it about drumming up forms of likeability among people, nor is it even about mere affections of affirmation. True Love has a goal, which is to make the world right by displaying rightness. Love desires the Good (with a capital “G”). As John says, God came not to just give us feelings but to accomplish something: He came “so that we might live through him” (v. 9) and to “be the propitiation for our sins” (v. 10). As theologian Thomas Oden (1931-2016) has said,
“God’s love reveals the divine determination to hold in personal communion all creatures capable of enjoying this communion.”
In short God came at the First Advent to seek the Supreme Good for us, which is eternal life at the expense of His self-sacrifice.
Think of the implications of this.
To seek the “The Good” for another is to acknowledge that such a person does not in fact have The Good. You will not receive what you do not believe you are missing or need. Furthermore, it acknowledges there is an Ultimate Rightness to the way the world ought to be. A central goal of True Love is to reveal to us our need in something far more beautiful and far more transcendent than all our earthy means of acceptance and assurance. This fundamentally means that Love seeks an objective Truth for our lives as opposed to mere subjective fulfillment or affirmation.
As an aside, this is why in the classical and biblical sense the word for “love” has been interchangeably known as “charity.” This rich word has lost much of its beauty, because we equate it with merely alms giving, affection, and likeability, but it is so much more. It really is meant to get across a sense of giving and seeking to make right.
Giving to ourselves and seeking our own good is intuitive to us. While we may not always have an affection for ourselves and we may not even like ourselves, we inevitably will the good for ourselves. This is where True Love resides. Love is willing the good for others and in others even at the expense of personal preference. To will the good is to want not necessarily what they desire but what they need. Thus, love intuitively, inherently, is deeply moral. You cannot understand love without THE GOOD being understood. To not know the good and yet will love is to be a ship without a compass.
Our world doesn’t believe this.
Today love just is affirmation. “Love is love” as the tautology goes; nothing more than boundless acceptance with reckless abandon. Affirmation is approving of everything one does at the expense of The Good and The Beautiful and The Just. But this is a lie. Love is not affirmation. True Love wars and it has anger. It abhors lies that destroy even through self-gratification and fights evil even when it is freely chosen. In the words of Rebecca Pippert (1949-present),
“[Real love] detests what destroys the beloved. Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys…. [The] more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.”
True Love does not exist in the absence of moral judgement but rather is sustained through it; it acknowledges the reality of the wretchedness and messiness of our lives not as a judicial sentencing of shame but as a call to recovery and transformation. This just is what God has done at the first Christmas. He declares our unloveliness as the true malady of our souls and then irrespectively descends into the midst of our malaise to redeem us and reforge us into the images of love.
True Love does not exclude the True and the Good but expresses them incarnationally.
True Love Transforms & Displays: John says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). Those that recognize the degree to which they have been forgive and loved are able to greater degrees forgive and love. They are both empowered and humbled when they come face to face with the stark reality that they deserve all wrath and yet receive overwhelming abundance.
The Manger, in many ways stands as the beginning cornerstone of the Gospel, is coated with the humble nature of God. What humility, what boundless self-giving, what unimaginable compassion, for the Infinite One to stoop to our level with infinite grace and unyielding adoration for poor wretches. What inexhaustible abandon God displays to us by taking on our nature only to be mocked by our egos and murdered by our knives.
The Incarnation in nothing short than a full fledge doctrine of humility.
You cannot look at the First Advent and not be changed. To do so is to not see or hear it truly. To touch and taste and then turn from it is to be little more than a devil. The true soul that sees such splendor cannot but be overcome by it and seek to display it through the living of one’s life.
By way of example, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov there is a woman who is terribly troubled and fearful over losing her faith. She is despondent and beseeches a priest to answer her inquiries into how she can attain once again the faith of her childhood. The exchange goes like this,
The Woman: “How—how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it…. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely any one else cares; no on troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly—deadly!”
The Priest: “No doubt. But there no proving it, through you can be convinced of it.”
The Woman: “How?”
The Priest: “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”
There is so much to say to this but let this seep inwardly. This is Truth. Let it just be said, that for the Love from God to be made real it must be made manifest.
Christmas, and the Advent Season, although embodying the beauty of peace, reflection, and joy tends to devolve into a fast-paced marathon of busyness, debt, and excess. The Season easily becomes everything that it preaches against. We need a reassessment. We need to slow down, meditate on, and reside in the Reality of the Season we are in.
We need to be reminded that when Christmas came, it pierced the seams of this pitiable grey world with the colorful rays of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. When Christmas came it was on that day that a conquest was launched from Heaven to destroy the powers of indifference, rebellion, and anxiety in the souls of Man so that passion, peace, and pleasure could once again rule in them. It was that day that made possible the transformation of saints out of pagans, of faithful followers out of foreigners, of believers out of skeptics, and of lovers out of haters. This happened through the power of a hope filled, peace infused, joy saturated Love.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017), pg. 114
 Albert Camus, The Fall, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1984), pg. 102
 The Dhammapada, trans. by Jaun Mascaro (United Kingdom, 2004), pg. 180
 Lewis, The Four Loves, pg. 121
 Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), pg. 233
 Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford, NY: Oxford Press, 1997), pg. 22
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, NY: Barnes & Nobles Classics, 2004), pg. 61
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), pg. 124
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), pg. 231-234
 Thomas Oden, The Living God: Systematic Theology Vol. 1 (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992), pg. 118
 Consider: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity in The Complete C.S. Lewis: Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002), pg. 109-114; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Question 23
 Rebecca M. Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons: The Search to Satisfy Our Deepest Longings (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), pg. 99-101
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, NY: Barnes & Nobles Classics, 2004), pg. 61
The Christmas season is a time of great delight for many people. It is a time of lights, festivities, and feasting; a time of laughing and memory-making with family and friends; and a time of giving and receiving without reservation. As the Andy Williams song goes, for many of us, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But in all honesty, there is some degree of tragedy in all this seasonal excitement – for far too often it is deeply synthetic. It can become a spray-tanned bliss that lacks any real durability beyond December 25th. In many ways, it is just gilded over nostalgia and joviality. For all the holly and jolly many know that when the radio stations go back to “normal” and the tinsel and lights are stored away, they will be faced once again with an abiding dissatisfaction and uneasiness with life.
For many, life will go back to a version of C.S. Lewis’ land of Narnia, where it is always winter and never Christmas. Just like Williams’ song, many will go on experiencing the wonder of Christmas episodically: nothing more than a wistful camping ground along the journey of an otherwise hectic, monotonous, and anxious life. This ought not be. Christmas should be carried within us on the daily, steadily, and subtly transforming us by its true Beauty. It should awaken in us an ever-growing sense of wonder, delight, and purpose throughout our lives just as it did for those who were given its original message.
When Christmas first came to the bewildered yet enthralled shepherds, it was harkened by the angelic chorus as “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). It was seen centrally as the breakout of True Joy into this world; a return, if you will, of an abiding delight and restfulness that the human heart has hungered to taste again since the days of Eden.
STRIVING FOR DELIGHT THROUGH SHADOWS
The human soul longs for joy. In fact, it can be strongly argued that joy stands at the center of our life’s desires. It could even be provocatively said, it is what we are made for. The author of Ecclesiastes (900s B.C.) said long ago,
God keeps [Man] occupied with joy in his heart…. [and] man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful….
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 and 8:15
For the classical Greek and Roman thinker’s joy (or happiness [Greek: eudaimonia]) was the chief end or aim of all man’s purposes. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) affirmed that,
“[Happiness is] the most choiceworthy of all things while not counting it as one of those things […] [It is] complete and self-sufficient, and is, therefore, the end of actions.”
Centuries later Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) declared,
“What all agree upon is that they want to be happy, just as they would concur, if asked, that they want to experience joy and would call that joy the happy life. Even if one person pursued it in one way, and another in a different way, yet there is one goal which all are striving to attain, namely to experience joy.”
What Ecclesiastes, Aristotle, and Augustine bring to light is what we all know deep within: we long for joy and happiness. In fact, everything we do in life – from our careers to our relationships to our product purchases to our extracurricular activities to our law making – centers around the desire to find fulfillment and happiness. We strive for delight. However, often we fail to realize that the variety of paths we take to attain Joy all too often miss the Real Thing. Far too regularly we become lost in finding True Joy amid a sea of lesser goods (and artificial ones) that divert and even enslave us. This is no truer than in our present age.
If you do a Google search on “How to Be Happy?” you will get a myriad of websites and blog posts on the topic. One of the most notable is an extensive article from the New York Times’ Guides for Living Smarter page which advises on the various methods of how to craft happiness in one’s life. The author states at the beginning,
“Everyone has the power to make small changes in our behavior, our surroundings, and our relationships that can help set us on course for a happier life.”
They then proceed to give an extensive listing of what modern behavioral scientists say are the keys to unlocking happiness, which can be boiled down to the following:
Ø Conquering negative thinking
Ø Controlled breathing
Ø Rewriting your life story
Ø Physical exercise
Ø Practicing optimism
Ø Finding your happy place
Ø Spending time in nature
Ø Decluttering your environment
Ø Getting enough sleep and sex
Ø Spending time with happy people
Ø Getting pets
Ø Finding purpose at work
Ø Being generous to others
Ø Giving yourself a break
Take a moment and think on these. Many of them are noble goals and all of them do affect mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing – so in that regard, they are not inappropriate. But think about what the overall message of the list is: Happiness is all about getting control of your life in such a way that your circumstances remain favorable. The ball is in your court if you want happiness – you have the power to just generate happiness through certain persona steps.
Do you realize how shallow and ridiculous such a vision of happiness is?
This vision of happiness is deeply subjective and deeply circumstantial; it is wholly shaped by the attainment of certain people, things, or environments. Most humans in the history of the world have never had access to a quarter of the options listed. How many Medieval peasants do you know could “rewrite their life story” or “give themselves a break” amid strict social hierarchies and backbreaking labor conditions? How many third-world peoples do you know that can afford to “declutter their environments” or “conquer negative thinking” amid endless famine and disease?
These strategies are vacuous because they only address the surface of true joy and happiness. Consider the fact, for example, that in the entire article of over 5,000 words neither “faith” nor “God” is once mentioned. That speaks volumes.
The tragedy of post-modern Man is he has bought hook, line, and sinker the illusion that he can find wisdom, identity, and happiness without the Transcendent Source sustaining them. Instead, he has settled for a menagerie of lesser goods to tantalize his longings. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) set it forth candidly,
“[Man] wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop himself thinking about it […] That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle … [for that is] all men have been able to devise for attaining happiness.”
The best we can do to attain happiness, Pascal says, is diversion: “hustle and bustle.” How true this is given the extensive list of behavioral research above. We must have busyness and mindless distractions to keep us “happy.” But they aren’t achieving true happiness for us, they are just amusing us and suppressing our deeper angst.
A truism can be found here: a person that increases their diversions reveals the increase of their unhappiness. Put another way, more diversion equals more unhappiness, and more unhappiness equals more diversion. Statistically speaking, we know this is true. We are the most distracted and amusement-seeking culture to inhabit the globe. At the same time, we are sustainedly the most unhappy, most worried, and most purposeless generation of humans to exist, despite having more options, more gadgets, and freedoms than any of our ancestors.
Why are we so consumed with diversion and unhappiness?
The answer lies within our souls. “The best thing [to attain happiness],” Pascal says, “would be [for Man] to make himself immortal,” but because Man can’t do that, “he has decided to stop himself thinking about it.” In other words, we recognize life and it’s pleasures are like chaff in the wind. We are creatures that have far less control over our lives than we care to imagine, are far more fragile and transient than we care to acknowledge, and far more ignorant and uncertain than we care to think. To compensate for all of this we are driven to be tantalized and enthralled by an endless stream of novelties to keep ourselves from thinking about such things. But none of the novelties really staves off what we deeply know to be true about ourselves and our lives. We are jovial in the moment of a joke or a silly TikTok video only to turn back as sullen as Jacob Marley to the mediocrity of our lives. We become imprisoned to the increasing “law of diminishing return”  as C.S. Lewis called it, which is an ever-growing consumption of novelty to satiate our ever-increasing apathy and insecurity.
This sounds bleak, and it is, in the absence of any real Ultimate Meaning or Truth.
THE DEEP, DURABLE, DELIGHT OF TRUE JOY
The central problem with our modern understanding of joy is that we equate it with laughter and smiles. But these are circumstantial and reactionary. The problem is much deeper in us and until we recognize that, no amount of surface-level sanitization will fix our sickness.
The solution for our malady must come from beyond us rather than generated within us. It cannot be grounded in our souls because our souls are themselves in need of remedy. Augustine long ago spoke powerfully on this point in his Confessions, where he detailed the journey of his restless young life trying to seek Ultimate Happiness. He sought it in entertainment, in friends, in lovers, in learning, in love, in lust, in excess, in food, and all the rest. His life was one of perpetual pleasure-seeking. Finally, coming to see that all these things are lesser goods (or pure distractions) that do not satisfy, he said,
“The [truly] happy life is joy based on the truth [and] this is joy ground in God, who [is] the truth…. [The] human mind…in its miserable condition…will be happy if it comes to find joy only in that truth by which all things are true—without any distraction interfering.’”
Augustine brings forth a profound fact: true happiness is grounded in Truth, and until that Truth is grasped, we will stay miserable and distracted. Our souls seek happiness because we were made for happiness, and to be made implies there is an objective meaning and purpose to why we live, move, and have our being. Our lives are not our own for we were made for more. We were made to enjoy one another and to be enjoyed and to find Ultimate Enjoyment in the One Who is Joy itself. Sex, power, money, alcohol, sports, video games, social media, meditation, self-organizing, friends, family, boyfriends, girlfriends, marriage, kids, and the like are not going to give us true abiding happiness because they are but shadows of the deeper longing of our souls. These things, in their proper order, are not bad, and they are not insignificant soul-forming things, but they are not the Source of All Things. They are faint echoes of a far Greater Rhythm our souls are seeking after, and it is only when the rhythm of our lives aligns with that Greater Chorus, can we truly live in beauty and meaning. The Puritan theologian Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) said it this way,
“God hath joined these two together, as one chief end and good. The one, that he might be glorified; the other, that we might be happy. And both these are attained by honoring and serving him…. Thus our happiness and God’s chief end agree together…. [Our] salvation and happiness is within the glory of God, and we live to Christ, not only in serving him, but in seeking our own souls; and what a sweetness is this in God, that in seeking our own good we should glorify him.”
The great American revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) would dovetail off such words when he declared,
"True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures: it is the joy of their joy."
Centuries later C.S. Lewis would bring forth the splendor of this truth by saying,
“God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
The Joy described by Augustine, Sibbes, Edwards, Lewis and the like is far beyond the circumstantial self-help-ism approaches of our modern times. What they are showing us is profound: Joy is not our inability to cry or mourn nor is it our ability to think positively or always smile and joke; it is not us seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses; rather, True Joy is a deep, durable, delight that pierces circumstances and transcends emotional capriciousness. It is a state of being, not a state of mere feeling, that is bound inextricably to the objectivity of meaning, purpose, and hope.
True Joy is the unique affection we possess (or rather can possess) because it requires the totality of our being to experience it. It requires the use of our heart, soul, mind, and strength to actualize it. You see, it is possible to understand something without having any happiness in it (i.e. understanding how cancer works). It is also possible to be happy in something without understanding it (i.e. being moved by the beat of a song without carefully listening to the lyrics). It is even possible to act upon things without any true thought or emotion (i.e. the simple act of blinking or walking without thinking). For many of us, we live our lives in these ways. We act without thinking, we think without acting, we feel without thinking, and think without feeling. Many of our relationships are like this. We go through life detached, distracted, and depressed. But Joy, true Joy, is different.
True Joy, Advent Joy, is the wonderful symmetry of knowing, feeling, and acting. It is a deep abiding resting satisfaction of life that finds its anchorage in the beauty, love, and promises of God. It is not frothy or fickle, but a refreshing fervent maturity of longing and rest indwelling our soul. This type of Joy is rooted fundamentally and inextricably with the Hope and Peace we have discussed in our Advent Series. It is linked to the First and Second Advent, which are assurances of the love, justice, promises, and plans of a God Who is the Father, Lord, and Lover of our souls.
It is this kind of Joy that can sustain a people in the midst of a world gone mad in its darkness. It is the kind of Joy that came upon the Israelites after they crossed the Red Sea and faced a bleak wilderness of wandering, and yet sang and rejoiced in the Lord (Exodus 15; Psalm 105:43). It is this kind of Joy the Apostle Paul proclaimed he had and desired for the Christians in Philippi (Philippians 1:4, 1:25, 2:2, 2:29, 3:1, 4:1) even though he was writing with shackles in a prison cell. It is this kind of Joy the Apostle Peter and James encouraged the fledgling Christians of Asia Minor with even in the face of immense trials and persecutions (James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6-9). It is this Joy that Jesus said His disciples could rejoice in even though they would be reviled and persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). It is such Joy that He Himself exemplified when He stood in the face of the vilest of accusations, beatings, and eventual murder; to the degree that it could be said paradoxically that the cross itself was “the joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2). And it is such Joy that broke forth into our world 2,000 years ago and is offered to us now and forever more by Him Who says, “My joy may be in you… that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
Joy To The World, Isaac Watts (1719)
 Clerk Shaw, Ancient Ethics, https://iep.utm.edu/a-ethics/. It should also be noted that the word “happy” as we moderns think of it is not the same kind of thing the pre-moderns thought of. The word “happy” in Greek is eudaimonia, which has this understanding of the condition of contentedness and completion in life that is found when one lives virtuously. In short, happiness is a product of living the good and virtuous life and coming into accordance with your purpose and meaning. It is this understanding of “happiness” that the ancients, medievalists, and early modernists spoke about – as in when the American Declaration of Independence speaks of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
 Aristotle, Nichomecean Ethics (pg. 10 in pdf) https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/aristotle/Ethics.pdf
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), pg. 198-199
 Tara Parker-Pope, How to Be Happy (October 8, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/how-to-be-happy
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), pg. 171-173
 The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world (2018) https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-concentration-being-distracted-in-a-digital-world; Udemy In Depth: 2018 Workplace Distraction Report (2018) https://research.udemy.com/research_report/udemy-depth-2018-workplace-distraction-report/; Abundance of information narrows our collective attention span (2019) https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/490177
 Survey: Americans reach a record level of unhappiness (Feb, 2018) https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/survey-americans-reach-a-record-level-of-unhappiness; Americans are getting more miserable, and there’s data to prove it (Washington Post, March 2019) https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/03/22/americans-are-getting-more-miserable-theres-data-prove-it/
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 257-259
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), pg. 198-200
 Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. with mem. by A.B. Grosart (United Kingdom, n.p, 1863), pg. 298-299
 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, Part III
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pg. 53-54
 This phrasing is taken from Sam Storms’ blog post For Joy (2 Cor. 1:23-2:4) https://www.samstorms.org/all-articles/post/for-joy--2-cor--1:23-2:4-
 A good discussion on this point comes from Sam Storms’ article post 10 Things You Should Know About Joy, accessed from https://www.samstorms.org/all-articles/post/article-10-things-you-should-know-about-joy
 An excellent discussion on the topic of “Joy” is the chapter on the subject in Dane C. Ortlund’s book Edwards On The Christian Life: Alive To The Beauty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 75-88
If there is one word to describe the current state of our world it is “restless.” We are restless souls in restless relationships in a land of restless circumstances. We are told by the statisticians that social unrest is up 244% globally all the while 20% of us suffer from some form of anxiety disorder and expend over $240 billion a year in mental health services. Is it any wonder that the Bible constantly characterizes Humanity as a frothing sea of chaos and sin from whence beasts immerge?
We crave sanity and serenity for our world gone mad. We long for peace. We sing about it, dream about it, write about it, march for it, and craft legislation to achieve it. We cry “peace, peace” for our planet, nations, communities, families, and souls, and yet, just as in the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, “there is no peace.” In fact, the march away from peace only seems to be increasing. Why do we fail to achieve what we long for? This is a perennial question.
Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) long ago asked the same question and concluded that answering such a question involves us considering the very nature of our hearts. He said,
“[There are two] movements of the heart [which] are two loves. [The first one] is the uncleanness of our own spirit, which like a flood-tide sweeps us down, in love with restless cares... [The second] is the holiness of [God’s] Spirit, which bears us upwards in a love for peace beyond all care.””
In other words, Augustine recognized that any discussion on the restlessness of Man (or solutions to it) is going to necessarily involve a discussion on the heart of Man. He argued that Man has two essential movements of the heart. These movements are the gravitas of our affections – our love. What we live for is what we love and what we love fundamentally grounds and guides our lives.
THE QUEST FOR PEACE THROUGH EARTHY CARES
The first type of movement of the heart, Augustine argued, was earthy in nature; it is the “uncleanness of our own spirit” that “sweeps down” our affections. Such a movement is a gravitational pull to seek and fill our lives with “restless cares;” those things that inherently have no capacity to sustain our inner longings. If you want a biblical equivalency of what he is saying, it is that we seek after and craft “broken cisterns that can’t hold water” to fulfill our lives (Jeremiah 2:13).
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) blisteringly asserted that such an earthy quest is really rooted in our failure to face our true selves,
“What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture.”
In frank terms, Pascal was saying we as humans really don’t want peace even when we say we do. We just want the artificial version of it. Deep down, he argued, we like complexity, we like hurriedness, we like noise, we like busyness, we like hassle, and we like drama. We love those things that “pull us down” to earth because there is something deeply wrong in the nature of our heart that wars against the “capture” of the Real Thing.
This is a truth we know is right.
We are told and even tell ourselves that the answer for our restless hearts is to be found through distraction and self-gratification – both of which are fool’s gold solutions. We think if we can just stop thinking about our lives or better yet, flood them with excesses, then we will achieve the harmony we desire. So, we chase for peace through a bottle or a drug; or we seek it through passing sexual encounters; or we pursue it through gorging our appetites; or we forge it out of a new self-made identity. Or perhaps, instead, we seek it through more subtle means: like through marriage, having kids, or making a family; or through procuring certain possessions or positions; or by consuming copious amounts of fun and entertainment; or through attaining the approval of friends and family. The list can go on, but the point is served. There are endless frothy “restless cares” that we think are the means to attaining peace; but all of them, at rock bottom, are incapable of being the lasting city in which our pilgrimaging hearts can find true rest.
These earthy cares can’t give us what we deeply want because that is not their purpose. They are not all bad things, but they are not and cannot be Ultimate things. Their purpose is part of a larger, grander, more beautiful tapestry of meaning and destiny. They are merely embers of a grander Flame we seek to find warmth and certainty from.
But we want to deny this and even, many times, rebel against it. Why? Because we know True Peace means letting go of self. It means surrender. It means acknowledging we are not in control. It means laying down our weapons of war upon the altars of forgiveness and humility. It means laying waste the fortresses we have built, and others have built, around our emotions and wills and yielding to a Power beyond and above us. As theologian D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) once said,
“To be a peacemaker means that one must have an entirely new view of self…. Before one can be a peacemaker one really must be entirely delivered from self.”
PEACE IS A PERSON
Remember Augustine had said that the first movement of the heart was “the uncleanness of our own spirit” that sweeps us downward to the Earth, seeking in the Earth restless cares to satiate our restless hearts. So, in a very real sense, the issue we have in pursuing peace is the gravity of our heart. Consequently, there is another movement of the heart we must have that realigns our gaze from earth to something more. Augustine went on to say,
“[There are two] movements of the heart [which] are two loves…. [The second movement] is the holiness of [God’s] Spirit, which bears us upwards in a love for peace beyond all care.”
To Augustine, the answer to the heart’s restlessness is “upwards.” It resides not upon the earth but in the heavens; not in the terrestrial but the celestial; not in Man but in God. And notice that that upwards view is a “love for peace.” One cannot love an abstract concept. Love only exists in the relation of mutual persons.
Our love is seeking the Ultimate Love which is itself Peace.
In other words, what we are seeking is not a concept, a theory, or an emotion, but a Person and that Person is the One in Whom we find true rest. It is no wonder therefore that Augustine begins his Confessions saying,
“Thou [oh God] hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.”
The longings of his life resided in the Giver and Sustainer of his life. He understood, and we must understand now, that the quest for Peace is only completed by the One Who is Peace. This is why it is a fool’s errand to try and acquire peace in the absence of God. In cannot be done and won’t be done. The Apostle Paul put it like this,
[Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility
Peace is a Person, and that person is the author of our existence, which means He is our purpose giver, and He has destroyed the powers of hostility, which means He is our savior and destiny giver. This all means that if there is no quest to seek this Author, Sustainer, and Finisher of our purpose and destiny then we are hopelessly beating our fists in the air to attain True Peace. We cannot have it any other way because that just is the kind of World we live in. This World is not our own and we are not our own and until we realize this, we will never have rest. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) beautifully said it like this,
God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.
THE SUPERIOR PEACE OF CHRISTMAS
The Christian understanding of peace is so far superior to the nutrition-less solutions touted about by our ever-disintegrating world. This superior Peace is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is at the heart of Christmas; it is what broke forth into Reality at Christmas. It is not just a song or a longing or a wish or a campaign, it is a living Reality we dwell in. Jesus said to His disciples before His arrest and execution,
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
His peace surpasses the worlds peace because it is not of this world for it made the world. It is a peace that is not capsized by the torrents of life’s circumstances nor ambushed and destroyed by restless anxieties; it is not a peace bound up in fuzzy sentimentalism, steamy hedonism, mystical estheticism, or mindless consumerism. The peace Jesus gives is a mighty fortress in which our souls can find habitation, knowing that the Creator and Commander of that fortress is for us, surrounding us, and sustaining us in all things.
In the Bible there are two main words used for peace: the Hebrew word shalom and the Greek word eirene. These words get across the idea of “completeness” or “wholeness” or “harmony.” They encapsulate the kind of peace Christ says He gives us. It is not merely a sense or feeling of subjective serenity but an objective state of flourishing, wholeness, and delight in our identity, meaning, and destiny. His shalom is us coming to understand what we were meant to be in Him and for Him. His shalom is a redefining of our definitions, a refining of our desires, a reforming of our relationships, a reordering of our passions – all working in their natural fruitful employment for the betterment of His Creation and for His glory.
This kind of Peace is what Isaiah longed for and prophesied would break into the world one day (Isaiah 9), it is what the angels exclaimed had come to the bewildered shepherds in the field in Bethlehem (Luke 2:14), and it is what John foresaw would cover all the realms of Creation at the dawn of the Second Advent (Revelation 19 and 20). This Peace is not something merely longed for but something that has come, is now among, and will be even more greatly manifest hereafter. It isn’t a wish; it is an abounding assurance that changes us. This is why the Apostle Paul, in the face of imprisonment, persecution, and death could write to the Church in Colossae,
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…
That word “rule” is the idea of an arbiter, umpire, judge, or decision maker. Paul is saying, those in Christ should be a people in whom Peace is the central driving force for their entire lives. All their thoughts and actions and opinions should be shaped by and evaluated by the peace of Christ. Making decisions and forming relationships based upon hate, anxiety, doubt, and insecurity, is only allowing earthen vessels of miry clay to guide our lives. We are called to more. We are called to see life from the vantagepoint of Heaven.
When we know who made us, who saved us, who sustains us, and who gives us a name, we can have an assurance of completeness unmatched by anything this world can hope to give. The One Who does all these things is the Luminous Nazarene, who invaded our world 2,000 years ago through a crib, waging War on Death, Hell, and the Grave, that He might give us Peace.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1863)
 Antidepressant prescriptions up 6% https://pharmaceutical-journal.com/article/news/antidepressant-prescribing-up-6-since-2019#:~:text=Antidepressants%20%E2%80%9Chave%20been%20steadily%20increasing,months%20in%20the%20previous%20year; Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder Among Adults: United States, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db378.htm; Total U.S. expenditure for mental health services from 1986 to 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/252393/total-us-expenditure-for-mental-health-services/; Global Peace Index 2021: Measuring Peace In A Complex World, https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/GPI-2021-web-1.pdf
 The “sea” is that place from which chaotic and demonic beasts reside and emerge (Psalm 74:14; Job 40:25; Daniel 7; Revelation 13) and it also is the place from which human national and social sinfulness arises (Isaiah 57:20-21). Consider some of these sources on the biblical symbolism of the sea as restlessness, chaos, and a force that pushes against God’s will and creative designs: “Sea” entry in Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), pg. 765; John J. Collins, The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), pg. 373-375
 Jeremiah 6:14, Jeremiah 8:11, Ezekiel 13:10 and 16
 Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book XIII, translated by Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), pg. 347
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), pg. 173
 Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book XIII, translated by Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), pg. 347
 Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book I, Infancy and Childhood
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pg. 53-54
 Sources that go into biblical and theological depth on this topic of “peace” are: T.S. Hadjiev. “Peace.” Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, ed. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2012), pg. 574-577; T.J. Geddert. “Peace.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), pg. 604-605
 Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), pg. 9-10
 R. Kent Hughes, Preach the Word Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, & Philemon (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), pg. 318
 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (1863)
It is Christmas time once again. There seems to be a deep sacred magic to this time of year we simply cannot shake. At this time, more than any other, our souls are moved steadily upward towards the transcendent. We are inundated with the values of eternity: we sing songs and watch movies on faith and hope, we give gifts with love and receive with joy, and we reminisce on the peace and simplicity of times bygone and longed for. For but a few brief weeks we seem to inhabit a world as it ought to be, and we live lives as they should be. We act and think in ways we were made to be and don’t even recognize it, both saint and sinner. GK Chesterton (1874-1936) put it like this,
“The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.”
We need to be a people who awaken to why this season ignites joy, celebration, and transformation, however brief or enduring. We need to come to realize that the hope, joy, peace, and love in this season is but an echo of the Sacred breaking into our world. Liturgically speaking this time of year is known as Advent. That beautifully strange word comes from the Latin adventus which means “arrival” or “an appearing or coming into place” and it powerfully encapsulates the meaning of this time of year. It speaks to the anticipation and realization of the Sacred breaking forth into our world for us. It heralds the recovery of this world from darkness back to light, from brokenness back to wholeness, from doubt back to certainty.
Advent is a commemorative delight. It is “our long and steady gaze forward, backlit by history.” In other words, it is us memorializing the fact that God Himself pierced the veil of this stained soaked world to upturn and remake it for His glory and our joy. Through the selfless condescension of His Son in a manger, we can ascend from our present and future guilt, pain, and fear.
Over the next few weeks, I would like to go on a journey reflecting on the beauty and blessedness of this reality. Each week, up to Christmas, there will be a post devoted to one of the four fundamental sacred truths that stand at the core of Advent: Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love. Each one of these coalesced in a manger 2,000 years ago, and as a result, are powerful transforming realities for our lives now and forever.
HOPE IS NOT A WISH
We are living at a time when there seems to be little hope. Global pandemics, political polarization and corruption, democratized depravity, worldwide unrest, and economic unpredictability have awakened us to the realization that the world we inhabit is far more fragile and far more uncertain than we think. We have been forced to recognize, however reluctantly, that the world of our childhoods is gone. This is sobering and this can be unsettling. For so long we had been accustomed to lives of liberty, security, and immediacy that, if honest, we took for granted. We realize now or are starting to realize, that freedom can be lost, security can be shaken, and immediacy can become scarce. Anything that can be shaken, is being shaken it seems (Hebrews 12:27). As a result, we yearn for “normalcy,” we hope things are going to sift back into place or get better.
Unfortunately, the mode of hope we have doesn’t seem to be robust enough to see us through. Today suicides are up 25% and depression among adults and adolescents has skyrocketed while anxiety, on average consumes about 20% of the population. While we as a society have more freedoms and stuff (even in the face of the growing scarcity) than any other place or any other time, we seem to be growing less hopeful. One reason for this is we have a neutered view of Hope.
For many of us hope is something marketed to us through Hallmark or Disney with inspirational quotes and music. “Just wish upon a star” and it will all get better we are told. If we “just stay positive” everything is “going to work out.” And so, we “hope for a good diagnosis,” or “hope we get the job,” or “hope better days are ahead.” But all of this is just optimism firmly planted in the shifting currents of circumstances. It is looking into the future on the borrowed capital of the present in order to yearn for what could be or may be. This kind of hope is just a mushy sentimentality, a would-be escapism, a naïve optimism. It really isn’t hope. It is just the World’s version of hope masquerading as the real thing. Christian hope is far more robust. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) put it like this,
Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
So Christian hope is deeply and centrally transcendent centered. It is rooted in the Eternal and therefore not enslaved to the monetary ups and downs of everyday occurrences. Lewis only builds off the foundation of the Word itself. God spoke through the Prophet Hosea, who lived amid immense suffering in the history of Israel, saying,
“I will give [Israel] her vineyards and make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope.”
The Apostle Peter wrote to the dispersed and persecuted Christians in Asia Minor saying,
God, according to his great mercy, has caused us to be born again to a living hope…
1 Peter 1:3
And the Apostle Paul declared that “the God of hope” can fill us “with all joy and peace as [we] trust in him, so that [we] may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). Such hope has weight, richness, and purpose to it precisely because it has God smack dab at the center of its orbit. It is an expectant assurance not grounded in circumstances but in a Person.
Christian hope is active, not passive. It is expectant not reactant. It is resilient, not restless. Christian hope is not built on syrupy illusions of perpetual comfort and success in circumstances, but a settled certitude found in restive resolve and power. It is such a hope that can pierce the veil of circumstances and find an abiding peace, joy, and love at their expense. As Timothy Keller has put it,
“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”
This is why modern hope is bankrupt and Christian hope is solvent. Modern hope looks forward to escape the past and present while Christian hope looks back so that it might transcend the present and glory in the future. As one author has put it, “Christian hope…doesn’t ignore fear, anxiety, and doubt; it confronts them. It holds steady, clinging to peace in the midst of chaos…[it] is buoyed by something greater that has happened and something greater that is going to happen again.” This is what Advent is all about and it is why it has such transformative sacred power to it. We can have hope in our future not because we elected the right politicians, not because we saved up enough money in the bank or back yard, not because some scientists or psychiatrists have the next greatest cure for our maladies, but because of the advent of what happened in a manger 2,000 years ago and the anticipated advent of the glory and splendor of the King who was in that manger – that which has happened and is going to happen again utterly transforms what is happening now!
PRESENT HOPE ROOTED IN A NATIVITY & RETURNING KING
Think of this for but a moment: Hope has an expectancy to it and expectancy is built on promises and promises are rooted in the identity and character of the promise maker. That “promise maker” could be ourselves, others, a thing, or a circumstance in which we place our trust to execute what they pledge to do. And so, we may say, “I hope I can lose weight,” which is fundamentally tied to our own personal future resolve; or we say, “I hope they follow through,” which is contingent upon the other person keeping their end of the bargain; or we say, “I hope this thing stays together,” which is conditional to the resilience of the object in question. In a very real sense then the intensity and surety of hopefulness are grounded within the nature and character of the promise maker. If the promise maker is fickle then the expectancy in the promise holder will be fickle. If the promise maker is indifferent, then the anticipation in the promise holder will be indifferent. If the promise maker is unreliable, then the assurance of the promise holder will be unreliable.
By way of example consider a father who keeps making promises to his little girl that he will come to her dance recitals. When he makes these promises there is an expectancy and joy that fills the heart of his daughter. The intensity of her hope is grounded in the nature and character of her father. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show up for the first recital or the second or the third, and so on. He keeps making promises, “Next time I will be there,” and each time fails to fulfill, thus slowly eroding the intensity of his little girls' hope. Eventually, her hope is not built on any assurance but upon chance. It no longer has a certainty to it but a wishful optimism. “I hope dad will come…but who knows,” or “I will believe it when I see it.” But this is not a problem sons and daughters of God should have because of the Promise Maker we have. As theologian Thomas Oden (1931-2016) has said,
“Hope is that excellent habituation by which one securely trusts that God will be faithful to his promise and will provide the faithful with fit means to receive it. The ground of hope is the almighty power of God, and confidence that God will provide means to save.”
Do you understand this? “The ground of hope is the almighty power of God, AND confidence (not wishfulness) that God WILL provide means to save.” Oden is merely mimicking the beauty of Scripture. Remember again the words of the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 1:3-5) to the exiled and persecuted Christians of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey),
God, according to his great mercy, has caused us to be born again to a living hope…
By what means?
…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
To what present and future end?
…to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
What beauty and power and joy reside in these words! Advent represents the breaking into Reality of the “living hope” the passage is speaking of! Such hope is not wishful thinking nor expectant could-be-ism. It is an active present abiding assurance grounded in the reality of who God is and what God has done and will do! This is why it is a “living hope.” It is not something merely wished for based on uncertain circumstances but is a sign sealed delivered fact grounded in the power of the living and active God. It is “living” because it is rooted in the living God Who is not like the fickle father who fails to deliver his end of the bargain but is the eternal, unbounded, self-existent, giver, definer, sustainer, covenant-making Creator King of the Cosmos that accomplishes all His promises, executes all His decrees, and fulfills all His blessings! That God is the same God who promises and decrees that there is (not maybe) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance for His children. That God is the same God who condescended into our baby crib of a cosmos and cocooned Himself in the mind, bone, and blood of a Man, that He might remake the World as it was intended to be.
Because of this, the Nativity becomes the canvas upon which our present and future hope can be painted. We have a future precisely because we have a past. That past is the glorious work of God’s Son igniting onto the world stage, coming to dispel and break the powers of our present insecurities, anxieties, and failings. But it doesn’t stop there. That same God Who was veiled in flesh is the same God who will be veiled in glory at His Second Coming. It is this kind of Advent hope that allows us to transcend above our present world gone mad and declare there is life and peace and joy and love and they will victoriously triumph by the power of the everlastingly GOD Who was and is and is to come.
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
 G.K. Chesterton, “On Christmas” in Generally Speaking (1929) http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/Generally_Speaking_scan.pdf
 Jay Y. Kim, Hope Is an Expectant Leap (Christianity Today, 2020), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november/advent-hope-is-expectant-leap.html
 https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1555415521003615; https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2017), pg. 112-114
 Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2013), pg. 31
 Jay Y. Kim, Hope Is an Expectant Leap (Christianity Today, 2020), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november/advent-hope-is-expectant-leap.html
 Thomas Oden, Life in the Spirit (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pg. 146
I have a naked confession to make. I am a pessimist by nature. I tend to be that person who bends towards the raw character of “suck-it-up-buttercup” realism while loathing sappy inattentiveness – the type that circulates on social media and says, “The world is burning, but here are pictures of puppies to make you feel better.” Inspirational sicky-sweet quotes and being told “Everything is fine” when in fact things are not fine does nothing for me. I realize that for many flowery sentimentalities are artificial anesthetics to keep oneself from being crushed by a world gone mad, but for someone who tends to be a raw “realist”, it does little. I must be raw and honest in this, admitting it at the beginning, before discussing a topic such as pessimism of which I struggle.
I believe it can be argued with great force that our World is an utter dumpster fire. The West at large and particularly the United States is entering its twilight stage of moral, political, and cultural decline. In artistic terms, we would be somewhere between “The Consummation of Empire” and “Destruction” in Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Course of Empire paintings series (1830s). We citizens of a declining West have front row seats to watch the World of our childhoods burn up in the name of security, liberation, and necessity. With global pandemics, mass forced lockdowns and vaccinations, selective conformity and censorship, economic inflation, civic laziness and greed, political ineptitude and corruption, unmitigated social violence, mass child genocide, celebrated and legislated sexual perversion, and so much more, we are witnessing, in real-time, a free people’s suicide. The Empire of Liberty we once loved is bleeding by our knives and we wonder what is happening. Our mindless, depraved, and selfish decisions are going to ring through the ages of our posterity as our sins are met upon the heads of our children and their children.
That all said, there is more to the story.
Satan Wants Hell in Us
In thinking about all the insanity occurring around us, it is easy, especially for someone like me, to just acknowledge the chaos and declare doom, praying for the asteroid. However, I was slapped with a dose of corrective conviction and much-needed realignment regarding this while reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Just as a reminder, Lewis wrote this book during World War II and from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape writing advice to his underling Wormwood on how best to destroy his Christian “patient.” In one section Lewis has Screwtape gives his minion advice on how to cultivate a materialistic and pessimistic view of the world. Here is the section that struck such a chord:
The scenes [your patient] is now witnessing [of the horrors of the War] will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith…but there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. The hatefulness of a hated person is “real” — in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The [human] creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
I was reminded by Lewis’ wisdom here, which simply echoes the greater wisdom of Scripture, that the goal of the Devil is two-fold: (a) to methodically glide us into Hell, and (b) to get Hell into us by making us believe the chaos and darkness of our world are the Ultimate Reality. It is easy to believe point (a). We all know Satan wants to take us to Hell, but it is far more difficult to realize that he also is working to make us think that the worldview of Hell (in all its weeping, wailing, darkness, and fire) is somehow the natural lasting state of the World in which we live, move, and have our being. The process of (b) comes much more methodically and subtly through repeatedly bringing before our mind's eye images of darkness and chaos (i.e. “entrails splattered on the walls”) until slowly, our joy, peace, love, and sense of the divine are withered away and replaced by anger, anxiety, defeat, and doubt.
Seeing God In The Midst Of The Fire
Satan ravenously craves our soul and one way he leeches on to it is by draining it of the dual vision of the World that we are to have. His job, and the job of his minions, is to ensure that when we see the World, we are seeing it only through the tinted lenses of the physical dimension. He wants us to see the world monochromatically, as nothing more than a bland shade of greys devoid of hues or focal points. He wants us to see the world burning without seeing the God Who is in the midst of the fire.
We must resist this temptation, even when we do not feel like resisting it. We must resist it even when it is so much easier to be eaten up with naysaying and gloom. We must resist it even when we are racked with mental and emotional fatigue and desensitization from the tsunami of idiocies and indecencies we see going on around us. By pushing back this temptation we are taking the step in acknowledging that the nightly news does not undermine the sacred providential unfolding of the Holy-Loving God Whose purposes are to refine His people for His Glory. It is an acknowledgment that this dumpster-fire of a world is not and in fact, cannot be outshined by the Luminous Nazarene who redefines its values and dismantles its idols. If you want this depicted in all its beautiful theological richness, then read Romans 8. For brevity I quote parts of it here:
13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This entire chapter is full of richness and power. For the sake of brevity consider but a few points. First, notice that bad-stuff is a given, even in the life of those who are in Christ Jesus. This isn’t pessimism talking at this point! This is a reality of the fallen nature of a Creation that is groaning for its final redemption made manifest by the glorified Christ. The Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Then he lists examples: Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword, or death, or life? Notice that these are concrete realities experienced by Paul and the early Christians in real-time! This fact alone destroys the “live your best life now” preaching so predominate on Christian TV stations today. Earlier in the passage, Paul literally says, “We are children of God…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 17). Read it again. There is no wiggle room around this truth.
That said, this is not a cause for pessimism! On the contrary, the real tangible darkness and suffering that occurs in our world are transformed in the hearts and minds of those who find identity and security in Christ (a Christ-centered transvaluation of values if you will). Our glorification in Christ is the Reality that translates everything about our World, both good, bad, and ugly. That Reality changes how we process and live amid pain, agony, darkness, and chaos. Why? Because it reminds us that while they are real things, they are not things that can ultimately define who we are, how we are, or where we are going.
The Ultimate Reality of Christ outweighs infinitely the entire collective weight of sufferings and insanities this World can throw at us precisely because they are empty of true mass. On the scales of Ultimate Reality, they are outweighed by the infinity of God’s promises and power. Their power to control us through anxiety, despair, and hate are infinitely outmatched by the Eternity of Love, Peace, and Security found in Christ. Remember Lewis said that when we see “human remains plastered on a wall” we want to say, “that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that all…religion has been a fantasy.” But this is an objective lie! It is a fog before our eyes blinding us to what is really Real about the World. This World is not just comprised of decaying matter or evanescent moments that we see flashing about us on the nightly news – it is permeated with the brilliant, boundless, touch of the Everlasting God Who is living, active, and moving to make us His chosen people and preparing us for Eternity in the consummation of a New Heavens and a New Earth.
Second, notice that the assurance of love transcends circumstances and is not person-centered but God-centered. Paul says that the troubles of this world, from disease to famine to demons to death, will not separate us from the love of God. He doesn’t say that these things would necessarily keep our love from separating from Him but rather that they do not separate His love from us. In short, Paul is saying, among other things, that these horrendous circumstances (martyrdom, disease, or death…etc.) do not demonstrate a lack of God’s love for us but display it. This sounds insane to our modern western ears. How could suffering display God’s love? We in the West don’t understand this. Our Health-n-Wealth blab-it-n-grab-it view of spirituality necessarily creates in us the idea that if “God is love” He will then do only good for us (as we are defining “good” as any lack of suffering or trial). We argue that only peace, healing, and success are expressions of God’s love and not war, sickness, and poverty. But what if peace, healing, and success are the very things that make us complacent and indifferent to Him? They often are if we are honest. Just ask yourself when you are most “spiritual” and attuned to the things of the Kingdom? Is it when all is well or when chaos is happening? At this point, I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter who said to the hellishly persecuted Christians of his time,
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:1-6 (ESV)
I am not exegeting all of this, but notice that in some amazingly powerful way, the Apostle Peter affirms that suffering refines us towards being a people who can cease from sin – who no longer desire sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, or lawless idolatry. Could it be that suffering, chaos, and darkness are tools through which God’s love is remaking you, me, and the Western Church as large? Could it be that He is refining us through the dumpster fire to be who He has called us to be?
The Bible teaches us that suffering is a common reality we should expect to share with Christ. The chaos and the darkness and the disease around us remind us of what is most important in life. It quickens us to the reality that this Fallen World is not our home, that we are mere sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2:11) who “have no lasting city” but rather are seeking “the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The chaos and the darkness and the disease we see ravaging our world, and in fact can ravage us (but by God’s unmerited grace), is a refining fire for our faith (James 1:1-2 & 1 Peter 1 & 4). This understanding helps to break down pessimism in our hearts as it reminds us that God is a God who Himself suffers (John 3:16, 1 Peter 2) and is a God Who also overcomes and is overcoming in our midst the power of darkness, disease, and disappointment by His mighty power. As the German Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said months before his execution by the Nazis,
“It is only by living completely in the world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”
Third, and finally, notice that the transformative view of the present is in light of Eternity. This present age is only to be understood in light of the eternal rays of God’s everlasting love and glory. Notice that over and over Paul discusses that we are groaning, that all of Creation is groaning in fact, with a hope not yet seen of the immense glorification of our bodies and all of Creation (v. 19-25). This glory is not Sweet-By-And-By escapism but rather the permeation of an eschatological reality of glory that pierces through every aspect of life. Eternity is shining through to us, even in the darkness, whispering and reminding us with echoes in our soul that God is a God who keeps His promises – God is a God in Whom we can be assured that all injustices will be made justice, that all wrongs will be made right, that all healing will be completed, and that all joy will be made unspeakable. This age, and all its absurdities and obscenities, reminds us that everything we are going through matters and is part of the tapestry of Eternity as it molds us into the eternal agent God desires us to be. As 20th Century Swedish theologian Bishop Anders Nygren (1890-1978) said,
“Just as the present [age] is to be followed by eternity, it has already been preceded by an eternity. Only when we see our present existence set in God’s activity, which goes from eternity to eternity, do we get it in right perspective. Then man comes to see that everything that comes to the Christian in this life—and consequently the suffering of the present too—must work together for good to him.”
The craziness of this world is surrounded and penetrated by the beauty and splendor of Eternity. That should remain at the center of our minds as we watch our world unraveling around us. That, at the center of our minds, burns up indifference and pessimism and hastens us to press further and further into the heart of the Father.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 272-274
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pg. 369-370
 Anders Nygren as quoted in R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), pg. 161
The humans live in time but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity…. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present — either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or a scholar) to live in the Past. But… it is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays…. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead….
To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too — just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is not straw splitting. He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future — haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth — ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other — dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.
Such are the words of infernal “wisdom” dripping from the pen of C.S. Lewis’ master tempter Screwtape to his underling Wormwood. Lewis’ diabolical protagonist (or antagonist) brings up that there are two things God wants us as creatures to chiefly attend to eternity and the present. There is deep wisdom in this. It is a truism that one of the central ways the principalities and powers try to destroy our souls is by enslaving us to futurism and materialism. They want us to live our existence in a time that has yet to be in the hopes of aggravating our anxieties and ingratitude. By whatever means necessary their goal is to ensure we do not spend an adequate amount of time being reflective, contented, or joyous in the ordinary nowness of our lives. As Lewis says, they want us “hag-ridden by the Future.”
Unfortunately, far too often, the dark forces against us tend to succeed in making us time travelers. They get us to be people who are located in the present but not living in it – instead, we are thousands of miles away inhabiting our pasts and futures. This is why, for many of us, we are a people full of insecurities, fears, unforgiveness, and restlessness. The French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put his finger on the pulse of this mode of existence when he wrote in his day,
“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of time that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.”
“Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.”
The last sentence deserves to be repeated, “Thus we never actually live but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” In short, Pascal is bringing to light one of the malaises of our post-modern existence: we always plan for happiness and never achieve it. Our lives are spent seeking for joy in a realm of temporal existence we are not living in yet (namely the future). It is the bane of the “One-Day-ism” syndrome. This is where we consciously or subconsciously tend to think that the future is where our happiness, security, and contentment reside. True happiness, we think, lies at the weekend, or it's when we will meet that special someone, or when that new job or promotion comes, or when we can cash into that retirement plan, or when we can catch that perfect getaway we’ve been saving up for.
Don’t misunderstand. “One-days” are not wrong or bad – they are a constant feature of hope itself. We can and should prepare, store up, and even look forward to that which is not yet. The problem comes when we assign our “one-days” the unrealistic expectation that they are without question the remedy to satiate our restless hearts. Before our one-days “whisk us away” we tend to accustom ourselves to plodding around in our piecemeal lives of mediocrity, being filled with anxiety, dissatisfaction, unforgiveness, and boredom. As a result, we live less fulfilled lives and remain spiritual anemic – and we’re very good about convincing ourselves that we aren’t when in fact we are.
The problem is we are not guaranteed one-days (James 4:13). Because of this stark realization, we need to have a transvaluation of our values and a realignment of our worldviews. Part of this comes from seeing our present differently, as Lewis points out through Screwtape. We need to begin to see the world as permeated with the rays of eternity, as a realm we can occupy with joy and contentment, and peace.
FAITH IS IN THE PRESENT TENSE
In affirming that God wants us to think of the present Lewis is not meaning we must denounce remembrance, expectation, or preparedness in our lives (for these are good and biblical), rather he is bringing to our awareness the need to soak in the present with joy, patience, and appreciation by coming to a mindfulness of the eternal that saturates it. He is reminding us that the power of faith lies now in its capacity to be merely future-directed but in its abiding transformative nowness to ignite our character and perspective of our everyday experiences (both good and bad). A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) put it this way,
“Faith in Christ is not an act to be done and gotten over with as one might get inoculated against yellow fever or cholera. The repentant sinner's first act of believing in Christ for forgiveness and eternal life is the beginning of a continuous act of believing which lasts throughout life and for all eternity.”
What Tozer is getting at (as well as Pascal and Lewis) is as biblical as it is practical: faith is an active state of existence that we are to live in. Faith is not just believing for but is the very act of believing in. Faith is not a belief extended into the future alone but is rooted in present reality that acknowledges God as a God of immanent withness or presence. Remember how the writer of Hebrews put it,
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1)
Faith is a present reality (things not seen) of the God Who is that grounds our confidence in what is not yet (things hoped for). In short, you cannot have faith that God will do unless you have an active faith that God is doing. This requires an intentional awareness of the transcendent and eternal in daily life. This is why Lewis links the present with eternity so closely. Understanding the true immanence of God in our midst, that He is with us (Immanuel), that His peace and strength and joy is with us now, changes fundamentally how we see the moment we are in rather than just maintaining us for a future that is yet to be.
ETERNITY IS BLEEDING THROUGH INTO THE ORDINARY
The practice of “living in the present” has deep Christian roots. The Psalmist told us to cast our burdens upon the Lord that He may sustain us (Psalm 55:22), which is a present-centered promise. The Apostle Paul affirmed that our outer self is wasting away but our inner self is renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). James had said we should not worry about tomorrow because of the evanescence of life and instead should rest in God’s will (James 4:13-16). Jesus Himself said we are to be a people who pray for daily bread (Matthew 6:11) and are not to be anxious about a new day but concentrate on today (Matthew 6:34).
The Biblical vision of “presentness” is not a pietistic otherworldliness of “I’ll-Fly-Away-ism”; it is not detaching ourselves from the everyday monotony and responsibilities of life, and it’s not navel-gazing or Eastern mysticism. We are being called to live in the moment but not for the moment. There is a difference. The latter is presentistic and shallow, recklessly unabandoned in wisdom or reflection. This is not what we are talking about. We are talking about a deeper reflection upon the nature of everyday experience as seen through the lens of the eternal. It is a call for us to recover the sacredness of ordinary life. To be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). As one author has put it,
“The aim when we practice the present is not to learn a bunch of techniques but to learn how to live and relate to God in the here and now. Practicing the present is about living for God by living with God in the real world. The best way to practice the present is to look for the reality of God’s presence in the full and sometimes disappointing realities of ordinary circumstances.”
Life, in all its seeming mediocrity, is emblazoned with the presence of God. Eternity is bleeding through into our ordinary lives. Are we aware of this? We serve a God who is immanent. He is present with us and in us and among us. God is in the simple and God is in the grand. God is with us and among us not just before us. Really! Stop at this moment and really think on this! As theologian Thomas Oden (1931-2016) said,
“Only when one thinks of oneself as standing on the edge of either a happy or pitiable eternity does present life become meaningful and serious.”
We need to be serious about ordinary spirituality. We need to be a people that see God as more than a Sunday experience or a future God of some revival experience. We need to stop seeing God as merely a “one-day” fulfiller of greater spiritual growth or even material blessings. We need to stop seeing God as merely “Coming in the Clouds” at the expense of seeing Him in the cloudiness of life’s experiences. While He is the God of all those things, He is also the God of now! And by this, I do not mean a God of “gimme-gimme” instant gratification, miracles, and blessings (although He can). I am talking about becoming acutely aware of our immediate surroundings and ordinary everyday spirituality – i.e. what living the Christian life is when it’s not Sunday! I am talking about realizing that God is the God in our midst when we clean dishes, prepare a meal, stock the shelves, watch the kids, take a walk, pay the bills, or drive the car. When we begin to actively and consciously try to think upon and touch God in these moments, then their monotony begins to melt, and our anxiousness is undone and our ingratitude is thrown upon the altar of worship and thanks.
In closing this post (of which I but scratched the surface of this profound topic) I leave you with an extended quote from the Christian Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who wrote long ago about being a person who is present-minded in their faith,
The one who rows a boat turns his back to the goal toward which he is working. So it is with the next day. When, with the help of the eternal, a person lives absorbed in today, he turns his back to the next day. The more he is eternally absorbed in today, the more decisively he turns his back to the next day; then he goes not see it at all…. This is the way one is turned when one rows a boat, but so also is one position when one believes…. If a person turns to the future, and especially with earthly passion, then he is most distanced from the eternal, then the next day becomes a monstrous confused figure, like that in a fairytale….
The believer is one who is present and also…a person of power…. How rare is the person who actually is contemporary with himself; ordinarily most people are apocalyptically, in theatrical illusions, hundreds of thousands of miles ahead of themselves, or several generations ahead of themselves in feelings, in delusions, in intentions, in resolutions, in wishes, in longings. But the believer (the one present) is in the highest sense contemporary with himself. To be totally contemporary with oneself today with the help of the eternal is also formative and generative; it is the gaining of eternity. There certainly was never any contemporary event or any most honored contemporary as great as eternity….
To live in this way, to fill up the day today with the eternal and not with the next day, the Christian has learned or is learning (for the Christian is always a learner) from the prototype [Christ Himself]. How did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day – he who from the first moment he made his appearance as a teacher knew how his life would end, that the next day would be his crucifixion, knew it while the people were jubilantly hailing him as king (what bitter knowledge at that very moment!), knew it when they were shouting hosannas during his entry into Jerusalem, knew that they would be shouting ‘Crucify him!’ and that it was for this that he was entering Jerusalem – he who bore the enormous weight of this superhuman knowledge every day – how did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day?... How did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day – he who was indeed not unacquainted with suffering of this anxiety or with any other human suffering, he who groaned in an outburst of pain, ‘Would that the hour had already come’?
How did he manage?.... [That answer is] He had the eternal with him in his today – therefore the next day had no power over him, it did not exist to him. It has no power over him before it came, and when it came and was the today, it has no other power over him than what was his Father’s will, to which he, eternally free, had consented and to which he obediently submitted.”
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 227-229
 Blaise Pascal as quoted in Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993) pg. 74
 Faith is not merely future directed but is a present active style of living that resides in the nowness of God’s promises, grace, and truth. Consider some sources on this: J.I. Packer, “Faith” entry in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001) pg. 431-434; David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2010) pg. 542-543
 John Koessler, Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2019) pg. 210
 Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), pg. 30
 Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses; The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) pg. 73-76
Also, Over the past several months we have been working through a series of posts entitled “The Gentle Slopes.” The central content we have been using in these posts is C.S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) The Screwtape Letters, which is a profound satirical work from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his impish nephew Wormwood in the hopes of training him in the best tactics to destroy the Christian “patient” he is assigned to. Throughout the book we witness Screwtape advising his minion to utilize a variety of temptations to unravel the soul of the Christian man – such as unsavory friendships, bouts of doubt and skepticism, struggles with lust, self-centeredness, and even boredom and distraction. These sobering insights are a powerful reminder to us as believers of the infernal tactics we face in the everyday ordinariness of spiritual life.
If you have not gotten it from this series of posts, let’s make it explicit: all of life is spiritual and all of ordinary existence is saturated with eternity. This is one of the central themes that permeates Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and stands at the heart of the Gentle Slopes series. We need to be awakened to the reality of how everyday ordinariness can become a battleground of spiritual warfare.
PROSPERITY AS ENEMY OF SPIRITUAL LIFE
Towards the end of The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon begins to worry that his minion Wormwood may be failing at his task of insnaring his patient. Even worse, Screwtape fears that his diabolic toady may allow his patient to die prematurely amid war, which would ensure his immediate assent to Heaven (C.S. Lewis wrote this when the Germans were bombing England in World War II). The senior devil, therefore, takes the initiative to write his naïve underling and remind him of the necessity to keep his patient safe from harm so more time may be given to defeating him. One of the goals of Hell, Screwtape reminds, is to make sure the Christian has a long, healthy, and prosperous life of mediocrity. He puts it like this,
[Humans] tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. Do not let us be infected by our own propaganda. I know it seems strange that your chief aim at the moment should be the very same thing for which the patient's lover and his mother are praying - namely his bodily safety. But so it is; you should be guarding him like the apple of your eye. If he dies now, you lose him. If he survives the war, there is always hope. The Enemy [God] has guarded him from you through the first great wave of temptations. But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it - all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition . If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is "finding his place in it", while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.
The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth…. So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or "science" or psychology, or what not. Real worldliness is a work of time - assisted, of course, by pride, for we teach them to describe the creeping death as good sense or Maturity or Experience….
How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a "normal life" is the exception. Apparently He wants some - but only a very few - of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.
I do not presume in one post to exhaust the wisdom within this passage, but I wish to focus upon one major truth that permeates it: One of the greatest threats to our spiritual lives is prosperity. Arguably there are few things more capable of producing in us a indifference and lethargy to spiritual things than affluence and safety. The famed German poet and novelist Goethe (1749-1832) said,
“Everything in the world may be endured, except continual prosperity.”
How profound when you dwell on it. People can endure tremendous amounts of suffering and evil, and yet many times come out the other end reforged into a new creature full of charity, temperance, strength, and calm. But how many people have you ever read about in history, how many nations can you think of, how many individuals have you known, that have been destroyed by prosperity? My mind immediately thinks of Solomon, Rome, America, and modern lottery winners. I am reminded of one author who wrote,
“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
This sentiment is true not only with nations but individuals, and not only with the material but even more so with the spiritual. Peace and success most often are the central tools by which the Adversary births within us an anemic and apathetic soul. We hate to admit it, I hate to admit it, but if we are honest, it is the truth. When things are good, when all is well in body and soul, God is more often than not put on the back burner of priorities. He becomes an event or individual penciled into our busy schedules, or perhaps not even that. This is all very subtle of course. Very few of us would acknowledge nor bring to the frontal realms of our consciousness the idea that we think less of God when things are good versus when things are bad. Few if any of us consciously say, “You are unimportant to me God.” But again, that isn’t how spiritual warfare works most of the time. It isn’t usually blatant blasphemous rebellion; it is slow-growing seemingly “benign” indifference. Remember that spiritual decay is a slow leakage – a methodical regression of caring. It is a settledness of spirit content with in its mediocrity. Prosperity is chief in this process all too often. The English bishop and writer George Horne (1730-1792) said it this way,
“Prosperity too often has the same effect on its possessor that a calm at sea has on the Dutch mariner, who frequently, it is said, in these circumstances, ties up the rudder, gets drunk, and goes to sleep.”
What is so sad about all this is how often our western churches help inculcate in us a desire for and even expectation of prosperity. In many of our modern churches, we are preached at incessantly, unto death even, on how much God desires to give us what we want. His goal, we are told, is to bless us with unbounded health, wealth, and peace. We are told “God wants you never sick but always healed,” (even though this never happened to the Apostle Paul) and “God doesn’t want you to ever beg bread” (even though many a prophet did), and “God has promised to give you the desires of your heart (even though said desires are to be aligned to Kingdom desires). God wants all of this for us, we are taught, even though the long and marred History of the Church reveals that untold suffering and even martyrdom are at the core of the Faith. The Early Church Father Tertullian (155-220 A.D.) long ago said,
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Could you imagine such sentiment being stated in our modern western church settings? Now, let me just detour but for a moment at this point. Do not misunderstand. Can and does God often heal and feed and clothe his people? You bet! To think otherwise is to deny scripture and history. Can and does God answer our prayers regarding earthly desires and needs? Absolutely, as testified through the ages and the Word. But there is more to the story than this. There is an objective difference between requesting the blessings found in Christ versus demanding and expecting them. Furthermore, we tend to forget that God can and does often use struggle, suffering, and even lack for the reason to reform, refine, and realign our souls back to Him (the Book of Job, Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Peter 5:10, Hebrews 12:11).
Even more so, we tend to forget that there are far deeper and far grandeur levels to what qualifies "blessings" than physical safety and success. They are richer, higher, and more transcendent than just our earthy ends. That should, therefore, be our central focus when we consider "blessings." Jesus Himself taught it like this,
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
And the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy saying,
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
1 Timothy 6:17-19
Again, God can and does bless us with prosperity (and I mean this not in the sense of Bill Gates but contentment, peace, security, health, and normalcy of life) but we should stop expecting this as a guarantee. The fact is God doesn’t owe us a thing. He doesn’t have to do anything for us, and what He does is a sheer act of His grace and love. We need to get this truth and chew on it lest we be consumed with a sense of unwarranted disappointment because God is “not doing what we ask.” We should have a fortitude of faith that can declare, as Job did,
Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him
Can I declare such a thing? Can you? We better. Even more so, when you think upon it, if it is the case that God knows in His foreknowledge that prosperity would, in fact, make us indifferent and indolent spiritually, then why would He grant such requests to begin with? He would be unjust and unloving to do so. So in a very real sense, denying us prosperity can in fact be an exercise of His love and mercy for us at times. Read Job if you have any doubt, and then try out Ecclesiastes and Lamentations. But I digress.
COMFORTABLE IN A FALLEN WORLD
A major danger of prosperity is that it tends to make us desire and expect more of it, which in turn tends to become the central focus of our field of vision in life. Subtly it morphs our spiritual relationship with God into one of expectation rather than gratitude, of haughtiness rather than humility, and fickleness rather than perseverance. What can creep in is a hellish Health-n-Wealth type religion that believes that our “hard work” for God is somehow deserving of “hard work” from Him for us. Again, we won’t say this publicly or even perhaps consciously, but it can be there in the depths of our soul. God HAS TO bless me, cause I’m His! Right!? It’s this idea that if we put in a lot of mileage “doing for God” (going to church, praying, seeking Him) that He is going to “do for us” because, after all, we are His children. Right? Aren't we His little cosmic pets living on a spherical terrarium we call Earth, being fed directly by His hands and never having to be concerned with lack or want? Isn't He required to clean our litter boxes and resupply our food bowls?
Such an attitude is bred into the minds of a people who are obsessed with the idea that prosperity is defined in the narrow frame of earthly material accommodations (both body, property, and money). It is almost inconceivable to us in the West that prosperity from God can occur through suffering and even lack. It is almost inconceivable to us that prosperity can exist outside the realm of complete health and wealth. Sadly, such a view is as unbiblical as it is asinine - and it doesn't hold muster in the vast life of the Church beyond American shores, where continued suffering and slaughter is a regular recurring reality. Again, I digress.
Is it any wonder that the Scriptures are replete with cautioning us about worldly success and prosperity for fear it will distract us spiritually? In fact it is quite sobering just how much the Bible tells us about this. We are told that when we have eaten and been satisfied we tend to become proud and forget God (Deuteronomy 8:10), that confidence in riches tends to lead to gloating (Job 31), that trust in abundance versus God is evil (Psalm 52:7), that when we trust in riches we will fall (Proverbs 11:28), that abundance can lead to rebellion and blasphemy (Nehemiah 9:25), that wealth brings spiritual satisfaction and forgetfulness (Hosea 13:6), that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), that one cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13), that wealth has a deceitfulness that chokes the Word and spiritual fruitfulness (Matthew 13), and that the desire for riches tends to plunge us into ruin and destruction (1 Timothy 6:8). There are so many more examples, but the point is made that we are creatures that all too often simply cannot handle prosperity. John Newton (1725-1807), the great 18th Century hymnist and abolitionist, spoke poignantly on such a point when he said,
“Experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes, has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secrete worship…. When things go on much to our wish, our hearts are too prone to say, ‘It is good to be here.’”
What Newton is getting at is a profound truth: Prosperity has this seemingly inevitable effect of making living in a fallen world more comfortable for us. Lewis echoes this by saying that prosperity tends to “knit us to the world” and produce in us “a sense of being really at home in earth.” This is so true, even in thinking in my own life! Even worse, we get to a place where we centralize our earthly abundances and begin to, as Lewis says, “believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date.” In short, it has the effect of reprioritizing our values and desires towards the secular as opposed to the sacred, to see the eternal through temporality rather than the temporal through the eternal.
PUTTING PROSPERITY IN ITS PLACE
I cannot get around the need for us to have an eternal perspective in combating our struggles with prosperity. I have come to this theme on multiple occasions concerning battling other struggles, but it applies here as well. The “deceit of riches” (prosperity) happens when we slowly lose sight of eternity and focus more on the finite fulfillment with no clear focus of how they only echo the deeper Reality found in Christ we are longing for through them. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said it like this,
In this life there is no true and solid satisfaction, that all our pleasures are mere vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and finally that death which threatens us at every moment must in a few years infallibly face us…. The only good thing in this life is the hope of another life, that we become happy only as we come nearer to it, and that, just as no more unhappiness awaits those who have been quite certain of eternity, so there is no happiness for those who have no inkling of it.
Pascal is not saying anything here that is not in line with Scripture. I have said this before, but it bears repeating, over and over again the Scriptures remind us to think of life through the lens of the eternal, and even death itself, for by this our souls are grounded to the Greater Beauty that truly fulfills. When we do this we realign our values and desires, we transform our views of the spiritual disciplines, and we begin to even see prosperity in a new light. The Apostle Paul declared,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…
The central means by which we curb our obsessive slips into the deceits of riches is to “seek the things above.” When we think eternally, “where Christ is seated,” what we desire and pray for, how we view health and safety, what we fear and long for, transforms because it is revalued through the work and person and nature of Christ.
Before closing, I cannot help but be reminded of the wisdom of Agur in the Book of Proverbs. In chapter 30 of the book, we are given the only prayer that exists in the entire set of proverbial writings in the Bible. It just so happens that such a prayer has a major focus on prosperity. Agur declares,
7 Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
9 lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
Think of the gravity of this prayer. How many times have you heard preachers pray, “God, I pray that these people do not have too little…and do not have too much”? How many of us have ever prayed that we would not have riches as much as we pray about not having poverty? But why such a prayer? Agur affirms, for “lest I be full and deny you” oh God. Fullness comes from abundance, which in turn breeds satisfaction which in turn makes us forget the LORD – it is the loss of the eternal perspective. I wonder if it could be possible that our Health-n-Wealth obsession in America is one of the reasons our churches are so ineffective in bringing lasting spiritual change. We are so focused upon God “giving us” abundance as a sign of blessing that we forget that “giving us” lack can also be a blessing to us. If that is the case, and it is, then perhaps we need to pray that God staves His hand of riches in our lives to drive us towards Him rather than be content and full of earthly things. God help us in this.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 267-268
 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as quoted in Tyron Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (United States: F. B. Dickerson Company, 1908), pg. 450
 G. Michael Hopf, Those Who Remain: A Postapocalyptic Novel (Michael Hopf, 2016)
 George Horne as quoted in Tyron Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (United States: F. B. Dickerson Company, 1908), pg. 451
 Tertullian, Apologeticus, L.13, (c. 197 A.D.) https://www.tertullian.org/works/apologeticum.htm
 John Newton, Letter V, Cardiphonia or, The Utterance of the Heart, vol. 2 (United Kingdom: Murray & Cochrane, 1807), pg. 22-23
 Pascal, ibid, pg. 191-192
 Consider these scriptures that deal with the evanescence of our lives and seeing life through eternity and death: 2 Samuel 14:14, 1 Chronicles 29:15, Psalm 90:12, Psalm 144:4, Job 14:1, Ecclesiastes 1:4, Isaiah 40:6, James 4:13-14. All of them call us to have a healthy understanding of death so that we may have a proper understanding of life.
The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart — an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual ear; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.
Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship….
This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both….
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate [the] horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will…. The Enemy [God] loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on. And great work has already been done.
These are words of truth uttered by a demon. Well, let me clarify, a fictional devil named Screwtape created by the indispensable C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). This excerpt is from Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in which he takes us through the veil of spiritual warfare, from the perspective of Hell. It is as jarring as it is profound. Over the past several months we have been reading selections from this work to understand the diabolic methods by which Satan and his minions work to destroy our intimacy and passion for God’s truth and love in the daily. Within the excerpt above we learn how the devils encourage boredom and novelty as a means of driving us towards spiritual restlessness and rot.
THE VALLEY OF BLAH & THE STATE OF “I-CAN’T-WAIT-ISM”
Lewis points out that one way the Adversary works his dark magic is to perpetuate in our souls a dissatisfaction with the seeming mundanity and repetitiveness of life. He makes us swallow the lie that life is only truly lived in light of perpetual novelty. Quite often, without even physically saying, “Is this all there is?” we begin to live out loud this sentiment by having less and less purpose and joy in the everyday activities that consume most of our existence. This could be in our work, cooking, cleaning, parenting, fellowshipping, church-going, or spiritual disciplines. We can begin to see these things as weights keeping us from “truly living.” One way we, therefore, try and overcome them is to overshadow them with novelty.
We tend to become creatures who worship novelty. We extol the bright, shiny, and perhaps even edgy or bawdy as “true living” while we balk at the regular or old as enslaving or passé. Who likes vanilla anyways as opposed to the thousand and one other flavors able to titillate the taste buds? Through the novel, we believe we can ascend from the Valley of Blah to the Mountains of True Satisfaction. So, we take up some new activities (social outing, parties, classes, services) or new gadgets (iPhone, computer, gaming system, car), or new amusement (social media, movies, video games, sports) in the hopes it will ignite into reality our deepest fantasies and desires at the expense of the black-and-white malaise of “Real Life.”
Let me make this flesh and bone for a moment.
Consider seasons for example. Very often we are a people who are never pleased with the season we are in. When we are in the Summertime, we speak of yearning for Fall and Winter (“I can’t wait for sweater weather & pumpkin spice!”), and yet when we are in Fall or Winter we wistfully dream of Summer (“I can’t wait for pool weather and cookouts!”). When we are in Thanksgiving Season we shop for Christmas and when we are at Christmas we prepare for Valentine's. It seems that while we are living in the moment we longed for we are never pleased. What does this say about us?
Or consider how we do our entertainment. We tend to obsess over upcoming or new releases. We exclaim, “I can’t wait until they release X!” or “That is the greatest Y ever!” (insert movie, song, game, gadget…etc.). Our commercial and trailer culture only perpetuates this behavior in us. Funny thing is, the release comes, we consume it (or even binge it) and it is awesome…until it’s not. We will then repeat the cycle when the new stream of trailers releases to ignite our curiosities.
Or even consider our jobs and careers. We tend to skip from one venue to the next, rarely enjoying where we are at even when we chose it at the expense of previous preferences. Rapidly the new environment and colleagues become old, showing their warts and “true selves,” and we thus begin seeking yet another venue in which to win our bread and butter. Even amid our careers, in the monotony of daily loads, we exclaim the desire for the novel: “I can’t wait to get out of this place,” or “I can’t wait for the weekend,” or “I can’t wait for a vacation,” or “I can’t wait for retirement.” Again, we seem to be unpleased with being pleased.
In all these examples we are living in a state of “I-can’t-wait-ism” which lays within the quest for novelty. It is a state we live in as we go through the Valley of Blah (which is just another name for regular everyday living). We seem to be incapable of ever really being at rest in the things we do, even when we are doing the things we wanted to do in the first place.
The great malady in all this is the fact that all the gadgets, activities, new venues, and amusements we ingest tend to have a lesser and lesser appeal the longer we plod upon this narrow globe. What is happening is we are succumbing to what Lewis called “the law of diminishing returns.” The allurement of “the new” quickly devolves into the “blah” as we oscillate from moments of emotional high and low which are shackled to the contingencies of events and people. As a result of all this, what do we do? We keep repeating. We are like gerbils on a ceaseless wheel of filling our lives with more and more activities, gadgets, and amusements in the hopes they will bring us out of “blah” only to find that they lead us to “blah” which in turn makes us seek even further amusements.
OUR RELENTLESS QUEST TO BE RESTLESS
We post-modern westerners are especially susceptible to the Law of Diminishing Returns. Consider for example our accessibility to movies and entertainment (something I enjoy and therefore have thought about personally in my life). In 1950 there were less than 100 television channels, today there are close to 2,000. In 1990 there were no streaming video services, today there are about 200 with over 70,000 movies and shows just on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. On Steam (a video game digital distribution service) in 2008 there were around 200 games available, today there are over 10,000. Around 1990 there were around 150 video games released annually, today there are close to 6,000. However, amid this tsunami of amusement available to us we have less and less sustainable wonder and joy in our consuming. We mindlessly search for "something to watch" only to say "nothing is on." Or we flip something on in the background, not caring about what it is, while we flip through our phones to find one bout of idiocy after another on Tiktok. What does all this say about us as a people? Have you not experienced the feeling that movies and the games and the shows “aren’t what they used to be”? Why do we tend to think this? And yet this sentiment seems somewhat pervasive as we seem less and less able to sustain excitement or interest in new releases. Is our more somehow becoming less to us? Is it any wonder we are obsessed with retro things (from Dunkaroos to windbreakers to 2D gaming) and seeking to grasp at the wonder and joys we experienced as kids? There is a post waiting to be written just on this topic, but I digress.
I will not give more stats nor belabor the point for fear we will go off focus but suffice to say enough ink has been spilled in the world of philosophy and psychology to show us that we post-moderns seem to be suffering from a strange malady of “boredom” that did not really exist in previous generations. Think on that for but a moment. How quickly do you end up saying, “I am bored,” in-between one pursuit and another? How quick are you to need some activity or sound to tantalize your senses so you feel fulfilled or don’t have to think? Again, in asking these questions, I cannot but be reminded of when the French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) remarked,
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Why is this? Well, a full-orbed discussion will go beyond the confines of this post but suffice to say that one central element at play is our loss of purpose and meaning in life. We have little peace or contentment in our hearts and minds because we do not really have a sense of who we are, what we are to do, and how we are to live. Part of all this lies in what great thinkers through the centuries have coined “human restlessness,” which is this inability to find a sense of peace and security in our souls. As a result, we fill our lives with novelties, noise, and nonsense in the hopes they will stimulate our indifference to life. But they don’t, they just aggravate it. Pascal piercingly revealed this problem rising in his day (which is unduly exacerbated in our own time) saying,
[People] think they genuinely want rest when all they really want is activity.
They have a secret instinct driving them to seek external diversion and occupation, and this is the result of their constant sense of wretchedness. They have another secret instinct, left over from the greatness of our original nature, telling them that the only true happiness lies in rest and not in excitement. These two contrary instincts give rise to a confused plan buried out of sight in the depths of their soul, which leads them to seek rest by way of activity and always to imagine that the satisfaction they miss will come to them once they overcome certain obvious difficulties and can open the door to welcome rest.
All our live passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.
We think either of present or of threatened miseries, and even if we felt quite safe on every side, boredom on its own account would not fail to emerge from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poison our whole mind.
Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him.
How raw and in your face. We are a people, Pascal says, that never rest and in fact despise rest – and by rest Pascal is speaking not of sleep but a serenity of spirit and a capacity to soak in silence and peace. Why do we do this? Pascal asserts it is because we hate to think of “our wretchedness.” In other words, we hate to come face to face with ourselves or our situations, so we cover up the mirror of our souls with a million little mice to divert deep reflection. But again, these diversions only satiate but for a time, until we are resolved to find further venues of contentment, which in turn do not fulfill. It’s the gerbil on the wheel. Ad infinitum.
OUT OF THE CYCLE OF PERPETUAL NOVELTY
Once again, let me do an addendum before I close this post. There is nothing in what is said here that asserts it is somehow inherently wrong to desire taking up a new activity or a trendy gadget or to enjoy a new amusement. To walk away with such a notion is to miss the point entirely. The goal is to get us to stop for once and think about what we consume, what we desire, and how we are viewing our lives; it is to draw us towards reflecting on where we perch our real contentment and joy.
That said, we need a way forward through the Valley of Blah. As always, I do not presume to give be-all-end-all solutions to addressing our maladies, but I think part of the way out of the Valley is to come to terms with the fact that the valley is itself a place where joy and satisfaction can be found. In short, we need to see the Valley of Blah with fresh eyes. Part of the release from the seeming monotony of the every day is to see that monotony as part of the cadence of human existence – there is monotony in novelty and there is a novelty in the monotony. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes put it much better than I can. He wrote it like this:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
And yet after saying all of this he goes on to say by chapter 3,
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.
There is so much goodness in these passages, but time fails me to do full exegesis. Suffice to say, life is a dance of permanence and change and change becoming permanence. Lewis called this “Rhythm,” that union of difference and durability which is at the heart of our existence as created beings. When we come to see what the function of “toil” and “business” and “everyday life” is – that it has the heartbeat of eternity – we come to be freed from feeling enslaved in it. Our enslavement comes from our inadequate view of what life should be instead of coming to see it as it is. Nothing lasts and everything that comes is really just a rehashing. “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” This is life.
We have got to get to the place that we embed within our philosophy of life the truth that “God has made everything beautiful in its time” as the Preacher said. The doing good, the eating, the drinking, and yes, even the toil, is “beautiful in its time” and is “a gift from God.” How could this be? The every day and the seemingly mundane, as well as the experiences of the novel, all have the embers of eternity in them. They are not eternity but they reveal it to us. Through them, they show us what it means to be a creature, what it means to need to find the Ultimate Rest for our restless souls that are found not in them, but perhaps, however faintly, through them in God Himself.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes and a whole lot of great thinkers and sages through the ages have told us the same message: Stop thinking your happiness and satisfaction rests in the novel. It doesn’t. It can’t. That which is new becomes old and that which is old repeats itself. This is your life. To crave infinite newness to satiate your restless soul is to remain infantile in your perspective on life; it is to be stunted into a pubescent soul that is enslaved to people and things. Find your rest in the One in Whom there is no change and there you find true living amid the ordinary.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 257-259
https://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/how-many-movies-on-netflix; https://www.diffen.com/difference/Hulu_vs_Netflix#:~:text=Hulu's%20original%20series.-,Size,shows%2C%20and%20over%202%2C500%20films; https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-prime-video#:~:text=The%20streaming%20service%20has%20roughly,channels%20with%20Prime%20Video%20Channels.
 Consider some philosophical reflection on the concept of “boredom” by Wendell O’Brien, Boredom, A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/boredom/. Also consider these scientific studies on boredom: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201703/bored-in-the-usa; https://www.sciencenews.org/article/social-distancing-boredom-covid-19-public-health-pandemic; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191119123750.htm;
 I cannot find the exact source for this but I believe it is in his Pensées
 I would suggest considering some of these great thinkers who have discussed human restlessness: Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book 1 in particular; Blaise Pascal, Pensées, particularly section “VIII. Diversion;” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Part II, Chapter XIII and Volume II, Part III, Chapter XVI. Also consider a discussion on this topic in Paul Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). I would also recommend: Peter Busch’s article “Modern Restlessness, from Hobbes to Augustine” from Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (www.mdpi.com/journal/religions)
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1995), pg. 40
 Consider the previous post I did called The Gentle Slope of Relentless Noise, (https://www.faithunderstood.com/articles/the-gentle-slope-of-relentless-noise)
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.