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
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)
For many of us prayer is something we talk a lot about but do far too little of. It is very often a mundane chore as opposed to a desire or a mere preference opposite a passion. This is to our own detriment. Yawnish, distracted, stunted prayers are an essential ingredient in producing the anemic spirituality that characterizes much of modern western Christendom. It is just such prayer the Lord of Hell gleefully glories in and desires for us. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) speaks with piercing accuracy on this reality in The Screwtape Letters. In the excerpt below Lewis has the senior tempter Screwtape give advice to his demonic nephew Wormwood on how best to meticulously undermine the prayer life of a young Christian. Read with openness and conviction,
The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the [Christian] patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and un-regularized; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part…. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want…. At the very least, they [Christians] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.
If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills…. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
But of course the Enemy [God] will not meantime be idle. Wherever there is prayer, there is danger of His own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of His position, and ours, as pure spirits, and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion. But even if He defeats your first attempt at misdirection, we have a subtler weapon. The humans do not start from that direct perception of [God]…. If you look into your patient's mind when he is praying…you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures…. I have known cases where what the patient called his "God" was actually located-up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers "Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be", our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it – why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation – this real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for! 
There are several points I would like to syphon out of this excerpt without draining its richness.
The Subtilty of What we Classify as “Prayer”
One of the most striking things in this excerpt is the most easily missed. It reveals a sadistically clever scheme all too often overlooked to our dismay. Screwtape says, “The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether,” and then he says, “this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.” Do you notice what he is saying? The Devil does not really care about us praying, as long as the type of prayer we do is a useful fiction. If we keep our prayers dreary-eyed, timely, thoughtless, and childish, he is content and undisturbed.
In such cases the Devil is content for us to live out the hellish inversion of John 5:16: “The ineffectual fervent-less prayer of a sluggish saint avails much for the Adversary of our souls.”
Lewis is giving meat here worth chewing. He is showing us that such feeble prayer really is not prayer at all! It is prayer masquerading as prayer, which makes us content and ineffective while at the same time delighting the demons. It is not real prayer because it is comfortable, quaint, and compels no real change. It is not real prayer because it categorically has no teeth to it! It is a milk-toast spirituality.
Real prayer is active, Spirit filled, intentional, habitual, God centered, humbling, relational, and power packed. Prayer is the specific, intentional, spiritual discipline of the Christian life. John Calvin (1509-1564), the great reformer, said it was “the chief exercise of faith.” The revivalist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) said prayer,
“is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life…[and a] prayerless life [is a life] without God in the world.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the 20th Century German pastor and martyr said,
“Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display.”
One of the things these men of old are getting at is that prayer is the chief means of distinguishing people who are of Faith versus the Faithless. It is an endeavor that displays in us an active acknowledgement of the presence of the divine in our lives on the daily! In short prayer reveals that we are aware, humbled by, and actively seeking more than matter and molecules; it reveals that we are a people who “look up” beyond our world to Someone Greater than ourselves for our ultimate answers, hope, peace, security, and future.
To fail to be a prayer is, in a very real sense, to live as a functional atheist. To live a “spiritual life” with a complete absence of ever seeking to touch the Spirit or communion is to deny the very foundations of Faith itself. It is living in the world on a regular basis as if God is not intimately and actively within and among you.
But this goes even further than mere awareness of the transcendent in our lives.
Prayer is also a fundamental means of awakening us to the reality of our present situations and to the Ultimate Fact that we stand naked before the eyes of a living God who knows us far more intimately than we could ever hope to. It reminds us that we cannot hide from God. He knows our facades. He knows our fakery. He knows our insecurities. He knows our needs. Prayer is that place where we reveal our souls to our God and He in turn reveals more intimately His heart to us. It is the meeting of wills. It is the meeting of souls. Lewis put it this way,
“It is a personal contact between…incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer is the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.”
It is such rawness of prayer that the devils loath for us to experience. Thus they (along with the World and the Flesh) ensure we ingest enough busyness and distractions to keep us from ever reaching such intimacy. But really, as Lewis points out, the devils do not have to work too hard at this because most of us do not even care to experience such rawness before God. As Screwtape so candidly affirms,
“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…. [In fact to avoid] the real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!”
This is to our own dismay for it is in such nakedness that we can truly be ourselves and see ourselves as we more clearly come to see the One who holds us.
It is in prayer that we stand before an Audience of One.
How Our Physical State Can Many Times Affect Our Prayer State
Another profound truth worth chewing is Lewis’ insight of how easily our physical states affect our spiritual states. He points out how the postures we make in prayer can reveal and even shape the sincerity and depth of focus we have before God. Do not misunderstand this! He is not saying we should bask in pagan asceticism or external posturing. What he is driving at is us coming to terms with how our bodies shape our souls as much as our souls shape our bodies.
In the history of the Christian Church there has been a consistent trajectory of teachings and reflections upon taking serious how we posture ourselves in worship and prayer. This is not out of a sign of stiff-necked ceremonialism but a recognition that we are a unified complexity of spirit, soul, and body that intertwine and interact with one another and therefore affect one another. A slouching posture can indicate a slouching spirit. A casual stature can reveal a casualness of soul which tends to express itself casually when coming before God in worship and prayer. God becomes a familiar to us – just “another relationship” among the myriads we have. We come into His presence and prop our feet upon Him instead of prostrating ourselves before Him in worship and reverence as the Cosmic King of Justice and Mercy He is.
I know this personally.
Tiredness physically leads to fogged mental states which inevitably misdirect my thoughts in prayer. I will start a prayer in earnest and within 40 seconds I begin to drift and think of all the work I have to accomplish, or I begin to daydream or become lethargic. Or I will pray as I drive to work, only to find my eyes wondering to a sign along the road or a pedestrian crossing the street. What is happening in all these? I am forgetting before Whom I stand when I am praying. I am slouching before God. I am yawning in His presence.
One way to fix this is to fix my physical state. Train the eyes, train the mind, discipline the body. If need be, stand to pray. Walk. Look upward. Lift hands. Kneel. Be uncomfortable. By doing these things one begins to take seriously the physical discipline of directing the body in the realm of spiritual life.
Generating Synthetic Piety
We can grow up on healthy doses of certain stylized versions of prayer. There are more liturgical types, more charismatic types, more blustery types, more tranquil types, and so forth. Lewis causes us to be reflective on this. We can begin to equate ‘true prayer’ with certain emotional expressions or experiences to the point that those expressions become the only means by which we define prayer (this also applies to all of spirituality).
This is where the danger creeps in.
Prayer is not less than emotion, but it is far more than emotion. This is what Lewis is wanting us to remember. True prayer is rooted in authenticity and reverence – an emptying or unclothing of oneself before God. It is not to be grounded in “turning our gaze towards ourselves and keeping watch on our own minds” as we think about how we are “feeling” as we are doing it. It isn’t about us! It is about Him! It is “other directed,” being lifted above our present circumstances into the realm of God Himself. It is only there that true answers, freedom, clarity, and focus takes place.
God is not interested in artificial emotionalism. He is not interested in syntax, He is interested in the sincerity. He is not interested in fervor, He is interested in faithfulness. He is not interested in hooping, He is interested in humility. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) said it this way,
“The heart is the source, the seat, and the essence of supplication. Prayer with the heart is the heart of prayer: the cry of our soul is the soul of our cry.”
He went on to say, “There is as much grace in the bark of a dog or the grunt of a swine as in a form of prayer if the heart be absent.” It is not enough to go through a set of disciplines or emotions when it comes to prayer. The heart must be pruned. The heart must be nursed to desire the sweetness of communion with God.
Generating False Images
One of the easiest things we can do is to make images in our head of Who God is whenever we pray. As Lewis makes clear we can derive our images of God from pictures, we can focus on a composite object, or we can think of some distant image in our imagination. In all these there are two things happening: misdirection and distance.
When we pray to God with a preconceived vision of what we think He should be we miss the true beauty of Who He is. This misdirection skews our understanding of God’s nature, person, and work. As a result, when we worship and pray God tends to become who we are. He likes what we like, He approves of what we approve, He hates what we hate, and He will give what we ask. It is all a total misdirection of who God really is. This is not assigned to just heretics or spiritual relativists; this happens in regular Bible believing churches! But as Timothy Keller (1950-present) has said,
“If your god never disagrees with you, you might be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”
But not only is such misdirection an outcome of this corrupted iconoclasm, there is also a distance created. Lewis makes the point that when we generate images of God in prayer, we can detach Him from our midst. He becomes an object among many within our minds eye. He becomes, as Lewis says, “located-up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside [our] own head, or in a crucifix on the wall.” What is he getting at here? He is showing that in a very real sense what happens is we tend to “see God” like an object or a person crossing before our eyes afar off. By doing this with prayer we lose the sense of inner intimacy of His presence within us and living around us.
Now, again, do not misunderstand Lewis here! He is not promoting some pagan pantheism or New Ageism mumbo-jumbo. What he is reminding us of is how easy it is to make God “away from us” as we pray. He becomes a detached deistic Being looking down far away from us as we call out to Him and look up at Him on Olympus. But such a vision doesn’t take seriously the immanence and intimacy of Who He is. God is not a detached Father. He is, as Jesus Himself taught us, our Heavenly Father (Matthew 6) – that impossible to contain, quantify, or composite Cosmic King Who is equally immanent, relational, and accessible to His children.
We need to recover this reality when we pray! This is what Lewis is getting at!
The Bible is profoundly clear that we have an intimate union with God through Christ that eliminates “distance” between us and Him (Romans 5 & 8, Galatians 2, Colossians 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 John 4). This understanding is an awareness of our “nakedness” (Lewis says that “real nakedness of soul”) before the eyes of God. This means that in prayer, we are baring ourselves before our Maker at the deepest levels. We are recognizing that God is not some celestial confession box but is the Great Knower of our souls.
Praying About Our Prayer
Prayer should be, and in fact is, the lifeblood of Faith. A prayerless faith is a dead faith. It is “the chief exercise of faith.” It trumps public worship, fellowship, and service. It is the key means through which we display dependence upon the Lord through humility. It is us actively taking time out of our mud and clay lives to acknowledge the transcendence and immanence of the God Who is in our midst and desires that we desire Him. Prayer really is “spiritual breathing” – the activity that sustains spiritual life itself. It is therefore no wonder that the Adversary of our souls works overtime in conjunction with our fleshliness to detour our efforts of such a fruitful spiritual discipline.
Sadly, I have found that many times my prayer life correlates to the level of comfort in my life. I say this with personal trepidation. When things are good, I pray less. When things are bad, I pray more. 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.”
I can say with shaken confidence this is true for me. I would venture to say it is true for you. There is a stinging truism here: we tend to be the most sincere and focused on spiritual things when we are faced with trouble and suffering. Good times tend to generate spiritual apathy and indifference in our lives. The more comfortable we are the more complacent we become before God’s presence.
Complacent prayer is most often born by satisfied and secure saints.
Must we then perpetually suffer in order for us to be made into the image of Christ? I would hope not. But perhaps so. Perhaps we need to experience suffering to be refined on our knees.
We need to pray about our praying.
We need to ask God to help us desire prayer all the more. We need to pray even when we are not feeling it. It is in those times of “not feeling it” that we often need it the most! It is in that time the Adversary is working his dark magic in our midst, slowly, methodically, driving a wedge between us and our Lord. It is in that time we need to push and fight for that sacred communion known as prayer.
God, help me to not just write about this but to live it in my life! Help me to demonstrate this instead of merely teaching it. Help me nourish my soul in this and not just taste it. Help me to pray.
I want to leave you with the poignant and encouraging words of Charles Spurgeon,
Now the tempter will whisper, "Do not pray just now; your heart is not in a fit condition for it." My dear brother, you will not become fit for prayer by keeping away from the mercy-seat, but to lie groaning or breathing at its foot is the best preparation for pleading before the Lord. We are not to aim at a self-wrought preparation of our hearts that we may come to God with them, but "the preparation of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, are both from God." If I feel myself disinclined to pray, then is the time when I need to pray more than ever…. Whatever thy position, if thou canst not speak, cry; if thou canst not cry, groan; if thou canst not groan, let it be "groanings that cannot be uttered;" and, if thou canst not even rise to that, let thy prayer be at least breathing—a vital, sincere desire, the outpouring of thine inner life in the simplest and weakest form, and God will accept it. In a word, when you cannot pray as you would, take care to pray as you can. 
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 194-196
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox, 2011), 3.20 (pg. 850)
 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, Volume IV (New York, NY: Leavitt & Allen, 1852), pg. 481
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995) pg. 163
 A good discussion on this can be found in Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), pg. 119-122
 C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night, pg. 8
 Consider reading this short little treatise on the postures of prayer by Isaac Todd (1787-1886) https://www.covenanter.org/reformed/2015/8/19/isaac-todds-the-posture-of-prayer-or-god-to-be-worshipped-with-the-body-as-well-as-the-mind
 Avail yourself to these resources on the topic: https://calvinistinternational.com/2015/04/09/calvin-on-posture-in-worship/; http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/articles/item/4651-the-posture-of-prayer; https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-posture-matters-in-worship/;
 Charles Spurgeon, Comfort for Those Whose Prayers are Feeble, Sermon given May 1872, accessed from https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/thought-reading-extraordinary/#flipbook/
 Timothy Keller, Twitter, Sep. 12, 2014, https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/510458013606739968?lang=en
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament, (United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), pg. 244-246
 Michael Horton, John Calvin on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 154-165
 Dane Ortlund, Jonathan Edwards on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 124
 John Newton, Letter V, Cardiphonia or, The Utterance of the Heart (T. Nelson and Sons: United Kingdom, 1857), pg. 285
 Charles Spurgeon, Thought-Reading Extraordinary, Sermon given October 5, 1884, accessed from https://archive.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/feeble.php
We moderns are obsessed with “causes.” We love to stand and fight for things. We fight to end racial prejudice, we fight for social justice, we fight to end hunger, we fight to end war, we fight for abortion, we fight to end drugs, we fight for life, we fight to preserve the Constitution, we fight to bear arms, we fight for the flag, we fight for faith and so forth. We really are modern-day crusaders. Our mighty banners of conquest are raised through hashtags, Facebook filters, and a sea of tweets as we exclaim death to the infidels who are our opposites.
Do not misunderstand. Such a critique is not a wholesale denouncement to standing for or against various ideas, values, policies, or platforms. We can and should stand when we see wrongs exercised at the expense of justice and goodness. We should “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” in which we find ourselves just as God exclaimed through the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:7). But as always there is a grave danger that lurks in our midst when we take up such a quest. Even in our campaigning to “make the world better” or “stand against injustice” we can lose sight of Christ; we can become blinded to the True End for which we fight. C.S. Lewis speaks with wisdom on this point. In The Screwtape Letters Lewis’ Screwtape gives the young Wormwood insight into the ways ‘causes’ can be used to slowly destroy his patient Christian’s faith. Read and weep,
All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them…. Whichever [your Christian patient] adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the [the cause he takes up] as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which [his] religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of [the effort]. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours – and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.
The shift here is subtle, as all the shifts are that we have looked at in the Gentle Slopes series. Notice that at first “The Cause” we take up is secondary and just part of our Christianity. This is when we still are keeping Christ at the center of all our reasoning and intended ends. But then notice, in time our Christianity slowly becomes part of “The Cause,” it becomes peripheral, deadened by earthly concerns alone. In short, Christianity slowly loses its Eternal reality and subsequently its spirituality. And so, we enter a state of being Pharisaical in all the good causes we take up – they become ends in themselves instead of satellites orbiting the greater constellation of Christ. So, for example, Jesus is a white gun-toting red-blood libertarian at our gun conventions, or He is the brown man oppressed by systemic imperial oppression at our social justice marches, or He is the free-caring anti-judgmental “love is love” guru at our sexual liberation rallies, or He is the no nonsense stern faced hyper judgmental commander at our conferences.
The sad thing is that in all of these Christ has ceased to guide the values, ideas, and platform, of “the cause” and instead has become another piece of furniture we rearrange in the rooms of our life to accent our preferences (i.e. our social, theological, or political preferences). What is happening is we are losing sight of the eternal by making that which is temporal our eternal.
THE DISTINCTIVE CAUSE FOR WHICH WE CRUSADE
This is stingily personal. I tend to be the type that can make axes and grind them. I have been a “keyboard crusader,” a social media warrior, and even a professional political ranter. Sometimes simultaneously. I will be frank, I make no apologies for speaking Truth nor standing for Truth, but there is something to be said when the central driving focus, the bread, and butter of existence, of one’s life (thinking of how I can be at times!) becomes consumed with things doomed to ash and shadow (Psalm 102:26, Matthew 24:35, Luke 21:33, Hebrews 1:11).
Once again, do not misunderstand! I am not saying one should not be engaged in great causes or stand for one’s values or ideas or even support a platform or a policy. This is noble, this is good, and this is just. But what we should do as we engage in such causes is ask the fundamental question,
“For what end do I do this?”
It is the Adversary’s job to keep us – through busyness, exhaustion, and service – from ever asking such a question. But we must. If we honestly believe the world is not less than but more than matter and energy, if we truly believe that there is a purpose for which all of Creation was made, if we are truly convinced that humans have a cosmic identity and meaning, if we truly believe Jesus is the climactic spiritual revelation to all human questions and needs, if we truly believe Heaven is a place to be gained and Hell a place to be shunned, then we cannot but ask such a question!
Sadly, much of modern Christendom cannot be bothered to ask such a question. We help in soup kitchens, we assist at shelters, we even drill wells in Uganda, we council drug addicts, we march to end racism, we rally to save the unborn, we teach Kids Church, we coordinate VBS, we organize connect groups, we develop outreach programs, and on and on. But if all of this is devoid of an eternal perspective, if in all of this Christ and His Gospel is vacated, then all of it is shallow and ultimately pointless. In fact, in none of these examples is such work isolated to the Christian Church. Thousands of secular organizations and dozens of religious groups do the same thing!
What then is the Christian distinctive?
Some may argue at this point that the good of such things abovementioned is within themselves. “Helping people is a good in itself and is what ‘it’s all about!’” one could exclaim. There is an element of truth here but it isn’t the whole Truth. Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and even assisting widows and orphans, were done by Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Yet Jesus said of many of the Pharisees “you are whitewashed tombs…full of dead men’s bones” who,
“outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”
While much could be said here one point is stinging: the Pharisees were often good people doing good things, standing for good “causes,” and yet they still were full of deadness. What deadness? Hypocrisy and lawlessness. In short, they had no focus upon authentic spirituality (hypocrisy) nor the Word (the Law) within the things they did. This is vital to understand: the Pharisees' faults were not found in the execution of the goods they were doing; it was found in the reasons for which they were doing what they were doing. The things/causes/activities became ends in themselves only or they were done for self-centered reasons, which is really two sides of the same coin. In short, the “causes” became their idols – the things they lived for, would die for, got ultimate meaning from, and ultimately worshiped!
The Christian message is not less than the just earthly causes we fight for, but it is much greater! And when such greatness is absent from the earthly cause, we miss the mark. The Apostle James said it this way,
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Notice that there is a duality of the “religious life” displayed. The true pure acceptable religious life is one characterized by an authentic spiritually controlled tongue (i.e. a Christ-centered heart) plus good works towards just causes (i.e. widows and orphans) plus a deep focus on the highest need of spiritual purity without compromise. Well, what is it that keeps us pure without compromise? The Gospel – which is itself something we not only “keep for ourselves” but should be exclaiming to others! Lest the point be lost, consider the words of the Apostle Paul,
14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
In other words, Paul makes clear that evangelistic zeal to reach Jews and Gentiles (people of non-Christian faith – like the ones we fight for and with for just causes) cannot be divorced of the central needful thing: THE GOSPEL. It is the gospel which is the power unto salvation, not a bowl of soup or post about racial solidarity alone.
AIMING AT HEAVEN THAT EARTH MAY BE THROWN IN
The meaning of things is inherently tied to their intended ends. When we say we stand for this or that cause because it is “right” or “just” or “good” we are exclaiming that there is a way the World should be; we are asserting, consciously or subconsciously, that Right and Just and Good are actually real and that people (who are agents of rights, justice, and goodness) are inherently valuable sacred ends in themselves. But all of this is only made possible by a transcendent all powerful Creative Moral Law Giver who gives an inherent sacredness to values and life itself. It is such a One to whom we should be ultimately pointing since all purpose’s crescendo in Him. When this Reality is forgotten amid our crusading, we castrate the greater meaning and purposes for which we fight and stand. Even further, we do disservice to those for whom we fight (against or with) because we have failed to make known to them the ultimate beauty and truth that lies behind the earthly acts we do.
In closing, I am reminded of the poignant words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity,
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. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. 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.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 205
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, Harper edition, 2001), pp. 134-135
The great Church Father Basil of Caesarea (330-379 A.D.), when citing Ephesians 5:4 on the nature of humor said,
“The Christian…ought not to indulge in jesting [and] he ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh makers. He must not talk idly, saying things which are of no service to the hearers.”
In short, for Basil, humor was no laughing matter. Now we recognize that this is excessive and somewhat priggish on the surface, but below in the meat of thought lies a truth: laughter has soul shaping power. But seldom do we ever think about this – even we Christians. We enlightened moderns are living in an age of sitcoms, stand-up comedians, and infinite memes, which wash over us with rivers of puns, wit, and knee slapping entertainment. But even here there lies both great joy and great danger. Even here, in our humor and laughter, we must become reflective and ask if we have allowed the law of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) to reign.
Humor can be a Balm and Bane to Life
Humor and laughter are sweet balms of life. They make life bearable and beautiful by breaking down barriers and helping us forget about the business and seriousness of reality. All the incongruities (the absurdities, oddities, and “out-of-placeness”) have a humbling effect upon us as creatures. Through humor we tend to make fun of ourselves and our place in the world. Therefore, humor has a humbling aspect to it at times because we realize just how absurd and weird we can be. As one author said, “[Humour] involves some confession of human weakness” and is “the chief antidote to pride; and has been, ever since the time of the Book of Proverbs, the hammer of fools.” The great English philosopher and essayist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said it this way,
“If you really ask yourself why we laugh at a man sitting down suddenly in the street you will discover that the reason is not only recondite, but ultimately religious. All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.”
There is much to unpack here but we will point to only one minor aspect of what Chesterton is getting at. The fact is humor is deeper than we think. Laughter reveals more than we think. They reveal something about us as a people. Why we laugh at what we laugh says something about how we think the world is and who and what humans are, and how it all should be. This is centrally because we were made to be social creatures who live a certain way in the world and seek joy in the good. What grounds all of this is the comforting and empowering knowledge that we serve a Creator King who laughs and has joy (Psalm 2:1-12, Zephaniah 3:17) and in fact has made us to be people who can laugh, and play, and express such joy through lighthearted interactions (Ecclesiastes 3:4; Job 8:21; Proverbs 15:13, 17:22; Psalm 126:2-3; Luke 6:21).
But with everything, sin and darkness become the kill-alls and makers of infinite devaluation. This is where a demon can give us insight.
C.S. Lewis in all his piercing correctness speaks straight to the quick of the power and influence of humor in The Screwtape Letters. In the section below the senior demon Screwtape informs his underling Wormwood of the most effective ways of utilizing humor and laughter to slowly destroy purity and sacredness in the life of his patient Christian believer. Before this conversation you will remember our previous post in the Gentle Slopes Series which dealt with friendships. Here the Christian patient has not only begun to hang out with two carousing skeptical unbelievers but has been introduced to another broader group of friends, all of them obsessed with revelry, novelties, and joking. Screwtape decides to advice Wormwood on his next steps with his patient,
My Dear Wormwood,
Everything is clearly going very well. I am specially glad to hear that the two new friends [of your Christian patient] have now made him acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortable towards our Father's house. You speak of their being great laughers…. [This] point is worth some attention.
I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided…. Fun is closely related to Joy-a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct….
[But the] real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction…. Humour is for [some] the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame…. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful-unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient [the Christian]…. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour".
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny…. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy [and] it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.
In this passage Lewis is soberly reminding us of how the Adversary of our souls uses humor to slowly deaden our souls to any sense of shame or sacredness.
Laughter Often Carries an Agenda
One point worth noting that Lewis shows is that behind laughter there often lies an agenda. We do not often think of this when we enjoy good banter. But this is true. That agenda can be merely to bring joy into others’ lives – which is a noble activity within itself. But often it can be pregnant with ulterior motives: such as to generate self-aggrandizement or attention-seeking or to soften people’s acceptability of particular behaviors, beliefs, or values. Here, on this last point specifically, lies the far more subtle yet sinister element of humor.
Humor can shape our souls. It can also shape culture. G.K. Chesterton poignantly said back in the twilight of Victorian England,
“If you really want to know what is going to happen to the future of our democracy, do not read the modern sociological prophecies, do not read even [utopian novels]…. Read the [comic pages] as if they were the dark tablets graven with the oracles of the gods. For…they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest desires of the…people. If we are really to find out what the democracy will ultimately do with itself, we shall surely find it, not in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which the people studies.”
If you want to shape people’s souls, and even guide the culture of a people, then shape what they laugh about. Shape the entertain they consume. In time what they consume will consume them. They will become what they cajole and joke about. Why? Because laughter has the inherent capacity to bypass the mind and go straight to the emotional and appetite driven parts of our nature. These areas of our souls are the most malleable and guiding aspects of our being. If you want people to be willing to start accepting a particular behavior, to normalize it, then your best methodology is to soften it as playful, innocent, and lighthearted.
I think we can say with some accuracy we can see this in our own lives and culture. Before any particular behavior or preference or lifestyle is accepted in our society it is always “normalized” on our televisions and the silver screen. Make it look “normal” or friendly or innocent within the context of story making and laughter and you have all but won over the audience. If you do not think this is the case, then take a moment for some personal inventory. Ask yourself: How much have you changed in the past 10 years in your views of religion, morality, modesty, gender identities and roles, language use, sexual preferences, politics, and justice? Have you come to accept, loosen up on, or shrug off certain ideas within these areas? Now ask yourself, how have you come to change so? Did you sit down and do a lot of arm-chair philosophizing and dialoging? Did you read a ton of philosophical, theological, political, sociological, and psychological manuals, treatises, and books? For most, the answers would be no.
While we can change our views on life based on mere experiences, education, and political shifts, these are not the central methods of how we change. Change happens gradually and centrally through the relationships we share and the entertainment we consume. It is inescapable and undeniable. This past year alone we Americas spent a whopping $30.03 billion on entertainment and spent an average over 7.5 hours a day using media. On top of this the U.S. media and entertainment industry has affirmed that its budget is going to exceed $825 billion by 2023. Interesting enough, connecting to the main point of this post and Chesterton’s words, the most popularly consumed genre by us is comedy.
It is a truism: the things we consume in turn consume us.
The movies, TV shows, video-games, and music of our age are all our modern high priests and philosophers slowly teaching us to accept the ways of the idols of our age. Laughter has always, but especially now in our age, possessed the power of democratizing or “leveling” values, behaviors, and beliefs. It has the capacity to make everything a desacralized joke or meme or caricature. As a result, slowly, unknowingly, unthoughtfully, the concepts and virtues of shame, respect, honor, dignity, faith, beauty, and charity are chipped down and become lost in a sea of chuckles and shrugs. This especially happens with religion and faith.
The Power of Laughter to Desacralize
Some of the most effective uses of laughter are those about spiritual things. Do not misunderstand nor assume that we cannot be joyous nor joking with our Faith. I believe there is a healthy, respectful form of this. But go deeper here. Think for a minute. There is truth in this worth mining. How far do we go with this?
Behind kiddish jests or irreverent puns about God and His Son in particular there can lie an inheritance of irreverence. Slowly the laughs can chip away at the sacredness and transcendence of Faith claims, bringing them low and close to the mud. It is not hard to see the logical jump that can and often happens when we move from laughing about Christ in a joke to inadvertently casualizing Christ in life. When this happens, we have entered a slippery slope of shifting from disciples worshiping at His feet to mocking bystanders who see Him as part of the regular landscape of life.
This is all subtle. There is deception here. Awaken yourself to this.
Joy and laughter are a medicine (Proverbs 17:22) but they can also become a hallucinogenic to our souls. They have within them the capacity to degenerate into flippancy and irreverence. This is Lewis’ warning from the lips of a devil.
This may sound prudish. But here again is Lewis is spot on. The simplest way to never have to question ones consumption of entertainment or what one laughs is to judge every judgement or correction as “Puritanical.” “Well that may be offensive to you, but it isn’t to me” is a common phrase at this point. Or the mantras of “spiritual maturity” or “that’s the way of the world” or “freedom in Christ” are conjured to expunge any sense of propriety or chastity in the realm of entertainment and laughter. I will not fight this game. Neither will Lewis. But be aware that you are dancing in the realm of the Adversary. He is elated that you are inundated and do not care. He is ecstatic to your gilded over indifference.
There is no lie here. It is tricky to locate what are the acceptable or unacceptable levels of laughter and humor. When does joy devolve into vulgarity? This is not easy to gage and if you are looking for a list of movies, books, and TV shows that are acceptable or not then you are missing the point of the post. We moderns love our check off lists of does and don’ts. But the authentic spiritual life doesn’t work like that. The key is not in a list but a consistent self-examination by the power of the Holy Spirit in ever facet of our lives, even the places we least expect or least want Him to check.
Are you doing this with what you consume with entertainment? Are you considering how Christ addresses that which you laugh at? If there is no reflection at all, then you may be in the realm of devils. If you are reflecting, then allow the Holy Spirit to continue to speak and guide you into His ways.
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
 Saint Basil of Caesarea, “On the Perfection of the Life of Solitaries” from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202022.htm
 If you want a more technical or philosophical understanding of the nature of “humor” then consider: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/ and https://iep.utm.edu/humor/
 G.K. Chesterton, “Humour” (1938) found at https://nonsenselit.com/g-k-chesterton-humour-1938/. Original source is Chesterton, G.K. The Spice of Life and Other Essays, Edited by Dorothy Collins (Beaconsfield: Darwen Finlayson, 1964)
 Chesterton, et.al.
 G.K. Chesterton, “Cockneys and Their Jokes” in All Things Considered (1908), accessed from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/All_Things_Considered/Cockneys_and_Their_Jokes
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters ibid, pg. 215-217
 G.K. Chesterton, “Cockneys and Their Jokes” in All Things Considered (1908), accessed from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/All_Things_Considered/Cockneys_and_Their_Jokes
 http://www.uky.edu/~jjord0/ArisIII.htm#:~:text=Appetitive%20soul%20%E2%80%93%20This%20is%20the,itself%20a%20faculty%20of%20thought, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-emotions/#:~:text=He%20regarded%20the%20emotions%20as,of%20knowledge%20and%20rational%20will,
 https://www.statista.com/statistics/254115/favorite-movie-genres-in-the-us/, https://www.marketingcharts.com/television/tv-audiences-and-consumption-110704, https://morningconsult.com/2018/11/27/reality-is-americas-least-favorite-tv-genre-yet-people-are-still-watching/, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2007/07/25/what-they-watch-online/
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.