In this special Christmas edition of the podcast, we sit down with Dr. Emily Heady to discuss Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dr. Heady holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a concentration in Victorian Studies. She also has a special interest in the work of Charles Dickens and has published articles and books exploring his novels. In this episode, Dr. Heady explains how A Christmas Carol relates to ethics and the Christian worldview.
Photo: “A Christmas Carol, New York Public Library” By G. Ziegler. CC Licence.
Music: “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by IKOS David Clifton with the choirs of Peterborough Cathedral. CC License.
Jack Reacher is a former military policeman. With neither permanent address nor credit card this formidable 6’5” martial arts tactician drifts in anonymity. Wherever he goes he finds helpless victims caught in powerful webs of evil. Against insurmountable odds Reacher comes to their aid.
Author of the super popular Jack Reacher novel series, Lee Child, discussed with writer Steven King at Harvard University the derivation of his character ‘Jack Reacher’. ‘Jack Reacher’, he said, is his iteration of the ageless longing for the superhero.
This Advent season we Christians reflect on the coming into the world of the promised Prince-King-Savior, Jesus Christ. Is he, like Jack Reacher, just another construct of wishful human thinking? So skeptical critics since the nineteenth century have argued. They discount Jesus Christ as just another myth in the long line of human longing for the super hero – the deified Man. Such critics have taken their cue from the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who said God—substitute Jesus Christ—is a human invention. He is the deified essence of Man. Jesus Christ is humankind’s highest ideals, hopes, and imaginations fictionally personified. Namely, Jesus, just like Jack Reacher, is a projection of the human imagination.
Feuerbach’s and the skeptical critics’ contention is as unsuitable as it is an inadequate explanation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was enough unlike the profile of a hoped-for messiah-savior that not only his own Jewish people but the world did not recognize him. Let me point out why Feuerbach’s claim is off base and show the disparity between the human, idealized super-hero and Jesus Christ.
The imagined deified heroes embody what we are not but wish we were. They fill up our cosmic inadequacies. Fantasize with me about an archetypical super-human. What is your god or goddess’s profile? The idealized deified idol is endowed with super-human strength. Muscular, attractive, with enhanced intelligence, he or she is a champion who knows what to do in all circumstances. Endowed with an indomitable spirit, the conqueror is virile, generous, and has a streak – just a streak – of good. With death-defying acts, the divine hero surmounts improbable odds to triumph over every impossible predicament to save helpless persons. In the superhero, evil meets its match. They right wrongs, fight for justice, and defend the public from the catastrophic machinations of tyrannical, psychopathic villains. You know their names: Hercules, James Bond, X-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, et cetera. We cannot forget Superman! In 1935, two New York City taxi-cab-drivers imagined a superman who could defeat crime and fight for truth and justice. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. “Is it a bird? – Is it a plane? – No, it’s SUPERMAN!” Possessing X-ray vision, he has extraordinary, muscular strength, good looks, and, yes, he is honest and humble.
He was a model for this American male. I had my Superman suit with the big ‘S’ on my chest. I waited for that suit to arrive for two months. Mom said it was only two weeks. I went “flying around” – I mean, running around – our backyard. I could not bend steel, or outrun the dog, but I was hopeful.
Superman is made to be seen! His stupendous saving acts are performed before the eyes of the watching world. Who can miss a man flying down Wall Street in royal blue tights, a giant red ‘S’ centered on his chest, and a red cape flapping behind him? Humankind dreams of heroes who flex their muscles, and make the spectacle of their superiority resoundingly clear. At the end of the day, no one is left in doubt who wields the greatest strength, the superior intelligence, and the supreme prowess.
Contrast the hero tradition with the coming Ruler, Messiah-King, Jesus Christ. Does Jesus match their profile? He is born in an animal shelter to a craftsman family in an obscure country. The prophet Isaiah says of him, “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He did not possess the unusually attractive Grecian star-quality looks of Hercules. We’re told nothing of his looks, or the color of his skin, in fact, but plenty about his character. Moreover, contrary to Superman, his great works were performed not in the great cities like Rome or Athens but in the rural, country villages of Galilee … the Big Islands and Tight Squeezes of this world. His miracles were always awesome, but often not sensational. He was not Hercules holding up the world or Batman swooping down from a skyscraper in Gotham City’s searchlight. Though there were exceptions, He worked in understated and invisible ways to leave room for doubt … and faith. Though the results were overwhelming, one saw very little flash. When religious or secular leaders asked him for the spectacular sign of a ‘superman’, he refused to give it.
The Gospel writers make clear in Jesus’ own as well as the Gospel writers’ minds his culminating glory was the scornful cross! What human fantasy would ever conceive it? What hoped-for human imagination would envision the ideal hero-god’s climaxing achievement a humiliating public execution by his enemies on a cross? Shall the ideal superhero die like a dog an excruciating and humiliating death stretched out naked publicly in front of his enemies?
Jesus Christ is distinctly different from human fictions. Contra Feuerbach and the skeptical critics, human authors could not imagine him. His profile is not a construct of wishful, human thinking. He is not the fantasized superhero. Jesus Christ is beyond human fantasies. He is from elsewhere. ‘Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He.’
And yet none like Him so deeply satisfies our yearning for a Savior, for in allowing Himself to be broken, He offered the world its only chance to be healed.
In his final section on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores the thought of Franz Rosenzweig as it is found in his important work, The Star of Redemption. Before offering his analysis, Hare thinks it is important to provide some context for understanding Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig was deeply attracted to Christianity and nearly converted; the impact of Christian thought is evident in his ideas. Also, Rosenzweig has some of the same philosophical influences as Barth and works to address some of the same challenges, especially the challenge of idealism. It was within this context that Rosenzweig wrote The Star and Hare picks out three central themes from that book in his analysis: creation, revelation, and redemption.
Rosenzweig thinks that idealism results in a deficient view of God and his creation. The idealist position implies that God emanates or overflows as some static object and this is the cause of creation, but Rosenzweig is committed to the idea that God freely acts to create and to love. God is “absolute spirit” or the “unmoved mover” for the idealists; God is a concept or force and not a personal agent. He is not the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible. But idealism also flattens out the particularity of God’s creation. On idealism, the moral life is highly generalized and does not take into account the distinctiveness of created things. There is not a good for an individual as that particular creature, but only the good in totality. Hare describes this conclusion as resulting in the “disappearance of God.” Hare further argues that this sort of critique can be applied to any view that seeks to ground the moral law in creation, as some natural law theorists claim to do. If it is true that nature grounds all there is to morality, then it is not clear why morality need go any further and posit the existence of God.
In contrast, Rosenzweig offers a view that emphasizes the substantive reality of particular things. There are real distinctions between objects. He also holds that God freely chose to create, though the act of creation itself is necessarily righteous. In his creation, God continually acts towards humanity in love.
It is partly because of Rosenzweig’s strong view of the distinction between God and creation that he needs an equally strong view of revelation. Rosenzweig thinks that the primary message of revelation is of a love as strong as death. Significantly, Rosenzweig holds that death is part of the intended created order and not a consequence of sin. Thus, apart from this revelation, man would conclude that his end is death. God reveals himself in an event where he loves a particular person at a particular time; a deeply personal and intimate act. When we find ourselves being loved by God, this frees us from being “merely created” and the cycle of death. This revelation produces a change in us from “self to soul” and occurs in four stages. The first stage is self-enclosure; we become aware of being loved by God. Then we react in defiance, valuing our own freedom over the love of God. Third, we become aware of the implications of God’s love for us. Hare says this results in both pride and humility. We are proud because we are protected by the love of God and humbled because we are what we are only because of love. Finally, we allow ourselves to be loved; this is faithfulness and turns our proclivity for defiance into devotion to God.
Rosenzweig thinks that the personal nature of the revelation is important for a few reasons. First, the revelation of God is both the epistemic and ontological grounds for human virtue. God must first love us before we can love him and we must assume this is so. Second, he argues that it is only in the encounter with God that we are given a “name.” That is, God reveals to us who and what we are and frees us to live as we ought. Third, God’s love for us as individuals grounds and motivates his command to “love the Lord they God with all the heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might.” Love demands reciprocation and it because God loves us that we ought to respond in the way he requests. Love of neighbor is an extension of our love for God. If another is made in the image of God, then we ought to love the other because of God’s love for us. This is also means that God’s love should result in a practical, outward response to the world; the revelation of God requires that we move beyond mystical experience and act with love toward our neighbors.
The final theme explored in this section is redemption. Rosenzweig holds that the word is created teleologically, but that this telos is not discernible by mere human reason. We are only becoming what we were intended to be, and are not yet transformed into our intended form of life, which Rosenzweig calls, “immortality,” “eternal life,” or “soul.” Our true nature is hidden and if we were to ground our moral vision on only what we can discover on our own steam, we “disenchant” ourselves and the world. Our true nature is mysterious, “uncanny.” However, this is not to say that Rosenzweig thinks there is a break between what we are and our eschatological end. What we are now is the raw material of what we will be. We will endure through the change, even if we could not see final destination by our own dim lights. God’s command is consistent with nature, though it is not determined by it.
Thus, Rosenzweig’s view of the moral life is one that takes seriously both nature and divine command without collapsing one into the other. God’s creation is rich with telos, but that telos can only be understood and obtained by divine revelation or grace. Apart from providence, we cannot know or become what we were intended to be. Further, Rosenzweig suggests that it is the love of God that provides sufficient motivation to be moral. God is the right kind of person in the right kind of relation to us to ground a robust moral realism.
Image: By Frank Behnsen at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11214437
In this chapter, Baggett and Walls discuss the performative aspect of morality, what John Hare calls the moral gap. They argue that theism possesses the necessary resources for moral transformation. Secular theories however do not have such resources and either reduce the moral demand, artificially exaggerate human capacities, or settle for substitutes for Divine assistance.
C. S. Lewis painted a picture of the moral enterprise. He envisioned a fleet of ships, where each individual ship must be seaworthy, the ships must avoid running into each other, and they need a destination. Likewise, morality has these three aspects: (1) individual moral flourishing, (2) harmonious interpersonal interaction, and (3) all of us striving toward a moral destination.
Although morality celebrates every step in the right direction, it seems to impose a demand for more. Telling lesser unjustified lies is an improvement over telling whoppers, but it’s not enough to satisfy the demands of morality. Morality calls us towards the goal of moral perfection. So the real question is what can secularists say about moral transformation? How do they close the moral gap (the gap between our best efforts to live a moral life and the moral demand itself)? Note that a full-fledged moral account has to address matters of character and virtue, not just moral behaviors. Morality pertains not only to what we do, but to who we are. Note that their view is not that secularists are morally weak or deficient. Neither is their claim that religious belief is necessary to be a moral person. Rather, if the secular worldview is true, then there is a moral gap.
Immanuel Kant was one of those who recognized this gap. The first aspect of Kantian moral faith is the conviction that the moral life is possible. On Kant’s view, our natural capacities are not up to the task, yet the moral demand is constantly there. Without adequate resources to meet the moral demand, a moral gap is inevitable. If morality requires of us what we cannot do, however, then we may complain based on the principle that “ought implies can.” If we cannot live up to the moral standard, then it is not the case that we ought to. The standard cannot be authoritative if it’s impossible to meet. However, there is another possibility. If there are resources to help us meet the moral demand, then there may be a duty to use these resources. So the principle can be modified to “ought implies can with the help available.” If naturalism does not have such resources, however, then it seems that secular theories fall short of explaining the authority of morality.
First, a secular theory may try to close the gap by exaggerating human capacities. Hare takes utilitarian Shelly Kagan as a contemporary example. It seems obvious that our own interests have the most motivational force for us. As Hare says, “We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than the utilitarian principle allows.” Kagan makes a counterfactual claim that “if one’s beliefs were vivid, then one would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint.”
Baggett and Walls first reply that if it is the case we ought to do something, then it must be the case that we can do it, not just in the counterfactual sense of “I could do it if I wanted to,” but we must be able to want to. Second, they reference Hare who argues the counterfactual is false. There are two ways to understand vividness. Vividness might capture the degree of clarity and distinctness regarding a belief, or it might pertain instead to the degree of importance we attach to a belief. Kagan means to use vividness in the former sense. In reply, then, we can look at cases where we can be very clear about someone’s pleasure without caring much about it. Consider misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Another example is when the love of power, envy, fear, and resentment are operative in families, even where awareness of the needs of others is great. Also, there’s willful blindness such as choosing not to be vividly aware of a need such as famine relief. Greater clarity of the pleasure and pain of others does not necessarily result in an increased tendency towards partiality. Even if it did, it may not lead to an overall tendency towards partiality. Impartiality requires no bias at all. Hence complete impartiality is beyond the natural capacity, and cultivating vividness is insufficient to close the gap.
Second, a secular theory may instead try to reduce the moral demand in order to close the gap. Baggett and Walls examine some feminist views. The first strategy suggests that women are better suited to meet the moral demand than men are. Feminist Carol Gilligan argued that women are more caring, less competitive, less abstract, and more sensitive than men in making moral decisions. Her claims, however, are controversial and many studies on gender difference in solving moral dilemmas show otherwise. Empathy is a human trait found in both genders. Hence this view is implausible.
The second strategy reduces the moral demand by rejecting the universalist and impartiality constraints in Kantian and utilitarian ethics. Instead one should adopt the views put forth by various care ethicists. Gilligan, for example, says that moral judgments must be specific, but the universalist requires them to be general. Hare replies by distinguishing between the general and specific, on the one hand, and between the universal and particular, on the other. A principle can be universal and yet completely specific in detail. Kant’s universal does not imply being general and non-specific.
Contra Kant, Hare further argues that some moral judgments are not universalizable. He calls these particular moral judgments. For example, if a mother is torn between caring for her daughter and helping in a worthy cause, she may be within her moral rights to care for her daughter, even if she cannot show that doing so is morally preferable. She is caring for her daughter and doing so for her daughter’s own sake, whether or not everything about it can be universalized. Hare thinks such an example does not lower the moral demand. What would, however, lower the demand is feminist Nell Noddings’ sort of extreme particularism. Noddings insists that she bears no responsibility to feed starving children in Africa because duties only arise in the close context of caring. Hence, it seems troubling to reduce the moral demand.
Finally, one may try to find a secular substitute for God’s assistance. Baggett and Walls choose to review Hare’s discussion of David Gauthier’s social contract theory. Gauthier argues that it is rational to agree to be moral, and also to refrain from being a “free rider.” (A free rider is one who does not follow the rules of morality and yet gets the benefits of social cooperation.) Gauthier thinks that we are all self-interested and argues that we need to cooperate because there are goods we cannot obtain without doing so. Morality is a set of prescriptions for such participation. Morality in time can then take on value for us.
Hare thinks that such an account fails. Morality simply does not present itself to us as justifying itself first instrumentally, as a means for the production of cooperative goods, and then we end up caring for justice. Following Kant, Hare thinks that practical reason does not start from maximizing self-interest, and then choosing to bring others into affective ties, and finally end up valuing justice for its own sake. Rather, practical reason starts from recognizing the self and others as under the law. Hare also lists many other difficulties with such a view.
Going back to the moral gap, there are some challenges related to it. It is common to ask “Why be moral?” A good answer is that morality is its own reward. But as Linda Zagzebski points out, the question of “should I try to be moral?” arises. It doesn’t make sense to attempt to do something one cannot possibly do. What is the point of someone trying to become a great artist if he lacks the talent and cannot achieve it? Knowing that it is worthwhile is not sufficient to provide rational motivation if the chances of success are too remote. Zagzebski further identifies three ways in which we need moral confidence. First, we need confidence that we can have moral knowledge. Second, we need confidence in our moral efficacy, both in the sense that we can overcome moral weakness, and in the sense that we have the causal power to bring about good in the world. Third, we need confidence in the moral knowledge and moral efficacy of other people, since moral goals require cooperation. Moral despair cannot be rational. Hence, we must be able to rely on more than our own human powers and those of others in attempting to lead a moral life—God. This is the basis for Zagzebski’s moral argument.
One might try to avoid moral despair by embracing David Hume’s form of skepticism. His skepticism over causation, induction, an enduring self, etc., had no practical implications. When Hume said that various beliefs were not rationally justified or rationally grounded, his subsequent counsel was not that we abandon such beliefs or stop such practices. Is this an option? Baggett and Walls argue that this possibility obtains only if certain Humean strictures are satisfied. One of those features is that the beliefs and practices in question are impracticable to give up. Moral beliefs and practices, however, do not qualify, since they can be abandoned and in certain circles surely are. Hence, appealing to Hume’s form of skepticism does not work to evade the force of Zagzebski’s moral argument.
Making Marriage Beautiful stands apart from the many marriage books that flood today’s publishing markets. In its pages, Dorothy Greco draws on her twenty-five plus years of marriage and her wealth of experience in writing and ministry to highlight essential components of a healthy marriage and exhort readers to aspire toward inculcating such a vision in their own relationships. Greco’s book and the principles she offers are motivated and undergirded by her Christian convictions, and reading the book is pure joy. With its lived wisdom and gracious tone, Making Marriage Beautiful is a unique and important resource. And, as our interview below demonstrates, there is plenty of overlap between our concerns here at MoralApologetics.com and the issues Dorothy considers in this volume, most especially questions of the value of persons and God’s provisions for meeting the moral standard.
Marybeth Baggett: Based on what I’ve heard from you and on the book itself, it seems that writing Making Marriage Beautiful is something you felt called to do. On a Christian picture, this idea of calling is connected to the notion of human dignity, that God has created each one of us for a purpose, a specific way in which we image him. Can you talk a little about that in regards to your writing of this book? How do you feel that God prepared you to do this work? I’m especially interested in how he made this charge clear to you.
Dorothy Greco: Much like the story of Joseph, it can often seem that the place of our greatest pain or wounding intersects with our calling. I can see this clearly in my own life.
I believe that every follower of Christ must yield to the call to love their neighbors. Some of us are called to love specific people for a life-time. Neither of these invitations has come easily for me. Due to a challenging childhood, my highly sensitive nature, and some deep relational hurts, by the time I graduated from college, I had the emotional EKG of a cadaver. I mistrusted others and chose independence, rather than healthy interdependence.
I know it’s unusual, but I did not grow up inserting myself into romantic Disneyesque plots or dreaming of being swept off my feet by a knight in shining armor. About seven years after choosing to follow Jesus, I began to detect something stirring in my soul for my now husband. Because I was both guarded and insecure, we had an incredibly tumultuous dating relationship and engagement round one. He eventually broke up with me, and we did not speak to each other for nearly two years. When we finally reconnected, it was obvious that we had both changed.
In round two of our relationship, there’s been no shadow of turning, but we have also had to be intentional and work hard in order to have a solid, fulfilling marriage. We are both strong-willed, stubborn people who seem to have opinions about everything from the bathroom wall color to where the Christmas tree should go. Additionally, life has thrown us some long-term vocational and health challenges. As a result, sparks fly on a regular basis, and we have had to learn how to have productive conflict.
Throughout our 26 years together, we have both felt impressed and emboldened by the Lord to believe that Scripture is true and to step out in that truth. Practically speaking, that means though we’ve had a great deal of conflict, many disappointments, and significant loss, we continue to trust that because God called us to commit our lives to each other, He will empower us to love well.
When I approached my agent about writing a marriage book, she warned me that they are one of the most difficult genres to break into, especially if one does not have a substantial platform. My platform is modest, I am not married to a famous athlete or movie star, and I had no intention of doing anything scandalous in order to sell books. Despite her dire predictions, I strongly believed that God was nudging me to go for it. I felt a divine compulsion to write this book (maybe because I needed it)! After following Jesus for nearly 40 years, I’ve learned to trust the impulses and believe in his provision.
Baggett: Morality may involve rules and law, but as we know, guidelines and prescripts do not exhaust what living a moral life requires. As scripture teaches, love is the animating force behind the law (Matthew 22:40) and its fulfillment (Romans 13:8-10). In writing a book on marriage, did you find it challenging to balance offering particular advice, rules for readers to follow, with exhortations toward love, more holistically understood? If so, how did you address this tension? How do you understand the relationship between following rules and the law of love?
Greco: I really chaff at books with titles such as Forty Days to Transform Your Husband or Ten Steps to a Perfect Marriage. Though we might want it to be, life is not formulaic. We should not assume our relationship with God will be formulaic either. I certainly rely on both the specifics and the abiding principles which undergird certain rules (e.g. the Ten Commandments), but I have not found a rule-based approach to relationships at all helpful. It was not really a struggle for me to approach writing this book in a more nuanced and organic fashion.
I am, first and foremost, a sinner saved by grace. As such, I am always aware of my sinful tendencies whether it’s to curse someone who cuts me off in Boston traffic, or to withhold love as a passive-aggressive retaliation for a minor infraction committed by my husband.
In the case of marriage, it’s quite clear from both the Old and New Testaments that God is about monogamy. The clarity of Jesus’ words on marriage (e.g., Matthew 5:27-32) awaken me to God’s high standards, which exist for my own good, and then simultaneously reorient me toward Him. So if I’m being mature and living in a posture of humility, God’s rules strengthen and empower me to love more like Jesus.
Baggett: A point you made in some of the marketing material you sent along before this interview struck a nerve with me—you said that one of the hardest things you faced writing the book was ensuring that you had the integrity to do so, if any marital struggles you went through somehow undermined your credibility. This resonated with us at Moral Apologetics, since we’re writing about morality and ethics, and some might think that, in doing so, we’re claiming we’ve arrived. Of course we know we have not—as you know that sanctification is an ongoing process. Can you talk a little bit about how you dealt with this doubt while writing your book? Did this self-reflection reveal anything new to you about that process of sanctification? For purposes of this interview, I’m wondering especially how you think God uses marriage in that process.
Greco: It would have been super easy to write a book on having an awesome marriage while mine was less than awesome. (Who would know other than my husband?) The idea for this book actually emerged when we were going through one of the most painful seasons in our lives together. The crisis was not marital, but of course it deeply affected us as individuals and as a couple.
Because we had already been married for 20+ years and had been doing pastoral care for almost that whole time, I could have gone through the motions of being married and simply relied on my experiences to pull this book together. That felt rather disingenuous to say the least. As followers of Christ and leaders, my husband and I have always felt that our offering will be tainted and perhaps even poisonous if we lack integrity. We’ve each benched ourselves from doing ministry at various times along the way, knowing that we were not in a good place and needed to take a break.
I can assure you, I expediently confessed and repented of my sins when I was writing Making Marriage Beautiful. I have enough fear of the Lord and enough knowledge of Scripture to know that how we live matters a great deal to Him.
As I was polling friends about possible titles for this book, one response really struck me. This woman, who is in mid-life and has been married for more than thirty years, wrote, “I have been married a long time and don’t feel the need to learn more. I’m good.” I literally gasped and then started to cry. I immediately prayed, “God, don’t ever let me become complacent. May I always be willing to keep learning and keep growing.”
One of the most significant lesson I learned when writing this book (other than that writing books is so much more difficult than I ever imagined!) is that I have not arrived: I am not a marriage expert and never will be. I’m simply a middle-aged woman who endeavors to love her husband with a fierceness and consistency that allows him to flourish. Though we have experienced glimpses of God’s sublime love breaking into our marriage, learning how to love my spouse is a life-long process.
Baggett: Lately I’ve been meditating on scripture passages that explain fear and love as opposing forces (I John 4:18, for example), and so (in reading your marketing materials) I was especially interested in your description of newly married self as fearful. Can you talk a little about how you opened yourself up to your husband’s love? What risks did that involve, and how did you gain the courage to take that risk? Have you found that love itself, as you grow deeper in it, has given you more moral courage?
Greco: By the time I turned 21, I assumed that people were generally not trustworthy and if I made mistakes, I would be abandoned. That’s a lot of fear—and a lot of pressure to make no mistakes. Early on in our marriage, I attempted to be perfect in an effort to quiet my anxieties. Of course, anyone who goes down that road knows that not only is it impossible, but the pressure to be perfect causes more anxiety.
One of the ways I learned to trust was by incorporating confession as a regular discipline into our marriage. By committing to confess my sins, no matter how small, my facades fell. My husband saw me as the broken, weak woman that I truly am. Miraculously, he kept loving me. One of his greatest gifts to me has been a constant reassurance that he’s not looking for or expecting perfection. He has always been quick and gracious to extend forgiveness to me. Over time, we have accumulated a great deal of relational equity which we draw upon as needed.
And yes, feeling secure in his love and in the Father’s love has definitely allowed me to be more courageous in all aspects of my life. The deeper my identity in Christ and the more confident I am of my husband’s love, the more risks I can take—like writing a vulnerable marriage book! Truth be told, this level of freedom is exhilarating.
Making Marriage Beautiful can be purchased at Amazon.com. There is currently a special running for the Kindle version, selling for $2.99.
In this sermon, Dr. Kinlaw explains what it means to be “consumed by Christ.” Kinlaw offers worthwhile insight into why a person would want to follow Jesus when he demands so much. First, Christ has given all of himself as the Lamb and so he does not ask for something he has not also provided. Second, though his way may seem hard, in the end, it will be the only thing that can truly satisfy the human soul.
I just finished an astoundingly blessed conversation with a dear friend and brother in Christ who is in the midst of a struggle with severe depression. I am aware of the danger of being presumptuous in trying to help someone negotiate depths of horrible feelings that I have not gone through myself, and I can justify it only by believing that in our conversation God was at work spotlighting truths that go beyond either of us—truths that are the bedrock of the relationship that God has with us through Christ. In that spirit of belief, I will honor my friend’s request to put into writing the thoughts that God prompted during our conversation, so that both of us can refer to them later.
My friend (I’ll call him Peter, since the apostle of that name also experienced deep darkness when he realized he had denied his Lord) had already in an e-mail told me that he was having a really hard time, so after a couple of days I felt strongly urged to follow up that communication with a phone call. Peter was more than ready to hear from me and to share more of what he had been experiencing. It turns out that much of his present darkness hinges on unresolved guilt regarding his long-term attempts to care for and help his brother (let’s call him Andy), who, even now, when the two brothers are approaching the end of their two lifetimes, continues to be recalcitrant, angry, and accusatory in response to whatever is done for him. Peter feels he is and has been a failure, and he can’t get out from under the guilt.
He said that a counselor had suggested that he, through an act of will, detach himself enough from the situation to imagine hiring someone to care for his brother, not just physically but to minister to his deeper needs. What would be the job description and statement of expectations? If the worker did everything imaginable to help Andy, and still failed to get the desired results, would he be blameworthy? If not, should Peter hold himself any more responsible than he would hold the worker? We agreed that this is a good technique to use, and that it can help Peter to see his situation more objectively. But the problem—and the answer—goes deeper than that. Battling the darkness of guilt and depression requires embracing the Light, even when you don’t see it.
I reminded Peter of two things: the supremacy of God’s Light over the Devil’s Darkness, and the function of darkness in helping us to see the Light. As to the first, the apostle John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, tells us that through Christ, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The Devil is called the “Accuser of [the] brothers,” who “accuses them night and day before our God” (Rev. 12:10). But even more relevant for us personally is the fact that he accuses each one of us, not merely to bring sin to our attention (the Holy Spirit also does that), but to speak the dark lie that the sin is so bad that we are unforgiven by God. But Satan is not only the Accuser, he is also the embodiment of falsehood, the great Liar. And his most effective agent for falsehood is unresolved guilt. So Peter (both in the Bible and my friend) needed to realize that the darkness of guilt he is experiencing is a direct work of the Adversary, the Father of Lies, the Master Accuser. It is a bedrock truth that in the Light of Christ the Savior, we are forgiven, and the only function of guilt in that realization is to lead us back to the incredible truth that we are forgiven.
That leads to the final point I felt needed to be articulated: It often occurs that one doesn’t realize the overwhelming beauty of the Light until he/she is enveloped in the darkness. I think I can do no better than to reproduce a poem that I wrote years ago. It expresses a truth that goes deeper than my wisdom can take credit for. I like to think that God knew when he gave it to me that it would speak to “Peter’s” predicament.
Shadows lengthen, deepen, merge.
Darkness is all, and I am there.
No thought of shadows when
The sun is full, for then
They merely accent the brightness.
When all is shadow, love may thrive,
Though hope be dim; when all is bright,
Shallow bliss holds sway.
Even the Arctic is both night and day.
Darkness gives more to defining light
Than light to the understanding of dark.
I will see the shadow grow,
And dwell in it even, to know
That light is its own verity,
And darkness but an island in its midst.
–Elton D. Higgs
(Dec. 31, 1974)
Image: “Wintertime is candletime” by Groman123. CC license.
Those of my generation may remember a bygone country song that reflects the old southern custom of making kids wait to eat until the adults were served. In the meantime, they were told to “take an old cold ‘tater and wait.” That bit of social history reminds me that in general we Americans regard waiting as an imposition, a disadvantage to be avoided if possible. Being made to wait is felt (and sometimes intended) as a put-down. An important person often shows his/her superior standing by making other people wait. Going to the head of the line at the airport check-in is a sign of special status, and being able immediately to see a president or other person in authority shows special closeness to that person. A restaurant “waiter” is a person who serves others; and an old sense of “waiting upon” someone (e. g., in Shakespeare) is putting oneself at the disposal of a superior. Rarely is waiting seen as a positive experience.
These thoughts moved me to consider the place of “waiting” in the Bible, where it is presented positively, as a mark of dependence on and submission to God, as in Ps. 25:1-5, 20-21
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. 3 Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. . . . 20 Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. 21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.
This passage shows the nature of biblical waiting: those who cry out to the Lord can be assured of His care for them, and that assurance leads to courageous perseverance in times of hardship. As another Psalm says, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:13-14).
Waiting on the Lord is also an antidote to angry despair in the face of unrelenting evil:
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. (Ps. 37:7-9)
In the same vein, when we are treated maliciously and injured, we are not to avenge ourselves, but wait upon the Lord to do vengeance (Prov. 20:22; Rom. 12:17-19).
Failing to wait upon the Lord can have dire consequences. The children of Israel could not wait in faith for only 40 days until Moses came down from Mt. Sinai to give them God’s Law, but in their impatience they made a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32).
Saul was rejected as king of Israel because he disobeyed the order to await Samuel’s return to make a sacrifice before he went into battle (I Sam. 13). Abraham and Sarah grew impatient waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send them a son and brought the servant woman Hagar in to be a surrogate mother for a son and heir, thus bringing Ishmael into the world to set up a permanent rivalry between him and Isaac, the true son of God’s promise who came miraculously when God was ready. In all these instances, we see that failing to wait is coupled with exercising our own wills instead of submitting to God’s will.
But what are the benefits of waiting? In general, one can say that willful and purposeful waiting gives time for God’s purposes to ripen and come to fruition, while dampening our strong inclination to chart and pursue our own way. As the much-quoted proverb says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). This kind of submission to God brings peace of mind, for it frees one from anxiously worrying about the future, since it is in God’s hands. Moreover, waiting on God is a time of recharging our spiritual batteries. As Isaiah says, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31). It may also be that God is using our waiting to prepare us for tasks and ministries of which we are not yet aware. Remember how Joseph was sold into slavery, and even when he prospered there he was unjustly thrown into prison. But when he was sufficiently matured by his experiences, God brought him forth to be the deliverer of Egypt from coming famine. In the end, he was the instrument for bringing his family to Egypt to become established as the multitude called the Children of Israel and to receive the land promised to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac.
In the Christian dispensation, all of our waiting is wrapped up in anticipating the return of our Lord Jesus to take His people to share His inheritance in the New Heaven and New Earth:
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. (I Pet. 3:11-14)
Waiting for God is the incubator of patience, and patience enables us to endure suffering in the faith that God is working even through our hardship to bring about His purposes. The ultimate purpose of God for us is that we “await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). When that transformation has taken place, we will wait no more, for time is finished, and past and future will be collapsed into the Eternal Now.