A Few Serious Thoughts About God & Laughter

The first thing I noticed about my wife on the night we met was her smile. It unnerved me, like a dare. I have since seen it reappear in a thousand different facets. It never fails to charm me. She has a laugh to match, pure as the ringing of a church bell and solid as iron. I have spent the forty-one years we have been together trying to elicit that sound.

Babies develop the ability to laugh before they learn to talk. They can laugh as early as twelve weeks. They do not begin to speak rudimentary words until the end of twelve months. What does this say about laughter? Is our ability to laugh more primal than our capacity for speech? Speech is learned, but laughter is not. Laughter is an emotional response. Language is the work of the intellect. Between the two, it is tempting to think that laughter is a simpler act. Words have nuanced meanings. A laugh is just noise. Or is it?

We Laugh for Many Reasons

“We laugh for many reasons” J. C. Gregory observes in his book The Nature of Laughter. “There is laughter of triumph and laughter of scorn; there is also laughter of contempt, superiority, and self-congratulation. When lovers laugh as they meet they are not contemptuous, nor are they amused. The pure laughter of play, like the laughter of greeting, is as innocent of amusement as it is of contempt.”

Psychologists suggest that laughter is the reward system people use to negotiate social relationships. Babies use it to trick their parents into teaching them how to be human. Science, which likes to reduce all human behavior to the involuntary responses of electronic impulses sent from the brain or mindless outworking of evolutionary competition, claim to see comparable responses in monkeys, dogs, and even rats. But laughter’s ultimate analog is not found in the animal kingdom but in God, who was the first to speak and the first to laugh. If the human ability for language has its mirror in God, why not our capacity for humor?

Humor is not the first thing we think of when we think about God. His thundering holiness is more likely to come to mind. The handful of statements which make explicit reference to divine laughter reinforce this impression. When the nations conspire against the Lord’s anointed, the One enthroned in heaven laughs at them in contempt (Ps. 2:4). If we must limit ourselves to those instances where the Bible explicitly mentions God’s laughter, we must conclude that His capacity for humor is limited.

Man of Sorrows

The New Testament reinforces this impression. The human face that Jesus puts on God in the Gospels is, for the most part, not a smiling face. As Isaiah predicted, He shows Himself to be “a man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus groaned at the grave of Lazarus. He denounced the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and the Scribes because they were spiritually dull. “He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell,” G. K. Chesterton notes. Yet where humor is concerned, Chesterton points out that “there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness.” Every Chinese restaurant has its laughing Buddha, but you would be hard-pressed to find a church with an image of a smiling Christ.

This absence is, to some extent, understandable. A religion that has the cross as its main symbol is bound to be grave in its tone. Yet if we look for more than explicit instances of divine laughter, we find a thread that points to that aspect of God’s nature that Chesterton rightly calls mirth. It begins in the Garden of Eden with God’s determination to create humanity in His own image (Gen. 1:26). To accomplish this, God forms Adam from “the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7, 22). There is a kind of divine whimsy in act. In Scripture dust is a symbol of lowliness or humility. Dust will be the serpent’s “food” after the curse (Gen. 3:14). Other elements of the creation account might also be seen as humorous. Eve engages in theological debate with a snake. The primary actors in the fall each point fingers at one another when asked to account for their actions. If not for the severity of sin’s effects, humankind’s whole history might be deemed a tragic comedy of epic proportions.

The half-truths told by Abraham and Isaac about their true relationship with their spouses, Laban’s bamboozlement of Jacob regarding the marriage negotiation for Rachel, and Haman’s that there is no one other than him that the king would rather honor might all elicit a chuckle. These stories are not comedies but histories that include comedic elements, as all human stories do. This proximity of humor and tragedy in the Bible’s account of sin and redemption should not surprise us. The enduring popularity of slapstick comedy is visual proof that humor almost always has a tragic edge. Comedy is tragedy worked out in ridiculous circumstances. Because of this, God’s whimsical way of working out His plan is not the only reason we find occasion to laugh in the Scriptures.

The Absurdity of Sin

Sin, by its nature, is always tragic, but it is also an absurdity. Theologian Josef Peiper explains, “Sin is an act against reason, which thus means: a violation against one’s own conscience, against our ‘better’ knowledge, against the best knowledge of which we are capable.” Paul puts flesh on sin’s unreasoning nature when he describes his own experience with sin as that of going against not only what he knows but what he approves. Every sinner has his own twisted reason for justifying their actions, but sin is also against reason as God defines it. “I do not understand what I do,” the apostle laments in Romans 7:15, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Sin is no joke, but it is ridiculous.

When we come to the New Testament, God’s good-natured humor meets sin’s absurdity head-on in the teaching of Jesus Christ. From the humorous scenarios described in many of His parables to the affectionately ironic nicknames assigned to several of His disciples, Jesus was not afraid to use humor to make His point. Without status or resources, a widow terrorizes a judge who does not care about God or man by simple persistence. Humor is so much a part of a healthy personality that Jesus’ perfect humanity would seem to demand it. From the humorous scenarios described in many of His parables to the affectionately ironic nicknames Jesus assigned to several of His disciples, Jesus was not afraid to use laughter to make His point. Without status or resources, a widow wears down by simple persistence a judge who does not care for either God or man (Luke 18:1-8). A legion of demons begs Jesus to be allowed to enter a herd of pigs because they do not want Him to cast them into the abyss and the pigs promptly stampede over a cliff (Mark 5:1-13).

The God Who Laughs

The God revealed in Scripture is not only a God who speaks but one who laughs. He is not the jolly god of pagan religion, but a being of infinite and inexpressible joy. Divine humor is a reflection of this joy. Although we have not yet experienced this joy in its full force, we have been granted a foretaste and are ourselves “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” through the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:9). Just as we need to be transformed through the grace of Christ to stand in God’s glorious presence, surely we will need to be similarly changed to grasp the humor that springs from His infinite joy.

Indeed, we must be transformed before we can even endure it. Without such a change, God’s humor must come crashing down upon us with the full force of His holiness and glory. Just as the light of dawn, “like solid blocks intolerable of solid edge and weight,” fell upon C. S. Lewis at the close of his imagined bus trip to heaven in The Great Divorce, the unmitigated humor of God would crush us. Without the transforming work of Jesus Christ, we could not bear it.

The book of Revelation tells us that when Jesus Christ comes again to take His stand on the Mount of Olives, He will be dressed in a robe dripped in blood. The armies of heaven will follow Him, and “out of His mouth will come a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” that oppose Him (Rev. 19:15). Likewise, the apostle Paul writes that at that time, Jesus will overthrow His enemies with the breath of His mouth and the splendor of His coming (2 Thess. 2:8). I have always thought that the phrase “the breath of His mouth” was a reference to speech. In the end, Jesus will defeat Satan and the Anti-Christ with a word. But it could just as easily be a laugh.

Uncivil Discourse: Why Our Speech Matters

Ken Myers has observed, “The Christian tradition has long placed great value on care about speech.” He notes that the sacred importance of language is signaled by the fact that two of the Ten Commandments are concerned with speech. One of them has to do with the way we speak about God. The other, not surprisingly, deals with the way we speak about others. It seems that the tongue is the primary instrument we use to fulfill the two Great Commandments, to love God with heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-38).

We don’t usually think about our words. We open our mouths, and they just seem to come out. When we do give thought to the language we use, it is out of a detached, almost scientific concern. We think of the connection our words have to the concepts we want to express. But the Scriptures (God’s words) warn that the relationship between our speech and ourselves is far more organic. It is also dangerous. The tongue, James warns, is “a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). One of the surest ways to discern corruption of the soul is through speech. James echoes the words of Jesus, who warned the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart and defile us (Matt. 15:18). The tongue is both a muscle and an organ. It is not only something we use to express our thoughts. In some measure, the tongue is us, or at least a part of us.

In the same way, Jesus makes it clear that our words are just as intimately connected to our hearts: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Our words serve both as a sign and a diagnosis. The character of our speech is evidence of the state of our hearts. But this connection means that the problem with our discourse is more than a matter of poor word choice. According to Jesus, corrupt speech proceeds from an evil heart. The examples Jesus gives of the nature of evil thoughts that spring from the heart greatly expand the definition of corrupt speech. The Christian tradition has tended to define such language rather narrowly, limiting it to what we used to call swearing. Taking the Lord’s name “in vain,” coarse language, and vulgarity are a form of corrupt speech but the lowest form. Just as lust is the only the first and lowest of the deadly sins, common vulgarity hardly exhausts the full scope of sinful speech. All the categories of evil thought that Jesus mentions and the multitude of sins that he does not ultimately find their expression in the way we speak to one another.

Our most corrupt speech is often the most commonplace, expressing those sins that we have learned to tolerate in ourselves. This is because our thinking about sin tends to be backward. We believe that small infractions are less concerning than large. We think the problem with these “little” sins is that if we let them go unchecked, they will develop into something larger. Anger will accelerate into murder. Lust will take control and lead to adultery. According to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, sin moves in the opposite direction. It does not start small and increase. We usually treat those sins as minor infractions, when in reality they bloom from the same root as those we think of as large. They are not the cause but the symptom. Sinful anger springs from a murderous heart, not the other way around (Matt. 5:22). A lustful gaze is the offspring of an adulterous desire (Matt. 5:27–28).

The same principle is at work in our speech. Corrupted speech includes coarse language, but it also gives evidence of a deeper evil that springs from unchecked desire, selfish-ambition, rage, envy,  and pride. The result is a deadly and self-reinforcing ecosystem of corruption as sinful motives infuse our thoughts, which shape our words, which justify and further reinforce our motives. George Orwell described this deadly cycle in his famous essay on politics and the English language when he observes that effects become reinforcing causes that produce the same result and intensify it. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks,” Orwell observes. “It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

The fact that Orwell identifies this as a trait of political speech is especially significant because it indicates that what is true of the individual is also true of society. How could it be otherwise? Civilization and its institutions are made of and made by its people. If the cells are diseased, so is the body. It cannot be any other way. Speech, by its very nature, is a communal act. It presumes the existence of another. In his book entitled Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power, theologian Josef Pieper notes that human language and human words accomplish a two-fold purpose. “First, words convey reality,” Pieper explains: “We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course–and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech.”

Pieper observes that public discourse, when it is separated from the standard of truth, creates an atmosphere where tyranny thrives. The primary abuse of language in such an environment is propaganda. Peiper notes that propaganda does not necessarily come through the official power structure of a dictatorship: “It can be found wherever a powerful organization, an ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their ‘weapon.’” Of particular interest is Pieper’s further observation that the threat from such words “can mean many things besides political persecution, especially all forms and levels of defamation, or public ridicule, or reducing someone to a nonperson–all which are accomplished by means of the word, even the word not spoken.” Especially poignant for this particular political moment, is Pieper’s citation of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who: “counted among the forms of ‘modern sophistry’, as he calls it, also the ‘lingo of the revolution’, which, ‘intent on fomenting rebellion through agitation, singles out one isolated instance, and focusing its spotlight on this, makes everyone blind to all the rest’.”

The worry that corruption of speech will lead to cultural corruption is more than the concern of a frustrated grammarian. It is the conviction of philosophers, theologians, and God’s word itself. The problem is not a matter of style but truth. The need for our words to correspond with reality is what lies behind the command not to bear false witness. Regard for truth is the root concern of the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain, a prohibition that cautions us not to use God to make cheap promises that we do not intend to fulfill. Truth is also in view in all the Bible’s cautions about the dangers of flattery and slander.

Such concerns are understandable when we consider that speaking is also a divine act, since language originated with God. God spoke the first words ever uttered (Gen. 1:3). By that word, all things are made. This original word shows the power of language not only to describe but to shape reality. The fact that sin also entered the world through speech is proof that words can destroy as well as create. The temptation that drew our first parents down into sin was a distortion of something God has said (Gen. 3:1-5). When they fell, they carried all of creation with them. We have not lost our ability to speak. But that capacity has been sorely damaged by the entrance of sin into human experience. This harsh reality prompts James to lament that “no human being can tame the tongue” and to call it “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).

Orwell believed that the degradation of speech could be reversed. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble,” he explains. “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” But Orwell is only partly right.

The rudeness and violence we see in contemporary political discourse are, unfortunately, not an anomaly. Uncivil discourse is the norm in both popular and social media. It is as characteristic of the church as it is of the secular culture. Orwell may be right in saying that the way we speak to one another could improve if we gave it more thought and applied ourselves to discipline. The resulting change would be no small improvement and a desperately needed relief. But if what Scripture says about us is true, the difference would only be cosmetic. Our problem is deeper than our choice of words or even our tone. According to Jesus, our inability to engage in civil conversation is evidence of a poisoned heart.

Dangerous Virtues: Justice-Life in an Age of Outrage

A saying attributed to St. Augustine goes, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” No one seems to know where or even whether Augustine actually expressed such a thought. To be honest, it sounds more like something a modern would say. The view of the ancients was much less approving of anger than in our day. The ancient attitude was more like the one expressed by the fourth-century monk who warned: “If when you want to reprove someone you are stirred to anger, you are pandering to your own passion. Lose not yourself to save another.”

The old monk’s restraint seems peculiar to modern ears. Everybody gets angry. We’re pretty sure that some people deserve our anger. Besides, anger is just an emotion, an expression of our righteous indignation. When it is rightly employed, anger can be the fuel that energizes change. At least, that’s how we see it. Perhaps we are right in thinking this. As the words attributed to St. Augustine suggest, maybe anger really is the offspring of hope. Could anger be a fire kindled in the soul by a vision of a different world? We have removed anger from the list of deadly sins, given it a new name, and declared it to be a virtue. We call it justice.

The rhetoric of justice has become commonplace in our day, both inside and outside the church. But a common definition of what we mean by the term is hard to find. For some people, justice means racial reconciliation. For others it speaks of economic restructuring and redistribution of wealth. Those who serve meals in the homeless shelter, others who work with victims of human trafficking, and people who disrupt traffic on the expressway to protest police shootings all believe they are working for justice. Often, what we call a hunger for justice, is really only anger.

Cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler available from Moody Publishers.
John Koessler’s latest Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is now available from Moody Publishers!

Justice is a biblical virtue and a foundational requirement of law. The standard of biblical justice is righteousness, a measure that is established by God. The boundaries of what constitutes just behavior are not subject to the whims of the majority. In Scripture, righteousness is a matter for conformity, not consent. Today’s justice warriors often seem to have a very different view. We live in a vigilante culture where those who don’t like the outcome of due process take matters into their own hands. This view essentially equates justice with bullying. This is true whether it is a virtual mob, whose posts on social media endeavor to shout and shame, or a literal mob that surrounds someone whose views they oppose to intimidate.

But we don’t need to look any further than Jesus to find that there really is such a thing as virtuous anger. Jesus’ anger is an extension of the ultimate expression of virtuous anger: the wrath of God. Both testaments speak of God’s anger. Divine wrath is a measure of the distance that sin has introduced into our relationship with God. We know what it is like to be the focus of someone’s displeasure and to experience rejection. The Bible’s language of divine wrath is intended to remind us of what it is like to be in an oppositional relationship with God.The emphasis is not on God’s emotional state so much as it is on our position. Sin makes us God’s enemies. He is opposed to us because we are opposed to Him. Unrighteousness always places us at cross purposes with God so that we cannot be in harmony with Him.

As Christians, we are comfortable with the notion of grace. It is a part of our vocabulary. The nomenclature of grace is embedded in the songs we sing. But while we sing about grace, what we desire is many cases is retaliation. We are like Prince Felix, foreign minister of Austria, who was discussing what should be done with the captured rebels after the Hungarian revolt was suppressed in 1849. When someone suggested that it would be wise to show mercy toward the rebels, Schwarzenberg agreed. “Yes, indeed, a good idea,” he said, “but first, we will have a little hanging.”

A desire for justice is legitimate, as are many of the concerns of those who call for it. Unfortunately, what we call justice can also be nothing more than sentimentality expressed in the form of anger. This sentimentalized quest for justice trades on impatience. It misrepresents evil, by oversimplifying its nature. We are willing to shout, carry a sign, or post to social media. But that’s about as far as our plan of action goes. Anger is our only real contribution to the cause.

On the other hand, Micah 6:8 shows us what true justice looks like in practice: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” To act justly is to do the right thing. For the Jew, this meant conformity to the standards of God’s law. For Israel’s rulers, it involved the application of the law’s provisions and demands across all sectors of society. But the obligation to act justly was not exclusive to those who governed. In Micah’s prophecy, examples of unjust behavior include many drawn from daily life. They weren’t limited to the sins of rulers or even the rich. They involved sins of the marketplace and the family as well as the ruling powers (Micah 6:10–11; 7:5–8). Justice is the burden of the state, but it is also the obligation of the individual. Justice is a concern that stretches from the boardroom to the bedroom.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

The greatest obstacle facing us in our quest for justice is the fact that we are, by nature, fundamentally unjust. When the New Testament speaks of righteousness, it speaks of the righteousness that comes to us from God as a gift through person and work of Jesus Christ. God, who has established righteousness as His standard, is also the only source of the righteousness He requires. By sending Jesus Christ to be a sacrifice of atonement, God was able to maintain His standard of righteousness while providing righteousness to those who had none of their own. God is the only one who has a right to feel righteous indignation. He keeps the accounts and He alone can execute ultimate justice. The day of vengeance belongs to the Lord (Isa. 34:8; 61:2). But God is also the only one who can satisfy His wrath. He is the Just One and the one who justifies because the only righteousness God will accept is His own.

To “do justice” in this New Testament sense means much more than social activism. It means that we will reflect Christ’s righteousness in our ordinary lives by the power of Christ. Doing justice is not a matter of living up to God’s standard but one of living out that standard through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. To act justly in this Christian sense also means to act out of mercy. This includes specific acts of mercy, but it also involves more. The command of Micah 6:8 is to “love” mercy. The Lord calls for more than a practice of almsgiving. To love mercy is to cultivate a merciful disposition.

To ‘do justice’ in this New Testament sense means much more than social activism.

Not long after I started driving, I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries, and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty. I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case. “How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute,” I replied. The judge looked around the courtroom. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge inquired. He was not. “Case dismissed,” the judge curtly declared. The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy, but it was not. The judge dismissed my case on a technicality. He could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me.

Mercy is something else. Mercy belongs only to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict. It is a person. Because Jesus took our place, God’s verdict of righteous for the believer is no mere legal fiction. When the Bible calls us righteous, it means what it says. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

It is only through this lens that we can understand what it means to be just in the biblical sense of the word. Justice is not outrage. Neither is it revenge. Justice is righteousness, which is first received as a gift and then displayed as a testimony to God’s grace. It is the habit of walking with an awareness of God’s goodness, knowing that He has shown us mercy and empowered us to do the right thing. Justice is an act of faith that trusts God to look out for our interests. Justice is the offspring of hope that has two beautiful daughters. Their names are grace and truth: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

Dangerous Virtues: Leisure

My first job was short-term employment. I suppose you could say I was a day laborer. A neighbor hired me to weed her lawn. She provided me with a two-pronged weeding fork and promised to pay me five dollars when I finished. At the time, it sounded like a fortune. I said yes eagerly, carried away by visions of all the comic books I intended to purchase with the money I earned. Plus, this was work that I could do in a more or less recumbent position. On my hands and knees in the hot sun, my enthusiasm soon diminished. The lawn looked much larger from that angle than I had first imagined. There were more weeds than I had thought. As the sweat trickled down the back of my neck, I poked them half-heartedly with the weeding fork, pausing every few minutes to scan the yard and see what kind of progress I was making. The view was not encouraging. The number of weeds appeared to be growing, not shrinking.

After a while, I persuaded myself that I had worked long enough. There was still a weed or two left, but surely my employer didn’t expect me to pull every single weed? She did. “You’re done already?” she asked in a skeptical tone when I went to the door to collect my money. Then she walked the lawn with me, pointing out the weeds that remained and grumbling about my work ethic. There were more than I thought. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed them. Probably because they were the same color as the grass, I reasoned. With a sigh, I knelt down again and went back to work, this time with even less enthusiasm than before. Eventually, my employer paid me and sent me on my way, by now more eager to be rid of me than of the weeds. “A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth,” Proverbs 26:15 observes. I suppose my unhappy employer would have said that a sluggard buries his hand in the lawn, too lazy to pluck out the weeds.

Os Guinness has said, “Sloth is so much the climate of the modern age that it is hard to recognize as a deadly sin.” Guinness calls sloth “the underlying condition of a secular era.”  In fact, in our leisure-oriented age, we kind of admire sloth. We smile at the person who has learned to game the system and can get others to do their work for them. It seems humorous, until we are being waited upon by a slothful person, or must depend upon that person for an important task. When we work with a slothful person and find that we must do their job as well as our own, it suddenly doesn’t seem so cool.

These days, we have abandoned the archaic language of sloth. We call it leisure instead. Leisure is the ideal state for most of us. The ancients considered sloth to be a sin. We wonder what all the fuss is about. Labor unions lobby for a shorter work week. Commercials for money management firms entice potential customers with the promise of retiring early. We call it the good life. Neither the weekend nor retirement are necessarily bad. But we may be putting too much stock in both. Those who live for the weekend run the risk of squandering the blessings the other five days of the week. Some who expect retirement to be magical will discover that they have set their expectations too high. They will carry many of the concerns they had when they worked with them into retirement. Because they have never learned how to rest, their retirement may turn into a succession of empty hours. Or unexpected health or financial problems may suddenly intervene and rob them of the retirement dream altogether.

John’s latest, Dangerous Virtues: how to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good, is now available from Moody Publishers.

The sin of sloth has many features and manifests itself in many forms. At times it looks like what we call ennui, an immobilizing lethargy that leeches away our interest in those things that ought to concern us. When we are overcome by sloth, we may also squander our time and energy on meaningless trifles at the expense of other obligations.  The stereotype of sloth is the person who won’t get off the couch or doesn’t want to get out of bed for work. But the problem is much larger. The way of sloth is a path full of ill-conceived shortcuts and ignored responsibilities. Sloth practices neglect under the guise of simplicity. It mistakes apathy for ease. Sloth is a sin of omission, but that does not necessarily mean that the slothful are inactive. Sloth is also a sin of rationalization. Those who ignore responsibility always have an excuse for not doing what they are supposed to do. A slothful person exerts the minimum required effort and would prefer to exert no effort at all. When they do make an effort, it is often under duress and is listless and half-hearted. Imagine the worst stereotype of the sort of service we receive at a bureaucratic hub like the division of motor vehicles, and you have a picture of sloth.

Anxiety can also be a feature of sloth. Anxious sloth plays on our helplessness without pointing us in the direction of God’s loving care or powerful support. Anxiety whispers in our ear each night but not in reassuring tones. Its counsels are counsels of despair. We think that the solution to our problems is more power or a change in our circumstances. But Jesus points us in a different direction. He urges us to view our powerlessness through the lens of faith. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Jesus asks in Matthew 6:26–27. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

In 2 Thessalonians 3:11, the apostle Paul focuses on another form of sloth: “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.” Paul’s criticism is proof that sloth can be active. Those he condemns were idle and disruptive at the same time. They were meddlers who did not tend to their own business but inserted themselves into affairs that did not concern them.

The digital world of social media and the internet has increased our capacity for sloth. It has made it easy to squander time and energy that we could invest elsewhere more productively with a click or a swipe. The world of social media presents itself as a medium for social connection and communication. In reality, it is socially detached and given to simplistic thinking and sloganizing. The digital world gives us almost unlimited opportunity to be voyeurs and critics. We spend hours watching and reading intimate details about people we hardly know and affairs that have little to do with us. These are often matters that we would probably be better off not knowing, but we not only greedily consume the information but also share it with others. An earlier age would have called this gossip. Paul would have considered it meddling and considered us busybodies. We call it connecting and call ourselves friends.

Sloth isn’t just a sin of the workplace; it insinuates itself into every sphere of life where effort is required. Sloth can attach itself to the way we think, love, and play. It is that state of lethargy that always opts for the easy path. Sloth is the enemy of perseverance because it leaches away our capacity to persist in effort. Sloth is the handmaid of the hopeless. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the antidote for sloth is work. Work that has been detached from our larger calling in Christ can be as destructive as sloth. The antidote for sloth is not effort but rest. Jesus offers rest as a gift to all who have worn themselves out in fruitless effort. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus promises in Matthew 11:28.

Cover of The Radical Pursuit of Rest by John Koessler available from InterVarsity Press.
To learn more about the biblical idea of rest, check out John’s book, The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap available from InterVarsity Press. The book also includes a small group discussion guide.

Another word for this rest is grace. By this definition, rest is as important to our work as it is to our play. Rest as God defines it is a state granted to all those who have ceased from their own efforts to be right with God (Heb. 4:10). Rest is not the end of all effort but the end of self-empowered attempts to earn God’s favor. It is also the end of living for self alone. In the ancient world, the yoke was a symbol of slavery, and those who accept the yoke of Christ also accept their new status as His slaves (Eph. 6:6). Slavery to Christ is not indentured servitude. We are not working our way out of our obligation to Him. The Christian life is not a contractual arrangement by which we seek to earn God’s grace and forgiveness after it has been given to us. The yoke places us, and all that concerns us, under the authority and control of the Savior. Our work, our play, our home life, and everything else is offered to Him as an act of worship (see Rom. 12:1–2). Jesus, in turn, exercises His gentle but absolute authority in those spheres, showing us what it means to live for Him in each of those spaces. We act as His stewards, representing His interests.

True rest is marked by an attitude of confidence and peace. It is grounded in trust and particularly in trust that rests in God. The essence of rest is expressed in Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands.” It is the confidence that comes from knowing, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

Looking for Something to Do Next With Your Small Group?

Are you looking for something new to study with your small group? Check out the free small group resources for John Koessler’s new book Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good. A practical study, Dangerous Virtues looks at those attitudes and actions that the church has traditionally called the seven deadly sins to show how today’s culture has disguised sin as virtue.

But Dangerous Virtues isn’t just about sin. Those who know Jesus have another power that determines the contour of their lives. This is the transforming work of Christ, which enables us “to become the righteousness of God.” Righteousness is more than a matter of what we do. Ultimately, it is a function of who we are. In the Christian life, being always precedes doing.

Click here to find short videos and discussion guides linked to each of the chapters of the book. Small group leaders can use these free resources to jump start a nine-week study of the nature of sin, righteousness, and the power of the gospel to transform our lives. By considering the alternative to culture’s “dangerous virtues,” you will discover much more than a way of life. Once you see them through the lens of Christ and His saving work, you will discover the way of the living.

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Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is now available. Check out the small group resources now by clicking on the Dangerous Virtues-Group Resources tab on JohnKoessler.com.

Dangerous Virtues: Prosperity

A while back, I noticed a menu option on my retirement account’s website labeled “net worth.” When I clicked on it, the site asked me to type in information about my assets and liabilities. The result was a brightly colored graph that represented the total of all my worldly goods. I have looked at it many times since then, and its effect is always the same. Instead of making me feel secure about my future, it leaves me anxious. No matter how much I have, it seems that I would like to have just a little more.

There is a word for this condition. It is what the Bible calls greed. Greed, like lust and gluttony, is a sin of appetite. While lust is usually associated with sex, and gluttony is linked with food, greed is a similar inordinate desire for money and possessions. Most of us are pretty sure we don’t suffer from greed because we don’t see ourselves as wealthy. The rich are greedy, perhaps, but not us. The flaw in this reasoning is that desiring is not necessarily synonymous with having. It is certainly possible for a rich person to be greedy, but so might one who is poor. It is not the having but the wanting that is the problem. The adjective that best expresses the impulse of greed is not “most” but “more.” Whatever I possess will not be enough if I succumb to the influence of greed. I must always have a little more.

Perhaps the great difficulty we face in this matter is the fact that none of us sees ourselves as greedy. We are pretty sure we can spot greed in others. There are some people who, as far as we are concerned, have more than their share. But we do not fall into that category. We are, for the most part, people of modest means. If we have a little more than we thought we would, it is because we worked hard, saved, and have been wise in our financial dealings. Or maybe we are like the majority of those first heard Jesus’ teach. We have limited means. Jesus believed that the poor needed to be warned about the danger of greed as much as the rich. We might be outraged by this if it weren’t for the fact that Jesus Himself was one of the poor. He had no place to lay His head (Matt. 8:20). Jesus was dependent upon the generosity of others for His support. At the time of His death, Jesus owned only the clothes on his back (John 19:24).

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Looking for something to do with your small group? Check out the videos and group discussion guides that are linked with John’s latest book Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good.

Greed is a problem for the rich, the working class, the middle class, and the poor because greed does not focus on what we have but what we want. Greed substitutes things for God. In this respect, greed is a form of idolatry (Col. 3:5). Greed is a misconstrual of life itself. It persuades us that life consists of piling up of goods. If we have enough, we will live. How much is enough? It does not matter how much or how little we possess. Where greed is concerned that answer is always the same: “Just a little more!”

Jesus’ warning also reveals that greed comes in many forms. “Watch out!” He says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” One of the ways we drop our guard is by defining greed too narrowly. We associate greed with a particular income level or specific set of goods. Somehow the very specific picture we have of the greedy person never looks like us. The forms that greed can take are so various that we could devote an entire book to them and still not exhaust the subject. But the Bible does single out a few of the most common modes that greed assumes. One of its most basic forms is the greed of desire.

The old-fashioned term used for this kind of greed is covetousness. This mode of greed is singled out in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). Desire is the fundamental characteristic of covetousness, but it is a particular kind of desire. The problem with covetousness is not that we want the same kind of thing that a neighbor has. If my neighbor buys a particular kind of car and I decide to buy the same make and model, I am not necessarily acting out of covetousness. I may simply agree with my neighbor’s choice. The distinguishing mark of covetousness according to the commandment is the fact that I want something that belongs to someone else. It is not that I want a car or property or a spouse like theirs. I want their car. I want their property. I want their spouse. There is more at stake than the thing itself. The trouble with covetousness is that the thing I desire is all I have in view. I am so focused on what is my neighbor’s that I have lost sight of my neighbor altogether.

Although the commandment dealing with covetousness focuses primarily on tangible objects like my neighbor’s house, land, ox, or donkey, what I covet does not necessarily have to be material. I may covet their job or their popularity. I may covet the esteem granted to them by others and want it for myself. This is more than a simple desire for the same kind of job or a desire to be well thought of by others. Beneath covetousness is a wish to deprive. I want what is theirs.

Greed, like gluttony, is a cultural sin. Today’s culture has redefined greed. We call it prosperity and consider it to be a virtue. We defer to the opinion of those who have obtained much, not because they are necessarily wise or godly, but simply because they have much. The wealthy control the seats of power in public office and our churches. This is not a new pattern. The New Testament letter of James makes it clear that this has been a temptation to the church from its inception (James 2:2–6). It is certainly not wrong for the wealthy to be a part of the church nor is it a sin for someone who is rich to be highly regarded or function as a leader. It is wrong for the church to show deference to the rich simply because they are rich. This is a reflection of the church’s own greed and its tendency to depend on large donors more than upon God

If lust is the primary garnish of our regular entertainment, greed holds second place.

If lust is the primary garnish of our regular entertainment, greed holds second place. How many of the so-called “reality” television and games shows we watch use greed as the carrot that motivates their contestants to go to extreme measures or put themselves on embarrassing display? This is why reality television is so popular. The lure of greed also shapes public policy and economic planning in our states and cities. School funding is increasingly dependent upon the promise of income from lottery sales, an enterprise that is built upon greed and preys mostly upon the poor.

One of the symptoms of this collective greed is our national habit of justifying unwise practices like these based on some perceived monetary value. We enable the exploitation of others or ignore the negative effects of public policies because they will be good for the economy. Economics has become, if not the only, at least the primary ethical filter that modern society employs when shaping public policy. This is a kind of economic utilitarianism, where the well-being of the few is sacrificed for the good the many on the altar of economic improvement. In actual practice it often seems that the opposite happens. A few reap the profits while the many are harmed. We legitimize greed when we redefine it as prosperity. Since greed is bad and prosperity is good, we convince ourselves that there is nothing unhealthy about the constant desire for more.

Turning away from greed is effective only when it is also coupled with a turning to God: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5). Anxiety about the necessities of life is a trigger for greed. We are greedy because we are afraid. Those who know that God has promised never to forsake them have an answer for their fear. God will provide in the future just as He has provided in the past. His provision in the short-term is a reminder that He offers us something greater in the long-term. We look forward to an eternity in His presence.

It doesn’t matter what our net worth is. We are all prone to greed. How much is enough? The answer is always the same: just a little more. If greed is a form of idolatry then faith is its only true remedy. The fool in Jesus’ parable thought that if he accumulated enough, his soul would be able to rest in those things (Luke 12:19). But rest is Christ’s generous gift to all who trust in Him no matter how much we have (Matt. 11:28–30).

Myth, Memory, & Reality

Atheists have long accused Christians of casting God in their own image. Their complaint has some warrant. In human relationships, the people we like the most often seem to be those whose thinking is like ours. It is the person who reflects our own thinking that we deem to be the most astute, just as it is the person who asks questions about us that we consider a great conversationalist. Something similar happens when it comes to God.

Sin has left us with a penchant for seeing ourselves in God. We want to believe that God is like us. We can easily persuade ourselves that He thinks like us and mirrors our values. Scripture says otherwise:  “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the apostle Paul’s description of the downward spiral of sin In Romans 1:23, he notes that it caused humanity to exchange the glory of the immortal God “for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). The biblical word for this is idolatry. There is more to idolatry than the worship of images. It is ultimately a deconstruction of the image of God. The Bible does not treat idolatry as an art form or even a curious artifact of culture but as a symptom of moral degeneration.

Idolatry deconstructs God by reversing the order described in Genesis. According to Genesis 1:27, God created humanity “in his image.” The impulse of the idolater is to move in the opposite direction. Instead of seeing ourselves as those made in God’s image, we look to find our image in God. We ascribe to God the features we most admire about ourselves, or we attribute to Him the deficiencies that we suffer. We especially see the latter tendency in the ancient myths of the Greeks and Romans, whose gods are narcissistic and selfish. Irritable and unpredictable, their exploits seem to exhibit all the worst traits of human nature. Indeed, in those stories, it is often not the gods who are the heroes but the mortals who outwit them. Although more powerful than mortals, in the end, the gods of myth frequently prove to be petty and stupid.

The original myth, and the prototype of all subsequent myths, is recorded in the book of Genesis. The world’s first myth was spun by Satan when he told Eve that the command not to partake of the forbidden tree sprang from the creator’s selfishness and jealousy. “You will not certainly die,” the serpent assured the woman when she explained that disobeying God would lead to death. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).

Satan framed his false account in the classic triangle that one so often finds in mythology. In the ancient myths, the gods enjoy some blessing that in their vanity and might they withhold from the mortal hero. What is prohibited is usually forbidden because it is a prerogative of the gods or perhaps out of spite. A third party enters the story and shows the hero a way to obtain the boon. The hero usually accomplishes this by outsmarting the deity or performing some great task. But in Satan’s myth, the task is simple. Disobey. Do what God has told you not to do, and you will become like God. The terrible irony in Satan’s lie was that the gift he urged them to steal was already theirs. Adam and Eve had been created in God’s image. They were already like God in some measure (Gen. 1:26–27).

In the tempter’s story, Satan plays the role of savior. He claims to offer secret knowledge that will enable them to seize what God withholds. But the testimony of Scripture, as well as the record of human history, shatter the tempter’s myth and show Satan for what he is. He is not their savior, only the trickster of old. Satan is not a helper but a thief who “comes to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10).

The purpose of Scripture in recounting this first and oldest story is not to entertain us with tales but to set the record straight. The Genesis account, and all that the Bible says subsequently, shows that God’s intent from the very beginning was not to withhold but to grant. He created us in His image so that He could share Himself with us and so that we might ultimately be like Him. Even though sin has profoundly marred that image, it has not erased it (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). We were made to resonate with God. Just as the strings of one musical instrument will cause another to vibrate when their frequencies match, we are designed to seek God. As David puts it, Psalm 27:8, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Ps. 27:8).

To change the metaphor, we might think of the divine image as a vestigial memory of the God who created us embedded in our nature. When the gospel comes in power, It sparks recognition. Not only do we begin to see our sin for what it is, but we remember God and His goodness. Jesus portrays this moment in the parable of the prodigal son. According to Jesus, when the prodigal came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father” (Luke 15:17-20).

 “The repentance of the lost son is therefore not something merely negative,” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “In the last analysis, it is not merely disgust; it is above all homesickness; not just turning away from something, but turning back home.” We usually understand repentance to be a feeling of disgust over our sins. But Thielicke notes that this by itself would not have helped the prodigal. It might have made him a nihilist or driven him to despair. But it would not have motivated him to return to his father. The dismay the prodigal felt was a byproduct of something else. “It was the father’s influence from afar, a byproduct of sudden realization of where he really belonged,” Thielicke explains. It wasn’t the far country that made him sick but the consciousness of home. In other words, according to Jesus’ story, repentance begins with remembering. Not the memory of our sin but a grace provoked memory of God and His goodness.

It should not be lost on us that these lessons about our nature, humanity’s fall into sin, and the way to recovery have all come down to us in story form. One reason atheists accuse Christians of mythologizing God is because the Christian message is often couched in forms that sound to them like myth. There is a garden, a serpent, a virgin who bears a child conceived by God. This God who comes in human form dies and rises again to save the day. As C. S. Lewis observed, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” In saying this, Lewis was not minimizing the historicity of the biblical accounts, only noting that God revealed these things to us in forms that echo the myths of old. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history,” Lewis explains. “It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable consequences.” In this way, God not only captures our attention, but He also shatters the original myth, spun by Satan to our first parents in the Garden of Eden.

By acting in history, God turns the old myths on their head, retelling the ancient story in its true form. God is not the enemy. He is the hero. He alone can restore our memory, and along with it, our lives. By acting upon us through the gospel story, God brings us to our senses and restores our memory of home. That recollection causes us to see ourselves for what we are. It also reminds us of what we were meant to be. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we return to our Father to be restored to our true image, the image of the God who made us (Col. 3:10).

Dangerous Virtues: Satisfaction-Coping With the Hunger that Cannot be Satisfied

I have been bothered by my weight most of my life. As a child, I was heavy, a condition which my mother euphemistically described as being “big-boned.” I was so obsessed with the fear of being fat that even when I thinned out in my adolescence, I did not think of myself as thin. I am no longer thin, and I am still bothered. I am not alone. According to some estimates, forty-five million Americans go on a diet each year. In our weight-conscious culture, you would think that we would have a greater sensitivity to the sin the Bible calls gluttony. The truth is most of us wouldn’t recognize a glutton if he swallowed us whole. We certainly wouldn’t be able to tell whether we are gluttons, and the mirror will not help us. That’s because gluttony isn’t really about one’s weight.

Gluttony is essentially a sin of inordinate appetite. The ancients measured gluttony by the amount of food one consumed. The Christian ascetics viewed hunger as both a virtue and a tool. They seem to have believed that it was better to be hungry than to be full. They thought that hunger and thirst could be employed to bring all the bodily passions into submission. Most moderns do not think that the consumption of either food or drink belongs in the category of sin. We are, however, willing to admit that people have psychological problems in these areas. In the twentieth century, the church’s perspective on eating changed from the ancient practice of fasting for the spirit to the modern habit of dieting for health.

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John’s latest, Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good, will be released in September, 2020. Preorder your copy today!

Gluttony is not a matter of body size. It is a sin of consumption. Gluttony is to food what lust is to sex. Gluttony distorts and magnifies bodily appetite until appetite becomes an end in itself. Food, drink, indeed, all our ordinary bodily appetites are part of God’s design. But what exactly is His design for our hunger? Functionally, appetite is a means to an end. Proverbs 16:26 says, “The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.” This proverb echoes Genesis 3:17–19, where the link between toil and eating is a consequence of sin. But the proverb reveals the complementary benefit that comes from this connection. Hunger is a motivator that drives us to work. We work because we do not want to go hungry (see 2 Thess. 3:10). Hunger also motivates us to take in the sustenance we require for life. But, similar to the curse of Genesis, hunger has two sides. Like work, hunger existed before the fall. As was the case with the first temptation, ordinary hunger can be a gateway to inordinate appetite. Part of the appeal of the forbidden fruit was that it was “good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Sin has the same effect on all our bodily appetites. Hunger can be a motivation, but it can also be a master. Just as sin distorted God’s design for work by introducing an element of drudgery into its execution, our hunger can make us slaves.

Slavery to food can take many forms. For some, this bondage expresses itself in a variety of eating disorders. Binge eating, starvation, and binge eating followed by purging are destructive coping methods for dealing with perfectionism and low self-esteem often related to body image. By eating (or not eating), those with eating disorders attempt to heal themselves or make themselves feel better. Food plays an increasingly larger role until it becomes the central focus of life. For others, bondage to food is reflected in an unhealthy, almost paralyzing, fussiness when it comes to eating. In Paul’s day, this was usually a result of misguided religious conviction. In 1 Timothy 4:3, the apostle warns that the last days will be marked by false teachers who demand that their followers live an ascetic lifestyle. They will “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.” Likewise, in Colossians 2:21, he speaks of those whose rule of life was comprised mainly of prohibitive regulations, which he summarizes in the three commands: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”

Slavery to food can take many forms.

According to the apostle, a combination of ignorance and pride fueled this bankrupt approach to spirituality. Those who adopted its practices thought that they could obtain eternal life by keeping traditions that focused on “things that are all destined to perish with use” (Col. 3:22). Today’s culinary aesthetes are more liable to be driven by a political and social agenda than a religious one, but their spirit is the same, and Paul’s directive to the Colossian church equally applies: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink” (Col 3:16). Righteousness is not a matter of one’s dietary preferences. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (Rom. 14:17).

In an affluent culture like ours, eating is not just a necessity; it is also a form of recreation. This leads to another type of bondage when it comes to food. Some people are fussy about what they eat because they scorn simple fare. Every meal must be a grand experience. These people view their food the way others look at their possessions. Only the rarest and most expensive will do. Their problem is not that they eat good food but that they view ordinary food, along with those who eat it, with contempt. Their diet is a symptom of greed and pride. They are addicted not to food but to luxury. In the book of Revelation, this is the fare of the great whore of Babylon (Rev. 18:3).

Does this mean that it is a sin to enjoy our food? Are we acting unchristianly if we eat a meal at an expensive restaurant? The Bible teaches that the enjoyment of food is a gift from God. One of the ways God shows His love to the world at large is by supplying us with food.  Acts 14:17 says, “Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

The mistake of gluttony is the error of thinking that appetite is the gateway to satisfaction. In reality, it is the opposite. Hunger by its very nature can never be entirely satisfied. Ecclesiastes 6:7 observes, “Everyone’s toil is for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied.” Satisfy your hunger with a meal now, and a few hours later that hunger will return. There is nothing to be done about it. When eating becomes an end in itself, it turns into a kind of slavery (1 Cor. 6:12–13). Gluttony conflates desire with satisfaction, expecting more from food than it can supply. The glutton does not eat to live but lives to eat. In reality, our appetites are merely signposts which point to a hunger that cannot be filled by any human means. They point out our emptiness and our need for God. When we look to earthly means to fully and finally satisfy ourselves, we become those whose “god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:19).

Jesus’ perspective on eating was personal and practical. Scripture says that Jesus came “eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19). He taught the church to ask for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:11). Ordinary food played an important role in Jesus’ ministry just as bread was a central image in His teaching. The connection between food and Jesus’ ministry should not surprise us. He lived in a culture in which worship and eating were connected. Jesus made communal eating a part of the sacred life of the church. At the same time, Jesus taught that life is more than food (Luke 12:23). Food is necessary for life but is not itself life. We do not live by bread alone (Matt. 4:4). Life is more than food just as the body is more than clothing. Food is necessary for life but is not synonymous with life. The power of Jesus’ teaching on this matter is grounded in His assumption that food is needful. We need to eat, but when we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

When we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

It does not have to be food. We can rely upon our health or finances or even clothing. Like the Israelites who worshiped the bronze serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness, we forget that our life does not come from the things that God uses to sustain it (2 Kings 18:4). How then do we deal with gluttony? The primary method the Bible prescribes is self-denial. “When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony,” the writer of Proverbs warns. “Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive” (Prov. 23:1–3). Self-denial is not an end in itself. By practicing self-denial, we discover how God supplies all we truly need.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but food is an important part of our earthly life. Eating has played a vital role in the worship as well as the ordinary fellowship of the church, and it will continue to be part of our experience in the life to come. As important as food is, it was never meant to be an end in itself. The basic rule when it comes to our eating is the same rule that guides us in all of life: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Dangerous Virtues: Love-The Seduction of Desire

I first learned about sex from my father. The lesson came in the form of a brief hallway conversation. I don’t think my age was even in double digits at the time. I don’t recall who initiated the conversation, though I suspect it was in response to a question I had asked. I didn’t understand much of what he said. The whole thing sounded pretty unappealing to me at the time. I was sure I would never want to have sex with anyone. I was wrong, of course.

I didn’t know it then, but the sexual revolution was just getting started. I turned sixteen in 1969, the summer that Woodstock happened. At the time, I was just a kid growing up in the rust belt of the Midwest, too young and too far away to attend the event whose posters promised “three days of peace and music.” It turned out to be three days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. During the summer of love, sex and love were synonymous. The sexual revolution changed not only the shape of sexual morals for a large part of the culture, but also our view of the place of sexual desire in human experience.

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John’s latest Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good will be released in September, 2020. Preorder your copy today!

But sex isn’t really the problem. The problem is desire and the unrealistic expectations that are born of our desire. The biblical word for this is lust. Sin entered human experience through common desire. Genesis 3:6 says, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” The appetites mentioned in this verse are commonplace. The forbidden fruit was “good for food.” In other words, the tree was edible. The tree was also appealing to the eye. The tree appeared to be “desirable for gaining wisdom.”

It’s important to understand that our struggle with lust is much larger than the desire for sex. In the New Testament, the Greek term that is translated “lust” refers to desire. It can speak of both legitimate and illegitimate desires. In its sinful form, we may fix our desire on many things. It is just as likely to be focused on someone else’s possessions or on their success as it is to be an illicit desire for sex. John hints at the full scope of this cardinal sin in 1 John 2:16: “For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” As far as John is concerned, when it comes to lust, everything in the world is a potential target. Lust is such a common feature of our culture that it is hard to find a dimension of our experience that is not somehow shaped by it.

Our struggle with lust is much larger than the desire for sex.

But what is opposite of lust? What is the virtue that answers the sin of lust and is its antidote? If the essence of righteousness is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the essence of sin must be the opposite (Matt. 22:37, 39). To sin is to love yourself at the expense of your neighbor. More than that, it is to love yourself at the expense of God. Sin-shaped love expresses itself primarily in the form of narcissism. It is self-absorbed love. This affection is a distortion of love that, once it has achieved its full effect, actually proves to be an exercise in self-loathing. It is hate masquerading as love, compelling us to engage in self-destructive behavior. Sin promises freedom and delivers slavery. It speaks the language of friendship while treating us like enemies. Sin is a cruel master who promises good wages only to reward our loyalty with hard service, disappointment, and death. For some reason, we return again and again to this false lover and expect a different result.

The answer to sinful lust is love—God’s love, which comes to us from the outside, like the righteousness of Christ. Adopting the language that Martin Luther used to speak of Christ’s righteousness, we might call it “alien love” because it does not originate with us. It is a love that begins with God and can come to us only as a gift. For the Christian, this greater love is the organizing force for all our other desires. In this regard, love is not so much an emotion as it is disposition. We might call it a divinely empowered direction for our lives.

Our natural love is limited. The impediment of sin skews our interests in the direction of self. Jesus implies this in the second of the two great commandments, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31, see also Lev. 19:18, 34). We are by nature self-protective and self-interested. We are able, even in our natural state, to show some concern for others. We may enquire about the health of others when they are sick, or express sympathy when they are grieving. We might even sacrifice ourselves for someone if we feel the cause is good enough (Rom. 5:7). But the ability to love others to the same degree that we love ourselves is not natural. Our default orientation is skewed toward our desires. We will easily sacrifice the desires of others on the altar of our self-interest unless something more powerful moves those interests in a different direction.

What is true of lust is true of all the capital sins. Change may require discipline, but it does not begin with discipline. What is required is a miracle of grace. Redirection is necessary if we are to love others in the way that Jesus describes, but there is only one force powerful enough to turn the tide of our desire so that we are as interested in others as we are in ourselves. It is the power of God effected by His love for us. That is why the love that Jesus describes begins not with us but with God. We love others because we love God (1 John 4:21). We love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:10–11, 19).

This may sound too mystical to be practical. Do we merely wait until some divine energy strikes us from the outside and makes us care about those for whom we previously gave no thought? God is indeed the source of this love, but it does not operate in some hidden mystical zone. The opportunities to show it and the forms that this love takes are ordinary.

With this in mind, the basic rule that Jesus lays when it comes to practicing love is simple to understand: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). We do not dismiss our desires but allow them to be our guide by providing a mirror image. What would we want for ourselves, if the circumstances were reversed? Nothing could be simpler. It is the execution that poses the problem for us. We can see it easily enough but we often do not want to live by this rule. The corruption of our sinful nature further complicates matters. Often what we desire from others reflects our sinful self-centeredness, making it an untrustworthy guide for our own behavior. An honest evaluation of Jesus’ rule soon reveals that to follow it, we must say no to our desires. We do not need to deny that these desires exist. They are what they are, and Christ already knows that they exist. But we must often deny ourselves. Our mistake has been to believe the lie that we cannot live without the things we desire. This was the original lie that was sold to Eve by Satan. It is the lie that comes with every sinful lust that arises in our hearts.

The ultimate answer to the false virtue of lust is not better intentions or even willpower. The ultimate remedy is the cross of Jesus Christ. It is only by the cross that we can say no to our sinful desires. This ability is a gift of grace as much as forgiveness. It is the grace of God “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). The denial is ours, but the power is God’s. This capacity to say no to ungodliness is natural only in the sense that it comes from our new nature in Christ: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The Christian does not lose the capacity to lust. Instead, believers gain the ability to deny their sinful desires.

The answer to lust is more than willpower.

What does this mean for our struggle with desire? First, it means that we should not be surprised to find that it is a struggle. The stirring of sinful desire does not mean that the gospel has failed. Second, the general tone of the New Testament when it speaks of sinful desire is one of hope rather than despair. The stirring of sinful desires is not necessarily the evidence of a spiritual defeat but may be just the opposite. We should treat these stirrings as the death throes of the old nature as it rails against the Spirit.

Finally, we should not be so afraid to see our desires go unfulfilled. Countless hours of exposure to marketing has trained us to think that we should have everything we desire. Contemporary teaching about sex implies that we cannot be humans without fulfilling our sexual desires. The truth lies in the opposite direction. Our worst fate may not be that our desires will go unfulfilled but that they will be met. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling  about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who want to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea,” C. S. Lewis explains. “We are far too easily pleased.”  This is the problem with human desire. Not that we desire too much, but that we desire too little.

Dangerous Virtues: The Way of the Living

Detail of painting of Garden of Eden. Eve gives Adam fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We are sinners. We don’t deny it. But most of the time, we don’t think much about it. We don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about our own sins. We don’t punish ourselves or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, our sin feels more like a low-grade fever than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder us from being our best, but it doesn’t keep us from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother us that much, either. If anything, the fact that we are sinners serves as an escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” we want to say. “We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Of course, we went off the rails.” The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts upon which a majority of people agree. Most people identify with the label sinner.

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The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but also to study their sinfulness. One monk, who probably lived in the fourth or fifth century, described the benefit of a life of solitude by pouring water into the cup and pointing out that its cloudy nature became clear after allowing it to stand for a time. “So it is with the man who lives among men. He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil,” he said. “But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.” 

Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics that generated sinful behavior. Why do we think so differently from previous generations about sin? One reason is that we have radically different notions about virtue in our day. Moderns think as little about virtue as they do about sin in the traditional sense. The word seems outdated. Virtue sounds more like something that would have concerned our Victorian great-grandparents.

The ancient idea of virtue grew from a desire to overcome the human disposition that the Bible labels sin. For Christians, God is the key component in any notion of virtue. He is also the key component in any notion of sin. Virtue doesn’t just involve the measure of what we think is good as individuals. It is more than the community standard. In the Christian view, God is both the measure and the measurer of what constitutes genuine virtue. That same measure provides the dividing line that separates sin from virtue.

Moderns think as little about virtue as they do about sin in the traditional sense.

David understood this. In Psalm 51:4, he declared, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” This is an astonishing statement, given the events that prompted it. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. He arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, after he learned that she had become pregnant. Or as theolgian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.”

Virtue or goodness has God as its primary reference point. Virtue is what we were made for. It is a life that reflects our design as creatures made in the image of the God who is Himself good and the source of all that can be rightly called good. But it it is equally true that we can’t think about personal goodness or virtue without also taking our own sin into account. Any possibility of true goodness depends ultimately upon God. We must receive goodness as a gift before we adopt it as a practice.

Perhaps all of this sounds too abstract and detached for ordinary people like us. It’s one thing for theologians and philosophers to debate about sin and virtue. Why should we concern ourselves with such matters? We have jobs to go to and bills to pay. We mow the lawn and drive the kids to school. What does any of this have to do with the real world in which we live? The answer is that sin and virtue lie at the heart of everything we do. Our ideas of sin and virtue shape the way we work at our job, live in our neighborhood, and treat the members of our family.

What is more, these matters are a deep concern for us. Sin and virtue drive the storylines behind the television programs and movies we watch. Our lawcourts are backlogged with cases in which the parties involved dispute with one another over these same concerns. We may use different language when we talk about sin and virtue. We may speak of “doing the right thing” or talk about what people “ought” to do. We also seem to know intuitively when others have crossed a line. We may not agree about what is right, but nearly every one of us has a kind of moral radar that is hypersensitive to those who do something we consider wrong.

We must receive goodness as a gift before we adopt it as a practice.

However, our moral sense seems to be one-sided. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult to see our own. Not only do we disagree with the ancient consensus of the church about the gravity of our sins, but we are also strangely comforted by its universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing we are sinners is the kind that a poor student might take who places their trust in the grading curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it.

In general, our thinking about both sin and virtue is backward. We think more of individual sins than we do of sin. We treat virtue the same way. We tend to see virtue as a collection of righteous actions. Our concern when it comes to sin is that it will grow. Small infractions will become larger. Anger will accelerate until it becomes murder. Lust will take control and lead to adultery. According to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, sin moves in the opposite direction. It does not start small and increase. Those sins that we usually treat as minor infractions bloom from the same root as those we think of as large. Sinful anger springs from a murderous heart, not the other way around (Matt. 5:22). A lustful gaze is the offspring of an adulterous desire (Matt. 5:27–28). This does not mean that there is no difference between thought and action, or even that every sin is the same. Angry words are not the same as a shotgun blast to the head, though some might argue that both can be equally destructive in their own way. They might even say that between the two, the effects of someone’s cruel words might last longer. 

Righteousness in the Christian life is not a collection of good acts that balances out our bad deeds. Righteous actions spring from righteousness. Individual acts reflect the nature of those who do them. We have been made righteous to be righteous. Those who come to Jesus Christ in faith do not lose their capacity to sin. They gain the capacity to obey. This new ability springs from a changed nature, which is a reflection of their new standing before God. The Christian can do good because he or she has been made good through the blood of Jesus Christ. When we look at sin and virtue through the lens of Christ and His saving work, we discover that vritue or goodness is not a way of life. It is the way of the living. It is the pattern of life of those who have been made alive by Christ.