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.

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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).

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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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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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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.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
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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.

Fathers & Sons: The Hero’s Journey

I think about my father every day. I can’t help it. Every morning when I stare into the mirror, there he is staring back. As long as I can recall, people who knew my father have said that we look alike. The comparison was a point of pride when I was a child and an aggravation when I became an adolescent. That irritation grew into something stronger in my teens and  20’s. Not hatred, exactly, but certainly anger mixed with aversion.

I did not want to be like my father. There were many reasons. For a long time, I thought it was because of his drinking. I didn’t like the person he became when he drank. I didn’t like the old school jazz that he listened to on the weekend–the blues warbling voice of Billie Holiday, and the Dixieland rat-a-tat of Bix Beiderbecke’s horn. I didn’t like his jokes. I came to love them all later, after he was gone, because they reminded me of him. But at the time, I felt a strong desire, almost a compulsion, to be separate from him. The more I grew to look like him, the more I worried that I would become him.

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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!

No doubt, some of the impetus for this angst came from the vibe of the culture at the time. In the 1960s and 70s, sons weren’t supposed to want to be like their fathers. We disdained their workaday ethic and the suburban values of their American dream. The Monkees sang sarcastically of Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, and Joni Mitchell grieved over The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Yet even though we lived on a suburban street, my father had no real interest in the suburban dream. He was an artist and a bohemian at heart. Our lawn was wild and unkempt, much like family life we lived inside the small brick home that it bordered. Even though he drove a Chevy and worked for the automobile company that produced it, my father was possessed of wilder dreams and aspirations. In his youth, he had wanted to be a commercial artist.  Quiet when sober, he had a quirky sense of humor that compelled him to fill our Christmas stockings with lumps of coal and with feet that he had fashioned out of clay. He was an avid reader, and I can still remember my sense of wonder when he introduced me to the grownup’s section of the local library. Some of the first books that I read there were books he recommended.

Of course, I saw none of this during the years of my flight from him. I only recognized it much later, after my anger had subsided. But by then, it was too late to thank him for what he had done. I now recognize that the divide I felt was, in part, a product of the natural divergence that occurs between fathers and sons. It is a kind of centrifugal force that seems to repel us from one another, even when we are on the same trajectory and anchored to the same center. Nearly every son feels it. It is part of the human condition. Myth and literature are replete with examples. It seems that every son must make his own hero’s journey and then return home wounded but hopefully wiser.

I don’t mean to sentimentalize the picture. There was real pain in our relationship. My father’s drinking was admittedly a significant contributor to the rift I felt. But it was not everything. Time and distance have the power to soften, and there’s no greater distance than death. Age is also a help. It enables us to be selective in our memory. I know this is true for me. I sometimes wonder if the man I now recall is better than the man I knew. If it’s true, I suppose it is a kind of mercy. But I suspect it’s the other way around. I see him more clearly, now that I have surpassed him in age. I am better able to recognize the man who stares back at me from the mirror. It is not just the shape of the face, but something in the eyes that I recall. I remember the look.

I no longer see my father as an adversary or a superior but recognize that I have become his peer. I’ve often wished that we could compare notes about our respective journeys. But such conversations are impossible. They are for most sons. The really interesting questions do not come until it is too late to ask them. When we were young, we weren’t interested. Or it didn’t occur to us to raise the subject. The best we can now do is to compile the story after the fact by relying on secondary sources and oral tradition. We reminisce with our siblings and marvel at how different their recollection is from ours. We ask the living to recall the dead, never quite sure whether they are relating facts or expressing opinions. We piece together our own memories, which arise from the depths in fits and flashes like dreams. We don’t always remember the fine details or the context. It is a little like working on a giant puzzle, but without the benefit of the picture on the box.

It has also helped me to be a father. Nothing has taught me more about the nature of unconditional love than fatherhood. Few things have made me feel as frightened or as helpless. Like me, my sons left home in their 20’s and moved across the country. The pain I felt upon their leaving mirrored the expression I recall in my father’s eyes on the day that I moved away. I have since marveled at their boldness, boasted in their successes, and worried over their trials. But I haven’t stopped missing them. Yet I sense that the distance between us is measured in more than miles and wonder when they will turn for home. It is a long journey.

The primary work is to forgive.

The primary work of the hero’s journey of sons where their father is concerned is to forgive. For me, this has been the work of learning how to forgive both my father and myself. I have had to forgive my father for being the man that he was instead of the man I thought I wanted him to be. Likewise, I had to forgive myself for being born in his image. And sometimes for being the man that I became. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains.  “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.” This is the hero’s journey. It is also the work that transforms us from child to adult.

The last conversation I had with my father was in 1987. I was sitting beside his hospital bed. Years of alcohol abuse had finally presented its bill, and renal failure had set in. The doctors told us that there was nothing they could do for him. I sat silent, holding my father’s hand, and trying to think of what I should say. With so much left unsaid for so long, I could only fall back on an old script that we had repeated many times before.

“I love you, Dad,” I said.

“I love you too, Johnny,” he whispered back.

Maybe it was all we needed to say.

The Hand that Moves the World

Not long after I started following Christ, my mother became so sick that my father had to carry her to the car to drive her to the doctor. Unable to diagnose her condition, the doctor admitted her to the hospital, where she grew worse. All the Christians I knew at the time believed that miraculous healing was an everyday occurrence.  I decided that it was God’s plan to heal her. Like the blind man in John 9:3, I thought God had allowed her sickness “so that the works of God might be displayed” in her. What better way to show my parents to the truth of the gospel?

With my heart pounding, I stood at her hospital bedside and prayed, but nothing seemed to happen. Instead of getting better, over the next few days, she grew worse. And then she died. But I continued to pray, thinking that what God had in mind might be even more remarkable. I had read about Jesus raising the dead in the gospels. Maybe that’s what He planned to do. My father had asked the funeral director for a closed casket ceremony. But if God could move the stone from Jesus’ grave, surely that would be no obstacle. I prayed on. I think you can guess how this story ends.

Someone has said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world. But if that means we can force God’s hand by praying, I have found it to be otherwise. To me, prayer seems more like a discipline of waiting than an act of call and response. I am not saying that God never grants my request. Sometimes He does. But He rarely seems quick about it. God takes His time. Days, weeks, months, and even years may go by without any signs of movement on His part.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
John’s latest, will be released by
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The irony, or perhaps I should say awkwardness, of this, is that Jesus claimed that God is not slow. In the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, Jesus promised not only that God hears those “who cry out to Him day and night,” but that He will “see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7–8). It seems that my definition of what constitutes delay and God’s definition disagree.

In His parable, a widow goes to a judge with this request: “Grant me justice against my adversary.” And for some time, the judge refused. But when she kept coming to him, the judge said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t wear me out!’” Jesus aims to contrast the disposition of the judge with that of God. The comparison in the story turns on the similarity between the widow’s experience and our perception that God is ignoring us. Jesus says that God doesn’t delay, but it often feels like He does.

What, then, are we to make of the apparent contradiction between God’s haste and our experience? Those who claim the most for prayer tend to lay the blame at our feet. God can do anything, they say. If our prayers go unanswered, it is not His fault. The reason must be our insufficient faith or our lack of perseverance. Maybe we have secret sin or some other spiritual impediment that places an obstacle in the way of God’s answer. The power is God’s, yet somehow, at least for them, we always seem to be the key that unlocks it.

Jesus’ parable implies the opposite. Where the widow is concerned, all the power lies in the hands of others. She cannot protect herself against her adversary, and she cannot control the judge. Despite the helplessness of her position, nevertheless, she displays a kind of brazenness through her persistence. She keeps coming to the judge with her plea, despite his repeated refusals. One can’t help wondering why anyone would do such a thing. It couldn’t have been based on her confidence in the judge’s character or his sympathy. According to Jesus, he “neither feared God nor cared what people thought” (v. 2). The only plausible explanation is that it was her own helplessness that made her persevere. She had no one else to whom she could turn. Jesus’ point in this parable is really a counterpoint. God is not like the judge. If the widow can be so persistent with someone who has no natural regard for her, how much more should we persist with God, who cares for His own? In other words, the point of Jesus’ story seems to be that the real situation when it comes to prayer differs from our experience.

Jesus says that God doesn’t delay, but it often feels like He does.

The key that unlocks the parable is the language of the widow’s petition. Most of the translations say that the woman asked for justice against her adversary. We immediately think of this as a request with a terminal point. She is looking for revenge. She wants the judge to render a decision against her opponent.

Most of the prayers we pray are like this. They may not be prayers for vengance, but they are terminal in that they have a specific fulfillment in view. We want a particular job. We want God to heal our disease, or maybe we need money to pay a bill. There’s nothing wrong with such requests. Quite the opposite, it was Jesus who taught us to pray for daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). No request could be more concrete than this.

Furthermore, the bread which Jesus teaches us to ask for is a non-renewable resource. Once eaten, it will be gone. Yet anyone who has prayed the Lord’s prayer instinctively senses that the point of the petition is not terminal but ongoing. We know that having asked for bread today, we will need to ask again tomorrow. We grasp that this is the lesson of the prayer for us. The God who fed us today will also feed us tomorrow.

The widow’s request in Jesus’ parable is similar. The word that some versions translate as justice really means protection. “What the widow was seeking was not fundamentally vengeance on her adversary, but relief from his oppressions,” theologian B. B. Warfield points out in an essay on this parable. Although there may have been punishment inflicted on the man, Warfield explains, “. . . punishment was not the main end aimed at or obtained; it was only the means by which the real end of relief and protection was secured.” The widow’s request was actually a plea for ongoing protection. Warfield points out that Jesus uses her language to say that God will do the same for His chosen ones. When He promises that God will see that His chosen ones get justice quickly, He is: “. . . giving a gracious assurance to them of the unfailing protection of God amid the evils which assault them in this life.”

Warfield’s clarification eliminates the seeming contradiction between Jesus’ application and our experience. God hears us when we cry out to Him night and day. When God hears, He responds immediately. Although He may not always grant us the particular object of our desire, we can be sure that He will act in our interest. Warfield expresses it beautifully when he asserts that the intent of Jesus’ parable was to “deny that God is indifferent to the sufferings of His people; and in its most natural interpretation it declares that as his ears are always filled with their cries he will not be slow to act in their defense.”

God’s ears are always filled with the cries of those who are His.

I have often wondered why God’s failure to heal my mother or subsequently raise her from the dead didn’t shatter my newfound faith in Christ. Perhaps it was because I knew that I wasn’t confident in my prayer. I was young in the faith and still had many of the rough edges of my former life. Maybe it was because I realized how audacious the request was. Maybe I didn’t believe He would grant it to begin with. But I’d like to think that, even in the infancy of my faith, I understood the point that Jesus made in His parable. That God’s ears are always filled with the cries of those who are His. And, no matter how He may respond to our specific requests, He is never slow to act in our defense.

In one of his sermons, Clarence Macartney called prayer the word that conquers God. “What is the word that turns back the shadow of death on the face of life’s dial? What is the word that gives songs in the night and that lifts the load of guilt from the conscience smitten heart?” he asked. “That mighty, all prevailing, God-conquering word is prayer.” Perhaps, the old poet who said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world was right. But if it’s true, it’s not because we can strong-arm God with our prayers. It’s because prayer moves the heart of the one whose hand moves the world.

The Trouble With Normal

Since the tragic death of George Floyd, I have been trying to decide what to say, or whether I should say anything about it. In part, this is because I don’t know what to say. Little of what I’ve read on social media regarding the subject seems helpful to me. It is mostly a mixture of anger and guilt, with a few conspiracy theories mixed in. I have been reluctant to speak because so many others have said that silence is complicity. This rubric seems overly simplistic. It does little to help people process what has happened. Such a sentiment is merely an attempt to predispose people to a particular response. If the precipitating event weren’t so grievous and the subject less incendiary, we might even call it a thinly disguised attempt to bully others into a preferred opinion. Silence in times such as these can mean many things. Silence can be an expression of grief or dismay. It can signify disapproval. Silence may simply be the response of those who don’t know what to say. And, sometimes, silence is the disposition of the wise (Prov. 17:28).

Cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is now available for preorder!

For people of my age, the distress of recent days must seem strangely familiar—smoke billows behind a rocket that hurtles American astronauts into space. Cities burn as people march in the streets and loot stores. It feels like the 1960s again, except without any of the hope. The timing of this latest crisis was also striking, coming as it did just as some states appeared to be on the verge of reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people, whether joking or serious, posted memes that implied that the death of George Floyd was part of a larger conspiracy.

I am more inclined to think that there are more ordinary forces at work. Call it sin or fallen nature; it is the principle Bruce Cockburn describes when he sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” But to attribute the state of things to sin seems too simplistic. Just as Jesus is the answer of the Christian to every problem, sin is the stock explanation of their cause. The problem with this explanation is not that sin is trite. It is our view of sin that is the trouble. It is too anemic. We are inconsistent and double minded, congenital hypocrites where sin is concerned.

In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. notes how newspapers and television often use the adjective senseless to describe acts of murder. Plantinga finds this description puzzling, noting that unless he is grossly impaired, every murder must have made sense to the killer at the time. “He was trying to silence a witness or gain revenge or express his power or act out his racist hatred or stimulate and satisfy his lust,” Plantinga writes. “In a culture in which up-to-date intellectuals often drift toward moral subjectivism, how can an act that makes perfectly good sense to its perpetrator be judged senseless by outsiders?” The answer, according to Plantinga, is that “when pressed, even the most avant-garde observer drops his moral subjectivism, forgets all Nietzschean attempts to get ‘beyond good and evil,’ and joins the rest of us in expressing shock, indignation, and the metaphysical judgment that a murder does not belong in the world,  no matter what its author thinks of it.”

“A murder does not belong in the world, no matter what its author thinks of it.”

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

C. S. Lewis writes about the same moral sense that Plantinga describes in Mere Christianity, calling it the “law of human nature” or the “rule about right and wrong.” According to Lewis, it is most observable when people are quarreling. When this happens, two things are apparent. First, the aggrieved party appeals to a standard that he or she expects the other person to know and assumes it will be evident to them. Second, the offender almost always affirms such a rule exists by giving a rationale for their action. As Lewis bluntly puts it, “. . . the other man very seldom replies: ‘to hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”

In other words, our moral radar seems to operate on only one band. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult (often impossible) to see our own. At the same time, we are also strangely comforted by the universal presence of sin. The comfort we take in knowing that 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 common, then we are normal. 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.

This downgrading of sin inevitably leads to sentimentality. Sentimentality, in turn, produces superficiality when it comes to our assessment of the problems sin creates and their solutions. In an essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality, and the Arts,” Jeremy Begbie identifies three traits of the sentimentalist. First, the sentimentalist misrepresents reality by evading or trivializing evil. Evasion makes us selective in our attention. We refuse to focus on those things that are too disturbing to us. Trivialization compels us to put a spin on sin and its consequences. We are willing to acknowledge the presence of evil in our lives but blunt its sharp edge so that it does not make us bleed.

Second, the sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent. For the sentimentalist, emotion is an end in itself. “In other words, the sentimentalist appears to be moved by something or someone beyond themselves but is to a large extent, perhaps primarily, concerned with the satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion,” Begbie explains. It is enough to feel. There is no need to do. The sentimentalist is outraged by particular acts of sin, but that is all. They may even be outraged at themselves but it is all a display. “We like others to realize that we are compassionate, tender, and so forth,” Begbie explains. “And even if others are not around, there can be something deeply gratifying about exercising feelings that most would admire.”

Our moral radar seems to operate on only one band.

Third, according to Begbie, the sentimentalist fails to take appropriate costly action. Begbie describes several symptoms of this pathology. Sentimentalists resist any challenge to their way of life. They are more moved by the plight of strangers than those close to them. They deal in ethical generalities like love, peace, and justice, but struggle with awkward individuals. They are impatient and lose interest when the cost of dealing with those in pain is long-term or too great. They rely on banalities and clichés. For the sentimentalist to feel is to act. It is not necessary to go any further.

All of these traits seem to me to characterize the conversation sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Actually, to call it a conversation is too generous. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not really suited for conversation. They do not lend themselves to reflection or careful deliberation. Social media is a forum for outbursts. They provide a catharsis for the one who posts but I question their power to change anyone’s mind or to move people closer to reconciliation or solution. Those are long term, costly projects, and few on either side of the divide appear to have the patience for them.

It is not silence on social media that makes us complicit in the death of George Floyd but our complacency with sin. The trouble with sin is that it seems so normal. It respects no boundaries either of race or economics. It ravages our lives but remains an abstraction to us until its evil is made concrete to us. We only seem to recognize its true nature when we are on the receiving end of sinful behavior. If George Floyd’s death does anything, perhaps it will at least enable us to imagine what it might have been like to have that knee upon our own neck. What it will not do is let us know when the knee is ours. It will not tell us what to do about it. For that we will need a more potent medicine than the accusation or guilt of social media. For that we will need grace and mercy, combined with a conviction that only comes from God Himself.