A Lament: Evangelical Leaders and the Defense of Donald Trump

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What can I say for you, to what compare you,
    O daughter of Jerusalem?
What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you,
    O virgin daughter of Zion?
For your ruin is vast as the sea;
    who can heal you?

 Your prophets have seen for you
    false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
    to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
    that are false and misleading.

Lamentations 2: 13-14

I am sick.  Weary.  Disheartened.

Our leaders are failing us.  They fuel the fires of partisan hatred and anger.  They instill a culture of fear and distrust.  They undercut the witness of the gospel.  They encourage false teachings and empower ungodly behavior.

They suggest we turn a blind eye to evil.  They suggest we overlook the wicked, to silence the wounded and oppressed for the cause of justice.  They claim we are not called to judge, just as they call out for God’s people to judge their own enemies.

Our leaders lie.  Our leaders prophesy falsely.  Our leaders hold court with the wicked and defend the unrighteous.  Our leaders encourage despair and offer little hope.

Lord have mercy.

They say:

“A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility…”

How can anyone believe that the dismissal of his words as mere “locker room talk” and “just words” should be construed as taking full responsibility or as an acknowledgment of sin?  Being embarrassed is not the same as being contrite.

Why is deflecting your own guilt on someone else’s sin condoned?  How is this behavior held up as an example of a true apology, as proof of taking personal responsibility, or seen as an appropriate sign of repentance?

As these words were published after allegations that he has actually done what he already confessed to, how can any leader can choose to ignore and not address these actions.

Have you, Rev. Franklin Graham, not heard the comments Trump is now making in reference to the women who claim grievances against him?  These are the words of today, not eleven years ago.  Are those “just words” too?  Must be.

Just like every hateful thing he has said in the course of this election toward more people and groups than I can count.  He hasn’t offered an apology for those words.  He has claimed he doesn’t need to.  Does that make a difference?  Would anything he might do – any sin, any crime – make a difference?

My heart mourns.

“…This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms…”

Why do we care about the Supreme Court in this land?  For the sake of justice.

But how can you defend the abuser and turn a blind eye to the vulnerable and the oppressed and then claim it is for the cause of justice?

“…My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.” – Franklin Graham

So that is your prayer.  That is all you have to offer?  That is your guidance to Christians in this dark and confusing time?  To turn off CNN?  My, what depths of wisdom you have to share.

Are there no words of hope, no eternal truths, no statement of reconciliation to reach across our divisions and to bind up our wounds that you wish to pray in this moment?

What do you have to say to the wounded?  To the victims?  What do you have to say to the abused?  Do they not matter?  Is their pain not important?

The message you send is that people can abuse power so long as they will advance a cause deemed by church leaders as one acceptable to God.  The message you send is that there are no consequences for sin so long as the sinner is promising to protect you and your causes.

Are the oppressed, the victims, and the hurt not supposed to speak out?  Are they now meant to be our sacrifices on the alter of the Supreme Court?

To silence the pain of others.  To turn a blind eye to evil.  To not address the pain and abuse and fear caused by sin.  This is to refuse to minister Christ in this world.

I have a daughter and two sons.  I have Muslim neighbors, whom I love.  I have friends whose families have been harmed and separated by strict immigration policies.  I have friends who have been sexually abused and demeened.

I understand the concern about the future of the Supreme Court.  But do these people, their stories, their past wounds, and their potential for future pain, really not matter to God in this election?  Is the character of the leaders we choose to empower truly insignificant in shaping our future generations?

What am I supposed to tell them?

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24

The words of man shall perish, but the words of the Lord shall reign forever.

Another says:

“First, I do not condone nor defend Donald Trump’s terrible comments made 11 years ago. They are indefensible and awful. I’m sure there are other misdeeds in his past, although as Jesus said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’  I am, however, more concerned about America’s future than Donald Trump’s past. I wonder about how Bill Clinton’s language stands up in private?..”

Stone cast, Dr. Dobson. And the world sees.

“…However, my condemnation of the former president is on an entirely different level. To my knowledge, Donald Trump has never abused women physically or had oral sex in the Oval Office with a vulnerable intern…”

To the knowledge of the nation it now appears likely he has physically abused women for decades.  In fact, those terrible and awful comments were not just words but an admission of behavior.

All abuse of power and influence is a sin.  For someone not looking to cast a first stone, for someone condemning fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for “judging” the character and the past of a presidential candidate, it is clear that you believe yourself ordained to rank and evaluate the worthiness of one sin above another.  Will the hypocrisy never end?

“…Nor has he committed perjury by lying to Congress for many hours. Clinton, on the other hand, lost his license to practice law for that criminal act.  Trump hasn’t been impeached by Congress for his lies…”

I think what you mean to say is not yet.  Trump has not been impeached yet, for he has yet to be awarded power.

Why freely and willfully advocate to give such power to a man who has built his entire career, his entire campaign, on an intricate and never ending web of lies?  One man – who is not on the ballot – lied while serving in the Oval Office.  The other man is lying to get into the Oval Office.

But Trump’s lies are ok?  His lies we should accept while Clinton’s we rightfully condemn?  All because you believe the lies of one man will be in the service of your desired political ends?

“…Donald Trump hasn’t vetoed bills that would have outlawed the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. Bill Clinton alone is responsible for the brains being sucked out of unanesthetized babies during delivery. That nazi-esque procedure continued for years until the Supreme Court declared it illegal. Donald Trump is pro-life…”

How do you know that he is pro-life?  Why do you trust him?  Because he told you so five months ago?  Didn’t Donald Trump support this type of procedure while Bill Clinton was in office?  Didn’t he contribute to the campaigns and politicians who sought to protect partial-birth abortion?

By what evidence other than his word – from the same man who dismissed his own evil confession as “just words” and all his proposals as negotiable suggestions – do you believe that he means any of the things he says to you now?  As some have said, why do you believe that a man who has not been faithful to his own wives will be faithful to you?  What reason do you have to believe he will not turn his back on you and the unborn the minute it is no longer politically expedient?

Do you not understand that your reputation is being used in his service, in the service of evil?

To take a dishonest man at his word is the height of foolishness.

“…Clinton and his wife disrespect the Constitution of the United States, although Trump has promised to protect it, especially the First Amendment…”

If you were truthful about this election you should know that Donald Trump has consistently spoken against the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights.  He who would curtail the freedom of one religion would set the precedent to curtail the freedom of all.  He who would disparage and threaten the press does not care about the first amendment.  He who questions the right to due process and the right to an attorney does not value our rule of law or the justice it has to offer our society.  He who would torture for retribution and kill the innocent in vengeance does not respect the sanctity of life.

Who will you stone next?  When Donald Trump looses the election, when a liberal justice is appointed to the court, who then shall you blame?  Will it be me?  Will it be God?

These words of yours are nothing but an excuse.  They are the arguments of a desperate and desolate movement.  They are arguments that willfully choose to ignore fact.

They are lies.

“…Shall I go on?” —James Dobson, PhD

No.  Please stop.  Please, for the sake of the God you say you love.  For the sake of the ministry He built with your hands.  For the sake of furthering the gospel and spreading His word.  Just stop talking and make room for new leaders to arise.

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?

Lamentations 3:37-39

God will rise up and lead His Church in this darkness.  God will give voice to the voiceless and a platform to those who will speak His truth.  The word of the Lord is forever, the word of the Lord shall not be cast aside.

Not for the sake of your fears, not for the sake of the Supreme Court, not for the sake of earthly greatness, shall the sin of men like Donald Trump go unpunished.

The punishment of this church and our leaders, the punishment of Donald J. Trump, the punishment of this nation, is just.

“My eyes will flow without ceasing,
    without respite,
until the Lord from heaven
    looks down and sees;
my eyes cause me grief
    at the fate of all the daughters of my city.

Lamentations 3: 49-51

This election may be about justice.  But justice against whom? Adjudicated in what way?

I grieve for all our daughters.  For the abused, the belittled, and the mocked.  I grieve for little white girls and little black girls and little hispanic girls and little asian girls.  I grieve for the daughters of Christians, the daughters of Muslims, the daughters of Jews, and the daughters of Atheists.

Woe to the men and women who would choose the power of the world over trusting in the sovereignty of God.

Woe to the leaders who would stand aside as the world hurts and yearns for the healing words of Jesus Christ – and not offer them.

This was for the sins of her prophets
    and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed in the midst of her
    the blood of the righteous.

They wandered, blind, through the streets;
    they were so defiled with blood
that no one was able to touch
    their garments.

“Away! Unclean!” people cried at them.
    “Away! Away! Do not touch!”
So they became fugitives and wanderers;
    people said among the nations,
    “They shall stay with us no longer.”

The Lord himself has scattered them;
    he will regard them no more;
no honor was shown to the priests,
    no favor to the elders.

Our eyes failed, ever watching
    vainly for help;
in our watching we watched
    for a nation which could not save.

Lamentations 4:13-17

It is God who saves.  It is God who defends.

He defends the unborn, He protects His church. It is the Lord God Almighty who created the heavens and the earth.  It is the Father of all who sent His son for He so loves the world that we might be saved.

It is Jesus Christ who stood before the pharisees and called them lawless hypocrites.  It is Jesus Christ who rejected calls and temptations to seize the powers of this world.  It is Jesus Christ who sacrificed His own life so that we may be forgiven and so that we can all be set free.

The Holy and Everlasting God reigns above.  To Him all kingdoms will bow.  No nation will save us but the ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven.  No court will save us but the mercy seat above.  No judge will save us but the One who is the maker of the laws.  No law will save us but the Word of our Lord.

May a new generation rise out of this wilderness.

Who will stand for all the broken, all the victims of sin, no matter the color of their skin, the religion of their birth, or the political party they represent?  Who will testify of the truth of God, no matter the political or earthly cost?  Who will risk losing the whole world, who will risk losing all the power of these principalities, in order to save their soul?

Let us repent, not for the sins of the world but for the sins of our church.  Let us mourn, not for the ways of the lost but for the iniquities of those who call upon the name of the Lord.  Let us cry out to God and rend our hearts, that He may hear our cry.

From this rubble, from these ashes, O Lord, rebuild your church.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us forever,
    why do you forsake us for so many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!

Lamentations 5:19-21b

The Makings of a Prince: Erasmus, Machiavelli, and Idealism vs. Pragmatism in Political Rule

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The following is an adapted version of a term paper I wrote for a graduate level class in 2013.  I hope that many of you will appreciate the juxtaposition of these two worldviews, especially in light of our current times.

Introduction

“You cannot be a prince, if you are not a philosopher; you will be a tyrant.” So declared Desiderius Erasmus in The Education of a Christian Prince, a lesser-known yet exemplary contribution to the mirror for princes genre.  His call to look to the ideal as guidance for political leadership was representative of his time and stands upon a long tradition of political thought dating back the Plato’s Republic.  Frequently citing both works of classical antiquity and medieval Christian scholarship throughout his work, Erasmus notes, “I do not mean by philosopher, one who is learned in the ways of dialectic or physics, but one who cast aside the false pseudo-realities and with open mind seeks and follows the truth.  To be a philosopher and to be a Christian is synonymous in fact.”

Erasmus’ mirror is written as a guide to attain his desired form of government. To achieve this end he summarizes the thoughts of others more than he attempts to promote new concepts of political theory.  The mirror for princes genre, “…usually depicts a stable and harmonious relationship between the ruler and the ruled,” according to Erasmus scholar Erika Rommel, and Erasmus’ suggestions for a prince, “are prescriptive, rather than analytical, and charged with a moral imperative.”  Erasmus wrote to further calls for a more virtuous rule as found throughout the western tradition.  He sought to keep this hope for an ideal governance alive at the tail end of the Renaissance, even while writing amidst the darker historical realities of war, schism, and rebellion of early sixteenth century Europe.

In contrast, as Erasmus penned his guidebook for princes, a freshly completed mirror of an entirely new perspective opened with the charge, “Let us leave to one side, then, all discussion of imaginary rulers and talk about practical realities.”  Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince broke from the long tradition of writing on an ideal form of governance and instead sought to offer a view of pragmatic guidelines based on common problems faced by rulers in his present age.

Machiavelli ”…therefore proclaims the need for clever management or brutal force to maintain the status quo.  In devising his policies – domestic or foreign – the Machiavellian prince is motivated by self-interest.”  The difference between these competing mirrors rests upon conflicting moral visions set forth for rulers of a state. Where Machiavelli promotes self-interest, Erasmus promotes the traditional expectation for rulers to seek after the common good, with an additional emphasis on a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice.

At first glance, the two mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli could not be more different in content and purpose. These two divergent paths highlight a vital question for the study and practice of politics that has plagued the field in recent centuries. Is it the business of politicians to primarily consider the ideal or the real?

A former undergraduate professor of mine opened his classes by observing a stark distinction between the pragmatic and the theoretical for the study of government.  As a self-proclaimed realist and lecturer on international affairs, he concluded that these two branches of political study had little impact on the other when it came to practical decision-making for a ruler of state.  This professor followed in the tradition often attributed to Machiavelli, one institutionalized whence the study of politics shifted from the mastering of an art to the calculations of a science.  He suggested that the world of policy and political action must operate within the harsh realities of the real world.

Representing a current trend in political study, my professor’s views suggested to his students that any discussions of the ideal in political thought, while an interesting mental exercise, have little impact on the actual business of governance.  This assertion raises the question, is a distinction between the real and the ideal a truism, or is it actually a false dichotomy?

Proponents for the relevance of political thought to the realm of political action contend that many situations demand use of both approaches and often utilize one view to support or justify the other. It is with this contemporary debate regarding the theoretical versus the practical in governance in mind that the divergent mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli are compared below.

Although Erasmus’ advice for a Christian prince is steeped in the idealism of classical Western political thought, his goals were grounded in a firm belief that this vision, at least in adapted form, could be made into a reality.  Machiavelli’s attempt to define political rule in terms of “practical realities”, on the other hand, lowered the responsibility of the prince to improve society through an absolute moral ethic, yet, at the very last, he relies on an emergence of his realist prince for national redemption.

Ultimately, both works attempt to solve the very real political ills of their era with aspirant hopes of a better, and potentially ideal, political future.  Underlying theoretical assumptions about the nature of man, the role of the state, and the theological implications of salvation, make both works simultaneous mirrors of the real and the ideal.  In these works pragmatism is prescribed for the sake of some form of perfection.  Even if that form of perfection is suggested with limitations, the belief is ever-present that an ideal can be reached through the activity of the real.

The Purpose of the Mirrors

Written in 1515 after Erasmus is named a counselor to future king and emperor, Charles V, and awarded an annual pension, The Education of a Christian Prince began with the stated goal, “I, a theologian, am acting the part of a teacher to a distinguished and pure hearted prince – one Christian to another.”  Presented in 1516 to the then sixteen-year-old prince, Erasmus clearly saw his work as an attempt to influence the political future of Europe.

One biographer noted of his writings in this period, “The goal of his work was to make of Christians Christians in reality and not in name only, and to show them the way to the great example, the great teacher.  Only in this way can the world again do justice to God’s intentions.”  The Holy Roman Empire, an ostensibly Christian regime, had a troubled and violent past that did little to strengthen the message of the church in the world.  Thus, Erasmus saw his mirror as one attempt of many to use his theological wisdom to correct the perversions of his society and purify Christendom from the top down.

In contrast, it is widely speculated among scholars that Machiavelli’s work was written in 1513 with the hope that he might obtain employment from a member of the powerful Florentine Medici family through private circulation of his thoughts.  The self-interested motives parallel the messages of self-preservation found throughout the work.  As a mid-level political appointee, Machiavelli claims the work was produced after he had, “long thought about and studied the question of what makes for greatness.”  He continues,

But my hope is to write a book that will be useful, at least to those who read it intelligently, and so I thought it sensible to go straight to a discussion of how things are in real life and not waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world…For anyone who wants to act the part of the good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good.  So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge.

The above passage sets the tone for the rest of the work and laid forth the foundational elements of Machiavelli’s legacy.  First, he implies that the tradition of mirror literature couldn’t be useful to a real life ruler, for these mirrors typically address fantasy worlds or mere thought experiments.  Second, he identifies the most unrealistic quality of the tradition as the expectation that rulers ought to be virtuous above all else.

Third, he states that the true goal of a ruler is to stay in power.  As it is impossible, through his logic, for a ruler to remain in power and always act virtuously, it is best for a ruler to be equipped to know how and when to be unrighteous.  The rest of the work aims to prepare the ruler accordingly.

Typical analysis holds that Machiavelli’s goals are more realistic given his upfront explanation of the ever-present corruption of political rule.  Yet Erasmus did not start with an unrealistic assessment of his contemporaries, for, in the words of Halkin, “His grievances were born out of a harsh analysis of the role of the Church in the Catholic world. The obstacles that he perceived in the way of the Gospel were scandalous and menacing realities: war, Machiavellianism, greed, immorality.”  While the use of Machiavellian here is retrospective (there is no indication that Erasmus read The Prince while writing his own mirror) the inclusion of these qualities as problems he sought to fix is vital.

At the outset of the work Erasmus was not naively blinded to the harsh realities Machiavelli desires to address.  Rather, the theologian offers his work as an attempted remedy to a society in turmoil.  It is meant as a means to prevent, not encourage, the continued proliferation of political abuses.  The ideal works, likes those of Erasmus, sought to hold the prince to a higher moral standard, while the realistic approach of Machiavelli seems to merely excuse a prince’s baser motives as a means to maintain or expand power.

Moreover, Machiavelli assumes that men cannot be good in the face of an evil and still succeed.  Erasmus, on the other hand, has faith that his message could change the entire empire – if heeded by those in power.  As European contemporaries, albeit in very different political roles and geo-political contexts, they both recognized with a bold-faced certainty the challenges that faced the rulers of their age.  The difference came in the reflections each desired their princes to see as they looked into their respective mirrors and learned how to become a king.

Competing Portraits of a Prince

Concerned primarily with the virtue of the ruler, Erasmus pronounces, “What is it that distinguishes a real king from the actor? It is the spirit befitting a prince.  I mean he must be like a father to the state.  It is on this basis that the people swore allegiance to him.” In similar fashion he later quipped, “For it is the character, not the title, that marks the king.”  His view on the intrinsic value of the prince’s own virtue led to his emphasis on the education and moral formation of a prince, starting in infancy with careful selection of nurses and, later, tutors.

Deeply influenced by Christian thought, Erasmus believed that it was not just in the virtues of antiquity that a prince ought to be trained, but also the specific commands of Christ.  The primacy of religious belief for the makings of a good prince formed the central pillar of Erasmus’ vision for ideal leadership in a Christian state.  He penned, “Before all else the story of Christ must be firmly rooted in the mind of the prince…He should be taught that the teachings of Christ apply to no one more than to the prince.”

Through a biblical model of self-sacrifice, the common good would be promoted and the prince made truly virtuous.  Erasmus concluded, “A man who is great because of his own good qualities, that is, his virtues, will be great even if his princely authority is stripped from him.”  Thus the prince who is Christian, philosophical, and true, should risk loosing his power rather than seek to keep it through baser means.

Machiavelli’s prince, however, has an altogether different appearance.  Encouraged to train for facing the worst in men, the prince “…should do what is right if he can; but he must be prepared to do wrong if necessary.”  Sebastian de Grazia, noted biographer of Machiavelli, suggests that instead of following the popularized paraphrase of Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:30, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ Niccolo’s norm, lends itself to the notion of, “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” These two rules resemble each other in that they both are urging reciprocated conduct: the scriptural based upon desired treatment of the self, Niccolo’s on the anticipated fallenness of others.

Once again critiquing the traditional examples of political thought which, “…constructed imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could,” Machiavelli insists that it is impossible for men to both attain virtue and rule well.  He continues, “…for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover that he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.”  The blatant self-preservation of the Machiavellian prince starkly contrasts with the self-sacrificial model presented by Erasmus.

Moreover, Machiavelli counters the inherent need for the Christian prince to attain virtue in more than name only with his assertion, “So a ruler need not have all the positive qualities I listed earlier, but he must seem to have them. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you have them and never make any exceptions, then you will suffer for it; while if you merely appear to have them, they will benefit you.”

Machiavelli asserts that the motive for the prince’s behavior ought to be based on an opportunistic assessment of what would keep the ruler in power rather than an adherence to absolute norms.  As he counseled, “So you should seem to be compassionate, trustworthy, sympathetic, honest, religious, and, indeed, be all these things; but at the same time you should be constantly prepared, so that, if these become liabilities, you are trained and ready to become their opposites.”

Erasmus, however, envisioned a different form of preparation for the Christian prince.  He claimed, “It is not enough just to hand out precepts to restrain the prince from vices or to incite him to a better course – they must be impressed, crammed in, inculcated, and in one way and another be kept before him, now by a suggestive thought, now by a fable, now by an analogy, now by a proverb.”

His is a deep and thorough formation of the entire character of the prince.  It is by constancy and devotion to moral absolutes that a prince’s legacy will be determined. “The prestige of a prince, his greatness, his majesty,” he elaborates, “must not be developed and preserved by fortune’s wild display, but by wisdom, solidarity, and good deeds.”

Machiavelli is not without a belief in human agency.  He bases the ability of the prince to maintain his power on a doctrine of self-preservation and individual initiative and, like Erasmus, dismisses views that belittle political changes as the sole realm of fate or political pre-destination. “God does not want to have to do the whole thing,” Machiavelli states, “for he likes to leave us our free will so we can lay claim to part of the glory by earning it.”

While out of character for most of The Prince, such lofty language found in Machiavelli’s final chapter suggests that even with the acknowledged constant brutal realities of the depravity of man, he still seeks hope in the ability of some men to lead their polity beyond a state of chaos or servitude.

The question remains, to what end ought princes apply their free will?

Self-Interest vs. the Common Good

A primary distinction between the more traditional mirror of Erasmus and the modern mirror of Machiavelli is the chief end for a prince to aspire.  Highlighted above, the idealist works trumpet the importance of serving for the common good, while the realist view of Machiavelli encourages princes to seek after their natural inclination for a self-interested preservation of power.

Erasmus viewed this element of his work as one intertwined with the chief ends of antiquity.  In referencing Plato’s Guardians, he cautioned, “Only those who govern the state not for themselves but for the good of the state itself, deserve the title ‘prince.’  His titles mean nothing in the case of one who rules to suit himself and measures everything to his own convenience: he is no prince, but a tyrant.”

Seeking synthesis in the two great philosophical traditions of antiquity, he continues with supportive summarization of Aristotle’s Politics.  Erasmus warns his readers,

A prince is vitally concerned with the needs of his subjects, even while engaged in personal matters.  On the other hand, if a tyrant ever chances to do something good for his subjects, he turns that to his own personal gain.  Those who look out for their people only in so far as it redounds to their personal advantage, hold their subjects in the same status as the average man considers his horse or ass.

Considered in light of Machiavelli’s pragmatic advice for rulers to change as needed in order to maintain their rule, as articulated in The Prince, Erasmus’ mirror begins to read as a harsh condemnation for all forms of political rule grounded in the self-interest of the rulers over the ruled.

One defense of Machiavelli on this score is his political context.  The relative political instability of the Italian principalities may warrant a reading that it was in the common good of those states for the ruler stay in power.  Still, this argument cannot overlook the classical emphasis on the character of the prince.  It is not enough, claims Erasmus time and again, for the action of rulers to have virtuous ends.  These ends must be achieved through virtuous means, carried forth by a ruler whose character is submitted to a higher standard, specifically for Erasmus, submitted to the Trinitarian God of Christian teachings.

To encourage his prince to follow in the way of Christ, Erasmus charged, “It is the duty of a good prince to consider the welfare of his people, even at the cost of his own life if need be.  But that prince does not really die who loses his life in such a cause.”  Erasmus’ awareness of the potential end for a virtuous prince to be one of death bespeaks not of an ideal polity but of a weary admission of the baseness of the world.  In fact, for Erasmus, the self-interested view of governance espoused by Machiavelli was the very heart of Christendom’s greatest ills:

Now, while everyone is looking out for his own interests, while popes and bishops are deeply concerned over power and wealth, while princes are driven headlong by ambition or anger, while all follow after them for the sake of their own gain, it is not surprising that we run straight into a whirlwind of affairs under the guidance of folly.

Considered in light of De Grazia’s Machivellian adage to ‘do unto others as they would do unto you,’ greater clarity emerges on the distinctions between Erasmus and Machiavelli.  The heart of their disagreement, it appears, is not over which one is more based in reality.  Rather, they differ on how a prince ought to handle the anticipated foibles of humanity: a question of both practicality and ideology.

Wickedness and Redemption

DeGrazia suggests that Machiavelli’s apparent rejection of the biblically based Golden Rule was stemmed from, “The doctrine of men’s evil disposition – reiterated several times in the qualities chapters of The Prince.”  In another popular translation of The Prince, Machiavelli concluded his observations on the ends justifying the means,  “For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar.”  When faced with vulgarity and meanness in others there is only one person for the ruler to trust: themselves.  “No method of defense is good, certain, and lasting,” Machiavelli insists, “that does not depend on your own decisions and your own strength [virtu].”

While a prince ought to aspire to some good, and he apparently has some freedom to achieve self-betterment and self-control, he also cannot loose touch with the inherent vulgarity of men, including his own.  “It may be difficult for men to resist their wicked tendencies and easy for them to flow into sin; doctrinally, at least, they still have the choice of resistance, of control, of good acts.”  The choice to be better, however, is not assured for even the prince, let alone his political competitors.  The only fact a prince can count on is that others will act through their vulgar nature, and he must prepare and respond in all things with this anticipation in mind.

Thus, not only must a prince be prepared to use baser methods if he anticipates a challenge to his authority, he is also free to lie or abuse his own people if the situation requires such action to secure power.  As he writes, “You will find people are so simple-minded and so preoccupied with their immediate concerns, that if you set out to deceive them, you will always find plenty of them who will let themselves be deceived.”  According to Machiavelli’s mirror, the certainty of vulgarity in all men both justifies and demands baser actions on the part of the ruler.

The shrewd approach recommended to Machiavelli’s prince is to maintain the appearance of moderation in all things, with an ever-watchful eye for the next attempt to steal, threaten, or undermine their power.  While a reaction to reality, the moral justification (or lack thereof) for less than virtuous leadership is based on a theoretical assumption regarding the nature of man.

Moreover, his supposedly pragmatic rejection of ideal regimes begins to form his own theoretical imperatives.  He leads princes to assume that the baseness of mankind is so great the only way to counter these forces is through equally base actions. Such is a basis of a new moral theory.

Machiaevelli’s mirror, supposedly offered as a practical guidebook for rulers’ reality, begins to read as a dystopian contrast to works like Thomas More’s 1515 Utopia (the namesake for the genre).  Machiavelli’s ethic and the picture the world he paints, given his absolute claims regarding human nature and the only proper response to human depravity, may be just as much a work of fantasy as very mirrors he set out to condemn.

On the question of sin, Erasmus looks to the baseness of mankind first through the cross of Christ.  To avoid abuses of power he argues the prince ought to learn how,

Nature created all men equal, and slavery was superimposed on nature, which fact the laws of even the pagans recognized.  Now stop and think how out of proportion it is for a Christian to usurp full power over other Christians, whom the laws did not deign to be slaves, and whom Christ redeemed from all slavery.

To Erasmus, all men are depraved but for those who call upon Christ there is also hope for redemption from their own depravity. This view, as articulated in his mirror, does not mean that Erasmus denied the political and cultural realities of his time.  Rather, he looks to the prince as a natural source for moral guidance and reformation in social matters.  He notes the tendency for corruption and “unruly” natures of magistrates and common people alike and thus concluded, “There is just one blessed stay in this tide of evils – the unsullied character of the prince.  If he, too, is overcome by foolish ideas and base desires, what last ray of hope is there for the state?”

The language in these passages emphasizes the difficulties facing the prince in light of the depravity of man.  He also cautions against attempts to corrupt princes, due to the power by example they hold for the people.  “Just as one who poisons the public fountain from which all drink deserves more than one punishment,” asserts Erasmus, “so he is the most harmful who infects the mind of the prince with base idea, which later produce the destruction of so many men.”

Instead of rejecting the possibility for social improvement through political leadership, Erasmus saw the potential for a prince to help correct these ills.  His ideal was a Christian society where the rulers looked to model their headship of the people after Christ’s headship of the Church.  For the prince, “All his plans, all his efforts, all his interests will be turned to the one aim of ruling over the province entrusted to him in such a manner that when Christ makes the final reckoning he will win approval and leave a very honorable memory of himself among all his fellow men.”

While not an enterprise that guarantees success, his vision is perhaps not so idealistic that it could not have been achieved.   To Erasmus, his words and counsel offered more than a mere dream, for he “…actually believed he was following the path of progress inherent in historical time.”  His vision for the Christian prince did not call for a perfect society free of corruption, sin, or danger.  For Erasmus, hope for societal redemption in Christendom could begin with the turning of a single man: the prince.  The goal of The Education of a Christian Prince was idealistic, but his means were fundamentally pragmatic.

Concluding Thoughts: Evaluating the Mission

Erasmus’ mirror sought to give “instruction on a subject that no theologian would dare to undertake.  In these years Erasmus was conscious of his strength and his boldness.  He had a mission to fulfill.”  Unfortunately, his mission to see a renewal of piety and peace in all sectors of a united Christendom appears to have been a losing battle from the very start.

Scholars note that Charles V, “was not a model of the Christian, peaceful prince” and “probably did not read” the copy of Erasmus’ Christian Prince, gifted in 1516.  Yet even in the face of rejection in his own time, Erasmus continued to believe that “…history would definitely bring improvement on all fronts – partly as the outcome of a natural process, but mainly because God would have it so and even used his detractors to this end.”

Erasmus was not alone in his ultimate appeal to God for the future success of his goals.  While hardly a religious work, Machiavelli’s concluding chapter mentions God at least half a dozen times. DeGrazio surmised, “The references to the divine in The Prince comprise significant metaphysical and theological statements, with political bearings just as significant.”  Bemoaning the sad state of Italian affairs as the oft conquered and vanquished, he cried out to his future prince, “Italy, so long enslaved, awaits her redeemer.”

To some degree his work was as much a failure in his own age as that of Erasmus.  Machiavelli never gained the employment with the Medici family he aspired to, nor did he live to see the redemption of Italy from internal conflict and external conquests.  Yet the final words of his practical rulebook are dedicated to a famous stanza by Christian Humanist Plutarch, which prophesies a restored future for the Italian people.  Trapped in a depraved world where the vulgarity of men must be countered at every turn, Machiavelli awaits the ideal of his country’s savior.

In an entirely different context, Erasmus quotes wisdom from Plutarch’s own mirror, Discourse to an Unlearned Prince: “When you who are a prince, a Christian prince, hear and read that you are the likeness of God and his vicar, do not swell with pride on this account, but rather take pains that you correspond to your wonderful archetype, whom it is hard, but not unseemly, to follow.”

Erasmus saw no need to appeal for the coming of a political savior for he saw the political realm in light of the salvation of Christ.  The Christian prince, while an important figure in God’s ordained social hierarchy of the time, was not the savior of Christendom.  In fact, it was only through imitating the real savior, Jesus Christ, that he could ever hope to become a true prince in both spirit and name.

One mirror, in the name of pragmatism, offers his people a vision of the future that may always search fruitlessly for a missing ideal. The other, through a hopeful vision for a social incarnation of an already realized ideal (that of the victory of Christ), suggests a pragmatic response to the corruption of his time.  Both works, composed during a watershed era of Western history, can serve as a reminder for students and practitioners of government that the ideal and the real, the theoretical and the practical, are often linked more closely than some professors and experts may lead us to believe.

Even the most hardened realist bases their assumptions on some form of philosophical principles and moral ethic. In turn, the loftiest ideals carry practical implications for the here and now.  To overlook the interconnected nature of the pragmatic and the theoretical risks misunderstanding our political history and thereby endangering the cogency of how we shape our political future.

In light of recent political events, these two mirrors also challenge us to ask and assess the following of our contemporary politicians: what are the ends they seek and by which means will they achieve them?

We cannot set aside questions of ethics, morality, and character as if they have no bearing on political leadership.  Erasmus understood the significance of a ruler’s virtue for the purpose of inculcating (or undermining) the virtue of the people.  Even the realism of Machiavelli had to wrestle with these notions, finding that pure pragmatism devoid of moral assumptions and ideal ends does not exist.  Christendom as a ruling political empire in the West may be a notion of the past, but as Christians we can still learn from the wisdom – and follies – of those who came before us.

Seen in a certain light, our times are very dark indeed.  Which path will we choose?  Which path will you advocate?  A power hungry and base self-preservation, searching after some form of national redemption and redeemer?  Or a self-sacrificing vision, not defined by titles or earthly victories, but rather built upon the eternal victory of Christ and a refusal to partake in poisoning the virtue of the public well against the witness of His image?

 

*I had trouble copying footnotes to WordPress for this post.  When I have more time I will update with appropriate citations.  In the meantime, let me know if any questions arise regarding my quotes, assertions, and sources.

Bibliography

Augustijn, Cornelis. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Bejczy, Istvan. Erasmus and the Middle Ages: The Historical Consciousness of a Christian Humanist. Boston: Brill, 2001.

Benner, Erica. Machiavelli’s Ethics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009.

De Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Education of a Christian Prince. Translated by Lester K. Born. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Halkin, Leon-e. Erasmus: A Critical Biography. Translated by John Tonkin. Cambridge , Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” In Selected Poltical Writings, by David Wooton. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995.

Olin, John C. “Erasmus and Reform.” In Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings, by Desiderius Erasmus, 1-21. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1973.

Rummel, Erika. Erasmus. New York: Continuum Books, 2004.

 

Postures We Use: Colin Kaepernick, National Solidarity, and the Wounded in Worship

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Last Sunday I sat through the entire church service.  This might not sound that strange to you, but I attend an Anglican communion where constant change of posture is commonplace as part of our liturgical worship.  Yet at thirty-three weeks pregnant with our third child in three years, I wasn’t feeling quite up to full participation in the usual ways of standing, kneeling, and constantly changing positions throughout the service.

As I sat still while others moved, I marveled at the freedom of bodily expression in worship we enjoy as Anglicans, especially in the confines of a predetermined liturgy.  Sit or kneel.  Stand or sit.  Come forward or stay where you are.  Raise your arms in song or stand still.  Partake in communion or cross your arms for a blessing.

So many ways to be united in worship; so many ways to fellowship together.

Colin Kaepernick started a national controversy when he choose to sit for the playing of the national anthem at NFL games.  Some identify with his reasoning and have joined him in various acts of solidarity.  Others are appalled by his choice and his perceived message of disrespect and openly choose make their displeasure known.  I’d rather we first take a step back and question why we expect others to stand united in the first place, and what it means when people choose to act differently during public acts of solidarity.

Our bodies are vessels of human expression. If you have ever had the pleasure of traveling overseas, working within a community of non-English speakers, or interacting with children too young to speak, you likely know just how effective body language and expression can become as a tool for communication.  We can have entire conversations without speaking a single word.  Waves, smiles, frowns, pointing, jumping, dancing, hugging, tugging, kneeling – all these actions and so many more communicate something to the world around us.  Our bodies are vessels of human expression.

Posture can wound. Unfortunately, because our bodies are used as a form of speech, they can be used to hurt others.  Yes, through physical violence toward one anther but also – more simply – in our choice of gestures or posture.  Crossing our arms, literally turning our backs, walking away, giving the finger, these are all ways that people use their movements to communicate something negative, offensive, or obscene.

Likewise, we can use different postures to wound ourselves.  This often occurs through uses of our body which violate our conscience, undermine God’s intended good for us, or belittle our existence and self-worth. Consider the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and how they understood that to kneel before a false idol would both wound the honor of God and wound their own belief and testimony in Him.  Unlike that silly adage goes, words most certainly can hurt and so too can the ways we use our bodies to speak to the world around us.  Posture can wound.

Posture can heal.  The good news is that while we can use our posture to hurt others, we can also choose to use our bodies as vessels to help heal ourselves and those around us. Be it through physical touch, open arms, or a stirring sign of humility, surrender, or love, the ways we choose to move about this earth can touch hearts for the better.  Like many forms of healing, these physical expressions of positive communication don’t always come easy or without conflict.  As a reflection of divine love, sometimes the act that brings healing can first bring a healthy or necessary form of pain.

Perhaps there is no better expression of this form of healing love than the symbol of Christ’s posture on the cross.  Arms nailed open to the world, His pain (and the pain of our sin) became a crucial precursor to His victory.  Each time a follower of Christ finds themselves in prayer and worship reaching out their arms like those upon the cross – be they standing, sitting, or lying down prostrate – they both embody that pain and that victory at the same time.  Be it to address a need for a personal victory over sin or in contrition for relational or societal hurts, postures such as this touch hearts through both experience and witness.  Posture can heal.

Posture is powerful. Since posture can both wound and heal, it is a vital part of how we live together in a society.  Many of our postures we take for granted.  Yet even when we are not intentional about how we use our bodies, we still speak volumes in each moment of the day.  When we pass other people on the street or in an elevator do we look them in the eye and smile, or do we keep our heads down and eyes averted?  It is remarkable how just tiny adjustments in our our body language can impact those around us, or even our own hearts, for better or worse.

For example, when we choose to kneel in prayer it is an act of submission.  To do so communicates to our hearts that we are choosing to come before God with surrender and reverential fear, and it communicates to those around us that we are choosing to make ourselves lesser before the One who is greater, often uniting the body of Christ in a common act of humility.

The physical act of kneeling not only prepares us for our times of prayer or confession, but it can also be a crucial part of the prayer, or even a prayer in and of itself.  Moreover, when done in public, kneeling in prayer acts as a sign to remind the community of our place before God and to point us all back to the heart of His glory and grace.  Posture is powerful.

Posture demands authenticity.  Because of the very power entailed in how we use our bodies, it is important to use our bodies truthfully.  We can lie with our bodies just like we can lie with our tongues.  This means that when I fake a smile, a hug, or a salute, I lie.  It might be a small lie, we might classify many of these actions as white lies, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am still expressing an untruth.

There are certainly situations when we will choose to use our bodies in a way that doesn’t perfectly match how we feel, and this isn’t always the same thing as a lie.  In fact, some of the most powerful uses of our bodies come through disciplined acts, like the decision to kneel in prayer even when we feel rebellious, angry, confused, or full of doubt.  By intentionally and willfully choosing to be disciplined to a specific kind of service, act of worship, or to a reverential commitment, regardless of our shifting emotions, we are still true to that higher goal with our bodies even when our hearts are wary or rebellious. Marriage, I am learning, is full of such moments.

However, there are many more times when we do not intentionally honor a prior choice or commitment.  Rather, we just move in ways that are contrary to our authentic selves.  Perhaps it is out of routine, perhaps it is out of disappointment, or fear, or vanity, or manipulative motives, but when we tell lies with our bodies we wound.  It reminds me of an old Casting Crowns song:

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade

When we hide the truth of our hearts, when we use our bodies just to play a role or to convey a false image, we cut off the potential for healing to occur.  By doing untrue things with our body we choose to wound ourselves and our wider community with our lies.  Being “happy plastic people”, for example, can help to maintain a certain image or comfort level for the fellowship of a church as we all follow along and act exactly as everyone else does.  Sit together.  Stand together.  Shake hands together.  Smile on cue together.

There is an element of these programed movements that even appears on the surface to build solidarity and unity, but for the sake of what exactly? For the sake of a lie.  When there is no room for our communal traditions to be broken, for one or many individuals to question, to doubt, to cry out, or to act differently when in public, there is no room for healing to occur.  And where healing cannot occur, wounds will fester and painful divisions will take hold.  Posture demands authenticity.

Where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.  Church, where we go to commune with Christ and His children, is meant to be a safe place to express our innermost thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.  It is meant to be a place where we can show great devotion and love, but also great doubt and sorrow.

I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in church and questioned.  Questioned God’s love, questioned my purpose and worth, questioned the nature of the church and the evil of mankind.  And because I have questioned, I have sometimes sat still while others stood.

I have wept while others sang out with joyful hope.  I have lain prostrate while others danced.  There have been entire seasons – weeks, months at a time – where I chose to not receive communion as an intentionally outward sign of my inner struggles.  When I do these actions, all crucial aspects of authenticity in posture, I do so to be vulnerable before God and within my community.  I do so with the heart of healing, even in the midst of my anguish.

When I or others display our weaknesses, doubts, or brokenness with our bodies it is not meant to invalidate the more joyful or reverential behavior of the rest of the community.  Rather, it is about finding ways to still be a part of our community even while we struggle.  It is about still trying to know God, even when we honestly question his very existence or goodness.

Crucially, my times of sitting out or using my body in ways that differ from others in worship aren’t – first and foremost – about the truth of my grievances.  They are about the truth of my heart.  God is good, all the time.  But more than once in my life I have not seen or felt His goodness.  When you wrestle with that question it can be over-powering.  Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow, and endless streams of questions pour forth.  How we choose to reveal our internal struggles with our bodies or our words won’t change the truth of who God is.  But the more authentic we are in our posture, the more likely we are – in time – to encounter His healing touch and come to know his genuine goodness.

If we hide from our grief and our doubt, choosing instead to go through the motions and not acknowledge our true thoughts and feelings, we risk never finding the answers we need most.  Moreover, we limit our opportunities to build stronger and more authentic relationships and communities.  Lament, while often deeply personal, can also be powerfully communal.

When I am honest about my heart, most visibly through my posture, it offers the chance for others to come along side me to help.  Perhaps they will grieve or question along with me.  Perhaps they will respectfully challenge me.  Perhaps they will encourage me.  Perhaps they will pray for and with me. But, when done with love and grace, a healthy community always welcomes our differences in action for they understand that these postures offer a starting place for all of us to heal and grow stronger.  Where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.

So if I am free to question God through how I use my body, why can’t Colin Kapernick – or anyone else for that matter – question our country through their choice of posture during a national moment of solidarity?  Surely the act of honoring God is far higher than honoring a country, no matter how much we may love our home.  If God does not demand a robotic allegiance to him through our posture then we should not demand it for the sake of our nation.

This is not to say it is wrong to choose en-mass to show respect and love for country and all that means to us through standing during songs or placing hands over our hearts during a pledge.  Just because one, or even millions, reveal their authentic doubt about the problems we face as a nation doesn’t mean that all people in that moment must stop do the same, or even feel the same toward the country that they love.

Neither does it mean that those who choose not to stand do so because they hate their country.  I may doubt God at times but I still love Him in my weakness.  To search for God, to be truthful regarding our questions about God, is to love Him.  Why should it be considered any different in how we choose to love our country?

Moreover, it matters how we reveal our true selves through the public display of our bodies.  I said that posture wounds, but do actions like Kaepernick’s actually wound our country, or more specifically our veterans?  I am not sure there is anything inherently offensive, aggressive, or hateful about choosing to sit while others stand.  Especially, perhaps, when it was originally done without fanfare or grandstanding, but instead quietly as a matter of personal conscience.    If anything is rightly wounded by his actions it is our sense of solidarity.

But where our societal unity is built on lies, it does not actually exist.  So when, say, a large group of Americans question if their country is a safe or equal place for them to dwell, yet they are told to hide those emotions in public so they won’t risk offending the majority, our country is made weak.  We are made weak because we are not truthful.  It doesn’t matter at the outset if you think their grievances are real or justified, what matters is that they do not believe that they belong.  What matters is that they are hurting.

If what we desire is to be stronger or more unified as a nation, we can achieve those ends exactly through authentic moments like Kaepernick’s choice to sit.  In so doing he chose to signify with his body the true state of our lack of solidarity as a nation.

And even if his posture was unquestionably offensive and meant to wound, like standing up with his middle finger extended toward the flag, how then should we respond?  Well, if someone did a similarly offensive act in the middle of a church service directed at the cross how would you respond? Would you glare with judgmental distaste and disapproval?  Would you demand said offender be removed from the sanctuary? For surely they, with their ingratitude and dishonor, should not be welcome in the house of the Lord.  Would you respond in kind and curse the offender with your body or your mouth?

Or, might you choose to turn your cheek, bless those who curse, and approach the offender to ask what is troubling them that day?  Would you offer to pray for them with a genuine concern for the state of their heart, soul, and mind?  Would you extend to them a place to be heard, a place to be truthful, and a place to encounter God? Would you choose to show them respect and love?

Perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of this whole Colin Kaepernick debacle is the role played by Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL player.  Not only did he respectfully open a dialogue with Kaepernick when this controversy first captured the attention of the county, but he actually met with him in person.  He spoke with him for over an hour and listened to the grievances and doubts of Colin Kaepernick’s heart.  And then, as part of their honest dialogue, he helped find an even better posture for Kaepernick (and now many others) to use when they wish to express the truth of their doubts and hurts in moments designed to engender national unity.

To take a knee has long been a sign of respect.  And if I understand football culture correctly, it is also commonly used as a sign of solidarity among players.  Is it the same as how the majority of Americans have chosen to respect the flag of this country over the years?  No, and it is not supposed to be.  Yet it is possible that in choosing an alternate sign of respect in our posture we can still love our country even while we question it.  Questioning and doubt, be it in our thoughts, or our words, or our posture, can still be a form of love.

To encourage Kaepernick to find this middle ground, a way to still express a form of respect through his body while remaining true to his internal struggles and doubts, is a beautiful picture of community.  Even more powerful is how Boyer then joined Kaepernick at the next game and stood by him during the national anthem, standing with hand over his heart, while his new friend took a knee.  Two different postures – two different experiences, emotions, and views – both united together.

Would that more of us will choose to be like Nate Boyer.  You don’t have to surrender your loves, your beliefs, or your traditions to take the time to listen and stand beside those who hurt, question, or doubt.  You don’t have to accept all that someone asserts in order to respect and love them.  You don’t have to believe someone is right, or intuitively understand their perspective, to care that they are struggling or in pain.

Our bodies are vessels of human expression.  Because that is true, our postures can wound, and our postures can heal.  Let us choose, even when it’s hard to understand, to use our own postures and bodies to heal.  When we do so we can change individual hearts and even whole communities, for posture is powerful.

Never forget that truth is required for healing, even when that truth is messy, painful, hard, or looks different than what others expect.  In order to be used for acts of healing, both personal and communal, posture demands authenticity.  So when we encounter neighbors, be they in football stadiums or in our churches, who convey the unexpected with their posture, instead of judging them, let us listen to them.  Let us reach out and stand beside them, even in their true pain, doubt, or confusion.  Let us leave room for the notion that we can find unity with one another, even as we express that unity in different ways and with different emotions.

All people struggle with loves, devotions, and beliefs throughout the course of their life.  Some of us choose to wear those internal battles more openly on our bodies than others.  When we encounter a person whose posture suggests that they are experiencing some form of pain, anger, doubt, or grief, let us bless and not curse.  Let us have the courage to not be offended for our own sake, but rather be concerned for sake of someone else’s heart. For, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 12:26, where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.

 

 

 

Of Two Swords and Two Evils: Trump, Clinton, and Chesterton’s Nightmares

bc_ch1_2__15813-1392762861-1280-1280The breeze off the Bosporus calmed my nineteen year old nerves.  I was having tea in a garden at the residences of a historic Ottoman mosque with the Turkish son of an imam and an American pot-smoking sorority member, my female travel companion for the day.  As all three of us talked about life, beliefs, and interests, I came to realize that I had far more in common with this devout and polite young Muslim man than I had with my fellow female American college student.

In one breath she told stories of breaking international drug-smuggling laws while studying in Paris, in the next she declared her intention to become a lawyer to fight for “justice”.  I still have no idea what that word meant to her, especially given her decided relativism on just about every topic of ethics we encountered.  Hers was a sadly vapid and transitory worldview, one that was almost impossible to engage directly for its sheer lack of discernible foundation.

The son of the Imam, on the other hand, believed in universal absolutes and moral law.  He asked questions about matters eternal and how they related to this present world, genuinely interested in hearing my perspective while defending his own.  We engaged on the perceptions about our faiths versus the actual teachings we claimed as truth, and discussed the vapid and rootless dangers found in secularism.  As we spoke, my fellow American was fairly bored, apathetic, and disinterested.

He was a young student who kindly opened his home and life to two foreigners with the solitary goal to exchange thoughts and ideas.  He did so in a way that respected our dignity and sheltered us from the ugly behavior that runs rampant in the tourist quarters of his city.  We did not need to minimize the critical theological differences between our creeds in order to recognize in each other a kinship.  Ours was a kinship forged in an earnest search for truth and righteousness.

You see, that young man sought after truth, knowledge of God, and the root dignity of man, with more passion than most people I have encountered in my life so far – in or out of the American church.  I still pray to this day that he is an Emeth, be it either on this earth or before the thrown of God.

How certain are you about who is on your side?  As we approach a major election in this country I often hear the imagery of teams used to suggest a clear discernible line between who or what is defensible and who or what it not.  Those on the “other side” are evil, while those deemed to be on our own political side – no matter how flawed – are seen as fundamentally good, perhaps just misguided.  The people most like us are surely the ones who are for us.  Those who are the most different are met with suspicion and often fear.

But what if our sense of teams is wrong?  What if we’ve chosen to join a movement that actually undermines everything that we claim to hold most dear?  What if we aren’t looking clearly enough for the dangers of our own teams and our own battles?  Then what are we to do?

For those who feel caught between two evils, for those who wish to speak against lies but find precious few willing to join them, for those wondering how to stand for truth and justice in a depraved and cynical world, this is for you.

In 1910 G.K. Chesterton penned an allegorical tale, The Ball and the Cross, about two Scotsman dueling for truth in the streets of London and throughout the British countryside.  Evan MacIan, a devout Catholic, and James Turnbull, a devout atheist, both take up swords with the intention to fight the other to the death in defense of their core beliefs.  Labeled madmen by their fellow countrymen, the two embark on a fanciful journey of engagement that leads to some surprising conclusions, including the formation of an indelible companionship based on their common defense of eternal truth.

Toward the end of the novel both MacIan and Turnbull are met with dreams that promise to show the fulfillment of what each is fighting for only to reveal two different, yet similarly rooted, evils.  Each are led away in flying boats by men with no names to the frontline of two dystopian visions for the future of London.  In these depictions of evils we find a reflection of our own times, and our own temptations.  To see them, to understand them, and – finally – to forsake them both for the embrace of Christ: this is our calling.

We long to be drafted for a fight.  In the opening sequence of both dreams, Chesterton’s dueling Scotsmen are met with appeals to come and join the real fights their hearts have longed for.  As the mysterious man first tells MacIan, “you have remained here long enough, and your sword is wanted elsewhere.”  There is something in these lines that speaks to those of us who desire to be wanted, needed, and appreciated.

It beckons to those of us who are dissatisfied with the life we are living or who deeply desire to be a part of a greater cause.  The men with no names in both dreams know of this temptation and desire, for they know the hearts of their would-be warriors.  The call to come fight in their battles is how they lure each truth-fighter into their midst.

Sometimes I think we are drawn to politics because of all it seems to promise.  The power, yes, but also a sense of importance or mission that maybe we don’t feel in our day to day work.  Think of the common political rhetoric we hear and how elevated the language has become, how grandiose the goals are for a better tomorrow.

Politicians promise to fix our problems, ease our fears, and provide hope and purpose for our lives.  When a political candidate asks for your support, for you to join their team and fight for their visions of a certain kind of country, it can be compelling in ways that we are rarely moved.  We all want our lives to mean something greater than ourselves.

And for many, the temptation is strong to believe that how we vote, who we support, or what policies we advance, presents just such a battle to wage that will reward us with the dignity and honor our hearts desire.  We may not have swords of steel, but many of us are called upon by the political causes of our day to rise up with the swords of our mouths, our intellect, our social influence, our pens, and our votes.

When we choose to become a surrogate for a certain politician, when we decide that we will support them for one reason or another, we can often find ourselves enlisted in a battle where our sword is wanted and our life appears to have new purpose and fulfillment.  Perhaps at first we are reluctant or disillusioned, but once suited in the armor of these wars our instinct and heart’s desire for mission leads us to fight on their behalf.

The truth is that it feels good to have a tangible cause to claim as our own.  To have a visible enemy and a measurable path for declaring victory.  We desire to be on the winning side and to feel all that comes with hard fought success.  We long to be drafted for a fight.

And yet…

Without God, security forged in the name of law and order leads only to tyranny.  Donald Trump has declared himself the law and order candidate, and his claim is that this mission will keep us safe and secure as a nation.  But he is not the first to use these terms or proffer these ideas.

In MacIan’s dream, the man driving the flying ship told Evan, “I must not say who I am until the end of the world; but I may say what I am.  I am the law.”  This figure, who claims to represent the law, notably as we shall discover, a law without God, reveals what a world under his dominion would be like.

Claiming that “The king has returned”, he takes MacIan up through the stars.  Foreshadowing the state of the nation, the man who is the law notes of the heavens:

“There is an answer to all the folly talked about equality.  Some stars are big and some are small; some stand still and some cycle round them as they stand.  They can be orderly, but they cannot be equal.

“They are all very beautiful,” said Evan, as if in doubt.

“They are all beautiful,” answered the other, “because each is in his place and owns his superior.  And now England will be as beautiful as the heavens, because our kings have come back to us.”

In this world there is no equality, merely order. Perhaps, at first blush, this doesn’t sound so bad.  Isn’t it supposed to be that way, after all?  The man who is the law claims that the world he is creating with the return of the king is one that reclaims “…all that was ever lost by insolence and overwhelmed in rebellion.”  It is a world with pageantry, cathedrals of armed guards, and stoic greatness.

When the sole object is the law, the borders of one nation can be managed with ease.  As they draw closer to London in their journey, MacIan asks if the war is still raging.  The response of his would be captain is telling and somber:

“It rages like the pit itself beyond the sea wither I am taking you,” answered the other.  “But in England the king enjoys his own again.  The people are once more taught and ruled as is best; they are happy knights, happy squires, happy servants, happy serfs, if you will; but free at last of that load of vexation and lonely vanity which was called being a citizen.”

“Is England, indeed, so secure?” asked Evan.

England won her security in this dream, but at what cost?  At the cost of an enduring chaos and war for the rest of the world, a world completely left behind when the goal of establishing the might of the ancient kings and kingdom was made paramount.  At the cost of their own dignity as citizens.  At the cost of a hard earned freedom, all relinquished in order to become secure from the battles of the outside and the fears from within.

The picture offered of this secure world is one of ordered domestic tranquility with a unsettling undertone:

“As they were sailing down Ludgate Hill, Evan saw that the state of the streets fully answered his companion’s claim about the reintroduction of order.  All the old black-coated bustle with its cockney vivacity and vulgarity had disappeared.  Groups of laborers, quietly but picturesquely clad, were passing up and down in sufficiently large numbers; but it required but a few mounted men to keep the streets in order.  The mounted men were not common policemen, but knights with spur and plume whose smooth and splendid armor glittered like diamond rather than steel.

Only in one place – at the corner of Bouverie Street- did there appear to be a moment’s confusion, and that was due to hurry and rather than resistance.  But one old grumbling man did not get out of the way quick enough, and the man on horseback struck him, not severely, across the shoulders with the flat of his sword.

“The soldier had no business to do that,” said MacIan sharply.  “The old man was moving as quick as he could.”

“We attach great importance to discipline in the streets,” said the man in white, with a slight smile.

“Discipline is not so important as justice,” said MacIan.

At first, you might think, ‘how splendid!’  The criminals, the beggars, the unruly crowds all cleared away for the sake of order, safety, prosperity, and efficiency.  And yet there is a darkness that lingers.  A darkness that silently queries as to the fate of the drunkards, the poor, and the foreigners.  A darkness that wonders at the nature of the people’s hearts and souls working under this state of discipline.  As the man who is the law enlightens:

“The people must be taught to obey; they must learn their own ignorance.  And I am not sure,” he continued, turning his back on Evan and looking out of the prow of the ship into the darkness, “I am not sure that I agree with your little maxim about justice.  Discipline for the whole society is surely more important than justice to an individual.”

Where respect for the individual dignity of all men is traded for law and order, where discipline is bought with the currency of fear, there can be no true justice.  The man in white, who is the law, continues:

“In our armies up in heaven we learn to put a wholesome fear into subordinates.”…

“Besides,” continued he, in the prow, “you must allow for a certain high spirited haughtiness in the superior type…Just as the sight of sin offends God,” said the unknown, “so does the sight of ugliness offend Apollo.  The beautiful and the princely must, of necessity, be impatient with the squalid…”

And here is revealed another truth of the law without God.  The value of people is determined not by their character or innate dignity, but by their physical and material worth.  The spiritual value of each life ceases to matter, at least not with dignity or reference to a greater dominion than the one created on earth.

Thus we see the creation of two laws and two standards, one for the leaders and the beautiful elite and one for the common people.  What began as resurgence for the supposed good of the people to reestablish the greatness of their nation ends in a horrific vision of inequality and elitism enabled by a rule of fear.

Faced with claims and actions of this nature, the defender of truth, a lover of Christ, will speak out.

“Why you great fool!” cried MacIan, rising to the top of his tremendous stature, “did you think I would have doubted only for that rap of a sword?  I know that noble orders have bad knights, that good knights have bad tempers, that the Church has rough priests and coarse cardinals; I have known it ever since I was born.  You fool! You had only to say, ‘Yes it is rather a shame,’ and I would have forgotten the affair.  But I saw on your mouth the twitch of your infernal sophistry; I knew that something was wrong with you and your cathedrals.  Something is wrong, everything is wrong.  You are not an angel.  This is not a church.  It is not the rightful king who has come home.”

The law, instituted by a return of an earthly king and peddled by the as yet unknown man, is false.  The horror of this dystopian world represents more than the failings of a single person or leader.  It represents the wholesale surrender of justice, freedom, and individual dignity, all in the name of security and a restoration of mythical greatness. It represents the death of the soul, a callousness that demeans and destroys the inner life and worth of men for the sake of external order.  Without God, security forged in the name of law and order leads only to tyranny.

Without God, revolution for the sake of humanity leads only to death.  Hillary Clinton has declared that we are stronger together.  But what if someone is unable or unwilling to move in the direction of what is deemed fair or best for all?  What if some lives are an inconvenience to the whole?

James Turnbull, like his dueling partner, was met by a man with no name who came with news that Turnbull had been waiting his whole life to hear.  After declaring, “I want you”, the unknown man wearing a red scarf clarified:

“I want exactly what you want,” said the newcomer with a new gravity. “I want the Revolution.”

Turnbull found himself conflicted, for he started to worry about the fate of his new friend.  Yet he was ultimately persuaded to leave him behind for it would interfere with the mission “to destroy the Pope and all the kings.”  In contrast to the world of surreal order revealed to MacIan, this was a world of chaos.  As the unknown man explained:

“The heavens are full of revolution – the real sort of revolution.  All the high things sinking low and all the big things looking small.  All the people who think they are aspiring find they are falling head foremost.  And all the people who think they are condescending find they are climbing up a precipice.  That is the intoxication of space.  That is the only joy of eternity – doubt.”

In this world of revolution, God is the ultimate enemy to be overthrown.  As the unknown man says, “I mean nothing in God’s name.”  Traveling over the city of London, he explains to Turnbull just what is taking place below:

“We arrive at a happy moment,” said the man steering the ship.  “The insurgents are bombarding the city, and a cannonball has just hit the cross.  Many of the insurgents are simple people, and they naturally regard it as a happy omen.”

With the cross and all it stands for demolished, the glory of mankind is meant to rise.   Such rising is not without great cost, however.  The unknown man clarifies that he has brought Turnbull to London “to take part in the last war of the world.”

“The last war!” repeated Turnbull, even in his dazed state a little touchy about such a dogma; “how do you know it will be the last?”

The man laid himself back in his reposeful attitude, and said:

“It is the last war, because if it does not cure the world forever, it will destroy it.”

Seeking to cure all the ills of the world, it seems, is a dangerous task.  A task destined to either great success or complete failure.  Wars of totality, wars of annihilation, wars aimed to supplant the dominion of God that claim His work of completion and perfection as their own, can only end in this way.

James, looking to understand the uprising at hand and the nature of the fight, seeks clarification from his guide:

Turnbull wrinkled his forehead.  “Are all the poor people with the Revolution?” he asked.

The other shrugged his shoulders.  “All the instructed and class-conscience part of them without exception,” he replied.  “There were certainly a few districts; in fact we are passing over them just now – ”

Turnbull looked down and saw that the polished car was literally lit up from underneath by the far-flung fires from below.  Underneath whole squares of solid districts were in flames, like prairies or forests on fire.

“Dr. Hertz has convinced everybody,” said Turnbull’s cicerone in a smooth voice, “that nothing can be done with the real slums.  His celebrated maxim has been quite adopted.  I mean the three celebrated sentences: “No man should be unemployed.  Employ the employables.  Destroy the unemployables.”

The reign of Science and “equality” had come.  Without God, without an anchor or a compass other than the collective good of mankind, hell on earth had arrived.  If the world is to be perfect, if progress is to be final, some lives must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.

There was silence, and then Turnbull said in a rather strained voice: “And do I understand that this good work is going on under here?”

“Going on splendidly,” replied his companion in the heartiest voice.  “You see, these people were much too tired and weak even to join the social war.  They were a definite hindrance to it.”

“And so you are simply burning them out?”

“It does seem absurdly simple,” said the man, with a beaming smile, “when one thinks of all the worry and talk about helping a hopeless slave population, when the future obviously was only crying to be rid of them.  There are happy babes unborn ready to burst the doors when these drivelers are swept away.”

Perhaps the revolution began with the intent to help these very people, but as they started progressing toward a godless, rootless, social justice an irreverence for the weakest life set in.  Turnbull began to object:

“These people have rights.”

“Rights!” repeated the unknown in a tone quite indescribable.  Then he added with a more open sneer: “Perhaps they also have souls.”

“They have lives!” said Turnbull, sternly; “that is quite enough for me.  I understood you to say that you thought life sacred.”

“Yes, indeed!” cried his mentor with a sort of idealistic animation.  “Yes, indeed! Life is sacred – but lives are not sacred.  We are improving life by removing lives.  Can you, as a freethinker, find any fault in that?”

What a poignant and direct condemnation of the philosophy behind the pro-abortion movement.  Then again, what poignant and direct condemnation of any philosophy that degrades, devalues, or destroys the life of any individual for the sake of the whole.

Think of the fear of disability in the young and the subsequent advocacy to end life before it has begun on the sheer basis that their life might be hard, diseased, or imperfect.  Think of the one-child policy and all the human pain that has caused. Think of those who advocate that we must limit human life for the sake of the planet.  Think of the glorification of euthanasia as a way to ease the pain of an individual and the collective burden such pain presents the wider community.  Where individuals are not loved unto life, death shall reign.

The dialogue continues, after Turnbull replies that he can, indeed, find fault with that argument:

“Yet you applaud tyrannicide,” said the stranger with rationalistic gaiety.  “How inconsistent!  It really comes to this: You approve of taking away life from those to whom it is a triumph and a pleasure.  But you will not take away life from those to whom it is a burden or a toil.”

Turnbull rose to his feet in the car with considerable deliberation, but his face seemed oddly pale.  The other went on with enthusiasm.

“Life, yes, Life indeed is sacred!” he cried; “but new lives for old! Good lives for bad! On that very place where now there sprawls one drunken wastrel of a pavement artist more or less wishing he were dead – on that very spot there shall in the future be living pictures; there shall be golden girls and boys leaping in the sun.”

Such is the vision of a social revolution without God.  It starts with seeking justice for the oppressed.  Kill the kings!  Kill the bankers! Kill the powerful! Kill the rich!  But then the mission quickly becomes about maximizing the best life for the most number of people.  Kill the weak.  Kill the unwanted.  Kill the inconvenient.  Kill the unproductive.  Kill the uncooperative.

Their sacrifice is needed for the good of the whole, is it not?  Surely equality for most is worth the destruction of a few.  Such is the logic of the godless revolution. Such was the horror of the godless authoritarian regimes of the 20th Century.  It happened in our past, in some corners of the world it is happening in the present, and it can most certainly happen again in our future.

Where only certain lives are valued, no one can be truly loved or loving.  To honor all life means to honor the innate dignity of each human being as creations with a Creator.  Without God, revolution for the sake of humanity leads only to death.

The goodness of God always respects and loves the dignity, sanctity, and equality of every individual life.  The dystopian visions offered by Chesterton over 100 years ago remain remarkably relevant, for these are the extremes of a world without truth and without God.  I have a feeling that to some of you one outcome likely seems worse than the other, but such an assessment would fundamentally miss the point.  Both are evil.

Both revoke the sovereignty of God for futures where men seek to take His authority as their own.  One offers the vision of a pretender, a human savior who alone can fix all that ills us.  The other offers the vision of a revolt, the overthrow of God and His standards of life for the supposed good of the whole. Both turn the State and its rulers into gods, creating an idolatrous worship of man and government in the place of Christ.

Our current candidates for president and the ideals they represent may fall along different places on this spectrum of danger and death.  It is up for interpretation just how close to each nightmarish future the current candidates comes in their policy prescriptions and personas as supposed balms to our fears and unmet desires.

You may see a little of each dream in both candidates, or perhaps you see this election in stricter ideological terms.  Regardless, neither candidate espouses a vision of life and authority that aligns with the love and truth of God.  The goodness of God always respects and loves the dignity, sanctity, and equality of every individual life.

All evil leads to the same place.  The notion of the “lesser” evil is typically a false concept.  Either your options represent true evil, and therefore are all equally bad, or they really aren’t evil to begin with.

I fear we have deluded ourselves into buying into a great lie of civil religion, a lie often claimed to have God on its side.  This lie tell us that our desired policy preferences are all moral goods, and therefore those of the other side are inherently evil or immoral.

What if both sides to a policy solution are legitimate moral goods, for their ends are morally desirable?  What if they are just different ideas on how to walk out similar principles?  Or what if they are just preferences?  What if both sides to a policy solution are merely secular in nature, for the stated goal carries little to no moral significance?

I genuinely believe in the economic efficacy and importance of free trade, but are those who are against it fundamentally evil?  Some people believe the government has an obligation to take care of those struggling at the margins of society while others see this as the work of private organizations.  Perhaps we disagree about how best to achieve the goal, but do we not both agree that those who are in pain or poverty need to be helped?  Why create enemies where there are none?

We live, for now, in a democratic republic.  We compromise and work with people who have different ideas of how to achieve similar ends.  Just because we disagree about how to solve problems does not mean we must also disagree that there are specific problems most Americans want to address.  Compromising on issues like healthcare, immigration policy, taxes, or criminal justice reform does not automatically make you an enemy of truth or a hypocrite in representing your fundamental values.

In contrast, because it seems every deviance from our chosen party affiliation is labeled an apostasy to not just the political good but also the moral good, we have obscured the true evils that dwell among us and ask for our allegiance.  Sure, we can usually identify the dangers present in our political opposition.  But when we, say, list praise for abortion alongside the embrace of food stamps, a dovish foreign policy, or a particular tax rate, all as evil things worthy of equal condemnation, we weaken our voice and testimony on the issues that truly matter.

Moreover, when we obsess over the particular evils of the “other side”, we risk blinding ourselves to the evil that dwells within our own causes and among our fellow compatriots.

An exclusive and authoritarian nationalism, the flagrant abuse of power, an unashamed display of greed and success at all costs, a desire to torture or even kill innocents for our own security, a callousness to the suffering or failure of others, a disregard for personal virtue in political leadership, the superiority of one culture, ethnicity, or person over another, all these evils must be guarded against no matter the bearer.

Likewise, a socialist mindset that values the collective “good” above the individual, that labels some life as less important than others because of the pain, inconvenience, or financial drain they represent, a belief that truth is relative and therefore lies are permissible, a denial of a common morality or the existence of a creator, these are all evils that cannot be endorsed or advanced.

In the contrast offered by Chesterton’s dreams there are no lesser evils.  Both dreams are equally unrighteous and worthy of condemnation.  Both dreams were designed to warn each truth fighter of the dangers in their own thoughts and to bring them closer to the true king and the true battle, a battle won through surrender of self.  Both dreams served to bring each man closer together, to remind them of the goodness they shared, and to instruct them about the evil they needed to reject.

Lack of equality, justice, and freedom for individuals as found in the fight for “the law” is not rendered right or good because crime and vulgarity is banished from the streets (although perhaps not in the rulers themselves) and authority and order reigns supreme.

Lack of protection for the sanctity of all life – no matter how inconvenient, ugly, or painful – as found in the fight for the “revolution” is not made acceptable just because institutional abuses of power are finally upended or avenged.

Don’t fool yourself.  All evil leads to the same place.

In the end, we always have a choice.  Contrary to the popular lies spreading throughout our contemporary discourse, when brought face to face with representatives of evil we have a choice to say no. We have a choice to do the unexpected.  We have a choice to take the narrow path and the hard way.

Chesterton understood this point well.  When told that he had no choice but to see the returned king, presumably in submission, Evan MacIan refused:

“Do you desire death?”

“No,” said Evan, quite composedly, “I desire a miracle.”

“From whom do you ask it? To whom do you appeal?” said his companion sternly.  “You have betrayed the king, renounced the cross on the cathedral, and insulted an archangel.”

“I appeal to God,” said Evan, and sprang up and stood upon the edge of the swaying ship.

The being in the prow turned slowly round; he looked at Evan with eyes which were like two suns, and put his hand to his mouth just too late to hide an awful smile.

“And how do you know,” he said, “how do you know that I am not God?”

MacIan screamed, “Ah!” he cried.  “Now I know who you really are.  You are not God  You are not one of God’s angels.  But you were once.” The being’s hand dropped from his mouth and Evan dropped out of the car.

Likewise, Turnbull has a similar moment of revelation where he, too, decides to jump out of the flying ship taking him to the frontline of a battle that was not his to fight.  Both came face to face with the epitome of evil and rebellion.  Both visions, both worlds – of law and of revolution – came from the same fallen angel.  Once the source of their evils was revealed, the two truth duelers knew how to respond.

But what are we to do?  This is the resonating question that remains unresolved by much of our national discourse at present.  Drawn from Chesterton, I have a few tentative suggestions of how best to proceed:

Step 1: Find your Turnbull 

Chances are that you are not alone in the passions now cultivated in your heart as you confront these societal questions of goodness, evil, dignity, and truth.  Perhaps your life is full of Turnbulls, of fellow travelers seeking after truth with the same earnest questioning and resistance to popular movements and ideas that hold others captive.  Or perhaps you need to go out and find at least one other person with whom you can engage.

One of the Turnbulls in my past was the imam’s son.  Be they fellow Christians, or those seeking from starting places outside of divine revelation, find your friends and dialogue with one another.  Band together.  Sharpen each other.  Help each other.  Bless, minister, and engage.  In a world gone mad, these friends of truth are a great gift from above.

Step 2:   Don’t be deceived

It would have been so easy for MacIan and Turnbull to say yes to the fights they were recruited to join.  These were, after all, earthly manifestations of the battles their hearts had dreamed of and yearned for.  These were great narratives wrought in an attempt to address all they felt was wrong with the world.  How desperately our hearts want to be given a mission and told that we have an important role to play.

It is empowering to believe that we can be a part of something great, be it the ordering of the world in the name of security or the last battle of the world in the name of the common good.  But we err when we let our desire to fight overlook the root evil that lies behind those who would beckon our swords.

Ask yourself, who is calling you and for what purpose?  Keep your eyes open in this treacherous world and resist the cunning spirit who would use your best intentions to enlist your services for a cause that is neither just, nor holy, nor righteous, nor true.

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.  –  Galatians 6:7-9

Step 3: Jump out of your ship

We live in a world that often assigns us to certain kinds of boats.  Our race, our citizenship, our families, our denomination, our favored sports team, our political affiliation.  We can choose different labels at times, but no matter where we find ourselves it is easy to go along with a human narrative or cause because it is the rallying call of the ships that we sail within.  Sometimes these boats are harmless, for they provide our sense of community or identity.  But sometimes they seek to take us to places that are contrary to the calling of the Lord.

When we find that our boats of birth or choice seek to sail upon winds counter to the glory of God, to take us to the frontline of battles we are not called to fight, then we must be like MacIan and Turnbull.  We must call out to God for help, pray for a miracle, and jump out of the supposed safety of these berths into the protective arms of our Savior.

In a world that treasures labels and tribes of all kinds, this can be a frightening prospect.  Perhaps you have always been a Republican or a Democrat and to not vote as such (or for at least one of the two) seems like a direct challenge to your identity or your very calling in this world.  How desperately we want to believe that our causes and boats are right and true!  But this is where we must recall that our true identity is found in Christ, not in any label or power or battle the world can offer.  Dare to jump, dare to leave all labels and vessels behind but one: Christ follower.

It’s time to reevaluate what the work of God in this world is meant to look like.  It’s time to question our preconceived notions of what God is asking of us as a people.  I cannot tell you what that future will look like, but I can promise that as we forsake the boats of this earth, we will be met with the power of God, not man, that shall rise us up on wings like eagles to carry us and – we pray – our Turnbulls, to our true eternal home.

Step 4: Put down your sword and kneel

In the final pages of Chesterton’s saga, in the midst of a great battle against those who wish to silence the cause of truth, MacIan, Turnbull, and the friends they made during their crusade encounter another man without a name – the one who was labeled by the authorities as both the most dangerous and the most insane.  Yet this man turned out to be the true King, the true answer to all the world’s ills.

Both MacIan and Turnbull find their swords cast aside as they and their companions fall to their knees before his Holy presence.  Having resisted the temptations of evil battles and evil leaders, they found the true battle and the true leader their hearts longed for.

It is through surrender to Christ, through death in Him, that we will conquer the ills of the world.  It is in rejecting calls to join in these worldly fights as the false gods they really are that we will be fulfilled and our heart’s desire shall be met.

Come before the Lord in prayer, worship, and holiness.  Stay true to Him regardless of the cost, regardless of what others call you, regardless of the temporal consequences some are quick to proffer in admonishment.  Fear not the ways of man.  Rather, take heart in the ways of God.

No eternal fate of a community or country or soul is won or lost in a single worldly election.  No fate of a country or a court, no earthly fight, is worth selling your soul or compromising your values and your Spirit-breathed conscience.

God is in control and He is sovereign.  He always has been and He always will be.  We know the end of the story.  Let’s choose to serve the One who has already overcome and work for the advancement of His kingdom, which is not of this world.

O God of earth and altar, Bow down and hear our cry, Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die; The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide, Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen, From all the easy speeches, That comfort cruel men, From sale and profanation, Of honour and the sword, From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall, Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all; In ire and exultation, Aflame with faith, and free, Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee.

~ A Hymn: O God of Earth and Altar, 

We must refuse to call something “good” that is not in any way representative of God’s goodness.  We must reject any temptation to believe that because we, or our favorite church leader for that matter, is a part of one of these fights that certainly renders the battle worthwhile.

Unless God is present, and He is not present in the evils set before us, no amount of our perceived personal light or the supposed goodness in one facet of a candidate’s platforms, will be enough to overcome their own wretched ends.  Our swords, once commissioned for a battle of darkness, will be used only for the advancement of the evil we choose to represent.

We can remain mindful that each person of faith, each person actively seeking truth, may walk out the four prescriptions above in slightly different ways when it comes to the upcoming election.  Not voting.  Supporting third parties or write-in candidates, of many different types and varieties.  Voting for a leading candidate with a humble and silent grief.  But the most important feature for us to embrace is the refusal to take up requests to fight on behalf of the fallen angels of law or revolution, on behalf of these angels of death.

In the context of our times and our communities, those who engage one another for the sake of truth, those who choose not to be deceived by the popular movements of our times, those who will jump out of the safe categories and labels offered by our culture to instead lay down their swords at the feet of Christ, could well be deemed lunatics.  We may be cursed, or mocked, or criticized.  But such is the calling of Christ.

We cannot afford to loose our witness to this madness.  And yes, the truly mad are those committed to the lies proffered by the philosophies of tyranny and death, found on both the political left and right.  We must disregard attempts to make those who resist or stand apart look like the ones who just don’t understand or who aren’t doing their share to save the country or save the world.

Take courage friends! Our identity is not found in our political allegiance, nor is it found in the fate or morality of our country.  We have a Creator in Whose image we are made.  We have a Savior in Whom we can find refuge.  Look to Him.  Look for Him.  And leap into His arms in times of trouble, believing in the miracle of His salvation and the power of His dominion.

The good news is that God has already conquered and Christ has already won.  His Bride will rise resplendent and His Body shall one day be made whole.  We can follow Him into the fire knowing that He will protect us from the flames.  In the end we always have a choice.

 

* Image credit to Ben Hatke

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking (Part 3): On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life

9789381841723-ukMy husband and I once found ourselves worshipping with a community of believers who were struggling to pray.  When entreated by the pastor to spend the remainder of a service in small groups of prayer we found ourselves paired up with a group of several elders of the church.  It came to our surprise that almost none of those elders really knew what to say or do, so we all kind of just talked about our concerns, patted each other on the back, and thus concluded the service.

As much as we were perplexed by this experience and other similar ones to follow, we also came to value the human struggles of expressing our thoughts, needs, and desires to God.  In recent years my heart has especially softened to the role of our pastoral shepherds.  It touched me how keenly aware the pastor of this church was regarding his flock’s struggle and how often he taught on prayer and actively sought new ways to encourage each person present to pray.

The patience and love found in a commitment to growth over a long period of time is a beautiful image of leadership.  It is also a beautiful image of Christ’s gentle correcting love for us.  Walking along side several different churches in the last ten years has helped remind me that sometimes the “basics” of our faith are really the deepest and most difficult to walk out.  They can be the hardest to grasp and put into practice, but they also yield the most beautiful blessings when practiced with the truth and love of the Gospel.

Reading through The Power of Positive Thinking I have been reminded time and again of similar experiences at various churches.  The encouraging, the damaging, the healing, the disappointing, the transformational: all parts of trying to live out the gospel of Christ in fellowship with others.

As much as I readily see and acknowledge some truth in Peale’s writings, I also cannot identify with how he sees the purpose for faith or how he explains God’s plan for our lives.  It is like he speaks part of the truth, but can’t or won’t quite make the connection to embrace the fullness of Christ and the freedom found in Him.  The gospel he offers is a cheap one, much like the cheapness famously described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a comparison to look at more fully in a later post).  I think that is the great tragedy of his work, and by extension a great tragedy of the faith expressed on occasion by Donald Trump.

How sad it must be to dwell so close to true healing and yet not be able to embrace it.  How frightening it must be for all your confident answers to lead you right back to where you started the moment something starts to fall apart.  How desperate it must feel to leave no room for explaining or coping with recurring failure, rejection, or lasting suffering other than identifying yourself as a pathetic insecure loser.  When all that we are is contingent upon all that we do, when all that God offers is contingent on how well off we become in the eyes of this world, life and meaning and purpose are diminished.

I think reading this book is giving me not just an understanding of the false teachings of our times, but it is helping me develop a compassion for ways we get lost in them and the heartbreak it leads us toward.  When we package lies inside of truth we risk not only hurting ourselves, but doing irreparable harm to others.

Here are my reflections on Chapters 2-4: A Peaceful Mind Generates Power; How to Have Constant Energy; Try Prayer Power

We need forgiveness from sin every day.  I was genuinely surprised to discover that Norman Vincent Peale talks about forgiveness in these chapters.  It doesn’t seem to be a primary focus of the book and given Donald Trump’s own admission that he wasn’t sure if he ever asked God for forgiveness I wasn’t expecting to find anything on the subject in Peale’s opus.  While it was heartening to see a flash of deeper truth in these pages, I was struck by how he writes about the subject.

The most gospel laden moment so far was when Peale prayed for healing over a man mired in sin and regret.  As he laid his hands upon him (a practice Peale notes as a exception for his daily pastoral work) he prayed, “Dear Jesus, as You healed people in the long ago and gave them peace, heal this man now.  Give him fully of Thy forgiveness.  Help him to forgive himself.  Separate him from all his sins and let him know that You do not hold them against him.  Set him free from them.  Let thy peace flow into his mind, into his soul, and into his body” (38). So far so good, right?

Well, here’s the thing.  This man, who Peale notes was supernaturally healed from his own guilt, was presented as doing something rare.  In fact, in all cases where something even approaching forgiveness is addressed it is presented almost as a solution for once in a lifetime crises or ailments.  And then, once healed, this man was so aghast by the awkwardness of the prayer (Peale notes how they were both quite embarrassed) they immediately parted ways only to speak again months later where a healing was confirmed.

I don’t disagree with Peale’s assessment that, for some Christians, “They have always sought Divine forgiveness, and the good Lord will always forgive anyone who asks Him and who means it.  However, there is a curious quirk within the human mind whereby sometimes an individual will not forgive himself” (37).  But ultimately he depicts the problem that separates us from God as our own thoughts, our lack of positive thinking, and not our sin.

So when a person is troubled by their guilt, confession isn’t as important as merely being peaceful.  In the teachings of Peale, sin is negated by emptying our thoughts and thinking of good things.  Sure, God helps too, but as far as forgiveness goes that is really just something rare and perhaps even an embarrassing footnote to our daily Christian walk.

Consider this telephone exchange he describes with a city official who was so distressed that he could not sleep.  In an emotional moment of confession, the official cried out “I guess you know what a no-account I am, even though I put up a big front.  I am sick of all this, dear Jesus.  Please help me.”  At that moment Peale prays over him with these words, “Help him now to yield himself and accept your gift of peace” (28).

Not to accept the gift of saving grace.  Not to accept the gift of forgiveness.  He bypasses these crucial aspects of Christian teaching to instead ask this man to accept God’s peace without acknowledging the very sources of our peace.  To Peale, this man’s problem was his attitude, not his sin.

The trouble is there is no peace without repentance.  And if we save forgiveness for only the truly rare or extra bad things we do, whatever that means, then we risk separating God from the reality of our daily lives.  Or, worse still, constructing false images of ourselves as mostly good people who don’t really do anything that bad.

I confess I once saw the Christian life this way.  I grew up in church and I didn’t really rebel against my parents or go to parties and engage in other behavioral sins that a lot of teenagers or young adults struggle with.  I was basically a good person, in my own estimation.  Only that wasn’t the truth of my heart.

As I walked out my own pride and self-righteousness, I closed myself off from a closer walk with Christ.  In that moment, I could have been determined and filled my heart and my head with images of success.  I could have embraced the “peace” offered by Peale, peace designed so I might sleep better at night, get better grades in school, make more money when I start working, and occasionally spend time volunteering in homeless shelters just to show what a stellar person I really was.  I could have accepted this peace so that I might rest assured that I was superior to those poor pathetic losers who didn’t know success and God in the unique way I did.

Yet carefully constructing our self image so that we override our own daily conscience is not peace. It is hell.  The closer I got to this hell the more I found that the only way out was through the cross of Christ.  And not once at a camp meeting, but every day, kneeling before God in confession and repentance for the ways that I sinned against Him.  That is the truth of my heart and my life.  And it was through daily repentance, a daily wrestling with my heart and my mind before the Lord, that I found the peace of Christ.

Russell Moore aptly addressed this reality when he was the focus of one of Donald Trump’s insulting tweets.  Instead of defending himself against the name calling he said he that agreed with Trump’s assessment, for he is a sinner as charged.  The good news, as shared during Moore’s interview on CNN, is that Jesus died for us to free us from our own sin.  It isn’t that He died so that we might be successful.  It isn’t that He died so that we might have peaceful thoughts.  He died to set us free from the bondage created as we hurt, lie, covet, and kill (even if it is in our hearts) on a daily basis.

Unlike my teenage self who believed that merely not doing one of a select few actions made me ok before God, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God on a daily basis.  We need forgiveness from sin every day

We need truth in order to heal.  The hollowness of Peale’s forgiveness goes deeper still.  When we deny reality for the sake of a veneer of peace we loose the opportunity to really struggle with the ways that we hurt one another and to come to a complete and transparent healing in our relationships.  Consider this example of a woman whose husband asked her for a divorce as discussed in Peale’s chapter on prayer.

Through Peale’s counseling this woman was convicted that she needed to change her attitude toward her husband, who she believed to be cheating on her.  Nothing exactly wrong there.  Through utilizing his methods of practical religion she asked her husband to wait 90 days before filing for divorce.  She then spent these 90 days visualizing a better marriage and hoping her husband would wish to return to her.  Once the 90 days were over, her husband told her the strangest thing when she reminded him of their deal.

He replied to her, “Don’t be silly.  I couldn’t possibly get along without you.  Where did you ever get the idea I was going to leave you?” (57).  Now, to Peale this was a miraculous answer to prayer.  And I suppose, in some ways, the saving of a marriage is a good thing.  But the problem is that this resolution wasn’t built on truth.  The husband didn’t admit to his infidelity.  He even denied ever having asked for a divorce in the first place, which is both a lie and an abusive form of communication known as gaslighting.  And yet Peale pronounced that, in this case, prayer “solved her problem and his as well.” (57)

This isn’t the kind of healing that God offers, either to ourselves or our relationships.  When He heals, He heals in truth.  Healing with truth can be messy and painful.  It can take years.  In the case of marriages, where trust is broken, it can take a long time to rebuild that which was damaged even when both spouses are fully committed to the process.

In a similar story, interestingly also involving infidelity, Peale speaks of a man who came to him hesitant to end an affair for fear of the woman’s husband finding out and telling the world in revenge. Peale convinced him to end it anyway and risk the consequences.  The man asked God for forgiveness and was freed from guilt and fear.  What a great illustration of a repentant life!  Only there is a bit of a snag with Peale’s telling.

This man, under Peale’s direction, prayed that he might avoid the consequences of his actions.  “The patient recognized the fact that if the husband became apprised of the situation, it would result in disgrace for him in his community.  He happened to be a prominent citizen and prized his high standing” (48).  In spite of his fear, Peale assures his “patient” that, “whatever he did that was right would turn out right” (49).

In the end, the woman he was cheating with chose not to tell her husband about the affair – possibly, Peale notes, because her affections went elsewhere or “through shrewdness or some expression of her better nature” (49).  This conclusion to the story, a conclusion of further brokenness, pain, and lies, is named by Peale as the hand of God his “patient’s” life.

The man Peale prayed with and counseled used the power of prayer and the power of positive thinking to not only get his old life back, but to do so at no personal cost.  His sleep and energy returned, his business associates and neighbors are none the wiser, and he can go on being an upstanding member of his community guilt-free and reputation intact.  How often do we attribute sad circumstances that help us but hurt others as the hand of God?

The relationship of his partner in the affair was irrelevant in this story of healing offered by Peale.  He actually implies we are to rejoice at the fact that the poor husband remained trapped in a lie and without the potential for healing his own marriage.  Was he not also sinned against by the adultery?  I guess not, perhaps he deserved it.  Sounds consistent for Trump world, for reasons that are too unseemly to note outright.

But what happens if one day that woman does seek her own healing?  What if she confesses to her husband?  What if they confess to the world?  Peale glosses over these concerns.  He fails to address the full cost of this man’s sin, and thereby fails to provide a full healing.

Perhaps this man who ended the affair became just like those people Peale notes in Chapter 1 who look confident and successful on the outside but who are secretly afraid that someone will discover the truth of their own hearts and lives.

Or maybe he will so thoroughly master Peale’s teachings that he looses any sense of remorse over the unresolved brokenness left behind.  Maybe he’d blame the other woman for causing his momentary indiscretions and potentially ruining her marriage with the novel possibility of telling her husband the truth.  Peale does explain that this adulterous man “earnestly besought her to abandon their practice and allow him to return to his former state of respectability” (48), so clearly the woman was the primary sinner in this situation anyway.  Perhaps, once forgiven, he’d be like the husband in the first story who just denies, maybe even to himself, that this affair ever happened to begin with.

The healing Peale speaks of, the peace he encourages, the forgiveness he proffers, is superficial and deceptive.  By minimizing the role of repentance and sin he limits the potential for his message to offer genuine hope to his readers.  He minimizes our own culpability, our daily need for repentance, and most of all the need to be truthful about our indiscretions and sins.  In doing so he minimizes the power and fullness of the gospel message.  We need truth in oder to heal.

Abundant life is eternal life.  According to Peale, “The supreme over-all word of the Bible is life, and life means vitality – to be filled with energy.  Jesus stated the key expression, ‘…I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.’ (John 10:10).”  He continues, “This does not rule out pain or suffering or difficulty, but the clear implication is that if a person practices the creative and re-creative principles of Christianity he can live with power and energy” (43).  Well that’s good to know.

Peale tells of a doctor who once explained how one man managed to accomplish so much in business without suffering any physical ailments or tiredness for his devotion.  The doctor observed, “From his religion he has learned how to avoid drainage of power.  His religion is a workable and useful mechanism for preventing energy leaks” (42).  Peale expands, “But if he allows energy leaks caused by hereditary or self-imposed emotional reaction of a debilitating nature, he will be lacking in vital force” (42).  Where there is a depletion of energy there is a depletion of life and a thereby a depletion of faith.  One has to wonder if that also means there is a depletion of salvation.

But what about the chronically ill?  What about those who struggle their whole lives to find success, “power and energy.”  The disabled must just be out of luck, for in this vision they are blocked from a complete partaking of the life offered by God.  Guess they might as well be ridiculed.

Did Jesus come so that we might have endless energy in this world to do whatever we please as we pursue success in our business and personal causes? It is true that in a certain sense we can be empowered by God’s strength to help us through our earthly difficulties. There is a real hope offered to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit for the troubles we face in the land of the living.   Where Peale starts getting a little quacky – and I mean full on New Age oddity – is in how he defines energy and vitality and applies these ideas to God’s will for our lives and the purpose of Christ coming to earth.

For example, he suggests, “in our consciousness we can tap a reservoir of boundless power as a result of which it is not necessary to suffer a depletion of energy” (41).  Therefore, anyone with a depletion of energy is not correctly tapping into the power of God.  Perhaps you can now see why Donald Trump’s criticism of others, most notably Jeb Bush, as being “low-energy” is such a fatal and ugly notion in his ethic.

In counseling his reader to get lost in a cause greater than themselves in order to tap into this limitless energy, Peale notes, “You won’t have time to think about yourself or get bogged down in your emotional difficulties” (45-6).  And there we have it.  The great sin, the great antithesis to Christian living in the eyes of Norman Vincent Peale, is acknowledging and thinking about your problems, pains, and failures for longer than the few minutes it takes to ask God for your rare moments of forgiveness or maybe just His peace.

There is a certain wisdom in pouring yourself out for selfless causes, although selfless is my word.  He advises a more ambitious “something bigger than yourself” (45).  But we are meant as Christians to give out of our own brokenness.  Introspection, when balanced with the spiritual virtues, is a great blessing and a necessity on our path toward contrition, healing, and righteous living.

Without introspection we lack awareness of our own sin and guilt, just as we lack awareness of the fullness of our own pains.  Transparency about our difficulties, acknowledging them yet serving anyway, is meant to be part of our daily life.  We don’t seek to get rid of our problems.  Rather, we let them exist side by side with our callings, our triumphs, and our daily work. Peale, it seems, is leading his followers astray from these vital truths.

Interestingly, he notes that righteousness is not required to taste of the energy and life he promotes.  “Every great personality I have ever known, and I have known many,” (sound like someone else who likes to brag on the greatness of all his acquaintances?),  “who has demonstrated the capacity for prodigious work has been a person in tune with the Infinite.  Every such person seems in harmony with nature and in contact with the Divine energy.  They have not necessarily been pious people, but invariably they have been extraordinarily well organized from an emotional and psychological point of view” (43).  The goal of life, then, is made out to be efficiency, organization, and success.  Achieve these and you will have spiritual life, fail at these and you effectively have spiritual death.

Thankfully, this is not what Christianity teaches.  The word life in Peale’s favored scripture passage on this topic is the Greek word zoe, meaning “the uncreated, eternal life of God, the divine life uniquely possessed by God.” If only Peale urged his readers to ponder more of the passage from John 10:

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

Eternal life, the zoe offered through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ and our adoption as co-heirs with Him, is not dependent on the level of success we achieve in this world or how best we maximize our time, body, and resources.  We can be broken, hurting, and incomplete and still have the life of Christ within us. We can fail – in business, in relationships, in the goals we set – and still be full of the Holy Spirit.

As I noted in Part 2 of this series, we don’t justify our own salvation.  While it is all well and good to build confidence, to use certain tools to stay positive, seek success, and give to others, this is not the essence of the life we are offered in Christ. Abundant life is a sacrificial life.  Abundant life is eternal life.

Prayer is isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you give.  On one hand Peale notes some great ideas about prayer.  He suggests that we go about our day praying through our activities, gives hope that God cares about everything that troubles us no matter how small, and suggests that in praying for others – even silently – we can bless others and encounter God together.  He also offers lots of suggestions for how we can visualize an improvement of our circumstances in order to overcome despair.

None of these perspectives and tools are bad things, but most of them smack of the same level of truth as we find in the contemporary teachings of Deepak Chopra, Eckhardt Tolle, and most Oprah episodes from the last decade her talkshow was on the air.

The main issue is with how he sees prayer primarily as a tool to find success.  He claims, “People are doing more praying today than formerly because they find that it adds to personal efficiency.  Prayer helps them tap into forces to utilize strength not otherwise available” (52).  By utilizing a simple formula, “(1) PRAYERIZE, (2) PICTURIZE, (3) ACTUALIZE” ( 55), he claims that we can achieve just about anything we set our minds to.

For example, he says that “The man who assumes success tends already to have success.  People who assume failure tend to have failure.  When either failure or success is pictured it strongly tends to actualize in terms equivalent to the mental image pictured” (55).  Here we go again, life and godliness determined on the basis of worldly success vs. worldly failure.  Glad to know the only real reason why I have failed at times in my life is because I wasn’t visualizing and assuming properly.

This obsession with the trappings of worldly success as signs of God’s power pervades even how he attempts to entice one businessman back into the church.  “He was the head of a medium-sized business and he fell to telling me how much money his firm took in last year.  I told him I knew quite a few churches whose take exceeded that.  This really hit him in the solar plexus, and I noted his respect for the church mounting by leaps and bounds.  I told him about the thousands of religious books that are sold, more than any other type of book” (58) .  Guess those poor house churches facing persecution around the word are really just not praying effectively enough.

While recounting this conversation he recalls how another man came up to the table to inform Dr. Peale that one of his books changed his life in the course of a single week.  After leaving, the head of this medium sized business noted, “That fellow talks about religion as happy and workable…He also gives the impression that religion is almost a science, that you can use it to improve your health and do better in your job.  I never though of religion in that connection” (59).

Well I’ll be.  All this time we’ve been teaching the gospel as if it was about something more than us.  As if it was about God and who He is and what He has done.  But here is the secret we’ve been missing and the reason people leave the church: we don’t fully grasp how we can USE God for our good.  I don’t quite recall reading this in the Bible, but surely it’s in there somewhere.  At the end of the day Christianity is really just about us, isn’t it?  Or so Peale leads us to believe.

My husband I attended the church that struggled with prayer during a time of extreme uncertainty and pain in our lives.  One Sunday we chose to take up an offer for healing prayer after the service.  Sharing our most vulnerable struggles with another church member who was joining with the pastor’s effort to engage his community in prayer turned out to be a powerfully moving experience for all of us.

I guess not many people in that congregation faced the type of adversity we struggled with at the time, or if they did they mostly kept it to themselves.  But after explaining our circumstances, our needs for provision and healing, all three of us were rendered in tears before the Lord.  The kind man praying for us struggled to find words, and like us, groaned and wept for several minutes before asking God for help.

His eventual words of prayer were an encouragement, but mostly I just remember his tears, his hugs, and how he told us that he had been blessed that day by our willingness to share our pain, loss, and fear with him.  We were all blessed by the encounter with the Holy Spirit in love, in uncertainty, and in heartache.  Coming together before the thrown of God in honest fellowship was suddenly far more significant than any specific words we said or answers we later received.

This is the power of prayer.  But more importantly, this is the power of Jesus Christ.

A great truth is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  

Though we fall short every day, we are daily offered a chance to die to ourselves and be found in Christ.  We need forgiveness from sin every day.

We need not fear our blemishes or our failures, for Christ’s power (not our own) is made perfect through them all.  Our testimony is the full story of our past and present including the messy, undesirable, and less than dignified parts.  So long as we keep hiding those parts in shame we limit the ways God can use and heal us.  It is in admitting our weaknesses and failures that God’s glory shines ever brighter and our souls are made ever stronger.  We need truth in order to heal.

Christ died so that we might live again.  He died so that we may receive forgiveness and be made whole in Him.  God is ever with us, but his healing and love is only made perfect and complete in eternity.  Abundant life is eternal life.

God has gifted us with talents, disciplines, and fellowship, so that we might bless others and bring glory to His own name.  We don’t use God.  Rather, He asks that our hearts become willing for Him to use us.  While calling on his name will help us, while we are promised that He will answer us, the ways He blesses isn’t for our own success and achievement.  Prayer isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you give.

If you are reading these reflections for the first time, check out Part 1 on the backstory of blogging through this book and Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will. 

 I am using the 1992 edition of The Power of Positive Thinking printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking (Part 2): On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

9789381841723-ukLike many avid PBS viewers, my husband and I were in for quite the experience this week when we sat down to watch their annual coverage of “A Capitol Fourth”, the live broadcast of D.C.’s Independence Day concert and fireworks.   Since we were splashing around town with our toddlers in downpours earlier that day we knew it would be a miracle if the fireworks proceeded as planned.  Imagine our surprise when not only did the fireworks begin, but we were treated to occasionally marvelous aerial coverage of the event featuring crisp monuments, clear skies, and picture perfect displays of pyrotechnic celebration.

Instead of watching a live dud of a display as one would would expect at the conclusion of a rainy day, or seeing some sort of notice announcing that this was a previously recorded display due to inclement weather, we were given an odd amalgamation of both.

While no disclaimer was made during the broadcast, we apparently weren’t the only puzzled residents looking for clarification.  PBS tweeted an explanation of the broadcast the next morning, confirming that they used a mixture of old and new footage in order to improve our viewing experience.

On one hand I totally get it.  The eerie scenes that were obviously live looked more like coverage of the bombing of Baghdad than the happy celebratory pictures we all hope for on the 4th.  However, the cognitive dissonance they created with their creative presentation of truth was ultimately a disorienting and disappointing lie.

Like many lies in our own lives, it wasn’t all fake.  Only key parts of the finale were made up of recycled footage while the bulk of the presentation came live as advertised.  Such combinations of truths and lies are often presented in a positive light, as PBS tried to do the morning after.  Isn’t it for the best when we cover over our darkness and disappointments with something more beautiful or appealing?

The difficulty comes when we sprinkle falsehoods in with truth as an attempt to recreate our reality.  Once combined, it becomes challenging to separate one from the other.  We start to loose touch with what is true and what is false.

Such is the kind of experience I had in reading through The Power of Positive Thinking.  As Peale quotes a psychologist friend in his opening chapter, “Attitudes are more important than facts” (22).  When this perspective becomes your maxim, “reality” is based less on truth and more on how you choose to perceive your circumstances.

PBS invited viewers to perceive the reality of this year’s national fireworks as one filled with sparkling excitement and clear skies.  Peale invites us to perceive our reality as a one where we can attain anything our heart desires so long as we come to believe in ourself.

Chapter 1: Believe in Yourself

We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.  I suppose it comes as no surprise that a book described in big bold letters on the back cover by the line, “Faith in yourself makes good things happen to you” would open with a chapter entitled Believe in yourself.  As Peale explains, “A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement” (13).

In fact, he argues that “Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy” (13).  To help us meet this goal of earthly success, Peale outlines 10 steps comprised mostly of various forms of thought conditioning designed to keep us positive.

Since he was a pastor, Peale’s message is often riddled with mentions of the importance of a belief in God and in the help found in scripture for daily life.  This is the truth he offers.  In fact, some of his prescriptions are fairly good ideas for all believers, like reading the Bible regularly, praying fervently, memorizing verses, and seeking out counseling when facing struggles from your past.  If we take Donald Trump as his word, he loves reading the Bible.  That is no surprise for a follower of Peale’s teachings.

However, the fissures and falsehoods appear as we examine how Peale advocates using scripture and a belief in God for our own gain and self-fulfillment.  Take, for instance, his promise that “You can develop creative faith in yourself – faith that is justified” (13).  To be clear, when Peale says justified here he is referencing a faith is justified by a realistic appreciation of yourself.  This is not a theological truth, it is a pep talk.

Of course, to the self-centered soul this is also a core foundational belief.  I am right, I am worthy, I will do all things well.  So the mantra goes.  Once self justified, you can do no wrong.  Add God to that picture and you’ve found the makings of a monstrous deformation of what God creates us to be.

It should go without saying that this teaching of self justification is the antithesis of Christianity.  Ironically, one of Peale’s favorite scriptures to quote comes from a key passage dealing with justification.  For Step 5 of his assured ways to build self confidence he suggests: “Ten times a day repeat these dynamic words, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31) (Stop reading and repeat them NOW slowly and confidently)” (25).

I realize that Romans 8:31 is a favorite verse for many believers, and for good reason.  It is, as Peale notes, encouraging and even empowering.  But we need to ask the question: WHY is God for us? Who is God in the first place? In Peale’s world, to the fundamentally self-centered, he’s whatever we need him to be to support our inner power and outward success.

Contrast that to what the Bible says in full.  Leading up to the beautiful claim of God’s support and love for His children, we find one of the most crucial passages of scripture on the nature of salvation, justification, and the elect in Romans 8:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;    

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

First, it is clear that God justifies us.  God is the actor.  Through Him, through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are justified.  Not by who we are.  Not by what we do.  We are justified by Christ.

Second, because we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified through the great love and grace of God, we now know that “if God is for us, who can be against us.”  The first part of verse 31 is important as it references the powerful statements of truth that proceed it.  We can’t start with the premise that God is for us, rather it is merely the conclusion drawn from all “these things” about who God is and what He has done for us.

True teaching reveals that you don’t learn about God and his nature by looking primarily inside yourself, and you definitely don’t partake in the promises of God by purely inward thinking.  It is by looking up and out to God that we learn more clearly about who we are and what we can do.

Third, God is on our side so that we shall not be separated from His love.  We are more than conquerers, but not in the sense that we are actually guaranteed protection from hardship, failure, or even tragic death.  We are more than conquerers because of the promises regarding the ever present love of God, our salvation, and eternal life.

In fact, because of how we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified we are told that we may be killed for the glory of God.  Not exactly a winning premise for “self-realization and successful achievement”, especially if your idea of achievement is based primarily in the events and currency of this world.

On a certain level it is a good idea to heal our wounds and believe in what we can achieve with God’s help.  But this belief is only worthwhile when it is grounded in a firm notion of who God is, of the great things He has done, and of who He created us to become.  We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.

God strengthens us to do His will.  In Step 7 Peale tell us to repeat “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” 10 times a day. Then he commands, “Repeat these words NOW. That magic sentiment is the most powerful antidote on earth to inferiority feelings” (25).   Aside from his appeals for repetition starting to feel like a youth camp gone all wrong, his use of this verse throughout the book as a hallmark feature of building self-confidence is troubling.

Like we saw with Romans 8, the entirety of a passage matters in clarifying what followers of Christ are actually promised in this life.  Can we really do anything we set our minds to, without limits?  Can we use God to achieve something contrary to His teachings? What happens if we fail?  Was God not on our side that time?  Did we not have a sufficiently large enough faith?  Consider these preceding verses in Philippians 4:

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.

God strengthens us so that we can put into practice that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.  We are not kept from storms, but we are strengthened to weather them.

Also, we can do these things because of who God is.  God is great.  God is good.  God is love.   God is Lord.  Therefore we can do amazingly powerful things for Him.  Note, he doesn’t strengthen us so that we might be great.  As the Eucharistic liturgy exhorts, “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours, almighty Father, forever and ever.”

It can be as much a struggle to excel in these things that bear righteousness in times of plenty and success as in times of famine and failure.  Yet God gives us the strength to follow Him, and in turn to bring Him honor, glory, and praise.  God strengthens us to do His will.

Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt.  Peale identifies the root of our individual problems as our own inferiority complex, or “deep and profound self-doubt” (17).  Note that our struggles, fears, and problems do not come from any particular acknowledgment either of sin or satan.

A cure for inferiority is to “fill your mind with to overflowing with faith” and to “Develop a tremendous faith in God and that will give you a humble yet soundly realistic faith in yourself” (17).  Ok, so that doesn’t sound bad, right?

Caution friends, this is a trap.  As much as it might be helpful and healing to develop a “humble yet soundly realistic” view of ourselves, especially one that begins with a faith in God, it is severely damaging to make faith in ourselves and our capabilities a chief goal in life.  Why?  Because it makes our faith in God fundamentally about us and our well-being, not about God and how He calls us to serve one another.  This is what it looks like to build your house upon the sand.

Peale’s own derision toward those who have yet to find self-confidence comes to the surface in ugly ways.  He notes, “It is appalling to realize the number of pathetic people who are hampered and made miserable by the malady popularly called the inferiority complex” (13).  One can almost see Trump’s now infamous remark “Sad!” after that comment.

Peale’s message rings hollow for his sights are set so low.  Consider this advice given to a middle child who underperformed in school in contrast to his high achieving older brother, “Just because somebody gets an A in college doesn’t make him the greatest man in the United States, because maybe his A’s will stop when he gets his diploma, and the fellow who got C’s in school will go on to get the real A’s in life” (17).

First, the ‘real A’s’ he is talking about aren’t about character, the pursuit of righteousness, or eternal life.  He is depicting a story like that of the biography of Donald Trump.  You might not be the top of the class, but you can still be more successful and more wealthy than your older brother when you enter the real business world.  Take heart!  Your success is yet to come! You can still be the greatest, the best, and the brightest.  Just believe in yourself.  Yuck.

Second, note how he turns the predicament of one person’s weakness into a story of pitting one brother against the other.  It’s not enough to suggest that those who get average grades can still be successful later on in life, he also has to point out that the older brother might start tasting failure after school ends.  The confidence of one is built upon the potential failure of another. Such is the rotten fruit that comes from attempts to justify ourselves.

Moreover, consider this observation from Step 4: ”Do not be awestruck by other people and try to copy them.  Nobody can be you as efficiently as YOU can” (25).  Let Trump be Trump? Anyone? Anyone?

“Remember also that most people, despite their confident appearance and demeanor, are often as scared as you are and as doubtful of themselves” (25).  Well then.  Guessing those confident people aren’t really true positive thinkers, they are just fakers waiting to be revealed.

The dummies.  The losers.  Like you.  Like me. For here is a central problem of the theology presented by Norman Vincent Peale: mere positive thinking and attentive effort at building self-confidence isn’t actually all that fulfilling.  It isn’t really the answer to all of your problems or the healing balm to your deepest wounds.  Not only will you find the need to justify yourself through your superiority to others, but you will still be fearful inside that someone might find out that you are actually faking your way through life.

Stop trying to justify yourself, for we are all sinners who will endlessly come short.  Belief in yourself, when placed at the center of your life, is tremendously hollow and disappointing.  Belief in yourself, which is rarely humble or truthful when exercised apart from an active relationship with Christ, can lead to great evil.  We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.

Our belief in God and His love for us is not primarily designed with earthly success in mind.  God may gift that to us, but we will all have our crosses to bear, thorns in our flesh, and disappointments in life.  God’s help is offered so that we may love Him more fully.  His promise is that once adopted as co-heirs with Christ we will never be separated from His unconditional love and saving grace.  God strengthens us to do His will.

As we seek to grow and heal we will discover the places in our hearts that are wounded and sinful.  Recognizing these scars and faults in ourselves ought to lead us to a place of empathy where we can enter into the pain, fears, and failures of others.  We are meant to build up, not tear down.  Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt.

 

If you missed my opening, check out Part I on the backstory of blogging through this book and my summary thoughts on Peale’s Preface.  I never set out to take this review as a chapter by chapter guide, but I was so struck by the ideas listed in the first chapter I wanted to spend extra time on some of what he writes there.  As we go on in the coming week or so, and these assertions are repeated time and time again, I will address groups of chapters together and cover new or different areas for further thought.  

 I am using the 1992 edition of The Power of Positive Thinking printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

 

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking: Norman Vincent Peale, Donald Trump, and American Evangelicalism (Part 1)

9789381841723-ukOne evening during the 2016 primary season my husband and I were reconnecting, as we often do, through political analysis.  As we discussed the daily rumination on the latest and greatest from Donald Trump’s campaign, we stumbled upon a video from one of his more notorious public appearances: the 2015 Family Leadership Summit in Iowa.  You might have seen clips from this interview as well, for it is when he defended his tweet calling John McCain a loser because, according to Trump, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Watching his appearance in its entirety, however, I heard something remarkably clarifying about the belief system of Donald J. Trump.   Not only is this the part of the interview where he stated his uncertainty over ever asking God for forgiveness, but he also named his favorite pastor and life-long spiritual advisor who wrote his favorite book.  A book, I’d wager, that represents his personal gospel: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

Now, the astute student of Christian History that I am, I had to get my hands on a copy of this former New York Times bestseller to read for myself.  I’d heard of Peale’s mid-century popularity and was aware of his role as a precursor of sorts to our modern day self-help/prosperity gospel movement, but I had not done much study of his seminal work before this month.  What I’ve found in the pages of his once dominant bestseller concerns me deeply.

Given the importance of so many of the issues and attitudes addressed in the pages of Peale’s crowning achievement, I’ve decided to blog my way through this onetime favorite of the American public.  It is a bestseller that helped fashion the ethic of Donald Trump, but it also helped fuel any number of theological abuses within the Evangelical church.

A few cautionary thoughts: The majority of observations gleaned from this work are not primarily meant as political guidance.  While it is prudent to understand the worldview accepted by Donald Trump, or any other leading candidate for president, these deviations from Christian orthodoxy are not enough – in and of themselves – to deem him unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

In fact, it is likely many other presidential candidates from the 20th Century adopted a Peale-esque understanding of Christianity.  They just didn’t live out this belief system as publicly and unabashedly as Trump does to its inevitably selfish and soulless ends.

If you are looking for reasons to not vote for Donald Trump in November I suggest there are a multitude of other factors that might lead you to that conclusion.  The problem regarding his ambition for the presidency of the United States is not purely his favored spiritual guidance and its lack of Christian orthodoxy, but how it appears that he applies it in the defense and promulgation of evil.  Therefore, consider my musings as one way to contextualize much of Donald Trump’s public behavior, policy suggestions, and persona.

Additionally – I might say, primarily – reading through this book became a self-critique of modern Evangelicalism.  More than a guide for the election in 2016, The Power of Positive Thinking acts as an indictment of our faith community: against the pernicious ways we are all tempted to use our faith in God for selfish and hurtful purposes; against how we often demean His story for personal gain; and against those who devalue the great cost associated with Christian grace.

More than once when reading this work I was struck by just how familiar these ideas and stories were, almost as if I’d heard them all before.  The familiarity almost lent the chapters a sense of compelling legitimacy, even as I identified the problems riddled throughout.  Then it dawned on me. I’ve heard these same talking points in sermons!  Far too many sermons, in churches representing a full spectrum of denominations, scattered throughout our country.

Rather than demonstrating a throwback to old heresies, I found myself staring straight into the mirror of our contemporary American church.  Peale might be forgotten or out of fashion, but the school of thought he promoted certainly lives on.  It is little wonder so many prominent Evangelical leaders now wholeheartedly embrace Donald Trump and even applaud the ways he addresses them and speaks of their all important “power.”  More on that to come.

For those who champion Bonhoeffer’s costly grace, for those who believe words forgotten to history still matter, for those who think what leaders claim to believe is central to understanding how they might act, this series is for you.

As a starting place, let’s take a look at the introduction of Donald Trump’s favorite book:

Introduction: What this book Can Do for You∗

Beware cure-all elixirs.  In Victorian society, both in North America and in Europe, the peddling of health tonics and pills claiming to solve all forms of illness was a fashionable trend and a regular facet of culture for both high society and the emerging middle class.  These cure-all elixirs were typically comprised of anything from mere sugar water, to some kind of oil, to varieties containing high levels of arsenic, alcohol, opium, morphine, or cocaine.

The tonics and cures were often schemes designed to help their creators, and sometimes doctors and pharmacists, get rich quick while fleecing the general public.  Although, I’m sure some producers also genuinely believed in the efficacy of their products. Either way, few “cures” possessed actual medicinal qualities.

In spite of, at-best, minimal legitimate health benefits, these elixirs were considered by many people as a go to cure-all for colds, flus, teething, headaches, toothaches, and just about any other malady of young and old you can fathom.  The more popular varieties continued to be used even when communities were faced with their inability to improve their ailments, or even their potential to harm and kill those who consumed them.

There was always a testimony or three offered of how these tonics genuinely helped cure some great illness or blemish.  No doubt – when not a boldface lie – the testimonial phenomenon is understood by the power of the placebo effect or even, dare I say it, the power of positive thinking.  Unfortunately, many people positively thought their way to the grave.

In his introduction to The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale offers us a cure-all elixir for the maladies of life.  The back cover of my edition makes tremendous claims about what this book will do for me, but my first thought is that perhaps this was just some marketing strategy by the publisher embellishing the original intent of the author.  But no.  Let me assure you, Peale literally intends for this book to change your life.

His self proclaimed simple work, with “no pretense to literary excellence nor does it seek to demonstrate any unusual scholarship,” was written with the “sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life”(x).  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Not only will his book achieve those things but I counted at least six key promises he makes in how our lives will improve by following his understanding of “applied Christianity; a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works” (xi).  By employing these teachings, we will:

  1. Become better liked and more popular
  2. Gain a new sense of well-being, or “new life”
  3. Achieve a new degree of health
  4. Attain more pleasure in living
  5. Transform into more useful and efficient people
  6. Expand our influence and power

All that gleaned from the teachings found in this one little book. Where has it been all my life?

Lest you think Peale overlooks the fact that life can be tragic or difficult at times, he assures us, “I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships of this world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.”  Rather, “obstacles are simply not permitted to destroy your happiness and well-being” (ix).

Oh, ok.  Perhaps you are starting to catch on to how someone who is captured in war – and who chose to remain imprisoned when given an opportunity to leave before his fellow POW’s – is, well, a loser.

It turns out our ability to overcome these tragedies and obstacles stems from the realization that “you can modify or change the circumstances in which you now live.”  Tell that to a Syrian refugee child in Lebanon and see how it works out for them. Thus we encounter the opening flaw to Peale’s notion of “Christian” power, success, and happiness.

His is an ethic for an affluent audience, most specifically for his parishioners from the upper crust of New York society (such as young Donald Trump and family).  He is writing for those who can afford to change their circumstances with relative ease, or “will” a better life.  However, if you aren’t already living amidst the trappings of earthly power, just follow his steps and you too will soon attain this level of material success, have no fear. Or so he claims.

Still, who doesn’t want to believe that their “life can be full of joy and satisfaction” (ix), or that it is possible to experience improved levels of “achievement, health, and happiness” (xi) as we walk on this earth?  Maybe, somewhere inside of us we agree that “It is a pity that people should let themselves be defeated by the problems, cares, and difficulties of human existence, and it is also quite unnecessary” (ix).

We’ve all met the “Debbie Downers” of life – maybe we’ve been them ourselves at times – who only see the foreboding or fearful throughout the day and who rarely note the hopeful or positive.  Perhaps you are drawn, as intended, to this idea that if we forgo negative thoughts we will also forgo negative consequences and experiences.

Our life is in our control, so the story goes, and as such we can control where we take it and what we make of it.  This is a pastor writing about the practical applications for Christianity after all.  Doesn’t God want the best for us in this life?

As much as Peale’s promises come across as over reaching, they may also strike you as secretly appealing.  They are meant to.  Beware cure-all elixirs.

 

Also in this Series:

Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

Part 3: On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life

I am using the 1992 edition printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.