On The Sinful Census Conducted by King David

In the Office of Readings this week we read about a census conducted by King David that caused great harm (2 Samuel 24). Joab, David’s general, strongly cautioned him not to take the census, but David insisted. When the census had been completed, the prophet Gad informed David that God was angry and intended to punish him and all Israel. God offered David his choice of punishments: a three-year famine, three months of military fighting from Israel’s enemies, or three days of pestilence. David chose the pestilence, figuring that it was better to be in God’s hands than those of an enemy. About 70,000 people died during those three days.

This raises two central questions:

What is wrong with a census?

Why was all Israel punished for something David did?

What is wrong with a census?

The first answer can be found by focusing David’s lack of trust. God had called David to trust in Him—not in mankind, not in numbers. We tend to rely too heavily on numbers, thinking that something is good, or right, or successful if a lot of people support it. Of this tendency we must be very careful. Is our power or rectitude rooted in numbers, in popularity, in profit, or in God? In calling for a count of his people, David seems to be seeking confidence in numbers rather than in God; this is a sin.

David may also be guilty of pride. It could well be that he was proud that he had amassed such a large number of people in reuniting Israel and Judah and in conquering the Philistines, the Hittites, and others. Taking a census was perhaps a way of patting himself on the back, of making a name for himself. The numbers are quite impressive—so impressive that we moderns doubt them: 800,000 men fit for military service in Israel and 500,000 in Judah. If women, children, and those men too old or frail for service had been included, the number would probably have been close to 5 million. (These figures seem so high that they are a source of great debate among biblical scholars about biblical enumeration.) Suffice it to say that David ruled over a populous nation. His taking of a census likely indicates that he was proud of his accomplishments and wanted it acknowledged by his contemporaries and recorded in the annals of history: David, king of multitudes!

Others point out the sinfulness of counting God’s people. These are not David’s people to count; they are God’s. Because counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business. This is a number that is for God alone to know, for He numbers His people and calls them by name (cf Gen 15:15).

Finally, the results of a census can be used sinfully. Governments can and sometimes have used the information to oppress the people. The census David commissioned provided him with the number of men “fit for military service.” In the ancient world, a census was often taken to facilitate a military draft. It was also typically used as a basis for exacting taxes. Finally, kings used it to measure their power and to manipulate and coerce based on that power.

Even in our own time as we know, the taking of the official U.S. census every ten years is often surrounded by power struggles, as the results can lead to shifts in electoral boundaries, increases or decreases in congressional representation, changes in tax policy, shifting of spending priorities, and the pitting of different ethnic and racial groups against one another. A lot of trouble can be tied back to the results of the census; numbers can be powerful. Those that have “the numbers” get seats at the table while those who do not have to wait outside.

Note: I am not taking a side on the citizenship question that is currently being debated in the U.S. The point I am making here is much broader (and older) than the current disagreement.

In amassing numbers, David increases his power and his ability to manipulate the people in sinful or unjust ways.

Exactly where David’s sin lay—a lack of trust, pride, acting as if they were his people rather than God’s, amassing power, or in some combination of all these things—is not made clear in the passage. God is clear, though, in letting David know that he has sinned and seriously so.

Why was Israel punished for something David did?

This question is much more difficult to answer than was the first one. First, we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects and we may not be able to know the answer fully. All we can do is to offer some speculation.

The most common answer emphasizes that Israel was not sinless in the matter. The census story begins as follows: The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again and incited David … to number Israel and Judah. For some undisclosed reason, God was angry with the whole nation and therefore permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps the result of a census was also a point of national pride, with the people thinking, “Look how big, prosperous, and powerful we have become!” This is mere speculation, but the point is that according to the text, Israel had angered the Lord.

It is important to note that modern Western notion of individualism is not a biblical one. We tend to think that what we do is our business and what others do is theirs, and thus we are outraged at the idea that many would suffer for the sins of one. In the biblical worldview, though, we are all interconnected: There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one member suffers, every member suffers; if one member is honored, every member rejoices. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:25-27). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is the biblical vision.

The decisions we make affect the people around us, whether for better or for worse. Even what we call “private” sins set loose evil, reduce goodness, and increase the likelihood of future and more public sins. We are our brother’s keeper and what we do or fail to do affects others.

To those who would say that God is not being “fair” in punishing Israel for what David did, there must be this strong advice: Be very careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair, we would all be in Hell right now. Rather, we should seek His mercy.

God knows how to shepherd us rightly. There are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know the precise nature of Israel’s sin, but God’s anger at Israel is His passion to set things right. He is getting us ready for the “Great Day.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On The Sinful Census Conducted by King David

“God Wants Me to Be Happy” – A Reflection on a Deeply Flawed Moral Stance

One of the questionable, and unfortunately common, forms of moral reasoning today is the rather narcissistic notion that God wants each of us to be happy. Sometimes it is put in the form of a rhetorical question: God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He?

And this sort of reasoning (if you want to call it that) is used to justify just about anything. Thus, in pondering divorce, a spouse might point to his or her misery and conclude that God would approve of the split because God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He? Many seek to justify so-called same-sex marriage, and other illicit sexual notions in the same way.

Further, other responsibilities are often blithely set aside as too demanding, under the pretext that God would not make difficult demands because, after all, He wants me to be happy. Since getting to Mass is difficult for me, God will understand if I don’t go; He wants me to be happy, not burdened. Forgiving someone is hard and God does not ask hard things of us; He wants me to be happy. Refusing to cooperate with some evil at work would risk my income; surely God would not demand that I withstand it since He wants me to be happy, content, and financially secure.

The notion that God wants me to be happy thus becomes a kind of trump card, some sort of definitive declaration that obviates the need for any further moral reflection. Practically speaking, this means that I am now free to do as I please. Since I am happy, God is happy, and this is His will … or so the thinking goes.

There are, of course, multiple problems with the “God wants me to be happy” moral stance. In the first place, happiness is a complex matter that admits of many subjective criteria including personal development, temporal dimensions, and worldview. For example, a spiritually mature person can find happiness simply in knowing that he is pleasing God by follow His Commandments. On an interpersonal level, many are happy to make sacrifices for the people they love. To others who are less mature, even the smallest sacrifice can seem obnoxious and bring on unhappiness; pleasing God is not even on their radar, let alone something that would make them happy.

Happiness is also temporally variable. Most of us are well aware that happiness tomorrow is often contingent upon making certain sacrifices today. For example, the happiness one gets in taking a vacation is usually dependent upon having saved up some money beforehand. Making sacrifices today enables happiness tomorrow. If all I do is please myself in the moment, insist on being happy right now, my ability to be happy in the future will likely be seriously compromised. Setting no limits today might mean that I am broke tomorrow, or addicted, or unhealthily overweight, or afflicted with a sexually-transmitted disease. True, lasting, deep happiness in the future often requires some sacrifice today, some capacity to say “No” right now. Without any consideration of the future or of eternal life, “happiness” in the moment is vague, foolish, and meaningless, if not outright destructive. God desires our happiness, all right, but the happiness He wants for us is that of eternal life with Him forever. He has clearly indicated that this will often involve forsaking many of the passing pleasures and the “happiness” of this world.

More troubling still is the self-referential and narcissistic aspect contained in the simple little word “me.” God wants me to be happy.

Those who expresses this “me” notion might be surprised to discover that God has bigger things in mind. God actually cares about other people, too! He also cares about future generations and about the common good. Yes, there’s just a little more on God’s radar than you.

So the divorced man who might say, “God wants me to be happy” should consider that God might actually care about his children too; He might care about the culture that suffers due to rampant divorce; He might care about future generations that would inherit a culture shredded by destroyed families.

Wow, God might actually want others to be happy besides me! Even more shockingly, God might want me to sacrifice my happiness for them! He might actually want me to consider them and even regard them as more important that I am.

As a moral reference point, “me” is remarkably narrow and usually self-serving. And yet many today use this almost reflexively and authoritatively. “God wants me to be happy, so all discussions and further deliberations are over. God has spoken through my desires. He wants me to be happy. Who are you to dispute that? We’re done here; I will not be judged by you.”

“God wants me to be happy” is not a legitimate moral principle. It bespeaks a narcissism that is, sadly, too common today. Call it “Stuart Smalley theology.” You don’t know who Stuart Smalley is? This video shows it plainly enough. The bottom line is, don’t be Stuart Smalley.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “God Wants Me to Be Happy” – A Reflection on a Deeply Flawed Moral Stance

Biblical Teaching on the Use of Colorful and Harsh Language

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord warns of using uncivil and/or hateful words such as “Raqa” and “fool.” And yet the same Lord Jesus often used very strong language toward some of His opponents, sometimes calling them names such as vipers and hypocrites.

We live in a world that often insists on the use of gentle language and euphemisms. While doing so is not a bad thing, we also tend to manifest a kind of thin-skinned quality and a political correctness that is too fussy about many things, often taking personally what is not meant personally.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility” dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word has entered into common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variances in what is considered to be civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charity as well as a modern and American notion of civility:

    • Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips (Eccl 10:12).
    • The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (Eccles 9:17).
    • Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
    • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Eph 4:29).
    • Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged (Col 3:21).
    • With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
    • Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
    • Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col 4:6).
    • Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11).
    • But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips (Col 3:8).
    • Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19).
    • Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (Gal 6:1).
    • Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

    • Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34)
    • And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23 varia)
    • Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
    • Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).
    • And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you? (Mark 9:19)
    • Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
    • Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts” (Jn 5:41-42).
    • So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15).
    • Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70)

Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 3, 5)

Paul against the false apostles: And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).

Paul on the Cretans: Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith (Titus 1:12-13).

Peter against dissenters: Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2, varia).

Jude against dissenters: These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage (Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse. Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil. The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,” for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, as already observed, we also tend to be a little thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance – The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Biblical Teaching on the Use of Colorful and Harsh Language

The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

Gluttony is eating or drinking inordinately, contrary to reason. It is a sin opposed to the virtue of temperance because it is the immoderate indulgence in the delights of food or drink. Gluttony can involve more than merely eating too much. Drunkenness is also a type of gluttony because it is excessive indulgence in intoxicating drink.

A person can be excessive in what, when, how, and how much he eats. St. Thomas Aquinas and others have distinguished five ways gluttony can be manifested. One can approach food or drink:

Hastily, by eating too rapidly, gulping down food or drink. As a gift of God, food and drink should be savored and enjoyed. To fail in this regard is not only impolite when in the company of others but can also be offensive to God or to those who have prepared the meal. By hastily eating or drinking, one downplays the gift by rushing past its subtleties and delights, which require a more moderate rate of consumption to appreciate fully. Rapid consumption also tends to lead to overconsumption, whether food or drink.

Sumptuously, by demanding rich foods more so than healthier fare. For example, consuming sweets and fatty foods rather than fruits and vegetables, or expensive foods rather than more moderate ones, fine wines and liquors rather than water and juice.

Excessively, by habitually consuming too much.

Greedily, by demanding what one wants, when one wants it, and in the quantity one wants. Some are unwilling to share food or drink with others; others demand to be served first; still others insist on being served separately.

Daintily, by insisting that food be prepared to exacting standards of appearance or taste.

Yes, gluttony can be manifested in many ways, not just through excessive consumption.

St Thomas also noted these five “daughters” of gluttony:

Unseemly joy – This is best seen as a result of excessive consumption of intoxicating drink but eating too much can also lead to a levity that is beyond what is reasonable. There is an expression that is dismissive of a necessary seriousness: “Eat, drink, and be merry.” There is also the foolish saying, “Life is short; eat dessert first.”

Scurrility (foolish talking) – Long meals are often rife with gossip and silly or imprudent speech. Add alcohol and conversation can become increasingly unruly and flippant.

Uncleanness – Some are so addicted to the feast and the table that they induce vomiting to “make room” so that that they can return and consume more. Others vomit from the overconsumption itself, sometimes after having passed out.

Loquaciousness – This is similar to scurrility but refers to talking too much in general rather than the content of the speech.

Dullness of mind – Heavy food or intoxicating drink can cause sluggishness and sleepiness. Drinking too much can lower a person’s inhibitions. One seldom does good thinking after a heavy meal or a bout of excessive drinking.

While gluttony is not the most serious of sins (sins of the spirit are more consequential), gluttony can be one of the more disgraceful because of its effect on the intellect. Gluttony can become very serious in at least four ways:

First, drunkenness is a species of gluttony. The quantity of human tears shed on account of its effects demonstrate the havoc wrought.

Second, gluttony is an addiction and addictions are a serious problem.

Third, there can be a deep folly involved in gluttony by thinking that one can satisfy inner emptiness with things of this world.

Finally, gluttony is closely connected to avarice and lust.

Virtues that assist in battling gluttony – Rather than concentrating on the gluttony itself, we must turn our back on the problem and look to God as our joy and fulfillment. Gluttony is one of those sins we must crowd out with other virtues such as joy, zeal for heavenly things, gratitude, temperance, and moderation. We must gain the insight that when it comes to food and drink, “less is more”; things are best enjoyed in moderation. These can also be helpful: shame over excess, interest in physical fitness, and charity exhibited by preferring meals for the company rather than merely the food or drink.

The battle against gluttony is great in our times due to the way in which foods are prepared, the often-hidden prevalence of sugar in so many things, and the near elimination of famine in the Western world. We also live longer, are seldom sick for lengthy periods, and are able to consume food with little or no preparation time. Our bodies seem designed for occasional want of food, lengthy illness, and far more physical exertion than is common today. It seems easier to fall into gluttony in today’s world, but there are factors that may lessen guilt. Merely being overweight is not always an indication of gluttony; still, it can indicate a need to reexamine one’s diet.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

One of the more misunderstood of the cardinal sins is sloth. Most see it merely as laziness, but there is more to it than that. Let’s take a moment and consider some aspects of this cardinal sin.

The Greek word we translate as sloth is ἀκηδία akedia (a = absence + kedos = care), meaning indifference or negligence. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of sloth as sorrow for spiritual good. By it, we shun spiritual good as too toilsome (cf Summa Theologica II-II 35,2).

Some modern commentators describe sloth as a “don’t care” feeling. Some even say it is a kind of falling out of love with God and the things of God (cf Rev 2:4). On account of sloth, the idea of right living and the gift of a transformed humanity inspires not joy, but aversion or even disgust because it is seen as too difficult or as requiring the setting aside of currently enjoyed or sinful pleasures. Through sloth, many experience sorrow rather than joy or zeal in following God and receiving a transformed human life. They are distressed at the prospect of what might have to occur should they embrace the faith more deeply.

Sloth also tends to dismiss the power of grace, focusing instead on the “trouble” or effort involved in walking in the Christian way.

Sloth is not merely laziness; it is more properly understood as sorrow or indifference. While sloth may sometimes look like boredom and a casual laziness toward attaining spiritual good, it can also be manifested by a frantic “busyness” with worldly things so as to avoid spiritual questions or living a reflective life.

Consider, for example, a man who is a workaholic. Now suppose that this man has a wife and children. A man in this position has some very significant gifts and duties beyond his career. He is a husband, a father, and the spiritual leader of his home. He is also a disciple, one whom the Lord has summoned to a new life, to the great discovery of God, and to the deepest meaning and realities of his life. He also has the awesome responsibility to announce these truths to his wife and children. All of the duties of his vocation overwhelm and even scare him; the task seems too open-ended. He doesn’t want to reflect too much because it might summon him to ponder things he would like to avoid considering: moral questions, priorities, whether he is spending enough time with his family, whether his life is focused on the things that matter most. It’s all just too hard, too filled with uncertainty. Entering more deeply into the spiritual life is difficult. Work is easier and they call him “Sir” and do what he says.

So he buries himself in his work; this helps him to avoid prayer and reflection. Of course there’s no time for Mass or for praying with his wife and children. There’s no time for Scripture, retreats, and the like.

This man is not lazy but he is slothful. In the end, his workaholism is sloth, for it is sorrow at and aversion to the gift that the Lord offers him: to come out into the deeper waters and lower his net for a catch. In this example, the man’s sorrow for spiritual good is manifested in avoidance and is rooted in fear. Through sloth, he is not joyful at the invitation of the Lord or the Church. Instead he is sorrowful and averse to what he sees as toilsome and possibly raising uncomfortable things he would rather not think about. He does not hate God or the faith, but it is all just too much.

That said, sloth does often manifest itself as a kind of lethargy, a boredom that can’t seem to muster any interest, energy, joy, or enthusiasm for spiritual gifts. Such people may be enthusiastic about many things, but God and the faith are not among them.

Boredom seems to have increased in modern times and this fuels sloth. We are overstimulated in the modern world. The frantic pace, the endless interruptions, the abundance of entertainment, the fast-paced movies and video games all contribute. From the time we awaken until we fall into bed at the end of the day, there is almost never a moment of silence or a time when we are not being bombarded by images, often flickering and quickly changing.

This overstimulation means that when we come upon things like quiet prayer or adoration, when we are asked to listen for an extended period time, when the imagery is not changing quickly enough, we are easily bored.

Boredom feeds right into sloth. The “still, small voice of God,” the quiet of prayer, the simple reading of Scripture and the pondering of its message, the unfolding of spiritual meaning through reflection, the slower joys of normal human conversation in communal prayer and fellowship—none of these appeal to those used to a breakneck pace. Sunday, once the highlight of the week for many (due to the beauty of the liturgy and the music, the hearing of the sermon, the joy of fellowship, and the quiet of Holy Communion), is now considered boring and about as appealing as going to the dentist. Thus, sloth is fueled by the boredom our culture feels at anything going at less than full speed.

In his book Back to Virtue, Peter Kreeft says,

Sloth is a cold sin, not a hot one. But that makes it even deadlier. [For] rebellion against God is closer to him than indifference … God can more easily cool our wrath than fire our frozenness, though he can do both. Sloth is a sin of omission not commission. That too makes it deadlier, for a similar reason. To commit evil is at least to be playing the game … Sloth simply does not play God’s game, either with him or against him … It sits on the sidelines bored … Better to be hot or cold than lukewarm [p. 154].

The “daughters” of Sloth are: malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things. For indeed, sloth can make us hate and thus have malice and spite for the good things of God. Then too there are the obvious daughters listed here which proceed from a sort of oppressive sorrow at the good things of God.

Of the Virtues that are medicine for sloth: As with envy, joy and zeal are essential. So too are Magnanimity and magnificence whereby we think great things and do them. By faith we learn to appreciate the good things of God and by charity we learn to love them.  By almsgiving we intentionally move outside our self. And, by justice we are motivated to render to God and others what is their due. 

The gift that the Lord offers us is promised in this beatitude: Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6).

We must also ask for and seek the fruits of the Holy Spirit, especially love, joy, and peace. These gifts kindle a fire of love in our hearts for God and for the gifts He offers.

Because sloth is such a deep drive, we must throw ourselves to the care of God with great humility, recognizing our poverty and seeking His miraculous grace to give us grateful, loving, and passionate hearts.

Finally, because sloth can also be caused by the feeling of being overwhelmed at the perfection of our call, we do well to consider two points:

  • We ought to meditate carefully on what our specific call is. Because we cannot do and be everything, we need to understand our own particular gifts and how God expects us to use them. Having done this, we do well to “stay in our lane.”
  • We must understand that spiritual progress grows in stages, not in one giant leap. We need not be so sorrowful or averse to the good things God offers us. As a loving Father, He leads us and forms us most often in gentle ways as one spiritual victory leads to another.

Pray for zeal, joy, hope, confidence, and a hunger for holy things. The Christian journey is meant to be a thrilling one, as we experience how God is utterly transforming us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy

There is a picture of envy in the First Book of Samuel: Upon David’s return from slaying Goliath, the women sing a song praising him. Saul should rejoice with all Israel but instead he is resentful and envies David: “Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought, “They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul looked upon David with a glaring eye. Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants” (1 Sam 18:6-9). Saul’s reaction is way over the top; this is what envy does.

What is envy? Most people use the word as a synonym for jealousy, but traditionally speaking they are not the same.

When I am jealous of you, I want to possess something that you have—inordinately so. The key point is that there is something good about you, or there is something good that you have, that I want to have for myself. Jealousy is sinful when one desires something inordinately or unreasonably.

Envy’s Theological Definition – In traditional theology, envy is quite different from jealousy (cf Summa Theologiae II, IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else because I take it as lessening my own. The key difference is that with envy (unlike with jealousy) I do not merely want to possess for myself the good or excellence you have, I want to destroy it in you.

Notice in the reading above that Saul wants to kill David. This is because he thinks that David’s excellence makes him look less excellent, less great. Saul should rejoice in David’s gifts, for they are gifts to all Israel. David is a fine soldier and this is a blessing for everyone. The proper response to David’s excellence should be to rejoice, to be thankful to God, and where possible to imitate David’s courage and excellence. Instead, Saul sulks. He sees David as stealing the limelight and possibly even the kingdom from him. Envy rears its ugly head when Saul concludes that David must die. The good that is in David must be destroyed.

Envy is diabolical. St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316) because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good. Scripture says, “By the envy of the Devil, death entered the world” (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve (made in the image of God) had, and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his—or so he thought—and so he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Envy is ugly and it is diabolical.

Examples of Envy – I remember experiencing envy in my early years. In every classroom there were always a few students who got A’s on every test. They always behaved and the teacher would sometimes praise them, saying, “Why can’t the rest of you be like Johnny and Susie?” Some hated students like this because they made them look bad. So what did some of them do? They sought to pressure the “teacher’s pets” to conform to their mediocrity. In effect, they sought to destroy the goodness or excellence in the ‘A’ students. They would taunt them with names and pelt them with spitballs. If ridicule and isolation didn’t work, sometimes they’d just plain beat them up. This is envy.

St. Thomas lists the “daughters” of Envy are: tale-bearing, detraction, schadenfreude (joy at the misfortune of others), hatred.  By these things we seek to denigrate others or reduce the esteem which they are owed. In effect I dismiss the good and destroy its influence.

Virtues that overcome envy – The proper response to observing goodness or excellence in another is joy and zeal. We should rejoice that they are blessed, because when they are blessed, we are blessed. Further, we should respond with a zeal that seeks to imitate (where possible) their goodness or excellence. Perhaps we can learn from them or from their good example. Instead, envy rejects joy and zeal, and with sorrow and anger sets out to destroy what is good. Charity too bids us to see that my neighbor and I are one, and when he is honored or blessed, so am I.

Envy can be subtle. Envy isn’t always obvious; sometimes it’s something we do almost without thinking. When there’s someone at work who is a rising star, we may engage in gossip and defamation that undermines their reputation or tarnishes their image. We may do this at times in an unreflective manner; we diminish or belittle others and their accomplishments through careless and insensitive remarks. We often do this because we need to knock others down in order to feel better about ourselves. This is envy. Sometimes we show envy passively by failing to praise or encourage others or by not calling attention to their accomplishments.

Envy concealed with a smile – Finally, there is an odd form of envy that is particularly annoying because it masquerades as sensitivity and kindness. Consider a typical youth soccer or baseball game. The children are on the field playing their hearts out. On the sidelines, a decision has been made by the coaches not to keep score. Why? Because the children’s egos might be damaged by losing. Frankly, it probably isn’t the egos of the children being protected but rather those of the parents. The fact is that the kids know the score in most cases. God forbid that on the sports field there should be winners or losers! The losers might “feel bad.” The solution is to destroy or to refuse to acknowledge the goodness and excellence in some children because it is taken to lessen that of the “losers.”

This is envy and it teaches terrible things (by omission). First, it fails to teach that there are winners and losers in life; this is a fact of life. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Either way you should be gracious. Second, it fails to reward excellence, which is unjust. Excellence should be rewarded, and that reward should motivate others to strive for excellence. Much is lost when we fail to praise what is good.

Another example of this practice is at school award ceremonies at which scads of awards are given out. There are the traditional Honor Roll awards but then a plethora of made-up awards, created so that everyone “gets something.” I even witnessed an award given for the nicest smile! The problem is that when everyone is rewarded, no one is rewarded. Once again envy subtly rears its ugly head, but this time it’s wearing a smiley face. Heaven forbid that some child’s ego be bruised because he doesn’t get something; someone else’s excellence might make him look less excellent by comparison.

The bottom line is that it is envy: sorrow at someone else’s excellence because I take it to lessen my own.  Envy is ugly, even when it masquerades as kindness and fairness. It diminishes and often seeks to destroy goodness and excellence. The proper response to excellence and goodness is and should always be joy and zeal.

In the story of Snow White, the wicked queen envied Snow White, who was the fairest of them all. Considering Snow White’s beauty as a threat, the evil queen cast a spell on Snow White to remove her beauty from the scene. Envy consumed the evil queen.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy

The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger

The deadly sin of anger is defined as the inordinate and uncontrolled feeling of hatred and wrath. Unlike righteous anger, the capital sin of anger is understood as the deep drive to cling to hateful feelings for others. This kind of anger often seeks revenge.

The consideration of anger as an experience, passion, or feeling requires some distinctions, however. Not all anger is sinful nor necessarily a deadly sin. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus manifests quite a lot of anger and issues many denunciations, often accompanied by the phrase, “Woe to you!” In this way, He spoke in much the same way as all the prophets before Him.

We live in a culture that tends to be shocked by expressions of anger; it is almost reflexively rejected as counterproductive. In some situations, though, anger is the appropriate response.

Let’s begin with some distinctions.

  • The internal experience or feeling of anger must be distinguished from its external manifestation. The internal experience of anger as a response to some external stimulus is not sinful because we cannot typically control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals to us that something is wrong, threatening, or inappropriate. Sometimes our perceptions are inaccurate, but often they are not. When they are not, anger is not only sinless, it is necessary; it alerts us to the need to respond and gives us the energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
  • Anger can arise for less-than-holy reasons. Some of the things we fear we should not. Some of our fears are rooted in pride or an inordinate need for status or affirmation; some come from misplaced priorities. For example, we may be excessively concerned with money, possessions, or popularity; this can trigger inordinate fear about things that should not matter so much. This fear gives rise to feeling threatened with loss or diminishment, which in turn triggers anger. We ought not to be so concerned with such things because they are rooted in pride, vanity, and materialism. In this case, the anger may have a sinful dimension. The sin, though, is more rooted in the inordinate drives than in the anger itself. Even when anger arises for the wrong reasons, it is still not an entirely voluntary response.
  • External manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension, particularly when they are beyond what is reasonable. If we express anger by hurling insults or physically injuring someone, we may well have sinned. Even here, though, there can be exceptions. For example, it is appropriate at times to physically defend oneself. In addition, we live in thin-skinned times and people often take offense when they should not. Jesus did not hesitate to describe his opponents in rather “vivid” ways.

Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin. Scriptures says, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4). So anger is not the sin, but the expression of it may be. Further, it is possible that some of our anger springs from less-than-holy sources.

When is the external manifestation of anger appropriate? When its object is appropriate and reasonable.

For example, it is appropriate to be angry when we see injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. harnessed the appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism; he focused their energy in productive ways. However, he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not give the civil rights protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to elicit a just anger in many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist injustice and effect change through non-violence.

There are, however, some who respond to injustices with violent protests and who express hatred. In such protests, anger is no longer a creative energy that summons people to call for change and justice. Rather, it is a violent anger that manifests hate and often ends in the destruction of property and/or harm to other human beings.

Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction. To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example, if a child punches his brother in the mouth and knocks out his tooth, a parent ought to display an appropriate amount of anger in order to make it very clear that this behavior is unacceptable. Gently correcting the child in a soothing and dispassionate voice might lead to the impression that this action really wasn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. The display of anger should be at the proper level, neither excessively strong nor too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.

What, then, is sinful anger? Jesus teaches as follows:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:21-22).

Taking the passage at face value, it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus clearly broke His own rule because as we know He exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus does clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful anger. The two examples in this passage show the kind of anger He means. The first example is use of the term Raca, an epithet that displayed utter contempt for the recipient. Notice that Jesus links this kind of anger to murder because by using the term, the other person is so stripped of any human dignity that to murder him would be no different than killing an ox or mule. This sort of anger depersonalizes the other and disregards him as a child of God. Using the term fool has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger at all would seem unreasonable given Jesus’ own example, which included not a little anger.

We ought to be careful, however, before simply adopting Jesus’ angry tone ourselves. There are two reasons for this: First, Jesus was able to see into their hearts and determine the appropriate tactics; we may not always be able to do this. Second, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone; it may be less effective in our setting. Prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.

We do well to be careful with anger, for it is an unruly passion. Above all we ought to seek the fruit of the Spirit that is meekness and to ask the Lord to give us authority over our anger and prudence in its use.

What is meekness? It is an important beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit that helps us to master anger. Today, we think of a meek person as one who is a bit of a pushover, easily taken advantage of. The original meaning of meekness, though, describes the vigorous virtue through which one gains authority over his anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης – praotes) as the middle ground between being too angry and not being angry enough.

The meek person has authority over his anger and is thus able to summon its energy but control its extremes. The meek are far from weak; in fact, they show their strength in their ability to control their anger.

St. John Chrysostom said this regarding anger: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices (Homily 11). St. Thomas Aquinas said, Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (Summa Theologica II, IIae 158.8).

St. Thomas also lists the “daughters” of anger as quarreling, swelling of the mind, contumely (contempt or derision), clamor, indignation and blasphemy. For indeed, sometimes anger is directed at one who we deem unworthy, and this is called “indignation.” Sometimes wrathful anger manifests a pride where our anger is rooted in obstinate opinions and superiority. And anger surely gives birth to quarreling, derisiveness, and clamor. Anger directed at God often produces blasphemy.

Of the Virtues that are medicine for anger – Clearly meekness is the chief virtue to moderate anger. Meekness is the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough anger. Cleary the virtues associated with Charity such as love and peace along with proper fraternal correction assist in both curbing anger and directing it to useful ends. Prudence too will help direct and moderate anger especially through the foresight, circumspection, caution, counsel and discrimination proper to it. Finally humility helps alleviate the swollen mind of anger.

The sin of anger is ultimately a hateful and hurtful thing. It tends to destruction and must be mastered by meekness and patience. Perhaps it is best to end with a scriptural admonition:

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not; it leads only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land
.(Psalm 37:8-9)

This song is from the Carmina Burana and the Latin is translated as follows:

Burning inside
with violent anger,
bitterly
I speak to my heart:
created from matter,
of the ashes of the elements,
I am like a leaf
played with by the winds.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger

The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust

The word lust is most often used to refer to excessive or disordered sexual desire. However, because it is rooted in the Latin word luxuria (which refers to extravagant, excessive, or even riotous behavior), we sometimes hear it used in other ways. For example, someone may be said to have a “lust for power.” In the realm of moral and spiritual theology, though, we have come to restrict the word to sexual matters. This is especially because we have specific words to describe such excesses gluttony and greed.

Lust defined – For our discussion here we will define lust as disordered desire for, or inordinate enjoyment of, sexual pleasure (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 2351).

Of itself sexual desire is a great good, and an essential one upon which depends the future existence of the human race. As such it is also related to the common good and is among the greatest of goods since human life comes from it.

It is for this reason that St. Thomas numbers lust (objectively speaking) among the mortal sins:

The more necessary a thing is, the more it behooves one to observe the order of reason in its regard; wherefore the more sinful it becomes if the order of reason be forsaken. Now the use of venereal acts, as stated in the foregoing Article, is most necessary for the common good, namely the preservation of the human race. Wherefore there is the greatest necessity for observing the order of reason in this matter: so that if anything be done in this connection against the dictate of reason’s ordering, it will be a sin. Now lust consists essentially in exceeding the order and mode of reason in the matter of venereal acts. Wherefore without any doubt lust is a sin (Summa Theologiae II, IIae 153.3).

But lust is either an inordinate desire or a disordered one (often both). To say that sexual desire is disordered means that it is not directed to its proper purpose or end. The Catechism says, Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes (CCC 2351). To say that it is inordinate is to say that it is excessive, that the desire for sexual pleasure is over-the-top; it becomes a distracting, even consuming thing. This usually results from overindulging sexual desire and it can set forth an addictive process in which more and more sexual pleasure is “needed” to cool its flames. On this level, lust can become destructive to an individual, to others, and to a society as a whole.

In our time it is difficult to underestimate the harm caused by the widespread tolerance and celebration of lust and promiscuity. The acceptance of pre-marital sex (fornication), cohabitation, abortion, and pornography has led to sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, the sexualizing of children, single motherhood, absentee fathers, teenage pregnancy, sexual confusion, divorce, and finally the incalculable harm caused by the fact that more than half of children in the United States are not raised in normal family settings. As is common with adult misbehavior, it is the children who pay the highest price.

The most fundamental damage that widespread promiscuity has caused is the destruction of marriage and the family. Marriage rates have dropped dramatically in the Western world with the outright celebration of lust in music, movies, popular culture, and pornography. The widespread promotion of contraception has also perpetrated the lie that there can be sex without consequences.

As a result of this widespread promiscuity and uncontrolled lust many families are in disarray due to divorce, remarriage, single motherhood and absent and passive fathers. Because marriage and the family form the foundation of culture and civilization, our current path is a civilization-killer. Yet very few today seem to have a mind clear enough to recognize the path we are on and to repent.

St. Thomas provides a clue as to why this is so and also describes an additional harm caused by lust: the loss of a clear mind. He writes,

Now carnal vices, namely gluttony and lust, are concerned with pleasures of touch in matters of food and sex; and these are the most impetuous of all pleasures of the body. For this reason, these vices cause man’s attention to be very firmly fixed on corporeal things … [As a] consequence man’s operation in regard to intelligible (obvious) things is weakened,

[This is caused] more, however, by lust than by gluttony, forasmuch as sexual pleasures are more vehement than those of the table. Wherefore lust gives rise to blindness of mind, which excludes almost entirely the knowledge of spiritual things, while dullness of sense arises from gluttony, which makes a man weak in regard to the same intelligible things.

On the other hand, the contrary virtues, viz. abstinence and chastity, dispose man very much to the perfection of intellectual operation. Hence it is written (Daniel 1:17) that “to these children” on account of their abstinence and continency, “God gave knowledge and understanding in every book, and wisdom” (Summa Theologiae II, IIae 15.3).

Yes, along with indulged lust comes a darkening of the intellect. St. Paul notes the same thing:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness … they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…God gave them up in the desires of their hearts to impurity for the dishonoring of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie … for this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. Likewise, the men abandoned natural relations with women and burned with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Romans 1:18ff).

In our times a darkening of the intellect has come upon many, who cannot and will not see that widespread promiscuity has caused great harm and threatens our very future as a culture and civilization.

St. Thomas also enumerates the following “daughters” of lust: darkness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world. St Paul well describes the darkness of mind that comes from suppressing the truth about sexuality (cf Rom 1:17ff). As one’s mind grow darker, strange practices once thought shameful are approved. One also becomes thoughtless by denying consequences of unreasonable and sinful use of the sexual faculties, one is also thoughtless in how they treat other people and the children born from illicit sexual unions.  Behaviors become increasingly rash and only the pleasures of this world are sought. Finally one comes to treat God and the Church as an enemy for daring to suggest that illicit sexual union is sinful.

Of the Virtues that are Medicine for Lust – Clearly temperance, continence, and chastity are the key virtues. But justice also demands that we respect the prerogatives of the marriage bed (cf Heb 13:4). Piety, namely family love, also helps, so that the sexual bond is kept safe to strengthen the family. Shamefacedness, sobriety, modesty and self-control are all recommendable as well. Respect and reverence for God and neighbor are also of assistance.

I would like to finish this reflection on lust with the paradoxical conclusion that while it is often regarded as less serious than sins against the spirit (even by traditional theologians), lust is capable of causing some of the greatest harm because it drives us downward into the flesh such that the light of reason is dimmed and the very light of truth seems obnoxious and intolerable.

Sexual desire is a beautiful gift of God and is necessary for our survival, but the corruption of the best things is the worst thing. It is far worse to damage a precious work of art than an ordinary trinket. Damaging the beautiful gift of sexual desire and longing for intimacy also damages the precious gifts of marriage and family, the basic unit of civilization. To divide what God has united (sex and marriage, marriage and children, husband and wife) is a kind of nuclear fission that has enormous destructive potential. Only the “control rods” of chastity and purity can contain the destruction we have set loose. Only a recommittal to not separating what God has joined can end the inevitable destruction caused by unrestrained lust.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust