Hard Spiritual Truths That Will Set Us Free

In today’s post I would like to ponder some hard spiritual truths, but ones that will set us free.

In calling them “hard truths”, I mean that they are not the usual cozy bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities we face. If we come to accept them, though, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us to focus us on the right things rather than spending our time chasing after false dreams.

A person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t perfect, forgetting all the while that we are all in exile. We are making a difficult journey to a life in which, one day, every sorrow and difficultly will be removed and death and sorrow will be no more—but not now.

There is a kind of unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is rather than resenting it for not being the way we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. That is why there is value in calling these insights “hard truths that will set us free.”

In the very opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained (because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly).

We who live in times not known for spiritual maturity ought to slow down for a moment and ponder these truths, which are not only poorly understood but even actively resisted by many, including some who call themselves wise and spiritually mature.

Remember, now, these are hard truths. Many wish to bypass the harder teachings of God. Thus we do well to pay special attention to St. John, a spiritual master deeply immersed in Scripture, as a remedy for the soft excesses of our times.

Let’s first look at the quote from St. John and then examine his points. With the following preamble of sorts, St. John begins his Spiritual Canticle:

The soul … has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late—and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures. Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved …

Let’s examine these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one. My commentary is in red.

The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed

  1. that life is short (Job 14:5)

More than in any other age, we today entertain the illusion that death can easily be postponed; it cannot. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science sudden death is not as common today, but too easily this leads us to entertain the notion that we can cheat death; we cannot.

Life is short and we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother and sister died suddenly, swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish reading this sentence before death summons you.

This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and we don’t have any way of knowing how short.

What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What do you get worked up about? What are you not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you waging bets in a foolish game in which the house (death and this world) always wins on its terms and not yours?

There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. We do not get as worked up about passing things and we become more invested in lasting things and in the things to come.

  1. [that] the path leading to eternal life [is] constricted ( 7:14)

Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a cinch, a done deal. The heresy of our time is a belief in almost-universal salvation, which denies the consistently repeated biblical teaching that declares, Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).

In parable after parable, warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of Hell and the finality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus does, and no one warned you more about Hell and Judgment than He did.

Salvation is not easy; it is hard. Jesus said this; I did not. He did not say this because God is mean but because we are stubborn, obtuse, and prefer darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendency to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice. The day will come when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.

This is a hard saying, but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope. It instills in us a proper focus on the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. It will help you to have more well-ordered priorities, ones that are less obsessed with the passing and more rooted in the eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls. It will turn you toward Jesus and away from Belial.

  1. [that] the just one [is] scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)

This is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost-universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

Despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to Heaven. We set aside God’s Word in favor of human error and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul, who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and spoke of disciplining himself, lest after preaching to others he himself should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we really better and more enlightened than Jesus? Than Paul? Than Peter?

Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but it is meant to sober us to the need for prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance; we must persevere to the end.

This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord, who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world. Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts send us to Jesus, freeing us.

  1. [that] the things of the world [are] vain and deceitful ( 1:2)

Such a freeing truth! First, that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so highly value power, popularity, and worldly glories, but those are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? If you by chance you do know, do you really care? Does it really matter? It’s empty show, glitter, fool’s gold; yet we spend billions on it and watch this stuff forever.

Although we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).

And how deceitful is this passing world! The main deceit of this world is to say, “I am what you exist for. I am what matters. I am what satisfies.” These are lies and deceptions on all fronts. The form of this world is passing away; it cannot fulfill our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God and only being with Him one day will satisfy us.

Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies! Too often we want to be lied to. We prefer to chase illusions and indulge vanity and deceit.

How freeing this truth is! We learn to make use of what we need and begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things and with our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can survive without that granite countertop.

This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. Becoming more free, a deeper serenity finds us.

  1. that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)

The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world’s cruel lie that it can fulfill you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promise: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.

Meditate on death frequently. Indeed, the Church bids us to rehearse our death every night in prayer by reciting the Nunc Dimittis.

Scripture says, For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?

Let this truth free you to have the proper perspective. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).

  1. that the time is uncertain

You have plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. The only problem is that tomorrow is not promised or certain. Neither is the next beat of your heart. This is another hard but freeing truth.

  1. [that] the accounting [is] strict

Jesus warns, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). He adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). James says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13). What James says is particularly chilling because so many today are without mercy.

If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out to others, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict anyway, so don’t pile on unnecessary severity and wrath toward others. This is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgment.

  1. [that] perdition [is] very easy

I wonder why he might have repeated this; I just wonder!

  1. [that] salvation [is] very difficult

And look, he repeated this, too! I wonder why. Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.

  1. [that we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished

This is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? It means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different.

We live so many years and so many hours of each day in ingratitude. We get all worked up and resentful about the smallest setbacks while almost completely ignoring the incredible number of blessings we receive each day.

Our ingratitude is obnoxiously massive because of the easy manner in which we mindlessly receive and discount our numerous blessings while magnifying every suffering, setback, and trial. We spend so much of our life in the “Complaint Department.” We are often stingy, never even thinking to say, “Thank you, Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings. Thank you, Lord, for creating, sustaining, and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, love, and serve you.”

  1. that she must render an account of everythingof the beginning of her life as well as the later partunto the last penny ( 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12)

Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that? You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?

  1. [that] it is already lateand the day far spent ( 24:29)to remedy so much evil and harm
  2. [that the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come] She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures

The wrath of God is really in us, not in Him. His wrath is really our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being accustomed to a dark room and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and claim that the light is harsh, but the light is not harsh. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclimation to the darkness. In the same way, God is not “angry.” He is not moody or harsh. He is God and God does not change.

St. John teaches here the hard but freeing truth that God is holy; no one is going to walk into His presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. Thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). That’s right; this occurs just three verses after the famous and oft-quoted John 3:16.

While the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and is hiding Himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.

The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us and urging us to get ready to meet God. God is not going to change; He can’t change. So we must change, and by His grace, become the light of His holiness.

  1. [that we need to call on the Savior] Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved.

Here is the real point of all of these hard truths: to make us love our Savior more, to learn to depend on Him and run to Him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to get serious.

After all, who is it that goes to the doctor? Is it the one who thinks he doesn’t have cancer (even though he does)? Or is it the one who knows he’s got it bad and that ain’t good?

Sadly, the answer is not clear enough to us in modern times, times in which—even within the Church—there are so many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard truths we need to lay hold of before we can really get serious.

A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well no matter what” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all he hears is that nothing is wrong and that his salvation is secure, almost no matter what?

The good news of the Gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing to be saved from? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news. The point is that both are needed.

St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.

Now look, you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But the good news is, there’s a doctor in the house. Run to Him now; He’s calling you!

Four Rules for Effective Leaders

King David, Pedro Berruguete (1500)

In modern bibles and in the breviary, Psalm 101 is often called the “Avowal of a Good Ruler.” In other words, it is a kind of oath a ruler takes pledging to promote virtue in the kingdom and to refute error and sin. One can imagine King David saying this himself.

While this psalm is surely a good plan for a ruler, it applies to us as well, for in fact we are rulers too. We are called to rule our very self. In addition, most of us attain to rule by becoming parents, priests, religious, or other types of leaders. Thus, Psalm 101 provides a good source for reflection for all of us.

Psalm 101 – Avowal of a Good Ruler

My song is of mercy and justice;
I sing to you, O Lord.
I will walk in the way of perfection.
O when, Lord, will you come?

I will walk with blameless heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
whatever is base.

I will hate the ways of the crooked;
they shall not be my friends.
The false-hearted must keep far away;
the wicked I disown.

The man who slanders his neighbor in secret
I will bring to silence.
The man of proud looks and haughty heart
I will never endure.

I look to the faithful in the land
that they may dwell with me.
He who walks in the way of perfection
shall be my friend.

No man who practices deceit
shall live within my house.
No man who utters lies shall stand
before my eyes.

Morning by morning I will silence
all the wicked in the land,
uprooting from the city of the Lord
all who do evil
.

There are four themes or rules that those in authority should heed:

I. Consistent Calling on the Lord My song is of mercy and justice; I sing to you, O Lord. I will walk in the way of perfection. O when, Lord, will you come? I will walk with blameless heart within my house.

To have any authority over our own self or others, we must first call out to the One who has ultimate authority over us. The psalm bids us to seek the way of perfection and to have the theme song, the keynote of our life, be one of mercy and justice.

Justice points to the ultimate perfection that the Lord offers us, bidding us not to compromise it, dilute it, or despair of it. We must long for it in ourselves. We begin by seeking to walk with increasing blamelessness within the house of our own soul and our own family.

We must also “sing” of justice to others. Too many leaders—clerics, parents, teachers, and others—have stopped singing of justice, of the righteousness that God both offers and insists upon. Justice is more than caring for the poor and recognizing human dignity. It includes every aspect of living in a right relationship to God and the truth He reveals. It thus includes every aspect of the moral life and summons our conformity to what God reveals. The just person cares for the poor and for a just social order, but he also abhors and avoids fornication, adultery, divorce, lying, gossip, false religion, godlessness, theft, greed, and every other distortion of moral truth.

Mercy is joined to justice in the psalm because great patience is often required as we journey to the justice to which God summons us. Mercy bids us to work patiently for and proclaim the justice of God’s truth and to realize that people need time to hear and repent. Mercy is not an inordinate tolerance or a caving in to evil; it is a virtue that enables us to lament the awful state of God’s people, who are so often confused and lost in the immoral fog of this world. Out of this concern we patiently work to establish God’s truth more firmly in our hearts and in the hearts of others, especially those under our care and authority.

Thus, the psalm bids us to call on the Lord and ask that He come to us with His graces in abundance. Help us, Lord. Save us. Have mercy on us and keep us by your grace!

II. Careful Custody of the Senses I will not set before my eyes whatever is base. I will hate the ways of the crooked.

We live in times of unprecedented exposure to evil, to what is base and coarse. Our lives are almost never quiet. Everywhere there is the noisy clamor of worldly and often sinful voices through television, the Internet, music, movies, advertising, and other media. We can get lost in the small screens of our handheld devices. The distractions, both auditory and visual, are unrelenting. Even the news often features what is controversial, ignoble, violent, strange, and prurient.

We must actively, even aggressively, work to shield our eyes and ears from the steady diet of the world and seek to immerse ourselves more fully and intentionally in what is of God, what is holy and true. To shield our eyes and ears from what is base requires discipline and a firm resolve to turn away from the sinful world and towards the beautiful, serene, lofty beauty of God and His truth.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

Simply turning off the television and powering down the electronic devices will not be enough. We must also substitute what is good in their place. Look to higher sources such as EWTN and the growing number of helpful Catholic programs, blogs, and websites. Edifying movies are growing in number and quality.

In keeping custody of the senses, we are demonstrating a deep respect of our minds and those of others over whom we have authority. Most people would never dream of swimming in a polluted river, yet many of these same people think little of plunging their minds into the vilest swamps bubbling with every foul thing.

Thus, the Psalm bids us to hate the ways of the crooked and not set before ourselves what is base and sinful.

III. Caution for the Company We Keep The false-hearted must keep far away; the wicked I disown. The man of proud looks and haughty heart I will never endure. I look to the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me. He who walks in the way of perfection shall be my friend. No man who practices deceit shall live within my house.

The custody of the senses must also extend to our intentional relationships. St. Paul says,

Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Cor 15:33).

He adds elsewhere,

I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a verbal abuser, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat (1 Cor 5:11).

These verses are not an invitation to snobbery but an honest concern to stay free of unnecessary influences. We should be protective of our soul and the souls of those whom we love and over whom we have authority. We live in a world that glamorizes sin and evil as well as those who exemplify and engage in it. We tolerate it all very well and, out of a desire to flatter the powerful or popular, or from a misplaced admiration, keep the wrong company and expose ourselves and others to danger.

Although not in personal relationships with them, we idolize famous athletes, movie stars, and sometimes politicians. We overlook or make excuses for their poor behavior. Never mind that many are false-hearted, haughty, and engage in deceitful and wrongful practices, never mind that; they’re such great actors, or they can throw a ball through a hoop so consistently, or they’re on our side politically.

The psalm bids us to look to the faithful in the land, to those who desire and seek perfection. We should intentionally seek knowledge of them and learn from their influence. Their lives may be less glamorous or popular, but they can assist us in what we most need: truth, virtue, counsel, and good example in the ways of faith.

Be very careful as to the company you keep and the people whom you admire. Do the same on behalf of your children. Do not overlook the corrupting power of bad company. Priests, parents, and other leaders must exhibit great oversight over what and who influences those in their care. They must not leave poor choices unrebuked.

IV. Correction and Culling of Sinners The man who slanders his neighbor in secret, I will bring to silence. Morning by morning I will silence all the wicked in the land, uprooting from the city of the Lord all who do evil.

Our first action is to correct the sinner and win him over to what is right. Even with our very self, the first step is to remove sin in our life and to moderate the use of lawful pleasures. Sometimes we discover that mere moderation of a lawful pleasure is not possible. For example, wine is a gift from God, but there are some who cannot drink moderately and must therefore abstain entirely or risk grave harm to themselves and others.

Something similar can be said for our approach to fellow sinners. We first seek to admonish and correct, for all people as they come from God are good and beloved by Him. We strive to preserve union with all people of good will who desire the ways of justice and truth. We correct, as the psalm says, by silencing lies and all forms of wickedness. We silence it with the word of truth. Fraternal correction is an obligation we have to others. The psalm says that we must do it “morning by morning,” that is, consistently.

Jesus says,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matt 18:15).

St Paul says,

Brothers, if someone is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him with a spirit of gentleness (Gal 6:1).

St. James adds,

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).

Thus, our first goal in the face of sin is to correct it and to win the sinner back to the Lord. However, there comes a time when, as the psalm says, there must be an uprooting from the city of God of those who persist in sin and are incorrigible.

Moses says,

You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid (Deut 21:21).

Jesus says of the incorrigible sinner,

And if he refuses to listen even to the Church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matt 18:17).

St Paul says the following concerning a particular unrepentant sinner in Corinth:

Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit might be saved on the Day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5).

There comes a time when we must establish a firm boundary between ourselves and unrepentant sinners. Exactly when is a matter of prudential judgment.

Too many Church leaders today are rarely willing to consider this option. In this way, sinners are confirmed in their ways and the faithful are disheartened—even scandalized. Parents and other leaders are often lenient to a fault, slow in rebuking and punishing wrongdoing; the evil is never uprooted from the City of God and it spreads like wildfire. The psalm makes it clear that uprooting is sometimes necessary. A good leader needs prudence and courage to undertake such a task, which is done for the good of one and all.

Here, then, are the “Avowals of a Ruler.” Four rules for good, effective leadership.

A Reminder that Fornication is a Serious Sin that Can Exclude Us From Heaven

The epistle from Monday’s daily Mass (30th Week of the Year) contains an admonition against unchastity. This grave warning is essential in times like these, when many call good or “no big deal” what God calls sinful. This is especially true in the realm of sexuality; entire sectors of society not only tolerate but even celebrate sexual practices that Scripture calls gravely sinful and that will lead to Hell if not repented of. Homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery cannot be considered allowable by any Catholic or any person who sincerely accepts Scripture as the Word of God. Even those who do not share our faith should be able to observe the damage these acts cause: they spread disease, harm marriages and families, subject children to less-than-ideal households (e.g., single mother/absent father), and lead to abortion. Regarding the Pope’s recent remarks on same-sex union, I have written on that here at the National Catholic Register. On account of those remarks it seems necessary review once again important  teachings here and on the EWTN Morning Glory radio show.  

In today’s post I will focus on the sin of fornication and present the clear biblical teaching against it. Sadly, many Catholics report that little to nothing is heard from the pulpit or in the classroom about this issue. The hope in this post today is to present a resounding, biblical trumpet call to purity that leaves no doubt as to the sinfulness of sex before marriage. Scripture is clear: fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of God. That is to say, fornication is a mortal sin and those who do not repent of it will go to Hell.

The usual conditions for mortal sin apply (grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will). In most situations, these conditions are met. Over the years I have met with many sexually active couples preparing for marriage and have never found them to be surprised that I rebuke them for this. They know it is wrong; the voice of God echoes in their consciences. As for consent of the will, although some fall occasionally in a weak moment, consistent fornicating with no measures taken to prevent it (e.g., not cohabitating) is not weakness; it is sinful neglect of prudence and common sense.

We are in a sinfully confused cultural setting in which many either celebrate or make little effort to avoid what God calls serious sin. The Church must not lack clarity, yet pulpits and classrooms have often been silent. This has led to parents themselves to be silent—and silence is often taken as tacit approval.

Fornication cannot be approved of. It is sinful and excludes unrepentant sinners from Heaven. Our charity for souls compels our clarity about the grave sinfulness of premarital sex.

The following passages from the New Testament clearly condemn fornication and other unclean or impure acts. The gravity and clarity of such condemnations are helpful in the sense that they help us to take such matters seriously and steer clear of them. However, the condemnations should not be seen in isolation from God’s mercy, as He never fails to forgive those who come to Him with a humble and contrite heart. God hates sin, but He loves sinners and is full of mercy and compassion for them. This mercy must be accessed through repentance, however.

There is a general requirement for sexual purity.

Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or crude joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Ephesians 5:3-7).

Unrepentant fornicators are excluded from the kingdom.

The one who sat on the throne said to me, “See I make all things new!” Then he said, “Write these matters down for the words are trustworthy and true!” He went on to say: “These words are already fulfilled! I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. To anyone who thirsts I will give to drink without cost from the spring of life-giving water. He who wins the victory shall inherit these gifts and he shall be my son. As for the cowards and traitors to the faith, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort—their lot is the fiery pool of burning sulphur, the second death!” (Revelation 21:5-8)

Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates! Outside are the dogs and sorcerers, the fornicators and murderers, the idol-worshipers and all who love falsehood. It is I Jesus who have sent my angel to give you this testimony about the Churches (Rev. 22:14-16).

No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5:5).

I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Gal 5:21)

Sins of the flesh crush the spirit within us.

My point is that you should live in accord with the Spirit and you will not yield to the cravings of the flesh. The Flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; the two are directly opposed. This is why you do not do what your will intends. If you are guided by the spirit you are not under the law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, bickering jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Galatians 5:16-21)

Even our thought life is summoned to purity.

You have heard the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” What I say you to is, Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts. If your right eye is your trouble, gouge it out and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna. Again, if your right hand is your trouble, cut it off and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:27-30).

From the mind stem evil designs—murder, adulterous conduct, fornication, stealing, false witness, blasphemy. These are the things that make a man impure (Matt. 15:19-20).

Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart: acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, an obtuse spirit. All these evils come from within and render a man impure (Mark 7:21).

Sexual impurity is a form of worldliness and idolatry.

Put to death whatever in your nature is rooted in earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires and that lust which is idolatry. These are sins which provoke God’s wrath (Colossians 3:5-6).

My body is not my own to do with merely as I please.

Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you have been washed, consecrated, justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. Do you not see that your bodies are members of Christ? Would you have me take Christ’s members and make them members of a prostitute? God forbid! Can you not see that the man who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Scripture says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun lewd conduct. Every other sin a man commits is outside of his body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within – the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So, glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:9-11, 15-20).

The call to Christian purity is not merely a human opinion; it is God’s declared truth. Further, sexual sin is a form of injustice.

Now my brothers, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, even as you learned from us how to conduct yourselves in a way pleasing to God—which you are indeed doing—so you must learn to make still greater progress. You know the instructions we gave you in the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you grow in holiness: that you abstain from sexual immorality, each of you guarding his member in sanctity and honor, not in passionate desire as do the Gentiles who know not God; and that each must refrain from overreaching or cheating his brother in the matter at hand; for the Lord is the avenger of all such things, as we once indicated to you by our testimony. God has not called us to sexual immorality but to holiness; hence whoever rejects these instructions rejects, not man, but God who sends the Holy Spirit upon you (I Thess. 4:1-8).

Fornication and other sexual sins are numbered among the more serious sins.

We know that the Law is good, provided one uses it in the way law is supposed to be used—that is, with the understanding that it is aimed, not at good men but at the lawless and unruly, the irreligious and the sinful, the wicked and the godless, men who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, fornicators, sexual perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and those who in other ways flout the sound teaching that pertains to the glorious gospel of God—blessed be he—with which I have been entrusted (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

Fornication and adultery dishonor marriage.

Let marriage be honored in every way and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4).

Therefore, do not be deceived. Fornication is a serious sin, a mortal sin. It is a sin that excludes one who does not repent of it from Heaven. It offends God, harms marriage and the family, spreads disease, encourages abortion, is an injustice to children and society, and dishonors marriage. It merits strong punishment, as God’s Word declares.

Do not despair of God’s mercy but do repent. Mercy is accessed only through repentance. It is wrong—seriously wrong—to fornicate. Repent without delay.

Bite Your Tongue! A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech

In the pastoral guide of St. Gregory the Great, the opening line reads: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service.”

This is not easy. Indeed, self-mastery in speech is among the rarer gifts and usually comes later in life!

Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!

The Book of James says this:

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:2-18).

Yes, though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually among the last to be overcome. It almost seems as if there is a separate, baser part of our brain that controls our speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list of ten sins of the tongue from James Melton [1]. Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!

  1. The Lying Tongue – speaking false things with the intention to mislead

The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).

  1. The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them, a form of lying

May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Psalm 12:4).

  1. The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.

Those who say, By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who can lord it over us? (Psalm 12:5) are condemned.

  1. The Overused Tongue – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little

… a fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

  1. The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all of the information

Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1).

Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).

  1. The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, the secretive injuring of a person’s good name. Calumny is outright lying about another person. Detraction is calling unnecessary attention to the faults of others so as to harm their reputations.

As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger (Proverbs 25:23).

  1. The Tale-bearing Tongue – spreading unnecessary (often hurtful) information about others. Tale-bearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared.

He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips (Proverbs 20:19).

Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Leviticus 19:16).

  1. The Cursing Tongue – wishing that harm come to others, usually that they be damned

He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Psalm 109:17).

  1. The Piercing Tongue – speaking with unnecessary harshness and severity

Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).

  1. The Silent Tongue – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. In our age, the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s Word.

Israel’s watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Isaiah 56:10).

So our speech is riddled with what it should not have and devoid of what it should. How wretched indeed is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect!

There are many cautions to be guided by when it comes to speech. Here is another list of Scripture passages concerning speech, most of them taken from the Wisdom Tradition. Read and heed!

  • Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth. Honor and dishonor through talking! A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sirach 5:13-16).
  • He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child. … Like an arrow lodged in a man’s thigh is gossip in the breast of a fool … every story you must not believe … who has not sinned with his tongue? (Sirach 19:5-14 varia)
  • Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. … Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. … Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God (Eccles 5:1-6).
  • In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23 NLT).
  • Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).
  • He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Prov 21:23).
  • He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin (Prov 13:3).
  • A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish (Prov 19:9).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free (Prov 19:5).
  • A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:27-28).
  • When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Prov 10:19).
  • Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
  • Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).
  • The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly (Prov 12:22-23).
  • The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly (Prov 15:2).
  • The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Prov 15:4).
  • A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
  • Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
  • A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Prov 11:12-13).
  • The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (Prov 10:32).
  • The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
  • The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).
  • Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).
  • Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies (Psalm 34:13).

Help me, Lord. Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth! Put your Word in my heart so that when I do speak, it’s really you speaking.

A Test for Pridefulness

None of us likes to think we are prideful. It’s always someone else; that guy over there is the arrogant one. One way of gauging is to ponder how well we accept being corrected. Consider the following verses from Proverbs:

He who corrects an arrogant man earns insult; and he who reproves a wicked man incurs opprobrium. Reprove not an arrogant man, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he becomes still wiser; teach a just man, and he advances in learning (Proverbs 9:7-12).

Which one are you?Do you bristle when someone corrects you or do you grow wiser from the input you receive?

It’s not easy to accept criticism or correction without feeling some degree of humiliation, particularly when it is public in some manner.

Of course, there are different kinds of correction.There is the sort that involves facts about which we are mistaken. At other times need to be set straight on the proper procedures to be followed in some situation. Finally, there are times when we have failed in a moral sense and need to be summoned back to what is right. Whatever the case, being corrected can be difficult, and how we handle it is a good indicator of pride or humility in our soul.

There are, to be sure, times when people do not correct us in the best way possible.Perhaps they are smug or seek to embarrass us. Even in those cases, though, if we are wrong, we should view correction as beneficial, regardless of how poorly it is delivered.

Note also that the passage from Proverbs above links humility to wisdom and learning.Thus, something we call docility is related to humility. The word docility comes from the Latin word for being teachable. Too often, we can be stubbornly opinionated and resist being taught. It is important to ask the Lord for greater docility.

In preparation for Lent, take this short self-test for pridefulness: How do you take correction? How teachable are you?

The Sin That Comes From Being a Busybody – A Meditation on a Teaching of St. Gregory

122914The term “busybody” usually refers to one who is intent on the matters of others but looks little to his own issues. Busybodies also tend to focus especially on the faults, foibles, and troubles of other folks. Seldom are they chattering away about good news related to other people; more often it is the scurrilous and scandalous that occupy their minds.

Merriam-Webster online defines a busybody as  “a person who is too interested in the private lives of other people.” It is a form of sinful curiosity.

Now personally I have never been a busybody, but I have known many of them 😉   But of course, this is a human problem. Many of us are far too interested in things that are really none of our business. That alone is problem enough. But the problem is compounded in that the busybody is almost always too little concerned about his own ”issues” (we used to call them sins). When our attention to, fascination with, or scorn about sin is directed outward, we lose the proper introspection that properly examines our own need for repentance. The pointed index finger too easily ignores the three folded fingers pointing back at oneself, and those three fingers symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit urging us to look to our own vineyard.

Indeed, Scripture says, They made me keeper of the vineyards; but, my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song 1:6) For we who would be prophets too easily ignore the word of God as directed to our own souls.

Further, it is a common trap of the devil that he keeps us focused on what we cannot change so that we do not focus on what we can change. In other words, it is more difficult to change others and less difficult to change ourselves. Thus the devil would have us focus on others, who are hard to change, so that we will not focus on our very self, whom we can more easily change.

Thus, being a busybody is not only obnoxious, it is a trap the devil enjoys laying for us.

Pope St. Gregory the Great has a meditation near the end of his Pastoral Rule wherein he ponders the problem of the busybody. He uses the story of Dinah from the Bible. He does not use the term “busybody,” but the related concept of “self-flattery.” Let’s review some of his observations.

Frequently the crafty enemy … seduces [the mind] by flattery in a false security that leads to destruction. And this is expressed figuratively in the person of Dinah. For it is written:

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the pagan women of the land;  and when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humbled her.  And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the maiden and spoke tenderly to her (Gen 34:1-3).

For [pertaining to us] Dinah “goes down to see the women of that region.” But whenever a soul neglects to consider itself and concerns itself with the actions of others and wonders beyond its own proper condition and order, then Shechem takes her soul by force,  inasmuch as the Devil corrupts the mind that is occupied by external matters. “And [Shechem’s] soul was drawn to her” because the devil considers us conjoined to him through iniquity. And … the devil calls before our minds a false sense of hope and security … Thus it is written that Shechem “spoke tenderly to her” when she was sad [humbled]. For to us the devil speaks to us of the greater offenses committed by others … [Pastoral Rule III.29].

In effect, Gregory uses the story of Dinah as an allegory of the trouble we get into when we focus too much on the lives of others and look not enough to our own souls. For Dinah gets into trouble when she tours the land to see the pagan women (the Hivites) and inquires, with a sort of fascination, into what they do. And one of the men of that land seduces her, taking  advantage of the vulnerability caused by her sinful curiosity. But even after being humbled and sinned against, she still lets him speak tenderly to her. She is far too fascinated with the Hivites. And thus her rapist, Shechem, was able to speak tenderly to her and win her heart, a thing no rapist should be able to do.

But so it is with us. We are far too fascinated with the sins and struggles of others. Like busybodies we go out to consort with the people of the sinful world. And being focused on and fascinated by them, rather than looking to our own selves, we open ourselves up to being taken advantage of by both the devil and a sinful world. We are an easy target when we do not look to our own soul but rather are preoccupied with the scurrilous details of the lives of others.

And then the devil seizes us and has consort with our soul. He speaks “tenderly” to us telling us how, compared to others, we are not really so bad.  Here is a false security indeed. We have been sinfully curious as to the sins and struggles of others, and now we are in the devil’s clutches being reassured by him.

We should be angry with him for raping our vulnerable soul in the first place! But instead, we let him sweet-talk and reassure us.

And thus we are prey two times over. First, we indulged our sinful curiosity into the struggles of others, and then having done so, allowed ourselves to be falsely reassured by the devil of our relative innocence.

The bottom line is that busybodies are easy prey for the devil. By looking not to their own lives, but instead prying with sinful fascination into the lives of others, they wander into sin easily. And all the while, since they look not to themselves, they are easily deluded by the thought that at least they are not as bad as so-and so.

Then only problem is, “being better than so-and-so” is not the standard for eternal life. Jesus is the standard. Only grace and mercy can help us meet that standard.

The busybody is busy about all things except the one thing necessary. As St. Paul says, If we would judge ourselves truly, we would not be judged (1 Cor 11:31).

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