Easter Reflection: What is the Normal Christian Life?

At the Great Easter Vigil, after a lengthy series of Old Testament readings, the Gloria is intoned and the opening prayer is sung. Then all are seated for the first reading from the New Testament proclaimed in the new light of Easter glory. It would seem the Church considers this an important reading for our consideration, given it’s placement.

It is Romans 6, a kind of mini-Gospel where in the fact of our new status as redeemed transformed Children of God is declared. And within these lines is contained “Standing Order # 1” for the Christian who is a new creation:

No longer let sin continue to reign in your death directed bodies.”

Perhaps we can take a look at this central passage from the New Testament. Here it is in total and them some verse by verse commentary:

We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. 8Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  11In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Romans 6:1-14)

  1. THE PRINCIPLE We have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  – Here is a powerful and uncompromising statement. Paul is setting for the most fundamental principle for the Christian life. Namely that sin is not to have any power over us. This is the NORMAL (i.e. normative, to be expected) Christian life, a life that is victorious and that is seeing sin put to death and the blessings of grace come alive. Paul says, quite clearly, we have died to sin. Before returning to this concept it might be important to consider what the word “sin” means here. The Greek word is ἁμαρτίᾳ (hamartia). In its root sin (ἁμαρτίᾳ) means “missing the mark” or falling short of a designated goal. In the Greek tragedies the hero often had a “fatal flaw” wherein he misses the mark, or fails to obtain what he sought due to a moral failing or error in judgment. In scripture the word ἁμαρτίᾳ usually means something closer to what we mean by sin today, namely “a moral failing.” But we should not completely leave behind the notion that sin is a missing of the mark. It is not untrue to say that sin is not so much a reality unto itself as it is a “privation,”  a lack of something that should be there. In every sin, something is missing that should be there. Now St. Paul often describes sin (ἁμαρτίᾳ) at two levels: the personal experience with sin, but also as a “climate” in which we live. So we might distinguish between Sin (upper case) and sin (lower case). Hence, Sin is the climate in which we live that is hostile to God, that has values in direct opposition to what God values. It is materialistic, worldly in its preoccupations, carnal and not spiritual, lustful, greedy, self-centered, and alienated from the truth. It will not submit to God and seeks either o deny Him or to marginalize him. This is Sin. (We need to understand this distinction for in verse 10 of this passage Paul says Christ “died to Sin.”  But clearly Christ had no personal sin. But he DID live in a world dominated by Sin and it was to THAT which he died). As for (lower case) sin, it is our personal appropriation of Sin. It is our internalization and acceptance of the overall climate of sin. For example, a Bosnian child is not born hating a Croat or Serbian child. That hatred is “in the air” and the child often (usually) internalizes and then acts upon it. Hence Sin becomes sin. Now Paul says, we have DIED to all of this. That is to say the overall climate of sin cannot any longer influence us, neither can the deep drives of our own sin continue to affect us. But how can this be since most of us feel very strongly influenced by Sin and sin? Consider for a moment a corpse. You cannot humiliate or tempt, win an argument with or in anyway personally affect a corpse. The corpse is dead and you and I can no longer have any influence over it. Paul is saying that this is to be the case with us. We are dead to the world and its Sin.  It’s influence on us is broken. Because of this, our personal sins and drives of sin are also broken in terms of their influence. Ah but you say, “This does nto seem true.” Ah, but it IS the principle of Christian life. It is what is normative for us and what we should increasingly expect because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Death for us is a process, more than an event. But to the degree that the old Adam has been put to death in us, then his vital signs are diminishing. He is assuming room temperature and Christ Jesus is coming alive in us. Is he? It is a remarkable thing how little most Christians expect from their relationship with Jesus Christ. The best that most people hope for is to muddle through this life and just make it (barely) over the finish line to heaven. Mediocrity seems what most people expect. But this is not the normal Christian life! The normal Christian life is to be increasingly victorious over sin, to be experience the power of the Lord Jesus Christ at work in our lives. We have died to sin. It’s influence on us is waning, is diminishing. Increasingly the world and its values seem ludicrous to us and God’s vision becomes precious. So here is the principle – have died and are dying to sin, it is increasingly impossible for us to live in it or experience it’s influence.
  2. THE POWER –  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. When Paul (and scripture) use the word “know” it always means more that grasping something intellectually. To “know” in the Bible means to personally experience something and to have grasped it as true. And so Paul is really saying here, “Or is it possible that you have not experienced that we died with Christ and risen with him to new life?” In effect he is saying, grab hold of yourself and come to experience that you have died to your old life and now received a completely new life. Start to personally experience this. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation! (2 Cor 5:17). This is the normal Christian life and we ought to be experiencing it more and more. But here again, we have to fight the sloth of low expectations. Do you think that Jesus Christ died for you so that you would continue to be in bondage to anger, or lust, or hatred? Surely he died to free us from this. To see your life transformed is NOT your work, it is the work of the Lord Jesus. Since it is his power at work we ought to expect a lot. But low expectations yield poor results. So Paul is saying, come to know, come to personally experience and grasp his power at work in you. Have high expectations! How can we have anything less when the death and resurrection of Jesus are the cause of this?
  3. THE PERSONAL WITNESS  6For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. – Once again Paul says we “know” this. This is the normal Christian life: to experience that our old self was crucified and has died and that increasingly we are no longer slaves to sin. In my own life I have experienced just this. Have you? I have seen many sins and sinful attitudes put to death in me. My mind has become so much clearer in the light of Christian faith and I now see and experience how silly and insubstantial are many claims of this world. So, my mind and my heart are being transformed. I have died to many of my former and negative attitudes and drives. I’m not what I want to be but I’m not what I used to be, praise God. A wonderful change has come over me. How about you? Do you have a testimony? Do you “know” (experience) that your old self has been crucified and that you are being freed from sin?
  4. THE PROCLAMATION – in various ways then in the verses that follow, Paul sets forth the essential proclamation of the Normal (normative) Christian life: count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires…..[you] have been brought from death to life….For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

Some final questions:

  • Do you believe this?
  • Do you know (experience) this?
  • What do you expect from your relationship with Jesus Christ?
  • How are you different from some one who lived under the Old Covenant?
  • How are you different from the unbelievers in this world?
  • Are you living the normal Christian life of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ,  or are you just muddling through?

This song says, Victory is mine, I told Satan, “Get thee behind” for victory today is mine.

The Anatomy of a Sin

The first reading from today’s Mass is an extraordinary moral tale from the  Book of Daniel. It is the story of Susanna. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly it is missing from Protestant Bibles which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel.

It features the story of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden two older men who have hidden themselves there out of lust try to seduce Susanna who rebuffs their brazen overture. They threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in garden if she does not give way to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through on their threatened lie. They further demand that she should be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue and, through crafty interrogation, exposes their lie for what it is. The story is a small masterpiece. If you have never read it,  you should. In the course of its engaging tale it gives us a kind of anatomy lesson of sin. It is good to consider the teachings here

Anatomy Lesson One: The Cardinal or Deadly Sins lead to other sins–  The story powerfully shows how lust, one of the seven cardinal, (a.k.a.  capital, or deadly) sins leads to numerous other sins. This is the nature of the seven deadly sins and explains why they are often called Cardinal Sins. In Latin “cardines” means “hinge”.  Hence, the seven deadly sins are like hinges on which many other sins “swing.” In this story the deadly sin of  lust leads to immodest inquiry, violation of privacy, attempted seduction, unjust accusation, exploitation, lies, oppression, and even to attempted murder. King David too had given way to lust and it led to lies, and ultimately to the murder of Uriah the Hittite by David in which David involved not only himself but his generals. This is what the seven deadly sins do, they lead inexorably to other sins.

Anatomy Lesson Two: The Sequential Sources of Sin. In a remarkable description the story describes a threefold source from which their sins spring forth. The text says: They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments. (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources from which sin springs.

  1. They suppressed their consciences–  What is the conscience? The Catechism defines it thus: For Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God, This is his conscience, there he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths… (Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) # 1776). So in effect the conscience is the voice of God within us. God has written his Law in the hearts of every human person. Thus, in terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (eg. the following of certain rituals or feasts days etc.). But in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic and innate grasp of what is right and wrong. Deep down inside we know what we are doing. We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity. We also know that things like murder of the innocent, promiscuity, theft, destruction of reputations etc are wrong. For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing, and we know that we know.   I have written substantially about conscience elsewhere (HERE). But notice that it says that they suppressed their consciences. Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily minds will do is to try and suppress our conscience. To suppress something is to put it down by force, to inhibit or to try and exclude something from awareness or consciousness. The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies and distortions to try and reassure us that something is really OK that deep down inside we know isn’t OK. We accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth that our conscience witnesses to. St. Paul wrote to Timothy: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim 4:1-3). It is quite and effort to suppress one’s own conscience and I would argue that we cannot ever do it completely. In fact the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is quite an effort and it is very fragile. This helps explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know we are right and often, just the slightest appeal to the conscience to awaken its voice, causes quite an eruption of fear and anger. So here is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly and not face deep psychological pain of significant guilt these men in the story first  suppress their conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain. Step one is underway.
  2. they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven– In order to sustain the fictions, stinking thinking, rationalizations, and sophistry necessary to suppress the conscience it is necessary for one to distance himself  from the very source of conscience, God himself. One way to do this is to drift away from God though neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God and association with the Church which speaks for God. Drifting away may become more severe as times goes on and the refusal to repent becomes deeper. Drifting soon becomes absence and absence often becomes outright hostility to anything religious or biblical. Another way that some avert their eyes from heaven is to redefine God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a designer God who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care if I go to church, or shack up with my girlfriend etc.” On being shown scripture quite contrary to their distorted notions of God they simply respond that Paul had hangups, or that the Bible was written in primitive times. But the cumulative effect is that they are no longer looking to heaven or to God, but rather to a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is for the individual to isolate and insulate themselves  from God and what he reveals. This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing their conscience. So for these men step two in engaged and it further supports the suppression of conscience necessary to commit sin without the pain of guilt.
  3. and did not keep in mind just judgments– Finally lets throw in a little presumption which dismisses any consequences for evil acts. This of course is one of  THE sins of our current age. This final stage is meant to eliminate  the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. The sinner at this stage has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and even a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin when the voice of conscience was less layered over and muted. But still some fear remains so now an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of God’s holiness which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of hell which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and holds that there is no judgment to be faced. However he does it, he must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.

Then, having suppressed the voice of God to the extent he can and having removed himself from heaven’s influence, and denied that anything of negative consequence will come, he is free to sin gravely. It is as though he has taken a number of stiff drinks and anesthetized himself sufficiently to proceed without pain.

But guess what, it’s still there deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Under all the layers of stinking thinking and attempts to insulate oneself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing to prick his conscience causes increasing unease. Anger, projection, name-calling, ridiculing of anyone or anything awaken his conscience will increasing be resorted to. Sin is in full bloom now and repentance seems increasingly difficult or unlikely. Only great prayers and fasting by others for him will likely spring him loose from the deep moral sleep he is currently in. Pray for the conversion of sinners.

Well, since this post has been a little heavy it might be good to end on a lighter note:

The Diagnosis is Dire But The Doctor Is In

The Diagnosis is in. The situation looks grave. From the test results, we’ve got some serious stuff wrong with us!  You might say we’ve got a few issues!  Yes, I’ve  got your spiritual “medical chart” and mine open and I’m looking at the test results and the numbers don’t look good.  We’ve tested positive for a number of things: It says we can be dishonest, egotistical, undisciplined, weak, immature, arrogant, self-centered, pompous, insincere, unchaste, grasping, judgmental, inpatient, and shallow.  It looks like we’ve tested positive for being inconsistent, unfaithful, immoral, ungrateful, disobedient, selfish, lukewarm, slothful, unloving, uncommitted, and just plain sinful.  Further tests indicate the presence of fear, indifference, contempt, impurity, hatred, laziness, cowardice, and anger.  Likewise, greed, jealousy, revenge fullness, disobedience, hardheartedness, pride, envy, stinginess, selfishness, pettiness, spite, self-indulgence, lust, careless neglect, and prejudice. Our “spiritual” medical history indicates that we have sinned against justice, modesty, purity, and the truth. We have committed sins against the human person, the children and the young, innocent and the trusting, the frail and elderly, the unborn in infants, weak and powerless, immigrants and strangers, and those who are disadvantaged.   A set of further test results indicates that we have failed to give witness to Christ, we have failed to join our will to God or give good example to others.  We have failed to seek God above all things, to act justly you show mercy, and to repent of our sins.  We’ve failed to obey the commandments and curb our earthly desires.  We have failed to lead a holy life and to speak the truth. We have failed to pray for others and assist those in need;  neither have we consoled the grieving.

Well, you can see that we’re kind of in bad shape. You might say that I’m exaggerating but I suspect, if you’re honest, that you like me have committed many of  these sins if not most of them.  Without a lot of grace and mercy we are in very bad shape!  The diagnosis is dire.

But here’s the good news: the doctor is in! Jesus! Likewise, the doctor has a cure! Jesus refers us to the Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR)- Spiritual Edition (also called the Holy Book) for  a cure to this condition. It is to be found in section Acts 2.42:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)

The cure is thus ancient and well attested and consists of a consistent regime of four basic medicines which must be taken as the text says “Devotedly”:

  1. The Apostles’ Teaching– This medicine supplies daily doses of Scripture which helps to cleanse the mind of worldly thinking and to deliver remedial amounts of God-like thinking. It removes the tendency to be conformed to this world and begins a process of transformation by the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:4). While the term “apostles teaching”  is here used, this is medicine is inclusive of all Sacred Scripture of which the Apostles’ teaching is the pinnacle. Studying carefully another manual known as the Catechism also delivers healthy doses of Scripture (aka the Apostles Teaching).
  2. The Fellowship– This gathering or fellowship is also referred to as “The Church” and refers to the prescribed medicine of gathering frequently with the Church for instruction, edification, encouragement, necessary rebuke, exposure to truth, helpful friendships and proper worship of God known as the “Liturgy”. The regular and necessary dosage is once per week. Taking more is advantageous but missing the necessary weekly dose leads to a deadly condition known as “mortal sin.”
  3. The Breaking of the Bread– Also known as Holy Communion. This medicine supplies necessary nourishment to sustain the Christian on the journey across the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Heaven. Regular reception helps ensure being raised up on the last day to eternal life (Jn 6:54). Neglect of this medicine leads to spiritual death which the PDR – Spiritual Edition refers to as “having no life in you”  (Jn 6:53). While this medicine is called the “breaking of the bread” it actually refers to a series of seven medicines known as the “sacraments” of which Holy Communion is the greatest. Some medicines in this series are taken but once, others may require on-going doses. Most notable is the medicine called “confession” wherein, through salutary conversation with a properly licensed doctor in Jesus’ practice, one is healed from the wounds of sin through the laying on of hands and the words of absolution. The usual recommended dosage of this medicine of confession  is four to six times per year but more for those who wound easily.
  4. Prayer– Regular and substantial conversation with the Doctor (aka Jesus) is essential for healing. Herein symptoms are discussed and solutions are proposed. Given the grave condition, these visits must be daily. Failure to take this medicine daily leads to a serious complex known as “temptation” (cf  Mk 14:38) which leads the patient to further wounding and death-directed actions. The medicine of prayer comes in a variety of  forms: meditation, devotional reading of Scripture, contemplation, reading the lives of the saints and devotions such as the rosary, and novenas.

Well there it is.  We need help; we’ve got stuff going on that will kill us eternally. But Jesus has a hospital: the Church, and Medicine: the Sacraments. Likewise there is spiritual “medical” advice available, the Word of God, sermons, the teachings of the Church and the presence of encouraging doctors and nurses such as the priests, religious, and fellow Catholics.  Whether you and  like to  admit it or not we need regular check-ups and serious medicine. And Jesus is guiding his Church to give skillful advice and distribute powerful medicine. Do you think of the sacraments that way? Many simply think of them as rituals but the truth is they are powerful medicine. I’m a witness. After twenty-five years of seeing the doctor, Jesus and letting him minister to me through Sacraments, the Word and his Church a wonderful change has come over me. I’m not what I want to be but I’m not what I used to be.

The doctor is in and you know you need him! Reach out for him what ever your struggles.  He’s waiting to minister to you especially in the liturgy and the sacraments. You can’t do it alone. Join us every Sunday at the “holy hospital”, the Church. The Doctor is in!

From Perfunctory Penitence to Compelling Confession In Four Easy Steps

For many people the Sacrament of Confession is experienced in a rather perfunctory way. Upon preparing to go to confession many are content to look at some matters pertaining to external behavior: “I got angry with my children….I had lustful thoughts…. I was distracted in prayer, or I didn’t pray as much as I should…. I gossiped….and so forth. While the confession of these sorts of things is good and proper it also remains true that,  for confession to really heal,  it is necessary to go deeper. It is necessary to examine the deeper drives and motives of sin; to examine not only what I have done, by to ponder why.

In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus invites us to go a little deeper than a mere examination of outward behavior. He begins with a critique of Jewish purity codes such as the “Kosher” diet and he says:

Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile….Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mat 7:16-17)

The Jews of Jesus time were very meticulous in matters of external purity. The notion of ritual purity and external observances was deeply ingrained. This is not bad in itself but it runs the danger of short-circuiting deeper introspection. It is possible to think I am a hero because I stay away from unclean foods and do other things like pay my tithes but then (on account of my hero status) not look at how I treat others with contempt or have an unforgiving attitude etc. The ritual observance is not wrong, but our carnal nature can twist it and make it deadly by turning holiness into perfunctory external observance.

Already Jewish spirituality cautioned against this possibility with the famous utterance by Moses: Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer (Deut 10:16). Jesus therefore taps into this traditional caution and warns that holiness is far more than ritual observance or merely external behavior.

And then Jesus give us the key to a good confession in these words from today’s Gospel:

But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile. (Mat 7:2-23).

Notice how Jesus focuses on the deeper inner drives that give rise to sin. It is from the heart of man and his evil and errant thoughts that bad behavior issues forth. It is not enough to say, “I got angry.”  Rather we ought to ask additionally: “what is it that causes my anger?” What is there in my heart and in my mind that give rise to anger? Is is fear? Well, then, why am I afraid? Am I afraid because I do not trust God? Am I afraid because I am ego-centric and when the whole world does not think as I do or have the priorities I do, do I get afraid? Am I afraid because I am a control freak and have to have everything go just as I planned exactly? If it does not go exactly as I planned do I then get fearful and my fear issues forth in anger? ….Why AM I angry? What causes it?

The same can be said for every other sin I commit. Why is it that I do these things? What are the drives and sinful attitudes that give rise to sinful behavior?  The drives and bad thoughts are deep within that then give rise to the bad behavior I need to confess.

Jesus teaches us to go deeper, into the heart and mind, to discover what causes our sinful behavior. And this leads us to the recipe for a good confession, for a confession that moves from From perfunctory penitence to compelling  and transformative Confession. What are the basic steps?

  1. Observe your sinful behavior but don’t stop there. See it as a symptom of something deeper.
  2. Once you have observed WHAT you do, ask, “Why?”  Let the Holy Spirit show you the deeper drives that give rise to sinful behavior. To this end it is also helpful to avail yourself of teaching on the seven deadly sins: Pride, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, envy, and sloth. There are a few good resources out there I might recommend to your attention. Peter Kreeft wrote a good book on the subject: Back to Virtue. Fr. Robert Barron has also issued a DVD on the subject: The Seven Deadly Sins . In addition to the seven deadly sins there are innumerable attitudes that give rise to sin;  things like: fear, indifference, laziness, contempt, impurity, hated, malice, cowardice, jealously, revenge, disobedience, hard-heartedness, stinginess, selfishness, pettiness, spite, neglect, prejudice, arrogance, self-centeredness, pomposity, insincerity, impatience, infidelity, ingratitude, disobedience….and on and on. Focus on these deeper drives and attitudes for it is they that give rise to our bad behavior. Learn to name them. Learn to know their moves and tactics. “AH,” but you say, “There is so much to remember here!” Well I am going to help you by offering you a resource I have compile myself from various sources. It is call the Litany of Penance and Reparation. You can get it by clicking on the title. It is a very through listing (if I do say myself) of the deeper drives and sinful attitude that give rise to sinful behavior. Pray it carefully before your confession and you will find help to honor Jesus’ instruction to go deeper and look into the heart and mind to discover the deepest drives that cause bad behavior.
  3. Having prepared in this way, go to confession and confess not only bad behaviors (which are the symptoms) but also articulate these deeper drives and attitudes. Name them! See them for what they are thus learn their moves.
  4. Repeat this process frequently through the year and thus gain self knowledge and self mastery through the years. Confession will break open for it will no longer be a perfunctory laundry list of merely external behaviors. Confession will become a compelling and transformative sacrament that breaks the bondage of sin by the power of God’s grace.

Try this method. Never known to fail!

Pat Robertson Gets it Wrong

Enough ink has already been spilled objecting to Pat Robertson’s comments describing Haiti’s disastrous earthquake as the result of a pact they made with the devil 300 years ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the comments you can view the video below. Not only are the remarks insensitive and ill-timed, but they bespeak an flawed mentality common in biblical times that Jesus himself moves away from. I’d like in this post to examine the passages where it seems clear that Jesus himself would have something of a rebuke for Mr. Robertson.

First, just a few facts. Whatever pact Mr. Robertson thinks Haitians made 300 years ago with the Devil, the current population of Haiti is overwhelmingly Catholic and Christian. Approximately 80% of Haitians are Catholic. It is true that there are vestiges of voodoo intermingled with the Catholic Faith of some Haitians. Haitians who observe some voodoo rituals still think of and refer to themselves as Catholic. The Catholic Church to be sure condemns this intermixing of ancient voodoo with Catholicism though it persists in some places, especially in rural areas. But voodoo is not satanism. The Church condemns it as idolatry, not as satanic. False or imperfect  religious practice and intermixing of idolatry are not unique to Haiti. But lets be clear the vast majority of Haitians are Catholic Christians, even if some are imperfectly so, they are NOT worshippers of Satan.

Now, let’s return to Pat Robertson’s remarks. The premise of them seems to be a philosopy not uncommon in biblical wherein those who suffered catastrophic loss must have been guilty of some sort of sin for this misfortune to have happened. Perhaps they were born blind, then their parents must have sinned. Perhaps they were killed in a sudden accident, then they must have sinned. At least this was the thinking.

Now such a thinking carried forward into Jesus’ times  and he both encounters and deals with the attitude. In effect he sets such thinking aside or at least dispenses with the notion that God singles out certain people or groups out for punishment. Let’s look at these texts.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:1-3)

Note how the disciples manifest the typical attitude of the day that it must have been the sin of the man or his parents that he is blind. But Jesus says that he is not blind sue to the fact that he sinned and then goes on to set forth an entirely new understanding that suffering is often an opportunity to manifest the glory of God shining through our human weakness. Suffering and the cross lead to glory. But it is clear that Jesus does not accept the notion advanced by his disciples that link this man’s suffering to his or his parents sin. Hence, even if we were to accept Pat Robertson’s rather questionable historical data that the ancestors of these Haitians made a pact with devil it hardly follows from Jesus’ teaching that they are suffering today due to that. Let’s consider another text:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Here again Jesus refers to the attitude that those who suffer calamities are worse sinners than the rest. He refers to it only to reject it. But then Jesus turns the tables on those with such an attitude and warns them that something far worse than the physical loss of life will await them if they do not repent. He warns them that they will perish unto hell. This much is clear  for he goes on to tell a parable (not reproduced here) of a fig tree that comes under judgement. It will be spared for one year more but it still does not bear fruit it will be cut down and thrown into the fire (cf Luke 13:6-9). So here again, Mr. Robertson’s theory that the Haitians have suffered due to some sin that makes them as the parable puts it worse sinners than all the others,  is rejected quite explicitly by Jesus.

Further, consider the over all approach of Jesus toward the crippled, the lepers, the blind, deaf and others with similar physical maladies. Jesus does not say to any of them that they have these problems due to sin that they or their ancestors committed. He heals them without mention of sin being the cause of their distress. There is one exception to this in the paralyzed man let down through the roof (cf  Mark 2:1-12). When healing him Jesus says, have courage son, your sins are forgiven. This causes a stir among the Pharisees who declare that God alone can forgive sins. To prove his power to forgive sins Jesus heals the paralyzed man. And this seems to be the general context of the passage which is more an affirmation of Jesus’ power to forgive sins than a teaching that the man was paralyzed due to his own sin.

Finally, a couple of disclaimers. Jesus teaching does not exclude ANY relationship between sin and suffering. First of all, in a general sense,  ALL suffering is traced back to Original Sin which brought suffering and death into the world. Secondly there are surely some sufferings we experience in relationship to sins committed. Maybe it is a hangover from too much drinking, or a sexually transmitted disease from fornication, and so forth. But it is not as though we can claim that everyone who suffers anything is guilty of some sin or that God singles some people out for special punishment. These are things we cannot know, especially in the case of natural disasters that affect so many people.

Let’s be honest, most of us have never gotten the the punishment we really deserve. If God were “fair” we’d all be in hell. As it is he is merciful, thanks be to God! To point to others in a disaster and say, “Look at them, they must have sinned” is to invite disaster upon ourselves. Because as Jesus in effect says above “If you think they are worse sinners than you, wake up, I’ve got something coming for you that might be far worse if you don’t shape up.”  So careful Pat Robertson, not only are you at odds with the New Testament and Jesus himself, you also risk a stern warning from Jesus that you repent or experience something far worse.

Pray for the people of Haiti right now.

Rediscovering The”Plot”of Sacred Scripture

One of the most significant losses in the modern era has been the loss of the Biblical narrative in the hearts and minds of most people. Scripture is the story of the human family told by God himself. In story form He tells us how we were made and why. What happened so that things are the way they are today. Why do we have infinite longing in a finite world? Why do we struggle with sin so much? How can we be rescued from sin and death and find our hearts true  satisfaction? The Biblical narrative answers these sorts of questions and more. The Biblical story or narrative, mediates reality to us in a memorable way. God, like any good Father tells us our story and asks us to tell our own children. To know our story is to understand ourselves in relation to God, the world and others.

And what a story it is! It has more of passion, conflict and drama than any great epic. It is the “greatest story ever told” but most people have lost its details and no longer know the story. Hence they are detached from the reality that the story mediates. Many are adrift in a world of little meaning, or competing “meanings” with no way to sort it all out. They have few explanations as to the most basic questions of the meaning of life, the meaning of suffering, our ultimate destiny and so forth. Without the story, life looses its meaning.

To illustrate the loss of the narrative, I was talking to Catholic seventh graders a couple of years ago and I made reference to Adam and Eve. As our discussion progressed it became evident to me that they did not really know who Adam and Eve were. They had heard the names before but couldn’t say who they really were or what they had done. About the most erudite statement that came from one of the students was from a young man in the second row who said, “Aren’t they in the Bible or something?” No other specifics emerged from the discussion. I resolved that day to scrap our compartmentalized religious programs and switch every grade level to a “back to basics” program that emphasized the Biblical narrative.

How has this loss of the narrative happened?  Some argue that the Church stopped telling the story. Poor preaching, poor catechesis and pretty soon no one knows the story any more. I do not doubt there is substance to this explanation. But the explanation is still too general for it hardly seems likely that “the Church” just decided one day to stop telling the story. What seems more specifically to have happened is that we stopped telling the story effectively. And what I would like to argue is that we lost touch with the “plot” of sacred Scripture and because of this we were no longer able to tell the story in a compelling and interesting way.

What then is a plot? The plot in a story in the focal point to which all the events and characters relate. It is like the center point of a wheel around which everything else revolves. Now a plot, if it is to be successful, always involves some sort of conflict or negative development that must be resolved. This is what holds our interest as the question emerges, “How will this problem be resolved?!” If, in scene one of story, everything is just fine, and scene two everything is fine and in scene three still fine, people start tuning out. It is the conflict or negative development that renders the plot interesting. Plots usually have five stages:

  1. Exposition – where we are introduced to the main characters and elements of the Story
  2. Conflict – where the negative development occurs that must be resolved
  3. Climax – where the conflict reaches its highest point and the tension is greatest. Here there is often an epic battle, or experience of the conflict. And here the conflict is resolved usually by an heroic figure or striking event.
  4. Falling action – Here is shown the result of the climax, and its effects on the characters, setting, and proceeding events.
  5. Resolution – The Conflict having been resolved,  this last stage of the story shows either a return to normality for the characters or an attainment of an even higher state for our characters than the situation than existed before the conflict. This results in a sense of catharsis (or release of tension and anxiety) for the reader.

What then is the plot of sacred scripture? Simply this:

  1. Exposition – God created Man as an act of love and made him to live in union with his God. In the beginning Adam and Eve accepted this love and experienced a garden paradise. The heart of their happiness was to know the Lord and walk with Him in a loving and trusting relationship.
  2. Conflict – But man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his creator die in his heart and he willfully rejected the God who given him everything by listening to an evil tempter who had given him nothing. Adam rebelled against God and refused to be under his loving authority and care. The led to a complete unraveling of everything. Paradise vanished, Adam and Eve experienced a deep and personal disintegration of their inmost being. Confused, ashamed, angry, accusatory and embarrassed they withdraw into hiding and cover up. They can no longer tolerate the presence and glory of the God who still loved them and must live apart from Him. God makes an initial promise to one day bring healing but when is not clear. So here is the initial conflict or negative development that defines the plot and rivets our attention. How will this tragic development be resolved? Will Adam and Eve turn back to God? Will they ever be able to experience peace in his presence again? How will Adam and Eve ever recover from the self inflicted wounds they have?  A great love story between humanity and God has gone very sour. Will our lovers ever reunite? Will paradise reopen again? When will God act? How?
  3. Climax – In continually rising action things go from bad to worse: Adam and Eve’s rebelliousness is passed on to their children as Cain kills Abel. Wickedness multiplies so rapidly that God must take action, first confusing the languages of Man and humbling him at Babel, then practically starting all over again with the flood. In a sudden development in the plot God chooses the family of Abram and his descendants to set the initial stage for a final conflict with his opponent the devil and to restore Man. Through a series of covenants and actions God prepares a people to receive the great Savior who will resolve this terrible problem. But God must take this chosen people through a series of shocking and powerful purifications so that at least some can be humble enough to receive the cure and be healed. God purifies them through slavery in Egypt, a terrifying but glorious freedom ride through the desert, the giving of the Law, the settlement in a Promised Land. But they are STILL rebellious and more and escalating purifications are necessary: an invasion by Assyrians, then by Babylonians, then exile, then return to their land. All through God sent prophets to rebuke and console. The conflicts and waiting have been continuously escalating. Then at last our savior steps on the scene! our God hero, wonderful counselor Father forever and Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). He is named Jesus for he would save his people from their sins! (Matt 1:21) In a crucial and epic battle between God and the devil, Jesus mounts a cross and defeats the devil at his own game. By dying he destroys death! The climax is now reached. The devil seems victorious but on the third day our Savior and God Hero Jesus casts off death like a garment. Ascending forty days later he reopens the gates of paradise.
  4. Falling Action– Now that the epic battle is won, Jesus sends out Apostles to announce the Good News of His victory over sin and death. His apostles go forth with the message that the long reign of sin is over and that, through grace it is increasingly possible to live a transformed life, a life no longer dominated by sin, anger, resentment, fear, bitterness, greed, lust, hatred and the like but rather a life dominated by love, mercy, joy, serenity, confidence, holiness, chastity, self control and more. A new world has been opened. Up ahead lie open the gates of paradise.
  5. Resolution – God has resolved the terrible consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve just as he promised. But things do not merely return to normal, they return to supernormal for the paradise that God now offers is not an earthly one, it is a heavenly one. It’s happiness is not merely natural, it is supernatural. And we the reader experience the catharsis of knowing that God is faithful and he has saved us from this present evil age.

But the plot has been lost  by many – What a story and what a ride. But notice that the plot hinges on a key and negative development: SIN. Without that development there is no plot. And here is where the Church lost the ability to hand on the narrative: we lost the plot, and in particular the negative development that is necessary for a plot and makes it interesting. About fifty years ago there seems to have been a conscious effort to move away from talking vigorously about sin. It was said that we should be more “positive” and that “honey attracted more bees than vinegar.”  Crosses (too negative) were removed from Churches and replaced with “resurrection Jesus.”  Thinking our numbers would increase by a kinder, gentler Church we set aside the key element of the plot. Suddenly our narrative no longer made a lot sense. Everything is basically OK, everyone is really fine, just about everyone will go to heaven. And all along we thought we would be more relevant and inviting to people. In end all we had to say was “God loves you.”

But increasingly we have become irrelevant. If I’m really OK why go to Church, why receive sacraments, why pray, why call on God at all? If I’m fine, who needs a savior?  Who needs Jesus, God or religion? And then comes  the most obvious critique: “Church is boring” and “The Bible is boring!”  Well sure, every story without a well developed plot IS boring. In fact, if it is poorly developed enough I might just stop reading the story or walk outof the movie. And that is just what people have done. Only 27% of Catholics go to Church anymore. To over 70% our story is irrelevant and uncompelling. Why? Collectively we jettisoned the “negative development” that makes the plot. Without a rich understanding of sin, salvation makes little sense.

Regarding the story, most people no longer “get it” because the whole point has been lost. People no longer remember a story that makes little sense to them. And so it is that I found myself in a class of Catholic seventh graders who had never heard of Adam and Eve. It’s time to rediscover the central element of the “plot” of  Sacred Scripture, sin. It’s time to speak of it, creatively, in a compelling way. In so doing we will once again set forth a plot that is compelling and interesting and help people rediscover the greatest story ever told.

Here is a very creative muscial telling of “the Story”

What Are you Really Afraid Of?

What is it that really hold us in bondage? What is it that is truly  the source of our problem, our sins, our selfishness, our anger, our lust and pride? Original Sin? Yes but where does the wound of sin really set up shop in us and stay open for business? What does it tap into for its strength? Scripture has an interesting answer to this question:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)

Now this passage is clear enough that the first origin of sin is the devil. But it also teaches that the devil’s hold on us is the “fear of death.” This is what he exploits to keep us in bondage. When I explore this teaching with people I find that it is difficult for many to understand at first. For many, especially the young, death is kind of theoretical. It is not something many people fear on a conscious level. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death) but as a general rule the fear of death is not something that seems to dominate the thoughts of many. So what is  meant by the “fear of death” and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? This can help us to see what this text is getting at. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? At one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter, or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel handsome enough, pretty enough, we’re too tall, too short, too fat, wrong color hair. Maybe we hate that others are richer, more powerful, better spoken, better looking. Maybe we are older and wish we were younger and stronger, thinner and more energetic again. Maybe we are younger and wish were older, wiser, richer and more settled. Maybe we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, nicer home, better kids, or live in a better neighborhood. Maybe we compare ourselves to a brother or sister who did better financially or socially than we did.

Perhaps you can see how the fear of diminishment (the fear that we don’t compare well to others) sets up a thousand sins. It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride too since we seek to compensate our fear of inadequacy by finding people whom we feel superior to. We thus indulge our pride or we seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Perhaps we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really are not. Perhaps we spend money we really don’t have trying to impress people so we feel less adequate. And think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and fit in. Young people, and older ones too, give in to peer pressure and do sometimes terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, gossip etc. Adults too have many of these things on their list. All these things in a quest to be popular and to fit in. And fitting in is about not feeling diminished. And diminishment is about the fear of death because every experience of diminishment is like a mini death.

Advertisers too know how to exploit the fear of death (diminishment) in effectively marketing their product. I remember studying this in the Business School at George Mason University. What advertisers do to exploit our fear of diminishment is to actually diminish us. The logic goes something like this: you are not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, comfortable enough, you don’t look young enough, you have some chronic illness (depression, asthma, E. D. diabetes) , etc. So use our product and you will be adequate again, you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete and basically diminished. If you drink this beer you’ll be happy, have good times and friends will surround you. If you use this toothpaste or soap or cosmetics,  beautiful people will be around you and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car people will turn their heads and so impressed with you. Message: you are not adequate now, you do not measure up, you are not perfect (you are diminished) but our product will get you there!  You will be younger, happier, healthier and more alive. Perhaps you can see how all this appeal plugs into greed, pride, materialism, worldliness, and the lie that these things will actually solve our problem. They will not. In fact appeals like this actually feed our fear of diminishment and death even more because they  feed the notion that we have to measure up to all these false or unrealistic standards.

OK, got the point? Fear of Death (diminishment) is the fundamental drive that keeps us in bondage.  Now the text above says that Jesus died to free us from all this. So if freedom is available where do I find it?  Let me recommend the following steps:

  1. Recognize the demon, name it: “Fear of Death” or if it helps “Fear of Diminishment.” Learn its moves, tactics, hidden appeals (like we discussed above). And when you see the ugly little demon rebuke him in the name of Jesus.
  2. Ask the Lord for the gift of gratitude; the gift to be grateful for what he has given you, how he has made you, the talents and abilities he equipped you with, the home, family and life he has granted.
  3. Beg for the grace to experience that you are mightily loved by God. That you are unique and irreplaceable.
  4. Watch less TV, draw back more from popular culture. Draw deeply from the font of Scripture and Catholic Tradition, read time-tested classics and edifying materials (like this blog ( 🙂 ).
  5. Accept that there are people who have gifts you do not have. Pray for the gift to rejoice in their gifts and that the Lord can bless you through the gifts and talents of others. Realize that you have gifts others do not have and bless them with these gifts too.
  6. Remember that we can only see the outward appearance of things. Often when we size other people up as having a wonderful life we don’t really know what we are talking about. Many people have hidden sorrows, sins and setback of which we know little.
  7. Realize that you are going to die. But realize too that if we die in Jesus we are not diminished, we gain everything. Allow this understanding of physical death to be vision you have of every true diminishment, large or small. It is not ultimately death, it is humility. And without humility we will never get to heaven.
  8. Enjoy what you have.