It is God that You Seek

Two of the most detrimental misunderstandings that can and will ruin the faith of any Christian are such that when Christ promises us happiness and fulfillment we interpret it as ‘getting to do whatever we want’; the other is understanding our ‘blessings’ to be of the material variety. Jesus never promised us material abundance, freedom from consequences, or a life without immense suffering. In fact, suffering and persecution are two guarantees that Christ does give us.

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. – John 15:18-20

Last night I had the opportunity to reflect on Paul’s speech in Athens that can be found in Acts 17. In his speech, Paul appeals to the religiosity of the Greek culture. Paul found the good, if you will, of their religious practices and related to them how this unknown god whom they seek is actually the God Paul came to proclaim. This encounter with the Greeks took place in the Areopagus which was the cultural, political, and intellectual epicenter of Athens. We need not go into great detail, but we can rest assured knowing what great intellectual and cultural gifts ancient Greece has given us. Paul was certainly dealing with the cream of the intellectual crop.

Reflecting on Paul’s apostolic endeavors it dawned on me that Paul couldn’t even dream of making any real progress with these people unless he believed with great conviction what he was to preach. Also, it would have been necessary for him to have some awareness of who his intended audience was. If we think for a moment as to why most Christian music and movies are boring, bland, and just plain terrible (sorry, not sorry) it can be plain to see that most of these artists are appealing to the ‘church crowd’. They are preaching to the choir and are speaking in idioms and dialects that the secular world doesn’t care to understand.

Bono (U2) recently spoke out citing the lack of conviction and honesty in Christian music. He’s right. Paul, as we discover in the Scriptures, was wildly successful in his apostolic ministry. Yes, he faced many hardships and ended up losing his life over it, but he was the foremost ambassador between Christ and the gentile world. You can bet that Paul didn’t walk into Greece or anywhere else with comforting phrases, blanket statements, and preconceived responses. Paul lived the Gospel; he experienced it and it was a part of who he was as a messenger of Christ. Just as important, he knew who he was speaking to and took into account the struggles, desires, and priorities of the Greeks when he considered how he might evangelize in the region.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. – Acts 17:22-27

So often, the honest atheist is closer to God than many self-professed Christians. It is he (or she) who seeks truth that explicitly, or implicitly, seeks after God. Many Christian communities, however, are not offering God to their congregation. If we can understand for a minute that all the pleasures we seek and the fulfillment we desire are actually implicit strivings for God then we would find ourselves turning away from material comforts and turning our hearts toward God alone. What happens, then, when a church tells us that God is the bridge that will lead us to material prosperity and a stress-free life? Such promises are actually leading us away from God.

Comfort, pleasure, and prosperity are not our ends. Our desire for happiness is ultimately oriented toward God who can offer us such fulfillment. These misdirected doctrines share a common denominator with bad Christian movies and music: the world neither believes in nor truly wants what they are selling. Paul never affirmed the idolatry of the Greeks; rather, he showed them how in their idolatrous pursuits it was actually God in whom they sought. Prosperity preachers, just like bland Christian artists, lack the conviction and authenticity needed to evangelize our broken world. Most secularists know full well that wealth and comfort will never be enough; they are also under the impression that Christianity can do nothing for them.

When we seek to evangelize we must first acknowledge that our innate desires are comparable (even identical) to those of the atheist or the pagan. They want what we want. We are them to a degree. We can take a page out of Paul’s book and use this nugget of wisdom to completely transform our evangelization efforts. Let us stop promising anything other than God to the world. Let us stop speaking in generalities. Let us stop pretending like suffering isn’t a fact of life. Let us even acknowledge that Christianity might open us up to more suffering. Let us be authentic in our pursuits so that the world might come to know it is God they seek when they seek happiness.

It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness: He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you. – Pope St. John Paul II

The Gravity of Sin

Is all sin created equal? Yes and no. You may have heard at one point or another in your life that all sin is equally grave; meaning, it all bears the same weight with regard to your salvation. While sin, in every case, opposes God, much of its effect on whether or not you’re eternally damned depends on well… you.

If I were to tell a lie, instantaneously, in order to avoid someone’s anger in a passing situation you would likely struggle to equate a ‘reactionary sin’ such as what I’ve mentioned with a premeditated murder. There are many in the fundamentalist school of thought who would assert that ‘sin is sin’ and that ‘all sin is the same in God’s eyes’. On the contrary, Sacred Scripture supports the idea that not all sin is of grave concern or ‘deadly.’ (cf. 1 John 5:16-17) The underlying truth we come to realize is that all sin points to a flaw within ourselves. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, but due to the fall we have an innate tendency towards what is pleasurable or sinful; this is called concupiscence.

The effects of our sinfulness are not altogether autonomous, because even though the nature of our sins can be radically different, their differing effects are all commonly involved. Sin is, essentially, an effort on our part that is in opposition to God, albeit direct or indirect. God is the only ‘true good’ that man can come to know and sin looks upon this ‘true good’ and chooses otherwise. Not only that, our sins are in opposition to our own human nature according to our nature’s ordering in the image of God’s divine nature. Just as Adam and eve were robbed of their paradise, so too are we robbed of perfect freedom when we sin. God created us to be free and to discover this true freedom that orients itself towards the good.

Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess or defect; or according to the commandments they violate. They can also be classed according to whether they concern God, neighbor, or oneself; they can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins, or again as sins in thought, word, deed, or omission. The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.” But in the heart also resides charity, the source of the good and pure works, which sin wounds. – CCC 1853

As we have already established, our sin can either be a direct or indirect effort. To further clarify, an indirect effort would be an instantaneous or reactionary sin that we failed to give full consent to, but committed it anyways. The Church recognizes these minor offenses as being venial. Venial sins wound the virtue of charity in our lives; however, they are not intentional, malicious acts towards God, who is the ‘true good.’ These types of sins point out a flaw or shortcoming in our spiritual life that must be attended to before it gets out of hand. Venial sins, as they relate to our communion with the Body of Christ are not acts that sever this relationship. We would do well to confess such venial sins, although not required, so that we might receive just penance as a preventative measure for future occasions of sin.

Beyond that, sin, as it relates to the disposition of man, can also be categorized as mortal or what the Scriptures call ‘deadly.’ Whether a sin is mortal or venial determines the vitality of man’s relationship with God. Mortal sin severs the bond between man and the larger body of Christ and, effectively, the bond between man and God. Mortal sin is to be viewed as a literal rejection or ‘turning away’ from God that results from the grave error of our choices. A murder that has been premeditated or, perhaps, the willingness to be unfaithful to one’s spouse are two examples of mortal sin. Sins that have been adequately considered and carried out regardless of the harm that may result are considered to be mortal. When man chooses such selfish behavior, he acts in complete opposition to God and his actions demonstrate a forsaking of his union with the true good.

“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. – CCC 1864

What is sin?

My older daughter, Lucia (2 yrs.), is very… adventurous. Lucia likes to explore every part of our house that she can get to without any major difficulties. I should add that even if it is difficult she will still give it everything she’s got. A few months ago we installed child-proof locks all throughout our house, but unfortunately, we forgot a few cabinets in the kitchen. One afternoon, I was sitting on the couch working on schoolwork when, piece by piece, Lucia brought me our rice cooker. With each passing part, while holding back laughter, I would ask her to “bring this piece back to mom” and soon enough I had an entire rice cooker in my lap as I worked.

Right away, one would affirm that Lucia’s (very cute) disregard for my requests would be an action in need of correction and one would be right. Very firmly, yet in the most loving way, Rachel and I find ourselves correcting Lucia not because she is in trouble but because, as parents, we are forming her into a child who respects and trusts in our authority. Did Lucia sin when she ignored my requests to bring the rice cooker parts back? Absolutely not. She’s too young and not yet culpable for such actions. Much (if not all) responsibility has yet to burden her for her actions, given her age and ability to understand the implications of our parenting. As she grows older, however, Lucia, Audrey, and (Lord willing) any other kids we are blessed with will have to give an account for when they disobey what they have come to understand as rules in our household.

The Bible talks about sin quite often throughout the cannon of Scripture. Church teaching, throughout the millennia, has provided us with much clarity regarding the weight of these Scripture passages in our world today. Within Church Tradition we come to find that there are many absolute moral norms that hold true in any culture and in any time period. This basically means that what was a sin 1,000 years ago is still a sin today. This sin will, of course, look different in light of the vast cultural shifts that have taken place; however, the spirit of the act will have prevailed and would still be considered… a sin.

Sin, from a theological perspective, is to say “that is not the way it is meant to be…” Sin is a deviation from God’s plan and it isn’t until we recognize our ‘deviations’ or ‘shortcomings’ that we are opened up to God’s mercy. In short, sin is when we act in a way contrary to what God has in store for us. It is through God’s grace and mercy that we can recover from our deviations and be reconciled back to our created order. Pope Saint John Paul II affirms that conversion requires convincing of sin. The logic behind this is simple: If you feel as though you are without sin or that you don’t really sin… then you don’t really need a savior.

If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1:8

If we think for a moment on the origins of sin, we are taken back to the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. God had given them paradise and asked only one thing of them: just stay away from one tree and… they blew it. If we dissect this incident we will come to find that all the familiar characteristics of sin are found within this ‘forbidden fruit’ story. To begin we can plainly see that the first sin was not only the breaking of God’s commandment but a rejection of God’s authority. If we dig a bit further we sense an obvious frustration with the ‘limits’ that God has put on Adam and Eve’s freedom, according to the serpent. The two, after hearing that the fruit of this tree will make them ‘like Gods’, feel as though something is being kept from them; as if God was being unfair. All of the sudden we witness a level of ingratitude for the entire gift that is paradise; this points out a distrust of God’s plan. When we, like Adam and Eve begin to doubt God’s plan, or worse, think we have a better plan we become prideful in our thoughts and actions. Finally, as in all sin, we tend to develop an unhealthy attachment to some created good; a forbidden fruit.

Sin, according to Sacred Scripture is meritorious of death. Not just a physical death, but an eternal death precisely because sin separates us from God. Our relationship with God grows stronger through virtuous living especially when we walk firmly in the theological virtues of Faith in God, Hope for eternity, and Charity (love) for God and neighbor. Sin wounds charity, the virtue from which all other virtues proceed. (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:13) In the most serious of sins, our actions actually bring about a turning away from God and sever our relationship with God altogether. This, of course, disturbs a ‘once saved, always saved’ notion that tends to circulate in some theological circles. I can assure you that salvation is a process and not a one-time event. Our life is a constant battle against temptation and sinfulness and we cannot win this battle without God’s grace and mercy. We must continue to struggle against self, with great courage, and realize that no matter how difficult this journey becomes… we are not alone.

But… Do You Want to be My Friend?

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Homosexuality is an issue that, still today, divides the Church. Many congregations and ecclesial movements are struggling to strike the balance between fidelity to the truth and ‘loving all people.’ Some groups have even come forward and stated that living the gay lifestyle isn’t sinful. I recall listening to a radio interview that Rob Bell (author of Love Wins) gave where he stated that the Christian family needed fidelity and not necessarily heterosexuality. Statements, such as the ones made by Rob Bell and the like, are undoubtedly spot on from a pastoral standpoint. The Church and all Christian movements need to open wide the doors to all people and meet them in the midst of their journey. But what about the theology? What is the objective truth concerning the topic of homosexuality? The primary question that remains is simple: Is Christianity changing its teaching?

Continue reading “But… Do You Want to be My Friend?”

A Brief Reflection on Faith and Family.

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Being a person of faith has never been easy. More specifically, being a person whose faith is in Jesus has never been easy. Persecution has always been at the door of the Church attempting to tear her down and to shatter the hearts and minds of the faithful. For many, the pressure has proven too great and subsequently forced many believers down the path of conformity; the wide road.

Persecution, however, is not always the kind that directly attacks what we believe in a literal ‘convert or die’ sort of way. Sometimes persecution comes when certain social issues become the focal point of social and political debate and Christians are forced to take sides. Are we compassionate? Are we judgmental? Are we outdated? Are we relevant enough? Many questions plague the Church and cause believers to doubt; cause us to second guess ourselves. I’ve written a post before about the implications of being ‘on the wrong side of history’ which can be viewed either from an eternal vantage point of from the perspective of being culturally ‘correct’. Taking sides is the demand of the world on the Church today. Today the world is telling us to “Choose this day, whom you shall serve!”

Continue reading “A Brief Reflection on Faith and Family.”