Learning how to love

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January 2, 2021

Philemon 4-6:

I always give thanks to God as I remember you during my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have for the Lord Jesus and for all the points, in order that the generous altruism of your faith may become active by the recognition of every good that is in us for Christ.

Love. Love is something that many of us think we know what it looks like. Ask people what love is and you can imagine that most people would have some portrait or picture of what love looks like. We may not be able to give a precise definition of love, but we have images of what we think is like. And yet, love seems to be far from us at times. At times, maybe our relationships, our communities, and our society can seem to be anything by loving. How is it that something that seems so intuitive and simple as love is something that doesn’t seem to really define the world around us? Because, in the end, love isn’t simple. Love isn’t natural for us. When our parents bring us into the world, they are biologically primed to give us love and we are dependent to receive and emotionally reciprocate that love (a possibility that doesn’t always come to reality, unfortunately), but to actually act in love for others, especially beyond the immediacy of the parental affection, is something we don’t naturally do. It is something we are capable of, but we have to learn how to love with our parents, within our families, without our communities, and so on. Love is more like a skill than it is a feeling, except the skill of love starts with a formation of our hearts to feel and intend to love before it then leads to the good action in loving others.

When we receive demonstrations of love from someone, or we remember the love of the past in anticipation of receiving it again, the makeup of our thinking is altered from what we might other think and do. Because we are always unconsciously surveying the world around us for potential threats to our well-being, when we feel a sense of safety and security in the (literal or metaphorical) arms of another, we feel a little bit protected from all these unconscious threats. The inclination towards stress and distress of our sympathetic nervous system is being toned down by the calming effect of our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to feel at peace because we feel there is someone who is there to take care of us. No longer bound by the dictates of self-protection, one begins to feel more at ease, leading to the possibility of becoming more generous and less defensive towards others.

Yet, precisely because we spend more energy monitoring how to protect ourselves rather than how to become generous and life-giving to others, it is the nature of our humanity that once we enter into this state of deeper calm in love, we have to figure out how exactly it is that we can show (more) love to others. Our brains can construct possible plans of action to protect ourselves outside of our awareness, but it doesn’t necessarily construct the same possibilities for giving love to others. As a result, even as receiving love prepares our heart to give love, but we have to figure out how exactly to do that. We don’t come with an inherent knowledge of the hopes, needs, concerns, and insecurities of other people that we can reach into to touch, nor do we inherently have knowledge as to how to effectively and meaningfully act in love to meet those deeper longings and anxieties. This basic “love-incompetence” is even more exacerbated if we have through the course of life learned how to protect ourselves from others or, God forbid, take advantage of others. As the competitiveness of society can induce pressures to get us to live in such a way in order to make something of our own selves, the more we give in to the pressures, the more we go beyond simply being love-incompetent and be moved more towards love-resistance. In such a state, to be a recipient of love doesn’t prime one to then give love, even if it may serve one’s own sense of safety and well-being, but that one’s mentality is actively held back by the attitudes one learns in entrenched self-protection or persistent self-enhancement. So, whether we are love-incompetent, love-resistant, somewhere in between, or progressing towards the depths of love, we don’t know to love by natural instinct. We may have an instinct longing for love and to love, but we have to discover and learn about this love.

This reality undergirds Paul’s letter to Philemon regarding Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Perhaps a runaway slave or simply AWOL, it seems that Philemon did not hold Onesimus in high regard, perhaps regarding him as worthless (Phm. 11). Slaves were valued primarily for the tasks they could perform, but were not regularly regarded and honored for their dutiful service.1 Instead, they were much more likely to be viewed derisively, as if they were good for nothing, incompetent, lazy, etc. because slave masters generally felt entitled to the service of their slaves. They did not feel fondness, warmth, or affection for their obedience. So, from whatever reports that Paul may have received from Onesimus, it seems word got to Paul that Philemon was something of a hard slavemaster. However, instead of trying to shame Philemon and force his hand regarding his treatment of Onesimus, Paul seeks to inculcate a sense of love and generosity in Philemon for Onesimus (Phm. 8-9, 14). In the end, Paul recognizes the potential for Philemon to act with love and to free Onesimus from any burdens he might have. including even an unexpressed hope that he sets Onesimus free (Phm. 19-21), but that he has to remind Philemon of the bond he shares with Paul first (Phm. 17).

What Paul expresses v. 6 is basically his hope for Philemon. Paul recognizes that Philemon has a generosity towards others rooted in altruisum. Often translated as “fellowship,” the word κοινωνία could be used to describe either the social reality of the associations that motivated people to share life and resources with each other or the internal attitudes that motivated people to participate in such bonds of sharing. As Paul ascribes this κοινωνία to his faith (τῆς πίστεώς) and uses the cognitive language of ἐπιγνώσει (“recognition”), most likely Paul has the internal attitude of Philemon in mind. Philemon has capacity to share with others within his heart. Yet, Paul’s prayer is that such a generosity becomes active (ἐνεργὴς γένηται), not just simply an internal matter, which will come by Philemon acquiring the knowledge that will help him to recognize (ἐπιγνώσει) the potential to do good that lives within him and the others that he is in relationship with (παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν), all for the ultimate purpose of Christ (εἰς ⸀Χριστόν). Paul’s prayer is that Philemon will learn and recognize the good thing to do, even as he has the personal capacity within himself love.

So, Paul’s letter serves to teach Philemon about this. The mastery of Paul’s letter is that he is essentially presenting himself as a model for how Philemon should treat Onesimus. Just as Paul could command Philemon but instead encourages him through love (Phm. 9: διὰ τὴν ἀγάπην μᾶλλον παρακαλῶ), Phileom could treat Onesimus from the position of power and authority over a slave, but is encouraged instead to show love the way Paul has loved Philemon. Paul presents himself as an exemplar for Philemon to imitate (cf. 1 Cor. 11.1). Having long taken advantage of Onesimus as a slave (even if the Roman society saw Philemon being entitled to Onesimus’ service), Paul is using the memory of his and Philemon’s friendship (Phm. 17) to teach Philemon a new way to regard others, not just Paul. Had Paul not said anything and Onesimus just returned home, it is hard to know what exactly would have happened, as we don’t know exactly what the issue is between Philemon and Onesimus. However, we can imagine that Philemon would have continued to regard him with an entitled and potentially exploitive mentality, even if he might not have been egregiously harsh. Paul’s letter is a teaching moment to help Philemon reframe how he should see Onesimus, not as a slave but as a fellow believer (Phm. 16).

This is the reality we all live in. Whether we are love-incompetent, love-resistant, or even in the process of growing the fruits of love, the movement towards a deepening is something that others help to bring out in us. Sometimes, we may have a teacher who is well-trained in the skill of love, much like Jesus or to a lesser extent Paul. Sometimes, we may be trying to figure it out with our fellow students of love, having to learn what needs there are and how to build up. However, we all have to learn how to love. Even if the capacity for love is within us, we must discover how to love. From parents, from communities, from friends, from churches, from spouses, even from children, and especially from the Triune God, we are set on a path where we can move from love-incompetence or love-resistance to love-skilled. To get there, however, we have to recognize we don’t fully recognize and understand this love as much as we might like to think we do nor that we are as effective at it as we might like to wish. This shouldn’t come from a place of shame, but from a place of hope and desire to live and participate in something better, even if what we have now might seem okay or good for us.

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Repentance, attitudes and learning

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December 27, 2020

Mark 1.15:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Acts 3.19-21:

Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.

When I was a young child, there was a road that I rode down every single day to go into town, whether it was to go to school, to go to the grocery store, and so on. This road cut through forests that had been partially cleared to make room for the road and the houses on the side, but otherwise, trees dominated the scenery. On one of these trees, I saw nearly everyday a sign with a black background of red lettering that said: Repent!

While I grew up in a culturally Christian household, we were not particularly devout. We did not go to church regularly, nor was I taught a lot about God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. I got the basic information that God loves us, that Jesus taught us how to live, etc. which amounted to moral theism, but not much that approached the spiritual depth of faith in a Triune God who has redeemed us. So, as I passed that sign, I didn’t have a real background to understand what it meant to repent. It was one of those odd terms that upon retroactive reflection is used as part of the language ‘Christian-ese:’ no one understands what the words mean except those who are insiders to Christianity.

Of course, this is not entirely true. The word repent does have some residual meaning to a culturally Christian world that is familiar with a basic narrative that has been taught by churches and preachers. We are sinners that God is judging and Christ died for our sin, so we need to ‘repent’ of our sin and receive forgiveness in Jesus. Against such a basic, almost stereotyped, portrayal of the Christian proclamation, the word repent would take upon a certain meaning: feel bad about your sins and stop committing them. Repentance was tied to behavior and how we felt about our actions. Undergirding this logic was a basic, often implicit, sometimes explicit belief: God is going to judge you, so if you want to get on God’s good side, best turn your life and heart around. Even if ultimately turning one’s life around was not portrayed as a program of righteousness but believing it Jesus, the basic motivation for repentance was a fear of judgment. Meanwhile, the reason why repentance was taken to be needed was often similar to why faith was needed to be justified: it was part of a transaction between God and us that if we repented/believed, God would forgive/justify/give eternal life/etc.

However, when we take a close look at the reason for repentance that Jesus and Peter gave for repentance, it was motivated by an avoidance of punishment and judgment. Rather, there was a positive reason. Jesus says “The kingdom of God has drawn near,” which means the reality of God’s rule has come to be present on the earth, even as it isn’t finally and fully culminated at this time. Peter calls for people to have their sins wiped out, but not so that they would avoid hell, but so that they would experience refreshment from the Lord’s presence in the present world, even as Jesus would remain in heaven for the present time. Both Jesus and Peter provide a positive reason for repentance, because the work and blessing of God for us is available and accessible now, at the present time. Repentance, then, is based upon a positive motivation: to discover and experience the good that God is seeking to bestow.

Yet, we might still be tempted to think that the relationship between repentance and discovering and experiencing the refreshment of God’s kingdom is still transactional in nature. Yet, repentance, at its core, was about a changing of mind, not per se a changing of one’s behaviors. Repentance was about changing the way one thought about one’s behaviors, which approximates more towards our concept of attitudes, that had implications for what one would think, see, and do in the future. Jesus follows us the call to repentance with a call to belief, suggestive of a relationship between the two. By repenting, one is brought into a place where one can then come to believe

Why is this? Perhaps it is because in the repentance that brings about a new attitude in us, we begin to see and recognize the experiences of life differently, that in the midst of this change we can believe in the good news. Our attitudes have a profound impact on how we learn and make sense of the world. A person who is deeply in love with another person will see all the positive traits of that person, while meanwhile overlooking any of the potentially negative traits. Similarly, if someone is deeply enraged at a person, they will be resistant to seeing the positive aspects of that person. Our attitudes do not just control our feelings and our actions, but contains the way we think and thus also the way we learn about the objects of our attitude.

Jesus announces the reality, inviting us to repent so that we can come to see reality differently, which makes the way for us to come believe for ourselves this good news that Jesus has proclaimed, that the kingdom of God has indeed drawn near. Our change of attitudes about the meaning and significance of life, about how we direct our lives and purposes moves us from breaking down the control and stranglehold our past ways of living, feeling, and thinking have had upon us and opening us to perceive and learn something new, not just to master an abstract body of knowledge but to experience and participate in a whole new way of living, that which is shaped by the was Jesus loves us. We repent so as to learn about and experience the work of God that we had previously been unfamiliar with.

Repentance doesn’t address our sin, at least directly, but rather enables us to perceive and receive the loving, gracious work of God who can cleanse away the effects that our sins have had on our minds and hearts. Instead, we have a changing of our minds and let go of our attitudes that rationalize and justify our sin so that we can then be open and flexible to being nourished, instructed, and directed by God. We uproot the trees of our minds that produced bad fruit from the soil of our hearts and allow a different tree of good fruit to be planted. In this, our repentance does not save us from being judged but saves us from being ignorant of and disconnected from the gift of life from God.

The lack of repentance, then, isn’t a problem because our sins are going to immediately send us to hell when we die. God is a God who is slow to anger, not someone with a quick trigger finger. Rather, the problem is in our lack of repentance, we become hardened and resistant to the good gift of life. An impenitent heart is one that not only misses the good work of God, but reacts against it, continuing to rationalize and justify the way of life that grieves God’s heart and, God forbid, may even be a direct source of harm to others. To be so resistant to repentance, especially in the cases where God has powerfully demonstrated Himself, is a sign that the toxin of sin has so overwhelmed a person’s thinking and living that they don’t want to accept and receive the love, goodness and grace of God as He is actually making it known. The utter lack of repentance is to be unwilling to learn about and experience God the ways that God makes Himself known and accessible, thereby setting one further and further against the way of life of God’s kingdom. In such a scenario, what place can there be for a person who loathes and detests the actual ways that God loves and directs us to love in God’s kingdom? They are unwilling to receive and learn the concrete truths about God, even as they may have some abstract conception about something they call “God” that they think is true, because their attitudes make them utterly resistant to sources that God gives to help us to learn about Him.

Thus, repentance is not our part in a divine-human transaction with God that gets us to avoid judgment, but it is our part in being openly receptive to our relationship with the true, living God so that we can then from there grow to experience the love, joy, hope, and peace that God desires for His creations to enjoy. In repentance, we learn from God and so learn how to live; by repentance, we are ready to sit at the feet of our Rabbi and truly learn how to have life from His words; through repentance, we allow the Spirit to guide us to address the places in our life where we are resisting true life and shalom so that we can discover the depths and riches of God’s love deeper and afresh. Repentance is where our attitudes towards ourselves and our present lives are adjusted so that we can then learn and receive a new way of being human from the Triune God.

Faith and coping

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December 19, 2020

Life is filled with many difficulties, tragedies, roadblocks, and traumas. This is just a fact of life. When Jesus “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6.34), he is recognizing the very nature of life as it is fill with many things that can bring stress, fear, and grief. Similarly, Jesus said in John 16.33b: “You will have affliction in this world.” Yet, in both case, this recognition of the difficulties of life are paired with a reason to hope. Jesus said “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6.32) and “Take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16.33c) A critical part of Jesus’ ministry was to provide people a tangible hope that would allow them to cope with the problems of life. The first three of Jesus’ beatitudes suggests that the blessing of God is coming to those whose lives have been beaten, broken, and struggle with the realities of life.

Yet, not all coping is the same. In the psychological literature, there is a studied difference between two types of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.1 The difference between the two can ultimately be explained by the primary purpose or goal for the coping. In emotion-focused coping, a person is attempting to try to address one’s own emotional response to the stress in one’s life. Meanwhile, problem-focused coping focuses on addressing the perceived stressor so as to be able to create change. Put differently, emotion-focused coping is about adjusting ourselves to the stresses of our circumstances, whereas problem-focused coping is about adjusting our circumstances and environment.

We need both coping styles in our life. In the short-run, it is often, though not always, best to focus on addressing one’s own emotions and feelings in the face of difficulties, especially as our own immediate responses to stresses have a tendency to provoke stronger, more powerful reactions. In the long-run, however, problem-focused coping allows us to bring about better circumstances for ourselves, and hopefully others, that would then reduce the need for coping.

We may mix these coping patterns in rather dysfunctional patterns. For instance, an addict may employ a combination of emotion-focused coping in the use of substances while at the same time they may try problem-focused coping to try to stop using, to little available. While healthy people employ both styles of coping, their usage of these styles is more in harmony with their own values in conjunction with the responses they get from other people and their environment that regulates how they will cope from one circumstance to the next. Dysfunctional coping doesn’t tend to lead to the realization of one’s values and it tends to simply be based upon immediate reactions to stressors.

However, people usually tend to get caught in particular styles of coping, which can have negative impacts. Over-reliance upon emotion-focused coping can lead to long-term problems, whether it be through the (over)consumption of food and substances, perpetual avoidance of the stressor, as it fails to address the problems that beset a person. Unfortunately, some Christian teaching can unwittingly reinforce this form of coping when they focus on telling people that they are not in control, using language about “surrender,” etc. These styles tend to emphasize a passive approach to faith and life such that they actively encourage people to just accept things as they are. This can then reinforce the cycles of addiction and avoidance.

On the other hand, over-reliance on problem-focused coping to address the causes of stress in one’s life can lead to becoming a rather controlling person who seeks to change everything to fit within their understanding of peace, while at the same time being relatively emotionally brittle. This form of coping is reinforced by segments of Christian faith that emphasize some form of change, progress, and social transformation. Yet, the more people are trying to change circumstances, the more likely people are to disagree, leading to more conflicts that then cycle into more attempts to control.

The issue with the way religion can intersect with coping in dysfunctional ways is that the tendency to give flat, almost law-like construal of what it means to have faith, be a Christian, etc. Emphasize one’s lack of control and surrender, people will associate being Christian with just accepting things as they are. Emphasize change and progress, people will associate faith with attempts to modify the world. As these ways of thinking become more deeply entrenched, it leads to an overly passive or overly active style of coping. A presentation of the Gospel and faith that promotes greater integration of passive and active coping styles can produce much healthier outcomes that lead to shalom.

To take a look at one example of the integration of the two styles, take a look at Alcoholics Anonymous. Part of the (unintentional?) genius of Alcoholics Anonymous is how their 12 steps integrate both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping styles. At one level, they encourage people to recognize they are powerless over their addiction and to instead recognize and draw close to a higher power, God. Yet, they also encourage people to take inventory of their own lives and seek to make amends for the harms that they have caused and then conclude with calling members to actively take this message to other people with the same struggle. Looking as an outsider, both styles of coping are weaved together in powerful ways, allowing the person to take the steps of progress towards a healthy lifestyle and relationships, which stands at the center of shalom.

We see a similar pattern within the Beatitudes. The first three beatitudes emphasize the desolate state of people that Jesus’ preaching comes to give hope. Being poor in spirit, being meek, being in a state of mourning, Jesus’ message of hope provides a basis for emotion-focused coping, where people can begin to move from feeling brought low and cursed in the world to become exalted and blessed in the kingdom of heaven. Yet, the Beatitudes pivot when Jesus speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the injustice and deprivation that the people have been subjected to provides the seed of a new imagination for something better. Then the next three Beatitudes transition to a more active style of coping, where people become merciful, they set their purposes and intentions become wholly focused, and become active agents in bringing about shalom. While Jesus is not giving advice about how to cope, the message of the Beatitudes cast forth a vision of spiritual transformation that integrates both styles of coping. This transformation doesn’t mean one will then become insulated and immune from troubles, as Jesus’ final beatitudes make clear the state of persecution that may face, but it provides people a whole new way of life.

At the center of this integration of coping is this value for right relationships, with God and the world. When Jesus encourages people to not worry about tomorrow, he directs them to focus on God’s kingdom and righteousness. This vision can orient how we cope, as it informs us as to what we should seek and how we should go about seeking it. This vision as increasingly nurtured within us by the Holy Spirit simultaneously gives us permission to act and guides us to wait and pray.

Here is the thing: as we give ourselves to the goal of God’s Kingdom, allowing ourselves to face the stresses and pain without just accepting it as the way it is nor entrenched in trying to control and fight against it, we begin to move from the pains of life to the joy of life. Jesus said:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16.20-22)

Jesus’ language here is most likely not intended in the most literal sense of seeing the disciples in the same way that he was seeing them in this moment. Rather, perhaps as an intensification of God’s knowledge of believers spoken in Psalm 139, Galatians 4.8, and 1 Corinthians 10.3, Jesus’s metaphorical language suggests a more intimate recognition of his disciples. In a similar manner, Jesus speaks of the blessing of the pure in heart as coming to see God. There is a point in the Christian journey of discipleship where the reciprocal recognition from and perception of God is reached, at which places a transition takes place as the pains of life go in the background and joy begins to overtake us. As we learn to cope with the stress of life in a way that seeks God’s kingdom, we are ushered on a journey where our pain turns to joy in a way that endures even in the face of trials while at the same time leaving us blameless. At this point, we have then become fitted and prepared to be the brokers of hope, the makers of shalom, the ambassadors of righteousness, the agents of love.

God’s kindness as the foundation of a Christian ‘mindfulness’

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December 18, 2020

In recent years, the practice of mindfulness has been regularly advocated and prescribed by various therapists, counselors, books, articles, etc. as a way to address many of the maladies people have with life, including depression, anxiety, pain management, the treatment of some personality disorders, etc. Given the origins of the modern understanding of mindfulness with eastern spiritual and religious practices, most particularly Buddhism, many Christians have felt and expressed concern about mindfulness and whether it can be faithfully integrated into the Christian life. Additionally, the way mindfulness is often taught, it rises concerns about its pracitioners becoming self-absorbed about personal experience and concerns, which may be seen as part of the human nature towards being curved inwards towards oneself, incurvatus in se. Others may feel concerned that mindfulness calls for people to not make judgments about their experiences, feeling like this is the denigration and letting go of a moral center. In what follows, I want to present an attempt to understand a way of practicing mindfulness in a way that can be deeply faithful and consistent with the Christian understanding of our relationship to God, while at the same time allowing us to incorporate a practice of mindfulness that avoids embrace the spiritual, metaphysical, or amoral perspective.

I write this not as an apologist for all practices of mindfulness, but as an appreciative critical of mindfulness who sees much good, wanting to plunder from the Egyptians while taking our thinking captive for Christ. I myself have had aversion to some of what has been said about mindfulness, particularly concerns that is somehow might make us less moral and more self-centered. However, in the end, I have come to discover that many parts of mindfulness actually accomplish the opposite, and the aspect of mindfulness that do that are not tied to the metaphysics, spirituality, and morality of other religious practices.

It is important to start from a more scientific definition of mindfulness. Daniel Siegel, a clinical psychiatrist and the lead mind behind a field of science called Interpersonal Neurobiology, defines mindful awareness as follows: “Awareness of present-moment experience, with intention and purpose, without grasping on to judgments.”1 He continues, “Traits of being mindful are having an open stance toward oneself and others, emotional equanimity, and the ability to describe the inner world of the mind.”2 We can perhaps rephrase those traits and being willing to accept other people, having a basic emotional calmness about life, and being able to honestly and fairly assess what is going on in one’s own thinking. Nothing of these traits seems to be amoral, but in fact, seems to be consistent with a vision of love that is concerned about the well-being, that bears the fruit of self-control, and values truth. While one might rightly question where the practice of mindfulness as Siegel defines it leads to those traits, as it is being presented: it doesn’t seem to be self-centered or lacking a righteous core to it. Furthermore, nothing in the definition is based upon the historical associations of mindfulness with Buddhism. It is a description of the processes of the mind with terms we in the West, including Western Christians, can use to describe ourselves.

At the heart of mindful awareness is the ability to be able to recognize what is happening in us and to us in the present moment. So much of our mental energy and effort is spent in other living in the past or imagining and visioning goals for the future. For the most part, people spend relatively little time paying attention to what is going on within their experiences at the present moment. To the extent that we do, we are processing the present either in analyzing it with what we are familiar with from the past or anticipating what we need to do and expect in the future. Attention to present experience is usually not our focus. Yet, the ability to mindfully focus on the present moment has a littany of benefits. Siegel describes the nine functions that occur in the middle prefrontal cortex of our brain:

Body Regulation—keeping the organs of the body and the autonomic nervous system coordinated and balanced.
Attuned Communication—tuning in to the internal state of another.
Emotional Balance—enabling internal states to be optimally activated: not too aroused, not too deflated.
Response Flexibility—pausing before acting to reflect on available options of response.
Fear Modulation—reducing fear.
Insight—self-knowing awareness that links past, present, and future. This is a mindsight map of “me.”
Empathy—imagining what it is like to be another person, to see from another’s perspective. This is a mindsight map of “you.”
Morality—imagining, reasoning, and behaving from the perspective of the larger good. This is a mindsight map of “we.”
Intuition—having access to the input from the body and its nonrational ways of knowing that fuel wisdom.3

Studies on these mental functions have verified that eight of them are found to be associated with a healthy, secure attachment of a child to a parent, while the ninth, intuition, having yet to be studied at the time of the writing of The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology.4 Similarly, all nine of these functions are found to be outcomes of mindfulness practice.5 At first blush, mindfulness seems to be consistent with healthy relations rooted in loved.

What makes mindfulness seem so contrary to Christian faith in the eyes of some Christians is that it does seem to not work from or accept the concept of sin, at least at first blush. Particuarly in some evangelical circles where people have been accustomed to emphasizing how the wrath of God is coming against human sin, it might seem that mindfulness goes in the exact opposite direction of the Gospel. And yet, I would say that the mindset of mindfulness is actually closer to the Gospel than what is preached in some evangelical circles. Why? Because what is fundamentally at the heart of mindfulness is a sense of compassion for oneself, just as God is a loving, compassionate God to us in the midst of our weaknesses. With that in mind, hear how Paul describes God’s kindness to people who were hypocritically judging people for doing the same evil things that they themselves did in Romans 2.1-5:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

Paul has mentioned some Gentiles doing some despicable things in Romans 1.28-32, but then puts the target on some Jews who do the same thing they rail against the Gentiles for. At the end of the day, Paul thinks such people who are storing up God’s wrath for themselves have made a fundamental mistake: they haven’t really understood and embraced “the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience.” It isn’t that they are failing to appropriately appreciate it. It is that they actually despise it. They are so intent on judging others that their hearts have little place for kindness and tolerance. Some of them might have imagined that God was kind to them in virtue of them being Jews so that they wouldn’t sin, but even if they did, they had a special relationship with God as we see in Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-4. But there is a world of difference between imagining and assuming God’s kindness and perceiving God’s kindness in action. The former one can presumptuously assume or feel entitled to but associating kindness with simply getting what one wants and feels entitled to. To actually perceive God’s kindness in action, we have to understand what kindness is, and in order to do that, we need to be a person who values kindness at some level. If we do not value kindness, we will make light of, if not even despise, God’s kindness instead of recognizing it.

Furthermore, note that Paul says that it is kindness that leads (ἀγνοῶν) people to repentance. It isn’t a harsh sense of God’s anger hovering over them that leads them to repentance. It isn’t a deep feeling of shame that leads people to repentance. Even as knowledge of the possible consequences and feelings of shame can motivate us to disregard our past actions, that isn’t how Paul suggests God ultimately leads people to repentance. It is God’s kindness that shows the person the way, a God whose kindness shows that He is still not yet wrathful. If one despises this kindness, perhaps because they think people should be hard on sin, that people should show no tolerance, etc., then they will miss the instruction that God is giving to them as a sinner and they will continue down the pathway of judging others for what one does. In other words, the pathway to righteousness and holiness is laid down with the bricks of God’s kindness.

So, what does this have to do with mindfulness? Notice Siegel’s definition of mindful awareness: it is a form of a present awareness that doesn’t grasp for judgments. While this is broader than judgments about what is good and bad, but includes the ways we try to analyze and fit our experiences into specific labels, the mentality within us that is inclined to talk about something being bad and sin is one of the ways we label our own thoughts, experiences, attitudes, intentions, and memories of past actions. In other ways of expressing and defining mindfulness, it is often instructed that the person looks at their own experience with a sense of self-compassion, that they are not judging themselves harshly. For instance, when people get distracted from focusing on a specific experience, the person is encouraged not to judge themselves for getting distracted, but to observe the loss of attention and gradually redirect their focus.

Mindful awareness does not occur when people are highly judgmental of what they are experiencing in themselves. Part of the reason is that when we are aware of possible or actual moral failings, it can hav a way of activating stress in our bodies, making us fear the possibility of being disciplined and punished. When we get into this state, our minds become predisposed to trying to figure out how to fix the problem in order to protect ourselves. Our attention gets diverted away from what we are experiencing within ourselves so that we can see and understand what is it and focuses on correcting the ‘sin’ or trying to protect ourselves through one way or another. We do not learn well from these experiences, consequently. We don’t understand how our motives, intentions, and desires are undergirding our thinking. We don’t pay attention to how our circumstances influence what we think, feel, and do. At best, if we try to protect and restore our personal integrity (not the appearance of integrity) by simply reversing the bad thought, feeling, memory of the past, etc. and addressing any problems that may have been caused by them, we are learning only at a behavioral level. The learning will not lead us to more a nuanced, complex appreciation of how our own heart and mind interacts with the circumstances around us so that we can more appropriately align ourselves with God’s life-giving, shalom-bringing purposes.

Self-compassion is necessary to see ourselves more fully, to having a true repentance that does not simply operate at a behavioral-correction level, but at the level of our attitudes, desires, intentions, and goals that influence our way of life in wider-sweeping, broader ways. When we have self-compassion, we are more able to hear and recognize the kindness of the compassionate God speaking to us. Psalm 139.23-24 reads:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

It is God who knows our hearts and thinking. He knows the way we are inclined and how it could take us down a pathway towards wickedness. Yet, it is God’s kindness that leads us in the way everlasting, but if we lack the kindness and compassion towards ourselves, how little will we hear the kind, compassionate God calling us away from the wicked way and towards the type of life that lasts. We will despise this soft, kind voice, we will cast judgment upon it, perhaps unaware that this is God leading us, and so we will be left to continue down a dark pathway because we are resistant to seeing and learning about the potential in our hearts to desire and do wicked things.

At this point it is important to clarify, there is a difference between being compassionate towards oneself and seeing oneself through a self-enhancing bias. On the surface, they might look similar. Self-compassion might not judge one’s own possibility to do evil with harshness, whereas a self-enhancing bias will think one is a good person; both might feel like kindness. Yet, there is a big difference between the two. Self-compassion is not about telling us how good we are, but about not getting into an immediate sense of judgment about our own weakness. Self-enhancing bias is about how we are good, how we are worthy. As a result, a person with self-compassion can accept that one has struggles, weakness, temptations, and even bad actions in the past and accept them in developing a larger view of who we are as a person. A person reflecting on themselves with a self-enhancing bias diverts their attention away from all the things that do not accord with their desired self-image, being resistant to seeing and recognizing all the smudges in their lives. Both may seem “kind” on the surface but self-enhancing is kindness built upon denial, minimization, and distraction whereas self-compassion is kindness built on the foundations of openness and acceptance to the whole truth about ourselves. The difference between the kindness of self-compassion and the “kindness” of self-enhancement is as wide as the difference between the kindness of God that leads to repentance in Romans 2.4 and the “kindness of God” that minimizes the reality of sin as described in the Wisdom of Solomon 15.

Also, it is important to distinguish between self-compassion about our experience and then a recognition that there are consequences and outcomes of sin. Even as we may have self-compassion for our various weaknesses and foibles, then should not subtly be used to self-enhance our view of ourselves by making us resistant to recognize that there is harm, small or large, that our actions can and do cause. Self-compassion does not deny the reality that our behaviors create, good and bad, but these outcomes do not invalidate our whole lives, persons, and movement towards true life and shalom that our heart can take steps towards. Self-compassion as part of mindfulness is about awareness of the experiences that allow us to see how it interconnects with the rest of our life, not trying to shield ourselves from reality.

So, the practice of mindfulness is not against the Christian call to seek God’s righteousness: it is deeply consistent with holiness. While mindfulness is not inherently about seeing our sin, and can and fruitfully being used to address other struggles we have beyond moral struggles by paying attention to our own experiences with sustained attention, we can use mindfulness, formally and informally, as part of the practice of meditation upon God’s instruction as it speaks to ourselves and our hearts as we seek to let God show us where our hearts rejoice in His guidance and where we are resistant to it. Then, as we find ourselves in some sin, we can mindfully look at ourselves with self-compassion to let God’s Spirit show us the fork in the road of our hearts where we can move away from the world’s desires and towards a deepening desire for God’s will, where the Spirit will lead us to see how we can put to death the deeds of our (sinful) body. Yet, as we learn to have self-compassion because of God’s kindness, something else will emerge within us: we will begin to have a deeper compassion and kindness towards others than we previously did. As our sense of how we perceive others is caught up with how we have learned to see ourselves, the more we let God lead us to be kind to us with truth. Then, we will be able to speak and demonstrate kindness with truth towards others with greater skill, patience, and effectiveness. A self-compassion rooted in accepting the kindness of God’s love can lead us down the pathways towards perfecting God’s love within our own hearts.

Learning to be healers in a punitive world

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December 13, 2020

Romans 12.1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed for the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

“God will forgive us of our sins, but the consequences of our sin will always play out.” These were the words expressed by the family of Stacie Bagley, for whose murder Brandon Bernard was sentenced to death. While the family are dealing with the anguish years later, that these words would make sense and seem reasonable to many other people in the face of the death penalty makes something manifest: many people’s sense of justice, particularly those who are Christians are tied up with a punitive worldview. That is, if one does something wrong, one should be punished. Meanwhile, forgiveness is treated as a spiritual matter that has little to do with how we address wrongdoing, injustice, and evil. My point here is not to broach the topic of the death penalty. There is much that has been said that my voice can really add to. Rather, my concern here is how a punitive worldview is at the core of a painful, cruel world.

So, join me in a thought experiment about injustice. Recognize that this is a potentially triggering thought experiment.

Imagine someone you know is raped and that they have the culprit in custody. What is it that should be done? Think about this for a few moments.

If your very first thoughts were about to lock the rapist up, or worse, your thinking is likely an expression of a punitive worldview. When injustice and evil occurs, the punitive worldview trains us to think that our response should be to make the people who did it pay. Yet, did you consider in your reflection how one should go about addressing the fears, pains, suffering, and trauma of the victim? How much time did you give for reflection about the victim’s well-being?

If you live with a punitive worldview, something subtle yet powerfully negative occurs. You think injustice is addressed primarily by punishing the wrongdoer, rather than restoring the wronged. So far as the guilty party is held accountable, we can go along comfortably with our lives, believing that justice has been done. Yet, it isn’t, not for the victim. The victim may bear their wounds for years to come. Such ‘justice’ can feel quite hollow for people whose lives have been uprooted for something that wasn’t their fault.

The problem with a punitive worldview is that we focus on the perpetrator because we feel it is punishment that satisfies our sense of justice. Less time and focus is given to how to heal and restore the aggrieved. Our political institutions place punishment at the center of our response to injustice with massive social backing when injustice occurs, whereas the task of healing and nurturing back to well-being is farmed out to the helping professions. People will passionately seek justice by a focus on the perpetrator, but less time and attention is given to bringing the victim into a place of restoration.

This has cultural effects on all of us by creating a set of values that influence what we talk about. When people gather around the table to discuss the happenings of the world, in their small talk they might talk about what needs to be done to those people who sinned, who did something bad. In the conversations that follow, various ideas about how to enact justice by addressing the perpetrator may follow. While it need not be formally intellectual in its style, the conversations help to form people’s thinking about discipline and punishment. However, how much time is given in the conversation to think about how to help the victims of the wrongdoers? In what ways can one shower empathy, listen, and restore a sense of peace to people, especially those whose lives have been thrown upside down?

The culture becomes “experts” when it comes to imagining how to address wrongdoers, but it remains in a basic incompetence in trying to bind the hearts of the broken. In Christian circles, this incompetence can be exhibited by a combination of telling people to seek Jesus for their wounds and encouragement to seek professional help. Both of which are necessary, but yet healing requires an important component that those who are traumatized often lack: meaningful connections to people within their daily lives. The throes of pain and emotions that can be expressed by victims promote a sense of uncertainty as to how to proceed by others in the midst of their cultural incompetence. This uncertainty can feel uncomfortable, which then leads people to various sorts of responses, such as avoidance, thinking they need to get tougher, thinking they are playing the victim, getting angry, etc., that shuts off compassion and can reinforce the feeling of disconnection that victims feel. All the meanwhile, the need for meaningful social connections that has great importance in helping us to grow resilient and strong in the face of hard times is often left unaddressed. This is in part because of our cultural incompetence in addressing pain and suffering in others that comes when we think justice is primarily about addressing the wrongdoers. We can imagine how to address perpetrators, but our uncertainty begets responses of minimal compassion towards the victims.

Even many of the responses of many people who seek to help are often limited by ignorance and cultural incompetence. Helpers want to find a solution for the person, when in fact there is no quick and easy solution. Solutions for the broken have to start from within the person as their own pains and longings provide the pathway to discovering how to heal, even if the ways they want to put this into place may not be realistic. For the victim to heal, they need to be able to address their own insecurities as they feel them, their own struggles as they see them. Yet, for people who want to help, this often leaves them feeling helpless as it requires patience to understand and requires entering into the world of the victim, which can make people feel uncomfortable. Indeed, this can be somewhat traumatizing for helpers as can be witnessed by the realities of second-hand trauma. Instead, many who seek to help may try to act as an expert on the problem and solution in response to this discomfort, rather than letting themselves being a resource that the victims can find access. Consequently, it often requires professionals who are trauma-informed in order to be able to effectively help, leaving the need for connections within one’s daily life for healing at the risk of being unmet.

Yet, it isn’t the fault of those who genuinely seek to help or people in general. It is hard to know how to respond to people’s pain, especially when each trauma and wound is unique and not immediately understandable without open listening. Yet, at the same time, it isn’t automatically obvious how to deal with wrongdoers either, but our culture trains us to think about modes of discipline and punishment. The roots of the problem are found in a punitive worldview that makes the important response to wrongs being in bring about discipline and punishment, which encourages us to focus on the perpetrator, and not the victim. Most of us intuitively know more about how to discipline and punish than how to heal and restore because our worldview encourages us to spend more time thinking about the former than the latter.

This leads to two particularly perverse outcomes. On the one hand, the focus, if not obsession, on discipline and punishment can lead to imagining and expecting particularly painful punishments. The more we focus on the perpetrator as a wrongdoer, the more we in our anger and fear can simmer, leading us to more extreme, if not cruel, punishments with more extreme judgments about the perpetrators to rationalize these punishments. The death penalty for an 18-year-old is a necessary consequence of murder? I am not personally against the death penalty in theory, in practice we find it being used in unjust and unnecessary ways. What value is there is taking the life of a man who was repentant and in no danger of inflicting harm upon others. Only a worldview that roots justice in punishment would think something is gained by that. A worldview that focuses on the restoration of the harmed, though, would find little solace in a death that does little to address the pain except as a symbolic gesture.

On the other hand, because we have a tendency to focus on the perpetrator when it comes to matters of injustice, a countervailing tendency of spending more time advocating for the punished than the wounded can occur, often in the name of forgiveness. While the case of Brandon Bernard does not necessarily demonstrate the worst sides of this tendency, how often in the past have popular athletes of perpetrators of violence against women given exoneration by restoring them back to their careers on the field with little to address the problems. How readily have we seen pastors who have repeatedly abused the flock been given the freedom to quickly return to power over the flock, all in the name of forgiveness? Fortunately, many of these tendencies are being more justly addressed in recent years, but it has is in part been powered by how much attention we give to wrongdoers and the fears we may be too harsh on them rather than on the wronged and whether they are being.

If we focused more on the wronged than the wrongdoers, then these countervailing tendencies that can lead people to oppose conclusions will be diminished. Our imaginations wouldn’t spend as much time thinking about how we can teach a lesson to those who do wrong, but rather how we can excel is restoring the broken. We wouldn’t feel as guilty about discipline and punishment that causes us to advocate the interests of the wrongdoers because we would have instead focused more so on what brings restoration of the life of the wronged.

Yet, there is a reason we are inclined to punitive worldviews. It often seems quicker, simpler, and cheaper to discipline and punish than it is to heal (however, the costs and time for long jail sentences make it clear that this is not always true in reality). Thus a punitive worldview is quicker to help us feel the world is safe and restored to order than a therapeutic worldview, which would have us more cognizant of the pains and struggles that people face with injustice.

Yet, another reason for punitive worldviews, particularly in Christian (sub)cultures, is connected to how the atonement of Christ is understood. When it is understood that Christ’s death saves us by being a substitute for the punishments for our sins, then at the heart of worship is the expression of a punitive worldview, where God is seen as focusing on punishing any and every act of wrongdoing. Going beyond recognizing that God will punish those who inflict harm upon others so as to protect His people, it becomes a worldview where for God to be just he must punish sin simply because it happened. Rather than a God whose punishment is principally concerned with protecting those who are wrong, God instead is seen as having to punish sin without regard for whether it helps the wounded or not. Little concern for the restoration of the recipients of injustice is evident in the theological imagination; God is understood to be focused only on punishment and forgiveness of sins.

But all of this is of the flesh. It prioritizes vengeance laced with talks of “justice” over love. It is the result of minds who make God a representation of our own social life and concerns, rather than a holy God who is surprisingly transforming our world in ways that we could not expect. The punitive world view is fleshly in its nature. It is focused and obsessed upon death, literally and symbolically, in the focus on how we discipline and punish those who do wrong. Yet, the way of the Spirit is life and peace. Such concerns should guide and motivate us to think and learn how we can excel in loving those who are broken, how we can set free the captives, locked in the pains and traumas of injustice. One can still discipline and punish with an eye towards life and peace, but the perpetrator does not become the focus of our rage and sympathies.

But, yes, it is complicated to restore and heal. Yet, so much of this complication is rooted in our cultural incompetence, where the ways of the flesh have kept our minds in the dark about the ways of God’s Spirit. Yet, if we learn to die to ourselves, to face our own crosses, to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, we will then be in a place where our minds will begin to be changed so that we can discern and discover God’s life-giving, shalom-forming will for people. With greater insight and perception, we will be able to more readily engage in loving compassion for those who struggle. Our minds will not be so ignorant about healing, leading us to have to rely upon the few of those who are trauma-informed to heal, but we will grow in wisdom as to seek to excel in God’s type of love. We won’t be in ready danger of secondary-trauma, because we will have faced and overcome our own crosses and know the hope of victory, even as we can sit in compassion with those who feel defeated, lost, and dejected. We won’t have to be experts in therapeutic techniques, but we can be aware of a new way of relating to victims, helping them to become resilient and strong without shaming them into silence and disconnection.

Yet, to come to this (divine) therapeutic worldview means we need to let go of the punitive worldview. It requires believers to recognize that forgiveness doesn’t occur when we rationalize our vindictive desires as “justice,” while at the same time recognizing it isn’t about letting the perpetrator getting off scot-free either. Forgiveness is about not seeking to needlessly go after the perpetrator, but instead allowing us to focus on pursuing the goodness of life and shalom, including for the victim. Seeking shalom will often entail discipline, but it is a part of the broader concern for restoring what people lost in injustice, where what protects and heals informs our disciplining rather than the enactment of punishment becoming a symbolic avenue for healing. A (divine) therapeutic worldview can still have a place for addressing the wrongdoer, but, ultimately, time, energy, effort, and imagination is directed towards love, towards hope for making the broken whole again.

This is at the heart of the God of new creation, who in the present time is focused more on making us new creation rather than punishing the wicked. The time does come and will come when God will pronounce judgment against those who sought selfishly for themselves at the cost of other people, but God knows that restoration is more important than punishment because love, especially for the powerless, is his chief defining character, not anger.

Seeking intimacy with God – Healing and the dangers therein

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December 12, 2020

Psalm 63:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.  My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Intimacy. We live in an age where intimacy is in high demand, but it seems to be in low supply. Where we have been taught to see ourselves primarily in terms of our individuality and relationships are increasingly being mediated through electronic communication, close connections with people is harder to come by, but yet, at the same time, neurotypical humans are all wired to seek some form of close connections with other persons. Where personal contact is in lower supply, we witness a corresponding reaction to seek it more intensely than before.

In the pains of loneliness and feeling distanced from others, it has become common for Christians to talk about intimacy with God. Yet, if we pay attention to the Scriptures, the Bible doesn’t talk much about the idea of intimacy, at least in the way we understand it in our Western culture. Nevertheless, the Bible is not unfamiliar with the longing to draw near to God. Psalm 63 is an excellent example, where the Psalmist expresses their desperation to find and draw near to God. Such desperation finds itself located in the middle of the psalmist’s fear for life and well-being, where the psalmist sees threats on the horizon. While this is not the exact same circumstance as our modern-day struggle with social disconnection, the difference between the psalmist and modern praise songwriters calling out for a closeness with God is less significant than the common way the worshipper longs to come into God’s presence as God is the focus of their constant thoughts and meditation. One might say that there is an obsession with God, much like we can see obsessions develop in the most intimate type of relationships in our day: romantic partnerships.

Yet, why is it that we seek intimacy with God? To listen to some speak, it is almost as if it is the end goal of the Christian life. However, I have always been a bit concerned about saying such, as the Scriptures nowhere suggest that the person’s experience with God is the goal of the life of the worshipper. God created us in His image, and so it is our ultimate purpose to live in God’s creation with the purpose God has bestowed upon us. While that necessarily puts our relationship to God as centrally important in living our purposes, there is no much indication that we are created to long for only an experience with God, with intimacy with God. Instead, we see a consistent hope through the Scriptures for righteousness and shalom, which ultimately are the lived-out experience of right relationships with God. each other, and the world around us that brings about sustained well-being and thriving.

We do see the psalmist in 73rd Psalm profess he desires only God (Psalm 73.25), but this is expressed as the psalmist sees the wicked prospering: the psalmist, in the end, resolves to seek after God rather than to continue to envy the life of the proud (Psalm 73.3) as a commitment to retain his innocence rather than risk giving into the lifestyle of the wicked (Psalm 73.12-14). In the face of in-your-face evil and wickedness, to have one’s heart set on the world is to direct one’s life to the wicked pursuit of thinks and to walk away from the will of God, or as James say: friendship with the world is hostility with God (Jam. 4.4). At the heart of the Psalmist’s sole desire for God is to retain one’s faithfulness, as they became wounded and acting like a fool in the midst of their envy (Psalm 73.21-22). To long after God is to long for God’s hand to continue to guide and direct the psalmist, with the hope of receiving honor in the end (Psalm 73.23.24). In looking at this psalm, we might understand the sole desire for God not as a normative expression for believers at all times and seasons, but how believers need to think to receive God’s guidance and strength in the midst of wicked, evil times.

One pattern that we might suggest is expressed in Psalm 63 and 73 is the therapeutic hope of longing for intimacy with God. As the psalmists express their weakness as they see evil lurking and threatening, their desire for God is tightly intertwined with relieving them of their weakness and fragile state (Psa. 63.1, 5; 73.26). In a similar vein, the apostle Paul hears from the Lord that in the midst of his weakness with the thorn fo the flesh, God’s grace is perfecting him (2 Cor. 12.7-10). As God draws near, there is healing from what ails and has wounded. Intimacy with God is a source of healing for our lives and souls with all the burdens we carry.

This is one of the primary motivations for intimacy in the first place. While there is something good in and of itself with various forms of social relationships such as close friendship, marriage and family, etc., the desire for close social connections is primarily rooted in our need to protect ourselves through our bonds with others. To be alone, to be disconnected, to have few close relationships means that one is in danger if one experiences hardship and threats, as we rely upon others to help us when we are weak. The experience of intimacy, then, is the formation of a bond with another person that unconsciously signals to us that there is someone who will be there for us in our time of need. It harkens back to our infant relationship with our mother and other caretakers, whose presence and care soothed us when we could do nothing for ourselves. At the heart of the desire for intimacy is the desire to create, maintain, and remember those relationships that can sustain us in the future, if the need arises.

For instance, due to struggles with loneliness and isolation over the years, for a time I experienced a heightened, lingering anxiety that I will be alone when my parents pass away which instilled a deep desire to be close to someone so that I can have someone I trust cares for me and will be there for me. In addition, having been the recipient of multiple wounds and traumas from people that made me feel like I was unworthy of affection, attention and made me fearful fo romantic and sexual relationships, the desire for intimacy was only strengthened as I desired the experience of intimacy that would heal me of those wounds by showing them they were wrong and that someone who will have a respect for me as a person. The desire for a close bond and intimacy was ultimately a hope for an experience that would heal me from those wounds and assuage those fears. The basic human instinct for connection and intimacy for a basic sense of connection was then burdened by multiple traumas that would create unrealistic if not unhealthy dynamics for a bond (I instinctively understood this that I readily accepted because I had ambivalent feelings about intimacy). Yet so many unhealthy relationships have been created because of this instinctive drive to heal through intimacy. While intimacy can be a good source of growth and healing, unrealistic desires for intimacy often put undue burdens on the other person.

This is why, in the end, seeking God as the source of intimacy is sorely needed in our society and time. As my experience seeking after God and discovering God’s response over these past few months has brought me to a place of contentment from the ravaging memories of mistreatment and trauma, I came to a healthier desire for intimacy. I discovered God’s care and provision in stark, unmistakeable ways as I had to face head-on the fears and anxieties that lurked underneath the surface from years of pain, bringing me to a place where wholeness was much nearer, even as I still feel a basic longing for marriage and a family. As I felt like the world was hopelessly set against me much like Psalms 63 and 73, I came to experience the healing of God to encourage and strengthen me. Seeking intimacy with God is a therapeutic engagement by God to restore us so that we can move towards fulfilling our image-bearing purpose within God’s creation, enabling us to also lived in the right relationships with others also created with this image-bearing purpose and the world God created. Intimacy with God restores our capacity to be the people God longs for us to be.

Yet, just like desiring intimacy with other people can take on an unhealthy and unrealistic form, so too the desire for intimacy with God may take on a form that can actually mislead us. God can respond to us in the midst of our insecurities in a way that others can not effectively or healthily do, but yet we may still place expectations about God and even transgress boundaries and become presumptuous in seeking intimacy with God. When we feel close and intimate with someone, there is oftentimes a feeling of personal knowing and understanding that is available to others. When this desire gets directed towards God, it may manifest in the idea that God is making secrets known to the person that he hasn’t revealed elsewhere.

For instance, take the example of the “translator” of the Passion translation of the Bible, Brian Simmons. One can watch a video interview of Tremper Longman, Old Testament scholar, by Mike Winger on the problems with Winger’s translation, particularly in the Sons of Songs here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBC2z0URxYE&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2NdmZ6d9fIGxg4l-Moz_pjsFgUsqNWRqAsw6c3gMx7puhpHvhLjkvIg1I&ab_channel=MikeWinger. If one looks at 0:32-1:00 in the video. one can see the mindset of Winger. He believes that he has an intimate relationship with God where he has received revelation to speak to the Church. Seeking intimacy with God is taken to go beyond God’s help in our time a need, a very Scriptural idea, to a belief that he has a special relationship with God that enables him to speak revelatory words to others. If one takes the idea of intimacy with God too far, one may come to the place where one projects onto God one’s idealized pictures of intimacy and risk misunderstanding or entirely missing God as He is.

We do not see what the Bible would categorize or call revelation being made through intimacy. In fact, the recipients of intimacy are often unaware and surprised by God, with God being far from the thoughts of the recipients of revelation at the time of revelation. Moses was surprised by God at the burning bush. Samuel has no idea God was calling to him when he first heard his name. Isaiah was unclean with his sin before he was healed and prepared to be a prophet. Saul was on the way to persecute Christians when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. This is not to suggest that revelation is only made to those who are unprepared and evidence no sense of intimate experience with God, the point to be gleaned is this: God choosing to make revelation know to a person isn’t about one’s intimacy with God. It is about God’s choice to do so for larger purposes than simply providing knowledge and insight. Moses was to lead Israel out of the Exodus. Samuel was call to lead as a judge and eventually appoint the kings of Israel. Isaiah was to proclaim a message that would hinder the mind of the people of Israel. Paul brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. While they each enjoyed a closer relationship with God that gave them further inspiration as they deepened into their ministry, revelation was not about receiving an intimate word from God, but about dramatically and surprisingly making Himself known to someone for a deeper purpose.

Furthermore, while Jesus enjoyed the deepest, closest, most intimately possible relationship with the heavenly Father was given words to speak by God, what Jesus made known wasn’t unambiguously clear from what He directly expressed. Rather, one had to continue in Jesus’ word, much like the Psalmist extols the one who meditates on God’s instruction (Psalm 1.23). God’s disclosure through His Son Jesus did not provide a direct, unambiguous sense of truth, but his disciples only began to understand through events of the cross and resurrection and the leading of the Spirit of truth. Disclosure through intimacy doesn’t just convey secret thoughts, but it is given in a way that only those who also have come to seek and know God deeply can understand. Intimacy does not beget ‘revelation’ that is comprehensible to others upon a first hearing or reading. Much like a lover’s poetry alludes to but does not give a direct description of their experience of the beloved, the disclosure that comes through intimacy with God is something deeply personal and not readily consumed by any and all hearers or readers.

The danger of putting a large emphasis on seeking intimacy with God is that we may begin to have a motivation to see ourselves getting special, secret knowledge that isn’t available to others that we then get to be the ones to transmit it. The feeling of intimacy can emerge from our memories of closeness and how our own thinking modifies our own bodily states into a place of peace, much like how thinking about a close, loved one can bring peace over one’s heart. Yet, when we think about the loved one, most of us recognize that the person is not there in that moment. Yet when it comes to a God we do not see with our own eyes, we may treat this sense of closeness and warmth as due to God’s presence and word and overlook the role that our own memories and minds have in how we perceive and make sense of God. If God is deeply engaged with us genuinely, then God will guide us in the midst of it, but if we impress so much onto the idea of intimacy with God that we are manufacturing our sense of God from our own memories, then we can convince ourselves we are receiving revelation from God when in fact we may simply be receiving stuff from our own inner, unconscious self, some of which may not be true or so good. The risk of overemphasizing seeking intimacy is that we may end up in an intense navel-gazing and then label it God. When our desire for intimacy is then connected to our deep, instinctive desire to be safe, cared for, healed, etc., what may come out in those moments may reflect more our own brokenness and what we want God to be. Hence, we need to rely on external confirmations along the way, especially when it comes to the translation of the Scriptures needing the benefits of careful, critical study and attention.

Intimacy with God who responds to us is available and can bring about healing in our lives so that we can live our God-given purposes to be image-bearers. Yet, if we make it the end goal of our relationship with God, if we exalt it to levels that the Scriptures do not do, then we risk projecting our own selves onto God, and with it, speaking “truths” that are really just a reflection of our own pains and longings. God heals us through the pains and uses them to testify to His love and glory to the world as our weakness is a place where a loving God will make Himself known, but expressions from our own woundedness that intimacy seeks to heal does not provide a reliable word from God.

The importance of living for Jesus

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December 9, 2020

2 Corinthians 5.14-15:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

Why is it so central to the Christian faith that we live our lives for Jesus, that we desire Him above all else?

I will admit the idea has often raised skeptical questions from me, even as a believer. First, I often had a visceral response to anything that approached me as an authority figure calling for adoration of himself. It approached me as having a self-centeredness to it. Second, I was familiar with the way that devotion to someone or something often had a way of diverting attention from the real pains and struggles of the world, that such exalted devotion could blind people to the realities of life. All in all, it approached me as something an authority figure would ask of his subjects, all to divert away all attention to what was important in life but to instead serve the interests of the leader. Indeed, there are good reasons for these concerns, as this is a pattern that can be exhibited among cults in which devotion to a charismatic figure and his interests lead people down dark roads. Furthermore, there are many Christians whose “devotion” to Jesus has lead them to turn a blind eye to the world.

Yet, what I have come to observe is that what I have seen is an all-too-fleshly distortion of the type of devotion that God created for us to have. To appropriate Paul’s language for a different purpose, these problematic demonstrations of religious devotion had the form of godliness but not its true power. There is indeed something good and beneficial to dedicating our hearts and lives to Jesus above all else, but only as it in a person whose whole life is being transformed by the Holy Spirit. These other forms of “devotion” have key, critical components that are missing and thus differentiate them from the life-giving devotion to Jesus Christ.

At the heart of Paul’s vision for human living is not just simply a devotion to Jesus as mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5.15. Looking back to vs. 14, Paul puts forward a summary of his motivation for  his ministry: “the love of Christ urges us on.” While some readings of “the love of Christ” (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ) may take Paul to refer to his own love for Jesus (objective genitive), it is much more likely that he is referring to Jesus’s love (subjective genitive). First, Paul describes how Jesus died for all in v. 15. Secondly, later in 5.21, Paul talks about embodying the righteousness of God in Christ. These two exegetical clues help to explain this summary vision of his ministry: Paul sees himself as embodying Christ’s love that motivates him to act as an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5.20). Paul’s life is a reflection of Jesus’ love which guides him to be an agent through whom people become reconciled to God. Why?

Love compels making the beloved known to others. When a man falls in love with a woman, they want to tell others of her virtue, her beauty, her kindness, etc. Yet, even more apropos, is when people develop a fondness and adoration for people who are instrumental in helping them to be healed, physically or mentally. A client of a good physician or therapist will oftentimes recommend their physician/therapist to their relatives and friends so that other they too can become treated and healed as needed. For instance, my mother, a psychiatrist, has shared how sometimes wholes families would come to see her (she didn’t divulge any identifying information), which started from one person getting treated and then suggesting another member of their family see her. Those who bring healing to people’s lives can become the center of families, communities, and other social networks. When Jesus healed, he would often become the focal point of town gossip and could become popular in the villages; at times, Jesus told those who he healed not to share with others as it is often a reflex of thanksgiving to openly praise one who has done tremendous good for you. Healing begets adoration which begets testimony which begets more healing.

When people begin to share a common focus of attention that goes beyond themselves individually, it is often the context where good relationships are formed. As Daniel Siegel notes in The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology:

Within healthy relationships there is a sharing of a focus of attention on something other than the individuals in the relationship. Often there may be a sharing of attention on a third object, a process called joint attention. As attention is the regulation of information flow, the sharing of attention in this way is truly the joining of minds. These relationships can be between friends, relatives, lovers, colleagues, parent and child, teacher and student, clinician and client/patient, and employer and employee.1

So when you combine healthy relationships, which beget health, with the common relationship to the one who heals, is this not a place of blessing where well-being and, to use a Jewish term, shalom can flourish? By mutually coming to know the healer, they each bear a relationship to each other that can end up intensifying the benefits of this shared relationship. They can share wisdom and insight from their times together so that what benefited them may become of benefit to others. The vertical relationships with the healer is also experienced through the horizontal relationships of the healed.

As a Jew, Paul would have instinctively understood the communal nature of common devotion to God. Jews were very communal in nature, as being a Jew was not just about believing in the God of Israel’s Scriptures, but it entailed a zeal for the traditions of the ancestors. The love of God was interconnected with a love for fellow Jews, past and present. So, when Paul talks about those who live as living for Jesus, he doesn’t have in mind an isolated, individualistic devotion. Indeed, Paul talks about how people are viewed by each other in 2 Corinthians 5.16 establishes the point: that one’s whole-hearted devotion to Jesus is expressed in the context of a community of believers.

The way this common devotion to Jesus gets expressed first by the way we learn to see each other. Rather than seeing each other according to the flesh, which most likely refers to what characteristics about people do we use to evaluate someone by, Paul encourages everyone to recognize that being in Christ means that one is a new creation. How often are the pains and difficulties of life inflicted on us by others who spoke of us in a negative fashion, who thought of us derisively and mistreated us accordingly? Because our sense of sense and identity is tightly intertwined with our relationships with others, such painful words, expressions, and actions can inflict some of us in a way that tears the confidence to be in relationship to others, an important need to some degree for all neurotypical people. Beyond this, Siegel notes what occurs when our own inner experience is not regarded and respected by others: “The mind we experience in our own subjective world can become filled with frustration if the other person does not see and acknowledge with positive regard our own inner world.”2

So, when the body of believers begin to recognize each other not according to the visible things of the flesh, such as, in our day, not being smart enough, beautiful or handsome enough, popular enough, etc., but according to the inner work that God has done in each of us, the healing that God is already bringing about in making us new creation becomes amplified by the experience of news type of relationships with each other. As believers learn to recognize and honor the work God has done in each of their own, inner lives (cf. 2 Cor. 4.16-18), people begin to experience new ways of relating to each other, that opens up and strength pathways towards love, respect, honor, and compassion that. Such repeated interactions can lead to new models of relationships and attachments to others:

Over time, attachment theory suggests, these repeated patterns of [contingent, compassionate, caring] interaction form the experiential crucible in which an internal working model is formed. When the patterns of communication are consistent, predictable, and filled with repairs when the inevitable ruptures in attunement occur, there is the creation of a working model of security, a mental representation of the relationship as reliably contingent.3

While Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians indicates that Paul thought they had not grown to this point yet, we can see that it is Christ’s love embodied in Paul that leads him to recognize the new creation of people. In so far as bodies of believers grow into Christ’s mindset, the love that Christ has for us in going to the cross so that He could make us new through the resurrection becomes the mindset of the community for each other, where in love we see the new creation emerging that Jesus purposed His life to create. One of the benefits of a maturing community of Christian faith is that people are learning and strengthening positive, trusting, life-giving attachments to each other.

To be clear here, this communal recognition of each’s other new creation is not about regular, flowery praise and compliments, nor is it necessarily about deep, intimate bonds between people that we can sometimes feel community is created to bring. Sometimes these things are an outpouring of seeing each other as new creation. Friendships that help each other see their strengths may initially build because of thier positive regard for each other. Deep, intimate bonds may be molded and shaped from the clay of this common recognition of each other’s newness in Christ. However, the primary benefit of recognizing fellow believers as a new creation is how our words, our expression, and our actions towards each other become increasingly focused on each other’s well-being in order to build up. It is the memory from many routines acts of respect, honor, trust, kindness, compassion, inclusion, interdependence, etc. that brings about a healing of our own ways of relating to each other from the pains of those who have torn us down.

Yet, the social amplification of the inner healing of new creation that comes from God doesn’t occur without our growing devotion to Jesus. It is in following the crucified and resurrected Savior that we ourselves participate with Jesus through our own pains and moments of powerful redemption. As we adopt that posture just as Paul did, our lives increasingly come to embody the purposes and desires of God’s righteousness and Jesus’ love. By living for Jesus we learn to love like Jesus. If the Lord is the servant of humanity, then to serve the Lord is to also serve humanity.

So, living our lives for Jesus isn’t simply about honoring some powerful authority far away from us. In fact, living our lives for Jesus isn’t about honoring the one who has powerful authority, but honoring the one who has powerfully loved. In so doing, we also learn to take on this same love ourselves. So to live for Jesus is to also live for the world, but with our hearts and minds opened to what brings life and shalom rather than the reputed wisdom of the world that provides at best only pale, partial imitations. To love and live for the Messiah is to have Jesus’ love that longs for and participates in the healing of others that comes through the cross and resurrection.

On false teaching, tickling ears, and myths

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December 8, 2020

1 John 4.1-6:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

2 Timothy 4.3-4:

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

2 Peter 1.16-17:

For we did not follow wisely-crafted myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

WARNING: This blog post contains a specific word that many Christians will not feel comfortable with. The use of this language is not intended to shock or offend, nor is it used flippantly. It is used to reference a philosophical work on ethics that describes the concept of “bullshit.” I am not an advocate for the free or abundant use of swearing or scatological language. Yet, at the same time, the use of this language is somewhat comparable to Paul’s usage of the word for “dung” (σκῠ́βᾰλον) in Philippians 3.8.

One of the concerns that we see repeatedly presented throughout the New Testament is a concern with prophets and teachers who are false, mislead, and inflict harm. For some modern hearers, like me, this concern about false teachers may provoke feelings of judgment, being aware of and having experienced people who quickly used such labels derisively in the face of conflict. Much like the word “fool” in the Proverbs began to be used as a derisive insult of angry people that necessitated Jesus warning people that such language makes one accountable to a judgment that could end up with the fires of hell (Matthew 5.22), the language of false teacher and prophet can and has been used derisively by some Christians. Yet, the reason the early Church has such a concern is not that they are inclined to be judgmental of people, but rather they have a deep, abiding concern for truth such that people who fundamentally reject basic claims about the person of Jesus and persistently mislead the people are to be avoided. Regardless of whether one thinks Jesus is truly the Son of God (I am speaking to those who do not share my faith convictions), the early Christians had a deep abiding concern that they should not misrepresent God or themselves to those they taught. While “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is the Son of God” were the most important fundamental claim of the early Christians, that they are truth-seekers, because Jesus is the Truth, is an important virtue.

However, precisely because labels used to point to false teachers and false teaching have been used so flippantly and without concern for taking the time to accurately understand and represent what other people are saying and why they are saying it, it is important to think carefully about what constitutes such false teaching for the early Christians. For instance, the heresies of Pelagianism and sem-Pelagianism have been readily used to describe anything that seems to diverge from an Augustinian-Calvinist account of grace and salvation, without concern to accurately represent what is specifically being claimed. Marcionism has often been charged against those who may have views on the Old Testament that are not considered sufficiently venerable enough, such as Andy Stanley’s oft-maligned comment about “unhitching faith from the Old Testament.” In cases like these and others, there is a cultural game that some play that they are expecting people to fall into error and sin and that they should be ready to call it out. Quick anger and judgment fuel such judgmental claims, which consequently means that such people give less attention to why something is false, why something is misleading, why something is harmful.

So what is it about false teaching the bothers the early church? Obviously, on the surface of it, they reject various claims about the person of Jesus. And yet, the problem of such people isn’t simply that they reject the truth of Jesus at some level, but that there is something about them as a person that makes them opposed to the Gospel. For instance, in 1 John 4.3, those who reject that Jesus has come from God are said to be under the influence/spirit of the antichrist. Far from describing a character of evil who will rise up to power in the end times, to be an antichrist is to stand in opposition to what Jesus stands for. By rejecting Jesus is from God, be an implication that would mean the loving character of Jesus is not representative of God (note that the discussion about the spirit of the antichrist in 1 John 4.1-6 falls right after talking about Jesus’ commandment to love one another in 3.23-24 and returns to this theme of love in 4.7ff). The spirit of the antichrist cannot accept that the love of Jesus is the exact representation of God, thereby leading them to distort who Jesus is and thereby also distort who God the Father is (1 Jn. 2.22). The antichrist is not simply about denying a point of doctrine about Jesus ‘divinity, but about distorting Jesus so that His actual character that makes Him the anointed Messiah of Israel and worthy Savior of the world are not taken to be truly representative of God and His will for us. The spirit of antichrist could be alternatively imagined in the form of people who confess that Jesus is God but yet cast a portrayal of God and Jesus that is far from having the deeply loving, merciful, gracious character working for the good of human life, particularly in the midst of our suffering.

Why does the spirit of the antichrist reject the representation of a Jesus who deeply loves and calls us to deeply love is from God? Ultimately, John ascribes the reason to the fact that speak from and are listened to by the world (1 Jn . 4.5). This wouldn’t have been said of them, however, if these people under the influence of the antichrist did not claim to belong to the same community of faith (cf. 1 John 2.19). So in saying that they speak from and are listening to the world, they are essentially living double lives: on the surface, they claim allegiance and affiliation with Jesus and the early Church, yet at the same time, what they say is ultimately learned from and accepted by the world. Their representations of God and Jesus are what would be pleasing to people who do not belong to God’s people.

Why is love so offensive to some people? It can seem on the surface that talking about love may be a form of ear-tickling. Indeed, it can take on that form when we are focused primarily on helping people feeling approved by talking about love. While there are helpful times to help people know they are loved, such a theme can readily become a way of tickling people’s ears by telling them something they want to hear, whether it is truly something they need to hear. On the other hand, when the Scriptures talk about love, they focus less on the feeling of the recipients of love and more so on the ethical call to people to show love that is willing to suffer for others. This is why the deep nature of Jesus’ love is offensive to some and resisted by some who claim Jesus: it calls them to be willing to suffer themselves for the sake of others just as Jesus did for us. Far from simply seeing Jesus’ love as something for us, it becomes an exemplar for our own lives. We will return to this idea of suffering a little bit later.

This leads us to what Paul says about false teachers in 2 Timothy 4.3-4. In describing a group of people, implicitly some who identify with Jesus, who want to have teachers that accord with what they want and desire, he gets at the heart of the relationship between false teachers and those who accept them. False teachers are those who appeal to the sensibilities of the audience they seek to impress. Their focus is not on careful consideration of precisely what it is that they are teaching, but on giving people what will give them praise, status, and influence among their audience. What Paul then says characterized this teaching is something that moves away from the truth and are myths. What Paul means by myth (μῦθος) isn’t what we often mean by myth when we are talking about the stories of gods and goddess in pagan mythology. Μῦθος was regularly used to refer to a story that is said without concern for its truth. It isn’t necessarily used to refer to stories that are intentional deceptions, but any range of stories that strongly misrepresent matters.

At the heart of myths in this sense is something that is similar to what philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt defines as bullshit in On Bullshit (hence force, I will simply abbreviate this discussion of this concept to BS so as to minimize offense to my fellow Christians as much as I can while still keeping in touch with the philosophical work). Frankfurt explains at the heart of BS is “lack of connection to a concern with the truth.”1 Yet BS is not the same thing as deception. In deception, the truth is still considered important, hence it is hidden with lies and manipulation. For a person who is engaging in BS, they have no concern about the truth, but are simply concerned with getting what he wants.2 Hence, BS can lead to the confabulation of stories and ideas that may sound plausible enough, but are primarily unconscious constructions of affairs based upon what fits their interests at the time.

Yet, I would push beyond Frankfurt’s description of BS. Frankfurt suggests that there is little concern for truth in BS. I would put forward, however, that some BSers may have a desire for the truth to the point that they may believe they are speaking truth, but their self-perceptions of speaking the truth are rationalizations designed to validate how they are deserving of what it is they are seeking. For them, to desire to be in truth does not lead to a diligent and critical discernment (cf. 1 Jn. 4.1), especially when accurate representations are particularly important. BSers are not just susceptible to misrepresentation, but in some cases, they need to believe they are telling the truth. In these instances, “truth” is defined narcissistically, where the truth is believed to be what provides the BSer what they want, without concern for seeking for and appropriately understanding the information that can provide signals to what is reliable and true.

In the case of myths, the teachers who provide them are not necessarily intending to deceive their audience. Nothing Paul says suggests they are *intentionally* deceptive. Rather, they may be understood more so as people-pleasers who are well-attuned to the type of things that people want to hear. Although to be clear, not all people-pleasers are profligate BSers; we need to avoid an unhelpful stereotype of such people. There are some people-pleasers who simply refrain from telling painful truths, but endeavor not to speak what is false in what they do say. Other people-pleasers may speak BS, but only to the extent that they can avoid perceived threats, but otherwise, their BS is relatively contained. At the heart of the popular teacher who speaks BS, however, is someone who actively pursues what they want by using BS.

This is probably what Peter is getting at in 2 Peter 1.16 in referring to as “wisely-crafted myths” (σεσοφισμένοις μύθοις). There, Peter is not criticizing false teachers, per se, but he presenting himself as someone who does not tell to adhere to such type of stories. They have the appearance of wisdom, with the verb σοφίζω being used to describe how such false stories are created based upon what is taken to be wise. Instead, Peter is focused simply on telling what they saw and heard in Jesus, without regard to trying to create a story based upon what seems wise.

If I were to try to assess what the ingredients of wisely-crafted myths would be, I would suggest it starts from taking some theme or idea that has apparent truthfulness, the appearance of wisdom, and then expanding upon that theme in some form of narrative or exposition, with the working principle that the more an apparently true theme or idea is used and appealed to, the better. For example, I am reminded of a preacher who once talked about seeking the tail of the devil. The apparent truth of this story derives from the way that the serpent in Genesis 3 is later connected to Satan. Then this preacher proceeded to build a myth based upon this idea, suggesting if that one sees the tail of the devil, one should just back away. This continues to play on the apparent truthfulness of the danger that snakes have to us that is then transferred to the devil. Yet, such a conclusion runs absolutely counter to the New Testament exhortation to resist the devil (Eph. 4.27, 6.11, Jam. 4.7), overlooking the image of Satan as an aggressive lion who seeks to devour (1 Pet. 5.8) and ignoring how Jesus in his temptations has to resist the devil (Mat. 4.3-11/Lue. 4.2-13). The story and its moral received praise from some of those who heard it and its apparent truthfulness that derived from the facts that (a) it took Scriptural story of the serpent as a starting point and (b) played off the instinctual fear that people have of snakes to tell a pleasing story about just backing away from Satan. Yet, on the face of it, it seems there was little concern to portray the devil and the Christian response to him the way the Bible actually says. A wisely-crafted myth (unconsciously) designed to please people that isn’t concerned to spend the time to focus on what is available on the topic at hand.

What seems to be one distinction between true teachers, such as what Paul is exhorting Timothy to be, and false teachers is the willingness to endure hardship (κακοπάθησον; 2 Tim. 4.5). At the root of so many of our desires is an avoidance of pain and suffering. By obtaining what it is that we seek after and desire, such fulfillment of desire may stave off feelings of pain, sadness, fear, anger, etc. by creating feelings of euphoria and pleasure. When the avoidance of suffering is at the heart of our desires, it has the tendency to strengthen the nature of the craving and passion into an exaggerated form from what we might want otherwise. For instance, a basic desire to be accepted by others that is at the heart of our nature as social creatures that seek connections with others may become distorted into a deep craving and desire for popularity. A desire for sexual intimacy and bond with a member of the opposite sex may escalate into an exaggerated desire to pursue the pleasures of sex. There is a reason that Paul talks about “sufferings which produce sin” (τὰ παθήματα τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν) in Rom. 7.5.3 Our relationship to pain and suffering will determine how we respond to the potential lack of fulfillment of our desires. If we embrace the cross of Jesus Christ so that we suffer with Christ (Rom. 8.17), the prospective expectation of pain with the lack of fulfillment of our desires won’t motivate us to do whatever we can to pursue what we desire. If one can not accept the experiences of some pain, suffering, and unfulfilled longings, then one will push deeper towards a passionate compulsion to obtain this desire.

So, for false teachers, their desires undergird the reasons they speak what is not true. We see Jesus and Peter portray false prophets as similarly being lost in their inner desires (Mat. 7.15, 2 Pet. 2.10-16). It is these desires that stand at the heart of myth-making so as to tickle the ears of the people from whom one wants approval, praise, status, money, etc. BSer will want to rely upon what appears true and reliable so as to influence their hearers, but what they perceive and portray to be true is conformed to what is consistent with their own desires rather than the information that is readily and directly accessible.

To be clear, the mere existence of error, making mistakes, being unable to dedicate more time and resources to discern the truth, etc. are all reasons we might get something wrong but not be a false teacher in the Biblical sense. We all make mistakes and have limitations on what information and skills we possess. The pathway to obtaining truth comes by persisting in Jesus’ word (John 8.31-32), so it will take time to come know the truth. Rather, at the heart of BS, at the heart of myth-making to tickle people’s ears is a lack of concern to carefully discern the truth due to prioritizing the specific desire outcomes of what one says that is controlled by one’s own desires, not a limitation in our abilities to acquire truth.

Unfortunately, the vocation of pastor and preacher can tempt people to such a mentality and approach, to the point that those who were originally eager to proclaim the Gospel gradually begin to adjust what they preach and teach to accord with what they will get them the approval or status that they desire. While the existence of the temptation and the occasional slip up does not make one a false-teacher, it is important to keep the focus on what our heart should be truly dedicated to: to live for, proclaim, and demonstrate in our lives Jesus Christ. Perhaps in doing this, we should regard more blatant attempts at people-pleasing based upon out-of-controls to be as despicable BS/dung that should be seen as a part of our former life that we accept as a loss and pursue instead to be found in Jesus Christ by being willing to faithfully share in His sufferings and then also His resurrection (Phil. 3.7-11)

2 Corinthians 4.3-4: The god of Stoicism and blindness to the Gospel

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December 7, 2020

2 Corinthians 4.3-4:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

If you were to do research on the phrase “the god of this age/world” in 2 Corinthians 4.4 by looking at various commentaries, you would see an explanation that is present in most of the commentaries: “the god of this age” is a reference to Satan. There are multiple reasons for this, but perhaps the two biggest reasons are (1) the association in the Bible of resistance to believing in God being associated with the work of Satan and (2) our relative lack of detailed knowledge of the culture Paul is addressing leads to the lack of knowledge of other plausible references that Paul could be making. Essentially, our relative ignorance makes us focus on the one character that is feasible to point to: Satan.

However, there are a couple of problems with this interpretation. First, on the surface of it, the idea of calling Satan a god seems to go against Paul’s theology and cosmology. While it is one thing to refer to idols as gods because that is what they are named in the pagan society (1 Cor. 8.5), it seems unlikely that Paul would choose to call Satan a god unless there was some prior precedent for doing so. While I have not done research on this, it seems unlikely prima facie that anything within Jewish, monotheistic tradition would have called Satan a god.

Second, to say that Satan is the agent of blindness is inconsistent with the way Paul understands the metaphor of impaired vision in 2 Corinthians 3-4 and the agent of blindness. In 2 Corinthians 3.7-11, a description of given of the veil that lies over the glory that shone on Moses’ face. Then, Paul continues this argument for the present day in 3.12-15 in concluding that a veil lies over people when the old covenant/Moses is read. Here, the cause of obscured vision is not Satan, but simply those whose worship is centered upon the Torah. It is essentially a veil that occurs as a result of religious practice, not the agency of any specific figure. While blindness in 4.4 is a much strong form of impaired vision, nothing in Paul’s discourse suggests offhand that there is any fundamentally different cause for blindness for seeing the glory of Christ and the veil that obscures the glory of God. One could infer that a more extreme form of a metaphorically impaired vision requires a more powerful agent, that is Satan, but one could also infer that the differences in the impairment can be attributed to the different teachings about God in the old covenant and about some ‘god’ that is prevalent in the present age.

A good explanation for this can be the portrayal of a single god by the Stoics. Some Stoics had a tendency to refer to a single god that held the whole cosmos together and that could not adequately be represented in pagan temples. On the surface of it, a Stoic “monotheism” could be said to resemble a Jewish monotheism, but amidst these similarities, there are significant differences. Stoic “monotheism” was more pantheistic or panentheistic, in which the god of the cosmos was the immaterial aspect that ‘energized’ the material aspect of the world. Furthermore, while Stoics did not accept the myths and symbols of paganism at face value, they would attempt to analyze and/or allegorize ancient myths and religious traditions for wisdom; they still retained their connection to the pagan mythologies and symbols. Such a portrayal of this god and the sources they would use to understand this god was antithetical to the God of Israel, who according to Israel’s Scriptures is a holy God that simultaneously created the world and yet was distinct from it.

It would be one thing to teach about a single God to thoroughly polytheistic people. Polytheisms allowed for a superior god who reigned over the others, such as Zeus in Greek mythology and the equivalent Jupiter in Roman mythology; the movement to monotheism can be envisioned through treating the superior god as being so distinct and powerful and worthy of worship that any thing else called a god is as not worthy of worship (henotheism transforming into monotheism). The idea of a single God who is not represented by various idols may be offensive due to breaking with pagan religious traditions, but coming to a belief in a single creator God is feasible. To suggest, furthermore, that this God has a Son who came into the world can be accepted as reasonable by pagan traditions, because they had stories of demigods, even as there are still dramatic differences between the Incarnate Son of the God of Israel and the demigods of mythology.

However, when Stoicism shifts its portrayal of this singular god away from the mythologies, while still mining them for glimpses of wisdom, it casts a portrayal of this god that actively runs counter to the story that Paul preaches about the transcendent, creator God of Israel coming to the world in His Son. Since Stoicism was the popular philosophy of the day, the Stoic portrayal of a single god would become taken as the wisdom of the wise, making Paul’s teaching about the God of Israel making Himself known in Jesus Christ seem foolish and filled with error (cf. 1 Cor. 1.22-23). While Paul would probably not have detailed knowledge of the reasons why a Stoic theology created more resistance to his proclamation of Christ, it can certainly explain why Paul would have observed an increased resistance, offering a plausible explanation for what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4.4.

One potential clue to this being the case is that Paul describes Jesus Christ as the image of God. What is the discursive purpose of this opposition? The theological anthropology of Stoic pan(en)theism suggests that the single god who holds the universe together also resides in people. No person is uniquely representative of this god, even though some people may be more attuned to this god within them through their pursuit of reason. By referring to Jesus as the image of God, Paul designates Him as the one who is the representation of God. As Paul denies proclaiming about themselves in the following verse in 4.5, it suggests Paul’s purpose is to clarify that the proclamation does not lift up the glory within believers, even as the glory of Christ is manifest in other people. To that end, Paul presents a different picture of the glory of God from the theological anthropology of Stoicism, one that is not present in all persons and even as it is present in them, it ultimately emanates from the one person Jesus Christ who is THE image of God.

If this thesis is true, then there is a theological conclusion to draw for this present age. What we preach and teach about God can have the impact of obscured a view of the true glory of God. While most Christian teachers today deny pantheism and *formally* embrace on the Scriptures as the source of teaching about God, their portrayal of God that differs dramatically different from the Scriptures, suggesting other sources for thinking about God, can hinder people from perceiving God’s glory. The one teaching that is very prominent is the idea that one is worthy of hell based upon one sin in some (fundamentalism) evangelical circles. Even as they then appeal to Jesus as the way to have those sins forgiven, the picture of God that is portrayed by them is one of an very angry, firecly judgmental God. Yet, this God is consistently referred to as slow to anger (Exo. 34.6) and has an enduring love (חֶ֫סֶד) that persists, even in the midst of sins. This is not the picture of a God who will reject people based upon a single act of sin, no matter what it is.

This portrayal of God actively inhibits people from perceiving the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Certainly, they may “give glory” to God and Jesus, but they are inclined to think God’s glory is in His ruling authority. However, if the glory of Christ is in His compassionate, patient, non-aggressive love that endured even as He went to the cross, then their portrayal of God will create active resistance and blindness to this picture of God’s love. They may believe in the name of Jesus, but their inability to truly accept the glory of Jesus that is exhibited in the fullest shape of His love in going to the cross, instead reducing His love to simply forgiveness for guilt, makes them resistant to truly believing in Christ in order to learn from Jesus. Rather than coming to discover the fullest depths of God’s love (cf. Eph 3.16-19), their hearts become hardened to seeing the glorious character of Jesus that lead Him to be exalted as Lord.

Whether we want to compare this to a veil over their hearts or a more extreme blindness that is the hardeness of their hearts, the point is that many Christian often smuggle in ideas and teachings about God that actually obscure knowing God as He makes Himself known in Jesus. Such proclamations of the ‘gospel’ are like trying to make tea by putting a tea bag in vodka; all the other things that are treated as important doctrines about knowing God that ultimately portray Him in a way that is fundamentally opposed to the testimony of Scripture and overwhelm in people’s minds the real love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ.

The Damascus Road revelation as the seed of Paul’s apocalyptic anthropology

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December 7, 2020

Acts 9.1-6, 10-16:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now, as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

In the past two posts, I have begun to describe the idea of an apocalyptic anthropology in the Apostle Paul. In sketching this picture, my point is to ultimately work through the idea that an apocalyptic theology in Christ can serve as the central ‘idea’ or ‘belief’ that informs the rest of Paul’s thinking about the life of believers in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I have yet to get to the point of fully sketching it out, it is my intuition that an apocalyptic theology is the best theological framework to integrate and explain the various and diverse theological and ethical themes that occur in Paul’s letter. In other words, an apocalyptic anthropology (a) can be seen as being described in various Pauline texts and (b) also provides a coherent center to make sense of the whole Pauline corpus. If this is indeed the case, then an apocalyptic anthropology has a strong exegetical warrant in its favor.

However, exegetical evidence by itself is not enough. It is perfectly possible to create a mental map of a people’s thinking based upon the evidence of specific communications and be able to come up with a coherent explanation of the whole of the way the person acts and speaks, but it is wrong. Some conspiracy theorists, for instance, can provide very coherent accounts of social phenomena that they support with specific pieces of evidence. Yet, the vast majority of the time, they end up being wrong. This is because all our evidence of the internal, mental world of people is only partial. The partial nature of the evidence means that people can either get caught down a rabbit trail that goes far from the real nature of the person(s) involved or pick up something that is getting at the core of the truth about the person, but they don’t fully understand the significance of what they have discovered.

For instance, in my own experience with the traumatic symptoms of PTSD, there were times that in my times where I felt threatened that I could coordinate my memory of various events and sayings from other people that lead me to conspiratorial thinking, sometimes a conspiracy of malice and sometimes a conspiracy of kindness. Yet, in the end, as I dealt with multiple “coincidences” of speech and action that went beyond the critical threshold of what I would accept to be coincidence and randomness, I concluded: it wasn’t the people involved that were primarily involved for all that was happening, nor was it simply a common way of thinking between the persons, but that there was something responsible for what I was witnessing: ‘spiritual’ realities, namely the Spirit of God and at times a transpersonal force of evil, that is Satan. That is to say that my ability to draw evidence for a coherent account of what I was observing was initially explained by something I readily gave credence to, the nature of personal and interpersonal action. Still, it was only when I truly came to receive the possibility of divine agency not just as a theoretical possibility but as a reality that I took my well-grounded but ultimately conspiratorial interpretations and found a source of explanation and convergence that I did not originally accept.

What shifted my interpretations of the same events and speech was what I would consider plausible. Before that, the two primary models that I consider to be plausible explanations were (a) the randomness of coincidence and (b) social communication and intentionality. Both are plausible because there is plenty of real-life experience that validates these explanations as plausible. Yet, other events in my life began to further cement the possibility and even the reality of the Holy Spirit’s engagement in my own life in ways that I had previously was skeptical of. Upon my acceptance of the Holy Spirit and other ‘spiritual’ as plausible explanations for my experiences, I began to discover that an even better, more coherent account of my experience comes together when I recognize the dynamics of ‘spiritual’ agency. Another more plausible explanatory model allowed me to develop a more robust understanding.

I share this to make the point that our interpretations are validated not just based upon evidence and coherence of specific texts, experiences, etc., but also what we learn to consider plausible based upon the whole rest of our life, including but beyond the specific texts, experience, etc. in specific consideration. How we learn to make sense of life to determine our plausibility structures varies, but if our goal is to develop plausible explanations of experiences, texts, etc. that are also reliable in their ability to help us to comprehend and successfully engage with other aspects of life beyond those specific experiences, texts, etc., then it necessitates that we condition our sense of plausibility based upon what we already trust to be reliable to some degree. To put it differently, in order to develop our plausible explanatory models that are used to interpret specific Biblical texts, we need to rely upon what we consider reliable knowledges, such as the specific historiographical methods, knowledge of the languages and their use, a variety of anthropological models, sufficiently flexible accounts of psychology, etc.1

So, in the context of interpreting the letters of the Apostle Paul, we don’t need to just come up with a coherent interpretation that has direct, evidential support, but we also need to consider how plausible are our interpretations based upon other knowledges that are relevant to the Apostle Paul and his letters. Of course, the value of history and language are the prime sources for the academic study of the Bible. Yet, our models of plausibility can be derived from other sources. Perhaps most important is our knowledge of the person of Paul.

However, at this point, it is important to qualify what I mean about the knowledge of Paul the person. I do not mean the various historical and biographical portrayals on Paul that are on offer. While these may certainly be of value, most biographies of Paul are a combination of knowledge of the Pauline and New Testament texts, historical work, grammatical work, cultural work, a bit of wishful thinking from one’s own theological and cultural background and affiliations, etc. without a clear demarcation of how the various aspects of the portrayal of Paul are derived. This leads to uneven reliabilities when it comes to the various claims made about Paul. For instance, the assumption that Paul is somehow influenced by apocalyptic conventions leads to a wide variety of understandings of Paul that may look apocalyptic but not it is ultimately based upon specific assumptions about the specific shape and nature of the influence of apocalyptic conventions on Paul. As there is no text from Paul that we have that says “I learned this from the such-and-such book about revelation,” apocalyptic portrayals of the apostle Paul are inclined to fill in the blanks about the specific contours of the apocalyptic in Paul based upon more non-personal considerations, such as the historical study of apocalyptic literature of Second Temple Judaism, the usage of common words and tropes between Paul and apocalyptic literature, etc. While this may at times be a legitimate way of proceeding in the face of gaps in our sources of information about Paul, what should be considered a higher priority in the interpretations of texts by a specific person is our (relatively) more reliable, less speculative knowledge about the person, both in the form of specific knowledge about them and also our knowledge about psychology that are more reliable and robust when it comes to understanding persons from various cultures.

With that in mind, I suggest an apocalyptic anthropology in the Apostle Paul not only makes coherent sense of Paul’s letters and has specific, direct textual evidence in its favor, but that our knowledge about Paul, particularly the account of his revelation of Jesus Christ on the Road to Damascus, along with knowledge about how significant, surprising events (that is, a crisis event) begin to structure the way people think over time serves to demonstrate the plausible shape of “apocalyptic” in the Apostle Paul. That is to say that Paul’s experience at the Road to Damascus determines the shape of Paul’s theology, or more particularly apocalyptic anthropology.

However, Michael J. Gorman posits that both apocalyptic experience and an apocalyptic theology are mutually reinforcing.2 The problem with such a presupposition is that we have little direct evidence that Paul’s theology was cognitively structured according to a general model of “apocalyptic.” While Paul will occasionally use the word “revelation” (ἀποκάλυψις) and “reveal” (ἀποκαλύπτω). There is not a systematic reflection on revelation or a persistent usage of the word revelation that suggests it was a higher-order theological idea that shaped the rest of Pau’s thinking. Revelation/apocalypse is not about a “divine invasion” or the inauguration of a “new age” that then shapes the fundamental structure of Paul’s worldview and discourse. Whatever other features we might find to be consistent with “apocalyptic,” such as eschatological, references to ages, etc. are not necessarily from a top-down, accommodation of Paul’s thinking to a specific model of “apocalyptic;” they could emerge in a bottom-up manner from Paul’s engagement with Israel’s Scriptures.

As an analogy, If were to describe a person having been “taught” by another person, I would not be suggesting that the learner’s thinking is somehow being structured by a conceptualization of teaching and the various types of ideas we associate with teaching, but that is describing teaching I am putting on emphasis on the act of communication between two persons that has specific patterns of engagement with specific content being conveyed. Yet, this is precisely what happens with many attempts to describe an “apocalyptic theology” in Paul. It is to “over-intellectualize” the idea of an apocalypse and miss what is most significant: what is being communicated.

It is much simpler to think of revelation as a specific type of communicative event that is of a dramatic nature, with the significance of revelation beyond a description of the event being narrowed to God’s agency as the initiator of revelation. The implication of this is that to whatever the extent that Paul’s theology is shaped by something that we might designate as “apocalyptic,” it is a reflection on the specific content of the communicative events themselves as an instance of God’s disclosure. In other words, Paul’s experience of the apocalyptic revelation on the Road to Damascus is what structures his thinking. Much as other dramatic, and unfortunately sometimes traumatic, events will begin to dramatically form over time the way a person thinks about themselves, other people, the world, God, etc. in a similar way the revelation of Christ shape’s Paul thinking. This occurs not simply with the dramatic event(s) as a catalyst for changing of cognitive structures, but the very experiences and perceptions that occur during those events will shape how a person perceives and understands.

When Paul describes the revelation of Christ in Galatians 1.16, he describes the revelation occurring “in him” (ἐν ἐμοὶ). This is highly suggestive of Paul’s account of the revelation being understood in an experiential sense. Gorman observes that Paul does not elsewhere narrate the revelation in terms of experience by reference to 1 Corinthians 9.1 and 15.8.3 Yet, Paul’s discursive purposes in 1 Corinthians are different than in Galatians. In Corinth, Paul is engaging with a community who are going astray because of the appropriation of Stoic philosophy within the community. In correction, Paul emphasizes the way they heard and believed the Gospel (1 Corinthians 2.1-5), with the functional effect of “concretizing” their understanding. On the other hand, the Galatians have begun to embrace the works of the Torah. To explain how the works of Torah and the faith of Christ are qualitatively different ways of living, Paul makes multiple references to experiential concepts in order to explain the shape and nature of a life lived in Christ (Gal. 3.1-5, 4.6, 5.1, 5.5, 5.16-25). So, Paul’s discursive purpose would be a sufficient reason for Paul to narrative the revelation of Jesus to him in a different way than he did in 1 Corinthians. Indeed, that Paul narrates the revelation in experiential terms on 1.16 sets up for his further expansion of this theme in 2.20 with Paul’s life in the flesh (σάρξ), a concept with experiential content, that explains how “Jesus was publicly displayed as crucified” in the eyes of the Galatians (3.1). As the purpose of the revelation of Jesus in Paul was to proclaim Jesus in/among the Gentiles (1.16), the emphasis on Paul’s own experience n the revelation (a) provides an explanation as to how Paul is a demonstration of Jesus to the Galatians along with (b) being a prototype of the experience of life in Christ. There are sufficient pragmatic considerations in Galatians to think that Paul narrates the Damascus Road experience in terms of his experience. Thus, even as it seems to be more plausible to understand the impact of the apocalyptic revelation of Paul’s theology in terms of the specific content of the revelation rather than a more general, overarching paradigm of “apocalyptic,” it also provides a coherent reading of Paul’s discussion about the revelation in Galatians in terms of his experience that has direct evidence in favor of it.

With that in mind, how then does the Damascus Road revelation impact Paul’s theology in a larger sense? How does it lead to the emergence of an apocalyptic anthropology? I propose that if we attend to seven specific features of the revelation, we can begin to explain the shape of Paul’s thinking as apocalyptic anthropology. These seven features are the (1) Jesus as the one who is communicating, (2) the dramatic, surprising nature of the revelation, (3) God the Father as the agent who initiates the revelation, (4) the revelation as a pivot point in which Paul’s purposes changes, (5) the partial nature of revelation that requires other disclosures to comprehend, (6) the question put forward by Jesus, (7) the specific statement nested within the question.

The revelation was not initially understood by Paul as coming from Jesus. After Jesus asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?,” Paul responds, “Who are you, Lord?” While Paul’s usage of κύριος was not likely intended as a reference to the name of God in the Old Testament as it is unlikely Paul would ask such a question if he immediately knew it was God, he certainly recognizes this person as one who has great power that he did not know. Then Jesus discloses his name to him, bringing together an important aspect of Paul’s thinking: Jesus is a figure of great power, that he is Lord. As such, revelatory events are understood as a demonstration of highly exalted characteristics, such as dramatic power or surprising wisdom (1 Cor. 2.6-10).

While nothing is explicitly said in the account in Acts 9 about God the Father as the agent who initiates the revelatory event, the dramatic power on display is certainly suggested by the dramatic nature of the event. Paul describes God as the one who reveals Jesus His Son in Galatians 1.15-16. In a similar manner, Paul understands God as the agent of revelation that comes through the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2.10.4 In understanding God as the agent of revelation, this means that whatever is being revealed is be understood as occurring within the purview of God’s will.

With these first two features in view, we can put forward a more general account of revelatory events as dramatic, startling, surprising disclosures that are an expression of God’s unfolding will and purposes. That is to say, that revelation is not any and every experience we can not readily account for, but that it is something that is initiated by God to bring about a particular outcome. As it says in Isaiah 55.10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it

In other words, God’s disclosure is metaphorically compared to agricultural processes in order to explain the way in which God’s word brings about its purposed outcomes. Apocalyptic revelation, when it is made, has specific goals within God’s will that are to be achieved over the course of time. This leads to the fourth feature in that while the revelation to Paul does not make the purpose of God’s revelation to him know. Jesus tells him that he will learn more from someone when Paul goes into the city. Then, Jesus’ words to Ananias about Paul suffering for the name of Jesus provide oversight as to the purpose of the revelation: God has revealed Himself to Paul to bring him to a place of suffering, although that not given as the ultimate purpose. As Paul most likely would have been informed of this by Ananias, Paul would have the beginnings of insight into what Jesus was calling of him to suffer with Christ. Hence, when Paul talks about Christ being revealed in him in Galatians 1.16, it is not solely referring to Paul’s experience of the event of revelation, but also the emergence of what God purposed to bring about through the revelation in bringing Paul’s suffering in the shape of Christ’s crucifixion.

This very purpose that is given for Paul leads to a dramatic reversal of Paul’s life. Whereas Saul is originally chasing after believers in Christ, making them suffer, now Paul is the one who is going to suffer for Jesus’ name. The seminal reversal then becomes further exhibited in the reversal of Paul’s purposes to control and reign in the Church to being one whose vocation the expansion of the Church. Paul himself notes this reversal in Galatians 1.13-16a, suggesting Paul does understand the emergence of a new way of life that dramatically differs from the old way of life. Rather than understand the oldness and newness of “apocalyptic” at a cosmological level in terms of different ages, we can look at Paul’s understanding of newness through his letters and see how it is connected to personhood/humanity (Rom. 6.5-7, 2 Cor. 4.16-18, 5.16-17, Eph. 4.17-24, Col. 3.5-11), just as Paul has been dramatically shaped through the Damascus Road revelation.

An explanation for why Paul persecuted the church perhaps finds its origins within the question from Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” While we could be inclined to read this as a rhetorical question with the purpose of bringing about feelings of guilt and shame in Paul, the question could also be understood in a more straightforward manner: what is it that causes Saul to take the course of action he was understanding? To the extent that the rest of the New Testament does not do, Paul ultimately gives an account for sin that is grounded in the realities of the flesh (σάρξ). He develops an account of the desires of the flesh to explain sin, understanding the powers of sin and death to have imperially colonized the body. If Galatians 2.20 can be understood as the reality that the revelation of Christ brought about in him, then his reference to the flesh can be understood as a reference to the original cause of Paul’s persecution that is no longer in effect because Christ now lives in him. In other words, the question asked by Jesus in the revelation likely facilitated the anthropological explanation of the flesh for Paul’s sin specifically and sin universally: the flesh is why Paul was persecuting Jesus.

Finally, Jesus makes a statement that on the surface of it wouldn’t seem true: that Paul was persecuting Jesus specifically. Saul was pursuing many people who were disciples of Jesus, but he thought Jesus was dead (it is unlikely he would have been persecuting the disciples of someone who he knew was raised from the dead). That Jesus identifies Himself with His persecuted disciples can be appealed to as the explanation for Paul’s account of participation with Christ: the explanation for this revelation is that in some way Jesus is spiritually united with the believers. Hence, Paul places a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit throughout his letters, including the one who united believers to Christ (1 Cor. 12.12-13) and brings about righteousness and resurrection like it was present in and happened to Christ (Rom. 8.10-11).

In looking at these seven features, we can provide a very plausible, coherent explanation for the various ideas expressed in Paul’s letters from the specific content and experience of the revelation of Jesus Christ on the Road to Damascus. When we integrate these various features together, we have the ingredients necessary to put together anthropology that is informed by the apocalypse of Jesus to Paul. As humans resist God and His will because they are locked into the powers of the flesh, God’s dramatic disclosure can set people onto a new direction in their life that conforms to the life and experience of Jesus, including suffering and resurrection, and comes to fruition through the Holy Spirit. While Paul doesn’t say that everyone has a revelation of Christ, he does think believers experience a calling (Gal. 1.6, 5.8, 5.13, 1 Cor. 1.26) just as he was called through the revelation (Gal 1.15-16). To that end, Paul’s experience of the revelation leads him to become a demonstration of Christ (Gal. 3.1; cf. the demonstration of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2.3-4) that isn’t a proper revelation of God but is a demonstrative display of the glory of Christ to others (2 Cor. 2.14-16, 3.17-18). In that way, Paul’s understanding of the anthropological realities brought about in him and in other believers can be properly understood to emerge as a result of the seminal apocalypse to Paul, with God causing a purpose chain of events in Paul’s life to bring the proclaim Christ in accordance to the revelation to him.

If this account is more plausible than other apocalyptic accounts of Paul while at the same time providing a (more) coherent account of Paul’s letters which can marshall a wide array of direct textual evidence in favor of it, then there is a corollary to this: that most other accounts of apocalyptic in Paul, particularly those that treat apocalyptic as a theological schema that regulates and shapes Paul’s the whole shape of Paul’s theology in a top-down matter, are going down the wrong direction. By trying to derive an “apocalyptic theology” in Paul that goes beyond simply relating the content of Paul’s letters to the specific content of the revelation of Jesus to Christ, they get mired into a more speculative enterprise that ultimately risks becoming a Procrustean bed. Better to focus on specific themes and how they connect to Paul’s experiences and Israel’s Scriptures that trying to integrate them into a larger theological gestalt of apocalyptic theology that is then taken as a necessary shape for Paul’s theology. The content of the revelation of Christ to Paul catalyzing a new anthropological understanding is ultimately a much simpler account that is more plausible based upon what we can connect between Acts 9 and Paul’s letters and how thinking is shaped after dramatic events in a person’s life.

To clarify, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being other features observed in apocalyptic literature, particularly the book of Daniel, that we can also observe in Paul’s letters. To suggest there is some fashion of a literary dependence upon some apocalyptic literature is a slightly different thesis than the thesis that Paul’s theology if shaped by the apocalyptic revelation of Jesus Christ to him. Yet, it is plausible that there is an interconnection between the two as Paul’s understanding of Daniel may contribute to an understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ, so we can rightly talk about a matrix of experiential and literary features that fits under the label of “apocalyptic.” For instance, I would put forward the epistemic resistance to the wisdom of imperial figures that is witnessed in the story of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel could be integrated within Paul’s anthropology. Yet, that Paul’s letters may be called apocalyptic should probably not be used as a warrant to say anything about the discourse of Paul’s letters except those specific features that can be exegetically demonstrated. Otherwise, the premise that Paul is apocalyptic can be used as a warrant to unconsciously smuggle in whatever ideas one can plausibly associate with apocalyptic without having to strongly demonstrate it.

In conclusion, I would suggest the center of Paul’s thinking and even his life can be understood around an apocalyptic anthropology that emerges in response to the specific revelation of Jesus Christ to Paul that is very plausible, provides a coherent account of Paul’s letters, and has strong exegetical warrants.