What is Repentance?

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I think it is pretty safe to say that repentance is a major theme in Christianity. While we are saved by faith, we demonstrate that faith by repenting of our sins. Something I realized recently is that there are a lot of different notions about what repentance means.

Is repentance just saying sorry?

How do we know if we have actually repented?

How do we know that God has forgiven us?

I hope to answer these questions in this post and hopefully give a more clear view of what it means to have a truly repentant heart.

The Bible makes it clear many times in scripture that we are saved by our faith and trust in God rather than in simply doing good or not doing bad. This comes from the belief that man is not worthy of salvation, but that God is gracious, merciful, and forgiving. God is willing and able to forgive you of your sins, but there is some ground work that needs to be done first.

Before anything can be done a person has to believe. Repentance and Belief are two cornerstones in Christianity when it comes to our understanding of Salvation. The Greek word that we translate into “Believe” is “Pisteuo” and it means “to place one’s trust in.”  When we believe in God we are trusting him, and when we believe in Christ we are putting our trust in him and the power he has to save us.

By placing our trust in God we can say that we have trusted him to save us. We can take rest and find peace in the knowledge that God can and will save us, but what about Repentance? If it is our faith/belief in God and what he did through Christ that saves us, where then does Repentance come in?

The Bible makes it clear that if we hope to find salvation then we need repentance:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

– Luke 13:3

So what does it mean to repent and how can we know for certain that we have repented?

When we look at scriptures Belief (Pisteuo) is often paired up with the idea of Repentance (Metanoeo). “Metanoeo” is the Greek word that we often translate to mean “repent” and it’s meaning conveys a “change of mind.”  This is not a purely intellectual change, but also a change in the direction of one’s life.

When we Repent (Metanoeo) we are in a sense turning from our allegiance to self, sin, and unbelief. We are abandoning our old ways and making a conscious effort to change our direction. This is where our Belief (Pisteuo) comes in. Our new direction and focus in life shifts from the self, sin, and unbelief, and is instead is replaced by a focus on service, righteousness, and trusting in Christ.

When faith or belief is mentioned, repentance is implied (if not directly stated.) The opposite can also be said that repentance implies that belief and faith are already present.

Repentance then, is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” It is a conscious effort turn from the old ways that drew you away from God and turn your life in a direction that seeks the Lord.

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

– 2 Chronicles 7:14

Just like the parable of the Prodigal’s son in Luke 15:11-32 our heavenly father does not want us to try to earn his love, and he does not expect us to be able to pay for our sins. Instead he patiently waits for us to turn our hearts back to him, and once we do he is quick to run to us, forgive us, and bring us back home.

Repentance is not some elaborate sanctification ritual, but it is also goes a lot deeper than simply saying “I’m sorry.” Repentance is a heart change and a desire to come home. Just like the Prodigal’s son, we can often times wander far away from the father, but he never stops waiting for us and he is willing to run out and welcome us home when we call out to him with genuinely repentant hearts.

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God knows you. Come as you are.

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It can be difficult and frightening to truly examine your heart and soul.

Great courage is required to look at your own reflection and see yourself for who you truly are. Not for who you hope to be, or who you make yourself out to be, or who you wish you were, or who you convince other people you are, but rather who you truly are at your core. Unbiased. Unfiltered. Unedited.

It takes bravery and strength to look yourself in the soul and see every aspect of you. It takes a strong will not to casually justify yourself by saying “I’m only human”  or  “nobody’s perfect” as if that could excuse any wrong. It takes courage to examine your life without any self bias or bending the standard so you look better in comparison to everyone else. To look all your faults, failures, sins, and weaknesses and see them for what they are, that takes real bravery.

It takes bravery because, if we are honest, no one really wants to face up to the person at their core. We want to present our best and gloss over our worst. We want to be judged on a low standard where everyone passes. We want to convince ourselves that the easy road we so often take still gives us room to be a “good person.” We don’t want to face the fact that we spend much more time in sin or apathy than we do actually pursuing goodness or holiness.

One way I like to explain this to people is by asking them to picture their entire life as a movie. When I say this, I’m not talking about your life being presented in some uplifting heavily edited film that captures you in the best light as the conquering inspirational hero. I’m talking about a film that shows every single sin, thought, action, inaction, every deed good or evil, and all the motivations behind everything you’ve ever said, thought, or done. I’m talking about a completely unbiased film that captured every aspect of you. For most people I’d venture to say that this is a scary concept.

Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

– John 3:20

No one would ever want that film shown because no one wants their true self exposed to the world. We’re afraid and we prefer the favorable lie. We don’t want other people knowing the things we think, or the decisions we make when we know no one is looking. We don’t want to own up to the truth that a lot of the good things we do are just here to give us some self-serving sense of satisfaction or as a means for us to justify our desire to come off as a good person. We would hate that.

Here’s the thing though, God has seen your film.  God knows every thought, action, inaction, and deed you have ever done. He knows what was done out of pure and loving motivations, what was done out of selfish vain conceit,  and what was not done because you just didn’t care enough to do something about it. He knows every cruel thing you’ve ever done, every moment you passed on an opportunity to do good, and every time you did good so others could see or so you could brag about it later. God knows you better than you know yourself, and what’s even more incredible about all of this is the fact that he loves you regardless.

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. The scriptures are clear about this. God loves us even though we can be completely unloveable.

Really take some time to ponder the Prodigal’s Son parable. Think about the patient father who, when he sees his arrogant, defiled, and filthy son hobbling back to beg for forgiveness, runs to embrace him and welcomes him home before he can even utter an apology.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

– Luke 15:11-32

We don’t worship a God who waits for us to get clean before he embraces us, we worship a God who runs to us and loves us in all of our filth and failures. He doesn’t wait for us to make the long journey back to him, he runs out to meet us as soon as we are ready to come home. Nothing compares to the love of God.

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The Prodigal Father and Son

This is one of the things that I find most beautiful bout Christianity. We don’t worship a God who expects us to become righteous in order to come to him, he wants us to come to him so that he can make us righteous. God is a God of second chances, new beginnings, and fresh starts. His mercies are new every morning and his desire is that his children would come home.

I can’t stress enough the simple and profound truth that no matter who you are, what you have done, where you are coming from, or how broken you feel you are, God still loves you and is patiently waiting for you to come home.

The Professor’s Lesson On Grace

So I am currently enrolled in a very difficult class on the book of Romans. The professor who leads the class is one of the wisest men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, but he is also one of the most hardened and difficult professors I have ever learned under. For the sake of keeping his privacy, and so as not to potentially ruin anything for possible future students, he shall be referred to in this post as “The Professor.”

The Professor has an amazing ability that I cannot fully explain in that he can be the most difficult person to please, and yet he still manages to create a bond with people that makes them seek his approval. I’ve had difficult professors in the past, and most of the time I can say “screw that guy” and walk away, but this isn’t the case with The Professor. I have only cried twice in the past four years, and one of those moments was when The Professor (in a private meeting) told me that he didn’t think I was cut out to be a minister. Had any of my other professors told me this I’d have gotten upset at them and written them off as a nut job that didn’t know what they were talking about, but not The Professor. At the time I valued his opinion of me so much that I believed him and almost gave up. Thankfully I decided not to quit and instead it became my mission to prove him wrong. Years later I wonder if The Professor told me this, not because he believed it, but because he knew I would work twice as hard to prove him wrong. In any case, The Professor was and is a mental and spiritual titan in my life. He is not only one of the smartest men I know, but he is also one of the most Christian men I have ever come across. He is stern, but loving. He is both wise and humble. He will break you and then build you up stronger than before, and I sincerely hope that everyone meets someone like The Professor at some point in their life.

So what is the point of all this you may be asking? Well, last week The Professor gave us our first test in the class on Romans and I spent a great deal of time preparing for it. I really wanted to impress The Professor and earn his approval, plus I knew this test was going to be very difficult if it was anything like the other classes I had taken with him. The test consisted of only two questions and so I gave the most in-depth detailed answers I could think of. I spent nearly an hour on each question, and when I was done only two other people were still working. I thought about waiting and pretending to keep writing so I could be the impressive last one to turn their test in, but I decided against that.

The next class meeting went off like a normal lecture would, but at the very end The Professor ended by saying “Regarding your tests, I have given you all a 100. Class Dismissed.”

Everyone in the class just sat there confused. I knew without a doubt that not everyone in this class had made a perfect score. I don’t think it is really even possible to make a perfect score with The Professor. If it is possible I have never met the man who could pull it off. In all my years with the man I never once made above an 80% grade on anything. I thought perhaps he gave us a grade on a curve, but that seemed very much unlike The Professor. He was not a man who gave a perfect score to anything less than perfection. As I headed out the door I passed The Professor and wished him a good day, for which he thanked me and sent me on my way. I was so terribly confused.

Today we received our tests back, which was very unusual considering it hadn’t even been a week since we took the tests. I assumed that since we all got perfect marks he probably didn’t take the time to grade us. To my surprise when I went up and claimed my paper it had his writing all over it. He wrote detailed notes about how I omitted this, was too brief on that, spent too much time here, and failed to understand that. My paper was bleeding with mistakes, but to my relief on the last page my final grade was an 87. This excited me so much I gave an audible sigh of relief. I was confused about many things, but none of it mattered because I had made an 87 on a test issued by The Professor and that was amazing! I was very proud of myself and, being lost in the moment, I had forgotten anything about his words regarding giving us all 100 grades.

The point was raised as to whether these grades were ours or whether The Professor had given us all 100’s as he had said earlier. I cannot directly quote The Professor, but I will do my best to capture the essence of his words. He said:

“These are the marks you earned. Each and every one of you had the potential to make a perfect score and none of you did. Some failed more than others, but none of you were good enough. Perhaps some of you were good enough by university standards, but you all failed the standard I wanted for you. I have shown you grace, but not without great cost to myself. I spent hours grading each of your papers in great detail, I stayed up late and woke up vert early even though I knew from the beginning that I would give you grace. The sacrifice I made will hopefully make it real to you that grace is not cheap and that failure regardless of size is not without consequences. I did this out of love and hopefully some of you will understand why.”

The professor turned and began to write on the white board behind him, but after a minute he stopped and turned back around to face his audience again and he said this:

“What’s really funny is that out of all of you, only four or five took the time to thank me.”

I didn’t take a single note the rest of the lecture. I had failed to thank The Professor.

Having spent years under The Professor’s guidance I can say that nothing he does is without meaning. While I can never climb into The Professor’s mind I have a good guess as to what he was trying to get across.

I was proud of my 87 grade, it was quite honestly the best work I had ever put into a test. I had the potential for a 100, but when the challenge is so hard 87 is good enough right?

This is how most people approach sin. We are proud of ourselves for being “good enough” and while we all fail miserably at being good all the time, some of us think we are passing. Compared to the world’s standards maybe we are excelling. Perhaps we have earned the noble status of being a “good person.” No one is perfect, but that’s ok right?

The fact is while I might have passed the university standards I failed to meet the standard that The Professor planned for me. This is not unlike my spiritual life. While I may be good by the world’s standards I still fail to meet the standard that God had planned for my life. Like God, The Professor knew this would happen and decided that he would give us grace and mercy, but not without great cost to himself. Both God and The Professor had no need to sacrifice of themselves for the sake of us. If left alone we would get exactly what we deserve and no one would be unjust for leaving us as we stood. In the end though, sacrifices were made and grace and mercy undeserved were given out freely regardless of how poorly we failed to earn it.

Who do you think was more relieved, I who got an 87, or one of the unsuspecting younger students who probably got a 40 or lower? So it was with Christ and the Gospels. It is those who are truly aware of their need for a savior that best understand who Christ is and what he has done. Though I cannot confirm this to be true, I fully believe that those four students who thanked The Professor were the ones who needed his grace the most.

That is what I believe The Professor wanted us to remember. We all find ourselves coming short of the standard, be it that we got a 99 or a 2. We all are in need of a savior, whether we are deep enough in need to admit that or not. God at great cost to himself gave us grace and mercy, undeserved. He made us 100’s though we did nothing to deserve it. After all this, how few of us actually take the time to thank God for what he has done. How few of us really take the time to show gratitude for the one who gave all to pay our price.

Don’t be one of the many who never take the time to thank God.

A Ranting on the Real and Radical Rather than Relevant

The following was pretty much a stream of consciousness post. It’s a rambling rant that I wrote spur of the moment, and decided to publish because I think it hit on some points that are near to my heart and of great concern to me. Future posts will be better organized and structured: 

I’d like for you to be honest with yourself for a moment and seriously contemplate when was the last time you felt the Holy Spirit move you. When was the last time you really hated your sins and repented with a heart that was so hungry for grace that you could not help but be swallowed up in the love of God. If this sounds foreign to you then I hope and pray that this will not remain the case for much longer. Let us be honest.

This thing we call Christianity is not a simply belief, a rationality, a moral compass, or a set of truisms. This thing we call Christianity is a radical rebirth of the soul that calls for death of the old as well as birth of the new. This thing we call salvation is not a simple exchange of words or a singular moment in our life where we pray the sinners prayer (which is not found anywhere in scripture) but rather a life long striving for righteousness.

Let me explain to you something that should be common, but has somehow become lost and forgotten. Christ is freedom. We are completely liberated from the binds of legalism and law just as we are liberated from the binds of sin and death. Do you live a life that reflects the gratefulness that a slave shows his liberator, or do you stay at the side of your old master because leaving is hard?

Do you bind yourself up in legalistic judgementalism so that you can store up morality points and look down on those that don’t meet your standard? If that sounds remotely like you then I’m here to tell you that your morality is crap. Do you think a holy and perfect God is going to love you more because you are slightly less dirty or sick than your brother? A good parent doesn’t love his children on a scale of merit and a healer is not concerned with the fact that you need less healing than someone else. In his eyes you are both sick and he wishes only to make you both well. If anything he is more concerned with the sickest because they need him most. As one who has been the king of false judges, I promise you that no smug morality can ever compare to the reality of seeing someone truly broken and loving them with all your heart. To do this is to momentarily glimpse through the eyes of our creator and it is the greatest sensation I know.

Perhaps you are not the legalist. Perhaps you are the type that scoffs at legalism and instead goes around confident that you are free to do what you want because no man can judge you and God will forgive. If this rings true for you then I’m afraid you are still a slave who never left his master. You must understand that sin is not bad because God gets jollies out of taking away fun things from you. Sin is bad because it defiles, destroys, contaminates, perverts, or corrupts the good gifts of God for you.

God is not here to give you a cheapened and sheltered life, He designed you for a life more abundant and He wants to see you reach your potential. He designed you for a life that is truly life. As one who has had trouble with alcohol in the past I can promise you that a drunken stupor can never amount to the majesty of a purely sober moment spent in awe of the creator. As one who has indulged in more sexually immoral acts than I care to publicize, I promise you that no sexual gratification is a substitute for a pure and chaste love that consumes and envelopes you until you finally are able to love that person with mind, body, and soul. No unhealthy foods or substances can compare to the joy of health, no lies will ever be as liberating as being completely and brokenly honest. No possession will ever compare to the satisfaction of knowing you helped a brother or sister in their time of need. What fools we are to return to sin when such a majestic and full life awaits for us. Christ broke the chains, you just have to choose to walk away. How horrible we must be to have knowledge of the suffering God endured for us to liberate us, and yet in the end we choose to remain in our own filth. Hedonism is the ultimate slavery masked as liberation.

Why am I bringing this up? It scares me how dead many Christians seem to be and it scares me how dead at times I can be. Numb is no way to go through life, and yet so many of us grind our way through like some sad sap at the bank waiting for the line to end. We try so hard to be “relevant” with our bracelets, t-shirts, contemporary music, trendy bible covers, and snappy one liners like and in the end the vast majority of us are fakes and we wonder why people don’t want to come to church. If we continue to try to force Christianity into culturally relevant stigmas then we will never see what the Church is capable of. Christianity will never be culturally relevant because the world will not and cannot understand us until they meet our Lord.

Radical Christianity is not going to manifest itself in a hebrew tattoo, or a jesus t-shirt, or a christian folk band. Radical Christianity should be redundant because Christianity, if it is Christianity at all, is radical by its very nature. If you call yourself Christian you side with those who reject both rigid morality and hedonistic self-gratification. If you call yourself Christian you side with those who do not see good people or bad people, but a world full of sick and dirty people who need the healing and cleansing hand of God. If you call yourself a Christian you side with those who reject revenge and human honor and embrace mercy, grace, forgiveness, and limitless love for all those who cannot and do not deserve it. If you are my brother or sister in Christ you are amazingly radical, so let us live like it.

The Human God: A Post on Suffering and Why God is Still Good

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So today the question was posed to me “How can God be good when the world is full of so much evil?” This is a fairly common question for those who are struggling with faith or coming to grips with the realities of Christianity. We do, after all, look at this world and see all sorts of tragedies and terrible things that haunt us. There is starvation, murder, rape, genocide, abuse, greed, and a myriad of horrors that grip our world. So how do I still find hope in Christianity? How can I still worship a God and call him good? While some people can’t believe in a God who would create a world full of suffering, I can point to my God and say that he understands suffering and refuses to let us participate in it alone.

Pessimism is easy, and hopelessness is the natural state of man in a sinful and broken world. One could easily become very pessimistic when one focuses only on the evil in the world. Christianity openly admits that there are terrible things in this world and suffering exists. We don’t claim a perfect world, but rather a world gone wrong. This reality is not perfect, but it is also not abandoned. Suffering is, in Christian thought, the result of a broken world that has left its proper order and strayed away from God. By allowing man to choose his own destiny and to have the free will to choose between good and evil, God had to allow for evil to exist. In order for love to exist a choice has to exist, and in order for a choice to exist the wrong choice must be an option. Every time we choose selfishness over love, pride over humility, greed over generosity, comfort over justice, or pleasure over aide, we make the world a little darker. This world is full of evil, and God allowed it to be so. So why is God worthy of love?

For starters the fact that anything exists regardless of its good or evil nature is completely due to God. We’ve focused a lot on the negative so far, but let’s deviate and look at all the wonderful things that life has to offer. That means that every good thing you have ever experienced came from God. Your very life originates from him. Our world is broken  but not abandoned. Beauty, love, grace, mercy, kindness, generosity, joy, patience, goodness, self-control, gentleness, and faith still exist. Life still has to opportunity to be wonderful and we are surrounded by more blessings and beauty than most of us realize. All of this originates from God. So while evil exists, so also does good and for that we are thankful.

The question of suffering is still lingering despite the fact that goodness and life exist. So why does man suffer?  The better question would be “Why do you think you deserve not to suffer?”

That’s a thought that usually comes off like a slap in the face to most people, but honestly consider it. Why do you think you deserve comfort and a life free of suffering?  Are you so entitled that you think by your very existence (which you played no part in) that you deserve a life completely devoid of pain and misery? Do you think you deserve all good and no bad? Perhaps you would argue that you are a good person and therefore God owes you something.  For those people I offer this helpful info-graph:

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You see, being good some of the time doesn’t mean you deserve to be blessed all of the time. By Christian understanding the fact that you are evil some of the time (and you are evil some of the time) disqualifies you from being worthy of any blessings at all. So by that logic the fact that you have even one blessing makes you blessed beyond what you deserve.

You see, Christianity believes that human beings are sinful, which basically means by choosing evil even once we have become imperfect. This imperfection causes a rift between us and God who is perfect, and also contaminates the world around us since a world filled with imperfect beings would cease to be perfect. The world is messed up because evil exists, and evil exists because man was given the option of following God or choosing evil and abandoning the natural order.

Man when held to a standard of holiness, finds that he is not holy and therefore doomed to be separate from what is holy (God) forever. Man is unable to redeem himself, and scripture says “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).  As a result is in need of a redeemer. We believe that in spite of the fact that we chose evil, God willingly took human form to show us the way and then took the price of our sin (suffering and death both spiritually and physically) so that we could be made whole.

Let me put it this way: Christians worship a God who created a perfect world that man screwed up, but because he loved us he chose to participate in the suffering of man so that he could make a way for us to be redeemed from our own mistakes. God does not just sit back and observe suffering, he is a willing participant in it because he loves us. We worship a God who loves us more than he loves his own comfort (imagine if we could only do the same). Through Christ God showed both justice, mercy, and grace to humanity. Because of Christ we are living in a period of renewal and we have the promise that one day all wrongs will be made right and all suffering ended.

God knows what it was like to be cold, to be burnt by the sun, to sweat, to starve, to be sick, to want, to need, to be tempted, to be weak, to lose a loved one, to be beaten, to be tortured, to suffer, and to die. God knows what it is like to offer up a prayer of deliverance and have to deal with the reality that this trial is not one that you will be spared. He knows what it is like to fear death:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

– Luke 22:42

God knows what is like to feel abandoned by God:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

– Mark 15:34

God knows what it is like to lose your only son….

Suffering

Life, at times, can seem pointless. We are born into a world where suffering exists and as much as we run from it, it eventually catches us. We are here one day and gone the other and as we seek out purpose the weight of the world can come in and seem quite overwhelming. So what hope does Christianity offer? We offer the hope that God is good, that evil is in retreat and that eventually all things will be made pure and good. We offer the hope that all are welcome in the house of God, and that repentance, forgiveness, grace, and mercy belong to all who are willing to reach out and grasp them. The difference between Christianity and any other theology is that, we worship a God who knows what it is like to be completely human. We worship a God who knows our pain and relates to us on our level. We worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, but allows it because he believes that those who cause suffering are still capable of good. He never gives up on us.

 

 

J.R.R. Tolkien on Losing Faith and Hypocrisy in the Church

So yesterday was the birthday or J.R.R. Tolkien, a man who was arguably (and in my opinion is) the greatest fiction writer in modern history, if not of all time. I finished re-reading The Hobbit a few months ago and I’m currently in the process or plowing through his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The man was a genius who was so detail oriented and so in-depth that it’s hard to imagine the amount or work this guy put into his writing. This guy was a genius and a master of literature. Seriously, go look up some of his academic accomplishments he achieved before he even considered writing (and re-inventing) fantasy books.  Not only was Tolkien a brilliant historian, linguist, literary critic, professor, and author, but he was also a very strong Catholic. He was so Catholic that when the church started doing liturgy in English instead of Latin, it is said that he would still respond in Latin because he disagreed with the shift.

Now of course I’m no Catholic (hence my blog title) but I have a lot of respect for the Catholic church and I tend to side with Catholics more than I disagree with them (plus I’m a big fan of high church worship and music). So in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday yesterday I figured I’d post one of my favorite pieces by the man himself. What follows is an excerpt from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Michael. His son was having a difficult time reconciling all the hypocrisy that he saw within the church and his Christian faith. In this letter Tolkien reminds his son why our faith should not rely on the actions of others, but on Christ himself:

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You speak of ‘sagging faith’, however, that is quite another matter. In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge). ‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation – as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on – so we pray for ‘final perseverance’. The temptation to ‘unbelief’ (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the scandals, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe anymore, even if I had never met anyone in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call our Lord a fraud to His face.

If He is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent – that is: garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac (which is the only alternative), then of course the spectacle exhibited by the Church (in the sense of clergy) in history and today is simply evidence of a gigantic fraud. If not, however, then this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all – except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But we should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalized heirs not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.

It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened’, and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded all of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am’ (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that he eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.’ We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences. I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least a right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame. (However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances.)

This excerpt is taken from Letter # 250 found in the following collection: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 

Mr. Spock and The Loneliness of the Human Condition

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Mr. Spock played by Leonard Nimoy

The inspiration for todays’ post comes from an unlikely source, that being the highly logical mind of  the fictional Mr. Spock from the show Star Trek. This show has so permeated pop-culture that even those who have never seen any episodes or movies in the series probably at least have some idea of who Spock is. For those of you who somehow have lived under a rock long enough not to know anything about Star Trek or Spock, he’s the science officer of the star ship U.S.S. Enterprise. He’s half Vulcan (an alien race that suppresses all emotion and relies entirely on logic) and he is arguably the most popular character in all of Star Trek. He’s also the last person you would expect any deep theological truth to come from. Honestly I never would have guessed that my casual love of Star Trek would ever amount to anything theological significance, but in a strange twist of fate, the ever logical Mr. Spock has gotten me thinking about spiritual matters.

Last night I was watching an episode titled “Is There In Truth No Beauty” which really wasn’t a “great” episode. It was ok, but as far as Trek episodes go this one was pretty weak. It was goofy, ham-fisted, and had more 1960’s sexism than any other episode I remember. In spite of this, there were a few lines of dialogue towards the end of the episode that really made me take pause. I don’t know what the writers were trying to get across, but there was a real existential beauty to what was said.

To give a little bit of context here Spock’s body was being shared by the combined mind of both Spock and Kollos, an alien who lacks a physical form and has different senses than we do (yeah… Star Trek is weird like that).  This allows him to perceive the world around him with a new level of understanding (which somehow help’s him save the ship… I didn’t get it either…  it wasn’t a great episode). Anyways, right before Spock and Kollos separate back into two separate minds the combined mind of Spock and Kollos utters this little monologue:

“How compact your bodies are, and what a variety of senses you have. This thing you call language though… most remarkable… and you depend on it for so very much, but are any one of you really its master… But most of all… the aloneness… you are so alone… you live out your lives in this shell of flesh, self-contained… separate… how lonely you are… how terribly lonely…

– Mr. Spock

This surprisingly insightful moment really struck me as a moment in which the realization of human limitation set in for the first time in the mind of this fictional character. Perhaps you have had a similar moment, or perhaps it has never occurred to you just how limited you actually are. Most of us have been blessed with five senses (taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell) but that is all we have to observe the reality around us. If something were to exist outside of these senses we would need to invent special tools to help us comprehend it since its presence would be utterly unknown to us.  We are limited to our senses and to this one singular body. I am only aware of this tiny field of sensory that my body can comprehend, and as hard as I try I cannot know what is happening just a block away from me unless I venture forth myself or use some tool to do the observing for me. We are limited by senses, space, time, and possibly numerous other factors that we are not even perceptive enough to know exist.

We use language to try to understand and comprehend the things around us. We give names and assign words with meaning so that we can communicate the thoughts to each other, but as we constantly try to compartmentalize and break down the world around us into simple concepts we become increasingly aware that the vastness of what exists out there is beyond us. Our minds can only contain so much information, and there are still countless mysteries and so many unknown things on this little rock called Earth that we do not yet understand. To think of all that there is in this one tiny planet and then to consider the universe… it is beyond us. We are so small and so limited, we could never in a million lifetimes hope to understand everything.

One of the most frightening things I can fathom are those cold moments when we realize just how insignificant we truly are. When you consider yourself among all those who have lived, died, and who have yet to be born you should feel very small, but when you consider how small our little planet is in the solar system, and how small the solar system is in the galaxy, and how small our galaxy is in the universe… you come to the dark realization that you don’t really matter. You… we… are alone.

If this isn’t sinking in let King Solomon explain it in Biblical terms:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

– Ecclesiastes 1:2

If you haven’t read Ecclesiastes I highly recommend it even though it’s probably one of the most depressing books of the Bible. Solomon was a man who had every pleasure and resource at his disposal and in the end he found it all pointless and stupid (sorry hedonists). In the end only the Lord proved to be able to give Solomon any hope of significance or meaning, but let’s get back to the human condition. We as human beings are singular functional units that can sustain themselves for over one-hundred years or so if they put a lot of work into sustaining and maintaining their bodies, but we want so much more than survival. Human beings desperately crave meaning and purpose. We cannot deal with being a tiny insignificant carbon coincidence. We fear death because we know that that’s the end and after all that time we spent in life it was all for nothing. We’re just gone. Everything that was you… poof. Nothing you could have done would have had any real cosmic significance, you were simply here one day and then gone…

Isn’t it interesting that we desire for something unobtainable. It seems to me that a creature that is designed for survival (as we surely are) would not have come into a need for something that did not exist, after all what purpose would such a desire serve? It seems to me that man’s loneliness, his desire for purpose, his desperate need for truth must have an answer. Why else would we ever develop a desire to find it? I don’t know about you but I’ve found my answer.

We seek to reclaim the connection with God that we lost through sin. Though many may not have realized it, we all desperately crave for a connection to something greater. We may be trying to fill the void with all sorts of things good and bad, but in the end each of us has a gigantic need for something more. This life, as grand as it can be, pales in comparison to something… even if we don’t know what that something is. For those of us who know the joy and peace that comes from a relationship with our creator the answer seems obvious, but so many are still out there in the dark searching for something to drive away the loneliness.

I was like that for most of my life, but the things that used to frighten me no longer feel me with dread and terror. I do not fear the unknown, I no longer am gripped by the crippling need to fill the void in my heart, and when I face death I can do so knowing it has lost its sting. The moment I came to faith it was as if the missing puzzle peace that I was lacking fell into place. I was no longer a carbon coincidence seeking meaning in a meaningless universe, but a creation and child of a living and gracious God. I was no longer a tiny speck in the cold and dark universe that had no rhyme or reason, but instead I was a tiny speck in a bold and beautiful plan that was too large for me to grasp. I wasn’t alone, because I now can walk with my father and commune with the one who made me. Rather than seeing the universe as a dark and terrifying reminder of my insignificance and pointlessness, I can now look on it in wonder as a beautiful creation made by one whose wisdom is so beyond me. I am still limited and small, but I know have reason, purpose, faith, and a relationship with God himself.  While Mr. Spock might have realized the human condition, I doubt even he could have seen the beauty that lies at the end of those questions.

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

– Romans 8:6

 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

– Colossians 3:15