“The happy life does not mean loving what we possess, but possessing what we love.” Possession of the beloved, St. Thomas holds, takes place in an act of cognition, in seeing, in intuition, in contemplation.”
As I wrote this post, I thought that two posts in a row about sin might be overkill, especially since I am a notoriously inconsistent blogger. But in my previous post I focused on the view we should have about sin in others and I feel that it is appropriate to also discuss a helpful way to view sin in ourselves.
In his book The Concept of Sin, Josef Pieper does an excellent job of explaining exactly how sin is defined in the Christian tradition and successfully scrapes off the barnacles of public opinion and cultural misunderstandings of sin. This book was a jumping off point for my last post which borrowed heavily from it. The entire book is full of great insight, but there was one point that hit me in the chest as I was reading.
Pieper explains that what essentially makes an act a sin (or more to the point, a mortal sin) is that it is an act that intentionally moves away from God and towards the self. He establishes this point early on but throughout the rest of the book he keeps returning to the question “How is it possible for us to knowingly turn away from God?” This question can be restated by paraphrasing Paul’s thoughts: Why do I not do the things I know to be good and right but do the things I know to be wrong? The answer Pieper comes to towards the end of the book is found in our identity as created beings. God is all good and it is impossible for Him to be otherwise because this is the state he has always held. In fact, explaining his goodness by saying he has always been this way it misleading because it denotes temporal existence, it is more accurate to say that He is good (noun not adjective). He was not created with good attributes, He is good. When God created man, He did so in His own image and for that reason man is capable of being good because he partakes in God’s goodness. But it is this creation that sets us apart. We are created in God’s image, so we have the potential for good but it is what we were created from that gives us the potential for evil: nothingness. God did not form us from some eternally existing matter. He called our being forth from nothing. Because of this we always have the potential to return to nothing, to turn from God and face the void.
As I read this section of the book, I felt a heaviness slide over me. It reminded me of driving on an icy road in winter. You are listening to your radio, and enjoying the day not thinking about anything else until you realize that the traffic in front of you has suddenly stopped. You push the brake but the icy road prevents you from stopping fast enough. Your carefree, happy world has instantly been violated by the reality of danger. Reading Pieper’s explanation made me suddenly aware of the danger I was in. This is not the first time I had realized that sin was a movement towards nothingness. I had read enough Pieper and St. Aquinas before to be familiar with this thought. But this was the first time that I had truly considered my origins in that nothingness. It suddenly became clear that when I try to focus on myself and not God I am looking into the void and moving towards it. In fact, I was drawn to it like man who feels pulled back to a rundown, dirty town simply because it once his home.
I had bought into the illusion that there was a separation between God and everything else; that all that existed was neutral matter that God simply had a deed for; creation belonged to God in the same sense that my house belongs to me. But this is a lie. My house will continue to exist whether I am living in it or not. But if God is removed from creation, it withers and returns to the nothingness. As soon as we try to remove God from our perspective and take Him out of creation we become stranded without the very thing that nourishes us. We are like a man stuck on a desert island who exhausts whatever food he finds perhaps boiling his own shoes or even cannibalizing himself until he is no more. We can see this happening in philosophy already.
Beginning in the renaissance philosophers shifted our focus from a God centered viewpoint to a Man centered viewpoint. With each movement after that, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, and now Postmodernism , we see the destruction and disintegration of the self. We turned from God and sought truth in the institutions of man but found them to be corrupt. We looked instead to community and in nature but found chaos, we looked to our senses but found them unreliable, finally we looked to our own self but then questioned if the self even exists at all. We dammed up the River of Life and started devouring creation but nothing we consumer could sustain itself. It all turned into dust in our mouths. So we kept devouring till there was nothing left.
This perspective has really affected me deeply. I think it is probably the case with many people in the world including Christians that we separate God from his creation. We can easily picture turning our back on God to focus on the other things we are more interested in. We wake up Sunday morning and decide to go to Denny’s and play some golf instead of going to church. Even when we feel bad about this decision, we only see this as rejecting church or, at most, setting God aside. But in reality we are rejecting God, the milk we drink at breakfast, the car we drive, the grass we tee off from and everything else. To sin is to reject God and to reject God is to reject all of creation. We must see our lives on these terms. Every action we take, every thought, every feeling is moving us either closer to God and his infinite goodness or closer to the nothingness from which we came. I often recall one of my professors saying that the greatest compliment you can give someone is to say “it is good that you exist.” In honoring God we say to all creation that it is good that it exists. In sin we are saying to all things I don’t care that you exist. In my sin I tell my children, I don’t care that you exist. There is a memorable line from The Dark Night where Alfred states, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” In our sin, we are all such men and threaten to turn the world around us to ash.
But by making us in His image, God has given us beauty instead of ashes and by turning our gaze to Him we are reminded of the identity that He has given us. We are sons and daughters of God; partakers of his divinity. In this identity we not only receive nourishment but become nourishment for those around us. My next post will address what it means to partake in God’s divine nature.
Sin is a topic that rarely comes up in polite company. It is an unfortunate reality that sin is either avoided altogether in an attempt to not hurt someone or be judgmental or it is brandished as a weapon and is often accompanied by devaluing or disowning the person declared to be sinful. The strange thing is that both of these treatments of sin are backwards and are each unhealthy in very similar ways.
If you want to know how to address sin, you first have to know what sin is. The Bible uses several words for sin, but for the sake of this post I will focus on the most commonly
use: peccatum. Peccatum means to miss the mark or to act in a way that is contrary to hitting the mark; like an archer who misses his target or uses poor form. But unlike the archer, we cannot simply put down our bow and go find another hobby if we find it to difficult. We have no choice in coming into this world and by that same token we have no say in the goal or “mark” of this life. Our goal in life is righteous living and sin is our failure to do so. In a culture like ours where we give all young athletes trophies despite how they play and are banning red ink from graded papers, describing someone’s actions as missing the mark or failure to achieve the goal set for us may seem negative or just plain mean. However, pointing out someone’s sin as it has been defined here is actually an empowering and dignifying act. By telling someone that they have missed the mark we at the same time must believe that they have a mark to begin with and moreover that they are capable of hitting that mark. By pointing out a failure we have to acknowledge in that moment that the person who failed is meant for and capable of greatness!
When we avoid talking about sin or use sin as a weapon (not acknowledging the potential greatness) we degrade each other in two ways:
1. We deny that the other person is meant to be more than what they are now
2. We devalue greatness by treating it like an intrinsic state rather than an art or craft that we can develop and achieve.
In either case, whether you only point out good qualities or only point out bad you become irrational. If we are all the same and are all great then what is the point of saying so? You might as well compliment everyone by saying they have two nostrils or skin on the outside of our bodies. Likewise, if some people are disgusting sinners that can never be expected to be anything other than worthless, why bother telling them so? You might as well yell at water for being wet or swear at sand for being gritty. The point is that when we refuse to address one part of a person, either failures or greatness, we become unable to saying anything about them at all.
So what can we say to someone who has sinned? It seems that saying “it’s ok, you’re still a good person” isn’t helpful. Neither is saying, “you are such a failure.” There is certainly no one-size-fits-all response to sin, but perhaps the best way to start is to say, “you are meant for more than this.”
“Contrary to legal conceits about privacy, our sexual identities and practices have a complex and fundamental public significance, for sexual desire is the most primitive engine of sociality. Not only does sex draw men and women together, encouraging a fundamental, perhaps the fundamental, reconciliation of human differences, sexual union also produces children and plants the seeds of domestic stability”
This is a quote from an interesting article on First Things. Though this article deals with the complex and controversial issue of same sex marriage, I found this particular passage to be a great starting point for a discussion of marriage counseling.
As a counselor, I naturally feel that marriage counseling is an important job as anyone who has spent years in training would feel about their field of work. However, this quote gets to the heart of just how important this role truly is. In marriage, men and women: the extremes of the human species, come together before their community to create a new community through their family. It is a truly miraculous event. Two opposite objects unite and the result is greater than the parts that you started with. It’s social cold fusion! Yet we have taken this system for granted and now it is beginning to crumble.
In the current political and economic climate, it is easy to look around and a seemingly endless list of problems that need to be fixed. But I truly believe that if we want to fix our schools, our economy, our political system, etc. it starts with strengthening marriages and the family. For centuries, the family has been the central pillar of society. The role of all governments and economies was to support this basic unit. So to all of you marriage counselors out there, don’t look at your clients as just another bickering couple. Look at them as the foundation of community on which society rises or falls (no pressure).
Here are a few books that I have found helpful in developing my approach to counseling.
I could fill several lists of great books by Josef Pieper (note to self: Make list of awesome Josef Pieper books). For the uninitiated, Josef Pieper was a German Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas expert, and prolific writer. What I love about his writing is that he is able to take fairly dry source material like Aquinas or Kierkegaard and makes it warm and approachable for readers at any level. Pieper also has a unique ability to make Christian teachings contemporary without making them trendy. In Happiness and Contemplation, Pieper describes true contemplation as “the silent perception of reality” through which we come to experience the presence of God. This book is a much needed primer for a world in a constant state of sensory overload.
Kierkegaard can be a bit tough to really sink you teeth into and the opening lines of this book are notorious for frustrating many a reader. But once you get past the eccentricities of his writing, Kierkegaard presents an excellent exposition on despair. He describes despair as the loss of self. I will not attempt to describe his thesis any more than that in these few sentences, but this book is an excellent response to the post modern concept of the Protean Self. I would recommend that any Christian counselor who has clients struggling with despair or depression (which should be all Christian counselors I would imagine) read this book.
As you can tell from the generic image, this book has been out of print for a while. However you can still find it used online. If any of you are interested in incorporating Christian teaching with Object Relations Theory, this is a must read. Guntrip provides his developments in object relations theory, outlines his criticism of Freud, and offers solutions for how the church can assist those in the community who are experiencing mental suffering or illness. What I found most interesting was Guntrip’s theories about Schizoid and Manic Depressive disorders and their origins.
“Give blood and receive the Spirit”
When a counselor has an eclectic approach to counseling, it can be difficult to actually start a conversation about psychology. There is an infinite number of topics and entry points to choose from. When deciding on my first post for this blog I skimmed through a few old papers, looked over my book shelves, and went back and forth about which theory or principle to expound on. Finally, I recalled the simple but foundational statement from a fifth century desert father that is quoted above. This phrase may seem strange to some but it is not archaic rule for monks sitting in caves; it is a necessary truth for anyone coming to counseling.
In our current culture, we are constantly deflecting any attempt to access our true selves. We create masks and alter egos on social media sites. We hide behind irony, sarcasm and humor. We become disingenuous. As a result, our psyches can weaken and be corrupted because they are deprived of the true attachment and relationships they need. The culture is so dedicated to closing off the “self” that even when we are looking to heal the damage we have done, we want to find an impersonal cure. People today are far more willing to get medication or pick up a self help book than to actually talk to someone and risk being vulnerable. And, more often than not, the cures that are most popular find the problem outside of the self: it’s our brain chemistry, it’s the food we eat, it’s the electronic devices around us, and so on.
The desert fathers in many ways were the earliest psychologists and knew a great deal about the mental pains that people suffer. They also understood that the only way to heal and to receive the peace that God offers through his Spirit is to give of oneself fully. It is just as true today as it was then. Healing from depression or anxiety is not akin to changing shoes or putting on a coat. It is a surgery that removes a cancer and, like any surgery, it is at times painful, it makes us extremely vulnerable as our inner core is exposed and we are required to completely trust another person, and it necessitates that we leave that diseased part of ourselves on the operating table.
I would imagine it would be possible to categorize all my future posts within this framework: either dealing with giving blood or with receiving Spirit (but I’m not that clever so don’t hold me to that). Suffice to say that this idea of giving of ourselves in order to receive peace, love and purpose through God’s Spirit should be in the front of our minds. Every day we should ask ourselves, am I allowing myself to be completely open and vulnerable before God? Am I giving myself fully to the body of Christ that is the church? Am I being honest with myself so that I can be more fully aware of His image in me? As difficult and painful as these processes may be, it does not compare to what we receive. As the Psalms tell us, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”