Monday, March 30, 2009
The original sin of tristita, sadness, was in time replaced with ‘sloth.’ Many today struggle to accept that sadness can be sinful. Sadness may be something for which we are culpable, or it may not be. When our sadness is a condition for which we are not responsible, our response to it is more where our responsibility arises.
Our secular culture can make two main errors in its approach to sadness. It can fear exploring below the surface, or it can become endlessly entangled in the feelings. Not for the first time, humanity makes two contradictory mistaken responses to a situation!
Martyn Lloyd-Jones opened his classic book ‘Spiritual Depression’ with a study on Psalm 42.
Psalm 42:11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
MLJ notes, ‘The main art in spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, address yourself, address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself… You must remind yourself of God, who God is, and what God is and what God has done… Then end on this great note: defy yourself, defy other people, defy the devil and the whole world. Say with the Psalmist ‘I shall praise my God.’ (Spiritual Depression, p.21)
One of the places in scripture which addresses the issue of sadness in a sustained manner, is the section of teaching Jesus gives his disciples in John 14-17. Two important points may be made which arise from the turning point in salvation history, which is the focus of these chapters – the imminent absence of Jesus from earth.
Jesus draws attention to the disciples’ sadness at the fact that he will soon leave them:
John 16:5-7 Now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?' 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.
I take it from Jesus’ words here, that sadness must be a part of the normal Christian experience, as we live on a planet from which our Lord is absent. Knowing Jesus brings great happiness into one’s life, but sadness is not ameliorated in a straightforward manner through this. For the more one loves Jesus, the more one is sad and sorrowful that he is not with us today. If we love Jesus, then in a real sense, sorrow should fill our heart at the realisation that he is in heaven rather than with us.
Jesus goes on to draw his disciples’ attention to the Holy Spirit:
7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
The disciple of Jesus is not left alone, and ought not try to deal with sadness in his or her own strength. For the Spirit has real supernatural power, which he desires to help us with. It is a pastoral tragedy that so many Christians think that they should face life in their own strength, not realising that as our Lord imparted power to heal the sick, in his earthly ministry, so he imparts power to believe and rejoice, today, through his Spirit. The power at work is no less real.
As we see the inevitability of sadness, due to Jesus’ absence, we should rely on the available power of the Spirit. The Spirit’s power to uplift is as much the result of Jesus’ going away, as is our greatest sadness. Obviously, it is a cause of great concern that the things which most cause sadness to us are often far less deserving of our tears, than our Lord’s absence.
Augustine preached about sadness is Sermon 254.2 He used the Latin word tristitia, and said:
‘Sadness is like dung. Dumped in your home it makes your place filthy, dumped in its proper place it makes useful compost. If you are sad the way God wants you to be sad, then you are sad with repentance for your sins. Paul says that the sadness that is according to God produces repentance leading to salvation… We cannot reach the good life except by repentance of the bad life. Will you ever be pleased to find dung in a fresh sheaf of wheat? Yet it is by means of dung that you produce that beautiful wheat. Ugliness is the way to beauty.’
The Christian Church was wrong to remove sadness from the list of seven deadly sins. One can understand the difficulty of explaining in what ways sadness is good, sinful and inevitable. It is not a straightforwardly obvious sin. However it is a condition addressed by scripture and the Church Fathers. Our secular age neither knows how to be sad nor truly happy. Jesus Christ enables us to bring joy out of sadness, and his words on the matter were spoken from the perspective of cross and resurrection shaped experience.
Previous Posts in Seven Deadly Sins series:
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I recently discovered that John Calvin's Latin is much more pleasant to translate than Augustine's.
The irony that Latin may have been written more carefully and accurately in the 16th century by a Frenchman, than by a Latin speaker of the 4th, does not help me struggle through Augustine's odd allusions and spoken Latin...
Anyway, I have enjoyed looking at a few pieces of Calvin's works in Latin - here are a few lines from one of his letters. I think it is worth pondering since it is a splendid example of the way Calvin wrote about scripture with real passion, and expected other students of the Bible to respond to the text with due emotion and feeling. Latin first, my (rough) translation below:
Tales erant perfidorum in Dei
filium voces: Si filius Dei es, descende de cruce
et credemus tibi.
O christianam pietatem!
o evangelicam caritatem!
o praeclarum facinus pro tutela
et quiete ecclesiae excogitatum!
Quis tam ferreus et Neronianus haec audiens non horrescat?
Quis tam Busiricus et adamantinus haec siccis oculis legat?
John Calvin, Letter 1918
They were of such a treacherous kind as would shout against God's son: If you are God's son, descend from the cross and we will believe in you.
O Christian piety!
O evangelical love!
O beautiful crime which was devised for the protection and peace of the church!
Who could be so hardened and like Nero as to be hearing this and not tremble?
Who could be so like Busiris and adamantine that he could read this with dry eyes?
NB: Calvin has woven into his comment two classical allusions - to Nero and Busiris.
Nero is quite well known today as the Roman emperor famed for his cruelty in persecuting Christians.
Busiris was a mythological King of Egypt known for his xenophobic practice of executing all foreigners who entered his country.
With two neat name droppings, Calvin conjures up pictures of the hard-hearted unfeeling person before the cross as both cruel and racist.
Feel anything yet?
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Psalm 139:13-16 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.
While we were in hospital waiting for our baby to be born, who had died in the womb, we were uncomfortably aware that babies of the same age could, in this country, just about still be legally aborted. The sitting of technological medical advances alongside barbarity says a lot about the sin that pollutes the human heart.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
When you have to speak of terrible events, what sort of language do you reach for?
It is rare to see it today in secular media, but it used to be the case that educated writers utilised the power of Biblical imagery and rhetoric. The metaphors, characters and events of the Bible are the great images of Western civilisation - indeed they are God's images.
So it is quite remarkable to read an entire opinion piece, from Will Self, which is dripping with Biblical allusion. If you don't know your Bible, then it is mumbo jumbo. The more of the allusions you get, the more you chuckle, and the weightier is his interpretation of reality. Have a look - he has it all, the whore of Babylon, pharisees and High Priests. The name of Yahweh is even used - though blasphemously identified with Rupert Murdoch!
CS Lewis used to have the Bible as a set text for his english students, since he knew they could not hope to understand literature without the foundational text. After reading Will Self, why don't you go read your Bible - it expands the vocabulary and imagination!
Monday, March 02, 2009
Please don't ask Piper to write a book against me just yet... read the rest of the post first.
A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago to track down an Augustine quote, which he had found in the Augsburg Confession; founding document of the Lutheran church. The quote is:
St. Augustine writes in the epistle against Petilian, that, “We should not obey those bishops who have been duly elected, if they commit errors, or teach or ordain any thing contrary to the divine Scripture.”
You can read it in full at: http://augsburgreader.blogspot.com/2006/11/article-xxviii.html
Neither my friend nor I could find the quote in Augustine's work against Petilian (A Donatist with whom Augustine clashed theological horns). The work against Petilian is well worth reading as one of Augustine's finest arguments against Donatism. You can view it at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1409.htm
I had a look in Augustine's letters and searched through the various mentions of Petilian in other works by Augustine - to no avail. I was at a loss to explain where this quote can be found - all over the internet we are told it is in Augustine's letter/treatise against Petilian - but it was not.
Then the heretical thought occurred to me - what if the Augsburg Confession were wrong??! Permitting such a thought opened up a further avenue of investigation.
I checked the Latin version of the Augsburg Confession, which reads:
Et Augustinus contra Petiliani epistolam inquit: Nec catholicis episcopis consentiendum est, sicubi forte
falluntur, aut contra canonicas Dei Scripturas aliquid sentiunt.
Augsburg Confession, Article 28,28.
A quick search of Augustine's works in Latin, for the word 'consentiendum' revealed that the Augsburg Confession correctly quotes Augustine, but wrongly attributes the source. The quote is in fact from 'Ad Catholicos Fratres Liber Unos', Chapter 28. Petilianus has nothing to do with this work; it is a short letter of summary arguments and proof texts against popular Donatist views. Unlike his more famous work 'Against Petilianus', Ad Catholicos Fratres is not mentioned in Retractions.
So - there you have it. The Augsburg Confession is wrong; a minor error admittedly, but we are talking about the founding document of a major reformed denomination.
One would like to hope that Melanchthon and Luther would enjoy the irony of the proof that the humanist slogan 'ad fontes', to the sources, was not as reliable as some of their secular contemporaries imagined!
Thank goodness Cranmer saved us Anglicans from the embarrassment of misquoting documents in the 39 Articles...