Henri Nouwen on Loneliness

“Boredom, resentment, and depression are all sentiments of disconnectedness. They pre sent life to us as a broken connection. They give us a sense of not-belonging. In interpersonal relations, this disconnectedness is experienced as loneliness. When we are lonely we perceive ourselves as isolated individuals surrounded, perhaps, by many people, but not really part of any supporting or nurturing community. Loneliness is without doubt one of the most widespread diseases of our time. It affects not only retired life but also family life, neighborhood life, school life, and business life. It causes suffering not only in elderly people but also in children, teenagers, and adults. It enters not only prisons but also private homes, office buildings, and hospitals. It is even visible in the diminishing interaction between people on the streets of our cities. Out of all this pervading loneliness many cry, ‘Is there anyone who really cares? Is there anyone who can take away my inner sense of isolation? Is there anyone with whom I can feel at home?’

“It is this paralyzing sense of separation that constitutes the core of much human suffer ing. We can take a lot of physical and even mental pain when we know that it truly makes us a part of the life we live together in this world. But when we feel cut off from the human family, we quickly lose heart. As long as we believe that our pains and struggles connect us with our fellow men and women and thus make us part of the common human struggle for a better future, we are quite willing to accept a demanding task. But when we think of ourselves as passive bystanders who have no contribution to make to the story of life, our pains are no longer growing pains and our struggles no longer offer new life, because then we have a sense that our lives die out behind us and do not lead us any where. Sometimes, indeed, we have to say that the only thing we remember of our re cent past is that we were very busy, that everything seemed very urgent, and that we could hardly get it all done. What we were doing we have forgotten. This shows how isolated we have become. The past no longer carries us to the future; it simply leaves us worried, without any promise that things will be different.

“Our urge to be set free from this isolation can become so strong that it bursts forth in violence. Then our need for an intimate relationship—for a friend, a lover, or an appreciative community—turns into a desperate grabbing for anyone who offers some immediate satisfaction, some release of tension, or some temporary feeling of at-oneness. Then our need for each other degenerates into a dangerous aggression that causes much harm and only intensifies our feelings of loneliness.”

– Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New, pp. 32-35.

Quotable: John Owen

Moral virtue is, indeed, the best thing amongst men that is of them. It far exceeds in worth, use, and satisfaction, all that the honours, powers, profits, and pleasures of the world can extend unto. And it is admirable to consider what instructions are given concerning it, what expressions are made of its excellency, what encomiums of its use and beauty, by learned contemplative men among the heathen; the wisest of whom did acknowledge that there was yet something in it which they could only admire, and not comprehend. And very eminent instances of the practice of it were given in the lives and conversations of some of them; and as the examples of their righteousness, moderation, temperance, equanimity, in all conditions, rise up at present unto the shame and reproach of many that are called Christians, so they will be called over at the last day as an aggravation of their condemnation. But to suppose that this moral virtue, whatever it be really in its own nature, or however advanced in the imaginations of men, is that holiness of truth which believers receive by the Spirit of Christ, is to debase it, to overthrow it, and to drive the souls of men from seeking an interest in it.

John Owen, Pneumatologia, IV.1

Quotable: Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung cites this passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to close her book, Vainglory. She says, “Glory is a gift that is shared when we are transparent to God, as in L’Engle’s poem, and also when we are transparent to each other,” and then asks, “Do we have eyes to see goodness in ourselves and in each other, the “glory and honor” with which God himself crowns us, having created us only a little lower than the heavenly beings (Ps. 8)?”

The section of Les Misérables:

The bishop was sitting next to him and he gently touched his hand. “You didn’t have to tell me who you were. This is not my house, it’s the house of Jesus Christ. That door does not ask who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has any pain. You are suffering, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me, don’t tell me I’m taking you into my home. No one is at home here except the man who is in need of refuge. I’m telling you, who are passing through, you are more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is at your disposal. What do I need to know your name for? Besides, before you told me your name, you had one I knew.”
The man opened his eyes in amazement.
“True? You knew what I was called?”
“Yes,” replied the bishop. “You are called my brother.”**

*Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 132-133.
**Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Julie Rose (New York: Random House, 2008), 73.

Concerning Modesty and Responsibility

Nate Pyle has a good article on the issue of men objectifying women. It’s certainly worth reading and makes a few points in particular that I think are worthwhile, namely that men have responsibility for seeing and treating women as valued human persons, that to fail to do so is to forfeit humanity (since, presumably, being human involves treating other humans as ends and possessing the ability to do this), and that there exists a culture of fear between women and men within the church. He says, “a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you.”

Clearly, Pyle is concerned for placing the burden of responsibility here on men. He says, “The moment you play the victim you fall into the lie that you are simply embodied reaction to external stimuli unable to determine right from wrong, human from flesh.” And again, “You need to be in control of you.” And finally, “If you do stupid things it is because you chose to do stupid things.”

My concern is that he puts forward a false dichotomy between a human as “embodied reaction to external stimuli” and an autonomous free “chooser.” Perhaps if Pyle had specified a bit better what this choice looks like and in what circumstances choice occurs, the situation would be clearer. Certainly, men who are engaged in a long term struggle with lust don’t feel like free choosers. It remains an open question which word to assign to their struggle (Kent Dunnington has opted for the word “habit” in this case). But my point is, there are a great many restrictors to “free choice” that make the situation a bit more complex. I’ll just say a few words about habit.

With regard to habit, there are so many choices that I make every day that I put almost no reflective thought into. Not all of these are overtly moral choices, i.e. how to put my clothes on, how long to brush my teeth, which route to take to work, etc. But some of them are. For instance, if I regularly drive-through McDonalds for breakfast I might be culpably damaging my body. This is an interesting case because there has actually been a lot of moral backlash against McDonalds for the quality of food they offer, particularly following the Supersize Me” documentary. Or to take the matter a step further, what if I regularly have a morning smoke on my way to the office.

Now, not all habits are created equal. It’s easier to break the McDonalds habit than the smoking one. And easier to break the smoking habit than the meth habit. But Kent Dunnington suggests that the differences are a matter of degrees, not kind. Our bodies are always involved in our habits. What’s more, there is good evidence to suggest that tolerance and withdrawal are not decisive factors in the continuance of a habit (Johann Hari cites some of the same sources Dunnington does and a few more).

So what breaks habit? Well, clearly humans have responsibility here. If we don’t seem to have either/or freedom about any particular action in the day, we at least of the freedom to plan the development of our identities. If I’m trying to break the McDonalds habit, for instance, I might decide to take an alternate route to work and by some protein bars to bring with me in the morning. The situation is not hopeless.

But the larger point that I’m trying to make is that not all choosers are equal at any given moment. Nor are all choices equally appealing to choosers at any given moment. If I place meth within the hands of a meth addict, I’m an enabler. If I erect a McDonalds near someone who is overweight, my moral responsibility seems softer.

All this is to say, it’s probably wrong to say that the women of Christ’s church have no moral responsibility to dress appropriately. But certainly Pyle is correct to say that men need to worry about themselves. It’s certainly easier to look on a woman dressed immodestly as a person in need of grace like myself when I have been habitually trained and Spiritually enabled to be a servant to righteousness.

In Romans 6, Paul makes the point that we are slaves either to righteousness or unrighteousness. Unrestrained contingent freedom about every choice is not our situation. But we can reckon ourselves as dead to sin and alive in Christ and allow our imaginations to be formed by this alternate reality we find ourselves in.

The Mechanics of Hypocrisy

We’ve all met the hypocrite who performs impeccably the practices of love, but (we suspect) labors under a deeper motive—self-righteousness, ambition, guilt, etc. Perhaps you are he or she. It is easy sneeringly to condemn this person as a fake, an unconscionable fraud. And yet, there is a difficulty. The hypocrite is very often performing the acts of love from an honest desire to love, even if he knows that love is not fully present. There is at times even a heart-rending consciousness of the “deeper” failure to love. How do we understand the hypocrite and how can the hypocrite (read: you and me) understand himself? This short article attempts to uncover the mechanics of hypocrisy and self-deceit.

The (Not-so Hidden) Truth Made Plain

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are!”  Jesus (the bruised reed handler)

Jesus was less than complementary to hypocrites. In fact, if average Joe or Jane knows anything about Jesus, it is that he could not abide hypocrisy. Some of his strongest language was reserved for hypocrites. The source of his ire comes from the fact that the hypocrites practice was inconsistent with their hearts. As he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Matthew 15:8) Hypocrites are warned, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

The difficulty with these passages is that no one seems ready to admit that they are a hypocrite. Or to state it as a question, is a hypocrite ever aware that he or she is a hypocrite? Certainly, if I must consciously endeavor to be a hypocrite, I am in very little danger of being one, because, I am, in fact, very much against hypocrisy (because I love Jesus). A reasonable explanation for the force of these passages is that a hypocrite may not intend or even know that he is one. Thus, Jesus is not just expressing ire, as if he needed to get this off his chest, but actually doing them a service in pointing out that they were (unbeknownst to them) hypocrites.

Conscience and Consciousness, the Maze of Intention

A source of difficulty is the ambiguity present when we use the word “intend.” An example might help. Say that I realize that as a good husband I ought to show affection for my wife by practical acts of service. But say that I also feel a bit angry at my wife for a perceived slight. I might, upon reflection, intend to bring home flowers for my wife and actually do so. But in the process I might make it very clear in tacit ways that I was unhappy. In this case, there seems to be a split intention—reflectively, I intend to show affection and intuitively, I intend to express my anger. Thus, there seems to be a distinction between reflective intention and intuitive intention. And further, these twin intentions operate at different levels of my consciousness, one the product of reflective thinking and the other the product of intuitive feeling.

Another Biblical example might illuminate the issue. Paul makes some very suggestive comments on this point in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 in his discussion about meat offered to idols. Paul acknowledges the correctness of the Corinthians assertion that “an idol is nothing.” This is not in dispute. The difficulty is that some “know” this and some do not “possess this knowledge,” hence, two groups. What is remarkable is that by Paul acknowledging “an idol is nothing” he has effectively eliminated the second group. Assuming this letter was read in public, there should now be only the one group.

But Paul is not using the word “know” in a bare intellectualist (reflective) sense. This is clear from Paul’s words in Romans 14: “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:5) And further, “whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith.” What seems to be happening here is the same sort of split intention that I noted above. A person who does not “possess this knowledge” is a person who may or may not have heard “an idol is nothing” (reflective), but absolutely does not know it intuitively. Thus, we see, intuitive intention is crucial for a biblical account of intentionality. To act against intuitive intention is to act in bad faith.

So, I suggest, to practice the acts of love without the heart of love is at some level (regardless of reflective intention) hypocritical.

The Practice of (Humble) Practice

All this may seem deeply discouraging to the man or woman of tender conscience. And he or she may be tempted to commit the opposite vice of hypocrisy which is apathy. Those who despair of true Christian virtue may decide that it is impossible altogether and we must throw ourselves at the mercy of God and make no further reflection on the subject.

This is also a mistake.  I want to suggest a brief syllabus (a reflective exercise) of practices (training the intuitive, training the heart) which by the grace of God might help to pursue genuine love.

1) We need to be ready to admit our heart failings. Too often acts of love ring hollow when the agent is doing everything possible to hide the true state of one’s heart. To return to the marriage example, the flowers can still be a meaningful expression of love and devotion even when accompanied by a more honest expression of feeling. The willingness to resolve a conflict (that may be brought about by one’s own failure to judge rightly) is an opportunity to cultivate humility and to build trusting communication.

2) We should reflect on the practices of love. We can learn where our acts of love fall short and where our acts of love do not correspond to our intuitive intention (i.e. our heart).

3) We should practice the practices of love as these have real value. Often relationships are hurt by failure to communicate love in spite of our best intuitive intention. We can learn how to do acts of love with more effectiveness. (James 1:19-27; Romans 12:3-21)

4) The practices of love are not enough to produce love. As 1 John 4:19 says, “we love because he first loved us.” The gospel must be compelling to us before genuine love is even possible.

5) We need to bear patiently with the slowness of our own change. We may wish to be what we are not right now, but it does no good to pretend were are different than we are. Change is God’s work, not ours. Hypocrites always wish they were better than they are. (cf. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, Phil 1:3-11)

Augustine on Christian Perfection

These passages from Augustine came up in our recent discussion of John Wesley’s ideas of perfectionism.

Augustine, On Nature and Grace

Chapter 68
“If, therefore, we feel rightly on this matter, it is our duty at once to be thankful for what is already healed within us, and to pray for such further healing as shall enable us to enjoy full liberty, in that most absolute state of health which is incapable of addition, the perfect pleasure of God. For we do not deny that human nature can be without sin; nor ought we by any means to refuse to it the ability to become perfect, since we admit its capacity for progress—by God’s grace, however, through our Lord Jesus Christ. By His assistance we aver that it becomes holy and happy, by whom it was created in order to be so.”

Chapter 70
“Now, whether there ever has been, or is, or ever can be, a man living so righteous a life in this world as to have no sin at all, may be an open question among true and pious Christians; but whoever doubts the possibility of this sinless state after this present life; is foolish. For my own part, indeed, I am unwilling to dispute the point even as respects this life.”