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

Telescopic Philanthropy Covers a Multitude of Sins

Looking a Long Way Off

I’m only a little way into Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by his Mrs. Jellyby. The reader gets a first impression of her from the “biography” given by Mr. Kenge.

“Mrs. Jellyby,” he says, “is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa, with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry—AND the natives—and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.”

In typical fashion Dickens mixes irony with description. Her “remarkable strength of character” is directed “entirely to the public.” Her “extensive variety of public subjects” is qualified by “until something else attracts her.” And we find she has interest in the “coffee berry”, but also the natives, he quickly adds (assuming that this interest in the coffee berry and the settlement of “our superabundant home population” is entirely consistent with a sincere interest in the natives).

We are left with a picture of a woman who is entirely and singly preoccupied with her own “quest” for social action, wherever that quest may currently be directed. We also guess that this singleness of mind may stem from misguided sense of moral earnestness which is driven by her fancy and lacks a thorough consideration of other relevant factors. This picture is only confirmed by later character development.

Our first encounter with the JELLYBY House is portentous; a small confused crowd of mostly children is gathered. We are told “One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!” and that the “young Jellybys are always up to something.” From the very beginning the contrast between Mrs. Jellyby and Miss Summerson is apparent in that the former’s attention is elsewhere, and the latter takes responsibility.

The first actual description we are given of Mrs. Jellyby is that she is a “pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” She has “very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.”

She asks excuse for the state of the house, saying, “you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time.”

When Peepy falls down the stairs and comes to his mother for comfort, it is again Miss Summerson who comforts him as his sobs slowly subside. But ironically it is Miss Summerson who is made to feel shame as Mrs. Jellyby expresses her gratification at her work. “It IS gratifying,” said Mrs. Jellyby. “It involves the devotion of all my energies, such as they are; but that is nothing, so that it succeeds; and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that YOU never turned your thoughts to Africa.”

Mrs. Jellyby is not at this point a well developed character, but seems to be another emblem of a point that Dickens is trying to make, namely that difficult, earnest, and respectable effort is no guarantee of moral aptness. Dickens makes the lesson very clear in the mouth of Miss Summerson later when she says, “We thought that, perhaps, it is right to begin with the obligations of home, sir; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.”

Looking Nearer

I suspect, however, that the vice of Mrs. Jellyby cannot be summarized simply by saying she picked the wrong thing to do. I suspect that there is a deeper issue that we too deal with. Mrs. Jellyby embodies a sort of moral myopia that Rebecca DeYoung characterizes as sloth. DeYoung objects to the view that sloth is simple laziness. To the contrary, sloth can be characterized by vigorous activity. Citing the desert fathers, she claims that sloth is not a sheer lack of inertia, but rather “a failure of effort…linked to a lack of love.” The old term for it was akedeia (acedia), literally “lack of care.” Fundamentally, this is a inner condition, a resistance to the demands of love.

It is worth noting that Mrs. Jellyby’s “love” operated in the abstract, for “coffee berries,” for “the natives,” for “the population.” Peepy’s actual bleeding knees and sobs did not command her attention. This is why I called it a “moral myopia,” echoing Dickens’ allusion to her eyes. This vice is about that to which we attend, what we see.

What seems to be driving this acedia or sloth in the case of Mrs. Jellyby is also familiar to us. Her efforts were gratifying. The first word we hear about her is a word of commendation. She sees what is far off because when she does, she receives mountains of correspondence and encouragement. Soothing Peepy’s sobs, on the other hand would be thankless. So this is a moral myopia which is driven by common social sentiment.

What’s also worth noting is that its unlikely Mrs. Jellyby ever made a conscious decision to put “the natives” over Peepy. What’s more likely is that she finds herself caught up into this moral inattention. This might give us pause to ask, are we morally shortsighted? Where are we resisting the demands of love for “the natives”? 

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.

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)

“Staying Put to Get Somewhere,” Dennis Okholm

I heartily recommend a free subscription to Baylor’s Christian Reflection. It is free.

“Ultimately, if we believe that by divine providence we have been placed in a community for the nurturing of our souls, then not to persevere but to flee that ‘cell’ in a fit of restless acedia is also to flee God: ‘…one who refuses to acquiesce in the truth of others’ reactions becomes more deeply entrenched in the bitterness and recrimination and further away from love and God.’ (Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth, 207) Thomas Acquinas recognized this in the sorrow that is opposed to the ‘divine goodness in which love delights’: acedia is perhaps the purest expression of self-love.”

Dennis Okholm, “Staying Put to Get Somewhere,” Christian Reflection, Vol 49 (Baylor University Press, 2013), 24.

Pusillanimity

From Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 9.

A few years later, reading Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) on the virtue of courage, I happened across a vice he called pusillanimity, which means “smallness of soul.” Those afflicted by this vice wrote Aquinas, shrink back from what God has called them to be. When faced with the effort and difficulty of stretching themselves to the great things of which they are capable, they cringe and say, “I can’t.”

Pride and Anxiety

John Piper makes the point in Future Grace that anxiety often flows from weak pride. He says,

“When pride is not strong, it begins to worry about the future. In the heart of the proud, anxiety is to the future what self-pity is to the past. What did not go well in the past gives us a sense that we deserve better. But if we could not make things go our way in the past, we may not be able to in the future either. Instead of making the proud humble, this possibility makes them anxious.”

(Piper, Future Grace, 93.)

I have long held that the twin virtues of a Christian man are humility and courage. So I was especially intrigued to see Piper’s connection of pride and anxiety, the negation of each of these. On a personal level, there has been perhaps no time in my life that is as uncertain as this month; I am racked with anxiety. So, Piper’s reminder comes at a crucial time for me. It is through a restored and grounded humility that I will have the confidence to do difficult and risky things.

Valley of Vision, “Humiliation”:

When I am afraid of evils to come, comfort me, by showing me
that in myself I am a dying, condemned wretch,
but that in Christ I am reconciled, made alive, and satisfied;
that I am feeble and unable to do any good,
but that in him I can do all things;
that what I now have in Christ is mine in part,
but shortly I shall have it perfectly in heaven.