Monday, January 24, 2011

Considering Pleasure and Virtue in Service to Others: A Not So Obvious Conclusion

Often times, situations present themselves that have moral consequences. As people concerned with morality, many Christians are quick to offer their opinions concerning what the proper response should be to these situations. We are quick to form ethical suggestions without fully realizing the intricacies of the situation or the affects of our decisions. Quick response is often unwarranted. Christians should never act nor decide without God. Instead of consulting God, many will jump the gun. I have been guilty of this on several occasions, but by the grace of God I am becoming more aware of my need to seek Him before I speak.. I think the following interaction will demonstrate how careful consideration and willful obedience can give us an answer that is not immediately thought of.

I recently had an interesting question posed to me by a close friend who likes to ponder life. We all know that helping others is seen as a positive action by most persons of our society and is a mark of good Christian living. Doing good is not just seen as a positive action by Christians, but the larger society in general affirms this as well. In light of this, my friend must have begun to ponder why people do good deeds for others. Therefore, he posed a scenario followed with a question that the scenario brings to light. In essence, he said that we often do good deeds for others by using our talents. Those who practice their talents often enjoy doing so. Therefore, we often help others, not for their sakes, but for our own. Thus, my friend posed the question: Is it a selfish act to help others when we do so because we merely enjoy the task that is required to assist those in need?

The scenario was a bit more specific, which helps with my answer. My friend framed his scenario in the realm of vocation. So, let us say that you are a computer expert. A person you know little about has a computer that crashes, and you quickly volunteer to help. Let us make the scenario even more interesting by suggesting that this person needs his computer to do some good will project; say he is the manager of a food bank. Now, while you are aware that your good deed will provide great assistance to the owner of the computer as well as a local food bank and all the people it feeds, you do not volunteer to fix the computer for that reason. Instead, you do it because you enjoy the work. You simply take on the task of fixing the computer because you like fixing computers, not because some kind soul is in need. Is there something wrong with this?

To our Christian sensibilities, we might, at first, wish to say that this self-fulfillment is not a good motivator for good deeds. Besides, our righteous acts are but filthy rags before God; are they not? But should we then assign blame to the person who does his work happily for no other reason than he or she enjoys it? In this scenario the act of helping is not done so for righteousness’s sake. Therefore, the person is not guilty of trying to please God by doing a good deed apart from God’s power. The wrong would be to pose as good Samaritans for praise, when one is not. If the motivation was not enjoyment of work but praise for the self by those the worker helps, then the person helping is in the wrong. This is not to suggest that we should not accept thanks.

Another wrong would be found in the person who has all means to help, enjoys his or her work, and yet still refuses for no other reason than spite. I might add that I feel it to be more morally insensitive and reprehensible to deny help simply for the fact that one does not wish to pretend to care. In other words, to deny help because one does not want to commit a selfish act due to the fact that he or she will only do it for the satisfaction of a job well done, is, in itself, a selfish act, a looking out for one’s own interest (not being seen as selfish) over the interest of others.

Surely selfless acts of love are greater than mere self-fulfilling actions, but enjoying the talents we are given is a positive attribute, as long as we do not use our gifts to the detriment of others, and, in the scenario provided, people only benefit. Finding pleasure in work is more close to redemption than we might think. God's plan for mankind was not for us to sit on a fluffy white cloud while playing a harp, as many envision heaven to be. Instead, when God created the good realm for which we would live, he intended us to work the land. In other words, part of our original design was to take pleasure in our work and in progression (Gen 2:15). Therefore, enjoying our talent because it makes us feel somewhat whole is, in many ways, praise of God and His purposes, whether we realize it or not.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying work. In the scenario given, helping others is an incidental. The bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with working for pleasure, even (or should I say especially) when this work is helpful. Now, after one realizes that he cares little that he is helping others, it might be advantageous to try to develop sensitivity for our fellow man, through God’s help. While there is nothing wrong with helping for the enjoyment of the work, it might point to the fact, if one does not care either way that he or she is helping, that another issue needs to be taken care of. But, that issue does not concern the enjoyment of work, it is only brought to light by the situation at hand. Moreover, one might need to be mindful to thank God for the ability to enjoy work and for the fact that this work does help others.

Once again, I do not find the motivation to help because we enjoy the work to be negative in and of itself, although it might be more virtuous to couple this desire with the desire to serve. In fact, in and of itself, I find this to be a positive sign that one is moving towards God’s purposes, God’s original intent being that we enjoy life and this life would include work. In fact, it might be a more negative thing for the person who helps others through labor and does so for some sense of wanting to do good deeds, but does so while hating what it is to work. Work is not punishment. It is fulfillment. Part of the curse of sin is that it makes work somewhat more laborious and difficult, but if we can rise above the difficulty to find pleasure in labor, we have returned closer to our original purpose purposed by God.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Overcoming Sin in The Here and Now Through Christ

I have had this blog on my desktop for some time now. In a sense, I felt the content was too obvious to publish. On the other hand, the actions of Christ are always profound, no matter how many times we hear it. There are various angles that give us certain advantages that other angles do not afford. So, I offer this point of view concerning the Incarnation:

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” –John 16:33

Christ promises His disciples peace. In a world that He admits Christians will be persecuted and will suffer, He also suggests that we will have peace. How can this be so? The two seem mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, Christ suggests that He has conquered the world, and this conquering is to be comforting. All this sounds promising; however, how can we take courage when Christ is telling us we will still suffer? How can we, who are subject to temptation and sin, overcome the evils of the world? What exactly does Christ mean when He suggests that He has conquered the world?

It was purely for our sakes that the Christ suffered. Having all the rights, privileges, and abilities of God. Being God Himself, as one distinct person of the Trinity and of One essence with the Godhead, Christ understood that we, as humans, could not abstractly grasp His power, and He, since He came for our sakes, did not assert His power that He has all the rights to assert. (Philippians 2:6). Thus, He denied Himself His high privilege of His Lordship in order to lower Himself unto the form of man. In this, we might know and relate with Him.

Many biblical exegetes have suggested that the Incarnation was necessary so that Christ might relate to us, to understand what it is to be human and to truly suffer. To an extent, it is absolutely obvious that this is the case. It is obvious that for God to have experiential knowledge of humanness, especially suffering to the extent that we do, He must lower Himself, since God Himself is not subject to the same sort of sufferings of which humanity suffers. Certainly, it would be impossible for God to be tempted as He is without humbling Himself (Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 4:1-11).

While it is obvious that Christ came to experience our suffering, one should not lose focus of the fact that His Incarnation was not an event merely so that His knowledge might be expanded or so that He could save us, as if He had no other option. This is not to deny that His action was not the best action to perform, just that He was not limited. The omnipotent God has limitless means to accomplish His tasks. We should not deny God’s power. While experiential knowledge might never be known without the Incarnation, I suspect God could have sufficient objective knowledge of what it is to suffer. If not, He might have never sympathized with us in the first place.

Therefore, we should not imagine the purpose of the Incarnation being merely a tactic of the Almighty to gain access to our mentality and an understanding of our plight so that He might figure out how He could help us out of our situation. Instead of the Incarnation merely being an act of God so that He might relate to us, it was an act that allows us to relate Him. Just as the Word of God was given in a written form so that humanity might have proper access, so Christ comes in a form to which we can relate, our form.

The bottom line is that the Incarnation was strictly for the benefit of man. Surely it glorifies God, but He is glorious even without the Incarnation. It benefits God only in that He wishes to benefit us. Thus, this is not to deny that it might please Him to do so. The arrival of Christ in human flesh was a coming to bless us. Imagine the Most High deciding to come to this earth to suffer, to take on our sin, when He does not have to take it on, and He does this for me. He does this for you. So, how does this Incarnation bring us the peace Christ has promised us?

Returning to John 16:33, we might understand that hope in Christ can help us overcome the suffering of the tribulations of everyday life. Looking forward to the joy we will experience when there will be no more violence, war, malice and the like, when we will all be together in the presence of God, we might agree with Paul that the trials of this life will be washed away from our minds as they will not compare with the glory we will have obtained (Romans 8:18). However, what of the peace that is to be brought in this life? When we suffer temptations, we have difficulty imagining how we might overcome. We know we do not wish to sin, but sin seems, due to the temptation within, inevitable, even willful disobedience. Furthermore, we might imagine that this temptation and the subsequent sin (which we wrongfully imagine is an inevitable result of temptation) might not go away until we are dead and glorified. We unwittingly hold a low view of God’s power when we affirm this. We somehow suggest that, although Christ lives within me, the power of sin within is greater.

However, true reflection upon the Incarnation reveals quite a different reality. Once we realize Christ too was subject to temptation, yet overcame, we might begin to understand our capacity to overcome, not a capacity naturally within ourselves, but of Him, since He is within the believer through the power of the Holy Spirit. If it is true that we can live by His power, and that we find our being in Him, then we might realize that, since He has, in human form, overcome sin, then He can do the same in us. When we are tempted, we should not imagine sin’s power being too great, for His power that resides within is unimaginably greater than the power of sin. He has even shown that it is powerful enough to overcome sin even in human flesh.

In the end, we are to find our peace in Christ Himself. While external realities pose threats of temporary physical and emotional sufferings, we need not worry about that which once pulled us toward death. Christ has conquered sin. We need not suffer its reign in our lives. In His grace, all else seems to fade. For the Christian, to deny a lack of ability to overcome temptation and sin is to unwittingly degrade the power of Christ that is supposed to be within. This is not to say we cannot willfully sin, but that we do not have to do so. Therefore, the Incarnation is a blessed revelation of the power of God to overcome human temptation and sin, as demonstrated in the mighty works of Christ as He walked the earth and was subjected to many trials, just as each of us are.

If He lives within and is truly the power by which Christians live, He can do what He has proven He can do: overcome sin. Praise His holy name!