Longsuffering in the Christian Life

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission.


“And meekness, as it respects injuries received from men, is called longsuffering in the Scriptures, and is often mentioned as an exercise, or fruit of the Christian spirit (Gal. v 22). . .  He, therefore, that exercises a Christian long-suffering towards his neighbor, will bear the injuries received from him without revenging or retaliating, either by injurious deeds or bitter words. He will bear it without doing anything against his neighbor that shall manifest the spirit of resentment, without speaking to him, or of him, with revengeful words, and without allowing a revengeful spirit in his heart, or manifesting it in his behavior. . . . Not that all endeavours in men to defend and right themselves, when they are injured by others, are censurable, or that they should suffer all the injuries that their enemies please to bring upon them, rather than improve an opportunity they have to defend and vindicate themselves, even though it be to the damage of him that injures them. But in many, and probably in most cases, men ought to suffer long first, in the spirit of the long-suffering charity of the text. And the case may often be such, that they may be called to suffer considerably, as charity and prudence shall direct, for the sake of peace, and from a sincere Christian love to the one that injures them, rather than deliver themselves in the way they may have opportunity for.”

–Jonathan Edwards

Monday: Read Luke 6:20-38

  • According to this passage, how important is it to be a peacemaker? What is the attitude that Jesus tells us we should have towards our enemies? How does our Heavenly Father set the example for us? According to this passage, what will be the result of creating an atmosphere of peace among those we interact with (including those who are mistreating us)?

Tuesday: Read 1 John 3:10-24

  • When John says we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren, he is not merely talking about martyrdom, but the daily sacrificing of my needs for the needs of someone else. This can include being gracious when dealing with other people’s faults. If it’s important for us to be longsuffering when interacting with our enemies (Monday’s reading), then how much more important is this when dealing with fellow believers? How much importance does John attach to loving our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? Who does John give as the ultimate example of such love?

Wednesday: Read Ephesians 4:1-6

  • How important is Christian unity to Paul? If we follow Paul’s command to practice longsuffering and to bear with one another in love, how might this transform the character of our relationships?

Thursday: Read Galatians 5:14-26

  • Compare the type of atmosphere created by the fruits of the spirit vs. the lusts of the flesh. How does longsuffering relate to the command to be peacemakers? How does Jonathan Edwards words above help us to understand what this looks like in practice?

Friday: Read 1 Corinthians 13

  • Although other places in scripture show us that it is sometimes necessary to rebuke another person in a spirit of gentleness, this chapter suggests that our first knee-jerk reaction for dealing with conflict should be to suffer long and avoid becoming provoked. If we have love which suffers long, bears all things and endures all things, how might this transform the atmosphere we bring to difficult relationships?

Saturday: Read 1 Peter 3:8 – 4:9

  • What do Peter’s words show us about the type of atmosphere we should be seeking to cultivate as Christians? What guidance does the passage give us for knowing how to respond to people, especially fellow Christians, who have wronged us? What does this passage tell us about the Lord’s example of longsuffering?

Sunday: Read Proverbs 17

  • What does this chapter tell us about conducting our relationships? How might the proverbs in this chapter help us to under-accuse, over-confess and over-forgive instead of over-forgiving, over-accusing and under-confessing?

Lesson for This Week

It can be difficult to pursue peace with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, especially when we know that we are in the right. However, as these passages teach us and Jonathan Edwards’ words remind us, there is something even more important than being right, and that is to pursue peace. Other passages speak of how to deal with a brother who has sinned against us, showing that conflict is sometimes necessary within the Christian life. However, these passages suggest that our default mode of operation should be to try to pursue peace, even if it means covering over someone else’s sin in love.


“Tears in Things”

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Psalm 19:1-2

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31

In Book I of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, the character of Aeneas travels to find a new home after his family and friends have perished in the battle of Troy. In the course of his travels, Aeneas finds himself in Carthage.

While walking the streets of the city, Aeneas and his friend come to a Carthaginian temple in which there is a large mural. The mural is a depiction of the Trojan War which Aeneas had fought in and in which many of his countrymen had perished.

As Aeneas stands in the temple gazing upon the depiction, he begins to cry and says, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent” (“There are tears for events and mortal things touch the soul.”) Also translated, “There are tears in things, and mortality touches the mind”, Aeneas’ reaction is a lasting reminder of the power that things have to affect us deeply.

The Greek hero Odysseus, who likewise fought in the Trojan war, also experienced powerful melancholy when years later he was presented with an artistic depiction of the event. In Aeneas’s case, he is reduced to tears through visual art in the land of the Carthaginians; in Odysseus’s case, he is reduced to tears through musical arts in the land of the Sirens and later in the land of the Phaiakians.

More than the Sum of the Parts

These stories from the classical world touch a familiar chord in human experience. Throughout history, art has had a powerful pull on human emotion. Art can reduce seasoned warriors like Aeneas and Odysseus to tears, but it can also lift us to heights of joy and happiness. Certain types of art can even blur the distinction between joy and sadness, invoking a type of bittersweet longing that is hard to put into words.

There is a certain paradox here. How can something purely physical, like the drawings on a wall or the sound-waves produced by a musical instrument or the human voice, have such a profound effect on the non-physical world of our psyche and emotions? Though we may not be able to answer this question with metaphysical precision, it is clear that when human creativity brings inanimate matter together in a certain way, the resulting configuration is often more than merely the sum of the parts.

Christian theology is full of similar examples. When Christ meets us in the blessed Eucharist, something is happening that goes beyond the mere physicality of the properties being presented to us. Though different Christian traditions have debated what actually happens when God’s people gather to receive the sacrament of communion, most would agree that in this event God somehow meets with man. When I receive and partake of the sacraments in faith, there is more going on than merely one person eating bread and wine, just as there was more to the mural in Carthage than mere paint.

In the world God created, things have significance.

God Saw that it was Good

Throughout human history there have been various traditions which have denied that anything spiritual, or even anything of significant value, can be transmitted through the elements of physical matter. For example, in the 3rd century the heretical Gnostics taught that while the world of spirit is good, the world of matter is evil. Consequently, they argued, there is a great gulf fixed between the spiritual and the material. The pure realm of spirit cannot have anything to do with matter.

Because of their low view of creation, most the Gnostics denied the physical incarnation of Christ. It would be beneath God’s dignity, they argued, for God to defile Himself by taking on a material body. Thus, the Gnostics taught that Christ merely appeared to possess a physical body.

In contrast to the Gnostics, the early Christians were committed to affirming the goodness of the created order. The God who redeems the world is also the God who proclaimed in Genesis 1:31 that this world is “very good.”

Mediating the Invisible

One of the ways Christians have affirmed the goodness of the world is through art. In using the stuff of the material world to express realities that transcend space and time, art points towards the integration of spirit and matter – an integration that would be impossible if these realms had opposite moral valuation like the Gnostics maintained.

Art, like the Eucharist, is a powerful metaphor of the incarnation of Christ (actually, many of the church fathers considered the Eucharist to be more than merely a metaphor but described it as an extension of the incarnation). When the Word of God took on human flesh and dwelt among us, He was the very image of the invisible God. This means that the eternal and infinite God was mediated through Christ’s humanity, just as the physical sacraments mediate to us the life of God. Similarly, when an artist skilfully employs the tools of his trade, he is capable of weaving into material form realities and emotions that transcend the material world.

When Aeneas stood before the mural at Carthage, the paint itself did not take on any new material characteristics, but suddenly it seemed tinged with sadness, melancholy and longing. “There are tears in things.”

More than Merely What a Thing is Made of

The Bible contains a number of examples of physical objects coming to embody or ‘contain’ invisible realities. The Ark of the Covenant, for example, was more than just a box with two pieces of stone, a jar of old food and a stick. Rather, the physical particulars that made up the Ark became a conduit of real spiritual power, as evidenced by the fact that those who touched it in an unauthorized way were suddenly killed. (1 Chronicles 13:9-10).

Similarly, Solomon’s temple was a place where the invisible God promised to dwell (2 Chron 7:16). In some mysterious way, the invisible and eternal God became associated with a particular building in a particular time and place.

Or again, consider how the Bible speaks about the universe itself. Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. This tells us that there is more to the universe than merely what it is made of. While scripture cautions us against identifying the universe with its creator, it also shows us that the physical cosmos conveys a sense of transcendence, pointing towards the reality of something beyond time and space. This shows us that the universe is more a work of art than an impersonal machine.

Moderns often struggle with this. Having grown up in a culture saturated with materialistic assumptions, we have been unconsciously conditioned to think that there is no more to a thing than what it is made of. According to this reductionist narrative, matter is dead, and paint is just paint.

But paint is no more just paint than the Eucharist is just bread or a star is just gas. There are tears in things.

Have you bought into Gnostic or materialistic assumptions about matter? Do you respond to the universe as something good, filled with a sense of transcendence, or do you think of it as a great impersonal machine?




Solzhenitsyn Against Postmodernism

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) is best remembered for his books on communism – books like the The Gulag Archipelago which ultimately helped to undermine the integrity of the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world.

What is generally less appreciated is that Solzhenitsyn was also a fierce critic of postmodernism.

Don’t be scared off by the term ‘Postmodernism.’ The best way to explain it is against the backdrop of ‘modernism.’ As an ideology, Modernism it is closely aligned with the worldview of secular humanism, which elevates man and his reason to the center of reality. In contrast to the pre-modern worldview, which stressed that all human knowledge is a subset of God’s knowledge, Modernism emphasized that man is at the center of reality and that unaided human reason can discover absolute truth. Solzhenitsyn challenged this view in his Harvard address, claiming that secular humanist ideas were “the mistake” that was “at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times.” He continued:

I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the pro-claimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.

But Solzhenitsyn did not stop by merely confronting Modernism; his message of national repentance also challenged the fashionable Postmodernism of the late 20th and early 21st century.

At the risk of oversimplification, Postmodernism is the worldview which asserts that individuals or groups create truth for themselves. While agreeing with modernism that man is at the center, Postmodernism denies we can discover absolute truth since it rejects the very idea of absolute truth. Within the subjective worldview of the Postmodernist, every person creates meaning for himself. Solzhenitsyn opposed this idea just as fervently as he opposed modernism.  He argued that eternal values such as truth and justice do not depend on man for their existence but have an objective existence independent of our minds. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in a samizdat letter while he was still living in the Soviet Union,

“Justice exists, even if there are only a few individuals who recognize it as such…. There is nothing relative about justice just as there is nothing relative about conscience.”

After Solzhenitsyn was deported to the West, he found this message of moral absolutes was just as distasteful to Westerners as it had been to the Soviets. Two days after his Harvard address an editorial in The New York Times declared that Solzhenitsyn was “dangerous” and “a zealot.” His crime?  He believed he was “in possession of The Truth.”

Solzhenitsyn’s rejection of Postmodern relativism had direct ramifications for his view of art. In his Nobel Prize lecture, published in 1972, he contrasted two types of artists. “One artist imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world” while “another artist recognizes above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God’s heaven”. Solzhenitsyn urged artists to adopt the latter approach. Reality, including spiritual reality, is not something that we create for ourselves, since it exists external to us. Solzhenitsyn expanded on this in a 1993 speech delivered to the National Arts Club after his acceptance of the Medal of Honor for Literature:

“For a post-modernist the world does not possess values that have reality. He even has an expression for this: ‘the world as text,’ as something secondary, as the text of an author’s work, wherein the primary object of interest is the author himself in his relationship to the work, his own introspections…. A denial of any and all ideals is considered courageous. And in this voluntary self-delusion, ‘post-modernism’ sees itself as the crowning achievement of all previous culture, the final link in its chain…. There is no God, there is no truth, the universe is chaotic, all is relative, ‘the world is text,’ a text any post-modernist is willing to compose. How clamorous it all is, but also – how helpless.