Red Letter Alerts

These are troubling times indeed. The country is deeply divided along political party lines. Hatred, hypocrisy and deceitfulness abound. Although I’ve watched this divisiveness build up for some time, I was not prepared for the deep division between believers. On one side of the divide are Christians like me who cannot condone behavior that completely contradicts the gospel of Jesus. On the other side are seemingly conservative folks who are able somehow to excuse vile, amoral behavior. And many believers are caught in the middle, not knowing what to believe.

This division between believers is distressing but it should not have surprised me. When I first realized how deep this chasm is, I remember thinking, Jesus warned us that it would be like this. Brother will turn against brother. Believers will be lured away by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I can’t ignore the AMBER alerts on my phone. They’re too loud. Unfortunately, JESUS alerts are easy to ignore, especially if you let the noise of the world drown out his voice. So I spent some time rereading the red-letter words in my Bible, searching for other warnings.

Ten Red-Letter Warnings

1. Guard yourself against hypocrisy (Luke 12:1)

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is holding yourself out to be godly but not being obedient to God’s commandments. It is reducing faith to a rigid set of rules about how people should behave – especially other people. It is an outward display of righteousness that does not match what is in the heart. Hypocrites honor God with their lips but their hearts are far from him; they worship God in vain. (Mark 7:6-7)

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were experts in religious laws and made a great show of piety. They practiced cleansing rituals and tithing but neglected more important matters like justice, mercy and faithfulness. They were greedy and self-indulgent. Even worse, they led other people astray.

Jesus was so disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that he called them blind guides, a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:13-36). He saw through the outward displays of righteousness into their hearts. To guard yourself against hypocrisy, you must look inside your own heart to see what is not pleasing to God.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

2. Guard yourself against all kinds of greed (Luke 12:15)

Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.

Greed is an intense, excessive desire for wealth or possessions. Why did Jesus say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God? Because you can’t serve both God and money. If you place too much value on money and possessions, you become a slave to your possessions. You will not be devoted to God and the things he values. Instead of focusing on acquiring earthly possessions, we should store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-20).

But notice that Jesus said to guard against “all kinds” of greed. People can also be greedy for power or fame or attention. Be on guard against any overwhelming desire to acquire more for yourself.

3. Avoid temptation; Take all sin seriously (Matthew 5:19, Mark 9:43)

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.

Jesus didn’t just warn believers to not be greedy, self-indulgent hypocrites. He warned his followers to take all sin seriously and to not lead others astray. Believers should remove any source of temptation even if it is painful. That may mean giving up something you value – a relationship, a job or a hobby.

Jesus didn’t just caution his followers not to sin in ways that people can see; he set the bar higher. For example, it is not enough to avoid killing; we must also avoid anger and hatred. It is not enough to avoid adultery; we must avoid lusting in our hearts. It is not enough to love your neighbor; we must love our enemies.

4. Watch your words (Matthew 12:34-37)

You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Although Jesus was responding to the scribes and Pharisees in this passage, his words contain a warning for believers as well. Jesus made it clear that what comes out of our hearts is what makes us unclean. When I find myself saying something unkind, it’s a sign that my heart is not pure.

With this warning, Jesus also tells us how to discern wickedness in others so we can steer clear of their influence. We should not ignore hateful words because hateful words come from a hateful heart. Lies come from a deceitful heart. Bullying comes from a mean heart. Boastfulness comes from an overly proud heart.

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good.

5. Consider carefully how (and what) you hear (Luke 8:18, Matthew 13:11-15)

Jesus often spoke in parables. When the disciples asked why, Jesus told them that there are people whose hearts are too calloused and hard to understand his message. If they were receptive to Jesus, they would see and hear and understand with their hearts. Understanding a message through parables takes more study and reflection.

The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

Jesus revealed secrets about the kingdom of God. Many people hear the message but do not believe. Others believe the word of God, but do not allow it to take root and change them. Anyone who sincerely seeks Jesus can hear and understand. But if we want to understand, we must consider carefully how we listen. Are we listening with an open heart? Are we remaining in his word so we can grow? Or are we letting his words be choked out by life’s worries, riches and pleasures?

There is a real danger in not paying attention to what Jesus is saying, in not sincerely seeking to know God’s will. To me, absolutely the worst words I could ever hear would be Jesus saying, “I don’t know you.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

6. Do not judge, or you too will be judged (Matthew 7:1-5)

Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

This one is tough because a lot of people don’t understand the difference between judging and discerning. Jesus is not saying that we should ignore wrongdoing. He is not saying that we shouldn’t warn people about the consequences of sin. He is saying that unless we are without sin (and no one is), we are not qualified to judge other people. Instead of judging, we should focus our energy and attention on correcting our own behavior. We should put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We are not to condemn other people if we don’t want to be condemned ourselves. If you want forgiveness, you must forgive. Again, don’t be a hypocrite. Deal with your own stuff first.

7. Watch out for deceivers (Matthew 7:15-16)

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit, you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?

People will come claiming to be righteous, claiming to speak for God,  but their real motivation is something else – power, money or status. How can you discern whether a teaching is false? Does it glorify God? Is it loving or hostile towards other people? Does it conflict with what the Bible teaches about God? Does it take scriptures out of context?

Be very suspicious of claims that just don’t ring true. The claim that God would “raise up” a wicked man to do something good for this nation does not ring true. Why? Because Jesus made it clear that an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. How do I know that a man is evil? By his rotten fruit: sexual immorality, hatred, discord, jealousy, anger, selfish ambition, arrogance, idolatry, cheating, greed, and dishonesty.

8. Be prepared for division (Matthew 10:34-36)

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

Jesus warned his disciples about coming division. Being committed to Christ means your relationship with him is the most important relationship in you life. A believer’s values and goals conflict with the world’s values and goals. The choice to follow Jesus separates believers from those who reject him.

But I’m starting to see that the division is not just between those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t. I see the separation between hypocrites and real followers of Christ. I see the separation between Christians who pursue redemption through legalism and those who believe that salvation is through God’s grace alone (sola gratia). And Jesus said that when the Son of Man comes, “he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

9. Be prepared for hatred and/or persecution (John 15:18-21)

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.

People may hate you not because of what you’ve done or because of who you are but simply because you follow Jesus. As Jesus explained it, the world loves people who belong to the world. If you follow Jesus, you no longer belong to the world. You no longer conform to worldly values. You should be radically different – turning the other cheek, loving your enemies.

A couple of words of caution because many people distort the meaning of this warning.

  • Some believers blame Jesus because they are hated. But many non-believers hate Christians because they don’t see Christ-like behavior. They see a hypocrite. They see someone who is judgmental. They see someone who doesn’t love her neighbor as she loves herself.
  • Some believers use accusations of hatred as a weapon. If you don’t agree with them, they accuse you of being hateful.
  • Many Evangelicals falsely claim to be persecuted. Separation of church and state is not persecution. Not being able to say “Merry Christmas” is not persecution.
10. Be spiritually prepared for Jesus to return (Luke 21:25-28; Mark 13:32-33)

There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.

No one knows when Jesus will return. He will return when people least expect it. While I long for Jesus to return, I do not expect him to return anytime soon. But what if he did? Am I living a life that pleases him? Am I ready for the unexpected?

The first Christians expected Jesus to return at any time. When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy around A.D. 64, he said that there will be terrible times in the last days. He also described the kinds of people that we should avoid.

People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

Guarding yourself with the gospel of peace

Jesus told his followers to be on guard because he did not want them to stray from his teaching. He wanted them to be prepared for difficulties – like the troubled times we face today. He wanted his followers to be on watch for his return.

I can’t imagine anyone who was more prepared for conflict than Paul. He was beaten and imprisoned for spreading the gospel. But he was not discouraged. He encouraged other believers to stand firm in their faith. In a letter to the Ephesians, Paul said to put on the full armor of God so that you will be able to stand when the day of evil comes.

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I pray that other believers when faced with the troubles of today will not listen to the teachings of modern-day Pharisees but will instead listen to the words of Jesus.

Confession Time: I will never be perfectly good.

Today at church, my pastor asked the congregation to raise a hand if we had a good week. Lots of hands went up. Then he asked, were you good this week? Almost everyone kept their hands down. But I saw a neatly dressed older man across the aisle from me raise his hand. The pastor again asked, were you perfectly good? Again the man raised his hand. All the while, I was thinking about my filthy mouth as I drove to and from work this week, in my car, alone. I was impatient with slow drivers, annoyed at those who aren’t as smart as me – the ones who don’t know where they’re going.

The pastor’s questions were the segue to our weekly quiet time of confession. I always have something to confess to the Lord: anger, impatience, unkindness, being judgmental, spiritual laziness, etc. In fact, I’m rarely finished confessing when the pastor speaks again to end the moment of confession time silence. Even if I’m only focusing on one particular sin that week, I pray about it deeply and sincerely.

I don’t personally know the man in the conservative dark suit who was perfectly good this week. Maybe he really is very pure in heart and had nothing to confess. I’m skeptical. I don’t believe anyone is perfectly good. Perhaps it’s because I know myself so well. I look in my heart on a daily basis and see how short I fall of God’s glory.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a memorial service for a woman who was described in the eulogy as an angel, a saint. Of course, that’s what a eulogy is for –  to speak highly of the departed. But the eulogy left me feeling comparatively bad because I know I’m no angel. Later, I spoke to a friend who was at the service and he said, “I always thought she was kind of pious. I wanted to go the service to see what she was really like.” He recalled a time when he referred to himself as a sinner in need of grace and the woman said, “I don’t think of myself as a sinner.” All I could say was “wow!” because I can’t imagine a day when I will ever think of myself as not a sinner.

I want to be good. I strive to be good. It would be great if there was ever a week, ever even one day, that I didn’t need confession time. My inner being delights in God’s law: love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.

But another law is at work in me, waging war against the rules I know in my mind. I know that I should be patient, kind and generous. I know I should love my enemies. I know I shouldn’t cuss at other drivers! But selfishness is right there with me making me a prisoner of the sin at work within me.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

Many people think they are good because they compare themselves to people who are bad. I confess that I will never be good because my standard is much higher. Thanks be to God for forgiving me even when I don’t deserve it.

Forgiven, forgiven, you love me even when I don’t deserve it.

 

 

 

 

I am not enough.

Yesterday I picked up a book at the library – Nothing to Prove: Why We Can Stop Trying So Hard, by Jennie Allen. I flipped to the back of the cover flap to read about the author and saw a photo of a beautiful, young woman. I read the intro called “Admitting Our Thirst” and the first chapter where she makes her “quiet confession” – how in so many situations in life, she has concluded that she is not enough. This confession resonates with me big time. I’ve always been plagued with self-doubt. I am certainly not an underachiever. But I have a tendency to worry too much about what people think of me. I also think that I am not enough: not good enough, not successful enough, not popular enough.

This week I went to the memorial service for a beautiful woman who sat in front of me at church for many years. Sharyl was 77 years old – almost the same age my mother was when she passed away. Sharyl called me and the others in our section “pew pals.” We didn’t socialize outside church but we were friends, chatting for a few minutes before the service or in Sunday school. Over the years, I learned that she was from Salina, Kansas, the town I lived in after college. Her family lived in Texas and she traveled often to see them, even more than I visit my family in Kansas.

The memorial service for Sharyl was long because there was so much to say about her mission work, her gift of hospitality, her love of traveling (she had achieved her bucket list of visiting all 50 states and 7 continents), and the godly example she set for her children. She was active in the church’s mission work, particularly with the Uyghur ethic group in China. She was remembered as a saint, an angel. But I was also impressed with her intelligence. She graduated with a degree in mathematics in the early ’60’s, before she married and had four kids.

I grieved Sharyl’s loss but in learning more about her life, I also found myself playing the mind game I always play – comparing myself to a good person who has accomplished much and finding myself wanting. I am not godly enough. I don’t have her gifts. I haven’t accomplished enough. I’m not interesting enough. I am not enough.

There is something comforting in knowing that someone who seems to have it all has also been tormented with feelings of insufficiency. I am not alone.

Jennie Allen said that if she were my enemy she would play mind games with me. She would make me believe that I am helpless. She would make me believe I am insignificant. She would make me believe that God wants my good behavior. She would make me numb and distract my attention from what God is doing.

If all of these mind games didn’t work, my enemy would attack my identity and make me feel like I have to prove myself. Then friends would become enemies. I would isolate myself. I would hold myself back. I would judge and condemn other people rather than love them. And I would lose my joy because I would be paying so much attention to myself that I would take my eyes off of God.

Wow. I’m looking forward to my journey through this book, hoping that Jennie’s insight will free me from my need to prove myself good enough, worthy enough, accomplished enough.

I am not enough and I am done trying to be.

 

 

 

 

 

Renewing My Mind and Spirit

On Sunday, I realized that I have been feeling kind of low – not exactly depressed but certainly discouraged. When I am not at work or out running or hiking, I am unmotivated and uninspired. I have not written a new blog post for more than a month. All I seem to want to do is read news stories on social media. And I think that is the problem. When I read too much about what is going on in the world, I worry about the state of our country.  I am disgusted by the propaganda and hatefulness but there is little that I can do about it.

In church this week, my pastor started a new sermon series on the Holy Spirit. He said that we all have a spirit though many people suppress it. The nonreligious allow the body, emotions, and mind/will to dominate the spirit. But for those of us who have been given the Holy Spirit as a guide, the Spirit can transform the other parts of us.

The sermon could not have come at a better time for me. I am not at peace. I let myself worry too much about politics. I hate what is evil, as I should. I certainly don’t want to become complacent or ignorant but I can’t let my spirit be overcome by the wickedness I see. Too often, I let myself be tempted into reading the comments below the articles I read – and find a cesspool of insults and untruths. There I get a glimpse into the hearts of the worst sorts of people,  many of them claiming to be Christians. It’s like watching a train wreck.

Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Today, I am committing myself to spiritual renewal. Instead of plugging into the power of social media, I will plug into the power of the Spirit.

With the words of Romans 12 as my guide, I will put love into action:

I will cling to what is good

I will be joyful in hope

I will live in harmony with others

I will be patient with others

I will be kind

I will be humble

I will share with those in need

I will be faithful in prayer

I will not repay evil with evil

I will not let my spirit be overcome by evil, but will overcome evil with good.

Romans 8:5-6 (NIV)

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

 

 

A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man

In The Road to Character, David Brooks wrote about people who demonstrated “eulogy virtues” as opposed to “resume virtues,” drawing on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s essay about the dual nature of man. I was intrigued by the rabbi’s take on human nature so I decided to read the essay myself. The rabbi wrote The Lonely Man of Faith as a confession of the inner conflicts experienced by a person of faith, particularly his feeling of estrangement and separation from the secular world. He offered no solutions to these conflicts but hoped to grow in self-knowledge by sharing his experiences. The Lonely Man of Faith was published more than fifty years ago but as a “lonely” woman of faith, I find it still relevant today.

One Man Engaged in Self-Confrontation

The rabbi noted that there are two different versions of man’s creation in the book of Genesis. The differences have led some to question whether they were written by the same person. The rabbi believed the accounts were different because the author was describing different aspects of human nature, one part that is focused on achievement (doing) and one part that is focused on spiritual growth (being).

Genesis 1 says that God created mankind in his own image, both male and female, to rule over all creatures on earth – animals and fish and birds. The second chapter of Genesis says that God formed a man from the dust and breathed life into him so that he became a living being. God put the man in the garden of Eden to take care of it and cultivate it. Later, God decided that the man needed a helper so he put him to sleep and created a woman from his rib.

The second account of man’s creation does not say that man was created in God’s image; it says he was created from the dust of the ground, a much more humble description. The first account speaks of male and female as if they were created concurrently; the second account says that Adam was created first. In the first account, man was given dominion over all creation; in the second account he was put in charge of tending the garden of Eden.

The rabbi called the two conflicting versions of man Adam the first and Adam the second. Created in God’s image, Adam the first is himself creative and intelligent. He dominates creation and lives to achieve. He wants to know how things work. He expresses himself outwardly, with actions and words. He doesn’t just create things. He also creates laws and rules to govern creation because there is dignity in being orderly. Adam I is motivated by a desire for dignity and respect. He gets his sense of human identity from being noticed by others for his talents. He is very conscious of his status relative to others and wants to impress people with his importance.

The rabbi described Adam the second as a seeking, inquisitive man. He wants to know why the world exists. He wants to know what it all means. What is the purpose of our existence? What gives life meaning and purpose? Who is the mysterious One who follows me like a shadow yet disappears when I try to confront him? Who is the revealed and hidden God? Adam II sees God in nature – “in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening.”

Rather than calling them Adam I and Adam II, I prefer to think of the conflicting versions of Adam as the Striving Self and the Seeking Self. Both parts of the self embrace being human but to be human means something different to each. The Striving Self seeks dominion over his environment. His goal is to glorify himself and demonstrate his worth to others. The Seeking Self believes there is “another mode of existence through which man can find his own self.” He seeks a path of redemption. He is humble enough to see that he is not always good. He admits failure and defeat. He opens himself up to being confronted by God and being overpowered by him.

I agree with the rabbi that the creation story is symbolic. We weren’t literally created in God’s image but have divine attributes. We weren’t literally created from dirt but we certainly act like it sometimes. But I think that in describing the dual nature of man based on the book of Genesis, the rabbi left out a significant part of the creation story – the part that explains why man struggles so much.

  • Why is there a void that nothing else can fill? Not money, not fame, not status?
  • Why does the Seeking Self feel the need for redemption?
  • Where did we get our sense of right and wrong, the knowledge of good and evil?
  • Why does God feel so far off?
  • Why does it feel like our very existence is cursed?

The answers are in Genesis 3, the story of “the fall.” When God created the first man, he told him that he could eat from any tree in the garden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve was tempted by the serpent to disobey God’s command and she talked Adam into it as well. They ate the forbidden fruit and their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness. For the first time, they knew shame and fear. Before this act of disobedience, man had a personal relationship with God. But because they disobeyed, God banished them from the garden and cursed the ground from which they came. For “dust you are and to dust you will return.”

The personalities described by the rabbi are one person engaged in self-confrontation. The rabbi noted that the process of redemption does not have to be acted on externally, rather, it is process that happens inside the self. By exercising self-discipline and self-control, a person develops feelings of self-worth. In contrast, the Christian faith teaches that redemption comes through repentance and faith in the redeemer, Jesus Christ. Being virtuous can certainly make you feel good about yourself. But knowing that you have worth in the Creator’s eyes, even as a sinner, is even better.

The rabbi described the person of faith as a wanderer, oscillating between two worlds – the utilitarian, external world of Adam I and the redemptive, inner world of Adam II. In seeking a transcendental experience – a relationship with a higher power – the person of faith feels like a stranger in the modern world. Modern man often seems self-centered and even narcissistic.  The person of faith seeks meaning in something outside the self – in a higher being.

I think that we are all spiritual beings whether or not we practice introspection, regardless of whether we open up ourselves to being confronted by a higher moral power. Many people do not want to examine themselves closely. It’s not comfortable. Sometimes it is even painful. We resist criticism and judgment. We are too proud to admit failure and too independent to submit themselves to the authority of a higher being.

The rabbi noted that one of the struggles a person of faith faces is the fact that he cannot prove his beliefs are true. He can’t prove that God created the world. He can’t prove that the invisible God is here. But his beliefs are central to his identity as a human being. For the person of faith, to be human is to believe in something more powerful, intelligent and glorious than the human mind can imagine. The inability to communicate this experience to people without faith leads to feelings of estrangement. It enhances the feeling of uniqueness and separateness. For the rabbi, this feeling of rejection and disconnection is a form of loneliness. It is an awareness of your inability to connect on a deep, intimate level.

Today, I think it is even more difficult for a person of faith to feel like she belongs in the secular world. The world is even more driven by technology than it was in 1965, when Soloveitchik’s essay was published. Social media encourages self-centeredness and narcissism. It connects people in ways that are largely superficial and keeps people from engaging in a deep and meaningful way with people who are physically present. This is a “look at me” kind of world where people believe that their worth is somehow determined by the number of “likes” they get.

Over the past few decades, people of faith have become troubled by the decline in morality, a perfectly understandable concern. However, in the quest to gain moral control of a world that at least figuratively seems to be going to hell, many religious people abandoned the true purpose of evangelism – spreading the good news of salvation. The religious right became like Adam I, striving for power and dominion, and lost sight of the ways we should be relating to others – with love, forgiveness and mercy. They also forgot that humans were not created to have dominion over other human beings.

The Meaningless World of the Striving Self

The rabbi was certainly not the first person to feel estranged from the world. King Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes as a reflection on his experience as an Adam I type of personality, striving and toiling “under the sun.” He was a wealthy man. He accomplished a lot. He built houses and planted vineyards and gardens. He acquired livestock and flocks, gold and silver. He denied himself nothing. But he was conflicted about the meaning and purpose of life.

When he looked back at what he had achieved in his lifetime, he found it all meaningless. What good does it do to acquire wealth if you have to leave it behind to someone who did not labor for it? Solomon understood that much of our striving and ambition stem from envy of our neighbor. We want what other people have and we want to impress people with what we have. It is like “chasing the wind.”

Solomon also realized just how temporal life is. People come and people go. Those who are yet to come will not remember those living now. Who knows what will happen when a man is gone? Solomon said that God “set eternity in the hearts of men” yet we cannot understand what God has done. Even as a very wise man, Solomon could not comprehend exactly what we humans are doing here on this earth. Time and chance happen to all of us. Death is a certainty for humans just as it is for animals. Ultimately, even as Solomon saw purpose in enjoying what you do on this earth, he concluded that the duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments.

Lonely but not alone…

I can understand why Rabbi Soloveitchik described the faith experience as a lonely one. I have experienced rejection and ridicule for believing in what I cannot see. I have learned to expect this. But I can honestly say that I have never felt more estranged from the larger faith community than I do today. I see evidence of hearts that have become hardened. I am reminded of what Jesus said when asked why he spoke in parables (Matthew 13: 13-15):

This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
'You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

One final thought on Adam II, the seeking self. A person of faith has no choice but to live in the world of Adam I. But we’re not supposed to conform to the patterns of the self-glorifying world of Adam I. We’re supposed to be transformed by God. When we are truly transformed, we understand with our hearts.

Jesus came into the world to show us how to live, to show us how to tend the garden. He said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.” “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”