the simple grace of loving

christianwiman

Poet Christian Wiman:

“There are other moments, too, which are simply moments of life. Simply! I think of the poet Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I have 3-year-old twin daughters. It would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to pretend that they don’t at times drive all thought of God out of my head and make me want to write a series of sonnets in praise of celibacy, but it would be equally insane for me not to acknowledge that they are the source of my greatest happiness. Father Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov, defines hell as “the inability to love.” I have known that hell, and I should probably spend my remaining days thanking God that I am free of it.”

When my wife was pregnant for the first time, a friend who had just the year before had his first child, was trying to tell me how great it was to have kids. He said, “It’s amazing. You are filled with so much love.” 

I’ve since thought many times of the simple, surprising truth in this: that one of the greatest graces in life (what makes parenthood so “amazing”) is not anything your children give you or do for you. Rather, it is the gift of being filled full of love for someone else. (And of course, you need not have children to know this kind of other-focused love.)

To learn this is to somehow draw near to the beating heart of all reality. To never learn this – to never know this – is an unspeakable loss.

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Making good things more precious still

I’ve heard that Saint Augustine told a story of a new bride on the morning after her wedding. With the groom lying beside her, she awakes in love, enthralled. But not with the groom. Instead, the morning after her wedding, she falls helplessly in love not with the man but with his most expensive gift. She is enthralled with the wedding ring. Eyes only for the ring, she begins a life in love with the beautiful stone. The spouse who lies beside her has already lost her interest. She leaves him to live for the ring he gave her.

Augustine told the story to illustrate the human tendency to love the gifts more than the Giver of those gifts – a condition of the heart as foolish and as tragic as the condition of the bride in his brief story. Surrounded by a world full of wonderful gifts, given one and all from the Father of heavenly lights, man becomes enthralled with the gifts themselves and ignores or rejects the Father who gave them.

This is the danger of valuing good things too highly; we must not just rejoice in the ring, but in our Beloved who gave it. This is idolatry, a deep and deadly sin and one of the primal sins of all of humanity according to the apostle Paul (among others). It is remedied in part by gratitude. But gratitude alone is not enough. To give thanks rightly requires gratitude not only for the good things we have, but also gratitude directed to the Giver of the things themselves.

Yet understanding good things as gifts from a Giver changes the way we see the gifts in another way as well. It makes them even more precious than they are on their own. For in light of the reality of a Giver, good things are not only good in themselves, but take on an even greater value because of the reason why they are given.

Consider a diamond: a precious stone, costly and beautiful, with it’s own spectacular, unique properties. A diamond ring is good. But a diamond wedding ring is more precious still, for a diamond wedding ring has a value that lies beyond the costliness of the stone, in the reason and the relationship out of which it was given. The wedding ring is priceless to the bride because it is a token of love, given by a lover, to signify his commitment and passion and love.

When we consider any gifts we have been given – from family and friends, to sunshine, and coffee and emerald green grass alongside the vast and brilliant sea – we see things that are good and precious in and of themselves. How priceless is laughter with friends! How rich and warm the taste of coffee, the sight of a sunrise! How good is life, all around us! Good, precious gifts, good and precious in and of themselves.

And yet, more valuable still. Because each comes to us as a token of love. Because behind each stands a great Giver, committed, passionate, extravagant, and good.

There is a danger, like the bride in Augustine’s story, of valuing the good things of this world too highly. We must not. Their ultimate value lies in the One who gave them.

But we also must not value good things too little. Their goodness is real, and they have come to us as a token of love. The reality of a Giver, makes good things more precious still.

the air into which we are born


Eugene Peterson, quoted by Carolyn Custis James:

“Giving…is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth. Giving is the way the world is. God gives himself. He also gives away everything that is. He makes no exceptions for any of us. We are given away to our families, to our neighbors, to our friends, to our enemies – to the nations. Our life is for others. That is the way creation works. Some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves…afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving…and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”

gratitude and God

I’m not a philosopher. So I’m just poking around here, not trying to claim too much. But it seems to me that one of the best lines of apologetic argument is to argue from the premise of some good of human existence or human flourishing, on to a demonstration that this “good” only makes sense in light of the existence of God.

This is nothing new, but it seems to me potent. Putting together a number of these arguments helps demonstrate that Christianity is the most livable worldview; that it not only makes the best sense of the world logically, but that it makes the most sense of, and is the most consistent in terms of, lived human experience.

C. S. Lewis makes a number of these arguments in Mere Christianity, arguing from the existence of morality or a moral law in the beginning of that book, on to the existence of a Lawgiver; or arguing from the existence of a deep universal, unfulfilled desire, on to the reality of God, as in his chapter on Hope.

So it seems you could put together arguments for God based on things like “gratitude”; something like this:

  1. It is good for humans to live grateful lives. (or, Gratitude is essential to human flourishing.)
  2. Ultimately gratitude makes no sense apart from a transcendant good and an ultimate Giver.
  3. Therefore, there is an ultimate Giver – God.

Philosophers would formulate this better, and they probably have. Chesterton argued this in a number of ways. But it seems to me very fruitful ground for reflection, and for Christian apologetic living. Living a life of gratitude is beautiful and good, and yet that life makes the most sense only in the context of the existence of God. As Chesterton said somewhere, the athiest’s loneliest moment is when something happens that fills him with immense gratitude, and he realizes he has no one to thank.

the gift of restoration, unwittingly received

W.H. Auden, from his Horae Canonicae:

That, while we are thus away, our own wronged flesh

May work undisturbed, restoring

The order we try to destroy, the rhythm

We spoil out of spite: valves close

And open exactly, glands secrete,

Vessels contract and expand

At the right moment, essential fluids

Flow to renew exhausted cells,

Not knowing quite what has happened, but awed

Alan Jacobs:

Our bodies – our animal bodies, working heedless and independent of our ruined, rebellious wills – bear witness not just to God’s creative power, but to his ever-gracious, universal, ongoing work of healing and restoration. Whether we suffer righteously, or suffer the inevitable consequences of our own ‘spite,’ the restorative work of our flesh continues, a free gift offered to all and, yes, received by all – though by most unwittingly.

What an amazing instrument you are

I can’t tell you, though, how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world – what a sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us. I am glad I didn’t understand, because I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life; it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need. Who would have thought that the moon could dazzle and flame like that?

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

We mustn’t be more pious than God

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison:

I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives… . Everything has its time, and the main thing is that we keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead — nor keep dawdling a step behind. It’s presumptuous to want to have everything at once — matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly Jerusalem, where they neither marry not are given in marriage. “To everything there is a season.

HERE.