Christian Moralism and The Presidency of Donald Trump

“21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23

One of the most subtle and, therefore, most dangerous temptations in the Christian life is to judge for oneself who God has chosen to be a vehicle for His truth, His goodness, or His purposes. More egregious is to judge who God has chosen not just as a vehicle for His truth or goodness, but who God has chosen to be one of His own. For the two are not always the same. Various scriptures, known to all, present us with a paradox that does not allow for an easy answer to these questions. For example, in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus announces with great force that there are many who we think are God’s servants in this life based either on their good works, or their religiosity, but who God knows are not true servants, and, being false believers, will consequently be cast from His eternal presence. Further along in Matthew’s gospel we find the parable of the weeds, where Jesus explains to His disciples that only at the end of days will it be revealed who was of God, and who of the evil one (see Matt 13:24-30). In this parable the implication is clear, neither the disciples, nor by extension their successors, are in a position to know who is a true follower of Christ, and who is not. That knowledge is reserved for the divine Mind only. It may very well turn out we find ourselves quite surprised (pleasantly I imagine) about who we bump into in the Almighty’s new creation.

However, on the other side of this attempt to discern spiritual good from evil, Christ does tell us there are some things we can know about people and their relationship to God. In Mark 9:38-41 Jesus tells the disciples that anyone who is not against Jesus is for Him, and that anyone who does mighty works in His name cannot afterward “speak evil of [Him].” So people who are not against Him, but maybe are not yet fully on board with Him, could yet be His in some way (a few very thoughtful atheist who often defend Christianity come to my mind rather quickly).

Also, in a passage highly favored by Christians skeptical of our current president, Jesus tells us straightforwardly that a tree is known by its fruit, Matthew 7:15-20. Passages like these appear to give us some criteria by which we can judge the moral and spiritual character of others. If people cast out demons in Jesus name, then maybe they are or soon will come to be His. If there is the fruit of good works in the life of a professed believer, then maybe they are also truly His. If the moral character of someone seems rotten however, then maybe we can rightly criticize them, or at least distance ourselves from these bad apples, even if we can not with certainty know the final status of their salvation.

However, that this task of spiritual discernment will be an easy one is never said to be the case. After all, what is “good” fruit and what is “bad” fruit may not always be clear to us. And, as is often the case, our own sin will inevitably prevent us from discerning correctly this moral and spiritual fruit of which Jesus speaks. This is why Jesus also gives us another command, one often taken too literally by the Christian antinomian: “Judge not, lest you be judged yourself.” So, the hard question of “can we know who belongs to Jesus?” is only partially answered for us. Ultimately we cannot know, but in the meantime we seem to be called to try and discern the best we can, and that based on the fruit of someone’s actions, which will potentially show their moral character, and maybe give us a glimpse of their spiritual estate, something not unimportant, since it also would function as an indicator to who is safe and trustworthy, and who is not.

Unfortunately, as we will see below, ultimate safety and trust can only be found in Christ alone.

Spiritual & Moral Judgment in Our Popular Culture

Today it is fashionable to judge people based solely on their public persona. Well, perhaps this has always been the case, but today it is easier to know a persona as opposed to an actual person. These personas we encounter through the various and manifold filters of social media. Very few of us have in fact any personal connection to the people whose moral and spiritual status we claim to know, and in knowing, claim to be able to properly judge. We receive minuscule amounts of data about all kinds of people: athletes, movie stars, epidemiologists, scholars, and yes, presidents who we claim to know. Further, we are quick to ascertain not just their beliefs about God, but also their moral and spiritual standing before Him. We fool ourselves in thinking we know them, perhaps even know them better than they themselves, or their close companions, or their family.

With regard to spiritual discernment, while in some cases it is clear that a person simply is not a believer in Jesus (or not yet), and therefore needs to receive the Gospel, in other cases it remains somewhat obscure. These cases, which would apply to men and women who profess Christ publicly and perhaps even lead some part of His Church, demand, therefore, that much more discernment, that much more prayer, and that much more careful and reflective thought before an adjudication is made about whether or not to trust them. However, in the era of the internet, to actually take the time for this kind of discernment has become an increasingly rare practice (myself included!). We move quickly in our judgments of others spiritual estate, before hardly enough evidence has been collected or prayers offered. As such, we have devolved into a church of satan, here understanding satan as what his Hebrew name actually means, the accuser. We are a church of spiritual accusers.

But then there is also the broader cultural problem of moral discernment. This, on the one hand is categorically easier than spiritual discernment, since it relates only to the moral fruit of a person’s life, and has nothing necessarily to do with one’s spiritual status before God. However, confusion can arise when Christians, who are interested in both the spiritual and the moral, begin to conflate the two, expecting that for any given Christian, there you will find a very moral person. A common error to all of us, and one rooted in a deep theological enigma: the fact of salvation vs. the reality of sanctification. However, it is not just that Christians can have expectations too high when it comes to the process of moral cleansing and perfection in this life. Rather, it is also the case that we have seen too many examples of Christians who on the outside have appeared to be quite moral indeed, only later to be revealed as something entirely different. It is in this sense that Christians must exercise caution and wisdom when trying to discern “fruit.” For moral rottenness does not necessarily translate into spiritual rottenness, as moral excellence, or the appearance of it, does not necessarily translate into spiritual purity.

Who God Chooses is Not Who You or I Would Choose

It simply is not the case that every good person will look or act like a Mother Theresa. This would be simplistic and reductionist discernment. It would also be foolish and naive. In the end there will be many who display all forms of moral failure, yet whose heart and will is more aligned with God’s heart and will than those whose outward personality seems pure and untainted. For every Mother Theresa there may be an Oskar Schindler, just as for every Mary there is a David, or a Samson.

Appearances, and even good works of a tremendous kind and variety, simply will not be sufficient for us to know with any certainty the true heart of another human being. This tragic reality became very real for many followers of the late Catholic missionary, Jean Vanier, whose life looked about as close to that of Mother Theresa, or John Paul II, or Jesus, as one could imagine. Yet this founder of L’arche, a ministry dedicated to the most vulnerable among us, was simply not what he seemed to be. Now many have had to backtrack and distance themselves from someone whose inner life was deeply disturbing and whose covert actions may have been more damaging to the witness of the Gospel than even all of his good works combined. While it is difficult to come to a final conclusion about such things, what is not difficult is to know that the entire legacy of Vanier and his ministry is now tainted, and that with a very dark tint indeed.

This lesson should hopefully act as a catalyst therefore to those who are perhaps too eager to criticize the outward character that is Donald Trump. A man who we know has been a great womanizer, a foul-mouthed and lavish philanderer, a crude jokester, and, although evidence is quite scant, even potentially a racial bigot. This is not to say that one cannot reasonably distance himself from such a person, and certainly it is not to say that one cannot criticize what is rightly worthy of critique. But, it is to say that one should tread very lightly, especially as a follower of Christ, about judging too precisely who God might decide to select to be His vehicle for truth, or His providence. We must beware of acting the Christian moralist, like those many Pharisees whose superiority was known only to themselves but not to the Lord of Glory, who is also the Lord of Mercy, and the God of Redemption. In the end God will choose Who He chooses, and it is not always the most palatable character to our sensibilities. In fact, it is often those who are most difficult to accept that God will have act on His behalf. The converse of course is to be careful of those whose character does seem quite palatable to us, but who God does not know.

Moral Decision Making and the Fear of the Lord

In his book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says this about making moral decisions, “Participants in deliberation [about means to attaining goods] must make their decision because of how their practical reasoning went and not from fear or as a result of fraud or because they were bribed or seduced.”1MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Apple Books, 230. MacIntyre’s point here is that the morally responsible human being, when seeking to pursue an individual or common good, must make their moral decisions not based on fear, or fraud (deception), or because they “sold out,” or because they fell into temptation to pursue a merely perceived good. Rather, any decision to pursue any good (e.g. a marital relationship, children, an occupation, a skill), or make any moral decision (disciplining a child as opposed to letting her off the hook), must be born out of a careful application of prudential thinking. Prudence, of course, being the classical virtue which, according to Karen Swallow Prior, “measures the other virtues and determines ‘what makes an action good.’”2 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, 34-35.

Biblically speaking, prudence is what the Jewish or Christian man or woman might call proverbial wisdom— that wisdom about human affairs which we find in those books often referred to as “the Wisdom literature”: Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and, yes, even Song of Songs. This special revelation of Scripture affirms the use of practical reasoning in the process of making good, moral decisions. While the Holy Spirit can directly transmit knowledge to us regarding particular moral decisions or judgments, most of the time God allows us to learn to make good decisions through a process of indirect, spiritual formation— meaning that He is not telling us at every moment, in entirely certain terms, everything we should do and how to do it. Instead he is allowing us, like Jesus in His human nature, to grow in wisdom and stature (Lk 2:52). Growing requires learning however, and learning requires us to make mistakes. Learning from our mistakes helps us become more prudent thinkers.

However, this kind of practical or prudential reasoning, according to the Bible, also has a fundamental starting point, one we dare not neglect. That starting point is this: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). Thus, the act of rational thinking about what concrete goods to pursue in life, how to evaluate the process of attaining those goods, and why they should even be considered “good,” are all things that must be informed first and foremost by our understanding of, and relationship to, God. For any moral decision that is made apart from the “fear of the Lord” will indelibly contain an error. To not begin our practical decision making about a moral action with this fear of God is to inevitably wind up “missing the mark,” which is, in some real sense, just what sin is—morally irresponsible actions.

In this same passage, MacIntyre also alludes to four common, initial conditions from which we often do start our practical decision making; four conditions that are antithetical to the biblical starting point of “fear of the Lord.” They are: fear (human fear), fraud, bribery and seduction. If we do not start our moral deliberations with a consideration of the nature and will of God, then it is likely we will start from one of these four places. However, if we start from one of these places, our decisions will probably result in more human damage, even if that damage may be mitigated by other factors (e.g. the seriousness of the action taken, the simple grace of God, or maybe even the grace of an offended party). Nevertheless, it is worth considering each of these false starting points in order to train ourselves to think more prudentially, and more theologically, before taking any particular, moral action.

Acting From Fear

Possibly the most damaging starting point for any moral decision, especially a decision made by someone who claims faith in Christ, is that of fear. Fear is not a neutral starting point, even if a natural one. Biblically speaking fear is starting from a place of doubt, which is equivalent to a place of unfaithfulness. Doubt too may be natural to us, but for the Christian man or woman it entails a questioning of God’s Providence or of His Power (or possibly His existence). This is not to say that one, even the most mature and stalwart among us, will not have fears or experience doubt. After all, one cannot be rightly called “courageous” if there are no instances of fear to overcome. It is however to say that those fears cannot be what ultimately determines our moral decisions, and certainly it is to say that we should not start our process of decision making from a place of fearfulness, even if it is sometimes difficult not to start there.

There will be all kinds of practical concerns one has to weigh in life, many of them frightening to us: fears about death or injury, fears about loss of relationship, fears about loss of financial stability, etc. However, the final decision we make about a moral action cannot be based on the fear itself. One should not say simplistically then: “I am not going to do action X, because I am afraid I will die,” for example. For it very well could be the case that the moral action under consideration may warrant the risk to one’s physical existence, or, in special cases, the risk to the physical safety of another (that would be to say simplistically, “I am not going to do action X, because it may cause him or her to die.”).

For an example of the former think of a mother who is hemorrhaging during labor. She refrains from receiving medical treatment that might be necessary for her survival because it puts the life of her baby at risk. She may be afraid to die, but at the same time know that that fear cannot be what determines her decision about receiving the medical aid she needs. Hopefully, long prior to the labor and delivery, she has already contemplated deeply the intrinsic value of human life, and come to understand that if her starting point is “the fear of the Lord,” she may indeed be called to sacrifice her own life for the sake of another at some point. She may have come to understand, at the deepest level of her spiritual formation, that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down his [or her] life for his [or her] friends” is not simply a sentiment to be parroted on Sunday mornings, but an actual way of existing; an expression of ultimate reality, a divine command of God. If the mother’s prior starting point in her moral decision making, even before becoming pregnant, was “the fear of the Lord” then her action in the middle of trauma, i.e. her sacrificing medical treatment for the sake of the child, is one not born out of human fear, but one born out of moral goodness and Christ-like faithfulness. It becomes therefore an act of unconditional love, which is itself the greatest of the theological virtues (1 Cor 13:13).

For an example of the latter, however, now think of the mother who has natural fears for her older child. The mother fears intuitively for the safety of the child, and is often hovering to ensure that the child is not in any kind of immediate danger, danger either to their physical, or emotional, well-being. She stays close while the child does monkey bars on the playground; she teaches the child to look both ways, several times, before crossing the road; she makes sure the child always has their safety helmet on, perhaps even when on his tricycle. These are all fears that are in many ways justified. However, if the mother’s care for the child, and the daily moral decisions that go into that care, have as their starting point mere human fear, and not fear of the Lord, then the following kinds of sins can begin to emerge: the hovering over the child like a mother hen slowly transforms into a controlling act, one more suited to a Communist dictator than a caring mother. The child is stifled in their personal development, both in their physical development– never being allowed to challenge themselves by climbing the big tree at the park, the child’s muscles stay soft; and in their emotional and moral development– never being permitted to date, the child fails to grasp relational complexity and remains emotionally naive.

Even intellectual development can be stifled out of fear when challenges to the truth of the Christian worldview are barred entry into the life of the Christian family. This phenomena has been well documented recently: adults who have been Christians their entire life, even leaders in the Church, yet been kept in intellectual ignorance. The result is finding themselves intellectually shook to the core when first presented with even the mildest critiques of biblical truth or the Christian worldview. This has been a disturbing trend among so-called “celebrity Christians.

Further, and deeper still, is the hindering of spiritual development. If the now controlling mother, who operates out of human fear, keeps the child in a therapeutically sealed, existential bubble, then how, if not through real trials and struggles, can the child learn to become reliant on the Lord— on His goodness, His providence, and His strength? What, after all, would it have looked like if Rachel had prevented Jacob from allowing Joseph to go out and tend the sheep with his brothers? Joseph may have been spared much personal pain and sorrow, but at what cost to himself, his family, the nation of Egypt, and the people and plan of God? It seems incalculable.

In sum, life is full of problems, many of which cannot be avoided. As Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once pointed out, it is the fear of problems, and the emotional pain they might cause, that preclude people from not only from becoming wise, but that facilitates mental illness:

“It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn….It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems. [However] Most of us are not wise. Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems….This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, 16-17.

Acting from Fraud

Fraud is deceit. To act from fraud may not be as egregious as acting from fear, because it assumes a more passive role by the moral decision maker. They are not acting intentionally out of a place of deception, rather they have been deceived and therefore are basing their moral decisions on false premises. However, while persons acting from fraud as their starting point for a moral decision may be somewhat less liable for their actions, this is not to say they are entirely without responsibility. After all, we have the prior, moral responsibility to do what we can to ensure we are not taken hold of by false beliefs, or given over to bad information. We are called to be watchful, careful, and discerning. Jesus said “Behold I am sending out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matt 10:16), knowing full well what kind of sin-fallen world He was sending His apostles into, and the kind of resistance that would meet the bearer of “Good News.”

Thus, it becomes incumbent on the Christian, especially in a day and age where dis- and misinformation abound, to be diligent in their collection of data, in their interpretation of that data, and in their decision making based off of relevant information. This information could be testimony about any kind of cultural issue: political, economic, educational, and yes, even scientific. Therefore, the Christian must avoid simplistic or reductionist thinking that simply grants authority to any “talking head” on TV, radio, or the internet, regardless of that person’s popularity, or the popular narrative that has been spun around them. It also means that as Christians we must have a healthy, but not exaggerated, skepticism about so-called “experts.” We must understand that human reason is flawed and that there is no such thing as “the science” that tells us anything, rather, there are “scientists” who interpret data and then tell us some things.

The Devil’s Role in Fraud

Behind any of these false starting points it is also worth realizing that there are other forces at work than simply our own sinful nature; there are spiritual forces seeking to deceive and destroy us through that deception. Yes, Virginia, there is a Devil!, and he is no simple metaphor, he is metaphysical. He is also said to be “like a roaring lion” looking to devour believers. Jesus makes it crystal clear that the Devil is a murderer, and has been from the beginning. But, how can a conscious, yet immaterial entity murder a physical being like us? The answer since Genesis 3 has always been the same: through deceit, “He [Satan] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44). Since the Devil only in very rare occasions touches our physical nature (our bodies), his main weapon of choice is the lie, and lies come through words, and words are grasped cognitively. The battlefield of the mind, where truth is either recognized or repressed, is where the Christian must take “every thought captive to Christ” lest we be led down a path of making moral choices destructive both to our own person, and to others. Adam and Eve’s originating sin may have included an aspect of creaturely pride, as Augustine pointed out, but that pride was awakened by Satan’s deception. As Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms, Satan is, in his very nature, fraudulent. He is the great fraud, and his lies know no boundaries.

The counter to Satan’s lies has always been, and will be until Christ’s return, the Word of God, delivered to us both in the Person and work of Christ and in the words of the Holy Scriptures. For it is the Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword and that cuts between bone and marrow, soul and spirit, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of human hearts. To avoid fraud as our moral starting point, this is where we must turn. For it is the Word of God that judges the truth of statements that may appear morally correct, statements like “love is love,” but which ultimately are false. After all, it is God who is love, not human love that is god (1 John 4:8).

Ultimately, however, the devil’s best strategy is to stay away from questions of truth or falsehood entirely, and to misguide the moral decision maker by making all claims relative to something other than reason (something like human emotion or experience). C.S. Lewis alludes to this in his magnum opus on spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters:

“The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s [God] own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He [God] has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below [Satan]. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s [the Christian man] reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 1

In our current social climate, human emotions or personal experience have become the default starting point for most of our moral decision making. This places many of our moral actions on very unstable and shifting ground, a ground that the devil loves to play on. It should be no surprise then when we see dedications to him in books like Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a manuscript very popular with many political and social elitists.

Acting from Personal Gain (Bribery)

You cannot love both God and mammon, or so it has been said by, well, by God. One of Jesus’ earliest followers was inspired to write it this way, “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). The historical record is replete with man’s greediness for material wealth and voracious appetite for monetary gain. Nations have literally risen and fallen over the decadence of their rulers, just as local communities have suffered from corruption in their county and state governments. Households fall apart as well, as the thirst for money and luxury drive families to extremes which enslave them to the act of ‘money making.’

It is not money itself, however, that is evil. Rather, it is the disordered love of wealth that, if taken as one’s moral starting point, will inevitably lead to all kinds of evils. This love of money corrupts all aspirations to moral goodness, regardless of whether it be couched in a religious context, e.g. the Papacy of the Borgias or the Prosperity Gospel of today, or in a secular one, e.g. political cronyism or marketplace corruption. Christians should have no fear of earning money, even a lot of money, so long as the desire for it is rightly ordered and that, in their moral deliberations, the making of it or the keeping of it, is not the primary concern or ultimate goal. Money in the hands of the wise man can produce all kinds of social and even spiritual goods, and wealth in the possession of the righteous steward can serve many of God’s purposes on earth.

The love of money in the church however is a special kind of atrocity. Throughout its history money has bankrupted many a congregation. In Luther’s day doctrine was abused for the sake of sending riches to Rome for the building of St. Peter’s. While God ultimately used this abuse of indulgences to motivate a young Luther to nail his reformational theses to the Wittenberg door, the damage to human souls was nevertheless real, and the manipulation of doctrine tragic to the life and reputation of God’s Church. In recent times what was once a covert sin of Protestant churches (the pastoral love for money), has been made shamelessly explicit as “prosperity” and “health and wealth” preaching of a false christ, a christ who enters into the world not to suffer and die for the sins of mankind, but who pays sinners’ debt so they might become materially rich, now permeates the culture.

While there are practical concerns about money, and while any good steward of the material wealth God affords us will take those into consideration, to start with money, or comfort, as the impetus for moral decision making is to start from a place of inherent sinfulness. Fear of the Lord and the love of money (or fear of not having money) are, as Jesus warned us, mutually incompatible orientations of the soul. If the latter takes precedent over the former, only evil can ensue.

Acting from Seduction

No good moral choices can start from the desire to satisfy our flesh, especially in the form of our sexual appetites. That is not to say that sexual appetites are the only kind of bodily seduction: food and other substances (drugs, alcohol) can often be as destructive to ourselves, our families, and our community as the unfettered drive to satisfy sexual longings. However, that sexual lust assumes a fundamental role in the striving of human beings has been rather obvious, even long before Freud. What Freud would later describe anthropologically, Paul had already explained theologically:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Romans 1:24-27

Making choices motivated by the desire to satisfy sexual longings has never gone well for God’s people, as the stories of men like Judah and King David clearly attest. The scene of Absalom raping David’s concubines from the very spot where his father fell into lust for Bathsheeba (2 Sam 16:20-22), should also serve as a warning that the sexual sins of the father, like so many other sins, are often passed down to the sons (and perhaps even daughters). Pursuing sensual pleasure leads to decisions that not only harm the body and soul of the decision maker, but also those closest to him or her—their progeny. For the male of the species especially, to start the process of moral reasoning at the point of libidinal urges is a very dangerous proposal. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most common starting points. One could plausibly argue that many who seem to have money as their starting point for making moral decisions, actually have sexual pleasure as their starting point; money being merely the instrument by which they can attain more of the latter.

That said, if the starting point for a moral decision is grounded in the Fear of the Lord first, then subsequent desires to fulfill sexual longings could very well lead to one of life’s most profound gestures of moral goodness, namely, the mutual self-giving of sexual pleasure within a loving and exclusive marital relationship. The act of fulfilling sexual desire in the appropriate, God-ordained context of marriage is commended to us by Scripture, both for the sake of the pleasure it brings our bodies (see Song of Songs), and for the Christ-like self-giving that it occasions (Ephesians 5:25-28). The moment of “transcendence” that comes when two lovers unite in sexual experience is something that God has clearly designed for the sake of His glory and our good. To spend those moments with anyone other than an exclusive confidant, friend, and spouse is to do an injustice to that design, an injustice that can engender a radical kind of evil to occur. Again, Peck points out how powerful the role of sex is to the human person:

“In itself, making love is not an act of love. Nonetheless the experience of sexual intercourse, and particularly of orgasm…is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser degree of collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. It is because of this collapse of ego boundaries that we may shout at the moment of climax “I love you” or “Oh, God” to a prostitute for whom moments later, after the ego boundaries have snapped back into place, the may feel no shred of affection, liking, or investment.”

Peck, 96.

To make seduction our starting point for moral decisions is to put ourselves in the position of using others for the sake of experiencing something which is deeply relational and spiritual: the act of sex. It is perhaps the most powerful drive we have in this life outside of the longing of our heart for God Himself. It is also the one that is most abused in the course of human events, and that quickly devolves into the most wicked and vile forms of human behavior: rape, incest, polygamy, abortion, and child abuse.

Conclusion: The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

Our prudential thinking, i.e. our moral decision making process, mirrors the pursuit of wisdom as found especially in the Wisdom books of the Bible. If we begin our moral decision making anywhere other than with “the Fear of the Lord” then we are bound to neglect God’s design for us and consequently, to some degree, fall into immoral activity. Beginning our moral decision making from other initial conditions, conditions like fear, fraud, love of money, or sexual seduction, breaks fellowship with God, and ultimately causes great damage to our selves, our relations, and our communities. To be prudent and to act wisely, we must be grounded in the Word and the will of God.

Satan’s Strategy: Social Justice, Sin and The Devil

In Chapter 25 of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes a subtle, yet vulnerable, human dynamic the devil longs to exploit in order to trap his patient (i.e. the Christian man) into sin, and by doing so to cause division— division between the man and God, as well as division between man and his neighbor:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.1Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935

In every generation, so it goes, the devil attempts to draw men’s attention away from those sinful dispositions that are real threats to their current culture. Satan does this first by focusing the cultural mood against a real vice— a vice, however, which is either not significantly present in the culture, or minimally presents no imminent danger to it. At the same time the devil works to tempt the culture to embrace a virtue that is very near to that vice which really does pose an imminent danger. In other words, the “shadow side” of a particular virtue being actively embraced by a society or nation in a particular cultural moment is what the devil wants to make “endemic” to that culture.

In Screwtape, written during WWII, Lewis does not have Screwtape specify which virtue of the day is in view for wartime Britain, and subsequently which vice (although Lewis provides a sustained attack against “Unselfishness” as a form of spiritual pride). It doesn’t really matter though, so long as whatever virtue is in view at any given cultural moment can be ultimately twisted into a widespread, societal vice. A vice that succeeds in tearing the culture apart, moving it from a higher form of human existence to a lower one. Screwtape suggests, therefore, that when a culture is really going in one direction, say giving itself over to Emotionalism, then this becomes the occasion for repeated warnings about being too rationalistic. On the flip side, when a culture has succumbed to a cold rationalism, it will be the emotions that are stigmatized, as if they might throw the nation into chaos. Either way, the real danger is never addressed, and a nation is left attempting to stem floodwaters with fire extinguishers:

The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.2Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935

But, how might this dynamic be playing out today in light of our own societal upheaval? Was Lewis’ theory correct, and, if so, is the devil still up to his same, old tricks?

A Word on Virtue Theory

In classical virtue theory, which Lewis is clearly referencing in this chapter, there is always an extreme side to any virtue, as well as a deficit side. For example, the classical virtue of courage, or the habits and dispositions that engender it, taken to an extreme would transform courage into a vice—too much courage morphs into something like brazenness or lack of restraint. It becomes an attitude and a behavior marked by recklessness and audacity, not by true fortitude in the face of unwelcome danger. A soldier who constantly rushes off into battle out of pure lust, never reflecting to count the costs associated with the fight, is disposed quite differently from the one who counts the costs of war, recognizes the horror associated with those costs, yet still goes off to do his duty. The first is impetuous, the second is brave.

On the flip side, too little courage would be simple cowardice, or spinelessness. Cowardice is a deficiency of courage, just as wantonness its excess. The goal is to find the right balance, the middle ground that is the virtue itself.

Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics calls this the “golden mean,” suggesting there are vices that can appear virtuous, in that they shadow or mirror a particular virtue, but, in the end, they are neither righteous nor good, but unjust and cruel. The mean is always the goal for the man seeking to be good, and to be genuinely happy (eudaimonia). Further, this finding of the “mean” is itself a virtue— the virtue of prudence. For it is the prudential soul that carefully weighs, assesses, and evaluates all other moral virtues, taking into account the nature of those virtues, and the moral context in which they need to be realized. The one who exercises prudence, will exemplify the golden mean in his life.

Evaluating Today’s Cultural Virtue

Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. Justice, according to Karen Swallow Prior (paraphrasing Aristotle) is “the morality of the community”.3 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well. 70 For justice inherently has to do with the proper balancing and harmonization of social interactions. When well-adjusted souls operate in harmony together, there is justice in society. When malformed souls act discordantly toward one another, there is injustice in the community. Fairness is also a form of justice, one that alludes to the aesthetic quality that accompanies a right ordering of things. When things are rightly ordered there exists a symmetry, a beauty in the world that can be experienced, even sensibly. The image of a mother lovingly coddling her newborn is a classic image of a just relationship, one that has the right proportionality between the subjects involved. The image of a mother throwing her child into an alley dumpster does not. One is beautiful, the other grotesque. The justice or injustice of the act is what makes it appear either fair (aesthetically so), or ugly.

To say that the virtue being pursued in our current, American culture is Justice seems almost too easy and too obvious to state. But, sometimes things really do lie right before our eyes, or under our noses. For clearly if there is one virtue that is mentioned more often than any other in our culture today, it is not the virtues of Chastity or Temperance, but that of Justice. The fashionable outcry for social justice places the quest for the virtue Justice at the center of our cultural conversation. This point requires no further elucidation, as we are figuratively and literally inflamed, or “in flames,” over the need, want, and desire for Justice.

But, if Justice is the virtue that is in view, and if Lewis’ theory holds water, then what is the vice nearest to Justice that is the real threat to our nation? Where are we particularly vulnerable to the Devil’s plot to engender a particular vice, a sin, in society that will further lead us down the road of separation from God and each other?

The Shadow Side of Justice: Vengeance

While the Bible may warn mankind that “vengeance is [the Lords]” (Deut 32:35, 41; Isa 35:4) and that His day of vengeance is a sealed promise (Isa 34:8; Psalm 58:10), it is not always the case that human beings display the patience required to wait on divine rectification. As broken and sinful men work toward justice, the temptation for that pursuit to spill over into vengeance is always present, and vengeance just is justice in extremis. It is the excess that runs over.

Vengeance, furthermore, is at bottom fueled by anger, but an anger that rejects the reality of divine providence, and that seeks retribution on its own terms. It goes against the warning of the Apostle Paul to “be angry and do not sin.” Sinful anger, unrestrained by the Spirit of God in man, eventually degrades into bloodlust and violence of various forms and types. What starts out, for example, as a noble, gallic revolution against real human injustice (like gross economic disparity and starvation), turns into “The Terror,” an ecstatic frenzy of political violence— symbolized by the awful image of the guillotine and scores of disembodied heads. Dickens describes it this way:

The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions.4 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 206 quoted in Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, 77.

As we begin to see more concrete examples of actual blood lust in our cultural pursuit of justice, we must pause and consider whether we have lost our way in the pursuit of the Good and the Beautiful. For if we are lost, and it seems like we are as blood lust targets even the innocent, then the Devil has achieved, or is achieving, his ultimate goal. As we see attacks on authority mount, and protests turn into para-military style operations, it cannot hurt to step back and recall those disembodied heads, or the millions of ‘cracked eggs” that went into making the Marxist-Leninist omelette.

However, the examples of physical violence in the name of social justice still seem fairly limited in intensity and scope, thank God. While we can extend acts of physical violence to include things like the tearing down of statues and damaging of property (for certainly they are that), there are still other kinds of violence that are not physical. Acts that, although not attacking the person bodily, nevertheless target her soul. These non-physical attacks are just as detrimental, sometimes more so, than the dull blows that land on heads, or hands, or feet. Thus, vengeance has many ways in which it can be carried out, and as such, so too has Satan many paths to carry out his plan of dividing and conquering the human man, and of robbing his cultural storehouse.

Forgotten Sins: Calumny and Detraction As Means of Vengeance

Calumny is an older word for what we might today call slander. At the heart of of any act of calumny is always a lie— a lie not meant to keep concealed a surprise birthday party, or to hide a family of Jews from a Nazi search party, but rather a lie told purely for the sake of ruining someone’s good name. Any lie told to destroy a reputation, usually the reputation of someone seen as a social rival, a political threat, or perhaps a former oppressor, is a calumnious one. To commit calumny is to sin against God and man (Exodus 20:16; 23:1 & 23:7), for to attack a man’s name is no less harmful to an image bearer of God than an attack on his body. The ruining of a life can occur just as effectively through a well-placed and infectious lie, as through a gunshot to the belly. In fact, a ruined name can endure long past the physical death of the one whose name was ruined, prolonging suffering for those family and friends left behind with a tainted legacy.

While we do see calumny on display in our culture, especially on our social media sites, and most egregiously in our political sphere and the major news media, there is yet another sin of vengeance even worse than calumny. For it is at least possible that a false accusation against a person can be publicly retracted, or shown to be false by a court of law, or otherwise undone in a forensic and visible manner. Much damage will already have occurred, but if a lie is exposed, there is at least hope that through much time and effort the falsely accused can restore their good name. Detraction, on the other hand, does not allow for this possibility. For unlike calumny, the sin of detraction does not involve a lie, it entails a truth.

Detraction is the intentional, yet unjustified exposure of another’s sins or moral failures for the sake of ruining that person’s good name. The detractor destroys his victim by exposing their “dark secret,” a secret, however, which is true. Because this sin inherently involves a truth, it is something that once committed is almost impossible to recover from. As one Catholic theologian put it, detraction is like throwing a bag of feathers into the wind— good luck trying to collect them back up again.

That is not to say that there are not warranted exposures of sinful acts or intentions. Detraction may not relate, for example, to the parish priest who upon hearing a confession of a serial rapist, goes off and tells the police about the confessor’s future intentions. While those special cases can still be tricky for the Catholic priest, a more common example of a warranted exposure of another person’s sins might be telling a trusted friend or pastor that one’s spouse is a heavy alcoholic who desperately is in need of intervention. Such examples are justified exposures of another’s moral failures.

However, there is a good reason why in grade school the nuns chastised us for being a “tattle tale,” even though we really were reporting the actual breaking of the rules by our 3rd-grade classmate. For, to expose the sins of someone unjustly, and for the purpose of ruining their name, is what is entailed by detraction. That children are susceptible to such wicked intentions is obvious, as we all desire to look better than our classmate, or our workmate, or perhaps even our spouse.

Consider then, for example, a husband who has once cheated on his wife many years ago. He has duly repented, his wife has forgiven him, and they have lived happily in that place of forgiveness for many years. However, now that same husband decides to run for a local public office, and his political rival gets wind of his sexual past. You get the picture. This case should illustrate the clear difference between a justified and an unjustified exposure of sin, which is not to say that every case has such clarity.

Detraction is the sin that our culture swims in today. We are up to our necks in the unwarranted and unjustified exposure of other people’s sins. We play off of it. We feed off it. We get our social media kicks off of it. We call it “shaming,” and its effect on our otherwise noble pursuit for justice is exactly what the Devil has had planned for us all along: for in shaming and detracting our neighbor, we commit a whole new kind of injustice. And in our pursuit to rectify old injustices, like racial injustice, we create a new kind of unjust society, a new kind of injustice that itself needs correction.

Finally, as we see detraction carried out even against figures no longer with us: presidents, pioneers, and even actual saints, figures who left a historical mark significant enough so as to be memorialized with statues or inscriptions, we must again pause and realize the self-destructive nature of this sin of detraction. For one thing we all know is this: once the statue of one sinner has been torn down and tossed into the dustbin of history, there is no end to the exposure of new sins, and thus no end to the tearing down, and the throwing away. But, that is not even the worst of it. For the one who tears down today, is also the one who will be torn down tomorrow. Today’s saint is tomorrow’s sinner, and apart from a genuine appeal to Him who was without sin, every sinner will indeed be torn down.

Calumny and detraction are both violations against justice. Ultimately, both reject the reality of that which is most fundamental, most central, to the Christian message: grace. As such they are representative of that vice closest to justice: vengeance. They are the most common means by which we take part in vengeance, and they are the means through which we become eternally separated from God, and from our neighbor.

Conclusion: Satan’s Vengeance

In an earlier part of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis imagines what Satan’s ultimate goal is, putting that desired goal in the mouth of Screwtape, “To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.” The “Father” for Screwtape is of course the devil himself. For Satan to destroy the human man is to take his own vengeance on his Creator.

The kind of vengeance culture we are seeing in America today is part of the devil’s plan for humanity— to take from man everything, and give nothing in return. Satan would rejoice to see us doing this to each other– becoming his pawns, in his infernal game. The tools he is using are the sins of calumny and detraction; sins now so commonplace we fail to think about them, and can hardly name them. Yet, all the while we go about spending precious resources on more futile attempts to rectify what is ultimately a problem of the heart, not one of the color of the skin (which really is only so deep).

If we ask ourselves the honest question of whether or not the attempt at Justice we are seeing in our country today is bearing good fruit, is actually moving us to a more just society, we dare not be unaware of the vices that accompany this naturally good desire. It may be good to hope for the “better angels of our nature” to win out, but it would be foolish to deny that the “vicious devils of our hearts” are not always at work.

The Power of Tearful Prayers – Remembering St. Monica on Mother’s Day

“There are many things which I do not set down in this book…But I will omit not a word that my mind can bring to birth concerning your servant, my mother. In the flesh she brought me to birth in this world: in her heart she brought me to birth in your eternal light.”

– Aurelius Augustine

Aurelius Augustine was a pagan and sinful young man: addicted to sex, ambitious and full of pride, an idolater of pagan gods and believer of false religions. His mother, however, was nothing of the sort. She was a faithful daughter of Jesus Christ, a loving mother of a disobedient son, and a prayer warrior unlike any other. In his autobiography, The Confessions (397 AD), this same Augustine, the once pagan man who, having been converted at the age of 33, would go on to impact the Christian church more than any other thinker in the first 1,000 years of its history, would dedicate his book to two people: the living God Jesus Christ, and his mother, Monica.

Of his mother Augustine writes:

But you [God] sent down your help from above and rescued my soul from the depths of this darkness because my mother, your faithful servant, wept to you for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son.

Confessions, Book III, Chap. 10

Night and day my mother poured out her tears to you and offered her heart-blood in sacrifice for me, and in the most wonderful way you guided me.

Confessions, Book V, Chap. 7

We cannot underestimate the power of either parent in the life of a child, and the importance of fathers in the lives of children has been well documented by psychologists and social scientists over the last several decades. Parents are fundamental to the psychological, emotional, and physical development and well-being of their children. This well-being often translates into all kinds of successes: successes in career, in education, and in social relations. However, even the best of parents, the most wise and most learned, the most virtuous, will fail from time to time. But, the wisest parents also know that when it comes to the faith of their children, they are ultimately not in control. Faith is not something that can be engineered through good parenting, faith is a gift from God.

As Augustine’s own testimony reveals, it was the concern of his mother over the status of his soul that mattered most to her. In fact, he tells us that at one point in his childhood when he took deathly ill due to a “disorder of the stomach” (a virus, perhaps?), it was not his physical health that grieved his beloved mother most, but the state of her son’s salvation that distressed her spirit:

My earthly mother was deeply anxious, because in the pure faith of her heart, she was in greater labour to ensure my eternal salvation than she had been at my birth. Had I not quickly recovered, she would have hastened to see that I was admitted to the sacraments of salvation and washed clean by acknowledging you, Lord Jesus, for the pardon of my sins.

Confessions, Book I, Chap. 11

In other words, while it remains the place of any good mother to make sure their children have well-balanced meals on the table, wear safety helmets while bike riding, look 5 times before crossing the street, and yes, maybe even ensure the use of hand sanitizer in times of global pandemics; the truly wise mother will take note of the concerns of this great mother and saint of the Church, Monica, whose distress over the state of her child’s soul was of far greater importance than the stomach virus that ravaged his body. For the true mark of love is not the safety of the child in this life, but his security in the life to come. And it was this reason, and this reason alone, that she turned her face to God in tearful prayer.

This Sunday we remember the faithful tears of all the mothers of the Church, and all those faithful mothers who have gone before them; mothers who have shed endless tears on behalf of their children, children young, and children grown, obedient daughters, and prodigal sons. But we think not only of motherly tears shed for mere bodily health, or for worldly successes, or even for temporal happiness. We commemorate instead the deeper tears of those mothers’ hearts that plead for the everlasting soul of their children. The tears that move the very heart of God, and that help to change the course of human history.

These are the tears of St. Monica, the mother of Aurelius Augustine, the pagan boy who gave his whole life over to Christ, who became the most influential voice of the Church in his time, whose works have inspired billions of people, and whose greatest book, The Confessions, was dedicated to his mom.

Happy Mother’s Day to all our mothers- You, Faithful Daughters of the King. You, Tearful Warriors of Christ!

Oh Death Where is Your Victory?: Death and Dying in a Time of Crises

Like so many other social institutions in lieu of the outbreak of COVID-19, churches have decided to suspend their services indefinitely. However, churches are part of something that itself is more than just a social institution, for most members of most churches are also members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

As the Church then, a transtemporal, transcultural and transcendent community, this global pandemic presents each of us with a serious question: to what extent do we allow the fear of the reality of death shape our decisions in life? The apostle James had something to say about man’s plans in light of death, and that in a time when the experience of death, and death from disease, was much more commonplace, and much more difficult to prevent:


13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (Jas 4:13-17)

Clearly, life and death can seem at times very ephemeral, even arbitrary. After all, what decides who dies, at what time, and under what circumstances? If God is not providentially in control over the course of human affairs, then there are perhaps two options for what determines life or death: either chance, or the human will. But, in a time of viral pandemic, clearly the human will plays a limited role in such a decision. For, as James points out, while we may intend this or that, or plan for “x” or “y,” there seems to be forces at work that are simply beyond man’s control; we can neither facilitate a positive outcome, nor avoid a negative one, despite all our best efforts. When it comes to natural forces, we are struck by our own frailty. When it comes to viruses, or tsunamis, we are out of control.

Either it is in the Lord’s hands, or in no hands at all.

So, that leaves chance. And, if chance is the ultimate arbiter of things, then the age-old philosophical question remains: is it better to exist, or not to exist? Shakespeare put it this way in his play Hamlet:


To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them.

Hamlet’s inquiry rings eternally true: Do we resign to passive suffering and inaction, or do we “wage war” against the tyranny of chance? Can we will pain and suffering out of our daily experience? Can we eliminate it through meticulous planning, positive thinking, and an endless, political process aimed at perfecting the world’s brokenness?

However, both of these options, passive resignation and defiant effort, often end in their own tragedy, and often have ended in great human atrocity, especially if the ultimate purpose of human existence has been gradually forgotten, or expressly rejected. The razor’s edge of balancing virtuous action with maniacal control, presents itself poignantly in times like these. For, if we passively resign to the evil in the world, even the natural evil of disease and disaster, then we sacrifice what we all take to be a fundamental good, namely, the value of life itself. To resign to do nothing in the face of crisis may have a certain mystical or stoic attraction, but all thing equal just seems outright inhuman to give up when there is a real chance to live, and even live well! To lie down and die, is not the answer. Virtue requires some kind of positive action, some response to pain, some alleviation of suffering.

Yet, if we overreact, and try to exert our will over all manner of brokenness and decay in this finite world, we easily fall prey to acting in ways themselves destructive, manipulative, and life-inhibiting. We can become so fearful of death itself, so anxious about crossing over into that distant land, that we engage in tyrannical behavior, enacting draconian measures to prevent death at all costs!

As C.S. Lewis put it so wisely during one of mankind’s most horrible man-made tragedies (World War II), we must see that the greatest evil is not death, but sin and human corruption:

The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil. Nor am I greatly moved by the fact that many of the individuals we strike down in war are innocent. That seems, in a way, to make war not worse but better. All men die, and most men miserably. That two soldiers on opposite sides, each believing his own country to be in the right, each at the moment when his selfishness is most in abeyance and his will to sacrifice in the ascendant, should kill [each] other in plain battle seems to me by no means one of the most terrible things in this very terrible world.

(C.S. Lewis, Why I Am Not A Pacifist)

In this time of great crises, albeit one not a man-made one like war, but due to an illness that is part of the very fabric of a fallen, natural world, Christians must give an answer that walks the fine-line between these two, despairing views of death: one that says we must simply succumb to nature “red in tooth and claw,” and the other that says “we must protect physical existence, even to the point of vicious and tyrannical behavior.” For historical crises like this one, will inevitably raise the questions in all of us: “for what reason ultimately am I here?,” and “in what, or in whom, do I put my faith and hope for the future?”

As the Church, we must then cry out in prophetic overtures that even this virus, COVID-19, is but part of God’s providential plan over all of human affairs, and that it, COVID-19, is subject to the Divine Will, and subordinate to the Goodness of that Will. That Will, the One that determines all things, neither expects us to roll over and die in the face of tragedy, nor does it expect us to solve the problem of death on our own. What that Divine Will wills for us is first repentance, then action; action in faith, and action in love.

For we should fear, but not death, rather we should fear the one who has the power over life and death!

Thus we recognize, as the authors of scripture did, that Death can have no victory, neither in its actual occurrence, nor in its psychological hold, if we are true believers in Jesus Christ. For death, as Lewis reminds us, is not the worst thing. Far worse than death is sin. Far worse indeed; for sin is eternal death, and that is a death not limited to what takes place only after our hearts fail, and our brains cease to function. That death is occurring every day, COVID-19, or no COVID-19.

In sum, let us as the Church not hesitate to do what we can to fight against this outbreak, to do everything within reason to combat illness, and save human life. However, let us also not put so much faith in our own efforts, and that out of a fear of pain and death, that we engage in sin and vice, in order to prevent that which is inevitable to all of us, us miserable men, and women, who are destined to die. The real question then remains, unto what or unto whom will we die? Unto death, or unto eternal life?


55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.