Tag Archives: Deception

Remembering the Last Things – Part 2

Previously we discussed contemplating the final judgment in which all of humanity shall stand before God. In particular, we focused on the Scriptural precedent for such ruminations. With that groundwork laid, we will now proceed to more practical matters.

Part 1 was wrapped up with the juxtaposition of the fearsomeness of the judgment and the precious hope of grace. As we weigh anchor and set out for this particular cruising ground of meditation, it is of great importance that we understand our purpose in doing so. Although compunction (a holy sorrow for our sins) is a part of this line of thought, it is only a part and not the sum of the whole. These meditations do not end in despair, but quite the opposite: they renew our trust in God’s grace and urge us on in our pilgrimage here on earth.

In order to present some form and order for our line of thought I will defer to Evagrius Ponticus, a figure from the deserts of ancient Christianity. Despite some of his theological shortcomings, his insight and ability as a guide for the soul remain potent helps for us.

“Evagrius said, ‘While you sit in your cell, recall your attention, and remember the day of your death and you will see that your body is decaying. Think about the loss, feel the pain. Shrink from the vanity of the world outside. Be retiring, and be careful to keep your vow of quiet, and you will not weaken. Remember the souls in hell. Meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief, the tears that cannot cease to flow. Remember too the day of resurrection, imaging God’s terrible and awful judgment. Bring into your sight the confusion of sinners before God and His Christ, before angels and archangels and powers, and all the human race, punishment, everlasting fire, the worm that never dies, the darkness of Tartarus – and above them all the sound of the gnashing teeth, dread and torments. Bring before your eyes the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ His Son, before angels and archangels and the powers, and all the people in the kingdom of heaven and its gifts, joy and peace. Remember all this. Weep and lament for the judgment of sinners, keep alert to the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget this, whether you in your cell or outside it. Keep these memories in your mind and so cast out of it the sordid thoughts that harm you.’”

-Excerpt from “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” translated by Benedicta Ward

Evagrius’ roadmap begins with the acceptance of our own mortality. This subject alone is a peculiar one, for, as a culture, we typically spend a great deal of time in shoving this fact to the back of our consciousness rather than accepting and living with it. However, taking time to remember that our lives are, in fact, finite helps us to get a more concrete grasp on our existence and reminds us that there will come a time when the physical overlay will be rolled back to reveal the eternal.

Next we contemplate and consider the horrors and suffering of souls in hell. It is important here to do two things: first, to remember that this outcome is the result of one’s own hardness of heart and refusal to accept salvation; second, to recall these things in a direct and real manner, not as the reminiscence of some Sulphur-laden outburst from the pulpit. If we only think of it as something that we’ve been told by a preacher or evangelism tract, it is very easy for hell to become a sort of boogeyman: perhaps disconcerting, but nothing more than a story told to make us behave. In the sort of meditation we are talking about here, we take out the middlemen and think upon hell in all of its horrific reality. This may bring us a little too close for comfort, but it is only natural that we should be upset by the eventualities of sin.

From the depths of hell, we move on to ponder the flipside of eternity: the joy and peace of heaven. Just as we embraced the realities of hell, we now turn to the realities of heaven, not as a sugar-coated bauble meant to entice us towards good behavior but as our ultimate goal and fulfillment, the Promised Land which God seeks to bring us to where we shall be with Him forever. This practice helps us familiarize ourselves with and acquire a taste for the things of heaven. This is not to say that godliness is an acquired taste, it isn’t that we must teach ourselves to like it. Rather, it is more the case that we must take the time to seek it out and allow ourselves to partake of it. For in many ways, the temptations of the devil are aimed at drawing our attention from heaven and warping our desire so that it seeks purely earthly things.

Evagrius concludes by urging us to keep the content of our meditation in mind at all times, to remain mindful of the truth we have pondered. This helps us to see things more accurately, in light of eternity. Perhaps the most accurate and succinct way to describe our meditations on heaven and hell is a realignment of the soul. It is a way in which we shake off the deceit of the devil’s machinations and allow God to clear away the corrosion that has built up on the eyes of our hearts so that we can see the world as it really is. We step back, humbled, from the idols of self-righteousness that we have erected and recommit ourselves to making God our all-in-all, casting ourselves upon His great mercy and love.

Further Exploration:

Here is a condensed version of Evagrius’ order of meditation:

  • Remember your own mortality, one day you will die
  • Recall the suffering and regret of souls in hell
  • Recall the joy and peace of souls in heaven
  • Remember these things and so aim at avoiding hell and pursuing heaven

Scripture to think on:

  • Matthew 25:31-46
  • Revelation 20:11-21:8
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Remembering the Last Things – Part 1

There are many things that we can think and meditate upon for the profit of our souls. One that is often recommended to us by the Christians of antiquity is our inevitable death and judgment before God. Granted, in a time in which we have seen and continue to see such topics handled with all the finesse and discretion of rusty cleaver, contemplating death and judgment is less than appealing and seems to be the purview of a rabid and thoughtless theology. However, what I would like to ask of you is to set those impressions aside as best you can and approach this idea on its own, for what it is.

Let’s start with a Scriptural precedent for such contemplations, for they do not have their origins in the desire of one person to control another. Rather, they spring from the desire that a person should control him/herself. (While I won’t touch on it directly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the entirety of the book of Revelation here.)

Paul writes the following to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

-2 Corinthians 5:1-10

Paul calls the church’s attention to the final judgment in order to give them perspective on their current condition; a perspective that includes eternity.

Peter also urges us to remain mindful of the Day of Judgment in light of the evils we encounter in life:

“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.”

-1 Peter 4:17-19

In both of these instances from Scripture, the final judgment is not presented to invoke mindless fear, but as occasion for thoughtful reflection and, in particular, introspection. It is such recollection that helps to keep us anchored to God as we navigate the seas of life.

Yet another instance in Scripture in which are urged to be mindful of the last things comes from Christ Himself. Throughout Matthew 24:45-25:46, Jesus provides us with four parables that we might meditate upon the final judgment; namely, the parable of the faithful servant and the evil servant (24:45-51), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), the parable of the talents (25:14-30), and the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). To whom is Christ telling these parables? His disciples. The meditation of judgment is presented to those following Christ that we should be careful to be prepared; that we should search our hearts and see to it that, insofar as it has been given to us, we live our lives in response to the grace we receive from God. Sometimes we may fall into overlooking our daily struggle with sin and become self-conceited. It is from such pride, I think, that a great many errors of churches spring. It leads us to veer from our calling to follow God and to instead serve ourselves and act as though we were self-sufficient, having no need of God other than as a mascot of our organization.

Now it bears mentioning where the idea of assurance of salvation/“perseverance of the saints” fits into this topic we’ve been discussing. If we trust in God to bring us safely to the port of heaven, what practical gain is there for us in contemplating His judgment? There is much that could be said of this concept, but here I will only provide a brief and pragmatically oriented response. First, when Scripture speaks to us of election, assurance of salvation, and so forth, a large portion of what is being communicated to us is that our trust in God in never misplaced. Second, concerning the intersection of our trust in God’s grace and our consideration of the fires of hell, I offer 2 Peter 1:10 where the apostle writes the following after a brief call to continued spiritual growth, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble;”

So we can see that Scripture encourages us to pause and remember that God will judge all people at the appointed time. Such practice is good for our soul because it reminds us not to become complacent or careless in our Christian walk. Paul sums up well the purpose of the reminders of fearsome judgment and precious hope we see in Scripture when he writes the following concerning the instances seen in the Old Testament:

“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

-1 Corinthians 10:11-13


Real Motives

Reading our Bible, praying, meditating, etc. are all things that we are often told to do and often talk about. However, it is worth our time to step back and think about the “why” behind it all. Why do we do these things? The answer to this question is of paramount importance to our persistence in them and what we get out of them. For example, if we do these things because they are what a Christian “ought to do”, then they take on the all the purpose and meaning of chores or items on a to-do list.

What I wish to do here is to recall our attention to the spiritual reality underlying all religious activity. Perhaps we have heard that the word of God is living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12) or that Holy Spirit abides in us and helps us (John 14:15-18). But maybe we’ve only heard them spoken in the midst of an emotion-fueled passion and when the heat of the moment is gone, so also fades the sense of profoundness of what we have heard. The tepid haze of distraction and tedium creep in once more and we find ourselves again distant from God and quietly trying to look like we have a vibrant relationship with Him, hints of whom we only see moving behind the curtains of someone else’s experience.

But what if there is more? What if Scripture is more than a collection of Christian slogans? What if this talk of a real God who loves us, died for us, and lives in us were all true in the truest sense possible? If we start from this as the basic immutable fact of life, then our perspective of all things changes in at least some way. Focusing on our religious practices: they cease to be acts that we use to try and justify our calling ourselves Christian. Instead, they are windows through which we meet and interact with God. We engage in prayer and searching the Scriptures not because a personal label compels us to, but because we are drawn to them as a taste of what really matters and is eternal. Even when we feel spent in spirit and haven’t the slightest inkling to pursue matters of faith, we engage in our disciplines with the hope and assurance that the real and living God of the universe is with us.


Clearing the View

I recently replaced the screen cover on my phone. The previous one had been in use for three years at least and was showing the signs of three years of wear. However, being the “utilitarian” fellow that I am, I only replaced it after it had almost completely fallen off. My proactivity (or, rather, lack thereof) aside, what struck me was the sharpness and the clarity of the screen once old protector had been removed. I had become so accustomed to seeing the screen through the scuffs, dirt, and wear of the old protector that I had forgotten what the screen actually looked like.

I think the same thing happens with our view of God, others, and the world around us. Going through life, we cannot help but be scuffed, accumulate dirt, and get worn. Life is messy. That is an inescapable fact of living in a fallen world. It is also why it is so important to take time to re-center and refocus on God. It is like the screen protector on my phone. The wear of life clouds and distorts our view of God just like the wear of use clouded the screen protector. When we take time to settle ourselves in God, be it through prayer, meditation, worship, etc. it is like changing the old screen protector for a new one: the clarity in our relationship with God is restored.

With this clarity comes a better view and appreciation of God’s glory as it is manifested in others and the world around us. Even though we live in a fallen world, we can still encounter God’s glory in various ways if we keep the eyes of our hearts open. The crispness and simple beauty of a phone screen was waiting to be revealed once I was able to focus on it again. Likewise, the glory and beauty of God is waiting to be revealed once we focus on it again.


A Thought for Christmas – 2

The devil is an enemy of moderation in all things, except religion. As such, he is an avid proponent of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, especially this time of year.


Sufficiently Worried

When speaking of Christianity, we are accustomed to hearing phrases like “living our lives for God” or “giving our lives to Christ”. Such language evokes a very big-picture view. This perspective is necessary to our Christian walk because it serves as the North Star by which we set and monitor our course. However, we must be careful not to overlook the daily business of discipleship. It can lead to a situation in which our attention is so set on our map that we fail to notice the holes and cracks in the hull of our boat which eventually cause us to sink before reaching our destination.

In His famous “Sermon on the Mount”, Christ teaches us not to obsess over the future because, “sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34) We have enough to concern ourselves with each day without adding tomorrow’s trouble on top of it. In addition to tending to our material concerns (work, finances, etc.), we must also work at our spiritual concerns (keeping God as our central focus). Consider also that those entities which oppose our spiritual progress (the devil and his angels) have no need to rest or eat, meaning that they are constantly and tirelessly trying to hinder us. The point of listing all this is to highlight the wisdom and compassion in Christ’s counsel. It is difficult to make it through a single day without straying from our path. With such a hefty task before us, Christ tells us to focus on what is currently before us: the present day and the present moment.

It is important to note that this is not telling us we shouldn’t plan ahead. Rather, it is telling us not to worry ahead and lose sight of the needs of the present. Imagine, for example, that you are faced with a charging rhinoceros. Is it best to worry about whether your hospital bed will be clean or to concern yourself with the matter of getting out of said rhino’s way? Clearly the most useful, healthy, and appropriate thing to worry about is removing yourself from the rhino’s path. We must set priorities for what we worry about. If we adopt an open-door policy for worries, we will most certainly be overrun by them.

The thing about concerns is that they are very good at clumping up and blocking our view of anything else. When this happens we may even turn our gaze from God, turning away from our source of nourishment and our greatest good. Perhaps the best reason for setting priorities about what we worry about is the impact that it can have on our relationship with God. This relationship is the greatest resource we have for navigating life. God desires our good, which is why He is constantly seeking us: the greatest good He can give us is Himself. We must be careful not to let our worries crowd out our connection with the One who is able to help us through them all and put them in perspective.


What If

What if?  It’s a question we ask ourselves often.  It opens the door to exciting possibilities and hellish nightmares.  The tricky part is that this question is a lot like a television set:  some of the things it shows us are real and some of the things it shows us are mere images with no factual basis.  These images can be wonderful excursions into the realm of imagination that builds up our spirits.  They can also be a dark flame used by ourselves and our enemy, the devil, to burn and torment our hearts.  It is said of St. Anthony the Great that demons came to frighten him in the shapes of fantastic monsters and beasts.  Nowadays it seems that rather than wild beasts, demons come to scare us in the form of what ifs, phantasms claiming to be things to come.  In such ways, they seek to frighten us from living our lives in the fullness that God intends.  They seek to make us recoil in fear from ourselves and others.  Fortunately, though they may raise a terrible ruckus, God will put them to shame when we rest in Him.

As Christmas approaches, we are confronted by one of God’s “what if’s.”  What if there were something coming that is going to change our lives, something that will divide our lives into “before this” and “after this”?  This may sound overwhelming and even frightening.  Change this big typically causes us to at least pause.  Here we need to keep in mind who is asking and inviting us to ask “what if?”  This is not some diabolical scare tactic.  Rather, it is the opening of a door.  We receive a glimpse of something above and beyond our comfort zones, which makes us nervous, but it is only our worldview and false self that are threatened, not our real, true self.  What if we met someone who turned our world upside down and opened the way for us to become our true selves?  It is the coming of such a Person that we look forward to as we count down the days to Christmas.  The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” captures the implications of Christ’s birth well with the lines,

“The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight”

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Original image by Fiona the Awesome

Original image by Fiona the Awesome