What Are the Liberal Arts and How do we Teach Them? (1)
What is a “Liberal” education? What did an education in the “Liberal Arts” traditionally look like? What does it look like now? Because the Liberal Arts are at the core of classical education I thought I would take some time over the next few weeks to discuss them.
Let’s start with some background. When we hear liberal the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is politics—we think of Senator Warren or Senator Sanders or the Democratic Party. While that is one way of using the word liberal, when we talk about providing a Liberal education that is not at all what we have in mind.
The English word liberal is a derivative of the Latin word liber; the word liberty is also derived from this word. Liber means freedom—from that it follows that in its original sense liberal had something to do with freedom.
Politically speaking, classical liberals held positions that are, confusingly enough, often held by political conservatives today. For example, classical liberals wanted to be liberated from feudal customs and have instead a free market and free trade. Classical liberals also wanted to be liberated from censorship and old hereditary hierarchies—they thought ideas should be freely shared and talent should be free to rise to the top.
That may be interesting, but what does this have to do with the Liberal Arts? Composed of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music a Liberal Arts education traditionally was thought to be the type of education that would free a man. A Liberal education may not destroy feudalism or censorship, but it could, it was thought, free people from ignorance, superstition, prejudice, etc., which would in turn free people to live as better Christians or citizens. Different eras and authors emphasized different goals of the Liberal Arts, but all agreed that education was fundamentally transformative and that a Liberal Arts education was essential to the formation of a mature and complete person.
Contrast this with the view of education advanced by most modern Americans. Democrats and Republicans alike see education primarily in terms of employment—better education will collectively keep our jobs from going overseas and individually education helps us to obtain better, higher-paying jobs.
Aristotle, Erasmus, and Thomas Jefferson, all proponents of a Liberal Arts education, would find this a very odd rationale for education. All would agree that yes, a man must work, but man was made for so much more than to work, make money, and buy things—an education that doesn’t take that into account is not a full, and therefore not a real, education. A Liberal Arts education understands that a man is not only a worker, but also a moral and spiritual being, a rational being, a being capable of recognizing truth and enjoying beauty. A Liberal education therefore seeks to train every faucet of man.
As a Liberal Arts school, our goal is to partner with you as parents to do just that—to help your children become fully formed, well-trained, “mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
“I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
The above quote is from Athena Chavarria, a former executive assistant at Facebook. For the last decade we’ve been told about all the benefits of smart phones—they will make us more efficient, they will connect us like never before, and they will help our children learn. It now appears that all of these claims are false.
Instead of making us more efficient, our phones distract us from our tasks so that we get less done; because they encourage us to multi-task, the things we do get done are often done poorly. Instead of connecting us, the various social media apps we access are increasing our hatred of one another (according to one recent poll that I can’t seem to track down now, partisan hatred has risen three hundred percent in the last fifteen years); others argue that our political divisions are the worst they have been in over a century. Finally, phones are destroying our children’s ability to maintain focus and to think linearly, which is inhibiting their ability to learn.
Instead of being tools to learn and to increase our productivity, our smart phones have become mini TVs and video game players. Don’t believe me? Watch a dozen phone commercials and pay attention to how they are marketed: every single commercial markets phones in terms of how fun and entertaining they are.
This isn’t even the worst part. Phones have contributed much to the pornographization of our culture. Consider recent statistics from just one website. "In 2017 alone, Pornhub hosted 28.5 billion visits, an average of 81 million per day, the overwhelming majority based in America. All told, visitors to Pornhub last year searched 50,000 times per minute and 800 times per second.” In the time it took you to read to this point in this message about 100,000 people searched for pornography on just one website. Take that in for a second.
These issues are leading the people who design phones for our children to keep them away from their children. Tim Cook, the C.E.O of Apple, said that he would not let his nephew join social media networks and Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, founder of GeekDad.com, and chief executive of a robotics and drone company had this to say about the smart phone. “On a scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” He went on. “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”
Within the last couple of years there has been a fleet of high-profile Silicon Valley defectors “sounding alarms in increasingly dire terms about what these gadgets do to the human brain.” They are creating no-tech homes, sending their children to no-tech schools, and going to incredible lengths to ensure that their nannies keep their kids away from screens.
Ok, so why am I saying all this?
I want to encourage you all to both limit your children’s access and monitor what they are accessing.
Screens distract us immensely and limit our ability to concentrate and think clearly. It is next to impossible to have sustained thought on a difficult topic without self-control and developed concentration. And yet self-control and developed concentration are exactly what constant screen exposure destroys. Without the ability to sustain thought, your kids won’t do well in school. Period. There is no getting around this. What is more, they will have a very hard time growing in their faith. Try reading Paul’s letter to the Romans without sustained thought. No matter how great a sermon your pastor preaches, without the ability to concentrate those words will fall on deaf ears. High screen exposure will stunt your child’s intellectual and spiritual development. So limit it.
It is also important to monitor what kids are looking at. Social media undermines our well-being. It has been argued convincingly that social media is in part behind the surge in teenage depression, anxiety, and suicides over the last decade; to the extent that we can measure it, it appears that happiness increases by an average of 45% in people that quit social media for as little as a week. This isn’t to say that all social media is harmful or wrong (full discloser, I am a member of a social media service), but we ought to be very cautious as to when and how much we let our children access social media.
While social media has some good uses, pornography does not. Pornography is rewiring the brains of our young men and women, perverting how they view themselves and others, it is leading young people to delay marriage and have fewer children, and it is destroying and undermining a vast number of marriages. But, that can’t be our kids, right? These kids go to church and attend a Christian school! Consider the following anecdote from Rod Dreher:
A couple of years ago, I spoke with an older pastor who mentored young men at a conservative Evangelical college. The men in his particular group were undergraduates who planned to go to seminary after they finished their bachelor’s degrees. The older man told me that he had 16 undergraduate men in his group.
“How many of them do you think are addicted to porn?” he asked me.
I had no idea, but figured it couldn’t be many. Not from young Evangelical men who are so faith-filled that they believe they have a calling to ministry.
“Sixteen,” the older pastor said. Sixteen young men who want to quit using porn but could not find the inner strength to do so.
These are young men that are planning on being pastors and yet pornography is ripping them apart! We as parents can keep our children from exposure to smut now so that they don’t find themselves addicted and trapped in sin as adults.
Hopefully you all monitor and limit what your children have access to; if you don’t, now is great time to start! Start with one no screen night a week; start by uploading accountability software on your and their devices.
I am not against technology—it can be a blessing when used the right way. (And I see the irony of typing this message on a computer, posting it on our website and Facebook page, etc.) What does concern me is that many of us, myself included, use technology unwisely. If we don’t control technology, it will control us. Right now we as a society are failing to control our use of phones and it is destroying our children’s generation. I would encourage you all to begin to take steps to control it in your homes.
Sticky Faith (9) - Live Out Your Faith
Søren Kierkegaard believed that there is nothing more lethal to the faith of a child than to have a parent that lives a moral and proper life and claims to believe in God, but doesn’t truly believe and in reality lives for the sake of appearances.
We live in a world of contradictions. On the one hand we have cut-throat competition to get into the best colleges, get the best internships, to excel in sports, etc. This can tempt our children to base their value on their performance.
On the other hand we often think our children are fragile little snowflakes that need protection from anything that could be challenging or dangerous so we helicopter around them. Keeping our children from challenging things weakens them and makes them incapable of standing up to the trials and difficulties they will inevitably face.
The solution to these opposing errors is the Gospel. We are justified and receive Christ’s new life because of God’s gracious gift, not because of anything we have done or could ever do. Believing this will keep us from falling into the error of finding our value in our performance.
However, though sin no longer reigns, it still remains. We have a sinful condition and we need correction and discipline to develop virtuous character. Consider the Apostle Peter’s words, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.” (II Peter 1:3-9). While we are saved by God’s unmerited and gracious gift and not our works, the acceptance of that gift, in cooperation with His continued grace, should lead to a fundamental change in our outlook and actions.
How do we apply this truth to our parenting?
In practice this means we need to love our children no matter how much they disappoint and hurt us (and they will do both!!!) in order to show them that their value and our love are not contingent on their performance. At the same time we need to challenge them and call them to better behavior, affirm that God’s Spirit empowers them to live the way He has called them to live, and show them that foolish and sinful choices have consequences.
In terms of our example, one of the best ways to show our children the Gospel is to trust Jesus completely—so completely that He informs all our choices, from how we parent to how we spend our money; from how we talk about others to how we spend our free time.
Having children is a frightful burden. As parents we are one of the greatest influences, if not the single greatest influence, in our children’s lives. We may wish this was not true, but it is; this may frighten us, but we need to embrace it.
Being a parent is a hard, demanding, and unappreciated calling. As parents we fail. All of us. All the time. As we give grace to our children we need to receive the grace that Christ offers us. He didn’t just die to take away all our purposeful sins; He also died to cover all the times we failed to live up to His calling. If you’ve made mistakes, if you’ve been a terrible parent, if you’ve never even attempted to parent . . . there is hope! There can be no greater example to your children than to accept Christ’s grace and follow Him, knowing full well you haven’t lived as you ought to have lived and that you don’t deserve His grace.
If you ever felt frustrated or condemned as you read some of these messages (as I felt at times as I wrote them!), don’t be dismayed. Instead, admit your failure as a parent and embrace it as an opportunity to accept God’s grace and use your mistakes as an opportunity to model to your children the power and beauty of the Gospel. The question isn’t: what have you done, but rather, what will you do? As long as you have breathe in your lungs there is hope for real growth and change.
Sticky Faith (8) - Preparing our Children for College
During the first two weeks of college most students make key decisions about drinking and other high-risk behaviors. They also make decisions about whether or not to attend church or join a campus ministry. Many of these decisions are influenced by new friends and situations. Most young adults are unprepared for the intensity of those first days and weeks of college and have no strategy for making decisions during this critical time. It follows that many make poor decisions.
During the fall of freshman year only 40% of youth group alum were attending an on-campus fellowship once a week or more and only 57% were attending church once a week or more. It is incredibly difficult to sustain one’s faith apart from a community of believers. These low numbers help to explain the high numbers of young people that leave the faith.
While college is a long ways off for many of our children, there are things we can be doing right now to prepare them.
First, we can show our children the importance of church by committing to regularly and faithfully attend church and explaining why we make that commitment. We also need to guide them in what to look for in a church so that they are able to pick a good church when they move.
Second, we need to continue to encourage our kids to express their doubts and questions. Our children may seem solid and confident in their faith in high school, but college is a time of intense intellectual transition, which often leads to new or deeper questions and doubts. Hopefully by the time they go to college our children will be comfortable with asking difficult questions and also have a good idea as to where and how to find good answers. Nonetheless, we need to warn them of the intensity of the challenges they will face and stress that God is not afraid of our questions, that there are answers to their questions, and that our questions should drive us to God, not from Him.
The last of these, drawing towards God in the midst of doubt, is why Christian community is so essential. Seeking answers to questions in the midst of mature believers can deepen one’s faith, but looking to secular professors or agnostic friends for answers is foolish and often detrimental to one’s faith.
In addition to intellectual confusion, given the libertine ethos of our secular universities, college is also a time of intense temptation. Herein lies the importance of Christian friendships.
People, all people, need accountability. It is very hard to make good choices when all of your friends are feeding their flesh, seemingly enjoying themselves without consequences, and encouraging you to join in. Alternatively, good friends that encourage and hold you accountable help you to grow in your faith.
Constant temptation coupled with a philosophical justification of sin is often lethal to young people’s faith in college. Many colleges create a perfect storm by giving ample opportunity to sin, removing or hiding the consequences and shame of sin, undermining Christian community that holds us accountable when we do sin, while justifying sin with sophisticated explanations as to why it is good and moral to sin and unhealthy to resist sin. Without a Christian community and Christian friends, who can weather this storm?
Christian community and Christian friendships help us to overcome difficult environments, transitions, and temptations. We can help our children to stick with and grow in their faith by encouraging a commitment to a local church and the development of Christian friendships. Moreover, instead of merely telling our children about the importance of these things, we can show them the value of them by making Christian community and Christian friendships a priority in our lives.
Sticky Faith (7) - Service
High school students were asked what they wished they had more of in youth group. They said, in this order, (1) time for deep conversation, (2) mission trips, and (3) service projects. “More games” received the least amount of votes.
There is a real desire to go deeper in the faith and to live it out. What is holding them back? They lack time.
Many of our children are involved in sports, drama, music, and academics . . . not to mention video games and Instagram. Oftentimes we as a parents encourage their manic involvement in activities because we want them to have opportunities that we lacked, we want them to build their résumés, or we want them to “reach their potential.”
None of these are bad—in fact they are all by and large good and noble goals (well, maybe not time on Instagram). But good things are the fiercest enemies of great things. As we lie on our deathbeds I doubt any of us will look back on our lives and regret that we only played two sports in 7th grade and not three. I am sure that few will wonder how much more money they could have made if only their résumé had had fewer holes. No Christian preparing to stand before her Creator will regret the time she spent serving others; not one will wonder what he could have achieved if only he would have spent less time thinking of the needs of others and more time developing “his own potential.”
We as Christian parents often do a fantastic job helping our children become mediocre athletes and musicians, but a terrible job training our children to be people of character and conviction. This should lead us to seriously reevaluate our priorities.
Life isn’t a buffet where we can repeatedly pick and choose what we want. We inhabit a world filled with hard and real choices. When I decided to marry my wife I didn’t just say yes to her, I said no to three and half billion other women. When I enrolled in my university I said no to every other university; when I had children I said no to continuing my education. When we say yes to sports, the arts, and other good things we are often saying no to service, no to quality time as a family, no to Bible studies and small groups. This isn’t to judge, but rather to simply point out a reality that we too often ignore. We need to face this reality and ask hard questions: What is most important? What type of people do we ultimately want our kids to become? And what choices can we make as a family to help them become the men and women that God has made them to be?
When you do decide you want to serve, try to serve as a family. Service should be something that strengthens and draws the family together, not one more obligation and strain.
Likewise, before you serve frame the project. Why are you doing what you are doing, how does it relate to the Gospel, etc.? Afterwards, debrief what you did. How did it go, what could have been done differently, how do we respond to people that don’t appreciate our generosity, in what way can our service teach us about what God has done for us, etc.?
The average American’s life is overstuffed. Most of the things it is filled with are good. But these good things, things like sports and movies, crowd out better things. If we want our children to develop real faith we need to make real hard decisions to ensure that the good things in our life aren’t crowding out the truly great things that God has called us to do and accomplish.
Sticky Faith (6) - Intergenerational Community
In an effort to provide relevant teaching we often segregate kids from the rest of the church. While this may be appropriate for young children, when kids reach the age of reason (twelve or thirteen years old), they are ready to join the greater church body. In fact, according to the authors of Sticky Faith, attendance at church-wide worship services is arguably the best predictor that a young person will stick with their faith after high school.
Why is this? Our children are by and large being socialized by their peers. Being socialized by others of the same age is not a good way to mature, but rather an effective way to encourage young people to continue to act immaturely.
Consider how 95% of humanity has lived throughout the ages. The grand majority of men and women worked in the home and in the fields around the home. Children, beginning around age five, would work with their parents and learn the skills they would need to someday run their own households. Kids were around other kids their own age, but they were also around younger siblings, younger cousins, grandparents, older cousins, aunts and uncles, and their parents. These adults would teach them and talk to them and thereby socialize them as to what it meant to be an adult. As a result, kids naturally and seamlessly matured and entered the community.
Compare that with how children are socialized today. At very young ages (often as young as six weeks!) children are placed in narrow cohorts with their age peers. They are educated with their peers at school (for we as a society divide them by and large by age, not ability or developmental level. Need proof? When is the last time you heard of a sixteen or twenty year old graduating from high school?) We then take our children to sports, youth group, and sleepovers or playdates where they are again surrounded by their age peers. As our children get older they spend dozens of hours weekly on social media . . . with their age peers. True there are adult teachers and coaches, but for every one adult our children are surrounded by about twenty of their age peers. Then they go to college, with their age peers. When they go to college, many get license to indulge all their baser impulses by those in authority. Then they get internships where they once again congregate with their peer groups. Finally, somewhere near the middle of their third decade of life, they get a real job and have to interact with people of all ages. Our adult children struggle with this and we throw up our hands in surprise! But why should we be surprised that a person surrounded by their peers for twenty-five years is incapable of having a conversation with a seventy or seven year old?
We have, in essence, a Lord of the Flies system of socialization. This is stultifying our children’s maturation and development. Ever notice how immature and irresponsible many young people are? Well, it is no surprise when they spend their first two decades plus exclusively with their immature peers!
What can we do about this? To the extent we are able, we need to imitate and recreate the intergenerational communities that naturally socialize children and help them mature.
Ideally every child should have five adults that are good role models, that speak into his or her life, and that spend time with him or her and give sound advice. These can be relatives, neighbors, coaches, youth pastors, or members of small groups. This will not happen naturally and we may need to make an effort to get our kids around other mature Christians. But the fact is we are formed by our communities and we cannot expect our children to grow into mature Christians if they lack models of Christians maturing in their faith.
Second, our kids need to be around younger children. Younger kids look up to older kids. Recognizing this often inspires older kids to be good role models.
Now it may seem awkward or forced to hang out with older or younger people. A good way to overcome this awkwardness is by doing service projects. When people have common tasks the things that divide them tend to melt away as the group focuses on uniting to accomplish the collective goal.
Our society as a whole is doing a very poor job of socializing our young. It is not wrong for kids to spend time with other kids their own age; however, if we want our kids to mature we have to have them around mature people.
A Few Words on our Approach and Philosophy
I’m going to take a week off from my Sticky Faith emails to bring awareness to and comment on a local issue. On the whole I am far more interested in what we are or ought to be doing here than what others are doing elsewhere. That being said, sometimes it helps to clarify our vision and our uniqueness by contrasting our philosophy and approach with a different philosophy and approach.
One of the difficulties of commenting on anything is that everything, including education, has become politicized. To make matters more challenging we are in a county where political prejudice is in the 100th percentile (i.e. out of one-hundred U.S. counties zero demonstrate more political prejudice than Dane County). In light of this, when I do comment on educational trends or approaches I will do my very best to do so in a non-political, non-partisan manner.
Many of you have properly heard about the Madison Metropolitan School District’s new gender policy that prohibits staff from informing parents if their child is identifying as another gender, transitioning to another gender, or rejecting gender altogether. The policy reads “School staff shall not disclose any information that may reveal a student’s gender identity to others, including parents or guardians and other school staff, unless legally required to do so or unless the student has authorized such disclosure.”
The policy applies to all students, so a Kindergartener or a 1st grade student could see a teacher transition (a teacher at an east-side elementary school is in the process of transitioning from Mr. to Mx. and has been very open and vocal with the students about it), have some questions about transitioning or decide they want to transition, talk to a teacher about it and begin to identify as another gender or a person beyond gender at school, and the staff at that school would be prohibited from talking to the parents about this, unless the child decides that his or her parents can be informed.
This approach is wrong for a number of reasons.
First, it gives way too much authority to children. As a society we don’t allow a twenty year old man to drink a beer or a seventeen year old to make a binding contract without his or her parent’s consent, yet it is somehow ok to allow a five year old boy to begin the process of transitioning genders by identifying as girl, changing his name from Victor to Veronica, and telling adults to call him she or xhe instead of he when addressing him, without seeking any input from parents, let alone notifying them? This is fairly insane.
Second, it gives the government too much authority. In this particular policy the state is determining what parents are allowed to know about their children. This is not a Biblical approach to the family. God has placed children under the authority of their parents and government ought to recognize the authority God has given to parents as a limit to its own authority.
Third, this policy was put into place without any openness, transparency, or accountability. This policy was not publicly debated and the school board did not vote to implement it. Instead, a shadowy, unelected, unaccountable arm of the bureaucracy adopted it.
In contrast, our approach differs in a number of ways.
First, while we believe even young children are made in God’s image and bear His likeness and are thereby clothed in the utmost dignity, they are not independent or autonomous. God has placed your children under your authority and we will not support any decision of your children that contradicts your desires.
Likewise, it is you, not us, that has the final say in the lives of your children. There are times where I or a classroom teacher may disagree with your approach as parents, but neither I nor they are going to substitute our judgment for yours. Your children are under your authority; our authority is limited and delegated.
Finally, when a choice is made here it is made under the authority of the board. If you dislike a choice made by me or another staff member you can petition the board to discipline or remove us. Hopefully we’ll be able to resolve disagreements in other ways, but at the end of the day there is openness in decision making and clear accountability here.
It is a huge sacrifice in time and resources to send your children here and at times it is easy to think that public education isn’t all that different. While I am not condemning public education or parents that send their children to public schools, the fact of the matter is there are a number of differences, significant differences, both in philosophy and approach, and it is helpful to keep those differences in mind when making decisions for our children.
Sticky Faith (5) - Make Time for Conversation
While it is more important to live out our faith than to talk about it, talking is still important!
Only 1 out of 8 kids report talking with their mom about their faith; only 1 out of 20 talk to their dad about their faith or have life conversations with him. Only 9% of Christian teens engage in regular Bible reading and devotions with their families.
God has called us as parents to shepherd our children in the faith. The above statistics indicate a massive dereliction of duty among Christian parents. Given these numbers it is a surprise that so many children stick with their faith, not that so many walk away from it.
What should we do in light of these disturbing statistics? The first thing we need to do is make time to talk.
Make it a priority to eat dinner together as a family. Turn off the TV, phones, etc. Work together in meal prep and clean up. Spending quality time together creates trust and trust is necessary if you want your kids to come to you, as opposed to their peers or people on the internet, when they have fears and doubts.
Making time for meals together may require saying no to sports, friends, or music opportunities, but what are we ultimately after? Do we want our kids to be great athletes, popular students, and talented musicians? Or do we want them to be men and women of faith and character? This is not to say that hockey or playing the violin are bad, but only to affirm that what happens around the table is infinitely (and often eternally) more important than what happens on the sport’s field. (Disclaimer: I have played on adult rec. leagues, my kids have played on sports teams, and I have even coached youth teams. I am not discouraging sports, but encouraging proper perspective.)
Next, we need to encourage our children to express their doubts. We often think that sharing our doubts will destroy our faith, but the opposite is true. Students who feel the freedom and have opportunities to express their doubts tend to have “Stickier Faith”. If kids can’t externally express doubts they will internalize them and there they will grow toxic.
Our faith is True and it can thereby stand up to any attack. Your children should be confident that God is able to handle their hard questions—none of their doubts are capable of intimidating Him! You should not be afraid of your children’s questions. If you can’t answer them, find a Christian that can. Every great question and doubt has already been answered satisfactorily by countless Christians throughout the years. The answers may take seeking to find, but they can be found.
The key is to show our children that we have confidence in our faith. We believe in Christ because He is light and in His light all else is seen; we don’t believe because we are ignorant ostriches with our heads in the sand.
Still, it can be hard to get our kids to open up to us. A good way to encourage them is to open up about our own doubts and how Christ has led us through difficult questions and times.
Likewise, don’t avoid touchy subjects. The depth to which you are willing to discuss difficult subjects will set the maximum depth to which your children will be willing to talk to you about other subjects. Moreover, if they can’t come to you with their questions they will go elsewhere. Do you really want your children learning about same-sex marriage, gender construction and identity, or pornography from their peers or what they can find on the internet? These are not easy things to talk about, but we cannot leave to chance our children’s understanding of such important and misunderstood issues. What is more, we must be proactive. The average kid in the United States is exposed to pornography before age 10. Talk to your children about these things before they happen so your kids can be on guard.
Ultimately, we as parents need to take our God-given responsibilities seriously and make time to have real conversations. Our kids need us more than we realize . . . and more than they realize. In a world where much that is black is called white and much that is white is called black, our failure to shepherd our kids through their questions and doubts is to leave them to the wolves.
Sticky Faith (4) - Challenging our Children
“People grow best when they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge; the rest is commentary.”
As a society we are pretty good at supporting our children but not very good at challenging them. Somewhere along the line we developed the false idea that our children are “special little snowflakes” who will be crushed under the weight of any adversity or failure. Because we think this we helicopter above them, seeking to protect them from any unpleasantness or undue difficulty. This is not a good strategy!
In fearing our children’s fragility we have made them fragile. In protecting them from failure we’ve prevented them from learning how to overcome and continue on after a failure. In praising their achievements, instead of their efforts, we have created a cohort of children reluctant to try new things in fear that they will fail and thereby expose their deficiencies. In creating “safe spaces” we are raising up a generation of adults unable to cope with the rigors and difficulties of the real world and incapable of accepting a reality that does not comport to their expectations.
What can we do about this as parents?
First, make your kids do hard things. It is ok and even healthy for them to fail. They will fail and it is preferable for them to fail in a safe environment, like the home, than in the secular corporate world.
Second we need to define success by commitment and effort, not grades or goals. Too often we as parents use extracurricular activities such as sports or music to focus on finding or developing a particular skill. Instead consider: what is the thing for? Our children are not going to be professional athletes and we would be fools to bank on it. That does not mean sports are without value. On the contrary, sports help to develop discipline, encourage camaraderie, and are just plain fun! We should make our sports choices in light the purpose of sport. Are sports encouraging discipline or are they taking away disciplines such as home-work? Are friendships developing or is the competition so intense that the kids are at each other's’ throats? Are our children enjoying sports or have they become a chore?
Likewise we need to prefer the development of character to the development of any particular skill. How your child responds to defeat or victory is far more important than whether they win or lose. How they respect their coach, teammates, and opponents is far more important than how fast they can skate or whether or not they can hit a curveball. Sports are a great place to model character, to learn how to love one’s enemies, and to practice putting others first, but we are going to need a counter-cultural/Biblical view of sports to train our kids in such a way that sports help the development of faith instead of hindering it.
The same principles are true of academic pursuits. We want our children to learn not so they can become puffed up and proud with knowledge, but rather so they can better know God and winsomely share the Gospel with others. We want our children to work through hard passages of literature as a means to help them better understand Scripture. We want them to stick with a difficult math problem as preparation to stick with a difficult marriage or difficult children they may have some day. We want them to reach their potential not in order to gain riches or a great name, but rather to be better suited to excel at any task that God may call them to.
We need to help our children to see their lives not as unconnected tasks and events that we frantically engage in, but rather as parts of a greater whole. What is this whole? God’s Kingdom. God has called us to partake in His kingdom and everything we do, from how and when we eat our meals to how we study to when we play sports must be done in light of this Reality.
Sticky Faith (3) - Maturing in Christ
Maturation in the modern world is a slow and messy process. When does someone enter adulthood? With their first job? When they drive? When they turn 18? When they turn 21? When they graduate from college? When they move out of their parents’ house? When they are 26 and they have to get their own health insurance? Or when, after moving back in with their parents for most of their 20s, they finally move back out for good?
The fact is, the process of discovering and living out an integrated personal identity or a sense of self that drives decisions, morality, and life choices takes longer than it did even thirty years ago. In terms of identity and adult independence, today’s twenty-three-year-old is often the developmental equivalent of a seventeen-year-old in 1980.
Why is this? We live in a society that worships youth. If you don’t believe me watch car or phone commercials for an hour and get back to me.
Sixty years ago if you were a typical 18 year old man in the United States you held a job, had a car, and were saving up for a down payment on a house. You were likely dating with the intent of marriage and would more often than not be married within half a decade. This is not to say that everyone lived like this, but it was the expectation.
Today many young people are wasting their 20s in an attempt to “find themselves.” They are living at home much longer, are less likely to marry, less likely to be chaste, and they are putting off parenthood and having fewer children. It is not uncommon for a twenty (or even thirty) something man to play more hours of video games than he works in a week.
I say all this to point out that if we don’t help our children mature, they won’t mature on their own. Everything in our society is anti-maturity. This is because thoughtful and mature people don’t spend 103% of their income every year—which is what the average American adult spends annually. A lot of people are making a lot of money off our immaturity and there is therefore a vested interest to keep us immature by appealing to our lowest desires and to make us think that our happiness consists in immediate sensory gratification.
What can we as parents do about this? To begin with, we cannot let our children’s peers and social media form their identities. We need to be proactive in connecting them with a Christian community wherein they will be surrounded by more mature believers who will care for them, pray for them, bless them, correct them, etc.
At home, we need to take time to help our children debrief and process their days (e.g. how was your day, what went well, what could you have done better, etc.). This will require us to spend regular time with our kids, to ask them thoughtful questions, and to give them Godly advice and support. This in turn will require us as parents to say no to things (even good things!) we would like to do so we are consistently and reliably available. It will require us to listen, without flying off the handle, when our children make mistakes. And it will require us to be seeking God and developing wisdom in our hearts and lives so that we have something worthwhile to share with our children.
Christian maturity does not develop naturally, especially in a post-Christian society like ours. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child…” If we want our children to grow up to be mature and complete men and women of God we cannot be passive, we need to be actively leading and guiding them toward these goals.
Sticky Faith (2) - A Deep Faith
A lot of young people walk away from their faith because their faith is false and shallow—it is based on performance or utilitarianism. Because it is built on false ground, when young people they feel unable to measure up or when their faith feels like it no longer “works,” they abandon it.
For example, in regards to a shallow or false faith, two-thirds of college juniors that had graduated from youth group defined their faith in terms of what they did (e.g. loving others or following Jesus’s example); one-third did not even mention Jesus or God!
In light of this, what can we do as parents? First off, we can help our kids overcome a performance based “gospel” by modeling an unconditional and ever-embracing love in which our kids can do nothing that jeopardizes or even lessens that love. (This doesn’t mean we don’t punish our children, but we show them how even punishment is done in love.)
Next we need to encourage our students to believe the Gospel because it is true and not for any result it brings. So many young people are told that Christ loves them, which is true, but given our cultural definition of love what they hear is: “God wants me to be happy.” When we focus on the happiness and blessings and all the good things that come from a relationship with God we need to be sure that we don’t make God a means to all these good things. We are to seek after God—not what we can get from God. If we simply seek the blessings of God, then when God hides His face and we face some difficulty or challenge we will throw up our hands and declare that Christianity “doesn't work.” We will then turn to pleasure or wealth or whatever we think will best provide that which we were trying to get out of God.
We need to make sure that our children know that being a Christian does not mean living a life free of difficulty. We must be sure we do not teach our children to expect things from God that God does not promise. Expecting things from God that God does not promise, like a life free from difficulty or a life of constant success, sets one up for a radical loss of faith. God never promises a life of ease, He never promises to reveal Himself to us when, how, and to the degree we want, and He never promises earthly “happiness.” Instead, God compares the Christian life to one of a soldier and warns us to prepare for trials.
According to an old proverb: “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” If our children are prepared for difficulty they will be less likely to cave when it comes. Alternatively, when they expect ease they are floored when things don’t work out as magically as they were led to expect.
Finally, we as parents can model our trust and faith in God by our actions. Obedience does not save us, but it naturally follows our trust in God. You can show your trust in God in a lot of different ways. Time and money are often the most precious things we have, so giving them to God can be powerful examples to our children.
For example, build regularly patterns of giving that remind everyone in your family that your money belongs to God. If your kids are old enough, have a family meeting where you pray and your kids are invited to give input into how you distribute available funds. Generous giving shows that you ultimately trust God for your provision. You can also give with your time by serving together in the church or community. Kids primarily learn by what they see, not what they are told. Serving others shows that you trust God, not entertainment, to give you happiness. (Often service can divide and put a strain on families, so when possible try to serve together.)
Avoiding legalism and grounding our kids in the grace of the Gospel, pursuing God Himself and not for any “happiness” we think He owes us, and living out our faith in how we spend our time and money—these are powerful ways to help our children develop real, true, and lasting faith.
Sticky Faith (1) - Community
About 40 to 50 percent of high school graduates that attended a Christian church or youth group fail to stick with their faith in college. This is an alarming statistic and something that should get our attention as parents and teachers.
Dr. Kara E. Powell and Dr. Chap Clark have done extensive study into why students raised in Christian homes so often walk away from their faith in college. Without getting into theological questions like free will and God’s sovereignty, they found that certain habits and practices significantly helped students to stick with their faith. They put their findings together in a book titled Sticky Faith: (https://www.amazon.com/Sticky-Faith-Everyday-Ideas-Lasting/dp/0310329329/ref=sr11?ie=UTF8&qid=1478887728&sr=8-1&keywords=sticky+faith).
The most important conclusion that Doctors Powell and Clark came to was that relationships and examples within a community of faith best help students to maintain their faith. They argue that while doctrine is important and must not be discarded, we cannot focus solely on doctrine at the expense of Christian community. In their words, Christ calls us to join His body, not His seminary.
One major problem with the way many of us engage in Christian community is that we do so haphazardly. Instead of seeing our churches as clubs to entertain our kids while adults do the spiritually important things, we need to see our children as born sinners and our churches as mission fields to teach and train our children in the Gospel. What does this mean in practice? According to the authors, kids can’t be continually kept with their peers. Children’s church and youth group are good, but kids need to attend full church services and be involved in small groups or Bible studies where they can see more mature Christians live out their faith.
The most important example our children are ever going to have is always going to be us as their parents. But parents should be intentional in getting their kids around mature Christians of other ages. Without this, when kids are consistently left with their peers, the church can feel like a club—a club that one grows out of when one moves out of their parents’ house.
*I want to end by adding a word of caution. Please keep in mind as you read through these messages that it is ultimately God, not us, that develops deep and true and lasting faith. We need to be obedient to God’s calling and raise our kids well, and my goal in everything that I do as a teacher and administrator is to help you all do just that, but just as we have no ability to save ourselves, so too we have no ability to save our children—salvation is a gift of God. The authors and I are talking about wise practices that encourage the growth of faith, not spiritual techniques that earn salvation for our children or compel them to follow Christ.
Know-How and Habits
Shaun returns home from work and enters to find his children embroiled in world war 3. Marigold has transgressed the national border of Jennifer's room to retrieve her stolen jewels. Diplomatic relations were briefly attempted, but quickly devolved into a verbal barrage of demands punctuated by the artillery of insults. Both children look up to the voice of the United Nations thundering from on high, "Stop yelling at each other!" -- hereafter known as the shout heard round the world.
With his words, Shaun is communicating quite clearly: there is to be no yelling in the Lecter household. However, with his tone, he has communicated at least two additional maxims for the home: 1. Don't yell around dad. 2. Only dad is allowed to yell. The what may have been clear enough, but the how also affected what the children learned.
In the renewal of classical education, many have given attention to what should be taught or curriculum. The curriculum of a classical education is the liberal arts as these allow the student to perceive and embrace truth, bringing harmony to their own souls and to their community. As educators continue to discover this lost tradition, more thought is being directed towards the how of teaching or pedagogy. These two aspects, curriculum and pedagogy, must remain united if the educational endeavor will be successful.
James K.A. Smith, in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, contends that every pedagogy assumes an anthropology, or to restate it, how we teach indicates what we understand about human beings. If my main method of teaching is to overturn the bucket of informational feed into the open receptacles seated at their desks, I am acting as if human beings are essentially brains on sticks. The main goal of life is to get as much information as possible. I may communicate something similar if I treat education as uploading the right beliefs or worldview onto a student's blank hard drive. If they can regurgitate the right beliefs about the world, they are educated.
Rather than this top-heavy, Mega-Mind-esc conception of man, we ought instead to understand human beings as embodied souls. We most certainly have minds capable of receiving information, and we all carry different beliefs about the world, but we also live in the world on an almost precognitive basis. How many of our actions are carried out without any thought? Have you ever jumped into your jalopy, started the old lemon, and the next thing you know, the scene fades to black and you were pulling into your driveway? Think about your personal or family rituals that you just do -- brushing your teeth, sitting down together at dinner or scattering across the house, waking up early enough to lounge through your morning or jumping out of bed and into the car to barely make it on time, watching three hours of Netflix before bed, cleaning the house only when the government has become aware of a new radioactive threat -- Smith contends that these are all shaping you on a gut-level to orient you towards the world.
Whether you are a parent or a formal educator, this should cause you to give thought to your own habits or rituals (liturgies, as Smith calls them). What do they say about the kind of person you are or are becoming? When teaching literature, do you hand out detailed worksheets asking who, what, where, when and then give factually oriented quizzes on the reading? This is communicating a view of what literature is for. When engaged in historical study, do you approach the world like a history textbook, culling the much more interesting primary sources for "just the facts, ma'am"? In your home, what does the day look like? Is it the random, disoriented feeding of junkyard dogs happening upon their next meal as every man fends for himself? Or do you consciously gather together to start the day, no matter how behind you already are? Your habits and rituals are shaping you and your children/students. Consider even the orientation of students in the classroom. Are they all facing the front of the room, lined up in individual desks with a uniform, factory precision or are they gathered into clusters and pods, each a smaller closed off unit? More importantly, what does this say about the learning process?
If we believe that education is about cultivating wisdom and virtue, we must be attentive to how the practices we adopt are shaping us on the unconscious level. Smith talks about how one can describe what it's like to hold a cat by the tail, but then there is the "know-how" of actually doing it. We must recognize that we can talk about virtue-formation for hours, days, and years on end, but unless students are adopting habits and practices that orient them towards this end, they are just filling the shoebox with some neat trinkets. They can perfectly define and describe virtue, but they aren't actually becoming virtuous. Take a "practices-audit" and think about the habits you have adopted and how these are shaping you. If our practices do not line up with what we think we are teaching, we may find ourselves to be a Penelope, weaving by day, but unraveling by night.
Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Temperance
Temperance goes by many names. Some of them include, self-control, restraint, patience, endurance, fasting, feasting, or settledness. Of the other moral virtues, temperance is most similar to courage. While the other virtues are directed towards somebody or something — faith, hope, love in God or wisdom towards the best things — temperance and courage are both directed to yourself. They strengthen your soul towards one of those other virtues by resisting the passions or emotions. They are the virtues that allow wisdom and justice to flourish.
When you are afraid of saying your lines during the play, or worried that you won’t get a good grade on your homework, you are experiencing the passion of fear, and courage is the virtue to resist that fear and press on joyfully. Temperance is like that, but instead of something outside you, it resists other passions that come from you. When you don’t have a bad attitude even though you are hungry, or you start playing a video game for five minutes and have to stop and go do your chores, you can do it, even though you might not want to. That’s temperance; It’s self-control. When you don’t say the first thing that comes to your mind, or if you do your schoolwork or obey your parents, even when you you feel tired and grumpy, that’s temperance.
We have desires that are good and natural. If we didn’t have the desire for food, some of us might die. If we didn’t have the desire for rest, or anger at sin, or to play with friends, to watch a movie, or to listen to good music, we would be more like rocks than like God. Temperance is the virtue that can put all of these desires in order to desire the best things first. It’s not simply getting rid of desires or wants. In that sense, you should not be selfless. Rocks are selfless. Trees are selfless. You are a self, and so you are not told to get rid of good desires, but order them. Can you put the best things first? You are told to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength. Everything is good if it is received with thanksgiving. God gives us richly all things to enjoy. Temperance puts God first and enjoys all of His gifts rightly.
Temperance also restrains evil or wicked desires. There are some things that we want to do that are evil and wrong. If we want to say bad words or twisted jokes because we like it when people laugh at them, we are twisting the gift of laughter and friends for evil. When we want to eat too much or make a big deal about eating too little, we are showing more attention to our bellies that we need to or should. If we get angry and lose control of ourselves and yell at our friends or family, this is not temperance, but it is also not temperate if we can never get angry and act against things that are sinful. We would be ruled by laziness instead of being self-controlled.
You can grow in temperance along with all the other virtues. If you love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, you trust Him and hope in Him completely, if you are wise and just and courageous, you will also be temperate. If you have one virtue perfectly, you will have them all. They are connected. Practice self-control and saying no. If you know you are being tempted to give in to a desire that is evil, or you feel yourself controlled by anger, or you are choosing a lesser things instead of a better one, practice saying no to that desire and do what is right. Keep practicing. But remember, temperance isn’t just doing without things, but it is doing without them for God’s sake. “Look at me! I haven’t had screen time for a whole year. Aren’t I so temperate?” No! Not if you didn’t do it for God’s sake.
Like the other virtues, temperance only comes from being crucified with Christ. Paul tells us to put to death what is earthly in us like anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, lying, and to put on the new self which is renewed after the image of the creator. When Jesus died, all those who trust in Him died with Him. They died spiritually to their old self and way of life. They don’t live for themselves and what they want any more, but now they are to live as slaves to God. Picture a dead body put in the ground. It’s no longer moving. It has not life or power. That is what happened to all of your old desires if you trust that Jesus saves you from sin. So why do you let the old, dead self boss you around or rule you? When Paul wants to give instructions to Christians about how they should live, this is how he explains it. After all of the gospel promises that have been made to believers in Romans 1-5, he reminds Christians they have been crucified with Christ and should live as slaves to righteousness (Romans 6).
If this world was all there was — if you live, die, and are laid in the ground — you would need to do everything you could to get as much as you could as fast as you could. But Jesus promises eternal and abundant life for everyone that hears His voice and follows Him. This is what temperance looks like. We don’t need to fight for the most toys or joys in life, but we can live for Jesus instead. Every wrong will be made right and more joy than we could imagine is promised for those who trust in Him.
Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Courage
After considering the best course of action and seeking the good for all individuals, courage steels the will to follow through. After all, a man who can devise the right course of action, but is to afraid to follow through is not wise. A man who knows that he must replace his neighbor’s damaged property, but is afraid to admit that he backed into their fence, is not just. Each of the virtues hangs on the others. The wise and just man is also courageous. Courage is simply the willingness to do or say what needs to be done or said. It is an ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down.
In this life, you will get hit, and I don’t just mean physically. Because of the sin of our first father Adam, we live in a world filled with sin and its effects. You will suffer. Things like sickness, aches, and pains are a result Adam’s first sin. You will also suffer because of sin or stupidity, whether yours or someone else’s. People can lie about you and say things that aren’t true, and you have to suffer the consequences, even though you truly didn’t do it You can get hurt because you were rebellious or just being silly. You might get hit in the face with a dodgeball or even an iceball. It may have been an accident, or possibly on purpose. You may suffer because you are following Jesus and trying to be like Him, and Scripture promises you will suffer for being like Jesus. Do you still want to be like Him?
Courage can show up in a lot of different places, but it needs an opportunity. No one shows courage when he walks through a field of butterflies. But you will face situations that need toughness to keep going. You will have math problems, that even though you’ve spent an hour trying to solve it, you still can’t find the answer. You will be sitting in class and not understand something — you look around and no one else looks confused so you think you’re the only one (you’re not). You feel frustrated and its a sickening feeling that you don’t understand something you think you should. You are reading something that you have to describe the next day and you don’t understand it at all. Everyone else can do it but you. You may be asked a question and have no idea how to answer, and you feel terrible. The school play is coming up. Some of you will forget your lines and feel embarrassed and like you want to sink right through the stage and disappear. You might say something dumb. You might do something wrong and need to confess it. You get home at night and you think about how terrible the day was, and you don’t want to get out of bed the next morning. Your mom dies. Your spouse is sick. In any of these situations, what keeps you going? Courage. Toughness.
Courage is shown in its most extreme form by being willing to die for the good and just. Think of soldiers willing to lay down their lives for a just cause. They are courageous because even fear cannot keep them from what is good. Do you also see why justice is important? Dying for evil reasons is not courageous or virtuous. While soldiers and others who lay down their lives for the sake of justice are courageous, those who are willing to die for Jesus and the gospel are even more courageous. Soldiers die for what they see, but martyrs die for faith.
How do you become more courageous? Just like the other virtues, courage only comes from the cross of Jesus Christ. You cannot be willing to suffer for the truth or experience shame and move on until you have died to yourself and been raised to life with Christ. This means believing the gospel and all of its promises. We have sinned against a holy God, and we are far worse than we could possibly imagine. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, made us alive together with Christ. He has forgiven all of our sins so that we don’t carry its guilt, shame, or bondage anymore. We cannot lose anything of eternal value. When you realize this and believe God, you will be able to show courage in these different situations. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. But if you are willing to lose your life for the sake of the gospel, you will save it. This is what courage is, from the small things all the way to the big things.
Courage brings more courage, so look at these painful situations as an opportunity to practice. You are running the drill right now, but you are getting ready for the game. The stakes will get higher and the situations more difficult. Are you preparing? When you struggle with a math problem, do as much as you can do, but then next time, try to go a little further. Like those in running club, you start with shorter distances, and then work up to running longer and for more time. Courage brings more courage. If you lack the courage for the “big situations”, ask yourself, how can I show courage right now? What evil am I tolerating because I am afraid?
And when you feel like you have blown it and messed up, or you are hurt and don’t want to keep going, or don’t want to start another day tomorrow, remember this truth expressed by the Heidelberg catechism: “I am not my own, but I, with body and soul, belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ who has fully satisfied for all my sins and delivered me from all the power of the devil, and so preserves me that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven. Yes, and that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.”
This is the foundation for courage. You are not your own. You belong to Jesus. So go and fight in His power. Get up. Dust yourself off. Trust in Jesus.
When the Greek soldiers came back from the Trojan war, it seems like they spent the rest of their days telling stories and listening to songs about the courage of heroes in battle. When believers get to heaven, I think they will sing songs about this life and the one true hero of the story who showed courage to the point of death, Jesus, and how, in Him, they were able to show courage because of Him. Not one detail of your story is wasted. It is all for Him.
Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Justice
Imagine a man who is always able to turn every situation to his own advantage. He is a smooth talker who can convince others to loan him their car, not realizing that they will never see it again. When finally caught by the law, he is able to garner sympathy from the jury and escape without punishment. Nothing ever seems to stick to him, and everything goes his way. We might call such a man cunning, but he would not be wise. Wisdom seeks out what is genuinely good, not only for oneself, but also for others. The wise man must also be just.
Justice is the second of the cardinal virtues. Justice, put simply, is giving to each according to his due. Broadly considered, there are three main components to justice: the standard/law, situation, and motive. Notice how there is an inherent objectivity in this virtue. There is a standard that must be used to determine what someone is owed. You cannot go into excess with justice; that would actually be the virtue of love. Also, the situation must be taken into account, for it is not just to return a sword to a lunatic, even though it does belong to him. Finally, one cannot be accidentally just, for if you intended to cheat a shopkeeper, but gave him the correct amount by mistake, you could not be considered just.
There are three kinds of justice: individual, retributive, and distributive. Individual justice is probably the form of justice we most often think of. This is justice between individuals as individuals. It may be expressed towards God by giving Him what is due Him, namely, all praise, glory, and honor through prayers, songs, obedience, and the theological virtues. When directed towards God, justice is also known as piety. Piety was the premier Roman virtue, displayed powerfully by Aeneas as he flees from his burning city of Troy. He puts his father, who carries the household gods, on his back and takes his son by the hand, leading them out of the dying city and towards a new home. He forsakes all inward distractions as he fulfills his duty toward the gods and his descendants.
On a human level, individual justice may range from paying the proper amount at a store, returning stolen property, replacing damaged goods, and not committing any evil against another. But not only is it necessary to provide restitution in cases like this, but it is also necessary to do good toward out neighbor. As expressed in the second commandment, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This means not only refraining from evil works and words, but also to seek their positive good as an image bearer of God. This is justice because they are made in God’s image, and are endowed with natural rights, hence, there is just (and unjust) behavior towards them.
Justice also places requirements on the community towards individuals. This is known as distributive justice. The society, as a whole, ought not to trample or ignore the natural rights of an individual so that the rest of society may flourish. This is a perpetual danger that manifests itself variously in different regimes, but it occurs in democracy when the majority tramples on the natural rights of an individual. The right to one’s life, body, family, and property may not be sacrificed on the altar of national comfort. Governments and societies that steal from their citizens, deprive families of their children, or murder their own people (born or unborn) are not just, even if their motivation is noble.
The final kind of justice is retributive or legal justice. This is justice owed by an individual towards the community as a whole. Each citizen is obligated to seek the common good of his society, even at personal discomfort. Citizens are obligated to uphold the moral laws of their state, pay taxes towards the defense of their country and administration of legal justice, and participate in government to the degree that they are able.
Often, societies grow sick by focusing on a particular form of justice to the exclusion of the others. An emphasis on individual justice may lead one to ignore the communal nature of justice and obligations of a community towards individuals. This causes a blindness to societal sins because no particular individual can be blamed. Other societies may focus only on distributive justice and ignore the necessity of an individual to work towards the common good and uphold just laws. Justice will run in every direction within a healthy society.
Also critical to this definition of justice is the idea of “what is due.” There are natural rights which are owed to individuals simply because they are made in God’s image. Some would like to expand these natural rights to an ever expanding lists of personal desires, but speaking accurately would restrict the use of “rights” to those privileges which are due to every single human being at all times and in all places. A cell phone and the internet cannot be natural rights because they did not exist for most of recorded history. Electricity isn’t even a natural right, for there are those who live without it (and some by choice!); there is not necessarily injustice here.
Justice exists because God is just. God displays his justice as He patiently bears with sin until His Son should die on a Roman cross for the sins of the world. God upholds justice by showing that He will not and cannot ignore cosmic treason, but He also shows His loving patience by granting forgiveness to those who trust in Jesus. No sin goes unpunished, and God will not judge sins twice. Either a person's sins will be judged on the cross as Jesus bears the wrath and judgment of God, or they will be judged in the last day as rebels bear their own sins. Some people receive mercy, and some receive justice, but no one receives injustice.
God’s righteousness manifested through His Son provides the only foundation for justice. It can be tempting to condemn the innocent in this life for fear that otherwise, some of the guilty would go free and escape justice. It can be tempting to falsify evidence in order to make sure the guilty actually receive a conviction. Knowing that no sin will go unpunished can provide tremendous freedom from these pressures. No sin will escape the judgment of God. His justice never condemns the innocent and never clears the guilty. An understanding of God’s justice can provide patience and hope when it seems like this world’s justice is constantly miscarried.
Christians also have a foundation to speak about justice by looking to the cross. They recognize that they themselves are guilty and deserving of death, but God showed mercy to them. This ought to encourage compassion and eliminate hypocrisy. Truthfully, we all deserve the death penalty, but Christians have died in and with Christ. Now we proclaim the same message of forgiveness and justice to others.
In the cross, we also see that God does not overlook justice. This should prevent us from offering cheap escapes from earthly justice by not reporting crimes or avoiding civil penalties because “we forgave them.” Upholding justice involves God’s appointed rulers to carry out temporal judgment on crimes. When forgiveness is extended, the victim surrenders the claim to personal vengeance. They will not be judge, jury, and executioner. They surrender the right of vengeance to God who always judges rightly and never clears the guilty. But this does not mean that a crime is released from the need for punishment. Judges, police officers, guards, and civil magistrates have a duty from God to impose penalties on evil-doers (Rom. 13). It is unjust to refuse to punish crimes because they have been "forgiven."
Ultimately, a revival of justice by practicing the second commandment requires a return to the first commandment: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all you mind, and with all your strength.” Natural rights only exist if there is a nature created by God. Natural laws require a law-giver. If rights are granted by a government or other human source, they may be taken away. If justice is mere societal convention, it can quickly shift with public opinion. True justice requires that there is a objective “oughtness" to the world and a standard that must be conformed to. True justice comes from on high.
Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Wisdom
Wisdom, Justice, Courage/Fortitude, Temperance - Moral virtues
After having considered the three theological virtues, we know turn to the next four moral virtues, or the cardinal virtues. They are called cardinal for all other virtues depend on them. Further, they are a united whole, for if a man has one virtue, he has them all, just as if we have one sin, we, in principle, possess them all (James 2:10). One cannot be truly wise who is not also just. One will not be courageous if he is not temperate. Pulling one thread of virtue unravels the entire garment.
When contemplating what it means to be virtuous, we must think about virtue in two senses. One sense is that perfect virtue displayed by Christ and to which all His followers are called. Believers are to imitate their Father and be as wise, just, courageous, and temperate as possible. Their lives are to be living sacrifices and pleasing to God (Rom. 12:1-2), something impossible for the unbeliever (Rom. 8:8). Their virtue is measured by God’s law, done for His glory, and empowered by His Spirit. When we talk about virtue in this way, it is a gift from God, and unbelievers cannot participate in it at all. Bad trees cannot produce good fruit. Stony hearts do not pump blood or flow with living water. Christian virtue evaluates measure, motive, and means beyond a mere external level.
But we also must consider virtue in a second sense for the simple fact that pharisees and stoics tend to make great neighbors. You can trust them to watch your house, take care of your children, strive for the common good, and to do countless other good things. When considered from this narrow, external perspective, they are virtuous. On the outside, the white-washed tomb looks good, but we remember that they are filled with dead bones. So to we must also remember that all of their good works are done in rebellion to God, and thus Augustine makes reference to the “splendid vices of the pagans.” In this external sense, some unbelievers are better or more virtuous than others, but all are condemned under the law and cannot stand before God.
What is wisdom?
Man is gifted with various faculties and abilities. He can reason, will, love, contemplate, and enjoy. When we consider what wisdom is, it will be a habitual use of these abilities in perfection. Man will reason to, and choose his greatest end, and then be able to navigate complex situations to reach this goal. Wisdom is the habit of discerning and choosing the best path towards a man’s supernatural end.
Scripture reveals to us this great end of man as glorifying God (Ps 85; Is 60:21; Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 6:20; 10:31; Rev 4:11) and enjoying Him forever (Ps 16:5-11; Ps 144:15; Is 12:12; Phil 4:4; Rev 21:3-4; Luke 2:10). Man was created to know, love, and enjoy God. The way man glorifies God is further revealed in the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Wisdom consists in discerning how to apply the universal commands to love God and love your neighbor in each particular situation.
There are three primary qualities to wisdom, memoria, docilitas, and solertia. Memory consists in a love of the truth — a conformity to reality. The mind apprehends truth and does not forget it. It will not intentionally falsify evidence in order to achieve to a desired end. It does not lose knowledge like a coriander used as a bucket. Memory doesn’t masquerade as a false humility that willingly “forgets” or obscures the truth that it knows. Truth is too important to be mentally redacted when circumstances are difficult.
Teachability is humility applied to knowledge and is the philosopher’s first confession. Socrates concluded he was the wisest because he was the only one who knew he didn’t know. In contrast to the sophists (wise ones), the philosophers termed themselves “lovers of wisdom” to confess that they did not have wisdom, but they desired it. The one who knows all things cannot be taught. Wisdom strives for knowledge and to take in new information. It thirsts after truth and allows itself to be taught. Wisdom seeks counsel and input from others.
Sagacity or clear-sightedness-under-pressure allows a man to choose the proper end quickly, even while under stress. His memory and powers of observation allow him quickly to take in the situation and apply the truth he knows in a clear way. This is the ultimate end of wisdom, to discern and choose the best bath to man’s end of knowing, loving, and enjoying God forever. Life is complex, and there isn’t a rule book or casuistry guide to all the decisions you will face. Wisdom apprehends the truth of things, observes the situation, seeks council, and then makes the best decision.
How can you grow in wisdom?
As we seek to grow in virtue, there are several immediate applications of this understanding of wisdom. First, since true moral virtue necessitates grace, we must be taught of God. There is a wisdom from above and a wisdom from below (Jam. 3:13-18). Philosophy that seeks to understand the world and proposes the natural ability of man to do what is right apart from God is vain (Col 2:4, 8; cf. Rom 1:18-21; Eph 2:1-3). To truly know reality, we must know God through revelation by His Spirit (1 Cor 2:14). Prudence is put in action especially through trials, and God tells us to ask for this sort of wisdom (Jam. 1:2-5).
Since wisdom consists in sure knowledge, we should seek to develop our memory. A man who must be constantly reminded of what he should already know cannot be considered wise (cf. Heb 5:11-14). One who seeks to be prudent will develop this habit of remembering, and will seek out knowledge in all of the various sciences. True philosophy is man’s method of understanding the world which God has made, and it is a vast and wonderful world. A wise man will grow in knowledge of math, natural science, history, ethics, literature, geography, music, astronomy, and theology. Each of these are sciences or bodies of knowledge that may be explored and enjoyed.
Prudence also seeks to listen to others. It does not rush off and speak before understanding. It is quick to hear and slow to speak. Wisdom is eager to test, discern, and measure in order to find and savor what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). This is how the virtuous soul is nourished, by being fed on grace and truth. This is not a foolish “wisdom” that uncritically accepts and believes everything it hears, but diligently searches for gold. The wise man loves truth above the choicest jewels and eagerly pursues it (cf. Job 28). The imprudent man loses sight of his supernatural destiny and instead pursues earthly treasures (cf. Matt 6;19-24, 34).
Finally, the wise man is able to take action. Far from being an idle contemplation, wisdom is able to chart the safest course through a turbulent and rock-filled sea to arrive at a safe harbor. It does not grow unsettled or rush into judgment; It does not fall into a paralyzed indecision. I steadily observes and draws upon all its resources in order to love justice and pursue it. This is why the prudent man will also be just. One who claims to be wise, but uses his memory and reason to pursue evil is not prudent, but cunning or crafty.
The wise of this age are put to shame through the foolishness of the cross. The ones who embrace this foolishness of preaching are the wise. One who wishes to be wise will find himself crucified with Christ and die to the elemental patterns of the world — namely, a righteousness through works of the law. The truly wise will receive in rest in a righteousness that is by faith.
Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Love
One day, during a PE class, the students were playing a basketball game to 21 points. After a short break, the two teams came back, switched sides, and started another game. In the first or second possession of the game, one of the blue players got the ball and started running towards the hoop. There was no one else in front of them and they had a a clear layup. Their entire team was yelling at them, cheering them on — wait! They were shouting, “WRONG WAY!”
Direction is important. You may be the most skilled basketball player in the world, but if you are aiming at the wrong basket, it will be for nothing. There are objectively good works, but if they are not done out of love, they are as a clanging cymbal or clashing gong. They are just noise, but they are not truly virtuous.
The previous two virtues we have considered are faith and hope, and now we come to what Paul describes as the greatest of the three theological virtues. Remember that these three virtues all come from God, are practiced through God’s Spirit, and are directed towards God. From Him, through Him, and to Him are all things. Who do you have faith in? Who do you hope in? God. Now, whom do you love?
There are many different ideas of love. We could talk about loving your dog, or pizza, or fishing, or your spouse, or your kids, or your country, and all of those would be different meanings of love, but let us clearly specify what kind of love we are discussing with the theological virtue of love. What is love? Love is obedience to the greatest commandment. In our catechism this year, we have been reminded of the greatest commandment and its connection to how we can glorify God. We glorify God when we love Him as the most supremely desirable object of our affection. If God is not the highest object of our love, we are saying something else is more worthy of our love than God, and we dishonor Him.
When we are talking about this virtue of love then, we don’t mean love of pizza, or love of your dog, or your family, although they are related. This virtue of love is directed towards God. It is for this reason that those who are not Christians cannot practice this virtue. It’s no use trying to practice more faith, or hope, or love if you have not been born of the Spirit.
Do unbelievers love their families? pets? favorite foods, movies, and books? Yes. Of course they do. But they cannot love them for God’s sake. And because their lesser loves don’t find their direction in the ultimate love for God, they are disordered, or going in the wrong direction. It is not enough just to love things, but we must love them for God’s sake.
Have you ever tried to shoot a bow with a bent arrow? The arrow is twisted and bent so that it no longer works exactly like it should. Is it still an arrow? Yes, but it’s twisted. It’s the same way with disordered loves. Love as a human capacity is a gift from God that we are allowed to express towards other beings. All human beings, as made in the image of God, can and do express love in countless ways towards others, but we also must recognize that humans are fallen creatures. We do not love as we ought. We fall short because we break the greatest commandment.
How can you practice this virtue of love? First of all, recognize the primary and main object of love - God. This is the greatest commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Extend all of your being towards loving God. Do you know Him? Do you love Him? You cannot love your neighbor fully or virtuously, unless you love him for God’s sake.
Second, love all of the good things that God has created and given to you, for His sake. This involves loving them with the right amount of love that they deserve. You are ordering your loves. Do you love pizza? Do you love your mom? Which one do you love more? Loving rightly let's you choose rightly. We will suffer the loss of one of these things to gain the other.
Third, remember what the Bible says about love. It is not in mere words, but in actions. What do your actions say about what you love? Do you say you love God, but disrespect those in authority over you? If you cannot obey them, how could you obey God? Do you say you love your friends, but you talk about them and make fun of them when they can’t hear you? Do you love the things that God loves?
Fourth, Let every lesser love and delight lead you to God. Delight in them fully, but in their place. Beautiful, true, and good things are training you for eternal happiness in God. Don’t waste them by being bored by splendor. Love them.
Finally, share your love with others. What we love, we love to share. We say, “Come look at this! Isn’t this awesome!” If God is your highest love and delight, share that with others. Whenever you see a new truth or something beautiful, share it with someone else.
Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Hope
Murphy's Law is simple. If anything can go wrong, it will. If your toddler can climb onto the table and drink the rest of your coffee making him a caffeinated terror for the next four hours, he will. If you can break your freshly sharpened pencil lead three times in a row, you will. If you can forget everything else you were going to say — where was I going with this?
Pessimists are firm believers in Murphy's Law, and they almost deserve it. Two more famous pessimists in literature are Eeyore and Puddleglum. When first introduced to Puddleglum, he remarks, "Puddleglum's my name. But it doesn't matter if you forget it." Eeyore's experience isn't much better. “‘I might have known,’ said Eeyore. ‘After all, one can’t complain. I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Bother!’. The Social Round. Always something going on.’” Both of these characters, as with all pessimists, look at any situation and expect it to get worse. They lack hope.
Instead, hope is a future expectation of good, but this isn't a vague or glib optimism. This hope is grounded in reality. 1 Peter 1 shows us the nature of hope. Believers are born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus (vs. 3), to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and being kept by God (vs 4). This hope rejoices (vs 6, 8), endures (vs 7), and will receive its expected end (vs 9).
Hope is the sister virtue to faith. While faith looks at an object and trusts that object in the present, hope looks to the future. Hope is the future eye of faith that expects the yet unseen fullness of joy. This hope is secured by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, because the worst has already happened. The Son of God was beaten, scourged, and hung on a tree to slowly die of asphyxiation and blood-loss. He was left alone, back ripped to shreds, and then his cold body was placed in a cold tomb, and all his followers scattered.
But it was not possible that death should hold him, so on the third day God raised Him up to new life. His heart began to beat again, driving blood throughout His previously lifeless body. He walked out of the tomb on the first day of the week as a new creation, and promises the same to all who hope in him. After the pattern of his resurrection, we will be raised.
This is the comedy of the universe. The last enemy has been de-fanged and stripped of its power (1 Cor 15:54-55), and those who lived in fear of death their whole lives will no longer fear that devouring dragon (Heb 3:14-15). We see this pattern written in the script of the cosmos. Trees decay and lose their leaves in Fall to bud again in the Spring. We sleep each night to rise again in the morning. Bodies are sown in the ground as seeds that will burst out in resurrection life. The most feeble, foolish, sin-crushed soul who trusts in Jesus for that hope will be raised.
In the meantime, we wait. Life is pain. Everyone who lives will suffer in some way -- sickness, betrayal, abandonment, weakness, death. This is the lot of humanity. Is it worth it? There are two responses: curse God and die or trust Him. Hope reminds us that God has given us life and breath -- existence. He has poured out innumerable good gifts into our lives when we didn't even have to exist. More than that, He has given His own Son; what could He possibly be holding back (cf. Rom 8:32)? Hope reminds us that this often bitter existence is worth it, because we have God.
Hope means joy. Christian's don't get to act like Eeyore or Puddleglum. "Woe is me. My life is so awful." We have God! Temporary trials are not even worth comparing with joy that comes from knowing God -- from being known by God. This is why the apostles frequently remind Christians to rejoice in trials, because through them all, we have God. This is what it means to be more than conquerers. Even the most difficult, crippling trial becomes our servant to purify our everlasting joy in God.
Hope should lead to fearlessness. The worst thing imaginable for a mere, material existence is death, but Jesus has robbed even that final enemy of its power. As Peter reminds women, those who hope in God do not fear anything that is frightening (1 Pet 3:5-6). What will we fear? Sickness? Mockery? Pain? Death!? Peter has already told us, our inheritance cannot be touched by any of these things and they are God’s purifiers for our eternal good (1 Peter 1:3-12). This is true hope.
The counterpoint to Eeyore and Puddleglum is King Lune. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.” Who will laugh the loudest in the face of famine? Who refuse to be cynical and give in to nihilism? Hope will not put us to shame.
Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Faith
What is faith?
Imagine a Roman legion about to clash against a larger barbarian horde. They are outnumbered 3 to 1, but they have assurance that their greatest general is on the way with cavalry that will decimate the barbarian foot-soldiers. All the legion needs to do is hold on. If they flee from the battle, they will be branded as cowards, and one of their most important cities will be lost. What is faith in this situation? Faith is trusting the word of the general based on his character and letting that trust lead to action by staying in the fight. If one claimed, “I believe the general will come,” but ran away, would you take his word seriously? His actions would demonstrate that his faith was not genuine.
What is faith? Faith is trusting, relying, depending, or resting on some object. When you sit in a chair, you are exercising faith in that chair. Every time you speed down a road, you are trusting that the other drivers will stay on their side of the road. When you deposit money into a bank, you are depending on that bank to record the money to your account. You cannot absolutely know that the other party will come through on their promises, but neither is your faith blind. Based on past experiences and assumptions about employees, drivers, and chair construction, you feel confident in your behavior.
Often you will hear definitions of faith as “believing what you can’t see” or “believing something contrary to evidence.” It may be described as a “blind leap in the dark” or “wishful thinking.” Too easily these definitions can lead us to think that faith is something like climbing a ladder composed of mist — a vacuous nothingness of dreams and hopes. You can't live in this castle of clouds.
The Bible paints faith as a far more concrete virtue. In Hebrews 11, the author cites numerous examples of individuals who all acted in faith. But notice that none of them were blind. Noah, Abraham, and Moses all had a sure and firm knowledge of God’s promises and so acted upon their trust in His character. This is what the virtue of faith is. Faith is a knowledge of some fact, an assurance that it is true, and an embracing of that truth for yourself.
How much faith do you need? Jesus says that you may have faith as small as a mustard seed (Matt 17:20). This is because it is never the amount of faith that is effectual; It is the object of faith. The airplane will transport those who swagger aboard while barking on a Bluetooth earpiece and those who hold their head between their knees for the entire ride. Those who, though filled with doubt, still painted blood on their doorposts were saved just as surely as those who never wavered (Ex 12). The object of faith is everything. God is mighty. Faith simply receives His acts.
How to practice faith
As with all of the other spiritual virtues and every good thing, faith is a gift from God. If you lack faith, ask! Hear the assurance of God that He knows how to give good gifts to His children who ask for them (Matt 7:7-11). Jesus will not turn away one who humbly asks for greater faith (Mark 9:24). He is not a harsh taskmaster commanding the making of bricks without straw (Matt 12:20).
If faith requires a sure knowledge of God, feed this virtue by remembering and rehearsing the promises of God as found in Scripture. Refresh your mind by rereading the great sweeping narrative of God’s creation and salvation of mankind. Watch God’s faithfulness and providential care shine through each story and episode. Any where you scratch the surface, you will strike gold.
Virtue is never an isolated act. It requires a community in which to be displayed. Encourage and exhort those in your community to exercise greater faith by reminding them of God’s word and works. Like an overexcited collection of molecules in a 3rd grade science fair, stir one another up to love and good works (Heb 10:24-25).
Faith always leads to action. It is never impotent and lifeless. Far from being a mere verbal confession, real faith works (Jam 2:14-26). When we discuss the four cardinal virtues, this will be important to remember, for none of the cardinal virtues are pleasing to God unless they are from the seeds of faith, hope, and love (cf. Heb 11:6).