Monday, February 29, 2016

The threat of damnation

Consider the following word from Jesus:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt 7.21).

If we were to do a strict logical analysis of this verse, we'll find that it predicts the eventual damnation of some. After all, to say that not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' will be saved implies that there are some who do say 'Lord, Lord,' and yet won't be saved. Consider the following analogous example: not every student will graduate. That seems to imply that there are some students who will not graduate!

Let's consider this from the point of view strict predicate logic:

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven.

We might formalize this as:

~ (x)(Fx -> Gx)

where Fx = x says to Jesus 'Lord, Lord'; and Gx = x will enter the kingdom of heaven. This logical sentence says: it's not the case that for all x, if x says to Jesus 'Lord, Lord,' x will enter the kingdom of heaven. And of course, that sentence also implies this:

∃x(Fx & ~Gx)

This says that there is at least one x such that x says to Jesus 'Lord, Lord,' and x will not enter the kingdom of heaven, i.e. x will be damned.

Taken from a strictly logical point of view, then, it would seem that Jesus' statement straightforwardly entails that some persons will be damned. But now consider the following question: can we take this entailment as establishing with dogmatic certainty that some persons will therefore be damned? In other words, can we therefore know that some persons will be damned?

No, I think not, because it seems to me that texts and statements such as these of Jesus' have a different rhetorical purpose than a mere statement of fact. In other words, Jesus is trying to do something with these words: specifically, he is trying to motivate people to true repentance and to obedience of his commandments, precisely so that they will not be damned and excluded from the kingdom of heaven.

Suppose only a handful of people exist, and Jesus is speaking to all of them about the future judgment. He tells them, Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. This statement, analyzed logically, implies that at least one of our handful of people will be lost. But imagine that everyone takes this warning to heart, and their words are backed up by true obedience; they live in true faithfulness, and none of them are lost -- they are all saved in the end.

Is such a scenario possible? Would Jesus' words have been nullified? Did he turn out to be a liar? It seems to me such a scenario is eminently possible, that Jesus' words would not have been nullified, and that he clearly would not have been a liar. The point of his making that statement in the first place was to motivate obedience, not to provide an infallible prediction of the final state of some persons or other. His words, their explicit logical form notwithstanding, are primarily and essentially an exhortation and a warning, not a historical prediction. It may be precisely because Christ spoke in that way that no one turned out to be lost; if he had not made the threat, it may be that some persons would have limited themselves to words and not to true deeds, and thus would have secured their own damnation.

This is my general point about the biblical texts which threaten damnation and seem to predict it for at least some persons: these texts, taken by themselves, do not provide any dogmatic certainty about the eventual damnation of some. Why is that? Because they are evidently (at least to me) aimed at motivating repentance; their purpose is precisely to move people away from damnation and to salvation through a threat. We do this all the time. I tell a person who is baiting an angry dog: "You're going to get hurt." Strictly speaking, my statement is a prediction about a future state of affairs; and yet that's clearly not what I'm trying to do when speaking those words -- rather, I am trying to prevent that state of affairs from obtaining precisely by telling you that you are headed towards it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the same thing in its discussion of the New Testament's clear warnings about the existence and eternity of hell:

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion (CCC §1036).

This is the point of the hell texts in the New Testament: warning people about the reality and possibility of damnation precisely so that it is avoided through repentance and true faith. Their logical form is not always a true indication of their proper interpretation, and it is universally accepted that we often do more with our words than merely make logical subject-predicate affirmations about real things in the world.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The disappointments of faith

(I find sometimes I need to process my thoughts and feelings by writing them down. So the following largely autobiographical post is more for my own sake than for yours.)

I applied to do my PhD studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, specifically to work with Oliver Crisp, Jordan Wessling, and others on the analytic theology project. I applied here and only here for a number of reasons which might be concisely summarized like this: after a long time (around two years) of praying and thinking and battling with myself about what to do after I should graduate with my MDiv, or more specifically about what God wanted me to do, and after receiving what I took to be a series of responses to these prayers in a very short amount of time throughout the course of the last year (these would be reasonably impressive to anyone, I think, if I were to list them out in detail), I was confident and full of faith that Fuller would be the place for me. That's where God wanted me to go. Of course, my upbringing was Pentecostal, and in the Romanian Pentecostal church, this kind of action-through-faith is encouraged and practiced; so I figured I would try this experiment.

The other day I received an email that told me I was wait-listed. Because the offer of the studentship for which I applied is so impressive -- three years fully funded, working with top professors on project that is receiving worldwide attention -- you would have to be stupid or else extremely lucky (to have received superior offers from other schools) to refuse it. Consequently I have no expectation whatsoever of getting into the program anymore. Confident as I was when I first applied, yet I felt decreasingly confident as the date approached in which I would receive an answer from the school. More and more as time passed I was confronted in my mind with my alternatives if I should not get in, and I can see now that these premonitions of mine were probably veridical.

The problem is not that I didn't get into a PhD program. That's not that big a deal. The problem is that I had prayed and prayed for direction on this matter for the longest time; I was putting myself utterly in the hands of God for guidance and orientation, because initially when I applied for my MDiv, I didn't want to do a PhD -- in spite of what my family, friends, professors, and colleagues told me. A series of experiences I had, which I attribute to God's providence and direction, convinced me otherwise. The problem then concerns the matter of interpreting what has happened to me: am I utterly incapable of discerning what God actually wants me to do, so that I applied for a PhD at Fuller for no reason? Or alternatively, was it indeed God's direction that led me to apply to Fuller? And if it was, is the wait-listing merely a bump in the road? Or does God wish me to apply and yet not to get in?

There is no ruling out this third variant. It is within the realm of possibilities that I did follow God's direction and that God knew I would not get in all along. But the question must be raised: why should God lead me in the direction of something I won't accomplish? I rule out as impossible the interpretation that God did this to tease me or to see me suffer; that is not compatible with his goodness. If this is the way things stand, if I was led by God to apply for a position I would not get, it must be for some other reason. And I agree with the dictum of St. Anthony that everything happens to us as it should and for our own good; therefore I do not get accepted into the PhD program at Fuller for my own good, even if this is not immediately obvious to me.

The other day when I received the news that I was wait-listed, the following verses stuck in my mind:

"But my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back" (Heb 10.38, citing Hab 2.3-4). 

God finds no pleasure in a person of "faith" who shrinks back at the sight of difficulty or pain. In other words, a life of faith in God is a life of courage and fortitude, not a life for the weak and those unable to deal with the sufferings and disappointments that it involves. Rev 21.8 includes the cowardly among the number of those who will burn in the lake of fire and sulfur, the second death. God has no use and no need for the wimpish and weak. Christ was not weak and wimpish but full of courage for facing death squarely in the face and continuing with his mission, even if it meant excruciating pain and suffering an unjust death.

So I worked hard to convince myself of this and I continue to imprint these words on my mind: My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back. Some years ago I decided that it would be better to follow after God and live my life through faith in God than to leave things to my own judgment and try to run the show myself. A universe run by God, however it may appear to me that things stand, is preferable to one in which no one runs the show and I am left free to do whatever I want in this free-for-all jungle. So what do I do when I am faced with the apparent contradiction of being led by God clearly into a dead-end? Do I give up on God? Do I give up on my self, despairing of an utter inability to make any judgments whatsoever about God's providence in my life? My soul takes no pleasure in the soul who shrinks back.

If this is the way things have to be -- keeping in mind, of course, that I was wait-listed, not rejected, and so it is still open for me to get in, even if I don't expect to do so -- then this is the way things have to be. God's judgment is superior to my own. Submission to God means the submission of my judgment, too, and not shrinking back when things don't make any sense to me.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Purge me with hyssop

Today being the fifty-first day of the year, it is time for some brief meditations on verses from Ps 51.

Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to your steadfast love (v. 1).

We must remember that the psalmist is writing after the commission of a horrific crime. This is written after he had slept with Bathsheba and arranged for her husband to die in battle. So it is all the more poignant that David connects the mercy he wishes to receive with some abiding element of God's character. We all know the refrain: his steadfast love endures forever, repeated ad infinitum in Ps 136. The idea here is that God is of a certain character, disposed to forgive even the desperately wicked of their sins.

God is merciful and his love is steadfast, even in the face of our sins. This is obvious, theology 101-type stuff, but oftentimes we can forget it. In our guilt and in our sense of shame for what we have done, we sooner wallow in depression and self-loathing (or worse, we try to justify ourselves) rather than to come before God with repentance and to receive forgiveness just as quickly. David's point in the petition is this: Lord, I need you to forgive me and be merciful, and I come to you because I know this is who you are.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
  and cleanse me from my sin (v. 2).

Only God can cleanse us of our sins; we cannot accomplish this by ourselves. Such is the desperately fallen state of man: he gets himself stuck in the mire and swamp of sin, and he needs to look outside of himself if he is going to have any hope whatsoever. Thankfully, God is such that he always stretches out his hand to us, and more than that, sometimes he redirects our attention to notice it. But he can't make us grab his hand, or at the very least, he can't force us to accept when he would pull us out. Some struggle against this salvific act of God and reject his attempts to save him.

David is not like that. He recognizes the desperation of his state, and calls out to God to receive mercy. He is aware that only God can make him clean, after he has defiled himself so utterly with these grave sins of adultery and murder. With this knowledge, he brings his petitions to God, rather than trying to make things right himself.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
  and put a new and right spirit within me (v. 10).

When we turn from sin and orient ourselves towards the Lord, we must become new persons. In the New Testament, Paul especially talks about putting off the old self and taking on the new self, modeled after the example and image of Christ in righteousness (Rom 6; Eph 4; Col 3). This change has to take place has to take place on the inside, however, just as much as on the outside. It is not enough merely to abstain from the sins of yesterday, as if limiting yourself to one instance of adultery and murder were enough to make your righteous. Rather, you must take on a new heart: the previous heart of stone has to be replaced with one of flesh.

In the New Testament, we see that this takes place through the activity of the Holy Spirit, which convicts a person of her sins, teaches her the truth, and leads her to trust and love and hope in God. Thus David says: do not take your holy spirit from me, knowing that this kind of interior change has to be accomplished by God himself rather than by us. We must merely open ourselves up to it and pray for it.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
  and sinners will return to you (v. 13).

There is power, I think, in the testimony of a person whose life has been changed. I have close friends who have turned from sin and darkness to the Lord in very drastic and striking ways, and the testimony they offer to the continuing power and activity of God in the salvation of sinners is very impressive.

To some extent, I suppose that David's words here offer an example for us. When the Lord turns us from our sins, we should not assume a kind of solitary, self-centered existence that no longer has any regard for others. Rather, knowing the salvation of God personally, we ought to bring others to experience it as well. I think that this the essence of the missionary spirit, and present in the heart of every missionary: the desire to see others enjoying the same salvation that you have come to know in Jesus Christ. So David says that, when God forgives him and justifies him, he will teach transgressors the way of God and sinners will return to God.

Notice, too, that he says that sinners will return to God. This is because living in fellowship with God, in obedience to his commandments, is not unnatural to human persons but, on the contrary, it is the way we were created to live. Before the descent of humankind into sin, we were created to live in love and unity with God and with one another. A turn to God is therefore a return to what is normal and natural. A person who has discovered the joy and beauty of life with God has really discovered her true self; she has discovered who she truly is, and that previous life in sin and enmity with God is looked upon as falsehood and lies and ignorance.

Friday, February 19, 2016

I'm thankful

Today being the fiftieth day of the year, it is high time for a bit of meditation upon these lines from the fiftieth psalm:

Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
  to those who go the right way
  I will show the salvation of God (Ps 50.23).

Ps 50 is a substantial rejection of false theology of sacrifice. In contradistinction to Vedic Hindu traditions, according to which the sacrifices to the gods strengthen them to maintain the integrity and substantial existence of the universe, God in the Hebrew tradition has no need of sacrifices from anyone:

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
  for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
  or drink the blood of goats? (vv. 12-13)

It would be absurd and heretical to suppose that our sacrifices in some way affect God or strengthen him or provide him with a little bit of "juice" when he's feeling tired. On the contrary, even if per impossibile God had need of sustenance and food, he would have no need to ask it from us. Everything that exists everywhere has come into being from God, and everything belongs to him. Why should he ask us -- frail and imperfect and unreliable and petty -- to feed him and meet some needs of his?

As a matter of fact, what God requires is not the animal per se but that we thank him:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
  and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble;
  I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me (vv. 14-15).

God calls us to give sacrifices of thanksgiving. Why is that? Because sacrifice is not for God, it must follow that it is for our own sake. And clearly enough, God desires us to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and gratitude so that we might come to terms with the fact that we depend upon God utterly for everything we have. The point is orienting us towards God in faith: in a deep trust that loves God and recognizes that everything we have is a gift.

Sacrifices consequently serve to express and foster faith. Because we recognize that God gives us everything, because we realize that we have nothing from ourselves but rather have received everything from him, therefore we realize that God loves us and cares for us. And because he cares for us, we will know to call out to him in the day of trouble, so that he will rescue us. In this way, we see that sacrifices serve also to keep us from depending too much on ourselves. If we try to fight our way out of our problems, we are likely to fall into evil, if not to fall altogether. But when we call on God, he delivers us, because we know that we depend on him, and we are thankful for everything he gives.

In this way, then, the one who brings sacrifices of thanksgiving will see the salvation of God. In bringing these sacrifices, we learn to have faith in God and trust him and love him. So we ought to start today to say, like one of the great Seahawks players did, "I'm thankful."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

God is personal, not local

Today being the forty-eighth day of the year, it is time for a meditation upon Ps 48, specifically these verses:

Walk about Zion, go all around it,
  count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
  go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
  that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
  He will be our guide forever (Ps 48:12-14).

I am sure at the time of the writing of these verses, confidence in the permanence of God's residence in the Temple at Jerusalem was at an all-time high. But looking back now, this attitude seems so simple and naive. The sinfulness of the people led to the destruction of the Temple, not once but twice, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. And now there is no more Temple in Jerusalem, but rather mosques and temples -- a bitter irony if ever there were one.

What can we gather from this? What is the significance of the fact that the Temple did not last as long as the people were hoping? In the words of Joseph Ratzinger, we learn a fundamental and important lesson: God is a numen personale, not a numen locale. In other words, God is a God of personal relationships, not one restricted to particular locations or places in the world. This has important consequences for the way we deal with God and relate with him:

He is not the god of a place but the god of men: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is therefore not bound to one spot but is present and powerful wherever man is. In this fashion one arrives at a completely different way of thinking about God. God is seen on the plane of I and You, not on the lane of the spatial. He thus moves away into the transcendence of the illimitable and by this very fact shows himself to be he who is always (not just at one point) near, whose power is boundless (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 123).

We do not relate to God on the spatial plane. To be near to God or to have fellowship with him, we do not need to be in any particular point in space and time. We don't have to be in Jerusalem to relate to God, because fellowship with God is not had in that way. Rather, fellowship with God is personal, it is an I-Thou relationship. It is precisely the fact that God is not bound to any particular location that makes him available to every human person whatsoever, as Ratzinger notes.

What is so important about this? The fact that God is not bound to Jerusalem means that he is a God for every person everywhere. You need not be a Jew to have fellowship with God; you need not be in Jerusalem or in the Holy Land more generally to have access to him. Rather, God is available to every person everywhere, and he can have dealings with and call people from anywhere on the globe, if he should so wish.

We should not think that God can only be found in particular place. Of course, this is not to deny the evidently real and ubiquitous experience of particular "thin places," as they are called, where it seems that the veil between this dimension and the spiritual is thinner than normal. But God may be had and found anywhere, and of course, he may also come and present himself to us anywhere we might be. And we relate to him personally, as to a friend who is always available (whether we sense it or not!), rather than objectively as being located only in a particular place.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Let us love one another

First John 3:18-19 says this:

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and actions. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before [God].

"I am the light of the world"

There is much to comment upon in these brief sentences. In the first place, notice that John calls his audience to love. This implies that love, as far as Christian ethics is concerned, is not primarily a sentiment or a feeling over which we have no control. On the contrary, love is something to which we commit ourselves, something we undertake to perform intentionally and voluntarily. Love is more of an action or a way of living, rather than a way of feeling. The feelings may not always be there, but we are called to commit ourselves to love, to practice it and to cultivate it so that it becomes a part of us.

Yet it might be wrong utterly to divorce love from feelings and sentiments altogether. For presumably, when we act out of love, we are choosing to identify with something within us that disposes us to wish well for the other person. In other words, in a typical situation where I have to deal with another person, I might be feeling a number of ways about the situation and about the other, and I must choose to act on that feeling of love which may even be hidden underneath resentment, hate, annoyance, etc.

Presumably if one person lacks any love whatsoever for the other, even when considered as another human being, something is wrong. John seems to make love the standard for whether or not we are truly born of God. Just a few verses earlier, he says this: We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death (v. 14). And he repeats the point here, as well. We will know we are from the truth -- we will know if we have truly met God in Christ, if we have truly believed, if we have truly been born from above, and have God's seed abiding in us -- if we live in love for one another.

This has to be a love that demonstrates and translates itself into action, not merely words. Of course, he does not mean that love has nothing to do with our speech whatsoever. After all, you cannot be acting out of love towards a person if you are intentionally verbally abusive and constantly demeaning him. But love must go beyond words and translate itself into action. This is proven eminently through Christ's own example: We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us (v. 16). This is nothing extreme or strange. We already do this naturally in a million other contexts: e.g., love for children, love for a person of the opposite sex, etc. It is quite possible that our love for God does not immediately translate into greater obedience and action because we do not really love him very much.

And of course, our love for one another is the condition of our participation in Christ. John says about Christ that he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (2.2). Not Christ's death in isolation from his life, but Christ himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins -- as if the very identity and essence of Christ is to advocate on behalf of sinners and to make atonement for their sins. We might understand, then, that Christ's life is guided by this single principle: love. And we too, if we are to participate in Christ, if we are to be made into his likeness, if we are to become children of God by adoption as he is the Son of God by nature, then we too must be guided by this same principle of love.

Of course, we are called to love in more than words and speech. But we are also called to love in truth. We cannot compromise the truth in order to be more "loving." It is a travesty and a lie to love someone by withholding or misrepresenting the truth to them. This spells itself out in a number of ways. Consider, for example, the debate about gay relationships and gay marriage. Some persons reason that Christ would have been affirming of gay relationships on the basis of his commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves. The problem with this argument is this: if Christ also considers marriage as only legitimate between a man and a woman, then it is no true act of love to affirm gay relationships against this truth. Whether Christ conceived of things this way is another question, of course, but the point is obvious enough: we cannot affirm the sins of others and refuse to address them out of "love," because true love does not compromise the truth.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A priori theology and the problem of evil

In philosophy, there is a distinction made between knowledge gained a priori and a posteriori. As the phrases themselves suggest, knowledge gained a priori is knowledge that you have prior to any experience in the world. For example, you can know that two and two make four without adding up two and two of everything that exists to verify. Knowledge gained a posteriori, however, is knowledge that you have after experience. An example of a posteriori knowledge is knowledge of whether or not there is yogurt in the refrigerator. You couldn't know such a thing simply by sitting in your armchair and thinking long and hard about it; you have to go and see for yourself if it is true.

Now, this may seem abstract and unimportant for a lot of people, but actually this distinction is very important as regards theological method. The question arises: do we know about God a priori, or a posteriori? Consider it phrased another way: can I know about God and what he's like without his revealing it to me, or does he have to tell me what he's like for me to know him?

Certainly it seems we have good reason to think knowledge of God must come a posteriori. Consider these biblical texts which suggest that knowledge of God must be had on the basis of revelation:

All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Mt 11.27).

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1.18).

These passage suggest strongly that humans can only gain knowledge about God if God reveals it to them in some way. No one knows the Father except the Son, and the Son has to choose to reveal the Father if others are going to know about him. And when John says that no one has ever seen God, the suggestion is obviously that people lack knowledge about the Father's heart, about the true character and interests of God. The corollary of this is the affirmation of the apostles that Christ has made God known to the world:

[God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph 1.9-10).

It may not immediately seem obvious, but this important truth has tremendous consequences for the way we think about God and about the Christian life. If we start with this a priori method, we run the risk of turning God into someone who is entirely like ourselves: someone who agrees with everything we do, everything we believe, everything we feel, etc. But if we start with an a posteriori method, and determine that God has to reveal to us what the truth about himself is, then we might find ourselves quite surprised at what God has to say!

This is nowhere more important than as regards the infamous problem of evil. This is the question on the minds of so many people in the world: if God is so good, why is there such suffering and evil in the world? Either God is not good after all, or else he's too weak to prevent all this evil, or else he doesn't exist at all. But what can we say in response to this argument?

Notice that the argument assumes an a priori method about God and about what concerns God should have. The person who offers this argument thinks that she knows best what God should be doing in the world, if he truly exists and if he is all-good and all-powerful. But there is no reason to think that we can have a priori knowledge about that at all! And as the biblical texts I cited above suggest, our knowledge of God and his purposes must come a posteriori -- he has to reveal it to us.

When we consider the revelation of God in the bible, we find that God's concerns are actually other than we might have expected. Whereas people in the world typically think that the biggest problem to solve is suffering, it turns out that God has judged the biggest problem to be solved as sin. Sin ruptures the relationship between God and humankind, as well as between human persons and even the relationship of the person to herself. While God is certainly concerned for the suffering in the world -- his healings and miracles prove this -- nevertheless he is more concerned with solving the problem of sin than with solving the problem of suffering.

Now what do we do in the face of this suggestion? Should people double down on their own a priori method and assert dogmatically: No, not sin but suffering is the problem! How can you know that? How can you insist that you are right and God is wrong? Might it be that insisting on suffering as the problem is the easier way out, because you can turn yourself into a victim who gets to point the finger at God, whereas taking sin as the problem means accepting you are the wrongdoer and to blame?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Singleness and using your time well

Paul writes the following to the Corinthians:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord (1 Cor 7.32-5).

In the context, Paul is arguing that remaining celibate and single is preferable to being married, because the single person is able to work for the Lord without the hindrance and encumbrance of a family. Of course, he has no conception that married life is itself bad -- on the contrary, marriage was instituted by God and is very good. But the argument is that, while marriage is good, being single is even better, because you can work for the Lord even more.

This is an important message in some contexts where singles are treated as abnormal or unfulfilled, especially if they remain single into their late 20s, then their 30s, etc. This is also strange to the ears of our general culture, where a fulfilling sex life is seen as practically essential to happy living. Who in the world -- apart from monks and nuns -- practices intention celibacy for the sake of devoting himself to other pursuits? No one, as far as I can tell.

But the Bible doesn't speak that way. Sex is not taken as a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life. Some things, of course, are necessary: food, water, shelter, friendship, etc. But sex is not one of them. In fact, two of the most important and central figures in the Bible -- Jesus and Paul -- were unmarried. For this reason, then, we have to reject the notion that a single person is unfulfilled or unhappy, or that he is missing out on some essential component of life.

The first point I gather from this text, then, is that sex (and so marriage) is not essential for living a good and fulfilled life, in spite of what our culture might tell us. The second point is this: if we should remain single, we nevertheless have to make good use of our time.

I've been reading Augustine lately in research for a class, and I am specifically intrigued by his line of argument in his treatises De Sancta Virginitate [On holy virginity] and De bono coniugali [On the good of marriage]. He emphasizes the point that there is no value merely in remaining celibate; there is nothing especially good about virginity per se. Rather, it is consecrated virginity that can be of great value, because it is an entire life that is dedicated to the service of the Lord, rather than to vain pursuits.

So also in the case of Paul: he does not conceive that the single person is better off because she is free to do whatever she likes without the burden of caring for a family. That is hardly valuable, in Paul's eyes, and is probably a sinful attitude. There's no value in being single if you spend all your time taking vacations and enjoying yourself. Rather, he says that the single person is anxious about the affairs of the Lord. He assumes that if a person decides to remain single, she will dedicate herself to serving the Lord in some way or other, and not merely enjoying herself in this life.

We have to use our time well, then, if we are going to remain single. Of course, we do not all have opportunities to serve the Lord in the same ways. Some of us study for the sake of teaching others for their benefit. Others donate time and money to charitable causes. All of us certainly can pray for each other and for the whole world, and all of us can preach the good news of Jesus to others who are in need of it. But the important thing is that we make good use of our time when we have it.

If singles dedicate their time and energies to the service of the Lord and the community, I think they will find themselves more greatly appreciated and respected by others. Consider this case from Acts:

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two  men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay." So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord (Acts 9.36-42).

Tabitha was devoted to good works and charity, which means she was likely single and unmarried. And look at how her efforts, unhindered and unencumbered by familial responsibility, were so appreciated by the community: at her death, widows carrying tunics and other garments made by her showed them to the apostle Peter. That is how much they loved her and appreciated what she had done for them.

If you are single and you wish to be appreciated by the community like Tabitha was, then make good use of your time. Paul would insist that your singleness is not an opportunity for you to enjoy yourself before you get married or before you get old; that  is a worldly way of thinking. In the meantime, there are people in need, and you are able and ready to help them, if only you want to.