Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Free Will and Free Grace

Let’s continue our blog series on Paradise Lost by looking at Book 3.

Sitting on His throne, God observes Satan’s progress toward the newly created world. Foreseeing Satan’s success in perverting humankind, He speaks with the Son, who is sitting at His right hand. God the Father proclaims that grace cannot be granted to mankind without the satisfaction of divine justice (and yet even in this announcement, He foreshadows the grace that is to come to man.) Only if someone can answer for Adam’s sins and receive mankind’s punishment can Adam and his progeny be saved. God the Son offers Himself as man’s ransom and the Father accepts, proclaiming the supremacy of the name of Jesus. In response, the angels celebrate the Father and the Son. Meanwhile, Satan travels through Chaos and makes his way to the sun, where the angel Uriel is stationed. Disguising himself, Satan feigns an innocent desire to view God’s new creation. Uriel gives Satan directions to where earth—and its two human inhabitants—can be found.

Two themes stand out to me in this book: the will of man and the grace of God.

First, the will of man. Mankind was created with the ability to obey God and the ability to disobey God. As the Father Himself says, “I formed them free, and free they must remain / Till they enthrall themselves” (lines 124-125). Their freedom will be lost only if they “enthrall themselves”—which is clarified as being “enthralled / By sin” to the allurements of “foul exorbitant desires” (lines 176-177).

The freedom of the will—though not the existence of the will itself—would be lost if and when such a thing were to happen. Alas, such a thing did happen, and the free will with which man was endowed was lost to the tyranny of sin. Yet, even as He foresees the fall of mankind, and even as He points out the atrocious nature of the Fall, the Father hints at the grace to come: “Man shall not quite be lost, but saved” (line 173), “Yet not of will in him, but grace in me” (line 174). The salvation will come from grace, for the human will was perverted by the Fall, disabling humanity’s ability to reconcile itself to God without God’s personal and direct involvement. As the Father says in lines 180-182,

By me [mankind will be] upheld, that he may know how frail
His fallen condition is, and to me owe
All his deliverance, and to none but me.

And this leads us to the second theme: the grandeur of the grace of God. Milton beautifully communicates the message of the gospel from God’s perspective. This gospel starts, of course, with the bad news: “Die he [Adam] or justice must” (line 210). The guilty must not go free. If Adam, the perpetrator, is not punished, justice will be perverted. Therefore, it is not possible for God to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly…or is it?

A solution can be found, says the Father, only through an innocent party that is both willing and able to take man’s place and act as a ransom. God (rhetorically) asks the heavenly assembly, “where shall we find such love?” (line 213). Heaven remains silent for a spell, the question suspended in the air, its gravity falling hard on the ears of the angelic host. No one is able; no one is worthy. Mankind must be lost.

But then the Son, man’s willing and appointed Mediator, offers up Himself. In lines 236-240, He proclaims the following:

Behold me then, me for him, life for life
I offer, on me let thine anger fall;
Account me man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die.

Jesus prophesies His own death and resurrection, His victory over Satan, and His satisfaction of God’s wrath so that peace, reconciliation, and joy will be assured to all the redeemed. With these words, Christ “breathe[s] immortal love / To mortal men” (lines 267-268). “So heavenly love shall outdo hellish hate” (line 298).

Next week, we will observe one of the best depictions of euphoric perfection ever penned by man.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Pride that Comes After a Fall

Let’s continue our blog series on Paradise Lost by looking at Book 2.

Satan and his minions plot their course of action. Molech argues they should renew their war with God and seek victory through military effort. Belial advises they lie low, hoping that God may forget them and just leave them alone. Mammon proposes they build a better Hell so they can learn to enjoy their new home even more than Heaven. Satan already has a plan, but he uses Beelzebub to propose it to the crowd so that the demons think it is their own idea. Beelzebub wins the throng’s approval, and they all agree to seek revenge against God by corrupting His newest creations—humans. Satan offers to do this difficult task himself, receiving honor and applause. He then approaches the gates of hell, which are guarded by Sin and Death. Satan demands passage, and he and Death argue. Sin steps in to appease them both, and finally all agree on Satan’s plan. With Hell’s gates opened before him, Satan embarks on his mission through the vast gulf that exists between him and his destination.

Satan does not want to simply strike back at Heaven for his humiliation. No, he wants to spite God by seeking something greater than revenge; he wishes to “interrupt [God’s] joy” (line 371) by attacking and defiling the crown of His creation—i.e., humans. His goal is to seduce mankind to his side and to drive out the “puny inhabitants” of earth (line 367) from the pleasures of Eden.

These passages give us insight into the essence of all sin: pride. Satan hates the joys of God and man because they remind him of what he rejected. As we will see in Book 4, when “the Fiend” (as Satan is called) sees the delight of creation, he is thoroughly undelighted (line 286). If he must be without these joys, so must everyone else. Of course, only pride would sink to such depths.

As C. S. Lewis states in chapter 8 of Mere Christianity, pride is essentially competitive in nature. It is not content to be rich or clever or beautiful—it is content only when it is more rich or more clever or more beautiful than everyone else.

If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy. . . . In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. . . . [But God] wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life.

In rejection of this humble state, Satan clings to the “silly nonsense about [his] own dignity.” Or, as Lewis says in Chapter 13 of A Preface to Paradise Lost, “In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Satan] could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.”

The seed of this pride resides in every human heart. Like Satan, we cling to notions of our own prestige, our own worth, our perceived right to rule and govern our lives without interference. When we succumb to this mindset, it is easy for the words and actions of our sovereign Creator to produce within us a “sense of injured merit” (PL, Book 1, line 98), as was the case with Satan. When we insist on our own way, we demonstrate the pride of unbelief. But if we succumb to the merciful Lordship of our Creator and Savior, we demonstrate the “delightedly humble” state Lewis talked about—the humility of faith in the goodness of God as reveled in the gospel.

Next week, we will see a beautiful portrayal of this gospel in Book 3.

A Husband’s Guide to Romance: Less is More

I wrote an article for WOG Magazine that went live last week on Valentine’s Day. It explores a specific—and countercultural—way to stoke the flames of romance. You can check it out here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Psychoanalyzing Satan

Having introduced my plan for blogging through Paradise Lost, I invite you to join me in looking at Book 1.

Book 1 begins with a prologue, including a synopsis of the entire poem’s plot, a plea to the Holy Spirit to aid Milton in composing this work, and a statement about the purpose of the poem. Milton’s goal is to “justify the ways of God to men” (line 26). Then he drops us into the middle of the epic story: Satan awakens from a stupor, having been cast out of Heaven. He finds himself floating in the lake of hell, along with the other rebel angels, all of whom are still catatonic. Satan wakes them from their thunderstruck confusion and gives a rousing speech, instilling within them a renewed hope of reigning in Heaven. He tells them of a soon-to-be new world (i.e., earth) and a new creature to be created (i.e., man), according to an ancient prophecy. Satan leads his minions to dry land, where they build a place called Pandemonium. From this meeting hall, they sit as a council in order to determine what they should do next.

One thing that sticks out about Satan is that he is defined by what he is against. He cannot stand the goodness of God and he devotes his existence to the destruction of such goodness. In lines 159-168, Satan assures Beelzebub, his right hand man, that

To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to [God’s] high will
Whom we resist. If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labor must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft-times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.

Satan’s “sole delight” is to do evil. This involves resisting all the good that God does. Satan aims to “grieve” God through perverting good, to “disturb His inmost counsels from their destined aim.” Of course, our experience in this world shows that he doesn’t want to come across as a killjoy, so he employs a heavy dose of slight-of-hand with humanity.

Indeed, one of Satan’s great tricks is to make society see God as against humanity, as the ultimate killjoy: anti-sex, anti-pleasure, anti-fun. God’s boundaries are seen as stuffy and tyrannical, whereas the restraints-free approach to life advocated by the world, which is under Satan’s sway (1 John 5:19), is made to look appealing and attractive.

The truth, however, is vastly different from this illusion. Satan abhors sex, pleasure, and fun. He desires to pervert the good that God created so that mankind will have “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure” (as C. S. Lewis so aptly put it in The Screwtape Letters).

But Satan’s power to pervert is no match for God’s power to turn all things for good, which brings us to another idea found in Paradise Lost—the idea of felix culpa, a Latin term meaning “fortunate fault.” The principle behind this phrase is that God, in His infinite wisdom, has decreed that it is better to bring good out of evil than to disallow evil completely. Or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom.” Somehow, the existence of evil will, in the long run, bring about the greatest good.

The idea of felix culpa first appears in lines 213-220 of Book 1, where God is said to have

Left him [Satan] at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shown
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.

Yes, Satan is evil and opposed to all the good that God designs. But so great is God’s love and wisdom and power that, in the end, Satan’s opposition only serves to bring about the very good he desires to destroy. He can rage with all the malice of hell, but his efforts will be used by God to “bring forth infinite goodness.”

(For an in-depth look at this principle, you may want to read Spectacular Sins by John Piper. If memory serves me right, the phrase felix culpa is never used in the book, but Piper is working within the same theological framework.)

Next week, we will look at the debate—and Satan’s manipulation of events—in the council of Hell.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A, and the Love of Jesus

I hate to interrupt our Paradise Lost series right as it gets started, but I wanted to touch on a current event in national news.

Just over a week ago, nationally recognized LGBT leader Shane L. Windmeyer wrote a stunning piece for Huffington Post, entitled, Dan and Me: My Coming Out as a Friend of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A.” As a champion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights, Mr. Windmeyer has led protests against Chick-fil-A and what he saw as the bigotry of the Christian-owned company. All that started to change on August 10 of last year, when he got a personal call from Chick-fil-A founder Dan Cathy.

Windmeyer writes, “He was going to tear me apart, right? Give me a piece of his mind? Turn his lawyers on me?” Instead, what he found was a man filled with love and compassion. Their first conversation lasted over an hour, and they continued to interact over the phone. Then they started meeting privately for more dialogue. In the process, something amazing happened: they became friends.

Several questions have been swirling around in my mind over the last week. What caused a friendship like this to form? What happened here? Dan and Shane are still committed to their respective causes and neither has changed his political or religious positions, so what happened?

The simple answer, I think, is this: Shane Windmeyer came face to face with the love of Jesus Christ in the person of Dan Cathy. As I’ve contemplated this story, I have noticed three similarities between Dan Cathy’s behavior and the behavior of Jesus described in the Gospels—and, particularly, in the story of the woman at the well.

Jesus Initiated
In the city of Sychar, Jesus sat down by a well and soon encountered a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans weren’t exactly on speaking terms at the time, so it was socially uncouth for Jesus to reach out to her—but reach out to her He did. He began with a simple question, which led to a meandering conversation about water, eternal life, adultery, worship, God, and the coming of the Messiah.

Similarly, Dan Cathy reached out to a man that many Christians wouldn’t even think of conversing with. And Dan’s approach wasn’t designed as a frontal attack on an enemy; it was designed as an act of love.

Jesus Shared Grace
We know from other places in Scripture that Jesus was full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14, 17). Like the words jumbo and shrimp, grace and truth might seem at odds, but they don’t need to be. They complement each other wonderfully. And Jesus definitely had a heaping dose of grace for the Samaritan woman. He pointed her toward the true answer to all of life’s questions. He spoke in a way that engaged her attention and left her wanting more.

Likewise, the manner of Mr. Cathy’s approach both caught Mr. Windmeyer off guard and left him with a desire to further the conversation. Cathy’s honest and genuine love was refreshing and appealing. Windmeyer describes their conversations as “awkward at times but always genuine and kind.” And Cathy “expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a.”

Jesus Shared Truth
Truth can be used as a weapon of war, and it can be used as a tool of love. For the Christian, it must be used as a tool of love (Eph. 4:15). In the case with the woman at the well, Jesus drew the truth of the woman’s sin out into the light. She tried diverting the issue by switching topics, and Jesus actually went along with her. Nevertheless, His words were not lost on her. In fact, the words of Christ were what she shared with others after leaving Jesus: “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did” (John 4:29).

So Dan Cathy shared the truth of the Scriptures. Windmeyer says that Cathy “offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.” While the article doesn’t explicitly state it, I’m sure part of their discussions involved what those “genuine beliefs about marriage” are all about.

In conclusion, the Huffington Post article has provoked me to desire more Christ-likeness in my own life. What Shane Windmeyer expected to be an encounter with a Pharisee turned out to be an encounter with a humble and loving disciple of Christ. Like Dan Cathy—and like the woman at the well—I too have been the recipient of Christ’s initiation, grace, and truth. And like Dan Cathy, I want to show more initiative, grace, and truth with those around me who need an encounter with the love of Jesus.