. . . The painful effort which prayer involves is no proof that we are doing something we were not created to do.
If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be delight. Some day, please God, it will be. The same is true of many other behaviors which now appear as duties. If I loved my neighbor as myself, most of the actions which are now my moral duty would flow out of me as spontaneously as song from a lark or fragrance from a flower. Why is this not so yet? Well, we know, don’t we? Aristotle has taught us that delight is the “bloom” on an unimpeded activity. But the very activities for which we were created are, while we live on earth, variously impeded: by evil in ourselves or in others. Not to practise them is to abandon our humanity. To practise them sontaneously and delightfully is not yet possible. This situation creates the category of duty, the whole specifically moral realm.
It exists to be transcended. Here is the paradox of Christianity. As practical imperatives for here and now the two great commandments have to be translated “Behave as if you loved God and man.” For no man can love because he is told to. Yet obedience on this practical level is not really obedience at all. And if a man really loved God and man, once again this would hardly be obedience; for if he did, he would be unable to help it. Thus the command really says to us, “Ye must be born again.” Till then, we have duty, morality, the Law. A schoolmaster, as St. Paul says, to bring us to Christ. We must expect no more of it than of a schoolmaster; we must allow it no less. I must say my prayers today whether I feel devout or not; but that is only as I must learn my grammar if I am ever to read the poets.
– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Mariner Books ed), 114-115.
[see the Jan 27 post for pt 1]
If I were a betting man I’d wager that BL is more concerned with the inconsistent application of Mat 5:27-28 than he is with inconsistent interpretation . However, interpretation will always have a bearing on one’s application so something should be said about the way we go about making sense of Jesus’ teaching in Mat 5 especially since BL astutely observed that none of us are hacking off limbs in obedience to Jesus’ teaching on lust, theft, etc. What follows is the 2nd half of my response–again, w/ a few edits–to his questions/comments:
4) Jesus’ teaching on divorce seems to be an open & shut case when compared w/ the rest of Scripture. By tht I mean there just doesn’t seem to be any other passages that would add qualifications to what Jesus teaches. [The one exception would be what Paul says in 1Cor 7:15 but on that point Paul refers to “mixed” marriages whereas Jesus is speaking to covenant community.] Other passages that directly speak of marriage end up as a “yes…and” complement to Mat 5:31-32 whereas passages like Rom 13:1-4 create something of a “yes…but” contrast to the “don’t resist the one who is evil” of Mat 5:39. Consequently, Jesus’ divorce/remarriage command seems to have a greater across-the-board clarity than does His resisting evil command.
5) Biblical instruction can mix literal & figurative statements without forcing us to pit a literal interpretation against a figurative interpretation. Human language works that way all the time: “If you smart off to me or your mom you are breaking a house rule. It’s better to zip your lips than to have your rear end beat black & blue.” [even in that statement the “figurative” discipline (beat black & blue) refers to literal discipline (spanking)]
6) The over-the-top “tear out your eye” has to be considered w/ the rest of Jesus’ teaching on sin, righteousness, judgment. Would Jesus have us believe that physical maiming was a real way to escape sin & judgment? A radical approach to sin eradication is what Jesus means to address, but even gouging an eye out isn’t radical enough.
The following is a portion of an e-mail exchange I had with a long time friend. Let’s call him B Lamb…actually Benjy L…better yet we’ll just call him BL to protect his identity. Anyway, BL’s questions surround a church’s seemingly arbitrary application of Jesus’ teaching in Mat 5:27-45 (take a quick read for yourself if you’re not familiar w/ the passage). BL’s questions/comments lead off (italicized) w/ the first half of my response (w/ minor editing) following. The 2nd half of my response will follow in a subsequent post.
Why do we take the words about divorce so literally when we do not take anything else taught in that passage literally? No one cuts out their eye or cuts off their hands. We make promises all the time instead of just letting our yes be yes. We fight back against those that hurt us. And we kill our enemies instead of praying for them and doing good to them. But we have strict guidelines about who we allow to get married in our church based on this verse!?! So the only logical conclusion that I come to based on how we practice these verses is that everything Jesus taught in this passage was metaphorical except His teaching about divorce – that is literal.
1) Sadly, it’s easier to hold a literal interpretation on a teaching that doesn’t affect you personally. Many (most?) of us don’t think they have to worry about divorce so it’s easier to take a hard line there than on persecution, swearing, etc. where we’re more likely to be confronted w/ Jesus’ teaching in real life.
2) Christian obedience will always be a progressive work. To a certain extent I shouldn’t find it shocking to find inconsistency in our application of Scripture. Our objective is to commend Spirit-led obedience where it’s found and to challenge ourselves in those areas where we lack. The church’s fidelity to Christ’s teaching on marriage/divorce can be used as a platform to promote greater fidelity to swearing & persecution teaching. (see, for example, Jesus simultaneously commending & convicting churches in Rev 2-3). As we commend & challenge we serve the church well to pray for a greater work of the Spirit to get our eyes wide open.
3) Cultural setting can affect how we interpret & implement certain commands. “Pray for those who persecute you” has a radically different meaning for a constitutionally protected American Christian when compared to an Afghan Christian. It can be difficult to chart a path for living out Christ’s commands when society affords me additional privileges and protections—especially when those protections are God ordained. In certain instances even Paul took advantage of civil law rather than take a beating or suffer a miscarriage of justice (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11).