Self Control

I recently came across a reference to Daniel Akst’s new book We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess.  I read about it on Marginal Revolution, but you can see the NYT review HERE.

That we live in an age of excess, characterized by a lack of self-control, is hardly disputable.  Mr. Akst notes that in America alone literally millions of people die prematurely as a result of smoking, drinking, overeating and physical inactivity.  And as I have pointed out repeatedly on this blog, these poor lifestyle decisions don’t just kill the people who make them, they burden the health care system and the rest of society, who end up bearing much of the cost to treat these people.  In some cases there is a moral stigma attached to folks who do not exercise self-control, such as smokers, alcholics and drug addicts.  Yet for the millions of people who run up debts they can’t pay buying things they don’t need, or who ruin their health by overeating and inactivity, there is little if any moral stigma attached.  Few in our culture would consider an obese, debt-ridden compulsive shopper to be “immoral.”  

But, being the Bible nerd that I am, when I read the blurb about Mr. Akst’s book, my mind went to what the Bible has to say about self-control and the absence of self-control.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he listed “self-control” as among the “fruit of the Spirit,” along with love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and forebearance.

Proverbs 25:28 says “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”

But probably the harshest thing the Bible has to say about a lack of self control (and the verse which came to my mind when reading about the book) is found in the second letter to Timothy:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

On one level this seems to strike at the root of what it means to lack self-control, by associating an absence of self-control with love of self and love of pleasure (and a corresponding absence of love for the good).  But while on one level a life of twinkies, cigarettes, beer and television may reflect a love of self and pleasure, on another level it reflects just the opposite.  Given that those choices for some temporary sensual pleasure destroy the person’s health and eventually take back far more pleasure than they give, no thoughtful person can honestly think he is serving his own self interest and pleasures by such a lack of self-control.

So why do folks do it?  Why do so many people choose not to exercise self-control?

I don’t think there is a simple answer.  Lots of reasons come to mind.  We live in a culture saturated with advertising designed to encourage destructive lifestyle choices.   There is little if any moral stigma attached to overconsumption.  We have so many labor saving devices that physical activity is increasingly unnecessary.  We’ve created social safety nets that prevent folks from feeling the full impact of their bad choices (I know a woman who is receiving government disability income payments because she’s gotten too fat to hold a job, for example).  To a large extent the problem is just plain ignorance.  Way too many people don’t even realize that the stuff they’re eating and drinking is ruining their health, or that they’ll never possibly be able to repay the credit card debts they’re running up.

But I wonder if the primary reason for the lack of self-control in our society isn’t just a plain old lack of discipline.  Choosing to eat a candy bar instead of an apple.  Choosing to buy something on credit rather than waiting until the money is there.  Choosing to lay on the couch and watch TV rather than go for a walk.  These are just choices, like every other choice we make.  Like the choice to earn a living by working rather than by stealing.  Like the choice to tell the truth rather than to lie.   Maybe we just need to stop making excuses and stop refusing to call it what it is.

Maybe we just need to exercise self control.

Love Wins

Enlightened Anarchy

To me political power is not an end but one of the means of enabling people to better their condition in every department of life. Political power means capacity to regulate national life through national representatives. If national life becomes so perfect as to become self-regulated, no representation become necessary. There is then a state of enlightened anarchy. In such a state everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbour.


Love Wins

The Past

“The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

Wendell Berry

Love Wins

Everlasting God

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  Isaiah 40: 28.

Philosophers and theologians have long-debated the question of whether God is everlasting or whether he is eternal.  Put differently, does God exist within time or is God’s existence timeless?  The proponents of each position insist that a proper understanding of the fundamental nature of God is at stake.  Each side can produce scriptural authority and a reasonable philosophical foundation to support its position.  Each side can reasonably argue that its position preserves the true nature of God, while the other does not.  I will argue that the most satisfactory position is that God is everlasting, rather than eternal.    In so doing, I freely acknowledge that the answer to this question cannot be determined with absolute confidence.  Like so many of the questions attendant to a discussion of the nature of God, this one should be approached with humility.  I will attempt to do so.

Initially, we should frame the discussion.  To say that God is “everlasting,” is to say that God has always existed and always will exist.  As Creation unfolds in time, God is present in time with it.  God is not outside, above or beyond time.  He exists as part of time, and proceeds through time with his Creation.  To say that God is “eternal,” on the other hand, is to say that God is timeless.  In this view, God transcends time and exists completely independently of it.  Proponents of this position typically say that time is meaningless to God, and that he exists in a perpetual present, simultaneously occupying what we perceive as past, present and future.

The ramifications of the respective positions show that the question is not a mere theoretical puzzle.  The answer to the question has profound implications to the very nature of God.  Proponents of God’s eternality will argue, for example, that if God exists within time then he is finite, not immutable, not omniscient, and is therefore denied fundamental characteristics of his divinity.  Proponents of an everlasting God, on the other hand, argue that if God exists outside of time, and experiences all of time simultaneously, then humans have no true free will, prayer is meaningless, and the problem of evil cannot be solved satisfactorily.  That the answer to this question has important repercussions is seemingly undeniable.

Recognizing the gravity of the question, I submit that the most satisfactory answer to it is that God is everlasting, rather than eternal.  I submit that the position that God is everlasting is biblically sound, that it best reflects the character of God as revealed in Scripture, and that it best preserves the essential fundamental characteristic of God, which is love.  I will acknowledge that there are reasonable objections to my position, and that those who advocate God’s eternality have reasonable evidence upon which to rely.  But I will contend that the notion of God’s eternality derives more from Hellenistic philosophy than from God’s revelation and his revealed character.

The Bible is filled with stories of God interacting with humans within time.  It teaches that God experiences grief, regret and surprise, and that he sometimes changes his mind.  The Bible teaches that God will change an intended course of conduct, for example, depending upon how humans behave or exercise their free will.  The Bible is filled with examples of the efficacy of petitionary prayer, and Jesus himself taught his followers to pray that God’s will be done on earth—seeming to reveal both that God’s will is not always done on earth, and that prayer can affect whether his will is done on earth, or not.   As Nicholas Wolterstorff argues, a Redeemer God is necessarily a God who changes.  

Of course, those who prefer the eternality of God respond that most of these passages are mere anthropomorphisms.  Further, they can muster their own scriptural support for the proposition that God is immutable. 

But it seems to me that to dismiss all this scripture as anthropomorphic, particularly when there is no apparent reason why God would reveal these matters anthropomorphically, does too much violence to the text.  I submit that the Hebrew conception of God—as a Creator who travels with his creation through time, instructing and loving us as he does, properly reflects the character of God as revealed in Scripture and history.  The idea that God instantly actualized all of eternity, and is now somehow waiting for us at the finish line as we slug through it temporally, simply does not seem to square with God’s historical and continuing interaction with humanity.

This subject’s implications to free will are obvious.  If all of what we perceive as the future is already actualized in the mind of God, and fully known to him, then the future is as fixed and as immutable as the eternalists believe God to be.  We cannot alter the course of future events, without altering the mind and knowledge of God.  Because it is obvious that we have no ability to negate that which God knows, then our futures are determined.  Thus, if God is eternal rather than everlasting, then determinism prevails over libertarianism.  If libertarianism fails, then love fails, because love cannot exist without free will.  If determinism prevails, then love loses.  Only if determinism is false does love win.  Thus, I conclude that God must exist inside time, in order to best preserve free will and love. 

The eternalists will respond that a God who is bound by time is finite and not fully omniscient.  But I would respectfully respond that this objection proceeds from a misunderstanding of omniscience.  An everlasting God who exists within time is fully omniscient.  The fact that such a God has not already experienced the future, or that he may not fully “know” every future event before it occurs, does not compromise his omniscience at all.  Just as God’s omnipotence is defined as his ability to do all things that may logically be done, God’s omniscience should be understood as his ability to know all things that can be logically known.  God can no more know the unrealized future in a world full of free agents, than he can make a square circle or a married bachelor.  Of course, because God is omnipotent, he has the power to compel anything he chooses.  The proponents of an everlasting God do not therefore sacrifice predictive/decretal prophecy.  God has declared, for example, that Jesus will return to earth.  That event will absolutely occur, because God has decreed that he will cause it to occur.  It is very unlikely, on the other hand, that God has decreed the precise words I will type in the next paragraph of this post.  Those words will be the result of my free will, uncompelled by God, and therefore, as discomforting as it may be to say, unknown to him as of this moment. 

God’s divinity is not compromised by any limitation he imposed on himself with regard to time, any more than it is by the freedom that he has allowed humans.  God allows humans free will, because free will is essential to true love.  And it is through love that God and humans ultimately relate.  Because I believe true libertarian free will to be essential to love, I conclude that God must be everlasting, rather than eternal.

God’s existence inside time not only best preserves free will and love, but it also best accounts for the problem of evil.  The problem of evil cannot be sufficiently unpacked here, but suffice it to say that I conclude that it can only be satisfactorily explained by divine allowance of free will.  Because I conclude that if God exists outside of time then free will is compromised, I also conclude that the existence of God outside of time makes the problem of evil more problematic, if not inexplicable.

Finally, it seems to me that the efficacy of prayer requires that God exist and act inside of time.  If the future is fully unfolded before an eternal God, then it would seem impossible that humans could influence events by prayer.  As argued above, a fully actualized future, already “known” to God, is fixed and unchangeable.  Such a situation would seem to make petitionary prayer pointless.  Yet the experiences of believers for thousands of years reveal the efficacy of prayer.  This too, I suggest, favors the conclusion that God is everlasting, rather than eternal.

Thus, while no absolutely unchallengeable answer exists to this question, it seems to me that the conclusion that God is everlasting, rather than eternal, is the most satisfactory.

Love Wins

The Sycamore

I love this poem.

The Sycamore – Wendell Berry

In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.



I recently saw these alarming facts about my community:

Of the 640 live births in Danville in 2009, almost two-thirds — 417 — were to unmarried women.

Of the 417 live births to single women, 109 were to teens — 29 to teens who were 15-17 years of age, and 80 to teens who were 18 or 19 years old.

In Pittsylvania County 42 percent of the live births were to unmarried women (241 of 574).

Of the 241 live births to single women, 98 were to teens — one to a girl under the age of 15, 29 to teens who were 15-17 years of age, and 68 to teens who were 18 or 19 years old.

A shocking 39.4 percent of girls in Danville aged 15-17 gave birth as did 12.1 percent of the girls in Pittsylvania County aged 15-17.

35 percent of births are to mothers with less than a 12th-grade education — and 58 percent of all children are living in poverty.

Heaven help us.

Love Wins