Category Archives: Spiritual Training

Explaining ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

The central text of Christianity is probably the Gospel according to Matthew, and the core of the Gospel according to Matthew is probably the Sermon on the Mount. Within that, the two most important parts are probably the Beatitudes and the Our Father. However, these are both effectively summaries of Christianity, and both are essentially aphoristic – to understand them it helps to have significant context.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ comes in the Our Father just after Jesus speaks of the new Kingdom and before he talks about forgiving. The obvious reference by ‘bread’ here is to the daily manna which sustained Moses and the ancient Israelites as they moved from political slavery (in ancient Egypt) to political freedom (in the promised land). This was a central event in ancient Jewish history, and Jesus consciously conceived of himself as the new Moses (of which Moses himself had prophesied). Many Jews of the time expected the new Moses to lead his people again to political freedom (this was part of what was expected by many of the ‘Christ’, or new king who was prophesied to be in the Davidic line and whose kingdom was to have no end – Jesus consciously was acting as both the new Moses and the new David). Jesus, however, considered his Kingdom spiritual instead of political (confounding many people’s expectations of what this new Kingdom would be like – ‘My kingdom is not of this world’). His purpose, rather, was to lead people from spiritual slavery to spiritual freedom (“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8). Jesus is referring here, then, to a kind of manna that will help us as we move towards spiritual freedom – that’s the goal.

So, what is this new kind of manna or ‘bread’ which Jesus is referring to? Bread here is meant in an expansive sense, as all that nourishes us on a spiritual level. John 6:32 makes clear this spiritual sense of ‘bread’: “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.” Interestingly, with the daily manna of the ancient Israelites, they were only allowed to use it for that day, with the next day requiring a replenishing by God. Similarly, the focus here is on ‘this day’, and Jesus is saying that should be our focus in the spiritual life (see Matthew 6:34 “Worry not for tomorrow”). In particular, spiritual nourishment comes from a daily lived, experienced connection to God. This experience of God will refill and nourish us, spiritually speaking, and it is a major object of Christian practice to clear away the obstacles to this kind of daily connection.

Jesus emphasizes elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount that we must ask, and the corresponding part in the Our Father is ‘give us’. Consider his discussion in the Sermon on the Mount where he says “Ask and it shall be given you” (Matthew 7:7) and then “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?”, which ties that discussion even more clearly to this line in the Our Father about daily bread.

So, Jesus is here pointing out that we ought to ask, every day, for God to give us things that spiritually nourish us (love, divine wisdom, a connection with God and experience of Him, and so on) which will help us to move towards spiritual freedom, which is to say freedom from negative patterns of thought and action, and freedom to align ourselves with God’s will, that is, the Good – the new promised land.

Explaining the Third Beatitude

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5)

The Beatitudes form the start of the Sermon on the Mount. If there is a textual core to Christianity, it is the New Testament. If there is a core to the New Testament, it is the Gospels. If there is a core to the Gospels, it is the Gospel according to Matthew. If there is a core to the Gospel according to Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount. If there is a core to the Sermon on the Mount, it is the Beatitudes and the Our Father.

Yet, for many the Beatitudes are not easy to understand. Indeed, it is only from gaining the context of much of Jesus’ thought, which also requires understanding key aspects of the Old Testament, that they begin to make sense. Once this happens, they become like a key – a very short summary of his entire thought, much as the Our Father is, and in turn bring together and enlighten other things happening in the Gospels.

Blessed means something like ‘happy’, but with a focus on it being active, and can be translated as ‘joyful’. This is common with all the beatitudes which all start with ‘blessed’ – these are the keys to joyfulness, according to the Sermon on the Mount.

It is important to note here that Jesus does not mean ‘happy in the next life’. The idea of heaven, as it is often conceived of nowadays, was not a focus of Jesus’ teachings. The whole point of the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is here and now (‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’). The joyfulness Jesus is referring to can and does happen here and now. You find this kind of beatific happiness or joyfulness in the lives of many Christians. Jesus is saying what he means here – do these things, and you will have inner joy.

The meekest man of his time was Moses. Moses was not cowardly, nor was he a doormat, and those are not the senses with which this term – which is translated into English as ‘meek’ and has no simple English correlate – is intended to impart. Meek here means someone who can be guided by God, who trusts God, who believes God’s guidance will be good. Moses was able to lead the ancient Israelites because he was very meek in this spiritual sense – he could tap into God’s guidance in an almost unsurpassed way, according to the Old Testament.

Indeed, the word ‘meek’ very well may have reminded the ancient Jewish listener, for whom the Gospel according to Matthew was primarily written, of Moses. If that wasn’t enough, however, the second half of the beatitude would have. Moses’ main accomplishment in Jewish history was leading the Jews to the promised land. They were led to the promised land from Egypt, where they were in slavery. This movement was one from political slavery to political freedom. The promised land primarily signified this freedom.

Jesus is self-consciously the new Moses, which many Jews were expecting at this time as the Messiah, and which Moses himself had prophesied would come. This is part of why Jesus repeatedly invokes Moses in other places in the Gospels (‘It has been said to you of olden days’, by whom? Moses. Jesus is giving the new law, which fulfills the Mosaic law.) The error that many made was in expecting the new Moses to reclaim the promised land from (at this point) the Romans. Jesus’ kingdom, however, is a spiritual one, as he makes clear to Pontius Pilate (‘My kingdom is not of this world.’).

In this beatitude, Jesus is invoking this idea of a promised land. However, Jesus is not leading a political movement to establish a geopolitical kingdom. The new promised land is spiritual. In essence, he is saying the meek shall move from spiritual slavery into spiritual freedom. It is from true spiritual freedom that ‘blessedness’ (happiness, joyfulness) shall result.

Consider John 8, where Jesus says that ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, where he makes this very clear. His interlocutors respond ‘We’ve never been slaves, how can you say we will be set free?’ Jesus responds ‘Everyone who sins is a slave of sin.’

So, what is spiritual freedom? It is not independence, which is the hallmark of spiritual pride, the first sin, and the antithesis of the first beatitude. Spiritual freedom is in a sense freedom from fear, worry, anger, and other negative emotions, and Jesus focuses on how to remove these negative emotions almost relentlessly throughout the Gospel according to Matthew. True spiritual freedom, as understood in Christianity, is harmony with the will of God, i.e., alignment with the good.

So Jesus here is marking a trajectory from an ability to be guided by God to true inner freedom, which in turn leads to joyfulness. It is the Exodus of Moses, but brought to a spiritual level.

Just as with the exodus, the points from spiritual bondage (a propensity towards sin) to spiritual freedom can take a significant amount of time and effort to traverse, and Jesus gives many tools to enact this transformation (such as ‘don’t forgive 7 times, forgive 70 and 7 times’ or ‘if your eye offends thee, pluck it out’ – these refer to the process of expunging negative thoughts in the former case, and removing negative influences in the latter). Indeed, another beatitude is ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. The beatitudes, then, work together to create and amplify joyfulness.

Tithing as creating non-attachment

“To this end always dispose of a part of your means by giving them heartily to the poor[.]” St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), p. 123

St. Francis de Sales recommends tithing (almsgiving) as a way to guard against avarice, while taking due care of our temporal interests (wealth).

Most people think of tithing as helping the target of the money, but de Sales’ point here is that tithing helps the giver by reducing attachment to wealth.

This is a problem Seneca (one of the wealthiest men in the Roman Empire) also worked on (see here), where he suggested we write things off in our mind, and practice going without whatever things at intervals.

So, in order to reduce one’s attachment to wealth, a) tithing, b) writing things off in our mind, and c) practicing going without whatever things at intervals are all practical, simple strategies. These could be useful for both a Stoic and a Christian.

More on tithing here.

de Sales and Seneca on problems with wealth

“It is the Christian’s privilege to be rich in material things, and poor in attachment to them, thereby having the use of riches in this world and the merit of poverty in the next.” St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), p. 121

This is similar to Seneca’s idea, where it is also to figure out how to create non-attachment (see here).

Whereas a Stoic such as Seneca’s view might be captured as ‘use wealth, don’t let it use you’, the Christian such as de Sales’ view is a little different, more like ‘use wealth for God, don’t let it use you against God’ – don’t let it interfere with aligning oneself with God’s will.

The way to both is similar, however, as de Sales’ quotation suggests. Key aspects of Stoic thought are very much captured in Christian thought.

Regress

A common mistake of contemporaries is to think that there has been progress towards something better across-the-board, because there has been technological progress over the last (say) 100 years.

This is obviously false. Look at painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and so on from then and now. There is a devolution in spirit, cultural depth, and in many cases technical skill.

What is interesting from the point of Christianity is how much of this is tied to the leaving behind of an authentic Christian culture by almost all of Western culture.

Against hedonism

We can define hedonism as the conjunction of two propositions.

  1. One ought to seek out pleasurable experiences.
  2. One ought to avoid painful experiences.

where ‘pleasurable’ and ‘painful’ are understood expansively.

What is problematic with this view? At first blush, it seems unproblematic – almost trivially true. Of course one ought to want more pleasure and less pain. All I want to show here is how this is problematic from a biological perspective. Let’s consider the second proposition first.

What is a painful experience? Biologically speaking, painful experiences exist in order to guide an animal in avoiding a situation where there is damage to that animal. In other words, from a biological perspective, the important part isn’t the experience of pain but what that indicates.

Similarly, consider pleasure. In natural conditions, feeling pleasure would probably indicate that what one was doing was helping the organism to reach its goals, where the goals would typically be designed into the organism, centering around things like getting nutritional food, reproducing, keeping the right temperature, and so on.

Nowadays, we can see how the sensation of pleasure can misfire, biologically speaking, leading us to behaviour that moves us away from the things the sensation was designed to move us towards. Overeating, for example, can be motivated by a pleasure in the foods, yet given various ‘junk food’ available today it can lead to nutritional deficiencies, obesity, diabetes, and so on.

So, it seems obvious that biologically speaking, hedonism doesn’t make sense at least when operating in an environment that is substantially different from that for which the organism is designed.

What is the purpose in Christianity?

The purpose is not pleasure, nor is it even happiness. Rather, the purpose is to do important things.

This is specifically Christian because it is to do important things that God calls one to do. One figures out what God is calling one to do through the practice of discernment.

Why do important things that God calls one to do? Because God is able to see what’s really important.

God and learning

God said: I send people adversity in this life to teach them that this imperfect world is passing away, and this life is not their goal. I am their goal. – St. Catherine of Siena

If spiritual mastery (‘theosis’) is one of the main goals, then there are going to be experiences in life that can move us towards that mastery. If spiritual mastery is roughly cumulative (you have to learn a before moving on to b, as in many domains), then it would make sense that you keep getting a similar opportunity to learn something, until you gain the relevant skills. (ThinkĀ Groundhog Day, where Phil experiences the same day over and over until he transforms, or moves towards theosis.)

Now consider this talk from Sal Khan, in which he discusses mastery-based learning. His basic point, using mathematics as the main example, is that in certain domains learning is cumulative, and if you want to master it, you can’t just get 75% of the material at level 1, and so on. If that happens, you will soon reach a block before you achieve mastery. Instead, you need to get near 100% at each level. The basic idea is in cumulative domains, you are greatly benefited by going again and again until you get near 100%, then moving to the next level. (Therefore, the main method of learning in most schools is basically flawed.)

If spiritual mastery is similar in ways to mathematics, and God is indeed sending situations to help in theosis (as St. Catherine of Siena claims), then you would expect that people will experience a certain situation until they get the relevant spiritual skills, just as a wise teacher would do when it comes to any cumulative domain.

So, the basic question when encountering a situation is ‘What can I learn from this?’ and ‘What transformation can I make on the inside, that will make me better?’ Often, once you change, things change.

Spiritual warfare and secularism

Christians typically are familiar with the concept of spiritual warfare, but to a secular modern, the term might sound like gibberish. It is presumed false at best and nonsense at worst, because it probably refers to nothing.

The thinking goes like this. ‘Spiritual warfare’ refers to the devil or demons (fallen angels, purely intellectual beings who have disobeyed God, triggered by the sin of pride) acting to persuade humans to disconnect themselves from God. Yet, the devil or demons don’t exist. Therefore, spiritual warfare doesn’t exist.

The error here is in focusing on the theoretic instead of the practical. Since spiritual warfare is all about the practical, what ought to be of interest is how Christian strategies on this impact day-to-day life – does it help people to get better at or respond better to things? If so, there’s something important about the concept of spiritual warfare in the Christian tradition, even if the theory is ultimately in some way significantly mistaken.

To begin to show why ‘spiritual warfare’ is a relevant and interesting concept, even to a secular modern, I want here to map the term onto a term that modern seculars will understand. It is probably the best equivalent in the secular lexicon to ‘spiritual warfare’. To begin to understand it, we can think about psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare, from psyche (‘soul’ or ‘spirit’), is something most people can easily see is regularly occurring around them. For example, different countries have different interests, and will try to persuade people to take this or that position on some issue. Similarly with political parties, or companies.

The main tool with which these organizations fight is the media. Obviously, the extent and duration of media exposure is increasing. This means there is more potential for those organizations to engage in psychological warfare.

Many Christians believe there is unprecedented spiritual warfare occurring now. To see how this might map onto something important, consider that many Christians also believe that the main conduit of much of this is the media.

So, recognizing spiritual warfare or psychological warfare being conducted through the media is a point of contact for both Christians and critical-thinking secular moderns. It also opens a way for secular moderns to understand what Christians are talking about, without merely dismissing it as gibberish.

What is the Kingdom?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10, King James Bible)

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21-22, King James Bible)

What is the ‘Kingdom’? In contemporary terms, it is a grass-roots, metapolitical movement, which comes out of the theosis (spiritual development) of individuals and then the actions they take.