On The Territoriality Of Heathen Gods: Part One

Let’s talk about West Virginia. I don’t want to make fun of West Virginia, as that area has suffered enough from history and various conditions that it would be unjust to add to it my own abuse of the people and the area. What is important to note is that West Virginia has suffered and continues to suffer. Who exactly is to blame for that suffering is not the point of the present discussion. Between 1959 and his death in 2010, a man named Robert Byrd served as Senator for the state of West Virginia. Now, there is little evidence that the actual state of West Virginia and its people benefitted from his supposed largesse due to a position on the important committee for appropriations. West Virginia was a poor and peripheral area of the United States in 1959 and has remained so since 2010. What has changed is that thanks to decades of misrule in Congress, there are a lot of things in West Virginia named after Robert Byrd that were not there before. The implication appears to be that the nice things that people in West Virginia have, they have not as a result of their own efforts or of the (perhaps unwilling) generosity of the taxpayers of other states, but due to the generosity of one Robert Byrd himself. If one does not expect to see a lot of things in other states named after Robert Byrd, it little surprises us that so much within the state is named after him, however lamentable that is.

This is by no means a phenomenon that is limited to West Virginia. If one goes to the ancient world, one will see many examples of ancient cities that are named or were named after powerful rulers who wished to leave their mark on their territory. Just as we see buildings and schools and roads and so on named after Robert Byrd, despite the fact that it was not his money–but rather the public money–that went into those things, so it was in the ancient world that cities were named after the various rulers of the Hellenistic era in the Eastern Mediterranean, so much so that one has to specify which Antioch or Laodicea or Caesarea one means for it to be clear. It was the case too that these rulers, who often viewed themselves as divine, viewed themselves as benefactors when it was others who were the source of the largess that they placed on various cities and other establishments. As it is written in Matthew 20:25-28: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”” As is often the case, what has often appeared to some to be progress, in terms of powerful political leaders who gain and hold office by the spoils they return to their home territories, is merely a return to pre-constitutional and tyrannical forms of government where popularity was obtained by spoils, rather than genuine service of the well-being of those one led.

Wherever we see people fight to protect turf, we can be pretty sure that some sort of false system of worship is going on. Most of us are familiar with patron saints with clearly defined domains, and many of us have played polytheistic games which had deities which focused on different domains and territories and peoples as well. Many people have seen ball courts where sporting events were viewed to be be tests of the strength of various tribal gods in ancient Mesoamerica, or various stadiums around the world where sporting events signal the supremacy of one nation over another in soccer or one city over another in national and regional sports leagues. Whether one is a bureaucrat in some agency that seeks to protect its turf and acquiring as much power as possible over a region or a sports fan in a home stadium cheering on one’s team, the idea of protecting and defending one’s turf is pretty commonly understood in a realm of competing powers that seek dominance in a world where common standards and authority is often lacking.

One of the hallmarks of polytheism is the lack of a uniform set of standards and authority. When various powers are viewed as being in competition with each other for supremacy, one is dealing with a realm where various people, groups, areas, and institutions are seeking to carve out space for themselves where they are not subject to a higher authority while at the same time seeking to enforce their authority over others. So it was that space and time are carved up into different periods, so that the first month of the year is devoted to the two-faced Janus, or the seventh day of the week is assigned to the gloomy Saturn. It is not that we are doing these things ourselves, or that we created this sort of rivalry that means that someone from Pittsburgh is not going to be welcome around a fan of the Seahawks because of memories of Super Bowls past, but we are certainly influenced by the concepts of rivalry and unstable divisions of authority that result from the competition that exists between petty authorities that demand others bend to their will even as they seek to rebel against higher authorities that would reign in their chaos and confusion and bring them in check. We may live in a world that is and has been formally monotheistic for some time, but our institutions and behavior remind us that polytheism is a continual threat that must be addressed over and over again in every generation. It might be said, somewhat charitably, that we are not doing a very good job at dealing with it at present.

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A Law That Everybody Breaks

[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the United Church of God congregation in Portland on Sabbath, October 23, 2021.]

Today, I am going to talk about a law in the Bible that everyone breaks. In fact, I am going to break this law flagrantly and repeatedly for educational purposes today in this message. What kind of law would God make that is so impossible for us to keep, and what is God going to do about it? Today, I would like to begin my message by introducing or reminding you all of this law. Let us turn in our Bibles to Exodus 23:13. This is a brief law, only one verse in length, that is included as part of the larger discussion in the law of the covenant that immediately follows the giving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai. Exodus 23:13 reads: ““And in all that I have said to you, be circumspect and make no mention of the name of other gods, nor let it be heard from your mouth.”

At first glance, this law does not seem as if it is difficult to keep. How many of us, after all, consciously have the voice of other gods on our lips? The answer is, more of us and more often than might seem to be the case. I would like to spend a fair amount of the limited time I have with you all today to discuss many of the ways in which we flagrantly and frequently break this law. Let us consider the calendar in the days of the week and the months of the year. During the course of time we are constantly referring to the names of heathen gods and goddesses. During the days of the week, for example, Tuesday means Tiy’s day, Wednesday means Woden’s day, Thursday means Thor’s day, and Friday means Friya’s day, and all four of those names refer to various deities, some more famous than others, from the Old Norse gods and goddesses. Saturday is a reference to the severe Roman god Saturn, who was gloomy and of ill omen. And that is not even considering the deified sun and moon that the first two days of the week are named after.

It is no different when we look at the months of the year, and examine why it is that we refer to Janus, that two-faced Roman god, in January, or Mars, the Roman god of war, in March, or Juno, the wife of Jupiter, perhaps more familiar as Hera in the Greek myths, in June, or refer to the deified emperors Julius and Augustus Ceasar during July and August, to give but a few examples. These are examples where all of us frequently, even continually, break this law by having the names of other gods on our lips, even if we no longer consciously think of the gods which are being referred to here. Even if most of us have forgotten the meaning of these days and who they originally referred to, the calender remembers the name of the gods through the syncretized worship practices that motivated the people who named the days of the week and the months of the year in our language. Different languages have made different choices about the names of the days of the week and the months of the year than we have, though these too have their own historical record to uncover.

And this does not exhaust the ways in which we violate this particular commandment. If we are students of astronomy, we again continually have the names of heathen deities on our lips when we refer to the heavens. We have already mentioned that heathen cultures worshiped the sun and moon as deities. But so too all of our major planets and many asteroids as well as moons of planets are named after various heathen gods and goddesses, of which there is no end. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are all named after Roman gods, and so it is that the moons of these various planets are also named according to various heathen myths from the Greco-Roman tradition. This is even true of the asteroid belt, where asteroids are given the name of various heathen deities as is the custom of astronomers. We may not think of those who point telescopes at the sky of being influenced by long ago false religious beliefs, but the names that these astronomers have given to these heavenly bodies indicates the influence of heathen religion here as well.

We may even violate this law forbidding having the name of heathen deities on our lips for our own personal amusement. Those who are fans of the Marvel cinematic universe, for example, may frequently have upon their lips the names of Thor and Loki and other Asgardians, who as we have already mentioned have their origin in the heathen Norse religion of pagan Scandinavia. Young people may read books like the Percy Jackson series, read by millions of people, which have as their heroes and heroines demigods who are supposedly the children of various Greek and Roman gods, giving imaginative life to those which are not gods and are neither to be worshiped nor to be considered at all. There are numerous other television shows and books and movies that have made reference to these heathen deities, even the reference to the Bridge of the Gods that crosses the Columbia River at Bonneville.

Having seen, then, that the names of foreign gods are frequently on our lips because of the way that our time and space are structured as well as the entertainment efforts of people to bring the heathen old ways that people used to worship once again before the minds and into the memory of young people in particular who are expected to consume these television shows, these movies, these comic books or young adult novels and so on, the obvious question we have is what are we to do about it. It is not my intent to tell you all how to obey this law. There are, as we have seen, some fields such as our calendars and astronomy where we have made little effort to come up with alternative names that avoid referring to the pagan pantheons of the ancient world. For the present, at least, such matters seem difficult or impossible to avoid making reference to heathen gods in some fashion. Where we are choosing forms of entertainment to consume, we are responsible for what we consume and whether we think God would disapprove of voluntarily seeking out entertainment choices that make reference to heathen and rival systems of worship to that of the Bible.

What I do, wish to do, at least in part, is to discuss how it is that God will eventually deal with the problem of having the names of heathen deities on our lips because of the corruption of language. Let us now turn to Hosea 2:16-20. Here we see God dealing with precisely this problem of having the name of heathen gods embedded in their language, with concepts that kept them from fully understanding God’s nature and character. Hosea 2:16-20 reads: ““And it shall be, in that day,” says the Lord, “That you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer call Me ‘My Master,’ for I will take from her mouth the names of the Baals, and they shall be remembered by their name no more. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, with the birds of the air, and with the creeping things of the ground. Bow and sword of battle I will shatter from the earth, to make them lie down safely. “I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.”

Here, we see that just as is the case in our own society, so to in ancient Israel the language of the Israelites was embedded with the name of heathen deities. Here Baali, a word by which the Israelites referred to the Eternal as Lord and Master, was a reference to the various Baals that were worshipped by the heathen peoples around them. From this passage we know that God will change the language of Israel so that they will no longer call Him by this name that brings to mind the heathen deities that were worshiped by those around them, but will instead call Him by a name of His choosing. We can therefore draw from this passage the understanding that Go is both aware of the problem that we all face in having the names of heathen gods on our lips through the vagaries of our language and the corrupt way in which those languages were enriched by heathen myths and legends and false worship practices which became embedded in the words we use to refer to the world around us and how we have divided space and time and named people and fictional characters and the plots we use and reuse in our stories. However much we all struggle to keep the names of false gods and the memory of their ungodly ways from our own lips, let us be confident that God will purify our tongues so that these old ways and these false gods are consigned to oblivion where they belong, and that we may know God as He is.

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Album Review: Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept, by PM Dawn

This is the album where PM Dawn’s audience as far as albums are concerned checked out on them. Although their fourth and final studio album, Dearest Christian…. would (like this album) spawn a moderate hit, the last two albums of PM Dawn would not find much interest from mainstream audiences. It is admittedly puzzling why this album was so unsuccessful and why it remains so obscure to the point where only two songs on the album have been streamed more than 100,000 times (a rather pitifully low number for an album by a classic R&B/hip hop group from the early 1990’s). This is by no means a bad album. In fact, it is a very good album, albeit a very good album of a particular type, and that is a melancholy and reflective album that is best suited for a cloudy and melancholy day. Few acts have sounded as miserable and unhappy to be in the mainstream as PM Dawn did, and few acts have placed their melancholy in the same sort of beautiful arrangements that this album has either. An album of gnostic spirituality, this album comes off as a cry for help that, sadly, no one heard.

In terms of its contents, this album is about an hour in length, and despite having two short tracks (an intro that influences the album’s spiritual and melancholy musings as well as a short 20-second instrumental interlude called Silence), the average song on this album clocks in at just over 4 minutes apiece. Both of the most accessible songs on the album, second track “Downtown Venus” and penultimate track “Sometimes I Miss You So Much,” were released as singles, but there are other standout tracks to be found here, such as the aching “I’ll Be Waiting For You,” the spiritual “A Lifetime,” and the gorgeous “The 9:45 Wake-Up Dream.” A lot of the songs on the album reflect a tension of love (“Why God Loves You”), isolation (“Miles From Anything”), emotional turmoil (“My Own Personal Gravity,” “Forever Damaged (The 96th),” “Apathy Superstar!?”) as well as spiritual questing (“Sonchynne”) that demonstrates the band was in a crisis sort of period in this album.

No one, apparently, in the mid-90’s wanted to pay attention to this crisis, though. And it is hard to tell what the crisis involved. The lyrics of the album are a mix of musings about God, about romantic love and the ways in which love for God and love for women can be dangerously intertwined in the act’s thinking and feeling, and the album closer “Fantasia’s Confidential Ghetto” ends with a cover of “Lime And Coconut” that hints that maybe even physical indigestion from the bad diet of a life of fame may account for a substantial part of the act’s misery during this period. That is the problem with a gnostic spirituality, in that the changeable moods of a deceptive heart can signal one to be doubtful about one’s place of security (or insecurity) with God, who is not subject to such mood swings as we are. Ultimately, the group’s lack of a firm spiritual founding led their lack of satisfaction with fame and its trappings into a spiritual crisis that filled the back half of their discography with albums that many people did not take the time to listen to, much less attempt to understand. And that is a great shame.

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Book Review: The Mystery Of Israel And The Middle East  

The Mystery Of Israel And The Middle East: A Prophetic Gaze Into The Future, by James W. Goll

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Chosen Books in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

In general, it may be fairly said that I take a dim view of prophetic speculation. Overall, I have to say that I did not find this book to be quite what I expected. What I expected to find was someone whose prophetic mindset was going to lead them into dangerous speculation about the exact shape of the future. What I found instead is that this book is far more historical in nature than I had expected, and though it is written from a perspective different from my own, it certainly was interesting and enjoyable to read this book, and far more worthwhile and informative than I expected it to be. If the author makes much use of biblical patterns to view the past, present, and future, that is certainly something I can understand from my own practice, and I found much in this book to pique my interest, and even those discussions about the future were rather sober-minded in their approach.

This book begins with a foreword and introduction that frame a discussion of the prophetic word of Scripture with an understanding of those who consider themselves to be contemporary prophets. After that twelve chapters divided into four sections. The first section, on prophetic beginnings (I), discusses the birth of Israel (1), the breakup of the Soviet Union (2), and the awakening of Israel and the Church to God’s plans for both (3). This is followed by a section on the prophetic and the prayer (II), which includes chapters on what it means to be appointed a watchman (4), praying for the fulfillment of the gathering of Israel (5), and the Mordecai calling in times of persecution (6). After this comes a look at the prophetic promise (III) for those the author labels as children of Hagar (7), Sarah (8), and Keturah (9) in the Middle East. The fourth section of the book then provides the titular prophetic gaze into the future (IV), with a discussion of the destiny of Jerusalem (10), God’s road map (11), and the great hope for humanity (12). After this there are appendices that deal with an overview of Israel’s history (i), coming humbly to Israel (ii), praying for Israel and the Middle East (iii), as well as endnotes, a glossary, and an index, together enduing up around 300 pages in length.

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Book Review: The Way Of The Kingdom

The Way Of The Kingdom: Seizing The Times For A Great Move Of God, by Kim M. Maas

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Chosen Books in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

It would be a lot easier to respect what this author (and others like her) have to say about the way of the kingdom if one did not have to consider her to be a credible eyewitness to what she has seen. To take but one example in this book, towards the end of this small volume the author frets about how a trip to a troubled ministry with a dishonest lead pastor who was inflating the numbers of people attending to bolster his own shaky credentials led the author to suffer the “sweet agony” of the Spirit moving her to do something and that she felt she had almost lost the chance to do “kingdom violence.” This case, and others like it, are demonstrations of the ways that the author (and others like her) let their own religious traditions and the language of those traditions interfere with a firm and genuine understanding of the Bible and our own behavior. The author quotes plenty of scripture here and certainly makes some worthwhile points, but in the end we are urged to accept this on the grounds of the author’s own expertise as a spiritual guide, and that is a dubious thing at best.

This book is a relatively short one at about 200 pages in length and it is divided into ten chapters. The book begins with a foreword by Mark J. Chironna, and after that are acknowledgements, a prologue, and an introduction. After this the book talks about whether the reader is “the one” (1), a discussion of the great temptation (2), ears to hear (3), and the least in the kingdom (4). There is a lengthy discussion about matters of conflict, including its inevitability (5), kingdom violence (6), war and peace (7), and perfect peace (8), where the author discusses how it is that persecution is a sign of the advancing nature of God’s kingdom on this earth. The book then closes with a discussion of how death has lost its sting (9) and how the author believes that we are the violent who seize the kingdom by force (10), as well as a conclusion, an appendix on violence by another author, and endnotes.

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Errors In Estimation

One of the most notable aspects of the problems that nations get into when they get involved in wars are problems of estimation. What are some of the ways that this estimation can go awry? Let us explore the ways.

One of my favorite wars to study, from childhood, has been the American Civil War. Contrary to what is often thought, the Confederacy was aware of its industrial inferiority at the beginning of the war, logistical inferiority that ended up being critical in its defeat. The Deep South, though, thought that their soldiers were superior to those of the North and that their generals were superior to those of the North. This ended up not being the case. Being outnumbered and being inferior in the material conditions of war requires one to have some other form of superiority, and the South was mistaken that it was superior, in that its civilization was vulnerable to attack because it had nearly half of its population being restive and potentially disloyal populations, be it blacks or Unionist whites. When you acknowledge inferiority and then guess wrong as to your superiority, things do not often end up going well.

There are other ways that one can fail in estimation. The United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a classic example of how one can fail to understand what sort of war is being fought, in that it is easy to destroy a nation than it is to build one. This has obviously been a problem that the United States has faced since Vietnam, and includes America’s involvement in Afghanistan When one side is fighting for survival and the other is trying to prop up a regime, that is a serious issue.

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Single Review: Just A Notion

Just A Notion, by ABBA

The third song to be released as an advance single of the upcoming ABBA album, this song is an upbeat and cheerful song that fits clearly within ABBA’s body of work as a whole. The song itself reflects the desire for intimacy between the narrator and her romantic interest as “just a notion” that comes from feelings that may be mistaken, for all of the faith of the narrator. The tension between the honest admission that such warmth is a notion and is not necessarily reality and the confidence that the singer has in her feelings fits the sort of tension that we often find in our lives, and those looking for classic ABBA here will find much to enjoy and appreciate in this upbeat but pleasingly emotionally complex tune.

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Book Review: Just Getting Started

Just Getting Started: Stepping With Courage Into God’s Call For The Next Stage Of Life, by Wendy Peter

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Chosen Books in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

One of the unfortunate truths of reading so many books from certain authors as I do is the realization that they write books not because there is need for such books to be written, or because they have special expertise in the subject, but because they need to make sense of and explain the changes of their own life and have people more than willing to sell their reflections and observations about themselves to other people. This book contains a lot of self-justification about the author’s own path as a Christian leader and a lot of discussion about her own life and the institution she leads and its own twists and turns, and quite frankly I did not find that sort of material to be of interest at all, seeing as I do not know the author nor do I care for the efforts of people I do not know to justify themselves in the face of what may very well turn out to be reasonable and fair criticism. If I knew her and her work beyond this book, I might feel differently, as you might yourself in reading this if the ministry of Women On The Frontlines Global is appealing to you.

This book is a short one of less than 200 pages and it is divided into ten chapters. The author begins with a foreword, then acknowledgements and an introduction. After that come chapters that discuss going from hidden to visible (1), looking at one’s destined place (2), as well the experience of moments of lift (3). This is followed by a call to define one’s dream (4), stage one’s comeback (5), and how to break free from the past and shine brightly (6). The book then ends with chapters about being positioned to shine (7), finding one’s people (8), taking off the limits (9), and not forgetting what matters most (10), after which there are endnotes. Throughout the book the author seeks to use her own personal experience, and her interpretation of that experience, as a general pattern that other people can use to seek lift and glory in their own life.

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Book Review: Help, I’m Drowning

Help, I’m Drowning: Weathering The Storms Of Life With Grace And Hope, by Sally Clarkson

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

A book like this one is a hard one to fully appreciate and approve of. To be sure, there is a great deal in this book that is useful and encouraging, but at the same time the author is trying to position herself as an authority in dealing with matters of grace and hope as well as seeking to enlist the sympathies of the reader in any host of personal disputes she has had over the course of her life. To automatically assume that other people one is having with are Pharisees and hypocrites is not a just perspective to have, and the author’s lack of justice in dealing with such interpersonal problems undercuts her ability to serve as an expert in the subjects she writes about. Where she focuses on scripture she does better, but like all too many writers, she tries to make herself an expert personally rather than seeking to be an expert interpreter of scripture, and those readers who lack a faith in the author’s own personal expertise may very well find this book to be far less convincing than the author wishes to be the case.

This book is about 250 pages long or so and it begins with a foreword, a letter to the storm-tossed, whom the author assumes she is writing to as fellow women, and an introduction. After that come chapters that remind us that all people feel dark sometimes (1), that it’s okay to feel sad (2), that we need to find hope when we feel all alone (3), and that life is hard for those with high expectations (4). This is followed by chapters that discuss the problems of exhaustion (5), fear (6), disappointment in marriage (7), challenges with children (8), and storms caused by critical and difficult people like the author (9). The book then ends with a call to be gentle to oneself (10), to anticipate the gains in character from a lifetime of dealing with problems (11), and leaving a legacy (12), as well as a storm care kit, endnotes, and information about the author.

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Where There Is Smoke, There Is Often A Giant Smoke Machine

It is to be greatly lamented that there is such a disparity between the suffering that results from the trauma of rape and the difficulty one has in survivors of such a crime getting justice. One of the more unpleasant sorts of subjects that I have read about and researched over the past few years is the question of power rape, which involves the question of what sort of consent is actually available when there is a wide disparity of power between two people. One of the chief attractions of power, at least in my own study and observation, is the way that gaining power induces other people to give one deference that one would not ordinarily give to someone. To claim that this particular deference is itself unjust is to attempt to remove one of the chief attractions of power to people who might otherwise seek different things. This is, of course, apart from any sort of problem that people who have power have at accepting the rejections that they are given.

As difficult as it has often been to prove rape beyond a reasonable doubt–in contrast to other violent crimes–there are good reasons why the protections of the presumption of innocence are still worthwhile even when (especially when) we have such a horror of a crime. It has proven to be all too easy for people to make baseless accusations against decent men and then rely upon the tendency of some people, whose judgment is often weak to begin with, to believe the accuser even when the charge has been made solely for political effect. An accusation is, mercifully, not the same thing as a conviction, and it should merely be the first step in an investigation, which may very well determine (as it often does) that the story is not quite what first meets the eye. There is a lot in this world that looks very bad that does not end up being nearly as bad as it looks when one investigates it further.

It is remarkably hard to prove innocence. If we allow people to poison the well by mere unsubstantiated accusation, it is hard for anyone to escape damaging losses to one’s well-being, one’s reputation, one’s family life, and so on, simply because someone has the motivation to say something bad about them. And as someone who lived on this earth a few decades, I can say with a high degree of confidence that it does not require much for people to have the motivation to say bad things about others, to selectively report on something, to give unfriendly interpretations to things that can be understood differently, to read things with a consistently evil and wicked light. It is not coincidental that Satan is known consistently as the accuser of the brethren, and that the matter of false witnesses is such an important aspect in questions of biblical law and in our own justice system. To the extent that we believe in a just God, we demand less perfection from flawed early regimes and institutions that we know to be imperfect because they are staffed by imperfect people, frequently with immensely idiotic worldviews and low moral character.

What often remains to be done is for us to comfort those who suffer, knowing that not all of those who inflict torment on others do so with any kind of evil intentions and frequently do so without knowledge as to the harm that they cause in seeking the gratification of their own desires. As we live in a world where the gratification of desires is viewed to be of such supreme importance in life, it is little wonder that there are a lot of casualties of the fulfillment of those longings and desires. Unless we are going to counteract the spirit of the age in enshrining one’s personal desire as one’s chief authority in life and the source of all necessary motivations in one’s behavior, then we are going to need to do a much better job at comforting and encouraging those who are hurt by the heedless and thoughtless pursuit of desire that other people have. To the extent that we know how the lack of restraint in one’s conduct can harm others, we can therefore seek to restrain ourselves from harming others as much as possible. We do this not to virtue signal or to get a pat on the back from others, or to prevent lynch mobs of internet peasants with torches and pitchforks, but because we believe that it is right to do that which we ought to do, and that we will be judged by a just God whose justice, however slow it sometimes is, does not sleep forever.

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