A Terrifying Love

 

In the name of the Father

Holy                      Amen                       Spirit,

and the Son and the

Menōn,

I have been meaning to talk to you about this for a while, but I’m not sure how to say it, so I’ll start with a story I like. Socrates was a big fan of staying up late. One night, he and his friends were taking turns making speeches at Agathon’s house about the elusive god Eros: Love. According to Hesiod the poet, Eros was one of the first beings that sprung into existence out of Chaos, because Eros attaches heart-bodies together to grow new heart-bodies. Eros is the thing between Lovers to make new Lovers. Socrates loves Eros because Love is the go-between, going from the Divine to the mundane and back again; Love makes the distance between Lovers’ heart-bodies shorter and shorter. Love laces Lovers. Love represents a self-incompletion, an implication that being unlaced is insufficient. 

Socrates finished his speech and his friends were speechless, except for one lover who was just barging into Agathon’s house: Alcibiades. It was very late now (just how Socrates likes it), and Alcibiades was raucously drunk. He stumbled in, killing the Lovely vibe that had just been instituted and demanding to see Agathon, the outrageously beautiful man who had just won the tragedy competition. He spewed out the hot, alcohol-saturated gas that had built up in his passionate breast when he saw that dreadful man-stealer, Socrates. He unleashed. He accused Socrates of always selfishly taking the prettiest man for himself and pointed to Socrates and Agathon reclining together on the couch. Then Alcibiades composed himself and enunciated his new motive: the great Praise-Roast of Socrates. 

This symposium’s previous intention was to speak in praise of Eros, and Alcibiades now promises to speak in praise of (the terrible) Socrates to keep something of a theme going. He recalls a story in which he tried to seduce Socrates, but it didn’t work despite his best efforts, despite his love for Socrates, all his charm and all his manly beauty. Humiliated. He had thrown all his pride away to have a night of love with Socrates, and Socrates quietly disempowered his intention because Alcibiades was trying to trade his superficial youthful beauty for Socrates’ internal polished beauty, “bronze for gold.” Reminded of the vast chasm of moral difference between himself, an objectifying thrill-seeking drunkard, and Socrates, the monogamously Good-seeking Wisdom-Loving (Philo-Sopher), Alcibiades picks up an accusation of Socrates, which I now redirect towards you, Menōn: I lovehate you because you’re always like this, you goatman/Godman! Every time I’m with you, your words wriggle under my skin like worms in a dead animal, effervescently spraying up foam like a shaken soda in my uncarbonated heart, always impelling me to transform my ways, to trade in my worthless garbage for your gold, always making me itchingly aware of how absurd and selfish my choices are! Every time I hear your divine guidance caked in your simple words, the beautiful Call to all-encompassingly follow you, and her evil twin Status Quo, assail my stupid heart because you truly demand everything!

Menōn, once, in somebody’s house, you told your disciples that the kingdom of the heavens is the same as a treasure buried in a field that a seeker finds – the seeker buries it again, and joyfully inspired, gathers and sells everything they have and buys that field there! You even told that story in the present tense in the perspective of that seeker because it’s such an impassioned story! But it’s such a scary story too, Menōn. You offer us the kingdom of the heavens in exchange for our very selves. You told your disciples to Love you with all our thought-feeling and all our breath and all our ability, and to Love everyone else like we Love ourselves, and you tell us and show us how that way is the way that aligns us with the creation that was made through you, that fills up the emptiest bucket in our hearts with exactly what it thirsts for and aligns us with the thirst of every other breathing thing that manages to Love, unbroken by the hate we do. One of your disciples later told some of his disciples that you demand us to Love, that anybody who says that they know you but doesn’t Love is a liar, and that your Love is here so that we carry out your demand to Love, which isn’t too heavy! But Menōn, my love doesn’t fill like yours does. My love pushes its objects away and locks the doors and sputters out when I refuse to install the new engine you gave me, but yours walks out and wades in and waits for. Your Love comes near to make stone-hearts into new Lovers. My love is a shallow kiddy pool that only I can uncomfortably sit in, but yours is the endless briny expanse of the watery heavens, swelling with waves and circling riptides that suck our empty bucket-hearts into its infinite unpolluted twinkle, and you offer us a boat to tell all the empty buckets where they can get so full that the rim forgets itself! I’m so frustrated, Menōn! How do I somehow always mistake this all-consuming flood for a quaint little once-a-day half-hearted coffee date with you? How do I mistake your call for me to drop everything and follow you for an occasional recognition that my stuff is yours while I waste away in the life-sucking desert of personal material security? How do I mistake your call for me to lose myself in the stomach-butterflies-inducing honeymoon with yourself and the rest of your beautiful humanity for the torture of my spiritualist solitary confinement that I punish myself with, somehow thinking that goodness for me isn’t part of the same stew you’re making for the goodness of every person? 

But Menōn, I can’t live a filled-up life without you. You’re the vine, and we are the branches. You’re the abiding in us: the menōn in us. You’re the fullness. Your way is to turn our minds and give you our loyalty – to “repent and believe.” “Salvation” without a new Spirit who pours the Love, without working for justice in the ways we’re invited to, without hurting for the hurting, without Loving the Loveless, without speaking truth like you do, without dying to self and finding life in you, without knowing you, isn’t salvation at all. It’s empty words. Menōn, please, be the Socrates to my Alcibiades: uproot my deeply-held cultural worship of that lie that the spirit is me and the body isn’t, that allows me to think I can have a deep Eros with you without radically changing my ways in Body as well as in Spirit. Menōn, abide.

In the name of the Father

Holy                      Amen                       Spirit,

and the Son and the

 

Nicolas Jay Schroeter ’22 is majoring in Classics and Religion with a concentration in Jewish Studies, all three of which he refers to as “really old stuff.” He’s a Catholic convert, a Texan, and usually a vegan. He misses yellow grass and frito chili pie. Racial reparations are necessary.

For a concisely well-put and beautifully profound picture book that says the same thing Jay was trying to say in this essay, read “Brother John” by August Turak, which Jay discovered several months after writing this piece.

 

Art by Emily Ham

Chaotic Peace

The observer looks out at the chaos. There exists a barrier between the two, suggesting the lack of control the observer has over what is transpiring on the other side. The observer, who does not have a body, remains in a state of total paralysis.

On one hand, the arbitrary nature of the work can be unsettling. There seem to be figures – people dancing, rivers, trees – but then again, nothing can be made out with certainty.

Sometimes, I find it scary to not know what is going on – not having control makes you feel powerless. Accepting and embracing that sometimes, though, can be surprisingly comforting and even liberating.

 

Untitled

The forefront of the work suggests conflict and chaos. The irrationality of the movements is frightening. There seem to be figures in the background, but they are crossed out by the red and grey that streak across.

In this work, I explore the fear of being erased, forgotten, and replaced. We can still see what once was, but not very clearly, as it has been reduced to abstraction. Whatever may have existed before no longer does – at least not in its original form. That is gone.

Emily Ham ’22 is an Economics and Statistics major at Williams College, pursuing a German certificate. She is from New York, NY, but she has also lived in Massachusetts and Italy. She enjoys singing opera and running.

On the Fear of the Lord

 


“Fear” is not a word I had instinctively associated with any person of the Trinity (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). How could a feeling that lends itself to an aversion toward its object be something that I feel toward God? I trust God the Father on a cognitive and affective level; I call Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Friend; and I see the Holy Spirit as a Counselor. When I think about what it means to fear something, nothing that I would associate immediately with the person and the goodness of God comes to mind.1 

Then what, dear reader, are we to make of Deuteronomy 10:12 which reads, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul”?2 In the same sentence we have the existence of love and fear, but it seems contradictory to love what one fears, or vice versa. Furthermore, how are we to understand Proverbs 1:7 (“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”), or Ecclesiastes 12:13 (“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”)?3 The authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes clearly imply some kind of link between knowledge, also translated as wisdom, duty, and fear. But I would wager that to most of us, fear isn’t a feeling we would readily associate with knowledge or wisdom, let alone perceive as our duty.

So what is going on? It seems as though many other people quoted in the Bible understood what “the fear of the Lord” meant perfectly clearly.4 It is perhaps more convenient to brush this curious phrase aside and focus instead on the love, goodness, kindness, mercy, and grace of God. Those epithets are ones that I understand immediately and know how to fit into my conceptualization of who the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to me.

But I submit to you, dear reader, that Christians lose out on a richness of communion – and arguably even a rightness of communion – in our relationship to and with the Trinity if we do not reflect critically on what many different people speaking at many different times said about “the fear of the Lord.” I want to make two points about this phrase which I hope will provoke you to think about Christian relationships with God in a more nuanced way.

Firstly, the fear of the Lord tells us something about the way that we should know God: knowledge in the relational sense. It is a relational claim upon the psychological attitude of the human toward God that is premised upon an ontological reality (who God is). The Hebrew word used for fear, יִרְאָה (yirah), means not only “fear” as we would use it in conversational English today, but also “reverence.” Furthermore, it communicates a sense of awe.5 Put differently, part of what it means to love God is to treat Him with the reverence and awe that He is due. Jesus called us friends, yes, but we should eventually come to a place where we do not treat God flippantly as we might our friends when we’re having a bad day or when they irritate us. Practically speaking, this means that we recognize God for who He is and treat Him as He deserves. This could look like showing up to Bible study on time, not using your phone to scroll through your social media feeds when listening to someone else share their faith journey, or not dozing off during prayer.6 The question to ask here is what it might mean for you to adopt a posture of yirah toward God in your daily life. 

We are, after all, immensely privileged that the God and Creator of the universe desires to have an intimate personal relationship with us. For some, this journey into a posture of yirah might take longer than others. And that’s okay. God does not demand perfection from us from the moment we start, only that we recognize that it is our end goal and that it is something that we should be working toward: walking closer with Him, trusting Him more, and being more Christlike, day by day.7 What is important is that we take steps on the journey toward those relational states as part of a long obedience in the same direction.

Secondly, the fear of the Lord tells us something about the way that we should come to know about God: knowledge in the more traditional cognitive or propositional sense. As the wisdom literature from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes quoted earlier hints to us, the fear of the Lord moves beyond the aforementioned issue of what is lost in translation from Biblical Hebrew into English; it is also a claim about the context in which theological epistemology takes place. Put simply, when you come to learn about God, what kind of attitude do you have as you do so? Are you simply there for laughs and giggles, to fulfill a promise you made to your friend to turn up for a session of inductive Bible study, or because you had nothing better to do? Again, this is not to say that it is entirely wrong to learn about God in those situations. But our end goal, as part of what it means to cultivate a posture of yirah that leads to wisdom, has to move beyond learning about God solely because of those reasons.

The above is not to say that we put on hermeneutical blinders and cease to critically interrogate the Bible or other theological texts through which we are learning about God. It is not an excuse for dogmatic or sloppy exegesis. But it is to say that we embark on such an undertaking genuinely, desiring to learn just a little bit more about the God who loves the world in such a way as to send His Son to die for us.

I do not find either of the two points which I have discussed easy to live out. This is not the convenient thing to do, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This attitudinal shift is not merely a cognitive phenomenon that happens in your mind; it is an orientation that should also very much be expressed through concrete action.8 The second dimension to the meaning of the phrase “the fear of the Lord”, in particular, is far trickier for me. I sometimes find myself coasting through the motions and not being appropriately motivated when learning about God. As Christopher Woznicki, an instructor in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, eloquently puts it, “To fail to approach God with a sense of awe – being both elevated and humbled – would be inappropriate because it would mean that one is either being haughty before God or one is cowering in fear before God.”9 This mediation between the two poles of excessive pride and excessive self-abasement is critical.

But I do not think the difficulty of this task should prevent us from trying; do not let the desired end result stop you from taking the first step. If you do not already have the embers of such a desire within your heart that God can use to fan into flame, pray and ask God to place a spark within your heart, and think about what it might practically mean for you to approach God in a posture of yirah. Start small simply with a mustard seed – and come to realize what mountains that stand in your way may be cast into the ocean. 

FOOTNOTES:

1 The goodness of God as expressed on an affective level from a human perspective (Psalm 34:8) and also on an ontological level from Jesus’ fully human and divine perspective (Mark 10:18).

2 ESV; See also Deuteronomy 6, where the commandment to love the Lord (verse 5) is framed by commandments to fear the Lord (verses 2 and 13).

3 ESV; ESV; See also Proverbs 10:27, 14:26, and 15:16.

4 Luke 18:2.; There are other examples: Mary says that “his [God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50, ESV), Job seems to perceive no contradiction in quoting God as telling man that the fear of the Lord is wisdom (Job 28:28).

5 https://biblehub.com/hebrew/3374.htm. The Greek word used in the New Testament is φοβέομαι (phobeó), which while is where phobia is derived from, also may contextually have the meaning of reverence (https://biblehub.com/greek/5399.htm).

6 This is not to say that having a posture of yirah must necessarily be constituted in such terms. I believe that whether something is respectful or not is ultimately something best evaluated with reference to its specific context. I am not willing to argue, for example, that being late for Bible study because you were helping a friend through a difficult time by listening to their struggles is necessarily an example of irreverence toward God. 

7 Note that Matthew 5:48 does not demand the end result of perfection from the very beginning of one’s walk, but it does demand that we work toward it.

8 Woznicki himself notes that religious rituals—something that from my own experience Protestants have largely put aside—are a helpful way of cultivating a sense of awe for God both generally and as one learns about God (159).

9 Woznicki, Christopher. “The Awe of the Lord Is the Beginning of Knowledge: The Significance of Awe for Theological Epistemology.” The Expository Times, vol. 131, no. 4, 2019, pp. 159., doi:10.1177/0014524619883172.

Andre Hui ’21 is a Sociology, Religion and Anthropology major and Science and Technology Studies concentrator. He calls Singapore home. When not playing computer games, he enjoys going on culinary adventures, asking questions with no definite answers, and borrowing a dozen books from the library, none of which he finishes and half of which he starts.

Bittersweet

Untitled, 2020, digital photograph, 3712 x 5568. Shutter speed 1/160, F4.0, ISO 5000. 

Untitled, 2020, digital photograph, 4000 x 6000. Shutter speed 1/320, F5.0, ISO 8000.

Oluwadamilare, 2020, digital photograph, 5324 x 4000. Shutter speed 1/125, F5.0, ISO 5000.

Nigerian culture has been on a rise worldwide. While everyone wants to enjoy the music, clothing, traditions etc., many are ignorant of the various struggles and labor that Nigerians experience daily and throughout their lifetime. They want the beauty without the bitterness. Nigerian culture puts an emphasis on education, discipline, and respect, rooted in the idea that by instilling these core values, individuals will not depart from them, and it will lead them to success. The artist shares a common experience with the audience when discussing one’s journey to success and the ever-present fear of failure with a theme of dreams versus reality. Rooted in fashion photography, portraiture–both candid portraits and staged self portraits–and still life, Bittersweet is a musical autobiography, the coming-of-age story of a Nigerian man, as told through the stories of many different people.

Samuel Ojo ’22 is an Economics Major at Williams College. He enjoys photography, dancing, and watching anime. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised in both Nigeria and Brooklyn, NY, and he calls both places home.

Bittersweet is a series of twenty photographs, and the full project will be posted on Samuel Ojo’s Instagram page (@Ojoptics).

Dealing with Doubt

“And have mercy on those who doubt.” – Jude 22

I’ll never forget the first time I seriously questioned my faith. I was thirteen, sitting in the back of a Christmas Eve service, and as I looked up at the church ceiling, I thought, “How do I know this isn’t all made up?” Feeling the tears build in my eyes, I rushed out of the sanctuary to collect myself. As I sat in the lobby, a domino effect of uncertainty and confusion set in. I began to question more and more of what I had been brought up to believe. I felt overcome with fear.

My fear stemmed from a view of faith as a binary thing that you either had or didn’t have. Growing up in church, sometimes I’d look around and it would feel like every other Christian had it all figured out, with complete confidence in their convictions. I wanted to be that way too, so I’d act like I didn’t have any doubts. I would hear stories about people who had left the faith after they had started doubting; so at some point, I developed this notion that if I were a real Christian, I wouldn’t experience doubt. Doubt became something to avoid, to push away, or to treat like it didn’t exist. As a result, I came to fear it. Once I grew older and the questions kept piling up without being addressed, eventually, I hit a breaking point. I had all this doubt built up and absolutely no idea how to feel about it, where to go with it, or what my life would look like if I ever made it out.

I know I’m not alone in having felt this way. In fact, it seems to be very common. There are a lot of things in the world that can lead someone to doubt. It could be a family member receiving a concerning diagnosis, a news station describing the latest tragedy, or something as simple as curiously searching a Bible question on Google and being bombarded by dozens of skeptical and atheistic responses. Sometimes, the messiness of it all makes it feel like we just can’t believe what Christianity teaches. This is only worsened by COVID-19, where prolonged isolation and a spotlight on worldwide suffering bring with them a slew of new questions, magnifying whatever uncertainties about Christianity we may have had previously. Christians today need to be prepared to deal with doubt, both in our own lives and our communities, but we can’t be ready if it’s something of which we are fearful.

This is why Matthew 11 has quickly become one of my favorite passages in the Bible. In this chapter, John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus and even baptized Him, has just been put in prison. Likely awaiting death, he has his followers ask Jesus a question on his behalf: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”1

This question still shocks me when I read it because it reveals that John the Baptist had some serious doubts about his faith. I know that if I were in John’s position, I would have been absolutely terrified to ask this question. John, the man who was related to Jesus and witnessed His miracles and teachings, the man who talked about Jesus by proclaiming “this joy of mine is now complete.”2 You’d think if anyone had confidence that Jesus was the Christ, it would be John the Baptist! Yet, there he was, publicly questioning Jesus’ validity, doubting the very faith that he had once championed. 

I’ve noticed that when talking to people about how their doubts have been received, their experiences generally fall into one of two camps. The first is that people feel their concerns are inflated, where the doubter ends up feeling judged or reprimanded for asking questions. The second is to have their concerns mitigated, to be told their doubt will fade away and that all it takes is more faith. Both of these approaches can lead people to fear their doubts, which is why Jesus’ response to John is so amazing. Jesus says, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”3

At first glance, Jesus’ response can seem confusing. John asked a yes or no question, so why didn’t Jesus answer accordingly? However, in this context, His response was really a resounding “yes.” New Testament scholar Craig Evans elaborates by referring to 4Q521, a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment that describes what some of Jesus’ contemporaries thought should be happening in the world when the Messiah arrived. Evans explains that “Jesus has appealed to some of the same passages and phrases that were employed by the author of 4Q521… In answering John’s question in this way, Jesus has clearly implied that he is indeed Israel’s Messiah, for the wonderful things that are supposed to happen when the Messiah appears are in fact happening in Jesus’ ministry.”4 Jesus doesn’t just have an answer; He has evidence that backs up his answer, showing John that there is good reason to keep the faith. By pointing to what He has done in the world, Jesus reminds John that despite the circumstances, Jesus is the One who is in control.

Jesus then goes on to say, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”5 Given how disrespectful John’s doubt would have appeared to be, it would have been easy for Jesus to either attack John or ignore his question. However, Jesus not only takes the question seriously but also builds John’s confidence back up with His response. As American theologian Russell Moore points out, “A narcissistic cult leader or political guru would be offended by this wobbliness, but Jesus was not.”

I think Christians can benefit greatly if we take Matthew 11 to heart when dealing with doubt, both for ourselves and our fellow believers. Doubt doesn’t have to be something we fear, because if even John the Baptist had major doubts in his journey, it’s safe to say that we probably will too. Instead, we can encourage Christians to be open about their uncertainties, knowing that they are a natural part of our faith journey. For most Christians I know, myself included, doubts have ultimately played a key role in strengthening our faith by acting as an invitation to investigate and understand what one really believes and why. If we treat doubt appropriately and make sure to imitate Jesus in building up our brothers and sisters when they’re struggling, crises of faith can turn into catalysts of faith.

In the months following that Christmas Eve service, I was able to work through my doubts thanks to the help of many wonderful Christian mentors. However, I would be lying if I said they didn’t return frequently. Life is weird and messy, and just about anything in a pandemic can cause you to feel uncertain. Remarkably, I no longer fear doubt. Just like with John, regardless of circumstances, I can take comfort in looking to the very real things that Jesus said and did in the world and be at peace knowing that at the end of the day, Jesus still is the Christ. He still died and overcame the grave for us. He still is Lord, and He still loves us.

FOOTNOTES:

1 Matthew 11:3 ESV

2 John 3:29 ESV

3 Matthew 11: 5-6 ESV

4 Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. IVP, 2007. 

5 Matthew 11:11 ESV

6 Russell, Moore. “Real Christian Courage Looks like Elijah at His Most Pathetic.” Christianity Today, 18 Mar. 2021.

Andrew Nachamkin ’24 is a prospective Statistics major at Williams College. From Cold Spring, NY, he enjoys theater, basketball, and reading on his Kindle.

 

Death is a Gardener

Questions for Journal Reflection:

  • Many of us have experienced the global trauma of the pandemic as a numbness. How does or doesn’t this resonate with you? Travel through any guilt you may be experiencing in response to this. Where does the pressure to respond in particular ways stem from for you?
  • What memories of death do you have? Has the past year stirred up past grief? How has it changed your experience of grief?
  • When we’re most honest, our own mortality often terrifies us. What about dying is scary to you?  Have you had experiences where you experienced mortality as a gift? How does that shape this season for you? 
  • What are your methods and patterns of coping? What does healthy, holistic coping look like for you?1

 

Last January, I was heading down to Connecticut to visit a close friend of mine for the weekend. During the drive, it began to snow suddenly on a mountain road, and the car slipped on black ice as we moved downhill, resulting in the car crashing into a snowbank on the side of the road. Three airbags deployed. With my ears ringing and my heart pounding, I sat stunned in the passenger’s seat. My mind could not stop replaying the scene over and over again, each time fearing that the outcome in one of those scenes would be death.

By God’s grace, the two of us in the car survived with no injuries. In the several nights and days following this accident, my mind was fixated on what had happened, and I constantly ruminated on my proximity to death. It was so much closer to me than I had realized. Death could have met me on that road, and it would not have mattered whether or not I felt ready to leave this earth. With news of the coronavirus and its death toll also spreading during this time, I began to think more about my fear of dying and confront death as a reality that I would personally have to face one day.

This was not the first time I’ve thought about death. For years, I had lived with a debilitating fear of death. The fear of losing my life to some unexpected event, the fear that my life would be lost too soon, my years wasted to an accident, a mistake, or a simple oversight. Whenever I entered uncharted territory, I would always be thinking of the different ways I could die in that moment. As my paranoid mind raced through hypothetical possibilities of death, my heart would beat faster and my breathing would become heavy. Death was terrifying. It was, for me, the epitome of suffering and evil.

Yet when I began to actually wrestle with my proximity to death and process my fears about dying, my thoughts on death started to shift. I realized that death itself was not what scared me. It was what came after death, and not knowing exactly what came after death, that was truly terrifying. What I believed would happen after death greatly influenced my reaction toward death.

Having worked out a personal understanding of death and dying is a crucial factor in deciding how you want to live your life. Dr. Lydia Dugdale is a professor at Columbia University who recently published The Lost Art of Dying. In an Instagram Live before the release of her book, she noted, “There is no way to die well if you don’t give any thought to the fact that you are mortal.”2 Although death may be a somber and avoided topic of conversation, the reality is that all of us will one day face death. What you recognize and accept about this inevitable truth will change your understanding of life. 

If you believe that there is no afterlife, it might be important for you to pursue everything you want to on earth before you die. Death is the end of existence. If you believe in an afterlife that is determined by how good of a person you were on earth, you might try to strive toward goodness in your thoughts, words, and actions. Death is the time of ultimate judgment.

As a Christian, I believe in the God who has overcome death and its judgment over us. Jesus came to earth in the form of a human being and chose to die on a cross to redeem our brokenness through His sacrifice. This death reconciled the separation between God and humans so that we could be in relationship with Him. Yet Jesus did not remain dead. God asserted His ultimate power over death when He raised Jesus from the grave. For those who believe in Jesus, death no longer condemns; instead, it ushers in new life. Jesus transformed death from an executioner into a gardener, and living in fear of death is to doubt this victory.

This is why Paul in his letter to the Philippians can boldly declare, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”4 When I live with faith that there is something better for me after death, I am freed from the fear of dying. Dying no longer symbolizes an end but rather a beginning of an eternal life with Christ. This hope frees me to fully enjoy each moment of my earthly life without worrying about when, where, or how I will die. The certainty of death instead becomes a reminder that my time on earth is finite and therefore something to be cherished while I am here. My life takes on deeper meaning as I am encouraged to live my life in hope and not in fear, looking ahead to that time when I will be reunited with Jesus.

Living without the fear of dying, however, does not mean that my life is void of death’s reminders. Death is woven into the pattern of our lives. As we journey through life, we encounter analogies of death that remind us of the ultimate end. Endings and goodbyes, breakups and departures; these are all experiences that reflect the character of death. Consider the death of a way of life that changes the way you interact with others, or imagine the death of a former worldview that brings you to see the world in a new light. In this age of COVID-19, there are many people in the world experiencing death or its parallels. We are suddenly being thrust into uncertainty, confronted with abrupt ends of life and ways of life. 

Yet if God has already transformed the fear and uncertainty of our earthly death into the hope of new life through His victory over the grave, I know that He will also use the other ends we face in this world to usher in a better life. Death and analogous endings can seem full of uncertainty. Similar to how a seed sown deeply into the earth is first surrounded by complete darkness before it emerges into the light, the uncertainty that we face now may simply be the growing pains of a new life. In time, I trust that God will bring us all into a more whole, more beautiful world.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1 Riley, Cole Arthur. “MORTALITY | Lent III.” Patreon, 28 Feb. 2021, https://www.patreon.com/posts/mortality-lent-48013497. 

2 Veritas Forum [@veritasforum]. Conversation with Lydia Dugdale. Instagram, 9 Jul. 2020, https://www.instagram.com/tv/CCZD4eRgD-c/.

3 Keller, Timothy and Kathy Keller. The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms. Viking Press, 2015, pp. 149.

4 Philippians 3:21, 23, ESV.

Reflections Amidst COVID-19

Christie Yang

I originally wrote this poem in the midst of midterms during the spring semester of my freshman year. I was procrastinating my studies, and I was tired, stressed, and pressured by comparison and competition. My greatest fear was failing to meet my own standards and those of the world, as well as disappointing others around me, including my parents. My goal was to turn to face Jesus, let go of the fears and standards, and rest in Him.

A lot has changed since then: I still fear failure, but I now have greater fears that extend beyond my academics and success, due to COVID-19 and with the uncovering and increasing awareness and action against incidents and issues of injustice across our nation. 

There have been external changes regarding the places I go, the things I do, and the people I am with, as well as changes and growth in the thoughts, perspectives, and dissonance that I hold and struggle with inside my mind and heart. 

However, this poem still seems relevant, and certain parts stand out even more under the light of this long pandemic and the uncovering of and fight against social issues and injustices. And while fear persists–new and old fears–I can confidently declare that my faithful God is still here by my side. He was working, is working, and will continue to be working. Though darkness, pain, and suffering seem to be growing, I still see light, witness grace, and experience peace. Perhaps even more than before, I now understand the meaning of life, the power of hope, and the clarity in purpose. 

And in the midst of it all, I continue to tremble–for I know my God is with me. 

 

Sarah Gantt

When I wrote my essay, my college application process and transition to Williams College were fresh in my mind. Right now, I am processing different changes in my life, but I remain grateful for God’s generous love, and I aspire to trust Him more each day. In the moments when I struggle to connect with God, I am encouraged by His fierce loyalty, expressed in these words: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13, NIV).

 

Greg Phelan

The pressures of COVID-19 have accelerated the trend toward blind beliefs where no amount of evidence can convince people to change their minds about the positions they hold. With that shift, condemnation of those we disagree with has become more trenchant; there are no facts or evidence that can stem the tide of our disdain. It is now nearly impossible to defend ourselves from false accusations, and the consequences of “being in the wrong” are more severe and more permanent. If you find yourself as someone’s enemy, there is no path toward reconciliation. Combine that with the inner insecurities that Covid has unmasked, and it is more important than ever to realize that God in Christ does not and will not condemn us because when we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us to reconcile us to God. That’s good news.

Yet

Life is difficult
Fears can get in our way, yet
God delivers us

Fear is one feeling that is universal for human beings. Everyone – no matter how young or old, rich or poor – fears something. Rational fears are usually good, as they tend to keep us from doing things that may put us at risk of self-harm. For example, the fear of getting too close to an open fire is usually rational because fire can burn us. It is irrational fear, though, that keeps us from pursuing goals, following our dreams, and serving God to the best of our ability. 

For a long time, the fear of what other people might think of me if I said or did something a certain way acted as an inhibitor in my life. As a result, it became very difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with God because I always felt boxed in by my irrational fear. It wasn’t until I began to realize that fear was taking the place of God in my life that I self-reflected and asked God for help. 

One day, I stumbled upon the part of the Bible where Jesus prayed and asked His Heavenly Father to spare Him from the impending pain He would have to endure.1 This was the moment leading up to His betrayal and crucifixion, a period of intense distress. Even knowing ahead of time that He would die and be resurrected, Jesus still displayed human anguish. Jesus yielded to His Father’s will and was nailed to the cross, but the fact that He feared – even briefly – made me realize that I am not alone in my fear. 

Fear is a human emotion, and as long as we are humans, we will have to face fears big and small. Personally, I know that I face both rational and irrational fears. Although this is true, I find solace in the fact that the greatest Person to walk this earth also feared, but He overcame His fear by faithfully depending on His Father – the same Father who knows and cares for me. When I internalize that thought, it becomes easier to disregard fear and regard the One who can calm my fear. For me, focusing on God helps me to overcome otherwise debilitating thoughts and worries. 

Jesus later became the greatest blessing to the world. I hope we can all find comfort in knowing that even in facing our various fears, we are not alone, nor do we have to be.

FOOTNOTES:

1 Matthew 26:36-39, 42 

Originally published in The Williams Telos Issue 14, FEAR

Written by Eugene Amankwah ’23

No Fear of Condemnation

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1 (NIV)

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We are all looking for a verdict. 

We want to be told that we are good enough and that we matter. In other words, we want a verdict that our life is meaningful. We seek that verdict from many places, whether from our work, our relationships, our reputation. We make these things our judges, we ask them if we are good enough, and we let them determine our worth. We place the “condemnation gavel” into the hands of something, but the verdict the world gives us is always, eventually, “Not good enough.” And so, we live in fear, knowing that a verdict of condemnation is coming.

Looking inside for a verdict doesn’t seem to work any better. Too often we take the messages from our screens and the world around us and put the condemnation gavel in our own hands, whether or not we have received an explicit verdict from outside us. A recent issue of New York magazine described people today as “feeling guilty and inadequate at every turn.1 They compare themselves relentlessly to others. They are turned inside out, day after day, by social media.” One person says, “I think my primary emotion is guilt. When I am happy, it only takes moments before I feel guilty about it – I feel desperately unworthy of my happiness, guilty for receiving it out of the pure chaotic luck of the universe.” The author summarizes life today like this: “Merely muddling through, doing your best, seeing friends when you can, trying to enjoy yourself as much as possible, is, according to the reigning dictates of today’s culture, tantamount to failure. You must live your best life and be the best version of yourself, otherwise you’re nothing and no one.” We feel naked and ashamed, and the constant din of our notifications amplifies our insecurities. We are filled with anxiety and doubt and guilt, and we are working harder and harder to convince everybody, including ourselves, that we have it together. This is what condemnation looks like. We don’t need condemnation to come from the outside when we already condemned ourselves.

The Bible says that anything we look to besides God for our verdict is an idol, and idols always let us down, always condemn, and always demand everything from us. We place the condemnation gavel in the hands of our reputation, our career, our looks, our health, our relationships, what our friends think of us, what we think of us – and these idols never fail to hammer in condemnation. The verdict seems to come from within when we internalize what our external idols already tell us. We crave a favorable verdict, but nothing we look to in this world can truly give it. 

This is why the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans that in Christ alone the verdict is “no condemnation.” To summarize what Paul already said, the gospel is this: All have sinned, but God freely justifies through the atoning work of Jesus. Sin means we don’t love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, but instead we love created things – our reputation, comfort, job, health, romance, or family, even our own opinion of ourselves – more than the Creator. We don’t find our satisfaction in God, but instead we look to idols for our satisfaction. We don’t obey God, but instead we obey our own desires and emotions. We don’t love our neighbor as ourselves, but instead we seek our own good, or we serve others inasmuch as it is convenient for us, or in our interest, or makes us look or feel good. Every single one of us, religious or not, falls short of God’s glory.

But as a gift, God freely justifies, which means “to declare in the right.” Even though we fall short of God’s glory, even though we are sinners, in Christ God counts us as if we aren’t. Think of it this way. Suppose that a student of mine fails an exam and I want to have mercy. I can’t honestly say, “You did great on the exam!” because they didn’t, but I can say, “I won’t count this exam toward your final grade.” Similarly, in Christ, God doesn’t count our sin against us, but instead He counts Jesus’ faithfulness for us. In doing so, God declares that His promises to rescue and redeem His people, to love and bless His people, and to make them a blessing to the world, all apply to us. This is God’s gift to us; we don’t earn it. We were sinners deserving condemnation, but God forgives us and counts us as holy. 

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Paul says that for the Christian there is therefore no condemnation. Paul doesn’t say, “You are not condemned … for now, but if you screw up again you’ll need more forgiveness.” Paul says there is no condemnation. None ever. Jesus bore all of your sin – all of it, past, present, and future – so there is no condemnation and there will be no condemnation. Paul writes, “God has done what the law … could not do. By sending his own Son … he condemned sin in the flesh.” God definitively condemned sin so He will never condemn you. That’s why at the end of Romans 8 Paul can say, “Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ”; that’s why a good summary of the gospel is, “You are more wicked than you could ever imagine, but in Christ you are more loved than you could ever dare hope.”2 Why would God do that?

God gives the declaration “no condemnation” so that we can live beautiful, holy lives. Only in the gospel of Jesus Christ does the declaration of “accepted” come before any acceptable performance; only in the Gospel does the verdict come before it is earned. You won’t find this order anywhere else. In school, if you do well enough on an exam, you get the grade. In traditional religion, if you are moral or observant enough, you get salvation or acceptance. Today, many people reject traditional religion and instead get their identity from being a good person. If you are a good enough person, eventually you get the verdict. If you work enough for justice, you get the verdict. If you express yourself or liberate yourself or accept yourself or find yourself – you get the verdict. As a result, every day is a trial with us in the court working for a verdict.

But in Jesus, Christians get the verdict “no condemnation,” and then the verdict leads to a changed performance. When Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery, Jesus turned to her and said, “Has no one condemned you?” and she said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” Jesus did not condemn her, and only then did he tell her to sin no more.3 Reversing the order loses the gospel. Traditional religion says, “Stop sinning and I won’t condemn you,” and that’s crushing. Modern society says, “There is no sin so there is nothing to condemn,” yet our hearts still condemn us because we know that isn’t right. But Jesus says, “Because I don’t condemn you, stop sinning.” When you have already been forgiven and set free, then love and gratitude become the motivation for obedience. If we must perform in order to avoid condemnation, then we obey out of fear of punishment, or to avoid feelings of guilt, or out of pride – because in pride we believe, “We are not the kind of people who get condemned.” But those who by grace have received “no condemnation” are set free to live beautiful, holy lives out of sheer, grateful love for what Christ has done. 

Nonetheless, our lives are never paragons of beauty and holiness. I lose my temper with my kids, my parents, my spouse. We all struggle in some way. We gossip, we judge others who don’t have it together, we are insensitive, we dismiss people we disagree with. We lust, we covet, we envy. Anxiety, doubt, and temptation rule us. Our lives are not beautiful. Our failures produce panic as we fear what that means – might we not be forgiven? Deep insecurity and doubt arise – might we be condemned?

Paul’s original readers had those same doubts and Paul knew it. Fear creeps in when we forget that in Jesus we are not condemned. That’s why Paul chronicles his own failings and struggles in Romans 7 and then declares, “There is no condemnation.” Paul reminds us that the only one who could ultimately condemn you is Jesus, and he died for you, and he lives for you, and he will not condemn you. The God who created the world – the God of infinite holiness and power, the God whose voice shakes the heavens and causes the earth to quake – looks upon you and graciously welcomes you into his arms. If you have put your faith in Jesus but still feel condemned, then you are still placing the condemnation gavel somewhere, perhaps in your own goodness, your reputation, or how much you are doing for God. 

When we work for our verdict, we think we can be loved only if we aren’t deeply known because being known makes us feel naked and ashamed. But for those who desperately want to be honest and loved, God knows the depths of your heart – all your brokenness and failings – and He loves you more than you could ever hope. For those who constantly feel naked and ashamed, Jesus was shamefully stripped naked on the cross for you to buy your freedom. Jesus took on our guilt and shame and received the condemnation we deserve, so that we can receive the life and righteousness that is his. If you wait for the world’s verdict, you will be in constant fear of condemnation, because the condemnation is guaranteed. But if you receive God’s verdict as your own, there is no more fear.

Our lives do not magically become beautiful when we start to follow Jesus. Life in this broken world is a painful struggle. We continue to do things we are rightly ashamed of. We continue to hurt others and have others hurt us. The world’s condemnation still screams past all our filters. This fractured world is full of guilt and shame and loneliness and anxiety, and we feel that. For Christians, those difficulties do not end, but the condemnation does.

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1 https://www.thecut.com/2016/07/ask-polly-advice-lessons.html

2 Tim Keller has said that in many places. Indeed, this entire article is heavily influenced by his teaching on this passage.

3 See John 8:1-11 for the full story

Originally published in The Williams Telos Issue 14, FEAR 

Written by Prof. Greg Phelan 

My Fathers

I stood in the laundry room with piles of clothes at my feet, feeling my dad’s arms wrap around me and his scruffy beard scratch my forehead as he kissed me, whispering, “I am proud of you.” Hours later, I boarded my Williams-bound plane, my eyes moist with tears and my heart bursting with love for the family I was leaving behind.

I cherished my dad’s words of affirmation because his praise, though infrequent, is thoughtful and meaningful. The development of my relationship with my dad has involved a tension between my high regard for and my fear of him. Even though I’m not “afraid” of him per se, I am intimidated by his intellectual superiority. My recent high school diploma pales in comparison to his numerous graduate degrees. When I was younger, I hesitated to confide in him because I worried about sounding immature. Over time, my dad has shown me through his words and actions that he loves me completely, imperfections and all. We are close now; I ask him for advice and tell him stories about Williams, and he asks me lots of questions.

Even though I see my dad as superior, his love has opened the door for us to have a close relationship. Similarly, God’s love bridges the gap between His perfection and my humanity so that God and I can have a deeply personal relationship. For some unfathomable reason, the indescribable God of the universe desires intimate relationships with human beings, including me. Acknowledging God’s greatness and accepting His love brings me closer to Him. The fact that He is perfect but still loves me makes me want to get to know Him better. Like many relationships, the process of getting closer involves daily communication. I like to write and pray to God, and I listen for His responses as I sit in silence, sing worship songs, or read the Bible. I can interact intimately with God because Jesus’ death and resurrection made a way for me to commune with Him. I do not have to worry about sounding immature when I talk to God because although He is so much greater than me, He will never reject me.

As we grow closer, God’s love and acceptance help me trust Him more. I remember drawing a series of doors and windows in my prayer journal senior year, labeling them with the various colleges to which I had applied. I prayed, “God, have Your way with me. Open and shut doors.” I thought He wanted me to go to Dartmouth, so when I was deferred in the fall of my senior year, I felt angry and confused. Through prayer, God helped me realize that Williams was a better fit for me. There is a verse in the Bible that captures how God can take away something good and give something better. It reads, “Instead of bronze I [God] will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron…I will make peace your governor and well-being your ruler.”1 God took away my potential Dartmouth acceptance, but he was giving me a positive Williams experience instead. When I feared God, I realized that I did not have to be scared of the outcome of my college applications because God knows and loves me fully. My perfect God answered my prayers by giving me otherworldly peace throughout the college process and making it abundantly clear my senior spring that He wanted me to go to Williams.

Even though I fear both my dad and God, their unconditional love invites me to be in close relationships with them. Drawing close to God and fearing Him is a continuous process in my life, just like the apostle Paul instructed to the early church in Philippi, I “continue to work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling.”2

FOOTNOTES:
1 Isaiah 60:17, NIV.
2 Philippians 2:12b, NIV, emphasis added

Originally published in The Williams Telos Issue 14, FEAR 

Written by Sarah Gantt ’23