Gilt Guilt

The Lord Jesus famously said that if we don’t forgive others, we ourselves are unforgiven. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15).

This seems like a bad bit of business, but only because we tend to think of forgiveness as a peculiar sort of double-entry bookkeeping. We think the moral universe runs in a quid pro quo fashion, and so we think God is telling us that if we do not perform action x, then He will most certainly not perform action y. We desperately need action y, but are still most reluctant to perform action x, and so we mutter about it for a while. But after haggling for a while in the flea market where clean consciences are heaped up, rumpled on the table there, we offer a grudging forgiveness to some undeserving schmuck as the price we must pay to get our flea market forgiveness. And that is what it is — rummage sale forgiveness, which is to say, no forgiveness at all. If it was not purchased with the blood of Jesus, then it was not purchased.

Guilt and Glory

Mankind was made for glory, and naturally hungers after glory. There is therefore nothing wrong with seeking glory, provided we seek it where the true glory may be found. “Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours” (1 Cor. 3:21). Paul is saying that when glory is offered us in Christ (all things are yours), it is high folly to try to glory in men apart from Christ. Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord (Ps. 34:2) — and when we boast in God, the humble hear it and are glad.

Sin is not seeking after glory, but rather falling short of it. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). When God renders judgment in accordance with our deeds, one of the things He will evaluate is the way in which we sought after glory. “Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:6–7).

As a race, we were created to be glory bearers. We need glory. It is no more optional for us than oxygen, or food, or sex, or drink. The need to be a glory, and to glorify other things, is woven into the very fabric of our identity. We cannot not seek it. Man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7). This is what we were created to be, and we cannot opt out of the burden of carrying glory. Glory is weighty; it is challenging. But it is all of these things precisely because of the relationship we have to God our Creator.

Piketty’s Point

Thomas Piketty has a detailed response to the “number-cooking” criticisms leveled at his book by the Financial Times, which you can read here.

Now my point is not to run get my hip-waders on in order to get into the stats and numbers. I am afraid I would catch very few mountain trout that way, and thus would not be in a position to say if there were any of them in there.

So if I am not a numbers wonk, what defensible basis might I have for being so hostile to Piketty’s message? For he does have one — here is what he says what it is:

“The main message coming from my book is . . . that we need more democratic transparency about wealth dynamics, so that we are able to adjust our institutions and policies to whatever we observe.”

Let me reduce this to its essentials: “We want to be able to see what everyone has, so that we can take it if we want.”

Jabba the Catt

In a sinful and fallen world, any blessing can be abused. The temptation to lord it over others is a constant one, and the human heart will use whatever materials are ready to hand — intelligence, looks, education, money, age, strength, and so on.

This means that inequity in the distribution of wealth does present temptations — most certainly, and welcome to earth. But Scripture teaches us to deal with sin where the sin is, which is under our own sternum. The cause of our faults is not to be located elsewhere. Lust is not caused by beautiful women, covetousness is not caused by other people owning things, and dishonoring parents is not caused by them asking you to do something.

If a man has five million dollars and I have five, then he will no doubt be tempted to believe he is better than I am. This is often and easily noted. What is almost never noted is my temptation to believe I am better than he is. If we both succumb to the temptation, we both commit the same sin . . . but at least he has a better argument. I am constantly reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a Christian — “one who believes the New Testament is a divinely inspired book, admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.”

If someone points out that great inequity of wealth creates a power relationship that is morally problematic, then what do we create when we create a mechanism that can fix this inequity? Right. We have created a larger power differential. Granted the problem is a big hole, why are we digging it deeper?
We justify this to ourselves by pretending that we are not digging it deeper, and we do this by leaving the government and its powers out of our consideration. But what happens when we do the sensible thing and include the government and its powers among the fat cats?

Those who lament this wealth inequity of ours, like Piketty does, want to “fix it” by jacking the marginal tax rate on the super-wealthy up to 80 percent, and up to 60 percent for those making between 200K and 500K. But how can you do this without creating an uber-wealthy entity — the government — which has now just successfully taken 80 percent of the earning of all the super-wealthy, and which has an army, navy, powers of coercion, and so on, and which comes into my house on a fairly regular basis in order to boss me around? Why are you guys arguing that we should take most of the money away from all the fat cats and give it to Jabba the Catt?

Envy Crackles

I recently raised a question in a Facebook thread that I wanted to expand on here. It has to do with the increasingly common idea that “inequality of income” is inherently a moral problem.

So here’s the question:

If you had a magic button in front of you which, if you pressed it, would result in all the poor people in the world being 5X better off than they are now, in real terms, but the price would be that the top 1% would be 100X times better off, would you press the button? Pressing the button would increase the inequality, but it would decrease everyone’s day-to-day income problems. Is the mere fact of the inequality a moral problem? Is the size of the gulf between rich and poor a moral problem?

There is another way of asking the question, only this way highlights the darkness of envy a little bit better. If you had a button in front of you that would cut the standard of living that poor people have by 50%, but would also cut the standard of living that the top 1% had by a much greater amount, thus reducing the inequality, would you press that button?

In case you hadn’t anticipated it, we do have a working version of this second button. It is called “government help.”

One of the central culprits in generating economic fallacies is the sin of envy. It is a creeping, cancerous wickedness. The questions given above are a litmus test for envy. If you would hesitate pressing the button in the first scenario, for even a moment, then you have discovered that your heart is a central part of the problem. And anyone who hesitates pressing the first button will end his course of economic damnation by insisting that hellish poverty for all is far to be preferred than inequitable wealth for all.

Now this is a thought experiment intended to reveal attitudes. In the thought experiment, we are assuming that nobody is getting ripped off or murdered in order to achieve these results. We are assuming no sweetheart deals with the White House. We are pretending that I am not a manufacturer of the new curly light bulbs lobbying Congress in order to make my old school Edisonian competition illegal. No dirty work.

Only Blood Can Answer

One of the central things we have to remember about accusation is that condemnation has a point. “The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56).

It will not do for us to say that the devil accuses the brethren day and day (Rev. 12:10), and the devil is bad, and so we should be done with accusation. It is not that simple. The devil is evil, but the nature of his evil is that it is righteousness folded over.

If all we had to learn was that accusation is to be rejected, we could be saved by that information. We could be saved by knowledge. We have been to the magician’s show enough times that we have figured out the trick. But the task before us is to reject the way of accusation while acknowledging that the accusations are correct. That is more difficult than it sounds, and it sounds pretty difficult. The devil’s accusations have authority because the devil is right.

How the Pinning Works

I want to spend a few moments on why the penal substitution of Christ is the only possible ground of human happiness. My point is not to defend the doctrine here — that has been ably done by others — but rather to show one of the many glorious outworkings of the doctrine. In our life together, whether that life is being lived in family, church, or town, the substitutionary death of Jesus is the only thing that can keep us from becoming scolds who are impossible to live with.

This is what I mean, and I will use marriage for my example. Husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:25). Now, whatever it is we believe that He did there, that is what we are going to imitate.

Earthy, Not Worldly

Near the end of That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is traveling back to be reunited with his wife Jane, and he stops at an inn. At this inn, they have back issues of The Strand, and Mark — a real sign that his repentance has been genuine — finishes reading a serial story that he had quit reading when he was ten. He had done that because he had wanted to appear grown up — his joy in the story had been overwhelmed by a destructive lust, the approaching tyrant of his life, to be accepted, to be brought into the inner ring. He gave up something he loved, and for no good reason.

In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape gets angry with Wormwood for allowing his “patient” to read a book — just because he wanted to. He didn’t read it because he wanted to have something clever to say about it at a dinner party, for example. Screwtape regards this as a disaster.