“Then let us cheerful acquiesce
Nor make our scanty pleasures less
By pining at our state.”
Robert Burns, “Epistle to Davie” (1785)
Contentment is Paul’s theme in the last chapter of his first letter to Timothy, and his famous condemnation of greed should be read as part of his commendation of contentment. He condemns greed in this oft-quoted and misquoted line.
“The love of money is the root of all evil.”
But he goes on to say that it is the root of all evil because “those who want to get rich fall into many foolish and harmful desires.” A cursory glance at the lifestyles of the rich and famous confirms his observation, but his point is that the love of money is a symptom of more primal discontents.
In the stately diction of the King James Bible, these primal discontents are called “foolish and hurtful lusts,” but by whatever name we call them, discontent is the “snare” that Paul warns his readers to avoid.
As he said of himself to the Philippians,
“I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content . . .”
Like the poet Burns in my epigraph, Paul knew that it was foolish (not to mention impious) to augment misery by pining at his state.
When modern men quote Paul to denounce the discontent of greed, they almost invariably omit what he has to say about envy, which is low-class discontent. The chapter that contains Paul’s denunciation of greed in fact begins with an equally strong denunciation of insolence and insubordination, and most particularly of the insolence and insubordination that wears a mask of Christian brotherhood.
“Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor . . . . And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren.”
So much for the modern heresy that invites us to immanentize (which is a fancy word for vulgarize) Galatians 3:28. Indeed, Paul warns his readers to expect this heresy of rabble-rousing social unrest.
“If any man teach otherwise . . . he is proud, knowing nothing . . . whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings.”
In other words, only dunces and demons will tell you that Galatians 3:28 commands secular equality, and the effect of their false teaching is always discontent (“envy”), insurrection (“strife”), slander (“railings”), and nasty rationalizations of all these things (“evil surmisings”).
To surmise is to presume without evidence, and the “evil surmising” of which Paul speaks is therefore to presume that one’s superiors are wicked simply because they are one’s superiors. Marxist and feminist theory are, for instance, systematically “evil surmising,” since both theories rationalize discontent, insurrection and slander with a nasty presumption that that secular inequality is itself inherently evil.
Patience is another word for Christian contentment, and this is why Patience was once (like Faith and Hope) a popular name for Christian girls. This Patience was not an ability to wait for some future enjoyment in this world, as when a hungry man patiently awaits his supper. It was an ability to calmly and cheerfully await enjoyment of the next world under whatever conditions it pleased God to put one. Thus, Paul wrote of himself:
“I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”
In other words, he had learned to be content with whatever came his way, however much or little that might be. When his belly was full and his circumstances abounding (i.e. prosperous), he was content, and did not develop a greedy hankering for a fuller belly and even more prosperous circumstances. When he was hungry and suffering need, he was content, and did not cherish an envious hatred for those somewhat better circumstanced than himself.
* * * * *
Vulgar Christianity is Christianity trapped in this world. This is what I mean when I say that it is immanent, for the word immanent means to remain within, whereas its antonym, transcendent, means to go beyond. And because it is trapped in this world, vulgar Christianity is perpetually agitated and convulsed with discontents. It is a religion that is forever “out of patience” with the world, but that is also, at the same time, impotent to put the world to right.
Sentimentality is, perhaps, the greatest vice of vulgar Christianity, and it grows directly from its inability to look beyond what is right before its nose. Vulgar Christians weep and rend their clothes over every evil of suffering, but are shocked and scandalized by the transcendent notion that some men and women ought to suffer.
Here again, Paul’s first letter to Timothy is salutary. Paul saw that there were many miserable old women whom the early Church was asked to support as widows. Sentimentalists in the Church could not see beyond the present pathos of these shriveled old hags, and so wept and rent their clothes over the evil of their suffering. To this Paul answered that Christian charity should be governed by the sound Christian principle of mercy to the merciful (and to hell with the rest).
Indeed, he went farther than that and said Christians had no obligation to look after the legions of worn out whores with which the world was, and is, so abundantly supplied.
“Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man. Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.”
So much for the vulgar notion of universal charity.
* * * * *
Vulgar Christians are sentimentalists trapped in the here and now. As sentimentalists, they believe that the mark of a noble person is that he or she experiences and expresses noble sentiments, feelings or “concerns.” It is altogether secondary whether or not this person acts on these feelings, and this is why sentimentalists of all varieties are notorious for their high-minded clamoring that someone else do something about some evil that has made them sad or mad.
This is a particularly obnoxious form of discontent, and it is hardly unique to vulgar Christians.
Here, once again, Paul’s first letter to Timothy has some trenchant things to say. Paul observed that there were in the Church a great many Christian skinflints who advocated universal charity to widows in the secret hope that the Church would take Ma, and Grandma, and old Aunt Martha off their hands.
“But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.”
In other words, Paul says it is an abomination that the Church should be anything but a charity of last resort, restricting its aid to good women (no worn-out whores) who are “widows indeed.” By “widows indeed” he mean old women who are absolutely alone—“desolate”—and utterly without any other means of support.
I expect Paul would say much the same thing to the many skinflints, Christian and otherwise, who nowadays advocate various forms of universal public welfare in the secret hope that the State will take Ma, and Grandma, and old Aunt Martha off their hands. Because he was not trapped in this world, Paul would see that this is just the usual nauseating mix of public sentimentality and private shirking, of noble talk and mean deeds.
“But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”