“What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.” ~Hamlet
Why these words have been running through my head lately, I don’t know. But whenever I think about sitting down to write, these are the words that come to mind. So let’s give it a go, in connection with some words from a night prayer that struck me:
“Keep me free from any act or thought that could dishonour his regard for me.”
The idea of “dishonouring someone’s regard” is a slightly strange one, and I had to think about it for a moment (instead of simply saying the words with meaning, as it so easy to do while praying) to understand what was meant by this concept, and I think it brings us to a basic principle that doesn’t even necessarily need a lot of elaboration.
Jesus has great regard for us.
I want to word it like that because it might catch our attention. On one hand, unfortunately and sadly, we can get used to the words “Jesus loves you,” or even the Scripture passage (which is beautiful but can also be glossed over because we’ve heard it so often) “God so loved the world…” And when we get used to something, we stop giving it the attention it needs, so sometimes we have to change it just a little so that we notice again. So, Jesus has great regard for us.
What is regard, anyway? It’s not just love. There’s a reason for synonyms. Of course, without getting too theological, regard is lower than love in terms of how we treat others since love is the highest good and the end all and be all of the Christian life. But while we are supposed to love everyone, we may not always hold everyone in very high regard. However, when we do hold someone in regard, we respect them and their ideals (generally speaking—I know this is debatable, but just bear with me, okay?).
It can be hard to hold someone in regard. In fact, Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that “we may not be able to like everyone, but we can love them, we can get above our emotional attitudes.” Just before saying this, in his talk on Three Loves, the Archbishop essentially said we can’t like everybody (cf. http://avalon44.tripod.com/fr/3k.htm).
But obviously, there are people we like, and people we do hold in regard. Think of someone you do hold in regard, respect, and like. Do it. Do it now. I know these three words (regard, respect, and like) are not always synonymous, but that’s okay. The point I’m getting to isn’t about human relationships anyway.
So now picture the fact that God holds you in regard. Jesus respects you. Not “just” loves you. Sounds funny theologically, I know, but consider what I was just saying a moment ago about loving vs. liking in human terms.
Jesus respects you and likes you. He may not like everything you do (in fact, I can guarantee he doesn’t), but he likes you. To reiterate, he has regard for us.
This brings us to that dishonouring bit of the prayer. What does it mean to dishonour the way someone sees us? After all, they can see us as they very well please, and why should we care? Because when we are respected, loved, trusted, and held in good regard by someone, we have somehow given them cause to see us in that light. By our actions and words, we give something of ourselves over to the other, and they can respond with love and trust, or hatred and fear. But their response is a reaction to our action.
I don’t think we can assume that this a clear-cut generic rule for everyone. But let’s try to simplify it. When I trust someone, something about that person told me it was okay to trust them. Something they did or didn’t do or said or didn’t say, probably, though not necessarily told me “You can trust them.” They may betray that trust someday and make me feel that I was wrong to trust them, but I can’t go through life assuming that everyone is someday going to betray me and that I can’t trust anyone.
Anyway, when someone trusts us and holds us in regard, we have to respect that. We have a responsibility to everyone we know. If we are doing what is right, and someone regards us for it, we have a duty to honour that regard.
I’ve been writing a novel in which trust and betrayal play big roles. By acting in a certain way, one of the characters as though he has betrayed the trust a friend has in him and so has betrayed the friendship. With Jesus, when we sin, we feel guilty because we know that we are damaging our friendship with him by dishonouring the regard and the trust he has for and in us. By the way, trust is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone. But I’m not going to talk about that right now. That’s an article in itself.
So, going on.
When we trust someone, when we love them and want to give everything to them (as Jesus did and does for us every single day), and they suddenly act against us or do something to hurt us, even unintentionally, we feel wronged, hurt, and betrayed because we expected and hoped for more from them. After all we’ve done for them, they turn on us. If that’s how we feel in a situation like that, how then does Jesus feel when we sin? For us, on a human level, there may some selfishness when we feel betrayed. After all, who but God can judge who’s really in the wrong? But for Jesus, there is no selfishness on his part. We really do betray him when we sin; we betray his love and his regard for us. We dis-honour (hyphenated to give emphasis) everything he has done for us.
The ancients put a lot of stock in honour. The Romans felt that honour was everything, and without honour, there was nothing. Maybe they were onto something. Of course for them it was largely material honour they were after, but the Christian divinizes honour. Honour means so much to God and to the Christian that the 4th Commandment which is all about honour has a promise attached to it: “Honour your father and your mother, as [the Lord] your God has commanded you, so that you may have long life and may prosper in the land that [the Lord] your God gives to you.” The Book of Sirach also says “Fear the Lord and honour the priest, and give him the portion enjoined on you” (7:31).
Earlier I mentioned that trust comes from something we have done to gain that trust. Well, let’s clarify that. That’s the human element. Sometimes we have to try to understand the human element before we can understand the spiritual element (it’s like studying philosophy instead of theology).
So, moving on from the human element to the spiritual element. What have humans done to gain Christ’s regard? Well, not much. Nothing, actually. In fact, the first opportunity that mankind had to gain God’s trust (or rather, to honour the trust that he had already given us when he created us with free will) was botched—pretty badly. But instead of abandoning us as hopeless causes, God offered us a second chance: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). What did we do? Well, we botch the second chance too: “I was afraid…so I hid” (Genesis 3:9).
Yet still God didn’t abandon us. We just messed up pretty bad, but instead of deciding that maybe he should try again (Humanity 2.0, without free will), God continually gave us more chances. Why does God have any trust that we are capable of any good anymore? Why does he have any regard for us?
Probably because he’s an all-powerful, pure spirit, omniscient, all-merciful, ever-loving, non-human kind of guy. I think a lot of humans don’t the patience to trust anyone after they’ve broken their promises and messed up—multiple times. But God isn’t human. And before you yell at me (“That’s heresy! Incarnation! God made flesh!”), just remember I’m not talking Christologically here. There’s plenty of time for that later.
So, we’ve done nothing to earn the regard for us that God has hand since the very beginning. Instead, we’ve given him every reason to forget us as “not-worth-it.” At least, every reason until you realize that God, despite all those sins, knows we’re worth it and has given us the free gift of holding us in high regard. Somehow, he still trusts us to at some point make the right decision and do the right thing. He takes pride in us, the work of his hands. Think of something you’ve created. Generally, you’re probably proud of it. God created us and has regard for us.
Where does Shakespeare come into all of this? Well, Hamlet is asking, essentially, what makes a human a human? Capacity to work, do good, make moral choices, to be rational, to live according to God’s plan. If we do none of this and simply “sleep and feed” or, to put it colloquially, “be a couch potato, waste time procrastinating, simply enjoy myself,” how are we any better than cows? Nothing against cows, but I couldn’t help but see them as the best example when I drove past some in a field recently. Eat and sleep. That’s all I ever see them do, and I see a lot of cows. And that’s okay, because that’s the way God designed them. But that’s not how he designed us.
God calls us to live in accordance with the way he built us. This means to use our free will rightly and not abusively, to use our powers (intellect, will, passions, and body) for the greatest good, to integrate our whole being into existence for God.
God proved his regard for us by dying for us. In the crucifixion, God said, “I give my life, my all, for you. I trust you—I am giving you my trust—to go and live the way I have taught you.”
Whoa. Suddenly we have his trust in our hands. If we go and live like cows after that, aren’t we throwing his regard for us, his love and his trust, back in his face?