7 Quotes that Invite You to Read Josef Pieper

Josef Pieper (1904–1997) was a Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher from Elte, Westphalia, Germany. He imbibed the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas but thought deeply about the rest of the Western tradition, ancient and modern (read a little more about him here). I have found his work a particularly helpful guide to thinking deeply and clearly about what it means to live rightly as a human being. His most famous work is Leisure: the Basis of Culture. If you want to get a sense of the breadth of his work, An Anthology, which he compiled at the end of his life, is a great place to start.

If you want to think about how to live well as a Christian in this time, Pieper’s works are full of wisdom. Pieper’s works are also concise. All of them are short volumes. The chapters are also short. You can usually read a chapter in one short sitting. They stir the heart and the mind and challenge us to be what God has called us to be. Here are 7 quotes that invite you to read Josef Pieper.

1. The key question of our time that our prosperity should make us ask: What is life for? “After we have accomplished, with an admirable amount of intelligence and hard work, all that is necessary, after we have provided for the basic needs of life, produced the essential foodstuff, protected the realm of life itself—after all this, what is the meaning of the life itself that we have made possible? How do we define a truly human life?” (Anthology, 111).

2. Prudence or wisdom is the pre-eminent virtue: “The pre-eminence of prudence means that realization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality. He alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is. . . . Realization of the good presupposes that our actions are appropriate to the real situation, that is to the concrete realities which form the ‘environment’ of a concrete human action; and that we therefore take this concrete reality seriously, with clear-eyed objectivity” (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 10). Continue reading “7 Quotes that Invite You to Read Josef Pieper”

The World Is “Full of Friends”: How to Become More Sociable

Last January, I stayed by myself for most of the month at a condo in Myrtle Beach. It was part of my sabbatical. It was a great time, but, with my family back in Tennessee, it could be lonely.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves without the people who are close to us? They may be travelling. They may have moved. They may have died. How do we process this absence?

According to the ancient philosopher Seneca, philosophy has some resources. He says, “The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow feeling with all men; in other words, sympathy and sociability” (V, 7). Philosophy trains us to be sociable.

How does philosophy teach us to be more sociable? It teaches us that humans are social beings. This means that humans are made to interact together. So, whenever we meet one, we meet with a person who has been designed to interact with us. Continue reading “The World Is “Full of Friends”: How to Become More Sociable”

10 Quotes that Illustrate Moby Dick

Moby Dick is not a page turner. It moves slowly on like a whaler lumbering through the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, it is one of the most profound novels I have ever read. In both its details and larger story, it explores the depths of the human consciousness in unparalleled ways. Melville explains every aspect of whaling in the 19th century and connects it to a broad range of human experiences, philosophies, and challenges.

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes from this marvelous book. Some have deeper meanings. Others are humorous. Others are just intriguing ways of expressing sentiments.

1. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (3.44).

2. “I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. . . . and Heaven have mercy on us all–Presbyterians and Pagans alike–for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (17.96).

3. “The whale has no famous author; and whaling no famous chronicler, you will say” (24.120).

4. “I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty” (32.140).

5. “Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness, he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperation . . . all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (41.186).

6. “But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demonic phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed” (52, 235).

7. “You is sharks, satin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.”
“‘Well done, old Fleece!’ cried Stubb, ‘that’s Christianity; go on’” (64.290).

8. “It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own” (68.303).

9. “One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. . . . Such and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it” (104.432).

10. Queequeg carved a copy of his tattoos on the canoe that was going to carry his dead body out to sea. “And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining the truth: so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the lying parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (110.456).


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Be Like the Whale

I’m slowly making my way through Herman Melville’s class, Moby Dick. It is not a page turner, but it is a powerful book. It is at once a story of whaling, a naturalist discussion of whales, a book of philosophy, and much, much more.

“Call me Ishmael.” Thus begins Moby Dick. Throughout the book, Ishmael describes feature after feature of whaling and whales, but he never leaves it there. He always turns these observations into larger considerations of life and philosophy. I find them both interesting and humorous. Ishmael takes the most mundane things and stretches them out to fit some great point of philosophy and human wisdom.

One of these has become a sort of mantra for my life lately. “Be like the whale” goes through my head often. Ishmael describes the whale’s ability to be in both the warmest and the coolest of waters:

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own (68.303).

In this paragraph, Ishmael describes how proper boundaries and significant internal reflection can enable us to engage in human life without being tossed to and fro by the situations and emotions of people around us. Continue reading “Be Like the Whale”

The Pursuit and Priority of Joy

An Important Question

In a series of talks John Ortberg did with Dallas Willard just before Willard’s death, he recounted a conversation that he had with Dallas about churches:

During one of the first times Dallas and I talked, I asked about the churches. Some churches are great at music and worship. Some churches are effective at evangelism or reaching folks outside of them. Other churches are teaching factories. Others are great at assimilating people. And still others are good at acts of justice and compassion. But, I asked Dallas, where are the churches that are producing abnormally loving and joyful, patient, courageous people in inexplicably high percentages?

It’s a great question. Why don’t we see more joyful, hopeful, and patient Christians? Is it even possible to see Christians who are “abnormally loving and joyful”? I began to think about as I studied a variety of writers from different perspectives.

My Path to the Pursuit of Joy

Many writers from a variety of perspectives have helped me think about joy. One writer was Rick Hanson and his book Hardwiring Happiness. He describes well our basic “joy” problem, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (Read more here, 27). He noted that we can think all day about someone who makes a negative comment to us. However, when someone compliments us, we quickly forget it. This is true of most other good experiences. If we can turn that around, we can begin to experience happiness without minimizing the difficulties of life.

Another way I began to think about joy was by studying family systems theory. Michael Kerr is a psychologist and proponent of Bowen Family Systems Theory. He advocates trying to see our automatic emotional responses and developing an ability to choose our emotional states through a combination of awareness, learning, and practice. He suggests that “[i]t does not help to tell others to calm down; the key is to live it by calming oneself” (in Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families). They key takeaway from this theory was that we do not have to go up and down according to the emotions of those around us. We can learn to live and feel differently.

Ancient philosophy also had much to say on this topic. I found a perspective among the Stoics that was similar to Bowen Family Systems Theory. To my surprise, they did not teach an emotion-less, Spock-like state. Instead, they emphasized learning to experience happiness and joy. Seneca writes: “Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business. Learn how to feel joy” (Letter XXIII). Throughout his letters, he teaches us how we can experience joy in a variety of circumstances by focusing on that which brings us joy in every situation rather than that which changes.

After reading all these sources, I wondered: if these people can live with joy and calm without the resources of the good news about Jesus Christ, shouldn’t Christians be able do much more with the joyful and glad tidings about Jesus? Indeed, Christians also have wrestled with the challenge of emotions. One of the most well-known is Peter Scazzero and his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He emphasizes the possibility and importance of experiencing joy in our spiritual life: “True spirituality frees us to live joyfully in the present” (71).

I have also found that this is a strong emphasis in the Christian tradition of virtue ethics. Here’s just a couple quotes from the Roman Catholic theologian Josef Pieper that illustrate how integral joy is to their thinking. “There can of course be love without pain and sorrow, but love without joy is impossible” (36). He also says, “Even unhappy or unrequited love has broken through the principle of isolation on which ‘the whole philosophy of hell rests’ and so has gained a solid basis for joy, a part no matter how small of ‘paradise’” (37). You can read more in Anthology, his own selection of his most important works, which he put together at the end of his life.

This is just a small selection of the variety of writers who said that we can live above our circumstances and experience real joy in this life. They all taught that this isn’t automatic or common but that it is really possible and a worthy goal. As a Christian, I thought, if this is so important, wouldn’t the Bible have something to say on this? Of course, it does.

The Clarity of the Bible on the Pursuit and Priority of Joy

Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the most profound statements of Christian theology. But what is it all about? It’s worth considering that Paul may have shown us what the purpose is at the end of his discussion of the doctrinal and practical issues of the letter. In Romans 15:13, he concludes that discussion with the following benediction: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). Obviously, an emphasis on joy was very important for him!

This is confirmed by what he says in Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The kingdom of God is all about joy! It is a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5:22). The Heidelberg Catechism grasped this centrality when it asked, “What is the rising-to-life of the new self?” Its answer: “Wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.”

This is probably why he gives the command in Philippians 4:4 that is repeated so often through Scripture: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” This duty to have joy is described well in our Westminster Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief end of man?” It asks. And it answers: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (emphasis mine).

Paul’s command is in line with what we read over and over in the Psalms. “But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful” (Psalm 68:3). Isaac Watts wrote his song “Joy to the World” based on Psalm 98, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music” (v. 4).

When Jesus prayed for His disciples at the end of His life, His prayer was prayed so that they might feel joy. He said to His Father, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them” (John 17:13). This is in line with what he had said to them earlier, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:13).

If there is so much unanimity among philosophers and so many strong words on this in Scripture, why do we experience so little joy?

General Obstacles to Pursuing Joy

First, do we even make it a goal? Do we have a vision for what God can and will do to make us a hopeful, joyful, peaceful people? Do we pray for this work in ourselves and others? Do we pray for a transformed character in the lives of the people around us and in ourselves? That’s where it starts.

Second, do we see that it is a process? If we do not, then we easily fall prey to delusion or despair. Delusion, because it puts pressure on us to pretend we have something we do not have or to a degree we do not have it. Despair, because we just keep waiting for it to happen, and it doesn’t.

On the other hand, if we see that it is a process, we can understand that though we may not be a joyful person today and probably won’t morph into one tomorrow, we can become more joyful over the course of time, in a year or three years or five years. This enables us to submit to God’s process and be patient with ourselves and others. We can encourage others that change is possible.

Third, are we re-thinking all of reality from God’s perspective? For example, do we view our houses and homes and possessions with a greater value than God would place on them? Do we concern ourselves with results or simply doing God’s will? Do we retaliate when people get angry with us, or do we see that we are created and redeemed for gentleness, even when others aren’t gentle? Do we see people in the church as members of the same body together (see Rom. 12:3–8)?

I remember one of the elders in our church describing monetary savings this way: savings is one way our heavenly Father provides for our future. That means that we should save, but we should not rely on our savings. It is merely one means by which our heavenly Father provides for us. That perspective has helped me view my savings with less anxiety. When surprising bills for car, home, or health come up, I deal with it with greater peace. Savings is good to have, but I’m dependent on my Father, not savings. That is re-thinking all of reality from God’s perspective.

Fourth, do we view suffering as an unmitigated evil or as gift from God to enable us to grow? When we get sick, are we more concerned about getting healthy than learning to be sick in a godly way? Do we see the challenges that people who oppose us bring us opportunity to become the people who know how to love even in difficult situations? That is embracing suffering as God’s training in a joyful, godly life.

Fifth, do we get other people involved? It’s hard to see our own weaknesses. We need other people to help us see ourselves. We often don’t hear God’s perspective well until we hear it from the lips of other people. We need to get involved with the church and the people God provides as a resource for our growth in grace. As the Apostle Paul said, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:11–12).

Specific Things that Keep Us from Joy

The first and most important thing that we need to consider is, are we finding our joy in God and His love for us? That is an unchangeable foundation and rock for our joy and peace. Or, are we finding our joy and peace in things that change and cannot provide us with a foundation?

We miss out on joy when we make other things the primary source of our joy. People can make us lose our joy. When they don’t accept us or distance from us, we can lose our joy.

Lack of security can keep us from joy. We lose our joy when we see our retirement account depleted or get an expected health, home, or auto bill that we’re not sure how we can pay for.

Lack of pleasures or presence of pain can keep us from joy. We want to experience good things that we are not or we are feeling painful things that we want to avoid.

Lack of success can rob us of our joy. When we base our joy on how well we do or how much we accomplish, we can lose our joy when things don’t work out the way we hoped.

Only God can be our ultimate source of joy. However, when we have God as out ultimate joy, then we can also find joy in the people in our lives, the things that make us secure, the pleasures we experience, and the successes we experience. In fact, we have many more things that can cause us joy than we tend to notice. We not only can but should take note of these things.

A Brief Method for Pursuing Joy

So, how do we do it? How do we make pursuing joy part of our busy schedules?

First, remember that joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it is readily available to all who ask.

Second, ask for the gift. Begin your day with even a brief meditation on God and His goodness. Think of how He made you, takes care of you, loves you, redeems you, and is present with you to guide you, lead you, and comfort you. Then, pray for your day and ask God to fill you with His joy. Do this every day.

Third, schedule some time for thoughtful reflection, even if it’s only 10 minutes a week. When you do that, ask, What kept me from joy and peace this week? Then ask, how could I have thought differently about that situation or seen God’s goodness in a way that would have enabled me to continue to experience joy? Finally, write down what your thought is or record it in mp3 on your phone, just some way in which you can review it.

This third point is the key practice. I find that there are two ways that can really help you thoughtfully reflect on your life. The first is to write down what happened, to journal. I think this is best because it provides a record of where you’ve been. The second is to talk about it with someone you trust, i.e., verbal processing. You can do both or either. The key is to do it.

Fourth, keep doing it.

Some Objections to Pursuing Joy

Why wouldn’t we do this? Here are a few common objections.

1. “I don’t have an exuberant personality.” An exuberant personality is not the same as joy. Joy is founded on hope, the firm conviction that all things will turn out well. This should lead us at times to be exuberant. However, the exuberant person who bases their joy on personality will often find it shaken in times of real challenge.

2. “I’m going through hard things.” Sorrow is not inconsistent with joy. Paul said that he is “sorrowing yet joyful” (2 Cor. 6:10). We should grieve, but grief should not be our deepest response. We should never grieve as those who have no hope.

3. “I’m too busy to worry about it.” Feeling joy in the goodness of God is what life is all about. It’s central to who we are as human. It’s as important to our health as eating (if not more so). It is the fuel for everything else.

The Advantages of Pursuing Joy

Why do it? Here are a few motivations.

1. It’s good. To be joyful is a good thing. Who truly would not want to experience joy in every situation? So, why not pursue it?

2. It frees us to act. When we are in despair and lack joy, then it is hard for us to move forward. Joy enables us to move forward with strength. When we feel joy, we can serve others and the world with strength.

3. It glorifies God. God wants us to be joyful and find joy in Him. Finding joy in Him says that God is greater than our circumstances. Because of God’s goodness, the door to lasting joy is wide open. The Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel put it this way: “Have you not tolerated this heaviness and sorrow long enough and spent your time being melancholy?…God is pleased with the joy of His children [and wants them] to…leap for joy and sing His praises with joyful…lips” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2.37).

Joy is available, if we will pursue it and make it a priority.


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