December 10, 2023

Actually ladies, the Roman Empire never crosses my mind … except when it does

That Pesky Roman Empire

The Roman Empire – AKA what men think about every day

So apparently men are prone to casting an admiring glance towards the Roman Empire every day or so. That’s what I have been reading lately. And the whole concept has launched more memes than the Trojans – or indeed the Romans – launched ships.

Yes, it’s a huge discovery, that, apparently, men are just going about their business of life, when something like this happens in relation to the Roman Empire…

…and then The Roman Empire just happens to walk past

Roman Empire just breezes past airily and then nek minnit – and with a neck swivel – , men are lost in a world of siege craft, Caesars, and – it has to be said – the odd toga party.

Except of course, most men don’t. Well I don’t. And I suspect it’s just one of those things that, once we are thinking about it, we retrospectively fit it into our realities.

Perhaps I did think about the Roman Empire as a kid when I was reading some great books on all of the major civilisations. But just like we don’t think about pink elephants until someone says that we shouldn’t think about pink elephants, we don’t think about the Roman Empire.

And then we do!

So what do we think about? What do men think about? What do I think about?

Where Our Thoughts Come From

The Bible has a lot to say about our thoughts, but if you’re searching in Scripture for terms that have to do with brain activity, then you will search in vain. The Bible tends to move the organs down one level, meaning that our thinking happens from our hearts – the seat of our will and desires -, while our emotional responses are in our stomachs (which is why those pesky butterflies end up in our food receptacles not our blood-pumpers).

The heart, of course, has a problem. According to Jeremiah 17:9:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Which tells me, confrontingly, that my thought life will deceive me. My heart will bend me in directions that I can justify even if those directions – and they ends that they reach – are unjustifiable. The world is littered with examples of poor, dangerous and downright ungodly decisions – all of which have been justified by someone’s deceitful heart.

Of course that verse in Jeremiah is not the end of the matter. How does it go?:

I, the LORD, search the heart; I examine the mind to reward a man according to his way, by what his deeds deserve.

The fact that God not only knows our actions and our thoughts, but even the motives behind those actions is fairly full on, yes? God will reward us according to what our deeds deserve. Which means on outwardly good deed done for selfish purposes will, according to this verse, be rewarded by God according to the motive. That seems downright scary.

The solution, if that is true, is not to try and hide from God, but rather to invite God to examine our hearts. Which is exactly where Scripture goes in Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

This is an interesting verse is it not? Our thoughts can be both anxious – there are issues that we should bring to God that worry us. And they can be offensive – there are issues that we often try to hide from God. Yep, even our all-too-frequent thoughts about the Roman Empire.

And both of them are in our hearts. Our anxieties and our offensives. And both are seen by God. How can we live in the light of this? The irony – the beautiful irony – is that the path forward is to invite God into what he already knows about us.

My Empire

Which brings us to the things that we truly think about. And as I have discovered in my own life, it’s not The Roman Empire at all. It’s my empire! The things we think about the most are all of the things that pertain to what we want – both licit and illicit -, what we fear – both grounded and ungrounded- , and what we cannot resolve.

One of the most telling – and chilling – stories in the Bible about how the thought life of a person – his personal empire – brought about destruction, is the story of King David and his adulterous – and abusive – relationship with Bathsheba. But the very last verse of the chapter that contains the story (2 Samuel 11) says this:

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.

In the modern world, in which God is an abstract idea, this truth cuts across our attempts to hermetically seal off our actions and our motives from the One who knows us the most intimately. David could have gotten away with it – as the Scooby Doo line goes – if it were not for that meddling God! Meddling with his actions and his thoughts.

David had crafted a destructive empire of his own, hewn from the rough granite of his thought life, and the result was as bloody and unjust as anything the Roman Empire would throw up centuries later. David is proof of the later words of Jeremiah: His thought life deceived him, his actions betrayed him, but it was only with God’s intervention that any of this came to light.

It’s little wonder that when David repented of that gross sin against God and against humans, he had this to say in Psalm 51:

Surely You desire truth in the inmost being; You teach me wisdom in the inmost place…

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

When we let our thought lives get away from us, it tips us towards virtual atheism. Thinking as if God were not aware of your thoughts is the first step towards acting as if God were not aware of your actions. And all the while we can claim to be believers in God’s existence and his intervention.

In the next blog post I’m going to riff on some of the actual things I do think about on a regular basis (that sounds confronting!), but for now it’s sufficient to say that the gospel of Christ is the antidote to this desire for a personal empire that entangles our thought life.

If we are going to think about the Roman Empire on a regular basis, we could do worse than cast our minds to the truly universal symbol of the Roman Empire that should capture us daily, and in so capturing us, free our thoughts – our hearts – to bend towards God’s kingdom and away from our empires:

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

And that’s one aspect of the Roman Empire worth thinking about today.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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