Purple

On the traditional Advent crown or Advent wreath, the first three candles are purple, colour of royalty and, we are told, penitence.

The association with royalty is familiar and fairly obvious. Until the creation of modern artificial dyes, purple was one of the rarest and most expensive dyes to produce, made from the shells of a particular kind of sea snail at a ratio of shells-to-dye that would make an economist wince.

Accordingly, it was the colour habitually worn by Roman emperors, and various sumptuary laws down the centuries have restricted the wearing of purple to royalty or the uppermost classes.

But purple is a strange colour to represent penitence.

I would personally have thought that brown, grey or black would be penitential colours, representing sackcloth, ashes and mourning.

But no; penitence is symbolised by purple.

It’s a more pleasing colour to look on than brown or grey or black, especially in a candle, but is there more to it than that? After all, if we were used to black candles in the Advent crown, purple would probably look weird.

On closer reflection, purple might be a better colour to represent penitence than I first thought. Penitence is different from sorrow or mourning. Not only is mourning broader than just mourning over sin, but you can feel sorrow for your sins without necessarily exhibiting repentance.

It’s like political apologies in which a public figure expresses “regret” over some indiscretion or other; this is all too often a minimal expression of sorrow over the consequences, not a changing of heart and mind over the decisions that produced them.

Even worse is when it’s an “I’m sorry I got caught”, but most of the time that doesn’t even qualify as regret.

Penitence is what the Bible calls “Godly sorrow” – the sorrow for sin that produces real repentance. And it’s purple because it’s productive, not empty.

It’s not the brown of self-flagellation or deliberately-inflicted discomfort as an attempt to somehow pay the penalty yourself. It’s not the grey of ashes or a burned indication of unpleasant consequences, nor the black of empty space and the open grave.

No; penitence is a living purple.

The association of royalty together with penitence may be an instructive one, too. The essence of repentance is agreement with God that you are in the wrong, and throwing yourself on His mercy.

The mercy of the King.

Symbolically, the dispensing of justice and mercy is one of the prime attributes of kingship; only a just sovereign can display real mercy, because if there is no justice then not getting what you deserve is just randomness or whim. Mercy tempers justice, because without compassion there can be no justice; it is a royal quality to show mercy.

Associated with this, magnanimity is another symbolic attribute of kingship. The giving of gifts is a royal prerogative; the greater the King, the greater the gifts. God’s grace is without limit because His Kingship is without limit. And the same with mercy. As Shakespeare put it, “the quality of mercy is not strained”, given by the ocean not the dropper, because God really is that great a King.

Royalty and penitence, meeting in mercy. As we approach the birth celebration of the King who is the atoning Sacrifice, purple may be more appropriate a colour than I thought.

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Who God Says He Is (Anniversary post)

Well, today is my first anniversary of having this blog, and it quite caught me by surprise!  In honour of this momentous occasion, I’ve reworked my “Who God Says He Is” miniseries into a single, longer post.  Apart from my introductory post (since reworked into the “Why “The Word Forge”? Page), this was my first post.  Enjoy!


In Exodus 34, God passes before Moses and proclaims His name. This is the first time since the pre-Fallen Adam that a human being has seen God without veil of disguise or vision, which makes it an incredibly significant event. What God says here in connection with this is key to our understanding of His nature and character.

In essence, this is the clearest single statement we have of who God says He is. If we get this wrong, we will have a distorted image of God, which will skew our understanding of the Scriptures, of who we are and of what He has called us to.

Who, then, is our God?

YHWH, YHWH

The eternal Name of God. The Great I AM, as He revealed Himself to Moses. Eternal, without “I Was”, nor yet “I Will Be”. Changeless in His character, the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus faithful and reliable. The same God who created the world good. The same God who went looking for Adam. The same God who saved Noah’s household because of his righteousness. The same God who would not sweep away the righteous with the guilty when destroying Sodom, who promised to spare the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous people.

Self-existent, without “I think, therefore…” The only One who exists simply because He exists, without reference to anything else. He alone is the fount of everything else that exists, because He alone is self-existent and not contingent on other things. He owes His existence to no thing; on the contrary, all things owe their existence to Him.

His self-existence implies All-Power, too. Limitless in His strength, the Creator of all things who was before all things. Not contingent on anything, He alone is the one who is in control. Nothing is beyond His reach, no act beyond His power, no sinner too far gone to save. Not mastered by anything, because He Himself depends on nothing.

The Compassionate and Gracious God

Full of grace and mercy. Giving fallen humans the good things they do not deserve and not giving them the bad things they do deserve.

Grace is, as Yancey says, the last best word. If we haven’t paid on time, sometimes there’s a “grace period” before punishment kicks in. In music, “grace notes” are special extra notes whose absence does not affect the tune but whose presence bring it alive. “Graceful” decribes beauty of motion and form. “Gracious” describes unwarranted kindness. “Gratitude” is the appropriate response when we are given something. We “say grace” before a meal to express thankfulness. Something “gratis” is not to be paid for.

Compassion and mercy are allied; two aspects of the same thing. Compassion has been defined as “seeing someone in need and wanting to help”. Mercy has been defined as not getting what you deserve. Giving someone a second chance. Withholding punishment out of love for the person. Mercy values people. Compassion sees a need – people are sinful and fallen – and wants to help. God has the desire as well as the power to do something about the human fallen condition.

These are, after His name, the first things God says about Himself. Along with His Divine power and eternal nature, this is the root from which it all stems.

He describes Himself as “the gracious and compassionate God” with good reason. The Ba’als and Ammons and Marduks of the ancient world weren’t gracious and compassionate. They were harsh and cruel. They were deities of vicious power, capricious and despotic, divine parodies of the horrific abuses of authority practised by the kings of the earth. Like their followers, they lorded it over their subjects and required grovelling obesiance. They could be bought off, but they never showed compassion, much less grace. Their help was always to be paid for.

How unlike our Lord! The gracious and compassionate God, who desires to help and will not be paid for it, because nothing we can offer Him will cover the cost. Who bears the price Himself, because He wants to.

Slow to anger

Not capricious and mercurial. Not dangerous and to be dreaded and feared, as if He will fly off into a rage over the slightest thing. Slow to get angry. Not quick to bring judgement, because He wants people to turn from their wickedness and gives every possible opportunity for them to do so.

A God who, though the all-powerful I AM, is in control of His temper. Who does not “lose it”. Who is not mastered by His anger or by anything else, but is in control of Himself. A God like this will not immediately whack off toes if they step out of line. It takes effort to bring Him to the point of executing judgement. Slow to anger, not easily provoked, not looking for an excuse to smite.

The gods of the nations were as capricious and easily angered as the elements – a Ba’al or a Chemosh who is slow to anger is a contradiction in terms. Only God can be rightly described as slow to anger, because only God is above the natural world and fully in control of Himself.

Abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness

Bestowing His favour lavishly, with an ocean-sized bucket rather than a medicine dropper. Not counting how much favour He’s giving you, as if there are invisible limits after which He has to stop giving. “Sorry; you just exceeded the recommended dosage of My favour” are words you will never hear from the Lord. He gives with abundance, because He Himself is without limitation. “His bountiful care what tongue can recite”. We see it in wildflowers scattered on a hillside at the back end of nowhere, beauty mostly unseen by the eyes of man. We see it in the rain, which falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and on the sea, which is already full of water. We see it in the sun’s boundless energy and light scattered on the entire surface of the earth and out into space where it serves no purpose at all. Limitless abundance.

And an abundance of what? Of favour. Of lovingkindness. Active tender care. Kindness stemming from love. Limitless goodness. As Rich Mullins put it: “And this Man of no reputation loves us all with relentless affection”.

Affection is a mild word, but we so misuse the word love sometimes that perhaps it’s better to avoid it. Relentless affection, kindness, wanting the best for others, wanting to bless and to do good for.

And unlike people, able to see exactly what real good and real blessing look like, because He is not blinded by sin and is limitless in wisdom. Not only does He have the desire to help us in our need for redemption, but more than that, He doesn’t stop there. There is no room in His character for a Redemption that stops with justification. He wants to bless, and to do so abundantly. He wants to go on and sanctify totally, to enable us to walk in His abundant favour, enjoying Him and in close, harmonious fellowship with Him. He wants to do us good, to satisfy our desires with good things. For no particular reason, just because. Not because we earn it or because we deserve it, but because He wants to. It’s who He is.

Maintaining love to thousands

Constant in His favour and love. Not just showing love once, but continuing to love. Reliable in His love, so that His people are not high in His favour one day and cast out the next, based on the unfathomable whims of an inscrutable Deity. When He says He loves you, it is not something that fluctuates with the seasons, nor even with our own righteousness. Firm, trustworthy, a Rock worth building your life on. His love can no more change than He can cease to be the I AM.

Maintaining love, not just to a select few, but to thousands. Multitudes. No-one can say “well, He loves you, but He couldn’t possibly love me”. In most ancient counting systems, thousands were the highest numbers they had. The Greeks and some others had myriads – ten-thousands – but a lot of cultures at this stage stopped with thousands. It’s also about the biggest number the human brain can really grasp effectively. Talking of thousands to whom the Lord continued to show love is using a multiple of the biggest number. It’s as if He’s saying “yes, even you.” No-one is excepted from being loved by the Lord.

Forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin

Because He is gracious and compassionate, because He is slow to anger, because He abounds with lovingkindness, and because He maintains love to thousands, He is forgiving. Forgiveness streams as naturally from His character as light from the sun.

Rebellion is the sin of willful disobedience. Rooted in pride, it will not humble itself and admit need or ask for help, but in its insanity assumes it knows best. Rebellion mistrusts the goodness of God, wanting instead to do its own thing and be its own arbiter. Contrary and stubborn, it will not yield, will not bow, will not obey, even when doing so is in its own obvious best interest. Perverse, it insists on its own way, will not take counsel, will not accept help, and will not bow the knee to the One who alone is worthy. And because it will not bow to true Authority, it creates false ones. Every tyranny on the planet is ultimately rebellious at heart. It’s no accident that with the sole exception of America, every rebellion or war of independence ever fought has turned almost immediately to despotism. It’s the spirit of rebellion.

Iniquity is impurity. Rejecting the pure and holy and craving the depraved and impure, it’s the dark, self-destroying impulse that wants what it wants, dammit, no matter that it is poison. Expressed in everything from sexual licentiousness and porn to gluttony, selfish ambition and abusive domination, it describes the fallen condition that takes drugs knowing that they will kill, which craves its own ruin and hates that which is pure.

Between them, they pretty much cover the bases of human depravity. But just in case we can come up with a reason why our sin is unforgiveable, He also states that He forgives “sin”, without categorization or modifying adjective.

It’s not because we deserve it. If we deserved to be forgiven we would not need it. He forgives because of who He is. Because if He did not, He would no longer be the gracious and compassionate God. He does it because He Is Who He Is.

Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished

And only after His goodness, grace, mercy and forgiveness have been firmly fixed in our minds does He begin to talk about His justice. He doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished.

Grace and mercy cannot exist without justice. Unjust grace is not grace; cannot be grace. Unjust mercy is equally oxymoronic. Without the context of righteous justice, grace and mercy are random chance, not deliberate goodness.

God does not overlook sin; He deals with it. He doesn’t treat the wound of His people as though it is not serious, papering over our inward depravity with little legalisms and obediences. Evil has consequences, both for those who are sinners and those who are sinned against. God cannot be good and allow us to continue in sin; that’s not forgiveness, it’s being an enabler.

He loves us; He’s gracious and compassionate, slow to get angry and lavish in the desire to bless. And so He must deal with sin. Papering over the cracks isn’t going to cut it. If He doesn’t root out the sin itself, we just go on harming ourselves and others. Grace and compassion for the sinned-against as well as justice compels Him to not overlook sin.

So because He is the gracious and compassionate God, He pays the price for us. Not because we deserve it, but because He wants to. Because as well as having the desire to help – compassion – He’s the only one who also has the power. As the old hymn puts it: “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heav’n and let us in”. Others might have had the compassion, but God alone was the All-Powerful I AM who could actually do something about the problem.

If we in our fallenness treat “failure to stop and render aid” as a criminal offence, how much less can God stand by while we suffer in our sin, knowing that He alone has the power to help?

visiting the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation

Even in His preliminary dealing with sin via the first covenant, He sets limits on how far sin can go. Only to the third and fourth generation, not forever. Some people have read this as “punishing the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation”. God denies this specifically in Ezekiel 18, then later Jesus Himself kicks the supports out from under this idea; all those wrong-end-of-stick questions about “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” are decisively set aside by the Lord Jesus as totally wrongheaded. This difficult-to-understand verse, then, must mean something else. But what?

People live in families, and traits are passed down. Sons are like their fathers, and daughters like their mothers. If we’re not very careful to choose different courses, we reproduce in our own lives what was modeled for us by our parents. Therefore, part of the consequence of sin plays out in the lives of our offspring. Not because of some bio-spiritual law of inheritance, but because that’s how families are. If I have the sin of unrighteous anger, and I sow to that in my dealings with my children, I will reap from them unrighteous anger in return. To put it another way, part of the consequence of your sin is that you have to live in a family that does it back to you. This is almost the Divine equivalent of rubbing the dog’s nose in its business when you are training it to use a litter box.

But even in His punishment of sin, our Lord sets limits. He will not visit the sins of the fathers on their children down through all the generations. We are not spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our unknown 12th-Century ancestors. We are not even spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our immediate forebears. Sin has consequences, and God is not going to let us get away with it. But there is no fatalism that forces us to follow in the ways of our ancestors. Fatalism is for Muslims. We are followers of Christ.

Notice, too, that this doesn’t appear until way down the list. Normally the things first mentioned in a list are considered the most important; in this case, grace and compassion. This is in accordance with the rest of Scripture: “Mercy triumphs over judgement” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Yet there are consequences for sin, and God is not an enabler either. Sin cannot be permitted to endure forever. He will deal with it, because that, too, is who He is.

When I Survey

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.

We’re familiar with the hymn. But it’s easy to mouth words without thinking about them.

I was personally struck by the words while at work the other day, because I got to play at being a surveyor.

I work in construction, but on the survey type end of things. However, most of the time I don’t get to go off and measure and store point locations for stuff like property corners, and it’s kind of fun.

Now, I know this isn’t technically what it means by “when I survey”, but bear with me.

Surveying is a profession that depends absolutely on precise and accurate measurement and precise and accurate record-keeping.

If you’re a surveyor, it’s in no wise good enough to say “the property line runs along the treeline”. Nor even “the centre of the road”. A line of trees may be planted along the property line, but the actual line is defined not by tree lines, but by the relationship of an absolute boundary to the iron rods or posts or markers that are used to delineate it.

Because money is often involved with precisely where the boundary runs, you have to measure accurately.

Once, the centre-line of the road may have defined the boundary. But the off-the-beaten-track asphalt roads that are often meant can shift over time, pressed by the wheels of countless vehicles. I’ve seen “centre-line of road” buried iron rods three quarters of the way to the outside edge.

Precise observations and precise records are vital. The records tell you where to look and what you ought to find; the observations tell you what’s there.

It occurs to me that this might be an interesting metaphor for gazing upon the cross, like in the words of the song.

It may not be enough to just glance at the cross. To vaguely say that Jesus died for our sins.

Sometimes, we need to be more detailed in our examination. To really look at the cross, take in its detail, imprint its wonder and mercy on our hearts.

We have the record. The Bible accounts written by those who were there; who saw with their own eyes. People have repeatedly challenged the authenticity and accuracy of these accounts and come up short. People have claimed that the record has been altered, or that it was made up. But if you want to claim that, you have to deal with the amount of attested, accurate historical detail that the Bible records, and the sheer volume of manuscript evidence. We’re not looking at a situation like with the Qur’an, in which the fourth Caliph decided what the authentic Qur’an should look like and burned all deviant manuscripts. We have the scribal errors; the transposition of letters and misspellings. 99.9% of the errors do not affect meaning one way or the other; the few remaining do not materially affect the overall message.

We can say with a high level of confidence that we have accurate records.

But all the records in the world won’t tell you where your property line runs in the actual world of fields and forests.

In order to do that, you have to take your records and study them, and then go out into the real world and see if what actually exists matches the records.

Again, this is something which we can have a fairly high level of confidence in. Giving proper regard to genre – not trying to treat a poetic passage of Scripture as accurate history, for instance – and with due regard to the limitations of understanding in the times in which it was written, the Bible record matches a lot of what we know about the world.

We observe that people do bad things. Even the best of us make mistakes. No-one acts with perfect love all the time. This accords with what the Bible says that we ought to see.

When faced with the cross, we don’t have a reason for pride before God. The highest expressions of human justice, philosophy and religion all conspiring to take the life of the sinless Son of Man.

Jesus was without sin. He always acted in perfect love. If we’re going to do it ourselves, that’s what a holy God requires. Sin hurts people that God loves; He’s not willing to stand by and just overlook it.

But the cross isn’t just a miscarriage of justice; it’s an act of salvation. He died for us; an atoning sacrifice for sins.

And God is pleased to look on Jesus’ sacrifice and declare me righteous.

Where is pride? I don’t deserve it. I don’t act with perfect love all the time. No; but God is “the Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God; slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and faithfulness; maintaining love to thousands and forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin“.

Even if I’m a pretty good person by human standards, I have no cause for pride. I’m not doing anything extra; I’m not even doing all that God really wants. It’s like a pickpocket demanding to be let off because when they picked a man’s pockets they didn’t also knife him.

But the wonder of the cross is that God in His justice and mercy toward those that sin is hurting is willing to die to make an end of it and release those held captive by it.

That’s worth a closer examination.

Mercy (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.


The qualities of courtesy and mercy go together. The idea of courtesy can also be expressed as graciousness, being full of grace, and grace and mercy together are the two primary character attributes of God.

I am, however, for the purposes of this series unifying the virtues of justice and mercy, which is a little less immediately obvious.

I’ve blogged before on the subject of justice and mercy, and much of what I’ve already said is also applicable here. However, this series comes at the subject from a slightly different angle, so it may be worth reiterating.

As a knightly virtue, what is mercy? And what is justice? The chivalric vows of the Song of Roland include vows “to fight for the welfare of all”, “to give succour to widows and orphans”, “to protect the weak and defenceless” and “to eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit”. All of these vows could realistically be viewed through a lens of either mercy or justice; in practical terms, the chivalric outworking of mercy and justice is identical.

In short, showing mercy means fighting for justice. In the situation of an offence, compassion for both victim and perpetrator means we want to see justice done. Justice, not revenge: vengeance is not ours to grasp, but rests with the Lord as the ultimate Sovereign and the only One with all of the facts. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a step forward in terms of justice, setting forth the idea of punitive balance and limiting the sentence to the equivalence of the crime. Even today, we look at some sentences and decry them as unreasonably harsh.

But at the same time, showing mercy for a victim means fighting for justice for them. Protecting the weak and defenceless; those who cannot protect themselves.

In chivalric terms, justice and mercy run together as the constraint on our strength. Might is to be used in the service of Right, whether our “might” is literal physical strength or economic muscle or popularity and persuasiveness or positional authority.

This is what separates the knight from the bully. Bullies use their strength in no-one’s service but their own, to cow, terrorise and dominate. We can see the bullies in all walks of life – physical bullies, emotional bullies, economic bullies, political bullies, authoritarians and petty despots…

Fighting against these doesn’t always involve fists. In fact, in most cases that’s the least desirable option. But mercy requires that unrighteousness be opposed.

This is how God can be a God of love and a God of wrath. Evil really is evil, and mercy means doing what is in your power to end the suffering it causes.

In Divine terms, making a final end of evil will be so final that only righteousness will endure. And we none of us measure up to that absolute standard. In the wisdom of God, there’s a way through the apparently irreconcilable imperatives of love for humanity and anger against the hurt caused by evil. We can be brought to the side of righteousness.

Mercy and justice both are the outworking of love and compassion. Seeing a need (widows and orphans, the weak and defenceless) and taking steps to do something about it. Standing up for those who cannot do so. Doing good to those that need it.

Legend has a name for those warriors who embody all of the knightly qualities but this one: the Black Knight. Of dauntless courage, courteous, loyal to his liege and even possessed of a towering integrity, the Black Knight is nonetheless black-hearted and evil, a symbol of warrior virtue gone wrong, because they have no mercy in them and are contemptuous of weakness. Let us not go there, but rather, use the symbol of the Black Knight as a lesson in the importance of this virtue. Because anyone can be brave, but it takes a truly strong person to show mercy.

In the planetary terms of my Mediæval cosmological symbol scheme, Mercy is of course associated with Venus. In the planetary symbology of the Middle Ages, Venus and Mars stood for the feminine and masculine archetypes. A legacy of this is the use of the planetary symbols of those planets to represent male and female in biological texts. Indeed, that association has become the norm, and many have probably forgotten their origins as planetary symbols.

Interestingly, though, we as Christians often seem to want to feminise mercy. Spiritual gift inventories are particularly prone to this in my experience, which can often leave men who score highly in mercy feeling somewhat uncertain or disappointed.

Mercy need not be entirely feminine, however, any more than courage need be entirely masculine. The Scripture is full of both courageous women and merciful men.

We shouldn’t be in the situation where we have to rescue the manly qualities of mercy or detail what a masculine mercy looks like, but somehow we appear to be there anyway. For the record; nowhere does the Scripture indicate that any of the spiritual gifts are segregated by gender, least of all mercy. Perhaps we could do with letting go of our Christian cultural gender expectations a little and not trying to second-guess the Almighty Giver of Gifts in what He is doing.

If this post can broaden a few minds as to what mercy might look like, then my job here is done.

The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction)

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I have a deep-seated love of the ideals of knighthood. Elsewhere I’ve half-jokingly said that I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body of a 21st-Century nerd.

I like the idea of chivalry, in its full original sense combining valour and courtesy in a single system. My concept of manhood is largely tied to the knightly ideal.

It occurred to me that I might have a look at the chivalric virtues and how we might apply them today, in the post-modern world of cynicism and mistrust.

Why do this? Isn’t the whole idea of chivalry rather sexist? Not to mention antithetical to the ideals of democracy and capitalism. Why waste time on such a Quixotic project?

I’ll admit that this is largely for my own benefit. In choosing to cleave to the ideals of knighthood, it behooves me to have a clear sense of what I’m aiming at. But I have had vague thoughts for a while now on the notion of seeing if I could work out some kind of teaching for children, and probably in particular boys, based on the chivalric virtues. Tilting at windmills is not part of the plan.

The allegation of sexism is more serious. I’d argue that it’s applicable to the debased form of patronising courtesty that the word “chivalry” has come to mean rather than what I have in mind. I’d have no problem with the idea of a woman choosing to live by this sort of code without sacrificing her femininity. The Middle Ages even had a term for such a one, coming to the age from the Vikings: the “shield-maiden“. Arwen Evenstar in Lord of the Rings, or Guinevere riding out with spear and shield to rescue the young Arthur is a good example of the type: not an Amazon (in Greek, literally “without breasts”) – a woman who sacrifices femininity for valour – nor a damsel in distress, but balancing femininity with chivalric honour.

I’d argue that our ideas of “strong” and “weak” have changed enough that women are no longer automatically to be viewed as “weak” and in need of a (male) rescuer.

Firstly though, of course, we need to define which virtues we mean. At this temporal distance, it’s hard to tell whether something is authentically one of the Mediæval chivalric virtues or whether it’s a modern anachronism that happens to look good. No doubt they will need some updating (as above, for example), but if we’re going to do this, we should do it properly and start with an authentic list.

Is there such a thing?

Investigation reveals that there are numerous lists of chivalric virtues compiled by different authors, and that they vary considerably. The Chanson de Roland (or “Song of Roland”), one of the definitive works of chivalric literature from the period, lists seventeen vows that the knight Roland makes, forming the core of chivalry as it was understood.

But seventeen is an awfully big and particularly unsymbolic number. Can we distill them down to a more manageable and memorable list of virtues?

Other contemporaries certainly did so. Some list as many as twelve chivalric virtues, others nine or seven, others as few as four.

There being no single definitive list, it seems I can use my own judgement. Trust the soul of the knight within, as it were.

The seventeen vows of the knight Roland were as follows:

  • To fear God & maintain His church

  • To serve the liege lord in valour & faith

  • To protect the weak & defenceless

  • To give succour to widows & orphans

  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence

  • To live by honour & for glory

  • To despise pecuniary reward

  • To fight for the welfare of all

  • To obey those placed in authority

  • To guard the honour of fellow knights

  • To eschew unfairness, meanness & deceit

  • To keep faith

  • At all times to speak the truth

  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun

  • To respect the honour of women

  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal

  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

By a process of comparing these vows with other existing lists of chivalric virtues, I have distilled it down to the following list. I should note that this is not a definitive list, because such does not exist. It’s my personal list, and you are welcome to take it or leave it.

  1. Courage

  2. Faith

  3. Mercy

  4. Justice

  5. Largesse

  6. Courtesy

  7. Fealty

There. The astute reader may be surprised at a list of chivalric virtues that does not include the most basic knightly quality of honour, but it appears to me that honour is so inextricably tied to so many of these other virtues that I would contend that the virtue of Honour arises from all of the other virtues together, or itself gives rise to them all. The chivalric virtues, then, describe what honour looks like.

I plan to take a series of posts, probably intermittently, and look at each one of the virtues invividually, but in this overview, some idea ought to be given of the scope of each one. Meanings are not always obvious, and I’m deliberately using some words anachronistically rather than in their modern shades of meaning.

This, then, is how I understand these named qualities:

Courage is one of the more readily understood qualities, including not only physical bravery against material threats but also moral courage, the willingness to stand up for what is right even if no-one else is and the willingness to face up to an uncomfortable truth. Its opposite qualities are not only cowardice but bravado – making a show of boldness to hide one’s true fear.

Faith, on the other hand, has a considerably broader meaning than our modern usage would suggest. Faith to us implies first and foremost the idea of religious feeling. Belief in God. In Mediæval thought, however, it’s not belief alone but trust which is at the heart of the idea of faith. An individual of faith not only exhibits an active trust in God, but shows trustworthiness and trusts those who merit it. He or she gives the benefit of the doubt, though is not blind to the fact that some are indeed faithless. She or he keeps their word and acts with integrity.

Mercy covers Roland’s vows of protecting the weak and defenceless, giving succour to widows and orphans, and fighting for the welfare of all. In the words of one definition, mercy is “seeing a need and wanting to help”. And then being moved by that desire into action.

Justice covers a lot of familiar ground, just like courage. It’s tied to faith in its Mediæval sense – acting with integrity and righteousness – but goes beyond, into the idea of proactive standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

Largesse is a deliberately old-fashioned word. It’s mostly the same as generosity, but it goes beyond that idea. It’s tied to magnanimity and graciousness as well as generosity, and is the opposite of covetousness and avarice. In Roland’s vows, the idea of despising pecuniary reward – doing things not for payment but because they are the right thing to do – encompasses the notion of largesse.

Courtesy is the most similar to what most people think of when they hear the word “chivalry”. However, I am not meaning an empty formalism or condescension, but an attitude of consideration and restraint. The knight Roland’s vows to respect the honour of women – particularly needed in light of #Yesallwomen – and to refrain from the wanton giving of offence encapsulate the idea. We do not go out of our way to offend people, similar to the Biblical injunction not to put any stumbling-block in anyone’s way.

Fealty is another Mediæval word, like largesse, involving respect for authority and knowing one’s place in the order of things. I am expanding it here to include the related idea of humility as expressed in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” It goes downwards as well as upwards, tying the one in authority to the one under authority as surely as the other way around. In modern terms, it’s expressed in the ideas of loyalty and allegiance, acknowledgement that you are part of something greater than yourself, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Seven virtues, which if I wanted to be really Mediæval I could tie in to the characters of the seven Mediæval planets: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But while several of them are easy – Courage would go with Mars and Fealty with Jupiter, for example – other relationships are not so clear. So perhaps I won’t.


Edit: It occurred to me some time after publishing this that if I combined the virtues of Mercy and Justice (weird on the face of it, but see here), and separated Humility out from Fealty, that I could get a one-to-one correspondence between the Mediæval planets and my list of chivalric virtues. Which makes a nice (and very appropriate for the time period) secondary symbolic framework to hang this list on, so I might tweak my list enough to do that.

The revised list, with its planetary correspondences, would be as follows:

  1. Faith – Luna

  2. Courtesy – Mercury

  3. Mercy – Venus

  4. Largesse – Sol

  5. Courage – Mars

  6. Fealty – Jupiter

  7. Humility – Saturn

I will explain these correspondences more over the course of this series.

God of Justice, God of Mercy

As Christians and simply as people, we often want to set the qualities of justice and mercy in opposition to one another. Justice is defined as “getting what you deserve”. It’s associated with law, punishment and retribution. Our personification of her is shown as blindfolded and wielding a sword, the implication being that she doesn’t care who she wounds. Justice is often thought of as hard, unfeeling, even callous.

Mercy, on the other hand, is defined as “not getting what you deserve”. It’s often thought of as tender, caring, concerned for people, the epitome of love and kindness. Soft-hearted, associated with restoration and second chances. We often think of them as polar opposites, and a lot of the time we like mercy a lot better than we like justice.

What I want to do in this post is examine them as two sides of the same coin. I want to show that, far from opposing one another, the two ideas actually support and underpin one another. God is a God of justice and of mercy. In this post I want to look at some of why He must be both.

Mercy, “not getting what you deserve”, presumes the idea of justice. Absent from a context of justice in which you generally get what you deserve, not getting what you deserve just becomes random chance. There’s no guarantee of acquittal for the innocent or punishment for the guilty; it’s just a roll of the dice. However the judge is feeling that day. Power to the strong. Whatever happens, happens; nothing can or should be done about it. Que sera, sera. No justice. In this context, there can be no mercy, because mercy represents a deliberate choosing to set aside the punishment required by law. It becomes meaningless to say that we receive mercy, because no-one gets what they deserve.

As I write this, I am realising how much fatalism denies the idea of justice, and more of why I hate fatalism. Fatalism says that whatever happens is the Will of God, Fate, Makhtub, Kismet. In this thinking, everything that happens is what ought to happen, because God has willed it. You can’t fight the Will of God; all you can do is knuckle under to the circumstances and “submit” to it. Yes, Islam, I’m looking at you.

The problem is that we live in a fallen world in which people can and do act evilly. Men oppress one another, steal from one another, commit murders and rapes and all sorts of other crimes. If everything that happens is Fate, then nothing ought to be done about this. It’s already written. It’s God’s Will. You can’t fight Fate.

What kind of monster is this God? Certainly not the God of the Bible, Who “does not leave the guilty unpunished”. God’s justice is as fundamental to His character as His mercy. The fact that we crave justice, want to see it done, get offended when it is not seen to be done, points to the existence of justice as a fundamental idea. My father-in-law often gets riled at British police dramas on TV, because they have a tendency toward producing situations where justice cannot be done, for whatever reason. A thorough-going devotee of the idea of justice, this offends him. It ought to. That’s the point. The screenwriters are deliberately playing on the latent desire to see justice done in order to produce a righteous anger at injustice.

But this idea of justice is not as incompatible with mercy as we are sometimes led to believe. Justice without mercy is pretty unpleasant: harsh, cruel and unconcerned with anything beyond a blind dishing-out of consequences. A blindfolded woman swinging a sword indiscriminately. It’s just as fatalistic in its own way. What goes around, comes around. If bad things happen to you it’s your fault. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Karma. Yes, Hinduism, I’m looking at you.

Mercy has also been defined as the outworking of compassion. Seeing someone in need and wanting to help. Without mercy, justice is reduced to a terrifying set of scales in which we are all weighed in the balance and found wanting. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. And another eye, and another eye, until we are all blind and toothless. Without mercy for the victim, how can justice truly be just? Without an acknowledgment that there might be mitigating circumstances, all we are left with is a blind cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance.

Justice untempered by mercy actually becomes unjust, in other words. It cannot exist on its own; the cycle of vengeance is not true justice but a parody. The cycle of Karma is not true justice but a parody. Mercy underpins justice as much as justice underpins mercy. Compassion is the foundation of both; they are two sides of the same coin. God cannot be the God of either unless He is the God of both.

What I’m really glad about is that “Mercy triumphs over judgment”. Mercy includes the capacity to set aside retribution for the sake of compassion. Not a denial of justice, but a setting aside of punishment. Because justice as well as mercy is an outworking of compassion, God has to be both just and merciful. Compassion sees both sinner and sinned-against with love, and finds a way to do right by both. Not minimising the extent of the wrongdoing and thus being unjust and hard-hearted toward the victim, but not denying the intrinsic value of the sinner either, for that shows a lack of compassion and opens the door to the blind injustice of the cycles of vengeance. God’s compassion on sinful humanity finds a way to satisfy justice and pardon the sinner, not papering over evil or denying its true effects, but acknowledging the full depths of the problem and actually doing something about it. In this run-up to Easter, I’m reminded that the Cross is a demonstration of justice as well as mercy. Sin gets what it deserves, but there is mercy for the sinner. And one cannot exist without the other.

God must be both just and merciful. Otherwise, He is neither.

Who God Says He Is, part 1

In Exodus 34, God passes before Moses and proclaims His name. This is the first time since the pre-Fallen Adam that a human being has seen God without veil of disguise or vision, which makes it an incredibly significant event. What God says here in connection with this is key to our understanding of His nature and character.
In essence, this is the clearest single statement we have of who God says He is. If we get this wrong, we will have a distorted image of God, which will skew our understanding of the Scriptures, of who we are and of what He has called us to.
Who, then, is our God?

YHWH, YHWH
The eternal Name of God. The Great I AM, as He revealed Himself to Moses. Eternal, without “I Was”, nor yet “I Will Be”. Changeless in His character, the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus faithful and reliable. The same God who created the world good. The same God who went looking for Adam. The same God who saved Noah’s household because of his righteousness. The same God who would not sweep away the righteous with the guilty when destroying Sodom, who promised to spare the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous people.
Self-existent, without “I think, therefore…” The only One who exists simply because He exists, without reference to anything else. He alone is the fount of everything else that exists, because He alone is self-existent and not contingent on other things. He owes His existence to no thing; on the contrary, all things owe their existence to Him.
His self-existence implies All-Power, too. Limitless in His strength, the Creator of all things who was before all things. Not contingent on anything, He alone is the one who is in control. Nothing is beyond His reach, no act beyond His power, no sinner too far gone to save. Not mastered by anything, because He Himself depends on nothing.

The Compassionate and Gracious God
Full of grace and mercy. Giving fallen humans the good things they do not deserve and not giving them the bad things they do deserve.
Grace is, as Yancey says, the last best word. If we haven’t paid on time, sometimes there’s a “grace period” before punishment kicks in. In music, “grace notes” are special extra notes whose absence does not affect the tune but whose presence bring it alive. “Graceful” decribes beauty of motion and form. “Gracious” describes unwarranted kindness. “Gratitude” is the appropriate response when we are given something. We “say grace” before a meal to express thankfulness. Something “gratis” is not to be paid for.
Compassion and mercy are allied; two aspects of the same thing. Compassion has been defined as “seeing someone in need and wanting to help”. Mercy has been defined as not getting what you deserve. Giving someone a second chance. Withholding punishment out of love for the person. Mercy values people. Compassion sees a need – people are sinful and fallen – and wants to help. God has the desire as well as the power to do something about the human fallen condition.
These are, after His name, the first things God says about Himself. Along with His Divine power and eternal nature, this is the root from which it all stems.
He describes Himself as “the gracious and compassionate God” with good reason. The Ba’als and Ammons and Marduks of the ancient world weren’t gracious and compassionate. They were harsh and cruel. They were deities of vicious power, capricious and despotic, divine parodies of the horrific abuses of authority practised by the kings of the earth. Like their followers, they lorded it over their subjects and required grovelling obesiance. They could be bought off, but they never showed compassion, much less grace. Their help was always to be paid for.
How unlike our Lord! The gracious and compassionate God, who desires to help and will not be paid for it, because nothing we can offer Him will cover the cost. Who bears the price Himself, because He wants to.