A Whimsical Dictionary: L is for Lydia

A Whimsical Dictionary: L is for Lydia

A Whimsical Dictionary of Surprising Influences.

L is for Lydia –

A hero of the Faith; her story in found in Acts 16. She was the first European convert to Christianity, and Paul’s first convert in Philippi in Greek Asia Minor.

Lydia was unusual in many ways: an apparently wealthy single woman (or perhaps a widow) who owned a business selling purple dye for textiles and clothing; she owned her own house full of servants; she seemed to answer to no man; she was given to hospitality and caring for strangers. Lydia is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and has had many icons painted of her. There is a church in Philippi to this day built in her honor, and even a baptismal font established where she and her household were reportedly baptized.

The brief snapshot we get of St. Lydia reveals one of the most interesting mysteries of Scripture. In Acts 16:14 are the words “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” What does that mean? Did the Lord open her heart, or did she open her own heart? Or was there a mysterious cooperation of the two? God is all-powerful, so one could imagine He could have done the opening. On the other hand, we are made in the image of God, which includes the idea of free will. So did Lydia have a choice in the matter? Was the opening of Lydia’s heart involuntary, or was it voluntary? I say, the answer is yes, both.

On the one hand, Exodus 10:20 tells us the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. On the other hand, Exodus 8:32 tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. On the one hand, Romans 9:18 tells us that the Lord hardens hearts. On the other hand, we are warned in Hebrews 3:8 (and elsewhere many times), not to harden our hearts. Is the hardening and softening of our hearts to God and His truth a matter of our choosing, or God’s omnipotence, or what?

In Lydia’s case, perhaps she took the initial first step… “She was a worshiper of God.” (Acts 16:14). It’s clear that Lydia was a Greek Gentile who was a God-fearer before she met Paul, someone who was attracted to Judaism, but perhaps not a full¬†convert as yet. And by the time she heard about Jesus, she had a heart softened to the truth and ready to respond to God’s nudging, which could have been the second first step.

This is a mystery that we can’t solve, nor should we have to. We can trust God that He wants everyone to believe, but also that He won’t violate out freedom, the dignity of being human. Let’s leave it at that for the time being. We can live in the mystery and trust God’s mercy. Think Jewish. On the one hand this, on the other hand that.

I love this vignette in Fiddler on the Roof:

Mendel: And where are you from?

Perchik: Kiev. I was a student in the university there.

Mordcha: Aha! The university. Is that where you learned to criticize your elders?

Perchik: That’s where I learned that there is more to life than talk. You should know what’s going on in the outside world.

Mordcha: Why should I break my head about the outside world? Let them break their own heads.

Tevya: He’s right. As the Good Book says, “If you spit in the air, it lands in your face.”

Perchik: That’s nonsense. You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in the world.

Tevya: He’s right.

Avram: He’s right and he’s right? How can they both be right?

Tevya: You know, you’re also right.

So many so-called theological squabbles are like that. Intramural disagreements need not be something that fractures the Christian community. Free will, which seems obvious to me, may not be as obvious to others, which is fine,¬†and should not be allowed to be a divisive point in the Church. Like so many in-house arguments, neither side should self-righteously claim to be on the one true side. To be smug or judgmental about God’s ways seem ridiculous. Concerning a mystery like this, we have to finally say that we could be wrong, or maybe half-right.

Let’s leave the final word to St. Augustine: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”