“The local body of believers is God’s kingdom work. We don’t do that work; we are that work! God is building a kingdom, Jesus is the cornerstone, and his people are the building.” – John C. Nugent, Endangered Gospel
Every Christian has to decide how he best can serve God. On this point he will most likely receive plenty of advice from friends, family and the world in general. One particular source of “advice” will surely be the enemy of his soul – Satan. Satan is not asleep or incompetent as some may imagine. His attacks are continuous, persistent and philosophical. For the Believer, these attacks consist mainly of arguments aimed at softening the demands of the Gospel resulting in an ineffectual or counterfeit Christian life.
Satan’s normal mode of attack is not to give us an illness or cause us to have a car accident. Often, these are simply the consequences of living in a fallen world. Instead, Satan insidiously tries to influence our worldview. In other words, he pressures us to adopt a way of thinking about life that will ultimately hinder God’s kingdom and advance his. The arguments he uses in favor of a less devoted life are subtle. They have a ring of truth to them and appeal to the pleasures and passions of humanity. They are presented to the Christian regularly and insistently. The Bible says the accuser of the brethren is at work day and night.1 In order to defeat the lies of the enemy we must examine these arguments and expose them for the forgery they are.
It is true that God loves every Christian as he is and seeks to work with him at his own level of maturity. Therefore, we should be careful about judging others or putting too heavy a burden on them. God’s work, however, will not get done by the passive or selfish. God’s kingdom is about a new people who live for the welfare and blessing of all. The passive and selfish partake in a value system that is alien to Christianity. It is unlikely that God’s objectives can be furthered by these kind of individuals.
Additionally, it is right to say that God desires the Christian to prosper and find blessing in his life. The devoted life, however, will often lead to difficulty and lack. But nowhere do we find Jesus equating material wealth, ease and personal fulfillment with the mission of His kingdom. Jesus said Himself that He came not to be served but to serve and give His life a ransom for many.2 God is not interested in promoting the individualistic ambitions of people, but in creating a community of love and kindness.3
Still, God is a big God and He has individuals who serve Him in a variety of circumstances and lifestyles that are equally valid and important to His kingdom. A life totally laid down for God may seem to some like a narrow and barren existence. Nevertheless, goals of great value universally require enormous effort and great sacrifice. The most common money scam works by appealing to people who want to believe that a lot of money can be made with little or no labor. In the same way, it is easy to find professing Christians who want to believe that the rewards of the Gospel can be obtained without self-denial.
But what does it matter, some may ask, when everyone who loves God will make it to heaven anyway? If I pursue many comforts in this life and end up in heaven, and you live a life of self-denial and end up in heaven, does it not make more sense for you to instead enjoy as many amenities as possible in life since we are both going to make it to heaven regardless? The problem with this argument, however, is that it reveals a dark motive. A true Christian serves God and makes sacrifices because he actually loves the kingdom of God and it is no cost to him to do whatever is necessary to see it prosper. False Christians serve God “as the sick man takes his medicine, because they desire its effects, and they know they must have it or perish. It is a task that they never would do for its own sake.”4 Someone who measures duty and sacrifice for God in this manner must evaluate of which kingdom he really is.5
Undoubtedly, one can think of individuals who do much good with their lives while still pursuing what appears to be the American dream. Is this not proof that devotion is really not necessary? The fact remains that it is quite easy to give out of our abundance. When the cost to self is minimal, people freely give. But as Jesus taught us, it is the one who gives out of her lack who is really the person who bestows the valuable gift.6
It is not during times of peace that our strength is tested. During daily life your muscles may seem to perform quite adequately. It is during an emergency or when you face a difficult challenge that you will discover if you have the strength needed to rise to the occasion. It is only the devoted who, in a time of tribulation, will make the hard choices necessary to further God’s kingdom and stand up for righteousness. A modern example is the ten Boom family, who hid Jews in their home during World War II knowing that it would threaten their comfortable lifestyle and possibly cost them their lives, which it did. As God said to Jeremiah, “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?”7
It is arrogant and foolish to presume we know how God will judge others. If we use other people as our standard of devotion, we will most likely be in for the shock of our lives. Man looks on the outside, but God looks at the heart.9 Only He knows what is truly happening in the minds of people. And His opinion is all that matters.10
Satan seeks to domesticate us. Like taming an animal, he desires to weaken our will and dampen our passion. He tells us that the stories of saints are good quiet time reading, but impractical to actually live out. He convinces us that the narrow way isn’t as narrow as we thought. The conditions for a relationship with God, he tells us, will require less of us not more, and his persistent suggestions do not lead us toward something more spiritual. His efforts to castrate us, if successful, will subdue our zeal and prevent us from ever reproducing.
Scriptures say that without vision the people perish and that if one’s eye is evil his whole body will be full of darkness.11 If our focus is primarily on our own blessing and welfare, not only are we chasing after a wrong and unworthy goal, eventually the results of our pursuit will be our own demise. Happiness cannot be found by aiming at it. It is only found by doing something that is truly meaningful or valuable. Our own happiness alone is not important enough to make us happy, but the happiness of others and the establishment of the kingdom of God is, and Satan knows that.
1. Revelation 12:10
2. Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45
3. Matthew 5-7; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:18-21
4. True and False Conversion, Charles Finney
5. 2 Corinthians 13:5
6. Mark 12:41-44
7. Jeremiah 12:5
8. Numbers 13:32 KJV
9. 1 Samuel 16:7
10. Hebrews 10:30-31
11. Proverbs 29:18; Matthew 6:23
Imagine three scenarios:
Follow the Leader?
A Christian businessman makes room in his crowded schedule to meet with colleagues at a local restaurant. Waiting at a table set for six persons, the clock makes it plain that he will be eating alone. Text messages and emails trickle in from each of the business leaders excusing themselves because of “things” that have come up, none of them emergencies and all of them easily dealt with by advanced planning.
A mother of three corrals the kids to the doctor because the youngest has a bad sinus infection. She mechanically hands the receptionist her insurance card and takes a seat to begin the juggling act of comforting and entertaining her flock.
Minutes later she is called back to the window to find out to her embarrassment and horror that her policy is suspended due to a missed premium payment. In a flurry of phone calls and purse rummaging she discovers that she made the payment but her check bounced. Collecting the scattered pile of receipts and notes off the waiting room floor she just can’t understand how this happened even as her conscience whispers quietly, “Budgeting.”
A twenty-something Christian attends a discipleship conference with a well-known and respected speaker giving the keynote address. During the question and answer time this ardent believer makes his way to the microphone to ask his urgent question.
Addressing the speaker by his first name, he inquires about the teacher’s failures and how they might contradict what he just taught. Hungry to find victory in his own life, he assumes that others share his experience of defeat. Confusion and bewilderment wash over him as he senses hostility from the crowd around him and the look of offense on the speaker’s face.
Evil Is Present In Me
In all of these cases the characters have committed their lives to Christ and try very hard to be good Christians. They find themselves, however, often betrayed by their own habits and attitudes, leading to relationship conflicts, emotional upsets, and even sin. Their hearts are saved, but their bodies haven’t caught up. They want to do good, but end up doing the very thing they hate (Romans 7:19).
Having a transforming encounter with God should make us to be the virtuous people the bible speaks about. And indeed it does, but when we reduce that transforming encounter to a discrete inward experience we rob the gospel of its deep meaning. Our hearts must be infused with divine life, but so must our bodies.
Likewise, sin can’t be fully understood as simply bad choices. Sin is a much more comprehensive condition that alienates us from God and man. Richard Foster explains:
“We are accustomed to thinking of sin as individual acts of disobedience to God. This is true enough as far as it goes, but Scripture goes much further. In Romans the apostle Paul frequently refers to sin as a condition that plagues the human race (i.e., Rom. 3:9–18). Sin as a condition works its way out through the ‘bodily members,’ that is, the ingrained habits of the body (Rom. 7:5ff.). And there is no slavery that can compare to the slavery of ingrained habits of sin.”
Slavery and Grace
The slavery of the body to sin must be dealt with just as the slavery of the will to sin in order to be free. The grace of God enables us to change our ultimate intention from living for self to living for God, and that grace will enable us to tame the bodily habits of sin as well. In both cases, it’s by grace, but it requires our participation.
Our ultimate intention (heart) is changed when we allow the love of God to shine on our selfishness and expose the wretchedness of our lives. In repentance and faith we come to know His goodness and cleansing. Our sinful habits (bodies) are changed when we allow the love of God to order our patterns of living and shape our routines opening us up to experiencing God’s authority and blessing.
We need the grace of God for both our hearts and our bodies. But that grace must be cooperated with. For our inward transformation that means engaging in honesty. For our outward transformation that means engaging in the spiritual disciplines. Without both, we will not become the people of God the scriptures speak about.
Is Your Body Saved?
Is your body saved? That sounds odd. If I was asked if my soul was saved I would understand what was being asked (while taking exception to framing it that way). But bringing the body into it introduces all kinds of confusion.
Christianity tells us that we need saving. Various traditions understand that idea differently, but it is pretty much universally agreed that humans are fallen and need divine redemption. We need to be rescued.
Evangelicals, whose tradition I identify with, see the central mission of the Christian life as helping as many people as possible to have a saving experience with Christ. Conversion from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light is an essential feature of Christianity. The slogan, “Jesus saves,” is referring to this idea. A personal encounter with God transforms an individual and “saves” them from the destruction of a godless life.
What is Salvation?
What is the nature of this salvation? What changes? What are people rescued from? A lot of ink has been spilled over those questions and how we answer them will largely determine how a Christian lives his or her life. Theology, rather than the arcane domain of stuffy academics, is eminently practical.
The emphasis on one’s soul in “salvation talk” shows that Christians tend to see the work God does is something that occurs on the inside of a person. Phrases like “new heart” and “new spirit” are used to describe the change God effects in someone. Unfortunately, and perhaps as a result from the influence of the heresy of Gnosticism, often the focus is solely internal and rather mystical. Someone who claims to be saved may be the only one who can tell.
Of course, there are a great number of testimonies of what a salvation experience does in the actual life and behavior of a convert. But there are probably equally (and maybe many more) examples of people who don’t seem to exhibit any change at all, and yet claim that their “heart” has been made new.
What to make of this will have to be reserved for a future blog post, but what I would like to suggest is that, regardless of how genuine a conversion experience is, the convert must experience a change not only on the inside, but also on the outside, in other words, in their body. Their soul must be saved, but so must their body. And active thought must be given on how to experience this body salvation.
This is where the spiritual disciplines come in. The spiritual disciplines are intended to not only nurture and shape our hearts and minds, they also are designed to bring our bodies under the authority of God. And coming under the authority of God, whether we’re talking about our soul or body, is precisely what salvation is all about.
I’ll explore all this in my next post.
“[T]he way Christians eat together, keep time, celebrate, forgive debts, express thanks, show hospitality, demonstrate compassion, live simply, and share their material resources with one another is an actual participation in the life of the triune God through whose Spirit we have been incorporated into a body whose head is Christ.” Bryan P. Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness
“Church involvement in the New Testament sense means the development of intimate, heathy, long-lasting relationships with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.” – Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family
“The evidence is conclusive, and the voices are unanimous. For Jesus, Paul, and early church leaders throughout the Roman Empire, the preeminent social model that defined the Christian church was the strong-group Mediterranean family.” Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family
“…the most evangelistic thing the church can do today is to be the church – to be formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.” Bryan P. Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness
The blogosphere is teaming with posts and discussion about the Benedict Option, especially since the recent SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage. What exactly is the Benedict Option? Rod Dreher, the leading proponent of it explains:
“[The Benedict Option is] my name for an inchoate phenomenon in which Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian mainstream culture. The name comes from the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic of moral philosophy, After Virtue, in which he described the state of contemporary moral discourse as irresolvably chaotic — irresolvably, because we have no common source of moral behavior anymore, and have decided, as a culture, that moral truth is something one arrives at by feeling.”
While the term might be new, the idea is very old. In fact, it harkens back to Saint Benedict who is considered one of the key founders of monasticism.
We have always considered our life together as sharing something in common with traditional monasticism. While many tend to have a simplistic, negative and often erroneous view of monasticism, a thoughtful study of it will reveal that monastic orders have been centers of Christian truth and ideals that have helped to preserve society. The Kingdom of God is a counter-cultural reality, initiated by Jesus and embodied by His Church. In a way, you might say that the Benedict Option is just another name for simply being the Church.
Not everyone is called to live in intentional community, but every Christian should be vitally part of Christian community in some form. I believe all this talk about the Benedict Option is really a call to Christians to be the Church. This is how we see it and why we live the way we do.
Here are some links about the Benedict Option:
- Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country - Rod Dreher’s high profile call to the Benedict Option
- The Benedict Option, or Benedict Arnold Option? - John Zmirak’s criticism of the Benedict Option
- Critics of the Benedict Option - Rod Dreher’s defense of the Benedict Option
- Subcultures, Counter-Cultures, and the Benedict Option - Bob Thune brings the debate into focus
- Should Evangelicals Embrace the “Benedict Option”? – Thomas Kidd says it, ”just equates to Christian discipleship in our cultural moment.”
Podcast links if you prefer to just listen:
Part 3 – Types of Relationships
Dallas Willard, describing the state of our modern relationships, says, “[our] most intimate relations are tangles of reciprocal harm, coldness, and resentment.” It’s hard to disagree with Willard when one looks at the society around us. And though there are many healthy relationships we can point to, if we honestly survey our own network of family and friends I think we have to concur with Willard. Relationships currently are not our strong suit. But why?
No help from culture
The answer to the question of why we are experiencing such brokenness in our relationships is complex. Volumes are written to address this very question, but it doesn’t seem to be helping us. In fact, one could argue that we are less successful in our relationships today than previous generations. It seems evident that we lack some basic understanding of how relationships work. Perhaps this knowledge was unconsciously transmitted to previous generations through traditions, customs and conventions. This would explain why today we are apparently lost at sea when it comes to building healthy relationships, since this generation is characterized by the wholesale discard of tradition and conventional morals.
Since we can’t count on culture to effectively educate us on forming intimate relationships that are warm and enduring, we’re going to need to be much clearer about the nature of relationships than our parents and grandparents were. A helpful book I have found for understanding relationships is Vincent Brummer’s The Model of Love. In this theological work Brummer describes three categories of relationships: manipulative, rights and duties, and mutual fellowship. It’s impossible to do justice to this brilliant work in a blog post, but for the sake of brevity I’ll sum these ideas up with three keywords: control, contract, and communion.
A manipulative relationship is characterized by control. One party tries to control another party. The controlled one is not given the respect and dignity of being a free person. They are a means to some end. The controller attempts to use them. A variety of techniques can be employed to manipulate someone – emotional appeals, altering circumstances, and outright force. In each case the controlled is treated as less than a person.
A warm relationship means that there is good will between the partners. A manipulator is primarily concerned with their own good and simply wants to instrumentalize the other in order to achieve it. While a manipulative relationship can appear warm, it’s superficial. Once the controlled person is no longer needed they will be handily discarded. Trust is eroded because one cannot trust someone who intends to only use them. Therefore this kind of relationship fails in the three things that make for good relationships – respect, trust and loyalty.
A relationship of rights and duties is one in which the partners collaborate together for some shared benefit. It’s a negotiated arrangement of cooperation. It’s obvious that working together can bring about beneficial results. Human welfare is dependent upon such arrangements and we encounter them in daily life through commerce and employment. We contract with others, explicitly or implicitly, to exchange labor, money, or other things for some benefit we deem valuable. In those contracts we have some duty (to hand over money or do some work) and we have some right (to get a product or receive a paycheck).
Respect, trust and loyalty make relationships of rights and duties function well. When any of these elements are weak or missing, you end up having a violation of expectations, which ultimately damages the relationship. Our courts are jammed with cases of contract violations. People’s expectations in some shared venture have been violated and the legal system is used to insure that one’s rights are enforced. Employees feel they have been unfairly treated. Customers are disappointed with their purchase. Suppliers can’t collect on their deliveries. Relationships of rights and duties are necessary for our well-being and they require virtue. But they can’t serve our need for communion.
Mutual fellowship relationships are friendships, or what we might call, love relationships. This type of relationship is characterized by affection and doesn’t serve some mere utilitarian purpose. The partners want to be together because they enjoy one another and are interested in each other’s welfare. Mutual fellowship relationships are full of meaning and are the kind of relationships that make life worth living. If respect, trust and loyalty are needed to have a good contractual relationship, they are essential to experience mutual fellowship. Like no other type of relationship, a person’s very being is on the line when they enter a friendship or love relationship, which makes virtue an indispensable ingredient. Family, marriages, friendships and romantic relationships are all mutual fellowship relations. Communion is the objective and freedom of the individual is the defining characteristic.
As we’ve seen, respect, trust and loyalty make for good relationships. But understanding the type of relationship we’re pursuing is just as important. Confusing the objectives or behaviors associated with one kind of relationship with another is a formula for disaster. If we want a friendship we best not try to pay for it. If we are purchasing a box of cereal we shouldn’t use affection to try to get a better price. And finally, if we trick or force people to relate to us we can only expect coldness and resentment. In other words, we must try to not be relationally dumb.
In future posts I’ll explore these ideas more closely.