Full Circle

With our latest post on perfection, we have, in a way, come full circle.  We started this blog with the conviction that rightly understanding the extreme newness of who we became in Christ at our conversion will influence how we live.  Particularly, how we relate to and achieve victory in our conflict with sin.  Our theme has been, “Put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:24).  Our thinking has progressed something like this:

  • At salvation, we were given a new identity and all kinds of new that came with it.
  • Our new identity has a moral resemblance to God Himself.
  • This fact is something we need to know.
  • This fact is something we need to “reckon” or write in our accounting book.
  • This fact is something we need to “walk in”.
  • We walk in this fact by walking in the Spirit.
  • We walk in this fact by walking by faith.
  • Walking in the Spirit (obey) and walking by faith (trust) lead to victory over sin.
  • The root of our sin is selfish ambition, pride, or any expression of the old nature.
  • The expression of our new nature is love, the essence of God’s character inside us.
  • The ultimate fruit of our faith is love, not theological knowledge.
  • We can only love well by the power of the new life.
  • We received the power of the new life at salvation when we were given a new identity and all kinds of new that came with it.

God is love and we demonstrate His life inside us when we love well.  Let me close with this quote from To Love as God Loves, an introduction to the writings of the desert fathers (circa 300-500 AD), pointing to love as the ultimate goal, “Perfection is a concept that appears over and over in a wide spectrum of early Christian literature, and our own suspicion of the idea would have struck our Christian forebears as both odd and frightening.  The gospel, after all, is clear in its demand for perfection…To be a perfect human being, a human being the way God intends human beings to be, is to be a fully loving person, loving God, and every bit as important, loving God’s image, the other people who share the world with us…For the sisters and brothers of the desert, ‘to love is human; not to love is less than human.’ ”

We like to think “to err is human.”  And it was under the old arrangement, the old covenant, the old nature.  But for the believer, “to love is human”; the full expression of who we have become in Christ and the new normal, the “supernatural Christian life.”

Perfection and Perfectionism

The lawn mowing season in Texas is a long one.  Ours started a couple of weeks ago when we were blessed by two young fellows coming over to mow the lawn.  (Our former, conscripted yard crew up and left for college last fall – can you believe it?)  As our new charges took turns on the riding lawn mower, their father asked me, out of the blue, “Why do you think believers do not take what Jesus said more seriously?”

I believe our lack of taking “what Jesus said more seriously” is two-fold.  In the first instance, Jesus’ radical call to discipleship which is a large part of what my friend was referring to is at odds with our pursuit of selfish ambition, materialism, the American dream, personal peace, affluence, or whatever else you want to call it.  You know what it is.  This challenge has been addressed many times with the current title, Radical:  Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt, the most recent incarnation.  It is a question we must all consider.

The second instance for downplaying the seriousness of Jesus’ words is more subtle.  It stems from our confusion over perfection and perfectionism.  Perfectionism is a judgmental, self-righteous attitude that was condemned by Jesus on many occasions.  It parks itself on the faults of others and is unsympathetic to the frailty of the human condition.  It is an attitude of superiority that no one likes and appropriately so.  It is the opposite of humility.

However, in our effort to appear “humble” and our desire to rightly avoid the perfectionist label, have we rejected the worthy goal of perfection as summarized by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)?  Have we “dumbed down” our expectation of following Jesus’ call as closely as possible and the seriousness of His teaching so as not to appear too “pious”, not to appear too “holier-than-thou”?  Do we downplay our spiritual progress fearing that sharing our successes may appear too prideful?  We somehow think that labeling ourselves as “sinners saved by grace who have not made much progress since” is a sign of humility.  It is a false humility at best.  At worst, it is an outright rejection of God’s gift of a new identity for those in Christ Jesus.

We become what we label ourselves.  When we label ourselves as sinners, first and foremost, we are turning our backs on God’s gift of a new identity, a new heart, a new nature, a new power, a new Spirit, a new purity, a new disposition, a new relationship with sin, a new everything that we have been writing about in the last few months.  And, quite frankly, it becomes an excuse to not aim higher, an excuse to shirk the goal of spiritual maturity, an excuse to remain in our sin.  We were made for so much more!

Will we arrive at moral perfection on this side of heaven?  No, we will not, but we will certainly move in that direction in new and exciting ways when we understand and enjoy all that became new in us when we embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  And we will wholeheartedly pursue all that Jesus taught.  Rather than talk our way out of the seriousness of what Jesus taught, let’s join arms to lift each other up to higher expectations.  Not to reach some height of moral superiority, but to lay hold of what God has given us by His divine power: “…everything pertaining to life and godliness” (II Pet 1:3).  This is the good outcome of taking what Jesus said more seriously.

To Love as God Loves

On more than one occasion in these posts, I have quoted Roberta Bondi from her book, To Love as God Loves.  This thin volume is billed as a conversation with the early church.  The conversation was a spiritual eye opener for me.  C.S. Lewis once observed that reading only modern books is like joining a conversation at eleven o’clock which began at eight, leaving us to wonder about the real bearing of what is being said.  To Love as God Loves is joining a conversation near its beginning.

Prior to the fourth century, the message of Christianity was clearly at odds with the pagan Roman Empire.  The dichotomy was so severe that many careers were closed to believers because they somehow entailed supporting, teaching, or depicting pagan mythology.  The distinction between being a Christian and being a good Roman citizen was striking and occurred at great cost to believers.  Their allegiance was to Christ alone.

When Christianity became the favored religion under Emperor Constantine, the blessing was mixed.  While persecution subsided, the result of a state religion was a loss of the Christian / citizen distinction and an influx of nominal Christians into the church.  Rather than seek reformation from within, many serious-minded believers responded to Christ’s discipleship call by forming monastic communities in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

One of the founders of this movement was Pachomius.  While a pagan and young conscript in the Roman army, Pachomius and his company were trapped in a tower without supplies when he first encountered Christianity.  A group of Christians reached the confined troops with food and drink, and Pachomius was so impressed that he inquired about the group’s identity.  He was told, “They are people who bear the name of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and they do good to everyone, putting their hope on him who made heaven and earth and us.”¹  Pachomius became a believer and dedicated his life to expressing the Christian message in terms of how he first encountered it; by loving others and becoming their servant.  He went on to start a series of what became the first of the desert communities up the Nile in Egypt.

The focus of these early monastic communities was learning to love as God loves.  The idea that the goal of the Christian life is love; it is not to acquire a set of personal qualities was the eye opener for me and I believe is supported by the big picture message of the New Testament.  Our modern bias often misses this point.  We think the desert fathers and mothers were focused on the spiritual disciplines for the disciplines sake and we equate their asceticism with an unhealthy distaste for all things physical.  When understood in context, their serious desire to reign in “the passions” was simply a pathway to loving as God loves.  Professor Bradley Nassif summarized the journey from ascetic rigor to love in the May 2008 issue of Christianity Today magazine this way,

“When practiced in humility, ascetic rigor results in greater love.  The monks fasted because they were hungry to love God more; they prayed because they wanted closer communion with God and neighbor; they contemplated so they could better fix their gaze on their divine spouse; they practiced silence because they wanted to hear God so they could speak and act more wisely to the people around them.  The end goal of every spiritual practice employed by the monks was love.”

Our spiritual forefathers found that love and humility were powerful weapons against our self-centered and casual view of discipleship.  We think of monks as isolationists, but these attributes were forged and practiced in a community setting.  May we follow their example in our own communities – families, neighborhoods, and churches – by learning to love as God loves.

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¹ Pachomian Koinonia.  Vol. One:  The Life of Saint Pachomius and His Disciples.  Translation and introduction by Armand Veilleux.  Kalamazoo, Michigan:  Cistercian Publications, 1980.

Love Walked Among Us

I’ve written before about the nebulosity of love.  Love is easy to talk about in the abstract, harder to put into practice.  We understand love is the essence of God’s character, but how does that translate into love living in us?  We can extol love as the greatest of gifts, but do we lift love to that level in our relationships?

As in all things under the New Covenant, our new arrangement with God, the answer goes back to Jesus Christ.  In Jesus, love exemplified took on flesh.  In Jesus, love walked among us.  In Jesus, we have the fullness of love expressed in attitude and action.  And as Jesus reminded us over and over, His life of love was a reflection of the Father.

In Love Walked Among Us, author Paul Miller paraphrases Jesus’ statement in John 5:19, “I do nothing on my own.  I can only do what I see my dad doing.”  Mr. Miller continues, “We see this kind of dependence as unhealthy.  We prize independence and trusting ourselves, but at the foundation of Jesus’ life lies a childlike trust in God, whom he calls ‘Father.’  Jesus is not controlled by a rule book but by a relationship.”

At the center of this relationship is love.  Jesus took the love of the Godhead and extended it to us.  Both by showing us what love looked like during His earthly ministry and by the ultimate expression of love; dying in our place.  “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends, if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you slaves; for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:13-15).  The kingdom that Christ ushered in during His first Messianic appearance among us is indeed the “kingdom of love.”

Again, at the center of this kingdom is a love relationship.  God instructs us to love not to reach some higher level of spirituality, moral perfection, or understanding.  God’s command to love, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34), is inherent in who He is and who we are as His children.  Quoting again from Paul Miller, “Jesus interpreted life through the lens of his Father.  He didn’t say we should love our enemies because ‘that’s what love does,’ he said we should love because that’s what his Father is like.”

Love That Builds

Today we continue the theme of “love trumps knowledge” with a stop in I Corinthians chapter 8.  “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge.  Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (I Cor 8:1).  In other words, while knowledge puffs up, love builds up.

In I Corinthians chapters 8 to 10, the apostle Paul writes about the “gray areas” of life in a Christian community, areas where sincere believers disagree about participation in certain events or practices.  A particular challenge to Corinthian believers was whether or not to eat meat sold in the market that was previously used as a sacrifice to idols.  Paul summarizes the knowledge argument for eating the meat in question saying, “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one” (I Cor 8:4).  Basically, because idols have no intrinsic meaning (they are merely wood, stone, metal, etc.), eating meat sacrificed to idols is acceptable.  We are free to participate based on our knowledge about idols.

But knowledge is not the end of the story.  In verse 7, Paul continues, “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled” (I Cor 8:7).  These believers, coming from an idol worship background, are sinning against their conscience by their participation.  What is the knowledgeable brother who is not harmed by participation to do?

“But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?  For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.  And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (I Cor 8:9-12).

The word “strengthened” does not mean that your participation as a “brother with knowledge” gives your weaker brother the freedom to join in.  Rather it means that your example has emboldened or empowered your brother to sin against his conscience.  In this way, the strong have become a stumbling block and sinned against their brother.

So how does Paul handle this challenge?  He concludes, “Therefore if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (I Cor 8:13).  This is what love does.  Love limits its freedom for the greater good of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (I Cor 10:24).  Knowledge puffs up.  Love builds up.  Both are “up”.  But the lesser is focused on what we know and the greater on serving and edifying the body of Christ.  Truly, love trumps knowledge.