We are the Body

The United States of America has a long history of embracing personal liberty and self-determination.  From its pioneer spirit to its entrepreneurial energy to its capitalistic economy, America has been an immigrant magnet to those seeking an independent life.  There appears to be a spirit here, even beyond our materialism and consumerism, of freedom and independence.

Fast forward two hundred thirty-six years from its founding and nearly every political debate in the USA today is essentially about the balance between our libertarian ideas of personal freedom and the role of central government in promoting the common good (or not so good).  Where the balance lies in a democracy like ours, I will leave to the political types.  My interest is what happens when the individualism so celebrated in our country enters the church.  Quite frankly, it is a recipe for disaster.

The most common analogy for the church used in the New Testament is the physical body.  “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is the body of Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (I Cor 12:12-13).  The church – the body – is made up of many members and from the outside may look like any other affinity group such as a club, a political party, a bowling league, etc.  But that is not the case.  The church is not a group of like-minded people whose membership is based on some shared interest, talent, or skill.  The church is so much more; held together by something much greater and more unique than having something in common.

The church is a body.  “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (I Cor 12:27).  Why?  “So that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (I Cor 12:25-26).  In short, as a body, the church is the antithesis of the hyper-individualism that is so prevalent in today’s America.

But this antithesis is rarely seen in practice.  Instead, we listen to sermons in megachurches or on the Internet and process them in individualistic ways.  In our “quiet time” we read the Bible by ourselves.  We often carry out our Sunday morning assignments in the local church completely separated from adult interaction.  Even our singing has become an individual worship experience since the music is so loud we can’t hear anyone else around us singing.  Instead of being the antithesis, our churches have become a reflection of the hyper-individualism of our age.

What is the answer?  The answer is for the church to be the body.  In the physical body, every member is dependant on each other.  There is no room for individual mandates among our body parts.  The church is to operate the same way; a pattern Paul explains in I Corinthians chapter 12 in describing our roles and interdependency in the body of Christ.  A pattern that I call “hyper-socialism”, the opposite of hyper-individualism.  Putting it into practice is what the next several posts will be about.

Crucifying the Flesh in Community

“Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.  Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (II Tim 2:21-22).  Another way we “crucify the flesh” in practical terms is by pursuing righteousness in the company of our fellow believers.

Paul makes clear in II Timothy 2 that to become a useful tool in the hands of the Master, or to extend the thought, to crucify the flesh and thus be prepared for every good work, we must flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness.  This flee and pursue pattern is very similar to Paul’s put off the old nature and put on the new man pattern of Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3.  The Greek words translated “flee” and “pursue” convey a powerful message of action.  These are not passive commands.  And the beauty of II Timothy 2:22 is that you don’t have to go it alone.

In what I consider a very underutilized aspect of “crucifying the flesh”, we have a community to help us along.  “… pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”  Flee and pursue in the company of Christian friends.  Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace as a community.  But this communal pursuit is only possible where love from a pure heart is paramount.  Criticism, a judgmental attitude, competitive spirits, or any pursuit of selfish ambition will suck the life out of any community effort at spiritual transformation.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to become the Paraclete, the helper, to each other; coming alongside to encourage and lift each other up.  “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:24-25).  Crucifying the flesh happens faster and more often and with better results when we are connected to the body.

Crucifying the Flesh by the Spirit’s Power

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).  Another tool in our war with the flesh is following the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  If we “walk by the Spirit” – conduct ourselves as ones influenced and led by the Spirit of God – we will not satisfy the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16).

I think one of the lifelong learning opportunities God has given us as His children is learning to hear and follow the voice of the Holy Spirit.  It is stepping back from the brink of temptation to say, “What is the Spirit saying to me at this moral fork in the road?”  It is following your Spirit-trained conscience.  In John chapter 16, Jesus said that the coming Holy Spirit would illumine our minds, not just so we could recognize truth, but so we could walk in it.

There is a brand of Christianity that says we cannot trust our conscience; the thoughts and intents of our heart.  But given the fact that our conscience is now trained by the Holy Spirit and we possess a new heart inclined toward righteousness, it is safe to follow these inclinations of the Spirit.  I think we are practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit when we do.

One of the moral forks in the road I face appears when I first wake up on Sunday morning.  Sometimes I think that I would rather mow the yard, wash the car, or take in a Formula One race on TV instead of go to church to fellowship with my Christian brothers and sisters.  That first thought is a temptation, not a sin.  What I do next is a decision between sin and a holy response.  Knowing God’s Spirit is leading me to serve and be encouraged by my fellow believers, I will generally make the righteous choice.  And I know you will as well.  Why?  Because we are listening to the Spirit’s voice.

I like the way C. S. Lewis puts it in his book, Mere Christianity.  “That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it.  It comes the very moment you wake up each morning.  All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.  And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And so on, all day.  Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.  We can only do it for moments at first.  But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system:  because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.  It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.”

Crucifying the Flesh by Love: One More Thought

When our younger children were teenagers, I asked them one evening, “Do you think we have a lot of rules in our home?”  They looked at each other and finally Bethany answered for the group, “Well, we seem to really just have one big rule:  Do whatever Mom and Dad say.”  It was an interesting answer and I immediately wondered how they would always discern – following the one big rule idea – what Mom and Dad would say in any given situation.

Years later, I realized what Bethany was saying.  The idea of children obeying their parents as one big rule is both biblical and practical, and on the practical side it looks like this.  One of our core values as parents was to establish a relationship with our children.  A relationship based on love and mutual respect.  A relationship based on knowing and being known.  Rhonda and I asked a lot of questions at our house to learn what life looked like from our children’s point of view.  Did this somehow diminish our authority?  I don’t think so.  Our authority just became more grounded in our relationship than in structures of control.

So because we allowed ourselves to be known by our children, it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to know what Mom and Dad were thinking in any given situation.  So even if we didn’t address a particular issue – we did discuss many situations and temptations beforehand – our children basically knew what Mom or Dad would say.  Hence, because we knew and were known by our kids, the one big rule of doing whatever Mom and Dad said was not arbitrary or dangerous.  Their obedience was based on a love relationship.

It is the same idea with our Lord.  When you know the Lord as well as we know our own children or parents, we know what God is thinking.  We know what He expects.  We know what kind of things please Him.  We don’t need to know a list of rules because we know the rule-maker.  And the more time we spend learning the rule-maker’s ways, the more we learn His heart.  His ways are no longer so distant that they cannot be known.  God has chosen to make Himself known to those who seek a relationship with Him.  Since our obedience flows from this love relationship, His commandments are not burdensome, but life-giving.  And best of all, they draw us closer to the heart of God.

Crucifying the Flesh by Love Unleashed

Another way we “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires” is to unleash the love God has put into our new hearts.  “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (I Jn 5:3).  “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15).  As children of the Heavenly Father, we keep His commandments – “crucifying the flesh” – out of a love relationship with the Godhead.

I don’t know what your childhood was like, but I have a distinct memory of being motivated to obey my parents out of a love relationship.  That is, I did not want to disappoint them or abuse the trust they put in me.  As we grow up, we transfer that “obedience out of love” to our relationship with God.  And this love relationship, this ability to love God as we should, comes from God Himself as one of the provisions of the New Covenant.  So not only does God give us the resurrection power to resist temptation, but He gives us the desire to do so as well through our love relationship with Him.

Another way love affects our response to temptation is in the manifestation of the love God has given us for each other.  For example, I will not correct my children out of anger – a deed of the flesh – if my motivation is to deepen my love relationship with them.  I will treat my wife with honor and respect even in times of disagreement because I love her.  I will not dismiss personalities different than my own if I am controlled by love.  My moral choices, when motivated by love, will be influenced by how my choices affect others.  My choices will be governed by a desire to enhance the love relationships God has brought into my life; both close familial and friend relationships as well as more casual acquaintances in the body.

A good measure of our level of love motivation is our attitude in carrying out Christ’s commands.  Hospitality is not really hospitality if it is done reluctantly.  Generosity is not really generosity if giving is done begrudgingly.  “God loves a cheerful giver” (II Cor 9:7), and I think it is safe to say, based on many scriptures, that God loves a cheerful obeyer in all areas.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).  Good cheer and joy will be the result of “crucifying the flesh” out of a love motivation.

Finally, embracing and experiencing the love of God takes the power out of the sin of fear and worry.  On the large scale, the twenty-four hour news cycle supplies us with more than enough to worry about.  As author Marilynne Robinson has observed, “We’re stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters.”  Closer to home, intimate knowledge of our family and friends situations often give us ample opportunity to worry.  I know I specifically worry about what my children’s future will hold.  But God’s love casts out fear.  Resting in God’s love, trusting that any future issue will have passed through His loving hands, helps quiet the urge to worry when the temptation comes.

“And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us.  God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (I Jn 4:16).  May you experience the abiding love of God today!