Monthly Archives: June 2016

Discipleship and the Body of Christ

Every church is faced with the following question: How do we go about making disciples, mature followers of Jesus. One way we try to do this at our church is by having a “discipleship process.” This process is intended to cover the basics of what it means to follow Jesus. The “steps” of this process are Worship, Connect, Grow, and Reach.

Worship is what we do on Sunday mornings, singing together, praying together, and listening to the preached Word of God.

Connect covers the fellowship portion of discipleship. We get together in “Bible Fellowship Groups.” We work together to apply the Word to our lives. We develop deeper relationships that enable us to meet each other’s needs.

Grow refers to those things we do which deepen our understanding of Scripture. It includes special Bible studies and the Sunday night service.

Reach refers to all those ministries that either directly serve within the church (like working on the building and grounds team, visiting our shut-ins, etc.) or serve those outside of our church (like working in Attic After School or putting on our Fall Carnival).

Put another way Worship means to love God. Connect means to love one another. Grow means loving God’s word. And, Reach means love God’s world.

I was also thinking about these components of discipleship in relation to a metaphor common in Scripture, that of the church as the “body of Christ.”

If we relate discipleship process to the body of Christ metaphor we can see, through a new perspective, why each of these is important.

The goal of worship is to strengthen our connect to the head; to Christ. A church cannot function if it is disconnected from Christ. He is the one who gives us direction and from him springs the life and vitality of the church. A church disconnected from Christ has lost its identity. This is one of the purposes of worship, to ensure that we are single-mindedly focused on Jesus and to ensure that we regularly enter into his presence through the Holy Spirit. When we gather in His name, He is present with us. When we forsake that fellowship, spiritual life wanes and spiritual direction disappears.

The goal of connect is to strengthen our relationship with one another. A hand cannot function as a hand if it is disconnected from the body. A foot cannot function as a foot if it is not disconnected to the body. A collection of parts cannot function unless those parts are built together in love. Discipleship is part and parcel with obedience and there are a great number of commands, like the “one another” commands, which we simply cannot perform apart from connection to the body of Christ. If you are not connected in a meaningful relational way with a church, you will be less effective as a Christian. If you are connected then not only will you be more effective, but so will those around you.

The goal of grow is to increase the fitness of each individual part. A hand is not effective if it is disconnected from the head (worship) or if it is disconnected from the rest of the body (connect). But it is also ineffective if it is itself weak or diseased (or, in my case, had a dislocated finger). A believer grows, becomes more spiritually mature, in direct relation to their understanding of and obedience to the Word of God. As we let that word take root and as we nourish ourselves on it, we become more effective within the body.

Finally, the goal of reach is to provide action and function to the body as a whole. Some parts of the body serve primarily within the body. I have internal organs which keep me healthy and active but which is not particularly visible to the outside world. But with other parts of my body, like my hands or my mouth, I can serve and communicate with the world around me. A body with no movement, no matter how well connected with the head, or within itself, even if it is physically fit, is still useless. Without movement, without mission, without action, a body will do no good. And a body with no movement will eventually become lifeless itself.

We need all of these elements in order to become fully mature in Christ, as individuals and as communities. How we do all of these things will be different based on the individual and the church, but each of these (corporate worship, fellowship, study and application of God’s word, and service to others) is an essential aspect of the Christian walk and of discipleship.

On confronting evil

ethicsDietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time of stark evil, during the rise of fascism in Germany. In Ethics he writes this description:

“Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform of greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness.” 66

Bonhoeffer observed that there were many approaches to attempting to oppose such stark evil. He was critical of many of them, particularly of the theoretical ethicist for whom evil was a theory, an abstraction. The moral theorist fails to reckon with the reality of evil and is therefore ineffective.

Then he moves on to the failure of others.

The reasonable man. Those who attempt to oppose evil through reason alone “neither perceive the depths of the evil nor the depths of the holy.” They believe that reason is enough to hold the sinking ship together. They are end up disappointed by the ultimate unreasonableness of the world and withdraw.

The ethical fanatic. The ethical fanatic believes that he can oppose evil through “the purity of his will and of his principle.” But Bonhoeffer notes that it is the nature of fanaticism to aim wide of the mark, to be like a bull charging at the red flag instead of the one holding it. The fanatic, however ideal and noble his cause, is undone by his superior opponent.

The man of conscience. Here Bonhoeffer refers to the person who is most concerned with maintaining a clean conscience and who is primarily guided by that inner voice. But Bonhoeffer worries that evil will also overwhelm him. “Evil comes upon him in countless respectable and seductive disguises so that his conscience becomes timid and unsure of himself, till in the end he is satisfied if instead of a clear conscience he can have a salved one.” The man only concerned with conscience falls easily into self-deception.

The man of duty. But perhaps one can keep oneself clean by claiming duty. “Responsibility for the command rests upon the man who gives it and not upon him who executes it.” So the argument goes (to disastrous consequences we now know through our historical lens.) No, the man of duty “will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil,” becoming not an opponent of evil, but party to it.

The man of absolute freedom, or what we might call the realist. This person is not bound to their conscience. They are willing to “sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise.” And, “he will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off the worse.” But Bonhoeffer knows that this, too, is foolish. This man ultimately blinds himself to what is bad or worse and also becomes party to evil.

Bonhoeffer’s final critique is of the man of private virtuousness. If one cannot fight evil in the public sphere at least this person can seek refuge here. “He does not steal. He does not commit murder… Within the limits of his power he is good.” But this can only go so far. Eventually for this man to avoid all public conflict he must blind himself to the injustice around him through a process of self-deception. He will either face internal conflict or will become a Pharisee, easily judging others while himself steering clear of that which makes him uncomfortable.

So what is Bonhoeffer’s solution?

“A man can hold his own only if he can combine simplicity and wisdom.” 70.

By simplicity Bonhoeffer means “to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down.” In other words, simplicity means to be wholeheartedly fixed on and committed to God, to be single-minded and single-hearted.

By wisdom Bonhoeffer means to “see reality as it is” and to “see into the depths of things.” Wisdom and simplicity go hand-in-hand because “it is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glances at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice.” And again, “only that man is wise who sees reality in God.” In other words, we can’t see into the depths of the reality of the world unless we can look squarely at God, since the reality of the world rests in God. This is what it means to combine simplicity and wisdom.

But Bonhoeffer admits that this all sounds theoretical and, indeed, impossible. “No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other.” But all hope is not lost, for Bonhoeffer sees one, and only one, solution to this: Jesus.

In Christ “there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and upon the world at the same time.” Furthermore, the reality of Christ is not a principle and is not theoretical. It is not love in the abstract. It is the God-man entering into reality, into history, and into the starkly evil world in which we actually live, bearing the evil of the world upon his shoulders, healing the wounds of the world through his stripes.

To live with simplicity and wisdom then, is to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on Christ. And it is only Christ who is the “Reconciler of the world.” Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.”

How do I choose a job?

One question addressed in the book “The Gospel at Work” is one asked regularly by high school and college graduates: How do I choose a job?

Authors Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert begin by suggesting that, in contrast to the common secular view that finding a job is primarily about self-fulfillment/enjoyment, the Christian perspective is that work is first and foremost about loving and obeying God, then serving others, and then finally about personal enjoyment.

To that end, the authors suggest six questions to ask when deciding a job. The order of these questions is important. The first three are “must-haves.” The last three are “nice-to-haves.”

  1. Does this job glorify God? Most jobs fit into this category, but it does rule out some jobs which might be inherently sinful (hit man, drug runner, abortion doctor, etc.).
  2. Does this job permit me to live a godly life? Some jobs might not be inherently sinful but would still require sacrifices (to family, church, etc.) which could lead you away from God.
  3. Does this job provide for my needs and allow me to be a blessing to others? One of the requirements for our jobs is that it allows us to provide for ourselves and our families. Some things we love to do, but don’t make money, should remain hobbies.
  4. Does this job benefit society in some way? If the answer is “yes” to the first three it probably is to this one as well. For some jobs this will be more evident, but almost all jobs fit this bill in some way.
  5. Does this job take advantage of my talents? God has gifted each of us with talents and abilities. It’s always nice when our jobs align with these talents, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes we have to do jobs which are hard that require us to rely on the strength and grace of God (see Moses.)
  6. Is this job something I want to do? Our desires and interests matter and we live in a day and age where we can ask this question. But this is a luxury of our time and not a requirement in a job. If you can ask this question, you are blessed. If not, remember to do whatever God gives you to do with all your might as though serving the Lord.

 

Is anxiety sin?

Is anxiety sin? Is worry sin? These questions came up in a church context and at the time there was no space for the full answer which I think these questions deserve. After a day or two of reflections, here’s how I would have liked to answer this question:

The quick answer is that “yes”, anxiety and worry are sins. Two texts that support this are Philippians 4:6 (“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”) and Matthew 6:25-34 (“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink…”). I think the Bible is pretty clear that worry and anxiety are fundamentally the product of a lack of trust in God. In that sense, they are a product of the Fall. Therefore, to choose worry over trust is to sin.

However, I think there is a little more to the story. My first thought is that emotions and emotional responses seem, at least to me, to be experienced in two stages. There is a sort of gut response, a knee-jerk reaction, to the circumstances we face. This initial response is usually involuntary. A scary situation arises and we experience fear. We see an injustice and we experience anger. Something tragic happens and we experience sadness. After that reaction we can decide what to do with that emotion. We decide whether or not the emotional reaction is valid and can then either indulge it (dwell on the sadness, anger, fear, anxiety) or try to overcome it with a different emotion or a different set of thoughts. Since emotions are extremely powerful, it can be very hard to overcome that initial reaction. However, it is in this moment that we do have a choice. And, I think, it is here that we can decide to trust God or to worry. In other words, I think that what Philippians 4:6 and Matthew 6:25 are getting at is the place of choice in the emotional response, where we decide to dwell, and not necessarily the initial gut reaction.

We see this progression in many of the psalms. The psalms start from a place of distress (worry, anxiety), but the psalmist inevitably moves from there to a place of trust. He critically examines his emotions, reminds himself of God’s goodness/power/faithfulness, and makes a decision to put his faith in the Creator of the universe.

So, if someone were to say “I have anxiety, is that a sin”? I might ask the follow up question, “What are you doing with that anxiety? Are you trying to turn to God in trust or are you indulging it by continuing to set your mind on whatever is causing you worry? Are you deciding to trust God or not?” I think that it’s in the “what are you doing with it…” choice wherein the sin lies and not necessarily in that initial experience.

This brings me to the second way in which the question gets complicated, and that is in regards to medically diagnosed depression or anxiety. If we say that all anxiety is a sin (even that which doesn’t spring from a willful choice as in the case of depression) then we risk bringing false shame into someone’s life, bringing blame where it isn’t due. This doesn’t excuse all anxious thoughts by any means. Simply having depression doesn’t remove a person’s will – though we should be compassionate and considerate about how brain chemistry may make overcoming emotions far more difficult. Instead, I want to locate the decision to follow Jesus where there really is a decision in play: “You have anxiety (for which you are not responsible) but what you are responsible for what you do with that anxiety.” Do you turn to God? Do you pray? Do you take care of your body in diet and exercise? Are you choosing to trust and obey?

This brings me to the final point, and that is that I think our knee-jerk emotional reactions, especially for those who do not have some sort of clinical anxiety or depression, can be trained over time by regularly deciding to trust and obey Jesus in our circumstances. In other words, a new believer with a lot of anxiety can, through a regular practice of meditating on the many reasons to trust God and then taking actions which demonstrate that trust, become a person of less anxiety in their knee-jerk reactions to stressful circumstances. This has certainly been true in my life.

So my final answer to the question would be this: It is not necessarily a sin to feel an initial burst of worry or anxiety in a stressful situation. But, it is a sin to choose to indulge that worry. Also, if you regularly choose to trust and obey God in stressful situations, you can become, by God’s grace, a less anxious person.