Category Archives: Spirituality

A Message For Religious Drop Outs

Many people view religion as a distraction from real life. Religious acts are useless and religious institutions are a waste of human resources. Increasingly, younger people are dropping out of church attendance and adopting a private spirituality or becoming completely secular. What can we say to this movement? What is the meaning of Christian religious practice?

First, we need to observe that the idea that religion is useless and a distraction from real life presupposes a view of the divine and divine’s relationship to human beings that supports this view of religion. In ancient religion the gods demanded sacrifice and honor from human beings. They rewarded their favorites and punished offenders. Given this belief system, religious acts and institutions could hardly be called useless and distracting from real life! Modern religious drop outs of post-Christian, post-denominational culture no longer believe in God at all or no longer believe God desires the attention of human beings or some similar thought. In any case, they cannot see a rationale for traditional, Christian religious practice.

In the previous post, I defined religion as “human action and affection directed primarily toward God.” We examined the Christian understanding of basic human affection toward God, that is, love for God. When we come to see in the self-giving of Jesus Christ how much God loves us, we cannot help but love God in return. And when we see that God is the best, most beautiful, and truest reality, we cannot help but desire to be with God and enjoy him. As we can clearly see, loving the God revealed in Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. But what about religious acts: baptism, listening to the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and praise? What about meeting together to perform these acts? What makes these things meaningful and useful?

Christianity rejects the ancient pagan view of religion. Christian religious acts are not designed to meet God’s needs. The Old Testament prophets and Paul in Acts 17 make that clear. They are not designed earn God’s favor or ward off his wrath. What then is their purpose?

The meaning of any action is revealed in its relationship to the goal to which it is directed. Acts become meaningless when we cannot see the goal at which they aim. Everyone understands that the more important the goal, the more valuable the means that helps us achieve that goal. Christian religious acts are the means by which we can achieve the goals of the Christian faith. What are those goals and how do Christian religious acts help us attain them?

As we noted in the previous essay, Christian religious acts must express our love for God or they are worthless (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). They do nothing to achieve the goal of the Christian way. In loving God, we admire his beautiful, loving character revealed in the self-giving of Jesus and we desire to participate in his goodness, beauty, and truth. In general, we want to be like what we admire and to enjoy what we desire. In loving God, our affections are directed toward becoming like him and participating in his eternal life, in its goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus Christ reveals the true character of God and the true goal of human life; and Christian religious acts make sense only as means to this goal.

In one-time act of baptism, we imitate physically the self-giving of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and publicly declare our intention to imitate and become like Jesus, whom we love. In our repeated act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ self-giving and we reaffirm our baptismal intention to be assimilated to Jesus’ sacrifice and his life.  In listening to the Scriptures, we open ourselves to God’s word of grace, guidance, and judgment for the purpose of becoming like him.

When we praise God, we express our admiration for God’s character and our desire to enjoy his perfection. In praising God, we keep before our minds and hearts the truth that God himself is the goal of all human action. To possess and be possessed by God is the greatest of all goods. In the practice of communal and private prayer, we keep our minds focused on the reality of God’s presence and the truth of his grace.

And in meeting together to perform these acts we give and receive the strength, love, friendship, help,  and kindness that the Spirit of God gives to each and all. The meeting itself is a means by which we are helped on our way toward the goal of becoming like God and enjoying him now and forever.

If the goal of human life to have as much pleasure, to gather as much wealth, to achieve as much professional success, or to garner as much fame as possible within this life, religious acts make no sense at all. They are useless and the institutions that support them are a waste of human resources. But if the goal of human life is to become like God in character and to enjoy his goodness, beauty, and truth forever, Christian religious acts are the most meaningful things we can do.

Religion of Love or Love of Religion?

We’ve been working our way through Christian doctrine for the last 9 months, examining Christian teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, providence, sin, salvation, the atonement, the church, baptism, the Trinity, and many more. A catechism (our theme for this year) usually treats doctrines about God and God’s acts first. Afterward, it considers the appropriate human response to divine truth. The human response to divine truth can be further divided into religion and morality.

Religion concerns human action and affection directed primarily toward God. God is the object of religious acts.

Morality focuses on human action and affection directed primarily toward other human beings. Other people are the objects of moral acts.

Note: Theology is disciplined thought about God whereas religion is practical action directed to God. Ethics is disciplined thought about human moral action.

Christianity distinguishes these two kinds of human acts but does not separate them. It embraces them along with all other Christian teachings within our overall relationship to God. Jesus considered the duty to love God the most basic human responsibility and the obligation to love our neighbors as second in priority (Matthew 22:34-40). The character of our relationship to others is determined by our relationship to God. And the quality of our relationship to God is revealed by the way we treat others (1 John 4:7-21). Held in their proper relationship there can never be a contradiction between loving God and loving others, between being religious and being moral. The need to fulfill a religious duty can never excuse evil acts or enmity toward another human being. Nor should we neglect the love of God in the name of helping other people. Morality must not be reduced to religion or religion reduced to morality.

The Christian’s Religion

As we move into the practical teachings of our “catechism,” let’s first consider religion, that is, our acts and affections in relation to God. Today I want us to think about what it means to love God. It’s already clear in the Old Testament and it’s central to Jesus’ teaching that right outward actions, whether religious or moral, must be motivated by proper affections. Jesus cited the duties of loving God and neighbor as “the greatest” commandments. They are the “greatest” because they concern the root and foundation of all human action, the heart or the inner person or the will that determines the true worth of all our outward acts. However praiseworthy or helpful our religious and moral acts may seem to be from an external point of view, they are worthless before God if not motivated by love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

What does it mean to love God? As far as I can tell there are two basic Christian models: (1) profound gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and (2) passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good. Most often, New Testament writers follow Model (1) and ground our motivation for loving God in God’s demonstration of his love for us in Jesus’ sacrifice. Paul emphasizes God’s love for us more than he does our love for God. He exercises caution about professing the purity of his love for God. That’s a matter for God to judge. But he is deeply moved by God’s love for sinners, enemies, and the godless (Romans 5:1-11). We are full of hope because “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (verse 5). Nevertheless, he is clear that our fitting response to God’s love for us is our love for God (Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 8:3).

John, in 1 John 4:9-19, grounds our ability and motivation to love God and others in God’s love for us:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…. 19 We love because he first loved us.”

According to model (1), then, to love God is to experience the unexpected, undeserved, and unfathomable love of God for us in the self-giving of Jesus Christ and to feel an overwhelming desire to give in return our whole being in service to God. I say “desire” but perhaps Paul’s expression “compulsion” is a better word:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (2 Corinthians 5:14).

If you’ve seen what Paul saw you know something of what he felt.

Model (2)—the love of God as “the passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good”—is a subordinate but still important theme in the Bible. God is the Source of every good gift. He is beautiful, praiseworthy, great, glorious, and perfect. If each of God’s gifts are “good” and all of them together are “very good” (Genesis 1), the Giver must be surpassingly good. However, the love of God as desire for the highest good became prominent only in the patristic era under the influence of Platonic thought. Perhaps the most famous expression of the love of God as desire is Augustine’s Confessions, especially that often quoted line in the first paragraph:

“Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Every healthy, enjoyable, beautiful, truthful, and excellent thing in creation possesses those qualities because it participates in the highest of all goods, eternal perfection itself. Created goods were not designed to satisfy us completely. Their goodness evokes desire but their imperfections disappoint and drive us higher, beyond all creatures to the perfect Good from which all things flow.

According to model (2), then, to love God is to have experienced the amazing goodness and beauty of creation as a mere foretaste of the infinite perfection of God and to be set ablaze with desire to see and experience directly that divine perfection.

I think we can see that within a Christian framework these two models are perfectly compatible. Model (1) focuses on the generous, merciful, and kind acts of God in creation and salvation. In these acts we experience the undeserved love of God and are compelled to love God in return. In Model (2), we also experience the goodness of God in creation, but the emphasis falls on the perfection of God’s being rather than on the loving character of his actions. In Model (1) we experience the kindness and in Model (2) we experience the excellence of God. Model (1) is Model (2) articulated in personal terms. Apart from the biblical revelation, we might think of God’s perfection in impersonal terms, that is, as a distant ideal or an unattainable state. But in Jesus Christ we see the perfect being of Model (2) turn toward us and freely invite us weak and sinful creatures to share in his perfect life. Profound gratitude is combined with passionate desire in a perfect union!

 

 

 

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

Last week we examined the nature of faith in Jesus, which is on the human side of our salvation. Faith’s goal is access to the power for salvation that resides in Jesus Christ. It is knowledge, acknowledgment, affirmation, trust, certainty, and union with Christ. Our appropriation of salvation also possesses a divine side, and that is our topic for this essay.

God is the primary actor in every aspect of our salvation. Apart from God’s initiative in creating, preserving, and empowering the world we would not exist and could do nothing. Likewise, apart from God’s action for our salvation we could do nothing to participate in that salvation. God’s action is the objective side of our being united to Christ; faith is the subjective side.

The New Testament speaks about God’s work of uniting us to Christ as the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works internally with our individual spirit or inner person or heart—whatever term you prefer to use—giving us a new kind of life. Just as God’s Spirit gives life and being to all creatures at the very root of their being, the Spirit joins us to Christ in an action as mysterious as creation from nothing. The Spirit through whom Christ is present is able to indwell, encompass, and contain things without displacing or distorting them in any way. Hence the Spirit can change us, revive us, strengthen us or recreate us from within according to the will of God. And through the Spirit, Christ can dwell in us and transform us into his image without violence to our wills or minds.

Can we say more about the nature of our union with Christ? What kind of union is this? Two possibilities come to mind. (1) Is it a union of wills? Considered in this way, our union with Christ would be constituted by our always and fully willing everything he wills. Perhaps this is the simplest way to conceive it. We experience this type of union with friends and fellow believers when we discover that we share love for Jesus Christ and desire his glory in all things. We understand each other and feel the bond created by the One we love. The one Holy Spirit indwells the many members of the body and the many find themselves made one in mind, heart, and will by the unifying power of one and the same Spirit. We meet each other in the sphere of the Spirit.

(2) Or could our union with Christ be even more intimate? Our union with the wills of other members of Christ is a union in something else, the Spirit. It is not a direct union. But our union with Christ can be direct and intimate because Christ can be directly present to our spirits whereas another human being cannot. How can we describe such intimacy of union? Perhaps we can call it a union of being and action. Christ comes so close to us that his life-giving Spirit constantly imparts spiritual life to us so that we are empowered for actions like his.

According to the New Testament, Christ is the one through whom God created all things. He gives all things being and form. In this sense Christ is already and always connected to every creature as its cause and its Lord. All creatures are already touched by Christ and connected to him. But our being united with Christ through faith, baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit is a new creation and brings to perfection the work begun in the first creation. The final perfection of our being united with Christ is to become like him in body and soul, mind and heart, and being and action.

Paul places special emphasis on being united with Christ:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Corinthians 3: 17-18)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Next week: Paul speaks of baptism as the act by which we become united with Christ. What part does baptism play in our appropriation of salvation?

Sometimes Just BEING is Enough

As I took my Saturday morning hike this morning, found myself surrounded by green hills adorned with white, violet, yellow and red wildflowers. The gentle breeze caressed my cheeks and the birds serenaded me as I walked among the ancient Oak trees along my path.  And I thought, “Sometimes just being alive is enough.” When I stop striving and planning and worrying, I find that I still exist, and all the best things still exist. I wonder what it is about us that makes us forget this? I am sure I will forget it again, but for a few minutes this morning I remembered. I remembered that we already have everything we need for happiness. Just being given life in God’s world is a precious gift, much better than anything we could earn from our striving!

Just Being