It's Not All About You!
Spirituality and individualism
It’s what I call the problem of the remainder. I suspect that in a time when even cell phones come with calculators, most of us still learn division in school. So, for example, if I divide seven into twenty-four, I get an answer of three with a remainder of four. Seven goes into twenty-four a certain number of times with something left over. Basic division. Simple. Now, let’s do some basic gospel division. When I listen to a fair bit of contemporary preaching and praise music, I get a very distinct feeling. If you divide me and my need into the cross, you’ve exhausted the meaning of the cross. There is no remainder. Period! After me, there is nothing left to consider!
At this point in the series, you should know almost certainly what’s about to happen. I pose a problem and the answer to the problem is a missional reading of Scripture. OK, class, if one of the things that ails us is self-centered spirituality, what’s the answer? Yes, you got it. A missional reading of the Bible!
Let me unpack that a bit. The Bible never thinks of spirituality in an individualistic sense. We tend to run the Bible’s teaching on holiness or godliness through the grid of Western culture, leaving us with teaching on sanctification that is, to some degree, largely about my spiritual growth. What’s more, that growth is largely about personal qualities. I’m more peaceful, I’m more joyful, I’m more assured that God loves me. Let me suggest that the Bible’s authors don’t quite see it that way.
Let’s take a passage like Gal. 5:22-24, for example, where Paul considers the fruit of the Spirit. There are a couple things we should keep in mind. One, his discussion of the fruit of the Spirit is in the context of a letter addressed to a Christian community, the church of Galatia. Second, notice the fruit themselves – love, kindness, and faithfulness to name some of them. How on earth would you bear those fruit alone, outside of community? I act in love toward you; you’re kind to me; she’s faithful to a friend. You might say, “Well, but what about peace? Since I met Jesus, I have so much peace within.” Perhaps you do but that’s not what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about the way the redemptive shalom of God that comes through Christ creates a community of forgiveness and reconciliation. Peace, here, is not about subjective feelings but a way of life in community that is a taste of the kingdom.
Notice Paul isn’t running the Christian life through the Western grid of expressive individualism. How could he? He wasn’t raised in Western culture. Yes, I am to be a loving, kind, faithful person. But that, along with the rest of the fruit of the Spirit, is realized in community as a way of being in Christ together. It’s a kingdom way of living that I can’t fully realize on my own. But somehow, in our day, we have come to define and describe the Christian life as something I could just as easily live alone on a desert island.
Our need for spirituality in community
As we read his letters, Paul indicates that my growth (and yours) is dependent on the growth of the community. Ephesian 4:11-16 is a particularly potent example. His vision here isn’t of the personal growth of countless separate individuals but the building up of the whole Body of Christ. Each part of the Body is essential for the Body to grow and build itself up in love. Indeed, this is a passage that takes a long look into the future because the maturity he has in mind isn’t simply my own and yours in the context of any particular local church. Ultimately, the Apostle has in mind the Body of Christ at the end of history when that number beyond counting from every nation, tribe, people, and language are gathered before the Lamb on his throne. My growth isn’t complete until the mission of God is complete.
And there we have the door into the problem that haunts our reading of Scripture as we consider Christian growth and maturity. Severed from the mission of God, our reflection on holiness and godliness becomes individualistic, introspective, and self-centered: Am I good enough? Am I humble enough? Am I weak enough? Am I relying on grace enough? There is nothing bigger to think about than me. Why is that not good enough? Well frankly, if I’m really honest, I’m just not interesting enough to be the fuel for a Christian life marked by a passion for God and the global expansion of his kingdom.
God’s answer for a runaway planet is not simply a multitude of separate navel-gazers obsessed with their own progress in holiness. Rather, he has redeemed a people who are a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom, a people whose life together in the missional communities the New Testament calls the church, are a glimpse of God’s future for the world. The missionary-scholar Lesslie Newbigin puts it so well,
“How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.”
Newbigin’s words suggest that men and women must come to think the announcement of the kingdom is plausible before they embrace it as credible. If the gospel is ultimately about a new humanity, in a new world, with a new head, Jesus Christ, is there a place to experience this new kingdom and the life-giving rule of its gracious Lord? In a culture that in deep denial about sin and death and has largely abandoned hope, where do men and women turn to see a glimpse of what God has promised for the world He loves? The New Testament answer is churches—missional communities—that are a sign of the coming kingdom of God.
A better way to tell the Good News
In many places both here and overseas, when an agricultural agency wants to convince local growers of the value and benefit of a new seed or fertilizer, a demonstration plot is created. The agency demonstrates the proper use of these new agro-products in the hope that farmers, seeing their benefit, will adopt them. I’m looking at a pamphlet from an international aid agency entitled, “Seeing is Believing: Evidence from a Demonstration Plot Experiment in Mozambique.” To put it simply, it’s a strategy of conversion through demonstration. Hmmm. Sounds like a kingdom strategy for the local church—conversion through demonstration.
What would it mean for us to read the Bible as a manual on missional holiness rather than self-centered holiness, a holiness in community that becomes a demonstration plot of the kingdom? Yes, like the agricultural agent, we will need to teach. “This seed,” she says, “will enhance agricultural production, food security, and income generation.” But locals used to a particular way of farming will still say, “So, show us it’s better.” We will need to teach as well about the kingdom of heaven—the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the great wedding banquet, the yeast that leavens the loaf. But in a culture comfortable with familiar ways and cushioned by affluence, when we proclaim life-changing news about the reign of God, men and women will more and more say, “So, show us it’s better.”
“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” says the Psalmist. Like appetizers that heighten our anticipation of the main course, gospel congregations should be the places where those who hunger and thirst can taste and see the goodness of God in the gospel. Yes, in one sense holiness starts with me; holiness begins with you. But it can’t end there. My pursuit of holiness and yours must always fit into the larger vision Peter sets before us, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (I Pet. 2:9). Holiness may begin with each of us but it always ends in mission.
Can you think of a way that you live your life is a demonstration of the Kingdom? How about your church? What might you do to make visible changes?
If you need help with practical ways to show your faith, purchase Greg Laurie’s Living Out Your Faith: Messages from the Gospel of John, Volume III from our online bookstore. Or visit the Colson Center Library and read “Living an Apologetic Life” by Ravi Zacharias.