Grace Emerges

Monday, April 2, 2012

Forward Progress 2: God's Will and Purpose

Forward Progress: 
Lessons and Trends in Progressive Christian Faith
by Brad Duncan

A 6-part series on the church, faith and theology,
and how they can move forward into the next generation. 

God's Will and Purpose

There's something wrong with our religion when it leads us to try to please God instead of relate with him.

As Christians, we're all trying to do the right thing.  We're trying to believe the right thing, do God's will, give him the credit for all good gifts, honor him as holy, and sing his praises.  From a very early age I learned that the most important thing in life was to please God and do his will.  I can't knock us Christians for our good intentions :) in this regard.

So I want to challenge us on this from two directions, two ways to view the same thing.  From one side, I would ask if all of this trying to do the right thing, is really, ... the right thing?  Does God want our sacrifices, actions, songs, beliefs that are pointed in the direction of pleasing him?  Is there anything that God wants us to do? Any instructions, any right worship?  Any right individual purpose?  On the other hand, from the other side I would ask if we could describe what God really desires?  What is God really interested in, what are his passions, what are his intentions?  If we could find those, maybe we could do "his will" best by getting doing what he cares about the most.

Reflecting on the first point, is God pleased by our focus on serving him, whether through individual disciplines, worship or religious practices?  The Christian routine is to gather every week for worship in an effort to bring our collective focus on God through various acts like singing, praying, reading the Bible.  We practice and talk about traditions.  We practice our arts: orchestral, vocal, guitar riffs, PowerPoint slides, light shows, sermons, prayers.  We talk about how good it is to be in God's house and do something great that will shine our light brightly in the world by worshiping our God.  We talk about how each person can take that same "church moment" and live it all week long to be a light in the world.  The we invest a little time in shaking hands with some people, maybe having a cup of coffee.  We take an offering and use the money for good works, and to keep the lights on.

Of course I'm speaking broadly and your church may have a more people-focus than what I am describing, but can our churches answer "yes" to any of these questions:

  • Do we offer community?  Is more than 50% of our time focused on looking at each other, listening to each other, sharing ideas, actually relating?  If not, what is the reason?  Is it that we are so focused on serving God that we can't spend more time on each other?  What about 25%, or 10%, of our time.  Is that invested in each other?
  • Do we alleviate suffering?  Are more than 50% of our resources in terms of service (human effort), money and influence in the community and the world, applied to go do good?  If not, is the reason that we are so focused on serving God that we can't spend more resources on caring for others?  Or is the reason that we would rather spend those resources on helping others serve God than helping them materially?  Okay surely human suffering must rank somewhere high our on list: how about 25%? how about 10%?  How about 5%?  
  • Do we invest in the future?  In terms of our vision do we focus more than 50% on the responsibility we Christians have in our communities and in the world to improve the world in the future?  Do we work on ending hunger, fighting diseases, cleaning up the environment?  As the giant church of world-wide Christians, do we use more than 50% of our collective voice to push governments and institutions to bring good things?  Personally I have no inclination toward politics, but I am awed by the potential of the collective -- what could we do in solidarity with other believers if fight for change?  What good things could result?  With our focus on pleasing God have we ever invested in these good things?
  • Do we help bring love and understanding into our world?  Surely we are good at this one.  Surely as Christians we are the voice of reason with respect to the proper treatment of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, various beliefs, people of varying economic status, immigrants, the unemployed, the outcast, the prostitutes, the prisoners, the poor and needy, the mentally ill, [the list is endless so fill in the blank]?  Surely when you walk in the doors of the church you can feel a huge difference, a breath of fresh air, that surely inside the church you will find a shelter from the harsh pressures of the world and find love and acceptance, no matter who you are.  Do we spend a few words of welcome to make sure all of these people will find shelter in our doors and in our arms?  Do we offer this welcome at least 50% of the time?  How about 25%?  How about 10%?  How about ever?  If not, is the reason that we would rather please God than spend time with the unaccepted people in society?  Do we think God is offended that these people would join us in worshiping him?
  • Do we teach our children to love God by loving others, and show them how?  Is more than 50% of our children's ministry spent on setting a good example to our children?  Do we demonstrate love, or do we just teach them to sing songs and recite stories about people showing love?  What is the goal for our children that grow up in the church?  What are we hoping they will invest their lives in?
You may counter by saying that true religion is more of a personal matter.  The church just facilitates the work of the individual believer, sort of a pep rally for going forth and going good 1-on-1.  Let's take a look at that.  Can we individually answer "yes" to any of these questions:
  • Do we offer community to others that might need help in their faith, might need someone to listen to them, might disagree with us?  Do we value spiritual dialog, no matter what the angle the other person comes from?
  • Do we work to alleviate suffering through any resources, opportunities and relationships that may be available?
  • Are we a breath of fresh air for people we encounter that have been rejected or despised by others?  Do they find love and understanding when they encounter us?
  • Are we setting an example for our children?  Do we want them to grow up to act like us?
I hope we are doing these things.  But if our reasons for not doing them is that we are too busy either seeking God or building what we think is God's kingdom to spend more time on these things, then aren't we just a little confused?  What about discipleship?  Certainly this is pleasing to God, right?  If we are spending time with daily disciplines, trying to become a better Christian, praying, asking God to help others (and ourselves), trying to fight sin, trying to have the proper singular focus on spiritual matters, then we are on the right track, right?  If the daily disciplines lead us to say "yes" to the above questions and similar ones involving caring for others, then that's great.  Do 50% of our daily disciplines lead us to invest in doing good rather than internal spirituality or meeting our own needs?  How about 25%?  How about 10%?  How about 5%?

We are at a cross-roads.  We need to stop and assess if our activities of worship and self-discipline, in the name of pleasing God, are actually what God wants.  Is "pleasing God", pleasing to God?  Does he like it?  Are we pointed the right direction?  If not then we should definitely turn around, changing our hearts and minds, changing our actions, changing our daily and weekly rituals, to do something else that is more pleasing to God.  Like I said before, we are strong on good intentions. If God wants something different, then we would care about that, and would want to re-align ourselves with his will.

To take the point a bit further, is God pleased by what we believe?  Do we have the right set of Biblical understanding so that our faith makes us acceptable to God?  Do we believe all the right things, and discard all the false teachings, so that we are the pure and right children of God?  Does our believing make God happy?  Does our adherence to God's value system make him happy?  Does our alignment with God on declaring certain things sinful and declaring certain things holy, set God's mind at ease, so he doesn't have to worry that we will be misguided?  Are we getting the "righteousness" thing right?  Are we fighting for purity?  Are we fighting for holiness?  To the extent that all this righteousness is in our head as a complete map of beliefs and ideals, is God thrilled with what's in our head?  Is he impressed?

And further, is God pleased by the way we stand up against sins (love the sinner, but hate the sin)?  Do we use our internal righteousness map to guide the misguided, letting them know how to stop being wrong and start being right, like us?  Are we investing in building more righteousness?  Are we lovingly and consistently pointing out the flaws in others?  Does God like this?  Is he impressed with how well we stand up for him?

In these different ways we are mixing up our version of pleasing God with what he actually asked us to do.  We are tripped up.  We are turned around backwards.  We are investing in pleasing God and teaching others to do the same, rather than doing any actual good or actually making God any happier.  That just doesn't make sense!

To try to make sense out of this I will start from the other side of the topic: God's heart.  What is God like, and what is he passionate about?  If we're keen on showing our love for him we should start by asking him what he wants.  I don't recall Jesus ever telling his followers to practice religion.  But Jesus talked about God's will all the time!  For Jesus, doing God's will was about following God's example.  In other words, God wants us to do what he does.  Does God practice religion?  Does God work on individual disciplines? Since Jesus was on Earth with us as the Incarnation of God, we could just follow the example of Jesus, in order to more clearly see God's will. Jesus also pointed to way to the Father, so we can learn from how Jesus taught us to follow the Father's will.  A simple example is the Lord's prayer -- a prototype for us that is devoid of any mention of religious activity or individual perfection.  Then there's the beatitudes and the sermon on the mount - a sweeping treatise on the uselessness of empty religion for relating to God's heart.  Rather than give you a 20-point bullet list of all the ways we could follow the example of Jesus and the ways in which he pointed to the Father, I would point out only two ways:  Love God.  Love People.  Period.  If we're investing less than 100% of our spiritual efforts and righteousness on these two ways, then we have room for improvement!

I would also point out that if act LIKE God, then we will show grace, like God does.  All of our righteousness is empty and useless if we use it to prove that we are better than someone else.  Isn't this the message of I Corinthians 13?  Being good, in any form, is useless compared to doing good.  Individual perfection, without love for others, is just a waste of time!  We should redefine our righteousness as this: love God, and act like God does.  Does he show grace?  Does he forgive?  Does he bring freedom and rescue the captives?  Does he heal the sick and alleviate suffering?  Does he open his arms to affirmatively and intentionally welcome outcasts?  How can we spend SO MUCH effort trying to please God, and yet act so unlike him?

Whatever God's perfect will and purpose is for creation, I can safely assert that what we're doing as the religious institution of Christians called the Church, is mostly too distracted by our effort to please God to actually do his will.  We should honestly give ourselves a grade on how our activities, resources and individual efforts are aligned with God's heart for loving relationships and kindness to others.  More specifically in the next sections I'll look for a way forward for today's church.

Pointing Out the Flaws
The reason for our low grades on aligning with God's heart (for loving relationships and kindness to others) is rooted in our understanding of God's nature and the gospel.  We imitate God, adopting his attitude.  But if we think that God's love must be earned, and that he refuses to accept those with certain flaws, then we act the same toward others.  Furthermore, we spin our wheels trying to earn love from God, to show ourselves worthy, to avoid losing our favored-son/daughter status.  As I pointed out in the previous article, Joy, Peace and Freedom, our traditional gospel is both good news and bad news.  See Figure 1.  The bad news, for us believers, is that we are good enough for God only through some measure of faith, works, ideals, creeds, self-disciplines, avoidance of sins, and regular participation in worship.  Of course we see that people of different Christian traditions have very different ways of pleasing God than we do, but we are pretty sure that we are doing something right, spinning our wheels in a way that will keep us on God's good side.  Maybe it's not necessary (due to Grace, of course), but just in case, we are going to do all the God-pleasing that we can.

This is not freedom.  This is not relationship.  This is not a worthy expenditure of effort.  Why is that?  If God is seeking us, then he wants to get past the red tape and actually build a relationship with us.  As a married man, I consider how my wife would like it if I spent my life serving her, but never relating.  If I was always  busy doing all the things I thought she liked, feeling that I had to busily please her with my service and acts of love, would she be happy?  Actually she would quickly set me straight, asking me to stop all the commotion, and come sit down and talk to her, spend some time together, do something together.  What my wife craves (don't they all?) is time with me, not busy acts of service.  Certainly there is work to be done, so we do it together, or side-by-side, but not as servant and master.  Is God high above us?  Yes, so high above that we can't fathom why he would concern himself with us -- but does God want blind service?  Is that what he calls us to?  No.  The commandment to "Love God with all our heart, soul, and mind" is not about service, it is about love.  Authentic, genuine, deep, thoughtful, emotional, and committed love.  We also call it intimacy.  Are we possibly avoiding intimacy with God, replacing intimacy with being busy with worship and service?

What We Can Learn
What are we to do then?  Should we just stop everything and try to relate?  In fact, maybe so, but that can be ambiguous and unsettling.  More clearly, we should recognize that God uses life's opportunities to call us. Gathering for worship, celebrating communion and baptism, singing songs, studying the Bible, these are opportunities for God to call us.  But they are for US, not for God.  We can hear God's voice in these things -- God calling us into relationship.  We should invert our understanding of our spiritual practices - they are to please US, if anybody.  More correctly, they are to remind us about God and his character, and our relationship with him.  If we listen closely we will hear God calling us to his side, to a more authentic and real connection with him.  He wants us to see creation as he sees it.  He wants us to reflect his grace, his compassion, his interest in redemption and acceptance.  He wants us to join him in calling all people to himself.

Rather than individual perfection through discipleship or God-oriented religious efforts, God is pleased by nurturing relationships, by community, by compassion, by reflecting his heart in our lives.  Figure 2 shows how we can reset our beliefs about pleasing God.  If we cast off the notion of Judgmental Grace, which leads to an endless need to please God with our behavior, then we are left with Jesus, who in his authority has offered grace, unconditional love, to us.  We consider that grace as a call to commit to a life-long relationship of intimacy.  We respond with love.  This love liberates us and transforms us, making us whole, making us kind and compassionate, making us sensitive to the Holy Spirit, making us spiritual.  This love eradicates judgment in our own hearts and leads us to join God in adopting grace for all people.

Do we continue to perform religious activities?  Do we continue to carry on traditions?  If we are doing them because we like them and they help us hear God and respond to him, then by all means carry on.  If we are doing them to get any kind of spiritual credit - we're wasting our time and maybe missing the point.


Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening byDiana Butler Bass (Feb 14, 2012)

See related articles by me: Calling Open Minds: The Kingdom of God Needs You, The Open Church Initiative, The Church in a Trance, Finding God in the Matrix, What Kind of Neo?, .

Related article(s) by others: The Church Can End Extreme Poverty

Forward Progress: "I am the way, the truth and the life.  Come to the Father through me!  Find the good life at home in my kingdom, where God's will is done, where your needs matter, and where forgiveness reigns." -- Jesus

Figure 1.  The gospel should be based on the authority of Christ rather than a mix of grace and judgment.

Figure 2.  In our role as God's children, our goal is to honor and glorify God, doing his will, and contributing to his purpose.  But what does he want?  Rather than actions, service or worship, he longs for us to participate in life with him in a way that is rewarding for both sides.

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