We’re Shooting Ourselves in the Head
There is a grievous misunderstanding in the modern church that Christ calls us to revolution of action and that there is where He stops. It is similar to Israel’s misunderstanding that the Messiah would overthrow governing bodies and establish a kingdom on earth. Christ calls us to so much more than a mere revolution of behavior- he calls us to a revolution of the heart.
God’s Word tells us “I will give you a new heart…” in Ezekiel 26:36 and, by the look of things, it has been reworded so that many read it, “I will give you a better behavior.”
This unnoticed editing has done so much damage. It has weakened the power of the Gospel because the Christian, when focused on behavior, is unconcerned with those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18). We have allowed it to remove the spiritual potency of the weapons of our warfare (2 Corinthians 10:4). It has reduced the capacity of the Christian from taking every thought into captivity to taking every action into captivity for the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We have allowed ourselves to believe that the righteousness our good behavior displays is ours. We have forgotten how Isaiah put it so eloquently in his chapter 64,
…all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.
Here, Isaiah tells us what our righteous acts really accomplish: We shrivel up, the wind sweeps us away, God hides his face and we waste away. Maybe they aren’t so good after all?
I think a lot of fellow believers have the opinion that our behavior, whether good or bad, has some over-arching reach that affects God’s opinion of us. For example, you do a bad thing and God is displeased. He frowns and shakes his head. He cries. You may hear from other Christians about how God is disappointed with you. You made God cry. You should be ashamed.
On the other hand, you may do a good thing and feel that you made God smile. He’s up in heaven, nodding his head approvingly. He wants to give you a high-five!
These two views are both caricatures but, to some measure, they are also popular ways of looking at the consequences of the things we do. We tend not to think about our behavior in a context of love relationships with people. We think about it in a context of making God smile or cry. It is easy to completely forget about loving other people with that at the front of your mind.
What Just Happened?
Paul talks about why God sees us as righteous in the book of Romans. He makes it clear that our deeds do not affect God’s opinion of our righteousness:
But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it: “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight. Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin.” (Romans 4:5-8)
How we should feel upon being declared righteous without deserving it is blessed. Paul quotes David’s opinion of the situation as well: “Oh, what joy for those…” So when you think about being declared righteous, you should feel joyfully blessed. You should not feel like you have something left to prove, or that God declared you righteous because he knew you would make up for it in the future with your good behavior.
The last line of that passage indicates something that many people may find terrifying: we have a record. Not just any record, either. A criminal record. Those same people may feel there is something not quite right about being declared righteous when they didn’t do anything to deserve it. I think this touches on a key part of what it means to be a weak, fallen person: we like to feel as though we deserve everything God has given us. So we go off and try to live a life of good behavior. We do this with the purpose of showing God we were worthy to receive all he has given us. But this is pointless because Isaiah already made it clear that our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Are we going to accept God’s gift of pure garments and try to reimburse him with torn, filthy, worn-out cloth? They won’t prove anything other than our unworthiness to receive the gift in the first place.
Further on in the same chapter of Romans, Paul uses Abraham as a prime example of someone
…being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (21-24).
It is so vital to realize that those words “were not written for him alone, but also for us!” are written for us! The same righteousness that God credited to Abraham so long ago is also credited to us. We have that same standing because of what God chose to do, not because of anything we ourselves have done.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not for a minute saying our behavior doesn’t matter. I’m only saying it doesn’t matter in the context of self. And far, far too often a church will lecture sternly from the podium on the personal merits of good behavior. This is yet another area of wholly misguided teaching, because good works are only good insofar as “…they see your good deeds and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
A lot of Christians seem to think that ‘good deeds’ are just good, no matter what. If that was true, Jesus probably would have said “…they see your good deeds and praise you.” So you could sum up the understanding of many Christians to be: People should notice how well-behaved and nice I am, and that I always speak in a civil tone because that is true Christianity. They couldn’t be more wrong as a Christian.
The church seems to believe that self-discipline is a valid way to connect with God and to really commune with Him. Or, to sum it up in a line I heard last February from a former pastor of a traditional, fundamental church, “The secret to Christianity is trying to be a little better each day.” Lectures on the topic of Christ’s perfection in action abound. He never sinned! His behavior was perfect and that’s why God accepted him as the sacrifice for sin, so we all must strive for perfect behavior too, because that is Christ like! The church couldn’t be more wrong, either.
The Only Perfect Sacrifice that Ever Talked Back to Mom
Well isn’t that true, though? Wasn’t Jesus perfectly well-behaved? He wasn’t. He caused some measure of grief for his parents, according to Luke 2:48-50. Imagine yourself coming in late at night. Your mother and father have been waiting up for hours. They’ve looked everywhere and called all your friends. Just as they’re ready to call the police, you come waltzing in. They just gawk at you and say “We were worried sick! Where were you?” Imagine their response if you replied “Didn’t you know? I was busy doing God’s work.” The Bible doesn’t elaborate on what Mary and Joseph did when Jesus gave this response, other than to say they didn’t understand.
Another time, when Jesus is older, he attends a wedding with his disciples and his mother. His mother asks him to perform a miracle. She wants more wine and figures He is just the guy for it. He responds with “Dear woman, that’s not our problem…” (John 2:4). That’s a damn cheeky way for a well-behaved person to talk to their mother!
When it came to his closest relationships, Jesus wasn’t afraid to mix it up, either. He didn’t try to exude social nicety. No one could possibly argue that it was polite of Jesus to tell Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” in Matthew 16:23. Pretty rude, don’t you think? But it was completely necessary, since Peter had just finished trying to discourage Jesus from talking about his own crucifixion, saying “Heaven forbid, Lord! This will never happen to you!”
Jesus knew his purpose. A lot of Christians don’t know theirs. They aren’t sensitive to the Holy Spirit and frequently are confused about their purpose and mission. They would certainly never follow the bold example of Christ and tell even their closest, Christian friends “Get behind me, Satan” if the situation demanded it.
Evidence of Jesus being a ‘bad boy’ is most evident with even a cursory glance at how he interacted with the religious leaders of his day. They hated him and he knew it. These were the most respected leaders of Jewish society. They were the men with the money, power and popularity. They set status quo. Their influence was far-reaching. Then here comes Jesus, a country bumpkin from some backwater little corner of Israel who starts telling them things like “You cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition…” (Matthew 15:6) and that “Only an evil and adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign” (Matthew 16:2).
Jesus saves his strongest language for these respected leaders. In Matthew 23:25 he tells them “…you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” He follows it up in verse 27 with a similar onslaught of rudeness, saying, “…you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” If Jesus really, truly wanted Christians to be nice people, he sure doesn’t set a good example.
A Real Example to Follow
That is why I don’t think that is what he calls us to do. I think Jesus came to tells us to love people, regardless of who they are, where they are from, how they treat us and whether or not we like them.
Jesus tells Peter to do this in John 21:15-17:
After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love (agapao) me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love (phileo) you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love (agapao) me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love (phileo) you.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time.
He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.”
What is interesting about this passage is that there are two kinds of love at play. There is the love Jesus wants Peter to have for him and there is the one Peter actually has.
When Jesus starts off the conversation by asking “Do you love me?” the Greek word for love used there is ‘agapao,’ which means ‘to love dearly.’ When Peter responds by saying “You know I love you,” the Greek word for love used there is ‘phileo,’ which means ‘to like.’
An illustration might help. We’ve all had experience with those pointless relationships that happen in high school. If you were never in one yourself, chances are high that you had a friend or two who did and they may have talked about it with you. Usually the problems that centered on a particular girl or guy had to do with these questions: “Does she like me or love me? And if she only likes me, does she like-like me, or just like me?”
Jesus doesn’t make any distinction here. There is one category of devotion. However, even when Peter makes it clear that his devotion only goes as far as liking Jesus, Jesus tells him to go ahead and feed the sheep anyway! Jesus wants to use that! But he also wants us to grow in our love and change. He wants our ‘liking him’ to become ‘loving him dearly,’ which can only happen in the heart.
He even had love for his most bitter enemies. In Mark 3, Jesus is about to heal a deformed man’s hand. The Pharisees are watching to see what he does, because it is the Sabbath and they want to see if he ignores their laws. Before breaking their laws and healing the man, “…he looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hardened hearts.”
That almost seems contradictory, doesn’t it? How can you be deeply saddened by someone who makes you angry? A lot of Christians don’t understand the struggle Christ is involved in at this point. It is a struggle of the flesh, embodied in the Pharisees, versus the spirit, embodied in Christ. Many times in contemporary Christianity, the struggle is seen as one of flesh versus flesh.
The Secret War
An often overlooked facet of the Christian life is that the struggle is not flesh versus flesh but is flesh versus spirit. In the book of Galatians, Paul offers advice to those who don’t know how to deal with this bizarre war:
So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. (5:16-17)
Paul goes on to list what he calls the ‘sins of the flesh’:
“When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these…”(5:19-21).
Then he contrasts these sins of the flesh with their godly counterparts, the ‘fruit of the Spirit:’
“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” (5:22)
I fear that so many Christians have blurred the lines between the sins of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit that the categories have become ‘good behavior’ and ‘bad behavior.’
When you examine these two lists, you may notice a few interesting things.
First, notice that the ‘Spirit’ by which these fruits are produced is not our spirit. It is not a spirit of self-discipline. It is only by God’s Spirit that these can be produced.
Second, notice that the activities which follow ‘sins of the flesh’ are largely action- oriented. They describe actual physical behavior. Then notice the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ Although these certainly have behavior which is connected to them, Paul does not make a list of loving actions, joyful actions, nor kind actions etc.
I think the reason that he does not is given in verse 25 of this same chapter, “Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” He assumes that the revolutionary Christian is already being guided by the Holy Spirit! And when that guidance is understood and followed, those fruits are produced naturally. They don’t come about as a result of manipulating the sins of the flesh to look nice!
Conversely, we can assume that sins of the flesh will be produced by a Christian who is not following the Spirit’s leading in every part of their life. That is not to say they are completely rejected by God, only that their witness and their ambassadorship (2 Cor. 5:20) will suffer greatly.
Third, you need to understand that there are two ‘trees’ growing in you: flesh and Spirit. The only thing the ‘flesh tree’ produces are sin. The only thing the ‘Spirit tree’ produces are fruit.
But I Already Love Evvverryyyoneee!
Love is a principle aspect of healthy, mature Christian life. You can have all the good deeds and nice behavior it is possible to dream up but without love, they’re useless for any purpose other than to mask deeds of the flesh. Obviously that deduction is drawn from Paul’s explanation of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, although I think a majority of Christians seem to believe the ‘love’ he talks about is defined as general, generic feelings of good will. For example, you ‘love’ the cashier at the supermarket. You ‘love’ fellow drivers on the road. You ‘love’ all these people when you don’t know their names. You couldn’t be more wrong.
Again we need to explain the kind of love Paul is talking about here:
If I could speak all the languages of earth and angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing (1 Cor. 1:1-3)
The word ‘love’ that he uses here is the Greek word ‘agape,’ which means to have a brotherly (or sisterly) love, affection, good will, or benevolence toward someone. But its word origin is the same idea that Jesus and Peter talk about in John 21- agapao, to love dearly.
I’m not saying that it is wrong to love the cashier or fellow drivers, or that you can’t. But to interpret that kind of love as the ultimate way to live out what Paul is talking about is the same as cheating yourself out of opportunities to become truly Christ like.
The Obvious Secret
Without the context of authentic relationships with people, love cannot abound as Christ wants it to abound. He does not want to see us limited in our relationships by worrying about good or bad behavior. It is true that our behavior plays its part in leading people to Christ but that behavior is most fruitful when it is close and personal and we have invested our time, effort, sweat and blood into that relationship.
When we sacrifice, when we admonish, when we exhort and rebuke, it means something. When we are willing to go to the front lines and challenge our friend who is involved in a detrimental lifestyle apart from Christ, we love them. When we encourage a fellow Christian struggling with some sin of the flesh and let them know that they are not alone and share our own struggles with them, we love that person. When we share the Gospel with those around us, ignoring the fact that it may be awkward, they may dislike us. But we have actively loved them. When we exhort other believers around us to rally for the cause, or identify a troubled area of Satan’s influence, they benefit and we love them.
James says that “Faith without works is dead and useless” (2:20), but we have just seen that works without love are useless too. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says “Three things will last forever- faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Works aren’t even mentioned. To some degree I think they can have an eternal effect, but the works themselves just don’t last, because they don’t do anything without love.