On Monday, we looked at an excerpt from Henri Nouwen‘s Sabbatical Journey and unpacked some of his reflections about Lent. We focused more on the beginning and end of the passage, but today I really want to focus on what he says in the middle.
Jesus stressed the hidden life. Whether we give alms, pray, or fast, we are able to do it in a hidden way, not to be praised by people but to enter into closer communion with God. Lent is a time of returning to God. It is a time to confess how we keep looking for joy, peace, and satisfaction in the many people and things surrounding us, without really finding what we desire. Only God can give us what we want. So we must be reconciled with God, as Paul says, and let that reconciliation be the basis of our relationship with others.
I always love how honest Nouwen is about what it’s like to be human. He acknowledges all our fallen nature, our pride and guilt and selfishness and all the rest, yet he uses his own vulnerability to draw us into closer relationship with the Divine.
How often I fail at living the “hidden life” Jesus modeled for us. How easily I am distracted and motivated by the praise the world gives. How quickly I stray from the one thing I want. The psalmist calls it an undivided heart. John calls it remaining in God. Nouwen calls it communion with God.
It is only when we are living this hidden life that we are able to be in right relationship with others. It is only when we acknowledge our need for and accept God’s forgiveness that we are able to acknowledge our need for and ask for forgiveness from others or give them our forgiveness, even if they do not ask or acknowledge the need.
Lent is a time for reconciling ourselves to God and to others (not to mention to ourselves) so that when Easter morning comes, we are fully able to understand and celebrate the event that forever reconciled the world to God.
This process is big and important. It is difficult. It requires humility and honesty, vulnerability and transparency. It requires intention and space.
But the good news is, reconciliation starts with God, and with God, it is already finished!
In the evangelical Christian worldview, we like to have the answers for everything. We like neatness and order. We like clarity. We like black and white truths. We like boundaries. We like to know what is okay and what is not okay, what is allowed and what is not allowed, who is in and who is out.
Bonhoeffer on Community
I’ve written before about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s expression of intentional Christian community (see here and here). Bonhoeffer described the number one characteristic of Christian community as Jesus as mediator. When we communicate and interact through Jesus, when we view our brothers and sisters through Jesus, we cannot help but act and react, share and respond out of love. When we know our brothers and sisters view us the same way, we cannot help but trust that their actions and communication are out of love as well.
Bonhoeffer also stressed the importance of confessing our sins to one another and forgiving each other as Christ forgives all of us. One of my favorite lines in Life Together is when Bonhoeffer notes that it is difficult to interact with members of our community with anything but love and trust when we hear the confessions of our brothers and sisters and grant them absolution, praying together with them for the forgiveness and blessing of Christ.
The Life of Love
In the Critical Journey, the authors call Stage 6 the Life of Love. (Here’s a great chart reviewing all the stages.) When we reach this stage in our journey, we live, serve, and speak out of our healing, out of the love we have experienced in our encounters with God.
We let go of the questions, the boundaries, the concerns over who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, and we just love on people. We love people as Christ loved because our agenda is gone. Our wall has been dismantled, and we no longer live in our pain and react out of fear and anger.
It’s no longer of principle concern whether we are warning people about hell or condemning their actions and words. It’s no longer our concern whether people know and love Jesus as we know and love Jesus. Only God knows a person’s heart, and we are not designed to fill in for God in matters of the heart. We are designed to be God’s hands and feet in the world, the body of Christ among the people of God—all of them.
When we reach Stage 6, we no longer worry so much about the doubts and questions of Stage 4. They may still be there, unresolved, unanswered, but they are no longer driving our thoughts and actions. They are no longer overwhelming us. They are rather a reminder that we do not have all the answers, that we do not have it all figured out, and that’s okay. The one thing we are sure of when we reach Stage 6 is what our experience of God is like, that we want to continue moving toward God along with our brothers and sisters, and that we cannot help but share our hope with one another.
Paul’s well-known 1Cor 13 passage is the epitome of the Life of Love. No matter what wonderful things we have accomplished, what honest and intentional lives we lead, if we are still living in Stage 3 where our words and actions are coming out of our duty and our pain and woundedness are still skewing our efforts to serve God, then we are nothing more than a whole lot of loud and ineffectual noise.
I love what Paul says later on in the chapter about growing up in Christ. When we are children, we behave like children, which is right and appropriate for our natural development. Being a child is good—while you are young.
But there comes a time when our natural human development moves us into that wonderful world of responsibility, wisdom, and work called adulthood, and it is in this stage of life that it is no longer right and appropriate to behave like children. Now it is time to grow up, get a job, move into your own apartment, pay taxes and bills, maybe join with another adult and start a new family.
This is natural and right. This is good. Behaving like child is good while you are a child, but behaving like an adult when you have grown up is just as good.
Just as we should not retain our childish interests and behaviors when we are grown, so we should not remain in our childhood or adolescent state of spiritual development. This is another area where the lack of a holistic body theology is evident. We too easily remain unaware of the necessity of spiritual growth along with physical growth. As our bodies grow and change, so should our spiritual lives.
There’s a reason Paul uses the metaphor of a physical human body so often in his letters. The wellbeing of our physical and spiritual selves are intimately related. Thus, they should both be growing. We should pursue spiritual health and growth just as fervently as we pursue physical health and growth.
Too easily we are satisfied with life in Stage 3. We think if we can get people to grow up enough to start giving back, then that’s enough. We’ve arrived!
Never mind people are giving back out of their woundedness. Never mind people are giving back out of their fear and lack of understanding. Never mind people are following blindly after others who are giving out of the same woundedness, fear, and lack of understanding.
It’s no wonder so many Christians leave the Church when they reach Stage 4. In Stage 3 churches, there is no room for questioning and doubting. There is no room for messy, for in-between, for grey.
It’s no wonder so many people view Christians as intolerant, rigid, ignorant, and hateful. Stage 3 is a wonderful and necessary part of the Christian journey, but when we get stuck there, when we fool ourselves into believing we’ve “arrived,” then we become intolerant, rigid, ignorant and hateful. We become everything we say we are against.
We become Pharisees.
But God has called us to more than this. The Christian life is not about the conversion experience. It’s not about the active Christian life.
It’s about the Life of Love. It’s about love—dirty, messy, sacrificial, costly love. It’s about love that humbles itself to take the form of a human being. It’s about love that humbles itself to become obedient to death by the most violent and painful method of execution ever designed. It’s about love that follows after Jesus not because it’s what is acceptable or required but because the call to “come follow me” is irresistible and renewed each day.
Much-Afraid Becomes Grace and Glory
The allegory Hinds Feet on High Places ends with Much-Afraid’s arrival at the Mountain of Spices. She is healed, transformed, and receives her new name, Grace and Glory.
But that’s not the end of the story.
In the sequel Mountain of Spices, Grace and Glory makes her way back down from the Good Shepherd’s home, back down into the Valley of Death where her family lives. She faces the cousins who tortured and taunted her, and she responds to them with love. Her love confuses them! Her transformation inspires the journey of others in the Valley.
What Much-Afraid, Bonhoeffer, and Paul all have in common with the Critical Journey is Stage 6, the Life of Love. It is when we are living and acting out of our healing that we are truly interacting with each other through Jesus as mediator. When we are living the Life of Love, we can confess our sins to one another and forgive each other.
When we live the Life of Love, being in community is a joy. It may not be easy, and it may not be comfortable. It may not even be “acceptable.” It certainly won’t be ideal.
But it will be real. It will be genuine. It will be full of love that casts out all fear, in which we are rooted and grounded, in whom we live and move and have our being, out of whom we speak and act and are the body of Christ.
Having a holistic body theology is great, but it is nothing without love to drive us toward something fruitful, beautiful, honest, holy—without love to drive us toward God, always toward God.
May love be the foundation of our communities, lovely readers. Let us be the beloved Bride of Christ, the Church active in the world and actively loving the world, our body theology lived out among the people of God.
Yesterday, we looked at a list of the negative treatment of “the flesh” in the New Testament.
The Flesh = The Sinful Nature
When the gospel writers and Paul write about “the flesh,” they are not making general statements condemning our physical bodies. Fleshly, earthly, and human are all descriptors used in reference to the sinful nature. For example, you’ll notice I used the NIV for the Galatians 5:16-18 link yesterday because it uses the translation “flesh” rather than the updated TNIV translation “sinful nature.” The scholars working on the TNIV decided to update the translation to help illuminate the point Paul is trying to make.
It is the desires of our sinful nature that are against the Spirit, not the desires of our physical bodies. Our bodies’ need for basics like food, sleep, and sex are not evil or filthy desires in and of themselves. God created us with these desires and designed our bodies to function this way. Paul’s point is that the sinful nature corrupts these desires.
But the list I shared yesterday is not the full story. That list was only the “not yet” of Paul’s argument: that we are still battling the sinful nature and must fight to follow the Spirit and bear fruit. The battle is ongoing and will not be fully realized until we die or Jesus returns.
There is another part of the story, the “already” of Paul’s argument. The battle has already been won. We can experience the fullness of redemption right now and forever. There is nothing to struggle against anymore because Jesus came to live among us, was crucified as the ultimate sacrifice for our sin, and was raised from the dead in final victory.
Here are some “already” verses for you:
- Jhn 1:14
- Acts 2:26-27
- Rom 8:8-10
- Rom 9:8
- 2Cor 10:2-4
- Gal 2:20
- Eph 2:14-16
- Eph 5:29-30
- Eph 6:12
- Col 1:19-23
- Heb 2:13-15
- Heb 10:19-22
We Christians are really good at living in the “not yet” part of the kingdom of God. We struggle and try and work out our salvation with sweat and tears. We put the burden on ourselves to do the work of capturing every thought, renewing our minds, and beating our flesh into submission. We are still being saved.
What we can’t seem to learn is how to live life in the “already.” This part of the kingdom of God is just as real, just as available to us as the “not yet.” This is where we have already been saved. The battle is won, and we are now heirs with Christ Jesus. We can approach the throne of grace with confidence. We are clothed with righteousness. There is no condemnation for us because we are under Christ Jesus. We are dead to sin and alive to Christ. We have taken off the old and have put on the new.
Old Testament Sacrifice and Jesus
In the Old Testament, the blood sacrifice of a pure, unblemished animal was necessary to purify the sinful flesh of the people of God. Every time a person sinned, another blood sacrifice was necessary to make the person clean and pure again.
When Jesus died on the cross, our pure, spotless lamb, his blood purified the sinful flesh of the people of God forever. No longer are we bound to the need to sacrifice an animal for each of our sins. Our sins have already been paid for. Jesus’ blood has already purified us. We are called righteous because of what Christ has already done.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the implications of this “already” theology for holistic body theology.