For the Life of the World

Of the many concepts I’ve run across over the years, one that has stuck with me is John Howard Yoder’s idea that “the people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe”. At first it was only the latter part of the phrase that made sense to me—there is a grain to the universe, the way that things really are (as opposed to the way we’d like them to be), which I tend to think of as God’s economy—and to the extent that I’ve been able to align my life with that grain, I’ve prospered.

Just recently I’ve gotten a clearer understanding of the first part, with the help of Gregg Ten Elshof’s book about self-deception. Ten Elshof writes:

The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. It is the way of death to self and rebirth to a life caught up in the abundant and joyously unselfish experience of the Triinitarian community of God. … We must decide to die to whatever program we had running before we met [Jesus] if we’re to be His disciples.

In particular, you must decide to die to whatever sin has hold of you. … This is not to say that you have to be dead to these things before you can follow Jesus. It is to say that you must have decided to be dead to them. You must be dying to them.

This process of dying to self may take a lifetime. But to crucify something is to have put a plan into action that will affect the death of whatever it is that is being crucified. [Emphasis in original]

OK, that helps. Taking up the cross is a matter of crucifying our own agenda, clearing the decks of selfish habits and motivations that we might be able to embrace the way of Jesus. I can certainly testify that my own selfish habits and motivations once stood in the way of my doing that, and that  as I succeeded in eliminating those I was better able to follow Christ.

I’ve learned enough about the new life to think of the discipling process as one of getting my life in balance. It is not a matter of ticking godly achievements off a list, but rather a process of looking at areas where I tend to ungodliness, figuring out what changes are likely to make me more inclined to the godly behavior I don’t exhibit—and then working to effect those changes. For example, if I determine that I am not sufficiently prayerful, I don’t simply add regular prayer tasks to my to-do list, I spend time pondering what might make me a prayerful person, one who instinctively responds with prayer when the situation calls for it. Regular scheduled prayer might help with that—but it might not, and in any case it is not a goal in itself, becoming a prayerful person is the goal.

So what I’m about these days is bringing my life into balance—and not just any old balance, but in proper alignment with the grain of the universe, God’s economy. It’s an endless process of fine tuning (or, in many cases, very rough tuning!) and fortunately it’s a very satisfying one.

Still, it’s reasonable to ask—to what purpose? Merely as a response to God’s command? To please Him? To avoid punishment?

I suppose those elements play some role. But if I had to offer a single answer, these days I’d say that the point of it all is to become increasingly capable of living life as it was meant to be lived—to be a fully functional, smoothly turning cog in God’s machine, to play exactly the role I was ordained to play in God’s economy—and not simply because God says so, but because such a life is the best possible life, one aligned perfectly with the grain of the universe.

Maybe I’m late to the party on this, but for me it’s been an idea that has pulled together much of what I’ve learned along the way about spiritual development, things that are otherwise scattered and puzzlingly unrelated. And even though I have the idea firmly in hand now, I don’t see a lot of teaching out there that champions it.

The best teaching I’ve seen on this is a very recent film series, For the Life of the World. It starts out to answer exactly the right question:

For the Life of the World is an entertaining film series that explores the deeper meaning of Salvation. Have you ever wondered, “What is my Salvation actually FOR?” Is it only about personal atonement, about getting to heaven, or something that comes later? Is it just to have a “friend in Jesus?”

And it won my heart right away by centering around the idea of God’s economy (and the smaller economies that comprise it):

This seven-part film series and companion Field Guide will help you, your friends, church or organization investigate God’s Economy of All Things – OIKONOMIA (a Greek word that has a lot to say about God’s plan for his creation, the world, and us.)

And I think it’s statement of our purpose, while not comprehensive, focuses on a truth that gets lots of lip service but isn’t actually embraced by many Christians:

Explore how God’s purposes are woven into every area of our lives: family, work, art, charity, education, government, recreation and all creation! The Bible calls us Strangers and Pilgrims, living in “the now and not yet” of God’s Kingdom Come on earth. We are also called to be salt and light, to have a transforming presence among our neighbors. In seven 20-minute-ish episodes, you’ll learn how our lives lived on earth matter in God’s plan for the world.

The danger here, of course, is that we might yield to our all-American desire to Do Something and veer off into “radical” territory, determined to take the levers of transformation into our own hands. But the film does an admirable job of avoiding that pitfall—there are hints of it here and there, but the focus stays on the fact that a faithful presence has a transforming effect all by itself, without any assistance needed from us.

Another aspect I find helpful is their very practical exploration of the idea that life is meant to be lived for others—in their terms, “all is gift”. My own experience is that the best life is exactly that—good things are accomplished, my heart is opened, the hearts of others are opened, and it brings all our lives into closer alignment with the grain of the universe.

The film series also takes a good look at the role of wonder and beauty, and in doing so taught me something new—that all of creation tells us something of God. Obvious, right? But somehow their presentation affected me in a way that bald statements of that fact haven’t. The goodness of fresh bread tells us something of the goodness of God. The vastness of the sea tells us something of the vastness of God. Fire tells us things about God—his transformative power, his danger, his beauty, his goodness. It gave me a renewed—no, a new—desire to spend at least some time wallowing in God’s creation for it’s own sake, not because of what it could teach me or do for me, but simply as a way of experiencing the fullness of God.

(For a taste of their take on wonder, take a look at this excerpt from Episode 6.)

Obviously I recommend the series! And I have some hope that it will become widely known, since it is not only the best-produced piece of Christian teaching I’ve encountered in many years, but it has a delightful tone and a hipster-ish appeal—fans of Portlandia will feel at home—but without a touch of irony. It presents a vision of purpose that I think many people currently alienated from the church will find appealing.


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