The missing ingredient

Today Richard Beck wrote this:

I want to make an argument that the word I’m going to share is the most important word in Christianity in the sense that I’ve come to think of it as the critical missing ingredient for so many Christians and churches trying to live into the way of Jesus.

He doesn’t say the word yet, so I’ll offer my own suggestion: humility. I’ve written about that multiple times, and if Beck and I agree I’ll say something about what he says.

But what I really enjoyed about his post is how he portrays a church missing the ingredient (whatever it is):

A lot of us are just drifting. Personally, we’re drifting. Our churches are drifting. Often with catastrophic consequences to our moral witness. The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But are Christians demonstrably more loving, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle and self-controlled than our neighbors?

We know the Fruit of the Spirit is the telos, the goal, of Christian living, the mark of Jesus upon our lives. And yet, we make no serious progress toward that end. Year in and year out, we remain much the same.

True, someone will tell us that we need the spiritual disciplines here. But again, churches talk about the spiritual disciplines all the time. But year in and year out, people aren’t praying more or practicing Sabbath more. Year in and year out, our habits remain much the same. We remain just as busy and just as consumeristic.

Seriously, just take a look at your church. How many times have you heard the call to more Sabbath, simplicity and prayer? A bet a million times. Now ask: Is your church any less busy or stressed out than it was ten years ago?

We know the goal, and yet we make no serious progress toward it. Hm. Well, I do think that humility plays a role in this, but I think the impasse actually arises from a wrong mindset. The Christian nature is portrayed as something which is bestowed upon the believer at conversion, not as something that must be progressed toward through further work. We are now by nature loving or patient or kind or content, just by dint of having believed, and any lack of such things in our day-to-day lives is simply a failure to live up to those qualities now embedded in us, not an actual lack of them.

I view my own conversion differently, as a shift in potential and in allegiance. At that point it became possible for me to become more like Jesus, and I had allied myself with his example of what it means to be fully human. There were still long years of work ahead, more yet to go, and the job will never be done. But at least a path had been cleared.

One thought on “The missing ingredient

  1. Many medieval theologians (Thomas a Kempis comes to mind) and parts of the magisterial Reformation (Calvin in particular) knew this — that the believer was by grace given the opportunity to move towards greater proximity to sanctification; in some readings, an opportunity that he could not avoid. It’s interesting to read this in 2017 because both Luther and Calvin spent a lot of time with “fruits” argumentation.

    In my own life, I didn’t really get this until (a) I had spent years reading Reformation theologians for myself — i.e., not just absorbing the lessons the pastor who confirmed me thought were important about them. He was all about understanding G-d (i.e., the Luther question: “how do I get a just God?” — today I would say that really doesn’t matter as it’s not like I’m doing anything to change G-d), and not really about understanding me, i.e., how could I be a more Christian person; and (b) I converted to Judaism, which, Christian rhetoric notwithstanding, is much more about small steps — and then I spent a few years with a haredi / hasidic / Chabad group, where this idea is much more prevalent. “Just do this one thing, it will bring tikkun closer, even if you can’t do it all, do one more thing, even if you think you can’t do it, just try to do it” Changing my own behavior was seen as the key to changing the world.

    I agree that there’s a way in which “grace alone” tends to make people complacent in a way that even the possibility of confessing sins with total impunity doesn’t. The attitude is “G-d will fix it / me so I don’t have to.” My moment of conversion, if you can call it that, was when I was living in México and I realized that there are some deeds that are simply good to do regardless of motivation (a key problem in Lutheranism). The hungry must be fed, the naked must be clothed, the sick must be comforted. It is our task to do these things.

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