Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sunday Musings: Is Jesus The Result or the Reason?

The "Good Christian's Training Manual"....
but what is it actually teaching?
Growing up as the child of first-generation Christians who were doing their almighty best to "raise the children right," there was a curriculum that carried through the first fifteen years of my life. It was a curriculum embraced by all the friends we were allowed to have, the church we attended, and exclusively implemented (in a positive way) in the home, so that it got to the point where I could retain and spout the answers in textbook perfection, producing assignments that passed muster with flying colors...

But I didn't really think about what it meant for me personally.

It was a curriculum that was easy to put on like a dress; it was easy to spot at a distance, so that as long as nothing happened to put myself under any kind of scrutiny, I could blend in with the masses and go through the motions.
I am reminded of the time when we were attending a conference around this curriculum, and I came down with a cold and completely lost my voice. I was in charge of a small group of kids, but I had no voice to teach them personally. When we stood up to perform for the parents at the end of the day, I put on my smile and mouthed the words and did the motions—
And nobody realized I had no voice because all they saw was the motions.
This is what a lot of this curriculum was: get the motions, and nobody notices your voice. Memorize the right words, and people automatically assume that you are winning favor with God, and so they are pleased with the conformity. They preach "transformation", but the outcome is just a brightly-polished, "better"--albeit sanctimonious--conformation.

I am reminded of this as I listen to my pastor preach through the book of Colossians. We have only just begun, but I am convicted with this thought:

Is favor with God my result or my reason?

A fine example of the crux of this curriculum is the book I "studied" during the "high school" years of the program, the one with the highly-suggestive title: "Gaining Favor With God And Man."

It is, of course, a quote from Matthew referring to Jesus: "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, gaining favor with God and man." (Luke 2:52)

This book is a compilation of "treatises" on what moral and spiritual leaders consider to be traits of a successful life. As the Foreword states, "This book represents, in retrospect, the acknowledged purity in Biblical standard, Christian character, and noble achievement believed to be attainable, with the help of the Lord Jesus Christ, only a few generations [prior to the time of its reprinting]."

The fact of the matter is:

In the whole book, there is not one Scriptural lesson or reflection on the True Source of Christian Life, the Living Water--Jesus Christ Himself. 
Biblical standard? How can this be, when the book hardly even mentions the Bible?
Christian character? To mimic the behavior of Christ is one thing; to actually enter into an intimate relationship and listen to what He has to say to you is quite another, and this book does nothing to address that!
Noble achievement? Finally, some honesty! At least here, the book is littered with ample material of how much virtue man has achieved, the "moral teachings" imparted by man..... Whether they are God-fearing Christians or not! Transcendentalists (who believe that man has ascended to become the standards of their own morality) are quoted, Deists (who believe in God but do not revere Him) are praised, the book delineates the moral practices of Atheists (who don't believe in God or an absolute standard)... 

And this book is part of a curriculum intended to "inspire our children to pursue God's perfect plan for their lives." 
^^Another direct quote from the Foreword^^
Seriously? How can a book on the triumph of man do anything to encourage an adolescent to pursue God? Isn't the very nature of the material the direct antithesis to a Gospel-centered life? 
According to the tone of this book as a "Biblical standard," John 3:16 might read something like this:
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only Son, that whoever lives a completely moral and virtuous life shall not fail but have everlasting success."
Does this make you stop and rethink your life purpose to see it in that way? It certainly made me rethink mine, when I realized what I was actually hearing and accepting. I'm the one who wrote an essay on "The Power of True Success." For fifteen years, I was convinced that this was the end goal of the Christian life:
Be good and gain favor with God and man.
"Set standards for your life so that you won't ever compromise your beliefs."
"Follow this model and you'll have people banging down your door to give you the kind of job/life/experiences you desire."
"Say this pledge, write this vow, wear this dress, act this way--and God will send the perfect man to knock on your door and want to devote the rest of his life to you."
"Implement these principles and you will become so successful that you will have world leaders falling at your feet and business magnates willing to pay you millions to find out your secret, and then you can tell them this Five-Point Gospel sermon that you've specially prepared for just this moment, and they will immediately become Christians and experience that same success--all thanks to you, because you were ready and rehearsed for exactly that scenario!"

Fifteen years later, and I've only just emerged from my passivity to hear the truth:

When I start focusing my faith on principles, standards, or virtues, God's favor becomes the result of my behavior, instead of the reason for it.

Earlier, I mentioned that the title of the book was quoting Luke 2:52, about how Jesus "grew in favor." The whole purpose of the book is to teach the reader how to "grow in favor", at least insofar as others have "succeeded" at it. But this completely disregards the context of the verse: Jesus had just been in the temple, "wowing" the Pharisees with their lofty morals and their "pure-white" virtue--by simply speaking from His intimate relationship with God. 
Every "good Christian"--every moralistic, legalistic Bible-worshipper (of which I was one!)--knows the story. We know that Jesus told His parents "Do you not know I am about my Father's business?" 
But that's only part of the story.
Reading the passage again just now, I noticed that, in the English Standard Version, the translation runs, "Do you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
That puts a whole new spin on it, doesn't it? We, as the "next generation of spiritual leaders" have been meticulously trained that "the Father's business" is going out and sharing the Gospel and winning souls to Christ...
When Christ Himself regarded this "business" as first of all being in His Father's house. Being in close relationship with Him. 
When I am first of all intent on establishing an intimate relationship with God, and recognizing who I am in Christ, I will understand that I ALREADY HAVE FAVOR WITH GOD, and from there, I find the motivation to behave in a way that pleases Him.
Luke 2:40: "And the child grew and became strong, and filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon Him." 
Jesus was strong and wise, but did He actually do anything to merit God's favor? Not directly stated in this verse, which comes a mere 12 verses before the one in which He gains favor with God and man. As in, the acceptance of God's unmerited favor (which is grace) was the REASON He was able to give the wise answers, and the REASON behind His drive to be "in [His] Father's house" of His own volition, rather than riding the coattails of His parents. The favor was not the RESULT of His moralistic training. We get so caught up in the "business" of Christianity--the "busy-ness of Christianity"--that we are distracted and diverted from the true purpose of Christianity: to follow Christ. Not just His teachings, not just His actions or behaviors.

A Christian's pursuit is realized in a deeper understanding of and intimacy with the God-Man Himself.
A RESULT is an end goal.
A REASON is the starting block.
When God's favor is the REASON for virtue:
--We respond to salvation by truly understanding the substitution Jesus has made, and the fact that BECAUSE OF THE SACRIFICE OF JESUS WE ALREADY HAVE FAVOR WITH GOD.
--From the wisdom that comes from understanding first WHO WE ARE in Christ, we respond to the grace and seek to demonstrate our gratefulness by THEN SEEKING TO BEHAVE IN A MANNER PLEASING TO HIM. 
--Because our behavior is a response not a regimen, it INHERENTLY MANIFESTS THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
--These Fruits of the Spirit serve as recurring evidence to us and affirmations that the things we have believed about God are in fact true, and OUR KNOWLEDGE OF GOD INCREASES WITH OUR EXPERIENCES OF HIS QUALITIES.
Paul summarizes the Gospel in Colossians 1 thus:
"He (God) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)

This is what God's favor gets us. This is what the Christian life is all about. Not success, not "more converts," not "the picture-perfect life." 
There is nowhere in the Bible that promises success or material gain or favor with man as a RESULT of salvation. What God promises us is REDEMPTION AND FORGIVENESS OF OUR SIN. This is the only "result" we should ever expect--and it is out of gratefulness for this redemption that the desire to please Him should spring.
At any rate, that's as far as my understanding takes me. Jesus should not be my "end goal", but He should be my whole reason for living. Instead of striving to be like Him,  I should be most active in pursuing a deeper understanding of Him as He Is.
What do you think?
*For other "Sunday Musing" posts, check out the Articles Page