Thursday, March 07, 2019

Acting Christian

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Most of the time I enjoy writing these posts.

Sometimes, not so much.

Like today.

Today, I feel the truth of what I heard a preacher say once: “When you point your finger at somebody else, there’s always three pointing back at you.” Or, as the scriptures would put it, “Not many of you should become teachers ... for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Yep. There’s lots of danger in talking about things you haven’t got straightened out in your own life. And for me, today, this is one of those things. But when you know something, step one is that you’ve got to admit you do. Then you’ve got to declare your willingness to do it. But then you’ve got actually to obey.

One-and-a-Half Steps

I’ve got about one-and-a-half steps of that down right now. And I’m trying to get all of them. But it’s going to be a major struggle, because there are a lot of things the Lord has told me that I haven’t done yet.

So understand that today I’m conscious of my own failure in what I’m going to say. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure the truth is the truth, even if I’m a still not entirely practicing it yet. It will still be true. It will still be good. It will still be right, regardless of my relative personal successes or failures. And if I teach it, then for my own sake, I’d better figure out a way to do it myself. Fair enough?

But I’m not going to be talking from the high ground today. And when I point something out, bear in mind I’ve got those three fingers going the other way.

So what have I figured out?

It’s pretty simple, really. Maybe you already know it. I hope you do. But I’ve needed to hear it before, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to hear it again, and again, and again, until I get it through my thick skull.

Knowing me, that might take me a lifetime. But I hope not.

The Path of Faith

Knowing, willing, action.

In the Christian life, all three must happen consecutively and always. When these three do not follow one another, spiritual dysfunction, distortion of our life paths and damage to our relationship with the Lord always follows:

Knowing
We must be growing in knowing the Lord and finding out the things that please him. We must be listening to our consciences as they are guided by the word and the Spirit of God.

Willing
We must decide what we will to do. We must make deliberate decisions to obey, in spite of the fact that conscience often tells us things that are inconvenient or irregular. In each revelation to us of the desires of God there is a challenge: “Where do you stand on this?” And we are obligated to declare our allegiances in that very moment.
This is very personal. Obedience is not an “us” thing. It’s “Though none go with me, still I will follow — no turning back.”

Action
A good will that does nothing is dead. James tells us this. It’s one thing to want to do the right thing, but quite another actually to do it. The perfection of obedience is action. What we know, what we will, we must put into reality. And action is the final determiner of obedience; what we wanted to do but did not actually do simply does not count.

But action completes the sequence. What we were told by the Spirit of God has been taken in and made personal by our own wills, and then we have committed ourselves to it by faith, through acting on it. We are obedient servants. And because of that, we are matured, and we move on to the next challenge of the life of faith. We grow. We are stronger. We please the Lord.

When Things Go Wrong

But, we must ask, what happens when this chain of knowing, willing and acting is not completed? What when it stops, or when it hovers between stages? What if knowing is not willed, or willing is not smoothly translated into active obedience. How do things fall out then for the Christian?

Søren Kierkegaard, the renowned Danish Christian philosopher, wrote very perceptively on that subject, in his book The Sickness Unto Death (1849). Now, Kierkegaard wasn’t your everyday Christian, for sure. He’s famous for starting a philosophy known as Existentialism. In modern times, this philosophy has become associated with names like Sartre and Camus, avowed atheists. It would surprise most people to know it started out as a thoroughly Christian thing.

Now, the atheists have badly abused Kierkegaard, as they do anything of value that Christians may happen to have. They’ve emptied his work of theological insight, and substituted humanism or nihilism in its place. But all that does nothing to destroy the value of many of the things Kierkegaard discovered in the name of God.

Kierkegaard lived in a time and place in which the Christianity of his country had become very formalistic and dead. He hated that. Deep down, he understood that without a human response to the call of God, there could be no real Christianity. And he became a powerful and relentless spokesman against the complacency of his own society — in many ways, a kind of modern-day prophet.

Failures of Faith

Psychology was one area in which Kierkegaard was particular astute. Not just any psychology. His interest was tightly focused on how the individual human being experiences and practices faith. And he was intensely interested how dysfunctional attitudes to faith in his own society had decimated real Christianity.

What happens when the Spirit of God calls to us, speaking to our conscience by the word of God, and we fight that? Kierkegaard pondered this. He wrote, “[I]f a person does not do what is right at the very second he knows it — then knowing simmers down.”

The conscience does not bother us forever, said Kierkegaard. Is that because it’s only a human faculty, and so, like all things human, lacks endurance? Or is it because the Lord himself gives us a reasonable time in which to obey, then regards our will and decision as having been made? Perhaps we cannot say.

But we have been asked a question by the Lord: “Will you obey what you now know?” And we do not have forever to translate our “Yes, Lord” into acts of obedience. Kierkegaard says, “What we do know is that we often have only a limited amount of time to align our own will with what we know we ought to have done, and to take action to obey.”

We Shall Look At It Tomorrow ...

And if we don’t? What happens then? Kierkegaard continues:
“If willing does not agree with what is known, then it does not necessarily follow that willing goes ahead and does the opposite of what willing understood … rather willing allows some time to elapse, an interim called: ‘We shall look at it tomorrow.’ During all this, knowing becomes more and more obscure, and the lower nature gains the upper hand more and more.”
If the disconnect between what we will and what we know persists, then the passage of time eats away at our conviction, and our base nature starts to wage a war of attrition against conscience. Wait long enough, and conscience will stop bothering us at all. Kierkegaard opines, “[A]las, for the good must be done immediately, as soon as it is known … the lower nature’s power lies in stretching things out” [emphasis mine].

What happens then? Well, a human being cannot endure cognitive dissonance forever. What we know to be true and how we will to act must be realigned somehow, or we shall live in a state of psychological division, part of us nagging us that we are being disobedient, and the other part continually resisting that, with no remedy in sight. That’s a nasty way to live. That’s stress. And it can result in everything from minor anxiety to major mental health problems.

Thy Will Be Done

So the human psyche has measures to put a stop to the stress. And it has an ally, time:
“[T]he new knowledge of what we should be doing starts to seem less and less important to us. Our self-will and what we think we know begin to line up again. And when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what [willing] wants is absolutely right.”
So it’s true what C.S. Lewis said: that if any of us will not say to the Lord, “Thy will be done,” then eventually he says to us, “Then thy will be done.” And that’s not a good thing.

It does not mean we will necessarily plunge into some deep and obvious sin. What will happen instead is a more subtle kind of sin, and a more common one: we will live in defiance of our own conscience. Moreover, will simply lose the knowledge that the Spirit of God has given us. We will forget. We will become morally ignorant again.

As a consequence, we will live by the instruction of our own will, not of God’s will, and we will face the natural consequences that fall to those who live in disregard of God.

What it means for eternity, well, that’s a different matter.

Confession

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about things the Lord has been telling me. I’ve also been not a little ashamed to realize how casually I’ve tended to slide them into my half-willing state, my “Well, I agree in principle” frame of mind, but then how often I’ve tended to let the passage of time help me out with the business of abating the sting of conviction, until I no longer felt so divided and disobedient if I didn’t actually take action on them.

I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t think I can afford to. I can’t afford that the Lord stops telling me things I need to know; and if I harden up and won’t move on even the basic things he’s already showed me, how would I expect him to show me new things? So maybe my lack of spiritual maturity is my own fault. Kierkegaard tells me it might well be. But maybe what I’ve got to do is just to stop doing that.

Know, will, do … maybe I’ve just got to tighten up the distance between those three.

How about you?

1 comment :

  1. Hmm, IC, thanks for sharing "BUT" I see some problems with this. First, ( and this is one of my more common complaints, and perhaps one of yours too) people seem incapable or unwilling of engaging in almost any sort of introspection that requires an intellectual effort along the lines you mention. Put in another way, you are asking too much of the ordinary person. As I mentioned before, they (including myself sometimes) like all or some of these - baseball, football, basketball, eating or drinking out, watch bad TV shows and movies, and don't overexert yourself. Given this fatalistic reality, where does God fit in. For the majority (anyway in the US currently) he might barely rate a mention and generally he can be found on the backshelv somewhere. So, good luck to Kierkegaard.

    Now, my perspective is that God is fully aware of this (he keeps adding on to us) and if not happy with the situation has hopefully something in his playbook (that we may not be aware of) to help his creation along. What you, I, and others would like to be able to do is get an occasional glimpse of that playbook that can help us confirm our opinion that God is aware and caring. Yes, and I agree that his caring may include granting us the freedom to have to bear the full consequences of our action and inaction. Ultimately, if God has not been trained into you by a loving and caring parent or guardian then, to be fair, he will (have to) find a way to have you discover him in your life when circumstances dictate that you need him. Nevertheless, even then many freely choose not to respond not even caring about, or choosing to ignore or even think about, the potential reality that they might perish one day by ignoring God. And, as you know, the most common reason is that they do not even think that someone like God even exists.

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