Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Unbearable Heaviness of Individuality

“Shallum the son of Jabesh conspired against him and struck him down at Ibleam and put him to death and reigned in his place …”

“Then Menahem the son of Gadi came up from Tirzah and came to Samaria, and he struck down Shallum the son of Jabesh in Samaria and put him to death and reigned in his place …”

“Pekah the son of Remaliah, his captain, conspired against him with fifty men of the people of Gilead, and struck him down in Samaria, in the citadel of the king's house with Argob and Arieh; he put him to death and reigned in his place …”

“Then Hoshea the son of Elah made a conspiracy against Pekah the son of Remaliah and struck him down and put him to death and reigned in his place …”

Ah, the kings of Israel. Their history is very much like that of all the idolatrous nations around them. Somebody gets the kingship, then somebody else murders him and takes over. And each one is as bad as the last.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” as Roger Daltrey famously intoned.

You Can Go Your Own Way

God had told Israel, “I am your king.” And he’d given them prophets and judges. But prophets and judges do not rule on their own behalf. They don’t establish dynasties or set up monarchical lines. They speak and judge only under God.

“Nope,” Israel said, “not good enough. We want a king, so we can be like all the nations.”

They wanted a man. They wanted somebody they could locate when they wanted him, to whom they could appeal on short notice, somebody who would distribute favors and handle worldly matters in a worldly way, somebody to whom they could surrender the heavy burden of their moral responsibility and give over their freedom, and somebody who would fight their battles for them.

It looks like they got their wish. Israel’s monarch began with rebellion. And their kings behaved like all the other kings, warlords and suzerains of the ancient world — just as wicked, stupid and treacherous. They took the throne by intrigue, and then were deposed by intrigue. Not exactly a recipe for general social stability and peace.

Relocating the Problem

Politics.

It’s about relocating our relationship with God, and putting it in the hands of men. We find this easier to do, and more attractive, because it keeps all problems “in house” where we can understand them, among people with whom we think we can have influence, and issuing in solutions we can imagine were at least somewhat produced by our own contribution to the cause — even if it’s by nothing bigger than our having joined with the crowd.

It keeps things from having to involve Heaven. It avoids the expedient of prayer. It saves us all the work of tending to our personal relationship with God and our personal moral responsibilities to others. It puts a lid on the universe for us. It allows us to imagine that all the important issues are “within striking distance”, so to speak, of our own arms.

That’s very reassuring. Unfortunately for us, it’s also completely illusory.

The real issue always remained this: were the people within the nation individually taking their responsibility to God seriously? Were they personally in fellowship with him? Were they practically obeying? Were they sacrificing and worshiping? Were they doing justice and walking humbly with their God?

Instead, the attention got deflected to the question of how the king was leading them. So the spotlight was off individual responsibility and onto national direction. And the people loved that. What a relief to have the luxury to turn off one’s mind from the question of one’s own standing, and allow it all to become a function of what the monarchy happened to be doing.

Deleting Personal Responsibility

We Christians must be careful of the lesson here. There is a human tendency to want to submerge one’s own responsibility in the collective. It can be a political collective like a ruling figurehead or political party, or an ecclesiastical collective like a local congregation. We like surrendering the burdens of maintaining our own walk with God, and giving them up to another level.

And if that’s not true, then let me ask you this: how many of us have a daily reading and prayer time with God each day? I have no statistics on that, but I’m suspecting it’s a very, very small percentage of the Christians who actually maintain such a thing.

And how many of us have family devotions? (Maybe I’d better explain what that is, because I’ll bet that today there are many who have no familiarity with the concept at all.) It’s when a whole family is led to sit down and read, learn, discuss and pray for a few minutes each day. It’s the basic of family obedience to God. But who does it today?

How many of us make time to worship the Lord, to value him personally, and to remember him with the bread and wine, the way he personally asked us to do? Most evangelical churches today have reduced it to a once-a-month, fifteen-minute, clergy-performed ritual; and that’s it.

We think it can all be written off to the collective. The church will do it for us. Our job is simply to sit in a pew once a week, and otherwise to complain that our spiritual lives are feeling not-very-rich. If our children are not learning about God, it’s the fault of the Sunday School or the church’s youth leaders. If worship and remembering the Lord seem odd and dry, it’s the fault of the people doing it, not in any way attributable to the shallowness of our own relationship with God. And if we don’t seem up to very much, the problem is that the church has failed to find us, define our spiritual gift for us, and slot us into some meaningful spiritual activity.

It’s all on the collective, really. Nothing’s my fault.

The Trap Springs

But there’s an ironic trap here: when nothing’s my fault, nothing’s in my power to change either. I’m a victim. And real victims cannot change their state. They’re slaves to whatever the condition of the collective (the nation, society, the church) turns out to be, and the condition of the collective depends on the leader who happens to be in power.

So we look more and more to the leader, who will (we hope) redirect the collective to deliver a better result for us. And we abandon all hope of helping ourselves out of the mess we’re in.

We’re seeing all this on a national scale these days: people are actually reviving socialism, that utterly failed doctrine that has piled up bodies and destroyed every economy it has ruled. We’re also blaming individual national leaders for everything that’s happening to us. We’re not looking at our own behavior — our greed and consumerism, our addiction to debt, our abuse of our children, our pornographic cultural corruption, our disinclination to hard work, our declining charity, and our love of dependency and failure to mature morally and behave responsibly sexually.

We’re seeing it on other levels too. Locally, people are looking to public education to do more and more of the total job of raising their children. Many soon-to-be-retirees are trusting blithely in the government to fund a comfortable retirement, instead of preparing enough assets of their own. Increasingly, there’s nothing an individual citizen could want that we don’t think our government ought to provide us. And we feel vague umbrage at the very thought that anybody would suggest we ought to do some of this for ourselves.

And in the Christian world, we’re more and more abandoning our own personal spiritual responsibilities and looking more and more to the organized church to deliver them to us.

Or not bothering much about them at all.

Restoring the Balance

But the right balance is struck by Paul, in Galatians. There, Paul makes two statements which the KJV presents as if they are actually contradictions, but which others translate better. They are as follows:
“Bear one another’s burdens …”
and
“… for each one will bear his own load.”
A “burden” is something that is too much for one person to bear. To survive it, the individual needs the help of others. But a “load” is an appropriately weighty responsibility (the synonym for that word is “cargo”, which is what a ship is meant to hold). And nobody should ever ask other people, or look to the collective, to take from him or her the “load” of basic responsibilities that God himself has rightly given.

So when all things are normal, we must work with our own hands, and pay our own way. We must take care of those of our own household. We must read, pray, worship and serve. We must raise our own children in the knowledge of God. Only if, for some legitimate reason, these things become too much for any individual human to bear, and thus become a crushing “burden”, are we to call for help. And that point is obviously quite far along.

Human and Divine Economics

But today, our society tends to treat every “load” as a “burden”. Everything should be taken care of by the State, and no person should be expected to have his or her own resources to manage even a minimal “load”. How else can we explain it when a political proposal to relieve even indolent workers of the duty to provide for themselves is treated as reasonable, and that it’s everybody’s “right” to have a “living wage”, no matter how trivially or even negligently they contribute to their own welfare? Today, all faults of individual character are made into obligations of the State. And the thought is that with the right kind of State, nobody should have any “load” at all.

This is not the biblical way. In God’s economy, every person has a responsibility to bear his or her own load. This gives both dignity and duty to the individual: duty, because he or she cannot fob of such obligations on others, but dignity, because each person is regarded as empowered to contribute, not only to his or her own upkeep, but also to the public welfare. And when burdens appear, in God’s economy, there are always others to surround and support. But their ability to help is also dependent on their own responsible handling of their own “load” responsibilities.

The Point

So are we “bearing [our] own load”? Are we each carrying the cargo that God legitimately places upon us as individuals, or are we refusing our responsibilities, or imagining that every such obligation is just a burden from which somebody else owes us relief?

And have we submerged out individual accountability as Christians into the identity of some collective? Have we “taken the yoke” upon ourselves to learn from the Lord, or have we balked at fulfilling even the basic responsibilities of a spiritual life for ourselves and our own families?

Nobody feels good when others do for them what they can and ought to have done for themselves. It’s the road to laziness, dullness, a lack of a sense of personal achievement and power, a feeling of dependency and defeat. It’s the opposite of empowerment, the opposite of human dignity. To take one’s own spiritual responsibilities seriously, to commit, strive and overcome, to find the Lord personally faithful in one’s own life — that is the road to personal power, and to spiritual health as well.

The ability for the individual to hear and respond to God is a sacred one. But the individual must take it upon himself. Moreover, any later ability of any collective to respond to God depends on it absolutely. So let us embrace that responsibility, knowing that that is the route to spiritual fulfillment: for his yoke is truly easy, and his burden is surely light.

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