Christian Love Is Not Asceticism

Standard

Christianity prioritizes the spiritual without sacrificing physical practicality.  It is about faith that expands possibility and potential rather than limit it.

Many religious people teach some form of asceticism.  This an idea that individuals who empty themselves totally of physical desire will find something spiritual and redemptive.

In the early church many did give up their material possessions (Acts 2:45) and were willing to sacrifice their all in faith as Jesus taught:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

Paul builds further on the same theme while encouraging the early church:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (1 Corinthians 4:16-18)

This is acknowledgement of reality.  This world, our life in it, is temporal and will pass away.  But in faith we can see what cannot be known through physical means.  Through the Spirit, through the mysterious backdoor of our consciousness, we are able to see spiritual reality greater than what physical senses can detect.  It is for this reason that we adjust our priorities according to what we know as the greater transcending reality.

But this is not asceticism in the sense of merely our emptying ourselves as an individualistic spiritual pursuit.  No, this is intentional self-sacrificial love that compels us to go beyond our own individual gain and love as God loves.  Our cross is not suffering for the sake of suffering, it is not a Gnostic self-loathing of our physical bodies, but is rather a means to the end and expression of deeper divine love.

Many practice asceticism as a means to judge their neighbors.  Many deny themselves as to prove themselves superior to others and earn their salvation.  However, this is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus did not need to die to save Himself from sin or earn God’s favor.  He did not sacrifice to prove our inferiority and bring judgement or condemnation:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:17-18)

It is simply reality that we will all eventually die a physical death.  That is true by default and not something inflicted upon us for sake of manipulation.  This is scientific, a result of physical processes, something with causal explanation, and established.  You will not physically die because you reject Jesus, but rather you will eventually physically die (with or without Jesus) and the only way to eternal life is faith in Jesus:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

We are saved because we believe in Jesus and through our belief are empowered to love in a way that transcends individualism and becomes all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) so they too might be saved.  Jesus explains obedience succinctly:

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

It is that simple.  This is not denial of physical desires for sake of individual spiritual gain or asceticism.  This is denial of self for the collective good, as directed by the Spirit in those who believe, and so the lost can be saved.

It is not sin to enjoy life.  It is in no way wrong to enjoy sexual pleasure (in appropriate context) and relationships based in biology.  Having friends because of our physical proximity and the community we were born into is not inappropriate.  However, when our preference for what is familiar supersedes Christian commitment, when we prioritize temporal pleasure over eternal gain, then we must repent.

Ultimately, what we do or do not possess individually and materially is of little consequence.  It is not sin to have a successful business, big family or nice car.  What ultimately does matter is that these pleasures of physical life do not distract and blind us.  We must find our security in God rather than our possessions or other worldly pleasures.

To be in this world but not of it doesn’t mean a life of misery and complete abstinence from pleasure.  Rather it is to possess the transformation of mind (Romans 12:2) that enables us to love more completely and experience greater joy than the world offers.

If you sell all or leave family behind, do it out of genuine love for your neighbor and not asceticism.  Give freely because you believe in the eternal life Jesus promised and love God.

Christian Humanism: An Oxymoron?

Standard

Humanism, the idea that people are capable of bettering themselves or society through effort, has in modern times become a term monopolized by secularists.  That is probably why the words “evangelical humanism” jumped out to me when used to describe Menno Simons.

What does humanism have in common with a leader in centuries ago Christian movement?

Today many Christians (including those claiming “Menno” as their namesake) seem to have a terrible fatalistic streak.  There are token forms of ‘outreach’ that appear only marginally interested in creating real lasting solutions to practical problems.  There is also no shortage of negativity about the world and cynicism about our ability to change it.  It could seem resignation to the current state of affairs is even view as the epitome of faith.

Dreams Beyond the Status Quo

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their own dreams.”  (Eleanor Roosevelt)

It was that quote of the illustrious first lady on a motivational poster that stirred my thoughts again.  What it describes could be both humanistic and evangelical faith.  Secular humanism is motivated by doing good for the sake of good, while religious faith is supposed to be about doing good for the sake of God.  Both are concerned with humanity and aim for a better future.

The difference could be that the religious are too often less practical in aim than their secular counterparts and this could be because the promises of eternity deadens the urge to be an agent of change in the world today.  The secular humanist, on the other hand, is committed to practical change today and attempts to deliver more than just promises of future paradise.

Knocking at doors at 7:30 am to tell people about Jesus might have a ring of faithfulness to it.  However, unless you show up with coffee and an egg sandwich to give, you probably just created another annoyance—a door slammed in your face might be your just reward.  It could be you are getting the cart ahead of the horse.

Eternity Can Wait, Love Practically Today

Without practical love Christianity loses the strongest evangelical tool that it has.  Jesus was extremely practical.  Jesus was so practical that many of those following him thought he would lead a revolt against Rome.  He did practical things like provide beverage for a wedding, healing sick people and feeding thousands.  He promised a kingdom soon at hand that would change practically everything:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…”  (Matthew 4:17 NIV)

The “kingdom of heaven” isn’t just some future ‘pie in the sky‘ ideal.  No, it is something that must be lived out practically today.  And, not as a purely informational campaign or token help either.  Christianity should be about making heaven a literal reality for as many people as we can today and in as many ways as humanly possible.  When we have faith and pray as Jesus did, this is not just wishful thinking:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  (Matthew 6:9-13 NIV)

We act on what we believe is possible.  We should not wait to free ourselves from temptation, we should not hesitate to forgive others if we want to be forgiven and we certainly cannot expect bread to come to us without our own effort.  So why do we assume ourselves powerless to bring to “earth as it is in heaven” and instead practice fatalism as if it is faith? 

We would be much more convincing if we put our money where our mouth is and gave people a taste of heaven rather than give them hell.

Humanist and Christian Hypocrisy

Ironically secular humanism often breaks down the same way religions do, in that adherents become less practically oriented and more ideological only and lazy.  People look to institutions and charismatic leaders to show the way rather than do their part by fully living their ideals.

This is how Al Gore ends up in a sprawling mansion while preaching climate change dogma.  This is how Christians preach Christ Jesus and leave many sharing the same sentiments of Joe Hill or of the quote below:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  (Mahatma Ghandi)

If you want to convince others of your dreams or ideals start first by living them and if you are Christian especially.  If your faith does nothing for real human needs, and is only about future rewards and glory, then it is just theory.  Being like Jesus requires you to change the world for good with the talents you are given.

Be a Human Example of Good

Don’t ask anyone (including God) to do anything on your behalf.  Leadership is not pointing out how others are doing wrong.  Leadership is being an example and laying down our own life for sake of love for humanity and God.  Be a leader for Christ’s sake.

Don’t wait on conditions to improve before acting; act to improve the conditions.  Be an evangelical humanist.  Endeavor to do what is impossible by acting in faith in a power greater and beyond your own comprehending. Bring heaven to earth today.

Christian humanism might or might not be an oxymoron, but faith without practically applied love for humanity is certainly an oxymoron.

Dream big, be practical.

Mennonite Millennials and the Good Samaritan

Standard

Jesus was a great story teller.  Those raised in conservative Mennonite homes and communities are very familiar with his stories. 

Ask any of us about ‘the parable of the good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25-37) and we will tell you of a man who was traveling, who was attacked by bandits, left for dead, ignored by two passersby and finally helped by a good man.  The man, a good Samaritan.

Some of us might even be able to explain how the Samaritans were looked down upon by the audience Jesus was addressing.  And also that those two who passed this man in desperate need of help (even crossed to the other side of the road) were important religious leaders and might have not wanted to risk defiling themselves by touching a man who by appearances was dead.

The moral to the story is in the question it answered.  Jesus was being questioned by a person identified as an “expert in the law” who was asking initially about how to gain immortality.  Jesus asks him what the law says and the man quotes the part of their law where it says to love God and your neighbor.  But, when Jesus tells the man he’s correct the man (being a legal expert) needs further definition of terms, he asks:

Who is my neighbor?

The typical definition of neighbor is those people who live next door to us.  Those people with the annoying yappy dog who you might wave to while pulling out of the drive.  Good Americans where I live and the kind who will offer to help push when your car is stuck in the snow.

But Jesus uses the parable to extend the definition of neighbor.  When he finishes the story he asks which of the three was the neighbor and the expert tells him it was the one who had mercy.  So, simple, cut and dried, we help a couple people with a broke down car or give a twenty to some homeless guy, pay our taxes on time and we are a good neighbor, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not…

Samaritan today means a helpful stranger.  The Samaritans when Jesus spoke were despised people and an enemy to those listening.  I think the parable might be told differently today. 

If Jesus were speaking to a conservative audience he might have the story of the two responsible gun owners, the stupid irresponsible traveler (who got what he deserved) and a good illegal immigrant.  If he was telling it to a liberal audience it could be about the two politically correct professors, the aborted black inner-city child and a good redneck.

More interesting is that the enemies of Israel today, Palestinians, have Samaritan blood.  So even after two thousand years the story is relevant in the place and religious setting it was originally told to.  In today’s language it could be told as the story of the good Palestinian or good Muslim. 

It could be any scenario where a person who has a historical grievance lays it aside to care for the ‘privileged’ person who may have previously treated them like dirt.  It is a story for a downtrodden and unimportant person helped a stranger when the people who should’ve helped didn’t.

So what does this have to do with Mennonite Millenials?

It is a quirky thing, but we probably have an easier time flying to the opposite side of the world than we do with being neighborly with our actual neighbors.  We may travel to some far away place to spend a week or two cleaning up from a typhoon.  It is exciting to experience a new culture.  The more dedicated may even spend years in a remote village somewhere or some other exotic outpost.

Yet, if we were asked to do something we personally find dull or undesirable, if there were a task we considered beneath our abilities, would we do it?

The men who passed by the beaten man were probably men with vision.  They had important tasks to do that could not be compromised by the needs of a person who probably should’ve known better anyhow.  They were missionaries, the equivalent of church leaders and had big things on their minds.  They also lived in a world of abstraction or theory and neglected practical application.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

Who’s least or greatest changes with cultural context.  We probably don’t think of a Samaritan as being lower than us.  We may not harbor animosity or a superior attitude to other races.  But we still do have our prejudices.  We still have our own religious rites or rituals that take precedent over practicality.  We still look too far down the road.

Think globally, act locally!

This generation is better equipped with technology, has greater access to information and the world.  But it is also a very narcissistic and self-absorbed generation.  With some of us the problem is not fear, the lack of opportunity (like prior generations) or the complacency that is common today, but for us the problem could be arrogance.  We need to be reminded that there is nothing too small for us to do.

Don’t be too important to do little things.  Indeed, sometimes it is a small amount of humility that does the world more good than the grandest of visions or best of experiences.  Don’t be aloof, don’t be a religious idealist, don’t be prejudicial against anyone, be a neighbor!