Christian Love Is Not Asceticism

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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.

Disturbing the Status Quo: “And who is my neighbor?”

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The one thing I did not cover in my recent post on the Good Samaritan story (and came up in a discussion with a friend afterwards) is that Jesus never did answer the question of who.  The man asked who his neighbor was, but Jesus answered the question of how to be a good neighbor and told him to “go and do likewise.”

Not my neighbor, not my problem…

I was reminded of that again when discussing my frustration with social media.  I’ve noticed how cute pictures and funny stories get dozens of likes or shares.   However, when I posted a link to a woman with a real need and asked people who couldn’t give to like or share it the response was astonishing.  It was zilch, nada, nothing…

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I was lamenting that lack of response to another friend.  They defended it saying that people get many requests for help and that I could sympathize with.  But what was said next disturbed me coming from a person familiar with the story Jesus told about how to be a good neighbor.  They suggested the “Biblical method” is that this woman’s family or local church should provide.

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:46-48 NIV)

That doesn’t seem like the ethic Jesus was describing.  I don’t think the Samaritan cared much about jurisdiction or if it was his turn to give.  I believe he saw a need, saw a person who needed help and simply gave it.  That’s what it means to love your neighbor.  That’s the example Jesus told the legal expert to follow.

On the other hand, I assume those men who passed by the battered man along the road were in good standing in their own communities, provided for their own families and gave tithe.  But doesn’t everyone do that?  We take care of our own because it is natural to do so, it is reciprocal altruism and a way to ensure our own survive. 

Loving beyond the tribe of race, gender or denomination…

Yet Jesus was describing something far more radical.  Jesus went as far as to tell his followers to hate their own families (Luke 14:26) and give all they had to the needy.  This goes beyond the normal religious obligation of his day.  This goes beyond defending our own biological progeny.  It is a love bigger than nation, denomination and tribe.

Jesus preached (and those who continued to carry his message) against tribalism.  They forsook their own wealth and families to preach a revolutionary message about a kingdom made up of all tribes and nations.  They spoke of a kingdom where allegiances didn’t fall around race, gender or economic status.  A kingdom of good neighbors.

Disturbed by visions too superficial, self-interested and small…

“Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.”
(Francis Drake)

Anyhow, it does disturb me when social media prefers a political cause (showers attention both for and against a pizza shop owner caught in an artificial controversy) and then ignores a real need.  Our priorities are messed up when we are more concerned with scoring political points and fighting culture wars.

It disturbs me when millions will be poured into political campaigns rather than used to meet real needs. Frankly, if you conservatives don’t think we need socialized medicine or if you liberals truly have a heart of compassion, then prove it with more than talk.  Help somebody you can help rather than wait for others to take the lead for you.

It disturbs me when churches spend thousands on missions of questionable value to give young people an experience.  If you are truly zealous and motivated by love (not self-interested like a kid on spring break trip justified by a thin veneer of religion) then be a good neighbor.

It disturbs me when our love is superficial.  Our love is only superficial when we like cute pictures, comment on funny stories, advocate for political ideologies, seek donations so we can go on an adventure around the world and then aren’t disturbed by unfilled needs well within our reach.

As it stands, the account for this nurse and young mother with severe neck issues stands at $360 and only a fraction of the need.  Does that disturb you?

When exception rules…

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My boss and I generally get along well.  He has his preferences, I have my own preferences and usually we are able to find an agreement.  But occasionally there are times of conflict as well.

Most of the conflicts are caused by abuse of exceptions.  Exceptions are those times when my usual ‘rules’ are stretched to allow something I otherwise do not tolerate.  Surprises, working weekends or working too late on a Friday are some of my understood (but unwritten) terms.

It is reasonable in the industry I am in that some flexibility is required.  Delays often arise that are no fault of my employer and are the surprises I must tolerate to be reasonable.  Then there are favors or the times I am flexible just because my boss is my friend and I want a good relationship.  I will sometimes break my rules voluntarily as a matter of good will.

However, there seems to be a limit to how many exceptions can be made before the exceptions begin to become the rule.  If I do too many favors soon they become expected entitlements rather than appreciated exceptions. 

When I feel the balance of our mutual self-interests has been violated too far I will respond with protests.  I suppose if my boss would not respond appropriately there would be further reaching consequences.

Broader Application and Implications

Individuals make arrangements between themselves my boss and I do.  Groups of people also make arrangements with their individual parts that allow exceptions to the general rules for representatives of the group or to benefit exceptions within the group.

For example, there is an expectation that if one wants to eat they should work, but we do make exceptions for children and the disabled.  But that list of beneficiaries can eventually grow to include irresponsible adults and those less truly disabled.  It can also morph from being a special exception into an entitlement that is eventually is unfair to those paying the cost and abuse.

If the group never considers the needs of exceptions that is also a failure and negligence.  It may not be at a noticeable cost to the group right away when the weak and minorities are unprotected or considered only an afterthought, but there is a cost even if it isn’t measured in financial losses.  Lack of compassion is a moral loss.

Keeping a Balance of All Factors

This complex mobile of competing interests must constantly be fine tuned to maintain an appropriate balance.  Part of balance is order of priority.  It is recommended in an airliner cabin depressurization emergency that adults put their own masks on first so they aren’t incapacitated and unable to help others. 

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Rules must always define the exceptions in the same way the gravity that defines the order of a mobile must be respected or chaos will be the result.  The picture of the Liebherr crane mobile above (watch this video) is a prime example.  It is an exceptional display of engineering and some flexibility in weight bearing capacity, yet there are underlying rules that must be followed or the whole system will collapse.

The results of miscalculation, ignoring factors that influence stability and over stressing various structures (social, physical or otherwise) can result in catastrophic failures.  Failure like that of “Big Blue” which fell into a tangled heap on a gusty day:

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Prevent disasters by finding a balance that puts rules and exceptions in proper order and plans for the winds of life.