Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Greatest Myth of Christian Growth Ever!



          It’s everywhere, this myth.  Exalted by all stripes of Christians and lifted up by all theological traditions (save, perhaps, one), this ubiquitous nostrum has played as big a role as anything else is hamstringing integrative growth in faith.

          It’s as prevalent in the wider world as it is in the church.  That, BTW, ought to be a red flag to us that something is askew.  But even the wider world is waking up to the deleterious consequences of this myth.  One business writer says of this myth, it “. . . is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream, a vain artifice that offers mostly rhetorical solutions . . . (It) . . .  isn't just a losing proposition; it's a hurtful, destructive one.”[1]

So, what is this pernicious myth, this faith-neutering idea so widely lauded and longed for?   

It’s balance.  Yes, that’s right – balance.  How many articles have you read, sermons or teachings have you heard, extolling the preeminent virtue of balance?  More than a few, I suspect.  As I just noted, balance is also widely touted in the business world.  We need to balance work and home and personal growth and play.  Only, it seems, if these aspects of life are perfectly apportioned and calibrated with each of them receiving their due attention, can our lives be both full and fulfilling.

We must avoid over-commitment to anything in our lives.  Too much of a good thing . . . and all that.  Thus we measure our commitments to a wide variety of things in terms of how we can spread ourselves just far enough to realize this Aristotle-like “golden mean” between too much and too little.  (The problem with this for Christians is, as Karl Barth once said, Aristotle is not a doctor of the church!)

-We must work enough, but not too much.  Workaholism is a bad word in our society. 
-We must ensure both sufficient quantity and quality time for our spouses, children, and friends.
-We must take all our vacation time to allow for self-regeneration and renewal.

          Thus, work, church, family, faith all have their place in a well-ordered life – just enough of each, not too much of any. 

          The only problem with this search for balance is – it does not work and, for faith at least, it cannot work.  Our business writer identifies the two key flaws in this search:  ”If we work hard enough at it, one goes, we can have everything. Or if we cut back, we can have just enough to be truly content. The first obliges us to accomplish too much, often at too high a price; the second doesn't let us accomplish enough.”  Neither lead to the promised land of “balance.”

In the life of faith, the first of these flaws is pride, while the second is sloth.  And neither lead to the life God has designed for us.  The one leaves us in control of our life trying to order it as we desire and deem best.  The other leaves us with a hodge-podge of fragments that bring neither unity nor peace to life.
          If we, as followers of Jesus, are to find a unified, integrated life, it will be found under God’s direction and Jesus’ call to following him unconditionally.  And the path toward such a life (and it remains one that will be fully realized only when Christ returns to fully establish God’s kingdom) is the passionate, single-minded, whole-hearted pursuit of Jesus’ agenda for us.

          Instead of the illusory and theologically unsatisfactory notion of balance, Christian faith offers rhythm.  A daily rhythm of prayer, a weekly rhythm of work and rest, an annual rhythm oriented around Christmas and Easter, and a way of life as a realization of the great Jubilee vision (Lev.25), are what order our lives.

          Passion for the full realization of this new Jubilee of God energizes and drives us to submit who and what we are and have to this agenda of God’s.  Though not himself a believer, George Bernard Shaw got it right”


          Such a life does not lend itself to balance.  Rather, one’s whole life is caught up I this single passionate pursuit of God’s Jubilee and whatever the particular gifts and roles within that pursuit the Spirit has equipped you to do.  

          Another image the Bible uses is that God has equipped us with his very own armor to join the lists in the ongoing battle against the spiritual powers and principalities.  Called to serve in a military-like venture requires the ordering of one’s entire life to the dynamics and needs of the struggle.

          Our life as God’s people in a fallen world casts us into the role of those God intends to use to bless others and set right what has gone wrong.  I call God’s people his subversive counter-revolutionary movement.  Through our way of life and being in the world we subvert the ways and structures sin has insinuated itself into the fabric of life in the world.  In this way God uses us to call and begin to reorder the creation to its intended design before the primal revolution of human sin and turning away from God.

          Such an image makes it easier to see why balance is untenable as a goal for life.  Soldiers do not live balanced lives, cannot lived balanced lives.  Sacrifices of various kinds have to be made.  Families can get shorted.  Opportunities can be foreshortened.  Broadness of life can be limited.  Everything funnels down through the master passion for God’s agenda.

          Now I know some of you (maybe most) will be put off by this notion of willingly sacrificing some of life’s richest gifts and imposing limitations on others by choice is anathema in our culture.  Indeed, rejecting such sacrifices and their consequences is what fuels the drive for balance in our lives! 
          In the church, however, such sacrifice is the raison d’etre of life.  Baptism calls us to come and die with Christ so we may walk with him in newness of life (Rom.6:1-4).  The Eucharist renews our life as God’s people around the memory of the One who lived such a sacrificial existence par excellence.  Even our expectation of Christ’s return in glory is marked by one dominical exhortation in which the returning Lord lays aside his robes, puts on a servant’s garb, and serves his people at table (Luke 12:35-40).

          Truth be told, this life of sacrificial suffering is but the life God intended for us in creation lived under the conditions of fallen existence.  We were always meant to live life in single-minded, whole-hearted passion for our Creator.  Apart from sin such a life would lack its military-like accents and the sacrifices we have to make and endure now but not its guiding passion.  This is the life we will live in God’s New Creation.

          For now, however, each of us must wrap our hearts and minds around the singular passion that draws us to God and to service in and as his subversive counter-revolutionary movement.  Within this movement, we are surrounded by others who make a similar commitment to God and sacrifices as part of our common way of life.  It is this, along with living by the rhythms of life noted above, that we have a way to assess the nature and timing of our sacrifices so that we do not end up using God’s call as a cover for our narcissism or other dysfunctions.

          This life fueled by a compelling passion for God’s agenda, nurtured by the daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms of grace, and disciplined by community is necessarily unbalanced (by today’s standards), knows we can’t have it all (that’s for life on the other side of Jesus’ return), but goes on in the hope that over time our lives (both personal and corporate) will reflect an integrity and coherence that demonstrates the life God intends (partially to be sure, but no less really) even under the conditions of life in a not-yet-fully-redeemed-world.[3]

          Balance is a “golden calf” in the church as well as in the world today.  I suggest we banish it from our thought and lexicon and turn instead to a way of life that is both theologically more tenable and actually possible under the conditions in which we live.  This life is rooted in the humility of creatures who know they cannot have it all (no matter how hard we work it) but that we can all share a common passionate commitment to be God’s subversive counter-revolutionary people.  In our common life as this people, each of us can be encouraged and equipped to make the commitments, endure the sacrifices, and experience the integrity and offer the witness that God desires from us.

          Obviously, these brief pages can but raise more questions than answers.  And I hope readers will share this piece with others, debate its merits and insights, and enrich your own lives and communities as a result.  God bless! 


[1] Keith H. Hammonds, “Balance is Bunk!” at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/87/balance-1.html.
[2]George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Epistle Dedicatory



[3] Our business writer concurs:  There's a better way to think about all this, one that requires us to embrace imbalance. Instead of trying to balance all of our commitments and passions at any one time, let's acknowledge that anything important, and anything done well, demands our full investment. At some times, it may be a demanding child or an unhappy spouse, and the office will suffer. At others, it may be winning the McWhorter account, and child and spouse will have to fend for themselves. Only over time can we really balance a portfolio of diverse experiences.”
  

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