So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
- 1 Corinthians 10:31
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
- Matthew 7:1-2
“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
- CS Lewis
No two Christian lifestyles need to look the same.
While there are obviously non-negotiable doctrines and ethics with which we all must align (there are matters on which the bible is abundantly clear; we ignore them to our detriment), two Christians of equal faith and devotion may express those qualities in entirely unique ways. One Christian may be a (responsible) consumer of alcoholic beverages, another may not. One may be rich, another poor. One may worship in a large and impressive building, another on a street corner. One prefers to worship God in a contemporary setting, another prefers hymns. One Christian loves eggnog, another prefers not to allow the joy of Christmas into his heart. (You know who you are...)
While there are dangers and benefits to any lifestyle or form of worship, scripture prescribes that a healthy church will be Spirit-driven and multifaceted, with worshipers who are united in love and purpose but “gloriously different” in the expressions of their faith.
Look at Jesus’ point in the bible passage from Matthew, above. Do Jesus and John the Baptist lead remotely similar lifestyles? Nope. Is Jesus’ lifestyle somehow “right” while John’s is wrong? Nope. But I don’t understand, which is it, are we supposed to eat food, drink wine and hang out with sinners, or ought we to be hanging out in the desert eating locusts and wild honey?
Answer: wisdom is proved right by her deeds; the wind blows wherever it pleases; whether you eat or drink, do it all for the glory of God.
As Christians, we are not to apply external templates of religiosity onto our lives and try to conform to them (or worse, conform other Christians to them); this will get us nowhere. Rather, we’re to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives and obey the instructions God puts on our hearts.
How do we know which instructions come from God? We read our bibles to make certain that what we’re hearing lines up with scripture; and we work on our relationship with the Holy Spirit, training ourselves to become better acquainted with His voice. Once I’ve received my marching orders, I should now obey them. What I ought to be careful not to do is then declare that everyone around me needs to do the same.
My wife and I were recently called to overseas missions; currently we’re in the process of being vetted and selecting a specific location. Missions are important, but are we to infer that everyone around us ought to be doing the same? Of course not. Alternatively, is it fair for those who feel they haven’t been called overseas to tell us that we’re off our rockers, or find subtle ways to find fault with our admittedly faulty plans? Naturally, no.
We all need to be obedient to the call of Christ in our lives, and supportive of those who have been called to other works, lifestyles or expressions of faith.
This is not religious pluralism, it’s just what the bible teaches.
Now, there are essential matters of doctrine and ethics that are true for all Christians, all of the time, full stop. If I encounter a Christian who is living or openly advocating a doctrine or lifestyle that is clearly incorrect, and if it is my place to speak correction on that matter (be careful, check Matthew 7:1-5), I should do so from a place of humility, respect and grace.
What I ought not to do is scream such truth on Twitter or Facebook (or in person), inform someone in the least courteous of terms that they’re just plain wrong on this subject, and justify my rather unchristian conduct because I fancy myself to be some sort of modern-day old testament prophet.
In short, even if I’m right, it doesn’t mean I’m right:
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
- 1 Corinthians 13:2
The weaponization of poorly-conceived, bombastic opinions in order to shame and deride others is practically a religion these days; but it's not our religion, and we do well to steer clear of it.
“Go ahead, beg God to be merciful to you! But when you bring that kind of offering, why should he show you any favor at all?” asks the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
“How I wish one of you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and I will not accept your offerings. But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings in honor of my name. For my name is great among the nations,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
“But you dishonor my name with your actions. By bringing contemptible food, you are saying it’s all right to defile the Lord’s table. You say, ‘It’s too hard to serve the Lord,’ and you turn up your noses at my commands,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “Think of it! Animals that are stolen and crippled and sick are being presented as offerings! Should I accept from you such offerings as these?” asks the Lord.
“Cursed is the cheat who promises to give a fine ram from his flock but then sacrifices a defective one to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and my name is feared among the nations!”
- Malachi 1:6-14
Let’s not get hung up on all the talk of diseased animals and sacrifices. If we think that God needed the Israelites to bring Him a certain sort of animal in a certain sort of condition, we’re missing the point. It’s not as if such sacrifices were somehow taken through a magic portal into Heaven where He used them for purposes unknown. The sacrifices offered to God were typically eaten either by the priests or by the people who offered them (depends on the circumstances).
No, our Lord’s issue here is with the condition of His people’s hearts: “Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” (v. 8). Translation? We respect those who have been placed in authority over us, and would never insult them with haphazard and petty offerings. If I were meeting with a great political leader in my country and I had an opportunity to bring that person a gift, would I simply fish a dollar or two out of my pocket when the time comes, as we so often do when the collection plate gets passed around?
No, I’m not about to go on a tangent about tithing. Those who insist on a 10% rule are also, as far as I can tell, missing the point on this issue. Elsewhere in scripture God rejects Israel’s evidently abundant sacrifices with no mention at all of poor quality.
“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats... wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
- Isaiah 1:11,16-17
Here the text's subject matter is different – in Malachi it's the quality of the sacrifices, in Isaiah it’s the nation’s character of injustice – and yet it’s the same; God detests the sacrifices of malicious, self-centered and unclean hearts no matter what those sacrifices may be. The sacrifice that He truly desires is a clean, contrite and reverent heart (Psalm 51:17, Micah 6:8, Psalm 51:10).
Malachi is addressing people who have failed to put the Lord of Heaven’s armies into His proper context, revere Him as God, Creator of the universe, Holy, Awesome, Terrible, Wonderful. Israel has ceased believing that God is God. He’s become a figurehead, a harmless overseer, an absentee landlord who is not expected to return any time soon. If they believed Him to be otherwise, would they dare insult Him? Would we?
The point for us vis-à-vis church offerings? Whatever amount you put into the collection plate, if you do so generously, cheerfully, reverently and sacrificially, you’re right.* Whatever amount you put into the collection plate, if you do so self-righteously, sparingly, irreverently or thoughtlessly, you’re wrong.
The point for us vis-à-vis everything else? Our Lord is not an idea, not a harmless benefactor, not an afterthought, not to be taken for granted. Yes, He loves us amazingly, overwhelmingly, constantly, but let’s not mistake His love for impassive tolerance. He is to be worshiped. This is not something to be taken lightly.
Heavenly Father. It's so easy for us to take our eyes off you for a moment and plunge headlong off the narrow path, forgetting who you truly are in the process. We beg you not to let this happen. Correct us before we fall, remind us of how awesome, powerful and wonderful you are. And never let us forget or neglect your profoundly tender, personal and overwhelming love. We pray in the name of your precious son, Jesus. Amen.
*This isn't to be taken as an excuse for offering trifles at church. One thing we may want to consider is whether our giving is sacrificial because we've left no margin in our lives for giving. Any reasonable percentage may be nearly impossible for me because I've secured the highest mortgage my broker said I could borrow and/or the largest car loan my bank would allow; consequently I've left so little room at the end of my budget that I can't contribute much to my church without going further into debt. If this is the case, I may not be living a biblical lifestyle; this is a problem I should take pains to address.
Here, John the plain-spoken Baptist devastates his compatriots’ worldview with words that echo in eternity. God can turn rocks into Israelites; national heritage won’t cut it. Each and every tree that doesn’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance will be chopped up for firewood. The seed from which it sprouted will serve as no defense, no protection from God’s judgement.
This is serious, deadly serious, so its imperative that we learn what sort of “fruit” God expects to see. John’s audience certainly wants to know, and they ask him “what on earth should we do then?”. He responds:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
- Luke 3:11-14
On first glance, we may read these instructions and conclude that “fruit” is an outward action that pleases God. After all, most of these commands really don’t seem all that difficult; dropping a little charity into the collection plate and refraining from abusing others ought to do it, no?
First, John’s instructions are that difficult. The first two items on the list command us to give away half our stuff (ouch), and not collecting more taxes than Rome required wasn’t as painless as it sounds. Tax collectors didn’t earn a salary, they made their living by charging extra. John is instructing them to give up their livelihoods. Same deal with the soldiers. These demands don’t merely exhort us to become reasonable and rational people who avoid stepping on other peoples’ toes; something much more challenging is implied.
Fortunately for us, John isn’t giving us an austerity checklist, an itemization of incredibly difficult behaviours that will please God and convince Him to lay His axe elsewhere. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Read for yourself what Jesus has to say about fruit:
"And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."
- Matthew 13:23
Sit on this metaphor for a moment. Let it ruminate. Follow it to its natural conclusion. Does soil decide whether it’s good or bad? Does it will healthy trees into existence? Can a patch of dirt sitting loosely on a sidewalk choose to produce a robust and healthy apple tree? Of course it can’t. Even if it isn’t swept away by the wind or the rain, and even if the seed lands where it’s supposed to, and even if said seed manages to sprout, the roots will have nowhere to go; and the tree will die.
No, the point isn’t for you to put together a checklist of “good fruit” (i.e. “deeds”), start ticking off boxes on that list and keep it handy for the judgement day. Your benevolent and/or religious activities will not save you, because they are not the fruit John is talking about. What is?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23
Ah, here we go, now we’re getting to brass tacks. Fruit in keeping with repentance, though it may (and generally ought to) lead to a radical lifestyle change, is a change of heart, a replacement of wickedness with Godly virtue. We must lay hold of the sin that is firmly rooted in our hearts and yank it up, sowing seeds of selflessness and self-control in its place:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
- 2 Peter 1:5-7
Well how on earth are we to do that? Soil can’t change itself, remember?
Why, the Cross of course! Jesus’ loving sacrifice on our behalf frees us from the judgement of sin under which we’ve been living all this time. While we still do sin and still must contend with the flesh, God sees in us only the righteousness of Christ. We are now a fitting abode for His Holy Spirit. He takes up residence in our hearts and begins the critical work of uprooting weeds and planting healthy trees in their place.
No, scratch that…
WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!!! Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that Jesus died for us so He can live in us, personally uproot the nastiness that ails us and turn each one of us into a fountain of everlasting righteousness? How can we even function with this knowledge? How do we ever get off our knees and cease shouting God’s praises so we can eat, drink, or go to work?
Now, some of us come to Jesus with more weeds than others; sanctification is not an easy or instantaneous process. So don’t be disheartened if you’ve sincerely asked Christ into your heart but aren’t living a life that would impress John the Baptist. Beating your breast and condemning yourself will get you nowhere, neither will pulling up your bootstraps and going on a religious self-improvement program. Remember, the work isn’t yours.
Rather, remain firmly rooted in Jesus, for:
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:4
And do everything within your power to deepen your relationship with the Holy Spirit, who inhabits your heart; for those who walk by the Spirit do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
I was about to begin this blog post by pointing out how unbelievably safe we in the west are by historical standards, and how counter-intuitive it seems that we’re more fearful than ever. But then I remembered: while I need not dread dysentery or small pox, while I can be certain of my next meal, and while I needn’t worry about a militia coming down the road to kill me and enlist my children, even in comfortable Canada, I have a great deal to fear.
I watch the news of the latest mass shooting and wonder, anxiously, if someone will try the same at my children’s school, at my church, or in my workplace. I’m repeatedly informed that climate catastrophe is reaching a crescendo, and watch as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis wipe out entire communities without warning, seeming to validate this prophecy in real-time. I watch as an increasingly fragile economy behaves in ways it’s never behaved before, threatening recession or worse. I’m told that my food is filled with untested inorganic toxins, my vaccines are tainted with mercury, my water supply is short and growing shorter, my water is spiked with cancer-inducing fluoride, the government wants to take my guns away and leave me defenseless, immigrants are storming the gate so they can wipe out our democracy and set up Sharia law, our religious freedoms are being gradually eradicated and religious nuts are using their freedoms to threaten mine.
You may not place much stock in most of the terrors outlined in the preceding paragraph. You may think some of it is right on the mark, the rest hysterical nonsense. But regardless of whether you’re left or right, religious or secular, there is a fear-peddler near you with a whole lot of anxiety to give, free of charge. All you need do is sign up for the free newsletter, like the Facebook page, subscribe to the blog, follow the Twitter handle. And, if you’re a true believer, you can become a fear-peddler yourself: pay it forward, as it were.
But what does the bible tell us? “Be not afraid”!
Let that sink in. This isn’t a biblical one-off but a refrain that comes directly from God; and it is repeated over and over again – far more times than I’ve cited in the above verses. We are to let go of our fear, and trust God no matter what. He is in control.
Is this to say that I should expect everything to go well for me personally as long as I trust in Him? If I’m faithful, He’ll pay my mortgage, stave off illness and keep me comfortable? Been reading my blog long? NO! We’re not promised rewards or material blessings in this life, but in the next (Matthew 5:12, Revelation 22:12, 1 Peter 5:4).
But this doesn’t mean we ought to go walking through life as terrified of these boogeymen as our non-Christian neighbours. Where is our faith? Is this really the example we have to set, trembling before malevolent false gods who promise us personal, national and global ruin? Do we truly believe that this isn’t all a part of God’s plan?
There’s nothing wrong with being good stewards of the environment and encouraging others to do the same – it’s a good thing, in fact – but do you really believe that God will not protect His creation until it’s ready to be made new? Is this seriously keeping you up nights? Are you fearful of immigrants setting up shop in your neighborhood and corroding your nation’s identity? Why? Do you believe that your non-Christian neighbour has a more powerful message to give than you do? Really? Why not relish the opportunity to share the Gospel with someone who may have never heard it before? Are you terrified that another stock market crash is going to wipe out your retirement portfolio? If so, in whom have you put your trust?
The North American church has largely become weak, anemic, unconvincing and ineffective; and the solution to this problem isn’t going to be found in more creative programming. Imagine all that we could do and accomplish, together, if only we learned how to let go of our fear. I’m willing to give it a shot, are you?
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.