Spiritual Formation

I wrote in an earlier post this spring that I have been reading books on ethics. I have, and still am. It's been interesting! I started out with a contempt for the "liberals", and most especially for "feminist theology", and loved what I read from evangelicals -- especially those most interested in an ethic of service. (I still retain a bit of that . . . for instance, I think the virgin birth of Christ is just a fact about how God did things in becoming a man Who was God Incarnate, and am alternately annoyed and horrified by anyone who articulates a position that that is an outmoded belief that reflects our misclassification of intercourse as an innately sinful act. I think they are revealing a lot more about their "issues" than about TRUTH that we are all supposedly pursuing. And I am still thrilled with an understanding of ethics that is focused on all the Jesus articulated as "Kingdom Values.") But I no longer feel contempt for the thoughtful reflections of any of those who cared enough to write a book on Christian ethics -- nor do I feel unadulterated awe and respect. I have arrived at a position that values respectful listening to all sides about "the way things work", and then a turning to Jesus for the two things I need to actually act on: 1) "what choices will I make today?" and 2) "how will I respond to the choices that others make?"

The second question is one that the liberal voices have gifted me with new insight. Jesus was clear about judging others, and clear about forgiving others. The ethical dilemmas are complex enough -- and the cultural and social and psychological frameworks behind them are complex enough -- that I no longer have much respect for Evangelicals who put more energy into condemning the behavior of others and trying to restrict it when it is not a clear case of cruelty or injustice than they do into condemning and confronting and intervening in all the places where there is clearly injustice and cruelty. We only have so much in terms of resources and energy, and commit sin of our own when we ignore the obvious calls to service and protection and intervention to be busy about things that are much more ambiguous.

The first question is one on which all the speakers cast fresh light. It is very interesting to me that, although they word it differently, even the liberal writers view all our choices and actions each day as choices and actions of spiritual formation. I do not only form myself by the ways I listen to God and follow after Him in the spiritual disciplines, but I also am formed by each choice of laziness or selfishness or even deliberate blindness to the TRUTH. And all camps acknowledge that our function as salt to the rest of the world is only as effective as the sum of these choices.

So each day for each individual is a day of significance! My salvation (my "ticket to heaven"?) is based on what Christ did and what the Holy Spirit does each day, but real salvation ("discipleship"?) is something that is lived in freedom each day but with freedom steeped in the understanding of the reality of who I am, who you are, and Who He is. I have spent enough time reading theologians on the far right to distance myself from their focus on "being right" and condemning others without even really listening to them before they write them off. I have spent enough time reading theologians on the far left to affirm once again that my whole faith rests on the belief that Jesus really came as the scriptures claim He did and lived and died and was resurrected as they claim He did, and that any other philosophy or ethic has no power to motivate me or to change me. A liberal ethic can't make me "better" or satisfy my hungers any more than can the self-righteousness of the conservative theologians who think they'll go to heaven by being the ones who are right and exposing the error of the rest of us.

We are all so hungry for spiritual reality! That is why the book The Secret has the appeal it has! It points us to a world where human beings are not the gnostic "souls housed in a body they will soon shed" that some of us believe and also not the "just a body coursing with chemicals" that modern materialistic philosophy suggests. It points us to a world where human beings are embodied spiritual powers, and intuitively that rings true for many of us. See my earlier post on this book to see my criticism of it, but my praise of it is that it hits upon the truth we all really know: there is a spiritual reality that our choices and thoughts affect.

The best things I have read on ethics point back to knowing Jesus and following Him each day. Dallas Willard and Richard Foster remain my favorites here. But others point to that same set of kingdom values, and there is value in reading about them from different points of view and in different voices. We find a new ability to see Jesus clearly when we cease to deify our own evangelical culture or our own personal comfort zones and are willing to listen to a view of life and a set of experiences that challenges our beliefs about how things work.

Jesus and the writers of the Epistles were all clear that the highest value for our ethic is Agape Love. How much of that love penetrates my response to those who make choices that I think violate good ethics? And how much of that love informs my own choices today in my relationships and activities?

I think we are miserably deficient in any evidence of real Agape in most of what we articulate and in most of what we spend our time and energy upon. And, of course, we are told clearly the remedy to this! It is not to muster up more Agape out of our insides someplace and "do better". It is in abiding with Jesus daily and letting Him "love on us" -- even as screwed up as we each are -- and learning from Him what real Agape looks like, and then doing the same in our relationships with others.

It takes strength and power to extend real Agape, and none of us has that intrinsically. But the power that flows through any of us can be remarkable.

So let's give up wasting energy on "being good" and "teaching others to be good", as if that was what the abundant life was! Let's refuse to put energy there, and instead put energy into extending ourselves as His hands of healing and grace.

And that takes letting Him be the brain and the heart.


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