Six GROWTH practices: Go, Read, Obey, Witness, Trust, Humble Yourself
Obey the Challenge to Deny Yourself
Years as a chaplain in the Navy Reserves taught me the basics of military life. Fundamental is obedience to commands and also saluting the authority of superior officers. Growth is built into that structure. Either get promoted in a certain number of years, or you’re are out. The military is the ultimate command structure.
Is the military a model for church life? It was in the Old Testament with its many commands to be obeyed. It isn’t in the New Testament with its emphasis on grace. The Pharisees built their lives around 613 commands they found, and growth consisted of following them in greater detail. Jesus had nothing but scorn for the Pharisees. His way is different.
As opposed to commands, New Testament church life can be the ultimate love structure. When the Pharisees wanted to know what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it, Love your neighbor as yourself.” He called these the two greatest commandments.
But can love be commanded? Commandments focus on behavior: Do what I tell you to do. It is possible to focus on the actions of loving someone else and prescribe what that action should look like. But soon you are back to a command structure and church life becomes a matter of rule-keeping. Then what becomes of grace? Better is to look at those commandments as Gods’ expectations.
The basic issue is whether love can be commanded. The problem is when we are told to love God with all your heart and soul as well as mind. The heart is the seat of emotions. The soul is our inner being. Neither responds well to commands. Try telling your spouse that he or she should love you more and see what happens. Or try to command someone to be more joyful. Joy comes from within; it can’t be imposed from without.
Yet, rule-keeping is a basic human instinct and need. Children respond well to rules on how to behave, and any social organization has to have rules about how to relate to one another. Think of library fines for overdue books. Call these school or house rules that help us live better together.
It is easy to extend the rule-keeping mentality to the relationship between God and his people. We think, If I try really hard to obey most of those rules, God is fair and will react kindly to me. Some people carry that mentality through the rest of their life. But many get these rules wrong. Some think there is a God rule prohibiting smoking and alcoholic beverages. There isn’t, so long as it’s done in moderation and concern for physical health. Growth does not have a place in this mentality. Just be faithful to the rules. How easy it is to become like Pharisees. Such churches are not very attractive to most people.
What is attractive today is the opportunity to grow, to become a better person. The growth that counts for a better life is growth in the inner being, the heart. Head growth is basic to education, and growth in knowledge is well worth pursuing. But head knowledge does not necessarily yield a better person. The key is growth in motivation to become more like Christ.
When Jesus highlighted love as the greatest commandment, was he really focusing on a command like those issued in the military? I don’t read the situation that way. He was highlighting God’s expectation that his people love him and others. He was challenging them to have a change in their motivations. That is humanly hard to accomplish.
But the same God who “commanded” love also provided the means to have motivations changed. He sent his Son to redeem his people and free them from the demands of the Law. The Father and the Son now send the Holy Spirit to carry on the work of changing inner beings so that love for God and others grows more intense in a follower of Jesus.
How often I have heard appeals based on Matthews Great Commission to go and make disciples of all people. It is meant to provide motivation for mission outreach. But seldom do I see much change in behavior. It relies on a military mentality, especially highlighting that Jesus has all authority.
Why not base the appeal on Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension? Jesus expected that the Gospel will be preached and that his followers will be witnesses. But instead of saying Go, he says Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power from on high. That power, of course, is the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who changes inner motivations and stimulates the desire to spread the Good News to others. It is the Holy Spirit that creates joy in daily living, free from the demands of rules. The Spirit is basic to the church’s love structure, replacing the all-too-human command structure.