Tuesday, July 26, 2011

World-Shaping and the Love of Christ

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner-being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Having addressed the role of the gospel in transforming the individual’s life code and sphere of influence, I am tempted to jump into the romantic and high-profile kinds of world-shaping that arise so easily to dominate our thinking and guide our energy. To do so, however, would not do justice to the centrality of Christ’s love in our role as kingdom seekers and world-shapers.

The kind of love that we see in the Scriptures can be described in countless ways. It is steadfast to the point of inspiring terror. It is defined in essence by the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, separate yet one in loving union and harmony. It is Christ’s willingness to place himself below humanity so that humanity may be lifted up with him. In Hosea it is the deep pangs of rejection resonating through a forsaken spouse.

But more than anything the love of the gospel is characterized by self-emptying. It is willful suffering for the good of others in obedience to the Father. This is what defines Christ both in his death and in the example of his life on earth, and it is also what should define us as his followers.

The problem is that living a self-emptying life does not usually line up with our ambitions to shape the world, even if those ambitions are “Christian.” For example, how can I move forward with the time-consuming logistical plans to start an organic farming ministry for refugees if I am called before all else to practically lay down my life in the example of Christ for the people around me? (This is a real and pertinent question I’ve pondered over for a few years now).

And the problem is compounded by the fact that the standard paradigm for Christian ministry (in the Western world at least) involves a group of people or an individual person setting a goal and then living in service to that goal before anything else. The mission statement of any local church or ministry is another way of saying, “We will devote ourselves, our resources, and our energy to transforming our sphere of influence in such and such a way.”

If we make it the goal of our life or our ministry to see a particular vision actualized, then whatever grows up will have bad roots and we ourselves will be vulnerable to disease. We will be angry or ashamed when the vision doesn’t happen. We will cover up our deep frustration by saying piously, “We have to accept that for some reason the Lord closed that door.” We will be afraid of people or situations that threaten our vision. Our life energy will be lost—poured out in anxiety over our plans. Worse, we will find that even though we are pursuing a “Christian” goal, our life code has not been redefined by the love of Christ.

But if we willingly lose our lives in self-sacrifice to the people around us, then we will find the life of the gospel. We will have nothing of our own to protect. If we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ and make the enacting of that love unto the people around us our single goal, then we will bring about the life of the gospel in cooperation with the Spirit. The truth and the commands of Christ will be our life code. The love of Christ will be the thing that defines us; it will permeate our lives in such a way that it can be known by others—not known in the way that a student knows an answer on a test, but known in the way that the Israelites standing before flaming Mount Sinai knew that Yahweh is real and the gods of Egypt are not.

The most fitting summary for all of this, I think, is to say that we are presented with a paradox. We are called to reshape the world as we seek the kingdom of God. But if we make too many plans about how to do that, we lose our lives to those plans instead of directly and intentionally laying our lives down for others in the example of Christ. We are to reshape the world not by our effort, but more so by existing in it as people who, by the power of the Spirit, are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.

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