Sometimes living a life for Christ is a dilemma. I want to be a faithful follower of Christ; to live a life which will reflect Him and stay clear of the things that would tempt me towards a worldly point of view. Yet, I also want to live in the liberty of grace, and not get tangled up in legalism. What is the line and where do you draw it?
When I first became a believer, there were a lot of legalistic regulations laid on Christian women, particularly in the matter of dress and the way the concept of submission and a woman’s role in the church was interpreted (a whole different article!). It was not really a grace-filled way to live, and the pendulum subtly began swinging the other way as women in the world became more self-reliant and powerful. Believing women, accepting these values in varying degrees, began to resist the restrictions. The pendulum has continued to swing until now you often can’t tell a believing woman from a non-believing woman, by appearance, speech or behaviour.
Today is a very different world than the one I entered as a new Christian over 60 years ago. The Church has become more secularized, more materialistic and more self-involved. Not that I want to go back to the way it was, exactly. Legalism is stifling and grace killing, just as secularism removes God from the centrality of our lives. We can choose to live lives which reflect God’s holiness, grace and love and still be neither legalistic nor worldly, but we may need to accept a new point of view.
Somewhere over the years a line has been crossed, and we have lost the understanding that we are not to love the world, but are to be set apart… not in a way that shuts out possible seekers because they don’t know the language, or may not look or sound like us, but set apart to a life of holiness and faithfulness to God’s right to be the ruler of our lives. Instead, we often unconsciously embrace the world’s values and misguidedly mimic the world and suppose we can do this without losing something valuable in the process. Paul tells us we are to be in the world, but not of it. Instead, many want to give lip service to God, but still remain dedicated to the materialistic values of the world. They want to hold on to their autonomy and self-determination and have assumed that they can serve God without submitting to the Spirit’s direction toward a radical change of course and focus.
While there are many problems in the Church today, one of the most insidious is the fact that we have become comfortable with the increasingly indistinct lines between Church and the world. We have now developed the simplistic three chord “praise music” style for contemporary services to satisfy ears raised on rock and roll, and Christian “performers” imitate the styles of stars of the entertainment world. Church administrators take classes in marketing and the psychology of motivation instead of relying on the Holy Spirit to move people to give. Ministries become huge corporations instead of simple congregations of believers and size has become the indicator of a “successful” ministry as opposed to the spiritual maturity of the congregation. Our secular political persuasion has, in some cases, become a criterion of “faith”. People now think of God as such a comfortable Presence that they assume He doesn’t care how they come to worship, as long as they come. That is possibly true, but I am not completely convinced that showing up in torn jeans and unpressed tee shirts is completely respectful. I find singing beautiful old hymns and Christmas carols in syncopated rhythm with a strong percussion section and a jazzy piano to be a little off-putting, and it reduces something transcendent into just another jingle. Some music doesn’t need “improving”.
Even as I write this I can hear that I sound uncompromising and politically incorrect. Yet, there is something disquieting to me about the present culture of the Church. We no longer talk much about sin, or the need to set ourselves apart for God, or the cost to God of our salvation. It is all about what we need, and what we want from life, instead of what we owe to God and how we may serve Him. It is so much more man centered than God centered, and so much more entertainment based than based on genuine worship. I think we have lost something precious: the awareness of the holiness and power and majesty of God. We have cut Him down to our size, and made Him into a comfortable Grandfather, sitting up in heaven thinking about how He can make us all happy and problem free and answering all our prayers with a “Yes”. We have lost the God of the scripture, and transformed Him into someone with Whom we think we can bargain or even manipulate.
James M. Boice, in his book, The Doctrines of Grace, quotes from the Cambridge Declaration which says, “As evangelical faith has become secularized, its interests have been blurred with that of the culture. The result is a loss of absolute values, permissive individualism and a substitution of wholeness for holiness, recovery for repentance, intuition for truth, feeling for belief, chance for providence, and immediate gratification for enduring hope. Christ and His cross have moved from the center of our vision”. Later he says, “What has replaced the gospel of grace is a message that is partially biblical but ultimately self-centered. Like everything else in creation, the human soul abhors a vacuum. When something essential disappears from our theology and our spirituality, something else rushes in to replace it. When God Himself disappears, what replaces Him is the self.”
We need to rediscover that a Christ centered life sometimes calls for sacrificial discipleship, and is not intended to reflect the world’s agenda of the pursuit of personal happiness. How far are we prepared to follow Him even though the path may be difficult and discouraging at times? I am not always wise but I know that when we pray for wisdom, God responds. He goes where He is wanted, and if our desire is toward Him, He will answer the call of our hearts.
So, what can I do about this in my own life? One thing I can do is to make sure I understand more about the kind of person Christ calls me to be. Not just what I need to do; what I need to be. I need to open myself to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and let myself be changed. I want to be sensitively aware of those around me who don’t know Christ, and be unapologetic yet gentle and polite about sharing my faith. A Christ centered life involves knowing the scriptures well, not just giving them a quick glance and shutting the Book. It involves applying even the hard things to my own life. I can’t cherry-pick the things I will obey and ignore the things that require me to sacrifice my own will. I can’t choose to be obedient only when it is convenient or easy. I can actively study Christ and try to live out the fruit of the spirit as listed in Galatians: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I can embrace and desire the attributes which Christ taught in His Sermon on the Mount, like being humble in spirit, or hungering and thirsting after righteousness. I can submit myself willingly to the will of God, respecting His holiness and acknowledging His right to authority over my life. None of these things is easy, yet all are possible when my will is set aside and instead is submitted to God’s will.
By opening myself to change I may make a difference in my little corner of the world. I can become more intentional about a more intimate relationship with Christ, depending on Him and taking it one small step at a time. I need to remember that happiness and comfort in this life are not the goals. Having a good time of fellowship at church and talking easily about spiritual things without also being willing to submit my life to God in holiness and humility is not God’s ultimate purpose for me. Thank God, He can supply all I need to stay on course and become the person He wants me to be… but I actively need to pursue Him, and be willing to submit to the rigors of the journey. As we face a new year, a new beginning, I hope that all of us will reevaluate the values of our faith, and move toward letting our lives be set apart for God, in holiness, grace and love.