Does the Gospel sell itself? That’s how I began this series of posts, and that’s how I’ll end it. If we are on a road alongside of which are exits to narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-promotion, and the Heavenly City seems further away in our rearview mirrors, then how do we change directions? (I’ll drop the metaphor there, if you don’t mind!) I’ve tried to set out some of the interpersonal and intellectual challenges because to reflect theologically and to act on the basis of that reflection, we need to consider several factors.
But here’s the final one, and the decisive one. What does God want? Now, I know that this question is tricky and easily hijacked by various sides of any given debate. If you want change, you point to the God of renewal, and if you don’t want change, you mention the old paths. Both sets of languages — both descriptions of the nature of God — have biblical warrant. Which one applies at a given moment depends on several factors, not all of which everyone will agree upon. Moreover, Christians have a wide range of views of just how specific God intends to be. Neo-Calvinists assume that the sovereignty of God implies a very high degree of planning of human lives, while most other Christians are content to think of God painting in the cosmic picture in broader, more impressionistic strokes. I do not say any of this to be cynical, but simply to note that I am aware of the hazards.
Still, as a Christian, I must always ask myself what God wants. It is not legitimate to try to escape the question, if you want to think in Christian ways. Here are some things (not everything!) that Scripture, which I believe to be the best indication of God’s will that we have, seems to think God wants from us:
1. Let’s be passionate about the search for God. Christians should pray a lot and with passion. If we spent more time on our knees, we might spend less time wringing our hands or shouting. As Paul said to the Athenians, God has given us evidence of nearness by raising Jesus from the dead. The search is not an idle quest for an elusive goal, but the pursuit of one lover for another seeking rest together.
2. Let’s care about the stranger. I have long been struck by Exodus’s story of the redemption of Israel and the legal conclusions that the text draws from that experience: “you shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Perhaps Christians are so hostile to immigrants and other vulnerable people because we have concluded that this land really is our land, not simply a place on loan from God while we move toward our final home. Have we forgotten that we too are strangers, that we too are redeemed people?
3. Let’s remember that we are in this together. It is distressing to watch churches split over issues that can only be classified as trivial. I have always found that praying for those with whom I disagree (which is quite a few people, as it happens!) or whom I found narrow and annoying and petty (also a fairly large group) changes things. Very few Christians are so alienated from their own calling that we cannot find in them something to cherish.
4. Let’s remember that change can be both good and necessary. Some folks I know are worried about “change agents.” I’ve even read journals that argue that all change is to be resisted. Of course, this is absurd. Sometimes change is apostasy, true, and that is to be resisted. But sometimes change is repentance, as when churches quit making one race sit in the balcony while another sat on the pews on the floor. Sometimes change is simply maturation as when we recognize that our group does not have a monopoly on Christian commitment or understanding. And sometimes it’s just change, relatively benign and neutral in meaning. To fear change is to fear life. The key is to make change rather than suffer it, and to make it with the highest Christian ideals in mind.
5. Finally, let’s remember that to be church is the greatest calling in the world. We cannot cherish Christ without also cherishing his bride. The church often needs correction — we are always reforming — but we also need to be loved and to love the magnificent calling we have received to be harbingers of God’s Kingdom, in which no one suffers hunger, no one is alone, no one is disrespected, and all find a place of dignity and honor at the bountiful table of the Lord.
May it always be so! I’ll start a new series in a few days, after the Pepperdine lectures. I hope to see you there!