Cooperating with Jesus Today, Part 1
Okay, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this series. We’ve diagnosed and questioned, and probed and poked. Now, in these final two articles, we look at ways in which we can proclaim and demonstrate Jesus’ Message in today’s world.
We’ll tackle four in this post and four in the next one.
This is the 19th and penultimate article in our series on Messy Dogma. Our objective? To re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. Here we look at the first four of eight suggestions/solutions to the problems addressed in this series. If you’re just joining us, you’ll find it more helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
4506 words (c. 11 pages) = 40 minute read
Suggestion: tackle it in two sittings. With another strong cup of coffee 😉
I know I sound like a stuck record (or like I’m on a playback loop), but in this section I am going to try to be as practical as I can … in the context of Father God’s unfailing love, the superseding grace Jesus gives, and the overwhelming power we have in the Holy Spirit.
So, before we look at positive ways in which we can co-operate with Jesus’ ongoing work in the world today, let’s begin with the negative.
Edmund Burke’s infamous quote rings loudly today: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
The question that probes at my mind is this: how much more does evil triumph when the something good well-intended men do actually deepens the darkness?
That is, only until we realise the monumental calamity the world is in, and just as importantly, our complicity in the problem, can we hope to offer light to the darkness. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, our efforts may well exacerbate the gloom. There’s a word for the kind of realisation required, and it was the same word Jesus used: repentance.
1. Good Old-fashioned Repentance
Only until we repent; that is, acknowledge how we’ve been co-opted by today’s societal machine and defect from our society’s frame story, can we embrace the Gospel of the Kingdom and transform our world.
Or else, we’ll continue to offer solutions that perpetrate the problem and answers that deepen the darkness. Of course, we’re sincere, but it’s possible to be sincerely wrong. Just ask Abraham how well he’s idea to call Hagar into his tent worked for him.
In repentance, we reject today’s Empire and renounce Self as the framing reference, and defect from the corrupt systemic influence of our societal machine, re-aligning with the Kingdom’s values. We acknowledge the deceitful power of self-interest; rejecting the false sense of identity we derive from our place and status in the system (our vested interests), and renouncing behaviour that is self-serving and self-advancing.
I have found asking the following questions helpful in this ongoing process of repentance:
- Am I profiting from the system?
Living in the West and growing up in a privileged background means that I have, without question, benefited from the system. And while I don’t think Jesus is telling me to sell all I have, as He did to the rich young ruler, He is calling me to unplug from my dependency on the system. While I don’t need to adopt a bitter, ungrateful spirit (1 Timothy 6:17-19), I am to use the privilege I’ve been afforded to serve mankind. So, asking myself regularly how and where I profit from the system is a crucial starting point.
- Am I doing all the good I can?
Am I using the privileges I have had and the opportunities I have been given to serve others and make this world a better place? Is planet earth enriched because I’m here? Not with the crumbs of my life while I feast on the fat. Not with token pay offs while I pander to my impulses. Embracing a mentality of “do no harm,” is not enough. Am I doing all the good I can?
This is not about adopting a rigorous “works mentality,” and in guilt, paying back something I owe. Rather, in a spirit of gratitude, how do I participate with Jesus’ ongoing work on the earth? What are the tools I’ve been given through my privileged background, and how can I use them to pass the blessings forward.
- Am I majoring on the majors?
Religion majors on the minors, and the Pharisees turned this into a fine art. Jesus cut through their smoke and minors: “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). What a disturbingly ludicrous word picture!
A first-century strainer, similar to one today, was used to filter out debris and impurities from their drinking water. Jesus is saying that they painstakingly remove a tiny gnat but gulp down a camel; they spotlight the trifling, insignificant matters but completely miss the enormous, significant matters of life. Specifically, in this passage, they turned the principle of the tithe into a soul-badgering regulation while neglecting “the weightier matters of … justice and mercy” (Matthew 23:23).
It doesn’t really matter what trivial pursuits we major on (and there are hundreds that occupy many believers; most of them centring on our fixation for self-enrichment or our fascination with esoteric, heady ‘up there’ teaching or end-times theory), we tend to neglect matters of justice and other ‘major category’ good works simply because it’s easier to speculate than demonstrate; easier to tickle ears than roll up sleeves; easier to articulate problems than chisel out answers. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day majored on the minors and missed the heart of God. And I’m a Pharisee today if I do the same.
2. Mind-boggling, Mountain-moving Faith
Repentance turns us away from Self and a self-seeking path, faith plugs us into God and a Kingdom-shaped path.
We’ve got the faith thing waxed, right?
Yes, we’ve been taught how to trust God, and to ask Him for things, our “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). But what if, while we’ve perfected our prayers around asking for things, He’s been waiting for us to ask Him for the perspective and power to liberate the planet? To answer a prayer we actually have faith to believe: “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
What I mean is this: maybe for all our bluster, our faith has been too small. Too civilised. Too tame, even. What if this generation of believers began to believe, truly believe … not merely for their needs to be met (which, of course, is a valid starting point) … but for the restoration of creation and the transformation of society, and then backed up this belief with exploits that actively worked towards making this a reality?
Two questions must be pressed over and over again in my thinking:
- Do I believe the King and His all-conquering Kingdom story?
I wish I could hear Jesus’ first words again, fresh and free from the baggage I’ve inherited. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14, 15). Jesus told a New Story, the Good News of a new Kingdom that would usurp everything we know, one that trumps every system of this world, secular and religious. Do I believe Him? I feel like the man who cried, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
- Am I living a life that backs up this otherworldly narrative?
Jesus’ story inspired the early believers to move the mountains of opposition of their day, to tackle the societal dysfunctions and systemic injustices of an Empire that oppressed all under its domain.
Think about those uneducated, hilly-billy disciples for a moment, little worms living under the thumb of one of the mightiest, militant Empires to ever rule the world. Yet two thousand years later we call our sons, Peter, James and John … while we name our dogs, Caesar, Brutus and Nero.
In simple yet profound terms then, repentance and faith were the starting points in Jesus’ day, and they are the beginning points today. Without first defecting from our society’s frame story and believing God’s new, mind-boggling story for the planet, we’ll continue to settle for same old, same old religion.
3. Love-fuelled Motivations and Pure Impulses
While most of what happens in the modern church today is surely based on sincere motives and genuine intentions (I don’t know of one Christian leader who wakes up each morning planning on being insincere), I need only look into my own soul to see a mixture of good and bad impulses. And far too much pride. While I can honestly say that I have tried to be sincere in following Jesus in ministry for over twenty years, I’ve come to realise that as long as I have vested interests in the system—especially my version of it—my motives will always be warped.
Let’s then return to 2 Corinthians 5 for a Biblical basis of motivation.
Paul is, of course, speaking to believers in this passage not unbelievers (vv. 1-10), and he reminds them of our role in God’s plan to reconcile “the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (v. 19). He refers to believers as “ambassadors” entrusted with this “ministry of reconciliation” (vv. 18-20). And nestled in this passage, Paul refers to a twin-powered motivation: the “fear of the Lord” and the “love of Christ” (vv. 11, 14).
- “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men…” (v. 11)
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that some versions use the phrase “terror of the Lord.” However, the English word “terror” translates the common Greek word for “fear” (phobos), and is thus, an overly strong translation—possibly again betraying an Augustinian bias. Correctly so, most translations use the word “fear” not “terror.”
So, what fear does Paul refer to? “For me must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (v. 10).
Paul is referring to post-mortem judgment when we give an account to God. He may well be saying that the knowledge of unbelievers facing the wrath of God should motivate us. However, he is more likely referring to the motivation that arises from knowing we must give account to God for our life and ministry (vv. 8, 9).
Either way then, the “judgment seat of Christ” is a powerful and valid motivator, and nowhere in these notes have we suggested otherwise. As believers, we will give an account to our King for how we have stewarded the things He has entrusted to us, and unbelievers will face God’s righteous displeasure. In this righteous fear, we ought to be motivated.
Our ministry of reconciliation should, without question, be marked by a sense of urgency as we participate with Christ’s ongoing work on earth. However, the urgency of co-operating with Jesus in His work, including reuniting lost children to their loving Father, is markedly different from a guilt-driven ministry of turn-or-burn condemnation. In fact, knowing we will give an account to God for the quality or substance of our work (see 1 Corinthians 3:11-15), the fear of the Lord also challenges us to a purity of motive.
- “For the love of Christ compels us…” (v. 14)
The other side of this deep reverence for God, is love. A love for God that responds to His love for us. The Father’s love expressed in Christ.
God’s Fatherhood expressed in Jesus—an all-consuming, all-conquering love centred in the completed work of Christ—is our compelling reason for ministry. In the urgency of Christ’s empowering love, we’re to co-operate with God’s redeeming work on earth as He restores all of creation and draws all mankind to Himself.
This pure, love-fuelled motivation unleashed a monumental society-altering tidal wave of good works in the first century. And it could today.
I was surprised and even shocked when I read about an incident that happened in 1992. A group of scientists, including the infamous Carl Sagan, invited religious leaders to join them in meetings on environmental crisis, acknowledging that while science could describe the crisis, only ‘religion’ could motivate people to address it.
Firstly … 1992! Over twenty years ago! What progress could have already been made if we’d wised up earlier? Secondly, this is an astonishing admission from the science world, acknowledging both science’s limitations and the value of faith-based motivation.
Sadly, while environmentalists have taken great strides in contending for environmental change over the past two decades, Christendom has found itself positioned largely on the wrong side of this important issue: either seeming indifferent to environmental progress, and sometimes even in opposition to it.
If we’re honest about Christendom’s culpability, we have to admit that we’ve been notorious for misusing and abusing moral conviction to maintain party-lines and ‘coerce’ compliance to a host of petty preferences. Think about how much time has been squandered over condemning things like fashion (hats, hairstyles, clothing, etc.) and entertainment (music styles, alcohol, and tobacco), rather than harnessing a prophetic conviction that challenges corrupt systems and social injustice. Too often it seems that the church has assumed the role of ‘moral police,’ judging a secular audience with a Pharisee-like list of in-house rules. Sadly, we’ve strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel, which puts us in rather bad company with that lot.
Many, many people today associate Christendom with what we hate—surveys indicate that Christians hate gays is one of the most defining themes we are associated with. Green Peace is known for its love of the whales, and we’re known for our hate of gays. Sadly, it’s actually not even difficult to see how this tragedy has occurred.
The questions I have to ask myself again and again are:
- What vested interests do I harbour that keeps me back from a pure heart?
Why do I serve? Why do I want to make a difference? What drives me? What do I hope to get out of it? Honestly.
- What prejudices keep me back from loving unconditionally?
Who do I consider irredeemable? Unlovable? (We do this unconsciously, of course, and may need to sift through a few layers of clichéd sentiment to poke at the core of our biases). And what do I consider as unimportant to God that I may have to rethink? (Issues such as chronic global societal problems, products and goods that utilise ‘slave-labour,’ the exploitation of the planet’s resources, critically endangered animals, etc.)
Can you imagine a new breed of disciple who, in a flash flood of purity and love, are known for their love and service of both the despised of society and this damaged planet?
A quick word here on environmental issues, and answering the question, Is Jesus a Greenie?
There is absolutely no question that a human being is worth more than a dog, lizard, tree or waterfall. Jesus made this point emphatically; talking about the birds and lilies, He said, “Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).
However, for us to have “more value than” the birds and flowers, it stands to reason that they have some worth to the Creator, too. And when you consider the astronomical worth God ascribes to human beings, then the value of all creation—including dogs, lizards, trees and waterfalls—takes on significant proportions.
God was pretty clear when He moved the psalmist to declare, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness” (Psalm 24:1). I think followers of Jesus ought to be concerned about creation, ensuring that we ‘tread’ lightly on God’s green earth as stewards of all its precious creatures and resources.
The Gospel is Good News to all of creation. Paul explained that all of creation “eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Having been ravaged and ‘rubbished’ by a fallen, resource-guzzling specie, creation longs for the Creator’s offspring to restore it. (It seems to me that creation is suffering from post-traumatic stress; it’s in a state of shock because those appointed by God as its custodian, have become its chief tormentor).
I think embracing the Gospel of the Kingdom should restore our love for “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small” (and the colour green)—knowing, “The Lord God made them all!” And let’s not forget that the Kingdom Story began in a garden (Genesis 2) and concludes in a garden city (Revelation 22).
4. Good Works that Make the World Wonder
The notion of good works is often viewed as doing nice things for others. Being friendly to your neighbour, however, is hardly anything more than being a civilised, polite human being. When Jesus explained that the second commandment was to love our neighbours as ourselves, His audience probably glibly thought, “Hey, what’s the big deal? I wave to Obadiah on the way to work every morning. What are you making a big fuss about?”
Jesus told the scandalous story of the Good Samaritan to press home the point that just being nice and polite and civil is for sissies (Mark 10:25-37). When He asked His audience, “So which of these three do you think was neighbour to him who fell among the thieves?”, the man answered: “He who showed mercy on him.”
Jesus replied: “Go and do likewise.”
That is, go and show mercy.
That is, demonstrate God’s love through acts of mercy.
That is, engage with the needs of others and the needs of your world, and then serve where you can.
Jesus called us to good works that glorified God (Matthew 5:16). In fact, without good works our message appears irrelevant. There’s truth in the saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And this is also true in terms of our perceived indifference to real world issues. The world doesn’t care what we know because they know we don’t care about the problems of the world.
Yes, this involves serving wherever a need arises in our world (where we’re able to do so), but I think it is imperative to engage with the bigger issues that affect the world, too. And at the risk of redundancy, let me list them again:
- hunger and malnutrition,
- water and sanitation,
- lack of education and communicable diseases,
- climate change and environmental abuse,
- population and migration,
- economic dysfunctions and disparities,
- racism and prejudice,
- abusivegovernance and corruption, and
- war andconflict.
Oh, boy! I feel immediately overwhelmed even thinking about these global problems, but there are three reasons why I must engage with such issues.
- Because Jesus cares about these things.
After travelling from city to city, “preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom” and serving the real needs of the people, Jesus was “moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:35, 36). Jesus cares. He really cares. With the Kingdom message poignantly at the centre of His agenda, as always, Jesus was heartbroken at the state of those oppressed by the Empire, those harassed by the political, economic and religious systems of the day. Jesus cares about the real-world matters that affect people.
Only by entering into the conversation around these matters will we break out of our current little bubble of church-world thinking. Only by getting to grips with the enormity of the challenges will we pray like we ought and think like we should. And only by creating a new ‘culture’ of Jesus followers who genuinely care about these things will we ever dare to make a difference, and raise new generations to do the same. Because Jesus cares about these real-world matters, we should too.
- Because the early church assumed Jesus’ message addressed these things.
When Paul met with the other apostles in Jerusalem to compare notes, these Kingdom-advancing men agreed to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). Paul actually stresses that this ‘major’ was something he “was eager to do.” This is not merely nodding one’s head to an afterthought matter.
The word “eager” (Greek: spoudazo) literally means, “to strain every nerve” implying wholehearted “exertion, resolve, haste and diligence.” This was not something Paul merely gave mental accent to; rather it was a vital aspect of his Kingdom mindset. It’s notable that the first example of a New Testament prophet in action involved a prophetic warning of impending widespread famine, which historically occurred in A.D. 46 according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Acts 11:27-30). And who do we find at the centre of the relief-aid effort to curtail the human suffering that this famine would cause? Paul, of course (v. 30).
James defined a “pure and undefiled” walk with God like this: “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Orphans and widows were the most marginalised people of his day—and certainly are among the most disenfranchised of our day, too. And his phrase about being “unspotted from the world” has nothing to do with piously retreating into a sanitised Christian bubble; rather it refers to being uncorrupted by the systems of this world that oppress and exploit the poor. How do I come to that conclusion? James continued his exhortation by confronting our tendency towards prejudice (James 2:1ff)—the very virus from which injustice goes airborne—before calling us to burst the bubble through an exemplary faith backed up by works of justice and service (James 2:14ff).
The early church was known for its love-fuelled service and heroic attempts to address the societal ills of its day. Here’s one example:
In a world riddled with temple prostitution meshed against the backdrop of the lustful gods of the Greco-Roman Pantheon, infanticide—the intentional killing of unwanted infants—was common; a practice called “exposing.” The newborns usually weren’t directly killed; rather they were left to die in a jar or pot dumped outside the house; thus, ‘exposing’ them to a ‘natural death’ (!). In this way, the babies were left to the gods, supposedly alleviating human responsibility.
The early Christians’ value of life and ethical teachings—even the Didache taught, for instance, “You shall not kill that which is born”—opposed this godless practice of “exposing” and their ‘go the extra mile’ generosity and practical compassion provided answers to the abandoned children of the Empire.
- Because the world cares about these things.
If we believe that God entrusted creation as a stewardship to His people then we’ve got to admit that we’ve abdicated our job to the secular world. Because of our Greek dualism, we’ve categorised certain things as ‘spiritual,’ and relegated the rest to the less important ‘secular’ category. And by not caring for these very real issues, we’ve not only become detached from the problems, we’ve become despised by those who do care about them.
By engaging in these issues we actually become more real and relevant to a world sceptical and cynical of our flagrant apathy on these matters. Our witness is more valid and our message more interesting. Yes, the world may be more inclined to listen to our message if they know our message, lo and behold! actually does address the issues they care about.
As mentioned, fussing with global issues doesn’t exactly excite me. For one reason: I feel completely overcome with the sheer enormity of the problems involved. However, I have found the following helpful (even though it may sound trite to those who are already flexing their muscles in this regard. Please bear with my baby-steps).
- If you see a need, intercede. If led, intervene.
Living a need-driven lifestyle is a burn-out waiting to happen, right? Been there, done that. Opening up one’s capacity to genuinely care about the heart-breaking ills of so many millions of people on this planet can drive one batty.
However, seeing the need—and opening my eyes was an important first step—awakens our compassion and fuels our intercession. Even so, I don’t need to buckle under any assumed guilt or some misguided martyr-complex. God’s overwhelming peace is the hallmark of true prayer (Philippians 4:6, 7). And it is in this place of peace that I can hear God’s leading for those areas in which He calls me to intervene.
- Don’t be overwhelmed by what you cannot do; be inspired by what you can.
While I educate myself on all these complex matters (and thus, re-educate my default responses to them), I have to accept that I cannot act on so much of it given my limitations (resources, expertise, location, etc. etc.). However, there are a few things I can do. And in those I can excel.
More often than not, by making myself available to serve, and intervening where I’m led, my heart will, at some point, gravitate to what I’ll call, a Kingdom cause … where my deepest passions and gifting connect with a societal or global need or outlet. It will be the thing I’m prepared to serve into over an extended period of time. It might involve daily or weekly involvement, or intense task- or project-based participation; it may be outworked in my own neighbourhood, or might require extensive travel. Or it might include a little bit of all of these aspects. Or it may even involve several threads (or mini-causes) that capture the burden of my heart.
It might be things like: ministry to orphans, to the homeless, to those without access to clean water, to unmarried mothers, to troubled teens, to those suffering from communicable diseases, to addicts, to those who lack access to a decent education, to victims of abuse and neglect, to the lonely and ostracised, to broken families and struggling marriages, to those with no opportunity or to those with so much opportunity they’re crippled with option-fatigue. It might be tackling corrupt systems that oppress people; those attitudes and approaches that victimize women and children, for instance. Or corrupt systems that exploit the planet’s resources; those attitudes and approaches that ravage fauna and flora, for example. It might involve entering a classroom to teach, a foreign land to build someone a home, a courtroom to fight injustice, a new job to make a difference, or even a political rally to make an important statement. It might include going back to study or enrolling in a course to learn the skills and necessary tools for the task, or it may involve hosting a seminar or workshop to impart skills you have to those who don’t. It might be resourcing an existing organisation with your finances, time and abilities, or even starting a new organisation. It might be serving in a natural disaster situation around the world, or may involve serving in a local trouble-spot down the road. It might be a full-time career, a moonlighting job, a volunteer role, or something you squeeze into an already busy schedule. Or it may require a change of economic status to free up the time available to do all this.
(See what I did there? You’ve probably noticed how I’ve tried to offer as many options as possible, some very specific, some incredibly broad, and made sure I bundled them altogether so that no one ‘cause’ looks more important than another.)
However, here’s the important thing. This Kingdom cause will define your sense of missional service to the world. And herein lies the next point… (it’s coming, but remember the message on the playback loop: the love of Father God, the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit … one more time…)
What’s the key point to ponder?
The key point? Our renewed perspective must translate into action.
Work through the above four suggestions prayerfully and thoroughly.
Where we’re going next?
Next, we look at the final four suggestions/solutions.