In “A Confession” the famed Russian author/philosopher Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910) once observed that “a man could live for ten or twenty years without once remembering that he is living among Christians and is himself reckoned a member of the orthodox Christian Church.” These words were first published in 1884, but, in my view, they could have been taken from this morning’s newspaper.
Tolstoy subsequently describes a personal lapse from faith. He stated that what occurred in his life was common for people of his level of education. He said it happened as follows:
…a man lives like everybody else, on the basis of principles not merely having nothing in common with religious doctrine, but generally opposed to it; religious doctrine does not play a part in life, in intercourse with others it is never encountered, and in a man’s own life he never has to reckon with it. Religious doctrine is professed far away from life and independently of it. If it is encountered, it is only as an external phenomenon disconnected from life.
These are astute observations. On the one hand, he describes a world that has succumbed to the forces of secularization. On the other hand, he indicts a generation of professing Christians who, in his estimation, refuse to let their lights shine in public. The second situation is what concerns me most. While there are surely many contributing factors, it seems that when followers of Christ silence their testimony and sequester expressions of faith something has gone wrong, fundamentally wrong, in the process of spiritual formation. In fact, Paul’s encouragement to Philemon was, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” Eugene Peterson renders this as: “and I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it.”
While faith in Christ and the decision to follow Him is a very personal thing, it is not supposed to be a secret. To the contrary, if we follow Jesus, people should be able to see Christ through the things we say and do. Did not Jesus say, “32‘Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.’”? (cf. Matthew 10:32-33)
The condition which Tolstoy decries seems to arise when spiritual formation is relegated to the imposition of formulaic orthodoxy through the process of catechesis, which was very much Tolstoy’s experience. Some might think of this as “Check List Christianity”. The idea being: A person who wants to be Christian is acceptable to God if and only when she has done and is doing all of those things that have been determined to be the absolute essentials.
This is performance based religion that grows out of nothing short of the Pharisaical attitude condemned by Jesus in Luke 18:9 when He described some “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” In this process the objective is getting the “right” answers to a series of questions, rather than having Christ formed in our hearts. This, in my estimation, is what happens when form, rather than substance is our focus. It flourishes when our focus becomes replicating a perceived pattern rather than experiencing metamorphic transformation into the likeness of Christ and, thereby, entering into the heart of God.
Dallas Willard, a contemporary Christian author/philosopher seems to grasp this. He says that “the intersection between his philosophical and devotional work can be found in the simple question: Who are you going to become?”
This seems to be the key question for each of us to ponder. When it comes to our life in Christ we should be asking questions such as:
— Who am I going to become if I continue to follow this course?
— Who am I going to become if I choose to let this attitude take up residence in my heart?
— Who am I going to become if I continue to fill my head and heart with this type of music?
— Who am I going to become if I continue to fill my head and heart with this type of literature?
— Who am I going to become if I continue to fill my head and heart with this type of online behavior?
— Who am I going to become if I continue to fill my head and heart with this these sorts of daily activities?
We could rattle off a thousand similar questions. The possibilities are virtually limitless. Clearly this is not a check-list. It is, however, a means by which we can do a much needed self-examination. The Apostle Paul endorsed this practice when he admonished the Corinthian followers of Christ, saying, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” That’s the point. It’s not about playing connect-the-dots with respect to our spiritual formation. It’s about moving more-and-more into the heart of God as God’s Spirit works inwardly to form Christ in us. This is the course of life that the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul seems to be describing in Ephesians 4:20-24. Here we read:
20You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. 21Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
On the one hand, we will never reach the goal of complete Christ-likeness. On the other hand, we will never experience the frustration of failing to live up to the expectations of others when we color outside the lines, because we know that our feeble efforts if they flow from hearts full of faith and love are always greeted with the approval of the One whose perfect sacrifice has already made up for all of the imperfections of our well-intended but meager efforts. Thus, it is the grace of God that has appeared to all people that “teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (cf. Titus 2:12-14)
Still, the question remains: Who are you becoming?
© Bill Williams, October 5, 2006