This morning I was reading Oswald Chambers, a British Christian writer from about 110 years ago. He wrote, “The central thing about the kingdom of Jesus Christ is a personal relationship to Himself, not public usefulness to men” Evangelical Christianity has often been pragmatic– concerned with immediate practical results, not with aesthetics or historical theology or history. The protestants– particularly the protestants who protested against other protestants (like free churches) have never been as concerned with the longstanding history of the church as with what must be done. Some of that comes from their lack of historical connection. For example the Free Churches in scandanavia who formed house churches in opposition to the spiritually dead state Lutheran churches had little history, as they met in houses of like minded Christians.
Today a lot of pastors come from seminary trained to learn how to DO a lot of practical things– how to attract new people, how to grow programs and run them effectively, how to use corporate management techniques and marketing strategies to increase numbers and to find a ‘successful growth plan’ for their churches. Now these things are often pursued in good faith by people with good intentions. The problem Oswald Chambers had with this mentality was that it seemed to focus on the results or ends instead of the healthy means to the ends.
Chambers says, “We have to get rid of the plague of the spirit of the religious age in which we live. In Our Lord’s life there was none of the press and rush of tremendous activity that we regard so highly…” We find that often when Jesus was surrounded by crowds, he would try to find a way to escape and retreat away so that he could pray alone. He didn’t put that off for the sake of the great ‘success’ he was having in attracting crowds. I think its especially easy for leaders to live their lives for the public eye. A friend of mine was telling me last night about their grandpa who married a woman in the church who was known for her Bible studies and her leadership in the church. But she had the wool pulled over everyones eyes and was really quite abusive to her husband and her kids. One day some members of her Bible study came over early to the house for bible study and came in without knocking and found her actually beating her husband. Of course this was an awkward situation, and this woman’s response was to go upstairs, pack, leave, and she was never heard from again. She had developed a sort of schizophrenia between what she projected to others and what was going on inside her, and it is likely that this happened because she became more concerned with the end appearances than with the inner life which is really important. Again, Chambers says, “An active Christian worker too often lives in the shop window. It is the innermost of the innermost that reals the power of the life.” We have to beware of living our spiritual lives for public approval and practical recognition.
One of the problems I’ve found in trying to practically control or manipulate what my Christian pursuits will accomplish is that I am not in control really, and God’s ways are not my ways, so I’m often somewhat caught by surprise by what God ends up accomplishing despite my best intentions. Again, Chambers says, “You have no idea of where God is going to engineer your circumstances, no knowledge of what strain is going to be put on you…and if you waste your time in over-active energies instead of getting into soak on the great fundamental truths of God’s Redemption, you will snap when the strain comes; but if this time of soaking before God is being spent in getting rooted and grounded in God on the unpractical line, you will remain true to Him whatever happens.”
The desert monks were probably some of the less practically minded Christians of our tradition. They were perhaps the extreme opposite of overly-pragmatic christians, and some might wonder (rightly) if at times they avoided the world rather than deal with changing it, yet there is something beautiful about their rejection of being concerned with the worlds ways of doing and thinking. Something beautiful about their wholehearted devotion to spiritual pursuit, and their complete disassociation with the worlds concerns for practical pursuits.
I am not planning to give up my day job and move to the desert. I do find fulfillment in seeing things happen and the practical results that come about through faith and commitment to what I think I am here to do. That is human, and I don’t think it is inherently wrong. The danger though, is to live for those results, and to let those results guide your decisions about how to spend your spiritual life. Chambers is pushing us to spend our spiritual life with a sort of reckless abandon– not expecting to be able to know ahead of time where God is leading us or what is happening for sure. The beauty of being human is that we don’t have to be God. We are to pursue God in hope and faith, not by sight. It is not our task to control the universe– and that is a relief, not a problem. Our concern for practical results can lead us to neglect what is really important, and that is to soak before God: “Be still and know that I am God.” ag