Earlier this week I wrote a couple of posts about the fact that our default way of interpreting and making sense of the world tends to be through the prism of rules and lines demarcating who is in and who is out of whatever groups we happen to belong to. (You can read the posts I’m talking about here and here.) I want to continue a bit further on that same theme today.
It seems to me, then, that we tend to make everything into right and wrong, good and bad, true and false (and by the way, I’m well aware that I’m just as guilty of this as anyone… if not more so.) As I said in an earlier post, I understand that this tendency towards rule-making arises in part from of our inherent need for order and structure. But this hardwired need has become corrupted by our broken condition, and thus creates problems it was never intended to create. Something that was meant to bring order to the world so everyone could enjoy it in peace and harmony instead ends up creating division, disharmony and death.
The most tragic thing of all is that we even apply this exaggerated rule-based logic to God and faith. In fact, we seem to do it even more zealously in this area than in any other. So we take the invitation to follow Jesus, who was all about love and freedom, and make it into a system of rules, doctrines and expected behaviours, and we measure who’s in the kingdom and who’s outside it based on people’s performance against these criteria. We somehow come to understand salvation as “ticking all the required boxes”.
I think Jesus would have us see things differently. I think, for him, the way to know whether or not we’re in the kingdom is to look primarily not at the content of our beliefs but rather at the content of our lives: how we live and how well we deny ourselves and love others.
If you’re anything like me, you probably sometimes read about Jesus’ knuckle-headed disciples and smile wryly at their seeming slowness to grasp what Jesus was trying to teach and show them. Yet you and I are really not so different. I think the reason the disciples often had such a hard time understanding Jesus was precisely because they were always looking for systems, rules and lines of demarcation, and Jesus stubbornly refused to climb into their boxes. Why, then, do we assume he’s happy to climb into ours?
I think our bottom line mistake is that we tend to measure right and wrong against abstract ideas of truth. I’m not suggesting that there is no such notion as “right” or “wrong” within God’s economy; what I’m suggesting is that we need to learn to redefine right and wrong on the basis of love and relationship rather than on the basis of abstract truth.
To put it simply, I think what Jesus considers “right” within his kingdom is whatever builds up, encourages and values others. Conversely, what is “wrong” is anything that tears down, demeans and devalues others.
Perhaps it would help if we could learn to think about the kingdom and about right and wrong through the lens of a family, rather than through a quasi-legal paradigm. In a legal paradigm, the focus is on accuracy, logic and compliance. In a family/relationship paradigm, the focus is on belonging, tolerance/forbearance and mutual support. When someone in our immediate family makes a mistake or even does something that’s wantonly stupid, we might not like it, and it might have various consequences, but they are still part of the family and we still go on loving them and working through the consequences with them. I think this is maybe more how God sees his kingdom.
One of the things I’ve come to realise in recent months is the extent to which our soteriology (how we understand salvation) shapes our understanding of kingdom life. Specifically, if we understand salvation primarily through a legal or transactional metaphor (i.e. Jesus taking God’s punishment for sin in our place so we could in turn receive eternal life), we are very likely to also understand the kingdom from a legal or transactional perspective – i.e. based on doctrinal criteria and checklists. But if we come to see the cross, which is the centrepiece of Jesus’ saving work, as the foundation of a new way of being in relationship – a way in which forgiveness and self-giving take centre stage – well, it becomes harder to continue to see the life of the kingdom as being based purely on doctrinal and behavioural rules and regulations. If Jesus founded his kingdom by demonstrating forgiveness and self-giving, does it not stand to reason that these should be the values that are most foundational to that kingdom?
Jesus’ life, teaching and death shifted the paradigm of salvation from sacrifice of a victim to self-sacrifice, from retaliation to forgiveness, and from law to grace. I would suggest that our paradigm of the kingdom requires a similar shift.
[ Image: Tawheed Manzoor ]