Every once in a while, I like to practice a bit of spiritual autobiography. It’s a practice I learned from David Wray, and I find that it helps me think through my current spiritual life. This is usually not “my whole story,” but the story of where I am today. This is the story of where I am today.
Paul’s phrase, “this one thing I do,” evokes one of my favorite school memories. Herman Alexander, who taught homiletics (among other topics), would use the scripture “this one thing I do” to illustrate that good homilies have one point, one purpose, or one key thought. It has been coming back to me in these last few years, in a very different way.
I used to admire Paul’s description in 1 Cor. 9:22(b), where he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” The larger context is Paul’s insistence that he feels bound to exercise his freedom in Christ for the salvation of others. When I was younger, I used to understand this as Paul saying, “I let people believe whatever they want of me, so that I can show them the way to salvation.” If that sounds like hypocrisy, I would invite you to dig more deeply into the post-positivist lens. He knows what is true and good (God’s reconciliation of man to Himself); everything else is light and shadow.
And as a young post-positivist, I thought I understood this duality. Of course I shouldn’t bother others with whatever is mutable, temporal, or ephemeral. The “real” and “true” good is the knowledge of Christ; everything else is light and shadow. So why would I create unnecessary barriers with things like my own opinions about things in the world around us? As long as I remained tied to the post-positivist paradigm, that approach made sense. I suppose it was inevitable that this would not last.
What frankly evolved over several years came into focus for me at one specific bible study. A dear sister – and close friend – asked me to distribute some “voting guides” so that the people in the congregation would know whom to vote for. As she asked me to hand them out, she believed in her heart that I shared all of her political priorities; I didn’t share any of them. I was being asked to take action on a set of values that I didn’t agree with; what’s more, I didn’t agree with them because I thought they were informed by fear, tribalism, and greed, rather than the gospel of Christ. But I’m not allowed to say that. I have to “be all things to all people,” which in this case means that I am Islamophobic. She was a good woman; her soul was a pure as the driven snow. I am convinced that she would have been shocked to hear my reaction to the “voting guide,” because she would never associate her political viewpoint with Islamophobia – but I do.
In that period of time, I became increasingly disgusted by the duality between what people thought I believed and what I actually DID believe. My marriage was – and had been for its entire existence – on the rocks; meanwhile, one of the brothers wanted me to do a marriage enrichment seminar. I was darkly suspicious of the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan (and later Iraq), but I needed to minister to my members who were in the military, and kept my mouth shut. People weren’t hearing the gospel from me at all; they were hearing my silence on all things as a ratification of positions that I often believed to be either untrue or abhorrent.
My marriage ended, and my life in ministry-as-a-profession ended at the same time. I had lost the belief in a neat and tidy theological schema to hold my faith together. I still knew whom I believed and remained convinced that he was able to guard my soul; that wasn’t going to be in question. But the challenge was understanding who I am with my neighbor, and in understanding how we live – or embody – the virtue of Christ in all of the nooks and crannies of our lives. I found myself motivated to speak out as evangelicalism has, writ large, slouched ever more towards a kind of reactionary fundamentalism that all but sells our birthright for bowls of red-soup, as racial animus has too often been codified and justified in ecclesiology, and as evidence continues to abound that Western Christianity is inexorably tied to capitalism. The oleaginous pastors and preachers who lap up praise from “Proud Boys” wannabes need to be decried by people of faith; I was happy to be one of those voices.
But here’s the thing; prophecy* has rarely resulted in change. Particularly in the age of social media, “speaking truth” is, at best, an exercise in self-expression. I find it very easy to dismiss opposing views in social media as uninformed, poorly sourced, or steeped in bias. I am convinced that some of my interlocutors feel the same way about my views. People aren’t persuaded – they are merely incited to responses that either affirm or reject self-expressions. In fact, the person who believes that their voice in the arena is somehow persuasive strike the rest of us as absurd and deluded.
And here’s the deeper issue – just as people once thought I agreed with them because of my silence, people can come to the belief that I am what I believe. I may want to change my mind about something; our rules of self-expression do not allow it. I may be only remotely tied to an idea; our rules of discourse assume that ideas are endemic to identity. I may not mean what you infer from my point of view; our social constructs reward or punish self-expression for how it is interpreted, rather than what is intended.
So what DO I want to embody?
I keep finding myself re-centered upon Romans 8. Oscar Ramos and I presented on Romans 8 as a paradigm for understanding leadership. I recently presented with some colleagues on the same passage as a paradigm for student feedback. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I no longer live in the fear of “wretched man that I am.” I live the kind of freedom Paul constantly points to. I am free from condemnation, free from fear, free death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, powers, heights and depths, and anything else in all creation. I am loved by God, and nothing shall separate me from that agápē. If I live this life, free from condemnation, what would it mean for others to experience “no condemnation” from me?
I no longer see myself as “winning souls for Jesus.” I’m free from that too. I misunderstood Paul’s mission when I was younger. He wanted people to know agápē. He was freed from worrying whether God loves him, and he wanted others to experience that unconditional love in their own lives.
And so I am lately finding myself in a new space; one that is no longer concerned with “righting” the church. I’m no longer worried whether people will hear prophecy from me. I can even come to terms with my dear friend’s Islamophobia – God knows He is forgiving me daily, and so are my neighbors. I’ve decided that people shall only know my unconditional love, so that they may experience the love I have received from God. I’ll disagree, and may even let my neighbor know exactly where I come from, should they wish to hear. I won’t hide it, neither will I worry that it is broadcast. I’m no longer interested in persuading others. I am a man who lives free from condemnation, and I want for my neighbor to experience that gift in their lives. It’s the one thing I do.
It’s the one thing I do for my wife, as the person who should experience the first and best of that unconditional love. It’s the one thing I do for my family, and the one thing I hope they remember me for. It’s the one thing I do for students, when I try to invite them to the liberty and freedom to inquiry and exploration, free from my condemnation (even if it’s not free from my grading rubric). It’s the one thing I do for the guy who places an order for his entire office at the McDonald’s drive thru. It’s the one thing I do for all of the stupidity on Facebook, for Black Friday shoppers, and even (big sigh) for Donald Trump (that’s hard).
The practice of “no condemnation” has been evolving. Just recently I found that I am longer interested in trying to persuade others on Facebook. My friends know what I believe. The ones who agree aren’t hearing anything new from me, and those who disagree aren’t being persuaded. Besides; I just want for them to know that I love them unconditionally. I’m finding that it makes forgiving people of past wrongs just a little easier (though I believe forgiveness to be a process rather than an event), even when I don’t understand their motivations. I’m not exactly sure where this will lead in other practices: but I do find that I am increasingly comforted to have a singular mission in all of my relationships, roles, and responsibilities. “This one thing I do.”
* I am using “prophecy” in the sense of “speaking the truth,” not in “telling the future.”