(Gal 4:18-19 ESV) 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
Plainly, Paul sees the goal of the Christian walk as the formation of Christ within the individual Christians (and in the congregation, as well).
This verse has led to an explosion of literature on “spiritual formation,” much of which is targeted toward the individual spiritual disciplines advocated for by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster.
But, you see, the qualities of service, submission, and sacrifice are all community qualities. You really can’t serve, submit, or sacrifice alone! And so the highest ethics of Christianity are community ethics. Jesus’ example is all about what he did for others, not how he improved himself through diligent discipline.
That’s not to say that individual disciplines have no merit; only that they are not the end-all be-all of spiritual formation. I really just don’t care how much Bible you know or how much you pray and fast if you won’t bother to submit to the church’s leadership or to your spouse and if you won’t sacrifice for the sake of your congregation or for Jesus.
And so imagine that you are hired to put together a survey or test of some sort to determine the spiritual maturity of the members of your church. What kinds of questions would you ask?
Well, historically, what do we in fact ask? Well, we ask whether the members are regular in their attendance, whether they give to the church’s general fund, whether they attend Sunday school and Wednesday night. If we’re a bit more sophisticated with our measuring tools, we ask whether they volunteer in church ministries.
And these sorts of things may well correlate with service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering, but not necessarily. Our members may have highly legalistic reasons for their good behaviors, attending and giving out of fear of hell — a selfish motivation — rather than love for others or a desire to submit to God or to the church’s leadership.
And this leads to a subtle but important observation. It’s not good enough serve, submit, and sacrifice. These must be done because they are prompted by the Spirit. They must derive from a heart that loves, rather than a heart that fears. We must serve others because we love them from the heart.
You see, Jesus did what he did purely from love. He had no fear of punishment if he’d failed to die on the cross. He could have quit and headed off to heaven anytime. But purely out of love for others, he paid the price.
Just so, we aren’t truly like Jesus — we aren’t headed toward theosis — unless we act out of love. And this tells us that our usual measures can be horribly misleading. After all, attendance hardly tells us why our members are attending. And it may not be out of love at all.
On the other hand, it’s altogether fine if our motivation is joy. If we serve because we enjoy service, if we submit because we enjoy submission, if we sacrifice because we enjoy sacrifice, well, that just means we’re very far down the path toward theosis. After all, when we do what we’ve been gifted by the Spirit to do, we ought to enjoy it.
That’s not to say that we’ll never have to walk through a personal hell to achieve God’s purposes. I’m the father of four sons. I love being a father. I love my sons. I’ve loved the entire experience — except the parts I hated. You dads know what I mean.
Nothing tears your guts out like being a parent. Great joy intermixed with unspeakable agony. And I’m confident God wanted me to be a dad and equipped me. And yet there were times of sheer hell.
Therefore, I don’t want to be read as saying that Christianity is all about suffering and misery. It’s not. In fact, I read the Gospels as presenting a Jesus who is filled with joy and laughter. I think he was the sort of fellow who smiled and winked a lot. In fact, I think his sayings often make the best sense if read with a bit of comic timing.
(Psa 126:1-6 NIV) When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. 2 Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. 4 Restore our fortunes, LORD, like streams in the Negev. 5 Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. 6 Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
So what are the sorts of things we would look for if we were to seek to measure spiritual maturity? I don’t know. Maybe something like —
* What gives our members the greatest joy?
* What makes the most angry?
* What is their greatest passion in life?
* When they speak to their friends about their congregation or their religion, what elements do they emphasize?
* Do they keep their promises?
* Are they willing to make promises they have to keep? (An unwillingness to commit is an unwillingness to submit and sacrifice, and therefore is deeply un-Christian.)
* Are they willing to suffer criticism for what they believe in? From their friends? Family? (Or is getting along with the spiritually immature or even the lost more important than living what they believe?)
* Are the members who’ve been members the longest more like Jesus than the newer members? (Or does our teaching actually take submissive Christians and turn them into entitled Christians?)
* Are the members’ demands on church leaders mainly about how the leaders can serve the members or about how the members can serve others?
* Do the members look for ways to serve others or for ways to be served?
You know, I found it really, really hard to put those questions together. This is just so far out of how we usually think, you know.
And maybe those questions are too tough. But go through them and ask how Jesus would measure up to each one. Then compare that to yourself. And to your friends at church.
What other questions would be appropriate?