As we watched the evening news together (as is our custom), Jolynn and I were sitting together on the couch holding hands. Halfway through the broadcast, Jolynn shook her hand loose and asked, “Are you upset?”
Her question was spot on. I was upset. I was downright angry at some of the things being reported on the newscast. I had been squeezing her hand so tightly that it hurt! She stared at me for a moment and then queried, “Do we need to turn it off so that you don’t have a heart attack?”
12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”
As I read the words from our bedside Bible, I was struck by the Christian difference. I was also humbled, brought up short, and struggling with my own repentance. “Put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Christians are a people who, as a part of their regular daily living, exhibit compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Instead of putting them on, I had taken them off while I watched the news!
In our deeply divided nation and church, this Christian difference in behavior is striking. It is also desperately needed as a witness to America. Such behavior stands out as markedly different from common reaction to the evening news and to events which swirl around us. The feeling of being out of control; the perception of impinging dystopia; the rollercoaster whiplash of emotions; all of this and more toss us away from kindness, gentleness and patience with those we find ourselves in disagreement with. Simultaneously, such emotional chaos desperately cries out for the very Christian difference which was so noticeable in the early Christian movement.
Recently, I have been reading Margaret Wheatley’s fascinating book Who We Choose to Be? Wheatley calls for leaders to 1) face reality, 2) claim leadership, and build islands of sanity. In her work, she quotes Plato: “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” (Plato, Phaedo, taken from Who We Choose to Be? by Margaret Wheatley, p. 81)
Earlier in the book, she had noted the growing chaos (and possible impending collapse) commenting, “A culture focused on individual freedom can only result in narcissism, polarization, conflict, estrangement, and loneliness,” and then adding, “what is the meaning of life when it’s all about me?” (Margaret Wheatley, Who We Choose to Be?, p. 69)
While she writes from a Buddhist-influenced perspective, it is reminiscence of Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission. Willard calls for the living out of life in Christ (emphasis deliberately added!) through practiced obedience. “Christ living in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)
It is this sense of being “in Christ” which leads to a Christian difference exposed in the practices of “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” resulting in tolerance and forgiveness (while never evoking moral indifference). Willard comments, “The substance of obedience is the only thing that can overcome the divisions imposed by encrusted differences in doctrine, ritual, and heritage. The lamp that is aglow in the obedient life will shine. The city set on the hill cannot be hid. (The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s essential teachings on Discipleship, p. 77; emphasis in the original)
Such obedient discipline is hard. To paraphrase Augustine - without God we cannot, without us God will not. This notion of life “in Christ” is at the heart of the Wesleyan understanding of sanctification. It never is a casual indifferentism.
Belief matters. Doctrine is important. Spiritual formation “in Christ” (and not in something or someone else!) is critical. Practice is essential! This is a major element of why early Methodists found Class and Band Meetings (small groups for spiritual formation and accountability) so essential.
J. D. Walt, in his marvelous devotional book on Colossians The Domino Effect, perceptively writes, “the gospel is more than simply telling people about Jesus. It is more than an explanation about Jesus. It is a demonstration of Jesus.”
He goes on to add, “The nature and character of the gospel do not tend to come through the deeds of a person who does not want to talk about Jesus.” Writing on Colossians 1:25-27, Walt notes that “The mystery, long hidden and now revealed, is not God with us. It is Christ in us. This was the vision from the start – the vision of Eden; not just God with us, but God in us.” (J. D. Walt, The Domino Effect, pp. 27, 30) This is the breath-taking Christian difference in our relationship to others, especially in our relationship to those we disagree with. It is the antidote to an anger induced heart attack while watching the evening news.
As I reflect on these and other readings, as I meditate on my own reaction (and over-reaction!) to the news of the day and events swirling around me (us!), the Apostle Paul’s admonition near the close of his letter to the Philippians comes back to mind.
8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. 9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
Did you catch the phrasing? Focus, practice – words of concrete practical guidance. Now this is advice that is worthy of a New Year’s resolution. It is living the Christian difference.