Thursday, May 27, 2010

Transforming Power or Foolishness?

I wrote the other day about Paul's call to adopt the attitude of Christ, the attitude of humility and servanthood. In thinking further about the implications of this, I wonder if we are also tempted to not adopt this attitude because we fear that it won't really be "marketable." After all, the world around us seems to respect prestige, power and success. The world doesn't idolize the poor, the downcast and the suffering. We feel pity for them at best. But we don't have magazines and television programs devoted to following their every move in life. So, we could argue, if we are going to reach the world for Christ, we must present him in terms that are appealing. We must emphasize his power, or his blessing, or his ability to help us succeed. But will such a message really transform the world? Will it transform peoples' hearts? Paul didn't tell us that we need to adopt the attitude of the world and its values. He told us to have the attitude that Jesus had.

Paul also reminds us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. While I am all for removing unnecessary obstacles to the Gospel, I am utterly opposed to presenting a message that panders to our cultural weaknesses. I think part of the power of the Gospel lies precisely in its call to be radically counter-cultural (and this not just for western cultures, for the call to humility and servanthood may well be even more counter-cultural in many Asian societies). This power, however, is not normally one that produces quick results. A Gospel of humble servanthood will often be rejected, precisely because this is not the ideal for which most societies strive. Rather, the power of humble servanthood, combined with radical love, is like the leaven of which Jesus spoke. It works its way into the society and slowly transforms it, one person or family at a time. We may impress others through displays of power and wealth. We may even win some converts in this manner. But we will not really be agents of transformation.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Right Attitude

I often return to Paul's words to the Philippians in the first several verses of chapter two. I should in fact return to them more often than I do. I think that Paul reveals fundamental truths in these verses that are key to our understanding both of discipleship and of the very nature of God. In these verses Paul sets the standard for us: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." And what was his attitude? Paul tells us that it is an attitude of humility and servanthood. It is a conscious choosing to give up our rights and privileges. In the book I have been reading the authors remind us:

"Our God is a servant God. It is difficult for us to comprehend that we are liberated by someone who became powerless, the we are being strengthened by someone who became weak, that we find new hope in someone who divested himself of all distinctions, and that we find a leader in someone who became a servant."

Are we comfortable with a God like this? Or do we prefer a God that fits better with our preferred lifestyle? I think most humans, not just westerners, like the idea of a God who is powerful and mighty. Certainly our God is that--Scripture clearly affirms this. But Scripture also clearly tells us that our mighty God chose to demonstrate his strength and his love in the most shocking of ways, by emptying himself and become a humble servant to the people he created. Do we really allow this reality to challenge us and inform our way of life?

"Jesus' compassion is characterized by a downward pull," writes Nouwen. "That is what disturbs us. We cannot even think about ourselves in terms other than those of an upward pull, an upward mobility in which we strive for better lives, higher salaries, and more prestigious positions. Thus, we are deeply disturbed by a God who embodies a downward movement."

Several years ago I made a career change, just at the time my career seemed to be moving into a truly upward path. My wife and I had recently purchased our first home and for the first time in our married life we actually had some disposable income. At that point God directed us to leave this behind and move into a new area of ministry. It was not, overall, a difficult choice, because we were being called into something we were passionate about. But leaving the things of this life behind did cause some distress. I looked around at my friends and acquaintances and saw that most of them were on the ladder of upward mobility, while my life was clearly on the path of downward mobility. I wrestled with this for a long time until I understood that this path reflected the one God himself followed. I am not saying that this makes me a more righteous person. I still at times struggle with longing for the things other people have. Renouncing the path of prestige and upward mobility is a daily decision I must make. But I have the privilege of choosing a path that allows me to place value on more important things. I think that we as Christians in the affluent West would do well to meditate regularly on these verses and allow them to reshape our understanding of God and our lifestyle choices. Imagine the impact we could have on this world if we radically embraced a lifestyle of servanthood!

I cannot begin to claim that I have realized the attitude of Christ that Paul writes about it. I often feel as though I have only just begun to see this in my life. But I am young. I have many years left to continue to grow. I want to keep these verses before me though so that I will grow in the right direction, the direction of humility and servanthood.