In a previous post, I quoted from an essay by Url Scaramanga at outofur.com, in which he noted that even “committed Christians failed to recognize what difference their faith made, say, in their marriages or careers.” He proposed a potential solution: “If we spoke of the Christian life more in terms of the inner life… maybe our young people would have an easier time identifying how their faith affects the rest of their lives.”
The idea is that if we focus on the inner life, then the application of faith to the rest of life will become more clear. Despite my comments in this post, I not only agree, but I subscribe to this solution. But… there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?
I know from experience that focusing on the inner life might help, but not much. There’s a difficulty. Decades of exposure to religion have convinced me that religion has little to do with everyday life beyond morals and ethics. Don’t cheat. Don’t lie. Don’t be greedy. Be patient. Be kind. Be gentle. That’s all good and well, but I know irreligious people, even atheists, who do all this. Besides, what I want to know is what God has to do with the email that I’m writing, or the errands that I’m running, or the desk in my office, or the “Hey, how are you?” as I pass someone in the hall, or the dirty dishes in the sink. Full-time Christian workers tell us with confidence that everything they do is for God. After all, they are full-time! Where does that leave me, and the vast majority of other Christians who are not full time?1
Because I am not a “full-time Christian worker,” most of what I do has nothing obvious to do with God whatsoever, except when I go to church on Sunday or teach a Bible class or witness to someone. As Christians, our lives are divided into the sacred and the secular, the religious and the non-religious, working for the kingdom and everything else. And, for most of us, secular and non-religious and worldly activity dominates most of our time. I suppose that Christians have various ways of addressing this problem. Burying it is a common one. Others get busy in the church, teaching Sunday school or helping with the youth group or serving Communion or leading music. Such activities may only involve an hour or a few hours a week, but it makes these Christians feel much better about the fact that most of their lives are wrapped up in a job that has nothing to do with the Kingdom. For still others, the best option is to give money to support the efforts of those who have the time to devote to Kingdom work. Some go so far as to reason that making lots of money is how God is using them. The more money, the better!
At one point in the Spiritual Exercises, we are instructed to consider, “Likewise, looking at myself, what I have done for Christ, what I am doing for Christ, what I ought to do for Christ.” When I read this, I fairly panicked! But, then I reasoned that Ignatius surely does not carry the same baggage that plagues modern evangelicalism. In fact, the rest of the Exercises, as well as his biography, argues powerfully that Ignatius did not think about “what’s done for Christ” in the same way that I do. The point is that I initially experienced a decidedly negative emotional reaction to the question, “So, what are you doing for Christ?” because most of my life is spent, at least apparently, doing things that have nothing to do with Christ. I am a failure, it would seem.
Maybe there are two sides to life: the sacred and the secular. Or just maybe, I am deceived and what I’ve learned is a lie, and everything in my life has everything to do with God altogether.
Ignatius, and a whole host of others, believed the latter. In his Principle and Foundation, he wrote, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.” Translated into simpler terms… God is in everything and everything is in God. The apostle Paul put it this way… In him we live and move and have our being and Christ is all, and in all and do all to the glory of God.
I read these verses and think, “Well, that’s nice. Inspiring, even.” But, deep down, I do not see at all what mowing my lawn or putting gas in the car has to do with the Kingdom of God. When I wash the dishes, am I engaged in an activity that is just as much a Kingdom activity as witnessing to someone? Be careful how you answer: What if someone devoted her entire life to washing dishes? “Grunge work” that supports the larger mission is legitimately seen as necessary. Like St. Teresa wrote to her fellow nuns, “We can’t all be devoted to long periods of prayer. Someone has to do the cooking!” But, what if that “grunge work” were the mission? Could it be the mission? You might offer a glib, “Yes” to the question, but let’s test your commitment to that answer. Would you give your hard-earned money, not to support the missionary in Estonia who is preaching the gospel, but to specifically support the handyman whose job it is to take care of the missionary’s buildings: painting, gardening, mowing? Is it possible that planting Portulacas in the front yard is part of the missio Dei?
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The Oxford Dictionary publishes definitions of words that are the result of their investigations into how English-speaking people actually use those words in their speech and writing. Here’s how the Dictionary defines “spiritual”:
1. of, or concerning, the spirit as opposed to matter
2. concerned with sacred or religious things; holy; divine; inspired
3. refined; sensitive; not concerned with the material
4. concerned with the soul or spirit, etc., not with external reality.
Note that our use of the word spiritual splits the world into the “spiritual” and the “material.” All four of the definitions subscribe to this dichotomous thinking. Furthermore, these are the only four definitions of the word, implying that this is how most people think about the term spiritual. More importantly, these definitions provide insight into how people who endeavor to be spiritual (e.g., Christians) think about what that means: we live in a split world.
Url Scaramanga believes that focusing on the inner life will help people connect their faith with the rest of their lives. Considering how most of us think about the word spiritual, I would have to predict that such an effort is likely to be very limited in its effect. An entire industry has grown up around the need to help people make the connection between their faith and everything else in their lives. It’s called Christian publishing. We have books on Christ and your marriage, Christ and your money, Christ and leadership. The titles are nearly without limit and largely without results, else why would Mr. Scaramanga and many, many others be writing about the disconnect between faith and everyday life? With all the books out there, one would think that the current generation of Christians would be taking the world by storm. George Barna’s research, conducted over decades, provides ample evidence that such is not the case.
If I am to make any real progress, step one is to jettison the term spiritual because the word itself, in our modern age, immediately causes me to think in terms of a split view of life. Ignatius’ prayer of Examen has proven to be an important method of linking my inner life with everything that happens during the day. Prayer is not the entire answer, though. I take seriously Jesus’ admonition: “Rethink your life in light of the fact that the kingdom of the heavens is open to all.”2 This “rethinking” does not involve studying the Bible or acquiring a better understanding of theology. It requires seeing myself the way that God sees me. I am also working actively to see the world and people around me differently.
How do you deal with the sacred/secular divide in your life? Do you just live with it or do you fight it? What steps have you taken to live a unified life with God?
1 Many of my Christian friends would immediately correct me: “We are all full time Christian workers!” A critical assessment of exactly how Christians view themselves suggests quite the opposite. A missionary is on furlough and visits a supporting church. There is a general attitude of admiration for what this missionary is doing and sacrificing. Missionaries, themselves, have confirmed to me that this is their experience. One confessed to me that, over a period of years, he had become quite accustomed to the idea of being treated as something rather special. If the missionary has a spouse and a family, the admiration thermometer rises even higher. Under the skin of the admirers lies a vague sense of failure: “I wish I could be a missionary, but, you know, I have a job and a family. I guess I will just have to be content being a second-class citizen in the kingdom.” Those of us who reason this way assuage our guilt by pledging to give lots of money to support the sacrificial endeavors of others. David Platt’s book, Radical, plays on this guilt.
2 Matt 4:17, Dallas Willard’s paraphrase.