~ Easy Christianity and Its Excuses ~
Pious ancient Jews took the Law seriously. They were so afraid of using God’s name in vain that they figured they would be safe to not even pronounce it. So we don’t know, to this day, how the name YHWH sounds. Jews today even omit the vowel in His title, writing G-D. The Bibles we use generally don’t include Yahweh, printing LORD in all capitals in its place. Lord with just the L capitalized means Adonai, referring to God’s Lordship rather than His name.
As an easy way to honor the Second Commandment, however, it doesn’t work. In the Hebrew, “in vain” means “in a worthless or thoughtless manner.” And you don’t have to say God’s name to invoke it, since all we do and say and feel are to be done in His name. To recite a prayer while thinking of something else is vanity. So is the automatic “God bless you” after a sneeze, dating back to a medieval superstition. Using prayer to sum up the teaching points of a sermon, yelling “Hallelujah!” (meaning “Praise the Lord” in Hebrew) when your sports team wins, attending a worship service out of fear of what others will think if you don’t show up, all use God’s name in vain, making the most sacred name worthless, of no value.
It isn’t easy to live fully in God’s name. St. Paul devoted many words in his letters to the first churches exhorting them to do just that. Born a hundred years after Columbus’ first voyage, Czech teacher and theologian, John A. Comenius, lamented the decadent dregs to which the spiritual leadership had fallen. Maximilian Kolbe offered himself to take the place of another in the executions at Auschwitz in 1941. The Franciscan priest wrote earlier to his brother: “We see with sorrow that an epidemic of indifferentism in various forms is spreading in our times, not merely among people in the world but even among religious.” From the apostle Paul to today, the theme of lukewarm, uncommitted and undevoted people who take upon themselves the name of Christ (Christian) has been a persistent subject of literature, rhetoric and revival efforts. The name of God in Christ has been continuously paraded in vain.
Nonetheless, the Gospel of Christ has been proclaimed and lived by many faithful Christians. That the stories, ways and lives of these lovers of God have often been documented in print and film does reveal the truth, however, that they are comparatively few among the millions statistically categorized as “Christian.” Jesus did predict few will enter and follow the narrow, difficult way. Consequently, I reflect deeply on my own bearing of His name.
Physical life is a gift. I didn’t work or strive hard to be born, that was done for me. But to continue living, to live productively and healthily, I must be a disciplined worker, giving my body and my relationships the best of care or suffer in some way. Redemption is also a gift, as I am again born in Spirit. But birth is only the beginning, much more being required of me: “Aim for perfection” (2 Corinthians 13: 11a, NIV); “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16, NIV); “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1:28, NIV); “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, NIV). Indeed, holiness is needed to understand holy things.
Easy Christianity is vanity, of no worth or value, and so are the excuses it offers for itself. Comenius is eloquent about this: “I understood that those who so often excuse themselves on the grounds that they are only human do not realize the power and effect of the new birth and perhaps have not experienced it. Therefore let them take heed! I did not see any among the true Christians who justified their sins by virtue of the weakness of the flesh or excused a misdeed committed because of the frailty of human nature. Rather, I saw that if a person committed his whole heart to the One who had created it, redeemed it, and sanctified it as a temple, his other limbs followed after his heart, willingly and gradually inclining in whichever direction God desired.” (John Comenius, Paulist Press, 1998, p.39.)
Perfection, I suggest, is not a physical impossibility. A body can be perfect in form, health or function. The body can execute a perfect movement in dance or sport, in music or art. Due to its mortality, perfection will disintegrate. And even in its moments of perfection, it can and sometimes does falter and come short, only to recover again. This is the nature of the striving of the athlete, artist or musician.
And so it is in the Spirit, with the advantage of immortality. In our striving for perfection of the spirit, or in the attainment of some attributes of perfection, we are still vulnerable to sin. Thus we are presented with the healing gifts of forgiveness and grace to restore perfection, which is a mandate of God. We are able to experience perfect peace, perfect joy, perfect love, perfect prayer and more. That’s why John writes, “In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:17-18, NIV, emphasis mine).
We also receive perfect gifts, as James writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17, NIV). This requires we be faithful stewards of these perfect gifts, or we will corrupt them.
Our supreme gift toward the perfection of our spirits is Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2a). Faith is essential to redemption, prayer and our very lives in the Spirit. By forsaking our selves and trusting Christ to be the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last, in our lives, His Spirit is free to conform us to His image and likeness. When the Scriptures declare we are no longer slaves to sin and one made perfect, holy and righteous in Christ, our response can easily be a litany of excuses about why it isn’t so for us today (or in Paul’s day, Comenius’day, Kolbe’s day, etc.). When we deny by our lack of zealous striving that the same Holy Spirit Who incarnated Christ in Mary cannot work in us with that same marvelous power, when we don’t believe the Scriptural assertion that the same strength that resurrected Christ rests in us, we make His name vain, worthless, of no value. And so it will be for us.
There is the final matter of the heart, which the Greek scholars and the medieval theologians and the Scriptures deem to be the center of one’s identity and mind. The ancient Egyptian priests mummified every organ of their dead except the brain which was thrown away as worthless. In his penitential psalm and confession of sinful judgment (51), King David asks God to create in him a new heart, not to improve his old one or to make him smarter in decision making. Jesus proclaimed the pure in heart will see God and the heart of a child will enter the kingdom of heaven. God writes His teachings on our hearts. One martyr joyfully announced how his persecutors, upon cutting his heart in pieces, would read the name of Jesus on every one. These are hearts made pure by the uninhibited in-dwelling of God’s Holy Spirit. We share this legacy and destiny of not protecting ourselves from God’s resurrective love.
Here’s a reflective question that’s been around for a long time: If you were on a capital offense trial for practicing extreme Christlikeness, would there be enough evidence to convict you? To me, the question doesn’t make sense. A Christian would never be brought to trial for his devotion to Christ. He or she would immediately plead guilty!
In such hearts rests wisdom, “but the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere”(James 3:17, NIV). Purity of heart and wisdom is an attribute of God’s perfection, worth all our zeal and steadfastness sustained by His grace.
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1b, NIV). The 11th chapter of Hebrews list so many ordinary and faulty people who touched perfection in their faith. God counted on them for His will to be done. Perfection is God’s will being manifested through faithful, striving humans, who did extraordinary things.
Elijah was among them, who, at times, performed super-human feats invoking God’s name in holiness, and, at other times, hid in fear. He grew toward that perfection God wishes to bestow on us. Instead of dying, he was whisked into the heavens in a brilliant display of shekinah glory. Centuries later his spirit heralded the first coming of Christ in John the Baptizer. A short time later he and another faulty man who touched the perfection of God, Moses, stood with the luminously transfigured Christ, discussing the infinitely grand mystery of redemption on a mountain top. Both men may also be the two witnesses of Revelation who will herald Christ’s second coming.
What is profoundly mind-numbing is how the Scriptures make it a point to declare that “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17a, NIV, emphasis mine). There are no excuses like, “But Elijah was a prophet, etc.” The truth God wants and calls us to live as Christians is “Yes, but Elijah was a man just like us.” To strive with any less zeal than summoned by our God in living the Gospel is to tragically live in His name in vain, making His name of no value. We are to strive in unity of love, mutual encouragement, and single-heartedness. We are Yahweh’s beloved children, with no “yes, but” excuses that explain away the lack of His visible seal and visage on our bodies and souls, light that should dazzle the world, drawing all people toward and into Him.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © October 26, 2002
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