Chapter 16: The Stumbling Block: Living The Faith
“We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” (I Corinthians 1:23)
I preach a common sense approach to doctrine. I deny the need to believe in the traditional concepts of original sin, salvation, miracles and the Incarnation. Have I simply thrown out all the difficult parts of Christianity? Does this make Christian faith “reasonable” to our modern society?
No, it does not. In fact, all we have done is to remove a lesser stumbling block precisely in order that people can confront the greater one: living the faith.
The lesser stumbling block has been thrust aside by our modern common sense. The greater stumbling block stands intact and confronts our understanding of what is important in life. The distinction between these two is the same as the distinction made between doctrine and faith in Chapter 8. It is the distinction between logic and meaning, between reasoning and values, between head and heart.
The head is concerned with understanding, with making sense of things. Doctrine is the way in which the head explains the heart to other heads. Since we have a modern world-view our doctrine must be consistent with this view. Our theology must be coherent and understandable and reasonable to other heads that share our common sense. Otherwise our explanation becomes a stumbling block in itself.
It is the head’s job to understand and explain, but the head must be given direction by the heart. It is this heart-given direction — or faith — that the head must render understandable. If it doesn’t, then the values and meaning that we live by will not be able to get through the other person’s head to their heart. And what we want is for these values to be confronted by the other person’s heart. We want others to be able to make the all-important choice to live for love or against love, towards God or away from God.
But if the challenge to make this choice is put in concepts that cause the other person’s head to balk, their heart will never even face this choice. So it is precisely to allow people to confront this greater stumbling block, precisely to enable the heart to confront this all-important choice, that our doctrine must make sense. It would be tragic if the lesser stumbling block to the head prevented the heart’s confrontation of the great stumbling block.
So our doctrine must be reasonable. But the great stumbling block cannot be made reasonable. The choice for or against Christian faith, the choice of how to live our lives, is not a matter of reasonableness.
This is true for two reasons: first, because this choice is not based on reason, but is based instead on value. And basic value is felt, not reasoned.
Second, because the choice to live towards God and (therefore) away from material success and security, away from selfishness, away from what is easy and popular, will never seem reasonable or even possible to anyone who finds their value in success and security and popularity. Christian faith cannot be made “reasonable” to those who accept the dominant view of our culture. Those who define success in material terms, those who see the goal of life as attaining possessions or status or even happiness, will find the teachings of the Christ to be both folly and a stumbling block. Living for others is clearly unreasonable to these people.
But this is the call. This is the great choice we must make with our lives. And this is why it is such a stumbling block: we are not called to think Christianity or to talk it or to believe it, all of which we could do while serving other gods in our daily lives. We are called to live it. We are called to live Christianity, for living towards God with Jesus of Nazareth as our guide is what it means to be Christian.
In the next chapter we will look at some specific questions about what it means to live as Christians with regard to possessions and the use of money. In this chapter we will take a broad look at what it means to live this choice by considering the themes of the Christian life.
Themes of the Christian Life
I will not pretend that I can exhaustively define the Christian life or that a satisfactory description of it can be given in one chapter. Nevertheless, we can usefully point out some characteristics or “themes” which mark the Christian life. I am not going to use “love” as a separate theme, for two reasons. First, because this word is so misused and misunderstood and has such different meanings for different people. And second, because these other themes can be understood as an elaboration of what Christian love and faith entail.
We will be looking at three clusters of themes: (I) acceptance; (II) right relationship; and (III) perspective and passion.
The message of God’s acceptance of us — yes, even you, and yes, even me, imperfect creatures though we are — is central to the Christian message. We in turn need to accept this acceptance, which means also accepting ourselves so that we are then able to accept others. This self-acceptance and other-acceptance find expression as inner strength, gentleness, tolerance, hospitality and other similar attributes.
Self-Acceptance: Source of Compassion and Strength
So much of what is desirable in a person’s character depends on self-acceptance and a sense of worth. This generally grows from a sense of being loved and valued, a feeling that ought to be imparted by every parent to every child. But (may God forgive us!) it isn’t, and so it often has to originate from elsewhere. But whether or not it originates early in the family, it needs to be reinforced later from elsewhere. Certainly we will continue to value other people’s opinions, but if we are to be mature and responsible adults we must arrive at that point where our own feeling of self-worth is not determined by the opinions of those around us.
I will not claim that there is only one way to arrive at this point. It is possible that different people may travel different routes to becoming comfortable with themselves. But there is one way that is at the very heart of the message of Jesus Christ: the good news that God loves us, just as we are, and that this love is available to us if we only turn to God and accept it.
This doesn’t mean that we are perfect the way we are or that we’re always right. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to change or grow or struggle. What it means is that God loves us in spite of all our imperfections, that we are valued by God as the individuals we are. This is what gives us the strength and the courage so that we can struggle and grow. If the God of all creation finds us worthy of love then we can accept ourselves and discover that we are worth improving.1
There are, no doubt, many Christians with a sense of self-worth who do not attribute this to the knowledge that God loves them. We don’t go around saying to ourselves, “God loves me, so therefore I’m OK?’ When I examine my own feelings of self-worth and self-acceptance I attribute them to a variety of factors: family and friends, times of success, times of suffering (which have probably been more important than times of success in this regard), introspection, and simply living through a certain number of years and experiences.
Nevertheless, there is an important element that remains over and apart from all of these that is not dependent on any particular person or event. This is the feeling that I am on good terms with the universe, that I am accepted by and am at peace with that which is, that I belong here and am grounded here in such a way that I can offer hospitality to others.
How do I explain this? I am embarrassed to admit that prior to this I hadn’t tried to. But now, as I examine it, I cannot separate this feeling from my faith. To do so would be dishonest. For as near as I can fathom it out, it is based on the knowledge deep inside that I am accepted and valued and loved by that which is in all and through all reality: God.
The self-acceptance which results from this sense of being accepted is what makes it possible for us to be accepting of others in turn. Once our own self-worth is not dependent upon being better than others or on being admired by others or on winning over others in one way or another, then we are able to accept other persons and accept them for who they really are. We are able to offer what Henri Nouwen calls “hospitality”: a space in our lives where other people can feel at home, where they are given room to be themselves.2
This self-acceptance also provides the inner security and strength that make possible two traits which are often thought of as opposites: gentleness towards others, and strength or steadfastness in conflict.
By “gentleness” I do not mean just refraining from physical violence. There is much more to gentleness than this. It also means a strict avoidance of mental/emotional violence, a healing of wounded psyches, a nurturing of the dreams and abilities and feelings of worth of others. Gentleness is a positive way of showing our love to those all around us. The insecure person is too concerned with justifying their own worth to be able to nurture others in this way.
The secure person can also be gentle in the sense of turning the other cheek, of admitting that the other person might be right, of giving in when only pride (and not principle) is at stake. It takes a strong person to be gentle in this way, a person who depends for their sense of self-worth not on other people but on God. The bully mistakes this gentleness for weakness, for he or she is a weak person who feels a need to prove precisely what they are so unsure of, and never can prove: their own personal worth. A weak person such as this can’t afford to compromise or give in because their personal worth is felt to be at stake. A strong person, secure in their acceptance so that their self-worth is not at stake in the ups and downs of daily life, can afford to yield, compromise, give in.
On the reverse side of this same coin from gentleness is steadfastness and what is sometimes called courage. The person who is secure in their acceptance is much more able to hold to their principles (as opposed to their pride) in the face of the opposition and displeasure of others. Now, this must not be confused with the desperate, irrational clinging to a position by the insecure person who always has to be right. It should also be noted that in many (but not all) cases, once a majority decision has been reached it ought to be supported as such. It should further be said that steadfastness is not always easy or painless. But the ability to stand by our principles in conflict and public debate — even when difficult and painful — is an important one, and is more likely if you are comfortable with your acceptance, if your self-worth depends on a power far greater than the squabbling mortals around you.
Recognizing that God loves us and accepting this love, which is to respond affirmatively to the good news of Jesus the Christ, is a central mark or theme of the Christian life. And while on the one hand this self-acceptance is one of the rewards of the Christian life, on the other hand it is the prerequisite for many of the characteristics which we as Christians ought to have in our personal lives: tolerance, gentleness, hospitality, the nurturing of others and inner strength. These traits should be in evidence as we deal with our families, our friends, our colleagues, employees and employers, and our brothers and sisters the other children of God wheresoever we come into contact with them.
II. Right Relationship: with Self, with God, with Others
Regardless of how secure or insecure we may feel, we are called to be in “right relationship”, the term which encompasses our second family of themes. This used to be called “righteousness”, but this word has been ill-treated in its usage so that it now conjures up images of selfrighteousness or indignation or someone striving for saintliness by avoiding the real world.
However, we are called to be “right” not by ourselves, but in relationship to the world. We are called by God to put ourselves in right relationship with ourselves, with God, and with others. This is not a chronological sequence. In fact the three are interdependent and we cannot do any one of them without the other two.
IIA. Right Relationship with Self: Integrity
If we are not in right relationship with our self we cannot put ourself in right relationship with anyone else. Right relationship with our self is best described as integrity.
Integrity means a consistency of principles and a wholeness of self. This works out best if we — like Jesus — have a moral code that is not a rigid set of rules but rather one that consists of a few basic principles that allow us to work out the best expression of love in each situation.
Integrity means that the principles and values that are a part of our self are not for sale. Humans are tempted to sell out for monetary gain, for employment opportunities or other personal advancement, for popularity, in order to avoid conflict, in awe of authority, or out of ambition or insecurity or greed or lust or fear, and so on through the whole range of selfish human desires and motivations. Integrity means being true to ourselves and our commitments in the face of all of these, which in turn requires that we be honest with ourselves about what we are doing and why.
All too often, of course, our choices are not this simple. Sometimes we have to choose between commitments. For instance, we may have to choose between a commitment not to work for an employer who produces products which we consider to be unsafe, and a commitment to provide for our family. And on the one hand we find it hard to condemn someone who refuses to place their personal purity above the well-being of their loved ones, but on the other hand we must ask whether there are not more important things to give our families than material well-being, things such as spiritual values and integrity.
But the fact remains that many times our choices are not between two commitments or principles but between a principle and a desire. Desires are normal, of course. It is only human to have them. And desires can be noble and altruistic, but they can also be selfish and base. And they can be very strong.
If we are able to be honest with ourselves — a very helpful if not exceedingly popular habit — then we should be able to discern which of our desires are selfish, which are contrary to our own principles. Integrity means being true to these principles that we have made our own and not denying our own self for some other thing that we want. It means not acting or speaking in a way we don’t believe is right, not for popularity with peers or for success on the job or for acceptance by a church.
Integrity does not require being loud or pretentious or obnoxious about this. It doesn’t mean being proud or hard to get along with. It just means being true to yourself, which you can do as gently as possible and as quietly as appropriate, but as steadfastly as necessary. The reason why it is worth bothering with all of this is that integrity is the only way you can be sure that you relate honestly to yourself, the only way to be sure that you have your self — which is the only thing we really have in this life. And there will be times in your life and mine when this is more obvious than usual, when if we do not have integrity we will be lost even to ourselves.
IIB: Right Relationship with God: Faithfulness
God is reaching out to us with accepting love. Our response — that which puts us in right relationship with God — is faithfulness.
What does it mean to live faithfully? It certainly doesn’t mean we’re sinless or perfect. It doesn’t mean we have all the right answers and never make mistakes. To live faithfully means to live our lives above all and through all towards God, means that the dominant direction in our lives comes from our decision to take Jesus as our compass.
We can only succeed at living faithfully if this takes precedence over all of our other goals. Our other pursuits and objectives must be in line with — and subordinate to — this primary direction. It just doesn’t work any other way. If other goals lead us in a different direction then we have in fact made these goals more important than living towards God. Indeed, we are then worshipping other gods — these other goals — before the one God. Obviously this is not to live faithfully. We can only live faithfully if our lives are imbued with a thorough-going monotheism. As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters. We must make sure that the master we serve, the God we live towards, is the one eternal God.
This doesn’t mean that there is no place in the faithful life for fun or recreation or simply goofing off, or for careful financial planning, or for working hard to attain personal goals. All of these are fine — in fact they are commendable — as long as they fit into the context of a life lived towards God, as long as they do not become direction-giving gods themselves.
It is difficult to keep these other pursuits and goals in proper perspective. After all, for most of us employment is exceedingly necessary and occupies most of our waking hours five or six days a week. Time with our family takes up most of the rest, and we may have difficulty squeezing in a couple of hours of recreation as the highlight of the week. And then besides these pressures of time there are also other enticements: who among us is immune to the thrill of achievement and recognition or to that of working for and buying that new possession?
So we find it difficult to keep these in proper perspective. But it is very important that we do. When the direction of our lives — not our geographical location, but our inner direction — is dictated by the compensation or prestige levels of employment, or by our dreams of a bigger house or new car or nice vacation trip or comfortable retirement, then we have chosen to place these first and God second, and the god we worship is not God. Not that a better job isn’t worth working for or a new house worth saving for. They can be. But these must take a back seat, must not be the driver, must fit in with our over-all goal of living faithfully.
Certainly we should strive to be successful — but successful at what? This is the key question. It seems as if WC are all working hard to be successful in our business or in some avocation. But is it not more important to be successful at life?
For the Christian, a successful life must mean a life lived faithfully. It is very possible for us to be great successes in our profession or our hobby but to fail at life. Why else are there so many “successful” people with broken marriages and alienated children, who depend on drugs or alcohol or workahol because they can’t face their empty inner selves?
There is no greater failure than succeeding at the wrong thing. And it is this failure which most tempts us today: the failure of succeeding in worldly terms, a “success” that takes precedence over faithfulness, precedence over love, precedence over God, and so fails at the only endeavor that really counts — life.
Right relationship with God means putting this relationship first among our goals, serving no other gods before God. This relationship informs and transforms all our other pursuits, ensuring that in all we do we are living towards God. By doing this we live faithfully and thus succeed at the one undertaking that matters.
IIC: Right Relationship with Others: Caring and Sharing
Putting ourselves in right relationship with God entails both right relationship with our selves — integrity — and right relationship with others, which is where we give concrete expression to our right relationship with God. This right relationship with others includes hospitality, compassion, nurturing and other similar qualities which I include under the heading of caring and sharing.
The first step in right relationship with other people is to care about them: to admit and to feel that it does matter what happens to them. Part of this is simple consideration, a recognition that other people have feelings, too, and desires and needs and dreams. For reasons beyond my ken — if there is a reason for it — some people either can’t or won’t break out of their own self-centeredness. All that matters to them is their own feelings, their own goals, their own efforts. Maybe this is all they can see!
I am told we all begin this way as infants, so seeing that other people matter involves a certain amount of growing up. But only enough to see that we are not after all the center of the universe, that our desires and ambitions have no more right to fulfillment than those of several billion other individual dreamers and workers.
This recognition that other people have hopes and hurts just as we ourselves do, and that these do matter, is only a first step. If this remains just an intellectual understanding on our part then we haven’t yet really gotten to caring about others For us to care about others, what happens to them must matter to us.
Now, obviously we cannot be intimately acquainted with the ups and downs of thousands of people. And obviously what happens to those closest to us is going to affect us the most. But we cannot put on blinders to keep us from knowing what goes on in the rest of the world. On the contrary, we have an obligation to keep ourselves informed. And even if we are not personally acquainted with people on the other side of the county or the other side of the globe, it must still matter to us if these our fellow human beings are suffering from hunger or disease or persecution or strife. If we care about them then to some extent we hurt at their hurt. Through empathy we share, although in a different way, in their suffering.
Once we care about others, the next step in right relationship is to care for them. This caring is done by sharing of ourselves with them. Sharing of our material wealth with those less fortunate is perhaps the way of sharing that we think of first. This is certainly an important way, one which we will address in the next chapter. But it is not the only way, and in some situations it is quite irrelevant. Sometimes what is important is just to be there, to share your time with your neighbor who is hurting or ill or lonely. Sometimes we need to share our “space”, to allow people into our lives while still allowing them to be themselves, not forcing them into our mold. (This is “hospitality” in the sense we spoke of it earlier in the chapter.) And sometimes we need to get to work to change the conditions that cause their suffering.
We need also to care enough to try to discover who these “others” really are. This means sharing in another way: an openness to the ideas and insights and contributions that these people can bring to our lives, a willingness to receive and try to understand their experience and their wisdom.
Right relationship with other people, which is part of right relationship with God, means caring. And caring means sharing: a sharing of others’ burdens, a sharing of our own blessings, a sharing of our time and space, a sharing of our love and of our self.
III: Perspective and Passion
Right relationship has to do with the direction and content of our lives while perspective and passion have to do with the level-headedness and the intensity of our lives. Perspective and passion are more generally thought of as inhabiting opposite ends of the spectrum than as walking hand in hand, but both are marks of the Christian life.
By “perspective” I mean the realization that things will never be perfect In this world, that the ultimate good is unobtainable, that there is no such thing as a human cause or human institution without error and sinfulness, that only God deserves our ultimate loyalty. This perspective helps us not to see the world in the stark contrast of black and white, good and evil, but to see instead the many shades of gray. It enables us not to invest ultimate importance in any human endeavor, and so not to get discouraged when our efforts fail to bring in the kingdom of God.
Furthermore, if we don’t see everything in absolute terms of black and white we are then able to appreciate the very important differences between shades of gray, between different levels of imperfection. Rather than giving up when our hard work fails to result in perfection or to accomplish our goals, we are able to see that improvement in justice or compassion or social conditions can make a difference in the lives of our fellow human beings that really matters.
Our sense of perspective must include this understanding that the difference between degrees of imperfection can be crucially important. Otherwise it would be too easy to decide that since no human cause is without sin or deserving of our ultimate loyalty, since none will result in the perfect good, we may as well just sit back and sagely observe from an uninvolved distance the vain and foolish strivings of humanity. This is where Christian perspective joins hands with passion.
By “passion” I mean intense devotion to the cause of justice and righteousness. It is a zeal to bring about the conditions which ought to exist in the world, to strive to approach as closely as possible the unobtainable perfection, to argue and struggle for the right — on behalf of others and on behalf of God as a natural outgrowth of being in right relation with them. We feel the hurts of our neighbors suffering from persecution or injustice or hunger. And we feel how contrary this is to what is called for by God and know we must do what we can to confront and to change the causes of these hurts.
Passion fuels our drive to reform the world. It is a necessary ingredient. But without perspective, passion is too likely to see the world in black and white, too likely to result in missing the achievable good by aiming without compromise at the unachievable perfect, too likely to produce unnecessary division and acrimony that can make progress more difficult.
So we need both passion and perspective in the Christian life. Our right relationship with others gives us the passion to bring about a better world. Out right relationship with God and our acceptance of God’s love give us the perspective that saves us from giving ultimate loyalty to any human cause, that perspective that keeps us going in an imperfect world.
These are the themes of a Christian life: acceptance of God’s acceptance of us; right-relationship with self, God and neighbor; and the balance of passion and perspective. It is important to note that these themes not only mark a life that succeeds in being faithful — which is what it is all about — but these are also the ingredients we need in our lives in order to achieve a deep sense of satisfaction and meaning, to experience joy in the wonders of the world, and — dare I say it? — to be happy.
Happiness is not something we can pursue in itself; it is not to be equated with entertainment or passing pleasures. Happiness is the result of a life that has purpose, goals and meaning. A deep, abiding peace and happiness can be ours if we succeed at life by living faithfully, by living towards God.
We will now proceed to explore what faithful living means with regard to possessions and the use of money.
1. We have pointed out that much traditional theology maintains that we are not worthy of God’s love, but receive it in grace (if we believe) only because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. This is a perversion of Jesus’ message of God’s unconditional love that is there for us to turn to and accept.
2. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (Doubleday and Co.. 1975).