Having tried to lay good foundation by this point of what Lent is, including spending time the past three weeks in three practices that have long been central to Christians during this season, we turn a corner this week. Now, as one final preparation for Holy Week, we take a step-by-step look at how to do what Lent ultimately invites us to do: return to God. At this point in his story, Jesus is resolutely headed toward his death in Jerusalem. Hopefully, by this point in Lent, we are resolutely denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following him. I'll be borrowing the framework for much of this week's postings from Dallas Willard's landmark book, Renovation of the Heart. In that book, he brilliantly describes the parts of a human person and how we can go about resubmitting each of them to be transformed by God. In the course of about one page, he sets out the following two lists, and any of us could spend the rest of our lives working out their implications.
After identifying the parts of a person (which we will spend the remainder of this week exploring) he says that in life away from God, our lives function in this order (pp.40-41):
- Mind (Thoughts/Feelings)
In other words, when we live apart from God, it is practically inevitable that our bodies become our main concern. If you don't believe me, scan the headlines in the magazine rack of the check-out aisle the next time you're in the grocery store. Everything focuses on our bodies–how they look, how they feel, how to get more pleasure out of them–basically, a million and one ways for our bodies to make us happier. Jesus made the same observation as he was midway through the Sermon on the Mount, noting that it is natural for the Gentiles (those who knew nothing about God or his ways) to be preoccupied with what they eat, what they drink, and what they wear–to live lives centered on their bodies rather than God's kingdom.
In life apart from God, every other part of who we are serves our bodies. Our souls (the "operating system" of our lives, where most things happen at a level deeper than our awareness) orient themselves around serving our bodies. Our minds–our thoughts and our feelings–fall in line, focusing on our bodies. Our spirits (our hearts/our wills/the parts of us that decide) follow suit, making decisions to please our bodies. Then, finally, in life apart from God, God is only useful as he can add something that ultimately brings us bodily pleasure. Maybe God can get us a nicer house and a safe and comfortable life, or perhaps he'll reverse all of the bad choices I've made over decades about the things I do with my body [even while I continue in them], or surely at least I can expect him to keep me out of anything painful. (Yes, we undoubtedly have our "Christianized" versions of the grocery store check-out magazine headlines.)
This is what Paul described as "the mind set on the flesh [which] is death" (See Romans 8:5-7). Life, ultimately, does not work this way, which is precisely why God wants something else for us.
One of the best, very biblical, definitions of holiness is "a way of life that works," and Dallas identifies the order of a life under God (a holy life) like this:
In this order, the body is still not bad, but rather than being the focus of everything it becomes our ally, the vehicle through which all other aspects of our lives with God can take place (which is precisely why we should properly care for it). "The body serves the soul; the soul, the mind; the mind, the spirit; and the spirit, God... The life 'from above' flows from God throughout the whole person." God is in God's proper place, rather than the body being there. (Remember all of those warnings in the Bible about idolatry?) Then the door is opened for us to actually become people who love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the way that Paul describes as "life and peace."
"Okay, now that we have all of that figured out..." No, you don't, and neither do I. But we have a wealth of guidance available to us on how we can proceed. We will spend the remainder of our week being specific and practical about how we can, really, move our lives toward God and experience more of the goodness of a way of life that works.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]