The Alternate Universe: True Christian Spirituality

true Christian spiritualityToday’s guest post is by Dr. Daniel Bush, author of Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians and Embracing God as Father: Christian Identity in the Family of God. Dan holds a B.Sci. from Michigan Technological University, the M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland).

I don’t recall how the conversation turned to the topic of hair. My sister-in-law noticed I still had a full head of hair, which is nothing spectacular, except when compared to my brother, who is growing bald patches where he ought to be growing luscious locks. So, I strutted and made a joke about Rogaine, then got honest: My brother is losing hair, but what he has is dark while mine is beginning to look like winter preemptively struck—morning frost everywhere.

Gray hair means I’m getting old and tired, and one of the things I’m tired of is comparisons, which are a gentle way of judging. We compare everything: our green lawns, our athletic and academic children, our fulfilled lives, our sin, and then we use social media to prove to ourselves and others that we actually have a life, a bunch of friends, a brilliant smile, and can strike a pose with the best of them. Beneath it all, however, we’re unconsciously leveling all of these things, attempting to compare goodness. It’s mostly innocent; nevertheless, the impulse to compare goodness is as powerful as the impulse to get a cup of coffee on a frosty winter morning.

There’s one more thing making my hair grey: Bumping into the notion that following Jesus is really all about “getting better”—that is to say, Christian spirituality is about putting an end to all of our sinning.

Occasionally people have asked me what I’ve done to stop sinning; they want an itemized list of the products I’ve used to clean up my life. I’m not going to turn over the secret list. For one, I honestly lost it (it’s probably around here somewhere, but I’m too tired to look). I’m also not going to give you the list because it hasn’t worked for me, so I can’t confidently recommend it. And lastly, I’m not going to give you the list because I’m convinced the heart of Christian spirituality isn’t about sin management.

So I’ve taken up residence in an alternate universe. But, hey, I still have hair. Allow me to explain.

If I sinned less, do you know what I’d probably do? I’d stick a feather in my hat and post a pic, maybe even write a book on how you can be as good as me—and boast just as well. And if, by some miracle, I succeed to squelch the thought, I’d probably feel really good about it and silently compare myself to all who post pics of their feathery hats. Pride, much?

Oh, Isaiah…you were really on to something when you said, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind” (Isa 64:6 NLT).

Paul agreed when he confessed: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (Rom 7:15 NLT). Thanks for the honesty, Paul, I was feeling defeated and lonely, especially after reading what you wrote in chapter 6—there I go comparing myself again, drat!

Since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourself completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace (Rom 6:8–14 NLT).

The charge against being ruled by sin applies as much today as it did when Paul wrote it to folks engrossed in a Greek dualism that divided material from spiritual and opened the door to blatant debauchery. Grace is the rule, says Paul, although it’s not a permission slip to fall back into bondage to a worldview which is dead to God and leads only to death. But the difficulty with all the “do not’s” is that the war within hasn’t reached a cease-fire.

Tomi Ungerer knows the war well. A famed children’s book author and illustrator who was defamed in the 1970s after it was discovered that he was also illustrating erotica, he actually made such bondage his muse. In a documentary, Ungerer explained:

“One of the first signposts really showing me the way in terms of the art world was the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. When it was raining and I had to wait for the bus [as a child], the entrance was free, and instead of waiting for the bus I would just go and look at this masterpiece, which totally impregnated me. It is absolutely truly phenomenal. Nobody, even in modern art, I would say not even Salvador Dali, has been able to realize such a vision.

“There’s one thing for a child, anyway, La Tatation de St. Anthony, The Temptation of St. Anthony. He’s there with all those monsters, which are really a little bit like the ones we have within us and we do not even know how they look, but it’s right there. And then the resurrection of Christ, which is a totally psychedelic experience. This is really my number one basis for all my art perception and influence.”

So we’re pulled towards the light, and yet monsters yelp at our heels. The danger of a spirituality that aims to eradicate sin is that it doesn’t take the monsters seriously enough. It’s transfixed on slaying them and riding down main street in a ticker-tape parade. The soul that endorses such a notion, however, is deeply driven by the accusations of a troubled conscience, not forgiveness.

Both Paul and Isaiah knew better. And from their writing, we learn the definition of true Christian spirituality, which to many of us will seem like an alternate universe than the one we’re living in. For they neither deployed a single product off the secret list, nor did they fall into the trap of thinking they had to sort out the whole sin mess within the orbit of their little lives—they knew the solution to break free from the destructiveness of sin didn’t reside within their power. In fact, they didn’t even look to themselves as the place where the action had to occur—now we really are in an alternate universe, Virginia.

In Confronted by Grace, John Webster puts it this way:

“There’s no resolution to the conflict of our lives within ourselves, no freedom from wickedness to be sought in striving, no peace with God which is the fruit of moral effort. And the reason why there is none is that we are, indeed, defeated by sin. It’s not that we are occasionally overcome, or even that more often than not we lose the battle with ourselves. It’s that we are wholly defeated, ruined, ‘there is no health in us.’ To look to ourselves, therefore, to try to sort ourselves out by doing an audit of our moral lives or a clean-up operation on our spirituality is, quite literally, a hopeless undertaking.”

So how in the world does it help us to be told to do something we have no earthly means of doing? Paul’s point in Romans 6 is that sin has lost its dominion over us precisely because it has no dominion over Jesus. In other words, the power that moves our lives has changed hands. We’re in a new realm with a new king. We live “under the freedom of God’s grace.”

“That’s all well and good,” you say. “But sin is still doing its nasty business of mucking things up; I’m seeing it in my soul as much as I ever did, and probably more clearly. And my hair, oh my hair, is thinning as I rip out clumps in frustration. Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?”

I get that, I really do.

Let’s keep going.

God hasn’t turned a blind eye to sin—past, present, or future. Rather, in his own divine freedom, he’s sorted it in Jesus Christ. And in Jesus Christ he’s graciously defined spirituality, which isn’t striving to be sinless but striving to yield ourselves wholly to the Father in relentless trust. The former striving is perfunctory, the latter is relational. And Christian spirituality, then, is found in relational connection, which, according to my experience, is commensurate with awakening to need. A practical question that may help to shed light on this alternate universe is: What is working today to overpower and rule me, and what would it look like to entrust myself to the Father with regard to it?

From anger to erotica, sin is seeking to create and fill selves by escaping, guarding, defending, and indulging. Tomi Ungerer, in fact, said as much when he quipped, “Don’t hope, cope.” He turned to his variegated art as anesthesia, a way to evade the lurking monsters. Sin is the heart’s way of scrounging independently for nourishment without having to hope or trust. Yielding to God, on the other hand, has nothing to do with independent performance of routine duty to defeat the foe. Instead, it has everything to do with trusting that my Creator cares more about my well-being than I do. Everything to do with being willing to lean into that truth and wait.

This very thing was portrayed before our eyes when Jesus submitted himself even to errant, sinful man.

“In doing so he didn’t deny obedience to the Father, but rather fulfilled his obedience, for this was exactly what the Father wanted. Without knowing or wanting it, sometimes in good faith and at other times not in good faith, man—such as Caiaphas, Pilate, and the crowds—become instruments so that the will of God, not theirs, might be accomplished.”
—Raniero Cantalamessa, Life in Christ: A Spiritual Commentary on the Letter to the Romans

When we look to the Father while everything within screams, “Flee! Fight! Feed!” it’s worship, it’s trust, it’s the purpose of God.

The one who seeks shelter under the wings of Grace, who leans on Grace, who is fueled and filled by Grace, just may catch themselves, in an odd moment of retrospection, closer to the Lord. In A Scandalous Freedom, Steve Brown has put it this way: “God will not only love you if you don’t get better; he will teach you that getting better isn’t the issue. His love is the issue. Out of the love, kindness, and presence of God, you will find yourself getting better.”

Our striving to get better only separates the branch from the vine, and, therefore, perpetuates a pseudo-spirituality divorced from dependence and relational communion with God. It multiplies guilt, religiously sending us careening into the ditches of self-righteousness and self-pity as we compare ourselves to others.

But those who strive to yield in trust, who bank on the Father’s heart as revealed in Jesus Christ, leave behind enumerating and obsessing over sin. They grow more and more aware of their own appetite for grace, and find themselves dishing it, in ever greater helpings, upon the plates of others. Welcome to the alternate universe of true Christian spirituality.

Get more from Dr. Daniel Bush

Explore the spirituality of Galatians and Christian identity in the family of God with Dr. Daniel Bush.

Live in LibertyEmbracing God as Father

Get Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians and Embracing God as Father: Christian Identity in the Family of God.

You can also follow Daniel Bush on Faithlife, where he shares devotionals, interviews, and more.


Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for sharing your experience about appreciating the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald as a child. I too love that art brings a peace to the soul that nothing else can. Lately, I have been more focused on enjoying spiritual art. For example, I love how The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci brings art and history together.

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