In this series so far, I’ve laid out one of the challenges facing the church today: we affirm the public truth of the gospel but live as if another story is primary. The narrative that gives our life meaning and direction is a lesser story, not the Scriptural one.
- Growth in Christlikeness should mark the plot points of a Christian’s story, but Cameron views all his setbacks and steps forward in light of career advancement.
- The good fight against the spiritual powers and principalities should be the adventure of the Christian life, but Pam sees herself as a foot soldier in the never-ending drama emanating from Washington, D.C.
- Finding ways to love and serve others in Jesus’s name should be a constant preoccupation for the Christian, but Greg sees his life as day after day of just “getting through things” in order to do what he really wants: to enjoy the latest entertainment or newest game.
In the previous column, we looked at something God often uses to shake us out of spiritual slumber: suffering—the great leveler that exposes the shoddy foundation of lesser stories.
But what if we are not in a season of suffering? What can we do to reimagine our life story in a way that emphasizes growth in Christlikeness, not our involvement in political successes or failures, career progression, or entertainment?
One solution is to do away with the lesser stories by devoting as much time as possible to the study of God’s Word and to prayer and fasting. This solution resembles the monastic mentality that, over the centuries, many Christians have found appealing. What better way to set your mind on things above but to divest of earthly wealth, move into a Christian community, and devote your life to love of God and neighbor with as few distractions as possible?
I do not deny that God has worked through communities of believers who sense a call to a separated life of ministry. But one of the central affirmations of the Reformation was that God’s call to holiness is not for a separate class of people. Jesus’s lordship is to be embraced and embodied by all Christians everywhere, not by taking them out of the world, but through preserving them in the world, full of love and good deeds. The Reformation reminds us that your job is not an interruption from serving God and neighbor but the instrument by which you do so. We worship in and through our work, not in spite of it.
People who have a career, or who get passionate about politics, or who enjoy entertainment need not sacrifice all involvement in these areas in order to serve and worship God appropriately. Earthly goods are still good so long as they are in their proper place, and we seek first the greater goods represented by God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
So, if not monasticism, then what?
Another solution, similar to monasticism, is the amputation approach. Once you see how lesser stories connect to your idolatrous temptations, you take radical measures to counter them, primarily through “amputation.” That may sound awful, but if you’re chained to an idol, “amputation” may be the best way to break free.
Remember Aron Ralston, the 27-year-old mountain climber, hiking in an area where fewer than 100 people hike every year? Stopping to rest along the way, he somehow managed to get his arm pinned underneath an 800-pound boulder. Aron remained in the same place for five days, drinking the little water he had in his backpack and eating the last of his snacks. On the fifth day, with rescuers still not able to find him, Aron took matters into his own hands. He used his T-shirt as a tourniquet and then used his pocketknife to saw off his own arm. After he cut his arm off, he was able to run down the mountainside to get help and medical attention. He survived only because he realized that unless he sacrificed what was holding him down, he would die. (127 Hours is the film version in case you’re dying to watch this harrowing story!)
What would the amputation approach look like in the three cases we’ve considered?
Cameron’s career has become the defining story of his life. His desire for earthly success keeps the kingdom vision of God from being fulfilled in his life. Much like the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus, the amputation approach says, “Sell all your possessions and give everything to the poor.” In our day, this could mean giving up career advancement in order to have more time for family or the community. It could mean deciding that no matter how much his salary is raised in the next year, Cameron is going to give all the increase to charity. It could lead Cameron to quit one job and find a lower-paying one—an action that would disrupt the dominant hold that the career path has claimed on his imagination.
Pam is motivated day and night by politics, and sees herself as a soldier in the partisan fight, which is why her mind races to the latest polls or news out of Washington, and why she spends hours a day listening to talk radio or political podcasts, and why she can’t stop scrolling through political social media. The day comes when she realizes she has made the political story the central drama of her life. A righteous cause has replaced the cross as the center of her personal story. The amputation approach leads her to cut out of her life everything that would displace the Scriptural Story in her mind.
For Greg, the gamer devoted to maximizing leisure, the amputation approach means disrupting his habits and removing certain forms of entertainment from his life. It could mean the decision to move the TV to the garage for six months, or the goal of making several days a week free from all screens that are not work-related. Greg realizes that leisure and entertainment are not bad in and of themselves. But because he can’t help but think of his life except in terms of consuming, he takes the amputation approach in order to elevate the kingdom of God in his thoughts and actions.
The amputation approach may feel like a drastic measure, but surely it is no more extreme than Jesus’s command to cut off your hand or gouge out your eye if they lead you to sin. The context of that command was sexual lust, of course, but the principle is found throughout the Gospels. There is a radical element to Jesus’s call, no matter how much we try to domesticate it or “re-story” it according to our preferred narratives.
Perhaps you’ve seen yourself in one of the three cases I’ve laid out. You can see yourself in the political junkie, the career-obsessive, or the binge-watcher. (See how easily we use language like “obsessive” and “junkie” and “binging” to describe the idolatrous hold of lesser stories on our imagination?) If the Christian story is peripheral to your life, while other stories and idols have seized your affections and attention, then perhaps the amputation approach is appropriate.
But maybe you feel the pull of these lesser stories, but do not think you are yet captive to them. You want to fight for holiness. You want the Scriptural Story of the world and the Christlikeness of your character to be at the forefront of your attention. What other approaches are available? In the next column, we’ll examine habits and practices intended to push other areas from the center of your life so you can better see the true story of the world.