In my previous column, I introduced Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s phrase “the unencumbered self.” That phrase describes a widespread understanding of human beings as being “unencumbered” by obligations that come from the relationships into which we are born. According to this view, we are the ones who decide who we are, what responsibilities we will accept, and what relationships will matter for our identity.
This vision of humanity, when applied to the Christian life, assumes we are isolated individuals who pursue spiritual flourishing by determining what our needs are and by engaging the church on our terms. The church is just one choice among many, and we judge the church’s effectiveness based on how well we feel helped or hindered in our spiritual journey.
But “the unencumbered self” doesn’t accurately capture the truth of the human person in relation to society, and the unencumbered spiritual self doesn’t reflect the reality of the believer in relation to the church. I pointed out several reasons why it’s impossible for a faithful Christian to view his or her spiritual life so individualistically.
Today, I want to offer some thoughts about what a faithful Christian can do to build stronger and more durable church communities, even when everything in society presses against this kind of community life.
1. Acknowledge your spiritual dependence.
Here is where we start. The first way to resist the idea that we can live out the Christian life unencumbered by responsibilities that come to us unbidden and unchosen is by acknowledging our spiritual dependence. We do this in two ways.
First, we should remember how spiritually dependent we were at the outset of the Christian life. We did not come to Christ on our own. The Spirit of God worked through someone to bring us to the Messiah. We needed someone to evangelize us. And, once we crossed over from death to life, we needed someone to give us spiritual nourishment, to teach us God’s Word, to protect us from false teaching, and to show us how to live as a Christian. When we slipped back into sinful patterns, we needed our believing friends to call us out. We needed help in learning how to read the Bible, how to pray, and how to adopt other spiritual disciplines. We learned what love for neighbor looks like, and what it means to witness to the peace and joy of knowing Christ. We needed others to pass down the treasures from our spiritual heritage, to tell us where our church came from, what makes up our core beliefs, and why our faith tradition matters.
Secondly, dependence marks the road now, not just at the beginning when we were spiritual newborns. We still need others to help us live the Christian life. We need care all throughout our journey. When we face times of terrible illness, we need God’s people to extend His presence to us through their hospitality. We need people who, without any anticipation of payback or reward, love us through hard times, bear with us in our faults and failings, and remain close to us during our darkest days of sin or suffering.
All of us need spiritual assistance. Christian friendship cannot be reduced to a “you help me and I’ll help you” transaction. It’s a family relationship, where we help because of who we are, not what we hope to gain. So, the first step to fighting against the idea of the “unencumbered spiritual self” is to acknowledge our past, present, and future dependence upon others for spiritual strength and sustenance.
2. Look to bless the next generation as the previous generation blessed you.
It’s fashionable these days to point out all the problems and flaws in the churches that raised us. Yes, there’s a place for self-critique and the ability to point out where the church has gone wrong, just as there’s a place for considering the quirks in your family and the flaws in your upbringing.
But don’t lose sight of the real and enduring gifts that have come to you, no matter how dysfunctional your church environment might have been. Acknowledging those blessings and desiring to pass them on is a sign of maturity. Unless we honor the faithfulness of those who have gone before us, and unless we are committed to passing on treasures to the next generation, our churches will go the way of any other consumer-driven institution.
At some point, we must look forward. We must grow into the kind of people who can care for others unconditionally, without slipping into the transactional view of life that calculates how the obligations and responsibilities we fulfill will return to bless us. Just as parents raise children without thought as to what they will be “owed,” so also this generation of Christians must consider the next without thought of payback or reward.
You can’t fully recompense the people who brought you up spiritually. The best way to respond is to pay it forward, to extend the same care to others in need, to show the next generation that you are committed to their spiritual flourishing.
3. Cultivate humility and gratitude for the gift of spiritual life.
Grace shatters the illusion of the “unencumbered spiritual self.” Grace is a gift. The unencumbered self imagines life in terms of self-determined destiny and responsibility. Grace, being a gift, removes us from the transactional world of mere obligation and responsibility and awakens us to a sense of gratitude and humility.
Grace also extends to the family of God. The gift of spiritual life and nourishment was mediated to us through our church family, through the people who “raised” us spiritually. Others cared for you in the past, and there are those who care for you now in the present, and God’s people remain committed to your good in the future. This is grace. The right response is gratitude.
Humility comes first from looking up with empty hands so we receive the grace of God, but then we look around at God’s people where we recognize that our spiritual lives—our talents, our good works, our spiritual activities—are not of our own making. We did not build ourselves up spiritually on our own. The Spirit of God worked through the people around us. To move through the world with a high sense of spiritual self-regard, with a feeling that we are the masters of our spiritual destiny, is to miss out on the humbling realization that we are all interdependent. We embrace the spiritual heritage we’ve received with gratitude and humility, and then we look to others to see how we can bless in ways that awaken that same sense of glorious gratitude.
These are just a few initial thoughts at how we can push back against the view that we are atomized, isolated spiritual individuals who only connect with a church when it coincides with self-interest. I pray we learn to love and cherish the family of God, so that we grow in gratitude and humility and become the kind of people who belong to churches marked by selflessness. And may our spirituality be ever and always delightfully “encumbered” by the call to serve one another with joy and generosity until we are formed into the image of Christ.
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