Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms…This process of surrender–this movement full speed astern–is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It is killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person–and he would not need it.
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
So how do you respond to a Christian who essentially tells you “I understand the command but I don’t seem to obey it (even when I try)”?
Depending on the person and the situation I could see a couple of different ways to deal with this question. What’s offered here isn’t a verbatim response as much as the reasoning behind the response I landed on:
1) God regularly commands us to do the impossible. Even a casual reading of Scripture makes this apparent. God directs aging Abraham to father a child with a barren wife (Gen 17:15-19). Gideon is told to defeat an army of more than 100,000 with only 300 men (Judges 7-8). Lazarus is told to come out of his tomb (John 11). We are told to be perfect as God the Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). And in our present case, we’re commanded to love our neighbor as yourself (Mat 22:39). To comfort a Christian by asserting that God doesn’t ask us to do the impossible doesn’t hold up under further reflection.
2) Impossible commands can’t be fulfilled by making them more reasonable/attainable. To use just one example from the previous point, Abraham couldn’t assert that God’s word had been fulfilled because he had fathered a child with a younger, fertile woman. Ishmael seemed a logical solution to an impossible scenario but the effort found no favor with God. Redefining the impossible to make it possible may comfort the man but it contorts the message.
3) All things are possible with God. We must remind ourselves that impossible commands are to drive us to the place where we can find the power to do what we can’t do (Luke 18:26-27; Rom 4:19-21; Heb 4:16). His power is at work in us to accomplish all that He requires (Phil 2:12-13).
When our senior adult came with his problem concerning the 2nd greatest commandment, it seemed best to agree with him: he did have a problem with the command and the problem was him. The sooner we see our helplessness the better prepared we are to humble ourselves and seek an enabling power greater than my reason and effort.
About a week ago one of the church’s senior adults asked if he could speak to me. In his words he had a “problem” with the biblical command “love your neighbor as yourself”. His problem, as he explained it, was that he didn’t obey the command. For example, he was willing to help his neighbor(s) in any number of ways but only to the point that it didn’t affect his schedule; he was willing to consider the interests of his neighbor but not to the same degree that he considered his family’s interests. Simply put, the needs and interests of his neighbors weren’t elevated to the level of his (or his family’s) needs and interests.
He wasn’t comfortable with his disobedience nor was he trying to justify his behavior. Rather, the root of his “problem” lay in the perceived impossibility of fulfilling the command. To really love his neighbor as himself seemed unrealistic. He had mentioned this to several others and had listened to their reassurances but nothing he heard seemed to alleviate the tension. I imagine he was encouraged to reconsider the meaning of “love” for that particular demand or that the directive was never intended to diminish the greater love held in reserve for one’s family.
Regardless of what he heard, none of the explanations were satisfactory–they all seemed to undercut the plain meaning of Scripture. So how do you respond to a Christian who essentially tells you “I understand the command but I don’t seem to obey it (even when I try)”?
to be continued…
the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
If Ecclesiastes were written today we’d almost certainly read that the writing of books and blogs is endless. So why bother to put one more out there? Two reasons: one personal, one social.
First, I find great benefit in forcing myself to stop and think through life’s events, conversations, and issues. Meditation is increasingly pushed aside in the tyranny of the urgent or in the clamor of the mundane. The more time I spend moving the more I come to see myself as my own Prime Mover. The soul does well to simply “be still”.
Second, I hope that this blog might extend (or deepen) whatever influence I may have with others through my pastoral ministry. Most of us can probably identify with the experience of leaving a conversation or an encounter that doesn’t exactly leave you. Maybe this effort can continue an interrupted conversation or add perspective to matters under consideration.
In the end what I ultimately hope to achieve is to bring all of life under the authority of God’s Word. The Christian worldview as derived from Scripture holds that God has already written our life’s story and (not “but”) that we are responsible for the lives we lead. With a spirit of wisdom and humility I hope to think through life as it is already written even at the moment that, from our perspective, it is being written.