Thursday, March 5, 2015

Can Our Actions Bring Us Closer to God?

This question stuck in my craw as I read through a blog post highlighted by Living Lutheran.

The post was titled: "Failing at our Lenten Disciplines."

Here are some pertinent quotes:

We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough.  Hopefully we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God.  We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reason to hate ourselves.

Our failed Lenten discipline will bring us closer to God, as we try again, as we ask for help and guidance, as we try to be resolute again.

It is tempting to agree.  In fact, there is great danger in disagreeing. 

I mean, if we say that our actions do not have any merit in getting us closer to God, then what would be the point of praying, fasting, acts of service, kindness, Bible study, meditation, and the like?  If these things do not draw me closer to God, then why should I set aside any time, energy, and effort to engage in them? 

Surely when I pray, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I fast, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I engage in Bible study, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I act kind toward others, I draw myself closer to God.

Part of me says, "Yes."  But there is an important caveat to this, something that has actually plagued Christianity.  For if I am drawing myself closer to God with all these disciplines, and I feel like I am achieving such closeness, then why aren't others doing it too?  Why aren't others praying like I pray?  Why aren't others fasting like me?  Why aren't others studying the Bible like me?  Why aren't others being kind like me?  I am drawing closer to God every time I do these things.  Shouldn't others want to be close to God like I am close to God?

The idea that my actions are drawing me closer to God in this fashion leads to self-righteousness.

Bishop Eaton in her Lutheran Magazine article this month hits the proverbial nail on the head regarding this.  The money quote:

These practices serve to draw us closer to and make us more aware of the love of God shown through Jesus’ death and resurrection that justifies sinners, but they aren’t what justifies us.

These practices serve to draw us closer to...the love of God shown through Jesus' death and resurrection.

There is a subtle, but very, very important distinction between the blog on Living Lutheran and Bishop Eaton's statement.  Bishop Eaton grasps it.  Our actions do not draw us closer to God.  Our engagement in the disciplines of Lent or otherwise do not draw us closer to God--they draw us closer to the love of God as it was expressed in Jesus' death and resurrection.

These actions makes us aware that (excuse me for shouting):

GOD HAS ALREADY COME CLOSE TO US!!!!  GOD HAS ALREADY COME DOWN TO US!!!  GOD IS STILL WITH US AND HAS NEVER DEPARTED FROM US!!!

Now, I could cite a whole lot of Bible verses to back up this point, but I will refrain for now.  The point is this: our actions do not draw us closer to God, but they do make us aware of what God has already done.  They draw us closer to the knowledge of the grace and mercy poured out for us through Jesus.  They draw us into the mystery of God's great reconciliation project wherein we could not work our way to Him, but He worked His way to us at great cost to Himself.

So often, our disciplines fail for the very reason they are not focused upon Jesus.  They are not focused upon what He accomplished, but they are focused on our own desires and wants.  I desire to come closer to God.  I want to walk closer with God.  Two things: 1) If it is my self-driven desire instead of loving obedience and thankfulness, it will fail.  2) If I think I can achieve it because of my desire and because of my actions, I will fail. 

However if my desire comes not from me but from Jesus, I cannot tear myself away from it.  If I am engaging in a discipline because of obedience to Him and a response to what He has done, then I will happily engage and continue.  If I am aware of the great love of Jesus who is already close to me, and I know that in my prayer I am entering into that awareness that Christ is there beside me listening to my voice and speaking in return, I cannot wait to engage Him.  There is no amount of busy-ness that can ever tear me away.  (For all I know, the original author may have this intent, but it is unfortunately not expressed in her writing.)  

Thank you, Bishop Eaton for your powerful, strong statement.  May we all be drawn to the love of God in Jesus Christ who comes close to us.  May our actions ever make us more aware of His action on our behalf that we may live in the knowledge, hope, and abundant life that God is already with us!
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf

4 comments:

Kathy Suarez said...

How very sad that this is the issue that divides the Church. It is so simple a child can see it. Salvation and Sanctification, or whatever words you want to use.

We must stop judging one another. "... and I feel like I am achieving such closeness, then why aren't others doing it too? " Stop making assumptions! One Christian cannot see what is in the heart of another Christian!

Kevin Haug said...

^^ Exhibit "A" folks. Someone who tells you "We must stop judging one another," and then and goes and makes a judgement (You are making assumptions!!!).

Unknown said...

OK Kevin,
Most Excellent set up! :-)

I do understand at a certain level the story you are telling. It makes for an interesting myth. Please, forgive me, but why would the all knowing, omniscient, and omnipotent one, create, and play such mind games with God's only self. How could what ever happened, disappoint or Break the Heart of God," This notion gets stuck in my craw and defies my logical mind....

Creating The opportunity for sin, and then go through the aforementioned drama and shenanigans of Sending His only begotten Son.... to correct an apparent design flaw....

I mean no disrespect, nor am I being deliberately heretical, for some reason reading your posts here has caused me to ponder such questions.


Carl

Kevin Haug said...

Carl,

Please hang in there on this one. After Lent concludes, I will be posting my Lenten Series titled "What is the Gospel." I am answering your important questions in sermon #2 of that series (which I delivered last Wed.): "What Went Wrong." There is a reason God put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden. There is a reason man and woman had a choice. Without it, we would either be pets or robots. Neither is an authentic relationship. Authentic relationships demand the choice to walk away from them.

Kevin