The inner life of the person in ministry
Dr Irene Alexander wrote as the Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane, which offers a Bachelor of Social Science degree that includes majors in Counselling and Biblical Studies, as well as post graduate awards in Counselling and Human Studies. Irene researched Epistemic Development in Adolescence for her Ph.D. degree from the University of Queensland.
More than any other single thing, Jesus spoke about the kingdom. In parable after parable, teaching after teaching, he showed us what the kingdom is like – a treasure hidden in a field, a father who welcomes an undeserving son, a vineyard owner who gives more than is fair to the labourers, a feast to which are welcomed those from the highways and byways, a place that is open to the poor in spirit, the broken and the sinner.
It seems that much of this teaching is about a kingdom which can be visible – a quality of relationships where the poor are ministered to, where people show love to each other, where each person can be accepted and receive God’s love.
However as we take the idea of the kingdom a little further we see that this kingdom is the place where the king reigns – not a physical place but a spiritual one – one which indeed engenders visible results, but one which is initially and primarily an inner place – the kingdom within.
Certainly, Jesus’ teaching shows us the possibility of a kingdom without – a kingdom where people are ministered to. Much of his teaching has clear outward results – healing the sick, giving to the poor, setting free the oppressed, welcoming in the marginalized. But this visible kingdom is the result of an inner relationship, an inner responsiveness to God. Some of his teaching clearly speaks to an inner reality rather than an outer one. “Take the log out of your own eye before you try and take the speck from your brother’s eye.” What does this mean but an attending to our own heart secrets, our own weaknesses, before we try and correct each other.
Inner life and outer mask
Proverbs 4:23 tells us to “guard the heart for from it flow the springs of life.” What does it mean to guard the heart, to be aware of this inner world? John Sanford in The Kingdom Within uses the teaching against the Pharisees to show the difference between the inner world and the outer mask which we show to others. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.
The word hypocrite means actor, and refers to the idea that actors of those days wore a mask which depicted their character. So the hypocrite was the mask wearer. The Pharisees wanted the world to see them as generous, holy, righteous people – that was their outer public behaviour. But Jesus exposed the inner poverty, the inner sins of the spirit, of much more concern to him than the sins of the flesh. “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish and leave the inside full of extortion and intemperance” (Matthew 23:25). And in Luke 16:15: “You are the very ones who pass yourselves off as virtuous in people’s sight, but God knows your hearts.”
So the way to God has more to do with the inner life than the outer mask. Richard Rohr speaks of the way each person tries to find their way to God. They try to discover and fulfil the requirements necessary to please God. Many of us, especially those of us who grew up being good find that for a time we feel we do fulfil the necessary conditions.
However at some time most of us, and perhaps more quickly the more broken of us, experience God differently. We have some experience in which we find ourselves ‘in God’ where we know that we do not have to do anything to be accepted or approved of. We simply have to rest in him. The broken and the mystics find that place more quickly.
The others of us may wrestle back and forth with fulfilling the requirements.
Often the church has taught us that we have to be good to get God’s approval. The cross demonstrates to us that it’s all grace. I enter into a relationship with a God who utterly loves me and as I learn to abide in his love, and look to him for direction I fulfil the law of love without even thinking about it. And so is fulfilled ‘all the law and the prophets’.
Living in a love relationship
Living by requirements is eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Living in relationship with the living God is eating of the tree of life.
Eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, choosing to evaluate good and bad from a place of autonomy, has given us a mindset of constant evaluation. And so we continuously evaluate everything that happens around us – and within us. “I don’t like her hair colour, that shirt doesn’t suit him, he shouldn’t talk like that, she should be more extraverted.”
God’s idea was that we should eat of the tree of life, walk in relationship with him, and with each other and experience life in all its abundance. When we walk in a love relationship with someone we are far less likely to be criticising and trying to change; instead we enjoy, and we notice. Certainly we notice their hair colour, their way of talking and their introversion but instead of judging we accept and appreciate the difference from ourselves. Living in a love-relationship enables us to accept difference and imperfection and walk alongside the other person, standing with them in their ‘working out their salvation’.
In the garden of Eden story there is no mention of Adam and Eve being good. They were called to the dominion mandate – to look after the earth – to bring it to fruition; they were called into relationship with God and with each other. There is no mention of rules and laws and constant evaluation. The story simply states that they were naked and not ashamed.
Paradise was where people could be known for who they were and not be ashamed. I believe this is what God calls us to – a place, a quality of relationship with him and with each other in which we can be real and accepted anyway. Gary Hayachi, in explaining these ideas, says this is the gospel in a nutshell – it’s not about being good; it’s about being real.
Gary goes on to say that the one criticism that is levelled at the church over and over is hypocrisy. “You hypocrites. You tell us to be good, but look at you.” I believe that if the church truly understood that it is not about evaluating and comparing and living up to standards, but rather it is about being known for who we are in our relationships, being conspicuously imperfect, but living in God’s grace – then the world would be drawn to that reality and true humility.
When Adam and Eve, and we in them, chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we chose a righteousness based on comparison and living up to standards; a righteousness that had more to do with behaviour and beliefs than a heart attitude and relationship. We became caught in a mindset of comparison and evaluation which did not free us from wrongdoing but only showed us when we did wrong. As a response to this choice God gave us the Law – a way of evaluating our behaviour which at least kept us in line with the way the world was designed.
However this was not his original plan, nor was it his final response. The Law was simply a way of bracketing our behaviour until God could reveal a better way. The Law was like a fence that kept us from wandering off into licence and perversion. A schoolmaster, a babysitter, to bring us to Christ. And then, in Paul’s wonderful words of freedom in his letter to the Galatians, God revealed a better way.
When the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, under the law, in order that he might redeem those under the law, that they might receive adoption as sons. And because we are sons, God sent forth the spirit of his Son, into our hearts, crying Abba, dear Father. Therefore I am no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir to the living God.
God’s plan was, and is, that we should walk in life, in relationship with him, fulfilling all the law and the prophets by our love relationship with him, as his children, and our love relationship with each other – brothers and sisters.
Grace, not works
We live in a new covenant where righteousness is based on grace not works. The disciples who lived with Jesus understood that he was the Messiah, but they did not seem to see the perspective of the new covenant. That was Paul’s revelation. When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost he simply stated that Jesus, the Messiah, who you crucified, was raised up again by God.
Apparently it was not uncommon for men to claim themselves to be the Messiah, but of course they eventually died and no more was heard of them. When the Christians however started proclaiming the Christ there was swift persecution. Why this drastic reaction? The fact that there were differences between the Greek Christians and the Jewish Christians gives some clue. Stephen, the first martyr, was made a deacon when there were complaints that the Greek widows were being overlooked. When there was persecution in Jerusalem, the disciples stayed there – it seems to have been the Greeks – who did not uphold Jewish law, who were the ones who dispersed.
The point then which drew such wrath from Saul the Pharisee, had to do with the law. Saul, that ‘epitome of legal rectitude’, understood something the disciples did not. He knew the law. He knew that any true Messiah must uphold the law. But the Christians were preaching a crucified Messiah. And Paul knew the scripture – he quotes it in one of his letters – that said “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” A crucified Messiah could not be upholding the law, because he is cursed by that law. A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms. It could not be.
Paul saw that what the Christians claimed struck at the law as the covenant of righteousness with God. He turned against the Christians as one with all legal righteousness and outrage. It is no wonder then that when he met God on the Damascus Road, and asking him who he was found that he was Jesus, the one you are persecuting, the crucified messiah, – it is no wonder he was struck blind for three days. For three days he must have been totally rethinking the place of the law and the basis of righteousness.
When the three days were over Paul understood something the other disciples did not. He understood that the old covenant was obsolete (Hebrews 6:13). He understood that the only way to righteousness was faith and grace. It is not surprising that he vehemently opposed the other disciples when they tried to still keep some of the law, wondering if circumcision should still be practiced. Paul knew they had missed the point completely – it’s all or nothing when it comes to the law. You who began in the spirit, he raged at the Galatians, will you now finish in the flesh?
At the Cross God changed the rules. He finished with the old basis for righteousness, the old purity code which gets us into his presence by our behaviour. He declared us free to walk into relationship with him, saved by grace alone, with a righteousness rooted in Jesus sacrifice. I can now dance into the presence of a holy and righteous God, and know that his grace is sufficient, and that I am home free.
As I look at the cross I see the awesome love of God and I am inspired to give my life to him, not because I must, not to earn his approval, but in freedom, a response of love to his. And I am drawn into a love relationship with him, whereby I live daily looking into his eyes and choosing to walk in his ways.
Many of us have grown up in a modernist world that upholds the absolutes of law and morality and hierarchy. A postmodern perspective is far more likely to value relationship and spirituality and an authority based in authenticity. As I walk the journey with another I do not bring in rules and requirements. Instead I will, as Dan Allender says, look for the footprints of God in their story. John 1 says God lights every person who comes into the world. His footprints will be there in everyone’s story. As I listen and walk with them I will find some evidence of his Being, some way to walk the journey, respecting their individual relationship with God, whoever at that point they conceive God to be – finding freedom and responsibility.
This kingdom within, then, is about being real – real with God and real with each other. Abiding in Christ – finding our true selves, naked and unashamed because of God’s grace. And then living out that relationship in honesty and humility in our relationships with each other. Living in conspicuous imperfection (Sims’ phrase), and openly known for who we are. This is freedom – and life abundant.
Nouwen, H. J. M. (1989). In the name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian leadership. New York: Crossroad.
Rohr, R. (1999). Everything belongs: The gift of contemplative prayer. New York: Crossroad.
Sanford, J. A. (1970). The kingdom within. New York: Paulist.
Sims, B. J. (1997). Servanthood: Leadership for the third millennium. Boston: Cowley
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