Sixth Mansions: Chapter Four
Most of us have two belief systems. The first is what we believe we believe. This drives most our conversations, teaching, ideology, writing, and outward judgments of others. This is also what we believe the Christian life should be. The second belief system is what we really believe. This drives much of our non-verbal life including of our thoughts and emotions. What we really believe also surfaces in our spontaneous actions. Of course, we’re convinced we believe what we believe we believe and we really don’t believe all the negative stuff. But we do believe the negative stuff because it shows up in our thoughts, actions, emotions, and inward judgments of others. Dallas Willard said, “Dogma is what you believe whether you believe it or not.”
Let me give you an example. We “believe” in God’s love and forgiveness and in forgiving each other. We also persuade others to believe this so they can have better relationships and live happier lives. Even though we “believe” and teach love and forgiveness as a way of life, we live in shame, self-condemnation, and insecurity. And if someone shows us grace, we struggle to accept it and continue in self-condemnation.
So what do we do about these conflicting belief systems?
To center ourselves in Christ instead of being wore out by the scattered life of religious activity we must address two issues. The first is our attachment to sin. The second is our attachment to the “ideal life”.
Our Attachment to Sin: I’m not talking about overt sin. I’m talking about “reserve sin”. Most of us want to live the Christian life and we’ve accomplished that up to a point. But the Kingdom Life doesn’t always give us the results we want or expect — so we keep alternatives on the shelf. These alternatives include things like criticism, anger, gossip, and addictions. Sometimes we mask attachments like criticism and gossip with religious language so they don’t seem so bad. Sometimes we justify them as appropriate responses to the misbehavior of others. We want options when the kingdom life “doesn’t work” because we don’t believe it works “all the time”. This lack of faith keeps us from following Christ.
Our Attachment to an Ideal: The second problem is our attachment to a Christian “ideal”. We build a mental model of the Christian life that is unobtainable in ordinary life. Sometimes our own insecurities drive perfectionism. Sometimes we want the approval of others and become driven by their expectations (or what we believe are their expectations). This fear-driven “ideal life” is also a lack of faith that keeps us from following Christ.
The Act of Faith
In the Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says we need to focus our attention on following Christ instead of a set of rules or some abstract idea of what the Christian life is about. Following Christ, Bonhoeffer says, comes with a “concrete command” and we must “perform the act of obedience on the spot”. Teresa of Avila says essentially the same thing — we should act in faith without delay to the call of Christ. “If we have the hope of enjoying this blessing while we are still in this life, what are we doing about and why are we waiting? What sufficient reason is there for delaying even a short time instead of seeking this Lord, as the Bride did, through streets and squares?”
The moment we know we need to follow the “concrete command” of Christ, the devil tempts us with “goodness” and all sorts of elaborate plans so we can be “perfect”, please others, and “do ministry”. But Christ is not looking for this kind of “perfection”, or the approval of others, or more religious activity. He’s looking for the “first step” of obedience — and this “first step” requires faith.
Faith and Obedience
The Bonhoeffer axiom is: Only those who believe obey, and only those who obey believe.
Bonhoeffer illustrates this axiom with the story of Peter stepping out of the boat onto the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walked across the water and the disciple’s boat was “battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” Jesus commanded Peter to “Come” onto the water. The reason Peter stepped out of the boat was because he believed (faith). But that’s only one part of the equation. Peter did not believe until he actually stepped out of the boat and onto the water. If Peter had stayed in the boat — there is no obedience or faith. Only those who believe obey, and only those who obey believe.
We can never prepare ourselves enough to step out of the boat. At some point we need to obey the “concrete command” and “perform the act of obedience on the spot”. What sufficient reason is there for delaying even a short time instead of seeking this Lord?