Read Matthew 22:34–40
Mark Galli recently wrote a great article for the magazine Christianity Today titled, “In the Beginning, Grace.” His main idea is that churches — and individual Christians — desperate for growth are trying all sorts of things from programming techniques to “spiritual disciplines” to an emphasis on “social justice” causes, but they tend to forget one thing: grace.
He quotes Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. They conclude, “We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It’s moralistic, meaning it’s all about improving your life through the application of principles; it’s therapeutic, meaning it’s all about helping you feel better; and it’s deism, meaning it only vaguely believes in a higher power.
A lot of people have noticed this, but here’s the trap: Galli observes that the many attempts to “deepen” the theology and practice of such Christians are still rooted in self-effort. He notes that even the “spiritual discipline” movement can be characterized by a focus on the self. And the social justice movement also can emphasize the horizontal dimension of life (how we care for those around us) at the expense of the vertical dimension (how we relate to God). I love the way he puts it, so I’ll quote him here extensively:
In short, we frame the problem horizontally. We focus on what we fail to do, and then talk about what we should do differently. To be fair, such solutions often start with a strong vertical dimension… But our practical and activist sensibility — one of our movement’s stellar attributes — tends to undermine the vertical. This is the problem as I see it at the moment. The more mature leaders …know this spiritual reality all too well. They’ve watched too many activists burn out because they knew not the vertical dimension… But the language we use to describe our goals and to persuade others can so easily degenerate. A website that crystallizes the theology and goal of what I call the “following Jesus movement” says, “Following Jesus is … about a lifestyle of peace and justice that sets one apart from others” [emphases added].
In our righteous frustration lies a temptation that entices us when we start anxiously comparing ourselves with “others.” This is the temptation of the devout that Jesus described, of the evangelical Pharisee who thanked God that he was no longer like sinners! …How easily the conversation slides into what we are doing.
…The place to begin is not more feverish doing…. The Word of God says the way to start working on the horizontal is to look up, in particular, at the one hanging on the Cross. The place to begin is not more doing but a type of non-doing….
At this point, the careful evangelical reader wants to know exactly what that looks like — ”What should I do next?” …But the righteous desire to do something immediately to fix the problem of the horizontal is itself another symptom of the problem…
When we meet God in his paradoxical presence, we will once again know that great paradox of the Christian faith: with our focus on the vertical, when the weightlessness of belief becomes for us the weight of glory, that’s when we are born again, born in the Word and for the world. This is something that happens once, yes, at one’s conversion. But it also happens daily, at one’s reconversion each morning and each Sunday. Then we become new creations, blessed with vertical life and energy and grace to do the horizontal thing we are called and gifted to do.
Even this Grace Immersion can turn into a horizontal rather than vertical focus: “Have I done my reading today? If I do all the readings and go to all the groups, will I then be magically set free from my bondage to performance-oriented religion?” The last thing I want is for you to feel any pressure to measure up to any of your friends or small group members when it comes to your appreciation of grace! To get back to a previously developed metaphor, all of these readings and verses are meant to be sails put up for you to catch the breeze of grace!
To really grow in an authentic, joyful way, just relax and enjoy the vertical dimension of grace first, and then allow that grace to overflow in the horizontal direction. As Jesus said, the greatest command is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. That order is no accident.
Why do you think it is so easy — even natural — to slip from a vertical focus to a horizontal focus?
Why would a true vertical focus on God naturally demonstrate itself in a genuine horizontal love for others?
Today simply allow yourself to luxuriate in that vertical relationship: God loves you and lavishes grace upon you!