One of the first things we learn in the Bible is that we need relationships. Creation was incomplete while Adam was alone so God provided. For Adam there was Eve, and for Eve there was Adam, and for both there was God. Since that time almost any prayer of thanksgiving has included gratitude for family and friends. We are blessed, and relationships offer to us some of the greatest possibilities for blessings.
However, even after we have accepted God’s free gift of grace and are seeking to live as followers of Jesus, we are aware something is often not quite right in our relationships. We are discerning enough to know generally how we should live, what we should do and what we should not do, what attitudes we should have and which we should not have. But there is a problem. As much as we want to do, think, and feel what is right, there are times when we fail. We too often fall short, and we are troubled by it. We are not surprised to find this principle active in the world, but in our church and in our personal lives? Were we to examine ourselves with a discerning eye we might acknowledge that more than just a little is not right. However we describe what is wrong, we live with it daily. A descriptive metaphor for our human race says we are like a bunch of porcupines trying to huddle together for warmth on a cold winter’s night. So we ask, “How do we live as faithful followers of Jesus in our community?”
The Best Environment for Spiritual Formation
The conflicts we feel are as old as humankind, recognized and described by no less a saint than the apostle Paul (Rom. 7:14–25). In Paul’s description we can sense the anguish and hear the turmoil in his words. Importantly, Paul knew the answer is not to give up and be complacent, but to press on in grace toward God’s higher calling. The environment for this spiritual formation may from time to time be a place of solitude, but its primary proving ground will be in community. If life has one lesson to teach, it is surely that we cannot live it alone. In the calling of the disciples we see that Christianity began with a group. It is a faith that calls people together in fellowship, with its task of living with each other and for each other. The Christian community is not and has never been immune to challenging relationships. Still, community and its relationships are fundamental to our way of life.
Human beings bring an assortment of needs into community, needs that range from the basics such as food and safety to higher order needs such as self-respect, self-esteem, and the desire to belong to and be longed for in harmonious community. The satisfaction of these needs is, for the most part, not within oneself. It is in community that these needs are most often realized and their satisfaction sought, and in which we find lessons for living together. Some spiritual lessons are learned only through suffering and others only through dry seasons. Likewise, many lessons of spiritual formation can only be learned in community. Community affords the believer the opportunity to move to a higher level of spiritual maturity. Indeed, it could be said that community is the crucible of spiritual formation in which dross may be removed, a refining process that will leave a more mature disciple of Jesus.
In community all rights may be challenged. This is a reality. As Christians, living in community can be perplexing. It can leave us wondering how we live out our lives. What does it mean to live as a disciple of Jesus in community? In one sense, the answer is pretty straightforward. The purpose of the Christian life is to be like Jesus, to learn how to live in the kingdom of God as Jesus lived. I heard a pastor say that as disciples of Jesus we are continually unlearning the fall and learning to live in the kingdom of God. That’s an apt description. But how do we live a God-honoring life in the various encounters of everyday life?
Unlearning the Fall, Living the Kingdom of God
This conversation finds holiness at its center, though the connection might not be readily apparent if we misunderstand holiness. It is critical that we realize that holiness is not just a list of things we do and things we avoid. That’s part of it for sure. There are things to be done and things which a follower of Jesus is to avoid, but that’s not the essence of a holy life. The Pharisees loved the Ten Commandments and all the dos and don’ts derived from them, but Jesus made it clear that there is more. Jesus did not set aside the law but pointed to a transformation of the heart, here and now, in keeping the law. Jesus’ message that was so violently opposed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law was that true worship of God comes from the heart, not ritual and ceremony.
To be holy is to be set apart, but set apart to be different from the destructive nature of the world that dishonors God and damages his creation. In a holy life God has first place and the welfare of others takes precedence over self-serving desires. It grows out of a deepening trust that God is sovereign, good, and holy. It is to love God and his creation, including oneself and others. It is a way of being that loves God for the sake of others and in which we seek to be redemptive agents through whom the love of God enters the world. A holy life is one through which the image (character) of God, as incompletely as it may be formed in us, is released into the world.
If this sounds familiar, there is a good reason. It’s the Great Commandment, the pattern in which Jesus tells us to order our lives. Let’s take a deeper look. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, a question is posed to Jesus. In Matthew, a Pharisee asks Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” (Matt. 22:36). The Gospel of Mark, in a scene that seems a bit less hostile, reports one of the scribes asking, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28 NRSV). This question itself is not unusual. As the scribes and Pharisees made rules and regulations the center of their religious life, it should come as no surprise that this question was often debated in rabbinic schools. It probably came up many times among those listening to Jesus. Now, he is being asked to choose the single most important commandment from among more than six hundred commandments in the Torah.
Jesus begins his reply with an answer that would find general agreement among his questioners, beginning in Mark with the Shema (“Hear, O Israel”), the centerpiece of a Jewish prayer service. To the traditional wording (Deut. 6:4) he added a fourth source (“mind”) for wholehearted love of God. “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29–30 NRSV). Then Jesus continued, beyond the expectation of the questioner. At first the agenda was set by the questioner, now Jesus owns the agenda. As he did in so much of his ministry, Jesus was moving the conversation to a deeper and ever so much more important message.
Jesus drew from a less frequently quoted command from the Old Testament: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). As Jesus put the command, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31 NRSV). We need to adjust our normal understanding of order here. Jesus isn’t so much starting a list of commandments, number one, number two, etc. He is giving a full and complete answer to the question. While the command to love God importantly comes first, we are also to understand that either commandment alone would fall short of conveying the full truth. Each has its completion in the other. We do love God first, but it must not stop there. It continues to the love of neighbor. We do love our neighbor, but it is our fulfilling relationship of mutual love with God that makes this possible. The only way a person can prove that he or she loves God is by showing that love to others.
Are you interested in learning more about this topic? David Long wrote a book, The Quest for Holiness: From Casual Conviction to Courageous Faith. It’s a work that seeks to help individuals, small groups, and churches lay hold of an an ever-deepening, courageous faith that flows out of a deep trust in God. Get your copy from our store now.