Recently I’ve been reading two books that are challenging much of what I’ve been raised to believe about Christianity. Now before I lose you, let me tell you that neither of these authors are denying any fundamental doctrines (e.g. salvation by grace through faith alone). What they are doing is challenging the practical implications of these biblical teachings.
This morning, reading from Willard’s book, I encountered a paradigm shattering perspective on the Sermon on the Mount. You remember it… “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… etc.” (If you don’t remember it, you can read it here) I have always thought that in order to be “blessed” I had to be “poor in spirit” or in a constant state of “mourning.” This produces a tension because on the one hand we have the promise of joy and on the other hand it would appear that the pathway to this joy is through a lifestyle that no one in their right mind would want to live.
I’ll be honest with you, though sometimes I am poor in spirit and though from time to time I do mourn, I’m not happy about either of these. I do not want either or any of these to be regular descriptives of my life.
Once after I had spoken on the Beatitudes, a lady approached me expressing great relief at what she had just heard. […] Her son had dropped his Christian identification and left the church because of the Beatitudes. He was a strong, intelligent man who had made the military his profession. As often happens, he had been told that the Beatitudes – with its list of the poor and the sad, the weak and the mild – were a picture of the ideal Christian. He explained to his mother very simply: ‘That is not me. I can never be like that.’
…Is that what we’re supposed to do with the Beatitudes – ‘Be like that’? Frankly most people think so. But they could hardly be more mistaken. More common than such outright rejection of Christianity so understood is a constant burden of guilt conscientiously borne for not being, or wanting to be, on this list of the supposedly God-preferred. This kind of guilt also feeds a morbid streak that unfortunately persists in historical Christianity and has greatly weakened its force for good in history and in individual lives. On the other hand, pride often visibly swells in those who think of themselves as conforming to the ‘blesseds.’
I have lived under that sense of guilt for “not wanting to be on this list of the supposedly God-preferred.”
Willard debunks this myth by taking a fresh look at the CONTEXT in which the Beatitudes are set. He shows how that when Jesus was talking he was actually surrounded by people who were impoverished, sad, hungry, etc., and as he taught he pointed to them and said, “blessed are these people for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” In other words, people are blessed not because they are “poor in spirit” or sad, etc. but in spite of their current condition of brokenness, etc.!
For the longest time I have thought that I needed to be “poor in spirit”, etc. in order to be blessed! Willard is saying that, “Those poor in spirit are called ‘blessed’ by Jesus, not because they are in a meritorious condition, but because, precisely in spite of and in the midst of their ever so deplorable condition, the [kingdom of heaven] has moved redemptively upon and through them by the grace of Christ.”
I LOVE this! It means that I don’t have to try to be “poor in spirit” any longer! It also means that the kingdom of heaven and the blessed life can be experienced by those who we would typically think are least likely to experience and live it!
This post is me processing out loud what Willard is saying, so let me wrap it up with one more quote,
Instead of denying the relevance of Jesus’ teaching to the present, we must simply acknowledge that he has been wrongly interpreted. The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings.
No one is actually told that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, and so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. [The Beatitudes] are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope.
One more and I’m outa here…
The Beatitudes simply cannot be ‘good news’ if they are understood as a set of ‘how-tos’ for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism. They would not serve to throw open the kingdom – anything but. They would impose a new brand of Phariseeism, a new way of closing the door – as well as some very gratifying new possibilities for the human engineering of righteousness.
And now you know why I’m rethinking Christianity as I have always known it.