The cold has been creeping into the early mornings hours where I live these past few days as we inch our way toward Christmas. Which is always a small miracle in Southern California. As I step outside and breathe the crisp air betraying just a hint of the ocean, I am struck by the beauty of it all.
On mornings like this I am reminded why I write. Not just write, but write the way I do: At times with near scientific precision on matters that, to be honest, belong to the domain of awe and wonder, not scientific inquiry.
But I do so because there was a time when I could not find beauty in anything. A soul distracted and encumbered cannot perceive, let alone appreciate, the beauty around it.
C.S. Lewis once said that good philosophy is important if for no other reason than to counter bad philosophy. The same can be said for good theology. If what we are doing here can be called theology, then its purpose is to counter the bad theology that I have encountered along my journey, not in order to throw stones, but to tend to the soul as one might tend a garden.
I am a firm believer that Jesus came mainly to restore peace to the soul. Not that the rest of it does not matter. It is just that without peace, the soul cannot function, much as without water and sunlight and proper care, a garden cannot function. Like the soil, we must go deep if we are to produce something of value. And what must go deep in us more than anything is the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.
This is a good place to pick up where we left off on our last discussion. So far, we have established that the Christian life is essentially an ongoing supernatural encounter with God in which we are not perfecting ourselves but one in which God is perfecting us.
And in that process of perfection, God is not so much perfecting us as He is our relationship with Him. To recap, God could make us perfect at any time — and in light of the Cross has no reason to do otherwise. But He has chosen not to because our relationship with Him is more important than our moral standing before Him.
I made the statement in my last post that God is not trying to get us to be more like Jesus but instead getting us to become more like children. Lest I be charged with heresy, what I mean by this is we become like Jesus by becoming like children. The task is a relational task, not a moral task.
But when we talk about relationship, intimacy and the like, what exactly do we mean? The words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride may be ringing through your ears: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.” Well, allow me to explain what I think it means.
Or better yet, let me have Jesus explain what it means:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. . . . If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. (John 15).
In this passage, Jesus explains the dynamics of intimacy. First, He makes plain the main goal in the Christian life is not working but remaining, something we have been saying up to this point.
Second, He makes clear that the real work being done in the Christian life is by God, not by us: “My Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes.”
Lastly, the result of this process is Christian service: “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” Now you may be wondering what bearing fruit has to do with Christian service. But if we recognize that bearing fruit means “producing the results a thing was intended to produce,” then we can see the connection.
It is common to think that bearing fruit in the Christian life always has to do with the fruits of the Spirit. And in the case of the Spirit, this is true. That is, the intended results of the Spirit in us are the divine virtues such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control.
But in our case, bearing fruit is not limited to the virtues we possess. It extends beyond to the things we accomplish. Bearing much fruit is not just possessing virtue but also fulfilling our destiny. The fruit we bear includes the things we do for God and for others in the Kingdom of God.
We therefore find a connection between obedience and intimacy, and by obedience I mean its common definition: What we do in the Kingdom for God. Obedience flows from intimacy. It is not the thing that produces intimacy; it is the natural, even inevitable, result of the deep work of God in our lives.
But what about Jesus’ words, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love”? Does not that suggest obedience is a prerequisite of intimacy? Yes, but not as obedience is commonly defined. What we do for God is a result of His deep work in us; whether we allow Him to do that work is the obedience Jesus is looking for from us.
So this changes things. True Christian spirituality is not about what we do for God but what we allow God to do in us, and ultimately through us. Our Christian obligation centers not on what we do in life but on what we allow from Heaven.
This leads us to our final question today: What is God wanting from us? I mean, what exactly is He pruning?
What we do for God is a result of His deep work in us; whether we allow Him to do that work is the obedience that Jesus requires.
Our answer to this question rests on what we believe God is restoring. If he is merely restoring moral perfection, then the branches could be anything preventing that perfection. But since God is restoring relationship, then the branches represent the things in us keeping us from perfect intimacy.
Needless to say, what keeps us from perfect intimacy is vastly different from what keeps us from moral perfection. If I am restoring you as one might restore a car, I am constantly looking for imperfections and fixing them. I am throwing away broken parts and banging other parts into shape. But if I am restoring a relationship as one might restore a marriage or friendship, then I am not looking to fix you: I am looking to fix us.
Chief among my priorities would be to restore trust. Now if I am an imperfect person, then I restore trust by being brutally honest about my imperfections and owning up to them. But if, like God, I am perfect, then restoring trust means providing you every opportunity to see who I really am and to understand my true thoughts and intentions toward you. I am adamant about having you see me for who I really am.
And this is what restores peace to the Christian soul. We are not called to be encumbered by our own imperfection or distracted by our own obligation (which often is an attempt to compensate for feelings of our own inadequacy). We are instead called to allow God to restore the breach in our intimacy with God wherever it exists in our soul, replacing unrest with perfect love.
To us a child is born, a Son is given. This Christmas season, allow God’s perfect gift of love to have its perfect work. You will find that life, like this fine morning, is absolutely beautiful.