The Benedict Option, God’s Will, and Why Everyone Needs to Chillax

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The Benedict OptionIn Christian circles, many have been talking about Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Fact is, people have been talking about it for about three years now, because that’s how long Dreher has been doling out bits of his major thesis about why Christians need to form their own remote, intentional communities. Given how much I’ve read of what Dreher has already written online, I will probably never read the book.

Nonetheless, here is my review of The Benedict Option. It’s one word:

Whatever.

Oddly enough, that’s my review of most Christian books advocating for widespread change or action from all Christians. At one point, I used to be keen to grasp and understand this idea of preserving Christian faith from the ravages of rapidly degrading culture. Like many Christians, I had concerns about this thing or that. I had worries. I’m sure you have or have had worries too.

But what I have come to realize in the last few years is that the reasons the Church in America is worried, or needs to worry, or doesn’t need to worry, are not really about what is happening outside the Church, but inside. You can say that’s always been the focus of Cerulean Sanctum: Church Heal Thyself.

But you read all these dystopian nonfiction books about the bad stuff arriving soon to hurt the Church, and what you finally realize is that all these books and warnings, and cautions, and handwringings are all brilliantly reasoned answers to the wrong questions.

We have this strange, self-absorbed idea in contemporary Western Christianity that the most pressing issue for the entirety of the world is that one thing that is most pressing to me. And we wonder how it is that people can be so blind so as not to see X bearing down on us like a runaway train. Why is it that you aren’t taking X seriously? Why aren’t you doing something about X? You must be in sin because X doesn’t matter to you as much as it does to me.

And after a while, it all gets silly, this one-size-fits-all approach to discipleship and God’s working in the lives of His people.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Draw near to God.

Hear what God asks of me for my situation alone.

In response to that hearing, do what I can to achieve it with the unique resources God has provided to me.

Be at peace.

It sounds to me that God may be asking Rod Dreher to write a book about intentional communities that create a place of retreat. Maybe God is asking Rod Dreher to even start one.

That’s great for Rod Dreher.

And while it’s great for Rod Dreher, what it does not mean is that I must necessarily heed Rod Dreher’s call and follow the Benedict Option.

What is God asking of me in the situation in which He has placed me? What is God asking of you?

It seems to me that where we have gone astray in the modern church isn’t so much that we lost the culture wars and now must retreat to intentional communities but that we have made it mandatory to follow what some Christian leader, prognosticator, or pundit says. Sure we can listen, but we can also reject if that person’s message conflicts with what we know God is asking of you or of me in the situation you or I find before us.

Possessing no one-size-fits-all approach to life can be frightening. It means there isn’t a uniform plan. I think this scares us because listening to God to find our next steps can be hard. You can’t listen if you don’t draw near, and drawing near takes time and quiet. And we run the risk of getting the listening wrong.

This causes anxiety. Here is where we make our second mistake.

The Bible says this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
—Hebrews 12:1-2

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
—Ephesians 2:8-10

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”
—Isaiah 45:9-10

Who founded the faith you have? God alone.

Who is perfecting the faith you have? God alone.

Who can force God’s hand on any of this? Not you. Not me. No one.

You and I are not in control. You and I did not start this, and we will not finish it. All that is on God.

So relax.

In fact, all God really asks of us is to show up. That’s it. And some days, we may not even do that. I think He understands that happens sometimes. What God really wants from us more than anything else is to draw near to Him and to talk with Him and listen.

It may be that in any given day, all I can do is go to the grocery store, buy some Pepto, and help a sick family member get over an upset stomach. Is that what God is asking of me? Perhaps it is. Perhaps that is the extent of today’s focus.

Perhaps that is what I am hearing from God when I draw near to Him today. And if that’s all there is, that’s OK. My eternal security does not rest on what I get done today but in whom I rest, the Lord.

It may be that God is calling some Christians to live radical lives on the fringes of civilization.

Or He may be calling some to care for the sick in hospitals or to build airplanes.

Or He may be saying to some to cease from their labors for the moment and just rest in Him.

Or He may be asking some to write a poem or a letter of encouragement to someone else.

Most likely, whatever it it is He may be asking of you or me, it may be something small, something for this moment.

Our mistake is to criticize another Christian for what he or she may or may not be doing based upon what we think we should or should not be doing. Yes, the Bible does lay out a few clear boundaries, but within those boundaries reside entire worlds of conversation and opportunity. And the conversation you had with God and the opportunity it created is unique. I won’t criticize you about mine. Don’t criticize me about yours. When and if possible, let’s do what we can to help each other make each other’s possible.

So as a review of The Benedict Option, I say, whatever. Maybe it is God’s word to you about your next step. Or maybe it’s not. Whichever answer it becomes to you as you draw near to God and listen, God is thankfully in control.

Real Salvation: How to Be Freed from Religions Filled with Rules

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One of the effects of multiculturalism amid globalization is that more and more people are exposed to the often strange belief systems of others. And regardless of what others may say, everyone has a belief system. You may insist you don’t believe in anything or anyone—no gods, goddesses, gurus, or guides—but that very lack of believing is itself a belief.

The problem with most belief systems: almost every one of them has a core understanding that to be a faithful believer in that belief, one must do something to be shown acceptable or holy. And in almost all cases that means one must keep doing that holy practice. In those few cases when a practice may be done once, it is simply replaced with another practice to perform, ad infinitum.

In short, almost all the world’s religions consist of little more than sets of rules.

Sometimes, those rules become headscratchers. Take, for example, this one:

 
So, the religious rule is never to carry items on the Sabbath day or else that is considered work and not God-ordained rest, although carrying inside the house is OK. So make your house larger by erecting walls in the wider community and call them part of your house. And then when upkeep on masonry or lumber gets too burdensome, convert the wall into a string. Presto, you have an eruv.

Doesn’t it seem sad to you that your standing or mine with a deity would depend on whether or not we are carrying a package on a certain day on the correct side of a piece of string? Doesn’t the mere idea of this fill you with a sense of despair that we amount to so little in that deity’s eyes that we must keep jumping through such hoops to please him? Or that he would be so easily fooled by our clever loophole? (Or 18-mile, loop-of-string-wall, to be perfectly holy in exactitude.)

Jesus ran into that kind of man-made holiness and was not impressed.

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’  they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

Religious rulekeepers get offended easily. In Jesus’ day, He drove the rulekeepers batty. They tried to pin down Jesus by their rules, but Jesus would tolerate none of it. He countered by quoting the prophet Isaiah and noting the rulekeepers had made a scandalous “holy” rule that if they devoted their stuff to God, they had no responsibility to use it to help their parents.

Jesus called these men “hypocrites” not because they were violating their own rules but because they thought their rules were making them holy—when those rules were actually doing the opposite.

Most religions are rules made by men. They trap adherents in a maze of do’s and dont’s that only lead people into despairing pits of precepts and farther away from God. Rules upon rules, and men and women trying desperately to keep an endless string of them, almost always failing, if not by the letter of the law then by its spirit.

The Christian faith is utterly different. The Christian faith rejects any idea that anyone can abide by enough rules or keep them well enough to be seen as holy in God’s eyes, to be good enough to merit God’s favor. We might as well try to blow out the sun as ever get to a place by our own works and religious efforts where we can stand before the presence of a holy, spotless, perfect God.

But a Way exists, and it’s not by following rules but by faith in a person, Jesus Christ. He WAS perfect. He kept all the holy rules. He never erred, never sinned. And in dying on the cross, He imparts to all who receive Him that same holiness, through grace. Jesus finished all the holy work so that we will never have to. By grace, through faith, we can be covered for all responsibilities for holy works through the finished work of Christ alone.

That is what Jesus meant when He uttered His final words on the cross: “It is finished.” He completed the religious tasks. He met all the goals. He checked every checkbox so that those who place their faith in Him can be freed from rules made by men, and even those rules made by God to show how impossible it is for a human being like you or me to keep those rules and be holy by our own efforts. Thankfully, Jesus DID keep them all, and the requirement on us has been satisfied by Him forever. This is the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To learn more about the Gospel—how Jesus has satisfied all the rules of the Law on your behalf, freeing you from religious rulekeeping—please, please, please take 15 minutes to listen to this life-changing truth:

What Is Repentance?

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One of the things that saddens me most about where we are in America at this stage in history is our inability to repent. And one of the reasons Americans are such strangers to repentance is that I don’t think we know what it is anymore.

I could quote a lot of Bible verses here, but if you want to find out more about repentance, do the due diligence and study it yourself. I’m just going to share what I know and keep it all simple.

And the simplest truth about repentance is that it’s turning back to God.

Notice that there’s nothing really added to that. I didn’t even mention sin.

The reason I didn’t mention bad things that you do is because sin isn’t really bad things that you do. Sin is what you are. Sin exists on the level of atoms, and DNA, and all those tiny bits that make up you, even bits that abide in the world of the spiritual. And for that reason, it’s why all the silly things religious people do to try to get rid of bad things inside themselves are such a fool’s errand.

OK, so I lied a little about Bible verses here. I’m going to reference Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Most people know the story, but if you don’t, it will be at the end of this post. I paraphrase below to get us thinking the same way…

A son came to his father and said, “I wish you were dead.” Because that was how he now viewed his father, the son demanded his father act as if he were dead, which meant the son demanded the still-living father hand over inheritance money. The father complied. And because the son was driven by the stupidity of sin down to the atomic level, he stayed true to that nature and did stupid, sinful things that took him to stupid, sinful places inhabited by stupid, sinful people. In short order, the money ran out, and the son took a lousy job in a lousy place and generally felt lousy.

In time, he missed his father. So the son left that place of stupidity and stumbled home, where his father was waiting for him with open arms. No lecture from the father, no recap of bad choices, just love.

I leave some of the details of that story to the theologians and preachers, but the key point of the story is not all the hooker-boinking and booze-hounding the son did on his inheritance spending spree. All the son was doing was being true to his nature, to that atomic level of sin that no one can deal with on his own because it’s always at work and permeates everything. The point of the story is that the son went back home to a father who loved him.

Detail from Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"The history of God throughout the Bible is of a father waiting at home for prodigals to come back to Him. The Bible starts with man wandering off and ends with man being at home with God forever.

In the prodigal’s story, the son didn’t try to mask his stupidity or somehow make amends for it. He just went back home. The father can deal with the stupidity and the filth. In reality, God does that through Jesus, who became sin on our behalf and dealt it a deathblow on the cross. The point is that the father knows the sin is there. He deals with it. All he wants is the wanderer to be home with him.

God throughout the Bible waits at home and calls stupid people, those infested with sin down to their cores—in short, everyone—to come back to Him. And when they do turn around and head back, it’s not to a household where the father has kept track of every stupid thing the prodigal has done, because the father isn’t interested in keeping a record of stupidity. No, the father is simply glad the wanderer is home.

And chances are, because prodigality is ingrained in humanity to the atomic level, that wanderer will likely go wandering again. But the father is steadfast, and he’ll be there at home with open arms. Because sometimes the truth about the father must be learned again and again. Fact is, in time, the wanderings do lessen. Maybe not to the point of going away entirely, but learning that the best is with the father begins to sink in over the course of a lifetime.

The sad reality about the story of the prodigal son is that a lot of prodigals out there prefer feeling lousy doing the lousy job in the lousy place to being at home with the father. They haven’t woken up yet and may never do so. They tend to be people whose point of reference doesn’t extend beyond their nose. For them, home and the father are two concepts that are a long way off in a faraway land, and they stay that way.

Hell isn’t filled with every person tainted by sin at the atomic level. It’s filled with people who don’t want to be where the Father is. They said to Him, “I wish you were dead,” and they left it at that. In a way, they found their hellaciously alien “home” away from home and made it permanent. They never came back to their real home from their place in that far-off land. They never came back to the father awaiting them with open arms.

I could go into all sorts of theological depth here, but in truth, we can bury this story under heaps of analysis and miss the main point that all repentance is is going back home to where God abides. All God wants is an intimate relationship with people, people who will retain that taint of sin on them this side of eternity. All He wants is to be with you. His arms are wide open.

Come home.

 

And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
— Luke 15:11-32