One Simple Word


When I consider how things started going awry in the American Church, time and again it comes back to one simple word.

Like too many negative perspectives on life, that word is more commonly defined by what it is not instead of what it is. You see this negating effect when people try to analyze Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

When when we break down that passage, we tend to read it like this:

Finally, brothers, whatever is not false, whatever is not despicable, whatever is not unjust, whatever is not corrupted, whatever is not ugly, whatever is not contemptible, if there is no hint of mediocrity, if there is anything impervious to critique, think about these things.

We end up defining the good as “not bad,” therefore losing all the concepts that attach themselves to the positive idea of what is good.

And so it is with this one simple word.

We find the negation of that word in a marital affair. We uncover its opposite in higher criticism of the Bible. We hear its voice in the followers of Korah. We see its absence in Ananias and Sapphira. And we discover its lack in this lesser known parable:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
—Matthew 21:28-31

The simple word?


It saddens me that we tend to understand commitment by its absence rather than its presence. Lack of commitment gets more press than commitment, even in our churches.

About the only place you hear of commitment in its positive sense is in the military. No matter what you might think of war—any war—those who come back home in flag-draped coffins modeled commitment all the way to death. Their commitment can never be disputed.

It’s telling that those who complain the most about our soldiers are the ones who least understand commitment. But ask a soldier; they’ll always relate the same positive traits that undergird their understanding of commitment:

  • Belief in a higher truth worth dying for
  • Submission to authority
  • Love of others above love of self

Do we know any other group of folks that should be modeling those traits?

From having been a church watcher now for many years, I believe whatever sense of commitment we once had in the American version of the Body of Christ has largely evaporated. It gives me no peace to say that. Commitment means the death of selfOur lack of commitment may be the sole reason for our ineffectiveness in light of the world’s onslaught.

Do we believe that the higher truth of the Gospel is worth dying for? Who speaks with that kind of passion anymore? John Knox once prayed, “Give me Scotland or I die!” Is that the kind of prayer you hear uttered in your church on Sunday?

Why not?

What else can the following verse possibly mean?

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.
—Revelation 12:11

Or this one?

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
—Romans 8:36

It extends to a proper respect for authority, too. While nearly every Christian bristles at the mere subject of authority and submission, it’s not the griping about the authority of church leaders and submission to them that troubles me as much as the truth that we can’t seem to grasp the authority of Christ and submission to Him.

We would do well to remember the verse that comes before the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
—Matthew 28:18-20

We go for no other reason than Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth. He says, we go. How many soldiers died on the battlefield knowing their commander ordered them to be cannon fodder? Plenty. But they went anyway. It may even mean our Commander asks us to die as cannon fodder so that the lost of the world may come to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

When the Centurion approached Jesus to ask that the Lord heal his slave, he said this:

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
—Matthew 8:8b-9

That centurion not only recognized the position of authority, but he correctly states that submission to authority allows the authority to have his way—to the betterment of all.

Is our submission to Christ’s authority allowing or preventing Him from having His way? We should not be so arrogant to think that the Lord would not remove us from the battlefield should we continue to defy His commands. Consider King Saul, for instance. And remember, Christ’s court-martial lasts for an immensely long time.

All this disregard for authority occurs because we love ourselves more than the authority or the higher truth the authority represents. Sadly, as the centurion notes, that self-love may damn everyone. Going AWOL at the worst possible moment may mean others suffer needlessly, the entire platoon wiped out because their cover gunner sneaked away.

Look at our society. Have we Christians gone AWOL? I posted a few days ago about people who took out sub-prime loans who now face the loss of their homes as the sub-prime mortgage sector collapses. I was astonished how many commenters immediately jumped on those folks, claiming they got what they deserved.

IF we believe the Gospel, and IF we submit to the authority of Christ, IT MATTERS LITTLE what the circumstances are. Love of our pronouncements of superiority DOES NOT trump Christ and His Gospel.

Which of us has done it all right? None. Are we not all fools for Christ? Shouldn’t our practice make the world sit up and wonder at our folly? Or is our rightness more important than love?

A hard word doesn’t even need to have all the words in place to be hard. Consider this:

We American Christians talk about __________ , but we show little commitment to making it happen.

What can go in that blank?

  • Godly community?
  • Evangelism?
  • Simple living?
  • Justice?

How many words and phrases can fit into our commitment blank?

Earlier, I noted that we tend to think of positive concepts in terms of what they are not, rather than what they are. Perhaps I’ve spent too much of this post falling prey to that same error.

So in the end, I’ll turn it around.

What does real commitment look like in the Body of Christ? When you hear the word commitment, what do you see in the Gospel that reflects positive commitment? How do we achieve that commitment in a positive way so we no longer talk about it, but live it?

And finally, what ungodly systems must we be willing to face in order to make that commitment to Christ and His Body bear fruit?

Something to think about this weekend.

19 thoughts on “One Simple Word

  1. My husband and I are dealing with a very practical application of this question right now. (My blog entry yesterday, in fact, gives a an example of what happens when Phil. 4:8 is stripped from its author and becomes an Oprah-ism.)

    Committment means prayer. That much I know. And it means showing up, day after day, even after the goosebumps are long gone. (Being married for nearly 28 years, I’ve learned this, too.) But does committment mean staying in a church – no matter what, no matter how far they may be drifting from a Biblical message?

    • Michelle,

      Even if you scratch all the spiritual elements from it, commitment means following up on one’s word. If I say, “I’ll be there,” well, I should be there!

      Commitment means setting apart the time and energy. If I’m committed, then I set everything else aside.

      It’s just insanity to me that people say they want to be committed to a cause or activity, then they let other activities intrude. “Well, are you in or out?” Yes, I understand that things come up. And yes, I’ve even missed a commitment or two because I simply forgot. But 99.99 percent of the time, I’m there. And I sacrificed other activities to be there. So it pains me when I show up, having made that sacrifice, and no one else shows. Or they wander in forty minutes after we were supposed to start, effectively crippling the whole point of the commitment.

  2. Someone on “Half-Born” left a good, pocket-sized remark that fits with this: We want a roto-tiller instead of a plow, and preferably want a volunteer to do the work. Somehow we went from a church that underwent persecution and grew, to a bunch of people who have unlimited freedom, and are dying on the vine. I’m remarkably ambivalent to the idea of calling down persecution on myself, and I think Paul wasn’t exactly thrilled at being whipped to near death, but he tended to irritate the people who considered themselves in charge. How is it that people who are beaten and killed could be committed to Christ, but people who are free to speak on a street corner, as Keith Green put it: “can’t even get out of bed”?

    If I do not do what my Lord commands, is He my Lord?

    • David,

      I think the “rototiller” comment is telling because it hints at part of the problem: we’re wildly overscheduled and overworked, so we look to cut corner wherever we can.

      People are sleepwalking. They’re working eleven hours a day away from home, then they get home, put in the quality family time, read their e-mail, then go to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat. That makes it very hard to be committed to ANYTHING except the job.

      • I wonder sometimes if we are too quick to dismiss the 11 hours of work as time we are unable to make commitments ‘because of’. Those 11 hours should be the hours we spend in commitment to the Lord and His work, because those are the hours we are ‘in the world’. We are serving as examples of Christ’s obedience to His Father as we go about our work for Simon Legree. We build the Christian Community in our office, assembly line, cubicle, where ever we are, through our obedience to our masters here, working for them as though they were our Father in Heaven.

        • David,

          There’s a problem with your analysis, though: not all Christian fellowship and work is created equal.

          Let me explain:

          We need to return to local economies. Christians must be on the forefront of this.

          If I work forty miles away from where I live, then I truly am not a part of the community in which I work. Nor, for that matter, are the other people at my work. They don’t live where I do. They are not a part of my church community. They have little to no input into my life apart from work. They do not hang around in my home after work. Their children do not play with my children. They do not even shop in the same local stores I do. They are are fundamentally NOT my community, even if they are Christians.

          This does not mean they can’t be a part of my life, but they aren’t a part of my life to the extent that I need to function as an integral part of Christian community day in and day out.

          Sadly, one of the few examples I can pull out of the community and local economy idea is the Amish. But they’re too insular. A true Christian community would have that reinforcement of community that the Amish have while also reaching out missionally. That’s the kind of community we need. Everything else is far too tenuous.

  3. Dan,
    Very insightful and accurate from my reckoning. What I wonder is why? What is it about the seed we scatter that produces such bad fruit. I’d rush to the proposal that we try to bring folk into the kingdom without ushering them through the grave, but that’s probably too simplistic. But then again, if the church is filled with the uncommitted, something didn’t die.

  4. SLW,

    A few thoughts:

    1. We haven’t made the Christian life compelling. The examples people see of how to live that life look like just another thing to add to the to-do list.

    2. And yes, we have to get people to the cross.

    3. I think people are too busy. The average American works eleven hours a day away from home and it’s starting to push twelve hours. How can anyone do anything outside of their job? They cram everything they couldn’t do during the week into the weekend, so there’s no time there, either. This is an enormous problem. A missionary I know said that the one way to crush out the revival in China is to work people to death in factories making stupid stuff for Americans to consume. He says that’s exactly what’s starting to happen, too.

    4. Our models for commitment weren’t good ones.

    Those are four that come to mind.

    • Thanks, Dan, for your thoughts. #1, 2, & 4 can be addressed by good biblical teaching and preaching (hearing) and servanthood (doing), but #3 presents a big, big problem– societal, in fact. Perhaps #3 presents a problem similar to slavery in the pristine church. In that case, if that’s the case, the enlightening question to pursue is: How did the first century church deal with a population that was more than half slaves, people who’s time wasn’t their own and so limited their commitment?

      • 1 Peter 2:18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

      • SLW,

        One of the enormous distinctions here is that slaves didn’t work far from home. Our problem is that one or both adults is out of the home for the great majority of the day. That limits (or even eliminates altogether) any community value the adults bring apart from maintaining their own home. And that perfectly describes America 2007.

        Slavery isn’t the issue here. Disconnection from community that translates into a lack of commitment to anything outside the home is.

        • I’m doing my best to understand what you’re shooting at, but not at all sure I understand what the target is. Long daily absences from home by at least one parent, has been the case for various trades and professions from the birth of the church. Certainly that has been part of the industrial landscape for the last 200 years. 12 hour days are not a new invention. Somehow, Christians have found their way through all that. If our aim is to alter American civilization in order to make it easier to be Christian, I fear we’re on a fool’s errand. It does grate on me that our society seems to be going backward when it comes to workers rights and protections, but if we need more commitment in the church it’s time to visit the dynamic that exists between the believer and God. He is either the Lord or we’re playing games. If we’re playing games, what we need is an awakening not an adjusting. Death to self, and dedication to God is not a compelling message to human nature, but is the message of the gospel. How can anyone embrace it apart from the gracious ministrations of the Holy Spirit?

          • SLW,

            It’s flying under your radar.

            Our work lives are NOT normal compared with the work lives of most people in history. Most people worked out of their homes or very near them. And usually both parents worked this way.

            But the Industrial Revolution disrupted all that. And Christians, rather than question this, accepted it wholeheartedly as part of the Christian Postmillennial Triumphalism that enveloped this country during the mis to late 19th century. Now we consider the way we work and participate in our economy normal. Yet it’s anything but.

            The Church here does not see this, but it’s the source of a great many problems. Like I said, missionaries I know in China are saying that the new industrialism sweeping China is the single greatest threat to the underground church over there. Whole regions are switching how they work, moving from local economies to global ones. That switch is resulting in fourteen hour days for many factory workers in China. This keeps them from being active in their churches.

            We have the same problem here and it’s only going to get worse for most people.

            I believe this is a major issue for our churches. If a guy gets up at 6 AM, heads off to work at 7:30, gets in at 8:30, works a ten hour day plus lunch, gets home at 7:30, changes clothes, eats, talks briefly with the wife and kids, the next thing you know, it’s 10 PM and he’s off to bed. How effective is that guy going to be in his church? Not at all. He’ll be MIA at nearly every function his church plans. And this is only getting worse. According to a recent study I say, at least 25 percent of people now work greater than a 50 hour work week. Factor in that people are doing work off the clock via notebook computers, Blackberries, and such, and you’ve effectively got a group of people who never have time for anything but work.

            It’s compounded by the fact that most people work at least a half hour away from home. Commutes are also getting longer, cutting out more time from church-related activities.

            This is a serious problem and virtually no one is addressing it in the Christian community. Yet churches are wondering how to do even the smallest thing for the Kingdom because they can’t get people to show up. In a way, given the huge burden we place on folks to do this and that under the spectre of an overscheduled day, who can blame them?

  5. Kathy Ungren

    “Love of our pronouncements of superiority DOES NOT trump Christ and His Gospel.”

    One of the best sentences I’ve read — and one that I am memorizing to repeat to myself when my desire to dismiss the problem of others and gloat is my first reaction to a situation.

    Thank you.

  6. G. Alan Ebie

    Dan, your post could not have come at a more appropriate time. Our neighbors, before we moved 2 years ago, had boys that our kids grew up and played with. They were in our yard playing baseball or ours were over there on their trampoline. Our son had the paper route on one side of the neighborhood and their’s had the other side.

    This just got word that one of their son’s was killed in Iraq this week.

    He was quoted that he felt very strongly about our role in Iraq. He also has a brother in the military. Most people (myself included) are against the war. but almost everyone in Iraq supports our action. I keep wondering what they see there, what they know that we do not know here.

    Your quote:

    “About the only place you hear of commitment in its positive sense is in the military. No matter what you might think of war—any war—those who come back home in flag-draped coffins modeled commitment all the way to death. Their commitment can never be disputed.

    It’s telling that those who complain the most about our soldiers are the ones who least understand commitment. But ask a soldier; they’ll always relate the same positive traits that undergird their understanding of commitment:

    * Belief in a higher truth worth dying for
    * Submission to authority
    * Love of others above love of self”

    Commitment. Submit to authority. Two terms that our culture and our churches no longer understand. Somehow, it’s all starting to make sense.

    Thank You

    • Alan,

      I hate what’s happening to our soldiers in Iraq. They’re fighting the kind of war they weren’t trained to fight and they’re not getting the kind of support from us they need.

      You see the lack of commitment I mention when you have all these folks flip-flopping about the war. Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate supported the war when it started and now, because it’s politically expedient, almost none of them do. That’s childish. You make a commitment, you stick with it until its over. It’s not over in that country, yet, but all these mamby-pambies who gave up on commitment can’t keep their mouths shut and bear down.

      (I feel that way on Israel, too. The world created the state of Israel post-WWII. The world better stick up for what it created! Yet you have all these Europeans whose collective national memory can’t remember back sixty years ago to what they wrought who now wish Israel would just go away. Wow. It’s like having a baby and then wishing the child never existed.)

      I think of the way Americans approached WWII and our attitudes today just pale. Can you imagine the hew and cry if the government today asked people to ration?

      So much for commitment.

      It amazes me we have this war in Iraq (and Afghanistan still, too), yet people act is if nothing is going on. In a way, it’s amazing that we can be in a war that changes almost nothing of what we do back home, but perhaps that’s a bad thing. We can gripe and moan about it all within the untouched comfort of our uninterrupted lives.

      When comfort is the only thing we’re committed to, then America no longer exists. And neither does the Church there.

  7. Okay … I’ve made a commitment.

    At least for a while, I’ve resolved not to blog “anything among you except Christ, and Him crucified.”

    I think I’ll see other “issues” more clearly if I can see Him more clearly.

    Dan, will you sign my commitment papers?

    – Roto-Tiller Guy

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