Good Works: Cause or Effect?

Spiritual conversion describes an inner transformation, and good works are the exterior evidence for it.  Do the good works done by sheer
force of will bring about a spiritual conversion, or are they an effortless byproduct of conversion?  This question is a point of contention in New Testament scripture.  Pharisees were the pillars of Jewish life and quite popular among the peasant class.  They were devoted to practicing good works that were widely perceived to benefit all in the community.
Paradoxically, they received New Testament criticism for their commitment to good works.

In the Christian tradition, the cause-or-effect question has a two-part answer.  First, works flow from the natural inclination of one with faith.  God desires relationship, and we act out that relationship in how we treat our fellow man.  Hence, good works inspired by our love for God bring joy to God, our fellow man and ourselves.  Martin Luther wrote that it is “impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”  By contrast, works done for the sake of correct behavior alone or for the sake of social stature miss the central point of relationship with God, and that is the New Testament warning to the Pharisees.

The second part of the Christian answer lies in the actions we can undertake to develop our spirituality and thereby enhance our natural inclinations towards good works.  The spiritual disciplines which strengthen and prepare us for good works are distinct from the fruits of a strong faith.  The apostle Paul warns the Colossians against following disciplines for their own sake:

If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.  They are a cause of spiritual strength.  Those who desire the effect of spiritual strength will have great difficulty producing it through sheer force of will without submitting to the process of actual transformation.  It would be like joining a baseball team with the expectation of batting 300 without any practice or training simply because one wills it to be so.  Practice may not make performance perfect, but it does make performance possible.  Thus, spiritual disciplines condition us for good works.

The consideration of good works brings us back to God’s will.  He wants to be in a relationship with you.  He wants you to be a partner in your own re-creation.  He wants to do some heavy lifting for you.  He delights in the fruits of your faithfulness.  We are drawn to do good works not to earn God’s love but because we love him back.

As is often the case, the Twelve Step tradition crystalizes this cause and effect wisdom in a pithy one-liner:  “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Join the conversation.  What good works do you wish flowed naturally from your faith?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Spiritual Conversion: 3 Steps from 3 Traditions

This blog has discussed emptying oneself of one way of being in order to make room for a new way of becoming, and it has spoken of the binary spiritual conversion healing and life change require.  How does one approach remaking oneself from the inside out?  Here is wisdom from three different traditions for finding that kind of life change. 

The Twelve Step tradition speaks of “rock bottom” as the point at which an addict becomes open to life change because his life has become unbearable.  No one wants to hit rock bottom, or to see it come to that for a friend or loved one, but that’s what it takes for someone deep in denial.  The Big Book’s chapter titled “We Agnostics” encourages: 

Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.  At the start, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to affect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him.  Afterward, we found ourselves accepting many things which then seemed entirely out of reach.  That was growth, but if we wished to grow we had to begin somewhere. 

Spiritual conversion doesn’t require hitting rock bottom, but it does require relinquishing something comfortable in pursuit of something unknown.  The first step, then, is openness to a new way of being.

In the Christian tradition, C.S. Lewis encourages trusting God’s imagination: 

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.    (Mere Christianity)

When I realize God’s imagination for me is infinitely better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know what’s best.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will liberate me from bondage to self and create awesome possibilities.  So the next step is trusting God’s imagination.  

The Reform Jewish prayer book recalls what Abram had to leave behind in order follow God’s call.  Abram left his homeland, his friends, all he had accumulated over a lifetime, and all that was familiar–for what?  He did not have the answer, but he had trust.  “Radical Leaving” is what the prayer book calls Abram’s courageous step, and Rabbi Norman Hirsh’s poem “Becoming” describes how we encounter it:

Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha — Go forth.

God disturbs us toward our destiny

By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.

We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming.    (Mishkan T’filah)

The third step is the radical one.  We open our clenched fists and release our old ways of being as we stretch our hands into the unknown for the new ways of becoming.  We have to experience our own personal exodus before we see the promised land.

Join the conversation.  What is your personal exodus story?

 Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Engine Conversion: No Hybrids in Heaven

How do we respond to the gift of salvation?  We respond by living in a completely new way.  I’m not talking about a conversion from one faith tradition to another but rather a transformation of inner motives and values that drive all of our actions.  

Although we wish it not to be so, the motive conversion is binary.  It is like a car engine.  It either runs on gasoline or on an electric cell.  We are driven either by the grace of God or by earthly stuff.   We are running on recovery fuel or relapse fuel.  We can’t be motivated by both at the same time.  Many of us want to be hybrids, running mainly on gasoline but occasionally going electric to get better mileage.  Or we want the outward manifestations of change without doing the inner work.  Slightly better is not what God pines for.  He’s not in it for the outward appearance, either.  He wants our whole hearts without restraint as a reciprocal response to what he gives us of himself.  If we seek true healing and life change, we need nothing less than a spiritual conversion. 

Scripture testifies to the disconcerting truth that we cannot orient ourselves around both grace and worldly things, and that if we orient ourselves to worldly things we can expect conflict to result.

1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:1-4) 

When pondering grace versus worldly things as fuel, those of us among the 5% of Earth’s population who reside in North America—consuming 25% of Earth’s energy and eating enough extra calories every day to feed an additional 80 million people—can’t escape confronting our abundance.  While 925 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, making hunger and malnutrition the number one risk to health worldwide, the leading health risk to the poor in the United States is obesity.  It is indeed the  land of plenty. 

How we respond internally to the abundance around us informs what we do externally with our resources.  Both matter.  “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)  Are we humbled by the abundance of opportunity and reward, wondering what on earth could be expected of us that would in any way measure to the abundance before us?  Or have we grown so accustomed to worldly things that we feel entitled to them and, in fact, want more?  Our response reflects what fuels our souls.

Join the conversation.  What did you watch on TV last night, and what fuelled that choice? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.