This month marks two years since I decided to walk away from organized religion. It has been the most wonderfully adventurous two years of my life, full of surprise and revelation, and I am grateful beyond measure for what God has taught me in that time.
But it hasn’t been easy. The months immediately following my departure were overwhelmingly lonely and confusing. I struggled to understand the nature of my relationship with God outside those four walls, and what it meant to truly be part of the Church, yet apart from the system that has claimed her name.
At first, I felt an intense need to do something for God; something to both legitimize and give meaning to the decision I’d made. Perhaps I needed to give more to the poor? Feed the homeless? Maybe I needed to become a missionary? Maybe I needed to become more active in community events?
What did God want from me now?
Not to suggest any of those things are bad ideas, but I eventually realized that I had a real problem; not in what I was or wasn’t doing, but with the false connection I’d learned to make between the things I did with my life and my role in the Body of Christ.
It was in the struggle to reconcile this dilemma that God taught me what I think might be the most valuable lesson I’ve learned so far in this journey:
What it means to “abide in Christ”.
How to Build a Body
To abide in Christ means to live in him, although the phrase itself used to strike me as sort of mystical and weird. It’s one of those “Christian-eze” phrases I’d heard many times in church, but it never really had any clear meaning. In order to understand what it means to abide in him, I had to first come to a different understanding of what it meant to live as part of the “Body of Christ”, because that defines how we live in him. Unless I had left the church system and come to better understand what the Body of Christ actually is, then abiding in it would never have made any sense to me.
So, what does it mean to be a part of the Body of Christ? Although the Biblical analogy mentions the larger, more visible parts of our bodies, such as eyes, ears, hands, and feet, I’d like to consider something much, much smaller.
You and I, although we normally consider ourselves to be single, complex organisms, are not. We are actually large collections of smaller and simpler organisms. In some ways, we’re more like living, breathing ecosystems of smaller organisms. The things we think of as “us”, such as our movements, feelings, and thoughts, are a collaboration of individual organisms working together as a collective.
What amazes me the most about this, however, is that this collaboration is completely unintentional. Our cells are not TRYING to build a body at all, and yet everything they do is perfectly coordinated to accomplish exactly that!
This is a pattern found in literally everything that exists, from what is seen with the naked eye, to those things seen through microscopes or telescopes. Everything, no matter how large or intricate, is comprised of smaller and simpler things, and those smaller things are also comprised of even smaller and simpler things. The pattern seems endlessly recursive, and there are no exceptions to it in all of nature; it is completely pervasive and inescapable… even for you and I.
But as amazingly complex as creation is, that complexity is not produced by the deliberate, coordinated efforts of it’s members. Instead, it is the deliberate work of an amazing creator who stands outside what is created.
A flock of starlings, for example, behaves as a single organism, morphing, twisting, and undulating in ways unplanned by the members that comprise it. The actions of the individual starlings are simple, and yet what emerges from that simplicity is stunningly complex and beautiful. That’s the pattern: complexity emerges out of simplicity, and the parts of the whole are often unaware it is happening at all.
The starlings are not TRYING to coordinate this; They are actually being orchestrated by something, or someone, outside themselves!
Could it be that God orders the Body of Christ in a similar fashion? Perhaps “building the Church” is not something we are supposed to be thinking of doing at all! I’m personally unaware of any Biblical command to do so. In fact, Jesus explicitly said HE would build it himself! (Matthew 16:18) We’re told that we, “like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house”. (1 Peter 2:5) The stones are not attempting to build anything; they are being placed by a builder!
I recently listened to a brief talk given by Wayne Jacobsen where he put it this way:
If he says he will build it, what does that mean for you and me? What does it mean? Don’t! If I’m going to get the coffee… if I tell you “look, let me get the coffee,” what are you going to do about that? Just sit right there! I’ll go get it and I’ll bring it to you, right? Jesus said “I will build my church.” I think he really meant that.
So, how do we build the body? WE DON’T!
In fact, we can’t! The Bible tells us that he’s the one who is building it, not us. If we belong to Christ, then we are living stones being positioned by the builder into a design of his choosing. The blueprint is exclusively known to him, and not us. What would be the point of building without a blueprint?
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)
He Works Together ALL Things
God doesn’t limit himself to using only our success, either; he works in our failures! Whether we are attempting to serve God, or even intending to oppose him, God is invisibly working it all together for his purposes (Romans 8:28). When Joseph’s brothers intended to do evil, God was actually intending their actions for good (Genesis 50:20). After this, God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart so that Egypt would be destroyed and the Hebrews would go free. Romans 11 tells us in great detail that God purposed Israel’s rejection of Christ for his own purposes, too. Even Judas, in his ultimate betrayal of Christ, seemed to be working in accordance with God’s plan!
Consider these proverbs:
“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)
“A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way?” (Proverbs 20:24)
We like making plans, but those plans are always part of his plan, first. When we make plans and fail, he’s at work. When our plans succeed he’s also at work, although often in ways entirely different than we assume! For example, my own departure from organized religion was a direct result of people trying to “be successful” in ministry, though it was not their intention. They might see that as an unfortunate loss on their quest for success, but I see it as great personal gain, while I am unimpressed by whatever success they feel they’ve had since. Our perspective is so small! Whatever the intentions were of all people involved with that situation, including myself, I’m confident that God worked through it to bring greater revelation of himself.
Like cells, we are always unintentionally part of something bigger than we are capable of even being aware of, and definitely greater than what we’re capable of “building”. We should have faith that the body IS being built, and that it is not because of our plans. Yes, it is being built when we accomplish our “great works for God”, but it is equally accomplished when we fail miserably, or even make no plans at all! It is done when you feed the homeless, but also when you simply feed your children. He works through what’s done both in the spotlight and in the shadows, in the productive times and the wasted time, in the “sacred” places and the “secular” places.
If there is something to do, it is only this: to genuinely love the people around you. God’s work is done outside of, and yet somehow through, the carrying out of our routine lives; we are unwittingly a part of it every single day. There is great meaning in the seemingly mundane.
Abiding in Christ
My friend Michael Clark once told me that God made me “a human BEING, not a human DOING.” At the time, I had no idea how to just BE God’s son. Years of servitude in a broken religious system had inoculated me against understanding that.
Churches are very good at feeding this misconception. They create an odd mixture of relationship, which is NEVER about performance, and institution, which is ALWAYS about performance. As with any business, the more active you are within a religious institution, the more you’ll find favor among your peers. Promotions and accolades are always given to those who best contribute toward the success of the organization. This can sometimes feel relational, especially if you’re good at performing, but it is an unhealthy relationship at best, and an abusive one at worst.
We aren’t supposed to perform for Christ; we’re supposed to abide in him.
“Abiding in Christ” simply means living out your day to day life knowing that you’re in him. It’s not mystical or mysterious, other than it means believing in faith that he is the one working all things together, even right now, at this very moment, and without your permission.
A single cell living in your arm ABIDES in you; it does not TRY to abide in you, it just DOES abide in you. When you move your arm up, it moves up, too, and may not even be aware; It’s just included in the movement. So also, if we are counted as part of the Church, we will be moved when God moves. We won’t be able to help it, and may not even know it. Abiding in Christ means that there is meaning in every moment, not just the “spiritual” ones; each moment is inherently spiritual.
I’m no longer interested in changing the world, leaving a legacy, or making a mark. I’m not interested in learning how to build a bigger church, and I’m just as uninterested in starting a home/simple/organic church. I’m not interested in “starting a ministry”; I just want to live life. I love the simplicity of just LIVING, completely free of those agendas, and knowing that somehow, far beyond my understanding, God is working through it all for his own purpose.
I love being unabashedly “mundane”.
I love being a husband and father. I help my friends and family members when they need it, but I don’t think of myself as useless when they don’t. If no “ministry opportunities” present themselves, I don’t have to go hunt one down in order to feel like I’m serving God. Instead, why not just rejoice in times of relative peace?
Be still and know that he is God, and that he is working invisibly through the things you’re tempted to think of as nothing. Visit the lonely, encourage the downtrodden, and speak up for the outcasts. Show genuine compassion for those he brings in and out of your life.
There is no greater work than love.