I grew up Lutheran. When you're baptized as a baby into the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, you have the choice to then affirm that baptism later. We call this "Confirmation" and it involves going to classes taught by the pastor twice a month for two years when you're in junior high school. A stand-out memory for me was when we learned about the commandments and started unpacking what sin looks like. I remember endlessly listing on a giant pad of paper everything we do, think, or see in the world that might be sin and finally blurting out "Everything we do is sin!"
Seventeen years later, I could still go through my day and beat myself up for the endless sinful thoughts that go through me, the judgement of the people on the subway, the negligence I show toward my dirty apartment, the far too many times that I've interrupted someone who was talking. I could scroll through news articles and be overwhelmed by the sins of big business, the needs of the poor, the brokenness in the Middle East... the list goes on and on. All of these sins are the result of selfish desire in one form or another, and if I spent my day dwelling on them all I would be living from a very dark mental place. I've been in that phase of my faith, and I have gratefully grown beyond it into a place of more grace and compassion.
When we started Forefront Brooklyn in 2012, this was one of the first books we read together as a staff. I reread it recently so I could talk more about it leading up to our Faith, Culture, Questions event with Justin Lee himself on Nov. 5th, and I was reminded of how much it has informed my faith.
Paul summarizes in Romans 13: 8-10 all the commandments I learned so much about when I was thirteen years old. Then he reminds us of this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Paul was talking about agape love - the selfless, unconditional, sacrificial kind of love that seeks others' good before your own - the same kind of love we talk about often at Forefront. This agape love is the kind of love Jesus brought to fulfill the law. This is the kind of love Jesus brought to set us free.
So often when I get into that critical place, wrestling with sin inside myself and in our broken world, I remember the way Justin phrases it...are your actions selfish or selfless? When I sit down to talk with people in our community who are wrestling with hard choices in their faith and lives, I ask the same questions...are your desires selfish or selfless?
Do you desire this new job, intimate encounter, steady relationship, material thing for selfish reasons that only please you and your needs, or do you seek agape love? Do you want these things for the good of others before your own? And furthermore, what are the fruits? Do your actions and desires produce the fruits of the Spirit in your life and the lives of others? Or do they cause pain, brokenness, distance from God? The answers are not always as easy to define as we might like them to be. These questions ask us to examine our lives, to think critically and go deeper than we might want to go. These questions require us to sometimes change, let go, or feel pain. These questions are hard.
But it does get easier. Jonathan blogged about our brains a couple weeks ago and taught us that when we pray, when we focus in on a loving God, our brains actually begin to change. When we seek the presence of Jesus in our lives our ability to live and process our choices through agape love gets easier as our brains begin to rewire and grow. Maybe that's the scientific way to say "We become more enlightened." For me, I think it feels like being free.
Paul says it again in Galatians 5: 13-14...
I think the American Church and so many of us as individuals are kind of torn about these questions in our modern age. They are hard questions. They sometimes ask more of us than we might want to give.
Join us for our Faith, Culture, Questions series this Fall. Invite a friend. We're all torn at one time or another. Let's wrestle through the questions together. We're not alone in the struggle, but we're all welcome to be free.