In a previous post I suggested that the central defining characteristic of a disciple of Jesus Christ is our capacity for and competency in love. The Scriptures are resounding and resolute on this point: Without love all right behavior and right knowledge are nothing (1 Cor 13.1-3). And so – we must (<—–Not too strong of a word there, right?) MUST develop some metric by which we measure and quantify the maturity of the Christian disciple on their capacity for and competency in love.
But love doesn’t exist on it’s own: Love integrates and enables our knowledge and obedience.
Love is the WAY in which the WORD (Knowledge) gets to WORK (Obedience).
Here’s the diagram we used to keep these ideas in relationship with each other:
WORD = Knowledge/Understanding
WORKS = Obedience/Behavior
WAY = Love
Love as the WAY of Jesus integrates and orients the WORD (Knowledge) of Jesus and the WORKS (Obedience) of Jesus into wisdom and power in the kingdom of God.
If love is the only thing that counts (Gal 5.6) let’s find some way to count it! Who’s with me?
But before we get to how to measure love…Let’s take stock of ‘what is’ in the current landscape of discipleship in America.
My observation is that we have developed quite an elaborate justification for how WORKS (Behavior) is the measure of discipleship. In fact I’d argue the dominant strategy for growth in Christlikeness in most churches and Christian groups is trying to sin less. But the question seldom is asked: Does sinning less enable one to love more? Let’s look together at the attractiveness and effectiveness of this strategy.
I got that ‘Ole Fashioned Accountability Group Religion’
I became a follower of Jesus during my third year of college (I’ll tell more of that story in a subsequent post). And six months after becoming a follower of Jesus I joined what was called an Accountability Group.
If you’ve been a Christian (of the Evangelical ilk, especially) for more than 20 minutes you know how these groups function (I can only speak for dudes- have yet to be involved in a woman’s accountability group).
Every Tuesday night in college for 2 hours we’d sit around and confess our sins to one another. 97% (+/- 3%) of the time our sin fell into one of 4 categories:
- Laziness in Spiritual Life
- Coarse Language (i.e. ‘Swears’)
Weeks went by when I failed at all 4; Some weeks I only had 1 or 2 to confess. But the liturgy of this Accountability Group taught me, from very early on in my Christian walk, that maturity and holiness in the Christian life basically consisted of: Avoid sexual sin, avoid inebriation from substances like tobacco and alcohol, be diligent in reading my Bible and prayer, and don’t use swears.
I practiced saying “Frigging A” in front of a mirror to break my habit of saying the F-word.
I opened my Natty Light half way at the frat party so the beer came out slower, to lessen my chances at inebriation.
I used all the tips and tricks for staying sexually pure: bounced my eyes off of woman, developed the skill of the side hug, turned my TV off when Baywatch came on, etc.
Accountability group taught me Christian discipleship was all about sinning less.
The weekly liturgy went like this: identify the sin, come up with a strategy to overcome it, tell others about it so they can hold you accountable, report back next week on your effectiveness. Everyone who had been a Christian longer than me seemed to believe this was the pathway to purity, the road to maturity, the highway to heaven.
So – for the next two years at college I intentionally and systematically sought to eradicate (certain) sin from my life. The assumption was clear: Discipleship is about sinning less and the way we sin less is by working on our sin. More work on our sin = sinning less = maturing in the Christian faith.
But, here’s what I found: Saying less swears, drinking less beer, being more sexually pure, being more consistent in my bible reading and prayer times gave me a sense of accomplishment and relief from guilt. I enjoyed a measure of self-control that previously eluded me. Failure continued to happen, but less and less frequently as I submitted to the communal process of conviction, commitment, confession.
But – sinning less did not empower me to love more.
Some of my friends say it so well so I’ll just quote them here: If we sin less we may not love more. But if we learn to love more we will sin less.
Here’s what I discovered when I lived my Christian life trying harder to work on my sin:
- My focus on (fetish with?) certain sins blinded me to others. Socially acceptable sins such as gluttony, pride, greed, hypocrisy, etc. become less and less noticeable (to me and those in my accountability group- but not to those outside our group, I’m sure). When I elevated certain virtues in the Christian life above others I became insensitive to other, more devastating sins (Matt 23.23-28).
- I became more judgmental, condemning, and accusing of myself and others. My internal tapes in my head- and often my voiced opinions to others- became increasingly antagonistic, angry, brittle, impatient, accusatory, and intolerant. I became more like an adversary and accuser of myself and others than an advocate for them. Translation: I became more like the satan than Jesus (Rev 12.10; Job 1; 1 John 2.1-2).
- The motivation to sin less often derived from the desire to avoid punishment, shame, or release from guilty feelings. The levers I responded to were fear of punishment, embarrassment of being found out and exposed as a fraud, and a guilty conscience. Focusing on my external behaviors led me deeper into that which Christ came to save me from! The weapons of hell are fear, guilt, and shame- the very thing Christ came to set us free from. The tools of heaven are faith, hope, and love. I noticed I was living as a dead man trying to overcome my sin rather than living as a new man training in righteousness (2 Cor 5.17; 10.3-7; Heb 9.14; 10.2).
- My fight against sin left me worn out, exhausted, and under a lot of pressure. Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden light (Matt 11.30), but it sure felt like a millstone trying to not sin. Is this really the life Jesus came to bring? The fruit of my flesh was guilt, shame, fear, exhaustion, irritation, anger, hard-heartedness, and being short-tempered. The fruit of the flesh lives much different than the life-giving, freedom-enjoying fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22-25) Would Jesus say ‘come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden’ only to then make me more worn out trying to please him?
- The ‘victory’ I experienced (i.e. saying fewer ‘F words’) felt like bondage, not freedom. I gained my victory from sin by relying more on my flesh- my natural ability apart from the supernatural power of God. Using flesh to fight the flesh leads to greater condemnation and misery, not life and peace (see Romans 8.1-17). I found myself caught in the cycle of religious enslavement:
6. When I failed (most often in the sexual sin category) I eventually stopped telling my accountability group. Focusing on my sin- using the weapons of the satan to overcome it- led me deeper into darkness. I hid my worst failures, shared the ‘best/safest’ ones, because I obeyed my shame, pivoted out of fear, and knew I’d be strangled by my guilt. Hiding sin doesn’t defeat it; it makes it stronger. Only in the light- fully exposed to the power of love- does sin whither and become increasingly powerless (Eph 5.6-17).
Every accountability group I’ve ever participated in has ended one of two ways:
- Everyone stops coming because they can’t perform under the increasing pressures of (failed) moralistic purity.
- Everyone continues to come and we stop policing behavior so vigilantly and just hang out.
Eventually accountability groups either crumble in a call out culture or collapse in a hang out culture.
But what if…there was a kingdom correlation to all the bad work I experienced from accountability groups? What if there was good news for that ‘bad news’?
- We created communities who don’t go to war on certain sins but learn how to gather around God’s grace whenever/wherever he is at work? What if we train to notice how God’s grace convicts and converts?
- We learn how to experience God as our advocate- he REALLY wants his kids to enjoy his Life- rather than as an accuser or adversary? And- what if we begin to treat ourselves and others with that same empowering compassion?
- Our motivation to sin less comes not from the weapons of the satan, but from the love of God in Jesus Christ? What if love actually is the strongest relational force in the universe?
- The journey into holiness and love left one feeling empowered, refreshed, recreated, and restored? What if redemption and new life was empowering, not draining?
- Victory over sin feels like freedom, not bondage? And what if that freedom brings an ease, humility, and increased embrace of everyone and everything with it?
- Me ‘telling on myself’- letting others in on my badness- is a way to get MORE love, not less? What if confession and repentance was the BEST thing that could happen to me today – and – having a community that can bear my badness with grace is actually possible?
I think it’s not only possible, but vitally crucial for discipleship and mission in our world today. This is why Ben and I work with church leaders; this is why we are starting a church on the north side of Indianapolis (<<——– That’s a pre-announcement announcement, btw…) where these sorts of commitments are foundational in the life of a Christ follower.
Later this week I’ll post more on how we take Behavior/Obedience – the WORKS of Jesus – seriously in a life of discipleship that is oriented in the Love (WAY) of Jesus. But first…
How have you experienced accountability groups in your Christian discipleship? In what ways is your experience dissimilar to mine? Similar?
In what ways have you experienced this truth: Sinning less does not lead to loving more.
I’m suggesting that both obedience and disobedience can be enslaving bondage – do you agree? Have you experienced that?