Practicing What We Preach?

Don: How do our doctrines and beliefs influence the way we live? God’s doctrines—the core values, such as loving God—are universal, eternal, and immutable, whereas Man’s doctrines are particular and peculiar. They give us a unique identity and are culturally, geographically, and horologically bound. They are amendable.

We may argue about whether any particular doctrine is God’s or Man’s, but Man’s doctrine—indeed, religion itself—is not without value in providing guidance to the believer seeking answers. God’s doctrines tell us how we should be. Man’s doctrines dictate how we should behave, how to apply God’s doctrines with respect to modesty, propriety, relationships, and expressions in the context of our particular culture, geography, and time. They prescribe how to practice what we believe, which may or may not be what we preach.

In uncharacteristically scathing language, Jesus called out the scribes and the Pharisees for not practicing what they preached:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. [Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
“Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23)

In coming weeks, we will analyze these “woes” of the scribes and Pharisees in hopes of answering the questions: What must I do to be saved or, if I am to be saved by grace, why is obedience so important?

There is strong tension between obedience and grace. For non-Christians, grace is one of the most baffling doctrines. Muslims are required to obey the Five Pillars of Islam, namely:

  1. Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith
  2. Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day
  3. Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy
  4. Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan
  5. Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca

Four of the five pillars are behavioral and require strict adherence.

When asked what one must do to be saved, the average Christian will respond simply with: “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” which is the answer Peter and Silas gave in answer to that very question (Acts 16:31). The Christian will not mention prayer, fasting, penance, or pilgrimage.

Intuitively, we assume godly people to be good. I asked a Muslim friend what would happen if he were ever to be lax in his obligations under the Five Pillars. He said there were provisions for such eventuality, such as making up for missed prayers, or fasting on another day, or paying more zakat, provided there were good reasons for the delinquency—sickness, accidents, emergencies, and so on. But ultimately whether a reason is “good” enough is a matter between the believer and Allah. Being merciful, Allah could forgive anyway, my friend said. To me, that sounded a lot like grace.

The emphasis in Islam is on good behavior but there is a recognition of failure and God’s mercy, though grace is not a license to continue sinning. It is the old argument between grace and works. Can we be saved by good behavior but lost by bad behavior? How good do we have to be to be saved? How bad do we have to be to be lost? Are these even valid questions? Are behavior and salvation really linked at all, or do we need a paradigm shift in our thinking on this issue?

Donald: Is Christianity, or indeed is any faith journey, a matter of the head or of the heart? The more we sit and talk about it, the more we develop rules and guidelines without actually going out and doing anything. We use the words “beliefs”, “doctrine”, and “religion” interchangeably, as we do “pleasure”, “happiness”, and “joy”. To me, “pleasure” is a moment in time, “happiness” is something we seek, and “joy” is spiritual. Perhaps it would be helpful to define in greater depth the concepts we are currently discussing.

Jay: The concept of “lost” is one of them. What does it mean to be “lost”, versus “saved”? The concept of grace seems to render it impossible to be lost. If that is so, then the issues of obedience and “faith vs. works” and so on are moot. Is the concept of “lost” a human construct, not a divine construct? Is one “lost” in the physical realm or in the spiritual realm? In this life or in the next? Again, if grace nullifies “lost”, what does it matter? Some definition would be helpful. Some definition of “believe” as in “Believe in the Lord Jesus” would also be helpful. Does it deliver a result, or is it just a mental exercise?

Don: There also the issue of quantification. Nobody can be 100 percent good or bad. But what percentage of goodness will lead to salvation, and what percentage of badness will lead to “lost”? Is it 50.0001 percent, and how would we quantify it? My Muslim friend said it just does not seem right that we can be any percent bad and be saved in the end anyway. So how far can one stray from the Five Pillars? How many prayers can one miss before God’s patience and mercy are exhausted?

Kiran: When I converted to Christianity I felt a sense of superiority, that I was doing all the things I needed to do for salvation. I felt holier-than-thou. But then I thought about Gandhi. What percentage of goodness would he score?

A pastor confused me by saying that God doesn’t work that way. It hurt to think that my efforts didn’t matter. It could have induced dissipation or, as I hope it did in my case, humility and the empathetic realization that I am no better than others and struggle as they do.

Jay: We struggle with the defining point. Even the parables of Jesus, the castings into outer darkness, the gnashings of teeth, the sheep and the goats, and so on all seem to be defining points or definitional devices designed to help the human mind grasp key concepts. If so, there must be something definable that leads to salvation or loss. Are grace/salvation/loss moments in time or are they eternal? If eternal, how can grace and loss be reconciled? Scripture says we can’t understand God’s grace, so should we even be trying?

Kiran: Our current understanding of these concepts is different from that of people in earlier ages. Excommunication is not seen as an eternal death sentence any more. “Believe in the Lord Jesus” might not mean the same to us as it meant to Paul and Silas.

Don: The passage says not only the believer in Christ will be saved but also his or her whole household. Does this make any sense?

David: It seems to me that the paradigm shift Don suggested might be needed would involve not more definition but less of it. Definitions are constructed from words. The more definitions, and the more refined those definitions grow, then the more words. Hence, we end up with a 783,137-word King James Bible. This Bible reflects an intellectual (a scribe and Pharisee) desire to nail down the law in no uncertain terms. But spiritual concepts are by definition indefinable. The Dao De Jing has only about 5,000 words which, furthermore, are strung together in nothing but uncertain terms!

I think we could and should pare down the Bible to similar proportions. We could do so simply by taking the words of Jesus as the whole of the Bible and discarding all the rest. Jesus presented conundra in the form of questions and parables. They don’t make intellectual sense and they were not meant to. He explained the grace/loss issue beautifully through the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We understand the parable perfectly—we recognize the Truth that it contains—until we try to analyze it intellectually, spewing a torrent of words that only serves to sow confusion.

Jesus showed us the Way. The Dao. Believing in Jesus simply means accepting the Way. The moment we try to pin Him—the Way—down in definition, we start to lose it. The paradigm shift religion needed in the time of Jesus and still today is to rid itself of definitions. It needs to rid itself of scribes and Pharisees.

Robin: What is our reaction when we first learn about grace? It seems to me it could go one of two ways. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, who reveals God’s grace to us in the first place, we may eventually choose to feel grateful, to recognize the love that is behind it, to admit that we need it, and to want to emulate it.

Or we might use it has an excuse for, and an indulgence of, our bad behavior. This does not reflect gratitude, humility, and longing. It becomes a game. But God does not play games. How we react to grace when it comes to us—and it is there for everybody—is up to us. It was there for Judas, but he rejected it. We can’t earn it, but we can respond to it.

Donald: I have had the good fortune to participate in a group of all-male, non-denominational Christians over the past few years. All of us in the group are open about saying that we believe in Jesus Christ, accept that He died for us, and are saved. It takes but a minute or two for us to say these things. If salvation is that simple, what is the purpose of our faith journey? Why do we keep the discussion going? Is it for salvation? Is it to ensure we are right and not wrong, to ensure that we see our loved ones again, to meet our Savior, to ensure that we live forever in heaven,…?

I can’t honestly say I know what heaven is, yet I want to go there. God created me and put me in a place where I can get no more than a glimpse of Him, so I can never fully understand Him on this Earth, which is a joyful place in spite of all the sin in it. It has pockets that reveal the glory of God’s creation. So why should I question my ability to understand it? Is it selfish to accept Jesus Christ solely to avoid being lost?

Kiran: Had Judas not committed suicide but waited instead for Jesus to come, he could have received grace. I think the realization of having done something terribly wrong is necessary for grace. Without that self-realization, without looking inside and figuring out who we really are, grace is beyond us. So to me, saying we believe in Jesus, accepting that He died for us, and believing we are saved only works if we first recognize ourselves for who we really are. Perhaps the inability to recognize our true selves, expressed whenever we judge ourselves better than someone else, is the definition of “lost”.

Chris: What happens when someone truly “believes” in Jesus? Their behavior becomes good. If they don’t truly believe, their actions will show it. For example, a true believer will refrain from any act that does not show love to one neighbor. If I do something that does not show such love, I cannot truly believe. Works follow on naturally from faith—we don’t need to fret over them. Nevertheless, we are flawed and will stumble at times. This is where grace comes in.

David: Acceptance of our sinful nature is key. A sinful nature, a tendency to stray from the perfect Way embodied by Jesus, is natural and inescapable for us. But when a feeling of guilt guides our feet back onto the Way, there is reason to hope that we will get to wherever the Way wants to take us. We must accept that we cannot be perfect. The more that we try to map the Way in torrents of words, in misleading thickets of signposts pointing Salvation This Way and Damnation That, the more likely we are to go astray.

When Jesus told the map-making, signpost-painting scribes and Pharisees that “outwardly [you] appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”, He was saying that they failed to follow their own maps and signposts. But Jesus was also one of the first to show us that this is our way! We are all scribes and Pharisees. Accepting this is key. Acceptance of our sinful nature is the lesson learned by the Prodigal Son and by Job, Jonah, and Jacob. Did any of them go and sin no more after their struggles with God? Did they become perfect? I doubt it. As human beings, this would have been impossible for them.

Guilty acceptance of one’s sinful nature, of having strayed from the Way, is vital because it implicitly recognizes that a better Way exists. This recognition is all we need. We must not obscure it in a veil woven of words.

Kiran: Acceptance is when real works can begin. There seems to be no point in stumbling on and off the path if we don’t put our time on it to good use.

Don: David presents three scenarios:

  • A. We sin but feel no guilt.
  • B. We sin but feel guilty.
  • C. We don’t sin.

Does grace cover A and B but not C? Only A? Only B? Is A the one most in need of grace, and therefore the one most likely to receive it? Is that fair?

David: A is lost, having shut himself off from grace. A was Jacob before his feelings of guilt, before his wrestling match with God. B was Jacob during the match. If one is never a B, either one is already lost (A) or saved (C). But all this is merely human logic, made doubly imperfect by virtue of coming from me. The most beautiful words spoken by Jesus—the Beatitudes—are all about grace yet say nothing of guilt, only of suffering.

Dewan: In some religions, salvation is reserved only for believers in the religion itself.


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