A Template for Living in Desperate Times

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  [Eph.6:12]

survivorAs Christian people, we live in two worlds—the flesh–and–blood world and the world of the Spirit, the seen world and the unseen world, the physical realm and the heavenly realm.[1]  Living fully in each world is important.  As the old saying goes, we mustn’t be so “heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.”  Neither, however, can we afford to be so immersed in this world that we are not fit for the purposes of the Kingdom.

There is a natural tension experienced by every Christian who would keep a foot planted firmly in each realm.  Life in the flesh—though unavoidable—limits and corrupts life in the Spirit.  And things of the Spirit necessarily intrude into the sphere of the flesh.  Keeping a proper balance between the two, learning how to listen to the Spirit even as we respect and value life–in–this–world, is a difficult challenge—perhaps the hardest part of Christian living.

Tragedies like the events of September 11 underscore this tension between the two worlds for people of faith. 

Because we live in this world and are citizens of this country, you and I are affected by what happened.  Our response cannot be disembodied, dispassionate, disconnected.  Those were our compatriots who were slaughtered.  It is our country that is under attack.  Those who hate us would destroy the freedoms we enjoy, that grant so much to our expressions of faith. 

Because we live in this world, Christians must respond to what has happened in tangible, demonstrable ways.  We give money for relief efforts.  We keep up with the news.  We lend support to our nation as it responds to this murderous attack upon innocent civilians.  Some of us may even be involved in the war on terrorism. 

As a citizen of this world and this country, I can give that support.  These evil acts deserve punishment.  Justice cries out.  Criminal, sinful acts have their consequences.

Even in this, however, Christians are not free to react as the world does, to behave in Christ-less ways.  Even in this, we must guard our hearts.  For our this–life responses are layered by new–life principles.  The world of the Spirit intrudes on and guides how we react to events in the physical world.  There is no room for Christians living in this world to feel hatred and prejudice, to want vengeance and retribution, to take joy in the suffering of others.  We may be Americans, but we are Americans who have committed ourselves to incarnate Christ in attitude, emotion and behavior. 

And even though we are citizens of this country, we must remember that we are also (and more importantly) citizens of heaven.  Our allegiance to the King of Heaven takes precedence over all other allegiances.  We must not sacrifice our souls on the altar of patriotism. 

So how do Christians, living in these two worlds, shape their behavior so that it is both appropriate to what has happened in the flesh and obedient to the demands of the Spirit?  How do we straddle these two worlds so that our conduct is relevant and faithful? 

In Search of a Template

I want to offer a template for Christian living during times like these—something you can use to shape your own attitudes and actions in a Christ-like direction. It isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to living. It isn’t a check-list you can follow thoughtlessly or by rote. There remains plenty of ambiguity and room for thoughtful, prayerful choices.  But I do believe what follows will offer you guidance as you navigate the dangerous and uncertain waters that lie ahead.

I suggest that the Beatitudes define the “rules of engagement” for Christians living in two worlds. They comprise a “code of conduct” for disciples of the Spirit who still must live in the flesh.  Jesus lived by these principles as he demonstrated God’s life in the flesh–and–blood realm.  And he taught these principles to those who wanted to join him in that task.

The Beatitudes were the first words Jesus spoke to his gathered disciples.  Right after “Come follow me,” right after the invitation to be a disciple, came these words, which define what the life of a disciple should look like.[2]  As Christian people reach out for something to guide their words and actions and attitudes in the months ahead, I suggest these eight simple precepts are a good place to start.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

How do such words apply to events like September 11?  What do such ancient words have to say about high-jacked airliners and collapsing buildings?  A great deal, actually.

A Time to Mourn Ourselves

Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . Blessed are those who mourn . . .

In recent days, there has been a vast outpouring of condemnation for the people who committed these atrocious acts, a focus on the spiritual impoverishment that leads to such actions, a mourning over what these people have become and done.  All of which is right and proper.  The people who committed these crimes are spiritually warped.  They should be lamented and condemned.

But that is not where Christian people begin.  Our first task is not to recognize the sins of others, to mourn over the wickedness we see in them.  Our first task is to look into ourselves, to recognize our own sin and mourn our own wickedness.

In the first two Beatitudes, Jesus insists that spiritual poverty and the need for mourning starts much closer to home than Afghanistan.  It starts in my heart and yours.  The events of September 11 should drive Christians to their knees and spark personal penitence, personal confession, personal lament.

We are not categorically better than the people who brought down those planes; we’re just forgiven.  We are not sinless compared to them; we have found grace for our sins.  Inside each of us is the capacity to hate and despise and victimize others.  Were it not for our encounter with the cross of Christ, there is no telling what we would have become or done. 

Even with that encounter, sadly, there is still plenty of sin to mourn.  We have been casual about righteousness and careless about sin.  We have excused much and rationalized more.  We have compromised our calling with the debased values of our culture and permitted the world to shape us as profoundly as the Christ. 

Admit it. We are not what God wants us to be.  We are not even what we want to be.  September 11 is a wake-up call for God’s people—not to turn up our condemnation of others but to recognize sin in ourselves and repent of it.  Sin—whether in us or others—always blossoms into an ugly and poisonous flower.  As Christians, our first task is to weed out our own hearts and mourn our own failings.

These two beatitudes urge us to examine our hearts, to repent and confess, to acknowledge truths about ourselves we would rather ignore.  During difficult days like these, the Christian knows where to start—on her knees, in his closet, looking within and weeping over what sin has done to us and others.

Earnestly Seeking God

Blessed are the meek. . . Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness . . .

The next two Beatitudes—meekness and a hunger for righteousness—call Christian people to listen to God and yearn for his ways.  They confront us with difficult questions:  Do we have ears to hear the truth?  Do we have hearts for what we hear?

In recent weeks, we’ve endured pundits—politicians and generals and commentators—who assert (with amazing confidence) what the events of September 11 mean and what should be done about them.  Editorials attempt to shape public opinion.  People clamor loudly to make their voices and their views heard. 

But God has something to teach his people through these events.  He is saying something to us, if only we will turn down the volume on the TV long enough to hear what he has to say.

“Meekness” is the willingness to learn.  “Meekness” is having the humility to confess we don’t know it all and the good sense to turn to God for instruction. We exhibit meekness when we acknowledge we don’t know the solutions to tragic events, we don’t understand why such things happen, we aren’t sure what is the appropriate response.  We exhibit meekness when we do not permit the media and the military to put the answers to such matters into our heads.  We exhibit meekness when we turn first to God and admit our confusion and ask that he bend us to his will and his plan.

Having adopted the attitude of the learner before God, we must also adopt the kind of heart that cares deeply about what we’ve learned.  A heart that hungers for the answers God gives.  A heart that is thirsty to apply the truths he grants us.  If—in meekness—we appeal for God to make sense of what has happened, to teach us the lessons we need to learn, I believe we will hear his still, small voice as it convicts and encourages and enlightens us.  But if open ears are not matched with open hearts, if we do not receive God’s words with a passion for living them out, the speaking and the learning will count for little. 

God may convict us, through these events, of tepid commitment and spiritual lethargy.  Will that touch our hearts sufficiently to create a craving for deeper discipleship?  God may convict us of worldliness and apathy and materialism.  Will we be hungry for something more spiritual?  God may teach us that evil events can only be redeemed by self-sacrificing kindness, radical forgiveness and service, embracing the enemy and laying down our lives for the very ones who have wounded us.  Are we hungry to do that?  Do we thirst for that kind of righteousness?

We demonstrate a hunger for righteousness when we show an eagerness to apply what we learn from God.  We demonstrate the depth of our thirst by the intensity of our obedience.  And we show a hunger for righteousness when we recognize that the real battle is not about training camps and terrorist cells, but about hard hearts and broken lives—our own and others.  As a nation, we may wage a war with jets and bombs and bullets.  But as a church, our aim must be higher.  Our mission, after all, is not to defeat people, but to transform them.

These two beatitudes urge us to listen to God as he speaks to us through these events, to learn the lessons he would teach us, and to apply—passionately, hungrily—the truths he reveals.  During difficult days like these, the Christian keeps his eyes and ears on his Father.  The Christian opens her heart once again to taking God seriously and caring deeply about God’s solutions to the problems of a fallen world.

Treating Others Right

Blessed are the merciful. . . Blessed are the pure in heart . . .

In recent months, the whole world has focused on terrorists and fanatical regimes, on people inhabiting mountain caves and carrying automatic weapons, on alienation and the breakdown of relationships.  And while we argue over what should be done about such matters, most of us forget (conveniently) that we really don’t practice the fundamental skills that make healthy relationships possible.  It’s easier to focus on what’s gone wrong than to build a better world one relationship at a time.  It’s easer to denounce the stranger we will never meet than to build bridges to the neighbor we meet every day.

With his statements about mercy and purity of heart, Jesus speaks of two attitudes that are essential to all human relationships, two attitudes that are the necessary antidote to relationships gone wrong.

First he invites us, having experienced God’s mercy, to show mercy to others.  Do you disappoint and wound me?  Let me forgive you.  Do you have needs and wounds of your own?  Let me help you.  Mercy is a demonstration of regard for others. Mercy is the willingness to attend to others and inconvenience ourselves for their sake. 

Therein lies a real opportunity for people of faith.  Christian people make their best contribution in times like these, not by beating the war drum or condemning the mercilessness of others, but by showing simple mercies to the people they meet every day, to the people with whom they live and work and play. Certainly, we need to know what to do with the enemy.  And Jesus will speak to that in the final beatitudes.  But before he gets to “peacemaking” and enduring “persecution,” Jesus confronts us with a practical question.  How can we deal with murderers if we haven’t learned to show mercy to people who have committed far lesser crimes?  How can we handle foreign terrorists if we don’t have the patience or the compassion to handle the failings of people we interact with on a daily basis?

And he asks us to be more than merciful.  He asks us to be “pure in heart,” to put away falsehood and hypocrisy and mixed motives in our dealings with others. Do you lie to me and hide your real self and pretend to be something you are not?  I’ll try to tell you the truth, to show you the parts of me that aren’t all that pretty, to be honest even when it hurts.  Honesty is the soil in which authentic relationships grow.  Hypocrisy and deceit, which come so naturally to fallen humanity, are the weeds, which choke out relational growth.

Once again, the practice of honesty provides a real opportunity for people of faith.  We make our best contribution in times like these by having the courage to be honest—in our marriages, our churches, our neighborhoods.  Valuing relationships enough to avoid the easy lie, the self-serving hypocrisy, the pretense that protects ourselves at the expense of intimacy may be the most powerful weapon we Christians bring to battle. 

This is a time when Christian people can set an example of how to treat others right.  In a world slavering for retribution and more interested in action than dialogue, we can practice the simple, fundamental skills of mercy and unflinching honesty.  We treat people right, whether they are friends or strangers, allies or enemies.  We treat them with mercy and honesty because Christ tells us to.  We treat people right because we love them and want to treat them in Christ-like ways.

Terrorism is the tool of merciless people who have experienced little mercy.  It is the deceitful, devious work of people who do not value and do not expect honesty.  When we practice both mercy and honesty, rigorously and in every relationship, we undermine the very fabric of terrorism.  We take the battle to its most intimate ground—the heart.

 Mercy is not as dramatic as a laser-guided missile, but—in the end—it is more powerful.  Honesty may not have the punch of a bomb or bullet, but—ultimately—it is more disarming.  By the very act of being the people God wants us to be, Christians strike a devastating blow at the roots of the terrorist mind.  “No one else may show you mercy, but I will.  No one else will be honest with you, but I will.  You may kill me, but in the meantime I will treat you in Christ-like ways.”  That kind of courage, that kind of commitment, has to soften hearts and change minds.  How do I know?  Because that’s precisely what Jesus was doing in the cross.

These two beatitudes urge us to stop lamenting the breakdown of relationships and start doing the difficult work of building a better world one interaction at a time.  During difficult days like these, the Christian keeps on showing mercy, keeps on being pure in heart.  Even the terrorist cannot divert us from that Christ-like task.

At Last, the Enemy

Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing right …

We all watched—riveted—as the planes collided with the towers and as the towers collapsed. 

It’s where our eyes turned next that tells the difference.  The first impulse of the world is to turn from the tragedy to look for the perpetrators, to find the people who are to blame.

Not Christians.  As we’ve already noted, the Beatitudes teach us to turn from tragedy to examine ourselves, to confess and mourn.  We turn next to a search for God’s righteousness and wisdom . . . a yearning for God’s way.  We turn then to the simple skills that build relationships—are we showing mercy, are we being honest?

Only then are Christians free to look at the enemy.  And by then, we are forced to look at the enemy differently.  We look at that enemy as people who have recognized our own penchant for sin.  We look at that enemy as people who have learned what God wants and are passionate to do the right.  We look at that enemy as people who have recommitted ourselves to mercy and honesty.  How else, then, can Christians look on the enemy except with an interest in making peace and a willingness to suffer in pursuit of that peace?

Jesus ends the Beatitudes by calling his followers to be peacemakers and to endure whatever persecution may come from the pursuit of godly things.  With these final statements, Jesus calls us to the most difficult, but most rewarding, plane of Christian living.

It is in the absence of peace that peacemakers are needed.  Anyone can call for peace when no one is at war.  But when tempers run high, when wounds are still fresh, when the urge to strike back is strong, it takes a special kind of person to call for peace—a person less interested in rights and retribution than in healing and reconciliation.  Only the kind of person who knows his own failings, who is more committed to godliness than to more natural urges, who values mercy and honesty above vengeance can play the role of peacemaker.

And only the person who is willing to suffer can keep playing the role of peacemaker.  The call for peace will draw ridicule and abuse from friends and foes alike.  Nobody likes a peacemaker when blood is in the water.  No one appreciates those who urge nobility when retaliation feels so good.

Let the world seek retribution.  Let others exact judgment.  We have a different task as God’s people.  The Christian is called to the role of peacemaker and to the stubborn pursuit of peace even when it hurts.

I doubt that war is avoidable.  There will certainly be suffering in the months ahead.  But, as Christians, let’s be far–sighted enough to realize that after the war comes the peace.  After the suffering comes the comfort.  And Christians are uniquely suited to minister when the “after” time comes. Let’s not expend our energies waging the physical war.  There are enough people in our country willing and eager to do that.  Let’s think, rather, about how to wage the peace.  What can we do to build bridges?  How can we alleviate suffering and hunger and prejudice?  How can we subvert decades of hatred with a message of love?

And what will we sacrifice in that cause?  What are we willing to suffer for such a righteous goal?  Jesus went to a cross when we were his enemies.  What pain are we willing to endure for the sake of our enemies?

A Closing Word

The Beatitudes require much of us.[3]  In these difficult days, they demand a level of commitment we are hesitant to give.  We have never been comfortable with confession and repentance.  We have always struggled to hear God’s will and be hungry to accomplish it.  Treating others right is a constant, unending challenge.  Peacemaking is hard enough in our homes and churches, much less in a world at war.

And yet, these times call Christians to higher living.  They challenge us to a renewal of our commitment.  They invite us to heroic living, larger–than–ordinary living.  They cry out for followers of Jesus to take their calling seriously and live out God’s life in radical and extraordinary ways.

The times have placed these demands on the people of God. The Beatitudes show us the way.  What remains is for us to decide whether we will rise to the occasion.

Rise up, O church of God
Have done with lesser things
Give heart and mind and soul and voice
to serve the King of Kings.

[1]     Paul talks about these two worlds in Ephesians.  In particular, he envisions a “heavenly realm” in which we exist even as we live out our physical life on earth.  (See Eph 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12)

[2]     In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus speaks an initial word of invitation, which is followed by a period of ministry during which nothing at all is said to the disciples.  Only after letting them see who he is and what he is about does Jesus sit his disciples down and instruct them on who they should be.  (See Mt 5:1-12;  Lk 6:17-26)

[3]     Tim has written a book on the Beatitudes—Walk this Way: An Interactive Guide to Following Jesus, NavPress, 1999.  If you want to study the Beatitudes in greater depth, you might want to order a copy of this book.  (800) 863-5665.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.