No incarnation, no justice

You may experience the same theological divide I felt at the Justice Conference last week. Whenever one is listening to a parade of speakers there is not a lot to do but compare and contrast. So I did. And I felt an interesting contest going on. It was a fascinating smorgasbord of evangelical do-gooders and I enjoyed snacking on various goodies.

Strangely enough, I think my most long-lasting good impression has less to do the the speakers and more to do with the wonderful notebook the organizers made for each participant. Across from a nice bio of each speaker they had a page for “notes,” the “key quote” and the “key take away.” I am so unused to going to conferences that I forgot that we are often encouraged to get a takeaway from a speech. We are not supposed to immerse ourselves, relate, understand or resonate, necessarily; we are to sift the data for something that moves us, or is useful to us.

Well, I think I learned to do that a bit.

Evangelical justice

We were talking about justice at the conference and one of the scriptures used was I John 4. One interpretation dissected my understanding of that chapter more clearly than I can remember. I had forgotten how it could be divided up.

In his letter, John is defending the incarnation. Most commentators think he has some opponents in his congregations that are tilting the gospel toward Greek, “gnostic” thoughts that would not tolerate a God in the flesh or tolerate relating to God in a personal way. So it was surprising to see that even while thinking about John’s letter it is possible to divide up John’s thoughts in such a way that one can strain out the personal and end up with principles. One of the speakers seemed so steeped in his principles and committed to a sovereign God who was so “other,” that he had a difficult time figuring out how to argue for doing justice, which is so incarnational.

But he gave it a noble try. This Bible study is my takeaway.

1 John 4:9-11 — This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Why do justice? Here is what I stereotype as an Evangelical way to look at it, according to the passage above.

  • You should do justice by applying the principle: God loved us so we should love others.
  • Then, moving along with what John says, you could add the principle that: Our love means nothing; it’s all God’s love that changes the world.
  • If you are really going for it you could add: We should show love like God showed it in Jesus by being sent into the world so others might live through Jesus.

I don’t think those thoughts are all wrong. But I don’t think it is all John is trying to say, or that he would ever say it. Especially since he immediately says.

1 John 4:12 — No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

John is not merely applying principles, he is explaining the reality of God’s love living in him and God’s love being made complete in the body of Christ as they love one another and show his love to the world.

The incarnation of justice

I never would have become a Christian in the first place, had I just been signing up for the impossible task of applying biblical principles. I had enough guilt motivating me already. To be honest, the arguments that well-meaning Christians presented to me were not that convincing until I met God personally, which happened in spite of their arguments.

They were doing things like making principles out of the following nuggets from 1 John.

1 John 4: 16-17 — God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

One could read 1 John 4 like it was a very good argument for what a Christian ought to do. One can take the sentences above and focus on the last clause: “In this world we are like Jesus.” The principle could be:

  • Jesus cares about people so you should care.
  • Jesus desires justice, so do it.
  • Obeying the principles is the only way to have confidence on the day of judgment because you can demonstrate that you actually followed the commands of your teacher.
  • Doing what is written is the way that love can be complete and not flawed under God’s scrupulous eye.
  • God is love. If you say you are saved, you’d better be loving.

I don’t think those ideas are all wrong, but they might be missing the main thing John is talking about.

1 John 4:18 — There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

It is only the love of Jesus at work in our hearts that can transform us into lovers. No amount of proper principle-applying will do it – especially when we apply the principles because we are afraid we will be disobedient and possibly judged if we don’t! Doing the work of justice no longer has to do with punishment, either; it is mainly about fearless lovers bringing the presence of Jesus with them as they dive into tangled-up humanity.

Nevertheless, one could reduce 1 John 4 down to one verse:

1 John 4:19 — We love because he first loved us.

That was a key verse the Baptists gave to me as a child. It was so short almost anyone could memorize it and get a prize! And even a child can get the point:

  • Jesus loves me.
  • And because Jesus loves me, I should love.

Only that is not all that John is saying. I’d say that sentence does not mean that at all, all due respect to Mrs. Roadhouse, my second grade Sunday school teacher. He means: Our capacity to love is set on fire by God’s love for us. We are rebooted for love by his love alive in us. Without God in us, we won’t be loving like God. John is experiencing an ongoing incarnation and he does not want it stolen by people who do not have God in the world, just a set of religious principles. I think he, again, quickly says just that:

1 John 4:20 — Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

It is not so much what you say, it is whether the love of the living God is in you.

It’s not that John is not making an argument. It’s that he is making an argument for incarnation. His God is not “up there” and we worship this remote God by effecting empathy — like Jesus demonstrated, and like he left us word about in the Bible before he returned “up there.” To the contrary, John’s God has entered into our experience and into our lives. We enter into the difficult tasks of love, like loving people we can actually see today, because the Spirit has entered into us and Jesus is entering into our situation with us.

What should be your takeaway from my Bible study? I don’t know. Did Jesus tell you anything? Did God’s love move you? If nothing personal happened between you and God, then there wasn’t much point in writing anyway. Especially when it comes to making an impact for justice in the name of Jesus, we’ll just be arguing if Jesus is not in us causing love to break out.

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7 thoughts on “No incarnation, no justice

  1. This excerpt from the Jesus Way (which I was first introduced to via Circle of Hope Daily Prayer two years ago) also really speaks to being an incarnation of Jesus. It speaks to HOW we do things, not just that we are doing them! He is dissecting Matthew 4 when Jesus is tempted in the desert:

    “Each of the devil’s temptations has to do with the way that Jesus is the way, the way he will go about his work. Will he reduce and depersonalize the way by imposing his will on the rocks, using them to provide for human needs, first taking care of himself and then feeding a lot of people? Will he put on a circus spectacular, demonstrating the miraculous, ever-present providence of God to the people on the street but never dealing with them as persons? Will he rule the world by means of a faceless bureaucracy, efficiently enacting justice and prosperity without getting his hands dirty?

    Jesus said no to each one in turn. Jesus gave a definitive, scripture-backed no to each temptation. And why? Because in each case it would have been an impersonal way, a way abstracted a way from relationships, disengaged from love, a way imposed from the outside. It would have been a way ripped out of the comprehensive story of salvation, and therefore ripped out of participation in people’s lives. Whatever the way of Jesus means, bullying force is not part of it. …The way of Jesus is always exercised in personal ways, creating and saving and blessing. It is never an impersonal interference from the outside.

    In the three great refusals, Jesus refuses to do good things in the wrong way. Each temptation is wrapped around something good: feed a lot of people, evangelize by miracle, rule the world justly. The devil’s temptation is to depersonalize the ways of Jesus but leave the way intact. His strategy is the same with us. But a way that is depersonalized, carried out without love or intimacy or participation, is not, no matter how well we do it, no matter how much good is accomplished, the Jesus way. We cannot do the Lord’s work in the devil’s ways. The devil has great ideas — brilliant ideas! The devil is the consummate ideologue, but he is incapable of incarnation. He uses people to embody his projects in functional rather that personal relationships. The devil is the ultimate in disincarnation. Every time that we embrace ways other than the way of Jesus, try to manipulate people or events in ways that short-circuit personal relationships and intimacies, we are doing the devil’s work. Vigilance is required. It is required still in the America where doing good work in impersonal ways is epidemic.” — Eugene Peterson in The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way.

  2. My take away from both the conference and this bible study is to keep prayer at the center of doing justice. I am hearing that prayer (communing / relating to Jesus) is central to living as an incarnation of Jesus, thus it should be central to justice work too. I am glad, Rod, that you elaborated on DOING justice vs. BEING an incarnation of Jesus, who is love and leads us toward justice and peace.

    Here are some things I learned at the Justice Conference that I think apply:

    – I need to slow down and listen to Jesus in humility. (Ken Wytsma’s talk)
    – I need to examine my theology of Justice, not just so that I can say I have one, but because my theology will affect my anthropology. As you note here, Rod, there is a big difference between a theology of justice based on applying principles and one based on living out the love of Christ within us. (Brenda Salter McNeil’s talk)
    – I need to go deep with the issues of justice instead of languishing on the surface. I need to go deep with JESUS and then I can delve deeper into justice. Eugene Cho said, “Our pursuit of God informs our pursuit of Justice”.
    – Prayer is the most necessary, but also the most neglected part of justice work. We need to be in conversation with God to prepare us on the inside for the day. ‘The work of Justice is God’s work so why would you do it without talking to him about it?” (Gary Haugen’s talk). Gary also said that International Justice Mission staff pray twice during their work day. He said, “It is not a matter of discipline, but desperation”
    – “The closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones at people” (Shane Claiborne). In relationship with Jesus, we receive his grace and it wears us down (in a good way) so that we can then extend grace to others, which is such a big part of doing justice out of God’s love!
    – “Listening to God makes the justice movement relevant” – John Perkins AMEN!

  3. This chapter played a pivotal role in my early Christianity, and has shaped my faith immensely. I definitely agree, this is not John teaching us some principle. It’s John sharing a revelation on how God reveals Himself to us, through His love. I think John is saying being a Christian means living in this, not acting it out. If you act it out and don’t live in it, you are a liar he says! What a bold statement! I think this is directly tied to our mission to make disciples. We don’t make disciples because of some principle to do it. We make disciples because that’s what it means to act out of the love in us and the love God has put in us. We can’t act out of this love if we aren’t living in it to start with!

  4. Great post, Rod. Without being in Jesus and Jesus being in me, I’d lose all of my drive for “justice.” Jesus really stands in the way of me and agnostic nihilism.

  5. “We are not supposed to immerse ourselves, relate, understand or resonate, necessarily; we are to sort the data for something that moves us, or is useful to us.” I appreciate this. At the end of Saturday night during the panel (almost wildly unlike the rest of the conference both in format and in Spirit) John Perkins said -after the host had listed off an incredible list of what she called “sound bites” from the talks throughout the weekend- that “we ought to be living and following not sound bites but the word of god!” There were so many raw, uncomfortable, move-you-to-shaking moments during that panel. Not to mentioned Chai Ling who spoke beforehand, getting up there and lamenting all of her previous abortions, how one who raped her went on to be a prominent Christian leader and it took years for her to choose forgiveness..meanwhile she would be channeling the voice of God and say to us what she felt God had been saying to her during those difficult times. You were With her during her story. She wasn’t delivering a nugget of wisdom or truth about this or that, but was delivering her own deliverance. Mucho blessings.

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