Notes from the Archives: Obedience as Capital

christmas_serviceThis year, Christmas falls on a Sunday. If you’re like me, it’s probably crossed your mind as to whether or not you should suit up the family and go to church. Maybe just going to Christmas Eve service will be enough? Maybe I can do a little devotional in my pajamas with the family? Maybe I can play Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and pretend it’s about Jesus?

If Jesus is the reason for the season, then not going to church when Christmas is on Sunday just seems – I don’t know – disobedient? I get the impression that most Christians believe all that obedience they did during the year will be tarnished if they don’t go to church on this singular day.

I’ve become convinced this is a really bad way to think about obedience.

It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that we live in a consumeristic culture, and it may have affected us in ways we don’t quite realize. We live in a culture where people stand in line to get the newest iPhone, or the “hot toy” of the season (what is it this year?), or to see the blockbuster movie. I’m not a line-stander myself, but it seems telling that we have a subculture of being the “first” to consume something, even though it is literally identical if you wait a week and avoid the line.

When you are a consumer, everything exists for consumption. The Bible changes from a complex book full of paradoxes, poems, and stories about how God interacted with humanity into a book that is a list of rules and commands that you can consume to have your “best life now”. When evangelicals with this consumeristic mindset want to grow their church, they go to scripture to mine out principles that can be consumed to get a larger congregation. They go to books like Acts and develop “10 Principles of a Growing Church”, and they believe that by using scripture that they are being Biblical. In this model, scripture was USED; it was consumed for gain. The book of Acts isn’t a how-to book on growing the Church. Acts is the story about how the Holy Spirit worked to spread the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome in the first century CE. Pretty much the only principle from Acts is that churches grow when the Holy Spirit is there.

But consumerism can’t exist without capital to fuel the consumption. And, since everything is fit for consumption, everything can be used as capital. For instance:

  • Money – dollar bills – are the baseline capital in the USA. We spend lots of time trying to figure out how we can get more money. We read books and listen to podcasts on how we can manage our money to our benefit.
  • We use time as a type capital, and we exert effort managing our time to be more effective so that we have more time to do what we really want to do.
  • We use knowledge as a type of capital. We use our training, our college degrees, our certifications, our experience as a kind of currency to get jobs, or to get better jobs that give us more money or more time or more knowledge. And then we use that as capital to get even better jobs. But, you know, it’s not always what you know, it’s who you know, so…
  • Relationships become a kind of capital. These days we call this “networking”. Websites have sprung up all over the place so that people can network to get a better job, or to rub elbows with powerful people, or get a good deal on something that we want to buy.

There are probably a dozen more things that we use as capital in our culture, and they’re not all fundamentally different from how the cultures of the Old and New Testament used them, but the extent to which we use all kinds of things as currency would be inconceivable to them.

What I’d like to focus on is obedience, because I believe we try to use it as capital or currency. When we read the Bible, our tendency is to look for things we can do to get good things for ourselves. Scripture can certainly be used this way if you try hard enough. Psalms 1:6 says, “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” Psalm 5:12, Psalm 34:17-19 (need I go on?) say something similar, which is to say that if you do good things that God will give you good things. In a consumeristic culture like ours, which uses all sorts of things as capital, obedience tends to turn into a currency as well. Obedience to all of the commands that we can find is like depositing something into the bank. If we obey by giving generously, that’s like obedience money in the bank. You helped your neighbor? Money in the bank. You bought a poor Namibian family a goat for Christmas? Money in the bank. You come to church, and read your bible, and teach Sunday School, and sing in the choir, and go on a mission trip? Money in the bank, baby.fat_stacks

When things don’t go our way, those with this mindset want to take these fat stacks of obedience and cash them in for special attention from God. When obedience is used as a currency, prayer becomes this sort of swap that takes place between our obedience and God’s blessings. Many of us have this subtle, almost hidden belief that we can use our obedience somehow to convince God to give us blessings; obedience is a capital we can use to consume divine favor. We believe that we can convince God through our obedience to help care for our ailing loved ones. We believe that a life of stored-up obedience can be exchanged for favor with God so that he can help us find a job. We try to exchange our pious efforts for a life that’s peaceful and prosperous.

Those of us who’ve tried this (and I’m one of them) quickly realize that things don’t always work this way. Sure, maybe it works for a little while, maybe it works in fits and starts, but the reality is that God makes it rain on the good as well as the bad.

Guess what? Sometimes a Godly man gets depression.

Guess what? Sometimes a faithful mother loses a child.

Guess what? Sometimes a faithful Sunday School teacher and a hard worker gets injured and has a terrible time making ends meet.

Guess what? Sometimes someone who remains sexually pure until the wedding day can have a troubled marriage. (Yes, I’m looking at you, True Love Waits people.)

When things like this happen, no amount of obedience seems to make a difference, and it makes God seem unreasonable and distant and cruel. We believe that we’ve got these bank accounts full of obedience, but God doesn’t seem to care. Our capital is worthless. So, we end up bitter and disillusioned with God and confused about what to do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that serving God is a good thing, but what I’m trying to highlight is that Christianity isn’t just some sort of moral exchange. Any god from which you can buy favors for acts of obedience is a childish god. It’s time for us to leave behind this childish and immature view of God and move on to mature, adult, nuanced views of God. It’s time for us to call this idea of using obedience as capital for what it is – idolatry and wickedness. It’s time for each one of us to dig up the roots of this immature view of obedience in our lives.

And so, as I consider why I feel weird about maybe not going to church on Christmas day, I realize that this idea of obedience as currency has weaseled its way into so many things that I don’t even realize. Someplace inside of me – a place I don’t want to acknowledge – thinks that I’ll somehow curry more favor from God by attending a Christmas service.

The world doesn’t need more “obedience”. At least, not the kind used as capital. The world needs more faith working itself out in love, because THAT’S where great obedience starts.

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