Tag Archives: virtue

When Natural is bad.

I don’t recommend advertisements which seem to be keen on “natural” ingredients, because often natural things are excuses for bad behaviour: “It’s only natural”, “Doing what comes naturally” doesn’t often mean doing something good.

Paul knows about this, and offers a simple choice (we are reading Romans 8:6-11). You can live in one (but only one) of 2 ways: life according to the “flesh”, and life according to the Spirit.

“To set the mind on the flesh” means doing what comes naturally. It may have a veneer of respectability or sophistication, but it is ultimately selfish, competitive. It will love only if that is rewarding, be community minded only if there are benefits to the doer, and may at any point be cynical, greedy, or peevish. The only alternative is life empowered and directed by the Spirit of God. This is what makes the Christian life possible and rewarding (and not just a lot of hard work).

Someone will object that there is another alternative. What about following a moral code – like the 10 commandments? Paul has thought of that; indeed, as a pious Jew, he has lived it carefully for many years. He will say that such a moral code is good – indeed the Old Testament Law tells us vital things about what God is like, and what he expects of human beings. But if it is useful for that, it is absolutely hopeless for transforming us into people who can live like that.

It is all very well to know you ought to be patient, loving, joyful and generous. It is quite another thing to do it, and go on doing it! Either we lower our standards to “be reasonable”, or we find another way.

So we come back to this simple, and stark, alternative: You either live “naturally”, being selfish, or trying not to be, but discovering that there are tight limits on how much you can control yourself, or You live for God, handing your life (and all your resources) over to God’s direction. It’s a big step, but if you take it, go on taking it, and allow the Holy Spirit to control you, you should experience a slow transformation. It won’t happen fast, and it won’t solve all your problems, but you will begin to be changed. Not by your own effort, but as God works on your personality, your priorities, attitudes, and ambitions.

Paul defines a choice for you. You must answer which way you have chosen – and more important, which way you will now choose. Answer now for yourself, that you may be ready to answer to God.

Change

“Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” (from today’s reading Mark 13:1-8) Jesus disciples are impressed by the Jerusalem temple – it was both large and magnificent, but Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? . . every one of them will be thrown down.” It was a prophecy that would be fulfilled some 40 years after he spoke.

We don’t always enjoy change, and try to resist, forgetting that it is part – and a necessary part – of life. Whether you look at an individual person and the changes that come with time; or at their education, career and retirement, or at family structure – in each change is clear.

The disciples knew this of course, but if they thought religion might be a buttress against change, they were to learn differently. It is true that God does not change with the fashions, swapping his favourite virtues from generation to generation, or updating the 10 commandments for fear of seeming old-fashioned.

But the practice of Christian faith changes. Let me give you an example. Early Methodists lived at a time of gin shops – cheap oblivion to poor social conditions. Their response was teetotalism; Christians were not to drink, but to spend on their families, and help those in need. It is an advertisement for Christianity in Nepal today – drunkenness is a social problem, so again the Church is teetotal, and popular for it.

In Britain a century later, what had been a Christian virtue was sometimes an eccentricity. Now, I am happy to drink in moderation – but if I was a student? I’m less sure. I’m glad to see Street Pastors caring for the drunk.

It’s not that the Christian standard – avoiding drunkenness – changes, but its expression depends on social conditions. To say that God does not change is true and important. But to be faithful Christians, it is never enough to live in the same pattern as our ancestors in faith. Society changes; the key issues vary. The way we live has to express the love and purpose of God to the people around us.

A key issue is the question of security. The disciples may have seen the massive temple stones as an indication of permanence – which they were not. Jesus wants to give them, not a system or a ritual, but an education in spiritual reality which will make them secure, firmly based for the difficulties to come. He knows, and they must learn, that the only true foundation is God himself.

As we come to Christmas, I know someone will say to me, “I do love the traditional carols (or . . ) they’re what Christmas is about” – and I will struggle to know how to say. “No, it’s not carols, it’s God living with us that gives us the security to adapt our lives to serve him in every generation.”

Jesus knew there would be problems – false teachers, wars. More important, he knew that security was not in changelessness, but in God himself.