In celebration of Christmas, of Christ’s birth, I want to talk about what I believe to be one of the most powerful and transformative aspects of Christ’s ministry on the earth.
Christ’s birth, his mortal presence among us, coupled with His teachings, offers us an understanding of God—a conception of what characterizes goodness and truth—that is powerful and compelling for me personally.
Christ taught us that truth emerges and exists in relationship---in relationship with God and with our fellow beings.
Divine Truth is inherently relational in Christian thought.
“I am the way, the Truth and the life” (John 14:6).
That is to say, it is in relationship with God, and our fellow human beings, that we practice a meaningful faith.
Meaningful faith is to behave in ways that are faithful to others, and faithful to what is true.
Relational faith drives our development because in being faithful in relationship, in loving others, our comfortable but limited conceptions of ourselves will crumble. To love, to be empathic to another’s experience, pressures us to reach past our myopic view for a wiser understanding of what is true about us, others, and therefore, God---for a wiser understanding about how we must behave to be faithful.
This kind of faith increases our capacity as people, and in particular our capacity to love.
And this kind of faith is anchoring.
It is in living what is true in our relationship to God and others, that we find deeper security and confidence in a very uncertain world. We find life eternal—As Adam Miller talks about in Letters to a Young Mormon---Life eternal not being an expression of what will come in the next life or how long it will last—but a characterization of how we might live now, life eternal being an expression of our capacity for intimacy---how much we will know and how much we will be known.
Let me try and explain a little more what I mean…
Christ’s ministry and teachings stood in radical contrast with then-accepted notions of religion and of what would characterize a savior.
The Sadducees (religious aristocracy) and Pharisees were the ruling class of Israel. This was a time when the political and the religious were very intertwined. So the people that Christ taught and served were accustomed to hierarchy and external manifestations of religiosity, and were looking perhaps for religious leadership to be manifested in that form.
Of course, Christ offered a radically different notion of religion, God, and goodness. Most importantly for me, Christ taught us that God is hiding in plain sight—that God and Goodness—is found in the immediacy of our relationships with those around us, in the most humble of circumstances, in those that scare us or we easily reject,---found when we embody the courage to really understand and extend ourselves to others. God is found there.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to me.” … “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these my brothers, even the least of them, you did it unto me”. (Matthew 25: 35)
Christ’s miracles, teachings and actions demonstrate this theology; His ministry manifested the intent to stand for and create goodness in the immediacy of his circumstances, in the immediacy of his relationships with the children of God around him.
And so Christ’s teachings consistently prioritized love for and investment in humankind, over the idolatry of religious principles or law:
As Christ poignantly said in response to criticism from the Pharisees about the unlawfulness of picking corn on the Sabbath, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Principles and practices exist to foster the spiritual and relational development of human beings; human beings do not exist to prop up rules or structures.
We like rules and overt measures of goodness because they give us false security or fabricated superiority, but they can obscure where real goodness lies.
Jesus demonstrated this consistently in his ministry and very compellingly in the story of the woman taken in adultery.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
Christ chose love over law—The higher way of being over the rules of religious structure. All of the individuals in this story were better for what Christ did. The accusers left confronting their own hypocrisy (as should we), and potentially grew into greater humility and compassion (as should we); The adulterer left physically unharmed and more likely to choose a better path, a path that would positively impact her and others. This is what mattered—investment in people, not upholding of religious principles for their own sake. Christ offers an understanding of God and truth in these stories that compels us to create goodness in our own relationships, to invest in the well-being and development of those we love, and in the process, to develop ourselves into more able, wiser, godly people. We are only as Christian as we behave.
The reason we easily lose sight of this understanding of faith, is because ideas are easier than action. To be faithful in this Christian way pressures us to grow and growing is uncomfortable. To know and love others inevitably pressures us up against uncomfortable reality, and like it or not expands our view of reality and of ourselves. It takes courage to subject ourselves to it because our favored perceptions of reality and self-reinforcing notions of ourselves are hard to forsake.
As Dostoevski writes, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing”. A knowledge that emerges from love usually requires us to change, even sacrifice (our self-perceptions, our comfort, our control) for the sake of what we know, and for the sake of those we love.
As hard as love in action is, God is consistently offering himself to us through our relationships with others---in those that are outcast, in the sinner, in the people or realities we want to ignore because their presence is inconvenient for our world or self-view. Our unwillingness to deal with the real world and people around us though exposes our lack of faith. Our lack of faith in what is, our lack of faith in what the truth has to teach us, our lack of faith in the Good, in the ultimate triumph of goodness. Our lack of faith in ourselves.
If we are going to practice meaningful faith, a mobilizing faith, we must not turn a blind eye to ourselves, to others, or to life—because God is trying to reveal himself to us in our relationships in the real world.
Real faith means we allow our limited perceptions to be ruptured for the sake of truth, for the sake of what is. Real faith is a willingness to attend to the truths right in front of us, revealed in those we care about—real faith is a willingness to make room for the sometimes difficult realties (about ourselves, others, God and what goodness requires of us), that we would prefer to resist.
I remember my brother going through a faith crisis frightened me so deeply. I was angry at him. I wanted, in the name of faith, to go blind to his perspectives and feelings. I wanted to make myself superior to him so I didn’t have to know him and didn’t have to deal with the threat that loving him would be to my perception of what is.
I remember one night driving back to my college dorm, thinking about my brother, thinking I wanted to avoid him and maybe God would be okay with that. But I knew in my heart that it was dishonest, that it wasn’t Godly, that I was choosing to pull away from him for my own sake, in order to keep my superficial self and my world-view together, not for the sake of goodness and certainly not for the sake of love.
Even though I was terrified, I decided to trust then (as I have many times since) that God and goodness is bigger than what I understood right then. Even though it is uncomfortable, I choose to trust the process of letting love shape me, of letting what is true reveal itself to me as I strive to earnestly care about important people in my life, and being faithful to them and what is true.
Sometimes in the name of faith, we numb our awareness of the truth through platitudes or superficial self-reassurance that how we see things is right. And while superficially it looks faithful, because it is not honest, it disconnects us from others, from truth, and from God.
Instead real faith takes us down into the unwieldy world that we live in, just as Christ did. Faith is what we need when our own world view, our own ideas can’t hold themselves together in the face of real people and real love.
That idolatry is what Christ was most critical of—expressed as hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy is the willingness to offer the appearance of goodness while actually taking advantage or taking from others so we don’t have to deal with them. It is completely antithetical to what constitutes the gospel, in my opinion.
You cannot fake love, you cannot fake goodness, you cannot bypass your own spiritual development through the appearance of goodness or religion.
I have come to see my work with clients as a way to practice real faith and moral courage. It’s a kind of faith that is expressed in my relationship to them. And it has been, surprisingly for me, a way of deepening my testimony of the reality of God and of the real force of goodness.
It’s easy to engage superficially with clients and it’s easy to dispense answers at arms length and get paid. It’s much harder to move in close, through dark passages through which neither of us wants to pass.
The mantra I say to myself is “don’t look away”. The urge to not see is high. The urge to go blind to people’s darkness, the urge to go blind to my own. It is easier. If I look away, I can keep a more comfortable yet false picture of reality alive, but at a cost to myself and to others I have a responsibility to.
If I look away, I am acting in a pretense of love, a hypocrisy, when I am in reality shrinking from my responsibility to another human being.
When I find the courage inside of myself to not look away, and instead engage real faith, and step towards people in their suffering, self-deception, or cruelty, I have experienced meaningful growth, the expansion of goodness, in my clients and myself. We are both stronger and wiser for the courage to stay awake in the intimacy of it.
I have witnessed God there.
As Adam Miller teaches, faith isn’t the opposite of knowledge, it's a companion. Faith pressures us to be faithful to what is true, even when it makes us uncomfortable and we don’t yet fully understand it.
The privilege of watching clients face themselves, acknowledge their capacity to do evil to themselves and others, and to stand up in the face of it and do better is one I will always be grateful for. I have learned so much about what it True, what is good, by watching clients courageously face the dark and transform it into goodness in their lives. These are all actions that are happening in relationships and they are truly profound and moving for me.
Loving people in the work of therapy has given me a witness of God and the reality of Love and Goodness that I had not expected. It has given me a deeper testimony of the Truth in Christ’s teachings.
Paul in Corinthians 13, like Christ, urges us to reach for the deepest source of knowledge which is love. As Christ taught : “A new commandment I give unto you that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34).
I am profoundly grateful for Christ’s teachings, for the love of God, for the reality of Goodness and our ability to create more of it. I am grateful that we can be God’s hands and create a better world with our courage.
Merry Christmas to all of you.
*Written for a Sacrament Meeting Talk, Christmas 2015
Referenced Adam Miller’s “Letters to a Young Mormon”.