On Being Radical
David Platt, in his book Radical, challenges Christians that if they would do five things over the course of a year, they would find themselves “coming alive like never before (Platt 186).” Here are the five things (185):
- Pray for the entire world;
- Read through the entire Word;
- Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose;
- Spend your time in another context;
- Commit your life to a multiplying community.
I’m fairly sympathetic with attempts to rouse the church from its cultural captivity and I think that most of these are laudable practices for any Christian. I would say that a firm grasp of the gospels is more important than reading the whole Bible in a year though. Also, I would say that investing money in a cause is good unless you’re poor. Then your money should be invested in your family. Similarly, spending time in another context, in Platt’s book is going on a foreign mission trip. I would contend that learning to have Christ-like character at work or at home is more important for the individual than going anywhere in particular, unless that person has specific skills to do mission work. Finally, I would say that step five is important (I just wrote about the need to regularly attend worship service), but finding a growing mega-church is nowhere a part of the Christian life in the New Testament.
At least people who do that list are doing something right?
Many genuine Christians never thought about doing some things on that list. Platt’s pastoral concerns are valid in that respect. So what if some of them don’t really make sense? Why care? Well, as a minister to college students and a student returning to college, I find that concern for excellence in studies and in the workplace is at an all-time low. I also find that college age people can have a tendency to be yes-men and yes-women. If you’re a college student who is interested in understanding the Bible and being Jesus’ disciple, watch out. Ten different ministry leaders will probably come ask you to sign up for this or that cause. Many of these causes and ministries are good things. But the question is this: are these the things to which you should dedicate your time at this stage in your life?
A Thought Experiment
A simple logical deduction can be utilized to help you answer the question above. If your parents pay for your school (or if you live with them or they pay your bills), then they have invested in your education. What kind of grades do you owe them? Remember, the Bible says, “Honor your father and mother (Exodus 20:12).” I did not understand that as a youngster. If you owe them the best grades you could earn, is it wise to say, “Yes!” to every single ministry opportunity that comes up? Notice the conflict: do extra things to the detriment of my studies or do the thing that I am explicitly told in the Bible.
Similarly, if you’re struggling to have regular devotional time or to wake up in time for church, is it wise to stay up late to be a part of every single ministry event which you’re asked to attend? The issue is that sometimes the extras can get directly in the way of the character the Lord commands us to develop. Jesus commands us to have devotional/prayer time (Matthew 6:6) and to be a part of the church (1 Corinthians 11:24-26). He does not command us to go to every single thing simply because it is good or has his name attached to it.
The Crux of the Issue
There is a double danger of feeling obligated to do all of the things in the world pertaining to ministry that are asked of us:
- We can become burned out and fail to be excellent or wise with respect to anything which we do. A martial arts instructor once related to me that a man can try to chase two rabbits and catch neither or catch one rabbit to prevent starvation and then catch several later. Chasing too many things is a sure way to mediocrity.
- We can become legalistic with this attitude: I did the five radical things, what are you doing? We can actually replace Christian character to the point that we begin to denigrate those who have it but do not do the current radical paradigm.
Jesus deals with the second of the problems with the Pharisees. See here:
Mark 7:1-13 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, (2) they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (3) (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, (4) and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) (5) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (6) And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; (7) in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ (8) You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (9) And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! (10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ (11) But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)– (12) then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, (13) thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
Jesus’ issue is that the Pharisees, in this instance, have elevated a series of traditions concerning washing above their commitment to loving their neighbor. Or, in a more serious instance, they have found ways to let people dishonor their parents for religious reasons. Thus, the dishonoring of parents (by refusing to care for them in their times of trouble), has been elevated to a higher status than God’s clear command to honor your parents!
Books like David Platt’s, for all the good work they can do to get lazy Christians off their butts, can have a tendency to encourage zeal without knowledge. At their worst, they can elevate certain ideals (being a part of a foreign mission trip or a quickly growing church body) above actual adherence to the actual teachings of Jesus. I remember being at a mission conference as a young man and being encouraged to not buy things unless I could put the same amount of money into foreign missions (let along giving to the poor or, God forbid, to my local church). I remembered thinking, wow, that’s really cool. Then I thought, “Shouldn’t I save money like the ant at this stage in my life?” College students who are Christians should be generous as it is possible, but they might be better served by learning to save, pay off debt, and do really boring things (study) with little in terms of immediate gratification (grades). I’m not opposed to missions or making radical commitments to simplicity or involvement with those who do not know the gospel or the poor. I just think that our efforts to encourage people to stop being lazy Christians should be more connected with the specific teachings of the New Testament. Perhaps they should also be more clearly stated as helpful suggestions unless they are clear teachings of the New Testament. Maybe something like this:
These five steps are from the New Testament. Check to be sure. Putting them into practice could help you follow Jesus:
- Meditate daily on the teachings of Jesus and put them into practice and you will be set free from sin and live an indestructible life (Matthew 7:24-28, cf. John 8:31-32).
- Pray the Lord’s Prayer often and extend its petitions to the needs of which you’re aware (Matthew 6:6-13).
- Be committed to your local church and seek guidance from the elderly and wise there (Heb 10:25).
- Be wise and generous with money (Proverbs 1-31 and Luke 16:1-14).
- Perform your duties to your employer, teachers, and local civic servant as those who must give and account to the Lord (Colossians 3:17-4:2).
These four steps, in my mind, summarize the New Testament’s approach to the good-life. If you put them into practice, they might help you to walk with Christ.
- Recite the Apostles Creed Daily
- Pray the Lord ’s Prayer and the Psalms daily.
- Attempt to love God and neighbor daily.
- Grow in knowledge of the Bible at church services and in private study.