Widely Praised, Hardly Practiced

Jesus said we cannot—can not—be his disciples unless we give up all our possessions. Why then does it seem so few Christians take this seriously?

Lately I’ve been thinking about possessions, especially when I see yet another self-storage building going up. Self-storage units have been around for decades, but over the past few years they’ve grown in popularity. Today there’s over 1.7 billion square feet of storage space in an estimated 45,000 to 60,000 facilities nationwide, according to Sparefoot.

While self-storage units are typically not aesthetically pleasing, they do tell us something about possessions. A lot of us have a lot of them—and a lot of us have trouble getting rid of a lot of our stuff. What’s going on here? Dallas Willard’s wisdom frames the answer. “Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.”[1]

And what sort of system makes us possessive? Dallas Willard knew.

Willard writes how 19th century evangelical revivalists like Charles Finney introduced “gospels of sin management.” The cross was narrowed to payment for sin, so Jesus solved—managed—my sin problem. I’m saved. But what does this have to do with discipleship and not having any possessions? The connection is not apparent to most Christians.

It is to Tim Keller.

Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He writes how Charles Finney introduced a form of faith that put an inordinate weight on an individual’s personal decision for Jesus. Faith shifted from church-centric to individual-centric. The church began to hire larger numbers of staff to cater to Christians’ increasingly consumerist demands. “And this is one of the reasons (though not the only reason),” writes Keller, “that we have the highly individualistic, consumerist evangelicalism of today.”

A highly individualistic consumerist evangelicalism merely mirrors our highly individualistic American consumerist society. Trapped inside this hall of mirrors, we forget the nature of possessions: If you can’t give them up, you don’t possess them; they possesses you.

Jesus warned us about this. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

Paul told Timothy to warn the rich in his flock about this: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth… Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous…” (I Tim.6:17-18)

The word command here is a military term. It’s found only here in the Bible. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a no-nonsense command—what we rarely hear in consumerist faith traditions. Paul’s point is that whatever we possess invariably comes to possess us.

And therein lies the way out of this hall of mirrors. It’s called the “marital gospel,” Jesus “marrying” us, his bride, the church. It’s depicted in Song of Songs, in the bride’s beautiful progression in the development of her love for her lover, her husband. She becomes enraptured as she progresses from possessing her husband to being possessed by him.

It’s a subtle shift.

It’s starts with a young bride. After some early difficulties in their marriage, she declares, “My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feeds among the lilies.” (2:16). In some traditions, a white lily symbolizes purity, innocence, and fertility. In others, resurrection to new life (Easter). Either way, we’re talking about church, the bride. In Song of Songs, this young bride is so happy that the one she so ardently longed for has indeed become her own possession—as well as she has become his.

What follows is a season of separation and struggle. The maturing wife learns to appreciate her husband’s beauties in deeper ways. Their fellowship goes deeper. “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: he feeds among the lilies.” (6:3). Here the emphasis has changed. She finds more delight in being possessed by him than in possessing him.

This opens the door to even deeper penetration by her husband. He reveals the depths of his love (6:4-7:9). The mature wife, deeply secure in his love, no longer cares about what is hers. She cares only that she belongs to him and that he desires her: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.” In a mystical sense, she is possessed, having no possessions.

This is the bride Jesus longs for.

This is why Jesus said you cannot be his disciple if you have any possessions (Luke 14:33). A disciple is true to Christ… the meaning of the word betrothed, “to be true.” This is why Paul writes, “I betrothed (i.e., married) you to Christ that I might present you as a pure virgin.” (II Cor.11:2) Discipleship is the bride preparing to be presented as a pure virgin, being so possessed by Jesus’ spousal love that we find more delight in being possessed by him than in having a whole bunch of possessions we have difficulty letting go of.

I don’t sense many Christians hear this enchanting gospel anymore. So the reality that Jesus warned us about, we cannot—can not—be his disciples unless we give up all our possessions is widely praised (we certainly don’t want to disagree with Jesus)… but hardly practiced.

I bet Jesus wants us to do better than this.

 

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 58.

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6 Comments

  1. I have a suggestion for your not sensing that “many Christians hear this enchanting gospel anymore.” Take the time to get to know individual Christians rather than considering the lump from afar. Metaphorically, dirty laundry smells bad even from 6 feet away. But each piece of clothing is a treasure. Are you fixed on the smell from 6 feet? So many have such tenderness toward The Beloved. When I join with one here and another there and some long time friends more often I experience them possessed by The Beloved. Some express their devotion in tears – as if until me someone has never asked them about their Love in a long, long time! So few people ask each other about their love life with the Lord. And I never hear about their earthly possessions being a factor. In fact, people they try to control or people whom they are resisting the control of are the biggest weeds in the garden. We don’t seek the approval of material things we seek the approval of men – that is the adultery we take part in. And we try to control that – especially us as clergy. Your scriptural analysis would be enhanced by this nuance. Don’t miss the truly sweet love stories you might be surrounded by. Yes there are highly individualistic Americans because that’s what people are: highly individualistic – treasure them as “favorite sweaters” and not as a pile of smelly laundry. Treasure highly individualistic individuals as one highly individualistic individual with another and you’ll find much to celebrate with that highly individualistic individual.

  2. Mike, once again you have given us something provocative to think about. Biz has been preaching regularly about the church as the bride of Christ and all that implies. I think Keller’s statements about the highly individualistic evangelical consumer mindset is right on. I was wondering if you have read Skye Jethani’s book entitled, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity? It wrestles with the tension of following Christ in a consumer culture and offers practices which can help free us to experience God in a meaningful way as you suggest.

  3. Mike, your piece today provokes much thinking and on many fronts… From possessing to being possessed provides for deep thought and examination…however your piece prompted me to go back and peruse Song of Songs and I was awakened to an old childhood memory that I think somewhere has a connection to possession…
    The trigger is in SOS 4 verse 2 “Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing”
    I grew up in a small village in Northern Ireland and in the heart of the village was a sheep yard. This sheep yard was walled in and contained a sheep dipping “tank”. Every year we boys would gather on top of the wall to see the annual sheep dipping event…100-200 sheep would be gathered and the workers would force them in groups down the steps of the “tank” into the cleansing bath. The sheep, from being out all winter had large thick wool coats, were stinking and full of all sorts of dirt and vermin. Each sheep would traverse the tank and a worker would make sure each was well dunked at least three times. The noise from all the sheep and their protests to the dipping was intense. After ” coming up from the washing” the sheep would be held until dry in a pen and than let out into the yard. There, a sheep shearer
    would take the sheep, wrestle it to the concrete and sheer the sheep. A sight to behold!
    It was like a metamorphosis as each squat filthy sheep was turned into a beautiful golden white “tooth” SOS 4:2.
    The original sheep, encumbered by all its possessions of the world… thick wool coat, earthly trappings of dirt, dung etc was cleansed and set free from this weight. Each became light, like lambs, and set free…
    The whole sheep yard was transformed into “new creations” and really had joyful noises.

    Anyways…see what your writing did to my mind today!
    Cheers

  4. Vernon:

    What a wonderful story. Made me long for the kinds of experiences you had growing up.

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Mike

  5. Dave:

    With all due respect, I don’t think Tocqueville (or Keller) was praising highly individualistic individuals. It’s not a virtue. It’s a vice. God made us as individuals, yes, but individualism is idolizing oneself as an individual. So I don’t think Tocqueville, Keller (or me for that matter) would ever suggest we (to use your words) “treasure highly individualistic individuals.” Furthermore, you describe yourself and me as highly individualistic individuals. Don’t know about you, but I would grieve to think that’s the case with me.

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