By Jonathan Ho
“Why do you bother volunteering in nursing homes? They’re all going to die soon and all you do is talk to them. What’s the point?” When my sister was in high school, she volunteered at nursing homes, and as a pesky middle school student I questioned why someone would spend time with people who would likely spend the rest of their lives in the same building before passing away.
Some say every question has an assumption. I had the assumption that our time should be invested in what works, in what is most helpful (I also assumed what things were most helpful). As a middle and high school student I thought, what’s the point of talking to old people? They’re not going to do much and they’re going to die.
Each assumption we have affects how we see and interpret the world around us. Dr. Paul Tripp writes, “We do not live life based on the bare facts of our existence; we live our lives according to our interpretation of those facts. God gave Adam and Eve the unique ability to think, but only his words could accurately interpret their world.”1 If we seek to see God in all aspects of our lives, then we must first be sure we have the right interpretation of the world.
One of my co-workers, who grew up outside of the U.S., once asked me, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but do you know martial arts?” I don’t think she asked everyone in my building this question. But I understand why she would ask it. Let’s say she hadn’t met many Asians and the only conception she had of an Asian was from popular culture. In the past, and even today, you see many Asians in movies who know martial arts (think movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The Green Hornet, actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or the new Rush Hour TV series on CBS, etc.). I doubt someone told her that all Asians know martial arts, but somehow the idea made it into her mind.
It’s a silly example, but it shows how we live our lives based on how we interpret the world, and how we interpret the world is sometimes not based on the truth but on the world around us.
Now imagine what happens when we assume what it means to follow Jesus without examining our lives properly. Assumption without understanding leads to naiveté which demonstrates a lack of understanding and wisdom. In the book of Proverbs we read, “The naive believes everything, but the sensible man considers his steps”2 and “For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them.”3
Do we have the right interpretation of the world and of what it means to be children of God? Have you ever thought about it or have you assumed it? We must learn to examine how we interpret the world or we risk missing the point. Imagine putting in all your work on a building only to find you had put it in the wrong place. What happens if we invest in “Christianity” and miss walking with Jesus? What if it’s not a problem with the message but with our interpretation of the message?
I remember preparing for a short-term mission trip to Taiwan that lasted two weeks. We prepared by learning the gospel according to colors: yellow, black, red, white, and green. Yellow stood for God’s righteousness and love, black for our sin, red for Jesus’ death and sacrifice, white for being washed clean, and green for growth. We also prepared our testimonies, stories of how we became Christians. Finally, we prepared skits to demonstrate the message of Jesus’ death for us.
Now stop. Let’s consider these steps. Based solely on what I wrote, how would an outsider describe our mission’s focus?
For one, we were there to convert. We learned how to share a message and geared everything towards acceptance of this message. Second, we saw testimonies as tools to be used in bringing about conversion. Everything was fixed to one point.
I always thought my purpose in the church was to convert people. Before I was five I remember praying for my friend so he wouldn’t go to hell. I remember sharing John 3:16 before my kindergarten class. I consistently invited friends to church services and outreach events, even organizing some at my high school. I shared the gospel with three close friends before graduating high school. I read books about evangelism, prayed to be filled with the Holy Spirit so people would believe in Jesus. Everything I did was about getting people to believe. Sure, there might be a difference between believer and disciple, but as long as someone believed, it was “good enough” because then they would have eternal life.
And so you can almost understand why I would question my sister’s decision to volunteer at nursing homes. If our purpose is to make disciples, which to me at that time meant training people to convert other people, then why would we waste time at a nursing home? Why not focus on the young who are more likely to change and bring about change in the world?
But is the purpose of being in the Kingdom of God one where our goal is to make people pray one prayer? 4
After I went to college, I realized I had no idea what it meant to be a Christian outside of converting others. My testimonies (aka, my experiences of God) were based around conversion, my training was based around converting others, my prayers were so people would be saved, but nothing had to do with loving others outside of this action. I was learning to live without God. All I needed was my conversion story and some persuasive arguments.
Jesus once said, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”5 He also said there would be many in the last day who would call him Lord, those who would speak of how they had prophesied in his name, driven out demons in his name, and performed many miracles. And do you know how Jesus said he would respond? He said he would say, “I never knew you, away from me, you evil doers!”6
This is eternal life, to know God. To be saved is not to perform miracles, prophesy, drive out demons, or even to convert the masses.7 To be saved is not to get things done. No, it is to know and be known by God.
Unfortunately, we often think knowing God is about building a kingdom, but it’s more like getting to know someone and seeing what happens. Dr. Paul Tripp notes that when God created Adam and Eve, God did something surprising: he spoke to them.8 As people, we were made for something more than mere knowledge and mere existence. We were made to walk with God.
But then the problem came. Adam and Eve sought their own way and desire over God’s. Sin came.
When we think of sin, we often think of sexual temptations, pride, or gossip. But really, it’s deeper. It’s a condition which causes us to interpret the world as being about us, a world where we believe we are self-sufficient and where we live for ourselves. Sin isn’t based in the actions on the outside.
Jesus once said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”9 The issue is in the heart.
Tim Keller hits home when he writes about the parable of the two sons in his book, The Prodigal God. In it, he describes how both the son who spent his life on his pleasures and the son who obeyed his father were wayward and lost. One son took his inheritance to get what he wanted. The other son obeyed because he thought he would get what he wanted this way. Both sons wanted what they wanted and did not focus on their relationship with their father.
In leading into the gospel I used to ask, “On a scale of one to ten, how sure are you that you’ll go to heaven?” The assumption here is that someone should believe so they can get to heaven. While there’s truth here, it’s not the main point. As Asaph once wrote, “Whom have I in heaven but you [God]?”10 What if I told someone I wanted to marry them so I could avoid being single the rest of my life? Is that love?
At the core of this statement is a seeking of self. I define goodness by how it helps me. Rather than seek the One who is Good, we seek to define good and evil on our own.
I’ve been learning that “Wisdom is found at the point of complementary truths.” Wisdom is often found where two seemingly contradicting ideas overlap. For example, faith without works is dead. Faith is not works but faith without works is not faith. I write this because I want you to see that I am not seeking to attack but to refine. Please understand that what I write is nuanced.
Look at what happens as a result of these underlying beliefs:
1. Following Jesus is about converting people and getting as many people as possible to believe (agenda over relationship)–
a. Methodology– We focus everything on what works. Persuasive speech, charismatic speakers, emotional music, big events. If the point is converting people then we want to bring as many people into the Kingdom as possible, right?
b. Implications of how we treat others– like a business, we seek people who fit our values such as: who is more sociable? Who is a “stronger” leader? Jesus didn’t exactly pick the most educated or the wisest. Neil Cole quotes Brant Hansen who wrote about how Jesus’ first missionary was a woman with an immoral sexual past and the wrong doctrinal beliefs.11 Another missionary was a man who was just delivered from a legion of demons.12 Jesus said we would be witnesses, but we try to train witnesses when true witnesses simply speak of what they actually experienced.
c. We become utilitarian, ignoring the weak and less “productive”– see my former self and how I saw the elderly. What of the developmentally disabled? What of those who cannot speak? What of artists?
d. Impatience– we look for results rather than faithfulness to God’s call. We treat people like robots rather than people. We seek to replace broken parts rather than nurture one another. We do not work hard in perseverance but give up on one another and keep running off to whatever seems more effective.
2. Following Jesus means being righteous, and being righteous is avoiding sin, and sin is simply doing bad things (outer appearance over heart)–
a. Methodology – we focus on accountability to avoid sin which we see as bad actions rather than heart issues. Instead of cowering in fear, may we learn to confess heart issues and then encourage one another to trust God in steps of faith to love. Alistair Begg once said, “They’re so afraid of making mistakes that they never make anything. They’re so afraid of going in the wrong direction that they go in no direction”13 Instead of focusing on living perfectly, start holding one another accountable to loving our enemies and those different from ourselves from the heart. Did not John write that one who could not love the brother he could see could not love a God he could not see? When we seek to love our brother and sister we will make mistakes, but it is better to learn than to bury ourselves in fear of failure and punishment.
b. Implications on our relationship with God – we start working ourselves up to perfection, but isn’t it impossible on our own? As adopted children of God we are loved because of Jesus. When children disobey their parents, they don’t get kicked out of the family. No, whenever a child lies or breaks a rule, it results in shame or guilt and makes the relationship less enjoyable and less comfortable, but it does not change the status of the relationship. Whenever a child does something good, it does not make him or her more important but it makes the relationship more enjoyable. We need to stop fighting to earn our place.
c. Our faith becomes defensive – instead of fighting to love, we fight to defend and stay clean. Some people are afraid of the many Syrians entering the United States. Instead of being afraid, can we not see the opportunity to love? Jesus could have called down armies to save himself from the cross but instead, he gave himself up for those who hated him. Instead of fearing how our world is falling apart, let us offer up our lives in love by caring for others and trusting God with what follows.
I can go on and on, but my hope is not to create specific points for you to follow but for us to learn how to discern and walk with God. How can we mature and learn to discern what is good and what is evil? How can we live for what matters?
Paul’s answer is one of my favorites:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.14
We must learn to love and let Jesus be our King. This means we no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus. And how do we love? We know love through experiencing Jesus directly and learning to walk with him in his ways.
Each day, we seek to walk with Jesus and be filling with God’s Spirit. There is no other way. Instead of relying on principles, we ask God to teach us how to know him and ask God for help to see him more clearly. Instead of talking about God we talk to God and love others through initiative, patience, and following the Spirit’s leading. We don’t depend on Sundays to hear God’s voice, but we seek God daily and share what we hear in community when we gather. Instead of hiding ourselves when we fail or make mistakes, we open up and take steps of faith to live in the light, confessing our hearts, our confusion, our failure, and our inadequacies and then we remember and remind one another that we are deeply loved and that God will have his way in our lives. Instead of coercion, impatience, and sticking to head knowledge, we love others proactively and patiently. We celebrate with one another and give one another freedom. Our standing before God is not found in ourselves. Instead of telling people what to say about God, we learn to experience God from steps of faith ranging from initiating a conversation to uprooting and moving to obey God’s call. Instead of loving those just like us, we continually pursue those who are different and seek to build God’s Kingdom and not our own.
Walking with God is much more than a pass to get into heaven. Walking with God is more than keeping the rules. Walking with God is more than making other people believe in God. Walking with God is taking one step at a time with Jesus and tasting and seeing Love for who he is.
1Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2002), 41.
2Proverbs 14:15, the word translated “naive” in this verse literally means “simple”
4Please take note that I do not mean to diminish a prayer offering up one’s life to God through Jesus’ death, but I also think it is too shallow to see “salvation” as simply a means to escape damnation.
6See Matthew 7:21-23
7See John 6 where Jesus has crowds following him and then contrary to building a bigger crowd, he told them to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Many people stopped following him after he taught about this.
8Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, 39.
11Neil Cole, One Thing (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016), 206. See also John 4.
12See Luke 8
13Alistair Begg, Ruth Proposes to Boaz, Truth for Life, podcast audio, accessed June 11, 2016, https://www.truthforlife.org/resources/sermon/ruth-proposes-to-boaz/.
14 1 Corinthians 13:1-3