For the last few years at least, our society has been increasingly discussing the virtues of "organic" products, particularly where food is concerned. We are coming to an increasing awareness that our ability to industrialize, chemically engineer, or genetically modify what we eat does not always produce the healthiest outcomes. At some point in the last couple of decades, the word "organic" became prominent in discussions among Christ-followers in describing authentic expressions of our faith. As terms go, it is a good one to apply to the realm of spirituality. It simply means that things work together harmoniously and produce beneficial results. It is the absence of foreign elements that produce discord and confusion. Like the use of the word associated with food, when used of spirituality, I sometimes feel like Inigo Montoya: "You use that word a lot, I do not think it means what you think it means." The term does bear some reflection if it is to profit us.
About a decade ago, I felt compelled to explore the possibility of planting a church in our home town of Orange, CA and drafted a document describing what my vision was for such an undertaking. I identified core values of the congregation I hoped to plant and among those was "organic". Here's how I defined it then:
We believe that since Christ established His body as a family, He intended for it to be an organic entity that does not exist in hard and fast structures. Just as families are established primarily in a context of relationships rather than rules (although rules are a vital part of any group’s life, especially a family’s), we reject an institutional and formulaic approach to ministry and community, without rejecting order and organization. We believe that Scripture teaches us to reject man-made religion based on human effort and rules and to pursue the abundant (but often unpredictable) life of the Spirit as we submit to His filling work in our lives.
There is a tension in what I expressed in that statement that is core to Christian spirituality. It is a tension that many Christ-Followers are trying to articulate when they use the word "organic" to describe the Christian life. It is the tension between obligation and grace, law and gospel, flesh and spirit, works and faith. As in any tension, our tendency is to drift towards an extreme and the way of Jesus is found in the balance. So it does not surprise me that the term organic has been increasingly used to emphasize the grace/spirit end of the continuum. This is often a reaction against a previous generation's emphasis of the law/works end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, a debate is now framed between two things that are both essential for true Christian growth. When organic is used to mean "free of effort" the impression is given that spiritual growth happens haphazardly, accidentally, independent of our activity. Such a view, while an understandable reaction to a legalism that seems to formulaically domesticate spirituality, robs the Christian life of its power.
All we need to do to see this is to consider the ways Scripture speaks of spirituality and how growth occurs. Almost every image and metaphor used in Scripture, and especially in the teachings of Jesus, is centered around the growth of living things. The gospel is ultimately a message about how life can be brought to dead things (us). So if we want to understand spirituality we do well to contemplate how living things work. Immediately we are struck by two facts: 1) people do not make things grow and 2) things do not grow without human effort. If that sounds like a paradox, good! Most of the truths in Scripture are mysteries because the God we serve is above and beyond us and following Him requires embracing a level of mystery that appropriately humbles us. But my own limited experience of gardening and my limited knowledge of farming confirms that much work goes into making things possible for which we still can take no credit.
The passage that for me has been the most formative in defining the process of growth in Christ has been 2 Peter 1:3-11. It begins with the stunning statement that God's divine power "has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness". The purpose of this enormous gift of grace, according to Peter, is that we would "become partakers in the divine nature" and so escape the corruption of sin. All of this breathes the grace of God that is necessary and available for the disciple to grow. Then in verse 5 Peter says "For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue..." That's astounding! The immense and utterly sufficient grace of God in giving us His power to conquer sin serves as a reason to exert ourselves fully to add virtue to our faith. Talk about holding on to both ends of the tension with both hands!
So over the next few weeks, I'm going to write a series of posts about what have traditionally been called the spiritual disciplines. I will share what Scripture and my own experience have taught me about these valuable tools that we either abuse or fail to use all too often. My prayer is that God will work in us and that we will work in Him to grow and mature...100% organically!
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.