Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Consequences of a Malformed Soul

I was working through Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart recently, and something he said stuck out to me as an important insight concerning our formation as Christians specifically, and even for our formation as humans generally.

In encouraging people to pay attention to the most important parts of themselves (heart, soul, will, etc.), Willard notes what happens when we lose sight of our spiritual formation and try to compensate. When the human soul is malformed, our thoughts feelings and inevitably follow and we try to replace a dysfunctional soul with bodily fulfillment. Willard says:

“The human body becomes the primary area of pleasure for the person who does not live honestly and interactively with God, and also the primary source of terror, torture, and death.”

In the malformed soul, bodily fulfillment is our highest hope and bodily discomfort is our greatest fear.

And we see this everywhere. As a culture, we have no idea what a well-formed soul looks like, but we can describe in pornographic detail what a well-formed body looks like. The heroes of our popular culture may or may not have souls worth emulating, but they must have bodies and sensual lives worth copying. Our paragons of virtue and lifestyle are the exact opposite of what they ought to be. A young woman who sleeps around, has kids outside of marriage, is drunk more often than not can still be worthy of our attention and praise if she is physically beautiful. If a young man treats women like disposable diapers, fails to be a father to his kids and flaunts the laws of the land, he can still be a hero to millions if he is rich and muscular.

In the properly formed human, the body serves the virtue of the soul. What does it mean for the pleasures of the body to follow dutifully behind the forming of the mind, will and emotions? And even more difficult, what does it look like for the suffering of the body to be understood in terms of the soul’s formation? Which is worse—the suffering of the body or the dysfunction of the soul?

Monday, January 07, 2008

An Expression of Compassion

There is a phrase used only of Jesus in the NT to describe moments when he was deeply moved by the human condition. In the Gospels it says Jesus was “moved with compassion.” In many places it represents the moment where Christ turns to heal an individual. In one interesting case, it moved Christ to teach all day long.

In Mark 6:34, he and his disciples are surrounded by a large crowd of people. When Jesus sees them Mark says he had compassion on them, saw them as sheep without a shepherd, and taught them many things. All day long.

I am fascinated by this display. How did Jesus’ compassion reveal itself when he was faced with a motley group of people with empty stomachs mixed motives for searching him out? (John 6:15 says some of them were political zealots.) He taught them for a very long time. Then he broke the bread and miraculously fed over 5,000 people.

A reoccurring theme in Mark is that before the bellies are filled, before the healings and exorcisms take place, Jesus teaches people about the Kingdom of God. What good does it do to perform the miraculous or correct social conditions before people understand the who and the why?

One of the first arguments Dallas Willard makes in his book, Renovation of the Heart, is that the “Jesus revolution” is not primarily about correcting institutions or organizations, but is a matter of character change. We live from our hearts, he says, and when those hearts are formed in the right way, we begin to make real headway in the human condition.

Another theme, rising again in emergent circles, is that the “Jesus revolution” is primarily about social justice, filling bellies, and affecting institutional change. That would not be a problem (after all, Jesus did feed the 5,000), but given the emergent proclivity to avoid the kinds of things that Jesus taught, I am not sure they have the stick by the right end. And what did Jesus teach? Mark is quite clear, if not minimalist, on this point: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15).

I think Mark agrees with Willard and the view that first and foremost hearts and lives ought to be formed to the truths of the Gospel before the rest of the “revolution” can make real sense.

I love Mark 6:34. It is a genuine expression of Christ-like compassion to teach people the truths of the Kingdom of God, even if it takes a very long time.