How Being Conservative Will Make You Liberal
At a conference in 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks gave a fascinating talk called “How to Be Religious in the Public Square,” in which he said that we live in an achievement culture, where success is our primary pursuit.
We live by two sets of virtues: the resume virtues – things we bring to the marketplace – and the eulogy virtues – things we want said about us at our funerals. Brooks concludes, “In our secular achievement culture, we all know the eulogy virtues are more important, but we spend more time on the resume virtues.”
The resume virtues – the ones that drive things like calling, creativity and achievement – lead people to do some extraordinary things that make the world better. However, when the resume virtues are the sole focus or even the primary one, poor and regrettable outcomes tend to follow. Who wants their tombstone to read, “He spent many hours at the office and away from his loved ones, accomplishing much and earning huge bonuses?” And yet, at the deathbed, this is the life many of us will look back upon and be haunted by regret.
In 1 Corinthians, we are told that we can have amazing skill sets, decorated resumes, even exemplary commitments to morality and biblical law-keeping, but if we don’t have love we gain nothing and we are nothing. This has the potential to dawn on us at the end of our lives, when it’s too late.
I’m working on a book now to help us, to help me, avoid this regrettable end. It’s written to help us start living a full life, an abundant life, a truly faithful life now. We can live a love-shaped life, a life into which LOVE himself invites us.
In his speech, David Brooks went on to say that when we invest most of our time, energy and effort into the resume virtues, thus leaving the eulogy virtues untouched, what results is a tragic moral mediocrity. We’re satisfied as long as people seem to like us, as long as we feel like we are winning. But inside, we notice this humiliating gap between our actual selves and our desired selves.
Scripture tells us that love is the ultimate virtue. All the commands, the entire blueprint of what it means to be truly and fully human, Jesus said, are summed up in love for God and love for neighbor. God’s love compelled him to send his Son to save a broken humanity, to rescue us from ourselves. It is a life of love that determines truest success.
The resume virtues matter because God made us vocational beings and calls us into his mission to renew and restore all things. However, the eulogy virtue – agape love – reigns supreme. Without love, our skill sets and even our morals lose their power. But with love, we have within us a power that can heal the world.
Grant me character that exceeds my gifts.
Grant me humility that exceeds my platform.
The prophet Jeremiah writes that the heart has great potential to self-deceive. We can be accomplishing good things in life and be doing all the “right things” – attending church, serving in ministry, studying Scripture, praying daily, feeding the hungry, helping the weak, preaching solid theology, correcting bad theology, leading people to Jesus…but still be missing the mark.
Beware of the prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves…Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’ (Matthew 7:15-23)
Do you remember Judas? He was one of the Twelve. He was the treasurer for Jesus and the disciples. Judas prayed and healed and cast out demons in Jesus’ name. He advocated for the poor. At the Last Supper, when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him, nobody knew it was going to be Judas – because on the outside, Judas looked and behaved like the others.
Judas, the famous Disciple. Judas, the Apostle. Judas, the Pastor-Teacher.
Judas, the Son of Perdition.
People around Judas were being transformed through his ministry. But Judas was never transformed himself. In the world of ministry, Judas was a master of the resume virtues who never got to the eulogy virtues.
In Corinth, many were highly esteemed for their successful careers and exemplary spiritual exterior. Some had miraculous gifts like speaking in tongues. Others had powerful preaching and prophetic abilities. Others had great gifts of insight and biblical understanding. Others had faith so strong that it could move mountains. Others gave lavishly of their resources. Others were so committed to their beliefs that, if called upon to do so, they would die for those beliefs.
But the essential thing was missing.
They had not love.
And when we have not love, Paul says, we gain nothing and we are nothing. They had a sound exterior, but unsound hearts. Like Judas, they were rich in the resume virtues. But because they were lacking in love, the supreme eulogy virtue, their resume virtues gained them nothing.
When writing to the Corinthians, Paul boils it down to a single truth:
Love for God is verified by love for neighbor.
In Corinth, neighbor love had been hijacked. They were judging each other, dividing over minor doctrinal issues, committing adultery, suing each other, divorcing without biblical grounds, parading their Christian liberty before those with tender consciences, ignoring the poor in their midst, and drawing lines around the Eucharist that were tighter than the lines drawn by Jesus…excluding from his Table those whom he was eager to include.
Instead of expanding their “us,” they narrowed it.
How does Paul confront the Corinthians’ inconsistency and lack of love? In 1 Corinthians 13 he paints a vivid picture of love, that stunning, ever-inspiring catalog of attributes – patience, kindness, humility, generosity of spirit, preferring others, a peaceful demeanor, love for truth, readiness to bear and believe and hope and endure all things. But Paul didn’t have weddings in mind when he wrote this famous ‘love chapter.’ Truth be told, it is actually one of the sharpest rebukes in the Bible, because the attributes of love described everything that the Corinthians were not.
When you come together as a church…there are divisions among you…factions…When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.
(1 Corinthians 13:18-20)
But when love is in the air, everything changes. When love is in the air, divisions and factions fade. When love is in the air, we are moved, even compelled, to expand our “us.” When love is in the air, the Supper becomes LOVE’s Supper again…the Agape Feast that welcomes all who believe, recline, and receive…the Love Feast that holds a seat for God’s image-bearers from every nation, tribe and tongue, for every hero with a decorated resume and every sinner with a damaged one, the affluent and the poor, the confident believers and the struggling doubters.
The scribes and Pharisees muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) Indeed, Jesus does welcome us sinners and he eats with us. This truth about our Jesus, when it starts to connect with our once cold and exclusive hearts, cannot leave us unchanged.
The more we walk the narrow path, the wider our embrace will be.
The more convinced we are of the exclusive claims of Jesus – that he is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through him – the more inclusive and kind we will be.
The more conservative we are in our beliefs about the Bible, the more liberal we will be in our loving.
The more attuned we are to Jesus’ blood-bought love toward us, the more our hearts will bleed – and liberally so – for those who don’t know his embrace.