The Committed.Life in the Western World?

The Committed.Life in the Western World? February 28, 2011

From Patrick Mitchel at Irish Bible Institute recently wrote a powerful post about whether or not the kingdom life Jesus taught can be lived in the Western world, and in this post he is creating conversation about our One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow.

I want to ask a question at the top of this post to which I will return below:

Can a life of radical commitment to Jesus be squared with the ‘normal’ expectations of life within Western capitalist culture?

According to Scot, Jesus was an ‘extremist’. And anyone who claims to be a Christian and follower of Jesus is called to a pretty extreme form of commitment, such as;

–          Let the dead bury their own dead. Come follow me now.

–          Sell your possessions and give to the poor, then come follow me.

–          Those of you who do not give up all you have cannot be my disciple

–          Why worry about what you are going to wear? Trust God.

–          Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees you certainly will not enter the kingdom of God

–          Anyone who says ‘You Fool’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

–          Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart

–          Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

–          Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect

McKnight concludes that Jesus is perfectly serious in these sorts of uncompromising demands. Jesus is a ‘moral zealot’. [I’m sure about this language; it makes Jesus sound a bit grim and possibly unhinged]. But the bigger point stands: Jesus asked and expected total commitment from his followers.

And the test, Scot says, of whether someone is a follower of Jesus or not, is, quite simply, whether they are following Jesus or not. And the problem, he says, with big swathes of Christianity is that there are many Christians who are not following Jesus.

The mark of an authentic disciple is a whole-hearted commitment to Jesus. And that looks like a life given over to Jesus’ kingdom vision: a vision committed to love, justice, peace, wisdom, church community …

But is such a life almost impossible to live within a Western capitalist culture?

I was preaching at MCC last Sunday on Luke 6:1-11. One point I tried to make was how Jesus claims extraordinary authority [“the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”] and offers a stark challenge that to obey ‘the Law’ is really to accept and follow him wherever it leads – and that is towards the radical call of life within the kingdom of God.

But in preparing that sermon I found it much easier to say this than spell out what it actually means for everyday life without resorting to ‘extraordinary hero’ examples.

Too often, examples given of a radical commitment to Jesus involve the ‘extraordinary hero’ modelthat few if any ‘normal’ people in a church can relate to. In older evangelicalism, people like C T Studd and Hudson Taylor, or the martyred missionary Jim Elliott (“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”) were such heroes.

I gotta say Scot does a bit of this himself in this chapter – he holds up the example of Richard Stearns of World Vision, an extremely wealthy man who, in reluctant response to the call of God, sold up his mansion, left his business life behind and went to work as Director of World Vision.

‘Radical commitment’ to Jesus is virtually equated with a rejection of life within contemporary Western culture.

But for the vast majority of Christians in the West such rejection is not an option. Most people are working (or looking for work), are married with children, have mortgages or maybe college debts, wider family responsibilities, are plugged into their local communities and friends and so on. People whose lives are already shaped by non-negotiable commitments – working 40, 50, 60 + hour weeks while trying to snatch the occasional hour or day of ‘free’ time.

For most of these people, the evangelical ‘hero’ model is both irrelevant and probably only guilt inducing. It implies that if you don’t leave the Western way of life behind you are ‘compromised’, ‘half-hearted’ or ‘second-best’ in your commitment to Jesus.

This brings back to mind Philip Jenkins’ brilliant book The New Faces of Christianity that I did some posts on last year. One of many fascinating points he made was how the Bible ‘comes alive’ and ‘speaks’ so much more naturally and directly into life within the Global South – in countries suffering from famine, persecution, dictators, war, insecurity, injustice and so on.

Does the Western way of life so stifle, flatten and squash Jesus’ call to radical kingdom living that the only way authentically to follow him is to, like Scot’s example, resign from demands and values and comforts of Western capitalism?

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  • The most alive people I know are people who follow Jesus with their whole being…and yes it’s radical, but I see in them the truth of Jesus’ words that “whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

    As a Westerner who lives and works in the ‘global south’, I would say that yes, the western way of life makes it all but impossible to follow Jesus and stay in the current of Western culture…but I would also add that this is not unique to the West: all cultures have been infected by the Fall and becoming a follower of Jesus means leaving much of your former way of life behind.

    The real danger is that we have blended our Western & Christian cultures to such a degree that they can be mutually indistinguishable (and again, this happens in the ‘global south’ as well). I tell the young Indonesian men I disciple that if you aren’t swimming upstream in your culture and you don’t look different than the masses around you–gut check, have you found the narrow way? The same applies to me and my Western colleagues.

  • rjs

    This is a fascinating question – to which the answer is no. I think it is no on the strength of the witness in the rest of the NT after the very beginning of Acts. The “hero model” is a problem – and so is the “clergy model.” Not even all of the followers of Jesus during his life left everything in the “hero” mode.

    But there is no doubt that commitment is and must be total commitment. I think this means that every decision, every relationship, and every action is filtered through the call to follow Jesus. The greatest two commandments are a big (perhaps the biggest) part of this.

  • Peter

    Twenty years ago I could see no other way to follow Jesus but to “leave all this behind,” so we (my family + I) packed up to Indonesia (hello, Nate!) and learned much about following Jesus in our six years there. Circumstances led us back to the States, something I had really dreaded during our last years in Indonesia, but here we are, struggling with all of these questions. Is the struggle the answer? I mean, I am trying to swim upstream (good visual – thanks, Nate), but, but, but….Sometimes I think that the only thing that would satisfy ME that I was following Jesus is to sell it all (again) and go back to Indonesia (or Swaziland), but my responsibilities here….Difficult. Trusting that the Lord will make the crooked path straight.

  • Great question. I tend to agree with RJS. Perhaps we need a space somewhere where we can share stories of “everyday” (as opposed to hero/clergy) models of how following Jesus plays out in “normal” lives.

  • Dave

    You bet one can, problem is there are so many currents of both secular and religious culture that move the opposite direction that it makes it difficult and at time impossible to discern if one is living “the kingdom Life”. Our distractions of technology, media, sports etc. all have a way of unhinging our faith in Jesus and causing us to stumble in our walk.

    I must admit I do get bothered by the “hero stories” of men and women who “quit” their secular jobs and take on positions of leadership in christian organizations. They have really not sacrificed anything, just look at the pay scale in those organziations.

    I personally believe it is harder to live the full commitment kingdom lifestyle if one is in so called “full time ministry”. The demands of giving in to the culture of money etc is strong, and it weakens the message.

    As one who left “full time ” christian service in order to live out my faith in the business world, I can honestly say it takes thought, prayer and a lot of guts to live the life of Jesus in the midst of culture, but yes it can and should be done.

    Sacrifice in modern times is difficult to define.

  • MD

    I read (#1) Nate’s Monday Feb 14 blog entry, and wonder:
    Does the Western CHURCH way of life so stifle, flatten and squash Jesus’ call to radical kingdom living that the only way authentically to follow him is to resign from demands and values and comforts of Western CHURCH LIFE?

  • Anna

    Great questions and thoughts! My thought for those with kids, mortgages, commitments to others, is that if you start from the inside — following Jesus by practicing prayer, by working to change your heart, you will be led to the changes to make on the outside.

    Just yesterday a man at our church was talking about how his attitudes about money had gone from being very in tune with American secular culture to being countercultural. But that happened because he prayed, he was in Christian community, he studied the Bible — those practices to reorient his life inside led him to make great changes with how he dealt with his finances.

  • T

    I think this is a very good question. I guess part of my answer is whether we see “the kingdom” as something someone “enters” once, never to leave absent total denial of the faith, or whether it is something we go in and out of to varying degrees, with every day presenting the opportunity to enter/receive or not. Just as picking up our cross and following is something we certainly do (or don’t do) daily, perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at regarding his comment about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. The pull of mammon, of comfort, of self, is ever-present. It is easy to love one’s life and comforts and entertainments as an American. Can we maintain this love, follow this love, serve it, and follow Christ in the way Christ describes it?

  • T

    To sum up, I think Patrick is hitting on a reality that Jesus was hitting on when he commented on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom, even that it is humanly “impossible.” We’ve tended to view this “difficulty” chiefly in terms of conversion rather than ongoing discipleship, which is likely a mistake.

  • an on e-mouse

    I dunno. I’m a pastor. It was a career change I made 27 years ago. I, too, left the business world. But the closer I get to “retirement-age” (I’m 61), the more I wonder about how much I have really given up to follow Jesus? Often times, it seems like the only thing that has changed is the logo on the paycheck–well, maybe the amount, a little, too. As I introspectively examine my own commitment, I don’t see myself as all that committed–not when compared to Jesus’ expectations. I’m not even sure I am 1/10th as committed as the call to commitment I place before the congregation each Sunday sermon? I suppose that makes me a hypocrite as well.

  • Todd

    I think that one of the problems with this issue is that, much like many other theological issues, we see this as a black/white, either/or issue. Either we leave all that western culture has to offer, pack up and head to a third world country or throw in the towel and be satisfied with our suburban, pew warming, 60 hour workweek lives. But right in our backyards, there are so many opportunities for us to lay our lives down. How about living on half of what you make? How about reversing white flight and upward mobility? How about expanding the boundaries of our families to include those who don’t have (means, dads, cars, homes, jobs, etc)? How about working 40 hours instead of 60? How about 25 instead of 40? Instead of only holding up examples of “heros”, what if we help up some of the every day hero’s that have laid down their lives in less visible ways. This hero worship itself is a condition of our western culture. Living rooms and churches, any given sunday in America are filled with wannabe jocks and wannabe christians who are content to dream of what could be (if they were someone else) and sit on pews or couches shouting out praise for the heros we know we will never be. Meanwhile outside the door there are boys with no fathers (who would love to play catch), girls with no self esteem, etc, etc, etc


    Todd – Thanks! Great response I needed at this moment. Yes, the reality of what we can do is all around us. May God give us eyes to see.

  • John W Frye

    I know that Jesus-followers who escape Disneyland (our affluent Western, USAmerican culture) and engage Jesus-followers in non-Western, much poorer societies wrestle with the question raised by Patrick. I often serve in Ukraine among poor Christians. Yet, I think it is a mistake to conclude the problem is pitting Jesus’ radical call against with the culture of the West. Historically, it was deeply committed Jesus-followers who laid the foundation for the affluence and benefits attributed to Western culture. This is not to ignore, but to acknowledge the growing accommodation of the Western church to the prevailing culture. The challenge is first a call to discernment. Jesus was radical in specific ways to specific compromises within his 1st century culture. Our task is discerning life-changes as we honestly face the church’s accommodation. Then we swim upstream within a community of fish. Fleeing to third world countries to live radically sounds too much like the Essenes who fled to Qumran. Even Jesus and the church did *not* do that.

  • Tom

    Great question and one that my wife and I continue to ask ourselves more than 4 years after moving back to Canada from Indonesia (honest!). I don’t know if it is easier in another part of the world to truly live as followers of Jesus or not, but I do know that living in the global south (central Asia, and South Asia) for 6 years has helped me to see my home culture with different eyes. We are so self-sufficient here. What do we need God for? That idolatry of self I think is our greatest sin and it is what keeps us from radical discipleship.

    Thanks for the great comments. You are all helping me understand my own discipleship and idolatry better.

  • DRT

    Rats, lost my comment due to posting too quickly, ya, right.

    In summary, it said that my third time through One.Life brought me to Scot’s commentary on Ed Dobson’s Life of Living Like Jesus.

    This struck me as a very difficult thing to do. I spent time rationalizing my behavior by arguing for the difficulty that geographic speratation has between rich and poor, only to find myself looking at the other hand to the increases in communication and transportation technology.

    A tough subject.

  • T

    A couple of things: I agree with John Frye, I don’t think the path for the bulk of us is moving south of the border. But Jesus’ advice to the “little flock” to sell and give to the poor might have broader application and reason behind it than we’d like. I wonder honestly for instance, how would my 6 year old daughter rank my “loves?”

    Relatedly, I just skimmed through some of the sample pages of Scot’s commentary on James and came accross his discussion of James 4:4 and the surrounding verses. James certainly seems to share his brother’s radical edge; he gives us some concrete commentary on what he thought his brother meant, and Jesus seems to lose no potency in James’ conception! James also picks up on Jesus’ own eschatological angle on this: we are to think of the rich (in this world) as quickly fading away, just as Jesus warned of storing up treasure where rust, moths and theives cannot be held back forever, and the Judge is coming quickly to judge by his Law of love. Maybe we need the prescriptions of James in 4:6-10, or of Jesus to “cut off our right hand (of certain riches or pleasures)” if it causes us to sin more than we want to imagine. Maybe the command to the little flock to sell and give to the poor was as much for the little flock’s sake as for the poor? I think many of Todd’s recommendations in #11 are worth thinking about–we can give ourselves to God and others in meaningful ways; we can be Americans who do not care about the American Dream. I’ve often wondered about how the wisdom of support groups might be used to help American Christians on precisely this task of detaching from our wealth in favor of Christ and others. I’m becoming more convinced that such communal help is necessary to overcome the pull of comfort on us, especially if we’re going to stay in this culture and hope to become/remain not “of” it.

  • Thanks for such constructive and honest discussion – this is a great community to work stuff out. Love Todd’s comment.

    In asking the question I was assuming the answer was ‘No’ but trying to apply that sermon to everyday life was a real struggle. [Some other good thoughts on the post here ]

    And while I criticised Scot’s ‘hero’ example, One.Life is all about ‘earthing’ Jesus’ radical kingdom vision into areas of everyday life like wisdom and work and sex etc).

  • Dave

    Part of the problem I have with this discussion, is we all base our view or “ultimate sacrfice”. I reminds me of a class I took at TEDS with a certain balding professor, and it dealt with Jesus and Discipleship. somehow the discussion turned to can you be a Christian and drive a new BMW. It was funny and sad at the same time to hear a bunch of twenty somethings comparing how sacrificial they were by the car (or lack thereof ) they were driving. “don’t drive a new car, but it is a Nissan, two years old….” I think the discussion ended with someone’s description of their worn our shoes as their sole transportation.

    Each one was one upping to say they were more committed. Personally we all missed the point.

    I know men who work very hard at running a business and make tons of money. They live well within their means and support a lot of great efforts around the world, both missional and acts of charity. What they give often is multiples of the gross income I make in my business.

    On the other side I know missionaries who have spent 20 years in one field and never produce a darn thing. and when they come home they live off the goodness of others or of pastors who make decent wages in larger churches and bore us with their sermons.

    now who is more godly? more committed. It has nothing to do with wealth, occupation, hours worked or not worked, hours spent in church.

    One of the things I have learned and am still learning is following Christ is tough business, and living out his calling no matter where we are is difficult, and challenging. I find it kind of fun at times to figure out how it is I am serving God while making furniture, or repairing chairs, or meeting with customers. It is a challenge. What does it mean to bring Kingdom principles into my work place, into my checking account and into my family life? These are all questions we need to answer individually and corporately.

    For me personally I had to give up watching tv and sports in particular. The pull of marketing was distorting my vision of life. So I pulled the plug two years ago, and I must admit my mind is clearer and my heart purer.

    The church has not done a great job of infiltrating and influencing the western culture. There are so many areas we have failed in our understanding and in our attempts to ram Christ down cultures throats. It is time we lived it out in whatever capacity and arena we find ourselves placed. That is our calling, and that is our challenge.

  • scotmcknight

    No more Lady Vols?

  • rjs

    Dave hits it on the head – total commitment where ever we are and what ever we are called to do.

  • A couple of follow up comments. Great discussion by the way! What I was trying to emphasize in my first comment is that it is intensely difficult (and intensely beautiful) to follow Jesus in the way that I think he meant to be followed REGARDLESS of our cultural context. It is not difficult, bordering on impossible, only in the West–phenomenally rare to see this pulled off in the cultures of the ‘global south’ as well.

    What does strike me is how prosperity does seem to make following Jesus with our whole beings very, very difficult. Again, I’ve seen this in the West and the East, and I think it’s why Jesus made the remark about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Simplicity of life then, would seem to be a tremendous aid to us as we seek to lose our lives…to find them again.

    A final thought relative to the ‘heroes’ part of this discussion: I think that having heroes that we follow after (as they follow Christ) is extremely helpful to us. I think that Jesus encourages this by describing those who will be ‘first’ or ‘great’ in the kingdom of heaven. That said, I think it is incredibly important that we choose our heroes with the same criteria that our Master uses. I think about some of the illiterate evangelists trekking the interior of the land where I live, completely unknown to the outside world (and in many cases even to the local national church). They frequently suffer from malaria, the loss of many of their infant children, strong opposition from the animistic power structure…certainly these guys will be great in the kingdom of heaven and they will hear ‘well done!’ from their Master. The path that God calls us to may not be as difficult as theirs, but the same passion to hear ‘well done’ should be what drives us.

  • Suzanne

    Intriguing discussion. Maybe it’s sour grapes since I’ve never been rich, but I don’t buy the old line that the rich guy is a good Christian because he runs a business that employs people. Jesus didn’t tell the rich man to go out and provide jobs…he said to give all he had to the poor. I’m not talking about the middle class here, but the rich who have more money than they will ever need while people in their church struggle to pay for necessities. The Western Church, in my opinion, has tied Jesus down with commercialism, competition, and consumerism.

  • Dave

    Yeah, Scot, no more lady vols, well at least the visual TV variety. there is always room for the old fashioned radio and Mickey Dearstone (The Voice of the Lady Vols!!)

  • Todd

    I want to clarify my point about “heros”. I don’t want to diminish the call to radical discipleship or the admiration of those who have chosen that path. What i am calling into question is the apathy that come as a result of the lack of will to take that step in your own life or the life wasted longing for this fantasy life while opportunities to lay our lives down for another present themselves everyday and go unobserved. If we answer those daily opportunities, we may wake up one day and find that our lives have been completely transformed from empty consumerism to radical disipleship.

  • Don

    It’s all great to talk about and try to figure out. All I know is that I feel like I am being spiritually suffocated by all the trivialities of this western life. So much junk is proclaimed valuable and, like Lot in Sodom, my soul is constantly vexed. I find it hard to figure out how to escape its clutches without totally leaving it.

  • jacob z

    Something my wife and I are trying to do as we sort out our first budget is an idea we got from Craig Blomberg’s great book “Neither Poverty Nor Riches”. We set a budget for the month/year that will allow us to have enough, including a little money for savings and luxury/non-essentials. Whatever we make over that, we give away. Some years when we don’t make much money there won’t be much extra; some years there will be lots. Some years the budget will have to shift.

    It is certainly better than 10% for everyone, which some people are too poor to afford and some are too wealthy to even notice. This plan is sacrificial, counter-cultural, but not impractical.

    I still feel sometimes like we should sell everything and move far away but for now this seems like radical financial commitment where we are. I have nagging guilt even from my comment where I avoid the “impractical”…